Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

“4.5 Acres of Sovereign Territory Anywhere in the World:” The USS Gerald R. Ford

by Henry T. Edmondson III, Georgia College

Over three football fields in length, almost one football field in width, twenty-five stories high, serving15,000 meals a day, and powered by two state-of-the-art A1B nuclear reactors, the gargantuan USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) is the largest warship in the world.

On October 8, the U.S. sent the Ford and its carrier strike group to the eastern Mediterranean in support of Israel. It had been close by, anchored off of Antalya, Turkey where it was conducting joint exercises with the NATO ally. The Ford’s strike group includes one guided missile cruiser and four destroyers. It is also often accompanied by two nuclear submarines. The Pentagon has taken steps to add even more aircraft to the carrier, which can accommodate about 90 aircraft as well as a number of UAV’s (drones). The aircraft include the extraordinary F-35, the F/A-18 Super Hornet, the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, the electronic attack Growler,  and several Seahawk helicopters.

The Hawkeye is the smaller counterpart to the Air Force E-2 Sentry; both have rotating radar dishes on top of the fuselage. To conduct all operations aboard the carrier requires a crew of over 4,500. Despite its size, the aircraft carrier is remarkably agile, able to cruise alongside smaller vessels at around 30 knots.

That’s more than enough for water skiing.

The two nuclear reactors provide 250% more electrical capacity than previous  carriers so that, among other things, the increased power operates the ship’s massive “elevators” faster to move aircraft above and below deck when needed. That may be battle critical as Japanese Admiral Chūichi Nagumo learned in the Battle of Midway.  

The Ford is not only America’s newest carrier but it also introduces the new Ford-class carriers which replace the Nimitz-class carriers first introduced in 1975. It is difficult to imagine a greater honor bestowed on the 38th president; moreover, the name was proposed the year before Ford passed away placing him in the company of Carl Vinson, the “Father of the Two-Ocean Navy,” who was also alive when the carrier bearing his name was introduced. In Vinson’s case, he even attended the inauguration of his namesake. Already in production are the next two Ford-class carriers, the John F. Kennedy (CVN-79) and the Enterprise (CVN-80).

Electromagnetic catapults replace steam-driven catapults–or “Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EALS)—on the Ford-class carriers. President Trump famously announced, upon visiting the carrier, that he thought EALS system was a bad idea and he urged the Navy to stay with the less powerful steam-driven catapults to save money. But doing so would require a re-design of the entire ship, costing far more than any dollars saved. Every time a plane is launched everyone on board the 100,000 ton carrier feels the ship shudder. In addition, during flight operations, the carrier is constantly changing course to ensure that the necessary wind speed and direction are present. A graphic of the ship’s course during flight operations looks like a child’s scrawl, the path a series of loops, zigzags, and direction reversals.

Jets and planes are “trapped” by one of four arresting cables as they land; ideally, the aircraft tailhook catches the third cable. Turboprop aircraft land much more easily as they are lighter and come in more slowly. Jets come in at a sharp angle and as they hit the deck they must attempt to land and launch simultaneously in case they miss all four arresting cables entirely, so upon landing the pilot immediately fires the jet’s afterburners; otherwise, the aircraft might slide off the end of the carrier. At that moment, the jet’s roar is comparable to the sound of a tornado.  Carrier flight operations are not for the faint-of-heart, especially in the subdued lighting of night operations; and if a pilot were to tell his squadron commander that he no longer wants to do it, no questions are asked and he or she is given another assignment. Pilots describe landing on a carrier as trying to come to rest on a postage stamp in the middle of the ocean. I’ve had an officer tell me that it doesn’t hurt if naval pilots are a little bit crazy. Of course the Navy’s version of the F35 needs no catapult as it can take off under its own power and land vertically, as was the case with its predecessor the AV-8B Harrier II.

A few phenomena on a carrier are remarkably mundane. A ship is subject to pitch and roll motions, especially in the ocean, the former is movement from bow to stern, the latter movement from side to side. To give aircraft the best chance of a successful launch, the Catapult Officer, or “Shooter,” times the launch of the aircraft so that as the jet leave the end of the ship, the bow is moving upward.

Once in a great while, an incoming aircraft’s landing gear may malfunction making it impossible to catch the arresting cable. In those occasions, the crew erects a huge net at the end of the ship to catch the plane as it slides across the deck. A carrier can run aground as was the case with the USS Enterprise (CVN-65). Almost home after an eight-month deployment, the ship ran aground on a sand bar in San Francisco harbor after sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge. Efforts were made to help dislodge the vessel, and at one point the ship’s crew members were even ordered to all gather on one end of the ship, in the hope that their combined weight would tilt the carrier enough to make it slide off the mud or at least correct its consequent 10 degree listing. That didn’t work. Ultimately several tugboats and a high tide loosened the vessel, while civilians waited only 3000 feet away to see their loved ones after the long separation.

