President Donald Trump kicked off a Tuesday speech to the crew of the amphibious assault ship Wasp with a question — electric or steam?
“So then let me ask you a question — catapult — right, the catapult system. Do you like electric or steam?” Trump said while calling for an audience voice vote during his roughly 20-minute address in Yokosuka, Japan.
The president treated his appearance on board the Wasp as a Memorial Day event because it still was Monday in the United States, but Trump’s address conveyed the same pro-steam theme he’s sounded since early 2017, when he entered the White House.
His speech is the latest sign that Trump continues to want the Navy to abandon the revolutionary Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System, or EMALS, on Gerald R. Ford-class carriers and replace it with steam catapults used by previous flattops.
“I really need this information, because, you know, we’re building carriers. We’re building one using an electric catapult and an electric elevator,” Trump told hundreds of personnel assigned to the Japan-based 7th Fleet.
Trump’s Tuesday speech questioned whether the “electric” system would work in battle, grousing that it “must be very delicate" compared to the steam catapults on carriers such as Nimitz, which was commissioned in 1975.
He also bemoaned the original decision to go with EMALS over steam as “before my time a little bit” and grumbled that “this crazy electric catapult” was “$900 million” over budget.
Trump didn’t detail where he got those figures, but a 2017 report from the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office estimated that the price tag for Ford’s EMALS would rise to $958.9 million, about $814 million more than analysts thought it would cost in 2004 when the contract began.
And that’s still a moving target because more funds were needed to patch software glitches in EMALS before combat-loaded jets can be launched.
Those fixes are expected to be finished when Ford leaves Huntington Ingalls Newport News Shipyard in October.
Congress has appropriated funding for EMALS to be installed on the future Ford-class flattops John F. Kennedy and Enterprise, too.
Bloomberg analyst Rob Levinson told Defense News that Trump could order the Navy to scrap EMALS in the future CVN-81, which hasn’t been named, but that would be difficult to do for Kennedy and Enterprise.
The partially-built Kennedy probably would need to be “torn apart,” he warned, “and a lot of penalties would have to be paid to contractors.”
Going back to steam also would likely receive a chilly response on Capitol Hill, not to mention at San Diego-based contractor General Atomics, the manufacturer of EMALS.
The problem is that Ford-class carriers have been designed from the power plant up for EMALS.
To return to the system used by Nimitz would mean carving out space for both generating steam and piping it to the catapults, displacing other systems built into the warships.
That’s why in 2009 the Navy estimated that replacing EMALS with steam catapults could delay construction of a Ford-class carrier for up to 18 months.
As for the warship Wasp, it doesn’t even use catapults to launch its helicopters, MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft, AV-88 Harrier II jump jets or F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters.
But that didn’t stop Trump from calling for a voice vote from “all of the folks that know exactly what I’m talking about — the catapult system.”
His push for steam drew enthusiastic cheers but when he mentioned “electric” only a smattering of applause could be heard, followed by laughter from the rest of the audience.
Singling out one pro-EMALS voice, Trump joked that he “works with the enemy” before saying the sailor was “all right,” although perhaps "in danger.”
Trump said that he’s talked with members of Ford’s crew and they also complained about the “electric catapult" and preferred steam.
“So I think I’m going to put an order when we build a new aircraft carrier carrier, we’re going to use steam,” Trump said.
Mark D. Faram is a former reporter for Navy Times. He was a senior writer covering personnel, cultural and historical issues. A nine-year active duty Navy veteran, Faram served from 1978 to 1987 as a Navy Diver and photographer.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.