The Attack Carrier - Mobile Might

Commander Albert H. Vito Jr.

A boatswain's pipe sounds over the cavernous hangar deck, and a plume of white smoke drifts from the stack. A tractor growls as it tows an airplane, and a forklift strains at a pallet of heavy cartons. Some four thousand men go about the manifold duties of preparing the ship and her planes for operations at sea. To the casual observer, all is chaos and confusion, noise and disorder, and he can gain no understanding of what is involved in carrier operations and carrier warfare. The modern attack carrier is big, complex, and noisy-of that he is certain. A tour through a carrier tied up at a pier goes as far toward offering an understanding of her operation as a stroll through the Harvard campus does toward making a lawyer or a physician.

Much of the lack of understanding of the carrier and her function in our missile-age arsenal arises from the fact that this pierside view is the only one many persons ever get of one of these ships. Certainly this view is impressive, but only in the way that bigness is always impressive.

Now watch the carrier getting underway for sea some morning. The pier seems covered with confusion as the bullhorn barks commands, lines are cast off, and tugs hoot and puff alongside. Finally, men, machines, and aircraft are all moving in the same direction at the same time--the carrier is underway. There she goes - mobile, flexible, and versatile. These are fine words, but what do they mean in application to this huge complex of intricate machinery moving down the channel to sea? What does the carrier do out there? Why is she so big? Can she be sunk? How does she make the United States more secure, or defend our rights and those of the free world? Do we really need her?

Are the words "sea supremacy" and "aircraft carrier" synonyms or not? Since many Navy men haven't been privileged to ride a carrier at sea for a personal understanding of carrier operations, this discussion is intended to translate some of the descriptive terms applied to the controversial attack carrier into more easily understood words.

Eighty years ago, Alfred Thayer Mahan recognized the importance of seapower in the conduct of world affairs. Events of the last decade have continually re-emphasized this concept. Our modern seapower is spearheaded by the attack carrier. Hence the mission of the attack carrier is of interest in any consideration of seapower.

Simply stated, this mission is, "To support and operate aircraft to engage in sustained operations against the enemy." Carrier-based aircraft provide commanders at sea with all the elements of airpower: attack, reconnaissance, air superiority, interdiction, and close tactical support- in any degree required. Perhaps a major reason why the carrier is subjected to so much unfriendly scrutiny is the fact that she has been performing this mission with the tools available for over 30 years. The mere fact that a weapon system can remain competent and best for its job for more than three decades makes it necessarily subject to concentrated inquiry.

Let us examine mobility, a basic asset of all naval forces. A modern carrier force can maintain cruising speeds which allow moving six or seven hundred miles a day. This means that every day a carrier is at sea, the ocean area in which she may be lurking increases by more than a million and a half square miles. This is the true meaning of mobility, the hallmark of all naval forces since the days of the trireme. Critics of the carrier deride this mobility, claiming it is ridiculous to suppose that six hundred miles of movement in a day is "fast" in an era of supersonic aircraft and ballistic missiles, but the arithmetic of areas cannot be controverted. They compare critically the mobility of naval forces with the rate of movement of a jet bomber. A more valid comparison would be that of carrier speed against the speed of the bomber's base, its fuel supply, and its weapon logistics. The same critics have discovered, however, that a missile mounted on a railroad car somehow is infinitely less vulnerable than one in a hole in the ground, even though a railroad track provides mobility only along predictable paths.

The meaning of aircraft carrier mobility becomes clearer in operations at sea. The ship may launch aircraft almost around the clock, keeping dozens of planes in the air while her crew fuels, arms, and repairs others. These thousands of men have three meals a day, sleep in their own bunks at night, yet wake up next morning six hundred miles away from where they were the morning before, with the carrier ready to go through another full day of operations. This process, continually maintained, is Navy mobility. In comparison, think of the frenzied planning, enormous effort, and great cost of moving a single element of aircraft and the necessary personnel and logistic support in any other fashion from its home base into one in a developing danger area.

