A new era of aircraft carrier fighter jet attack at sea is emerging.
Electromagnetic launch technology has replaced steam catapults to massively increase sortie rates and offensive military options for U.S. Navy maritime power projection. The successful completion of the U.S. Navy’s at-sea operational testing of its next-generation Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) onboard the USS Ford means carrier commanders will now have a new set of attack possibilities due to the capabilities of this first of kind technology.
EMALS, now installed on the USS Ford and undergoing integration into the future USS Kennedy and USS Enterprise aircraft carriers is supported by new landing technology called Advanced Arresting Gear. The operational assessments were part of the Navy’s eighteen-month-long post-delivery test and trial period for the USS Ford, a key step in anticipation of its ultimate combat deployment.
The EMALS system, in development as far back as 2000 with General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems, consists of a series of transformers and rectifiers designed to convert and store electrical power through motor-generators before bringing power to the launch motors on the ship’s catapults.
By having an electrical pulse come down, the aircraft is pulled down the catapult to launch; the precise weight of the aircraft can be dialed in. As the aircraft accelerates down the catapult, it can reach the precise speed it needs to launch, senior Navy officials have said.
Unlike steam catapults, which use pressurized steam in more of what developers call a “shotgun” effect, a launch valve and a piston to catapult aircraft, EMALS uses a precisely determined amount of electrical energy. Therefore, EMALS is designed to more smoothly launch aircraft while reducing stress and wear and tear on the airframes themselves. This is particularly useful because 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 are also factored in.
On the ship, EMALS is engineered such that any of the ship’s four catapults will be able to draw power from any one of three energy storage groups on the ship. Metal decking is placed over the trough on the flight deck. Cabling and linear induction motor sections have been installed onboard the USS Ford and linear motors are engineered to help create a sequentially activated rolling magnetic field or wave able to thrust or propel aircraft forward, Navy developers told me. The EMALS system is engineered to be both steady and tailorable, meaning it can adjust to different aircraft weights and configurations.
Navy officials have described EMALS as the same type of technology used in a roller coaster designed for critical launch reliability. An electromagnetic field turns on linear motors sequentially so as not to energize the whole field in one shot. The electromagnetic field acts on a large twenty-two-foot-long aluminum plate. The aluminum plate runs in between stationary sections of twelve-foot-long linear motors. Electricity runs through the two sides of the motors, creating an electromagnetic wave. Aircraft motors are kicked in and then a hydraulic piston pushes a shuttle forward. The shuttle is what connects to the aircraft launch bar, according to a Navy developer. The EMALS system can adjust to different aircraft weights and configurations. For example, EMALS is configured in such a way that it could launch a lighter-weight aircraft, such as an unmanned aircraft system. This is of particular relevance as the Navy certainly intends to greatly expand the number of drones it operates from aircraft carriers in coming years.
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 Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.