The USS Gerald R. Ford, the nation's first Ford Class aircraft carrier, is readying for christening on Nov. 9 and a rigorous set of tests and evaluations after that.
The 77,000-ton, next-generation carrier is slated for 27 months of assessments before it's commissioned for service in 2016, service officials said. "This is going to the most challenging and integrated test program the Navy has ever faced," said Rear Adm. Tom Moore, Program Executive Officer, Carriers. "Ford has a level of integration that no other ship has ever had. Because the ship is all electric, almost every system on that ship is integrated in some way."
The Ford class carriers, under scrutiny for a cost of $12.9 billion per ship, are designed to replace the existing Nimitz-class carriers on a one-to-one basis and serve a lifespan of up to 50 years, which should take the class to 2110.
The Navy's fiscal year 2014 budget request asks for $588 million for continued development of the Ford. At the same time, the Government Accountability Office and members of Congress have criticized the developmental effort on the grounds that the USS Ford is more than $2 billion over budget.
The 27-month test period will look at the ships new technologies such as its computer automation, dual-band radar, reactors, turbine generators, advanced arresting gear, propulsion plant and electro-magnetic catapult system, among other things.
"We've got to test the new reactors, the propulsion plant, the new EMALS (electro-magnetic aircraft launch system) catapults and dual-band radar. You've got this machinery control system that manages things on the ship, brand new weapons elevators and new storage elevators," Moore said.
He said many of these new technologies are interwoven, explaining that a machine control system works with as many as 8,000 data points at given time on the ship.
The Navy is now finalizing a formal test plan, which will incorporate live-fire testing, damage scenarios, and some changes to the testing of things like EMALS and the advanced arresting gear, Moore explained.
"We agreed with GAO that the Test and Evaluation Master Plan needed to be updated," Moore said. "At the end of the day, we'll give [the test officials], the Congress, and the public greater confidence that the ship is going to do what it was intended to do."
Among the key systems to be tested is the electromagnetic aircraft launch system, or EMALS. The EMALS catapult is designed to use electric energy to catapult planes from the flight deck, as opposed to the existing steam catapult system. EMALS has been going through extensive testing and preparation at the Naval Air Warfare Center, Aircraft Division at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.
"The critical pass for delivery is EMALS. All the major equipment for EMALS below the deck has been delivered. We are building out the catapult troughs. Right now we are about 10 weeks ahead of schedule," Moore said.
The EMALS system has conducted as many as 250 launches at Lakehurst, thus far, even launching an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft. Moore said he expects the reliability numbers for EMALS to be very high once the actual testing on the Ford begins.
"The initial results from Lakehurst, tell us the system will work, and we're pretty happy with the system up there. Now, we've got a lot of integrated testing that we have not done yet," said Moore. "We expect the reliability of the four EMALS systems to be up around .97 or .98 -- which is much higher than the steam catapults were on Nimitz-class carriers."
Electrical energy, automation and computing technology are at the heart of the innovations engineered into the Ford. The ship is built with a stronger core reactor compared to the Nimitz-class and four turbine generators, each able to produce 104 megawatts of electrical power, Moore explained.
The electricity will power the EMALS, as well as a dual-band radar system, and computer automation needed to reduce the crew size by 900-1,200 sailors. These innovations will save $4 billion per ship over the life of the ship, Moore said.
The Navy will be integrating and testing four different EMALS catapults aboard the USS Ford, Moore said.
"Unlike steam catapults, which were really just four individual catapults, the EMALS system is set up with three energy storage groups that generate power for EMALS. All four catapults can get power from any of the three energy storage groups," Moore explained.
The ship's two nuclear reactor cores have more energy than the Nimitz-class carriers, creating a circumstance wherein the ships can deploy for longer periods of time without needing to come in for a depot visit, Moore added.
A Ford-class carrier will be able to go for as many as 42 months between depot visits, he said.
The flight deck and the island of the Ford-class have been re-designed in order to allow for a much greater number of missions.
"Sortie generation rate is our measure of combat capability. The flight deck is designed to generate 33-percent more sorties per day compared to the Nimitz-class. Nimitz-class carriers can give you 120 sorties per day, sustained for up to 30-days. Ford-class carriers can get you 160," Moore said.
The increased sortie rate is also due to an increased ability to more quickly refuel and re-arm aircraft on the flight deck as well.
The dual-band radar is a flat-panel array system built onto a mast on the ship's island. The new radar is designed for air-search, surface-search and air traffic control, Navy officials said.
With improvements to computers, increased access to satellite television and more available fresh water, the average sailor will find that life is a lot better on-board this newer generation of aircraft carrier.
Compared to the 400 gallons of fresh water per day available on the Nimitz-class, the Ford-class carriers will offer 500 gallons. This means longer showers for sailors, Moore said.
"The [sailors] coming in today expect that sort of stuff, and we want them to come in and serve in demanding environments. It is incumbent upon us to build these ships in a way that takes care of some of the basic stuff."