Almost three years have elapsed since the first U. S. aircraft was catapulted from an aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin. Since that first launch, almost half of the strikes and sorties flown into North Vietnam have been launched from these mobile air bases of the Seventh Fleet. Fifteen of the 77 MIG fighters destroyed as of 27 June, and, the majority of the waterborne traffic which has been sunk, including more than 20 torpedo boats; have been victims of the bombs, rockets and gunfire of carrier-based aircraft.
Not too many years or even months ago, it was a popular pastime for amateur military strategists to speak and write words that questioned the U. S. investment in aircraft carriers in the U. S. Navy. These capital ships, termed "super-carriers" in the press, were considered to be great white elephants, vulnerable to whatever force an enemy chose to throw at them; costly dinosaurs that plodded the seas at 30 knots in an era when air speeds above a thousand knots were commonplace.
Today, as the continuous pounding from the three attack carriers at "Yankee Station" grinds on, this criticism is seldom heard. Instead, there are repeated requests for more carriers on the line, and expressions of approbation from quarters once opposed to the carrier weapons system. Thus, it appears appropriate after three years of conflict in Southeast Asia to examine the aircraft carrier and its aircraft and to forecast its future in this war and others the nation may encounter.
Of the 16 attack carriers in service (including the Intrepid (CVS-11), which is temporarily serving in a limited CVA role), 13 of the total have spent at least one six-month tour at Yankee or Dixie Station, and six ships have already served, or are serving, their third tour on the line. A fourteenth carrier, the Midway (CVA-41), now undergoing overhaul, completed one tour in Southeast Asia. The nuclear-powered Enterprise (CV AN-65) completed her second voyage to the South China Sea, having demonstrated the manifold advantages of nuclear propulsion. Of the 14 carriers that have operated at Yankee Station, nine ships are more than 20 years old. The veterans Hancock (CVA-19) and Bon Homme Richard (CVA-31) have seen service for more than 23 years. The Hancock earned three battle stars in World War II, participated in the Taiwan and the Laos crisis, has accomplished ten tours in the Western Pacific, and is now on her third deployment to Yankee Station. The Bon Homme Richard won a battle star in World War II, five more in Korean actions, covered the Taiwan crisis, has made eight deployments to Seventh Fleet, and is on her third tour at Yankee Station at this writing. Three carriers were near the scene in 1964 when the Vietnam war started. The first aircraft over North Vietnam after President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered retaliatory attacks, were flown from Seventh Fleet carriers. As the laborious construction of airfields in Southeast Asia began, the number of carriers assigned in WestPac grew from three to four, and then to five, where it remains today.
The age and speed of these ships we have already discussed. All are capable of speeds in excess of 30 knots, a rate less than the minimum on a modern freeway. Yet, 30 knots translates to 720 miles per day and more than 5,000 miles in a week. Mobility is a timeworn military expression, and attack carrier mobility has often been compared unfavorably with the speed with which an aircraft, or a squadron or wing of aircraft, adequately supported by tankers, can be flown to a given location in response to a crisis. But, compared with the time that it has taken in Vietnam to construct and provision operating air bases to the scale required, the attack carrier's importance, as a complete operational base which responds in its entirety, takes on new luster. The carrier arrives complete, fitted with aircraft, weapons, fuel, maintenance personnel and all the appurtenances required for combat-operations. Adequately supported, the carrier can remain for weeks of continuous operations, then quietly slip away.
Vulnerability, in the case of the carrier compared with the shore base, also takes on a new dimension in the insurgency type of operation. A standard war college axiom says that no land-based airfield has ever been put out of action by a submarine torpedo, and this remains true today. But press accounts over the past two years have detailed the number of aircraft and helicopters on airfields in South Vietnam destroyed and damaged by Viet Gong mortar, recoilless rifle and sneak rocket attacks. The costly July attack on Danang air base is the most recent example. Infinite precautions are necessary to defend these shore-based aircraft and facilities.
Additionally, many economic examinations of South Vietnam's fragile economy have recommended ceilings on piaster spending to help curb inflation and reduce losses of material due to handling ashore. Usually, such examinations touch off additional investigations of whether or not another attack carrier can be put on the line, rather than another base laboriously be constructed. As base pressures in other parts of the world continue to grow—the evacuation of French NATO bases and the withdrawal recently from Libya's Wheelus base are two examples—they continue to pose inescapable problems, and to focus attention on the inherent advantages in military use of the freedom of the seas.
