Handgrenade October 2020
Is the “Carrier Club” the New “Gun Club”?
John T. Kuehn
This Handgrenade builds on the recent scholarship published in the July 2020 Journal of Military History article by James R. Fitzsimmons entitled “Aircraft Carriers versus Battleships in War and Myth: Demythologizing Carrier Air Dominance.”
First —there is a very influential group of politicians, ship builders, and senior military leaders (and not all of them admirals and navy captains) who have become what I call the “carrier club.” They oppose—irrationally in many cases--any criticism of the aircraft carrier as the centerpiece for the United States maritime strategy and its fleet force structure.
Their case for a large aircraft carrier force structure (12) is based not only on the supposed efficacy of these platforms today and in the recent past, but also on emotional appeals that stretch back to the heyday of the aircraft carrier in World War II. The aircraft carrier of World War II was a valuable platform that did stellar service in that war, but a case can be made that amphibious shipping, and merchant or transport shipping period, should no longer be in some subordinate position to carriers. Lend-Lease shipping to Great Britain and the USSR, much of protected by destroyers and eventually long range bombers, had as much to do with victory, if not more, than aircraft carriers task forces. The battle of the Atlantic was already beyond the point of being "won" when the famed escort carrier "hunter killer" groups began their offesnive against the Nazi u-boats in the mid-Atlantic.
As for amphibious shipping, German Admiral Frederich Ruge claimed that amphibious operations “won the war.” Yes amphibious operations, especially in the Central Pacific, were supported by carrier task forces, but battleships, destroyers, cruisers, and land based air supported a greater number of amphibious operations in the Southwest Pacific, the Mediterranean (Med), and the Atlantic, including the biggest landing of all on D-Day. The key opertion (CARTWHEEL) that neutralized the Japanese super-fortress at Rabual had more to do with surface ships and land based aircraft (and amphibious shipping) than did aircraft carriers.
Battleships, cruisers, and especially destroyers and submarines, especially submarines, all played important roles. Destroyers and submarines were the key ships, along with convoys, in the Atlantic. And the British were glad to have battleships in the Mediterranean to counter an Italina surface fleet that is now acknowledged to be much better than historians gave it credit for. They were also key to the tense campaigns in N. Africa as well as to bottle up and contain the large warships the Germans used as surface raiders for their guerre de course (commerce war) in the early years of the war in the Atlantic.
The second point is related to the first. The “carrier club” makes the “gun club” look progressive in comparison. By gun club I mean the sobriquet used by those who buy into a false dichotomy dividing navies up into conservative, dunderhead “battleship” or surface ship admirals and smart, prescient carrier guys. There was, in fact, less of a “gun club” than has been claimed and that is still propagated in the popular literature on World War II. There were some individuals who were skeptical of the new technologies like aviation and wanted to spread their bets. And in a very few cases there were some American admirals who felt the promise of the aircraft carrier over-rated.  However, the bulk of the U.S. Navy officer corps was open-minded about aviation and the fleet they wanted reflected a much more progressive mindset. So the “carrier club” of today-- entrenched in their commitment to big aircraft carriers that looks a lot like religious faith (and in a lesser god)-- make the gun club of old, such as it was, seem innovative and rational.
In summary, the gun club was never as reactionary and obtuse as some of the literature has painted it. The same might not be said of the carrier club, which makes the gun club look progressive by comparison. This carrier club holds sway over the debates about sea power today as employed by the United States. It is time to challenge the carrier club's often irrational arguments nad replace them with the sea power club.
That is all. Standing by for the fireworks, if using missiles I will take cover, if using air power from carriers I will take my chances.
John T. Kuehn, Kansas City, Missouri (like the battleship)
 Friedrich Ruge, Der Seekrieg (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1957), chapter 11.
 See John T. Kuehn, Agents of Innovation; The General Board and the Design of the Fleet that Defeated the Japanese Navy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2007), 110, 122; Rear Admiral F.H. Clark is an example of a conservative admiral who was skeptical of air power, although he supported construction of the Yorktown.
The author has deployed five times on four different U.S. Navy aircraft carriers from 1989-2000. The views are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Navy, Naval War College, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.