4 years before the Navy started blasting its new aircraft carrier, this team started planning to protect nearby animals

Navy aircraft carrier Gerald Ford during shock trials
US Navy aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford during shock trials in the Atlantic Ocean, June 18, 2021.

  • The Navy put its new through shock trials, meant to test its response to nearby explosions, in June.
  • More than four years before the first blast, a team of scientists went to work to protect marine wildlife.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

More than four years before the explosive went off beside the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford on June 18, a team of scientists began making plans for the ship’s shock trials. Their goal, however, was not battle readiness – they were trying to protect marine wildlife.

The process of planning the Ford’s shock trials began in 2016, according to Tom Douglas, the environmental impact director for the Navy’s shock trials.

“Planning for these are three to five years, if not a little bit longer,” he said. “It takes quite a bit of effort.”

Shock trials have a long history in the Navy, going as far back as World War II when the service discovered that “near miss” explosions still had the potential to incapacitate a ship.

As a result, the Navy conceived the test – which usually involves setting off explosives at various depths and distances from the ship – as a way to assess the impact of the shock and vibrations of a close blast on a ship’s equipment, a scientific report commissioned by the Navy explained.

Navy cruiser Arkansas shock trials explosion
US Navy guided-missile cruiser USS Arkansas during a shock test, March 17, 1982.

However, setting off a large explosion underwater also has the potential to disorient and disrupt the normal patterns of life or kill nearby marine life. As a result, environmental considerations now factor into the Navy’s decision-making.

One of the key aspects of the planning process involves choosing a location and time to conduct the trials. Douglas’ team considered one of four locations available to conduct the test, ultimately settling on a site off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida.

“As far as surveys that have been conducted today, it has the lowest density of marine life, for any of the shock trial areas that we could utilize,” Bridget Watts, an expert working with the shock trial team, said. “We have gone back and looked at the past 50 years of wind and weather data to determine that June and July are the most optimum time of the year,” Douglas added.

The team also works the timing of the trial around the marine life that is in the area.

Douglas said that they have an “exclusion period” based on the migratory patterns of the North Atlantic right whale, one of the world’s most endangered large whales with less than 400 left alive today.

“We definitely want to do no harm,” Douglas said.

The Navy’s overall record on marine life preservation is a bit more mixed. For example, the service has been sued several times over the past two decades by environmental groups over its use of sonar in submarine exercises.

Last year, as part of its regular permit renewal, the Navy asked the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to increase the number of marine animals it harasses, harms, or kills in tests and training on the Pacific Coast.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said the allowed level of “incidental taking” – the regulatory term for anything from disrupted behavior to injury or death of a marine mammal – “unacceptable” in a letter to the regulator.

Navy amphibious ship Mesa Verde explosion during shock trials
US Navy amphibious transport dock USS Mesa Verde during a shock test off the Florida coast, August 16, 2008.

Five conservation directors from the state said in a joint letter to the NMFS that, “The approval of such a high level of incidental take without requiring any additional mitigation measures represents gross neglect.”

The permission was granted on November 9, 2020, though with a requirement to institute shutdowns and delays if marine mammals are sighted within certain distances and to limit sonar use in some areas.

On the day of the trial, the team deployed a group of observers, veterinarians and scientists aboard the carrier to help ensure that marine life is not harmed.

The Navy creates a 3.5 nautical mile area around the ship – a mitigation zone – in which no marine life can be located before the blast goes off.

“We have about 10 or 12 people on the target vessel whose entire job is monitoring the area around the mitigation zone as well as the area near [the] ship,” Douglas said.

Said Douglas: “The blast radius has potential harm to small animals out to one to two kilometers. We monitor three times that distance.”

If the team spots animals or cannot assess the entire mitigation zone effectively, it can halt the trial.

“There are several points … where the CO of the ship and the shock trail officer request a ‘go/no go’ from the chief scientist,” Douglas said.

US Navy aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford undergoing full-ship shock trials
USS Gerald R. Ford during shock trials in the Atlantic Ocean, June 18, 2021

Capt. Jeremy Shamblee, the executive officer of the Norfolk-based Ford, noted that the team delayed the trial twice.

