“Methods and means are ever changing, but fundamentals remain constant."
Editor’s Note: This paper was awarded the prize in the Henry Van Dyke Prize Essay Contest for the best essay upon a professional subject. The contest was open to midshipmen of the first class of the U. S. Naval Academy.
Within the past few years, the problem of our national defense has been a matter of much discussion and. investigation. Two outstanding factors, the Navy and the air, have been brought to the attention of the nation. A similar problem has occupied the attention of European governments, notably Great Britain. In her case a solution was found, but the outcome has far from coincided with the expectations of the proponents of that solution. The British Air Ministry will be dealt with more comprehensively in a later paragraph. It is the intention of the winter to render a brief exposition upon the more important considerations as the basis of the relationship between our Navy and its air force.
Let us briefly recall to mind the purpose that dictates the existence of our naval establishment. The purpose of the Navy is threefold: (1) To insure the defense of our shores against foreign aggression. (2) To guard our legitimate interests on the high seas and in foreign lands. (3) To sustain our national policies. The furtherance of this mission demands preparedness, and when the necessity arrives, the Navy seeks to destroy the naval force of the enemy. The nature of the Navy’s preparedness is embodied in the meaning of fleet efficiency.
Fleet efficiency demands several things: (1) A well-balanced fleet must be composed of a proper number of all types of war- craft possessing distinctive combative advantages. (2) The possibilities of each type must be developed to the highest pitch, and fullest proficiency exercised in its employment. (3) Insofar as it is practicable, the vulnerability of each type must be adequately covered and denied the enemy, to the end that its usefulness as an arm of the fleet be not impaired. Hence it is seen that fleet efficiency is based on the interdependence and proper coordination of the various arms of the fleet.
The most important consideration is the fact that our entire naval structure is embodied in the meaning of unity. The fleet is under one commander; the personnel is trained under one system ; there is a single doctrine; the material and personnel are adapted to one purpose; there is a single code of strategy, and a single code of tactics. These considerations are of axiomatic importance and are substantiated by naval history. They are fundamentals, and not susceptible to change regardless of such improvements as take place from time to time in methods and means of waging naval war. It is in view of these fundamentals that the idea of an independent air service is basically unsound.
It is desirable to indicate that in order to emphasize their contentions, the proponents of an independent air force have spared no efforts towards decrying the worth of a navy in general, and the capital ship in particular, this notwithstanding the government’s adoption of a policy which clearly upholds the need of a powerful navy. A notion exists that the construction of the capital ship is bounded by fixed and immutable considerations involving essentially obsolete methods of fighting, and blind to the radical changes brought about by the possibilities of aircraft.
It is needless to recall that the capital ship was similarly abused when imaginations were fired with the possibilities of small craft capable of launching the deadly torpedo. The successful operation of the submarine brought with it a storm of protest against the vulnerable, bulky, expensive, capital ship. In the case of the torpedo boat, and again of the submarine, conservative opinion prevailed. It is not contended that conservatism is infallible, but it is, in the long run, more reliable than the impracticalities of flagrant imagination, and especially the imagination of those who have no direct concern with naval operations.
The designation “capital ship,” is applied to a vessel that possesses the most powerful offensive and defensive powers. This designation, wrongly interpreted by the Disarmament Conference of 1921, is not confined to certain qualities to the exclusion of others. At present, the dreadnaught is the capital ship because she can deliver and receive, without permanent disability, the most powerful blows. A submarine can become a capital ship: (1) If she can fire underwater projectiles with greater speed, volume, and accuracy than the gun salvos of a modern dreadnaught; (2) if she can develop defensive qualities that surpass those of the dreadnaught; (3) if her range of vision, speed, endurance, and maneuverability can encompass those of the dreadnaught. Similarly, the seaplane can become the capital ship when the requirements are fulfilled. The capital ship is essentially an adaptation of the most potent form of offense and defense that can in conjunction with the auxiliary, but not the less important, arms, fulfill the mission of the fleet. At the present time, the numerous investigations by competent authorities have resulted in the conclusive opinion that the dreadnaught of today is the capital ship. Due regard has been given to the indispensability of aircraft and submarine craft. The importance of neither has been undervalued. The fleet that includes dreadnaughts in addition to its airplane carriers, submarines, and other auxiliaries, is properly accredited superiority over a fleet of equal tonnage but lacking dreadnaughts. In the report of the Joint Board to the Navy Department, dated August J8, 1921, it is stated: “Airplane carriers are subject to attacks V vessels carrying guns, torpedoes, or bombs, and will require as all other vessels require, the eventual support of the battleship…The development of aircraft instead of furnishing an economical instrument of war leading to the abolition of the battleship, has but added to the complexity of naval warfare.” From the foregoing, it is obvious that the capital ship is the battleship, and upon her depend the potentialities of the other fleet arms.
