To best forfend ’gainst foeman’s worst,
Out-reach his thrust and touch him first!
The argument began when Ug, the Logical Contender from Upper Silurian County, eliminated Wok, the Neanderthal Menace—stopping him neatly in his tracks by caroming a rock off his ear at five paces, before Wok could close to fair swinging distance with his flint-headed mashie-niblick.
“Pretty work,” Ug’s friends agreed, “and proof conclusive that clubs and knives are now obsolete. Let us henceforth develop our pitching arms, and look into this new-fangled bow-and-arrow contraption which that long-haired inventor over to Dinosaur Hollow is always talking about!”
“Theorists!” snapped the older warriors, “Battles always have been won by in-fighting and weight of metal. Ug didn’t prove anything except that he’s a lucky bum. What if he couldn’t have found his rock, or had been off in deflection, or Wok’s skull had been thicker? Fat chance he’d have had when Wok got in and socked him a couple of good wallops!”
And so the argument raged, far into the night and far down through the ages, whenever newer and longer-range weapons threatened to displace the old. For it is our human frailty to be far more ready to take up the cudgels in defense of what we believe already than to make any critical examination of the facts and reasoning on which our beliefs are founded. Assertion arouses more extravagant assertion, until both parties are equally and hopelessly far away from the truth, which nearly always lies short of either extreme viewpoint.
This partisanship blooms to perfection in the perennial controversy as to planes versus battleships. On the one hand we have the fiery proponents of an independent air force who promise to sink all surface craft like tin cans under a shower of destruction from the skies; while on the other hand we have those die-hards of the old school who visualize naval warfare as a sort of fistic entertainment for which they have bought tickets, and which, after a few preliminary rounds between planes, submarines, and such ham-and-eggers, is bound to end with the championship bout between the heavyweight craft, or else money refunded. Though of recent years the soft-pedal has in some measure tempered the harsher notes of discord, we may not even yet have attained to perfect harmony in thought as well as in overt speech.
In the following discussion the attempt is made to demonstrate the basic factors which are common to all offensive weapons, and with these as a guide, to weigh the strength and weakness of the plane by plain logic rather than by technology, without trying to prove a case either for or against it. We shall consider only those planes carried on ships and intended to attack or defend ships, since the scouting and observation elements exist in war only to further or hinder the ultimate use of offensive weapons. And as for shore-based air forces, while they have greatly extended the danger zones formerly fixed by other coast defenses, they are still tied to the shore, though with a tolerably long string. The option of coming within their range still lies with the ships. For the typical air weapon the bombing plane rather than the torpedo plane will be the one considered, since the former seems to occupy the greatest place in popular imagination, though possibly without good reason. However, the principles which apply to the one, will apply largely to the other.
Whatever weapon, old or new, we may be considering, its total effectiveness will be seen to consist of the product of the following factors:
(a) Destructive capacity. A single blow or application of the weapon must do enough damage to promise a decisive effect if enough be made. But it must also have a fair
(b) Rapidity of fire (or use). Whatever one blow can do, it will take a great many of them to destroy an enemy or win a war. Therefore the individual weapon must be able to strike often. More than that it must have a satisfactory degree of
(c) Accuracy; otherwise rapidity of use alone will mean merely wasted effort and material. And since many of the weapons will be needed, whatever its characteristics, we are obviously concerned with its
(d) Numbers; the numbers of it that we have now, or expect to have in the future, or can produce in emergency, with due regard to the cost and effort involved. Yet none of these qualities listed will justify the weapon unless it ranks well in
(e) Availability. It must be no temperamental instrument, unable to move or function when wanted because of this or that condition. It must be one which can get there and fight instead of having a good excuse, and even that is not enough; it must not have too great
(f) Vulnerability, or it will be itself destroyed in greater ratio than it can effect destruction, and hence be a losing proposition. And lastly it must have a comparatively long
(g) Range; for to be successful against other weapons it must hit whenever it can be hit, and sooner if possible; which is the real meaning and advantage of range.
The foregoing factors are very broad in their scope, hard to compass by any definition, and could be subdivided and sub-analyzed ad infinitum if it would add anything to our investigation. But they at least afford a certain framework on which to arrange the study of our weapon, as well as a sort of “check-off list” to insure that we do not stress some of its qualities and overlook others.
Destructive capacity.—In weighing this factor, we will consider the aërial bomb side by side with the gun projectile, because we are more familiar with the latter and our conceptions of damage and destruction are largely founded upon it.
The velocity, accuracy, and penetration of the shell fall off rapidly as the range increases. The velocity of the bomb increases with the height from which it is dropped until a point is reached, perhaps ten or fifteen thousand feet, depending on the weight of the bomb, where the resistance of the air equals the pull of gravity and there will be no further increase in velocity no matter what the height. Unlike shell, its accuracy is least when its penetrative velocity is greatest.
