CHUCK ELLINGTON

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From Billy Mitchell to Ballistic Missile Defense:
A Brief History of Naval Anti-Air Warfare

 

 


The US Navy’s anti-air defensive capabilities have of necessity evolved significantly in the face of changing threats over the past century. Between the two world wars, Colonel Billy Mitchell’s demonstration of battleship vulnerability to aerial attack took admirals by surprise. The demonstration was auspicious, however, as it forced Naval strategists to look toward integration of military aviation and aircraft carriers into maritime defense planning.

World War II saw the demise of the battleship as the major force of navies, to be replaced by the aircraft carrier. Battleships and other major surface combatants on all sides became easy targets for bombs and torpedoes carried by aircraft. Newly developed naval fighting doctrines and

battle experience showed that aircraft carriers were not only capable of offensive power projection, but they could also deploy defensive aircraft for self-protection. Other US Naval surface craft were well-equipped with state-of-the-art anti-air gunnery systems whose worth was proven toward the end of the war, although Japanese kamikaze attacks still took a heavy toll.

Following that conflict, the Former Soviet Union designed and fielded a formidable threat to US Naval surface forces, including aircraft carriers, as they introduced a diverse spectrum of so-called anti-ship cruise missiles. Technology developments enabled deployment of new defensive interceptor missiles to replace dated gunnery systems for more effective anti-air defense. The necessity for an effective anti-air capability against these cruise missiles was brought home in 1967, when the Israeli destroyer Eilat was sunk by Soviet-supplied Egyptian cruise missiles, and again in 1982, when the UK lost ships in the Falklands conflict to infamous Exocet seaskimmer missiles.

Although anti-ship missiles are still a contemporary threat, the proliferation of ballistic missiles, in concert with technologies that promote development of weapons of mass destruction, have caused the US Navy to develop defensive weapons that are now an integral part of the Ballistic Missile Defense System envisioned by former President Reagan.

The UNCLASSIFIED presentation on June 12, 2010, showed the evolution of US Naval anti-air weapons systems, and the threats that are faced, from the perspective of a recently-retired Naval engineer who worked as a Target Vulnerability Analyst and weapons tester for 34 years.  Below is the de Havilland Mosquito PR.XVI now in the US Air Force Museum in Dayton, OH.

Imperial Japanese Naval Heavy Cruiser Mikuma, mortally wounded after strikes from Douglas SBD Dauntlesses off USS Hornet and Enterprise during the Battle of Midway, June 1942. Protrusions from side of hull are torpedo launchers.
Attacks by dive bombers in WW2 were particularly hard to defend against. This ship was the fifth major surface vessel sunk during Midway, the others being aircraft carriers Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, and Hiryu.




de Havilland Mosquito (MOS 16a) PR.XVI, Photoreconnaissance Variant, possibly the sharpest-looking aircraft of WWII