Saturday, March 24, 2018

"Naval Air: A Disaster Of Epic Proportions"

That's the title of an article at Strategy Page, analyzing in some depth the apparent failure of the US Navy's new aircraft carrier catapult system.  Bold, underlined text is my emphasis.

In February 2018 the U.S. Navy confirmed that it had major problems with the design and construction of its new EMALS (Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System) catapult installed in its latest aircraft carrier; the USS Ford (CVN 78) and the three other Ford class carriers under construction.

. . .

An EMALS catapult was supposed to have a breakdown every 4,100 launches but in heavy use EMALS actually failed every 400 launches. By the end of 2017 the navy concluded that an EMALS equipped carrier had only a seven percent chance of successfully completing a typical four day “surge” (multiple catapult launches for a major combat operation) and only a 70 percent chance of completing a one day surge operation. That was because when one EMALS catapult went down all four were inoperable. In effect the Ford class carriers are much less capable of performing in combat than their predecessors.

With steam catapults when one went down the other three could continue to operate. Worse even minor repairs or maintenance on one catapult means all four had to be out of service. The navy hopes they can come up with some kind of, as yet unknown, modifications to EMALS to fix all these problems. In the meantime the new Ford carrier is much less useful than older ones that use steam catapults. In fact the Ford class carriers are basically worthless, except for training of the non-flight crew (which cannot function without reliable catapults).

There are no easy solutions. For example it would cost over half a billion dollars to remove EMALS and install the older steam catapults. This would also take up to several years and lead to many other internal changes. The navy is now considering bringing a recently retired carrier back to active service as a stopgap because whatever the fix is it will not be quick or cheap. The most worrisome part of this is the apparent inability of navy ship building and design experts to come up with a solution for the problem they created. For the navy officers and civilian officials involved there is another problem. The current Secretary of Defense is a retired Marine Corps general who has a good idea of how the navy operates without being part of the navy (the Marine Corps and Navy are two separate services in the Department of the Navy). The marines have a well-deserved reputation for being less understanding about failure and in a situation like this a former marine general as Secretary of Defense is very bad news for the navy officers responsible for creating, sustaining and being unable to fix this EMALS disaster.

. . .

Without a functional EMALS the steam and electricity generation system of the Ford class carriers, designed to supply large quantities of electric power, would not be able to provide the needed quantities of electricity to operate powerful new weapons like rail guns and high powered lasers as well as EMALS.

The EMALS disaster calls into question the ability of the navy to handle new, untried, technologies. That is not a new problem and has been around since World War II. In retrospect not enough was done to test and address what are now obvious problems. The current solution is to delay the moment of truth as long as possible and then conclude that it was unclear exactly how it happened but that measures would be taken to see that it never happen again. That approach is wearing thin because more people are well aware that is just a cover for the corruption and mismanagement that has been developing within the industries that build warships. The U.S. Navy has been having a growing number of similar problems (the design of the LCS, the DDG 1000 and a lot of smaller systems).

There's much more at the link.  It's a long, but very interesting analysis.  Recommended reading.

This is going to add fuel to the debate over whether or not large aircraft carriers are worth having at all.  There's no denying their utility in areas where land-based air facilities are poor or non-existent.  They can deploy the equivalent of a USAF group to a combat zone, provided that anti-ship defenses are not a major threat.  Such capabilities can be (and historically have proven to be) very useful indeed.  However, the threats facing carrier battle groups today are greater than in the past, and more pressing.  In particular, massed missile attacks might overwhelm them, saturating their defenses with so many targets that they don't have time (or sufficiently capable systems) to shoot them all down before some strike home.  Anti-ship missiles have become so prevalent, and so (relatively) low-cost, that even a smaller nation (e.g. Iran) can afford to site a hundred or more of them along its coastline, particularly in areas where enemy naval forces are forced by geographic constraints to sail within range of that coast (e.g. the Strait of Hormuz).  Even terrorist groups have used them successfully (Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Houthi rebels in Yemen).

