Why worry? It’s just $14 billion of taxpayer’s money . . .

. . . plus a few billion more to fix the problems.

The U.S. Navy has a major ship design disaster on its hands with the new EMALS (Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System) catapult that was installed in the latest aircraft carrier; the USS Ford (CVN 78). During sea trials the Ford used EMALS heavily, as would be the case in combat and training operations. Under intense use EMALS proved to be less reliable than the older steam catapult, more labor intensive to operate, put more stress on launched aircraft than expected and due to a basic design flaw if one EMALS catapult becomes inoperable, the other three catapults cannot be used in the meantime as was the case with steam catapults.

Some of the problems with EMALS were of the sort that could be fixed while the new ship was in service. That included tweaking EMALS operation to generate less stress on aircraft and modifying design of EMALS and reorganizing how sailors use the system to attain the smaller number of personnel required for catapult operations. But the fatal flaws involved reliability. An EMALS catapult was supposed to have a breakdown every 4,100 launches but in heavy use EMALS failed every 400 launches. The killer here was that when one EMALS catapult went down all four were inoperable. With steam catapults when one went down the other three could continue to operate.

Moreover 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.

This EMALS disaster was avoidable and the problems should have been detected and taken care of before the Ford was on sea trials.

. . .

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.

There’s more at the link.  What’s more, EMALS isn’t the only problem with the ship.  You’ll find a list of some of the more important defects here.  Together, they’ll probably cost billions to fix – billions of our taxpayer money.

I don’t know what the heck is wrong with the US Navy’s procurement process, but it’s clearly in a mess.  The Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program has been derisively renamed ‘Little Crappy Ships‘, in tribute to the endless problems that continue to plague it;  the San Antonio class amphibious transport dock ships took years to get right, particularly the lead ship;  and maintenance has been shelved or postponed for far too long due to budgetary pressures, resulting in a multi-year backlog.  These and other problems led to a recent headline claiming bluntly that ‘The US Navy is screwed‘.  The problems with USS Ford are merely another symptom of that reality.

Speaking as a taxpayer, I want to know why multiple heads responsible for these fiascos have not rolled.  If President Trump wants to ‘drain the swamp’, the Pentagon – and Navy procurement bureaucrats in particular – might be good places to begin.



  1. Forget it. There is only one shipbuilding facility in the world capable of building a Nuclear Carrier, and they know it. As for the rest, the expertise is interwoven with the corruption. It's not impossible, but it would require a special investigator with exceptional authority. That *might* happen if we had another cold war. Still, it's a wonderful thought.

  2. Peter,

    Even now, the risk is worth the benefit. Moving away from steam cats. allowed the ship to be built with no steam outside of the engineering plant (this is an "all electric" ship as far as hotel stuff. This saves cost, saves weight, and is an all around good thing.

    The failure is mostly a lack of prototyping. A single land based system was used for trials, not a full twin of the shipboard installation. This is always foolish.

    A full prototype would have allowed all of these problems to be solved long ago.

  3. The land based system has been in use for many, many years, but putting anything on a ship is a very different scenario. Ships move, often in unpredictable ways, there is salt exposure, heavier use, etc, etc. As far as there being less to break because of 'sturdier' electronics – hah! I'll believe it when I see it…
    I'm surprised to hear that the others can't be used when 1 breaks; that would be the first thing I fix!
    I agree that the US Navy has trouble with new technology; I think part of the problem is a few large contractors, with lobbyists and lots of jobs at stake – this has become a big problem in all of the services, but with the sheer size of individual item contracts (i.e. ships) in the Navy AND the few companies involved – virtually all navy ships are built by 3 companies and the biggest all by 1 company – there have been big and growing problems that at this point the Navy doesn't seem equipped to handle, particularly since under current regulations, much acquisition isn't done by the service (directly) to begin with.

  4. The Navy has always had a problem with admirals falling in love with "new and shiny". The procurement process, dealing in billions of U.S. dollars, is – and has always been – rife with corruption, bribes, kickbacks, and big promises which fail to deliver. Glen and Jonathan H, above, are both correct. Moving away from the steam technology is a wonderful goal, but redundancy suffers. Scrapping the tried-and-true in favor of the EMALS before it was tested and ready? The results speak for themselves.