So much for a case that has already sold itself. The cost and construction time for land air bases, the immense difficulty in defending them in an unfriendly environment, the frequent riots outside their gates, their impact on a delicate and backward economy, and finally, their inability to be uprooted and brought home when they are no longer needed, tell a story for all to see and understand.
Insofar as carrier aircraft are concerned, World War II demonstrated that aircraft need not have inferior performance in order to be capable of operations from a carrier flight deck. The evolution of Navy aircraft since World War II, during Korea and since the advent of hostilities in Vietnam, makes an interesting chronicle. Over-all, the philosophy inherent in the composition of the attack carrier air wing has not undergone major change since the USS Langley. The attack carrier air wing is, and has always been, designed to provide the best capability for air-to-ground and air-to-air warfare, and for defense of its carrier base, that is available. From the close of World War II until our entrance into the Korean Conflict, there was a concentration on the employment of nuclear and thermonuclear weapons in implementation of this capability. Korea demonstrated that major military actions could occur without the employment of atomic weapons by either side. This lesson was eventually digested and the onset of hostilities in Southeast Asia found naval aviation well prepared for the job at hand.
Two facets of the conflict in Vietnam must be appreciated in any assessment of current progress. First, the basic problem in sorting out, from the complex operational skein, those threads that have application to the future, apart from those that apply only to this special situation with its unique geography and military and political constraints. Second, the fact that the tempo of warfare and weapon improvement, as in almost every other technology, is increasing in a curve that is almost asymptotic. Despite the relatively short time we have been at war in Vietnam, evolutions in weapons and their employment, both ours and the enemy's, that might have been expected to take years, have occurred in months.
We have seen what was a relatively "permissive" environment at the beginning of hostilities, grow in anti-air capability almost daily. First, the number of small and then large caliber guns increased rapidly; then, in mid-1965, the surface-to-air missile made its first appearance. Overlaid on these more-than-adequate ground defenses is a highly competent, ground-controlled, fighter-director force. This heavy triple-A defense, the acknowledged accuracy of the enemy gunners, the excellent early warning and fire control radar, and the continuous threat of the MIG fighters and the SAMs, combine to make the North Vietnamese skies the most dangerous in the world.
These factors have had their effects on the aircraft which fly from the carriers to accomplish the carrier's mission of projecting military power from the sea. The propeller-driven A-1 "Spad", a workhorse in Korea, with more than 20 years of Fleet operations behind it, started out in Vietnam to continue its combat record. Able to carry heavy bomb loads to long ranges, loiter as necessary and place its bombs with accuracy, the Skyraider was a useful aircraft in the early strikes in North Vietnam. It has been adopted by the U. S. Air Force and is the mainstay of the Vietnamese Air Force. As the defensive environment in the North grew tougher, however, A-1 losses began to climb, and this grizzled veteran proved too slow and too vulnerable for the more difficult targets. Today, its use is confined to missions in-country, where the defenses are less concentrated and less deadly. The A-1 has not been retired without occasionally proving its mettle; at least two Soviet-built MIG fighters have found that the A-1 in the hands of an experienced Spad pilot is a worthy opponent and not to be taken lightly.
The A-4 Skyhawk, now in its "E" version in the Fleet, and soon to have the "F" model, With better engines, updated avionics, and additional bomb stations, first entered Fleet service more than a decade ago. It represents the nuclear delivery vehicle, modified by Korean experience into a highly competent conventional weapons aircraft. These aircraft have flown more combat missions over North Vietnam than any other single aircraft type, and with a lower loss rate than any comparable machine. Certain aspects of the A-4 design have proved invaluable in the combat situation, such as the back-up manual control system incorporated in the aircraft, which permits adequate control even when the power control system ceases to function. Fuel arrangements in the Skyhawk have been modified in order to prevent the loss of all fuel when certain tanks are holed. The basic Skyhawk attribute that falls short of requirements is its relatively small payload/ radius capability. Although it represented the best available state-of-the-art when it was in design stages, more bombs to greater ranges are desirable today.
Pages could be written about the A-6A Intruder aircraft operating from the larger carriers at Yankee Station, and by Marine squadrons at Chu Lai and Danang. The Intruder design predates the Vietnam war, and stems directly from experience in Korea, when effective day and night around-the-clock interdiction proved beyond the capabilities of the carrier aircraft of the period. The A-6A is the first completely all-weather, tactical attack aircraft ever employed in combat. Equipped with a complex system of sensors, displays and computer-controlled equipments, the aircraft enables its two-man crew to proceed to a target area, find and attack the target, and egress, without ever having visual contact with the ground. Heavy bomb loads and long range tend to compensate for the fact that the Intruder is in the Fleet in relatively small numbers. Its usefulness in combat operations in Vietnam, particularly in the frequent periods of extended bad weather, has confirmed the validity of its requirement and generated increased interest in the deployment of more of these highly effective aircraft.
