Starship Enterprise, USS Enterprise: Which is better?

CORVALLIS, Ore. — 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:

Q. 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?

A. 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.

Q. 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?

A. 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.

Q. 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?

A. That’s a book-length topic. 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.

Peck is games editor at Foreign Policy. Follow him on Twitter at Mipeck1. Check out Chris Weuve’s list of recommended books on naval sci-fi and wargames.

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