Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Not again, please

These days, there's quite a lot of talk about our national budget deficits. Usually, when that talk turns to finding places to cut expenditures, national defense is the category that seems to get the most attention. The automatic sequestration that may kick in this fall would result in cuts so dangerous that even Leon Panetta, President Obama's Secretary of Defense, is alarmed.

We've been down this road before, and it's worthwhile looking at what happened to thirty young men, seventy years ago at the Battle of Midway, as a result.

The Great Depression dominated our nation's attention during the decade of the 1930's, while the world was sliding toward war. Everyone wanted relief from the Depression's effects, and most people were willing to believe that the United States could and should stay out of "foreign wars," and concentrate on its own welfare first. Defense budgets were slashed, then slashed again. Only in 1940 and 1941, when war in Europe was already well under way, was this trend reversed -- and by then it was too late to make up all the ground lost in the '30's before our young men were called upon to fight.

Consequently, our Navy went to war in December 1941 with the plane pictured above, the Douglas TBD "Devastator", as its only torpedo bomber -- an essential weapon in the new way of war brought on by the rise of the aircraft carrier. It was slow, poorly armed, and already obsolete. But it was all that the American people thought it should afford.

The TBD was armed with the infamous Type XIII torpedo, which often didn't run straight or at the proper depth, and didn't explode even on the rare occasions on which it hit its target. The prewar defense budget didn't allow for a rigorous testing program, so its designers just guessed at the best way to drop it. They thought its guidance system too fragile to endure much of an impact when the torpedo hit the water, so they told the pilots to fly low (80 feet above the waves, or lower) and slow (around 100 mph). This meant that while they were on their run in to the target, the planes would be ridiculously vulnerable to antiaircraft fire and fighter interceptors.

At the Battle of Midway, the thirty airmen of the USS Hornet's Torpedo Squadron 8 climbed into their TBDs knowing all this. And because the Navy was not yet adept at coordinating carrier operations, they arrived over the Japanese fleet alone, without fighter protection, and without even the cover of other aircraft attacking simultaneously.

Yet they all made their low, slow attacks, with their obsolete planes and their faulty torpedoes. And all but one of them died that day. Not a single plane survived. Not a single torpedo hit its mark.

But as every student of the battle knows, Torpedo 8's sacrifice distracted the Japanese defenders just long enough so that when, by pure luck, American dive-bombers arrived overhead a few minutes later, they had an unhindered run to the Japanese carriers.

And about a year later, when the Mark XIII torpedo was finally thoroughly tested, it was found that it worked much better when it was dropped from a much higher altitude at a much higher speed.

But the thirty young men of Torpedo 8 had gone into their doomed runs with inferior planes, ill-tested weapons, and wrong-headed training because, for too many years, the American people had wanted social programs instead of a strong defense.

Let's not make that mistake again.