The outstanding combat performance of the U.S. Navy’s Nimitz-class carriers has earned the ships a permanent place in the annals of naval history.
These vessels have projected power, propelled and sustained air attacks, and long operated as a powerful deterrent and as a symbol of American power.
These carriers have not only launched successful war campaigns, but they have also safeguarded international waterways for decades. Protecting free commerce and movement on the seas is one of the Navy’s most important missions, given the importance of waterways to international trade.
This is one reason why the U.S. Navy does a lot of forward operations, placing carriers in areas of great significance to global maritime travel.
Is There Still a Place for the Nimitz-Class at Sea?
The Nimitz class’s deterrence mission should not be overlooked either, especially in a threat environment where China threatens Taiwan and operates a larger navy than the U.S. Superior numbers do not make for a superior Chinese navy, of course. But the Pentagon takes the threat very seriously, and indeed the U.S. Navy recently conducted dual-carrier operations in the Pacific to test the potential for a large, networked air-attack campaign.
Some observers may wonder where the Nimitz class will fit once the newer Ford class is fully operational — yet upgrades to the Nimitz carriers are not to be overlooked. In several critical areas, the Nimitz carriers have been adapted to a new, more serious threat environment.
For example, they have received a cutting-edge GPS-enabled aircraft carrier landing technology called Joint Precision Approach and Landing System. While pilots have succeeded in landing in difficult and dangerous conditions for many years, JPALS introduces a new measure of precision to a pilot’s glide scope, aiding in the descent onto a carrier deck.
This can be extremely helpful for pilots landing in rough sea conditions, buffeted by high winds or dealing with enemy fire.
JPALS is also part of a series of modifications that help aircraft carriers accommodate the now-operational F-35C, a first-of-its-kind sea-launched stealth fighter.
Some of the largest improvements to the Nimitz class, however, may come in the realm of layered ship defenses. An increased ability to network with destroyers, cruisers, and other ships in its Carrier Strike Group enables vastly improved protection for carriers.
Aegis-capable destroyers can perform cruise- and ballistic-missile defense at distances sufficient to alert carriers of incoming threats, and in many cases intercept them.
A carrier’s layered defenses also include advanced applications of electronic warfare, interceptor weapons such as close-in weapons systems, and shorter-range offensive and defensive weapons such as SeaRAM.
As for the question of whether upgraded Nimitz-class carriers will compete with or rival the Ford class, there are a number of key variables to consider. It seems Nimitz would perform quite well alongside the Ford class, but the largest difference relates to the Ford’s sortie rate, which is 33% greater and is enabled by the vessels’ larger deck and large megawatt generators.
These are able to provide unprecedented amounts of on-board electrical power, storing energy and serving to power up and sustain emerging weapons systems such as lasers, new EW applications, and radar-and-fire control systems .
Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19 FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.