Named for World War II Pacific fleet commander Chester W. Nimitz, CVN-68 is the lead ship of the Nimitz-class and was one of the world’s largest vessels when she was launched in May 1972. Commissioned in May 1975, USS Nimitz was only the second nuclear-powered carrier built after USS Enterprise (CVN-65).
With the inactivation and decommissioning of Enterprise in 2017, Nimitz is now the oldest U.S. Navy aircraft carrier in service, as well as the oldest serving carrier in the world. Nicknamed “Old Salt” or “Uncle Chester,” the Navy plans to keep the carrier in service until the Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy (CVN-79) enters service.
At 1,092 feet long, the carrier is one of the largest ships not only in the U.S. Navy but in the world. She displaces approximately 97,000 tons and has a ship’s company equal to a small town with approximately 5,000 sailors and Marines including the air wing. Powered by two Westinghouse A4W nuclear reactors, which drive four steam turbines and four shafts, the ship produces more than 194 megawatts, which allow it reach speeds in excess of thirty knots.
As a floating military airport, the Nimitz is capable of launching as many as four aircraft per minute. The ship has four catapults as well as four arresting gear engines, which enable her to launch and recover aircraft rapidly and simultaneously. The ships carry seven different types of aircraft with a total complement of more than eighty planes.
In addition to its air wing, the Nimitz has self-defense measures that include missiles, guns, and electronic warfare measures. Her Sea Sparrow Missile System is comprised of two launchers with eight missiles each. Each Sea Sparrow is a radar-guided, short-to-medium range missile capable of engaging aircraft and cruise missiles. In addition, the carrier also has Close-In Weapon System mounts for short range defense against aircraft or missiles; and each mount has its own search and track radar, and a six-barrel, 20-millimeter Gatling gun capable of firing 3,000 rounds per minute.
A True Warship
During its nearly fifty years in service, Nimitz has been at the forefront of the U.S. Navy’s missions around the globe. The carrier was first deployed to the Mediterranean just a year after entering service and in 1979 was sent to the Indian Ocean in response to the Iran hostage crisis. While there, it took part in Operation Evening Light—part of the larger Operation Eagle Claw, the failed effort by U.S. Army Special Forces to mount a rescue mission to free the U.S. hostages held in Tehran, Iran.
It was in 1981 that it launched a pair of F-14A Tomcats jet fighters to take part in a combat operation when the American aircraft engaged and destroyed two Libyan Su-22s during a freedom-of-navigation exercise in the Gulf of Sidra.
Throughout most of her service, Nimitz has been deployed to the Middle East, including during Operation Earnest Will in 1987 and 1988, where the U.S. Navy protected Kuwaiti oil tankers from Iranian attacks—and it was one of the largest naval convoy operations since the Second World War. The warship flew strike and reconnaissance missions during Operation Desert Storm, and in 2003 was deployed to the Persian Gulf in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2017, the carrier conducted airstrikes on ISIS targets in Iraq during Operation Inherent Resolve, during which its air wing flew 1,322 sorties over the course of three months.
The carrier had also been deployed to address Chinese aggression during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1996.
Last December, it was announced that Nimitz would be decommissioned and enter the Ship-Submarine Recycling Program by 2025. That will involve three phases: inactivation, reactor-compartment disposal and recycling. It could take at least fifteen years—and perhaps longer—and that will be the end of a carrier that has served with distinction and helped maintain freedom of navigation (FON) around the globe.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.