The USS Gerald R. Ford leads a formation strike group exercise in the Atlantic Ocean on Nov. 7, 2022. Photo by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Believe it or not, the biggest naval force in the world is not the United States Navy. That distinction belongs to the People’s Liberation Army of China. The PLA Navy currently boasts an inventory of 355 warships, and that number is expected to grow to 460 by 2030. This increases the onus on the US to evolve and expand its own fleet so that it can continue to compete with its major adversaries. Hence the recent debut of the USS Gerald Ford, the first new American transitional aircraft carrier in more than 40 years.
The USS Gerald Ford, which made its maiden voyage in 2022, took nearly two decades to construct and is considered the most technologically advanced warship on the planet. But what exactly makes it so special? And how does this one aircraft carrier help level the playing field for the US military? Here’s a breakdown of everything you should know about the ship, its cutting-edge capabilities, and the next generation of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.
An aerial view of the USS Gerald R. Ford (foreground) alongside the USS Harry S. Truman, a ship of the previous Nimitz class. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Riley McDowell.
The US Navy currently has 11 operational aircraft carriers in its fleet. Ten belong to the Nimitz class, which are nuclear-powered aircraft carriers built between 1975 and 2009. They are the USS Nimitz, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, the USS Carl Vinson, the USS Theodore Roosevelt, the USS Abraham Lincoln, the USS George Washington, the USS John C. Stennis, the USS Harry S. Truman, the USS Ronald Reagan, and the USS George H.W. Bush.
The USS Gerald Ford (CVN 78) is the first of 10 Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carriers that the US Navy plans to add to its fleet. Eventually, all Nimitz-class flattops will be replaced by Gerald R. Ford-class carriers. According to the US Navy, “the Gerald R. Ford-class will be the premier forward asset for crisis response and early decisive striking power in a major combat operation.”
The USS Gerald Ford is the latest nuclear aircraft carrier to enter into service. The next three carriers in the class scheduled to join the fleet in the future are the USS John F. Kennedy, the USS Enterprise, and the USS Doris Miller.
An F/A-18F Super Hornet assigned to Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 23 approaches the USS Gerald R. Ford while the aircraft carrier is underway conducting test and evaluation operations, July 28, 2017. US Navy photo by Erik Hildebrandt.
The USS Gerald Ford can hold more than 75 aircraft. According to the US Navy’s All Hands Magazine, the USS Gerald Ford is capable of servicing and launching the world’s most advanced aircraft, including the F-35C Lightning II, the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, the EA-18G Growler, and MH-60 R/S helicopters. In addition to fighter planes, reconnaissance platforms, and helicopters, the Ford is capable of launching and recovering unmanned aerial vehicles and short take-off and vertical landing, or STOVL, aircraft.
Aviation Ordnanceman 3rd Class Juan Torres, from Milwaukee, assigned to USS Gerald R. Ford’s weapons department, moves ammunition onto one of the ship's advanced weapons elevators during an ammunition onload on the flight deck, April 9, 2021. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Angel Thuy Jaskuloski.
The major differences between the Nimitz-class and Ford-class carriers boil down to upgrades in technology. For example, the USS Gerald Ford is the world’s first aircraft carrier that features all electric utilities. This is a big deal because it eliminates the need for steam service lines, which means less maintenance and better corrosion control.
In designing the Ford, Navy engineers opted to forgo the traditional steam catapults used on Nimitz-class aircraft carriers and replace them with the new electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS). The EMALS technology enhances the Ford’s launching capabilities, allowing for both manned and unmanned aircraft deployments. The new technologies featured on the USS Gerald Ford result in a 33% increase in sortie generation rates — i.e., combat missions per individual aircraft — compared with Nimitz-class aircraft carriers.
Additionally, the USS Gerald Ford is equipped with two A1B nuclear reactors — in other words, its very own nuclear power plant. The A1B generates three times as much power as the A4W reactors aboard current Nimitz-class carriers. This allows the USS Gerald Ford to run autonomously, without needing to refuel for about 20 to 25 years.
The Ford-class ship’s configuration is also designed to incorporate new research and development of more advanced technologies over the course of its 50-year service life. For example, the Office of Naval Research is now testing three classes of weaponry including directed energy weapons, high energy lasers, and high power microwaves. Directed energy weapons are expected to eventually be equipped to the Ford.
Another unique feature of the USS Gerald Ford is its 11 advanced weapons elevators (AWEs). These elevators can lift up to 24,000 pounds and significantly improve the striking power of the carrier air wing. According to Cmdr. Richard Rosenbusch, Ford’s assistant air officer, the AWEs also relieve flight deck operators of the extra task of weapons preparation. Thanks to the AWE, assembly and arming of weapons can be completed inside the hull before they are raised to the flight deck, where they are then attached to aircraft.
A flight deck facilitator aboard the USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier. Photo via USS Gerald R. Ford-CVN 78/Facebook.
It cost Uncle Sam approximately $13.316 billion to design and build the USS Gerald Ford. For comparison, the USS Ronald Reagan, the ninth Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier entered into service, cost approximately $4.5 billion.
The endeavor of building the USS Gerald Ford was as lengthy as it was costly. Planning and other efforts to get the project off the ground in 2001 cost $21 million. According to Stars & Stripes, the project acquired $135 million in spending in fiscal year 2002, $395 million in 2003, and $1.16 billion in 2004. By the end of 2007, the total price tag had grown to $1.49 billion. Then, in September 2008, the Navy awarded Newport News Shipbuilding with a $4.9 billion contract to begin construction. Over the next decade, the program was beset by numerous delays. These delays added costs requiring additional funding of billions of dollars. Though President Donald Trump commissioned the vessel in July 2017, it would take another five years before the Ford became operational.
In an interview conducted in July 2021 and published on the Navy’s official website, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday reflected on the protracted construction of the USS Gerald Ford and described it as an overly ambitious undertaking.
“We had 23 new technologies on that ship, which quite frankly increased the risk of delivery and cost – delivery on time and cost right from the get-go,” Gilday said. “And I think industry’s in full agreement within this: We really shouldn’t introduce more than maybe one or two new technologies on any complex platform like that in order to make sure that we keep risk at a manageable level.”
The US Navy aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford underway under its own power for the first time as it leaves Newport News Shipbuilding, Newport News, Virginia, on April 8, 2017. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ridge Leoni.
In November 2022, the USS Gerald Ford returned to its homeport in Norfolk, Virginia, upon completion of its maiden voyage. During Ford’s 53 days at sea in the Atlantic, the aircraft carrier sailed approximately 9,275 nautical miles, launched 1,250 sorties, delivered more than 78 tons of ordnance, and completed 13 underway replenishments.
The USS Gerald Ford is a part of the Naval Air Force, Atlantic Fleet. The command includes six nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, 54 squadrons, 1,200 aircraft, and 43,000 sailors and civilians based along the US East Coast. Navy leaders have said that Ford will begin embarking on longer, more traditional deployments in 2023.
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.