Newport News Shipbuilding/Illustration by Mike Dillard
A ship with everything
It's the most technologically advanced aircraft carrier ever made. And the most expensive. It's almost certainly the most controversial.
Meet the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78), the first of a brand new class of aircraft carrier. Measuring 1,106 feet long and 250 feet high, the warship is so big -- the biggest ever built, in fact -- that it has three gyms, its own onboard store, a time capsule and a coffee shop where sailors can get their Starbucks fix.
Did we mention it can carry more planes -- and more types of planes -- than any carrier built before it? If you're a military hardware junkie, or if you just like big stuff with huge price tags, the Gerald R. Ford has it all.
US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Andrew J. Sneeringer
But the years-long construction has infuriated politicians and taxpayers. The carrier may be cool, but it's also late -- as in, several years behind schedule. Even worse, it's also billions over budget.
Oh, one other thing: Many of the next-generation technologies proposed for the ship are failing at an alarming rate. Malfunctions are so widespread even the president of the United States has mused that the ship should revert back to Cold War-era steam technology.
How did things go so wrong with this ship? Can the problems be fixed? How, exactly, do you even build a 110,000-ton warship, anyway? And given the tons and tons of very real economic problems this country faces every day, you've gotta ask: Is this shiny new military toy even worth it?
Here's the full story of how this celebrated new carrier class got its start, and how the construction veered way off track.
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Alan Lewis
The Pokemon connection
It's not every day you get a new carrier class. It's not even every decade. These things are expensive to design and to research -- think roughly $4.7 billion.
But America's military also benefits from having the latest tech. The Ford's predecessor, the Nimitz class, was built to last 50 years, but its ability to adopt new tech? Not so great. America needed a tech-friendlier carrier. Enter the Ford class, whose ships are expected to both accommodate new technologies more easily and last up to 90 years.
The USS Gerald R. Ford represents the first new class of carrier since the USS Nimitz was commissioned in 1975.
John Whalen/Huntington Ingalls Industries
With the Ford, US aircraft carriers are getting a ton of very effective bells and whistles. Even the design process is high-tech; the Ford is the first aircraft carrier to be made using virtual reality and augmented reality technology.
Before they even started building, engineers at Newport News Shipbuilding, in Virginia, created a full-scale, virtual 3D model of the ship that was big enough to walk around inside of, as if it was finished in real life. During the building phase for each ship, workers could use Pokemon Go-type augmented reality tech to see where everything is meant to go, from the walls to the 14 million feet of electrical and fiber optic wiring.
Newport News Shipbuilding
Swap 'em out
The ship is modular, too. Smaller pieces are assembled elsewhere, and then sent to the shipyard to be added to the carrier. This way, when it comes time to upgrade the ship, these modular pieces can be easily swapped out, and that coveted newer tech can be plugged right in.
Of course, there were some more down-to-earth renovations, too. Elevators have been moved so bombs and missiles wouldn't need to be carted from one side of the ship to the other. The location of the island (that's the ship's command center) has shifted, too, reducing the need to rearrange aircraft after landing.
And here's what it adds up to: Ford-class carriers will be able to deploy 25% more planes than a Nimitz-class carrier. The Ford design is so efficient and automated, in fact, that it will require a crew of just 4,550 (including ship, air wing and staff) as compared to the 5,500-person crews aboard Nimitz class ships.
And the improvements don't stop there.
John Whalen/Huntington Ingalls Industries
Slabs of steel
Ever wonder how you even build one of these things? Construction on the USS Gerald R. Ford began back on August 11, 2005, when defense contractor Northrop Grumman ceremoniously cut the first piece of steel, a 15-ton plate, for it.
But a shipbuilder really can't get going before the laying of the keel. That's a key structural component on the bottom of a ship's frame. So, for the Gerald Ford, the next big step came on Nov. 14, 2009, when Northrop Grumman held another ceremony to celebrate the laying of the keel. Once the keel is declared "well and truly laid," the actual shipbuilding process is said to officially begin.
In case you were wondering, a goal was also laid out: Make a ship worthy of President Ford.
"Integrity, commitment, steadfastness, honesty and uncompromising ethics," said Mike Petters, corporate vice president and president of Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding. "These are the qualities we will model as we take steel, electronics and millions of components, to create a fitting tribute and living testament to a president who took a country in need and in pain and provided a much needed sense of calm and unity."
Then came the work. And a big dose of reality.
