When was the last time the U.S. projected its military power overseas without air and sea superiority? It was 1942. Looking to stop Japan’s expansion across the Pacific and secure the sea lines of communication to Australia, the U.S. 1st Marine Division landed on Guadalcanal Island in the Solomon’s on August 7, 1942. The initial landing went smoothly, with little resistance from the small Japanese garrison. However, because the Japanese had superior forces in the area, the U.S. Navy withdrew its aircraft carrier task force the next day. That very night the Japanese sent a squadron down to Guadalcanal, through waters that became known as “the Slot.” In a night engagement, the Japanese force sank three U.S. and one Australian cruiser. Without air cover, the naval logistic force withdrew the next day.
For the next six months the two sides struggled to dominate the sea lanes and air domain in order to reinforce and resupply their land units on the island. Once the airfield, named Henderson Field, was finished Marine Corps and Army fighters were brought in to contest for air superiority. There were near-continuous air battles over the island for several months. Several times, Japanese naval forces, including battleships, operated off Guadalcanal, shelling Marine positions and the airfield. In the Battle of Santa Cruz Island, the U.S. had one aircraft carrier sunk and another heavily damaged. Other naval battles saw the loss of battleships, cruisers and destroyers on both sides. The Japanese also ran almost nightly resupply missions to the island, nicknamed the Tokyo Express. U.S. naval and air forces engaged in interdiction operations that resulted in the sinking of dozens of surface transports and barges and the deaths of thousands of Japanese troops.
In virtually every major amphibious operation since Guadalcanal, including North Africa, Sicily, Normandy, Okinawa, Iwo Jima and Inchon, the U.S. has enjoyed air and sea superiority. By the time of the Normandy landing, German U-boats had been driven from the Atlantic and the Luftwaffe all but eliminated from the skies of France. The Japanese Navy nearly pulled off a surprise on Admiral Halsey in the Battle of Leyte Gulf but the end result would still have been U.S. control of the seas and air around the Philippines. During the Okinawa campaign, while the Navy had to contend with the very real challenge posed by Japanese kamikaze raids, there was never the possibility that U.S. forces would be driven from the scene. U.S. forces have been free to deploy to Korea, Vietnam, and Southwest Asia free of threats to air and sea lines of communication.
After a hiatus of some 70 years, the U.S. military is again considering the possibility of having to fight for air and naval superiority not only before the deployment of land forces but while Army and Marine units are operating ashore. This will require close coordination of all forces, but particularly air and naval units. This is the rationale behind AirSea Battle. One of the reasons the Japanese lost the battle for Guadalcanal is the lack of coordination between the Army and Navy. Even though the Pacific was the primary theater of operations, the Japanese military lacked the equivalent of AirSea Battle.
Some observers have criticized the Air Force and Navy’s effort to think through the problem of fighting for air and sea dominance, in part because it is viewed as being done at the expense of the Army. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Without a plan to achieve the air and sea dominance against serious opposition, the relevance of the Army and Marine Corps to future wars, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, will be very much in doubt.
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