Navy studying alternatives to system on Ford-class carriers
Stripes Japan | .
published: July 11, 2016
The Navy in 2003 established a program to develop a new arresting gear system to safely land airplanes on its next-generation aircraft carriers.
Now after years of technological problems, delays and cost overruns, the Navy will decide by December if it should go in a different direction.
A report issued Friday from the Defense Department Inspector General quantifies the extent of the problem in taxpayer dollars. As of October 2015, the Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG) program had recorded a 332 percent cost increase associated with research, development, test and evaluation.
That represents an overrun of $571.5 million from 2005 baseline numbers, the report says.
The Inspector General faults the Navy for not effectively managing the program. Navy leaders acknowledged problems, but also said progress is being made toward proving the system's reliability.
However, a top Navy official also said alternatives to AAG are being considered. It could affect the next Ford-class carrier, the John F. Kennedy, now under construction at the Newport News shipyard.
In February, the Navy began a study to determine cost and schedule requirements for installing a three-wire Nimitz-class type arresting system — the very system that the advanced arresting gear was meant to replace.
The Navy will consider the results of this study and other factors "to determine whether AAG is an affordable solution for Navy carriers before deciding to go forward with AAG on future aircraft carriers," said Sean Stackley, assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition.
The Navy will make its decision by December, he said.
The advanced arresting gear is already installed on the first-in-class Gerald R. Ford, which sits pier side at Newport News Shipbuilding, its construction essentially complete. The Navy is scheduled to take delivery of the Ford later this year.
With the troublesome system already installed but not yet deemed ready, the report leaves open the question of how AAG's problems will affect Ford's availability to a fleet that is already stretched thin.
"Developmental testing originally scheduled to end in FY 2009 will continue through FY 2018, and the reliability of the system is uncertain," the report states.
The Inspector General's release is the latest in a series of reports about AAG, which uses a combination of energy-absorbing water turbines and an induction motor to bring aircraft to a controlled stop. Built by General Atomics, it is meant to be highly adjustable, suitable for a fighter jet, a larger aircraft or an unmanned drone. Its flexibility is meant to reduce aircraft stress and maintenance costs.
But last month, the Senate Armed Services Committee led by Sen. John McCain called on the Navy to reconsider the new system.
In October, a Pentagon official told Congress that testing on AAG had not yet accumulated meaningful data, yet it was already installed on Ford.
In March 2015, then-Rear Adm. Thomas Moore said the system was about two years behind schedule due to problems discovered in testing that led to further work and redesign. At the time, Moore was the Navy's program executive officer for carriers. He now heads Naval Sea Systems Command.
In November 2014, the Government Accountability Office report noted failures in land-based testing and the potential for delays if the system already installed on the Gerald R. Ford had to be modified.
Testing for advanced arresting gear occurs at the Naval Air Warfare Aircraft Division in Lakehurst, N.J. One facility uses jet cars that push weighted sleds down rails toward the AAG to simulate a landing aircraft. Another site has a runway where the system catches actual test aircraft. As each aircraft successfully completes this latter system, Naval Air Systems Command issues an Aircraft Recovery Bulletin, which instructs the crew on how to use AAG with that specific aircraft on a carrier.
As of March, the Navy had not completed an ARB "that would allow it to recover an aircraft on the Ford-class carriers," the report states.
However, Stackley said the Navy has "proven the capability and safety of the system" through ground-based testing. As of May 24, it had conducted 1,253 dead-load tests at the jet car site and another 12 aircraft roll-ins at the runway site.
He said this will result in an ARB being issued for variants of the F/A-18, the workhorse combat jet of the Navy fleet, which will then allow shipboard testing.