America-class and Gerald R. Ford-class problems

A few months ago, I highlighted the fact that the aircraft carrier fleet of the Royal Navy has become virtually non-existent at this time and the construction of two Queen Elizabeth-class supercarriers will only slightly improve the situation. Well it seems that over the other side of the globe, the United States Navy has its own fair share of problems with its updated carrier fleet and its direction. Particularly with the America-class and the Gerald R. Ford-class carriers.

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USS America (LHA-6) during RIMPAC ’16 – Demetrius Kennon, US Navy photo (taken 2016)

The America-class is a planned class of eleven 44,700 metric tonne Landing Helicopter Assault (LHA) carriers that are designed to replace the role of the now-retired 40,000-tonne Tarawa-class LHAs. The design of the lead ship USS America (LHA-6) is actually based of the 41,150-tonne Wasp-class Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) carriers. The defining difference between America and Wasp is the lack of a well deck on the first two ships of the class, America and USS Tripoli (LHA-7). This lack of a well deck is controversial in the field of naval analysis, since many believe sacrifice has diminished the value of the class. Looking at it objectively, most of the new modifications were designed to allow greater hanger space for handling the new types of aircraft such as the MV-22 Osprey and F-35B Lightning II. This was achieved not only with the removal of the well deck, but also by reducing the hospital facilities by two-thirds. Such modifications make the ship generally and operationally inferior to the Wasp-class LHDs, which are known for their versatility in amphibious operations. And this is what is needed from the amphibious flat-tops. Versatility. The changes made to America make the ship seem more like a Landing Platform Helicopter (LPH) carrier, like the long-gone 18,800-tonne Iwo Jima-class or HMS Ocean (L12) of the Royal Navy. LPHs were phased out of USN service because the concept of their design failed when their helicopters met anti-aircraft systems during various operations, most notably off the coast of Lebanon in the late-1970s. US Marine movements then primarily relied on ships that had well decks. The Tarawa-class solved that issue in the first place by adding the well deck to an enlarged LPH-based design. After Tripoli, the next ship of the America-class and all future ships of the class will include a well deck to handle landing craft such as the Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) military hovercraft. The Wasp-class will likely remain in service for the time being and likely for a few decades until the improved well deck-included America-class carriers enter the fleet in numbers. Being fair though, USS America has not seen any technically faults so far and is a good carrier during the operating environment. It just suffers from a majorly-poor design choice.

The cost of the first three America-class ships is tagged at $10 billion US dollars (roughly £8 billion British pounds). This makes the 100,000+ tonne Gerald R. Ford-class potentially an even bigger and costly mistake in comparison. The development program for the new class of supercarriers has cost US taxpayers $30.3 billion (£24.02 billion) alone, with individual ship costs priced at $10.44 billion (£8.38 billion) per ship! USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) has not been commissioned yet, but has suffered engineering causalities to four of it’s major systems; the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS), Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG), Dual-Band Radar and weapons elevators. These systems were found to not be reliable enough for service and need more testing and improvements. For example, testing found that 201 out of a test pool of 1,967 aircraft launches resulted in failure. AAG testing showed 9 failures out of 71 attempts, which is 248 times higher that expected. Even with these failures in mind, the actual projected figures for efficiency of sorties (30% more than the Nimitz-class supercarriers) are too optimistic. The commissioning of Gerard R. Ford is subject to increasing delays, and a recent memo from the US Defence Department’s director said the carrier struggles in launching and recovering aircraft, moving onboard munitions, conducting air traffic control and self-defence. Unless these problems are ironed out before commissioning, the ship will not be able to engage in combat operations effectively, and will be inferior in performance to an older Nimitz.

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USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) during launch – Aidan P. Campbell, US Navy photo (taken 2013)

It should be noted that the carriers of the US Navy are not the only ships experiencing problems. More notoriously, the Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) of the Freedom and Independence-class continue to suffer engineering problems on a regular basis, and the new stealth guided missile destroyer (DDG) USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000) has also suffered issues. Is this representing a downward trend of the United States Navy? Things do not certainly look rosy at the moment, and we in the UK are not much better off. In fact, we are worse off. The United States Navy still has a multitude of proven designs such as the Arleigh Burke-class DDGs, Blue Ridge-class Landing Command Control (LCC) carriers, Nimitz-class supercarriers, Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruisers (CG) and Wasp-class LHDs at it’s disposal.

Only time will tell if America and Gerald R. Ford turn out to be successful ships yet.

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