The Navy's F-4 Phantom II, famed as the best fighter aircraft in the world before Vietnam, has performed in Southeast Asia as might have been expected. The air encounters over North Korea's MIG Alley and the Sea of Japan, during the Korean War, when U. S. aircraft jousted with the MIG 15, forged the background for the Phantom's development, and today the F-4 is the acknowledged master of the MIG 21. The F-4 carries the lion's share of the fighter work, for both the Navy and the Air Force in North Vietnam. Designed and built to fly from Navy flight decks, the Phantom demonstrates daily that carrier suitability requirements need not impose handicaps to aircraft performance. In fact, structural requirements for the Mach 2 flight regime overshadow any increases in strength demanded by catapults and arresting gear. About 25 MIG aircraft have been destroyed by U. S. Navy and U. S. Air Force F-4 aircraft and a good proportion of the air-to-ground weapons dropped in North Vietnam are delivered by these same versatile machines.
The F-8 Crusader, a mainstay of the fighter force for the older attack carriers, has performed well, considering its many years of Fleet service. Employed in the air-to-ground role as a flak suppression Weapon, the F-8 was found to be vulnerable to ground weapons, and its specific lack of any means of control when the primary flight control system became inoperative caused a number of aircraft to be lost. Lessons learned here have been applied to follow-on aircraft, and additional armor has quickly been added to the Crusaders in operation in Vietnam.
The E-2 Hawkeye aircraft, developed to provide airborne early warning and fighter direction for the defense of the carrier task force, has been able to provide a new dimension in air control over an enemy's territory. These aircraft use their sophisticated radar to direct carrier attack aircraft to their targets, to provide a form of fighter direction to target and barrier combat air patrols and to provide assists in search and rescue situations.
Also worthy of mention are the large number of Navy-developed weapons currently employed in Vietnam by the services. Sidewinder and Sparrow missiles are the mainstays of our fighter armament and have accounted for the majority of air-to-air kills accomplished in the war to date. Both have been developed by the Navy. The Zuni rocket, the Bullpup guided air-to-ground missile, the Snakeye retarded bomb for low-altitude release, and the Shrike anti-radar missile, are all Navy developments undergoing heavy use against the enemy to the North.
An important point here, and one that should not be overlooked, is that all of these aircraft and weapons were under development or in Fleet use before the opening of military action in Vietnam. Such developments may take as long as seven years to reach fruition, but here there was no hasty, extravagant catching-up process, nor was one required. Navy weapons systems were very nearly optimum for the work at hand and their presence demonstrates the foresight that went into them and serves as a tribute to the men who were responsible for requirements generation and implementation in the period since Korea. One may also speculate on these weapons systems as a product of a system of military judgment that is often criticized today.
As previously stated, there are lessons to be learned from our current involvement that will have long-range application to our weapons and aircraft for the future. Along with the day-to-day improvements we are incorporating in the aircraft which are fighting today's battles, there are new developments in process for Fleet application.
In Korea, the only jet aircraft in numbers on board carriers were the F2H Banshee and the F9F Panther. Both were designed as fighters, and neither was the equivalent of the MIG 15 in an air-to-air encounter. In the air-toground role, both were severely limited in their payload/radius capabilities, and in their ability in bad weather or at night. The F9F in Korea carried four 250-pound bombs. The A-4E now in use in Vietnam carries an average load of about 3,000 pounds to its target in North Vietnam. The A-6 can lug 9,000 pounds to a radius of 650 nautical miles, and make the all-weather delivery described earlier.
What, then, are the further improvements that experience dictates? First, increased payload and radius capabilities over those available in the Skyhawk are needed. The A-7A Corsair II, already being delivered to Fleet squadrons, will provide considerable and significant improvement over the A-4E. Its new generation turbo-fan engine promises greatly enhanced fuel specifics, and hence better range without the problems which are inherent in the use of external drop tanks and tanker aircraft.
