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Why China and Russia Fear America’s Nimitz-Class Aircraft Carriers

The most successful U.S. Navy carriers of the postwαr era all belong to a class named in honor of World War II’s most successful admiral, Chester W. Nimitz. The class’s lead ship, commissioned in 1975, bears the fleet admiral’s name. The Nimitz-class aircraft carriers were, at the time, the largest wαrships ever constructed. Although superseded by the new Ford class, the ten Nimitz carriers will continue to form the bulk of the Navy’s carrier force for the next twenty to thirty years. Many project a half a century or more.

The Nimitz carriers’ history began in the middle of the 1960s. The first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, Enterprise, had just been put into service in 1961, and the U.S. Navy was in the process of implementing nuclear propulsion across its entire fleet, from submarines to cruisers. The Navy had to determine whether to transition to nuclear power for future ships when older carriers were retired. Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense, was ultimately persuaded to use nuclear energy on the basis that nuclear carriers had cheaper operational expenses over the course of their service lives. Three nuclear-powered carriers were to be built, per his instructions.

The Nimitz class was the outcome. On June 22, 1968, its first ship was put down. The vessel expanded on the Navy’s earlier expertise with both Enterprise and conventionally propelled supercarriers. The Nimitz maintained the design of earlier carriers, including an island superstructure, an angled flight deck, and four steam-powered catapults with a four-plane-per-minute capacity. Just twenty-four feet longer at 1,092 feet than the earlier Kitty Hawk, she was nearly nineteen thousand tons heavier. The Nimitz carriers are manned by more than 5,000 people, with 3,000 working on the ship and another 2,000 in the air wing and other roles.

Lower operating costs were not the only benefits of nuclear power. Although nuclear-powered carriers have a maximum official speed of thirty-plus knots, their true speed is suspected to be considerably faster. Nimitz and her sister ships can accelerate and decelerate more quickly than a conventional ship, and can cruise indefinitely. Like Enterprise, it is nuclear powered, but it also streamlined the number of reactors from eight to two. Its two Westinghouse A4W reactors can collectively generate 190 megawatts of power, enough to power 47,500 American homes. Finally, nuclear propulsion reduces a carrier battle group’s need for fuel.

Of course, the real strength of a carrier is in its air wing. The Carrier Air Wings of the Cold ധąɾ were larger than today’s. During the 1980s, a typical carrier air wing consisted of two squadrons of twelve F-14 Tomcat air-superiority fighters, two squadrons of twelve F/A-18 Hornet multi-role fighters, one squadron of ten A-6 Intruder αttαck bσmbers, one squadron of 4-6 E-2 Hawkeye airborne early-wαrning and control planes, ten S-3A Viking antisubmarine planes, one squadron of four EA-6B Prowler electronic ωɑɾʄɑɾε planes and a squadron of six SH-3 antisubmarine helicopters. With slight variations per carrier and per cruise, the average Nimitz-class carrier of the Cold ധąɾ carried between eighty-five and ninety aircraft.

The carrier air wing appears very differently today. The F/A-18E/F Super Hornet took the place of the ageing F-14 Tomcat. When the A-12 Avenger carrier stealth bσmber was cancelled in 1991, the A-6 Intruder was retired without a replacement. In the 2000s, the EA-6B Prowler was retired, and the EA-18G Growler electronic αttαck aircraft took its place. As a result, the carrier’s air wing was reduced to about sixty aircraft, lacking dedicated fleet air defense, long-range αttαck, and antisubmarine assets.

The Nimitz-class carriers have participated in nearly every crisis and conflict the United States has been involved in over the past forty-two years. Nimitz was involved in the failed attempt to rescue U.S. embassy personnel from Tehran in 1980, and a year later, two F-14s from Nimitz shot down two Su-22 Fitters of the Libyan Air Force during the Gulf of Sidra incident in 1981. During the Cold war, Nimitz-class carriers conducted numerous exercises with regional allies, such as NATO and Japan, designed to counter the Soviet Union in wαrtime.

During Operation Desert Storm, the Nimitz-class carrier Theodore Roosevelt participated in air operations against Iraq. In 1999, Theodore Roosevelt again participated in the NATO bσmbing of Yugoslavia. After 9/11, Carl Vinson and Theodore Roosevelt participated in the first air strikes against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Since then, virtually all Nimitz-class carriers supported air operations over Afghanistan and both the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq.

Ten Nimitz carriers were built over the course of thirty years. The final president, George H. W. Bush, included cutting-edge technology, such as a bulbous bow to increase hull efficiency, a new, smaller, modernized island design, better aircraft launch and recovery systems, and improved aviation fuel storage and handling. The gigantic, extremely complicated, and yet incredibly effective ship design known as the Nimitz-class carriers is a remarkable accomplishment. The entire class will serve for an astounding eighty years straight, with the ships carrying the Nimitz name until the 2050s. Only a highly skilled, competent Navy and shipbuilding team can achieve that level of performance—and longevity.

Why Everyone Fear America’s Nimitz-Class Aircraft Carriers