US Navy says electric jet-flinger tech looking good
Just in time to save the Royal Navy - or just too late?
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.
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).
Comment - If it's so obvious - Why aren't we doing it?
It's really a no-brainer. The MoD had its reasons for not planning catapult ships to begin with: nobody was sure that electric catapults would work, for one thing, and the cost of nuclear carriers or ones with duplicated steam and gas engine rooms would have been much too high.
But the risk of technical failure is plainly not such any longer as to daunt the USN, even given the very high stakes the Americans are playing for - the effective crippling of their latest multibillion-dollar supercarrier. What's stopping the MoD from doing the right thing, and simply going to electric catapults and F-18s?
Well, firstly there will be/have been a huge interservice struggle between the Royal Navy and RAF on the issue. The RAF absolutely doesn't want to see the Navy in control of a big fleet of F-18s, especially at a time when its own jet fleet is probably going to be seriously cut back. F-18s would make RAF Eurofighters look really bad in many circumstances: not as air-to-air fighters, but in the much more common roles of strike and battlefield support. F-18s' running costs would also be hugely lower than those of Eurofighter. Worst of all, the F-18 is available with a lot of very sophisticated electronic warfare and suppression-of-air-defences options which the RAF passionately wants for the Eurofighter. (Australia has recently ordered Hornets specially designed so that such EW kit can be added later, and the UK would be foolish not to take up this option.)
If the Royal Navy got F-18s and E-2s, it would rival the RAF in air power - exceed it, perhaps, in some important respects. Having managed to break out of the stranglehold of small-scale British/European aerospace industry, the Fleet Air Arm would offer a lot more bang per buck than the probable all-Eurofighter RAF of the future. Theoretically the RAF could own and operate the planes, or many of them anyway as is now the case with Harriers, but the airmen don't want to operate carrier planes as routine and the Navy doesn't want to let them. Backing for catapult carriers and cheap planes will be far from universal in the Navy, too - many sailors would sooner spend the money on frigates or submarines - and nonexistent in the air force.
This sort of schizophrenic bureaucratic infighting is absolutely real: just such a power struggle was a major factor in the preservation of the idiotic ongoing buy of Future Lynx helicopters by the Army Air Corps. Bigger, better, cheaper Blackhawks could have been bought instead - but a Blackhawk is big enough that the RAF could argue they should be RAF aircraft, not Army, under the MoD's arcane rules. Thus the soldiers settled for poorer, more expensive choppers, to be delivered after many years' delay - as it would keep them out of the RAF's acquisitive hands. The airmen didn't mind, just so long as they didn't have to suffer the sight of soldiers flying big, useful aircraft.
Getting back to catapults and carrier planes, there's another sabotage factor at work. Unfortunately, the Americans are leaning on us to buy F-35s. If Britain pulls out of the F-35 - even temporarily until costs fall, followed perhaps by purchase of F-35Cs in future - that would be a severe blow to the embattled programme in the States. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has lately been forced to defend the F-35 against its numerous American critics, has recently told  British defence minister Liam Fox that backing for the F-35 is one of the most important things that the Pentagon would like to see preserved in the UK's defence cuts.
So it's really just the UK taxpayer who might like to see last week's EMALS news translate into action at the MoD and two powerful carriers with strong airgroups appear in the RN order of battle for much less money than had been planned. There have been small hints  lately that some in the MoD were at least suggesting catapult carriers, but no more than hints.
Unfortunately the chances are that something else will happen. We might get the ships, or just one ship (flip a coin - is it in drydock when the next crisis breaks out?) with an inadequate number of F-35Bs and no proper radar aircraft. Perhaps more likely still they will simply be scrapped, writing off the hundreds of millions already spent and more in contractual cancellation fees, and the navy will be bought off with some pointless new frigates  - busting the RN at last back down into the second division with the other no-proper-aviation navies, the fate it struggled so hard to avoid before the Falklands (and just as well, or the Falklands War could never have been fought).
It's a gloomy prospect. ®