The USS Gerald R. Ford, priced at $13.3 billion, is the largest and most expensive warship ever to set sail. It features an expansive five-acre flight deck and incorporates cutting-edge technologies that aim to establish it and similar carriers as the most powerful in the world well beyond 2050.
Onboard, the vessel can house up to four squadrons of fighters and a multitude of support and tactical aircraft, comprising over 60 planes, with the potential to accommodate up to 90.
With a height surpassing nine stories above the waterline and weighing a staggering 97,000 tons, the USS Ford surpasses the largest battleships from World War II by an additional 32,000 tons. Notably, its size does not compromise its speed or maneuverability.
Powered by a pair of advanced A1B nuclear reactors, the ship possesses nearly three times the power of America’s existing supercarriers, amounting to about 300 megawatts of electrical power in total.
According to the Navy, seeing the USS Ford on the water is akin to observing a New York City block cruising past at a speed of 34 miles per hour. However, the emergence of new anti-ship missiles from China, some with the capability to maneuver at hypersonic speeds surpassing Mach 5, poses a significant threat. This development has raised concerns about the potential obsolescence of the USS Ford and the Navy’s entire Pacific Fleet.
A sobering report from the Congressional Research Service, last updated in August 2022, highlights worries about the survivability of Navy surface ships in combat scenarios against adversaries like China, who possess large quantities of UAVs and advanced anti-ship missiles.
Over the past decade, China has significantly increased the size of its naval fleet and made notable advancements in the development of anti-ship weaponry. One of their notable achievements includes the creation of highly maneuverable hypersonic missiles with the capability to reach speeds of Mach 10. It is evident that China has developed these weapons with the intention of deterring American naval forces.
The USS Ford and similar ships possess an array of anti-missile defenses; however, none can provide adequate protection in a prolonged battle against China’s latest weapons. To maintain dominance in the Pacific and ensure the survivability of its ships, the Navy is fully embracing a technology that has long been out of reach: lasers. The benefits of lasers are highly enticing.
Powered by Ford’s substantial nuclear reactors, lasers can fire at the speed of light, effectively neutralizing the threat of hypersonic weapons. They can be quickly reloaded to counter swarms of drones, and unlike conventional weapons, lasers do not require ammunition stores, providing ships with virtually unlimited firing opportunities.
In 2021, the Biden Administration established a Pentagon task force to evaluate the threat posed by China’s rapid naval expansion. Based on the task force’s findings, the Department of Defense designated China as America’s most significant strategic competitor one year later.
China currently maintains a fleet of over 770 naval, coast guard, and other military vessels, more than double the size of America’s fleet. Notably, China’s naval forces are primarily concentrated in the Pacific region, while the U.S. fleet is dispersed across the Atlantic and Pacific regions.
Furthermore, China’s military strength is further reinforced by an arsenal of advanced anti-ship weapons that can be deployed from ground bases, warships, and aircraft.
The most formidable weapons in China’s arsenal are its long-range missiles, such as the DF-21D and DF-26. However, the most intimidating among them is the DF-ZF, a hypersonic missile capable of reaching speeds of Mach 10. This hypersonic weapon can strike targets from a distance of over 1500 miles.
China’s hypersonic weapons pose a significant threat but are not the only concern for carrier commanders. They have long been aware of their vulnerability to barrages of anti-ship cruise missiles. When launched in large numbers, these missiles can overwhelm a ship’s defenses.
Additionally, the emergence of swarms of relatively inexpensive long-range suicide drones further exacerbates the Navy’s challenges. If carriers were to be replaced by drones and high-speed missiles, the Navy’s largest carriers and heavily armed destroyers would be ill-equipped to defend against a multitude of airborne invaders.
Today, the USS Gerald R. Ford’s sails are accompanied by what is known as a carrier strike group, which consists of numerous cruisers, destroyers, frigates, and occasionally submarines. Among these vessels, at least two are dedicated to air defense, typically Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers.
These ships serve as the first line of defense against enemy attacks, utilizing powerful onboard radars capable of detecting targets over 200 miles away. These ships provide robust protection, equipped with surface-to-air missiles and the Navy’s Phalanx Sea Whiz close-in weapon system. The Sea Whiz employs radar-controlled 20-millimeter six-barrel Gatling cannons, which can unleash a rapid rate of fire of 4,500 rounds per minute.
