Strategic Value of the Aircraft Carrier

G. B. Vroom

The tactical value of aircraft carriers has been demonstrate to the fleet, and reported in the press, making a discussion of this sphere of usefulness superfluous; but the strategic value of the carrier, particularly defensive strategy, has not, so far as known been considered generally; the subject is worth thought.

It is necessary to admit, in the first place, that aeronautics has taken a place equally as important as surface and sub-surface activity. It is not necessary to claim either that the plane has driven the surface ship from the ocean, or that the plane has failed completely to establish itself as a minor weapon. Either extreme is a matter of opinion, and not susceptible of proof. The bombing of obsolete battleships scarcely proves the former, any more than the torpedoing of the same ships by unopposed destroyers would be proof of the superiority of the destroyer. On the other hand, the actual use of planes for spotting proves their value as a major weapon, but also demonstrates that they must be in sufficient force to obtain command of the air.

There does not appear to be any essential difference between the air arm, the surface arm and the sub-surface arm, so far as strategy and tactics ·are concerned. The successful use of a fleet, a flotilla of destroyers, or submarines, or a squadron of planes depends always on meeting the enemy in superior force, skill being equal; and failure therein implies the loss of the deficient arm, if not the entire command. The claim cannot be made that destroyers have driven the battleship from the sea, because the inference is that the enemy will be in equal force in destroyers. The launching of a successful destroyer attack implies the defeat, first, of the enemy destroyers. The same fundamental considerations would appear to govern air operations, in spite of extravagant claims put forward on the one hand, and vehement condemnation on the other.

Returning to the carrier as a strategic factor, it is a prudent assumption that the science of aeronautics is in such a stage of development that the air cruiser is an almost accomplished fact, and that the delivery of attacks from overseas bases is to be taken into consideration as a probability. 'What difference is there between the fundamental strategical requirements governing a long distance air attack and those governing an attack by surface craft? The cruiser (lighter than air) would certainly have first to establish command of the air, otherwise the defending forces would be able to defeat the air cruisers, by weight of numbers and mobility, just as home-defense destroyers and submarines based on home ports, could drive off battleship attacks from overseas, unless the command of the sea had just been assured for the attacking force.

Planes would have first to obtain command of the air, for air cruisers could not operate (at present) directly from overseas, but they could be transported in force by enemy aircraft carriers which would approach our coasts. They could approach our coasts, unless an immense area of ocean was adequately patrolled by surface vessels, or, we used the natural weapon indicated-aircraft carriers, operating well off-shore, and maintaining a large scouting force of planes, based on the carriers. The number of carriers required is insignificant as compared with the number of scouting vessels necessary for such a service. The carrier's duty would be to break up or cripple air attacks in their inception. A chain of carriers stationed a thousand miles off the coast, protected by surface vessels against enemy submarine and destroyer attack would be a veritable wall of defense, impervious to attack by air or sea by virtue of its combat planes and surface screen; an all-seeing eye, from which no move of an enemy fleet would be hidden. This chain would move the "frontier" a thousand miles nearer the enemy and keep open the coastwise trade and communication routes.

If the plane drives the battleship from the ocean, it apparently will be because the battleship will be rendered helpless through too much "publicity," not because the plane can defeat the battleship in single combat. Dropping bombs on ships undefended by planes merely proves that V 2 equals 2 gs.

Between the present status of aeronautical strategy, and the full development of the carrier to an enlarged and perfected usefulness, lie many problems; not the least of these is a realization of the potential value of the carrier, not only by the service, but on the part of the public; also the active service support of an arm that appears to receive the same amount of consideration that the submarine did in its early development. The real needs of the air service today are adequate material in the shape of carriers, and an enlarged personnel not subject to rotation of duty in other specialties, particularly in the case of commissioned officers and chief petty officers who qualify as pilots. The desirability of setting apart as a separate corps those officers who specialize in aviation is a question not to be discussed here. The point that it is desired to make is that sufficient personnel should be provided for aviation afloat, even at the expense of some other activities, if only to speed up the work of a most essential arm that is in process of development and therefore in immediate need of all the energies that can be devoted to it.

When the two new carriers join the fleet, there will be more opportunity for the service in general to become acquainted at first hand with the value of the air arm at sea. Thus far the work carried out by the Langley has been largely technical research and training, and has not been in immediate view of the service. This most necessary work, upon which the success of the new carriers will largely depend, has been invariably a source of great surprise to officers who have had the opportunity to witness it in detail, to observe the thousand and one problems of design and the ingenuity with which they nave been met, and to note the results already attained in this new activity.

If the Navy had, today, two 35,000-ton carriers with the fleet, and at least five 10,000-ton carriers, a series of winter maneuvers and tactical problems would demonstrate something new in the way of grand strategy. Place the fleet, for instance, at a strategic point on the Pacific seaboard, say San Francisco, and a scouting line of carriers, 500 miles apart, say 8oo miles off the West Coast, the scouting line to follow approximately the contour of the coast line. Let the "enemy force" base at Honolulu; and the problem be for the "enemy" to make successful contact with the fleet or the fleet's surface scouts undetected by the air force. Provide the carriers with a surface defense of two submarines and six destroyers each, these to be fueled and provisioned at sea, and make the problem include the cutting of communications between the carrier scouting line and the mainland bases, the enemy to use submarines or destroyers to search out and attack the supply ships, undetected by the air force, or by the carrier's submarine and destroyer covering detachments ...

This problem is doubtless one of the more or less distant future, but the value of the air arm can be demonstrated before we get our 10,000-ton carriers and the trained air forces to man them; it can be tested by limiting the area of this problem, and assigning the Saratoga and Lexington to represent the scouting line, and, possibly, the Langley to represent the "enemy" carrier. Merely to lay out the problem as a chart maneuver demonstrates some very interesting situations. Try it.


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