VIDEO: USS Gerald R. Ford Back in Norfolk After Two Months in the Atlantic

First-in-class USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) is back at Naval Station Norfolk, Va., after a 53-day operational period in the Atlantic, U.S. 2nd Fleet announced on Saturday. Ford arrived in Norfolk after returning from a port visit to the U.K. last week and exercises with allied nations throughout the North Atlantic. “The flagship set sail […]

USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) returns to Naval Station Norfolk after two months in the the Atlantic Ocean with the Gerald R. Ford Carrier Strike Group (GRFCSG), Nov. 26, 2022. US Navy Photo

First-in-class USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) is back at Naval Station Norfolk, Va., after a 53-day operational period in the Atlantic, U.S. 2nd Fleet announced on Saturday.

Ford arrived in Norfolk after returning from a port visit to the U.K. last week and exercises with allied nations throughout the North Atlantic.

“The flagship set sail from Norfolk, Virginia, Oct. 4, and traveled more than 9,275 nautical miles,” reads a statement from U.S. 2nd Fleet.
“During the scheduled deployment, Ford operated with eight allies and partners, Canada, Denmark, Spain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Finland and Sweden, to strengthen interoperability, while conducting a range of maritime operations and exercises.”

Major events for the strike group included port visits to Halifax, Canada, on Oct. 28 and Portsmouth, U.K., on Nov. 14. Ford and its escorts also participated in the extensive Silent Wolverine exercise with ships from Canada, Denmark, Germany, Spain, France and the Netherlands.

“Through integrated and combined operations such as live and inert ordnance expenditure by Carrier Air Wing 8, anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, and air defense, we set the stage for operating with Ford-class technologies in a deployed environment,” said Ford commander Capt. Paul Lanzilotta in the Saturday release.
”We completed more than 1,250 sorties, expended 78.3 tons of ordnance, and completed 13 underway replenishments.”

Ford took aboard a partial air wing composed of every type of aircraft used on an aircraft carrier. At any given point during the deployment, the carrier had up to 60 aircraft embarked — about 80 percent of a full air wing. Ford also took on more than 1,200 tons of ammunition as part of the underway.

Additionally, the strike group deployed with guided-missile cruiser USS Normandy (CG-60) and guided-missile destroyers USS Thomas Hudner (DDG-116), USS Ramage (DDG-61), USS McFaul (DDG-74 with Destroyer Squadron 26. In addition, the strike group deployed with the Coast Guard cutter USCGC Hamilton (WMSL-753).

The time at sea was an opportunity to prove systems that were introduced on Ford designed to increase the sortie generation rate of the aircraft carrier. The carrier features the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) and Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG) are both new systems with software elements that have required extensive testing over the last few years. Also, the Advanced Weapons Elevators (AWE), which has delayed Ford’s ability to deploy are fully operational and were tested extensively.

Now back in Norfolk, Ford and its crew will now prepare for a longer deployment planned for next year, defense officials have told USNI News.

“This deployment laid a strong foundation for the strike group, created momentum to carry us forward for future operations, and has prepared us to answer our nation’s call when needed,”
said Carrier Strike Group 12 commander Rear Adm. Greg Huffman said in the Saturday statement.

Carrier Strike Group 12

Carrier
USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78), homeported at Naval Station Norfolk, Va.

Carrier Air Wing 8

Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 8, based on Naval Air Station Oceana, Va., embarked on Ford and includes nine squadrons and detachments:

  • The “Golden Warriors” of VFA-87 Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) flying F/A-18Es from Naval Air Station Oceana, Va.
  • The “Ragin’ Bulls” of VFA-37 – F/A-18E – from Naval Air Station Oceana.
  • The “Black Lions” of VFA-213 – F/A-18F – from Naval Air Station Oceana.
  • The “Tomcatters” of VFA-31 – F/A-18E – from Naval Air Station Oceana.
  • The “Gray Wolves” of VAQ-142 – EA-18G – Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) – from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Wash.
  • The “Bear Aces” of VAW-124 – E-2D – Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron (VAW) – from Naval Air Station Norfolk, Va.
  • The “Rawhides” of VRC-40 – Detachment – C-2A – Fleet Logistics Support Squadron (VRC) – from Naval Air Station Norfolk.
  • The “Tridents” of HSC-9 – MH-60S – Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) – from Naval Air Station Norfolk.
  • The “Spartans” of HSM-70 – MH-60R – Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) – from Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Fla.

Cruiser
USS Normandy (CG-60), homeported at Naval Station Norfolk.

Destroyer Squadron 26
USS Thomas Hudner (DDG-116), homeported at Naval Station Mayport, Fla.

  • USS Ramage (DDG-61), homeported at Naval Station Norfolk.
  • USS McFaul (DDG-74), homeported at Naval Station Mayport.
  • USCGC Hamilton (WMSL 753) homeported in North Charleston, S.C.

 

 

Inside Carrier USS Gerald R. Ford’s Two-Month Operational Stress Test

ABOARD AIRCRAFT CARRIER USS GERALD R. FORD IN THE VIRGINIA CAPES – After years of delays, the Navy’s first-in-class aircraft carrier is underway on a two-month operational stress test of the carrier’s new systems and air wing as the ship and its crew prepare for an extended deployment early next year. USS Gerald R. Ford […]

USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) departs Naval Station Norfolk, on Oct. 4, 2022. US Navy Photo

ABOARD AIRCRAFT CARRIER USS GERALD R. FORD IN THE VIRGINIA CAPES – After years of delays, the Navy’s first-in-class aircraft carrier is underway on a two-month operational stress test of the carrier’s new systems and air wing as the ship and its crew prepare for an extended deployment early next year.

USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) left Naval Station Norfolk, Va., on Oct. 4, 2022, will operate throughout the Atlantic, exercise with allies and partners, make a foreign port call and operationally employ the carrier air wing for the first time.

Ford, the first of its class, has a host of new technologies new to the fleet and will have about 60 aircraft aboard at any given time during the service-retained deployment. The ship is taking about 80 percent of a carrier air wing and embarking with every type of aircraft that operates from a carrier.

“Stressing the flight deck, stressing the air wing – in terms of the sorties that we’re able to generate – and then working within the entire strike group construct to make sure that we’ve got all of our ships operating to the max of their capacities,” Rear Adm. Gregory Huffman, the commander of Carrier Strike Group 12, told reporters aboard the carrier last week.
“We haven’t had a chance to really explore in a strike group setting what the Ford is going to bring to the table. And this is our first opportunity to do that and set the foundation for follow-on deployments – not just the Ford, but the entire class.”

The two months at sea will allow the sailors to move into a more operational mindset compared to the last few years of workups and testing, multiple officers told USNI News during a recent trip aboard the carrier.

“Really we’re just coming out to operate the carrier and show what it’s capable of. So we are a fully operational carrier at this point and we are simply attempting to validate and show folks that we are in fact on that footing,” Cmdr. John Peterson, Ford’s air boss told USNI News.

The multi-national cruise will also allow Ford to exercise with eight other countries and prepare the carrier’s crew for real-world scenarios in which it will work with allies and partners.

“I think it’s a good stress [test] in terms of making sure that we can coordinate appropriately as a command-and-control platform. It starts with language. Are we using compatible publications and procedures? Are we just using the English language in a compatible way?” Ford commanding officer Capt. Paul Lanzilotta said.
“That goes both ways. My sailors have to speak on the radio in a way that’s standard, enunciated properly and intelligible to a unit that’s operating far away from home in a language that probably most of the crew members did not grow up speaking every single day.”

New Technologies

F/A-18 Super Hornets attached to Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 8 conduct flight operations on the first-in-class aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78), Oct. 8, 2022. US Navy Photo

Ford incorporates multiple new technologies aboard that are meant to make the carrier air wing operate faster and more efficiently. For example, the ship has in-deck refueling to make it easier to fuel aircraft without having to drag hoses across the flight deck.

The carrier also features new technologies for the systems that launch and recover aircraft. The Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) and Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG) are both new systems with software elements that have required extensive testing over the last few years.

“We’ve gone from a very archaic way of catching aircraft per se, with hydraulics, that slowly advance into some electronic upgrades. With this new system, we are able to put less stress on the ship, on the system itself, and on the aircraft,” Ens. Justin Knighton, who is taking over as the aircraft launch and recovery equipment maintenance officer aboard Ford, told reporters in one of the machinery spaces for the Advanced Arresting Gear.

“There’s a lot more sense of reliability as far as being able to recover the aircraft safely, a lot more redundancy. Like I said, just a lot better overall as far as taking care of the aircraft and the longevity and life of the aircraft and the equipment.”

As the sailors have become more familiar with the new AAG system, Knighton said the reliability has improved, but he acknowledged the crew has more work to do to get AAG to where it needs to be years down the road and on future Ford-class carriers.

“Longevity wise we have gotten a lot more proficient. A lot of that has to do with our operators becoming a lot more involved in the systems, having repetition behind the wheel, being able to identify things at quicker levels,” Knighton said. “And then as new software comes out and new hardware changes, kind of take a little step back, it takes us a little time to get used to the new stuff, identify reliability issues and come through them and work with our engineering team up at Lakehurst to develop an engineering change proposal to come through that in the long run.”

The reliability for EMALS, the new launching system that does not use steam like the catapults on the Nimitz-class carriers, has also improved, according to Knighton.

An artist’s conception of the electromagnetic launch systems (EMALS). General Atomics Photo

“As far as proficiency, we’ve gotten very good at coming through minor issues. We do not have hardly any catastrophic issues that take us down for extended periods of time. We do have minor issues here and there that we need to troubleshoot throughout the day. A lot of that is the mass amount of redundancy in sensors that we do have within the system,” he told reporters.

“We’ve done a lot of engineering investigations on parts that we’ve found non-reliable that were supposed to be very reliable in the beginning. We’ve had more robust changes for a lot of those things to make sure that they’re not failing. And things have gotten really good with EMALS, especially in the last I’d say two years.”

While past failures of EMALS have brought down two catapults at once, recent issues with the system have been minor, Knighton said.

“We really don’t have as many high-powered issues that we used to have coming through over 10,000 launches with aircraft. So it’s been less effecting to us as far as if we lose a pair of catapults, which it doesn’t happen very often,” he said.

The Advanced Weapons Elevators (AWE), which delayed Ford’s ability to deploy initially and required extensive contractor work, are now fully operational.

“We are collectively basically 200 percent stronger than the Nimitz class elevators and we run at about 150 percent of their speed. So we’re stronger and faster and able to operate at a much quicker pace than the Nimitz class,” Cmdr. Jim Fish, the gun boss on Ford, told reporters.

The new elevators bring ordnance to the flight deck faster to arm the aircraft. The AWE operates with electromagnetic motors, unlike the cables used for the weapons elevators on the Nimitz-class carriers.

“We were able to run ammo downstairs in the magazines much quicker because we were able to put extra weight on the elevator, able to run it down quicker, which means you have to run those cycles a lot less,” Fish said.

During preparation for the two-month period, Ford’s crew loaded 12,000 tons of ammunition worth about $400 million. It took 1,400 lifts of the elevators over two-and-half days, according to Fish.

“That’s a very good respectable first-time, out-the-gate evolution. That is varsity numbers for our first time and that was absolutely on the work of my sailors here,” he said.

Allies and Partners

German Sachsen-class frigate FGS Hessen (F221), foreground, steams in formation with the first-in-class aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) and other coalition warships during a simulated strait transit on Oct. 9, 2022. US Navy Photo

Ford’s two months at sea will allow the carrier and its escorts to work with multiple NATO and NATO-aspiring nations, including Finland and Sweden. During USNI News’ time aboard the carrier last week, German frigate Hessen (F221) was operating nearby.

“This is really a chance to work with a full strike group with almost a full air wing,” Huffman told reporters.
“And then with those allies and partners, to get a good understanding of how the Ford – with its new capabilities – will be able to interact with different ships and perhaps change how we do tactics from a big picture perspective. So that’s what we look to do is just basically explore that new technology and see what kind of operations we can develop out of that.” 

Ford will also work with ships and aircraft from France, Denmark, Spain, the Netherlands and Canada while at sea this fall. During the next two months, Ford will pass control of air wing assets to the allies operating nearby with the carrier strike group.

“If we suffer a casualty and we need to push something over to another ship – whether they suffer one or we suffer one – our ability for them to immediately and easily and coherently pick right up where we left off, or wherever that unit was that may be temporarily taken out of the fight, their ability to do that, we have to have that capability,” said Capt. Daryl Trent, the commander of Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 8.

“And that is one of the strengths of our partners that we’re working together – not only legitimizes what we’re doing but also gives us the capability of, ‘hey we can pass this over to you. We’re going to do some maintenance or troubleshooting on a system. You can take it for now.”

The chance to work with the French Navy is unique because the French and U.S. aircraft can cross-deck between each other’s carriers, Lanzilotta noted. The French carrier FS Charles de Gaulle (R-91) uses the same catapults and arresting gear to launch and recover aircraft as the U.S. Nimitz-class carrier.

“Whenever we are in the vicinity of a French aircraft carrier, we immediately start operating together in an interchangeable fashion. That’s true allied operations. I’m excited for the opportunity to do that,” said Lanzilotta.

Room to Grow

USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) steams the Atlantic Ocean during a simulated straits transit with the Gerald R. Ford Carrier Strike Group (GRFCSG) in the Atlantic Ocean on Oct. 9, 2022. US Navy Photo

The lifespan of aircraft carriers – anywhere from 50 to 60 years – means Ford will remain in service as new technologies like unmanned air vehicles and weapons like lasers are introduced.

Multiple officials during USNI News’ visit to Ford noted the carrier has room to grow and evolve with these modernization efforts.

“This ship was built as a new class with a lot of expanded capability but also with margin for more. So while our propulsion plant is new and pushing us through the water at a good pace … the electrical generation capacity of this ship is not even close to being taxed,” Lanzilotta said. “So as things develop in the coming years, as advanced weapons come online from the United States side, I expect those to be able to be installed on the ship whether it’s in a yards period or some other modernization period, and bring our lethality up even higher over the course of the ship’s life, which is 50 … maybe 60 years.”

