October 2020 -- The Carrier Club

John T Kuehn's picture

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.”[1] 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. [2] 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)


[1]  Friedrich Ruge, Der Seekrieg (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1957), chapter 11.

[2] 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.

James R. Fitzsimmons

It's FitzSimonds, I believe.

Welcome to my club, the Groucho Marx Club

best, John

I've read and puzzled over this article. What I wonder is why we stopped putting armor on larger warships? Just an idle question.
BTW, Je suis marxiste tendance Groucho.
All the best,

“ Destroyers and submarines were the key ships, along with convoys, in the Atlantic.“

The role of allied submarines in the Atlantic is usually considered as relatively minor. The claim that they played a “key” role needs further elaboration.

Lewis, that is a great question and I am sure someone has written extensively about it. I suspect Norman Friedman is the man to consult specifically about the evolution away from heavily armored (not armed) warships.

Based on what little a naval aviator knows of these matters, and only slightly more by a naval historian, the damage that ships try to inflict on each other has changed, from gunfire (for which armor plate is a countermeasure) to missiles, torpedoes, and precision guided munitions (e.g. laser guided bombs, LGBs in aviator lingo).. To say nothing of soft kill by cyber and electronic attack and countermeasures.

Aside from torpedoes, the vital zone around ships has been pushed out by defense systems and aircraft, thus the longer range systems are not designed so much to penetrate armor as to destroy a system or start the real ship killing mechanism, fire (see Bonhomme Richard or Kaga for that matter). Damage the radar on a Burke class AEGIS destroyer and you have achieved what we call a primary mission kill for that ship.

I also suspect it has to do with cost benefit and then the issue of speed. the old saying speed is life (until it is not) applies. All things being equal, lighter ships are faster.
And then their is the smart armor approach, only armoring those areas most likely to need it...turrets and around the waterline, although a torpedo going off under a ship with enough explosive power can turn all that displacement due to armor to the ship's disadvantage by "breaking its back."

At any rate, it needs an entire book, or books, but one thing is clear, armor is not obsolete (it is expensive though), and so we may see armored vessels again at some point. Heavily armored drone surface ships for example that look like monitors, cruising somewhere and shooting down airplanes, airborne drones, and supply ships to tiny little islands with people who need food. Who knows?
Again, I cannot recommend Norman Friedman's warship design histories too highly to understand these matters and their context in warship design. They are all published by the Naval Institute Press.

best, John T. Kuehn, Ph.D.
FADM E. J. King Professor

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.

Thanks for the quick reply. When I can safely move around I'll have to get to the University of Arizona Library when it is open. I checked and the various branches have all of them.
I'll continue thinking about the question you posed, but I think one way to stimulate serious thought in all the services would be to cut the Defense budget. In the late 1970s to the mid-1980s the Army was stimulated to think about doctrine in the aftermath of Vietnam and DePuy as well as some reductions. The interwar period also provides an interesting place to start.
The other caveat is, as far as I can determine, all attempts to forecast the future of warfare have been wrong and one only hopes that the decisions made in peacetime do not completely cripple the military in time of war - or all doctrine is wrong in varying degrees and the only hope is that yours is not too wrong and you can recover - I got that from the guys at CSI when I worked in the CAC History Office.

Hi John,
While I agree with your battleship improvement in the interwar period thesis, I would argue that unlike the battleship, the carrier has been a very "modular" weapon system as evidenced by the very different airwing's carried by USS Enterprise (CVN 65) at her commissioning and decommissioning. In terms of the carrier being like the battleship (an obsolete weapon system that the USN has trouble discarding,) I would counter that with a quote from DK Brown's book "Nelson to Vanguard," page 39 where Brown states, "It is often said the battleship died because it was vulnerable. This is incorrect; it was replaced by the fleet carrier that was much more vulnerable. The battleship died because it was far less capable than the carrier of inflicting damage on the enemy."

The question now is whether or not the carrier's value (several acres of mobile, sovereign US territory with an airfield and comm facilities,) is outweighed by its vulnerability? Unlike the battleship, the carrier's "main battery" (airwing) can be infinitely upgraded. Some argue that missiles made the carrier too vulnerable for use as an offensive tool. Do "missiles" replace the carrier? It would take a lot of logistics support to keep enough missile shooters at sea consistently to replace the carrier's offensive weight.

The first part of your post seems very "Euro-centric" where I agree that the fleet carrier played a lesser role. That's aid, the addition of the escort carrier to the convoys no doubt made for much more efficient prosecution of German U-boats then surface ships and land-based aircraft alone. In the Pacific, none of those amphibious operations would have been possible in the absence of sea-based aviation as security for the landing force. Admiral Ruge is an interesting reference. His Navy had no fleet air arm and Graf Zeppelin a stillborn flattop. I wonder if that perspective affected his judgement on the carriers of other navies?

Thanks for posting that.
Steve Wills, PhD
Center for Naval Analyses (CNA)

I agree that it took/takes more than CVs to make a winning navy. But just to point out one incident, on 4 June 1942 not only Fletcher, Spruance, Nagumo understood their value, but so did VB, VS, VT pilots who ignored BBs, CAs and DDs to attack flattops.

John, somewhat related -- carrier-centric folks might want to dig back into the archives of the USNI Proceedings from the early 1990s. Lots of articles & letters about how the Navy was self-marginalized during the Gulf War air campaign. The carrier battle groups fielded fewer strike aircraft with smaller payloads -- "we need to be more like the Air Force!" was the refrain. Over in the Air Staff I heard snide remarks about how CV battle groups were "self-licking ice cream cones." On the other hand, when planning the air campaign back then we did love us those Tomahawk missiles, launched from surface warships, I think.

So yes, in this age of unpiloted aerial vehicles and the realization of the (necessary) "reconnaissance-strike complex" I think aircraft carriers are edging into dinosaur territory. Damned expensive dinosaurs.

Prof. Kuehn has correctly pointed out that evolutionary or revolutionary changes in technical features to design, construction and technological features are not only important in warfare but have moved modern warfare away from the practices found in more recent history, such as the concluded 20th Century.

Industrialization as brought forward by WW I and WW II highlighted how different warfare became in an age of machines and technology s well as nations en mass. Air power and the primacy of superiority in air power drove that fact home decidedly during the 20th Century; yet, even Vietnam showed modern machine warfare was not enough to guarantee the outcome.

These points deserve continued attention and focus as they have and did come up during the last half to the 20th Century and appear to be very likely in this 21st.

These few observations are based upon a limited base of personal experiences and just following along those changes noted by many others with far more direct and personal practice.

Speed and cost benefit are two of those factors as the Professor mentions. Recent announcement by Iran that it has torpedoes capable of 200 miles per hour in the war, IF true, would be another potential or actual example, would think.

IN response to James Perry, the comments referred to general ship types, not specifically one side or the other. So to make the point vis-a-vis the Atlantic German submarines, if we broaden the reticle, we find Allied submarines (the majority of which were American) doing even MORE damage to the Japanese, although carrier aircraft after LEYTE moved into their own (if we except Truk attack) in terms of sinking merchant ships.

The most interesting use of allied submarines in the Atlantic tended to be for special operations type missions. See fore example the use of the very large American submarines of the V-class in TORCH.
r John T Kuehn

This issue of carriers becoming the battleship myth of pre WW II history has been considered and debated at least during the last half to the 20th Century. As the premier ships of the Navy, changes to propulsion, design, operation and capabilities for nuclear submarines advanced this difference of opinions vis a via carriers, making the concerns since VAdmiral Rickover's time, one that submarines can and do supplant carriers in modern warfare far more likely to prevail over carriers as most important to naval history and fleets.
IF you begin to speculate about aerospace, quite possibly there might also exist a case for space based weapons who can control the seas and ship both on it and under it ?
An area much needed to explore with all the advances in weapons and weaponry both on land and in the SEAAIR environments. This history seems far from conclusive if warfare is ever such.

All: I would add a (perhaps) final set of comments.

I do not think the aircraft carrier obsolete for all missions, I do find it of far less value in constrained seas and littorals, which is where it has been doing most of its operating in the years since 1945.

