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Ford-Class: The Biggest and Most Expensive Aircraft Carrier

USS Gerald R. Ford Problems
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (April 8, 2017) - Pre-Commissioning Unit Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) Sailors man the rails as the ship departs Huntington Ingalls Industries Newport News Shipbuilding for builder’s sea trials off the coast. The first- of-class ship—the first new U.S. aircraft carrier design in 40 years—will spend several days conducting builder’s sea trials, a comprehensive test of many of the ship’s key systems and technologies. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Christopher Delano)

The US Navy‘s new Ford-Class aircraft carrier is surely the most advanced and powerful ever made. And yet, the cost of this new warship is breaking records – with a lot of problems adding to the bill. The United States Navy’s newest and largest aircraft carrier ever built is finally preparing for her maiden deployment. The USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) was expected to enter service in 2017; eight years after construction began in 2009 – which was even more than the usual five-year carrier building timeframe of the former Nimitz-class.

However, difficulties in the development process and other delays with the advanced systems employed on the carrier further dragged out the deployment and construction of the carrier by an additional five years.

Lessons From History

During the Second World War, American industry produced the most numerous of its class of capital ship, the Essex-class aircraft carrier. In just nine years, five less than the time it has taken to build and prepare CVN-78 for duty, a total of twenty-four of a planned thirty-two Essex-class flattops were built, and fourteen of the warships of the class were able to engage in combat operations.

In addition, a staggering 122 escort carriers were also built in six different classes during the war. Most of those “baby flattops” were built on merchant or tanker hulls, while some were even built from the keel up as actual carriers.

Fast forward to today.

The USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) may be the world’s largest aircraft carrier and the largest warship ever constructed in terms of displacement. Still, it is also twenty-seven percent over its original budget and years behind schedule.

Maybe bigger isn’t better.

According to a recently released Congressional Research Service report, “Navy Ford (CVN-78) Class Aircraft Carrier Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” one issue has been a lack of facilities to actually produce ships of its size. While the United States was able to build warships around the country during World War II, currently Huntington Ingalls Industries/Newport News Shipbuilding (HII/NNS), of Newport News, VA. HII/NNS is the only U.S. shipyard that can build large-deck, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.

However, the aircraft carrier construction industrial base also includes roughly 2,000 supplier firms in 46 states.

“The Ford-class design uses the basic Nimitz-class hull form but incorporates several improvements, including features permitting the ship to generate more aircraft sorties per day, more electrical power for supporting ship systems, and features permitting the ship to be operated by several hundred fewer sailors than a Nimitz-class ship, reducing 50- year life-cycle operating and support (O&S) costs for each ship by about $4 billion compared to the Nimitz-class design, the Navy estimates. Navy plans call for procuring at least four Ford-class carriers—CVN-78, CVN-79, CVN-80, and CVN-81,” the report noted.

Ford-Class: Too Many Advanced Systems

Another issue has been that the lead ship of a new and more advanced class of aircraft carrier was intended to boost the Navy’s striking power, but as The Daily Press reported, it began on its “fast track” two decades ago but instead resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in cost overruns to address unexpected problems. Workers at Newport News Shipbuilding even had to “redo finished parts of the 1,092-foot long carrier” to address ongoing issues.

“The Ford’s long path toward a first deployment, now slated for next year, has sparked years of criticism about the way the Navy acquires ships — and how it sells the need for multibillion-dollar budgets to Congress. The Navy told Congress in 2007 it would cost $10.49 billion. It actually cost $13.316 billion,” The Daily Press added.

The carrier’s first deployment has thus been delayed by a need to complete work on the ship’s weapons elevators and correct other technical problems aboard the ship. Navy officials state that the ship’s first deployment will occur in the fall of 2022, more than five years after it was commissioned into service.

Ford-Class: New Class, New Problems

Many of the issues have had to do with the fact that this is the first new class of carrier designed in more than three decades. It was developed as part of the Navy’s CVN 21 program, which will consist of a planned total of ten carriers that will replace the Navy’s aging carriers on a one-for-one basis. The class has a hull similar to the Nimitz-class – meant to speed development and production – but new technologies have been introduced, including an Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch Systems (EMALS). Other advanced features were meant to improve efficiency and reduce operating costs.

In theory, Gerald R. Ford can reportedly launch and recover thirty-three percent more aircraft in a 12-hour period, and while slightly larger than her predecessor class of carrier, she can operate with seventeen percent fewer sailors.

Yet, it has been anything but smooth sailing in getting the ship ready for her first deployment. There has been everything from engine problems to issues with the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS), as well as quirks with the weapons elevators to the toilets clogging. A laundry list of fixes has been required, all of which have cost money and delayed the progress.

Built by Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Newport News Shipbuilding, the carrier is 1,092 feet long and has a beam of 134 feet, while the flight deck is 256 feet wide. USS Gerald R. Ford displaces approximately 100,000 long tons and is powered by two nuclear reactors with four shafts, enabling the carrier to reach a speed in excess of thirty knots. Larger in size than the Nimitz-class carriers, Gerald R. Ford can operate with a smaller crew thanks to a greater emphasis on automation, and the carrier will also see a reduction in maintenance requirements, as well as a crew workload reduction. This will allow for improved quality of life for the crew, including better berthing compartments, larger gyms and workout facilities, and more ergonomic workspaces.

The question now is whether there is still the need for such a massive warship today and if the Ford-class will be worth the cost.

Now a Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military hardware, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes.

Written By

Expert Biography: A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.