You may be surprised to see headlines about the Navy’s plans to blow things up right next to its brand new (and very expensive) aircraft carrier. The USS Gerald R. Ford was commissioned in July of last year and is still undergoing work that will make it the most technologically-advanced warship in the Navy’s fleet.
So why detonate bombs in such close proximity to the major military investment? With costs reported to be in the neighborhood of $13 billion, the Ford is one of the most expensive developments coming out of the Pentagon to date. As such, the ship needs to be tested before sending it off to do the military’s business around the world. Shock trials are a necessary part of the process of putting a newly commissioned warship into military service.
What are Shock Trials?
Before a ship is considered truly ready for combat, it must undergo tests of all its systems. This includes testing its ability to withstand weapons attacks. Shock trials do exactly that.
During the Ford’s shock trials, the Navy will conduct controlled explosions of a variety of bombs to “assess the carrier’s ability to withstand enemy attacks.” This includes detonating underwater mines near the hull. The ship needs to be able to withstand a close-in weapons blast.
A breach to the hull is not the only vulnerability that the Navy will assess. Even a blast that does not make direct contact with the ship, such as during shock trials, could impact other critical systems that help the ship operate. The Navy wants to make sure that in the event that the Ford was attacked, it could remain operational and ready to fight.
Shock trials will follow the full integration of the rest of the carrier’s systems, including combat systems, weapons elevators, and flight deck gear.
The USS Jackson, a Littoral Combat Ship, went through shock trials in 2016 for its class of ship.
Is the Ford Ready for Shock Trials?
It was reported earlier this year that the Navy requested to delay shock trials by up to 6 years. The request sought to designate the next ship in the new class, the USS John F. Kennedy, to go through shock trials. The test was previously scheduled for the Ford for late 2019, but officials requested a delay to make sure that the program was ready for the testing. This request comes with the Navy’s stated intention to get the Ford ready for deployment as soon as possible.
The Ford is the first in a new class of carrier equipped with ground-breaking new technology. The Pentagon wants to make sure it is properly tested before sending on a combat deployment. This includes increased integration between systems, a larger flight deck than previous carriers, and an electromagnetic aircraft launching catapult system.
The development and testing of all of these new systems have put the ship behind its initial delivery timeline. Originally scheduled to be commissioned in 2014, delays pushed that date to 2017. Delays are common, especially when building a new class of warship, so it is not completely unexpected that a possible delay in shock trials is on the table.
When Does the Navy Conduct Shock Trials?
Shock trials are often conducted on later ships within a new class, so some officials argue that one of the carriers not yet completed should be designated to go through shock trials. Although the USS Nimitz was the first in the last class of aircraft carriers, it was not until the fourth ship was built, the USS Theodore Roosevelt, 12 years later that the class was shock tested.
Others, including retired US Navy Captain Jerry Hendrix, maintain that the Navy needs to know that the carrier is capable of remaining operational in combat conditions. “The Navy’s argument is that the Navy’s need to increase the number of deployable super carriers to eleven (we now have ten) in order to take strain off of the overall fleet exceeds its need to analyze the robustness and resilience of the Ford’s design,” he wrote in an article in The National Review. “In other words, getting the Ford on deployment quickly is more important to the Navy than shock-testing it.”
Hendrix believes that shock trials should be conducted on the Ford, rather than wait for a future ship to learn about critical vulnerabilities within the class. He wrote that due to the new systems on the Ford, the Navy should test them sooner rather than later. “If there is a significant flaw in the Ford’s design and if Secretary Mattis approves the delay in shock testing until the USS Kennedy’s evaluation six years hence, the nation will be accepting a sizable risk just as it enters a period of maximum danger in the growing great-power competition with China and Russia,” Hendrix wrote.
The Navy is moving forward, correcting known issues and getting the Ford ready to become fully operational. In a press release from July, the Navy stated that they intend to conduct shock trials on the Ford following a year of schedule installations, continued testing, and other work.