I am convinced it has utility in low threat environments and in a blue water environment where its ability to move and counter-target/counter surveil are much more appropriate.

My other claim is that most of the geographic locations the US defense establishment (ie. the combatant commanders) deem necessary for carrier support are not necessary or even well-advised, and the carrier mission is much more economically and less risky when done by land-based air. I have a record of General Dave Petraeus actually saying he preferred carriers when he was CENTCOM (Central Command) commander because of the "ease of use" over land-based air from partners and allies. In other words less paper work and less talking to other parties! What a price for hassle-free air operations, I say-- the juice not worth the squeeze, I say. Especially if another brand of juice is out there and cheaper.

As for blue water, that is out beyond the 100 or 200 fathom curve. To my knowledge I participated in and planned more carrier counter-targeting exercises, and executed them, than any other officer in the Navy for the period, 1989-1991, as the battlegroup EW officer for Commander, Carrier Group TWO. By my count we conducted (with me as principal planner and often the officer conducting exercise--OCE) 2 in 1989 (one from USS Coral Sea, one from USS America), 10 in 1990 (from USS John F. Kennedy), and another 2 before I left the staff/ship in February 1991 (and during combat operations no less). I also participated as a principal when on John C. Stennis in 1998 and we conducted at least 4 counter-surveillance/targeting efforts in our 2000 cruise, one each against Russian, Chinese, Indian (yes the Indian navy, or rather its naval air component), and Iranian efforts to find us (with reconnaissance aircraft). Those were real world events.

I go to all this effort to make the point that carriers are probably NOT obsolete in a blue water fight, but that fight is highly unlikely, what we used to call a war at sea scenario in the old days. But we used to practice it quite a bit and were quite good at it in the period I referenced and even later. The folks that are best at finding US carriers are our own US submariners, because that is who the US Navy practices the most against.
So if those guys tell you carriers are easy to find (and they don't always find them), that is because they have been practicing it for over 70 years, so guess what that means for Russian or Chinese carriers in blue water? yeah, I wouldn't wanna be them against a US sub in blue water.
So carriers are probably not obsolete, but they ARE unsuited to risk in the very areas they have operated in with impunity for the last 70 years (although there were times in the Cold War where they were projected to be used in a risky manner in constrained seas like the Barents, Sea of Japan, and Sea of Okhostk).

My argument is that the carrier club is not seeing with clear eyes on the issue. A graceful decline to a seven carrier force over the next 10 - 15 years is not the end of the world Maverick and Iceman. Just remember, battleships (BBs) were still of some use almost 45 years after they had been deemed obsolete). Put some of the carriers into lay up, like the BBs, and then bring them out again if you are so worried we will not have enough.

vr, John T. Kuehn
Commander USN (retired)

So if anyone knows about how to hide and countertarget with carriers

This Handgrenade builds on the recent scholarship published in the July 2020 Journal of Military History article by James R. FitzSimonds entitled  “Aircraft Carriers versus Battleships in War and Myth:  Demythologizing Carrier Air Dominance.”

I thought the FitzSimonds article was unconvincing.[1]  His assertion that the dominance of the aircraft carrier in the Pacific War has been exaggerated seems reasonable, but he further argues that "the battleship...remained the ultimate determinant of sea control throughout the war" and that the navies understood this until after the end of the war.[2]  That seems drastically overstated and based on problematic uses of evidence.  For example, FitzSimonds argument for the USN understanding the continuing dominance of the battleship was that "far from believing battleships obsolete, the United States continued to construct battleships and battle cruisers through the war, assuming that they would be needed to replace combat losses." [3] 

While that's technically true -- there were Iowas and Alaskas building throughout the war -- the historical record hardly reflects any urgency on the part of the Navy to get battleships and battlecruisers built.  The follow-on class to the Iowas, the Montanas, were cancelled, and the battleship/cruiser construction that did continue was frequently slowed because material was diverted to more urgently needed ships.  The Navy commissioned four battleships from 1943 - 45.  In the same time period, they commissioned 16 fleet carriers, 10 light carriers, and a whole heck of a lot of escort carriers.*  That really doesn't speak for the battleship remaining the "ultimate determinant of sea control" or for the US Navy thinking so.

