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In what war would one modern military vehicle make a difference?

A lone Nimitz-class carrier (with a full crew and pilots) suddenly gets transported back in time into a war and the crew decide to take a side. About when does the carrier's addition to the war not lead to victory for the side in control of the carrier?

  • $\begingroup$ Probably hard to get JDAMs in the past... $\endgroup$ – charliefox2 Dec 20 '15 at 9:30
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    $\begingroup$ The answer is some date in the future, for most wars. Right now, a single modern carrier would tip the balance in most wars, except that there are very few wars with which to experiment. $\endgroup$ – Mike Scott Dec 20 '15 at 11:54
  • $\begingroup$ I've seen a movie with that plot once, but I can't remember the name. $\endgroup$ – Philipp Dec 20 '15 at 22:55
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    $\begingroup$ @Philipp - That's "The Final Countdown" en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Final_Countdown_(film) $\endgroup$ – WhatRoughBeast Dec 20 '15 at 23:56
  • $\begingroup$ @WhatRoughBeast, I was going to say, I thought the asker had been watching that! $\endgroup$ – Wingman4l7 Dec 21 '15 at 1:08

11 Answers 11


World War II at the beginning of the war having the carrier absolutely, unequivocally wins the war.

You don't even need to fire a shot, or launch a jet. On that carrier are likely hundreds or thousands of immediately usable general-purpose laptops and other computers.

Each of these computers is a super-weapon in 1939. Putting these into the hands of scientists designing planes, tanks, nuclear weapons, etc. would fundamentally transform the world, not just the war.

I bet a lot of the crew has an interest in military toys, history, etc. Maybe there are some copies of AutoCAD, Code Aster, Mathematica, PGP, etc. that would also change the world.

The economic growth change would be unparalleled. The entertainment software found on the laptops could probably fund a huge chunk of the war.

The information on radar alone would likely be enough to win the war - even if none of it existing on any computer or radar hardware on the ship. Enough crew would know enough radar, its value to the war, etc. to bootstrap radar stations quickly. The could even analyze the cavity magnetron from a microwave oven in the kitchen to jumpstart radar.

Some post WWII scenarios, same thing, but the impact continues to lessen. Korean war for example, same thing but the radar no longer is game changer. You no longer have essentially the only computers, but yours are still incomparable. Most of the rest in unchanged.

Eventually, not so much. Good to have, Mathmatica, etc. are still breakthroughs, but the existing computing infrastructure is good enough that is no longer domination time. Maybe 1990 or so.

Plenty of other goodies too. Like a pair of nice modern nuclear reactors. Desalination plant. Actual advanced radar systems. Advanced missiles. Helicopters. Kevlar armor. All ripe for using as is and/or reverse engineering.

Sure, the electronics are incomprehensible and not able to be produced soon. But sometimes knowing it is possible and just having a vague idea of what works means another scientific breakthrough is just around the corner.

This would be the gift that keeps on giving. Yeah Baby.

Enemy cryptography is now a joke. Tanking the enemies economy might be a fun side task.

Even mundane things like modern farming (some of the crew grew up on farms), weather forecasting (important in lots of battle situations too), plastic bags with Ziploc seals, Velcro and who knows how many other things all make an economic impact.

I neglected an obvious counter to this argument, but since no one has raised it...

Giving a Nimitz to Poland in 1939 does not help Poland because they don't have the time and opportunity to make significant changes in time. Poland was invaded by Germany on Sep. 1 and the Soviet Union on Sep. 17. By 6 weeks into the invasion, Poland was military defeated. In fact, it was clear in less than 2 weeks that Poland was losing badly.

If you don't have enough time for the advantages to make a difference, a shiny carrier won't make a difference either.

  • $\begingroup$ Cavity magnetron was well-known before the war. Most of the technology on a Nimitz is unusable in WWII, although it serves as a guidepost for some issues. "another scientific breakthrough is just around the corner." doesn't help much during a 5-year period. $\endgroup$ – WhatRoughBeast Dec 21 '15 at 2:39
  • $\begingroup$ @WhatRoughBeast - Radar was demonstrated before the war too, but not really suitable for war use in 1939. But the rapid advances in wartime radar made it so in short order. I suppose I was assuming that studying the more recent magnetrons would still be a considerable benefit. 1939-1946 covers 7 years, and yes under war-time you could develop and deploy some real breakthroughs in that time, certainly not all breakthroughs would be that fast. But the Manhattan project only lasted 4 years and it required a number of breakthroughs to make a working bomb. $\endgroup$ – Gary Walker Dec 21 '15 at 3:15
  • $\begingroup$ @WhatRoughBeast - Almost every bit of tech on the a Nimitz is usable, after all it is self-contained and designed for extended deployment - some of the communications gear and GPS, would be unusable though. It is just not immediately reproducible. $\endgroup$ – Gary Walker Dec 21 '15 at 4:40
  • $\begingroup$ Sure, all the tech on Nimitz is usable. But it's only usable (immediately) on the Nimitz. $\endgroup$ – WhatRoughBeast Dec 21 '15 at 5:16
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    $\begingroup$ @WhatRoughBeast - now that I think about it, the kitchen magnetron does contain at least 1 breakthrough, the rare earth permanent magnets -- makes the magnetron less bulky. Don't think these would take that long to reverse engineer into a significant improvement. Rare earth magnets have a large number of military and commercial uses. The cavity magnetron was essential to the Allied war effort and was only produced by the British in 1940. A 1 year head start would be quite useful. Odd fact: Germans invented cavity magnetron, used klystrom, Americans invented klystrom, used cavity magnetrons. $\endgroup$ – Gary Walker Dec 21 '15 at 5:56

Not to diminish the skill of modern naval aviators, but there are several additional layers of technology inherent in the modern naval fleet that makes it even more difficult for a modern supercarrier to remain effective in the absence of its modern logistical chain.

First off, modern fighters are heavily linked in to the Global Positioning System, using it for everything from navigation to targeting. There are capable backup systems still in place, including but not limited to the pilot's own aerial navigation skills; however, GPS, used to correct and update the plane's inertial navigation system, is far and away the easiest and most accurate. When you're looking for five acres worth of carrier in millions of square miles of ocean, you're either accurate with your navigation or you're dead. The carrier is always underway, and it may not always be where it's supposed to be if it's forced off course by enemy action or a need to resupply.

Second, munitions. Just like a modern tank's rounds, an aircraft and its home carrier do not have an unlimited supply, and if the supercarrier finds itself in a time much earlier than Vietnam, little or nothing available at the time will fit the aircraft's hardpoints. Development of these weapons and targeting systems has been the primary reason the U.S. armed forces can get away with flying airframes developed in the 70s. Prior to 1995, the carrier's existing store of JDAMs won't work because their GPS guidance doesn't exist (and the JDAMs themselves didn't enter service til '97, so even as recently as the Gulf War they'd be unable to resupply like-for-like). Prior to about 1976, no smart weapons at all would be available, and pilots running air superiority missions would also lose the all-aspect IR lock-on of modern-day Sidewinders once the existing 9Ms and 9Ps are gone. Prior to mid-Vietnam, the Mark 80 series of dumb bombs wouldn't exist, though it's possible modern fighters could make due with the older, fatter Mark 117 back to about Korea, which is also about the earliest that you could expect to find the 20x102mm cannon round for the Hornets' Vulcan cannons.

All of this is predicated on the availability of underway replenishment; the modern supercarrier is being constantly resupplied with food, fuel, and munitions by resupply ships of various types and various flags, and it does so while under power. The system currently used by NATO to transfer fuel was developed during WWII, but it's highly unlikely the connectors used haven't changed in all that time, so the crew aboard the carrier would have to jury-rig something.

In any conflict prior to WWII, there's little to no hope of there being anything in production at the time that is compatible with modern aircraft other than jet fuel (essentially diesel), meaning that once the supercarrier was out of munitions for its own aircraft, they're just pretty-looking (and expensive) deck chairs. Prior to about WWI, there wouldn't be diesel fuel of sufficient quantity or quality to fuel the aircraft once onboard stores were depleted, so they couldn't even be scouts (and jets are much more particular about their fuel than tanks are).

One interesting workaround, however, is that the ship's onboard capabilities, range and speed would make it a dream base for the aircraft of the day in the WWII Pacific theater. Jimmy Doolittle would have salivated over the thought of having a full 200 feet longer to get his B-25s off the deck of the USS Carl Vinson as compared to the USS Hornet. The simple ability to have an extra carrier present as a home base for aircraft would make a modern supercarrier extremely valuable long after its own aircraft are incapable of fighting.

  • $\begingroup$ The movie was made in 1980, and was the "class" of carrier in the OP. No GPS then. So it depends on when the carrier departs from; earlier is better to still be useful in the past. When was Nimitz class first made? $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Apr 7 '16 at 2:35

An interesting question is if they have nukes, and if they have the launch codes.

  • A Nimitz-class carrier could have nuclear-capable aircraft, but does it actually have the weapons on board when the plot device struck?
  • Given several weeks and the permission of the CO, could they circumvent the permissive action link? One weird scenario would be that they take the nuclear pits and re-manufacture the rest of the weapon, as a kind-of-clone of Fat Man.

How long could a single carrier operate without resupply? Spart parts, jet fuel, weapons ...

  • The C-2 Greyhound is a critical part of Naval Aviation. They bring whatever the carrier might lack.
  • Just googling a bit, carriers have 1,000-2,000 tons of ordnance. That is enough for a few hundred individual sorties, call it ten big strikes. (It might be twenty strikes, or five, just a rough guesstimate.)
  • Effectively it might be less, considering the ammo mix. They might still have plenty of ARM while they are out of bombs.
  • Can they do effective ASW without expendable sonobuoys?

As far as combat goes, a single carrier won't do much to big wars of the last century. Gary talked about the scientific impact, which is another question.

  • $\begingroup$ True, you have a limited number of strikes/sortie. But consider how effective they would be. For example, fully resupplied Nimitz can handle alone the entire Japanese fleet that attacked Pearl Harbor and sunk most, if not all, the capital ships (aircraft carrier, destroyer, battleship) and the Japanese cannot do anything about it. How this should not had a impact ? $\endgroup$ – Gianluca Dec 21 '15 at 10:37
  • $\begingroup$ @Gianluca, in that case the Japanese would have lost WWII. Exactly as they did in the real world. If the Nimitz had hunted down the US carriers instead, and disregarding the scientific impact, the Americans would still have won. They could build carriers fast enough to compensate. $\endgroup$ – o.m. Dec 21 '15 at 10:45
  • $\begingroup$ I think the most compelling bit here is potentially taking the fissile material from the carrier's reactor and using it to manufacture a nuclear bomb. Not sure if it'd be the right stuff to use, though -- maybe it'd only be useful in a dirty bomb. $\endgroup$ – Wingman4l7 Dec 21 '15 at 16:44
  • $\begingroup$ Usable launch codes are actually on board. It would take hours, not weeks, to arm the bombs. $\endgroup$ – Joshua Apr 16 '17 at 14:52

This is very much like "Rome Sweet Rome" where a Marine Expeditionary force is transported back into Roman times. They are invincible right up until they run out of supplies.

An aircraft carrier is somewhat more self contained (the nuclear reactors can provide electrical power, fresh water and the ship itself is a mobile base), but ultimately it is still limited by the amount of spare parts and supplies on board, many of which will not be available for decades (depending on when exactly the carrier appears in the past). Even if the carrier showed up in the 1980's, they will discover that the parts for the Super Hornets are mostly incompatible with the first generation F-18's. (The modern carrier will also have some issues operating older aircraft like the F-14 "Tomcats" like the ones from Top Gun, since the vast majority of the crew will have no experience with that type of aircraft. Now imagine if the carrier appeared in the 1940's and attempted to operate F4F "Wildcat" fighters to replace the Super Hornets).

So the carrier's primary effect will be to provide the proof that things can be done and allow all sides to cut unproductive side paths of technological development and reach the level of the Nimitz much faster then they might have otherwise. This might not work out so well, especially if the "bad guys" (whoever they are in the scenario) can get off the "x" faster and start pursuing profitable development pathways. Ironically, while the carrier might have a short term effect to win a few battles, the long term effect might be to prolong the war after the carrier can no longer directly contribute to the battle.


Interestingly enough, there's a manga based around a very similar premise, although instead of an aircraft carrier it's an Aegis destroyer that gets transported back in time. It's called Zipang.

Although the vessel is not an aircraft carrier, the premise is similar and the plot is very well developed; only up to volume 7 has been translated, though.


If you consider the movie "The Final Countdown" and make it a reality, I think that the first days or months after the Nimitz goes "POOF" into the past would look something like this. The movie had the Nimitz appearing in late November 1941. It's almost a certainty that the officers and crew would have met with and briefed Naval Intelligence regarding the position of the IJN fleet enroute from Japan steaming into strike positions northwest of Pearl Harbor. Would the Nimitz have actually been the primary counterforce to defeat the Japanese fleet. Maybe, but probably not.

Given a week's worth of notice, and encyclopedic knowledge of what will happen over the course of that week...I think that the main Battleship fleet at Pearl Harbor in concert with the existing carriers in the Pacific would have been more than adequate at stopping the assault, if not causing the Japanese to simply call off the attack and steam for home. The air-groups on board the Nimitz may have acted as an Air and Sea shield protecting the main fleet from attack by dive bombers and/or torpedo bombers and may (stress, MAY) have even escorted attacking Naval fighters and bombers to attack the carriers, but even that is exceptionally unlikely. No...it's much, much more likely that the Nimitz would have stayed on the West Coast for an indeterminate amount of time.

You see...the Nimitz in that movie didn't have modern GPS systems or weapons, the crew didn't have modern laptops and certainly there were no smartphones. However, that should not at all mitigate the fact that the 1980's era Nimitz DID possess super-advanced technology and a truly vast wealth of knowledge to help develop other future technologies. Also, and for many of the reasons already cited (no ability in 1941 to effectively rearm, refuel, or repair the aircraft, along with the lack of an effective modern supply and logistics chain) the Nimitz really would not have been all that effective in the actual Pacific campaign.

Also, the ship and crew are simply too damned valuable to risk in combat (lopsided though it may have been) One very intriguing prospect is not the Nimitz of that era may, or may not, have had nuclear weapons on board (if it did - they were probably ALCMs or "small" tactical warheads and bombs) If it did AND the US decided to use them against Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan then...the war ends pretty damned quickly. I mean...Hitler and Tojo wouldn't last long in power if Berlin AND Tokyo were nuked!

Even if nuclear weapons aren't an option, it's vastly more likely that the Nimitz, as well as it's officers and crew, stay under-wraps (maybe literally) for most of the future war that develops. The unique scientific and technological opportunities and the vast sums of future knowledge would make the Nimitz and her people simply far too valuable an asset to be risked in actual warfare. Nah...park the thing in San Diego or Los Angeles, near existing military and industrial centers... establish an Ultra High Security area around the carrier, classify it as at least as Top Secret as the Manhattan Project was, and slowly (but surely) reverse-engineer and produce in quanity enough Nimitz-era technology in the 1940s and 1950s to utterly dominate any near-term future wars (including against the Soviets) later on.

  • $\begingroup$ Can you please format your answer? A big block of text is hard to read. $\endgroup$ – Hohmannfan Sep 20 '16 at 10:54
  • $\begingroup$ I'd use the Nimitz against the Japanese fleet. The movie got it wrong, though--no need for a bunch of fighters. There were 6 Japanese carriers, Saturday night you send in the bombers. Sink the carriers, ignore the rest of the fleet. The Nimitz's planes can function at night, the Japanese defenders no so well. $\endgroup$ – Loren Pechtel Sep 20 '16 at 19:24
  • $\begingroup$ Indeed Loren speaks the truth. We cannot resupply the Nimitz but all of the Japanese fleet carriers are sitting ducks. One strike is all we need. $\endgroup$ – Joshua Apr 16 '17 at 14:56

While the ship itself is powerful, it is the historical knowledge of the crew/databases (I can only imagine that a carrier has at least the equivalent of a full set of Encyclopedia Britannica, and probably much more detailed books about military conflicts) that is key. The carrier can then pinpoint specific individuals or units that will have the most impact. Depending on how quickly they can react before they start to diverge the timestream, they may know EXACTLY where key leaders are in time. So, for example, rather than needing to attack the entire Japanese navy in WW2, they may know right where the Japanese high command is having a summit meeting (because it is mentioned in a history book) so they could decapitate the entire countries military leadership in one strike.

Plus they will presumably have knowledge of mining sites and resource deposits, as well as technological advances, that would allow for negotiations between parties to advance in a way that couldn't happen otherwise. Assuming, of course, that everyone believes that these people are from the future (and from the current future so their info is accurate).

