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.
It’s true that the first kinds of things typically cost more, and Rear Adm. Thomas Moore, the officer in charge of the Navy’s aircraft carrier program, is pledging to keep the Kennedy on its $11.4 billion budget by learning from the Ford’s mistakes. Moore told (subscription-only) InsideDefense that he’d keep the John F. Kennedy on its $11.4 billion budget by assembling a full list of materials needed to build the ship before hiring a contractor to assemble it; building the ship primarily indoors before finishing construction in the water; and “demanding better pricing from subcontractors and vendors of government-furnished equipment.” None of these are exactly revolutionary steps.
Enter former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. While much of Romney’s emerging foreign policy looks like President Obama’s, his approach to the Navy is a major exception. Romney wants to vastly expand shipbuilding, producing 15 ships a year compared to the nine Obama currently yields. His main naval adviser, ex-Navy Secretary John Lehman, recently told Defense News that Romney’s goal is to raise the fleet size to 350 ships in ten years, which is 50 ships more than Obama intends, itself a dip of 13 ships from the last 30-year Navy shipbuilding plan.
Lehman didn’t totally commit to privileging particular kinds of ships — he likes adding a new frigate design to the fleet — but he indicated that a Romney administration would get aircraft carriers in on the action by adding an eleventh carrier air wing. And in a Monday speech, Romney emphasized the carrier fleet as well, by pledging to permanently station carriers in the eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf.
How Romney will finance his shipbuilding surge is an open question. Experts interviewed by Danger Room estimated it could add as much as $40 billion over five years, depending on the specific ships built. But part of the candidate’s platform is to reverse Obama-era Pentagon budget cuts and increase the Pentagon budget to something in the neighborhood of $720 billion, about a 40 increase over current budgets, excluding war costs. Which leaves plenty of room for the Kennedy.