The Navy is making lethality enhancing “modifications” to its next several new Ford-class aircraft carriers, to include integrated “digital shipbuilding” and weapons-oriented adjustments intended to further increase overall aircraft carrier combat effectiveness.
The initiatives, according to Navy statements, involve specific aircraft carrier modifications intended to, among other things, improve the maritime warfighting potential of the soon-to-arrive F-35C and MQ-25 Stingray drone aerial refueler.
These now-underway modifications, which Navy developers specify do not included changes to the F-35C or Stingray themselves, are in part intended to step up aircraft carrier attack abilities on the open sea, made manifest by the Navy’s recent a cost-saving two-carrier buy.
All of this is enabled by a two-carrier Navy buy of its next several Ford-class carriers. Instead of stove-piping or separating purchases for its next two carriers, the Navy has awarded a contract to Huntington Ingalls Industries to build both the future USS Enterprise (CVN 80) and a fourth Ford-class carrier - CVN 81.
"Integrated Digital Shipbuilding is key to achieving the production efficiencies of the two-CVN buy. The Navy and the shipbuilder are investing in iDS, which will reduce the amount of production effort required to build Ford-class carriers, William Couch, Naval Sea Systems Command spokesman, told Warrior Maven.
Alongside the intended cost-saving of more than $ 4 billion associated with the block buy, the Navy is also streamlining weapons and war-technology development for its F-35C, Mk 38 gun system and MQ-25 Stingray drones.
“These modifications increase the lethality of the Ford-class, and represent an additional $100 million in savings … since these modifications were not included in the original single CVN Navy estimate,” a Navy statement writes.
These modifications to the carriers themselves, described as “lethality” enhancing measures, appear to be a part of the Navy’s broader strategy to massively increase offensive and defensive war systems for its Ford-class carriers. So far, some of these measures include the planned addition of now-in-development torpedo defense systems, interceptor missiles and the introduction of greatly impactful platforms such as the F-35C and MQ-25 Stingray.
Streamlining the integration of these platforms, as stated by the Navy, could bring a range of substantial enhancements - and align with the Navy strategy to better prepare its carriers for war. The F-35C, naturally, will bring a new array of attack options for the Carrier Air Wing, not to mention an unprecedented measure of aerial Intelligence, Reconnaissance and Surveillance (ISR). Drawing upon new sensor and targeting technology, the aerial attack range will be significantly changed, and stealth technology will enable air attack to operate in higher threat environments, such as areas containing advanced air-defenses. The arrival of the F-35C is, by all estimations, expected to change the paradigm for carrier-air attack.
These enhancements are intended to work alongside and benefit from the emergence of a first-of-its-kind drone refueler which brings the promise of potentially doubling the attack radius for carrier-launched fighters.
An ability to refuel while in flight massively extends a carrier's attempt to further project power while remaining at safer stand-off distances. If the combat radius of an F-18 or F-35, on one fuel tank, reaches 300 to 400 miles or so, the aircraft will have to turn around at a certain distance from its carrier. However, if an attack platform can double that range, it can naturally travel much farther, enabling much more “dwell time” when it comes to attacks and provide the option to strike targets farther inland or from greater distances.
Therefore, it goes without saying that streamlining the acquisition and integration of these systems aligns with an aggressive Navy push to make carriers more combat capable. This strategy appears to have a few possible dimensions. While carriers typically operate in Carrier Strike Groups surrounded by cruisers, destroyers and other warships able to provide protection, a fast-changing threat environment is expected to create the need for more dispersed, or disaggregated operations. In short, carriers will need greater attack and defensive technology themselves. For this reason, the service is not only looking to streamline and accelerate the arrival of the F-35C and drone tanker, but also bring new weapons such as lasers, guns, electronic warfare and new interceptor-defense systems.
All of this pertains to a much-discussed phenomenon characterizing Navy carriers for quite some time - namely that longer-range anti-ship missiles, drone attacks, EW and laser threats from potential adversaries change the equation regarding where carriers may need to operate. Observers have said new weapons, such as the Chinese DF-26 anti-ship missile reportedly able to travel up to 900 miles and other emerging threats, radically change the manner in which carriers will need to function, making them potentially less able to attack and project power. However, Navy leaders and developers often say “not so fast,” making the point that emerging weapons and carrier defenses will enable carriers to operate where they need to. Naturally, they do not offer much specifics, for security reasons, but there are a range of fast-emerging weapons which dramatically improve the Navy’s “layered” ship defense system.
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