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Useful Notes / Superior Firepower: Other Naval Nukes

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In 1992, nuclear weapons were removed from the U.S. Navy's surface and attack sub fleet.

"When word of a crisis breaks out in Washington, it's no accident that the first question that comes to everyone's lips is: 'Where's the nearest carrier?'"
Bill Clinton, 12 March 1993.

The main power projection asset of the United States Navy, the US aircraft carrier fleet (legally required to be at least 11 carriers) has been the subject of many documentaries and works of fiction. They're just that cool. They have been compared to a small town, in terms of numbers on board (over 5,000) and facilities, such as barbers, dentists, prostitution rings, black markets, World of Warcraft servers, out-and-out theft, gambling, etc.


A note before we begin on U.S. carriers. Unlike the Soviet carriers and like most others, these do not carry very much in the way of weaponry on their own or a lot of defensive stuff. They instead carry the planes with nukes and rely on their escorts for air defence. If an American carrier is using it's surface-to-air capability at all, something has gone very wrong somewhere.

Another note: The U.S. Navy planned in the 1950s to commission a whole fleet of carriers specifically designed to carry nuclear bombers in the strategic deterrent role, and even had its own separate nuclear weapons program, which produced things like the Mk 27 hydrogen bomb (two megaton yield, weighing almost two tons, it was intended to be carried by the big Douglas A-3 Skywarrior carrier-based jet bomber); however, the USAF Strategic Air Command didn't appreciate the Navy budging into their territory and only barely tolerated ballistic missile submarine development. These carriers were canceled and at the height of the Cold War it was highly unlikely that an aircraft carrier would actually be carrying nukes designed to take out large industrial centers; that said, all USN aircraft were equipped to carry B-61 and B-83 tacticalnote  nukes just like their USAF counterparts, and aircraft carriers did carry nukes on a routine basis, in the form of nuclear anti-submarine or anti-ship weapons.


Note number three: You will notice the lack of dedicated nuclear anti-ship missiles. The U.S. Navy only really developed two anti-ship missiles (Harpoon and Tomahawk), finding that there was a decent chance of missiles not hitting their targets or hitting neutrals, preferring instead to rely on carrier-based strike aircraft.

Essex class aircraft carrier

Authorised in the late 1930s, when Japan was starting to arm, 32 were planned, with 24 entering service. Includes the long-hull Ticonderoga sub-class. Served in World War II, then were converted for jet operations, with angled flight decks being introduced. The supercarriers replaced them in the 1960s and 1970s, although USS Lexington stayed on until 1991 as a training ship.note  Were also used in the space programme, retrieving astronauts from their capsules (which landed on the sea).

  • USS Intrepid (CV-11), a museum in New York City since 1982, is seen in I Am Legend. Will Smith's character is driving golf balls off one of the aircraft (specifically a flight test protoype of the A-12 Oxcart, which was the single-seater plane that would be followed by the SR-71) on it.

Midway class aircraft carrier (CV-41 to CV-43)

Basically in between the carrier above and the carrier below; was the first warship built by the U.S. too big to fit through the Panama Canal. Built to support the invasion of Japan (and of course named after the famous battle in that war) and entered service after actual hostilities, but saw service in Korea, Vietnam, and even as late as the Gulf War. USS Midway is now a museum ship in San Diego.

United States aircraft carrier (CVA-58)

This and four others planned, would be a supercarrier design aimed to carry the AJ-2 Savage for strategic nuclear attacks on the USSR. It would not have had an "island" and would also have had four catapults.

The Air Force and Army won the argument over nuclear strategy, the first ship was never finishednote  and the others were cancelled. This triggered several U.S. Admirals publicly criticising U.S. military policy.

Forrestal class aircraft carrier (Forrestal, Saratoga, Ranger and Independence, CV-59 to CV-62)

The USA's first "supercarriers", being 25% larger than the Midway class. Not a perfected design, with problems that later classes would fix, such as in aircraft handling. Stayed in service until the 1990s, with three going from 1993-4 and Saratoga staying on until 1998. Forrestal and Independence are expected to be used as gunnery targets due to their condition, the others may become museums.

In their early life they carried eight 5-inch guns- these were later removed and replaced with missiles, as they were poorly located for rough sea operations.

USS Forrestal (CV-59)

Suffered a major fire in 1967, when a Zuni rocket accidentally launched (probably an electrical fault) on deck and hit another aircraft, possibly one belonging to later U.S. Presidential candidate John McCain.

A chain of explosions resulted in the loss of 21 aircraft and the deaths of 134 sailors. The subsequent inquiry led to major alterations to fire-fighting training, as well as significant research and new rules and engineering requirements for aircraft and weapon electrical systems.

Kitty Hawk class (CV-63, 64, 66 and 67)

Four were built, entering service in the 1960s. The first of these (and last to remain in service), USS Kitty Hawk was decommissioned in 2009.

USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67)

The last of the class had its design heavily modified in light of lessons from Enterprise, to the extent that many consider it a separate class.

USS Enterprise (CVN-65)

(No, not that one. Of course Roddenberry used its name because of its illustrious predecessor) A single ship, it's the world's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and the biggest capital ship in the world. Fun fact: Instead of designing new, large reactors to power the Enterprise, its designers simply replaced conventional boilers with 8 (!) submarine-type reactors. This makes the "Big E" the fastest carrier in the fleet. Retired in 2013, after 51 years of service.

It's the eighth real ship to have the name, number seven (CV-6) begin the most-decorated U.S. ship of World War Two.

It's appeared a lot in fiction, including in Star Trek IV, where it was played by the (conventional) USS Ranger.

Nimitz class carriers.

10 of these were built, but only four (CVN-68 through 71) entered active service before the U.S. surface fleet had its nuclear weapons removed.

Most of these carriers are named after Presidents, but not all of them—the Carl Vinson and John C. Stennis are both named after U.S. Senators who are perceived to have had a big role in developing the U.S. military, while Chester Nimitz was an admiral.

The ships from Theodore Roosevelt on are of an improved design, sometimes listed as a separate sub-class. When the Carriers undergo their Refueling and Complex Overhaul period every 25 years, they undergo a massive upgrade of their components, basically they take the ship apart and rebuild it as a much as possible to fit in with the newer ships.

  • Most of the real carriers (and a few fictional ones) have turned up at some point in fiction. Nimitz itself appears in The Final Countdown, where a US congressman is horror-struck that the carrier, sent back in time to just before Pearl Harbor, is named after Chester Nimitz, then an active-duty admiral. (Never mind that it's far more advanced than anything in 1941.)

Gerald R. Ford class carriers.

The successor to the Nimitz class, the first of which (CVN-78, USS Gerald R. Ford) is currently complete and undergoing sea trials. Roughly similar to the Nimitz class, they will have significant upgrades in radar, combat systems, engineering, catapulting, and even flight-deck shape (for faster and easier aircraft handling). Although the U.S. no longer arms its surface ships with nuclear weapons, there'd be nothing besides policy preventing them from being so armed if the Navy wanted.

Other Surface Ships

USS Long Beach

The US Navy's first purpose-built missile cruiser, this nuclear-powered cruiser carried first Talos and then Tomahawk starting in the 1980s alongside a pair of conventional Terrier launchers, and was once intended to carry first Regulus and then Polaris nuclear missiles in her amidships space, though nothing ever came of it and she carried a pair of 5" guns instead. Like the Virginia class, the end of the Cold War cut short her third refuel and a planned modernization with AEGIS, and she was decommissioned instead.

Virginia class cruiser

Not to be confused with the Virginia class subs that are now entering U.S. service, or the 1900s Virginia class battleships, these were four Tomahawk and ASROC capable nuclear-powered cruisers. They were retired in the early 1990s as part of the "peace dividend" due to the end of the Cold War—they were due for a refuel and mid-life refurbishment, the cost not being deemed worth it.

Ticonderoga class cruisers

Tomahawk (later ships only) and ASROC capable, most are still in service and one has just blown up a satellite. Their main role, however, is in missile defence, both of a fleet- and more recently, land. The first five (CG-47 through 51) have were retired due to their outdated missile launch system, but the rest (CG-52 through 73) remain in active service.

  • "Tico" herself is heavily damaged in Red Storm Rising after her Aegis system is swamped by more missiles than it can handle from a "Backfire" raid, but does destroy 60% of the inbound "vampires" by itself.
    • And later, sister ship Vincennes defends Strike Fleet Atlantic against a two-pronged Soviet bomber attack. They win that one.

Spruance class destroyer (although of WW2 cruiser size)

Anti-submarine vessels, ASROC and later Tomahawk capable. First US class to be gas turbine powered. All now retired as the Arleigh Burke class replaced them.

Arleigh Burke class guided missile destroyer

Named after a famous WW2 admiral (while he was still alive), these are the most powerful destroyers in US history- carrying up to ninety Tomahawks. Obviously intended to carry nukes (but never did), the last ships of the class are currently being constructed, with two more recently ordered due to the likely cancellation of the DDG-1000 Zumwalt class. The USS Cole, attacked by Al-Qaeda in 2000, is one of this class.

