Navy tells Senate it’s happy with electromagnetic catapults

USS Gerald R. Ford
An F/A-18F Super Hornet, assigned to the “Salty Dogs” of Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 23, takes off from the flight deck of USS Gerald R. Ford on Oct. 6, 2017.

The Navy remains confident that electromagnetic catapults belong on its newest class of aircraft carriers, despite persistent questions from the commander-in-chief.

In a Senate hearing Tuesday, the Navy’s chief weapons buyer was asked to asses several new systems on the USS Gerald R. Ford, built at Newport News Shipbuilding.

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., asked about the new catapults and arresting gear that allow aircraft to launch and land safely, both of which have suffered through growing pains.

“We’re feeling pretty confident on both of those systems, both on catapults and the arresting gear,” said James F. Geurts, assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development, and acquisition.

Even a skeptical President Trump may be coming around, thanks to a Thanksgiving phone call with the commander of USS Ronald Reagan.

Trump has repeatedly questioned the new catapult system and has wondered why the Navy doesn’t stick with the more traditional steam system used on the current Nimitz-class ships.

In his Thanksgiving day call to service members, Trump put Capt. Pat Hannifin, the Reagan’s skipper, on the spot when he asked: “Steam is very reliable, and the electromagnetic – I mean, unfortunately, you have to be Albert Einstein to really work it properly. What would you do?”

Hannifin replied: “You sort of have to be Albert Einstein to run the nuclear power plants that we have here as well, but we’re doing that very well.”

The president sounded convinced: “I’m actually happy about that answer, because at least, you know, they’re doing what they’re doing. But that’s a very good answer.”

It is not clear how Trump became interested in the catapult system, although he toured the Ford during a visit to the Newport News shipyard in March 2017.

Geurts said the Ford’s recent time at sea resulted in about 750 successful launches and recoveries using the new systems. He was prodded again by Wicker, who chairs the sea power panel on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“We’re going to be glad we went with the EMALS (electromagnetic catapults) and advanced arresting gear?” Wicker asked.

“Yes sir,” Geurts said.

The electromagnetic catapults can be adjusted for heavy fighter jets and lighter drones, which Geurts said is necessary as naval air power evolves. The ability to adjust also reduces stress on aircraft, which should lead to less maintenance, supporters say.

A long list of government reports have taken issue with EMALS while it was being developed. That includes problems when the system was tested for launching aircraft that carried wing-mounted fuel tanks.

“There certainly have been technical challenges that we’ve had to work through, it really opens up our ability to operate a wider variety of aircraft from the deck,” Geurts said.

EMALS is built by San Diego-based General Atomics.

More work remains on the Ford’s advanced weapons elevators, which move ordnance from lower decks so fighter planes can be loaded before flying into combat. A recent story from Bloomberg highlighted problems with the 11 elevators, including four instances of “uncommanded movements” since 2015.

Sen. Tim Kaine said the elevator problems seemed similar in scope to earlier challenges on the launch and arresting systems, which prompted the Navy to assemble independent review teams. Kaine wondered if a similar team was needed to sort through the weapons elevator problems.

Geurts said he would likely put together a team to look at the weapons elevator program in the long term, but not specifically to examine the 11 elevators on the Ford, where he said the Navy and shipbuilder are making progress.

The Ford entered the Newport News shipyard in July for post-shakedown work that is expected to last about a year.

Block buy decision soon

Geurts said the Navy expects to decide by Dec. 31 whether to purchase two aircraft carriers at once, something not done since the defense buildup during the Reagan administration.

Questioned by Kaine, Geurts said the Navy has been working closely with the Newport News shipyard to understand what savings would result from a two-carrier purchase. He said it would exceed the $2.5 billion he had quoted earlier.

For context, the first-in-class Ford is expected to cost $12.9 billion. The second ship in the class, the John. F. Kennedy, will cost just under $11.4 billion. A two-carrier purchase would involved the third ship, the future USS Enterprise, now undergoing advance work at Newport News, plus a fourth ship.

The Newport News yard, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, is the sole builder of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers for the Navy.

At least 355 ships

The Navy wants a 355-ship fleet, up from about 287 ships today. That will take decades to achieve, but the sense during Tuesday’s discussion was that 355 was the floor, not the ceiling.

A 355-ship Navy “is a minimum,” Vice Adm. William R. Merz told the senators. The Navy is poised to conduct another force structure assessment to guide future decisions.

Testimony also touched on the need for skilled workers to build and maintain a larger Navy fleet. Kaine and Geurts headlined a forum in Hampton earlier this year that explored the growing need for shipbuilders across the trades.

Local industry leaders have recently partnered with educators and others on a campaign dubbed America Builds and Repairs Great Ships. It seeks to attract more workers into shipbuilding and train them faster.

“If you look at the numbers we have to hire, it’s a pretty staggering number,” Geurts said.

The Washington Post contributed to this story.

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