Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Navy’s New Ford-Class Carriers

Navy officials are claiming that substantial technological leaps, manpower reducing efficiencies, and a long-term strategic need for the carriers outweigh cost overruns and delays of the service’s planned Ford-class of aircraft carriers.

Scheduled to enter the water this fall and begin service in 2016, the USS Ford is engineered with a suite of improved technologies compared to its predecessor, the Nimitz-class carriers. Some of these improvements include a larger flight-deck, dual-band radar, upgraded nuclear power plants, increased automation and an electro-magnetic propulsion system.

The Navy’s Ford-class carriers are slated to replace as many as 10 Nimitz-class carriers as they reach their 50-year lifespan over the coming decades.

Navy leaders also emphasized the ever-increasing strategic value of being able to project power and forward-position air assets with the forthcoming Pacific pivot within the defense strategy.

Navy priorities in the FY 2014 budget request include $945 million to finance design and construction of the John F. Kennedy (CVN 79), the second planned carrier in the Ford-class, as well as $588 million to build the Gerald. R. Ford (CVN 78).

The Government Accountability Office has expressed cost concerns, delays and schedule slips regarding construction of the USS Ford. A March GAO report cites valve shortages and construction issues with the ships steel plating for the flight deck. The report also cites substantial cost-increases with the USS Ford program construction since 2008. Navy developers describe the overall $13-to $15 billion cost of the Ford in terms of a “first-in-class” technology, meaning costs for the follow-on ships, such as the USS Kennedy, will be much less.

“We want to demystify the myths of cost of first-in-class. The first time you roll out a new technology it’s pretty expensive. Then, over time, you are able to bring those costs down. We fully expect the costs of the USS Kennedy and the next USS Enterprise( CVN 80) – these costs will be significantly reduced as we learn from 78 {USS Gerald Ford},” said one Navy official. “We’re always concerned about the impacts of budget cuts and budget drills, but we’re working our way through them and we feel pretty good about where Ford is today.”

Although the Ford’s flight deck was recently completed in Newport News, Va., there is much more work to be done on construction before the carrier can set sea. While many of the dimensions to the Ford-class are similar to the Nimitz-class in terms of size, weapons and overall length, the Navy officials refer to the Ford-class carriers as a “complete redesign of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, in both ship design and systems.”

The Ford-class carriers will fit at least 75 aircraft, compared to at least 60 on the Nimitz, according to Navy statistics. This allows for an increase in what the Navy calls the sortie generation rate, or ability to fly missions from the ship. Also, the Ford-class carriers add about four feet to the width of the flight deck, allowing for additional space.

The configuration of the ship itself is engineered so that it is less visible to adversaries. Ford-class carriers will also use an Electro-magnetic Aircraft Launch System as opposed to a steam catapult.

The Ford-class carriers also have advanced dual-band radar (DBR), a flat panel array system built on a mast on the ship’s island. The DBR combines a range of different radar capabilities such as air-search, surface-search and air-traffic control.

Officials claim the new radar, EMALS and other next-generation technologies will allow the Ford-class carriers to reduce the manpower requirements for the ship by as many as 800 crew members compared to the Nimitz-class.


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