The shell, in order to penetrate heavy armor, must have thick walls and hence a reduced capacity for explosive. The bomb cannot attain the velocity necessary to penetrate heavy armor anyway, and hence may as well have lighter walls and a higher explosive capacity. It is possible to build an armor-piercing bomb which would penetrate the protective deck of most battleships, but it is doubtful if there would be any advantage in doing so, for the great altitude necessary to obtain the penetrating velocity would cut too heavily into the probability of hitting at all. Roughly the bomb may be said to depend on the violence of its detonation on a surface rather than on its penetration.
There is no known formula which will predict the damage that either bomb or projectile will do in any particular case. We have gained valuable information from experimental bombings and proving ground tests, but no one yet can say that a hit from this or that missile on a ship will do her so much damage and no more. We place heavy side and deck armor on our ship, not with any hope that 14-inch shells will bounce off her like tennis balls, but in order to keep the probable damage to a minimum. We subdivide her hull and provide her with blisters and drainage systems, not in the faith that torpedoes and mines will merely tickle her, but to give her a fair chance of staying afloat when hit. Enough hits of any kind will sink her, either through their cumulative damage or through the greater chance that one or two of them will work enough damage. Our war-game rules recognize this and assign a certain number of gun or torpedo hits as the life of the ship, not because it is known that a greater number will destroy her and a lesser number fail to, but because such a number represents probability as nearly as we can foresee it. And if the aërial bomb is only 25, 50, or 75 per cent as effective as a shell; whichever it may prove to be, we still cannot in reason eliminate it from consideration as a decisive weapon. By any such logic we should eliminate the shell also, because it is itself considerably less destructive to the life of the ship than a torpedo or mine.
Let us grant that there is less chance of a battleship being sunk by a bomb than by shell or torpedo. But on the other hand it were folly to delude ourselves that a 1,000-pound bomb exploding on the surface of a deck, turret, or superstructure will not do more than mess up the paintwork. With good luck the ship may suffer only nonmilitary damage and be as good a fighting unit as before. With bad luck she may lose enough speed, buoyancy, or gun efficiency to be more of a liability than an asset. She will certainly be decidedly groggy and require anywhere from a few minutes on the spot to several months in a dockyard for recovery. Thus after a severe air attack, a commander in chief might find several of his battleships decidedly below par as fighting units though without one actually sunk; or worse yet find them damaged in speed and unable either to go after the enemy or to escape him, as the case may be. Whatever the amount of an initial advantage, we are taught that it tends to multiply itself in increasing ratio as the battle progresses. Is it logical then to strive so mightily for the ability to win this initial advantage for the guns in the first exchange of salvos, and at the same time discount the possibility of winning it for them by air attack?
Also, need we assume that a fleet can only be assailed at its strongest point, the capital ship? To belittle air attack on the grounds that it is not so very effective against the latter and will not be employed against other types, expresses a hope rather than a fact. War is no fencing match in which only formal touches on the opponent’s plastron count for score. To hurt your enemy when and where you can, provided only that the hurt be worth your efforts and probable loss, is sound military economics. There will be many a time when attacking air squadrons will fail to reach their capital ship objective, and will make their attack on less important but more vulnerable targets nearer at hand. And while a bomb on the deck of a destroyer or train vessel may be of less benefit to us there than on the deck of a battleship, there is also less danger to the plane in landing it there, and the ratio of value received (loss to the enemy) against price paid (loss to ourselves) may show a good profit after all.
The relative extent to which outpost vessels invite attack should not be disregarded. What vessels of the enemy will be outermost on his screens and scouting lines, and therefore first and most often within fair bombing radius of our air forces? His light cruisers and destroyers. Will or will not these outposts of his fleet be more open to air attack without warning, somewhat less well armed with anti-aircraft guns, less likely to be guarded by fighting planes, and more vulnerable than his big carriers and battleships? Decidedly they will. Will not the loss of any such outpost vessels be a handicap to the commander in chief in whatever operation he is attempting? No doubt of it. What good reasons are there then for not making air attacks on such outpost vessels when no better target is within fair radius? None whatever, except the principle of conserving our air forces, which should certainly not mean hoarding them for some indefinite future, while the enemy gets in a blow whenever he can.
Nothing of course would justify dissipating our air forces in a picayune type of warfare against minor objectives. But it were equal folly to clip their wings by a rigid prohibition against attacking anything but capital ships, since such a relinquishment of chances would profit nobody but the enemy. The investor who hoards his money in a sock waiting for a 20 per cent investment is likely to be worsted by the rival who grasps a safe 6 per cent at every opportunity!
In summary, the question of whether or not the plane can sink a battleship is a mere hairsplitting. Its destructive capacity is probably less than that of the gun or torpedo, but it is only a matter of degree, for like them, it can damage anything it hits and destroy anything it hits often enough. It is for us to do the latter and not have it done to us.
Rapidity of fire.—The plane’s rapidity or volume of fire resolves into the total explosive load it can carry and the rapidity and number of round trips on which it can carry it; and in none of these is its performance high enough for it to be relied upon for the heavy, repeated hitting necessary to destroy or even stop a fleet unless its numbers be far superior to those of any air force now existent.
