The Navy’s most famous exercises were the series of 21 major
Fleet Problems conducted between 1923 – 1940.
These massive exercises not only presciently predicted the course of the
WWII naval campaign but also developed the doctrine and tactics that would
become the foundation of our WWII naval operations.
From the Wikipedia compilation of Fleet Problems, here is a
summary of the exercises.(1) Look them
over and note the remarkable similarity they bore to the actual WWII naval
Fleet Problem I
Held in February and March 1923 and was staged off the coast
The attacking Black force, using battleships
to represent aircraft carriers, tested the defenses of the
Panama Canal. A single plane launched from Oklahoma—representing a carrier air
group—dropped 10 miniature bombs and theoretically "destroyed" the spillway
of the Gatun Dam.
Fleet Problem II
Simulated the first leg of a westward advance across the
Fleet Problem III
Focused on a defense of the Panama Canal
from the Caribbean side. The Blue force was defending the canal from an attack
from the Caribbean by the Black force, operating from an advance base in the Azores.
It was to practice amphibious landing techniques and the rapidity of transiting
a fleet through the canal from the Pacific side.
In the exercise, a Black force special operations action
resulted in the "sinking" of Blue force battleship New York in the Culebra Cut
which would have blocked the canal.
Fleet Problem IV
Simulated the movement from a main base in the western
Pacific to the Japanese home islands—represented in that case by islands,
cities, and countries surrounding the Caribbean.
Fleet Problem V
Held in March and April 1925 and simulated an attack on Hawaii. The
Black force, the aggressor, was given the United States' first aircraft carrier,
Langley along with two seaplane
tenders and other ships outfitted with aircraft, while the defending
Blue force had no carriers. In addition, aircraft aboard the battleship Wyoming could not be launched for lack of a
working catapult. Langley's positive performance helped
speed the completion of aircraft carriers Lexington and Saratoga.
One aspect of Fleet Problem V was conducted near Guadalupe
Island off Baja California and involved attacking a
lightly held position and refueling at sea.
Fleet Problem VI
Held off the west coast of Central
America in early 1926.
Fleet Problem VII
Held March 1927 and involved defense of the Panama Canal.
The highlight of the exercise was Langley’s successful air raid on the Panama
Fleet Problem VIII
Held in April 1928 between California and Hawaii and pitted
Orange, a cruiser
force from Pearl Harbor, versus Blue, the Battle Force. It also involved a convoy search and anti-submarine operations.
Fleet Problem IX
This scenario in January 1929 studied the effects of an
attack upon the Panama Canal and conducted the operations necessary to carry
out such an eventuality, and pitted the Battle Fleet
and Lexington) against a combination of forces including the Scouting
Force (augmented by Lexington), the Control Forces, Train Squadron
1, and 15th Naval District and local army defense
In a daring move, Saratoga was detached from the fleet with only a single
cruiser as escort to make a wide sweep to the south and "attack" the
Panama Canal, which was defended by the Scouting Fleet and Saratoga's sister
ship, Lexington. She successfully launched her strike on 26 January and,
despite being "sunk" three times later in the day, proved the
versatility of a carrier-based fast task force.
This was the first major test of independent carrier task
force operations which would eventually become the model for WWII naval
operations in the Pacific.
Fleet Problem X
Held in 1930 in Caribbean waters. This time, however,
Saratoga and Langley were "disabled" by a surprise attack from
Lexington, showing how quickly air power could swing the balance in a naval
Fleet Problem XI
Held in April 1930 in the Caribbean.
Fleet Problem XII
USS Los Angeles moored to USS Patoka,
along with other ships off Panama during Fleet Problem XII.
Held in 1931 in waters west of Central America and Panama.
Black, attacking from the west, was to land forces and establish bases in
Central America and destroy the Panama Canal, while Blue defended with an
Blue's two carrier groups, centered on Saratoga and
Lexington, attacked the invasion fleets but failed to stop the landings and got
too close to the Black fleets.
