Donald Trump did a bizarre thing aboard the USS Wasp on Tuesday. After wishing the sailors “a very Happy Memorial Day,” the President conducted an impromptu poll, asking the crowd who preferred steam-powered catapult systems and who preferred electric. Steam won out in the poll, and now, Trump says he’s going to order old-fashioned steam catapults be installed on new American aircraft carriers. Trump evidently thinks the Navy is trying to innovate too much.
The question of which kind of catapult to use on aircraft carriers is, weirdly enough, one of Trump’s obsessions. The president launched into his catapult rant pretty early in his speech to the crew members of the USS Wasp, an amphibious assault vessel with a homeport in Japan.
“So then, let me ask you a question,” Trump said. “Catapult — right? The catapult system. Do you like electric or steam?”
When he said “electric,” Trump is referring to the electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS) that the Navy has been developing in an effort to modernize its aircraft carrier fleet. This new catapult uses a linear induction motor to launch aircraft off of ships. The technology is similar to what’s currently used for maglev trains and has several advantages over the steam-powered catapults that have been used on aircraft carriers since the 1950s. But Trump really likes how America worked before the civil rights movement, so he’d prefer the Navy’s aircraft carriers to keep the old way alive:
Okay, I really need this information because, you know, we’re building carriers. We’re building one. They’re using an electric catapult and an electric elevator. Number one, I can’t imagine, in the case of battle — it must be very delicate, okay? And, you know, steam has only worked for about 65 years, perfectly.
And I won’t tell you this because it’s before my time by a little bit, but they have a $900 million cost overrun on this crazy electric catapult. I said, “What was wrong with steam?”
This is the part where Trump does the poll. He asks the crowd, who prefers steam and gets a bunch of cheers. He asks who prefers “electric” and then said the guy who cheered for the new system “works for the enemy.” Then he accused the Navy of innovating too much:
No, we want to go with steam. You know, they’re always coming up with new ideas. They’re making planes so complex you can’t fly them. You know that. No, it’s — I really mean it. They want to show next, next, next. And we all want innovation, but it’s too much.
Speaking of innovation, Navy officials say that EMALS is better than steam for myriad reasons. The system can launch more planes off of the carrier in a shorter amount of time. The smoother movement also reduces wear and tear on aircraft as well as the carrier. And because it doesn’t need vast networks of piping as the steam system does, EMALS takes up less space on the ship which means there’s more space for stuff like sailors. It also doesn’t spew dangerous steam all over the deck of the carrier.
EMALS does have some reliability issues. A Pentagon report from 2017 showed that the system suffered from critical failures at an unacceptably high rate. This might have been the report that initially tipped Trump off to the existence of the new system, which was being installed on the USS Gerald R. Ford. That $13 billion aircraft carrier, the nation’s newest and most advanced, has been over budget and delayed. The president loves to yell about things that are over budget and delayed, so in a May 2017 interview with Time Magazine, he unleashed upon this new catapult system:
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 gets worse:
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.
The president was not able to keep EMALS off of the USS Gerald R. Ford, because it was already installed and working in 2017. It would have cost hundreds of millions of dollars to retrofit the carrier with a steam catapult and delayed its launch even further. But now Trump says he wants to prevent the next two Ford-class carriers, the USS John F. Kennedy and the USS Enterprise, from getting the modern catapult system. Both of these ships are already under construction so major changes to their design, like replacing EMALS with a steam catapult, would undoubtedly cost even more time and money.
Of course, Trump says he’s going to do stuff that he never does all the time. Trump also has a tendency to change his mind, even on issues that he seems very passionate about. This is perhaps especially true regarding military matters, with which Trump had no experience before taking office. In the weeks leading up to his inauguration, Trump railed about the cost of the F-35 program. Trump later took credit for saving the taxpayers over $700 million on the program, despite the fact that the savings had been planned by the Pentagon for years leading up to his tantrum.
Trump loves the F-35 now, by the way. The 21st-century fighter jet, which the president apparently thinks is invisible, was first deployed on the USS Wasp last year. Trump sang the jet’s praises to the crew this week and said: “We’re getting all new beautiful equipment.”
It’s hard to know what Trump is really doing with his campaign against the electromagnetic catapult system. This technology and other innovations in the Ford-class carriers are expected to save the Navy up to $5 billion in the next 50 years. They will also keep the United States fleet on par with that of China, which is currently installing EMALS on its third aircraft carrier. Could it be possible that Trump is waiting for the right moment to flip his position on steam versus electric in order to claim some political victory?
Or maybe, just maybe, Trump really does think that the Navy is trying too hard and innovating too much. If we won World War II without a digital airplane shooter, we should be able to win World War III without one.
Correction 4:00pm: An earlier version of this story described the USS Wasp as an aircraft carrier. It is, in fact, an amphibious assault vessel. A reader pointed out the key difference in an email:
It is important to note that WASP does not have a catapult system like an aircraft carrier. All aircraft on WASP take off and land vertically. So it is especially interesting that Trump should have noticed there was no catapult and even more significantly, the sailors he was polling, most probably have never seen a catapult launching system, nor would most of them have any idea of the pros or cons of the steam or electric catapult systems. (The average age of a sailor in the Navy is 19 1/2.)