This weekend, the United States Navy christened what many claim is its greatest engineering achievement: the USS Gerald Ford supercarrier, the first in a completely new line of warships called the Ford class.
The ship, seated in a huge dock on the James River near the southern district of Newport News, Virginia, is the most technologically advanced, the most expensive, and one of the largest warships ever built. That's according to the Navy, but there's not much reason to doubt the assertions. The ship is huge. Rising out of the ocean to the height of a large office complex and stretching out toward the horizon as far as a couple football fields, it’s able to house a town’s population of more than 4,500 people, and, when it’s finally commissioned for duty on the high seas in 2016, it will weigh an astonishing 90,000 tons.
What’s more, the USS Gerald Ford — identified by its hull number, CVN 78, and known conversationally as "the Ford" — is also outfitted with electromagnetic catapults designed to shoot fighter jets into the sky (these had previously needed pneumatic systems; Ford-class carriers offered all-new technology), and the most advanced radar system ever deployed by the US military.
But all this heft and tech prowess isn’t cheap. At the moment, it’s estimated that the Ford will cost taxpayers at least $13 billion — an amount that, despite years of planning and calculation, has risen at least $2.3 billion since the ship’s construction costs were approved at a $10.5 billion budget in 2008. And it might rise higher still. While Newport News Shipbuilding (NNS), the company contracted to construct the Ford, is confident it has built an aircraft carrier that will last well into the 21st century, high-profile critics such as Senator John McCain are asking whether the Ford is worth the cost and the monumental effort it will take to bring it to life.
Brian Nehrbass, the Ford’s Ship Design Manager at NNS, insists there’s a mountain of history one should understand before making any conclusions. He would know: as a designer with NNS, he’s worked on every iteration of the Ford project since it was introduced as a mere concept. That was back in 1996. At that point, the Navy’s state-of-the-art aircraft carriers were Nimitz-class — a fleet of 10 nuclear warships designed in the late 1960s and commissioned in May 1975.
The Nimitz class is still in operation to this day. But in March 1996, Navy officials anticipated they’d need "a new tactical aviation sea-based platform for the 21st century." By October 1998, a concept ship was authorized, with requests for a large deck that would hold 75 aircraft and a new nuclear propulsion plant. As designs progressed over the next decade, those requests became more precise and more numerous.
"Nimitz class was designed in an era when, in essence, manpower and sailors were free," Nehrbass says. "It was designed to operate with the draft. People were easy to get."
"Everything else is fair game."
In 1975, the Navy included a total of 545,725 active-duty sailors. By 1996 that number had dropped to 419,075. Today, it’s even fewer; at 323,951, Navy personnel numbers have declined by about 41 percent since the first Nimitz-class carrier was commissioned. These warships were designed for 6,100 sailors. The next class would need to do more with fewer people. That meant deploying more planes faster, building longer-lasting and more advanced on-board tools, and generating more electricity to support these advanced tools.
With these requests in hand, NNS moved forward on its own. "The Navy’s ship specifications tell us what we must do and what we can’t do," Nehrbass explains. "Everything else is fair game." NSS used advanced 3D-modeling tools to put together a dream warship based on its constraints and its designers’ creativity. They arrived at some ambitious ideas.
While Nimitz-class designs used steam to keep ships running, the Ford will use electricity exclusively. That’ll allow many of the ship’s components to operate longer (because steam causes rust) and it’ll also allow for many innovations that have been desired among sailors for years, but will only make their operational debuts on the Ford.
Four innovations stand out.
The first is something called "flexible infrastructure architecture." This is a modular design that will allow spaces on the ship to be adaptable, like snap-in-place building blocks, without the use of "hot work" such as welding. So if the Navy wants to convert a room from being a storage space, for example, or living quarters, into an office or a boardroom, it can do that easily and quickly without having to hire big crews to take care of the work.
An electromagnetic field that catapults aircraft into the sky
The Advanced Weapons Elevators are another innovation. Relying on electromagnetic fields instead of cables, these massive elevators can carry twice as much material than their predecessors on Nimitz-class warships and can operate with fewer sailors at the helm.
A third major change is the use of an Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMAL). These use an electromagnetic field to catapult aircraft into the sky. Previous versions of these launchers operated via steam and cables. Compared to their predecessors, EMALs are lighter, smaller, more efficient, and more reliable. They can also launch a fighter jet every 45 seconds — a major improvement over past tech that, Nehrbass says, got an additional boost because designers studied pit stops during NASCAR races to make sure planes were situated on the flight deck to get up and running as quickly as possible.
And then there’s the multifunction radar. Known as a Dual-Band Radar, it combines the tools used for big picture scans and precision targeting. In the past, those activities were completely separate, involving two different pieces of equipment. This means fewer radar antennas spinning at the ship’s 555-metric-ton island — the control center rising from the ship's deck — and fewer people required to keep tabs on surroundings.
Are innovations like these worth the $13 billion tab? A report from the Government Accountability Office in September looking specifically at the Ford suggested perhaps not.
The Navy awarded a multibillion dollar contract for detail design and construction of CVN 78 in 2008, even in light of substantial technology development risks and an overly optimistic budget. Now, nearly 5 years later, the cost of the lead ship has increased by more than $2.3 billion and many risks still remain which are likely to lead to further cost increases before the ship is completed. Although the ship is now more than half constructed, and promises significant capability increases over existing carriers, it is still grappling with land-based testing delays and system reliability deficiencies for critical government-provided technologies, a high-risk operational testing strategy, potentially unachievable performance requirements, and cost estimating uncertainties.
Nehrbass doesn’t refute the conclusions, but asks for some leniency.
"There’s a lot of risk involved in bringing all this technology together and making it work," he says. "As good as we engineers think we are, we’re not always able to make things go the way we want them to."
Plus, Nehrbass says, "the unpredictability of some of these things do drive costs up."
"There’s a lot of risk involved in bringing all this technology together and making it work."
Indeed, most of the advanced technology on the Ford has never been tested at sea, let alone deployed for battle. So it’s difficult to predict how it’ll operate in a real-time event, or what it’ll require to function optimally.
Budget uncertainty aside, the christening ceremony this weekend was a nautical tradition. With US warships, the tradition is to have a female sponsor (in this case, it’s former president Gerald Ford’s daughter, Susan Ford Bales) break a champagne bottle on the ship’s bow. She’ll then do her best to regularly communicate with the ship's crew. That’ll be an ongoing commitment — one that will continue for the next three years as the ship is readied for commissioning and departure, as well as into its operation as a military vessel, which, if history is any indication, could extend for another half-century.
"This is a brand-new ship," Nehrbass continues. "There were a lot of things we had to learn about how to build it. It’s a learning process in every way."