The expensive hardware that visits your back yard

What would I be if I were 77m high, 344m long, 78m at my widest point and a full 3m taller than Brisbane’s Story Bridge?

Give up? I’'d be the USS Ronald Reagan, the world’'s largest aircraft carrier, come to Brisbane for some well deserved R&R.

This boat was surely the biggest thing ever to come to town -- and park downstream from the CBD .

The local media pitched the ship’'s statistical attributes as the main story : a crew of 6,000; a flight deck that covers 1.82ha; a total weight of 97,000-tonne; its own newspaper, as well as a radio and television station... The USS Ronald Reagan was its own live-in suburb and work station that dropped by for five days to spend something in the order of $5million soaking up, as the ships's PR team would have it, “"local culture”."

Brisbane residents were told how lucky they were to have so many sailors in port. We learn't that a local committee generated by the business community had been working for some time to encourage the US Seventh Fleet -- which comprises 50 ships and 20,000 sailors and marines --to schedule the port of Brisbane as a routine stop over destination for the fleet'’s preferred R&R.

With potentially so many in port -- think of all the money they'’ll spend!

But there was to be a trade off. Squeezed in among all this data about this very big boat, was a note to the effect that the vessel is powered by two nuclear reactors and as the Courier Mail put it as an aside, "“The reactors will remain in operation even while the ship is docked just kilometres from the inner city."”

If you were thinking that you don'’t much care for that kind of thing ticking over in your own back yard, it’s a bit late to start complaining as this visit was supposed to be a win win one for all concerned. (And don't forget about all that money!)

As far as the news coverage went, a great time was had by all for the US dollars spent, before the ship set sail to join the fleet.

But not long after the Ronald Reagan had "‘fissioned"’ (as distinct from ‘"steamed"’ ) out of port than it lost one of its planes overboard -- a $37 million FA-18 Hornet strike fighter which crashed while attempting to make a landing on the carrier'’s deck.

Suddenly the nuclear attributes of the ship became an issue such that Lieutenant-Commander Gary Ross was very keen to point out: "I can assure you it was not carrying nuclear weapons."

With such a expensive piece of unrecoverable hardware sitting in 4000 metres of water off the continental shelf, who’'s to know?

But the loss of the plane sure soured the good PR the visit was getting. While the crash served to highlight the nuclear issue and the prospect that this ship wasn't error free, the price tag on the Hornet drew attention to the amount of capital tied up in instruments of war such as these.

The US Ronald Reagan cost $5 billion to build and requires about $3.68 million per day to operate. While gargantuan boats such as this are sure to come with a hefty price tag, that'’s a lot of money to spend on an enterprise whose primary function is to kill people.

With such costs involved, it is tempting to consider how else the money could be spent. Five billion dollars would go a long way if stretched for education or health or housing. Billions of dollars worth of hardware are floating the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean as part of US Seventh Fleet on the off chance there'’s some killing or bullying to do.

Surely there'’s more worthwhile things on offer to spend the money on.