Airplanes and Guns


PRACTICAL aviation is comparatively new; and, as with all new things, it is natural that we should seek for new or revolutionary uses for it. Startling stunts undertaken with the idea of ‘selling’ its importance to the world at large are, up to a certain point, justified; but if continued too long there is danger in such a course, because it tends to foster development along unsound lines, to stifle development along sound lines, and finally, in considerable measure, to discredit all development. While we waste years in attempting to develop the airplane as a future substitute for established activities, we largely neglect the truly enormous potentialities, and the much more rapid progress, which lie along the less spectacular path of adaptation to established activities. Who can deny, for example, that the money and effort spent in preparation for the Dole flight from San Francisco to Honolulu, and in its tragic aftermath, would have brought far more lasting benefit to the Hawaiian Islands, and incidentally to the development of aviation itself, if directed to the establishment of fast air mail and passenger transportation over the comparatively short and entirely practical distances between the various islands of the group?

The airplane’s real importance, both in peaceful and in warlike pursuits, lies in less spectacular, but far more productive, uses than those which many of its advertising agents advocate.

We need have no fear of bombing raids coming by air from across the sea to our shores; we need not expect to be able to punish a possible enemy by attacking him in that manner. The uncompromising physical laws of mechanical flight, by virtue of which the airplane is able to fly, decree that transoceanic flight as a practicable military venture is out of the question to-day, and will remain so for many years to come. Whatever else the exploits of Lindbergh and of those who have preceded him and followed him in flights across the seas have proved, they have offered compelling evidence that this decree must be accepted.1

It has taken the concentrated effort of the engineering talent of the world a quarter century to develop airplanes which can make transoceanic air passage one way under selected conditions, carrying no load worth mentioning other than flying crew and necessary fuel for the journey. If an enemy would attack us by air from across the sea, he must not only make the flight across. He must go back; for it is entirely unlikely that we shall receive him as a welcome guest and supply him with fuel and service for the return journey. He must double the performance of Lindbergh — and more; for he must carry bombs in addition, and machine guns and ammunition with which to protect himself. Remembering that the weight of fuel necessary to propel Lindbergh to Paris constituted more than half the gross weight of his loaded airplane, and remembering that when we add useful weight to an airplane we must take out an equal weight from the structure or the engine, where shall we turn for means to provide a reduction in structural or engine weight greater than all the labor and study of the past quarter century has been able to produce? A saving in Lindbergh’s plane, for example, greater than the combined weight of his engine, wings, landing gear, compasses, food, and water — and Lindbergh himself. Bigger planes will not do it; Byrd’s plane was three times as large as Lindbergh’s, but he was not measurably nearer the mark than Lindbergh. Radio transmission of power has been suggested by enthusiasts, but expert radio engineers hold out no tangible promise in this direction. Some revolutionary invention in power plants or structures may come in the future — who knows? But nearly a century of intensive engineering development has not produced any such invention, and none is even remotely in sight. Prophecies as to what may develop in the future in the way of new or revolutionary inventions are futile. What we are concerned with now is what shall be the sane course of action for the present and proximate future. To base our actions of to-day, to spend our money, and to pin our hopes on the assumption that revolutionary changes are just around the corner is sheer folly. Because of the great proportion of the total carrying capacity required for fuel in long flights, the airplane is to-day, and must remain, inherently a short-range vehicle, in comparison with ocean distances. If air attacks come to our shore from overseas, they must come the greater part of the distance on floating bases — surface ships — aircraft carriers.


The airplane can perform no function in war that has not been performed in some manner or other since war first began. It can hurl destructive agencies at the enemy, it can reconnoitre, it can carry messages, or troops or supplies in limited quantities. These things have always been done. As new weapons and vehicles have developed, man has adapted them to his use. The detailed tactics have changed; the principles have never changed.

Victory in any theatre of operations goes to him who can control the area in dispute. To control any area, be it on land or at sea, one must occupy it — or at the least be fully capable of occupying it, even in the face of determined opposition. No airplane can of itself occupy any area; especially is this true of sea areas. It takes men to occupy; and they must have food and clothing, ammunition, and all manner of miscellaneous supplies. Airplanes must have prepared landing spaces, fuel, ammunition, repair and maintenance personnel, and equipment on the ground. Life can be sustained in the vast areas of the sea only on ships. Sea areas can be occupied only if ships are there to sustain life. The outcome of the Dole flight, that of Nungesser’s transatlantic venture and numerous other similar ventures, are compelling object lessons which cannot be ignored.

The airplane is not, and cannot be, a self-supporting and independent agency in the national defense, either ashore or afloat; to attempt to make it so is to chase rainbows. It is an auxiliary — as are all other weapons and vehicles auxiliaries—to the man power which is essential to occupancy of, and victory in, the territory in dispute. This is fundamental; it always has been, it probably always will be. Armies and navies are not battleships or tanks, airplanes or submarines, guns, bombs, or torpedoes. They are men — using the best weapons and vehicles available to gain and maintain physical occupancy of disputed territory for themselves, to deny it to the enemy. To that end the airplane is of great importance as a high observation post, as a scout, as a fast dispatch bearer — perhaps on occasion as a fast transport for small detachments. But its greatest potential value lies in its inherent swiftness and freedom of movement in delivering destructive blows on enemy positions. It is in effect a powerful long-range gun, of longer range by far than any gun heretofore known. If we will accept this point of view — if we will consider the airplane as a long-range gun and admit the logical conclusions which must follow such a premise —we shall have gone a long way toward arriving at an accurate conception of the true rôle of the airplane in the scheme of national defense, and of its proper relation to other warlike agencies.

We are told that a twenty-thousanddollar airplane can sink a twentymillion-dollar battleship. That is in a certain sense true; but in the same sense it is also true that a twentythousand-dollar major-calibre rifle can just as certainly and just as effectively sink the same battleship. The cost of the bare weapons is no criterion of their relative value in national defense; neither the airplane nor the rifle is of any value in war until it is placed in a position to strike. We must consider not only the cost of the weapons themselves, but also the cost of getting them to the attacking position, and of keeping them there. If we would have airplanes in position, and in fit condition, to attack in distant sea areas, we must carry them there on ships, because they cannot fly there themselves, or, once there, maintain themselves in effective condition. So with guns. Whether our striking weapons be guns or airplanes, we must, at sea, have ships to take them to the scene of action, men to repair and service them, and men to run the ships. There is no plausible reason to believe that fewer men will be required in the engine room of a ship because airplanes instead of guns are on deck, or to believe that there will be required, either ashore or afloat, any fewer men to load a twenty-fourhundred-pound bomb on an airplane than are required to load a twenty-fourhundred-pound projectile in to a sixteeninch gun. As a general rule, a bomb dropped from an airplane can do no greater damage than can a projectile of equal weight shot from a gun. One must accept that the number of guns or airplanes or ships or tanks which we have in battle is of little moment in itself, except in so far as it affects the number of actual hits pressed home on the target. It is fundamental that, in any given set of conditions, that weapon is most effective in sinking ships or in reducing fortified positions which can put the greatest weight of metal and explosive on the target in a given length of time. To quote Theodore Roosevelt, ‘The shots that hit are the shots that count.’

The comparative rapidity of hitting is, as a rule, of no less importance than the number of hits. Time is an allimportant factor in battle. A modern breech-loading rifle of the heaviest calibre can be reloaded and fired at intervals of seconds; a bombing flight requires at least as many minutes as the great gun requires seconds. Therefore, at distances within the effective hitting range of the rifle, we must in common sense accept the rifle as a superior weapon. But as the range increases, the hitting accuracy of the rifle necessarily decreases; whereas with the airplane the distance that it flies from its base before releasing its bomb has no measurable effect on its hitting accuracy. Therefore, as the range increases, the relative superiority of the rifle becomes less pronounced, until the advantage finally goes to the airplane. It is futile to argue, as many have done, that the accuracy of bombing has been exaggerated. Even if it has been exaggerated, that in no way alters the fact that the airplane can make at least a few hits up to its full radius of operation— at present in the order of two hundred miles; or the fact that in the area beyond extreme gun range — about twenty miles at present — the gun can make precisely no hits. Something divided by nothing is infinity. The airplane in the area beyond gun range, and within the radius of action of the airplane, is literally infinitely superior to the gun in hitting power.

If we had assurance that all battles will be fought at very long range, we might be justified in adopting airplanes as destructive weapons to the exclusion of all others. But we have no such assurance. It is probable that we shall have to fight sometimes at short range, sometimes at intermediate range, sometimes at very long range — or, quite possibly on occasion, at all ranges at once. The airplane and the breechloading rifle each has its field of superiority. There is need for both — on land and at sea.


It is perhaps a paradox that the airplane seems destined to exert its most profound influence on the relative armed strength of nations in that area where it is most difficult to operate — on the high seas.

Ships as a class offer far better targets, both to bombing and to gunfire, than do objects on land. It has long since been firmly established that a gun mounted on a ship is no match for a similar gun mounted on shore, because to silence the shore gun the gun itself must be hit, whereas the gun on the ship may be silenced by hits on the supporting hull which may not come within a hundred yards of the gun itself. All the hits in the world will not sink the shore; one hit may sink a ship, with all hands on board. For this reason the use of war vessels in making direct attack on well-defended shore positions has in the past brought disaster to the ships. The result has been that, as the range of guns has increased, the ship has been pushed farther and farther from shore, beyond the effective range of shore batteries. The advent of the airplane — a longer-range gun than any heretofore known — has served merely to push the ship yet farther offshore than before. Shipborne bombing airplanes can bomb coastal territory, to be sure, but so can ship-borne great guns shell coastal territory. We need shore-based bombing aircraft at important population centres along our coast line, certainly, just as we have in the past needed shore-based great guns; but, having them, we may be assured that direct assault by raiding ships on our home territory, either with guns or with bombing aircraft, is a very remote possibility indeed. The advent of the airplane has in no way changed the fundamentals of coastal defense.

But even if our coastal defenses be utterly impregnable, our national security and prosperity are by no means assured thereby. These can be assured only so long as we are free to send our merchantmen at will over the sea to the four corners of the earth. Our great automobile and electric industries, our telephone, telegraph, and electric light and power systems, all require a continuing supply of rubber for automobile tires and for electric-wire insulation. Every ounce of rubber that is used in these industries comes to us in ships from over the sea. So do tin, nitrates for explosives, and essential elements that go into the manufacture of a host of articles that we use in our everyday life. Cessation of the anthracite mining industry was a national calamity. What would be the effect of cessation of our automobile and electric industries? How can these and related activities persist, how can our present prosperity continue, without freedom of the seas?

National defense does not mean coastal defense alone. It means defense of our shipping in its journeys to the markets of the world across the seas. A cargo of freight destined for our shores is just as great a loss if it is sunk in the Indian Ocean as it is if sunk at the entrance to New York Harbor. Who will soon forget the terror to British shipping wrought by German commerce raiders which ranged the seas, and which occupied the attention of a considerable portion of the British fleet before they were run to earth? The Falkland Islands are thousands of miles from England, yet there was fought one of the greatest sea battles of the war with Germany. What schoolboy has not thrilled to the story of Stephen Decatur in Tripoli Harbor in 1804? One of the most glorious pages of United States history is the Battle of Manila Bay, six thousand miles from our shores. What have these things to do with coastal defense?

Thousands of years of human history have demonstrated in all walks of life — be it business, politics, the sport of schoolboys, or nations at war — that a vigorous and effective attack is by all odds the best protection; and further, that the most effective point of attack is the opponent’s most vulnerable point. If we would have efficient national defense, therefore, let us look first to our potentialities for attack, to our most vulnerable point, and to those of other nations. The most vulnerable point of every influential nation is its ocean-going shipping. Destroy the overseas commerce of any nation, and you strike at the heart of its industrial and social organization. If we are forced to war, we may expect first a vigorous offensive against our oceangoing shipping; and to protect our shipping we must seek out and destroy the enemy attacking forces, we must strive offensively for control of the sea. Direct attack against enemy home territory, without first controlling the sea, is a futile and indefensible waste of energy. The controlling factor in sea operations is necessarily the striking power of the ship. The navy is truly the first line of defense. Sea power must be our first concern in any sound scheme of national defense.


