There’s been some speculation out there about the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System, or EMALS, the transformational catapult system the U.S. Navy is trying to put on the Ford Class Carrier. One of my fellow Navy bloggers is out there claiming EMALS is “a failure, and nobody is really sure what to do“.

That may well be the case, but since there’s precious little fact to be condensed from the RUMINT now flying around out in the blogosphere (read the comments), I figured it’d be nice to find some kind of official/semi-official statement–anything that might shed some light on the subject.

It just so happens that VADM Thomas J. Kilcline, Jr., Commander, Naval Air Forces, addressed EMALS a few days ago, and his view was…interesting. Read it! Here’s a rush transcript (errors are my own) of VADM Kilcline at WEST 2009:

“…The transformational aspects of CVN 78 and that class of aircraft carrier, one of the major parts of that transformation is our ability to generate sorties–a large number of sorties–and we find our catapult systems we have today are somewhat limited after they fire and fire and fire. Especially high-energy shots. High-energy shots are heavyweight aircraft that require either a lot more wind over the deck or a lot more power behind them.

So EMALS was a natural transformational move to “the next thing” in addition to the SPY-1 like radar system in the tower of the aircraft carrier, many more elevators to move things around, a smaller island to have more space for airplanes and to refuel and rearm, it was those catapults that were going to get us off the front end. 

EMALS is currently in Lakehurst, it’s in the ground, we brought a bunch of loads on it in a full-sized sim and it wor–not simulator but actually a generator running a load–now we’re putting it into the ground to how it’s going to work there.

I talked to somebody about this earlier, and see if you can follow me. We had 97 aircraft carriers after World War II, and in one of those 97 aircraft carriers we decided to cut a trough and put a hydraulic cat in so we could put 6 more airplanes on the fightdeck. That allowed us–because we didn’t have to do deck runs–to move airplanes a little farther forward.

We pumped a couple off and I’m sure the first guy who took the first hydraulic shot was kinda wondering what was going to happen, but he made it off the front end. Only one aircraft carrier had to be tested–one of 97. Fairly simple change, and then we have a catapult system. Came time for steam–God bless the Brits–they told us steam might work, they worked on it. They did the R&D for us. We had 20-30 aircraft carriers at the time, so we brought an aircraft carrier off-line, put an angled deck on it, and said, ahh…steam. First guy took a steam cat shot probably went “holy smokes,” but he made it off the front end. But the point I’m trying to make is that we were able to put S&T dollars–R&D into carriers because we had a lot of them or because somebody helped us

We have eleven aircraft carriers. Our S&T aircraft carrier (chuckles) I’m using S&T instead of R&D. Our S&T aircraft carrier is the next aircraft carrier. It’s a full-up round. The time from when it is commissioned until the time it goes on deployment is the same as the Bush which was just (stutters) commissioned. But its first in class with a lot of transformational capability and it makes people nervous. And the first person that takes a shot off that catapult is going to be somebody preparing for a deployment.

So you have to think about CVN 78 a little differently than you thought about the carrier that brought steam and hydraulics into the system. With that in mind, it’s a long pole in the tent. We’re not planning on flying STOVL aircraft for the entire airwing. We’re not going to be STOVL E-2s out there so we’re going to have to figure out that it’s going to work, that’s going to work the first time and we have to make sure that as a transformational piece of gear, Lakehurst works, we understand the generators, we understand the lash-up, moving a lot of electricity around, so you’d be amazed at the amount of work that’s gone into making sure this design is right.

But, as you would expect, including me, the closer I get the more I realize that until that catapult is in an aircraft carrier and those generators are lined up and it fires the first guy we’re all going to be a little nervous about is it going to work or not. I’ve given you the answer in that there’s still instability in the science and technology. And there’s a risk associated with moving forward. In transforming on your front line ship as it comes out is something that makes everybody a little antsy.

Do I think it’s going to work? I am convinced it’s going to work. And I’m convinced it’s going to make an operational difference in how we employ our aircraft carriers. Do I think we’re going to have to work through issues to get there? You’re darn right we are. Just like in anything that’s new like that. So I’ve given you kind of a long answer and I apologize for that but it’s a little more complicated than I think the question in that “how do l make this work.” Are there affordability issues? (Nods) Brand new system, never done before. The estimate process, is it going to get you what you need? Are there cost issues? Sure, estimates result in scheduling and cost issues. So what do they look like? I don’t know what they look like, I don’t even know what the magnitude will be.

