It has for many years been our national military and Naval policy to consider aviation as a part of the Army and Navy, as air support for our land and sea forces. The basic idea is that the Army or Navy, or both working together, use what air power we possess in an auxiliary capacity. Inevitably this conception relegates air power to a subsidiary role. It explains, in part, the numerical insufficiency of our initial air efforts in the Pacific; of our having too little anywhere.
However, even if we had possessed a distinct and politically independent air force robbing the Army and the Navy of all the aviation they possess that would be no guarantee that we would have had more planes or more pilots than we have under our present system. The fault, it seems, lies not so much in the organization of our air forces as it does in our national conception that wars are fought by armies and navies, and that air forces merely help them. Nowhere in our thinking, as expressed by our military and Naval commanders and by the majority of military analysts, do we find the suggestion that naval and land forces should act in supporting roles to air power. But recent war experience indicates that this may be the new strategy of war, as yet only dimly perceived.
Apparently the Japanese, long advertised as mere imitators of Western ideas, have been the first to perceive this. Their initial contribution to the science of warfare has been the painful demonstration that air power is the weapon par excellence of surprise, of devastating attack successfully carried out before the opponent can rally and put up any effective opposition. It is needless to discuss Jap treachery or the complacency of American commanders in Hawaii, both of which contributed to disaster for our forces there. No discussion of ethics or lack of ethics, as such, has ever had any appreciable effect upon the outcome of war, which is decided chiefly by blows given and received, by physical forces. It is equally needless at this time to discuss a separate air force; for the question of a separate air force does not enter into the consideration of American-British-Japanese moves in this opening phase of the war in the Pacific.
Neither the United States nor Japan have independent air forces; they are part of the Army and Navy. Great Britain has its distinct Royal Air Force; but it also has its Fleet Air Arm, as we have. Thus, in military organization, the Japanese and their opponents have approached the problem of air power in the same way. That they have achieved different results seems to be due to a more ready acceptance by the Japanese of the vital importance of air power, whether ship-based or shore-based. In Pearl Harbor, for example, they used air power not as the spearhead of the attack, following the German conception, but as the sole attack. It was the boldness of this conception, added to their long-known disregard for ethical considerations, that gave them victory in that theater. Let us add, thankfully, that they can't repeat the trick; we're awake now we hope. But the reason we were caught napping deserves profound study. For the reason lies deep in the standard thinking of a majority of our senior American Army and Navy officers, and of British senior officers as well. Unless that thinking, that basic conception of armies and navies as our chief defenders, is changed, we are in for more bitter lessons as the war goes on.
In the Philippines, as in Hawaii, the Japanese practically wiped out American interference in the air; that was apparent from the opening moves when we soon heard nothing of American fighter planes, but only of American antiaircraft batteries bringing down Jap bombers. The initial air situation in the Philippines has not been explained by the Administration; but explanations are needless. The war reports indicate that the small air forces we had there were wiped out soon after the start of hostilities. Why? Simply because we didn't have enough. There can be no other reason. But the Japs had enough; and they had enough because they had visualized, before the war started, the vital need for air supremacy without which they could not effectively invade the islands by sea. It was an old lesson that American students of air power had been telling for years; but only the Japs listened, apparently.
British experiences in Malaya again underline the importance of air power, used in support of an invading army or used independently against a navy. And here again the Japs had the initiative to hurl carrier- or land-based airplanes alone against battleships while the British followed the old style of thinking that battleships and destroyers, unescorted by supporting aviation, could survive against a possible, in fact a probable, air attack.
The British navy is primarily a surface force; its air component is considered to be an auxiliary. The backbone of the fleet is the battleship, not the airplane carrier. Our Navy feels the same way, apparently; and so, evidently, does the Japanese navy, judging by the proportion of carriers to battleships. There have been long and weighty technical arguments as to the relative fighting efficiency of battleships and airplane carriers, but as all of the warring nations in the Pacific possess both and will use both, arguments about their relative efficiency become largely academic. It's my present guess that carriers and their attendant warships will sink battleships; and that battleships and their flotillas will sink carriers the Germans have sunk the English carrier Glorious with the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, and one German submarine has sunk the carrier Ark Royal, while the German battleship Bismarck was brought to bay chiefly by English torpedoes dropped by carrier-based aircraft. In short, anything that floats also will sink. Just as anything that flies may be brought down.
