By Idrees Ali
Washington (Reuters) - Senator John McCain on Thursday said huge cost overruns on a new class of aircraft carriers built by Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc made it "one of the most spectacular acquisition debacles" in recent years, and the Navy needed different options for the future.
The USS Gerald R. Ford, the first of three new nuclear-powered, city-sized aircraft carriers, is expected to cost $12.9 billion, or $2.4 billion more than originally expected, McCain told a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee he chairs. The second ship, the USS John F. Kennedy, is $2.5 billion over budget at $11.5 billion, and five years behind schedule.
McCain blamed the problems on unrealistic plans and poor cost estimates, and said Congress and the Navy should examine a return to smaller, cheaper aircraft carriers that could attract new competitors.
He said the staggering cost of the new carriers could also prompt the Defense Department and Congress to consider reducing the number of carriers and using more land-based or precision-guided weapons instead.
"If we can't do better, everything must be on the table, and so long as I am chairman, it will," he said.
Senator Jack Reed, the top Democrat on the committee, echoed McCain's concerns, and said the Navy, the Pentagon, Congress and Huntington Ingalls all shared blame for the program's woes.
U.S. Navy and Pentagon officials acknowledged problems with the ships, but said measures put in place from 2009 to 2011 - including switching the contract to one with fixed-price terms - had helped halt early cost growth on the program.
Navy acquisition chief Sean Stackley said the Navy was looking at further changes to ensure greater accountability for cost overruns and delays on all shipbuilding programs.
He said Huntington Ingalls was nearly 95 percent done with construction of the USS Ford and on track to deliver the ship to the Navy next year.
Lawmakers were particularly critical about the Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG), which helps aircraft land on the flight deck and is being produced by privately held General Atomics.
Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon's director of operational test and evaluation, said a recent redesign of the AAG had not led to better test results and could jeopardize the carrier’s usefulness in the long term.
Rear Admiral Donald Gaddis, the Navy's program executive officer for tactical aircraft, told reporters after the hearing that aircraft testing of the AAG would begin in February.
(Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal)