USS Gerald Ford: The 13 Billion Dollar Aircraft Super-Carrier

By December 23, 2015 Article, Technology No Comments

^The USS Gerald Ford: Note how Tiny the Service Boats Look in its Comparison Image Courtesy of U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist Second Class Aidan P. Campbell at

Bigger . . . & Definitely Better

Northrop Grumman Newport News in Virginia has built all U.S. aircraft carriers since the 1960s. Now, it is building another. But this is not just another carrier.

Perhaps a manifestation of the U.S. Navy’s greatest engineering achievement, this super-carrier may well be the future of aircraft carriers. Enter the USS Gerald Ford (CVN-78).

When it enters service, the CVN-78 will be the largest aircraft carrier ever to sail in the seas. And at $13billion, it is also the most expensive as also the most technologically sophisticated warship of its kind. The price may cross $13billion by the time it is deployed.

Set to enter service in early 2016, the nuclear-powered USS Gerald Ford has unlimited range. Imagine this: it can sail without refueling for a staggering 22-25 years. It is also the U.S. Navy’s first aircraft carrier to be designed using a 3-D product model.

CVN-78 will be the first ship of the Ford Class aircraft carriers. In 2020, the U.S. Navy will commission the second ship of this class viz. the USS John F Kennedy (CVN-79). The Navy plans on building ten Ford Class ships by 2058.


Gerald Ford in the U.S. Navy in his Younger Days Image Courtesy of Wikifreund at Retrieved From

Their primary objective is to relieve the pressure off the U.S. Navy’s over-deployed aircraft carriers. Ford Class super-carriers will replace some of the presently operational Nimitz Class Carriers. The USS Gerald Ford (CVN-78) will replace the USS Enterprise (CVN-65).

A whole range of cutting-edge technologies join forces to make the Ford Class vessels capable of launching more number of aircrafts each day than their predecessors. Plus, these are lighter, stealthier, better armed, and possess upgraded tracking systems.

What is more, they can launch and land large aircrafts and small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with equal ease. And with tons of inbuilt redundancy, Ford Class vessels will better accommodate technically upgraded equipment in the future.

USS Gerald Ford is among the rare ships named after a living person. For, Gerald R. Ford was alive when the authorities decided to name the super-carrier after him. Mr. Ford, the 38th President of the U.S. in 1974-77, served on the aircraft carrier Monterey during World War II (1939-45).

As always, there are the detractors. Some observers have raised doubts on continuing with exorbitant aircraft carriers when China is developing missiles that can wreck them from great distances. Then again, conventional wars between nations are not as common as before.

The Strategic Importance of Aircraft Carriers & the Counterview

Aircraft carriers are strategically important to a country’s defense and foreign policy. These are an integral element of the instruments through which the U.S. maintains a global military presence.

These mega warships enable a nation to extend its air power close to a theater of war without investing in local air bases. And it can do so even if the war zone is at great distances from its national boundaries. Please note, it costs a fortune to build and maintain overseas air bases.


Artist’s Impression of the USS Gerald Ford Image Courtesy of U.S. Navy at Retrieved From


Fighter jets have limited ranges. This restricts their strike power to a limited area. Aircraft carriers carry fighter planes close to the war zone and overcome this limitation. Among comparable military vessels, present day carriers are least prone to attacks.

Israel for example bombed Iraq’s in-range Osirak Nuclear Reactor in 1981 with fighter planes. Despite all its willingness, it could not bomb Iran’s apparently-civilian nuclear facilities that are located further east and out of range of Israeli jets. And Israel does not have aircraft carriers.

Critics point to the carriers’ exorbitant cost, (apparently-limited) utility, and the fact that the U.S. already has many. Although the official count of aircraft carriers with the U.S. Navy is 10, the U.S. has a total of 19 ships that can be labeled as aircraft carriers.

Arguments on their cost are specious at best. For one, an aircraft carrier has a life of 50 years. And the return on investment is fantastic because they provide immense leverage in international politics.

Imagine the value of U.S. interests they help protect and expand in situations such as tensions around the Strait of Hormuz, the world’s most important choke point through which passes about 20% of the world’s petroleum and 35% of petroleum traded globally by sea.

Now, the deterrence inspired by aircraft carriers is great. Forget about the air strikes they can launch. The mere possibility of such strikes is normally enough to prevent the escalation of conflicts. After all, peace usually comes only if you prepare for war.


The USS Theodore Roosevelt Image Courtesy of U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist Second Class Michael D. Cole at Retrieved From

While supporting Operation Enduring Freedom (U.S.’ Global War on Terror), the USS Theodore Roosevelt, a Nimitz Class carrier, remained deployed for 159 days on a trot without visiting a port. Not even for refueling. Now, that is genuine endurance!

Another criticism is their impending obsolescence in light of China developing 950nautical-mile range anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM) that can damage carriers.

In the past, Soviet submarines and nuclear weapons too were branded as ‘carrier killers’. But technological innovation and adaptability helped carriers negate this threat. The USS Enterprise that the USS Gerald Ford is replacing stayed relevant for 50 years through such innovation.

This very innovation will see aircraft carriers through the technological challenge. And more than that, technological advances will expand the utility of the aircraft carrier in the 21st century.

Evolution & Technical Details

Although the Nimitz Class vessels incorporated umpteen fresh technologies over their lifecycle, their ability to integrate any more technical advances is virtually over.

The USS Enterprise Image Courtesy of U.S. Navy at Retrieved From

The USS Enterprise
Image Courtesy of U.S. Navy at
Retrieved From

Their number one problem is limited power generation capacity. Then, there is the erosion of their stability on account of the weight and positioning of refits based on latest technologies.

