Trump prefers battle-tested old tech over new stuff when it comes to America's Navy

Key Points
  • Trump takes aim at catapult system used to launch planes from Navy's next-generation aircraft carriers.
  • He complains that "you have to be Albert Einstein to figure it out."
  • The commander-in-chief says the Navy should go back to steam-powered catapults on its new carriers.
President Donald Trump salutes as he walks to Air Force One prior to departing from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, March 2, 2017, as he traveled to Newport News, Virginia, to visit the pre-commissioned USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier.
Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images

President Donald Trump wants "goddamned steam" power catapults on the Navy's new Ford-Class aircraft carriers, not a new electromagnetic power system, according to Trump's interview this week with Time magazine.

Others too have questioned the wisdom of abandoning the reliable steam-powered catapult technology, which has been used for decades to launch aircraft from the deck of the Navy's carriers.

Dan Grazier, a defense expert at the watchdog group Project On Government Oversight, back in March questioned the decision by the Navy to use the new electromagnetic launch technology instead of sticking with the steam-powered catapult system on the battle-tested Nimitz-Class carriers.

"The president is very accurate to be skeptical of this component — and there are other components that he should be skeptical of [on] the ship," Grazier told CNBC on Friday. A former Marine Corps captain, Grazier said the new Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System, or EMALS, on the Ford-Class carrier remains "an unproven system."

In March, Trump visited the USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier, a roughly $13 billion warship. The commander-in-chief landed on the carrier's flight deck on Marine One, took a tour and met with sailors.

The president was asked in the Time interview about the future of the Ford-Class carriers, which are replacing the Nimitz-Class warships first commissioned in the mid-1970s.

"You know the catapult is quite important," Trump said. He then recalled the visit to the carrier:

"So I said what is this? Sir, this is our digital catapult system. He said well, we're going to this because we wanted to keep up with modern [technology]."

Trump added, "I said you don't use steam anymore for catapult? No sir. I said, 'Ah, how is it working?' 'Sir, not good. Not good. Doesn't have the power.' You know the steam is just brutal. You see that sucker going and steam's going all over the place, there's planes thrown in the air.'"

At the same time, the president said he also learned the new catapult system was "very complicated, you have to be Albert Einstein to figure it out. And I said – and now they want to buy more aircraft carriers. I said what system are you going to be – 'Sir, we're staying with digital.' I said no you're not. You going to goddamned steam, the digital costs hundreds of millions of dollars more money and it's no good."

The Pentagon and Navy both declined comment on the president's comments.

Sean Stackley, the acting secretary of the Navy, declined to comment on the president's remarks Thursday night when asked about them at a U.S. Naval Institute event. The secretary did, however, indicate that the Navy had not briefed the president on the Ford-Class program.

Replacing the Navy's planes

Said Stackley, "He did go down to Newport News and visited the ship, was onboard the ship. And so I wasn't present for that visit, I don't know what his source of information was."

Some of the Navy's Nimitz-Class carriers, such as the USS George H.W. Bush, have four steam-powered catapults. The steam catapult technology has proven reliable during wartime and can launch an aircraft from a flight deck to 150 miles per hour in less than three seconds and in the space of less than 300 feet.

The Ford-Class carrier costs billions more to build than the previous generation of carriers and the final price for key components such as the EMALS catapult system were well above original estimates. The 2004 contract to develop the EMALS was once listed at just over $145 million and the most recent cost estimate from the Pentagon shows the Navy has spent just over $950 million developing the system.

General Atomics, the California-based company that got the contract for the EMALS system, didn't respond to requests for comment. On its website, the company said EMALS offers benefits over the Navy's current launch system, including such things as "reduced manning and life-cycle cost" as well as "increased launch operational ability for manned, unmanned aircraft."

Indeed, the unmanned airplanes are seen as critical to the future of the military, and some analysts suggest the new EMALS system allows both drones and the heavier manned aircraft to hold up better and with less stress on the airframe.

"Being able to reliably regulate the launch speed at which something goes off the boat, then not ruin that aircraft over time and not have excessive wear and tear is [done] better with an electric catapult," said John "JV" Venable, a senior research fellow for defense policy at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based conservative think tank.

Venable, a retired Air Force colonel, said the Pentagon was thinking ahead with the new electromagnetic technology because of a big transition in the Navy with more unmanned aircraft expected to be launched off warships. He said when launching drones off a carrier, the weight disparity between the lighter aircraft and heavier planes is significant and reliability to control speed is important.

"The Navy was thinking about this in the long-term sense, what is going to leave the boat in 50 years, because that's how long each of the Ford-Class carriers will last," said Venable. "We've got to be prepared and got to build the technology that ... meets that future demand."

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