Building a Futile Navy


THE question of what a navy is worth to a country is to-day agitating every great nation in the world. Sea power — what is it and what is its bearing upon modern warfare? Although the answer cannot be found entirely by examining the records of the past, certain principles must be borne in mind.

First, let us inquire into the nature of war.

The essence of war consists in paralyzing the vital centres of an enemy, so that people can no longer live in their homes, or maintain their manufactures, or till their fields, or raise live stock. In the old days, the only way of accomplishing this was for an army to advance along the ground, and, having pierced the hostile army, occupy the disputed areas and dictate terms to the conquered people. To-day, however, the development of the machine gun and rapid-fire artillery, the use of gas and chemical weapons, make it impossible for armies to advance rapidly, if at all. In Europe, after the armies had

gained contact they entrenched themselves, and moved backward and forward for a distance of only about sixty miles in four years. No commanding general had any power of influencing the decision. The airplane, however, appeared as the only direct means of advancing into enemy territory and practising effective warfare. Nor is this immense programme fortified by any corresponding expenditure on our air forces, which are largely under the control of the Navy Department, where certain superannuated old gentlemen known as admirals dictate the practical workings and policies of the naval arm. They have a very excellent idea of the regimen and makeup of a navy of, say, fifty years ago, when they dedicated themselves in the very flower of their youth to this service. But all their training, all their discipline, every act of their official lives, tended to produce a peculiar myopic condition in their inner vision. Their minds became less mobile, less able to take on new ideas, new systems, new departures. Their hearts were given to this service and no other, and they cannot bear to see the scope of its influence infringed upon, or its prerogatives absorbed by any other arm.

Orthodox sea warfare proved equally indecisive, for surface navies found themselves entirely unable to effect landings on a hostile coast. In the face of submarines, the British navy remained tied up behind torpedo nets in mortal fear of venturing forth. Of one hundred and thirty-four large warships sunk during the war, the submarines accounted for seventy. The high-sea fleets of Germany and Great Britain entered into combat twice, once for sixteen minutes and once for twentyfour minutes, no decision being reached in either case. The encounters took place so close to the coasts of both England and Germany that, had aircraft been developed at that time to the point they have now attained, both fleets could have been sunk expeditiously by air attack.

During the war, surface ships had very little value as far as protecting Allied commerce was concerned. The submarines, although used for the first time in history in a great war, sunk 11,153,506 tons of Allied shipping and almost half of Great Britain’s merchant marine. The Germans maintained an average of only thirty submarines at sea at any one time during the war, and these were rudimentary compared with what can be built to-day. It should be remembered also that merchant shipping was not then exposed to the air menace, as airplanes did not have the cruising ability or the striking power they have since developed.

Thus it can readily be seen that the last war developed two new weapons — the airplane and the submarine — which have revolutionized the problem of national defense. Looking at this whole question as one which aims to protect our country against outside aggression, primarily, we are forced to the conclusion that the great offensive and defensive weapon to-day is air power. It can cross the sea and attack any country in its vital places in a much shorter time and with much less effort than can either land or sea power.

Land power has become a holding agent which occupies a place conquered by air power. Sea power in its old rôle of defending a coast line has ceased to exist. Neither surface ships nor submarines can fulfill this function because aircraft can fly directly over them.

Why, then, this terrific hue and cry about battleships, cruisers, destroyers?

At the present moment Congress is being urged to saddle the American taxpayer with a heavy burden of expense to pay for the following surface craft, whose uselessness the World War and the subsequent Army Air Service bombing operations in 1921 and 1923 clearly demonstrated: —

Fifteen light cruisers, 10,000 tons each, to carry 8-inch guns, to be constructed at the rate of five each year during the fiscal years 1929, 1930, and 1931, at a cost of $17,000,000 each $255,000,000
One aircraft carrier to be constructed prior to June 30, 1930, at a cost, not including airplanes, of $19,000,000
Total $274,000,000

The kindest explanation one can make about men with this hidebound type of mind is that their whole-souled worship of the navy as an institution has blinded them to the higher call of country. They cannot, or will not, see that extraneous forces have made the old type of navy a ‘has-been’ in the armory of modern nations.

They still see the spectacular clash of fleet against fleet in a grand and earsplitting engagement at sea as a practicality in modern warfare! Years ago Admiral Sims, now retired, one of the few naval leaders with real vision, made the statement that the battleship might be the backbone of the navy, but that backbone was broken. He said: —

There will never again be in naval history one of the Simon-pure naval expeditions carried across the sea to an enemy’s port, the defeat of an enemy’s fleet, the establishment of an advance base on his coast, and the pouring in of soldiers and supplies. This has been forever rendered impossible against any country that has adequate air and submarine forces. The command of the air means the command of the surface, whether it be on sea or land.

