The US Navy's new USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier cost $13 billion dollars and will set to sea at a time of great power competition when Russia and China have both perfected missiles designed to sink the massive ships.
"Critics of the aircraft carrier believe that because there are so many weapons systems that are being optimized to go after them, that the aircraft carrier is obsolete," retired Navy officer Bryan McGrath said on the Smithsonian Channel's new "Carriers at War" series.
With the ship costing billions itself, holding billions in aircraft, and as many as 7,000 US Navy sailors and marines, the sinking of a modern US aircraft carrier would be one of the most severe losses of American life and the biggest blows to the US military in history.
But in an episode set to premier on June 10, 2018, on the Ford, US Navy Capt. James C. Rentfrow said the US has taken steps to even the odds.
As Russia and China "continue to develop better offensive capabilities against us, we continue to develop better defensive capabilities against them," Rentfrow said.
The Afloat Forward Staging Base (Interim) USS Ponce (ASB(I) 15) conducts an operational demonstration of the Office of Naval Research (ONR)-sponsored Laser Weapon System (LaWS) while deployed to the Arabian Gulf.(U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams)
Every US aircraft carrier has two sets of onboard missile defenses as well as a close-in weapons system that uses a gun to knock out approaching missiles and aircraft with 4,500 rounds per minute. They all sail in a carrier strike group as well, but aboard the Ford, room for new systems is being made.
Among these are a laser system designed to take out small boats or drones that may be laden with explosives. Six concentrated beams of light combine to put incredible heat on a target at the literal speed of light.
Next is the railgun. This electronic gun fires metal projectiles with no explosive charge. But a railgun shot still creates a fireball because the projectile rips through the air so quickly that the air and metal itself combust.
"Putting one on an aircraft carrier or putting several on an aircraft carrier, to me is a no-brainer," McGrath said of the rail gun.
But lasers and railguns, both electronic-only weapons, require a massive amount of electricity to run. For that reason the Ford's two nuclear reactors have been designed to provide three times the power of the old carriers.
Also, with new catapults and landing gear to launch and land heavier jets, the Ford can get its jets to fly further, thereby keeping them out of harm's way.
Whole new air wing
USS George Washington transits the Atlantic Ocean conducting carrier qualifications with F-35C Lighting II carrier variants, assigned to both the Salty Dogs of Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 23 and the Grim Reapers of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 101, Aug. 16, 2016.(U.S. Navy photo)
Finally, the Ford makes way for a whole new air wing.
"The beauty of the aircraft carrier is that you can radically and dramatically change the weapons systems by never entering the shipping yard," McGrath told Business Insider. Instead of installing new missiles or guns, you simply fly old aircraft off, and fly on new jets.
So whatever new jets the US Navy can come up with, perhaps some with missile-intercepting capabilities, the Ford can handle them.
According to McGrath, it's the flexibility of the carrier that keeps it relevant and worth risking nearly $20 billion in every outing.
"If you believe you have a need for two classic Navy missions, power projection and sea control, and if you believe you're going to continue to have a requirement for those missions, then an aircraft carrier remains a very valuable part of the mission," said McGrath.
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.
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