Aircraft carrier operations are fraught with danger. Because jets are so heavy they must come in at a sharp angle lest gravity pull them down. On a runway, a fighter jet pilot has about 10,000 feet to work with; on a carrier the distance is reduced to 300 feet. An F14 Tomcat, weighing in at about 40,000lbs, hits the deck at 150 mph. Every approach is watched carefully on multiple monitors throughout the ship; every landing is scored by fellow pilots. Up to a point, the control tower assists the pilot in his or her approach until the pilot hears the phrase “Call the ball,” which refers to a combination of guiding lights that form a so-called “meatball.” At that point the pilot assumes full responsibility for the landing. There have been a few tragic instances when a jet came in too low and hit the stern of the carrier.

Arresting cables that stop the aircraft are thrown overboard every 100 “traps” or so. If one were to break, it would whip across the deck dismembering anyone in its path. At least once a day, all available personnel do a side-by-side “F.O.D.” walk across the deck. Foreign Object Debris may be as small as a nut or bolt that could be sucked into the engine of a jet and damage or disable it. For that matter, in 1991, a sailor walked in front of  a A6 Intruder and was sucked into the jet’s air intake.

On July 29, 1967, the supercarrier USS Forrestal (CVA-59) suffered a disaster that permanently changed both construction of, and training for U.S Navy aircraft carriers. While stationed off the coast of North Vietnam, an electric generator used to start jet engines sent a wayward electrical impulse to an A-4 jet on the flight deck of the carrier. The impulse caused a missile to fire across the deck hitting another aircraft (piloted by future senator John McCain) that in turn ignited a jet fuel explosion followed by an uncontrollable raging fire. By the end of the day, the carrier had suffered nine major on-board detonations of the ship’s own 500 and 1,000 pound armaments, and countless smaller missile explosions, including shrapnel-filled anti-radar ordinance.

The ensuing holocaust claimed 134 lives, including scores of sailors who were instantaneously cremated in below-deck sections of the ship while sleeping in their bunks. Many more were maimed or lost their lives to fire and explosions while heroically fighting to control the holocaust that threatened the entire Forrestal crew of five thousand and even nearby ships of the Forrestal battle group. A Navy documentary film of the disaster, Trial By Fire: The Disaster on the USS Forrestal, is used in training new carrier sailors.

Several years ago, I rode aboard the sister ship of the USS Nimitz for two weeks, the USS Carl Vinson, teaching a class to officers on “Leadership and Ethics.” The Vinson is the carrier from which Osama Bin Laden was laid to rest. Flight operations were stunning—especially at night—but nothing was more impressive than the ship’s esprit de corps. The phrase heard multiple times throughout the day in response to orders and requests was “That’s easy!” Aside from pilots and officers and petty officers, many of the sailors aboard our carriers have no more than a high school education; some come from troubled backgrounds. But the ship makes men out of boys and women out of girls—it is a remarkable social outreach program. Most of the operations on board the ship are very thinly sliced to insure competence and safety. No one is aboard for more than three years. To insure continuity, the rotations on and off the ship are staggered, but even the Captain, the Executive Officer, and the Command Master Chief rotate off as does the rest of the crew.

Aircraft carriers serve as the anchor of modern naval power projection. Currently, the United States leads globally with a fleet of 11 carriers, each carrier characterized as “4.5 Acres of Sovereign Territory Anywhere in the World.” China is a distant second with 3 and India, the United Kingdom, Italy, and Japan have 2 each. A few other nations have only 1 each; for example, Russia, France, Spain, Turkey, Brazil and Thailand possess 1 each. Reports have it that Iran is trying to convert two merchant container ships into its first aircraft carriers.

Carrier design ranges from the extraordinary to the ordinary:  For the first time in carrier construction, there are no urinals aboard the USS Gerald R Ford so that the ship might be more “gender neutral.” Concerns were raised over sanitation since guys aren’t always accurate when they are distracted, tired, or just getting older. Nonetheless, the Navy explains that although women are only 18% of the Navy, the plumbing facilities are such that both sexes can be deployed anywhere in the ship. Now if they can just get the pronouns right, the new carriers will be invincible.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How have aircraft carriers changed since Ford served on one in the Second World War?
  2. What are the benefits and dangers associated with sending a carrier task force to a hot zone?
  3. How much of a military threat is China?

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