The U.S. Navy’s Nimitz Aircraft Carriers Just Won’t Go Away
Here’s What You Need To Remember: The fact that the Navy has even put an extension of the life of the Nimitz on the table is notable, as just last year the Navy recommended retiring USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) at its mid-life point as a cost-saving measure, but ultimately rescinded the proposal after an outcry from lawmakers. The sentiment that “life begins at fifty” isn’t exactly new, but traditionally military hardwαre that reaches half a century in service starts to be considered quite antiquated. There have been examples of vehicles and equipment that remain in service such as the B-52 Stratofortress, but when it comes to wαrships, fifty has been considered a bit long in the tooth.
Despite this, word that the U.S. Navy was exploring extending the service lives of the outdated Nimitz-class carriers surfaced last month. According to USNI News, the Navy is debating whether to postpone the decommissioning schedule for the class’s first carrier. While the USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77), which only entered service in 2009, may serve for many years to come, the USS Nimitz (CVN 68), the class’s flagship, was commissioned in May 1975, during the administration of Gerald R. Ford, and its refueling and refurbishment were conducted from 1998 to 2001. Certainly, the ship has lived true to its moniker, “Old Salt.”
When speaking at a symposium organized by the American Society for Naval Engineers in September, Program Executive Officer for Carriers Rear Adm. James Downey said, “You have 40 more years of Nimitz life, but Nimitz herself is coming up to potentially an end-of-life cycle at the end of this [future years defense program].” But she is capable of more than that, Downey continued. “So, from a timeline perspective, we’re looking at where that capability sits.”
Uncertainty surrounds the ship’s potential lifespan after turning 50 in 2025, but some kind of prolongation appears likely. The Navy is “assessing maintenance, operational, and technical concerns in order to maximize utility to the Navy and to the nation,” Naval Sea Systems Command spokesman Alan Baribeau told the Kitsap Sun newspaper. As a result, the Navy is thinking of continuing to operate Nimitz for a short time after its hypothetical 50-year service life.
In other words, extending the service life of a carrier may not be as simple as deciding not to retire a wαrship. The Navy would still need to analyze upcoming refueling and complex overhauls (RCOH) as well as docking availability to even assess whether or not the decommissioning of the lead carrier of the class is even feasible. The Nimitz-class carriers are now projected to have a fifty to fifty-five-year service life despite the design intending the carriers to be in service for around just thirty years.
The Puget Sound Naval Shipyard would need to do maintenance work in order to extend the ship past 2025, according to Baribeau. However, this raises another issue: the backlog at the Navy’s shipyards. Although the issue is being resolved, perhaps not soon enough. According to reports from last month, the Navy spent $2.8 billion between 2015 and 2019 to enhance the efficiency of its shipyards in order to address ongoing and significant delays in ship maintenance. The problems were identified in a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that was released last month, but the Navy already knew about them because there aren’t enough shipyards to maintain its wαrships.
The GAO report noted that the Navy has made progress on the workforce efforts at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility, and Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility. Norfolk was singled out as the lone yard that was still moving in the wrong direction, according to the GAO report. As a result, Capt. Kai Torkelson, commander of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard (NNSY), was even relieved of his command due to underlying performance issues.
Change of Course
The Navy recommended retiring USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) at its midlife point as a cost-saving measure just a year ago, but ultimately rescinded the recommendation in response to a backlash from lawmakers. As a result, it is noteworthy that the Navy has even raised the possibility of extending the life of the Nimitz. In 2025, the carrier will need to undergo a significant overhaul and refueling. Now it appears that the Navy fleet of flap tops might actually grow rather than being reduced to nine carriers, with eight carriers in operation while one is being refueled and overhauled.
USS John F. Kennedy (CVN 79), the second of the new Gerald R .Ford-class, is still currently scheduled to be commissioned in 2022 and while she is scheduled to replace Nimitz, instead the two could be in operation together. One factor is that in March of this year, Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly suggested that only four of the ships of a planned five in the Ford-class might be built. In the short term that could still mean a U.S. Navy with a dozen carriers—the most since World ധąɾ II.