The end of World War II marked a turning point for U.S. naval aviation. The rise of carrier aviation as well as the changing nature of technology ushered in a new era of doctrine, procurement, and missions for naval aviation. Like the eclipse of LTA equipment, the advent of atomic weapons and jet power introduced a sea change. The Navy’s focus remained on the missions of World War II: observation, ASW, fleet protection, and a modicum of bombing missions. However, events and technology conspired against the Navy’s use of land- and sea-based platforms into the jet era.
The first event the Navy faced in the postwar era was the National Security Act (1947). President Harry Truman consolidated the Department of the Navy and War Department into the Department of Defense, with each of the service chiefs as representatives on the new Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). One dispute developed over the role of aircraft when the U.S. Air Force was established. Some argued that the new Air Force should shepherd all air assets; each of the Services argued for their own organic air component. The Air Force insisted that they had won World War II with air power and strategic bombing, and had a strong case when considering the atomic bombs and heavy bombers that helped defeat Japan in 1945. The Army was worried that the divorce of the Air Force would remove the ground support mission of Army aviation, in response the Air Force assured the Army they would continue these operations. To make a long story short, the Air Force did not; the Army had to resurrect this mission with the new technology of helicopters. The Marines did not want to be folded into the Navy, and maintained their independence. The Navy did not want to lose their air component, so allowed the Air Force jurisdiction over strategic bombing missions. In the end, the Navy was willing to forgo development and procurement of heavy bombers in order to maintain a naval air arm.
While still arguing that the Navy had a strategic role to play, the technology posed a paradox. Atomic weapons were seen as the focus of future warfare, and the Navy had to rationalize how to incorporate them into Navy doctrine. While they could provide unprecedented capabilities, they also presented an interesting dilemma. The Navy wanted to be able to use them and began planning for a supercarrier, the USS United States, to carry nuclear-armed bombers. But at the same time, it was demonstrated that the carrier was vulnerable in Navy nuclear experiments such as the Bikini Atoll demonstration. Further, the proposal for supercarriers (the Navy wanted five) offended the Air Force as it was building its new generation of strategic bombers, specifically the Convair B-36 Peacemaker. The debate raged on. The Navy argued that supercarriers were invaluable to maintaining open sea-lanes, the Marines offered that they were required for any overseas expedition. The Air Force wanted a monopoly on strategic bombing, and in Douhetian fashion maintained that they were the only force necessary for future nuclear war. The Army felt secure in their role, but understood that they had to stay in the fight for numbers and funding. Each of the Services fought for attention, funding, and independence. By 1949 the argument reached a crisis point. New Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson cancelled the USS United States five days after the building program began, leading to what became known as the “Revolt of the Admirals.” The Secretary of the Navy and the CNO both spoke out in public against the decision to cut the program, and each lost his job. The Navy spoke out against Johnson’s decision, citing his personal interest in the B-36 and his open preference for the Air Force. The acrimony was obvious enough that the House Armed Services Committee investigated the matter, dismissing a number of additional Navy officers for their opinions, but did not force the Navy to give up its aviation assets. The widening gulf between the Air Force and the other Services was not repaired when the findings allowed for the continuation of B-36 contracts. The Navy, barely placated by the decisions, returned to the design tables to reinvent their postwar carriers. Navy animosity remained high when the North Koreans invaded South Korea in June 1950.
The Korean War began just as the Navy was locked in a struggle with the new Air Force for the control of the air. Further, the Navy, just like the other Services, was drawing down from World War II, and trying to do as much with fewer men and less material. Demobilization was a high priority after World War II; no one thought that there would be another war for the foreseeable future. But the bipolar world of Capitalism and Communism brought new challenges for the U.S. military. The new Department of Defense struggled to find solutions for the potential problem of fighting the Communists; each of the branches tried to define their future military needs. The Air Force stepped up with strategic nuclear bombing, and was rewarded with new technology for the role. The Navy mission was similar to the World War II era, but began the 1950s with new technology for similar roles. By the outbreak of the Korean War, the Navy had access to both new and old as it defined its role in the new conflict. Carrier aircraft were being replaced with new jets, but the traditional missions of observation and ASW continued with World War II era airframes.
