SECTIONS

America's biggest ship deploys in North Atlantic amid looming Russian threat

 A view of the USS Gerald R. Ford when it embarked on the first of its sea trials to test various state-of-the-art systems on its own power for the first time in 2017. [AP Photo]

The United States' newest and most advanced aircraft carrier has embarked on its first deployment to train with allies and patrol the high seas of the Atlantic amid increased tensions across the globe.

The USS Gerald R. Ford began its deployment in the North Atlantic on Tuesday as the lead ship in a carrier strike group that includes six ships from NATO countries, several U.S. warships and a submarine.

"We're going to use the entire Atlantic as our playpen," Navy Captain Paul Lanzilotta, the ship's commanding officer, told reporters ahead of the deployment. "We're going to be doing pretty much every mission set that's in the portfolio for naval aviation."

"America's biggest and baddest warship," as the Navy calls it, has nearly two dozen new technologies and a completely redesigned flight deck, which allows it to generate 30% more flights than other U.S. carriers.

Among the nuclear-powered carrier's new technologies is a brand-new radar system to detect threats and the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) used to catapult aircraft off the ship. Older U.S. carriers use steam-powered catapults, which require a significant amount of space on the ship for steam piping, condensation return and fresh water needed to produce the steam.

The USS Ford is the largest warship in the world displacing 112,000 tons of water, which is 12,000 more tons than the Nimitz-class carriers and 32,000 more than the world's third-largest warship: China's new Fujian aircraft carrier.

However, due to significant upgrades in design and automation, the ship requires about 600 fewer sailors to maneuver it than the Nimitz-class carriers, a change that is expected to translate into billions of dollars in savings during the ship's 50-year lifespan.

The ship's current carrier strike group includes forces from Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Spain and the United States. It's the largest partnership show of force in the Atlantic since World War II, according to the U.S. Navy.

Lanzilotta said the North Atlantic deployment will serve as a "steppingstone kind of approach" to prepare for longer global deployments that will begin next year. It will also project power in the North Atlantic through air defense exercises, maritime domain awareness, long-range maritime strikes, distributed maritime operations, anti-submarine warfare exercises, as well as naval integration, according to Vice Admiral Dan Dwyer, commander of U.S. Second Fleet, which overseas operations in the Arctic and North Atlantic.

"In this area of strategic competition, we can no longer assume that geography provides us with the protection and standoff that we've had in the past," said Dwyer.

The deployment comes seven months after Russia illegally invaded Ukraine and just weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin called for a mobilization of 300,000 more troops in an effort to counter heavy losses on the battlefield.

But while Moscow's focus on Ukraine has preoccupied Russia's ground forces, Moscow's naval fleet remains "undiluted" by the fight, according to Bruce Jones, a consulting professor at Stanford University and the director of the Brookings Institution's Project on International Order and Strategy.

"We saw a substantial increase in Russian naval activity in the lead-up to the Ukraine crisis in the Arctic … so the North Atlantic is a very important place where we're going to end up having to deter Russia," he told VOA.

Jones points to the potential sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline in the Black Sea as an example of the type of aggression that Russia's naval forces might be capable of waging.

"Arguably, we're in a more dangerous period, because Russia may well be looking to escalate beyond Ukraine as the situation in Ukraine gets worse for him [Putin]," he told VOA.

Aircraft carriers are utilized as floating, movable air bases that provide air cover for ships at sea and offensive capabilities across the globe, as, for example, when carriers were used to conduct airstrikes against Islamic State.

Melanie Sisson, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution, said carriers have served as the "backbone for the United States in terms of power projection, in terms of force projection," pushing military power forward while also serving as a massive symbol of U.S. military commitments to allies across the globe.

The USS Ford is the first ship in a new class of aircraft carriers in more than 45 years. The lead ship of the Nimitz-class carriers, the USS Nimitz, is expected to retire after a final deployment in the coming months.

The USS Ford ran years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget due to problems integrating its new technologies and design.