After the blast, the team continues to monitor the area for days, using a boat and aircraft.

“Surveillance is partially geared on just making sure that we’ve covered those areas enough and give them enough time to be able to find someone that either we can help or that we have to deal with or that we recover them [so] we can learn something from it,” Dr. Michael Walsh, one of the veterinarians who assists in the trials, said.

All told, more than 30 people are involved in the environmental aspect of the shock trials on the Ford.

Shamblee said the ship is hoping to wrap up the other two explosions that are planned for the trial by August.

Once the Ford’s trials finish, Douglas said his work will go on.

“We’re always … looking for increased science,” Douglas said. “How can we better look at lessons learned from this? How can we better do the next shock trial?”

– Konstantin Toropin can be reached at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

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The US Navy practiced blasting an aircraft carrier for the first time in 34 years. Here’s what it’s testing.

Navy aircraft carrier Gerald Ford during shock trials
US Navy aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford during shock trials in the Atlantic Ocean, June 18, 2021.

  • The Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, USS Gerald R. Ford, went through shock trials on June 18.
  • Shock trials are meant to test how a warship’s systems handle the stresses of combat.
  • It’s the first time a US carrier has undergone these tests since the USS Theodore Roosevelt in 1987.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

This month, the US Navy released images and footage of its newest carrier, USS Gerald R. Ford, going through shock trials 100 miles off the Florida coast.

The tests, done with the crew aboard, involved detonating a 40,000-pound explosive off of Ford’s starboard side. The explosion was so strong that it registered 3.9 on the Richter scale – roughly equivalent to a small earthquake.

It was the first of three such trials for the Ford – the next two will feature detonations closer to the ship – and was the first time a US carrier has undergone these tests since the USS Theodore Roosevelt in 1987.

While the US Navy is debating the usefulness of shock trials, the fact that they are being done on the Ford indicates that the Navy is serious about maximizing the ship’s survivability against 21st-century threats.

Old tests for new threats

Navy aircraft carrier Gerald Ford during shock trials
Ford during shock trials on June 18, 2021.

Shock trials are meant to test how well a ship’s systems and components hold up during combat and are not uncommon.

USS Jackson and USS Milwaukee, both littoral combat ships, underwent shock trials in 2016.

The amphibious transport dock USS Mesa Verde and the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp, both of which carry aircraft, went through shock trials in 2008 and 1990, respectively. USS Arkansas, a nuclear-powered guided-missile cruiser, did them in 1982.

What is unusual is the fact that the Navy conducted the shock trials on the first Gerald R. Ford-class carrier in service. The Navy typically conducts shock trials on later vessels of a given class.

Navy amphibious ship Mesa Verde explosion during shock trials
A 10,000-pound charge rocks USS Mesa Verde off the Florida coast, August 16, 2008.

The decision to subject Ford to the trials may be motivated by the Navy’s desire to ensure that the carrier is combat-ready the moment it begins its first deployment, which is expected to be in 2022.

US Navy officials have acknowledged the increasing prevalence of modern anti-ship weaponry, particularly China’s DF-21D “carrier killer” and DF-26 “Guam killer” missiles.

A recent Congressional Research Service report on the Ford-class cited China as an adversary “with highly capable anti-ship missiles” that raised questions about “the prospective survivability” of carriers in a conflict.

The same report also noted that live tests had shown that Ford “has limited self-defense capability” against anti-ship cruise missiles.

New systems and capabilities

Navy aircraft carrier Gerald Ford during shock trials
Ford during shock trials, June 18, 2021.

The Ford also has a number of new systems and capabilities that aren’t on its Nimitz-class predecessors and haven’t faced combat conditions.

A new weapons elevator system, designed with modern munitions in mind, is meant to reduce how long it takes to arm aircraft.

The new Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System uses linear induction motors instead of steam to power the carrier’s catapults, ensuring faster, smoother, and more efficient takeoffs for fixed-wing aircraft.

