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USS Gerald Ford; The First of a New Generation of U.S. Supercarriers Enters Service

June 07th - 2017

The U.S. Navy has acquired a new supercarrier, USS Gerald Ford, which is set to be commissioned in early July 2017. The Gerald Ford is the first in a new class of warship, the Gerald Ford Class, set to replace the long serving Nimitz class. It is also the only supercarrier anywhere in the world other than the Nimitz Class vessels also operated by the U.S. navy. The Gerald Ford is the world's most advanced aircraft carrier with three times the engine power of its precedessor, making use of a new and more effective A1B nuclear reactor. The cost of the carrier alone exceeds the annual defence budget of most countries - at $12.8 billion with another $5 billion from research and development costs. This exceeds the annual defence budget of the vast majority of countries including the combined annual military spending of North Korea and Iran. Several billion dollars in further expenses, particularly in acquiring F-18E and F-35C fighters to operate from its deck, are also  set to be incurred.

The hull of the Gerald Ford Class carriers are very much similar to those of the Nimitz class, and the induction of the platform is largely a modernisation based on a tried and tested concept rather than a radical or game changing new design. The primary asset of the Gerald Ford Class over its predecessor is its use of electromagnetic launch systems (EMALS) which both reduce the strain and maintenance on planes operating from its deck as well as allowing fighters to launch carrying higher payloads. The carrier is capable of sustaining 160 sorties per day for 30 days, with a surge capability of a colossal 270 sorties per day. Such operations require vast amounts of both supplies and spare parts, and as such the carrier will operate large numbers of the Grumman C-2 Greyhound carrier onboard delivery transports. The warship has 25 decks, and is capable of carrying up to 90 aircraft - a similar contingent to the Nimitz Class. While the Nimitz Class operated the complementary F-14 heavy air superiority fighter and F-18 light fighter, the Gerald Ford will operate a new generation of fighters. Though it was initially set to operate a carrier variant of the F-22 air superiority fighter alongside the light multirole F-35C, the cancellation of the carrier based F-22 due to budgetary concerns has left the Navy without a next generation air superiority fighter - while the F-14 was retired in 2006. The result has been that, while the Gerald Ford is a potent platform, the air to air combat capabilities of its carrier air wings leaves much to be desired relative to its predecessors. The F-14, lacking a replacement, has only the F-18E to serve in its stead - a heavier version of the F-18 fourth generation fighter which lacks the specialised air superiority role or potency in air to air combat of the F-14 and F-22. Alongside the F-18E, the carrier will also deploy large numbers of F-35C multirole fighters, which though more advanced than the F-18 have extremely high maintenance requirements and a very small payload of just two bombs - seriously limiting both their sortie rate and strike capability. 

Other than EMALS the USS Gerald Ford also integrates other more advanced systems than the Nimitz Class including AN/SPY-3 X Band and AN/SPY-4 S Band radars designed as a potent and complementary dual band radar system. Arresting gear is also significantly more advanced than that on the Nitmiz class, while the design of the carrier's hull attempts with some success to minimise its radar cross section - a moderate application of stealth technology. The Gerald Ford's design also attempts to reduce operational costs relative to the Nimitz Class, notably by reducing the number of crew by several hundred by relying more on automated systems. The warship is also equipped with advanced RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow missiles, which strike at over Mach 4 and have a range of over 50km. The carrier is relatively lightly armed compared to other warships, as U.S. doctrine emphasised a dedicated and specialised role of deploying aircraft for its carriers while relying on other aircraft assigned to the carrier group to carry missiles and other weapons systems. This is a contrast to Russia's Kuznetsov Class ships, officially termed a 'heavy aircraft carrying cruiser', which is more capable of operating independently but carries less aircraft. The same is also true for the Chinese Liaoling, Type 001 and Type 002 derived from the Kuznetsov Class. 

Ten Nimitz Class carriers are currently in service, and the induction of the Gerald Ford increases the U.S. Navy's inventory to 11 supercarriers and nine lighter amphibious assault ships, also termed helicopter carriers, which can operate short takeoff vertical landing (STOVL) capable fighters such as the Harrier and F-35B. The Nimitz Class ships were inducted over 34 years, with the USS Nimitz entering service in 1975 and the USS George Bush entering service in 2009. Weather the USS Gerald Ford will similarly be the first of ten carriers of its class, and whether aircraft carriers will still be relevant platforms by 2051, remains to be seen. Considering recent advances in both submarine and cruise missile technologies, the Chinese DF-21D 'carrier killer' missile being a prime example, and the fast pace at which technologies increasing carriers' vulnerability are developed relative to those which increase their survivability, it highly likely that the Gerald Ford will not remain a relevant weapons system as long as the Nimitz Class did. 


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