The United States Navy is currently testing an Electromagnetic Aircraft Launching System (EMALS) for use on its new Ford-Class aircraft carriers. These systems use an electromagnetic field to assist in the launch of navy aircraft and are replacing the steam catapults currently in use. The first aircraft carrier to put this new system to use will be the USS Gerald R. Ford slated for commission sometime in 2016.
The EMALS system uses electric currents that create magnetic fields that propel a carriage that is attached to the nose gear of an aircraft down a track in order to launch the aircraft. Some of the advantages listed for this new system include a smoother acceleration of the aircraft compared to steam catapults, which reduces the amount of stress on the airframe, reduced workload, and reduced weight. Another advantage of the system is the ability to launch unmanned aerial vehicles due to its ability to adjust to different aircraft weights and configurations.
Along with the advantages of EMALS listed above, there are also disadvantages. One main concern is electromagnetic interference (EMI). Due to sensitive aircraft equipment sitting directly above the launch motor, this equipment could be affected by electromagnetic emissions. This sensitivity to EMI makes one wonder if EMALS is susceptible to an electromagnetic pulse attack that could potentially hinder the launching of naval aircraft from the carrier.
It is very difficult to find literature on the effects of EMP attacks on the EMAL system itself; however, based on research of EMP weapons currently studied the potential to disable the system is definitely a reality. An example of how a carrier group may be affected is given in a report titled, “Electromagnetic Pulse Threats” and presumes the following; China launches an EMP attack against the USS Enterprise carrier battle group, cruising in the Straits of Formosa. The attack involves a simultaneous wave of hundreds of air launched decoys intermixed with stealthy vircator-carrying cruise missiles. A vircator device accelerates a high current electron beam that oscillates at microwave frequencies and radiates an EMP. A few of the vircators get close enough to blast highly sensitive radar and communications antennas with high frequency EMP, blinding and segregating the fleet. The attack also affects key kinetic systems, grounding a large percentage of F-18 fighters and immobilizing radar guided fleet defense missiles. Some airborne pilots are forced to bail out as their flight control computers fail.
The U.S. Navy currently utilizes electromagnetic pulse experts that are currently evaluating Fleet mission critical systems to harden them against EMP attacks. The introduction of EMALS should place this technology in the critical system category in an effort to defend against these types of attacks.