As Rep. Elaine Luria sees it, this week's decision to extend the deployment of the USS Abraham Lincoln speaks to a more serious problem with the aircraft carrier fleet, and the evidence is front and center in Hampton Roads.
The Lincoln will remain deployed for an unspecified time because repairs are taking longer than expected on the USS Harry S. Truman, the carrier assigned to replace it.
But at the moment, not one of the Navy's six East Coast carriers — either at Naval Station Norfolk or Newport News Shipbuilding — are close to combat-ready, Luria said in a House Armed Services hearing this week.
So when a single carrier is sidelined longer than expected, it can become a problem.
In an exchange with Navy leaders, the Virginia Beach Democrat said: "So the taxpayers have made a good investment to have six carriers on the East Coast, plus I understand one on the West Coast — seven of our 11 carriers — in a non-deployable status, and we're having to extend the Lincoln on deployment because of one emergent casualty on one carrier? That's where you desire to be?"
Vice Adm. Tom Moore, commander of Naval Sea Systems Command, sought to put that number into context.
Yes, the Truman has had unexpected problems, but the ship should be fixed shortly, although he didn't offer a date. The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower is preparing for an upcoming deployment but isn't immediately ready.
The USS George H.W. Bush entered Norfolk Naval Shipyard in February for a planned 28-month maintenance period. The George Washington remains at the Newport News shipyard for its mid-life refueling and overhaul, a multi-billion-dollar job expected to be completed in August 2021. One carrier is typically always undergoing a mid-life refit.
Meanwhile, the John C. Stennis has arrived at Norfolk because it is next in line after the George Washington.
Luria questioned why the Bush maintenance is taking 28 months instead of a more typical 16 months. Moore said "unique work" is needed on the Bush. Plus, other work at the shipyard is affecting the timetable.
The congresswoman also questioned why the Stennis was brought to Norfolk to await its mid-life overhaul when the GW's overhaul won't end until 2021.
"I was just there (on Stennis) the other day, and it appears to be they actually have enough fuel to deploy again," at least on a limited basis, Luria said.
Moore said the ship would be available, if needed.
The sixth and final East Coast carrier not yet ready to deploy is the USS Gerald R. Ford. That led to another exchange.
The Ford, the first of a new carrier class, has been plagued with technical problems throughout its short life. The most recent challenge: he ship's advanced weapons elevators, designed to transport ordnance up to the flight deck.
The elevators are powered by an electro-mechanical system much different than elevators on older Nimitz-class ships, which employed a combination of hydraulics, wire rope and electric motors. Until recently, only two of the Ford's 11 elevators were certified.
James Geurts, the Navy's acquisition chief, told Luria that a third elevator is now certified. The Ford has been undergoing post-shakedown work at Newport News and is scheduled to leave by the end of this month.
But until all those elevators are certified, the ship won't be in fighting shape.
"We've basically invested $13 billion in a nuclear-powered berthing barge," Luria complained.
The Ford was supposed to deploy last year. Moore said he expects it to be ready before 2024, but did not offer more specifics.
The pointed back-and-forth between Luria, a retired Navy commander-turned-lawmaker, and the two leaders reflected a larger concern among some members of the House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee.
Rep. John Garamendi, the panel's chairman, recalled how the Navy responded after two ships collided in 2017 in the Pacific, killing 17 sailors. The Navy needs that same sense of urgency when it comes to maintenance, he said.
"The success of our Navy depends on it," he said.
Moore and Geurts said improvements are in the pipeline. A $21 billion plan to upgrade its four public shipyards — including Norfolk Naval Shipyard — is underway, although it will take a couple of years to bear fruit.
Better communication with fleet commanders will also improve how maintenance is scheduled.
Navy Secretary Richard Spencer responded Wednesday to Luria's criticism of the Ford, saying the Navy should not shoulder all of the blame for the ship's problems.
Speaking at a Brookings Institution event, Spencer pointed to funding problems caused when Congress fails to approve a budget, and instead passes a continuing resolution that freezes spending. Then, he said, members of Congress "go home on vacation" while military personnel are still "standing the watch," according to a report by U.S. Naval Institute News.
Referring to Luria, Spencer said: "Not one of her comments was, how can I help? I consider that disparaging. If she wants to get on board and help, we have open arms."
In a statement she released Wednesday, Luria said that isn't true.
At the hearing, she said, "We want to be here for readiness to provide you the tools to get the carriers out to deploy on time. What else do you need to do that?"
Spencer also took aim at Huntington Ingalls Industries, the parent of Newport News Shipbuilding. He said the Navy is now overseeing work on the troublesome weapons elevators, USNI reported
"So, we're making progress once we got a Navy team down there taking over this project," Spencer said. "Faith and confidence with (Huntington Ingalls) senior management when it comes to this project is very, very low."
Spencer said a fourth elevator has been certified.
Huntington Ingalls issued a statement to UNSI, saying it continues to work closely with the Navy and that the new Ford-class technologies were meant to be installed on the first three ships of the class. Instead, they were packed onto the Ford itself. While some new technologies have gone well, others have proved more challenging.
In response to Spencer's broader criticism of her, Luria's statement said in part: "I find it disappointing that the secretary finds congressional oversight disparaging. Here are the facts: The USS FORD will be six years delayed in its initial deployment, which causes incredible strain on the carrier fleet. Secretary Spencer himself promised the President that the weapons elevators would be fully functional by the end of this past summer."
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