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Saturday, August 18, 2007

World War II US Pacific Strategy Against Japan

This paper is of keen interest to those who love strategy over tactics. How many of you readers believe that the US’s Grand Strategy/Strategy in the Pacific was a good one if not a great one? I did before I did the following research. How many even know what the strategy was? Monday morning quarterbacking reveals what happened, and to some extent why. This paper investigates more of the why more than the what. I will even indulge myself in providing my own strategy for which I invite criticism.

Before you can evaluate any strategy, you need to establish unbiased benchmarks that all strategies can be measure against. Unbiased is subjective when you propose your own strategy so please be critical of what I say. To keep it high level I will use Sun Szu as my source for the following:

1. Know your enemy before doing anything. Today it is called intelligence, capabilities and intentions at all levels, political as well as military.
2. Use any and all means at your disposal to defeat your enemy. The best strategy is one that gets your enemy to surrender without a fight. Sun Szu goes on from there enumerating alternative axioms if plan A is not possible.
3. Beat your enemy with the minimum of effort. Use the psychological instead of force wherever possible. Convince your enemy to just give up by defeating his will to fight.
4. Identify the enemy’s center of gravity. Defeat that center of gravity if at all possible. Center of Gravity is that thing or things that once eliminated will cause your opponent to surrender. Example, convince your enemy that it is impossible to win. Note: wars are started when one side is convinced he can win.

Given these measures lets evaluate the US and Japanese prewar strategy and the post Japanese attack adjustments that had to be made. Japan achieved all of it’s objectives before May of 1942, so before we did anything after the fall of the Philippines and all the Island South of the Philippines and East of Midway. Pearl Harbor was never part of their prewar strategy until the last moment when Yamamoto was convinced it was possible. The Navy strategy was documented in Plan Orange which was conceived in 1897 and updated annually. Plan Orange essential was to drive out the Japanese by going through the Central Pacific ending with the defeat of the Japanese home islands. I don’t know the name of the army strategy, but its key point was to hold the Philippines and use it as a base to drive North. The Army strategy had to be revised somewhat when the Japanese pushed MacArthur all the way South to Australia. The Army strategy was then adjusted to use Australia as the base vice the Philippines. Drive North from that point when sufficient forces were available.

So what did the US know of the prewar Japanese intentions? We had the advantage of watching the Japanese war against China and Russia. In China the Japanese were there to play. Against Russia they quickly sought peace after being clocked by Russian armor. The US also learned very quickly at Guadalcanal the fanaticism of the Japanese soldiers and officers. This played significantly in expected casualties. The US knew that the Japanese imported a lot of raw resources, but were only dimly aware of their aims to establish an Empire in the Far East. One with no Westerners. Japan missed out in the land grab the Westerners waged in the 1800’s and in the 1930’s they believed it was their right to get a piece of the pie. Racial superiority played a role in this thinking.

The Japanese never planned to defeat the US, British Empire and the Dutch unconditionally. There aims were limited. Once they grabbed what they wanted their strategy was to seek peace. They believed this was possible based on their analysis of the character of the American people, who were strongly isolationist and were believed to be culturally inferior. This was extrapolated to the US military, who they believed would not fight and could not fight as well as the Japanese. Once the Japanese defensive perimeter was established, America would beat its head on the Japanese wall; then give up. Note, a defensive perimeter of a bunch of worthless islands makes little sense to you until you calculate the effect of putting land based air on the islands to cover the shipping lanes. Both sides rightly knew air power was the key to the geography of the Western Pacific.

The US never planned to start a war, but they did plan to finish it if one started. Essentially, the Plan was to totally defeat the Japanese military forces by frontal attack, used little finesse, but choosing to use a bigger hammer. Final result both sides miscalculated as to the other’s intentions.

