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WC vs. History: Panama Games Are The Fleet's Problem

"Sir, that sergeant over at the comm center said a carrier had come through," Geoff said, forcing his voice to sound even and under control. "That's against standard doctrine, but it was a scenario you presented to us in class. They're most likely launching fighters and bombers now. They could be here in less than an hour and a half. This could be the Panama war game scenario, sir."

What purpose the aircraft carrier was to serve with the Fleet was still undetermined in 1929. Naval aviation itself was nineteen years old and had been born on 14 November 1910 when Eugene Ely, Naval Aviator No. 1, took off in a biplane from a wooden platform constructed over the bow of USS Birmingham (CL-2). On 18 January 1911, Ely completed the flight cycle by landing on a platform constructed over the rear of USS Pennsylvania (ACR-4). The United States' first carrier joined the Fleet eleven years later. USS Langley (CV-1), the converted coiler Jupiter, served as the early testbed for American carrier operations.

Eugene Ely taking off from the Birmingham, landing on the Pennsylvania, and the USS Langley as she appeared in 1928.

During the interwar years, the United States Navy conducted twenty-two Fleet Problems, from 1923 to 1941, to test new doctrine and train the Fleet for war. They involved varied circumstances, a rainbow of different opponents, and allowed the Fleet to test specific operational and strategic scenarios. Of the exercises, Fleet Problem IX, 23-27 January 1929, is the one that most influenced the development of carrier doctrine. What made Fleet Problem IX so important to carrier doctrinal development was how the USS Saratoga (CV-3) was deployed during the exercise.

"Fleet Problem IX was arguably the most important in the entire series for the development of aircraft carrier operations." - Albert Nofi

Fleet Problem IX postulated the following scenario: War had broken out between Blue (United States) and an alliance of Black (Japan) and Brown (England) in November 1928. Blue had a large fleet in the Atlantic and a small squadron in the Pacific. Despite the threat of the Brown fleet, Blue was sending reinforcements to the Pacific. Black, a weaker maritime power, was intent on attacking Blue forces and the Panama Canal before the reinforcements arrived. The exercise required no "geographic transposition and orientation" as it was set in the actual theater under study, Panama and the adjacent portions of the Pacific and Caribbean. Each side was provided some "motives" however, they were not to determine the overall objectives of the problem. Blue forces were to defend the Panama Canal from attack, practice delaying operations against superior forces, and work in cooperation with the Army in coastal defense. This was the first fleet problem in which USS Lexington (CV-2) and USS Saratoga took part. Langley was also supposed to operate as part of Black's fleet, but suffered a mechanical breakdown en route and was stricken from the exercise. The seaplane tender USS Aroostook (CM-3) was substituted as a surrogate for the Langley.

Black forces started in Magdalena Bay, Mexico, roughly 2,750 miles northwest of Panama. The Black fleet was organized into three task forces: Striking Force, Support Force, and Train. Saratoga was part of the Striking Force along with two plane guard destroyers for her, four battleships, the light cruiser Omaha (CL-4) and a destroyer squadron. Initially this force was to steam south to the Galapagos Islands and then steam northeast to attack the Canal. However, concerns over fuel consumption of the battleships changed the plan. Instead, Saratoga was detached with her plane guard destroyers and the Omaha, who possessed the speed to keep up with the Saratoga during the run, to undertake an independent mission. This one modification to the operational plans is what made Fleet Problem IX so important to the development of carrier operations. What can be considered the first "Fast Carrier Task Force" steamed for the Galapagos. After rendering the appropriate honors to Neptunus Rex upon crossing the Equator, the small task force proceeded towards Panama at high speed (30+ knots).

At 0548 on 26 January, 84 years ago today, Saratoga began launching 70 aircraft from a point 140 miles south of the Canal. The strike package's targets were the Miraflores and Pedro Miguel locks. The strike arrived over the targets at 0700 with complete surprise and "destroyed" both locks before going on to attack other shore installations. The strike returned to the carrier without suffering any losses to "enemy action".

The dawn carrier strike was an overwhelming success. By using a high speed night approach to the target, Saratoga had been able to surprise the Blue forces and inflict a large amount of damage on the Canal installations. This was the first time that an aircraft carrier had been used in an independent strike role. The success of the raid was noted by many, including Admiral William Pratt. He called the raid "the most brilliantly conceived and most effectively executed naval operation in our history." Pratt transferred his flag to Saratoga following the exercise so he could "see what makes airmen tick." Pratt went on to become an important advocate for naval aviation. Eugene Wilson, a staff officer of Admiral Joseph "Bull" Reeves who commanded the Saratoga task force during the problem stated, correctly, that the actions of the task force marked "the first step in the development of the Carrier Task Forces which were so effective in the Pacific." The operation convinced naval aviators, and some surface warriors, that task forces built around carriers would be of importance in the future of naval warfare.

The mindset of Terran and Kilrathi commanders at the start of the Terran-Kilrathi War in many ways mirrored the debate that had taken place in the interwar period of the 20th century. Battleships reigned supreme and carriers existed to support and supplement them. The idea of a few dozen lightweight aircraft sinking a battleship, or even heavily damaging one, seemed preposterous. General Billy Mitchell had demonstrated the potential of airpower against ships off the Virgina Capes in 1922, although many viewed the tests as skewed in favor of the aviators. 700 years later, the Terran Confederation conducted the "Panama System War Games". While the details of the war games are not fully known, they play a small, but critical part in the story of the novel Action Stations.

"Sir, you were part of the Panama system war games twelve years back, weren't you?" Geoff interjected.

