The Navy is just getting started on its new aircraft carrier, a ship it swears it’s going to build under budget, despite years of evidence to the contrary. It’s the sort of shipbuilding project Mitt Romney plans if he wins the presidency.
The USS John F. Kennedy will be the second Ford-class aircraft carrier in the fleet, a technological improvement on the Nimitz class carriers currently at sea. Last week, the Navy invited defense companies to bid on her design and construction — and warned that it intends to build the Kennedy within an $11.4 billion budget, for real.
It wasn’t able to do that with the Kennedy’s big sister. When the USS Gerald Ford leaves the shipyard in 2015, a date the Navy eagerly awaits, she’ll be the first of a new kind of carrier. The Ford’s expanded flight deck will provide an electromagnetic shove instead of old-fashioned catapults to launch the latest Navy planes — including, someday, the Navy’s variant of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. While the Ford has the same size hull as the Nimitz-class carriers of the present, her brain is more advanced and her guts more durable: More of her systems are automated than previous carrier models, making her ideal to one day launch the Navy’s first carrier-based drone; and her nuclear reactor is supposed to last 50 years, requiring refueling only once, 25 years from now.
And she is not coming cheaply. With three years to go before the Ford joins the fleet, she’s already $1 billion over budget, a 21 percent overrun in construction costs alone, driving her total estimated cost up to $12.3 billion. That’s been a disappointment for a Navy that’s responded to tighter budgets by shrinking its anticipated future fleet size and emphasizing workhorses in the fleet that it says will pay dividends as the U.S. focuses on the Pacific — like, um, the Ford-class aircraft carrier. A Newport News spokeswoman conceded in January that the “unique challenges” associated with a “first-in-class ship” shoved the costs up, and it’s hiring new executives designed to keep the costs under control.