The First Test of an Independent Carrier Task Force

Editor’s note: ‘Why We Do What We Do’ is an initiative CNO Richardson asked the Naval History and Heritage Command to help share with the fleet. Each month, our historians will dissect a seminal moment in our Navy’s past and then highlight the lessons we learned. The purpose, is to ground today’s Sailors in their history and heritage by explaining the reasons behind some of today’s seemingly mundane or routine activities.

Since World War II, aircraft carrier battlegroups have been an essential part of our national defense. While we tend to think of aircraft carriers taking pride of place in the Navy after the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941, the U.S. Navy’s history with carrier aviation goes back to the 1920s. In this installment of “Why We Do What We Do,” we’re exploring how the Navy began developing carrier tactics through fleet exercises in the 1920s.

The years between WWI and WWII were a period of major changes for naval forces. Internationally, the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty limited the size of the world’s major navies (United States, United Kingdom, Japan, France, and Italy) and domestically, Congress reduced the size of the Navy even further than the treaty limits and restricted funds for operations, manning and maintenance. Despite these limitations, the U.S. Navy spent the 1920s developing and integrating new technologies that would lead to major changes in naval warfare.

USS Saratoga (CV 3): Aircraft on the flight deck, preparing for launching, circa 1929-30.

One such change was carrier aviation, but it was not clear in what capacity this new capability would best serve our Navy. After WWI the Navy converted a collier into the aircraft carrier Langley, but it was an experimental platform. CAPT Joseph M. “Bull” Reeves, when Commander, Aircraft Squadrons, Battle Fleet (1925-29) pioneered adaptations and processes on his initial flagship Langley that allowed for faster launches and recoveries and the ability to carry more aircraft. The Navy incorporated his changes into its new large carriers, Saratoga and Lexington, commissioned in 1927.

“. . . it demonstrated that carriers built to operate at high speeds, with large air groups, utilizing high-tempo flight operations, had the potential to launch devastating over-the-horizon attacks.”

The Navy, given the changes in structure and changing technologies, needed a way to evaluate its capabilities, which resulted in “fleet problems”—large-scale exercises used to test our Sailors, ships, aircraft, concepts and operations. Among the most important of these exercises was January 1929’s Fleet Problem IX. This exercise was designed to test the Navy’s changing capabilities to either defend or attack a fixed strategic target, in this case the Panama Canal. Basically, think of a football scrimmage—The Navy created a “Blue Force” and a “Black Force” and pitted them against each other to test each’s capabilities. Reeves, now a rear admiral assigned to the attacking “Black Force” suggested using Black’s carrier Saratoga and cruiser Omaha, to make a high-speed run around the seaward flank of the defending “Blue Force” and launching an airstrike against the Canal. Today, most would not be surprised that the airstrike was effective and disabled the canal. However, they would be shocked that Saratoga, was “sunk” twice after launching her airstrike. You can read an expanded history on the exercise here.

Adm. William V. Pratt, Commander in Chief, Battle Fleet (left); with Rear Adm. Joseph M. Reeves, Commander, Aircraft Squadrons, Battle Fleet; and, Capt. Frank R. McCrary, Commanding Officer, Naval Air Station, San Diego.

Fleet Problem IX lasted five days and showed that challenges remained in using a carrier task force for independent operations, but it demonstrated that carriers built to operate at high speeds, with large air groups, utilizing high-tempo flight operations, had the potential to launch devastating over-the-horizon attacks.

Today’s carrier flight operations have been described as a “ballet performance” and carrier battle groups are often our first-strike option when necessary. Well-trained flight deck crews and naval aviators enable each U.S. Navy carrier to launch and recover dozens of aircraft to bring the fight to our adversaries. But that didn’t happen overnight. It took decades of planning and practice to create today’s fleet, but one of the earliest glimpses of the aircraft carrier’s potential happened 90 years ago this month. If you’ve ever been in awe of the U.S. Navy’s carriers, think of Reeves and the Sailors that participated in Fleet Problem IX.

Want the full historical analysis of Fleet Problem IX? Read our historical summary here­­­­.

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