US Navy christens $16b new aircraft carrier USS Ford

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The American navy christened the first of its next generation of aircraft carriers on Saturday, a multi-billion-dollar vessel hailed as the most technologically advanced warship ever built.

The USS Gerald Ford, which has been plagued by huge cost overruns at a time of growing budget pressures, is due to begin service in 2016.

The 13-billion-dollar (S$16 billion) nuclear-powered carrier, which is equipped with an array of technological wizardry, was christened with a bottle of champagne at a ceremony in Newport News, Virginia, near the sprawling Norfolk Naval base.

"May God bless and watch over the USS Gerald R. Ford, those who built her and the men and women who will sail her into harm's way," said the late president's daughter Susan Ford Bales moments before shattering the bottle against the hulking ship.

The Ford represents the first new design for a carrier in 40 years, and the Navy's chief of staff Admiral Jonathan Greenert called the ship "a technological marvel." The pomp belied problems with the project, however, which is only 70 percent complete, with delivery postponed until February 2016.

And faced with automatic budget cuts and the need to fund other programs, including submarines, Greenert has warned the service may have to delay completing the Ford "by two years." The move would force the United States to rely on a fleet of 10 existing carriers and means "lowering surge capacity" in a crisis, he added.

US law requires the military to maintain 11 aircraft carriers, but at the moment only 10 are available since the retirement of the USS Enterprise in 2012.

The current carrier fleet, launched between 1975 to 2009, are Nimitz-class ships, but the Ford, or CVN 78, represents a new class of carrier with a new design, which will be followed by the John F. Kennedy and new Enterprise carriers. All have a similar length of about 1,090 feet (330 metres).

The Ford-class design is supposed to allow for 25 percent more sorties for the fighter jets and helicopters on board, generate more electrical power and produce more fresh water from desalination systems, allowing sailors to take comfortable showers.

"The Ford class is designed to provide increased war-fighting capability with approximately 700 fewer crew members," reducing the cost of maintaining the ship, the Navy said in a statement.

While fewer sailors will be needed to run the carrier, the cost of building the ship has sky-rocketed. Since the start of the contract in 2008, construction costs jumped 22 percent over the scheduled budget to US$12.8 billion in total.

And the Navy's estimate "does not include US$4.7 billion in research and development costs," according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which provides financial data to lawmakers.

Navy officers say such cost overruns are typical for a new series of ship, and that the price of subsequent vessels in the class tends to drop.

But at a time of budget austerity, the mushrooming price tag is a source of irritation.

The navy and the defense contractor "must still overcome significant technology development, design and construction challenges," the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress, wrote in September.

The GAO questioned the decision to go ahead with new technological systems for the ship before proving they worked, an approach that "introduces risk of late and costly design changes and rework." A new electromagnetic catapult to launch aircraft, new radar and new arresting gear to catch planes landing are also facing technical delays and higher costs.

"But even after the ship's commission, several key ship systems will continue to face significant reliability shortfalls that will likely increase costs to the government and limit the ship's mission effectiveness," the GAO said.

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