The Ford is the first in a new class of warship, the Gerald Ford Class, which set to replace the venerated Nimitz Class that have served the Navy since 1975. After over 40 years in service, the Nimitz Class remains unchallenged as the world’s foremost aircraft carrier outmatching all rivals by a significant margin – with ten of the 100,000 ton warships currently in service. The Gerald Ford Class design is in many ways highly similar to its predecessor with an almost identical displacement, and the two represent the only serving supercarrier designs in the world. The Gerald Ford Class builds on the capabilities of the Nimitz with a new and more effective A1B nuclear reactor and three times the engine power of its predecessor. This sophistication comes at a high price however, with the Ford Class costing more than twice as much as the inflation adjusted price of the Nimitz at $12.8 billion each – with an additional $5 billion from research and development costs. This exceeds the annual defence budget of the vast majority of countries including leading American adversaries such as North Korea. Several billion dollars in further expenses, particularly in acquiring and maintaining F-18E and F-35C fighters to operate from its deck, are also set to be incurred.
U.S. Navy USS Gerald Ford Nuclear Powered Supercarrier
The hull of the Gerald Ford Class carriers are very much similar to those of the Nimitz class, and the induction of the platform is largely a modernisation based on a tried and tested concept rather than a radical or game changing new design. The primary benefit of the Gerald Ford Class over its predecessor is its use of electromagnetic launch systems (EMALS) which both reduce the strain and maintenance on planes operating from its deck as well as allowing fighters to launch carrying higher payloads and more fuel. The carrier is capable of sustaining 160 sorties per day for 30 days, with a massive surge capability of 270 sorties per day. Such operations require vast amounts of both supplies and spare parts, and as such the carrier will operate large numbers of the Grumman C-2 Greyhound carrier onboard delivery transports – an asset unique to the U.S. Navy and key to its ability to project power through its carrier fleet without compare in other services anywhere in the world. The warship has 25 decks, and is capable of carrying up to 90 aircraft – a similar contingent to the Nimitz Class. While the Nimitz Class operated the complementary F-14 heavy air superiority fighter alongside the lighter F-18 Hornets, the Gerald Ford will operate a new generation of combat jets centred primarily around the capabilities of the F-35C. Though it was initially set to operate a carrier variant of the F-22 Raptor air superiority fighter as a heavier complement to the F-35C, the cancellation of the carrier based Raptor due to budgetary concerns has left the Navy reliant on the medium weight F-18E Super Horet to complement the F-35. The F-18E ‘4+ generation’ fighters are expected to begin to be replaced in the mid 2020s with a new sixth generation air superiority platform currently being developed under the Air Dominance Fighter program, which will provide a far more effective complement to the F-35.
Prototype F-35C Carrier Based Stealth Fighter
Other than EMALS the USS Gerald Ford also integrates other more advanced systems than the Nimitz Class including AN/SPY-3 X Band and AN/SPY-4 S Band radars designed as a potent and complementary dual band radar system. Arresting gear is also significantly more advanced than that on the Nitmiz class, while the design of the carrier’s hull attempts with some success to minimise its radar cross section – a moderate application of stealth technology. The Gerald Ford’s design also attempts to reduce operational costs relative to the Nimitz Class, notably by reducing the number of crew by several hundred by relying more on automated systems. The warship is also equipped with advanced RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow missiles, which strike at over Mach 4 and have a range of over 50km. The carrier is relatively lightly armed compared to other warships, as U.S. doctrine emphasises a dedicated and specialised role of deploying aircraft for its carriers while relying on other aircraft assigned to the carrier group to carry missiles and other weapons systems. This is a contrast to Russia’s Kuznetsov Class ships, officially termed ‘heavy aircraft carrying cruisers’, which deploy far less aircraft but retain a considerable arsenal of a dozen P-700 Granit ‘carrier killer’ cruise missiles.
U.S. Navy USS Gerald Ford Nuclear Powered Supercarrier
The induction of the USS Gerald Ford increases the U.S. Navy’s supercarrier inventory to 11 ships, alongside and nine lighter 40,000 ton amphibious carriers of the Wasp and America Class which can operate short takeoff vertical landing (STOVL) capable fighters such as the Harrier II and F-35B. The Nimitz Class ships were inducted over 34 years ago, with the USS Nimitz entering service in 1975 and the final platform of the class USS George Bush entering service in 2009. Whether the USS Gerald Ford will similarly be the first of ten carriers of its class, and how long aircraft carriers can be considered viable or survivable assets given massive recent advances in anti ship weapons technologies, remains to be seen. Considering recent advances in both attack submarine and anti ship missile technologies, the hypersonic Chinese DF-21D ‘carrier killer’ missile being a prime example, and the fast pace at which technologies increasing carriers’ vulnerability are developed relative to those which increase their survivability, it a considerable possibility that the Gerald Ford will not remain viable for as many years as the Nimitz Class did.