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A Navy Aircraft Carrier’s Biggest Problem? Clogged Toilets

The aircraft carrier USS George Washington sails through calm seas near Guam at sunset while under way in the Pacific Ocean, Sept. 8, 2012. The George Washington is the centerpiece of Carrier Strike Group 5, the US Navy’s only continuously forward deployed carrier strike group, based out of Yokosuka, Japan. Carrier Strike Group 5 is currently on a routine Western Pacific patrol.

Waste in the military has long been a problem—but in the case of the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carriers, the problem has been specifically one of human waste or more accurately how the waste has clogged the toilet systems. Back in 2019, the toilets on the U.S. Navy’s USS George H. W. Bush (CVN 77), the newest Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, as well as the first-in-class USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), were frequently clogging.

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Unclogging the systems costs upwards of $400,000…

The issue was brought up in a report from the Government Accountability Office a few years back, which called out 150 systemic maintenance problems on the carriers.

But the toilet problem is unfortunately not new.

CVN 77 has had serious problems with its “heads”—the naval term for bathrooms, which comes from the days of sailing ships when the place for the crew to relieve themselves was all the way forward on either side of the bowsprit—since the warship’s maiden voyage in 2011. The ship’s 493 restrooms were rendered out-of-service so frequently that it became a serious distraction for the roughly forty-eight hundred sailors on board.

The problem was first brought to light on a blog written by a “Navy Mom” whose son served on the carrier.

According to reports from The Washington Post, sailors had to resort to urinating in showers or into the industrial sinks at their work stations. Some of the male sailors also resorted to using bottles and emptying the contents over the side, while female sailors were holding it for so long that some developed health problems.

Sailors at the time of the maiden voyage blamed problems with the ship’s vacuum system, while the Navy countered that sailors were flushing “inappropriate material.” Reportedly, this includes such items as shirts, underwear, socks, feminine hygiene products, eating utensils, and mop heads!

Regardless of the exact cause, there were at least two occasions in 2011 when all of the commodes went off-line, but in other instances the heads at various parts of the carrier were offline. In total, some ten thousand hours were spent in 2011 alone trying to fix the system.

At the heart of the problem is the fact that there are 250 miles of pipe that can become clogged, and one ship-wide breakdown took a reported thirty-five-hour stretch with no rest to fix. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that there was no “backup” plan put in place—such as portable toilets or the so-called “wag bags,” which are the plastic sacks designed to hold human waste.

USS George H. W. Bush was the first carrier to use the then-new vacuum-based system, which is similar to waste-management systems used on cruise ships. It uses a vacuum-like suction to pull waste through those miles of pipes to treatment tanks, which can clean the water and return it to the sea. It operates in two primary sections, and if one loses vacuum pressure due to a clog, all the toilets on the ship are rendered unusable.

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As noted, the problem hasn’t been limited to CVN 77, as CVN 78—which utilizes the same vacuum system—has also had similar clogs that have taken the toilets offline. Complicating the matter aboard the USS Gerald R. Ford is the fact that it is the first aircraft carrier to feature gender-neutral bathrooms and has no urinals. The Navy’s decision was to increase flexibility when it comes to shifting berthing arrangements for the crew, but critics have noted a number of issues—from the fact that fewer than 18 percent of all the sailors in the Navy are women, and each toilet takes up more room than wall-mounted urinals.

Problems with toilets and warships aren’t exactly new. The U-1206, a German Type VIIC submarine, sank during its maiden combat voyage after its captain used its high-tech toilet “improperly.”

F/A-18F Super Hornet

221227-N-DU622-1227 PHILIPPINE SEA (Dec. 27, 2022) An F/A-18F Super Hornet from the “Fighting Redcocks” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 22 prepares to launch from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68). Nimitz is in 7th fleet conducting routine operations. 7th Fleet is the U.S. Navy’s largest forward-deployed numbered fleet, and routinely interacts and operates with 35 maritime nations in preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific region. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Justin McTaggart)

USS Tripoli

Amphibious assault ship USS Tripoli (LHA- 7) , departs Naval Air Station North Island, Calif., April 7, 2022. Tripoli completed flight deck operations with 20 F-35B Lightning II jets from Marine Fighter Attack Squadrons 211 and 225, Marine Aircraft Group 13, and 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, as well as Marine Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron 1, as part of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Lightning carrier concept demonstration. The Lightning carrier concept demonstration shows Tripoli and other amphibious assault ships are capable of operating as dedicated fixed-wing strike platforms when needed, capable of bringing fifth generation Short Takeoff/Vertical Landing aircraft wherever they are required. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Samuel Ruiz)

F-35B Royal Navy

Image Credit: Royal Navy.


MEDITERRANEAN SEA (Aug. 24, 2022) An F/A-18E Super Hornet attached to the “Fighting Checkmates” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 211 prepares to launch from the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75), Aug. 24, 2022. The Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group is on a scheduled deployment in the U.S. Naval Forces Europe area of operations, employed by U.S. 6th Fleet to defend U.S., allied and partner interests. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jack Hoppe).

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on

Written By

Expert Biography: A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.

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