Northrop Grumman Corp, mindful of cost overruns and delays on shipbuilding programs, says it is working hard with the US Navy to keep costs in check on the newest US aircraft carrier.
Northrop will lay the keel of the Gerald R. Ford, the first of a new class of aircraft carriers an enormous floating city that will be nearly as long as the Empire State Building is tall at its Newport News shipyard on Saturday,
The Navy put the cost of research and development on the new ship at $3.6 billion plus $2.87 billion for detailed design work. The first ship, CVN 78, will cost $8.7 billion to build, excluding those costs, said Lieutenant Commander Victor Chen.
Mike Shawcross, Northrop vice president for the Ford-class carrier program, said the company had implemented several measures to beef up oversight and make sure the Navy clearly understood the production impact of any design changes.
“It gets down to really making sure, early on in the process, that each and every one that has a role in it in the shops, in material procurement, in assembly know what their expectations are and then holding them accountable to that,” Shawcross said. He said work on any “first in class” ship posed a significant challenge.
He said Northrop had set up separate oversight processes for five separate functions within the construction team design, shops/manufacturing, ship assembly, services and support, to better track progress on the ship.
In addition, he said the use of a computer-based design model should help cut costs by helping workers better visualize what they were building; pick the most efficient sequence for assembly of separate components; and avert possible interference with other objects.
Northrop used the cyber design system on its DDG-1000 destroyer, and the LPD-17 amphibious ship, Shawcross said. He said the first use on a carrier was during the redesign of CVN-76 several years ago.
He said he was optimistic the new measures, and the strong relationship Northrop had developed with the Navy over the past eight years of working on the ship’s design, would help keep the project on its cost and schedule targets.
One critical difference from past shipbuilding programs is that industry, the Navy and Congress, are far more attuned to the negative impact that even seemingly minor design changes can have on the cost of a ship.
The system adopted for the carrier would ensure that the Navy had a far better understanding of how their decisions could affect the production of the ship, Shawcross said.
He said using the computer-based design meant the company could also pre-cut, by machines, holes for miles of pipes that need to be installed, rather than doing it by hand in a labour-intensive and costly process.
All told, nearly 1600 miles of cable and wiring will be installed on the ship, enough to reach from Newport News to Denver, if laid out end to end.
One congressional naval analyst said promises about keeping the carrier program on cost and schedule should be met with “a healthy degree of scepticism.”
“Lead ship programs are historically very difficult to keep on cost and schedule,” said the analyst, who was not authorized to speak on the record. He said the new carrier had already seen its costs grow by 5 to 10 % during the design phase.
“Some degree of cost growth and schedule delay is virtually inevitable,” said the analyst, noting that cost increases ranged from 50 % to 100 % on past programs.
The Navy’s Chen said the keel-laying was an important milestone for an important ship. “We’re looking forward to delivery of the ship and its capabilities to the fleet on time and making every dollar count,” he said.
Shawcross said the Navy had clearly increased its oversight of the program both on-site and in program reviews.
Pic: USS Gerald R. Ford carrier