To Be or Not to Be?

By Norman Polmar

The AAF was more than equal with the other Army forces. The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) had come into existence as a result of the decision by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill in late 1941 to establish the Combined Chiefs of Staff as the supreme Anglo-American military body for the strategic direction of World War II. Beginning in January 1942without specific executive action or congressional legislation-the senior U.S. military officers met to provide overall guidance for U.S. military operations. Army Lieutenant General Henry H. (Hap) Arnold, Chief of the Army Air Forces, sat as an equal with the top officers of the Army and Navy for the remainder of the war. As Chief of the AAF, General Arnold was still subordinate to General George C. Marshall, the Army Chief of Staff, and generally deferred to Marshall on all nonaviation matters in JCS meetings.

General Arnold was the principal proponent of a separate air force. According to a perceptive Air Force officer, "In the 1930s the [air service] goal had been to claim one-third of the defense budget, while in the latter part of [World War II] the aim was to capture all of it, or at least to become preeminent within the defense establishment."

In this environment, the Navy's leadership strongly opposed the establishment of an independent, coequal air force after World War II. Memoirs, correspondence, official files, and interviews reveal five reasons for the Navy's opposition.

  • The British example. The British combined all military and naval aviation in 1918, forming the Royal Air Force (RAF), an independent service. The RAF took control of all naval aircraft, shipbased as well as land-based. For the next 20 years, British naval aviation was starved for funds; few new naval aircraft were developed or procured; and the most promising aviators eschewed serving in the RAF fleet air arm, preferring the mainstream components. In 1937, the Royal Navy regained control of shipbased aviation, but it was too late; two years later Britain went to war with inadequate carrier aircraft as well as other aviation shortcomings. Only the later transfer of U.S. Navy aircraft gave British carriers a realistic combat capability (American-supplied B-24 Liberators and PBY Catalinas were the most effective RAF maritime patrol aircraft). The landbased patrol planes remained in the RAF Coastal Command, albeit with some Navy operational control. U.S. Navy leaders after World War II feared a similar demise of carrier aviation.
  • Land-based aviation. Before World War II, the U.S. Navy operated only flying boats in the maritime patrol role. In October 1941, the Navy began to fly the twin-engine PBO-1 Hudson as its first land-based patrol aircraft. This was followed by the large-scale acquisition of four-engine B-24 Liberators and other land-based bomber aircraft for Navy as well as Marine land-based squadrons. The Army and Navy would soon compete for these aircraft-especially the Liberator, which became invaluable in the patrol/antisubmarine role.

Not only did the AAF demand priority on bomber production, but it also initiated land-based antisubmarine operations. Here, too, there was debate, as the Navy demanded that AAF antisubmarine squadrons work with convoys, as the probability of locating U-boats near convoys was many times higher than simply searching the ocean for them. The AAF labeled convoy support "purely defensive" and insisted on "offensive" tactics: "search, strike, and sink" operations across the Atlantic.

The Battle of the Atlantic-the five-and-a-half year campaign against the U-boats-was a close fight. The Navy did not want to risk either the abandonment of maritime patrol aviation or its diversion away from demonstrated antisubmarine concepts, in case another Atlantic battle against a resurgent German or a Soviet undersea fleet might arise.

  • Strategic bombing. The AAF made its reputation with the precision daylight bombing of Germany and, to a lesser degree, Japan. AAF propagandists claimed that this strategic bombing campaign had "won the war," and an independent air force was viewed as primarily a strategic bomber force that-based on the doctrine originated by Douhet and Mitchell-could bring any enemy to surrender without the need for naval or ground combat forces.

Navy leaders believed that strategic bombers had not defeated Germany; rather, that ground forces-like the air forces, delivered to the battle fronts by sea had defeated Germany. In the Pacific, they concluded, Japan had been stripped of its empire (the reason it went to war) by the Navy-Marine team, and either blockade or invasion, not strategic bombing, would have brought about Japan's surrender. In any event, the atomic bomb, the ultimate cause of Japan's surrender, was not part of the AAF strategic bombing campaign. The Navy leadership feared that such a one-strategy (strategic bombing) doctrine would destroy America's military flexibility and, eventually, its effectiveness against a broad spectrum of future threats.

