Detecting, interpreting, and adapting to trends in the strategic environment is seldom easy for big organizations like the U.S. Navy. Consider East Asia, where the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) is developing an array of weapons and tactics specifically intended to hold U.S. aircraft carriers and their escorts at bay during a conflict in the Taiwan Strait. One revolutionary weapon under development is an antiship ballistic missile (ASBM). Tipped with maneuverable warheads, the ASBM will reportedly boast the range and accuracy to target warships at sea up to 2,500 km distant.1
Such a technology, used in concert with the sizable submarine fleet and other sea-denial capabilities China is assembling, would cast doubt on the survivability of big-deck carriers in a naval war in Asia. Should Chinese defenses gain the upper hand, the United States would face an unpalatable choice. It could reconfigure the Navy for new realities, bolstering its staying power in a fight. It could choose to muddle through, trusting diplomacy to avert conflict. Or it could abandon its position in Asia.
The interplay between defense and offense is nothing new. Indeed, the late Professor Michael Handel counsels in his classic work Masters of War that constant "interaction of the warring states, each searching for a comparative advantage, defines the unique nature of each war" (his emphasis).2 The side able to cope with—or, better yet, get ahead of—perpetual change holds the advantage over a less adaptive foe. But adaptation is not a simple matter of devising superior weaponry. People—not weapons—fight wars.
So, fashioning the right mix of platforms and combat systems is only half the challenge of adaptation. Instilling a culture that encourages enterprise, dynamism, and risk-taking with new systems is just as important to operational success.
Pearl Harbor: Catalyst for Innovation
Why look beyond the carrier task force, which has stood the test of time? Look no further than Alfred Thayer Mahan, the father of the modern Navy, for theoretical help. Mahan defined capital ships in general terms, as "the vessels which, by due proportion of defensive and offensive powers, are capable of taking and giving hard knocks."3 Despite his love affair with big-gun battleships, Mahan foresaw that technological change might overtake them.
If so, the dreadnought would find itself displaced from the center of U.S. naval strategy. The same goes for its descendants. If PLA forces can dish out hard knocks against U.S. task forces at extreme range—and this remains an if—then the ability of naval aviation and Tomahawk shooters to deliver hard knocks of their own will fade. It's time to reconsider whether carriers still meet the Mahanian standard for capital ships or should give way to platforms that do.
World War II furnishes historical precedent on these questions. Codified in war plans developed in the interwar years, U.S. strategy called for the battle fleet to steam across the Pacific Ocean to duel its Japanese counterpart. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, however, deprived the U.S. Pacific Fleet the wherewithal to execute this Mahanian strategy. Without battleships to wrest command of Asian waters from the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN), the Navy had to improvise.
It got off to a quick start. On the evening of 7 December 1941, with Battleship Row still ablaze, Chief of Naval Operations Harold Stark directed the Pacific Fleet to strike back with the few implements remaining to it—primarily submarines and hastily organized carrier task forces. U.S. forces were to "execute unrestricted air and submarine warfare against Japan," disregarding bad memories of German U-boats' preying on civilian vessels like the Lusitania during World War I.4
The Navy found virtue in necessity. Long viewed as fleet auxiliaries, submarines came into their own as capital ships, able to mete out heavy blows while eluding enemy counterblows.
The undersea offensive ordained by Admiral Stark took a fearful toll on Japanese merchant and naval shipping, choking off the shipborne resources Japan needed to prosecute its own Pacific campaign. But success did not come easy. Finding inventive uses for existing weaponry was part of the challenge, but, as the naval leadership learned, the finest weapon is no better than its user.
Reinventing the culture of the submarine force—the habits and attitudes that constitute "how we do things here" to foster entrepreneurship was essential. Organizational culture is a stubborn thing, especially in an institution like the U.S. Navy, whose enviable record of success seems to ratify longstanding ways of doing things. The default attitude: if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
To modify such attitudes in a hurry, senior leadership changed out timid submarine commanders for those who displayed the requisite qualities. With new people unencumbered by the past came new ways of operating. The Silent Service prevailed despite its mandate to wage war in unforeseen ways. This cultural pivot was especially striking by contrast with the apathy IJN commanders displayed toward protecting Japanese merchant ships against the American onslaught. Victory went to the navy that prospered amid the interactive stresses of high-seas combat.