Like the Ticonderoga class, the Arleigh Burke class also has the Aegis combat system. Some of them also have ballistic missile defense capability. The first 28 didn't carry helicopters (though they do have a flight deck, for refueling helos from other ships), but the later ones have two. DDG-81 (USS Winston S. Churchill) and later have a new long-range gun with a weird faceted housing that looks like something out of a video game. All of them include what the Navy calls "signature reduction" features — in other words, stealth. They're not invisible on radar, and the exact degree to which their signature is reduced is still classified, but they most certainly do not look, on radar, like 9000+ ton destroyers.

  • One of these, the USS Shoup (DDG-86) is seen in Transformers, escorting the carrier from which the damaged Decepticons are being dumped.

Charles F. Adams class DDG

An enlarged Forest Sherman, these twenty-three destroyers were the first purpose-built guided missile destroyers for the U.S. Navy. Carried Tartar and ASROC. When the Burkes arrived, these were decommissioned, with only Charles F. Adams still surviving in reserve- the rest have been scrapped or sunk.

Modified versions were purchased (three a piece) by West Germany and Australia, with four U.S. examples later going to Greece.


A ship launched device, it lobs a homing torpedo or a depth charge (which originally had an optional tactical nuclear warhead) in a ballistic trajectory, which then does its thing underwater. Still in U.S. service, but no longer nuclear.

  • At the end of The Bedford Incident A jumpy ASROC operator launches a conventional one by accident at a Soviet submarine—he misinterprets the words "fire one" in a discussion as "Fire One!". The sub is sunk, but not before it launches Mnogo Nukes at the destroyer.

Iowa class battleship

This class of four battleships was built during World War II and saw service there through to the Gulf War. Tomahawk capable, they had massive guns and small UAV capability. The last battleships built by the U.S., cost was no object.

Placed in reserve after WW2, one recalled for Vietnam and all four upgraded in the Reagan era.

Although designed for conventional warfare, they were nuclear-capable, at least technically so. The Mark 23 nuclear projectile was a fission device the same size and weight as the conventional Mark 13 shell fired from their 16" guns, while the upgrades in the Eighties included installation of Tomohawk launchers. None of the ships actually fired a nuclear weapon, even as a test, and whether they were ever carried remains unknown.

They were finally retired in the early 1990s (although two were kept on the reserve list until 2006 at the insistence of Congress) and two are currently musuem ships, with the last two more than likely becoming museum ships themselves. Interestingly, they are the only class of ship from the Second World War to still have every member of the class built to still be intact.

A Cool Boat, definitely.

USS Missouri

The "Mighty Mo". This vessel was the ship where the final Japanese surrender in World War II was signed and is now a museum ship in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

  • A Cher video ("If I Could Turn Back Time") was shot on Missouri. Cher was "dressed" (if you can call it that) in her now-infamous "fishnet-and duct-tape" oufit.
  • The Missouri plays a large role in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, where her age and current use as a training tool makes it the only viable ship for launching an attack on Outer Haven, as it lacks the advanced SOP control system that Liquid has subverted worldwide.
  • And, of course, the movie ''[[Film/Battleship Battleship]] features her in a leading role.

Albany class cruiser

Three conversions of World War II-era gun cruisers (two of the Oregon class, the other of the Baltimore class). The ships were stripped to hull level and new, very tall superstructures were built.

Designed for air defence, they carried nuclear Talos missiles and conventional Tartar ones as well. Two of the ships stayed in service until 1980. All have now been scrapped.

Kidd class (DDG-993) destroyer

Four air defense destroyers, based on the Spruance class hull with ASROC capability. Informally known in service as the "Dead Admiral" class (as they are all named after Admirals killed in action in World War II) or the "Ayatollah" class.

The reason for the latter is that these vessels were originally ordered by Iran for their navy. However, before they could be delivered, the Shah was overthrown. The U.S. decided that since they'd already paid for the things, they might as well use them—the air-conditioning made them good for the Middle East.

All four have now been passed on to Taiwan and renamed. They turned up in a Artistic License – Ships role in Pearl Harbor.

Knox class (FF-1052) frigate

Anti-submarine warfare frigates, carrying ASROC, these were designed as convoy escorts (they were originally called "destroyer escorts") and entered service in the early 1970s, replacing World War II destroyer escorts.

Generally liked by their crews, they lacked the offensive capability of the older vessels, had problems with their main gun and were dubbed "McNamara's Folly" by destroyermen.

46 were built, all now sold on to other nations, scrapped or sunk as targets.

  • In the first episode of Airwolf, the titular chopper sinks one of these off Libya.
  • USS Pharris (FF-1094) plays a big role in Red Storm Rising, being severely damaged by a "Victor III"'s torpedo and basically written off.

Naval Aircraft

The U.S. Navy underwent an aircraft designation system change in 1962—with all the services adopting a common system- which remains in use today. Older designations are in brackets.

P-2 (P2V) Neptune

The USN's first-ever aircraft capable of carrying a nuke. A purely piston-engined aircraft, with two radial engines mounted on the inboard wings (later P2V variants added a pair of jet engines further outboard in underwing pods for extra thrust on takeoff, and as insurance in the event of a failure of one of the radials, but the nuclear-capable version of the P2V never had these). Originally designed as a conventional bomber, but a bunch were modified in the late 1940s to carry nuclear weapons (due to the small size of the P2V's bomb bay, it had to use the compact, but inefficient and unsafe, Little Boy weapon—yes, the same type of nuke as the one that got dropped on Hiroshima), mainly as a political stunt to keep the Navy relevant in the nuclear age. Very much a stopgap measure; originally designed (and mostly used) as a land-based bomber, it was able to take off from a carrier with the help of RATO (Rocket-Assisted TakeOff) gear, basically a bunch of rocket boosters strapped to the plane, but couldn't land on one, and would have had to either fly to a friendly air base on land, or else ditch in the sea.

A-2 (A2J) Savage

The first USN aircraft specifically designed to carry nukes; the aforementioned "nuclear deterrence" carrier fleet that was later canceled was designed around this aircraft. To allow it to operate from smaller carriers, it used the B-25 used during the Doolittle Raid as an inspiration, as well as being equipped with mixed propulsion in the form of a turbojet stuck in the back complimenting its twin 2,800 cubic inch piston radial engines. When it entered service, it was the largest and heaviest aircraft ever designed to take off from a carrier, and easily out-muscled even larger, older types like the B-17. Its service was brief, having never seen combat, not even in Korea due to its limited ability to carry conventional munitions.

FJ-4 Fury

Final version of the FJ Fury, a carrier fighter based on the F-86 Sabre and could carry a single nuclear weapon.

A-3 (A3D) Skywarrior

The first USN all-jet aircraft specifically designed to carry nukes, this time designed for carriage aboard the Midway and Forrestal class but still capable of operating from smaller carriers. Directly replaced the Savage, and unlike the latter was able to carry conventional munitions as well, meaning it got to see heavy service in Vietnam. Also adapted into various roles during that conflict and thereafter, including aerial refueling tanker, electronic warfare aircraft and even admiral/VIP transport. The USAF also operated a version called the B-66 Destroyer, primarily as an electronic warfare aircraft but also as a recon bomber, which also saw heavy service in Vietnam. Later converted to the KA-3, one of the few carrier-based dedicated fuel-tanker aircraft in history. Nicknamed the Whale, it was also the heaviest ever aircraft to be carrier-based. Also notable for being a very graceful, sleek airplane, with clean lines.

  • The book and the movie BAT 21 is based off the real-life story of a B-66 Destroyer carrying this call-sign that was shot down by the North Vietnamese, and how the surviving crew struggled to escape capture.
  • The A3D was known in service by an unflattering nickname: All Three Dead, for its lack of ejection seats. They had been deleted to save weight.

A-4 (A4D) Skyhawk

A light attack aircraft developed by Douglas Aviation in the late 1950s, capable of dropping nukes (no mean feat considering the size of the nukes it was designed to drop), the A-4 stayed in U.S. service until 2003 (for training) and remains in service elsewhere. A small little thing indeed, it came way under the specifications the US Navy asked for size and weight-wise and could be launched from World War II-era carriers. Used by the U.S. in Vietnam, Israel in the 1967, 1973, and 1982 wars, and Argentina in the Falklands. Extremely maneuverable and with a loaded weight nearly twice that of its "dry" one, the A-4 eventually developed into something nearly a true fighter-bomber; Kuwait actually used it as one and the Kuwaiti A-4 squadron gave the best performance of their military in the First Gulf War. Well-liked by its crews, in U.S. military service it was nicknamed the "Scooter." Still in service in some countries. Notable as record-holder for the title of smallest (and lightest-in-weight) aircraft designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, and also unique for being the only plane ever designed for carrier-based use to be small enough to not need foldable wings. Considered by some to be among the most practical aircraft ever put into production.

