Among the most significant aspects of twentieth century military affairs has been how naval and land-based air power have transformed maritime operations. Today, much of the maritime arena is controlled, monitored, or exploited by aerospace systems. The capital ships of the modern era are the aircraft carrier and the missile-armed submarine, both weapons of three-dimensional warfare. The world?s sea lanes are monitored by aircraft and helicopters flown from the decks of aircraft carriers and other vessels, and, especially, by long range maritime patrol aircraft operated by the world?s navies and air forces. The primary weapon at sea is no longer the projectile hurled by a ?big gun? ship, or the torpedo from a submarine; rather, it is the smart missile, fired from aircraft, helicopters, ships, or submarines. As precision warfare has transformed land warfare and the worth of the large fielded army, so too has precision attack at sea transformed the nature of naval combat and the relative value of large standing fleets.
In the modern era, the large surface vessel is more vulnerable than at any previous time to precision attack by weapons launched from tens or even hundreds of miles away. At the same time, new applications of aerospace technology for the maritime environment promise to enhance and strengthen naval mission such as littoral warfare, amphibious operations, and maritime transport.
All this has come about through about one hundred years of evolution of maritime air warfare. This essay will seek to trace the development of maritime air warfare throughout the past century, paying particular attention to the Second World War and development after that war. The impact and usefulness of maritime air warfare will be explored, both in past wars and in the future, along with possible alternative naval futures.
The First Maritime Air War
As with the world?s more advanced armies, the leading navies of the western world were largely supportive about aviation in the years prior to the First World War. However, navies initially anticipated that the major, and perhaps only, value of aviation would be in the reconnaissance and observation role. Navies generally underestimated the significance of the submarine as well, considering it primarily as a means of coastal defense warfare. Yet the advent of both the airplane and the submarine ushered in the era of large-scale ship sinking in naval history. In earlier eras of the wooden ship, warfare disabled ships, but only rarely sunk them.
The navies before World War I had opted to use long range and endurance inherent in lighter-than-air dirigibles and small non-rigid ?blimp? airships. Supporting these airship forces were small float-equipped seaplanes. By the time WWI broke out, both Britain and the United States of America had already experimented with launching small aircraft from ships, and the first trials were underway of specialized torpedo-carrying strike aircraft. The war caused a rapid acceleration in development and innovation, and by its end, aircraft and warships had already been employed for maritime reconnaissance and patrol, and for direct attack upon surface vessels and submarines.
For example, in the Dardanelles campaign, British Short 184 float seaplanes ?launched? from a crude seaplane tender, the Ben-my-Chree, torpedoed several Turkish vessels. German reconnaissance Zeppelins furnished tactical information to the High Seas Fleet during the Battle of Jutland and subsequent operations off the British East Coast. The Royal Navy made the first tentative use of aircraft carriers, crude though they may have been; in 1918, for example, six British Sopwith Camel fighter-bombers from the carrier H.M.S. Furious raided the German airship at Tondern, destroying two Zeppelins in their sheds.
In these ways and others, aircraft and airships contributed to the war at sea. While aviation?s impact was far less than it would be in subsequent years, it nevertheless pointed to a future where the surface ship and submarine would be far less secure. Imperial Germany had even experimented with crude command-guided anti-shipping missiles. As Admiral Lord Fisher, whose name was synonymous with the emergence of the dreadnought battleship, remarked after the Armistice that ?the prodigious and daily development of aircraft ?had utterly changed? naval warfare.?
The Emerging Technology of Maritime Air Warfare
Significant developments during the interwar years took the airplane from functioning as a mere participant in naval warfare to decisively determining the outcome of naval combat. Fear of air attack was a powerful motivation of four notable naval developments in the leading naval nations after WWI; armoring battleships and other surface warfare craft and equipping them with increasingly heavy antiaircraft batteries; developing dual-purpose antiaircraft and antiship gun systems; designing new classes of antiaircraft cruisers to protect fleets by barrage antiaircraft fire; and last, but certainly not least, the development of radar as a means of affording warning of air attack.
But despite such changes, analysts continued to think of naval combat as they had in the past. As in Lord Nelson day, the ultimate expression of naval war would continue to be the big gun slugfest between ships at sea. Naval and land-based maritime air forces could be expected to support fleet operations, but not to dominate them.
During the interwar period, the aircraft carrier emerged as a major element of the world?s leading navies. By the late 1930?s, the carrier had developed the ?generic? features typified by a flight deck surmounting a hanger deck, large elevators to transport aircraft from hanger deck to flight deck, an offset bridge ?island? and stack system, and a landing area crossed by arresting landing wires. Navies that operated the aircraft carriers also operated generally similar types of aircraft too. Fighters to protect the fleet, dive bombers to attack enemy ships as precisely as possible, and torpedo planes to attack from just over the surface of the water. These aircraft tended to have features tailored for carrier operations, such as long-stroke rugged landing gear struts and wheels, an arresting hook ?stinger? lowered during final approach, and folding wings for reduced storage space requirements aboard ship. With space on ships at a premium, all were single-engine designs, even those with over two crewmen. As a general rule, the increased weight of naval aircraft, coupled with their single-engine layout, gave them inferior performance when compared to their lighter land-based contemporaries.
However, air power at sea involved far more than aircraft carriers. By the end of the First World War, long-range land-based aircraft and seaplanes had clearly proven their potential, if not always their value. In 1919, the American Curtiss NC-4 seaplane and a British Vickers Vimy bomber had both crossed the Atlantic. By the late 1930?s, the American, British, and Japanese already had in service the three great long-range seaplanes that they would use for wartime maritime patrol; the Consolidated-Vultee PBY Ctalina, the Short Sunderland, and the Kawanishi H6K. All had exceptional range, could attack submarines and shipping with bombs and torpedoes, but their primary roll was that of reconnaissance ? to literally act as the eyes of a fleet and thus to extend a battle fleet commander?s awareness and control.
The Outbreak of World War II
When war erupted in 1939, the clashing powers clearly had visions of using air power at sea both for defensive and offensive purposes. Having the machines and technology for such warfare, however, was not the same as having operational doctrines to properly use such power. Thus there was, as with other aspects of the air war, a lengthy period of learning what worked and what didn?t.
The three major European combatants (prior to the American entry in the war) all had remarkably similar battles between and within their services over the value and role of air power. The general viewpoint reflected a general tendency reflected throughout the twentieth century air-land warfare; namely that warfare opponents fear an enemies air forces far more than they respect their own. The freedom of maneuver and execution that they envied in an enemies operation were qualities they restricted in their own air forces.
However, WW II brought about a partnership of intelligence and air warfare ? and intelligence and submarine warfare. This partnership proved to be decisive. It doomed U-boats and commerce raider, set the stage for the destruction of Rommel?s convoys, and was no less decisive against Japan
As one Italian naval historian wrote, ?In the final analysis-and such affirmation does not seem to be overstated-the really decisive struggle in the Mediterranean War was fought between the Italian Navy and the Anglo-American air forces. No matter how bitter the naval war was, the Italian naval forces would still have been able to carry it on properly and for a long tome, if the Navy had not been both directly and indirectly overcome by the overwhelming enemy power in the air.? Allied air attacks caused shortages in fuel, ammunition, weapons, and equipment at critical stages in operations.
Air attack, however, worked both ways, and the Axis attacks against shipping were disturbingly productive. The Luftwaffe scored notable successes forcing Allied countermeasures. In March, April, and May 1941, Luftwaffe crews sank 179 ships totaling 545,000 tons.
Because maritime operations did not typically involve the risk of encountering enemy high performance fighters (except along an enemy coastline or after the emergence of an escort carrier) that deep-penetration missions into an enemy?s heartland did, single or multiengine aircraft of modest performance could often make contributions all out of proportion to their true abilities.
The statistical record of Allied air operations against Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy bears out the significance of Allied power at sea. A postwar investigation of sinking of German coastal traffic from the Bay of Biscay to the North Cape over the time period September 1939-January 1945 concluded that of 920 sinkings, submarines and surface vessels were responsible for 22.7% of this total, while direct air attack and mining claimed the remaining 77.3%. The official history of the Royal Navy attributes 60 sinkings of 149 Nazi warships of minelayer size or larger to direct air attack, a total of 40%; this does not include those that were destroyed by air-dropped mines, nor does it include submarines. In conjunction with direct bombing and torpedo attacks, RAF mining operations seriously constrained the movement of German capital ships, minimizing their use to the Reich.
Of the 785 submarines Germany lost in the Second World War, 368 were sunk exclusively by air attack. A further 48 U-boats fell to combined air and surface ship attack. The appearance of long-range maritime patrol aircraft over the mid-Atlantic doomed the U-boat campaign. Beyond direct destruction of U-boats, one of air power? most significant attributes was simply in forcing U-boats to remain submerged, hindering their mobility and time at sea.
