Seagoing Aircraft

Sidney Ballou

We are, therefore, on the threshold of a new development in warfare, of which strategy, logistics and tactics are alike uncharted. Maneuvers with the converted Langley are only model tank experiments compared with the problems which must be worked out when we commission the Lexington and the Saratoga. So far as any experience goes we do not know what types of aircraft it is best to put aboard our big carriers, how the problems of stowage and handling will work out in practice, at what rate aircraft stowed below can be put into the air from a carrier, what weather conditions will limit their activities, nor how far nor in what time they can be reassembled and stowed after action. On the important preliminary question as to whether the carriers themselves should be in large or small units we are guided wholly by the fortuitous circumstances that we had building two vessels designed for quite a different purpose, which, considering  the present state of the art, is as good reason as any.

On the question of what the aircraft carriers shall carry, however, we are not only free to plan from the ground up but to shift our plans almost up to the eve of battle. A turret of three four-teen-inch guns cannot, both for practical reasons and treaty prohibitions, be changed to one of two-sixteen-inch guns, but the main armament of a carrier can be altered, shifted and improved at will up to the moment the carrier weighs anchor to sail with the fleet. The question of how we shall utilize our limited carrier space is obviously of fundamental importance.

The fact that such space is limited is in itself a governing consideration. Any dream of the carrier replacing the battleship as the main capital ship of the world's navies will have to wait until the far distant expiration of the Washington Treaty. Tactics based on fifteen battleships and five carriers are obviously different from tactics based on fifteen carriers and five battleships. At any meeting of fleets at sea, or at any place outside the radius of action from shore bases, visions of bombing planes swarming like locusts will have to be heavily discounted. Aircraft which can be carried on the treaty fleets are relatively few in number and will be launched singly and unhandily.

In considering how to arm our carriers it may be assumed that the main purposes of aircraft are combat, scouting, spotting, bombing and torpedoing. It is by no means certain, however, that aircraft designed to accompany the fleet will develop along lines at all parallel with those now existing. Our best scouting planes, for example, are the F-5-L and the N.C., but nobody is going to pack an F-5-L or an N.C. on a carrier. On the contrary, it seems practically certain that even with our big carriers in commission the scouting will continue to be done by planes which can be carried on battleships or scout cruisers and launched from catapults.

This brings the combat and scouting types perilously close together and it is a question whether observation planes for spotting will be very much larger. Bombers and their bombs are going to find themselves much reduced when they really go to sea. It is safe to say that no Martin bomber with a two-thousand-pound bomb is going to take off in the length of a flying deck, even of the Lexington or Saratoga. In brief, the restricted space for stowage, the difficulty of handling and the limited deck for taking off are going to exercise a profound influence in restricting size and modifying the types of seagoing aircraft.

One vital relation, however, would seem to be fixed. Whatever the size and weight of the bomber or torpedo plane, it is always going to be heavier and slower than the combat types. Its chief enemy is and will be the single-seated pursuit plane, which has such superiority of speed and maneuvering power that it is probable that bombers will have to have protecting pursuit planes rather than rely on their own limited powers of defense. Another fairly stable factor is that considering the size of bombers adapted for battleship attack it is probable that at least two pursuit planes can be carried in the same space as one bomber.

It has been generally assumed that in a fleet engagement bombers would figure on both sides. This, however, is by no means certain. In a previous discussion (Naval Institute Proceedings, July, 1924) the writer ventured to advance the opposite thesis; that is, that the bombing plane is the proper arm only of the inferior fleet, and that the superior naval force should carry no bombers whatever.

To repeat some of the observations then made, a superior naval force carries with it the practical certainty that, pitted against an inferior surface fleet, it will ultimately obtain command of the sea. Needing only assurance that it will not be interfered with by enemy bombers, its restricted aircraft carrier capacity should be devoted principally to the stowage of single seated pursuit planes with the one object of parrying this new form of attack. If the above formula as to stowage space works out in practice, the fleet thus armed will have two smaller and faster fighting planes for every bomber carried by the enemy.

To put it another way the superior fleet needs only command of the air. Such command is primarily the ability to deny the air to the enemy. On land this proved somewhat elusive, owing to the great areas over which armies fought and over which planes operated. At sea there will be two sharp focal points, the carriers from which the planes must tart and the adverse fleet which is their objective. within the limited area thus defined a substantial superiority of combat planes should mean command of the alt. Having such command it is not necessary to have air weapons drive home an offensive through the air. That can be done with the big gun.

With the inferior fleet the converse holds. It is the business of that fleet to take desperate chances in the hope of equalizing surface fleet strength, and the bombing plane is a legitimate means to this end.

It is easy to define what is meant by "superior" and "inferior" in this connection. It is not wholly a matter of studying tables of naval strength. The superior fleet is one that is going to find the enemy fleet, confident of its ability to defeat that fleet when found. In default of an enemy willing to fight the superior fleet is holding command of the sea and willing to fight for that command when challenged. The inferior fleet is the one driven to fight by the gripping force of sea power-the Spanish at Santiago, the Russians at Tsushima, the Germans at Jutland or at the last great sea battle that was planned but did not come off. These are the fleets that will use bombers, while the fleet confident of its big gun strength should devote every ounce of its aircraft carrying capacity to the combat planes which can best parry this attack.

It may be that special considerations of special missions upon which a fleet may embark may modify this broad generalization. The normal mission of a superior fleet, however, is that above outlined: viz., to find and destroy the enemy fleet or to drive it to hiding, retaining command of the sea. If it is expected to find the enemy fleet near its own base the danger of bombers coming from the shore increases and emphasizes the necessity of defensive pursuit planes.

