The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier PCU Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) – PCU stands for Pre-Commissioning Unit – completed its sea trials earlier this month. This was supposed to have happened a while ago – in fact, the Navy retired USS Enterprise (CVN 65) in 2012 based on the assumption the Ford would be ready in 2015.
The Gerald R. Ford, like the Littoral Combat Ship and the Zumwalt, had its design hiccups. But it also has a number of new technologies – major advances over the Nimitz-class that has been a bulwark for America since 1975.
So, what makes this $10.44 billion carrier so special? Why spend $26 billion to make a whole new design? Well, here is some of what we got for it:
U.S. Navy photo
1. More Flight Deck Space
The Gerald R. Ford's flight deck has been re-designed to help generate at least 25 percent more sorties per day than the Nimitz-class carriers can. Among the ways this was done was to reduce the number of aircraft elevators from four to three. The carrier's island has been moved back by 140 feet, and it is 20 feet shorter. They also moved it three feet more from the center.
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication 1st Class Joshua Sheppard
The Electro-Magnetic Aircraft Launch System is perhaps the biggest change on these vessels. The traditional method to launch planes for decades has been the steam catapult. While it has done the job, there is a huge price paid by the aircraft. Really, the entire carrier launch and recovery cycle has been a case of officially-sanctioned Tomcat, Hornet, Phantom, Hawkeye, Viking, and Greyhound abuse.
Or, in a shorter version, carrier planes get the sh*t beat out of them.
EMALS is different. According to a 2007 DefenseTech.org article, it allows much more precision in terms of how much force is used to launch a plane. This lessens the stress on the airframe, allowing a combat plane to last longer. That precision also allows it to launch lighter and heavier planes than the current steam catapults.
There are other benefits, too, including fewer steam pipes around the ship, and reduced maintenance requirements.
An F-14B Tomcat is catapulted from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) during evening flight operations in the Persian Gulf on Dec. 4, 2004. DoD photo by Airman Kristopher Wilson, U.S. Navy. (Released)
3. Advanced Arresting Gear
The carrier landings – really controlled crashes – are another item that new technology will change. Like EMALS, this system is intended to reduce the stress on airframes. This system has been plagued by trouble, drawing fire from the DOD's Inspector General. The San Diego Reader reported that the IG claims the system is still "unproven."
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Christopher Gaines
4. New Reactors
The carrier is also debuting the new A1B reactors from Bechtel. The big change here is that the plant delivers 300 percent of the electrical output that the reactors on board the USS Nimitz (CVN 68) and her sisters can. GlobalSecurity.org notes two other benefits: The A1B requires less manning, and it has about half of the pipes, valves, condensers, and pumps. This cuts the maintenance requirements a lot.
USS Gerald R. Ford underway, propelled by two A1B reactors. (US Navy photo)
All in all, if everything works, the Gerald R. Ford will be able to do more than a Nimitz can do, while having less crew on board.