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The Air-Sea Battle Concept: Antecedents

Part 2 of 4

As noted in the previous post, the Air-Sea Battle Concept had antecedents in the Air-Land Battle Doctrine. Given that the 20th century was essentially a European-focused period and the Cold War was a largely land-focused arena with the penultimate battleground the Fulda Gap, it is easy to see why the Air-Land Battle Doctrine was a natural response to the overwhelming Soviet forces in Central Europe. And today, with this century being widely-described as the “Asia-Pacific Century” and with the Pacific being a maritime theater, it is also readily seen how and why the Air-Sea Battle Concept was a natural – and necessary – concept.

Also in March, however, representatives of the British, Canadian, and American navies met in Washington with their counterparts from the Royal Air Force and the U.S. Army Air Forces Anti-Submarine Command to find means to overcome the U-boats. The most important decision made at this series of meetings was to allocate a small force of very long range B-24 Liberator aircraft to cover the “air gap.”

But it is also important to understand that the Air-Sea Battle Concept had direct antecedents in what might be described, as Russell Weigley did in his book, The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy, the unique American (and often allied) way of dealing with strategic and operational challenges in the past. Understanding how and why these predecessor Air-Sea Battle Concepts evolved can also help us understand the natural evolution of 2013’s ASBC. There are a number of examples of “air-sea battle” campaigns in World War II worth considering, but two in particular illustrate the different forms that an air-sea battle can take.

Battle of the Atlantic

Coast Guardsmen on the deck of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Spencer watch the explosion of a depth charge, April 17, 1943. The coordinated response to the German U-Boat threat in 1943 could be considered an antecedent of the Air-Sea Battle Concept. National Archives photo

The first useful example is one segment of the lengthy “Battle of the Atlantic:” the campaign to defeat German U-boats in the first half of 1943. By January of that year, the German navy had more than 100 submarines prowling the Atlantic. Their most effective hunting ground was in the so-called “air gap” between the southern tip of Greenland and the longest range of patrol planes based in North America. In this area, convoys relied for protection on their own surface escorts.

In prior years, Atlantic convoys had often been routed around U-boats waiting to ambush them through the use of intelligence based on ULTRA decrypts of intercepted German radio communications. But ULTRA was not effective for three weeks in March 1943, and U-boat “wolf packs” operating mostly in the “air gap” sank more than twenty percent of all Allied shipping plying the North Atlantic. It was a grim month. In the battle of attrition between the convoys and the U-boats, the U-boats seemed to have the upper hand.

U-Boat Base

A B-17 Flying Fortress releases its bombs over a U-Boat base, Lorient France, Oct. 21, 1942. The decision to target the U-Boats bases in France, is an example of an implementation of an air-sea battle tactic. U.S. Air Force photo

Also in March, however, representatives of the British, Canadian, and American navies met in Washington with their counterparts from the Royal Air Force and the U.S. Army Air Forces Anti-Submarine Command to find means to overcome the U-boats. The most important decision made at this series of meetings was to allocate a small force of very long range B-24 Liberator aircraft to cover the “air gap.”

In the long campaign against German U-boats in the Atlantic, the British, Canadian and U.S. forces considered and implemented a number of air-sea battle tactics, sometimes simultaneously.

Toward the end of March, ULTRA again broke German codes, and the intelligence information drawn from the ULTRA intercepts allowed optimal use of the very long range bombers and of the escort carriers that were beginning to cover Allied convoys. As a result, the campaign turned around in May 1943 when the German navy lost 47 U-boats in the North Atlantic. When long-range Allied patrol aircraft began operating from the Azores in October 1943, even more ocean areas became hazardous patrol areas for the U-boats.

Atlantic Convoy

A U.S. Navy blimp helps to escort an Atlantic convoy and keep an eye out for German U-Boats, ca. June, 1943. Assigning land-based blimps to help protect Atlantic convoys is an early example of air and naval assets working together. Library of Congress photo

In the long campaign against German U-boats in the Atlantic, the British, Canadian and U.S. forces considered and implemented a number of air-sea battle tactics, sometimes simultaneously. One tactic was to bomb the U-boat bases on the French coast (at Lorient and St. Nazaire, for example). A second was to ambush from the air U-boats transiting the Bay of Biscay. A third was to bomb the building yards where U-boats were assembled. A fourth was to strengthen convoy protection with improved equipment and more escorts, including U.S. Navy escort carriers and land-based blimps.

All of these efforts were part of an extended air-sea battle of attrition, where Allied air and naval units worked together to punch through an anti-access, area denial “envelope” that German naval forces tried to impose on the North Atlantic sea lanes. In the course of that long campaign, naval and air officers developed means of cooperation and coordination – especially of air assets – that eventually gave them victory. They were aided tremendously by the large size of Britain’s merchant marine and by the huge productive capacity of American shipyards, which turned out great numbers of Liberty ships, destroyer escorts and escort carriers.

Far East Air Force

A U.S. Army Air Forces B-25 Mitchell bomber of the Fifth U.S. Army Air Force soars toward the target area in the Japanese-held town of Gorontalo on the island of Celebes in the Netherlands East Indies. The attack centered on the warehouses, further reducing the enemy’s supplies in the southwest Pacific area. During Sept.1944, Fifth Air Force planes based in New Guinea paid special attention to the Netherlands East Indies, a major source of Japan’s steadily dwindling oil supply. National Archives photo

The second useful illustration of an effective air-sea campaign in World War II is that waged in and around the Philippines in late 1944 by U.S. Army and Navy air forces and Navy and Marine amphibious forces. At the operational level, U.S carrier task forces struck at distant Japanese air bases to stop the Japanese from reinforcing their air units in the Philippines. U.S. Army long-range land-based air conducted reconnaissance and also bombed Japanese air and sea bases.

The key factor – well understood by both Army and Navy planners – was the range of long-range land-based aviation. Carrier aviation could and did conduct long-range raids, and carrier aviation also covered amphibious assaults. But it was long-range land-based bombers and fighters that pushed forward the offensive air envelope under which amphibious forces operated.

Once the Philippines were temporarily isolated from Japanese aviation reinforcements, U.S. land-based and sea-based air pounded local defenses. Then land-based and sea-based air shielded and supported an amphibious assault on the island of Leyte. Once a Japanese air base on Leyte had been seized, Army air units flew in and operated from the new base, attempting to push the U.S. offensive air envelope forward over the next Japanese airfield to be captured. This concept of operations had been applied successfully to the campaign to retake New Guinea earlier in 1944.

Philippines

Japanese ships in the Port of Zamboanga, Philippines come under attack by bombers of the 5th Air Force, Oct. 28, 1944. The attack was part of an air-sea battle tactic aimed at preventing the Japanese from reinforcing their forces on Leyte. U.S. Air Force photo

The key factor – well understood by both Army and Navy planners – was the range of long-range land-based aviation. Carrier aviation could and did conduct long-range raids, and carrier aviation also covered amphibious assaults. But it was long-range land-based bombers and fighters that pushed forward the offensive air envelope under which amphibious forces operated. Accordingly, the Army and Navy assaulted the islands of Biak (off the north coast of New Guinea) and Morotai (between New Guinea and the Celebes) before attempting to penetrate Japanese defenses in the Philippines. Air bases on both islands were essential to the effort to push forward the U.S. offensive air envelope.

Covered by both land-based and sea-based aviation, the Leyte invasion forces could safely leave their staging areas in Manus, Admiralty Islands, and Hollandia, New Guinea. The distances that the invasion forces had to travel were great. For example, it is approximately 1,700 nautical miles (nm) from Manus to Leyte, and over 1,500 nm from Hollandia to Leyte. The invasion force had to be covered while in transit, and it was. Japanese bases in places as far away as Formosa (Taiwan) and China had to be attacked to prevent the Japanese army and navy from reinforcing their air bases in the Philippines, and they were. When the invasion forces reached Leyte, they had to be supported in their assault, and that was done, too. Land-based air and sea-based air complemented each other.

Morotai

U.S. Army soldiers wade ashore during the invasion of Morotai, Sept, 15, 1944. The invasion of Morotai was part of the air-sea battle tactic of weakening the Japanese defenses before the invasion of the Philippines. U.S. Army photo

Clearly, there were strong antecedents to today’s Air-Sea Battle Concept. This understanding is critical to having a more nuanced appreciation of the complexities of the concept as well as the necessary participation of all the U.S. military services. But to better understand what the Air-Sea Battle Concept is, it is important to understand how ASB will enable the United States to accomplish its strategic objectives. We will explore this in the next post by seeing how ASB is aligned with both the Defense Strategic Guidance and the Joint Operations Access Concept.

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Captain George Galdorisi is a career naval aviator. He began his writing career in 1978...