Mobility of this sort generates additional bonuses. Carriers have been dubbed "sitting ducks." Obviously any target, military or industrial, can be destroyed if an enemy can put against it with precision a high-yield nuclear weapon. There are no exceptions to this general statement- hardened or not, a target will be destroyed if sufficient force is applied to it with enough precision. "Enough precision" is the key phrase in this statement.

Take the normal vagaries of any weapon delivery system. Include as appropriate its probable circular error, its misalignment and position error, its parallax, and its range and deflection uncertainties. Then add the problems of target location over a vast ocean area and target identification among the hundreds of ships that ply the sea lanes daily, and you have posed an enormous problem for the attacker. The paradox of the missile age is that a ship can gain freedom from surprise attack by the enemy's newest and most powerful weapon, the ballistic missile, simply by following the ancient art of moving over the surface of the sea.

Suppose we assume that an enemy has an orbiting reconnaissance satellite, which provides him a constantly repeated picture of the surface of the globe. Let us dispose of the many almost insuperable complications inherent in such a device-the physical laws of optical resolution which seem to prevent such an eye from seeing objects smaller than a city and the relative ease with which the device could be destroyed or rendered inoperative-and give an enemy this capability. What then of our mobility as a defensive asset?

Let us assume that an enemy determines a carrier's exact position at a given moment. In the ensuing minutes, while targeting information is collated and introduced into an attack missile, the carrier steadily moves away from the calculated impact point. Which way? How fast? The enemy cannot get the answers- the carrier is invulnerable. Invulnerability to the ballistic missile was a Navy asset long before the missile itself became a reality.

Somewhat the same problem faces the enemy submarine which hunts this attractive prize. At 30 knots, the carrier is threatened primarily by the high-speed submarine. Locating the target and gaining a position for launching and completing an attack are both tremendously complicated by the fact that the carrier is moving, fast and continuously. Obviously, mobility is a major asset in defense against submarines.

Flexible and versatile, we say the carrier is, but what do these words mean? Many weapons are, and have to be, single purpose. An intercontinental bomber, for example, designed exclusively for the delivery of high yield nuclear weapons from very high altitudes on significant targets with an accuracy of a half a mile or better, is suitable only for that purpose. It cannot support a ground assault, stop an enemy tank advance, or clear the way for an amphibious landing. It cannot oppose a guerrilla force in Laos or a determined assault upon Taiwan. It can only annihilate. This is not to disparage such weapon systems; they have been a necessary and vital adjunct of U. S. armed force for a decade. The fact remains, however, that they serve one useful purpose only. The cost of a single-purpose system must stand on its own merit- it deserves no division of cost by functions performed, as does a multi-purpose system.

The attack carrier is flexible and versatile. She is not limited to single-purpose use. She does not have to be. The carrier and her embarked combat air group can range the gamut of force, from peacefully showing the flag, through armed reconnaissance, deft attacks in small scale, and full-scale attacks with conventional weapons, or if need be, with fission and fusion bombs, all or any of these delivered with the precision and discrimination that manned aircraft alone can provide. Her striking range covers the sea, its shores, and most of the world's land targets. On the lower end of this scale, ship visits have been traditional for many centuries; the appearance of an attack carrier in a disturbed area has worked magic, not only on the local populace, but internationally as well. At the upper end of this flexibility range, a modern attack carrier can wreak appalling destruction in one wave of annihilative nuclear attacks.

The Navy's experience in World War II gave the United States world leadership in carrier operating procedures, carrier aircraft development, and understanding of the principles of carrier employment. At the end of the war, two startling developments posed severe problems. These were the advent of jet aircraft, with the consequent quantum jump in aircraft performance, and of the atomic bomb. Both problems were overcome by the versatile carriers. The incorporation of new ideas in flight decks and facilities soon made possible jet carrier operations. Navy attack aircraft were able to carry the new bombs, with difficulty at first, but soon with no trouble. Jet aircraft are standard in the Fleet today, and day and night carrier operations with them are routine. Atomic weapon delivery techniques are a part of every attack pilot's training syllabus, along with his basic flight doctrines.

Optimum carrier size has naturally changed as naval aircraft designs have changed. The Forrestal-class attack carrier is bigger than the Essex-class ships and, of course, correspondingly more expensive. Why are they so big? Could we not build smaller carriers and more of them? It is important to understand the reasons for the growth in the carrier and the benefits gained there from. Primarily this growth has been a result of the increased performance available in jet aircraft. As jet aircraft began to reach fleet squadrons, along with higher performance came increased landing speeds, gross weights, and minimum take-off speeds. To handle the increased energy absorption of landing heavier airplanes at higher speeds, more deck area and improved arresting mechanisms were necessary. To provide energy outputs that would accelerate the heavier aircraft to the higher takeoff speeds that were required, the steam catapult was adopted. Finally, the angled deck provided a long-sought means for allowing the occasional missed landing to become just that, rather than a damaging barrier arrestment or deck crash.

Each of these additions increased flight deck length. The catapults had to be longer to allow sufficient impetus to be applied to the aircraft without exceeding its structural limitations. The arresting gear run-out area was lengthened to permit deceleration of the planes within their strength limits. The use of jet aircraft ashore has forced land-based runways to more than double in length in the last ten years. Every major city is struggling to make room for the greater size required for its municipal airport since jet transports made their appearance. In the same way, aircraft carrier "runways" have had to be lengthened for the transition to jets- from 866 feet to about 1,040 feet, or about 20 per cent.

Carrier aircraft, meanwhile, have developed a performance to equal that of any planes in the world. It is important to understand that the size of Forrestal is optimum - she is big enough to handle any aircraft either in operation or being designed that might be adapted for carrier use. Smaller carriers could be built, if we desired to sacrifice aircraft performance, seaworthiness, adequate logistic capacity, and all the other advantages that the larger hull of the modern carrier makes available to us.

Much effort and money is devoted today toward the development of STOL and VTOL aircraft-aircraft capable of short or vertical take-off and landing. Not generally appreciated is the fact that the aircraft carrier has inherent in her flight deck the machinery required to give her aircraft these desirable attributes, and at no cost in additional aircraft weight or complexity.

Early atomic weapons were cumbersome and heavy. The AJ-1 Savage was the first carrier aircraft able to carry one of these monsters, but within five years of the Trinity shot at Alamagordo, New Mexico, small Navy attack aircraft were carrying atomic bombs as a routine exercise. All attack aircraft in a modern carrier air group and some of the fighters can carry at least one atomic weapon, and yields are as high as 50 times that of the Hiroshima bomb. Delivery methods range from classic dive bombing and horizontal level bombing to the low altitude loft or laydown method, which assist the pilot in avoiding detection and interference in his attack.

One of the knotty problems in the postwar incorporation of nuclear weapons into the carrier arsenal has been the maintenance of competent conventional capabilities as well. The versatility of the carrier air group did not just happen; it is the result of careful examination of each new aircraft to ensure that it retains the inherent flexibility requisite in carrier forces.

To illustrate the competence and versatility incorporated in the attack carrier's combat air group, let us examine briefly the composition of today's air group and the functions of its embarked squadrons. A Forrestal-class carrier, ready for deployment, carries 85 to 90 aircraft, including a utility plane and two helicopters. The air group consists of six squadrons, each of from 12 to 14 planes. The main battery of the carrier is her four attack squadrons, presently two squadrons of the high-performance, jet attack A4D Skyhawk, one squadron of the heavier, long-range A3D Skywarrior, and one squadron of the propeller-driven AD Skyraider. These aircraft perform the functions of attack on targets at sea and ashore with either conventional or nuclear weapons. They accomplish interdiction, close support of troops, armed reconnaissance, and amphibious support with a wide variety of weapons.

The selection of weapons that can be carried on these aircraft provides a degree of flexibility which permits tailoring of the tools to the job in a manner never before possible. A typical attack aircraft can carry and deliver generally any of the following weapons or combinations of them, limited only by total gross weight or bomb rack limitations of the particular aircraft: 250-, 500-, 1,000- or 2,000-pound general purpose bombs; 2.75- or 5-inch rockets in various sized clusters, to be fired individually or in salvo; the guided Bullpup bomb for precision strikes on very small, difficult targets; fire bombs; anti-personnel bombs; smoke and spray tank dispensers; 20-mm. guns, both integral and pod-mounted; and the various nuclear weapons, which vary both in yield and application. In addition, any of these aircraft can be used as a tanker to refuel other aircraft in flight. Finally, where an extensive anti-air warfare effort might be required, a capability "to configure some attack aircraft with air-to-air missiles is included, although seldom used.

