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The Navy’s Gerald Ford-Class Aircraft Carrier: Is It Worth the Big Cost?

Many are likely familiar with the years of cost and drama, Congressional debate, and technological challenges associated with developing the now operational first-in-class USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78).

As far back as ten years ago, the Navy was facing Congressional scrutiny for cost overruns, delays, and integration challenges with some of the new technologies. 

However, here we are and the USS Ford is at sea as an emblem of U.S. current and future power. The carrier operates as a floating city able to hold massive amounts of enemy areas at risk, a stabilizing presence around the globe signaling forward presence, deterrence, and U.S.-backed security assurance.  

Innovative Technologies

At the same time, should the USS Ford and its follow-on Ford-class carriers be called upon to war, there are a number of first-of-a-kind breakthrough technologies likely to massively improve the ship’s lethality and ability to project power.

In short, despite the often talked about vulnerabilities associated with carriers now faced with advanced modern threats such as anti-ship guided missiles or drone swarms, carriers are unique in their ability to unleash massive amounts of dominant power. 

This is particularly true of the USS Ford, as it is built with a larger deck space able to support a 33 percent increase in sortie rate over the Nimitz-class. This fact, combined with the U.S. Navy’s recent demonstration of dual-carrier war preparation drills in the Pacific, suggests that Ford-class carriers could launch and sustain a massive, dominating air campaign from the sea in ways previously unimaginable.

The USS Ford also introduces unprecedented levels of computer automation sufficient to reduce the needed crew size by 900, incorporate electric elevators able to quickly refuel and rearm returning aircraft, and a breakthrough Electromagnetic Launch System (EMALS).

The USS Ford-class carriers also have more onboard electrical power, sufficient to accommodate more radar, sensors, computing, and weapons systems such as lasers, launch technologies, or digital fire controls. The Ford-class carriers have also been integrated with specific technologies designed to enable unmanned flight and stealth jets such as the F-35C

Power at Sea

Now that the USS Ford is at sea, some are likely to wonder if all of the challenges and criticisms associated with Ford-class development were worth it? The answer is yes. The Navy voice on the Ford-class,  while often silenced or overwhelmed by vocal critics, maintained ten years ago that some of the extra costs were associated with one-time, non-recurring developmental expenses associated with the development and integration of a host of breakthrough technologies. 

While there certainly were challenges associated with the Navy’s ambitious effort to integrate a wide sphere of innovations into a single ship, many are likely to view its ultimate success favorably.

The reasons for this are not only because these new technologies are now operational as part of the USS Ford, but because integrating them for the first time generated a new sphere of lessons learned, which have since been applied to the construction of the USS Kennedy, or 2nd Ford-class carrier.

The same is true of the USS Enterprise, the 3rd Ford-class carrier. Many lessons from the Ford-class, including new methods of modular construction and other cost-saving engineering adaptations, have been and are being successfully integrated into follow-on Ford-class carriers.  

Perhaps the most significant advantage associated with the Ford-class, or the reason for its existence, is that the new technologies have enabled weapons developers to integrate a new generation of offensive and defensive maritime combat capabilities sufficient to offset, minimize, or even fully counter advanced threats. In short, a higher sortie rate, a larger number of planes, increased computer automation, and breakthrough levels of onboard electrical power that have massively improved a carrier’s survivability, thus improving its ability to operate against a new generation of threats. 

Many have raised the question as to whether China’s highly touted Carrier Killer missiles such as the DF-26 would render carriers obsolete or too vulnerable to project the necessary power in an engagement. However, the Navy has consistently emphasized that its carriers can operate wherever they need to, perhaps in large measure due to the suite of layered defenses and advanced countermeasures built specifically into the Ford-class. 

While many details related to ship defenses are likely not available for security reasons, innovations such as more onboard electrical power allow for more EW, threat detection, and networking with Carrier Strike Group assets in position to fire interceptors and destroy incoming missiles.

Most of all, the Ford-class is capable of launching and recovering MQ-25 Stingray refueler drones, a first-of-its-kind carrier-launched unmanned system capable of doubling the range and combat radius of sea-launched aircraft.

This means that a Ford-class carrier would be positioned to hold major areas at risk from much greater distances, perhaps even beyond the 2,000-mile reported range of DF-26 Chinese Carrier Killer missiles. 

Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University. 



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