Worth of Carriers, Shown 50 Years Ago, Undergoes Re-examination MIDWAY: NAVAL WARFARE IS CHANGED

May 31, 1992|By ALBERT SEHLSTEDT Jr.

Old Navy hands will observe the "Glorious Fourth of June" this Thursday, the day an embattled fleet of U.S. ships and airplanes achieved a stunning victory over a superior Japanese force near a small Pacific island that many people had never heard of -- Midway.

Thursday will be the 50th anniversary of the battle, regarded by historians as one of the most important engagements in the annals of naval warfare, and one in which the key combatants in the fight were not the powerful battleships of earlier years but fast aircraft carriers with their fly-away arsenals of dive bombers, fighters and torpedo planes.

The anniversary comes at a time when Congress and the Defense Department have been analyzing the future roles of the armed services in the post Cold War period. It is an analysis which may have as profound an effect on future military commitments abroad as the emergence of the aircraft carrier had on fleet operations a half century ago.

The war in the Pacific was only a few months old when it became apparent that the carrier had forever replaced in importance the storied Dreadnaught, the 17,000-ton prototype of modern battleships that was launched by Great Britain in 1906, and a class of vessel that became the yardstick for measuring naval power during the following three decades.

With the development of the carrier in the 1920s, naval tacticians first regarded the so-called flattop and its complement of airplanes as a fleet scout to search for enemy vessels that would threaten the mighty battleships, Dr. Craig L. Symonds, chairman of the department of history at the U.S. Naval Academy, said in a recent interview.

However, with the onset of World War II the roles of the two types of ships were, in a sense, reversed. The battleship, along with the fleet's smaller cruisers and destroyers, formed a defensive circle of powerful weaponry around the carrier and became its protectors, Dr. Symonds explained.

Midway, itself, was the site of a carefully considered plan by the Japanese to use its superior naval forces for a knock-out blow -- at a time and place of its choosing -- against an inferior U.S. fleet that had been badly wounded five months earlier at Pearl Harbor.

Daring tactics and astonishingly good luck were on the side of the underdog that day in June. The Japanese fleet lost four of its finest carriers in the battle. The U.S. Navy lost one. The Japanese withdrew, never again to be the dominating naval force in the Pacific.

Since the end of World War II, the carrier and the nuclear submarine have been the stalwarts of the American Navy. Now, the end of the Cold War presumably has diminished the vulnerability of the carriers to Soviet nuclear submarines and nuclear surface weapons because the USSR and its new offspring, the Commonwealth of Independent States, are not now aggressive superpowers.

Simultaneously, the need for large numbers of carriers and other modern warships is quite logically being questioned in some quarters. Further, the sticker price of the carriers, in concert with Chevrolets and Broadway tickets, has soared to new heights.

The newest aircraft carrier, George Washington, was christened by Barbara Bush July 21, 1990 and is scheduled to be commissioned July 4. The ship cost $3.67 billion, a sum that could finance many Head Start programs, help repair the infrastructure of decaying inner cities or improve health care for many poor people.

And a big carrier's initial construction and outfitting costs do not reflect the annual operating expenses of the 94,000-ton behemoths, which carry a crew of 5,000-plus and 90 airplanes.

Congress has been talking about reducing the existing number of carriers from 14 to 12, with support from some of the top movers and shakers at the Pentagon.

Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney is on the record as saying, "The basic decision that I made was to go down to 12 carriers ultimately as our long-range objective. I'd like to have more aircraft carriers. Aircraft carriers are very useful pieces of equipment. . . . It's just basically a question of how large a carrier force we need, how large a force we can afford."

Others have argued that money could be saved by cutbacks in the constant deployment of the carriers near potential trouble spots, such as in the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. Yet, to what extent will the anticipated closing of certain U.S. bases abroad enhance the importance of the carrier in future diplomatic and military planning?

The Navy, understandably, is not altogether comfortable with talk of a diminished role for its ships and planes, and has recently quoted an Army man to help make its case.

"The Navy was the first military force to respond to the invasion [of Kuwait], establishing immediate sea superiority," Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the commander of the United Nations forces in the Persian Gulf war, has been quoted as saying in a briefing paper being circulated by the Navy in Washington this year.

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