This article first appeared in Aerospace Daily & Defense Report.
A year ago, the long-term future of aircraft carriers appeared in doubt. With the emergence of strong performances by large-deck amphibious ships for carrier-like missions and the relatively large price tag for new carrier construction, many defense analysts were predicting a cut in the future carrier fleet.
Now, though, carrier programs are securely anchored in the Pentagon budget strategy -- even with the threat of sequestration -- and there is no more talk of reducing the fleet.
Not only did the U.S. Navy continue to fund and obligate more money for contracts and modifications related to the next-generation Ford-class carriers, but the service has also continued to stay on course for other major carrier programs such as overhaul work and an emerging new carrier business: deactivation of the nuclear-powered ships.
The aircraft carrier CVN-77 USS George H.W. Bush started sea trials this month for a 2013 deployment following the successful completion of a four-month planned incremental availability (PIA) period at Norfolk Naval Shipyard (NNSY).
"After anything on the ship has been changed or added you have to go out and knock the rust off," says Lt. Cmdr. John Fairweather. "It's twofold. For one, sea trials are good to give the crew time to readjust to being out to sea. Secondly, because this class of ship gets the latest and greatest upgrades, we need to go out to make sure everything works and was installed correctly during the availability. It's a good way to kick off the training cycle."
Tests being conducted during sea trials include high-speed turns, aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) tests on the flight deck and hangar bays, sea and anchor testing, anchor drop testing and strainer runs.
Catapults, arresting gear, fueling hoses and pumps, and all other equipment is also being inspected and checked to ensure proper operation for the upcoming flight deck certification period in January.
"Sea trials are a critical step in getting [the] air department ready to support and host flight operations," says the ship's air boss, Cmdr. William E. Powers.
"Pushing the ship to its maximum capabilities is meant to put a lot of pressure on the system to ensure that those systems can withstand combat-like conditions and ensures we can meet and complete our mission," Fairweather says.
At about the same time, CVN-65 USS Enterprise, the world's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, which had recently completed its 25th and final deployment, returned to its home port of Naval Station Norfolk for a scheduled inactivation and subsequent decommissioning.
Enterprise has served in nearly every major conflict that has taken place during its history, from the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 to six deployments in support of the Vietnam War through the Cold War and the Gulf wars.
The Newport News Shipbuilding unit of Huntington Ingalls Industries is now preparing to defuel the Enterprise.
The Navy says it intends to name the third Ford-class carrier the Enterprise.
Credit: U.S. Navy