Sea Power Confronts The Twenty-first Century

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Naval power … is the natural defense of the United States,” said John Adams, who more than any other man deserves to be called the father of the American Navy. For more than two centuries, this force—from the raggle-taggle Continental Navy to the missile submarines of today—has played a vital role in the defense of the nation’s freedom and independence. Ships and weapons, tactics and strategy, have undergone quantum changes over the years, but the mission of the U.S. Navy remains unchanged: to ensure safe passage for all those who do business upon the great waters.

 

Recent events—among them the Falklands war and the dramatic expansion of Soviet naval capabilities—have focused our attention on the complex problems and challenges facing the U.S. Navy as it comes within range of the twenty-first century. Ever since the aircraft carrier became the dominant weapon of warfare at sea during World War II, arguments have raged over its relevance in an age of missiles and torpedoes of increasingly longer range and deadliness. Should we build smaller carriers? Should we concentrate on submarines? Should all future warships be nuclear-powered? Should there be a mix of nuclear and conventional means of propulsion?

Few men are better qualified to discuss these and other questions than Capt. Edward L. Beach U.S.N. (ret.). Not only a much-decorated submariner, he also is a naval historian and writer whose work is familiar to readers of AMERICAN HERITAGE. Beach slipped easily into these dual careers, for his father was both a naval officer and an author of boys’ books about the Navy. Beach graduated second in his class from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1939 and served almost continuously at sea throughout World War II. Following pre-war service on a cruiser and a destroyer, he was assigned to submarines and served on board the Trigger, Tirante , and Piper . From 1953 to 1957 he was naval aide to President Eisenhower.

In 1958 Captain Beach became commanding officer of the nuclear submarine Triton , and on February 16,1960, he left Groton, Connecticut, on the first submerged circumnavigation of the globe. Eighty-three days later the Triton surfaced off Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, having covered thirty-six thousand nautical miles underwater. Beach’s third book, Around the World Submerged (1962), was based on this voyage.

He is also the author of Submarine! (1952), the best-selling novel Run Silent, Run Deep (1955), The Wreck of the Memphis (1966) and two more novels, Dust on the Sea (1972) and Cold Is the Sea (1978). He is now completing the text for Keepers of the Sea , a book of photographs of today’s Navy taken by world-renowned photographer Fred Maroon, also a former Navy man. The book will be published by the United States Naval Institute, Annapolis, Maryland, in the fall of this year.

Among other decorations, he has been awarded the Navy Cross, Silver Star (twice), Legion of Merit, and Bronze Star (twice). His ships have received three Presidental Unit Citations.

We talked in the book-lined study of Captain Beach’s home on a quiet street in the Georgetown section of Washington. One section of the shelves was filled with his father’s books. “You know,” he said at one point, “I’ve had many officers senior to me come to me and say, ‘I joined the Navy because of your father’s books.’ And lately I’ve had people junior to me say, ‘I joined the Navy because of your books.’ ”

What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the Navy since you graduated from the Academy in 1939?

The most obvious are in aviation, nuclear power, and electronics—radar and computers—and in the tremendous increase in the size of the Navy. When I graduated, we had a six-thousand-officer Navy, and now there are about ten times that many. I landed right into the beginning of a revolution.

I think we should also mention something more subtle—the realization that came upon me by degrees that we weren’t always as good as we thought we were.

Our ammunition was inferior. Our ships were, to some extent, inferior. The battle line that we thought was so great was an anachronism. It could have fought its way out of a paper bag if anybody was good enough to put a paper bag around it, but it couldn’t reach the enemy. Those battleships at Pearl Harbor were clearly powerless. They sat there, and the crews cursed and shook their fists but they couldn’t shoot back at the Japanese planes.

I see the Navy of that time as being in a state of unawareness of what the real problems were. It seems to me the only people who understood the problems were essentially the aviators and the submariners. The aviators realized that a carrier with longrange planes could win a battle if it was not opposed by another carrier. The so-called battleship admirals wouldn’t accept that. They still expected war to be solved by the great fleet action.

As at Jutland?