New Technologies Aboard our Newest Ships
Within naval circles, there is broad agreement that the United States benefits from and must continue to field aviation-capable warships.
Regarding the aircraft carrier class, this agreement narrows as critics deride them as expensive (no argument) and dismiss them as mere floating targets in today's naval environment (not supportable with fact). Disagreements and studies about the size and mission of these ships have persisted for some 50 years, but each time, when weighing speed and endurance, payload, sea-keeping, survivability and combat effectiveness, a nuclear-powered ship of roughly 100,000 tons capable of handling ~75 aircraft is the answer.
The United States Navy has in commission 11 such ships – "big-deck nukes" – that are the centerpiece of our naval combat power. We are currently building three more, and another has been ordered. Adversaries respect them if not fear them, and allies are comforted by their routine operations in all the world's oceans. France also operates a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, with plans for one and possibly two more.
The ten ships of the Nimitz class were designed in the 1960s. They are characterized by steam and hydraulics and the heavy use of manpower. Though Nimitz herself is 45 years old, the class will likely operate another 40 years, quite ably and adaptable as all naval forces are to changing technologies and combat requirements.
In the 50+ years since Nimitz was designed, technologies have emerged and matured. Launching airplanes with electromagnetic energy vice steam power is the carrier technology most mentioned in the news today. Indeed, the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) outfitted on our newest nuclear carrier, USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78), is a source of controversy widely debated in naval circles, and one that even gained the attention of our Commander-in-Chief.
Steam catapults have worked well for the U.S. Navy for the almost 70 years since the Royal Navy introduced them to us to replace the hydraulic catapults of the day. Catapults are critical to the operations of carriers, so why replace tried and true?
Because electromagnetic is better.
Decisions were made 20 years ago to put EMALS, a maturing but proven technology, aboard the Ford-class ships. These were not uninformed decisions. Steam catapults are labor intensive and topside heavy. They take time to make ready and suffer from mechanical breakdowns. While they can launch the heaviest airplanes the fleet has ever deployed, they are not optimized to launch the lighter unmanned carrier aircraft on the drawing boards.
With linear acceleration, EMALS saves wear and tear on the aircraft (and aircrew) as steam did when it replaced hydraulic-powered catapults in the 1950s. With triple-redundancy safety interlocks, it all but eliminates the risk of a "cold" cat-shot. It has the power to give the aircraft any end-speed required, giving commanders operational flexibility with "downwind" operations.
CVN-78's lengthy Post Delivery Test and Trial period teething pains regarding other new technologies of the ship are well known, and critics grumble about a new aircraft carrier that has yet to deploy some three years after commissioning. We all want the same thing: our best ship ready on arrival wherever our National Command Authority needs it. CVN-78 is a first-in-class ship, and all involved with her are learning how to operate and maintain her while integrating several cutting-edge technologies. The "electric jet" F/A-18 and especially the T-45 had vexing development challenges in the 1980s, and the eight nuclear reactors on Enterprise were difficult to manage through the life of that innovative new warship. If you ever operated new military aircraft, you know of procedures and limitations learned from mishaps.
Knowledgeable commentators can advocate for steam catapults and argue over past decisions and even oil-fired instead of nuclear energy to heat water for propulsion. But like the optimum size of today's carriers and the nuclear method to propel them, electromagnetic catapults and the operational and ship survivability benefits they bring are right for today's budget and tactical realities.
Another reality is that EMALS is aboard CVN-78 and the two follow-on ships. To put steam catapults on subsequent ships will require huge redesign efforts and years more delay. It is worth the effort – it was then and is now – to fix the glitches that come with complex new systems that deliver game-changing capabilities to our warfighters and ensure our future security.
Captain Kevin Miller is a retired Navy fighter pilot, current defense consultant, and the bestselling author of four novels. In his flying career, he logged over 1,000 carrier arrested landings.