Naval Air: EMALS In The Age Of Error


February 16, 2019: In early 2019 the U.S. Navy confirmed that it had major problems with the design, construction and performance of its new EMALS (Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System) catapult installed in its latest aircraft carrier; the USS Ford (CVN 78) and the three other Ford class carriers under construction. During 2017 sea trials the Ford used EMALS heavily, as would be the case in combat and training operations. EMALS proved less reliable than the older steam catapult, more labor intensive to operate, put more stress on launched aircraft than expected and due to a basic design flaw if one EMALS catapult becomes inoperable, the other three catapults could not be used in the meantime as was the case with steam catapults. This meant that the older practice of taking one or more steam catapults off line for maintenance or repairs while at sea was not practical because the design of the EMALS system did not allow for it. The navy admitted that for EMALS the plan was that in combat if one or more catapults were rendered unusable they remained that way until it was possible to shut down all four catapults for repairs. 

There may be other problems with the Ford as the navy also asked for another delay in performing mandated shock tests, in which controlled explosions were set off near the hull that generated at least 66 percent of amount of force the ship was designed to handle. This would reveal what equipment was not sufficiently built or installed to handle shock and make changes as well as confirming that the hull can handle the stress overall. The navy wants to wait until the second Ford class carrier enters service in 2024 because, it admits, it is unsure how badly shock tests would damage new systems and design features. Meanwhile there are some other major shortcomings with the Fords, including electronics (the radars), the flight deck arresting gear and some of the elevators. But none of these are as serious as the malfunctioning catapults and a several less serious new equipment problems (ammo elevators, radar systems, ship wide new software debugging). For the first half of 2019 the Ford will be worked on to fix all the problems still needing attention. By the end of 2019 the Ford is expected to be as ready, if not more so, for action than existing Nimitz class CVNs.

All this drama is, for those familiar with the introduction of new military technology, mainly about media dramatization of normal development effort. That means sometimes the ship design turns out to be a failure or unsuitable. Cost is often a factor. The problems could be fixed but the cost of each ship (or aircraft or vehicle) might then become unaffordable. Thus we have three Seawolf SSNs instead of dozens and three Zumwalt class destroyers instead of dozens for the same reason. The LCS (Littoral Combat Ship) was not a success (but not a complete failure) and dozens are being built while a new, more conventional, design for this frigate size ship is being sought. These expensive failures were not a total loss as much of the new teach and design concepts did work and were used in subsequent, more affordable, designs.

The problem with CVNs is that you don’t develop a new design very frequently. The Ford is the first new CVN design in 40 years. And only ten, at most, are being built. Thus the technical problems with the Ford class are a big deal. The navy believes that, based on past experience the problems with EMALS were of the sort that could be fixed while the new ship was in service. That included tweaking EMALS operation to generate less stress on aircraft and modifying design of EMALS and reorganizing how sailors use the system to attain the smaller number of personnel required for catapult operations. But the fatal flaws involved reliability and after another year of effort the navy insists progress has been made and EMALS is becoming a mature technology. The goal for “mature EMALS” was set before the Ford was launched. An EMALS catapult was supposed to have a breakdown every 4,100 launches but in heavy use during sea trials EMALS actually failed every 400 launches. By the end of 2017 the navy concluded that an EMALS equipped carrier had only a seven percent chance of successfully completing a typical four day “surge” (multiple catapult launches for a major combat operation) and only a 70 percent chance of completing a one day surge operation. That was because when one EMALS catapult went down all four were inoperable. In effect the Ford class carriers are much less capable of performing in combat than their predecessors. As of 2019 the navy says EMALS is more reliable but is not saying exactly how much more reliable. Not year at least.

With steam catapults when one went down the other three could continue to operate. Worse even minor repairs or maintenance on one catapult means all four had to be out of service. The navy has been working on modifications to EMALS to fix all these problems. In the meantime the new Ford carrier is much less useful than older ones that use steam catapults. In fact the Ford class carriers are basically worthless, except for training of the non-flight crew (which cannot function without reliable catapults). That is supposed to be combat ready by mid-2019. A number of senior navy personnel (uniformed and civilian) have said the problems will be fixed by then or they will step aside and resign/retire to let someone else try. A sign of confidence is the navy getting permission to buy two new Ford class carriers at once, which will cut costs by about 15 percent.

There are no easy solutions. For example it would cost over half a billion dollars to remove EMALS and install the older steam catapults. This would also take up to several years and lead to many other internal changes. The navy is still considering bringing a recently retired carrier back to active service as a stopgap because whatever the fix is it may not be quick or cheap. The most worrisome part of this is the apparent inability of navy ship building and design experts to come up with a solution for the problem they created. For the navy officers and civilian officials involved there is another problem. Since 2017 the Department of Defense leadership has been staffed with more demanding leadership, including retired senior military personnel who have a good idea of how the navy operates without being part of it. That led to a lot of bad behavior receiving some long overdue attention.