The carrier’s electrical plant has extra cooling capacity, meaning the Navy can add new weapons like lasers to the ship and install new capabilities during future maintenance availabilities.

“With the room to grow and the fight of the future that may go on, whatever weapons systems they bring on – whether it be self-defense or be offensive to go over the horizon – there’s a lot of spare electric plant equipment,” said Cmdr. Homer Hensy, Ford’s chief engineer.

Ens. Elizabeth Armstrong, strike officer to the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Normandy (CG-60), oversees a Tomahawk Land Attack Missile Exercise while Normandy is underway as part of the Gerald R. Ford Carrier Strike Group, Oct. 11, 2022. US Navy Photo

“The breakers and operations and logic controllers that aren’t quite set in, that we’re just waiting for the time to install those, do a system operability test for whatever the combatant commander needs for over the horizon – whether it be the Pacific Fleet or the European theater,” he said. “Either way we go on there, our public yards are ready to operate through the whole planning yard and to install those systems for whatever period we get to make sure that the ship is ready and most modern to defend [against] whatever the threat is in the future.”

The margin will also help the carrier air wing evolve with new technology and platforms, and incorporate the fifth-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Lightning II and future unmanned aerial vehicles. The Navy’s sixth-generation Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program is expected to include a manned fighter, known as F/A-XX, that will operate as the nucleus for the service’s manned-unmanned teaming concept.

“Over time we’re going to go, as a force, we’re going to go to a lot of manned-unmanned teaming capabilities out there. That is the future,” said Trent, the CAG.
“And that is what the ship is built for and is going and there are certainly other systems that they’ve got a lot of growth capability in the future that is absolutely amazing, as we develop our weapons systems to the fight of the future.”

Carrier USS Gerald R. Ford to Embark on Short Cruise Ahead of Full Deployment Next Year

THE PENTAGON — Aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) will soon leave for a short cruise before heading out on its first deployment next year under the Defense Department’s global force management system. The upcoming cruise will take the first-in-class Ford throughout the Atlantic Ocean and will include a foreign port call, Ford commanding […]

Sailors assigned to the first-in-class aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) and the “Tridents” of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 9 conduct an ammunition onload, Sept. 25, 2022. US Navy Photo

THE PENTAGON — Aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) will soon leave for a short cruise before heading out on its first deployment next year under the Defense Department’s global force management system.

The upcoming cruise will take the first-in-class Ford throughout the Atlantic Ocean and will include a foreign port call, Ford commanding office Capt. Paul Lanzilotta told reporters today.

“We’re going to sail on the high seas with our partners. We’re going to operate in concert with them. We want interoperability, we want interchangeability with our partners. So our NATO partners that are sailing with us, we’re going to work with them every day, every night. That’s what it means to operate on the high seas. We’re going to learn lessons with them. We’re going to build out the tactics that Ford-class brings to the table, kind of see where we’ve got, areas to improve,” Lanzilotta said.
“There’s always going to be areas to improve.”

The Navy is billing the cruise as a “service-retained deployment” and the carrier strike group’s command and control is under U.S. 2nd Fleet commander Vice Adm. Daniel Dwyer.

Carrier Strike Group 12 and Carrier Air Wing 8 will go out with Ford, in addition to Destroyer Squadron 2, Dwyer said. Destroyer Squadron Two will include USS Thomas Hudner (DDG-116), USS Ramage (DDG-61) and USS McFaul (DDG-74). Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Normandy (CG-60) is also part of the CSG, as are Lewis and Clark-class cargo ship USNS Robert E. Peary (T-AKE-5) and Henry J Kaiser-class oiler USNS Joshua Humphreys (T-AO-188).

Ford will not take a full carrier air wing for the cruise, but will have eight squadrons aboard, including F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets, MH-60R Seahawks, MH-60S and EA-18G Growlers.

“Every single type and model series of aircraft is represented on our deployment,” Lanzilotta said. “Some of those squadrons are not coming out with every single aircraft that they normally would have, for example on George. H. W. Bush right now, which is out on deployment. But it’s going close to a full air wing.”

The multi-national cruise will feature nine countries – France, Denmark, Finland, Spain, the Netherlands, Sweden, Canada, the United States and Germany for a total of 17 ships and one submarine, Dwyer said.

“The carrier expects to execute eight distinct phases throughout this service-retained deployment,” Dwyer said.

USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) while in homeport in Norfolk, Virginia, on April 7, 2022. USNI News Photo

Those stages will include, “sailing with six allied ships, as well as the carrier strike group, U.S. naval support and destroyers, and in those eight distinct phases she will conduct strike group steaming, air defense exercises, maritime domain awareness, long-range maritime strike, distributed maritime operations, anti-submarine warfare exercises, as well as naval integration.”

Once the CSG staff, the destroyer squadron staff, the air wing and liaison officers are aboard the carrier, Lanzilotta expects to have about 4,700 personnel on the ship.

Ford’s CO described the cruise as a “stepping stone kind of approach” as the carrier and its crew prepare for next year’s deployment, which will be longer than the upcoming cruise.

“We’ve got our allies and partners with us, so that really kind of makes us work a little bit harder to make sure we’re all talking. So when we go out and we sail on the high seas, it’s a thing to just launch and recover aircraft every single day, to have the battle rhythm of command and control throughout the carrier strike group,” Lanzilotta said. “We’re going to refine all that with our team, just building our – the people part of operating together. We’re going to stress the logistics strain a little bit. So by operating further away from home, we’ll be demonstrating what navies do every single day all around the globe.”

As for the first-in-class carrier’s new technologies – the Advanced Arresting Gear, the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) and the Advanced Weapons Elevators –Lanzilotta said all of the systems are “fully certified for unlimited use” on the ship.

“We’re no longer in testing world here. We’re not science experimenting. We are not doing developmental tests,” he told reporters. “We will be doing concurrent operational tests – that’s always something that you’ll see when a weapons system is between its initial operating capability and its full operating capability.”

PEO Carriers: USS Gerald R. Ford ‘Fully Delivered’ Ready to Deploy

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. – Five years after its commissioning, the world’s largest warship is in shape to deploy, the officer who oversees the Navy’s carrier program said last week. USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) quietly reached its initial operating capability in December and has been in workups since completing a six-month repair availability in March […]

Distinguished visitors observe flight operations aboard USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78), Sept. 17, 2022. US Navy Photo

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. – Five years after its commissioning, the world’s largest warship is in shape to deploy, the officer who oversees the Navy’s carrier program said last week.

USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) quietly reached its initial operating capability in December and has been in workups since completing a six-month repair availability in March following explosive shock trials off the coast of Florida.

“She’s fully delivered now, she’s met her initial operating capability,” Rear Adm. James Downey told USNI News last week during the American Society of Naval Engineers’ annual Fleet Maintenance and Modernization Symposium.
“She’s fully through the operational threshold.”

Since leaving the repair period, Ford and its crew have been operating at a steady pace off of the East Coast with elements of Carrier Air Wing 8. The crew aboard completed system qualification tests, flight deck certification, three phases of air warfare training, and a Combat Systems Operational Readiness Evaluation that included 11,000 aircraft launches and arrested landings, according to the service.

