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Future Carriers Built to Carry Drone Fleets

by Kris Osborn on July 19, 2013

Ford IslandNavy planners have anticipated the recent historic steps forward the Navy has taken toward outfitting the decks of their carriers with fleets of unmanned drones by designing future and current carriers to support the technological advances these aircraft will present, officials said.

The U.S. Navy’s new Ford-class aircraft carriers are engineered with the ability to accommodate more carrier-launched unmanned aircraft systems similar to the X-47B that landed on the deck of the USS George H.W. Bush July 10, service officials explained.

The Ford-class carriers are built with a series of technological advances compared to their predecessors —  to include a slightly larger flight deck, upgraded nuclear power plants, dual-band radar, improved landing gear and vastly increased on-board electrical capacity to include a new electromagnetic propulsion system for aircraft taking off the deck, said Rear Adm. Thomas J. Moore, Program Executive Officer, Carriers.

“The Ford Class will be around until about 2110. The flight deck has been designed to be bigger and have a higher sortie generation rate. The ship itself is built with three-times the electrical generating capacity than the Nimitz {Ford predecessor} class has – so it is not hard to envision that we are going to be flying unmanned aircraft off that ship,” said Moore.

Citing the recent historic touchdown of the X-47B demonstrator aircraft aboard the USS George H.W. Bush, Moore said the Ford-class carriers are engineered with a specific mind to next-generation aviation and ship-based technologies.

The Ford-class of carriers are being built with emerging technological trends in mind and the expected increase in unmanned systems and electrically-generated weapons systems.

Moore said that if you look at the kind of aircraft which initially flew on a Nimitz-class carrier when they first emerged in the 1970s, they are very different than what is flying on those carriers today.  In fact, the Joint Strike Fighter aircraft will fly on the Nimitz-class carriers before they retire, he said.

“Unmanned aircraft will certainly be part of our portfolio moving forward – they will not replace manned aircraft but will play an important role.”

The USS Ford is slated to enter the water at a christening ceremony in November of this year and begin formal service by late 2016. It is the first-in-class in a planned series of next-generation Ford-class aircraft carriers designed to replace the current Nimitz-class carriers on a one-for-one basis over roughly the next 50 years.

The USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), now nearing completion, will be followed by the second and third Ford-class carriers, the USS John. F. Kennedy (CVN 79) to enter service by 2025 — and the USS Enterprise (CVN 80), slated to enter service by 2027.

The Ford-class carriers will have four 26 megawatt electrical turbine generators, designed in part to power key systems on the ship, including dual-band phased array radar and the Electro-Magnetic Aircraft Launch System, or EMALS – put on carriers to replace the current steam catapults for aircraft on the flight deck.

“On a Nimitz-class carrier, outside of the propulsion plant we use a lot of steam to run the catapults and heat the water. We made a conscious decision on the Ford class to better electrify the ship,” Moore explained.

Moore also emphasized that the electrical backbone and capacity of the Ford-class carriers will better equip the ships to accommodate directed energy weapons in the future, should they be added to the ship.

For example, it is conceivable that directed energy or laser weapons might compliment the defense systems currently in place to defend the ship such as the Phalanx Close-in-Weapons-System, Rolling Air Frame Missile and NATO Sea Sparrow, Moore explained.

“The Ford has huge margins of ability to generate electrical power that no other ship has,” he said.

In fact, increased automation, computer technology and electrical capacity will reduce man-power requirements on-board the ship, dramatically increasing capability and lowering life-cycle costs, said Mike Petters, President and Chief Operating Officer, Huntington Ingalls Industries.

Moore explained that the technology-inspired man-power reductions will result in as much as $4 billion in savings over the 50-year life-cycle of the ship.

Petters and Moore explained how the Ford-class carriers are designed with a slightly smaller island to allow for more deck space, thus increasing the ship’s ability to launch and recover larger numbers of aircraft.

“You have created an electrical distribution system that is going to allow for lower maintenance cost – then you have advanced arresting gear and the radars. You are really talking about a ship that has substantially more capability. The flight deck was all part of how do we get more sorties – changing the location of the footprint is all about how do you get the flight deck more efficient,” Petters said.

One analyst said that increasing the ability to project power at greater distances through the increased use of unmanned aircraft on carriers, is exactly how the Navy should be thinking about its future.

“The aircraft carrier is relevant today and it will be relevant for decades,” said Bryan McGrath, managing director at FerryBridge Group LLC, a defense consulting firm based in Easton, Md.

In particular, longer reach or operating ranges — for strike possibilities and Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance missions – is likely to grow in importance in light of what Pentagon strategists refer to as Anti-Access/Area-Denial, or A2/AD, challenges, he argued.

A2/AD is a strategic approach to current and future conflict based upon the premise that potential adversaries have increased technological capability to challenge the U.S. military’s ability to operate in certain areas in an uncontested manner – such as closer to shore.

“Sortie generation rate as a virtue will decline in importance in the years to come largely because any opponent of worth will hold us a little further off shore. Sortie generation rose in importance as we came to dominate the oceans. Now we may have a near-peer competitor, so what we really need is range from the wing – the ability to operate from further away and bring strike power,” McGrath said.

The increased sortie-generation rate capability with the Ford-class carriers is designed to increase the flexibility to launch manned and unmanned systems with greater ease and frequency, a Navy official said.

“The deck has been built to provide the air wing of the future with greater flexibility,” the official said.

Nevertheless, any efforts to increasingly configure aircraft carriers to accommodate increased ability to house and launch longer-range platforms, including manned and unmanned systems, is something McGrath would like to see more of.

“The Navy should begin thinking about designing an aircraft carrier that is devoted to the launch and recovery of unmanned aviation,” McGrath said. “It will need to do its job for 50 years, so you have to think about what you get. You get a very powerful symbol and the means for the delivery of American power. There is no substitute in our arsenal.”

Moore said the Ford-class of carriers are being built with a mind to long-term service – an approach which has, by design, engineered the ship with growth potential such that it can accommodate emerging technologies as they arise.

“Big-deck carriers are by far what we need in terms of power projection and presence. For a lot of the missions we want and the presence we have around the world, there’s nothing like it. Why are the Russians, Indians and Chinese building a carrier? Countries know that carriers bring something to the table that nothing else can bring in terms of an instrument of national power. There is a reason we build these things,” Moore added.

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