First, that $12.9 billion total pricetag includes $3.7 billion of non-recurring engineering necessary for the design of the entire Ford class. For ships, this one-time design charge is accounted for in the cost of the first ship of the class, while the benefits accrue over the entire 94-year life of the class.
Second, a 2002 decision to move from a three-ship evolutionary strategy to a single leap forward resulted in the concurrent design and build of many new technologies that were originally planned for later ships. This has resulted in unplanned increases in both equipment and construction costs. However, while that decision increased the cost of the first ship of the class, it brought increased capability to the warfighter sooner and avoided “one-of-a-kind” carriers that would have ultimately resulted in costly sustainment challenges throughout their life cycles.
Finally, we’ve experienced cost growth above initial estimates in several of the new government-furnished technologies such as the electromagnetic aircraft launching system (EMALS) and the new dual-band radar (DBR), as well as cost growth in the contractor-furnished material and contractor construction performance.
The Navy and the contractor have learned a great deal during design and development of this new class of nuclear-powered carrier, and the lessons are being applied to reduce the costs of delivering the Ford , as well as the USS John F. Kennedy (CVN-79). This learning process has developed an affordable and sustainable path forward for the remainder of the class.
Amid the current cost debate, it’s important to remember why the Navy chose to design and build a class of ship that will have a lifespan of 94 years and remain in service until 2110. The Ford class will deliver increased capability—at significantly reduced operating costs—and will remain at the forefront of a long-standing approach to countering threats and providing U.S. military presence in support of a wide variety of security objectives.
Improving on a Legend
Nimitz -class carriers are the most enduring and transformational military platform the nation has ever built. Those platforms have flown the U.S. flag in every region and every major conflict for the past 37 years. Nimitz -class carriers will remain central to our nation’s ability to project power for decades to come. In fact, the last commanding officer of the George H. W. Bush , the final ship in the class, has not yet been born.
As intended by its designers almost 50 years ago, the Nimitz class has proved to be profoundly adaptable; its primary weapon systems span several generations of aircraft from F-4s to F/A-18E/Fs, and it will eventually include the Joint Strike Fighter (F-35C) and a new generation of unmanned aircraft. However, the ship was designed at a time when manpower requirements had much less impact on cost, and at a time when we had not yet envisioned the advancements in weapons and computer-driven information-dominance systems of today.
Following studies that began in 1996, a 2002 Secretary of Defense Science Board panel concluded that it was time to develop a new aircraft carrier design that would incorporate advancements in technology to make a carrier more capable, more advanced, and more efficient, while leaving plenty of room for unforeseeable advancements in engineering and science into the 22nd century. 1 The ship was designed to increase capability and reduce total ownership costs—particularly through manpower reductions and other innovations, including a more efficient nuclear power plant design, fiber-optic networks, corrosion control, and new lightweight materials. 2 It also includes numerous improvements to warfighting ability and enhanced survivability of the ship in the face of the improved offensive capabilities of potential adversaries.
As stated previously, with the exception of the hull, the Ford class is a total redesign of the Nimitz class, incorporating advances in technology such as a new reactor plant, propulsion system, electric plant, electromagnetic catapults, advanced arresting gear, machinery control, and integrated warfare systems. The class also brings improved warfighting capability, quality-of-life improvements for our sailors, and reduced life-cycle costs. Together, these efforts will reduce manning by more than 600 billets, reduce maintenance, improve operational availability and capability, and reduce total ownership cost over its 50-year life by $4 billion compared with Nimitz -class carriers. To put that savings into perspective, the cost savings throughout the life of the ten Ford -class carriers planned in the program of record would fund the procurement of more than three new carriers in today’s dollars.
Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert’s “Sailing Directions” lay out priorities for our Navy, including three key considerations that should be applied to every decision—warfighting first, operate forward, and be ready. 3 The Ford class squares exceedingly well with each of those considerations.
Combat Power: The aircraft carrier’s primary mission is to generate overwhelming combat power from the sea. Its presence should be convincing enough to deter an adversary, its air wing deadly enough to prevent an adversary from achieving its objectives. Often a single carrier and embarked air wing will conduct this role for several weeks until a second or even third carrier can arrive on station if needed. The beauty of a carrier is its ability to conduct persistent, powerful, and precise strike operations anywhere on the globe. Improvements to Ford -class carriers will introduce unprecedented levels of warfighting capability and capacity.
• Today’s Nimitz -class carriers can routinely generate 120 combat sorties per day. 4 Ford -class carriers will be able to generate 33 percent more sorties per day—160 sorties, and more than 270 sorties per day for short periods of high-tempo operations. 5 Combined with today’s weapons and improved targeting capability that allow a single aircraft to target multiple targets on each sortie, the overall combat capability of the Ford class’s embarked air wing will increase substantially.
