The longest U.S. Navy aircraft carrier ever built first emerged and set sail on its maiden deployment in 1962, as it was intended to pioneer a new class of nuclear-powered supercarriers called the Enterprise class.
The intended full class of five carriers never came to exist, yet the first-in-class USS Enterprise served the Navy for 55 years before ultimately being decommissioned in 2017.
The “Big E”
In 2010 an officer who served on board the USS Enterprise explained how crew members referred to the ship as the Big “E,” a ship that supported decades of U.S. military operations.
“Big E has played a role in almost every major conflict since her commissioning. From the Cuban Missile Crisis, through multiple tours off Yankee Station in the Vietnam conflict, Cold War tensions, and culminating with its rapid response on 9/11, Enterprise has been there to answer the nation’s call time and again,” the Navy essay reads.
A number of classic and now-famous aircraft flew from the deck of the USS Enterprise, including F/A-18 Super Hornets, Hawkeye surveillance planes, Prowler EW aircraft, HH-60 SeaHawk helicopters, and C2 Greyhound on-Board Delivery planes.
Initially, the USS Enterprise had few integrated defenses, yet available specs and history indicate the ship was a pioneering platform for today’s critical ship-defense systems such as the Mk 15 Phalanx Close-In-Weapons-System, NATO Sea Sparrows, and Rolling Airframe Missiles. Each of these ship defenses has been integrated into warships and upgraded for many years now.
Innovative Ship Defenses
Available history says the Navy initially intended to build an entire Enterprise fleet of six carriers, but plans were reportedly derailed by construction complications.
Nonetheless, the Big “E” itself seems to have pioneered the integration and use of ship-based weapons now critical to the Navy’s layered system of ship defenses. Phalanx CIWS, for example, fires hundreds of metal projectiles per second as an area weapon to “blanket” an approaching threat with suppressive fire.
The system is not only still in use today but has in recent years been upgraded to a 1B variant expanding the defensive envelope from purely intercepting air threats to adopting a surface-threat role wherein the rapid-fire projectiles defend against small boats or low-flying incoming enemy fire just off the surface of the ocean.
The Sea Sparrow missile has advanced to become the Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile Block II (ESSM), an advanced ship-fired interceptor weapon designed to take out incoming enemy missiles.
The ESSM Block II weapon can also operate in a “sea-skimming” mode wherein it tracks and intercepts lower-flying approaching threats such as cruise missiles traveling just above the surface of the ocean.
The USS Enterprise also incorporated early variants of ship-based ballistic missile defense called Basic Point Defense Missile (BPDMS), a system with two eight-round box launchers for Sea Sparrow missiles.
Therefore, while the full fleet of the Enterprise class never came to exist, the lone USS Enterprise itself seemed to function as a vital and historically significant platform that helped the Navy transition its operational concept for aircraft carriers into the modern era with Nimitz and Ford-class carriers.
With upgrades of systems first implemented on the USS Enterprise, both the Ford and Nimitz-class carriers show the influence or lasting footprint of the famous Big “E.”
Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19FortyFive 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.
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