Gerald R Ford class is a fleet of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers being developed by the Newport News Shipbuilding division of Huntington Ingalls Industries for the US navy, under its CVN-21 Aircraft Carrier Program.
In January 2007, the navy announced that the new class vessels would be called the Gerald R Ford-class.
USS Gerald R Ford and USS John F Kenned
The first ship in the class, USS Gerald R Ford (CVN 78), was delivered to the US navy in May 2017 and commissioned in July 2017. The aircraft carrier completed a multi-week final deployment composite training unit exercise for certification as a combat-deployable US warship in April 2023.
The second carrier, USS John F Kennedy (CVN 79), was christened and launched in December 2019. The vessel is scheduled for delivery to the navy in July 2025, while further ships of the class Enterprise and Doris Miller are expected to be delivered in March 2028 and February 2032, respectively.
CVN 78 replaced USS Enterprise (CVN 65), which was decommissioned after more than five decades of active service in 2017.
Gerald R Ford class vessel development details
The US Department of Defense awarded Northrop Grumman Newport News in Virginia a $107.6m contract in July 2003 and $1.39bn contract in May 2004. The department also provided $559m to prepare for the carrier construction and continue the design programme on the ship’s propulsion system.
CVN 78’s first steel was cut in August 2005. A $5.1bn contract for the detailed design and construction was awarded to Newport News in September 2008. The keel was laid in November 2009.
The CVN 78 aircraft carrier was installed with four 30-tonne (t) bronze propellers in October 2013. Both the launch and first voyage of the ship took place in November 2013. Anchor testing on board the carrier was completed in June 2014, while the US navy conducted EMALS testing on CVN 78 in May 2015. The CVN 78 returned to Newport News for post-delivery works in July 2018.
Newport News won a contract to support further repair work on the lead ship. The contract covers execution planning for the repair and alteration requirements of the ship’s planned incremental availability.
Northrop Grumman was awarded a planning and design contract for the second carrier, CVN 79, in November 2006. In May 2011, the US Navy announced that the carrier would be called the USS John F Kennedy.
Construction of CVN 79 began in February 2011 and its keel was laid in July 2015. The carrier will undergo outfitting and testing at HHI Newport News shipyard’s Pier 3 ahead of its scheduled delivery.
Newport News was awarded a $407m contract extension for the preparation work on the CVN 79 ship in March 2013 and a $1.29bn extension in March 2014. It also received a $3.35bn contract for the ship’s detailed design and construction in June 2015. The keel for CVN 79 was laid in August 2015.
USS Enterprise and CVN 81
HHI’s Newport News was awarded a $152m contract in May 2016 for the advanced planning engineering, design, and procurement of long-lead-time material for the third ship of the class, USS Enterprise (CVN 80). A $25.5m modification contract was awarded for advance fabrication of the aircraft in February 2017.
The first steel was cut for the CVN 80 aircraft carrier in August 2017. CVN 80 is built using the steel of CVN 65, which was decommissioned in April 2018.
It is the ninth ship to be named USS Enterprise and will replace USS Dwight D Eisenhower, which is expected to be decommissioned in 2029.
The keel-laying ceremony for CVN 80 took place at the Newport News shipyard in August 2022.
Newport News received a $15.2bn contract modification in January 2019 for the detail design and construction of CVN 80 and CVN 81. A total of ten Ford-class carriers are planned to be built by 2058.
Gerald R Ford class aircraft carrier design details
With a displacement of approximately 100,000t, the Gerald R Ford class is larger than its predecessor, the Nimitz-class, but accommodates between 500 and 900 fewer crew members. The Ford-class ships will have 23 new or upgraded systems compared to the Nimitz-class carriers.
The manpower reduction was a key performance parameter added to the original four outlined in 2000 in the operational requirements document for the CVN 21 programme. It is estimated that the new carrier technologies will lead to a 30% reduction in maintenance requirements and a further crew workload reduction will be achieved through higher levels of automation.
Other main differences in operational performance compared with the Nimitz-class are increased sortie rates at 160 sorties a day (compared with 140 a day), a weight and stability allowance over the 50-year operational service life of the ship and increased (by approximately 150%) electrical power generation and distribution to sustain the ship’s advanced technology systems. Another key performance requirement is interoperability.
Gerald R Ford class aircraft carrier hull
Since the 1960s, all US navy aircraft carriers have been built at Northrop Grumman Newport News. News extended its design and shipbuilding facilities with a new heavy-plate workshop and burners, a new 5,000t thick plate press, covered assembly facilities and a new 1,050t-capacity crane.
News is using a suite of computer-aided design tools for the CVN 21 programme, including a CATIA software suite for simulation of the production processes and a Cave virtual environment package.
The hull design is similar to that of the current Nimitz-class carriers and with the same number of decks. The island is smaller and moved further towards the aft of the ship.
The island has a composite mast with planar array radars, a volume-search radar operating at S-band and a multifunction radar at X-band. It carries the stern-facing joint precision approach and landing system, which is based on the local area differential GPS rather than radar.
The aircraft carrier traditionally carries the flag officer and 70 staff of the carrier battle group. The flag bridge, which was previously accommodated in the carrier’s island, was relocated to a lower deck to reduce the size of the island.
The ship’s internal configuration and flight deck designs have significantly changed. The lower decks incorporate a flexible rapidly reconfigurable layout enabling different layouts and installation of new equipment in command, planning and administration areas.
The requirement to build in a weight and stability allowance will accommodate the added weight of new systems that will be installed over the 50-year operational life of the ship. Removal of one aircraft elevator unit and reducing the number of hangar bays from three to two contributed to a weight reduction of the vessels.
Weapons of Gerald R Ford class
The Gerald R Ford class can be armed with the Raytheon-evolved Sea Sparrow missile, which defends against high-speed, highly manoeuvrable anti-ship missiles. The close-in weapon system is the rolling airframe missile from Raytheon and Ramsys.
Gerald R Ford class aircraft carrier performance
The carrier can carry up to 90 aircraft, including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, F/A-18E / F Super Hornet, E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft, MH-60R/S helicopters, as well as unmanned air and combat vehicles.
The requirement for a higher sortie rate at 160 sorties a day with surges to a maximum of 220 sorties a day in times of crisis and intense air warfare activity led to design changes in the flight deck.
The flight deck has a relocated smaller island while there are three rather than four deck-edge elevators. Deck extensions also increase the aircraft parking areas. Aircraft service stations are located near the 18 refuelling and rearming stops.
General Atomics was awarded the contract to develop the EMALS electromagnetic aircraft launch system, which uses a linear electromagnetic accelerator motor. EMALS demonstrators were tested at the Naval Air Systems Command Lakehurst test centre in New Jersey, US. The EMALS replaces the current C-13 steam catapults traditionally used in vessels to launch aircraft, expanding the aircraft launch envelope for future manned or unmanned aircraft.
EMALS technology offers the potential benefit of finer aircraft acceleration control, which leads to lower stress levels in the aircraft and pilots, provides a slower launch speed for unmanned air vehicles and allows a wider window of wind-over-deck speed required for the launch sequence.
The contract for the development of an advanced turbo-electric arrestor gear was awarded to General Atomics. The electromagnetic motor applies control to the synthetic arrestor cable to reduce the maximum tensions in the cable and reduce the peak load on the arrestor hook and the aircraft fuselage.
General Atomics and the US navy completed successful turbo-prop arrestments of C-2A Greyhound, E-2C+Hawkeye, and E-2D Advanced Hawkeye aircraft using the advanced arresting gear during performance testing in 2018. The AAG system also completed the first exploratory barricade arrestment test with an E-2C+Hawkeye aircraft in March 2019.
The Gerald R Ford class aircraft carrier completed its flight deck certification and carrier air traffic control centre certification in March 2022.
Aircraft weapon loading
The flow of weapons to the aircraft stops on the flight deck was upgraded to accommodate the higher sortie rates. The ship carries stores of missiles and cannon rounds for fighter aircraft, bombs and air-to-surface missiles for strike aircraft and torpedoes and depth charges for anti-submarine warfare aircraft.
Weapons elevators take the weapons systems from the magazines to the weapons handling and assembly areas on the 02-level deck (below the flight deck) and express weapons elevators are installed between the handling and assembly areas and the flight deck. The two companies selected by Northrop Grumman to create designs for the advanced weapons elevator are the Federal Equipment Company and Oldenburg Lakeshore.
Deployment of all-up rounds that are larger rather than traditional weapons that need assembling will require double-height magazines and storerooms and will also impact the demand for weapon assembly facilities.
The US navy outlined a requirement for a minimum increase of 150% in the power-generation capacity for the CVN 21 carrier compared with the Nimitz Class carriers. The increased power capacity is required for the four electromagnetic aircraft launchers and for future systems such as directed energy weapons that might be feasible during the carrier’s 50-year lifespan.
In October 2008, Raytheon was contracted to supply a version of the dual-band radar (DBR) developed for the Zumwalt Class destroyer for installation on the Gerald R Ford. DBR combines X-band and S-band phased arrays.
Northrop Grumman developed an advanced nuclear propulsion system with two reactors, four shafts and a zonal electrical power distribution system for the carriers.
Fairbanks Morse received a contract to supply emergency diesel generator sets for CVN 80 and CVN 81 carriers in February 2019.