“You’re going to goddamned steam!” Of all Donald Trump’s fascinating, shocking and downright uninformed quotes over the past week, that one may have gotten lost in the shuffle. But among defense wonks, the president’s harsh judgment of the electromagnetic launch systems on the new Ford Class supercarrier was perhaps the most egregious.
Trump, in a Time Magazine interview, was describing a conversation in which he asked why the Navy was switching away from the steam-powered catapults it had used for decades, and whether the new electromagnetic launch system was working. Apparently he did not get a persuasive answer. “They have digital,” he added. “What is digital? And it’s very complicated, you have to be Albert Einstein to figure it out.”
I, like most with more than a passing interest in Pentagon acquisitions, at first snickered. But then I got to thinking: Maybe we should take the president literally. So I decided to talk to someone who knows as much as anyone about the military technology of tomorrow: Peter W. Singer. Singer is not just an expert on defense issues with the New America Foundation and, before that, the Brookings Institution. He also co-author of a fantastic World War III novel, Ghost Fleet, which imagines the aftermath of a Chinese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.
Here’s an abbreviated transcript of our talk.
QUESTION: What did you think of the president’s dissing of the new supercarrier?
ANSWER: The statements themselves are, like too much of what is out there now, utterly based out of ignorance, wrong on multiple levels. The Ford Class capabilities are driven by the advancement of this catapult system. If implemented it will save money, about $4 billion over the lifetime of the ship. It allows the carrier to be more effective by launching aircraft more efficiently, meaning more in the air at one time. It complicates the enemy’s defensive planning. Also, there are lower maintenance requirements than a steam launch; they will not break down as much.
Q: To what extent were Trump’s comments about the cost and complexity of the system accurate?
A: The system itself is expensive, but he’s missing the point, both on the savings from its use, as well as how his remedy, to go back to steam, would actually be more expensive. I.E., he’s wrong on both the diagnosis and the cure. The best way to create cost overruns in any military acquisition is to change course midstream. That is exactly what Trump wants to do here.
There’s also a competitiveness play here, he doesn’t seem to understand. China is working on a similar system for its future carriers. Trump may want to go back to 1920s-level technology, but the rest of the world isn’t.
Q: Critics object that U.S. supercarriers will be giant sitting ducks, vulnerable to new technology like China’s “carrier-killer” missiles. Do you share that skepticism?
A: It’s very clear that there are greater threats to these ships since, arguably, World War II. There are new technologies that can now reach them and make them harder to defend, such as anti-ship missiles, combined with space based tracking. The bigger issue, though, is who are gaining those capabilities. With what’s going on with China and Russia, we are returning to geopolitical state-by-state competition. The Navy has not had to fight a peer for control of the sea since the Battle of Midway 75 years ago.
Part of the challenge for the carrier as well is not just its defense, but what’s changed on the offense, its ability to reach out and touch the enemy. Here, that value has been affected by decisions the military has made. With the F-35 joint strike fighter, there has been a lot of discussion of cost — but another big issue is that it doesn’t have long legs. Its range without refueling isn’t that great. Think about it like boxing: the enemy has greater and greater reach but we are giving ourselves little alligator arms.
Q: Critics of carriers talk about an alternative strategy of “distributed lethality,” which would make virtually every craft an offensive threat also capable of defending itself. This would give a hostile power a vastly broader set of concerns, at least geographically. Is that a smarter future approach?
A: Yes, this is a very smart approach. But it is not completely an alternative. We are not getting rid of carriers any time soon. This is both because of their utility and also because of their role in Navy culture and in the defense-industrial complex. It is an academic debate.
But I do think we are seeing the definition of what is a carrier changing. You can turn America-class amphibious assault ships into smaller, less-expensive versions of carriers. You can equip surface ships like destroyers as well as submarines with not just missiles and torpedoes but drones than can do roles traditionally performed by carrier aircraft, like surveillance or even strike, such as finding and taking out opponents’ missile batteries.
Q: Back to the electromagnetic launchers. They are one of many futuristic technologies the military is playing around with. There are also electromagnetic rail guns, directed energy weapons (laser beams), sea and air drones with artificial intelligence, fighting robots, etc. Which of these are the most practical and closest to fruition? Which are just science fiction?
A: None of it is science fiction. Every one of those things you mention, or those that are in Ghost Fleet, are real. Some are still in prototype and some have been pushed out in the field.
Last week, at Camp Pendleton in California, I watched a Marine landing exercise. First, drones came in to map out what was on shore. Then an amphibious landing vehicle hits the shore, but the first thing off it was a machine-gun-armed robot, not a human. Then the human Marines arrive. But they are being resupplied by drones. One quadricopter drone comes down to drop an MRE. Then, a Marine changes that supply drone into a strike one, by now putting on board it a grenade and flying it off to hit the enemy. Sounds science fiction? Islamic State is doing similar things with jury-rigged drones in Mosul, Iraq, right now.
Q: Two types of ships really stand out in Ghost Fleet as indicative of the Navy of tomorrow. One is the Littoral Combat Ship, which has been plagued with delays and cost overruns, and is being changed into a new “frigate” with more firepower and defensive capability. What lessons can we learn from this apparent failure?
A: The key benefit from the program is the LCS’s modularity, the ability to swap in modules to give the ship flexibility to take on missions that previously would have taken several different craft. The problem is not just the cost of the ships, but that the swapping was supposed to be quick, but right now it can take days or weeks, which is more like traditional refitting. But the model of modularity and being able to take on different roles is a good one. This is where adding in unmanned systems in the future will be an aid. If they can carry them onboard, whether it be drones to mine or sub-hunting underwater systems, all ships should be able to do such multiple roles simultaneously.
China is working on a similar system for its future carriers. Trump may want to go back to 1920s-level technology, but the rest of the world isn’t.