What if a car dealership sold you a new, state-of-the-art vehicle which had more bells and whistles than you could possibly imagine.
And then imagine that the car salesman told you that you can’t really drive it in real conditions, and, it will have to be tested for about 10 or 12 years.
Oh, and, you’ll have to continue paying for updates and techno-fixes. But really, you’re getting a great, great car.
Now fast forward to the coast of Norfolk, Virginia, where the USS Gerald R. Ford flattop, the US Navy’s newest class of supercarrier, is being put through its paces with a host of invited media in tow.
According to Military.com, which got a hands-on, sneak peek of the massive ship, it has the same overall footprint as the predecessor Nimitz class, but its use of space is different.
The Ford’s “island,” which houses its command center, is set 140 feet further aft and has been slightly redesigned. It creates a more substantial stretch of aircraft flight line at the fore, with five usable acres compared with the Nimitz’s four and a half.
Powered by two nuclear reactors, it is longer than three football fields and displaces 100,000 tons. When the air wing is attached, the Ford provides a base for dozens of jets and helicopters and more than 4,500 sailors.
That and other much-publicized design features, such as advanced weapons elevators and in-deck fueling stations, are intended to allow the carrier to launch more aircraft sorties at a faster rate, Military.com reported.
But how many more sorties, and how much faster? The captain of the Ford and other leaders say they just don’t know yet.
Which may seem odd, considering the US$12-plus billion carrier was christened in 2013, and, may not see operational deployment until 2024 or 2025, after it is modified to accommodate the troubled F-35C Joint Strike Fighter.
Which begs the question, is the Pentagon getting its money’s worth, or is this just a bleeding bottomless pit. (Apologies to all car dealers.)
According to military.com, the Ford was reminiscent of an avian Noah’s Ark as E-2C Hawkeyes passed overhead in pairs, and F/A-18 Super Hornets and C-2 Greyhound delivery planes launched and descended — the sky teeming with the silhouettes of Navy birds.
Some 35 aircraft operated from the ship as it got underway for post-delivery test and trial (PDT&T).
And while the famously expensive and tech-loaded carrier is still years from being ready for its first deployment, officials say they’re about 17% ahead on testing, and optimistic that the ship’s history of developmental delays is behind it.
That’s right, 17%. On a ship that was launched 7 years ago … and, has several years to go.
During a 12-plane Super Hornet launch and recovery period that Military.com observed, the ship’s digitally controlled Advanced Arresting Gear, replacing the legacy hydraulic aircraft recovery system, operated without a hitch, with all landing aircraft catching the first or second of the system’s three wires.
Several aircraft were waved off as crew raced to reset the deck from a previous landing; in one case, crew members ran to free a jet that hadn’t properly unhooked itself from a loop of the massive recovery cable.
Similarly, the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System, or EMALS, which replaces the older steam-based catapult system, got planes airborne without a noticeable hitch, Military.com reported.
But as recently as this summer, the system was working out bugs; on June 2, the crew of the Ford discovered an issue with the EMALS power handling system requiring a workaround, USNI News reported.
Ford’s commanding officer, Capt. J.J. Cummings, told Military.com that no similar issues had come up since the PDT&T underway began in early November.
“Sure, occasional glitches, quick reset, back in the fight, no impact of mission,” he said. “So we get those occasionally. And we’re working through those, because we’re still in post-delivery test and trial, but again, no impact on the recovery or no impact to the launch.”
Cummings emphasized that operating the software for the Advanced Arresting Gear in particular requires substantial on-the-job training, and sailors are still building their familiarity with it and learning how to troubleshoot issues.
The ship’s current objective is to recover an aircraft every 55 seconds; already, during PDT&T, the crew has been able to get four jets airborne, from four different catapults, in the space of one minute, 47 seconds.
“We’re rapidly hitting the point where the limitation on EMALS is how fast the flight deck crew can taxi aircraft in the shuttle, get us hooked up, run through our pre-launch checks, and then get the aircraft airborne,” Rear Adm. Craig Clapperton, commanding officer of Carrier Strike Group 12, told reporters aboard the Ford.
“What we have seen since we first came out here in March to where we are now in November, it’s night and day from where we were, and it’s trending in a great direction.”
In January, the Ford had completed 747 aircraft launches since it was delivered to the Navy in May 2017; it now has nearly 6,000.
Still ahead for the Ford is full-ship shock trials this spring, in which the carrier’s ability to withstand an enemy attack of up to three shots is tested.
Also, the continuing problem with the elevators — which are crucial to the movement of aircraft. The issue? They don’t always work.
In fact, seven years after its christening, only six of the supercarrier’s 11 elevators were running. During this cruise, contractors with Newport News Shipbuilding were working to get the seventh of 11 fixed.
According to The Washington Times, the Navy has made personnel shake-ups. It recently sacked Ford program manager Capt. Ron Rutan and replaced him with the officer who oversaw development of the amphibious transport dock.
The new manager, Capt. Brian Metcalf, had been serving as the executive assistant to Vice Adm. William Galinis, commander of Naval Sea Systems Command, the largest of the Navy’s five system commands.
There are also those who say, the Ford was essentially a mistake.
Jerry Hendrix, a retired US Navy captain and military analyst, said the most glaring problem is that the Ford is the wrong ship for its most likely mission.
The Pentagon is in the midst of a major mission shift, announced in 2018, from a focus on terrorism and nonstate groups such as the Islamic State to a more traditional targeting of nation-state rivals, particularly China.
Designed to operate in a relatively low-threat environment such as the Arabian Gulf, the carrier is ill-suited “for implementing the current National Defense Strategy, which focuses on great-power competition,” Hendrix wrote in an essay in National Review.
He advocates midsized carriers that would be less technologically complex and far more affordable to build in larger numbers.
“The Navy says it needs carriers to deter enemies and win wars. It should move rapidly to a new design that can fully support the National Defense Strategy by efficiently doing both,” Capt. Hendrix wrote.
However, Navy leaders believe the Ford promises not only a newer and more advanced class of ship, but also updates to the way the strike group fights.
“You know, what I think we’re really trying to make sure that we learn how to do is, this is going to be a Ford strike group, not a Nimitz strike group,” Clapperton said.
“And certainly all of us have experience operating an Nimitz strike group. So what we’re really trying to figure out is, what are some of the things that are going to be different with a Ford strike group. This is only our first iteration of that.”
Ultimately, in the time and associated spiralling costs it takes to get a Ford class supercarrier up and running, China will have added several carriers to its already potent stable.
It’s all great to break launch and catch records, but what good is it if you’re not even in the fight? Perhaps it’s too late to take that fancy car, back to that slimy dealer.
Sources: Military.com, The Washington Times, National Review