Tag Archives: History

History’s Data for Tomorrow’s Navy

By Frank A. Blazich, Jr.

In an era where the Navy is facing contested seas from challenges posed by China and Russia, history can unlock potential advantages with which to meet current and future threats. Gathering and preserving its operational records, in essence data, is critical. Unfortunately, in terms of such historical records, the Navy is in the Digital Dark Age. It retains only limited data and is losing access to its recent history – knowledge purchased at considerable cost. The Department of Defense and the Navy must consider a cultural and institutional revival to collect and leverage their data for potential catalytic effects on innovation, strategic planning, and warfighting advantages. This cultural transformation of collecting and preserving historical data within the Navy will be a long process, but leveraging its history to meet current and future problems will aid in maintaining global maritime superiority.

On 25 May 2006, Navy Expeditionary Combat Command (NECC) formally established Riverine Group 1 and Riverine Squadron 1 to safeguard the inland waterways of Iraq. These lethal, agile forces executed over 2,000 missions and trained their Iraqi River Police successors to carry on after the withdrawal of major American forces. The experiences of the Navy’s Coastal Surveillance Group (TF-115), River Patrol Force (TF-116), and Mobile Riverine Force (TF-116) which operated in the Republic of Vietnam in the 1960s, facilitated the establishment of these forces. The records collected, organized, and preserved by Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) and command-published histories of the brown- and green-water force enabled NECC to expedite the efficient launch of a riverine force for the 21st-century Navy.1

Boats from the Navy’s Riverine Squadron 2, Detachment 3, prepare to insert members onto the shore of Lake Qadisiyah near Haditha dam, Iraq, 29 December 2007. From the lessons of the Vietnam War, the Navy was able to stand up its contemporary riverine forces. Source: (U.S. Navy photo)

History is one of the fundamental sinews of the American military establishment. Training is informed by “lessons learned” from prior experiences—historical data by another name—and every organization has senior members who contribute decades of institutional memory to solve contemporary problems. Synthesized into history monographs, these publications equip warfighters with insight and perspective to better guide their actions and decisions. Avid history reader and retired Marine General James Mattis acknowledges, “I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before.”2 History’s importance to the present Navy is also reflected in Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral John M. Richardson’s Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, which states “we must first understand our history – how we got to where we are.”3 The CNO’s recently released professional reading program buttresses his statement with a rich and varied roadmap of texts which have influenced his leadership development.4

Today, the Navy finds itself returning to an era of contested seas with contemporary challenges posed by China and Russia. Throughout the Cold War, the Navy possessed a large body of veteran Sailors holding vast reserves of institutional memory, often stretching back to World War II, in all aspects of naval operations. Deployments from Korea to Vietnam and from the Mediterranean to the Arctic Ocean honed the Navy’s capabilities. The subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union provided the Navy with a period of uncontested naval supremacy, but also led to force reductions and a gradual loss of institutional experience with missions like hunter-killer groups, offensive mining, and large surface action groups. A dwindling number of active duty Sailors have operational Cold War experience, and they mostly occupy senior leadership positions.

The records needed to fill that gap must be preserved. Through the Vietnam War, the Navy’s historical data principally took the form of written correspondence in varied formats. The advent of digital computing has vastly transformed record generation and retention, both of which pose notable challenges to records management.5 In a period of important fiscal and strategic decisions, the Department of Defense and the Navy must consider a cultural and institutional revival to collect and leverage data for potential catalytic effects on innovation, strategic planning, and warfighting advantages.

Gathering the Data

Several efforts currently exist to capture the Navy’s data. The lifecycle of records is governed by the Department of the Navy Records Management Program, which establishes all policies and procedures for records management. Under the Director of Navy Staff is NHHC, whose mission is to “collect, preserve, protect, present, and make relevant the artifacts, art, and documents that best capture the Navy’s history and heritage.”6 Naval Reserve Combat Documentation Detachment (NR NCDD) 206, established following Operation Desert Storm, assists NHHC personnel by providing uniformed teams for deployment to fleet units and other Navy commands to document and preserve the history of current naval operations during crisis response, wartime, and declared national emergencies. They are actively engaged in supporting NHHC’s mission objectives.7 Lastly, an essential tool for collecting the Navy’s historical data is Office of Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV) Instruction 5750.12K governing the production of the annual Command Operations Report (COR).

First published on 8 November 1966, OPNAVINST 5750.12 governs creation of the COR, intended to ensure historical records are available for future analysis.8 As stated in the current version, the COR “is the only overall record of a command’s operations and achievements that is permanently retained” and provides “the raw material upon which future analysis of naval operations or individual unit operations will be based.”9 The document primarily consists of a chronology, narrative, and supporting documentation. As OPNAVINST 5750.12 evolved, emphasis shifted from gathering information on specific subjects relevant to warfighters and combat operations to becoming a tool to gather specific types of documents.10

Unfortunately, compliance is erratic and the instruction’s importance was ignored (or unknown) by commands. From 1966 to the present, the submission rate of CORs for units and commands has never reached 100 percent; for CY15 the submission rate stood at 63.5 percent. Submitted CORs are often unevenly written and composed. The causes for these shortfalls vary and are undefined. The culprits are likely operational tempo, personnel shortfalls, and/or concerns about information security. Perhaps commanders opted to err on the side of caution and avoid objectively documenting an unsuccessful operation, intra-service conflict, or inadequate leadership. Without foreseeing the potential impact and importance a COR may have on tomorrow’s Navy, responsibility for the report is often assigned as an additional duty for a junior officer juggling a myriad of responsibilities.

These data gaps have an adverse impact on present and future actions at both the individual and institutional level. For veterans, a gap in COR submissions may result in the denial of a benefits claim with the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, or in regard to awards or decorations with the Board for Correction of Naval Records.11 For OPNAV, Fleet Forces Command, Pacific Fleet, or numbered fleets, lost CORs diminish the raw data needed for quality analysis, leaving analysts to generate products which may fail to accurately account for critical variables. What is lost is critical contextual information, retention of which is invaluable. “Solid historical record-keeping and analysis would help enlarge decision makers’ perspectives on current issues,” writes historian and retired Navy Captain David Rosenberg.12 Without rigorous records, historians such as Rosenberg cannot write books and articles to help leaders like Secretary Mattis and warfighters sufficiently learn about previous military endeavors. Consequently, past mistakes will inevitably be repeated with potentially adverse outcomes.

Current COR generation is arguably more difficult than ever. The information revolution has led to the proliferation of raw data without the benefit of summation or prior analysis. PowerPoint slide decks, rather than correspondence or memoranda, are all that an author or veteran might possess on a given topic. Rather than gathering critical teletypewriter message traffic from an operation, the author of a COR might need to collect email correspondence from multiple personnel throughout a unit bearing an array of security classifications. Gathering information from digital discussion boards, section newsletters, and untold quantities of data could be a full-time job.

Furthermore, the follow-on process of creating a coherent narrative from the raw data is a laborious process for a professional historian, much less for a Sailor fulfilling an additional duty and unfamiliar with the task. During World War II, the usual authors of aviation command histories were squadron intelligence officers. They understood how the information collected could be used for everything from operations to force development to technical improvements. Coupled with a familiarity of preparing narrative analyses and summary papers, the resulting command histories proved cogent and comprehensive. By comparing old and contemporary CORs, it is obvious that commanders must assign the COR responsibility to qualified individuals with the appropriate education, experience, and skills.

Increasing the operational tempo of naval forces naturally increases the generation of data. However, with limited time and personnel to gather and generate the data, it must come as no surprise that records about the Navy’s involvement in Operations Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Iraqi Freedom (OIF) have been irretrievably lost, to incalculable impact. Valuable Navy operational records from OEF and OIF do exist, but the data belongs to the respective combatant commands and is currently inaccessible to Navy analysts and research specialists.

The Past is Prologue

No individual or organization is infallible—errors can be extremely costly, and for military organizations they lead to the loss of blood and treasure. The operational records generated in peace and wartime provide raw materials for historical analysis, which distill lessons learned and generate studies to educate uniformed personnel. Mistakes always happen, but historical analysis can prevent the repetition of old errors. Incomplete data yielding subpar analysis will affect the resultant knowledge products and undermine history’s influence on future decisions. For example, in 1906, Lieutenant Commander William S. Sims incorporated battle observations and gunnery data to challenge the conclusions of Captain Alfred T. Mahan regarding gunnery at the Battle of Tsushima and advocated convincingly for a future fleet design dominated by all-big-gun battleships, thereby ushering the Navy into the “Dreadnought era.”13 If the operational records of current efforts are being lost, are we not again jeopardizing future fleet designs?

Analysis of combat operations has proven instrumental in improving the warfighting abilities of the respective services. Combat provides the only hard evidence on the effectiveness of military doctrine and the integration of platforms and weapons. For example, the Battle of Tarawa (20-23 November 1943) tested the doctrine of amphibious assault against a fortified position. As historian Joseph Alexander details in his book Utmost Savagery, success in the amphibious invasion remained an “issue in doubt” for the Marines for the first thirty hours. The documentation and analysis of the battle prompted the Navy and Marine Corps to increase the amount of pre-invasion bombardment and to refine key aspects of their amphibious doctrine, among other changes. With evidence-turned-knowledge gleaned from Tarawa, the Navy and Marine Corps continued unabated in rolling back the Imperial Japanese Empire, assault by bloody assault.14

The Battle of Tarawa tested the doctrine of amphibious assault against a fortified position. The bloody fight and post-battle analysis enabled the Navy and Marine Corps to refine doctrine for successive amphibious operations in the Pacific War. (National Archives)

Similarly, the Vietnam War demonstrated how technology does not always triumph in an asymmetric clash of arms. In the skies over North Vietnam, American aircraft armed with sophisticated air-to-air missiles met cannon-firing MiG fighters. Neither the Air Force nor Navy enjoyed a high kill ratio, which at best favored them two-to-one until the cessation of Operation Rolling Thunder in November 1968. Disturbed by the combat results, CNO Admiral Tom Moorer tasked Captain Frank Ault to examine the Navy’s entire acquisition and employment process for air-to-air missile systems. After examining reams of available historical data, Ault’s May 1968 report recommended establishing a school to teach pilots the advanced fighter tactics of a seemingly bygone age of machine gun dogfights. This recommendation gave birth to the Navy Postgraduate Course in Fighter Weapons Tactics and Doctrine better known as TOPGUN. Using a curriculum developed by studying operational records, TOPGUN’s first graduates entered air combat over North Vietnam after the resumption of bombing in April 1972. When American air operations ceased in January 1973, the Navy enjoyed a kill ratio of six to one, due in large part to TOPGUN training in dogfighting and fighter tactics.15

Silhouettes of enemy MiGs downed in the Vietnam War by graduates of the Navy Postgraduate Course in Fighter Weapons Tactics and Doctrine—TOPGUN—serve as a reminder of the value of historical data towards offering solutions to operational problems. (U.S. Navy photo)

Carrier aviation’s successes in OEF and OIF came in part due to the lessons gleaned from Operation Desert Storm (ODS). With carrier doctrine designed for blue water sea control against the Soviet Navy, the force was not tailored for sustained combat projection onto land. In the waters of the Persian Gulf and Red Sea in 1990-1991, however, six carrier battle groups found themselves operating in a coalition environment. Despite the lofty hopes envisioned with the passage of the Goldwater-Nichols Act in 1986, naval aviation found itself unprepared for joint and coalition interoperability. From the lessons of ODS, the Navy modified its F-14s to carry the Air Force’s LANTIRN targeting system, began purchasing precision-guided munitions, and modified the carrier air wing composition to better support operations on land per joint recommendations. From Operation Allied Force in 1999 to the launch of OEF and OIF in 2001 and 2003, respectively, naval aviation flew substantial numbers of deep-strike missions, fully integrated into joint and combined air operations.16

An F-14D Tomcat from VF-213, 18 September 2005, equipped with an AAQ-14 LANTIRN pod on its starboard inboard pylon, a modernization grounded in lessons from Operation Desert Storm. (U.S. Navy photo)

The History You Save Will Be Your Own

In terms of historical records, today’s Navy is in the Digital Dark Age, a situation drastically accelerated within the past twenty years by the immense generation of digital-only records. It retains only limited data and the service is actively losing access to its recent history, knowledge purchased at considerable cost. Valuable Navy operational records from OEF and OIF do exist, but the data is unobtainable from the combatant commands. Although COR submissions in the first year of each conflict were higher than in peacetime, they thereafter fell below a fifty percent submission rate. In some cases, there are no records of warships assigned to carrier strike groups for multiple years. While some data was captured, such as electromagnetic spectrum or targeting track information, the records involving “who, what, where, when, why, and how” are lacking. NR NCDD 206, together with NHHC staff, conducts oral histories with Sailors to collect data that researchers can use to capture information not included with CORs. Oral histories, however, supplement but do not completely substitute for textual records.

What exactly is being lost? Why does this matter if weapon- and platform-related data is available? The intangibles of decision-making and the organizational culture are captured in data generated through emails, memoranda, and operational reports. For example, as the Navy evolves its doctrine and tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) to maximize the potential of the distributed lethality concept, issues of decentralized command and control must be addressed.17 The ability to draw upon historical data to inform TTPs, training systems, and cycles is paramount to prepare commanding officers and crews for potential challenges over the horizon and to close learning gaps. As retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel Frank Hoffman notes, the World War II submarine community drew extensively upon the after-action and lessons learned reports to improve TTPs and promulgate best practices to educate the entire force.18

Navy culture successfully adapted to close learning gaps in World War II, and it can adapt to escape the Digital Dark Age. In the 1920s and 1930s, budgetary and treaty restrictions limited fleet design but the Navy experimented, evaluated, and used its data to improve its platforms and TTPs. One notable example was the evolution of how ships processed information at sea, culminating in 1944 with the Combat Information Center, an integrated human-machine system which Captain Timothy Wolters documents in his book, Information at Sea, as an innovative example of decades of research and development informed by history.19

Action corner of the Combat Information Center (CIC) aboard light aircraft carrier Independence (CVL-22) in 1944. An innovation spurred by war and grounded in decades of improvements to communication at sea, the CIC provided an integrated human-machine system to process vast arrays of data in a real-time operational environment. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Preserving critical historical data is the collective and legal responsibility of every Sailor and Department of Navy employee. Digitization poses challenges that cannot be met by only a small group of historians and archivists, a form of “distributed history.” If distributed lethality enables every ship to be a lion, digitization and computer-based tools enable every Sailor to take ownership of their unit’s accomplishments and play an active role in the generation of the COR. Command leadership must advocate for the COR rather than considering creation as merely an exercise in annual compliance. Responsibility and management of the annual COR must be a team effort. Include chief petty officers and junior enlisted and empower them to take an active role in collecting data and drafting the chronology and narrative. Not only must the COR be an objective, factual account but an inclusive report with contributions by officer and enlisted communities to ensure preservation of a thorough record of all actions, accomplishments, and key decisions.

Furthermore, data is generated continuously. A quality COR is rarely written following a frantic flurry of electronic messages requesting people forward files to the designated COR author. Assembling a dedicated COR team of officers and enlisted personnel to gather and organize records throughout the year will prove more beneficial. This team in turn can provide a valuable resource for an entire crew and commander, either to provide information for public relations, morale purposes, award nomination packets, or operational analysis.

Classified material poses an immediate concern when proposing this distributed history approach for COR generation. Such digital records, located on a variety of computer networks, rightfully pose challenges regarding operational security, either via aggregation or unauthorized access. Such concerns should not, however, jeopardize the overall effort. Generating classified CORs is encouraged and detailed in OPNAVINST 5750.12K; as thorough a narrative as possible is essential. Archivists at NHHC, trained to process and appropriately file classified material, can provide guidance to ensure the security and integrity of the data. When concerns over security result in a banal, unclassified COR, data about that unit’s activities is forever unavailable to the Navy for use in addressing future innovations, conflicts, or organizational changes, and the report’s utility to OPNAV, researchers, and veterans becomes essentially nil. With budgetary difficulties affecting the Navy, data—classified or not—serve as an intellectual, institutional investment for the future. In explaining to the Congress and the American people how and why the Navy is responsibly executing its budget for the national interest, availability and utilization of the data is paramount for the task.20

Conclusion

Transforming the Navy’s culture of collecting and preserving its historical data will be a long process. Digitization and the increasing volume of records will continue to pose challenges. These challenges, however, cannot be ignored any longer and require a unified front to ensure records are preserved and available for use. The Navy is not alone; its sister services experience similar problems in collecting data and using it to benefit current operations.21 In an era where reaction and decision times are rapidly diminished through advances in machine-to-machine and human-machine interactions, today’s data may help equip the warfighter with future kinetic or non-kinetic effects. As fleet design and tactics evolve to face new threats, the Navy can ill afford to ignore its past investments of blood and tax dollars. It must leverage its historical data to find solutions to current and future problems to ensure continued maritime superiority.

Dr. Frank A. Blazich, Jr. is a curator of modern military history at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. After receiving his doctorate in modern American history from The Ohio State University, he worked as a historian for Naval History and Heritage Command. Prior to joining the Smithsonian, he served as historian for Task Force Netted Navy.

Endnotes

1. Robert Benbow, Fred Ensminger, Peter Swartz, Scott Savitz, and Dan Stimpson, Renewal of Navy’s Riverine Capability: A Preliminary Examination of Past, Current and Future Capabilities (Alexandria, VA: CNA, March 2006), 104-21; Dave Nagle, “Riverine Force Marks One-Year Anniversary,” Navy Expeditionary Combat Command Public Affairs, 7 June 2007, http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=29926; Matthew M. Burke, “Riverine Success in Iraq Shows Need for Naval Quick-Reaction Force,” Stars and Stripes, 29 October 2012, http://www.stripes.com/news/riverine-success-in-iraq-shows-need-for-naval-quick-reaction-force-1.195109.

2. Geoffrey Ingersoll, “’Too Busy to Read’ Is a Must-Read,” Business Insider, 9 May 2013, http://www.businessinsider.com/viral-james-mattis-email-reading-marines-2013-5.

3. Admiral John M. Richardson, A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority (Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, January 2016), 1, 7.

4. Chief of Naval Operations, “Navy Professional Reading Program” http://www.navy.mil/ah_online/CNO-ReadingProgram/index.html (accessed 18 April 2017).

5. David Talbot, “The Fading Memory of the State: The National Archives Struggle to Save Endangered Electronic Records,” MIT Technology Review, 1 July 2005, https://www.technologyreview.com/s/404359/the-fading-memory-of-the-state/.

6. “Who We Are,” Naval History and Heritage Command, https://www.history.navy.mil/about-us/organization/who-we-are.html.

7. Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, OPNAV Instruction 1001.26C, “Management of Navy Reserve Component Support to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations,” 7 February 2011, https://doni.daps.dla.mil/Directives/01000%20Military%20Personnel%20Support/01-01%20General%20Military%20Personnel%20Records/1001.26C.pdf.

8. Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, OPNAV Instruction 5750.12, “Command Histories,” 8 November 1966, Post-1946 Command File, Operational Archives, Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington Navy Yard, DC.

9. Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, OPNAV Instruction 5750.12K, “Annual Command Operations Report,” 21 May 2012, https://www.history.navy.mil/content/dam/nhhc/about-us/instructions-and-forms/command-operation-report/pdf/OPNAVINST%205750.12K%20-%20Signed%2021%20May%202012.pdf.

10. Based on a review of OPNAVINST 5750.12 through OPNAVINST 5750.12K, in the holdings of Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington Navy Yard, DC.

11. Eric Lockwood, “Make History: Submit your Command Operations Report,” Naval History and Heritage Command, 10 February 2016, http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=93031.

12. David Alan Rosenberg, “Process: The Realities of Formulating Modern Naval Strategy,” in Mahan is Not Enough: The Proceedings of a Conference on the Works of Sir Julian Corbett and Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond, eds. James Goldrick and John B. Hattendorf (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 1993), 174.

13. William Sims, “The Inherent Tactical Qualities of All-Big-Gun, One-Caliber Battleships of High Speed, Large Displacement, and Gun-Power” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 32, no. 4 (December 1906): 1337-66.

14. Joseph H. Alexander, Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995), xvi-xvii, 232-37.

15. Marshall L. Michell III, Clashes: Air Combat over North Vietnam, 1965-1972 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997), 185-88, 277-78; John Darrell Sherwood, Afterburner: Naval Aviators and the Vietnam War (New York: New York University Press, 2004), 219-21, 248.

16. Benjamin S. Lambeth, American Carrier Air Power at the Dawn of a New Century (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2005), 1-8, 100-01; Edward J. Marolda and Robert J. Schneller, Jr., Shield and Sword: The United States Navy and the Persian Gulf War (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1998), 369-75, 384-85.

17. Kit de Angelis and Jason Garfield, “Give Commanders the Authority,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 142, no. 10 (October 2016): 18-21.

18. Frank G. Hoffman, “How We Bridge a Wartime ‘Learning Gap,’” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 142, no. 5 (May 2016): 22-29.

19. Timothy S. Wolters, Information at Sea: Shipboard Command and Control in the U.S. Navy, from Mobile Bay to Okinawa (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2013), 4-5, 204-21.

20. Prior to World War I, the Navy recognized the need to secure public support for its expansion plans. See George W. Baer, One Hundred Years of Sea Power: The U.S. Navy, 1890-1990 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993), 35-48, 54-63.

21. Francis J. H. Park, “A Time for Digital Trumpets: Emerging Changes in Military Historical Tradecraft,” Army History 20-16-2, no. 99 (Spring 2016): 29-36.

