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Worst Aircraft Carriers Ever: The Navy’s Gerald Ford-Class is Just a Bad Idea

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The Ford-class aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) and the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) transit the Atlantic Ocean June 4, 2020, marking the first time a Ford-class and a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier operated together underway. Ford is underway conducting integrated air wing operations, and the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group remains 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. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Riley McDowell)

Was the Ford-class a mistake? This month, the United States Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) – the lead vessel of a new class of nuclear-powered supercarriers – just completed a Combat Systems Operational Readiness Exercise (CSORE), marking a crucial turning point in the ship’s deployment readiness. The exercise was meant to check the functionality of combat systems and to further test the crew’s ability to handle threats to the ship. The flattop is inching closer to her maiden deployment, which is scheduled for later this year.

As the largest warship ever constructed in terms of displacement, CVN-78 is an impressive vessel that will likely serve as a power projection throughout the world for decades to come. Yet, the vessel is also several years late, and at $13.3 billion total is also the most expensive warship ever built.

Simply put, the USS Gerald R. Ford is the worst carrier ever built by the United States Navy. Though she is loaded with new and innovative technologies, the issue is that numerous systems haven’t worked as planned. From the ship’s toilets, which regularly clog, to the ordnance elevators that didn’t function properly; numerous systems have had serious teething issues that have needed to be resolved.

Another concern is that a supercarrier is really a big target. The old fear was from enemy aircraft and submarines, but the threat now includes hypersonic missiles, undersea unmanned vehicles (UUVs), and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Low tech threats still remain a concern as well, as was seen on October 12, 2000, when suicide terrorists exploded a small boat alongside the USS Cole.

It wouldn’t really take all that much to do considerable damage to such a high-value target.

In addition, the systems are now so complex that they could even be targeted in a cyber attack. The question is whether the United States Navy needs such a massive floating airbase that faces so many threats.

Ford-Class: Replacement Cycle

The biggest argument against a nuclear-powered carrier is that it really isn’t an efficient system. Yes, such a vessel has nearly unlimited range, yet the endurance is only as great as the food and water it can carry. A ship that can stay at sea indefinitely is good until one considers that it still needs to be supplied with fuel for the aircraft and food for the crew.

During the global Covid-19 pandemic, USS Nimitz (CVN-68) completed the longest deployment of a carrier since the Vietnam War, spending 321 days at sea. It was hardly good for the crew, who had to endure 10 months at sea, but it also pushed the ship hard and required a lengthy maintenance period. Even worse, the Nimitz-class carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) was sidelined for months due to an outbreak of Covid. Massive vessels that have such massive crews could be at risk during another pandemic.

Then there is the fact that even the regular maintenance of these supercarriers takes months and there is little indication that this will be improved on CVN-78 or the other Gerald R. Ford-class flattops. Moreover, the mid-life refueling of the nuclear reactors takes the ships out of service for years! The United States Navy may have 11 nuclear-powered carriers in its fleet, but rarely are more than five or six deployed at any one time.

Life Cycle Woes

Yet, the biggest consideration on why these new supercarriers are just a bad idea is that there seems to be little planning for their end of life. Even as the cost to construct the next ships in the class has fallen, there are the billions of dollars that the Navy will have to pay to eventually dispose of these vessels. It was reported that it could take more than a decade and a half to fully dismantle and scrap USS Enterprise (CVN-65), the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, while the price tag could be more than $1.5 billion!

Even once the issues with CVN-65 are addressed, the Navy will have to deal with the Nimitz-class carriers that the new Ford-class will be replaced on a one-for-one basis. This issue isn’t likely to get better with the newest carriers being built.

Ford-Class

USS Gerald R. Ford. Image: Creative Commons.

Each may be impressive, but the Gerald R. Ford-class carriers take years to build, cost a not-so-small fortune, require massive maintenance, and will take years to dismantle. Perhaps it would be wiser to update the conventionally powered Kitty Hawk-class and complement them with more America-class amphibious assault ships (LHDs), which would be better suited to a potential war in the Indo-Pacific. Each of those flattops would be cheaper to build, we could build more of them, and they’d be easier to retire when the time comes. And they aren’t a nuclear disaster waiting to happen should a terrorist get lucky.

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, firearms history, cybersecurity and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.

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.

9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. Dan Boody

    August 11, 2022 at 3:57 pm

    Upon reading this article more then once, I can’t help but wonder why we are publicly advertising to the world the multiple negatives of this $13 Billion U. S. Navy Aircraft Carrier ??
    The dictators of Russia, China and North Korea are being educated…. Sorry but to me it is wrong and needs to stop ….

  2. Doug Huffman

    August 11, 2022 at 4:51 pm

    Fear porn click bait.

  3. Scottfs

    August 12, 2022 at 12:54 am

    OMG. Really? Let’s budget for oilers and the like to keep the old ladies out at sea.

    New technology takes years to work out all the kinks. That is to be expected.

    I agree though these behemoths are a very, very tempting target. With the advent of hypersonic missiles, laser and high energy particle beam weapons, autonomous vehicles, and the susceptibility to all sorts of weapons, these vessels are perhaps going to be only useful against weak adversaries.

  4. Scott M

    August 12, 2022 at 8:49 am

    So our nuclear aircraft carriers are such a bad idea, that China keeps trying to build ones just like them? Also, while the America-class LHA’s can operate as light carriers in a pinch, their lack of CATOBAR limits the effective range, and mix of aircraft. The range of their STOVAL, F-35B fighters means they cannot operate in any hostile area, with near peer enemies.

  5. Paul Lindsey

    August 12, 2022 at 12:08 pm

    Absolute fear-porn. The last sentence says it all, “And they aren’t a nuclear disaster waiting to happen should a terrorist get lucky.” Because the writer is just that, a writer, he has zero knowledge of the design and construction of a CVN. I’ll just say that unlike a DDG like the USS COLE, the skin of the hull is not the outer bulkhead of the engine and reactor rooms, not by a long shot. Then thinking that a bunch of LHAs can perform CVN missions is another gross misconception. signed, LCDR, USN (ret), Surface Line Officer, nuclear-qualified, two tours on CVN Reactor Dept.

  6. Eric-ji

    August 12, 2022 at 2:49 pm

    As Scottfs wrote, it takes years to work out the kinks in new systems that are on the bleeding edge. Nothing new.

    If we ever get into a real knock-down drag-out shooting war it will certainly be interesting to see how carriers and our other military hardware fare.

    Chances are that war, when/if it comes, will be far different from what is expected. In such a case the country most nimble and operationally flexible will win in the long term. History has shown totalitarian countries to not have the requisite capabilities.

    Look at Japan and Germany in WWII, look at Russia now in Ukraine. Each could not adapt and lost.

  7. Art

    August 14, 2022 at 3:34 am

    All the issues the author points out have been resolved. AS for the weapons elevators, it wasn’t that they didn’t operate properly. They were never installed during the construction. A mistake they are NOT making with the JFK.

  8. DP

    August 15, 2022 at 12:57 pm

    Ah a “military expert” with no working knowledge of ships, their acquisition, shakedown or role. This is fluff disguised as military analysis. UAV, UUVs, and hypersonic missiles may mean that CVNs need more protection (though I think these threats are over hyped) nothing can replace a CSGs ability to project power in a way that the Air Force, or supporting amphibious flat tops can.

  9. Karen McKaren

    August 27, 2022 at 5:32 pm

    This article is absolute garbage. Sometimes this site has really good ones. Sometimes writers almost comically respond to other writer’s articles which is a treat and then we regularly get garbage like this.

    You said the Ford class was the worst aircraft carrier ever, listed a few pre-deployment issues that are almost all easy fixes and then…

    You just listed off a bunch of shit you hate about nuclear powered aircraft carriers. Literally every negative you wrote up from then on wasn’t a Ford class problem, they are general aircraft carrier issues. In actuality, if you look at other Navy’s carriers you’ll notice plenty of problems. You mentioned to classic “most expensive ship ever” lone that sensationalist “journalists” love to bring up without the context that they are also the biggest ship/carrier ever built with new technologies, of it isn’t the most expensive ship, something’s up.

    For the most part, the Ford’s are turning out just fine. The only truly concerning problem was the catapult.

    Toilets?

    The crew can shit off the side of the carrier for all I care, as long as it can carry our warplanes and put them quickly in the air during conflict.

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