The first of July dawned bright and clear. As thousands watched, the morning air over the lagoon of remote Bikini Atoll was made even brighter by the flash of the fourth atomic bomb, an important event in Operation Crossroads, most vital of scientific experiments in the history of the United States Navy. Those fortunate enough to witness this culmination of months of technical planning viewed the awesome spectacle of the unleashing of nature’s most intimate and terrible power. Some of us there received a second, more subtle impression in the weeks that followed; for it soon became apparent that the flash of the Able Day bomb had rendered bright and clear much of the darkness and uncertainty which had shrouded the future of the United States Navy.
The future of the Navy is of primary interest not only to those of the naval profession but to every citizen of our country. The Navy has been traditionally America’s “first line of defense” and for generations has been largely instrumental in protecting the Western Hemisphere from the destruction which accompanies modern war. It is entirely reasonable, therefore, that men should feel concern over that which has been their protection in the past and should seek to know what parts, if any, of this protection system are able to survive the changed conditions brought about by great advances in scientific and technical warfare.
This concern is well-founded. We stand today on the threshold of the atomic age. Atomic explosives and power, supersonic rockets, television, and radar threaten to bypass the conventional duties of the Navy. Command of the sea takes on a different aspect. The traditional naval role of carrying the fight to the enemy’s shores encounters new problems. The advent of guided missiles means another new weapon which must be considered. Some people, then, are asking how we can justify the continued existence of the fleet?
Active interest in the future of the United States Navy is evidenced by the large number of serious articles which, in recent years, have appeared on the subject, many in the Proceedings of the United States Naval Institute. Unfortunately, all of these pre- Bikini plans for a “post-war” navy were hampered and rendered impotent by the question mark of atomic warfare. A re-reading of even the most recent of these plans will reveal the extent of its inability to cope with the problems of defense as they are known to us today. A few of these papers ignore the atomic bomb entirely while others depreciate its effect on naval warfare. The remainder credit the new scientific weapon with such overwhelming power that their discussion of the future of the Navy is predicated upon the existence of a strong international authority for the control of atomic warfare. None of these attitudes is realistic today.
All sane persons must favor a strong international control system for the prevention of atomic wars in the future. It is widely held that the terrible havoc of an atomic conflict might hurl present-day civilization hundreds of years into the past, if not eliminate it altogether. Such an end is certainly not to be contemplated by thinking men. Yet, despite this, we must face the possibility, or even probability, that the necessary controls will not be authorized. Nations jealous of their traditional sovereignty and governments which are wont to use force as a bargaining agent may combine to stall effectively the will of the people of the world.
It was from considerations of this kind that Operation Crossroads was deemed necessary in the eyes of those responsible for the Navy and the defense of the nation. If defense plans must be based on the use of atomic weapons, one of the most immediate problems is the determination of the destructive power of these weapons in naval warfare.
It is true that some supposedly responsible persons claimed that the experiment was not necessary since the effect of the bomb on naval units could be calculated, using existing data. To competent naval designers it was obvious that these people had no conception of the problems involved. That they were wrong in their assertions that damage to naval vessels could be predicted was amply demonstrated by the results of Tests Able and Baker.
On the contrary, Operation Crossroads was most necessary. Many important facts of a technical nature regarding the effect of atomic detonations on naval vessels were learned at Bikini. All of these facts are, quite naturally, classified confidential or secret and are likely to remain so. However, the broad results as released to the public through press releases and the reports of the President’s evaluation board were all that is necessary to reorient our thinking on the future of the Navy.
One of the most obvious conclusions which may be drawn from the extensive tests conducted at Bikini may be stated thus: The atomic bomb is not at present, nor will it be for some lime to come, a practical weapon for use against a fleet at sea. One does not need special technical training to reach this conclusion and, indeed, it has been stated in public print many times since the tests at Bikini. The reasoning leading to this statement is fairly simple.
Fundamentally, the question of whether the atomic bomb is effective against a fleet at sea can be reduced to the question of whether the bomb is a “multiple target” weapon where the targets are naval vessels. In other words, if an atomic bomb is dropped in a task force disposition, can it be expected to sink more than one major vessel? If not, it can be shown that the task of destroying a fleet can be made so costly that either the cost is prohibitive or the bombs may be used to better advantage against other targets. Operation Crossroads demonstrated that the destructive power of the atomic bomb is much less at sea than it is over land. Nearly everyone is familiar with the tremendous damage done at Hiroshima and Nagasaki— all structures destroyed over an area of nearly three square miles. This has been regarded as the area of “total destruction.” On the other hand, the Joint Chiefs of Staff Evaluation Board for the Atomic Bomb Tests reported that the radius of critical damage was something less than half a mile. This figure can be arrived at by other means. For instance, it has been announced that in both tests there were forty vessels within a mile radius, and twenty within a half mile radius of the bomb detonation. There were but five ships sunk in the first test, and only eleven of all descriptions in the second test. Since those sunk were among those closest to the bomb detonation, it thus appears that the area of “total destruction” was less than that encompassed by a circle with a radius of a half mile. Such a circle has an area of 0.785 square mile, or only about one quarter of that reported in the destruction of the two Japanese cities.