“Over the last couple of years, she’s spent 250 to 300 days at sea,” Downey said.
“That’s coming up on about two deployments [of steaming days].”

USS Gerald R. Ford while in homeport in Norfolk, Virginia, on April 7, 2022. USNI News Photo

The delay for the $13 billion Ford to pull its share of the operational load was in large part due to the integration of a bevy of new technologies that Pentagon leaders required the Navy to include in the new class.

Those included the Electromagnetic Launching System, known as EMALS, for the aircraft, the Advanced Arresting Gear and the Dual Band air search radar. That included the installation of 11 advanced weapons elevators which took several years. The final one was delivered in December.

Following the completion of the training and certifications, Ford departed Naval Station Norfolk, Va., on Sept. 16 ahead of an Atlantic training cruise later this year.

“She has every certification that every other carrier has – from flying to live weapons,” Downey told USNI News.

As of Monday, Ford was operating in the Virginia Capes Operating Areas, according to the USNI News Fleet and Marine Tracker.

The upcoming underway won’t be the same as a full carrier strike group deployment, but will be an extended training cruise meant to give the operational commander a chance to get a better sense of how Ford operates, two congressional sources briefed on the Navy’s plan told USNI News in the last several weeks.

The Navy has billed the underway as a “service retained deployment,” which doesn’t require the same certifications for a fully deployed CSG, the Hill sources confirmed to USNI News. The training cruise will partner the strike group with allied ships and will inform a traditional deployment in 2023, USNI News has learned.

When Ford finally enters the deployment cycle, it will ease the burden of the existing East Coast carrier fleet, which has seen a string of extended deployments over the last several years. The carrier was originally scheduled to deploying 2018.

HII Lays Keel of Future Aircraft Carrier USS Enterprise

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – HII has laid the keel block of the aircraft carrier Enterprise (CVN-80) on Tuesday, USNI News has learned. The seventh U.S. warship named after the Revolutionary War sloop, Enterprise formally began fabrication at HII’s Newport News Shipbuilding yard in Virginia, Rear Adm. James Downey, the program executive officer for carriers, told […]

An artist’s concept of the future carrier Enterprise (CVN-80). DoD Image

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – HII has laid the keel block of the aircraft carrier Enterprise (CVN-80) on Tuesday, USNI News has learned.

The seventh U.S. warship named after the Revolutionary War sloop, Enterprise formally began fabrication at HII’s Newport News Shipbuilding yard in Virginia, Rear Adm. James Downey, the program executive officer for carriers, told USNI News on Tuesday.

The start of fabrication comes three weeks ahead of schedule and as the carrier is about 13 percent done, Downey said.

Enterprise will be the third Gerald Ford-class aircraft carrier and is expected to deliver to the Navy in 2028. HII and the service will have a formal ceremony marking the occasion in August, USNI News understands.

Enterprise and follow-on ship the future USS Doris Miller (CVN-81) were bought as part of a block-buy strategy estimated to be valued at $24 billion, as part of a 2019 deal with HII. Miller is expected to deliver to the fleet by 2032.

News of the milestone comes as the Navy confirmed the first-in-class USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) had reached initial operational capacity in December. The quiet declaration means is now in material shape to deploy followed the delivery of the carrier’s 11th Advanced Weapons Elevator. The carrier commissioned in 2017 with none of the elevators delivered and working out the kinks in the system was a major roadblock for the program.

Last month, Ford completed a six-month availability following full-ship shock trails in which the Navy detonated 40,000-ton of explosives in a durability test of the carrier’s design. The carrier is now due to begin workups before an anticipated fall patrol.

Newport News is currently working on the three future Fords — John F. Kennedy (CVN-79), Enterprise and Miller – as well as the mid-life overhaul of USS George Washington (CVN-73) and USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74). The hulk of the decommissioned aircraft carrier Enterprise (CVN-65) is also at the yard.

Pentagon Acquisition Chief Nominee Argues Navy Needs Larger, More Survivable Fleet

The nominee for the Pentagon’s top acquisition post told the Senate Armed Services Committee today that the Navy needs a larger and more survivable fleet. “We need more numbers” when it comes to Navy fleet size and “we want survivable; we want strike” for the future,” William LaPlante, a former assistant secretary of the Air […]

USS Princeton (CG-59) and the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS Halsey (DDG-97) and USS John Paul Jones (DDG-53) steam in formation during a composite unit training exercise (COMPTUEX) on May 12, 2020. US Navy Photo

The nominee for the Pentagon’s top acquisition post told the Senate Armed Services Committee today that the Navy needs a larger and more survivable fleet.
“We need more numbers” when it comes to Navy fleet size and “we want survivable; we want strike” for the future,” William LaPlante, a former assistant secretary of the Air Force, said in his opening statement before the panel on Tuesday. If confirmed to the post, LaPlante said his focus “must be laser-like on [acquiring] speed and scale” through software.

Erik Raven, a long-time Senate Appropriations Committee staffer and the nominee to service as the Navy’s under secretary, said in opening remarks that modernization “means identifying the capabilities that are needed, setting a plan for acquiring them, and working with partners in industry to deliver them efficiently.”

He added later, “the 30-year shipbuilding plan is a signal to industry” of what to expect from the Navy in the way of contracts and mix of ships. But “the force structure assessment is another key element” in determining fleet size. He added the latest assessment is to be “completed in the near future.”

Current Navy fleet size requirement is set at 355 ships; there are 298 ships in the fleet now, according to the service.

The federal budget for Fiscal Year 2023 is slated for release on Monday.

“We learned the lesson from Ford and thankfully we learned the lesson from F-35 … that you have to have mature technology” and realistic cost estimates in big-ticket platforms with hosts of new software, LaPlante said of the Ford-class aircraft carrier program and the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter.

In written comments, LaPlante added, “my understanding is that there are clear sustainment challenges facing the F-35 program in terms of both readiness and affordability,” with the goal of reducing the high sustainability costs.

He said a good model going forward in these programs would be to look to the Air Force’s B-21 bomber. That program used “open systems that we can upgrade very fast.” The key idea is “we’ve got to these capabilities into those weapons systems” that are in place as quickly as possible for future use.

“We’ve known about modular systems for 20 years” that would allow constant upgrading; they should “always be part of the acquisition process,” LaPlante said.

He later said that ensuring cyber security measures are in place three to four levels down among subcontractors on big-ticket platforms like ships and aircraft is critically important for their survivability in combat.

“Don’t back cyber in,” he said.

Several times Raven was asked about the importance of shipyard infrastructure and its role in readiness. Pointing to the Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Program (SIOP), he said “this is [a] once in a century bill” that promotes operational and industry readiness.

In written remarks LaPlante said that ‘’understanding the constraints in the supply chain, workforce, capacity and capability of the nation’s ship repair infrastructure is critical to planning effective improvements.”

Both Raven and LaPlante told the committee that COVID-19 has had an impact on shipbuilding and repair schedules in the last two years.

Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) pressed Raven on expanding sealift capacity, noting the Chinese have 5,500 ships in its merchant fleet while the United States has 85. Sealift is “key to our warfighting capabilities.” Raven said he would examine adding more ships to American sealift by buying more commercial vessels.

