Pricey New Supercarrier Boasts Dazzling Tech

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The aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford cost nearly $13 billion to build.
Illustration by Mike Dillard

The Navy's newest aircraft carrier -- the USS Gerald R. Ford -- gets christened Saturday in Norfolk, Va., with the traditional bottle of champagne being smashed open on its massive hull to bring good luck.

With an estimated price tag of $12.8 billion, the Ford is the most expensive piece of military hardware in history. As such, it boasts an array of dazzling military technologies -- from electromagnetic aircraft launchers to a new kind of dual-band radar -- that the Pentagon says is needed to keep the aircraft carrier relevant in future wars.

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When commissioned in 2016, the ship will have 500 fewer sailors than existing carriers, while generating three times more electrical power and the ability to launch more than 160 aircraft each day.

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But all this technology has a steep price tag, and Navy officials have drawn fire from Congressional budget watchdogs for allowing the cost of the ship to balloon 22 percent over budget.

"The construction cost went way over budget because of new technologies they introduced at the same time," said Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and a former special assistant to the Chief of Naval Operations. "Normally you try to take an evolutionary approach, of bringing in new things one at a time. With the Ford class they took a revolutionary approach, where they bring in a lot of technologies simultaneously."

Even though the ship is expensive, Navy officials say that it will save money over the long run because it has been designed more efficiently. The ship relies on two nuclear powered generators and won’t have to come in to dry dock for 12 years.

There are one-third fewer valves, resulting in less maintenance and a new air conditioning and filtration system that should keep remove salty sea air from the ship's innards. A reverse-osmosis desalinization plant provides water and a high-temperature plasma arc waste system converts 6,800 tons of waste a day into gaseous emissions.