out by S-3B Vikings, which can unleash AGM-84 Harpoon, AGM-65 Maverick and AGM-84 SLAM missiles, plus torpedoes, mines, rockets and bombs. The SH-60 Seahawk helicopters can carry three Mark 46 or Mark 50 torpedoes, or AGM-119 Penguin or AGM-114 Hellfire missiles. And all this firepower can get off the boat in a real hurry: When the flight deck is in full "cyclic" mode, it launches a combat aircraft every 20 seconds. The key to this speed is the muscle of four C-13 Mod 2 steam-powered catapults, which, with 450 pounds per square inch of steam pressure, can help accelerate a fully loaded fighter to 165 mph in 3 seconds.
This much Navy treasure needs protecting. Apart from its own air wing and its escort ships, a Nimitz-class carrier's defensive weapons include three NATO Sea Sparrow short-range surface-to-air missile launchers; four six-barrel 20-mm rapid-fire Phalanx Close-In Weapons Systems (CIWS) mounts, with Gatling guns; and something called the "32" electronic warfare system that includes among its assets a wide-band radar warning receiver to pick up early indications of an attack and a wide-band radar jammer.
For all that, nothing as big as an aircraft carrier is invulnerable, and the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in October 2000 in Yemen revealed that ships, like buildings, can take a direct hit from terrorists. Carriers now enforce more assiduously an air-and-sea "bubble," or perimeter within which no craft can approach without challenge. "One of the tough decisions I make is when you have an in-bound and we don't have a good ID on him," says Groothousen. "Let's say I have a small boat heading right for us -- we've warned him over the radio, we've told him, ?Turn away,' and he refuses to turn away. I'm probably going to have to tell someone to engage him, at least shoot across the bow once or twice. And if he doesn't turn away, take him out. And it's the same thing with airplanes in the Persian Gulf."
In battle, though, U.S. carriers are almost invulnerable today -- at least while the enemy is as underequipped as Saddam Hussein or the Taliban. It is
as if Nelson had sailed into Trafalgar against rowboats rather than the 33 ships and 2,600-plus guns of the French and Spanish fleets. For the 21st-century American carrier, there probably will be no Trafalgar-like test. The job is to sit back and hurl the flying cannons beyond the horizon.
Michael W. Robbins, a freelance writer, has been published in Mother Jones and the Washington Post Magazine.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.