Naval Aviation 101
"Where are the carriers?"
Every American President since
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Aircraft carriers stretch perceptions. First of all, they're bigbigger than most skyscrapersskyscrapers that can move across the sea at a better than fair clip. And yet, despite their great size, when you watch flight operations on the flight deck (usually as busy as a medium-sized municipal airport), you can't help but wonder how so much gets done in such a tiny space. They not only stretch perceptions, they stretch the limits of the nation's finances and industrial capacity; and they stretch credibility. It's hard to find a weapon that raises more controversy.
Controversy has troubled naval aviation from the early days of the century, when primitive airplanes originally went to sea. At first, airpower was seen as a useless diversion of scarce funds from more pressing naval requirements like the construction of big-gun battleships. Later, after naval aviation became a serious competitor for sea power's throne, bitter infighting arose between gunnery and airpower advocates. Today, as the acknowledged "big stick" of America's Navy, the aircraft carrier is under attack from those who claim to have better ways to project military power into forward areas. Air Force generals plug B-2A stealth bombers with precision weapons (so-called "virtual presence"). Submariners and surface naval officers hawk their platforms carrying precision strike missiles. A good case can be made forall of these. Still, in a post-Cold War world that becomes more dangerous and uncertain by the week, aircraft carriers have a proven track record of effectiveness in crisis situations. Neither bombers nor "arsenal ships" can make that claim.
Question: What makes aircraft carriers so effective?
Answer: Carriers and their accompanying battle groups can move freely over the oceans of the world (their free movement is legally protected by the principles of "Freedom of Navigation"), and can do as they please as long as they stay outside of other nations' territorial waters.
A nation's warships are legally sovereign territories wherever they might be floating; and other nations have no legal influence over their actions or personnel. Thus, an aircraft carrier can park the equivalent of an Air Force fighter wing offshore to conduct sustained flight and/or combat operations. In other words, if a crisis breaks out in some littoral (coastal) region, and a carrier battle group (CVBG) is in the area, then the nation controlling it can influence the outcome of the crisis. Add to this CVBG an Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) loaded with a Marine Expeditionary Unit-Special Operations Capable (MEU (SOC)), and you have even more influence. This, in a nutshell, is the real value of aircraft carriers.
Such influence does not come without cost. Each CVBG represents a national investment approaching US $20 billion. And with over ten thousand embarked personnel that need to be fed, paid, and cared for, each group costs in the neighborhood of a billion dollars to operate and maintain annually. That's a lot of school lunches. That's a lot of schools! Add to this current United States plans to maintain twelve CVBGs. And then add the massive costs of the government infrastructure that backs these up (supply ships, ports, naval air stations, training organizations, etc.), as well as the vast commercial interests (shipbuilders, aircraft and weapons manufacturers, etc.) necessary to keep the battle groups modern and credible. And then consider that not all twelve battle groups are available at one time. Because the ships need periodic yard service and the crews and air crews need to be trained and qualified, only two or three CVBGs are normally forward-deployed. (There is usually a group in the Mediterranean Sea, another in the Western Pacific Ocean, and another supporting operations in the Persian Gulf region.)
Is this handful of mobile airfields worth the cost? The answer depends on the responses to several other questions. Such as: How much influence does our country want to have in the world? What kind? How much do we want to affect the actions and behavior of other countries? And so on.
Sure, it's not hard to equate the role of CVBGs with "gunboat diplomacy" policies of the 19th century. But doing that trivializes the tree value of the carriers to America and her allies. Among the lessons the last few years have taught us is one that's inescapable: The United States has global responsibilities. These go far beyond simply maintaining freedom of maritime lines of communications, and supporting our allies in times of crisis. Whether we like it or not, most of the world's nations look to America as a leader. And these same nations (whether they want to say so officially or not) see us as the world's policeman. When trouble breaks out somewhere, who're you going to call? China? Russia? Japan? Not in this decade.
Sure, it's not always in the best interest of the United States to give a positive answer to every request for support and aid. But when the answer is positive, there is the problem of how to deliver the needed response. Once upon a time, our network of overseas bases allowed us to project a forward presence. No longer. Over the last half century, a poorly conceived and ill-executed American foreign policy has allowed us to be evicted from something over 75% of these bases. Add to this the limited resources available following the recent military drawdowns, and the National Command Authorities are left with very few options. Most of these are resident in the CVBGs and ARGs that make up the forward-deployed forces of the United States Navy.
