The aircraft carrier Gerald Ford, the U.S. Navy’s latest supercarrier, is finally at sea undergoing testing. The carrier is the most expensive weapons system ever purchased and has faced a two year delay. The ship is on track for commissioning sometime later this month or early May.
Named after former president and naval aviator Gerald R. Ford, the carrier is 1,092 feet long and displaces more than 100,000 tons fully loaded. It will have a crew of 4,660—six hundred less than the previous Nimitz class, thanks to increased efficiency and automation—and carry 75 combat aircraft. In accordance with Navy tradition, the ship is currently known as PCU Gerald Ford, or “Pre-Commissioning Unit” until it is officially accepted into the fleet, whereupon it will adopt the USS prefix.
The at-sea trials, known as Builders Sea Trials, are being conducted off the coast of Virginia by the Navy and shipbuilder Huntington Ingall Industries-Newport News Shipbuilding. The trials will likely take several weeks. Afterward the shipyard will correct any deficiencies found during the trials. Once complete, the Ford will be commissioned into the Navy. Commissioning is set for this September, barring any problems.
Ford incorporates a slew of new technologies, including the vaunted electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS), which uses electromagnetism instead of traditional steam to launch aircraft from the flight deck. EMALS is designed to launch aircraft more gently than previous systems, extending aircraft life and allowing it to launch smaller planes, including unmanned aerial vehicles, and is part of the reason why the Navy expects the Ford to conduct 25 percent more flights a day than the older Nimitz class. EMALS has had extensive technical problems, and the first public launch in 2016 was a failure. Still, Navy officials appear confident the program is back on track.
Ford has a host of other improvements. The Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG) system, which brings landing aircraft to a complete stop also faced challenges. The AAG is designed to reduce manpower and maintenance over previous arresting gear systems. The aircraft carrier’s island, where the crew observe and control air operations, is smaller meaning more deck space for aircraft. The ship’s redesigned electrical system can generate 104 megawatts or 250 percent more electricity than previous ships, not only to support EMALS but also possibly laser weaponry down the road. New weapon elevators can get munitions up from the hangar to the flight deck more quickly than before.
The carrier can make more than thirty knots, although like other nuclear-powered ships the true maximum speed is a closely-guarded secret. It can generate 400,000 gallons of fresh water a day and serve 15,000 meals. Four million feet of fiber optic cable are built into the hull. The ship is designed with better ergonomics and more comfortable living spaces and has better air conditioning for the hot and arid regions the ship will no doubt visit in the future.
Approximately 75 aircraft will serve at a time on the the Ford. That includes 44 strike fighters serving in four strike squadrons, typically F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets but will also include F-35C Joint Strike Fighters. The second largest complement of aircraft are 19 MH-60R and MH-60S Seahawk helicopters, which conduct everything from anti-submarine warfare to the transport of Navy SEALs. The ship also has five EA-18G Growler electronic warfare planes to jam enemy sensors and weapons, four E-2D Hawkeye airborne early warning and control planes to direct the air battle, and two C-2 Greyhound cargo aircraft for supplying the ship at sea.
Gerald Ford is the first of the Ford class of aircraft carriers. A second ship, John F. Kennedy, is under construction and a third, Enterprise will have its keel laid in 2018. Eventually the Ford class will replace all ten ships of the Nimitz class, which were built between 1975 and 2009.
The carrier is three years behind schedule, largely due to the difficulty of transitioning new technologies from test beds to fully operational equipment. The Ford cost $13 billion, not including aircraft or escorts, and another $4 billion in one-time development costs. Kennedy and Enterprise should cost a little less, as lessons from building the first ship are applied to the shipbuilding process.
Original article: USS Gerald R. Ford