Future Carriers Built to Carry Drone Fleets

Ford IslandNavy planners have anticipated the recent historic steps forward the Navy has taken toward outfitting the decks of their carriers with fleets of unmanned drones by designing future and current carriers to support the technological advances these aircraft will present, officials said.

The U.S. Navy’s new Ford-class aircraft carriers are engineered with the ability to accommodate more carrier-launched unmanned aircraft systems similar to the X-47B that landed on the deck of the USS George H.W. Bush July 10, service officials explained.

The Ford-class carriers are built with a series of technological advances compared to their predecessors —  to include a slightly larger flight deck, upgraded nuclear power plants, dual-band radar, improved landing gear and vastly increased on-board electrical capacity to include a new electromagnetic propulsion system for aircraft taking off the deck, said Rear Adm. Thomas J. Moore, Program Executive Officer, Carriers.

“The Ford Class will be around until about 2110. The flight deck has been designed to be bigger and have a higher sortie generation rate. The ship itself is built with three-times the electrical generating capacity than the Nimitz {Ford predecessor} class has – so it is not hard to envision that we are going to be flying unmanned aircraft off that ship,” said Moore.

Citing the recent historic touchdown of the X-47B demonstrator aircraft aboard the USS George H.W. Bush, Moore said the Ford-class carriers are engineered with a specific mind to next-generation aviation and ship-based technologies.

The Ford-class of carriers are being built with emerging technological trends in mind and the expected increase in unmanned systems and electrically-generated weapons systems.

Moore said that if you look at the kind of aircraft which initially flew on a Nimitz-class carrier when they first emerged in the 1970s, they are very different than what is flying on those carriers today.  In fact, the Joint Strike Fighter aircraft will fly on the Nimitz-class carriers before they retire, he said.

“Unmanned aircraft will certainly be part of our portfolio moving forward – they will not replace manned aircraft but will play an important role.”

The USS Ford is slated to enter the water at a christening ceremony in November of this year and begin formal service by late 2016. It is the first-in-class in a planned series of next-generation Ford-class aircraft carriers designed to replace the current Nimitz-class carriers on a one-for-one basis over roughly the next 50 years.

The USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), now nearing completion, will be followed by the second and third Ford-class carriers, the USS John. F. Kennedy (CVN 79) to enter service by 2025 — and the USS Enterprise (CVN 80), slated to enter service by 2027.

The Ford-class carriers will have four 26 megawatt electrical turbine generators, designed in part to power key systems on the ship, including dual-band phased array radar and the Electro-Magnetic Aircraft Launch System, or EMALS – put on carriers to replace the current steam catapults for aircraft on the flight deck.

“On a Nimitz-class carrier, outside of the propulsion plant we use a lot of steam to run the catapults and heat the water. We made a conscious decision on the Ford class to better electrify the ship,” Moore explained.

Moore also emphasized that the electrical backbone and capacity of the Ford-class carriers will better equip the ships to accommodate directed energy weapons in the future, should they be added to the ship.

For example, it is conceivable that directed energy or laser weapons might compliment the defense systems currently in place to defend the ship such as the Phalanx Close-in-Weapons-System, Rolling Air Frame Missile and NATO Sea Sparrow, Moore explained.

“The Ford has huge margins of ability to generate electrical power that no other ship has,” he said.

In fact, increased automation, computer technology and electrical capacity will reduce man-power requirements on-board the ship, dramatically increasing capability and lowering life-cycle costs, said Mike Petters, President and Chief Operating Officer, Huntington Ingalls Industries.

Moore explained that the technology-inspired man-power reductions will result in as much as $4 billion in savings over the 50-year life-cycle of the ship.

Petters and Moore explained how the Ford-class carriers are designed with a slightly smaller island to allow for more deck space, thus increasing the ship’s ability to launch and recover larger numbers of aircraft.

“You have created an electrical distribution system that is going to allow for lower maintenance cost – then you have advanced arresting gear and the radars. You are really talking about a ship that has substantially more capability. The flight deck was all part of how do we get more sorties – changing the location of the footprint is all about how do you get the flight deck more efficient,” Petters said.

One analyst said that increasing the ability to project power at greater distances through the increased use of unmanned aircraft on carriers, is exactly how the Navy should be thinking about its future.

“The aircraft carrier is relevant today and it will be relevant for decades,” said Bryan McGrath, managing director at FerryBridge Group LLC, a defense consulting firm based in Easton, Md.

In particular, longer reach or operating ranges — for strike possibilities and Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance missions – is likely to grow in importance in light of what Pentagon strategists refer to as Anti-Access/Area-Denial, or A2/AD, challenges, he argued.

A2/AD is a strategic approach to current and future conflict based upon the premise that potential adversaries have increased technological capability to challenge the U.S. military’s ability to operate in certain areas in an uncontested manner – such as closer to shore.

“Sortie generation rate as a virtue will decline in importance in the years to come largely because any opponent of worth will hold us a little further off shore. Sortie generation rose in importance as we came to dominate the oceans. Now we may have a near-peer competitor, so what we really need is range from the wing – the ability to operate from further away and bring strike power,” McGrath said.

The increased sortie-generation rate capability with the Ford-class carriers is designed to increase the flexibility to launch manned and unmanned systems with greater ease and frequency, a Navy official said.

“The deck has been built to provide the air wing of the future with greater flexibility,” the official said.

Nevertheless, any efforts to increasingly configure aircraft carriers to accommodate increased ability to house and launch longer-range platforms, including manned and unmanned systems, is something McGrath would like to see more of.

“The Navy should begin thinking about designing an aircraft carrier that is devoted to the launch and recovery of unmanned aviation,” McGrath said. “It will need to do its job for 50 years, so you have to think about what you get. You get a very powerful symbol and the means for the delivery of American power. There is no substitute in our arsenal.”

Moore said the Ford-class of carriers are being built with a mind to long-term service – an approach which has, by design, engineered the ship with growth potential such that it can accommodate emerging technologies as they arise.

“Big-deck carriers are by far what we need in terms of power projection and presence. For a lot of the missions we want and the presence we have around the world, there’s nothing like it. Why are the Russians, Indians and Chinese building a carrier? Countries know that carriers bring something to the table that nothing else can bring in terms of an instrument of national power. There is a reason we build these things,” Moore added.

About the Author

Kris Osborn
Kris Osborn is the managing editor of Scout Warrior and a former associate editor at Military.com.

33 Comments on "Future Carriers Built to Carry Drone Fleets"

  1. 50 years is a little optimistic. Sure, we kept the USS Midway around for 47 years, but did that go very well…?

  2. Why not put more lighting fast direct energy weapon on each carrier ? And a drone that can fly at mach 5 which is also more stealthy .

  3. USS ENTERPRISE | July 19, 2013 at 7:53 pm | Reply

    2110? SERIOUS return in terms of investment of money. By then, well, I mean, I doubt even drones will be considered working weapons systems.

  4. Lame the idiots want no man in charge. no pilots for political expediency. Skynet is next LOL

  5. Is Russia building carriers? I don't think so.

  6. Are we working on arrogant pilot cyborgs to strut around below deck. Wouldn't be the same without them.

  7. I wonder if the increase of robotics is because of China's population. in case of War, it would be a great strategy against them. What do you think?

  8. A big deck remains a big target. The loss of a big carrier would mean the loss of a medium-sized war as US has been fond of waging in recent decades (public/congressional revulsion would force withdrawal from the conflict). In a big war, it would be a strategic loss, forcing major retrenchment.

    The solution would be smaller carriers, or even specialized drone launcher/recoverer ships. We gave up the battleship. We need to shift paradigm and give up both the super carrier and manned combat planes.

  9. "The Ford Class will be around until about 2110."
    Hahahahahaha! If this guy can predict what type of naval vessel will be used in 2110 then I think he missed his calling. He should've been a fortune teller.

  10. In the old days it was hard to find the carriers. That is not the case anymore. Carriers are great when you are slapping around a flyweight like Iran, but against a serious contender like China Carriers are simply too many eggs in one big basket.

  11. I can see the US Navy using UAV's for Comms rely, ISR and possibly surgical strike missions.

  12. sickunclesam | July 21, 2013 at 3:33 pm | Reply

    It would seem to me that unmanned drones would very susceptible to electronic warfare and jamming. Kind of like the recent case of the Iranians hacking and then stealing one of our most advanced drones. You don't have to worry about that with a pilot.

  13. Remotely controlled drones are susceptible to jamming and EW. Autonomous UAV's, flown by their own computers are much less vulnerable. BTW, Iran hacked, jammed, and physically forced a relatively obsolete drone to crash-land. They in effect, overpowered it's antennas and used a manned aircraft to force it into a gradual descent or an elongated slowing turn.

  14. Hmm the Navy is changing since my days. The Russians had problems with building carriers in the past, the Chinese bought one of the junk carries and it is already out dated by decades. US Navy is the best navy in the world.

  15. This is going to be an excellent idea… right up until the moment some bright European invents a 100kn Unmanned Combat Sub-aquatic Vehicle with a 1000nm range, a semi-fluid hull and the ability to carry conventional anti-ship weapons close enough to turn the uss ford into a war grave and a future interesting deep dive destination in the same day!

