Friday, June 1, 2018


We’ve all heard the near-magical claims for the benefits of the electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS).  Supposedly, it will allow a wider range of aircraft to be launched, increase aircraft life spans, and be more reliable and easier to maintain.  Are those claims true?

Reliability.  DOT&E has documented that the reliability is far below specification.  To be fair, EMALS is still in development and reliability ought to improve over time.  It’s a problem, now, because we’re installing it on operational carriers instead of developing it in the research world which is where it belongs.  The reliability will certainly improve but will it eventually reach the specification level?  That remains to be seen. 

For the moment, the system is horribly unreliable and this claim is false.

Maintainability.  As far as maintainability, we’ve already found out that the individual catapults can’t be repaired while the others are operating.  They all have to be deactivated in order to work on any of them – a horrible characteristic of a combat system.  Worse, the time required to “spin down” the motors and spin back up is hours – again, a horrible characteristic for a combat system.  This aspect of the system is a designed in flaw and can never improve unless the entire system is redesigned.  Thus, it is clear that the maintainability is far worse than the legacy steam catapults. 

This claim is patently false.

Range of Aircraft.  Regarding the wider range of aircraft that can be launched, let’s start by looking at the range of aircraft that have historically been launched by steam catapults.  Here are the lightest and heaviest aircraft launches that I’ve been able to document.

Heaviest Steam Catapult Launch:   70,000+ lbs (A-3 Skywarrior)
Lightest Steam Catapult Launch:    12,000  lbs (A-4 Skyhawk – lightly loaded)

Here’s a few other data points of interest.

14,000 lbs (X-45B empty weight)
61,000 lbs (F-14 loaded weight)
47,000 lbs (F-18E/F loaded weight)

We see, then, that the weight launch range is at least from 12,000 lbs to 70,000+ lbs.  It’s highly unlikely that we’ll see another carrier aircraft heavier than the 70,000+ lb Skywarrior or smaller than the 12,000 lb A-4 Skyhawk.   The only aircraft I can think of that could conceivably operate from a carrier and be lighter than 12,000 lbs is something like the Super Tucano which has a combat loaded weight of around 11,000 lbs.  I suppose a very small UAV could operate from a carrier but does anyone really think the Navy is going to use a supercarrier to operate small UAVs?

The claim of being able to launch a wider range of aircraft might be technically true, though that hasn’t been demonstrated, but appears to be operationally irrelevant in that steam catapults can already launch the entire range of aircraft we are likely to use.  Thus, the claim seems moot, at best.

In any practical sense, this claim is false.

Life Spans.  Supposedly, the smoother (another unproven claim) launch will impose less stress on the aircraft thereby increasing their life spans.  Currently, the launch stress appears to be greater, not less.  Launches have demonstrated that wing stress is so great that Hornets cannot launch with fuel tanks. 

“The state-of-the-art catapult on the newest supercarrier is unable to launch jets loaded with external fuel tanks, …

The Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System catapult puts too much force on external fuel tanks carried by legacy and Super Hornets, and EA-18Gs Growlers …” (1)

The Navy claims to have solved the problem with software modifications but final testing is not scheduled until sometime in 2019-20.  Until then, the problem is assumed to continue.

Further, an EMALS imposed nose bounce has caused safety concerns for pilots and prevented them from viewing instruments during the critical launch seconds.

“A Pentagon deficiency report in 2015 stated that extreme movements in the cockpit, possibly like the ones shown above, during launch risked pilot health.

One hundred and five pilots completing catapult launches rated their level of pain or discomfort on a scale of one to five. Of the 105, 74 pilots reported "moderate" pain or a 3, 18 pilots reported "severe" pain or a 4, and one pilot reported "severe pain that persists" after launching from an aircraft carrier.

"The oscillations shake the pilot's head sufficiently to impair their ability to consistently read flight critical data, which poses a safety of flight risk …" (2)

Moreover, carrier aircraft are retired based on factors such as wing fatigue due to g-forces during air combat maneuvers, corrosion in internal structural confines, cumulative maximum g-forces on the fuselage, etc.  None of these factors are related to the launch cycle.  Therefore, even if EMALS could, somehow, gently waft the aircraft aloft like a feather in a soft breeze, the aircraft would retire at exactly the same moment as they would if they were launched from steam catapults.

Thus, both the evidence and logic clearly disprove the claim of longer aircraft life spans.

This claim is false.

We see, then, that every claim about the EMALS catapult system is currently false.  Over time, and with more development, reliability may improve to the point that the claim becomes true, however, the claims about maintainability, range of aircraft launches, and increased aircraft life spans are simply not true and never will be.  They were marketing hype, at best, or lies, more accurately.


(1)Navy Times website, “New catapults need fix to launch jets with fuel pods”, Lance M. Bacon, 27-Mar-2015

(2)Business Insider website, “New footage may show the problem that's delaying the Navy's F-35”, Alex Lockie, 26-Jan-2017,


  1. So maybe they have used steam after all what a wonderful idea but the navy as of late is making tremendously stupid decisions look no further than the Zummies,Ford and LCS plus the wonderful f35 as examples

  2. It will never not boggle my mind that the Navy didnt want a full scale, fully functioning prototype built of EMALS and AAS on the ground before a single rivet went into the Ford. The whole point of going electric is that they are basically endlessly adaptable and configurable. All the Navy should have needed to provide would be the estimated current available, and basic deck layout.

    Between this and leaving the rail gun to die on the vine, it seems like the Navy is totally bewildered by how magnets work.

