The Navy’s cutting-edge method of launching aircraft faces reliability issues
For more than 60 years, the U.S. Navy has relied on steam power to catapult planes off the decks of aircraft carriers, leaving behind a telltale trail of steam rising from the track.
A new generation of carriers will rely on something far more technologically complex: an electromagnetic system that could potentially launch more aircraft off the deck and at a faster rate than traditional steam methods.
But development of this cutting-edge technology, built by San Diego defense firm General Atomics, has not been without growing pains. And the system’s readiness, along with that of other new systems on the USS Gerald R. Ford, the first of a new class of carriers, is at the center of a debate between the U.S. Navy and Senate leaders. The Ford was commissioned last summer and entered active service, but it must undergo additional testing before being able to deploy for operations.
“It’s certainly true that any time you’re introducing something new ... you’re going to have issues,” said Andrew Hunter, director of the defense-industrial initiatives group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There will probably continue to be kinks to work out.”
But, he said, it’s too late to go back to steam catapult systems, at least for the next two carriers in this class. (President Trump advocated a return to steam in an interview with Time last year, in which he described the electromagnetic launch system as “no good.”)
China also is reportedly planning to use an electromagnetic aircraft launch system on one of its domestically designed carriers.
“The die is cast on that,” Hunter said.
General Atomics, best known for making the Predator drone, referred all questions about the electromagnetic launch system to the Navy, citing the company’s contract.
Known in industry jargon as EMALS, the electromagnetic aircraft launch system hinges on an electrically generated moving magnetic field that pulls a mechanism attached to the aircraft. The technology is similar to the one that powers a railgun that General Atomics has tested for several years.
Traditional steam-powered catapults release built-up pressure all at once, flinging aircraft off the deck and into the sky, but placing enormous strain on their airframes. With the electromagnetic system, a pulse of electricity creates a steadier, more gradual acceleration, which can be adjusted for the aircraft’s size and weight.
“You just have better control,” said Bob Hebner, director of the Center for Electromechanics at the University of Texas at Austin. That should extend the lifetime of airframes, saving money on repairs and replacements. The new system also is capable of launching a wider variety of aircraft, he said.
Hebner and his team at the Texas university worked with General Atomics on a generator concept for the electromagnetic catapult system for about five years during the early stages of the company’s research. They devised a generator that was about 10 feet long to show that the power system could fit in small spaces aboard a packed carrier. That generator was about one-fourth the size of the eventual power system General Atomics built and used for the catapult system, he said.
But developing such new technology and integrating it onto the new nuclear carrier has been difficult.
A January report from the Office of the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, which advises the secretary of Defense, singled out the “poor or unknown reliability of the newly designed catapults” and other cutting-edge systems such as the advanced aircraft arresting gear to stop planes when they land — also built by General Atomics — a dual-band radar system, and a new type of elevator that moves weapons.
While the Navy had corrected issues with the aircraft catapult system that had led to “excessive airframe stress” during test launches of the Ford’s mainstay jet, the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, and the EA-18G Growler, the report found that the system in its current design was “unlikely to support high-intensity operations expected in combat.”
In addition to reliability concerns, the report also said it was difficult to isolate components of the electrical system of the launch and landing systems. That would force flight operations to shut down while conducting some types of maintenance.
“The poor or unknown reliability of these critical subsystems is the most significant risk to CVN 78,” the report said, referring to the Ford’s designation. The Navy had intended to start the first phase of operational testing in 2021 and complete a second phase during the next year, according to the report. The Ford’s home port is in Norfolk, Va.
In early February, leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee sent a letter to Defense Secretary James N. Mattis, expressing concern about reliability issues with the carrier’s subsystems.
Noting issues with “unproven new technologies,” including the catapult system, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.) called for the carrier to maintain its planned full ship-shock trials. That’s where the Navy detonates large explosives underwater near a ship to assess its survivability in ways that can’t be modeled on a computer. The Navy wanted to put off the tests so it could speed the Ford into the fleet.
“We understand Navy leadership may be requesting a waiver from you that would delay full ship shock trials until after the first deployment of the USS Gerald R. Ford,” the letter states. “Conducting full ship shock trials on CVN-78 will not only improve the design of future carriers, but also reduce the costs associated with retrofitting engineering changes.”
The carrier’s cost now stands at $12.9 billion, almost $2.4 billion more than the cap originally set in the 2007 National Defense Authorization Act. Its “critical technologies,” largely the electromagnetic launch system, aircraft arresting gear and radar, drove about 40% of the cost increases, according to a report released in June by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
Navy spokesman Capt. Danny Hernandez said internal discussions within the Department of Defense on the full ship-shock trials for the carrier were ongoing.
He said the Ford had completed more than 700 catapult launches and aircraft stops with Navy jets, including more than 100 launches and recoveries in one day on two separate occasions. The service continued to see progress in the testing of the aircraft launch system and other new components of the Ford-class carrier, Hernandez said.
Hunter, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he saw no indication that there was something “dramatically unexpected going on” with the electromagnetic aircraft launch system’s development, though it is still early in the process.
Despite the hurdles, he said, electromagnetic catapults are likely the way of the future.
“There’s just a whole range of shipboard applications where they’ve been looking at using electromagnetics,” Hunter said. “You can’t rule out the idea that some of this might not work out as planned … but the technology is definitely moving in that direction.”