Military Aviation

Naval Flight Officer explains why despite their robustness (and cost) aircraft carriers can’t be kept in service longer than their programmed life

‘Some components simply can’t be replaced, while others it would be cost-prohibitive and inefficient,’ Andy Burns, Naval Flight Officer.

American aircraft carriers at their peak are the queens of the high seas, outclassing even America’s nearest peer competitors. They’re the anchors of US seapower, and have a commensurate price tag, costing billions of dollars to build and thousands of sailors to man.

But even the proudest US Navy ships reach the end of their service life and must be decommissioned.

The aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN-65) makes its final voyage to Newport News Shipbuilding. US Navy Photo Courtesy of Huntington Ingalls Industries

The question is: would it be possible to keep these vessels in service longer than their programmed life?

‘I served aboard two carriers on their last deployments, Enterprise being one of them, and those boats were worn out and past ready to be put to pasture,’ Andy Burns, former US Navy Surface Warfare & Naval Flight Officer, says on Quora. ‘Enterprise was not “up to date” by the time she was decommed. And their robustness and cost are the reason they’re kept around as long as they are. Sailing thousands of miles of saltwater while flinging planes off the roof is a hard life. Fifty years – programmed life of a CVN – is a long time to be in such service.

Decommissioned nuclear carrier Enterprise (CVN-65) sits pier side at Newport News Shipbuilding following its decommissioning in February 2017.

‘Some components simply can’t be replaced, while others it would be cost-prohibitive and inefficient. The electrical system, for example; the power requirements changed between the start of Big E’s construction in 1958 and her final cruise in a 2012, on a scale never imagined by her original builders. It doesn’t matter how much power you’re generating if the electrical distribution system can’t handle the increased load.

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‘As a ship ages it becomes increasingly difficult to locate spare parts, as manufacturers go out of business or simply stop supporting their very old, defunct product lines. Enterprise had an elevator, for example, for the aircrew to make their way from the ready rooms below the hangar deck up to the flight deck. Sounds extravagant, but you try routinely climbing six floors’ worth of very steep stairs lugging 40 lbs of flight gear. Which is what the crews wound up doing anyway, because the elevator was always broken. The manufacturer had gone out of business decades before and it was impossible to find spare parts.

‘Incidentally, all subsequent US carrier designs put the squadron ready rooms on the O3 level directly beneath the flight deck for that reason.’

Burns concludes;

‘Simply put, nothing lasts forever, even nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.’

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Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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