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- Published on Amazon.com
Hawaii was the first place ever to feel the force of a massed attack from a fleet of aircraft carriers. How such a weapons system came to be is the subject of "American & British Aircraft Carrier Development."
The authors say this is not ancient history, nor inside baseball, but it really is ancient history. There were six carrier-to-carrier battles, and there will never be another. Carriers are still valuable as floating, mobile airfields, but the old arguments about the carrier's place in the fleet are obsolete.
"Our conclusions . . . bear on the present," the authors say. They do not say what weapons systems of today they are thinking of, but likely candidates are Aegis antiaircraft missiles, Star Wars and aircraft carriers themselves.
This book came out of a Pentagon study, which it reveals in being about twice as wordy as necessary. The authors are Thomas Hone, an instructor at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces; Norman Friedman, a prolific author on military topics; and Mark Mandeles, head of a military policy think tank and a former instructor at the American Military University.
They conclude, to their own surprise, that the conventional history of the evolution of aviation at sea is far from complete or correct.
The carrier methods adopted by the Americans were regarded as successful, those adopted by the British unsuccessful. (The Japanese followed a path similar to the Americans' -- with two major differences -- but little documentary material is available on that navy.)
Again and again, say the authors, the decisions made seemed reasonable at the time. Even building more battleships was reasonable in context, though carriers superseded the battleships in usefulness in the Pacific War.
The big problem facing naval aviators was the extreme vulnerability of carriers. Battleships are built to dish it out and to take it. When operating as designed, as part of a battle line, they were virtually invulnerable to air attack in World War II, unless misplaced in restricted waters.
Because one or two smallish bombs can knock a carrier out of action, its defense is a good offense. The side that got in the first strike was expected to prevail.
This was the case at the Battle of Midway, though not at the Battle of the Coral Sea. However, the authors end their inquiry in 1941, infuriatingly leaving the debate hanging in midair, when most of the questions were resolved by events.
Carriers certainly were vulnerable. By the end of 1942, almost all the fleet carriers in the world had been sunk or damaged -- including all six of America's big flattops.
The British, taking a more cautious approach, had armored their carriers' flight decks. But that meant carrying fewer than half as many combat planes as a U.S. Navy carrier of similar size.
The British also insisted on storing all their planes within the protected hangars. Through a complex series of what-ifs, clearly analyzed by the authors, this decision meant that the British went to war with obsolete carrier aircraft.
This, however, was not merely because the Royal Navy had lost control of its own air arm in 1921. Hone, Friedman and Mandeles agree that America was fortunate to block the formation of an independent air force in the 1920s and '30s, but they find that it was not the existence of the RAF alone that hamstrung the Royal Navy's aviation.
In the end, they find that the more open American political society was an advantage. Even relatively junior Navy officers (junior meaning rear admirals and occasionally captains) had access to Congressmen, heads of industrial companies, newspaper editors and pressure groups.
Nowadays, that would be called the military-industrial complex, and we are supposed to despise it, but it served America well, say the authors, in the runup to World War II.
By contrast, the highest aviation planning body overseeing the Royal Navy was occupied largely by titled incompetents during the '20s and '30s.
Furthermore, only one Royal Navy officer concerned with aviation was permitted to present the Navy's case to the government.
The authors find that personal, institutional and organizational systems work together to create a climate that does -- or does not -- allow creation of a successful new weapons technology. On the individual level, they give pride of place to American Adm. Joseph Reeves, who proved in 1926 that carriers could deliver heavy strikes.
This whole issue has been muddied over the years by a number of untenable assumptions that have become enshrined in history books.
Worst of all is the common belief that Army Gen. Billy Mitchell was right about strategic bombing and the future defeat of the battleship by the airplane.
He was wrong twice. Battleships were vulnerable to planes, in limited circumstances, but never to the kind Mitchell wanted the nation to have.
Though Navy aviators fought Mitchell and won, they agreed with him that aviators should command aviation forces afloat. No historians, including Hone, Friedman and Mandeles, question this concept, though World War II proved it to be wrong.
The most effective carrier commander was Adm. Raymond Spruance, whom the aviators despised as a member of the "Gun Club." But in truth, Spruance completely understood the concept of getting their "fustest with the mostest," as Confederate cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest said; while also protecting the main mission.
Spruance was not an aviator, but he never lost a battle. Adm. William Halsey was a go-for-broke aviator, and by following the Mitchell offensive line, he lost the greatest naval battle in history. The fact that the Japanese failed to cash in after Halsey was maneuvered out of action has obscured that event (the Battle of Leyte Gulf).
Not many aviation enthusiasts -- and Hone, Friedman and Mandeles are among their number -- are going to admit that Halsey was a failure in high command, but it is a surprise to find them rating the Japanese Zero as a superior weapon.
In their book, they have something to say about recruiting, training and keeping pilots, but not much. The Zero's superior performance was obtained at the price of pilot protection.
Hone, Freidman and Mandeles do realize that modern naval battles are wars of attrition. The Japanese strategy of preserving cheap airplanes at the cost of expensive pilots was a war-losing decision.
U.S. Navy pilots had parachutes, self-sealing gas tanks, radios and some armor plate. Even if they lost a battle with a Zero, they had some chance of living to fly again.
The Zero pilot had none of those things, and had to triumph completely every time. This cannot happen in a war of attrition, so eventually the last Zero pilot was killed.
Except that the British won the argument at the end. As a fighter, the Zero was a loser. As a kamikaze, no one could stop it as a bomb delivery machine.
In the Okinawa campaign in 1945, the American Navy was losing a carrier every week or two to kamikazes, and it had only about 15 to start with. The British carriers, by that time serving with the U.S. Fifth Fleet, were hit many times by kamikazes, but unlike the American flattops, they were able to keep operating.