Navy: Newest carrier will be ready in 2015

Nearly a week after the Navy officially kicked off production of its newest aircraft carrier, service officials charged with overseeing the program said Friday it is on track to be in service by September 2015.

The Navy held the ceremonial keel laying Saturday for the USS Gerald R. Ford at Northrop Grumman's shipyard in Newport News, Va., marking the first time in 40 years a new class of aircraft carriers began production.

The keel laying of the massive ship represents the transition from "the design-centric mentality of a paper ship -- the PowerPoint slides and things that are in computers -- to really getting into something now that is going to start coming together in a dry dock and really quickly here ... look like a ship," Capt. Brian Antonio, the carrier's program manager, said at a briefing at the Washington Navy Yard.

But parts of the ship have been in production since August 2005. Of the 1,177 "structural units," or building blocks, 577 are completed, Antonio said. "So we did have a running start," he added.

Construction of the carrier and the ship's systems will cost $8.7 billion. The Navy already has spent $3.6 billion in research and development and $2.7 billion on a detailed design for the ship, the first of the CVN-78 class of carriers.

Aside from the ship itself, the program office is closely monitoring other programs that are central to the new carrier, such as the Electro Magnetic Launch System, the catapult system for carrier-based jets, Antonio said.

Several key lawmakers have long been skeptical of the launch system, raising concerns that the program is behind schedule and ultimately could delay deploying the carrier.

The Navy plans to start launching test loads from the system by early next year in the hope of launching its first aircraft, an F-18 fighter, in July.

"There are no major things right now ... that are standing in the way of getting [EMALS] to the ship," Antonio said.

Meanwhile, Navy officials said the new carrier still is on track to generate more than $5 billion in cost savings throughout the ship's 50-year life, when compared to the Nimitz-class carriers that are now in service.

More than $3 billion of those savings comes from the 1,300 fewer personnel needed to man the ship and the associated air wing. "People costs have escalated for the military, just as they have for the private sector," said Rear Adm. Michael McMahon, the Navy's program executive officer for aircraft carriers.

Other significant cost savings come from a heavy reliance on electric power, which carries much lower maintenance and operations costs than other power sources, McMahon said.

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