Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Each a Half Century of History

USS Midway
This is the first in a series of posts inspired by the recently released paper at the Center for New American Security titled At What Cost a Carrier by Captain Henry J. Hendrix, USN (Ph.D). Full disclosure, I consider Jerry Hendrix a good friend, although to be honest we talk about the sports our daughters are involved in about as often as we talk about the topics we both enjoy writing about.

Ordered in 1942 and laid down in October 1943, USS Midway was launched in March of 1945 and commissioned later that year on September 10, 1945. Originally a straight deck carrier, USS Midway served with distinction all over the world before receiving an enclosed hurricane bow, an aft deck-edge elevator, an angled flight deck, and a steam catapult beginning in June of 1955. After extensive modernization the carrier returned to service just over two years later in September of 1957.

Upon returning to service in 1957, USS Midway operated in the Pacific and conducted military operations in South Vietnam in 1965.

Following that deployment, USS Midway went back into drydock in 1966 for another massive modernization that expanded the flight deck from 2.8 acres to 4 acres and adjusted the angle of the flight deck out to 13.5 degrees. The elevators were upgraded to support larger aircraft, and everything from catapults to air conditioners were replaced. The planned $88 million modernization suffered a massive cost overrun, with the final cost coming in at $202 million. Upon returning to sea in 1970, it was discovered that the modernizations had created problems with the seakeeping of the big carrier, and the ship had to go back into dry dock for further modifications.

Once back to sea USS Midway conducted operations in Vietnam in 1971 and 1972, and in 1973 became the first US aircraft carrier forward-deployed to Japan. USS Midway returned to Vietnam conducting military operations in 1975.

From 1975 until 1990 USS Midway spent time at sea patroling the Western Pacific, Indian Ocean, and Persian Gulf regions where, in August of 1990 USS Midway found herself in the Persian Gulf after Iraq invaded Kuwait. USS Midway stayed on station and served in Gulf War I throughout the air and ground campaign before departing the region in March of 1991.

At 74,000 tons USS Midway was decommissioned on April 11, 1992 having served the nation for just over 46 years.

On the evening of February 3, 2010 I attended a banquet for members of the United States Naval Institute hosted on the USS Midway Museum in San Diego. After arriving to the party, CDR Salamander and I met up with UltimaRatioReg to form our own band of bloggers with beer for a stroll along the flight deck. Upon arriving on the flight deck, our band of brothers was joined by Norman Friedman, and the four of us spent the next hour double-fisting the prizes of our drink tickets as we strolled USS Midway discussing the history of the aircraft on the deck of the USS Midway Museum.

Our little band of brothers took our time as we enjoyed the comfortable mid 50s winter evening San Diego style and inspected the restoration of each aircraft. The aircraft we inspected both above and below deck included the EKA-3 Skywarrior, the A-4 Skyhawk, the H-34 Seabat, the H-46 Sea Knight, the T-2 Buckeye, the F9F Panther, the SBD Dauntless, the F9F-8P Cougar, the F/A-18 Hornet, the F-8 Crusader, the C-1 Trader, the E-2 Hawkeye, SNJ Texan, the A-6 Intruder, the A-1 Skyraider, the A-7 Corsair II, the S-3 Viking, the SH-2 Seasprite, the SH-3 Seaking, the F-4 Phantom II, the RA-5 Vigilante, the Huey Gunship, the F-14 Tomcat, and the TBM Avenger.

At the end of our top side tour, Norman Friedman broke ranks from our group and the three of us stood at the bow of the flight deck enjoying our perfect evening, CDR Salamander noted that every single type of aircraft we had just visited on the ship had, at one point or another, landed and taken off from USS Midway in the service of our nation.

That was when it hit me. USS Midway isn't simply a Museum, rather it is a time capsule that accurately reflects the essence of what every modern aircraft carrier in the US Navy is - a strategic investment for a half century of service to the nation. Over a period of over 46 years, USS Midway flew over two dozen aircraft off her deck, conducted operations all over the globe, fought wars in Vietnam and Iraq, served in function as a humanitarian, a diplomat, and a symbol of American power and influence during times of peace or crisis in the service of the nation.

Commissioned in late 1945 USS Midway began service at a time when aircraft carriers were unquestionably the most important seapower capability in the world. USS Midway is the only military asset of the United States that served as a relevant capability for the entirety of the Cold War, with the Iowa class Battleships being the only other platform to serve intermediately from the beginning to the end of the Cold War in a relevant function. If we suggest military anti-access and area denial capabilities that target carriers began development in the late 1990s, then we can say with a high degree of certainty that the service life of the USS Midway represents the period by which aircraft carriers were the dominant military capability at sea.

Today aircraft carriers have become extremely expensive to build, operate, and maintain. Today aircraft carrier air wings have become extremely expensive to build, operate, and maintain. Today the high end surface force and by assignment at least part of the attack submarine force serves the fleet today to protect the US nuclear powered aircraft carrier. The title of Captain Hendrix's paper asks At What Cost a Carrier, but the substance of Captain Hendrix's paper asks "What is the carriers value?"

While USS Midway may represent one of the most important national military capabilities of the second half of the 20th century, as budgets get tighter I believe it is important for the Navy to question long standing assumptions like whether aircraft carriers remain one of the most important national military capabilities for the United States heading into the 21st century. When we study aircraft carriers, either in the past, present, or future; the "value" of carriers must be thoroughly examined and explored because that "value" is bigger than budget, bigger than function, and is not easily measured through a price tag or statistical analysis. USS Midway served 46 years, but even if we use the broadest definition for sorties, USS Midway flew on average less than 40 sorties per year in wartime over the entire life of the great carrier. Statistics can tell the truth and can tell a lie, so over the next few weeks I intend to dig deeper into the questions regarding the value of aircraft carriers, and question assumptions that for too long haven't faced enough objective consideration in public.

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