That's not the only example I could mention, but I don't want to make this post too long.

*Numbers not guaranteed to be absolutely precise.

[1] James R. FitzSimonds, "Aircraft Carriers versus Battleships in War and Myth:  Demythologizing Carrier Air Dominance at Sea," Journal of Military History 84:3 (July 2020): 843-65.

[2] p. 844.  Emphasis mine.

[3] p. 863.

I tend to agree with David Silbey that Fitzsimmons overstates or incorrectly states components of his case, but the big reason I found the article useful was the "narrative" that it challenges, of absolute carrier dominance and efficacy in World War II.

As I read William F. Trimble's latest biography of Admiral John S. McCain, over and over the actual efficacy of the carrier task forces seemed to come to the surface in his excellent account. Carriers did best in blue water, poorer in environments where they were closer to land, especially if a significant air and submarine threat existed.

Certainly during the Guadalcanal campaign the limitations of the carrier in a littoral environment were highlighted in a most spectacular way, with battleships helping save the day in November (along with land based air) when carriers couldn't (in part because they were all damaged or sunk). Imagine losing a Wasp AND Hornet today.

Bottom line, Fitzsimmons' article creates a vehicle to revisit what were previously thought to be established truisms about aircraft carriers in world war 2. Sometimes a little hyperbole is useful to get the ball rolling, and all of us get pieces and parts of the factual basis incorrect at times, although we should always try not to. I don't want the H-War readership to miss the forest of questioning the larger narrative of carrier "heroism" for the trees of errors that one might find in the article. It is that very romantic narrative of carriers that helps the carrier club maintain its dominance today, resting on past laurels that themselves might not be as blushingly rosy as we would wish, and then extrapolating them forward to today, and a use of the carriers (for power projection) that is different than it was in World War II from 1939-1944.

vr, John T. Kuehn

miss the forest of questioning the larger narrative of carrier "heroism" for the trees of errors that one might find in the article

Perhaps -- but the risk is that the latter become so overwhelming that the former gets dismissed without consideration.  For example, when I originally read the article, I gave up a few pages in because of the problems I was seeing with the argument and evidence.*  It's only when you posted that I went back and read it in more detail.

*(Another example that I found problematic:  "The reality of the Pacific War is that the battleships were always at the tip of the US offensive spear..." [p. 861].  Given the number of raids on Japanese-held islands like Rabaul and Truk that were without battleships, that seems inaccurate)

As added thought to the indication of costs and benefits would refer back to April 2017 posting and volume shown there of Hitch and McKean's, 1960s Economics of Defense.

This work focused upon Economic dimensions to modern war as then were introduced to US and DOD by SecDef McNamara's stewardship over Defense Depi. and Services.

It directly relates to those costs and benefits mentioned in this discussion.



To better understand America's role and costs to involvement in the post-WW II shape for National Security and military warfare, the Economics of Defense by Hitch and McKean is one volume whose relevent contributions needs inclusion. During the Johnson-McNamara era from mid 1960s to 1968, these economic analysis of defense and its costs became part of national focus. Hitch served for a time at the DOD level of American government as an Assistant Secretary for Defense.

Aircraft carriers have been and always will be vulnerable. I don't think anyone in the "carrier club" has advertised them as unsinkable fortresses at sea. The last "great power naval war" was with Japan and four fleet carriers were lost in action with the Japanese Navy (Lexington, Yorktown, Wasp and Hornet.) Action against another great power rival would likely result in carrier casualties. The questions to be asked are:
1. Are carriers still "the" weapon (or a potent weapon) to deliver damage to an opponent via the aircraft in their airwings?
2. Does the value of a carrier to perform #1 outweigh the vulnerability of the type to damage or loss?
3. What is the right size, number of and propulsion for the carrier?

Fitzsimmons' article is interesting and makes some real points that I agree with. The post-WW2 narrative regards the disparity in usefulness between the battleship and the aircraft carrier has been quite disconnected from reality.

