Electromagnetic launch systems are the future, replacing cumbersome steam technology aboard aircraft carriers. So, why is the President of the United States so against them?
Just before Thanksgiving, 2018 President Donald Trump had a unique phone call with the Captain of the USS Ronald Reagan. As a long a critic of high technology and things generally he doesn’t understand, Trump had set his sights on the latest US aircraft carrier, the Gerald R. Ford. More specifically, he took issue with its Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS). Trump asked Captain Pat Hannifin about his thoughts on the EMALS system. Unsatisfied with Hannifin's answer, Trump suggested that "Steam is very reliable, and the electromagnetic — I mean, unfortunately, you have to be Albert Einstein to really work it properly."
Harsh criticism from the Commander-in-Chief, but Capt. Hannifin retorted in what is sure to be a legendary answer, "You sort of have to be Albert Einstein to run the nuclear power plants that we have here as well, but we’re doing that very well." Even Trump was forced to concede on that point. But what's really the deal with EMALS? What is it and why would the President grill one of his officers over it?
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Stuck With Steam Power
As fighters got heavier, their bombloads increased, and as their engines shifted from propellers to jet engines, they needed longer runways to get up to takeoff speed. But the Navy had a problem: carriers could only get so big. They needed a different system to get their aircraft up to speed so that their shiny new jets wouldn’t fall into the ocean. To do this, the Navy came up with the steam catapult, which is more like a gun than a medieval catapult, that works on simple pneumatic principles. The front of the plane his hooked onto a rolling shuttle that plugs up one end of a steam pipe. When it's time for takeoff, steam builds up into the tube until it reaches sufficient pressure, then the shuttle's breaks are released and escaping steam shoots the shuttle along with its attached plane off into the wild blue yonder.
An ingenious device, but the whole apparatus has a lot of moving parts. First, you have the launch assembly on the deck of the aircraft carrier. As one might expect, this explosive steam shot is quite violent, and it quickly wears parts on the deck and the plane down. Moreover, the shot rips the noses off normal planes and leaves their rears sitting uselessly behind. To avoid this, aircraft must be reinforced, which increases their weight while decreasing the range, speed, and weapons load.
Second, to build up the necessary pressure, a complicated system of steam production and storage sits below the main fight decks. This system is heavy and requires frequent maintenance to stay active. Finally, each shot releases up to 1,000 lbs. of steam with every launch. This steam has to come from somewhere, namely the ocean. However, seawater is extremely corrosive on its own, so most aircraft carriers possess large and powerful water desalinization plants to constantly clean seawater into freshwater for use in the catapult. This process itself is energy intensive and requires more heavy machinery that the crew must work on.
What is EMALS?
EMALS solves many of the problems steam presents by removing or downsizing most of this machinery. The system works on the same electromagnetic principles as a commuter monorail, with a magnetically charged rail and carriage. By switching the polarity of the rail's magnetic field, the crew can propel the carriage across the deck at speeds sufficient to launch an aircraft. But unlike steam, EMALS takes up significantly less space. While the electromagnetic rail and carriage system is about the same size as the steam catapult, the whole thing is much smaller below decks.
It draws its energy from a series of large batteries that power each catapult, which are recharged from the main reactor. The main nuclear reactor, because a diesel turbine can't generate enough energy to power four catapults. With the electromagnetic rail, launches are much smoother and easier on the airframe, meaning lighter fighters can be launched without fear of damage or increased maintenance. In addition, EMALS is more efficient than steam, meaning fighters can take off at higher speeds and with higher weapons loads.
In short, EMALS is lighter, easier to maintain, easier on the planes, and increases the capability of the carrier's air wings.
The Problem With EMALS
There aren’t huge problems with EMALS, but like virtually every new weapons system developed these days, the project went over budget and over schedule. Like every cutting-edge technology, it had its share of technical difficulties.
EMALS has a higher initial cost than a steam system, but lower lifetime costs, especially when aircraft maintenance is factored in. Software problems plagued the system, and the magnetic fields generated on the Gerald R. Ford were so powerful that they caused vibrations in external fighter drop tanks. This is concerning because those tanks are essentially steel bombs filled with high-grade jet fuel. Even worse, EMALS has generally had a higher rate of technical faults and launch failures than with the steam catapult. But these problems are being worked out and the US Navy plans to have many of the EMALS’ issues remedied by the time the next two carriers enter operations.
For the President, the real problem with EMALS is that it's new, hard to understand, and it's not a problem that can be solved quickly. You don't have to be Einstein to know that EMALS is the future, especially as France, Britain, Russia, and China have all begun their own experiments with electromagnetic catapults. But for Trump, these "digital" catapults (as he calls them) don’t seem to be worth the risk or the increased sticker price. Yet his solution is to call on the Navy to rip out the Ford's EMALS system and replace it with "goddamned steam." The process would be expensive, backward-looking, and probably architecturally impossible given the size and weight of the steam system.
Even if all the replacement could be made, it would wipe away nearly $4 billion in lifetime crew and maintenance costs. It’s a shame that Trump has not publically elaborated on his preference for steam, although it fits into his larger 1950s-esque world view. Hopefully, any future discussion of the EMALS system by the President will lead to more wonderful exchanges as we got for Thanksgiving last year. Until then, we will just have to speculate about Trump's obsession with steam. Perhaps he hopes to install branded saunas aboard every carrier?