The Secretary is engaged, the CNO is engaged, and I guarantee you I’m engaged. I care a lot about that system.”

If there’s something that will kill EMALS, it is, in my mind, the enormous potential risk of building this carrier before EMALS tech is mature. The prospect of investing billions in a vessel that may not work…is scary. Put bluntly, in the Ford, everything (from the engineering to the strategic justification) is wrapped around the new catapult/recovery system. It will be really difficult–if not catastrophic–to tolerate things like readjusting the carrier’s center of gravity to “refit to steam” in the event EMALS proves useless. We’ve built future strategy around immature platforms before, and it didn’t work well. We shouldn’t repeat the process.

VADM Kilcline reminded his audience at WEST 2009 that the CVN-68 carrier program gobbled up a mere $40 million in R&D dollars–for our entire 10 Nimitz Class carrier production run. The Ford Class is a totally different bird. And I’ll bet, in the present budget environment, that there are some budget-hunters out there who are eager to shoot it down.

But if EMALS runs into serious delays–or gets canceled–what are the consequences? If nobody is sure about what to do, can we speculate? Will an EMALS failure boost the fortunes of the F-35 STOVL? Save money by slowing carrier production? I dunno. But your ideas–even your un-sourced speculation–are most welcome. Given the risk, what is plan B?


Posted by Defense Springboard in Aviation, Innovation

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  • Moose

    Is it a problem of the current design or the technology itself? Does it not work or does it not work well? More information needs to come out about what’s wrong with Plan A.

  • Byron

    Is it possible for a senior flag to talk about a system or platform without using the word, “transformational”? Or “engaged”? Why can’t senior flags just talk like sailors?

  • It is probably expensive as hell, but we have JFK and Kitty Hawk sitting around. We have Enterprise that the Navy just spent half a billion dollars for a single deployment.

    All this talk about taking an old carrier and changing the technology, and yet there are three examples of carriers that could be used to test new technologies, and we don’t do it because there is no R&D money.

    The Navy needs a $1 billion dollar annual “innovation fund” for shipbuilding to test new ideas FIRST before putting them in new ships. That more than anything would turn results and savings into shipbuilding. A 10 year annual program worth $10 billion could save twice that much in SCN expenditures over the same time frame.

    I think Congress should do it to protect their investments, and keep the design and R&D communities healthy in this time of shipbuilding inflation that will almost certainly reduce the number of ships even more than it already has to date.

    Good find Springboard.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    Bullseye. I listened to VADM Kilcline’s comments regarding CVN-78, and wondered the very same darned thing. the boilers aren’t even cold on CV-63, and we are hearing that we have no test-bed capability. I find that both short-sighted and difficult to believe. Even if extensive cutting is required to install EMALS in CV-63 (or CV-67!) both hulls could be used as a test bed without risking the technological maturation process on a brand-new $6 billion flattop.

    Why wouldn’t we?

  • Larry Schumacher

    According to the EMALS article at Global Security the actual linear motor is sized to permit a possible retrofit into older carriers. The article is quite informative(sorry, I have to learn how to hotlink). None of the articles I have read have indicated a problem with EMALS besides funding, but perhaps G has scooped the world on this one.

  • Byron

    Forget JFK. The only way to really test EMALs is with a real aircraft, and you’d have to find God’s tugboat to get Kennedy up to launch speed: Her intakes and uptakes are closed off, so even if her boilers were working, which they aren’t, she couldn’t fire off. Her shafts and rudders are locked down (I did that), her hangar bay doors are locked shut (I did that), and her elevators are locked up (me too). Can’t speak to Kitty Hawk, but I expect she’s headed to decom status too.

    The part I don’t get is how in the world are you going to have those enormous EM fields in close proximity to aircraft electronics, especially fly by wire aircraft. And Galrahn, 1 billion for R and D? That’d get spent by by 10/2 every year (start of fiscal year for Navy is 10/1). If it works, fine, but I just don’t see the advantages to EMALs over steam.

