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The Decommissioning of Aircraft Carriers: Dismantling, Disposal, and Different Fates

Aircraft carriers have always been revered as the quintessential embodiment of naval power in the modern era and have consequently garnered immense attention from various spheres of society. Where did the once-mighty “Overlord” of the seas venture after retiring?

If one lacks the financial means, the only recourse is to dismantle it.

Following decommissioning, the majority of aircraft carriers, regardless of type, are dismantled. Even those carriers that have been placed in storage for numerous years subsequent to decommissioning cannot evade their inevitable fate of disassembly. For instance, the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier was towed from Bremerton Sinclair Bay on the western coast of the United States to Brownsville, Texas, in the southern region of the country on January 15, 2022, after being decommissioned and stored for a span of 13 years. It was then entrusted to International Shipbreaking Ltd. (ISL) for dismantlement. The sister ship of the “Kitty Hawk,” the “Kennedy,” was also sold to ISL with the intention of scrapping.

Originally, the United States Navy intended to retain the aircraft carriers “Kitty Hawk” and “Kennedy” in storage, to be reactivated and recommenced during a necessary juncture. So, why did they ultimately decide to dismantle them? Quite simply, due to financial constraints. After an aircraft carrier is decommissioned, it is not simply abandoned and ignored; rather, a significant amount of money and manpower must be allocated for its maintenance each year, lest it succumb to corrosion and render itself inoperable in less than two years’ time. Moreover, mothballing an aircraft carrier also necessitates occupying port berths and assigning personnel for security purposes. These cumulative expenses amount to a substantial sum.

The combined annual storage costs of the “Kitty Hawk” and “Kennedy” amount to nearly 2 million U.S. dollars, and with the ongoing construction of more advanced Ford-class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers by the U.S. Navy, the possibility of reactivating the “Kitty Hawk” and “Kennedy” in the future has been thoroughly extinguished. Consequently, the United States elected to dismantle these two aircraft carriers.

The dismantling of aircraft carriers is increasingly becoming a contentious issue.

As nations around the globe grow increasingly cognizant of the imperative of environmental preservation, the dismantling of decommissioned aircraft carriers has emerged as a vexing conundrum.

The Clemenceau, the inaugural vessel of the Clemenceau class in the French Navy, underwent a convoluted dismantling process primarily due to environmental concerns.

In 1997, following decommissioning by the French Navy, the “Clémenceau” was sold to Spain. According to the agreement, once all toxic materials were removed at a port in northern Spain, the Clemenceau was to be dispatched to Asia for dismantling. However, Spanish businessmen covertly sold the “Clémenceau” to Turkey, thereby infuriating the French military. Consequently, the French military intercepted the “Clémenceau” in Sicilian waters, citing Spain’s “violation of EU regulations,” and returned the vessel to France.

Subsequently, France reached an accord with India, and the ship was dismantled at a ship-breaking yard in Alang, Gujarat, India. In December 2005, the Clemenceau, laden with 700 tons of asbestos material, embarked on its journey to India with the aid of a tugboat. Due to immense environmental pressure, the Clemenceau faced not only opposition from environmental groups throughout its protracted voyage to India but also encountered obstacles imposed by the Egyptian government. In the end, it even renounced its intended destination of India. In January 2006, the Supreme Court of India prohibited the Clemenceau from entering the country. Consequently, the “Clemenceau” was compelled to return to France. It was not until the outset of 2009 that France reached an agreement with the United Kingdom, and the “Clémenceau” was dismantled by the Hartlepool Shipbreaking Facility, operated by the British company Orbo, in northeast England.

Divergent destinies await these retired “Overlords” of the seas. In addition to being dispatched to ship-breaking yards for dismantlement, there exist numerous other methods of disposal. Some are resold, some repurposed as target ships, some transformed into commemorative vessels or theme parks, and a select few even serve as artificial reefs.

Among these alternatives, the aircraft carriers that are chosen to become memorial ships and museums are undoubtedly the fortunate few. They not only receive meticulous maintenance but also frequently welcome throngs of visitors. The decommissioned aircraft carriers that have been converted into memorial ships and maritime museums are predominantly located in the United States, where a total of five such vessels currently exist.

The utilization of decommissioned aircraft carriers for the construction of artificial reefs remains a rare occurrence. As of now, the USS Oriskany (CV-34), the17th Essex-class aircraft carrier of the U.S. Navy, stands as the sole example of an aircraft carrier repurposed as an artificial reef. Moreover, throughout history, it remains the largest vessel ever deployed for the purpose of creating an artificial reef.