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Why the Navy’s Most Powerful Aircraft Carrier Has So Many Problems

USS Gerald R. Ford Problems
The U.S. Navy Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) and the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) underway in the Atlantic Ocean on 4 June 2020, marking the first time a Gerald R. Ford-class and a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier operated together underway. Gerald R. Ford is underway conducting integrated air wing operations, and the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group remained at sea in the Atlantic as a certified carrier strike group force ready for tasking in order to protect the crew from the risks posed by COVID-19, following their successful deployment to the U.S. 5th and 6th Fleet areas of operation.

This month, the USS Gerald R. Ford, the US Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, successfully completed its shock trials. The third and final 40,000-pound explosive detonated near the Ford’s hull and caused no major injuries, flooding, or fires.

“We had zero catastrophic failures on the ship, zero situations where we had flooding or anything, and zero fires. All that is pretty significant,” Capt. Paul Lanzilotta, the Ford’s commanding officer, told reporters.

The shock trials are the latest milestone for a carrier that has struggled through years of delays and cost overruns — setbacks caused at least in part by the many brand-new systems the Navy chose to put on its newest class of carrier, the service’s top officer said in July.

In an interview at a Navy League event, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday said the Navy had been too ambitious with the Ford’s new technologies.

“We had 23 new technologies on that ship, which quite frankly increased the risk … of delivery on time and cost right from the get-go.” Gilday said.

“We really shouldn’t introduce more than maybe one or two new technologies on any complex platform like that in order to make sure that we keep risk at a manageable level,” Gilday added.

New technologies

The Force class is meant to modernize carrier operations for a new era, and the 23 new technologies aboard the Ford give it a number of improvements over its Nimitz-class predecessors, including faster aircraft sorties and a smaller crew.

The most well-known additions are the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) and Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG).

While the four catapults on board Nimitz-class carriers are steam-powered, Ford’s EMALS uses linear induction motors. The new catapults are more efficient than their steam-powered counterparts and launch fixed-wing aircraft more smoothly and at much faster rates.

The AAG also has advantages over its predecessor, the Mark-7 hydraulic arresting gear.

A turbo-electric system, the AAG has digital controls capable of self-diagnosis and of sending maintenance alerts, requiring less manpower and time to maintain.

The new arresting gear can also handle the weight of a wider variety of aircraft, meaning that the AAG, along with EMALS, will enable Navy carriers to reliably launch and land both manned and unmanned aircraft.

The Ford also features a new elevator system that is designed with larger and more complex smart munitions in mind. The Ford’s 11 elevators are specifically built and positioned within the carrier to decrease the time it takes to move weapons from the ship’s magazines to the flight deck.

Its new Dual Band Radar (DBR) system is capable of simultaneously operating over two frequency ranges. Unlike the system on the Nimitz class, the DBR has no rotating antennas, which increases its reliability and makes maintenance easier.

To top it all off, Ford powers its new systems with two newly designed A1B nuclear reactors that can generate almost three times more power than the A4W reactors used on Nimitz-class carriers.

New problems

The new systems increase the Ford’s capabilities and decrease the number of crew members needed to operate it — about 4,500 compared with the roughly 5,000 sailors and aviators needed aboard Nimitz-class carriers.

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