RAN Air Power

Australia’s maritime air power

by Tom Lewis

This essay was awarded first prize in the Naval Officers Club Literary Prize competition, 2003. It was published in the Naval Officers Club Newsletter Number 54, 1 September 2003, pp 1, 4-7.

de costa lewis
LEUT Tom Lewis (right) receives his $500 cheque from Vice President CDRE John DaCosta.

In early 2001, Australia’s defence posture was dictated by the White Paper produced at the beginning of that year. Two of its major imperatives were the defence of the Australian continent, and the need to participate in global security.

Since then we have seen the al-Qaeda attacks of September in that year, a subsequent host of terrorism strikes, not least of which was the Bali bombings, and the threat of rogue nations such as Iraq and North Korea. We participated in the action to neutralise Iraq, but we still live in an uncertain world, and there are few signs it will become more stable.

The second imperative of our posture is becoming stronger and enmeshed in the first: to safeguard our nation we must go further afield. And to do that properly, Australia’s air force needs to take to the seas, and Australia’s navy is the only means of ensuring that.

The British saw the writing on the wall some years ago. Elements of their Royal Air Force, equipped with the GR7 Harrier, are configured as Joint Force Harrier (JFH) which “remains ready to deploy anywhere in the world with the RN’s Sea Harriers as part of a Naval task force”.1

A sectioned F-35B STOVL version, favoured by the RN. (Lockheed Martin graphic)

Recently the UK’s Ministry of Defence announced the building of the biggest aircraft carriers in the RN’s long history. Two 60,000 tonne carriers will be built by BAE Systems. This means that elements of their air force, joined by the Fleet Air Arm with the new Joint Strike Force fighter, will be able to take all of the capacities of a carrier battle group, including land target attack, anywhere where their government thinks it will be needed.
We must go to the enemy

Why is the capacity to deploy away from one’s own country important? Firstly, it follows the Principle of War of Aggressive Action. Put simply, this means that one should not wait for any enemy to come to you before engaging. That gives the enemy time to prepare, and allows them to choose the battlefield. Good strategic planning means that we want to choose the time and place of an engagement, preferably upsetting the enemy’s preparations at the same time.

Secondly, the asymmetric threat nature of post-September 11 enemies may well mean that we have to go to where the enemy has their centre of gravity and attack them there. So it was with the strike against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. So too with the strike against Iraq. In the turbulent world ahead, there are rogue nations and organisations of militant quasi-Islam which will seek to attack those countries that embrace the political alternatives.

Paul Dibb summed up the strategic situation after the September 11 attacks:We face an arc of instability to our north, a weakened South-East Asia and an uncertain balance of power with the rise of China. Indonesia – the fourth largest country – has an unpredictable future. Prudent Australian defence planners must consider that Indonesia has the attributes of a friend and a potential adversary.2

Australia is part of a region that is steadily unravelling. Trouble lies ahead, and Australia will have to do its best to continue as a sovereign nation that exists through seaborne trade. Bob Moyse points out:…some of Australia’s most vital areas of interest lie … in the Sea-Air-Land gap of the Indonesian archipelago. About 95 per cent of Australia’s trade is carried by sea and most of this goes far to the north before turning east and west onto the world’s shipping lanes. Any significant interference with this trade would have a devastating effect on the Australian economy.3

Possible threats

How far can our imagination take us to envisage a possible threat? A nuclear weapon exploding in a capital city of the West? Germ warfare sweeping through subways, infecting thousands? A rogue state launching an attack with nuclear weapons on a neighbour? In summary our forces may increasingly have to deploy over-seas to help ensure global security.

f-35 deck lands
F-35C deck lands. (Lockheed Martin photo)

Fighting overseas is nothing new. Indeed, the aircraft carrier concept, born largely for the RAN after WWII and brought to fruition in the 1950s, was to ensure Australia could prosecute its interests far from our shores. As the Chief of the Navy from 1962-64, Admiral Burrell, said: “We will need a Navy as long as Australia remains an island – and the best place to fight, if unhappily that should be required, is as far from Australia as possible”.4 Admiral John Collins, veteran of WWII, was a strong advocate of naval air power. He was of the opinion that “A fleet that goes to sea without its aircraft today is just as obsolete as a fleet under sail … Carriers give a fleet tremendously increased striking power and widely increased mobility.”5

Indeed, as the Minister for Defence announced in 2003:

Australia’s immediate region continues to face major challenges, making it more vulnerable to transnational security threats.The changed global security environment and the increasing likelihood that Australian national interests could be affected by events outside our immediate neighbourhood mean that ADF involvement in coalition operations further afield is somewhat more likely than in the recent past.This is likely to involve the provision of important niche capabilities such as those deployed in the war against terror and those forward deployed to the Middle East for Operation Bastille.If adverse trends in our region continue, there may also be increased calls on the ADF for tasks in Australia’s immediate neighbourhood. Operation Bali Assist is a recent example.6

RN carrier concept

Why might it be necessary for considerable air power to accompany any army or maritime forces deployed overseas? The British carrier concept sums it up:

Aircraft have mobility, flexibility and versatility which are the keywords of a modern defence strategy. The CVS and its Carrier Air Group (CAG) can move to almost anywhere in the world in international waters. Aircraft may be the first on the scene in a particular operation giving both politicians and military commanders options, including early reconnaissance, the landing of special forces and land attack from the air. Additionally the CVS provides air traffic control, fuel, maintenance and briefing facilities. Events throughout the 1980s and ’90s have demonstrated the high value of the CVS.7

Now, it might be argued that Australia’s needs are not the same as those of Britain. Quite so. But how do we know – in this new, unstable world – what our needs might be? We do not, but we can agree that they might be to deploy overseas in support of like-minded partners, and to deploy overseas to attack threats to Australia. A carrier-based force would give us flexibility, which having aircraft based within Australia does not.

Certainly, the RAAF deployed successfully to runways within the Middle East recently, but we cannot always be sure that there will be runways for us. Even if there are, they may not be as off-limits as were those of the coalition forces in the second Gulf War: far away from the enemy and well-defended just in case. Having an airfield that cannot be easily attacked by guerrilla or special forces gives that flexibility.


The old F-111 (left) and F-18 are two aircraft the RAAF is planning to replace by an upgraded F-18 and the F-35.

If we therefore wish to engage enemies far afield, it may be necessary to use air power, sea power and land assets all at once, or individually. It follows too that we might be best not presuming that our allies will always be there for us.


Although the United States and Australia have stood shoulder to shoulder in the past and will doubtless do so again, it may be possible that US forces in the future are too stretched to be of assistance. Australia, it is argued, must be prepared to go far afield and support ourselves to carry out our political and, from there, military necessities. Britain understands that concept well, as John Keegan has pointed out: “Britain’s forces cannot, however, count on operating under the umbrella of American air cover in all future circumstances. A crisis may supervene when national air power is needed.”8

The British have bought into the same airpower project as has Australia – the F-35 fighter. They call their project the Future Joint Combat Aircraft (FJCA), and describe it as being “a joint RN/RAF offensive aircraft able to deploy from bases at sea and ashore.”9 BAE Systems will take the leading position as preferred prime contractor for the CV development, with Thales UK performing a major role as key supplier. The project will develop the design put forward by Thales UK.10 The CVF will be the principal platform for the RN/RAF “Future Joint Combat Aircraft” (F-35) which will eventually replace RN and RAF Harriers.11

f-35 sidef-35 planf 35

The F-35C (Lockheed Martin graphics)

Australia has also committed itself to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The Lockheed Martin aircraft is being purchased by all four arms of the American military, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. It comes in three variants: a Conventional Takeoff and Landing (CTOL), a Short Takeoff Vertical Landing (STOVL) version, and a Carrier Variant (CV).12 The RAAF should go ahead with the purchase, but buy the carrier version of the plane. The F-35 will be a fine fighter, and an excellent bomber too, possessing self-defence capacities and a range of over 1300 kilometres, more than double that of the F/A-18.13 It will be able to perform surface strike against maritime targets as well as land objectives.

Comprehensive package

So, it seems the F-35 will be a comprehensive package. However, the range of 1300 kilometres does not mean much in a world of asymmetric terrorism and rogue states. If the F-35 is land-based it can strike at targets only within the Indonesian archipelago. Even with the purchase of new refuelling tankers14 to replace the B707 the RAAF will still have limited range. How could land-based aircraft provide permanent air cover in a hostile island situation in the Pacific, for example?

If there came a need to travel further afield, Australia is limited to having friendly airfields from which the RAAF could deploy. Furthermore, the aircraft would need to be protected from enemy assault while they were there. Carrier-based air, by contrast, can deploy anywhere where there are international waters; stay within range while needed – having “presence” – and by merely being there exert pressure, as we saw with the military build-up outside Iraq in 2002, which pressured its government into admitting UN weapons inspectors. Carriers and their aircraft present a unique package that can be used in a variety of ways to project power.

