President Donald Trump is ratcheting up the pressure on the Navy to return to the days of steam-powered catapults for launching jets from aircraft carriers — a multibillion-dollar shift that could take nearly two decades to achieve and would likely spur a clash with Congress.
Trump has spent two years criticizing the Navy’s decision to switch to an electromagnetic launch system for its newest class of aircraft carriers, citing delays in rolling out the technology and complaining that “you have to be Albert Einstein to figure it out.” But he kicked his old-tech obsession up a notch during his visit to Japan, telling U.S. service members he plans to order the Navy to outfit all its new carriers with steam catapults.
Story Continued Below
“So I think I’m going to put an order: When we build a new aircraft carrier, we’re going to use steam,” Trump told sailors and Marines aboard the amphibious assault shift USS Wasp at a Navy base south of Tokyo, speaking late Monday night U.S. Eastern time. He renewed his complaint that the new technology could be unreliable during battle. “We’re spending all that money on electric, and nobody knows what it’s going to be like in bad conditions.”
The president was blunter during a May 2017 interview with Time magazine, in which he boasted that he had told his military commanders: “[You’re] going to goddamned steam.”
The Navy opted not to comment on Trump’s latest remarks, instead referring all questions to the White House. The White House, in turn, did not respond to questions on whether Trump will formally order the Navy to abandon its new Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System.
Declining to comment or deferring to the White House have been the standard Navy responses to Trump’s periodic remarks on catapults, even as the admirals have stood by the new technology. Naval experts told POLITICO that this time feels different, however. They also point out that with the next several carriers already being built with electromagnetic catapults, at costs of $11-13 billion per ship, it could be 15 years before the Navy would even be able to launch a new steam-equipped carrier — even if Congress were to approve the change.
Trump’s comments “seem much more interventionist than he has been on this issue in the past,” said Bryan Clark, a retired Navy officer who served as a senior adviser to the chief of naval operations.
Even if Trump were to order a return to steam, “there’s a lot of gears that have to turn in the Pentagon to turn the president’s desire into a requirement,” added Clark, who is now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
He noted that the next two Gerald R. Ford-class carriers the Navy is building, the Kennedy and Enterprise, are too far along in construction for what would amount to “a redesign” of the whole carrier. That’s because the Ford-class vessels lack steam piping running the length of the ship, and they also plan to use electromagnetic power for other future systems, such as lasers and rail guns.
“Ten years down the line is when you could conceivably change back to steam catapults,” with the construction of the next carrier after the Enterprise, Clark said. That unnamed carrier is not yet under construction and is expected to reach the fleet in 2032.
It could take even longer than that, said Thomas Callender, a Heritage Foundation senior research fellow who was a Navy officer and then a senior Navy Department civilian. “If you’re serious and were to try to abandon the electromagnetic system … it would be 15 years from now, and it would wind up costing even more money to do that major redesign of the aircraft carrier,” he said.
The Navy “can’t just go back and build another Nimitz-class carrier, which was designed in the late ’60s,” Callender said. “The Navy has committed to this plan and going back is going to cost more in the long run even if you have better reliability initially” with steam, as Trump hopes.
But Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy flight officer, suggested Trump may be on the right track as far as cost-cutting. “It’s not a bad thing to try to go back to a cheaper method,” he said. “The Navy believes that over the 50-year life of the ship, it will be cheaper to operate the Ford class, but that’s unproven.”
It’s “a good thing when you have a commander in chief take an in-depth interest in an aspect of the military,” added Hendrix, who is now a vice president of the Telemus Group.
Even so, “there is going to be pushback,” Hendrix predicted. And some of that resistance will come not directly from the Navy but from a skeptical Congress, said Clark and Callender.
While “Congress will continue to criticize the electromagnetic system alongside the president” because of cost overruns, Clark predicted, in the end lawmakers “will say what the Navy says, that this system is the future.” That’s because the electromagnetic systems could make it easier to launch new generations of unmanned aircraft and eventually even power high-tech self-defense weapons.
“No one is seriously talking about swapping EMALS with steam catapults — not even the U.S. Navy, which has studied EMALS extensively and believes EMALS has significant advantages over steam,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), using the Navy acronym for the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System. “Overhauling the Ford-class carriers for steam catapults would require a complete redesign of the Ford and the reconstitution of the industrial base for steam catapults, creating significant delays and cost overruns.
“This is not a feasible proposal, and I don’t anticipate Congress going along with this proposal and providing the funding to revert and refit the Ford class.”
Trump has sought sailors’ views on the system before. On the Wasp, which does not use catapults of either type, Trump asked the crew which type of catapult they prefer. He was met mostly with shouts of “steam,” and joked that one crew member who shouted in favor of the electric system “works for the enemy.”
That’s in contrast to the response Trump got when he raised the issue last Thanksgiving during a public call with members of the carrier USS Ronald Reagan. The ship’s commanding officer, a career fighter pilot, offered an extended defense of electromagnetic catapults that Trump acknowledged as “a very good answer.”
General Atomics, which builds the electromagnetic system, declined to comment on Trump’s latest remarks.
Since Trump’s criticism began two years after a visit to the USS Gerald R. Ford, top Navy officials have stood by their choice of the new electromagnetic system. James Geurts, assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition, told senators in November that the Navy had logged more than 740 launches using the new system aboard the Ford.
“We are feeling pretty confident on both of those systems,” he said, referring to the electromagnetic system and the new Advanced Arresting Gear, a high-tech successor to the old hydraulic system that helps warplanes slow down as they land on a carrier’s deck.
“Are we gonna be glad we went with EMALS and the Advanced Arresting Gear?” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) asked him, using the Navy acronym for the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System.
“Yes, sir,” Geurts said, noting that future carrier air wings will need the system to launch heavier aircraft.
On the other hand, a Government Accountability Office report released this month said the electromagnetic catapults and new arresting gear are still undergoing testing and that “the reliability of those systems remains a concern.”
Navy Secretary Richard Spencer said as recently as March that he’s sticking by the new system. The electromagnetic catapult “is the most advanced, versatile, & cost-effective launching system,” he tweeted. “It’s a game changer for carrier based operations that is so simple to use, no Einstein is needed.”