The Problems with the USS Gerald R. Ford (Hint — It’s Not the Catapults)

In an interview with Time, the notional Commander in Chief again showed his willful ignorance by calling for steam catapults rather than “digital catapults” on the new Gerald R. Ford class of aircraft carriers.  Aside from the limitations inherent in using the decades old steam technology, the new Electro-Magnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) catapult on the carrier USS Ford are not “digital.” It is not clear what a digital catapult might be. What is clear is that the president has absolutely no idea what he is talking about, yet again.

The Electro-Magnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) is computer controlled, as is just about everything these days, but is hardly “digital.” EMALS use a series of electric motors instead of a conventional steam piston drive. The system allows more controlled acceleration which puts less stress on the planes and can be tailored to plane size, from drones to the heaviest carrier-based fighter bombers. The system is lighter and also should be far less costly to maintain. It also allows for more planes to be launched faster than the old steam catapults. The system had initial bugs but is now said to be ready for sea trials.

Right now the EMALS seems to be one of the least problematic systems on the $13 billion supercarrier USS Gerald R. Ford.  The largest problem seems to be with its turbine generator sets which have failed to produce enough power. The Navy has said that they have come up with a series of fixes. There are also reported problems with the ship’s plane arresting gear. 

Many say that the problems are more administrative than technical. Senator John McCain argues that the cost overruns, delays and technical failures of the Ford-class carrier program are evidence of the overall flawed defense acquisition system.

Likewise, Ex-Navy Secretary Ray Mabus told reporters, “The Ford is a textbook example of how not to build a ship,” “(We were) building it while it’s still being designed” — which results in costly do-overs of already-finished components — “(and) trying to force too much new and unproven technology on it.” 

Perhaps what we really need is better Navy contracting, not steam catapults or an ignorant Commander in Chief.

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12 Responses to The Problems with the USS Gerald R. Ford (Hint — It’s Not the Catapults)

  1. Fred MacLennan says:

    And obama’s calling a Navy Corpsman a corpse man reflects a deep understanding and appreciation of our armed services?

  2. Rick Spilman says:

    You compare a slip of the tongue to willful ignorance. Not even close to being the same.

  3. ws says:

    The main propulsion system: Steam Turbines like the Nimitz Class,
    or Electric Motors like USS Langley?

  4. A good article on the problems facing the ship and the US Navy process as well. A little overboard in regard to comments about the CIC however, he didn’t have the good fortune to study naval architecture in college.

  5. Kate Herman says:

    Ohhh. I see why he thinks it digital. He thinks you’re EMAILING the aircraft….

  6. Irwin Bryan says:

    When I was in the Navy our CIC was impeached! Maybe they should do away with the whole CIC thing and just have the Joint Chiefs. Its ridiculous having an uncovered civilian salute anyway!

  7. Pablo says:

    Anything electronic is now prone to being disabled, as the Russians have proved several times in demonstrations of their technical superiority against the Donald Cook with multiple flyovers and in disabling the Big Stick, that limped unexpectedly into
    Gosport UK, and taking 2 weeks to reboot its electronics.
    Putin did warn that US carriers would be reduced to floating bathtubs.The whole thing about the collapse of empire is contained in the above comments.Its a bottom-up, top-down collapse, of the pretence of playing the world’s freedom policeman as an excuse for controlling energy. Remember all wars are bankers wars for rich men using poor men’s children.

  8. Washington Observer says:

    So, we have a 13 billion dollar super carrier that is over budget, behind schedule, and plagued with technical problems and you want to complain about this Commander in Chief’s ignorance?

  9. David Charles says:

    When the contract was being negotiated with the Navy the EMALS and Arresting system both failed land based testing. The EMALS so badly that there was a possibility that steam cats would need to be installed. EMALS have not been tested in the real world and many believe they will be a nightmare to maintian with green water filling the cat troughs at times.

    EMALS are not run by motors. Magnetic propulsion like man amusement park rides- Superman for one. The author shouldn’t call someone ignorant when they too are totally wrong as well. Motors vs Digital- both wrong.

    “(We were) building it while it’s still being designed” — which results in costly do-overs of already-finished components. The USS Ford was only 40% final design at time of contract signing, so go figure why costs have gone up. Ask a builder to build you a house with only 40% of the final plans available.

  10. Gregg S. Pennington says:

    5/21/2017. Really ! Another example of throw it together first and think
    about the complete picture later ! No wonder this nation’s
    military is in trouble ! The F35 suffered from the same
    mentality. Too many spoons in the soup !

  11. Bob Koski, ABECS(AW), USN, (Ret.) says:

    I retired from active duty in 1994, after 20 years of working on those very same steam catapults and arresting gear. EMALS is light years beyond steam catapult technology, and once the bugs are worked out of it, EMALS will be as big of a revolution to aircraft launch and recovery equipment (ALRE), as the intoduction of the steam catapult was in the mid 1950s.

    Eliminating the steam system required to support each catapult, resulted in so much extra space on the Ford that there are spaces on the ship that have no assigned use yet. This leaves the ship capable of taking on any number of different special missions.

    The US Navy contracted for all of the first 3 Nimitz class hulls, for about $6 Billion. At that time people were incredulous that any ship could cost as much $2 Billion dollars apiece.

    The first model of the Ford Class Carrier, over 100,000 tons of diplomacy, is indeed over budget, late, and still experiencing serious technical difficulties. USS Nimitz struggled to come up with entirely new Naval Air operational doctrine once she finally went to sea, because that carrier was such a radical design improvement over any of the conventionally (oil) powered carriers we had at that time. My first ship, USS Ranger (CVA-61) got about 13 feet per gallon of DFM @ 20 knots, and required regular underway replenishment just to stay underway. The ship could not make fresh water for the crew, steam four catapults and move at the same time. “water hours” for the crew were always announced just as soon as we cleared the outer sea buoy.

    The second Ford Class carrier, to be the USS John F. Kennedy (CVN-79) is nearing launch and christening, and pre-assemblies for the third, to be christened USS Enterprise (CVN-80), are already being constructed at Newport News, although both have been delayed at least 2 additional years while problems identified in the Ford’s construction are resolved.

    Such is the price of progress.

    As to the off-topic comments about our CIC, I will leave those for others to make.

  12. Bob Koski, ABECS(AW), USN, (Ret.) says:

    EMALS launching engine can be considered a “linear electric motor” whose motion is in a straight line instead of rotating.

    To power this DC electric motor, below deck is a large device that is essentially an enormous flywheel that is driven by a rotary electric motor.

    A very simplified explanation of how it works is like this: The operators spin up the system’s flywheel to a specific speed using an electric motor, depending upon the weight and type of the aircraft to be launched. When the catapult is fired, a clutch engages the spinning flywheel to a powerful generator, that produces the strong electrical pulse of current needed to accelerate the load down the length of the catapult.

    Braking of the shuttle assembly is accomplished by reversing the current flow along an end section of the catapult track, electrically bringing the shuttle to a rapid stop without any impact whatsoever on the ship’s structure.

    Steam catapults utilize a pair of waterbrakes, rigidly attached to the ship’s structure so it can absorb the enormous shock from stopping 5,000 pounds of steam pistons and shuttle, all of which is extremely maintenance intensive to keep in working order.