Another lesson learned in Korea, that around-the-clock interdiction of a relatively primitive supply system is a most difficult task, still pertains. The Viet Cong use the same tricks employed in Korea: the shuttling of cargo, the use of bicycles and A-frames, the use of truck parks to evacuate the roads during the daylight hours, the development and use of alternate roads, trails, and waterways, and the by-passing of destroyed bridges and key route segments. In Korea in 1950-1953 (as in Italy, France and Germany in World War II), we learned the extent of the enormous effort required to stop the logistic flow. In today's Vietnam environment, we know that air power cannot completely interdict—it can impair, penalize, punish, hinder and slow—it cannot stop the flow of material. In the Intruder, with its all-weather system, we have deployed the best instrument yet available for this task.
The continuing contest between attack aircraft and ground gunners has pointed out the need for increased attention to armor in aircraft. Since Korea, the trend has been to omit armor plate in military aircraft, striving for greater performance. On the basis that jet speeds, low level attacks, and more effective armaments would preclude the need for armor, it was generally deleted from aircraft designs. In the face of heavy antiaircraft defenses in North Vietnam, armor is back in vogue, and great effort has gone into reducing the vulnerability of aircraft. The A-7A Corsair II includes wide separation of hydraulic and fuel lines, armor on key points, and routing of important systems of protected fuel to increase aircraft survival in the target area. The development of improved, lighter-weight armor has been accelerated, and face-hardened composites and the use of ceramic tile armoring materials are being examined.
Modern jet engines produce exhaust trails at various altitudes and power settings, and the degree to which this smoke trail may affect aircraft vulnerability has been subjected to intense scrutiny. Smoke reduction efforts are underway to reduce the tell-tale trail that helps the gunner find his fast moving target.
In July of 1965, the first Soviet-manufactured surface-to-air missiles were fired at U. S. aircraft in North Vietnam. Despite the fact that we had observed the preparation of those missile sites for some time and the counter-measures that were ready, actual operational employment of SAMs necessitated immediate implementation of a number of actions. A combined approach, involving newly devised tactics, new warning systems and procedures, and electronic counters was put into action. To date, the SAMs in North Vietnam pose a serious and continuing threat, but not one that is likely to be decisive. Navy development efforts to reduce SAM-imposed attrition to zero continue, but current programs appear to have these losses checked.
An important lesson of the Vietnamese air action is the demonstrated requirement for an absolutely foolproof system for identifying friend from foe. Current systems have a basic deficiency, in that they can tell the operator of a properly equipped radar that his target is a friendly with fully operative IFF equipment, or something else. The problem is that the "something else" can be an enemy, a friendly with inoperative equipment, or a noncombatant. As is obvious, there is an urgent and pressing difference in these categories, particularly if the firing of an air-to-air or surface-to-air long-range missile is contemplated. Currently, the air threat posed by the Vietnamese MIG is not serious enough to make this a real operational deficiency. In the future, as longer range missiles become available, a solution will be required. A number of developmental approaches are being considered, their need underscored by the air encounters now taking place in Vietnam.
Another important and far-reaching implication of the Vietnam war is the very significant advantage that acrues to an aircraft capable of multi-mission employment. The F-4 Phantom provides this capability in a measure, but lacks satisfactory range characteristics, unless it is refueled. Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force Phantoms are used interchangeably in this manner. The lesson is obvious, the tactical advantages made available by such an aircraft are immense, but the design effort to produce a really competent fighter/attack machine is considerable and challenging. The Navy is currently pursuing a major study effort on a model called VFAX, to determine if technological advances in avionics, engines and airframe make such an aircraft achievable.
In summary, then, our reckoning indicates that the attack carrier still confounds its detractors with its continuing ability to be responsive to jet-age military requirements. Navy aircraft and Navy weapons are providing military capabilities that are more than able to cope with the current action in Southeast Asia. The attack aircraft carriers and their aircraft daily contribute to the application of military power in implementation of the diplomatic aims of the United States throughout the world. When the war in Vietnam draws to an end, as it inevitably will, the carriers will withdraw, leaving no monument to their contributions but the lives their efforts saved. The men who 'fly the Navy's planes, those who man the carriers and those who build and maintain both the aircraft and the ships, are giving their country more than full measure of service and will continue to carry on in the naval tradition.
A graduate of the U. S. Naval Academy in the Class of 1944, Captain Vito became a naval aviator and served in carrier air groups on board the USS Princeton (CVS-37), USS Intrepid (CVA-11), and USS Forrestal (CVA-59). He was a member of the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project at Albuquerque, New Mexico, and was later assigned to Air Development Squadron FIVE. In 1953, he attended the Naval War College and, subsequently, was Commanding Officer of Attack Squadron EIGHTY-THREE. Operations Officer of COMCARDIV SEVEN from 1963 to 1965, he now heads the Planning Requirements Branch (OP-506) OPNAV.