September 17, 2008 The tenth and final nuclear-powered Nimitz-class supercarrier, George H. W. Bush, enters service in 2009, but the next-generation is on its way. The Gerald R. Ford CVN 78 is the first ship in the first new carrier class in over 40 years. Northrop Grumman has received a $5.1 billion, seven-year contract for construction of the CVN 78, which is scheduled to be delivered to the Navy in 2015.

Northrop Grumman began advance construction of the Gerald R Ford in 2005, under a separate $2.7 billion contract. Roughly one third of the ship’s 1,200 structural units are currently under construction, with the keel scheduled to be laid in 2009. The Navy is expected to build 11 of the carriers, each worth approximately $8 billion, continuing construction into 2058.

The Gerald R Ford class carriers will have a larger flight deck, improved weapons handling, a smaller island, a new Electromagnetic Aircraft Launching System, an Advanced Arresting Gear, and a new A1B nuclear propulsion and electricity generation system. The technological advancements in the Ford design result in a 25% increase in sortie generation, a 25% reduction in necessary manpower, a threefold increase in electrical generating capacity, improved self defense capability, increased launch/recovery capability, increased ability to incorporate future upgrades, and increased operational availability.

By changing the layout of the flight deck, and pushing back the island, the carrier minimizes aircraft movements and decreases the workload for personnel. The centralized re-arming location, and the use of robots to move ordnance, also boosts efficiency and allows aircraft to re-arm in “minutes instead of hours.”

The Electromagnetic Aircraft Launching System (EMALS) has a higher level of control than the steam-powered catapults employed by Nimitz-class carriers. EMALS can launch heavier and lighter craft, making it compatible with UAVs. EMALS is more efficient, smaller lighter, more powerful, easier to control, and places less stress on airframes by gradually increasing the aircraft’s speed. UAV integration is also made possible by the Advanced Arresting Gear System, which uses electromagnetism, rather than hydraulics, to capture aircraft.

The inability of current aircraft carriers to effectively handle UAVs is a reminder of the need to plan for technological advancement. While the USS Enterprise, (the ship being replaced by the Ford), is still serving 50 years after it was laid down, it is increasingly unable to adapt to upgraded systems. With currently planned systems on the CVN 78 consuming only half of its generated power, the ship is well prepared to incorporate future energy-hungry systems such laser guns, dynamic armor, and new tracking devices.

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