Tag Archives: Japan

The Decisive Fleet Engagement at the Battle of the Yalu River

By Aidan Clarke

When war broke out between Japan and China in 1894, few expected a Japanese victory. Qing China had undergone its period of self-strengthening and modernization for much longer than the Japanese Meiji modernization period, had invested more money in its naval  programs and platforms, and the Japanese Navy was supposedly outmatched both qualitatively and quantitatively. However, at the Battle off the Yalu River the Japanese defeated the Qing Northern Fleet in a decisive battle. So what went wrong in Qing self-strengthening? What left the Chinese so vastly unprepared for naval conflict?

Upon a close review of both primary and secondary sources, three key answers emerge. Firstly, the lack of a unified Chinese Navy under the Qing Empire proved fatal in the First Sino-Japanese War. Second, corruption and inefficiency in the institutions of the self-strengthening movement ensured poor commanders and a lack of equipment in the Beiyang Fleet. Finally, Japan’s unified command, professional officer corps, rigorous training, and use of French Jeune Ecole tactics won the day.

Naval Power and Combat in the Sino-Japanese War

Li Hongzhang, the Chinese scholar, diplomat, and military leader, remains a critical figure in understanding the self-strengthening movement in China. He led modernization efforts across the Qing Empire, setting an example through his own Huai Army and the Beiyang (Northern) Fleet. Regional armies and fleets like the Huai and Beiyang soon became the model on which the Qing Empire built its new armed forces in the wake of the Taiping Rebellion. This practice would prove to have fatal consequences during both the Sino-French and Sino-Japanese Wars as factional politics would override any sense of national duty in the Northern and Southern Qing Fleets.

On paper, the Qing Navy dwarfed that of the Japanese in 1894. The total size of the Chinese fleet at the time was “about 65 large ships and 43 torpedo boats.”1 By contrast the Japanese could boast just “32 warships and 23 torpedo boats.”2 These numbers bely the true strength of each fleet however, as “China’s navy still had a fourfold division in the Beiyang, Nanyang, Fujian, and Guangdong Fleets.”3 This division was foolhardy for several reasons. For one, it meant that the Chinese were never able to apply overwhelming force or superiority in numbers during battle. Despite the fact that the Beiyang Fleet was the largest of the regional fleets, and technically could match the size of the Japanese Navy, during the decisive Battle off the Yalu River, the Japanese had an 11 to 10 numerical advantage.4

The biggest problem the division created was that each fleet was regionally loyal and lacked loyalty to a central command or state. During the Sino-French War, the Qing Southern Fleet was annihilated by a French surprise attack. The Beiyang Fleet did little to help the Southern Fleet in this predicament, as “Li Hongzhang only sent two of the ships requested from his Beiyang fleet, and he withdrew these from the battle by asserting that the Japanese threat in Korea mandated their return north.”5 While this may have seemed a prudent maneuver at the time, allowing Li to protect two of his modern ships from senseless destruction, it cost him in the future. Just as the Beiyang Fleet had protected its own ships during the Sino-French war, in the Sino-Japanese war “the Nanyang officers now got their revenge on the Northern Fleet by keeping the Southern Fleet out of war with Japan for the most part.”6 

Factionalism went beyond simply Northern versus Southern Fleet rivalries, as it even existed within the fleets themselves. Regional factions seem to have particularly irked Ding Ruchang, Li Hongzhang’s commander-in-chief of the Beiyang Fleet, where “there were many officers from Fukien in the navy, Ting Ju-ch’an (Ding Ruchang), being a Huai-chun man and being placed above them, found that his actions were constantly being circumscribed.”7 This reflects the latent issues of the regional army system as it created centers of power aside from the Emperor or the state. This in turn meant that there was a lack of loyalty, discipline, and efficiency in the fleet, all flaws that were exposed in the Battle off the Yalu River.

Another major issue faced by the Beiyang Navy was the corruption rampant in the late Qing empire. This was a major disappointment, since to many observers, the institutions behind the Self-Strengthening movement were initially very successful. The Japanese only began producing large scale warships some 15 years after the Qing successfully did so at the Jiangnan Shipyard. Even then those ships produced in Japan could not compete with those produced at Jiangnan where “In terms of armaments, those manufactured at the Jiangnan Arsenal were by and large superior to Japan’s.”8 The Fuzhou Shipyard, located further south, was even bigger, and where Dr. Benjamin Elman even refers to it as “probably the leading industrial venture in late Qing.”9 However, this success was not to last. Chinese regional leaders were skeptical of Li Hongzhang and the naval board, and refused to pay anything more than the bare minimum required for the basic maintenance of the fleet. They were wary of the naval board because, “its ineffectual Manchu director, Prince Chu’un, and his successor, Prince Ch’ing were unable to administer its funds properly and could not prevent the Empress Dowager from diverting the funds for other purposes.”10 Another observer commented that “the Admiralty has had big sums paid to it yearly the last ten years and ought to have a balance of 36,000,000 taels, and lo! It has not a penny, having allowed the Empress Dowager to draw on it for the many whims she has been indulging in.”11

Worse still was the impact the corruption within the Qing government had on the commanders of the Beiyang fleet, particularly those in command at the Battle off the Yalu. Even before the war this appeared to be a common concern amongst observers of Asian naval affairs, with one newspaper article commenting that the commander-in-chief of the fleet, Admiral Ding Ruchang, was not adequately trained for his role, “Ting (Ding), whose knowledge of naval matters does not fit him to do any of the real work.”12 Another article states that when compared to Japanese officers, the officers of the Beiyang fleet “labored and still labors under disadvantages arising out of birth, habit, and system.”13 The Qing Empire’s insistence on maintaining Chinese essence while embracing Western characteristics meant that soldiers and sailors remained undervalued in society, while Confucian scholars with little experience in war or tactics found themselves in positions of leadership. These ideas are reflected in secondary sources as well, with one going so far as to say that “Li Huang-Chang had characteristically staffed it (the Beiyang fleet) with ‘needy relatives and greedy henchmen.’”14 While the aforementioned article does seem to take a Japanese viewpoint, the author is correct in noting that Admiral Ding had no experience as a naval commander regardless of his past as an excellent cavalry commander under Li. In the end, the author’s label of Ding as “gallant but incompetent” seems to be fair.15

The ordnance supply officer for the Beiyang Fleet was Li Hongzhang’s son-in-law, Chang P’ei-lun, who Professor Wiliam Lockwood refered to as a “champion swindler.”16 He describes the cost of Chang’s corruption, whose ordnance department regularly filled shells with sand, and “When the shooting began, the Chinese fleet found that its total supply of ammunition amounted to fourteen shells per gun. Two 7,000-ton ironclads had only three shells in all for their 10-inch guns.”17 Benjamin Elman also notes that the Chinese were “hampered by woeful shortages of ammunition” at the Battle off the Yalu and that “Some were filled through the black market with cement rather than explosives.” Elman argues that this “suggests serious corruption problems in Li Hongzhang’s supply command.”18 Not only did this corruption limit the Chinese fleet’s ability to fire its guns during the battle, but having a limited number of shells also prevents effective live-fire gunnery training.

Japanese cruiser Matsushima pictured in 1896. Matsushima served as flagship of the Japanese Union Fleet at the Battle of the Yalu River. (Wikimedia Commons)

This lack of practice was certainly reflected in the opening exchanges of the battle, as the Chinese opened fire first, “The Chinese Admiral opened fire at a range of 6,000 meters (about three and three-quarters miles), the shot on both sides falling short, the effective range being around 5,000 meters.”19 The primary armaments of the main Chinese battleships fired 197 rounds, and scored just 10 hits.20 When they did hit, they knocked the Japanese flagship out of the battle, but they simply did not hit often enough to have a decisive impact. Overall, the Chinese fleet “scored about 10 percent of her tries. The Japanese, on the other hand, with their quick-firers scored about 15 percent of their tries.”21 While the Japanese ratio does not at first look overwhelmingly favorable, the Japanese guns had three times the rate of fire of their Chinese opponents, meaning that they were more accurate even as they fired many more shots.22

In perhaps the most staggering display of outright corruption, at the commencement of hostilities between China and Japan, Elman tells of an observer who noted that Chinese ships had about half their crews, while the salaries for the crews were still being paid in full.23 These gross indiscretions helped doom the Beiyang fleet at the Battle off the Yalu River. Underequipped, undertrained, understaffed, and with the wrong men at the helm, the battle could only go one way.

