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The vital US Navy aircraft carrier system Trump is obsessed over keeps failing, running up costs

Alex Lockie
  • President Donald Trump has taken a near obsessive interest in the catapults on the US Navy's $US13 billion USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier, and a new report says it's continuing to fail and may never work.
  • The Pentagon's weapon tester will issue a report on the Ford saying the supercarrier continues to fail at its fundamental task: launching and landing aircraft.
  • Trump frequently goes off on tangents bashing the new system of electromagnetic catapults to launch US Navy jets, and it looks like he's basically right.

President Donald Trump does not micromanage the Pentagon as his predecessor did, but since taking office he's taken a near obsessive interest in a particular system aboard the US Navy's $US13 billion USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier.

And according to a new oversight report to be released from the Defence Department's operational test office, Trump was right to worry.

The Navy's Ford-class aircraft carrier, the first carrier design in decades that was meant to revolutionise naval warfare, continues to fail at a fundamental task: Launching and landing aircraft.

A 2018 evaluation first seen by Bloomberg and due for release on Wednesday or Thursday, says that of 740 aircraft launches and landings, 20 had failures of key new systems.

Trump frequently grills US Navy personnel, seemingly at random, and reportedly screams and curses in meetings about his frustration with the new carrier's launching and landing systems, which are the very same acting up now in testing.

Read more:
Trump uses Thanksgiving call to Navy officer to voice a weird grudge about aircraft carriers

The Ford, and the other four flattops slated to join it as Ford-class carriers built by Huntington Ingalls Industries for $US58 billion, with contractor General Atomics leading the design and repair of the launching and landing systems, looks much like the former Nimitz-class carriers save for a few key updates.

Chief among the upgrades over the previous carriers is the electromagnetic launching system and the advanced arrestting gear. US Navy planners said by using electricity, not steam as has been used for decades, the carrier can catapult heavier warplanes faster and more smoothly. Combined with landing gear meant to land the jets more smoothly, the carrier should reduce wear and tear on airframes, thereby reducing maintenance time, thereby boosting efficency and flights-per-day.

USS Gerald R. Ford

But instead, the new carrier fell below her planned rate of flights-per-day, and may never meet that mark.

Bloomberg cited Robert Behler, the Pentagon's director of operational testing, as saying in the report that the Ford "will probably not achieve" its requirement of flights-per-day due to of "unrealistic assumptions" about the ship's systems that "ignore the effects of weather, aircraft emergencies, ship maneuvers and current air-wing composition on flight operations."

No injuries stemmed from the failures of the systems, though they included critical failures in landings, caused a brief suspension of all flight operations, and caused two pilots to abort their missions entirely, according to Bloomberg's read of the report.

Trump, Albert Einstein, and "the goddamned steam"

USS Gerald Ford

On a Thanksgiving call with US Navy sailors, Trump quizzed one on what he thought of the launching system.

"Would you go with steam, or would you go with electromagnetic?" Trump asked the sailor, putting him in the awkward position of disagreeing with the president or disagreeing with his superior officers.

"Because steam is very reliable, and the electromagnetic, I mean, unfortunately you have to be Albert Einstein to really work it properly," Trump continued.

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The sailor responded that "you sort of have to be Albert Einstein to run the nuclear power plant that we have here as well, but we're doing that very well," and that he'd choose the electromagnetic launcher over the steam catapults.

This was the hardly the first time Trump has weighed in on the failing systems.

From Trump's 2017 interview with TIME magazine:

"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're going to goddamned steam. The digital costs hundreds of millions of dollars more money, and it's no good.'"