  5. I have several friends and relatives in the more technical side of the defense industry and get togethers are always fascinating to an armchair observer like myself who tries to stay abreast of what happening in the field, aviation in particular. One of the reoccurring themes I've heard from them for years is dealing with the navy sucks. The crazy bureaucracy, the general navy weirdness and intransigence and demands for irrelevant and stupid requirements have not endeared them to the group. I'll also mention it's not only them but in his wonderful book about the Skunkworks, Ben Rich expresses much the same sentiments. Not that the air force or army or other entities aren't difficult to deal with especially in certain circumstances but the navy is just a couple orders of magnitude worse.

  6. The problem is that it's impossible to actually test such systems under real world conditions until they are mounted on a ship to be exposed to real-world conditions.

    I would expect that the '1 breaks, all down' problem will not be any harder to fix than the other 'easy' issues. It's probably a software interconnection where they just didn't consider failure modes (programmers tend to not think about hardware failures)

    When building the latest and greatest, there are always going to be problems. And when you only update the design every few decades, there is no gradual introduction of new features, the new design gets them all at once, and interactions happen. If we were building more ships, at a faster (and somewhat predictable rate), features could be introduced gradually, but the cost would be much higher.

    David Lang

  7. Steam catapults when introduced were based on known and well understood technology.
    EMALs is new. It's not surprising that such tech has major issues. Every step forward
    in technology brings a higher order of complexity. This brings a higher risk of failure.
    The only alternative to this is to not develop new technology. That is stagnation and the result is decay and decline. Societys innovate or die. What the solution is may not be known yet but stepping backwards to steam is a stopgap band aid, not a solution. We face the same issues with all new developments and inventions. It's the price of progress.

  8. Several years ago, I worked on a project related to testing EMALS components and installation. It was obvious at the time that, far from being latest-and-greatest, bleeding-edge tech, the control systems were based on technology that was at least 20 years old by the time I saw it.
    This points to a process problem: some implementation details had been nailed down decades earlier than necessary. If, instead, those aspects had been allowed to float until it was nearly time to start building the production system (while using lower-tech stand-ins for testing the core of the system), the control and monitoring subsystems could have been designed with modern tech, enabling redundancy, self-test features, and other such things one wants in a mission-critical system. (Also, the project I was working on wouldn't have been needed, because the test capability would have been built in.)
    It sounds like the core aircraft-accelerating part of the system also has significant issues that ought to have been identified and sorted out long ago. And how a system architecture in which a failure of one catapult takes them all out of operation got past the first design review? I can't even. I'd call that amateur hour, but amateurs probably would have done a better job.

  9. I know someone who works in procurement with the Pentagon. It's not the guys in procurement. It is Upper Brass and Congress-critters who are the problem. Upper Brass is told whatever is a bad idea but because they (the brass) are beholding to Congress for their rank and going further up the food chain. They (the brass) don't tell Congress-critters 'No' when the lobbyists have convinced the elected official the addition of new shiny is necessary. When it isn't. It adds unnecessary weight, complicates simple design and operation and/or puts our service men and women at risk.

  10. You're rightly critical of Navy procurement, but your call for "Independent Counsel" was recognized long ago. The venerable Board of Inspection and Survey (INSURV) under Navy regulations is responsible for service acceptance trials. The President of the Board is independent of all acquisition officials (ASN-RDA). Unfortunately, BIS is the final step in development, when the the only realistic options are buy-don't buy. I was a member of INSURV for several years in the 1970s.
    Another legislated independent overseer of MDAP testing is the Director, OT&E who reports directly to SecDef and the four Congressional defense committees. Again,OT&E tends to focus late in the design process when changes are very costly. In my 30 years in DOT&E, I was responsible for overseeing the testing of many of the bad examples you have cited, pricippally in the warfare area called Expeditionary Warfare: LPD-17 (in which we shared your criticism), the Joint Strike Fighter (in the Tech Demo stage, successful-before all the users and developers started adding bells and whistles), the USMC Advanced Amphibious Assault Vehicle (a disaster from day one-technology couldn't meet the user requirements), and the V-22 Osprey, which found me on the pro-Osprey side of most arguments as the naysayers(mostly liberals) exaggerated, and sometimes simply lied about V,-22 test results for whatever purposes they had. The successful manufacturing and combat deployments of the Osprey today speak for themselves. I attribute its success to the good people who took to heart the lessons we learned from fatal crashes early in the 1970s

