4 years before the Navy started blasting its new aircraft carrier, this team started planning to protect nearby animals

Navy aircraft carrier Gerald Ford during shock trials
US Navy aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford during shock trials in the Atlantic Ocean, June 18, 2021.

  • The Navy put its new through shock trials, meant to test its response to nearby explosions, in June.
  • More than four years before the first blast, a team of scientists went to work to protect marine wildlife.
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More than four years before the explosive went off beside the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford on June 18, a team of scientists began making plans for the ship’s shock trials. Their goal, however, was not battle readiness – they were trying to protect marine wildlife.

The process of planning the Ford’s shock trials began in 2016, according to Tom Douglas, the environmental impact director for the Navy’s shock trials.

“Planning for these are three to five years, if not a little bit longer,” he said. “It takes quite a bit of effort.”

Shock trials have a long history in the Navy, going as far back as World War II when the service discovered that “near miss” explosions still had the potential to incapacitate a ship.

As a result, the Navy conceived the test – which usually involves setting off explosives at various depths and distances from the ship – as a way to assess the impact of the shock and vibrations of a close blast on a ship’s equipment, a scientific report commissioned by the Navy explained.

Navy cruiser Arkansas shock trials explosion
US Navy guided-missile cruiser USS Arkansas during a shock test, March 17, 1982.

However, setting off a large explosion underwater also has the potential to disorient and disrupt the normal patterns of life or kill nearby marine life. As a result, environmental considerations now factor into the Navy’s decision-making.

One of the key aspects of the planning process involves choosing a location and time to conduct the trials. Douglas’ team considered one of four locations available to conduct the test, ultimately settling on a site off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida.

“As far as surveys that have been conducted today, it has the lowest density of marine life, for any of the shock trial areas that we could utilize,” Bridget Watts, an expert working with the shock trial team, said. “We have gone back and looked at the past 50 years of wind and weather data to determine that June and July are the most optimum time of the year,” Douglas added.

The team also works the timing of the trial around the marine life that is in the area.

Douglas said that they have an “exclusion period” based on the migratory patterns of the North Atlantic right whale, one of the world’s most endangered large whales with less than 400 left alive today.

“We definitely want to do no harm,” Douglas said.

The Navy’s overall record on marine life preservation is a bit more mixed. For example, the service has been sued several times over the past two decades by environmental groups over its use of sonar in submarine exercises.

Last year, as part of its regular permit renewal, the Navy asked the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to increase the number of marine animals it harasses, harms, or kills in tests and training on the Pacific Coast.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said the allowed level of “incidental taking” – the regulatory term for anything from disrupted behavior to injury or death of a marine mammal – “unacceptable” in a letter to the regulator.

Navy amphibious ship Mesa Verde explosion during shock trials
US Navy amphibious transport dock USS Mesa Verde during a shock test off the Florida coast, August 16, 2008.

Five conservation directors from the state said in a joint letter to the NMFS that, “The approval of such a high level of incidental take without requiring any additional mitigation measures represents gross neglect.”

The permission was granted on November 9, 2020, though with a requirement to institute shutdowns and delays if marine mammals are sighted within certain distances and to limit sonar use in some areas.

On the day of the trial, the team deployed a group of observers, veterinarians and scientists aboard the carrier to help ensure that marine life is not harmed.

The Navy creates a 3.5 nautical mile area around the ship – a mitigation zone – in which no marine life can be located before the blast goes off.

“We have about 10 or 12 people on the target vessel whose entire job is monitoring the area around the mitigation zone as well as the area near [the] ship,” Douglas said.

Said Douglas: “The blast radius has potential harm to small animals out to one to two kilometers. We monitor three times that distance.”

If the team spots animals or cannot assess the entire mitigation zone effectively, it can halt the trial.

“There are several points … where the CO of the ship and the shock trail officer request a ‘go/no go’ from the chief scientist,” Douglas said.

US Navy aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford undergoing full-ship shock trials
USS Gerald R. Ford during shock trials in the Atlantic Ocean, June 18, 2021

Capt. Jeremy Shamblee, the executive officer of the Norfolk-based Ford, noted that the team delayed the trial twice.

