The state-of-the-art catapult on the newest supercarrier is unable to launch jets loaded with external fuel tanks, a problem that could cripple carrier operations. But Navy officials say a software change in the works will correct the problem before the system's planned operational launch of aircraft in 2017.
The Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System catapult puts too much force on external fuel tanks carried by legacy and Super Hornets, and EA-18Gs Growlers, a grave limitation until fixed and one more challenge for a ship that has seen cost overruns and delays.
The catapult loading problem was first reported by Bloomberg News on March 25. The problem was identified in April 2014 during testing at Lakehurst, N.J., said Victor Chen, spokesman for Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division.
"The Navy understands the issue, views it as low technical risk, and has a funded plan in place to fix it," he said. "The resolution of this issue is straight-forward because the Navy will leverage this inherent capability of the system to tune the catapult forces for these wing tank configurations. There is no impact to ongoing shipboard installation or shipboard testing and this will not delay any CVN 78 milestones."
The EMALS catapult replaced the steam-powered catapult system on the new Gerald R. Ford carrier class. Two of four catapults are built on the Ford, and the carrier will launch dead loads (weighted sleds) into the James River in June. Multi-billion-dollar contracts for the follow-on carrier, John F. Kennedy, are to be signed in April.
An inability to carry wing-mounted external fuel tanks — which carry 480 gallons for the Super Hornets and Growlers, and 330 gallons for F/A-18 A-D Hornets — would be catastrophic for carrier operations.
The problem first emerged during Aircraft Compatibility Tests that were conducted in two phases that spanned from December 2010 to April 2014.The tests included 452 launches of the EA-18G, F/A-18E, T-45C Goshawk, C-2A Greyhound, E-2D Advanced Hawkeye and F-35C Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter.The holdback release dynamics, which are the core of the problem, were not evident during dead load launches and were within the realm of normal discovery, officials said. The issue did not result in any failed launches and was not the result of any material, quality or manufacturing flaw within the system.
The solution requires "further tuning of the EMALS control algorithm," officials said in reporting the initial findings. Software updates will be followed by dead load launches, comparative steam catapult launches and aircraft launches at Lakehurst in fiscal 2016. The Ford will get software updates after its scheduled March 2016 delivery, but prior to operational launch and recovery of aircraft, which is set for 2017. No additional hardware or changes to equipment already installed will be required. Similarly, aircraft will not require modification.
EMALS is a revolutionary technology that has had its share of problems. By the time the ACT tests ended and more than 3,000 dead-load launches were added to the mix, EMALS could muster a reliability rate of only 240 launches without a failure. That was far short of the 1,250 launches the system should have been hitting at that point.
Still, EMALS is "ahead of the curve," Rear Adm. Thomas Moore, program executive officer carriers, said March 19. While the Ford's test program is on schedule, it is only 37.5 percent complete. As such, EMALS and Advanced Arresting Gear will receive the bulk of attention in the coming year.
The AAG system could manage only 20 arrests between failures — a rate 248 times higher than should be expected, according to an April 2014 Congressional Research Service report. This led to a major redesign of the "under-developed" water-twister, which absorbs about 70 percent of energy during a landing. Those changes have put development two years — and by some congressional estimations, four and a half years — behind schedule.