The Navy still isn’t sure if a recent fault in the aircraft launching system onboard USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) was caused by a problem with the equipment itself or the procedures used to operate it, but the service’s top acquisition official said he’s confident in the system and that any remaining weak points are being wrung out during an ongoing post-delivery test and trials period.
On June 2, the Ford crew discovered a fault in the power handling system that connects the ship’s energy-generating turbines to the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) power system. This discovery came while they were conducting a manual reset of the system ahead of launching aircraft, while the air wing was onboard for the first time ever to conduct cyclic operations – compared to previous at-sea periods where test pilots were flying in a controlled test environment.
During the reset and pre-operations check, the crew discovered the system was in a condition they didn’t expect, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition James Geurts told reporters this week.
“At no point was there a safety of flight issue associated with this. It was really as the crew was doing a manual reset of the system which was in accordance with the current procedures – they were doing pre-operations activities, they did a manual reset of the system, the system came up in a condition that didn’t look familiar to them based on the procedures we had. And so as they saw this, they troubleshot it, they came up with an amended procedure. Again, at no point was this a safety of flight issue,” Geurts said in response to a USNI News question.
“Under abundance of caution, in conversation with everybody involved, we wanted to double-check, one, could we replicate the fault that appeared, and then two, given the fault, (validate) the procedure with which to clear that fault. … The team decided to replicate that fault at the ground-based test site (in Lakehurst, N.J.), double-check the procedure, validate the procedure, and then the ship used that procedure successfully and then immediately upon executing that launched the entire air wing.”
Asked what caused the fault in the first place, Geurts said he wasn’t sure if the equipment itself – the hardware or the software – had a problem, if the procedures used to do the manual reset needed to be refined, or if the crew needed additional training for this type of work.
“We’re still going through the diagnosis, we’re doing full fault isolation to understand: the condition came up; what caused the condition to come up in that way? … How did we get in that state?”
Though the ship and engineers ashore at the ground-based test site have more work to do to understand what happened and how to prevent it in the future, Geurts said that’s the point of post-delivery test and trials: to pressure-test the gear, the training and the procedures.
“In my mind, this is in the heart of the envelope of what we do PDT&T for, to really really test this stuff out,” Geurts said.
The new carrier is about 45 percent through its PDT&T period. The last trial the ship will go through is a full-ship shock trial, where live ordnance is exploded in the water near the ship to make sure it can take a hit. At that point, the ship will go into a repair period to fix damage from the shock trial and conduct planned repairs and modernization work ahead of the ship and crew preparing for pre-deployment training.
The role that engineers at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst played in helping troubleshoot and validate the solution to the EMALS fault comes at a time when Congress and the Navy are having talks about land-based test facilities for other kinds of systems.
The Navy originally skipped building a land-based test site for its weapons elevators, figuring that the parent technology behind the elevators was commercially based and relatively well understood. Instead, the service continues to struggle with the Advanced Weapons Elevators, with just five of 11 in working function and in use by the crew, with one more set to be completed this year and the rest planned for completion before the end of the maintenance period following shock trials. Lawmakers had expressed frustration that the Navy made a penny-wise pound-foolish decision to nix that test site.
To avoid these issues in the future, the Senate Armed Services Committee said in its version of the Fiscal Year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act that the Navy wouldn’t be able to pursue its Large Unmanned Surface Vessel program until the service and the committee came to some sort of an agreement on ground-based testing of subsystems.
“We highlight unmanned surface vessel. It’s an example of a program that needs to pursue sub-system prototyping first because there’s enough unknown subsystems that need to be matured before we try to build the full-scale vehicle,” a staffer told reporters in a background briefing.
“We’re trying to catch things earlier in programs and make full use of land-based testing and land-based test sites for subsystem prototyping.”
As for how the Navy would move forward with establishing ground-based test sites, Geurts told USNI News during the call that “absolutely, having those is critical for those systems that can benefit from it. It’s not cheap – you have to maintain those systems just like you have to maintain the systems on a ship, you have to have people there. But for systems like EMALS or something else, even in our traditional steam catapults, having that capability is key so that we can deal with issues like this.”
He noted that an Advanced Weapons Elevator test site would be coming online in Philadelphia and that, even though the elevators have completed about 10,000 cycles on the ship with no problems, the test site would be available to troubleshoot if needed and also to test out upgrades and modifications down the line before installing them on the ship.
“Having digital twins of the software, having hardware replications so we can replicate the capabilities are all important things to do,” Geurts said.
“We’ve just got to balance all of that with affordability and make sure we are getting it right in terms of the systems we choose to do that for and then systems we choose some other way to be able to maintain.”