Featured Image: Sunrise aboard Battleship Missouri Memorial at Ford Island onboard Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Katarzyna Kobiljak)

The Leader’s Bookshelf by Admiral James Stavridis & R. Manning Ancell

By Christopher Nelson

The Leader’s Bookshelf  by Admiral James Stavridis and R. Manning Ancell. U.S. Naval Institute Press. 288pp. $29.95.

The Leader’s Bookshelf by ADM James S. Stavridis and R. Manning Ancell/US Naval Institute Press

“Reading has the power not only to demolish time and span the ages, but also the capacity to make one feel more human — human meaning at one with humanity — and possibly less savage.”

– JAMES SALTER

“After owning books, almost the next best thing is talking about them.”

– CHARLES NODIER

Some years ago I met Admiral Jim Stavridis. The conversation, while short, turned to books. If I recall, it was in Stuttgart, Germany, sometime around 2010 or 2011. Because he was the Supreme Allied Commander Europe and the U.S. European Commander (EUCOM), he had to divide his time between two locations: his NATO headquarters located near Mons, Belgium and his EUCOM headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany. At the time, I worked in the intelligence directorate at EUCOM when we heard he was coming by to meet the staff. 

It was a gray, overcast afternoon when he arrived. He promptly made his way down a long line of officers and enlisted, each of them posed to shake his hand and say a few words. I had only a few seconds to make a connectionto say something interesting or ask him a question. But this I knew: I loved books; he loved books; and while standing there, I thought of something he wrote that might prove that I, like him, believed that books are essential to our profession, if not our lives.

Months prior, he had written one of his regular blog posts. In it, he said that his wife noticed that his love of books and his growing library had evolved into a “gentle madness.” That phrasea “gentle madness”refers to a wonderful book by author Nicholas Basbanes. Basbanes’ bookA Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books  is a long, discursive work: one part discussion of historic book culture in America and Britain, the other full of profiles of quirky and dedicated book lovers and collectors. 

When the admiral finally reached me, I mentioned the blog post and the book. His eyes lit up and he said something about few people knowing the reference. He then told me he owned 4,000 books. Surprised, I said something about wanting a library that large. He then simply said, “You’ll get there.” The conviction in his voice floored me. I believed him. And he was right. I’m getting there (the featured image of this post is a picture of my library; today I have around 2,000 titles, give or take).

Fast forward a few years and, no surprise, the admiral’s library has grown. Stavridis, in the introduction to the entertaining The Leader’s Bookshelf, says that he has in his “house today… more than four thousand books.” His wife, Laura, “has spent far too much of her life packing and unpacking them in postings all around the world.”

Adm. James Stavridis, center, browses through the Naval War College’s bookstore, October 2012. (U.S. Naval War College)

Stavridis and his co-author, R. Manning Ancell, have written a book that is somewhat similar to Richard Puryear’s fine booknow unfortunately out of printAmerican Admiralship: The Moral Imperatives of Command. Puryear interviewed 150 four star admirals on a variety of topics. One of those topics was the importance of reading. And like Puryear, Stavridis and Ancell take a similar path. In The Leader’s Bookshelf, they interviewed 200 four-star generals and flag officers, and from those discussions, they determined the 50 books that “stood out most…with top military readers.”

Using no particular scientific method, they rank ordered the books in descending order by the number of mentions. Thus, the first book on the list, Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels (1974), was mentioned most often. While the last on the list, How: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everything by Dov Seidman, was mentioned least frequently.

For each title, there is a short essay by a senior officer as to why they choose the book, followed by a quote from the book, a biography of the author, then a summary of the book by either Stavridis or Ancell, concluding with a few sentences about why the book is important for leaders today.  

For folks that regularly follow the reading lists that are published by the Chief of Naval Operations or the other services, there are, unfortunately, few surprises. The regularly cited titles appear: Anton Myer’s Once an Eagle, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, Clausewitz’s On War, John Keegan’s The Face of Battle, E.B. Potter’s Nimitz, and the always popular Steven Pressfield with his Gates of Fire. They all made the cut.

While there is nothing wrong with the oldies but goodies, it was refreshing to see some unusualor rather, some outliersfind a place in the top 50. Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court makes a showing as does Norman Mclean’s A River Runs Through It. In fact, General Stan McChrystal is the senior officer that recommended Twain’s satirical novel about a man from the 19th century, Hank Morgan, traveling back in time to King Arthur’s court.

The Leader’s Bookshelf, I confess, would be ho-hum if not for the additional essays that Stavridis and Ancell add to the book. It is these essays on publishing, reading lists, and building a personal library, that raise this book from mediocrity to must have. And here, Robert Ancell pulls his weight, adding a nice cherry on top with an interview with General Mattis. 

Mattis beats Stavridis in the book department. With some 7,000 titles on his shelves, he probably is the best read military leaderretired or activeout there. In the interview, Mattis mentions books that apply to each level of war. Of note, he recommends Lucas Phillips’ book The Greatest Raid of All. A book about a British raid that shattered the Nazi’s dry docks at Saint-Nazaire, France during World War II, preventing the Germans from using the docks for large battleships for the duration of the war. The raid resulted in no less than five Victoria Crosses. I had never heard of the book nor the raid. It is these little-known reading recommendations that make books like this exciting. You simply do not know what you might find.

Ironically, the only criticismor rather, observationI have about the book is that senior officers still do not carve out enough time to read. And this in a book in which one of the early essays is about “Making Time for Reading.”  

In one essay, a senior officer admits that while working in the Joint Staff that he only read one book in a year. One book! While another, in her recommendation, wrote only two sentences to praise the workand even then those two sentences were footnoted. Sigh.  

Nonetheless, The Leader’s Bookshelf will appeal to all types: The newbie looking for a good book to read and the bibliomaniac who may have read all 49 on the list and owns each first edition, but unaware, or didn’t realize there was just one more interesting title out there.  

But alas, there always is.

Lieutenant Commander Christopher Nelson, USN, is an intelligence officer stationed at the U.S. Pacific Fleet Headquarters in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The views here are his own.

Featured Image: A picture of the author’s personal library. Courtesy of Christopher Nelson.

The Age of the Strike Carrier is Over

By LT X

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 ordnance 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 ordnance 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 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.

What commonly became known as the “strike” aircraft carrier (CVA) was, in fact, the atomic carrier. In a memorandum as assistant Chief of Naval Operations for guided missiles, Rear Admiral Daniel V. Gallery opined that the U.S. Navy could strike more flexibly, as effectively, and at less cost than land-based, atomic-armed bombers requiring local bases to launch their fighter escorts. Gallery’s motivation was at least partially parochial. The newly-formed U.S. Air Force was, at the time, attempting to cultivate a monopoly on nuclear strike planning. In the era as the only nuclear superpower, it seemed nuclear delivery would prove the best option for continued longevity of the U.S. Navy’s fleet. In this effort, the Navy reconfigured attack carrier air wings to deliver Navy special weapons. This reconfiguration was the first time a carrier air wing was doctrinally tooled for ground attack and strategic strike, vice the sea control disciplines of fleet air defense and anti-surface warfare. Over time, this strike carrier became the norm. Rather than provide value to the fleet, misperceptions of the efficacy of land attack caused the platform’s gradual devolution from a system that provided capability to the task force to a platform that sucked capability from it. With its air wing largely servicing land targets, the strike carrier now required the very anti-surface, anti-submarine, and anti-air capabilities it used to augment, to allow more substantial (although increasingly less effective) overland raids.

This strike configuration premiered during the Korean War. The Peninsula lacked a sophisticated air defense or early-warning system and communist forces only contested air superiority in MiG Alley on the western Sino-Korean border. Therefore, naval and Marine aircraft operating off of carriers did produce notable results in ground support. However, given the limited nature of the conflict, the austere environment of the peninsula, and the technical lack of sophistication of Chinese and Korean forces, it is hard to determine the overall effect of carrier air power. At any rate, whatever the tactical, operational, or strategic limitations imposed, the conflict ended inconclusively, whatever naval aviation’s record.

Aircraft launch off USS Valley Forge during the Korean War (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Likewise, the utility of the attack aircraft carrier proved mixed over Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, the communist North enjoyed competing Chinese and Russian military (as well as diplomatic and political) support. The Soviets provided a totally linked and integrated air defense network around vital areas including Hanoi and Haiphong Harbor, the two most strategic areas. This air defense system proved too dense and advanced for American carrier-launched aircraft to reliably penetrate and deliver ordnance. Indeed, during Operation LINEBACKER II, only B-52Ds with their improved Electronic Countermeasure (ECM) packages, proved able to operate in the zones. This represented a failure of American carrier air power. If the multiple aircraft carriers operating in the Gulf of Tonkin could not reliably penetrate North Vietnamese air defenses, what chance did they have off the Kola Peninsula or the Baltic?

Despite an air defense network similar to that installed over Hanoi, U.S. Naval Aviation contributed, but did not prove decisive in Desert Shield and Desert Storm. While fixed-wing, fast moving aviation assets provided impressive combat support, it took US Air Force F-117 Nighthawks, cruise missiles, and Air Force delivered precision munitions to penetrate the Iraqi air defense screen. Naval air forces proved totally unprepared for the precision munitions revolution, lacking laser target designators on the A-6s and A-7s that still formed the mainstays of the fleet. Instead, most naval aviation delivered Mk 80 series unguided weapons instead of the Paveway series carried by a small but growing section of Air Force platforms, including the Nighthawk. This made them incapable of delivering ordnance to targets with high risk of collateral damage and precluded many targets in Iraqi population areas, limiting the force’s contributions to the campaign to tactical and some operational strikes.

In the Balkan wars and later in Iraq and Afghanistan, American naval aviation never again faced an integrated air defense system. High hard decks precluded the efficacy of man portable surface-to-air rounds and obsolete mobile systems made air defense suppression a forgone conclusion rather than an aspirational goal in the early 2000s. Naval aircraft, belatedly modernized to take full advantage of the precision munitions revolution, delivered substantial amounts of ordnance in these conflicts, complementing American land-based air power. However, the aircraft lacked on station time and payload, showcasing a service preference for multi-role fighter-bombers with limited range vice the ultra-long range fighter and attack aircraft required for intercept and long-range anti-surface warfare. However, confronted with a total lack of modern air defense systems, they, like the Air Force, reigned supreme.

Never in its history has American naval aviation confronted a state-of-the-art, integrated air defense system and provided effective, strategic ordnance. Hypothetically, at times during the Cold War, American strike-configured carriers might have done so, but an era of fiber-optically interlinked, multi-frequency, phased array air defense systems totally precludes such operations. Moreover, naval aviation assets lacked the range to strike strategic targets deep in mainland China and central Russia, limited to around 1,000nm inland.

Modern Aircraft Carrier Utilization in Great Power War

The utility of the STRIKE carrier in great power conflict is over. More accurately, as the previous section highlighted, it never really existed. American strike carriers throughout their history proved incapable of gaining and maintaining access to heavily defended areas and this trend will only grow more severe. China’s Great Wall of air defense on the northern Taiwan Strait will again preclude American carriers from gaining access to strategic areas in mainland China. Russia’s high-value areas are already well defended. China’s continued investment in air defense systems will cause this problem to continue to distribute throughout Asia. Further, a series of anti-access systems fielded by China, but also increasingly by Russia, are pushing U.S. carrier task forces out of range of present naval aircraft.

American planners are hoping, almost as a matter of faith, that an increase in the range of carrier-based aircraft would provide for continued access. This approach is wrong-headed.  First, what land targets would such aircraft service? Perhaps Hainan Dao, or some rocks in the South or East China Sea, hardly a war-winning strategic strike. Second, how will these aircraft gain access in order to deliver the strike? American naval aircraft are too obsolete to deal with any but the most lightly defended of modern targets, and the F-35 will not markedly change this equation.

So let’s give up? Call it a day? Beef up Air Force appropriations? Not even close. American naval air power is the critical capability in the U.S. arsenal in the Western Pacific and the North Atlantic. Instead, force planners should recall why the U.S. built aircraft carriers in the first place, and where they last played a critical strategic role: in anti-surface warfare and fleet air defense. American carrier air power in the Pacific War hinged not on great strikes against the home islands, but rather on massing striking power against Japanese naval surface forces, Japanese air forces, and by protecting the fleet during operations and major landings. This is where naval aviation must again put its efforts.

Air wings at present are much better configured for low-risk ground attack than for operations against other navies. Air operations in the Pacific War required mass, exercising Halsey’s axiom that carrier air power increased at the exponent of the number of carriers engaged. Those operations encompassed large sorties, with hundreds of aircraft in major fleet actions. Over the past twenty-five years these skills have been lost. American carrier forces now exercise in single or dual carrier configurations. In Halsey and Spruance’s era, their fleets swelled into double digit large flattops, with myriad small deck escort carriers providing combat air patrols, anti-submarine forces, and landing support. Additionally, that war featured raids of hundreds of naval aircraft against enemy surface formations. Critics will claim that such mass is no longer required in the precision munitions era but such claims ignore that defense systems have also improved dramatically, making saturation the only sure way to put sophisticated, modern air defense ships out of action. To be clear, this author is not advocating a wholesale return to Nimitz’s fast carrier task force. However, the tactics, techniques, procedures, and training of American carrier air forces are out of touch with a modern, sea-control war, and a single U.S. CVN must be able to generate the mass and firepower necessary to fight in a modern, contested sea environment.

American naval aviation forces have not experienced platforms with the anti-air capabilities of ships as capable as the current generation of Chinese Navy Luyang hulls. U.S. tactics presently involving two or four aircraft sorties are totally inadequate for destroying an AEGIS-equivalent ship. To overwhelm a Chinese, or even an aging Russian surface formation, will likely require dozens of anti-ship cruise missiles. A single carrier must contain the capability to put such a ship (ideally many such ships) out of action, quickly. However, at present such a task requires the bulk of a modern air wing to generate the volume of fire required. This would likely also require a total re-arming of carrier magazines with a focus on sea control weapons and systems lest a CVN run itself out of anti-ship missiles in a few early engagements.

