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Losing steam: US Navy carriers go electric

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By Rebecca Christie

27 February 2008

 

Half a century after the introduction of steam-driven catapults, the US Navy

(USN) aircraft carrier community is entering an era that trades steam and

hydraulics for advanced electronic circuitry.

Construction of the first in a new line of carriers, Gerald R Ford (CVN 78),

is due to begin in 2008 and the USD10.5 billion ship will use electricity

instead of steam for launching combat aircraft, cooking meals and heating

sailors' living quarters. Its nuclear reactors will produce more electricity

than any other warship, powering a maintenance revolution as well as one of

the navy's 'floating cities'.

The CVN 78-class carriers - the fruit of the CVN 21 design and development

programme - will have powerful new radar, upgraded landing systems and

larger flight decks than their Nimitz-class predecessors. The ship's company

plus air wing will number a relatively meagre 4,660 personnel, between 1,000

and 1,200 fewer than the total required in the older carriers.

Many technological advances contribute to the manpower efficiency gain. For

example, radars in the new ship will not need to rotate, dramatically

reducing wear and tear; and the USN says its new electromagnetic launch

system can be operated by about 90 sailors, compared to the 120 needed for

steam-driven catapults. Pilots on take-off may reap the most noticeable

benefits as the new catapult will push them smoothly aloft, in contrast to

the steam-driven jolt of the existing carriers.

"Going through a catapult launch is akin to getting launched on a roller

coaster," says Louis Uffer, manager of the USN's Electromagnetic Aircraft

Launch System (EMALS) programme. "You wouldn't want to be jerked right out

of your seat. You want to get nice and gently thrown on your roller-coaster

ride. EMALS is going to do the same thing for the naval aviators who get to

launch off aircraft carriers. This is going to be the start of whatever

their thrill ride is, whatever mission they go on."

Thrill rides are an everyday occurrence for the carrier fleet, the

centrepiece of the USN's fighting force. Each flat-top can accommodate more

than 75 aircraft, with a lineup that typically includes four F/A-18 strike

interdictor squadrons, a squadron of S-3B reconnaissance aircraft, a

squadron of E-2C command-and-control aircraft and a helicopter squadron.

Future plans will see the embarkation of unmanned aerial vehicles; in August

2007 it was announced that Northrop Grumman had won a USD635.9 million

Unmanned Combat Air System-Demonstrator (UCAS-D) contract from US Naval Air

Systems Command, after the company's X-47B drone was selected (ahead of

Boeing's X-45) as the developmental testbed for the navy's first

carrier-launched unmanned strike aircraft.

Also, the F/A-18s will be joined by a carrier version of the F-35 Lightning

II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), which will bring stealth and state-of-the-art

electronics to maritime aviators. The USN plans a mix of the two supersonic

combat aircraft, so that it can take advantage of the F-35's new

capabilities without replacing its entire inventory and sucking funds from

other programmes.

All these aircraft give the carriers their enormous combat power, including

the potential to deliver nuclear weapons if needed. They also represent a

shift in the navy's use of carriers and sea-based aircraft since their

introduction in the early 20th century.

"At the end of World War II we had 99 carriers," says Vice Admiral David

Architzel, one of the USN's senior acquisition officials. "Today's carriers

are tremendously more capable. We measure things today not by number of

aircraft per target but number of targets per aircraft."

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It's essentially a electro-magnapult. I've ridden roller coasters that use the same principle.

 

Read Robert Heinlein's "Moon is a Harsh Mistress" as a fictional example.

 

FastCargo

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I know they probably did tests and stuff already but electromagnets to be used with fly by wire aircraft with microcircuits?

 

I shouldn't think it'd be a problem there's probably as much energy coming off the SPY 1 radar. They've been doing R & D on this for at least a decade. Now if we can just persuade the UK government to get this for the RN's new carriers rather than going VTOL.

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