What is staggering is that for every institutional shortcoming suffered by the Chinese, the Japanese could point to an institutional success. While the Qing were unable to coordinate or consolidate their forces under a single command, the Japanese fleet was always unified, and trained extensively together as a single fighting force. This goes a long way to explaining the contrast in the conduct of the two fleets during the battle. While the Chinese opened fire from the extreme range of 6,000 meters, a Japanese account holds that the Japanese fleet held its fire until it had closed the distance to just 3,000 meters. Furthermore, the Japanese carefully coordinated their fire, “All the big guns on the Japanese vessels were directed towards the upper decks of the Ting Yuen (Dingyuan) and the Chen Yuen (Zhenyuan), the rest of the Chinese ships being fired at with guns of smaller caliber.”24 This tactical decision showed remarkable forethought on the part of Japanese commanders who knew their lighter weaponry could not hope to penetrate the armor belt of the two Chinese battleships. Although it is likely these sources were carefully checked by the Japanese government (who provided the authors with sources and documents), this tactic is borne out as fact by the reports which indicate that Admiral Ting was injured in the early stages in the battle, as Japanese fire crashed into the bridge of his ship and took out the signals mast, leaving him unable to communicate with the rest of the fleet.

Battle map of the fleet combat action at the Yalu River, 1894. By J. Hart, based on sketch by Philo N. McGiffin, 1895. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Japanese remained steadfastly disciplined throughout the battle while chaos reigned in the Chinese formations. This is due to the fact that while the Chinese had neither the funds nor the supplies for extensive training the Japanese prepared for war by “incessant training at sea. Special importance was devoted to gunnery, torpedo work, and steaming efficiency.”25 Another major failing of the Chinese fleet was the reluctance to create a true naval academy and professional officer corps. The Japanese did not hesitate to do so, forming a naval school in 1866. The Japanese naval academy had existed for nearly thirty years by the time the Sino-Japanese War began. Using graduates from the school Japan had built a professional officer corps, and could count on well-trained commanders throughout the fleet.

Chinese officers on the other hand, could boast of no such training. While some, like Captain Deng Shichang of the Zhiyuan, (who was recognized for his heroic conduct during the battle) had spent time overseas evaluating foreign fleets, they constituted a small minority, negating their impact in the chaos of battle. The vast majority of Chinese officers were trained in the Fuzhou arsenal, and “some observers described the Fuzhou-trained officers as cowards.”26

Chinese battleship Ting Yuen which participated in the Battle of the Yalu River. (Wikimedia Commons)

Many naval scholars suggest the Chinese focused too heavily on building ships while neglecting the training of their sailors. “The material growth continued at a rate more impressive than that of the Japanese Navy, obscuring the fact that the Chinese were doing little right other than acquiring more warships.”27 In Power at Sea, Lisle Rose attacks the Chinese mindset more directly, “China had chosen to concentrate on material power, Japan on the intelligence of its men behind the guns and in the engine rooms.”28 Perhaps the Chinese determination to adopt Western technology but maintain a Chinese essence blinded their mindset in this instance. The Japanese had no such pretensions, and strove to learn as much as possible about French Jeune Ecole tactics. Designed to help smaller fleets confronting a numerically and technologically superior enemy, these tactics were perfect for the young Japanese Navy. The Battle off the Yalu should be viewed as a textbook example of the Jeune Ecole in use against a quantitatively superior fleet.

Conclusion

The picture which emerges after an examination of the two fleets on the day of the Battle off the Yalu River yields up a stark contrast. The Chinese had more ships, thicker armor, and bigger guns, but were led by corrupt and incompetent officers, faced a dire shortage of ammunition, and had no overall strategy or tactics. Against them was a far smaller Japanese navy, designed and built around a cutting edge strategy taught to them by French officers, with a professional officer corps and years of extensive training at sea under their belts.

During the period from 1850-1941 practically every naval officer and expert was writing about the “decisive battle” that would invariably occur on the high seas in the next great war, where one fleet’s massive battleships would meet the others, and the two would go toe to toe just as Nelson and Villeneuve had at Trafalgar. This “decisive battle” seldom occurred however, with opportunities missed at Jutland, Heligoland Bight, Doggers Bank, Leyte Gulf, and more. But this decisive meeting of capital ships did occur at the Battle of the Yalu River and the Battle of Tsushima. This makes the Battle of the Yalu River one of the most fascinating moments in naval history.

The question of why the Qing failed despite their extensive modernization efforts and why Japan was so much more successful has occupied the minds of many historians throughout the years. Perhaps we have an answer in the form of Chinese failure to consolidate their regional fleets, rampant corruption, poor training, and inadequate personnel. These deficiencies were all exposed by a superior Japanese Navy off the Yalu River in the final, decisive battle of the Sino-Japanese War.

Aidan Clarke is an undergraduate student at Furman University, double majoring in History and Politics and International Affairs, with an interest in naval affairs. He has previously researched the U.S.-Soviet naval showdown during the Yom Kippur War, and is currently conducting a research project on the Russo-Japanese War.

The author would like to thank Dr. Lane Harris of the Furman University History Department for his assistance on the research and writing of this paper.

References

1. Elman, Benjamin A. “Naval Warfare and the Refraction of China’s Self-Strengthening Reforms into Scientific and Technological Failure, 1865-1895.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, May 2004, pp. 283-326. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Herbert, Hilary A. “The Fight off the Yalu River.” The North American Review, vol. 159, no. 456, Nov. 1894, pp. 513-28. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

5. Elman, Benjamin A. “Naval Warfare and the Refraction of China’s Self-Strengthening Reforms into Scientific and Technological Failure, 1865-1895.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, May 2004, pp. 283-326. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

6. Ibid.

7. Spector, Stanley. Li Hung-Chang and the Huai Army. Washington UP, 1964.

8. Elman, Benjamin A. “Naval Warfare and the Refraction of China’s Self-Strengthening Reforms into Scientific and Technological Failure, 1865-1895.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, May 2004, pp. 283-326. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

9. Ibid.

10. Spector, Stanley. Li Hung-Chang and the Huai Army. Washington UP, 1964.

11. Ibid.

12. “THE SOUTHERN CRUISE OP THE PEIYANG SQUADRON.” The North – China Herald and Supreme Court & Consular Gazette (1870-1941) [Shanghai], 6 June 1890. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

13.“THE PEIYANG SQUADRON.” The North – China Herald and Supreme Court & Consular Gazette (1870-1941) [Shanghai], 29 June 1894. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

14. Lockwood, William W. “Japan’s Response to the West: The Contrast with China.” World Politics, vol. 9, no. 1, Oct. 1956, pp. 37-54. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. Elman, Benjamin A. “Naval Warfare and the Refraction of China’s Self-Strengthening Reforms into Scientific and Technological Failure, 1865-1895.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, May 2004, pp. 283-326. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

19. “Summary of News: LATEST INTELLIGENCE HANDS OFF! RUSSIA IS FIRM LOCAL NEWS FROM HOME THE BATTLE OF PINGYANG THE NAVAL FIGHT AT THE YALOO THE MOOR APOLOGISES LOCAL NEWS FROM HOME TO REASSURE JAPAN BAD NEWS FROM ST. PETERSBURG THE MILITARY CONTRIBUTION OF THE STRAITS SETTLEMENTS THE JAPANESE AT HAIYUENTAO THREATENING NEWS THE NAVAL FIGHT OFF THE YALOO GREAT FIRE AT MANILA THE NAVAL FIGHT AT THE YALOO THE SAFETY OF THE TRANSPORTS THE NAVAL FIGHT AT THE YALOO.” The North – China Herald and Supreme Court & Consular Gazette (1870-1941) [Shanghai], 28 Sept. 1894. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

20. Elman, Benjamin A. “Naval Warfare and the Refraction of China’s Self-Strengthening Reforms into Scientific and Technological Failure, 1865-1895.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, May 2004, pp. 283-326. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid.

23. Ibid.

24. Eastlake, Frederick Warrington, and Yamada Yoshi-Aki. Heroic Japan: A History of the War between China and Japan. London, Sampson, Low, Marston, & Company, 1897.

25. Rose, Lisle A. The Age of Navalism, 1890-1918. Missouri UP, 2007. 3 vols.

26.  Elman, Benjamin A. “Naval Warfare and the Refraction of China’s Self-Strengthening Reforms into Scientific and Technological Failure, 1865-1895.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, May 2004, pp. 283-326. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

27. Sondhaus, Lawrence. Naval Warfare, 1815-1914. E-book, New York, Routledge, 2000. Warfare and History.

28. Rose, Lisle A. The Age of Navalism, 1890-1918. Missouri UP, 2007. 3 vols.

Featured Image: The Battle of the Yalu River by Kobayashi Kiyoshi. (Wikimedia Commons)

The American Wolf Packs: A Case Study in Wartime Adaptation

This article originally featured on Joint Force Quarterly and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Dr. F.G. Hoffman

To paraphrase an often ridiculed comment made by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, you go to war with the joint force you have, not necessarily the joint force you need. While some critics found the quip off base, this is actually a well-grounded historical reality. As one scholar has stressed, “War invariably throws up challenges that require states and their militaries to adapt. Indeed, it is virtually impossible for states and militaries to anticipate all of the problems they will face in war, however much they try to do so.”1 To succeed, most military organizations have to adapt in some way, whether in terms of doctrine, structure, weapons, or tasks.

USS Steelhead (SS-280) refitted with 5.25-inch deck gun, April 10, 1945 (retouched by wartime censors) (U.S. Navy)USS Steelhead (SS-280) refitted with 5.25-inch deck gun, April 10, 1945 (retouched by wartime censors) (U.S. Navy)

The Joint Staff’s assessment of the last decade of war recognizes this and suggests that U.S. forces can improve upon their capacity to adapt.2 In particular, that assessment calls for a reinvigoration of lessons learned and shared best practices. But there is much more to truly learning lessons than documenting and sharing experiences immediately after a conflict. If we require an adaptive joint force for the next war, we need a common understanding of what generates rapid learning and adaptability.

The naval Services recently recognized the importance of adaptation. The latest maritime strategy, signed by the leadership of the U.S. Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard, defines the need to create “a true learning competency,” including “realistic simulation and live, virtual, and constructive scenarios before our people deploy.”3 History teaches that learning does not stop once the fleet deploys and that a true learning competency is based not only on games, drills, and simulations but also on a culture that accepts learning and adaptation as part of war.

This lesson is ably demonstrated by the Navy’s refinement of wolf pack tactics during the Pacific campaign of World War II. The tragic story of defects in U.S. torpedoes is well known, but the Navy’s reluctant adoption of the German U-boat tactics against convoys is not often studied.4 There are lessons in this case study for our joint warfighting community.

The success of the U.S. submarine force in the Pacific is a familiar story. The Sailors of the submarine fleet comprised just 2 percent of the total of U.S. naval manpower, but their boats accounted for 55 percent of all Japanese shipping losses in the war. The 1,300 ships lost included 20 major naval combatants (8 carriers, 1 battleship, and 11 cruisers). Japanese shipping lost 5.5 million tons of cargo, with U.S. submarines accounting for almost 5 million tons.5 This exceeded the total sunk by the Navy’s surface vessels, its carriers, and the U.S. Army Air Corps bombers combined. By August 1944, the Japanese merchant marine was in tatters and unable to support the needs of the civilian economy.6 The submarine campaign (aided by other joint means) thoroughly crippled the Japanese economy.7

This critical contribution was not foreseen during the vaunted war games held in the Naval War College’s Sims Hall or during the annual fleet exercises in the decades preceding the war. Perhaps the Navy hoped to ambush some Japanese navy ships, but the damage to Japanese sea lines of communication was barely studied and never gamed, much less practiced. A blockade employing surface and submarine forces was supposed to be the culminating phase of War Plan Orange, the strategic plan for the Pacific, but it was never expected to be the opening component of U.S. strategy. Submarines were to be used as scouts to identify the enemy’s battle fleet so the modern dreadnoughts and carrier task forces could attack. Alfred Thayer Mahan had eschewed war against commerce, or guerre de course, in his lectures, and his ghost haunted the Navy’s plans for “decisive battles.”8

The postwar assessment from inside the submarine community was telling: “Neither by training nor indoctrination was the U.S. Submarine Force readied for unrestricted warfare.”9 Rather than supporting a campaign of cataclysmic salvos by battleships or opposing battle lines of carrier groups, theirs was a war of attrition enabled by continuous learning and adaptation to create the competencies needed for ultimate success. This learning was not confined to material fixes and technical improvements. The story of the torpedo deficiencies that plagued the fleet in the first 18 months of the Pacific war has been told repeatedly, but the development of the Navy’s own wolf pack tactics is not as familiar a tale. Yet this became one of the key adaptations that enabled the Silent Service to wreak such havoc upon the Japanese war effort. Ironically, a Navy that dismissed commerce raiding, and invested little intellectual effort in studying it, proved ruthlessly effective at pursuing it.10

Learning Culture

One of the Navy’s secret weapons in the interwar era was its learning culture, part of which was Newport’s rigorous education program coupled with war games and simulations. The interaction between the Naval War College and the fleet served to cycle innovative ideas among theorists, strategists, and operators. A tight process of research, strategic concepts, operational simulations, and exercises linked innovative ideas with the realities of naval warfare. The Navy’s Fleet Exercises (FLEXs) were a combination of training and experimentation in innovative tactics and technologies.11 Framed against a clear and explicit operational problem, these FLEXs were conducted under unscripted conditions with opposing sides. Rules were established for evaluating performance and effectiveness, and umpires were assigned to regulate the contest and gauge success at these once-a-year evolutions.

Torpedoed Japanese destroyer IJN Yamakaze photographed through periscope of USS Nautilus, June 25, 1942 (U.S. Navy)Torpedoed Japanese destroyer IJN Yamakaze photographed through periscope of USS Nautilus, June 25, 1942 (U.S. Navy)

Conceptually framed by war games, these exercises became the “enforcers of strategic realism.”12 They provided the Navy’s operational leaders with a realistic laboratory to test steel ships at sea instead of cardboard markers on the floor at Sims Hall. Unlike so many “live” exercises today, these were remarkably free-play, unscripted battle experiments. The fleet’s performance was rigorously explored, critiqued, and ultimately refined by the men who would actually implement War Plan Orange.13 Both the games and exercises “provided a medium that facilitated the transmission of lessons learned, nurtured organizational memory and reinforced the Navy’s organizational ethos.”14 Brutally candid postexercise critiques occurred in open forums in which junior and senior officers examined moves and countermoves. These reflected the Navy’s culture of tackling operational problems in an intellectual, honest, and transparent manner. The Navy benefited from the low-cost “failures” from these exercises.15

Limitations of Peacetime

The exercises, however, had peacetime artificialities that reduced realism and retarded the development of the submarine. These severely limited Navy submarine offensive operations in the early part of World War II.16 With extensive naval aviation participation, the exercises convinced the fleet that submarines were easily found from the air. Thus, the importance of avoiding detection, either from the air or in approaches, became paramount. In the run-up to the war, the Asiatic Squadron commander threatened the relief of submarine commanders if their periscopes were even sighted in exercises or drills.17 This belief in the need for extreme stealth led to the development of and reliance on submerged attack techniques that required commanders to identify and attack targets from under water based entirely on sound bearings. Given the quality of sound detection and sonar technologies of the time, this was a precariously limited tactic of dubious effectiveness.

Technological limitations restricted the Navy’s appreciation for what the submarine could do. The Navy’s operational plans were dominated by high-speed carrier groups and battleships operating at no less than 17 to 20 knots for extended periods, but the Navy’s interwar boats could not keep pace. They were capable of 12 knots on the surface and half that when submerged. They would be far in the wake of the fleet during extended operations. This inadvertently promoted plans to use submarines for more independent operations, which eventually became the mode employed against Japanese commercial shipping in the opening years of the war.

Though they were a highly valuable source of insights at the fleet and campaign levels, the FLEXs had not enforced operational or tactical realism for the submarine crews at the tactical/procedural level. In fact, a generation of crews never heard a live torpedo detonated, proving a perfect match for a generation of torpedoes that were never tested.18 Nor did the Navy practice night attacks in peacetime, although it was quite evident well before Pearl Harbor that German night surface attacks were effective.19 Worse, operating at night was deemed unsafe, and thus night training was overlooked before the war.20 The submarine community’s official history found that the “lack of night experience saddled the American submariners entering the war with a heavy cargo of unsolved combat problems.”21 Once the war began, however, the old tactics had to be quickly discarded, and new attack techniques had to be learned in contact.

Overall, while invaluable for exploring naval aviation’s growing capability, the exercises induced conservative tactics and risk avoidance in the submarine world that were at odds with what the Navy would eventually need in the Pacific. As one Sailor-scholar observed:

Submarines were to be confined to service as scouts and “ambushers.” They were placed under restrictive operating conditions when exercising with surface ships. Years of neglect led to the erosion of tactical expertise and the “calculated recklessness” needed in a successful submarine commander. In its place emerged a pandemic of excessive cautiousness, which spread from the operational realm into the psychology of the submarine community.22

Unrestricted Warfare

Ultimately, as conflict began to look likely, with a correlation of forces not in America’s favor, students and strategists at Newport began to study the use of the submarine’s offensive striking power by attacking Japan’s merchant marine.23 During the spring semester of 1939, strategists argued for the establishment of “war zones” around the fleet upon commencement of hostilities. These areas would be a type of diplomatic exclusion zone, ostensibly to support fleet defense during war. However, the proponents’ intent was to conduct unrestricted warfare aimed at Japan’s long and vulnerable shipping lines.24

Yet there was a gap between what submarines could do and what the emergent plans to conduct unrestricted warfare were calling for. Well before Pearl Harbor, the Navy’s senior leaders understood that unrestricted warfare was a strategic necessity. However, the implications of this change were not acted upon at lower levels in the Navy in the brief era before Pearl Harbor. Doctrine, training, and ample working torpedoes were all lacking. This created the conditions for operational adaptation under fire later.

The Campaign

Due to an insufficient number of boats, limited doctrine, and faulty torpedoes, the submarine force could not claim great success. By the end of 1942, the Pacific Fleet had sent out 350 patrols. Postwar analyses credit these patrols with 180 ships sunk, with a total of 725,000 tons of cargo.25 Although this sounds impressive, over the course of the year, the Navy had sunk the same amount as the German U-boats had in just 2 months in the North Atlantic. This level of achievement was against a Japanese navy that had limited antisubmarine warfare (ASW) expertise and little in the way of radar. The damage inflicted had no impact on Japan’s import of critical resources and commodities, and the campaign could not be seen as a success. The war’s senior submariner, Vice Admiral Charles Lockwood, admitted that the submarine force was operating below its potential contribution.26

Tasked with the ruthless elimination of Japanese shipping, the Pacific Fleet was not producing results fast enough. Some of this shortfall was the result of faulty weapons, and some was attributed to the cautious doctrine of the interwar era. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest King directed a new approach. He wrote to Admiral Chester Nimitz at Pearl Harbor on April 1, 1943, noting that “effectiveness of operations and availability of submarines indicate desirability, even necessity, to form a tactical group of 4 to 6 submarines trained and indoctrinated in coordinated action for operations such as now set up in Solomons, to be stationed singly or in groups in enemy ship approaches to critical areas.”27 Nimitz immediately directed the implementation of King’s suggestion.28 Interestingly, despite his experience combating U-boats in the Atlantic and protecting the vital sea lines of communication to Europe, King was still oriented toward the employment of submarines against Japanese naval combatants. But in line with the pre–Pearl Harbor vision of unrestricted warfare, the U.S. submarine force was following a strategy of attrition against Tokyo’s merchant shipping, and the Navy submarine force continued to emphasize individual patrols and independent command. They had not been successful in dealing with Japanese warships in critical battles such as Midway. King apparently believed that if they could be properly “trained and indoctrinated in coordinated action,” this shortcoming might be rectified.

At the same time, King was fully engaged with responding to German Kriegsmarine wolf pack tactics, or Rudeltaktik. He was painfully aware how effective they were and was being strongly encouraged by both President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill to adopt defensive measures since the U-boats critically impaired Great Britain’s war effort.29 Moreover, King was aware that the U.S. Navy was not generating the same aggregate tonnage results as the German navy, and he may have concluded that emulating the Germans could produce better results.30 Lockwood, the commander of Submarine Force Pacific (COMSUBPAC), was certainly well aware of the comparisons; in mid-1942, he wrote that “Germans getting 3 ships a day, Pac not getting one ship.”31 Furthermore, his predecessor as COMSUBPAC issued a five-page summary of German wolf pack tactics via a widely distributed bulletin in January 1943.32

Comparisons between theaters may have driven King to propose the shift, but he may have also detected trends in Japanese ASW that would eventually weaken U.S. submarine effectiveness if changes were not put in place. The operational and tactical context facing the submarine force was increasing in complexity. By 1943, Japanese convoys were becoming larger, more organized, and better protected. The escort command was employing more airplanes and newer techniques for detection and attack.

As Lockwood noted in his memoir, collective action was not unknown to the submarine force. Before the war, experiments had attempted simultaneous attacks by several submarines, but communications between boats were not good enough to ensure safety in peacetime operations. These tactics were cursorily explored late in 1941 but were abandoned due to fears of blue-on-blue incidents and limited communications capabilities.33

Now, however, conditions were different, radar had been perfected, high-frequency radio phones were installed, and communications were vastly improved.34 Coordination could be achieved, but the American submariners had little practice at it. The submarine force would have to investigate new tactics on the fly in the midst of the war. (Somewhat ironically, King called for emulating German submarine tactics just as that force was passing the apex of its operational effectiveness. May 1943 was considered the blackest month for the U-boats in the cruel Battle of the Atlantic.35)

King’s message eliminated debate, but the Pacific submarine fleet took its time to interpret fully the doctrinal and tactical implications of the new approach. As a result, the U.S. Navy did not employ the same approach as the Germans. U-boat wolf packs in the Kriegsmarine were ad hoc and fluid. When Admiral Karl Dönitz received intelligence about the location and character of a convoy, he would direct a number of boats to converge on an area where he expected the convoy to be. He would thus direct the assembly of the wolf pack and coordinate its attack from long distance. There was no on-scene commander or collective attack.36 The U-boats were simply sharks, swarming and attacking at will, or swarming to designated areas when directed. The Atlantic convoys were rather large (30 or more ships), encompassing a relatively wide area. A convergence could bring together as many as a dozen boats swarming around a big convoy but without any on-scene battle management.37 A single U-boat would be easily driven off, but a pack would not be. They would stalk the merchant shipping and pick off the slowest quarry every time.

King’s intervention about collective action proved timely. The Japanese navy did eventually enhance its ASW efforts, employing land-based surveillance, better radars, and more coordination. As the U.S. boats were drawing closer to Japan’s home islands, their targets were hugging closer to shallow waters and staying within air coverage. This raised the risk that American submarines would be identified and attacked.

Concerted action by the submarines could offset these changes in the operating context. Singular attacks would draw all the attention of an escort, ensuring that the U.S. boats were driven deep and away from their wounded targets. Coordination by multiple boats would allow continuous pressure on a Japanese shipping convoy and increase the strangulation that Lockwood was aiming to achieve. Multiple threats would distract the convoy’s protective screen and generate more opportunities out of each convoy that was found.

The U.S. Navy did not embrace German wolf pack doctrine or terminology; the accepted term for the tactic was coordinated attack group (CAG). An innovative submariner, Captain Charles “Swede” Momsen, developed the tactics and commanded the initial U.S. wolf pack in the early fall of 1943.38 American CAGs would initially have a senior commander on scene, but it would not be one of the boat’s skippers, as Lockwood desired to have his older division commanders get wartime experience on boats.39

The investigative phase was exhaustive and deliberate over several months. Experienced submarine commanders, not staff officers, developed the required tactics and communication techniques. In an echo of prewar Newport, discussions evolved into small war games on the floor of a converted hotel, which conveniently had a chessboard floor of black and white tiles. The officers who would conduct these patrols developed their own doctrine and tactics.40 The staff and prospective boat captains tested various ways both to scout for targets and then to assemble into a fighting force once a convoy was detected. War games, drills, and ultimately at-sea trials were conducted to refine a formal doctrine. Momsen drilled his captains in tactics, planning to have three boats attack successively—one boat making the first attack on a convoy, then acting as a trailer while the other two attacked alternately on either flank. He also developed a simple code for use on the new “Talk Between Ships” system so that boats could communicate with each other without being detected or intercepted by the Japanese.

The American approach rejected the rigid, centralized theater command and ad hoc tactical structure of the Germans.41 Consistent with its culture, the U.S. Navy took the opposite approach. CAGs comprised three to four boats under a common tactical commander who was present on scene. Unlike the Germans, these attack groups trained and deployed together as a distinctive element. They patrolled in a designated area under a senior commander and followed a generic attack plan. Other than intelligence regarding potential target convoys, orders came from the senior tactical commander on scene and not from the fleet commander. This tactical doctrine called for successive rather than swarming attacks.42 Subsequently scholars have been critical of these deliberate and sequential attack tactics, which negated surprise and simplified the job of Japanese escorts.43

Strangely, there seems to have been little urgency behind COMSUBPAC’s doctrinal and organizational adaptation. This top-down direction from afar (from Admiral King) appears to have been resisted until met with bottom-up evidence derived from experienced skippers. In the records of this period, Lockwood appears to be guilty of delaying tactics, but captains John “Babe” Brown and Swede Momsen convinced him to have “a change of heart.”44

Lockwood and his team at Submarine Force Pacific did not merely take King’s directive and implement it. He and the commander of U.S. submarines based in Australia, Rear Admiral Ralph Christie, were not in favor of the change in tactics. In his memoirs, Lockwood noted in a single sentence that he was directed to conduct wolf pack tactics by King. He did apply groups of four to six boats in his packs. And while he did develop the doctrine King tasked them to create, he did not apply it as King desired, against military shipping or approaches to critical operational areas. Instead, Lockwood deployed the CAGs to his ruthless campaign of attrition against Japanese commerce. The developmental process was entirely consistent with bottom-up adaptation. Lockwood was permitted to develop the command and control process, tactics, and training program on his own. Centralized command from Pearl Harbor was rejected, which reflected both the traditional Navy culture of command responsibility and autonomy and Lockwood’s appreciation for how Allied direction finding and signals intelligence in the Atlantic were fed by Dönitz’s centralized control and extensive communications.

Even after his change of heart, Lockwood and the submarine force took their time to work out the required doctrine and tactics in an intensive investigatory phase. The first attack group, comprised of the Cero (SS-225), Shad (SS-235), and Grayback (SS-208), was not formed until the summer of 1943. Momsen, who had never been on a combat patrol, was the commodore and rode in Cero. The pack finished its preparations and deployed from Pearl Harbor in late September on its combat patrol from Midway on October 1, 1943, exactly 6 months to the day from King’s message. This was hardly rapid adaptation, given the lessons from both the German success story in the Atlantic and the lack of success in the Pacific.

The initial cruise was deemed a success. Momsen’s CAG arrived in the East China Sea on October 6, 1943. It made a single collective attack on a convoy and was credited with sinking five Japanese ships for 88,000 tons and damaging eight more with a gross tonnage of 63,000 tons. While this met the measures of success that Lockwood wanted, the commanders involved were less than enthusiastic. The comments from the participating captains were generally mixed, with many indicating they would prefer to hunt alone rather than as a member of a group. They believed that the problems of communication were technologically unsolvable and that the risk of fratricide was unavoidable. Moreover, commanders preferred operating and attacking alone—consistent with the Navy’s traditional culture and the community’s enduring preference for independent action (and the rewards that came with it). Momsen, perhaps reflecting an appreciation of the complementing role high-level intelligence could play, recommended centralized command from Pearl Harbor rather than an on-the-scene commander, something Lockwood immediately overruled.45 But various packs were planned and began training. Ingrained conservatism and fear of firing on a friendly vessel framed the emerging tactics. These in practice emphasized “cooperative search” over collective attack.46

Figure 1.

The need to explore innovative tactics was directed from the top, but the Navy leadership was patient in letting local leaders figure out the “how.” The validity of coordinated action grew on commanders such as Lockwood. Whatever reservations they might have held, the American wolf packs continued during the remainder of the year and were a common tactic during 1944. Unlike Dönitz’s Operation Paukenschlag(Drumbeat) in the Atlantic in early 1943, Lockwood’s force began to win the war of attrition in the Pacific. The success was likely due to the combination of finally having defect-free torpedoes and employing new search tactics. But as Lockwood noted in a tactical bulletin, for the first time, tonnage totals between the German effort and that of the American submarine force “now compare favorably.”47

One dramatic case gives an example of how effective CAGs could be. In late July 1944, Commander Lawson “Red” Ramage commanded the USS Parche, part of a wolf pack labeled “Park’s Pirates” after Captain Lew Parks, also aboard the Parche. The Pirates included the USS Steelhead, skippered by Lieutenant Commander Dave Whechel, and the USS Hammerhead, whose skipper was Commander Jack Martin. After a patch of bad weather and poor radio reporting, the Pirates found their quarry. Although frustrated by miscommunications, Martin identified a large Japanese convoy on the evening of July 30. Although it was a long shot, Parks ordered Ramage to give chase, and for 8 hours the Parche chased down the fleeing convoy.

What happened next was a maritime melee. Ramage surfaced inside the convoy in the dark and began a methodical attack, slicing in and around the larger tankers and setting up shots that ranged from only 500 to 800 yards. Ramage’s boat passed within 50 feet of one Japanese corvette on an opposite tack that could not depress its guns enough to strike it.48 The Parche was almost rammed once and was subjected to fire from numerous vessels as it raised havoc with the 17 merchant ships and 6 escorts of Convoy MI-11.

Within 34 minutes, Ramage fired 19 torpedoes and got at least 14 hits. Lockwood credited Parche with 4 ships sunk and 34,000 tons, while the Steelhead got credit for 2 ships of 14,000 tons. Ramage’s epic night surface attack earned him the Medal of Honor.49 His daring rampage was a perfect example of a loosely coordinated attack relying on individual initiative (not unlike a classic U-boat commander’s approach in its execution) rather than formal tactics or a set piece approach that failed to overwhelm the escorts.50

After mid-1944, there were no major adaptations in submarine warfare during the remainder of the Pacific campaign. Ships, doctrine, training, and weapons were highly effective. In a sense, the U.S. submarine war did not truly begin until the CAGs went to sea in late 1943. Until then, it “had been a learning period, a time of testing, of weeding out, of fixing defects in weapons, strategy, and tactics, of waiting for sufficient numbers of submarines and workable torpedoes.”51 Yet within a few months, Japan’s economic lifeline was in tatters.

Exploiting an increased number of boats and the shorter patrol distances afforded by advanced bases in Guam and Saipan, U.S. patrol numbers increased by 50 percent to 520 patrols in 1944. These patrols fired over 6,000 torpedoes, which had become both functional and plentiful. They sank over 600 ships for nearly 3 million tons of shipping. They reduced Japan’s critical imports by 36 percent and cut the merchant fleet in half (from 4.1 million to 2 million tons). While Japanese oil tanker production increased, oil imports dropped severely (see figure).52

Lockwood took wolf packs to a new level in 1945. Now a firmly convinced advocate, he carefully planned an operation with nine boats, operating in three wolf packs, that would traverse the heavily mined entrances of the Sea of Japan.53 The development of an early version of mine-detecting FM sonar allowed boats to detect mines at 700 yards and bypass them. Submarines could now enter mined waters such as the Straits of Tsushima surreptitiously and operate in areas the Japanese mistakenly believed were secure, cutting off the crucial foodstuffs and coal shipments transiting from Korea to Japan. Lockwood’s staff meticulously planned this operation, partially motivated by his desire to avenge the loss of the heroic Commander Dudley Morton and the USS Wahoo in the northern Sea of Japan in fall 1943. Each of the U.S. boats was fitted with FM sonar, and the crews received detailed training in its use. Once they had made the passage and were at their assigned stations in the Sea of Japan, the submarines, working in groups of three, were scheduled to begin a timed attack throughout the area of operations at sunset on June 9. This collective action group was unique in that, instead of gaining an advantage by concentrating their combat power on a single target or convoy, the Hellcats concentrated as a group for their entrance through the narrow Tsushima and then disaggregated. Their simultaneous but distributed attack was designed to shock the Japanese and overwhelm their ability to respond.

In Operation Barney, nine boats led by Captain Earl Hydeman successfully surprised the Japanese and sank 27 vessels in their backyard.54 But it cost Lockwood one of his own boats, as the USS Bonefishunder Lieutenant Commander Lawrence Edge was lost with all hands.55

Without King’s top-down intervention, the adaptation to the use of CAGs may not have been initiated. The success of its adoption, however, was a function of letting local commanders develop their own doctrine. By the end of the war, Lockwood was more enthusiastic about the prospects of the American wolf packs. A total of 65 different wolf packs deployed from Hawaii, and additional groups patrolled out of Australia as well.56 Ironically, they never focused on King’s original intent of serving as ambushers against naval combatants. Instead, the packs remained true to Lockwood’s guerre de course against Japan’s economy.

Cross-Domain Synergies

The historical requirement to adapt in the future may be complicated by the evolving character of modern conflict and the expectation that the joint force will need to gain and exploit cross-domain synergies. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Capstone Concept for Joint Operations (CCJO) is predicated upon creating cross-domain synergies to overcome operational challenges. Another element is to seize, retain, and exploit the initiative in time and across domains.57 Some of this synergy will no doubt be gained in peacetime through concerted efforts to improve interoperability. But if cross-domain synergy is to “become a core operating concept,” as suggested by former Chairman General Martin Dempsey (Ret.) in the CCJO, then we need to also expect to seek out new synergies in wartime.58 Here again, the submarine case study—with its numerous technological adaptations (surface and air search radars, sonars, and improved torpedoes) and cooperation with signals intelligence and the Army Air Corps—is evidence that trans-domain learning is both necessary and feasible, even in combat conditions.

This raises a set of critical questions about joint adaptation in tomorrow’s wars. In future conflicts, how prepared will the joint community be to establish test units and create synergistic combinations on the fly? How prepared are we to actively adapt “under fire” as a joint warfighting community? Do we have the right learning mechanisms to create, harvest, and exploit lessons horizontally across the joint force during combat operations? Such horizontal learning has been crucial in successful examples of adaptation in the past.59 Based on this case study, and several others conducted in a formal case study of U.S. military operations, the following recommendations are offered.

Leadership Development. Senior officers should understand how enhanced operational performance is tied to collaborative and open command climates in which junior commanders can be creative, and plans and tactics can be challenged or altered. The importance of mission command should not excuse commanders from oversight or learning, from providing support, or from recognizing good or bad practices for absorption into praxis by other units. Professional military education (PME) programs should develop and promote leaders who remain flexible, question existing paradigms, and can work within teams of diverse backgrounds to generate collaboration and greater creativity. Case studies in military adaptation should be part of PME strategic leadership syllabi.

Cultural Flexibility over Doctrinal Compliance. Joint force commanders should instill cultures and command climates that embrace collaborative and creative problem-solving and display a tolerance for free or critical thinking. Cultures that are controlling or doctrinally dogmatic or that reinforce conformity should not be expected to be adaptive. Commanders should learn how to create climates in which ideas and the advocates of new ideas are stimulated rather than simply tolerated. If institutions are to be successful over the long haul or adaptive in adverse circumstances, promoting imaginative thinking and adaptation is a must.

Learning Mechanisms. Commanders should be prepared to use operations assessments to allow themselves to interpret the many signals and forms of feedback that occur in combat situations. If needed, they may elect to create special action teams or exploit formalized learning teams to identify, capture, and harvest examples of successful adaptation. These teams or units might have to be created to experiment with new tactics or technologies. Commanders should codify a standard process to collect lessons from current operations for rapid horizontal sharing. They have to be prepared to translate insights laterally into modified praxis to operational forces and not just institutionalize these lessons for future campaigns via postconflict changes in doctrine, organization, or education.

Chief Torpedo man Donald E. Walters receives Bronze Star for service aboard USS Parche (SS-384) (U.S. Navy/Darryl L. Baker)Chief Torpedo man Donald E. Walters receives Bronze Star for service aboard USS Parche (SS-384) (U.S. Navy/Darryl L. Baker)

Dissemination. Commanders should invest time in ensuring that lessons and best practices are shared widely and horizontally in real time to enhance performance and are not just loaded into formal information systems. The Israel Defense Forces are exploring practices that make commanders more conscious about recognizing changes in the operating environment from either their own forces or the opponent.60 There may be something to practicing learning in this way and making it the responsibility of a commander instead of a special staff officer.

Conclusion

As Ovid suggested long ago, one can learn from one’s enemies. The U.S. Navy certainly did. The Service did not just emulate the Kriegsmarine; it improved upon its doctrine with tailored tactics and better command and control capabilities. To do so, Navy submarine leaders had to hold some of their own mental models in suspended animation and experiment in theater with alternative concepts. Lessons were not simply harvested from existing patrols and combat experience and plugged into a Joint Universal Lessons Learned System, as is done today. The submarine force had to carve out the resources, staff, and time to investigate new methods in a holistic way from concept to war games to training against live ships.

Because the eventual role of the Silent Service was not anticipated with great foresight, the Americans had to learn while fighting. They accomplished this with great effectiveness, learning and adapting their tactics, training, and techniques. But the ultimate victory was not due entirely to the strategic planning of War Plan Orange. Some success must be credited to the adaptation of the intrepid submarine community.

Ultimately, the U.S. Navy’s superior organizational learning capacity, while at times painfully slow, was brought to bear. The Navy dominated the seas by the end of World War II, and there is much credit to assign to the strategies developed and tested at the Naval War College and the Fleet Exercises of the interwar era. However, a nod must also be given to the Navy’s learning culture of the submarine force during the war. The Service’s wartime “organizational learning dominance” was as critical as the foresight in the interwar period.61 To meet future demands successfully, the ability of our joint force to rapidly create new knowledge and disseminate changes in tactics, doctrine, and hardware will face the same test. 

Dr. F.G. Hoffman is a Senior Research Fellow in the Center for Strategic Research, Institute for National Strategic Studies, at the National Defense University. The author would like to thank Dr. T.X. Hammes, Dr. Williamson Murray, and Colonel Pat Garrett, USMC (Ret.), for input on this article.

Notes

Theo Farrell, Military Adaptation in Afghanistan, ed. Theo Farrell, Frans Osinga, and James Russell (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012), 18.

Joint and Coalition Operational Analysis, Decade of War: Enduring Lessons from the Past Decade of Operations, vol. 1 (Suffolk, VA: The Joint Staff, June 15, 2012).

A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, March 2015), 31.

For a good overview, see Anthony Newpower, Iron Men and Tin Fish: The Race to Build a Better Torpedo During World War II (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006).

Theodore Roscoe, United States Submarine Operations in World War II (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute, 1949), 479.

Wilfred Jay Holmes, Undersea Victory: The Influence of Submarine Operations on the War in the Pacific (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966), 351.

James M. Scott, “America’s Undersea War on Shipping,” Naval History, December 2014, 18–26.

Ian W. Toll, Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941–1942 (New York: Norton, 2012), xxxiv.

Roscoe, 18.

10 Joel Ira Holwitt, “Unrestricted Submarine Victory: The U.S. Submarine Campaign against Japan,” in Commerce Raiding: Historical Case Studies, 1755–2009, ed. Bruce A. Elleman and S.C.M. Paine (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, October 2013).

11 Albert A. Nofi, To Train the Fleet for War: The U.S. Navy Fleet Problems, 1923–1940 (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 2010).

12 Michael Vlahos, “Wargaming, an Enforcer of Strategic Realism,” Naval War College Review (March–April 1986), 7.

13 Nofi, 271.

14 Craig C. Felker, Testing American Sea Power: U.S. Navy Strategic Exercises, 1923–1940 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2007), 6.

15 Stephen Peter Rosen, Winning the Next War: Innovation and the Modern Military (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994), 75.

16 Nofi, 307.

17 Holmes, 47.

18 Clay Blair, Silent Victory: The U.S. Submarine War Against Japan (New York: Lippincott, 1975), 41; Ronald H. Spector, Eagle Against the SunThe American War with Japan (New York: Free Press, 1985), 484.

19 Charles A. Lockwood, Sink ’Em All: Submarine Warfare in the Pacific (New York: Dutton, 1951), 52.

20 I.J. Galantin, Take Her Deep! A Submarine Against Japan in World War II (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2007), 18.

21 Roscoe, 57.

22 Felker, 62.

23 See J.E. Talbott, “Weapons Development, War Planning, and Policy: The U.S. Navy and the Submarine, 1917–1941,” Naval War College Review (May–June 1984), 53–71; Spector, 54–68, 478–480.

24 Joel Ira Holwitt, “Execute Against Japan”: Freedom-of-the-Seas, the U.S. Navy, Fleet Submarines, and the U.S. Decision to Conduct Unrestricted Warfare, 1919–1941 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2009), 479.

25 Blair, Silent Victory, 334–345.

26 Lockwood, Sink ’Em All, 27.

27 Steven Trent Smith, Wolf Pack: The American Submarine Strategy That Helped Defeat Japan (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley, 2003), 50; Lockwood, Sink ’Em All, 87.

28 Smith, 51.

29 Ibid.

30 Galantin, 126.

31 Library of Congress, Lockwood Papers, box 12, folder 63, letter, Lockwood to Admiral Leary, July 11, 1942.

32 National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), RG 313/A16 3 (1), Commander, Submarine Forces Pacific, Tactical Bulletin #1-43, January 2, 1943.

33 Roscoe, 240.

34 Charles A. Lockwood and Hans Christian Adamson, Hellcats of the Sea (New York: Bantam, 1988), 88.

35 Peter Padfield, War Beneath the Sea: Submarine Conflict During World War II (New York: Wiley & Sons, 1995), 308–336; Michael Gannon, Black May: The Epic Story of the Allies’ Defeat of the German U-boats in May 1943 (New York: HarperCollins, 1998).

36 Blair, Silent Victory, 360.

37 Clay Blair, The Hunters, 1939–1942 (New York: Random House, 1998); Michael Gannon, Operation DrumbeatThe Dramatic True Story of Germany’s First U-Boat Attacks Along the American Coast in World War II (New York: Harper & Row, 1990), 89–90.

38 Blair, Silent Victory, 511–516; Roscoe, 240.

39 Library of Congress, Lockwood Papers, box 13, folder 69, letter, Lockwood to Nimitz, May 4, 1943.

40 Galantin, 124–129.

41 Padfield, 85–130.

42 Galantin, 129.

43 Padfield, 404–405.

44 Blair, Silent Victory, 479–480.

45 Roscoe, 241.

46 Ibid., 341.

47 NARA, RG 38, Naval Command Files, box 357, Commander, Submarine Forces Pacific, Tactical Bulletin #6-43, November 22, 1943.

48 Stephen L. Moore, Battle Surface: Lawson “Red” Ramage and the War Patrols of the USS Parche (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2011), 116.

49 Ibid., 110–116.

50 Padfield, 433. On the engagement, see Moore, 101–118. See also War Patrol Report #2, August 1944, available at <http://issuu.com/hnsa/docs/ss-384_parche>.

51 Blair, Silent Victory, 524.

52 Ibid., 791–793; Roscoe, 432–433.

53 The operation is covered in detail in Peter Sasgen, Hellcats: The Epic Story of World War II’s Most Daring Submarine Raid (New York: Caliber, 2010).

54 Holmes, 459–461.

55 NARA, RG 38, Naval Command Files, box 358, “Operation Barney” in Submarine Bulletin II, no. 3 (September 1945), 10–16.

56 See the list at <www.valoratsea.com/wolfpacks.htm>.

57 “Chairman Releases Plan to Build Joint Force 2020,” new release, September 28, 2012, available at <www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=118043>.

58 Cross-domain synergy is a key concept in joint concepts such as the Joint Operational Access Concept and the Chairman’s Concept for Joint Operations. See Capstone Concept for Joint Operations, Joint Force 2020 (Washington, DC: The Joint Staff, September 10, 2012), 13.

59 Robert T. Foley, “A Case Study in Horizontal Military Innovation: The German Army, 1916–1918,” Journal of Strategic Studies 35, no. 6 (December 2012), 799–827.

60 Raphael D. Marcus, “Military Innovation and Tactical Adaptation in the Israel-Hizbollah Conflict: The Institutionalization of Lesson-Learning in the IDF,” Journal of Strategic Studies 38, no. 4 (2014), 1–29.

61 R. Evan Ellis, “Organizational Learning Dominance,” Comparative Strategy 18, no. 2 (Summer 1999), 191–202.

Featured Image: USS Cuttlefish submerging. (Official USN photo # 80-G-K-3348)

India and Japan — A Yen for a Closer Maritime Engagement

The following article originally appeared in South Asia Defence and Strategic Review and is republished with permission.

By Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan, AVSM & Bar, VSM, IN (Retd)

Japan is very much the flavor of the current Indian season. Especially when juxtaposed against China, Japan is acknowledged by New Delhi as being one of the most significant maritime players in the Indo-Pacific. Indeed, Japan’s steadily deteriorating and increasingly fractious relationship with China is a prominent marker of the general fragility of the geopolitical situation prevailing almost throughout the Indo-Pacific. Within this fragile environment, New Delhi is seeking to maintain its own geopolitical pre-eminence in the IOR and relevance in the Indo-Pacific as a whole by adroitly managing China’s growing assertiveness. In this process, Japan and the USA (along with Australia, Vietnam, South Korea, and Indonesia) collectively offer India a viable alternative to Sino-centric hegemony within the region. However, before it places too many of its security eggs in a Japanese basket, it is important for India to examine at least the more prominent historical and contemporary contours of the Sino-Japanese relationship. As India expands her footprint across the Indo-Pacific and examines the overtures of Japan and the USA to seek closer geopolitical coordination with both, it is vital to ensure that our country and our navy are not dragged by ignorance, misinformation or disinformation, into the law of unintended consequences.

Map of Sea of Japan.

The influence of China, with its ancient and extraordinarily well-developed civilization, upon the much younger civilization of Japan1 has been enormous. Even the sobriquet for Japan — the Land of the Rising Sun — is derived from a Chinese perspective, since when the Chinese looked east to Japan they looked in the direction of the dawn. As Japan began to consolidate itself as a nation, between the 1st and the 6th Century CE, it increasingly copied the Chinese model of national development, administration, societal structure and culture. And yet, for all that, there is also a history of deep animosity between the two countries, which manifested itself across of whole range of actions and reactions. At one end was China’s disapproval of Japan attempting to equate itself with the Middle Kingdom (as when Japan Prince Shotoku, in 607 CE, sent a letter to the Sui emperor, Yangdi, “from the Son of Heaven in the land where the sun rises to the Son of Heaven in the land where the sun sets.”) At the other, lay armed conflict. Over the course of the past two millennia, Japan and China have gone to war five times. The common thread in each has been a power struggle on the Korean Peninsula. Even their more contemporary animosity dates back to at least 1894 — during the Meiji Restoration in Japan. It is true that, much like India and Pakistan, relations between China and Japan have witnessed periods of great optimism. For instance, Sino–Japanese relations in the 1970s and early 1980s were undeniably positive and ‘historical animosity’ was not a factor strong enough to foster tensions between the two nations at the time. However, it is also true, once again like India and Pakistan, that these periods of hope have been punctuated by a mutuality of visceral hatred. In the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, China, which was mired in political conflict and civil war, suffered eight months of comprehensive defeats leading, amongst other indignities, to the occupation of Taiwan by Japan. The historical echoes of this horrific conflict and its humiliating aftermath for China resonate to this day.

The most prominent Sino-Japanese contributor to contemporary geopolitical fragility is the Senkaku/ Diaoyu Islands dispute. This is an extremely high-risk dispute that could very easily lead to armed conflict, especially in the wake of Japan’s nationalization of three of the islands in September 2013. Reacting strongly to this unilateral action by Japan, China established an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) on 23 November, 2013, encompassing (inter alia) these very islands. This, in turn, was immediately challenged by the USA, Japan, and South Korea. Within days of the Chinese declaration, military aircraft from all three countries flew through China’s ADIZ without complying with the promulgated ADIZ regulations.  Perhaps because of the robustness of this response, China has not been enforcing this ADIZ with any great vigour, but has not withdrawn it either. It is appreciated that this is a long-term play, because China would acquire strategic advantage by asserting a maximalist position, then seeming to back down, while preserving some incremental gain — akin to a ‘ratchet’ effect.  This is an example of ‘salami slicing’ — of which much has been made in a variety of Indian and Western media.

China’s increased military activities in this maritime area have certainly caused a fivefold rise in the frequency with which Japanese fighter jets have been forced to scramble in preparedness against Chinese aircraft intrusions into Japanese airspace over the East China Sea (ECS). Japanese aircraft have moved up from 150 scrambles in 2011 to a staggering 1,168 scrambles in FY 2016-17. (The Japanese FY, like that of India, runs from 01 April to 31 March.)  Given that fighter pilots are young, aggressive, and trained to use lethal force almost intuitively, this dramatic increase in frequency of scrambles causes a corresponding increase in the chance of a miscalculation on the part of one or both parties that could result in a sudden escalation into active hostilities.  

Even more worrying is the prospect that once China completes her building of airfields on a sufficient number of reefs in the Spratly Island Group, she would promulgate an ADIZ in the South China Sea. Should she do so, the inevitable challenges to such an ADIZ would probably bring inter-state geopolitical tensions to breaking point.

All in all, the increased militarization and current involvement of the armed forces of both countries in the Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands have grave implications for geopolitical stability. To cite a well-used colloquialism, “once you open a can of worms, the only way you can put them back is to use a bigger can.” In the case of the Senkaku/ Diaoyu Islands, both Japan and the PRC have certainly opened ‘a can of worms’ and now both are looking for a bigger can. Thus, both countries are jockeying for geopolitical options with both the USA as well as with other geopolitical powers that can be brought around to roughly align with their respective point of view. Japan’s alliance with the USA and its active wooing of India and Australia with constructs such as Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond is one such ‘larger can.’   

Yet, Japan’s geopolitical insecurities in its segment of the Indo-Pacific are not solely about the Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands. Japan’s apprehension in 2004-05 that China’s exploitation of the Chunxiao gas field (located almost on the EEZ boundary line — as Japan perceives it) was pulling natural gas away from the subterranean extension of the field into the Japanese side of the EEZ boundary brought the two countries to the brink of a military clash. While the situation has been contained for the time being, it remains a potential flashpoint. Across the Sea of Japan /East Sea lie other historical and contemporary challenges in the form of the two Koreas, a Russia that appears to be in a protracted state of geopolitical flux, and of course, the omnipresent elephant in the room, namely, the People’s Republic of China.

Closer home, Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) is present and surprisingly active in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) as well. Its interest in maintaining freedom of navigation within the International Shipping Lanes to and from West Asia in general, and the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Aden in particular, are well known features of Tokyo’s ‘energy security’ and ‘security-of-energy’ policies. Off the Horn of Africa at the southern tip of the Gulf of Aden, the ‘war-lord-ism’ that substitutes for governance in Somalia is a source of strategic concern at a number of levels. Although rampant piracy and armed-robbery have been checked for the time being, only the most naive optimism can indicate anything but continued strategic instability in and off Somalia — at least for the foreseeable future. The JMSDF’s deployments on anti-piracy missions, involving two destroyers and two long-range maritime-patrol (LRMP) aircraft, have been ongoing since 2009 and will continue through 2017. However, such deployments are at the cost of the JMSDF ORBAT (Order of Battle) within the ECS and the Sea of Japan — areas where, as has already been described, Japan faces far more serious and immediate threats than in West Asia. If India was to explicitly offer the protection of its Navy specifically to Japanese merchantmen in and around the Gulf of Aden, this might free the JMSDF warships and LRMP aircraft from this maritime space and permit them to be redeployed in the ECS to contain and counter China’s naval as well as ‘grey zone’ operations (the latter involving predominantly paramilitary maritime forces). Of course, within the north Arabian Sea, the JMSDF has commitments to the USA-led Coalition Task Force (CTF) 150 (in and off the Persian Gulf) as also to CTF 151 (in and off the Gulf of Aden), which would also have to be factored. These notwithstanding, a specific Indian commitment of Indian naval anti-piracy protection to Japanese trade is likely to go down very well with both Tokyo and Washington, and is something that the Indian Navy with its present warship resources could certainly manage.

As is the case with India, Japan, too, is engaged in a series of ongoing efforts to reduce its energy-vulnerabilities. For both India and Japan, this has brought centrality to the environs of the Mozambique Channel, a sadly neglected chokepoint of the IOR, but one that now offers a great deal in terms of strategic collaboration and coordination between Tokyo and New Delhi. To the northwest of this sea passage, Tanzania is engaged in an intense rivalry with Mozambique over newly discovered offshore gas fields in both countries. Tanzanian offshore discoveries off its southern coast, between 2012 and 2015, have raised the official figure of exploitable reserves to as much as 55 trillion cubic feet (tcf). As a comparator, India’s recoverable reserves are 52.6 tcf. The story in Mozambique is even more promising. Since 2010, Anadarko Petroleum of the US, and Italy’s Eni, have made gas discoveries in the Rovuma Basin in the Indian Ocean that are estimated by the IMF collectively to approximate 180 tcf, equivalent to the entire gas reserves of Nigeria. When developed, these gas reserves have the potential to transform Tanzania and Mozambique into key global suppliers of liquefied natural gas. Indeed, once gas production hits its peak, Mozambique (in particular) could well become the world’s third-biggest liquefied natural gas exporter after Qatar and Australia. Obviously, India and Japan, not to mention China, are deeply interested in this LNG as it will allow each country to ‘wake up’ — at least partially — from their common ‘Hormuz Nightmare’ vis-à-vis the sourcing of LNG from Qatar. Where India is concerned, LNG from Rovumo will additionally negate any Chinese-Pakistani interdiction-possibilities ex-Gwadar. In fact, just as the Gulf of Guinea on the western coast of Africa is a vastly preferred source of petroleum-based energy for Europe and the USA precisely because there are no chokepoints along the route from source-to-destination, a somewhat-similar situation would prevail for India, Japan, and China were they to source their energy from East Africa and the Mozambique Channel.

