The latest Gerald R Ford class aircraft carriers incorporate a multitude of new technology. One of the most radical changes was the introduction of a new aircraft catapult system. Since the Second World War, carriers had utilized a steam driven catapult system. The new Ford class carriers will use an electromagnetic catapult to launch aircraft. The electromagnetic aircraft launch system or EMALS was intended to offer faster successive aircraft launches, increasing the sortie rate. The system was also intended to be easier on the airframes as it could force aircraft to launching speed more gradually compared to steam driven systems. However, if recent reports are to be believed the EMALS is not performing as expected. Currently, America’s latest carrier cannot launch aircraft and a solution has yet to be found.
The EMALS launches a F-18 Hornet Fighter during testing in 2010.
Major Issues with the EMALS
The first major issue is that the EMALS has an unacceptably high failure rate. Since 2013, the system has failed in 10 percent of its launches. The Navy had estimated a failure rate of no more than 1 in 240 launches, comparable to a traditional steam catapult. However, actual data is suggesting a failure rate 5 times greater than initially predicted. The situation does not appear to be improving as naval officials have refrained from releasing updated information.
A typical steam driven catapult on a Nimitz class carrier. While the technology is older, the system is almost flawless with a high amount of reliability.
Adding to the failure rate, a recent report has also stated that the EMALS is currently placing great amounts of stress on aircraft. The problem is great enough that aircraft cannot carry external fuel tanks. It hasn’t been mentioned yet, but heavy external ordinance like bombs and anti-ship missiles are also unlikely to be carried. In a report to the United States Congress, the Navy has confirmed that a software update will be introduced to fix the issue, but did not mention how long it would take. Until a solution is found, carriers can only launch aircraft without external tanks, drastically reducing their range and therefore effectiveness.
The fact that America’s latest carrier cannot launch aircraft is a massive problem. Carriers are the core of the US fleet and any problems could drastically reduce the effectives of the fleet. At a time when China and Russia are ramping up their naval production, the US cannot afford to field ineffective warships. However, until the final issues with the Ford class are resolved they will be largely ineffective as carriers.
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