Fighters over the Fleet – Naval Air Defence from Biplanes to the Cold War, Norman Friedman

Fighters over the Fleet – Naval Air Defence from Biplanes to the Cold War, Norman Friedman

From the Second World War onwards defence against air attack became the most important aspect of fleet defence, and the focus of massive amounts of thought and expense. The book covers a very wide timespan, from the first naval biplane fighters of the First World War era to almost the present day (with some notes on the current Royal Navy carriers and their aircraft). The main focus is on the US Navy and the Royal Navy, with some material on the Imperial Japanese Navy when relevant. Other fleets only really get brief mentions - the French, Italian and German navies never really developed beyond relying on land based aircraft for their air defence.

In the main this is a very readable book. The section on the development of US jet aircraft in the post-war period gets a bit bogged down, at least in part because of the shear number of projects and designs that were considered. On occasion too many of these projects are being examined in parallel, making it rather difficult to keep track of what was going on. The decision to include snippets on the vast number of projects that didn't even reach the design phase doesn't help. The debates on the type of fighters required are generally more interesting than the detailed design notes (covering issues such as the weapons required, endurance, range, speed, how to use the aircraft etc).

The main focus is on the plans for fleet defence - the command and control structures that were developed to cope with perceived threats, how that impacted on aircraft design, and how effective the various control methods probably were. This does make you realise just how complex an issue air defence was, with problems identifying incoming attackers, decided how to deal with each threat, deciding what sort of aircraft and weapons might be needed to cope with upcoming threats. In both major navies a great deal of effort went into trying to work out how to deal with air attack, and during the Second World War the defence became remarkably effective.

It also becomes fairly clear that post-war fleets might have been very vulnerable to large scale attacks, although thankfully they were never exposed to that sort of attack. Remarkably the Falklands War is just about the only post-war conflict in which a carrier force came under series air attack. This is also a reminder that most long term military plans have little or no relationship to reality - expectations before Korean, Vietnam and the Falklands were all wrong. The biggest problem seems to have come in attempts to guess what sort of conflicts might be fought in the future - for some reason limited actions in random parts of the world were almost always dismissed, despite accounting for the vast majority of fleet deployments in the post-war period.
There is some interesting material on the weaknesses and limitations of radar. These include problems turning isolated contacts into reliable traces of individual aircraft, limits of accuracy (due to things like the width of the radar beam, the speed of rotation of the antenna etc or problems judging height) and the surprisingly high chance of reaching your target undetected.

This is a useful study of a key element of modern naval operations, providing a detailed and thoughtful account of the problems posed by aerial attacks, and the vast amount of effort that had gone into countering those threats over the years.

1 – The Carrier Navies
2 – Fighters
3 – Fighters without Radar
4 – The Second World War: Fighters under Radar Control
5 – The Collapse of Radar Control: Okinawa
6 – The Jet Age Begins
7 – The Korean War and Air Superiority
8 – A New Kind of Threat
9 – A Crisis in Fleet Air Defence
10 – The Computer Age in Fleet Air Defence
11 – The Vietnam War
12 – The Falklands War
13 – The Outer Air Battle

Author: Norman Friedman
Edition: Hardciver
Pages: 460
Publisher: Seaforth
Year: 2016

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