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Sea Power Confronts The Twenty-first Century
An Interview With Edward L. Beach The captain who first took a submarine around the world underwater looks at the U.S. Navy past and present and tells us what we must learn from the Falklands war
April/may 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 3
I would say, yes, it would require a different kind of Navy, and indeed we’re building it at last. Let’s look at Pearl Harbor again. We had built a Navy to fight the Jutland-type battle. By 1941 that was a fleet of old ships. Even the newest ones were twenty years old when the Pearl Harbor attack took place. All through the history of navies there has been this battle line. In fact, that was where the word battleship came from—the line of battle ship. There has always been this concept of having fleets line up opposite each other and operate as a unit, to have two big fleets fight until one side won. But all during World War II we didn’t fight that way. We fought instead with what we called carrier task forces, now known as battle groups. This fleet consists basically of one or two carriers along with escort ships of various kinds armed with missiles. Our objective is to get that carrier and her offensive capability into a position where she can carry out her mission.
This is not a battle line. Those ships with their Aegis computer and electronic capability are able to shoot down attacking missiles in a very, very short time. You have only a few seconds. You don’t see them come over the horizon three, four hours before the battle starts, you know. If you see a missile coming, it’s already passed. It’s that fast. We used to say in the war that the depth charges you hear are not going to hurt you. That’s probably true, because the one that’s going to hurt you has already done it. This is even more the case now. No one visualizes an old-fashioned fleet action. Now a carrier battle group controls the air and sea around it for a radius of, say, about three hundred miles. If some other outfit wants to contest that, they will send their aircraft carriers and their submarines and, indeed, land-based planes, if they can, to attack and sink the carrier. That’s not a battle-line battle.
I think the submarine is probably the greatest threat to the battle group. To help counteract this threat, carriers are being given submarine escorts. The nuclear submarines can go just as fast as the big surface ships, so they can keep up with them. It becomes a very tricky coordination problem, however. You can’t do it as in the old days, where ships steamed in visual contact of each other and kept position. It’s a matter of telling the submarine where to go, when to be where, and what to watch for. The submarine will have to know the location of the carrier but may itself be hundreds of miles away.
We’re still organized into twelve carrier battle groups, aren’t we?
The Navy says it needs fifteen and can prove it because of commitments laid on by Congress and the National Security Council. There have to be fifteen in order to keep four effective. In addition to each carrier deployed, you have a carrier in training, you’ve got one in overhaul, you have one coming back from deployment. So it takes about 4 to 1 on a statistical basis. Actually, keeping four carriers deployed requires sixteen altogether.
Some critics say fifteen is a mystical number to the Navy because it was allowed fifteen battleships under the Washington Treaty of 1921. Is this just a trumped-up charge?
I think it’s just a coincidence in numbers. Besides, the treaty didn’t count ships. It assigned total tonnage, in the ratio of 5:5:3 to England, the U.S., and Japan. The important thing is to count the number of ships you have and what they can do. For example, the Eisenhower recently was 256 days on station in the Indian Ocean. That’s one ship out there for three-quarters of a year. That’s what you wind up doing when you have an insufficient number of ships. The poor damned sailors and officers have to sit there in their ship, and no matter how dedicated they may be, some of them will go a little stir crazy. Some of those guys don’t get topside ever.
Surface ships have been downgraded throughout our lifetime. But nowadays it’s easier to shoot an airplane than it is for an airplane to shoot at a ship.
Some people have said that the military tends to prepare to refight the last war, that back in World War II we were prepared to refight World War I, and now we’re preparing to refight the battle of Midway.
Yes, you could argue that, but on the other hand, you mustn’t forget the lessons you learned in the last war either. At the same time, you also have to be ready to move into the next stage. That’s where our Navy fell down in World War II. Naval aviators tried like mad to put the idea of naval air power across, but not enough people really listened. Naval tradition is one of those things that dies very hard. I’m not saying tradition is bad, mind you. Mostly it’s good. But you could get caught short, and this is true any time if something very new is suddenly developed and you’re not ready for it. For example, suppose somebody invents a way to make radar work underwater. That would be a breakthrough that I don’t expect, because we have pretty well proved it can’t happen. But suppose somebody did and then they kept it secret and sprang it all of a sudden. We’d be in tough shape if we didn’t anticipate it. So it boils down to being prepared to cope with everything you know an enemy can do, and trying to second-guess the future too. Sometimes that can be hard to do. But our aviators were not surprised by Pearl Harbor, and that’s where the problem was. Our top leaders didn’t really listen to them.