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Attack at Sea

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  • The initial barrier to recognizing the strike effectiveness of Naval aviation was the relative impotence of carrier aircraft as a strike weapon. In the 1930s dive bombers could deliver two 100-pound bombs, and torpedo bombers could carry a 2,000-pound torpedo but were highly vulnerable to fighters and anti-aircraft gunnery because of their bombs. The problem was that carrier aircraft were not yet shipkillers. The solution was found partly in more powerful engines for aircraft, which improved payload capabilities. Performance rapidly improved throughout the decade until, by 1937, the SBC-4 dive bomber carried a 1,000 bomb almost 600 miles.

    During the early 1930s the American aircraft carriers Lexington and Saratoga conducted yearly exercises known as "Fleet Problems." These carrier-versus-carrier duels highlighted the importance of quickly locating the opposing carrier so that air strikes could be quickly launched against the enemy's carrier to forestall counterstrikes - the carrier that struck first emerged victorious. By the mid-1930s it was well understood that the task of the American carriers was to seek out and destroy the enemy's flight decks. At the same time, the Japanese were using their carriers in land attacks against China -- against targets of known location -- and thus were not focused on an effective strategy for dealing with enemy carriers. Thus no scouting units were assigned to Japanese carriers.

    The Japanese also relied instead on the hangar deck to store and prepare aircraft for flight, and did not develop the deck park to generate air power. Japanese carrier aircraft capacity was determined by the size of the hangar, not of the flight deck. The U.S.Navy, because of its innovative use of the deck park, was able to deploy more planes per carrier.

    Each American carrier operated with seventy-two aircraft, on average, organized into four squadrons: one fighter (VF), one scout (VS), one bombing (VB), and one torpedo (VT). The Japanese carrier, operated with just sixty-three aircraft on average, organized into three twenty-one-plane squadrons: one fighter, one carrier attack, and one bombing.

    The Japanese esteemed the torpedo plane stemmed from their view of the torpedo as a weapon that could inflict severe underwater damage on almost any warship. American naval aviators saw the torpedo as an inefficient weapon, with a small warhead relative to total weight. The torpedo's ability to hit under the waterline was not a unique advantage. On 21 and 22 July 1921, Gen Billy Mitchell's bombers sank the ex-German battleship Ostfriesland with large bombs. The most effective 2000-pound bomb detonated close under the port quarter, throwing water up under both sides of the hull. She immediately began to settle rapidly by the stern. Mitchell was instrumental in the development of a 2,000-pound (lb) bomb that worked well against the Ostfriesland in 1921, and even a 4,000 pounder that was ready for testing three or four months later. And further American tests conducted in November 1924 on the incomplete battleship BB 47 Washington confirmed that a heavy bomb falling close alongside an enemy ship would produce the same damage as a torpedo. But these bombs were too big for carrier based aviation at the time.

    Americans were also skeptical of the torpedo plane's ability to survive the slow and low attack flight profile. But in the absence of an effective armor-piercing bomb capable of penetrating four inches of hardened steel, the torpedo remained the only aerial weapon that could significantly damage a heavily armored battleship.

    At sea, naval forces in the mid-20th Century used dive bombers and torpedo bombers against other ships. In the case of the "Prince of Wales" and the "Repulse," the right weapon to use against them was the torpedo bomber. The Japanese had the weapon available and they employed it and the ships were sunk. In the case of the "Dorsetshire," the "Cornwall" and the "Hermes," the right weapon to employ was the dive bomber. The Japanese had the dive bomber available and again the ships were sunk.

    The war in Vietnam broke out in 1964. On August 5 the President ordered offensive action preserving the U.S. right to operate in international waters. Aircraft from Constellation and Ticonderoga attacked torpedo boats and their support facilities at five locations along the North Vietnamese coast. This marked the beginning of a costly combat era in which Navy carrier forces played a key role for the duration. Conventional arms were used throughout the war and, as they did during the Korean conflict, squadron planes flew cyclic operations from flattop to enemy territory and back almost daily. U.S. Marine Corps aircraft operating primarily from below the 17th parallel saw constant action in South and North Vietnam.

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