(Part I is here
Mahan's dictum that good men and bad ships make a better navy than bad men and good ships was always near Nimitz's thoughts .
Ian Toll, Pacific Crucible
In the previous post I noted that the US Navy fought the absolutely critical; battles of 1942 without the benefit of the new ships built under the Two-Ocean Navy Act of 1940. This was, in itself, a remarkable achievement. As FDR said in his 1943 SOTU address:
This past year was perhaps the most crucial for modern civilization. The Axis Powers knew that they had must win the war in 1942 – or eventually lose everything.
It would be wrong, however, to discount the Navy's performance in 1943-1945 by ascribing it solely to the numerical preponderance produced by America's industrial base.
Numbers count in war but they are not everything. Note that the Royal Navy entered the war with a tremendous advantage over the Kriegsmarine. Yet it took nearly four years for Britain to secure it vital lifelines against a numerically inferior enemy. That is, roughly, the amount of time it took the US Navy to sweep the far more formidable Japanese navy from the whole of the Pacific.
Norman Friedman details just how remarkable an accomplishment that was:
To win the Pacific War, the U.S. Navy had to transform itself technically, tactically, and strategically. It had to create a fleet capable of the unprecedented feat of fighting and winning far from home, without existing bases, in the face of an enemy with numerous bases fighting in his own waters. …
If it seems obvious that any naval officer aware of the march of technology would have developed the massed carriers and the amphibious fleet, the reader might reflect that the two other major navies failed to do so. The Japanese did create a powerful carrier striking force, but they made no real effort to back it up with sufficient reserves to keep it fighting. They developed very little amphibious capability useful in the face of shore defenses: They could not, for example, have assaulted their own fortified islands, let alone Normandy or southern France. The British built carriers, but accepted very small carrier air groups because, until well into World War II, they saw their carriers mainly as support for their battle fleet. Like the Japanese, they did not develop an amphibious capability effective against serious defense.
Norman Friedman, Winning a Future War: War Gaming and Victory in the Pacific War
When it came to experience, the USN trailed Japan and Great Britain. It had not been at war with a great power since the War of 1812.
Its last conventional naval war had been fought against Spain in 1898, before nearly all the weapons and ships of 1919 had even been conceived. Its World War I experience was limited almost entirely to anti-submarine warfare,
Correlli Barnett called war “the great auditor of institutions”. The Pacific War showed that the USN, as an institution, led the world's navies in technological innovation and operational excellence.
Clearly, the USN had done a lot of things right in the eras of Normalcy and Depression.
Friedman has an idea of what the most important thing was:
What set the U.S. Navy apart? War gaming at the U.S. Naval War College at Newport, Rhode Island, seems to have been a large part of the answer. The games played by students there were a vital form of training, but at least as importantly, the games served as a laboratory for the U.S. Navy. It seems to have been significant that, until 1934, the Naval War College was part of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV) rather than part of the naval school system. Gaming experience fed back into full-scale exercises (Fleet Problems), and full-scale experience fed back into the detailed rules of the games, which were conceived as a way of simulating reality as closely as possible. Game data were also fed to the U.S. Navy’s war planners, all of whom had graduated from the War College and thus had considerable game experience. The successes and failures of simulation give some guidance into what is needed in current and future games.
Adm. William Sims made war-gaming central to the NWC's mission. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the Navy Department used the NWC as a quasi-think tank and R&D lab. A generation of captains and admirals grappled with the pareticular challenges of war with Japan as well as the evolving nature of sea warfare.
At the same time Newport inculcated a “common command culture “ in the navy's senior leaders and helped breakdown functional silos and mental blinders.
This paid off in the four critical carrier battles of 1942:
During World War II, U.S. non-aviators such as Admiral Raymond Spruance and Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher (both War College graduates) successfully wielded carrier forces. Non-aviators in other navies do not seem to have done nearly so well.
In the “improvised war” the NWC grads and their common command culture bested Yamamoto and his battle-hardened samurai.
