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North Korea and Iran’s Greatest Fear: U.S. Navy Nimitz-Class Aircraft Carriers Coming to Attack

Nimitz-class Aircraft Carrier
PACIFIC OCEAN (Feb. 9, 2017) An E-2C Hawkeye assigned to the “Black Eagles” of Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron (VAW) 113 flies over the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) during a change of command ceremony. The ship's carrier strike group is on a western Pacific deployment as part of the U.S. Pacific Fleet-led initiative to extend the command and control functions of U.S. 3rd Fleet. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Zachary Alan Landers/Released) 170209-N-GD109-194 Join the conversation:

The United States Navy’s aircraft carrier fleet remains both the world’s largest and its most capable, and these vessels have provided the U.S. Navy with an unprecedented ability to project power across the globe. U.S. Navy carrier strike groups have become imposing symbols of American military power. At the core of this impressive capability are the U.S. Navy’s ten Nimitz-class carriers.

Nimitz, A Short History

The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier was the result of the U.S. Navy’s exploration of the use of nuclear power onboard its vessels. The Navy began pursuing the use of nuclear-power onboard submarines in the 1950s, and in 1954 the service commissioned its first nuclear-powered submarine. In 1961, the Navy commissioned its first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in the form of the USS Enterprise, and as older carriers were retired from service the Navy found itself with a decision to make regarding the power for the future of its carrier fleet.

Ultimately, the Navy settled on nuclear power. Then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was drawn to the lower operating costs of nuclear power of the vessels’ service lives, while nuclear power also offered greater speed for carriers along with a reduced need for fuel on the part of carrier battle groups.

The first Nimitz-class carrier was laid down in 1968, with the lead ship of the class – the USS Nimitz – commissioned in 1975. The Nimitz retained both a similar layout design and some functional features with earlier carrier models, including its four steam-powered catapults capable of launching four aircraft a minute, but was considerably larger than its predecessors. Indeed, prior to the emergence of the more recent Ford-class carrier, Nimitz-class carriers were the largest vessels ever built.

A total of ten Nimitz-class carriers have been constructed by the Navy, with the most recent – the USS George HW Bush – was commissioned in 2009, and represents the last ship of the class.

What They Can Do

The Nimitz-class carriers are themselves very capable ships, with the vessels’ reactors allowing for speeds of over 30 knots. In addition, Nimitz-class carriers are outfitted with advanced air and surface search radars and tactical and advanced combat direction systems. The carriers also feature a host of defensive countermeasure systems, such as chaff and decoy launchers, a torpedo defense system, and an electronic warfare system. Newer Nimitz-class carriers are also equipped with three Raytheon GMLS mk29 eight-cell launchers for the NATO Sea Sparrow surface-to-air missile (SAM), and are also outfitted with the Raytheon RAM (rolling airframe missile) system that provides short-range defense against incoming anti-ship missiles.

The core of the Nimitz-class carriers’ capabilities, however, comes from their embarked air wings. Nimitz-class carriers typically embark a large number of aircraft that provide them with versatile multi-mission capability, including 12 F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, 36 F/A-18 Hornets, four E-2C Hawkeyes, four EA-6B Prowlers, and a variety of helicopters. Air Wings on board Nimitz-class carriers can be customized based on operational need and can include a larger number of embarked helicopters to facilitate amphibious operations.

The flight deck on Nimitz-class aircraft carriers measures 333 meters by 77 meters, and are equipped with four lifts, four steam-powered catapults, and four arrester wires for recovering aircraft. Nimitz-class aircraft carriers are capable of launching one aircraft every 20 seconds.

Nimitz-class aircraft have been described as floating cities, and indeed they embark a very sizeable crew that includes over 3,000 sailors and more than 2,400 airmen. The carriers have a service life of 50 years and require only a single mid-life refueling.

The Navy has begun developing the future of its carrier fleet in the form of the Ford-class carrier, the first of which was commissioned in 2017. These vessels are slated to eventually replace the venerable Nimitz-class carriers, but until then the Nimitz-class vessels will likely continue to form an integral part of the U.S. military’s power projection capabilities for years to come.

Written By

Eli Fuhrman is an Assistant Researcher in Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest and a recent graduate of Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, where he focusedd on East Asian security issues and U.S. foreign and defense policy in the region.