What may well be the nature of future strategic necessity as far as Australia is concerned is the need to take our forces as far afield as they have ever been. This might include deployment to the Middle East, to Africa perhaps (remember Rwanda and Somalia), even in support of European conflicts where we have an interest in preserving peace, suppressing evildoers or supporting friends. What that means is that the F-35 should be even more mobile than it is now. The best way of doing that is to equip the RAAF with fighters that can land on aircraft carriers. That way they can pursue a range of options: landing on British and American carriers, operating off our own ships, and operating from land.

It is proposed further that the Navy acquire sufficient F-35s to protect their ships, both in an air-to-air role and in carrying out anti-shipping strikes against enemy warships. The submarine threat would be countered by the same methodology that is used at present: a combination of anti-submarine equip-ped ships, helicopters and inter-operability with assets such as the RAAF’s Orions. The Navy fighters’ role would essentially be one of force protection and anti-ship strike while at the same time the RAAF F-35s would share the protection role and be utilised assaulting land targets. Could the same role be done by one force’s airpower? Probably not: the navy’s aircraft would be flown by people who would be essentially trained in sea strategy and tactics and would complement the ship’s weapons systems of anti-ship and anti-air missiles. The concept essentially sees the RAAF present to make use of “airfields at sea”, and carry their part of a war inland as necessary. Both aircraft, of course, could be utilised in air-to-air defence.

CostWhat of the cost of such a strategic rearrangement? The carrier-based version of the F-35 is more expensive, but not prohibitively so. To acquire two carriers would be expensive too. Navy’s oncoming Air Warfare destroyers would still be needed: the defence against aircraft at a distance is not the same as defence against missiles somewhat closer in. But the bottom line of any cost equation is whether the taxpayer wants capable defence. Here it is being argued that the best capable defence would be acquired by the aircraft carrier/F-35 combination. As a compromise, it is probably a given that the best option – three carriers – would inevitably be whittled down politically to two, even though three carriers conceivably mean two will always be available.

RN solution
The RN solution. (MOD Navy graphic)

The two new aircraft carriers will cost the British taxpayer £2.9 billion.15 In 2003 dollars, that is around $9.2 billion Australian. Defence funding – or rather the lack of it – is a whole new essay in itself, but the bottom line is that we do not spend enough on defence. As The Australian’s Greg Sheridan recently said: “… we have a defence force that is just too small. We have an expeditionary rhetoric, a defence of Australia force structure doctrine and a pacifist budget”.16

September 11

Defence analyst Paul Dibb points out, that in the wake of September 11 and the Bali attacks: “… now is hardly the time for the Australian Government to pretend that it can do defence on the cheap. We already risk Australia being seen to talk big and carry a little stick, to reverse Roosevelt’s well-known dictum”.17 He went on to note that the United Kingdom’s defence spending is 2.8 per cent of GDP on defence compared with our 1.9 per cent of GDP.

There would be further costs too, in terms of manning. Of course the RAN would need expansion to cope. And this paper too has not discussed alternatives to the CV option: the Tomahawk missile, launched from submarines and/or surface vessels, is an option for a future force that has often been discussed, although perhaps not capable of the precision-strike of modern airpower. But what this paper seeks to do is fly the kite of carrier-based expansion; an alternative to land bases for the RAAF, and for an alternative methodology for the ADF as a whole to cope with a strange tomorrow.


In summary, Australia’s best move to cope with an uncertain world lies in grasping the nettle, and spending what it takes to best equip the nation for a precarious future. An expeditionary force, based around two aircraft carriers, equipped to deliver modern air power wherever necessary, is taking out insurance to ensure that we will have the necessary military force to deal with an unknown threat.


1. Royal Air Force Cottesmore. 2003. http://www.raf-cott.demon.co.uk/harrier.html. 8 March.
2. Dibb, P. 2001. Tinker with defence policy and risk attack. (Originally published in The Australian.) http://www.onlineopinion. com.au/2001/Nov01/Dibb.htm 30 October.
3. Moyse, B. STOVL JSF Needed for expeditionary warfare. Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter. March/April 2003. (12)
4. Text of speech to a CWA conference. (Original copy in the possession of daughter Fayne Mench, supplied to the author.)
5. Jones, C.  Wings and the Navy. NSW: Kangaroo Press, 1997. (33)
6. Department of Defence 2003. Minister for Defence Media Mail List. 26 February. Australia’s National Security: A Defence Update.
7. Royal Navy. 2003. http://www.royal-navy.mod.uk/static/pages/148.html 13 March.
8. Keegan, J. 2003. The Daily Telegraph. Labour must keep its promise to build two new aircraft carriers. http://www.opinion.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/main/jhtml?xml=opinion/2003/05/06/do 7 May.
9. Jane’s Defence Weekly. R. Scott. Renamed aircraft project reflects joint RN/RAF role”. http://www.janes.com/defence/air forces/news/jdw/jdwO10607_1 n.shtmlt.
10. Ministry of Defence. 2003. Industrial alliance will build super-carriers. http://www.mod.uk/dpa/future_carrier.htm. 30 January.
11. Naval Projects. 2003. http://homepage.tinet.ie/~steven/navalprojects.htm 13 March.
12. Lockheed Martin 2003. http://www.lmaeronautics.com/products/combat air/x-35/ 13 March.
13. Stephens, A. 2003. An ‘Enlightened’ Decision? Australia and the Joint Strike Fighter. Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter. Feb. (6-9).
14. Department of Defence Media Release 168/03 New Defence Air-To-Air Refuelling Capability advised that “a fleet of up to five new generation air-to-air refuelling aircraft” would be acquired by the RAAF from 2007. http://www.defence.gov.au/media/DeptTpl.cfm?CurrentId=2904.
15. Isby, D.C. Thales carrier build strategy. Jane’s Defence Weekly. http://www.janes.com/defence/naval forces/news/jni/jni030107_1 n.shtml.
16. Sheridan,Greg. 2003. Lack of grunts our major military flaw. The Australian. http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,5744,6237469%255E25377,00.html April 05.
17. Dibb, P. 2002. Does Asia matter to Australia’s defence policy? Australian National University. Public Lecture, 23 October. tp://www.abc.net.au/public/s709786.htm.


Burrell, H. Text of speech to a CWA conference. (Original copy in the possession of daughter Fayne Mench, supplied to the author.)
Department of Defence. 2003. Media Release 168/03 New Defence Air-To-Air Refuelling Capability.
Department of Defence. 2003. Minister for Defence Media Mail List. 26 February. Australia’s National Security: A Defence Update.
Dibb, P. 2001. Tinker with defence policy and risk attack. (Originally published in The Australian.) http://www.onlineopinion. com.au/2001/Nov01/Dibb.htm. 30 October.
Dibb, P. 2002.The War on Terror and Combat Power: a Word of Warning for Defence Planners. Working Paper No. 369. Strategic and Defence Studies Centre. Australian National University. June.
Dibb, P. 2002. Does Asia matter to Australia’s defence policy? Australian National University. Public Lecture, 23 October. tp://www. abc.net.au/public/s709786.htm.
Federation of American Scientists. 2003. http//www.fas.org/man/dod-101/sys/ac/f-35.htm May.
Isby, D.C. Thales carrier build strategy. Jane’s Defence Weekly. http://www.janes.com/defence/naval forces/news/jni/jni030107_1 n.shtml.
Jane’s Defence Weekly. R. Scott. Renamed aircraft project reflects joint RN/RAF role. http://www. janes.com/defence/airforces/news/jdw/jdwO10607_1_n.shtml.
Jones, C.  Wings and the Navy. NSW: Kangaroo Press,1997.
Keegan, J. 2003 The Daily Telegraph. Labour must keep its promise to build two new aircraft carriers. http://www.opinion. telegraph.co.uk/opinion/main.jhtml?xml=/opinion/2003/05/06/do 7 May.
Lockheed Martin 2003. http://www.lmaeronautics. com/products/combat air/x-35/13 March.
Ministry of Defence (UK) 2003. Industrial alliance will build super-carriers. 30 January. http://www.mod. uk/dpa/future carrier.htm.
Moyse, B. 2003. STOVL JSF needed For expeditionary warfare. Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter. March/April.
Naval Projects 2003. http://homepage. tinet.ie/-steven/navalprojects. htm 13 March.
Royal Navy 2003. http://www.royal-navy.mod.uk/static/pages/148.html13 March.
Royal Air Force Cottesmore. 2003. http://www.raf-cott. demon. co.uk/harrier.html 8 March.
Sheridan,G. 2003. Lack of grunts our major military flaw. The Australian. http://www.the-australian.news. com.au/common/story _page0, 5744,6237469%255E25377, 00.html, 5 April.
Stephens, A. 2003. An ‘Enlightened’ Decision? Australia and the Joint Strike Fighter. Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter. February. (6-9).

