The moment when an aircraft carrier launches a fighter jet is often described as a “shotgun” type of blast take-off. The fighter jet catapults off of the flight deck up into the sky out over the ocean, a moment consisting of instant force and thrust intended to boost acceleration for aircraft such as F/A-18 Super Hornets.
The steam catapult has been known for decades as a permanent fixture on board U.S. Navy Nimitz-class aircraft carriers from which massive war campaigns and attack missions are launched. Its value is beyond question, yet emerging technology in recent years now enables a smoother, more fluid, less “abrupt” or “jarring” catapult from a carrier flight deck.
The U.S. Navy’s Ford-class carriers are built with an electromagnetic catapult, called the Electromagnetic Launch System (EMALS). Its multi-year development included ground tests, numerous experiments, ship integration and then several years of testing and preparation. Following years of technical maturation, which was not without some setbacks, EMALS is now operational on the USS Ford, the Navy’s first-in-class new aircraft carrier now nearing its maiden deployment.
Earlier in the developmental trajectory of the now-operational EMALS systems, Navy engineers explained to The National Interest that the technology comes to fruition by virtue of a complex, interwoven set of technological variables and conditions.
EMALS elements include metal decking placed over a trough on the flight deck, added to by cabling and linear induction motor sections on board the carrier, Navy engineers and senior leaders explained. An aluminum plate runs in between stationary sections of twelve-foot long linear motors. The linear motors are engineered to help create a sequentially activated rolling magnetic field or wave able to thrust or propel aircraft forward and into flight. The electromagnetic field acts on a large twenty-two-foot long aluminum plate.
Electricity runs through the two sides of the motors, creating an electromagnetic wave sufficient to propel an aircraft forward. The amount of thrust needed to launch an aircraft depends upon a range of interwoven factors to include size, shape and weight of the aircraft, wind speed on the carrier deck and the speed of the aircraft carrier in the water. EMALS is tailorable and can therefore be configured to launch larger fixed wing aircraft such as an E2D Hawkeye, fighter jet or lighter weight aircraft, such as an unmanned aircraft system.
On the ship, the below-deck EMALS equipment has been installed. This consists of a series of transformers and rectifiers designed to convert and store electrical power through a series of motor generators before bringing power to the launch motors on the catapults.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.