Both sides knew the capabilities of the other, although the US was surprised by the superiority of the Zero. Both sides had the same command problems, the Army and Navy acted independently and fought over resources and strategies throughout the war. Japan had a government that let the military do as they pleased. FDR was a serious player in the prosecution of the war and made many of the high level decisions including key personnel. MacArthur and Nimitz were his hand picked guys, which lead to two independent wars being fought in the Pacific. MacArthur had limited naval support (Marines and ships) and Nimitz had little Army support, a couple of divisions. Both had their own air force. Marshall was also FDR’s hand picked guy, whereas King was utterly brilliant and a blunt speaker. He came up through the ranks. This became significant in the key decision to attack or bypass the Philippines and Okinawa versus Formosa. In both cases the Army plan was accepted.

So how do the Japanese and American strategies stack up against Sun Su’s principles? The Japanese plan was to defeat the will of the US. It rates high on paper, but when one looks deeper the plan was a good one for all the wrong reasons. It was conceived by working backwards. They could not defeat the Americans militarily so they had to rely on defeating the US will to win. This required the US to behave exactly as expected. Sun Szu would puke at this logic. A deeper understanding of the Americans, which was readily available before the war would have produced a different reality, but one that was not what they wanted, so it was dismissed.

The US strategy was abysmal, but guaranteed to succeed. It was abysmal because it required far more blood and treasure than was necessary. It was also poor in that no adjustments were made to reflect the reality of the fanaticism of the Japanese soldier.

The war went basically as the US planned. The MacArthur or South West Pacific front began from Australia and Island hopped to the Philippines. Side note, I always thought Guadalcanal was a navy operation. Marines were used, but the operation was under the control of Dug Out Doug. I no longer feel bad about calling it stupid.

Nimitz followed Plan Orange beginning with minimal island hopping through the Central Pacific starting with the Gilberts and Marshalls. He also waited until November of 1943 to start when he had a whole new navy, a fleet train, troop transports, amphibious assault craft and sea going floating dry docks for major repair. However, he made a major deviation from the plan by not taking Wake, but instead took a whole string of Islands in the South West before getting to his Plan Orange objective of the Marianas. From there the two fronts merged and Okinawa was taken by Nimitz as a prelude to invading the Japanese home Islands which would be primarily an Army affair. MacArthur invaded 39 major islands and Nimitz invaded 17. Most of these were bloody affairs where the Japanese fought to the last man. That is what happened.

What should have happened? At this point lets look at the strengths and vulnerabilities of Japan in May 1942 and rethink the strategy of how to defeat them economically rather than bludgeon them to death. All of this was known before the war and should have been factored into the planning. Strengths: fanatical militaristic culture with years of current war experience and a sufficiently large and experienced army. Weaknesses: a weak military industrial complex, slow R&D, cities made of wood, a country of 10 Islands requiring a lot of merchant traffic and self-sufficiency in food and almost nothing else especially oil and coal. Therefore, they required a lot of merchant traffic over very long distances.

Based on just these facts what would a Sun Szu Grand strategy look like? First choice; eliminate their will to fight. That would be the right choice, but a tuff one considering the culture of the Japanese people. How do you do that? Kill enough civilians and destroy enough infrastructure? Not likely. It did not work with Germany and the Japanese culture could endure far more pain than the Germans. But wait a minute; didn’t the atomic bombs end the war? Yes and no. Bombing was only part of the equation at best.

The alternative to bombing would be to starve them economically and food wise. First, Japan had an industrial society. Eliminate their raw materials and their industry would shut down. It would take three years or more to convert to a pre-industrial economy. You can’t grow horses and oxen overnight. Also most of the population either worked at a factory or in an industry that required factories to exist. In three years their society would totally collapse.

What about food? They were self sufficient before the war. As the war progressed they imported more and more food. Why, we will discuss later. Additionally, although self sufficient in food overall, not all 10 islands were self-sufficient. This required ships to move food between islands.