    On another note, CNO, do you have any opinions about bringing back hydraulic cats? I know they used them during WWII but moved away because they couldnt cut it. However, like everything else, hydraulic pump/motors/systems have come an awful long way since the 40s. Since the consensus is that working with steam is a maintenance nightmare, and magnets apparently = magic, maybe hydraulic cats could be worth another look. At least might be a viable option for a smaller, non-nuclear carrier with diesel engines.

    1. I don't know anything about a modern hydraulic catapult but I'll repeat something I once heard a wise man from Texas say: build a fully functioning prototype on the ground and, if it works, I'm all for it. If it doesn't, then I'm not.

    2. They did build a land based system-
      "Aircraft Compatibility Testing (ACT) Phase 1 concluded in late 2011 following 134 launches (aircraft types comprising the F/A-18E Super Hornet, T-45C Goshawk, C-2A Greyhound, E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, and F-35C Lightning II) using the EMALS demonstrator installed at Naval Air Engineering Station Lakehurst."-wikipedia
      Clearly they werent testing exactly what went into Ford.

    3. "They did build a land based system-"

      We know that. The point being made was that the Navy did not complete ground based testing BEFORE committing to, and beginning, construction. Ford advanced construction began in 2005 and was officially laid down in 2009. As you noted, ground EMALS testing Phase 1 concluded in 2011 - six years after the Ford was begun and two years after the official keel laying.

      Further, after Phase 1 testing the ground system was reconfigured "to be more representative of the actual ship configuration".

      The point was that all testing should have been completed before committing to production.

    4. Also, 134 launches? They should have had to show the ability to do 134 launches a day before committing to the Ford.

    5. Hey, you know the Navy's test protocol: if it works once, ever, it'll work always, forever. A second test is just a waste of money!

  3. The UK obviously saw the problems with this mess, the stupidity was that the UK MOD did not look at ICCALS ( is arguably the best solution.
    EMALS is looking like something that will not be adequately safe much less militarily viable.

    1. I know very little about UK procurement decisions but wasn't their objection strictly cost related? I was under the impression that they preferred the EMALS but just couldn't afford it. Please correct me if I'm wrong about this.

  4. I've given the Brits a lot of shit for not opting for a CATOBAR configuration with the new Queen Elizabeths, but at this point no catapult and a ski jump is starting to seem better than our malfunctioning Catapult of the Future.

    1. They didnt have a steam power plant either which meant the steam catapult they invented wasnt possible .

  5. One question just out of curiosity, so how long did they test that technology in a prototype form before they were damn sure it would work?

    Shluldn't you have a guy saying " hey we tested this for 10 years now, we are 100% it will work"

    1. My recollection (maybe faulty?) is that the Navy committed to EMALS on the Ford before they even had a working prototype.

  6. But hey if EMALS does not work atleast you know that the SH could operate out of ski jump aircraft carriers :D

    Confirmation that the Super Hornet could operate with a relevant weapons loads from short-takeoff but arrested recovery (STOBAR) aircraft carriers came following a big Super Hornet pitch meeting in New Delhi put on by Boeing

    1. Whoa, whoa, whoa! Throttle the afterburners down there. Before we buy into this - which I had never even given a thought to before this moment! - let's note that there was not testing to confirm the claim. The claim was from the manufacturer (when have they ever overstated a claim?) and was based on "simulation", whatever that means. Plus, the claim was part of a sales pitch (when have sales pitches ever overstated claims?). It might be true but it might not!

      Assuming it was true, this is interesting in that there is a chunk of people who want the US to build small, ski-jump type carriers. If this were true it would, at least, be functionally feasible for a Hornet though still idiotic. I note though, that the claim was for useful weapon and fuel loads FOR THE INDIAN NAVY. They operate, generally, in much smaller areas. For the US, in the Pacific, I wonder if the weapon and fuel loads would still be useful? I suspect that every takeoff would have to be followed immediately by an aerial refueling which would mean we would need even more tankers.

      Now, can an E-2 launch off a ramp?

    2. precisely it is only for the US that there might a point for small, ski-jump type carriers: the US can operate them just with SH alongside full carriers with a full air suite, E-2 and all, in the same task force, more decks, more jets. I have no idea if it would be more expensive to launch and operate 3-4 small carriers than a Ford class one.

    3. "I have no idea if it would be more expensive to launch and operate 3-4 small carriers than a Ford class one."

      You've asked the right question and it has been studied to death. The answer has always been the same: big deck carriers are far more efficient and cost effective than smaller carriers.

      The conceptual, general rational is that a small carrier provides a third the aircraft for 70% of the cost. That's just not efficient.

      The other major problem with a jump ramp carrier is that you can't launch aircraft with maximum loads. Especially for the Pacific theater, what good is an even shorter ranged, lighter loaded aircraft than what we already have which is too short ranged and lightly loaded to begin with?

    4. Historically CNO's argument about STOVL carriers is correct, but the -35B variant may change the equation a bit.
      It the USN had brains, they'd find a way to get MQ-25s able to launch off a platform other than super carrier, even if it can't recover to same platform. Stingray + 4-ship of Lightning IIB decoupled from a super-carrier could be a game changer.

    5. "could be a game changer."

      In what way? It's still a significantly less cost effective way to operate. Every study ever conducted has demonstrated that. You still can't launch with maximum loads. The air wings are still too small. You still don't have Hawkeyes or Growlers for support. And so on.

      So, in what way could it be a game changer?


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