Ford’s new arresting system, known as Advanced Arresting Gear, also uses electromagnetic technology. In addition to decreasing the stress on landing aircraft, the new arresting gear allows larger unmanned aerial vehicles like the MQ-25 Stingray to land on the Ford.

Navy cruiser Arkansas shock trials explosion
US Navy guided-missile cruiser USS Arkansas during a shock test, March 17, 1982.

Ford also has a new Dual Band Radar system. While Nimitz-class carriers have multiple rotating radars, Ford has one stationary multi-purpose radar that is more sensitive to aerial threats and easier to operate and maintain.

The Navy says that the new systems together allow the Ford’s air wing to conduct 33% more sorties and reduce the number of crew needed to run the ship to about 4,500, down from the roughly 5,000 needed aboard Nimitz-class carriers.

Ford’s two A1B nuclear reactors, which are of totally new design, generate almost three times more power than the A4W reactors used on Nimitz-class carriers, increasing Ford’s electrical power capacity and generation substantially.

That power capacity allows Ford to reliably power all of its new high-tech systems and leaves the door open for possible upgrades to add systems like direct-energy weapons.

Carriers of the future

US Navy aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford undergoing full-ship shock trials
Ford during shock trials on June 18, 2021

While the capabilities of the new systems are impressive, Ford has faced a number of setbacks, and a lot of work remains ahead.

Ongoing delays on the weapon elevators meant that not all of them were ready when the shock trials started, which means they won’t be fully tested during the trials.

Moreover, the Navy accepted the new carrier without it being able to handle the F-35C, which was supposed to be the backbone of the Ford’s air wing.

The jet still can’t fly from the Ford, but Navy officials say they hope to have at least six air wings with F-35s by 2025.

Navy aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy
The aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy is launched into the James River on February 28, 2020.

Despite the setbacks, the Navy hopes that Ford, which was commissioned in 2017, will start its maiden deployment in 2022.

Once the shock trials are finished, the Ford is expected to enter a month-long maintenance period, the carrier’s sixth so far, which will fix any damage from the trials and install the final upgrades.

A second Ford-class carrier, the John F. Kennedy, is currently being fitted out, while a third, the Enterprise, is in the early stages of construction. Those carriers are scheduled to be delivered to the Navy in 2024 and 2028, respectively.

The fourth Ford-class carrier was ordered in 2019 and is scheduled for delivery in 2032. It will be named after Pearl Harbor hero Doris Miller, the first Black recipient of the Navy Cross.

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Explosion triggered near new US Navy aircraft carrier during shock trials registered as 3.9 magnitude earthquake

US Navy aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford undergoing shock trials in the Atlantic Ocean
The aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) completes the first scheduled explosive event of Full Ship Shock Trials while underway in the Atlantic Ocean, June 18, 2021

  • The US Navy triggered a big explosion near its new aircraft carrier Friday during shock trials.
  • The explosion registered as a 3.9 magnitude earthquake, USNI News reported.
  • Shock trials test the hardness of the ship to determine if it can withstand harsh battle conditions.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The US Navy triggered an explosion near its new aircraft carrier, USS Gerald R. Ford, off the US East Coast on Friday during shock trials, and the big blast registered as a 3.9 magnitude earthquake, USNI News reported, citing US Geological Survey data.

The US government agency recorded the activity as an “experimental explosion” about 100 miles off the coast of Florida, where a Navy spokesperson confirmed to Insider the Ford is undergoing shock trials.

Shock trials test a ship’s ability to withstand brutal battle conditions, specifically the detonation of ordnance nearby. By setting off controlled explosions near Navy ships, the Navy can identify critical shock-related vulnerabilities.

The Navy released video footage of the explosive shock trials from different angles.

The following Navy video, which appears to have been taken from aboard the Ford, shows the intensity of the nearby explosion.

USS Gerald R. Ford, a first-in-class vessel and the Navy’s most advanced aircraft carrier, was “designed using advanced computer modeling methods, testing, and analysis to ensure the ship is hardened to withstand battle conditions, and these shock trials provide data used in validating the shock hardness of the ship,” the service said.

