- By Robbie GramerRobbie Gramer is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. He writes for The Cable, FP’s real-time take on all things, well, foreign policy. Before he joined FP in 2016, he used to think in a tank, managing the NATO portfolio at the Atlantic Council for three years. He’s a graduate of American University’s School of International Service, where he studied international relations and European affairs. He has lived in both Washington and Brussels, though he grew up in Idaho and Oregon, so he’s a West Coaster at heart. When he’s not busy reporting, he’s probably busy starting three new books before he has finished the last one or planning a trip to a national park he hasn’t visited yet.
President Donald Trump is angry the U.S. Navy isn’t using more steam power. He sent the Navy scrambling Thursday after he suggested it scrap an already-built electromagnetic catapult system on its brand-new aircraft carrier and replace it with a “goddamn steam” one.
In excerpts from an interview with Time magazine published Thursday, Trump slammed the catapult launch system on the USS Gerald Ford, the new, high-tech supercarrier slated to become the crown jewel of the U.S. Navy. The new system, the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS), replaces the old steam-powered catapult launch system for hurling jets off a short runway, albeit with heftier up-front costs — which really peeved the commander in chief.
Trump, per the Time interview:
I said, “You don’t use steam anymore for catapult?” “No sir.” I said, “Ah, how is it working?” “Sir, not good. Not good. Doesn’t have the power. You know the steam is just brutal. You see that sucker going and steam’s going all over the place, there’s planes thrown in the air.”
It sounded bad to me. Digital. They have digital. What is digital? And it’s very complicated, you have to be Albert Einstein to figure it out. And I said — and now they want to buy more aircraft carriers. I said, “What system are you going to be—” “Sir, we’re staying with digital.” I said, “No you’re not. You going to goddamned steam, the digital costs hundreds of millions of dollars more money and it’s no good.”
The Navy didn’t immediately respond to Foreign Policy’s request for comment or reaction, but is expected to address the commander in chief’s remarks in a statement.
Many defense experts who aren’t Albert Einstein are rebuffing Trump’s claims, though.
For starters, there’s one big problem: Trump’s criticism is a few years too late. The Ford is already built after almost a decade in the shipyard, EMALS system and all. Experts say it’s virtually impossible to sort out how to replace the existing EMALS system with the old steam-powered system, and that could cost billions of dollars.
Plus the Ford has the EMALS system for a reason: It confers a whole bevy of advantages over its steam-powered predecessor, said Andrew Holland of the American Security Project, a think tank. It has fewer points of failure, it’s lighter, and it’s more energy efficient with up to 30 percent more energy behind each launch — perfect for heavy fighters. And unlike the steam-powered catapult, the Navy can calibrate each launch’s speed to whatever type of plane (or drone) is taking off of its deck.
Catapults are part of what makes U.S. carriers a bigger, better breed of warship than those of other countries. China’s new flat top, and Russia’s old one, don’t even have steam catapults, but rather a sloped, ski-lift deck. That limits the kind of aircraft and payloads they can carry.
Here’s the Navy’s video showing the EMALS system in full force:
“The operational utility of [EMALS] is going to be so much higher that it really doesn’t make sense to change it,” Holland told FP. “Plus,” he added, “it’s built. It’s done. It’s on the carrier already.”
But some experts say Trump’s comments, already being widely mocked among defense types, aren’t without merits, lauding in particular his push to name-and-shame vast defense cost overruns on systems like EMALS.
“The president’s critique of the program is correct. He’s right to be frustrated and he’s right to step in and tell the Navy to pay greater attention to these overruns,” said Jerry Hendrix, a navy expert at the Center for a New American Security.
The price tag for the three Ford-class aircraft carriers ballooned from $27 billion to $36 billion in the past decade, and the project is behind schedule in part because of the EMALS system, as the Atlantic reported. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, slammed the carrier project as “one of the most spectacular acquisition debacles in recent memory” in 2015.
“The president is making the commander in chief’s intent that, at some future point, we may shift back to the easier, more affordable steam catapult system,” Hendrix said.
Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images