The Fighting Gray Lady Retires, and All That

The first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, USS Enterprise (CVN 65), commissioned 1961

This column links people, events, and ideas from the 1960s years to today’s events, people, and ideas. I think we’ve done this pretty well in the last dozen columns or so. Occasionally, though, we run into something of today that connects to the 1960s profoundly but in an oblique way.

For us watchers of things Navy, the decommissioning of the USS Enterprise (CVN-65) in 2017 was a historic and even emotional event. Enterprise was the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, commissioned (importantly for our purposes here) in 1961 and in continuous service for an extraordinary fifty-one years until deactivation in December 2012. Quite a story indeed. If four years old, though, why connect it now to our project? Let’s see how Enterprise leads a bit of a wider discussion (“All That”).

CVN-65 was the eighth and greatest in a line of ships named “Enterprise” that stretches back to the Revolutionary War. And before we mourn too much for her departure from the world stage, we must emphasize that as the ink was drying on papers to decommission Number 8, plans were underway to build the next Enterprise – another ship of daunting scale in the new (Gerald) Ford class – designated CVN-80. The question is should we build this ninth one?

This is the oblique feature of this month’s column. For while work is proceeding on the new ship, issues of the day make us think this may not be a good idea. But let’s linger on Enterprise No. 8 a bit before we decide.

USS Enterprise after Operation Frequent Wind (evacuation of Saigon), April 1975

Technically, she was a masterpiece and the epitome of Hyman Rickover’s nuclear navy. Her design in the late 1950s was said to have taken 2400 miles of blueprints, and her building 60,000 tons of steel at a cost of $500 million under a Newport News Shipbuilding contract. Her 1123 foot length (with 4 1/2 acres of flight deck) still today exceeds more modern carriers, and makes her one of history’s longest ships ever to sail.

Her size did not slow her down. She was powered by an unprecedented eight (count ’em, eight!) Westinghouse A2W nuclear reactors, in linked pairings to power her four great propellers that made more than 30 knots (33 mph) that outperformed smaller atomic vessels such the cruiser USS Long Beach or destroyer USS Bainbridge. Nuclear power meant unlimited endurance and flexibility, and the storage Enterprise gained from no stored oil or coal meant more space for aircraft, which numbered a staggering 72.

In turn, her service was unexcelled, with 25 deployments in 51 years, as a partial list shows.

  • Nov. 1961: commissioned
  • Feb 1962: tracking station for Lt. Col. John Glenn’s orbit around the earth (Friendship 7)
  • Oct 1963: part of naval blockade of Cuba during Missile Crisis
  • 1964: Operation Sea Orbit to sail the world
  • 1966-69: WESTPAC deployments: Vietnam
  • 1971: Intimidation of the Navy of India during the Indo-Pakistani War
  • 1972-75: WESTPAC Vietnam
  • 1975: the evacuation of Saigon, Operation Frequent Wind
  • April 1986: first-ever nuclear carrier to transit Suez
  • May 1986: movie “Top Gun” uses flight deck for several filmed sequences
  • April 1988: Operation Praying Mantis (against Iran)
  • 1998: Operation Desert Fox (bombing of Iraq)
  • Sept 11, 2001: one of the first naval units to respond to terrorist attacks, steams to Pakistan coast
  • Oct 2001: first to launch cruise missiles against the Taliban after 9/11
  • 2001-04: Operations Iraqi & Enduring Freedom

At her formal decommissioning ceremony in Feb. 2017, Admiral James Caldwell optimistically looked to the future saying to the crowd assembled, “Following CVN 65’s example, the new “Big E” [CVN 80] will run for 50 years!” Five years before, Admiral and top gun instructor Ted Carter on the Enterprise’s last voyage bested Caldwell’s sunny view about her future as a new kind of carrier: “It’s never going away . . . this ship which we’re building now – the Gerald R. Ford – will last for over 90 years.”

Indeed, the United States plans 10 new carriers to replace Nimitz-class ships over the next two decades, five of which approved. The namesake of the Ford-class (CVN 78) was commissioned in 2017; two are being built simultaneously as we write this column: CVN 79, John F. Kennedy and CVN 80, Enterprise for service by 2030.

This is genuinely thrilling stuff. Two icons from the 1960s – JFK and Enterprise – not going away but reincarnated as super-carriers. In the case of Enterprise, if people don’t know about the aircraft carrier, the name alone summons up iconic Star Trek, evoked just weeks ago when William Shatner (aka James T. Kirk) took a ride on Jeff Bezos’ Blue Orion into the space Shatner did so much to popularize.

But should this carrier reincarnation happen?


Against a background of the active building of these mighty sea fighting machines, there are issues today that cause one to wonder about the wisdom of proceeding in the direction of surface ships of this type, size, and expense as the Ford-class represents, and of which the Enterprise is an illustrious example.

Chinese missiles on parade

The news last month of China’s testing its new hypersonic missile brought to mind the idea of its increasing expertise in missile technology not just to protect its coast from outside invaders as it has tried to do throughout its long history, but to project power regionally into the East and South China Seas, and around the world. Amidst these technologies are so-called “carrier-killers,” surface-to-surface munitions designed to take out large ships, and a super-carrier is the largest of them all.

Meanwhile, the US is preoccupied with many things. Foremost perhaps is the fate and composition of a $3.5 trillion infrastructure legislation forwarded by Democrats. On the one hand, the $28 billion needed for the Kennedy and Enterprise is small in the context of trillions. On the other hand, the fact of a National Debt approaching $30 trillion should make all pause. This is quite a different America than when the USS Enterprise was commissioned in 1961 – on the cusp of a nationwide across-the board Kennedy tax cut amidst the greatest economic growth decade of the twentieth century that gave us the confidence – perhaps misplaced – that we could afford both “guns and butter.”