But we're not concerned here primarily with weapons and their utility, but with the way our naval and military leaders think of them. The Japs were successful at Pearl Harbor with three or four carriers that our land-based bombers should have been able to sink, unless they had been put out of action first, as they obviously were. The British were completely unsuccessful with two battleships off Malaya, not because battleships are useless, but because the British admiral didn't know they were so vulnerable without supporting aircraft of their own. The fault here lies not with the battleship but with the gentleman directing its war activities.
A turning point in British and American naval thinking must have been reached when Japanese torpedo and bombing planes blasted and sank the brand new 35,000-ton battleship Prince of Wales and the 25-year-old 32,000-ton battle cruiser Repulse off the Eastern Malayan Coast on December 9. These mastodons of the sea had the maximum of antiaircraft protection and were accompanied by a screen of destroyers. All they lacked was the presence of available air support.
The Prince of Wales, completed only last spring, was the latest thing in English battleships with 10 14-inch guns, a 16-inch armor belt at the waterline, six inches of deck armor, and was divided into innumerable watertight compartments to absorb underwater damage from torpedoes (the armor belt does not extend far below the waterline). The battle cruiser Repulse (a battle cruiser is a fast battleship, with less armor protection) had been modernized to resist torpedo hits.
Japanese bombers and torpedo planes, estimated at 18 of the former, 50 of the latter, appeared in relays. The battle raged for an hour and a half, bombs and torpedoes against antiaircraft fire from the big warships and their accompanying destroyers. The Japs won the battle. First the Repulse, apparently hit by only two torpedoes, then the Prince of Wales, heeled over and went down, with a loss of nearly 600 officers and men. The Japs had proven again that airplanes can sink battleships just as General Billy said they could 20 years ago and that warships with antiaircraft artillery alone are no match for determined pilots flying torpedo planes. Only the most experienced and salt-encrusted admirals ever thought they were, any time during this past 15 years.
The British admiral in command or this fleet that steamed straight to Davy Jones' locker was not an airman, but a seaman. British fighter planes, from shore bases or from a carrier, if available, would have changed the outcome considerably. They might have beaten off the attack and saved the warships. But the admiral didn't consider it necessary to call them until his ships were actually attacked although he knew that his squadron had been sighted and evidently reported by a Japanese reconnaissance plane. When finally attacked, he called for air support; the planes arrived after the ships went down. The Prince of Wales had never fired one of its expensive 14-inch guns at an enemy battleship. Its one useful contribution to the war effort of Britain has been to serve as an unmistakable warning that warships without adequate air protection against enemy air forces are more than likely to become merely helpless targets. Perhaps for that contribution, if the lesson has been learned, the Prince of Wales has been worth her cost.
Most noticeable in this war is the demonstrated fact that generals and admirals, trained only for land or sea warfare, take little notice of air power until it is actually upon them and their forces. As to Pearl Harbor, the possibility of carrier-based bombers and torpedo planes attacking warships in harbor was clearly foreshadowed by the British navy's successful air attack on the Italian battleships in Taranto Harbor. This offered proof that the most dangerous place for a warship to be was at anchor, with its crew not on the alert and with no air patrols ranging the sea to detect the approach of enemy air forces. These Pearl Harbor commanders had been warned by the War and Navy Departments that war was imminent, and it would seem only common sense for them to be on the alert. Yet they weren't and even the listening posts were not manned. A private happened to be listening, for practice, heard the planes, reported to his superior, who said they were American planes! The Navy even sank a Jap submarine in restricted Hawaiian waters but failed to report it in time. An air attack was the last thing expected because senior non-air officers in our forces think of the air last, not first. Until they think in terms of air power and its effect upon land and sea forces, we will fight at a disadvantage. The Japs have demonstrated that they think this way; our commanders have not yet done so.
However, it would be superficial thinking to relegate too much importance to air power. Air power has not yet won any war. Probably it never will do so alone, against an enemy capable of resistance on the sea and the land, as well as in the air. The three forces are needed: land, sea and air. Whether they are coequal or not is an academic question. That they must work together is axiomatic. And each must understand the problems of the other.
