Pres. Donald Trump used the Navy’s next-generation aircraft carrier, USS Gerald R. Ford, as a backdrop to unveil his vision for the next defense budget in March 2017.
The moment was meant to symbolize his commitment to rebuilding the military, but it also positioned the president in front of a monument to the Navy’s and defense industry’s ability to justify spending billions in taxypayer dollars on unproven technologies that often deliver worse performance at a higher cost.
The Ford program also provides yet another example of the dangers of the Navy’s and industry’s end-running the rigorous combat testing that is essential to ensuring our fighting men and women go to war with equipment that works.
The Navy had expected to have the ship delivered in 2014 at a cost of $10.5 billion . But the inevitable problems resulting from the concurrency the Navy built into developing Ford’s new and risky technologies, more than a dozen in all , caused the schedule to slip by more than three years and the cost to increase to $12.9 billion—nearly 25 percent over budget.
For all this time and money, “poor or unknown reliability of the newly designed catapults, arresting gear, weapons elevators, and radar, which are all critical for flight operations, could affect CVN-78’s ability to generate sorties, make the ship more vulnerable to attack or create limitations during routine operations.
The poor or unknown reliability of these critical subsystems is the most significant risk to CVN-78 .”
EMALS catapult, failure to launch
The problems with the ship’s systems, including the catapult, are well-known. But Trump still caught virtually every Pentagon watcher off guard when, in the middle of a wide-ranging Time interview , he said he had directed the Navy to abandon the new “digital” aircraft catapult on future Ford-class carriers. Instead he wants the Navy to revert to the proven steam catapults, which have been in use for decades.
The president is correct when he says there are significant problems with the Ford’s “digital” catapult, but abandoning it in future ships will pose significant problems.
The Ford’s “digital” catapult is, in fact, the Electromagnetic Launch System, or EMALS. It was designed to provide the boost necessary for aircraft to reach take-off speed within the short deck length of an aircraft carrier. In the long run, it is intended to be lighter, more reliable and less expensive than the steam system .
Unfortunately, the EMALS is immature technology, and its development is proceeding concurrently with the ship’s design and development. So far, the program has not lived up to the promises made.
Steam-powered catapults, though said to be maintenance-intensive, are proven technology. They have been in service with continuous upgrades and satisfactory reliability for more than half a century . In this system, steam pressure pushes a piston down a track set into the deck of the ship.
The ship’s crew prepares the airplane for launch by attaching its nosewheel to a shuttle connected to the piston. When the steam valve opens, the pressure behind the piston accelerates the shuttle and plane down the track, reaching a speed high enough to allow aircraft to take off.
The steam to power the catapult is generated by the ship’s nuclear reactor main boiler , the same boiler that generates the steam for the propulsion turbines. That steam is piped from the boiler room to the catapults at the bow.
The new EMALS stores an enormous electrical charge — enough to power 12,000 homesthree seconds, the time it takes to launch an aircraft — and then quickly releases the current into massive electromagnets that push the shuttle down the track.
The new electromagnetic catapult is intended to launch everything from small unmanned vehicles to heavy fighter planes. The Navy claims EMALS will save money over time because it is said to require less people to operate and is predicted to be easier to maintain.
But testing has already revealed the Navy underestimated the workload and the number of people necessary to operate the system. As a result, the Navy has to redesign some berthing areas to accommodate more people. It was also supposed to increase the lifespan of aircraft by putting less stress on their airframes by using a more controlled release of energy during a catapult launch.
Unfortunately, recent tests of land-based EMALS prototypes showed that the system actually overstressed F-18 airframes during launch .
Perhaps even more serious is that the design makes it impossible for the crew to repair a catapult while the ship is launching planes with other catapults. This is done as a matter of routine on current carriers as each catapult operates independently of the other. When one of the steam catapults fails, the crew can make the necessary repairs while the adjacent catapults continue launching planes.
Like earlier carriers, Ford has four launch catapults so that — theoretically — should one fail, the ship could continue operations using the remaining three. But the Navy found there is no way to electrically isolate each EMALS catapult from the others during flight operations , raising questions about the system’s operational suitability.
The massive electrical charge needed to power the catapults is stored in three Energy Storage Groups, each using four heavy flywheel-generators. The three groups together power all four catapults and cannot be electrically disconnected from a single failed catapult to allow repairs while the other three catapults launch planes.
This means that repairing the failed catapult must wait until all flight operations have been completed, or, in the event that multiple launchers fail, all flights may have to be suspended to allow repairs. Thus there is the possibility that the ship might not be able to launch any planes at a critical moment because the EMALS designers failed to provide independent power for each of the four catapults.
This problem is particularly acute because the EMALS has a poor reliability track record. The system thus far fails about once every 400 launches . This might seem like a reasonable record, but it is 10 times worse than the 4,166 launches between failures the system is supposed to achieve per the contract specifications.
At least four days of surge combat sortie rates are to be expected at the beginning of any major conflict — and delivering those sorties is, after all, the primary reason carriers are built in the first place. At the current failure rate, there is only a seven-percent chance that the USS Ford could complete a four-day flight surge without a launch failure, according to the office in charge of testing the ship, the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation.
The decision to pursue immature EMALS technology has been a boon to contractors, particularly San Diego-based General Atomics. With only a nuclear fusion magnetics background and no previous experience in carrier catapults, the company won the EMALS System Development and Demonstration contract on April 2, 2004 . At the time, the contract was valued at $145 million.
This figure has predictably ballooned over the years as risky, concurrent technology programs tend to do. The most recent figures released by the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office show the Navy will have spent approximately $958.9 million simply to develop this one component — and more may well be required to correct current deficiencies.
The cost to build and install an EMALS system — four catapults — is another thing entirely. In January, 2017, the Navy awarded General Atomics another $532 million contract to install the system on the third-in-class Ford-class carrier, Enterprise.
And although EMALS is problem-ridden and enormously expensive, replacing it with the proven steam catapult substitute would likely be more so. Using the steam catapult instead is impossible without a complete redesign of the nuclear reactor plant’s steam generating system. Because the Navy planned Ford to be an electric ship, the reactor was not designed to produce service steam for major ship systems.
So the reactor now can’t deliver the 4,050 pounds per minute of high pressure steam required by a steam-powered four-catapult installation. Furthermore, installing four new steam-powered catapult tracks would require a complete redesign and rebuilding of the supporting deck structure. The cost of both would be staggering and the delay may be upwards of two to three years.
AAG arresting system
Of course, launching a fighter jet over the bow of the carrier is only one part of the equation. The jets also need to land, which is another very large challenge on a moving ship. Aircraft don’t really land on a ship. They essentially crash in a highly controlled fashion. Instead of rolling out to a stop on a conventional runway, a plane landing on an aircraft carrier has to catch a cable on the flight deck with a hook attached to the plane to bring it to a stop on the relatively short deck.
As it did with the catapult, the Navy decided to use unproven technology for Ford’s electrical arresting system to capture aircraft during landings. This system, too, has been more of a challenge than the Navy expected. “With the benefit of hindsight, it was clearly premature to include so many unproven technologies,” the Pentagon’s top weapons-buyer Frank Kendall wrote in an August 2016 memo .
Navies around the world have been using arresting systems for more than a century to land aircraft on ships. The Navy installed its first system, consisting of sandbags and cables, on USS Pennsylvania in 1911. The Navy currently uses a hydraulically braked arresting system called the Mk. 7 on the current Nimitz-class aircraft carriers.
When the hook on the landing aircraft catches one of the cables on the deck, the cables are braked by an engine inside the ship . In effect a very large shock absorber, this engine is a plunger inside a cylinder filled with hydraulic fluid. When pulled by the deck cable, the plunger compresses the fluid which then flows through a metered valve calibrated to handle the weight of the type of aircraft being landed. The compressed fluid absorbs the energy of the landing and brings the aircraft to a stop in only 340 feet.
This hydraulic arresting gear system has been in use since 1961 and has been improved several times over the years. But as a high-tech selling point, it’s a non-starter. In order to get increased funding for the Ford program, the Navy chose to replace the proven hydraulics with an entirely new and untested electrical system, called the Advanced Arresting Gear.