Commenting on the results of the first explosive event, posts on the Ford’s official social media pages said that “the leadership and the crew demonstrated Navy readiness fighting through the shock, proving our warship can ‘take a hit’ and continue our mission on the cutting edge of naval aviation.”

US Navy aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford undergoing full-ship shock trials
The aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) completed the first scheduled explosive event of Full Ship Shock Trials while underway in the Atlantic Ocean on June 18, 2021.

The Navy explained in a Facebook post on the testing that it “conducts shock trials of new ship designs using live explosives to confirm that our warships can continue to meet demanding mission requirements under harsh conditions they might encounter in battle.”

Shock trials were born from observations during World War II, a 2007 Navy-sponsored study said.

During the war, the Navy discovered that while “near miss” explosions did not severely damage the hull or superstructure of ships, the shock from the blast would knock out key system and cripple the vessels.

In response, the study explained, the Navy created a “rigorous shock hardening test procedure” known as shock trials.

US Navy aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford undergoing full-ship shock trials
The aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) completes the first scheduled explosive event of Full Ship Shock Trials while underway in the Atlantic Ocean, June 18, 2021

The latest shock trials involving the Ford are the first aircraft carrier trials since those involving the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in 1987.

The Navy said that the trials are being conducted in a way that “complies with environmental mitigation requirements, respecting known migration patterns of marine life in the test area.”

The service also stated that it “also has employed extensive protocols throughout [full-ship shock trials] to ensure the safety of military and civilian personnel participating in the testing evolution.”

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The Navy’s new, powerful aircraft carrier is heading to ‘shock trials’

Navy aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford
US Navy aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford in the Atlantic Ocean, June 4, 2020

  • The US Navy’s brand-new aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford will be return to port this summer.
  • But before the supercarrier ties up in Newport News, it will go through full-ship shock trials,
  • Those tests involve setting off explosives next to the ship to see if vibrations cause problems.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The US Navy‘s brand new aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) will be returning to Newport News this summer.

Much like how an automobile needs to go in for routine maintenance, so too will the Navy’s largest and most expensive warship.

Coming soon: USS Gerald R. Ford shock trials

The supercarrier will tie up at Newport News Shipbuilding’s pier 2 after it conducts its full ship shock trials, which is a standard test that involves setting off high explosives next to the ship to determine if vibration would cause problems.

While anything that was shaken loose or damaged will be addressed, the return to port is actually part of Ford’s first “planned incremental availability” (PIA).

This maintenance period is meant to install the latest updates to equipment and to take care of maintenance work that’s harder to do while the ship is deployed at sea.

Navy USS Jackson shock trials
US Navy littoral combat ship USS Jackson during shock trials in the Atlantic, June 10, 2016.

The updates and upgrades are expected to be completed quickly, in part because the ship has only been undergoing at-sea tests and trials that are meant to certify the carrier’s systems as well as sailor skills.

However, just as “brand new” computers or smartphones often need to undergo software updates on a regular basis, so too will Ford’s various systems.

According to Hampton Roads-based Daily Press, about 60% of the work slated for the PIA involves updating and modernizing equipment. That includes plugging in updated circuit boards and installing new communications networks and software.

PIA updates will occur every few years to keep the carrier up to date with the fast-changing electronic devices, software, weapons system controls and communication networks.

Routine maintenance

Shock Trials
US Navy aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt during shock trials.

During Ford’s time at Newport News, the ship will undergo maintenance. This could be extensive as the carrier is the first of her class, and part of the focus will be making notes on the wear and tear she’s already experienced. Teams will evaluate the components to see how the ship held up compared to what the designers expected.

These efforts will help refine the long-term maintenance plan for a carrier that is expected to remain in service for half a century. Twenty percent of the total work that the carrier will undergo will involve that maintenance.

About 8% of the scheduled work time will also be to address any fixes needed following the shock trials, which are the first such trial of a carrier to be conducted since 1987.

The remainder of the time will be spent addressing and fixing any of the other systems of the ship. This will certainly include dealing with four inoperable weapons elevators.