There are several reasons for this phenomenon. Some, of course, may be purely physical reasons, a difference in the reaction of the atomic blast on solid and liquid surfaces. That possibility is no doubt being studied. One of the obvious limiting factors at sea, however, is the structure of the targets. Naval vessels are engineered structures specifically designed to resist not only the great strains imposed by storms at sea and the tremendous shock of their own gunfire, but also the pitiless blast of enemy torpedoes and bombs. They are war machines. It is only too obvious that laymen and non-naval scientists prior to Bikini grossly underestimated the innate resistance of our naval vessels to damage. Operation Crossroads proved that ships, even lowly transports, are immeasurably superior to any normal land structure in this respect.
Much of the damage at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was attributable to fires. Here, again, is a threat to which naval vessels by design are highly resistant. They are aided in this respect, of course, by the proximity of fire’s greatest enemy, water. So it is not surprising that the radius of destruction within a task force is sharply reduced from that observed upon cities and other land installations.
We cannot lose sight of the fact that at Bikini each bomb sank several vessels (although only the second caused the loss of capital ships), and therefore was, in effect, a “multiple target” weapon. However, the target arrays were condensed into an extremely small area compared to that occupied by a normal task force disposition. Twenty vessels were jammed into a half mile radius during the tests, while a normal wartime cruising disposition often has vessels situated at 1000 yard intervals. It thus appears that under actual sea conditions even the cataclysmic upheaval of the atomic bomb can wreck only one or two vessels at the most.
In the above discussion we have not mentioned the most peculiar and most deadly of the effects of the atomic bomb, that which sets it apart from molecular explosives— radioactivity. Radioactivity is a phenomenon new to warfare, with many technical ramifications. It is not necessary to consider here these ramifications, the data on which has not been released. It suffices to consider the general effect of radioactivity as represented in reports both of Bikini and the bombed Japanese cities. In all these reports, it will be noticed that the area surrounding the detonation for several miles was rendered uninhabitable for a considerable period of time. In Japan, people within these poisoned areas sickened and died. On land, the radioactivity remained dangerous for several weeks, although limited stays in the affected areas could be made without harm. After Test Baker, the vessels anchored in the lagoon were drenched by radioactive rain thrown up by the blast. They steeped in this radioactive bath for several days before efforts could be made to decontaminate them, and it was found that they remained radioactive long after the water in the lagoon had become relatively safe. Inspection of some of the target vessels was held up for several weeks. It must be concluded, then, that one of the most important effects of the atomic bomb is that a large area surrounding the explosion is poisoned and made uninhabitable for a long time by radio-activity.
Land installations and non-mobile naval installations such as shipyards, anchorages, and so on would feel these effects most strongly. It may be quite possible to protect such installations from the blast and heat of atomic missiles by burrowing deep into the earth or constructing heavy concrete defenses similar to the German submarine pens of the recent war, but all this work is made useless by the radioactive particles released by the atomic bomb, which sift down through the minutest openings and make the protective shelter itself a radioactive “oven.”
A fleet at sea, on the other hand, is not particularly vulnerable to the attack of radioactivity. All vessels not actually sunk or completely immobilized by the blast of the bomb can clear the radioactive area in a very few minutes, and it is almost certain that such action would result in largely neutralizing the threat of radioactivity. Thus we find that not only is the destructive power of the atomic bomb considerably reduced when a fleet at sea is the target, but the radioactivity engendered by the bomb is also made relatively ineffective by the mobility of the task force. This is the basis of the contention that an attack with atomic missiles which would neutralize or destroy a city or military installation would be relatively ineffectual against a fleet at sea.
In making a statement of this kind, the phrase “at present” is often carefully included even though these words of limitation destroy the utility of the observation for planning purposes. Such cautiousness is commendable since the development of superior atomic weapons will undoubtedly be rapid. It is claimed that bombs ten times more powerful than the Nagasaki type are already in existence. In addition, mass bombing with atomic bombs may become practicable, although this must await a sharp reduction in the man-hours of production (and hence cost) of the atomic bomb. Nevertheless, laymen tend to underestimate the innate defensive assets of the Navy in this respect, just as they underestimated the innate resistance of naval vessels to damage when discussing the destructive power of the atomic bomb prior to the Bikini tests. As the Right Honorable A. V. Alexander, First Lord of the Admiralty, phrased it in a speech before the Parliament last year: “So far we have only seen the atomic bomb used against land targets, in conditions of complete surprise, virtually without opposition to its conveyor. Possible means of defense have yet to be devised and applied. This new weapon will tax the resources of defense obviously more than any weapon previously known. In the past, powerful defense has always been provided against any weapon which at its first appearance seemed to be invincible.”
Few people realize what vast “resources of defense” are available to the Navy. Further, the fleet is almost completely uninhibited in the application of these defensive measures, no matter how radical, freely altering ship design, logistics, tactics, and even strategy to accomplish the desired end. Land forces, unfortunately, are severely hampered in the application of desirable defense measures by the strong dependence of industry upon raw material sources, the often rigid requirements of logistics, and the natural opposition of the civilian population to violent change in peace time. The United States Navy, not being thus hampered, is capable of absorbing by counter-measures a great amount of the expected increased effectiveness of atomic weapons. Hence, we are able to state that attack upon a fleet at sea with atomic weapons will not be practical for some time to come, thus giving one of the prime lessons of Operation Crossroads full value in planning for the national defense.
Consideration of the above facts has caused the atomic bomb to be labeled a failure in some quarters. The atomic bomb was not a “flop” at Bikini. One has only to view the motion pictures of one of the detonations to realize that an explosion of such violence and magnitude could hardly be called a failure. It is true, however, that the atomic bomb received much unfortunate publicity in the period immediately following the end of hostilities in the Pacific. The bomb was propagandized to fantastic proportions on the basis of damage to two Japanese cities. It was credited with defeat of Japan and was alleged to have amazing and mysterious powers of destruction. Even the scientists responsible for the bomb contributed much to the over-emphasis, either through enthusiasm or due to a well-meaning attempt to frighten mankind into authorizing a rigid control of their problem child. One such scientist predicted that one atomic bomb could wipe out a whole task force if dropped in the center. Other equally exaggerated reports were made, all of which led the public to expect much more at Bikini than that which actually occurred.
For those who expected the atomic bomb to prove itself as a multiple target weapon, the Bikini tests were indeed disappointing but the bomb’s destructive power against a single vessel was not. It seems quite obvious from the information which has been released that no naval vessel existing today can survive a direct hit or very near miss from an atomic bomb of the type demonstrated at Bikini. As a matter of opinion, it is extremely doubtful whether any floating structure could be designed to survive a direct hit by an atomic bomb and still retain its ability to perform the functions of a naval vessel.
Conventional naval design is based upon the capital ship as the highest type of naval vessel, capable of absorbing a maximum amount of punishment and still remain a fighting ship. A capital ship is expected to absorb multiple hits from any weapon without sinking. Yet, it now appears that no vessel can survive even one hit from an atomic weapon. Hence, much of the protection now a part of capital ships may prove superfluous, and the devotion of weight to this protection uneconomical in the design. This weight might better be devoted to increasing the speed, the range, or the offensive power of the vessel. Too, smaller vessels may prove to be the best solution under the new conditions.
Another important lesson of Operation Crossroads was learned which will result in great changes in the Navy as we know it today. The tests at Bikini illustrate graphically what will happen to a fleet caught at anchor as the United States Pacific fleet was caught at Pearl Harbor. Not only would physical damage be widespread as the result of the relative crowding of the vessels in the anchorage, but radiation poisoning of the base would prevent effective control of the damage and delay salvage operations. The naval base itself, consisting of shipyards, drydocks, supply depots, ammunition depots, barracks, hospitals and so on, would be even more vulnerable as indicated by the destruction in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Therefore, the navy of the atomic age must avoid at all costs the possibility of annihilation within its bases. In order to prevent such a disastrous eventuality, it will be necessary to maintain a large portion of the fleet at sea at all times to avoid the possibility of a surprise attack. This portion of the fleet, whether it be one-half, one-third or a smaller portion, must be able, independent of its bases, to carry out the required retaliative measures. Not only must the task forces at sea contain adequate offensive power to perform the Navy’s defensive functions, but they must be able to steam the necessary distances and remain at sea the necessary time to accomplish their missions, even at the end of a protracted cruise, without the necessity of returning to their bases. These bases would undoubtedly be among the first targets of a surprise attack. These requirements indicate that the naval vessel of the future must have a great radius of action and extraordinary sea-keeping abilities. Rapid development and use of the most modern types of power plants, perhaps even atomic power itself, is indicated. What form the future naval vessel will take is quite impossible to state, but it is certain to be the principal occupation of a great many minds for some time to come.
For that matter, the development of atomic weapons will, no doubt, occupy as many minds. The atomic bomb in itself has received so much publicity that one is liable to overlook the fact that the incorporation of the atomic explosive in a gravity bomb was merely an expediency of war; merely the simplest method of accomplishing the immediate end. We may look forward to the employment of the atomic explosive in more versatile weapons, such as the rocket-propelled guided missile and, possibly, the torpedo and mine. Elaborate systems for homing these lethal missiles to their target will be developed. Against these threats, countermeasures will undoubtedly be sought to detect and immobilize or destroy the attacking weapon at a safe distance. Perhaps devices will be perfected to detect at great distances the existence of the atomic explosive itself.
All of these developments will affect ship design profoundly. Certain ship types may disappear and perhaps be replaced by new types. There is the possibility that surface vessels and submarines may be merged, creating a more versatile navy capable of operating either on or under the sea. Gunnery, as we know it, will be replaced by rocket-launchers and other devices which will increase the striking range of the Navy tremendously. All of which indicates that under the impact of the unrestricted use of new scientific discoveries, the character of the United States Navy will be changed at least as completely and rapidly as it was seventy-five years ago when the rifled gun, Krupp armor, and steam engineering banished the age of sail into the pages of history.
But another and more vital question remains unanswered. Is it not probable that the impact of the new scientific discoveries mentioned above might eliminate the Navy altogether rather than merely alter its character? There are many who believe so and cite, in support of this contention, the present progress toward long-range rockets which some day might enable a belligerent nation to attack and destroy any spot on the globe, however far removed, and thus eliminate the need for an intermediate agency, such as a navy, to carry out defensive and offensive measures against distant shores. Further, is it not possible that the future atomic war may be decided in so brief an interval of time that the traditional concept of “control of the sea” will lose most of its meaning? It is the thought of this brief and terrible “pushbutton war” which has struck terror in the hearts of peace-loving peoples and has created the wide-spread feeling of distrust in existing means of defense.
The atomic war of the future has been dubbed “push-button” warfare because of the variety of novel mechanisms which science has recently introduced into warfare. We envisage a type of warfare in which the human agencies are far removed and the actual attacks are accomplished by means of robot projectiles guided accurately from a remote point of origin and loaded with devastating atomic explosives. The industry, transportation, government and, indeed, the whole civilian populace would be the targets. No principality, large or small, would be immune to these globe-girdling atomic weapons. A single, swift, overwhelming attack might destroy immediately a great nation’s will, and even ability, to resist.
Thus the “push-button war” appears to be independent of all the moral, material, and economic factors which traditionally have influenced war and peace. Push-button warfare is the ideal tool of tyranny and aggression. By its use, the possibility of maintaining the personal liberty of the individual seems hopeless. In the past, totalitarian demagogues have been held in check or, at least, strongly influenced by the realization (fortuitous for freedom) that the democratic world possesses the preponderance of natural resources, industrial development, and man power in the world today. Even when some power-mad ruler has plunged the world into conflict, the forces of freedom have taken comfort in the fact that though the way to victory might be difficult, the economic, material, and moral factors insure eventual triumph. Push-button wars might well be won not by the strongest or the bravest but by whoever pushes the button first. It takes no imagination at all to reach a conclusion as to who would push the button first when the opponents are democracy and totalitarianism.
General H. H. Arnold has stated the problem of a free nation such as ours succinctly: “Against this future of increasing range, speed, and destructiveness of the weapons of air power, adequate protection by pure defense seems unlikely. Our defense can only be a counter-offensive; we must be prepared to give as good as we take, or better. Should we ever find ourselves facing an aggressor who could destroy our industrial machine without having his destroyed in turn, our defeat would be assured. Thus our first defense is the ability to retaliate even after receiving the hardest blow the enemy can deliver. This means weapons in adequate numbers strategically distributed so that no enemy is better situated to strike our industry than we are to strike his.”
We learned at Bikini that the Navy is the logical place to “strategically distribute” the weapons required to assure retaliation in event of attack, because even in its pre- atomic age condition it is the least vulnerable of all our defenses. This ability to retaliate in kind would thus replace the traditional economic and material factors as the restraining influence against aggression. If the existence of an adequate “atomic” Navy means that the aggressor who seeks to destroy our cities with atomic weapons may expect his own to be destroyed instead, it is quite possible that destruction will be withheld, with neither side caring to begin the use of atomic weapons, so that atomic warfare might conceivably be relegated to the limbo of stalemated weapons, along with poison gas and other “outlawed” weapons.