Has cultural inertia returned to today's Navy? It's worth recalling that the Navy has fought no major engagements since Leyte Gulf in 1944. Current doctrine and systems have not been tested in combat, the true arbiter of what works. If the service does need to innovate, the lessons of the Pacific War may apply.
Damn the Torpedoes!
Submarine design was a bright spot for the Pacific Fleet. The Navy had provided ship designers only sketchy guidance on what to build during the interwar years, so they hedged by constructing multi-mission boats. Fleet boats might be expected to operate in relatively permissive surroundings, namely waters under dispute or already under U.S. control. Or they might find themselves on prolonged cruises, raiding shipping in expanses held by an enemy fleet.
Endurance was a must for subs entrusted with multiple functions—especially in the vastness of the Pacific. Long range and habitability assumed high priority for U.S. naval architects. (For Japanese commentators, ironically, U.S. shipbuilders' emphasis on habitability was proof that Americans were too soft for undersea combat.5) Designed primarily to attack battleships and cruisers, the 2,000-ton Gato-class fleet boats were more than suitable for commerce destruction if deftly handled.6
If the submarines themselves were adequate—no new class was developed, built, or needed during the war—their armament was decidedly substandard. In 1943, for example, the deck log of the USS Wahoo (SS-238) reported firing ten torpedoes at a convoy over a three-day span. The dismal results included a dud, a broach, and eight misses, all attributable to technical shortcomings. "Damn the torpedoes," concluded the log entry sardonically.7
The standard U.S. Navy torpedo, the Mark XIV, was fitted with two exploders. The first, a contact device, would detonate when the fish crashed into an enemy hull. The second, a magnetic-influence device, would explode on sensing the ship's magnetic field. If set to run underneath the keel, the torpedo could break the ship's back without ever striking her hull.
Or that was the theory. In reality, the Mark XIV often ran too deep for the magnetic-influence exploder to detect the ship's presence—hence many of the misses the Wahoo reported—while the contact exploder worked only if it struck a hull at an oblique angle. Perversely, a good solid hit at right angles usually resulted in a dud. Not until September 1943, nearly two years after Pearl Harbor, did engineers troubleshoot and fully correct these faults.8
Technical deficiencies had operational implications. Says historian Clay Blair Jr., defective equipment hampered execution of the undersea campaign while deflating the morale of submarine commanders, for whom derring-do was at a premium:
Skippers emboldened by swift and certain torpedo success, instead of puzzled and dismayed by obvious torpedo failure, might have inflicted crippling damage on the Japanese navy much earlier. The war in the Pacific might have been shortened by many, many months.9
Indeed, Blair maintains that submarine operations unimpaired by nagging hardware problems might have kept Japan from invading the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies at the war's outbreak. Weaponry is no better than its operator—but the most valiant sea warrior can do little without weapons that work.
Throwing Caution to the Wind
The Pacific Fleet managed to reorient its submarine crews for the rigors of commerce raiding, or guerre de course, even while struggling with material woes. Drastic measures were required. The commander of Submarine Forces, Pacific (SUBPAC) protested that his crews were prepared "neither by training nor indoctrination" for guerre de course, which bore scant resemblance to fleet support and went against Mahanian orthodoxy.10
Sinking lightly armed merchantmen was not a "lesser included" mission after all, easily performed by crews trained for fleet-on-fleet battles. Indeed, it demanded an unusual degree of industry.
Courting risk was not common practice among submariners before 7 December. Why? Conventional wisdom deprecated a submarine's prospects of surviving an encounter with an enemy battle fleet. Its chances were rated at one-in-seven once detected. Undersea craft were also considered highly vulnerable to air attack, so remaining submerged to evade aircraft was central to U.S. tactics.11 Caution was the watchword in prewar doctrine.
After the destruction of the Pacific Fleet battle line, SUBPAC needed skippers who prized endeavor over caution. Cruising on the surface, not sheltering safely underwater, was vital to detecting, tracking, and assailing Japanese merchant shipping.
