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Aircraft Carrier Evolution

From the eyes of the fleet to its centerpiece



The USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) is the latest chapter in a carrier story which began almost a century ago, in November 1910, when an intrepid aviator named Eugene “George” Ely flew off the deck of the cruiser USS Birmingham. In January 1911, he landed on the cruiser USS Pennsylvania, whose fantail had been partly covered by a temporary deck equipped with what we might now call arresting gear ropes, and later took off again from the same deck. Senior U.S. officers were impressed; they understood that aircraft could change naval warfare by giving fleet commanders much wider vision. However, landing-on and flying-off decks at both ends of a ship were seen as an excessive sacrifice. Instead, work proceeded on a catapult whose fixed track would cover the after guns of a large cruiser. Several ships were so modified, carrying large seaplanes that would land alongside when they returned.

Reeves understood that he had to find some way to pack more airpower into even the small Langley. He found that airplanes did not need the whole deck on which to land. Instead of being stowed below, they could simply be wheeled forward, protected from landing aircraft by a wire barrier.

At about the same time, 1911, other navies were experimenting with launching aircraft from ships. Several, most notably the British, converted merchant ships into primitive aircraft carriers during World War I. The British in particular demonstrated that carriers (and shipboard aircraft in general) had become a necessary part of fleets. They seemed so important that the Royal Navy chose to complete a new battleship, HMS Eagle, as a carrier (her sister ship was the battleship HMS Canada). The “large light cruiser” Furious received first a flying-off deck forward (in place of one of her two 18-inch guns) and then a flying-on deck aft. She was the scene of the first British carrier landing, in 1917, but the air eddying around her superstructure caused serious problems, including the death of the first carrier-landing pilot. The British also laid down a cruiser-size carrier, HMS Hermes. The first ship to be designed as a carrier from the outset, she showed her importance to the Royal Navy in that the resources she consumed could alternatively have gone into a heavy cruiser. At the same time, all British capital ships were fitted with flying-off platforms for fighters.

HMS Furious showing her flying off deck forward. She later was converted into a full fledged carrier. Library of Congress photo.

Naval aviation clearly mattered. The Germans used Zeppelins for scouting; in August 1916 a Zeppelin’s warning saved their High Seas Fleet from interception by the British Grand Fleet. The lesson the British took was that they had to take fighters to sea, to shoot down Zeppelins (which were outside the range of ships’ guns). This was not too different from the later understanding that it took carrier fighters to destroy enemy bombers, ships’ anti-aircraft weapons generally driving them off or dealing with missiles they launched. The British seem uniquely to have appreciated the offensive potential of their sea-based aircraft. By 1918, it seemed clear that the German fleet would remain in harbor, tying down the British, preventing them from using their sea power offensively. Airplanes offered a unique way to get at the Germans despite their unwillingness to go to sea. In 1916, the British began to develop torpedo bombers. In 1918, they had enough carrier decks, either ready or in prospect, to plan a recognizably modern carrier raid on the German fleet in harbor. They revived the idea in the 1930s when they had to face war against Italy, and they executed just such a raid against the Italian fleet base at Taranto in November 1940. It in turn may have helped inspire the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which had much the same aim.

Langley and DD

The U.S. Navy’s first aircraft carrier, USS Langley (CV 1) was a converted collier. Small and slow, she nevertheless pioneered technologies and techniques that helped the U.S. Navy become the world leader in carrier aviation. Library of Congress photo

American naval officers attached to the British Grand Fleet were well aware of the potential of this new kind of warship. They reported home extensively. Too, during World War I, British naval constructor Stanley Goodall was attached to the U.S. Navy. He brought with him plans for British carriers, and he helped frame the first requirements for a U.S. carrier. Like several other navies, the U.S. Navy was determined to experiment with this new kind of sea power.

The hangar deck of USS Langley (CV 1). It is easy to see in this photo why she was known affectionately as the “covered wagon.” U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo.

The first U.S. approach was to convert the large collier Jupiter into an experimental carrier; she was commissioned as USS Langley in 1922. Affectionately nicknamed the “covered wagon,” Langley was slow, and she had limited hangar capacity. U.S. naval aviation might well have gone nowhere, but for two lucky breaks. One was legal. After World War I, the United States and Japan were building large new battle fleets. Many thought that prewar naval rivalry between Britain and Germany had helped touch off World War I. The U.S. government sought a way to stop the building race with Japan (and, to some extent, with Britain) by calling a naval disarmament conference in November 1921. The resulting Washington Treaty canceled most of the new battleships and battle cruisers then on order. One clause allowed each signatory to convert two of them into carriers. Because the hulls being built were so massive, the carriers that resulted (in the U.S. case, Lexington and Saratoga) were far larger – and far more capacious – than any carriers which might have been designed as such at this time, when carrier aviation was so largely experimental.

Douglas DT-2 Langley catapult

A U.S. Navy Douglas DT-2 torpedo bomber taking off from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Langley (CV-1), which was docked at the carrier pier at Naval Air Station North Island, San Diego, California, in a test to determine the feasibility of using flush-deck catapults to launch wheeled aircraft from ships. U.S. Navy photo

The same treaty allowed each of the large navies what might seem an unusually large carrier tonnage, given that such ships were still experimental. It happened that the British demanded this tonnage because their own experience showed that a fleet required a large carrier-borne air arm, and that they believed – as it happened, wrongly – that no carrier could operate many aircraft. This clause made it possible for the U.S. Navy (and also the Japanese) to build carrier arms powerful enough to dominate the early months of the Pacific War. Ironically, the British found themselves saddled with experimental carriers they had begun during World War I. Even though they knew these ships were obsolete, they doubted that a cash-strapped British government would willingly replace them. Thus the Royal Navy could not begin its own massive carrier-building program until the overall tonnage limitation lapsed in 1937. This effort proved too late; it was overtaken by World War II.

Aircraft carrier USS Saratoga (CV 3) in the foreground with her sister ship USS Lexington (CV 2) in the background. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo.

Without any overhang of obsolete tonnage, the United States built the carrier Ranger as the first of five that it hoped would give it the best compromise between carrier capability and total aircraft numbers (it was thought at first that relatively small carriers were best). Indeed, it seemed, before they had been completed, that the big Lexingtons would be white elephants. They turned out to be anything but, partly because the U.S. Navy concluded that carriers would have to operate individually (a conclusion overturned during World War II). Ranger turned out to be too small to be very useful. Before she was completed, U.S. designers were working on a new ship about 50 percent larger, Yorktown. She and her sister ship Enterprise were followed by a third, improved, ship, Hornet, once the interwar limitation had lapsed. These were extremely successful ships. Enterprise fought in every Pacific battle, surviving the war. The others were sunk in 1942, but only after they had helped destroy the Japanese carrier force at Midway. Hornet demonstrated the reach of carrier air power when she launched Army B-25 bombers to strike Tokyo in April 1942. Although damage was limited, this raid is widely credited with convincing the Japanese that they had to destroy the U.S. Navy’s surviving carriers, the result being the Battle of Midway – which proved fatal to four of their carriers. Moreover, U.S. industrial capacity could more than replace the four (of seven prewar) carriers lost in 1942, whereas Japan’s could not replace her losses. Newly built U.S. warships dominated the Pacific War from 1943 on.

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Norman Friedman is an internationally known strategist and naval historian. He is the author of...