May 5, 2021 – USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) completed its 18-month post-delivery test and trials (PDT&T) period on 30 April, after finishing Combat Systems Ship’s Qualification Trials (CSSQT) in mid-April with an exceptional performance. Since the October 2019 start of PDT&T, the ship completed all required testing, certified the flight deck, embarked the air wing, accomplished work ahead of schedule, and improved system reliability for new technologies, while serving as the primary East Coast carrier qualification platform for fleet naval aviators.
When CVN 78 completed CSSQT in mid-April—the final milestone before closing out the ship’s demanding 18-month post-delivery test and trials (PDT&T) phase of operations, the Navy team had a sense it was making history aboard the first-in-class aircraft carrier.
CSSQT validated Gerald R. Ford’s self-defense capabilities and demonstrated the crew’s expertise in engaging a barrage of formidable targets. During the culminating live-fire exercise, the crew destroyed rocket-propelled drones capable of speeds in excess of 600 miles per hour; towed drone units that simulated incoming rockets; and remote controlled, high-speed maneuvering surface targets. The ship employed RIM-116 missiles; sea sparrow missiles; and rounds from the Mk-15 Phalanx Close-In Weapon System (CIWS), which fires armor-piercing tungsten bullets at 4,500 rounds per minute. The ship’s Dual Band Radar provided accurate target identification and tracking, enabling watch standers to execute pre-planned responses.
“Completing Gerald R. Ford’s Combat Systems Qualification is a significant milestone,” explained Capt. Brian A. Metcalf, PMS 378 program manager for the Class. “It takes weeks of planning, combat scenario development, target coordination, onboard training, and live ammunition load-outs to ready the ship for operational testing that reflects a real-time, at-sea threat environment, during which the crew employs live weapons against live targets.
“Everybody involved in this testing evolution, including the test agencies, weapons ranges, certification authorities, and most importantly, the determined and talented CVN 78 sailors, worked together to make this culminating event happen—and they did so safely, professionally, and with outstanding precision.”
Integrated Strike Group Operations
That CSSQT success was the culmination of a full and productive 18 months for the Navy’s newest aircraft carrier. At the start of PDT&T, Gerald R. Ford launched into a demanding battle rhythm of independent steaming events (ISEs), interlaced with shore-based maintenance Windows of Opportunity (WOOs). Even while operating in a test status—vigorously assessing the performance of combat systems and adding complexity to seamanship and navigation training maneuvers—the ship provided significant operational readiness to the fleet, qualifying or requalifying more than 439 naval aviators.
Rear Adm. James P. Downey, program executive officer for Aircraft Carriers, views Gerald R. Ford’s extraordinary progress and accelerated state of operational readiness as the product of years of planning and collaboration among Ship’s Force, Navy program offices, and industry.
“When CVN 78 began PDT&T in November 2019, the ship had logged about 800 launches and recoveries. Then we really started stressing the ship’s 23 new technologies, especially EMALS [Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System] and AAG [Advanced Arresting Gear]. Now just 18 months later, the ship has logged more than 8,100 cats and traps, with more than 7,300 during PDT&T alone.”
Downey recounted an unrelenting pace of operations, beginning with aircraft compatibility testing in January 2020, followed by flight deck certification in March, when Carrier Strike Group 12 (CSG-12) assumed operational control. In May, the ship embarked Carrier Air Wing 8 (CVW-8) and conducted the first fully integrated carrier strike group operations.
Just six months later in November 2020, CVN 78 remained underway for 25 days during ISE 13 to embark CVW-8 and to conduct fully integrated carrier strike group operations under CSG 12’s leadership and operational control. CVW-8 completed more than 1,000 launches and arrestments during this steaming event—flying as many as 50 sorties per day, in all weather, and in various sea states.
A reduced air-wing of 35 aircraft was embarked, approximately 50% of a complete air wing, which trained in delivering light and heavy inert ordnance. As ship’s crew and air wing fine-tuned its collaborative expertise, CSG-12 embarked multiple warfare commanders and executed multi-ship operations, demonstrating the growing maturity of CVN 78’s command and control (C2) systems and architecture across the full spectrum of warfare.
The following month, during a 10-day underway period in December 2020, Gerald R. Ford’s crew completed more than 840 launches and arrestments, while qualifying 58 new pilots. The crew supported a new single-day record of 170 launches and 175 arrestments in an 8.5-hour period.
“If you just look at this ship in terms of meeting planned goals, the numbers are right on or ahead of plan,” said Downey. “In 18 months, we corrected 99% of the 9,000-plus work items outstanding at ship’s delivery. Work completed during PDT&T averaged 113% of the plan. And the crew has cycled the first seven of the ship’s 11 Advanced Weapons Elevators [AWEs] more than 14,200 times, with close to half of those evolutions at sea.”
Admiral Downey added that with each additional elevator certified, the crew has ramped up the velocity of flight deck operations and combat system testing, while proving the resiliency of the system.
“CVN 78’s sailors are mastering the intricacies of each unique elevator,” added Downey. “They’re testing design tolerances and doing a great job fine-tuning operation and maintenance best practices toward the goal of achieving full combat system certification aboard the ship.”
Gerald R. Ford: A Class of its Own
The Honorable James F. Geurts, performing the duties of Under Secretary of the Navy, is keenly aware of CVN 78’s evolutionary capabilities, having served previously as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, and Acquisition. When Under Secretary Geurts visited the ship in mid-April, he toured the advanced weapons elevators and observed the crew moving ordnance from the main deck to the weapons handling transfer area.
“It was great to be back with the team on Gerald R. Ford, and I continue to be impressed with the progress of the ship and crew” said Geurts. “When you walk the flight deck and see the design elements unique to the class, such as the island placement, the capabilities of EMALS and AAG or the in-deck aircraft refueling modifications, you see how the new technology is changing the game for carrier aviation.”
“Then when you talk about integrated strike group operations, you see how the tactical command center spaces have been repositioned so multiple commands in the strike group can all work from one common maritime picture,” Geurts continued. “When you improve situational awareness at the C2 [command and control] level you enhance the decision making process. It is intuitive changes like these that elevate this class of ship; and it’s the ability to embrace change that distinguishes this ship’s Sailors. This is a great crew and the nation is fortunate to have such fine Sailors in support of our country.”
In each of Gerald R. Ford’s underway periods, the ship’s crew and embarked squadrons have validated and refined technological innovations—technologies never realized before on any combatant of its kind, all while working through COVID mitigation challenges. “CVN 78 is not just an evolutionary advancement in aircraft carrier technology,” said Rear Adm. Craig Clapperton, Commander, Carrier Strike Group 12. “The ship embodies a revolutionary leap in every aspect of carrier operations, to include the potential to incorporate future technologies and aircraft in ways unlike any other platform.”
Gerald R. Ford’s Commanding Officer, Capt. Paul Lanzilotta, has observed first-hand the crew’s expertise in testing the ship’s combat systems, which play a crucial role in preparing the crew and systems for operational employment.
“Any new program has built-in milestones, where the team has the opportunity to make in-place improvements to procedures, technical manuals, supply postures, training, and future design enhancements,” said Lanzilotta. “The crew has been working on all of these aspects of the ship’s maturation process. The sailors are instrumental in ensuring incremental gains along the path from builder’s trials to deployment, and I could not be more proud of their willingness to work with diligence and an open mind toward making the Gerald R. Ford-class even better for the Navy.”
Upcoming Shock Trials and a Planned Incremental Availability
The ability to conduct integrated strike group operations in parallel with planned ship testing and trials has accelerated the Navy’s ability to prepare for Full Ship Shock Trials (FSST), scheduled for this summer, and an inaugural Planned Incremental Availability (PIA) beginning in September.
The four-month FSST will assess the ability of shipboard equipment and systems to operate satisfactorily after a shock event, and validate the shock model used during the design process for Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carriers. While some of the ship’s systems and equipment may require repairs during and after the shock trials, the Navy does not expect to see impacts that would jeopardize the safety of the crew or impact future operations. Preparation for the FSST period is well underway, with 99% of all shipboard components reviewed and ready for the event. Gerald R. Ford’s FSST marks the first time the Navy has conducted underwater shock testing on an aircraft carrier since USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) in 1987.
Capt. Josh Sager, Commander, Carrier Air Wing 8, put CVN 78’s past milestones and future in perspective recently while the ship was under way off the Virginia Capes. When asked by media about the biggest difference between the Nimitz and Gerald R. Ford classes, Capt. Sager replied that the biggest difference is that there’s now no difference in terms of readiness. “CVN 78 has conducted a deployment worth of launches and recoveries,” said Sager. “When the ship comes out of PIA, we’ll pick up where we left off and move the ball down field toward employment, ahead of schedule.”
Following the ship’s FSST in August, CVN 78 will conduct a six-month Planned Incremental Availability, scheduled for completion in February 2022.
USS Gerald R. Ford represents the first major design investment in aircraft carriers since the 1960s. The ship is engineered to support new technologies and a modern air wing essential to deterring and defeating near-peer adversaries in a complex maritime environment. Bringing a significant increase in sortie generation rate, approximately 3 times more electrical generation capacity, and a $4B reduction in total Life-Cycle cost per ship compared to a NIMITZ-class aircraft carrier, the Gerald R. Ford class will serve as the centerpiece of strike group operations through the 21st century, supporting a host of evolving national strategic objectives.
“When we completed PSA [Post-Shakedown Availability] in 2019, the Navy was on a path to deploy the ship in 2024,” recalled Downey. “Since then—especially over the last 18 months of planned test and trials events—the team, including the program office, industry, and ship’s force has been incredibly successful. And the best indicator of that success is that the Navy is now on a track to operationally employ the ship earlier than we had planned in 2019. That’s performance to plan and a real accomplishment. The team’s determination, technical expertise, and agility are what have allowed us to accelerate the ship’s readiness, enabling the operational Fleet to employ this ship for its primary mission.”