Norfolk, Virginia (CNN)Perched 50 feet above the USS Gerald Ford’s massive flight deck, Petty Officer 1st Class Jose Triana has a clear view of the horizon from his padded captain’s chair in the pilot house of the world’s most advanced aircraft carrier.
“This ship can basically drive itself,” Triana said, pointing to a touch-screen navigation display that has replaced the traditional throttle system used to power and steer the US Navy’s older carrier classes.
The one-of-a-kind control system is just one of many state-of-the-art upgrades aboard the $13 billion USS Gerald Ford that will be commissioned into active duty on July 22 after eight years of construction, development and testing.
Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, slammed the latest delay as “unacceptable” and “entirely avoidable.”
President Donald Trump reaffirmed his commitment to increasing the Navy’s carrier fleet from 11 to 12 ships earlier this year during a speech aboard the USS Gerald Ford but just a few months later directly attacked the Ford’s electromagnetic catapult system in an interview with Time magazine.
“It sounded bad to me. Digital. They have digital. What is digital? And it’s very complicated, you have to be Albert Einstein to figure it out. And I said — and now they want to buy more aircraft carriers. I said, “What system are you going to be– “Sir, we’re staying with digital.” I said, “No you’re not. You going to goddamned steam, the digital costs hundreds of millions of dollars more money and it’s no good,” Trump said.
But just days before the Ford is expected to formally enter active duty, the carrier’s commander said he is confident in the new technology.
“It’s really about the envelope. It’s opening the envelope for future aircraft and future capabilities of the Navy and we’d otherwise be contained with a steam catapult system,” McCormack said.
“With all new technology there are risks,” he said. “But that’s why we’re here — to go out there and shake them down.”
Despite delays to the Ford’s delivery, the Navy said that the Ford-class carriers will yield a $4 billion reduction per ship cost as compared to its predecessor.
First of its kind
Despite the challenges that come with developing and testing a carrier that is first in its class, commanding officers touted the expertise demonstrated by the Ford’s crew members in operating its advanced systems.
“These sailors onboard are experts in the equipment … they are the ones who are testing and evaluating it for the future of Ford-class carriers,” said Command Master Chief Laura Nunley, the highest-ranking enlisted sailor on the carrier. “That alone brings a huge sense of ownership and I couldn’t be any prouder of the crew,” she said.
$13 billion warship is first of its kind
Many of the crew members have been with the carrier since the earliest stages of development — supplementing a lack of experience out at sea with a deep breadth of knowledge about the new technology that is expected to set the standard for the future of the Ford-class.
“They’ve had to learn this stuff sometimes without a book,” Nunley said. “It’s not something that’s been proven so they’ve had to learn it from the beginning.”
The crew has also played a key role in helping many of the commanders get up to speed on the intricacies that differentiate the Ford from the Navy’s other carriers.
“It’s been a little bit of a fire hose to the mouth trying to absorb all the information I need to absorb, but it’s been an amazing experience,” said Gaut, who joined the ship nearly a month and a half ago and has never been part of the pre-commissioning process for another ship.
Gaut said he has leaned heavily on the crew’s understanding of the Ford’s advanced systems since coming aboard.
While the Ford’s commissioning ceremony represents a major milestone, the crew and commanding officers stressed that there is still more work to be done to prepare the carrier for its first deployment.
The Ford’s propulsion and basic systems were tested during a first round of sea trials in recent months, but one major remaining hurdle will be to test the carrier’s electromagnetic catapult’s ability to launch actual aircraft.
To date, the system has successfully launched “dead-loads,” which are sleds meant to simulate the weight of an aircraft, but the first tests using live planes won’t occur until sea trials scheduled to take place in the weeks after commissioning.
“The biggest challenge is to test the systems … in theory they are incredible, but we need to test them and make sure they do what they are supposed to do, which is allow us to put the ship in harm’s way and fight the fight,” said Gaut.
After the Ford’s commissioning on July 22, the Ford will undergo months of additional testing to correct any remaining deficiencies and integrate the 75-plane air wing before its first deployment scheduled for 2020.