The original 2005 estimate for AAG development alone was $172 million . This figure was revised upwards in 2009 to $364 million, and has now ballooned to well over $1.3 billion , an astounding 656 percent increase.
The AAG is also built by General Atomics, and, as with the EMALS, the company doesn’t have any prior arresting gear experience. The AAG is based on a “Water Twister,” a paddlewheel inside a cylinder of water. When spun by the pull of the deck cable, the paddlewheel uses the resistance of the water to absorb 70 percent of the energy of the landing plane and bring it to a stop — with fine-tuning of additional braking forces provided by a very large electric motor. At least that is how it is supposed to work.
The Department of Defense Inspector General concluded in a July 2016 report that the entire program has been mismanaged.
“Ten years after the program entered the engineering and manufacturing development phase, the Navy has not been able to prove the capability or safety of the system to a level that would permit actual testing of the system on an aircraft carrier.”
Test personnel found damage due to insufficient strength of several subcomponents inside the water twisterfollowing developmental tests in 2012. The water twister required two years of “significant redesign.” The revised prototype passed land-based dead load tests two years later . The first aircraft tests, also land-based, occurred in 2016.
Separately from the twister failures, earlier failed tests revealed damage to the AAG’s cable shock absorber that the Navy attributed to the design’s complexity. This problem was also reportedly corrected.
Nevertheless, the latest reliability results show only 25 landings between operational mission failures of the AAG, 660 times fewer than the Navy’s requirement of 16,500. This makes it utterly impossible for Ford to meet its surge sortie rate requirements. And, in an astonishing design oversight exactly like that of the EMALS, General Atomics engineers made it impossible to repair AAG failures without shutting down flight operations — the AAG power supply can’t be disconnected from the high-voltage supply while flights continue.
Even after spending an estimated $1.3 billion, the ability to correct the AAG’s dangerous unreliability remains so uncertain that the Navy cannot yet commit to a schedule for actual at-sea testing of Ford.
Problems with the AAG are so bad that the Department of Defense asked the Navy to study shelving the idea completely for the follow-on ships in favor of an enhanced version of the proven Mk. 7 system currently in service.
However, recommending to drop the AAG after spending $1.3 billion would have been a major admission of failure. Unsurprisingly, the Navy decided to stick with the AAG and push forward with plans to install it aboard the second Ford-class ship, John F. Kennedy.
That decision may get overturned now that the Navy has had to report the AAG program’s costs exceed its 2009 estimate by at least 50 percent, triggering an automatic review . This is called a “Nunn-McCurdy” breach, named after the 1982 law that requires the Pentagon to review major weapon programs when their costs rise above certain levels.
If a program’s cost estimates increase more than 50 percent, the program is supposed to be automatically cancelled unless the Secretary of Defense certifies the program as critical to national defense.
Of course it is extremely rare for any program to actually be cancelled by such means. The AAG will likely provide further proof of Fitzgerald’s First Law of defense acquisition. “There are only two phases of a program. The first is, ‘It’s too early to tell.’ The second: ‘It’s too late to stop.’”
Aircraft carriers require a lot of power. Earlier carriers used nuclear reactor-generated steam to drive two of the most power-hungry systems on board — the steam turbines that turn the propellers and the steam catapults that launch the planes.
The Ford-class ships retained steam turbines for propulsion, but rather than piping steam from the reactors to power major ship systems directly, it uses steam to turn four main turbine generators to generate electricity for the systems like the new electromagnetic catapults. Generating and managing the massive amount of electricity the ship needs has been a significant contributor to its budget and schedule troubles.
To feed these massive electrical demands, as well as the ship’s expanded electronics, the Ford’s four generators were designed to provide triple the total electrical power provided by the eight generators on the Nimitz class — 13,800 versus 4,160 volts .
These new ultra-high voltages pose substantial risks such as increased safety problems and increased electrical arcing and failure rates, particularly in humid salt atmospheres. They are also much more fragile than legacy systems, which can make the ship far easier to cripple in battle . Repairing damage to these systems often requires them to be powered down, which could impact other systems that didn’t sustain damage.
The possibility that these risks could require substantial ship modification or render Ford unsuitable for combat cannot be assessed until the completion of operational testing in 2020.