The Coming of the USS Ford: Looking Back

By Robbin Laird

Ed Timperlake and I highlighted the coming of the USS Ford in a series of interviews over the past few years.

I would like to highlight two of these prior to focusing on my visit this month to the USS Ford.

The first was with the newly appointed head of Naval Aviation, Rear Admiral Moran, who later became the Vice Chief of Naval Operations.

Next we visited the USS Ford in Norfolk in 2015 to have our initial tour, and a wide-ranging discussion with the ship’s captain, now Rear Admiral John Meier

The Ford Class Carrier, the F-35C and the “Spider Web” War at Sea

In a piece we first published on Breaking Defense on May 15, 2013, we published our interview with Rear Admiral Moran.

An aircraft carrier is nothing without aircraft, and a Navy aircraft is worth little without a carrier. It’s  ships and planes in synergy that revolutionized war at sea in the 1930s and with new systems now entering service – the F-35C Joint Strike Fighter and the Ford-class carrier – they can do it again.

On April 30, 2013 we sat down with Rear Admiral Bill Moran, the Director of Air Warfare on the Navy staff (OPNAV N98)….

While the new carrier can still perform its traditional role as the centerpiece of a mobile island of concentrated naval force, Moran said, the Ford class, the evolving air wing, and an array of other new capabilities will allow the carrier to play a much more flexible and distributed role….

“We are looking at a number of evolving technological developments and options to shape the naval air wing after next.  Unfortunately, some people misunderstand this approach and think we are looking at future technologies to displace what we are buying now, including the F-35 in the near term.  In fact it is just the opposite.

“We are going to operationally shape our understanding of the evolving air wing, notably as the F-35 enters the fleet, and build from that to the air wing after next.

“The CNO has highlighted the role of payloads in shaping the kinds of platforms we are buying and likely to develop and buy.

“We think that in Naval aviation we are building out in that manner with the new Gerald R. Ford class of carriers (future platform) married with evolving air wing capabilities (payloads).

“Another good example is the new P-8 Poseidon, which was design built from a commercial airframe.  We then put architecture in the airplane to allow growth in terms of what capability will fit into that airplane in the future.

“This kind of “truck” and “payload” construct buys us time to evolve capability, whether it’s weapons or sensors or communications gear that are more easily integrated into the backbone of that airplane.

“When we think of strike fighters for the carrier wing after next, shaping a combat truck in effect will play a role. It might be a truck that has a common architecture, a backbone to it that you can plug and play different capability sensors, weapons, comms, and that will drive design and it will drive propulsion.

“It will also have the reach and reach back to operate in multiple environments and will have payloads on it that will enable future weapons that we see that are smarter, more precise, and will be a bit unpredictable for potential adversaries, whoever they might be…..”

Question: You have been talking about the evolution of the air wing, but you clearly have in mind that the new large deck carrier will be part of the re-shaping of what that air wing can be used for.  Could you talk about your understanding of the Ford and its capabilities?

Moran:  “Because it’s an “electrified” platform — it’s no longer predominantly steam and hydraulics and all of the things that are traditional parts of the Nimitz-class carriers — we’ve replaced a lot of that with electrical capability because of improved power generation coming out of a newly designed nuclear power plant.

“It’s a generational leap in capability in terms of generated power.

“Ford will generate three times the electrical power of a Nimitz class carrier.  And with that you can electrify the ship and you can automate the ship, add the most powerful and advanced radar system in the Navy and then when you want to put things on the ship, new capabilities in the future that we can’t even think of today, whether it’s a hypersonic capability that’s unmanned, directed energy weapons, or whatever it is, we do know is it’s got to be able to plug in.  It’s got to fit in somehow.  And, it’s going to need power.

“With a ship that is in effect a 21st century infrastructure for 21st century systems, we will be able to do that.

“Whatever we invent, whatever we want to put on this truck in the future, it is going to be able to incorporate it in a way that the current configuration cannot.

“We have also reduced the crew size and designed the ship for reduced maintenance, thereby reducing operational costs over its lifetime by four billion dollars.

“The Ford class, will introduce significant design improvements in flight deck sortie generation capability.

“It’s cleaned up significantly. We’ve developed in effect a pit crew concept where there’s enough room when an airplane lands that you can pull it off into the pit and reconfigure it, whether it’s sensors or weapons, and gas it, and put it right back out on the deck and launch it.”

Question: You are describing a carrier which can operate much more flexibly than a traditional carrier, and one which can become a central piece in a combat “spider web,” rather than operating at the center of a concentrated force.

Could you talk to the con-ops piece of this?

Moran:  “The Ford will be very flexible and can support force concentration or distribution. And it can operate as a flagship for a distributed force as well and tailored to the mission set.

“When combined with the potential of the F-35, Ford will be able to handle information and communications at a level much greater than the Nimitz class carriers.

“People will be able to share information across nations, and this is crucial.  We call it maritime domain awareness, but now you’ve included the air space that’s part of that maritime domain.

“There is another aspect of the Ford, which is important to handling the information systems as part of the evolution of the fleet.  We’ve never really talked about the cooling aspects.  But if you go down to Newport News and take a tour of the Ford,right now, one of the things they really like to brag about is innovations in the cooling system.  All of us know the processing power takes its heat.

“And so, you’ve got to be able to cool it.  Ford more than doubles the cooling system capacity of a Nimitz-class carrier.

“But let me close by circling back to the future of the air wing for the next 20 years and the value we see in the F-35C….

“Once we marry up F-35C with key capability investments in the Super Hornet, E-2D, [EA-18G] Growlers, and a mix of unmanned capabilities, we will continue to have an air wing that can dominate in any environment.”

The Perspective of Captain John Meier, 2015

As Captain Meier put it to us during an interview at Newport News shipyard on January 9, 2015:

“We share the same hull design in this class carrier with the Nimitz but everything else is either heavily modified or completely new.”

In effect, the new carrier is built to provide an infrastructure for 21st century warfighting, not just for the U.S. Navy, but for the joint and coalition force as well.

The ship is designed to operate more effectively with an evolving airwing, which will change over the 50+ year life of the carrier.

It has as well significantly greater C2 capabilities so that the carrier can play an expanded role in evolving 21st century U.S. and alliance distributed operations which will be central to U.S. warfighting capabilities going forward.

The significant increase in electric power generation, three times greater than Nimitz, is designed to allow the electronic systems associated with defense, attack and C2 to grow over time as well.

A number of the changes associated with the ship are quite visible: the new launching and recovery systems, the weapons handling system and many other improvements.

For example, an important safety and damage control issue is independently generating steam in a modern galley, which precludes steam lines running through the ship.  Another example is the special application of non-skid coatings, which means less upkeep.

All of these changes are significant and important.

As Captain Meir noted: “Clearly, the ship is designed to enhance the sortie generation rate of the airwing.

“But, less noticeable, is that the Ford is a vastly improved command and control platform as well.

The new phased array radars are going to be the most capable ones on the water.  They will open up a window on new levels of C2 and new ways of fighting and communicating and controlling communication flows.”

In the graphic below, the key elements of the infrastructure enabling the Ford to become a unique C2 asset for the maritime or joint or coalition force.


The super computers onboard the ship, with the power to support them as well as having significant power available for system cooling along with the deployment of future laser weapons is a crucial baseline for building out of C2 capabilities.

The next generation in active sensor technology in the dual band radars provides a solid foundation, not simply for the organic defense and strikes capability of the carrier, but for the battle fleet as a whole.

Significant increase in bandwidth is a fundamental requirement for an expanded C2 capability at sea which can support land, sea and air operations.

And the unique rapidly reconfigurable command suites on board allow for C2 to be provided for joint or coalition partners in a manner appropriate to the mission set…..

During the interview Captain Meier discussed a wide range of issues, but will close this section of the current article by pulling in his response to one of our questions during that interview.

Question: What you’re basically saying is the Navy is enhancing its ability to be able to launch different types of aircraft because you’re not constrained by a catapult system that has to be resized for each aircraft coming out of the launch.

So you can mix and match packages appropriate to mission set.

Could you comment on this development?

Captain Meier:  “Your point is absolutely right on.

“That also goes to not just launch and recovery of aircraft, but the types of ordinance that’ll be happening 30, 40, 50 years from now as well will change dramatically.

“We anticipate directed energy weapons being onboard the ship, and a significant evolution of the weapons carried by the carrier.

“The new weapons handling system is designed to be able to handle the weapons of the future as well.

“You have a great capacity for diversity of weapons, and the advanced weapon elevators themselves are located on the ship to facilitate faster movement and loading of the weapons.  That’s the underlying principle of the advanced weapon elevators.

“The elevators carry more weight and they go faster, twice the speed and twice the weight essentially of the legacy weapons elevators.

“They’re located in the flight deck, which puts them positionally where the crew will spend a lot less time from an ergonomics perspective pushing the ordnance around.

“The ordnance comes up right near the aircraft and facilitates more efficient weapons loading.

We closed by discussing the USS Ford in terms of its flexible infrastructure enabling enhanced warfighting capabilities.

Question: The power generation and cooling, and the computer-based capabilities of the ship coupled with the new radars clearly create a foundation for the evolution of C2.

But what is not widely realized, and we certainly did not before coming onboard the ship, is the impact of what you call flexible infrastructure.

Could you explain what this is and what its impact might well be?

Captain Meier: “Flexible infrastructure is a part of the ship built with reconfigurable work areas.  Imagine this part of the ship as offices with movable walls where you could set up workspaces how you want them to operate for the task. And you have electrical power in this space to use as you wish.

“These spaces can be configured appropriate to a particular C2 scenario whether for the USN, the joint or coalition force onboard the ship.”

For the launch of the new series, see the following:

The Integratable Air Wing and Re-imaging the Large Deck Carrier: The Coming of the USS Ford