- Historic Sites
Navy Power A View From The Air
Seventy-five years ago a powered kite landed on a cruiser. From that stunt grew the weaponry that has defined modern naval supremacy.
October/November 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 6
For hundreds of years ships of war were of wood, moved by the wind. Their long-range weapons were simple cannon, while at short ranges, with ships locked alongside one another in deadly embrace, the sailors used cutlasses, sabers, pikes, and small arms. The strategy of sea power consisted of maneuvering, out of sight and beyond knowledge, into position where the power of the guns and their trained crews could become decisive. Before Trafalgar, as before all his battles, Nelson kept himself informed of the enemy location and movement through his scouting ships (of which he complained he never had enough). Villeneuve, commanding Napoleon’s fleet, knew the British were nearby, and hoped to avoid meeting them, but in fact had no idea of exactly where they were or what Nelson’s strategy might be. When the day of battle dawned, England’s enemy could not escape. Disaster, in the form of a concentration of British sailing battleships, leaped out of the sea and fell upon the hapless French and Spanish on October 21,1805. Trafalgar determined Europe’s course for a century.
Not for one and a third centuries, until Midway, did a naval battle have such a world-shaping effect. In the meantime the Industrial Revolution had increased the capabilities of man a thousandfold, and those of his warships by at least twice that. Ships of war changed more in this short period than in all of naval history. It was then that the armored steam-powered battleship as we know it today developed, the first one being the little Monitor of Civil War fame. By 1940 its successors had become the epitome of impregnable force at sea. But during all its history, the battleship seldom was engaged in actual battle. It performed its function more through the majesty of its image than through the effectiveness of its weapons. These were still limited to the range of man’s vision on the surface—to the range, in other words, of guns. Meanwhile, man’s reach had gone much farther. Despite its aura, the great fort of floating steel never really justified its existence by the conclusive Trafalgar-like combat for which it had been created. Other, smaller, ships fought the battles: even Jutland was principally a battle-cruiser engagement. And at Pearl Harbor the battleships were merely victims.
Nevertheless, during the last half of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth, we looked on the battleship as the quintessential, primary ship of war. But after World War I, the battleship began losing this distinction at an ever faster rate. Beginning about 1930 the men in charge of the Navy, still in romantic thrall to the naval lore of the past, blinded themselves to an evolution taking place before their very eyes. They believed our fleet of outmoded World War I-type battleships to be the backbone of the Navy. So they believed until 1941; all the while, in reality, the battleship was already destined to play a distant second fiddle to a revolutionary weapon developed during the last forty of the eighty years since the Monitor had fought the Merrimack .
The new queen of battles was the aircraft carrier. She could accurately project power hundreds of miles instead of only tens of miles; and unlike the battleship, the carrier came into fierce combat from the very outset of her reign. Caught in the fire storm of World War II just as she came of age, the carrier and her aircraft proved to be the best fire fighters. The traditional battle fleet changed its shape and even its name, becoming the carrier task force. In the process it became outstandingly clear that Pearl Harbor should never have been allowed to happen. The ships sunk there should never have been so exposed to enemy air power. It was a classic case of an anachronism brought face to face with a reality that for years had been predicted by officers and men of our naval air arm. In macabre disguise, the disaster was a blessing. At a single stroke Pearl Harbor freed us from the dead weight of a mistaken strategy, a mistaken concept of how to use our power on the sea.
The new queen of battles was the aircraft carrier, and unlike the battleship, she came into combat from the outset of her reign.
Only six months later, at Midway, both sides had aircraft carriers—and the similarity to Trafalgar was profound: concealed power leaped from the sea to overwhelm a strategically surprised enemy; a superior force was defeated by a lesser one that was superior in the things that really counted—prior intelligence, awareness, careful planning; immense consequences flowed from the battle.
At Midway, carrier-based air power confirmed its claim to control of the sea, and it has done so many times since. Its versatility is unmatched. Off Libya it has just provided America’s most potent weapon for a limited strike against another state. On the free sea, well within striking range of its enemies yet surrounded by its own protective umbrella, our sea-based air power leaves behind no trail, no vulnerable infrastructure of logistics, nothing that can be used to hurt it or restrain its freedom of action.