How We Lost the Great Pacific War

By Captain Dale Rielage, U.S. Navy

The memorial services had finally run their course. Neither of the carriers lost had been homeported at Pearl, but the toll among the destroyers had been more than enough to cast a pall across the island. Having exhausted all the means available and failed, mourning seemed the fleet’s remaining task. That and reflection, the admiral thought, as he regarded the letter in his hand—his reflections on where all this could have been averted.

At least for the moment the ceasefire was holding . . . not that the fleet had much left to challenge it with anymore.


MEMO: 6 June 2025

From: Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet

To: Chief of Naval Operations

Subj: Lesson Learned from Recent Naval Actions in the Western Pacific

CNO,

At this point, I expect you are overwhelmed with voices excoriating and explaining the costly reversals we have experienced in recent months. Once the dust clears from the congressional inquiries and the various special commissions, it will be a challenge to sort the wheat from the chaff to discover and implement the real lessons for our Navy. Politics being what they are, of course, that task will fall to our successors. Like you, I am painfully aware I am being retained just long enough to absorb enough blame for what happened to clear the deck for the next commander. Nonetheless I will add my own thoughts to the cacophony, knowing that in my position I can hardly be said to be a disinterested observer.

The tragedy of our defeat—and I deliberately use that term so carefully avoided in our public discussions—is that it hinged on such small factors. At the start of Admiral John Richardson’s term as Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), he noted presciently that our marginof victory in high-end naval combat had grown “razor thin.” At the time, he assessed that the margin, though thin, remained “decisive.”1 In the years following, however, the margin shifted imperceptibly to favor the other side.

The loss of our margin of victory is all the more painful because in the years leading up to the conflict we said all the right things. In many cases, we were doing the right things as well. In the quiet of the Nimitz House lanai, I find myself asking what we could have done had we known this was coming. If, at the start of our terms, we had seen that we would not leave our posts without a crisis transitioning into hostilities, could we have averted this disaster? Possibly.

Our Navy had noted the changing strategic landscape. CNO Richardson’s stark self-assessment started to drive the sea change we needed. Projecting power “from the sea”—our comfort zone for two decades—shifted to a renewed focus on the need to fight on and for the sea. Nonetheless, moving limited resources from the desert to the fleet was a challenge. Every year brought a new fight in the Mideast, which, while never an existential issue for the nation, carried the urgency of real-world operations. Saying no to U.S. Central Command for anything required steeling the soul for bureaucratic battle.

Shifting resources was simple compared to creating an intellectual shift within the force. The “Rebalance” that was a political theme in the past decade helped in that regard, but we must be honest with ourselves—we did not rebalance the force until well after we advertised that we had. We touted having 60 percent of the Navy in the Pacific, ignoring that 60 percent of a smaller force was still a smaller force. We worked hard on getting the narrative right, but our allies and potential adversaries could do the math on the correlation of forces; and they concluded that the numbers had stopped adding up in our favor. No strategic communications could change that reality.

Thus, we entered the previous administration coming off a “long off-season,” and we knew we had accrued “off-season habits.”2 As we considered how to get back in shape, it is apparent now that we assumed our own “ten-year rule.” Of course, British military planners between the World Wars formally articulated their assumption that they would not face a major war in the next decade. Our ten-year rule was an informal, unspoken assumption throughout the force, and thus harder to challenge. As the balance of forces in the Pacific shifted, that pernicious mental math allowed us the consolation of hope. We assumed that each technological advance our potential adversaries put in the field could be countered by even more ingenious technology resident in our laboratories—technology that would reach the fleet in some future budget cycle. We lost along the way the truth that the imperfect reality trumps the perfect potentiality. When we started taking losses in the Pacific, the scramble to get these tools from the labs into the field became a significant and ultimately ineffective distraction. Some likened the effort to the Germans desperately trying to get their Wunderwaffen into the field to tip the balance at the end of World War II.

