I dislike repeating posts or articles from other authors if I can’t add value through analysis. I’d much rather just recommend it and move on. Occasionally, however, I come across an article so good that I have to largely repeat it because it makes such good points. Such an article is “1941 Asiatic Fleet Offers Strategic Lessons” in the current issue of Proceedings (1). I'll leave it to you to read up on the fate of the Asiatic Fleet if you're not already familiar with it.
The author draws parallels between the Asiatic Fleet at the outbreak of WWII and today. He presents both the 1941 pre-war assumptions and the actual results
- The Asiatic Fleet contained the largest single concentration of submarines in the world and Adm. Hart expected that they would operate inside the Japanese defensive zones. Similarly, today, we believe that our submarine force will be able to operate inside the Chinese Anti-access/Area Denial (A2/AD) zone with great success.
- The Asiatic Fleet depended on air support from
based Far East Air Force which consisted of 130 modern aircraft. Similarly, today, we believe that we will be able to depend on air support from Philippines Guam, Okinawa, and various Japanese bases. We are also attempting to establish bases in the . Philippines
- Pre-war plans assumed that the Japanese would
attempt to seize the
and that the Asiatic Fleet’s submarines and Philippine base air power would blunt the Japanese effort. Similarly, we assume the Chinese would attack our bases in Philippines Guamand, likely, Japan but that we will be able to defend them.
- Adm. Hart assumed that the main bases of
Subic Bayand would be rendered inoperable leaving the fleet dependent on 4 large tenders. Manila
- The Asiatic Fleet would combine with the
powerful British and Dutch battleships and cruisers at the outset of
hostilities. Similarly, we seem to
be putting great stock in our allies in the Pacific region despite the
fact that, with the exception of
, they have only very meager military resources. Japan
would be threatened initially but would be supported by reinforcements from Philippines Pearl Harbor.
Here are the actual results for comparison with the assumptions.
- The surface ships and submarines operated
without aerial scouting and accomplished little. The failure of the submarines, in
particular, was disappointing and unforeseen. The well known
torpedo debacle negated what little success the submarines might have had. US
- At the Battle of Makassar Strait, at which Japanese air forces damaged the only two cruisers of the Asiatic Fleet, it was found that 20% of the fleet’s anti-aircraft shells failed to explode, possible due to age. The problem was undetected, prior to combat, due to budget cuts which severely limited live fire testing.
- The Japanese attack on
Pearl Harboreffectively prevented any reinforcement of the and ensured their loss. Philippines
- The Japanese sinking of the British battleships eliminated any possible heavy surface ship actions.
- Japanese attacks on various forward bases left the Asiatic Fleet with only their 4 tenders for resupply.
- Most of the
based air forces were destroyed on the ground. Philippines
The parallels and lessons are obvious and striking.
For starters, we have a piecemeal and limited forward naval presence. LCS squadrons present no credible combat capability and will be cut off and annihilated at the start of hostilities, as was the Asiatic Fleet. We have a carrier group forward deployed in
but, much like the British battleships, a lone
carrier group cannot survive inside a powerful A2/AD zone. Japan
Our logistic support ships are limited in number and type. The Navy has only a single tender ship (submarine) in the entire fleet. Worse, we cannot reload VLS cells at sea.
Our forward bases are few and vulnerable. It is a certainty that they will be hit hard at the onset of hostilities and will likely be rendered non-operational. This underscores the importance of logistic support ships that are mobile and more survivable.
We are extremely vulnerable to pre-emptive strikes. The
would not initiate hostilities with US so that leaves China with the luxury of choosing the timing and location
of initial strikes. China will get the first hit in and it will be heavy. We will lose any usable base in the opening
minutes of a war. China
Just as the Asiatic Fleet found out that its munitions were defective and its torpedoes were flawed, so too will we find out that our weapon systems have problems. As then, we today are restricted by budget and policy from conducting sufficient live fire testing that could reveal problems now, in time to be fixed. We will be hampered by flawed weapons in the initial months and years of war. Somewhere in our weapons inventory is our version of the WWII torpedo debacle. It would be far better to find it now and fix it rather than wait and find it in combat.
History offers valuable lessons to those who will heed them. The Asiatic Fleet’s lessons are particularly pertinent as we head down a path of repeating their experience.
(1)USNI Proceedings, “1941 Asiatic Fleet Offers Strategic Lessons”, Hunter Stires, Aug 2016, p.58-63.