Aircraft carriers now queens of the sea

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst

WASHINGTON, Dec. 7 (UPI) -- Friday marked the 60th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It was the day President Franklin D. Roosevelt called "a date which will live in infamy." It was also the day that the aircraft carrier dethroned the battleship as queen of the seas.

The dethroning was violent, as changes of the status quo always are in war. More than 2,000 American sailors and other personnel died when planes from the six aircraft carriers of Japan's Imperial Combined Fleet sank the eight active battleships of the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor.


The disaster at Pearl Harbor took the commanders of the U.S. Pacific Fleet completely by surprise. But it should not have. For the Japanese were using a military technology that had been developed by an American general who had even predicted the exact nature and details of their attack plan years before.


Heavier-than-air flight was only 17 years old when, in 1920, brilliant maverick American air power enthusiast Billy Mitchell and his pilots sank the captured World War I German battleship "Deutschland" from the air.

Mitchell's reward for his epochal achievement was to be ridiculed, persecuted and eventually court-martialed out of the U.S. Army. He died a broken man some years later.

Mitchell had suffered for being right too soon, a condition that, according to Herbert E. Meyer, former head of the CIA's National Intelligence Council in the Reagan administration, "will kill your career stone dead every time" in Washington.

Just as the brilliant blitzkrieg massed tank attack theories of then-obscure French Army Col. Charles de Gaulle were despised by his own generals but eagerly adopted by his country's mortal enemies across the Rhine River in Nazi Germany, so Mitchell's prescient vision of a U.S. Pacific Fleet doomed to be sunk by a surprise air attack was eagerly adopted by the air power theorists of the Imperial Japanese Navy, led by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto.

Despised in his own country, Mitchell's theories were also adopted by the British Royal Navy. And in the year before Pearl Harbor, the British twice dramatically demonstrated how vulnerable the mightiest battleships were to attack by even fragile little open-cockpit biplane aircraft each carrying a single torpedo or bomb.


In December 1940, a flight of almost World War I vintage Fairey Swordfish biplanes of Britain's Fleet Air Arm sank three of the six battleships of the Italian navy -- the largest concentration of naval firepower in the Mediterranean Sea, while they were resting supposedly secure at anchor in their heavily guarded homeport of Taranto.

The Italians had complacently assumed that the Taranto anchorage was too shallow for torpedoes to be dropped and then find their natural running depth. But the ingenious engineers of Britain's Royal Navy had adapted their torpedoes to run in shallow water.

The lesson was lost on the top admirals of the U.S. Navy, but not on their Japanese counterparts. They copied the British techniques for their attack on Pearl Harbor.

Six months later in May 1941, another flight of Swordfish -- biplanes so small and frail that they were literally held together in many places by glue and chewing gum and so underpowered that they could make no headway against a 60-mph Atlantic head wind -- crippled what was supposed to be the mightiest battleship in the world.

A torpedo from a Swordfish launched by the British aircraft carrier Ark Royal wrecked the steering rudder of the 50,000-ton heavily armored German battleship Bismarck, which just days before had sunk the giant battle-cruiser HMS Hood, pride of the British fleet, in eight minutes of gunfire.


This time, it was the British themselves who did not learn the obvious lessons of their own success. Prime Minister Winston Churchill did not hesitate to send two more capital units, the battleship Prince of Wales and the battle-cruiser HMS Repulse, to guard Britain's Far East Empire in South East Asia without any air power.

Churchill did not think they needed it. He was convinced that battleships at speed in the ocean could only be sunk from the air if the attacks managed the virtually impossible feat of dropping a bomb down one of their smoke stacks. He was wrong.

The pilots of Japan's Naval Air Force did not bother aiming for the smoke stacks of either ship, But they sank both anyway in the space of another half-hour.

For the rest of World War II, first Japan and then the United States ruled the vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean with their mighty and awe-inspiring aircraft carriers. In the five and half decades since the end of that conflict, the United States has repeatedly projected military power with stunning effectiveness through the deployment of her aircraft carrier battle groups around the world.

As recently as 1995, President Bill Clinton ostentatiously deployed two carrier battle groups in the Taiwan Straits between the island of Taiwan and mainland China following threatening missile tests near the island by China's People's Liberation Army naval forces.


And now that India is seeking to project its power more effectively in the Indian Ocean along the key oil trade routes to and from the Gulf, she has purchased a former Russian aircraft carrier, the Admiral Gorshkov, to do the job.

Almost six decades after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the aircraft carrier remains the dominant capital ship ruling the oceans. There is accumulating evidence that, however, it may prove as vulnerable to submarines and sea-launched missiles as the old battleship was to aircraft-launched torpedoes.

No weapon of war, at sea as on land, reigns supreme forever. But whenever one is dethroned or eclipsed, it always comes as a shock to the powers that still put their trust in it.

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