It is pertinent to mention the battleship bombing experiments that have been conducted within the past few years. Defenseless hulks were anchored off the Virginia Capes and airplanes dispatched to bomb them. Before releasing their bombs the aviators expended the better part of an hour determining atmospheric conditions, adjusting sights, and choosing the most advantageous methods of approach. Bombs were dropped from altitudes between 1,100 and 5,000 feet. Conclusions were drawn and on the basis of these, the dreadnaught was declared obsolete. To the writer, the alleged object of these bombing tests was not precisely understood. That airplanes could fly over water was not to be doubted. That bombs could be released was equally well known. That the explosion of a heavy powder charge was injurious to the water-tight integrity of a ship was amply demonstrated during the past war. What difference would there have been had these hulks been sunk by torpedoes, bombs, or gunfire: It is not very apparent how a relevant conclusion could be drawn from a test that was conducted with no attempt at simulation of even the most elementary characteristics of sea battle. What would have happened had the target steamed with frequent changes of course at twenty knots? To what degree would the bombers have been able to reach their objective had they been encountered by a protecting pursuit squadron? These and many more questions challenge the validity of the conclusions that the quick thinkers have formed. Because bombs dropped by airplanes were the cause of destruction, there are those who have already relegated the battleship to obsolescence, and declared our salvation wholly dependent on aircraft. Had these hulks been used for target practice by destroyers, the sinkings would have occurred. Yet no one contemplates substituting destroyers and submarines for our battleships.
Let us consider the Navy and its relation to an independent air force. This is important in view of the fact that there are those who believe in the maintenance of our Navy, but think that its air arm should be under the control of a separate organization that is dealing with a means of waging war essentially different from and independent of military and naval operations.
An impression prevails that the strategical and tactical requirements of aviation are incorporated in a single form that can be readily applied to both naval and military operations. There are those who erroneously believe that machines built for military purposes can be used to fulfill the requirements of naval aviation. Many are of the fallacious opinion that both naval and military aviators can be trained under one system in view of the exact similarity of their duties. It is on the basis of these considerations that the need of an independent air service is emphasized. Through an organization of this nature, it is believed that the wasteful expense of duplicate control and operation, as is at present allegedly the case in the army and navy aeronautical administrations, can be eliminated; also, an organization of this type will give an impetus to the development of aviation in view of the secondary status to which it is allegedly relegated by the Army and Navy. Let us consider these points, commencing with the strategical and tactical question.
In fleet operations, long distance reconnaissance is of primary importance because it determines the strategical developments prior to contact with the enemy. No better instance need be given than the plight of Admiral Jellicoe when he was unable properly to form his strategic lines because of inaccurate and insufficient data from his reconnaissance forces. Though fundamentally of the same root, sea reconnaissance differs widely from land reconnaissance in the practical applications. “Differing from land operations in which the airman is dealing with a comparatively stationary phase, the naval airman has to develop his attack on, or to furnish reports of, objects which themselves are moving and are endowed with high maneuvering capability.”1 The location of the enemy, a full knowledge of his strength, the identification of his important units, the disposition and movements of his several anus, his speed, course, and apparent intentions; all of these are of vital importance to the commander-in-chief. To what extent can the situation be properly analyzed, the data concisely and accurately formulated, and rapidly transmitted, when the personnel engaged in this work lack the naval understanding and the naval judgment that are the results of naval training? The fleets have made contact and now the tactical functions of aircraft are fought into play. They are briefly: (1) To spot the fall of shells. (2) To deliver torpedo, bomb, and gas attacks upon the airplane carriers and dreadnaughts of the enemy. (3) To protect the spotters and clear a way for the bombers. (4) To protect the fleet from similar efforts on the part of the enemy. (5) To scout the movements of the enemy’s different arms. Can these duties be efficiently performed by aviators who are practically ignorant of ships’ movements and ships’ gunnery methods? Obviously so far as the strategical and tactical requirements are concerned, naval training is of immense importance. Where can such training be conducted more efficiently and more expeditiously, in the Navy or in an independent air service?
