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Drones, Electromagnetic Catapults, and What the US Navy Isn't Saying About Its Newest Ship

The as-yet uncommissioned Gerald R. Ford, the Navy's newest $13 billion aircraft carrier, will launch aircraft in a whole new way. But the Navy is being coy about some of the ramifications.
Imagen por Ryan Faith/VICE News

On Tuesday, Huntington-Ingalls, the company building the US Navy's new $13 billion aircraft carrier, the Gerald R. Ford, gathered a collection of executives, contractors, and media to a shipyard outside Norfolk, Virginia on less than a day's notice. The reason? So the guests could watch a demonstration of the brand-spanking-new Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS), which will be used to launch aircraft off the Ford's flight deck.


Unfortunately, Murphy's Law prevailed over Ohm's Law. And… nothing happened.

Leaving a small mob of distinguished visitors milling around on the scorching steel deck of the Ford proved just a tad bit embarrassing for the hosts. It also was a perfect invitation for folks to bring up the cost overruns of what will literally be the most expensive ship of all time, or to examine the technical difficulties that still seem to be plaguing some of the temperamental new technologies on display — like EMALS.

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But neither of those topics explain why on Earth all these people would drop everything to stand on a gigantic piece of metal in ungodly hot weather just to watch a small part of an unfinished ship be tested. Why does EMALS merit such attention?

Aircraft carriers are portable airbases. Or at least, they strive to be portable airbases. The problem with a portable airbase is that it requires runways, and runways are generally very long and very heavy — in other words, completely antithetical to the concept of "portable."

A camera was mounted on a sled for a catapult test on the Gerald R. Ford. (Video via Huntington-Ingalls Industries)

Enter the magic of the catapult, which adds a whole lot of speed to an aircraft very quickly, enabling it to take off with just 300 feet or so of runway. It's in turn paired with arresting gear; when an aircraft is landing, it deploys a tail hook that snags a very thick wire rope, known as an arresting cable. The cable then brings the plane to a halt in a very short distance despite the fact that the plane is throttled up as a safeguard in case it misses the cable and needs to rise back into the air again for another try.


Collectively, the catapult and arresting gear provide what's called CATOBAR (Catapult Assisted Take-Off But Assisted Recovery) capability.

Current catapults use a piston driven by built-up steam pressure. Steam has by necessity been the mechanism of choice for decades, but steam catapults are complicated and maintenance-intensive. Worse, they're hitting their technological and performance limits. The decision to move to electromagnetics is certainly in part an attempt to get past the limits of steam — but it will also yield other benefits.

"[EMALS will provide a smooth], linear acceleration curve, unlike the steam catapults that we have today," Captain John F. Meier, skipper of the Ford, explained to the gathered crowd. Steam systems deliver a lot of jerking and sharp jolts when they're fired, which in turn puts a lot of stress on airframes. Stress equals fatigue, fatigue leads to cracks, and cracks result in parts of the plane falling off in mid-flight.

That is bad — and to make matters worse, military airframe wear and tear is increasing for a number of other reasons. For starters, it appears that the time needed to develop new kinds of aircraft is going way up. There's also a rise in the number of missions being flown, so existing aircraft are seeing heavy use. Plus, increasing costs and decreasing budgets mean there are fewer and fewer ships and planes to go around. The combination of higher demand and lower numbers means an increasing demand for each ship and each plane, meaning that aircraft don't get a lot of downtime. This has all put a huge squeeze on aircraft fleets.


Therefore, reducing the wear and tear on deployed aircraft is extraordinarily important. One could argue that EMALS is not just a catapult, but a partial antidote to the effects of greater global instability, increasing technical complexity, and budget pressures.

Related: The US Navy's Aircraft Carriers Are Taking a Break From Fighting the Islamic State

EMALS is also easier to maintain than steam. People are expensive — about 40 percent of the operations and sustainment costs of a Navy ship are related to manpower. And so reducing crew requirements reduces costs.

To be fair, just about every new military system initially promises to lower maintenance and operating costs, so there's good reason to wait for actual hard data. But as a for instance, Meier explained that high-temperature steam can result in corrosion, which can result in the need for big structural repairs. EMALS won't have that problem.

Meier also gave a pretty standard Navy line, noting that EMALS has "a greatly increased envelope a better ability to do lighter aircraft, heavier aircraft, faster speeds, slower speeds."

The tiny point he glided over was more clearly spelled out by Dennis Moss, construction supervisor on the Ford:

"The EMALS system takes both ends of the spectrum. You can go down to the drones and up to the F-35."

People mill around the unfinished Gerald R. Ford flight deck waiting for the EMALS test. (Photo by Ryan Faith/VICE News)

When folks were first designing carrier catapults, small drones like the Predator weren't taken into account, and steam catapults don't perform well at low loads or slow speeds. The MQ-1B Predator weighs a maximum of 2,250 pounds on takeoff — too light for a steam catapult to manage. Further, the Predator, according to the US Air Force Fact Sheet, "can operate on a 5,000 by 75-foot (1,524 meters by 23 meters) hard-surface runway." In other words, they need runways that are way, way longer than the Ford's.


Thus, the traditional assertion that carriers are portable air bases comes with an enormous asterisk — that current carriers can't handle a simple Predator or Reaper drone. EMALS will change that.

EMALS will also be able to launch heavier aircraft. That doesn't mean anyone will be firing a fully-loaded 747 off a flight deck, but the Navy has fooled around before with landing and launching massive C-130 cargo aircraft and U-2 spy planes from carriers, so it's not unthinkable that EMALS might reopen discussions about non-traditional aircraft on carriers.

The bad rap that drones have been getting in recent years may be part of the reason why the Navy hasn't been keen on discussing more involvement in the drone business. Likewise, the Navy probably has no desire to advertise the kinds of power projection tasks it can't do very well — like operate small drones. So while the Navy could be over the moon about new drone capability, it may be keeping that to itself.

But the upshot of it all is that once the Ford goes into service after its Spring 2016 commissioning, it will be, at a minimum, changing the role that carriers can fill by — at minimum — allowing for the launch of smaller, lighter drones. In the longer term, if EMALS and the advanced arresting gear on the Ford can deliver a lot of capability for bigger aircraft like the C-130, then it'll open up whole new realms of possibility for the entire class of ships.


Likewise, there very well may not be plans afoot to launch a U-2 using EMALS, but it suggests the possibility that carriers may be able to host reconnaissance aircraft like the enormous (and rather U-2 shaped) MQ-4C Triton — a high-altitude, long endurance maritime surveillance drone.

Related: The US Navy Shows Off Its Strange, New, War-Changing Ships

Of course, all of this would be moot if the thing didn't work, which brings us back to charges that the system isn't ready for primetime. After three hours of troubleshooting on Tuesday, and after all the visitors left the flight deck to find air conditioning, the EMALS system successfully launched two test loads. One was 15,000 pounds, and it hit 140 knots. The second was 8,000 pounds, and it hit 180 knots.

Still, was it ultimately worth inviting a bunch of people from all over the country to sweat their asses off? Actually, yes.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan