Navy touts new generation of supercarriers

But critics wonder if they are worth the cost

By Kevin Schmidt

SOMEWHERE OFF THE CALIFORNIA COAST –  Capt. Steven Hejmanowski, commander of Carrier Air Wing 9 aboard the USS John C. Stennis, does not mince words about the role of the aircraft carrier and its strike group.

“We are a weapon of war,” Hejmanowski said recently as the crew tested systems and trained for a future deployment. “That’s why we exist. Our job is to put warheads on foreheads . . . We are so well-trained, we are so well-prepared, that we become someone you don’t want to mess with.”

The U.S. Navy boasts the world’s largest and most powerful array of military force on the high seas, including 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. As of now, no other country has more than two carriers, although China is reportedly building its third.

U.S. aircraft carriers have been operating since the 1920s and were critical to the nation in every war since. But much like the way we fight wars today, a lot about aircraft carriers has changed in the past century.

The Navy is replacing its fleet of Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, first commissioned in the 1970s, with the Ford-class carriers in order to host a modern fleet of aircraft, including the F-35 joint strike fighter, and defend against threats posed by China, Russia and North Korea. The namesake ship of the class, the Norfolk, Virginia-based USS Gerald R. Ford, is undergoing trials in advance of its first deployment, expected to be around 2021. The Ford is the first of 10 planned for the class.

The new generation of carriers have more firepower, advanced nuclear reactors, more flight deck space for aircraft, and a state-of-the-art new system for launching aircraft, according to a Medill-USA Today review of the Navy’s carrier program.

One of the most striking changes is the doubling of the price tag. The last of the Nimitz-class carriers, the USS George H.W. Bush, was commissioned in 2009 at a cost of $6.2 billion. The Ford, commissioned in 2017 with an operational emphasis on automation over manpower, has already reached $13 billion. Navy officials acknowledge that these ships have a high upfront cost and argue that the carrier will save billions of dollars throughout its life cycle.

At first glance, the Bush and the Ford class carriers appear similar, but certain features of the newer Ford put the warship in a league of its own. A big selling point: a new electromagnetic catapult system for aircraft, which launches planes similar to the way roller coasters are powered.

But the Ford has experienced setbacks during trials of its new features, and the carrier will not be ready to deploy until at least a few more years. In the meantime, the 10 Nimitz-class carriers continue to patrol the seas, and commanders aboard them insist that these ships and their crews are more than capable of responding to any modern-day threat.