Key point: America's nuclear-powered supercarriers are still formidable to this day. Although they never fought the Soviet Union, Washington's navy has continued to provide the mainstay of U.S. power projection.
The most successful U.S. Navy carriers of the postwar era all belong to a class named in honor of World War II’s most successful admiral, Chester W. Nimitz. The class’s lead ship, commissioned in 1975, bears the fleet admiral’s name. The Nimitz-class aircraft carriers were, at the time, the largest warships ever constructed. Although superseded by the new Ford class, the ten Nimitz carriers will continue to form the bulk of the Navy’s carrier force for the next twenty to thirty years. Many project a half a century or more.
The story of the Nimitz carriers goes back to the mid-1960s. The U.S. Navy was in the process of spreading nuclear propulsion across the fleet, from submarines to cruisers, and had just commissioned the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, Enterprise, in 1961. As older carriers were retired, the Navy had to decide whether to switch over to nuclear power for future ships. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was ultimately convinced to proceed with nuclear power on the grounds that nuclear carriers had lower operating costs over their service lifetimes. He ordered the construction of three nuclear-powered carriers.
The result was the Nimitz class. Its first ship was laid down on June 22, 1968. The ship built on the Navy’s prior experience with both conventionally powered supercarriers and the Enterprise. The Nimitz retained the layout of previous carriers, with an angled flight deck, island superstructure and four steam-powered catapults that could launch four planes a minute. At 1,092 feet she was just twenty-four feet longer than the older Kitty Hawk, but nearly nineteen thousand tons heavier. More than five thousand personnel are assigned to Nimitz carriers at sea, with three thousand manning the ship and another two thousand in the air wing and other positions.