What’s So New About America’s New Aircraft Carriers?

Although the Ford-Class Carrier has transformational potential, it’s not as innovative as its predecessor was.

The USS Nimitz (CVN-68), the name ship of the most numerous class of aircraft carriers since the World War II-era Essex, was laid down in 1968. George H. W. Bush (CVN-77), the final carrier in the class, entered service in 2009. Many of the carrier’s escorts, including the California and Virginia-class cruisers and the Spruance-class destroyers, went through their entire production runs and life cycles during the Nimitz production run. The last ship of the Nimitz-class may not leave service until the 2060s. It’s hardly hyperbole to suggest that the Nimitz and her sisters have set the standard of maritime primacy for longer than any other single class of warships in modern history.

But as with any production run of extended length, the differences between the early and later ships are significant. The service-life extension program (SLEP) gave the U.S. Navy (USN) the opportunity to update the earlier ships, although Nimitz still differs considerably from George H.W. Bush. And rather than continue with the evolutionary process, the USN has decided to make a more substantial step into the Gerald R. Ford class.  

Many of the differences between the Nimitz and Ford classes are well known. Continuing the trend from the George H.W. Bush, the crew size of the Ford will be considerably smaller than the early Nimitz class carriers, and even smaller than CVN-77. A reorganization of the flight deck and elevator system gives the Ford class a 15 percent higher sortie rate than the Nimitz class. Altogether it will be able to launch about 90 total aircraft. The electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS) reduces strain on aircraft and eliminates the need for the elaborate steam catapult system that has launched carrier aircraft since the 1950s. EMALS will also facilitate the launch of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

The Ford’s power plant generates considerably more electricity, allowing the ships to “grow into” future energy demands. This opens space for the genuinely transformational potential of the Ford class: directed energy weapons that could make cruise and ballistic missiles obsolete, and unmanned aircraft that could rewrite the history of air warfare.

The Ford is a step ahead, but not necessarily a leap. A short distance from where the Ford is being readied to be christened on Saturday, the USS Enterprise is undergoing nuclear defueling and partial disassembly.  This process echoes the development of the first supercarriers, which were put into service as their pre-war predecessors were carved into scrap.  The Ford will have much more in common with the Nimitz class than the USS Forrestal had with USS Midway, or than USS Midway had with USS Essex.  

However, given the halting steps towards new carrier construction taken by India, China, and others, the continued development of the Ford class will ensure that the United States will retain the most effective class of carriers in the world, possibly into the next century.  No ship under construction anywhere can equal the technological sophistication of the Nimitz-class; the Ford takes that level of dominance one step further.