“Air-Sea Battle.” What comes to mind when you hear that dashing phrase? How about its ungainly replacement, “Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons”? Some might envision a hypothetical conflict between the United States and a certain rising power in Asia. Squadrons of fighters dogfight high above the Western Pacific as bombers launch devastating attacks on ships and shore below. Task forces of forward-based cruisers and destroyers duel against their opposite numbers along the First Island Chain. Submarines sink any amphibious group that threatens the allied perimeter, enabling strikes on enemy bases that menace the battle fleets rushing into the theater from Hawaii and North America. Cutting-edge technology renders old principles of war obsolete, and the United States carries the day in a short, vigorous campaign that brings the adversary to heel.
Or does it?
While defense experts have spilled much ink poring over this “new” operational doctrine designed for conducting a high-intensity war against China, not enough attention has been given to the last time forward-deployed American sailors, airmen, and Marines faced down a peer opponent—in the same region, with similarly composed forces, and a nearly identical operational plan. And unfortunately, the campaign they waged did not end in a smashing American victory. Welcome to the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, circa 1941.
More Similar than Meets the Eye
Even in the missile age, we can gain much insight on naval strategy in Asia from the trials and travails of Admiral Thomas C. Hart and his castoff flotilla of all-gun cruisers, four-stacker destroyers, and diesel submarines manned by the weathered “old China hands” of the Asiatic Fleet. Hart and his 11,000 highly experienced officers and men, most with many more years in service than their counterparts elsewhere in the Navy and Marine Corps, faced the same challenges that our forward forces and strategic planners are grappling with today, including the use of submarines and surface ships to find and destroy high-value targets in denied areas at war’s opening, the indefensibility of forward bases, and the vital importance of mobile logistics assets to replace them.1
While it is true the Asiatic Fleet was a diplomatic asset for protecting American interests in peacetime as opposed to the robust battle force of today’s 7th Fleet, the 1941 contingent of U.S. ships in Asia had many characteristics in common with its modern successor. In terms of surface vessels, both the Asiatic Fleet and the 7th Fleet share a composition of two cruisers and one destroyer squadron. With their heavy torpedo armaments, the Asiatic Fleet’s surface warriors were best suited to fight short, furious night actions—a form of battle considered such a good analogy to modern missile showdowns that Captain Wayne Hughes uses the identical salvo equation to model both circumstances. Certainly the Asiatic Fleet had nothing comparable to the 7th Fleet’s forward-deployed Nimitz-class supercarrier, but forthcoming developments in long-range and even autonomous antiship missiles are dramatically increasing the potency of surface combatants. The future of long-range antisurface and strike warfare inside the contested zone could very well take the form of cruisers and destroyers armed with flocks of these one-way drones, making naval combat more analogous to a long-distance version of engagements fought by the torpedo-wielding “tin cans” of the 1941 Asiatic Fleet than battles between carrier task forces. Combined with the proliferation of anti-access/area-denial weaponry intended to keep modern carriers out of the Western Pacific, these evolutions would suggest that this particular discrepancy between the 7th Fleet and its 1941 equivalent is growing less significant.2
In other domains, just as today’s Asia analysts see the potential for U.S. submarines to wreak havoc on Chinese warships inside the First Island Chain, back in 1941, Admiral Hart presided over the single largest concentration of submarines in the world. A submariner himself, Hart expected to use them inside areas to which the Japanese sought to deny U.S. ships access (which is to say, the same areas that China seeks to deny us access to today). For air support, the Asiatic Fleet theoretically could rely on the Philippines-based Far East Air Force (FEAF), equipped with nearly 130 modern aircraft, similar to the aerial contingents in Guam and Okinawa today.
War Plans and Key Assumptions
According to its war plans of 1940–41, in the event of an attack by Japan, the Asiatic Fleet would send its surface ships south from Manila to combine with the British and Dutch in the waters of the Dutch East Indies until the U.S. Pacific Fleet arrived from Hawaii to relieve the Philippines.3 American submarines would head north, as they comprised the only real chance of intercepting and dispersing Japanese amphibious expeditions sailing for the Philippines. War Plan Orange assessed it unlikely that the United States would be successful at holding the Philippines, but if the FEAF could keep the skies over Manila clear enough for the submarines to operate against the anticipated amphibious attacks on Luzon, the Philippines might be able to hold until the cavalry arrived. This strategy was based on several fundamental operational assumptions that live on in today’s concepts for a naval war with China.