All attack aircraft perform the same general functions, although aircraft characteristics vary somewhat. The smaller attack aircraft present in the Fleet in large numbers possess what is called a limited all-weather capability. This means that the aircraft are equipped with instrumentation to enable the pilot to fly in poor visibility or darkness and to proceed to a target area regardless of weather and visibility, but that attacks must be completed visually. The weather and visibility minimums under which attacks can be carried out depend in a large measure upon the target, the terrain, and the pilot. Finding a tank in mountains or jungle under conditions of darkness or bad weather may prove impossible, regardless of a pilot's ability or aggressiveness; destroying an important bridge across an easily recognizable river might be possible, however, under extremely adverse weather conditions. Limited all-weather attack plays an important role and comprises the bulk of attack carrier strength today.

Heavy attack aircraft like the Skywarrior add a true, all-weather capability to the carrier weapons array. These aircraft are equipped, and their crews are trained, to proceed to a target, complete their navigation and target identification, and attack under almost any weather conditions. Heavy attack aircraft can complete attacks either by high altitude, level bombing, or by low altitude delivery methods. These aircraft, because of their greater size, possess greater range capabilities than do the smaller attack aircraft and are able to carry somewhat greater bomb loads. On occasion, special techniques can be employed to permit heavy attack aircraft, with their more complex electronic systems, to guide one or more of the fighter-bomber attack planes to their weather-enshrouded targets.

Along time ago, John Paul Jones said, "I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast, for I intend to go in harm's way." Going in harm's way has been a Navy method of operation for a long time. Anti-air warfare is the term used to describe the function of those systems designed to wage the air battle that must ensue when air superiority is contested. Fighter squadrons are the anti-air portion of the modern carrier air group and their job is to wage the air warfare adjunct to attack operations. They are equipped to engage air elements of the enemy, whether this entails destruction of enemy bombers attempting to attack our forces, or the attack and defeat of enemy air defenses placed in opposition to our attacks.

The fighter strength of the air group is represented normally by two fighter squadrons, one of very high performance aircraft, and one of all-weather interceptors. Respectively, these are today, the F8U-2N Crusader and the F3H-2 Demon or F4D Skyray. The Crusader, now in its seventh year of operational service, was the first supersonic aircraft to become operational in the Fleet. The latest modification of the Crusader has a considerable all-weather intercept capability and is equipped with both air-to-air missiles and guns. T he Demon and the Skyray have complex electronic gear which enables them to fire radar-guided or infra-red missiles at enemy targets without visual sighting. All Navy fighters have a capability as supplementary attack aircraft and can be used in the attack or ground support role, where air superiority has been established, or is not contested. In some cases, this attack capability includes a significant nuclear weapon delivery capacity.

The air group also includes certain special purpose aircraft in limited numbers. A photo-reconnaissance detachment of three high-performance aircraft equipped with cameras, some airborne early warning aircraft to provide widespread radar coverage separate from the ship's radars, and utility aircraft and helicopters complete the ship's deck load. T he flexibility and versatility of this air group is the result of careful attention to the contribution of each aircraft type as it was developed. As a combat entity, capable of accomplishing a multitude of functions with a variety of weapons against opposition of the highest order, it has no equal in modern weapons systems, either present or projected.

Assuming for the moment that the modern attack carrier does represent the epitome of mobile, flexible, and versatile military strength-what lies ahead?