Certainly the great nations who have the necessary natural resources, who have the economic and material factors which influence war on their side, would be reluctant to involve themselves in the uncertainties of atomic warfare. The “sneak attack,” as demonstrated in the recent conflict by the Japanese, is the natural weapon of the weaker nations, those inferior in the wealth and industry necessary for a long total war. Here, again, a strong navy capable of retaliating in kind is a most potent dissuader, for the weak nations are those which can least endure retaliative measures. They do not have much to begin with and little or no prospects of replacing any losses.
Our policy, then, in a world without an effective international control of atomic weapons, should be to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Our big stick is an atomic Navy, maintained as the greatest in the world. We must bend every effort to keep the Navy at its present pre-eminent position, and to equip it with the necessary weapons to make our ability to retaliate apparent to all the world.
The task will not be easy. The foundation is there: a victorious and efficient navy. Our Navy is familiar with great responsibilities, geared to vast undertakings and rich in the “know-how” of defense. Even in its present state, it is the least vulnerable of all our defenses to the atomic threat. Upon this foundation must be erected a new and invincible bulwark to the designs of an aggressor. We must remake the Navy to fit the atomic age, even as it was remade to fit the machine age.
The remaking of the Navy does not negate our desire to eliminate war altogether. If the nations of the world heed the voice of reason and unite to form an effective organization to outlaw war, we can gladly halt our preparations for defense. The small effort thus wasted will be insignificant as compared with that saved by the elimination of all burdens of armament. But we cannot stand idle in expectation of the millennium. The safety of our people and of freedom everywhere demands that the necessary steps be taken at once to protect our country.
Fortunately, the time in which to prepare our defenses is available. We are not threatened with atomic destruction tomorrow. Spokesmen for the armed forces have recently assured us that the perfection of the devices required for “push-button” warfare is still a decade or more in the future. Although ten years may appear to be a long time to the casual reader, those familiar with the magnitude of the task of producing an “atomic” navy will realize that every moment must be well-spent.
Of immediate importance is the planning of an efficient atomic Navy. Atomic weapons must be designed suitable to be carried at sea. Vessels must be planned to accommodate the new weapons. The technical lessons learned during Operation Crossroads must be applied to make the new fleet even less vulnerable to attack. Research facilities must be expanded. Much study is required in such fields as the response of ship structures to high impact loadings, the shock-mounting of vital equipment, and the reduction of fire hazards aboard fighting ships. Investigation of methods of protecting personnel from blast and lethal radiation will have to be undertaken. Energetic development of more efficient and less vulnerable means of propulsion is necessary. All of these projects are in addition to the more obvious programs of research and development of atomic weapons and countermeasures.
Even more important is the actual construction or conversion of naval vessels embodying the most advanced plans and ideas. Research, in itself, is almost meaningless unless it is transformed into a practical reality. Indeed, many types of research cannot be undertaken unless a building program is present to sustain and encourage them. Shipyard personnel must be trained in the techniques of construction and maintenance of the new equipment. Many novel features must be tested in service to determine whether they perform as anticipated. It is possible that completely new ship-types will be presented to the forces afloat for training of personnel and development of new tactics.
The building of an “atomic” navy will take time. It will also take money. It would be a signal disaster if the Congress permitted an “economy drive,” however well-intentioned, to nullify the lessons learned at Bikini. Such action would sabotage this country’s defenses at a most crucial moment. Let it be granted that we have recently concluded an exhausting struggle. The American people are weary of war and the burden of armaments. Now that victory has been won, a reduction in the size of our armed forces is desirable. The danger is that disarmament may become overly enthusiastic before it is justified by international attempts to establish a stable peace.
The Congress, by and large, reflects the will of the people; and since this is so, efforts must be made to acquaint the people with the dangers of excessive reduction of the nation’s defenses. Further, they must be apprised of the vital “rebuilding” of our defenses that has been necessitated by the new weapons of the atomic age. Unless the people are convinced of the necessity for rebuilding the Navy and unless they are assured that the new defenses will actually protect them, little progress will be made. In recent months, several eminent officers have spoken out on these subjects. These utterances are but a beginning. The task of educating the American people to defend themselves in the atomic age is not only the task of every naval officer but the task of every person interested in the Navy and national defense. The American people must be taught the one great lesson of Operation Crossroads; that America’s “first line of defense” may soon be her only line of defense.