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USS Ford’s long-awaited maiden voyage a chance to prove it is worth the $13 billion price tag

Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro walks through smoke from a fog machine after arriving on USS Ford. Jan. 15, 2024. Steve Walsh
Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro walks through smoke from a fog machine after arriving on USS Ford. Jan. 15, 2024. Steve Walsh

The world’s largest and most expensive aircraft carrier has returned home to Norfolkafter deploying to the Middle East outside Gaza on its maiden voyage. 

For supporters, the mission was a chance to justify the carrier's more than $13 billion price tag. 

Just days before returning to Hampton Roads, the crew of the USS Gerald R. Ford gathered in the main hangar bay to hear Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro. 

“How proud, not just I am of you, but how proud this entire country, every American in the United States of America is of what you have done for our nation. For each and everyone of us,” Del Toro said.

The Ford was six months into its maiden voyage where it was visiting NATO allies, when it was called to the eastern Mediterranean, off the coast of Israel, when war broke out in Gaza. 

The Ford didn’t intercept drones or missiles in the Red Sea. Del Toro says it was still a chance to show that the United State’s newest carrier was finally ready to see action. The carrier launched more than 8,000 sorties. 

“This carrier strike group also provided the deterrent factor to try to keep the war from escalating as well, too. So that was their fundamental mission,” Del Toro said.

Slowed by technical delays and cost overruns, it took six years for the Ford to complete its first full deployment after entering the fleet in 2017. The Navy says the Ford cost at least $13.3 billion. 

The Ford replaces the current Nimitz-class carriers that first sailed out of the shipyard in 1972. Green-lit during the Bush administration, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld pushed all the services to transform the military with new technology. 

Making the older carriers is a relative bargain, costing less than $7 billion in today’s dollars, said Bryan Clark, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former Naval officer.

 “So it would have been maybe a little bit more than half the price of a Ford class. So in retrospect, that extra investment was probably not worth it,” Clark said.

The Ford has at least 27 new systems, most famously an electromagnetic catapult system for launching planes that created years of delays. Putting all of those new systems into one ship drove up the cost, Clark said.

“Had they spread that investment out over several ships, it wouldn’t have been nearly so expensive,” he said. 

Over time, the Navy will benefit from many of the new technologies, as they make their way into other ships, even from the catapult system, he said.

Automation allows for a smaller crew. The Ford left Norfolk with 400 fewer sailors than older carriers.

“The Navy missed its recruiting targets by 20% last year, you know, so they can't afford to have more ships entering the fleet that require more people than their predecessors,” Clark said.

The Ford was nearly derailed again by technical issues before leaving Norfolk in May. During the Navy secretary’s visit,  a warrant officer was given a Meritorious Service Medal 

for working with contractors to quickly fix a problem with one of the new systems -  an electromagnetic jet blast deflector - a panel that rises from the deck to protect the crew from jet blast during takeoff. 

“Designing and installing a fix to restore system readiness and supporting the ship's on-time departure.” according to the medal certificate, read aloud during Del Toro’s visit.  

The Ford’s Captain Rick Burgess said maintenance costs were lower than the older carriers he’s served aboard during his career. 

He also said nothing major brokedown over 8 months of their maiden voyage. Though the Ford had been out to sea several times since entering the fleet, this was the first time it was able to operate at the level of other carriers in the fleet. 

“I've been doing this my whole life and I have never seen anything like this ship,” he said. “Getting to watch the ship in operation from mid-June was the very first time that this ship started operating like an aircraft carrier does, where we are flying, six or seven days a week. Take a day off and then go back into flying. We have not done that in our history, previously. So, we didn't know what we were going to see. And what we saw was magical to me,”” he said. 

Back in Norfolk, the ship will undergo more tests to see if it can meet the original expectation to launch more planes more quickly than the older carriers and if America’s largest and most expensive carrier is finally out of its test phase. 

“I really grew to love this ship. And I honestly believe that it is everything that the American taxpayers hoped it would be, and  more,” Burgess said. 

The Navy and the shipbuilding industry in Hampton Roads have bet heavily on the Ford’s success. Many of the lessons learned by its design have been put into the next two aircraft carriers being built in Hampton Roads. 

At HII’s Newport News Shipyard, the USS John F. Kennedy is scheduled to be delivered to the Navy in 2025, followed by the USS Enterprise. Beyond that, the USS Doris Miller is still awaiting final budget approval from the Pentagon.

Steve joined WHRO in 2023 to cover military and veterans. Steve has extensive experience covering the military and working in public media, most recently at KPBS in San Diego, WYIN in Gary, Indiana and WBEZ in Chicago. In the early 2000s, he embedded with members of the Indiana National Guard in Kuwait and Iraq. Steve reports for NPR’s American Homefront Project, a national public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Steve is also on the board of Military Reporters & Editors.

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