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US Navy says electric jet-flinger tech looking good

Just in time to save the Royal Navy - or just too late?

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The US Navy's plan to fit its next aircraft carrier with electromagnetic mass-driver catapults instead of steam launchers is reportedly on track, with shore trials using test weights a success. The progress of the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS), the first of its kind, is of interest to the Royal Navy as it could offer a way to massively cut the money spent on the Service's two new carriers - or, more accurately, to cut the money spent on their aeroplanes.

An F/A-18E Super Hornet assigned to the Pukin Dogs of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 143 catapults from the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69). Credit: US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Chad R. Erdmann

Cheap and cheerful

A statement issued last week by the US Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) says that the EMALS test installation at Lakehurst, New Jersey is going through its planned programme without difficulty.

“The team has successfully completed no-load and dead-load launches in all areas of the required performance envelope,” said Captain James Donnelly of the US Navy. The statement continues:

Among the test points accomplished, the team recently completed a 154-knot dead-load launch equivalent to the weight of an F/A-18E Super Hornet, the first platform to be launched by EMALS scheduled this fall.

“[These tests] demonstrate the significant progress the EMALS program is making,” said Lisa Nyalko, NAVAIR bigwig. “Completing commissioning testing brings us one step closer to our first aircraft launch this fall and more importantly, to our on-time delivery of EMALS to CVN 78.”

CVN 78, aka USS Gerald R Ford, is the next US Navy supercarrier, now under construction. It's very important to the USN that EMALS works, as it is acknowledged that it's now too late to change the Ford's design and fit her with steam catapults like all other US (and French) carriers. If for some reason EMALS isn't a success, the US will have bought the biggest and most expensive helicopter carrier ever.

Though the steam catapult is actually a British invention, Blighty's present pocket-size carriers don't have any catapults at all. Thus they can only launch helicopters and short-takeoff Harrier jumpjets.

The new, bigger carriers now building for the RN, HMSs Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales, are to be likewise catapult-less, though they are easily big enough for cats and space has been left in their design to install them later. But they can't take steam catapults as they are gas-turbine propelled rather than nuclear like US and French ships, and so have no steam.

As they stand, then, the only jets that the British ships will be able to use are Harriers - about to retire - and their replacement, the F-35B supersonic stealth jumpjet. The UK can afford the ships with relative ease - they are to cost only £5bn or so, a snip compared to major projects like the Army's £14bn FRES supertanks or the RAF's £20-25bn Eurofighter. What the UK very probably cannot afford is any very large number of F-35Bs, particularly not if they must be delivered in time to equip the carriers as they are delivered in just a few years.

This is because the F-35B - first aircraft in the world to combine stealth, supersonic speed and vertical-thrust jumpjet capability in one airframe - is a hugely complicated and expensive machine to begin with. Worse, the entire F-35 programme (there are also runway F-35A and catapult F-35C versions) has suffered major cost overruns and delays. The F-35B jumpjet version in particular is making limping progress through flight testing, slowing that strand of the project still further - and so pushing up costs, particularly in the near term.

The F-35 programme and with it the F-35B will probably turn itself around in time: thousands of jets are set to be made just for the US armed services, which should offer excellent economies of scale and low prices once planes are pouring off the production lines. The F-35 may very well dominate the world fighter market in decades to come as costs fall.

But the Royal Navy's new decks need filling just a few years from now, when the F-35B is likely to be only just into full production. Prices will be ruinously high, much higher than foreseen. Even without budget cuts and massive previous blunders (both of which are the reality at the Ministry of Defence right now, as it finalises its cuts package) there is no way that the UK can realistically afford anything like enough jumpjets. Blighty probably couldn't even afford any large number of the cheaper F-35 runway or catapult versions, which are still after all the very latest stealth planes.

But the UK could afford large numbers of F-18 Hornets, the main jet used by the US Navy (and many other air forces around the world). In production for decades, the Hornet now is what the F-35 may become - the sensible, widely-used, affordable choice for someone buying jets. A relatively small amount spent now on putting EMALS or something like it into the British carriers would permit them to be filled with good, inexpensive-to-run aircraft at a fraction of the cost of F-35s, saving many billions just when they must be saved. Still more would be saved by the option to purchase E-2 Hawkeye catapult radar planes as used by the US, France and many other countries (these latter, having no carriers, buy Hawkeyes as a cheaper alternative to massive landbased AWACS planes).

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