The History Channel had a special on the Battle of Leyte Gulf (1944, Pacific theater, WWII). At one point in the conflict, a tiny carrier group including three CVE's and a handful of destroyer escorts was all that came between Admiral Kurita's large force of battleships and screening units and a vital beachhead. Admiral Halsey's TF 34 was 400 miles to the north pursuing a fleeing larger Japanese force and was well out of position to do more than listen to Admiral Kincaid's pleas for help.
The CVE's sent fighters off to stop those battleships with whatever they could be armed with, and some fighters either remained in the fight over the battleships or even arrived there with no ordnance at all, doing nothing but drawing attention from the antiaircraft weaponry away from their armed fellows. Meanwhile, the destroyer escorts for Taffy 3 charged deep inside the range of Japanese battleship guns to deliver torpedoes. Ironically, one thing that kept them from vanishing in the face of fire of those heavy guns was that their armor was too thin, causing many armor-piercing shells to plow right on through rather than explode. As it happened, Taffy 3 did cause Kurita's force to retreat on the verge of total victory over mere tin-cans and escort carriers, in part due to the considerable damage the desperate fighters and destroyers had done but also in part because, historians suggest, Kurita thought he was actually engaging Halsey's far larger force. Against that, Kurita simply hadn't the strength to carry on.
I bring this up only in part because it's a really cool bit of military history. It got me thinking about the role of fighters in FOTS and their pilots. A lot is often made here about the horrific loss rate of fighters in FOTS, and there's wonderment about how you can get anyone to fly one voluntarily. Fighter pilots over Leyte Gulf were flying right into serious fire even without weapons, and often without effective ones. I don't think any of them were forced into cockpits at gunpoint, either. On the other side, the first kamikaze attacks were launched, sinking one of the CVE's. Those pilots weren't forced at gunpoint either into their cockpits, and their very mission profile called for them to die. I'm sure a lot of them weren't eager to die - even those kamikaze pilots - but I doubt there were many railing against a country that would deploy them in such hazardous duty. I also don't think that the pilots of FOTS fighters are any less willing to die for their country. That they are willing to do so makes them no more stupid or suicidal and no less heroic than the pilots at Leyte Gulf.
The amount of personnel lost in almost any FOTS battle is negligible relative to the risks to billions of people their actions minimize or eliminate. In that sort of calculus, it would be simply unconscionable not to put those brave young men, women, bugs, or kitties into war's meat grinder, so long as every effort is made to ensure that they're ground out in operations planned and executed to maximize the benefits gained through that sacrifice. And as it happens, I think that the use of fighters and gunboats radically reduces military personnel casualties. If your fleet rules out the use of fighters or gunboats because of qualms about putting you in such fragile units, and thereby reduces its effectiveness or success-to-death ratio, it has betrayed you and your comrades in arms despicably.
600 fighters call for 600 pilots, at 1 person per hull point. At 40 people per hull point, a Hl 15 cruiser calls for 600 crew. Put 600 fighters into combat. Chances are pretty good that the enemy is going to have to be pretty big or pretty well-equipped to take them all out, and chances are, before they do, those 600 fighters will have destroyed a lot of them so as to keep those enemy ships from ever again hurting your people. Put one Hl 15 cruiser into combat, and chances are far, far higher overall that it will be lost with all hands for considerably less gain. Would you really, just as a matter of personal safety, feel better being one of the cruiser's 600 crew instead of one of the 600 fighter pilots? If so, you're either envisioning special circumstances or you're being irrational.
The best defense in FOTS is to minimize time under fire. There are two ways to do this: leave combat early or make it end soon. The first is usually achieved with low break offs, ideally combined with first-shot effects. The second is achieved through overwhelming early firepower that doesn't leave the enemy alive to shoot at you for long. With their large numbers of inexpensive XO racks, fighters are very well suited to this form of defense - they unload large missile salvoes into an enemy over a short period of time. Gunboats share this property, albeit to a lesser degree. The next best defense is flooding the enemy's target environment. With many, many targets, each of strictly limited individual firepower, enemy fire will do relatively little to reduce your firepower, which in turn leads to a quicker end to combat in your favor. If an entire cruiser‘s beam volley of 30 points incinerates a single fighter, it's the end for that pilot, but it's one more turn to fire back at that cruiser for that pilot's hundreds of surviving fellows. 30 points of damage to a friendly cruiser, however, can mean a giant step toward its destruction, and that much less time it has to carry on the business of killing the enemy.
Fighters and gunboats minimize the numbers of personnel put at risk. That would be enough to make them very attractive platforms from the humane point of view of FOTS military planning. But the more humane view in the long run is the one that guides your FOTS nation to survival and victory, without which billions will be gone or enslaved. From there, the critical question isn't about how fragile fighters or gunboats are, or how their crews do not enjoy all the perceived safety of big thick cruiser hulls, but whether or not they are effective units in winning wars.
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