Admiral’s revolt

The “revolt of the admirals”

The separation of the Army Air Force from the Army and the establishment of an American Department of Defense structure shortly after WW II set up a series of serious conflicts that took decades to resolve and probably caused unnecessary casualties, especially in the Korean War. The conflict triggered a “Revolt of the Admirals”, as Time magazine1 and Jeffrey Barlow2 called it. It was of high interest during the Iraq Wars because, as Norman Denny conjectured in a 2004 USNI Proceedings article3, all the conditions were there for a “Revolt of the Generals.”

From the start, it is emphasised that this “revolt” never amounted to much more than a number of senior USN officers expressing views contrary to those of the mainly politically-appointed civilian leaders of a new bureaucracy, the “Department of Defence”. At no stage did it ever look like escalating into a “colonel’s revolt” involving firearms and bloodshed, as seen in many other countries.

The United States fought WW II and all its previous wars with just a Department of the Navy and a Department of the Army. Each service and the Marines had their own aviation branch. Following the lead of the Royal Air Force and similar services in other countries, the Army Air Force argued along with Douhet, Trenchard and Billy Mitchell, that airpower alone would determine the outcome of future wars and a professional Air Force should be a separate service independent of any Army or Navy control.4 The advent of the atomic bomb and the promise of their new Convair B-36 Peacemaker bomber added weight to the argument.

The six-engined (plus four jets by the H Model) B-36 Peacemaker bomber program competed directly for funds with the USN’s new carrier-building and aircraft replacement programs.

The Navy, particularly, argued against any interference with their naval aviation. They strongly challenged virtually everything, from the Air Force’s underlying “Victory through Air Power” philosophy to the ability of the new and expensive B-36 to meet its highly touted specifications.

Early in 1948 President Truman attempted to resolve interservice bickering by gathering his Chiefs of Staff at Key West naval base. That conference failed, as did another in Newport, Rhode Island, later that year. Major resolutions simply lost their meanings through multiple amendments.

James Forrestal, ex-Secretary of the Navy, was the first Secretary of Defence but he resigned and committed suicide two months later. His successor on 28 March 1949 was the politically-motivated and strongly pro-USAF Louis Johnson. Less than a month later, without consulting either the Secretary of the Navy or the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), Johnson cancelled the building of the USS United States. This was a major blow to USN morale. Its 100-strong carrier force had been literally decimated since WW II, but the radical design of the new USS United States pointed the way ahead in the new nuclear age because it was designed to allow the USN to launch and recover aircraft armed with heavy nuclear bomb loads from its flight deck. The embryonic USAF saw this as a threat to their major role.

The Secretaries and Chiefs of Staffs

The Secretaries (left) in 1949: W. Stuart Symington (left, Air), Kenneth C. Royal (Army) Louis A. Johnson (Defence) and John L. Sullivan (Navy). At right are the first three Chiefs of Staff GENL Hoyt S. Vandenberg (left, Air), ADML Louis E. Denfield (Navy) and GENL Omar N. Bradley (Army).

Secretary of the Navy John Sullivan resigned in protest and Johnson replaced him with a fellow political appointee, Francis Matthews, who in stark contrast to Sullivan, had little government experience and even less knowledge of the USN. He admitted he “had never commanded anything bigger than a rowboat”.5

In a futile attempt to stifle growing criticism, Defence Secretary Johnson issued Consolidated Directive Number 1, that required all serving and retired personnel to route all policy comment, such as statements on strategy and the unification of the defence forces, through his office for review. When naval officers had the audacity to openly question Johnson’s decisions on weapons, unification and strategy, including the cancellation of the flush deck carrier, and to ignore his gag order, Johnson took that as a sign of “unparalleled insubordination”.6

The revolutionary USS
United States, with her flush deck and large hull was seen as the way to the future by many in naval aviation.

The Navy attempted unsuccessfully to gather hard data to resolve issues. For instance, a Navy-proposed F2H-1 Banshee jet fighter versus a USAF B-36 bomber intercept exercise was vetoed on the specious grounds that there were too many variables to gain useful information. The cancellation, made by Johnson but announced by the CNO, ADML Denfeld, had a perceived effect of putting the ex-submariner CNO’s loyalties in doubt in the eyes of his aviation officers.

The “Revolt”

A very gentlemanly and subdued “Revolt of the Admirals” ensued, with the most overt sign being many senior USN officers disagreeing with some of their superiors and civilian counterparts.8 Then followed anonymous accusations of high level corruption in the B-36 acquisition program, some targeting the Secretaries of Defence and the Air Force personally.

Competition for funds for the B-36 led to the cancellation of the USS United States.

The keel of the USS
United States before cancellation.

During a subsequent House Armed Services Committee hearing, Navy Secretary Matthews said Navy morale was good. This generated “loud and sardonic laughter” from naval aviators in the audience.9

Hammond goes on to describe one part of these hearings:

Matthews directly charged VADM Bogan and CAPT Crommelin with “faithlessness” and “insubordination” for their opposition to unification … He did not attempt to hide his disdain. The surprise witness for the Navy was ADML Denfeld. It was expected that the CNO would ally himself with the JCS (Joint Chiefs of Staff), of which he was a member, but when he took the stand, he sided with his fellow naval officers. He accused the JCS of making uninformed and arbitrary decisions. Everyone present was surprised at Denfeld’s testimony. Naval aviation supporters erupted in applause, Secretary Matthews hurried from the room speechless, and CJCS Bradley10 tore up his prepared statement in disgust when Denfeld finished speaking.

Bradley directly accused senior naval officers of poor leadership, disloyalty, and being “completely against unity of command and planning.”

CNO sacked

ADML Louis Denfeld, was fired shortly after this in a spiteful and humiliating manner. Despite being earlier recommended by Matthews, and approved by Defence Secretary Johnson, President Truman and Congress for a second term, and despite the House Armed Services Committee promising no reprisals for truthful testimony, he was sacked on Matthews’ subsequent recommendation and informally advised of his sacking by a naval aide to the President.11

A number of Admirals then refused the CNO position. At the same time the highly regarded Medal of Honor recipient, BGEN Merritt Edson, USMC, saw an even greater danger than the loss of naval aviation and even the entire US Marine Corps. He equated the proposed unification with a strong General Staff, not unlike that of pre-WWII Germany, with the concomitant risk of militarism and dictatorship. He resigned in order to present his views to Congress and the public.12

With no doubt the British debacle of RAF control of the 1920s and 1930s RN Fleet Air Arm in mind, and with the real probability of non-nuclear conflicts, senior USN officers in 1947-48 were aghast at the thought of a fledgling Air Force controlling their naval aviation.13 They strongly opposed the Air Force’s whole concept of nuclear-based “strategic air offensives” and pointed to the many WWII bombing surveys that repeatedly demonstrated severe conventional weapons limitations. The USAF’s primary reliance on sledgehammer nuclear weapons, they strongly argued, was costly, immoral and probably irrelevant in future limited wars.

Remarks by distinguished and influential USAF Generals about this time (cited by Demetrious Caraley14) exacerbated the USN’s unease.

MGEN C.A. (Tooey) Spaatz asked:
“Why should we have a Navy at all? We certainly don’t need to waste money on that.”
LGEN J.A. (Jimmy) Doolittle (of 30 seconds over Tokyo fame, courtesy of the new carrier USS Hornet) asserted:
“The (aircraft) carrier … is going into obsolescence … as soon as airplanes are developed with sufficient range … there will be no further use for aircraft carriers.”
BGEN Frank A. Armstrong said:
“The Army Air Force is tired of being a subordinate outfit … The Army Air Force is going to run the show … as for the Marines … we are going to put those Marines into the Regular Army and make efficient soldiers out of them.”

Marines justified

This infighting immediately preceded the Korean War, which in turn quickly and amply demonstrated glaring weaknesses in the USAF’s grand strategy and preparedness for non-nuclear war. USN and US Air Force aircraft reported many serious problems operating with each other and with the Army. Paradoxically, it was the lowly-regarded Marines who showed how well they retained their old WW II skills when they stopped North Korean forces from overrunning UN forces in the Pusan Pocket. Truman, who incidentally considered Marines were suited for little more than naval police, fired Defense Secretary Louis Johnson in September 1950, barely two months after the Korean war started.

Does any of this have relevance in modern days? The uniformed head of the US Army was publicly humiliated in 2005 after a stormy difference of opinion with his Secretary of Defence. He was due for retirement in any event but his planned relief refused the position, as did several other officers, until one could be retreaded from civilian life. Reminiscent of the USS United States disaster, another major Army procurement program, the Comanche helicopter, was axed in February 2004. A comment that year warned of the possibility of a “Revolt of the Generals”:

Today, as in 1949, we have a strong-willed Secretary of Defense willing to make radical changes. Donald Rumsfeld fired the former Secretary of the Army, Thomas White, in part over the latter’s opposition to the cancellation of a major Army procurement program and a resulting campaign of leaks … Not since the days of Robert McNamara has a Secretary of Defense brought such faith in technology and business practices. In business, redundancy is waste; in the military redundancy is depth. This conflict in approach might be the foundation for a future “Revolt of the Generals”.15

Meanwhile, to return briefly to 1948, the original B-36 contract specified flight above 40,000 feet, a 5000 nautical mile combat radius with a 10,000-pound bomb load at 400 knots. It never quite achieved those marks, despite adding four 5200 lb thrust jets. Only 383 B-36s were ever built and the USAF quietly phased out the expensive white elephant in February 1959, never allowing it to drop a bomb in anger. In contrast, the Essex class and larger carriers that the B-36 was supposed to make redundant remained in great demand. Better aircraft such as the 1800 B-47 Stratojets were built between 1946 and 1957 and they remained in service until the mid-1960s when they were relieved by 744 amazingly durable (the last was constructed in October 1962) and flexible B-52 Stratofortresses.