With these twin pressures – a rising China, far better positioned and stronger than the Soviet Union ever was; and a debt ever-rising – we are pulled in the direction of asking if the expectation that the next Enterprise will last for another half century or longer is forlorn, and resources misplaced for building her and other large ships. This column does not purport to know, nor does it have authority to even wager a guess.

What we do know is that the world will be different in 50 to 90 years (the new carriers’ lifespans), and that the future might not be compatible with such large ships, no matter how innovative engineers and military planners might be. This is illustrated by two striking events in American naval history.

Top to bottom: Long Beach, Enterprise, Bainbridge

In 1964, the Enterprise and two sister ships, guided missile frigate USS Bainbridge (DLGN-25) and guided missile cruiser USS Long Beach (CVAN-9), made an around-the-world voyage. From July 31 to October 3, the nuclear trio comprised Task Force One under the name Operation Sea Orbit. It covered an unprecedented 30,500 miles in 64 days at an average 22 knots in all conditions of sea and weather – unfueled, unsupplied – and even after the trip was equipped to continue on to any theater assignment.

All along the way, the ships’ crews entertained foreign government officials for “underway” visits – from Africa, South Asia, and Australia for example, in confidence and forthrightness. In the March 1965 issue of Proceedings, Task Force One Commander Bernard Strean recalled the mission’s impact on the dignitaries invited to visit the ships in person, watch operations, and witness the crews in action:

“We did not apologize for, nor in any way play down, the tremendous offensive capability of Task Force One, but this message came across in its own way during the firepower demonstrations. The tenor of the parting remarks of a number of the guests have tacit acknowledgement that the best defense is a strong offense.”

USS Connecticut leads the Great White Fleet

The pride and triumph of the Task Force One echoed the sailing of “The Great White Fleet” of 1907-1909, when President Theodore Roosevelt sent sixteen new battleships of the Atlantic Command  around the world in formation – their hulls painted white with gilded scrollwork on their bows – to “show the flag” and to signal that America was not just capable of blue water naval operations, she was ready to play on the international stage if need be.

Departing Norfolk (like Task Force One) and sailing east to west, battleship USS Connecticut led the largest and most powerful fleet ever to circle the globe 43,000 miles, making twenty ports of call on six continents in fourteen months. When the fleet arrived back in Virginia on February 22, 1909, the President addressed assembled officers and men as the embodiment of “walking softly and carrying a big stick.”

President Roosevelt addresses battleship crew at Hampton Roads, VA on Feb. 22, 1909

BOTH TIMES these voyages were to show good will, but underneath it all, to show strength for freedom of the seas and for the challenges of the day around the world. In 1907-1909, it was the approaching First World War; in 1964, the difficulties of the Cold War. In 1908 it was to check the rise of Japan in the Pacific; in 1964 to show the Soviet Union that America had the resolve and expertise to preserve its way of life.

In 1909 the United States’ battleships, though numerous, were obsolete compared to Britain.  America faced a situation before World War I to update aging vessels similar to the one it faces today replacing aging aircraft carriers like the Nimitz-class Enterprise. The decision to update the fleet in 1909, of course, was wise in light of the two World Wars.

But this was the heyday and swansong of the battleship – first powered by coal, then oil, then trumped by the aircraft carrier after its supremacy for about fifty years. The paramountcy of the carrier has now exceeded fifty years since the end of the World War II when the transfer from battleship to carrier as a strategic asset became clear.

The magnificence of the flotillas of 1907-09 and 1964 were feats of maritime mastery – sailing great distances, fighting waves, currents, storms, and various other elements of sea life unchanged since time began. But they also illustrate change, not only between ship type but a radical change in fuel, from coal to the atom. The space between these is fifty years or, and the Enterprise’s tenure of 51 years from 1961-2012 is interesting to notice.

Schematic of Ford-class supercarriers

The admirals’ assertions of the life of the next generation of carriers of perhaps 90 years may be correct and, for the cause of liberty, we pray it is so. However, we’re hurdling into a future whose nature is change, and that we can only imperfectly predict. The building of carriers shows a determination that we can control our destiny, and that technology and other actors on the world stage will not derail our path.

The Great White Fleet and Task Force One recall a glorious past amidst a world consumed today in controversy, confusion, and petty strife. These were heroic acts – a first after a remarkable expansionism across a continent; the second marking world dominance after World War II. These were more confident times it seems than our own, and times that gave the world confidence in America and her ideals.

Maybe it’s time for another American flotilla, or when a new Big E launches in the years ahead. Today we would be “showing the flag” to a rising China with its hypersonic and carrier-killer missiles. But has today’s world moved on from carriers like the world “moved on” from battleships, or “moved on” from coal-powered ships to uranium?

Maybe, just maybe, it will be China that sends a formation around the world. We don’t know. We’re just musing.

The pinnacle of human design and engineering of Enterprise was matched in the early 1960s only by the Saturn V rocket which inspired similar awe. These two American achievements of course can stand alone. In the case of the Enterprise decommissioned in 2017, it’s fun to muse on how it connects to things today, as the phrase “1066 and All That” signifies things beyond a single famous date.

Next month we’ll be less oblique in our connections of 1960s achievements to the events of today. It’s fun to muse at least once though.


October 25, 2021


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