The Navy Should Use Its Retired Carriers for Target Practice

David Axe

Key point: The navy has turned other retired ships into experimental platforms to try out new defensive technology before use in the actual fleet.

The U.S. Navy should convert USS Nimitz, the fleet’s oldest nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, into a test ship once the flattop decommissions in the mid-2020s.

That’s the recommendation of Navy lieutenant Douglas Cantwell, who served aboard the 1,092-feet-long carrier.

His advice has precedent. The Navy recently formed an experimental “Surface Development Squadron” for Zumwalt-class stealth destroyers, Littoral Combat Ships and drone vessels.

“The Navy needs a platform dedicated to accomplishing for air warfare what the USS Zumwalt and the Surface Development Squadron aim to do for surface warfare,” Cantwell wrote in Proceedings, the professional journal of the U.S. Naval Institute.

“The planned decommissioning of the USS Nimitz … in 2025 presents an opportunity,” Cantwell added. “Drawing on its past, the Navy should designate the Nimitz as CVN(X) and overhaul her into an experimental carrier.”

While fleet force-planning constantly changes, at present the Navy expects to maintain at least eight and as many as a dozen large nuclear carriers, or CVNs, for the foreseeable future. The sailing branch in early 2019 awarded shipbuilders a $15-billion contract for two new Ford-class CVNs.

Increasingly, the Navy’s big-deck amphibious assault ship with their Harrier and F-35B jump jets act as light carriers, complementing the larger CVNs. The Navy in its current round of force-structure analysis could decide to reduce the number of CVNs in favor of light carriers.

But carriers in any form increasingly are vulnerable to enemy anti-ship missiles. As a test ship, Nimitz could help the Navy to experiment with new systems that could allow the rest of the flattops to adapt during wartime, Cantwell wrote.

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