The USS Gerald R. Ford, America’s newest and most advanced super carrier, is set to be commissioned into active duty on Saturday, after years of construction and testing.  As the crew of the Ford prepares for the event, they’ve offered the media an opportunity to get a sneak peek into the operations of the most expensive warship ever made.

“This ship can basically drive itself,” Petty Officer 1st Class Jose Triana said from the captain’s chair in the aircraft carrier’s pilot house.  A touchscreen navigation display in front of him has replaced the throttle systems employed on earlier carriers to maneuver the ship.  This seemingly significant departure from traditional methods of powering and steering the vessel is just one of the many upgrades the $13 billion vessel can boast over its predecessor, the similarly sized Nimitz class carriers that have long served as the pride and joy of America’s Navy.

Despite not being too far off from the ten Nimitz class carriers already employed by the Navy in terms of size, this new generation of aircraft carrier is a completely new design; America’s first in forty years.  All of the changes are intended to improve the standard of living for those on board, enhance the carrier’s combat capabilities, and incorporate automation to reduce the overall personnel requirement to man the ship.

“One primary difference is the crew composition,” said the ship’s executive officer, Capt. Brent Gaut. “We’ve worked a great deal to automize a lot of what we do.”

The USS Gerald  R. Ford still carries an immense crew, 2,600 sailors to be exact, but according to Gaut, that still marks a reduction of 600 sailors from the crew compliment of the Nimitz class ships.  By reducing the number of sailors the ship needs to function, the Ford promises to cost significantly less to operate over the span of its projected service life of 50 years.

According to the Navy, changes like these promise to reduce operating costs of the carriers by nearly $4 billion each, over their Nimitz class predecessors.  The increased automation and improved ship design will also allow the carrier to launch a claimed 33% more aircraft in the same amount of time than older ships, allowing it to more effectively carry out combat operations.

“The more bombs I get over the target area the more lethal I am,” said Commanding Officer Capt. Rick McCormack.

“Certainly we’ve taken a hard look at the technology,” said Capt. Gaut, McCormack’s second-in-command. “We are always trying to stay a step ahead of the adversary and I think we’ve done that with this carrier.”

Because the ship’s design is entirely new, and many of its systems are unlike anything ever employed on a U.S. Navy vessel, the crew has been forced to train while literally writing the book on how Ford Class carrier operations should function.  Many of the sailors assigned to the ship have been attached to it throughout much of the development process, adding to a real sense of ownership over their work.

“These sailors onboard are experts in the equipment … they are the ones who are testing and evaluating it for the future of Ford-class carriers,” said Command Master Chief Laura Nunley, the highest-ranking enlisted sailor on the carrier. “That alone brings a huge sense of ownership and I couldn’t be any prouder of the crew,” she said.

After its commissioning, the USS Gerald R. Ford will undergo months of testing, as many of the advanced systems, like the ship’s new electromagnetic sling shot for aircraft launches, still need to prove their value and capabilities before being fielded in combat.

“The biggest challenge is to test the systems … in theory they are incredible, but we need to test them and make sure they do what they are supposed to do, which is allow us to put the ship in harm’s way and fight the fight,” said Gaut.

If it proceeds on schedule, the Ford will be ready for deployment in 2020, the same year America’s second Ford class carrier, the USS John F. Kennedy, is expected to be completed.


Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy