War in the air Part III: the Pacific

/ pacificwar.org.au

/ pacificwar.org.au

The carrier-based Japanese air force began the war in the air over the Pacific Ocean by attacking without prior warning the US naval base at Pearl Harbor. The damage to American capital ships and the loss of life were enormous, but as pointed out in another post on this site, no US aircraft carriers were present on 7 December, 1941.

   The Japanese, as industrious as ever, had made great strides in the design and construction of these floating airfields, and at Pearl Harbor they made full use of them. Four hundred bombers and fighters were launched from the six carriers used in the assault. Surprise too was an essential element, as Japan had not declared war on the United States, though everyone from the President in Washington to the Texan cowpokes knew the two countries were on a war footing, and that Japan had joined the Axis.

   Aircraft carriers dominated the Pacific War: in the Battle of the Coral Sea (q.v.) in May, 1942 almost all the aggression on both sides was carrier-based. Neither the Japanese nor the American grand fleets sighted each other. The same phenomenon occurred in the Battle of Midway (June 1942); meanwhile it was the US carriers which played the crucial role in the re-conquest of the almost numberless Pacific Islands. It was air power that enabled the US to drop atomic bombs on the towns of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

   While on the subject of nuclear power, it is well-noted that nuclear weapons were increasingly deployed by air forces after the Second World War. Long range strategic bombers and the new long range intercontinental missiles developed from Germany’s abominable rockets VI and V2 threatened the very existence of other countries. This was air power at its worse. In conflicts such as the Korean War, the skies over that doomed land saw aerial dogfights between fighters powered by jet engines, a remarkable and terrifying vision, as the aircraft were capable of flying (and fighting) at over 700 mph. Mass ‘strategic’ bombing of Cambodia and Vietnam was carried out by the US. Helicopters were used either as gunships carrying vast firepower with the addition of rockets – or as troop carriers or ambulances. In terms of air power, matching the Vietcong against the US Air Force was like ranging a gnat against an eagle! But the gnats won.

   The dominance of air power in modern warfare was again shown by the ‘Allies’ use of semi-accurate bombing against Iraq in the gulf war of 1991, and by NATO’s employment of air strikes in its attempts to stop the ‘ethnic cleaning’ of Albanians in Kosovo in 1999. But experience of the second war in Iraq in 2003 might have suggested to the Americans that while precise, computer-controlled weapons made air power indomitable on formal and traditional battlefields, as well as a useful method of coercion against vulnerable (and probably frightened governments), it is a blunt instrument against the modern plague of insurgency, especially in the form of urban guerilla war.

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