Video Above: Coast Guard Arms Entire Cutter Fleet With Ship-Launched Drones

By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

(Washington, D.C.) Beneath the more visible surface of the USS Ford aircraft carriers’ continued journey to deployment and war, there appears to be a concurrent and highly impactful, yet more narrowly focused or specific developmental trajectory lurking below the radar … and that is increasing the Ford-class’ expanding role as an armed warship capable of engaging in heavy maritime combat.

Of course the Ford-class will primarily operate to transport, arm and support its carrier air wing as a massive, power-projecting attack platform, yet at the same time the Navy seems to be taking special measures to enhance its weapons, defenses and direct-engagement warfare technologies to a greater extent than previous carriers.

Navy developers of the emerging USS Ford are making extensive efforts to ensure the new class of carriers is positioned to fend off an entirely new generation of enemy attacks expected to greatly challenge the boundaries of ship defense. During final parts of the Navy’s now complete 18-month Post Delivery Test and Trials phase for the USS Ford, an 18-month war preparation, Ford crew members were asked to fend off high speed incoming attacks such as incoming rockets, attack drones, small boat approaches and other kinds of anticipated threats likely to inform any major confrontation with great power adversaries.

Part of the process includes combat systems qualification testing during which carrier crew members operated weapons during live-fire exercises. Details regarding the weapons engagements suggest that Navy developers are stepping up technical and strategic efforts to arm and equip the Ford class carriers … as warships capable of major maritime combat on the open ocean.

“During the culminating live-fire exercise, the crew destroyed rocket-propelled drones capable of speeds in excess of 600 miles per hour; towed drone units that simulated incoming rockets; and remote controlled, high-speed maneuvering surface targets,” a Navy report on the Ford stated.

The realities of these kinds of threats are a key element of several variables related to better arming carriers and developing them in a more deliberate and focused way as “warships.” Carriers of tomorrow may not be called upon to simply support air attack missions in a combat environment where maritime and air supremacy are assured. Instead, carriers themselves will need to defend against major power attacks and confront a new sphere of highly sophisticated enemy weapons systems and methods of attack. Incoming enemy anti-ship missiles, attack from aircraft, small boat threats and drone boat attacks are all contingencies carriers may independently need to address to a much greater degree, as they may operate within Carrier Strike Groups to a lesser degree.

While carriers have historically been equipped with various self-defense combat systems, Ford-class developers appear to be taking a more pronounced offensive and defensive weaponry and warfare preparation approach for a platform historically thought of almost purely as an aircraft delivery system or floating airfield. In more recent years, and particularly with the Ford-class, the Navy has expanded the weapons and defenses typically integrated into carriers by going beyond previous levels. For example, the Navy has explored torpedo defense systems for the Ford class, possible laser interceptors and of course a growing sphere of EW, cyber kinetic ship defenses such as missiles and guns.

The Navy’s development of its Ford class, particularly with regard to the rigor of its weapons testing and preparation, seems to reflect the service’s prioritized need to prepare carriers for more direct maritime warfare engagements. There are many likely reasons for this, some of which may pertain to the seriousness of the current global threat equation as well as emerging areas of strategic focus for the Navy. For instance, carriers often travel in Carrier Strike Groups for clear purposes as nearby Destroyers and Cruisers armed with Vertical Launch Systems, interceptor missiles and extremely sensitive missile defense radar can protect and shield carriers from attack. This will likely remain the case for obvious reasons, yet at the same time the Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations strategic thinking calls for more disaggregated and therefore less condensed operations. Spread out assets, leveraging newer, long-range sensors and large numbers of air and surface unmanned systems, present less of a target for enemies seeking to fire upon and destroy groups of more condensed or aggregated manned ships. Newer kinds of networking, coupled with several paradigm-changing long-range weapons and sensors, can both sustain connectivity yet conduct more dispersed operations, enabling the service to expand its geographical area of operations, cover more territory and ocean and expand possible methods of attack. This means carriers may operate in fewer groups and increasingly conduct more spread out missions with greater degrees of autonomy, a circumstance which therefore presents a need for more organic, or built-in defenses and offensive weapons should it encounter enemy attacks.

During the weapons testing and development phases, the Navy put its carrier defenses through an intense set of tests against advanced and highly lethal enemy weapons systems. Ford crew members fired RIM-116 missiles, sea sparrow missiles and rounds from the Mk-15 Phalanx Close-in Weapon System during testing, a Navy report said. The CIWS is a particularly relevant and interesting weapon, as it can fire as many as 4,500 rounds per minute to disable, derail or destroy approaching enemy attacks.

Also, given that the Ford-class will be expected to sustain a higher sortie rate than previous carriers due to its larger flight deck capacity and electromagnetic catapult, the combat preparations included massive efforts to conduct take-offs, landings and fighter-jet air attacks from the ship.

“When CVN 78 began PDT&T in November 2019, the ship had logged about 800 launches and recoveries. Then we really started stressing the ship’s 23 new technologies, especially EMALS [Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System] and AAG [Advanced Arresting Gear]. Now just 18 months later, the ship has logged more than 8,100 cats and traps, with more than 7,300 during PDT&T alone.”Rear Adm. James P. Downey, Program Executive Officer for Aircraft Carriers, said in a Navy report. 

-- Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

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 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.