You can quibble with some details in the article, but its general argument is sound based on the following top level numbers.

1. There are 11 fleet versus fleet battleship actions in WW2.


2. I count six carrier vs carrier fleet actions in the same time period.

Where the carrier eclipsed the BB was in the carrier versus battleship and carrier fleet versus massed land based airpower actions in WW2.

I count ten CV versus battleship actions and two strategically significant CV fleet versus land based airpower battles

8 June 1940 - German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau execute HMS Glorious in a surface action

‎12 November 1940 - Italian battleships Conte di Cavour, Caio Duilio and Littorio heavily damaged by torpedoes. Repairs on Conte di Cavour were never finished.

2 December 1941 - IJN CV attack sinks four US BB with four BB damaged. Pennsylvania returned to service immediately. Maryland and Tennessee returned to service in Feb 1942. Nevada returned to service October 1942. California returned to service January 1944. West Virginia returned to service July 1944. Arizona and Oklahoma were permanent losses

9-15 August 1942 Operation Pedestal (Italian: Battaglia di Mezzo Agosto, Battle of mid-August), known in Malta as Il-Konvoj ta' Santa Marija (Santa Maria Convoy) This was the decisive carrier fleet battle of 1942, not Midway. The resupply of Malta was the hinge of fate in the decisive theater. While the loss of Midway was a strategic non-event in the face of the pending arrival of the Essex fleet carrier swarm.

April 1944 Operation Tungsten - Tirpitz moderate damage

Aug 1944 Operation Mascot - Tirpitz light damage

12-16 October 1944 The TF 38 versus Japanese land based airpower battle off Formosa destroyed the Sho-Go plan by stripping the Japanese surface fleet of air cover

24 October 1944 - The battleship Musashi sunk is sunk while numerous other battleships - Yamato, Nagato, Fuso, and Yamashiro - were damaged

25 October 1944 Battle off Samar - Two 7th Fleet CVE sunk by Japanese battle line

7 April 1945 - Task Force 58 executes BB Yamato and five of nine in her screen.

Attacks on Kure and the Inland Sea (July 1945)
24 July 1945 - Task Force 38 strikes battleships Hyūga, Ise, and Haruna. All were heavily damaged and settled in shallow water.
28 July 1945 - Task Force 38 strikes battleships Ise and Haruna and both are damaged.

With the exceptions of two monumental allied carrier admiral screw ups, the CV versus BB affairs were one sided in favor of the CV's. Plus no battleship fleet ever made could do what the RN CV fleet did in resupplying Malta and TF 38 did in annihilating Japanese land based airpower before the Leyte landings.

I think that there is need for some synthesis if we are taking the Pacific naval war as any kind of barometer for today. If you look at wartime Navy doctrinal manuals as well as battle plans, it wasn't carriers or battleships, and it wasn't battleships or carriers. It was both.

As Trent Hone has demonstrated from these sources in his articles and now book and as I've mentioned in the conclusions to my NWC books, the wartime USN was practicing combined arms naval warfare. Heavy surface forces (including battleships) were as necessary for the protection of the carriers at night from a Japanese surface force just as the carriers were necessary for protecting the surface ships during the day from Japanese air strikes.

Even during the day, battleships and other heavy surface forces were often put out in front in order to absorb Japanese aerial raiders that had gotten through the CAP given that the battleships were so heavily armored and had such significant AA suites. They were also out in front during the day if the commander in question thought he might run into a Japanese surface force that the carriers might not be able to deal with, for whatever reason.

All of this illustrates how important protecting the carriers was, but it also demonstrates that the battleships were not just AA or amphibious assault gun platforms. The carriers were as helpless at night to enemy surface forces as the battleships were during the day without air cover. I know we like to find the one answer to something, but I think in this case there was more than one tactical scenario possible at work and therefore more than one type of force was needed.

Many of the senior naval aviators (John Towers especially) liked to make it sound as if carrier air could do it all and perhaps that's where the Carrier Club of today came from. Fortunately, more sensible officers at the time like Raymond Spruance better understood both the capabilities and limitations of the various elements of combined arms naval warfare.