Based on these facts you can see the best choice for a grand strategy, eliminate their merchant and inter-island shipping (lots of san pans). Checkmate. Whether they surrendered or not is academic, they would be eliminated as a viable military force and become a third world economy. Their war ships and planes would sit do to lack of oil. In 1945 they imported no oil. Oil tankers were all sunk.

So how do you sink all their merchant ships? To see lets look at what happened. Sinking the Japanese merchant fleet was a secondary objective of the Navy. How can you tell? Look at Nimitz’s build plan. He built only 203 subs in the entire war. All were of the same pre war class, no R&D. 53 were sunk, or 26%. So what did they accomplish? 2,345 merchant ships totaling 8.6 million tons were sunk during the war. Subs and sub laid mines accounted for 64% of the losses. That is 1,500 ships sunk by approximately 176 subs. That was accomplished with the worst torpedo of any country in the war, and almost no R&D to improve it.

How does that compare to the Germans, who took merchant shipping seriously in spite of shortages in all other categories? The German’s built 1141 subs and 785 were lost. They sunk 3,843 merchant ships totaling 17 million tons. Germans had excellent R&D and a very good torpedo.

So lets look at efficiencies. The US: 5.5M tons with 176 subs or 31K tons per sub. Germans 17 million tons with approximately 750 subs or 23K tons per sub. How can an inferior US sub and torpedo out sink the Germans? Geography and an unplanned for Japanese strategic flaw. Japan had longer sailing distances and a lack of escorts because the destroyers were needed for fleet action. The island occupation and airfields, though a good naval interdiction strategy, they were a far greater liability. The Japanese had to resupply the garrisons scattered over the Pacific. At first they used merchant ships; they were sunk. Then they switched to subs and destroyers, which reduced the number of escorts, and subs sinking US merchants. An absolute disaster.

So this leads to an economical strategy that could have been foreseen in April 1942. First define your grand strategy to putting the Japanese people back in the Stone Age vice unconditional surrender. Develop your force structure and axis of advance to achieve this goal. How?

First build a lot more subs and focus them on merchants. Use the large modern fleet aircraft to sink additional merchants and draw out the Japanese fleet. This would have accelerated the demise of Japan sooner with very few casualties.

Second, eliminate the entire MacArthur front. It accomplished nothing towards attacking the Japanese center of gravity.

Third redirect Nimitz keep to Plan Orange. We did not need Nimitz to take 17 Islands in order to put bombers and Naval Forces in range of Japan. Skip the Gilberts and Marshalls. Take Wake Island. Then take 2 islands in the Bonins, skipping the well-defended Marianas. 2 Islands would be sufficient to put land-based air in range of Japan. The range would be shorter than the Marianas. That’s a total of 3 Islands vice 17 for Nimitz and 0 vice 39 for MacArthur. But what of the risks? Japanese land based air and naval convoy raiders. Using the Midway, Wake, Bonin axis would have put our convoys out of Japanese reach except in the Bonins, which would appear to be vulnerable to the Marianas. In truth repositioning the massive army air that MacArthur had to the Bonins would eliminate the air threat and Nimitz’s massive superiority in fleet ships and escort carriers would have eliminated the raider sub threat.

In the real war and as a secondary objective we destroyed the Japanese economy and the people were starving. What if we made this plan the primary objective?

Footnote concerning the MacArthur front. First, he had massive assets, 1/3 of all the US army divisions in the war supported by massive army air power. 27 divisions and equivalent air forces. Also level bomber could not hit ships worth a darn and the army had no dive-bombers. The had a small number of attack a/c fitted to sink merchants, which was MacArthur’s total contribution against the center of gravity. Dug Out Doug also made Montgomery look fast. He spent from March 42 till November 1944 taking New Guinea, a worthless jungle covered rock north of Australia with no resources need by Japan. Also he never did eliminate the Japanese garrison in the Philippines, they surrendered after the war.

I used World War II by John Ellis for my facts, for which I am thankful. It is an incredible collection of data.

Liberty or Death

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