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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
Luckily, the Japanese attack on December 7,1941, caught our battleships in harbor; had they been at sea, the losses would have been much worse.
Carriers built today will be operational forty years from now, and the power they can project is more concentrated than anywhere else on earth.
The real successor to the line-of-battle ship that had for centuries dominated combat at sea had been revealed as the ungainly, once ridiculed, “flattop.” She didn’t have the romantic majesty of Nelson’s Victory , or the awesome presence of the low-lying, multiturreted, battleship of World War I. But she had the power.
Since World War II the flying boats, like the lighter-than-air craft, have passed their peak. In 1946 the largest operational class of flying boat ever built, the Martin Mars, entered the Naval Air Transport Service. Nine years later the Martin Seamaster, which carried jet engines above the wing instead of beneath it, made its debut. The high location of the big boat’s jets was of course to minimize ingestion of water, but there is no controlling the propensity of the sea to seek out and capitalize on even the smallest point of vulnerability. As with the dirigible of two decades before, fatal crashes of the first two Seamasters aborted the nascent program, and the older propeller-driven Mars transports were permitted to phase out through normal attrition.
The need for the flying boat’s anti-submarine patrol mission, combined with some of the elements of long-range scouting by radar and electronic intercepts, remains, but this aircraft has been outclassed by extremely economical, extremely long-range, land-based planes. Today, several generations after the last of the boats, four-engined turboprop airplanes able to circle lazily on station with two of their propellers feathered and carrying a heavy load of detection devices and ammunition, have brought a new level of protection to ships employed overseas.
But the star of our naval aviation show, the principal actor in the new phase of control of the sea that began to raise its head during the halcyon thirties and was crowned in the bloody oil of Pearl Harbor, is the aircraft carrier. Our carriers are today’s titans of sea power and will remain so well into the twenty-first century.
Ultimately, no doubt, even these great ships will disappear from the scene, and it is easy to predict that history will repeat itself as it has for ages past: their place will be taken by some other instrument of frightful force, perhaps an even mightier version of today’s missile-launching submarine. But that prospect—grim and by no means inevitable—is distant.
The new carriers we are building will still be operational forty years from now. They are the Theodore Roosevelt , to be commissioned October 27, 1986, on the 128th anniversary of that extraordinary man’s birth; the Abraham Lincoln , under construction in the shipway where the Roosevelt took shape; and the George Washington , still in the preliminary stages while she awaits the Lincoln ’s launch so as to clear the shipway for her own keel. Compared with them, the Saratoga and the Lexington of only fifty years ago were inefficient, poorly designed, able to put into the air only a small fraction of the power these three new ships will be able to fling aloft.
Everyone experiences the sea in a different way, and life aboard a big carrier is different from that on any other ship. The number of men aboard may approach seven thousand in all, counting her full air complement. She is a city in herself, and she is also a huge, extraordinarily complex machine shop, devoted to only one thing: the success and safety of the planes in her charge. All else is subordinated. The power she can project is greater, and more concentrated, than anywhere else in the world.
The new carriers are as near to perfection as we can get; as a new development in one of the arts of man, they achieve a higher and more stable plateau of control of the sea than has ever been achieved before. They are, nevertheless, under criticism as being too awesome, too strong, too apt to cause adventurism among our leaders. In America there is no validity to this argument. Such capability has prevented war far more often than it has created it. Who, today, would dare suggest that the United States should not have had the seven carriers we had when World War II came to us? Now we are working toward a goal of fifteen—more capable, of course, but so are the aircraft flying from their decks, and so are those of the opposition. It is technology and the training of history that give us the edge. The marriage of ships with aircraft has provided the United States with a defensive system more able, and more flexible, than ever before in our history. Our problem is only how to use it most wisely.