This same opinion is held by several other distinguished authorities, who have been, however, unable to influence the astonishing conservatism of mind characterizing the Navy General Board.

The report of the Naval Affairs Committee which accompanied the bill presenting this cruiser programme contained the following enlightening statement in regard to the need for cruisers:

For scouting and screening duties with the capital fleet. The superior speed of cruisers enables them to obtain information of the whereabouts and movements of the enemy fleet so that battle may be joined or evaded as conditions may dictate . . . their combination of speed and armament contribute an efficient element to the screen protecting the Battle Fleet.

This ‘superior speed’ amounts to something between 25 and 30 knots an hour. Compare this with the speed of an airplane, of from 150 to 300 miles an hour. Take into consideration the airplane’s bomb-dropping proclivities, to which even a battleship succumbs in four and one-half minutes; what protection will a cruiser be? Consider also the airplane’s vastly superior capacities for scouting. The ability of a ship to find anything is almost negative. Witness the nine days’ search for Rodgers’s plane, off Hawaii, the position of which was known within a few miles. Even in the last war, in the little pond formed by the North Sea, the battle fleets found each other with the greatest difficulty, and then aircraft reported more than did any of the scout vessels, although the commanding officers did not credit the reports of the air officers.

This same report goes on to say: —

[Cruisers are needed] . . . for dispersed cruising tasks, such as protecting our main ports, the approaches to the Panama Canal, so vital to our trade and defense, the Hawaiian Islands, the Philippines, and other focal points; protecting from raids our merchant shipping and the transport of men and munitions; and controlling the use of the seas. In the last phrase, the height of unintentional satire is reached. The seas cannot be controlled through the agency of ships when such invincible enemies exist as aircraft and submarines, which can destroy a ship, but are not easily harmed by it.

Since 1916, an authorization has existed for the construction of three fleet submarines, appropriations for which have never been pushed through. This in spite of the fact that we have only six submarines, built or building, of later than war-time design. American submarines are notoriously the worst in the world. The Commander in Chief of the Atlantic Fleet reported on them a few years ago as follows: —

Of the combatant ships taking part in the problems, the submarines are the worst. Their design is obsolete and faulty. Their ventilation is poor and at times almost nonexistent. The temperatures in the engine room rise as high as 135 degrees. They are unreliable. Some of their fuel tanks leak, either spoiling their fresh water or enhancing the fire menace, or leaving an oil slick whereby they can be tracked.

All submarines are so deficient in speed as to be of small use for fleet work except by accident of position.

In regard to the submarines, the Commander in Chief realizes with regret that there is nothing better in sight, and consequently the personnel will do the best it can to produce maximum results with those the fleet has. The work of the personnel of these ships is in many cases admirable.

In the meantime England, France, and Japan go on building excellent submarines.

Of late years, the propaganda which the navy circulates in regard to battleships and cruisers and our crying need for them has become so insidious and so inimical to the true state of affairs in national defense matters that it presents a serious bar to popular understanding of what these things should consist of. Combined with the inertia of conservatism which reaches its finest flower in the navy, such lack of understanding constitutes an appalling obstacle to the modernization and reorganization of our national defense.

We hear a great deal of talk by the army and navy about the use of antiaircraft artillery and protective devices from the surface of the land or the sea. While these weapons and devices have a limited effect, this effectiveness is constantly diminishing, as compared to the increased power and range of aircraft. During the war, the reports of the aircraft under my command disclosed that of the airplanes shot down when crossing the lines only one tenth of one per cent were accounted for by antiaircraft fire. This was when aircraft had to stay in close proximity to the troops on the ground and the antiaircraft gunners had every advantage. Antiaircraft guns have not improved perceptibly since the war, notwithstanding the propaganda put out. They never can improve much, because a missile-throwing weapon needs some point of reference with which to check the strike of its projectiles. There is no such point in the air.

Furthermore, aircraft have to be seen or heard in order to be fired at. Modern aircraft can be so constructed as to be practically invisible a few thousand feet from the ground, and can be equipped with noiseless engines and propellers. They need not even come over cities or localities in order to launch aerial torpedoes, gliding bombs, or water torpedoes against them, but can make direct hits from a distance of many miles or thousands of yards.

If anyone thinks it is easy to hit an airplane with ground artillery, let him take a garden hose and try to spray a butterfly with it. He will get just about the same effect.

To sum it up, the surface ship, far from being a defender of the country, is not able even to defend itself.

If a naval war were attempted against Japan, for instance, the Japanese submarines and aircraft would sink the enemy fleet long before it came anywhere near their coast. Airplane carriers are useless instruments of war against first-class Powers, because they are the most vulnerable of all ships under air attack, being merely thin shells, and are entirely at the mercy of submarines.