Navy aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford
A E-2C Hawkeye approaches USS Gerald R. Ford, August 4, 2020.

The lower-stage elevators, which are used to move ordnance, have been a problem since construction began on CVN-78 in 2009. Four of the eleven elevators will be dealt with during the PIA, and the non-working elevators will not be certified at least until later this year.

It isn’t unusual for a warship to enter trials without essential working components including the elevators, but the kinks will need to be worked out and resolved before Gerald R. Ford makes her first deployment.

A concern is that since the elevators are located throughout the ship, each could potentially react differently to the shock trials. That could result in further delays for additional repairs and adjustments, which impact the future carriers of the class.

When Ford returns to Newport News it will be moored adjacent to one of those future carriers, the still-under-construction USS John F. Kennedy, the second in the class, UPI reported.

Ford most recently completed the Combat Systems Ship’s Qualification Trials (CSSQT), a combat preparation phase involving simulated and actual live threats to assess the extent to which a large Ford-class carrier could defend itself in a great power ocean war scenario.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including “A Gallery of Military Headdress,” which is available on Amazon.com.

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Why pricey Pentagon weapons programs rarely get canceled even when they have major problems

Air Force F-35 maintainer
Air Force maintainers recover an F-35A during an exercise at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, February 3, 2020.

  • Pentagon weapons programs are rarely cancelled, no matter how poorly they performs, how much they go over budget, or how long they take to field.
  • Political, economic, and cultural factors keep that trend going, and that needs to change, writes William J. Astore, a history professor and retired Air Force lieutenant colonel.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Cancel culture is a common, almost viral, term in political and social discourse these days. Basically, somebody expresses views considered to be outrageous or vile or racist or otherwise insensitive and inappropriate. In response, that person is “canceled,” perhaps losing a job or otherwise sidelined and silenced.

In being deplatformed by Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites, for instance, this country’s previous president has, it could be argued, been canceled – at least by polite society. More than a few might add, good riddance.

Cancel culture is all around us, with a single glaring exception: the US military. No matter how poorly a major weapons system performs, no matter how much it goes over budget, no matter how long it takes to field, it almost never gets canceled.

As a corollary to this, no matter how poorly a general performs in one of our 21st-century wars, no matter his lack of victories or failure to achieve mission objectives, he almost never gets cashiered, demoted, or even criticized. A similar thing could be said of America’s 21st-century wars themselves. They are disasters that simply never get canceled. They just go on and on and on.

Is it any surprise, then, that a system which seems to eternally reward failure consistently produces it as well?

After all, if cancel culture should apply anywhere, it would be to faulty multibillion-dollar weapons systems and more than a few generals, who instead either get booted upstairs to staff positions or retire comfortably onto the boards of directors of major weapons companies.

Air Force KC-46 refueling tanker F-15
A KC-46A aerial refueling tanker connects with an F-15 test aircraft, October 29th, 2018.

Let’s take a closer look at several major weapons systems that are begging to be canceled – and a rare case of one that finally was.

* The F-35 stealth fighter: I’ve written extensively on the F-35 over the years. Produced by Lockheed Martin, the plane was at one point seven years behind schedule and $163 billion over budget. Nonetheless, the US military persisted and it is now nearing full production at a projected total cost of $1.7 trillion by the year 2070. Even so, nagging problems persist, including engine difficulties and serious maintenance deficiencies. Even more troubling: the plane often can’t be cleared for flying if lightning is anywhere in the area, which is deeply ironic, given that it’s called the Lightning II. Let’s hope that there are no thunderstorms in the next war.

* The Boeing KC-46 tanker: A tanker is basically a flying gas station, air-to-air refueling being something the Air Force mastered half a century ago. Never underestimate the military’s ability to produce new problems while pursuing more advanced technology, however. Doing away with old-fashioned windows and an actual airman as a “boom operator” in the refueling loop (as in a legacy tanker like the KC-135), the KC-46 uses a largely automated refueling system via video. Attractive in theory, that system has yet to work reliably in practice. (Maybe, it will, however, by the year 2024, the Air Force now says.) And what good is a tanker that isn’t assured of actually transferring fuel in mid-air and turns out to be compromised as well by its own fuel leaks? The Air Force is now speaking of “repurposing” its new generation of tankers for missions other than refueling. That’s like me saying that I’m repurposing my boat as an anchor since it happened to spring a leak and sink to the bottom of the lake.

