It's the most technologically challenging, toughest-to-manufacture product. It delivers more striking power than the combined navy and air forces of most nations. It's the nuclear-powered, Nimitz - class, U.S. Navy aircraft carrier. Eight patrol the oceans of the world. The ninth, the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan, is nearing completion at Newport News Shipbuilding, the world's only maker of full-sized aircraft carriers. The Reagan and its sister ships measure a fifth of a mile from bow to stern, have 42 acres of flight deck, and can knife through the seas at better than 30 knots. With 50 fighters plus another 20 or so support aircraft, just one ship is a lethal "forward presence" that has become more so with the advent of smart weapons.
Putting together an aircraft carrier is like no other manufacturing task, past or present. Each ship costs more than $4 billion, with some 80% of that going to the yard and the rest spent on Navy-supplied components. The job involves 47,000 tons of precision-welded steel up to four inches thick, more than a million distinct parts, 900 miles of wire and cable, around 40 million skilled-worker hours, battalions of engineers, and over seven years of hard work.
Nimitz class vessels, although not identical, share the same design of hull, flight deck, propulsion system, and two nuclear reactors that heat the water that makes the steam that runs the turbines that spin the four 21-foot, 33-ton propellers. Since the Nimitz joined the Navy in 1975, each carrier has incorporated new features ranging from the exotic to the mundane, from advanced radar and communications systems to quarters for women at sea. Lots of the modifications have been retrofitted onto earlier vessels, but no two are exact duplicates. And no two have been built exactly the same way. For the first time, parts of the Reagan were designed in 3-D on computers, built indoors, and trucked to the dry dock.