The U.S. Navy’s Big Mismatch: Old Aircraft Carriers with New Stealth Fighters

David Axe

One of the U.S. Navy’s oldest carriers will be the first to deploy with the service’s newest fighter, the Navy announced.

The Washington State-based USS Carl Vinson, which launched in 1983, is scheduled to deploy in 2021 to the Pacific region with the new F-35C stealth fighters from California-based Strike-Fighter Squadron 147 aboard.

The Navy in February 2019 declared VFA-147 to be combat-ready. The fleet hopes to acquire around 200 F-35Cs in order to equip each of 10 carrier air wings with one squadron of the radar-evading jets.

The Navy’s newest aircraft carriers, the two Ford-class vessels currently undergoing trials, won’t be able to deploy with the F-35C apparently until the 2030s. The third and fourth Ford-class vessels, currently on order, are scheduled to deploy with F-35s in 2028 and 2032, respectively.

When Ford first deploys, possibly in 2024, she’ll embark only older F/A-18E/F Super Hornets as her main warplane. Trade publication Breaking Defense was among the first to report the deployment schedule.

The mismatch between planes and ships is the result of the platforms’ unsynchronized development schedules. The Navy locked down the Ford’s design before the F-35 program office in the mid-2000s finalized the F-35C’s own design.

As a result, the first two Fords were already nearing completion by the time the fleet knew how much heat the F-35C’s powerful Pratt & Whitney engine would produce and how much data the stealth fighter would be able to transmit via radio link — and how much of that data would be classified and require special secure rooms for handling.

To make a carrier F-35C-compatible, the Navy must reinforce a carrier’s jet-blast shields, boost communications bandwidth and add secure internal spaces. That’s only possible while a flattop is undergoing deep maintenance in a shipyard. The Navy plans those maintenance periods years or even a decade in advance, leaving little flexibility for abruptly modifying a carrier to accommodate a radically new plane type.

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