In general, we had the intellectual framework needed to prevail. Fleet staffs, warfighting development centers, and the Naval War College had spent hard effort in creating concepts to win against adversary forces tailored to defeat our traditional strengths. The concepts they developed, however, required varsity-level execution. From the tactical to the operational levels, this fight was going to be hard in extraordinary ways. Fighting with limited communications while relying on commander’s intent placed a premium on experience in this operational environment and on an intimate knowledge of plans and expectations up and down the chain of command. Unfortunately, at the same time we were creating these concepts, we were also hemorrhaging experience out of the Pacific. Between the Glenn Defense Marine investigations and the fallout of the Fitzgerald and John S. McCain collisions, there were few places more hazardous to a senior officer’s career prospects than the Pacific. While there were welcome exceptions, the general result was a steep relearning process with every senior personnel move.

What we needed to do was break the personnel system, at least in the senior ranks. A century ago, Admiral Sir Jackie Fisher, the First Sea Lord, did something similar, stacking the deck in the Royal Navy with officers who would drive his dreadnought revolution.3 We had experienced and visionary leaders in the force, but respect for seniority and maintaining the balance of warfare communities in the flag ranks made pushing them to the forefront unpalatable. It was not always so. In 1955, President Eisenhower jumped Arleigh Burke over 91 senior flags to be the Chief of Naval Operations. In 1970, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt was appointed CNO over 36 seniors. Their successes made them legends. We named ships for them, but forgot how they got their opportunity in the first place.

Once combat was joined, it was apparent that we had not found the right balance between efficiency and effectiveness. The optimized fleet response plan (OFRP) was a fine conceptual model.4 In execution, it carried two key flaws that contributed to our defeat.

The first was that we were optimizing the wrong metric. Our standard was “deployable,” not “combat ready”—at least not ready for the high-end maritime fight. The inherent flexibility of naval forces created the expectation that our forces would be able to do anything across the entire spectrum of military operations. The resulting laundry list of tasks and certifications filled each moment available for training. This meant that each task was completed to the “good enough” standard. At the same time, we created tactical concepts that required precision, flexibility, and exactitude in execution . . . not “good enough.”

We designed the OFRP process to create a fleet ready for war, and instead we delivered an industrial process to maximize production of deployable forces.

Second, we created a sustainment phase in the OFRP. This phase was designed to ensure that readiness did not “bathtub.” Each deployment cycle was envisioned to build on the previous iteration, ultimately creating the varsity-level performance the challenge demanded. The sustainment phase was also where we planned to keep surge forces, but it was never resourced. Ten years ago, the director of fleet maintenance for U.S. Fleet Forces referred to it publicly as a “sustainment opportunity” because there was no funding associated with it.5 The years of continuing resolutions, Budget Control Act restrictions, and maintenance deficits left the sustainment phase a shell of a concept. As early as 2017, we were telling Congress that only a third of our F/A-18 Super Hornets were fully mission-capable. The Commander, Naval Air Forces, noted to Congress that we had begun routinely to “cannibalize aircraft, parts, and people to ensure those leaving on deployment had what they needed to be safe and effective.”6

Thus, when we desperately needed surge forces to replace our losses forward, we filled the gaps with our training cadre—the only aviators with current skills on “up” jets. I remember the video teleconference—I was among those adamant that we needed to surge more carriers soonest. It was a necessary move, recognized as high risk, and I do not see how any fleet commander could have recommended otherwise. The two surge air wings spent themselves dearly before falling before waves of enemy high-end surface-to-air missiles and fourth generation fighters that outnumbered them two, four, even ten to one. The exchange ratios tilted heavily in our favor—even the realistic ones rather than those trumpeted in the press—and will be cited with pride for years. Those numbers belie the hard reality that we did not lose just two air wings. We lost the ability to train naval aviators in quantity for the next decade. We repeated the mistake of the Imperial Japanese Navy air arm, which spent most of its highly trained naval aviators in combat in the first half of World War II without considering the need to train replacements.7 The new authority to recall retired and separated aviators will help, but even so, it will be years before a new cadre is established.

