The Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) annual assessment of the largest complex Defense Department programs said the second Ford-class aircraft carrier is at risk of breaching its cost cap.

The future USS John F. Kennedy (CVN-79) currently has an $11.4 billion cost cap, but the GAO’s 17th annual “Weapons Systems Annual Assessment: Limited Use of Knowledge-Based Practices Continues to Undercut DoD’s Investments” said costs for the carrier are likely to increase due to optimistic cost and labor targets.

A forward section of the future USS John F. Kennedy’s main deck is lifted into place at Huntington Ingalls Industry’s Newport News Shipbuilding. (Photo: John Walen/HII).

“The CVN-79 cost estimate assumes unprecedented construction efficiency—labor hours will be 18 percent lower than CVN-78. However, our analysis shows the shipbuilder is not meeting this goal and is unlikely to improve performance enough to meet cost and labor targets,” the report said.

The report was published on May 7.

Last week, the program manager for the CVN-79/80/81 program, Capt. Philip Malone, said the Kennedy was about 91 percent built and the program executed 57 percent of the total ship progress by March under the detail design and construction contract. Malone said the ship was set to launch in November, over two months ahead of the initial build plan. The Navy expects Phase I acceptance of CVN-79 in June 2022 (Defense Daily, May 7).

GAO warned that the service’s remaining challenges the Navy faces in maturing the “critical technologies” of lead ship USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) could lead to their redesign or replacement on later ships. This includes CVN-79, -80, and -81.

The report noted CVN-79 repeats most of the CVN-78 design with some modifications and replaces the dual band radar with the Enterprise Air Surveillance Radar (EASR), which is still in development. While the Navy does not consider EASR a critical technology on the carriers because it is derived from the Air and Missile Defense Radar (AMDR) program, GAO noted, “EASR is a different size and performs a different mission than the AMDR systems, which are designed for destroyers. Therefore, EASR may still require design and development efforts to function on the carrier.”

The Navy plans to buy two EASR units for CVNs-69 and -80, while it will install EASR on CVN-79 during its second delivery phase.

The GAO also repeated a consistent concern about the Ford: that ongoing shipboard testing of critical systems is ongoing and might delay future operational testing. The critical systems include the electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS), Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG), and Dual Band Radar (DBR).

The report noted even though the Navy is currently testing EMALS and AAG on CVN-78 with aircraft, “the reliability of those systems remains a concern. If these systems cannot function safely, CVN-78 will not demonstrate it can rapidly deploy aircraft—a key requirement for these carriers.”

Earlier this year, the 2018 annual report from the DoD Director of Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) found poor or unknown reliability of systems on CVN-78 that are critical for flight operations including the EMALS, AAG, Advanced Weapons Elevators (AWEs), and DBR. DOT&E said the reliability issues pose the biggest risk to the carrier’s Initial Operational Test and Evaluation (IOT&E) timeline (Defense Daily, Feb. 4).

GAO said it is also unclear if the Navy can meet the cost cap for CVN-80 and later ships, set at $12.6 billion, because it assumes additional reductions in construction costs. Congress approved that higher cost cap and the service’s plans to buy CVN-80 and -81 at the same time based on the estimate it will save $4 billion total compared to buying them separately.

“It is unclear whether the Navy can meet this cost cap, even with the estimated savings from a two-ship buy, because it assumes further reductions in subsystem costs, construction change orders, and labor hours. The Navy projects a further reduction in labor hours compared to CVN 79—about 25 percent fewer labor hours than CVN 78—will contribute to cost savings for these ships,” the report said.