China’s navy is now the largest on Earth, thanks to decades of modernization efforts and billions of dollars spent. And yet, Beijing has no way of building the aircraft carriers the US Navy has, despite recent headlines: As China grabbed headlines last month with the launch of its brand new aircraft carrier, Fujian, they are still far behind the United States in terms of the quantity and quality of aircraft carriers. The US Navy’s newest class of aircraft carrier, the Gerald R. Ford-class, is a massive, technologically advanced marvel of engineering. With two dozen examples of new technologies, the Ford cost US$120 billion, with each ship costing $13 billion. The resource investment of the Ford program and the sophistication of the design elements clearly indicate that the Chinese have not caught up with the Americans in the construction of aircraft carriers.
An aircraft carrier does one thing, really: projects air power; the aircraft carrier is just a floating, transportable airfield that can be navigated anywhere, whenever a nation needs to project its air power overseas. Accordingly, the productivity of an aircraft carrier is measured in terms of the number of flights the carrier can perform, or its Severance Generation Rate (SGR). The higher the SGR, the better. The Ford-class is expected to produce a 33% higher SGR than its predecessor, the Nimitz-to classify. Able to regularly blow planes off the deck, the Ford can generate 160 sorties per day (and can even increase to 270 if needed in wartime). The increase in SGR comes primarily from the Navy’s new aircraft launch and recovery technology, specifically the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) and Advanced Arrest System (AAG).
On aging Nimitz and Company aircraft carrier, planes are launched using a steam piston catapult. The Ford, however, will feature EMALS, which uses a linear induction motor to create magnetic fields that guide an aircraft along the launch pad. In addition to being cheaper, lighter and less temperamental than the steam catapult system, EMALS is expected to accelerate aircraft smoothly, which will put less strain on airframes being launched. Also, EMALS reloads faster than steam catapults and can be calibrated with precise parameters to allow the launch of a wide variety of aircraft. All of the different benefits of EMALS combine to boost Ford SGR significantly.
As with so many breakthrough technologies, developing EMALS has not always been easy – it has taken time. And money. President Donald Trump even openly criticized EMALS, in an interview with TIME magazine. Despite cost overruns, EMALS is now a fully functional and deployable system, with over 8,000 successful launches to its credit.
While EMALS will launch planes, AAG will help planes land. The AAG is a modern stop gear, which will replace the hydraulic stop gears used on both the Nimitz and Company. Like EMAL, AAG will allow fine tuning and therefore recovery of a wide variety of aircraft.
Despite the incorporation of so many new and expensive technologies, the Ford was designed to reduce long-term costs. A method the Ford will use to reduce costs: decrease in labor requirements. For example, the Nimitz-class carriers required 5,000 sailors to operate. Of course, hiring, housing, feeding and caring for sailors is one of the main expenses of an aircraft carrier. By reducing the number of sailors, the Ford– class carriers will reduce the cost amount. Requiring 1,100 fewer sailors (who have been replaced where possible with modern technologies), the Ford-class will have significantly less personnel costs than the Nimitz. Indeed, between reduced crew requirements and what should be reduced maintenance requirements, the Ford-class carriers are expected to save $4 billion over their 50-year life cycle.
The first one Ford-class is already in use and works commendably. The second Ford-class has already been launched – and two more ships are under construction. While China is clearly a rising nation and Fujian deserves respect as a leap forward for Chinese naval technology, the Ford-class clearly demonstrates that the Americans are still the largest aircraft carrier builders in the world.
Harrison Kass is the senior defense writer at 19FortyFive. A lawyer, pilot, guitarist and minor professional hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a trainee pilot, but was discharged for medical reasons. Harrison is a graduate of Lake Forest College, the University of Oregon, and New York University. He lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken. Follow him on Twitter @harrison_kass.