When the Korean War broke out, the Navy deployed to the theater with a handful of carriers as well as their patrol squadrons. The land- and sea-based planes shouldered the work of observation and spotting, as well as ASW patrol and at times search and rescue. At the outbreak of war, the Navy committed two task groups (70.6 and 96.2) to the fight. Under Task Group 70.6 fell Fleet Air Wing 1 (FAW-1) and Marine Air Wing 1 (MAW-1). Four squadrons made up FAW-1: VP-1, VP-28, VP-46, and VU-5. Task Group 96.2 included FAW-6, which had three squadrons (VP-6, 42, and 47). While this may sound like a massive commitment of land-and sea-based aircraft, it in fact represents only a total of fifty-three aircraft. These planes began immediate ASW and observation patrols, to great success. The Korean War was fairly uneventful for the Navy’s VP squadrons. Flying their old Privateers (late World War II–vintage, highly modified B-24s) as well as some new Neptunes and the flying boat Mariners, the VP squadrons performed admirably during the conflict, flying long hours on patrol and suffering few casualties. In three years of combat the VP squadrons flew over 21,000 sorties for 145,000 hours and suffered only forty-one losses from all causes, only four losses due to enemy action. By the end of the “active” portion of the war, there were still only fifty-four aircraft in the VP squadrons in Korea, suggesting that they were superfluous or that these few aircraft were doing all that was necessary of them. While the numbers for Army, Air Force, and Navy carrier aircraft increased throughout the conflict, the patrol squadrons stayed steady at fifty to seventy airframes. Considering the nature of the war, it can be argued that the patrol planes were used in a successful way to isolate the battlefield (the Korean Peninsula) and did their job of keeping sea-borne outside influences from affecting the battlefield. The Army and Air Force had to deal with the Chinese (land) border; the Navy’s patrol squadrons were successful at keeping the seas clear of enemies and open for allies.
At the end of the Korean War, the Navy revisited the mission statement for sea-and land-based aviation assets. The Navy was still concerned about fleet support, observation, and ASW warfare, but once again, technology was increasingly successful at marginalizing previous airframes. Sea-based aircraft were slowly overshadowed by land- and carrier-based platforms; increasing performance from jet aircraft, as well as the introduction of Navy and Marine Corps helicopters that took care of short-range missions for the fleet. Fleet support could be handled by the jets; search and rescue was increasingly taken over by rotary-wing aircraft. As other airframes took over these tasks, the Navy produced fewer seaplanes for service. Other missions were also adopted by carrier aircraft. Observation and photography, as well as short-range ASW were assumed by new carrier aircraft like the Guardian, the Tracker, and by 1964 the Hawkeye. In-flight refueling increased the ranges of aircraft, providing longer-duration flights previously possible only in multi-engine land- and sea-based aircraft. The Navy began to transition away from land-based aircraft as their ideas about deep attack and long-range changed and at the same time were taken over by other Navy aircraft and the U.S. Air Force.
One mission that remained specifically naval was ASW. In 1962 the Navy took delivery of its most advanced long-range, land-based ASW and patrol platform, the Lockheed P-3 Orion. The large, four-engine ASW specialist filled the Navy’s need for an extended-range platform that could simply not be covered by carrier aircraft. Navy VP squadrons were in the process of refitting with P-3s (from P-2 Neptunes) when the Navy was called to action in Southeast Asia.
The conflict in Vietnam exploded in August 1964 with the Gulf of Tonkin incident and subsequent escalation by President Lyndon Johnson. The Navy entered the fray with carrier-based aircraft along with seven VP squadrons. As early as February 1965, SP-5B Marlins were moved to Danang as VP-47, part of 7th Fleet, to patrol for submarines. Vice Admiral William Martin, Deputy CNO (Air) wanted to show the viability of the Navy’s last seaplane, but was quickly thwarted, not because of the aircraft’s impending obsolescence, but because his superiors were worried about VC sabotage of the seaplane base. Only a week after deploying to Vietnam they were moved back to the Philippines for their protection; the Marlins flew patrols from there.