"So?"

"Well, sir. That's where they did a simulation of a new type of weapon, small enough to be carried on a carrier-launched bomber, that can break through phase shielding. The three carriers wiped out all ten battlewagons on the Red team."

"I was there merely as an observer from the Academy," Turner replied while looking at the ceiling and blowing a smoke ring, "and I'm surprised, Mr. Tolwyn, to hear that you, like your companion, Mr. Richards, have also indulged in a little code breaking since that report is classified. And yes, the carriers did nail the battlewagons, at least until the umpires declared the strike null and void. According to official records, Red Fleet won that war game since the Blue admiral threw away his scouting capacity by wasting his carriers."

"And according to you?"

"I was just there as a fleet historian, I just recorded the results."

"But you were converted, weren't you, sir?" Geoff pressed.

"Let's just say I sat up and took notice. But that was speculation on a weapon that as far as we know doesn't exist. I think it's safe to say that our tech people have been fooling around with the idea of a weapon that can punch through phased shielding to nail a capital ship. I think it's safe to say they might have even developed some primitive models, but the counter is to simply increase the frequency of polarity shift to trick the warhead into thinking it's penetrated the shield, so that it blows before it's all the way through. That type of info isn't even really classified. The only way to break a shield is to hammer it so damn hard that it soaks off all the energy from the generators. And hammering means big ships with damn big guns which means battlewagons, not popgun fighters."

"And do you believe that?" Vance asked.

"Let's just say it's still doctrine at the Academy." He lowered his head and sighed. "Well, what was the Academy. Now, if some evidence came up to the contrary, we might see things differently."

"I just wonder if it's doctrine in the Kilrathi training schools," Richards said with a sigh.
The Japanese Type 91, Type 93 "Long Lance" and the Confederation "Lance" torpedoes.

Ever since the Kilrathi discovery of the Confederation in 2629, Kilrathi leaders had argued over what course to take with this newly discovered empire on their rimward flank. The war faction, led by Crown Prince Gilkarg, argued for an immediate, debilitating strike on the Confederation; a classic "jak-tu" that would drive the Terrans to surrender and leave the Empire free to focus on the threat corewards. Primary opposition to this plan came from Vakka of the Ki'ra bloodline, who argued for an entrenchment along the Empire's coreward border. His primary failing seems to have been his inability to offer a compelling alternative to the threat posed by the Confederation; nevertheless, his objections delayed the final decision until early 2634.

The Kilrathi wanted to strike at the heart of the Confederation's warfighting ability. However, the Confederation fleet base at McAuliffe was a fortress. The orbital fleet base, Alexandria, was connected to the planet by the Skyhook which along with the base on the planet's surface was protected by a massive shield system. The shields were designed to stand up to the heaviest of bombardments. Fusion reactors, which provided the power to the system, were buried deep in mountains located near the base. Taking out these reactors was believed to be the only way to take down the shields. To prevent this, hundreds of defensive turrets and positions dotted the ground base, the Skyhook and Alexandria. To defeat the base it would require an entire fleet and a large landing force to destroy the fusion reactors and bring down the shields. The price for destroying the base would be high. However, the Kilrathi had been working on a new weapon which could penetrate the shields, like the hypothetical weapon used in the Panama War Games.

"Damn," Turner whispered, "not enough by a long sight." He drew a deep breath. "Valeri, you were a damn good student of mine twelve years ago. You remember the Panama war game?"

She smiled and looked over at the holo field. "We've got it right here. They've got a shield-busting weapon, there's no mistake. Otherwise they wouldn't be attacking like this."

The hypothetical weapon was the torpedo. Much like its nautical ancestor, the purpose of the new torpedo was to damage and destroy capital ships when delivered from carrier-based bombers. Nautical torpedoes were known as "ship killers" because the weapon was designed to run at depths below the armored belts of battleships. By striking at the unarmored belly of capital ships, torpedoes had the potential to immediately cause a mortal wound. Just prior to the Raid on Pearl Harbor, American and Japanese naval experts expected a battleship, fully manned, in Condition Zed (all watertight doors and hatches sealed), and at General Quarters, could withstand 5-7 torpedoes before being sunk.

The TCS Concordia, not the famous dreadnought from later in the war, took two of the new Kilrathi torpedoes during the McAuliffe Ambush. The carrier held, but soon after jumping out of McAuliffe had to be abandoned as a result of the extensive damage. Many of the other Confederation ships around McAuliffe succumbed after sustaining a few torpedoes. The reason for the quick destruction of so many ships may have had to do with design. If we can speculate for a moment, more weight was appears to have been given to shields in protecting ships from damage. Armor is certainly important, but from some of the discussion seen in Action Stations it appears secondary in terms of protection. In bypassing the shields, the new torpedoes expend their destructive energies directly against the armored hull. When armed with nuclear or anti-matter warheads one can imagine the damage they can inflict on a ship's hull. It's not shock then, that so many Confederation ships and protected installations were destroyed during the torpedo's first use at McAuliffe.

Just as Fleet Problem IX had a long term influence on the development of fast carrier operations, the Panama System War Games and the Kilrathi use of the shield-penetrating torpedo changed how interstellar battles would be fought. Ships of the line might still trade salvos, but the main ship-killing power of the Fleet resided in carrier-based bombers delivering torpedoes. Many of the major engagements of the Terran-Kilrathi War were decided by which side had more torpedo-carrying bombers capable of striking the enemy fleet. That doctrine, like the carrier strike, emerged from a war game where naval professionals postulated, "what might come next?"