Aircraft on Ford-class carriers won't be able to use external fuel tanks

When it comes to aircraft carriers, their biggest asset is power projection – defined by Wikipedia as "rapidly and effectively deploy[ing] and sustain[ing] forces in and from multiple dispersed locations to respond to crises, to contribute to deterrence and to enhance regional stability." But the US Navy's newest carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, might have a big problem in that regard.

According to a report from Bloomberg, the Ford-class carriers won't be able to launch aircraft fitted with the external fuel tanks so commonly used to extend range. In the case of the F/A-18 Hornet, the Sargent Fletcher drop tanks can increase the plane's range by over 50 percent for normal missions, while even larger tanks more than double the range, allowing the Hornet to operate as an aerial refueler.

This significant problem is being blamed on the Ford-class' new catapult launch system. Rather than the conventional steam-powered launcher on today's Nimitz-class flattops, the new carrier will use electrical currents to produce magnetic fields to fling aircraft into the skies. These electromagnetic catapults put more stress on the planes than the old system, and would cause premature damage to aircraft, Navy documents obtained by Bloomberg state.

A September report from the Navy Air Systems Command said that, "the overstress condition will eliminate the employment of external fuel tanks" which are "an essential element" to combat ops.

The issue will be addressed through a software update meant to reduce the force exerted on aircraft during launches, which will be tested in March of 2016. That's after the Ford has been delivered from Huntington Ingalls to the Navy, of course.

The Navy is "aware of this issue and in close coordination with structural and systems engineers," who are testing the system "and/or aircraft-based alternatives to address the situation," a Navy spokesperson, Commander Thurraya Kent, told Bloomberg.

The USS Ford is the first in its class and is slated to be commissioned roughly a year from now. The USS John F. Kennedy and the USS Enterprise, the ninth US Navy ship to bear the name, will follow Ford, with commissionings planned for 2020 and 2025, respectively. The three ships are expected to cost around $40 billion.

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