U.S. Naval Air Systems Command says that it has finally worked out the stress-loading problems with the new Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS), the costly electrically-powered catapult for the next-generation Ford class aircraft carriers. The problem involved excessive stresses on wing structures in F/A-18 Hornets (and the EA-18 Growler derivatives) when launched with fully loaded external fuel tanks. The loading would not have caused rapid failure, but it would have reduced the aircraft's fatigue life, NAVAIR said. In practice, this has prevented the recently commissioned USS Gerald R. Ford from launching F/A-18s with external tanks, limiting the fighters’ combat range.
The system's developers resolved the problem with software changes, and NAVAIR conducted a series of manned tests at Joint Base McGuier-Dix-Lakehurst to validate the fix. Ford's own systems will be updated at a post-shakedown availability in 2019.
First units of LRASM on the way
On Thursday, Lockheed Martin announced that it has won an $85 million contract for the first 23 production units of the Long Range Anti-Ship Missiles (LRASM). LRASM is a derivative of the Air Force's JASSM air-to-surface missile, and it will be built on the same production line as the original.
The Navy says that the LRASM's range exceeds 200 nm, allowing U.S. surface combatants to engage at ranges that approach those of Russian anti-ship missiles. LRASM is equipped with autonomous features for threat avoidance and precision targeting.
Lockheed also announced that it has conducted the first-ever LRASM launch from a top-side storage canister. The test, at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, was conducted with the fire control software used by the Navy's Mk-41 Vertical Launch System silos, which are standard on the service's cruisers and destroyers. Lockheed has already tested the missile with lauches from the Mk-41 itself, but the topside canister deployment shows that it can be fitted on other combatant classes – potentially including Littoral Combat Ships.
Railgun makes rapid-fire progress
The Navy has published new footage of rapid-fire testing of BAE Systems' prototype electromagnetic railgun. The gun accelerates projectiles to 4,500 miles per hour, giving them enough kinetic energy to destroy hard targets at extremely long range, without the use of explosives. The Navy hopes that the decade-long research effort will result in a game-changing weapon. "Wide-area coverage, exceptionally quick response and very deep magazines will extend the reach and lethality of ships armed with this technology," the service says. It also offers a key benefit for safety and survivability: with no explosive propellants or warheads, its ammunition magazines are not vulnerable to detonation in the event of a shipboard casualty or an enemy strike.
The Office of Naval Research recently identified several key "research opportunities” to make the railgun a success, including better thermal management for the gun's launch rails; extending the service life of the equipment; developing high-strength dielectric structural materials; and reducing the size of associated power systems and control electronics. Experts say that the limited durability of a railgun's rails under the stress of repeated firing is an especially serious challenge for the technology – one that rapid-fire testing may help address.