I don't believe today's US Navy battle group could fight off a hundred or more anti-ship missiles arriving almost simultaneously.  I suspect at least half, probably more, would get through.  One missile wouldn't shut down a carrier, or even one of its escorts;  but hits from one or two dozen of them?  That's a whole new ball game.  New weapons such as the electromagnetic rail gun and laser "cannon" are supposed to offer a solution to this problem;  but both are still in development, and unlikely to be in widespread service for at least another decade.  No existing combat vessel has them, and those already built will require extensive modification (and probably significant electricity generating capacity upgrades) before they can operate them.  They'll add to the cost and complexity of warships, and their reliance on copious supplies of electricity may itself be a serious weakness.  If an electromagnetic pulse weapon can disable power to part of a city (as demonstrated with the CHAMP project - see the video clip below - and equivalent projects under way in other countries), it can do the same to a warship or group of warships, as can a high-altitude nuclear explosion within a radius of several hundred miles.  What price their electrically powered weapons then?

There's also the real risk posed by modern submarines, which are less easy to detect and more capable than ever before.  A Chinese diesel-electric submarine has already handed an unpleasant surprise to a US Navy carrier battle group.  What if it had fired torpedoes instead of surfacing?  Another incident in 2015 suggests that such encounters are not isolated incidents.

My personal opinion is that, if the carrier situation is as screwed up as the Strategy Page article suggests, it may be time for the USN to suspend further carrier constriction until it can guarantee that all the systems on its new Ford class ships work (including EMALS), and it's conducted shock testing on the first of the class to certify that they can stand up to combat conditions.  Otherwise, we may be throwing good taxpayer money after bad.  In time of war, that may perhaps be excusable;  but in time of peace, and in our present tight economic conditions, that's simply unacceptable.

It may also be time to re-evaluate whether large carriers are still a worthwhile investment.  As I said earlier, their tactical and even strategic value is unquestionable, provided they are able to operate in the face of modern defenses.  If they aren't . . . what then?  Would more, smaller carriers be an option, so that losing a single carrier wouldn't wipe out so much of the US Navy's air capability?  Would it be better to consider unmanned aerial attack forces that could be based further away, even on land masses a thousand miles or more away from the combat zone?  USAF UAV's over Afghanistan are already being flown by crews stationed in Nevada, USA.  Could something similar offer sufficient capability to replace aircraft carriers?

I suspect part of the problem is the mindset of senior US Navy officers.  Carrier command, or command of a carrier air wing, has been one of, if not the dominant, traditional route to admiral's stars (hence the jokes sometimes heard about the "carrier mafia").  Even if further investigation suggests it may be appropriate, will senior officers be prepared to embrace alternatives to the carrier?  One wonders.



Bob M said...

Being an old carrier veteran. it was always comforting to know your carrier could be a long ways away in a short time than from where the enemy thought you were a few hours before.

But today, what with everybody having satellites covering every inch of the ocean and other very modern methods of ship detection, a carrier group has lost its ability to find safety by vanishing in any direction over the horizon.

In today's world, carriers are sitting ducks 24/7.

I can imagine all the admirals and such nowadays - by necessity - consider our carriers and crews as totally expendable - so long as they can get their aircraft off the deck - and safely into the wild blue yonder before a very nasty weapon comes calling.

In my view, today's carriers are as vulnerable as any fixed fortification and are another massive waste of taxpayer monies.

But golly gee.... they're so BIG and SCARY!

Yep... to places like third world nations. But to places like Russia and China? Not hardly.

Without a doubt, they know exactly where all our carriers are any time of the day or night.

c w swanson said...

And don't we have something like ten of them? No one else comes even close, and some countries, like Russia and France, have one but they're either way out of date or barely functional. The Red Chinese are using a Ukrainian castoff. Scary!

Couple this with the LCS disaster, and there is a good argument to be made that the entire system of procurement is in need of total replacement.

Bruce said...

We actually have 11 in service right now...but that's misleading. IIRC, 2 are down for multiple year long overhaul/refits. And a 3rd is waiting for that in the queue. After adding the 3 on order, we're still only going to have 12, so 2 or 3 of the current ones will be decommissioned in the same time.

Last year when we put 3 carriers together in the Pac as a show of force? We cut the pre-deployment training of one of them by 6 or 9 months, pulled the one we had in the Persian Gulf, and pulled the only other one that was operational to do it. We basically pulled everything out of the cupboard and left nothing for any where else in the world for a show of force that we could only support for a couple of weeks.

Minimum carrier numbers to control the oceans is 12. 15 would be better. And there is some reason to believe that we're headed into a period of time that we're going to need them.

Pete, you also need to take into account that today's CBG is not the same as yesterday's 12-24+ ship CBG. We've been calling things as small as 6 ships a CBG. We're hurting for small hulls, and the disasters with the DDG-1000 and the recent accidents have only exacerbated that.

urbane legend said...

