The Navy’s newest carrier, once criticized as a ‘floating barge,’ may be ready for action sooner than expected

Delays, cost overruns, and technological glitches on the USS Gerald R. Ford grew so frustrating that the Navy and lawmakers clashed publicly over the ship in late 2019.
Now the ship, which is the first new carrier design in four decades, is making rapid progress, and the Navy says the once struggling warship may ready for action sooner than expected.
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At a House hearing a little more than a year ago, Rep. Elaine Luria criticized the Navy’s newest, most expensive aircraft carrier to date, calling it a “nuclear powered floating barge that’s not deployable.”Those comments started a verbal sparring match with then-Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer over the USS Gerald R. Ford, which had been a thorn in the Navy’s side after years of delays, cost overruns, and technological glitches.Even President Donald Trump weighed in on Ford’s struggles, declaring after visiting the ship in 2017 that its state-of-the-art electromagnetic aircraft launch system, known as EMALS, was “no good,” and calling for a return to the steam-powered system used for decades on Nimitz-class carriers.But Ford’s fortunes appear to have turned, and its crew has been making up for lost time.

Sailors aboard USS Gerald R. Ford observe flight operations, July 31, 2020.

US Navy/MCS1 Gary A Prill

Ford has spent much of the past year alternating between being in port and at sea, giving its sailors the chance grow their proficiency on new technologies and refine procedures for using them while also qualifying pilots and re-certifying its flight deck — all while navigating challenges imposed by COVID-19.

That work is all part of Ford’s 18-month post-delivery test and trials period, which assesses the ship’s overall readiness. This phase, which is part of readying Ford for its first deployment, is scheduled to wrap up in spring 2021.The flattop has completed about 5,500 aircraft launches and recoveries, Ford’s commanding officer, Capt. J.J. “Yank” Cummings, told Insider.In November, Ford operated for the first time as part of a carrier strike group, allowing battlegroup commanders and the crew to get a feel for how Ford will function as a warship.”Every underway we get smarter and learn more about our systems and what’s required to be successful on deployment,” Cummings said.

Ford was designed and built to require less manpower while being able to launch as many as 160 aircraft during a 12-hour fly day, as opposed to the 120 sortie-generation rate of the Nimitz-class.

Sailors aboard USS Gerald R. Ford conduct flight operations, November 13, 2020.

US Navy/MCS Seaman Riley McDowell

Capt. Joshua “Flipper” Sager, who commands Ford’s embarked Carrier Air Wing 8, said the crew is maxing out its ability to launch aircraft.Because Ford has three times the electrical capacity as Nimitz-class carriers, EMALS is limited more by its operators, who work with safety procedures and other restrictions, than by its technical components, Sager said.”We’re rapidly arriving at the point where the human factor is going to be the limiting factor for how fast we can launch aircraft, which really means that the ship is not limited at all in its capability to launch and recover aircraft,” Sager told Insider.

During late-stage workups, the goal for the air wing will be to be able to recover an aircraft every 45 to 50 seconds, Sager said.”We brought a very experienced air wing contingent out and then we operated with standard fleet procedures,” Sager said. “Ford was able to handle everything we were throwing at it from an air wing perspective.”Along with minor software tweaks to Ford’s Advanced Arresting Gear, or AAG, which is its system for landing aircraft, and to its electromagnetic catapults, work continues on four of Ford’s 11 weapons elevators, which are about 92% complete, Rear Adm. James Downey, program executive officer for aircraft carriers at Naval Sea Systems Command, told Insider.

Aviation ordnancemen aboard USS Gerald R. Ford bring inert training bombs up to the flight deck, May 30, 2020.

US Navy/Chief MCS RJ Stratchko

The elevators — seven that move ordnance between lower-level weapons magazines and Ford’s hangar and three upper-stage elevators that connect to the flight deck — have for years been a sore point between lawmakers and Navy brass.

Spencer, the former Navy secretary, doubled down on the elevators, betting his job on their completion by summer 2019. (The elevators missed that deadline, but Spencer held his job until late 2019, when he resigned over an unrelated issue.)Each of Ford’s elevators is different and runs on a redesigned electromagnetic system, an upgrade from the pulley-based elevators on the Nimitz class, Downey said.”Just like the EMALS or AAG, we find some obsolescence issues and on switches and things like this,” Downey said. “But we don’t have an issue where the elevator just doesn’t work in certain situations.”Downey said increased involvement by the Navy and by the ship’s builders, including daily progress reviews, has helped Ford pick up its stride. That has also included establishing a greater presence from his office in Norfolk, where Ford is homeported, and putting more industrial workers on the ship while at sea so work can continue uninterrupted.

Sailors aboard USS Gerald R. Ford refuel T-45C Goshawks on the flight deck, September 11, 2020.

US Navy/MCS2 Ryan Seelbach

“The carrier is, of course, is a significant, stable platform, so it does enable that option,” Downey said. “With that, we were able to not start up and shut down every month when the ship would finish in port and then go to sea. We’re able to keep the workforce going.”

Ford is scheduled for full-ship shock trials around early summer 2021, followed by a maintenance period to address any issues discovered.Ford was once set to deploy in 2024, which would’ve been years behind schedule, but Downey said the carrier may be ready for its first deployment sooner than that.”We still have to go through our reviews with Navy leadership and in the larger tasking of carriers, but it’s … trending to the left,” Downey said of the timeline.Luria, a Democrat and retired surface warfare officer who now represents a swath of eastern Virginia, said in a statement that she is still tracking Ford’s progress “and will ensure that the appropriate resources are allocated to bring Ford and the following carriers of its class to full operational capability.”

The $13 billion first-in-class Ford is the first major redesign of a carrier in four decades. It joined the fleet in 2017, eight years after the final Nimitz-class carrier, USS George H.W. Bush.

The aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy is launched into the James River on February 28, 2020.

Ashley Cowan/Huntington Ignalls Industries

The next in the four-carrier Ford class, USS John F. Kennedy, is under construction at Newport News Shipbuilding.In November, the Navy awarded the shipbuilder contract modifications intended to get the Kennedy to the fleet faster and ensure its compatibility with the F-35C, the carrier variant of the Joint Strike Fighter, USNI News reported.The shipyard is adjusting its schedule to incorporate the added work on Kennedy, Duane Bourne, a spokesperson for Huntington Ingalls Industries-Newport News Shipbuilding, told Insider. Kennedy is expected to be delivered in 2024.

The carrier following Kennedy, named Enterprise, “currently is undergoing steel fabrication, and materials and systems procurement,” Bourne said in an email.The fourth Ford-class carrier, named for Doris Miller, who received the Navy Cross for his actions at Pearl Harbor, “is in the early stages of advance manufacturing,” Bourne added.