Hail and Farewell
Dec 17, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 14 • By BARRETT TILLMAN
Whereas the original Big E fought only Imperial Japan, Boomer Hamilton’s ship has fought multiple enemies. In addition to Vietnam, she has launched combat missions in Middle East waters since 1988. During Operation Praying Mantis, Enterprise aircraft contributed to sinking two Iranian vessels in retaliation for attacks on international shipping in the Persian Gulf. In the ’90s she participated in Operation Southern Watch, enforcing the no-fly zone over Iraq. Subsequently her air wing responded to 9/11 with strikes into Afghanistan and launched aircraft in the second Iraq war beginning in 2003.
For officers, Enterprise has long been a stepping stone to flag rank. At least 17 of the first 20 captains were promoted to admiral, with the first 4 making three- and four-star rank. The third skipper, James L. Holloway III, became chief of naval operations under Richard Nixon.
In 1983 Captain Robert J. “Barney” Kelly ran the ship aground in San Francisco harbor but surprised some naval pundits by growing four stripes into four stars. Insiders said that an Annapolis ring and nuclear power school made the difference, as captains of fuel-oil powered ships who made similar errors were fired.
A scandal emerged in 2011 when Captain Owen Honors was censured for a video produced on his watch as executive officer four years before. The content was condemned as gay bashing, and Honors—then intended to be the ship’s last skipper—was relieved of command. Though reprimanded with others involved with the film, Captain Honors remained on active duty.
Enterprise is not only the oldest carrier afloat—she’s also one of a kind. Originally she was to have had five sisters, but the cost was prohibitive, and the next nuclear carrier, lead ship of the Nimitz class, did not arrive until 1975. Consequently, after her half-century in service, spare parts are not available from the naval yellow pages. Hamilton explains, “We have a tremendous machine shop, and our guys can manufacture almost anything we need. If something breaks, they can make it. It’s expensive, but it keeps us going.”
Enterprise has outlived her next two successors: America (CV-66, from 1965 to 1996) and the original John F. Kennedy (CV-67, from 1968 to 2007). Both were oil-fired ships, the last non-nuclear-powered carriers in the fleet.
The cost of building and operating a nuclear carrier is enormous. Enterprise’s original price tag was $451.3 million. Eisenhower (CV-69, commissioned in 1977) was reckoned at $4.5 billion in 2007 dollars; George H.W. Bush (CVN-77), the last Nimitz-class ship, is pegged at $6.2 billion, but the new Gerald Ford (CVN-78) is listed at $13.5 billion—a figure that may grow before commissioning in 2015, with the follow-on “JFK II” somewhat less.
Taxpayers are entitled to ask what they get for their money. A nuclear carrier can run two-and-a-half times the acquisition and operating cost of an oil-fired carrier over a similar career. Today’s new flattops probably cost around $12 billion to build and operate over their expected service life. Carrier captains and aviators note several operating advantages, including plenty of fresh water, ample steam for catapults and other systems, and less corrosion from the putrid effects of stack gas. In addition, since they don’t carry fuel oil, there’s extra space inside the hull—any ship’s inevitable concern—for ordnance, berthing, and other uses.
The downside to a nuke also is multifaceted. Refueling a nuclear carrier is a lengthy process, requiring careful handling of hazardous materials, and is usually done once in the vessel’s life. Engineers actually cut through the flight deck, hangar deck, and other spaces to gain access to the reactors. Because of the time involved, major maintenance and upgrades are undertaken at the same time, extending the process and making each ship unavailable for years. Enterprise’s last refueling, in conjunction with a major overhaul, took four years, 1990 to 1994. Nimitz’s refueling took three years, from 1998 to 2001.
Before embarking on her last cruise, Enterprise was inspected by Admiral John C. Harvey of U.S. Fleet Forces Command. He lauded the Big E and her escorts, saying, “I haven’t sent a strike group underway that is as ready as you are. No one has done as much to get ready, worked as hard, and accomplished as much in every warfare area. You should be very proud of what you’re going to be doing once you get to where you’re going . . . where the business of the nation needs you.”
Harvey brought to his statement the perspective of a history buff. He well knows the critical role that carriers have played in the nation’s business for more than 70 years.