A carrier’s real values lies in its aircraft, which are administratively grouped in a separate unit called the Carrier Air Wing incorporating nearly 2,500 aviators and support personnel. These have evolved considerably over the years, including the integration of female aviators and Marine Hornet squadrons. Originally, the Nimitz-class carried over a hundred specialized aircraft: speedy, heavily armed F-4 Phantom and F-14 Tomcat jets designed to intercept enemy aircraft (and double as recon jets), and slower A-6 Intruder and A-7 Corsair bombers for pounding surface targets.
Smaller units of EA-6 Prowler and KA-6 jets offered jamming and aerial refueling support, while large E-2 Hawkeye turboprops aircraft mounting hefty radar dishes provided airborne early warning and command and control.
Later, carriers received a squadron of S-3 Viking anti-submarine jets , which adapted Swiss Army knife-like to serve as tankers, spy planes, jammers, fast transports, and even strike jets.
In the 1980s, the Navy introduced F/A-18 Hornet, a jack-of-all-trades supersonic attack plane. As the threat of mass bomber attacks evaporated with the end of the Cold War, the Navy decided it would be more efficient to focus on a single multirole design, the FA-18E/F Super Hornet, which can fly further and more stealthily than its smaller predecessor, as well as the specialized EA-18G Growler electronic attack model.
The Vikings were retired, arguably prematurely , their anti-submarine role subsumed by a squadron of more effective though shorter-range SH-3 or SH-60 helicopters, which also provide search-and-rescue services for downed pilots.
Air-refueling duties are performed buddy-on-buddy by Super Hornets. Since 1966 long-range C-2A Greyhound turboprop transports have delivered passengers and cargo to carriers, but these will be replaced by more flexible but expensive CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotors that can switch between vertical and conventional takeoff modes.
Today’s average sixty-four-jet air wing is significantly smaller than its predecessors, with three squadron of Super Hornets, a half-size squadron of Growlers, and two squadrons of older FA-18C/D Hornet jets which are transitioning to new F-35C Lightning stealth jets . These last enable penetration of defended enemy airspace and can fuse their powerful sensors with friendly ships or Super Hornets.
However, there are concerns that the aircrafts’ five hundred and seven hundred miles combat radiuses will force carriers to come dangerously close to enemy shores. New long-range ground-based ballistic missiles, air and sea-launched supersonic cruise missiles, and very quiet yet inexpensive AIP-powered submarines pose major new challenges to the carrier’s survivability in littoral waters, and their role in a high-intensity conflict in the Western Pacific is subject to debate.
The Nimitz-class flattops were built to serve for a half-century, which means the Nimitz is scheduled for retirement in the 2020s, to be replaced by carriers of the new, $13-billion Gerald Ford class, which boast fancy electromagnetic catapults. However, in order to maintain a twelve-carrier Navy, the Nimitz and its sister ships may see their service lives extended . One way or another, Nimitz-class supercarriers will continue to sail the world’s oceans well into the mid-twenty-first century
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring .