The U.S. Navy is starting a 26-month test and technology integration phase for the recently christened USS Gerald R. Ford, the first in a series of next-generation Ford-class aircraft carriers slated for commissioning in 2016.
The testing plans for the 77,000-ton USS Ford are prolonged and more labor intensive because the first-in-class ship includes a wide range of new systems and technologies, said Rear Adm. Tom Moore, Program Executive Officer, Carriers.
"We're in the infancy stages of the 26-month test program. The test program is a little bit longer than it was for Nimitz-class carriers because of the number of new developmental systems on board. The early returns are that the program is going well," Moore said.
The Ford program has been the subject of scrutiny and criticism by lawmakers, analysts and watchdog groups for cost growth and reliability issues of some of its technologies. Navy officials point out that at least $3.3 billion of the Ford's $12.8 billion cost are part of what's called non-recurring engineering costs to design and produce a first-in-class ship with new technologies.
The Ford-class carriers are slated to replace the existing Nimitz-class carriers on a one-for-one basis in coming years as the Nimitz carriers come to the end of their service life. Since carriers have a life span of up to 50-years of service, Ford-class carriers are slated to remain in service until the year 2110, Moore said.
With this future in mind, the Ford-class carriers are being built with three times the electrical power generating capacity compared to Nimitz-class carriers, Moore said. The USS Ford will have four 26-megawatt generators bringing a total of 104 megawatts to the ship. This helps support the ship's developing systems such as its Electro-Magnetic Aircraft Launch System, or EMALS, and provides power for future systems such as lasers, and rail-guns, Moore added.
The ships are engineered with a redesigned island, slightly larger deck space and new weapons elevators in order to achieve a 33-percent increase in sortie-generation rate. The new platforms are built to launch more aircraft and more seamlessly support a high-op tempo.
The new weapons elevators allow for a much more efficient path to move and re-arm weapons systems for aircraft. The elevators can take weapons directly from their magazines to just below the flight deck, therefore greatly improving the sortie-generation rate by making it easier and faster to re-arm planes, Moore said.
He added that a decision was made to delay the launch by about four months in order to allow the shipbuilders -- Newport News Shipbuilding, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries -- extra time to get more integration work done on the dry dock before putting the ship into the water.
"We've got four of the nine 1,100-ton air conditioning plants. We have 29 of 33 fire pumps up and running and we have tested the electric plant. We're doing diesel engine testing. We've turned over about 100 compartments to the ship's force who is now working on board the ship," Moore explained.
The USS Ford's EMALS, or electro-magnetic catapult system is being tested and built for the ship. Unlike previous Nimitiz-class carriers which use a steam-catapult, EMALS uses an electro-magnetic field and a series of cascading magnets to propel and then launch aircraft, Moore explained.
"By having this electrical pulse come down, you are pulling the aircraft down to the catapult to launch it. You can dial in the precise weight of the aircraft. As you accelerate the aircraft down the catapult, you can accelerate it to the precise speed it needs to launch," Moore said.
Unlike steam catapults which use pressurized steam, a launch valve and a piston to catapult aircraft, EMALS uses a precisely determined amount of electrical energy. As a result, EMALS is designed to more smoothly launch aircraft while reducing stress and wear and tear on the airframes themselves, he added.
"By the time the aircraft gets to the catapult it is at the right speed. Minimizing stress on the airframe, over time, reduces maintenance," Moore added.
On the ship, EMALS will be engineered such that any of the ship's four catapults will be able to draw power from any one of three energy storage groups on the ship, he said.
Although the catapult troughs for the USS Ford's EMALS system are now being built and integrated with the overall system, the technology has been in the process of extensive testing at a Naval Air Warfare Center facility in Lakehurst, N.J.
The EMALS catapults there have launched 200 aircraft flights from their system, including launches of an F/A-18 Super Hornet and F-35. In addition, the catapults there have launched more than 1,500 dead loads where they put a weight on a sled and shoot that off with the system.
Meanwhile, on the ship, the below-deck EMALS equipment has been installed. This consists of a series of transformers and rectifiers designed to convert and store electrical power through a series of motor generators before brining power to the launch motors on the catapults, Moore explained.
The USS Ford is able to generate 13,800 volts of electrical power, more than three times the 4,160 volts that a Nimitz-class carrier generates, Moore said.
The EMALS system is also engineered to work in tandem with the USS Ford's new Advanced Arresting Gear, or AAG. Unlike the existing hydraulic system used on current aircraft carriers, AAG is a mechanical electrical system with a cable that spins a water twister, Moore explained.
Similar to EMALS, the AAG is also designed to reduce stress on the airframe during the landing process.
"The idea is to provide a smoother run out and slow down in a more constant manner. What AAG will do is allow you to have a reduction in the force on the airframe as you arrest the plane," Moore said.
Once this 26-month test phase is complete, the USS Ford is scheduled to go through what's called builder trials and acceptance trials designed to make sure everything works before the ship enters service. The acceptance trials involve an independent inspection and survey of the ship, Moore said.
Once that takes place, the Navy will take the ship for a six to eight month post-shakedown period and certify the flight deck.
Moore said he expects the USS Ford to be ready to deploy as part of a battle group by late 2018 or early 2019.