The Gerald R. Ford, the U.S. Navy’s costliest warship, suffered a new failure at sea that forced it back to port and raised fresh questions about the new class of aircraft carriers.
The previously undisclosed problem with a propulsion system bearing, which occurred in January but has yet to be remedied, comes as the Navy is poised to request approval from a supportive Congress to expedite a contract for a fourth carrier in what was to have been a three-ship class. It’s part of a push to expand the Navy’s 284-ship fleet to 355 as soon as the mid-2030s.
It was the second failure in less than a year with a “main thrust bearing” that’s part of the $12.9 billion carrier’s propulsion system. The first occurred in April 2017, during sea trials a month before the vessel’s delivery. The ship, built by Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc., has been sailing in a shakedown period to test systems and work out bugs. It’s now scheduled to be ready for initial combat duty in 2022.
The Naval Sea Systems Command said the Ford experienced “an out of specification condition” with a propulsion system component. Huntington Ingalls determined it was due to a “manufacturing defect,” the command said, and “not improper operation” by sailors. The defect “affects the same component” located in other parts of the propulsion system, the Navy added.
Navy officials didn’t disclose the problem during budget hearings before Congress in recent weeks, and House and Senate lawmakers didn’t ask about it.
Shelby Oakley, a director with the U.S. Government Accountability Office who monitors Navy shipbuilding, said the latest part failure was “unfortunate, but this and other ship quality issues are not surprising. The Navy has had issues with the extent of its inspections prior to delivery from the shipbuilder.”
The Navy is seeking approval in the fiscal 2019 defense request to accelerate purchase of the fourth Ford-class carrier by bundling it in a contract with the third. It expects to request congressional support over the next month or two for what’s now an estimated $58 billion program.
President Donald Trump promised the “12-carrier Navy we need,” up from 11 today, when he stood on the Ford’s vast deck during a visit in March 2017 to Newport News, Virginia, where Huntington Ingalls built the ship and is headquartered.
The Ford’s propulsion system flaws are separate from reliability issues on its troubled aircraft launch and recovery system and less publicized delays with its 11 advanced weapons elevators for moving munitions, which are not yet operational.
In the January incident, the bearing overheated to what a March 8 Navy memo described as “92 degrees Fahrenheit above the bearing temperature setpoint” and “after securing the equipment to prevent damage, the ship safely returned to port.”
A failure review board is identifying “modifications required to preclude recurrence,” it said. The bearing is one of four that transfers thrust from the ship’s four propeller shafts.
The Navy and Huntington Ingalls “are evaluating the case for a claim against the manufacturer,” so the amount of repair costs to be paid by “the manufacturer has not yet been determined,” William Couch, a spokesman for the Sea Systems Command, said in the statement.
It’s “encouraging that the Navy wants to hold the manufacturer accountable, however, it is unclear what warranty provisions the Navy has,” Oakley said. “The Navy has a cost-reimbursement contract with the shipbuilder, where the Navy pays the shipbuilder’s costs in exchange for its best efforts to build the ship, and also did not have a warranty with the shipbuilder.”
Couch and Huntington Ingalls spokesman Beci Brenton declined to say who made the bearing that failed.
But General Electric Co. is responsible for the propulsion system part, and the Navy program office said in an assessment that an inspection of the carrier’s four main thrust bearings after the January failure revealed “machining errors” by GE workers at a Lynn, Massachusetts, facility “during the original manufacturing” as “the actual root cause.”
Deborah Case, a GE spokeswoman, said in an email that “GE did produce the gears for the CVN-78. However, we are no longer producing gears for CVN-78” and “we cannot comment on the investigation.”
The CVN-78 is the official name of the Gerald R. Ford.
Couch said defects “will be fully corrected” during the ship’s upcoming “post-shakedown availability” phase. All vessels go through the phase intended for correcting deficiencies discovered during the post-delivery sea trial conducted by sailors.
The post-shakedown availability was supposed to start last month and end in December. Its start is now delayed until this summer in part because of the failure, with completion about a year later, according to Couch.