Can the military save the USS Gerald R. Ford?
The late 20th century was a time of supreme American confidence and rapid innovation. The Cold War was drawing to a close, the digital age was around the corner, and the Pentagon saw an opportunity to capitalize on peacetime and begin preparing for future conflict. With few diplomatic or military distractions, the United States ushered in a revolution in military technology.
Out of that boom period came ambitions for a new class of aircraft carrier headlined by the transformational USS Gerald R. Ford, a ship featuring an expanded flight deck, a boosted power plant, and support for almost two dozen emergent technologies. Expectations were high. The Ford’s nuclear reactor and propulsion system would triple the electrical power of the preceding Nimitz-class aircraft carriers. Its state-of-the-art weapons elevators would move 20,000 pounds of munitions at speeds of 150 feet per minute compared with the Nimitz‘s speed of 100 feet per minute. Its new launch-and-recovery system would be able to handle 270 planes in a single day. From bow to stern, the ship’s innovations—designed to save time, costs, and crew—would revolutionize the way the U.S. military built and used carriers. The Ford would be a symbol of American superiority, one that would project power to American adversaries for five decades of dependable service.
“There was this thinking of, ‘We are so far ahead of everyone else that we can afford to take a strategic pause and take risks on our acquisition and try new and untested technology,’” says Eric Wertheim, a defense analyst and expert with the U.S. Naval Institute, of the nation’s mindset after the Cold War. “And there was this feeling that the rest of the world is at least 20 years behind us.”
But after two decades of development and delays, the audacity that conceived the Ford seemed to usher its doom. Expected to save the military $4 billion during its life span, the Ford has actually cost billions more than initial estimates. First expected to deploy in 2018, it has been projected to deploy as far out as 2024. When the ship reached the Navy after construction, it was already two years behind schedule, with work outstanding on thousands of items. In 2015, Sen. John McCain, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a former Navy aviator, called packing all that tech onto the Ford “the original sin” that damaged the program.
Even the Navy’s top officer acknowledged the problems that have plagued the carrier. “We had 23 new technologies on [the USS Gerald R. Ford] which, quite frankly, increased the risk of delivery on time and cost right from the get-go,” said Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday at a virtual talk before the Navy League’s 2021 Sea Air Space exposition. “And I think industry’s in full agreement with this: We really shouldn’t introduce more than maybe one or two new technologies on any complex platform like that, in order to keep risk at a manageable level.”
“Warships are the only weapon where the prototype goes out to sea.”
Meanwhile, naval advances by U.S. adversaries have added urgency to the Ford’s troubleshooting. The ship’s critics point to its expanding budget and timetable as evidence that the U.S. military should reconsider developing massive nuclear carriers as a foundational element of its naval program. Military advisor Norman Polmar points out that America’s most recent conflicts in the Middle East didn’t even use the Nimitz class to full capacity. “Look what we did in Iraq,” he says. “We launched [just] 20 or 30 strikes a day from a carrier that has 70 airplanes.” And Rep. Adam Smith, chair of the House Armed Services Committee, has questioned whether the Ford’s price tag justifies its utility. During a 2021 Brookings Institution discussion, Smith asked if there are other ways “to get unmanned systems closer to the fight that don’t cost $12 billion.”
Today, despite years of setbacks and backlash, the Ford is showing signs that it can complete its mission. Its critical technologies are coming to life, and the Navy is accelerating the carrier’s deployment timetable. But as the Ford approaches its maiden deployment, its successes and failures are still on public display. Talbot Manvel, a retired Navy captain who led the initial concept development of the Ford carrier class from 1996 to 2001, points out that for this multi-billion dollar floating airport to prove its capability and necessity, it has to become battle-ready under scrutiny. “Warships are the only weapon where the prototype goes out to sea,” he says.
In 1993, a Navy working group began investigating new technologies for a new class of carrier. Technologies on the Nimitz class, already a quarter of a century old, had evolved beyond their means, and the carriers were beginning to sag under their own weight, unable to support all that capability.
In 1998, the Navy launched the CVN(X) program to replace the Nimitz class with another large nuclear-powered carrier class. Technologies under development for this new class would apply to the USS George H.W. Bush—the 10th and final Nimitz carrier—and evolve across the upcoming class. But in 2002, the U.S. Secretary of Defense at the time, Donald Rumsfeld, changed course. Seeking a bolder shift toward the future, he ordered technology development, ship design, and construction for what he called a “transformational” carrier, and the Navy launched the CVN 21 program, later christened the Ford class. This research and development would cost nearly $5 billion (separate from Ford’s eventual $13 billion construction cost), the result being a carrier class that currently comprises four ships—three in addition to the flagship Ford. Prefab construction on the class’ frontrunner, the USS Gerald R. Ford, began in 2005.
The Navy designs each carrier with an assembly sequence in mind. Each block of the ship contains a particular arrangement of structural and technological components, and when workers at Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Newport News Shipbuilding division in Virginia—the country’s only builder of nuclear carriers—finish adjacent blocks, they weld them together into a complete section of the ship, called a “lift,” sometimes weighing hundreds of tons. With the help of cranes, the builders hoist the lifts into place to form the ship’s hull. Ford’s construction was elaborate; it required 496 lifts.
“This was transformation run amok.”
Designing a ship in this fashion means material and technological delays can have a cascading effect on the construction timeline. Signs of trouble emerged as early as 2007; the electromagnetic launch system, one of the signature technologies on Ford, was already more than a year behind schedule. “The warning signs were there,” says Shelby Oakley, a director in the Government Accountability Office’s contracting and national security acquisitions team. Even before construction began, the GAO had flagged the Ford to the Navy as a poor business case, noting its risky cost estimates and shipbuilding schedules.
The Ford’s construction contract reached Newport News Shipbuilding in 2008; building the ship was a muddled, disarranged process. The shipyard began construction while some of the Ford’s technologies still lingered in development and faced design revisions. Modifications to accommodate the space, weight, and utilities for these components contributed to a total of 19,000 eventual design changes. The Navy had planned for many of these changes in anticipation of technological evolution, but other changes were unexpected.
One standout feature of the Ford—albeit a troublesome one—is its state-of-the-art Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG). Prior to Ford, American carriers used a hydraulic arresting system to slow and stop landing aircraft, but the AAG uses an electric engine and a water twister to accommodate a broader range of aircraft—including unmanned aerial vehicles. Engineering and manufacturing of the AAG began in 2005, with 2009 the targeted end date. But a 2016 Pentagon Inspector General report noted that developmental testing for the AAG would continue through 2018; the system still hadn’t proved capable or safe enough to test on the Ford. Between 2009 and 2012, the AAG’s power conditioning system failed across multiple tests, and both its inverter system and cable shock absorber required redesigns. The setbacks ballooned the AAG’s development cost from $143 million to more than $1 billion, according to a report from Sen. McCain’s office.
Manvel says he resisted AAG on the Ford as early as 1998, wanting to push it onto the subsequent ships in the class after its design had matured. He had his way until Rumsfeld stepped in with his transformational vision. “This was transformation run amok,” Manvel says.
As technologies fell behind on the Ford, the structural shipbuilding continued, and that disparity would require corrections. The Ford’s Dual Band Radar (DBR), a combination of both volume search radar and multifunction radar meant to handle long-range surveillance, air traffic control, and missile communications, was originally developed for use on the Zumwalt class of guided missile cruisers. But due to the cruisers’ own construction delays, the Navy dropped volume search for Zumwalt’s DBR, leaving that particular feature untested and incomplete before its implementation on Ford.
“That [brought] a major change to the Ford development and test program,” says Rear Adm. James Downey, the Navy’s program executive officer for carriers, whose assignments have also included chief engineer on the CVN(X) program and program manager for the Zumwalt class.
Land-based tests of the volume search radar that would have proceeded under Zumwalt were suspended, and contracting and additional testing delays hampered its development for Ford.
Those tests continued even after the radar’s installation on Ford, ultimately finishing nearly five years later than planned. The tests themselves unearthed issues with the DBR’s power regulating system, and the resulting modifications required the shipbuilder to cut into Ford’s island—its command and control tower—to make the repairs.
But Manvel says Rumsfeld deemed Ford too important to fail, and goes as far as to say the former defense secretary was right. No matter how much time or money it took, America would make sure the Ford delivered, because as Marvel says: “America always wants the best.” In 2013, after construction overruns and inflation, the Ford’s cost cap ballooned from $10.5 billion to $12.9 billion under order of Congress. As it bumped against that ceiling, the Navy accelerated the Ford to fleet by deferring work on more than 9,000 items.
It took Downey’s new leadership—he took over the carrier program office in summer 2019— for the cycle of deference to stop. He was central to the redemption of the Ford’s 11 Advanced Weapons Elevators (AWEs), meant to reduce bomb movement within the ship by up to 75 percent compared to the Nimitz class. Less handling of munitions means increased safety and maneuverability for sailors and aircraft on the flattop. Faster movement plays into increased mission launches (a.k.a. sorties), a key measure of the Ford‘s success.
When the Navy commissioned the Ford in July 2017, none of the elevators were fully operational. When the Ford began its period of post-delivery testing and trials in 2019, just four elevators were operational. While the GAO has cited premature corrosion of electrical components and faulty parts as problems with the AWEs in earlier years, Downey says the major hindrance appears to have been software-related.
