The U.S. Navy’s plan to build 10-12 new “Ford Class” aircraft carriers was just dealt another delay for the second of the carriers, the USN John F. Kennedy. The Navy and Huntington Ingalls Industries just announced a one-year delay in delivery of the JFK to July of 2025 – plus an added $400 million in costs.
There have been many delays in the first of its kind carrier, Gerald R Ford, whose first steel was cut in 2005 and her keel laid down in 2009. The carrier was launched in October, 2013 and commissioned in 2017. The original cost for each of the Ford class carriers was reported as $12,998,000, which might read as a desperate effort to stay below $13 billion. Current estimates for the USS Ford now that she is at sea have reached $13.3 billion, but modifications continue. That’s not a full bill, since annual operations, including personnel, run $400 million. Add a submarine to keep the carrier safe (it actually takes half a dozen more ships for safety) and the air wing and expect the daily bill for support to run $2.5 million.
Given the estimated 19,000 modifications that the Navy has added to the original design of the Kennedy, there is little reason to believe that delivery delays and cost increases will not climb further. Some projections for future iterations of Ford class carriers expect costs to rise to $22 billion per copy.
Every engineer’s dream of “keeping it simple” is not an option when building any Navy combat ship, much less a behemoth like these new aircraft carriers. (Think a building 24 stories tall, and the length of any of the bigger cruise ships in and out of Seattle’s harbor every week.) By contrast, similar large cruise ships are being turned out in 2-3 years by shipyards in Italy, France, Germany, Japan, Korea, and now China.
If the current schedule holds, which is unlikely, the JFK will have taken 14 years to complete, twice the original estimate. In a speech in April 2009, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced that each Gerald R Ford-class carrier would be built in 5-7 years. In 2016, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus signed a Force Structure Assessment calling for a 355-ship fleet with 12 new aircraft carriers. That policy would require each Gerald R. Ford-class carrier to be built in three to four years. That is a fantasy.