The modern plane can carry a bomb equal in weight to a torpedo or 16-inch shell, but has no aërial magazine along with her from which to reload. Returning to the carrier for reloads and another attack is not impossible. But each flight involves the time for landing, reloading, refueling, and forming the set-up on deck for the next hop-off, in addition to the time actually spent in the air, and debits just so much more exhaustion of man and mechanism. After an attack in the face of effective anti-aircraft gunfire there will be considerably less vigor in a subsequent attack by the same squadron, and still less if it has been caught by defending or revenging fighting planes. And the carrier launching the attack will itself hardly remain unmolested and immune during any such repeated bombardment, if the enemy has any air force or cruisers of his own with which to counterattack.
Thus the bombing capacity of even the largest carrier comes to no great figure, and superposed on this intrinsic limitation is the artificial limitation dictated by the existing low treaty ratios. The volume of fire that all the Lexington’s, Saratoga’s, and Langley’s planes together could launch would hardly equal one salvo from our battle line in potential destructiveness, nor would it be repeated at any 30- or 40- second interval thereafter.
Heavier loads can be carried by bigger planes, but there is no great gain here in the ratio between air effort and load carried; and such vulnerable giants in necessarily smaller numbers would probably be a gift to the defending fighters and their anti-aircraft guns.
Armadas of the air might in theory sweep across the oceans to attack us, but the weapons they could carry would hardly be dangerous enough to pay for the cost and effort of the flight and the probable losses en route; to say nothing of the certain loss of both planes and pilots at the end, since what they received upon landing among us thereafter would not be the keys of the city nor a return-trip ticket. The game would not be worth the candle.
All in all, the plane has the same handicap as the busy bee; it takes so large a swarm and so many round trips to deliver an effective load of anything, whether it be honey or T.N.T.
Accuracy.—Accuracy is always relative. You can score 100 per cent of hits on anything if you get close enough to it, and 99.9 per cent of misses if you hug the extreme range of your particular weapon.
We cannot quote here the exact figures on the accuracy and percentage of hits made by our planes in the different forms of bombing practice, but there is no question of their ability to hit and hit often if they are willing to attack at an altitude which involves some risk from anti-aircraft fire, while against unprotected vessels their score should be considerably higher yet. But on the other hand, a high Percentage of hits as compared to ordinary gunnery standards is an absolute necessity in order to compensate for the low volume of fire of the individual plane.
Were the plane concerned only with anti-aircraft fire, the greater the altitude at which it bombed, the better would be its chances of hitting without being hit. It might even climb beyond anti-aircraft gun range and still let gravity give its own missiles some chance, however small. But the general overhead of risk and effort in making the flight and its own low volume of fire make it poor military economics for a plane to accept a low percentage of hits when once above the enemy.
How far the defense against air attack will impair the accuracy of the attackers is a problem about which we know nothing, though it is only natural that one can shoot better when he is not being shot at. There is no reason to believe, however, that it will fluster the pilot aloft any more than it does the gun pointer below.
In summary, the accuracy of the bombing plane is adequate in comparison with that of other weapons and in proportion to its other qualities. While we need not regard an enemy plane above us as a certain harbinger of an explosion on our deck in the next few seconds, neither may we count indifferently on seeing the splash several hundred yards away. Our best chance would be to keep very many planes from ever getting a shot at us, since some of them are bound to hit.
Numbers.—The thought of getting something for nothing has a universal appeal, so it is small wonder that the minute we bring up the subject of numbers, the mind at once leaps to a comparison of the cost of a battleship with that of a bombing plane, say $30,000,000 for the one and $50,000 for the other, or 600 planes for the price of one battleship; and of course 600 bombs should sink any battleship afloat and what more is there to it?
Now such reasoning resembles that which one finds in the prospectus of a poultry farm; so many hens, so many eggs per day, the output multiplied by a couple of dozen every few months, price of eggs and chickens so much—millions in it! Millions!
Someone with a real knowledge of aëronautical production, supply, and maintenance could perhaps plot us a curve of data based on present estimates or World War experiences, showing just how the numbers dwindle off through the different stages which lie between any number of planes contracted for and the resulting number of bombs actually putting dents in the enemy. But in the case of naval aircraft we do not have to go very deeply into production, for the carrier itself is the narrow neck of the bottle in this flow of supply and operation.
But before going to that, let us get some idea of the number of carriers required to play a really predominant part in battle. Assume that the Black planes must destroy twenty White ships, taking an average of ten bomb hits apiece to do it, making 25 per cent of hits, with a loss of one-third among the planes, and forty planes per carrier able to take part in the attack. It comes to a tidy little fleet of thirty carriers! Now of course such a computation is theoretical, fantastic, and anything else one wants to call it, but the fallacy is not so easy to pick out, for while everyone will presumably call our assumed figures inaccurate there will be no small disagreement as to which way the inaccuracy lies. Change it to suit yourself, it will still run into big figures.
