Washington & London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001 320 pp.32 b&w photographs, $32.95
Distributed in the U .K. & Europe by Airlife Publishing Ltd. Reviewed by Captain James C. Hay, USN (Ret.)
Vice Admiral Miller’s history is of the struggle to allow naval aviation to rise to its potential and assume its rightful place in U.S. national security for the nuclear age. It was done in the face of entrenched positions, political ambitions and professional arrogance which tolerated no doubts on the credibility of its pronouncements about the future. It is particularly timely that this work be read, and the trials it describes be reviewed, during yet another period in the history of American Arms when transformation of old ideas and old structures is needed. In our time it is even called for from high places, but again stymied by funding considerations and well-meaning interests in improving the status of neglected existing systems.
This is a book which is instructive on several levels: for any group seeking recognition of a new way to counter new threats as a way to approach the problem; and for those in forces of current favor as a lesson in keeping an open mind. As a rigorously crafted history it has its own call on gravitas and is, therefore, also worthy of guiding and instructing both the professional futurists and historians who often comment on defense structures.
The lessons for Naval Officers are clearly outlined in Admiral Miller’s references to the “Gun Club” and the emphasis on technological competence which marked its members. To illustrate he used a great quote from a 1984 article by Admiral Arleigh Burke: “If the equipment doesn’t work in battle, it doesn’t make much difference how much else the officers know, the battle is lost-and so are the people in it. So it can be right handy to be a good engineer first-and a brilliant theorist after.”.
From that premise, Admiral Miller’s history is largely the story of smart, farsighted officers, both aviators and surface sailors, fighting against budget realities, Air Force visionaries and Navy traditionalists. They could see the need for sea based nuclear weapons. In addition, they saw a danger to the very existence of the Navy as it had evolved through World War II and the Korean War. With no new carriers on the ways or on the books, and with new-age interpreters of the nuclear age preaching that all could be done with long-range air, it was obviously imperative for the Navy to get into the big picture.
To effect that they recognized that planes to carry the big weapons and carriers to carry the big planes had to be designed and acquired. They also were smart enough to realize they had to start with what was at hand, in terms of ships, aircraft and aviators, and build their new capability in spite of the obstacles. This people story starts with Deke Parsons as a Captain and Oppenheimer’s deputy in the Manhattan Project. It continues with Dick Ashworth and Chick Hayward, skippers of the first two “Heavy Attack” squadrons, who both retired as Vice Admirals. Many Navy seniors were involved in the introduction of naval air delivered nuclear weapons as were dozens of younger naval aviators, both carrier and patrol pilots.
The concurrent development of delivery tactics and the proofing of new aircraft with the maintenance of an operational commitment with them placed a heavy strain on the flyers, their commanders and their sponsors in the Pentagon. Submariners of the early Cold War days will recognize the career tensions caused by the emphasis on keeping talent in a high priority program without allowing for the broadening of experience. Admiral Miller cites these strains and those restrictive personnel practices as the source of one the major lessons to be learned from the NuWeps/CV development days. He draws other lessons regarding psychology of the people in a high profile program, the needs for secrecy, the primacy of testing, civilian control and even Arms Control. All of those concerns are issues to be faced with any force transformational program important enough to warrant the name. Those involved in like programs today should at least know the story of those who have traveled that road in the not too distant past.
Admiral Miller’s primary lesson, however, is one which is well above the level of the military professional striving to make a success of new force methodologies. It is one which must be heard and heeded by the general public and particularly by those policy-level folks leading the national security efforts of America. In his own words:
“The carrier nuclear weapons struggle was a phase in U.S. sea power history, using the oceans to project power in a highly effective manner. The eventual assumption of that role by the Submarine Force, freeing the carriers for other essential duties in the maritime environment, was most fortunate. It was another example of the value of sea power. The nuclear struggle rein-forced the knowledge of the flexibility of sea power, the ability to be anywhere, anytime, with a wide variety of capabilities in the military/diplomatic arena of national and international affairs.”