In the 1920s and ’30s, the U.S. Navy would annually bring its West Coast-based Battle Fleet and East
Coast-based Scouting Fleet (Battle Force and Scouting
Force after April 1, 1931) together in the Pacific Ocean
or Caribbean Sea to conduct a battle problem that sim-
ulated a potential real-world scenario against an Asian/
One of the developments that emerged from World
War I was naval aviation. During the 1920s, the Navy
acquired seaplanes; scout planes that could fly off of
battleships and cruisers; fighter and bomber aircraft
that could operate from carriers; and dirigibles.
By 1930, naval aviation had become integral to the
battle problem series. Even the strongest proponents of
a big-gun fleet understood the value of aircraft for
reconnaissance and assessing the effectiveness of naval
gunfire. With regard to naval aviation’s use as a decisive offensive weapon, the jury was still out.
For Fleet Problem X in March 1930, the Navy had
three aircraft carriers to work with. The home team Blue
Fleet was led by Rear Adm. Lucius Allyn Bostwick, who
commanded the battleships of the Pacific-based Battle
Fleet. In addition to seven of the Navy’s newest battleships, Bostwick also had the aircraft carriers Saratoga and
Langley, the aircraft tender Aroostook, four light cruisers,
five destroyers, 11 submarines and 10 auxiliaries. The
Blue Fleet transited through the Panama Canal on March
10 into the Caribbean to engage the Black Fleet, which
represented a coalition of European powers.
The “enemy” Atlantic Ocean-based Scouting Fleet,
commanded by Vice Adm. William C. Cole, was composed of seven older battleships, the aircraft carrier
Lexington, aircraft tender Wright, five cruisers, 14 destroyers, a dozen submarines, a minelayer and 15 auxiliaries.
Over the first two days, inclement weather hampered
flight operations for the Blue Fleet. Operating without
his eyes, Bostwick remained in the western Caribbean
and evaded detection from scout aircraft and seaplanes.
On March 13, some skirmishes between the two fleets’
vanguards set the stage for the “Battle of Navassa Sea”—
arguably the first carrier battle in history.
Though rain squalls continued to come and go, Sarato-
ga and Langley had their aircraft aloft before dawn on
March 14. Lexington launched three scouts to search out
the Blue Fleet and readied remaining aircraft for a series of
strikes once Bostwick’s force was sighted. At 0725, Lang-
ley’s fighters spotted the three Black scouts, which were in
the process of reporting back the Blue Fleet coordinates,
prompting the launch of strike packages off Lexington.
The significance of the sightings from Langley’s
patrolling aircraft did not seem to resonate within the Blue
Fleet command. Consequently, at 0810, three Lexington
scout bombers dived on Saratoga. Umpires embarked on
the carrier scored hits on its forward flight deck. As
Saratoga’s deck crews attempted to re-spot aircraft further
back to maximize use of the remaining undamaged flight
deck, Lexington’s aircraft swarmed over the Blue Fleet.
Five waves totaling 42 aircraft punished Saratoga
and Langley. By 0833, Saratoga’s flight deck was
judged to have been rendered useless, with the aircraft
on deck destroyed. Two minutes later, attacks on
Langley led the umpires to rule it no longer viable.
From there on, it was game, set, match. Lexington’s
airmen turned their sights on the Blue Fleet battle-
ships, making hits that umpires judged to have dimin-
ished Bostwick’s firepower by nearly 17 percent.
Making matters worse, he no longer had the services of
observation aircraft to spot for his battlewagons for the
forthcoming surface engagement.
At 0925, Cole’s four light cruisers arrived to finish off
the “burning” Langley and Saratoga. While Langley was
practically defenseless, Saratoga fought back with its 8-
inch batteries. Ten minutes later, Cole’s Black Fleet bat-
tle line moved forward for the Jutland-like surface
engagement. Control of the air meant Black’s gunners
were getting solid feedback on their accuracy and Black’s
destroyers were able to make torpedo runs against the
Blue Fleet with no fear of attack from above. Making
matters worse for Bostwick was the continuous attacks
on his battle line from Lexington’s aircraft as well as a tor-
pedo attack from seaplanes operating with Wright.
Though Fleet Problem X extended to March 15, the
outcome had been settled. If there were any doubters
of the potency of naval airpower, the Battle of Navassa
Sea served as an awakening. ;
Source: Albert A. Nofi, To Train the Fleet for War: The U.S.
Navy Fleet Problems, 1923-1940, Naval War College Press,
Newport, R.I. (2010).
Dr. David F. Winkler is a historian with the Naval Historical
Battle of Navassa Sea’ Proved
The Potency of Naval Air Power
By DAVID F. WINKLER