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American and British Aircraft Carrier Development, 1919-1941
Destined for Glory: Dive Bombing, Midway, and the Evolution of Carrier Airpower
American and British Aircraft Carrier Development, 1919-1941. By Thomas C. Hone, Norman Friedman, and Mark D. Mandeles. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1999. Pp. x+248; illustrations, appendixes, notes/references, bibliography, index. $39.95.
Destined for Glory: Dive Bombing, Midway, and the Evolution of Carrier Airpower. By Thomas Wildenberg. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1998. Pp. xvi+258; illustrations, figures, tables, appendixes, notes/references,
bibliography, index. $34.95.
The manner in which modern navies have exploited--or failed to exploit--new technologies has long been a rich source of inspiration for those interested in the process of institutional adaptation in the face of change. The two works under review here examine different aspects of a particularly important example of technological development and tactical adaptation: the development of naval aviation, and in particular the aircraft carrier, during the interwar period. This is not a trivial question, for World War II in the Pacific was largely decided by fast carrier task forces; the decisive American victory at Midway in June 1942 is generally and correctly regarded as a major turning point, and the Royal Navy was hindered for much of the war by the limitations of mediocre carriers operating obsolescent aircraft.
Of the two books under review here, Thomas Hone, Norman Friedman, and Mark Mandeles's American and British Aircraft Carrier Development takes a broader view, presenting a comparative analysis of the response of the U.S. and British navies to the opportunities and challenges presented by the invention of the aircraft and its demonstrated, though largely unrealized, promise in World War I. Thomas Wildenberg's Destined for Glory presents a detailed case study of the manner in which the U.S. [End Page 841] Navy identified carrier-based dive bombers as a particularly promising means of attacking warships, sponsored the development of aircraft capable of conducting such attacks, and used them in combat. An important theme in both works, explicit in the first and mostly implicit in the second, is that the seemingly halting and uncertain process by which naval hierarchies came to appreciate the tactical value and strategic importance of the aircraft carrier was not primarily, or even mostly, retarded by simple conservatism of mind. Hone, Friedman, and Mandeles put it well: "We must avoid undue reliance on what has become a popular view--that the Royal Navy failed disastrously whereas the U.S. Navy succeeded brilliantly, and that both navies narrowly avoided becoming the victims of hidebound 'battleship admirals'" (p. 2). In fact, the development of carrier aviation in the Royal Navy was, as conventional wisdom has it, seriously hampered by the control of the independent Royal Air Force over roles and missions, including maritime reconnaissance, and aircraft procurement. The main difference between the two cases, however, was not the opposition of land-based aviators--American naval aviation, after all, handily survived Billy Mitchell--but a lack of interaction among competing communities in the British case. In the American case, that interaction led to the careful examination of competing ideas, and to their testing in war games, leading ultimately to better carriers and better doctrine. The way was not clear, however, until late in the game, when the unanticipated appearance of radar sharply reduced the vulnerability of carriers to attack.
As Hone, Friedman, and Mandeles demonstrate, viewed from the perspective of the 1920s and 1930s it was far from clear that the battleship was doomed to obsolescence. "In short," they maintain, "even in the late 1930s, the amount of uncertainty surrounding the future of carrier warfare was so great that no one could say with confidence that the traditional battle-line concept could be abandoned. In the face of great uncertainty, the [U.S.] Navy covered its bets, spreading scarce resources among a variety of systems and producing what was then called a 'balanced...