Other Navy efforts in Vietnam met with more successes. In Operation Market Time, a number of VP squadrons, including VP-4, 17, and 40, flew observation and anti-shipping patrols along the coast of South Vietnam which, in conjunction with naval forces on the surface, aimed to deny the sea routes for VC infiltrators. The patrols came in three flavors: Yankee Station, missions in the Gulf of Tonkin, usually flown at night; the Market Time operations observing the coast of South Vietnam for infiltrators; and Ocean Surveillance Patrols (OSAP). One squadron (VP-2, based out of Tan Son Nhut) added five Navy-designated Douglas A-1H Skyraiders to their inventory to bolster their attacking abilities. Patrol aviation’s Neptunes would locate bad guys and the Skyraiders could intercept them. While the Skyraiders could, and did, fly from carriers, they were primarily a land-based, single-engine attack aircraft, designed for slow and low flight to attack ground targets. Blessed with excellent range and durability, the A-1s were successful in interdicting Viet Cong (VC) supplies spotted by their observation counterparts. In another interesting use of Navy land-based aircraft, this time OP-2E Neptunes from VO-67 based at Nakhon Phanom, aircraft dropped acoustic sensors to listen for seismic anomalies on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The “Spikebuoy” and “Adsid” monitors indicated when heavy boot and truck traffic moved along the re-supply route, alerting attack planes, through communications channels, when and where to strike. In some opinions the sensors allowed for more frequent and successful attacks against the VC supply lines, cutting down the resources headed to the insurgency in the South.
Perhaps the best example of Navy land-based aircraft were the Flying Black Ponies of VAL-4. This group flew OV-10s to assist Navy riverine forces and SEAL special operations teams in South Vietnam. The erstwhile Air Force frame was a twin-engine ground attack and observation plane—one squadron given to the Navy—and filled an important if often forgotten role in the counterinsurgency in South Vietnam. Operating from January 1969 to April 1972, this squadron was an odd, uncommon but essential component of the Navy’s efforts in the war, and a singular example of Navy land-based aircraft used experimentally to great effect. Although it was disbanded at the end of the war and never replicated, it remains a shining example of ingenuity and adaptation in unconventional warfare.
In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the Navy once again ran headlong into postwar constraints. The United States ended the draft and became an all-volunteer military. The defense budget was cut and continued a downward trend (as compared to the gross domestic product [GDP]). The Cold War continued, but the Navy faced continuing operations with fewer sailors and less equipment. And again, Navy missions were influenced by technological change. In the years between World War II and the end of Vietnam, the Navy increasingly relied on carrier aircraft for bombing; with the advent of precision munitions (in and after Vietnam), the standard fighter and fighter/bomber on board aircraft carriers could fill the role of strategic bomber, circumventing the need for a land-based bomber. The Navy found that its F-14s and later F/A-18s, coupled with aerial refueling, could manage the tasks of bombing once relegated to heavy (land-based) bombers. Short-range ASW and fleet protection was assumed by S-3A Vikings after 1974. Maritime patrol by flying boats ended because of financial constraints as well as other, better technology that replaced them; the last P5M-2 Marlin squadron (VP-40) was converted to P-3s in 1968. The Navy experimented with three more seaplanes, but did not use them in service. The final Navy propeller seaplane was the Convair XP5Y-1 Tradewind (later designated R3Y-1), intended as a flying boat for long-range patrol and transport. It was the only turboprop seaplane delivered to the Navy. The final two experimental seaplanes were jets: attempts to combine jet technology of the 1950s with the Navy’s perceived need for seaplanes. The first was the Martin XP6M-1 SeaMaster, a four-jet engine seaplane envisioned as a seaborne heavy bomber and patrol plane. Although the SeaMaster was a spectacular aircraft, the program was cancelled in 1960 as the Navy turned away from long-range strategic bombing. After the cancellation of the SeaMaster, the Martin Company got out of the seaplane business to refocus on avionics and missile development. The final Navy seaplane experiment was an attempt at a sea-based air superiority jet fighter, the Convair XF2Y-1 Sea Dart. This aircraft was an offshoot of the Convair F-102 Delta Dagger, an air superiority jet fighter built for the Air Force. The Sea Dart was envisioned to be a Navy platform similar to its Air Force cousin, a supersonic interceptor. But despite its high-technology and coolness factors, there were problems with a sea-based jet fighter; it was obsolete before experimental trials began. The program was cancelled after the first two experimental aircraft suffered catastrophic failure; the Navy gave up on sea-based flying boats. Today flying boats are still used by the U.S. Coast Guard for search-and-rescue (SAR) operations, as well as continued Soviet/Russian experiments with the technology. The Japanese and Chinese have a few flying boats in their inventories and Canada uses them for military purposes. The remaining flying boats fill niche markets for sport flyers and water-bombers for forest firefighters.
The only combat-related mission left to the Navy that could not be filled by carrier aircraft was long-range ASW patrol. For this mission, the Navy relied on the venerable Lockheed P-3 Orion. Throughout the Cold War, the P-3 remained the workhorse of the Navy, flying patrols around the globe searching for Soviet submarines. Designed as a long-range patrol plane, the four-turboprop engine aircraft was packed with electronics and anti-submarine weapons to find and potentially destroy enemy subs. Distinguishable by its long “tail,” the magnetic anomaly detection (MAD) boom extends to the rear, making the aircraft easily distinguishable. The eleven-man crew typically flew extended long-range patrols—up to eighteen hours at a time—searching the seas for Soviet subs and enemy warships. The P-3 could maintain altitude and speed—cruising speed of 378 mph—by flying on only three or even two engines, thus extending range and conserving fuel. The plane was designed to fly low and slow, searching the seas for the enemy.
The last land-based Navy aircraft in the inventory (excepting a few transports and VIP “limousines”), the P-3 Orion continues to provide essential long-range capabilities to the Navy into the twenty-first century. Even after the fall of Communism, the Orion continues service for the Navy, extending the Navy’s reach across the oceans of the world. The P-3 saw service in the 1991 Gulf War, as one of the first combat components on site after Iraq invaded Kuwait. Upgraded P-3s were instrumental in identifying and targeting Iraqi surface ships in the Persian Gulf during Operation Outlaw Hunter. The Navy’s P-3s provided electronic and targeting information in the protection of U.S. and Saudi equipment in the combat area.
The need for the Navy’s land-based long-range patrol capability was assured and continued into the twenty-first century. As the Navy began to shop around for a new airframe, an unfortunate incident occurred on patrol off the coast of China. In April 2001 a P-3C had an unfortunate midair collision with a Chinese PLA Naval Air Force J-811 (some reports say J-8D) fighter/interceptor, killing the Chinese pilot. The American crew made an emergency landing at an airfield on Hainan and were immediately detained. The international incident was compounded by the death of the Chinese pilot and the fact that the P-3 was an electronics warfare aircraft. The American crew of twenty-four was returned to the United States a week after the crash; the P-3 was held (and undoubtedly studied) for three months. The Hainan Island incident—as it became known—was reminiscent of the Gary Powers incident in 1960, when his U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union.
After the events of 9/11, Navy P-3s were employed in the War on Terror as long-range mobile electronics platforms to combat conventional and terrorist threats. With the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, Navy P-3s once again provided invaluable effects for the Navy and the U.S. military as a whole. In Afghanistan, Navy P-3s, equipped with new electronics packages, were equipped for anti-surface warfare improvement platforms (AIP) to combat threats in there. Flying out of Kandahar, they provide electronics intelligence and targeting information for ground troops and air support platforms. In Iraq, after 2003, the Navy provides P-3s for both the land battles and maritime patrol operations in the Persian Gulf on a regular basis. In the troubled waters off Somalia, Navy P-3s patrol for Somali pirates, protecting merchant ships and helping with the anti-piracy efforts off the Horn of Africa. As part of Combined Joint Task Force–Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) Combined Task Force 150 (part of the U.S. Sixth Fleet), the P-3s continue to combat Somali pirates as part of the efforts in Operation Enduring Freedom–Horn of Africa.
Into the twenty-first century, the Navy preserves the mission of long-range land-based maritime patrol with the aging P-3 fleet. Now operating twelve squadrons of P-3s, the Navy is searching for a new aerial platform to replace the forty-seven-year-old design. Currently the Navy is considering the MMA (multi mission aircraft) from Boeing (Navy designation P-8 Poseidon) as a replacement for the P-3. Based on the Boeing 737, the aircraft will provide the same mission capabilities as the P-3 with a new all-jet design. Although there are some detractors for the new airframe, the program is needed to replace the aging aircraft. The most commonly cited deficiency in the MMA is that the jet will not be able to fly low and slow for anti-submarine and anti-shipping duties. Nonetheless, the Navy is determined to continue the role in a new airframe with improved qualities.
Today the Navy continues to preserve the patrol mission with land-based naval aircraft. All other missions from World War II have been given over to the Air Force and carrier aircraft, but the long-range ASW and anti-shipping roles have been maintained. The Navy will continue these roles well into the twenty-first century with a mix of old and new aircraft, some land based, some from carriers as needed. The legacy of land- and sea-based Navy aircraft has been missions born of necessity and marked with adaptation and innovation. Into the future, the Navy will continue to employ land-based aircraft to protect the fleet and provide comprehensive mission support in the spirit of jointness for the U.S. military as a whole. The future of U.S. Navy aviation still has a place for land-based aircraft to maintain the Navy’s missions around the globe.