  • Loss of land-based aviation. World War II was in large part a naval war, and naval aviation, both land- and sea-based, had vital roles in virtually all naval engagements and amphibious assaults. At the end of World War II, the Navy and Marine Corps operated more than 40,000 aircraft.

AAF leaders too often remarked-in the style of Douhet and Mitchell-that "all that flies" should be part of the independent air force. This implied the loss of land-based naval patrol, reconnaissance, and transport aircraft-as well as the large Marine air arm-to an air force. The Navy, unlike the Army, had fully integrated aviation in the 1920s and 1930s, and by 1945 aviation was a component of virtually every aspect of Navy and Marine operations. Indeed, on 4 December 1945, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal announced that in the future at least one-half of all staff positions in the office of the Chief of Naval Operations would be filled by naval aviators. Additionally, naval aviators would be considered to be as eligible for fleet commands as other line officers. The loss of land-based Navy and Marine aviation, and conceivably even carried-based aviation, would disrupt naval operations totally.

  • Control of a defense establishment. The debates over an independent air force were part of the larger issue of a unified defense establishment. The Navy feared that a unified structure-comprising the Army, Navy, and Air Force-would be dominated by the larger services (possibly the Army and quite probably the Air Force), which claimed the United States could win wars with strategic bombing, long before naval or ground forces could even reach the combat area. Such an establishment, the Navy leadership feared, could reduce the Navy to a convoy escort role.

On 17 September 1947, Forrestal was sworn in as the first Secretary of Defense. The following day, the National Military Establishment came into existence (being renamed the Department of Defense two years later), and the Department of the Air Force was created as a military department coequal with the Departments of the Army and Navy. General Carl A. Spaatz, a leading strategic bomber commander of the war, became the first Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force.

Although an independent Air Force and a unified defense establishment were established, the Navy and Marine Corps were able to keep their respective air arms. Yet the battle was not over. Two years later, on 17 October 1949, then retired General Spaatz wrote in Newsweek magazine, "The Navy now spends more than half its total appropriations in support of naval aviation. The result is that the nation is wasting aviation talent in support of two air forces." In his summary, Spaatz stated that "nothing less than United States air supremacy is at stake. This leadership cannot be maintained unless the country's military air resources are pooled and placed under the control of one organization."

At the same time, there was a national debate in the Congress and Truman administration over the relative merits of carrier aviation and strategic bombers, especially the long-delayed, six-engine B-36 intercontinental bomber. The Navy lost that round-the first "supercarrier," the United States (CVA-58), was canceled in 1949, five days after the keel was laid down; but the B-36, an aircraft of questionable effectiveness-but unquestionably vulnerable to Soviet fighter aircraft-was procured.

Still, naval aviation survived. The differences between the Air Force and Navy approaches to aviation persist. Did the Air Force "win" the 1991 Gulf War? Can B-2 stealth bombers based in the United States provide overseas "presence" as well or more effectively than aircraft carriers? A retired U.S. Army general recently wrote:

. . . [dollar] numbers reveal an indisputable fact: a carrier-based aircraft is the most expensive way to deliver a bomb to a target. When aircraft could fly at most 300 miles roundtrip, floating airports made sense. Today, when fighters and strategic bombers can fly across oceans in less than a day, the case for carriers is weak.

The debate continues.


Norman Polmar is an internationally known analyst, consultant, and award-winning author specializing in the naval, aviation, and intelligence areas. He has participated in or directed major studies in these areas for the U.S. Department of Defense and Navy, and served as a consultant to U.S. and foreign commercial firms and government agencies. He has been an advisor or consultant on naval issues to three U.S. Secretaries of the Navy and two Chiefs of Naval Operations, as well as to three U.S. Senators and a Speaker of the House of Representatives. He is the author or coauthor of more than 50 published books, including nine editions of Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet and four editions of Guide to the Soviet Navy as well as U.S. Nuclear Arsenal, Ship Killer, and Project Azorian. Mr. Polmar is a columnist for the Proceedings and Naval History magazines. He is a resident of Alexandria, VA.

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