• The island is smaller and moved farther aft than on the Nimitz class, allowing more room for efficient flight-deck operations. The flight deck itself is larger and reconfigured to allow easier maneuvering of aircraft. Weapons and fuel servicing stations were updated to resemble a NASCAR pit, increasing efficiency and reducing the time it takes to refuel, rearm, and relaunch an aircraft. The larger flight deck will also accommodate seamless integration of manned and unmanned operations.
• The single largest contributor to the increase in sortie-generation rate is the product of a new generation of weapons elevators along with an updated shipboard arrangement that improves the flow of weapons from the magazines to the aircraft. The elevators use linear motors instead of cabling to improve reliability, reduce maintenance, and increase ship survivability. The locations of the elevators reduce horizontal travel distances between the lower- and upper-stage elevators, and the ship is designed with an O-3-level final bomb-assembly area, eliminating the Nimitz -class requirement to assemble weapons on the mess decks and pre-stage the weapons in the “bomb farm” outboard of the island before transfer to the aircraft.
• The new EMALS will expand the launch envelope, allowing pilots to launch with heavier aircraft, more weapons, or less available wind. EMALS will also be able to launch lighter aircraft than current steam-driven catapults, paving the way for innovations in manned/unmanned aircraft.
• The advanced arresting gear (AAG) will be able to recover heavier aircraft, ensuring that any increase in the weight of current aircraft (a normal occurrence as the Fleet adds new capabilities to existing aircraft) can be supported, and will also allow aircraft to land with less available wind. That is particularly useful during aircraft emergencies, some of which may require greater aircraft speeds to land safely, or when aircraft return with unused weapons.
• EMALS and AAG also provide secondary benefits. Because both systems can be tuned to the specific aircraft, launch and recovery forces are applied more evenly, reducing stress on airframes and potentially increasing the time between maintenance while simultaneously reducing the amount of maintenance required.
Joint Operations and Interoperability: Nimitz -class carriers were designed almost 20 years prior to Goldwater-Nichols. Now, joint and combined operations are executed from aircraft carriers that cover hundreds of thousands of square miles—of ocean or land. Ford -class aircraft carriers’ command-and-control capabilities will take full advantage of technologies that will enable a Joint Task Force commander to coordinate forces out at sea if no access exists ashore. To ensure this new carrier can adapt to rapid changes in technology, a flexible infrastructure is employed in command-and-control spaces. These “plug-and-play” spaces are easily adaptable to support new technology and changing missions on demand while eliminating cost and schedule impacts associated with traditional space reconfigurations.
Integrated Warfare System: The IWS will provide many enhancements over the Nimitz -class carrier. Its centerpiece is dual-band radar, which provides a significant increase in capability by combining multifunction and volume search radars in a phased-array radar sensor suite that provides simultaneous horizon and volume surveillance for three-dimensional tracking, missile illumination, non-cooperative target recognition, self-defense, all phases of air traffic control, and air intercept control. DBR also eliminates most of the rotating antennas found on the Nimitz class, reducing maintenance while the smaller radar footprint allows for a smaller island structure, contributing to more room on the flight deck and increased sortie generation. The IWS will project a layered defense for the strike group and ship self-defense.
Improved Contingency Operations Support: The carrier was conceived more than 100 years ago with one mission in mind: launch and recover aircraft at sea. Much has changed in the century since Eugene Ely first landed on the converted cruiser USS Pennsylvania . 6 A carrier by its very nature is capable of multiple missions at any given time because of its size, complement of aircraft, and diverse skills of the embarked sailors. Carriers have been first responders at multiple natural disasters, including the tsunami in Indonesia, the earthquake in Haiti, and Operation Tomodachi in Japan. The upgrades in the Ford class—three-and-a-half times the electrical power-generation capability, 25 percent more freshwater generation, and completely reconfigurable command-and-control spaces—will improve the carrier’s ability to support humanitarian-assistance/disaster-relief operations, as well as countless other missions, where limited access to shore infrastructure exists.
Is survivability really an issue? Warfighters work in a domain dominated by risk, and risk mitigation has been part of warfighting for centuries. Much has been written about the perceived vulnerability of the aircraft carrier in today’s threat environment. However, predicting a carrier’s movement or position remains difficult, even in an era of global communications. A carrier moving at 30 knots is defining an area in excess of 170 square nautical miles every 15 minutes—a very large area for any enemy to deal with in defending itself or preparing to take offensive actions against a ship. In a report on aircraft-carrier vulnerability, military analyst Loren Thompson lays out a compelling case about the survivable nature of the vessel, stating that “successfully attacking a carrier will remain one of the most challenging military missions imaginable.” 7 The Ford class was designed from the bottom up with survivability in mind and will be equipped with the most advanced capabilities to counter current and future threats.
