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?


January 24, 2013 - Posted by | H200, military history, Professional Military Education | , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. The absence of a separate U.S. Air Force in the Interwar years helped development of Naval Aviation because it allowed the Navy and its Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer) to effectively lobby for resources and missions without effective competition. The Army was not interested in competing with the Navy for more aviation responsibilities since they had their own interwar struggles to deal with. Just as important as the first point however is the fact that the United States correctly identified the Pacific area as a likely threat which required a mobile aviation capability. This greatly assisted the BuAer and the Navy in securing those necessary resources. Ultimately a separate Air Force would have created a much more complicated environment for the Navy as they competed for relevancy and resources that included funding, equipment and manpower.
    Some of these conditions were exactly the opposite when compared to the British who did not develop a robust carrier capability in the interwar period even though they were they original innovators of the concept from World War One. They did have a separate Royal Air Force that controlled all aviation resources and decisions. They also identified Germany and a mainland Europe conflict as the most likely threat and therefore focused on long range, land based bombers as a primary capability versus carrier. It is possible the Royal Navy could have argued for a more prominent role for Naval aviation, but unfortunately they had limited leadership to do so since most of the RAF leaders backgrounds were in land based capabilities.
    Although not having true competition for resources greatly facilitated the U.S. Navy in developing a carrier fleet, the projected threat and subsequent capabilities requirements to defeat that threat likely drove development and priorities equally if not more than effective Navy lobbying.

    Comment by MAJ Tom Murphy SG11C | January 25, 2013

  2. The additional challenge for the Royal Navy was that the majority of their experienced aviators transfered over to the Royal Air Force following its establishment in 1918. Approximately 60 thousand aviators moved from the Royal Navy (later the Fleet Air Arm) to the Royal Air Force, effectively reducing the overall experience level of the Fleet Air Arm and greatly degrading the senior leadership essential to driving innovation in any military organization. By not having a separate Air Force, the U.S. avoided degrading its experience base and institutional knowledge resident within its Naval aviation. Not only did they have control over recommending budget priorities and strategy to Congress, but the Navy did not have to relinquish its skilled aviators to another organization.

    Comment by Ryan Kendall | January 25, 2013

  3. The U.S. Navy Carrier Strike Group of today enables Geographic Combatant Commanders the ability to have effects within four separate warfare domains (air, land, sea, and undersea). In a global threat environment where sea lines of communication, airspace exclusion, and access denial are major focus areas, the Carrier Strike Group provides a unique capability to quickly project military power in support of U.S. national interests. In contrast the Air Force provides the ability to affect targets (strategic and operational), conduct reconnaissance, and rapidly move supplies and equipment. Their operations are limited to primarily two warfare domains, air and land. As U.S. national security policy orients towards the Asia-Pacific theater, the Carrier Strike Groups provide the NCA a unique military capability among the services to act as a deterrent by nature of its location and the mere threat of its capability, while also providing the capability to engage with partner nations who share similar interests regarding maritime security and dominance. Given the change in National Security strategy, the Carrier Strike Group should be a focus for future development and procurement to ensure the U.S. maintains the capability to guard interests within the global environment.

    Comment by MAJ Ryan Kendall, Section 11D | January 25, 2013

  4. I believe the article, “Shipping Out” by Robert Haddick on (31 August 2012) states it best, “For decades, aircraft carriers have been the tool-of-choice for crisis response. Policymakers in Washington and four-star commanders in the field invariably have turned to carriers when they needed to signal U.S. intentions, quickly reinforce military power, or provide decision-makers with options during a predicament. The Navy has responded to the enduring demands of these customers by making the aircraft carrier strike group the prime organizing feature of the Navy’s surface and aviation forces, thereby drawing the biggest share of the service’s manpower, budget, support, and training resources. And until recently, the Air Force seemed happy to cede this crisis-response role, because then it could focus on its own priorities.” It does continue to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the air craft carrier versus the capabilities of the Air Force’s strike fighter and bomber currently in development. Due to technological advances in weaponry and air craft capabilities, the Air Force is making a case that they can contend with a carrier, and due to recent government budget constraints, they are being heard. The article makes a good case for both services, however, I just don’t think you can dismiss the feeling the leader of a potentially hostile country gets in the pit of their stomach when they see the ominous sight of an aircraft carrier sitting on the horizon.

    Comment by LCDR Bryan Barry, Section 11A / May 22, 2013 | May 22, 2013

  5. The absence of the US Air Force during the Interwar years undoubtedly helped with the development of US naval aviation. Once Great Britain established the Royal Air Force, their naval aviation took a backseat to what was considered their main effort: strategic bombing. The GB naval aviation community no longer had a lobbying body that looked after their interests and secured funding/development that supported the naval aviation mission. As a result, the vast majority of money/experience/ and aircraft development went toward aircraft that they felt supported a strategic bombing campaign. Due to the fact that there was no US Air Force during the Interwar years, aircraft development, funding, and doctrine was being developed simultaneously for the Army air corps and the naval aviation community. Thankfully, the naval aviation community had a large body of support among the political elite that helped ensure their interests were fully represented and allowed the US to take the lead from the British with regards to aircraft carrier development, operations, and capability.
    It’s not clear at this point if we are destined for another ‘revolt of the admirals,’ but I think it is unlikely. There will always be interservice competition for funding and resources, but ultimately I believe our political leadership will continue to support both aviation communities – even during a period of fiscal constraint. Even though it could likely be argued that the US Air Force could very well likely carry out most of the missions that the US Navy conducts, the aircraft carrier, and the Carrier Strike Group as a whole, remains one of our foremost power projection platforms (and will for some time, in my opinion).

    Comment by Jeff Pickler | February 1, 2014

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