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THE NAVY AND THE BOMB:
NAVAL AVIATION'S INFLUENCE ON STRATEGIC THINKING, 1945-1950
by
Dr. Jeffrey G. Barlow
Historian, Contemporary History Branch
Naval Historical Center

My topic, as Ed noted, is the Navy and "the Bomb" and, specifically, the influence of naval aviation on Navy strategic thinking in the period of 1945-1950. I think it's important to realize that naval aviators came out of the Second World War, particularly the war in the Pacific, with certain views of what naval aviation had accomplished. Mike talked about some of them and alluded to others. Let me reiterate some of these. First was the feeling that was absolutely dominant within the naval aviation community, that naval aviation had been a major contributor to the success of the U.S. Navy in the Pacific war; the winning of that war. As Vice Admiral John S. McCain, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Air, said in 1944, in his annual report to the Secretary of the Navy, "The Navy is convinced that it has been this specialized development--over-water aviation worked out by students of Naval warfare and Army aviation nurtured by experts in Army tactics--which has brought American air power to the position of dominance which permits it to play a deciding factor in the current struggle." It's important to note, because I think it was lost sight of in the postwar years, that naval aviators saw themselves as part of air power. This is something in which they differed with their counterparts in the Army Air Forces, who saw air power as being something inherent to the Army Air Forces, and particularly its strategic bombardment aviation.

Well, what were some of the lessons as far as the naval aviators were concerned? First, the carrier had become the major offensive punch of the fleet, replacing the battleship as the spearhead of the fleet. For example, Japan's chains of fixed island bases--most of them protected by land-based air--were overcome by the Fast Carrier Task Force in the years 1943-1945. This dispelled to a great extent, at least as far as the naval aviators were concerned, the prewar belief that carrier aircraft could not go up against land-based air because of the inherent design limitations of the aircraft--this refers to the belief that because carrier aircraft had to land aboard ship and had to have stronger underpinnings, and so forth, they were not able to operate effectively against land-based air, particularly fighter aviation. This was dispelled as far naval aviation was concerned.

A second lesson was the acknowledgement of how greatly carrier air had increased in strength during the war. For example, in the first assault on the Philippines, in September 1944, the total number of carrier aircraft involved was 730. Only a month later this had increased to 1,060 aircraft. And by February 1945, during the Tokyo raid, the Navy had 1,220 aircraft deployed aboard its carriers. With aircraft in this large a number, the Navy was able to beat back, at particular points, any land-based air the Japanese could put up against it.

A third lesson was that the combat effectiveness of naval air against Japanese air had increased dramatically during the course of the war. In the 1941-1942 period, the ratio in favor of the United States--the number of Japanese aircraft shot down for each U.S. Navy aircraft lost--was 3 to 1. By 1944 this exchange ratio had gone up to 15 to 1, and by 1945 it had become 22 to 1--that is, 22 Japanese aircraft shot down for each American plane lost.

A fourth lesson was that by the war's end in the Pacific, carrier aviation had come to be directed not simply against the Japanese fleet--the old Mahanian idea that Mike talked about--but specifically against land targets. I should note, however, that these were specific land targets. They were targets that were military in nature. Whereas the strategic bombing forces of the AAF were attacking primarily the urban-industrial complexes of Japan in an attempt to knock out Japan's war economy, the Navy was hitting primarily specific, selected military targets, particularly aircraft plants and aircraft on the ground. One other point that I think should be made is that the Navy felt the accuracy of its bombing by this point--and bombing at this time consisted of glide bombing, dive bombing and so-called "masthead" bombing--overcame the limitation in terms of the bomb load that naval aircraft could carry. Up to this point, and to a certain extent throughout the postwar period, the Army Air Forces (and later the Air Force) continued to look at bomb tonnage dropped as being the indicator of bombing capability. The Navy saw it instead as bombs delivered on target and the total attainment of the objectives.

Let us turn now to naval aviation and the atomic bomb in this period. I think it's important to realize, because it hasn't been well understood, that almost from the beginning the Navy Department took a particular interest in atomic applications--not only atomic energy applications but in attempting to modify or use the atomic bomb for naval missions. This has been masked in part because of the ongoing classification of most of the so-called Restricted Data material (a classification that continues to exist today). So that those who looked at this issue came away with only a partial understanding of what the Navy's actual role was. We know that as early as September 1945, under the plan of Ernest King, Chief of Naval Operations (soon outgoing), the Navy set up OP-06, the Special Weapons Division of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, under a well-respected technical officer, Vice Admiral W. H. P. Blandy. He was assisted by "Deak" Parsons--Commodore W. S. Parsons--who had been heavily involved in the Manhattan District Project during the war.

Well, what did the Navy do in attempting to modify its aircraft and aircraft carriers for the atomic bomb? It's important to realize that the initial plans for aircraft modification antedated the atomic bomb. The original desire was not to modify the planes and aircraft carriers for the atomic bomb, because the Navy did know about that weapon at the time the plans first were made, but to increase the bomb load of the existing types of aircraft. As early as the spring of 1945, the Bureau of Aeronautics began thinking about increasing the bomb load of naval aircraft from what had been the limit of 2,000 pounds for carrier-based aircraft to between 8,000 to 12,000 pounds. Of course, we know now that the weight of the atomic weapon--the original "Fat Man" implosion bomb (Mark [MK] 3, as it later became known in the postwar period) was 10,300 pounds, and so it turned out very fortuitously that planning was begun for developing a bomb capability that could encompass this weight. Initial plans for the flush-deck carrier began in December 1945, when Rear Admiral Harold Sallada, Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, directed a letter to the Chief of Naval Operations asking that the Navy support the development of longer-range attack aircraft, including aircraft up to 100,000 pounds in weight, and with regard to this most heavy aircraft, the development of a new carrier which could operate such aircraft. This eventually was approved. About seven months later, the Navy formally requested permission from President Truman to begin modification of its existing ships and aircraft for handling atomic weapons. This approval was given, in an informal manner, to Secretary Forrestal. And so, in July 1946, the Navy begin an earnest attempt to modify its aircraft and carriers to handle the heavy atomic weapon.

Well, what do we see in terms of how this was received by the other services? It was very evident to the Navy that the Army and Army Air Forces would not be pleased with this action. In fact, some of the early correspondence touches on this issue. For example, with regard to the large carrier, the specific question was posed, should this even be attempted, since we know the Army Air Forces might take this as an infringement on their strategic bombing mission? It was decided that since the Navy did not see it this way--there was no attempt to form a separate strategic bombing force--it could go ahead with its plans.

The issue finally came to a head after the National Security Act in 1947 was passed. The first attempt at resolution was in the Key West agreement in March 1948, when Secretary Forrestal called together the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the service vice chiefs and said "we have to talk about this issue. We have to settle some of the roles and mission questions which have come up." It finally was decided in a formal sense. The agreement stated: "The Navy will conduct air operations as necessary for the accomplishment of objectives in the Naval campaign. They will be prepared to participate in the overall air effort as directed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff." Up to this point, the initial roles and missions defined by the Executive Agreement following the National Security Act had stated that the Air Force would have the strategic bombing mission.

The Key West agreement also defined for the first time, in a formal sense, the term strategic air warfare. Prior to that time, much of the talk had been about strategic bombing, but no one could agree as to what it actually consisted of. Strategic air warfare was defined at Key West as "Air combat and supporting operations designed to effect, through the systemic application of force to a selected series of vital targets, the progressive destruction and disintegration of the enemy's war-making capacity to the point where he will no longer retain the ability or the will to wage war." The definition also included some specific targets, to illustrate what they were talking about. These targets, by and large, consisted of the urban-industrial-type targets that the Army Air Forces had attacked in Germany and Japan during the war. Tactical targets and the targeting of deployed enemy forces were not really considered to be part of strategic air warfare.

Well, what happened after this, as far as the Air Force was concerned? The Navy clearly saw this agreement as a demonstration that the Joint Chiefs and the Secretary of Defense had granted it the right to employ the atomic weapon. The Air Force, however, did not see it this way because, despite its apparent clarity, the language of the agreement could be interpreted in a variety of ways. So, in July 1948, just a few months after the adoption of the Key West Agreement, Secretary of the Air Force Stuart Symington, in a memo to Navy Secretary John Sullivan, commented specifically, "If the Naval organization and equipment required to perform the normal Naval mission can be used to deliver an atomic bomb against a target or targets, the destruction of which is necessary to carry out the strategic plan, and which target cannot be destroyed by the Air Force, Naval equipment should be used to conduct atomic bomb operations." Secretary Symington then specifically went on to state that there was no right for the Navy to have specialized equipment or to develop and procure specialized weapons, like bombers and a carrier to carry them, for this mission. That is, unless there were not only enough resources available to provide fully for the normal missions of all three services but also enough to permit consideration of additional military tasks on the part of each service, and unless it would result in equal or greater economy of critical fissionable material. In this latter point, he was making reference to the fact that the larger "Fat Man" bombs, which only the Air Force could carry at that time, were much more economical in the use of fissionable material than the gun-type "Little Boy" bomb, which the Navy had ginned-up the capability of carrying with the P2V-3C.

The naval aviators' response to this, specifically through the memos of Rear Admiral Ralph Ofstie who was on the Military Liaison Committee, was to say, first of all, that since the war, strategic targets had assumed a broadened meaning. What we considered strategic targets during the war no longer controlled what we now considered them to be. The Air Force considered any target of strategic interest to be a target falling under the purview of strategic air warfare. But Ofstie, arguing for the larger naval aviation community, noted that, indeed, targets of tactical interest, in certain cases, are also useful to attack with atomic weapons, and that targets of strategic importance that might not be listed for attack under plans for the strategic air offensive could also be necessary to strike. Therefore, the Navy would not be bound by the consideration that because the Air Force had been given the specific mission of strategic air warfare, the Navy could not use atomic weapons to attack its own targets.

This fundamental disagreement finally resulted in the Newport Conference, where Secretary of Defense Forrestal again called the chiefs, their vice chiefs, and the secretaries of the services together. What eventually came out of this conference was an agreement that the Navy should be allowed to have an atomic capability. This overturned Secretary Symington's interpretation of the existing situation.

Now, let me comment from the standpoint of Navy planners of the 1948 period, and specifically the naval aviation planners. What did they expect the Navy to be able to accomplish with atomic weapons? First, they saw naval targeting as complementary to the Strategic Air Command's targeting. It was not designed to supplant SAC's role; it had to be a supplementary effort. The Navy's atomic campaign was not going to have the same weight of effort, and its targeting was going to be differently oriented.

The Navy, by 1955, expected to have four flush-deck aircraft carriers--the so-called 6A carrier. These four flush-deck carriers, which could operate long-range attack aircraft--aircraft capable of reaching out 1,700 miles and then returning to the carriers--would be the backbone of four task forces. Three of the task forces would consist of a single 6A carrier, a Midway-class CVB, and two Essex-class carriers that had been modernized to the so-called 27-Alpha configuration (with increased deck strength and changes to the island that would permit larger aircraft of up to 52,000 pounds in weight to operate from them). In addition to the carriers, the task forces would consist of considerable numbers of destroyers for escort and cruisers for antiaircraft protection.

Well, where were these carriers expected to be deployed in 1955? In a situation of no prior warning, the Navy expected that there would be one carrier task force in the Eastern Mediterranean, combat ready: one in the Western Pacific, combat ready; and two on the Atlantic Coast in U.S. ports. Each of these later task forces would take some five days to load out. Planners expected the task forces to be on station in the following operating areas, at the following times: in the Mediterranean, of course, they would be there on D-Day; in the North or Norwegian Seas, they would be there on D-Day + 13; in the Barents Sea, they would be there by D + 16; in the Arabian Sea, they would be there by D + 16, or, alternatively, in the Yellow Sea, by D + 5.

In terms of capabilities to deliver atomic weapons, Navy planners saw the initial sortie capability as 100 percent. Given a 7-day strike period, they predicted a ready aircraft availability of about 67 percent. They thought that the atomic-capable forces--that is the ADR-42 aircraft, which was the projected long-range attack aircraft, and the A2J, the expected follow-on to the AJ--would suffer no more than 25 percent operational losses per sortie. The typical fast carrier task group in a 7-day strike period could deliver 73 atomic bombs to a 1,700-nautical-mile radius, 36 atomic bombs to 1,250 miles, and 170 2,000-pound conventional bombs to 700 nautical miles. In all, planners estimated that the four carrier task forces could deliver, in a one-month period (with five force strikes being launched in that month), some 545 atomic bombs to points between 1,250 and 1,700 nautical miles from the carriers, and 850 tons of smaller bombs to 700 miles.

What were the targets for these attacks? First, let me note that the targets of primary importance to the Navy were targets of naval interest, even though at both Key West and Newport it had been agreed that, if necessary, the Navy could participate with SAC (under SAC's overall direction) in the strategic air offensive. However, the atomic targets chosen by the Navy were airfields (targets hit because of the need to protect the carriers); transportation targets (targets whose attack during World War II had been found to be highly effective--these were targets that in the later war plans, which Walt referred to but did not name, were labeled retardation targets or ROMEO targets); and naval targets such as naval bases, ports, and, specifically, submarine pens and production facilities (referring back to the comment Mike made about the need to attack enemy submarines "at the source")

In conclusion, I should make a few final comments. How did this issue turn out for the Navy in the 1949-1950 period? Well, it turned out badly in the short run but less badly in the long run. As most of you are aware, in mid-1949 the new Secretary of Defense, Louis Johnson, cancelled the initial 6A carrier, which had since been named the USS United States. So, in one way he dashed the Navy's hopes for a long-range attack aircraft which had been projected to weigh up to 100,000 pounds. Nonetheless, one thing that Louis Johnson was unable to stop, because the Navy had gone forward with it from the early days in 1946-1947, was the formation of an interim atomic delivery capability. In the fall of 1948 the first atomic-capable composite squadron--VC-5--was established, with Captain John T. "Chick" Hayward as its skipper. And the following year a second such composite squadron (VC-6) was formed, with "Dick" Ashworth, the Exec of VC-5, as CO.

I think what we can say about the period, as far as naval aviation goes, is that naval aviators helped modify and shape the thinking of the Navy's strategic planners with regard to atomic weapons, in part because they had confidence in naval aviation's capabilities, as proven out during the Pacific war. They certainly were pivotal in the decisions that were made to provide the Navy with an atomic capability. This initial, interim capability increased dramatically following the 1948-1949 period, when the first of the Forrestal-class supercarriers was approved for construction. Indeed, particularly during the period from 1956 through the early 1960s, naval aviation occupied a significant place in the nation's atomic (by then, thermonuclear) arsenal.


24 February 2003