by Richard Gunderman, IUPUI
[Ed. Note: This essay was written before the latest deployment of the USS Gerald R Ford to the Mediterranean. The timeliness of the essay is, sadly, a matter of regret, but one can still hope that the eponymous carrier can carry a message of peace to the Middle East.]
This summer, when the US and its NATO allies wanted to demonstrate their solidarity in opposing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, they sent their greatest single weapon to the eastern Mediterranean– Gerald R. Ford. That is, they sent not the 38th US president but the USS Gerald R. Ford, the largest aircraft carrier in the world, which is also the largest warship ever built. It, and the Gerald R. Ford class of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers that will follow (the next, the USS John F. Kennedy, enters service in 2025), are replacing the US’s Nimitz-class carriers that have been in service for approximately half a century.
Ford’s own service in the US Navy helps to explain the name of this new “super carrier.” Born in 1912, he graduated from the University of Michigan, where he was most valuable player on the football team and member of the senior honor society, and then received his law degree from Yale in 1941, earning admission to the Michigan bar that same year. With World War II underway, Ford was commissioned in the US Naval reserve the next year, serving for nearly four years in active duty, initially as a trainer in the aviator cadet program before applying for sea duty in 1943.
That same year, Ford joined the crew of the new light aircraft carrier USS Monterey, serving as assistant navigator, athletic officer, and anti-aircraft officer. The Monterey participated in multiple actions in the Pacific, including carrier strikes. The ship was severely damaged by Typhoon Cobra, which struck the fleet in December, 1944, resulting in the loss of three ships and 800 men. At one point during the storm, with waves up to 70 feet high breaking over the bow, Ford was climbing a ladder to the pilot house when he was struck by a wave that tilted the ship 25 degree to port, propelling him across the deck.
Ford was about to be hurled overboard to certain death when he caught himself on the 2-inch steel ridge at the ship’s edge and swung himself around to land on the catwalk. When he reached the pilot house, he learned that the aircraft on the hangar deck were breaking free from their moorings and crashing into one another, igniting their fuel. The commander told Ford to don a gas mask and lead a fire brigade below to extinguish the flames. Ford and the men evacuated the living, retrieved the dead, and hours later managed to extinguish the fire. Ford would end his naval service two years later in 1946.
Construction on the USS Gerald Ford began in 2005, replacing the Nimitz-class carrier USS Enterprise. The naming of the ship was the work of US Senator John Warner of Virginia, who amended a defense spending bill. The formal announcement occurred when former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld delivered a eulogy for Ford in Grand Rapids, Michigan, stating that he had shared the honor with Ford just a few weeks before his death in 2006. It marked one of the few times in US history that a ship has been named after a living person. It was formally commissioned in 2017.
The most expensive ship ever built at $13 billion, it is 1,092 feet in length, 256 feet wide at the deck, and 250 feet tall. It has four propeller shafts that can drive it through the water at a top speed of approximately 40 miles per hour. Its nuclear power source is expected to last a quarter century before requiring refueling. It carries more than 75 aircraft, boasts a world-class radar system, and is armed with a variety of guns and surface-to-air missiles. The crew numbers approximately 4,500, including both ship and airwing personnel.
The first takeoff of an aircraft from a ship occurred in 1910, within a decade of the Wright brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk. Just two months later, the same pilot, Eugene Ely, landed an aircraft on a ship’s deck for the first time. By World War II, air power had become a major factor in warfare, and the crucial advantage of launching airstrikes from seafaring airbases was dramatized by the 1941 Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. In effect, an aircraft carrier is a mobile airbase. Huge and hugely expensive, there are fewer than 50 aircraft carriers worldwide, 11 of which are US nuclear ships.
One of the biggest technical challenges of aircraft carriers concerns their function as relatively short runways for aircraft takeoff and landing. Jets need to be able to accelerate and decelerate over a shorter distance than longer, land-based runways would require. As a result, some carriers employ catapults to get aircraft up to flight speed quickly, while arrestor wires are used to catch the tailhooks on landing aircraft, bringing them to a rapid stop. Another alternative is the design of aircraft that can depart and arrive vertically, hovering over the deck prior to take off and landing.
Rapid deployment of an aircraft carrier to a zone of conflict can establish dominant military power almost overnight. In addition to the ability to launch bomb- and missile-bearing aircraft, helicopters and smaller amphibious ships can be used to deliver large numbers of troops relatively quickly. While aircraft carriers are extremely potent offensive weapons, they are relatively vulnerable to attack from enemy aircraft, submarines, and missiles, which explains the introduction of the term carrier battle group to include the additional ships that often accompany and defend them.
Some might regard the deployment of such massive weapons as aircraft carriers as a provocation to war. But former US Assistant Secretary of the Navy and 26th President of the United States Theodore Roosevelt saw the matter differently, countering that a strong navy is in fact the “surest guaranty of peace.” As Secretary Rumsfeld said in his eulogy to Ford, a US Navy aircraft carrier is a symbol “recognizable throughout the world,” a “reminder of America’s global reach,” and a “safeguard in a troubled and dangerous world.”
Rumsfeld went on to remind the audience why Ford deserved the honor of having the largest warship in history named after him. In addition to his own courage aboard a US carrier, Ford embodied integrity and dedication. When he was nominated as vice president and 70 FBI agents descended on Ford’s hometown, he told everyone the same thing: “Tell them the truth – give them everything.” Despite immense political costs, Ford made the difficult choice to pardon Richard Nixon, putting the nation’s interests before his own. His is a legacy that the crew of the USS Gerald Ford strive to live up to today.
Richard Gunderman is John A Campbell Professor of Radiology; Bicentennial Professor; and Chancellor’s Professor of Radiology, Pediatrics, Medical Education, Philosophy, Liberal Arts, Philanthropy, and Medical Humanities and Health Studies at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis, and a contributing writer for The Atlantic.
- Why has air and water superiority become so important in modern warfare?
- Why would aircraft carriers be considered to be more instruments of peace than war?
- How did Ford’s experience in the navy prepare him for the rigors of the presidency?