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Aircraft Carrier Evolution

From the eyes of the fleet to its centerpiece

The huge prewar U.S. naval air establishment was relatively easy to expand to train tens of thousands of new pilots and other personnel. It also trained the senior officers to command a much-expanded carrier fleet. By the end of the war, the U.S. Navy had over a hundred carriers, compared with the seven of the 1941 fleet. Most of them were quick and relatively inefficient conversions of merchant ship and cruiser hulls, but they provided needed air support in both the Atlantic and the Pacific.

These ships showed just how flexible naval aviation could be. Before World War II, the main role of naval aircraft was to defeat the enemy’s fleet. Prewar fleet exercises did show valuable potentials for supporting amphibious landings and for attacking enemy shore installations (the U.S. carriers often raided the Panama Canal, Pearl Harbor, and Los Angeles), but they were secondary. By 1945, with the Japanese fleet essentially destroyed, U.S. carriers raided Japanese targets, including Tokyo itself. The Navy staff pointed out that carriers could mount strategic attacks comparable in volume to what the Army Air Force was delivering using its heavy bombers. In the Atlantic, small carriers proved invaluable in fighting German U-boats. At the end of the war the Navy commissioned the first of three large Midway-class carriers. Compared to the wartime Essex, they were longer and had armored flight decks, but they were intended to operate the same type of aircraft (it took a much larger hull to accommodate the sort of armor the British had on their carriers and embody U.S. requirements).

The Navy had always argued that the value of the carrier lay in its flexibility. That was dramatically demonstrated in June 1950, when U.S. and British carriers provided much of the critical air support when the North Koreans invaded South Korea, overrunning airfields.

Modern carriers like George H.W. Bush were born in the aftermath of World War II. With the defeat of Japan, it seemed unlikely that the United States would soon again face a major sea power. It seemed likely that the Soviet Union would be the next enemy. What would the navy’s role be in a war against that land power? The Soviets had had the world’s largest submarine fleet in 1941, and many argued that the main future naval role would simply be to fight a future Battle of the Atlantic. Would the big carriers even feature in such a war? The new U.S. Air Force, founded in 1947 but clearly nascent in 1945, argued that they would be useless. Its strategic bomber men contended that the future of war belonged to long-range bombers armed with nuclear weapons. The main role of the U.S. Navy in such a war should be to defeat Soviet submarines that would threaten supply to the overseas bases from which bombers would fly. To this one navy rejoinder was that if the Soviets adopted the new kinds of submarines the Germans were introducing at the end of the war, the best countermeasure might well be attacks on their bases – air attacks mounted by carriers.

A U.S. Navy North American AJ-1 Savage attack plane aboard the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany (CVA 34) in Aug. 1952, when Oriskany was operating off the U.S. west coast, preparing for her first Korean War deployment. The Savage was the Navy’s first carrier-capable nuclear bomber. National Archives photo.

Even before the end of World War II the U.S. Navy convened a panel of experienced officers to ponder the future of the carrier, which it now saw as its primary weapon. They soon concluded that the main value of a future carrier would lie in its ability to deliver heavy bombs, for example to destroy enemy submarine bases. Many must also have remembered the enormous impact of the 1942 raid on Japan. Unlike land bombers flying from fixed bases whose location an enemy knew, carrier aircraft could come from almost anywhere. For example, the threat of such attacks would force the Soviets to spread out their air defenses and thus to pay much more heavily for any level of defense they wanted. This sort of leverage might reduce the resources available for any attack into, for example, Western Europe. The U.S. Navy unsuccessfully urged its value as a flanking force, but when he became the first NATO supreme commander in 1950, Gen. (later President) Dwight D. Eisenhower took much the same approach. He likened Western Europe to a peninsula down which a Soviet army might try to surge, the carrier-supported navy on its flanks. Throughout his presidency he saw the mobility of U.S. sea power as the best counter to the massed manpower that the Soviets and the Chinese could deploy.

It happened that a carrier-based heavy bomber could also drop atomic bombs, but that does not seem to have been the key consideration in 1945-46. Because the bombs in question were about four or five times as heavy as those carried by existing carrier bombers, the carrier of the future would have to operate much larger aircraft. It would have to be much larger. By 1948 a massive new carrier, more than twice the size of the wartime Essex, had been designed. Although its keel was laid in 1949, it was cancelled almost at once, a victim of tight funding and, it was said, a campaign by the Air Force to preserve its monopoly on heavy (i.e., atomic) bombing. However, the navy had already received authorization to use such weapons in war, and by 1949 it was close to having a rudimentary atomic attack capability on board the Midway-class carriers, in the form of large Neptune patrol planes, normally land-based. A carrier nuclear bomber, the Savage, was being developed. In effect the largest such airplane which could operate from existing carriers, it did not approach the capability which had been planned for the new carrier.

Meanwhile work began to modify existing Essex-class carriers to operate jets. That involved new catapults and provision for jet fuel. However, the earliest naval jet fighters could operate even from the unmodified ships still in service in 1950.

An F2H-2 Banshee is hauled to the flightdeck on the forward elevator aboard the USS Essex (CV 9), for a strike on Communist targets in Korea.  The earliest naval jet fighters could operate even from the straight wooden decks of World War II Essex-class carriers. National Archives photo.

The Navy had always argued that the value of the carrier lay in its flexibility. That was dramatically demonstrated in June 1950, when U.S. and British carriers provided much of the critical air support when the North Koreans invaded South Korea, overrunning airfields. Later jets operating from the U.S. carriers challenged the Russian-supplied (and often -operated) MiG-15s supporting the Chinese and the North Koreans. The project for a big carrier was revived, although at least in theory it was a flexible tool of limited war rather than a strategic weapon. The first of the post-World War II carriers, USS Forrestal, was a slightly reduced version of the abortive supercarrier of 1949, USS United States. Attempts to shrink the postwar carrier fleet were reversed, war-built Essex-class carriers were returned to service, and others were modernized specifically to operate jets and Savages.

By 1954, moreover, nuclear weapons were small enough to be carried by fighters. There was no longer any question that U.S. carrier aircraft launched from around the periphery of Eurasia could devastate the Soviet Union and its allies. They formed an important part of any nuclear offensive the United States would mount. Entering office in 1953, the Eisenhower Administration much preferred the deterrence carriers could help exert to deploying U.S. troops in sensitive places like Vietnam. Thus, when the French were being defeated there (at Dien Bien Phu) the only U.S. support even considered was a carrier air strike (which the administration rejected). Given the value the carriers had shown in Korea, a new carrier was authorized each year between 1952 and 1958, culminating in the nuclear-powered Enterprise. Given her prototype plant, she was followed by the non-nuclear America; another nuclear powered carrier would be authorized when experience had been gained with her. Then new carrier construction lapsed, money going into the crash program to build strategic missile submarines. They took over the carriers’ strategic nuclear mission, but not their mission in support of the United States in crisis areas around the world.

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