But would not a smaller Black air force get the same results by successive attacks? Yes, if the planes were still in shape to make any more attacks, and their carriers had not been damaged by counter air attack, or been sunk or chased off by White cruisers; and the White fleet continued to float around like a sponge in a bathtub waiting for more punishment instead of retaliating, or pushing on and accomplishing the mission which presumably brought it out there. There is no reason to assume, however, that any fleet will be so helpless or any battle so one-sided.
Again, would so many White ships have to be sunk by air attack to secure a victory? Would not lesser damage, perhaps without the actual sinking of any ships, lower White’s gun power below that of Black so that the latter’s fleet could readily finish the job? Assuredly it might; it is exactly what each side will hope to do to the other. And it is a perfect argument not only for having an air force large enough to reduce the enemy faster than he reduces us, but for having the greatest gun strength also to follow up such reducing and as a margin of safety against being dangerously reduced ourselves.
Our game-board maneuvers show that the air forces on each side are generally expended early in the campaign or at least before the decisive action, either through cumulative losses or through exhaustion of man and mechanism. But it is poor logic to interpret this as unfavorable to aircraft when it actually proves in unmistakable terms: (a) how much we need aircraft, and (b) how many of them we need. Being the weapons of longest range they are obviously the ones used first and most often, and naturally the ones soonest expended. For exactly the same reasons we may expect to lose many a cruiser and destroyer before the battleships ever get into action, and possibly expend much of our 16-inch ammunition before the 14-inch guns have fired a shot.
The cold facts must be faced; that the plane is actually a sort of missile itself, that it will be used early and often, that it must be maintained ready in large numbers, and that it will require replacement many times over. The complement of planes with which carriers enter the war will be analagous to the first few rounds of ammunition nearest the magazine door. Does this seem hard on the pilots? Possibly, but they should take some comfort from the knowledge that their chances of worth-while accomplishment are the best of any arm; in proportion to the risks taken theirs will be no vain sacrifices.
As before stated, the huge flow of replacement and augmentation which will extend all the way from the plane F.O.B. at the factory to the bomb giving the enemy a jolt, will be severely throttled and wiredrawn by the carrier tonnage and capacity, unless this latter be increased to an amount more in proportion to the fleet’s need of planes at one end of the system and the country’s capacity for producing them at the other end. All of our carriers might conceivably be overseas, with most of their flying forces already expended, while at home hundreds of planes were ready with their pilots “rarin’ to go” but with no real carrier to transport them or even for them to practice on. How much worse the stricture, then, if one or more of our few existing carriers go and get themselves destroyed!
More carriers is the only logical answer, and though we have imposed artificial limitations on ourselves for the moment, we should at least be fully alive to the necessity for building up to treaty allowances, for trying out the flight-deck cruiser, and for starting carrier construction and conversion on a large scale the day war is declared.
Availability.—If a weapon cannot be relied upon for use when wanted, it is of small value, no matter what its performance when it does see fit to be available; and this point has been advanced in depreciation of the plane as an offensive weapon.
Just how often rough weather or low visibility will prevent flying is uncertain; it will depend on season, locality, and a large measure of chance, though present experience shows prohibitive conditions to be in the minority. On the other hand our peace-time exercises are perhaps a trifle misleading since they are largely held in regions calmer and clearer than those in which we may have to wage war.
The offensive always has the choice of time and conditions; and while bad weather may prevent making our air attack at a scheduled time, or co-ordinating it with a fleet gunnery action, such a possibility of its failure by no means cancels the greater possibility of its success where more reliable weapons cannot get into action at all. You will bag more deer with a rifle that sometimes misses fire than with an axe that never does.
As for any disaster occurring through our temporary inability to use bombing planes, there is little chance of it. We will hardly depend on them to stop an enemy who is seeking a fight; we are much more likely to try to reach an enemy with them, when we cannot catch him otherwise. And no fleet is going to be able to keep beyond range of the enemy’s bombers during fair weather, and then rush in and sink him by gunfire on the first bad day. War does not work out that close to program.
Whatever the actual ratio of the time when planes can operate to the time when they cannot, the latter does not nullify the former. If your enemy hits you with a bomb on Wednesday, it is small consolation that he could not fly on Tuesday, or that you hoped to lick him in a gun fight on Thursday. Your best bet is to hit him with two bombs yourself on Monday!
Vulnerability.—That the plane is a delicate mechanism, with which damage and destruction are almost synonymous, is apparent; but it is with vulnerability in the sense of its chance or probability of being so damaged or destroyed that we are concerned, for on this chance hinges our whole thesis that the plane is itself a missile.
If the average loss among the enemy’s attacking planes is certain to exceed in military value the average damage they inflict on our surface vessels, then it is immaterial what and where they come from so long as they get the worst of the transaction after they reach us. But if, as we strongly suspect, the damage attacking planes will inflict bids fair to average in military value considerably more than the losses they will sustain, we must then regard them as we do bullets and projectiles; something to be attacked at its source unless we are to be steady and progressive losers.
At present we know comparatively little about the plane losses to be expected. During the World War the effectiveness of anti-aircraft fire increased steadily, until the number of rounds expended per plane shot down was only one-third what it had been at the beginning, and there is no question but that great progress has been made since then.
The anti-aircraft battery of a battleship, director controlled and concentrated on one target, can usually bring it down, and the same holds for a division of battleships firing at two or three targets. But there is a great difference between a towed-sleeve target and ten or twenty planes using their full speed and mobility to confuse the fire control of the defenders. Coming in at different altitudes and bearings, or diving on their targets, it is doubtful if any ships’ batteries are going to wing them all handily like so many clay pigeons at a trap shoot, although some losses are probable.
Further progress will undoubtedly be made both in the effectiveness of the antiaircraft material to be placed on our ships and in the numbers and classes of ships to be thus protected. But such effort is an unfortunate necessity rather than a desirability, for it represents money, weight, space, and personnel subtracted from the ship’s effectiveness in her particular function, and profits the ship only if, when, and where the planes choose to attack it. Improve the anti-aircraft gunnery as you will, scrap boats, ventilators, and top hamper to make room for guns and instruments of unbelievable perfection, the investment is one that hurts nevertheless, for you cannot go after an enemy and hit him with it; you can only wait and use it when he tries to hit you. There is no record that a ship ever chased and caught a plane yet!
Fighting planes have an advantage over anti-aircraft batteries in that they are able to meet the enemy before he attacks, to follow him up afterwards, and to cover vessels which have no batteries of their own. But these advantages are obviously contingent only in part on their numbers, speed, fighting ability, etc. A more vital factor will be our strategic ability to have them in the air when and where the attack is actually made, and not exhausting themselves guarding the wrong place or meeting attacks that do not materialize.
It has been argued that a power with a superiority in battleships should devote its air arm principally to fighting and scouting planes on the assumption that it can rely on its gun power for the offensive against the enemy, while insured against enemy air offensive by the superior numbers of its fighters.
The fallacy here lies in taking for granted that superiority in number of planes gives control of the air to anything like the extent that number of ships does to control of the sea. You can oppose ships to ships with a fair degree of certainty because their radiuses of visibility and the probable speed of information concerning them are both high in comparison with their speed of movement, and they have only two dimensions in which they can possibly miss each other. Hence you can meet a move by enemy’s ships with a move of your own, and make good a superiority if you have it.
But the plane is hard to see and to report very much before it arrives overhead, and it moves rapidly and in three dimensions; hence superiority in the defending numbers by no means guarantees that one or two of them are going to close with each attacker in time to eliminate him before he becomes dangerous. The defending numbers may be surprised before they can take off and gain altitude; they may be in the air already but at a distance defending some other target; they may have been expended in battle or exhausted in previous flights; they may simply fail to make contact through errors in navigation or intelligence reports; or they may be over-matched by the enemy’s supporting fighters at the point of attack, since in assembling superiority of force at any place and time the offensive always has an advantage over the defensive. All in all, flights of planes are much like charges of buckshot; one does not stop another in the air half so well; it is safer to fire your own first.
Beyond all this the fact remains that such a purely defensive air effort would be the least profitable one. To put it in figures, an air force composed 100 per cent of defensive planes with no attacking planes at all, would afford us some very indefinite chance of security against enemy air attack (certainly far less than 100 per cent security), while it would afford the enemy an absolute 100 per cent safety against air attack from us. But make it fifty-fifty between offensive and defensive elements, and while we have hardly decreased our security by any 50 per cent, there is no doubt at all that we have decreased the security of the enemy by many times that figure. There is probably some ratio between the two elements that promises the best ratio between damage done to the enemy and damage sustained ourselves; let those who really understand air tactics figure it out.
Whether we can effectively and profitably resist air attacks as they come, or will be the losers until we retaliate in kind or reverse matters by a fleet action, will undoubtedly be demonstrated in the next war to someone’s discomfort. But unquestionably, to make an air attack on the enemy’s carrier before she makes an attack on us, is the best way of stopping the latter. You can kill more hornets by burning their nest than by waving a fly swatter as they come for you!
Range.—We have considered that the radius of the plane is its virtual range, since it is range in that sense which will affect our strategy and tactics. Whether a plane attacks at 5,000 feet or 10,000 is immaterial as far as the handling of surface craft is concerned, for once it is overhead, the ships can do nothing about it anyway except pump away with their guns and curse their own air force for not being on the job sooner. But the fact that the air attack can come from a distance twenty or more times greater than gun range is a different matter, and plunges us at once into consideration of the effects of this range.
