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‘You have to be Albert Einstein to figure it out’: Trump targets the Navy’s new aircraft catapult

President Trump speaks to Navy and shipyard personnel aboard the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford at Newport News Shipbuilding in Newport News, Va., on March 2. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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President Trump set his sights on the Navy in a new interview, calling the service’s new electromagnetic catapult to launch planes off aircraft carriers “no good” and saying that the Navy needs to go back to “goddamned steam,” the method used for decades.

The comments, published Thursday by Time magazine, came during an interview Monday evening at the White House. Trump recounted a conversation he had March 2 while visiting the yet-to-be-commissioned aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford in Newport News, Va., and said he was told that the catapult on it does not have enough power.

Aboard the Gerald R. Ford in Newport News, Va., President Trump spoke about defense spending and the military, March. 2. Here is the full speech. (Video: The Washington Post)

“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,” Trump said, according to Time.

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“And I said — and now they want to buy more aircraft carriers,” the president continued. “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.”

The new catapult to which Trump referred is called the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS). It takes up significantly less space on a ship than steam systems and works by tapping into a redesigned turbine system that generates more power than those on old carriers. The new electromagnetic system also is expected to be able to launch unmanned aircraft and require less maintenance, according to the Navy.

The Navy said Thursday that it was developing a response. A Pentagon official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of speaking about the president, said that Trump’s comments caught defense officials off-guard and are inaccurate.

“You can see elements of reality in what he said, but I think he may have spoken without having all of the information in front of him,” the official said. “I think he either has time-late information, or the information he has is not correct.”

The crew of the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford launched weighted sleighs into the sea off the coast of Virginia to test the new Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS), which is designed to replace the current steam-driven launchers. (Video: U.S. Navy)

Pentagon officials are convinced that once they present the latest details about the EMALS to the president, “a lot of the concerns that were raised in the article will be answered,” the official added. The White House did not respond Thursday to a request for more information about the president’s frustrations.

The EMALS was adopted as the Navy designed a new Ford class of “super carrier” that are larger than older ones. The Ford is expected to be commissioned and delivered to the Navy within a month and will be followed by similar carriers named the John F. Kennedy and the Enterprise.

Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain and defense analyst with the Center for a New American Security, said Thursday that Trump’s criticism “has merit” but that many of the issues that initially were raised about the catapult already have been resolved. Now would not be a good time to go back and install steam systems on the new carriers, he said: The Ford is all but finished, and construction of the Kennedy is already underway.

“To go back to steam would be a major redesign,” Hendrix said. “And that design change would run throughout the entire ship because of the power required for the new system.”

But it’s reasonable for Trump to be frustrated with the cost of the new carriers, and he isn’t wrong that shifting back to steam on future aircraft carriers would be cheaper, Hendrix said. The cost of the Ford is expected to be $12.9 billion, and the price of the Kennedy is estimated at $11.8 billion, according to an assessment by the Congressional Research Service. Previous carriers without the new catapult cost $8.5 billion.

According to both Hendrix and the CRS report, the larger issue on the new carriers at this point is not the catapult, but the new advanced arresting gear system that catches planes as they land. The new system has struggled in testing and could again boost the cost of the ships, but the Navy decided to stay with the new system on not only the Ford, but also the Kennedy carrier that is now under construction.

The Pentagon official who discussed Trump’s comments Thursday acknowledged that the system is still a work in progress.