Trump promises return to steam-powered catapult system on aircraft carriers

Speaking aboard a U.S. Navy ship in Japan on Monday, President Donald Trump polled the sailors in the audience, “Steam or electric?”

“Steam!” a majority of the crowd yelled back — the correct answer to the question, according to the president.

“He works for the enemy,” Trump said, pointing to the individual who cheered for “electric” as the sailors on the USS Wasp laughed.

The question “steam or electric” refers to the type of catapult system used on Navy ships to propel aircraft from the ship’s deck into the sky. For decades, U.S. aircraft carriers have used steam-powered catapults, but the Navy’s newest USS Gerald R. Ford carrier uses a cutting edge electromagnetic system that promises to reduce strain on aircraft (lengthening its lifespan), require less manpower to operate, and improve reliability.

However, the new technology came at a high initial cost to taxpayers, and the program has experienced growing pains. A January report from the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation highlighted the Ford’s “poor or unknown reliability of systems critical for flight operations,” including the electromagnetic catapult.

Despite the early hiccups, top Pentagon officials have defended the switch. But that hasn’t stopped the president from becoming the program’s biggest critic and advocating for a return to steam in future carriers.

“Steam’s 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. They want to show — next, next, next. And we all want innovation, but it’s too much,” Trump told the sailors on Monday.

“I’m going to just put out an order. We’re going to use steam,” he said.

It wasn’t the first time he said he wanted a change. In a May 2017 interview with Time, the president called for steam because “the digital costs hundreds of millions of dollars more money, and it’s no good.”

A U.S. official told ABC News on Tuesday that the Navy has not received an official order to use the steam system in its next two recently authorized carriers.

The issue also came up as the president met with service members last Thanksgiving. Trump asked the commanding officer of the USS Ronald Reagan — which uses the steam catapult system — about the “difficulties” of the electromagnetic system on the Ford.

“All of our Nimitz supercarriers have been using steam for decades, and we find it pretty reliable,” said Capt. Pat Hannifn. “However, the electromagnetic catapults they’re running there offer some great benefits, too. Obviously, like any new piece, you got to work through the bugs. But they offer some benefits not only to stress and strain on the aircraft, to extend service life and other pieces. I have no doubt we’ll work through that just as we work through all of our other advancements and continue to bring it to the enemy when called to do so.”

When Trump asked which system he would choose, Hannifin replied, “I would go, sir, Mr. President, I would go electromagnetic cast. I think that’s the way to go.”

[ABC News]