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Aircraft Carriers Vs the Red Army Pt 1

May 18, 2009
USS Valley Forge

USS Valley Forge

Truth be told, the US Navy as currently configured wasn’t designed to combat a peer enemy at sea, but to deter the Soviet Army of the Cold War. Proof of this amazing fact can be found as early as the Korean War, where forward deployed flattops were all there were available (other than a few understrength infantry divisions in Japan) when Josef Stalin’s communist clients invaded the South, taking America by surprise. The failure of this over-dependence on naval forces to match land power can be seen in the ongoing deployment of US Troops to defend this Southern peninsular after 60 years.

Relying exclusively on seapower to contain the Soviets proved less than a perfect solution. It further distracted the Navy to this day from its principle role of sea control, or fighting other navies to maintain freedom of navigation on the oceans. Historian John Van Duyn Southworth explains:

Never a naval conflict in the real sense of the term, the Korean War bogged down into being an increasingly land-based stalemate. Sea power played a number of important roles, but ship-vs.-ship combats were not among them.

Yet, Korea set the margin for the deployment of naval airpower around the world to match the Russian interior lines, who could simply apply pressure (or coerce his client states to do this) at any point of the Eurasian land mass. Culturally biased against large standing armies, to the West the carriers seems a more cost-effective solution.

Though the plan was born in Korea under President Truman, a new commander in chief, Dwight Eisenhower quickly made the idea his own as a way to defend America and her allies without crippling the economy. As part of his “New Look” and backed by the threat of nuclear-armed intercontinental bombers, Ike would use firepower to defeat the Soviet advantage in numbers, as he stated to Congress in 1954:

“We must depend on our naval air arm through means of the big carrier. We need these carriers so that in time of emergency we can establish floating bases anyplace in the world from which we can hit the enemy”.

USS Forrestal on initial trials

USS Forrestal on initial trials

It was a bold strategy but also an old one, which hearkened back to the Age of Sail when Britain still ruled the waves. For centuries the Royal Navy would send its most powerful battleships to a coastline in crisis to counter the more powerful continental armies, especially of France. Thus she held the tyrannical tendencies of the Europeans in check, allowing free trade and democracy to flourish around the world.

By the 20th Century however, her strategy of close blockade became increasingly risky. New naval mines, self-propelled torpedoes, and more advanced submersible boats made sailing a battleship into coastal waters near-suicidal. By the start of the First World War, the change was complete and the more practical distant blockade was the norm. That is, until it was revived by the US Navy in the Cold War! Author Ronald H. Spector describes the change:

In practice the US Navy had returned to a sort of gunboat diplomacy reminiscent of the nineteenth century. Yet in the Cold War, the gunboats had been replaced by fleet’s of the navy’s most powerful warships ready, if necessary, to fight a war on the spot.

Concluded tomorrow…


Shield of the Republic by Michael T. Isenberg

Power at Sea–A Violent Peace, 1946-2006 by Lisle A. Rose

The Age of Steam Part 2 by John Van Duyn Southworth

At War at Sea by Ronald H. Spector


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