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Nimitz-Class: Unleashing the Might of Aircraft Carriers Designed to Counter Russia and Defend Against Rising Chinese Power

Some say the day of the aircraft carrier might be over, as missiles that can strike far away could end these warships in a war.

The U.S. Navy disagrees and has built the Nimitz-class to be one of the most impressive ‘flattops’ ever: When first launched, the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier was the biggest warship ever built. With a displacement of over 100,000 tons and a length stretching beyond one thousand feet, the Nimitz is indeed massive, requiring a 5,000-person crew to operate. The Nimitz will gradually be replaced when the Ford-class carriers are completed in the upcoming years – but for now, all ten Nimitz carriers ever built are still proudly in service.

The Nimitz Carries its Class

First commissioned in 1975, the Nimitz was intended to supplement then-serving carrier classes, the Kitty Hawk, Forrestal, and Enterprise. The carrier incorporated several improvements over preceding classes. For example, the Nimitz has just two economical nuclear reactors. The Enterprise, on the other hand, relied on eight space-consuming reactors. The result is more available space and more carrying capacity; the Nimitz can lug 90 percent more aviation fuel and 50 percent more ordnance than the 50s-made Forrestal.

The U.S. Navy also claims that the carrier could handle three times more damage than the World War II-era Essex-class carrier. On this aircraft carrier, the airplane hangars are divided into three distinct fire bays. Each fire bay features dense steel doors specially created to stop fires from spreading.

Ten Nimitz-class carriers were built – all between 1968 and 2006, all at Newport News Shipbuilding yard in Newport News, Virginia. The ships are propelled by two A4W nuclear reactors, which are housed in compartments separate from one another. Nuclear fission heats water, which generates steam. The steam then passes through the four turbines and spins the ship’s four propeller shafts, which can propel the leviathan to speeds beyond 30 knots. Each propeller, made from bronze, has a 25-foot diameter and weighs over 30 tons. The nuclear-powered Nimitz can operate continuously for over 20 years without ever having to refuel.

The Nimitz Can Defend

The Nimitz was built to defend itself. To guard against anti-ship missiles and hostile aircraft, the Nimitz carries between three and four NATO RIM-7 Sea Sparrow missile launchers and between three and four 20mm Phalanx CIWS missile defense cannons. Additionally, the vessel carries four Sippican SRBOC (super rapid bloom off-board chaff) and six-barrel MK36 decoy launchers, which fire infrared Flare and chaff that interfere with the sensors of incoming missiles. To guard against enemy submarines, the Nimitz has an SSTDS torpedo defense system and an AN/SLQ-25 Nixie torpedo countermeasures system. To locate and interfere with enemy radar signals, the Nimitz relies on an AN/SLQ-32(V) system.

170612-N-BL637-093 WESTERN PACIFIC (June 12, 2017) Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70), front, and Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Champlain (CG 57) transit the Pacific Ocean. The U.S. Navy has patrolled the Indo-Asia-Pacific routinely for more than 70 years promoting regional peace and security. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Sean M. Castellano/Released)

While all of these weapons and defensive systems have been acknowledged, one pressing question remains with respect to the Nimitz’s armament, does she carry nuclear weapons? The U.S. has always maintained nuclear ambiguity (ala Israel) regarding the entire carrier fleet; the U.S. neither confirms nor denies the presence of nuclear weapons aboard the Nimitz. Although, in 2007, then-Rear Admiral John Terence Blade offered an insight into U.S. Navy nuclear policy. “The U.S. policy is that we do not routinely deploy nuclear weapons on board Nimitz,” Blake said. Blake’s statement was not a categorical denial – and the implication seems clear: the Nimitz has carried nuclear weapons.

Regardless of whether the Nimitz carries nuclear weapons, the massive ship is still an imposing offensive force; the Nimitz generally accommodates between 85 and 90 aircraft – but can handle up to 130 F/A-18 Hornets, when needed. The result, of course, is that this warship allows the U.S. to project substantial air power from any body of water in the world.


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