Aviation in National Defense

By Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, U. S. N.

There are two widely divergent points of view of the administration of aviation in carrying out these two roles. The one looks to complete separation of the administration of all aviation activities from the Army and the Navy. The other looks to the complete unity of these activities with the Army and the Navy. Fundamentally, the question is this: Are we to have a separate Air Force completely divorced from the Army and Navy or are we to continue developing aviation within the Army and the Navy until it takes its proper place in the great scheme of defense. To my mind the separate Air Force idea may possibly give unity in matters aeronautic but it will most certainly bring confusion to the whole problem of National Defense. But whatever plan we pursue it will succeed if we are loyal to it and it will most certainly fail if we are disloyal.

There are three broad general aspects of the employment of aviation in National Defense: the strategic, the tactical, and the economic. In strategy we consider the dispositions and movements up to the moment of contactwith the enemy. By tactics we refer to movements and dispositions incontact and during action with the enemy. Any consideration of the problem must involve an appreciation of the fundamentals of these three aspects.

In strategy there are three roles, theoffensive, the defensive, and the offensive-defensive, It is axiomatic that the best defense is a strong offense, Our whole national policy is based upon a fleet sufficiently strong to safeguard our interests maintained at a proportion of its strength and at a high degree of readiness, It is contemplated that behind the strong arm of the fleet strength may be mobilized in time of emergency. Behind the sure shield of the fleet our industrial organization must be built up. The fleet, then, constitutes the first line of defense, It goes without saying that naval aviation must be in the same degree of readiness as is the fleet itself.

A fundamental strategic consideration is that of position with respect to a possible enemy. This is a matter of pure geography. This country is open to invasion from different directions by overseas nations. Aircraft bases will be required comparatively near our shores for such an enemy offensive. With the fleet at sea fully equipped with its own surface, subsurface and aircraft no enemy can establish such bases. On the other hand, with the fleet at sea with its own aircraft we can establish our own bases and carry out our own offensive, but this aircraft offensive must be based on the decks of the carriers, that is, on the backs of the fleet. No enemy carrier can approach our shores as long as our fleet is at sea and strong enough to drive off the enemy fleet. In whatever way you look at it, aviation is an integral and important component part of both the Army and the Navy, and its best effort must be directed in conjunction with the Army and the Navy and not independently. The air force of this country should be a naval air force, not a separate air force based on shore. The present joint plans of the Army and the Navy provide for just this.

A fundamental requirement strategically as well as tactically is unity of command. The Navy, responsible for carrying out its mission, must have authority over the operation, training and procurement of its aircraft. Authority and responsibility must go hand in hand. To deprive the Navy of its control over so important a branch as aviation is unthinkable. In our desire to develop aviation rapidly we must not make any mistake of organization which may prove disastrous from the broader angle of National Defense. From a strategic viewpoint the separate air force idea, particularly as applied to the United States, is absolutely unsound in conception.

The same considerations apply from the tactical viewpoint but with even greater force, The essence of tactics is the concentration at the right time and the right place of all the forces available and these forces must be coordinated and trained by intimate association over a long period of time. The commander-in-chief of the fleet at sea must have absolute command over all the forces, surface, sub-surface, and aeronautic. Otherwise disaster will inevitably result.

From the economic aspect the organization of a separate department of the air is absolutely unjustified. The cost of a third department on a parity with the Army and Navy will involve the building up of a vast overhead similar to that of the Army and Navy and will result in triplication of effort. I do not think it physically possible to coordinate three such departments. It is a problem of the very greatest difficulty to coordinate the two departments we now have. With the organization of such a department it would be hard to draw the line. The new air department would probably want all of the surface ships required to tend aircraft operating over the sea and all of the military establishment associated with the operation of aircraft over the land. It would result in the building up within the separate department of a small Army and a small Navy, a thing which is absolutely indefensible on the basis of cost alone. From the economic aspect the idea is again unsound.

We must remember in considering the problem of National Defense that the Army and the Navy are only two of the units involved. Every other department of the government has very great functions in time of war. The machinery for coordinating all of these departments now exists in the cabinet. The President is the commander-in-chief and the responsible administrative head. There is no need for a separate department of defense

None of the foregoing considerations are new to those who have had the problem in mind. They are certainly not new to the Navy. In December 1922 the Navy laid down its aviation policy, which called for a number of important things. Briefly these were to build up a naval air service and naval air force, capable of operating from ships of the fleet, to carry on rigid airship construction and development, and to determine the desirability for further construction; to give every encouragement to aviation in civil life and to maintain the aircraft industry in a sound condition. It is a matter of common knowledge that we have gone far to carry out this policy in a little over three years. The essential fact is that the fundamentals of the employment of aviation in national defense have been long understood by the Navy, that based on them a definite policy has been laid down and that this policy has been carried out to a surprising degree. We know where we're going and we're on our way.

During the World War we had to subordinate all of our aeronautic activities both in the Army and the Navy to three tasks: the construction of observation type airplanes for the Army, the construction of coastal patrol or anti-submarine defense seaplanes for the Navy, and the training of the officers and men to man and operate these two types. The close of the World War then found us with the satisfactory development in but three of the many types required for our defense. Since the World War the Navy has carried on the improvement and refinement of these patrol types as exemplified in the PN-9's, which are holders of world's records both for distance and duration for seaplanes. We have designed, built, and equipped the fleet with observation and gun spotting airplanes which are catapulted from the ships. With these we have developed our air service with the fleet to a high degree of proficiency. No other nation has gone so far. We have designed, built, and furnished the fleet with combined torpedo, bombing and scouting planes capable of operating from ships or shore. So far as we know, no other nation has carried the development so far.

Whereas foreign countries had aircraft carriers in operation during the war, we had none, because we put our whole effort on anti-submarine defense. Since the war we have built and operated an experimental carrier, the Langley . We have designed and launched the two carriers, Lexington and Saratoga, and we are now building the aircraft which will fly from them and constitute the naval air force. We have built one rigid airship and procured another. We have operated them with greater success than any other country, even taking into consideration tile lamentable loss of the great Shenandoah .

All of these developments have been very difficult. They called for engines of new design, airplanes of new design and all of the instruments and accessories which go along with this complicated art. When we remember that it takes about three years to develop an airplane we can appreciate the magnitude of the Navy's effort in the past three years.

The necessity for national economy has in turn forced economy on us. Instead of building a large number of airplanes which would be absolescent or worn out by now we have built only that number which appeared necessary in view of the general situation and have confined our efforts to the improvement and refinement of types. As a result we are not excelled in the performance of our service airplanes and we are building up the numbers to a degree which economy will permit. The budget and Congress have been generous with us and considerate of us. We are unexcelled in quality. I believe Congress will approve our five-year program and put us in a satisfactory position as to quantity.

All of our development has gone ahead in the face of continued criticism and agitation. In spite of the fact that we have been distracted from our legitimate work by this we have pushed on. To my mind the single biggest handicap under which aviation has had to suffer is the repeated attacks and charges on the part of individuals who are totally ignorant of the Navy and its problems and who have been impelled largely by unworthy motives in their efforts to discredit his. However, we are not concerned, for the record of our achievements is a solid bulwark against the ravings and rantings of publicity seekers.

One of the most important branches of naval aviation is that portion which is employed in coastal defense. There are certain influences at work endeavoring to deprive the Navy of this important task. It is well to remember that aviation in coast defense is a very important branch of convoy and anti-submarine defense work. It was developed to a very high degree by the Navy in the war, as every soldier knows who left the home port under the escort of Naval seaplanes and airships and arrived at his destination under the same kind of rescort. This is a seagoing function which in time of emergency must be under the command of the naval officer responsible for convoys. Naval aviation in coast defense must have its air stations from which to operate just as the fleet must have its bases from which to operate and yet today there are people who would like to deprive the Navy of these primary requisites to success.

We have a five-year program for rigid airship construction covering two great six million cubic feet airships and a base on the Pacific coast. These two ships can cruise between London and New York, carrying forty tons of passengers, mail, and express, making the passage in two and one half days. Rigid airships now are where steamships were one hundred years ago. If we continue airship development you will see these big liners enter this great harbor, and I want to see them under the American flag.

We have a carefully considered five-year building program for heavier-than-air craft and will have a magnificent naval air force of 567 fighting and bombing planes and an air service of 665 more. This will give us a total of 1,232 naval aircraft as a sure guaranty of peace.

We of the Navy do not advocate scrapping any arm of our present defense. We do not impugn the motives of any sister service. To us it is unthinkable for any real American to question the motives of his brothers in arms or charge them with treasonable conduct. The Navy is in full accord with the Morrow Board's report, approved by the President, our commander-in-chief.

In closing, I would like to urge that you be not alarmed as to aviation in the Navy. We are and have been fully alive to its value. We have assigned ourselves a definite task and have accomplished the task to a degree which is really surprising to anyone who realizes the complications involved. We have steered a true course and have not been misled by false lights along the shore put there by self-seekers, ignorant of the seaman's job and ignorant of the fundamentals of the problem. Your Navy has always served you well and it will continue to serve you well through all the vicissitudes of war and peace. Behind your great fleet including this air service and air force, you continue to go about your lawful pursuits in peace and prosperity.



Conferences and Events

Defense Forum Washington 2015

Mon, 2015-12-07

Defense Forum Washington will take place 7 December 2015 at the Newseum - Knight Conference Center in Washington, DC.  

Maritime Security Dialogue

View All

From the Press

"Goldrick Seminar: 2015"

Thu, 2015-12-03

Guest Speakers & Book Signing

Mon, 2015-12-07

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