The plan rested on certain platforms—first submarines off the Philippines, then surface ships in the Dutch East Indies—operating independently without aerial scouting to find specific high-value enemy targets and destroy them successfully. But heading into 1941, the U.S. Navy’s most recent high-intensity conflict against a symmetrical naval rival had been the Spanish-American War more than four decades earlier. This lack of combat experience would matter. Since an invasion of the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies was regarded on both sides of the Pacific as the opening move in a war between the United States and Japan, there would be only a short window for the submarines to do their job before the Japanese arrived at the beaches of Luzon, and similarly few chances for the surface ships to be decisive before the Japanese landed to take the oil fields of the Dutch East Indies.4 Then, as now, there would be no opportunity to gain experience and refine operational doctrine before crunch time.
Though outward indications suggested that the FEAF would be able to meaningfully contest air superiority at war’s opening, Hart rightly planned around the assumption that the bases at Subic Bay and Manila eventually would be rendered inoperable, leaving his combat vessels dependent on the Asiatic Fleet’s four large tenders. That the fleet was able to operate for as long as it did from such disparate locations as Manila, Surabaya, and Darwin is a testament to the value added by those auxiliaries.
Combat Results and Lessons for Now
Thanks to Admiral Hart’s unrelenting preparations for conflict over the preceding year, the Asiatic Fleet was one of the only Allied formations in the Pacific to weather the initial storm in December 1941 unsurprised and comparatively unscathed. Japanese successes elsewhere, however, fundamentally altered the Asiatic Fleet’s situation. With the deep strike on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese cut off the Philippines from its expected source of relief. In the destruction of the two British battleships of Force Z off Malaya, the Japanese eliminated the heaviest units of the notional combined Allied fleet that was to defend the Dutch East Indies. By the end of the day on 10 December 1941, the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, equipped as it was with ships “old enough to vote,” was now the largest naval force facing the Japanese in the Western Pacific.5
Hopes that U.S. submarines could hold the line against enemy amphibious groups by themselves—aspirations echoed in modern studies of prospects for the defense of Taiwan against a Chinese invasion—went unfulfilled.6 While U.S. submarines would go on to sink more tonnage than all other combat arms combined, their performance off the Philippines proved disappointing. The Asiatic Fleet’s submarines intercepted the Japanese amphibious expeditions heading for Luzon several times, yet not one attack was successful.
This inability to deliver was the result of several factors. To begin with, though Hart’s Asiatic Fleet personnel had been getting ready for war for more than a year, it still took some time to warm up.7 Asiatic Fleet submarines and surface ships would indeed find their stride fairly quickly, but the sudden onset of war after decades of peace meant it would take crucial weeks for this to occur. For today’s Navy, the challenge is even greater. The U.S. Navy’s most recent surface engagement was Operation Praying Mantis in 1988, but the last time an American fleet faced down an enemy force of truly comparable strength was at Leyte Gulf in October 1944. It would be a mistake to assume our forces, however capable, will be able to operate with maximum combat efficiency as soon as hostilities commence in future scenarios.
Further hindering the Asiatic Fleet’s performance, American weapons had widespread undetected malfunctions—a situation recent events would suggest has not gone away since World War II. As the Asiatic Fleet’s submarines braved the attacks of enemy escorts to gain firing positions against the Japanese convoys, they found that their torpedoes ran deeper than their set depth, passing harmlessly under even deep-draft ships, while those that did hit their intended targets frequently had detonators that failed to go off on impact. On board the surface ships, the situation was no better. During the Battle of the Makassar Strait, in which Japanese bombers managed to cripple the Asiatic Fleet’s only two cruisers, it was found that more than a fifth of the fleet’s antiaircraft shells were ten years old and consistiently failed to explode.8 The cause of this across-the-board equipment failure traced back to the Great Depression, when budgets had been cut so severely that neither the Naval Torpedo Factory nor the often-neglected Asiatic Fleet had the funds or the operational tempo to conduct live-fire tests that might have detected the flaws in such disparate types of ammunition.
It holds true now, as then, that live-fire training, or the lack thereof, affects readiness. Nowadays, our ships and submarines only rarely get to fire even their crew-served weapons, let alone their main batteries of missiles and torpedoes. Commander, Naval Surface Forces Vice Admiral Thomas S. Rowden’s order to conduct gunnery practice daily is a step in the right direction, but only Congress can appropriate funds for more regular live missile drills. The price of not doing so could be very high, whether another naval war comes or not—it is well worth asking whether the 2015 missile explosion over the USS The Sullivans (DDG-68) could have been prevented through more regular live equipment testing throughout the fleet.