In prepared answers, Raven noted his role in developing a pilot program in the Pacific for Navy work to be done in private yards, which will be expanded to the Atlantic this year. “This pilot program seeks to increase the transparency and flexibility of ship depot maintenance efforts.” Raven added later that one of his goals, if confirmed, “is to build key partnerships” in the joint force, on Capitol Hill, with industry and the communities supporting Navy and Marine Corps installations and activities.

“The need to modernize applies not only to major platforms and breakthrough technologies like hypersonic missiles and artificial intelligence. It also applies to the facilities and infrastructure,” Raven said in his opening remarks.

On those breakthrough technologies, like hypersonics, LaPlante said the Air Force made a mistake in backing away from glide vehicles after two failures more than a decade ago. Several senators noted the service should have continued testing, as the Russian and Chinese did following failures in their hypersonic glide vehicle program.

LaPlante added the Pentagon needed to work more closely with “emerging tech eco-systems” across the country, as those eco-systems have “strong ties to academia.”

In his prepared answers, Raven said, “I believe initiatives and networks such as these are critical in identifying new technologies to the warfighter.”

During the hearing, LaPlante added the Pentagon, however, must “show you there is hope” that the new technology can move from early phases of defense spending into full production.

Record Aircraft Carrier Work Underway at Newport News Shipbuilding

With construction on the Navy’s new class of aircraft carriers continuing in earnest, the nation’s largest shipbuilder currently has six nuclear carriers at various lifecycle stages in its Virginia yard, officials told USNI News. From new Ford-class carriers under construction to the remains of the former USS Enterprise (CVN-65) that’s awaiting disposal, it’s the most […]

Carriers USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) and John F. Kennedy (CVN-79) at Newport News Shipbuilding on Nov. 12, 2021. USNI News Photo

With construction on the Navy’s new class of aircraft carriers continuing in earnest, the nation’s largest shipbuilder currently has six nuclear carriers at various lifecycle stages in its Virginia yard, officials told USNI News.

From new Ford-class carriers under construction to the remains of the former USS Enterprise (CVN-65) that’s awaiting disposal, it’s the most carriers Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Newport News Shipbuilding has had in the yard in about three decades.

“I’ve been there 32 years, I think it’s the most we’ve had because of the [Planned Incremental Availability] with Ford and with the decommissioned hull that’s there. So I think that adds two new ships that traditionally would not be there,” Brian Fields, HII’s vice president of aircraft carrier construction for CVN-80 and CVN-81, told USNI News last week.

USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) is in the final month of its first PIA, which began last year after the ship wrapped up the post-delivery test and trials stage and full ship shock trials. Enterprise was decommissioned in 2017 and the Navy is determining the best way to dispose of the service’s first nuclear-powered carrier.

Meanwhile, two Nimitz-class carriers are currently undergoing their mid-life refueling and complex overhauls (RCOH) at Newport News.

Carriers at Newport News:

USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) is pulled from its berth at the Huntington Ingalls Industries at Newport News Shipbuilding, Va., into the James River on Oct. 25, 2019. Ford is passing the former USS Enterprise (CVN-65). USNI News Photo 

  • Enterprise (CVN-65): Awaiting disposal.
  • USS George Washington (CVN-73): Mid-life refueling and complex overhaul.
  • USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74): Mid-life refueling and complex overhaul.
  • USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78): Planned Incremental Availability.
  • John F. Kennedy (CVN-79): Finalizing construction.
  • Enterprise (CVN-80): Early construction.

“We’ve got a lot of work going on in the Norfolk area. We’ve got George Washington and Stennis in RCOH at Newport News,” Rear Adm. James Downey, the program executive officer for aircraft carriers, told reporters last month. Downey’s role includes overseeing carriers under construction, in maintenance periods and out for deployment.

“And Ford, of course . .. she’s wrapping up her first planned incremental availability, that’s her first in service availability following her post delivery test and trials,” he added. “And that’s being done over at Newport News Shipbuilding as well.”

Last year, the Navy awarded Newport News Shipbuilding a $3 billion contract to perform the RCOH for USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74) and it expected work on the ship to wrap up in August 2025, USNI News previously reported. Stennis entered Newport News for the RCOH in May 2021.

Meanwhile, USS George Washington (CVN-73) is nearing the end of its four-year RCOH and is the next carrier that will receive upgrades to accommodate the F-35C Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, Downey said.

At the same time, HII is also finishing the construction of the future USS John F. Kennedy (CVN-79), which is slated to deliver to the Navy in 2024, and execute the block buy of the future USS Enterprise (CVN-80) and USS Doris Miller (CVN-81).

Downey said last month that CVN-80 is “about 12 percent complete” ahead of its 2028 planned delivery, with the keel laying slated for this spring. Meanwhile, Newport News cut the first steel for CVN-81 in August 2021 and the carrier’s delivery is expected in 2032.

Fields, who is currently leading construction for CVN-80 and CVN-81, said Newport News has planned around the demand of the carriers coming into the yard.

“In the business model, we’re supporting an availability, two RCOHs, and with the two-ship procurement of 80 and 81, we have 79, 80 and 81 under new construction. All of those are normal for us. Our facility plan, our staffing plan is all built to support that. So the unique thing that we have is we’re still supporting the Navy with CVN-65 Enterprise,” Fields said. “So as that plan matures, we’ll partner with them and help manage her through the last step of her life. So yeah, when you look at the spectrum of ships in the yard, it’s a lot of ships that we’re supporting, but the Navy does a great job forecasting what their needs are and allows us to prepare to support that.”

Decommissioned nuclear carrier Enterprise (CVN-65) sits pierside at Newport News Shipbuilding following its decommissioning in February 2017. US Navy Photo

With laser scanning equipment that helped engineers at Newport News plan for George Washington‘s RCOH ahead of time and digital-only blueprints for CVN-80 and CVN-81, the shipyard and its workforce are seeing the value in new technology.

“Obviously, the investment in the various programs is a little bit different. New construction, being fully digital, we’re seeing the workforce doesn’t know how to build CVN-80 with paper because it’s completely digital,” Fields told USNI News during a phone interview last month at the annual Surface Navy Association symposium. “We see that the demand for this on our waterfront … there’s a wide generation gap from an 18 year old that we just hired in, to a master shipbuilder that’s been here [for] 45 years. The one thing that’s consistent in that entire spectrum is that when they see the 3D visual work construction, they recognize it … it’s a lot more efficient and they can understand a lot faster what they’re being asked to do.”

Navy Says Aircraft Carrier Supply Chain Improving; USS Gerald R. Ford to Deploy by Fall

The Navy is confident in its supply chain and the availability of spare parts to build and sustain its aircraft carriers, as the lead ship in the Gerald R. Ford class gears up for its first deployment, two service officials said last week. After taking parts from the future USS John F. Kennedy (CVN-79), the […]

Carriers USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) and John F. Kennedy (CVN-79) at Newport News Shipbuilding on Nov. 12, 2021. USNI News Photo

The Navy is confident in its supply chain and the availability of spare parts to build and sustain its aircraft carriers, as the lead ship in the Gerald R. Ford class gears up for its first deployment, two service officials said last week.

