Worth of Carriers, Shown 50 Years Ago, Undergoes Re-examination MIDWAY: NAVAL WARFARE IS CHANGED


Old Navy hands will observe the "Glorious Fourth of June" this Thursday, the day an embattled fleet of U.S. ships and airplanes achieved a stunning victory over a superior Japanese force near a small Pacific island that many people had never heard of -- Midway.

Thursday will be the 50th anniversary of the battle, regarded by historians as one of the most important engagements in the annals of naval warfare, and one in which the key combatants in the fight were not the powerful battleships of earlier years but fast aircraft carriers with their fly-away arsenals of dive bombers, fighters and torpedo planes.

The anniversary comes at a time when Congress and the Defense Department have been analyzing the future roles of the armed services in the post Cold War period. It is an analysis which may have as profound an effect on future military commitments abroad as the emergence of the aircraft carrier had on fleet operations a half century ago.

The war in the Pacific was only a few months old when it became apparent that the carrier had forever replaced in importance the storied Dreadnaught, the 17,000-ton prototype of modern battleships that was launched by Great Britain in 1906, and a class of vessel that became the yardstick for measuring naval power during the following three decades.

With the development of the carrier in the 1920s, naval tacticians first regarded the so-called flattop and its complement of airplanes as a fleet scout to search for enemy vessels that would threaten the mighty battleships, Dr. Craig L. Symonds, chairman of the department of history at the U.S. Naval Academy, said in a recent interview.

However, with the onset of World War II the roles of the two types of ships were, in a sense, reversed. The battleship, along with the fleet's smaller cruisers and destroyers, formed a defensive circle of powerful weaponry around the carrier and became its protectors, Dr. Symonds explained.

Midway, itself, was the site of a carefully considered plan by the Japanese to use its superior naval forces for a knock-out blow -- at a time and place of its choosing -- against an inferior U.S. fleet that had been badly wounded five months earlier at Pearl Harbor.

Daring tactics and astonishingly good luck were on the side of the underdog that day in June. The Japanese fleet lost four of its finest carriers in the battle. The U.S. Navy lost one. The Japanese withdrew, never again to be the dominating naval force in the Pacific.

Since the end of World War II, the carrier and the nuclear submarine have been the stalwarts of the American Navy. Now, the end of the Cold War presumably has diminished the vulnerability of the carriers to Soviet nuclear submarines and nuclear surface weapons because the USSR and its new offspring, the Commonwealth of Independent States, are not now aggressive superpowers.

Simultaneously, the need for large numbers of carriers and other modern warships is quite logically being questioned in some quarters. Further, the sticker price of the carriers, in concert with Chevrolets and Broadway tickets, has soared to new heights.

The newest aircraft carrier, George Washington, was christened by Barbara Bush July 21, 1990 and is scheduled to be commissioned July 4. The ship cost $3.67 billion, a sum that could finance many Head Start programs, help repair the infrastructure of decaying inner cities or improve health care for many poor people.

And a big carrier's initial construction and outfitting costs do not reflect the annual operating expenses of the 94,000-ton behemoths, which carry a crew of 5,000-plus and 90 airplanes.

Congress has been talking about reducing the existing number of carriers from 14 to 12, with support from some of the top movers and shakers at the Pentagon.

Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney is on the record as saying, "The basic decision that I made was to go down to 12 carriers ultimately as our long-range objective. I'd like to have more aircraft carriers. Aircraft carriers are very useful pieces of equipment. . . . It's just basically a question of how large a carrier force we need, how large a force we can afford."

Others have argued that money could be saved by cutbacks in the constant deployment of the carriers near potential trouble spots, such as in the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. Yet, to what extent will the anticipated closing of certain U.S. bases abroad enhance the importance of the carrier in future diplomatic and military planning?

The Navy, understandably, is not altogether comfortable with talk of a diminished role for its ships and planes, and has recently quoted an Army man to help make its case.

"The Navy was the first military force to respond to the invasion [of Kuwait], establishing immediate sea superiority," Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the commander of the United Nations forces in the Persian Gulf war, has been quoted as saying in a briefing paper being circulated by the Navy in Washington this year.

"And the Navy was also the first airpower on the scene," the general added. "Both of these first deterred -- indeed, I believe, stopped -- Iraq from marching into Saudi Arabia."

Representative Les Aspin, the Wisconsin Democrat who is the knowledgeable chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told the New York Times in February that within two years he "might be willing" to cut the carrier force from 12 to 8.

A somewhat different view has been expressed by Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State in the Nixon administration and a man familiar with facing critical decisions. When a crisis occurs, "the president always wants to know where the carriers are," Dr. Kissinger has observed.

Some of the Navy's opponents, in and out of Congress, regard big warships as anachronistic instruments of "gunboat diplomacy," or as expensive stepping stones for ambitious naval officers seeking command of a flattop on their way up the promotion ladder.

Beyond all that, the Navy contends that aircraft carriers and their escort vessels are well suited for the post-Cold War period whenever an occasion arises to show the flag against a rambunctious dictator or bring a calming presence to a potential flashpoint almost anywhere on the earth's surface -- three quarters of which is covered by blue water.

In addition, the movement of carrier forces on the high seas requires no delicate diplomatic negotiations for aircraft landing rights on foreign soil, or docking privileges for military transports at deep water ports of reluctant nations.

On the other hand, there remains the nagging question of whether today's Navy is mesmerized by its devotion to a type of ship that was essential yesterday but may not be as essential today. It is not an unfamiliar question.

Veteran sailors recall the eager young naval aviators of World War II -- the "Top Guns" of an earlier generation -- who made sport of the aging "battleship admirals" of the 1920s and 1930s who could not abandon their devotion to the concept of the Dreadnaught -- the first "all big gun" vessel that could hurl its shells over great distances and, because of its thick armor and high speed, live to fight another day.

That devotion to old, familiar instruments of war was not singularly American.

Indeed, it has been argued that the battleship mindset was, in part, responsible for the ultimate defeat of the Japanese Imperial Navy, which began so ingloriously at Midway.

Adm. Isoroko Yamamoto, commander of the Imperial Fleet, "still showed signs of being overly battleship conscious" as late as 1942, Paul S. Dull observed in his book, "A Battle History of the Imperial Japanese Fleet." Mr. Dull's observation is quoted in an article in the September, 1982, issue of the U.S. Naval Institute's Proceedings.

A month before Midway, the U.S. Navy and its Pacific allies had fought the Japanese Navy to a virtual draw at the battle of the Coral Sea, northeast of Australia.

Notably, the Coral Sea engagement was "the first naval battle in which all the losses on both sides were inflicted by aircraft dispatched from ships which never used their main armaments or came within sight of the enemy," British historian Basil Collier noted in his book, "The War in the Far East 1941-1945."

The message was not lost on forward-looking naval officers around the world.

Midway was a battle to remember, not only because "we won," but also because it is a lasting reminder of the importance of recognizing the need for changes in strategy and tactics in the light of ever-changing technology.

In a very real sense the aircraft carrier was an idea whose time had come by June 4, 1942.

Albert Sehlstedt is a retired Sun reporter.

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