Fleet Problem XIII
Fleet Problem XIII began in March 1932, one month after
Army/Navy Grand Joint Exercise 4. Blue, based in Hawaii, was to sail east and
invade three "enemy" ports on the North American Pacific coastline to
try and gain a foothold for future operations. Blue had nine battleships, one
aircraft carrier, and many lesser ships. Black defended with one modern
aircraft carrier and some fictional battleships, as well as a number of actual
cruisers, submarines, and many other ships.
Blue's advance was quickly located by Black's picket line of
submarines which then took heavy losses from air attack. Both sides put a
priority on destroying the enemy aircraft carrier, launching air attacks almost
simultaneously after a few days of probing. Significant damage was laid on both
carriers, with Blue's carrier eventually "sunk" by torpedo from a Black
After-action critiques stressed the growing importance of
naval aviation, and an increased need for the construction of aircraft carriers
in the event of a war in the Pacific. Submarines operating at or near the
surface were seen to be critically vulnerable to air observation and attack.
The exercise showed that one carrier was insufficient for either fleet attack
or area defense, so the practice of two or more carriers operating together
became policy. Admiral Harry E. Yarnell said that six to eight
carriers would be required for a Pacific campaign, but no orders were placed
for new carriers, as Depression-era financial difficulties caused
President Herbert Hoover to limit naval expenses.
Fleet Problem XIV
Held February 10–17, 1933, Fleet Problem XIV was the first
naval exercise to test simulated aircraft carrier attacks against the west
coast of the United States. Pacific cities had for decades vied for permanent
stationing of U.S. military assets, and vulnerabilities exposed through the exercises
were used by metropolitan navy boosters to leverage their cases. In spite of
early Navy plans for San Francisco to be home port for the main west coast
fleet, these plans had failed to materialize with San Diego incrementally
gaining the majority of navy investments.
Fleet Problem XIV coincidentally occurred the month before
Franklin D. Roosevelt, a former Assistant Secretary of the Navy, took the
office of the presidency. The results of the exercise between the U.S. Navy's
'black' and 'blue' fleets, were mixed. The simulated attacks had certainly been
mitigated by the defensive 'blue' fleet, however the 'black' fleet had scored
key victories with strikes on San Pedro and San Francisco, California,
Fleet Problem XV
Held in May 1934 in Hawaii, this was a three-phase exercise
which encompassed an attack upon and defense of the Panama Canal, the capture
of advanced bases, and a major fleet engagement.
Fleet Problem XVI
Held in May 1935 in the northern Pacific off the coast of Alaska
and in waters surrounding the Hawaiian Islands, this operation was divided into
five distinct phases which were thought to be aspects of some real naval
campaign of the future in which the U.S. would take the strategic offensive.
Fleet Problem XVII
This problem took place off the west coast of the U.S.,
Central America, and the Panama Canal
Zone in the spring of 1936. It was a five-phase exercise devoted to
preparing the fleet for anti-submarine operations, testing communications
systems, and training of aircraft patrol squadrons for extended fleet
operations, and pitted the Battle Force against the submarine-augmented Scouting
Fleet Problem XVIII
This exercise was held in May 1937 in Alaskan waters and in
the vicinity of the Hawaiian Islands and Midway,
practicing the tactics of seizing advanced base sites—a technique later to be
polished to a high degree into close support and amphibious warfare doctrines.
Fleet Problem XIX
This operation in April and May 1938 gave the navy added
experience in search tactics; in the use of submarines, destroyers, and
aircraft in scouting and attack, in the dispositions of the fleet and the
conduct of a major fleet battle. In addition, the exercise again dealt with the
matter of seizing advanced fleet bases and defending them against minor
opposition. Fleet Problem XIX also tested the capabilities of the Hawaiian
Defense Force, augmenting it with fleet units to help to defend the islands
against the United States fleet as a whole. The last phase
of the exercise exercised the fleet in operations against a defended coastline.
Fleet Problem XX
Took place in February 1939 in the Caribbean and Atlantic,
and observed in person by President Franklin Roosevelt. The
exercise simulated the defense of the East Coast of the United States
and Latin America
by the Black team from the invading White team. Participating in the maneuvers
were 134 ships, 600 planes, and over 52,000 officers and men.
