America's first next-gen aircraft carrier takes high tech to sea

The USS Gerald R. Ford has been under construction for years. Today, the first-of-its-class carrier will be christened, ushering in an era of high-tech aircraft carriers.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
3 min read
The USS Gerald R. Ford is the first of the most advanced class of aircraft carriers in history. Newport News Shipbuilding

The world's most-advanced aircraft carrier should be meeting a bottle of champagne today. Head on.

The USS Gerald R. Ford will be christened during a ceremony in Newport News, Va., an event that will usher in the next generation of aircraft carriers. The Gerald R. Ford is the first of its class -- the Ford class. And over the last few years, the shipbuilders at Newport News Shipbuilding have been putting together a vessel that is intended to move the aircraft carrier technology needle forward significantly.

America's most-cutting edge aircraft carrier comes to life (pictures)

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I had a chance to visit the shipyard during Road Trip 2010, and see the Gerald R. Ford at a much earlier stage in its development. But now the carrier has reached the point where its dry dock will be flooded and it's time to start conducting the tests that precede its official deployment by the U.S. Navy, likely in 2016.

The new class of carriers were designed with a wide range of new technologies. They include the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System, which replaces traditional steam catapults, and Advanced Jet Blast deflectors. Those two systems together will more efficiently launch aircraft. There will also be "Pit stop" fueling stations, designed to more quickly get planes ready to launch. The ship also features a series of green technologies, such as the so-called Plasma Arc Waste Disposal System, which is meant to cut on-board waste; an all-new propulsion plant; an improved structural design; and more.

The Gerald R. Ford has two newly designed reactors, as well as 250 percent more electrical capacity than previous carriers, which should allow the carrier to load weapons and launch aircraft faster than ever before. As well, the ship's flight command center, known as the island, has been totally redesigned and now features the Navy's most advanced flat panel array radar systems and dual band radar.

Another big design change is that the flight deck has been fully rearranged and redesigned. That means a boost of 25 percent in the ability to launch and recover aircraft missions. That required installing three aircraft elevators rather than four, and positioning the island 140 feet further aft than in the past.

Finally, the Ford class is the world's first aircraft carrier class built from designs first made using a 3D collaborative visualization tool known as ROVR.

That software is helpful to the Navy and its shipbuilder partners because it allows every stakeholder in the carrier's construction -- the Navy, the shipbuilder, welders, pipefitters, contractors, and others -- to see the plans in 3D before construction. That means many design inefficiencies can be eliminated prior to construction.

The Gerald R. Ford is a big ship. It is 1,080 feet long, 100 feet high, its flight deck is 250 feet wide, and it will be 134 feet wide at the water line. All told, it features 47,000 tons of steel.

Now that it is being christened, it will next be put through a long series of tests. This is the first new aircraft carrier class since the USS Nimitz in 1968, and America's first new carrier of any kind since the USS George H.W. Bush was completed in 2003.