A Case for the Attack Carrier in the Missile Age

Commander Laurence B. Green

Choice of Strategies

In our search for better ways to gain that security Americans all want, we find two basic military concepts from which to choose. One is that of strategic deterrence based upon massive retaliation, and the second, what the author calls flexible military capability, is military strength designed to give to our national policy that degree of support needed for any particular circumstance.

It would be, indeed, a drastic approach to our dilemma if we were to accept either part of this dichotomy at the expense of the other. There should be, and is, a place in our weapons arsenal for each. We most certainly need significant strength to deter the Soviets from initiating nuclear warfare, but we also need sufficient classical land, air, and naval forces with which to meet any limited action.

Massive Retaliation Strategy

In the first instance, that of massive retaliation, we are, because of our national policy of non-initiation, committed to wait for the other side to call the play, whenever and wherever he wishes. This type of military strategy might more appropriately be called the after-the-fact philosophy. And, as a natural part of this philosophy, occurrence of "the fact" becomes implicit. We then become irrevocably tied to the concept that our national security stands or falls on "the fact" of nuclear war. If this fact does not occur, as indeed all Americans hope that it will not, we then have committed all of our security eggs to one retaliation basket. And, as imperative as this deterrent is, it is incapable of projecting U. S. policy on any scale less than nuclear war!

But, if we were to accept this risk and pursue the concept to its ultimate conclusion , we, in order to insure our safety, should disperse throughout the world military forces capable of retaliation. Such dispersal would reduce the possibility of our forces being destroyed by a surprise enemy attack.

To do this would require the continued good will of many sovereign states for an indeterminate length of time. With this requirement we should never overlook the not too fantastic possibility that at some future date existing alliances and international friendships might be neither expedient nor profitable to the other states. Would the possibility not then arise whereby, for reasons of nationalistic or propaganda pressures, we would be forced finally to retire our forces behind our own shorelines? Would this not be, then, tantamount to isolation? And, in such a case, with our deterrent for security safely locked up, would it not be less difficult for the USSR to exert pressure for the capitulation of desired areas by means other than the threat of nuclear attack?

The significance of this possibility has not escaped the attention of Soviet leaders. The fact that they will continue to exert all the pressure they can to prevent the United States from maintaining those foreign bases, so necessary to our deterrent policy, is evident by the tenor of their many speeches. For example, on September 8, 1957, Pravda published an interview with Marshal of Aviation K. A. Vershinin, Commander-in-Chief of the USSR Air Forces.

The marshal was asked, "Most United States generals emphasize the special importance of American military bases on foreign territory. What dangers to world peace are inherent in this policy?" To this he answered, "The particular danger of this policy con1ists in the fact that having weapons of mass destruction there is a threat not only to those elements of a population which in the past served as cannon fodder for the aggressors and were sent directly to the theater of military operations, but also to the entire populace of the country within whose confines military bases were set up. This is an old policy of the imperialist powers; namely, conducting a predatory war utilizing weaker, smaller nations, that is have them pull the chestnuts out of the fire." As political as these Russian statements may be, they are of tremendous military importance to the uneasy people living under the Soviet threat.

Before committing our nation's security solely to the massive retaliation concept, it would be well for us to consider seriously what was meant when the German General Helmut Staeke, said, "If we prepare voluntarily for a situation in which we can counter non-atomic attack only with atomic weapons, because we lack adequate classical forces and have failed to prepare for civil war, we are already marked in the future annals of history as atomic war criminals born of degeneracy. If the West shrinks in the last minute, however, from resorting to the suicidal weapons, the only alternative that remains is capitulation."

It is quite understandable that as the influencing power of atomic threat is reduced through parity, the restricted war and other forms of political conflict are increased. Our survival will rest not so much with our nuclear deterrent power, as vital as that is, but with the sagacity of our cold war efforts, backed up by our ability to apply limited military force under conditions less than all-out nuclear war.

Flexible Military Strategy

The second military concept open to us is flexible military strategy: balanced power of land, air, and naval forces which can provide all degrees of military strength to meet any condition of nuclear war, limited war, or psychological cold war. Power at sea, epitomized by the Fast Carrier Task Force, is a vital member of this balanced force on which rests our nation's security.

Control of the sea is vital to the very life of freedom itself. The significance of sea power in the past is not at all minimized for the future. Even in the missile-sputnik era, the side which controls the sea will have decisive power at its command. The side which places upon the seas sufficient naval power to control its use, can exhaust much of the financial and economic strength of the other by destruction of its maritime commerce, and thus undermine its military power.