    But the key takeaway is this: Even when Legislators pass laws for "independent overseers" of the military procurement system, they (correctly) provide no turnkey authority for such an overseer. The authority is always to report results (to SecDef, Congress, whoever).
    I authored/presented many of such evaluations over the years, and almost the only responses we got were from a rare member of Congress, or from the GAO or the DoDIG. The latter were barely qualified to understand either the technical issues or the operational ones.
    So before you call for more "independent oversight" you would do well to find out what existing oversight authorities already know and are saying.


  11. I suspect that we are not too many years from the supercarrier proving to be in the same position the battleship was in WW2 – the perfect weapon for the last war.

    On the threat side, a swarming missile attack is a very real possibility and would likely overwhelm our current defenses, especially in a place like the Straits of Hormuz where the reaction time would be very short.

    On the utility side, many UAVs that could be launched from smaller, distributed platforms would allow less risk in one target, and if remotely piloted during combat could offer greater capabilities than manned aircraft (especially the F35) since the airframe can be designed without human limitations or support equipment. With laser air-defense systems like iron beam and modern air defense systems proliferating, manned aircraft are likely to have short lifetimes and little combat effectiveness against a modern adversary, and if you don't need manned aircraft, you probably don't need a giant carrier for your air assets.

  12. Air power IS HERE TO STAY. Projecting air power to places you cannot use land bases is a critical military asset. Carriers are not going anywhere. The Navey must find ways to counter new threats to capital ships but giving them up is NOT AN OPTION for any country that wishes to maintain its status. The question is can we solve these tech problems and find effective new defenses now while it is not a matter of life and death.

  13. Mike (above) has a point; during WWII the U.S. produced numerous escort carriers. Smaller, carrying about 1/3 the number of aircraft as a full size fleet carrier, they were cheaper and faster to build, but were able to put aircraft into play where they were needed.

    Escort carriers had limitations, among them thin armor and limited speed, which could today be eliminated with redesign and newer (specifically, not "newest") technology.

    Maybe it's time to revisit the concept of "more smaller and cheaper" vessels as a means or projecting power at lower cost and not having all eggs in one basket.

  14. @dan, it's worth noting that there is only one country in the world fielding supercarriers right now, the US. Russia and China are both planning/building/talking about one each

    The other countries have smaller carriers, much closer to the US Wasp class of amphibious assault ships.

    The British Queen Elizabeth class is called a supercarrier, and is about 50% larger than most other nations carriers, but it's still only 3/4 the size of the US supercarriers, and carries about half the number of aircraft, and those aircraft are currently Harriers, transitioning the the F-35 vertical takeoff version.

    The problem with smaller carriers, is that they can't launch/land the heavier aircraft. Currently only the US supercarriers and the Chinese carrier under construction use catapults to launch their aircraft, everyone else relies on the aircraft's engines to get it up to speed (I believe that only the Russian carrier and it's Chinese copies carry anything other than VSTOL aircraft), and this drastically limits the weight of the aircraft that can be used, and therefor the payload they can carry.

    Cost and Manpower also do not scale up linearly with size, you can't just build two small carriers and man them and get the same capabilities as one large carrier.

    The advantage of a carrier is the ability to have an airfield near where you need it.

    Missiles are useful, but they are very expensive compared to bombs, and once launched are expended (you can't recall them, at best you can detonate/redirect them)

    Drones/UAVs are very useful for recon work, and hitting ground targets, but only in uncontested airspace. They do not have the real-time responsiveness to be able to dogfight, dodge enemy aircraft, dodge AA fire, etc. They cannot be used to 'warn off' or 'escort' other aircraft (the close flyby, etc)

    This sort of thing may happen in the not to distant future, but the result is going to be Drones/UAVs that aren't that much smaller/lighter than current manned aircraft. The Pilot and support equipment is 1-2 bombs worth of weight, so while eliminating the pilot will slightly increase the payload, and slightly streamline the aircraft, it won't have a huge effect.