Moreover, distributed lethality requires a distribution of air power. Without fast-moving defensive counter-air formations operating with small surface action groups, American light forces will find themselves extremely vulnerable to attack. Modern surface combatant anti-air weapons range remains about 100nm. Modern air-launched anti-ship cruise missiles regularly feature twice that range and increasingly much greater. Without defensive counter-air formations attached to light surface forces, enemy aircraft will use the haven of range to mass firepower, overwhelming a formation’s air defenses while maintaining relative safety over the horizon. Allowing distributed light forces some measure of defensive counter-air capability will allow those formations to break up air attacks, ideally precluding saturation of U.S. platforms, offset electronic emissions away from the formation to make enemy targeting of the group more difficult, and therefore dramatically increase survivability.

MEDITERRANEAN SEA (July 1, 2016) – An F/A-18F Super Hornet assigned to the Fighting Swordsmen of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 32 launches from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) (Ike).  (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Anderson W. Branch/Released)

The United States certainly has the capability to maintain the primacy of its carriers, especially in the maritime-dominated Western Pacific. The U.S. must use its large-decks to maximum potential. This includes American large-deck amphibious shipping, in the form of LHDs and LHAs. Such ships’ amphibious capability will likely not add much to the initial phases of great power war when sea control and air superiority are contested. Importantly, small carriers proved highly useful in both Atlantic and Pacific theaters of the Second World War, providing long-range air defenses for convoys and robust anti-submarine capability outside of the range of land-based air power. In the 1960s, the U.S. began using Essex-class carries in an anti-submarine configuration (CVS vice the strike carrier CVA). In fact, USS Intrepid, a CVS-configured carrier, conducted strikes into northern Vietnam off Yankee Station, when it became apparent that PRC submarines did not pose a serious threat to the American Carrier Operating Areas (CVOAs). Likewise, the British prioritized antisubmarine work and limited air defense capability in their Invincible-class light carriers which featured heavily in the Falkland Islands War. American Wasp– and America-class ships, loaded with F-35s, SH-60s, and MV-22s, can provide the same – an air defense, anti-surface, and anti-submarine screen. Operating in the vicinity of a Surface Action Group Operating Area (SAGOA), the large-decks could provide on-station defensive counter-air, visually identify unknown contacts, and augment the ASW aircraft from a SAG to increase the group’s submarine localization and anti-surface strike capacity.

American naval forces are only a fraction of the way to recognizing the capabilities the MV-22 provides. At present, the U.S. Navy has only tested MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft in a Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD) capacity, the CMV-22. However, the aircraft retains substantial potential in anti-submarine warfare and airborne early warning, among other uses. U.S. Navy carrier task forces until the early 2000s incorporated the S-3 Viking aircraft, a high-subsonic anti-submarine jet. These aircraft retired in the early 2000s due to lack of fleet interest in anti-submarine warfare. In the heavily contested North Atlantic or Western Pacific, against foes with modern undersea forces, such a capability once again is required. The MV-22 would expand this capability. While slower, it provides potential marked improvements in range, low-altitude handling, on station time, and sensor payload. Such aircraft would provide a step-increase in surface-force ASW capability, potentially loaded with dipping sonars, sonobouys, and a large number of Mk 54 torpedoes. Further, mounting a high-performance radar on such an aircraft would allow some measure of airborne early warning to small surface units. Combined with point-to-point data links, these aircraft could provide over-the-horizon situational awareness while limiting surface force’s radar transmissions. This would complete the capability of the light-carrier air group described above and substantially increase the lethality of the small satellite surface groups orbiting the aviation ship. Additionally, due to their vertical takeoff and landing capability, the MV-22 could potentially lily pad off smaller ships, particularly the huge flight decks of Independence-class Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) increasing their time aloft forward. While heat management proved frustrating early in the aircraft’s tenure, this issue has been fixed with temporary heat shields which could be staged onboard. The MV-22 provides a cheap method to reconstitute integrated ASW capability and provide survivable, high-speed warning and reconnaissance.

U.S. Naval Aviation must train for saturation raids, publicly. Saturation attacks are a lost art, and likely aviation forces have much to learn. Such attacks will require heavy coordination between aircraft and squadrons, flexing intellectual muscles left dormant since at least the end of the Cold War. Is a saturation attack down one bearing better, with inbound missiles exceeding the target’s sensor capacity in a single direction, or better from multiple vectors or compass points, overloading close-in defenses?  Such questions require at-sea testing. Additionally, such training is an important signal to U.S. maritime adversaries. The fact that U.S. naval aircraft are prepared to destroy high-end platforms, and have the capabilities to do so, emphasizes U.S. resolve in an era and in areas where such capability is in question.

WATERS SURROUNDING THE KOREAN PENINSULA (Oct. 14, 2016) The U.S. Navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier, USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), transits waters surrounding the Korean Peninsula during Exercise Invincible Spirit. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan Burke/Released)

Ultimately, the F-35 has a huge role to play in a reconfigured carrier air wing. Without it, the U.S. Navy will have no answer to the range of proliferating fifth generation fighters it would face in the Barents, Baltic, or China Seas. Joint Strike Fighter’s use is not bombing the Senkakus or trying to break into mainland China’s air defense network. Instead, only the F-35, to include or perhaps even feature the F-35B flown off LHDs and LHAs, can provide the protection of U.S. light forces and the carrier itself with an aircraft capable enough to survive in a modern air war. Forward distribution of the F-35 in support of U.S. light forces will provide a critical capability to those ships operating at the far reaches of U.S. sea control when they confront the J-20 and Su-35, armed with large numbers of long-range anti-ship missiles.

Finally, naval air must expand the capabilities of the legacy and Super Hornet variants of the FA-18 with software upgrades and improved radars and sensors, to help electronics warfare and battlespace awareness functions on the aging airframes to keep pace with F-35. The F-35’s stealth will not be decisive in future conflicts. The frequency agility of modern air defense sensors is just too good. Only the survivability and lethality of the weapons it carries will keep these airframes lethal into the future. Hornets must maintain their capability in the areas of fleet air defense and anti-surface warfare by a refresh of the aircraft’s sensors and systems. This is not to preclude F-35. Without the Joint Strike Fighter, the only fifth generation fighter available, American carrier air forces will be obsolescent by the end of the decade. However, the Hornets will also have to operate in the same environments, and need to be configured to do so.

Conclusion

American naval forces are not a tool for strategic strikes. Instead, they should be used operationally, to provide strategic affects. A great power war will require progressive sea control, as attrition dominates seagoing forces on both sides. At some point, one side or the other will alone maintain the capability to operate in the contested theater. Naval aviation should use its striking capability to advance this attrition-based operational concept as quickly as possible by massing its striking power quickly against targets. Only by eliminating enemy platforms and blinding adversary ISR assets will U.S. forces survive.

In order to do this effectively, U.S. naval air forces must support distributed forces.  The can do so by coordinating with large-deck amphibious shipping to distribute their own lethality, providing defensive counter-air coverage and situational awareness to surface action groups operating on the front line of American naval power. This will free U.S. carrier aviation for anti-surface warfare and local air superiority.

The MV-22 is the great unrecognized platform with almost limitless potential for operational flexibility. With increased sensor loads and weapons, the tiltrotor can deliver long-endurance, low-altitude ASW and high-altitude situational awareness if properly configured. Such sea control capabilities would pay huge dividends in future naval combat.

At its base, this work is about naval aviation in an era of contested sea control. This era will require airborne forces to re-examine the assumptions of the past six decades of naval aviation, retooling the air wing for maritime strike. This will require radically different magazine selections on the carrier, likely some new weapons, including higher-capability anti-ship weapons, and a total retooling of air wing certification and training regimens. Aircraft carriers have a huge role in future wars, but the retooling of their aircraft and their operational concepts must begin now.

LT X is an officer in the United States Navy. Feedback should be directed to president@cimsec.org and will be forwarded to the author.

Featured Image: An aerial view of various aircraft lining the flight decks of the aircraft carrier USS INDEPENDENCE (CV-62), right, and USS MIDWAY (CV-41) moored beside each other in the background at Naval Station Pearl Harbor (Wikimedia Commons)

“The Fleet at Flood Tide” – A Conversation with Author James D. Hornfischer

The Fleet at Flood Tide: America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944-1945 by James Hornfischer
The Fleet at Flood Tide: America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944-1945 by James Hornfischer.

By Christopher Nelson

A passionate naval historian, Jim Hornfischer finds time in the early morning hours and the weekends to write. It was an “elaborate moonlighting gig” he says, that led to his latest book, The Fleet at Flood Tide: America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944-1945

The Fleet at Flood Tide takes us back to World War II in the Pacific. This time Hornfischer focuses on the air, land, and sea battles that were some of the deadliest in the latter part of the war: Saipan, The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot, Tinian, Guam, the strategic bombing campaign, and the eventual use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  

The battles Hornfischer describe share center stage with some of the most impressive leaders the U.S. placed in the Pacific: Admiral Raymond Spruance, Admiral Kelly Turner, Admiral Marc Mitscher, General Holland “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, and Colonel Paul Tibbets. It is quite a cast of characters.

Hornfischer, to his credit, is able to keep this massive mosaic together – the numerous battles and personalities – without getting lost in historical details. His writing style, like other popular historians – David McCullough, Max Hastings, and Ian Toll immediately come to mind – is cinematic, yet not superficial. Or as he told me what he strives for when writing: “I then dive into the fitful process of making this rough assemblage readable and smooth, envisioning multiple readers, from expert navalists to my dear mother, with every sentence I type.”

The Fleet at Flood Tide is his fifth book, following the 2011 release of Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Gudalcanal. Hornfischer — whose day job is president of Hornfischer Literary Management — also found time to write The Ship of Ghosts (2006), The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors (2004; which won the Samuel Eliot Morison Award), and Service: A Navy SEAL at War, with Marcus Luttrell (2012). Of note, Neptune’s Inferno and The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors have been on the Chief of Naval Operation’s reading list for consecutive years.

I recently had the opportunity to correspond with Jim Hornfischer about his new book. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

How did the book come about? Was it a logical extension of your previous book, Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal?

All these years on, the challenge in World War II history is to find books that need writing, stories that need telling with fresh levels of detail, or in an entirely new frame. After Neptune’s Inferno, I was looking for a project that offered expansive territory in terms of geography, people and operational terrain, fresh, ambitious themes, and massive amounts of combat action that was hugely consequential. When I realized that no single volume had yet taken on the entirety of the Marianas campaign and followed that coherently to the end and what it led to, I had something. I wrote a proposal for a campaign history of Operation Forager, encompassing all its diverse operations on air, land and sea, as well as the singular, war-ending purpose to which that victory was put. The original title given to my publisher was Crescendo: The Story of the Marianas Campaign, the Great Pacific Air, Land and Sea Victory that Finished Imperial Japan. In the first paragraph of that proposal, I wrote, “No nation had ever attempted a military expedition more ambitious than Operation Forager, and none had greater consequence.” And that conceit held up well through four years of work. Everything I learned about the Marianas as the strategic fulcrum of the theater fleshed out this interpretation in spades.

As you said, in the book you focus on the Marianas Campaign, and there are some key personalities during the 1944-45 campaign. Namely, Raymond Spruance, Kelly Turner, and Paul Tibbets are front and center in your book. When scoping this book out, how did you decide to focus on these men?

As commander of the Fifth Fleet, Raymond Spruance took the Marianas and won the greatest carrier battle in history in their defense along the way. Spruance, to me, stands as the finest operational naval commander this nation ever produced. After all the ink spilled on Halsey and the paucity of literature on Spruance, it was, I thought, time to give him his due. Kelly Turner, Spruance’s amphibious commander, has always fascinated me. After his controversial tour as a war plans and intelligence guy in Washington in the run-up to Pearl Harbor, and then in the early days of Guadalcanal, surviving a dawning disaster (and did I mention he was an alcoholic), it’s incredible that Turner retained Spruance’s confidence. Yet he emerged as the leading practitioner of what CNO Ernest J. King called “the outstanding development of the war”: amphibious warfare. He has been poorly credited in history and deserved a close focus for his innovations, which included among other things an emphasis on “heavy power”—the ability to transport multiple divisions and their fire support and sustenance over thousands of miles of ocean—as well as the first large-scale employment of the unit that gave us the Navy SEALs.

As for Paul Tibbets, he and his top-secret B-29 group were the reason for the season, so to speak, the strategic purpose behind all the trouble that Spruance, Turner, and the rest endured in taking the Central Pacific. Without Army strategic air power, the Navy might never have persuaded the Joint Chiefs to go into the Marianas in 1944. And without Paul Tibbets and his high performance under strenuous time pressure, the war lasts well into 1946. Did you know that it was his near court-martial in North Africa in 1942 that got him sent to the Pacific in the first place?

General Carl Spaatz decorates Tibbets with the Distinguished Service Cross after the Hiroshima mission/USAF Official Photo
General Carl Spaatz (l) decorates Colonel Tibbets (r) with the Distinguished Service Cross after the Hiroshima mission (USAF Official Photo)

Early in the book you say that naval strategy was driven more by how fast the navy was building ships and not by battle experience. How so?

Well, of course the naval strategy that won the Pacific war, War Plan Orange and its successors, was drawn up and wargamed in the 1930s. But at the operational level, nothing prepared the Navy to employ the explosion of naval production that took place in 1943 and 1944. Fifteen fast aircraft carriers were put into commission in 1943. Thus was born the idea of a single carrier task force composed of three- and four-carrier task groups. The ability to concentrate or disperse gave Spruance and his carrier boss, Marc Mitscher, tremendous flexibility.

They realized during the February 1944 strike on Truk Atoll that it was no longer necessary to hit and run. There had been no precedent for this. Instead of hitting and running, relying on mobility and surprise, they could hit and stay, relying on sheer combat power, both offensive and defensive. That changed everything.

By the time the Fifth Fleet wrapped up the conquest of Guam, the carrier fleet was both an irresistible force and an immovable object. That was a function of a sudden surplus of hulls, and the innovations that the air admiralty proved up on the fly in the first half of 1944. Most of these involved making best use of the new Grumman F6F-3 Hellcat, fleet air defense, shipboard fighter direction, division of labor among carriers (for combat air patrol, search, and strike), armed search missions (rocket- and bomb-equipped Hellcats), the concept of the fighter sweep, adjusting the makeup of air groups to be fighter-heavy, night search and night fighting, and so on.