“Where’s the nearest carrier?”

Over the same period, a number of WW II Essex class carriers were modernised with angled decks, steam catapults, deck landing mirrors and enclosed bows, giving them a limited but significant nuclear capability. Big new 80,000-ton USN carriers were constructed that had the potential to handle aircraft loaded with large nuclear weapons, a role the USAF tried to abrogate to itself. Then, as Korea, Vietnam, the Falklands and even more recent conflicts such as Iraq amply demonstrate, big carriers are worth their weight in gold. As President Bill Clinton said on 12 March 1993 aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, “When word of a crisis breaks out in Washington, it’s no accident that the first words that come to everyone’s lips is, ‘Where’s the nearest carrier?'”

Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld served as a naval aviator 1954-57, long enough to qualify as a pilot and convert to jet fighters, then transferred to the USNR and retired as a Captain in 1989.

As unmanned aircraft and other new weapons systems appear, the fundamental roles of the Air Force might well be in question. Carriers have demonstrated that they can launch and recover heavy unmanned fighter and bomber aircraft as well as the Army in the field.

“Revolt of the Generals?”

Finally, in an unprecedented “Revolt of the Generals” in April 2006, initially eight “retired Admirals and Generals” then a “widening circle” of “retired Generals” openly demanded the resignation of the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfield, over his mishandling of military planning and strategy16. Rumsfield retained the support of President G.W. Bush, but eventually resigned five months later, in a letter dated 6 November 2006, coincidentally the day before the general election that swept the Republican Party from power in Washington.

Because nearly all air offensive power today is flown in support of immediate Army or Navy goals, it may be argued that the only requirement for a separate Air Force will be to fly transport and supply sorties, a job that might well be relegated to civilian air lines.

Although the “Generals’ revolt” in 2006 was different in many ways to the “Admiral’s revolt” of 1949, it was also similar. Neither could be described as a true “revolt” that resulted in the deployment of an armed force but both were a clear expressions by senior officers of dissatisfaction with the leadership of a civilian Secretary of Defense. Both led, in time, to the replacement of that official and a realignment of major policies. Maybe the revolting Admirals and Generals had a point. Maybe BGEN Merrit Edson had a point when he forecast the possibility of a strong Department of Defence and General Staff influencing civilian departmental heads to the extent of acting like the pre-WW II German model, fostering militarism and dictatorship. The bottom line is that the theoretical “unification” of the defence forces through a single civilian-dominated Department of Defence is easier to achieve than the practical and effective “unification” of the uniformed Services.


Barlow, Jeffrey G. Revolt of the admirals: The fight for naval aviation, 1945-1950. Naval Historical Center Department of the Navy: Washington, D.C. 2994.
Bowdish, Randall G. Between Scylla and Charybdis: Discussion and dissent in the Navy. US Naval Institute Proceedings, 130/5 pp. 42-45.2004.
Caraley, Demetrios. The politics of military unification: A study of conflict and the policy process. Columbia University Press: New York. 1966.
Cloud, D.S. and E Schmitt. More retired generals call for Rumsfield’s resignation. New York Times, 14 April 2006.
Denny, Norman R. The revolt of the generals is coming. US Naval Institute Proceedings, 130/5 p 78. 2004.
Douhet, Guilio. The command of the air. Tr D. Ferrari. Office of Air Force History: Washington, D.C. 1983.
Hammond, P.Y. Super carriers and B-36 bombers: Appropriations, strategy and politics, in H. Stein ed., American Civil-Military Decision. University of Alabama Press: Birmingham. 1963.
McFarland, K.D. The 1949 revolt of the admirals. Parameters 11/2 (June 1981).
Mets, David R. Airpower and the Sea Services: Revolt of the admirals. Aerospace Power Journal. Summer 1999.

1. Time magazine: Revolt of the Admirals. Time 54/16 (17 October 1949): p. 23.
2. Barlow.
3. Denny.
4. Douhet is recognized as one of the first to advance the theory that air power alone could win a war.
5. Time magazine, op cit.
6. McFarland p. 56.
7. Hammond p. 38.
8. Barlow op cit.
9. Hammond op cit.
10. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Omar Bradley.
11. Barlow p. 274, Hammond p 38, Mets 1999.
12. Bowdish.
13. Caraley pp. 96-97.
14. ibid. pp. 100, 49, 151.
15. Denny.
16. Cloud and Schmitt.

Korea: Naval Aviation

Naval aviation in Korea.

by Fred Lane

Paper presented at the Aviation Historical Society of Australia, Sydney, 7 July 2004.

To understand naval aviation in the Korean War, it is necessary to understand the context. Before the Americans dropped the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atom bombs, a highly successful Pacific War had been waged between 1941 and 1945 when, following the lead of the British at Taranto, Japanese and American naval aircraft, dramatically demonstrated their overwhelming tactical and strategic worth. As well as enemy ships, naval aircraft routinely found and destroyed strategic military targets, including airfields and rail yards, in pure “strike” roles. Over time and sometimes at painful cost, the United States Navy, Marines and Army developed a highly successful “Cab Rank” Close Support system, independent of any Air Force component.

Despite decades of neglect,, a mere 21
Fleet Air Arm “Stringbag” Fairey Swordfish demonstrated the worth of naval aviation when they single-handedly crippled the Italian battle fleet at Taranto in Operation Judgement, 11 November 1940, more than a year before Pearl Harbour.

Some authors claim that it was naval aviation that saved South Korea from falling to an aggressive North Korea. Others claim that, on the contrary, the Korean War saved naval aviation. In the face of the USAF’s powerful “Victory through Air Power” propaganda campaign in the late 1940s, the USN had been in real danger of losing its aviation component, just as the Royal Navy lost its Fleet Air Arm to the RAF in the 1920s and 1930s. Yet others argue that by late 1951 the Korean War had devolved into a boring military and political stalemate and that concomitant Washington machinations were much more important. There, as in London, the major war focus was on Europe, the Atlantic and nuclear weapons. Korea, they argued, was nothing much more than a sideshow to be fought by reservists and ad hoc forces. In fact, the Korea War proved to be an important testing ground for the “limited war” concept waged with outstanding success by communist forces for the next half century. It was also correlated with a dramatic reversal of declining American naval aviation fortunes.

Post WW II evolution

In 1946 the USN’s authorised strength included 98 aircraft carriers and 29,125 aircraft. In 1947, even the perennially cash-strapped Australian Government purchased two British light fleet carriers, which led to HMAS Sydney and her carrier air group serving proudly in Korea from October 1951 to February 1952. The carrier had replaced the battleship as the premier capital ship but by June 1950, under the new US Department of Defence, the USN had a mere 15 carriers and 9,422 aircraft in commission, with nothing much of any substance in the pipeline.

For a number of reasons, not the least of which is the danger of trying to interpret biased historical records, this paper will focus initially on some of the better recorded political aspects that preceded the Korean War, examine how they might have influenced biased battle damage reports and look at Sydney‘s part in Korea’s Operation Strangle, as seen by a very minor participant observer.

The vital contributions of naval aviation, particularly US Marine Corps aviation, to the defence of the Pusan Perimeter, the Inchon landings and the withdrawal of the 1st Marine Division from the Chosin Reservoir are acknowledged and are well known. The air transport contributions of USAF, Marine and other forces were novel, important and even vital in many Korean actions, but again they fall outside the immediate focus of this paper, as does the grinding and valiant work done by hundreds of Air Force aircrew, including those flying the F-51 Mustangs and the Meteors of RAAF 77 Squadron. Helicopters, especially US Marine Corps helicopters, revolutionised many aspects of land and sea warfare in Korea, but they too will only be briefly mentioned.

However, anyone researching hard data about the Korean War will find the library studded with minefields for the unwary, not the least of which are grossly biased enemy damage reports.

US Army assessment of aircrew damage claims

US Army historian Billy Mossman conservatively reports:

There must be a recognition that damage claims were overstated. In 1952, for instance, the Fifth Air Force in Korea noted that the experience of World War II had proved the validity of halving pilot claims, and that the need for a similar reduction of claims was being borne out by the Korean experience. The USN, in a study of close air support in Korea, went even further, concluding that pilot claims were of such questionable reliability as an index of performance that they should be omitted from consideration altogether.1

As will be discussed later, personal observations suggest that at least some so-called independent Army-source intelligence was also heavily exaggerated. This might be traced to bad habits condoned in WW II, but there was another reason in 1951, the intense rivalry at many levels between the USAF and USN that spawned, among other things, the “Revolt of the Admirals” in 1949. The author recommends a careful reading of all original data, including action reports backed up by pre- and post-action photographic evidence, before attempting to reach any conclusion regarding comparative Air Force versus Naval Aviation Korean War claims.

