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The supercarrier USS Enterprise (CVN 65) is a futuristic-looking vessel. Although she has turned 50 years old, she is still a front-line combat vessel fighting the Global War on Terror.

Today, she carries four squadrons of multi-role fighters, along with specialist electronic-warfare and airborne early warning fixed-wing aircraft, and helicopters. USS Enterprise is one of 11 nuclear-powered carriers in service with the United States Navy, and is capable of rapid response to a crisis.

USS Enterprise entered service in 1961, becoming the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Early on in her service, she took part in the naval quarantine of Cuba in 1962. Over her next two deployments, Enterprise would demonstrate just what a nuclear-powered carrier could do. The highlight was Operation Sea Orbit, when the carrier and two nuclear-powered escorts travelled around the world without refueling or taking on supplies – a 30,000 nautical mile voyage.

After Sea Orbit, the Enterprise was sent to Vietnam. The nuclear-powered carrier would deploy there six times during the Vietnam War. Highlights of that service included setting a one-day record for sorties (165) in that war in December 1965, during her first combat deployment.

Enterprise would go on to carry out six deployments to the Southeast Asia region, but would divert off North Korea in two instances—following the seizure of USS Pueblo in early 1968 and when an EC-121 was shot down in 1969. The Enterprise remained in the Pacific Fleet during that time.

In January 1969, Enterprise suffered a fire that left 27 sailors dead and destroyed 15 aircraft. The carrier had to undergo repairs to her flight deck. The fire had been set off by a Zuni rocket that had cooked off when it overheated.

After Vietnam, Enterprise continued her service on the high seas. In 1975, the carrier and her escorts rendered humanitarian aid to Mauritius after a typhoon struck the island.

The carrier also was the first to carry the Navy’s new F-14 Tomcat. The Enterprise also served off East Africa when Idi Amin took hostages in Uganda. The carrier’s Marine detachment and air wing prepared for a rescue, but the Ugandan tyrant backed off and released the hostages.

The Enterprise would miss the 1986 confrontation with Libya, but in 1988, she would take part in Operations Earnest Will and Preying Mantis. The latter was retaliation against Iran for the mining of the frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts, and ended with one Iranian frigate and one missile-armed patrol craft sunk.

After a major refit in the 1990s, the Enterprise operated in the Adriatic as the former Yugoslavia was splitting apart. The carrier continued service through 2001, when she would follow in the footsteps of her immediate predecessor.

In 1941, the seventh USS Enterprise (CV 6) was at sea when Pearl Harbor was attacked, and thus escaped destruction. The carrier would take part in the first American offensive actions in response to Pearl Harbor, the raids on the Marshall Islands in 1942, and go on to earn 20 battle stars. On 11 September, 2001, USS Enterprise (CVN 65) received word that America had been attacked. The carrier moved to within 100 miles of the Pakistani coast
as the United States prepared its response.

According to the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, “Before the first wave launched, Captain ‘Sandy’ Winnefeld addressed the crew over the 1MC, recalling that the previous carrier named Enterprise (CV-6) had participated in the first retaliatory raids against the Japanese in early 1942, and that this latest Enterprise, like her predecessor, was avenging a ‘treacherous attack on our homeland.’”

During that first deployment in the Global War on Terror, aircraft from USS Enterprise dropped 550 laser-guided bombs, 122 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs), and fired 68 Maverick missiles. The carrier and her planes carried out those operations until relieved by USS Theodore Roosevelt.

Enterprise made three more deployments. In the second half of 2003, the carrier’s aircraft flew over 3,500 sorties in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2006, the carrier would also deploy in support of the Global War on Terror, flying 1,018 sorties. But the most impressive deployment would be one that was unexpected. In 2007, the carrier was surged out of Norfolk to support the Bush administration’s surge of 30,000 additional troops into Iraq as part of
Operation Iraqi Freedom. This deployment would become remarkable.

The carrier’s aircraft would fly 1,600 combat missions, all the more impressive given the fact that Enterprise was by then 46 years old! Two years later, USS Enterprise became the oldest active combat ship in the United States Navy.

In 2011, USS Enterprise went on her 21st deployment, again heading for the 6th and 5th Fleets. This deployment is scheduled to be her last, with the Navy seeking her decommissioning. Ironically, it could mean that for the second time, a carrier named Enterprise could have an incredible record of service rewarded with a trip to the scrap yard.

USS Enterprise (CV 6) was decommissioned in 1947. Despite her impressive combat record during World War II and a valiant effort by Admiral William F. Halsey to have her preserved as a museum, she would find herself being sold for scrap. Her successor, CVN 65, may be facing a similar fate.

Nuclear-powered ships are not decommissioned until after they have gone through the Ship–Submarine Recycling Program. In essence, the ship will be scrapped. Petitions to turn the ship into a museum are ongoing, but many expect that Enterprise will be “recycled” after she leaves service in 2013.

It is a point of concern. The replacement for Enterprise, USS Gerald R. Ford, is slated to enter service in 2015, but has required “minimal” design changes. Other Navy shipbuilding programs have had issues as well, which could leave the Navy short a carrier. So, is there an alternative to retiring Enterprise?

There could be other options. Even as the Navy’s oldest carrier, Enterprise has still performed superbly as a front-line combat vessel. It does not seem to be out of the question that another major overhaul and refueling, similar to what was done in 1990–1994, could keep the ship as a formidable fighting ship.

George Landrith, President of Frontiers of Freedom, supports this option, saying, “Rather than retiring the USS Enterprise, the Obama administration should overhaul and retrofit it to keep it as a frontline carrier. The risks in the
world are growing. Now is not the time to toss major defense assets in the trash heap. And in an era of needed cost-cutting, updating the Enterprise would be a cost-effective way to keep our defensive capabilities strong. As we celebrate the 100th Anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth, we should remember his words, ‘Of the four wars in my lifetime, none came about because the U.S. was too strong.’ Our enemies are watching to see if we will display weakness. If we appear weak, they will strike. If we expect to enjoy peace and prosperity, we must remain strong.”

However, military blogger CDR Salamander feels retirement is the only option. “The Big E is a tired, worn out lady who has served her nation well. When I was on her in the late 90s, she was long in the tooth. Now, even more.

“Due to her excessive age, she is very hard and expensive to maintain and to be blunt, to keep her on active duty much longer is folly from both a cost and safety point of view. It is her time.”

Perhaps the best option would be to turn Enterprise into a training carrier. This would have a number of benefits for the Navy. The last carrier to do so, USS Lexington (AVT 16), served in that role for 28 years, from 1963 to 1991. Enterprise could not only serve as a training carrier, but in a crisis, she would still be able to deploy.

The fact remains that even as the oldest ship in the U.S. Navy, USS Enterprise, could still provide years of service to the United States. Will the United States Navy finally do right by a carrier named Enterprise? That remains to be seen.