To degree far greater than even the war in Europe and the Mediterranean, the pacific theatre was a theatre characterized by air power. More specifically, it was a war characterized by the projection of three-dimensional power ? the power of the submarine and the power of the airplane against the Japanese Navy and Japanese shipping. ?The war against shipping was perhaps the most decisive singular factor in the collapse of the Japanese economy and the logistic support of Japanese military and naval power.? By the spring of 1945, American army and naval aviators had demolished Japan?s civilian and military industries, sunken most of the Japanese fleet, and established a virtual blockade of the Japanese islands. Ground and purely naval forces had served mainly to seize and hold forward bases for the projection of air power.
A great irony of Pearl Harbor was the use by Japan of no less than six carriers to attack the perceived naval center of gravity, the American battlefield, which was put out of action, if not totally destroyed. Many view the real center were the aircraft carriers out at sea. Japanese planners seem to have deliberately ignores the grave threat posed to their own futures by the instrument of their own victory (the aircraft carrier).
Within days, Japanese airmen had emulated the success of their European contemporaries, though on a much grander scale. They had amply demonstrated the vulnerability of unprotected ships both in harbor and at sea to both carrier-based and land-based air attackers using bombs and torpedoes. By late summer 1942, one significant lesson of Pacific combat was already clear to all combatants: ships required powerful defensive forces to remain viable as weapons. This need resulted in a transformation of the battleship; no longer the means whereby a nation would secure its victory upon the ocean, it now served as a mobile antiaircraft gun platform to help protect the vessel that would secure the victory: the aircraft carrier
The Pacific maritime air war must be evaluated in light of Japan?s serious misuse of its air power and aviation industrial base, so that, by the end of 1942, it found itself everywhere on the defensive, and in 1944–45, destroyed. Industrially, Japan could not match the U.S. in production.
Secondly, Japanese military officials made some critically poor choices in the years prior to the Second d World War. Among these was an overemphasis upon the battleship as the principle means whereby a maritime nation would achieve its victory in war. The idea was that it took a battleship to sink a battleship.
The symbiotic relationship between carrier planes, landplanes, and submarines were a significant one. In February 1944, for example, submarine attacks had bottled up Japanese shipping in Truk harbor, permitting two days of carrier raids to sink 186,000 tons of shipping. Navy Privateers reconnoitered Singapore harbor, monitoring the progress of repairs on damaged Japanese ships, and when the moment was right and the ships left port, submarines promptly sank them.
Japan?s response to the growing threat posed by the allied coalition was to launch the infamous Kamikaze antishipping campaign. Though Japanese Army Air Force pilots occasionally flew on such one-way suicide missions, the overwhelming majority of Kamikazes were Japanese naval attackers. The threat of the Kamikaze was the greatest aerial antishipping threat faced by Allied warfare forces in the war. Approximately 2,800 Kamikaze attackers sunk 34 Navy ships, damaged 368 others, killed 4,900 sailors, and wounded over 4,800. The Kamikaze anticipated the post-1960?s antishipping missile, and forced planners to take extraordinary measures to confront what was basically a straightforward threat, but also a threat that could profoundly influence events out of proportion to its strength. The Kamikaze experiences, while dreadful, and could not bring victory, only delay.
After WW II
The Second World War was the last Great War at sea. During the Cold War, both Soviet Union and Western blocs produced large numbers of maritime patrol aircraft derived from long-range bombers, airliners, and specially designed planes.
As the threat of the new generations of sophisticated submarines carrying advanced weapons including homing torpedoes and missiles gradually emerged, more and more of these systems were designed for the antisubmarine role as opposed to attack of surface ships. The clear danger submarines posed to aircraft carriers spurred the creation of specialized ship-based antisubmarine aircraft.
The size of American aircraft carriers dramatically rose after the early 1950?s, reflecting the demands of the jet age. Three significant innovations transformed American naval aviation and dramatically improved efficiency and safety. One was the introduction of the angled flight deck, two was the installation of the mirror landing system, and three was the introduction of the steam catapult. Ironically, as these changes improved efficiencies and safety, and as the size of aircraft carriers and their crews dramatically increased, the actual size of deployed carrier forces aboard ship declined. These dropped from about one hundred in WW II, to about 75 airplanes by the time of the Gulf War, the majority of which were support or purely fleet air defense airplanes. With size limitations on naval aircraft, naval carrier forces were increasingly dependent on long-range land-based air forces in order to fulfill missions.
Long-range precision weapon revolutions were rendering land-based aircraft, submarines, and missile-armed small combatants increasingly dominant and effective in the maritime warfare role. Carrier battle groups were forced to operate further and further from away from the shore, degrading their traditional value as a means of projecting global presence. However, maritime air warfare has continued to play a significant role in the Korean, Southeast Asian, Falklands, and Gulf conflicts. Maritime air warfare played a significant role in ensuring the success of the blockade the Kennedy administration placed around Castro?s Cuba, and played a small part in land strikes in Vietnam. Maritime air operations did play prominently in any of the Arab-Israeli wars, or in the India-Pakistani ones, although there were some attention grabbing attacks.
The Falklands War
The Falklands war of 1982 was a notable exception to the general postwar pattern of indecisive naval combat. Here, maritime airpower had a profound effect upon surface vessels operations. Land-based Argentinean strike aircraft sank six ships (two destroyers, two frigates, a container ship functioning as an aircraft carrier, and a fleet auxiliary) and damaged a further thirteen (four destroyer, six frigates, and three fleet auxiliaries); British carrier ship-based aircraft and helicopters sank or forced the abandonment of six vessels (a submarine, two patrol boats, a trawler, and two freighters), and damaged another patrol boat. British maritime superiority enabled all other British naval and amphibious operations to occur.
The Falkland campaign was notable for dramatically highlighting the value of antishipping missiles such as the Exocet and the Sea Skua, shipboard surface-to-air missiles, and the leverage offered by the British Aerospace Sea Harrier armed with advanced air-to-air missiles. Also shown again was the vulnerability of large capital ships to submarine attack. In particular, this war also illuminated the increasing threat to ships by maritime air attack and, especially, to the vulnerabilities of many newer vessels (less armored than their predecessors of WW II, in part because of their having heavier topsides for carrying extensive electronic equipment) to even unsophisticated and, indeed, obsolescent attackers dropping conventional non-precision ?iron? bombs. Newer ships were heavily damaged or even sunk, even when weapons did not explode.
In fact, what is often missed is that the British victory owed as much to the operational inexperience?s of Argentinean airmen and bomb fusing problems as it did to the skill and technological advantages of its own force, and the tremendous logistical accomplishment of equipping and moving such a force so far in a relatively brief period of time. Of 22 bombs that struck British ships, 12 failed to detonate, and one detonated late. Thus fully 55% of Argentinean bombs failed to explode, even though they hit their targets. Had they done so, it is likely that the British task force would have been so weakened that they would not have been able to operate in the waters around the islands. That, of course, was a precondition for taking them, and would have spelt disaster for the entire expedition.
The effects such a defeat would have had on the subsequent history of the 1980?s, especially the European governments, is profound. While I only speculate, it is likely that a defeat in the Falklands would have seen the Thatcher government falling, perhaps fatally weakening the strong alliance of the U.S. and Great Britain that did much to bolster European resistance as NATO faced the Soviet Union in the latter and more serious years of the Cold War. Thanks to a few more bombs exploding, the loss of a sea war thousands of miles from Europe might have had a dramatically different ending, and vastly affected the balance of power in Europe.
Since the Falklands
The lessons learnt in the Falklands war were not lost on the world?s navies, particularly as the conflict demonstrated the leverage that newer weapons could offer even a small opponent confronting a naval power. Accordingly, naval planners increasingly emphasized reliance upon a diverse means of defensive measures, including the application of stealthy ?low observable? technologies in shaping and materials to reduce the radar signature return of surface vessels; long range early warning coupled with long-range engagement of air and missile threats; and finally, close-in gun and rapidly blooming chaff deployment to defeat aircraft and missiles in terminal ?end-game? engagements.
Despite such efforts, encounters in the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf, and finally, the Gulf War of 1991, have reaffirmed the continued vulnerability of surfaces forces precision air and missile attack. Ships offer little protection against the sophisticated aerial attacker armed with precision ammunition. In single day in 1988, U.S. naval aviation and surface forces sank over half the Iranian navy, thanks to the leverage offered by naval aviation forces armed with laser-guided bombs and antishipping missiles.
The Gulf War of 1991 left memorable images of bombs flying through doors and elevator shafts, and cruise missiles literally cruising down streets. While to most observers, the war consisted of an air campaign against Iraqi leadership and military force targets; there was a strong maritime warfare component to the Gulf crises and subsequent war as well. From the onset, long-range maritime patrol aircraft worked with surface vessels to impose a tight blockade over Iraqi merchant traffic attempting to transit the Straits of Hormuz. During the war itself, there were sporadic actions by coalition attackers against Iraqi fleet elements. Naval aircraft and helicopters from the coalition navies savaged the Iraqi navy, which ultimately played no useful role in the war.
