In the Atlantic Ocean, not very far off the coast, the USS George H.W. Bush is on a series of shakedown cruises, testing her complicated human, mechanical and electronic systems before sailing to the Persian Gulf next year. The only ship named for a living person, the Bush, CVN-77, is the newest aircraft carrier in the fleet, and when it is fully loaded, it will be the floating airbase for about sixty F/A-18 jets, half a dozen helicopters and a number of electronic warfare and logistical aircraft.
The Bush is more than 1,000 feet long, a seaborne city that can turn on a dime and propel itself faster than 30 knots. She carries everything she needs, including bombs and missiles for her aircraft, and distills her own water for---in addition to the usual uses---cooling the nuclear power plant. With a 4 1/2-acre flight deck, CVN-77 can launch and land aircraft simultaneously. Her planes devour 100,000 gallons of jet fuel a day from her internal store of a million gallons. Think of a few of the capabilities needed to maintain a self-contained military instrument: communications, flight deck operations and air traffic control; aircraft and vehicular maintenance and repair parts supply and fabrication; a fully-equipped hospital and surgical operating theater; waste control and recycling; bakeries, kitchens, convenience stores, gyms and laundries.
And making it all work: a crew of about 5,000 sailors.
We are used to seeing war movies in which the troops are largely grizzled veterans, but the truth is that our defense is entrusted to young people. On the ground, they don't call it the "infantry" for nothing, for it is our youth who shoulder the burden of defending us.
The USS Bush certainly has its share of old hands, commissioned, warrant and petty officers with years at sea, and the pilots, including the commanding officer and many in his chain-of-command, have thousands of hours in high-performance planes. But the large proportion of her complement is very young indeed: the average seaman is about 19 years old.
Despite their youth, they are bracingly skilled and confident. They are intelligent, patriotic and excited about their contribution to our defense. And they have responsibility and authority far in advance of their years. To see a precision team of American young people launch a $50 miilion airplane is to realize that as a nation we have a vast reservoir of potential. If these sailors are a cross-section of America, we have only begun to tap this precious resource.