* And speaking of boats, perhaps you won’t be surprised to learn that the Navy has had serious problems of its own with its most recent Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carriers. That service started building carriers in the 1920s, so one might imagine that, by now, the brass had gained some mastery of the process of updating them and building new ones. But never underestimate the allure of cramming unproven and expensive technologies for “next generation” success on board such vessels. Include among them, when it comes to the Ford-class carriers, elevators for raising munitions that notoriously don’t operate well and a catapult system for launching planes from the deck (known as the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System or EMALS) that’s constantly breaking down. As you might imagine, not much can happen on an aircraft carrier when you can’t load munitions or launch planes effectively. Each new Ford-class carrier costs in the neighborhood of $14 billion, yet despite all that money, it simply “isn’t very good at actually being a carrier,” as an article in Popular Mechanics magazine bluntly put it recently. Think of it as the KC-46 of the seas.

Navy aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford fighter jet flight deck
F/A-18Es and F/A-18Fs prepare for launch aboard USS Gerald R. Ford while in the Atlantic, March 21, 2020.

* And speaking of failing ships, let’s not forget the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), which have earned the nickname “little crappy ships.” A serious propulsion design flaw may end up turning them into “floating garbage piles,” defense journalist Jared Keller recently concluded. The Navy bought 10 of them for roughly half a billion dollars each, with future orders currently on hold. Lockheed Martin is the lead contractor, the same one responsible for the wildly profligate (and profitable) F-35.

* Grimly for the Navy, problems were so severe with its Zumwalt-class of stealth destroyers that the program was actually canceled after only three ships had been built. (The Navy initially planned to build 32 of them.) Critiqued as a vessel in search of a mission, the Zumwalt-class was also bedeviled by problems with its radar and main armament. In total, the Navy spent $22 billion on a failed “next generation” concept whose cancelation offers us that utter rarity of our moment: a weapon so visibly terrible that even the military-industrial complex couldn’t continue to justify it.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday has gone on record as rejecting the idea of integrating exotic, largely untried and untested technologies into new ship designs (known in the biz as “concurrent development”). Godspeed, admiral!

Much like the troubled F-35 and the Littoral Combat Ship, the Zumwalt’s spiraling costs were due in part to the Pentagon’s fixation on integrating just such “leading-edge” technologies into designs that themselves were in flux. (Not for nothing do military wags refer to them as bleeding edge technologies.)

Such wildly ambitious concurrent development, rather than saving time and money, tends to waste plenty of both, leading to ultra-expensive less-than-fully effective weapons like the Zumwalt, the original version of which had a particularly inglorious breakdown while passing through (or rather not passing through) the Panama Canal in November 2016.

Given such expensive failures, you might be forgiven for wondering whether, in the 21st century, while fighting never-ending disastrous wars across significant parts of the planet, America’s military isn’t also actively working to disarm itself. Seriously, if we’re truly talking about weapons that are vital to national defense, failure shouldn’t be an option, but far too often it is.

With this dubious record, one might imagine the next class of Navy vessel could very well be named for Philip Francis Queeg, the disturbed and incompetent ship captain of novelist Herman Wouk’s “The Caine Mutiny.”

It’s also quite possible that the Pentagon’s next advanced fighter jet will fulfill former Martin Marietta CEO Norman Augustine’s estimate from the 1980s that, by the year 2054, the entire Pentagon budget would be needed to buy one – and only one – combat aircraft. Perhaps a Death Star for America’s new Space Force?

Is it even possible to cancel a major weapons system like the F-35?

USS Zumwalt
USS Zumwalt.

The Navy’s Zumwalt-class of destroyers was such a disaster that the program was indeed canceled a mere $22 billion along the line, but what about a program like the F-35? Is it even possible to cancel such a behemoth of a weapons system?

That question was put to me by Christian Sorensen, author of “Understanding the War Industry,” who like me is a member of the Eisenhower Media Network. Overpriced and underperforming weapons, Sorensen noted, are a feature of, rather than some sort of bug in, the military-industrial complex as future profits for giant weapons companies drive design and fielding decisions, not capability, efficiency, or even need.

He’s right, of course. There may even be a perverse incentive within the system to build flawed weapons, since there’s so much money to be made in troubleshooting and “fixing” those flaws. Meanwhile, the F-35, like America’s leading financial institutions in the 2007-2009 Great Recession, is treated as if it were too big to fail. And perhaps it is.

Jobs, profits, influence, and foreign trade are all involved here, so much so that mediocre (or worse) performance is judged acceptable, if only to keep the money flowing and the production lines rolling. And as it happens, the Air Force really has no obvious alternative to the F-35.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the aerospace industry used to build a wealth of models: the “century series” of fighters, from the F-100 through the F-106. (The notorious F-111 was an early version of the F-35.) The Air Force could also tap Navy designs like for the F-4 Phantom. Now, it’s essentially the F-35 or bust.

In its obvious desperation, that service is turning to older designs like the F-15 Eagle (circa 1970) and the F-117 Stealth Fighter (circa 1980) to bridge the gap created by delays and cost overruns in the F-35 program. Five decades after its initial flight, it’s something of a miracle that the F-15 is still being produced – and, of course, an obvious indictment of the soaring costs and inadequate performance of its replacements.

The exorbitant pricing of the F-35, as well as the F-22 Raptor, has recently even driven top Air Force officials to propose the creation of an entirely new “low cost” fighter. Irony of ironies, once upon a time in another universe, the F-35 was supposed to be the low-cost replacement for “fourth-generation” F-15s and F-16s.

F-35 and F-16
An F-35 and an F-16.

Last month, current Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown exhibited the usual convoluted and nonsensical logic of the military-industrial complex when he discussed that new dream fighter:

“If we have the capability to do something even more capable [than the F-16] for cheaper and faster, why not? Let’s not just buy off the shelf. Let’s actually take a look at something else out there that we can build.”

In other words, why buy already-proven and much-improved variants of the F-16 when you could design and build an entirely new plane from scratch, supposedly in a “cheaper” and “faster” manner? Of course, given that new fighters now take roughly two decades to design and field, that’s an obvious fantasy from the start.

If my old service – I’m a retired Air Force officer – wants fast and cheap, it should simply go with the tried-and-true F-16. Yet an entirely new plane is so much more attractive to a service under the spell of the giant weapons makers, even as the F-35 continues to be produced under its old, now demonstrably false, mantra of cheaper-and-better.

As Christian Sorensen summed up our present situation to me: “If an exorbitant under-performing platform like the F-35 can’t be canceled, then what are we doing? How do we ever expect to bring home the troops [garrisoning the globe] if we can’t even end one awful weapons platform or address the underlying systemic issues that cause such a platform to be created?”

Of course, an “alert and knowledgeable citizenry” like the one that President Dwight D. Eisenhower described in his 1961 farewell address to the nation (in which he first warned of the dangers of a “military-industrial complex” gaining “unwarranted influence”) would work to cancel wasteful, unnecessary weapons systems like the F-35.

But what if the forces in place in American society act to keep that very citizenry apathetic and ignorant instead?

trump military defense donald bill spending ndaa fort drum
President Donald Trump and Maj. Gen. Walter Piatt view air-assault exercises at Fort Drum in New York, August 13, 2018.

Call me jaded, but I can’t see the F-35 being canceled outright, even though it hasn’t technically yet reached the stage of full production.

Likely enough, however, such a cancellation would only happen in the wake of major cuts to the defense budget that forced the services to make hard choices.

But such cuts clearly aren’t on the agenda of a Congress that continues to fund record Pentagon budgets in a bipartisan fashion; a Congress that, unchecked as it is by us citizens, simply won’t force the Pentagon to make tough choices.