The experience of the Asiatic Fleet also bodes ill for prospects of using major landward bases in a high-intensity war. The Japanese succeeded in destroying the majority of the FEAF on the ground on 8 December even when the Americans had nine hours of warning. Having therefore lost most air-defense capability, any hopes the Americans might have had for using the forward naval bases for an extended period were crushed on 10 December, when the Japanese bombed and destroyed both Cavite Naval Station, with all the supplies stored there, and the Naval Air Station at Sangley Point.9 The Asiatic Fleet only was able to continue operations because of its possession of the tenders—combined floating repair shops and replenishment ships—and other supporting vessels. These vital logistical resources allowed the fleet to shift its base farther south when Japanese attacks made Manila untenable. The tenders’ crucial role also is exemplified by the pressing problems created by their absence—when a combination of enemy action, circumstance, and ill-conceived orders from Washington left the fleet in Surabaya without ready access to its tenders; both brand-new submarines and elderly surface ships alike found themselves run down, short of ammunition, and altogether at great disadvantage until the situation was remedied.10
‘Distant Hoofbeats of History’
The U.S. Navy currently faces its own crisis as regards combat logistics. While Military Sealift Command has four fast combat-support ships (one inactive) and 12 ammunition ships that should be able to rearm surface combatants at sea, the Navy presently has no method for reloading vertical-launch cells—the main batteries of our cruisers and destroyers—except in an equipped friendly port. The lessons of the Philippines Campaign would suggest that forward bases, no matter how well defended, are highly vulnerable to attack and therefore will be targeted in the opening strikes of any offensive against U.S. forces.
As for repair ships, the United States has decommissioned its entire fleet of destroyer tenders and has only one submarine tender, based at Guam (a forward base within range of Chinese ballistic missiles). In the event of a successful Chinese strike on our bases in Japan, Guam, and the Philippines, the westernmost place for our ships to reload would be at Hawaii, 4,000 miles to the rear of the Allied strategic line along the First Island Chain. After expending their magazines—something that can take only minutes during a major missile raid—our ships would be compelled to leave the operational theater for a minimum of 12 days before being available for further tasking against the enemy.
For U.S. surface forces to survive for very long in a combat environment, they must be truly independent from permanent shore installations and have the ability to sea-base in-theater indefinitely, hiding in open water or secluded harbors to repair, refuel, and rearm before returning to the firing line. Ships like the mobile landing platform could prove useful in a tender or repair-ship role. More important, Naval Sea Systems Command currently is working on a new vertical-launching-system reloading device.11 With tensions between the United States and China on the rise, this capability is needed urgently.
Otto von Bismarck once said that the greatest soldiers and statesmen were those who could hear the distant hoofbeats of history long before their contemporaries. Those who can hear the echoes of the last time the horse passed this way can be just as powerful. As we formulate contingency plans to address China, we cannot afford to ignore the lessons offered by the tragic saga of the Asiatic Fleet. If we are wise enough to approach today’s challenges through the lens of applied history, incorporating past experience into an understanding of the modern affairs that shape our world, we will do more than honor those who came and sacrificed before us—we will allow them to guide us and prepare us for trials to come. To benefit from their insight, all we have to do is listen.
1. Thomas C. Hart, “Narrative of Events, Asiatic Fleet Leading up to War and from 8 December 1941 to 15 February 1942,” addendum, “Supplementary Narrative” (1946), National Archives, College Park, MD, 19.
2. CDR Phillip E. Pournelle, USN, “The Rise of the Missile Carriers,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 139, no. 5 (May 2013), 30–34.
3. Hart, “Supplementary Narrative,” 3.
4. Hart, “Supplementary Narrative,” 17–18.
5. Thomas C. Hart, “Reminiscences of Admiral Thomas C. Hart” (oral history interviews conducted by the Columbia University Oral History Research Office, 1972), Naval Historical Collection, U.S. Naval War College, Newport, RI. Hart, “Narrative of Events,” 40.
6. Eric Heginbotham et al., The U.S.-China Military Scorecard: Forces, Geography, and the Evolving Balance of Power 1996–2017 (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2015), www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR300/RR392/RAND_RR392.pdf.
7. Hart, “Supplementary Narrative,” 18.
8. Statement of Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL), Congressional Record 1896 (1 March 2000).
9. Hart, “Narrative of Events” 39, “Supplementary Narrative,” 10–11.
10. Hart, “Supplementary Narrative,” 11–12.
11. Marvin O. Miller, “Underway Replenishment System Modernization,” American Society of Naval Engineers, 2009, https://member.navalengineers.org/SiteCollectionDocuments/2009%20Proceedings%20Documents/AD%202009/Papers/MillerMO.pdf.