From 1972 until 1993, Dr. Vince Davis served as the Director of the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky, where I currently work. Before coming to Lexington, Dr. Davis served as an USN aviator and intelligence officer. In 1967, he published the Admirals Lobby, a study of the US Navy as a political and bureaucratic lobbying group. I recently had the opportunity to pick up a copy of the book, and found this extended passage, discussing Glenn Curtiss’ 1910 bombing demonstration in upstate New York, very useful:
The extreme aviation enthusiasts, beginning with Curtiss himself, made the fundamental mistake of thinking that vulnerability was an absolute quality. It is, of course, all relative- relative to the vulnerability of competitive weapons systems that could possibly perform the same mission, relative also to the ability of the target to protect itself or be protected, and relative to the urgency of the mission that a weapons system is designed to perform even though it might be subjected to damaging counterattacks. This last criterion might more accurately be described as the balance between vulnerability and expendability. But the extremists seldom if ever considered that the aircraft might have some important vulnerabilities and limitations of its own, that surface forces might be needed for urgent roles even if their susceptibility to damaging counterattacks had been substantially increased, that surface ships might be better able to defend themselves against air attack than other forces with similar capabilities, or that the aircraft might add more to the offensive and defensive punch of surface ships than it would detract in increased vulnerability.
Naval officers, curiously enough, seldom challenged the implicit (and sometimes explicit) assertion of the uninformed enthusiasts and the extremist aviation devotees that vulnerability was an absolute thing. Their response in almost every case was to argue just as absolutely that ships were not significantly vulnerable to air attack. It was evident from the beginning that the confrontation of opposed sides on the issue of the military significance of the airplane was not to be primarily a debate over technical questions but rather a political dispute. The aviation enthusiasts perhaps understood that they would get nowhere by taking a moderate stand; furthermore, virtually none of them was a professional military man, and they therefore could not have been expected to appreciate important military considerations when evaluating a new piece of hardware. The naval officers on the other hand, once the aviation enthusiasts had taken an extreme position, may have understood that a reasoned reply to extremist contentions is seldom politically effective, especially if the contentions appeal to the general public.
A more likely explanation for the character of the officers’ response was the threat they perceived in the claims of the extremists- claims which, from the officers’ point of view, seemed to challenge the raison d’etre of their service and therefore challenged the continued existence of the Navy itself.
The first paragraph could be applied to nearly any debate about the integration of new technologies into existing force structures that we’ve had in the last hundred years. The point on the treatment vulnerability as an absolute quality is particularly apt for evaluating the “aircraft carrier vulnerability debate” of recent years; too much of this debate has focused on this question of absolute vulnerability, rather than on a broader (dare we say “net”?) assessment of how capabilities interact. And I think that the political observations are also useful, although in this case we might apply them specifically to branches rather than to the service as a whole.