Each future war will, to a degree, be different from those we have experienced. However, future wars will also have many points of similarity, the most striking of which is that he who controls the sea controls a powerful weapon in support of ultimate success.

Marshal Zhukov, politically ostracized, but militarily sound, said at the 20th Communist Party Congress, "In future war the struggle at sea will be of immeasurably greater importance than it was in the last war." The USSR's current naval shipbuilding program, at the expense of her merchant fleet, is an indication of this belief. We can assume that her gigantic submarine fleet is not for commercial use, but rather will be used to deprive the West of an envied position.

Ability to use the seas is one of the most vital factors of Free World security. The United States is the center of a maritime coalition of 43 nations bound together by the oceans. Deprive this alliance of sea communications and it will disintegrate into many pieces. We must now accept the fact that the United States can no longer act alone and requires assistance from allies. We are, as history has shown, an island which depends upon free use of the sea lanes for economic wellbeing. We cannot easily live without international trade. This fact is true in the missile age just as it was in earlier centuries.

The Attack Carrier

Control of the sea has always been obtained by mounting the weapon of the day on a ship, whether it be a cutlass, cannon, or airplane. The large ship with the long-range weapon was, and still is, the very basis upon which control of the sea is built. The fact that we must add air superiority over the sea to this basic tenet does not in any way nullify the tenet itself, but valuably expands it in yet another dimension. The attack carrier provides that vehicle by which air power to control the seas can be placed, immediately and continuously, wherever and whenever it is most urgently needed.

The fact that the USSR has no aircraft carrier does not militate against its value; for the Soviets would be hard pressed to operate carriers from their land- and sometimes ice-locked bases. It may be, realizing the potency of this weapon, that Russia fears to lend credibility to it by embarking on such a venture at this time in her history.

Although we cannot stop the USSR from attaining near equality in sea power with cruisers, destroyers, and submarines, it would be disastrous to deprive ourselves of the attack carrier, which enables us to maintain control. We must be careful not to lose control of the seas by default. The U. S. Navy, through its forceful belief in carrier aviation, has kept alive the full impact of the concept of seaborne air power. The entire naval aircraft inventory of the remainder of the Free World consists preponderantly of ASW types, with little or no capability to defend their existence from high performance enemy aircraft. The aspect of mobile air power with a striking force potential as great or as small as needed, has devolved primarily upon the U. S. Navy.

The Attack Carrier in General War

Field Marshal Montgomery has stated, "The longer I study this problem [nuclear war] the more I reach the conclusion that air power and sea power will provide the main offensive punch in unlimited nuclear war of the future and their offensive power must, and can be mobile."

It would be most profitable if we could have both air and sea power as an entity. In the attack carrier we have this very entity, and, as well, Lord Montgomery's final criterion, mobility. It is this very mobility which gives to the carrier its inherent invulnerability. It is also this mobility which gives to the carrier that widespread dispersion of bases so necessary to ensure a nuclear delivery capability. This dispersion of bases is without fear of eviction notices served by nations whose safety has become jeopardized by Soviet intimidation. Air power at sea gives no cause for such intimidation.

The aircraft carrier has been attacked as a bad investment because of its alleged vulnerability in the missile age, a vulnerability which precludes spending large sums of money. First of all, nothing is absolutely invulnerable. Everything is, under certain conditions. Of course carriers can be sunk, if they can be found, fought, and hit directly. Men can be killed; yet we do not argue that, ipso facto, we should not put money into training a soldier. Aircraft can be shot down, but we do not advocate abandonment of all aircraft.

It is necessary to balance vulnerability against the need for the weapon. To deny a carrier because of its alleged vulnerability alone is a serious error in logic. Indeed, if the attack carrier cannot stand upon its own merits as a vital part of national defense, under all conditions of general, limited, or psychological warfare, then it should, in fact, be abandoned; but for this reason alone. On the other hand, to force the carrier program as being the only answer to survival of the Navy as a service, regardless of its value to the nation, would be far more serious than just an error in judgment.

In any consideration of the vulnerability of weapons systems, it is advisable to recognize that static targets can be "zeroed in" with ICBMs or SS-IRBMs. The unique contribution that a mobile air base presents is that "you can't hit 'em for sure when you don't know where they are all the time." A moving target presents to a missile-launching site a complex problem. The target's movement must be predicted accurately enough to warrant expenditure of enough weapons which will ensure a high probability of destruction or serious damage. Needless to say, with the errors of trajectory over even a 200-mile flight line, the number of weapons required would be far greater than those needed to ensure destruction of a fixed base.