With renewed urgency on having operable elevators, industrial workers began making fixes while the Ford was at sea, rather than waiting until it was pierside. Downey also established offices at the shipyard in Newport News, and also at the Ford’s home port at the nearby Norfolk Naval Station. He goes over daily reviews of work items with project supervisors. “To this day, we do daily closeouts of the work, with me included,” Downey says. “My view is it’s critical to keeping these large projects on track, and you can’t do that monthly or quarterly.” His procedural adjustments seem to have worked. The last of the weapons elevators were turned over to the Ford‘s crew on December 22, 2021, according to the Navy.
Launching and recovering aircraft was another trouble area. The Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System, or EMALS, is supposed to average 4,166 launches between failures. A Pentagon report from early 2021 noted that the Ford was averaging just 181 launches between failures. AAG, meanwhile, is meant to average 16,500 recoveries before a failure. It averaged 48. Downey doesn’t dispute those numbers, but he points out that the Pentagon report covered the carrier’s delivery and initial trials period, and largely missed its post-delivery tests and trials, a period when a carrier’s crew learns how to operate the ship. By that time, Ford had completed fewer than 800 aircraft launches and recoveries total. It has now surpassed 8,000 launches and recoveries.
The Ford has corrected its wayward trajectory in large part through finding optimal ways to marry its crew with its new technologies. While at sea, the Ford became the Navy’s East Coast platform for more than 400 pilots to earn or maintain their flight certifications. During that time, sailors gained proficiency on the ship’s systems and made their own recommendations on how to operate them. During eight and a half hours of daytime flight operations in December 2020, the Ford achieved 175 arrested landings, which was more than the 160 expected of it during a 12-hour fly day. EMALS has become a morale boost for the sailors working on that system, says Navy Capt. Paul Lanzilotta, who took command of Ford in early 2021. At the end of a flight day, aviation boatswain mates push a button to put EMALS into standby, saving them the hours of pre- and post-flight maintenance required on the Nimitz class.
“It is a different mindset and environment in which they work,” Lanzilotta says. “[The crew are] a lot smarter about things like electronics and electronic systems.”
Ford completed 18 months of post-delivery tests and trials in spring 2021. As the ship’s crew gained proficiency, the Navy did something unheard of: It moved the Ford’s projected first deployment date up, from 2024 to 2022. Here, a military decision to run things concurrently paid off. While the Ford was working through its post-delivery tests, the Navy put the ship through live fire combat system tests and carrier-strike group operations. The Ford cleared all its benchmarks despite the crunch.
It was a decision born out of weariness and practicality: If there were any more weaknesses aboard the Ford, the Navy wanted to expose them as soon as possible, Downey says.
The Ford class is likely to deploy in a different climate from the ones military leaders anticipated two decades ago. While the U.S. military focused on counterinsurgency efforts in the Middle East, Russia became active in the Arctic, and China began aggressively expanding its naval capabilities. China’s DF-21D “carrier killer” missile has a range of up to 2,485 miles, enough to put U.S. military bases on Guam within striking distance from mainland China.
“If we’re not moving the threshold forward on carrier capabilities, what happens if China continues to incrementally catch up?” asks Matthew Funaiole, a senior fellow with the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. China is now building a third carrier of its own, called the Type 003. Though it’s unlikely to rival a Nimitz-class carrier, it might include an electromagnetic launch system that could bypass today’s more common steam-powered launch systems, Funaiole says. Even if the launch system doesn’t appear on the Type 003, Funaiole expects it on the follow-up ship.
The context for the Ford’s deployment is becoming higher pressure, but many see the ship, as well as the three others in its class, to be the pinnacle of carrier technology. “I’m confident that we’re going to get the Ford class, and it’s going to be a great ship,” says the Naval Institute’s Wertheim. “It’s taking longer and it’s more expensive, and it maybe didn’t have to be this way, but we will iron those things out. We shouldn’t look at the Ford class as some massive failure. It’s more of a ‘What can we do better next time?’”
That “next time” is already here. The Ford’s three successors—the USS John F. Kennedy, USS Enterprise, and USS Doris Miller—are taking shape at Newport News Shipbuilding. The Kennedy is expected to reach the Navy first, in 2024, and the Miller last, in 2032. In the meantime, the Ford is finally proving its sea legs, but its saga demonstrates the complexities of building a modern aircraft carrier, designing a ship around both an assessment of modern adversaries and a prediction of future military contexts. The lessons of Ford’s construction will inform the larger debate over staking the sea service on a massive nuclear flagship, but the next decade is set—and the Navy expects the world’s newest, most advanced warship to operate for half a century. For now, the Ford is the future.