back to article US sinks $0.5bn into electromagnetic aircraft-throwers

The Pentagon has awarded a half-billion-dollar contract for the building of a radical new electromagnetic catapult, intended to hurl US Navy jets off future aircraft carriers and into the sky. The new tech could also be used to hugely enhance Britain's planned new carriers - but it's becoming more and more likely that these will …


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  1. JimC

    Still think they are the wrong ships though...

    Two ships isn't really enough to gurantee having one in service all the time... OK the Invincibles are really too small to be of much use, but three 30,000 tonners spread out over a much longer building time would have been much more likely to actually get built, and would have been good enough for a significant percentage of the roles needed.

  2. Anonymous Coward

    Agghhh, Lewis be a pirate !

    Notwithstanding the rights and wrongs of the arguments, you SO hi-jacked this story Lewis !

  3. Mike Richards Silver badge

    Ship names

    The only thing that will boost morale on the USS Gerald R Ford is that they won't be crewing the USS George W Bush.

  4. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    Thinking out of the Box.

    "But it seems a racing cert that the next Westminster government will be a Tory one, unconcerned about social regeneration through shipbuilding in Scotland. And Labour has chosen to defer the major spending on the carriers into the next government - effectively ensuring that they will be cancelled. This is because slowing down a project of this sort always makes it cost more." ..... Crikey, Lewis, that paragraph definitely identifies Labour as being "unconcerned about social regeneration through shipbuilding in Scotland" and/or incompetent as a Government.

    If anyone who wanted to start a war was swiftly and relatively effortlessly and at the cost of a single well placed bullet, dispatched to Hell and their Maker, rather than polluting the scene with their rancid and self serving views, would there very soon immediately be no more wars and Weapons of any Mass Description. And the World would be a much better place too ..... for who would really miss the pathetic warmonger.

  5. Doogs


    Nice article as usual, Lewis; just one thing - is it possible to have footnotes on the actual page they're referenced from?

    By the time I read them, my (rather terrible) memory means the context gets a bit hazy :)

    It's nearly beer o'clock...

  6. Bug


    They used steam because they already had it and an energy reservoir in the boilers. Loose a bit of steam pressure during a launch to be built up again before the next one.

    Just how much energy does a launch take? Does the generator for a ships electric propulsion system have enough power output to supply it? If so maybe an electromagnetic system makes sense. If not then you need some energy storage which would have to be in the form of expensive batteries or capacitors and electrical systems to control it.

    What is wrong with compressed air? It has the advantage of higher possible pressure and not turning into water if you don't keep it hot, a pressure reservoir could form a structural part of the hull saving weight and cost. It could use existing steam technology for the launch mechanism.

    Will an electromagnetic (assuming you have a way to power it) launch mechanism have real reliability/operational/cost advantages over a piston in a cylinder?

    Half a billion $? This really smells of pissing away a lot of money on leccy tech for the sake of leccy tech.

  7. hammarbtyp

    Not only the US!

    Just to mention the UK has its own electric catapult development system-EMCAT developed by the same people who are doing the CVF electric power generation

  8. Pete 2

    Basically, a rail gun?

    OK, I'm no expert but it sounds to me like these EMALS thingies, if they even exist in the real world at the scale needed to fire a plane into the air, uses electromagnetic induction to accelerate the aircraft. Now, I have no problem with that concept (except that aren't the military trying to replace metal with carbon composites in fighters? to reduce weight and improve performance, anyway I digress).

    However, these electromagnetic catapaults will act on the metallic airframe of the plane - and presumably any other loose pieces of metal that just happen to be not tied down: such as a spanner left on deck by a lax engineer, whatever fell-off the last plane to land, the keys in the air-captain's pocket etc. If these all get shot off the end of a carrier along with the intended plane, I can't shake the impression that an unlucky pilot is basically going to find him/herself flying through a field of shrapnel, with obvious unfortunate side-effects on the airworthiness of the aircraft. and all the weapons it's carrying. In a word BANG.

  9. James 55


    Ask Alton Towers. I'm sure whoever developed those EM catapults could provide a similar system for an aircraft carrier. After all the electromagnets are only a few meters long all together and they provide a lot of power for Rita.

  10. Neil Stansbury


    ...but even if we accept the argument that the carriers aren't going to be yet another defense white elephant, why..

    1. Do we need two of them, the maintenance costs alone run into 10's of billions over their life time

    2. Do they need to be "super carriers"? Why can't we have new more capable re-designed "Invincible-class" carriers with the catapults.

    What (significant) ability would the Queen Elizabeth class have that re-designed modern Invincible-class carriers wouldn't't?

  11. Anonymous Coward

    I am with Lewis on this one.

    Save the carriers.

  12. James Pickett

    Back to the future

    "EMALS offers massive weight and maintenance savings"

    R i g h t . Or they may do after another $500m worth of development. Alternative, we have tried and trusted steam catapults, that have worked for decades and simply need an oversized kettle to operate. Since when was weight a problem on an aircraft carrier..?!

  13. ian 22

    USS Gerald R Ford?

    As I recall, Ford was appointed Vice-President by Nixon, and who proceeded to pardon him of his crimes when he succeeded to the throne^W office. He was also well-known for his touch of brain-damage. Wonderful name for a ship. It seems no Republican president, no matter how feckless, is beyond the pale. Is there a USS Richard M Nixon?

    The RN (and the nation) needs the QE carriers- rum sodomy and the lash are inadequate responses to an anti-ship missile.

  14. Gaius


    The Invincible class weren't even really carriers, they were "through-deck cruisers" designed to hunt submarines in the Greenland-Iceland-Scotland region. The new ships are designed, like the US Navy's, to be mobile airfields providing air superiority and ground support.

    There's a case that we should have licensed the Wasp design from the Americans and built half-a-dozen of those, tho'. Those aren't really carriers either, they're assault ships.

    We need at least n + 1 where n is the number that will actually be deployed. Unlike Star Trek you can't send a crew out on a 5 year mission...

  15. SkippyBing Silver badge

    @ Neil Stansbury

    To answer your questions generally, the size was dictated by the requirement which was along the lines of the ability to deliver x aircraft sorties a day for y days in sea conditions up to a certain level. If you redesign an Invincible class CVS to do the same it ends up being pretty much the same size as CVF, CVS have appallingly low sortie generation rates as they were originally designed as an ASW helicopter carrier escort to proper carriers.

    If you want to add catapults to a CVS you'd have all manor of problems, firstly actually fitting them in the thing as they're almost as long as the ship, reinforcing the deck which isn't up to the landing loads involved, which then means you have to increase the size of the ship to stop it capsizing, so again back to CVF size.

    In other words the CVF delivers a lot more violence to the battle space than a CVS. To compare the USN Carriers in the Indian Ocean put more aircraft over Afghanistan on a daily basis than you can get on a CVS, or indeed the UK has parked in country.

    @ Pete 2, the EMALS don't work on the aircraft itself, they're safely below decks and operate on a shuttle that penetrates the deck and hooks onto the nose wheel a la the steam catapult. The reduction in wear and tear is due to the progressive nature of the acceleration, as opposed to the kick in the pants steam delivers. My old man tells amusing stories of almost blacking out on launching from the old RN carriers as their short catapult length required a rather high initial kick.

  16. Boris the Cockroach Silver badge

    Neil Stansbury Posted Friday 3rd July 2009 15:17 GMT

    1. Do we need two of them, the maintenance costs alone run into 10's of billions over their life time

    Yes... because 1 will always be in port being fixed/serviced/straightened out after a 2nd nav office puts his coffee cup on the only reef on the map.. then steers the ship into it

    2. Do they need to be "super carriers"? Why can't we have new more capable re-designed "Invincible-class" carriers with the catapults.

    Because it would cost almost as much to build 3 new invincibles as 2 QE class carriers

    What (significant) ability would the Queen Elizabeth class have that re-designed modern Invincible-class carriers wouldn't't?