" . . . Otherwise, we may be throwing good taxpayer money after bad. "

Maybe? Maybe? Of course we are! This, and the F-35, are proof. It appears the military these days actually has no idea what is necessary to achieve its purpose these days. The only choice is always bigger and more complicated. The result is not a item, say The P-51, but a system, with multiple opportunities for problems. Eisenhower was right about the military-industrial complex.

" Would it be better to consider unmanned aerial attack forces that could be based further away, even on land masses a thousand miles or more away from the combat zone? "

As the technology improves this becomes a better and better choice.

urbane legend said...

Sorry about repeating myself in that. The proofreader is not working today.

Anonymous said...

The EMALS disaster has been known to anyone who can read for a couple of years now. The Little Crappy Ship disaster has been even more obvious for over a decade now. Prison terms and reduced or revoked retirement pensions would not be inappropriate - or we could simply sentence everyone responsible to work in The shipyard at minimum wage to fix or break up these travesties ; more likely the latter.
Boat Guy

m4 said...

I'm confused by a number of things in the article excerpt you provided. Am I just being dense, or does their proofreading need some work?

The obvious one that springs to mind is how without functioning EMALS the carrier's powerplant wouldn't be able to power EMALS and all the other high-power-draw equipment (like modern energy weapons). What has one to do with the other?

stencil said...

"...It may also be time to re-evaluate whether large carriers are still a worthwhile investment. "

Do you suspect that the Chinese investment is a diversionary ploy?

stencil said...

m4 said...

I'm confused by a number of things in the article excerpt you provided. Am I just being dense, or does their proofreading need some work?

Strategy Page routinely has cascading waves of repetition repeated over and over again, repeatedly if I make myself clear, izzat right... I suspect that they're composed using speech-to-text over a telephone link.
For all that, it's still one of the most commonsense commmentary shops in the market.

Anonymous said...

In 2002 the navy concluded it would lose to the Iranian coastal fishing fleet armed with Russian Silkworm missiles.

Anonymous said...

I'm confused by that CHAMP video. We see a clip of a room of computers suddenly shutting off. Then a guy brags about it working so well it took out the cameras. But we just saw the clip taken by a camera that didn't go bad. Oh, and the lights in the room didn't go out. So, is that clip bs or what? To me it looks like someone yanked a breaker to the room's outlets, but left the lights on so the camera could film. Looks fishy.

Rob said...

Will hypersonic missiles & anti-satellite weapons cut the US military off at the knees?
It will if we lose all the aircraft carriers one night and the satellites go away.
It's going to be hard to fly armed drones in Pakastain from Nellis AFB in Las Vegas if the satellites are gone....

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's just symptoms of a rotting bloated empire in decline. Trillions fighting far away wars with no compelling national interest or real threat to the US. Building defenses against manufactured enemies, defending other countries who are more than capable of defending themselves, antagonizing other nations for dubious reasons, meddling all across the globe, all the while millions of invaders aided by treasonous pseudo-American fifth columnists flood the homeland with un-assimilable foreigners with worldviews wholly incompatible with and openly hostile to our form of governance and our traditional societal structures, displacing the historic population, depressing wages, displacing workers, tearing apart it's very foundational institutions and destroying healthy cohesive communities. Those multibillion dollar carriers aren't worth a damn if the terrorists and denizens of enemy states they're ostensibly defending us from are shipped in by the millions and settled right in your community whether you like it or not. The threat isn't in Syria, Russia, North Korea or China's claims on some miserable rocks the other side of the Pacific. The threat is right here at home and aircraft carriers and F-35s aren't protecting us from it. The primary purpose of the US military is to protect and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic and to protect the territorial integrity of the United States and to prevent invasion. They have utterly and totally failed at that primary purpose.

Johnny -Oh said...

Anon above: AS I understand the theory (YMMV, IANAL, etc.) EMP's only affect electronic devices that use a magnetic storage media, not the flow of electricity. The camera that recorded that video was most likely shielded or simply just outside of the EMP impact zone. The computers shut off because all of the little one's and zero's stored on the hard drives and in ram are at minimum jumbled up, and if the pulse is strong enough written instantly as all one's. Most light circuits in residences and businesses do not actually have any electronics in them to be affected. You turn one the manually actuated switch, and electricity flows through the circuit activating the light. An EMP would actually have to affect the construction of the light bulb in order to shut them off. Hope that helps.

