The Navy Gave Me A Sneak Peek of Its Most Powerful Aircraft Carrier Ever

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The United States Navy will commission the first of a new generation of aircraft carriers into service later this month on July 22.

When she is commissioned, the future USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) will represent the future of naval aviation and will be the most advanced and capable aircraft carrier ever built.

With Ford’s imminent commissioning ceremony coming up later this month, the Navy invited The National Interest to preview the mighty warship and see the new vessel’s technology firsthand on July 10.

Even at first glance, PCU Gerald R. Ford is an impressive sight even as she was moored pierside at Norfolk Naval Station in Virginia next to older Nimitz-class carriers USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69)—one of America’s oldest flattops, USS George Washington (CVN-73) and USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72).

Immediately noticeable is that Gerald R. Ford’s island is not only smaller than that of the Nimitz-class carriers, but that the structure is set further astern by about 140ft and slightly further starboard. Moreover, unlike regular fleet carriers, the brand-new Ford is still in pristine condition and sports a gold-painted anchor—a badge of honor noting that she has an exceptionally high crew retention rate.

Entering the massive vessel via one of her three aircraft elevators—Nimitz-class ships have four—into her cavernous hangar bay, Ford’s interior looks similar to that of other carriers. However, whereas the Nimitz-class has three partitions in their hangar bays, the new CVN-78-class has only two in order to simplify maintenance.

As we walked into the interior to climb up to the bridge, the air conditioning is immediately noticeable. Ford is able to produce 9,900 tons of air conditioning—which not only makes for a more productive crew but should reduce maintenance requirements for new vessels because of reduced humidity. Indeed, the key tenant of the entire CVN-78-class is improved maintainability and efficiency. Unlike previous carriers, Ford is projected to enter drydock only once every 12 years.

Climbing up into Ford’s bridge, the systems are far more advanced than anything else in the Navy’s fleet other than the new Zumwalt-class guided missile destroyers. All of the controls and navigational systems are completely digital and use touch-screen interfaces. The only concession to the past is a metal wheel connected to an electronic steering and transmission system—though the ship does have backup systems.

The entire ship features far greater automation—with far greater reliance on electrical and electronic systems—than any other carrier in the fleet. To power her systems and to meet future growth requirements, Ford’s twin nuclear reactors are almost three times more powerful than the ones onboard the Nimitz-class—generating 250 percent more electricity. Indeed, sister PCU John F. Kennedy (CVN-79)—currently under construction—will adopt electrically-powered elevators, further reducing the need for hydraulic systems.

Primary flight control—which is a few more decks up on the island—is similarly high-tech, but aside from a few modifications to the firefighting system—the setup is very similar to the Nimitz-class according to Lt. Commander Jon Biehl, Ford’s mini-boss (deputy air boss) and Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet pilot. Biehl said he is very confident in the new carrier’s systems though the ship has yet to be tested in launching and recovering real aircraft.

“Very confident, it’s proven to be successful,” Biehl said.

Several decks down in Flight-deck Control, I was surprised to see a traditional “Ouija board,” which visually indicates the position and status of aircraft on the ship’s flight deck using scaled aircraft templates and various pins and washers. Ford has automated systems that track the location and status of the ship’s aircraft, but the crew setup the Ouija board as a manual backup—and for the sake of tradition.

“We kept the Ouija board for guys just like you that come into flight deck control and it’s just not flight deck control if the Ouija board is not here,” Lt. Commander Jamie Roman, Ford’s aircraft handling officer told me.

“This was not part of the ship’s design, this was taken out because we have a system that will track the aircraft called ADMACS [Aviation Data Management and Control System.”

Our next stop was the flight-deck, which we reached via the hangar bay via one of Ford’s three aircraft elevators. Ford’s rearranged and reconfigured flight deck—which is 1,106ft long and somewhat wider than the Nimitz-class’—visibly looks and feels considerably larger than that of previous generation aircraft carriers.

Underneath, the massive steel deck, Ford is equipped with four Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch Systems (EMALS) and an Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG) which are replacing their steam and hydraulically driven equivalents onboard the Nimitz-class (and which allows for unrestricted operation of the #4 catapult). The ship also features 40 refueling stations and a revised configuration for her weapons elevators. The ship could achieve between 25 and 33 percent greater sortie generation rates than her predecessors once she has been fully tested according to Navy projections.

Capt. Brent Gaut, Ford’s executive officer, said that the next steps for the ship and her crew after commissioning will be to move into the test and evaluation phase. By the end of July, the ship is expected to set sail for a 10 to 12-day shakedown period where the crew will begin to test all of Ford’s systems including the EMALS and AAG. If all goes well, the ship will be certified to launch and recover aircraft by the end of September or early October.

“The systems I think, in theory, are just phenomenal and designed to perform a certain way,” Gault said.

“And now the challenge is to be able to go out and make sure they are able to meet the mark and they allow us to do what we need to do, which is put the ship in harm’s way and go out and fight the fight. So we need to make sure we get there first.”

Capt. Rick McCormack, Ford’s commanding officer, said that the ship has already tested the EMALS and AAG with dead loads, and as such, he is very confident that the systems will work as advertised. Indeed, both systems have proven themselves in testing, but the Navy has to be certain that they meet operational standards at sea.

“I’m very very confident that the EMALS will do everything we need it to,” McCormack said.

“But bottom line, that’s why we’re here. We’re here to test and evaluate these systems.”

As McCormack explained, the Navy will use the post-commissioning shakedown to test all of the new systems onboard Ford to identify any deficiencies or fixes that might need to be made. Ford will then move into a post-shakedown availability where the shipyard will make any needed corrections and install certain critical components onboard the ship that have yet to be installed. One such system is Ford’s Dual Band Radar, McCormack said, where there is still ongoing work that must be completed.

Subsequently, the ship will then go out to sea for another shakedown cruise to ensure that all of the corrections and new systems work properly, McCormack said. If all goes well, the ship should be operational by 2020. If the current schedule holds, Ford should be able to work up with an air wing and deploy in 2021 or 2022.

“All this stuff takes time, so in an ideal world—where everything works right the first time—we go out there and everything works great, you’re on timeline,” McCormack said.

“If you go out there, and it doesn’t work quite right and you have to redesign—or there’s something they can do so that it works a little better—that takes time.”

Early signs are promising.

Ford seems to be delivering on the promise of a more efficient carrier that will take naval aviation into the future. Ford—which is based on the Nimitz-class hull form—restores weight and stability margins by reconfiguring the ship’s interior, though she displaces roughly 100,000-tons just like the CVN-68 class (Indeed, one officer noted that while a sea, Ford is much more sporty than the Nimitzthanks to her prodigious horsepower and reconfigured interiors). But more importantly, Ford adds improved survivability measures while reducing manning and maintenance requirements. If all of Navy’s projections are realized, the service will save $4 billion in total ownership costs over the life of the ship.

For operators like McCormack—a career Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet pilot—they just want to take the ship out and launch jets. Indeed, McCormack said that he wants to be among the first aviators to “trap” onboard Ford.

“As an operator, I just want to go to sea,” McCormack said.

“I want to launch airplanes and catch them and hopefully get a launch and an arrestment myself in a Super Hornet.”

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @Davemajumdar.