A new era of aircraft carrier fighter jet attack at sea is emerging, because electromagnetic launch technology has replaced steam catapults to massively increase sortie rates and offensive military options for U.S. Navy maritime power projection.
The successful completion of the U.S. Navy’s at-sea operational testing of its next-generation Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System on board the USS Ford means carrier commanders will now have a new set of attack possibilities due to the capabilities of this first of its kind technology.
EMALS, now installed on the USS Ford and amid integration into the future USS Kennedy and USS Enterprise carriers, is supported by new carrier landing technology called Advanced Arresting Gear. The operational assessments were part of the U.S. Navy’s 18-month-long Post Delivery Test and Trial period for the Ford, a key step in anticipation of its ultimate combat deployment.
The EMALS system, in development since as far back as 2000 with General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems, consists of a series of transformers and rectifiers designed to convert and store electrical power through motor generators before bringing power to the launch motors on the ship’s catapults.
By having an electrical pulse come down, the aircraft is pulled down the catapult to launch; the precise weight of the aircraft can be dialed in. As the aircraft accelerates down the catapult, it can reach the precise speed it needs to launch, senior Navy officials have said.
Unlike steam catapults, which use pressurized steam in more of what developers call a “shotgun” effect, a launch valve and a piston to catapult aircraft, EMALS uses a precisely determined amount of electrical energy. Therefore EMALS is designed to more smoothly launch aircraft while reducing stress and wear and tear on the airframes themselves. This is particularly useful because the amount of thrust needed to launch an aircraft depends upon a range of interwoven factors to include size, shape and weight of the aircraft, wind speed on the carrier deck and the speed of the aircraft carrier in the water.
On the ship, EMALS is engineered such that any of the ship’s four catapults will be able to draw power from any one of three energy storage groups on the ship. Metal decking is placed over the trough on the flight deck. Cabling and linear induction motor sections have been installed on board the USS Ford and linear motors are engineered to help create a sequentially activated rolling magnetic field or wave able to thrust or propel aircraft forward, Navy developers told me.
The EMALS system is engineered to be both steady and tailorable, meaning it can adjust to different aircraft weights and configurations.
- Navy officials said It is the same type of technology used in a roller coaster designed for critical launch reliability.
- An electromagnetic field turns on linear motors sequentially so as not to energize the whole field in one shot.
- The electromagnetic field acts on a large 22-foot long aluminum plate.
- The aluminum plate runs in between stationary sections of 12-foot long linear motors.
- Electricity runs through the two sides of the motors, creating an electromagnetic wave.
- Aircraft motors are kicked in and then a hydraulic piston pushes a shuttle forward.
The shuttle is what connects to the aircraft launch bar, a Navy developer told me.
The EMALS system can adjust to different aircraft weights and configurations. For example, EMALS is configured such that it could launch a lighter weight aircraft, such as an unmanned aircraft system. This is of particular relevance as the Navy certainly intends to greatly expand the amount of drones it operates from aircraft carriers in coming years.
Navy Ford-class Carriers
Navy Ford-class carriers will be able to launch a much greater number of drones in different sizes and configurations from the deck of the ship, due to the ability of the new Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System to tailor its thrust to launch a much wider range of air vehicles than what is possible with a traditional steam catapult.
This impacts the tactical equation as carriers will operate with an ability to launch small, medium and large drones for reconnaissance, refueling or even attack missions, something which greatly aligns with the Navy’s conceptual thinking about the future of the Carrier Air Wing.
This operational flexibility is particularly useful because the amount of thrust needed to launch an aircraft depends upon a range of interwoven factors to include size, shape and weight of the aircraft, wind speed on the carrier deck and the speed of the aircraft carrier in the water. EMALs is engineered to support current and future air-wing configurations; it is designed to accommodate a future air wing that requires higher energy launches and a much higher sortie rate.
Advanced Arresting Gear
The USS Ford is able to generate 13,800 volts of electrical power, more than three times the 4,160 volts that a Nimitz-class carrier generates. The EMALS system is also engineered to work in tandem with the USS Ford’s new Advanced Arresting Gear, or AAG. Unlike the existing hydraulic system used on current aircraft carriers, AAG is a mechanical electrical system with a cable that spins a water twister, a Navy admiral in charge of USS Ford development told me a few years ago during EMALS testing.
Similar to EMALS, the AAG is designed to reduce stress on the airframe during the landing process. On board the USS Ford, the EMALS and AAG systems recently achieved “8,157 successful aircraft launches and recoveries during the ship’s Independent Steaming Events,” a GA-EMS company statement said. EMALS and AAG have now completed initial carrier qualifications.
Successful Aircraft Launches
GA-EMS also announced that EMALS and AAG aboard CVN 78 achieved 8,157 successful aircraft launches and recoveries during the ship’s Independent Steaming Events. Over 400 pilots, including new student aviators, achieved their initial carrier qualifications or recertified their proficiency using EMALS and AAG. Both systems successfully completed Aircraft Compatibility Testing, which confirms the ability to launch and recover aircraft in the current naval air wing.
The maturation of EMALS has been a multi-year developmental process, as it represents the advent of previously unprecedented technology; many tests on land and at sea were performed before the system fully emerged on the USS Ford.
Prior to being integrated onto an actual carrier and reaching its current operational status, ground-based EMALS catapult tests launched EA-18G Growlers, F/A-18 Super Hornets, C-2 Greyhound planes and E2D Advanced Hawkeyes and even an F-35, all in preparation for carrier service
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.