Our greatest problem in the Pacific is one of distance, of geography. Suppose we want a huge air force in the Netherlands Indies, or in Australia or in Russian territory around Vladivostok. How does it get there? The long range bombers may fly there. But all the rest that makes up an air force must go by sea, on boats. There is no other way. You can't simply fly an air force, with its equipment and bombs and fuel and ground personnel, ten thousand miles and then go into action. Thus the first controlling factor in all of our western Pacific operations is that everything we dispatch to the war zone must go by sea. This also is true of Japan in its drive on Singapore and the Netherlands Indies and eventually Australia.
But the Japs can work on inner supply lines, their naval vessels and transports and supply ships always within range of the Jap land-based air forces, all along the China coast. Our own fleet and the huge convoys that will be required to transport our land and air forces and their thousands of tons of supplies will be without protective air power, other than carrier-based, until they come within range of the Netherlands Indies or Australia. Air protection available then will be only what already is based there by the British and the Dutch. It cannot be augmented, or kept even to its initial strength, except by replacements from the US or Britain. And getting it there is a Navy task. Without the Navy there will be no air force of ours in the western Pacific. Thus when we say that warships are useless unless they have air support, when they encounter enemy aviation, we also must remind ourselves that our air force 10,000 miles from our shores will be nonexistent until the Navy gets it there. They are, in short, interdependent forces, and it is useless to argue which is the more important. Neither can work effectively, or at all, without the other. Can we, then, have done with air-sea-land arguments, and declare once and for all that all are needed? To protect air and naval bases soldiers are required; air forces and navies do not occupy territory.
A generally held civilian opinion has been that in a war with Japan we would send our Fleet across the Pacific, fight the Jap fleet and undoubtedly smash it. Our battleships, we have been told by many competent naval commentators and writers, are more heavily armored, carry more gunpower, but are slower than Jap battleships. In a stand-up fight we should win, they say. But to fight at all we must get there and the effective cruising range of a navy is 2,500 miles; it cannot safely move further than 2,500 miles from its nearest base unless it carries with it a vulnerable train of supply ships, difficult to protect.
From San Francisco to Manila via Honolulu, Wake and Guam is nearly 7,000 miles. But Wake and Guam have been captured, Manila is in enemy hands; the direct route is closed. Our fleet and our convoys of supply ships must take the long way around by Samoa, skirt far south of the Jap Caroline and Marshall Islands, now used as Jap submarine and air bases. We are, in effect, 10,000 miles by sea from the battlefront of the Netherlands Indies, Singapore and Australia.
Japan is only 1,200 miles from Manila, Formosa only 435. From Indo-China and Thailand the Japs moved heavy forces into Malaya, then Singapore itself and were on the way to Java. Almost within their grasp is the oil, tin and rubber they need for a long war.
It is land-based Japanese air power that must give the Jap navy the air advantage in any engagement, even if the fleets of Japan and the United Nations were equal in numbers of ships, which apparently they are not. The loss of two American and two British capital ships has put us on the defensive. We must hold our Fleet as a barrier against a main Jap fleet movement to Australia, if the Japanese drive finally wins them Java. Our Navy evidently must stay within the protection range of American, British and Dutch bombers; as the Jap navy must cling to the protection of its own air forces. Thus early has air power limited and prescribed the action of navies.
Any consideration of direct air attack on Japan from Russian bases must wait upon the outcome of this year of war. To build, supply and maintain air bases for a war of bombardment against Japan means going around the northern route Alaska, Dutch Harbor, the Aleutians, Russia. Getting the air force there is a Navy task. Here, as in the south, the Air Forces must depend on the Navy. And both must depend upon Russia's future policy toward Japan.
Looking at the big picture of the war, we see that the British in the Middle East have a sea problem almost as difficult as ours in the Pacific. If the Germans stabilize the Russian front and fortunately there seems nothing as unstabilizable as that Russian Army! the Germans undoubtedly will try to drive through Turkey to the oil of Iraq and Iran, and with heavy land-based air forces drive the British from the eastern Mediterranean. If they succeed, the Germans will accomplish what the Japs are striving to accomplish to seize the raw materials with which war is waged. The basic problem in both war theaters s the same: the problem of a long supply line, for from England it is 10,000 miles around Africa to Suez. Thus from he United Nations' viewpoint final victory must depend upon their ability to keep an unending supply of shipping moving from home ports and arriving safely in the war zone. The war can be won by ships, protected by airplanes or lost for the lack of them.
As we and the British are so dependent upon ships, it is not too comforting to reflect upon capital ship losses in this war, a claimed but as yet unverified 14 so far for all nations. Nine are admitted to be sunk, many others damaged. We have lost the Arizona, and the Oklahoma is capsized, may be floated later much later. The British have lost two battle cruisers, one new and two old battleships. The Germans have lost the Bismarck and a pocket battleship (really a heavy cruiser); the Italians lost two or perhaps three battleships. Japan has lost the Haruna, France the Bretagne. Britain has lost three aircraft carriers. Of the sinking of the carrier Ark Royal, The Aeroplane of London says: "Until a single torpedo from a submarine ended her career, she had seemed to bear a charmed life. The unhappy thought is that a single torpedo sank her. We have been led to believe that a big ship could survive the damage which one or two torpedoes might cause, and we find ourselves perturbed at this circumstantial evidence of underwater vulnerability No critic has ever suggested that, as a ship, an aircraft carrier was likely to be more vulnerable to torpedo attack than other big ships, properly equipped to localize underwater damage."
Possibly more than one torpedo hit the Ark Royal. But the thought to engage naval minds is that torpedoes, whether from submarines or airplanes, can sink capital ships. Every type of ship has proven itself vulnerable to torpedo and also bomb attack. The carrier Illustrious, for example, was put completely out of action as a carrier by one 1,100-pound bomb that went down the elevator of its flight deck. The carrier, indeed, is the most vulnerable of all warships, for one or two direct bomb hits on its flight deck can end its use as a carrier, even though the ship may steam safely away, as the Illustrious did.
My thought about this war, for what it may be worth, is simply this: The torpedo so far has proven itself the most destructive weapon against ships. Therefore provide the quickest, cheapest means for delivering that torpedo or bomb, for the bomb also has proven effective. In the Navy, that means airplane carriers. It need not mean huge craft with 70 airplanes aboard all of which may be put out of action in a few moments by one or two lucky torpedo or bomb hits on the carrier. It should mean as many aircraft carriers, of all sorts and sizes, as we can construct. They may be converted passenger or cargo ships, or fast and small carriers of new design. They might even be battleships now under construction, with their guns and top works done away with and a flight deck provided instead of them.
What use were the huge guns on the Prince of Wales and the Repulse? What use were the guns on the Haruna? Wouldn't 24 fighter planes have been more useful in shooting down attacking airplanes? And was the British carrier Illustrious, put out of action by one bomb, as useful as two small carriers would have been, if one only had been hit?
We must start to think in smaller units, in hitting power, in mobility. We must build ships that we expect to lose, if badly hit; we must build ships that we can afford to lose because we may quickly replace them. We must stop thinking in terms of 45,000-ton battleships, which are all very well but they take too long to build and require air protection when they do go into action.
Let the naval and air minds get together and figure out how best and how quickly they can work together. Neither air power nor sea power can win this war alone. Together, and with our American production ingenuity, there is no possibility that they can fail.
The command of the sea now rests only partly on surface warships. Alone, unsupported by air power, they cannot prevail against an enemy with strong air forces. Navies today are in a transitional period, moving from the surface of the sea to the air above it. Their eventual role may be chiefly to insure that land-based air power is delivered, with all its supplies, to distant theaters of war. For in the final analysis I think it will be clear that air power based on a ship, on any kind of ship, rests upon an uncertain foundation. The air power of the future will be based upon land. Air forces will use navies to help them get there. At least, so it appears to me.
This article was originally published in the April, 1942, issue of Flying and Popular Aviation magazine, vol 30, no 4, pp 25, 58, 64, 68.
The original article includes a thumbnail portrait of the author.
The photo is not credited.