After taking parts from the future USS John F. Kennedy (CVN-79), the Navy is beginning to receive orders to replace those parts. The parts from JFK – which is currently under construction at Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Newport News Shipbuilding – were placed on USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) so the lead ship is ready deploy this year.

“The backfill of the parts that were taken from JFK – those are starting to come in. So we don’t see that it’s going to have any future impacts on JFK,” Jay Stefany, who is currently performing the duties of the assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition, told reporters on Friday.

The sustainment parts for Ford – which is set to deploy this fall – are on the carrier, Rear Adm. James Downey, the program executive officer for carriers, said last week.

“We will order the deployment-like items, but those are much more in the perishable phase at this point. The sustainment items are onboard and doing well,” Downey said.

After wrapping up shock trials over the summer, Ford pulled into port at Newport News for its Planned Incremental Availability (PIA), which is set to finish at the end of February. During that maintenance period, the Navy had to cannibalize some parts from JFK and place them on Ford, USNI News previously reported.

As it prepares for the lead ship in the class to deploy for the first time later this year, the Navy is continuing to work with both industry and its field activities to ensure the carrier has the parts it needs, according to Downey.

“First I’ll share that 96 percent of our systems have transitioned out to Navy field activities to be the in-service engineering activities. So we have about four systems left that we’re transitioning from Newport News – that’s a normal course of maturity for us,” he said, noting that this includes transferring both technical documents and parts for the systems.

The Navy has also hosted subject matter experts from industry aboard Ford to help ensure it has a healthy understanding of what parts it might need to buy or systems it could need to alter.

“What we’ve done is we’ve brought those SMEs – first we’ve increased what we were ordering and we have the parts aboard as we saw [over] those 18 months mostly at sea for Ford. But we’ve also brought those SMEs in,” Downey said. “We have some pretty significant industry exchanges on a very routine basis and we’ve had their SMEs aboard the ship – in port and at sea – for any procurement adjustments or any system changes. And we did that intentionally during [post-delivery test and trials]. So, we’re in a good position on those – in the sustainment areas.”

While the COVID-19 pandemic has caused some disruptions, Downey emphasized that much of the effects have been about people rather than material items, and that there are “no known significant supplier issues” that would prevent the Navy from getting Ford out to the fleet or completing construction on the next three ships in the class.

“Small companies – you know under a hundred folks or so – you have the challenge on, more so on the subject matter expert side of how deep they are, if others are out due to COVID issues. That’s a bit of it – of one of the issues. Another one is quarantine time – you know, if they’re not all in the Norfolk area traveling and how we transport the parts, these type of things. Most of the issues we’ve experienced aren’t directly material,” he said.

For example, Downey said finishing Ford‘s Advanced Weapons Elevators took longer than planned because doing so required the HII team to work in constricted spaces.

“You can imagine how tight those working conditions can be in an elevator. Although they’re pretty big, they’re confined areas. But with the size – with the volume of work out of Newport News, they do have multiple suppliers for most of their systems or components. So, we haven’t had issues that have stopped construction or stopped operation,” he told reporters. “I will say, on in service, we have had some issues on overhauling existing units at suppliers who are relatively small and have maybe slowed down or relocated during the COVID situation. So most of it has been related to the people, and their availability.”

Both the block buy of the future USS Enterprise (CVN-80) and the future USS Doris Miller (CVN-81) and keeping many of the systems for the carriers consistent has also helped with materials, Downey said.

“That has helped some of those vendors and the Navy as well,” he said. “So my view is we’re in a good position – sufficient so that Ford will be ready to go to operational tasking this year.”

Downey said Ford would deploy by this fall.

“Very end of the summer. If we look at dates out there – what are typical, actual dates for beginning of the fall – she’s right around there to a bit to the left of it,” he said.

USS Gerald R. Ford Needs Parts from Carrier Kennedy for Repairs; Navy Says ‘Cannibalization’ Won’t Delay JFK Schedule

The Navy is taking parts from an aircraft carrier currently under construction and placing them on USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) so the lead ship is ready to deploy next year, USNI News has learned. The parts are coming from the future USS John F. Kennedy (CVN-79), the second ship in the Ford class of […]

Carriers USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) and John F. Kennedy (CVN-79) at Newport News Shipbuilding on Nov. 12, 2021. USNI News Photo

The Navy is taking parts from an aircraft carrier currently under construction and placing them on USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) so the lead ship is ready to deploy next year, USNI News has learned.

The parts are coming from the future USS John F. Kennedy (CVN-79), the second ship in the Ford class of aircraft carriers that is currently under construction at Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Newport News Shipbuilding in Newport News, Va.

Capt. Clay Doss, the Navy’s acquisition spokesman, told USNI News the parts taken from Kennedy for Ford range from pumps to limit switches.

“Examples of parts include HMI screens for stores elevators as well as motor controllers, power supplies, small pumps, limit switches and valve actuators for various systems throughout the ship,” Doss said. “This is not unusual early in a program and will occur less often as supply support matures.”

Doss described the decision to take parts from Kennedy for Ford as a “project management tool” the service uses across programs.

“It occurred only after confirming the parts or materials were not available in the supply system and/or that alternate sources were not available,” Doss told USNI News. “A replacement plan was also required in each case. None of the parts transferred to CVN 78 are projected to impact the CVN 79 construction schedule.”

In a separate statement, Naval Sea Systems Command said the procedures were in line with Navy maintenance rules.

“In accordance with the Navy’s Joint Fleet Maintenance Manual, cannibalizations are being used as part of the process to augment readiness of CVN 78, and are only initiated after non-availability of materials has been established in the supply system or verification that alternate sources are not available,” Naval Sea Systems Command spokesman Alan Baribeau told USNI News in a statement.

Ford, the lead ship that has faced multiple delays and struggled with the reliability of several new technologies aboard, is set to deploy in 2022, USNI News recently reported.

A spokesperson for HII said the shipbuilder and the Navy are creating a supply network for the carrier class so the ships have access to spare parts.

USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) on Nov. 12, 2021. USNI News Photo

“A common shipbuilding practice for the first ship in class is to share parts between ships in order to maximize readiness until a class-wide supply system is established,” Duane Bourne told USNI News. “A relatively small volume of materials from the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy (CVN 79) has been used on first-of-class U.S.S. Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) without impacting schedules. We are working with our Navy customer to build a supply system to include spare parts for the Ford class.”

The ship is currently in port for a six-month maintenance phase known as a Planned Incremental Availability after wrapping up shock trials over the summer.

“Everything is on track. We’re still looking to get out as scheduled after the six-month availability. No big show-stoppers that they’ve come across at all. So very, very positive news coming from the captain and from the shipyard. And then as we come out of that, I think we’re going to be set very well to get back in that operational mindset and get ready for the deployment,” Rear Adm. Gregory Huffman, the commander of Carrier Strike Group 12 who will lead the Ford CSG on its first deployment, told USNI News in an interview last month.

