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Middle East mission was a chance to justify aircraft carrier's price tag

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The world's largest and most expensive aircraft carrier has returned home after deploying to the Middle East outside Gaza on its maiden voyage. For defenders of the project, the mission was a chance to justify the carrier's more than $13 billion price tag. Steve Walsh, with member station WHRO in Norfolk, Va., has the story.

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STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: Just days before returning to Norfolk, the crew of the USS Gerald R. Ford gathered in the ship's main hangar bay to hear Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro.

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CARLOS DEL TORO: How proud this entire country, every American in the United States of America, is of what you have done for our nation, for each and every one of us.

WALSH: The Ford was six months into its maiden voyage visiting NATO allies when war broke out between Israel and Hamas. The carrier was immediately deployed to the eastern Mediterranean as part of a U.S. show of force. Unlike other American ships now in the region, the Ford didn't intercept drones or missiles in the Red Sea. But Del Toro says the Ford did show the U.S.'s newest carrier was finally ready to see action. As part of that message, the carrier launched more than 8,000 sorties.

DEL TORO: This carrier strike group also provided the deterrent factor to try to keep the war from escalating as well, too. So that was their fundamental mission.

WALSH: Slowed by technical delays and cost overruns, it took six years for the Ford to complete its first full deployment after entering the fleet in 2017. The Navy says the Ford cost at least $13.3 billion.

BRYAN CLARK: No, it doesn't justify the expense.

WALSH: Bryan Clark is a former naval officer with the Hudson Institute. The Ford replaces the current Nimitz-class carriers, which first sailed out of the shipyard in 1972. Greenlit during the Bush administration, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld pushed the services to transform the military with new technology, making the older carriers a relative bargain, Clark says.

CLARK: Right, so you would have been maybe a little bit more than half the price of a Ford class. So in retrospect, that extra investment was probably not worth it.

WALSH: The Ford has at least 27 new systems, most famously an electromagnetic catapult system for launching planes that created years of delays. Putting all of that into one ship drove up the cost, Clark says. Despite his reservations, he believes the Navy will benefit even from the catapult system over time. Automation allows for a smaller crew. The Ford left Norfolk with 400 fewer sailors than older carriers.

CLARK: The Navy missed its recruiting targets by 20% last year, so they can't afford to have more ships entering the fleet that require more people than their predecessors.

WALSH: The Ford was nearly derailed again by technical issues before leaving Norfolk in May. During the Navy secretary's visit, one of the sailors was given an award for working with contractors to quickly fix a problem with one of the new systems.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And installing a fix to restore system readiness and supporting the ship's on-time departure.

RICK BURGESS: I've been doing this my whole life, and I have never seen anything like this ship.

WALSH: The Ford's captain, Rick Burgess, says maintenance costs were down. He says nothing major broke over the eight months of their maiden voyage.

BURGESS: I really grew to love this ship, and I honestly believe that it is everything that the American taxpayers hoped it would be and more.

WALSH: Back in Norfolk, the ship will undergo more tests to determine whether it can meet the original expectations to launch more planes more quickly than older versions, to see if America's largest and most expensive carrier is finally out of its test phase.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh in Norfolk, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Walsh / WHRO