You and I were not in positions to undo a decade or more of underinvestment. What we could have done was be ruthlessly clear about the situation we were in, and we could have had the fortitude to employ the fleet differently. The irony is that the OFRP structure was created to resource a presence model of force employment. We taught that presence was synonymous with relevance and made “operate forward” a mantra. We embraced forward deployed naval forces (FDNF) as a more efficient way to generate presence. FDNF Western Pacific was a proud force, hardworking and worked hard even by Navy standards. It also evolved into a strategic mistake. With steady improvement of adversary reach and capability, our forces forward had grown vulnerable. They were no longer large or capable enough to offer decisive deterrence or to disrupt or delay sufficiently an adversary. At the same time, they represented such a large percentage of our force, especially our operationally ready forces, that their loss would have been catastrophic.

The logical strategic answer would have been to take a page from the Royal Navy around 1904 and bring the decisive balance of the fleet home, concentrated, protected and able to surge to consequential action. We could have left behind a new “Asiatic Fleet” construct. Like its pre–World War II predecessor, it could have been just large enough to show the flag and signify U.S. commitment, while being ready to spend itself dearly to buy time when needed. That was unthinkable, of course. Our forward presence mantra had worked too well on the interagency elements that would have needed to approve any shift. (Do you remember when fleet commanders could deploy the fleet without interagency approval? I do not.) What was a navy for if not to be forward deployed? Barring that solution, we needed to find our Scapa Flow—a wartime station for the fleet that offered relative safety and an ability to preserve and concentrate forces for decisive engagement. As it was, we were busy forward, providing visible evidence of U.S. commitment—visible and vulnerable—when the adversary’s sudden opening salvos tore through our forces.

When the battle was joined, we worked to maneuver the fleet as a fleet. The return of fleet maneuver had, of course, been one of our key intellectual epiphanies of the preceding decade. Power projection from secure sea bases was the work of individual formations, whether carrier strike groups, expeditionary strike groups, surface action groups, or submarines. Contesting and securing sea space across a broad area, on the other hand, required the synchronized effort of an entire fleet. Despite that insight, we never carved out the time and place to maneuver as a fleet. The constant press of current operations (Presence! Always more presence!) meant few serving officers had the experience of seeing more than one carrier strike group (CSG) maneuvering together—certainly never for more than a day or two. Our doctrine for doing so dated from the Gulf Wars or earlier.

As we improvised our way through the conflict, we faced the reality that we did not fully enable our maritime operations centers (MOCs). These typically had been exercised as a joint maritime component, providing staff responses to up-echelon combatant commands during command post exercises. Few, if any, played in unit certification exercises, meaning maneuver elements were unfamiliar with the MOCs’ role in combat, while the MOCs were left developing their wartime processes on the fly. Not surprisingly, the cadre of reservists who augmented our staffs during exercises did not bring the depth or experience to work without a defined process. As a result, we clobbered afloat units with staff minutiae to support our Power Point habit, while the key insights needed to command languished in an email backlog.

The state of our MOC staffs demonstrated our need to refocus the Naval War College and war games. Yes, elements of the Naval War College were developing cutting edge thought, and overall the curriculum had been “re-marinized.” Nonetheless, most students left the college without sufficient grounding in the high-end fight. Practical issues—the need to cater to each combatant command, restrictive security classifications, the difficulty of maintaining currency on a dynamic operational problem—left students better versed in humanitarian and low-intensity mission planning than in fleet-level engagements. The best insights on this fight had been found within the professional planning community, which was disbanded some years ago after being nursed along for a decade.

