Which is better, the starship or the aircraft carrier?
- By Michael PeckMichael Peck is an award-winning writer specializing in defense and national security issues. He holds an MA in political science from Rutgers University.
This has been an eventful month for the most famous ship name in the world — the USS Enterprise. On December 1, the U.S. Navy retired the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN-65) — the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier — after a remarkable 51 years of service. At the same time, the Navy announced that the third Ford-class supercarrier (CVN-80), due to be completed around 2025, will be named Enterprise. And, not to be outdone, the producers of Star Trek Into Darkness, the next Star Trek movie, released a trailer previewing the film that is set to hit the big screen in May.
So how will the new supercarrier Enterprise (CVN-80) compare to the starship Enterprise (NCC- 1701)? Foriegn Policy put the question to naval analyst, former U.S. Naval War College professor, and science-fiction fan Chris Weuve:
The Enterprise is the name of the most famous ship in science fiction. And it was also one of the most famous names in U.S. Navy history, even before Star Trek. Why did the Navy name the third Ford-class supercarrier the Enterprise?
Well, as you said, it’s one of the most famous names — the most famous name, really — in U.S. Navy history. As a naval vessel in American service, the name goes back to a sloop-of-war the Continental Navy captured from the British in 1775 by not-yet-turncoat Benedict Arnold. That vessel was burned to prevent capture, and the name went to another Continental Navy sailing ship. The Continental Navy became the U.S. Navy, which has had an additional six warships named Enterprise, three sailing ships (the last decommissioned for good in the early 1900s), a motor patrol boat which served during the First World War, and two aircraft carriers. Both carriers had distinguished and record-breaking careers, the first (CV-6) in World War II, the second (CVN-65) as the world’s first nuclear-powered carrier. So, I think there is ample incentive for the Navy to pick Enterprise as the name for the new CVN-80. Of course, I’m sure the Navy received a few letters from Trek fans, just as NASA did when the space shuttle program was gearing up.
For Starfleet, by the way, the history of the name is obviously a little more dicey. We have seen evidence of at least 13 starships named Enterprise, not including alternate timelines or mirror universes. As Yoda said, "Always in motion is the future" — in this case because of new shows and movies adding to the mythos.
A 23rd-century starship obviously has far more advanced technology than a 21st-century aircraft carrier. But in what other ways are the vessels dissimilar?
Setting aside the obvious difference of a real surface ship versus a fictional starship, the two vessels are more different than alike in terms of purpose, crew, and operation. The aircraft carrier is a warship; its primary function is to provide offensive and defensive airpower, and to serve as a command-and-control node for a carrier strike group. It does other things, too, but those are the two main functions, and the only ones for which it was designed. Other than its aircraft, a carrier’s weapons are short-range and purely defensive, so a carrier does not travel alone, but in a carrier strike group with escorts that provide it with defense against submarines and air attack. This carrier strike group is designed to operate with a heavy logistics tail providing it with fuel for thirsty airplanes, food, and munitions, which are generally delivered twice a week. Plus, the carrier gets support from ashore: intelligence reports from the Office of Naval Intelligence, weather reports, communications capabilities through satellites, Air Force tankers for its air wing, and so on.
The various incarnations of the starship Enterprise are different in many ways, starting with the fact that they are primarily exploration vessels. They have a military mission, yes, but it’s not really the primary mission. They are solo performers, designed to operate independently most of the time. They are capable of sustained long-duration operations with only minimal resupply. When they do have to fight, their weapons are guns fired from the ship itself. All in all, while Starfleet’s finest ships are highly sophisticated pieces of technology, they operate more like sailing vessels, whereas aircraft carriers are definitely machine-age devices.
As for similarities, Captain Kirk’s Enterprise was about the same length as the aircraft carrier, although the crew was less than a tenth as big. The new carrier will be a few tens of feet shorter than CVN-65, but with a greater displacement; the original CVN was designed to be a greyhound, long and lean. CVN-80’s crew will be almost exactly 10 times that of Kirk’s starship.
Other than the fact that a starship has phasers and an aircraft carrier doesn’t, how would you characterize the differences in their combat capabilities?
That’s a book-length topic. Give me a year or so! But let’s look at some of the things that aren’t immediately obvious. We can break this down into two major dichotomies: organic versus inorganic capability, and known versus unknown threats.
Organic versus inorganic capability refers to whether a vessel like the Enterprise provides its own firepower and logistics, or relies on other ships. The U.S. Navy organizes its surface combatants around the carrier strike group, or CSG. A CSG notionally includes a carrier, three or four escorts, and logistics support ships, with perhaps a submarine also assigned. So the carrier’s air wing can range over thousands of square miles, the escorts range out from the carrier, keeping threats away from the big ship, and all the ships in the CSG are networked together so that whatever is seen by one can be seen by all. The carrier itself carries not only the air wing, but also functions as a command-and-control node, a fueling station, a shipping depot, a complete medical and dental facility, and a host of other functions as well. In other words, a carrier strike group has a lot of organic capability.
But there’re a lot of things that a CSG can’t do for itself that must be performed by assets based ashore, including logistics, intelligence, communications, guidance, planning, and other services. The CSG operates in waters that have been sailed for thousands of years, using charts that are the best the U.S. government can buy. All in all, there are perhaps 10,000 people directly involved with the day-to-day operations of a carrier strike group, spread across several time zones, operating in a well-understood environment.
Contrast that situation with that faced by any of the various Starfleet captains we have seen. The various Enterprises we have seen are solo performers. In deep space, on a long-duration mission, it can’t count on the support of other Starfleet ships and assets. So it must have its own organic capabilities, such as performing scientific analysis or repairing damage to the ship. I’m sure Starfleet must have other vessels somewhere that are designed to operate in groups, but we haven’t really seen them. While we occasionally see Enterprise and her sisters brought together for some event, usually a battle, it’s clearly a rare event.
In terms of known versus unknown threats, I can’t emphasize enough how almost everything that the U.S. Navy does involves known factors such as geography, international law, and capabilities and intentions of adversaries, while everything Starfleet does involves unknowns. That’s really the norm for any science fiction involving new alien threats. The U.S. Navy has the benefit of knowing that the other side flies aircraft with jet engines, and hence we can make infrared-homing missiles that will seek out those engines. And if you are really good, your missiles have all sorts of counter-countermeasure seeker logic that ignores decoys or any other heat source that that doesn’t look exactly like a jet engine, which is why that fancy F-22 owns the skies against the Russians and the Chinese.
But if the aliens from Independence Day really came to Earth, our missiles may not be able to lock on to their ships, because the features that make your missile smarter at dealing with decoys make it dumber in dealing with something for which it has not been programmed. The seeker logic just assumes it’s a decoy trying to spoof it, and ignores it. So, if your alien would-be target also has that other staple of science fiction, the cloaking device that absorbs radar waves, then you’re pretty much left with harsh language. Yes, maybe you can get a shot off with your gun, but the guns are tied into the radar, too, so maybe not.
That’s the situation faced by Starfleet. They may be operating in known space, dealing with well-understood adversaries, or they may be encountering a new race with new technological capabilities for the first time, perhaps in an area of space that Starfleet has never visited before. So, Starfleet has to have systems that can deal with new technologies and capabilities from aliens it has never encountered before. That’s what strikes me when I put my naval analyst hat on: all of the systems in Starfleet are incredibly flexible. Of course, for dramatic reasons, sometimes they fail.
What about the way that each ship would fight?
A U.S. Navy carrier faces well-documented threats and generally well-understood technology. When it engages those threats, it might do so from hundreds of miles of away. Combat, if it occurs, takes place between ships that can’t see each other.
For reasons best explained by the nature of TV shows and movies, the fictional Enterprise fights at engagement ranges more appropriate to sailing ships than a modern warship.
The combat I see in Star Trek really doesn’t look like anything the U.S. Navy does today. What it resembles is a cross between World War I surface ship combat and modern submarine combat. It’s like submarine combat because the ranges are close and the engagements are generally one ship versus one ship. It’s like World War I combat because the target is in plain sight and the trajectories are flat. However, where combat in Star Trek differs from those models is the extreme precision of weapons, so that called shots targeting specific features of an enemy vessel, such as the engines, have become commonplace.
Space carriers that launch fighters don’t appear much in Star Trek, except for a few episodes of Deep Space Nine. Carriers and fighters are more of a fixture in Star Wars and Babylon 5. So the carrier Enterprise and the starship Enterprise are designed according to two very different concepts of warfare?