Every day, U.S. Navy aircraft carriers demonstrate their long-term value to defense and diplomacy with striking power, range, persistence, and flexibility, all provided without requiring permission from a foreign power. The Ford class’s newly designed nuclear-propulsion plant will continue to provide the ability to operate forward without a need for constant refueling while significantly reducing manpower and maintenance requirements to operate. In addition, the Ford class is designed to carry more weapons and more fuel for its aircraft than the Nimitz class, adding even greater combat capability over a more prolonged period. Even when base access is challenged on land, our carrier strike group commanders can continue their missions from the decks of carriers operating from international waters.
Greater efficiency: Designing the Gerald R. Ford class to take advantage of changes in technology has resulted in a real reduction in the work required to accomplish the routine yet essential tasks of operating the ship and propulsion plant, building and moving weapons, and launching and recovering aircraft. At the same time, those very changes also yield greater sortie-generation rates and the ability to seamlessly integrate future development of aircraft and unmanned systems. New technology also facilitates more efficiency in simple, but equally important endeavors such as moving stores and messing the ship’s crew, freeing up time for training and operations.
Less maintenance: The Ford class was designed with reduced maintenance and maintainability in mind; its propulsion plant is air-conditioned, eliminating salty air and dirt intake and significantly reducing the amount of corrosion and maintenance. Equipment outside the propulsion plant will no longer be steam-powered. Increased electrical-generating capacity means miles of service steam piping and hundreds of steam water heaters will no longer be required—nor will be the correspondingly intrusive and costly maintenance. Improved material selection and coating systems will also increase time between preventive maintenance, unexpected repair, and replacement. Overall, these improvements will enable the ship to eventually operate on a 43-month maintenance cycle as compared with today’s Nimitz -class cycle of 32 months, reducing overhead costs and providing precious carrier availability.
Fewer people: As we learned with Oliver Hazard Perry –class frigates and other previous optimally manned ship concepts, manning reductions must be accompanied by advances in technology and design to ensure the manpower available can effectively maintain the ship with a smaller crew throughout its full service life. In addition to the reduced maintenance requirements mentioned here, an advanced machinery-control system will continuously monitor equipment throughout the ship, allowing watchstanders in a newly designed damage-control central to immediately pinpoint problems, reducing the number of roving watchstanders and allowing for more condition-based and less time-based maintenance.
Quality of Life: Reduced manning requirements allow for incorporation of several quality-of-life improvements; nearly all enlisted berthing spaces accommodate between 20 and 83 personnel. By comparison, the Nimitz class incorporates a wide range of crew living spaces, from 19 to 200 accommodations. Heads and showers are co-located and directly accessible from the berthing areas. Mess decks and food-storage spaces are also arranged with new and improved stores conveyors and elevators designed specifically to reduce the traditional working parties required to move stores throughout the ship. Dedicated fitness spaces and combined-service spaces are also specially designed to improve quality of life. With improved quality of life comes improved sailor readiness.
A Carrier for this Century and the Next
In January, President Barack Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta released new strategic guidance laying out the nation’s defense priorities for the 21st century. 8 Aircraft carriers remain central to this strategy.
The nation’s investment in aircraft carriers is significant. Their global reach, ability to amass firepower over sustained periods, commanding presence, and proof of purpose have routinely demonstrated a high return on that investment. No other military capability delivers more.
We have built on the legacy of the Nimitz class and designed a new ship with even more capability and the ability to adapt to the immense technological changes that are sure to come. The Gerald R. Ford will ensure that aircraft carriers provide as much influence and impact in the century ahead as they do today—and that the cost of providing that uniquely American capability is at the lowest possible cost over the 50-year life of each ship of the class.
2. “Operational Requirements Document (ORD) for the Future Aircraft Carrier CVN 21 ACAT ID,” January 2004, 10.
3. “CNO’s Sailing Directions,” released 23 September 2011, www.navy.mil/cno/cno_sailing_directions_final-lowres.pdf
4. Angelyn Jewell, Maureen Wigge, Colleen Gagnon, Lawrence Lynn, Kevin Kirk, Kaesey Berg, Anne Hale, Wendell Jones, Annette Matheny, John Hall, and Barbara Measell, “USS Nimitz and Carrier Airwing Nine Surge Demonstration.” Center for Naval Analyses, April 1998.
5. “Acquisition Program Baseline Agreement: CVN-21,” Office of the Undersecretary of Defense (Acquisition, Technology and Logistics), June 2004.
6. “Eugene Ely’s Flight to USS Pennsylvania , 18 January 1911—Narrative and Special Image Selection,” U.S. Naval Historical Center, text completed 6 January 2003, www.history.navy.mil/photos/events/ev-1910s/ely-pa.htm .
7. Loren Thompson, “Aircraft Carrier (In)vulnerability: What it Takes to Successfully Attack an American Aircraft Carrier,” Lexington Institute, 2001.
8. President Barack Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” (National Defense Strategy), January 2012.
Rear Admiral Moore is Program Executive Officer, Aircraft Carriers.
Captain McNamee, a retired naval aviator, works for the Department of the Navy to validate and develop aircraft carrier requirements. He is also former commanding officer of the USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63).