Defense Tech has an intriguing story about the next generation of aircraft carriers. One of the bigger innovations in the upcoming Ford-class of carriers: They’re designed to carry drones, with a new, electricity-intensive launch system replacing the steam catapults that sent carrier-borne fighters into the sky during the jet age. Designing carriers in this way reaffirms that unmanned drones are a crucial part of naval aviation in coming years.
The fundamental unit at the heart of the U.S. Navy is the aircraft carrier. It is a nuclear-powered runway, command center, hangar with at least 64 jets, and living quarters for everyone it takes to keep the whole operation running. Aircraft carriers are also built to last half a century, which means not only should they carry the technology of the year they’re built, but they should be designed with enough foresight to accommodate the next 50 years of innovation. The last aircraft to be retired, the U.S.S. Enterprise, was a baby boomer: built in 1961, it retired in 2012 after a 51-year career. The oldest currently operating carrier in the fleet is the U.S.S Nimitz, which has been commissioned since 1975, placing it squarely inside Generation X–and it still has a few years of service left.
Long life spans mean that aircraft carriers have to be designed with the future in mind. Ford-class ships are the next generation of aircraft carrier, and they are very much designed for longevity:
The Ford-class carriers are built with a series of technological advances compared to their predecessors — to include a slightly larger flight deck, upgraded nuclear power plants, dual-band radar, improved landing gear and vastly increased on-board electrical capacity to include a new electromagnetic propulsion system for aircraft taking off the deck.
Rear Admiral Thomas J. Moore, head the U.S. Navy’s Program Executive Office for Carriers, further specifies that Ford carriers will be “built with three-times the electrical generating capacity than the Nimitz” class that preceded them. Why? Freaking lasers! The Navy already plans to outfit the U.S.S. Ponce with a new directed energy weapon next year. A more-electrified design plan could accommodate future lasers as they are developed. Current laser weapons fire somewhere between ten and 100 kilowatts, and future laser weapons mounted on ships could have a power level measured in megawatts, which would take extraordinary amounts of electricity to make work.
Skepticism persists about a naval strategy so reliant on putting all eggs in one giant, sinkable basket, but the drone-and laser carrier of the future serves to mitigate that risk a lot. Electric-powered lasers cost-effectively protect the carrier from swarm tactics, where many small boats or drones attempt to overwhelm the defenses of a ship and exhaust its ammunition supply. A directed energy weapon counters this by having ammunition so long as it has electricity, and by blasting holes in ships or attacking drones nearly instantly.
Unmanned aircraft can also protect aircraft carriers against a different kind of threat, thanks to their increased range, which makes it easier for them to intercept long-range missiles. Another way drones could protect the aircraft carrier is through greater, longer, more persistent surveillance, all from a far perimeter around the carrier fleet.
If all goes according to plan with the Ford-class carrier, sometime in the next 50 years we’ll enter an era of naval warfare where drones and lasers go from super-futuristic to completely routine.