I just returned from New York City, where my wife and I traveled for just one night’s stay to see a remarkable off-Broadway show titled In And Of Itself. While we were there we did several touristy things that involved enough walking that today I’m still stiff and sore. Pounding across 6 NYC Avenues and up and down 30 NYC Streets was one thing when I was in my 30s, but it turns out to be quite another now that I’m pushing 60, despite all the stationary cycling and elliptical tread-milling I sweat through here in my basement.
Still, you just have to tour NYC on foot, and it’s always rewarding. In just a short while we crossed through Union Square Park, strolled in Madison Square Park, and walked amid the new complex of tall glass buildings at Hudson Yards, now nearing completion; we paused at the iconic Flat Iron building, once, for a brief while, among the city’s tallest; we took in a long stretch of the High Line, a miles-long park constructed atop an old elevated railway trestle; we dined at a fabulous little restaurant, where I had a plate of beef bourguignon so tasty that the cow would probably have recommended it.
On Saturday morning, I dragged Kathy to the USS Intrepid air and space museum, a permanently moored aircraft carrier that now serves as an exhibit, with various vintage aircraft, some designed for naval aviation, some not, stored on and below the flight deck.
We were asked at the ticket counter whether we wanted to buy an audio guided tour, which in our case would have been a bit redundant. Ha! I thought. It is to laugh! Naval architecture is something I know more than a little about, and aircraft carriers are a life-long fascination and specialty. The Essex class, of which Intrepid was a member, was a landmark in carrier design, and a construction feat of epic proportions. I’d have to shamefacedly surrender my credentials if you could hear anything on such a tour that I couldn’t tell you.
So we wandered around the ship, me talking, and Kathy putting up with me. Whenever I’m on board a warship I’m struck by the stark functionality of every single thing that surrounds you. There isn’t a comfortable or pleasant thing aboard. Even the captain’s day cabin made the average prison cell look decent enough. The vessel was helmed within a cramped space in which a teenager would have stood behind a surprisingly small brass wheel. The navigation bridge had small windows and almost nowhere to sit or stand. Every passageway was about as wide as the average set of shoulders, studded on all sides with hard metal projections that could only have been put there to ensure that every shin, knee, elbow and forehead paid a stiff price for every foot of progress. Even in calm seas you’d have to be a contortionist to make it through unscathed. You didn’t have to be claustrophobic to come down with claustrophobia.
This is counter-intuitive, because the Intrepid is huge. Here’s what you see from the street as you approach it, bow-on:
Ships of the Essex class were about 860 feet long (it varied), and the flight deck at its widest was eventually enlarged to about 150 feet across, and measured over two acres. Standing at pier-side you’re confronted with a grey steel wall that looms about 55 feet above you, and stretches beyond your peripheral vision in both directions. Inside, the hangar deck, unlike the rest of the interior, is such an expansive enclosed space that it’s hard to believe you’re on something that floats and moves. Yet these enormous vessels were mass-produced. In the latter years of the Pacific war, twenty-four of these things were commissioned, each carrying an air wing of 90 combat aircraft. It’s as if Harland and Wolff ran off 23 sisters to the Titanic – and the plan was to build thirty-two, but they won the war before the last eight became necessary. They were classified as “fleet carriers”, and they were fast, capable of over 30 knots (about 55 – 60 KPH), and festooned with anti-aircraft weapons and the best radars then available. They completely overwhelmed what was left of the Imperial Japanese Navy after Midway. Some took a vicious pounding, but none was lost, and for years after the war they served on, in heavily modified form, right up until the 1970s. Intrepid was decommissioned in 1974.
Two things, beyond the immediately obvious, struck me as I prattled on in Kathy’s direction. First was the incredible fact that the Intrepid was awesomely huge, yet by today’s standards not particularly big. Subsequent carriers became progressively larger, a trend culminating in the monsters of today’s Ford class, which displace over 100,000 tons compared to the Intrepid‘s 40,000, and have a 250-foot-wide flight deck that encloses five acres of territory, almost three more than the one I was standing on.
Second, Intrepid was numbered “11”. The oldest carrier in service today, a nuclear- powered giant named Nimitz, namesake of her class, is numbered “68”. Thus in the 75 years between now and when Intrepid rolled down the slipway, 56 similar great engines of war, steadily increasing in size, came, served, and went. The latest, the aforementioned Gerald R. Ford, number 78, is the first of a new breed, bigger than ever, impressive as Hell, but beset by teething troubles and costing, so far, close to 14 billion US dollars. More on the way.
When you see something like Intrepid up close, the expenditure of resources seems breathtaking – and really quite disconcerting. I’m not saying that the United States Navy doesn’t need these warships, or that the whole Western world doesn’t desperately need the United States Navy. It does, and we do. I mean that most emphatically. Yet there on the Intrepid, I was filled with notions so trite that I’d be embarrassed to relate them, except that nothing ever changes even though almost everybody alive knows them to be true: like, it’s a crying shame, and just think of what could be made better if all that treasure and energy could be expended on something a little more peaceable, and $US 14 billion is a lot of milk and cornflakes for a lot of hungry kids, a lot of new housing units for those in the cold, and a whole lot of anything that doesn’t kill people!
Any moron could say the same, and I’d be happy to tell that moron that he was utterly out to lunch if he thought such a world was possible, or that it would actually be a moral choice to abandon our willingness to kill if necessary to preserve what we’ve achieved. I would.
Yet it was hard not to cut the hypothetical moron some slack when you looked around and saw what was tied up across the pier. There sat the guided missile submarine USS Growler, one of the last non-nuclear subs, commissioned back in 1958. It was a big old thing for a diesel, over 300 feet long, and it had a huge bulbous bow, designed to contain – get this – a miniature air wing in the form of four enormous air-breathing cruise missiles, airplanes in essence, stored two apiece, all snug and dry, in watertight hangars enclosed behind big hemispherical pressure doors.
The missiles were called “Regulus”, and were jet-powered, subsonic drones that would carry a nuclear warhead to a target as far as 500 miles away. To use the missile the sub would have to surface, roll the thing out of the hangar, and get it ready to launch, with rocket assistance, from an inclined ramp that had limited traverse. This must have been no end of fun in choppy seas.
It was an amazing technical achievement, but hugely impractical, and only a handful of such submarines were built before the Navy switched to Polaris, an intercontinental ballistic missile that could be launched vertically out of tubes from below the surface. A Polaris boat shipped 16 missiles, and was a terrifying machine of pure destructive force, the descendants of which still cruise the seas, whispering the promise that lies at the heart of all theories of nuclear deterrence: you do that and I’ll kill us both. Polaris worked. The Growler was a sad mutant throwback by comparison, with its vaguely silly unmanned aircraft, and the need to surface to fire. Not long after the first units were operational, the Regulus program was dropped like third period French, and the Growler was retired in 1964, after only six years of largely unimportant service. Had the misguided project carried on, the swabbos would have been tasked with man-handling the even larger and more formidable Regulus II, which was supersonic. Thankfully for all concerned, this second generation of impractical flying H-bombs was quietly shelved.
If, during the period when Growler paddled around the world’s oceans, the Soviet Union really would have launched a nuclear strike if it could have gotten away with it, it wasn’t the existence of a few half-assed subs carrying a few half-assed subsonic cruise missiles that dissuaded it. There was real genius in the execution of the Regulus program, but still – half-assed. Half-assed and unnecessary.
How much money, how much brainpower, was thrown down a well to get the Growler and her sisters to sea? How many aeronautical engineers laboured night and day to design the Regulus? How many hurdles had to be cleared to arrive at something the size of an F-86 that could be hauled out of a watertight hangar and launched on a frigging rail from the pitching deck of a surfaced sub, thence to guide itself to a distant target?
I guess this is what it is to grow old. Years ago, confronted with a moron who preached disarmament, I’d have wanted to punch his lights out. Now I’d feel more like crying, and giving the poor misguided dummy a hug. I’ll still deny that any realistic assessment of the world and the threats it presents could lead any sane person to dismantle his country’s armed forces. It isn’t so, and never will be. I’m just saying that a lot of ugly truths start to wear you down, and make childish ideas sound ever more appealing.
I’m not alone. Other, more prominent saps have sympathized with the morons too, and some of them, unlike me, knew whereof they spoke: