The Ford is being designed to replace the aging Enterprise and Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, which have been foundations of the U.S. Navy and of U.S. force projection for decades. The Ford isn’t just replacing the older carriers, but improving upon the older vessels – with two dozen novel technologies that were not incorporated (or did not exist) when the older vessels were built.
Developing the Ford and her novel technologies is the result of a 12-figure investment; The Ford program has cost $120 billion to date – more than the $77 billion investment that was initially advertised. The monumental cost is supposed to result in superior performance and long-term cost savings. But the question lingers: is the investment worth it?
Gerald R. Ford-class Aircraft Carrier: More Effective?
Aircraft carriers exist to expand the presence of U.S. air power. Aircraft carriers allow the U.S. to essentially park an airfield and a few squadrons off the coast of (roughly) wherever the U.S. wants – an ability that is invaluable for a hegemon intent on maintaining power abroad.
Since the entire purpose of an aircraft carrier is to project airpower off-shore, the rate at which aircraft are able to fly from the carrier becomes vital in gauging the carrier’s effectiveness. The Navy even relies upon a metric for the rate at which aircraft are able to fly from their carriers: Sortie Generation Rate, or SGR. Although most civilians have never heard of SGR, it’s an important metric that relates closely to the heart of an aircraft carrier’s purpose.
The Ford is expected to have a 33 percent higher SGR than the preceding Nimitz carriers. The Ford is expected to reach 160 sorties per day – with the capacity for wartime surges up to 270. How will the Ford achieve so many more sorties per day than its predecessors? With a new aircraft launch and recovery technology, the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS), plus the Advanced Arresting Gear System (AAG).
The EMALS is an upgrade over the traditional steam piston catapult that was used in both the Nimitz and Enterprise carriers. The EMALS uses a linear induction motor, which uses electric currents to generate magnetic fields that propel an aircraft along a track. The expectation is that EMALS will accelerate aircraft more smoothly than steam piston catapults, and as a result, put less stress on the airframes. Additionally, the EMALS will cost less, weigh less, and require less maintenance than the steam piston. Plus, the EMALS does not use freshwater (which in turn requires energy-intensive desalination) required by steam catapults.
EMALS will boost the Ford’s SGR for two reasons. First, EMALS can recharge faster than the steam catapult, therefore less downtime is required in between launches. Second, the EMALS is more adjustable than the steam catapult, allowing for more precise launch settings – which means EMALS can launch more kinds of aircraft – everything from heavy fighter jets to lighter unmanned aircraft.
So, is the Ford, with its improved SGR, worth the investment?
Hard to say.
At the moment, the spending seems somewhat frivolous. But maybe the next few decades will prove that the proactive investment was worthwhile and cost-cutting.
Harrison Kass is the Senior Editor and opinion writer at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, Harrison joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. Harrison listens to Dokken.