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US Navy runs into snags with aircraft carrier's electric plane-slingshot

EMAL system was nearly bought by the UK. Bullet dodged? Oh no

By Gareth Corfield, 11 Jan 2017

The US Navy is having difficulties with its latest aircraft carrier's Electromagnetic Aircraft Launching System (EMALS) – the same system which the UK mooted fitting to its new Queen Elizabeth-class carriers.

The US Department of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOTE) revealed yesterday, in its end-of-year report [PDF] for financial year 2016, that the EMALS fitted to the new nuclear-powered carrier USS Gerald R. Ford put "excessive airframe stress" on aircraft being launched.

This stress "will preclude the Navy from conducting normal operations of the F/A-18A-F and EA-18G from CVN 78", according to DOTES, which said the problem had first been noticed in 2014.

In addition, EMALS could not "readily" be electrically isolated for maintenance, which DOTE warned "will preclude some types of EMALS and AAG (Advanced Arresting Gear) maintenance during flight operations", decreasing their operational availability.

The Gerald R. Ford is supposed to be able to launch 160 sorties in a 12-hour day – an average of one takeoff or landing every 4.5 minutes. She is supposed to be able to surge to 270 sorties in a 24-hour period.

Britain considered fitting EMALS to its two new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers right back at the design stage. Indeed, the ability to add catapults and arrester gear to the ships was specified right from the start.

Lewis Page, late of this parish, summed up what happened when the government tried to exercise that option: "... it later got rescinded, on the grounds that putting catapults into the ships was not going to cost £900m – as the 2010 [Strategic Defence and Security Review] had estimated – but actually £2bn for [HMS] Prince of Wales and maybe £3bn for Queen Elizabeth. This would double the projected price of the two ships."

The Aircraft Carrier Alliance – heavily dominated by BAE Systems – had not designed the new carriers to have EMALS fitted at all, taking advantage of naïve MoD civil servants who didn't get a price put into the contract for the conversion work. Bernard Gray, chief of defence materiel, told Parliament in 2013:

Because the decision to go STOVL [that is the initial decision for jumpjets] was taken in, from memory, 2002, no serious work had been done. It had been noodled in 2005, but no serious work had been done on it. It was not a contract-quality offer; it was a simple assertion that that could be done, but nobody said, "It can be done at this price", and certainly nobody put that in a contract.

The US woes with EMALS are not complete showstoppers. EMALS is a new design, technology and piece of equipment, up against mature steam-powered catapult tech which hasn't really changed in more than five decades. Gerald R. Ford is the first-of-class of the new breed of US aircraft carriers which will see that country's navy through to the second half of this century. That said, the fact that problems identified in 2014 are still a problem two years later, and make it impossible to safely deploy fully-loaded combat aircraft, may come back to bite the US Navy.

Oddly, Gerald R. Ford's timetable for introduction into service – handover to the USN early this year, flight testing in 2018 and 2019, and operational deployment by 2021 – closely mirrors that of HMS Queen Elizabeth.

Britain's new aircraft carriers have no catapult system at all. The only fast jets capable of flying from them are Harriers (as operated by the US Marine Corps) and the F-35B. HMS Queen Elizabeth, whose sea trials date keeps slipping back to later and later this year, is planned to carry about 20 F-35s on her first operational deployment to the South China Sea in 2021.

Sources tell The Register that plans to operate F-35s from land bases once they are delivered to the UK have been shelved in favour of getting Queen Elizabeth to sea with as large an air wing as possible. Previously, military planners were working on the assumption that just 12 jets would be carried aboard QE on her first operational deployment, with the rest left in the UK for the RAF to play with. ®

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