    Let's not get ahead of ourselves, usa!
    The last time you tried that "…the future's so bright we gotta wear shades and we is simply unbeatable…" self-aggrandizement, the Japanese ate your lunch and spat it back at you.

    Haven't you learned to 'expect the unexpected' yet, usa?

  16. Makes me wonder what the next Tailhook Scandal will look like.

  17. The article sounds like their trying to justify continued construction of Ford Class Nuclear-Powered Aircraft carries vs a neutral piece.

    Its touting the capacity and abilities of the design, which has been already stated in the past. Nothing new there. I guess its necessary with this uncertain financial situation the US is in. Specially with US Congress.

  18. They are going to have improved landing gear? Could the PR genius who penned the article mean approved arresting gear. Just asking. Black shoe MMCS(SW) USN Ret.

  19. This article should be reversed.

    Future carriers, projected to last to 2110 are the baseline that drone designers should design for.

  20. Future Carriers Built to Carry Drone Fleets
    We can safely file this article under the "department of the blatantly obvious".


  22. The problem with a discussion about this ship is the fact that no one except a trained nuclear power engineer can get their heads around the vast amount of power this ship will be able to supply. We are designing and building into this vessel enough electrical power generation capacity (which can also be expanded with reactor core development) to absorb and make operational future system designs. An example we can see now is the electromagnetic gun which uses only electrical power. What will be developed in the future 90 to 100 years? At least this vessel will be there to power it.

  23. Targets. Those of experience in the submarine community know how easy it is to target and launch multiple torpedo attacks. The Russians especially know this and are concentrating on building modern attack submarines that launch cruise missiles, torpedoes in large numbers, Antisubmarine aircraft were a big joke in their capabilities to even find us during games, Surface ships were fun. Building these money pits without solving these other problems is a huge mistake when we could develope more advanced systems in large numbers with technological superiority.

  24. When we can thread a needle from space , who needs large aircraft carriers ! Rockets & missiles & lasers are what's next !

  25. We are always training and building for the last war, and that war will not come again.
    The large carrier is a doomed concept, which, like the Joint Strike Fighter, will be obsolete before it is operational.

  26. Someone asked for a source. I do not know which one of you but look at publications: Naval Submarine League, Institute Proceedings and I will try to dredge up a few more.

  27. BMC(SW) Ret. | July 29, 2013 at 1:29 pm | Reply

    It's always interesting after reading one of these articles to read the comments of all the people who believe they have all the answers. Kind of makes me wonder why DoD hasn't recalled all of you military geniuses to solve the other problems like how are we going to keep building carriers when we can't afford to pay or keep our military manned?

  28. Why not submarine carriers that only surface to launch and recover no need for large crews like the olden days of actually present "piloted" aircraft when you can station the pilots anywhere i the world to remotely fly the drones and it can be a much smaller crew to arm and recover the drones than the current system of flights, after all how many drones does it take to replace a carrier based action? that is the real question

  29. After re-reading all the above about carriers and attempting to inject some "future" thinking into it, I still wonder why no one is looking at the fact that below the surface of the 70% (water vs land) there is an enormous amount of 3 dimensional space in which to operate an entire fleet. Currently we operate FBM's, SSN's and other systems which we all do not know about. But just think about the fact that the oceans average around 8000 feet depth. That is a lot of space into which a fleet can disappear, surface as necessary and respond. Even a large scale submersible could do so. I reiterate. We must develop protection from EMP, Neutron Bombs and MIRV weaponry. At my age, (considerable), I cannot imagine what else is out there under development or has even already been deployed.

  30. Are there no techies out there? I have attempted to steer the conversation to the undersea venue where nearly all future conflicts, spying, commerce and passive defense systems will live. I also made note of the enormous amount of power the Ford will be able to generate with its current 50 year designed plant and that as nuclear plant technology develops (Breeder Reactors for instance) the Ford could be in service far beyond its 50 year planned service. Remember that the 70% of the earth covered by water averages 8000 feet of depth. That is a lot of 360 degree spherically shaped environment for any enemy to have to monitor. I believe carriers will move underwater sometime and that directed energy weapons will supersede bombs and bullets. ie Railguns and underwater lasers which are currently only used for line of site communications. Put that reactor's power behind those kinds of weapons and we should be able to stay ahead in the defense arena.

  31. Don't rely on it too much on major conflict. Russia and China have electronic jammers that could disable its reliability. We should know its effectiveness and weakness and enhancement before we can use it as major defense material.

  32. Drones = Spending less money on worthless officers!

  33. So, We should start building Drones that carry drones right?

    Automated Aircraft Carrier that's controlled from home.
    Or more like a Submersible Drone Carrier. NOW We're talkin!

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