Sunday, December 11, 2011


Apropos of this Pearl Harbor Day post at GFT, here's a nice article in Naval History Magazine about how the events leading up to 7 DEC 1941 point up the problem that governments and militaries have, not just in assessing threat capabilities, but in assessing their own.

As Parshall and Wenger (2011) points out;
"In the case of the Pearl Harbor attack, the U.S. Navy had no real inkling of Japanese carrier warfare capabilities and therefore could not accurately assess likely operational targets. Not only that, but Japan’s carrier force—known as Kido Butai—was evolving so quickly on the eve of the Pacific war that almost no naval intelligence organ would have been able to track, internalize, and gauge those capabilities."
Even the Japanese Navy wasn't really able to understand their own strength.The article correctly notes that
"Indeed, the Japanese themselves did not seem to understand clearly the nature of the weapon they had created, or how best to wield it. Within six months of the opening of the war, poor strategy on the Imperial Japanese Navy’s part would end up committing Kido Butai’s component carrier divisions piecemeal, first at the Battle of Coral Sea and then at the Battle of Midway. During the latter, Kido Butai was decisively defeated—with four of its carriers sunk. Japan’s overwhelming early war numerical advantage was thus erased. Shortly thereafter, America’s superiority in production began asserting itself."
My friend seydlitz likes to talk about how the lack of strategic vision in the 2011 U.S. has contributed decisively to our frittering away our blood and treasure pursuing impossibilities in Central Asia. But I think one of the important lessons of Pearl Harbor, as well-discussed in Parshall and Wenger (2011), is how extraordinarily difficult trying to understand even one's own military and geopolitical strengths and weaknesses is.

How much more so trying to integrate all that into an overall assessment of potential threat capabilities, friendly political and military capacity, national interests, and geopolitical variables.Especially in a domestic U.S. political climate of increasing polarization and magical thinking.

Not saying that this shouldn't happen, or can't happen. But just pointing out that all our historical examples show how extraordinarily difficult it is.


  1. I've repeatedly read that the PRC would need two or three decades to learn carrier operations. That thought is pure Western arrogance and ignorance imo.

    It takes only one defector and some studying of open source materials to reduce this to the time the U.S: needed to churn out dozens of carrier crews during WW2; less than three years.

    In fact the USN had badly dropped in its carrier ops skill by the 90's in comparison to the much more complicated (no angled deck) 40's; sorties rates were horrible. The only recovered from the sorties rates disaster during the 2000's.

  2. Sven: I think, rather, that the question would be "why would the PLAN want to learn carrier operations"?

    The U.S. sees its carrier force (whatever the sortie rate) as a global power-projection platform. The PRC's power-projections needs are much more modest and are largely continental as opposed to the U.S. which sees itself (whether rightly or wrongly is another story) as needing all those decks for the pursuit of its geopolitical interests.

    And I'm not sure what the point of discussing the USN's problems in the 1990's other than as a minor sort of tactical blip. It doesn't seem pertinent to your initial comment re: the PRC. All military services go through periods of technical and tactical lows. The hallmark of a decently-organized service is recognizing the problems and (as seems to have been the case) correcting them.

    But the point of the article, and one I tend to agree with, it that there's often no good way to anticipate enemy - or, sometimes, even one's own - capabilities. It's a comforting thought that nations can and will save blood and treasure by better assessing their "national interests", military capabilities, and potential threats. But the Japanese example along with others throughout modern history, seems to suggest that the process is fraught with uncertainty and difficult even under the best of circumstances. And the present U.S. political scene is far from the best of circumstances.

  3. USN performance of the 90's is relevant as a contrast to the extreme belief in USN superiority that's being displayed by assertions such as that the PRC would need decades to catch up.

    The USN today is rather comparable to the RN of 1900.
    Big, but not even close to the quality potential.

  4. Ah. OK. Well, I'd say that's no surprise. Militaries tend to excel in one of two situations; when forced to by an external competitor (USN in 1941-1944, German Army in 1813-1815) or when overtaken by an internal innovator (French Army in 1791-1805, USN in the late-19th Century). Of course, the danger with the former is that rather than reform and excel the organization might break down...

  5. But then Chief, sometimes capabilities and general intentions of those who are potentially hostile are not so difficult to understand. In some cases they were well understood but ignored by decision makers. Disbelief? Hubris?? Politics??? Or sometimes the ignorance was due to stovepiping, segregation and partitioning of information. ????

    I just picked up a copy of Eddie Layton's biography. He was the Intel Officer to CINCPACFLT both for Admiral Kimmel before the attack, and for Admiral Nimitz for the rest of the war. During the attack, while bombs and torpedoes were slamming into battleships, he came leaping up the stairs to his second floor office. "Ah," says Captain Willard Kitts, the staff gunnery officer, "here's the man we should have been listening to all along."

    9/11 had plenty of tip-offs also. Bush not only ignored them, he pooh-poohed them as fantasies of the previous administration.

  6. An interesting link to how the Iranians might have gotten the spy drone via GPS spoofing. Whether this explanation is true or not, it is clear that the West does not have a monopoly on smart people (and woe to decision makers who would prefer it otherwise).

  7. There are and will always be smart guys; the difference is whether the organization they work for is flexible and adaptable enough to listen to them.

    One of the reasons I've been against all this farkling about in Asia is that one of the things that tends to bring these smart guys into organizations and places where their ideas are implemented is outside pressure. It's a sad but very human trait to respond with acuity and alacrity when engaged in violent action - we're often so much better at war than we are at peace...

    So in order to pacify the fear of the domestic public our "leaders" send the carriers out to slap the natives in the hustings...while our own ginormous immobility - couple with massive public indifference and ignorance - make it very difficult to respond to even an accurate prediction, if one of our smart people produces one, of exactly what that slapping will produce.