Other Views

By Richard C. Macke

Saturday, September 5, 1997

Don’t sink the
aircraft carrier yet

I recognize that it is extremely presumptuous, but when I read the Star-Bulletin's Aug. 26 editorial, "The era of the aircraft carrier may be ending," I couldn't help but feel your editor was checking to see if I was still reading the editorial page.

Well, I am and here are my comments. But first I must confess two facts:

I am biased. I spent more than 35 years as a naval aviator and flew from many aircraft carriers. I know their virtues and faults as well as anyone in the world.

I could write an article on this subject that would exceed the length (and weight) of everything that has been written on the Bishop Estate in the past month. However, I will keep this short.

Before anyone labels me as "anti-Air Force," let me state emphatically that I deeply respect the outstanding capability of our forces in light blue to bring air power to bear in determining a successful outcome to any conflict.

They have demonstrated repeatedly their ability to gain and hold control of the airspace. And there is no doubt they can move rapidly and in force to any area of the globe where we are allowed by other nations to base or fly over.

Fortunately, that is the case in most instances. But, unfortunately, we have seen specific instances where overflight and/or basing is not permitted by certain countries (or approval is delayed causing delay in deployment and/or action).

When it comes to the amount of time to deploy forces, carrier-based air support does NOT take longer to deploy than ground-based planes.

You may recall that the first air power on scene in Desert Shield was the carrier air wing on the U.S. Dwight D. Eisenhower. In fact, that air wing was ready to fly repeated combat missions several days before any other air power was in theater, and had the support in place to conduct sustained operations.

The aircraft carrier had been forward deployed in the Mediterranean and did not need "three days to a week" to be on station. That is the benefit of forward deployed naval forces. And there is nothing foreseeable in the future that will alter the wisdom of a forward strategy.

Additionally, the physical presence of an aircraft carrier and her embarked airplanes presents a significant deterrence to potential conflict. It was reasoned judgment based, at least in part, on that deterrent ability that led our leaders in Washington and Honolulu to direct aircraft carriers to the East China Sea a year ago during a period of increased tensions across the Straits of Taiwan. We had air forces nearby in Okinawa and Japan, both Marine and Air Force, but aircraft carriers were the correct choice.

Aircraft can fly great distances today to deliver a bomb on target. Some may remember the 1986 strikes on Libya in retaliation for several terrorist acts, including a bombing in a discotheque in Germany. Air Force fighter bombers flew from England, out into the Atlantic Ocean and down the coast off France and Spain, through the Straits of Gibraltar, and nearly half way across the Mediterranean Sea to the Libyan targets. They delivered their bombs on target after a tedious flight of some six hours (around 12 hours total flight time), if my memory serves correctly.

Carrier aircraft also participated in those strikes. They flew from their aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean and were delivering their bombs on target about an hour after they launched. Anyone who has spent time in the confined cockpit of a fighter-type aircraft easily recognizes the differences in these two missions, and admires the skill and endurance of those outstanding Air Force flight crews.

Both missions were successful. However, had a regeneration of strikes been required, it would have been much easier from the aircraft carrier. Or, in fairness, from a forward deployed Air Force fighter wing, with its about 70 fighter-bombers based in Italy, Tunisia, Algeria or somewhere else close to the scene of the action.

Some of the countries mentioned would not be in the realm of possibility as a staging or deployment base for American aircraft. In fact, the long, circuitous flight over water was necessary because of an inability to get overflight permission from some of our friendly allies. Aircraft carriers do not need host nation approval for their operations.

Quoting from history must always be scrutinized because our future adversaries learn the same lessons from the last war as we do. However, the whims of geo-politics and a littoral world population are facts that will not change. There is no guarantee that we can get overflight rights for the next Tomahawk or ALCM strike, let alone the next air strike. There is no guarantee that current allies will permit us to conduct bombing missions from bases on their soil. The strength of the aircraft carrier being free to operate from the "unowned" four-fifths of the world's surface, the sea, can be guaranteed.

In today's world, where tensions can arise anywhere, anytime, the forward military strategy employed by our government makes infinite sense. Naval forces and aircraft carriers are an important part of the forward strategy, but only a part. Army and Marine pre-positioned war material, Air Forces deployed in Europe, Japan and the Mideast, and forward deployed and based ground forces, Marine and Army, are equally important.

We are blessed in this great country with the four finest military services in the world. And when they come together as joint forces, it is wonder to behold. The U.S. military is the deterrent force that ended the Cold War and today ensures the stability in the Pacific region so vital to the booming economies of the Pacific Rim nations. They represent the United States of America in the finest sense.

Even in an "era of military downsizing," let's not single out any piece of the intricate puzzle that keeps the freedoms given to us by the Constitution without ensuring that the puzzle will remain intact without that piece.

In the case of the aircraft carrier, the puzzle will disintegrate without it.

Adm. Richard C. Macke is vice president
of Pacific Rim Operations, WHEAT International Communications,
and is former Commander in Chief Pacific.

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