    Simple. Number of aircraft carried

    If we could have taken 45 aircraft per carrier plus some awacs to the falklands, then we would have had a better chance than taking 20 aircraft per carrier and hoping the destroyer pickets picked up anything inbound

    I just hope the stupid things are built because it would give our forces greater flexibilty than they currently have

  17. Ken Hagan Gold badge

    Inter-service politics

    "Not only is the RAF campaigning behind closed doors to scrap the joint RAF/Navy Harrier force early - so deliberately worsening the chance that any F-35Bs will actually be bought to replace them - the Army is also, disappointingly, agitating for the carriers to be axed."

    What's disappointing is that we seem to have armed services who each regard each other as the opposition. I imagine a combined service would suffer similarly, but perhaps less so and therefore perhaps a good idea.

    On the subject of the carriers: if you want your armed forces to be able to operate globally, you need them. Armies without supply lines end up dead. Supply lines without air-cover get bombed to oblivion. Air-cover needs somewhere to take off from. And even if you have an empire on which the sun never sets (and we don't anymore, coz we've rented all the good islands out to the Yanks) you can never have too many places to take-off from.

    Of course, if you are happy to have a defence force that stays at home, you could save a fortune. Many countries do it that way and aren't invaded very often, so it isn't an entirely daft suggestion, but please can that be a *conscious* decision by rather than the result of cluelessness.

  18. Graham Marsden

    But does anyone get to say...

    ... Launch all Vipers!

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Catapults sensibly retrofittable

    "In theory one might fit auxiliary steam boilers purely for launching planes, but that would be nearly as pricey as a nuclear ship."

    Is this based on a real cost estimate or just made up to fit the argument? We are talking about a boiler and heat source. I can see space issues but cost, compared to nuclear reactors must be small.

    There are obvious solutions that are less radical than an electromagnetic solution and build on exisiting experience. Compressed air is possible or if the tank volume to maintain pressure during a launch or series of launces is too great then compressing a gas which condenses into a liquid at the appropriate pressure will work exactly as steam. Compared to many military technology problems this really should not be insurmounatble although budgets maybe. A plan to get the basic ships and then add features like this later actually does make sense if the alternative is no ships at all and could be an example of the Navy being quite smart to minimise up front cost.

  20. Dave Bell

    Eggs and baskets.

    A completely new V/STOL aircraft design

    Or a completely new type of catapult system.

    Why has the RN put it's valuable eggs in these imaginary baskets?

    The French commissioned a nuclear-powered carrier in 2001, after a construction progamme badly affected by funding delays. They've had problems, but they didn't bet on unknowns.

    One might echo Talleyrand when commenting on the RN procurement: C'est pire qu'un crime; c'est une faute.

  21. This post has been deleted by its author

  22. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    @Graham Marsden

    ... Launch all Vipers!

    Only if they can carry F16's

  23. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    WHY NOT JUST.....

    buy a Super carrier from the YANKs, but built on licence in the UK ??????

    lots cheaper (probably) as they make a shit load of the things

    or just buy up one of thier old ones and refit/upgrade it to UK requirements

    (and it'll keep the UK Atomic Industry in business for a few more years)

    Politicians, cheapskates the lot of them

    oh and the only reason the prices keep going up is cos of busy bodys politicos putting thier oar in and constantly changing the spec on a whim or cos they saw some fancy toy on last nights Movie/TV Series that looked well cool (but is just made up fantasy shit).....

  24. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    60 years on and here we go again.

    The previous outting for this was in c1948 and was (IIRC) done by Westinghouse under some kind of DepNavy contract. Obviously this was the time when they were competing witht he UK steam cat idea. Of course no one had fielded an electric drive (nuclear or gas turbine) warship

    Let's see if things work better this time around.

    Mine will have a copy of Prof. Eric laithwaites Christmas Lectures book in it, which describes this.

  25. Ian Michael Gumby

    @Bug and @AC


    "Will an electromagnetic (assuming you have a way to power it) launch mechanism have real reliability/operational/cost advantages over a piston in a cylinder?"

    Depends on the design, but yes.

    Think of the emag rail cars that are capable of going 200 mph.

    The concept is simply the same. The only moving part is the shuttle. So there's less of a maintenance issue.


