"We're at a point, right now, in the ship's early life where momentum is fueling exponential progress in testing and trials," he said Friday.
Getting the Ford combat ready is about more than national security. It's about the Navy's credibility.
"There is a trail of tears that explains where we are," Modly said at a December forum hosted by the U.S. Naval Institute, "but right now we need to fix that ship and make sure it works. There is nothing worse than having a ship like that, our most expensive asset, being out there as a metaphor for why the Navy can't do anything right."
Craig Hooper, a defense consultant who writes about naval issues, said Modly's memo was a refreshing change of course and could herald a new narrative for a ship known for its litany of technical problems.
The first set of deadlines, while challenging, are certainly doable.
"There could still be complications," Hooper said. "but I think there are enough bite-sized, easily winnable pieces that that you're going to see a far more positive spring for Ford."
Modly is the acting Navy secretary, and it's possible President Trump might pick someone else to fill the position permanently. But the 2020 schedule could hold regardless.
"It may change if a new leader comes along," Hooper said, "but putting it out there in public, it's very had to retract that. So it's packed full of opportunities to show goodness."
A succession of positive steps might help with members of Congress, who have signaled their increasing impatience with the Ford.
Rep. Elaine Luria, a Virginia Beach Democrat and former Navy commander, complained last year that taxpayers have "invested in a $13 billion berthing barge" because of ongoing problems with the weapons elevators.