How the US's futuristic new aircraft carrier will change naval warfare forever

Made in the USA america uss gerald r fordUS Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Julio Martinez MartinezSailors on the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) during its commissioning ceremony at Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia, July 22, 2017. Ford is the lead ship of the Ford-class aircraft carriers, and the first new US aircraft carrier designed in 40 years.

President Donald Trump took part in the commissioning of the USS Gerald R. Ford on Saturday, ushering in the first new aircraft carrier design in four decades to the US Navy with in “100,000-ton message to the world,” according to Trump.

The Ford will join the US Navy’s 10 Nimitz-class flat-top aircraft carriers, which are already the envy of the world. But while the Ford looks much like its predecessors, it has key technological advances that shine a light on what US military planners envision as the future of naval warfare. 

Named after President Gerald Ford, the $US12.9 billion titan is the first of four planned ships in its class. In the slides below, see how the Fords improve on America’s already imposing fleet of aircraft carriers.

New reactor and an all-electric ship

Sailors man the rails of the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford. Picture: US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Julio Martinez Martinez

The new Ford class carriers will feature an improved nuclear reactor with three times the power-generation capacity as the Nimitz class.

This outsized power-generation capacity provides the Fords an opportunity to grow into new technologies that come up during their service life.

With ample power to draw from, the Fords could one day house directed-energy weapons like the Navy's upcoming railgun.

Watch an F-35 seamlessly take off using an Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS)

The Nimitz class cruisers use an elaborate steam-powered launch system to send F/A-18s and other planes on their way, but the Ford class, drawing on its huge power-generation capacity, will use an electronic system to do the same.

Not only will the EMALS launch heavier planes, but it will also carefully launch planes in order to reduce wear and tear. Additionally, the increased capacity of these launchers to make planes airborne will allow new plane designs in the future.

Example of a steam-powered launch

New island.

A Nimitz class aircraft carrier, on the bottom, compared to a Ford class, top. Picture: Business Insider

Improved technology means that the island, or the tower on the deck of the carrier, can be moved further aft (toward the tail end of the craft).

This smaller, more out-of-the-way island means that there will be more room and accessibility for the aircraft on the deck, which will improve maintenance times and turnarounds.

Navy planners estimate that the new design will help carriers generate an additional 33% more sorties.

'When aircraft land, they will be able to come back, refuel, rearm, in kind of a pit-stop model ... really modelled after NASCAR,' Capt. John F. Meier, the commanding officer of Gerald R. Ford said of the new design.

Dual Band Radar.

Jets conduct a flyover during the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford's (CVN 78) commissioning ceremony. Picture: US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Andrew J. Sneeringer

The Navy's Dual Band Radar (DBR) operates simultaneously on two frequencies, enabling the radar to effectively classify low-altitude planes and missiles.

The radar works both to track incoming aircraft and missiles and to support outgoing weapons and planes.

Only the first Ford class carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, will carry the DBR. Navy planners are currently evaluating candidates to provide an Enterprise Air Surveillance Radar, which they estimate could save $US120 million.

Advanced arresting gear (AAG).

An artist's conception of an installed Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG) on a US carrier. Picture: General Atomics Image

Another improvement on the Nimitz design, the AAG on the Ford class will help accommodate a broader range of aircraft and offer a less jarring landing than the Navy's current Mk-7 Mod 3 and Mk-7 Mod 4 designs.

But like other systems on board, the AAG is facing problems. Recently the Navy said it was considering alternatives for future carriers but that the USS Gerald R. Ford would still carry the system.

Advanced Weapons Elevators.

Sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and Carrier Air Wing 14, assemble on an aircraft elevator. Picture: US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joseph M. Buliavac

It may seem like a simple change, but the new carriers will use electromagnetic fields to raise and lower platforms instead of cabling. This allows a simpler design to compartmentalise the different areas of the ship, which will help reduce maintenance and manning costs over the life of the ship.

Also, new cargo elevators will replace cargo converters, which were labour intensive.


The USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) during its commissioning ceremony at Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia. Picture: US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Julio Martinez Martinez

Individually, the changes made between the Ford and Nimitz classes seem isolated and inconsequential. But when taken together, the Ford line of aircraft carriers shows the direction forward as envisioned by the US's naval planners.

The development of the Ford class carriers has been fraught with cost and time overruns, but this is to be expected with a first-in-class vessel.

The success of the Ford class will not be defined by any one innovation on board, but by the foresight displayed by the designers who are boldly creating a carrier to launch planes that haven't even been designed yet, to fire weapons not yet built, and to secure the US's interests at sea for decades to come.

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