They did this without the benefit of numerical or technical superiority.
Friedman suggests that the wargames at Newport were the ideal tool to prepare the navy for the Pacific War:
Perhaps the fairest evaluation of military judgment versus gaming would be that in areas in which considerable full-scale experience had been accumulated, military judgment was much more likely to be accurate. Gaming offered insight into wars that had not yet been fought, involving new weapons—particularly aircraft. As we look back, the shift in War Plan Orange—a shift which proved extremely beneficial—was one of those areas.
The Japanese navy also used wargames (as did the Prussian/Germany army which essentially invented military gaming). Why did the USN derive so much more benefit than Japan? Three key differences seem to stand out.
For one thing, the Japanese were focussed – even obsessed – with the idea of a Mahanian decisive battle against the US Battle Fleet in the western Pacific. Like the pre-1914 German General Staff they devoted their wargaming efforts to refining a single strategy. This tunnel vision led the IJN to ignore the problems that came with long campaigns and wide-ranging operations.
Another significant difference was the role of logistics in game play and discussion. In the IJN, logistics officers – if they were even included in the gaming sessions – were to see but not speak. Their role was limited to observing and noting the requirements of the planned operation.
Finally, the NWC wargames were played out by mid-level officers. They were free to explore new strategies and tactics and the faculty could referee the games with no concern about alienating senior admirals. The top officers in Washington were free to analyze the results of the games without implicitly committing to any particular course of action.
Japan's wargames precluded this sort of free-ranging exploration. Their games, like all their planning exercises, were fraught with tension caused by political rivalries, considerations of rank and seniority, and prickly concerns about personal honor.
In 1942 – FDR's “critical year” – the Pacific War offered two strategic inflection points. The first occurred after the dazzling Japanese victories at Pearl Harbor, Malaya, and Burma. The second came in the wake of their crushing defeat at Midway. In both cases, the IJN reacted tentatively and with a complete lack of focus. In the spring, Yamamoto sent his carriers to attack Darwin, Australia and then against the Royal Navy in the Bay of Bengal. Meanwhile, he drew up plans for offensives against New Guinea, the Solomons, the Aleutians, and Midway. After Midway he seems never to have settled on clear plan for the defensive war Japan would have to fight. Guadalcanal was seized as an airbase but the island as not fortified and work on the airfield progressed slowly.
In both victory and defeat Yamamoto and his staff seem confused when confronted by sudden changes in the strategic situation.
One cannot ignore the simple fact that not a single [Japanese] operation planned after the start of the war met with success
H. P. Willmott, Empires in the Balance
The USN presents a completely different picture. Despite the shock of Pearl Harbor, which crippled the battleship fleet and rendered the existing warplans obsolete, the Navy moved swiftly and with strategic focus. Steps were immediately taken to secure the sea-lanes to Australia. Carrier operations began to harass the Japanese bases and blunt their offensives: Lae, the Doolittle Raid, Coral Sea, Midway.
When the tide turned, the USN seized the initiative. Marines went ashore at Guadalcanal and Tulagi. Unlike the Japanese, they quickly put the airfield into operation. At a stroke they essentially eliminated the threat to Australia's lifeline. They also gained a foothold for a campaign against the key Japanese base at Rabaul.
This was not the war the USN had expected to fight; it bore little resemblance to the campaigns gamed out at the War College in the 1930s. Yet it was the war they had to fight in 1942. They fought it, won it, but were not diverted from their overall strategy when the new ships were completed and the Central Pacific campaign could begin.
The, IJN, in contrast [syn] improvised and extemporized their way to a strategic disaster:
Japan reached its level of incompetence, where it fought with all its power and to the death. The battlefields of New Guinea and the Solomon Islands were simply too large and too far forward to suit its tiny logistical and transport capabilities....Japan was fighting precisely the war which least suited its material resources, a prolonged and costly battle of attrition beyond easy reach of its supply system.
Michael Handel and John Ferris, "Clausewitz, Intelligence Uncertainty and the Art of Command”