“Unified” Department of Defence

A serious bureaucratic bunfight raged in Washington between 1947 and 1949 regarding the separation of the US Air Force from the US Army and a newly created “unified” Department of Defence that would oversee all the fighting services. Following the theories and leads of Guilio Douhet, Hugh Trenchard and Billy Mitchell, US Air Force advocates, ably led by Secretary of Defence Louis Johnson, claimed that sufficient numbers of the USAF’s grand new B-36 bomber, first flown in August 1946, would make large expensive navies and armies superfluous and therefore a waste of money.2 Their strongly held fallback position was that even if navy or army rumps insisted on keeping tiny little auxiliary air forces, simple economy of force and air safety considerations demanded a single authority to purchase all air-related assets and, importantly, to control all air operations in one geographical theatre. That authority, of course, rested with the USAF.


Bureaucratic fights for funds for the B-36 (H version, above) led to the cancellation and downgrading of many important USN projects, including the revolutionary flush-decked super carrier USS United States (below).


In the three years since WW II, the USN had its carrier fleet decimated. Despite this, Johnson slashed the carrier budget even more. A month after its keel was laid on 18 April, 1949, the Defence Secretary unilaterally cancelled the 65,000-ton super-carrier USS United States without consulting either the Secretary of the Navy or the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO). Forward planning for this ship had mollified USN aviators as they saw carrier after carrier decommissioned and squadron after squadron disbanded. This ship was seen as an essential step towards a nuclear-capable assured future. These and other actions elicited the resignation of the Secretary of the Navy John L. Sullivan, the “Revolt of the Admirals” and the undignified sacking of the CNO, ADML Louis E. Denfeld, by the end of October 1949.3

Unlike the Army, the USN was never keen on the idea of a separate Air Force concept. They were also concerned that “Army plus Air Force” votes would outweigh their lone voice in Joint Chiefs of Staff aviation-related decisions within the new Department of Defence.

Profligate waste

The USN argued that no matter what WW II experiences in the European Theatre might suggest, a separate Air Force was not necessary. The recent Pacific War amply demonstrated how, given sufficient aircraft carriers and other aviation-related resources, strategic aims could be achieved without any Air Force assistance whatsoever. Never warming to GENL MacArthur, the USN had long argued that his USAAF-assisted WW II coast-hopping strategy was far more costly than their direct thrust plan. They were dismayed at the profligate waste of landing craft and amphibious support ships in MacArthur-controlled side shows, including the Australian landings in Bougainville and Tarakan. They scoffed at the Air Force’s “daylight precision bombing” mantra as post-war bombing survey after survey confirmed the emptiness of the boast.

The USAF’s primary reliance on sledgehammer nuclear weapons, they argued, was costly, immoral and probably irrelevant in future limited wars. In any event, both the Army and the Air Force required a sizeable merchant fleet, and a navy to protect it, to mount and sustain operations anywhere in the world with anything other than nuclear bombs.

Unfortunately, logic and performance were not enough. The USN lost the public relations battle. A virtual media blitz in Congress, newspapers, magazines and even the cinema repeatedly trumpeted a “Victory through Air Power” theme.

Alongside all this Washington bureaucratic upheaval was the international political turmoil of the Berlin crisis of 1948 and communist successes in Czechoslovakia and China in 1948 and 1949. Closer to home, the Malayan Emergency was declared after communist terrorist attacks in 1948 and the French soon found themselves locked into a similar deadly struggle in Indo-China. Then the Soviets surprisingly exploded their first nuclear device on 29 August 1949. This contributed to an April 1950 US National Security Council (NSC) directive that warned of a Soviet Union bent on world domination and recommended sharp increases in US defence spending.

North Korea invades

As the NSC warned, North Korea suddenly invaded South Korea on 25 June 1950 in the first stage of a war that was to last a little over three years. More than half the South Korean Army was destroyed within the first few weeks. By the end of July, UN ground reinforcements, chiefly under-strength American Army units fed piecemeal into the battle, found themselves pushed back into a small “Pusan Perimeter” pocket in the southeast corner of the peninsula.

Here was an opportunity for the first test in the cauldron of war of the Johnson-USAF domination-by-air strategy. If that strategy was sound, North Korea’s major communications centres and industrial bases would be bombed to a standstill within weeks, if not days. Its army would then fold and the ground forces would just mop up and take control of the civilian population.


On 27 June 1950 the United Nations Security Council called on member nations to help South Korea. American B-26 Douglas Invader twin-engined tactical bombers and fighters of the Far East Air Force based in Japan commenced interdiction raids that night. B-29s followed up with heavier bombardments the next day.

Chiefly British Commonwealth warships initiated a highly successful naval blockade of the entire Korean coast within hours of the UN resolution. HMS Triumph, a British light fleet carrier with about 24 aircraft aboard, and USS Valley Forge, an American Essex class carrier with about 70 aircraft closed Korea. Triumph launched 12 Seafire Mk 47s and seven Fireflies to raid Haeju airfield at 0615, 3 July 1950. Valley Forge launched a series of raids against Pyongyang airfield using 12 AD Skyraiders, 16 F4U Corsairs and eight F9F-2 Panthers about the same time. The Panthers shot down two Yak-9Ps, a Spitfire-equivalent Russian-built fighter bomber.

Seafires Mk 47 aboard HMS
Triumph, in March 1950 off Subic Bay (above). An ASW Firefly (below) warming up for launch on Sydney‘s catapult, with a borrowed USN HO-3S1 (S-51) helicopter in the background.


However, the enemy was not responsible for the first naval aviation losses in Korea. The next day a Valley Forge AD Skyraider received flak damage. It made a flapless approach, hurdled the barriers, destroyed one AD and two F4Us, and damaged three other aircraft in the forward deck park.4 On 28 July, Triumph lost her first aircraft, a Seafire, shot down by a “friendly” B-29, in a classic communications failure and aircraft misidentification incident.5

Essex class CV USS Valley Forge (above) and a “Jeep” carrier the CVE USS Rendova (below) with USMC F4U Corsairs on deck.


One reason for the B-29/Seafire communications failure was a direct outcome outcome of the earlier Washington bunfight and a MacArthur-imposed command structure in Korea. Although a central command knew just about what was happening everywhere, there was little cross-information between the various commands in the same geographical area at the tactical level. From the start of the Korean War, as James Field notes:

For the conduct of the air campaign, control was centralized at the highest possible level and preplanned operations were the rule. From this structure had developed a communications system with large capacity for routine transmission of orders and reports between central command post and operating air bases, but with limited provision for tactical communications at the scene of action — Air Force verbosity swamped the less capacious naval circuits — an extreme example was the grandfather of all radio messages received by Task Force 77 in November 1950, which took 8,000 encrypted groups to set forth the air plan for one day, and which required over 30 man-hours for processing.6

Another well-forecast problem was that American navy and air force aircraft could not talk to each other or to opposite number close support controllers over the battlefield except on two VHF radio frequencies that were so overloaded that they were frequently unusable.

In the early days, many USN aircraft were forced to jettison their bombs before landing back on the carrier because they could not talk to ground controllers. Other very serious early problems included incompatible USN and USAF aeronautical charts and very poor target intelligence.7

Understanding the Australian naval aviation contribution to the Korean War is sometimes difficult because it is poorly recorded and there are many traps for the unwary in literature searches.8 For instance, the Americans who discuss naval aviation tend to focus on the 11 big and capable Seventh Fleet Essex class carriers that served in Korea from time to time. They tend to either ignore or lump in the contributions of the five reasonably capable British Commonwealth light fleet carriers, HMAS Sydney, HMS Triumph, HMS Theseus, HMS Glory and HMS Ocean, with the five frequently anonymous and usually single-role USN jeep carriers, such as USS Rendova and USS Sicily, that were significantly smaller and carried half their aircraft. More often, the RN and RAN carriers are ignored.

Sydney carried 24 RAN Sea Furies, such as this one from 805 Squadron and 12 Fireflies.

When Sydney is not ignored, the associated data are frequently in error, even in Australian publications. For instance, the number of sorties flown by Sydney in Korea varies from 4,196 according to Eric Grove,9 to 2,366 according to the official RAN historian, Joe Straczek.10 The 2,366 figure is probably closer to the truth, but by the time Sydney’s tour ended, there was considerable internal inconsistency between Sydney’s catapult data, aircraft maintenance books and operations room logs.

Despite efforts to correct the error, the official RAN website said for years that Sydney carried 871 Squadron aboard.11 The RAN never had an 871 Squadron, it should read 817 Squadron. That was corrected after about 30 years. The modern website also nearly correctly says that 11 aircraft were lost and 77 damaged while delivering 802 bombs and 6,359 rocket projectiles.

