US Navy's electric plane-thrower successfully launches an F-18
Light at end of 10-year tunnel for Royal Navy?
The US Navy says it has successfully launched a jet fighter into flight using a radical new electromagnetically powered catapult. The feat is important for the Americans, whose next supercarrier will be a disastrous botch without the new tech: it is even more critical for the future of the Royal Navy.
In with the new
The US Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) announced the test success of its Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) last night, saying that the shore-based trials catapult at Lakehurst, New Jersey, successfully launched a Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet on Saturday.
“I thought the launch went great,” said Lieutenant Daniel Radocaj, the test pilot who flew the Hornet off the electric mass-driver. “I got excited once I was on the catapult but I went through the same procedures as on a steam catapult. The catapult stroke felt similar to a steam catapult and EMALS met all of the expectations I had.”
The "shooter" in charge of the ground team conducting the launch was Chief Petty Officer Brandon Barr, who said being chosen for the task was an honour and that "it was very exciting to knowingly be a part of naval aviation history".
The next US fleet carrier – CVN 78, aka USS Gerald R Ford – is now at an advanced stage of build, and was designed around the EMALS. If EMALS couldn't be made to work, the US Navy would have found itself in possession of the world's biggest helicopter carrier. There will be much celebration at NAVAIR following Saturday's success.
The Royal Navy, too, could feel some muted satisfaction. Though the Fleet Air Arm has been stripped of its Harriers and their ski-jump carriers in the recent Defence cuts package, Prime Minister Cameron promised that in a decade's time (provided that the next two governments agree) the RN will re-enter the world of serious maritime aviation. It will do this using one of the two aircraft carriers now being built – the other may be mothballed or even sold. If it is mothballed, however, the option would be there to have one ship up and running almost continuously: the other likely plan is to work a solo ship back-to-back with the French.
Under the original plan, the British ships were to carry the revolutionary F-35B, the world's first ever supersonic stealth jumpjet. An F-35B, like the Harrier before it, can get airborne from a ski-jump ramp with a combat load and return to the deck (having burned fuel and expended weapons) in a hover landing. Unlike the Harrier, the F-35B is also warranted to get back aboard ship still carrying a brace of heavy air-to-air missiles* – if necessary using a cunning "rolling vertical" landing, which would have been the RN's plan. Thus HMSs Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales would have needed no catapults, and none are provided at the moment.
But the F-35B is a tremendously complicated machine. It will always be expensive, and it is moving slowly through flight test at present. Even in 10 years it would probably be unaffordable for Britain in any numbers. The solution chosen has been to buy F-35C catapult planes instead, the type the US Navy will be getting. These are still stealth fighters (or fighter-bombers anyway, rather more useful for most purposes) but they don't need the vertical-thrust machinery of the B model. Thus they are somewhat cheaper and have improved performance in the air.
Black Buck achieved plenty
Lewis, I like you, and you often speak sense but you keep coming up with these huge clangers. Black Buck had one mission: denying the argies use of the Falkland Islands' airfields. It did that with great effect, preventing their effective use by the Argentinian Air Force and forcing them to fly from Argentina instead. Of course there was also a huge propaganda benefit from being able to claim the ability to project a bombing capability all the way down to the south atlantic but that's a side-effect.
In an ideal world our forces wouldn't have been stripped down until we only had the Harrier and strategic bombers flying from the UK, but the thing about war is that you use whatever resources are at your disposal in order to win. We did that. We won. Claiming after the fact that it was a waste of time and money, when it showed performed its objectives *and* demonstrated that there was a need for a much better equipped navy and airforce, is not a good argument if you want to re-align defence spending in a way that produces a better outcome.
Re: Time for a change
The UCAV are fine, all the time the other side doesn't do ECM, just like GPS guided muntions, it requires the other side to be stupid/incapable to work.
Frequency hopping radio's only get you so far in the face of heavy counter-measures, and the only way around that is to make the planes autonomous, this tradationally has been called a pilot. (and the thoughts of MS Win armed with missles is pretty damn scary, and invites a high mission failure rate)
Whilst UAVs are useful for recon (blow them out the sky, and not lose pilots), UCAVs will always have limited combat usefullness. I suspect that real life operating practice with UCAVs facing a competent capable OPFOR will be pretty similar to other novel air warfare innovations like the Boulton Paul Defiant, succesfull the 1st time the enemy meets them, and they'll be dead meat every time thereafter.
Time for a change?
The Navy could actually use this carrier nonsense to get a step ahead of the game for once..
The new carriers might not have steam catapults and the electromagnetic versions may be a while off - so why not plan *now* for a fully unmanned carrier air force? It's not like Naval carrier pilots are going to be very busy for the next decade, after all.
UAVs would be smaller than manned aircraft, hence easier to launch, recover and store on board the UKs smaller carrier(s), and would only require smaller electromagnetic catapults.
Spend the 'reinventing the magpult' money on 'building naval UAVs' instead and we could be on a winner.