Ricky Thompson, Newport News Shipbuilding
Weight in gold
Assembling an aircraft carrier takes, well, a lot. The heaviest component of the USS Gerald R. Ford, the gallery-deck-to-flight-deck bridge, weighs in at 1,131 tons (that's 2.26 million pounds). The upper bow unit and lower bow unit, meanwhile, are 868 and 750 tons, respectively.
Fortunately, Newport News Shipbuilding has a 1,157-ton craneto lift everything into place.
Of course, you need more than just a crane to get the job done. You need serious manpower, too. It takes roughly 5,000 people to build and assemble a Ford-class carrier.
But that's not all. The USS Gerald R. Ford requires 4 million pounds of metal just to weld the ship together. And you can't just leave it looking all rusty when it's done -- the ship needs to be painted, too. It takes 200,000 gallons of paint to cover the ship, and between 120 and 170 painters.
Even the anchor of the USS Gerald R. Ford gets coated with paint. The anchor's special gold color shows that the ship's crew re-enlisted at a high enough rate to earn the Navy's Retention Excellence Award.
John Whalen/Huntington Ingalls Industries
Before the flood
It also takes a long time to assemble the heavy steel plates required for an aircraft carrier. On May 7, 2013, three years after building began, the project reached 100% structural completion. By then, the ship had a sponsor, Susan Bales Ford, daughter of the late president.
"Shipbuilders of Newport News," she later said, "you are a national treasure."
As is Navy tradition, a time capsule was welded into its flight-deck control room. The capsule contains a unique coin designed by Susan Bales Ford; a piece of the same sandstone used in the construction of the White House and US Capitol; and five seals representing President Ford's service to the country.
U.S. Navy photo by Erik Hildebrandt
According to the US Navy, Ford-class ships can carry more than 75 planes (and maybe up to 90) picked from a wide assortment of aircraft, including the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, EA-18G Growler, C-2 Greyhound and E-2 Hawkeye, along with Sikorsky SH-60 Seahawk helicopters and unmanned drones.
But the carrier's defenses don't end above decks. The ship comes loaded with a supply of RIM-162 Evolved SeaSparrow Missiles (and two launchers) to protect it and its crew against enemy aircraft and incoming missiles. Built by Raytheon, these medium-range surface-to-air missiles measure 12 feet long, have a 83-pound warhead and cost just under $1 million each.
Ford-class ships will also be able to fire smaller RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missiles, just like the Nimitz-class ships preceding it. Despite their slower speed and smaller size -- they measure 9 feet, 2 inches long with a 24-pound, 15-ounce warhead -- these homing missiles are also priced just under $1 million. These missiles are designed to shoot down incoming enemy missiles before they can strike the ship.
Ryan Litzenberger/U.S. Navy
R2D2, but deadly
And, of course, no warship would be complete without guns. The USS Gerald R. Ford is equipped with three Mk-15 Phalanx close-in weapon systems. Nicknamed R2-D2 because of its shape, the CIWS has a 20mm M61 Vulcan Gatling gun autocannon that fires 4,500 rounds of armor-piercing tungsten per minute. It's considered the last line of automated defense against incoming missiles and attack aircraft.
Last (but not least), Ford-class ships have four M2 .50-caliber machine guns. These classic weapons, first introduced into service in 1933 and used regularly ever since, can fire up to 850 rounds per minute of varying types of ammo. They're designed to take down lightly armored boats and low-flying aircraft.
All well and good, right?
Even as all this hot weaponry made its way on board, even as this miracle of modern engineering was coming together, so too were the problems. And when we're talking about such a megasized ship, we're talking about megasized problems, as well.
U.S. Navy photo
Mo' juice, mo' problems
What does it take to keep a massive warship out of rotation? You can start by blaming… electricity. The new Ford class of carrier, with its two nuclear reactors, makes 250 percent more electricity than the Nimitz.
With all that extra juice just begging to be used, the Navy decided to pile up the ship with new technology from its wish list. Some of the ideas date back to the 1990s, when naval officials had a "go for broke" culture, analysts say.
"[They] made a significant bet on the newest and latest cutting-edge technology, and bet that all of those technologies would mature as these platforms were scheduled to come online," Jerry Hendrix, senior fellow and director of the Defense Strategies and Assessments Program at the Center for a New American Security, told CNBC.
Turns out that was a bad bet.
"Unfortunately," Hendrix said, "some of those technologies did not mature."
U.S. Navy photo
One of these so-called immature technologies is the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System, designed to catapult planes into the air. Intended as an upgrade over the steam-powered launchers used in the Nimitz class, EMALS is much more precise, takes up less space, can launch more types of aircraft, recharges more quickly and uses far less energy.
EMALS also requires less maintenance and costs less to install. The Navy estimates EMALS will allow for 25% more plane launches per day, while requiring 25% fewer crew members for those launches. EMALS should save the U.S. $4 billion in operating costs over 50 years… once it, you know, matures.
While EMALS was designed to be far more reliable than the steam-powered catapults, the opposite has proven to be the case. The Pentagon expected EMALS to fail once in every 4,166 launches, for a failure rate of 0.024%. In practice, EMALS has failed 10 times in 747 launches, a failure rate of 1.34%. Not good.
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jeff Troutman
Out of service
And that's not all. Other electromagnetic systems are also failing on the USS Gerald R. Ford.
New Ford carriers are designed with electromagnetic Advanced Weapon Elevators that transport bombs and missiles from the ship's magazine to waiting aircraft. The new elevators can lift twice as much weight as the elevators on Nimitz-class ships. They move 50 percent faster, too -- when they're working right.
"This is the latest example of Navy leaders not being straightforward when it comes to the program," he added during a July hearing.
Again, not good. And not cheap to fix, either. If you think the tonnage of this ship is huge, wait till you see the budget.
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Connor Loessin/Released
You're late, Mr. Ford
The USS Gerald R. Ford was supposed to be deployed by the Navy in 2018. Now, thanks in part to the boondoggles listed above, current estimates put that date closer to 2024.
The delays are especially frustrating once you understand the magnitude of their cost. In October 2006, Congress capped the cost of the Ford at $10.5 billion, already more than twice the cost of a Nimitz-class carrier.
By 2015, estimated costs had risen to $12.9 billion, leading the late Sen. John McCain to call the Ford-class carrier program, "one of the most spectacular acquisition debacles in recent history."
"I truly don't feel like this is a great investment as a taxpayer," Rep. Elaine Luria said at an October House Armed Services Subcommittee hearing. "Thirteen billion on a ship that's going to deploy six years past its original design timeline."
Luria later called the ship a "$13 billion nuclear-powered floating berthing barge."
How could so much tech set things back this much? Again, blame that old go-for-broke mentality: Of the 13 new systems installed on the ship, only five were considered to be mature during the design process.
Even now, a decade later, the US Navy is working to iron out all the wrinkles in the Ford's new tech. And that's what's blowing the Ford's budget out of the water — taxpayers have had to shell out an extra $120 million to bring the ship's wonky elevators online. A recent fix to the carrier's catapults, meanwhile, tacked on an extra $12.5 million to the ship's price tag.
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication 1st Class Joshua Sheppard
The failures of these systems have attracted attention from President Trump. After hearing about the failures, he came up with his own fix in 2017. And it was, uh, interesting.
"We're spending all that money on electric, and nobody knows what it's going to be like in bad conditions," he said. "I'm going to just put out an order, we're going to use steam."
Of course, changing the design of a structurally finished, $13-billion-plus carrier is all but impossible at this point. "The Navy would have to spend several billion dollars to redesign the ship," said Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
Sure, the president can order whatever he wants, but it's unlikely Congress would approve billions of dollars more just to take a big step backward and make the president happy. And even if it did, the Navy probably wouldn't be able to revert to steam until 2028, when the yet-to-be-named Ford-class carrier CVN-82 is slated to start production.
"EMALS works," Manvel told USNI News. "Still has some wrinkles to smooth out, but it works well."
Screenshot via U.S. Navy
Gotta catch a plane
The USS Gerald R. Ford may have issues launching aircraft, but it has even bigger ones when it comes to bringing those planes in for a landing.
The Navy has a new system to help planes land more safely on its carriers. The Advanced Arresting Gear technology was designed to help more planes land safely, and in a more controlled way. In theory, AAG is supposed to allow Ford-class carriers to recover the F-35C Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, something Nimitz-class carriers cannot do.
Of course, the key words here are "in theory." That's because, as of right now, the AAG system cannot land the F-35C. And its failure rate of 10 out of 763 plane landings is far higher than the Navy standard of one failure per 16,500 recoveries.
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Cathrine Campbell
Once again, Sen. McCain was not impressed. He called AAG "one of the most egregious examples of acquisition gone awry."
The technology is now expected to cost taxpayers more than $1 billion, meaning it's now 600 percent over budget. AAG has also taken twice as long as expected to be developed.