Very much so. In the core Star Trek universe — that is, what we have seen on TV and in the theaters rather than the novels and games — fighters don’t really make sense. That’s because in the core universe, bigger is generally faster, while deflector shields make it difficult or impossible for small ships to have ship-killing weaponry. In the real world, fighters work because they are machines of the air, where they can have tremendous performance, and because they carry a punch disproportionate to their size. Neither of these preconditions exist in Star Trek. Again, the closest model is World War I naval combat. This hasn’t stopped some of the ancillary material, like the various war games set in the Star Trek universe, from adding spacecraft carriers that use warp shuttles as fighters.
How would life be different — or the same — on a starship versus an aircraft carrier?
There are a lot of similarities, and a lot of differences. Both U.S. Navy and Starfleet ships have dedicated, highly disciplined crews of skilled professionals. There’s obviously a hierarchy with a rank structure, and where each crew member has a lot of responsibility. One of the recurring themes I have encountered in working with the U.S. Navy has been the number of Navy personnel who were inspired to join because of science fiction in general, and Star Trek in particular.
However, there are differences as well. Whenever I watch Star Trek, I’m always impressed by the amount of space people had to themselves, and the degree of privacy. On an aircraft carrier most officers have at least one roommate, while enlisted personnel live barracks-style. Communal facilities, such as bathrooms and recreation rooms, are the norm. The U.S. Navy works its people a lot harder than Starfleet does as well; 12-16 hour days are the norm, split between standing watch and other duties. One of the things that always amuses me about Star Trek is the implicit idea that you are always either standing watch or off-duty. Doesn’t anybody have to fill out the paperwork to make sure that Jonesy gets sent to the class he needs to qualify for his next promotion? It’s not that they don’t show it, which admittedly would be boring. There is simply no evidence that paperwork exists at all.
It appears that the most likely opponent of the new supercarrier Enterprise will be China. The most consistent opponents of the starship Enterprise are the Klingons and Romulans. Any similarities between the enemies of the two Enterprises?
Well, in the original series, a lot of people drew parallels between the Klingons and the Russians, and the Chinese and the Romulans. That having been said, I’d hesitate to say that China is the "most likely" opponent of the new supercarrier. The U.S. Navy is concerned about China because it is a stressing case, mostly because our commitments to our allies in the Pacific mean that any conflict with China will be a home game for them and an away game for us. But if you look at how CVNs have historically been used, you’ll see that they got a lot of use conducting combat operations without ever having to fight "the big one." Just in the last two decades, you have Iraq (a couple of times), the Balkans, and Afghanistan, plus humanitarian assistance and disaster relief ops in Haiti, Indonesia, Pakistan, and a host of other places. Carriers are just useful things to have whenever you might want to have an airfield nearby but don’t happen to have one.
The starship Enterprise has changed from the original 1960s vessel to the ship in the 2009 movie — just as the U.S. Navy’s Enterprise began as an 18th century sailing ship and will now be a nuclear-powered supercarrier. What does this say about the evolution of naval technology in both science fiction and real life?
I think it says a couple of things. For technology in general, Star Trek has always influenced the real world, and in turn has been influenced by it. In the original Star Trek series, we see the precursors of flip phones and wireless earpieces and handheld computers. All devices we had seen in science fiction before, more or less, but Star Trek was in a unique position to influence a generation of engineers who were actually going to build those devices. The real world influenced Star Trek, too. What seemed futuristic in 1965 is at best quaint today, so when Star Trek: Enterprise hit the airwaves in 2001, the producers were faced with the difficult task of making the old Enterprise impressive without overshadowing her distinguished-but-outdated descendent.
For naval technology, I would suggest that both the CVNs and the starships demonstrate the importance of modularity. A lot is made over the various modular warship designs, such as the German MEKO, the Danish StanFlex, and the U.S. Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), but the first truly modular warship design was the aircraft carrier. An aircraft carrier’s entire weapons complement, with the exception of some of the point defense weapons, is its airplanes. Need to upgrade? Fly the old airplanes off, and fly some new airplanes on. The five generations of aircraft that CVN-65 operated is part of the reason why the recently retired Enterprise lasted so long. You can’t exactly fly the electronics of an aircraft carrier off the ship, but they get replaced fairly regularly, too. I had a chance to visit the aircraft carriers John C. Stennis in 1999 and 2004, and the Carl Vinson in 2001 and 2003. It was amazing how much changed in the Combat Direction Center and in the Tactical Flag Command Center on each ship between my trips.
