Over the past few years, the U.S. Navy has experienced personnel training problems, ship design fiascos, and fleet operating concepts that failed to materialize. As it grapples with these issues, as well as a rising competitor in the Pacific, the Navy can look to the example of the early Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) and its emergence as one of the most respected navies of the early 20th century.
The IJN was born into a period of chaos during the Meiji Restoration in Japan. Pushed to the sidelines by the army, the leaders of the IJN had to figure out how to build a fleet without the traditions, technical knowledge, and operational experience most first- and even second-rate naval powers already exhibited—and how to do this for pennies on the dollar. The IJN’s early admirals realized foreign nations could hold valuable lessons.
At the outset of the 1870s, the IJN had a pitiful collection of ships and crews from the former Tokugawan Shogunate and various clan navies. Few sailors had operating experience, and even fewer knew much about modern fleet tactics, strategy, or maintenance. Knowing they would need a corps of highly competent officers and enlisted personnel, the IJN established a Naval Studies School, and recruits were sought from the more traditional elements of Japanese society, such as samurai families of the powerful clans, usually those with ambition for future government leadership. This failed to produce well-trained officers in any significant number, however, as only two graduates were commissioned from the first class in 1873.1 After this setback, Katsu Kaishū and Kawamura Sumiyoshi—often called the fathers of the Japanese Navy—realized the IJN would need to change its practices.
Japan adopted British training practices for sailors, opened applications to the Naval Studies School to all strata of society, and educated its officers to be experts on the technology they operated.2 Not only did IJN leaders focus on building a strong officer corps, but they also put effort into training first-rate enlisted crews. Both officers and enlisted received intensive, continual training that kept them up to date on advances in naval technology.3 It was around this well-trained body of sailors that the IJN built its fleet, and despite the ever-changing demands, the crews were always able to quickly adapt and help the IJN fulfill its missions through the remainder of the 19th century. This investment in personnel development would yield sailors such as Marshal-Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō, who would lead Japan to victory at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905.
However, a navy cannot be built on personnel alone. The first ships the IJN acquired were a mixture of what little the Japanese clans had constructed or had purchased from foreign powers. The early IJN decided initially to maintain a reliance on foreign construction, also requesting advisors to come to Japan to teach crews how to operate the ships.4 The Japanese Naval Ministry had no intention of remaining dependent on foreign shipbuilding for the long term, however. Soon it secured the appropriate funding from the central government to begin constructing naval shipbuilding facilities. By the late 1880s, these facilities began producing ships.5 In addition, the IJN began customizing its foreign ship orders to better fit its predicted needs.
A prime example is the purchase of the first pair of steel-hulled cruisers, the Naniwa and Takachiho, in 1884. These were cruisers based on the “Elswick” protected cruisers, designed by W. H. White and built by the Armstrong Whitworth shipyards in Great Britain.6 What made this purchase unique compared with previous purchases were naval architect Sasō Sachū’s negotiation terms. Rather than just purchase the Elswick design, Sasō had the British designers modify it to carry a stronger weapons array to better fit Japan’s need for strongly armed, “destroyer leading cruisers” instead of “light cruisers” that escorted battleships.7 As a result, the Naniwa class was for a short time considered the most powerful cruiser in the world.8
These two efforts propelled the Imperial Japanese Navy’s meteoric rise to power in the early 20th century. At the Battle of Yalu River in 1894, where Chinese naval forces outnumbered Japanese forces so significantly that Japan’s government prepared for a Chinese invasion in case of defeat, Japan’s smaller, more maneuverable fleet was able to annihilate the Chinese Beiyang Fleet. The First Sino-Japanese War gave the expertly trained IJN officers and enlisted experience that would further augment their performance at Tsushima, where the IJN soundly defeated the Imperial Russian Navy. One observer commented that Japan’s great victories at sea around the turn of the 20th century were as much the result of the training and morale of the average Japanese seaman as they were from the effectiveness of the IJN’s ships or the caliber of its guns.9 These victories earned Japan the respect due a first-rate navy, and the IJN would dominate the western Pacific until the Second World War.
The IJN’s rise is far from a perfect analogy for today’s U.S. Navy, which is currently considered the most powerful maritime force in the world and without most of the political and budgetary constraints the early IJN faced. The IJN also had a much smaller obligation to maritime defense, whereas the U.S. Navy is tasked with providing maritime security around the world. However, there are lessons that are still applicable today.
After the USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) and McCain (DDG-56) collided with merchant ships in 2017, the Navy conducted three investigations. Several reasons for the collisions were outlined in those investigations, but one of the systematic failures identified was a lack of training for the surface warfare community. The Navy has taken steps to address this issue; however, some believe it has not gone far enough. For example, the U.S. Government Accountability Office determined the Navy has not appropriately assessed its investments in surface warfare officer training.
Having a skilled officer corps manning the fleet is vital to success in both peace and war. Years after his initial push to focus the Imperial Japanese Navy on perfecting its officers and crew, Katsu Kaishū remarked: “Officers are the heart of a warship.”10 This is as true today as it was then. Realizing how inadequately prepared its surface warfare officers were for high-intensity situations, the Navy should have placed a greater emphasis on improving training after the McCain and Fitzgerald incidents—and still should today. Officers must be leaders, warriors, technologists, and mariners. If the Navy’s officers cannot adequately fill these roles, then the Navy should not be worrying about expanding the fleet size or modernizing technology. When it comes down to the basics of running a navy, having properly trained personnel should be the number one priority.
In today’s environment, naval expansion seems more vital than it has since President Ronald Reagan’s push for a 600-ship Navy in the 1980s. But the USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000) spent two decades in development, its mission roles and performance expectations constantly changing, its design and construction costs ballooning, and the number of ships in the class falling from 21 to 3. The two littoral combat ship (LCS) classes met a similar fate, as the Navy realized the LCS could not fill the role of frigates. These failures to create viable designs suggests the IJN experience has something to teach here as well.
Much like the Imperial Japanese Navy, the U.S. Navy has, at least for the immediate future, looked to allies to assist in building the fleet of the future. The announcement of the Constellation-class frigate, using a foreign design modified with U.S. systems, has similarities to Japan’s purchase of the Naniwa. Augmenting with proven foreign designs customized to U.S. Navy needs will be necessary to put more missile platforms at sea to contest Chinese expansion in the western Pacific. The Navy should not be afraid to enhance the fleet using the best means available.
History has proven a useful guide for many in the maritime tradition. Its lessons ring true, whether ships are propelled by wind, steam, gas turbines, or nuclear fission. With the rise of the People’s Republic of China as a significant maritime competitor, the U.S. Navy needs to outfit itself appropriately in response. This means creating a better training program that produces surface warfare officers proficient in all duties that will be asked of them as officers in the fleet. It also means using the best means to augment and expand the fleet, even if it comes from foreign sources. Understanding these lessons will assist the Navy in creating the best possible fleet it can field.
- J. Charles Schencking, Making Waves: Politics, Propaganda, and the Emergence of the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1868-1922 (Stanford, CA.: Stanford University Press, 2005), 22.
- David C. Evans and Mark R. Peattie, Kaigun: Strategy, Tactics, and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1887-1941 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997), 11–13.
- Schencking, Making Waves, 24.
- Evans and Peattie, Kaigun, 14.
- Schencking, Making Waves, 19.
- Hansgeorg Jentschura, Dieter Jung, and Peter Mickel, Warships of the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1869–1945 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1977), 95.
- Evans and Peattie, Kaigun, 14.
- Evans and Peattie, 15.
- Evans and Peattie, 11.
- Schencking, Making Waves, 21.