Trump Tells Navy To Ditch New Catapult, Babbles Incoherently About F-35

Excerpts from Time’s latest interview with Donald Trump have been released and in them the President talks about Navy’s chronically troubled Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) for the service’s new Ford class supercarriers and makes some very odd remarks about the F-35. His words on EMALS may not be crystal clear, but they are not unfounded, but his remarks regarding the F-35 are bewildering and downright childish. 

Let’s start with Trump’s F-35 musings:

“When [Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō] Abe came from Japan, first thing he said to me when I first met him. He walked out. “Thank you, thank you.” I said, “For what?” F-35. You bought, you saved us one hundred million dollars. Because they’re part of the group that buy the ninety planes. It’s a lot. We get, they get, different allies.

But I saved Japan a hundred million bucks. Took me probably an hour if I added up all the time. But I will be saving, when we put that out over two, the two thousand five hundred planes, billions of dollars. Nobody ever wrote a story about that.

But they said the F-35 program is now straightened out and the costs are way down. They’re down because of me. Then Boeing when the F-18, I mean I must have got thirty-five million of each plane off. . . . You know they had the F-35s, they had thirty-five of them fly over Japan when [Defense Secretary] General [James] Mattis was there, and they were not detected by the radar. They flew over and everyone said where the hell did they come from? That’s stealth. It’s pretty cool, right. Thirty-five of them flying at a high speed, low, and they were not detected. They flew right over the top of the deal, nobody knew they were coming. Pretty cool, right?”

I really don’t want to rehash the whole “Trump saved millions per F-35” fiasco but lets just say, he didn’t. But the defense industry, which has little shame in licking boots to make a buck, played to his ego so he could say he did. Scary.  

F-35Bs on their way to Japan., DoD

Then there is the claim that he knocked $35M off the price of $55M Super Hornets too. Being lied to in this manner is grotesque. Then again, maybe he actually believes what he is saying because those around him who are actually in the know just play along. Who knows.

But what is most bizarre are his words about 35 F-35s flying over to where? Japan? Korea? And surprising, well… Someone. 

First off, no, 35 F-35s did not deploy to Japan or anywhere else in Asia. In fact, 35 F-35s have never deployed anywhere in the world. A single Marine squadron of less than half that (16 jets) did. Additionally, the jets didn’t arrive by surprise, at low level or at high speed, nor would they. Maybe this is Trump reiterating some engrandized story of the jets arriving over MCAS Iwakuni for recovery—hardly a test of an aircraft’s combat capabilities—or a second-hand account of operations by the jets after they arrived in the region. But either way it sounds super childish and clearly shows a lack of comprehension on the subject. 

F-35B executing a STOVL landing at MCAS Iwakuni. , USMC

It is pretty clear Trump has been personally spoon-fed the F-35 brochure from LockMart and the program office. Without any point of reference, it all must seem pretty wondrous. Oh and the program he was so critical of during his campaign is now magically fixed because he made a phone call. Totally ridiculous to the point that its downright insulting. And really, nothing of this has to do with the jet itself, just a new slathering of politics that surrounds it. 

To be honest, I had high hopes that Trump could spur systemic change within the DoD’s procurement process. Those hopes have faded rapidly over the last three months. It seems that he is far more interested in selectively intervening in a few high-profile programs he has interest in so that he can claim fake victories and gloat about them endlessly to the press, and the defense industry is happy to oblige him if it means funding certainty and a strong order book. 

As Trump would put it: “sad.”

Now onto Trump’s comments on the Ford class supercarrier’s new and very much unproven catapult system:

“You know the catapult is quite important. 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]. 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.”

It sounded bad to me. Digital. They have digital. What is digital? And it’s 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.”

I have been talking about this issue for years, and if you strip out all the digital vs analogue nonsense Trump is spouting, his concerns are totally justified. The USS Gerald R. Ford is stuffed full of unproven technologies—as in still unproven experimentally not just operationally—and that is far too much risk for a $12B asset that we only build a couple of ever decade. The Ford, which is just beginning sea trials now after a long string of delays, was procured under the flawed model of concurrency, and it remains uncertain when the ship will actually be ready for operations.  

USS Gerald R. Ford heading out for builders trials in April. , USN

Recently the Navy made the decision to continue with building EMALS and the even more troublesome Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG) into future carriers of the Ford class, even as a deep review of the program was ongoing. With the USS John F. Kennedy’s (CVN-79) construction well underway, and construction of the USS Enterprise (CVN-80) beginning next year, any failure of these unproven components to live up to their promises could trigger major redesigns and extremely expensive physical modifications of these ships. 

The thing is, both of these components are absolutely critical to the carrier’s mission and are heavily integrated into the vessels. Also they don’t have to work reliably just some of the time, but all of the time. Aircrew’s lives are literally depending on them as is the carrier’s actual war fighting ability. So if they are not able to function in a highly reliable manner, it equals a mission kill for these massive ships.

EMALS demo being shown to VIPs aboard the USS Gerald R. Ford. , USN

Trump likely learned about the Ford’s exotic catapult system and its issues during his visit to the ship last March, during which he toured the vessel, spoke with sailors and shipbuilders working aboard it, and met with the ship’s command staff. Before the visit he singled out the Ford class as one of the Pentagon’s most appalling  over budget and underperforming programs, and questioned its entire viability. He was far more cordial during a speech aboard the ship, where he declared a goal of fielding a 12 carrier force. This is one more ship than currently mandated by congress, and two more ships that what the Navy has now due to the early retirement of the USS Enterprise (CVN-65). In order to make such a goal a reality, the new Ford class of carriers must perform, and installing reliable catapults in them is a big part of the equation. 

The grim truth is that the Navy has already signed contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars with General Atomics for EMALS catapults on the next two Ford class carriers. So going back to steam will not be as easy as simply ordering steam catapults for the new ships, not to mention massive design and construction issues that would go with retrofitting such a system back into the Ford class design. Not just that but the Mark 12 catapult system that outfits the Nimitz class is now out of production, so it would have to be either re-sourced or a new design would have to be developed in its place. None of this is cheap, but it may be cheaper than having tens of billions of supercarriers sidelined for years as bugs with these new systems are worked out. 

Sailors working on an EMALS shuttle., USN

The Navy doesn’t have the luxury of building experimental supercarriers, especially now when the fleet is already a ship short and experiencing the effects of the so called “carrier gap.” These systems could have been spiraled into new carriers as the technology matured. But that didn’t happen. And EMALS is a technology worth pursuing. It could one day lead to a far more flexible launch system that is even capable of deploying light drones and other unconventional carrier aircraft designs. It could also even prove more reliable than the Mark 12 steam system… One day. But that day isn’t here, and we need operational carriers yesterday. 

So its not the EMALS idea that is wrong, it’s the Navy’s willingness to gamble so recklessly on it before it was more fully developed and vetted. Even if it turns out that the system works acceptably based on the current revised timeline for the USS Gerald R. Ford, the practice of concurrently designing a complex system that is still deeply in development into such an important asset should not be repeated.

Then again, all this would be less of an issue if the Navy ended its rigid supercarrier addition and began building smaller carriers in more plentiful numbers, but that’s a whole other story altogether. 

With all this in mind, Trump is right to knock some sense into the Navy and demand they keep using proven steam technology until EMALS is fully vetted, but actually seeing that happen will be a hard charge indeed. 

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