Navy officials were “blindsided” on Thursday, a spokesman told me, by President Donald Trump’s suggestion that he has convinced the Navy to abandon a long-planned digital launching system in favor of steam on its newest aircraft carrier.
In a wide-ranging interview with Time magazine, Trump described his disgust with the catapult system known as Electro-Magnetic Aircraft Launch System, nicknamed EMALS, aboard the USS Gerald R. Ford. (Time has published only excerpts from the interview, not a full transcript.) The president described wanting to scrap EMALS, a key technological upgrade at the center of the multibillion-dollar carrier project, and return to steam.
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.”
What is digital? To answer the president’s question without getting into too many 0s and 1s, “digital” means using a computer to make something happen. You know, the same sort of machine that connects us all to the cyber. Are you still with me, or should we get Einstein over here? (I mean, Einstein has done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more.) EMALS isn’t just computer-based but uses a linear induction motor. That motor—which uses electric currents to activate a magnetic core—propels a carriage down a track to launch an aircraft, rather than using a steam piston drive to pull the aircraft.
Despite Trump’s technological leanings—he’s TV obsessed, he was a semi-early adopter of the web, and he has a preternatural sense for Twitter drama—his question about “digital” calls to mind his apparent cluelessness about cyber security.
It’s not that EMALS has been a smashing success. Cost and schedule overruns have given the Navy carrier project a reputation for being "one of the most spectacular acquisition debacles in recent memory,” as Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican, put it in 2015. “And that is saying something.” The construction of three Ford-class aircraft carriers has swelled from $27 billion to $36 billion in the last 10 years.