The farther back they go, the less accurate their historical info will be, but the greater the impact of the ship itself. Before 1900 or so the Nimitz could submit every nation just by running over every naval warship and merchant. Very few countries could survive the loss of the sea lanes (and a carrier could traverse the globe so quickly, even without the Panama and Suez canals, it could probably dominate every ocean simultaneously).


I don't think there's any major war for which it would ensure victory by military means. (For non-military ways, see Gary Walker's answer.)

The carrier's strike capability will be devastating against high value targets but it's soon going to run out of fuel and parts. Perhaps fuel can be manufactured locally but there will be no possibility of spare parts or ammunition. Soon the planes are down for maintenance and the carrier is no longer a threat. As long as the other side realizes it's a one-off windfall they can ride it out, the historical result should be the same.

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    $\begingroup$ The carrier certainly could have been decisive in the Anglo-Spanish war, even without the air wing. An aircraft carrier facing a wooden sailing ship is large enough, fast enough and maneuverable enough to simply run it down. Consider what would have happened if the Spanish Armada had been reinforced by the USS John C. Stennis sweeping those pesky English ships out of the way. The same consideration applies to a number of other primarily-naval wars of that era. $\endgroup$ – Mark Dec 21 '15 at 10:20
  • $\begingroup$ A novel use of "seek and destroy"... $\endgroup$ – Gianluca Dec 21 '15 at 10:22
  • $\begingroup$ The question doesn't specify a major war. And historically most wars have been minor wars, that could very easily be won by a single aircraft carrier. $\endgroup$ – Mike Scott Dec 21 '15 at 12:20
  • $\begingroup$ Search radars might have to be recalibrated to deal with wooden ships. $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Dec 22 '15 at 19:33

There was, in fact, an in-depth case study in 1980 about this very topic.

Kidding aside, the carrier's addition to the war would not lead to victory for the side in control of (or allied to) the carrier if they choose not to intervene (perhaps to avoid messing up the original historical timeline and the "butterfly effect" repercussions thereof).

  • $\begingroup$ AFAIK they choose to intervene, since I remember that they had a dogfight with a couple of Zero and launch the attack group with the Japanese fleet as target (but they were transported back to the present day before they can do something) $\endgroup$ – Gianluca Dec 21 '15 at 10:14
  • $\begingroup$ @Gianluca: Ah, you're correct, I mis-remembered the film slightly -- they recall their attack group when the time storm reappears -- but the theory of my answer still holds. $\endgroup$ – Wingman4l7 Dec 21 '15 at 16:41

There is actually a movie about this. In The Final Countdown, a Nimitz-Class carrier is taken back to WWII, just before Pearl Harbor is attacked. However, the carrier is taken back before it can intercept the Japanese, but we can imagine what can happen. The carrier's planes take down the Japanese planes, saving the American Fleet, the captain of the USS Nimitz is elevated to the rank of Vice Admiral, and takes command of the fleet, ending the war 3 years early. Unless they are intercepted by U-boats in the Atlantic, but the ASROC can conceivably destroy the U-boats before the fleet is crippled, and the TWS can warn of incoming torpedoes. The ship itself, having a nuclear reactor, doesn't need refueling, but the planes would need a higher grade fuel than the ones currently used (150-grade), needing a type of fuel that I could not find, but assume is much higher grade. However, if the defensive torpedoes run out (when it's swarmed by the German Unterseeboot fleet), it will go down.

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site. This is a well written post and gives an example of a similar situation however it doesn't fully answer the question as you suggest one possible scenario but do not directly answer the question. $\endgroup$ – Bellerophon Apr 6 '16 at 19:29

Napoleonic Wars

If your goal was to stop Napoleon, you might not win with only one carrier.

If you bombed all of France, it might be months before Napoleon hear about it, and even considers surrendering. (that’s presuming he even believes the account of large metal birds turning his home into a crater)

They won’t have much luck trying to bomb Napoleon himself unless there is a avid historian on board. Even if they did get lucky, it might be months before all his generals hear about it and consider surrendering, (or take over where he left off)

Its only one ship with so much fuel, they will have only so many scouting/bombing missions before they run out of fuel. Europe is relatively large area to play hide and seek.


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