In the postwar period, carrier striking forces continue to play central roles. In Korea, Vietnam, Desert Shield/Desert Storm, Enduring Freedom, and Iraqi Freedom, carriers provided air and sea control and projected power ashore as part of a joint force. As President Bill Clinton noted when he spoke on board the USS Enterprise (CVN-65) in 1993, “When word of a crisis breaks out in Washington, it’s no accident that the first question that comes to everyone’s lips is: ‘Where’s the nearest carrier?’”
These simple examples help explain why we have a force of ten Nimitz -class carriers and why that force will remain important for many years to come. But why the Ford ? Certainly Nimitz -class carriers remain very capable ships. Nevertheless, aspects of their 40-year-old basic design limit long-term growth capacity and add to life-cycle cost. For example, the naval architectural limits of their hulls are being approached, limiting the ability to add additional functions. Nor does the Nimitz class have sufficient electrical power to fully take advantage of certain exciting future capabilities. In addition, Nimitz carriers are manpower-intensive and expensive to operate and maintain, in part due to the nature of their steam and hydraulic systems. It was time for the Navy to develop a next-generation carrier with greatly enhanced growth potential, improved capabilities, and lower life-cycle cost. The result is the Gerald R. Ford , which has much greater electrical-generating capacity, new electrical-distribution architecture, a simpler and more efficient nuclear-power plant, a more efficient flight deck, plus modern electromagnetic systems in place of older steam and hydraulic systems, and increased naval-architectural margins.
How Did We Get Here?
The Ford design is the product of the Department of Defense’s formal, methodical acquisition process. The first step was the Joint Chiefs of Staff approving the need for a next-generation aircraft carrier with mission capabilities stipulated in a formal Mission Need Statement (MNS): Independent of land bases, the aircraft carrier must support an air wing that can simultaneously perform surveillance, battlespace dominance, and strike in sustained combat operations forward. As well as maintaining the core capabilities of naval aviation, the MNS further tasked the program to reduce life-cycle costs while improving flexibility, survivability, and interoperability. The signing of the MNS in 1996 started the Analysis of Alternatives (AOA), a formal planning study of the cost and effectiveness of alternative approaches to meeting the MNS.
The AOA process examined 75 conceptual designs over a three-year period, including a variety of sizes, alternative propulsion concepts, and design concepts. A flag-level oversight group, which met quarterly during that period, guided the effort from the Navy and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. A variety of detailed issues were assessed during the AOA, but there were three main issues and conclusions:
1. Propulsion: The case for nuclear propulsion has grown even stronger. Nuclear power provides undeniable operational advantages—unlimited endurance, ability to sprint to emerging crises without worrying about refueling en route, more space for aviation fuel and ordnance, and others. But nuclear power has historically cost more than nonnuclear-propulsion options. Because of the higher cost, in the 1960s Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara initially canceled a nuclear-powered follow-on to the Enterprise . (Later he approved the Nimitz with her simplified, more efficient, and less costly reactor plant.) In light of the cost issue, the AOA did not assume that nuclear power would be the automatic answer. The cost and effectiveness of several propulsion options were reexamined in detail, including modern oil-fired steam, gas turbines, and diesel, as well as an improved nuclear plant.
The operational advantages of nuclear power were confirmed; the main differences from previous studies concerned the cost comparisons. The AOA found that the premium for nuclear power has declined because of further simplification of the new nuclear plant and the higher cost of oil. The two new-design reactors on the Ford have significantly fewer high-pressure valves and other expensive components than the A-4 plant on the Nimitz and require only half as many personnel to operate. While the reduced manning and simplified design have reduced the operating and maintenance costs for a new nuclear plant, the operating cost for nonnuclear plants has gone up due to rising oil prices—from less than $30 dollars per barrel at the time of the AOA to about $100 today. This adds roughly $1 billion to the lifetime fuel cost of a nonnuclear carrier. At current fuel prices, the AOA projected that Ford-class ships would cost less to operate than a comparable nonnuclear carrier.
In sum, the total cost premium (acquisition plus operating costs) for nuclear power has steadily declined—from nearly 50 percent for the USS Enterprise , the first nuclear carrier, to less than half that much for the Nimitz to about now even for the Ford —due to improved, simplified design of the nuclear plant and the increasing cost of oil. The AOA concluded that overall cost-effectiveness balance has shifted even more strongly in favor of nuclear power.
2. Airwing capacity: Large carriers are clearly more cost-effective. At the center of the carrier debates in the late 1970s were the issues of carrier size and cost. The AOA looked again at these issues in detail. The options ranged from the existing large-deck Nimitz-class carriers (100,000 tons with approximately 75 aircraft) to small carriers (40,000–45,000 tons with 35–40 aircraft) such as France’s Charles DeGaulle , with midsize carriers (70,000 tons with 55 aircraft) in between.
The results were clear-cut: A large deck is considerably more cost-effective in generating sorties for combat missions. For example, small carriers cost about ¾ as much to buy and operate as a comparable large carrier but carry ½ as many aircraft. A modern midsize carrier would cost about 90 percent as much to buy and operate as a comparable large carrier but carry only ¾ as many aircraft. Moreover, once aircraft are allocated to essential defense and overhead functions, a large-deck carrier can generate more than half again as many strike sorties as a midsize carrier. In other words, there is a clear case that large-deck carriers provide significantly more bang for the buck than comparable small or midsize carriers.
3. Acquisition strategy: a clean sheet or an evolutionary approach? The final phase of the AOA addressed alternative acquisition strategies for what would become the Ford program. It was clear that a next-generation ship entailed major research, development, testing, and design efforts—including a new electrical-distribution architecture, a new reactor, a new electrical-generation plant, a new flight-deck layout and composite island structure, a new combat system, and electromagnetic systems to replace existing steam catapults, hydraulic arresting gear and elevators, and other steam-driven auxiliary systems. Research-and-development costs were estimated to add at least $5 billion to the cost for the ship herself. Two basic approaches were considered: a clean-sheet design that made all of the changes in one ship, and an evolutionary approach that phased in changes over several ships. These approaches were fleshed out in greater detail by the program after completion of the AOA.
After the large-ship/propulsion-plant decision was made in 1998, the Future Carrier Program provided an estimate of a one-step “clean-sheet” design for a large, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. For a ship starting construction in Fiscal Year 2006, the ship cost was estimated at $6.4 billion, and the R&D costs for its nonrecurring design and technology development was estimated at $7.1 billion.
The overall strategy was to reduce components/systems but increase scale in the same way the Nimitz class reduced the number of propulsion-plant components as compared with the Enterprise . For instance, the Enterprise had 8 reactors, 32 steam generators, 16 electrical generators, and more than 5,000 main steam valves for four main engines and catapults. The Nimitz design reduced the number of reactors to two and reduced steam generators and electrical generators to 8, while cutting the number of main steam valves to much less than 1,500—more than a 3-to-1 reduction. While maintaining the same number of reactors, the Ford plant cut the steam and electrical generators in half to 4 each, and reduced the number of main steam valves to less than 300, in large part because of the change from steam to electromagnetic catapults.
Flight-Deck Upgrades and Radar Replacements
Further reductions in topside equipment were envisioned by leveraging the dual-band radar from the (at the time) 33-ship DD-1000 destroyer program, a move that could replace six radars—SPS-48, SPS-49, SPS-67, SPN-43, SPQ-9B, TAS Mk23—and four NATO Sea Sparrow Target Illuminators. On the flight deck, movement of the island aft was considered critical to incorporating Naval Air Systems Command’s vision of a redesigned flight deck with fewer aircraft elevators and new electromagnetic catapults and arresting gear, com