NORFOLK VIRGINIA – The U.S. Navy christened the USS Gerald R. Ford on Saturday with the traditional smashing of a bottle of sparkling wine across the bow of the ship — the most technologically advanced aircraft carrier the United States has built.
The Ford is the lead ship in the navy’s next class of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. It’s designed to get more fighter planes in the sky in less time and to be ready to incorporate unmanned aircraft into its air wing. It’s the first carrier redesign in four decades and is scheduled to join the fleet in 2016.
“She is truly a technological marvel,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert said in a webcast ceremony at the Newport News, Virginia, shipyard where the Ford is being built. “She will carry unmanned aircraft, joint strike fighters, and she will deploy lasers.”
Saturday’s christening was one part tribute to the future of naval warfare and one part tribute to the ship’s namesake, former President Gerald R. Ford. Ford was a lieutenant commander aboard an aircraft carrier during World War II and frequently spoke fondly of his time in the navy.
Ford’s daughter, Susan Ford Bales, is the ship’s sponsor and had the duty of smashing the wine bottle into the ship.
Ford was appointed vice president in 1973 after Spiro Agnew resigned due to a bribery scandal while he was governor of Maryland. A year later, he became president when Richard Nixon resigned in the face of mounting evidence that he was involved in a cover-up of the Watergate scandal. He lost the 1976 presidential election to Democrat Jimmy Carter.
In her speech to shipyard workers, navy personnel and other dignitaries, she said she hopes future generations of sailors will understand the integrity her father showed during his years of public service — much as the current crew has honored him. The ship’s motto is “Integrity at the helm.”
“Dad, their message fills this shipyard. You kept your promise. You healed the nation. You gave the American people a president that was a shining beacon of integrity at the helm,” she said. “And as demonstrated by Capt. (John) Meier and by the crew and by this mighty carrier, the American people are forever grateful to you. And Dad, I’ll always be proud.”
Other speakers honoring Ford included former Vice President Dick Cheney and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
The Ford — with a new nuclear power plant, electromagnetic catapults and an enhanced 2-hectare flight deck — will leave dry dock and head to a pier at Newport News Shipbuilding this week. The navy says construction on the ship is about 70 percent complete and will finish up in 2015. It will then undergo a series of sea trials before it is commissioned and becomes operational.
Until then, the navy will be down to a 10-carrier fleet following the USS Enterprise’s deactivation last year.
The Ford is about $2 billion over budget, with most of the remaining work occurring on its internal systems. The cost overruns are eating into the aircraft carrier’s projected savings. The aircraft carrier was designed to operate with fewer crew members, which is expected to save $4 billion over the ship’s 50-year life span.