The “Big E,” a.k.a. the USS Enterprise (CVN-65), was the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in the United States naval fleet. Originally commissioned in 1962, it was the eighth ship to carry the Enterprise name, a tradition dating back to the Revolutionary War, and also the longest-serving. Over its twenty-five deployments and fifty-year history, the ship and its crew have been involved in nearly every major US military engagement, from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This Friday, the ship will receive its final goodbye from an indebted country as it is decommissioned in a private ceremony at Norfolk Naval Station.
The term the “Big E” was originally applied to one of the current USS Enterprise’s predecessors. One of three Yorktown-class aircraft carriers designed to carry eighty embarked propeller-driven airplanes, the USS Enterprise (CV-6) held its own in countless engagements, going on to participate relentlessly in eighteen out of twenty major Pacific Theatre operations, including the Battles of Midway and Guadalcanal. The ship was also involved in the “Doolittle Raid,” performing escort duties for the USS Hornet, which was carrying only large bomber aircraft. In its distinguished WWII service, during which it became one of only three carriers to survive the entirety of the war, the USS Enterprise (CV-6) became the most decorated ship in US naval history, a title it still holds to this day.
The United States changed its view of naval strategy with the ushering in of the nuclear age. As a response to Pearl Harbor, the Pentagon saw the capability to keep vessels deployed nearly indefinitely as a distinct advantage. Whereas conventional ships need to be refueled on a regular basis, constraining their operational potential, nuclear-powered vessels have an essentially unlimited energy supply. Additionally, such ships, because they have no need to refuel, can engage in emergency tasking and mission extensions without significant logistical constraints or the need to access friendly ports.
Nuclear propulsion capabilities were first implemented for submarines before the technology existed for large carriers. Nuclear propulsion was seen as an advantage because it would allow the submarines to remain submerged significantly longer than their conventional counterparts. The US Navy tasked Admiral Hyman Rickover with creating a nuclear propulsion system for submarines, which culminated in the deployment of the USS Nautilus in the 1950s. Several years later, the US Navy laid the keel for the nation’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, ushering in a new era of American power projection.
The USS Enterprise (CVN-65) first entered service in 1961, and while embarked, the 1,123-foot-long ship typically carried sixty aircraft. In times of national emergency, the USS Enterprise had the capabilities to haul up to ninety combat aircraft. Immediately after coming into operation, the Enterprise led a thirty-thousand-mile unrefueled trip around the world in order to demonstrate the reach and capabilities of nuclear powered carriers. Conventional carriers must be refueled roughly every ten thousand miles, but even after the Enterprise’s long journey, it could have continued for longer if necessary. The ship's first major test came in 1962 when the Enterprise and its crew successfully contributed to the blockade that ended the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the following years, the USS Enterprise maintained an active role in the Vietnam War, conducting regular air operations from the Gulf of Tonkin. In the following decades, the ship contributed to missions against North Korea and deterrence patrols along the coastlines of several belligerent countries, and supported strikes against Libya in the 1980s. Although the Enterprise was in Newport News, VA for a major overhaul during Operation Desert Storm, the ship and its crew did not escape action in the ‘90s, as it enforced no-fly zones over Bosnia and Iraq.
After the turn of the century, the USS Enterprise faced down the terror attacks of 9/11. Returning home from the Persian Gulf at the time of the attacks, Admiral Sandy Winnefeld (the commanding officer onboard) gave the orders, without clearance from the Pentagon, to reverse course and charge full-speed, “outrunning her escorts,” back to the Middle East. The Enterprise became one of the first units of the US military to conduct air operations against Al-Qaeda and Taliban targets, immediately becoming the face of the United States’ counterpunch. In the following years, the “Big E” contributed to air missions in Iraq and Afghanistan while continuing to operate as the oldest carrier in the fleet. In 2011, after fifty years of distinguished service to the United States, the USS Enterprise completed its last deployment, in which it traveled 81,000 miles in 238 days. During this mission, the carrier’s embarked aircraft carried out over two thousand sorties.
Following the removal of the USS Enterprise from active service in 2011, the US Navy began a deconstruction phase, in which important equipment was removed from the ship and energy components such as the nuclear reactor were disposed of. Due to the Enterprise’s removal from service, the US Navy dropped below the congressionally-mandated minimum of eleven active carriers, resulting in longer and more frequent deployments for the ten Nimitz class carriers in the fleet. At times, the United States has been faced with a dangerous carrier gap resulting in periods of several weeks with no aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, and on rare occasions, no carrier deployed anywhere in the world. To this day, six years later, the carrier gap has still not been filled as the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-80), the first ship in the nation’s new class of 100,000-ton nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, has suffered repeated setbacks in implementing new technologies. With the USS Enterprise already out of service for five years, the carrier gap will likely endure until at least 2021, the year the Ford is estimated to finally reinforce the strained US fleet.
The USS Enterprise forever cemented behemoth nuclear powered aircraft carriers as the most visible sign of American military might, and one of its most powerful deterrents. From the Cuban Missile crisis to 9/11, CVN-65 has played a disproportionately large role in our nation’s history. Its achievements will be remembered and its influence carried on, but soon enough a new USS Enterprise (CVN-80), a Gerald R. Ford-class carrier and the ninth generation of Enterprise ships, will take up the mantle of the US Navy’s most iconic and storied name and lead the United States into the future.
Will Cohen is a second-year biology major with plans to specialize in immunology. In addition to his science interests, Will is also an avid defense follower with a particular interest in U.S. Military operations and capabilities. In addition to his work with The Gate, Will is a researcher at the Chicago Project on Security of Threats, a board member of College Republicans, and a member of MUNUC.