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The USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), is returning to Naval Station Norfolk after about three weeks at sea. Once the carrier safely tied to a pier, the Navy is set to celebrate one of the ship’s longest at-sea periods since entering the fleet two years ago. No longer a berthing barge, the thirteen billion dollar USS Ford can now be characterized as a helicopter carrier, inching towards functional aircraft carrier status.
If the USS Ford’s first long sea cruise proves to have been routine and relatively trouble-free, the USS Ford’s path forward in the Navy’s testing and trials process will have become a bit clearer, potentially offsetting some of the ill will generated by a Navy request, last month, for forty million more dollars to address broken elevators and other deferred or incomplete work.
Navy sources say that, in January 2020, the USS Ford will begin aircraft compatibility testing, where test pilots from one of the Navy’s VX wings starts flying aircraft to-and-from the aircraft carrier, proving out the new changes in Ford’s high-tech launch and recovery systems and giving the USS Ford crew a chance to learn the ropes.
As launch and recovery envelopes are expanded, critical components of a modern aircraft carrier air wing, E-2C/D Advanced Hawkeye battle managers and the electronic warfare-oriented EA-18G Growlers should receive their highly-publicized Ford class flight deck debuts, offering a steady drumbeat of good news for a troubled program.
Time To Demonstrate Sortie Rate:
The true test for the USS Ford should come in March 2020, when sources say flight deck certification is scheduled. This will mark the first opportunities for the USS Ford to host a full air wing of about seventy-five aircraft (centered around 44 F-18 fighters, 5 electronic attack aircraft, 4 early warning aircraft and a host of helicopters) and start demonstrating the vessel’s highly-touted sortie rate—a rate that, according to Navy estimates, is to be thirty percent higher than America’s legacy Nimitz class aircraft carriers.
The Navy predicts the USS Ford will demonstrate 160 launches and recoveries a day over a twelve-hour flight period and sustain that rate over thirty days—beating Nimitz class’ demonstrated performance of 120. The goal for the Ford’s surge sortie rate, which testers want to see achieved and then sustained over four days of continuous, 24-hour a day flying, is 270 sorties, versus a proven 240 sorties for the Nimitz Class.
But these rates are optimistic. The Navy has stated that EMALS—the USS Ford’s electromagnetic launch system—will meet a requirement of 4,166 mean cycles between critical failures. The Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG) is expected to last 16,500 mean cycles between operational mission failures. Aboard the pre-refitted USS Ford, both EMALS and the AAG have failed about once in every seventy-five launches.
On land, the performance of the high tech launch-and-recovery systems have not been entirely inspiring. On November 18, the Naval Air Systems Command issued a breathless announcement that a land-based AAG test site had managed, in the space of two days of testing, to land 22 aircraft in “just over 26 minutes”. With one AAG-equipped carrier in service and a second on the way, it is a little late in the day for a land-based test site to be issuing “participation-trophy-esque” announcements touting that “this never-before accomplished test event was effectively executed with herculean efforts”. If the launch and recovery of half the fighters in the traditional Nimitz class 44-fighter air wing requires two days of herculean efforts, then the AAG system reliability rate is probably not anywhere where it needs to be.
To meet sortie requirements, the AAG system will need to meet this performance rate for twelve hours straight. Either that, or hope that the testers let helicopter flights count towards the Ford’s ambitious sortie rate goals, as the reliability rates for the USS Ford’s flight deck components will probably be unable to meet the Navy’s stated requirements for some time—if at all.
The USS Ford’s planned surge sortie rate may be optimistic for the new crew and the USS Ford’s still-fragile launch and recovery systems, but, it would be impressive if the USS Ford can offer performance comparable to the initial launch-and-recovery rates set legacy Nimitz class carriers on their first flight deck certification cruises. For a carrier that has, over the course of two years, only launched and recovered 747 aircraft, a ten-day cruise with over 50 sorties a day would be good news.
It is a realistic goal. The USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77), five months after commissioning, conducted 695 sorties in the space of eleven days while receiving flight deck certification. Maybe, if the USS Ford’s exotic launch and recovery systems can match the performance of legacy Nimitz class carriers, then the other high-tech systems aboard can make the Navy’s thirteen-billion dollar investment somewhat more worthwhile.
As the USS Ford returns home, the sailors may, right now, be comparing themselves to the groundbreaking USS Enterprise (CVN 65), the U.S. Navy’s first nuclear aircraft carrier. That ship was commissioned on this day, November 25, in 1961. But even though the USS Enterprise was, like the USS Ford, an audacious feat of technological wizardry, it was landing and recovering aircraft 26 days before commissioning, and within the year, the battle-ready USS Enterprise was at sea, serving on the Quarantine line during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
It is time for the U.S. Navy to demonstrate performance. Time is running out, and, with recently-ousted Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer gone, performance may be the Navy’s only remaining ally left to fight for the Ford class.