Op-Ed: U.S. Navy's Newest Carrier Continues Tradition of Power Projection

Courtesy USN

Published Mar 4, 2024 11:10 PM by Greg Alan Caires

The U.S. Navy’s newest aircraft carrier – the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) – returned to its homeport of Norfolk, Virginia, on January 17, 2024. Underway for 239 days, the ship launched more than 10,000 aircraft sorties, conducted 43 underway replenishments, and sailed more than 83,000 nautical miles. Its cooks prepared and served more than 3.1 million meals, and the ship hosted VIPs including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro, and the crown prince of Norway.

The Ford is the first ship in a new class of aircraft carriers – the largest and most advanced warship America has ever built. Four more are in the works: the USS John F. Kennedy, which will be commissioned next year; USS Enterprise, the ninth U.S. warship to bear that name; the USS Doris Miller, named for the Pearl Harbor hero – she will be the first aircraft carrier named for an African American and an enlisted sailor; and a yet-to-be named fifth Ford, currently known only as CVN-82.

These carriers herald a new era of naval power projection, showcasing a groundbreaking array of 23 cutting-edge technologies. Among these innovations include the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS), Advanced Arresting Gear, Advanced Weapons Elevators, and new sensors and self-defense systems. Each improvement is designed to optimize operational efficiency and combat effectiveness. These advancements enable the Ford and her sister-ships to achieve a higher aircraft sortie rate with a significantly smaller ship’s company, marking a transformative leap forward in naval aviation capabilities.

“The Gerald R. Ford is everything our nation hoped it would be, and more…the world’s most technologically advanced warship,” said Capt. Rick Burgess, the Ford’s commanding officer, in a Navy press release.

More important than the number of miles sailed or meals served is how the Ford provided credible proof to America’s allies, partners and adversaries of U.S. resolve. What started as the ship’s first full-length deployment evolved into the carrier’s first combat deployment following the October 7 terror attacks against Israel. The Ford was scheduled to return home earlier, but the carrier and its strike group were extended by an additional 76 days, remaining in the eastern Mediterranean Sea to deter escalation and support Israel in its right to self-defense.

“We excelled during a very challenging deployment, demonstrating the capabilities of a U.S. Navy carrier strike group, assuring our partners and allies, and deterring our adversaries,” Rear Adm. Erik Eslich, the commander of Carrier Strike Group 12, said in the same release.

Since World War II, U.S. Navy aircraft carriers have been perhaps the most highly visible symbols of American military power and commitment to regional security. The presence of a carrier strike group anywhere in the world demonstrates America’s willingness and ability to project power and resolve to protect U.S. interests and allies. Aircraft carriers are one the most versatile maritime platforms the Navy operates. They are capable of conducting a wide range of military operations, including air superiority, maritime interdiction, strike missions, and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief. This versatility allows the U.S. to respond effectively to various security challenges and regional needs. One of the first questions asked during an international crisis remains: “where are the carriers?”

U.S. aircraft carriers play a crucial role in supporting regional allies and partners by providing security assurances. The presence of carrier strike groups strengthens military cooperation and interoperability, enhancing the collective defense posture of regional allies and partners. During its deployment, the Ford participated in and supported numerous multinational exercises and vigilance activities to increase NATO capability and deter aggression in the region. The carrier exercised with navies from France, Greece, Norway, Turkey and the United Kingdom, and visited ports in Croatia, Greece, Italy, Norway and Turkey. In total, the Ford worked with 17 nations throughout its deployment during exercises Baltic Operations, Air Defender, Bomber Task Force Viking Trident, Neptune Strike, and Sage Wolverine.

The Ford is such a game-changing, stair-step improvement in maritime power that its visit to Norway prompted an unusually undiplomatic response from the Russian Embassy in Oslo, which posted on its Facebook page that: “There are no questions in the (Arctic) north that require a military solution, nor topics where outside intervention is needed.” And when the Ford set sail for Israel, none other than Mr. Putin himself said that “I don't understand why the U.S. is dragging aircraft carrier groups into the Mediterranean Sea. I don't really understand the point…such actions are inflaming the situation." As my Gen-Z kids might say, aircraft carriers live rent free in the minds of America’s adversaries.

The Ford is now online at a time when she is needed most. America’s competitors have clearly communicated their interests in challenging international norms and disrupting the peaceful flow of maritime commerce throughout the world. Many of these regions are quite far from U.S. based airpower, or in parts of the world where local host nation basing opportunities are few, politically untenable, or potentially at risk from enemy attack. Ford-class supercarriers are able to close with, deter, and - if necessary – disrupt the plans and abilities of an adversary to act aggressively. To be clear, all of the Navy’s legacy aircraft carriers are capable, but the Fords are even better.

Throughout its historic eight-month long deployment, the Ford proved itself as an indispensable asset for maintaining stability, upholding America’s security commitments, and contributing to regional peace and security. In the event of a security crisis or contingency, the Ford carriers are capable of rapidly deploying and providing sustained combat air support, reconnaissance, and other critical capabilities to support military operations and safeguard U.S. interests. Their value in deterring aggression and countering hostile action practically anywhere in the world is significant, multifaceted, and cannot be overstated.

Mr. Caires is a Visiting Fellow at the Lexington Institute, a think tank headquartered in Arlington, Virginia that focuses on defense and security policy. He is a veteran U.S. Navy Fleet Marine Force Warfare Officer, earned a Master’s Degree in National Security from the Naval War College, and served in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.