WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy has promised a first deployment for its new aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford by this fall — but that deployment won’t be a typical one, the head of Naval Air Force Atlantic told Defense News.
Ford won’t fall under the operational command of a regional combatant commander. Rather, it will conduct a “service-retained early employment” period where the Navy keeps full control over the ship’s activities and schedule, Rear Adm. John Meier said.
The carrier and its strike group will operate on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean alongside a long list of foreign navies, he said. But the operations will be outside the typical Global Force Management-dictated deployment in support of the joint force.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for us to demonstrate the new technology,” he said during a panel presentation at the American Society of Naval Engineers’ Technology, Systems and Ships Symposium. “We will be working with partners, we will be working all over the place as 2nd Fleet takes charge of that carrier and operates with a wide variety of operations, up and down the coast, across the Atlantic, down to the Caribbean.”
Meier told Defense News after the panel that this represented the best way to make use of Ford as it comes out of its first planned incremental availability in 2022, ahead of when the long-range Global Force Management plans begin to incorporate the new carrier. GFM is an approach meant to help oversee the allocation of forces.
Ford was previously on track for a 2024 maiden deployment, after its original 2018 timeline was repeatedly pushed back due to delays in developing and testing the new technologies meant to make Ford more efficient than the older Nimitz-class carriers. The Navy conducted a significant amount of modernization and installation work while the ship was at sea to accelerate the remaining schedule, after years of schedule slips, and to be able to put the ship to sea for operations in 2022.
Under the new plan Meier laid out, the first GFM deployment could take place, roughly, on that 2024 timeline, meaning the Navy would squeeze in an operational employment of the carrier in 2022 without throwing off the joint force plan that dictates ships’ maintenance, training and deployment schedules.
Meier told Defense News the new carrier already has about 8,200 catapult launches and arrested landings — or cats and traps — from the extensive time the ship spent at sea in 2020 and 2021 for air wing integration, trials, new pilot carrier qualifications and more. Still, Meier said, the Navy has been unable to fully operate a carrier air wing the way it wants to: doing cyclical operations, with jet wings loaded up with missiles for mission training.
“We see this as just a superb opportunity to really do what I would describe as an operational groom. It’s going to be an employment. So work-up phase will be a little bit condensed. The air wing will be a robust, fully capable air wing, but smaller than an operational carrier air wing, and that’s a balance of cost and apportionment of resources. But that air wing is going to be more potent than any other air wing on any other ship in the world as it is,” Meier said.
Meier later added that a final decision hadn’t been made regarding the size of the air wing, but that the Navy was considering options ranging from about 75% the normal size to a full-sized air wing. All type/model/series would be included, though: F/A-18EF Super Hornets, EA-18G Growlers, E-2D Advanced Hawkeyes and MH-60R/S Seahawks.
“2nd Fleet is going to take control, after we get [Ford] into the work-up phase,” he explained. “2nd Fleet’s sent out a ton of invitations, done a huge amount of work of inviting partners and allies to come and interact with Ford. And it’s that interaction that’s really important, too — it’s much more than just the air wing flying off the carrier; it’s really the connectivity, the interaction with our partners and allies, how they interact with Ford, how the ship operates.”
During the Surface Navy Association’s annual conference in January, Commander of Naval Surface Forces Vice Adm. Roy Kitchener spoke about identifying the cost of developing various tiers of readiness. He told Defense News after his speech that he’s trying to identify a “north star” number of ready ships the Navy could produce — some “full mission-capable,” some at a lower “mission-capable” level — and identify what resources are needed to create that readiness so the Navy can make smarter decisions to both provide what the joint force needs and also retain readiness for the service.
Meier spoke of the same dynamics with the Ford employment, saying ongoing talks about how much money to spend and how much capability to bring along show the Navy is trying to get the most out of its funding and its resources, both to meet joint force obligations and its own needs for testing, training, concept development work and more.
This solution — an operational employment of about three months, on both sides of the ocean, showing off the full range of missions and capabilities — seems to strike a good balance for Navy leaders.
“Could we afford to have more aircraft onboard? We could. Those aren’t programmed or budgeted flying hours right now, so we’re effectively doing that out of hide, if you will — so that’s the increased flying that that air wing is going to do is well ahead of its normal funding, budgeted profile. We think that’s important enough, though, and a high enough priority that we need to do that, to demonstrate all the attributes of the Ford carrier, all the integration with partners and allies, maneuver, range, lethality, all those sorts of things,” Meier said.
Ford is currently wrapping up its first planned incremental availability maintenance period, after going through explosive shock trials last summer to test out the ship and its systems against damage from mines and missiles. Once repairs from the blasts are made, and the carrier receives final upgrades and systems installations that weren’t done during the construction phase, the carrier will join its air wing and carrier strike group for training, certification and a deployment, Navy leaders have said.
On Jan. 21, the program executive officer for aircraft carriers, Rear Adm. Jim Downey, told reporters that Ford’s maiden deployment would take place “by the fall” and would involve multiple theaters and multiple allies.
Based on Downey’s and Meier’s comments, Ford is likely to be on its service-retained employment until late 2022, come back for a maintenance period in early 2023, and then begin a full work-up process for the GFM deployment in late 2023 or early 2024, in accordance with joint force plans.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs, and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.