Carriers represent a capital investment that pays dividends in national security for 20 years or more. Ships like Intrepid, Essex, and Lexington lack only a few years of having proven this statement true. The log of Essex testifies to Navy mobility as embodied in the aircraft carrier. Essex has been involved in every armed action and nearly every crisis that has occurred since she was commissioned in 1942. Her aircraft fought throughout the Pacific in World War II, made significant contributions in the Korean War, and were directly involved in the Lebanon and Formosa crises. These latter episodes were, significantly, separated by half the world in distance and only a few weeks in time, posing again a timely demonstration of mobile power. In the Tachen evacuation in February 1955, five attack carriers were included in the task force which accomplished this chore. Attack carriers of the Sixth Fleet were on hand to help evacuate some 1,680 U. S. nationals when the Suez crisis exploded in 1956.

Jordan, Lebanon, Taiwan- the list rolls on, and in each outbreak of violence, the U.S. Navy's attack carriers have been among the first called upon and the first to respond. But what of the new carriers-Kit~ Hawk, Constellation, the nuclear-powered Enterprise, and the as-yet-unnamed CV A-66? Can we anticipate the same sort of usefulness from these ships? What lies ahead for them?

Carrier developments now in prospect give a relatively good index of the direct ion in which we are proceeding. A look at current aviation research and development projects and at new aircraft in early production stages makes it possible to examine the combat capabilities of the carrier and her air group in the 1965- 1970 era. Beyond that, we may only surmise what lies ahead.

The air group of 1965 will include a more sophisticated, higher performance version of the A4D Skyhawk. This new aircraft, now entering early production, includes an advanced engine with more thrust and lighter weight, greater range capabilities and increased bomb load. The newly developed cluster bomb racks will enable this "Bantam Bomber" to mount as many as 18 assorted 500- and 250-pound bombs and two Bullpups. This everything-but-the-kitchen-sink sort of bomb load is exactly what is needed in a close support situation, and the new Skyhawk will be able to deliver its load within the high performance parameters that will be required in future combat.

A major addition to the attack carrier's capabilities will be made when the A2F Intruder is added to the carrier's air group in 1963. The Intruder will be the first aircraft capable of around-the-clock attacks with conventional weapons delivered with necessary precision to make them effective, regardless of weather or darkness. The aircraft will incorporate a digital computer and radar sensors to provide the pilot with a graphic picture of his flight situation, enabling him to fly at low altitude, navigate, locate, identify and attack a target, all without visual reference. This is accomplished by a device, now experimental, which represents a considerable advance in the art of instrument flying. The pilot is provided with a vertical display tube, which presents to him a "contact analogue," an artificial picture analogous to what he would see if his eyes could pierce the weather. His path to the target, terrain clearance, and proper speed and altitude are all indicated to him by this device. Both conventional and nuclear weapon deliveries will be more accurate and reliable with the advent of the Intruder.

The attack roster of the carrier will be further strengthened by the addition of the A3J Vigilante, now flying and scheduled for fleet introduction next year. The A3J is a heavy attack aircraft with the ability to make its attacks from extreme altitudes at supersonic speeds. As an adjunct to the Intruder, the Vigilante diversifies the attack and complicates the problem for potential enemy defenders. As a measure of its performance, this aircraft set a new world's record for aircraft with a payload of more than a ton. It reached an altitude above 91,000 feet in this record flight.

Anti-air warfare forces will also grow in capability and potentiality with the addition of other new aircraft. The F4H Phantom II, now flying, provides a unique combination of all-weather competence with performance superior to any aircraft in the world. It holds two world's speed records at the present time. A two-place, missile-equipped interceptor, it can "double in brass" as a fine attack aircraft and has completed carrier suitability trials without difficulty.

A new concept in anti-air warfare will take its place alongside the Phantom with the development of the Missileer aircraft. The Missileer, combined with a sophisticated and highly capable air-to-air missile called Eagle, will make it possible to establish air superiority over wide ranging areas and to maintain this superiority for relatively long periods. The Eagle-Missileer combination, now in early stages of development, will be useful in the air group of 1970, when enemy attack capabilities probably will have increased with the passage of time, as will our own.

