It has endured years of delays and setbacks, but it appears the Navy’s new aircraft carrier may finally be officially deployed in 2022.
More Money, More Problems
The USS Gerald R. Ford cost over $13 billion and it was originally procured in FY2008. Dozens of new technologies have delayed its delivery, but the Navy has stuck to its guns and continued its development over the years, even to the frustration of various admirals and Members of Congress.
The good news is that the Ford completed its latest hurdle – finishing its shock trials – last month. A shock trial is when the Navy blasts huge charges next to the carrier to test its ability to withstand a large explosion. These 40,000 pound explosives are used to make sure there are no injuries, damages, leaks, or fires on board after the blast. The Navy did this three times, and the Ford passed all three tests.
Big Technological Changes
This is the first new carrier in 40 years. The Ford has been conducting sea trials this year and has spent over 50 percent of its time in 2021 at sea. The navy is finally satisfied with the trials. The ship has done over 8,000 catapult launches and landings since its commissioning in 2017. There will be fewer sailors on the new carrier – dropping from 5,000 personnel to 4,500. Congress is researching whether Covid-19 affected the ship’s operational timeline.
The biggest technological change from the old carriers is that of flight deck operations. The Navy has fielded a new catapult system and arresting gear on the Ford. Perfecting these innovations set the carrier back in terms of delays and budget over-runs. Instead of launching with steam, the launch system now uses electromagnetics. The new system will send manned and unmanned aircraft airborne quicker, smoother, and more efficiently than steam. To catch or arrest airplanes landing on the deck, the Ford will use turbo-electrics instead of hydraulics. The contractor General Atomics says this development is revolutionary. The new technology is supposed to reduce maintenance and allow for fewer sailors to be needed on the flight deck.
Aircraft carriers require excellent elevators to get airplanes and ordinance topside. The Ford will have 11 improved elevators that will get the needed items quickly and safely to the flight deck. The onboard radar has been improved as well. The nuclear reactors are better too. The new A1B reactors provide 25 percent more energy and three-times the electrical power than the older Nimitz-class reactors. They require less maintenance and fewer people to work on them. This allows the Ford-class to stay out at sea longer.
Armed with F-35s
The main fighter jet that the Navy wants to launch from the Ford is the F-35C. This development has been frustrating, and it has been delayed with cost over-runs. Members of Congress has not been happy about the struggles to get the F-35C regularly flying from the Ford.
More Carrier Coming?
Two more carriers will be built, including CVN-80 (Enterprise) and CVN-81 (Doris Miller). But it remains to be seen whether these ships can come in on time and under budget. Some Congressional members, such as Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), are balking at the price tag of these ships. Plus, older carriers have to be maintained at the same time, meaning even more money has to be sunk into aircraft carrier programs. Not to mention that the Chinese have the so-called “carrier killer” missiles that could change the strategic calculus in East Asia.
Responding to China and Russia
But to be able to respond to threats coming from Russia in the Eurasian theater and China in the Indo-Pacific region, the United States needs new carriers with innovative technology. The shipbuilder and the Navy should learn from the experience of the Gerald R. Ford and perhaps not try to integrate so many new technologies at once on one ship. It will be interesting to see how the Ford is able to accomplish its mission while being the biggest survivable airfield in the military.
Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.