That’s the title of an article at Strategy Page, analyzing in some depth the apparent failure of the US Navy’s new aircraft carrier catapult system. Bold, underlined text is my emphasis.
In February 2018 the U.S. Navy confirmed that it had major problems with the design and construction 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.
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An EMALS catapult was supposed to have a breakdown every 4,100 launches but in heavy use 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.
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 hopes they can come up with some kind of, as yet unknown, 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).
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 now considering bringing a recently retired carrier back to active service as a stopgap because whatever the fix is it will 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. The current Secretary of Defense is a retired Marine Corps general who has a good idea of how the navy operates without being part of the navy (the Marine Corps and Navy are two separate services in the Department of the Navy). The marines have a well-deserved reputation for being less understanding about failure and in a situation like this a former marine general as Secretary of Defense is very bad news for the navy officers responsible for creating, sustaining and being unable to fix this EMALS disaster.
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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).
There’s much more at the link. It’s a long, but very interesting analysis. Recommended reading.
This is going to add fuel to the debate over whether or not large aircraft carriers are worth having at all. There’s no denying their utility in areas where land-based air facilities are poor or non-existent. They can deploy the equivalent of a USAF group to a combat zone, provided that anti-ship defenses are not a major threat. Such capabilities can be (and historically have proven to be) very useful indeed. However, the threats facing carrier battle groups today are greater than in the past, and more pressing. In particular, massed missile attacks might overwhelm them, saturating their defenses with so many targets that they don’t have time (or sufficiently capable systems) to shoot them all down before some strike home. Anti-ship missiles have become so prevalent, and so (relatively) low-cost, that even a smaller nation (e.g. Iran) can afford to site a hundred or more of them along its coastline, particularly in areas where enemy naval forces are forced by geographic constraints to sail within range of that coast (e.g. the Strait of Hormuz). Even terrorist groups have used them successfully (Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Houthi rebels in Yemen).
I don’t believe today’s US Navy battle group could fight off a hundred or more anti-ship missiles arriving almost simultaneously. I suspect at least half, probably more, would get through. One missile wouldn’t shut down a carrier, or even one of its escorts; but hits from one or two dozen of them? That’s a whole new ball game. New weapons such as the electromagnetic rail gun and laser “cannon” are supposed to offer a solution to this problem; but both are still in development, and unlikely to be in widespread service for at least another decade. No existing combat vessel has them, and those already built will require extensive modification (and probably significant electricity generating capacity upgrades) before they can operate them. They’ll add to the cost and complexity of warships, and their reliance on copious supplies of electricity may itself be a serious weakness. If an electromagnetic pulse weapon can disable power to part of a city (as demonstrated with the CHAMP project – see the video clip below – and equivalent projects under way in other countries), it can do the same to a warship or group of warships, as can a high-altitude nuclear explosion within a radius of several hundred miles. What price their electrically powered weapons then?
There’s also the real risk posed by modern submarines, which are less easy to detect and more capable than ever before. A Chinese diesel-electric submarine has already handed an unpleasant surprise to a US Navy carrier battle group. What if it had fired torpedoes instead of surfacing? Another incident in 2015 suggests that such encounters are not isolated incidents.
My personal opinion is that, if the carrier situation is as screwed up as the Strategy Page article suggests, it may be time for the USN to suspend further carrier constriction until it can guarantee that all the systems on its new Ford class ships work (including EMALS), and it’s conducted shock testing on the first of the class to certify that they can stand up to combat conditions. Otherwise, we may be throwing good taxpayer money after bad. In time of war, that may perhaps be excusable; but in time of peace, and in our present tight economic conditions, that’s simply unacceptable.
It may also be time to re-evaluate whether large carriers are still a worthwhile investment. As I said earlier, their tactical and even strategic value is unquestionable, provided they are able to operate in the face of modern defenses. If they aren’t . . . what then? Would more, smaller carriers be an option, so that losing a single carrier wouldn’t wipe out so much of the US Navy’s air capability? Would it be better to consider unmanned aerial attack forces that could be based further away, even on land masses a thousand miles or more away from the combat zone? USAF UAV’s over Afghanistan are already being flown by crews stationed in Nevada, USA. Could something similar offer sufficient capability to replace aircraft carriers?
I suspect part of the problem is the mindset of senior US Navy officers. Carrier command, or command of a carrier air wing, has been one of, if not the dominant, traditional route to admiral’s stars (hence the jokes sometimes heard about the “carrier mafia”). Even if further investigation suggests it may be appropriate, will senior officers be prepared to embrace alternatives to the carrier? One wonders.