Perhaps consolidated reports of United Nations aircraft casualties are least liable to error but it is sometimes difficult to determine exactly what losses were recorded by what command at what phase of the war. It is easy to be bewildered by the frequently changing alphabet soup systems that identified American carrier and amphibious forces, such as TF 77, TF 90, TF 95 and TF 96; also individual carrier types, such as CV, CVA, CVL, CVS and CVE; as well as aircraft squadrons and groups such as VMA, VMFS, CAG, ATG (from 1952), and 1st MAW versus MTACS-2.

Again, simple aircraft designators can be confusing. The B-26 was the Martin Marauder in WW II, but since 1948 and in the Korean War the B-26 was the Douglas Invader, which was called the A-26 in WW II. Helicopter designators were an almost indecipherable jumble, with virtually identical aircraft having totally different designators and type names according to the nation or service that flew them and the roles they performed. It is also frequently difficult to confirm whether RAAF, RAN, RN, South African Air Force and even US Marine Corps aircraft contribute to both USAF and USN consolidated data tables.

RAN aviation rarely mentioned

With rare exceptions, e.g. George Odgers (2000)12 Australian naval aviation contributions to the Korean War receive short shrift in the British, American and even Australian historical records, e.g. Ben Evans (2000),13 Cagle and Manson (1957),14 James Field (1962),15 Robert Futrell (1983)16 and Peter Firkins (1983).17 James Field mentions Sydney just twice in parts of six lines in his 457-page official USN history of Korea. Cagle and Manson award Sydney two lines in their 555 pages.

Even relatively careful and sympathetic authors like Odgers have been led astray. Although five were destroyed, only one, not four, aircraft were lost overboard from HMAS Sydney during Typhoon Ruth.18, 19 Odgers and many others also neglect an interesting international/interservice RAN-related rescue, discussed later, of the co-pilot of an American B-29 shot down in the Battle of Namsi on 23 October 1951.20

Just as the British and Americans misused their carriers early in WW II, USN carriers were also forced into the aircraft transport role. The very capable Essex class USS Boxer loads up USAF F-51 fighters for Korea in July 1950 (left) .



Bad weather also interfered with aircraft carriers (and most land bases). Double-lashed Sea Furies and Fireflies ride out October 1951’s Typhoon Ruth in Sydney‘s deck park.

Finally, in a highly regarded book, BGEN Cyril Barclay either misidentifies his aircraft or the date when he says, in a footnote, that “Royal Navy and South African Air Force planes” contributed to Close Air Support of the Commonwealth Division between 31 October and 26 November 1951.21 There was no operational RN carrier within a thousand miles of Korea at that time. Sydney supplied the aircraft.

Some claims, never made by the aircrew or operating authority concerned, are later exaggerated by others. It is quite untrue that the Sea Fury recorded “many kills” of “Soviet MiG 15 fighters” as stated by Enzo Angelucci.22 Only one MiG 15 was ever shot down by Sea Furies. Six Sea Furies led by LEUT P. Carmichael, RN, 802 Squadron, HMS Glory, shot down a lone MiG 15 on 9 August 1952 off Korea.23

All this relates to weighing the efficacy of naval aviation in Korea. Whose data should be used? This is a difficult question.

Early USN claims were reasonably accurate when they were confirmed by hard photographic evidence, e.g. Valley Forge Action Report 16-31 July 1950.24 but personal experience suggests that later American reports might well be biased, perhaps for political reasons associated with the very survival of USN naval aviation and the attempted takeover of all things air by the USAF. It is dangerous trying to compare one set of “official”  biased reports against another set of “official” biased reports.

Beware also of simple sortie number comparisons, even for similar-category aircraft. For instance, the USAF might have flown far more fighter-bomber sorties to the Pusan Perimeter than the USN, USMC and RN, but effect, in terms of weight of high explosive delivered on target on time, is what counts. Many early USAF fighter-bomber Close Support sorties were inappropriate. Jet aircraft with only two small rockets or just .5 machine guns sometimes monopolised the radios, air space and time over the front lines while more capable USN and USMC aircraft were forced to wait or even to jettison their eminently more suitable bombs or larger rockets.25

Again, the USAF took great pride in their “daylight precision bombing”, particularly from B-29s. However, the USN cleaned up USAF B-29 failures many times, e.g. Wonsan oil refinery 13 July 1950 and the Seoul rail bridge 19 August 1950.26, 27 Many argue that the war was brought to a conclusion not because of USAF or other influence but because of the USN’s shifts to heavy air strikes on strategic targets, particularly power plants, in June-October 1952.

Conservative RAN claims

On the other hand, RAN aircrew claims were deliberately conservative. For instance, RAN aircrew from HMAS Sydney claimed a North Korean Army divisional headquarters building destroyed in 6 October 1951 raid, but nothing else. An American Army ground-based intelligence source, “Leopard”, credited the same raid with not only destroying that building but also many troops, stores, vehicles, outlying shacks and other booty. RAN aircrew found this very hard to believe and it was never included in any formal RAN damage claim.

RAN Firefly pilots became adept at dropping bridges. Unfortunately, Chinese and North Korean engineers became equally adept at repairing or bypassing them.

Conversely, reliable reports plus good photographic data led to Sydney claiming no rail or road bridge standing in the RAN sector on completion of one patrol in late November 1951. That included the important main rail line running south from Pyongyang. Days later, a major USAF intelligence summary reported rail traffic unhindered and operating at normal capacity throughout North Korea. Again, RAN aircrew found this hard to believe, at least for the sector they controlled.

It was perhaps no coincidence that about that time that even the USAF Fifth Air Force was trying to convince the CinCFE (GENL Ridgway, who had relieved the sacked GENL MacArthur in April 1951) that it was time to change its costly Operation Strangle strategy.

Operation Strangle

What was Operation Strangle? Following a similarly-named operation in Italy during WW II, Operation Strangle (Korea) was devised by the USAF Fifth Air Force Vice Commander, BGEN E.J. Timberlake, in May 1951, to interdict enemy road and rail traffic before it could resupply the front lines. Eight north-south routes were identified, 20 to 80 miles north of the foremost troops.28 There was some overlap, but generally the Fifth Air Force (including aircraft from West Coast carriers such as HMAS Sydney) was responsible for the two western routes. TF 77 targeted the two central routes from carriers normally deployed off the East Coast, while the mainly shore-based Marines took care of the three easternmost routes.29

The RAN chose Australian Fireflies for bridge-dropping and tunnel-blocking tasks. They usually carried two 500 lb bombs and 240 rounds of 20 mm. After shifting in late October 1951 from a 30-degree dive bomb to a 10-degree anti-submarine glide bomb profile, with 37-second delay fuses, Firefly pilots became expert at dropping bridge spans and blocking tunnels. For armed reconnaissance sorties of the road, rail and waterways networks, RAN Sea Furies typically carried eight three-inch ballistic rockets with 60 lb HE heads, 600 rounds of 20 mm and two 45-gallon drop tanks. Unlike the RAAF, USAF and USN, no RAN aircraft ever carried napalm in Korea.

a-26 invaders
The USAF contributed to the interdiction tasks with, for instance, day and night sorties from about 100 A-26 Invaders (above), but during
Sydney‘s tour, the USAF’s  main interest after paying off their P-51 Mustangs lay in big B-29 Superfortress raids and F-86 Sabre fighter sweeps.

The USAF’s Far East Air Force (FEAF) allocated about 100 B-26 Douglas Invader medium bombers as night intruders and their entire F-84 Thunderjet fighter-bomber fleet to Operation Strangle. Despite some modest success in its early months, aircraft losses quickly mounted as the North Korean and Chinese displayed unexpected skills at camouflage, bridge repair, logistic flexibility and, particularly, shooting down aircraft with light weapons. Between August 1951 and March 1952 FEAF lost no fewer than 243 fighter bombers and another 290 sustained major damage. This was four times the aircraft replacement rate, if those aircraft with major damage are included. In human terms, 245 airmen were killed or missing and 34 wounded.30

Sydney‘s losses included three 805 Squadron pilots, 11 aircraft and another 77 damaged while making 2366 sorties and dropping 802 bombs and 6359 three-inch rockets.

Bridges were dropped, tunnels were blocked and virtually no traffic moved by day across the middle of North Korea during Sydney’s watch. Trucks and trains moved at night, but they were difficult to see. Operation Strangle reduced rail traffic to about five percent of its pre-war capacity during its first couple of months, but together with increased night road transport and even human A-frame back-pack porters, that limited capacity was sufficient to support the static enemy front line. Despite targets being sown randomly with up to 24 hours delay-fused bombs, most simple road and rail track cuts were repaired or by-passed within hours. Big bridges over fast-flowing rivers were harder to repair but, given time, nothing seemed to daunt the brilliant enemy engineers and their seemingly endless supply of labour and repair material. The enemy also quickly worked out what the next most likely target might be and redeployed their light anti-aircraft weapons accordingly.

Originally planned to last 45 days, Operation Strangle was extended continuously as it tried to meet its objectives. By December 1951, the Fifth Air Force had concluded that Operation Strangle was not working, but in the absence of an acceptable alternative, General Ridgway insisted that it continue.31

Other sorties

Not all of Sydney‘s sorties were pure Operation Strangle. There were self defence CAP sorties and two or three times a month a Sea Fury pilot might load up with 500 lb or 1000 lb bombs for pre-briefed strikes, sometimes on the East Coast. At other times Sydney‘s aircraft might conduct Naval Gunfire Support shoots (TARCAP) with anything from a battleship to a frigate. Other sorties included Photo Reconnaissance, Close Support, Rescue CAP (RESCAP), RAS convoy CAP (CONCAP) and rare anti-shipping strikes.

The Fireflies carried a pair of 250 lb depth charges on daylight anti-submarine patrols while CAP Sea Furies just had loaded guns. No submarine was ever found by Sydney‘s anti-submarine patrols and no enemy aircraft was ever intercepted by Sydney’s CAP.

The carriers operated in an environment that included riding out seasonal typhoons. Sydney was hit by a particularly severe Typhoon Ruth on 14-15 October 1951 that killed 500 Japanese ashore. Contrary to Odgers and Catchpole, only one Firefly (but also a motor boat and a forklift) were lost overboard and another four aircraft tied down on the flight deck were seriously damaged. Aircraft damage was caused mainly by double-tied chocks slipping out after failure to batten them with strips of wood. The Hangar Party battened their chocks and their aircraft remained undamaged, despite some heavy stores and equipment coming adrift.

Sydney typically spent about 10 days on patrol, with half to one day around the middle being devoted to Replenishment at Sea (RAS). Five to ten days in harbour followed, before repeating the cycle. Her 36 aircraft embarked (plus four spares) flew about 400 offensive sorties a month. A maximum of 89 Sydney sorties were flown in one day and 147 in two consecutive days.

For the data pedants, the author can vouch for the approximate accuracy of most of the following Sydney laundry list of claims by her CBALO section:

Sydney‘s aircraft, in total, killed 1428 troops, destroyed seven vehicles, seven field guns, and dropped 47 rail and four road bridges. Most of these bridges had, of course, been dropped more than once. The aircraft had demolished more than 1000 buildings or troop shelters, sunk 39 junks and 66 sampans or barges and destroyed 234 ox carts. Sixteen ammunition dumps and seven fuel dumps were blown up.

All this was achieved in 2366 sorties for the cost of three lives and 11 aircraft. Five more aircraft were lost to Typhoon Ruth. Nearly a third of those sorties were self-defensive, in the form of CAP or ASW patrols, or non-offensive (e.g., return from diversion Kimpo to carrier.)  Sydney‘s aircraft had been hit by flak 87 times, an average of about once every 18 (operational) sorties.32

Because so few action photographs were ever published, it may be assumed by some that Sydney‘s aircraft rarely left the ship. Unfortunately, a mentally disabled senior photography sailor ditched nearly all of Sydney’s camera gun and other film records into Hong Kong Harbour by after being told to clean up his section for Captain’s Rounds in February 1952. Only private snapshots and a few photographs sent on ahead remain.

The big USN carriers maintained a much higher work rate. They flew a total of about 2827 offensive sorties a month from about 70 aircraft in each of between one and four carriers deployed on station.33 Their AD Skyraiders carried a much heavier bombload than RAN aircraft: one 1,000 lb plus two 2000 lb bombs or half a dozen variations of rockets and smaller bombs plus four 20 mm guns. The F4U Corsairs also handled a bigger and more versatile bombload than the Sea Fury, but they mounted only .5 inch machine guns. The bigger USN carriers also conducted limited night operations.

The US Marines were Close Support experts and flew their F4U Corsairs from both their own dedicated carriers and ashore. Their intervention in the Pusan Perimeter in July and August 1950, their coverage of the Inchon invasion in September and their protection of the November-December 1950 withdrawal from the Yalu must be considered textbook Close Support. They also invented the forerunner of the aerial command centre. After experiencing severe communications problems with hard-pressed troops in the mountainous terrain around the Chosin Reservoir, they quickly threw a bunch of radio sets into a Douglas DC4 transport in December 1950 and preserved command and control during the withdrawal.


In the event of an aircraft being shot down, the Joint Operations Centre (JOC) had the theoretical ability to stop the whole air war and divert all airborne aircraft or launch others to aid aircrew survivors. A Sea Otter rescue by Triumph‘s amphibian of a Corsair pilot on 29 July 1950 was the first and last for that aircraft type in Korea.34 USAF Dumbos (Grumman SA-16 Albatross twin-engined flying boats) were also used throughout the Korean War to supplement the Angel (usually Sikorsky HO-3S1s or S-51) helicopters and smaller warships in this role.

An RAN Sea Fury spotted a USAF B-29 co-pilot who baled out into the Yellow Sea north of the Chinnampo Estuary after the Battle of Namsi on 23 October 1951. In a classic example of international and interservice cooperation, the survivor was spotted by Sea Furies, then Sydney scrambled a Firefly with a G-dropper dinghy. A motor boat from HMAS Murchison subsequently picked up the downed pilot from the middle of a minefield as  he was being swept towards the shore.

Australian-built River class frigate HMAS
Murchison was a highly capable “maid of all work” in Korea.

Sydney’s SBLT Ian MacMillan crash-landed his Firefly in the Chaeryongang Waterways area on 26 October 1951 after being hit by AA fire. MacMillan and his observer, Hank Hancox, came under heavy automatic weapons fire from soldiers in the area. The enemy were initially kept at bay by orbiting RAN Fireflies and Sea Furies, but they were recalled when RAAF Meteors, tasked by JOC, arrived. Following hand signal directions from the Air Group Commander, who happened to be flying that day, the two Sea Furies with the best fuel states elected to suffer selective “radio failure” and failed to head the recall message, which was fortunate, because the Meteors had to leave some 20 minutes before the helicopter arrived.

The Sea Furies protected the pair until Sydney’s borrowed USN helicopter, piloted by USN CPO A.K. Babbitt, performed the longest helicopter rescue transit over enemy territory in the Korean War, courtesy of a convenient 25-30 knot tail wind on the long inbound leg. The helicopter and the Sea Furies landed safely near Seoul with all fuel gauges reading less than zero. This operation was successful in part because MacMillan and Hancox used RAN-introduced fluorescent panels to communicate with the RESCAP aircraft and to direct supporting fire towards enemy machine guns and other fire.

RAN Innovations

The RAN was responsible for a number of innovations in Korea. These included red and yellow fluorescent panels for RESCAP communications, worn as scarves. These were subsequently adopted by the USAF. Unlike the USN and many RN aircrew, all RAN aircrew trained thoroughly in Close Support, Naval Gunfire Support, Artillery Spotting and Photo Reconnaissance. Sydney was also the first to apply the seemingly simple “Lavender Line”, named after Sydney’s Flight Deck Officer. This line, painted on the flight deck, contributed to Sydney being the first carrier not to taxi an aircraft overboard from the forward deck park. Because of tighter drills, Sydney‘s single catapult launch rate was frequently as good as if not better than the twin-catapult USN carriers. Its landing rate was also usually better, but that was probably more a function of operating on a shorter deck than anything else.

As Sydney was leaving in February 1952 and possibly prompted by Sydney‘s urgings, MGEN Jacob Smart, the FEAF deputy operations commander, commissioned a study that counted massive Operation Strangle losses for little gain. The study recommended change to an Air Pressure Strategy that included some interdiction, but prioritised destruction that would cause “permanent loss to the enemy and…drain his strength”.35

USN major strikes

June-October 1953Following the defection of North Korean BGEN Lee Il on 21 February 1952 and his debriefing by USN officers, it was learned that the enemy was delighted with the Washington policy of exempting the big Yalu River hydroelectric generating stations from attack. They supplied power to China as well as North Korea.36 Initiated by USN TF 77 staff officers, approval was eventually obtained to take out these targets with USN dive bombers. The naval aircraft had a better chance than B-29s of hitting the target without overflying China or, worse, accidentally bombing China. Between 23 and 27 June 1952, coordinated attacks by USN and USAF aircraft destroyed 11 of the 13 generating plants in North Korea, eliminating 90 per cent of their electrical power.37

The MiG 15’s superior performance was a nasty surprise to all USAF-friendly forces in Korea.

The first target was the big Suiho plant, the fourth largest in the world. Antung, a big Chinese air complex housing 250 MiG-15s, was only 35 miles away, hence the large fighter cover for the strike aircraft. Also defending the target were 28 heavy AA guns and 43 lighter automatic weapons, many radar-controlled. On 23 June 1952, a three-carrier strike force of 35 AD Skyraider dive bombers, each loaded with one 1,000 lb and two 2,000 lb bombs, were protected by 84 USAF F-86 Sabres and 24 USN F-9F Panthers. The USAF followed up with coordinated attacks from 124 F-84 Thunderjets, but their tiny bombload made it doubtful that they contributed much. No aircraft was lost, although one diverted to Seoul to land wheels up after receiving flak damage. The Suiho bombing alone resulted in a 23 per cent loss of electrical power in northeast China and caused serious Chinese production shortfalls. The four-day campaign reduced power by 90 per cent in North Korea, causing a two-week blackout and serious disruptions to industry and agriculture.

