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CV-67 John F. Kennedy - Nuclear or Not

For the Navy, air power was an indispensable element of sea power, and since the end of World War II carriers had proved themselves in the Korean War and in other international crises that might have led to conflict. To meet its commitments the navy wanted fifteen modern attack carriers. It had made good progress toward this goal, for in every construction program from 1952 to 1957 Congress had authorized a Forrestal-class carrier. The Enterprise received approval in the 1958 program.

Before Congress, by 1959 naval witnesses spoke of their anxiety over increasing costs. A glance at the cost of the Forrestal class showed what was happening. The Forrestal herself cost $218 million. The successive ships cost less because the shipbuilders were gaining experience, a phenomenon known as the "learning curve." The Independence, the fourth of the class and which was completed in April 1959, cost $189 million. With the Enterprise estimated at $314 million — which might be low — the picture looked grim. The navy did not get its carrier. Neither of the armed services committees authorized the ship.

The outlook for a second nuclear-powered carrier was dim. There was no reason to think that the Eisenhower administration would ask for one in its next budget; it was far more likely to repeat its request for an oilfired carrier. Conceivably, the Enterprise might be the first and last nuclear carrier. If that were the case, the prospects for the application of nuclear propulsion to the surface fleet were slim.

The fiscal year 1963 carrier, known from its type and hull number as CVA 67 — later to be named the John E Kennedy — had been authorized and approved as an oil-burning ship. As pointed out earlier, the attack carriers scheduled for the 1965 and 1967 programs were also to be conventionally propelled. By the end of 1962 Rickover sought to reopen the question of the CVA 67, for Bettis had made significant advances in the development of a four-reactor A3W plant.

Not only was the power rating increased from a year ago when the four-reactor plant was proposed for the CVA 67, but preliminary calculations also showed it could fit in the space allotted for propulsion machinery. It was not a matter of simple substitution, for the two propulsion systems differed radically in their arrangement and weight distribution. The decision had to be made soon before the ship was very far under construction and preferably before that stage. As yet the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company had not laid the keel.

On 8 December 1962 Rickover asked the bureau's ship-design division to study the feasibility of installing the plant in the CVA 67. On the last day of the year Rear Admiral Ralph K. James, chief of the Bureau of Ships, forwarded the results to the chief of naval operations. The change was feasible, but would require extensive redesign. The four-reactor plant would have only slightly less power rating than the eight-reactor plant of the Enterprise. A nuclear-powered CVA 67 would cost an estimated $113 million more than its oil-fired counterpart; of this amount $32 million was for the initial fuel loading—which would last about seven years — and the remainder was for the design, procurement, installation, and testing of the plant. James did not go so far as to endorse the four-reactor plant for the CVA 67, but he recommended that it be considered for future aircraft carriers.

With the bureau's favorable opinion on the technical feasibility established, Rickover sought support for the change. He could count on the joint committee. In October it had published an unclassified version of the hearings held on the Enterprise. In the foreword Holifield praised the tremendous strides nuclear propulsion had made under Rickover and declared that it was time to convert the surface fleet to the new technology.

Korth was willing to take a stand. His year in office had converted him to nuclear propulsion. He was impressed by the Enterprise and by the operation of the nuclear-powered submarines, by his contacts with Naval Reactors and Rickover, and by the views of other people whose opinions he respected. Recognizing the need for a strong statement from an experienced flag officer, he turned to Hayward.

On 2 January 1963, in a letter clearly intended for publication, Hayward wrote that his experience with the Enterprise off Cuba and in the Mediterranean convinced him that the advantages of nuclear propulsion in surface combatant ships far outweighed the extra costs. The Enterprise was outperforming every carrier in the fleet. Her planes were easier and cheaper to maintain because they were not exposed to corrosive stack gases. The ruggedness and reliability of the propulsion plant gave her a high sustained speed and the ability to maneuver readily that enhanced air operations. In her first year the ship had 10,000 landings, a record no other carrier had achieved. Hayward strongly believed that nuclear propulsion would be badly needed in the years ahead. For that matter he was deeply disturbed that the navy was not exploiting every technological advance fully. Weighing the advantages of technology in dollars and cents now could cost victory later."

The Atomic Energy Commission was another element to mobilize. On 18 December 1962 three of the commissioners, Seaborg, John G. Palfrey, and James T. Ramey, held a meeting on board the Enterprise. Palfrey, a former law professor at Columbia University, and James T. Ramey, formerly executive director of the staff of the joint committee, were both recent appointments to the commission. Ramey, deeply interested in reactor development, admired the achievements of Naval Reactors and liked Rickover. After hearing Hayward and de Poix, they listened to Rickover describe the four-reactor plant. It was still possible, he declared, to install it in the CVA 67. He urged the commission to support the conversion of the surface fleet, not only to improve national defense, but also to advance power reactor technology.

The commission swung into position. On 7 January 1963 Seaborg wrote McNamara that the commission had recently reviewed its eight year old surface ship program. Within the last eighteen months the Enterprise, Long Beach, and Bainbridge had joined the fleet, and from every report reaching the commission the propulsion plants of these ships had proved reliable, had met the navy's design objectives, and had shown a state of technical maturity and promise that justified increasing the number of nuclear surface ships. Yet apart from the Truxtun, no nuclear ships had been authorized. From this background Seaborg came to his major point. Because of the improvements in the proposed four-reactor plant, the commission asked McNamara to reconsider his decision on the CVA 67.

Reopening the question provoked mixed reactions. Admiral Claude V. Ricketts, vice chief of naval operations and second in command, saw nothing in Seaborg's letter to alter McNamara's decision. The cost of going to nuclear propulsion was still sizable. As a practical matter, changing at this stage meant a complete redesign of the hull; it was too late, too costly, and too time consuming. However, the four-reactor plant should be considered for future attack carriers. Other officers felt differently.

Admittedly, changing the CVA 67 would upset the carefully balanced shipbuilding program, but for $113 million — Rickover's figure — the navy would be getting an increase in combat effectiveness almost impossible to measure. Rumors sweeping through the navy corridors of the Pentagon held that James H. Wakelin, office of the assistant secretary for research and development, and Kenneth E. BeLieu, assistant secretary of the navy, wanted a nuclear carrier, and Korth was leaning in that direction. In the Department of Defense, Harold Brown, director of defense research and engineering, and Charles J. Hitch, assistant secretary of defense (comptroller), reportedly were favorable. Rickover's knowledge of Congress was unsurpassed, and he was understood to report that while the legislators presently preferred a nuclear ship, they might not remain in this mood long. The question was McNamara.

Anderson saw no chance of changing McNamara's mind. The two men had not worked well together. The chief of naval operations distrusted McNamara's method of reaching decisions and his downgrading of professional advice during the Cuban crisis. He had every reason to think he would be relieved in August after the completion of his two-year term. On 10 January 1963 Anderson had told his staff that the CVA 67 would stay conventional.

The major session with the Naval Reactors engineers came on January 16 when they reviewed the progress at Bettis. The laboratory had improved core design so that the total power rating of the four reactors was equal to the eight of the Enterprise. A four-reactor CVA 67 based on the Enterprise hull could have several advantages over a conventionally powered counterpart, including the ability to carry seven instead of six squadrons, store 50 percent more aircraft fuel, and stow 50 percent more aircraft ammunition."

Impressed with the arguments, Anderson turned to the Bureau of Ships. James replied that a four-reactor Enterprise could be delivered late in the calendar year 1967, providing full funding and authorization were available on February 1. The date was important, for the navy was schedled to issue an invitation on February 11 for bids to construct the conventional ship. On 23 January 1963, in a letter to McNamara that took five days to write, Korth reviewed the benefits of nuclear propulsion, the importance of keeping alive technical and manufacturing processes, and the need to maintain the interest of the Atomic Energy Commission. He asked McNamara to reconsider his decision on the CVA 67.

