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 30, 2014 - Posted by | H200, military history, Professional Military Education | , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. The absence of an independent US Air Force was a key enabler in the rise of US naval aviation in the interwar years. Unlike Britain, where the RAF was established and given control over all things aviation, the US system did not have a central service driving military aviation toward one goal or strategy. The result of this can be seen in comparison between the two systems. The RAF largely ignored naval aviation because it was not viewed as their primary mission set, strategic bombing and protection of the homeland as well as airpower use in ground control such as in Iraq. As the RAF controlled the purse strings, aircraft carrier and airframe modernization took a back seat to nearly all other missions; because of this, advances such as deck-park, catapults, and flight deck characteristics were largely ignored, as were naval connections with aircraft manufacturers for platform development. Further, tactics, doctrine, training, career progression, experience, skills for naval action were not only not prioritized, but neglected, in the RAF model and as a result, naval aviation in Britain stagnated. In comparison, the US Navy and US Army allowed progress and doctrine/tactics development in their respective services for mission sets they believed were important and vital for future warfare. The US Army could focus on strategic bombing without taking away from the US Navy’s ability to develop naval aviation and put money, energy and resources to modernization of carriers and aircraft, development of tactics such as dive bombing and tactics on aircraft carrier employment and aircraft use in the offense and defense that started at the Naval War College in the early 1920.

    Regarding the discussion points about the Air Force and aircraft carriers; I strongly believe that simple similarity in a medium and platforms does not necessarily lend itself to similar capabilities and roles. Further, I submit that the aircraft carrier is a uniquely naval capability based on cultural, how it has been employed in the past, how it is employed today and how it will be employed in the future. The aircraft carrier fits well into, and has become central to, US Navy’s core capabilities:
    – Forward Presence,
    – Deterrence,
    – Sea Control,
    – Power Projection,
    – Maritime Security,
    – HA/DR,
    many of which haven’t changed are directly related to the original reasons for establishment of the US Navy, the aircraft carrier is not simply a static airfield but enables core capabilities of the naval service as a whole and amplifies naval warfare areas such as Anti-Submarine Warfare, Strike Warfare, Surface Warfare, …, etc.

    We also can’t underestimate that aircraft carriers are, in their simplest forms, still ships. As such, they share, and are more closely aligned with the navy in, maintenance, afloat operations, international law (for ships and aircraft), seamanship (shiphandling and navigation), training and damage control. It’s vital for aircraft carriers to be integrated into Fleet tactics in order to increase effectiveness and support the US Navy’s core roles and capabilities as well as specific navy warfare areas as alluded to above. Carriers are vital to both the national security strategy and naval/maritime strategy; they are worth the cost and effort and I believe they will remain so for the foreseeable future, though Carrier Strike Groups of the future may look slightly different than they do today, much as today we look different than they did in the 1980s and before.

    I do see the possibility for a modern take on “Revolt of the Admirals,” specifically regarding the use and prominence of UAVs and their very public creep into the aircraft carrier missions (ex. UCAS). I think we will see resistance at senior levels to UAVs assuming missions and roles of naval aviators, specifically when they become more popular and prominent and senior naval aviators must take a position on where to draw the line between UAV missions/capabilities and naval aviator flown missions/capabilities. Additionally, if the navy makes the push to increase carrier based UAV for long range ISR at the detriment of other naval aviation capabilities, the navy may find itself fighting to fend off influence and involvement of the air force and/or army in the future of “naval aviation,” depending on how the DoD adjudicates UAV program control and regulations.

    Comment by LCDR Matt Krull | January 31, 2014

  2. 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). Parking an aircraft carrier off the coast of another continent/country is simply different than fueling up a US Air Force strategic bomber fleet back in the US.

    Comment by Jeff Pickler | February 3, 2014

  3. As long as there is a finite amount of money, the services will always “fight” over relevancy or who gets how much funding. I concur with Jeff, it seems that the USAF is capably of performing the same missions that the USN does. On one hand, if you did not deploy a Carrier Strike Group off the coast of (insert potential adversary location), think of how much $ could be saved on fuel, ammunition, food, spare parts, etc. However, the inherent “threat” of having a CSG located nearby, can be quite the deterrent in preventing hostile action against innocent people. It is difficult to measure how effective this deterrent is, as many bad people do not come forward and say that they were going to to do “bad things”, but since there was a Carrier nearby, they didn’t.
    On the converse, seeing or hearing fast moving aircraft flying overhead can serve as a deterrent as well, however the same applies from above. It is challenging to determine how many attacks were deterred by the presence of aircraft flying overhead.
    I have no specific knowledge on this topic, but I have to imagine that there is a difference in the cost of deploying a USN Carrier to a remote location versus the cost of deploying USAF aircraft from a CONUS/OCONUS location to the same remote area. Not saying that we should trade one for the other, as I believe that both are worth having.
    Unfortunately for the “Admirals” they will have to make decisions on which vehicles/platforms from all of the services are kept, or “funded”.

    Comment by Matt McCarty - 17A | February 3, 2014

  4. A good Navy perspective on the importance of Carriers appears in the February edition of Proceedings magazine, surf to

    Comment by LCDR Matt Krull | February 5, 2014

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