Because of the twin revolution of the submarine and the airplane, it is impossible for surface naval forces to operate with the assurance and the confidence that they are masters of their own fate, as was true in previous centuries. Contemporary post-Falklands British doctrine state that:
?The minimal requirement for a successful [maritime] operation is a favorable air situation. Air superiority will be a requirement for sea control where a robust challenge from the air is possible. Air supremacy is a necessary precondition of command of the sea.? [Emphasis in original text]
As the first millenium of the Common Era was one of predominant land power (typified by Rome), and the second one of predominant sea power (typified by Great Britain), the third millenium is increasingly one characterized by the dominance of air and space warfare. In fact, the main form of power projection for both armies and navy is the air weapon.
Air power at sea has made its mark on naval warfare since the time of the First World War. While currently the U.S. is the only truly global naval power (as it is the only truly global air power), the proliferation of increasingly sophisticated weapons among smaller nations in unstable regions offers no confidence to those who would blithely assume that American maritime supremacy will remain unchallenged, particularly in far-flung regional contingency operations. As the Second World War clearly showed the vulnerability of surface ships to attackers armed with ?dumb? weapons, the wars since the 1960?s have increasingly highlighted how even more valuable surface vessels are to attack by precision missile and bombs. Concern over missiles and mines and their successors threaten to constrain both the traditional freedom of maneuver of surface naval forces and options regarding their use.
Various forecaster and historian have attempted to predict the future of maritime warfare in light of the challenges posed by, older antishipping technology and weaponry. One favorite has been submarines Hoistorian John Keegan has stated that:
?It is with the submarine that the initiative and full freedom of the seas rests. The aircraft carrier, whatever realistic scenario of action is drawn ? that of operations in great waters or of amphibious support close to shore ? will be exposed to a wider range of threat than the submarine must face. In a shoreward context it risks attack not only by carrier-borne but also by land-based aircraft, land-based missile and the submarine itself?The era of the submarine as the predominant weapon of power at sea must therefore be recognized as having begun.?
Other vision for the future of submarines includes anti-radar stealth technology, lasers, electromagnetic rail guns, and sophisticated unmanned air vehicles to conduct maritime reconnaissance. It is not inconceivable that submarines might some day operate small-specialized piloted craft as well.
As for arsenal ships, it is hard to imagine how an arsenal ship, however well armed, could defeat a plethora of air-launched or submarine-launched weapons. History provides examples such as the Bismarck, Yamato, Mushasi, and Shinano, all who were arsenal ships of immense proportion who were sunk by air, surface or submarine forces.
The decline of the surface vessel as a predominate means of exerting naval power is undoubtedly underway. The decline may be slowed somewhat by new advances in shipboard defenses, but it is unlikely to be reversed.
Historically, the partnership between sea0based air and submarine forces, and land-based aviation has been the most productive means of thwarting an enemies attempt to seize local control of the sea. In fact, virtually all significant naval actions of this century have taken place within reach ? and with the involvement ? of land based aviation forces. In a post Cold War cost conscious environment, the advantages of having land-based aviation forces assume a greater role in maritime control operations is increasingly attractive to defense planners, particularly as the acquisition and operating costs of naval aviation are correspondingly increasingly expensive.
A number of circumstances have led to this. Fist, the costs for carrier based aircraft normally run three to four times as much as a land-based aircraft. Then come the lag times in deploying naval aviation forces, along with their need to replenish and resupply, which makes their ?presence? sporadic. Finally, the ratios of the large number of ships and personnel required to maintain a relatively small number of deployable strike aircraft is to high.
In conclusion, the pace and impact of aviation in the twentieth century has been extraordinary, and nowhere more so than in military affairs. Less than forty years after the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, the airplane ? both land- and sea-based- had evolved from threatening to dominating the ship. That dominance has been extended even more forcefully into the modern era in spite of intensive and creative efforts to improve shipboard defenses. In today?s world, the threat posed to the ship by the airplane or the aircraft-deployed missile or mine is at its greatest. If for no other reason than this, strengthening the traditional partnership of air forces and navies working together to ensure the defeat of their common enemies is no less important today than at any time earlier in this century.
Air Force and Maritime Operations; http://www.airforcehistory.hq.af.mil/tlallionpapers/airwarfare.maritimejune96.htm
Christopher A. Preble, The Cold War Navy in the Post-Cold War World; http://www.cato.org/pubs/pas/pa-195.html
Land Powers in Competition with Sea Powres; http://www.informs.org/Comf/NO95/Talks/WB21.1.html
Peter Haydon; Seapower in a changing World; http://www.stu.ca/`dann/nn4-3_8.htm
Sea Battles; http://www.iconmarketing.co.uk/thagames/aws4.htm
Sea Power; http://www.acusd.edu/note/nsclasse/sea_power.html