Air Power Goes Sailing

American naval aviation: a combat arm in search of a strategic theory.

U.S. naval aviation is a combat arm in search of a strategic theory. Like other air forces, the U.S. Navy flying corps sprang into being with the invention of heavier-than-air warplanes. But while over a century has elapsed since then, no one has composed a treatise detailing how to use combat aircraft at sea. No one has explained how to integrate them into maritime campaigns aimed at wresting operational and strategic gain from adversaries in wartime, or discharging myriad noncombat functions in peacetime. Instead, naval aviators have improvised, experimenting with new technology and methods as they become feasible. While the experimental approach has sufficed thus far, efforts to correct the intellectual shortfall are decades overdue.

To a certain degree, this means starting afresh. Unlike its cousin, the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy aviation has no Giulio Douhet or Billy Mitchell. In other words, it has no founder who handed down writings to guide future generations. But why does that matter? you protest. U.S. Navy pilots and flight officers are the best of the best. Forebears of today's carrier airmen ruled the skies over places like Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Why do the likes of Maverick and Goose need some pointy-headed poindexter to tell them how to do what they excel at doing?

Glad you asked. Let me count the reasons. One, to lift their gaze toward larger things. Battle is not an end in itself. Nor are counterpiracy, counterproliferation, or disaster relief noncombat endeavors to which aviators contribute in peacetime. To borrow from strategic guru Carl von Clausewitz, such functions are extensions of policy with the addition of martial means. Naval aviators are apt to do their jobs better, and render wiser counsel, if they grasp how such missions advance national purposes and power. Strategic theory supplies that all-embracing perspective.

Two, to provide a starting point to think. Clausewitz proclaims in effect that strategic fluency spares commanders and their political masters from reinventing the wheel whenever some new contingency with strategic import arises. Commonly understood concepts furnish a common frame of reference that helps commanders interpret the tactical and strategic setting, and decide how to execute missions in contested surroundings such as Asian or Middle Eastern skies. Naval aviators need such a vocabulary as much as their brethren trudging across the desert or plying the briny deep do. Flyboys need not improvise forever.

Three, to help decision makers debate weighty matters, and to sell their ideas to important audiences. Clausewitz affirms that "all great commanders have acted on instinct." Indeed, their greatness is built on tactical artistry. That's where aviators flourish. But skill in the cockpit doesn't exempt aviators from operational and strategic discourse. When "it is not a question of acting oneself but of persuading others in discussion," notes Clausewitz, "the need is for clear ideas and the ability to show their connection with each other." A mutual understanding of maritime air power would help airmen act as spokesmen vis-à-vis fellow officers, administration officials, lawmakers, and laymen. Clear communication is no small thing in turbulent times such as these.

And four, to hold up a mirror. As Chinese theorist Sun Tzu teaches, knowing oneself is half of any battle. Strategic theory helps a military service see and understand itself. Introspection is a useful thing. Historian David Alan Rosenberg considers the naval flying corps "both conservative and highly flexible." Rosenberg traces this curious outlook to naval aviation's formative years between the world wars. That's when aviation proponents such as Rear Admiral William Moffett, a battleship sailor turned chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, fought off U.S. Army attempts to subsume naval air within a unified air service. Moffett then presided over a great divorce between sea- and land-based military aviation.

Bureaucratic politicking had consequences. Navy airmen remained naval officers first and foremost, constantly reminded that air power existed to supplement the fleet. Air power was not a stand-alone implement of war, as many land-based airmen insisted; it was the overhead component of sea power. Writes Rosenberg, "new technology and tactics were tested not within the protective walls of a separate branch" but during annual fleet maneuvers, exercises involving not just aircraft carriers but surface combatants and submarines. The navy was innovative in that it continually experimented with new methods of sea combat. It was conservative in that it abjured "written doctrine as a training tool, preferring that naval officers absorb the fundamentals of naval theory through the practice of their craft." Custom was king.

Over time, consequently, the officer corps came to share "a cohesive, almost mystical, understanding of the principles of sea power based on common experience and carefully preserved traditions." Concludes Rosenberg, "this type of unwritten dogma served the Navy very well" before and during World War II. But it was "difficult to define and even more difficult to communicate." It also tended to "hinder rapid adjustment to fundamental change." What worked well in naval aviation's early years—incremental experimentation—ended up erecting an impediment to innovation.