However, Chinese and Soviet technicians rushed to repair the damage from these raids with small generating plants. Over time, these countermeasures, together with power-saving economies, successfully insulated the front lines from the effects of the raids.38

The policy of hitting power stations and other major military and industrial targets deep inside North Korea continued for six months or so but the USN had to jockey with the USAF for operational control of combined or single-service raids on the remaining few prime targets. These included massed USN/USAF raids on military targets in Pyongyang, the Sindok lead and zinc mine and the Aoji synthetic oil refinery. The latter target was up near the Russian border, way beyond the range of USAF dive bombers and could not be bombed by B-29s without them overflying Russia.

The 8 October 1952 raid on the rail centre of Kowan, a target with a bad flak reputation, was the last time USAF B-29 bombers were used in conjunction with USN aircraft in Korea. Ten B-29s suppressed flak very successfully with 500 lb VT-fused bombs, just before 89 USN aircraft bombed and rocketed the target. No aircraft was lost.

Subsequently, USAF policy was changed to permit B-29s to bomb only by night. It was perhaps no coincidence that this policy change was correlated not so much with MiG day fighter activity, the official reason, but to avoid the USAF being seen in a support role, like flak suppression, for USN strategic bombing, long regarded as the USAF’s sole prerogative.

Cherokee strikes

In the final six months, starting slowly from about mid-October 1952, Seventh Fleet naval aircraft primarily supported front line troops with another naval initiative, Cherokee strikes. These were concentrated attacks on pre-briefed targets, generally 20 to 40 miles from the front line but they had a chequered history. If they were regular Close Support, they should be closely controlled by the Fifth Air Force, said the USAF. The USN argued that these strikes were pre-briefed, they were heavy air-power missions outside the bomb line, they did not require mosquito direction and they might have flak suppression aircraft in company: therefore they were “strike”. After some negotiation between the respective commanders, it was agreed that the raids would be coordinated by the Fifth Air Force, the strike leader would check in and out with the ground Tactical Air Control party of the area and mosquito aircraft would mark the targets, just like Close Support.

In return, the Fifth Air Force was held solely responsible for any friendly fire incident. Data at the time suggested chiefly USAF and a few USMC, but no confirmed USN aircraft, had dropped ordnance on own troops. In February 1953 a USAF threat was made to relieve any air group commander whose aircraft was involved and to court-martial pilots responsible for inadvertent friendly fire. This dampened enthusiasm for a while, but by March 1953, as the weather improved and with ground radar assisting, Cherokee strikes regained momentum and continued until the end of the war in July.39

Naval Aviation outcome

Some claim that naval aviation saved South Korea from communist domination. Some others say it was the USAF. Yet others, particularly American naval aviators looking at a broader picture, claim that the converse might well have been true true: Korea saved naval aviation. Before anyone tries to weigh the contributions of naval aviation and other arms in saving South Korea, it should be noted that although the June-October 1952 USN air strikes were correlated with changing attitudes in the North Korean negotiators at the Truce Talks, perhaps the most important single factor that contributed to the signing of the armistice on 27 July 1953 was the death of Stalin on 5 March 1953.

Certainly, naval aviation was highly significant and maybe even decisive in a number of battles, including those around Pusan, Inchon and Chosin. Along with the USAF, however, naval aviation achieved little in expensive sideshows like Operation Strangle. Perhaps, above all, naval aviation, and particularly US Marine aviation,  showed the USAF how to conduct Army Support, a skill the USAF initially ignored chiefly because it did not fit their overarching strategy and it was difficult. Naval aviation also spotlighted procedural and material weaknesses in their Joint Operations Center command system.

Did Korea save naval aviation? The failure of his USAF-dominated Korean strategy, together with other political machinations, led to Truman sacking Defense Secretary Johnson in September 1950. This alone was good news for the USN and naval aviation in general. This prefaced the approval of the first new carrier construction since Johnson cancelled the USS United States. The USS Forrestal‘s keel was laid on 14 July 1952.

However, it must be acknowledged that Korea was seen by many in 1950-53 to be a sideshow fought by the Reserves, not a real war. The “real war” was always Euro-centric and it kept America’s newest and biggest three Midway class carriers and the big British fleet carriers in the Atlantic or Mediterranean, far from Korea. Therefore it might be difficult to derive any important generalisation other than to note that Korea was the first of many little wars over the past half century. All were resolved with non-nuclear weapons. None validated the Douhet/Trenchard/Mitchell hard line position that victory could be achieved by air power alone. All American and British interventions employed aircraft carriers and sometimes Air Forces, but all depended on close cooperation with ground troops.

If causality is demanded, let us first remember that it was the British who invented the angled deck, the deck landing mirror and the steam catapult. These three very important components enabled jet aircraft and big bombload-carrying aircraft to operate safely from carriers. The British also invented the Harrier jump jet and ski ramp for medium and small carriers. The Royal Navy might argue persuasively that if naval aviation needed saving, it was these British inventions, rather than the Korean War, that did the job.

Certainly, naval aviation contributed significantly to the defence of South Korea and naval aviation has continued to be an essential element in America’s strategy in every war since then. Without naval aviation, especially the USMC intervention, the Pusan Perimeter might well have been lost and we might only conjecture whether there would have been enough political will to stage an Inchon-like invasion against a country not actively engaged in war. Close Support, long regarded as an irrelevant irritant by the USAF, resumed its rightful place, just as the USN, and especially the USMC, so ably demonstrated in Korea.

Contrary to USAF assertions back in 1948 that aircraft carriers would be quickly sunk in future conflicts, it has been not the carrier but the in-country airfield, such as Da Nang, that has proven vulnerable to enemy action. The carrier has also demonstrated a flexibility to attack targets virtually anywhere in the world without having to depend on sometimes convoluted overflight negotiations. Finally, the carrier also has the versatility to be used in many important roles other than war, ranging from disaster relief to space exploration.


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1. Mossman, Billy C. Mossman is the official US Army historian for Korea.
2. Douhet, Guilio. Douhet is recognized as the first to advance the theory that air power alone could win a war.
3. Barlow, Jeffrey G.; Lane, Fred 2004; Hammond, P.Y. p 493.
4. Cagle, Malcolm. W. and Frank A. Manson. pp 37-38. Cagle and Manson were experienced USN officers, with WW II combat experience. They served aboard Valley Forge in Korea chiefly to coordinate the dissemination of USN action information.
5. http://www.britains-smallwars. com/carriers/Triumph.html. This little website carries reliable-looking data about RN carriers in Korea.
6. Field, James A. Jr. p 387.
7. Cagle and Manson p 53.
8. Lane, Fred and Gerry Lane, 1991.
9. Grove, Eric.
10. navy.gov.au/spc/history/general/korea.htm. This official RAN website carries limited data, compared with its USN counterpart.
11. ibid.
12. Ogders, George. Odgers was a journalist and FltLt with RAAF 77 Squadron.
13. Evans, Ben. This is a Department of Veterans Affairs booklet about the Korean War.
14. Cagle and Manson op. cit. p 414.
15. Field, James op. cit.
16. Futrell, Robert F. Futrell wrote an encyclopaedic treatise, published in 1983, extolling USAF strategy and USAF operations in Korea.
17. Firkins, Peter.
18. Odgers op. cit. p 101;
19. Catchpole, Brian. p 203.
20. Odgers op. cit. p 115.
21. Barclay Cyril N. p 117.
22. Angelucci, Enzo. p 425.
23. britains-smallwars.com/carriers/Glory.html.
24. Valley Forge Action Report 16-31 July 1950. Korea action reports for carriers and air groups: history.navy.mil .htm; CV45-J50.pdf.
25. Cagle and Manson op. cit. p 45;
26. Futrell 1988 op. cit.
27. Cagle and Manson op. cit. p 49-74. Valley Forge Action report op. cit. Philippine Sea Action Report 22 December 1950, Korea action reports for carriers and air groups: history.navy. mil.htm; CV47-dec50.pdf.
28. Kirtland.
29. Cagle and Manson op. cit. p 241.
30. Catchpole op. cit., Kirtland op. cit.
31. Kirtland op. cit.
32. Flying Stations. The Australian Naval Aviation Museum: Allen and Unwin. 1998. p 100.
33. Cagle and Manson op. cit. p 523.
34. http://www.britains-smallwars.com/carriers/Triumph.html.
35. Griffith, Thomas E. Strategic Attack of National Electrical Systems. Air University Press: Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. 1944.
36. Cagle and Manson op. cit. p 442.
37. Griffith op. cit.
38. Cagle and Manson op. cit. p 441-454.
39. Cagle and Manson op. cit. p 460-469.