    Drones/UAVs also have to launch and land from somewhere.

    The alternative to Carriers is a network of fixed air bases. If you have a world-wide empire (the Sun still doesn't set on the British Empire, although just barely) then you can have bases that you can fly anything from. But if you don't, you are depending on bases that are in other countries, and those countries can tell you not to fly missions of a particular type from those bases.

    The real long-term threat to Carriers is the threat that aircraft will become non-viable in combat due to hyper-velocity weapons (lasers or railguns) that can target and down aircraft at long range without a chance to dodge them. But that threat is thought to be still many years down the road, even for a top-tier military. And if that were to happen, the Battleship could make a comeback.

    David Lang

  15. looking at that wikipedia article, only four non-US (five if you count the Chinese one undergoing sea trials) support non-vertical landings, three (four) of them are Soviet built hulls.

    David Lang

  16. Can't help recalling a certain President of the United States getting a lot of criticism for complaining about the EMALS system

    e.g. https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2017-05-15/trump-s-military-ignorance-steams-full-speed-ahead

    I get that the system is new and that there will be teething problems, I also get the (eventual) benefits of a pure electrical system. But the levels of failure in this seem to be far worse than I would have expected

  17. well, this is exactly why you have sea trials before a ship is commissioned.

    There is a real problem with the US tending to too much technology (see http://www.mayofamily.com/RLM/txt_Clarke_Superiority.html )

    But when your opponent has quantity, you had better have quality. And when manpower is limited (which budget realities are going to cause to be the case in the future) you need automation.

    The Ford is always going to suffer from being the first in it's class, but the Kennedy and Enterprise are going to benefit from the testing.

  18. Look at a photo of USS Enterprise (CVN 65) back in the 60's. Then look at a photo of Enterprise 50 years later just before decommissioning. Quite a bit of difference isn't there. Yet it's the same ship. What do you suppose it cost to make those modifications, and why do you suppose they were made instead of sticking with the original design.

    Whether we like it or not, technology marches on, and advances in radar technology caused massive changes to the island structure of the Enterprise as she aged. (…and it's not just radar that changed.)

    The theoretical advantages to the EMAL system made it a project worth pursuing. Yes, it's expensive because of the basic redesigns it required, and its teething problems may yet cause it to be canceled. But it is still something that needed to be pursued.

    As to the worth of a CVN? Are they vulnerable? Well, of course they are. Nothing is invulnerable, not even the venerable battleship or the modern SSN. (…or SSBN.) But a large carrier is an instrument of policy. It's a big stick. It places American air power within range of a huge portion of the globe. And remember, a CVN never goes it alone. It is part of a battle group. The carrier – and similar weapons developed for the other services – serves to give the president options that lie between surrender and pushing the big red button.

    It has been said that the CVN's most potent defensive weapon is it's flagpole and the stars and stripes flying from it. Any nation with the capability of destroying one of our CVNs would immediately find itself well and truly at war with the US. We have other weapons in our arsenal that can reach out and touch *anyone* on Earth with much more devastating results.

    Hopefully, it will never come to that.

  19. > Any nation with the capability of destroying one of our CVNs would immediately find itself well and truly at war with the US.

    I hope so. I keep expecting to turn on the news and find that North Korea has put a nuke on a short range missile (or in a diesel sub with a suicide crew) and attacked a carrier group in the area.

  20. All of the problems with the USS Ford, USS Zumwalt and the other ships being built, can be explained in one world, "concurrency". Design/Build may work with shopping centers but it does not work with ships using state of the art technology. All of the comments about the lack of testing can be answered by concurrency. There was never a plan to test prior to launch. Thank Obama, Ashton Carter and Ray Mabus. They were all more concerned with transgender bathrooms and ratings that would not hurt anyone's feelings than with a working Navy.

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