Skip to main content

Carrier Warfare

Carrier Warfare. The U.S. Navy has dominated aircraft carrier warfare since the 1920s. Conceived to provide scouting “eyes” for the fleet, the carrier evolved an attack capability that rivaled that of the battleships during the interwar period. Offensive tactics were developed during annual “fleet problems” by innovative admirals, notably Joseph Mason Reeves, and a small cadre of younger naval aviators led by John H. Towers. In World War II, the carrier became the major arbiter of American seapower, a role more or less perpetuated during and after the Cold War.

U.S. carrier forces have engaged in five principal roles and missions of varying priority according to operational objectives: (1) fleet support, using scouting planes for reconnaissance and fighter planes as defensive interceptors; (2) destruction of the enemy fleet, especially opposing carriers, with attack planes (bombers); (3) protection of merchant shipping as defensive convoy escorts or offensively in hunter‐killer groups, against submarines; (4) destruction of enemy merchant shipping at sea or at anchor; and (5) projecting aerial firepower inland. The function of the latter objective has been twofold: supporting amphibious assaults with close air support of infantry over the beach, protective fighter cover against enemy planes, and interdiction of enemy transportation systems (bridges, roads, rail lines) in order to isolate the beachhead; and striking strategic targets—airfields, army installations, port facilities, and industrial plants.

The sine qua non of carrier warfare is fleet support. The symbiotic interrelationship between carriers and gun ships exists in their mutual defense against enemy air, sub marine, and surface ship attacks. The carriers provide combat air patrol fighters and antisubmarine and antiship patrol searches; the escorting gun ships (destroyers, cruisers, battleships) supply antiair, antisub, and antiship guns and missiles.

Tactically, the vulnerability of World War II carrier forces exposed to air attack caused them to disperse in order to split enemy attacks—during 1942–43 against Japan in the Pacific when U.S. carrier strength was weak, and again during the Cold War due to the threat of nuclear attack by Soviet submarines. Nevertheless, several carriers were temporarily concentrated during the 1942 naval battles at the Coral Sea, Midway, and around Guadalcanal. In overwhelming strength, carriers were concentrated permanently for the Central Pacific War campaign of 1943–45 and in the limited wars thereafter.

At the Battle of Midway, three U.S. carriers, superbly coordinated by Adm. Raymond A. Spruance, sank all four Japanese carriers to the loss of one American “flattop.” Otherwise, carrier strength on both sides was whittled down while supporting amphibious and island struggles in the Coral Sea–Guadalcanal region. When a powerful Fast Carrier Attack Force was created late in 1943 for the offensive, it was organized into three or four task groups, each made up of three or four carriers plus escorting gun ships in a circular screen. The carriers' simultaneous but conflicting missions of supporting amphibious forces and seeking out the Japanese fleet led to confusion and missed opportunities during invasions of the Gilbert Islands, the Marians, and Leyte. Nevertheless, under the brilliant tactical command of Adm. Marc A. Mitscher, the fast carriers neutralized Japan's air and naval bases at Rabaul and Truk, annihilated its carrier planes in the Battle of the Philippine Sea, and sank its last operational carriers at the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

In all subsequent amphibious campaigns—Luzon, Iwo Jima, Okinawa—the carriers battled land‐based Japanese kamikazes, striking their airfields and other strategic targets. Most close air support in the Pacific, and North Africa and the Mediterranean as well, was provided by the small, slower escort carriers.

U.S. carriers helped defeat Germany's U‐boats in the Battle of the Atlantic by utilizing antisubmarine hunter‐killer groups, each an independent force of one escort carrier and a screen of destroyers. Similarly, from the mid‐1950s to the mid‐1970s, specially designated antisub marine carriers patrolled against Soviet submarines until this mission was reassigned to the attack carriers. During the limited wars and crises of Korea, Vietnam, and the Middle East, American carriers operated virtually free from enemy interference. Carriers also played a Cold War deterrent role by carrying nuclear weapons. The emergence of a large Soviet surface fleet and carriers by the 1970s led to a revived doctrine for fighting naval battles, including the projected use of carriers against the Russian fleet in the North Atlantic according to the unofficial “Maritime Strategy” of the 1980s. But the Soviet collapse nullified it.

The major controversies over carrier warfare have been caused by opponents within the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Air Force, and Congress claiming the carrier to be vulnerable to air and submarine attacks and thus a waste of defense expenditures. These arguments have yet to be proven.
[See also Aircraft Carriers; Naval Combat Branches: Naval Air Forces.]


Samuel Eliot Morison , History of U.S. Naval Operations in World War II: The Atlantic Battle Won, Vol. 10, 1956.
Richard P. Hallion , The Naval Air War in Korea, 1986.
John B. Nichols and and Barrett Tillman , On Yankee Station: The Naval Air War Over Vietnam, 1987.
Clark G. Reynolds , Admiral John H. Towers: The Struggle for Naval Air Supremacy, 1991.
Clark G. Reynolds , The Fast Carriers: The Forging of an Air Navy, 1968, repr. 1992.
E. T. Woodridge, ed., Carrier Warfare in the Pacific: An Oral History Collection, 1993.

Clark G. Reynolds

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Carrier Warfare." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . 14 Mar. 2019 <>.

"Carrier Warfare." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . (March 14, 2019).

"Carrier Warfare." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Retrieved March 14, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.