"In Any Operation" - Aircraft Carriers

Captain T. U. Sisson

The basis of the importance of the sea is that it is still the most efficient line of communication on a tons-per-mile-per-day basis. If a map of the world were drawn on this basis, New York would be closer to Paris and San Francisco closer to Peking than is Moscow. It is this principle that permitted our successful operation in all of our recent wars. By controlling the seas of the world we have been operating on interior, not exterior, lines of communication.

Control of the sea is usually defined as the ability to use the seas ourselves and to deny the seas to the enemy. This definition is misleading. The clauses should be reversed. Control of the sea is the ability to deny the seas to the enemy and to use the sea ourselves. We must first deny the sea to the enemy before we can use it. Much has recently been written about the advantage of using the sea and the need for the Navy to ensure this, but little bas been written about the importance of denying the sea to the enemy. The enemy potential would be increased many fold if he could use coastal waters and relieve his railroads and highways of the tremendous loads required in war.

Since 1815 the British and American navies together have controlled the sea to the extent that it is taken for granted, with little thought as to how the sea is controlled. The advent of the airplane has confused the thinking of many of us. Today, control of the sea depends upon control of the air over the sea, but control of the air depends upon planes in the air at the point of contact, not upon planes on the ground en route. Before the advent of the airplane the gun was the long range weapon, before that, the sword. Throughout history, control of the sea has always been gained by mounting the long range weapon of the day on a ship whether it was a sword, gun, or airplane.

No Aircraft Carriers

Assume that there are no aircraft carriers and that not only strategic bombers but also all other land based planes can fly any ocean and return. Other factors being equal the side which can maintain the most aircraft over a certain point will control the air over that point. With an equal number of landbased aircraft in the possession of two opponents, control of the air therefore passes at the mid-point of the ocean. This is an inherent characteristic of land-based, or more accurately, fixed-base aircraft. It is true even over smaller seas such as the Mediterranean or the Sea of Japan. (See sketch.)

If we wished to control the air 100 miles off shore of the enemy and the ocean was 2000 miles wide, we would have to operate approximately nineteen times as many aircraft as the enemy, obviously an impossibility against a major power. Even if possible, however, there would still remain a 100-mile lane in which the enemy could operate shipping with comparative safety. Therefore, if only land-based aircraft are available to each side, the enemy would control half the sea the instant he reached the coast line.

With Aircraft Carriers

Now assume that we have aircraft carriers as well as land-based aircraft. Carriers bring the necessary aircraft to the critical area and control of the air around the carriers passes to the carriers. Cruisers and destroyers as well as aircraft can be used to destroy enemy shipping. We have gained control of the sea to the enemy shore line. Carrier planes can attack enemy air bases, attack shipping, cover amphibious landing, or attack other land targets as required. Carriers break the stalemate. (See sketch.)

In World War II, most of our naval operations were against land objectives, yet only one fast carrier (Princeton) has ever been sunk by land-based aircraft. Four other fast carriers sunk were the victims of attacks by carrier-based planes or by submarines. Carriers have certain advantages over landbased aircraft because they are mobile bases. This requires on the part of the land-based air a large number of planes to search the ocean daily to a distance of a thousand miles to prevent surprise attacks. It also requires large concentrations of aircraft equal to at least the three or four hundred aircraft that a group of three or four carriers can bring to bear on any point along the coast. These planes must be standing by, the pilots ready for instant take-off. Yet they may not know until after take-off where they are to go, and, because the carriers are underway, even that point will not be fixed. Repeatedly prior to World War II our carriers in annual combined exercises made successful surprise attacks on Panama and Pearl Harbor. From a technical military point of view, the Japanese attack against the shore-based defense of Pearl Harbor was nothing new. We had repeatedly demonstrated the possibility in Fleet problems.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is a prime example of the effectiveness of aircraft carriers against shore-based aircraft. When our own aircraft carriers entered the fight they enjoyed the same success against land-based air, Japanese, German, and French. Our toughest fights were against other aircraft carriers. Carriers present a smaller and more difficult target than fields ashore. Land bases are fixed and their locations known, making them ideal targets for surprise attacks from the fast-moving carrier base. It is interesting to note that during World War II American carrier aircraft destroyed more enemy planes on the ground than in the air, but American landbased planes, less successful at achieving surprise, destroyed relatively fewer enemy planes on the ground than in the air. In short, carrier-based planes can enjoy tactical surprise against a land base while themselves operating with relative immunity from surprise to their own mobile, sea-borne base. For practical purposes, therefore, the advantage of surprise is more likely to be achieved by carrier-based aircraft.


On the other hand, for carriers to operate close in shore off the enemy coastline, they must be able to operate aircraft that can reach the base from which the carriers can be readily attacked. Since intercontinental bombers are not designed for, or efficient in, attacks on ships, carriers do not have to operate such large aircraft, but they must meet attacks from land-based fighters, light bombers, and torpedo planes. The operational radius of such aircraft is now approaching 1,000 miles; carrier aircraft must have at least equal range, for otherwise carriers would be placed in a position of pure defense against land-based enemy aircraft in the air, a serious disadvantage.

Solely for control of the sea we need aircraft carriers of the size our government is now building. Thus the requirement for such carriers derives from the primary mission of the Navy. Of course, after accomplishing that. primary mission, control of the sea ' earners are then available for any other assistance they can be to the Army and Air Force in carrying out the mission of those services. Here is where the argument started on the subject of aircraft carriers vs. strategic bombers. Had the basic need for aircraft carriers been clearly understood a few years ago, it is probable that our aircraft carrier building program would not have been delayed as it has been. We need both strategic bombers and aircraft carriers, and their continued development should be allowed to proceed unhindered.


After World War II a misguided but spirited attack on aircraft carriers began. Many arguments were used, but vulnerability and cost were stressed. The atom bomb has been fallaciously used as a reason for the abolition of carriers. Carrier aircraft can themselves now use the atom bomb against the enemy. Yet an atom bomb, even if dropped on a properly positioned task force is estimated to damage or destroy not more than one ship! The atom works both ways.

The recent development of the H-bomb has caused many well-intentioned persons with limited naval or air experience to advise us, in effect, to abandon control of the sea. Actually the advent of the H-bomb should make the fast carrier task force even more effective. While carrier aircraft can use the H-bomb in attacking fixed shore targets with greater destructiveness than ever the task force has only to use wider dispersion to minimize the damaging effect of the H-bomb and mobility and speed to avoid radioactive fall-out. The relative gain appears to be on the side of the mobile base of unpredeterminable position, the aircraft carrier.

As to cost: every year a well-known columnist publishes what is said to be a study which states that one air base, one B-50 group, and some fighters- total cost $475,000,000-is equivalent to a carrier task force costing far more. There are many errors in this fallacious study, but the primary one is in comparing one force with a certain mission to another force with an entirely different mission. It is like comparing apples and bananas, no amount of bananas will make apple cider, no amount of apples will make a banana split. If the mission is to bomb a specific target within range of a specific land base, the land-based air is cheaper, but If the problem is to control a sea area, even a small one, the carrier task force is far cheaper.

For example, to control the Mediterranean by land-based air power as effectively as by just one carrier task group moving through the Mediterranean would require land bases which would permit the concentration of 300 fighters and 100 bombers anywhere in the Mediterranean and inland to the radius of carrier aircraft. Each base complex must also have defensive capabilities equivalent to those of a carrier task group. Such landbased air power would require at least six land base complexes on the southern shore of the Mediterranean and four on the northern! Each complex must at all times base 300 fighters and, in addition, operational facilities for a B-50 group in each of the six southern bases must be provided. Each complex must have the AA protection of a carrier task group, i.e., 40 AA battalions each. The northern bases need large ground defense forces, the southern bases moderate ones. Even this huge land base complex is not fully equivalent, not as effective for control of the sea, as the carrier task group, yet the initial costs only compare as shown above. The above figures are based on non-classified data of a few years ago, but the relative comparison would be the same today.

From the above, it is evident that to carry out the naval mission, control of the sea, land-based aircraft is five times as expensive even for the relatively small Mediterranean. When you consider that the carrier task group can be used in any of the other oceans, or different areas of the same ocean, the cost comparison will increase to twenty or more instead of five times as great. The truth is evident that we are comparing not two similar items but two entirely different ones. We need them both. It is not a question of strategic bombers or aircraft carriers, but a question of aircraft carriers or loss of the sea. Let us not give up the one thing that, in a military sense, has had more to do with safety of the United States than any other-control of the sea.


Korea demonstrated, as had World War II, the value of the aircraft carrier, yet many say that Korea was a special war and therefore should be disregarded. All wars at the time they occur are "special" wars, the only thing we can be certain of is that the next war will be different from the last. On the other hand, we can also be certain that tactics of the next war, when it comes, will generally resemble the most recent war (Korea) more than it will resemble an earlier war (World War II). We will need control of the sea as well as the air; in fact we cannot have the one without the other, or vice versa. They are mutually dependent. We need both strategic bombers and aircraft carriers, they are not competitive, but complementary. 


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