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US sinks $0.5bn into electromagnetic aircraft-throwers

Great idea for new Brit carriers - if we get any

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The Pentagon has awarded a half-billion-dollar contract for the building of a radical new electromagnetic catapult, intended to hurl US Navy jets off future aircraft carriers and into the sky. The new tech could also be used to hugely enhance Britain's planned new carriers - but it's becoming more and more likely that these will never be built.

The so-called Electro Magnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) is intended to replace traditional steam catapults in all future US carriers. It was announced this week that General Atomics of San Diego has been awarded "an unfinalized $573 million ceiling-priced contract" to build the first one for the next planned US fleet carrier, CVN 78 or USS Gerald R Ford.

Ordinary fixed-wing jets or turboprops need to use catapult launch to take off from a carrier, as there isn't room on the deck for them to accelerate up to flying speed (even with the ship steaming into wind as fast as possible). The steam catapult, invented in Britain, has been the standard solution ever since jets came in after World War Two.

Steam catapults, however, naturally enough require copious amounts of steam. This is normally drawn from the ship's propulsion plant, which is fine in the case of steam ships or nuclear-powered ones like modern US Navy carriers (as the reactor uses a steam-turbine system to drive the props). The Royal Navy's current pocket carriers, however, are propelled by gas-turbine engines, meaning that they have no steam or catapults. Thus they can't operate normal planes, just helicopters and jumpjets like the Harrier, able to get airborne after a very short takeoff roll and come in to land vertically*.

The American Ford and her successors will be nuclear powered and could use steam cats, but EMALS offers massive weight and maintenance savings. It will also be kinder to the airframes of the jets it throws into the sky, saving on wear and tear. Hence the US Navy are keen to get it working.

Meanwhile, the planned pair of new Queen Elizabeth class carriers for the Royal Navy are on the drawing boards in the UK. They will be gas-turbine ships so as to save money, but they'll use an electric transmission rather than a gearbox to turn their screws. Space has been allowed in their design for catapult gear, but they can't use steam cats. In theory one might fit auxiliary steam boilers purely for launching planes, but that would be nearly as pricey as a nuclear ship.

However, the Queen Elizabeth class' electric transmission would make it a relatively simple matter to fit them with EMALS purchased from the States, using electricity from the ships' engines to drive the catapults. This would at a stroke make the ships - and so the British fleet - hugely more powerful. At the moment the only jets able to fly from them will be the F-35B supersonic stealth jumpjet set to replace the Harrier. But the F-35C - the catapult/arrester-hook version - not needing the B variant's lift fan and swivelling tailpipe, offers significantly better performance.

Better still, catapults and arrester hooks would let the RN operate a wide range of other planes. Hawkeye carrier AWACS aircraft, as used by France and America, would be able to sweep the sea and sky for hundreds of miles - allowing patrolling jets to eliminate threats to the fleet far away, before they came within striking distance. The lack of this capability is the main reason the Falklands taskforce suffered so badly in 1982 - and yet the RN has no firm plans to replace its current aged radar helicopters, which can't get very high or stay up very long.

Then, if F-35C carrier stealth fighters seemed too expensive, RN catapult carriers would be able to choose cheap and cheerful F-18s instead. This relatively affordable jet, in service with the US and around the world at the moment, is available in powerful new Super Hornet air-combat and Growler electronic-warfare configurations these days.

But all this is speculative, because - yet again - the Brit carriers are under serious threat of cancellation. With public finances under strain, the Defence budget is being eyed up for cuts. Despite the fact that the RN has slashed its surface fleet by a third or more so as to preserve the carriers, it may not get them anyway.

Not only is the RAF campaigning behind closed doors to scrap the joint RAF/Navy Harrier force early - so deliberately worsening the chance that any F-35Bs will actually be bought to replace them - the Army is also, disappointingly, agitating for the carriers to be axed.

If something isn't done now, the other two services may get their way. The main reason the carriers have survived to date has been the desire of the Labour government to channel work to shipbuilding yards, particularly ones in Scotland. Prime Minister Brown's constituency home overlooks one of these yards, and across the country on Clydeside it's only Navy shipbuilding pork which is keeping Labour MPs and MSPs in their seats.

But it seems a racing cert that the next Westminster government will be a Tory one, unconcerned about social regeneration through shipbuilding in Scotland. And Labour has chosen to defer the major spending on the carriers into the next government - effectively ensuring that they will be cancelled. This is because slowing down a project of this sort always makes it cost more.

The Conservatives might go forward with the carriers if a lot of money had already been spent and costs were under control; but Labour have ensured that this will not be the case. Delaying the project has meant that costs will balloon, and also that the Tories won't have to write off too huge a sum of public money when they cancel it altogether.

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