Similarly, we needed to align our command and control across warfare domains. We decided that fleet commanders could synchronize, command, and control all the tools of naval warfare—except in cyber. I am convinced that the separation between the fleet and its cyber support elements will come to be regarded in the same way the division between Admiral Thomas Kincaid’s Seventh Fleet and Admiral Bull Halsey’s Third Fleet is regarded today. At Leyte Gulf, the gap between Halsey and Kincaid nearly cost the landing force. Taffy Three saved the Philippine landings. In cyber, there was no Taffy Three for us. If cyber was decisive, it should have been part of the DNA of our operations, not the preserve of a separate chain of command too complex to allow synchronized operations.

After all, the war started in cyber. From the first inklings of conflict, our networks were contested terrain; and we started that fight behind the power curve. Over the years, we created waste and vulnerability using Navy networks as if they were extensions of our personal lives. How much Facebook and YouTube were Navy networks supporting day in and day out? We told ourselves that this was a morale issue . . . that we needed to endure the cyber and security vulnerabilities that came with this usage to retain qualified personnel. The losses sustained by Task Force 70.2 stemmed in part from attacks that leveraged these vulnerabilities. We should have been willing to harden the network in peacetime.

If we were unwilling to talk about not having Facebook, we were hardly going to talk about the losses likely in this fight. We nibbled around the issue, emphasizing toughness in our ranks, but we never created a true crucible in training. The Marines invested time and effort to ensure their people experienced something approximating the physical and psychological stresses of combat in training. In contrast, Navy crews experienced the impacts of combat stress for the first time in actual combat. Any Army psychologist could predict the rate at which untrained individuals will fail to cope during their first time under fire. Our Navy seemed surprised.

We also missed opportunities to tell our commanders frankly that there could be no medical evacuations while sitting in the adversary’s weapons engagement zone. The crew of the destroyer USS Fishburne earned a Navy Unit Commendation going back for the survivors of the USS Holloway . It was a heroic, if unsuccessful, gesture that ultimately cost us a second DDG. The reality is that keeping Fishburne ’s missile magazines afloat and in the fight would have saved more American lives than any successful rescue. The Fishburne ’s commanding officer made that call, but the error was mine for not having that uncomfortable conversation with my commanders before they were faced with such decisions.

History will tell us if this is our Suez Canal crisis moment—the end of U.S. primacy in the international order. Certainly, the ceasefire does not leave us well positioned to reconstitute our forces or claw the U.S. back to relevance in the Western Pacific. That herculean task will fall to others.

“We did as well as we could with what we were given” is hardly a ringing epitaph. For the foreseeable future, however, it will be our refrain, and maybe better than we have earned.

Very respectfully,

/s/

Admiral W. T. Door, U.S. Navy

 



1. Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, “A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, Version 1.0,” January 2016.

2. Remarks of Admiral John Richardson at WEST Sea Services panel , 23 February 2017.

3. Henrikki Tikkanen, “‘Favoritism Is the Secret of Efficiency!’ Admiral Sir John Fisher As the First Sea Lord, 1904–1910,” Management & Organizational History Vol. 11, Issue 3, 2016.

4. Chief of Naval Operations, OPNAV Instruction 3000.15A Optimized Fleet Response Plan, November 10, 2014.

5. Megan Eckstein, “ Admirals: Fleet Readiness Plan Could Leave Carrier Gaps, Overwhelm Shipyards ,” USNI News, 9 September 2015.

6. Geoff Ziezulewics, “ Only One-Third of Super Hornets Ready to ‘Fight Tonight’ as of October, Admiral Says ,” Navy Times, 9 November 2017.

7. Mark A. Peattie, Sunburst: The Rise of Japanese Naval Air Power, 1909–1941 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2001), 190–1.


Captain Rielage is the U.S. Pacific Fleet Director for Intelligence and Information Operations. He is a career intelligence officer who is in his sixth consecutive tour focused on the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. He is a frequent contributor to Proceedings .
 

 

 

 
 

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