Newport yard expects cost cuts on carriers

Analysts conclude that the Navy will seek two Nimitz-class ships

October 03, 2002|By Michael Fabey | Michael Fabey,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. - Dimming prospects that the Pentagon will spend more than $10 billion to develop the futuristic CVNX aircraft carrier are increasing the odds that the Navy will, instead, opt to build up to two more Nimitz-class carriers at Northrop Grumman Newport News.

That kind of change in naval strategy now considered likely by leading defense analysts would have a tremendous effect at the local shipyard, the only U.S. site capable of building the large-deck nuclear-powered ships.

Any deal to follow the CVN-77, now being built, with one or two more Nimitz-class carriers would be welcome news for the thousands of waterfront workers employed by such projects. But the Navy, Northrop and other contractors had planned on a host of engineering and design improvements for the CVNX. Some, if not most, of that work could be scrapped if the Navy opted for more Nimitz-class hulls. But the Navy has plans to make some technological improvements within the Nimitz-class carriers.

The Navy has previously shown its willingness to cancel significant carrier advancements in favor of saving money, killing the proposed $450 million new warfare system for the CVN-77. Now, leading industry-watchers in Washington say, the CVNX is heading for the same end.

Officially, Navy brass and Northrop officials refuse to declare the CNVX doomed. Northrop insists that the project will ultimately save time and taxpayer dollars.

"We disagree that CVNX is too expensive," Northrop Grumman Newport News spokeswoman Jerri Fuller Dickseski said. "The recurring cost of CVNX1 is less expensive in terms of both man-hours and costs than another Nimitz-class repeat ship built in the same year because we have designed the ship to be simpler and more producible."

Northrop asserts that the initial price tag includes one-time costs associated with any new ship design. The effect of those nonrecurring expenses is lessened as the yard produces more versions of the new-generation carrier.

But questions about the need for the high-cost CVNX in the Navy's future are being raised in the Pentagon. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is expected to make a call on the program by Thanksgiving.

Changing threat

Top Pentagon observers say, however, that the next-generation carrier has lost favor as the nature of America's enemies has changed from superpowers to decentralized terrorist networks.

"I think the CVNX is history," said Chuck Spinney, a Pentagon program planner. "They're going to wind up building another Nimitz-class carrier."

Defense analyst John Gresham agrees to a point. "They're going to go to Newport News and ask for a deal," he predicted. "They're going to repeat Nimitzes for [CVN-] 78 and 79. I think the Navy is going to try to get two in one year. Congress hates to do it that way, but the Navy needs to replace its fossil-fuel carriers."

The Navy has contracted for two carriers at a time in the past. The yard can't accommodate two carriers at the same time in Dry Dock 12 the birthplace of the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan but it has built four nuclear-powered carriers in Dry Dock 11.

What's convincing analysts that Rumsfeld might decide to do a two-Nimitzes-for-one-CVNX switch is the condition of the USS John F. Kennedy and Kitty Hawk. Those fossil-fuel carriers have been cited for numerous maintenance problems. But pulling both ships out of service without replacements would drop the carrier fleet below the minimum number that the Navy says it needs to carry out its missions.

"The carrier is the linchpin of the Navy's planning for its force structure," Spinney said. "All the other numbers for planes, destroyers and other ships derive from the number of carriers out there."

Analysts say the Navy sailed away from the CVNX and toward another Nimitz when it scaled down the CVN-77 warfare system. The failed attempt to make the advancements will add to the CVNX cost more than twice the estimated $5 billion to build the CVN-77.

What's more, defense experts say, Congress and the Pentagon are getting weary of expensive broken promises.

"Look back at what was promised with the CVN-77," Spinney said. "They said they would save the taxpayers money with that ship."

The warfare-system improvements were supposed to save about $1 billion over the lifetime of the ship, with technological improvements and personnel cuts. The ship was also supposed to make the CVNX cheaper by incorporating the warfare-system changes from the CVN-77. Still, Navy contracts indicate, the construction cost of the CVN-77 wound up being almost twice that of its predecessor, the Ronald Reagan, scheduled for delivery next year.

"Two times the cost, and for what?" Spinney asked. "There's no warfare system. There's no bridge ship. There's not one penny saved. We basically just have another Nimitz carrier."

Local shipyard and Navy officials say there are some other improvements in the ship, in some of the computer networks and machinery operations.

`Driven by cost'

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