A-5/RA 5 (A3J) Vigilante

The largest aircraft ever (regularly) stuck on a carrier and also one of the fastest, U.S. or otherwise. Designed to replace the A-3 Skywarrior, it was capable of Mach 2 and with a feature that chucked the bomb out of the rear, not the front, thus meaning it went straight down—they hoped note . Intended as a strategic platform. Its nuclear role was short (the Navy went boomer instead) and it became a reconnaissance aircraft. Retired in 1979.

A-6 (A2F) Intruder

A medium-range two-seater attack aircraft, developed by Grumman (them of the F-14 Tomcat). Used in Vietnam and other conficts, it was retired in 1997. However, a four-seater derivative, the EA-6B Prowler, remains in service with the USN as an electronic warfare aircraft and carries anti-radiation missiles. It will be retired soon, as the EA-18G Growler replaces it. There was also a tanker version, the KA-6.

A-7 Corsair II

A subsonic attack version of the F-8 Crusader, it was used in Vietnam and the Gulf War. A major leap in accuracy in bombing (allowing single buildings to be targeted for the first time), it could drop a single nuclear gravity bomb, such as the B61. Left US service in 1993. It was also used by the USAF and Air National Guard for a time. Its ability to haul a heavy bomb load and keep flying even after suffering astounding amounts of damage endeared it to its crews.

  • "single buildings?" er, what? Stuka pilots were doing that in Spain in 1936. Its service in Vietnam was concurrent with the introduction of low-drag bombs that improved the accuracy of dive-bombing, and also the introduction of laser-guided bombs, but it is hard to say what the "single buildings" bit means.

F/A-18 Hornet

Considered the world's best current carrier-launched aircraft, the "[Plastic] Bug" can carry all manner of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions, including nuclear weapons, and is also used by some countries as a land-based aircraft- it's been exported to a number of countries, including Australia, Canada, and Switzerland. Has rather short range though.

F/A-18E/F Super Hornet

A bigger version of the above optimized as a bomber, particularly in the two-seat "F" version. Except for the "legacy" Hornet, all of the above aircraft have been retired, meaning the Super Hornet is the most likely platform the USN will use for aerial tactical nuke-slinging.

S-3 Viking

Originally designed as an anti-submarine aircraft, a jet powered successor to the S-2 Tracker and could carry a nuclear depth charge.

The Viking overcame initial unpopularity and diversified to electronic reconnaissance (ES-3A Shadow) and other utility roles, tanking with buddy stores and cargo transport to or from carriers. One became the only "Navy One" in 2003.

Now retired, though there is talk of selling some to South Korea.


Permit class

The first of this class was to be USS Thresher (SSN-593), but this was lost with all hands during diving trials.

Sturgeon class

Aka the "637 class", these had the capability to surface through the ice, which is pretty cool, if not the best thing for global warming. Six could deploy special forces. It was flexible, a workhouse and boomer-shadowed a lot. All now retired.

Los Angeles class

Colloquially known as the "688 class" (since the first boat was SSN-688), these can broadly be divided by those with vertical launch tubes in the pressure hull, most of which are quieter and the earlier ones without. The most numerous SSN class built—62 were built, with 43 still in service.

Seawolf SSN-21 class

Intended original successor to the Los Angeles class, 29 were planned. The end of the Cold War led to the reduction of this to three, simply due to expense, the Virginia class being the replacement. Very quiet. Number 3, USS Jimmy Carter, is a larger vessel (30 metres longer, according to The Other Wiki), with facilities for Special Forces insertion.

Not to be confused with the one off USS Seawolf (SSN-575), a test platform, plus a covert operations boat and the only U.S. sub to have a liquid-sodium cooled reactor. Entered service in 1957 and retired in 1987, it was recycled.

Virginia class

The actual successor to the Los Angeles class, with 13 built and up to 48 planned. Not as capable as the Seawolf class, but far cheaper and better optimized for littoral operations. Starting with Block V boats, will carry the Virginia Payload Module, allowing them to carry more missiles and thus replace the SSGN versions of the Ohio class.

One of the great success stories in military procurement: the boats consistently come in early and under budget, a basically unheard-of feat in any military program.

BGM-109 Tomahawk

That's right, everybody's favourite cruise missile was originally designed to carry nukes and nuclear capable versions were around until 1992 (they are now in storage and due for retirement in 2013). Used conventionally to blow up everything from bunkers to tents.


Same idea as ASROC, but launched from a submarine's missile tube. All withdrawn from service, a planned replacement was canceled during the post-Cold War "peace dividend." Its retirement was in part precipitated by the fact that, unlike ASROC, it was only available as a nuclear weapon.