    Even drones are launched from a catapult. Or a sling shot.

    Granted, they are much smaller and lighter, so you could build a smaller catapult but still there are advantages to an emag catapult over steam. With respect to drones, how many can you place in the same airspace and how do you handle radio jamming?

  26. IvyKing

    Good writeup in GA's hometown paper

    The San Diego Union Tribune had a good write-up on GA's contract for the EM catapults. The article insightfully stated that EM catapults were made practical by recent advances in power electronics. The author went on to say that the EM catapults would have subtantial size, weight and maintennance advantages over the steam cats.

    Having been on a tour of the USS Midway (CV-41), I can state that the infrastructure for the catapults do take up a significant amount of space.

  27. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Yes but no but

    On a serious note, read any books on Iraq and Afghanistan and you'll notice just how much the soldiers on the ground love their air-cover. Having a mobile airfield that can sail within air support range has got to be a bonus for them. As others have pointed out, the Falklands would have turned out quite diffferently had we had a decent carrier force available (we had Phantoms back then, but no way to deploy them - had to make do with Sear Harriers).

    On a political note, I think G.Brown is secretly coming up with a new job creation scheme. Employ chavs to push the planes up to speed. No worries there if we lose a few off the end of the carrier in the process.

    On a typically British note, steam would be no good for the Brit carriers anyway. We'd use most of the boiling water for cuppas anyway. "Launch all planes! What do you mean, you can't as the boys are brewing a cuppa? Me? Oh, OK - I'll have 2 sugars.....".

    Personally - I'd say save the carriers. Give them better names though!

  28. SkippyBing Silver badge


    Manpower. A US CVN has around 5000 ship's company versus CVF's 1500, the RN doesn't have enough manpower to use a Nimitz class or one of the old Kittyhawk class. In fact the RN doesn't even use the same fuel as the conventional Kittyhawk ships so they'd also need to get tankers to fuel them.

  29. Anonymous Coward


    As long as our children are not "Queens"

  30. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    Meanwhile, in another Part of the Building

    Control CyberSpace and you don't need Armed Forces. And just Imagine what that would be Worth on the Open Market, and what you would then be able to do with Intelligence.

  31. Disco-Legend-Zeke
    Paris Hilton

    Beware of Spammers

    The name EMALS is so close to the term EMAILS that english challenged spammers are bound to attack it.

    The electromagnetic launcher, long a favorite of PFY science fair entries, was also a featured technology in Heinlein's "The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress."

    Paris just because.

  32. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Seaman Staines aye-aye!

    I can just imagine it. they build this wonderful boat which has rather huge magnets for chucking 20 ton airplanes skywards. What Seaman Staines doesn't realise as he pushes the button to throw the flyboys up is that there is a nuclear sub patrolling about 200ft below. On go the magnets, sub makes a sudden and totally unexpected ascent into the bottom of the aircraft carrier. Oh dear, we just lost a sub AND an aircraft carrier.....

    Anyway, this technology is a bit old isn't it? I seem to recall that Fireball XL5 was doing that in the early 60's.

  33. Dodgy Geezer Silver badge
    IT Angle

    Two points...

    Point 1 - The huge advantage of a huge carrier is that it is huge.

    There have been several incidents of major damage suffered to US carriers which did not result in the ship loss because it was big enough to absorb the hit. In contrast, if you make a smaller boat, an accident or single bomb/missile hit can sink it.

    The Royal Navy went for small carriers in the 70s because, the theory had it, you could have a lot more for the same money. What happened was that the Treasury simply cut the costs, and provided the same NUMBER of small carrriers for a lot less money. Shafted!

    Now we find we have TWO problems for naval aviation. One is that small carriers can't field adequate air support (enough fighters or topside radar). This is the problem everyone keeps mentioning. The other, which is not so well appreciated, is that the small carriers are hugely limited in tactical manoeveuring because of their vulnerability. You can't sail them into danger and take a risk that you might be hit a few times. So big is critical if Royal want to do anything dangerous...

    Point 2 - We invented linear motors. Why aren't WE the ones using them for catapults...?

