Ballpark Estimate: $22 Billion
Representing the hallmark of U.S. superiority on the high seas, the nuclear aircraft carrier is the epitome of our nations’ military superpower status. And of the nuclear supercarriers, the Nimitz-class is the newest, largest, and fastest in the world. At nearly 1,100 feet long, the Chrysler building can be laid upon its deck with fifty feet to spare at each end.
A Four and a Half Acre Floating Airport
Primarily a floating airport, the Nimitz-class carriers are capable of simultaneously launching four aircraft a minute from the ships’ four catapults. Also, the ships can service seven different types of aircraft with accommodations for up to 90 planes on its 4.5 acre flight deck and in enormous hangars below. Four massive elevators bring the planes to the flight deck where color-coded teams coordinate the launching of the aircraft with carefully choreographed procedures: yellow for officers and aircraft directors, purple for fuel handlers, green for catapult and arresting gear crews, blue for tractor drivers, brown for chock and chain runners, and red for crash and salvage teams and the ordinance handlers.
With hoses coming from the decks below, the fuel tanks are filled, bombs and rockets sent up from the ships’ magazines are attached to the planes wings and fuselage, and the planes are placed into position on the catapult by small tractors. Operated by high pressure steam, the catapults are powerful enough to launch a 35-ton aircraft 300 feet from zero to around 165 miles per hour within three seconds.
Carrier Strike Groups
The primary role of the air wing includes such missions as search and destroys sorties on enemy aircraft, surface ships and submarines. Also, air strikes can be conducted on enemy land targets, for protecting the carrier group, and for supporting naval blockades. Since aircraft carriers are relatively limited in their defensive capabilities, having only four Sea Sparrow launchers and up to four 20mm. gun mounts, they never operate as a stand-alone vessel but travel as the centerpiece of a carrier strike group (CSG). Currently, the U.S. employs eleven CSGs, 10 of which are based in the U.S. and one in Japan. A typical CSG consists of the carrier, three or more destroyers, one or two Aegis guided missile cruisers, two or three guided missile destroyers, up two attack submarines, and a combination ammunition, oiler, and supply ship.
The Ten Supercarriers
Commissioned in 1975, the USS Nimitz (CVN-68) was the first of the ten Supercarriers in this classification. These ships are numbered consecutively up to CVN-77. The “CV” identifies the ship as an aircraft carrier, with the suffix “N” indicating nuclear powered propulsion. The last carrier produced was the USS George H. W. Bush, currently in its shakedown cruise. Commission into the fleet is scheduled for 2009.
Their Own Zip Codes
Complemented with two Westinghouse nuclear reactors, the range for the Nimitz-class carriers is virtually unlimited with a top speed of over 30 knots (35 mph). In fact, the ships nuclear Cost To Build A Nuclear-Powered Aircraft Carrierpropulsion systems can operation for 20 years without refueling. Electricity is supplied by eight steam turbine generators (enough to supply a city of around 100,000), and each ship is stocked with enough food and supplies for a crew of around 5,700 people for 90 days. To supply the aircraft aboard, each ship carries approximately 3 million gallons of aviation fuel. Comparable to a small-sized city, the Nimitz carriers have their own ZIP code, TV and radio stations, newspaper, fire department, chapels, library, hospital, general store, barbershops, and fitness center, among many other amenities.
The Nimitz-class carriers were constructed by the Newport News Shipbuilding Co. in Virginia and are named the USS Nimitz, after Adm. Chester M. Nimitz, USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, USS Carl Vinson, USS Theodore Roosevelt, USS Abraham Lincoln, USS George Washington, USS John C. Stennis, USS Harry S. Truman, USS Ronald Reagan, and the USS George H. W. Bush. Each is expected to have a service life of fifty years.
How much will each of the ten Supercarriers cost on average? According to the United States Government Accounting Office (GAO), a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier cost about 58 percent more than a conventionally powered carrier. In their report, the average life-cycle costs in fiscal year 1997 dollars for the Nimitz carriers are as follows:
- Construction Costs – $4.5 billion
- Mid life overhaul Costs – $2.3 billion
- Operating and Support Costs – $14 billion
- Other Costs – $1 billion
- Total Average Cost – $22 billion each
The Next Generation
Currently on the drawing boards is the next generation of Supercarriers, the Ford class, named after President Gerald R. Ford. Being built by Northrop Grumman Shipbuilders, there are three planned at an estimated $8 billion apiece for construction costs. Each will be incorporated with such technologies as a new electromagnetic catapult rather than the steam variety, more powerful nuclear reactors, newer intergraded radar and electronic warfare measures, and extensive use of automation to reduce crew requirements and costs. Completion of the first ship is scheduled for 2015.