Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Operation Hailstone - Carrier As Escort

Well, the previous post about the changing role of the carrier certainly revealed the paradigms and how difficult it is to change them!  The battleship carrier proponents will fight tooth and nail to hang on to their traditional role.


Let’s follow up with an actual historical example of the carrier as an escort for other strike assets.  WWII offers an illustrative example of the concept of the carrier as escort in the form of Operation Hailstone which was the US attack on the Japanese base of Truk.  An excellent description of the operation is available at the Naval History and Heritage Command website and I leave it to the reader to visit the site for an in-depth description of the operation.


To briefly summarize, the attack on Truk occurred in mid-February 1944.  The US attacking fleet consisted of five fleet carriers, four light carriers, six fast battleships, ten cruisers, 28 destroyers and more than 500 aircraft.  Although the Japanese main fleet had fled from Truk just days prior to the attack, the Japanese defenders still had 300-400 aircraft operating from five airfields on the island which constituted a major threat to any attacking surface force.


Attack on Truk

Though not explicitly intended as such, the operation illustrates the use of the carrier to escort a surface strike force and clear the way for it to operate by establishing local air superiority.


The opening action of the strike on Truk involved a US carrier fighter sweep of 72 aircraft launched during the pre-dawn hours from 90 nautical miles northeast of the island.  The sweep, combined with a subsequent steady stream of bombing and strafing attacks (does any of this sound vaguely like a story you just read?) over the course of the day eliminated the Japanese aircraft and airfields as a threat.


With the Japanese aerial threat eliminated, Admiral Spruance led a surface group of battleships, cruisers, and destroyers on an extended bombardment cruise and surface sweep around the island.


Vice Admiral Spruance led an “around-the-atoll cruise” (TG 50.9) on 17 February to catch leakers, bombarding shore installations as it went. Consisting of the new battleships New Jersey and Iowa, the heavy cruisers Minneapolis (CA-36) and New Orleans (CA-32) (all survivors of the Tassafaronga debacle in November 1942), and four destroyers (covered by combat air patrol from the light carrier Cowpens), TG 50.9 caught the light cruiser Katori. That ship, the auxiliary cruiser Akagi Maru, two destroyers Maikaze and Nowaki), and a minesweeping trawler Shonan Maru No. 15 had left Truk before the attack but had not gotten far enough away. (1)


Though not explicitly the operational intent, the carriers cleared the way for the battleships and cruisers to conduct extended strikes without fear of Japanese air attacks.  By establishing local air superiority, the carrier aircraft were able to cover the battleship’s movements and strikes, provide a combat air patrol (CAP) for the surface group, and cover the group’s eventual withdrawal.  This illustrates the concept of carriers escorting the striking power of the battleships, though, again, this was not the operational intent.  Still, it offers a concise, albeit unintentional, example of the concept.





(1)Naval History and Heritage Command website, “H-026-3: Operation Hailstone—Carrier Raid on Truk Island, 17–18 February 1944  ”,


  1. Technology changes have changed wars. As said that generals usually fight last wars. They are educated with examples happened in past and conduct drills on old ways.

    Today, it is not air superiority but control of spectrum is the first goal in a war. If one lost control of spectrum, all its advanced weapons become directionless rockets.

    Unless there is a war, we have no ways to know how good are ours and Russian or Chinese electronic warfare capabilities.

    1. "Today, it is not air superiority but control of spectrum is the first goal in a war."

      What does a specialist EW ship look like? Lots of electric power, space for lots of antennas, large crew of specialists ... quite a bit like a carrier hull and powerplant, actually.

    2. EW battle doesn't need a dedicated ship. Selected ships and aircrafts are used to do attack. Every other ships and aircrafts are to defend their own radars, communications, ...etc. remain functions.

      Without controlling of EW spectrum, all missiles become directionless rockets. At the same time, winner can deliver their missiles to where they want.

    3. "Without controlling of EW spectrum"

      There is no EW spectrum. That little bit of semantics aside, there is an electromagnetic (EM) spectrum which is used for all manner of activities ranging from optical sensing to communications to radar and many other activities. No one is going to 'control' the EM spectrum. Like any conflict, both sides will have successes and both sides will have failures.

      Electronic warfare is one aspect of the EM spectrum activity, however, EW also includes the use of activities that may be adjuncts to EM use but are not, themselves, inherently part of the EM spectrum. An example would be the use of passive decoys, chaff, and flares.

      "Without controlling of EW spectrum, all missiles become directionless rockets."

      No. Missiles have multiple means of guidance and the more modern missiles can switch between various modes depending on which is working better in a given situation. Terrain following, for example, is impervious to EM/EW actions. Inertial navigation (INS) is another example of an impervious guidance mode. Once in range, missiles may use optical imaging, which is impervious, for target selection and guidance. There are also homing modes that are impervious to EW/EM. The old HARM missiles, for example, had a home on radiation mode for guidance.

    4. "EW battle doesn't need a dedicated ship."

      Electronic warfare would benefit greatly from a dedicated ship as part of a surface group's defenses. The hugely greater power capacity of a ship versus an aircraft, for example, would immensely boost EW capabilities.

      The designation of a single, master EW command ship which would coordinate a group's EW efforts would be beneficial and would correspond to the AAW coordinator on a Ticonderoga.

      A dedicated EW ship would also have far greater 'magazines' for EW expendables such as decoys, chaff, and flares.

      And so on.

      A dedicated EW ship makes a great deal of sense!

    5. "A dedicated EW ship"

      While I like the concept, an useful EW ship would generate at least 100MW of power, thus a really big heat bloom.
      Not exactly stealthy!

      Would it work in practice?
      Perhaps it's a role for USVs?

    6. "useful EW ship would generate at least 100MW"

      How did you come up with that number?

      "Not exactly stealthy!"

      Well … think the operational concept through. Similar to radar, which doesn't actively broadcast all of the time (or even most of the time) and is only actually used when an attack is in progress, a EW whip would not be actively jamming all the time. Most of the time it would be passively sensing. During an attack, it would emit.

  2. If I were to propose a modern version of this (adapted to modern weapons), it would look something like this right?

    "The US attacking fleet consisted of 3 fleet carriers, 8 Ticonderoga class cruisers, 18 Burke class destroyers, and 6 of the new frigates. and about 180 (120 combat) aircraft. Although the Chinese main fleet had fled from Hainan just days prior to the attack, the Chinese defenders still had 300-400 aircraft and 2-3 S-300 battalions operating from five airfields on the nearby islands which constituted a major threat to any attacking surface force."

    It's fascinating to see that while the enemy is maintaining the aircraft threat (and introduce SAM threats!), the numbers in our strike force reduced from 53 combat ships to just only 35 combat ships. Not that numbers is the biggest issue but I suspect to attack an example above, we need at least double the ships and triple the aircraft to stand a chance.

    1. @Ip. Just finished reading the accounts of the 3 main convoys that resupplied Malta during WW2. Its insane and almost incomprehensible today to understand what it took to get a couple of cargo ships and tankers thru to the island. The losses were staggering, I knew the Brits took some losses but lots more than I thought.

      I'm just not sure we understand TODAY what a naval battle, convoy or strike fleet force would take as losses. I dont think we even here inside CNO blog are in the ballpark....forget what the military and public thinks the losses would be.

    2. "I'm just not sure we understand TODAY what a naval battle, convoy or strike fleet force would take as losses."

      You also need to factor in that ships today are built much weaker.

    3. "I dont think we even here inside CNO blog are in the ballpark"

      Well, to refresh your memory, I've posted about attrition warfare, convoy escort size, strike force size requirements, and one of my overarching themes is that we've forgotten just how much destruction real war causes. So, anyone who's followed along with the blog should, I hope, have a pretty good idea of the scale of destruction!

    4. At this point I am not sure we even know how to chase goat herders around the hills of Afghanistan and the deserts of Iraq, much less take on a peer.

    5. "Convoys that resupplied Malta"

      Malta is a fascinating case, and I agree it's worth reading about.

      One of many points that can be made about it is how an intolerance of losses and under-appreciation of logistics may have cost the Axis Malta, and the Eastern Mediterranean. We remember the Battle of Crete as a heroic defeat, but at the time Germany was not used to or expecting the losses even a successful island invasion costs, and did not see it as a victory. They had had a relatively low-casualty war until then. The reluctance to invade Malta lasted the entire campaign, and meant the Axis fought in North Africa at a large disadvantage, even with the British having to ship every bullet around the coast of Africa. With Malta neutralised, the British would have fought at a disadvantage, and the moment Axis troops prevented the use of the Suez canal even temporarily, the campaign (with the prize being Middle-Eastern oil) would have started looking very different.

