President of the United States, Donald Trump, phoned American Navy service members on Thanksgiving to discuss their aircraft catapult system.
On the phone with the commander of the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier, Trump asked a few questions about the system they were using. Catapults are used to get the aircraft airborne which would otherwise be impossible with the short runways the ships have. The USS Ronald Reagan is a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, utilizing a steam-powered aircraft catapult. The catapult diverts steam from the ship's nuclear reactor and uses it to launch the planes.
However, the U.S. Navy is in a phase of transition from steam to electromagnetic systems on some of their carriers. They are called Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch Systems (EMALS), and they are developed by an organization called General Atomics for the United States Navy.
In the last two years, the USS Gerald R. Ford was fitted with four electromagnetic catapults.
The system forgoes the steam piston and instead relies on a linear induction motor. The change seemingly helps accelerate and launch aircraft in a much smoother fashion when compared to the steam catapult systems. The steam catapults date back to World War II and require a significant level of maintenance from engineers.
The linear induction motor in the electromagnetic catapults utilizes electric currents, creating a big surge of electricity to propel the plane. But, the President thinks it isn't worth its weight in salt. He pressured the Navy to ditch the new EMALS. Speaking to Time Magazine in 2017, Trump recapped the conversation he had about the system with a member of the Ford:
"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."
Fast forward to the Thanksgiving 2018, Trump once again brought up the doubt he had with the electromagnetic launching systems. Speaking to an official on the USS Ronald Reagan, over the phone, Trump once again cast doubt into the electromagnetic catapults. He said:
"Steam is very reliable, and the electromagnetic — I mean, unfortunately, you have to be Albert Einstein to really work it properly."
To which the Navy service member on the other side of the phone replied:
“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.”
What’s the deal?
While it seems Trump lacks the formative knowledge regarding which catapult system is best for the Navy, the electromagnetic systems have gone through some trial and error. The initial tests done on the USS Ford were a failure in 2015. It was only much later that they moderately perfected the launching system.
According to Popular Mechanics, the engineers atop the Ford were worried about the move to electromagnetic due to the first failed tests. They allegedly ‘briefly considered' going back to the steam catapults for the USS John F Kennedy and USS Enterprise which were under construction at the time.
Steam catapults, over time, are more destructive on the airframes of the aircraft it launches. EMALS would, therefore, be a better investment. But, the Navy Times reported in January 2018 that EMALS ‘may not be ready for the fight.'
The Director, Operational Test and Evaluation report states:
“Poor or unknown reliability of the newly designed catapults, arresting gear, weapons elevators, and radar, which are all critical for flight operations, could affect the ability of the carrier to generate sorties, making the ship more vulnerable to attack, or create limitations during routine operations. Based on current reliability estimates, CVN78 is unlikely to be able to conduct the type of high-intensity flight operations expected during wartime.”
Nonetheless, some of the lieutenants are reporting that the steam catapults make for a very violent takeoff experience, a problem that the EMALS don't seem to have. The EMALS could reduce the amount of bouncing the plane does before it gets launched off of the runway, which would be an advantage. However, the urge to rapidly digitize the ships has some in the Navy, and the US President himself saying, "not so fast."
Miller, Zeke J. “Donald Trump: TIME Interview on Being President.” Time, Time, 11 May 2017, time.com/4775040/donald-trump-time-interview-being-president/.
Mizokami, Kyle. “Donald Trump's Problem With the Navy's Electromagnetic Airplane Catapult, Explained.” Popular Mechanics, Popular Mechanics, 15 Feb. 2018, www.popularmechanics.com/military/weapons/a26478/donald-trump-emals-steam-catapult-aircraft-carrier/.
Ziezulewicz, Geoff. “Report: EMALS Might Not Be Ready for the Fight.” Navy Times, Navy Times, 16 Feb. 2018, www.navytimes.com/news/your-navy/2018/02/16/report-emals-might-not-be-ready-for-the-fight/.