The Buzz

How Not to Build an Aircraft Carrier

Pres. Donald Trump used the Navy’s next-generation aircraft carrier, USS Gerald R. Ford, as a backdrop to unveil his vision for the next defense budget in March 2017.

The moment was meant to symbolize his commitment to rebuilding the military, but it also positioned the president in front of a monument to the Navy’s and defense industry’s ability to justify spending billions in taxypayer dollars on unproven technologies that often deliver worse performance at a higher cost.

The Ford program also provides yet another example of the dangers of the Navy’s and industry’s end-running the rigorous combat testing that is essential to ensuring our fighting men and women go to war with equipment that works.

The Navy had expected to have the ship delivered in 2014 at a cost of $10.5 billion. But the inevitable problems resulting from the concurrency the Navy built into developing Ford’s new and risky technologies, more than a dozen in all, caused the schedule to slip by more than three years and the cost to increase to $12.9 billion—nearly 25 percent over budget.

For all this time and money, “poor or unknown reliability of the newly designed catapults, arresting gear, weapons elevators, and radar, which are all critical for flight operations, could affect CVN-78’s ability to generate sorties, make the ship more vulnerable to attack or create limitations during routine operations.

The poor or unknown reliability of these critical subsystems is the most significant risk to CVN-78.”

EMALS catapult, failure to launch

The problems with the ship’s systems, including the catapult, are well-known. But Trump still caught virtually every Pentagon watcher off guard when, in the middle of a wide-ranging Time interview, he said he had directed the Navy to abandon the new “digital” aircraft catapult on future Ford-class carriers. Instead he wants the Navy to revert to the proven steam catapults, which have been in use for decades.

The president is correct when he says there are significant problems with the Ford’s “digital” catapult, but abandoning it in future ships will pose significant problems.

The Ford’s “digital” catapult is, in fact, the Electromagnetic Launch System, or EMALS. It was designed to provide the boost necessary for aircraft to reach take-off speed within the short deck length of an aircraft carrier. In the long run, it is intended to be lighter, more reliable and less expensive than the steam system.

Unfortunately, the EMALS is immature technology, and its development is proceeding concurrently with the ship’s design and development. So far, the program has not lived up to the promises made.

Steam-powered catapults, though said to be maintenance-intensive, are proven technology. They have been in service with continuous upgrades and satisfactory reliability for more than half a century. In this system, steam pressure pushes a piston down a track set into the deck of the ship.

The ship’s crew prepares the airplane for launch by attaching its nosewheel to a shuttle connected to the piston. When the steam valve opens, the pressure behind the piston accelerates the shuttle and plane down the track, reaching a speed high enough to allow aircraft to take off.

The steam to power the catapult is generated by the ship’s nuclear reactor main boiler, the same boiler that generates the steam for the propulsion turbines. That steam is piped from the boiler room to the catapults at the bow.

The new EMALS stores an enormous electrical charge — enough to power 12,000 homes three seconds, the time it takes to launch an aircraft — and then quickly releases the current into massive electromagnets that push the shuttle down the track.

The new electromagnetic catapult is intended to launch everything from small unmanned vehicles to heavy fighter planes. The Navy claims EMALS will save money over time because it is said to require less people to operate and is predicted to be easier to maintain.

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