Thursday, April 18, 2013
71 years ago today, 16 U.S. Army Air Force B-25 Mitchell bombers took off from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet on the way to bomb Tokyo. Coming only months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Doolittle Raid (named for the mission’s commander, Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle) constituted the first American offensive operation of World War II and helped shatter the illusion of our adversary’s invincibility.
Despite occurring over seven decades ago, the Doolittle Raid offers lessons intensely relevant for our time. The personal heroism of the Doolittle Raiders, seven of whom died during the raid or in captivity, is a timeless tribute to the bravery and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform. The operation’s brazenness - placing bulky bombers on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific Ocean in order to reach and hit the very heart of the Japanese Empire - reminds us that effective military operations require leaders of vision and daring to achieve our national security objectives. And the Raid’s effective use of Army Air Force personnel and aircraft, launched from a Navy carrier and defended by Navy surface vessels and submarines, illustrates how the demands of modern warfare refuse to neatly delineate between services- cooperation between our Navy, Marines and Air Force is an enduring necessity.
Most importantly, the Doolittle Raid reminds us that the ability to project military power from the sea in times of crisis is the essential mission and defining feature of the U.S. Navy. As in 1942, the aircraft carrier remains the most effective instrument of projecting American power onto hostile shores, deterring potential adversaries and, if necessary, delivering overwhelming force to defeat the enemy. No other platform possesses the striking power of the carrier. This power is packaged into a system that has both global reach and almost unimpeded growth potential. The carrier can sail through the world’s oceans, free from the political complexities associated with overseas bases. At the same time, this floating airfield can also be “modernized” with new naval aircraft that can bring a mix of capabilities demanded to operate in future security environments.
Today’s Navy carriers have advanced beyond anything the sailors onboard the Hornet could have imagined; a modern Ford-class carrier is roughly 80,000 tons larger than the Yorktown-class ship which launched the Doolittle Raiders and can house over 75 advanced aircraft. Despite the technological advances of the last seven decades, the aircraft carrier’s status as the fulcrum of the Navy’s Fleet remains unchallenged.
As the Navy prepares for the challenges of the coming decade, the question will not be whether our carriers remain vital; rather, the key determination will be the appropriate mix of aircraft comprising the Carrier Air Wing (CVW). It is this flexibility that is the true utility of a carrier. In an anti-access/area-denial environment (A2/AD), where nations from Iran to China are investing in missile technology designed to restrict our carrier operations, it is imperative that the Navy’s CVWs contain aircraft with the right mix of of range, persistence, stealth, payload, and electronic attack to successfully execute its missions. The Navy’s investments in shorter range aircraft have left it dependent on the carrier’s ability to get relatively close to hostile shores. As the Doolittle Raid proved, there is great strategic and military advantage in maintaining a long-range strike capability. As I have written here before, the UCLASS, if done right, is poised to offer the CVW an option for long-range ISR and strike that will help anchor the carrier’s power projection mission for decades to come.
The world we face in 2013 is very different from the one the Doolittle Raiders knew as their B-25s hurtled down the Hornet’s flight deck in April 1942. But while the technologies and competitors may have changed, the utility of the aircraft carrier to American defense policy remains constant. We honor the legacy of the Doolittle Raiders today while being mindful that the success they achieved in projecting American power far from home against a determined and resilient enemy is an achievement we must jealously protect in our own time. It is incumbent upon all of us to never stop working, and to never stop asking the difficult questions, to ensure that those who follow in the footsteps of the Doolittle Raiders have the tools they need to deter, prevent and, if absolutely necessary, win America’s wars.