China Won’t Hand the U.S. Navy Victory Like Japan Did

America should celebrate the anniversary of the heroic victory at Midway, but realize the next Pacific war won't be so easy.


Otto von Bismarck once reportedly quipped that Providence favors “fools, drunkards, and the United States of America.” Exhibit A: the Battle of Midway. That’s the June 1942 high-seas clash in the Pacific Ocean where the U.S. Navy reversed the six months of disaster that followed the Imperial Japanese Navy’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

There’s nothing wrong with ballyhooing the 75th anniversary of Midway. An inferior American force steamed into battle and won big, preparing the way for ultimate victory. But make no mistake: The U.S. Navy was both fortunate in its Japanese foe during World War II and the beneficiary of farsighted political leadership at home.

Neither condition holds today. If America were to be involved in a major naval battle in the Pacific today, it would likely be with a decaying fleet, against a more evenly matched opponent such as China, and the result could easily turn out differently. Midway thus represents a warning as well as a cause for celebration.

A quick recap: The battle took place northeast of the Midway Islands, about halfway in the Pacific between Asia and North America. It culminated six months to the day after the Japanese sent the same fleet to pummel the American battle line at Pearl Harbor. At a critical moment, dive bombers flying from the USS Enterprise, Yorktown, and Hornet swooped from Pacific skies on the morning of June 4, raining death on Japan’s Kido Butai, or carrier strike force. Aviators set three of four Imperial Japanese Navy, or IJN, carriers ablaze within a span of eight minutes. The fourth was a smoking ruin before the day was through. None survived.

Japanese naval aviation suffered a hammer blow from which it never fully recovered. Midway hurt the IJN far worse than Pearl Harbor hurt the U.S. Navy. After all, the Japanese raid struck mainly at American battleships — platforms in the process of being superseded by carriers as the core of naval warfare. (The attack missed the U.S. carriers, which were at sea on Dec. 7, 1941.) By contrast, the Kido Butai was the principal striking arm of the IJN, with an unblemished combat record.

Midway gutted Japanese sea power, and the island state’s industrial capacity was too sparse to permit swift construction of new carriers. The battle thus doomed Japan’s campaign of Pacific conquest, forcing it onto the defensive. If you map Pacific military actions up to June 1942, the arrows all point outward from Japan — but they turn inward after Midway, pointing back at the heart of Japan’s doomed empire.

So we should rejoice in the naval aviators’ heroics and celebrate the tactical artistry of Adm. Ray Spruance, the cerebral commander of Task Force 16, and on and on. But it’s tough to imagine any future foe displaying the same strategic and operational indiscipline as Imperial Japan, which frittered away scarce military resources all over the map.

By the spring of 1942, in the months leading up to the fateful battle, the leadership of the IJN was debating what to do next, having already accomplished all its previous goals. One faction pushed for the Midway gambit, which envisioned luring out and destroying the carriers that had struck at Tokyo during the Doolittle Raid that April. Another wanted to grab parts of the Aleutian Islands. Still another clamored to go after Port Moresby, a harbor in New Guinea. As my new colleague Craig Symonds points out, rather than choose among these courses of action, the leadership opted to do everything nearly simultaneously.

It started off on the Australian coast. An IJN detachment fought the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942 and saw one of the Kido Butai’s fleet carriers damaged. That carrier, Shokaku, retired to Japan to refit — reducing the carrier fleet’s strength for Midway. The Kido Butai went into Midway with a 4-3 carrier advantage rather than the 5-3 advantage it might have commanded had the leadership exercised some operational prudence. At the same time as the Kido Butai was headed for Midway, another IJN naval force was headed to seize the Aleutian Islands near Alaska, further dividing Japan’s strength.

And if that wasn’t enough, Japanese commanders broke the Midway fleet into four separate forces and positioned those forces too far from one another to render mutual support. Worse, the “Main Body” of battleships and its retinue of lesser warships maintained radio silence throughout the encounter. Far from the fighting in the super-dreadnought Yamato, the Main Body’s centerpiece, Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto couldn’t even issue orders to the fleet he was commanding. In short, Japanese commanders were culpable for disaster — and should have seen it coming.

Such a conflict is conceivable once again. China is mounting a challenge to the U.S.-led international order put in place after the overthrow of Imperial Japan in 1945. Beijing claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, the same expanse Japan coveted for its natural resources. Under the law of the sea — of which the United States is the chief guarantor despite lawmakers’ refusal to consent to it — no one is sovereign over waters and skies beyond 12 nautical miles from coastal states’ shorelines. This air and sea space represents a commons; it belongs to everyone and no one.

China, moreover, is contesting Japan’s administration of the Senkaku Islands, which it calls the Diaoyu Islands, in the East China Sea. It wants to upend a status quo dating to Tokyo’s annexation of the archipelago in 1895. In brief, China sees a vital interest in overturning the international order while the United States sees a vital interest in preserving that order — presumably by force of arms.

Still, it’s doubtful that China — the most probable candidate to play the part of Imperial Japan today — would succumb to the strategic overreach of the IJN. Beijing has exercised impressive restraint amid its rise in recent decades, keeping its foreign-policy ambitions within its military and economic means. While its navy has made tentative forays into the Indian Ocean and other waterways, China has mostly kept its naval forces concentrated in the China seas, where it sees vital interests at stake. It deploys distinct superiority over fellow Asian states as a result of its self-restraint. Yet it has refrained from directly challenging the U.S.-Japan alliance, which operates a powerful combined fleet and enjoys a backstop in the form of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, based in Guam, Hawaii, and West Coast seaports.