Generally speaking, a ship outranged is a ship defeated, because, being outranged, she can be hit repeatedly without being able to hit back. Ability to hit an enemy ship at distances whence she cannot hit back is far better protection than all the armor in the world. It has, therefore, come to be accepted as axiomatic that victory at sea goes to the ship or fleet which can strike effectively at the longest range. In striving for the advantage which goes with long range, gun ranges of ships have rapidly increased until they have now reached nearly twenty miles. Yardarm-to-yardarm combat is a thing of the past; fire is now opened between opposing battle lines while they are still hull down over the horizon. It is true that at these ranges the percentage of actual hits made is small, but the advantage — both material and moral — which goes to him who strikes the first blow is so great that the expenditure of considerable quantities of ammunition in attempting to make the first hits, even though they be few, is fully justified. As gun ranges have increased, the difficulty of observing the fall of shot and thence correcting the aim has increased correspondingly, so much so, in fact, that until the advent of aircraft it was coming to be accepted that further increase of range was useless. But with the advent of aircraft, and their use as high observation posts near to the enemy, the accuracy of hitting at long range has greatly increased. The use of aircraft in gunnery observation has served to increase the number of hits on the target just as surely as the addition of more guns or more battleships to the battle line would have increased the number of hits.

To this extent, then, the observation planes now at sea with the battle fleet are, in a manner of speaking, serving in the place of additional guns or additional battleships. Limitation by treaty of tonnage of battleships, of size of guns, has in no wise stopped competition to gain superiority in striking power. Nor can it be stopped by treaty. So long as competition in trade continues, competition in the elements necessary to protect it will also continue. Already it has come to be accepted that as between two otherwise equal fleets, one with airplane gunnery observation, the other without, victory must surely go in battle to that fleet which has airplane observation. That is one reason why Great Britain has six aircraft carriers in commission in its fleet; that is why every battleship and every light cruiser in the United States fleet to-day is fitted with catapults, and carries its observation planes and protecting fighters as a matter of course. But the catapult on the gun ship is after all something of a makeshift. Once the plane is launched, it can be recovered and refueled only by landing on the surface of the sea, thence to be hoisted on board. This necessitates stopping the ship, and interrupting the fire of the guns. In the midst of a hotly contested engagement such a procedure is suicidal. If we would realize the full potentialities of the airplane in this rôle, we must provide means whereby when the fuel is exhausted the plane may return directly on board a ship moving with the battle line. Such means can be provided only in a ship of special design — an aircraft carrier. Even if we accept that the principal rôle of the airplane at sea is gunnery observation, a truly efficient fleet must have carriers for its observation planes.

But in common sense we cannot accept that observation is the principal rôle of the airplane at sea. Bearing in mind that the fundamental compelling force behind the development of practically all naval ordnance, including airplanes, has been the effort to increase the effective striking range — or in some other way to derive the benefits of ability to hit without being hit — and bearing in mind that the bombing airplane in its rôle as a long-range gun can hit effectively beyond the maximum range that any other known form of gun can conceivably hit, it would seem inevitable in common sense that the bombing airplane must take a place of major importance in the field of shipborne armament. (It is even conceivable that the bombing airplane might eventually assume a rôle of even greater importance than the majorcalibre rifle. This is a radical view, to be sure, a view which involves so many controversial elements that it would be futile to attempt at this time to argue its probabilities. The eventual possibility is mentioned, however, to emphasize the necessity for careful consideration of the bombing airplane in connection with future developments in the national defense at sea, but more particularly to emphasize the importance of the carrier-based airplane in the scheme of national defense of the present.)

The controlling factor in all ship design is the type of ordnance which it is intended to carry. If it is to be heavy guns, the ship takes the form best suited to heavy guns; if torpedoes, the form best suited to torpedoes; if airplanes, the form best suited to airplanes. Battleship, torpedo boat, submarine, aircraft carrier, all are the same thing in different form — war vessels designed to protect friendly shipping, to destroy enemy shipping.