And here’s one more factor to consider as to why cancel culture is never applied to Pentagon weaponry: Americans generally love weaponry. We embrace weapons, celebrate them, pose with them.

To cancel them, we’d have to cancel a version of ourselves that revels in high-tech mayhem. To cancel them, we’d have to cancel a made-in-America mindset that equates such weaponry – the stealthier and sexier the better – with safety and security, and that sees destruction overseas as serving democracy at home.

America’s military-industrial complex will undoubtedly keep building the fanciest, most expensive weaponry known to humanity, even if the end products are quite often ineffective and unsound. Yet as scores of billions of dollars are thrown away on such weapons systems, America’s roads, bridges, and other forms of infrastructure continue to crumble.

How about it, America? Why not cancel those weapons and build back better at home?

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How the Navy’s newest aircraft carrier keeps jets flying with fewer sailors than older carriers

Navy aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford sailor F/A-18
Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Equipment) Airman Recruit David Caruso, left, and Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Equipment) Airman Apprentice Darion Thornton, observe an F/A-18E launch from USS Gerald R. Ford, February 8, 2021.

  • Aboard Navy aircraft carriers, Aviation Boatswain’s Mates (Equipment) keep flight operations going.
  • The Navy’s newest carrier, USS Gerald R. Ford, has first-in-class technology and optimized manning, which allows it to operate with fewer personnel than its Nimitz-class predecessors.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

NORFOLK, Virginia – If an aircraft carrier did not have Aviation Boatswain’s Mates (Equipment), also known as ABEs, carriers would just be carrying aircraft. Flight operations wouldn’t be possible, and one of the carrier’s primary missions couldn’t be accomplished.

ABEs assigned to USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), work with first-in-class technology known as Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG) and Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS). Ford’s ABEs are specifically charged with learning these new systems and paving the way for future Ford-class carriers.

“ABEs conventionally are steam and hydraulic related so that’s all we deal with. So here we have had to adapt to the electrical side of our rate,” said Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Equipment) 1st Class David Vonbehren, from Cincinnati, assigned to Ford’s air department as the bow catapults leading petty officer. “As far as Nimitz [class], everything has been laid out for them over lots of years. They have got everything set up, we had to start everything from the ground up here.”

Navy aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford sailor EMALS
Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Equipment) 3rd Class Damon Boyd lubricates an electromagnetic aircraft launching system (EMALS) catapult on USS Ford, July 28, 2017.

Ford-class carriers have optimized manning, which allows them to operate with fewer personnel than Nimitz-class carriers. In the air department’s V-2 division there are approximately 25 ABEs, half the amount that would be assigned on a Nimitz-class carrier.

They also work with many other departments on the ship to maintain their equipment such as reactor, supply, and engineering.

“On a Nimitz-class carrier it’s hydraulics. Here it’s mostly electrical,” said Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Equipment) 1st Class Kimberley O’Donnell, from Silverdale, Washington, assigned to Ford’s air department as the arresting gear leading petty officer. “Engineering helps us out a lot by helping us get parts from the hanger bay to the 03 level, when we have to replace parts.”

While Ford is underway, ABEs are continually testing the equipment and stressing them to their limits.

“EMALS is the future of the Navy,” said Vonbehren. “There is not going to be another aircraft carrier that is going to be able to contend with us.”

Navy aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford sailor
Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Equipment) 3rd Class Lakena Un, left, and Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Equipment) 3rd Class Cononious Stewart, man the center-deck operator on USS Ford, February 3, 2021.

Though the work life of an ABE can vary depending on what ship they work on or what equipment they maintain, Vonbehren says some consistent characteristics you will find in any ABE is that they are knowledgeable, hardworking and adaptable.

“With every ABE comes adaptability and versatility. Each day is started with an open mind and the acceptance of the challenges that have not yet been revealed,” said Chief (Sel) Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Equipment) Justin Knighton, from Euless, Texas, assigned to Ford’s air department as the bow catapults leading chief petty officer. “Through blood and sweat, no matter the elements, an ABE will complete the mission.”

Ford is underway in the Atlantic Ocean conducting carrier qualifications.

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