The question of air personnel is analogous to the nature of the fleet’s air requirements. The fleet aviators in order to possess the requisite knowledge of and experience in naval strategy, tactics, gunnery, and maneuvers, must be essentially naval men, for there is very much to learn, perform, and perfect in these respects. Proficiency, accuracy, and precision are gained only through years of intensive exercise and coordination with the other arms of the fleet. These requirements are not adequately fulfilled by a hurried course of instruction that will at best merely familiarize men with the general nature of fleet air work. We cannot with reason train a body of men under one organization, dispatch them to several months’ duty with an organization of an entirely different nature, and expect all-round performance of a maximum quality. A land flier assigned to fleet duty has too much to unlearn of his old sphere and too much to learn in his new sphere of activity to warrant any appreciable degree of usefulness.
We must not lose sight of the fact that we are dealing with a vital arm of our fleet. If the fleet air arm is deficient because of the character of its personnel, its lack of indoctrination in fleet ways and methods, its lack of “the sea sense and the sea understanding,”2 then the efficiency of our fleet is bound to suffer; for without the control of the air prior to and during action, our fleet is worthless.
Let us now turn to the consideration of naval air material. People are of the opinion that aircraft built for military and naval operations are of similar design and construction. Of course, aircraft for all purposes are built under common fundamental physical principles that involve sustentation, mobility, and control. But aside from the fact that every plane possesses wings, engine, fuselage, rudders, and landing gear, the similarity no longer exists. “It is to be observed, however, in this connection, that aircraft for use for naval purposes differ in many essential respects from aircraft used for military operations, that spotting, reconnaissance, and torpedo machines are types peculiar to the Navy, and that the development of these types to meet sea conditions, including their housing on board aircraft carriers, cruisers, and capital ships is largely a naval problem in which sea knowledge and sea experience are necessary.3 It is evident from the foregoing that the independent air service will have to consult the Navy. But the mere consultation does not insure the efficiency of the fleet air force because the Navy’s recommendations in this respect are not mandatory and the air service can adopt them or not as it sees fit. It is stated that the control of all air forces vested in a single department will further the development of aviation to a more rapid extent than is now the case with the Army and Navy in separate control of their air arms. How this is practically possible is not very apparent for several reasons: first, the air service will at once be concerned with developing material for two air arms, each essentially different in every respect from the other; second, the interdepartmental comity that exists between the Army and Navy aeronautical boards furnishes a means of exchanging ideas. Where one accomplishes a notable improvement in the construction of a plane, the other is welcome to any advantages that it may derive from such improvement. This is similar to the relations between the ordnance bureaus of the two services. Obviously competition exists, but we know that “.... an element of competition in certain matters has its advantages.” Third, the staff of technicians working under the supervision of the Naval Bureau of Aeronautics has proved itself as capable as any similar staff in the world, and more so than the staff employed in the country that possesses an independent air ministry.
The creation of an independent air force will inevitably bring with it a divided responsibility for the efficiency of our fleet. The proponents of such a department contend that the efficiency of the fleet will not suffer because of the cooperation that will exist between the Navy and the air service. It is, therefore, upon the factor of cooperation that the efficiency of our fleet will depend.
The word “cooperation” is a source of pitfalls when admitted to military and naval .operations. It possesses an implied meaning, but for practical purposes, it is the equivalent of meaningless for the principal reason that it denotes concurrent action by individuals or groups possessing equal rights. Obviously, the degree of concurrence and coincidence in matters of doctrine, policy, and opinion, is subject to the individual human traits and susceptible to the old adage, “no two men think alike.” Cooperation in its very essence invites dissension, hesitation, and multiplicity of doctrine. To introduce even the possibility of their occurring in any phase of command, control, or training of our fleet is ruinous. We ought to know that the harmonious adjustment of the command and training of naval units must be of a subordinative nature, and emanating from a central authority. History is replete with instances that prove the inconsistency of a system involving dual control and dependent upon cooperation. Unity of command, unity of operation, and unity of doctrine, are the proven requisites of an efficient naval organization. Yet there are those who cannot see that, where two chiefs are assigned joint control over a fighting arm that is essentially a component part of the fleet, efficiency is bound to suffer and disaster is invited.
Let us briefly review the history and present status of the British Air Ministry. Under the exigencies of the war, several ministries were created to meet the gigantic emergencies that arose to a great extent through lack of adequate preparedness. The construction and supply of aircraft was assigned to an air ministry. Creditable work was accomplished, and on the basis of this, the Air Ministry resolutely disputed all steps at its dissolution when the war ended and the military and naval establishments were being reduced to normalcy.
The following statements from an article by Sir Herbert Russell are relevant to a great extent on the course pursued by the Air Ministry to uphold its existence.