On February 2 McNamara replied to Seaborg, acknowledging the technological advances that had taken place and promising to reconsider the decision on the CVA 67. His reply to Korth on February 22 was more complicated. Phrases Korth had used about the need to ". . . utilize the most advanced proven technology, . . ." and to move ". . . further along the road to the nuclear Navy we envisage for the future," McNamara found unpersuasive, and until he had the answers to the fundamental questions on the place of nuclear propulsion in the navy, he could not decide the type of propulsion for the ship."

He wanted a comprehensive quantitative study. It should analyze the impact of nuclear propulsion on the composition of a task force and on the number and types of escort vessels. It should consider whether nuclear submarines could defend a carrier force against hostile submarines. It should examine the matter of supply ships to see if they, too, should be nuclear powered. It should assess the effect of nuclear propulsion on fleet deployment and if its application would permit a reduction in the total number of carriers or carrier task forces. The study should also provide the navy's ideas on how to achieve the transition to nuclear power. Answers to these and other questions should be based on the understanding that the goal was to obtain the most efficient naval force possible, defining efficiency as achieving the most beneficial military results for a given expenditure. If the new technology increased military efficiency, then the navy should take advantage of it. But first he needed a proper evaluation of the possibilities.

He was asking for a great deal. The navy was blocked until it could answer, to McNamara's satisfaction, his questions on nuclear power and the navy. His request was a good example of applying the technique of systems analysis to military force structure. Alain C. Enthoven, a young scholar who had a strong background in economics and who had been appointed assistant secretary of defense (systems analysis) in October 1962, defined the discipline as ". . . the application of quantitative analysis and scientific method, in the broadest sense, to the problems of choice of weapon systems and strategy" Without doubt, systems analysis was valuable in cutting through deeply parochial vested interests to provide information on comparable approaches as, for example, the effectiveness of the total missile strength of the United States, regardless of which military service owned the weapon. The difficulty was applying systems analysis in "its broadest sense." It leaned heavily on economics and tended to discount professional experience.

The navy was already building its case. Vice Admiral Charles D. Griffin, deputy chief of naval operations (fleet operations and readiness), alerted Hayward on January 25 that the CVA 67 question was active. On March 7 Griffin sent the characteristics of the oil-fired CVA 67 to the Bureau of Ships with a request to begin immediately an alternate design of a nuclear-powered CVA 67 in an Enterprise hull. Rear Admiral William A. Brockett, chief of the ship design division in the bureau, planned to have the alternate design by mid-April, but he warned that delivering the ship late in calendar year 1967 would be tough.

In mid-March Rickover discovered that the office of the chief of naval operations was imposing a draft limitation on the ship. Although it was part of established policy, because the more water a ship drew the fewer ports and bases it could enter, it had been breached before. Rickover got it set aside, for enforcing it on the nuclear CVA 67 meant a serious reduction in aviation fuel and ammunition capacity. He seized the incident to declare a general principle: all fixed limitations on ship design should be examined to make sure no arbitrary restrictions would prevent the navy from gaining the most from nuclear propulsion.

Completing the study asked for by McNamara was obviously impossible without delaying the construction of the carrier. On April 4 Korth and Anderson agreed to send to the secretary of defense the information that had been gathered. McNamara replied on April 20. The information was not what he wanted. It did not tell him the magnitude of the increase in effectiveness or possible reduction in force. The navy was asking him to approve an additional expenditure of at least $600 million to the five-year shipbuilding program, but not giving him the ultimate result of the outlay.

On 26 September 1963 Korth again pressed for a decision. Once more he pointed to the advantages of virtually unlimited endurance at high speed. McNamara replied on October 9. Agreeing that nuclear ships were superior, their greater cost was a serious penalty, especially in construction.

Because building the CVA 67 with an oil-fired propulsion plant would not lead to any loss of effectiveness, Korth was to proceed with construction as soon as possible. The decision was not setting a policy; the question would be further reviewed when the navy finished its study of the application of nuclear propulsion to escort ships and carriers. To all intents and purposes the matter was settled — at least for the CVA 67 and probably for all surface ships.

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Page last modified: 07-02-2016 19:42:00 ZULU