Quartermaster said...

Johnny, street lamps in Honolulu was broken with an EMP during one nuke test. It isn't just electronics that are affected by an EMP, but anything electric with what amounts to an antenna. Transformers are a good example of that and the power grid could be adversely affected by an intentional EMP.

CW, the DeGaulle is not barely functional. It works quite well.

The problem with steam catapults is they draw steam that could be used for power generation and so cuts electrical capacity. Much of the trouble we are seeing with acquisition of things like EMALS is the services are trying to integrate new technology before it it is completely out of development. The F-35 is a good example right along side EMALS. The Chinese claim they have EMALS. It is quite possible their espionage swiped the plans their Engineers have seen the problem, altho I have my doubts like I have them about Putin's new super weapons.

Chris Nelson said...

Most of the modern military systems exist to enrich defense contractors, "lawmakers" and military brass.

Sherm said...

I'm guessing there are not a lot of senior chiefs asking hard questions in he design and development phase of these projects.

OldFan said...

The carriers will, like their predecessors the battleships, linger on fro decades after they are no longer decisive weapons. Anything a current carrier battle group can do can be done by UAVs launched from cells on any floating platform. Every "destroyer" (currently they have almost the same misplacement as the first battleships) could carry a dozen UAVs with configurable payloads of weapons, sensor, and extra fuel - effectively turning it into a small carrier. A container ship could be quickly configured to carry hundreds of UAVs - and launch them in massed waves.

Sadly, the magnificent manned aircraft we loved so much are almost completely obsolete. The increasing range and accuracy of missiles, coupled with the real-time observation capability of UAVs, effectively ends the need for carriers to bring combat aircraft forward. Why fly planes with missile loads toward the foe when we can just send the missiles themselves, or put them on expendable drone platforms to close the range.

Like my grandfather's beloved Hussars, the manned fighters will remain on the battlefield out of sentiment and will lay down their lives in a hopeless fight they cannot win, long after their day should have ended.

Anonymous said...

Question, which is hard to kill, a Nimitz class carrier group or the satellite that is trying to track it?


Aesop said...

1) Every admiral, captain, and senior officer responsible for the Ford-class catapult fiasco should be hauled in, deposed under opath, and then court-martialed. Those retired should be dragged in and prosecuted, and stripped of their pensions. Heads must roll.

1a) The new system should have been tested on the ground, and ALL the bugs worked out, before it was ever deployed untried on a whole class of ships.

2) There is simply no substitute for a carrier group on 80% of the planet's surface. They aren't going away. The giveaway there is that navies with pretensions of power are building them, or more of them.

2a) If we're going to send in a carrier group, and anti-ship missiles are a problem, they'll be precision-bombed, and/or carpet-bombed, first, by everything from B-2s to B-52s and everything built in between.
Ask General Tojo how they did against that in an earlier iteration, back in the day.

2b) 100 anti-ship missiles?
That's the equivalent of an attack by 100 manned aircraft, only not as bright nor maneuverable.
We may get to the day where anti-ship missiles really are a kill shot.
We aren't there yet.

2c) Say you kill a carrier.
So, what's your defense against his friend, the VLS cruiser or SLBM who decides you aren't paying due deference to our wishes?
Ask the mayor of Hiroshima, circa 1945, to send in an amicus brief on how that would play out for your position.

3) EMP use against naval forces would be problematic. You'd be dealing with ships that have been EMP hardened, by design, going back to the 1950s.
And as to the inevitable "response in kind" policy that's been in place for US forces since the 1970s, see 2c, above.

Every navy (country, thug clan, etc.) wants to be gangster, until it's time to do gangster stuff.
Then they find out that mushroom cloud where their HQ used to be wasn't an idle jest. We have guys in their twenties who'd take out that city, sleep like babies afterwards, and look forward to the next mission. FWIW, full colonel Tibbetts was 30 in August of 1945.
Some things don't change much over time.

Anonymous said...

Peter, I am so angry about this I am SPITTING NAILS.

Second the suggestion by Aesop above of hard time for the guilty parties. This has to stop.

Will said...

My vote for Hard Time or swinging from a rope. Call it the Deep State Jig!
Perhaps they could be strapped to an older steam catapult and tossed over the bow while running 30+ knots.