How the USS Gerald R Ford's new tech is proving the critics wrong
Despite past criticism from the Pentagon's top weapons tester, the new technologies integrated into the USN's latest aircraft carrier have shown value during its first operational deployment.
USS Gerald R Ford (CVN 78) integrates 23 new technologies, highlights of which include the ship's Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS), Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG) and Advanced Weapons Elevators (AWEs).
In January, the latest annual report from the DoD's weapons testing authority said the EMALS, arrestor gear, weapons elevators and dual-band radar were not hitting reliability targets.
The Director Operational Test & Evaluation (DOT&E) report highlighted the 'low reliability' of the Ford-class EMALS, AAG, AWE and Dual-Band Radar (DBR) as 'the most significant challenges expected to affect the ship's flight operations'.
However, on its maiden voyage, the systems lived up to expectations, with pilots touting the smoother launch offered by the EMALS and weapons handlers praising the performance of the AWE.
'We're really pleased with the progress that's been made. Developing a system of systems, of high-technology systems, like we have on this ship, is no small task.'— USS Gerald R Ford CO Cpt Paul Lanzilotta
Asked by Shephard how the new technology was working, Ford'sCO Cpt Paul Lanzilotta said the ship wouldn't have been at anchor in the Solent if it wasn't performing well.
Lanzilotta explained: 'It's a huge challenge to fly aircraft from an aircraft carrier at the pace that we were able to over several days and weeks. If it weren't a success, you would see a lot fewer aircraft; they would have to go to other places.
'We're really pleased with the progress that's been made. Developing a system of systems, of high-technology systems, like we have on this ship, is no small task. There is no land-based integration test site for a ship like this, we are in the integration test site, and we've been doing that with a lot of effort over the last couple of years.'
Ford's assistant air officer Cdr Richard Rosenbusch told Shephard that from his perspective, the weapons elevators were a 'game changer' as they meant the flight deck no longer needed to be used for weapons handling.
He added that the structure of Ford's flight deck, hangar and elevators increased the sortie generation of the carrier.
The ship also features in-deck refuelling and electricity stations, meaning that cables and hoses do not need to be stretched across the flight deck to turn around aircraft.
Rosenbusch also said EMALS offered a much smoother and more precise ride than the steam catapults used on previous generations of aircraft carriers such as the Nimitz.
Nimitz catapults usually launch aircraft with around 15kt of additional force than needed; EMALS can launch aircraft at a take-off speed within 1kt of what is required to get airborne.
A key benefit of the system is that it puts less stress on airframes. Its computers pull several parameters about the aircraft being launched to calculate the required force.
VAW-124 'Bear Aces' E-2D naval flight officer Lt Andrew Meekins characterised the level of technology on Ford as 'extremely advanced'.
Rosenbusch added that with the new technologies, Ford was a 'generationally quicker achievement' compared to incremental upgrades to previous carrier classes.
During the maiden deployment, Ford embarked over 60 aircraft, including F-18 Super Hornets, EA-18G Growlers, E-2D Hawkeyes, C-2A(R) Greyhounds, and MH-60R helicopters. This represented the largest air contingent ever embarked on the carrier.
F-18 Super Hornets and other aircraft on the flight deck of USS Gerald R Ford. (Photo: author)
Moving on to the weapons elevators, Ford's gun boss, Cdr Jim Fish, said the new system was 'working like a champ', adding that during the entire deployment, there had been no significant faults or problems his team could not solve.
Ford features 11 AWEs, four of which service the flight deck and seven the ammunition handling areas.
The AWE uses electromagnetic propulsion to move between floors, requiring no hydraulics or cables. This has the benefit of integrating blast doors between decks that can be closed when the elevator is not running to improve safety.
Fish said the AWE had double the carrying capacity in terms of weight as the lifts on a Nimitz-class carrier and traversed decks 50% faster. This benefits sortie generation as more ammunition can be moved more quickly.
The AWE has a safe working lift limit of 10,886kg and travels 150 feet per minute.
'What the Ford brings to the table in terms of capability is really a lot of future growth. It's going to give us the ability to launch and recover different types of aircraft – both larger and smaller – and to expand what we have as technology advancements.'— Gerald R Ford Carrier Strike Group Commander RAdm Greg Huffman
Like a modern mobile phone, the AWE features internal batteries that are induction charged when they arrive at each deck. Removing cables and hydraulics also means fewer crew are needed to keep the weapons elevators in working order.
Asked about the AWE's performance considering the 2021 DOT&E report, Fish told Shephardthat real-world operational experience had left the crew happy with the effectiveness of the elevators, explaining that there had been no issues during major ammunition on-loads ahead of the deployment.
Gerald R Ford Carrier Strike Group Commander RAdm Greg Huffman told reporters: 'What the Ford brings to the table in terms of capability is really a lot of future growth. It's going to give us the ability to launch and recover different types of aircraft – both larger and smaller – and to expand what we have as technology advancements.
'I think that's one of the big advantages of getting it [Ford] out now and then just taking this opportunity to get the ship into this operational environment.'
Ford is the USN's first new aircraft carrier to be developed in 40 years, and the USN's FY2023 budget submission gives the procurement cost of CVN-78 as $13.3 billion.
According to Shephard Defence Insight, the Ford-class carriers are to displace around 100,000t fully loaded, measure 332.8m in length, have a beam of 40.8m, and a draft of 7.8m. The flight deck also measures 78m in width.
Two nuclear reactors power Ford, giving the ship a maximum speed of over 30kt.
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