Weapon Systems

Electromagnetic launch system revolutionises US Navy carrier operations


The system technologically leaves traditional steam catapults far behind, expands the operational capability of new carriers, and will play a critical role in meeting the demands of modern warfare.

Share this article

A US Navy Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) is shown abroad the USS Gerald R. Ford in an undated photo. [US Navy]
A US Navy Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) is shown abroad the USS Gerald R. Ford in an undated photo. [US Navy]

An innovative aircraft launch system is one of the many features expected to help the US Navy Ford-class aircraft carriers rule the seas for decades to come.

The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78), the first in its class, is slated to embark on its first worldwide deployment later this year.

Traditionally, steam catapults propel carrier-based aircraft into flight.

The Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS), designed for Ford-class carriers like the USS Gerald R. Ford, has the same function but uses cutting-edge technologies.

The system launches carrier-based aircraft by means of a catapult employing a linear induction motor rather than the conventional steam piston.

New technologies, smoother launch

"EMALS uses stored kinetic energy and solid-state electrical power conversion. This technology permits a high degree of computer control, monitoring and automation," the US Navy said on its Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) page.

EMALS "uses an approach analogous to an electromagnetic rail gun, in order to accelerate the shuttle that holds the aircraft," according to a 2020 article in the Naval Post.

"That approach provides a smoother launch, while offering up to 30% more launch energy potential to cope with heavier fighters."

The EMALS' linear induction motor will accelerate a 45,000 kg aircraft to 130 knots (240 km/h).

The Ford-class carrier has the ability to carry up to 90 aircraft.

The aircraft package includes the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, EA-18G Growler Electronic Attack Aircraft, C-2 Greyhound, E-2D Hawkeye, F-35C Lightning II, SH-60 Seahawk helicopters, and unmanned combat aerial vehicles.

Other airframes may eventually include the MQ-25 Stingray, the world's first operational, carrier-based unmanned aircraft.

EMALS benefits

EMALS offers valuable onboard advantages, according to the Naval Post.

The system has far less demand for space and maintenance, as it dispenses with most of the steam catapult's piping, pumps, motors and control systems.

It reduces the need for energy-intensive desalination employed with steam systems.

The Navy's war-fighting capacity also soars with the use of EMALS.

Among its many benefits are increased reliability and efficiency, more accurate end-speed control and smoother acceleration that puts less stress on airframes, according to NAVAIR.

EMALS is designed to accommodate a future air wing that requires higher energy launches and a much higher sortie rate.

It also has the ability to launch a broader range of naval aircraft -- from lightweight unmanned to heavy strike fighters -- with less stress on the ship and aircraft.

That means aircraft carriers equipped with EMALS will have the ability to launch small, medium and large drones for reconnaissance, refueling or even attack missions.

The system can launch aircraft at higher speeds and steeper angles than steam catapults, allowing for quicker takeoff and recovery times. This is critical in carrier operations, where every second counts and the ability to launch and recover aircraft quickly can mean the difference between success and failure.

The greater control over the launch trajectory that EMALS affords is particularly important for heavier aircraft, which require more force to launch.

EMALS can be easily modified and upgraded to accommodate new aircraft designs and technologies, making it a more adaptable and future-proof system than steam catapults.

As a result of EMALS' many advantages, Ford-class carriers have expanded operational capability compared to their predecessors in the Nimitz class and can launch all current and future carrier air wing platforms.

Do you like this article?

Captcha *