At any given time, there are usually two or three CVBGs out there on six-month cruises, doing their day-in, day-out job of looking out for the interests of America and our allies, with adventure and danger only a satellite transmission away. Thanks to the support of service forces (fuel tankers, supply ships, etc.), a well-handled CVBG's only limitations are the durability of machinery and the morale of the people aboard. Given the will of a strong nation to back it, CVBGs can be parked off any coast in the world, and sit out there like a bird of prey.
That is the true meaning of "presence."
Rationale: Why Aircraft Carriers?
So why does America really need aircraft carriers? We've seen the theoretical, "policy" answer to that question. But what's the practical, real-world answer? What value does a ninety-year-old military concept have in an age of satellite surveillance and ballistic missiles? How does a relative handful of aircraft based aboard Naval vessels actually effect events on a regional scale? Finally, what does this capability give to a regional CinC or other on-scene commander? All of these questions must be explored if the real value of carriers and CVBGs is to be fully understood.
Aircraft Carriers: An Open Architecture
In less than a hundred years, we've passed from the first heavier-than-air test flights to deep-space probes. During that same time, after over five centuries of preeminence, we have seen the demise of gunnery as the measure of Naval power. The decline of naval guns and the rise of airpower were not instantly obvious. In fact, in the early 1900's, to suggest it would have invited a straitjacket. The first flying machines were toys for rich adventurers and stuntmen, their payload and range were extremely limited, and their worth in military operations was insignificant. The technology of early manned flight was derived from kites, bicycles, and automobiles. Structures were flimsy and heavy, and the engines bulky and inefficient.
Though the First World War did much to improve aircraft technologies, and made many military leaders believers in the value of airpower, the world powers had just made a staggering investment in big-gun dreadnought-type battleships that Naval leaders had no appetite to replace. Thus, Naval airpower wound up being limited by arms treaties or shuffled to the bottom of the funding priorities. Even so, though few saw this then, the future of Naval airpower was already a given. There are two reasons for this:
FirstAircraft soon proved they could carry weapons loads farther than guns could shoot, and with greater flexibility.
SecondAn aircraft carrier can more easily accommodate upgrades and improvements than an armored ship with fixed-bore guns.
In order to retrofit a larger gun to deliver a larger shell, you have to replace the turrets and barbettes. And to do that, you have to completely rebuild a battleship or cruiser. By comparison, for an aircraft carrier to operate a new kind of aircraft, bomb, or missile, you only need to make sure that the new system fits inside the hangars and elevators. You also need to make sure that it's not too heavy for the flight deck, and (if it's an aircraft) that it can take off and land on the deck. Simply put, as long as an aircraft or weapons fits aboard a carrier, it can probably be employed successfully. In modern systems terminology, the carrier is an "open architecture" weapons system, with well-understood interfaces and parameters. Much like a computer with built-in capabilities for expansion cards and networking, aircraft carriers have a vast capability to accept new weapons and systems. Thus, some battleships built at the beginning of the First World War were scrapped after less than five years service, while modern supercarriers have planned lives measured in decades.
Sure, gun-armed warships can still hurt aircraft carriers. And in fact, during World War II, several flattops found themselves on the losing end of duels with surface ships. Today, missile-armed ships and submarines pose an even greater hazard to flattops, as they do to all vessels. However, all things being equal, the range of their aircraft is going to give carriers a critical edge in any combat. Carrier aircraft can hold an enemy ship or target at a safe distance, and then either neutralize or destroy it. The word for this advantage is "standoff." By "standing off" from an enemy and attacking him from over the horizon, you greatly reduce his ability to counterattack the carrier force, making defense much easier. In fact, just finding a CVBG is harder than you might think, as the Soviet Union discovered to its great chagrin on more than one occasion during the Cold War. Ifas now seems likelythe next generation of American flattops incorporates stealth technology, then you can plan on aircraft carriers serving well into the next century.
Some Propositions about Sea-Based Airpower
The "real-world" effects of "sea-based" naval aviation (that is, aircraft based aboard ships at sea) and the principles by which battle group commanders ply their intricate and difficult trade are many, varied, and complex; and learning these takes years. What follows is no substitute for those years. Still, knowledge of some of the basic propositions about sea-based airpower that guide the plans and actions of our Naval leaders can't help but be useful:
* Control of the Total Littoral Battlespace Is Impossible without AirpowerWhile it cannot realistically win a battle, campaign, or war by itself, no victory is possible without airpower. Broadly defined as the effective military use of the skiesairpower is vital to controlling the "battlespace" of the littoral regions. One only need look back at British operations in the Falklands in 1982 to see how much can go wrong when a fleet operates within range of enemy land-based aircraft without proper air cover. As a result, their victory in that war was "a very near thing."
* Sea-Based Airpower Involves a Variety of SystemsNaval forces bring a variety of systems and sensors to the littoral battlespace. To name a few: fighter jets and transport helicopters; submarine-hunting helicopters and aircraft; surface-to-air (SAM) missiles defending against aircraft and ballistic missiles; and cruise missiles. This functional diversity means that a CVBG commander can bring any number of systems and employment options to bear, greatly compounding the defensive problem of an adversary. Properly utilized and supported, sea-based airpower can provide enabling force and muscle for any number and type of military operations. Examples of this functional diversity include: deterring the use of ballistic and cruise missiles in a regional conflict, supporting amphibious and airborne operations, providing cover for a non-combatant personnel evacuation, or firing land-attack missiles and controlling unmanned aerial vehicles from submarines.
* Sea-Based Airpower Is Inherently Flexible and MobileBecause they are based aboard ships, sea-based aviation assets are highly mobile. Modern CVBGs can easily move five hundred nautical miles in a day, which means that they can redeploy almost anywhere in the world in just a few weeks. And with a little warning, a forward-deployed force can be in a crisis zone in days, sometimes even in hours. Because they are not directly tied to a land-based command structure, the personnel and units embarked aboard the ships are equipped and trained to work on their own. Finally, because sea-based air units pack a lot of power into very small packages, they have great agility in an uncertain, fast-moving crisis or combat situation.
* Sea-Based Airpower Is Inherently OffensiveWhile airpower has powerful defensive capabilities, it is best used in offensive operations, thus allowing its full power to be focused and timed into blows of maximum power and efficiency. The ability to rapidly shift position, for example, allows sea-based units to change their axis of attack, and makes the defensive problem of the enemy much more difficult. By simply moving into an area, sea-based aviation units fill the skies with their presence, affecting both the military situation and the mind-set of a potential enemy. Should combat operations be initiated, sea-based air units are prepared to launch sustained strikes against enemy targets for as long as required. Even if the enemy forces choose to strike back at the naval force, the mere act of the attacking fleet units degrades the hostile air and naval units involved.
* Sea-Based Airpower Provides Instant Regional Situational AwarenessA battle group entering an area provides a wide variety of intelligence-collection capabilities for a regional CinC. Along with the air and shipborne sensors organic to a naval force, the unit commanders have a number of regional and national-level intelligence-collection capabilities that can rapidly fuse the data into a coherent situational analysis. This makes the job of deciding upon future action and committing follow-on forces much less uncertain. As a further benefit, the staying power of the naval force means that minute-to-minute changes in the military and political situation in a crisis/combat zone can be watched, and trends and developments can be tracked over time, allowing a deeper and wider understanding of the regional situation.
* Sea-Based Airpower Is Protected from the Effects of International PoliticsUnlike land-based air and ground units, which can't operate without the approval of a regional ally or host country, naval forces (and air units in particular) are not affected by such issues. They are also less vulnerable to attack by enemy forces or acts of terrorism. Shielded by the international laws covering freedom of navigation, sea-based units are free to act independently. Since each ship and aircraft is the sovereign territory of the owning country, any attack or intrusion becomes a potential act of war and a violation of international law. Since few nations have the will to violate these accords, this makes naval aviation a force that does not have to ask permission to act.
* Sea-Based Airpower Provides Long-Term Presence and PowerMaritime nations have long made allowance for resupply and support of their forces at sea. As long as proper sea lines of communications can be maintained, and replacement ships and aircraft can be rotated, ships and sea-based air units can be sustained almost indefinitely on station, and mission durations of months or even years can be supported. This is a key attribute of great maritime nations, and the addition of sea-based air units to their force mix greatly enhances the power and presence they can generate. Recent examples of this kind of forward naval presence are the naval embargoes of Iraq and the Balkans, and the lead-up to the 1991 Gulf War.
* Sea-Based Airpower Can Conduct Multiple Missions at the Same TimeSince naval forces are designed with robust command-and-control capabilities, and sea-based aircraft are multi-mission-capable by necessity, sea-based air units are capable of many types of missions, and can conduct them simultaneously. Thus, attack aircraft can conduct suppressive missions on enemy air defenses, while other units are engaging in precision cruise-missile strikes, armed helicopters are securing the battlespace around the naval force, and SAM-equipped ships are conducting defensive operations against enemy ballistic- and cruise-missile strikes. Such flexibility gives naval leaders a critical edge when fast-breaking, rapidly changing crisis and combat situations are in play.
* Sea-Based Airpower Can Generate a Wide Variety of EffectsA naval force generates reactions that range from coercion to terror. Sea-based air units add to this power, by adding a wide variety of weapon and mission effects, ranging from the use of surveillance aircraft and the delivery of special operations forces to more traditional results like the aerial delivery of munitions onto targets. Yet even here, variety is the watchword. Because naval air units are based at sea, there are no restrictions upon the munitions they can carry and employ. This means that an enemy can expect to face everything from precision-guided penetration bombs to cluster munitionsor even a nuclear strike. Such threats can often deliver the most useful of all weapons effects, deterrence from acting with hostile force against a neighboring nation.
* Sea-Based Airpower Keeps Threats Far AwayAmerica's Navy has historically displayed its greatest value by keeping the threat of enemy military action on the other side of the world's oceans. In fact, no hostile military force of any size has intruded upon our territory since the War of 1812. Today, our sea services continue this mission, and sea-based airpower provides our naval forces with much of the muscle that makes it possible. By keeping the enemy threats against our homeland at arm's length, sea-based airpower keeps our nation strong, and our people safe in an otherwise uncertain world.
Milestones: The Development of a Modern Weapon
It goes without saying that institutions as large, diverse, and powerful as naval aviation do not just happen overnight. They evolve over time, and are the product of the forces and personalities that impact upon them. In fact, naval aviation grew to maturity surprisingly quickly, and most of the critical events and trends that shaped it happened in the roughly five decades stretching from 1908 through the mid-1950's. During that time, the basic forms and functions that define carriers and their aircraft today were conceived and developed. Let's take a look at a few of the most critical of these events and trends. We'll start with the first act in the birth of the world's most powerful conventional weapons system.
Eugene Ely's Stunt
Our journey begins in 1908, just five years after the Wright brothers' first flight, when Glenn Curtiss, an early aerial pioneer, laid out a bombing range in the shape of a battleship, and simulated attacking it. Though the U.S. Navy took notice of Curtiss's test run, it took no action. Several years later, after word reached America of a German attempt to fly an airplane from the deck of a ship, the U.S. Navy decided to try a similar experiment. They built a wooden platform over the main deck of the light cruiser Birmingham (CL-2) and engaged Eugene Ely, a stunt pilot working for Curtiss, to fly off it. At 3 P.M. on the afternoon of November 14th, 1910, while Birmingham was anchored in Hampton Roads, Virginia, Ely gunned his engine, rolled down the wooden platform, and flew off. He landed near Norfolk several miles away. A few months later, Ely reversed the process and landed on another platform built on the stern of the armored cruiser Pennsylvania (ACR-4), which was then anchored in San Francisco Bay. Soon afterward, Congress began to appropriate money, the first naval aviators began to be trained, and planes began to go to sea with the fleet. It was a humble beginning, but Eugene Ely's barnstorming stunt had started something very much bigger than that.
The First Flattop: The Conversion of the USS Langley (CV-1)
Stunts were one thing, but making naval aviation a credible military force was something else entirely. During World War I, U.S. naval aviation was primarily seaplanes used for gunnery spotting and antisubmarine patrols. However, the British achieved some fascinating results using normal (wheeled) pursuit aircraft (fighters) launched from towed barges, and later from specially built aircraft carriers converted from the hulls of other ships. These aircraft attacked German Zeppelin hangars and other targets. The benefits of taking high-performance aircraft to sea were so obvious to the British that the Royal Navy rapidly set to converting further ships into aircraft carriers. This move did not go unnoticed by other Naval powers after World War I. By 1919, the Japanese were also constructing a purpose-built carrier, the Hosho. Meanwhile the British continued their program of converting hulls into aircraft carriers, and began work on their own from-the-keel-up carrier, the Hermes.
These programs spurred the General Board of the U.S. Navy to start its own aircraft carrier program. In 1919, the board allocated funds to convert a surplus collier, the USS Jupiter, into the Navy's first aircraft carrier, the USS Langley (CV-1)nicknamed the "Covered Wagon" by her crew. For the next two decades, the little Langley provided the first generation of U.S. carrier aviators with their initial carrier training, and offered the fleet a platform to experiment with the combat use of aircraft carriers. When World War II arrived, the slow little ship was converted into a transport for moving aircraft to forward bases, and was sunk during the fighting around the Java barrier in 1942. However, the Langley remains a beloved memory for the men who learned the naval aviation trade aboard her.
The Washington Naval Treaty: The Birth of the Modern Aircraft Carrier
While the Langley was primarily a test and training vessel, her initial trials led the Navy leadership to build larger aircraft carriers that could actually serve with the battle fleet. The problem was finding the money to build these new ships. The early 1920's were hardly the time to request funds for a new and unproved naval technology, when the fleet was desperately trying to hold onto the modern battleships constructed during the First World War. The solution came after the five great naval powers (the United States, Great Britain, Japan, France, and Italy) signed the world's first arms-control treaty at the Washington Naval Conference of 1922. Though the treaty set quotas and limits on all sorts of warship classes, including aircraft carriers, a bit of fine print provided all the signatories with the opportunity to get "something for nothing."
At the end of the war, several countries were constructing heavy battleships and battle cruisers, which were still unfinished in the early 1920's. Meanwhile, the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty set limits on the maximum allowable displacement and gun size of individual ships, as well as a total quota of tonnage available to each signatory nation (the famous 5:5:3 ratio). Even after scrapping older dreadnought-era battleships, the nations within the agreement were left with no room for building new battleships and battle cruisers (which were classed together because of gun size). However, the treaty allowed the signatories to convert a percentage of their allowable carrier tonnage from the hulls of the uncompleted capital ships. What made this especially attractive was that the new carriers could be armed with the same 8-in/203mm gun armament as a heavy cruiser. Thus, even if the aircraft carriers themselves proved to be unsuccessful, those heavy cruiser guns would still make the ships useful.
The British had already converted their tonnage quota with the Furious, Courageous, Glorious, and Eagle, while the Japanese converted their new carriers from the uncompleted battle cruiser Akagi and the battleship Kaga. The American vessels, however, were something special. The U.S. Navy wanted its two new carriers to be the biggest, fastest, and most capable in the world. The starting points were a pair of partially completed battle cruiser hulls. Already christened the Lexington and Saratoga, they were converted into the ships that the fledgling naval air arm had always dreamed of. When commissioned in 1927, the Lexington (CV-2) and Saratoga (CV-3) were not only the largest (36,000-tons displacement), fastest (thirty-five knots), most powerful warships in the world, (most important) they could operate up to ninety aircraft, twice the capacity of the Japanese or British carriers. The Lexington and Saratoga also featured a number of new design features (such as the now-familiar "island" structures, which contained the bridge, flight control stations, and uptakes for the engineering exhausts), which greatly improved their efficiency and usefulness. The treaty-mandated gun turrets were placed in four mounts fore and aft of the island structure.
With the commissioning of the Lexington and Saratoga (and parallel rapid strides in naval aircraft design), the U.S. Navy took the world lead in naval aviation development. Virtually all of the American leaders who commanded carriers and air units during the Second World War served their early tours of duty aboard the two giant carriers. In addition, the series of fleet problems (war games) involving the Lexington and Saratoga led to the tactics America would take into the coming Pacific war with Japan.
The Taranto Raid and the Sinking of the Battleship Bismarck
Always leaders in the development of naval aviation technology and tactics, the British had planned for and assimilated the aircraft carrier into their fleet long before the opening of the Second World War. This was not merely institutional integration, for there were also plans for potential wartime carrier operations. One of these plans, devised in the 1930s, involved a surprise strike against the Italian battle fleet based at Taranto harbor in southern Italy: A carrier force would approach at night, launch torpedo bombers, and sink the Italian battleships at their moorings.
The opportunity to implement the plan came soon after the Italian declaration of war on Great Britain (in June of 1940) and the fall of France (later that summer). Despite the highly aggressive efforts of the British Mediterranean Fleet under their legendary commander, Fleet Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, the fleet was in trouble from the start. It was outnumbered and split by Fascist Italy, since the Italian peninsula more or less bisects the Mediterranean. By the fall of 1940, Italy had six modern battleships, while Cunningham only commanded a pair. His only real advantages were a few ships equipped with radar, the British intelligence ability to read Axis cryptographic (code and cipher) traffic, and a pair of aircraft carriersthe old Eagle and the brand-new armored deck flattop HMS Illustrious. Doing what he could to make the odds more even, Cunningham ordered his staff to plan a carrier aircraft strike on the Italian fleet base at Taranto. Though they had no real-world experience to work from, and only sketchy data from old fleet exercises about how to proceed, with typical British aplomb they began training aircrews and modifying their aerial torpedoes so they would run successfully in the shallow water of Taranto Harbor. Meanwhile, a special flight of Martin Maryland bombers began regular reconnaissance of Italian fleet anchorages. By November of 1940, they were ready to go with Operation Judgment.
Though the original Operation Judgment plan called for almost thirty Swordfish torpedo bombers from both Eagle and Illustrious, engine problems with Eagle and a hangar fire on Illustrious cut that number considerably. In the end, only Illustrious, along with an escort force of battleships, cruisers, and destroyers, set out to conduct the attack. On the night of November 11th, Illustrious and several escorting cruisers broke off from the main force, and made a run north into the Gulf of Taranto. Later that night, Illustrious launched a pair of airstrikes using twenty-one Swordfish torpedo bombers (only a dozen of which carried the modified shallow-water torpedoes). The two strikes sank three of the six Italian battleships then in port and damaged several smaller ships and some shore facilities. In just a few hours, the brilliantly executed strike had cut the Italian battleship fleet in half, and changed the balance of naval power in the Mediterranean.
While most of the world's attention was focused at the time on the Battle of Britain, the eyes of naval leaders were turned on Operation Judgment. Even before the Italians began salvage operations, naval observers from around the world began to pour into Taranto to view the wreckage, and write reports back to their home countries. Most of these reports were quietly read and filed away, or else were read and discounted (such was still the potency of the battleship myth). In Tokyo, however, the report of the Japanese naval attaché was read with interest. This report eventually became the blueprint for an even more devastating carrier raid the following year, when over 360 aircraft launched from six big carriers would make the strike. The target would be entire U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Out of the tiny strike on Taranto emerged the decisive naval weapon of the Second World War.
Less than six months after the Taranto raid, battleship enthusiasts got a shocking dose of reality with the sea chase and sinking of the German battleship Bismarck, one of the most powerful warships in the world. After the Bismarck broke out of the Baltic Sea into the North Atlantic, she sank the British battle cruiser HMS Hood. Outraged at this defeat (and humiliation), Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the Bismarck to be sunk at all costs. Though she was damaged enough during her fight with the Hood to need repairs in port, and her British enemies were in hot pursuit, Bismarck was still a dangerous foe, and was able to slip away from her pursuers and make for a French port.
She might well have escaped, but for the efforts of two British aircraft carriers. A strike by Swordfish torpedo bombers from the carrier Victorious slowed down the German monster, while another strike from the carrier Ark Royal crippled her. The following day, Bismarck was finally sunk by shellfire from the British battleships King George V and Rodney. In the celebration that followed, the contributions of the Swordfish crews from Victorious and Ark Royal generally went unnoticedagain. However, naval observers took note and wrote their reports home; and naval professionals around the world began to wonder if aircraft from carriers might do more than just hit ships in harbor. One of the most modern and powerful ships in the world had been crippled by a single torpedo dropped by a nearly obsolete, fabric-covered biplane in the open ocean.
Before the end of 1941, further proof that the age of battleships had passed came with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the sinking a few days later of the British battleship Prince of Wales and the battle cruiser Repulse by land-based aircraft. While battleships would continue to play an important part in World War II, it was naval aircraft flying from carriers that would win the coming naval war. The strike on Taranto and the crippling of the Bismarck had seen to that.
Task Force 34/58: The Ultimate Naval Force
Now that the new weapon was proven, the next stage in its evolution was to work out its most effective use. This came during 1943. That year saw a period of rebuilding for both the United States and Japan. After the vast carrier-verses-carrier battles (Coral Sea, Midway, Eastern Solomons, and Santa Cruz) that had dominated the previous year's fighting, the two navies had reached something like stalemate and exhausted their fleets of prewar carriers. Meanwhile, in the Solomons, on New Guinea, and in the Marshall Islands in the Central Pacific, Allied ground forces were conducting their first amphibious invasions on the road to Tokyo.
On January 1st, 1943, the first of a new generation of American fleet carriers, the Essex-class (CV-9), was commissioned. Over the next two years, almost two dozen of these incomparable vessels came off the builder's ways. Utilizing all the lessons learned from earlier U.S. carriers, the Essex-class vessels were big, fast, and built to take the kinds of punishment that modern naval combat sometimes dishes out. Their designs also gave them huge margins for modifications and systems growth. So adaptable were Essex-class ships that a few were still in service in the 1970's, flying supersonic jets armed with nuclear weapons!
The ships of the Essex-class were just the tip of the America carrier production iceberg in 1943, for the U.S. Navy also approved the conversion of nine cruiser hulls into light carriers (with a complement of thirty-five aircraft). Though small and cramped, they were fast enough (thirty-three knots) to keep up with their Essex-class siblings. Known as the Independence class (CVL-22), they served well throughout the remainder of the war.
Along with the fast fleet carriers, the United States also produced almost a hundred smaller escort, or "jeep," carriers. Built on hulls designed for merchant vessels, they could make about twenty knots and carry around two dozen aircraft. While their crews joked wryly that their ships were "combustible, vulnerable, and expendable" (from their designator: CVE), the escort carriers fulfilled a variety of necessary tasks. These included antisubmarine warfare (ASW), aircraft transportation, amphibious support, close air support (CAS), etc. This had the effect of freeing the big fleet carriers for their coming duels with the Imperial Japanese Navy.
As the new fleet carriers headed west into the Pacific, they would stop at Pearl Harbor for training and integration into carrier forces. Together with a steady flow of fast, new battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and other support ships, they would be formed into what were called "task groups." Experience gained during raids on various Japanese island outposts in 1943 showed that the optimum size for such groups was three or four carriers (additional carriers tended to make the groups unwieldy), a pair of fast battleships, four cruisers, and between twelve and sixteen destroyers.
On those occasions when larger forces were called for, two or more task groups were joined into a "task force." These were commanded by senior Naval aviators, and were assigned joint strike missions, refueling assignments, and even independent raids. Though it took time to pull this huge organization together and find the men capable of leading it, by the winter of 1943/1944, what became known as Task Force 34/58 was ready for action. Task Force 34/58, the most powerful naval force in history, put the lid on the Japanese Navy's coffin, and nailed it shut.
In February of 1944, now composed of four task groups with twelve fast carriers, Task Force 58, under Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher, raided the Japanese fleet anchorage at Truk, wrecking the base and driving the Imperial Fleet out of the Central Pacific. Mitscher, a crusty pioneer naval aviator, aided by his legendary chief of staff Captain Arleigh Burke, ran Task Force 58 like a well-oiled machine. By the end of May, preparations had been completed for an invasion of the Marianas Island group, just 1,500 nm/2,800 km from Tokyo (thus within range of the new B-29 heavy bombers). Since these islands were essential to the defense of the home islands, the Japanese had to fight for them. The largest carrier-versus-carrier fight of the war resulted.
As soon as the invasion forces of Admiral Spruance's 5th Fleet hit the beaches of Saipan in early June, the entire Japanese battle fleet sortied from their base in northern Borneo to counterattack. When they arrived on June 19th, the nine carriers of the revitalized Japanese carrier force (three large, three medium, and three light fleet carriers) got in the first strike, launching their planes against Task Force 58 (now with seven large and eight light fleet carriers). That was their final hurrah; for the Japanese strike simply fell apart against the radar-directed fighters and antiaircraft fire of the American task groups. Of the 326 Japanese planes launched against the American fleet, 220 were shot down. Not a single U.S. ship was sunk or seriously damaged.
The next day, the U.S. fleet found the Japanese carrier force and launched a counterstrike. Blasting through the surviving Japanese planes, they sank the carrier Hiyo and several vital fleet oilers, and damaged numerous other ships before returning to Task Force 58. The next day, the decisively beaten Japanese force withdrew to Japan. So great were the losses to Japanese air crews that their carriers would never again sortie as a credible force. When the U.S. 3rd Fleet invaded the Philippines in October of 1944, the four Japanese carriers that took part in the Battle of Leyte Gulf were used purely as decoys, and sunk by air attacks from Task Force 34.
The Revolt of the Admirals, the USS United States (CV-58), and the Korean War
When Japan surrendered in September of 1945, the United States had over a hundred carriers in commission or being built. Within months, the Navy had been slashed to a fraction of its wartime peak. Only the newest and most capable carriers and other warships were retained in the tiny Navy that remained. Part of this massive force reduction was a consequence of the simple fact that the war had ended and the naval threat from the Axis nations had been eliminated. But that was not the only rationale for cutting the fleet and other conventional forces.
The major reason for the cut was the development of the atomic bomb. Specifically, the leadership of the new United States Air Force (USAF) had convinced the Truman Administration that their force of heavy bombers armed with the new nuclear weapons could enforce the peace, protect the interests of the United States, and do it without large conventional ground and naval forces. This was a debatable point, which events were soon to prove hugely wrong. But the immediate result was a mass of hostility that broke out between the Navy and USAF in the last years of the 1940's.
The hostility did not start then, however. It had its roots in the 1920's in the battles over airpower between the Navy and Brigadier General Billy Mitchell. Mitchell, an airpower zealot and visionary, was not an easy man to like. He had already fought a losing battle to convince Army leaders of the virtues of airpower. Meanwhile, the small corps of Army aviators saw the developing strength of Naval aviation, which some of them saw as taking funds and support that should have been theirs. To set right this (perceived) imbalance, Mitchell and his fliers (against orders) sank the captured German battleship Ostfriesland, an act that did not sit well with the Navy. In 1925, fed up with Mitchell's stings and barbs, his superiors brought him up before a court-martial, where Mitchell, ever unrepentant, stated that airpower made the navies of the world both obsolete and unnecessary. Not surprisingly, the Navy (and others) publicly defended themselves against these charges, and they did it so effectively that Mitchell's professional career was finished. Mitchell's supporters never forgot or forgave that. The result was a multi-decade blood feud.
The Navy/Air Force war reached its peak during the 1949 fight for new weapons appropriations. Then as now, new weapons systems were expensive. Then, as now, the Navy and the Air Force saw it as a zero-sum game: You win/I lose (or vice versa). Practically speaking, the fight was over whether the nation's defense would be built around the new B-36 long-range bomber (armed with the H-bomb), or a new fleet of large aircraft carriers (called supercarriers) armed with a new series of naval aircraft that could carry atomic weapons. There was only enough money in the defense budget for one of these systems, and the Navy lost. The first supercarrier, the USS United States (CV-58), was canceled by Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson just days after her keel had been laid at Newport News, Virginia.
Outraged, the Navy's leadership made their case for Naval aviation in a series of heated (some would say fiery) congressional hearings that called into question the capabilities of the B-36 and the handling of the matter by Secretary Johnson and the Air Force. Johnson did not accept this "Revolt of the Admirals" patiently; the Navy's leadership suffered for their rebellion against him. Many top admirals were forcibly retired, and the Navy paid a high price in personnel and appropriations. However, it did manage to win some fiscal support for modernization of older fleet carriers and development of new jet aircraft.
This turned out to be a godsend, for the fiscal frugality of the Truman Administration came to a crashing halt with the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, which caught the U.S. and the world with their military pants down. Except for some Air Force units in Japan and a few of the surviving aircraft carriers and their escorts, there was little to stop the North Korean forces from overwhelming the South. Built around the USS Valley Forge (CV-45) and the British light carrier Triumph, Task Force 77 was sent by the United Nations to interdict the flow of North Korean supplies and men. Eventually, Task Force 77 grew to four Essex-class carriers, and would become a permanent fixture not only during the Korean Conflict, but also throughout the Cold War.
For the next three years, carrier-based fighter-bombers rained destruction on the forces of North Korea and (after they entered the conflict) the People's Republic of China. Korea was not a glamorous war. For the pilots and crews of the carriers and their escorts, it was a long, cold, drudgery-laden, never-ending fight in which victory always seemed distant. What glory there was went to the "jet-jocks" flying their USAF F-86 Saber jets up into "MiG Alley" to duel with the Korean, Chinese, and Russian pilots in their MiG-15's. But for the Navy and Marine pilots on the carriers, Korea meant blasting the same bridges and railroads they had hit last week, and would hit again next week. Still, Korea answered any question of America's need for Naval aviation to protect its far-flung interests during the Cold War.
With the end of the Korean Conflict, and the inauguration of a new President, the answer took physical shape in the completion of the aircraft carrier development cycle. Within just a few years, the first of four new Forrestal-class (CV-59) supercarriers would be built, setting a model for every new American carrier built ever since. Despite improvements in every system imaginable (from nuclear power plants to radar-guided SAM systems), the Forrestals have defined the shape of U.S. carriers for almost forty years. Meanwhile, the development of aircraft like the F-4 Phantom II, E-1 Tracer, S-2 Tracker, and others, led to the present-day structure of American carrier air wings. And at the same time, the roles and missions of carriers and their battle groupstheir moves as pieces on the Cold War chessboardwere fixed in the minds of the politicians that would use them. The model set by the Forrestal and her jet-powered air wing was an almost perfect mix for the Cold War. With some improvements in Naval architecture and aircraft design, it has stayed on and done a great job.