Trump ques­tions new tech for car­rier air­craft launches

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - News - BY MISSY RYAN Wash­ing­ton Post

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump last week re­newed his ques­tion­ing of the mil­i­tary’s new sys­tem for launch­ing air­craft at sea, un­der­scor­ing his skep­ti­cism about a tech­nol­ogy the Navy has put at the cen­ter of its fu­ture air­craft car­rier fleet.

In a call to ser­vice mem­bers on Thurs­day mark­ing the Thanks­giv­ing hol­i­day, Trump asked the com­man­der of the USS Ron­ald Rea­gan, a Nimitz-class air­craft car­rier de­ployed in the Pa­cific, whether he sup­ported us­ing elec­tro­mag­net­ics rather than the tra­di­tional steam sys­tem to cat­a­pult air­craft off car­rier decks and land them safely back on board.

“Steam is very re­li­able, and the elec­tro­mag­netic – I mean, un­for­tu­nately, you have to be Al­bert Ein­stein to re­ally work it prop­erly,” Trump said. “What would you do?”

Trump has re­peat­edly crit­i­cized Gen­eral Atomics’ Elec­tro­mag­netic Air­craft Launch Sys­tem (EMALS), in­stalled on the Navy’s new­est car­rier and slated to be used on other new ships. The de­but of that sys­tem, the cul­mi­na­tion of years of test­ing and de­vel­op­ment, has been plagued by de­lays and tech­ni­cal prob­lems.

Capt. Pat Han­nifin, ar­tic­u­lat­ing the Navy’s view, re­sponded by telling Trump that EMALS would lessen the bur­den that steam-pow­ered sys­tems ex­act on car­ri­ers and was within sailors’ power to op­er­ate suc­cess­fully.

“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,” Han­nifin said.

The ex­change was the lat­est in a se­ries of com­ments that Trump has made chal­leng­ing Pen­tagon pro­cure­ment de­ci­sions, il­lus­trat­ing his con­fi­dence that he may know more than his mil­i­tary lead­ers. The Navy did not have an im­me­di­ate re­sponse to the pres­i­dent’s com­ments.

Trump has also sug­gested he would ditch the mil­i­tary’s flag­ship fighter jet, the F-35, which has suf­fered from de­sign flaws and come in over bud­get.

Of the Navy’s cur­rent fleet of 11 nu­clear-pow­ered car­ri­ers, only the new­est one, the USS Ger­ald Ford, is equipped with EMALS. Even af­ter its com­mis­sion­ing in 2017, ship­board test­ing for mul­ti­ple sys­tems on the Ford has con­tin­ued, in­clud­ing EMALs.

In the past, prob­lems emerged when EMALS was tested for launch­ing air­craft with wing-mounted fuel tanks. Pen­tagon re­port­ing has like­wise shown that crit­i­cal fail­ures oc­curred at a high rate dur­ing EMALS test­ing in 2017. More re­cent test­ing on land has been suc­cess­ful, and Gen­eral Atomics says it ex­pects EMALS and its as­so­ci­ated land­ing sys­tem will help en­sure the Ford is ready for fleet op­er­a­tions in 2019.

A re­cent Con­gres­sional Re­search Ser­vice re­port, how­ever, said that EMALS had met re­li­a­bil­ity re­quire­ments only af­ter the Navy low­ered its tar­get for the sys­tem. “This lower tar­get will also pre­vent the ship from meet­ing the pro­gram’s air­craft launch and re­cov­ery re­quire­ment,” the re­port said.

Trump has sin­gled the sys­tem out be­fore, say­ing last year that it cost more and was “no good,” sug­gest­ing the Navy should re­turn to “god­damned steam.” More re­cently, he called the tech­nol­ogy “ridicu­lous” while com­plain­ing broadly about the mil­i­tary’s de­sire for new equip­ment. It’s not clear how the pres­i­dent be­came in­ter­ested in this some­what ob­scure mil­i­tary tech­nol­ogy is­sue.

De­spite the pres­i­dent’s crit­i­cism, the Navy is plan­ning to use EMALS in its fu­ture car­ri­ers, in­clud­ing three other planned Ford­class ships. The next one, the John F. Kennedy, is sched­uled to be de­liv­ered to the Navy in 2024.

Navy of­fi­cials main­tain the sys­tem is su­pe­rior be­cause it takes up less room on the ship, re­duces wear and tear for car­ri­ers and planes, in­creases the num­ber of air­craft that can be launched, and re­quires fewer per­son­nel to op­er­ate. Over decades, naval of­fi­cials con­tend, the sys­tem will cre­ate sig­nif­i­cant cost sav­ings.

Un­like the older sys­tem, which uses a large, main­te­nance-in­ten­sive sys­tem of pipes and pis­tons to pro­pel planes into flight, EMALS uses a more ef­fi­cient lin­ear-in­duc­tion mo­tor and is seen as more suitable for launch­ing an ar­ray of air­craft, from drones to heavy jets. Ship builder Hunt­ing­ton Ingalls has likened it to “the sys­tem that pow­ers many of to­day’s roller coast­ers.”

While it was not im­me­di­ately clear how much of the Ford’s ap­prox­i­mately $13 bil­lion cost is rep­re­sented by EMALS and its land­ing com­po­nent, they have cost hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars to field. Law­mak­ers and watch­dogs have crit­i­cized the Navy for fail­ing to pro­duce re­al­is­tic cost es­ti­mates for new car­ri­ers and in­cor­po­rat­ing new tech­nolo­gies that have slowed new car­ri­ers’ de­buts.

China is ex­pected to use a sim­i­lar sys­tem on its fu­ture air­craft car­ri­ers.

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