The only hope of maritime victory against Japan would be through an attack on her commerce by submarines. A military attack which would bring her quickly to submission would be an air-force attack through Alaska and the Aleutian Islands directly against her centres of population. This is not only possible but practical, and the Japanese are fully aware of it. Inversely, they could conduct an air campaign against the United States over this same route.

Russia is an even closer neighbor than Japan, her territory coming within six miles of ours, that being the distance between the two Diomede Islands in the middle of Bering Strait, one of which is owned by us and the other by Russia.

Similarly, a submarine attack on England’s commerce would be the only means of obtaining victory in sea warfare, while an aircraft attack against her principal cities would quickly effect a decision on land.

It is realized by few that an offensive war across the sea might be conducted by aircraft using islands as bases and, from a chain of these, launching attacks against great centres of industry and population in the heart of the enemy country. Islands are easily defended by submarines and aircraft, if command of the air is obtained by the force holding the islands.

Further, few realize that such a chain of islands, with intervals of open sea scarcely more than four hundred miles at the widest, extends from Europe to America by way of England and Scandinavia, the Orkney Islands, Iceland, and Greenland to the North American mainland.

In Bermuda, England has an island within aircraft-striking distance of our Eastern coast, and in Jamaica one within aircraft-striking distance of the Panama Canal.

England, Russia, and Japan all have air forces organized to act by themselves, entirely independently of an army or navy, to conduct a real air war. In fact, the military system that was adopted by most first-class Powers after the war separates land power, sea power, and air power, putting them under their own ministries. There is also a minister or secretary in charge of a department of munitions, which supplies all three. These four departments are combined under one general head, so as to fix responsibility and command, and to cut down overhead. This is a modern and intelligent system that would save millions of dollars to our taxpayers. The American navy, assisted by the regular army, prevented any such change in America. That is why air power lags so badly here. The United States, on account of its industrial excellence, its great supply of raw materials, its engineering ability, and the suitability of its young men to make pilots, could certainly lead the world in the air.

When the air force under my command sank the battleships in 1921, proving for all time that aircraft could control water areas, the Secretary of State called a conference for the Limitation of Armaments, which resulted in the Washington Treaty. It was the first constructive step ever taken by nations together for the elimination of useless war devices.

For their ostrichlike ignoring of the disturbing facts of modern national defense, the navy heads have no peers, and they are abetted by the machine politicians now in control of the government — men who have made officeholding an industry. They know that the financial forces behind ships, shipping, and foreign loans can be used to keep themselves in office. They therefore twist and turn the truth of national defense so as to make it appear that ships will protect the country, and demand huge appropriations for new construction. This is not only throwing our money away, but leads to a feeling of false security on the part of the people, a false confidence that their dollars spent on the navy will protect their country and their homes, whereas exactly the reverse is the case.

If a country is to have national defense at all, it should be designed to protect against some specific possibility; and in considering what might be brought against us we must take into account the strongest and most modern agencies which other nations have for conducting war. If this is not done, we might just as well be spending our money for bows and arrows, sling shots, and long spears.

This country needs a good navy, but it needs one designed to meet modern conditions and one which will stay in its own element, the water, and not attempt to get political control over both air forces and land forces, as is the case with the American navy.

We need a good army, particularly one which will give the citizen soldiery an equal chance for command and advancement with the regular army. The obsolete system of class soldiering with a small regular army which really is nothing but a national constabulary is a dangerous condition in this day and age.

In commenting on wars of the future, Marshal Foch states: —

The potentialities of aircraft attack on a large scale are almost incalculable, but it is clear that such attack, owing to its crushing moral effect on a nation, may impress public opinion to the extent of disarming the Government, and thus become decisive.

In the report of the Select Committee of Inquiry into the Operations of the United States Air Service, the conclusion is reached: —

The uncontroverted evidence presented in support of this indispensability and potentiality [of aircraft] is so definite and overwhelming that one is convinced that its importance demands that, at least, air power must have a coördinate voice in the councils of the nation with sea power and land power.

Whenever an unbiased and straightforward investigation has been made of this matter by intelligent people, ungoverned by political exigencies or financial control, there has been and can be only one conclusion — that is, that air power has completely superseded sea power or land power as our first line of defense.

Our whole national defense needs a complete reorganization, and in no other way has this been more plainly shown than in the naval programme which the present administration has tried to foist on the American people. We need a single Department of National Defense, with coequal subdepartments of Air, Land, Sea, and Munitions under it, the latter department supplying the other three. Then and only then shall we be assured of an impartial and strictly accurate appraisal of what is needed in our national quiver of weapons; and, should war come upon us, we shall not only be armed properly, but we shall be led by one authority which can perfectly coördinate our several fields of effort.