Because of those cost overruns, plans to install AAG in older Nimitz-class carriers also have been scrapped. And Congress is now demanding the Navy figure out how to land F-35C fighters on the next ship in the Ford class, the USS John F. Kennedy (CVN-79), before it is delivered. (The Navy is still working on it.)
"Right now we're looking at getting less for more," Paul Francis, general accounting office managing director of acquisition and sourcing management, told Congress during an October 2015 committee hearing.
U.S. Navy photo
We're leaving anyway
Not all of the news about the carrier's progress has been bad. The USS Gerald R. Ford may not see action until 2024, but in the meantime, it's taken its maiden voyage. On Nov. 17, 2013, the Ford was launched into the James River in Newport News, Virginia, with the help of six tugboats.
And more trials have been completed since. In April 2017, the ship underwent a weeklong builder's sea trial during which its components and compartments were tested at sea for the first time. The Ford passed these basic tests. Then again, they don't require the launching of real planes.
On July 15, 2018, the ship entered its "post-shakedown availability" phase, when crew members work to resolve known issues while at sea. Initially expected to last 12 months, that repair period instead lasted for 15 months as crews worked on combat systems, the troubled elevator and catapult systems, and more.
Much progress was made then. But even with the extra time, problems with some of the ship's elevators remain and need to be fixed before the Ford can be deployed.
"There's more work to do," a Navy spokesman said in October, "but the crew and ship are ready to go to sea, and the Secretary is proud of their efforts."
MCSN Cathrine Mae O. Campbell
No fries with that
When the Gerald Ford does finally get to work, its crew will be in for quite a ride. Deployments on Navy ships can last as long as 10 months, though a new policy aims to make them more unpredictable to keep our enemies guessing.
That's a long time for sailors to be without their families. But they're not entirely without the comforts of home. The ship has a store on board, where sailors can buy snacks and other goodies using their Navy Cash debit cards. They can even get their Starbucks fix at the ship's coffee shop, located inside the store.
The ship's dining spaces have been redesigned, as well, to cut down on long lines; 15,000 meals are served each day. The mess hall's deep-fat fryer has been removed as part of a focus on healthier food.
Screenshot via Petty Officer 2nd Class Kristopher Ruiz
Do not disturb
If sailors eat too many sweets and get a cavity anyway, there's a dental office on board. If they gain weight, they can work it off at one of the ship's three fully loaded gyms, complete with weightlifting machines, bikes, treadmills, ellipticals, heavy bags for boxing and Crossfit gear, such as boxes and kettle bells.
Capt. John Meier, the commanding officer of the USS Gerald R. Ford, told the Navy Times the ship has "the best gyms on the waterfront."
And that's only the beginning of the quality-of-life improvements added to the new Ford class of carriers. The 180-man sleeping areas of the Nimitz class have been replaced with smaller, quieter, 40-man-or-smaller berthings. In addition, each sleeping area on the Ford has its own dedicated gender-neutral bathroom.
"On [the Theodore] Roosevelt, we had to get dressed just to get to the head and get dressed to get back to the berthing," Engineman 2nd Class (SW) Heather Pierce told the Navy Times. "You practically had to take a bag with you just to get a shower. Not here."
Sailors have been given new lounge areas, too, with Wi-Fi, comfy seating and flat-screen TVs with on-demand programming. Unlike in the past, these areas are now located away from berthings, so sailors at play won't wake those trying to sleep.
Even the ship's chapel, which provides religious services for sailors of many different faiths, has been moved to a quieter area.
Chris Oxley/Huntington Ingalls Industries
As engineers work to fix the many problems with the USS Gerald R. Ford, shipbuilders are hard at work on the next carriers in the Ford class. The keel for the USS John F. Kennedy (CVN-79) was laid in Newport News on Aug. 22, 2015. That ship is sponsored by Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the late president.
The USS John F. Kennedy was christened on Dec. 7, 2019 by Caroline Kennedy.
The third ship in the Ford class, the USS Enterprise (CVN-80), is also under construction. Sponsored by Olympic gold medalists Katie Ledecky and Simone Biles (were you expecting William Shatner?), the steel-cutting ceremony for the Enterprise was held in August 2017.
CVN-80 is not the first ship to carry the name Enterprise -- it's actually the ninth; the last USS Enterprise, a carrier also known as CVN-65, was decommissioned in 2012. Steel is being recovered from CVN-65 and is being used in the construction of the new Enterprise.
The USS Enterprise is scheduled to enter operations by 2027.