Leadership: SWOs Go WTF Against The USN

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May 3, 2016: In the U.S. Navy there is growing concern that the Chinese Navy is well on its way to gaining an edge on the American fleet the same way the Japanese did in 1941 (World War II). In that conflict the Japanese sailors inflicted numerous defeats on their Western counterparts for six months and less frequently after that because while the United States could produce far more new warships and aircraft than the Japanese the Japanese navy had noted and exploited areas where the U.S. Navy was vulnerable. This edge was essential as some Japanese naval officers who had spent time in the United States pointed out, “the Americans are quick to learn from mistakes.” As with World War II the Chinese are under pressure to win a quick victory or die a slower economic death in any future war with the United States. In 1941 the Japanese population had been living under wartime privations for a decade already (because of the war in China) and were heartened by the early victories of their fleet. The Japanese people expected living conditions to get worse and they did. The Chinese situation is different as China has built a much larger economy and created much more prosperous population than Japan had by 1941. While both China and Japan were running police states when they started their respective wars the Chinese rulers of today have a much less subservient population than the Japanese in 1941.

The current problem is that American SWOs (Surface Warfare Officers) believe their leaders are ignoring the fact that the Chinese Navy is planning a similar collection of nasty tactical surprises for their American adversaries and the U.S. Navy is ignoring it. The most obvious things the Chinese are doing is training at sea more and more and planning to exploit the weaknesses of the American ships. Some of these vulnerabilities are much talked about in the U.S. Navy, like the growing Chinese edge in network based warfare. But another edge that is not much talked about is that the U.S. Navy does not train as intensively for surface warfare (cruisers, destroyers and frigates finding the enemy and destroying them with missiles and torpedoes) as they do for submarine and air operations.

There are many other chilling similarities between now and 1941. When the U.S. Navy entered World War II it had not experienced any large scale combat since 1898 (43 years earlier). Currently the U.S. Navy has had no surface combat experience since 1944 (72 years ago). SWOs also point out that all the money spent on computer simulators for training SWOs and their crews for combat have mostly gone for systems that allow officers and crews to practice using their equipment, not fight a battle. On the other hand submarine crews and naval aviators have plenty of combat simulators and during all that time spent at sea the carrier crews get plenty of practice getting aircraft into the air. The naval aviators have been in combat regularly since 1945. But the SWOs feel their combat training needs have been neglected and the Chinese have noticed and plant to stage a repeat of the U.S. Navy SWO disasters of 1941-3.

The SWOs have a point from a historical point of view. Early in World War II there were nearly 40 surface battles in the waters between Guadalcanal and Florida Islands in the Solomons. This underwatergraveyard was nicknamed "Ironbottom Sound" in 1942 and all the combat actions then set a number of U.S. Navy records. To begin with, Guadalcanal was the Navy's first major amphibious operation since 1898. And the Battle of Savo Island (August 9) was not only the U.S. Navy's first fleet action since 1898 but also the fifth in its entire history. Savo Island was also its first ever night fleet engagement, its first ever defeat in a fleet action, and its worst ever defeat (after Pearl Harbor), because four heavy cruisers (one of them Australian) and a destroyer were sunk, 1,270 men killed, and 709 wounded in an action lasting little more than a half hour, with virtually no loss to the enemy. The Japanese felt vindicated while the American reaction was more along the lines of WTF.

Then came the Battle of Cape Esperance (October 11-12) which provided three firsts. It was the U.S. Navy's first victory in a fleet action since 1898, its first victory in a night fleet action, and its first surface victory against a Japanese squadron. A month later a less fortunate "first" occurred, the first death of an American admiral in a fleet action during the opening moments of the First Naval Battle of Guadalcanal (November 12-13), followed within minutes by the death of another admiral (the task force commander). The two men immediately becoming the first and second admirals ever to receive a posthumous Medal of Honor in a fleet action.

The Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal saw four American battleship firsts. Very early on 15 November there occurred the first encounter between battleships in the Pacific War, when battleships South Dakota and Washington took on the Japanese battleship Kirishima. This was also the first time U.S. battleships had ever encountered enemy battleships at sea and only the second encounter between a U.S. and an enemy battleship ever, the first having occurred just a week earlier, on November 8th, when USS Massachusetts put the partially completed the French battleship Jean Bart out of action at her dock at Casablanca in North Africa. The November action was also the occasion of the first (and last) time a U.S. battleship was hit by fire from an enemy battleship, South Dakota taking a 355mm (14 inch) round from Kirishima, plus a 127mm (5 inch) one as well. And a few minutes later occurred the first (and last) time a U.S. battleship sank an enemy battleship as USS Washington turned Kirishima into a burning wreck, her first two broadsides scoring with nine 406mm (16inch) hits followed up by about fourty 127mm shells.

Most of these surface actions took place at night between August and November, 1942. There were also two carrier battles and many minor surface actions, and many encounters between land-based aircraft and ships. Never before, or since, has the U.S. Navy engaged in such a furious round of surface combat. As hard fought as the ground fighting on Guadalcanal was, four times as many sailors died at sea compared to marines and soldiers killed on Guadalcanal. All these naval battles fought were in support of the ground and air forces on the island.

Before Pearl Harbor, surface combat was expected to be the more decisive form of naval action in a Japanese-American war, but as conventional daylight battleship actions in open water. Pearl Harbor and the carrier battles in early 1942 quickly demonstrated that carriers ruled the waves, not surface combatants. But after the battles of Coral Sea, Midway, the Eastern Solomons, and the Santa Cruz Islands depleted everyone's carrier fleets, most of the 1942 1943 naval battles were surface combats, occasionally influenced by the presence of aircraft. In fact, there were over a dozen major and scores of minor engagements between battleships, cruisers, and destroyers during the Pacific War. Most of these took place in the vicinity of Guadalcanal, when, in about six months (August '42-February '43) there occurred five major and about 30 smaller surface engagements. Aside from a number of surface actions in the Dutch East Indies in early 1942 and in the Philippines in 1944 virtually all of the remaining surface engagements took places in the Solomon Islands northwest of Guadalcanal.

Before the war, the Japanese and the Americans had developed differing notions about surface combat. The Japanese, mindful of their probable numerical inferiority in a war with the U.S., trained for night actions, stressed the use of torpedoes by both destroyers and cruisers, preferred putting their heavier ships in the van, and were willing to use multiple columns, permitting the tactical independence of different squadrons operating together. The U.S. Navy, in contrast, was fairly rigidly tied to the single line ahead formation, with destroyers at the van and rear and the heavier ships in the middle, all to operate under a single command.

When the two navies began to clash, it soon became apparent that the Japanese attitude was superior. For the surface battles which took place did not conform to the USN's expectations. Because so many land based aircraft were present, surface battles were almost always at night. This was because whoever controlled the air in daylight had a tremendous combat advantage. In night surface combat, the Japanese initially had an advantage. They had trained hard for night surface combat during peacetime. They evolved more realistic tactics for night combat and drilled their ships' crews relentlessly in all types of weather, regardless of casualties. They had also developed superior optical equipment for range finding.

American sailors had received a more leisurely diet of daytime training exercises, marred by a contest-like atmosphere which resulted in training being conducted in the calmest possible weather, so that no ship would have an unfair advantage. Moreover, unlike the U.S., Japan had equipped its cruisers with torpedoes and many of its ships with torpedo reloads. The Japanese torpedoes were superior to all other torpedoes in the world (larger and more reliable). The U.S. admirals had generally neglected the use of the torpedo in surface combat, omitting it entirely from most cruisers, for example, and not getting enough practice in coordinating torpedo-armed destroyers with heavier ships during maneuvers. So from the Java Sea battles (February 27 March 1, '42) through the Summer and Fall battles around Guadalcanal, the Japanese were generally triumphant at night. American sailors had to undergo the same grueling training process as the Japanese before American surface ships could meet the Japanese on equal terms. A lot of material changes in late 1942 helped, but it was the training that made the difference. Learning how to fight in combat is the hard way, learning during tough, realistic peacetime training is the easy way.

Meanwhile, the U.S. gradually acquired superior ships, improved damage control techniques, and better communications methods. And they began to learn to use their torpedoes. The torpedo was actually the most effective weapon used in the night battles, accounting for most of the ships lost. As it turned out, American destroyermen already knew how to make effective torpedo attacks, but had usually been kept on a tight leash by task force commanders lacking destroyer experience. Given a chance to operate on their own they proved particularly effective in torpedo attacks, as at Balikpapan (January 23-24, '42) or Cape Esperance (October 11-12, '42). Despite this, it was not until mid-1943 that U.S. destroyers were routinely allowed to operate in conjunction with rather than in line with heavier ships.

Radar came along too. Surprisingly, initially it may have actually handicapped U.S. night fighting abilities. The first radars were inefficient, temperamental, and not at all understood by most senior officers. Indeed, at times the presence of Japanese warships was first detected by lookouts, if it had not already been announced by the arrival of their shells, before they were detected by radar, at which point it was usually too late to do anything but die bravely. As radar improved and commanders who understood its capabilities and limitations (like Willis "Ching Chong" Lee) came along, things began to get better, and American ships began to feel more comfortable in night actions.

However, even as the U.S. Navy improved, the Japanese remained formidable opponents. At Kula Gulf (July 4-5, '43) and Kolombangara (July 12-13, '43) they gave better than they received, despite all the American advantages. But gradually their edge was lost, and in the last important surface actions of the war on anything like even terms, Vella La Vella (August 6-7, '43) and Empress Augusta Bay (November 2, '43), they came off second best.

Today American SWOs see all this ancient history as a chilling reminder of what can happen again and how.

 


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