A government watchdog agency said Newport News Shipbuilding's inability to get critical valves in a timely fashion has driven up the cost of its next-generation aircraft carrier.
The price increases associated with the Gerald R. Ford aren't new and were laid out in Navy budget documents months ago. But a report issued Thursday for the first time identifies the difficulty obtaining valves as one of the causes.
Since 2008, the Ford's price has increased by $1.8 billion -- from $10.5 billion to $12.3 billion -- according to Navy budget submissions.
The new carrier class -- a major source of revenue for the shipyard and its parent company, Huntington Ingalls Industries -- is also identified as one of the 10 most-expensive defense programs in the country in the GAO report.
It attributes the jump in price to the slower-than-expected production of newly designed valves -- devices that regulate the flow of air, gas and liquids and that are used by the hundreds on Navy vessels.
"The shipbuilder has experienced a shortage of the new valves critical for installing and testing different piping systems within the ship, and lagging government-furnished equipment deliveries have required deviation from the planned build sequence," the report says.
The report also said warping of steel plates on the carrier's deck had contributed to the Ford's rising cost. But the larger issue has been the valves, according to Jim Shoemaker, a consultant who worked for the Navy on the Ford program through last year.
He said shipbuilders were piecing together the Ford's hull in the dry dock at such a fast pace that they didn't have valves ready to install in the individual hull modules.
"The hull structure was going gangbusters, but they simply didn't have the (valves) to put in the ship," said Shoemaker, a senior ship analyst at Camber Corp.
"If you don't have the valves and fittings," then the yard has to do more installation in the dry dock, he said, "and that's probably 40 percent more expensive."
The shortage, Shoemaker said, happened because the new carrier demanded a wave of new designs for valves and component parts. He added that the problem was magnified because the Navy and the shipyard pursued construction of the Ford before designs for the ship were completed.
The price in the contract assumed valves would be ready to be put in various sections of the hull before those giant modules were moved to the dry dock, where installation becomes considerably more time-consuming, he said.
"I don't think it's anybody's fault," Shoemaker said. If anything, he added, "people were overly optimistic how quickly you could design new valves and components."
Christie Miller, a spokeswoman for the shipyard, deferred questions about the GAO report to the Washington, D.C.-based Naval Sea Systems Command, which oversees ship construction.
A Navy spokeswoman said the command's carrier construction office would not be able to respond until early next week.
Navy and shipyard officials have said repeatedly that some price increases are to be expected when building the first ship in a class, like the Ford, as shipbuilders and shipyard suppliers work out the kinks of the new designs.
They've also argued that because the Ford-class carriers will require fewer military personnel, the ships will be cheaper for the Navy -- over their 50 years of expected service -- than their Nimitz-class predecessors.
Some members of Congress have nevertheless questioned the costs of the new carrier model. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has argued the Navy should have continued ordering Nimitz-class carriers, and he's been a fierce critic of cost overruns on the Ford.
The valve issue should not be unexpected, Shoemaker said, "but whether Congress or the government in general is surprised by this, I don't know," he said, noting the high level of scrutiny applied to cost overruns in high-dollar defense programs.
Carrier price tag up; Valve shortage cited
Government watchdog: Inability to get critical parts in timely fashion contributed to Gerald R. Ford cost increase
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