But if a battle were to break out, there’s no telling how it would turn out. It would depend on whether China fragmented its navy into small detachments that attempted to fulfill every commitment Beijing has undertaken, all at the same time, or stayed focused and did one thing at a time — devoting the bulk of available resources to doing that one thing before moving on to the next. If the People’s Liberation Army leadership does the latter, it could be hard to beat; if the former, the Chinese challenge ought to prove manageable, much as it was in the case of Imperial Japan.

It is certainly possible that the leadership would act unwisely, breaking up its naval resources in an effort to do everything, everywhere, more or less concurrently. China divides the People’s Liberation Army Navy into three fleets scattered up and down the Asian seaboard in peacetime. (It also backs up those fleets with shore-based firepower in the form of aircraft and missiles. That’s an equalizer that was unavailable to IJN forces fighting in the Central Pacific, thousands of miles from home.) Chinese commanders might keep the navy divided in wartime, and they too might yield to the temptation to try to do everything at once. But it would be imprudent for U.S. naval commanders to bank on it. Better to assume opponents will fight wisely and chart strategy accordingly.

That will require political leadership — specifically, congressional leadership — of the sort the U.S. Navy benefitted from enormously at Midway. By 1940, long before the United States entered World War II, lawmakers like Rep. Carl Vinson pushed through the Two-Ocean Navy Act. What that means, in effect, is that shipbuilders commenced bolting together a second — not to mention bigger and badder — U.S. Navy before the outbreak of war. The republic deployed what amounted to one complete U.S. Navy in the Atlantic Ocean and another in the Pacific.

In short, Vinson & Co. gave the Navy a head start on World War II. The two-ocean Navy was destined to arrive in the Pacific theater starting in 1943. It would arrive in overwhelming numbers and capability — and the masterminds of the Midway operation knew the shiny new fleet was on its way. Consequently, Adms. Spruance, Frank Jack Fletcher, and Chester Nimitz could afford to be venturesome with the battered fleet left to them after Pearl Harbor. It’s easy to gamble with a tool when you have a spare.

Today’s U.S. Navy enjoys no such luxury. Washington infighting has left the U.S. Navy a force in decay. Midway was an aircraft carrier battle. How well positioned is today’s carrier fleet to fight such an action? Well, delays in routine upkeep and overhauls have struck hard at the Navy’s 10 nuclear-powered carriers. Most of the fighter jets that operate from their flight decks are grounded at present for want of maintenance.

The Navy’s margins have gotten mighty thin, with just 275 ships in the inventory, commitments across the globe to fulfill, and “near-peer” troublemakers such as Russia and China to stare down. Each asset appears precious when you have so few. That’s doubly true of carriers, where the latest model, the USS Gerald R. Ford, will set taxpayers back almost $13 billion — not counting airplanes, stores, and everything else an aircraft carrier requires to do its work.

Commanders might find it tough to hazard such a vessel in combat, knowing they could lose such a pricey asset — and 10 percent of the nation’s carriers — in an afternoon. America, it seems, will go to war with the Navy it has — and might prove risk-averse about fighting it.

Nor has the nation’s political leadership acted to fix the shortfall. The Navy leadership has gone on record favoring a 355-ship fleet, the Donald Trump administration espouses 350, and think tanks have compiled “fleet architecture” studies bumping the figure as high as 414. As yet, though, little has happened on the shipbuilding front. No counterpart to the Two-Ocean Navy Act of 1940 is in the works. The administration’s 2018 budget proposal keeps procurement rates flat.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates the soonest a 355-ship fleet could be at sea would be 2035 — and that’s if resources start flowing this year. This makes for a pale imitation of the World War II buildup. Where’s Carl Vinson when you need him?

Midway was a damned close-run thing as it stood. Seventy-five years on — with a leaner U.S. Navy facing more formidable foes — a Pacific encounter could go another way altogether. Some introspection should quiet the chest-thumping about U.S. naval prowess that has been heard of late. Taking competitors lightly is no way to prepare for serious strategic competition. It’s also slipshod politics. Could Vinson have rammed the Two-Ocean Navy Act through Congress after disparaging the Japanese and German menaces?

Doubtful. Tell elected representatives China or Russia remains a second-rate competitor and they’ll fund a second-rate U.S. Navy to handle the challenge.

China may remain the weaker antagonist in the Pacific, but look at the U.S.-China competition in relative terms. Japan had to slay a giant to prevail in the Pacific War. China merely needs to outface a somewhat stronger adversary operating thousands of miles from home while operating in Beijing’s own backyard. Its strategic and operational predicament, then, is far more manageable than Imperial Japan’s. As a great man once counseled, don’t do stupid shit and you may go far.

So Bismarck may have been correct. Providence may smile on America. But dourer commentators such as yours truly might append a corollary to his wisecrack. Namely, that Providence helps those who help themselves. And the United States has done precious little to help itself in naval affairs.

Midway represented a sensational triumph, and all honor to the warriors who brought it about. Now let’s start re-creating the industrial and military preconditions that made victory possible. Let’s help ourselves — and win back fortune’s favor.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

James R. Holmes is the J.C. Wylie chair of maritime strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and co-author of Red Star Over the Pacific: China's Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy. The views voiced here are his alone.


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