The payoff will be a dramatic increase in the number of warplanes available for combat missions, Navy officials said.
Notably, the ship’s flight deck will be designed so that aircraft can maneuver into a NASCAR-style pit stop, where they will be refueled, repaired and loaded with weapons.
This marks a significant departure from the way business is done on carriers today, where aircraft have to move around the deck and park at different locations for fuel, repairs and bomb replenishing.
The current process is time consuming and cumbersome, said Capt. Michael Schwartz, program manager for the Navy’s future aircraft carrier, called CVN 21.
NASCAR-like pit stops offer an ideal combination of speed and efficiency, he noted. “In races, the car drives into one location instead of moving the car to different locations to get things done.”
Aircraft carrier designers looked at the NASCAR model and decided it suited the needs of naval aviation. “Why not put in that kind of flexibility on the carrier, so we bring the maintenance to the airplane instead of having to pull the airplane around to different locations and constantly reconfigure the flight deck?” Schwartz said. In CVN 21, “we are going to have more parking places on the flight deck to give maintainers and fuelers more flexibility, so they can get more planes ready faster.”
For the Navy, the ultimate goal is to be able to drastically increase the number of combat missions that can be launched in a single day. While Nimitz-class carriers today can manage up to 120 flight sorties in a 12-hour day, the goal is to raise that number to 160.
“Beyond that, there is a requirement to get to 270 sorties in a 24-hour flying day and sustain that over a four-day period,” Schwartz said.
The pit-stop maintenance, along with changes in the location of the weapon elevators on the CVN 21, should help pump fuel and load ammunition at a much faster pace than is currently possible, he said.
CVN 21 designers concluded that getting the weapons on the airplanes is the biggest bottleneck with which they had to contend. Weapons are stored in magazines located in the lower decks of the carrier. They get lifted aboard elevators to the second deck, where the eating facilities typically are.
“We clear all the tables, assemble the bombs, then put them on carts and put them on elevators to bring them up to the flight deck,” Schwartz explained.
The problem is that the elevators come right up to the center of the flight deck, which means flight operations must be stopped while weapons get moved off the elevators. Storing weapons in the center of the ship was standard practice during the Cold War, when carriers were loaded with nuclear missiles and commanders worried that a strike against the ship would lead to Armageddon.
When the weapons reach the flight deck, groups of sailors then bring the bombs and hang them on the aircraft. “It’s a very inefficient process,” said Schwartz.
Under the new ship design, the weapons no longer are assembled in the mess halls. Instead, there will be designated weapon staging areas. After the weapons are assembled and placed on elevators, they will no longer end up in the middle of the flight deck, but rather on the starboard side, so they won’t restrict flight operations.
Additionally, the Navy plans to develop new weapons handling equipment to move the bombs around and get them on the airplane faster, Schwartz said. “Just the rearrangements of the elevators, and having larger elevators will streamline the flow of weapons.”
To make the 160 sortie-per-day goal, Navy engineers also are trying to figure out ways to pump fuel faster. The numbers of fueling stations and fuel hoses on the flight deck have not been set yet. The Navy so far has run only digital models and scenarios to help determine the right configuration.
Cutting back on the manual labor also is a priority in the design of CVN 21. The Navy expects to reduce the ship’s crew from more than 3,000 to about 2,000. The air wing, which includes about 75-85 aircraft and a crew of more than 2,000, also will see personnel reductions.
“The next piece is to look at what people do,” said Schwartz. “Today, it takes a lot of manpower to carry the weapons and load them to the aircraft. We are looking at new weapons-loading devices that can allow one person or a small number of people to load weapons.”
To the naked eye, the CVN 21 still resembles a traditional Nimitz-class flattop, but significant changes are planned for the fight deck design, Schwartz said. “Although the hull looks very much like the Nimitz, we have completely reoriented the flight deck to allow for more parking spaces for aircraft.”
CVN 21 will have three aircraft elevators—two on the starboard side and one on the port side. Nimitz has three on the starboard side and one on the port side. The new ship will have 11 weapon elevators—one more than the Nimitz class. Schwartz cautioned that it is the location, rather than the number of elevators, that will help ease the movement of aircraft.
The success of the pit-stop approach is based not only on repositioning the elevators, but also on having enough space on the deck and designing the deck in the right shape and size, he noted. “Today, we find a lot of movement of aircraft around. … A plane lands, you hook up a tow-bar and a tractor, pull it to one location, and do maintenance. Then, you pull it to another location to get fueled, then to another location to get started.” The crew is moving planes around constantly to prepare for the next launch and recovery cycle.
The island of the ship will be much smaller and moved aft in CVN 21, a design change that will free up more space for flight operations.
An aircraft carrier’s island is the command center for flight-deck operations, as well as for the ship as a whole. The top of the island is outfitted with various radar and communications antennas, which monitor ship and aircraft traffic, intercept and jam enemy radar signals, track enemy aircraft and missiles, and pick up satellite signals, among other things. The island structure on Nimitz is approximately 100 feet long. The length may drop to about 60 feet in CVN 21.
Much of the size reduction is achieved by shifting from rotating radar antennas to dual-band phased arrays.
“We have taken away many of these known boundaries with this new deck orientation,” Schwartz said. “We will have more flexibility to rearm and refuel.”
He could not explicitly quantify the expected time savings associated with pit-stop maintenance, but estimated it could be up to a couple of hours per aircraft.
As to when the Navy will receive the first of the CVN 21 carriers, that remains to be seen. The current schedule has construction beginning in 2007, with delivery in 2014. But Navy officials have hinted that is likely to be delayed as a result of a funding crunch in the service’s shipbuilding accounts.