While the Navy previously planned to take delivery of Kennedy in two different phases as a cost-saving measure, last year the service shifted to a single-phase delivery approach. Under the new plan, the Navy will accept Kennedy with all of the modifications necessary to accommodate the F-35C Lighting II Joint Strike Fighter. The shift came after lawmakers included a provision in the Fiscal Year 2020 defense policy bill requiring that Kennedy be able to deploy with F-35Cs prior to finishing its post-shakedown availability phase.

“Under a single-phase delivery, Kennedy is scheduled to be [delivered] in 2024 with its complete warfare systems and with the Joint Strike Fighter (F-35C) capability that is required by the NDAA,” Bourne told USNI News.

Top Stories 2020: U.S. Navy Acquisition

This post is part of a series of stories looking back at the top naval news from 2020. 2020 may be among the most consequential years for Navy acquisition in recent memory, with the service making big moves in support of its Distributed Maritime Operations operating concept. 2020 was the year the Navy officially started construction […]

Attack boat Vermont (SSN-792) float-off on March 29, 2019. General Dynamics Electric Boats Photo

This post is part of a series of stories looking back at the top naval news from 2020. 2020 may be among the most consequential years for Navy acquisition in recent memory, with the service making big moves in support of its Distributed Maritime Operations operating concept. 2020 was the year the Navy officially started construction on the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine program, a massive every-other-generation effort to replace the sea-based nuclear deterrent subs. It was also the year the Constellation-class guided-missile frigate program was awarded to Fincantieri, who will design and build what will become a centerpiece of the future distributed fleet. It was the year the Navy called for an end to the F/A-18E-F Super Hornet program, reinvesting that money into a longer-range next-generation fighter that could help silence critics who say the aircraft carrier will be useless against China because the air wing’s range is too short. And it was the year the Navy and its Marine Corps partners moved out on a Light Amphibious Warship that could revolutionize how the Fleet Marine Force moves around a maritime theater in support of sea control and sea denial.

Surface Ships

Fincantieri FFG(X) Design based on the FREMM. Fincantieri Image

The surface fleet is among the parts of the Navy most changed by Distributed Maritime Operations. Rather than the Navy’s recent reliance on guided-missile cruisers and destroyers to drill with allies and partners, patrol chokepoints and conduct freedom of navigation operations, the Navy will instead rely on a large fleet of small combatants to do much of this day-to-day work, freeing up a smaller number of destroyers to conduct higher-end operations and haul around large, long-range missiles. Key to this plan is the success of the Constellation-class frigate. The Navy awarded a $795-million contract to Fincantieri on April 30 to do detail design work and build the first frigate in the class. Options for as many as nine more ships would bring the total value to $5.58 billion if exercised. Fincantieri beat out four other competitors with a design based on the FREMM multi-mission frigate already operated by the French and Italian navies. It will build the frigate at its Marinette Marine shipyard in Wisconsin. In October, the class officially received a name, with Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite announcing the first-in-class ship would be USS Constellation (FFG-62) – after it was nearly named USS Agility by former SECNAV Thomas Modly earlier in the year. Though there will be fewer large combatants in the fleet, their mission will remain important: Navy leadership has said the large combatants of the future will haul around the biggest missiles, including hypersonic weapons.

USS Detroit (LCS-7) sails in formation with the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS Lassen (DDG-82), USS Preble (DDG-88) and USS Farragut (DDG-99) while conducting maritime security operations in the Caribbean Sea. US Navy Photo

The Navy is still struggling to figure out how to get the ship it needs for a price it can afford, given the deemphasis on the large combatant portfolio in future fleet plans. What was once a 2023 start to the Large Surface Combatant program was pushed to 2025 and then 2026 – and this year, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said the large combatant, which he calls “DDG-Next,” will begin detail design in 2026 and construction in 2028. New and important to the DMO concept – and the related Marine Corps concepts of Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment (LOCE) and Expeditionary Advance Base Operations (EABO) – are the Light Amphibious Warship (LAW) and the Next-Generation Logistics Ship (NGLS) programs that kicked off this year. After some Marine Corps officials had kicked around the idea of a stern-landing vessel for EABO operations last year, in February the Navy included in its Fiscal Year 2021 budget request $30 million each to begin working on the new amphib and new logistics ship.

Sea Transport Solutions Image

Throughout the summer, the vision of what LAW would become grew clearer, as the Marines made the case for small units operating outside the Amphibious Ready Group/Marine Expeditionary Unit construct. These units would move from shore to shore, providing the joint force forward refueling and rearming capabilities in remote locations, collecting intelligence, providing anti-ship and even anti-submarine strike capabilities, and more. Their small footprint and maneuverability with the LAWs would make them hard for an adversary to detect and hit. By the fall, a cost estimate of about $100 million apiece, as well as requirements for length, storage capacity, crewing and more emerged, showing the dedication to begin buying the ships in FY 2022. According to the long-range shipbuilding plan that accompanied the release of Battle Force 2045, the Next-Generation Logistics Ship would kick off procurement in FY 2023, though much less is known about that new ship compared to the LAW. This medium-sized ship would be able to help resupply the distributed Navy and Marine forces operating under DMO and EABO, while blending in with local merchant traffic and being harder for an adversary to target and disrupt the flow of supplies into theater. It’s unclear how far along the Navy is in developing its requirements. A previous effort for a somewhat larger set of ships to do resupply and other missions, called the Common Hull Auxiliary Multi-mission Platform (CHAMP), has hit several roadblocks as its price tag remains higher than Navy and White House officials are comfortable spending on an auxiliary ship.

Submarines

Virginia-class submarine Delaware (SSN-791) was moved out of a construction facility into a floating dry dock using a transfer car system in 2018. HII Photo

The Navy in November awarded $9.47 billion to General Dynamics Electric Boat to officially start construction on the first ballistic-missile submarine in the Columbia class. This SSBN program is the Navy’s all-important program with no room for error or delays, after all schedule margin was eaten up in the early days of the program and the future USS Columbia (SSBN-826) must be ready for its first patrol in the fall of 2030. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the Columbia program remained on track, in a nod to the importance on the program and the Navy prioritizing resources – available workers, materials and money – to keeping this program on track, even if it means attack submarines or aircraft carriers slipping in schedule. Still, though the program has remained on track, the Navy announced last month it was looking at extending the life of the legacy Ohio-class SSBNs – again – to provide a bit of additional capacity for combatant commanders and a bit of cushion in case there are hiccups in the future with the Columbia program. Partly as a result of keeping Columbia on track, the Virginia-class attack submarines slipped further behind in production this year, after already having some schedule delays as the program tried to maintain a two-a-year production rate. Threatening to further challenge the program was a White House proposal to buy just one SSN in FY 2021, which would throw off the workflow for thousands of suppliers trying to smoothly ramp up their production rates to accommodate both the Virginia and the Columbia programs. The White House reversed course in late November and expressed support for a second Virginia sub. Looking towards the future, the Navy this year made headway planning for its Block VI Virginia design – which would add new capability and lethality such as improved stealth and the ability to conduct seabed warfare – as well as the SSN(X) design that would build upon both Block VI and the Columbia SSBN design. All told, the Navy is trying to morph its attack submarine fleet to something closer to the Seawolf class, which was designed to operate deep into Soviet waters and go head-to-head with peer adversary subs, compared to the Virginia class which was originally designed for land-attack and intelligence-collection missions.

