Document: GAO Report to Senate Armed Services Committee on Ford Aircraft Carrier Program

October 1, 2015 10:48 AM - Updated: October 1, 2015 11:08 AM

The following is the written testimony of Paul L. Francis of the Government Accountability Office to the Senate Armed Services Committee’s (SASC) for the Oct. 1, 2015 hearing on the Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier (CVN-78) program.

From the abstract:

What GAO Found

The Ford-class aircraft carrier’s lead ship began construction with an unrealistic business case. A sound business case balances the necessary resources and knowledge needed to transform a chosen concept into a product. Yet in 2007, GAO found that CVN 78 costs were underestimated and critical technologies were immature—key risks that would impair delivering CVN 78 at cost, on-time, and with its planned capabilities. The ship and its business case were nonetheless approved. Over the past 8 years, the business case has predictably decayed in the form of cost growth, testing delays, and reduced capability—in essence, getting less for more. Today, CVN 78 is more than $2 billion over its initial budget. Land-based tests of key technologies have been deferred by years while the ship’s construction schedule has largely held fast. The CVN 78 is unlikely to achieve promised aircraft launch and recovery rates as key systems are unreliable. The ship must complete its final, more complex, construction phase concurrent with key test events. While problems are likely to be encountered, there is no margin for the unexpected. Additional costs are likely.

Similarly, the business case for CVN 79 is not realistic. The Navy recently awarded a construction contract for CVN 79 which it believes will allow the program to achieve the current $11.5 billion legislative cost cap. Clearly, CVN 79 should cost less than CVN 78, as it will incorporate lessons learned on construction sequencing and other efficiencies. While it may cost less than its predecessor, CVN 79 is likely to cost more than estimated. As GAO found in November 2014, the Navy’s strategy to achieve the cost cap relies on optimistic assumptions of construction efficiencies and cost savings—including unprecedented reductions in labor hours, shifting work until after ship delivery, and delivering the ship with the same baseline capability as CVN 78 by postponing planned mission system upgrades and modernizations until future maintenance periods.

Today, with CVN 78 over 92 percent complete as it reaches delivery in May 2016, and the CVN 79 on contract, the ability to exercise oversight and make course corrections is limited. Yet, it is not too late to examine the carrier’s acquisition history to illustrate the dynamics of shipbuilding—and weapon system—acquisition and the challenges they pose to acquisition reform. The carrier’s problems are by no means unique; rather, they are quite typical of weapon systems. Such outcomes persist despite acquisition reforms the Department of Defense and Congress have put forward—such as realistic estimating and “fly before buy.” Competition with other programs for funding creates pressures to overpromise performance at unrealistic costs and schedules. These incentives are more powerful than policies to follow best acquisition practices and oversight tools. Moreover, the budget process provides incentives for programs to be funded before sufficient knowledge is available to make key decisions. Complementing these incentives is a marketplace characterized by a single buyer, low volume, and limited number of major sources. The decades-old culture of undue optimism when starting programs is not the consequence of a broken process, but rather of a process in equilibrium that rewards unrealistic business cases and, thus, devalues sound practices.

Sam LaGrone

Sam LaGrone

Sam LaGrone is the editor of USNI News. He has covered legislation, acquisition and operations for the Sea Services since 2009 and spent time underway with the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and the Canadian Navy.
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