Thursday, August 11, 2016

Asiatic Fleet Lessons

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 the Philippines 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 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 Philippines 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 Guam and, likely, Japan but that we will be able to defend them.

  • Adm. Hart assumed that the main bases of Subic Bay and Manila would be rendered inoperable leaving the fleet dependent on 4 large tenders.

  • 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 Japan, they have only very meager military resources.

  • The Philippines would be threatened initially but would be supported by reinforcements from 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 US torpedo debacle negated what little success the submarines might have had.

  • 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 Harbor effectively prevented any reinforcement of the Philippines and ensured their loss.

  • 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 Philippines based air forces were destroyed on the ground.

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 Japan but, much like the British battleships, a lone carrier group cannot survive inside a powerful A2/AD zone.

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 US would not initiate hostilities with China 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.

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.


  1. Just like now, the issues facing the Asiatic fleet were well known, but the hierarchy failed to correct or even acknowledge them. The 1930's are full of whistleblowers that identified serious problems, but were reassigned, retired, or court martialed. And thats exactly the same as today, is it not CNO?

  2. The lessons are:

    1. Scatter air asset so that it is harder to take out 100% of the force in one large strike. The enemy knows where your bases are.

    2. Test weapons extensively during peace under realistic conditions.

    3. Assume the enemy will knock out your bases early on. Try to defend them as best as possible, but the ones closest to the enemy probably will get knocked out no matter what due to proximity.

    4. Recon is critical. Perhaps small drones today can help, but recon is key.

    5. Protect your supply lines.

  3. "the [bases] closest to the enemy probably will get knocked out no matter what due to proximity".

    For some values of "knocked out". Check the attacks on English south and east coast towns and bases in WW II (the worst bombed, Hull, finished with 6,000 houses undamaged out of 91,000), or the ordeal of Malta, or the Allied attempts to knock out the U-boat bases on the French coast. All continued functioning despite remarkable damage. Of course, a nuclear attack really would take out the US Pacific bases, but if the war goes nuclear at the start ...

    1. I'm not sure you have a realistic grasp of just how vulnerable a base is. For example, simply hitting the fuel storage and destroying it is an absolute "knock out" of the base - no fuel, no air base.

      Most of the elements that make up a functioning air base are out in the open and highly vulnerable.

      Consider all the ways a modern air base can be knocked out of action and see if you still think it would be hard to do.

    2. RAF Bomber Command had a 20% "Hit Rate", a "Hit" was defined as within five *MILES* of the target.
      By the 80s, we could reliably drop 5% of our munitions on something as small as a runway.

      Today, we can, at least in peace time, drop 90% of our munitions within a metre of a target.

      By second world war standards, bombing the empire state building meant hitting further away than the statue of liberty with four in 5 bombs.
      Today a guided bomb pretty much hits what it aims at.
      Ten bombs blow up ten fuel tanks, not two cows three miles away and a potting shed 20 miles away.

      A base could have multiple, redundant, isolated fuel stores, but I bet they dont, they will have single fuel main, and that will eat a big bomb very early.
      Incirclik went down went down when the Turks shut off its civilian energy supply. How long do you think it would take the Russians to knock out the Turkish Civilian electricity grid?

    3. TrT, your point is valid and a good reminder of the perspective on this. Good comment!

    4. Stephen, keep it clean and non-political.

    5. It's pretty easy to take out an air base.

      Crater the runways. Even a near miss might be able to create enough FOB that aircraft would not take off.

      It's one reason why I support lots of small aircraft. They can operate on grass fields.

  4. "All continued functioning despite remarkable damage. "\

    That was true then, but I wonder if it still is. We don't test our stuff under true wartime conditions, and the complexity is ratcheted up to the nth degree.

    Could an airbase continue to fly sorties of F-35's if ALIS is taken out? Or pumps? Or all the white painted gas trucks blown up?

    Maybe, I just don't think we know.

  5. The subs were extremely effective once they stopped attacking warships and ran amuck knocking off defenseless supply ships, which crippled the jap war machine.

    Based in these lessons, what should we do:

    1)Removed the dependents and homeported ships from vulnerable Sasebo.

    2)Remove most of the Marine families from vulnerable Okinawa, and stop the insane $20 billion project to build a new airbase there for helicopters, which the Chinese can destroy on the ground within an hour. Move the helos elsewhere.

    Move the subs homeported in Guam and their families out of Chinese range. Same with the Marine MPF ships. Hawaii or Eastern Australia would be much much better. Sasebo, Guam, and Okinawa are key forward bases, but not a good homeport. They are all on China's initial target list.

    1. "Same with the Marine MPF ships."

      This is a very important point that few people look at. Very good comment!

    2. Historically speaking, hasn't every foreign fleet stationed in the pacific suffered the same fate during war time? Russian, German, British, Spanish, etc. Just something I realized and thought interesting to note.

    3. Not that I recall, it wasnt until the early 1900s that there was such a thing as a pacific power, when Imperial Japan burst on to the scene.

      They beat the Russian Navy in 1905, but the Russian Navy had Pacific, Black Sea, Baltic (and possibly North Sea?) Fleets. The Japanese had just the Pacific, and they were able to beat each Russian Fleet in turn.

      The same occurred in the second world war, the 5:5:3 treaty was, bizarrely, something of a coup for Japan even if they didnt think so. The UK had North Sea, Atlantic, Mediterranean, Indian Ocean and Pacific Fleets, the US had Pacific and Atlantic fleets, Japan again just had the Pacific, although it did expand in to the Indian Ocean.

      The European Powers are just that, European, they might want to dominate the far east, but they arent going to lose the homeland over it, so their pacific fleets are always last in line for ships, crews and supplies.


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