After the blast, the team continues to monitor the area for days, using a boat and aircraft.

“Surveillance is partially geared on just making sure that we’ve covered those areas enough and give them enough time to be able to find someone that either we can help or that we have to deal with or that we recover them [so] we can learn something from it,” Dr. Michael Walsh, one of the veterinarians who assists in the trials, said.

All told, more than 30 people are involved in the environmental aspect of the shock trials on the Ford.

Shamblee said the ship is hoping to wrap up the other two explosions that are planned for the trial by August.

Once the Ford’s trials finish, Douglas said his work will go on.

“We’re always … looking for increased science,” Douglas said. “How can we better look at lessons learned from this? How can we better do the next shock trial?”

– Konstantin Toropin can be reached at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

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US military says huge explosive the Navy set off to test new aircraft carrier didn’t cause deadly condo collapse in Florida

Aerial view of the partial collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida
Aerial view of the partial collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida

  • A condo in Florida collapsed six days after an explosive Navy test, raising questions.
  • The military said the shock trials for its new carrier and the collapse are unrelated.
  • Experts backed that view, saying there was no “reasonable” connection between the two incidents.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Questions have been raised about whether an explosive Navy test of its new aircraft carrier hundreds of miles away played a part in the deadly collapse of a condo in Miami six days later. The Pentagon and experts say it didn’t.

On Friday, June 18, the Navy set off a 40,000 pound explosive in the Atlantic about 107 miles off the coast of Daytona Beach, Florida in shock trials for the new USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier. The blast registered as a 3.9 on the Richter scale.

Six days later, on June 24, Champlain Towers South, a 12-story condominium in Surfside, a Miami suburb over 250 miles away from the site of the Navy blast, partially collapsed. At least a dozen people have died, and more than one hundred people are still missing.

“I have seen nothing that will correlate the shock trial test with the terrible event today in South Florida,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said last Thursday. “Certainly our thoughts and prayers go out to everybody affected by that.”

The spokesman said that “we know we need to do this kind of testing for the whole of our major ships like aircraft carriers and that it’s an important opportunity to evaluate the structural integrity of the hull and its ability to handle a blast of that size.”

Kirby added that in choosing the location, “there’s a lot of factors” that are considered “to make sure that it’s as safe as it can possibly be.”

Navy aircraft carrier Gerald Ford during shock trials
US Navy aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford completes the first scheduled explosive event of Full Ship Shock Trials in the Atlantic Ocean, June 18, 2021.

Navy spokesman Capt. Clay Doss said in an emailed statement that “the USS Gerald R Ford (CVN 78) Full Ship Shock Trials (FSST) occurred approximately 100 [nautical miles] off of the coast of Jacksonville, Florida.”

“There are no indications the tragic event in Miami is related to the test,” he said. “During FSST, the Navy considers a wide variety of environmental and safety factors to protect people, vessels and wildlife in the surrounding area.”

Paul Earle, a US Geological Survey National Earthquake Information Center seismologist, explained to the Miami Herald that the size of the explosion set off by the Navy, the distance from the condo collapse, and the time between the two incidents made any connection very unlikely.

“We do not see any reasonable mechanism for the Navy explosion on June 18 to have triggered the collapse of the Miami Beach-area condo on June 24,” he said.

“There are about 300 earthquakes of similar size to the Navy explosion in the contiguous US every year, none of which have triggered a major building collapse,” Earle said, adding that California sees 3.9 magnitude earthquakes regularly.

Florida-based building engineer Frederick Shaffer explained to the local news outlet WPTV that it was unlikely the Navy test impacted the building in Surfside, where buildings are built to withstand hurricanes.

“A building designed to South Florida standards should survive your average earthquake in California,” he said.

A number of theories, ranging from foundation failures to construction damage, have been put forward, but for now, the cause of the deadly Surfside condo collapse remains unknown. And no single cause may be solely responsible for this tragedy.

Atorod Azizinamini, chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Florida International University, told The Miami Herald that disasters like this tend to be the result of “a perfect storm of several factors coming together at the same time.”

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The US Navy practiced blasting an aircraft carrier for the first time in 34 years. Here’s what it’s testing.

Navy aircraft carrier Gerald Ford during shock trials
US Navy aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford during shock trials in the Atlantic Ocean, June 18, 2021.

  • The Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, USS Gerald R. Ford, went through shock trials on June 18.
  • Shock trials are meant to test how a warship’s systems handle the stresses of combat.
  • It’s the first time a US carrier has undergone these tests since the USS Theodore Roosevelt in 1987.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

This month, the US Navy released images and footage of its newest carrier, USS Gerald R. Ford, going through shock trials 100 miles off the Florida coast.

The tests, done with the crew aboard, involved detonating a 40,000-pound explosive off of Ford’s starboard side. The explosion was so strong that it registered 3.9 on the Richter scale – roughly equivalent to a small earthquake.

It was the first of three such trials for the Ford – the next two will feature detonations closer to the ship – and was the first time a US carrier has undergone these tests since the USS Theodore Roosevelt in 1987.

While the US Navy is debating the usefulness of shock trials, the fact that they are being done on the Ford indicates that the Navy is serious about maximizing the ship’s survivability against 21st-century threats.

Old tests for new threats

Navy aircraft carrier Gerald Ford during shock trials
Ford during shock trials on June 18, 2021.

Shock trials are meant to test how well a ship’s systems and components hold up during combat and are not uncommon.

USS Jackson and USS Milwaukee, both littoral combat ships, underwent shock trials in 2016.

The amphibious transport dock USS Mesa Verde and the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp, both of which carry aircraft, went through shock trials in 2008 and 1990, respectively. USS Arkansas, a nuclear-powered guided-missile cruiser, did them in 1982.

What is unusual is the fact that the Navy conducted the shock trials on the first Gerald R. Ford-class carrier in service. The Navy typically conducts shock trials on later vessels of a given class.

Navy amphibious ship Mesa Verde explosion during shock trials
A 10,000-pound charge rocks USS Mesa Verde off the Florida coast, August 16, 2008.

The decision to subject Ford to the trials may be motivated by the Navy’s desire to ensure that the carrier is combat-ready the moment it begins its first deployment, which is expected to be in 2022.

US Navy officials have acknowledged the increasing prevalence of modern anti-ship weaponry, particularly China’s DF-21D “carrier killer” and DF-26 “Guam killer” missiles.

A recent Congressional Research Service report on the Ford-class cited China as an adversary “with highly capable anti-ship missiles” that raised questions about “the prospective survivability” of carriers in a conflict.

The same report also noted that live tests had shown that Ford “has limited self-defense capability” against anti-ship cruise missiles.

New systems and capabilities

Navy aircraft carrier Gerald Ford during shock trials
Ford during shock trials, June 18, 2021.

The Ford also has a number of new systems and capabilities that aren’t on its Nimitz-class predecessors and haven’t faced combat conditions.

A new weapons elevator system, designed with modern munitions in mind, is meant to reduce how long it takes to arm aircraft.

The new Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System uses linear induction motors instead of steam to power the carrier’s catapults, ensuring faster, smoother, and more efficient takeoffs for fixed-wing aircraft.

Ford’s new arresting system, known as Advanced Arresting Gear, also uses electromagnetic technology. In addition to decreasing the stress on landing aircraft, the new arresting gear allows larger unmanned aerial vehicles like the MQ-25 Stingray to land on the Ford.

Navy cruiser Arkansas shock trials explosion
US Navy guided-missile cruiser USS Arkansas during a shock test, March 17, 1982.

Ford also has a new Dual Band Radar system. While Nimitz-class carriers have multiple rotating radars, Ford has one stationary multi-purpose radar that is more sensitive to aerial threats and easier to operate and maintain.

The Navy says that the new systems together allow the Ford’s air wing to conduct 33% more sorties and reduce the number of crew needed to run the ship to about 4,500, down from the roughly 5,000 needed aboard Nimitz-class carriers.

Ford’s two A1B nuclear reactors, which are of totally new design, generate almost three times more power than the A4W reactors used on Nimitz-class carriers, increasing Ford’s electrical power capacity and generation substantially.

That power capacity allows Ford to reliably power all of its new high-tech systems and leaves the door open for possible upgrades to add systems like direct-energy weapons.

Carriers of the future

US Navy aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford undergoing full-ship shock trials
Ford during shock trials on June 18, 2021

While the capabilities of the new systems are impressive, Ford has faced a number of setbacks, and a lot of work remains ahead.

Ongoing delays on the weapon elevators meant that not all of them were ready when the shock trials started, which means they won’t be fully tested during the trials.

Moreover, the Navy accepted the new carrier without it being able to handle the F-35C, which was supposed to be the backbone of the Ford’s air wing.

The jet still can’t fly from the Ford, but Navy officials say they hope to have at least six air wings with F-35s by 2025.

Navy aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy
The aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy is launched into the James River on February 28, 2020.

Despite the setbacks, the Navy hopes that Ford, which was commissioned in 2017, will start its maiden deployment in 2022.

Once the shock trials are finished, the Ford is expected to enter a month-long maintenance period, the carrier’s sixth so far, which will fix any damage from the trials and install the final upgrades.

A second Ford-class carrier, the John F. Kennedy, is currently being fitted out, while a third, the Enterprise, is in the early stages of construction. Those carriers are scheduled to be delivered to the Navy in 2024 and 2028, respectively.

The fourth Ford-class carrier was ordered in 2019 and is scheduled for delivery in 2032. It will be named after Pearl Harbor hero Doris Miller, the first Black recipient of the Navy Cross.

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Explosion triggered near new US Navy aircraft carrier during shock trials registered as 3.9 magnitude earthquake

US Navy aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford undergoing shock trials in the Atlantic Ocean
The aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) completes the first scheduled explosive event of Full Ship Shock Trials while underway in the Atlantic Ocean, June 18, 2021

  • The US Navy triggered a big explosion near its new aircraft carrier Friday during shock trials.
  • The explosion registered as a 3.9 magnitude earthquake, USNI News reported.
  • Shock trials test the hardness of the ship to determine if it can withstand harsh battle conditions.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The US Navy triggered an explosion near its new aircraft carrier, USS Gerald R. Ford, off the US East Coast on Friday during shock trials, and the big blast registered as a 3.9 magnitude earthquake, USNI News reported, citing US Geological Survey data.

The US government agency recorded the activity as an “experimental explosion” about 100 miles off the coast of Florida, where a Navy spokesperson confirmed to Insider the Ford is undergoing shock trials.

Shock trials test a ship’s ability to withstand brutal battle conditions, specifically the detonation of ordnance nearby. By setting off controlled explosions near Navy ships, the Navy can identify critical shock-related vulnerabilities.

The Navy released video footage of the explosive shock trials from different angles.

The following Navy video, which appears to have been taken from aboard the Ford, shows the intensity of the nearby explosion.

USS Gerald R. Ford, a first-in-class vessel and the Navy’s most advanced aircraft carrier, was “designed using advanced computer modeling methods, testing, and analysis to ensure the ship is hardened to withstand battle conditions, and these shock trials provide data used in validating the shock hardness of the ship,” the service said.

Commenting on the results of the first explosive event, posts on the Ford’s official social media pages said that “the leadership and the crew demonstrated Navy readiness fighting through the shock, proving our warship can ‘take a hit’ and continue our mission on the cutting edge of naval aviation.”

US Navy aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford undergoing full-ship shock trials
The aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) completed the first scheduled explosive event of Full Ship Shock Trials while underway in the Atlantic Ocean on June 18, 2021.

The Navy explained in a Facebook post on the testing that it “conducts shock trials of new ship designs using live explosives to confirm that our warships can continue to meet demanding mission requirements under harsh conditions they might encounter in battle.”

Shock trials were born from observations during World War II, a 2007 Navy-sponsored study said.

During the war, the Navy discovered that while “near miss” explosions did not severely damage the hull or superstructure of ships, the shock from the blast would knock out key system and cripple the vessels.

In response, the study explained, the Navy created a “rigorous shock hardening test procedure” known as shock trials.

US Navy aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford undergoing full-ship shock trials
The aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) completes the first scheduled explosive event of Full Ship Shock Trials while underway in the Atlantic Ocean, June 18, 2021

The latest shock trials involving the Ford are the first aircraft carrier trials since those involving the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in 1987.

The Navy said that the trials are being conducted in a way that “complies with environmental mitigation requirements, respecting known migration patterns of marine life in the test area.”

The service also stated that it “also has employed extensive protocols throughout [full-ship shock trials] to ensure the safety of military and civilian personnel participating in the testing evolution.”

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The Navy’s new, powerful aircraft carrier is heading to ‘shock trials’

Navy aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford
US Navy aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford in the Atlantic Ocean, June 4, 2020

  • The US Navy’s brand-new aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford will be return to port this summer.
  • But before the supercarrier ties up in Newport News, it will go through full-ship shock trials,
  • Those tests involve setting off explosives next to the ship to see if vibrations cause problems.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The US Navy‘s brand new aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) will be returning to Newport News this summer.

Much like how an automobile needs to go in for routine maintenance, so too will the Navy’s largest and most expensive warship.

Coming soon: USS Gerald R. Ford shock trials

The supercarrier will tie up at Newport News Shipbuilding’s pier 2 after it conducts its full ship shock trials, which is a standard test that involves setting off high explosives next to the ship to determine if vibration would cause problems.

While anything that was shaken loose or damaged will be addressed, the return to port is actually part of Ford’s first “planned incremental availability” (PIA).

This maintenance period is meant to install the latest updates to equipment and to take care of maintenance work that’s harder to do while the ship is deployed at sea.

Navy USS Jackson shock trials
US Navy littoral combat ship USS Jackson during shock trials in the Atlantic, June 10, 2016.

The updates and upgrades are expected to be completed quickly, in part because the ship has only been undergoing at-sea tests and trials that are meant to certify the carrier’s systems as well as sailor skills.

However, just as “brand new” computers or smartphones often need to undergo software updates on a regular basis, so too will Ford’s various systems.

According to Hampton Roads-based Daily Press, about 60% of the work slated for the PIA involves updating and modernizing equipment. That includes plugging in updated circuit boards and installing new communications networks and software.

PIA updates will occur every few years to keep the carrier up to date with the fast-changing electronic devices, software, weapons system controls and communication networks.

Routine maintenance

Shock Trials
US Navy aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt during shock trials.

During Ford’s time at Newport News, the ship will undergo maintenance. This could be extensive as the carrier is the first of her class, and part of the focus will be making notes on the wear and tear she’s already experienced. Teams will evaluate the components to see how the ship held up compared to what the designers expected.

These efforts will help refine the long-term maintenance plan for a carrier that is expected to remain in service for half a century. Twenty percent of the total work that the carrier will undergo will involve that maintenance.

About 8% of the scheduled work time will also be to address any fixes needed following the shock trials, which are the first such trial of a carrier to be conducted since 1987.

The remainder of the time will be spent addressing and fixing any of the other systems of the ship. This will certainly include dealing with four inoperable weapons elevators.

Navy aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford
A E-2C Hawkeye approaches USS Gerald R. Ford, August 4, 2020.

The lower-stage elevators, which are used to move ordnance, have been a problem since construction began on CVN-78 in 2009. Four of the eleven elevators will be dealt with during the PIA, and the non-working elevators will not be certified at least until later this year.

It isn’t unusual for a warship to enter trials without essential working components including the elevators, but the kinks will need to be worked out and resolved before Gerald R. Ford makes her first deployment.

A concern is that since the elevators are located throughout the ship, each could potentially react differently to the shock trials. That could result in further delays for additional repairs and adjustments, which impact the future carriers of the class.

When Ford returns to Newport News it will be moored adjacent to one of those future carriers, the still-under-construction USS John F. Kennedy, the second in the class, UPI reported.

Ford most recently completed the Combat Systems Ship’s Qualification Trials (CSSQT), a combat preparation phase involving simulated and actual live threats to assess the extent to which a large Ford-class carrier could defend itself in a great power ocean war scenario.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including “A Gallery of Military Headdress,” which is available on Amazon.com.

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