There are three broad ways in which we shall naturally attempt to meet the air menace:
- To smash air attacks as they come, causing such loss as to make them unprofitable;
- to retaliate in kind, keeping in our favor the balance of damage exchanged;
- to fight and win a fleet action, and thus supposedly decide the war anyway. Our theorem herein is that the first may show profit on the other side, and that the last may be delayed too long to save the situation, so that without relaxing our efforts to accomplish either, we should place our main reliance on retaliation, or better, on striking first.
As regards the decisive fleet action, we venture the proposition that it is more likely than ever to be postponed indefinitely, and that we must be able to keep ahead of the game as the hands are played instead of depending on any final large jack pot for victory.
If the enemy thinks he can beat us in a fleet action he will naturally try it, and if his position is such that he must control the sea from the outset or lose the war, he will have to try it. But if conditions are such that he can sit tight for a while and see what can be done towards whittling down our forces by attrition, then our chances of forcing a battle or trapping him into one are comparatively poor.
As regards forcing an action, it will be admitted that attacking an enemy at home in the manner of Hawke at Quiberon and Farragut at Mobile is not practicable against modern mines, submarines, and coast defenses. And as for catching him in the open sea when he does not want to be caught, that is also becoming less and less practicable. The side seeking to retreat, or to avoid or delay a gunnery action, can benefit by the use—or even threat—of its destroyers, submarines, and floating mines to an extent denied the pursuing force. And however we may criticize from behind the security of our typewriters the superior force which refuses to push on to victory in the face of this risk, we cannot deny that the risk is there and will be utilized to the utmost by an enemy inferior in gun power when we try to close him for decisive action.
Then too, the great increase in radius of information conferred by air scouting works in favor of whichever side desires to avoid a gunnery action. In the days when contact meant that vessels from each side were within radius of visibility of one another and hence not so very far beyond gun range, the chances for escaping an action after contact were correspondingly limited. But where the probable contact distance exceeds gun range, as many times over as it does now, surprise is almost out of the question, and the weaker side will have ample opportunity to retreat if it be so minded and to dispose its forces so as to take advantage of its enemy’s advance.
It need not be inferred, however, that the advent of air power works entirely in favor of one side, for while the great range of air scouting does favor the attempt to avoid a gunnery action, the great range of air attack affords some means of hitting the other fellow anyhow. And if “weaker side” attacks “stronger side” with planes because she cannot risk doing it in a gun fight, “stronger side” will as certainly use them against “weaker side” because she cannot catch her for a gun fight. It is as broad as it is long.
The speed of the ship or fleet is of less importance in relation to air tactics than to gunnery tactics. In gunnery the difference of a few thousand yards may mean the difference between heavy damage and none at all. Hence, when near the edge of gun range, a superiority of one or two knots may enable a strong force to close and destroy a weaker, or a weaker force to open and escape a stronger.
But plane range is large in proportion to any distance we are likely to gain or lose on an enemy by many hours steaming, so that once within fair plane flight of the enemy, no one or two knots superiority in speed will of itself enable him to escape our air attack, if we are prepared to make one.
This should not be lost sight of if we are ever opposed by battle cruisers or “pocket-battleships” of the Ersatz Preussen type—too powerful to be destroyed by our cruisers which are able to overtake them, and too fast to be overtaken by our battleships which are able to destroy them. The chance is remote that any battleship will be able to sneak up when they are not looking and sink them by gunfire. But it is far easier to get within two hundred miles of an enemy unobserved than within ten miles; and if one of our carriers can do the former either by strategy or good luck, it will be too late for that enemy to escape a flight of bombers or torpedo planes.
Or suppose our fleet is bound on an overseas expedition and finds itself shadowed by enemy scouting craft. We cannot afford to let them keep it up unmolested, but neither can we afford to have our own cruisers expend vital fuel in wild chases after them, which pursuits will probably be unsuccessful anyhow since the enemy craft will be falling back toward their own supports and fuel supply. But if we have planes available for attack, the picture is entirely changed. No enemy scouts can outrun a flight of bombers, and if we are ready and quick on the trigger with the latter, the enemy will have to depend wholly on air or submarine scouting for any worth-while information.
We may even postulate that the side strongest in gun power is the one best able to make air attacks on the enemy’s fleet in its own home waters, should it consistently refuse to come out into the open. For a superiority in gun power should help the side possessing it to push the sea frontier farther from its own home bases and closer to the enemy’s, and to support carriers in an air raid and to cover their retirement afterwards. And if an air attack from seaward is thus launched within fair flight against bases or anchorages, the local air forces and anti-aircraft batteries cannot protect them to anything like the extent that mines, submarines, and shore batteries can protect them against invasion by surface craft.
Opposed to these propositions for treating the air force as a handy weapon, to be used early and often in attack, is the doctrine of conserving it for the final blow, since it is so soon expended or exhausted. Now the principle of conservation of force for the decisive blow is well established, but so is that of striking the blow before you are struck with it. We have striven for years in our gunnery to be able to hit an enemy before he hits us; we have steadily increased the ranges at which we fire our practices; we have spent millions in elevating the guns of older ships to increase their range; we will probably open fire in battle at some twenty or thirty thousand yards, expecting only a minute percentage of hits, but hoping to make these on the enemy before he makes them on us; certainly then it would be a complete reversal of all logic to deny the same necessity for shooting first with that weapon which not only far outranges the gun, but unlike the latter, has much the same hitting power at the limit of its range as it has at any other.
