Really, no kidding.
My daily bulletin from the Washington Post included this banner headline:
What’s so amazing about that? Well, it would be understandable if the reader assumed that in this, as in almost all things, The Donald was simply talking out his backside, weighing in on something he doesn’t understand, and mouthing off at the experts as a way of proving, yet again, that he knows everything and is smarter than everybody else. In fact, it would be a miracle if this wasn’t the case.
Well, folks, miracles do happen!
What’s going on here? At the risk of immediately alienating the average reader, a little background: at issue is the proper functioning of the primary systems of the new class of aircraft carrier for the US Navy, of which the Gerald R. Ford, CVN-78, is the lead ship currently undergoing operational evaluation. By “primary systems”, I do mean “primary” – we’re talking about the machinery that flings aircraft off the front, and grabs them when they land at the back (as well as radars, propulsion, nuclear reactors, power distribution systems, even ammunition elevators). What Trump is on about are the systems at the front that launch the aircraft, which are quite literally catapults. You strap in a plane weighing 20 tons, 30 tons, what have you, and in about 2.5 seconds, and a distance of about 300 feet, the aircraft is accelerated from a standing stop to about 180 MPH. This is how fully-loaded aircraft the like of which use airstrips several thousand feet long on dry land manage to get airborne off of carrier flight decks.
It’s an impressively effective technology which, prior to the new Ford class, used steam as its power source. Essentially, the steam is used to drive a piston that flings the plane off the bow with tremendous force. It’s an amazing thing, really:
So, long story short, the Navy wanted to replace the old, proven steam technology with something powered by electricity. There are a number of reasons why this, in theory, would be better. It’s less bulky below decks; it should take less time to recharge electrically than to build up a head of steam, increasing the number of aircraft you can launch in a given time; it should be easier to maintain. To make it come true, the Navy commissioned General Atomics to produce EMALS – the ElectroMagnetic Aircraft Launching System.
Great! This all sounded so promising that the Navy, following a faddish procurement strategy known as “concurrency”, in which (to simplify) novel technologies are built into operational platforms and deployed while testing is still ongoing – if that sounds crazy, that’s because it is – installed the new EMALS catapults into the Ford while the system was still having very serious teething troubles. Teething troubles, sadly, which have yet to be resolved.
So now we have an aircraft carrier that cost upwards of 14 billion dollars, and the catapults don’t work! Neither do a lot of other systems, also novel items installed before being fully tested. This is from the on-line defence periodical Breaking Defence:
Testing during the 2017 showed that both the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) and AAG have had a spotty track record. In January, the Pentagon’s test and evaluation office released a scathing report stating that, as of June 2017, the electromagnetic catapults suffered a critical failure after an average 455 launches — a rate nine times higher than the Navy’s threshold requirement.
To put it another way, that failure rate means a Ford-class carrier has approximately a 70 percent chance of completing one day of sustained operations without a failure. When a problem does occur, the crew is forced to wait about 90 minutes for the system’s generators and motors to shut down before they could begin taking a look at the system to see what went wrong.
…In its report released in January, the Pentagon’s director of test and evaluation said the “poor or unknown reliability of the newly designed catapults, arresting gear…could affect the ability of CVN 78 to generate sorties, make the ship more vulnerable to attack, or create limitations during routine operations.” Given the reliability issues, the Ford would be “unlikely to be able to conduct the type of high-intensity flight operations expected during wartime,” the study concluded.
A link to the report:
On top of all this, it was found that the acceleration upon launch by the new catapults was too intense, over-stressing F-18 airframes.
There’s every hope that these problems will be ironed out, but God knows how long it will take, how much it will cost, and what range of expensive ripple effects the solutions will have on the design of subsequent ships in the class. In short, this is a fiasco.
The way Donald is going about this is typical of his assaholic bull in a china shop approach to things, and major defence procurement decisions aren’t undone as easily as he imagines, but dammit, the dummy is right! The old steam catapult design works just fine! It was risk-taking bordering on malpractice to install a replacement technology in a multi-kabillion dollar national asset before anybody could prove it actually worked!
Question: how is Trump getting this right? How is it that on this one issue, he’s bang on the money? How does he even know the first thing about this? I’d be surprised if he could find Saudi Arabia on a map, or tell you how many people lived within the E.U., or quote you last year’s figure for America’s annual GDP. How in the name of George Washington and the Continental Congress does he suddenly have a firm grasp upon an issue as arcane as the functioning of aircraft carrier catapults?
It’s simply vital that we understand this. The answer may hold the key to how accurate information and legitimate policy concerns might be force-pumped into the Trumpian brain-pan. We might be able to re-boot the entire system, populated this time with actual facts and sensible analysis.
We must get to the bottom of this!!