Consider now the specific case of the aircraft carrier versus the battleship. It is not a case of the airplane versus the battleship — it is a case of the airplane versus the ordinary gun as the principal armament of ships designed to control the sea. To argue the question from the point of view of the air force versus the sea force (the navy) or versus the land force (the army) is equivalent to arguing the question of guns versus the army or the navy. Whatever its use, the airplane is as inseparable from the army or the navy as is the gun, or as is any other weapon or vehicle that serves their ends.

In the first place, the bombing aircraft of the carrier can strike the battleship at far greater distance than the guns of the battleship can strike the carrier. To that extent the carrier is undoubtedly superior. We are told that the carrier is far more vulnerable than is the heavily armored battleship. One might infer therefrom that there is some peculiarity in aircraft that makes it impossible to put heavy armor on ships which carry them. There is no good reason why heavy armor cannot be provided for the aircraft carrier if that is necessary. But vis-à-vis a battleship there appears to be no necessity for heavy armor on the carrier, because if the armor is eliminated it immediately becomes possible to give the carrier a superiority in speed which will enable her always to choose her own range and time of attack, and to deliver her blows from beyond the extreme gun range of the battleship. Superiority in effective hitting range is far better protection than armor.

It must be remembered that a navy is not all battleships, nor is the business of a navy merely to keep its fighting ships from being sunk. That is essential only in so far as it aids the real business in hand — to keep its merchant shipping from being sunk.

We might consider the matter from this point of view. Assume all of our foreign-trade shipping to be concentrated in one huge convoy escorted by a navy having no bombing aircraft and threatened by an enemy. Our mission is to protect, the enemy’s to destroy, the convoy. If the attack comes by surface craft alone, the problem is comparatively simple. We shall put the convoy behind the escort, where it will be safe so long as the escort is undefeated, because before the enemy can come within gun range of the convoy he must first clear the space occupied by the escort. In such circumstances the fate of the convoy hinges solely upon the outcome of the fleet engagement. Destruction of the convoy follows as a matter of course upon the defeat of the escort. To defeat the escort the enemy must concentrate his forces, else he must himself suffer defeat in detail. Thus we build up a doctrine of concentration — a doctrine which says virtually that control of the sea is decided by major fleet engagements. But suppose that the enemy chooses to evade the defending surface ships, after the manner of the German submarines in the last war. What then becomes of the doctrine of control by massed fleet actions? We have learned in the hard school of war—or should have learned — that massed fleet actions, important though they may be, are not of themselves decisive; that there are ways of circumventing the power of the big guns of the massed battle line. Suppose that the enemy chooses to attack with bombing aircraft operating from ships whose speed is enough greater than that of our heavy battleships (slow because they are fitted with armor) to permit them to avoid the gunfire of the battleships; and suppose that he chooses to make his attack not on the battleships, but directly on the ships of the convoy, which is, after all, the real objective. Even were the battleships themselves totally bombproof, that would be small comfort to the ships of the convoy. These are not, and cannot be, bombproof. How, if we have no bombing airplanes in our fleet, shall we meet such an attack? With fighting airplanes? If we have no carriers from which to operate them, how shall we get them into the air? With antiaircraft guns? Doubtless anti-aircraft guns can account for a few of the attacking planes, but it must be remembered that anti-aircraft guns to be effective must be at or very near indeed to the point of attack, and if we mingle our escorting ships with the convoy to provide close anti-aircraft gun protection we immediately restrict their freedom of movement and almost completely destroy their effectiveness for protection against a concentrated attack by gunfire from possible enemy battleships.

It has always been true in war that when an enemy threatens with longerrange guns one must reply with guns of at least equal range. The airplane is a longer-range gun than any heretofore known. The only effective way to stop the attack of bombing airplanes is to seek out and destroy the ships on which they are based, and without which they cannot operate at sea. And that can be done effectively only if we have bombing airplanes in our own fleet, and carriers from which they may operate. The only satisfactory answer to the bombing airplanes of an aircraft carrier is bombing airplanes on an aircraft carrier.


The airplane is to-day one of the most formidable weapons in sea warfare, the aircraft carrier of no less importance than the battleship, the cruiser, the submarine, the destroyer. A modern navy can no more afford to be without aircraft than it can afford to be without guns or torpedoes. Neither is a replacement for the other; each has its own work to perform, but neither is complete without the other. All are vital to national security.