  34. Mr Young

    EM Launch

    Cool - floating military airport is a great idea! As for EM launch - I suppose you'd need a freaking serious amount of electrons and copper cable for that! It actually might be on ok idea - maybe assist launch into orbit one day with reduced fuel payload? Anyway, will it do Philadelphia Experiment and launch me through space and time, or just stop my wristwatch exactly at the start of tea break, forever?

  35. SkippyBing Silver badge


    Just remembered, the other thing with steam catapults is that you get through a metric ass tonne of water for every aircraft launch. This means you also have to have a massive desalination operation to produce the extra distilled water, probably more than is produced for the crew which has a major effect on the engine room layout of the ship, internal spaces etc.

  36. James Goddard


    HMS Ocean cost £139m in 1993... So let’s triple this for inflation and making the ship more modern about £400m today - we could afford 10 of these for the cost of 2 QE class ships...

    I would go for 10 modernised ocean class ships any day!

  37. nicknack


    Someone still has some buccaneer & Sea Harrier FRS2 on ice somewhere ... better to have some proven aircraft than nothing to fly because they were late (again)!

  38. ark

    title equired?

    Nice article about using a rail gun as a catapult, but why mention the falkland island again to prove that it is needed.

  39. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Steam & Engineering

    So converting the exhaust of a multi-megawatt gas turbine into a steam source is an insurmountable engineering problem is it?

  40. Gotno iShit Wantno iShit
    Dead Vulture

    @By Bug

    "Half a billion $? This really smells of pissing away a lot of money on leccy tech for the sake of leccy tech."

    Not really. Steam catapults freeze in the Arctic. Our trivial little pocket carriers so looked down upon by the merkins are the only ones in the world able to operate at extreme latitude. An increase in interest in electric catapults was predictable back when a bit of a fuss blew up over the ruskies planting a flag under the northern permanent ice. Or rather, when they planted a flag over all the oil under the northern permanent ice.

    Dead reg icon for the news hi-jack by Lewis and not mentioning the ice effect.

  41. Big Bear

    @James Goddard

    I believe that HMS Ocean was so cheap due to her design being based upon commercial, not military, standards, which led to some compromises like her top speed of 18 knots, painfully slow for a warship. Also, she lacks the ability to operate Harriers like the Invincibles can, being limited to helicopters, as she was designed for that role. That having been said, a few more of her class would be useful as she suits her role superbly, but if she had to operate in hostiles seas, she'd definitely need some proper carriers to cover her!

  42. Adrian Griffiths 1

    Air power

    Having servered on one of the "Through deck cruisers" I know how painfully lacking they are. The harriers do a good job but when you have to get different versions onboard for the different roles i.e GR8 for ground attack and you can only accomodate 5 of them :(.

    The falklands would have gone smoother but we had to use what we had. We are reliant on the yanks for far too much nowadays and the new carriers would help us project air power and naval power where we need it when we need it not when others let us use their bases.

    On a final note its a shame that all the Armed forces have to fight each other to get the gear/equipment they need at the cost of the other 2 services and their own troops. We should cut the spending on social security and give it to the forces who need the money rather than spend it on some who dont want to work or do work but claim anyway.

    Its a sad state of affairs we find ourselves in :(

  43. Anonymous Coward

    @Steam & Engineering

    "So converting the exhaust of a multi-megawatt gas turbine into a steam source is an insurmountable engineering problem is it?"

    Ansolutely insurmountable. Multi-megawatt combined cycle gas turbines to generate electricity and even electrode boilers to near-instantaneously generate lots of steam from that electricity are completely a figment of your imagination. It's a case of mass hypnosis. They don't exist.

    Mind you, I suspect a bit of bleed air from the gas turbine and a couple of (shaft or electric motor driven) compressors to finish the job, with a fair sized compressed air tank, would be rather simpler than retrofitting steam or going all electric. But there'd probably be less pork in it for the contractors, and we wouldn't want that would we, given that smaller contracts lead to smaller kickbacks.

    Flames. Flames make steam. But there are other ways.

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