Although the CVN-78 is similar to Nimitz Class carriers on many counts, many of its features are a marked improvement:

  • Better Space Management with Flexible-Modular Architecture makes the super-carrier capable of supporting 160-220 sorties a day. It also makes the ship’s spaces more adaptable.

Such features include:

  • Smaller and More-Aft Located Island simplifies and quickens the movement of aircrafts and lends space for centralized refueling and rearming

By locating aircraft service stations near the rearming and refueling points and by rerouting the path of weapons to aircraft stops, designers have ensured higher sortie rates

Designers relocated the flag bridge to the lower deck to cut down the island size. They also insured that the flow path of ammunition does not cross the path of aircraft movement

  • Lower Weight by cutting down on the number of hangar bays and aircraft elevators. The vessel uses carbon composite sinks instead of steel to cut weight
  • Deck Extensions expand the aircraft parking space

Technical Specifications

Feature Performance
Aircrafts Carried 75+
Range Unlimited 20-25 years (Nuclear Propelled)
Speed 30+ knots
Flight Deck Dimensions 333m x 78m


1,092’ x 256’

Displacement 100,000tons @ Full Load
Length 337m / 1,106’ (feet)
Beam 78m / 256’ @ Flight Deck

41m / 134’ @ Waterline

Height 76m / 250’
Draft 12m / 39’
Installed Power 2 x 300MW Betchel A1B Nuclear Reactors
Propulsion 4 x 30t Bronze Propellers
Number of Decks 25
Complement 508 Officers

3,789 Enlisted


  • Power Generation via two nuclear reactors of 300MW each (vis-à-vis 100MW each reactors aboard Nimitz Class carriers) generates enough power to support the hi-tech onboard equipment and spare the ship of refueling stresses for 22-25 years

With fewer pipes and valves, the construction is simpler and more compact. It requires minimum maintenance and manpower

With more electrical power, the super-carrier can employ directed-energy and laser weapons such as missile interceptors and rail guns

  • Advanced Weapons Elevators carry twice the load carried by those on Nimitz carriers by using electromagnetic fields instead of cables
  • Electro-Magnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) is a significant technical breakthrough. EMALS is smaller, lighter, more efficient, more powerful, and easier to control than the Steam-Propelled C-13 Catapults launch system of the Nimitz Class carriers
EMALS: Computer Drawing Image Courtesy of Tosaka at

EMALS: Computer Drawing
Image Courtesy of Tosaka at

A linear electromagnetic accelerator motor generates more electrical power to launch one large aircraft every 45 seconds. It also launches small UAVs without damaging them. Steam catapults cannot launch lighter UAVs and steam promotes rust

The CVN-78 supports 160 sorties a day. These are escalated to 220 during contingencies. Nimitz Class vessels can support only 140 sorties

That apart, EMALS contributes to refined control over aircraft acceleration. This transforms into:

  • lesser stresses to the aircraft and the pilot
  • broader range of wind-over-deck speed needed for the launch sequence
  • slower launch speed necessary for UAVs
  • Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG) Landing System uses electromagnetics to facilitate the smooth, low-stress landing of UAVs as well as large aircrafts. The current hydraulic system can do so only for large airplanes
  • Dual Band Radar (DBR) integrates the S-Band Volume Search Radar and the X-Band Multifunction Radar making it the most advanced radar ever used by the U.S. Navy
Diagram of the CVN-78’s Radar Conex Projections Image Courtesy of Christian Wolff at

Diagram of the CVN-78’s Radar Conex Projections
Image Courtesy of Christian Wolff at

The first successful combination of these two frequency bands in one radar, this integrates large picture scans and precision targeting lowering the number of radars and required manpower

  • Weight and Stability Allowance will enable latest technology refitting over its 50-year service life without affecting its stability

Other features include:

  • Better Stealth Features
  • Greater Automation lowers crew requirements by 500-900
  • 30% Cut in Maintenance Requirements through cutting-edge technology
  • Diminished Operational Costs
  • Greater Efficiency
  • Interoperability
  • Flexible Lower Decks for rapid reconfiguration

Capable of hosting a maximum of 90 aircrafts, the super-carrier will carry:

  • F-35 Joint Strike Fighter
  • E-2D Advanced Hawkeye
  • MH-60R/S Helicopters
  • F/A-18E/F Super Hornet
  • EA-18G Growler Electronic Attack Aircraft
  • Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles
  • Unmanned Air Vehicles
Under Construction USS Gerald Ford Image Courtesy of U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist First Class Joshua J. Wahl Retrieved From

Under Construction USS Gerald Ford
Image Courtesy of U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist First Class Joshua J. Wahl
Retrieved From

Armaments include:

  • Anti Aircraft Missiles:
  • 2 x RIM-162 ESSM
  • 2 x RIM-116 RAM

ESSM stands for Raytheon Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile known for its defensive capabilities against high-speed and superbly-maneuverable anti-ship missiles

RAM is Rolling Airframe Missile that operates as the close-in weapon system

  • Guns:
  • 2 x Phalanx CIWS
  • 4 x M2 0.5 Cal (12.7mm) Machine Guns


With the lofty goal of keeping the Ford Class super-carriers relevant for a century, designers have left the door open for technologies such as dynamic armor, free-electron laser-directed energy weapons, and tracking systems.

CVN-78’s nuclear reactors produce twice as much power as is needed to run its systems at present. Such inbuilt redundancy will allow smooth integration of technological developments. Notwithstanding the counterviews, the species of aircraft carriers is alive and kicking!

Keep reading our blog for more such updates on the developments in the world of shipbuilding and their wider implications.

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