The Navy’s new aircraft carrier currently under construction is unlikely to meet the envisioned air sorties requirement, the Pentagon’s top weapons tester said in a report released Wednesday, adding that the goal appears to be historically high and based on “unrealistic assumptions.”

The Gerald R. Ford after launching last year. Photo: Huntington Ingalls Industries
The Gerald R. Ford after launching last year. Photo: Huntington Ingalls Industries

The report by the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E), said the sortie generation rate requirement–the number of aircraft launched and recovered per day–for the Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) class of aircraft carriers does not account for things like weather, and that new launch and recovery systems also raise reliability questions. It also said the Navy is aiming for a number significantly higher than levels observed during past major conflicts.

“It is unlikely that CVN-78 will achieve its sortie generation rate…requirement,” the DOT&E report said. “The target threshold is based on unrealistic assumptions including fair weather and unlimited visibility, and that aircraft emergencies, failures of shipboard equipment, ship maneuvers (e.g., to avoid land), and manning shortfalls will not affect flight operations.”

The first ship, the Gerald R. Ford, is under construction in Newport News, Va., by contractor Huntington Ingalls Industries [HII] and is expected to cost $12.8 billion dollars. It is the first of 10 planned for the group to replace the current fleet of Nimitz-class (CVN-68) carriers. The Nimitz-class ships are capable of handling 120 sorties in 12 hours and surging to 240 in a 24-hour period. The goal with the Ford-class is to reach rates of 160 sorties in a half-day and 270 in a 24-hour surge.

The DOT&E also said it evaluated past aircraft carrier air operations during combat and said the goal for the Ford-class exceeds historical numbers.

“The analysis concludes that the CVN-78 (sortie generation rate) requirement is well above historical levels and that the CVN-78 is unlikely to achieve that requirement,” the report said, adding the Navy may have to settle for numbers more comparable to the Nimitz.

“A demonstrated (sortie generation rate) less than the requirement but equal to or greater than the performance of the Nimitz-class could potentially be acceptable,” the report said. It said the DOT&E will use that baseline in assessing the Ford-class when the first one reaches initial operational test and evaluation in 2017.

The Navy said the sortie rates designed for the new carriers were developed through “robust” modeling and simulations, and will continue to develop them through initial operational testing at sea once the ship is delivered.

“The Navy is confident that CVN 78 will meet threshold requirements and that the Ford-class will exceed the combat capability of the Nimitz-class,” said Chris Johnson, a spokesman for Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), which is oversees the design and construction of the ships.

The first CVN-78 is scheduled to deliver to the Navy in 2016 and reach full operational capability in 2019.

The Ford-class is incorporating many new technologies over the preceding class, including an electromagnetic launch system to replace the traditional steam driven catapult, and an advanced landing gear system.

Those new technologies in testing so far have shown to be problematic and raise questions about reliability, the DOT&E said. For the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launching Systems (EMALS), testing has shown that the failure rate is five times higher than expected. The Advanced Arresting Gear system, which only began testing in April, has shown a failure rate 248 times higher than expected, according to the report.

“There are concerns with the reliability of key systems that support sortie generation on CVN-78,” the report said. “Poor reliability of these critical systems could cause a cascading series of delays during flight operations that would affect CVN-78’s ability to generate sorties, make the ship more vulnerable to attack or create limitations during routine operations.”

The Navy said the new systems are undergoing ground-based testing and will continuously build confidence in the systems’ reliability.  “The Navy remains confident they will exhibit sufficient operational availability to enable full performance,” Johnson said.

The DOT&E report comes more than three years before the Navy takes delivery of the first ship, leaving the service with time to work through the problems, which are common with new systems and technologies and for a first ship in a new class.