When and at what distance is it proper for our bombers or torpedo planes to take off for an attack? When the objective is exactly located, and not too far away for them to reach it and return with an ample margin of safety both in fuel and navigation? Yes, but what if our enemy accepts a smaller margin of safety? Or has planes of better radius? Or is fanatical enough to sacrifice both planes and pilots by attacking at a distance which allows no chance of return? Are we to dismiss these possibilities lightly in the vague belief that air attack can do no great amount of damage and that the fleet gunnery action will soon j come along anyway and even up matters? On the contrary, our problem will be the problem of the duelist facing his antagonist at twenty paces and wondering whether to fire instantly on the word, or to take an extra half-second to make sure of his aim. If he fires first and hits, all very well; but if he misses, and stands there, a target, with empty pistol . . . ?
Of course there is much that favors making air attack either just before a fleet action when the enemy will have no | time to repair damages, or during the action when he will be too deeply involved for effective anti-aircraft defense, or just after it when his defenses may be badly damaged. But both the plane and the submarine have perhaps suffered from our insistence on making them fit into the battle which some other weapon chooses, instead of developing their capabilities for independent action. If they have the chance to fit into the fleet action, all well and good; but there is danger that by holding them in reserve until the guns have their chance, we will lose them too many chances of their own. Would we go gunning for bear with a Colt .45, and reserve our 30-30 rifle for finishing off the critter at close quarters?
Against many of the foregoing conclusions it may well be argued that the lessons of neither the World War nor of our more recent peace maneuvers have demonstrated air power to be any such menacing opponent or even effective partner of gun power.
But in the late war at sea the lack of any plane carriers and the low radiuses of the planes debarred the latter almost entirely from attack on ships at any distance from the coast, so that the experience here is nil either way. And on land the air attacks were inherently of only moderate effectiveness because few land targets have the concentrated value and vulnerability that a ship has.
Our peace-time exercises, on the other hand, while excellent when interpreted correctly, may be misleading if we fail to recognize their limitations, which are the inevitable ones of time, distance, and safety.
The numerous demands on our time and fuel allow only a certain short period in which to hold the fleet problem. The various forces must therefore be required to commence the campaign in positions known to one another within narrow limits; and the strategy of the problem is purposely so arranged that a decision must be reached in a relatively short time. None of our problems simulate an enemy able to fence around with us over a whole ocean for an indefinite period, or one permitted to conduct a hit-and-run campaign against us from the cover of his own bases. This of necessity brings the whole picture to a reduced scale. The forced engagements accentuate the value of the weapon of shorter range and greater destructive capacity as compared to the weapon of longer range and lesser destructive capacity, while the short time available denies to weapons like the plane and the submarine a really fair chance to test their ability to win a decision by attrition.
Another respect in which our maneuvers fall short of reality is the conservative way in which air forces have to be employed, both on account of their small numbers and the risks incurred, though the latter also applies in some degree to our use of destroyers and submarines. We are naturally more reluctant to lose even one real plane and pilot than to have a whole fleet sunk constructively. Hence weather prohibits their use more often than will be the case in war; and similarly the distances to which we dare send them for scouting or attack are somewhat curtailed so as to allow good margins of safety for return.
The ratio of fifteen battleships to only three plane carriers, with which we must actually play our war games, is a result of circumstance, and is not necessarily what we would like, or will have either with us or against us in a future conflict. Under pressure of war, plane carriers will be built or converted faster and more cheaply than battleships, and the planes for outfit and replacement even more readily. Our use of the comparatively small number of carriers which we now have is decidedly restricted by the “all eggs in one basket” complex. Let either the Saratoga or the Lexington be so unfortunate as to get bombed by the other before she can reciprocate, or as to stumble into gun range of a battleship or cruiser force, and presto, half or all of the air force on one side is eliminated. Rightfully then they are guarded like crown jewels; but it is obvious that the greater our concern for their safety the more it must place a limit on their accomplishments. There is no fault to be found with our present use of air forces; the fault lies in assuming that what we do now is the full measure of what can be done in war.
Conclusions.—The foregoing discussion is open to the criticism that it deals largely in generalities, presenting merely some pros and cons of air power versus gun power without arriving at any verdict in favor of either. Nothing else was expected, as the factors which we have defined are too largely matters of surmise rather than of experience, and vary too greatly with chance and circumstance.
Reviewing these factors briefly, it is believed that in accuracy, destructive capacity, and availability the air weapon is excellent, but would not rival the gun and torpedo on its merits in these qualities alone. Low rapidity of fire (or volume of fire) is its greatest drawback, and is an inherent one since only so much load can be carried by so much power and wing surface.