Grumman F6F Hellcats of VF-8 in flight/Wikipedia
Grumman F6F Hellcats of VF-8 in flight (Wikimedia Commons)

Just as important was the surge in amphibious shipping. In 1943, more than 21,000 new ‘phibs were launched of all sizes. The next year, that number surpassed 37,000. That’s the “fleet at flood tide” of my title. As Chester Nimitz himself noted, the final stage of the greatest sea war in history commenced in the Marianas, which became its fulcrum. Neither Iwo Jima nor Okinawa obviated that. And that concept is the conceit of my book and its contribution, I suppose—the centrality of the Marianas campaign, and how it changed warfare and produced America’s position in the world as an atomic superpower.

Spruance, King, Halsey, Tibbets, Turner ––  all of them are giant military historical figures. After diving into the lives of these men, what surprised you? Did you go in with assumptions or prior knowledge about their personalities or behavior that changed over the course of writing this book? 

I had never fully understood the size of Raymond Spruance’s warrior’s heart. I just mentioned the Truk strikes. Did you know that in the midst of it, Spruance detached the USS New Jersey and Iowa, two heavy cruisers, and a quartet of destroyers from Mitscher’s task force, took tactical command, and went hunting cripples? This was an inadvisable and even reckless thing for a fleet commander to do. He and his staff were unprepared to conduct tactical action. But he couldn’t resist the chance to seize a last grasp at history, to lead battleships in combat in neutering Japan’s greatest forward-area naval base.

Japanese Admiral Chuichi Nagumo/Wikipedia
Japanese Admiral Chuichi Nagumo (Wikimedia Commons)

Also, I hadn’t known how much Spruance exulted in the suicide death on Saipan of Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, the executioner of the Pearl Harbor strike and Spruance’s opponent at Midway. Finally, I was unaware of the extent of his physical courage. Off Okinawa, in the space of two weeks in May 1945, two of his flagships, the Indianapolis and New Mexico, were hit by kamikazes. In the latter, he disappeared into the burning wreckage of the superstructure, to the horror of his staff, and turned up shortly afterward manning a fire hose. That’s a style of leadership that the “cautious” COMFIFTHFLT is seldom credited for.

Regarding Tibbets, I mentioned his near court-martial in North Africa. Few people know this happened, or even that he served in Europe at all, but he was among the finest B-17 squadron commanders in the ETO in 1942. The lesson of his near downfall is: Never mess with a line officer whos destined to become a four star. This would be Lauris Norstad, Tibbets’s operations officer in North Africa, who went on to become one of the most important USAF generals of the Cold War.

You touch on this in your book, but the war stressed all of these men greatly. And each of them handled it in their own way. Taking just Spruance and Tibbets as examples, how did they handle the loss of men and the toll of war?

Spruance, in his correspondence, often described war as an intellectual puzzle. He could be hard-hearted. Shortly after the flag went up on Mount Suribachi, he wrote his wife, “I understand some of the sob fraternity back home have been raising the devil about our casualties on Iwo. I would have thought that by this time they would have learned that you can’t make war on a tough, fanatical enemy like the Japs without our people getting hurt and killed.” That’s a phrase worthy of Halsey: the sob fraternity. And yet when he toured the base hospitals, he felt deeply for the wounded in war.

It was for this reason that Spruance opposed the idea of landing troops in Japan. He favored the Navy’s preference for blockade. But those were perfectly exhausting operations at sea, week after week of launching strikes against airdromes in Western Pacific island strongholds, and in the home islands themselves. By the time Admiral Halsey relieved Spruance at Okinawa in May 1945, Spruance was exhausted both physically and morally.  

Paul Tibbets suffered losses of his men in Europe, but in the Pacific he was stuck in a training cycle that ended only at Hiroshima on August 6. Later in life, he considered the mass death and destruction he wrought as an irretrievable necessity. Responding to those who considered waging total war against civilian targets an abomination of morals, Tibbets would say, “Those people never had their balls on that cold, hard anvil.” I don’t think the moral objectors have ever fully credited either the tragic necessity or the specific success of the mission of the atomic bomb program: turning Emperor Hirohito’s heart. Tibbets was always unsentimental about it. 

Why is Spruance considered a genius?

Admiral Raymond Spruance, USN/Alfred J. Sedivi, courtesy of the U.S. Naval Institute
Admiral Raymond Spruance, USN (Alfred J. Sedivi, courtesy of the U.S. Naval Institute)

He was the ultimate planner, and through his excellence in planning, naval operations became more than operational or tactical. They became strategic, war-ending. It was no accident that Raymond Spruance planned and carried out every major amphibious operation in the Western Pacific except for the one that invited real disaster, Leyte. He was in style, temperament, and talent a reflection of his mentor, Chester Nimitz. The Japanese gave him the ultimate compliment. Admiral Junichi Ozawa told an interviewer after the war that Spruance was “impossible to trap.”

Switching gears a bit, what is your favorite naval history book?

It’s a long list, probably led by Samuel Eliot Morison’s volume 5, Guadalcanal, but I’m going to put three ahead of him as a personal matter: Tin Cans by Theodore Roscoe, Japanese Destroyer Captain by Tameichi Hara, and Baa Baa Black Sheep by Gregory Boyington. This selection may underwhelm your readers who are big on theory, doctrine, and analytical history, but I list them unapologetically. These were the books that set me on fire with passion for the story of the Pacific War when I was, like, twelve. If I hadn’t read them at that young age, I don’t think I would be writing today. It is only a bonus that all three were published by the company that’s publishing me today, Bantam/Ballantine. We are upholding a tradition!

What is your research and writing process like?

It’s all an elaborate moonlighting gig, conducted in relation to, but apart from, my other work in book publishing. It takes me a while to get these done in my free time, which is stolen mostly from my generous and long-abiding wife, Sharon, and our family. But basically the process looks like this: I turn on my shop-strength vacuum cleaner, snap on the largest, widest attachment, and collect material for 18 to 24 months before I even think about writing. Having collated my notes and organized my data, I then dive into the fitful process of making this rough assemblage readable and smooth, envisioning multiple readers, from expert navalists to my dear mother, with every sentence I type. I stay on that task, early mornings and weekends, for maybe 18 more months. Then, in the case of The Fleet at Flood Tide, my editor and I beat the draft around through two or three revisions before it was finally given to the Random House production editor. Then we sweat over photos and maps. History to me is intensively visual, both in the writing and in the illustrating, so this is a major emphasis for me all along the way. I never offload any of this work to a research staff.

In spite of all of this effort, the result is usually, maddeningly, imperfect in the end. But it is always the best I can do, using this hand-tooled approach under the time pressure that inevitably develops.


What’s next? Are you already thinking about what you want to write about after you finish the book tour and publicity for The Fleet at Flood Tide? Do you have a specific subject in mind?

One word and one numeral: Post-1945.

Last question. A lot of our readers here at the CIMSEC are also writers. What advice would you give to the aspiring naval historian?

Think big. Then think bigger. Then get started. And focus on people and all the interesting problems they’re facing.

James D. Hornfischer is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Neptune’s Inferno, Ship of Ghosts, and The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors, winner of the Samuel Eliot Morison Award. A native of Massachusetts and a graduate of Colgate University and the University of Texas School of Law, he lives in Austin, Texas.

Christopher Nelson is a naval officer stationed at the U.S. Pacific Fleet headquarters. A regular contributor to CIMSEC, he is a graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and the U.S. Navy’s operational planning school, the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School in Newport, Rhode Island. The questions and comments above are his own and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

Featured Image: Marines on the beach line during the invasion of Saipan in 1944.  (USMC)