Why the Navy is switching from 'goddamned steam' catapults

Why the Navy is switching from 'goddamned steam' catapults
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A digital launch system installed on the new USS Gerald Ford aircraft carrier has become President Trump’s newest defense industry target.

Trump, who since December has bashed cost overruns in the Lockheed Martin-made F-35 fighter jet and the Boeing-produced Air Force One, recently turned his attention to the Navy’s Electro-Magnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS). 

Rather than use EMALS, Trump said he told the Navy to return to “goddamned steam” catapult technology to launch aircraft from newly built aircraft carriers, according to an interview he did with Time magazine.

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But switching the catapult system would cost the Navy millions of dollars extra on a ship already pegged at $12.9 billion, the most expensive vessel in U.S. history, according to defense experts.  

Trump’s raised the issue of the catapults when recounting a conversation he had with while touring the Huntington Ingalls Industries’s Newport News, Va., shipyard in early March.  

“You know the catapult is quite important,” Trump told Time. “So I said ‘what is this?’ ‘Sir, this is our digital catapult system.’ He said ‘well, we’re going to this because we wanted to keep up with modern [technology].’ I said, ‘You don’t use steam anymore for catapult?’ ‘No sir.’ I said, ‘Ah, how is it working?’ ‘Sir, not good. Not good. Doesn’t have the power. You know the steam is just brutal. You see that sucker going and steam’s going all over the place, there’s planes thrown in the air.'"  

But when told about EMALS being used instead, Trump was skeptical of the technology. 

“They have digital. What is digital? And it’s very complicated; you have to be Albert Einstein to figure it out. And I said — and now they want to buy more aircraft carriers. I said, ‘What system are you going to be —' ‘Sir, we’re staying with digital.’ I said, ‘No you’re not. You going to goddamned steam, the digital costs hundreds of millions of dollars more money and it’s no good.’"

EMALS, made by defense contractor General Atomics, is already installed on the Ford, the first of three new aircraft carriers made by Huntington Ingalls. 

It is unclear whether Trump wants Huntington Ingalls to rip EMALS out of the Ford and return to the steam system and whether he wants the next two carriers under construction — the USS John F. Kennedy and USS Enterprise — to have steam catapults installed.

The Navy declined to say whether anyone in the Trump administration had contacted the service regarding EMALS. Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters on Friday that the Defense Department will “maintain close contact with the White House as we develop future budget requests.”  

A Huntington Ingalls spokeswoman said the Ford has been through its builder’s trials at the Newport News shipyard and has been sent to Norfolk, Va., where the ship is awaiting delivering to the Navy.

“EMALS is fully functional at this point,” she told The Hill.

Huntington Ingalls and General Atomics referred further questions on EMALS and Trump’s comments to the Navy.

EMALS will replace the more than 60-year-old steam-powered catapult systems used to launch aircraft. Developed in the 1950s, the catapults used steam piped from the ship’s turbines to reliably launch planes. 

The system does have its downsides. Steam catapults can damage or reduce the life of the airframe, take up more space on ships, are harder to maintain and can’t launch as many planes as electrical ones. It’s also difficult to control when launching different types of aircraft, such as drones versus a fighter jet. 

EMALS has also had its fair share of problems. The system’s development was plagued with issues, which some attributed to the Ford’s three-year delay. The system’s first public launch on the Ford in June 2015 was notoriously unsuccessful. 

The Navy still stands behind the new technology, which is expected to save the service an estimated $4 billion in maintenance costs over the vessel’s 50-year lifetime, according to officials.

Jerry Hendrix, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said Trump’s criticism of the Ford program’s cost and time overruns has merit.

“Over its life expectancy, EMALS is projected to be a lower cost, but that’s a dangerous projection because we’ve had no experience with it,” he told The Hill. 

Steam, meanwhile, has been a “reliable set of technology” and would lower the overall cost of building a ship, making it easier to reach Trump’s goal of a 350-ship Navy. 

For example, the previous class of aircraft carrier, the Nimitz, cost about $7 billion compared to the Ford’s $12.9 billion. 

Seth Crospey, director of the Center for American Seapower at the Hudson Institute, argued in favor of the electromagnetic system, stating that “EMALS works.”

“I was a little surprised because I recall it wasn’t that long ago that the president said he was going to start an Office of American Innovation headed by his son-in-law, and the idea was to modernize technology inside government and that catapult and recovery system, if that’s not an example of modernizing technology, I don’t what is,” Crospey said.

While steam launch is not an antiquated system, as people might think, EMALS has the advantaged of accelerating a plane more gradually. That puts less stress on the aircraft and in turn lengthens their lifespan, he added. 

Further, Crospey said, designing future Ford-class carriers to use steam instead of EMALS would be “quite expensive” and add “big time” delays.

“My guess is there will probably be more bugs to work out once we start launching and recovering aircraft, but that’s normal for new technology,” he said. “If you look back at other changes in Navy technology … the change from sail to steam or coal to oil, you find pretty much the same thing. When all is said and done everybody’s pleased with the result.” 

If Trump does indeed want the Ford to be refitted with steam catapults, it would require a major overhaul, just weeks before the carrier is set to be delivered to the Navy. 

The Ford was designed without the pipes to run steam from the turbines to the catapults. The Navy and Huntington Ingalls would need to install such pipes, rip out EMALS and try to find the space for the steam catapult system.

The service could not say how much it would cost should it be directed to replace EMALS.

Rebecca Kheel contributed.