December 21, 2010, 4:54 PM — Remember the experimental U.S. Navy railgun that could use electromagnetism to fire a 20-pound shell 100 miles?
Actually it's a next-gen version of the steam catapult that has accelerated planes to takeoff velocity on aircraft carriers since before World War II, modified to work on electromagnetic rails.
And it's being built by San Diego-based General Atomics, the same defense contractor responsible for the Predator and Reaper remote-controlled drones.
The U.S. and British navies both plan to put it on their aircraft carriers, but the Brits are a little more desperate. Without it they won't have fighters of any kind on either of their two carriers.
The Harrier jump jets Royal Navy carriers took everywhere from the Falklands to the Persian Gulf were eliminated by budget cuts. The vertical-takeoff version of the jointly developed F-35 supersonic fighter/bomber was nixed for the same reason, plus concern about how long it would take to perfect.
Before the RN can put the conventional-takeoff version on its carrier, it needs a catapult. With Harriers, it hadn't needed one before.
The American version will show up on the U.S. S. Gerald R. Ford, which may be launched in May.
The electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS) uses less energy than steam, can be recharged and reoriented more quickly after a launch and are better at handling smaller planes like, say, predators and Reapers from General Atomic.
Somehow, though, I doubt it will be quite as dramatic as seeing the deck crew waving jets up and launching through clouds of steam and Kenny Loggins.