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Monday, April 2, 2012

Reading List: The Incredible Attack Aircraft of the USS United States

Zichek, Jared A. The Incredible Attack Aircraft of the USS United States, 1948–1949. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 2009. ISBN 978-0-7643-3229-6.
In the peacetime years between the end of World War II in 1945 and the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 the United States Navy found itself in an existential conflict. The adversary was not a foreign fleet, but rather the newly-unified Department of Defense, to which it had been subordinated, and its new peer service, the United States Air Force, which argued that the advent of nuclear weapons and intercontinental strategic bombing had made the Navy's mission obsolete. The Operation Crossroads nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll in 1946 which had shown that a well-placed fission bomb could destroy an entire carrier battle group in close formation supported the Air Force's case that aircraft carriers were simply costly targets which would be destroyed in the first days of a general conflict. Further, in a world where the principal adversary, the Soviet Union, had neither a blue water navy nor a warm weather port from which to operate one, the probability that the U.S. Navy would be called upon to support amphibious landings comparable to those of World War II appeared unlikely.

Faced with serious policy makers in positions of influence questioning the rationale for its very existence on anything like its current scale, advocates of the Navy saw seizing back part of the strategic bombardment mission from the Air Force as their salvation. This would require aircraft carriers much larger than any built before, carrier-based strategic bombers in the 100,000 pound class able to deliver the massive nuclear weapons of the epoch (10,000 pound bombs) with a combat radius of at least 1,700—ideally 2,000—miles. This led to the proposal for CVA-58, USS United States, a monster (by the standards of the time—contemporary supercarriers are larger still) flush deck carrier which would support these heavy strategic bombers and their escort craft.

This ship would require aircraft like nothing in the naval inventory, and two “Outline Specifications” were issued to industry to solicit proposals for a “Carrier-Based Landplane”: the basic subsonic strategic bomber, and a “Long Range Special Attack airplane”, which required a supersonic dash to the target. (Note that when the latter specification was issued on August 24th, 1948, less than a year had elapsed since the first supersonic flight of the Bell X-1.)

The Navy's requirements in these two specifications were not just ambitious, they were impossible given the propulsion technology of the time: the thrust and specific fuel consumption of available powerplants simply did not permit achieving all of the Navy's requirements. The designs proposed by contractors, presented in this book in exquisite detail, varied from the highly conventional, which straightforwardly conceded their shortcomings compared to what the Navy desired, to the downright bizarre (especially in the “Special Attack” category), with aircraft that look like a cross between something produced by the Lucasfilm model shop and the fleet of the Martian Air Force. Imagine a biplane that jettisons its top wing/fuel tank on the way to the target, after having been launched with a Fireball XL-5 like expendable trolley; a “parasitic” airplane which served as the horizontal stabiliser of a much larger craft outbound to the target, then separated and returned after dispatching the host to bomb them commies; or a convertible supersonic seaplane which could refuel from submarines on the way to the target. All of these and more are detailed in this superbly produced book which is virtually flawless in its editing and production values.

Nothing at all came of all of this burst of enthusiasm and creativity. On April 23rd, 1949, the USS United States was cancelled, provoking the resignation of the Secretary of the Navy and the Revolt of the Admirals. The strategic nuclear mission was definitively won by the Air Force, which would retain their monopoly status until the Navy got back into the game with the Polaris missile submarines in the 1960s.

Posted at April 2, 2012 21:36