By the end of 2021, the crew aboard the Navy's long-delayed and problem-prone next-generation aircraft carrier will be certified to deploy, according to an aggressive new timeline from the service's top civilian leader.
Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly, in a service-wide message issued Friday, said delivering the $13 billion aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford to the fleet as quickly as possible is one of his highest priorities.
"The American taxpayers have invested significant capital into this ship and they deserve nothing less," he wrote.
The message includes deadlines for major fixes and milestones aboard the carrier, which has been long-delayed and in need of multiple fixes to new technology that have pushed it far over budget. Despite the setbacks, Modly said the Ford represents a "generational leap in [the country's] capacity to project power on a global scale."
Modly wants the Ford's crew certified for deployment within the first quarter of fiscal 2022, which starts in October 2021. The Navy will hold its first "Make Ford Ready" summit just weeks from now on Jan. 9, he said, "with every stakeholder in government and industry present."
The service has faced harsh criticism over the decision to roll out three new major pieces of technology -- weapons elevators, a dual-band radar, and catapults and arresting gear that launch and catch aircraft on the flight deck -- all on the first of the new Ford-class carriers.
Rep. Elaine Luria, a Virginia Democrat and retired Navy surface officer, earlier this year called the carrier a $13 billion floating berthing barge. And this summer, Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, went as far as to say the problems on the Ford "ought to be criminal."
Former Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer blamed Congress for setting price caps on the new carrier. But when he was asked to resign over the handling of a Navy SEAL's legal plight, President Donald Trump said Spencer failed to address "large cost overruns from past administration's contracting procedures."
The Ford returned to Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia, in October after a series of sea trials Navy leaders said were successful. Here are some of the new deadlines Modly has set for other major milestones on the Ford:
- By the end of March 2020, the Navy will complete aircraft compatibility testing, in which pilots will put the new high-speed launch and recovery system through its paces. By the end of the following quarter, Modly said the force will "attain Flight Deck Certification for the planned deployment air wing."
- Also in summer 2020, Modly says the carrier's manning levels will support all planned operations for key events and deployment.
- By the end of fiscal 2020, which runs through September of that year, Modly said two more weapons elevators -- Lower Stage Nos. 5 and 1 -- will be complete "to enable access to magazines." Weapons elevators carry munitions up to the flight deck, and the Navy has had a tough time getting the new models on the Ford working properly.
- By July 2021, Modly says the Ford's combat system will be tested and certified.
- And by the end of March 2022, the Navy will deliver the parts needed to allow the carrier to deploy.
The goal, Modly added, is to finish all that work ahead of schedule.
"The Ford is just the first ship of this new class," he wrote. "It must set the standard for those that will follow and, with our diligence and commitment, it will.
"[Let's] finish the job."