Trump says Ford-class carrier catapults are 'no good'

Hugh Lessig
Contact Reporterhlessig@dailypress.com

President Trump says new catapults designed for the Navy's next-generation aircraft carriers are so complicated "you have to be Albert Einstein to figure it out" and wants a return to the older steam-powered system.

The commander-in-chief's exact words: The Navy should be "going to goddamned steam."

The Navy had no immediate comment.

The commander-in-chief's comments about the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System were published Thursday in TIME magazine, which released excerpts from a wide-ranging interview.

The Navy struggled to overcome challenges with EMALS going back more than a decade. However, Navy leaders have since expressed confidence in the technology, saying the system's problems are behind it.

They say it offers a number of advantages over steam-powered catapults currently used on Nimitz-class carriers.

EMALS is already installed on the first-in-class Gerald R. Ford, a $12.9-billion ship that is fully built and recently cleared its first round of sea trials.

Manufacturer General Atomics, based in San Diego, has received contract awards from the Navy to deliver the system for the next two Ford-class carriers: the future John F. Kennedy and Enterprise. The Kennedy's construction is about 30 percent complete.

In the excerpt — TIME did not publish a transcript — Trump recounts a conversation with an unnamed individual about EMALS, which the president refers to as a digital system.

The setting of the conversation isn't clear. However, the president visited Newport News Shipbuilding in early March and toured the Ford. The first part of Trump's comment in TIME implies that he's looking at the system:

"So I said, 'what is this?' 'Sir, this is our digital catapult system,'" the president says.

After an exchange about how the new system works, Trump concludes: "It sounded bad to me." He goes on to say the following, according to TIME:

"Digital. They have digital. What is digital? And it's very complicated, you have to be Albert Einstein to figure it out. And I said — 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 [sic] going to goddamned steam; the digital costs hundreds of millions of dollars more money, and it's no good.'"

Newport News Shipbuilding, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, is the sole designer and builder of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers for the Navy. The company had no comment because it does not manufacture EMALS.

Questions about EMALS were raised in a 2007 Government Accountability Office report that described challenges with the initial technology, cost and schedule. However, by 2009, the Navy decided to install the new system on the Ford despite lingering concerns about its development.

The technology functions similar to the systems that drive roller coasters. It is supposed to require less maintenance, reduce stress on carrier-based aircraft and increase the number of launches.

The Navy began land-based testing of EMALS in 2010. Another GAO report in 2013 questioned the system's readiness, but the Navy pushed back, saying the design was stable and future testing would uncover any other deficiencies.

In 2015, Bloomberg reported that EMALS would prematurely damage aircraft that carry 480-gallon tanks under the wings for extended flights. The Navy said the solution amounted to a software change that would be completed well before aircraft were launched from the ship.

In June 2015, the Ford began launching weighted sleds into the James River to test the system. It suffered one ill-timed glitch when it failed to fire during a demonstration for assembled media later that same month. Other than that, the dead-load testing went smoothly, and Navy leaders expressed confidence in it.

A June 2016 memo from the Pentagon's chief weapons-tester cited concerns with four systems on the Gerald R. Ford that employed new technology. Heading the list was the ship's Advanced Arresting Gear, designed to allow planes to land safely.

EMALS was also mentioned.

J. Michael Gilmore, then the director of Operational Test and Evaluation, also wrote: "EMALS has higher reliability than AAG, nonetheless I have concerns with it."

Lessig can be reached by phone at 757-247-7821.

What Trump said

"You know the catapult is quite important. 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.'

"It sounded bad to me. Digital. 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.'"

Source: TIME magazine

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