This recital gives an idea of the combat air group which may operate from attack carriers in the 1965- 1970 era. Extensive examination of the capabilities of this air group measured against opposition of the predicted caliber has been accomplished by military effectiveness experts, study groups, and machine computer problems. These studies in general conclude that against the highest caliber of opposition, including aircraft, missiles, radars, and other weapons expected in this time period, the effectiveness of this air group will be better than ever before. Present programs are based on enhancing the ability of the attack carrier to do the job she has always done so successfully, and on maintaining this effectiveness as enemy capabilities increase.

To accommodate the new aircraft and electronic capabilities that will be fitted into carrier operations in the future, new attack carriers will join the Fleet. Kitty Hawk, Constellation, and CV A-66 are all Forrestal-class carriers. Enterprise, while slightly larger to accommodate her nuclear power plant, matches Forrestal' s flight facilities. These ships will replace Essex-class ships whose 20-year life is fast ending.

Nuclear power will give Enterprise an even greater capability to exploit the advantages of mobility. Almost unlimited range at sustained high cruising speeds will free her from the requirements of fueling at sea. Once operating her planes against an enemy, she must, of course, replenish weapons and aviation fuel as do her sisters, but she carries more of both these essentials than they do. Experience with the operation of Enterprise will be invaluable in demonstrating to the Navy the full application of nuclear power to surface units.

Technically the new carriers are better equipped in every way to accomplish the functions that older ships have performed for decades. In the face of advancing technologies, these old ships have become marginal. The new ships will hold far stronger places in our array of seapower.

What is the future of these new ships? Are their functions to remain the same? Determination of the future of the attack carrier is involved with determination of the requirements for military strength that will devolve upon the United States in coming years. There is no question but that a formidable nuclear retaliatory capability will continue to be a necessary requirement. The Polaris, which exploits inevitability of retaliation and thus ensures enemy credibility, is perhaps the best embodiment of nuclear retaliation as it will be needed in the future. As other nations develop a matching capability, nuclear deterrent must become less effective as an assurance of peace. It is likely that military force as an extension of national policy will become dependent upon strong conventional arms, able to bring force to bear without risking Armageddon at each new difference of opinion.

An infinite number of forms of armed conflict appear possible in the future. The most probable, perhaps are smaller, limited-objective clashes, where nuclear weapons are withheld by both sides. The least probable, it is hoped, is all-out, general war involving massive exchanges of nuclear weapons. In between lie a variety of situations where nuclear weapons are subject to limited use, where small tactical weapons could be used in special situations, perhaps at sea, or in anti-air warfare, but where surface targets or centers of population would be spared. Throughout this range of possibilities, the role of the attack carrier and of Navy striking forces remains a major one. The attack carrier will continue to be the most flexible combination of capabilities to handle these many situations which it is economically feasible to build. The combination of military strengths and virtues that has made the carrier and its manned, discriminating aircraft a military asset for years, will continue to be a dominant element in armed forces of the future.

The attack carrier is the spearhead of modern seapower and forms the vital core of the U. S. Navy's strength. As in the past and present, so in the future will the airpower made available to the fleet commander by the attack carrier be the element that permits the Fleet to function in the face of determined air opposition. Amphibious warfare, sea supremacy, and our entire limited war capability are always dependent upon the presence of the air strength that the attack carrier brings into the area of operations. Without her, our ability to control the seas would be limited to sporadic, hit-and-run attacks.

The modern attack carrier still represents one of the best possible investments in national security this nation can make. With facilities capable of managing any airborne vehicle we foresee, with enough versatility to incorporate any development in weapons yet dreamed of, including and exploiting true mobility, the attack carrier represents a concept in military application that may never become obsolete. We must, like the Romans, "Maintain the peace by a constant preparation for war and by indicating to our enemies that we are as little disposed to endure injury as to offer it." Our mighty, modern, attack carrier force continues to be a fundamental element of our national strength for accomplishing this end.

 

More by this Author

None found for this author.

Events and Conferences

None found for this author.


 
 

Conferences and Events

2015 WEST Conference

Tue, 2015-02-10 - Thu, 2015-02-12

Co-sponsored by AFCEA International and the U.S. Naval Institute, West 2015 is the largest event on the West Coast for...

2015 U.S. Naval Institute Member Event

Ultimate Skybox at The Diamond View Tower

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