Carrier Aviation

Sailors assigned to the air department aboard the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) prepare to launch an F/A-18F Super Hornet attached to the Gladiators of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 106 during flight operations, March 29, 2020. US Navy Photo

Even as the Navy continued on with its Ford-class carriers this year, questions began swirling about the class’s future and what might come next to either replace or to supplement the Ford-class supercarrier. In March, Modly kicked off a Blue-Ribbon Future Carrier 2030 Task Force to look at the future of aircraft carriers and whether the U.S. Navy would stick with the Ford class beyond the future Doris Miller (CVN-81), whether it would move to a different nuclear-powered carrier design, or whether it would use conventionally powered carriers. Despite the prominent figures on the task force, it was not particularly well received: any reduction in demand for nuclear ship components could break the fragile industrial base, some worried, while others were concerned that the 11-carrier fleet was already overworked today and that the task force could lead to a reduction in CVNs in the future without a reduction in demand for their presence in theater. Though the study itself was canceled just two months later by Acting SECNAV James McPherson, the idea lingered: former Defense Secretary Mark Esper became interested in the notion of a conventionally powered light carrier to supplement the nuclear-powered supercarrier, and after months of study he settled on a plan to field eight to 11 CVNs – possibly down from today’s 11 – and supplement them with as many as six CVLs. He and Navy officials conceded that much work needed to be done to figure out what the CVL would look like and how to balance the two classes of ships.

Aviation Ordnancemen assigned to USS Gerald R. Ford’s (CVN 78) weapons department bring inert training bombs up to the flight deck during flight operations May 30, 2020. Ford is underway in the Atlantic Ocean conducting integrated air wing operations. US Navy photo.

Despite the questions about the future of carriers, the Ford-class program continued along, with USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) at times spending more days at sea than in port to conduct post-delivery tests and trials and get ready for full-ship shock trials next summer. Despite PDT&T moving ahead of schedule and the troubled Advanced Weapons Elevators finally coming online in numbers, the Navy fired its CVN-78 program manager and brought in a captain with “proven program management acumen and extensive waterfront experience” to see Ford through its remaining work before being fully turned over to the fleet for a maiden deployment.

Aircraft

An F/A-18E Super Hornet, attached to the ‘Dambusters’ of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 195, prepares to land on the flight deck of USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) on Oct. 16, 2020. US Navy Photo

In a major move for carrier aviation, the Navy announced in February in its FY 2021 budget request that it would not continue Super Hornet production beyond the end of the current multiyear contract, which runs through FY 2021. Funding that had been planned for another contract for FY 2022 through 2024 would instead be diverted to “accelerated development of Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) and other key aviation wholeness investments.” With little fanfare, the Navy stood up an NGAD program office under Naval Air Systems Command in May and quickly began industry talks. Though investing in NGAD was the primary reason for ending the Super Hornet line, the Navy also said that stopping new Super Hornet production would free up the production line for Super Hornet life extension work, which the Navy needs to add capability to the jets and keep them around long enough for a replacement to be designed and built.

Sailors assigned to Fleet Logistics Multi-Mission Squadron (VRM) 30 direct a CMV-22B Osprey from the ‘Titans’ of VRM 30 on the flight deck of Nimitz-class nuclear aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) on Nov. 20, 2020. US Navy Photo

Supporting a near-term change for the carrier air wing, Bell-Boeing delivered the first CMV-22B Osprey to the Navy in February, allowing the Navy to start a short test and evaluation program before turning the aircraft over to the operational squadron that will support the first deployment in 2021. The Navy needs the CMV-22 to serve as its new carrier onboard delivery (COD) platform because the legacy C-2 Greyhound cannot carry a large F-35C engine; the Osprey could carry the engine out to an aircraft carrier and would also have the added flexibility of being able to bring people and supplies directly to the other ships in the strike group, which can support the V-22 landing on their helicopter decks. USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) will make the first deployment with the F-35C in 2021, so the CMV-22 needs to be ready too for that deployment. Looking a few years out, the Navy is making good progress on its MQ-25A Stingray unmanned carrier-based refueling tanker. In April the Navy exercised a contract option to buy three more aircraft from Boeing, and in December the Stingray made its first flight with the refueling system attached under its wings.

Unmanned Systems

Medium Displacement Unmanned Surface Vehicle (MDUSV) prototype Sea Hunter pulls into Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii on Oct. 31, 2018. US Navy Photo

In other unmanned news, the Navy set off down a path to design and build medium and large unmanned surface vessels of its own, after earlier work had been done with Pentagon-purchased USVs. L3 Technologies in July won a $35-million contract to develop a prototype Medium Unmanned Surface Vehicle (MUSV), with options for eight follow-on craft that could bring the contract to a value of $281 million. In September, the Navy awarded six companies contracts to begin determining what the service’s Large Unmanned Surface Vehicle will look like. Austal USA, Huntington Ingalls Industries, Fincantieri Marinette, Bollinger Shipyards, Lockheed Martin and Gibbs & Cox each won about $7 million for LUSV design studies. Using Pentagon-built prototypes, the Navy operated the Sea Hunter medium USV with a carrier strike group this year, and an Overlord large USV conducted the first-ever autonomous transit of the Panama Canal as it sailed from the Gulf of Mexico to Southern California. In the undersea domain, just this week the Navy released its final request for proposals for the Snakehead Large Displacement Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (LDUUV) program, with the intention to select a single vendor next year to begin designing and building two prototypes.

Plans and Budgets

USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) and USS Nimitz (CVN-68) and their carrier strike groups (CSGs) steam in formation on July 6, 2020. US Navy Photo

Though many of these moves in 2020 will be instrumental in creating the fleet the Navy and Marine Corps know they need to deter China or win a fight if needed – especially the unmanned vessels, the light amphib and the frigate – the exact future shipbuilding plans for the Navy are still unclear. After the Navy and Marine Corps wrapped up an Integrated Naval Force Structure Assessment in January, Esper did not agree it was the right plan. He ultimately kicked off a Pentagon-led Future Naval Force Study that worked from February to October to look at what the sea services needed to do to be prepared to beat China in a fight in the 2045 timeframe. This effort led to a Battle Force 2045 plan that had all the same themes as the Navy’s original INFSA earlier in the year. The Pentagon couched the differences as a matter of timelines and how aggressively to begin making changes: The Navy had been focused on a 2030 timeframe and what needed to happen quickly to overhaul the fleet in the next decade to support DMO, LOCE and EABO. The Pentagon instead took a longer view meant to incorporate what kind of threat China could ultimately become in the long run and therefore what the Navy and Marines would need to do to counter it – with the expectation that transformation would start now with that 2045 threat in mind. The plan will need buy-in from lawmakers, who have been largely unimpressed with the plans presented to them this year. The original FY 2021 budget request was called “dead on arrival” after it contained the smallest shipbuilding budget in years. The Battle Force 2045 and its accompanying long-range shipbuilding plan was panned for the opposite reason, for being out of touch with budget realities and calling for too quick a naval buildup.