February 29, 2012: The first of the new Ford class aircraft carriers keeps getting more expensive. The price for the first one has gone up $161 million in the last ten months. The USS Gerald R Ford (CVN 78) was originally supposed to cost $8 billion, plus $5 billion for R&D (research and development of new technology and features unique to this class of ships). Now it appears that the cost of the Ford will not be $13 billion but closer to $15 billion. The second and third ships of the class will cost less (construction plus some additional R&D). Thus the first three ships of the Ford class will cost a total of about $40 billion.
The current Nimitz-class carriers cost about half as much as the Fords. Both classes also require an air wing (48-50 fighters, plus airborne early-warning planes, electronic warfare aircraft, and anti-submarine helicopters), which costs another $3.5 billion. Three years ago the USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77), the last of the Nimitz class carriers, successfully completed its sea trails and was accepted by the U.S. Navy. The Bush was ready for its first deployment in 2010.
The first Nimitz entered service in 1975, and is currently set to serve for 49 years before decommissioning. All of the Nimitz class carriers are similar in general shape and displacement. But over four decades of use each new member of the class received recently developed equipment. This stuff was installed in older Nimitzs eventually as they went in for maintenance. The Bush, the last of the Nimitz class, has a lot of new gear that wasn't even thought of when the first Nimitz entered service. The first ship of the next class of carriers, the USS Ford, will be about the same length and displacement of the Nimitz ships but will look different. The most noticeable difference will be the island set closer to the stern (rear) of the ship.
While the Fords are much more expensive the navy expects to reduce (by several billion dollars) each carrier's lifetime operating expenses because of greatly reduced crew size. Compared to the current Nimitz class carriers the Fords will feel, well, kind of empty. There will be lots more automation, computer networking, and robots. The Bush has a lot of this automation already.
By the time the Ford enters service in 2015, even more of the crew will be replaced by robots than is the case in the Bush. The Ford will have as few as half as many sailors on board. Carrier based UAVs are also on the way. Work on flight control software for carrier operations is well underway. Combat UAVs (UCAVs) weigh about 20 percent less than manned aircraft and cost 20-30 percent less. They use less fuel as well. The Ford can take advantage of UCAVs because it is built to handle more sorties each day (about 150) and surge to about 50 percent more for a day or so.