Fortunately for the Navy, the Silent Service proved highly adaptive, making rapid change in tactics and doctrine possible. Equipped with rudimentary communications gear, submarines operated free of close supervision from SUBPAC. Each boat quickly took on its captain's personality, much as an aircraft commander determines his plane's combat performance.12 This reduced the problem of changing the SUBPAC culture to finding skippers who thrived on independence.
Under stringent measures enacted after Pearl Harbor, skippers were granted two patrols to show results, measured in tonnage sunk. Those who disappointed were summarily replaced. In 1943, fully 30 percent of submarine commanders in the Pacific were relieved for failing to meet SUBPAC's exacting standards.13 With an enterprising skipper (and operational weaponry), on the other hand, a solitary boat could achieve devastating results.
'Wahoo is Expendable'
Case in point: the January 1943 patrol of the USS Wahoo off New Guinea. Secretary of War Henry Stimson had deplored the Navy's "peculiar psychology," which took for granted that "Neptune was God, Mahan his prophet, and the United States Navy the only true Church."14 Unlike many officers reared on prewar doctrine, Lieutenant Commander Dudley "Mush" Morton, skipper of the Wahoo, was refreshingly free of dogma.
Morton was blunt with his crew. "Wahoo is expendable," he informed them as the boat departed Brisbane. "We will take every reasonable precaution, but our mission is to sink enemy shipping."15 According to Forest J. Sterling, the boat's yeoman, these bold words inspired "a different Wahoo":
I could feel the stirring of a strong spirit growing in her. The officers acted differently. The men felt differently. . . . A high degree of confidence in the capabilities and luck of our ship grew on us and we became a little bit cocky. It was a feeling that Wahoo was not only the best damn submarine in the Submarine Force but that she was capable of performing miracles.16
Morton's orders were to reconnoiter the Japanese base at Wewak, in northern New Guinea. On reaching the harbor—and after fashioning a makeshift chart that, as one junior officer reported, "would have made a cartographer shudder"—the skipper informed his astonished crew that he interpreted "reconnoiter" to mean penetrating Wewak and sinking whatever ships were there. After a close-quarters torpedo duel with a Japanese destroyer—the Wahoo had the better of the encounter, but only just barely—the submerged boat withdrew from Wewak and followed the northwesterly convoy route toward Palau.17
The next day, the Wahoo sighted and engaged a four-ship convoy. Morton's after-action report recounted a "ten hour running gun and torpedo battle" in which the boat sank two freighters and a transport and damaged the fourth merchantman, a tanker. SUBPAC credited the Wahoo with sinking 11,300 tons' worth of Japanese shipping. Lieutenant Commander Morton was awarded the Navy Cross.18 Captain Ned Beach concluded, "Morton—and his Wahoo—showed the way to the brethren of the Silent Service."19
The cruise of the Wahoo held lasting relevance. For the Navy to keep abreast of events, top leaders must look for changes to the operating environment, ideally before a Pearl Harbor compels them to improvise on the fly. Foresight will help the leadership determine the traits needed to flourish in new surroundings and seek out operational commanders who embody these traits.
In Michael Handel's terms, U.S. Navy submarine crews prospered amid interaction, amassing an insurmountable comparative advantage. But the IJN did little to help its own cause, in effect conceding the undersea theater. Only belatedly and halfheartedly did Japanese commanders attempt to counteract American commerce raiding. Antisubmarine detection and weapons technology stagnated.
Organization and tactics were little better.20 Not until late 1944 did the IJN create a Combined Escort Command to protect merchant convoys, while the leadership made little effort to adjust Japanese naval culture to meet the demands of antisubmarine warfare. Beguiled by its Mahanian vision of grand fleet engagements, the IJN allowed U.S. boats to create havoc, sending Japanese resource imports into freefall (see Figure 1).
In short, the Imperial Japanese Navy displayed little of SUBPAC's cultural agility. Sea-power theory was deeply embedded in Japanese naval culture, giving the IJN an unusually stubborn "peculiar psychology" of its own.21 The decisive fleet encounter obsessed the naval establishment, in part because Japanese naval victories over imperial China (1894-95) and Russia (1904-05) had seemed to ratify the Mahanian ideas then in vogue.
No Pearl Harbor jolted Japanese commanders out of their Mahan-inspired orthodoxy. Pearl Harbor had shaken the foundations of U.S. Navy culture, creating opportunities to modify the entrenched outlook Henry Stimson had railed against. Gradual losses of merchant vessels—lesser, unglamorous assets in the eyes of Japanese Mahanians—were easy to overlook by comparison to 7 December, which had left the pride of the U.S. Pacific Fleet in ruins.22
In a sense, then, the Imperial Japanese Navy was worse off not suffering a shock comparable to Pearl Harbor. Gradual, cumulative losses to U.S. submarines never deflected the IJN from pursuing a decisive battle or compelled it to reinvent its antisubmarine practices. Without a powerful catalyst, Japanese mariners' Mahanian culture persisted—and wartime interaction worked in America's favor.
Retooling Naval Culture Today
American guardianship of the Pacific Ocean sea lanes has served the United States and Asia well since Japan's defeat in 1945. It is worth preserving. The rise of Chinese military power, however, promises to permanently complicate U.S. strategy in the region. U.S. naval leaders should try to get ahead of events rather than reassess and adapt after change takes place. Some questions to ponder:
- Will forces forward-deployed at bases like Guam and Okinawa provoke rather than deter China, as the Pacific Fleet provoked Imperial Japan once forward-deployed in Hawaii?
- If carriers are as vulnerable as some analysts claim, what should take their place—and can the Navy remake its fleet speedily enough to deter or prevail with this new capital ship?
- Is today's Pacific Fleet as adaptable as SUBPAC proved after 7 December? Or is the carrier-centric fleet so embedded in Navy culture as to obstruct necessary change?
The U.S. Navy finds itself in an intellectual quandary akin to that confronted by Japanese strategists during the Pacific War. The Navy must adapt to nonlinear events—reports of new Chinese weaponry or bases, signals of intent from Beijing—whose meaning remains ambiguous but could generate tremendous cumulative effects.
As they strive to keep pace with dynamic surroundings, naval leaders should ask themselves candidly whether the service still encourages the resourcefulness and entrepreneurship of a Mush Morton—and, if not, how to restore those virtues in a fast-changing Asia.
2. Michael I. Handel, Masters of War: Classical Strategic Thought, 3d. ed., rev. (London: Frank Cass, 2001), p. 117.
3. Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Interest of America in Sea Power, Present and Future (1897; repr., Freeport: Books for Libraries Press, 1970), p. 198.
4. Harold Stark, in George Baer, One Hundred Years of Sea Power: The U.S. Navy, 1890-1990 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), p. 208; Samuel Eliot Morison, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, 15 v. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1950), vol. 4, p. 190.
5. Stephen Rosen, Winning the Next War: Innovation and the Modern Military (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991), p. 134.
6. Rosen, Winning the Next War, pp. 130-147.
7. Clay Blair Jr., Silent Victory: The U.S. Submarine War Against Japan (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1975), p. 470.
8. Blair, Silent Victory, pp. 380-386; Peter Padfield, War Beneath the Sea (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1995), p. 20.
9. Blair, Silent Victory, p. 20.
10. Theodore Roscoe, United States Submarine Operations in World War II (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1949), p. 19.
11. Rosen, Winning the Next War, pp. 135-138.
12. Rosen, Winning the Next War, pp. 135-138.
13. Rosen, Winning the Next War, pp. 131, 141.
14. Henry L. Stimson and McGeorge Bundy, On Active Service (New York: Harper, 1948), p. 506.
15. Blair, Silent Victory, p. 381.
16. Blair, Silent Victory, p. 381.
17. Blair, Silent Victory, pp. 382-383.
18. Blair, Silent Victory, pp. 383-386. See also Padfield, War Beneath the Sea, pp. 337-355.
19. Blair, Silent Victory, pp. 337-344; "Wahoo," Dictionary of American Fighting Naval Ships, Naval Historical Center Website,
20. David C. Evans and Mark R. Peattie, Kaigun: Strategy, Tactics, and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1887-1941 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1997), pp. 424-446.
21. Sadao Asada, From Mahan to Pearl Harbor: The Imperial Japanese Navy and the United States (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2006), pp. 26-44.
22. J. C. Wylie, Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1967), pp. 117-121.