The new Ministry of Air proclaimed that it had done much invaluable work during the war, which otherwise would not have been done at all, that it had justified its claims to a permanent existence in the scheme of national defense…The long controversy between the Admiralty and the Air Ministry is a matter of general knowledge…The Air Ministry realized that it had become a fifth wheel upon the coach, but it had made up its mind to fight for continued existence. So it began to usurp authority over civil aviation…
Commercial aviation is essentially a matter of private enterprise. If the airship is a profitable proposition for the carriage of passengers or freight, private enterprise would build her fast enough. But the airship is not a profitable proposition; private enterprise leaves her severely alone, and the Air Ministry exploits her so as to persuade the public that it is doing a national service.
We are treated to a lot of talk about “imperial airways,” “linking the empire,’ and so forth by this ministry which continues to cling to office so resolutely. But the simple fact remains that all this heroic terminology is mere eyewash to sidetrack perception of the fact that the Air Ministry is merely butting in upon private enterprise…4
At all events, the Air Ministry minority staged a powerful fight, and the ministry remained, but not without, concessions which have to a great extent altered its character and lessened its independence. To preserve the unity of command in the British fleet, it was decided that air personnel embarked on ships of war were subject to the Naval Discipline Act and therefore under the orders of the commanding officers of such war vessels. To safeguard the necessary character of personnel serving with the fleet, provisions have been made whereby seventy per cent of-the aviators for use in the fleet air arm are to be naval personnel. Land artisans and mechanics formerly on board the aircraft carriers have been replaced by shipwrights and naval mechanics. In the construction and design of aircraft for use in the fleet, the recommendations of naval advisers are to be considered, though no obligation other than the mere consideration is attached. These foregoing concessions have radically altered the status of the British Air Ministry since its definite establishment as a permanent ministry in April, 1923. But despite these changes, Britishers continue to voice their disapproval of a system “where there exists within the navy a service separate from the navy, a service with different conceptions and different traditions, a service looking to an authority independent of the Admiralty for its upkeep and preferment.” 5
British inventive capacity from the naval viewpoint has always held its own with American technic in this respect. But we cannot help noticing that since the Air Ministry took control, very few aviation records have been won by Englishmen, nor has there been any commendable improvement in methods and means of accommodating aircraft on board the British capital ships and cruisers.
A major item which merits our interest is the economical question of the British Air Ministry. The proponents of an independent air force argue that the duplication of effort, as is the case at present, involves a considerable wastage of funds; that with a separate air department in control of all the air activities, this needless waste would be eliminated. This is not the case with the British Air Ministry, nor can it be possible under any system where three departments are detailed to do the work of two. The law of mechanical efficiency is applicable in this respect. The creation of the British Air Ministry has necessitated more housing facilities, more swivel-chair experts, more uniforms, more administration over a problem of national defense that is already over-ridden by the machinations of politics, and withal a greater resultant wastage in funds, not to mention the discontent with this system that is prevalent throughout Great Britain. It is not predicted that an immediate fall is in sight for the British Air Ministry for the reason that in peace times, political irregularities have a way of superficial adjustment that tends to quiet agitation.
In concluding, it is fitting to mention the underlying fault, the dual control, that is unavoidably connected with the existence of an independent air force.
The Navy is responsible for its fleet. The proposition is to organize a separate department and give it control of the fleet air arm, an integral arm of the fleet. Would this not be the equivalent of placing the control of the submarine arm, or the fleet train, under a separate department? The analogies are identical and not exaggerated. The commander-in-chief is held to account for the outcome of the battle. He is responsible for every phase and every evolution through which the component arms of the fleet are exercised. Is this accountability reasonable when the air arm of the fleet is not under his command, or its training is conducted under a system essentially un-naval?
We must not let our imaginations carry on to the extent of violating the fundamental principle, unity of control. Our adherence to that principle does not compel us to support old and obsolete methods and means, nor does it preclude us from incorporating to our best advantage the possibilities of aircraft. The sea menace exists and can be met most effectively by our Navy provided it exercises complete control in the maintenance, training, and operation of its component arms. The air menace to our centers of production is possible and can be met by the air forces of our Army. Let us study the mistakes that others have made, and profit by them, for it is through lessons of experience that fundamental principles are best substantiated.
1 Brassey's Naval Annual, 1925, page 90.
2 Brassey's Annual, page 83.
3 Brassey's Annual, page 91.
4 U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings, January 1926, page 138.
5 Brassey’s Annual, page 83.