In Star Trek, the modularity is less obvious but it’s there. Ever wonder why the bridge of the Enterprise kept changing for each movie? We all know the real reason is that they built a new set each time, but the explanation given by the geeks working on the show — my heroes Rick Sternbach, Mike Okuda, Andrew Probert, and the rest — is that it may be the same ship, but it’s a different bridge. The bridge is just a module that plugs into the top of the saucer section. And by the time we get to Star Trek: The Next Generation, the control panels are all user-programmable displays.
The U.S. Navy hasn’t quite gotten there with the software, or with command space modules, although they are trying hard to do this with the LCS. But in other ways, a modern aircraft carrier is actually more sophisticated than anything we have seen on Star Trek. As I said above, a CVN isn’t just an airport — it’s the hub of a sophisticated command and control network, a place where sensor and intelligence data from a variety of warfare domains is fused into an operational picture covering thousands of square miles, maintaining situational awareness of hundreds of entities that could be friendly, hostile, neutral, or unknown. The real limit in this case is the operators, not the equipment. We never really see anything like that in Star Trek.
Finally, the long history of both sets of Enterprises says something about the importance of tradition. By naming CVN-80 the Enterprise, the Navy is linking its story to the story of all the ships that bore the name previously. And, for the same reason, it means something that NCC-1701-E is the Enterprise as well. In both cases we have a new ship, new technology, new story, but the old story is important, too.
And, for Star Trek fans, that name links the U.S. Navy’s story to Starfleet’s story as well. In Star Trek IV, when the starship crew needed to visit a nuclear carrier, it meant something to them — and to us — that it was the Enterprise.
As you said, the starship Enterprise is primarily an exploration vessel while the aircraft carrier Enterprise is a warship. Does that conflict with Star Trek‘s optimistic vision of the future of humanity? Would Gene Roddenberry have approved?
Arguably, Roddenberry demonstrated he did approve when he chose to name his starship after the warship. As a World War II vet, I’m sure he knew that CV-6 was the most decorated ship in the history of the Navy, and the then-new nuclear carrier was designed for the front lines of the Cold War. NCC-1701, the starship Enterprise was listed as a heavy cruiser from day one, although later incarnations were dubbed "Explorers."
But it’s also clear that Roddenberry didn’t view Starfleet as a traditional military. Starfleet is as much about exploration and diplomacy as it is about warfare, all the phasers and naval ranks and whatnot notwithstanding. Now, history is replete with examples of the militaries engaged in exploration and diplomacy, up to and including the diplomatic responsibilities that the commander of a U.S. Combatant Command has. But in Star Trek they send Starfleet in first, to make the initial contact, to survey and the like. I don’t recall seeing it in an official source, but I wonder how far down the page of Starfleet’s mission statement do you have to read to find "defend the Federation." All in all, Starfleet isn’t really like any one U.S. service — it’s a combination of the technical prowess of the Air Force, the mission set of the State Department and the National Geographic Society, and the ethos of the Coast Guard, all within the trappings of the U.S. Navy.
If Captain Kirk were to travel in time and somehow take command of the carrier Enterprise, would it be a comfortable fit? How about a U.S. Navy carrier commander in the captain’s chair of the starship Enterprise?
Kirk strikes me as a bit impulsive for command of a CVN. As for the other way, one thing I find interesting in talking about Star Trek with naval officers is that when the subject turns to which character from Star Trek would best fit in the USN, the name that always comes up is Edward Jellico, the character played by Ronnie Cox in the Next Generation episodes "Chain of Command, Part I" and "Chain of Command, Part II." Most Star Trek fans say, "What a jerk," and there’s some truth to that, but most of it is just reminding the ship’s officers to focus on their responsibilities. He’s direct and no-nonsense; he’s in charge, it’s his responsibility, and he wants his officers to remember that. Not the usual method for Starfleet, but you see it a lot in the U.S. Navy.