It may well be, in case of all-out nuclear attack, that air power at sea will be the only fighting air power remaining. Needless to say, any nation which can retain, after the initial stages of nuclear attack, a sizeable portion of its air and sea power will have a decided advantage.

The Attack Carrier in Limited War

We would be remiss if we did not face our moral responsibilities as well as our military ones. These moral responsibilities are never more in evidence than during limited war. The United States, having a national philosophy of not forcing her will upon anyone, is continually on the defensive. Yet, at the same time, we must be ready to take the offensive whenever the other team says "go." In support of this paradox, the attack carrier provides that vehicle by which the means of offensive tactics can be harmonized with defensive political views. It provides to the statesman a powerful and flexible instrument with which he may persuade, or, if need be, enforce national policy in the event that this policy is challenged. The attack carrier can meet, with the exact amount of power required, any local conflict endangering the interests of the United States.

In countering Soviet attempts to capitalize upon local disturbances, we must be careful not to apply too much pressure. Too much pressure might force the Soviets to resort to measures which would expand a local conflict into one of major proportions. We must make a limited defeat or stalemate seem more preferable to the Soviets than all-out war. To this end, the carrier alone is capable of providing the proper amount of power, with precision, over three-quarters of the earth's surface.

The Attack Carrier in Cold War

By the use of the seas we can project our national policy to the far corners of the world, to the millions of uncommitted peoples of the earth. We can touch not only three-fourths of the world with sea power, but we can temper that touch as the political situation dictates.

Psychologically, the attack carrier can provide that force of cold war which gives visible proof of the intentions of the United States to utilize her power for peace. This power cannot be denied! It would, indeed, be difficult for anyone to refute the power and capability of our nation when that power can be shown in evidence. On the other hand, if at any time we were forced, through a variety of nationalistic and propaganda pressures, to vacate many areas of the world, the only proof in evidence of our power would be to bring Mohammed to the mountain. With the attack carrier we can take the mountain to Mohammed! By use of carriers we can apply a before-the-fact strategy that may well preclude the fact from ever occurring. The presence of the Sixth Fleet in the eastern Mediterranean during the Syrian crisis, and the movement of the Seventh Fleet into the East China Sea, to cover the Tachen evacuation, are examples of how our national policy was projected without the occurrence of war.

The Need for Preparation

The carriers which the Navy now has are good and they can do the job now. But, our present hulls are getting older and we must plan to replace them. Is there any guarantee that the Forrestal-class will not one day be as the Essex-class is now? To fail to prepare for the day when all ships of all nations will sail the seas under nuclear power would be to deny all the advantages that man's search for better things will someday give to us. We cannot fail to believe that nuclear power is, in 1958, in its infancy, just as was steam a hundred years ago.

That nation which fails to follow where this new means of power leads will undoubtedly be subject to the will of the nation which with vigor adopts this new technology and has no altruistic philosophy regarding its use.

If a nation endorses seaborne nuclear propulsion, it is plausible to exploit this scientific advance in a military sense as well as a commercial sense. It is also plausible, in these contemporary times of international tension, to place this new advance in a position where it can be used to extend the greatest degree of influence rather than lesser degrees.

Most unfortunately our long immunity from foreign attack and the influence of an ill-advised press have combined to give our people a feeling that war, if it comes, will be too horrible from which to recover. We have fallen short in the realization that preparation for and against war is as much a part of our national life and policy as is our present system of credit buying.

Preparation is war, and that nation which is beaten in preparation is defeated before the war breaks out. The prestige of a nation depends on the general belief in its strength. But the strength of a nation lies in its preparation in fact, not fancy. To prepare in every possible way, with courage and vision, will give to this nation that prudence which history will call wise. The time to prepare for building warships propelled by nuclear power is now. Lead time is essential. We cannot turn our backs on today by saying that the time will be more propitious in 1960 or 1965. We dare not be again the victims of too little, too late.


Any failure to recognize the value of the attack carrier and to prosecute fully the nuclear construction program would do the nation a serious harm, an insidious harm which would perhaps not become apparent for five to ten years, but which would, by then, be irreparable.

The nuclear-powered attack carrier, as a natural development of the valid concept of mobile air power, can give the nation power for general war, for limited war, for psychological cold war, and for peace. Rather than destroying the value of the attack carrier to the security of the United States, the advent of the missile age increases its necessity.


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