What makes the Ford-class aircraft carrier – the largest of all time – so expensive?


Meet him Ford-Classroom: The newest and largest aircraft carrier ever built by the United States Navy is finally get ready for its first deployment. The ASU Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) was scheduled to enter service in 2017; eight years after the start of construction in 2009 – which was still longer than the usual five-year time frame for the construction of the carrier of the former Nimitz-classroom.

However, difficulties in the development process and other delays with the advanced systems used on the carrier further extended the deployment and construction of the carrier by another five years.

The lessons of history

During World War II, American industry produced the most numerous of its class of capital ships, the Essex-class aircraft carrier. In just nine years, five less than the time it took to build and prepare the CVN-78 for service, a total of twenty-four out of thirty-two planned Essex-class flattops were built and fourteen of the class warships were able to engage in combat operations.

In addition, an impressive number of 122 escort carriers were also built in six different classes during the war. Most of these “baby flattops” were built on merchantman or tanker hulls, while some were even built from the keel up like actual carriers.

Fast forward to today.

The ASU Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) may be the the largest aircraft carrier in the world and the largest warship ever built in terms of displacement. Yet it’s also twenty-seven percent over budget and years behind schedule.

Maybe bigger isn’t better.

According to a recent publication Congressional Research Service Report, “Navy Ford (CVN-78) Class Aircraft Carrier Program: Background and Issues for Congress”, one issue was the lack of facilities to actually produce ships of its size. While the United States was able to build warships nationwide during World War II, currently Huntington Ingalls Industries/Newport News Shipbuilding (HII/NNS), of Newport News, VA. HII/NNS is the only US shipyard capable of building large-deck nuclear aircraft carriers.

However, the aircraft carrier manufacturing industrial base also includes about 2,000 suppliers in 46 states.

“The Ford-class design uses the basic hull form of the Nimitz class but incorporates several improvements, including features allowing the ship to generate more aircraft sorties per day, more electrical power to support the ship’s systems and features allowing the ship to be operated by several hundred sailors in less than one NimitzNimitz-class ship, reducing 50-year lifecycle operating and support (O&S) costs for each ship by approximately $4 billion over the Nimitz-class design, the Navy estimates. Navy plans call for the purchase of at least four Ford-class aircraft carriers – CVN-78, CVN-79, CVN-80 and CVN-81,” the report said.

Ford-Class: too many advanced systems

Another problem was that the lead ship of a new, more advanced class of aircraft carrier was intended to augment the Navy’s strike power, but as The daily press reported, it started on its “fast track” two decades ago, but instead resulted in cost overruns of hundreds of millions of dollars to solve unexpected problems. Workers at Newport News Shipbuilding even had to “remake finished parts of the 1,092-foot-long carrier” to fix lingering issues.

“Ford’s long road to first deployment, now slated for next year, has sparked years of criticism of how the Navy acquires ships — and how it sells the need for multi-billion dollar budgets to the Congress. The Navy told Congress in 2007 that it would cost $10.49 billion. It actually cost $13.316 billion,” The daily press added.

The carrier’s first deployment was thus delayed by the need to complete work on the ship’s weapons elevators and to correct other technical problems aboard the ship. Navy officials say the ship’s first deployment will be in fall 2022, more than five years after it was commissioned.

Ford-Class: new class, new problems

Many of the issues have to do with the fact that this is the first new class of aircraft carrier designed in over three decades. It was developed as part of the Navy CVN 21 Program, which will consist of a planned total of ten aircraft carriers that will replace the Navy’s aging aircraft carriers on a one-to-one basis. The class has a shell similar to the Nimitz-class – intended to speed up development and production – but new technologies were introduced, including an electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS). Other advanced features aimed to improve efficiency and reduce operating costs.

In theory, Gerald R. Ford can apparently launch and recover thirty-three percent more aircraft over a 12-hour period, and although it is slightly larger than its predecessor, it can operate with seventeen percent fewer sailors.

Yet preparing the ship for her first deployment was anything but easy. There has been everything since engine problems to problems with the electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS), as well as quirks with weapon elevators to the toilet clogging. A long list of fixes was required, all of which cost money and delayed progress.

Built by Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Newport News Shipbuilding, the carrier is 1,092 feet long and 134 feet wide, while the flight deck is 256 feet wide. USS Gerald R. Ford moves around 100,000 long tons and is powered by two four-well nuclear reactors, allowing the aircraft carrier to reach speeds in excess of thirty knots. Larger in size than the Nimitzclass carriers, Gerald R. Ford can operate with a reduced crew thanks to a greater focus on automation, and the carrier will also see a reduction in maintenance requirements, as well as a reduction in crew workload. This will improve the quality of life for the crew, including better berthing compartments, larger gyms and training facilities, and more ergonomic workspaces.

The question now is whether such a massive warship is still needed today and whether the Ford-class will be worth the cost.

Today’s editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites. He writes regularly on military hardware and is the author of several books on military headgear, including A gallery of military hairstyles, which is available on Amazon.com. Peter is also a Contributing author for Forbes.

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