This EMALS catastrophe was avoidable and the problems should have been detected and taken care of before the Ford was on sea trials. Back in 2010 the navy plan to equip future aircraft carriers with electromagnetic catapults seemed like a great idea and everyone seemed assured that all was proceeding according to plan. This was especially true after EMALS passed some key tests in 2010. This included the first time an EMALS catapult launched an F-18E carrier jet fighter. This was from a land base equipped with the test version of EMALS. Earlier in 2010 tests had been put on hold for a bit while software problems were fixed. The mechanical aspects of the electromagnetic catapult were believed pretty much solved but the test model the navy was working with has been having some serious problems with the control software. In all the midst of all this there was no mention of the key problems, like being able to repair one catapult while the other three kept working. This had been a key feature of steam catapults for a long time and what is really scary here is that no one caught it. There was no way you could avoid having to eventually having to go public about that flaw and it is still unclear who said what to who about the issue before it became news.

With the 2010 decision the plan to put electromagnetic catapults into all future carriers (beginning with the Ford) went ahead and apparently serious criticism of real problems was no longer an option. This was a great relief at the time because the Ford was under construction and a massive (and expensive) redesign would be needed to make room for the bulkier steam catapult. Now that option must be again considered, along with the other option, to try and fix the problems that were missed in 2010.

EMALS is still preferred because when it works as designed it puts less stress on launched aircraft (it moves the aircraft forward more gradually), requires fewer people to operate, and is easier to maintain (not much plumbing, fewer mechanical parts and lots of sturdy electronics). The gentler treatment of launched aircraft would means that smaller aircraft could use the catapult and that aircraft with larger payloads could be launched. Without a functional EMALS the steam and electricity generation system of the Ford class carriers, designed to supply large quantities of electric power, would not be able to provide the needed quantities of electricity to operate powerful new weapons like rail guns and high powered lasers as well as EMALS.

The EMALS disaster calls into question the ability of the navy to handle new, untried, technologies. That is not a new problem and has been around since World War II. In retrospect not enough was done to test and address what are now obvious problems. The current solution is to delay the moment of truth as long as possible and then conclude that it was unclear exactly how it happened but that measures would be taken to see that it never happen again. That approach is wearing thin because more people are well aware that is just a cover for the corruption and mismanagement that has been developing within the industries that build warships. The U.S. Navy has been having a growing number of similar problems (the design of the LCS, the DDG 1000 and a lot of smaller systems).

Meanwhile there is a critical need for new carriers. The first ship of the new class of carriers, the Ford is about the same length (333 meters/1,092 feet) and displacement (100,000 tons) of the previous generation (Nimitz class ships) but will look different. The most noticeable difference will be the island set closer to the stern (rear) of the ship. The internal differences are much more obvious, including the power generation and electrical system. The Nimitz ships are rapidly wearing out and with the EMALS disaster the navy will have to improvise and do without for a decade or more.

The Fords were not just replacements for the aging Nimitz class, they were designed to be cheaper to operate. There is a lot more automation and smaller crews. The Ford will be the first modern American warship built without urinals. There are several reasons for this. The Ford will have a smaller crew (by at least 20 percent) and more of them will be women. Currently about ten percent of American warship crews are women, but the Ford crew will be at least 15 percent female. Since women sleep in all-female dormitories ("berthing areas"), a toilet ("head") will now be attached to each berthing area (instead of being down the hall). Moreover, berthing areas will be more spacious (because of the smaller crew) and hold a third to half as many bunks as previous carriers. Finally, drain pipes for urinals more frequently get clogged than those coming from toilets. So eliminating the urinals means less work for the plumbers. Many of the junior sailors, who have to clean the heads, won't miss the urinals, which are more of a chore to keep clean than the toilets. There are a lot of other visible changes to enhance habitability and make long voyages more tolerable. All that will gave to be changed somewhat, at least in the Ford, and perhaps in others of this new class if EMALS cannot be fixed.

Before the EMALS crises the Ford was expected to cost nearly $14 billion. About 40 percent of that is for designing the first ship of the class, so the actual cost of the first ship (CVN 78) itself will be at least $9 billion and about the same for subsequent ships of the class. Except, that is, for the additional cost of fixing the EMALS problems. Against this the navy expects to reduce the carrier's lifetime operating expenses by several billion dollars because of greatly reduced crew size. Compared to the current Nimitz class carriers (which cost over $5 billion each to build) the Fords will feel, well, kind of empty because of the automation and smaller crews. There will also be more computer networking, and robots, reducing the number of people constantly moving around inside a Nimitz class carrier (with a crew of 6,000). The most recent Nimitz class ships have a lot of this automation already but adding EMALS was considered too expensive because of the major engineering changes to the power plant and electrical systems. A lot of that is subject to change depending on what internal alterations are required to make the carrier work at last as well as the Nimitz class. During all this no one mentioned any of the basic flaws since encountered in the EMALS system selected for the new CVNs.




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