After years of costly setbacks and delays, the $13 billion lead ship of a new class of aircraft carriers is on track to finally deploy next year, a US Navy admiral told USNI News this week.
Aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford features an array of new technologies — such as the electromagnetic aircraft launch system and advanced weapons elevators — intended to make it more capable than its Nimitz-class predecessors, but reliability challenges and technological integration problems, among other issues, hindered the project.
But, at long last, the troubled ship, initially expected to deploy in 2018, should soon be ready to do the nation’s bidding. The carrier is reportedly in the middle of its final phase of maintenance prior to deployment.
“Everything is on track,” Rear Adm. Gregory Huffman, who commands Carrier Strike Group 12 and the admiral who will lead the Ford strike group on its maiden deployment, told USNI News.
“We’re still looking to get out as scheduled after the six-month availability. No big show-stoppers that they’ve come across at all. So very, very positive news coming from the captain and from the shipyard,” he said.
“And then as we come out of that, I think we’re going to be set very well to get back in that operational mindset and get ready for the deployment.”
The ongoing maintenance period follows the successful completion of explosive shock trials this summer, when the Navy detonated multiple 40,000-pound bombs near the Ford to test its ability to handle the shock of actual combat.
“We did have some things break, but we will fix them,” Capt. Paul Lanzilotta, the Ford’s commanding officer, said at the time. “From a severity standpoint, I’d like to say we had zero catastrophic failures on the ship, zero situations where we had flooding, zero fires. All that is pretty significant.”
The Navy is eager to get the Ford deployed, not only for its advanced capabilities but also to add an extra carrier to the deployable force amid frequent demands for these powerful naval assets.
“Getting the Ford-class out there with its capabilities is basically just going to increase the number of carriers and carrier strike groups that we have available to meet the demands,” Huffman told USNI News, adding that he believes the Ford ” is just going to give us more flexibility.”
“Then when you couple that with the projected increase in what the Ford should be able to do, that’s going to just provide the combatant commanders and other folks with just more options and more things at their fingertips that they can use.”
Though USS Gerald R. Ford brings a lot of new capabilities, it will need to undergo modification in order to eventually deploy with the Navy’s most advanced carrier-based fighter jet, the F-35C Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter. The only Navy carrier to deploy with the F-35 is USS Carl Vinson, which deployed in August. The Ford is the latest in the service’s unmatched fleet of 11 operational carriers.
The Navy will also have to consider how to integrate new unmanned systems, such as the MQ-25 Stingray tanker drone.
“The Ford is designed with more of that modular mindset,” Huffman said, explaining that this likely makes it “easier to adapt and flex as new equipment comes online, as we start looking at what new air wing composition is going to be and new technologies are presented.”
The Navy currently has three additional Ford-class aircraft carriers, namely USS John F. Kennedy, USS Enterprise, and USS Doris Miller, in various stages of construction.
Ryan Pickrell is a senior military and defense reporter at Business Insider, where he covers defense-related issues from Washington, DC.