Fleet Problem XXI
An eight-phase operation for the defense of the Hawaiian
area in April 1940.
Fleet Problem XXII
Scheduled for the Spring of 1941, but cancelled.
Grand Joint Exercise
Similar to the Navy’s Fleet Problems, the Army and Navy held
a few large, combined exercises. This
particular exercise revolved around an attack on Pearl Harbor. Lexington and Saratoga conducted an air
strike on Pearl Harbor on Sunday morning, 7-Feb-1932.(4) The attack was an unmitigated success with
facilities, aircraft, and ships being decimated. Attacking aircraft even dropped sacks of
flour on battleships to simulate bombs!(5)
Army defenders protested the ‘inappropriateness’ of an attack on a
Sunday morning and the unfairness of the attacking aircraft having deceptively approached
from the direction of the mainland.(5)
As we know, this was almost an exact foretelling of the actual Japanese
attack on Pearl Harbor.
|Operations During Fleet Problem X|
What is striking about these exercises is the sheer size
compared to what we laughingly call exercises today. Today, a couple of ships that happen to pass
each other is called an exercise whereas the Fleet Problems were actual, entire
fleet exercises! The commanders learned
to operate entire fleets and squadrons for real. Here’s an interesting explanation for the
size of the Fleet Problems:
large-scale participation was possible because very little of the U.S. Navy was
forward-deployed, so forces could be brought in from the East and West Coast
Hmm … Better training
thanks to reduced forward deployments. Does
that sound familiar? This is exactly
what ComNavOps has been calling for and yet we had it back in the 1920’s! History is shouting at us, telling us what we
should be doing but we’re not listening.
Also noteworthy is that the exercises were not just
technology demonstrations as today’s exercises are; they were scenarios that
tested operations that we actually believed we might be called on to execute in
a war. The exercises tested specific aspects
of War Plan Orange that we were unsure about which made the exercises highly
relevant since they were taken from the actual operational plan of war with
Japan. Of particular note are Fleet
Problems II (first leg of an advance across the Pacific), IV (advance on the
Japanese home islands), V (attack on Hawaii), XVIII (seizing advanced bases in
the Pacific via amphibious assault), XXI (defense of Hawaii), and GJE4 which
exactly simulated the eventual Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It was evident that as early as the 1920’s,
the Navy was already anticipating war with Japan and developing the doctrine
and tactics needed to conduct that war.
What are we exercising today?
What are we preparing for? In a
word … nothing.
Note all the techniques, tactics, and operations that were
tested and exercised that eventually became the foundation of our WWII naval
The Navy has revived some minor exercises and fraudulently given
them the name of ‘Fleet Problem’ but they do not even remotely capture the
essence, purpose, or magnitude of the real Fleet Problems.(6)
Another interesting aspect of the Fleet Problems was that
they were real in the sense that problems were not hand-waved away and the
results, good or bad, stood.
the Fleet Problems assumed there often would be a clear loser—and not a junior
officer designated to be defeated, but an officer of stature and
accomplishment. Senior officers could and did fail dramatically, were critiqued
candidly and publicly, and continued to advance and lead. Indeed, across the 21
Fleet Problems, timidity and inattention seemed to be the only unforgivable
errors in command. (3)
This is how you learn … by doing and, often, failing!
We need to bring back real fleet problems, not the small,
pathetic, watered down efforts that we call exercises today – exercises which
are conducted for just a few days while transiting somewhere.(5) We need to assemble entire fleets and conduct
real war games. Here’s a few examples of
some large scale fleet problems we should be conducting.
Of course, all of these possible Fleet Problems presuppose
the existence of a modern War Plan Orange aimed at China and, sadly, I see no
evidence that we have such a plan. We
need a War Plan Pacific aimed directly at China and we need to start exercising
(1)Wikipedia, “Fleet Problem”, retrieved 5-May-2020,
(2)Naval History and Heritage Command website, “Fleet
(3)United States Naval Institute Proceedings, Captain Dale
(6)USNI Proceedings, “Fleet Problems Offer Opportunities”,
Adm. Scott Swift, Mar 2018,