East Asia---revisited.

History is a funny, funny thing....as I have written before, the ongoing debate about the "Pacific rebalance" and the new, improved Air-Sea Battle concept (not really new, we'll see about improved) has prompted me to look at what has been done before to see if there are any lessons to be learned.

And, lo and behold, here is an excellent, if somewhat detailed book describing the LAST time the U.S. Navy faced a rising adversary in East Asia.

Mr. Miller has written a deeply researched  look at how the US Navy spent 50 years planning to go to war with Japan.  He provides almost a blow-by-blow account (sometimes a bit overdone in the details) of the debates that occurred within the Navy on how to defeat the Empire of Japan, expected to be America's main adversary in the Pacific after the Spanish-American War of 1898.

So, here's the key takeaways I gleaned from this book.

  • Just like today, the Navy was faced with the prospect of trying to defend an essentially indefensible ally--the Philippines before World War II and Taiwan today.   Both of these countries are geographically isolated from the US, and near enough to their mortal enemy (Japan and China) to make it nearly impossible for the US to defend.  Cynically enough, the US high command pretty much wrote off the US military in the Philippines after December 7, expecting them to be a sponge and soak up the Japanese attention while the US struggled to rebuild.
  • The Navy faced the daunting challenge of how to fight a two front war.  After the beginning of World War II, the Navy faced the challenge of how to fight the German U-boat threat to keep Britain in the war while facing their primary naval challenge from Japan.  FDR and Churchill correctly decided to defeat Germany first, a decision that was not popular within all circles of the Navy, leading to some testy strategic planning sessions in late 1941 and early 1942.  This will not be any different today, as the US is faced with multiple strategic challenges and a rapidly shrinking fleet.
  • The US will have to fight alone.  Although the British had substantial interests in the Far East, their primary focus would always be Europe, as would the US Army, so the Navy was essentially left to fight the Japanese on their own, that whole pesky MacArthur thing notwithstanding.  It is very likely the US will have many fair weather allies in a future conflict with China, but it would be hazardous to count on any country beyond Japan and Australia to really stand by the US.
  • On the whole, the Navy pretty much followed the pre-war plan.  This was the most interesting part of Miller's thesis.  Although major adjustments were made because of the needs for a "Two-Ocean Navy", for the most part, the Navy and its Marine component fought their way across the central Pacific to Okinawa (interestingly mentioned in pre-war planning) to undertake the final blockade and defeat of Japan.  Certainly the Navy did not plan for the year-long struggle up the Solomon Islands from August 1942 to about August 1943, but then again the awesome power of American industrial capacity (completely gone today, sadly) allowed the military to undertake simultaneous campaigns that the 1930's planners never dreamed.
I thought this book was very well written, but certainly not for the casual reader.  HOWEVER, for the naval strategist, strategic thinker, or serious student of naval history, it does provide wonderful insights into the thinking of the US Navy prior to World War II and how a small group of determined and dedicated officers can lay the ground work for their nation's victory in war.