The new Ford class carrier will be introducing several new technologies, among them the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launching System (EMALS) and Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG). The Navy insists that the EMALS and AAG systems will work as advertised and points to extensive land based testing as proof. What the Navy isn’t pointing out is the failure rates. Fortunately, DOT&E has provided that data (1).
EMALS is the replacement for the old steam powered catapults. The system will use electric motors rather than steam to launch aircraft. As DOT&E reports,
Lakehurst, , test site, over 1,967 launches have been conducted and 201 chargeable failures have occurred. Based on available data, the program estimates that EMALS has approximately 240 Mean Cycles Between Critical Failure in the shipboard configuration, where a cycle represents the launch of one aircraft. Based on expected reliability growth, the failure rate is presently five times higher than should be expected.” New Jersey
Thus, the system looks perfectly capable of launching aircraft but the reliability is highly suspect at the moment. I’m also not quite sure about the numbers. If 201 failures have occurred in 1967 launches, that’s a failure every 10 launches – not great odds for the pilot!!! I’m not sure how the 240 cycles between critical failure is calculated unless some of the 201 failures weren’t considered critical? Regardless, that’s a severe reliability issue.
Similarly, the AAG replaces the older style arresting system. Again, the report states,
Lakehurst, test site, 71 arrestments were conducted earlier this year and 9 chargeable failures occurred. The Program Office estimates that AAG has approximately 20 Mean Cycles Between Operational New Jersey Mission Failure in the shipboard configuration, where a cycle represents the recovery of one aircraft. Based on expected reliability growth, the failure rate is presently 248 times higher than should be expected.”
As with the EMALS, the system appears functionally capable but highly unreliable.
The problems are not unusual for new technology and are fixable given enough time. This, however, demonstrates the problem with concurrent research and production, as we’ve pointed out many times. The Ford’s delivery, already way behind schedule, will slip still further, barring an unlikely miracle.
There would have been absolutely no penalty or problem with building one more conventional Nimitz carrier while the new technologies were undergoing development. The carrier construction schedule could have been maintained, a new functional carrier could have joined the fleet, and a great deal of concurrency construction penalty costs avoided. The Ford will have to sit idle for months or years after delivery while the bugs are worked out, anyway. Frankly, it’s hard to believe that Navy leadership could be this irresponsible.
(1) Director, Operational Test and Evaluation, Annual Report, 2013