The Leavenworth Way of War

History Discussion at CGSC

The Naval Air Force?

During the years 1919 to 1941 Naval Aviation carved out a place for itself in the Navy by being a member of the battleship team.  Naval aviation supported the battleship-centric fleet by finding the enemy fleet, fixing and harassing the enemy fleet through air attack, and defending the fleet from enemy air.  WWII forced navies around the world to recognize that airpower at sea had become the dominant capability of naval forces.  As a result, the aircraft carrier became the center of naval strategy, operations, tactics and force development.   However, the rise of the aircraft carrier in the US miltiary during WWII occured in an enviroment in which a US Air Force did not exist.  How did the absence of a US Air Force help the development of Naval Aviation in the US in the interwar years?

The first clash between the US Air Force and Naval Aviation over roles, missions, and most importantly, budget, occured after the draw-down of the US miltiary after WWII and was known as the “Revolt of the Admirals.”  Are we destined for another revolt of the Admirals?  What is the core capability of Naval Aviation today and is it worth the cost in the budget of maintaining a fleet built around aircraft carriers?  What does the aircraft carrier provide the US military that is unique and different from what the Air Force is capable of?  Should todays US Navy be built around a unique naval capability such as the submarine, rather than the aircraft carrier which seems to perform a similar role as the US Air Force?


December 14, 2011 - Posted by | H200, military history, Professional Military Education | , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. According to Naval Aviation Vision, published in January, 2010, Naval Aviation has six core capabilities. These capabilities are: forward presence, power projection, sea control, deterrence, maritime security and disaster relief/humanitarian assistance. These capabilities are both a necessity and unique to the Navy. It is a flawed assumption to think that just because the Navy and the Air Force fly airplanes, they fulfill the same missions. Looking at each of these core capabilities independently makes the obvious case for a carrier-based fleet.
    Global forward presence is impossible with the USAF force structure. First, deployed aircraft and airmen require a significant logistics tail. Both the aircraft and the crews that fix and fly them require everything from fuel, to food, to lodging, to hangar space. All of these requirements (and more) are organic to a carrier and its airwing. A carrier can provide a presence anywhere in the world, and often without overflight restrictions or coordination. Many of these same arguments can be made for the deterrence capability as well. In contrast to land based aircraft, the enemy has to find the fleet, and deal with the fact that they are often in close proximity to critical infrastructure.
    Power projection can be achieved by both the USN and the USAF, but without significant build up, it cannot be sustained by the USAF. The USN has the ability to sit offshore of any region in the world and project power for months. Additionally, this can be accomplished almost immediately. The USAF simply cannot match the immediate projection carriers are capable of.
    Sea control is not just accomplished along the shores of our nation. Carriers enable aircraft to patrol and control far-reaching corners of the world’s oceans. Additionally, carriers enable multiple aircraft to remain on station and in critical sea lanes for extended periods of time rather than the length of one or two sorties. The same holds true for maritime security. USN pilots are trained to fly low level, extended missions over the water. Similarly, their aircraft are designed for those missions. The same cannot be said for the USAF model. They could be trained and the aircraft could be purchased, but as the fleets exist now, the USAF cannot fulfill this role.
    Finally, the USN’s extensive rotor-wing fleet embarked on carriers is vital to fulfilling the Navy’s role as HA/DR providers. The carrier fleet possesses the ability to respond in force within days, and sometimes hours, of a disaster regardless of the conditions of aerodromes. The USAF does not possess the ability to transport rotor-wing aircraft en masse and often do not have them forward deployed across the globe. In terms of HA/DR, rotor wing aircraft are an absolute necessity.
    It is clear that the Naval Aviation has carved out a unique role for itself. While it can be argued that in combat the USN and the USAF fulfill many of the same roles, we do not live in a world of constant conflict. The US military is called upon to fulfill a variety of missions, and for this the country requires a broad range of capabilities. Naval Aviation is just one more capable, unique arm of the military. It would be foolish to move away from a carrier-based Navy as this country would lose at least six vital capabilities.

    LCDR Wes Hester -17B (make up for missing H205)

    Comment by LCDR Wes Hester - 17B | December 27, 2011

  2. I agree with LCDR Hester’s observation that the US Navy’s “super carriers” provide the USG with more capabilities than just more aircraft to “blow stuff up” with. His post covers enough of these capabilities that US carriers provide our nation that are unique and cannot be provided by the USAF.

    As far as can our nation continue to afford our “super carrier” fleet at 10 – 12, depending on which article/reports we read. That is a question that has already been provided a viable answer by the “America” Class Amphib. This is the newest class of our nation’s amphibious assault ships. While these ships look like small (relative term since they are larger than WWII era carriers) aircraft carriers, their primary mission is to support Marine amphibious operations and usually only carry 5-6 fixed winged aircraft. The majority of their aircraft are a mixed flight of rotary winged aircraft better suited to support amphibious operations.

    The interesting aspect of the America Class Amphib is that the first two ships will be built without the traditional well decks that amphibious assault ships use to deploy amphibious landing craft. In the landing well’s place these first two ships will have larger flight hangars in order to house 30-35 fixed winged aircraft instead of the usual 5-6. This will effectively make both of these ships aircraft carriers instead of amphibious assault ships.

    This leads me to believe that the US Navy senior leaders are considering using America class carriers to replace some of its super carriers. If so, this could help the Navy keep its naval air presence and stay within the nation’s budget. Each America class carrier is estimated to cost 750 million to 1 billion dollars to make, compared to the USS Gerald R. Ford’s, current super carrier under construction, 12.5 billion dollar price tag.

    While the America class cannot match a super carrier’s aircraft capacity it can provide our nation with a forward naval air presence and protect international shipping lanes. More importantly, it fits our nation’s budget with its much smaller manufacture price and manning requirements.

    Sound’s like a deal, wonder if it is to good to be true…

    Comment by MAJ Chris Moore, 17A | January 2, 2012

  3. The birth of naval aviation was certainly assisted by the lack of the Air Corps. However, this is not the complete answer. Naval aviation was born out of necessity with advances motivated by the emerging threats. Specifically, carrier based aviation filled a specific need for both the navy and aviation as a whole. Because of naval aviation, the aircraft carrier evolved from a capability into a strategic national asset and power projection platform that is still relevant today. One need only to look at the conduct of our enemies once an aircraft carrier is deployed to their coast to realize the power represented by the carrier. Although the cost of new aircraft carriers may become prohibitive in this fiscal environment, they still represent an asset that cannot be replicated by other services capabilities, and certainly not be submarines as the visible aspect of the carrier is one of its biggest strengths.

    I don’t believe that a revolt of the admirals of the kind that occurred during the 1940’s is in the near future of the US. It is a different time and political environment than during WWII and this country is unlikely to tolerate a revolt of military officers. Todays revolts are conducted behind closed doors in the Pentagon but are no less significant to the future of the services.

    Comment by Matthew Wilder 17D | January 5, 2012

  4. I like the way that MAJ Wilder and I agree with him. I agree that emerging threats force advancement. The carrier based aviation was an advance that enhanced aviation as a whole and kept us prepared to deter and defeat our enemies. The carrier gave us a tenet to reach the enemy beyond what the Air Force was providing by making our seapower multifunctional. Today we have a polished procurement system so I do not believe we will have revolts but we will some intense meetings in the five-sided building as we look at moving forward in the future.

    Comment by MAJ Carl Mason, 17A | January 7, 2012

  5. I agree with both MAJ Wilder and MAJ Mason that with emerging threats you can expect there to be force advancement. Without the advancement of Aviation the Naval Force would not be able to accomplish their mission of detering and defeat enemies. In my opinion I don’t think that there is a lack of revolt of admirals similiar to that in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. I agree with MAJ Wilder that today’s serious revolts are often conducted at the Pentagon behind closed doors.

    Comment by MAJ LaShaunda Jackson 17A | January 9, 2012

  6. Although the US Navy started experimenting with aircraft carriers during the interwar period, the focus of naval warfare to the aircraft carrier centered fleets of today did not evolve until World War II. Naval Aviation was a means to augment the effectiveness of the battleship formation with extended offensive power and reconnaissance capabilities. Even though exercises demonstrated that carriers could strike ground and surface targets effectively the Navy continued to focus on battleships, a proven tool, and continued to get funding from for its fleet. Using the argument that Naval Aviation was in effect enhancing battleships, which were the image of power at the time, the Navy was successful in expanding its carrier capabilities.

    I don’t believe the US Navy can be built around a unique naval capability such as the submarine, rather than the aircraft carrier, or that the US Air Force has the same effect as a carrier does strategically. The recent budget cuts and strategic plans mentioned that the US carrier fleet will not be reduced. This is because the effect an aircraft carrier has on demonstrating US power is far greater than surfacing a submarine in a foreign harbor. Subs have extreme offensive and strategic capabilities, with nuclear warheads, etc., but they just aren’t that impressive to see floating in the water. Actually, when a sub is surfaced, much of it is still below the waterline. A USAF bomber that takes off from the US, flies out of site of the person on the ground and then returns back to the US is not an effective means of demonstrating US power to the populace without an effective media campaign. To the common person standing on the beach, an aircraft carrier’s image is undeniable. The carrier itself as an image of power is a strategic tool, even though it is not always an efficient tactical or operational tool.

    Comment by MAJ Tim Hickman, 17C | January 17, 2012

  7. With major budget cuts on the horizon, I think the cost of the carrier needs to be relooked. The carrier was used to project military power across the globe. With advancements in strategic bombing, Air assets can launch from the U.S. and strike a target any where in the world.

    Air power reduces the need for carrier based operations as a strategic strike capablity!

    Comment by MAJ Steve Smith, 17C | February 3, 2012

  8. I somewhat agree with Matt Wilder but I think the absence of a US Air Force help the development of Naval Aviation in the US in the interwar years because of Billy Mitchell. I feel that you must address the efforts of Billy Mitchell to establish an Army Air Corps that helped Naval Aviaition.
    Mitchell is best remembered by this generation for his role in the sinking of the battleship Ostfriesland in 1921 that proved that aircraft could sink naval ships and his court-martial in 1926. There were many individuals that promoted airpower but Billy Mitchell took it upon himself to promote his theory regardless of the sacrifice. There are two examples that support this claim. First, when he was assigned to Washington, DC, he did not have enough money to attend formal functions so he could promote his theories so he was forced to borrow money from his Mother to support his lifestyle. Mitchell felt he was “practically the only one that can bring about a betterment of our national defense at this time”. The second was in 1924, when he attempted to force the government to act on aviation issues when he released a nine page statement to the press that alluded to “the incompetency, criminal neglect, and almost treasonable administration of the National Defense by the Navy and War Department”. For this statement, he was convicted by court martial in 1925 and in 1926 he resigned his commission just 2 years short of retirement.Many historians argue that Mitchells tactics hindered the progress of American aviation but evidence supports the fact that Mitchell helped aviation regardless of his tactics. Mitchell, in his constant attacks on the Navy about ships being obsolete actually expedited the development of carrier based aviation. In addition, Billy Mitchell’s court martial forced the General Staff to respond to the request of General Patrick that called for the creation of an Army Air Corps under the control of the Army and also the Navy quietly was able to produce/fund more aircraft.
    I also agree with Matt that the carriers provide a force projection platform that the Air Force can’t. The end of the cold war and the drawdown of the USSR and US carrier fleet around Africa is one theory why the incease in piracy in the region.
    SInce we have the strategic guidance that our focus is on SE Asia and the carrier fleet will remain the same there is no danger of a revolt of the admirals for now

    Comment by MAJ Ronald Eggelston | February 14, 2012

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: