This month the USS Forrestal (CV-59), the first of the post-World War II aircraft carriers, was towed to the shipbreakers. She was nearly 60 years old, a remarkable lifespan for a steel warship. Commissioned in October 1955, she was decommissioned in September 1993 after 38 years of active service. That figure in turn is dwarfed by the 50-year active lifetime of the later, larger carrier Enterprise (CVN-65). The reason these ships last so long—and are so enduringly useful—is that they are fundamentally modular, so much so that we take that aspect for granted. Their weapon system is largely, though not entirely, the aircraft they carry, which are replaced as they age and become obsolete. Modularity is not complete; some shipboard systems (particularly command and control and maintenance) also have to be replaced to make full use of more modern aircraft. However, the evolution of carrier aircraft has been spectacular.
The Forrestal began life in an era of subsonic jet fighters using analog electronics and short-range weapons. Attack meant either a nuclear strike by a few aircraft flying independently, or a massed alpha-strike against a single target. When the ship was retired, her fighters included F-14 Tomcats armed with long-range air-to-air missiles tied into a fleet digital system that tapped space-based assets to track adversaries far beyond the horizon. Attack aircraft had precision weapons: they could strike individually, generally from beyond the target’s air-defense horizon (as they did during the first Gulf War in 1991). Between birth and retirement were at least four generations of carrier aircraft. The Forrestal herself was rebuilt under the Service Life Extension Program, but the effort required was limited in that her basic aircraft launching and recovery facilities—the ones that determined what modules (aircraft) she could handle—did not have to change.