The USS Gerald R. Ford was commissioned in July 2017, the first US aircraft carrier to enter service in eight and a half years. The Navy used it to replace the aging USS Enterprise, which was in service from 1961 to early 2017, and return the US Navy to an 11-carrier-strong fleet.
Originally, the Gerald R. Ford was meant to deploy for the first time in 2020. Before the ship sails, however, the Operational Test and Evaluation (OT&E) branch of the DoD wants to conduct "shock testing" on the advanced carrier.
Shock testing involves setting off underwater charges against the ship while the crew is onboard to see how the ship reacts to attacks that are supposed to deal minimal damage. It's seen as valuable because it can expose the weaknesses in the design or construction of the vessel — but it will also stall the combat readiness of the ship.
Under political pressure from US President Donald Trump, who vowed to construct the "12-carrier Navy we need" on the deck of the Ford in March 2017, the Navy has sought to fast-track the carrier by omitting shock testing from their FY 2019 budget.
Instead, the Navy argues, the testing should be pushed back and done alongside the next carrier meant to enter service: the USS John F Kennedy, currently aimed at being commissioned in 2024.
The decision ultimately comes down to Defense Secretary James Mattis. OT&E Director Robert Behler told military.com that he was pushing hard for the shock testing to not be delayed. "There are four major new systems on this aircraft carrier," he said: one for launching aircraft (the so-called catapult), one for landing aircraft, one for detecting incoming aircraft and missiles and one for moving ordnance from the magazine to the weapons via elevators.
"I think we have to know if those systems continue to work in a combat environment," Behler said.
In a January memo to Mattis, Behler wrote that the Gerald R. Ford required these tests to determine its combat efficacy. "The CVN-78 [Ford's naval designation] is making progress, however, reliability of the newly designed catapults, arresting gear, weapons elevators and radar, which are all critical for flight operations, have the potential to limit the CVN-78 ability to generate sorties," he wrote.
"Additionally, the survivability of these newly designed systems remains unknown until the CVN-78 undergoes full ship shock trials."
The Gerald R. Ford was named for the 38th president of the US and a US Navy veteran, who passed away in 2006. It is the first ship of its class and the only US Navy aircraft carrier in service to not be part of the Nimitz-class.
The Gerald R. Ford replaces the Nimitz's steam-powered catapult with an electromagnetic one, allowing it to launch aircraft faster with the use of fewer crew. It also has an improved radar system and a more powerful nuclear reactor that doesn't require a supplementary steam engine, unlike its Nimitz-class predecessors.
Two sister ships of the same class as the Gerald R. Ford are under construction: the aforementioned John F. Kennedy and the ninth USS Enterprise, scheduled for a 2027 commissioning. A fourth Ford-class carrier is on order, but has yet to be named. Thus far, the US has spent $45.7 billion on the Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier program.