The importance of aircraft carriers in a modern Navy


Among the innovations that revolutionized the naval war in the twentieth century there is certainly the aircraft carrier whose strength is the association of two carriers (plane and ship) operating simultaneously in different sizes.

As an instrument initially used almost exclusively in support of "land" operations, during the First World War the aerial vehicle proved extremely useful even on the rare occasions when it was used on the sea, in support of naval maneuvers. This hinted at the potential of the "new" medium, embarked for the purpose of power projection, despite the skepticism deriving mainly from a substantial ignorance of a form of struggle (the aerial one) still to be explored.

The idea of ​​performing flight operations from a moving ship was, in fact, considered by most to be an insane mental aberration. Nonetheless, the war events and the continuous search for new means to have superiority at sea pushed the strategists and naval and aeronautical engineers to carry out specific studies and theoretical insights, to find innovative solutions that allowed to exploit all the operational potential of the vehicle. plane boarded. The hypothetical solution, a unit with a flight deck as long as the ship itself, made it possible to achieve the set objectives. Subsequent experiences of the Second World War will show that this solution will go even beyond the most optimistic hopes of the creators, changing the physiognomy of naval clashes.

The first military unit built for the purpose of becoming a mobile platform for aircraft operating in support of naval force was HMS Furious (photo), which began sailing in 1917, part of the British naval team as a battle cruiser but used as an experimental aircraft carrier. It was a hybrid unit with an elevated flight deck and a hangar, and it allowed aircrafts equipped with rubber wheels to carry out flight operations. An epochal revolution if one takes into account that, before that moment, the (few) units that had aircraft on board (mainly used for reconnaissance) were literally launched in flight with catapults and, once autonomy was over, they had to land ( they had skates that allowed floating) before being recovered on board with a crane. Long and difficult operations, the latter, which forced the ships to remain motionless on the water until the end of the recovery, with all the intuitive dangers in times of war. The British Furiouson the other hand, it had the ability to get its aircraft off the ground and continue to remain in navigation, with only one constraint: to maintain a constant course and speed until the end of the flight operations.

Based on the experiences of that war, the main navies deepened their studies to make the aircraft carriers more operationally effective, marking the substantial end of the battleship era.

Although they were still at the beginning of a new era, even then the strategists had clear the significant difference between the Navy and the Air Force operating theater, the different uses and, consequently, the different training which the pilots had to undergo. This led the main marines, led by far-sighted personalities, to set up dedicated and dependent air forces (vehicles, pilots and specialized personnel) from a chain of command headed by the top of the Navy.

The interval between the two wars saw a significant technical development of this new naval unit, with technical and organizational solutions that also revolutionized the appearance of the new giants of the sea, such as the abandonment of the flight deck raised above the structure in favor of units completely dedicated to flight operations, such as the Lexington (CV 2 - photo) and the Saratoga (CV 3), which presented an appearance very similar to today's aircraft carriers, equipped with a large flight deck and a hangar with workshops below. Japan, the United Kingdom and France also quickly joined the race for the aircraft carrier, compatibly with the resources available and the constraints dictated by the agreements signed during the Washington Conference of 1920-1922. On August 31, 1939, the last day of peace in Europe, he saw the United States with 5 operational carriers and 2 under construction, the United Kingdom with 7 operational and 6 under construction, Japan with 6 and 2, France with one operational and one under construction and Germany with an aircraft carrier under construction.

It's Italy? Although the Washington conference acknowledged Italy a position among the five world naval powers (in parity with France, after the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan) our strategists believed that they did not need an aircraft carrier, as the peninsula was considered a natural aircraft carrier extending over the Mediterranean. Why design a unit that had no reason to exist?

The progress of the war showed how wrong that reasoning was and how useful it was instead to have an aircraft carrier inserted in naval devices, being also able, among other things, to resolve the clashes without the opposing forces being able to "see each other" and exchange cannon, as happened in Midway. The fundamental role assumed by these important units is also underlined by the fact that the British aircraft carriers, for example, had a decisive role in blocking and defeating the German naval forces (e.g .: the sinking of the Bismarck), in carrying out airstrikes against opposing naval bases (remember the terrible night of Taranto - photo) and in supplying Malta (jointly with the American Wasp - CV 7) with hundreds of aircraft that made vain attempts (however not too convinced) to conquer the island, mortgaging the final victory of the Allies.

With the devastating experience of the first part of the Second World War, Italy also finally understood the importance of the aircraft carrier as a unit which became indispensable to fill the serious maritime operational gaps that dramatically occurred during the conflict. Shortcomings that had led to very serious losses of men and vehicles, despite the fact that many major Italian units (battleships and cruisers) were newer, faster and better armed than their British counterparts. Losses caused too frequently by the lack of aircraft available immediately on the site of the naval battle. During the conflict, in fact, the air vehicles were under the command and control of the Air Force, which had to evaluate the requests for intervention submitted from time to time by the Navy. The decision-making process imposed by the presence of two Command chains, therefore, significantly lengthened the times beyond those necessary so that the possible intervention of the aircraft could somehow influence the outcome of the fighting. The principle that dictated such a gruesome approach stemmed from the false idea that everything that flew had to be a monopoly of the new Air Force (Laws of 1923 and 1925). Serious decisions, therefore, further exasperated by the fact that the dramatic reality had been foreseen by Admiral Cavagnari who, as Chief of Staff of the Navy, before the entry into the war of Italy elaborated a memorandum for Mussolini, with who pointed out precisely those problems that would subsequently emerge during the course of that modern war: an insufficient naval aviation and the scarce support that naval units could expect from the air weapon.

History tells us that not taking these advice into account caused a permanent situation of tactical inferiority in the naval struggle, which it was not possible to repair during the conflict, given the time needed to arm units of that type (the Italian aircraft carrier Aquila - photo - never entered service).

The absurdity of the situation created for this total blindness in maritime military matters led Admiral Cavagnari to recognize, after the war was lost, "...indispensable and urgent the creation of an aviation belonging to the Navy and fully employed and commanded by it. And this is because at sea, under the sea and above the sea they can not fight effectively but sailors. This is imposed by the nature of the natural environment, by the necessary homogeneity of preparation, mentality and training and, finally, by the even more necessary command unit... ”.

Once again, the heartfelt suggestion fell on deaf ears, since it was necessary to arrive on February 1, 1989 (Law No. 36), so that the need for a Navy aviation operationally and logistically independent of the Air Force was recognized.

Nonetheless, today there seems to be a return to past strategic blindness, if one takes into account the decision of the defense leaders, favored by a deafening silence from the political summit, to divert the F-35B (STO / VL) destined for the Air Force to the Navy, effectively blocking the process for achieving the full operational capacity of the aircraft carrier Cavour and seriously affecting the Navy's operational capabilities in an area, such as the Mediterranean, which has an absolute geopolitical centrality, being the scene of increasingly aggressive competition, and where the second-tier fleets are bridging the gap that separates them from those more advanced, providing new and effective operational tools to support the political-maritime activism of some coastal actors (first of all Turkey) to occupy the spaces left free by a renouncing Italy, blind to the point of not seeing that the primary waters strategic interest are being dyed with other shades of color.

The peculiarity of the marines, in fact, is the ability to extend the armed arm of the state wherever it is required, not by resorting to force but being ready to use it, essentially applying the "naval suasion"Mainly to defend the freedom of navigation against pirates or anyone who acts to limit this freedom, indispensable to ensure the free movement of goods and the supply of raw materials, in particular in a globalized world such as the current one.

But the operational capability of the Marines can also be used to combat international terrorism, the trafficking of weapons, drugs or human beings. Not for nothing, the impact of naval and maritime issues on the foreign policy of the main countries of the world has significantly increased since the second half of the twentieth century.

Maritime security is an undeniable and indispensable value of any independent state, particularly today, with globalization and technological advances that have multiplied international trade, most of which takes place by sea. And aircraft carrier units have abundantly demonstrated that they have both the naval Group's protection and power projection capabilities, guaranteeing air superiority where necessary in support of naval operations conducted to protect national interests, particularly in contexts of high threat.

If these concepts and teachings, all in all quite simple, have been understood and substantially followed by all the navies in the world, there will be a reason.

Italy is among the nine countries that can boast at least one aircraft carrier in its fleet. The United States has 10 units, the United Kingdom one (photo) and another is under construction, France has one, like Spain, India and Russia, China has two, like Italy (Cavour e Garibaldi, which is, however, reaching the end of its operational life).

The desire to remove naval version aircraft from the Navy is therefore even more incomprehensible, combining the logistical and operational management of two machines with only the name in common, but with significantly different operational, logistical and training characteristics, while blocking operations. of our aircraft carriers. A decision not only anachronistic but also uneconomic, operationally self-defeating and strategically blind, already admirably summarized and stigmatized in the "Time" of 4 July 1983 (37 years ago) "...An aircraft carrier ship without planes can be compared to a toothless shark... ".

A marina able to project itself effectively into distant waters, without depending on nearby bases or airports, ensuring presence and surveillance in areas of strategic importance in its country, is essential for the protection of the economic and political interests of the state, for its prestige international but also to be able to adequately participate in the seas and oceans of the world in international naval devices operating under the auspices of the UN, NATO, EU or ad-hoc coalitions.

The aircraft carrier, has now proven to have become indispensable in a context of modern struggle on the sea, and beyond. From the first timid and pioneering uses towards the end of the First World War, the aircraft carrier has undergone a huge technological and conceptual evolution, and has contributed to redesigning the patterns of naval clashes, arriving to carve out a fundamental role also in supporting amphibious operations and those on land within certain limits from the coast.

Ignoring what the history and the tragic Italian experience of the Second World War have told (for those who want and have the ability to understand) poses serious mortgages on the near operational future of the Navy and on its ability to protect national interests on the sea, for to fulfill which it is essential to be ready, to have personnel perfectly trained for specific tasks and a sufficient number of suitable means to achieve the objectives of the assigned mission.

A question that was clear already in 1943, when Cavagnari claimed to have understood by now "...the progressive change in the character of the struggle on the sea ... when the optimal solution was prohibited (from the laws mentioned above, editor's note) and an unobtainable compromise was sought. ... the question of owning an air force entirely and absolutely its own is fundamental for the Navy. It will never be possible to resolve it with concessions and compromises. May my successors be luckier than I, by fully realizing that Navy aviation totally founded and commanded by the men of the sea ...".

It would therefore be time for us to stop talking in the present but with our gaze turned to a nostalgic past, guided only by small cabotage objectives and the desire to achieve a "... unobtainable compromise ...", and start talking to the future, keeping in mind the national and, therefore, collective interests.

Unnecessarily blocking the operational capabilities of the aircraft carriers, flagship units of the Navy, limiting their strategic and international role, means reasoning again in terms of the bell tower, withdrawing the hands of the Italian clock, which does not need it.

Although naval clashes similar to those of the Second World War are no longer foreseeable, there is no doubt that navies play and will continue to play a fundamental political-military and economic role in guaranteeing freedom of navigation on the seas of the world and in protecting interests vital to your country. And an operational aircraft carrier is, and will continue to be in the future, an indispensable component to allow a modern Navy to be able to fulfill its mission effectively.

cv pil. (ris) Renato Scarfi

Photo: US Marine Corps / web / Navy / Royal Navy