Navy Leaders Defend Ford-Class Carrier Program

The 555-metric ton island is lowered onto the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78)on Jan. 26, 2013 at Newport News, Va. Navy photo courtesy of Huntington Ingalls Industries.
The 555-metric ton island is lowered onto the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78)on Jan. 26, 2013 at Newport News, Va. Navy photo courtesy of Huntington Ingalls Industries.

Senior Navy officials are responding to critics of the service’s planned Ford-class of aircraft carriers claiming that substantial technological leaps, manpower reducing efficiencies, and a long-term strategic need for the carriers outweigh cost overruns and delays.

Scheduled to enter the water this fall and begin service in 2016, the USS Ford is engineered with a suite of improved technologies compared to its predecessor, the Nimitz-class carriers. Some of these improvements include a larger flight-deck, dual-band radar, upgraded nuclear power plants, increased automation and an electro-magnetic propulsion system, said Rear Adm. William Moran, deputy director for the Navy’s Air Warfare Division.

“The efficiency with which we can load and unload weapons and move aircraft is vastly improved – just in the way it’s designed to be able to move the aircraft. A bigger flight deck with more space to operate is going to make a big difference,” Moran said. “It is hard to imagine what we are going to do with the Ford years from now.”

The Navy’s Ford-class carriers are slated to replace as many as 10 Nimitz-class carriers as they reach their 50-year lifespan over the coming decades.

“The big thing is there is increased capability and margin for future growth and follow-on systems. You and I can’t imagine what in 30-years people are going to want to integrate on an aircraft carrier. We have a design in place that will allow those folks to be able to say ‘we have the space, weight and electrical capacity,’” said Capt. Bob Cady, aircraft carrier branch head for the Navy’s Air Warfare Division.

Navy leaders also emphasized the ever-increasing strategic value of being able to project power and forward-position air assets with the forthcoming Pacific pivot within the defense strategy.

“As we saw the beginning of the end of life for the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, [former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld] challenged the Navy to put in as much new technology as possible to really revolutionize the way we operate aircraft carriers in the future. We put in a lot of technology,” Moran said.

Budget issues

Navy priorities in the FY 2014 budget request include $945 million to finance design and construction of the John F. Kennedy (CVN 79), the second planned carrier in the Ford-class, as well as $588 million to build the Gerald. R. Ford (CVN 78).

Government watchdog agencies such as the Government Accountability Office have cited cost concerns, delays and schedule slips regarding construction of the USS Ford. A March GAO report cites valve shortages and construction issues with the ships steel plating for the flight deck.

The report also cites substantial cost-increases with the USS Ford program construction since 2008. Navy developers describe the overall $13-to $15 billion cost of the Ford in terms of a “first-in-class” technology, meaning costs for the follow-on ships, such as the USS Kennedy, will be much less.

“We want to demystify the myths of cost of first-in-class. The first time you roll out a new technology it’s pretty expensive. Then, over time, you are able to bring those costs down. We fully expect the costs of the USS Kennedy and the next USS Enterprise( CVN 80) – these costs will be significantly reduced as we learn from 78 {USS Gerald Ford},” said Moran.

Navy developers said the USS Ford’s cost also include vital, one-time developmental funds able to inform the entire fleet of Ford-class ships.

“We’re always concerned about the impacts of budget cuts and budget drills, but we’re working our way through them and we feel pretty good about where Ford is today.”

New technology

Although the Ford’s flight deck was recently completed in Newport News, Va., there is much more work to be done on construction before the carrier can set sea. While many of the dimensions to the Ford-class are similar to the Nimitz-class in terms of size, weapons and overall length, the Navy officials refer to the Ford-class carriers as a “complete redesign of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, in both ship design and systems.”

The Ford-class carriers will fit at least 75 aircraft, compared to at least 60 on the Nimitz, according to Navy statistics. This allows for an increase in what the Navy calls the sortie generation rate, or ability to fly missions from the ship. Also, the Ford-class carriers add about four feet to the width of the flight deck, allowing for additional space.

The configuration of the ship itself is engineered so that it is less visible to adversaries, Moran said. He cited the Ford’s new, more-capable nuclear reactor engineered to propel the ship. Ford-class carriers will also use an Electro-magnetic Aircraft Launch System as opposed to a steam catapult.

“In design it has fewer moving parts, less maintenance, and it’s more automated,” Moran said. “You can dial up the amount of force that is used to launch an aircraft off the front end of the ship. You can do that with steam, but steam has got this shot to it. With a steam catapult there is a lot of steam going into the launching of that aircraft, so the aircraft is under a lot of stress. The EMALS system is more of a controlled force. The hope is we will reduce the fatigue and stress on the airplane so they will live longer.”

When it comes to catching or slowing down arriving aircraft, the Ford-class carriers are equipped with advanced arresting gear consisting of energy absorbers, power conditioning equipment and digital controls designed to replace the existing Mk-7 arresting gear, according to Navy officials.

The Ford-class carriers also have an advanced dual-band radar (DBR), a flat panel array system built on a mast on the ship’s island, Moran said. The DBR combines a range of different radar capabilities such as air-search, surface-search and air-traffic control, he said.

“From our perspective on the aircraft carrier it buys you a cleaner island, less big things up there rotating around and there’s about seven systems is what this replaces. Those functions are now being covered by dual-band radar,” Cady said.

Officials claim the new radar, EMALS and other next-generation technologies will allow the Ford-class carriers to reduce the manpower requirements for the ship by as many as 800 crew members compared to the Nimitz-class.

“One of the biggest cost-drivers with all the services is manpower – and it is all the tail that comes with it -- retirement, health care benefits. We’re trying to make things more affordable by trying to reduce the manpower requirements needed to support weapons systems – this is a classic case of that,” said Cady.

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