Earlier this week, China’s People’s Liberation Army-Navy received its second aircraft carrier — and the first that China built on its own. The announcement that China now has two operational aircraft carriers was seen by some as a dramatic uptick in China’s maritime capabilities. But as we’ve discussed on SOFREP before, the nation’s quickly growing Navy still faces a number of challenges before their new carrier, dubbed the Shangdong, poses a real threat to American interests outside of the heavily contested waterways of the Pacific.

Just days later, Huntington Ingalls Industries (HII) announced that America’s newest aircraft carrier, the Ford class USS John F. Kennedy, has taken to the water for the first time.

“This incredible ship before us today serves as the biggest instrument of deterrence and carries our nation’s pride and hope for a better world,” said former NASA Administrator and retired U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Charles F. Bolden Jr.

“This vessel is a symbol of our nation’s strength, technical achievement and critical service our men and women provide for this nation and the entire world.”

Unlike China’s carriers, which rely on diesel power, the Kennedy joins the rest of America’s nuclear carrier fleet, though like the class namesake USS Gerald R. Ford, the Kennedy’s reactors are significantly more powerful than those found in its Nimitz-class predecessors. In fact, the Kennedy and Ford boast much more power than they need to conduct current naval operations, since it is expected that the vessels’ power requirements will grow as new energy-based weapon systems come to fruition.

Other things that set the Kennedy apart from carriers of the past include: a redesigned flight deck and ship interior aimed at improving both efficiency and living conditions aboard the carrier; a theoretically higher sortie rate thanks in part to new weapons elevators (that have proven troublesome thus far on the Ford); and a new electromagnetic aircraft launch system that is supposed to reduce power requirements and expedite aircraft launch and recovery operations. Thanks to improvements in automated systems, the Ford class of carriers is slightly larger, but requires fewer personnel to operate when compared to their Nimitz-class counterparts.

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USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78)  U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ridge Leoni

The Kennedy is still a long way off from joining the fight, despite its short jaunt in the James River this week. Over the next two and a half years, the massive ship will see work on its berthing and mess areas, as well as extensive testing of its various combat and electrical systems. It’s expected to join the fleet formally sometime in 2022. Of course, if the USS Gerald R. Ford has been any indicator, that deadline may be pushed back.

Repeated setbacks have delayed the Ford from reaching full duty; but Newport News Shipbuilding, the parent company of Huntington Ingalls Industries, says that they’re leveraging the hard lessons learned throughout the Ford’s production to ensure the Kennedy reaches the fleet on time and on budget.