By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Navy on Tuesday pledged to cut costs for building new aircraft carriers, as it prepared to christen the USS Gerald R. Ford, first in its class of warships and a vessel whose $12.9 billion cost will exceed forecasts by almost 25 percent.
Rear Admiral Thomas Moore, Navy officer in charge of aircraft carriers, pledged that the next carrier, the USS John F. Kennedy, would cost $1.2 billion less than the USS Ford, which will be christened on Saturday.
He said he was working on cost controls with Huntington Ingalls Industries, whose Newport News unit builds the carriers, as well as with other suppliers and the U.S. Congress.
By the time the Ford wraps up 27 months of testing and completion work in the second quarter of fiscal 2016, it is projected to cost $12.9 billion, nearly a quarter more than the original estimate of $10.5 billion, Moore told reporters.
Construction of the city-sized nuclear-powered warship began in 2009.
"Nobody would tell you we're satisfied with the cost performance of the ship," Moore said. But he said he was confident the next carrier would cost $1.2 billion less, excluding non-recurring engineering costs and inflation. Congress has imposed an $11.4 billion cost cap on the ship.
"We understand where the country is from a budget standpoint. We understand the urgency to drive toward affordability on these ships, as does Newport News," said Moore.
Failure to control costs could jeopardize Navy plans to maintain a fleet of 11 aircraft carriers, massive ships that can respond to a range of threats and situations around the globe.
The Pentagon is bracing for about $1 trillion in spending cuts over the decade that began in 2013, unless Congress acts to reverse $500 billion in cuts required under sequestration, a prospect now seen as increasingly unlikely.
The late president's daughter, Susan Ford Bales, is scheduled to smash a bottle of American sparkling wine across the Ford's hull on Saturday at a christening ceremony to be attended by hundreds of dignitaries, including former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
The new ship will replace the USS Enterprise, which was inactivated last year. Moore said the Ford would be used for 50 years, and the new class would serve through 2110.
The Ford features a new nuclear power plant, a redesigned island, electromagnetic catapults, new weapons and storage elevators, and an enhanced flight deck.
It has 10 million feet of electrical cabling on board, compared to 3 million on the predecessor ship, as well as 4 million feet of fiber optic cable, Moore said, noting sailors would also be able to watch television on board and receive regular emails.
The ship will produce 500,0000 gallons of fresh water a day, 100,000 more than earlier Nimitz-class carriers, Moore said. He said this would allow sailors to take "Hollywood showers," keeping water running while they bathe, instead of Spartan "Navy showers".
Moore said about 70 percent of the Ford would be complete in time for christening, a far higher percentage than the amount of work that was done when the last of the previous class of aircraft carriers, the Nimitz-class, was christened.
Doing more work before christening would help save money on the Ford and also reduce costs of the next carrier, Moore said.
He said the Ford would be built with 50 million man hours of labor, but the Kennedy would require around only 43-44 million.
The next ship in the class, the USS Enterprise, would take around 40 million man hours to build, about the same amount of time needed to build the Nimitz-class carriers, despite the far greater complexity of the new ships, Moore said.
"We are making significant progress on the Kennedy," Moore told reporters. He said Newport News was building more of the new ship's subsystems in its shops or on the dock instead of doing all that work on the ship.
He said about 150 pieces of the Kennedy had already been built, all at significantly lower cost than on the Ford.
He said the Ford-class ships also had far more automated systems, which would reduce their long-term operating costs. Such changes would allow the Navy to staff the ship with 900 to 1,200 fewer people than current levels around 5,500 to 6,000 people, including air wing personnel, Moore said.
Newport News estimates the Ford-class ships will cost $4 billion less to operate over their lifetimes than earlier ships. About 40 percent of a ship's total lifetime cost is in maintenance, Moore said.
The new ships require major maintenance every 42 months, compared to 32 to 36 months for the Nimitz-class ships.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by David Gregorio)