Beginning with the U.S.S. Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), steam catapults will be replaced on aircraft carriers with the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launching System (EMALS). The steam catapult was developed by the British after World War II, but found its home on American carriers beginning with U.S.S. Hancock (CVA 19), which had the technology retrofitted in 1951.
Since that time, the steam catapult was retrofitted on every attack aircraft carrier and became standard equipment on every class of carrier built after that time. The importance of the steam catapult for carrier operations cannot be overemphasized. Prior to its adoption by the fleet, large aircraft with heavy payloads could not be launched from flight decks. The workhorse aircraft of the Cold War, Vietnam and modern Navy would have been unable to deploy from the largest super carriers without the steam catapult.
Technology has finally created an alternate means of powering the catapult. EMALS has been under development for the last 25 years and although there are still teething problems, the technology has been successfully tested on the first Ford-class carrier.
EMALS uses an electromagnetic surge to launch planes through the use of an armature. It is more efficient, quieter and smaller than the steam-powered piston used on older carriers. The amount of thrust can also be more easily controlled, allowing drones to be launched from carriers as well as aircraft.
Although there are no plans to retrofit the catapults on earlier members of the Nimitz-class carriers, EMALS will be used on all future ships of the Ford-class and, if the longevity of the steam catapult is anything to go by, the next follow on class of super carriers.
The June failure of the EMALS system on the Ford raised a number of concerns about the viability of the program. The problems, however, were found not to be with the system but with the way the system communicates with its components.
“We would have liked to have seen this shoot today,” Capt. John Meier, Ford’s commanding officer, said at the time. “I’m certainly not disappointed in where we are in the test program. … I think that what we have today is a minor setback to the test program. We will get back on track [and] our team knows that. As a matter of fact, you don’t see them around right now because they are getting after it.”
The successful test later that month saw the EMALS launch a deadweight sled off of the bow of the Ford.
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