  • Bill Aston

    I’m a bit off the power curve and seek awareness.Do any of you experts have a net reference to the advertised gotta-have advantages of EMALS over Steam cats?

  • Byron

    Google “transformational”? (bad Byron, bad Byron, slaps hand).

    Dunno, havent’ figured that one out myself. Then again, I’m a member of the “If it ain’t broke, dont’ fix it” school.

  • Bill Aston

    Wikipedia scores again. “Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System.”
    “Now in my days” we thought the steam was mucho better than hydraulic shots. Time Marches On…I hope.

  • Dave Price

    I’m not familiar enough with EMALS to know if it could be tested using smaller versions on UAVs. Perhaps the technology isn’t mature enough for “micro-miniature” versions. If so, however, we might be able to learn a lot of things on a less costly scale. Start small with something on the order of ScanEagle and work up to Predator-sized birds. The hypersonic research team I worked with back in the early nineties (after the Mach 30 National Aerospace Plane concept came off track) decided a stepped approach to speed increases might work (Mach 6, 8, 15, 30, etc). Of course scaling effects are not typically linear so this is certainly more complex than it sounds and includes a tradeoff in higher R&D costs in order to lower risk. Just a thought (and likely one that’s already been considered).

  • sid

    Some Catapult history here

    I realize that until that catapult is in an aircraft carrier and those generators are lined up and it fires the first guy we’re all going to be a little nervous about is it going to work or not. I’ve given you the answer in that there’s still instability in the science and technology.

    Is it wrong to infer from this that even full up aircraft testing at Lakehurst will be delayed to such an extent that the construction schedule of the Ford is being impacted?

  • sid

    And on another historical note, seesm the good Admiral may have some long term insight getting the heavys off the deck. Sure does favor his old man…

  • Jim

    Of course, given that senior leadership (i.e., SECNAV, CNO, et. al.) have stated that we need to stop building platforms prior to design and testing being completed, VADM Kilcline’s discussion begs the question, how does CVN 78 comply with this desired process (i.e., design before build)?

  • Brine

    Dave aside from the much touted 4th generation “transformation” of EMALS. I’d guess that it is an incremental step in removing steam from ships. We know how to make steam work, but it is limited by the Rankine cycle (theoretical maximum energy efficiency of a steam cycle) this usually tops out somewhere around 20% or some other ridiculously low number. I’ve never seen a proven heat cycle thats better but people are always trying to make one work in the nuclear power world and everyone wants some type of direct energy conversion, because motors and generators are usually ~90% efficient, we aren’t there yet but this is one of the systems that if changed will be cheaper and smaller, supposedly. (Note numbers pulled from thermo classes I took years and years ago if I’m a order of magnitude off someone correct me)

  • pk

    steam loses energy right from the get go. not just from heat losses in the piping between the generator and the user but going through joints, curves/bends, valves…… it does have expansive properties but one of the dirty little secrets in the nuke world is that their steam is not that hot. then there is that long cylinder on the catapults that is so high maintaince (the seal that opens and closes as the piston goes by). there isalso the water brake that keeps the piston (or whatever the current term for it is) from blowing right out the front of the ship on a shot. every time they make a cat shot the water brake dumps a condsiderable quantity of very good quality water over the side.

    the major problem with the emals will be the generation or recovery (like from a battery or monster condensor) of large quantities of electricicty on demand. if some kind of brake can be set up to recover some of the said electricity then they will be on the road to gold.

    the emf thing can probably be solved by installing heavy copper sheeting around the components and “grounding” them to the ships structure.


  • b2

    Applying K.I.S.S.:

    Dave Architzel told me it works. He demonstarted it for me on a table at the O’Club. I trust him. He is actually an engineer, CVN Skipper and test pilot, too. “Killer”- not so much trust-“Senator’s, er, Admiral’s Son”.

    Byron- they’ll test it at Lakehurst. That is where we do such things.

    It’s all about cost. Aircraft weight ain’t going up like it did from hyd to steam. The cost to maintain all that constantly corroding and dirty steam catapault system is what driving this “transformation”. BTW, I agree, what a $hitty word.