NEWPORT NEWS, VIRGINIA — Susan Ford Bales, daughter of the late U.S. President Gerald Ford, smashed a bottle of wine across the bow of the 100,000-ton nuclear-powered USS Gerald R. Ford at Newport News Shipyard Saturday morning.
Built at a cost of nearly $13 billion and opening what officials say is a new chapter in naval warfare, the newly christened next-generation aircraft carrier, unlike its steam-dependent predecessors, is completely electric.
Designed to operate with fewer personnel in unconventional conflict, the vessel will be able to launch drones when it becomes operational in 2016.
Onboard the first of the Ford-class carriers, workers install the last of 3 million meters of cables as Project Manager Rolf Bartschi explains that the ship's most prominent new feature is its dependence on electromagnetic energy — rather than steam — to more gently and precisely launch and land aircraft on its flight deck.
“This system has a lot more flexibility to it, and I think it will bring more service life to the aircraft that get used on it and allow you to have a broader spectrum of aircraft that you can bring in and land on the ship," he says.
In an era when fewer countries around the world grant landing rights to U.S. warplanes and drones, the deck will serve as a floating base for unmanned aerial vehicles.
U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Thomas Moore, who is responsible for the ship's construction, says this feature is key to the vessel's role in modern conflicts.
“Not only does the aircraft carrier provide the presence that we need to fight full-scale wars, but it also has the ability to maneuver in the free space of the oceans anywhere in the world," he says. "The ability to have on board all sorts of unmanned aircraft will give it a real advantage in an asymmetric standpoint.”
But the warship also has a gentle side: with much of the equipment is bolted down, not welded, the craft can quickly reconfigure for humanitarian missions.
“So if ... you want to do a humanitarian mission, and you need to have more space in here with desks, computers, tracking screens, you can easily bring them in and rewire the space in a matter of days," says construction director Tom Cullen as he shows that the entire ship is wired so components can be plugged in and be ready to go.
The ship will operate with up to 1,200 fewer personnel than current aircraft carriers do, saving the Navy billions of dollars.