Key point: Better to adjust to the new reality before a surprise innovation proves you wrong.
“History,” it has been written, “does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” Today it’s rhyming with Gen. Billy Mitchell. In the 1920s, Mitchell challenged conventional thinking by advocating air power at sea in the face of a naval establishment dominated by battleship proponents.
The hubris of the “battleship Navy” was such that just nine days before Pearl Harbor, the official program for the 1941 Army-Navy game displayed a full page photograph of the battleship USS Arizona with language virtually extolling its invincibility.
Of course, the reason that no one had yet sunk a battleship from the air — in combat — was that no one had yet tried.
In fact, Mitchell sank a captured German battleship, the Ostfriesland, in an aerial demonstration back in 1921, but the Navy said that the test proved nothing. Two of the observers that day were officials from Japan.
In addition, the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack, Isoroku Yamamoto, was a student at Harvard at the time and no doubt read accounts of the event that were widely reported in the newspapers.
The aircraft carrier decisively replaced the battleship as the Navy’s sea control capital ship, but its reign in that capacity was, in reality, quite brief. The aircraft carrier established its ascendancy in the Battle of Midway and was the centerpiece of five major sea battles between 1942 and 1944.
Yet, following the Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944, the U.S. Navy repositioned the aircraft carrier as a platform to project power ashore. The United States did not lose a fleet carrier in the war after the Hornet went down in 1942, because Japan’s surface fleet had been devastated. Nor did Tokyo effectively use its submarines.
That track record, just as the boast in the Army/Navy game program, however, is not an indication that a carrier cannot be sunk — or put out of commission — but rather the fact that since 1945, the U.S. Navy has never engaged another navy in battle that tried.
“Projecting the past into the future is risky business — especially when we’re unsure what that past was,” James Holmes, a naval warfare expert at the U.S. Naval War College wrote.