The age of the strike carrier is over. As the United States enters an era where the potential for modern great-power war is increasing dramatically in Eurasia, a return to the traditional roles of the aircraft carrier is required to maintain maritime access. Carrier-borne over-land strike warfare has not proved decisive in previous conflicts in heavily contested air defense environments, and will not prove so in the future. In the potential high-end conflicts of the twenty-first century, the likely utility of carrier-based land strike is largely non-existent. Thankfully, the traditional carrier aviation roles of maritime interdiction and fleet air defense remain highly valuable in wars against modern navies, but are precisely the roles, missions, and tactics sacrificed for sea based over-land strikes over the past sixty years. Regaining this capability will require a modest investment in existing and developing systems and capabilities and should be the force’s, the service’s and the nation’s highest objective in the coming years.
Aircraft Carriers in Over-Land Strike:
American carrier airpower received its combat indoctrination in the Pacific War. However, pollution of the history of that campaign by naval aviation and airpower enthusiasts caused the lessons of that war to ossify over time. During Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz’s campaign aircraft carriers and their air wings almost exclusively provided maritime interdiction and fleet air defense. There are three major exceptions to this rule; Doolittle’s raid, the offloading of the Enterprise air group to Henderson Field during the Solomon Islands operation, and the strikes against the Japanese redoubts and the home islands late in the war. Additionally, carrier air forces provided strikes to Marine landings and naval aviation supported the Army landings of MacArthur’s campaign, most famously at Leyte. Admiral Kinkaid’s light carriers supported much of this effort, as well as Vice Admiral William F. Halsey’s and Raymond Spruance’s fast carrier task forces of Third and Fifth Fleets.
Doolittle’s raid, a strategic success due to its propaganda value, did not obtain any operational or theater-strategic gain, provided no notable hindrance to the Japanese war effort, and was conducted with US Army Air Corps (USAAC) B-25 Mitchell aircraft. Only the USAAC aircraft possessed the combination of ordinance load, endurance, and thrust to make the adventure over the Japanese home islands possible, even as a publicity stunt.
When the Enterprise disembarked her air group to Henderson field, her aircraft provided valued support to the Marines fighting their way across Guadalcanal and to American naval forces fighting for sea control in Iron Bottom Sound. During the campaign, the major value of those aircraft remained air defense and anti-surface warfare. The Enterprise air group made combat air patrols, searched Iron Bottom Sound during daylight, and engaged any Japanese ships unfortunate enough to find themselves in range in daylight. The Enterprise air group’s combat air patrols made daylight resupply of Japanese Army units impossible, a sea control, anti-surface warfare capability. While the air group could not provide enough firepower accurately enough to dig the Japanese out of the jungle by themselves, it successfully isolated the battlespace to allow the Marines to do their work as it controlled the approaches to Iron Bottom Sound.
After Midway and the Solomon Islands campaigns, American carrier air power did begin to conduct some overland strike, mostly in the form of raids on enemy bases, but the fast carrier task forces remained focused on fleet air defense and anti-surface warfare. This alludes to the fact that, despite its ailing naval forces, Japan’s air and surface units still represented a potential threat to the American war after 1942. This was true as long as they possessed the capability to conduct a highly destructive strike against American fleets.
Leyte Gulf totally destroyed this capability and thereafter American carriers began wholehearted support of major fleet landings. However, in these endeavors they posted a mixed record, being unable to provide enough ordinance precisely enough to make the Marines’ tasks much easier as they tried to advance over hard volcanic rock on Iwo Jima and the difficult terrain and defense in depth on Okinawa. Indeed, in these campaigns, American carrier air power’s signature achievement proved the destruction of the Japanese Yamato super-battleship, not any air-to-ground ordnance delivery.
The history of the Second World War has been polluted by naval aviation, claiming the conflict as the age of the aircraft carrier. This stands almost no historical scrutiny. The campaign hung in the balance in the Solomons as much as Midway or Coral Sea, with no U.S. carriers available. Moreover, battleships proved highly useful throughout the war with their extensive anti-air armament and state-of-the-art radars providing close-in air defense for task forces. The Pacific War’s history is much more nuanced than naval aviation enthusiasts give credit for, and at its conclusion, not the carrier but the aircraft carrier task force proved to be the central weapon of war, with naval aviation posting meager results in ground support or strategic land strike.