Vulnerability is still the great unknown factor, for we cannot possibly come as near to reality in anti-aircraft practices as we do in surface gunnery; nor is there any formula which can cover all the situations which lie between such extremes as a flight of bombers jaunting peacefully back to their carrier after the methodical destruction of some undefended surface vessel, and the same bombers, caught themselves and wiped out by a swarm of fighters even before the waiting anti-aircraft guns have had a chance at them.
Great range is the air arm’s all important factor of strength, without which it would be of minor significance. Planes can hit, and hit hard, from distances far beyond gun range, and the answer lies neither in ignoring the fact nor in assuring ourselves that the fleet action will eventually decide everything, but in preparing ourselves to hit earlier, oftener, and harder with this very same weapon. Then should the test of war prove it to be effective beyond all calculations, the proof will have cost the enemy at least more than ourselves and the balance of gun power will still be in our favor.
No deductions that support our need of air strength are for that reason arguments against our need of gun power. The battleship and the plane carrier are mutually logical and necessary, though at opposite ends of the scale of naval types. The former is the most nearly invulnerable and able to inflict the heaviest damage when once in action, but the one perhaps least able to force an enemy into action. The latter is comparatively vulnerable and incapable of striking as many or as heavy blows, but able to strike them at ranges far beyond those of which other weapons are capable. There need be no rivalry between even such opposite types, for navies exist not for air power or gun power, but for sea power. And the “scrap all battleships—planes are supreme” line of thought springs, like most other radicalisms, less from farsightedness in the chosen direction than from blindness in all others. If the structure of naval strength is to be extended skyward, it is folly to begin by destroying its foundations.
Nothing in the novelty of being shot at from overhead instead of from sea level need warp our judgment and make us either exaggerate or belittle the weapon that does it. Naval battles are essentially a business of trying to set off the most high explosive in, on, or under the enemy and to do it first. If some hundreds of pounds of T.N.T. or other potent mixture are to be detonated in our midriff, the question of whether it was dropped from above, hurled in a flat parabola, or self-propelled under water will be of far less influence on the battle than the fact that it happened to us before we could do it to the other fellow. And if we already face with stoicism the prospect of being hit with a 14-inch shell, it is not because it cannot hurt us, but because we hope by that time to have hit the enemy with two 14-inch shells. Similar logic should govern our attitude towards the air weapon.
Recognition of the plane’s quality as the arm which can hit first and farthest is the first step both for success with it and for against it. Yet we must do more than admit this quality; we must feel it, and so be ready to use it instinctively; for, like the legendary western gunman, we must above all else be “quick on the draw” if we would hope to survive.
A French writer before the death of Marshall Foch or Clemenceau, but uncontradicted by either, in discussing the reasons why the Armistice was concluded at a time when many military men, and among them Pershing, thought it premature, no doubt reflects to some degree French opinion of the time, when he says that the Americans were coming to France at the rate of 300,000 per month, in such numbers as “to threaten the unity of command.” We now know that though the allied chieftains were consulted as to the terms of an Armistice, they were not asked as to whether there should be one at that time—the statesmen reserving that decision to themselves. Such facts may color the official reports or the later memoirs of the time and they certainly point to the importance of keeping the record straight. In these circumstances must be found the justification for my acceptance of General Connor’s invitation to address you on the policy of an American army under its own commander as opposed to the doctine of amalgamation of American men and units in the armies of our associates in the Great War.
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France had had six reorganizations of government between the beginning of the war and the time America entered it. In 1917 Briand was succeeded as Prime Minister by Ribot, who gave way to Painlevé, and he to Clemenceau before the end of the year. With each change of government there was some change of policy, some change in aim or in method of prosecuting the war. In every military crisis there had to be considered the possibility of a change of government, with a corresponding change of strategy, either through replacement of commanders and staffs or by compulsory acquiescence from those not removed from office. Rumors were rife that civilian members of the French Government, on the field as visitors, had meddled with Nivelle’s command during the actual offensive, moved thereto by the sight of dead and wounded to which they were unaccustomed. Every long war, with heavy losses and infrequent victories, sees quarrels between statesmen and soldiers, and the attempt of the former to exercise actual command. In 1917 the underground warfare made by Lloyd George on the British high command had already begun, and was to carry down Sir William Robertson, and reach for Douglas Haig in the coming winter.
Theoretically, any American soldier amalgamated in French, British, or Italian units was at once liable for service in furtherance of any of their widely diverging policies. Practically, the effect of such an amalgamation, even if no American soldier ever left the western front, was to involve our country in the prosecution of aims bound up in treaties of which no American was yet fully aware. To insure our man power being used solely for the purpose of beating the Germans, with whom we were at war on our own account, it was absolutely necessary that it be kept under the control of an American commander, available when an allied commander in chief should be appointed, divorced from the political aims of any one country, and ready to concentrate on the single purpose of beating the Central Powers. General Harboard, an address to the Army War College.