Video Above: USS Ford Powers Though Shock Trial Bombs. Is Ready for War
What was once an ambitious plan to architect a new fleet of US Navy Aircraft carriers able to propel US maritime dominance into the 21st century, is now a reality as the first Ford-class carrier will go to war later this year.
Intended to replace the retiring Nimitz-class carriers on a one-for-one basis for the rest of this century and beyond, the Ford-class carriers have been taking shape through a series of milestones and breakthroughs.
“As the Ford is integrated into fleet operations over the summer. We'll continue to roll all these lessons learned into the follow-on ships. John F Kennedy's about 85% complete on track to deliver in 2024. The Enterprise is 15-percent complete and the shipyard is building several keel units. This Spring those units will be set in drydock,” Capt. Brian Metcalf, Program Manager, Ford-class Carriers, told an audience at the 2022 Sea Air Space Symposium.
While the essential structure and framework of the Ford class will remain consistent as successive ships emerge, the carriers are built with the technical infrastructure to accommodate ongoing upgrades. For example, the USS Kennedy will be built to operate the first of its kind Navy F-35C 5th-generation stealth fighter. Deploying the F-35C will mark the first time a stealth aircraft will deploy on an aircraft carrier.
The ship’s will also receive upgraded radar systems tailored to address the threat envelope specific to aircraft carriers. The Kennedy, for instance, will receive the Enterprise Air and Surveillance Radar (EASR) system which introduces a new level of detection sensitivity and layered defenses for the carriers. The Ford’s massive increase in on-board electrical power will not only sustain electrical systems such as computing, command and control and sensors but also lay the technological foundation for the integration of new generations of advanced weapons systems such as lasers and EW applications.
The shipbuilding process itself has continuously been revamped and upgraded by the Navy and its HII shipbuilding partner in Newport News, Virginia. In order to increase efficiency and eliminate some of the hurdles, roadblocks and challenges associated with the construction of the USS Ford, HII and Navy shifted ship-building methods to a modular approach wherein larger portions of the ship were built on deck, prior to being integrated into the hull or larger structure. This saves time, increases efficiency and expedites the integration of functional components. The rationale for HII was to build upon the lessons learned from the USS Ford and build the Kennedy in a more cost-efficient and effective way.
The Enterprise is now being approached the same way as the Kennedy is, although there are likely continued modifications as builders and engineers learn new lessons and continue to modify their techniques.
All of these shipbuilding enhancements have been immeasurably enhanced through the adoption of an Integrated Digital Shipbuilding method to computerize key elements of the ship building process.
“IBS is a transformational change in how we build ships. It takes all of the paper drawings and construction instructions for the workforce, and puts them on portable laptops and iPads. This automates the planning and progression for all forming assignments. The tools for doing your work are literally at the fingertips through hyperlinks, and the workforce has seen improved and increased efficiency,” Metcalf explained.
Video Above: How the US Navy Can Fast-Track Building 500 Warships
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The program has not been without its struggles, as many members of Congress over the last decade have raised questions about cost-overruns, delays and complications with the development of the USS Ford.
However, during early phases of the USS Ford’s development, Navy program managers talked about the non-recurring developmental costs associated with a first-in-class ship such as the Ford. Future Ford-class ships therefore by extension are able to benefit from these innovations and both generate improved technology and also lower costs.
In development for many years, the USS Ford is built as a first-in-class of a new generation of carriers intended to propel US Naval dominance into the 21st century.
“As the Nimitz-class approached the end of its life in the late 1990s, the Navy decided to invest in a new aircraft carrier. We needed a new design and the Ford-class was designed to take advantage of improved technologies, networking improvements and smart weapons.
The Ford has three times the electrical generating capability and its flight deck is optimized with aviation support systems designed for safer and more efficient execution to flight operations,” Captain Brian Metcalf, Program Manager for Ford-class Carriers, told an audience at the 2022 Sea Air Space Symposium.
Here Metcalf is likely referring to the larger deck space built into the Ford class as opposed to the Nimitz carriers to allow for a 33-percent increase in sortie rate. This generates a massive enhancement in op-tempo should a carrier-launched air attack campaign need to expand in scope size and range.
More aircraft able to fly in rapid succession of course projects more targeting and firepower over a target area but also enable much greater targeting and dwell time above targets for fighter jets as they will be quickly reinforced by new planes. Should new targets emerge or commanders receive new time-sensitive intelligence data, attacking fighter jets will be better positioned to respond.
Electro-Magnetic Launch System & Technology
By referring to “aviation support systems” designed for safer and more efficient flight operations, Metcalf may have been pointing to flight safety and efficiency advantages generated by the Ford-class weapons elevators and Electro-Magnetic Launch System (EMALS). Using electro-magnetic and not steam or hydraulic propulsion technology, the EMALS enables a smoother, tailorable take-off which creates much less wear and tear on deck-launched fighter jets. The use of electrical systems replaces some of the manpower-intensive steam and hydraulic systems, Metcalf explained.
The Ford class is also able to reduce manpower by virtue of its use of breakthrough levels of computer automation, systems which enable maintenance, equipment monitoring and other key procedural tasks. This allows for the Ford class to operate with as many as 900-fewer sailors on board, increasing operational efficiency.
The Ford’s weapons elevators create a dynamic wherein fighter jets can be refueled and re-armed much faster and more efficiently, making them able to quickly return to air attack missions.
“All 11 of the weapons elevators have been turned over to the crew. The crews operating those elevators are gaining proficiency for the deployment,” Metcalf said.
Perhaps of equal or even greater significance, recent shock testing revealed that the USS Ford can operate as a “survivable” ship despite all of the advances in technology built into the platform. Many bombs of different shapes and sizes were exploded near the Ford during “Shock Trials” to assess the platform’s ability to sustain operational functionality while under attack. The performance of the USS Ford was exemplary, according to Navy leaders and industry participants, who found great confidence and relief in the new carrier’s ability to operate at war.
Video Above: USS Ford Powers Though Shock Trial Bombs. Is Ready for War
“The Shock Test was very impressive. There were very few issues that weren’t able to be resolved on the ship itself. Over 80-percent of the issues found were able to be resolved onboard the ship, so I would say technically, it will be a fantastic ship,” Rick Giannini, Chairman Aircraft Carrier Industrial Base Coalition and CEO of the Milwaukee Valve Company, told The National Interest in an interview.
Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. 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 Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.