      And that was just one little island. I suspect our leaders do not imagine what even a successful war in the western Pacific will demand. The British in WW2 knew the value of Malta and were prepared to sustain heavy losses to keep it supplied and functioning. Importantly, they had recognised the danger of massed air attack when operating near enemy coasts early enough pre-war, that they fought key battles with ships that were armoured well enough to achieve the tasks asked of them. I appreciate that the UK's emphasis on carrier armour vs aircraft numbers during WW2 remains controversial, but armoured carriers took multiple hits during the Mediterranean campaign and all continued to serve until war's end.

  3. Operation Hailstone also demonstrated the need to maintain air support of a surface strike group as New Jersey and Iowa were nearly torpedoed during Spruance's “around-the-atoll cruise."

    As New Jersey was finishing off the light cruiser Katori, "the destroyer Maikaze valiantly stood by the Katori and got off a salvo of torpedoes at the Iowa and New Jersey that might have hit but for a timely warning from U.S. aircraft overhead. The New Jersey maneuvered and the torpedoes passed just ahead."

    Afterwards, Spruance quipped "That would have been embarrassing." Given that Spruance had been selected for his fourth star before the raid, his comment might be an understatement.

    In addition, Operation Hailstone validated the need carrier based strike aircraft as they dropped "400 tons of bombs and torpedoes on shipping and 94 tons on land targets."

    1. "Operation Hailstone validated the need carrier based strike aircraft"

      It was an example of the need IN WWII, not today.

      "400 tons of bombs and torpedoes "

      This is also a good example of the inefficiency of aerial strike versus ship strike. A single battleship, using 16" guns, could have delivered 400 tons of shells at a rate of around 13 tons per salvo, equaling the effort of several carriers. The carriers would, of course, be necessary for local air supremacy and aerial cover.

      There are certainly advantages and disadvantages to aircraft and battleships but for sheer efficiency of delivery of explosives, nothing matches a battleship.

    2. "A single battleship, using 16" guns, could have delivered 400 tons . . ."

      That's true if every target was within range of your guns. But, what if your targets were 100 feet out of range? At the same time, you wouldn't bring your battleships within range without first reducing or eliminating enemy defenses.

      This isn't about efficiency or for that matter sheer firepower. This is about using the right weapon at the right time. In this case, the threat of those 300-400 aircraft needed to be reduced or eliminated first. And, the carrier's fighter and strike aircraft were the only means to do so. After the first day, about 100 enemy aircraft were left.

    3. "the threat of those 300-400 aircraft needed to be reduced or eliminated first.the threat of those 300-400 aircraft needed to be reduced or eliminated first."

      Exactly the point of the carrier as escort! You've grasped the concept.

    4. And, I'm glad you agree for the need for carrier based strike aircraft.

  4. During the Cold War, the Soviets realized that they couldn't compete with our carriers, so they turned to missiles as their alternative. Perhaps because so much of our thinking was dominated by the carrier aviation community, we never joined the missile game, except that the SSBNs replaced carrier air for delivery of nuclear weapons from the sea.

    I think we need both--and more of both--carrier air and missiles. The primary mission of carrier air should be to achieve and maintain an air superiority envelope in which our strike assets can operate relatively freely. Our primary conventional strike assets should be SSGNs--and we need a lot more of them. Our secondary conventional strike assets should be Virginia VPMs. Our tertiary conventional strike assets should be missile-bearing surface units--and we need more of them. For all of the above platforms, we need more and better missiles. Carrier strike should be way down the list, but that does not mean nonexistent. We have to be prepared for any eventuality, and there are a number of proxy war scenarios where carrier strike could be very useful, and a cheaper alternative than missiles, because airplanes come back. In a peer war, strike aircraft should have an anti-ship capability during the early stages. When SSGNs, VPMs, and surface ships have destroyed most of an enemy's AAW capability, air strikes can be used to clean up.


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