A carrier strike group possesses sufficient hardware to intercept numerous incoming missiles, even from distances as far as 200 miles. However, once the ships deplete their supply of interceptors, they become defenseless until restocked.
While some munitions can be replenished at sea, missiles require resupply at port. This presents a challenge known as the “depth of magazine” problem, which adversaries can exploit with swarming attacks.
The Pentagon acknowledges that powerful lasers offer the best defense against such drone swarms. Unlike blasters in Star Wars, laser beams do not explode upon impact but instead deliver intense heat at a lower power output. Lasers can confuse the optical sensors of drones, and when their power is increased, they can burn holes through them.
Essentially, lasers convert energy into ammunition. Powered by nuclear reactors, like those on the USS Ford, they have the potential to fire thousands or even tens of thousands of times at incoming munitions. Due to the speed of light, laser beams can track and target unpredictable weapons, such as China’s Hypersonic DF ZF, more effectively than conventional missiles.
Gunners won’t have to lead a target and anticipate its location as they currently do. The Pentagon is also drawn to lasers because of their low cost. According to the Congressional Research Service, firing a high-powered laser is estimated to cost between one dollar and ten dollars, a fraction of the 1 million to 10 million dollars required for defensive missiles.
Using million-dollar missiles to defend against swarms of relatively cheap enemy drones or cruise missiles results in a negative cost-exchange ratio, as analysts describe it. The Navy took a step towards addressing this issue in 2014 when it conducted sea trials with the first laser installed on a ship.
The USS Ponce, an amphibious transport ship, had a 33-kilowatt laser weapon system called the Laser Weapon System (LaWS) fitted forward on its deck. The LaWS, with its short round firing tube painted white, resembled an amateur astronomer’s telescope to an untrained eye.
Despite its low power, this early version demonstrated impressive firepower. A stronger laser underwent trials in 2019, and in August 2022, the Navy installed its first permanent laser on a destroyer, the Arleigh Burke-class Preble.
Developed by Lockheed Martin, the weapon boasts a 60-kilowatt power output and seamlessly integrates with the ship’s advanced Aegis radar and weapons control system. Known as Helios, which stands for High Energy Laser with Integrated Optical Dazzler and Surveillance System, the Navy envisions later versions of the weapon to be even more powerful. Lockheed Martin suggests that the weapon could potentially scale up to 150 kilowatts.
However, it would be most effective against drones and small surface ships even at that strength. The Navy recognizes the need for a significantly more potent solution to counter a barrage of cruise missiles or a hypersonic weapon hurtling towards the USS Ford at speeds exceeding Mach 5. The Navy estimates it requires at least a 300-kilowatt laser for this purpose.
In addition to considering the size and speed of the missiles, which are composed of pyrolytic graphite or pyroceramics designed to withstand high heat, lasers must generate sufficient intensity to burn through these heat-resistant substances rapidly.
They must also possess enough power to compensate for atmospheric turbulence and accurately identify and target the specific location of an incoming missile traveling at a speed of one mile per second. The development of such a weapon appears to be underway.
The Navy plans to test a 300-kilowatt weapon known as Hellcat (High Energy Laser Counter Anti-Ship Cruise Missile) as early as next year. Based on a 2020 photo, the Hellcat test bed appears to be derived from the Navy’s existing AN/SEQ-4 Optical Dazzler Interdictor System, already in use on certain destroyers.
If successful, Hellcat will become the Navy’s first laser capable of intercepting incoming anti-ship cruise missiles. However, it may not be sufficient to counter hypersonic missiles traveling at speeds up to Mach 10, which can withstand temperatures of 1700 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.
The Pentagon believes that a one-megawatt laser, more than three times the power of Hellcat, may be necessary to neutralize such threats. Progress is being made in this direction, as the Navy awarded Northrop Grumman a contract to develop a megawatt-class laser, and in July 2022, the company completed a preliminary design of a high-energy laser that combines multiple laser beams into a single powerful ray. With billions invested in aircraft carriers, the Pentagon eagerly anticipates the arrival of this technology to counter China’s rapidly advancing anti-ship weapons.
Given the increasing vulnerability of warships like the USS Ford to modern threats, the fate of the world’s most powerful Navy may hinge on the effectiveness of well-targeted hypersonic countermeasures. Nonetheless, the Navy remains hopeful that its futuristic lasers can eliminate these threats from the sky at a fraction of the cost of traditional defensive systems.