The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Sunday, January 02, 2005

Revolt of the Admirals: the Second American Civil War - almost

I'd a vague recollection of the Convair B-36 as the Zeppo of strategic bombers: a cigar-store aircraft making up the numbers between the outgoing B-29 and incoming B-52: a Cold War curio for the air anorak and military completist.

I'd no idea that the plane was the cause of open bureaucratic warfare between the US Navy and Air Force in the same year (1949) that Truman 'lost' China (and the year before things kicked off in Korea), with the House Armed Services Committee serving as the three-ring circus in which a galaxy of acts made exhibitions of themselves.

The Revolt of the Admirals. it was called. A 1998 paper (PDF) from a graduate of the Air University has footnotes, but is rather heavy going: a 1996 piece from Air and Space Magazine reads better, and has good anecdotage.

The bare bones of the affair were that the organisation of US defence had been tossed into the air twice since the end of the War, and the USAF had the high ground: strategic bombing was the pet doctrine du jour and the B-36, entering service in 1948, could, operating from the continental US, deliver a 10,000lb nuke to Uncle Joe's door. Game over. Combined operations were yesterday's news: the USAF had the nation covered.

Only logical, therefore, for Defense Secretary Louis Johnson to save a tidy sum by cancelling the flush-deck super-carrier the USS United States that had been OK'd by his navalist predecessor James Forrestal.

Battle commenced, and the USN lost. I can't imagine the spat had strategic consequences - but it must have given Stalin's and Mao's top brass a bloody good laugh at the time.

The politics looks deliciously complicated: Johnson was, before becoming SecDef [1], a sachem [2] at Convair, the makers of the B-36, and the steel tip to the USN complaint (initially made via a leak - surprise, surprise) was an allegation that Johnson was getting some kind of kickback. He was exonerated by the HASC report, rightly or not.

There is another angle within the air camp: according to what purports to be a reprint of a 1980 LA Times piece, the B-36 became the USAF's choice of strategic bomber by default: the design which won a competition for the role was the Northrop B-35/B-49 Flying Wing. Northrop received orders for 35 planes in 1948; but, shortly afterwards, was told by Air Force Secretary Stuart Symington to merge with - who else but Convair! And - miracle of miracles! - Atlas Corp, which owned Convair, were offering bargain-basement terms for Northrop.

When Northrop declined, its order for the Flying Wing was cancelled.

Stuart Symington was brought up an East Coast sophisticate but, according to an Air Force Magazine profile was no stranger to corporate wheeling and dealing - or sweating assets. After several successful company turnarounds during the Depression, he bought Emerson Electric of St Louis in 1938, in good time for the defence contracting bonanza to come.

The HASC report also cleared Symington, apparently; but it would not have been the first time that a prominent pol had used his office to force down the price of an asset to his own profit: on July 27, I told the tale of Lyndon Johnson's acquisition of KTBC Austin at a knock-down price, assisted by various spurious FCC complaints about the previous owners.

  1. That, I find, is the official DOD acronym for Secretary of Defense. SOD, in case you're wondering, is special operations division; strategy and options decision (Planning, Programming, and Budgeting System)

  2. Online sources vary in the precise job title.


Various (more or less) related URLs, several PDFs:

An LBJ Library oral history interview with Symington.

A Truman Library interview with DOD General Counsel at the time Felix Larkin.

A history of the 7th Bombardment Wing at Carswell AFB, home of the earliest B-36s in service.

A NASA Aeronautics and Astronautics Chronology, 1945-1949 may come in handy.

A 1998 piece on the Revolt from Air Force Magazine.

A 40,000 word 1989 paper by a USA major The Goldwater-Nichols Act Of 1986: Resurgence In Defense Reform And The Legacy Of Eisenhower covers the relevant period in its first couple of chapters.

More generally, there is the 128 page paper Primer on U.S. Strategic Nuclear Policy from 2001, published by Sandia National Laboratories, a GOCO (government-owned/contractor operated) facility managed by Lockheed Martin.

(GOCOs a peculiarly plain manifestation of the corporate state to which the military-industrial complex belongs, I surmise.)

An AFU paper Is The Day of the Aircraft Carrier Over? looks at the history since the days of the Revolt.

Another, Purple Virtues: Curing Unhealthy Interservice Rivalry looks forward from the Revolt.

A third, The Long Search for a Surgical Strike: Precision Munitions and the Revolution in Military Affairs by Prof David Mets, looks at, inter alia, the strategic bombing doctrine of World War 2 and afterwards.

A review article by Mets on strategic bombing.

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