In the Washington Treaty of 1921, the United States and Great Britain were each allotted 135,000 tons of aircraft carriers — Japan was allotted 81,000 tons. In the Lexington and the Saratoga, commissioned in 1927, we have two carriers totaling 66,000 tons, less than half the tonnage which the leading statesmen and technical experts of the world agreed in solemn conference was necessary to provide adequate naval strength. (Certainly if they had not deemed it necessary they would hardly have stipulated it in one of the most important international treaties of modern times.) There still remain to be built 69,000 tons of carriers within the provisions of that treaty. That tonnage, if we had it, could carry and operate at least two hundred fully manned bombing planes in readiness for instant action with the fleet in any part of the world. Four years is necessary to design and build a modern aircraft carrier, after Congress has authorized, and appropriated funds for, its construction. There is not yet (February 1928) any Congressional authorization to begin making up the shortage, nor money appropriated even for their design.

There was need for those carriers in 1921 — the statesmen of the world virtually said so when they signed the Washington Treaty. Have recent events served to indicate that the airplane is of any less importance in the world of affairs to-day than it was six years ago? Or that it will become of any less importance in the immediate or distant future?

Fast merchant vessels are readily convertible into aircraft carriers in time of war, and although they are, of course, less effective than ships designed specifically for the purpose, they become, nevertheless, when so converted, formidable war vessels, with which even a heavily armored battleship must reckon. Many commercial airplanes are potential bombers or observation planes.

More and more do commercial transport vehicles tend toward the characteristics required for effective war service. When we foster commercial aviation, we inevitably promote the national defense. When we add to our merchant marine, we add to our potential reserve of effective war vessels at sea when war comes. If we stand low in registered tonnage of fast ocean-going merchantmen — which we do — our comparative effectiveness in sea power, and hence our national security, are far less than a comparison of actual tonnage of regularly commissioned war vessels would indicate, and there is all the more danger in a course which fails to provide for the full commissioned tonnage that international treaty allows — almost obligates — us to build.

The more we limit the tonnage and armament of regularly commissioned naval vessels, the more important becomes the rôle of the airplane — commercial as well as military; the more important becomes the merchant vessel — seemingly impotent, but in reality a potential war vessel of formidable strength. As between two nations of comparable gun-ship sea strength, and a disparity in merchant shipping, that nation which is superior in fast merchant tonnage will almost certainly in a ‘next war’ control the sea. And, as always in the past, victory in war goes to that nation which controls the sea.

It may be a source of pride to us to point to fine, well-trained, and efficient air squadrons lining our shores, but as things stand to-day they can exert little influence on the outcome of a war at sea, for they must sit on our front doorstep, waiting impatiently for the enemy to come within range. It is doubtful if an enemy will be obliging enough to send his sea and air forces into the almost certain destruction that awaits him there. Wars are not fought in that manner. The only way to win a war is to go out and fight. We shall have to fight at sea in a next war. And to fight successfully at sea we must have air power at sea. It cannot fly there by itself; it must be carried there — on ships.

There can be no assurance of national security without adequate sea power; no adequate sea power without a strong air force at sea with the fleet in instant readiness for action; no strong air force at sea without aircraft carriers.

Airplanes can be built in large numbers in a few weeks; ships require months or years to build; war has a way of coming overnight.

We have our stipulated tonnage in battleships. We have not the tonnage in aircraft carriers that is necessary to support the aircraft without which our battleships will be ineffective in future war. If we fail now to provide for necessary aircraft carriers, we fail to provide for essential air power at sea when war comes. We fail to provide for adequate sea power, for national security.

We — the United States of America — gave the airplane to the world. If we fail to recognize its potentialities, and its limitations, and to act accordingly, it may prove to be our undoing.

  1. In a previous article, in the November 1927 Atlantic Monthly, the author has discussed the inherent physical limitations of the airplane in its application to commercial aviation, and has set forth in more detail the reasons why such transoceanic flight is impracticable. The reader is referred to that article. — EDITOR