Too near an enemy base, no fleet will venture. Torpedo boats and submarines have already driven blockading fleets to a respectful distance, and it may be that bombers from shore bases will drive the main fighting force back another step, but the introduction of wireless has made elastic blockades as efficacious as those of the Civil War type which they superseded.

Returning to the main thesis of seagoing aircraft as affecting fleet actions at sea, we may check up the suggestion above advanced by some consideration of probable tactics after contact has been established.

The aircraft carrier has two characteristics that must be taken into account in considering tactical questions. The first is the vulnerability of her flying deck to light bombs, such as can be carried by the faster types of planes. A couple of fifty-pound bombs, for example, might easily muss things up on this exposed platform so that planes could not take off. The advisability of thus quipping the planes of thus equipping the planes of scout cruisers with light bombs, for the sole purpose of discouraging the use of carriers worthy of some consideration.

The second is the length of time that it is going to take for the carrier to get into action, that is to get her brood into the air, Service experience is yet confined to small planes on a small carrier, but those who have tried to get torpedoes into deck tubes in a seaway can probably form the best judgment of how long it is going to take, on a rolling and pitching ship, to get a succession of bombing planes onto a flying deck and successfully off it.

On both these counts the carriers are apt not to be ahead with the scouts, but well within the protection of the battle fleet. Some would put them fifty miles in the rear, but until contact with the enemy is established it is never quite certain which is the rear, nor that some light planes from enemy scouts would not discover and raid them from the side. Better the immediate protection of all the anti-aircraft guns of the fleet.

We may now attempt some visualization of what will happen when two fleets meet. In the first place the possession of aircraft fitted with wireless vastly extends the scope of vision and materially lessens the chances of surprise. With any adequate scouting a commander should know of the presence of a fighting force, either air or surface, at greater distance than ever. 2 Given flying weather, not always obtainable at sea, it is probable that contact will be established by small planes carried by scout cruisers, rather than by larger scouting planes based on the carrier, the sustained radius of action of the cruiser more than compensating for the smaller radius of action of its plane.

Ordinarily each scout surface force would try to drive in the opposing screen to the extent necessary to uncover the main fleet, but with scouts in the air such informatory fighting will be reduced to a minimum. It is more probable that the elusive planes will drive right for their objective, which is information of the whereabouts and strength of the enemy, sending back their news by wireless, whether they return themselves or not.

Fairly in contact but still beyond gun range, the carriers unlimber, for their planes must not only get into the air but get altitude. It is at this point that the formula of no bombers, but two pursuit planes to one enemy bomber, would be tested. On the one side the bombers, to give them full scope, have obtained their altitude and are driving for the battle fleet. They have some protecting combat planes and their faster escorts are prepared to lay smoke screens. They meet an outnumbering force of smaller and faster planes.

The pursuit planes have orders to attack in pairs, two being an ideal number to attack a bomber without interference with each other. Smoke screens are designed to blind anti-aircraft guns but will cut little figure against planes in the air.

Conclusions may, and doubtless will, differ, but it is hard to imagine, in such a melee, any serious damage to the battle fleet. This is no target practice on anchored ships, with leisure to come straight up the wind and to circle for another try if blown off. If the machine guns of the pursuit planes fail to stop a bomber there is always the last resource of deliberate collision, which neither plane would survive.

With the enemy bombers stopped, the superior fleet, as above indicated, has little need of bombers of its own. Its air resources, however, are not exhausted. If it remains in undisputed command of the air, even with a few surviving light planes, this advantage can be capitalized. A vertical smoke screen between the fleets, such as was demonstrated at the Virginia-New Jersey bombing, with only its own planes above it spotting salvos, would seem as great an advantage to a fleet as a squadron of bombers.

As a general principle, therefore, it would seem that a fleet which relies on the strength of its primary weapon, the big gun, can best devote its aircraft .carrier capacity to the protection of that weapon against air attack, rather than to adding a small fraction in the shape of bombing planes to its offensive power.


1 As an example of current absurdities the following may be quoted:

"Great bewilderment would be imposed upon a fleet of battleship commanders if they were suddenly plunged into a smoke fog while they were steaming in formation, and tons of bombs to begin raining upon them from above-bombs of gas, fire and explosives. Random or fleeting shots from anti -aircraft guns would be of little value. The aircraft, tied to the battle ships, could not take off in the smoke with safety."-Scientific American, April, 1924.

It is but fair to add that the Scientific American afterwards disclaimed the editorial responsibility which accompanied the original publication. Indeed, to impose bewilderment upon a fleet of commanders while tons of bombs begin" raining rather suggests a "Japanese schoolboy" origin.


2 Again quoting, the following is exactly what could not happen unless all hands and the cook had been previously drugged:

“When a battleship fleet is attacked by airplanes, the attack comes with such suddenness that the airplanes, which are 'tied' to the ships and carriers cannot possibly get warmed up and into the air before the attack is over and the attacking craft have flown far from the scene. . . . A fighting force of aircraft tied up with a water fleet would certainly appear to be of little defensive value against aerial attacks. A battleship might as well take along submarines to combat enemy submarines." - Scientific American, April, 1924.

It might be added that if any fleet commander is so totally ignorant or neglectful of elementary scouting as this implies, his ships could be easily sunk with destroyers or for that matter with rowboats.



More by this Author

None found for this author.

Events and Conferences

None found for this author.


Conferences and Events

Maritime Security Dialogue

Fri, 2015-01-16

  Please join us for a Maritime Security Dialogue, featuring: Admiral Paul Zukunft, USCG Commandant of the U.S. Coast...

2015 WEST Conference

2015 U.S. Naval Institute Member Event

Ultimate Skybox at The Diamond View Tower

View All

From the Press

Meet the Author & Book Signing

Tue, 2015-01-27

Guest Lecturer & Book Signing

Thu, 2015-01-29

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership