The US Navy’s new $13 billion USS Ford aircraft carrier (CVN-78) is a disaster. It cost almost twice as much as the proven Nimitz class, yet it cannot reliably launch and recover aircraft. This occurred because the Navy incorporated experimental systems that were not proven after years of research, development, and testing. They were still in development when the Ford began construction, but Admirals decided to install them anyway and hope for the best. The Navy didn’t even begin launch tests with aircraft ashore using its new Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) until after construction of the Ford commenced!
Navy Captain Stephen Tedford, program manager for the Navy’s Aircraft Launch, Recovery and Equipment Office, dismissed a 2014 GAO report that raised concerns over data showing EMALS failed every 20 launches ashore, which should have halted construction of the second Ford class ship (CVN-79). Tedford offered a rambling excuse that reliability was never a requirement and cannot be proven anyway:
“Reliability comes from a significant number of cycles on any system, it is statistics-based,” Tedford said. “So you have to have hundreds of thousands of cycles in order to achieve system reliability. And the way that reliability growth is established is, it’s not just from the system installed at Lakehurst, it’s in combination with the ship and the second ship of class, and the third ship of class over time. So it was never in our program, as a requirement or anything else, in order to meet threshold reliability for either system when the ship delivered, simply because it is not possible to get there statistically.”
The Navy began funding EMALS in 1995 and contractor General Atomics began testing this launch system in 2004. When a test aircraft ashore at Lakehurst fails, a “soft launch” occurs and the aircraft just rolls down the runway, and not off the bow of a carrier at sea. It has improved since 2014 so one out of every 240 launches fail, which would roll an aircraft into the ocean due to a lack of speed needed to take-off. This means each deployed Ford class carrier would lose an $80 million aircraft each month! The old steam system fails to launch only once a decade, resulting in a cold cat launch, (video here). Crewmen die since aircraft like the C-2 and E-2 have no ejection seats, although ejecting into the sea in front of a huge aircraft carrier is often fatal. This was so alarming that the Association of Naval Aviation called EMALS a disaster!
When carrier crewmen saw the 300 foot long launch track on the Ford they were stunned. How can this mass of electrical cables used by EMALS function for months on an aircraft carrier deck at sea? (pictured partially uncovered at a test facility) Hot engine exhaust, heavy rain, saltwater spray, spilled fuel and fluids are sure to erode things, and this quickly became evident aboard the USS Ford. President Trump was briefed last year by officers while aboard the USS Ford. He promptly made a confusing announcement during a Time magazine interview that the Navy must return to steam catapults, something Admirals have refused to say knowing the political firestorm this would cause. News outlets mocked Trump’s knowledge of aircraft carrier launch systems because even military reporters cannot grasp how dysfunctional our Navy’s procurement system has become.
There may also be a problem with EMALS power since the Navy has never demonstrated the launch of an aircraft fully loaded with bombs, missiles, and extended range fuel tanks, even ashore at Lakehurst. The failure of the Ford program has been discussed often in Navy Matters blog, where insiders expressed concern that all four launchers are connected to the same electrical system. In order to repair one catapult, all four must be shut down for an hour or more, whereas the four steam catapult systems operate independently. This means a mighty $13 billion aircraft carrier may shut down for hours during a battle as sailors attempt to fix an electrical short, because it takes an hour just to spool down the system and restart it. Some say aircraft fluids interfere with magnetic fields and each massive electromagnetic pulse at launch may damage ship and aircraft electronics while sending out a beacon that enemy ships can detect hundreds of miles away. Last year, the Pentagon’s DOT&E responsible for program reviews noted:
“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, CVN 78 is unlikely to be able to conduct the type of high-intensity flight operations expected during wartime.”
There are 3200 crewmen aboard the USS Ford since last year (pictured repairing the new EMALS) and its future is uncertain as the Navy pushed its first overseas deployment back until 2021! It was launched in 2013, commissioned in 2017, and launched and recovered several aircraft to suggest problems were fixed, although it has not attempted to launch aircraft laden with bombs and extended range fuel tanks. The excuse is that software is buggy. In 2017 the ship’s captain proclaimed this has been resolved but the same news report noted doublespeak: “The fix is a software upgrade for the EMALS what won’t be installed until 2019, during the ship’s post-shakedown availability. Until then, launching aircraft is not restricted, but not any with heavy fuel or bomb loads.”
Our Navy loves to brag about its high-tech, but claims it will take two years to download a vital software update? This ship is not deployed, so even if this must be done pierside, why not do that now, rather than stall another two years? This sounds like yet another group of Navy leaders evading a major embarrassment by kicking the EMALS can down the road until they retire or transfer. The accepted excuse is that the Navy has no choice but to fix EMALS. However, EMALS is not broken! It is performing as best it can and may not improve! If the Navy began launching dozens of heavy aircraft a day, reliability is likely to worsen!
Stop the Madness
The second ship in the failed Ford class (CVN-79) is 70% complete and construction of the third (CVN-80) began last year. Despite this ongoing disaster, the Navy is pouring more fuel on the fire. In March 2018, the Navy requested that contractors provide cost saving figures to support a plan to begin construction of the fourth carrier sooner! This is based on irrational optimism that serious design problems can be solved soon, after 14 years of development and testing. This is madness since EMALS is unreliable and crewmen continue to identify major changes needed in the Ford design. Moreover, the Navy may be forced to admit to a massive mistake and spend a couple billion dollars to rip the first two carriers apart and install steam catapults!
It is past time for good members of Congress and officers in the Navy to stop this madness. The Navy can finish the CVN-79, but funding for CVN-80 and CVN-81 must be delayed until the Navy resolves the Ford disaster. Initial construction of the CVN-80 began in August 2017, which should be suspended. This means the EMALS and other systems must quickly improve and demonstrate reliability before the end of 2018, or the Navy will develop plans for a new class of aircraft carrier. This new carrier design will be based on the Ford class, but with proven steam catapults and changes to other equipment that failed on the USS Ford.
Hopefully, the problems with the USS Ford can be resolved soon, and changes identified can be incorporated into CVN-80/81, like a hundred more berthing spaces. In addition, the Ford is scheduled for a “shock” test in 2019 that may reveal the need for more modifications. If EMALS problems remain at the end of 2018, Admirals must plan for a new class of aircraft carrier to begin with CVN-80/81. Meanwhile, carrier construction funding can be diverted to another problem, the shortage of carrier aircraft. It makes no sense to build ultra-expensive aircraft carriers and send them overseas short of needed aircraft. This common sense solution must be implemented immediately.