WASHINGTON (AFP) - The American navy will christen on Saturday a new aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald Ford, a colossal ship plagued by equally huge cost overruns, at a time of growing budget pressures.
The daughter of the former United States president, Mrs Susan Ford Bales, will break the traditional champagne bottle at a ceremony in the port of Newport News, Virginia, near the sprawling Norfolk naval base.
The problem project, however, will be plain to see - construction of the vessel is only 70 per cent complete and its delivery has been postponed to February 2016. And faced with automatic budget cuts and the need to fund other programmes, including submarines, the Navy's chief of staff, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, has warned the service may have to delay completing the Ford "by two years".
The move would force the US to rely on a fleet of 10 existing carriers and mean "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 last year. The current carrier fleet, launched between 1975 and 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 330m.
The Ford-class design is supposed to allow for 25 per cent 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 per cent over the scheduled budget to US$12.8 billion (S$16 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, which provides financial data to lawmakers.