It is therefore  encouraging to note that by April 2015, an Indian consortium comprising the ONGC, IOL, and BPC had purchased a combined 30 percent stake in Anadarko’s ‘Rovuma’ fields at a cost of US $6.5 billion to be amortised over a four year period. Japan and South Korea, too, — both growing partners of India — have invested with both Anadarko and Eni: the Japanese energy company Mitsui now holds a 25 percent stake in Anadarko’s concession and Korean Gas Corp (Kogas) holds a 10 percent stake in Eni’s concession. Unsurprisingly, China, too, is a major player and the ‘China National Petroleum Company’ (CNPC) has bought into the Italian firm ‘Eni’ to the tune of US $ 4.2 Billion, for a 28 percent stake. Once this LNG begins to be shipped eastwards, the Indian Navy could once again be the guarantor of Japanese Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) at least from Mozambique to the SCS, if not all the way to Japan.

Another important driver for Japanese strategic maritime interest in the IOR is food security. Often given insufficient attention by Indian analysts, this is, nevertheless a significant factor in Japan’s geopolitics. Even though Japan is amongst the world’s richest countries, her food self-sufficiency ratio is remarkably low compared to other industrialized nations. In particular, Japan’s high cereal import dependency rate and low food self-sufficiency rate make her particularly vulnerable. As of 2015, Japan was producing only about 39 percent of the food it consumed reflecting a major decrease from the 79 percent in 1960, and the lowest food self-sufficiency ratio among all major developed countries. Moreover, Japan depends on a very small number of countries for the majority of its food imports — 25 percent come from the USA alone, while China, ASEAN and the EU account for another 39 percent  — and all of it travels by sea. In order to reduce her consequent geopolitical vulnerability and diversify her SLOCs, Japan has invested in agricultural projects (the purchase, from relatively poor nations abroad, of enormous tracts of farmland upon which food is grown and shipped back to Japan). This activity, which has serious ethical issues associated with it, is considered by ethical activists to be ‘land grabbing’, especially as it takes callous advantage of the need for cash-strapped African nations for money, leading the governments of these countries to deny their own (often impoverished) people the agricultural produce of their own land. Nevertheless, ‘farming abroad’ has emerged as a new food supply strategy by several import-dependent governments, including Japan. Where Japan is concerned, several of its large-scale investments are concentrated in Mozambique, causing Japan to concern herself with the geopolitical stability of this portion of the Indian Ocean and the International Sea Lanes (ISLs)/SLOCs leading to Japan. This drives the noticeable fluctuation between Japan’s commitments to contribute to international development policies and the more narrow-minded pursuit of its national interests and intensified efforts to strengthen its position in international politics in relation to China. For New Delhi, however, this represents yet another opportunity to leverage Indian naval capability to commit itself to keeping Japanese ‘Food SLOCs’ open and safe.  

Zooming in to India’s immediate maritime neighbourhood, Japan’s willingness to partner with vulnerable countries in planning activities, and also provide for and engage in preventive and curative measures with regard to Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR), holds great promise for an active India-Japan partnership under a joint IONS-WPNS rubric. The benefits that would accrue from such an initiative have very substantial and substantive strategic implications.

With Pakistan remaining a constant spoiler and a global sponsor of terrorism, India’s hugely improved relations with Bangladesh offer additional opportunities for New Delhi to coordinate its own maritime strategic gameplay with that of Japan. Japan, for instance, is poised to provide a viable alternative to the now abandoned Chinese-sponsored Sonadia Port project in Bangladesh, by way of the development of a coal-based 1,200 MW power plant as well as a new deep-water port at Matarbari in Cox’s Bazaar, just 25 km away from Sonadia.

India’s own maritime engagement with Japan is being driven along at a brisk pace by a strong mutuality of interests, and a number of institutional mechanisms at both Track-1 and Track-2 levels are now functional. At the Track-1 level, maritime engagement per se is provided focus through the ‘India-Japan Maritime Affairs Dialogue,’ which was established in January 2013. Spearheaded by India’s MEA (Disarmament and International Security Affairs [DISA] Division) and Japan’s Foreign Policy Bureau, the dialogue covers a wide ambit, including, inter alia, maritime security including non-traditional threats, cooperation in shipping, marine sciences and technology, and marine biodiversity and cooperation. However, the bilateral maritime-security engagement is probably the most relevant to the Indian maritime interest under discussion, namely, the obtaining and sustaining of a favourable geopolitical position. It is vital to bear in mind that, contrary to many Indian pundits who examine geoeconomics in isolation, geoeconomics is a subset of geopolitics, as is geostrategy. To reduce it a simple equation, Geopolitics = Geoeconomics + Geostrategies to attain geoeconomic goals + Geostrategies to attain non-economic goals + Interpersonal Relations between the leaders of the countries involved.

Within the Indian EEZ, India-Japan-USA maritime-scientific cooperation is already in evidence in one of the most exciting and promising areas of energy, namely, gas hydrates. Gas hydrates, popularly called ‘fire-ice,’ are a mixture of natural gas (usually methane) and water, which have been frozen into solid chunks. In 1997, in recognition of the tremendous energy-potential in gas hydrates, New Delhi formulated a ‘National Gas Hydrate Programme’ (NGHP) for the exploration and exploitation of the gas-hydrate resources of the country, which are currently estimated at over 67,000 tcf (1,894 trillion cubic meters [tcm]). Once again, as a comparator, India’s exploitable reserve of conventional LNG is a mere 52.6 tcf. The two exploratory expeditions (NGHP-01 and NGHP-02) that have thus far been mounted have been in conjunction with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (J AMSTEC). They have yielded extremely encouraging results that border on the spectacular, confirming the presence of large, highly saturated, accumulations of gas hydrates in the Krishna-Godavari (KG) and Mahanadi Basins that are amongst the richest in the world. Production of even 10 percent from this natural reserve would be sufficient to meet the country’s vast energy requirement for a century or more — a cause of considerable optimism for energy-starved India and Japan. The 2015 edition of the ‘India-Japan Science Summit’, too, has reiterated the intent of both countries to continue joint surveys for gas-hydrates within India’s EEZ, using the Japanese drilling ship, the Chikyu.    

Military interaction with Japan is progressing at the policy level through the Japan-India Defense Policy Dialogue, while operational-level engagement proceeds under the aegis of the Comprehensive Security Dialogue (CSD) and Military-to-Military Talks (initiated in 2001). Naval cooperation is by far the most dynamic and is steered through the mechanism of annual Navy-to-Navy Staff Talks.

Tokyo and New Delhi are also actively expanding their defense trade and the acquisition by India of Japanese ShinMaywa US-2i amphibious aircraft remains very likely. Japan is also looking to undertake the construction of maritime infrastructure in the Andaman and Nicobar (A & N) Islands. An eventual aim could well be to integrate a new network of Indian Navy sensors into the existing Japan-U.S. “Fish Hook” Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) network to monitor the movement of Chinese nuclear-powered submarines.

As Satoru Nagao of the Tokyo Foundation, writing in the ORF’s publication  Line in the Waters succinctly puts it, “Tokyo and New Delhi have an important role to play to advance peace and stability and help safeguard vital sea lanes in the wider Indo-Pacific region. Since Asia’s economies are bound by sea, maritime democracies like Japan and India must work together to help build a stable, liberal, rules-based order in Asia.” 

Clearly, there is a mutual yen for a closer maritime engagement.

Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan retired as Commandant of the Indian Naval Academy at Ezhimala. He is an alumnus of the prestigious National Defence College.

[1] Chinese civilizational framework prevailed throughout the East Asian region, but the Japanese version of it was distinctive enough to be regarded as a civilization sui generis.

Featured Image: Group photograph on board INS Shivalik with Japanese Naval Seadership at Port Sasbo, Japan on 24 Jul 14 (Indian Navy)

After the Shangri-La Dialogue – For China, So What and Now What?

By Tuan N. Pham

Singapore hosted the 2017 Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) from June 2-4. The dialogue was well attended by defense ministers from the United States, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Canada, and France, with other regional countries sending varying levels of defense representation. One conspicuous divergence from previous dialogues was the Chinese delegation, who curiously sent a relatively low-ranking representative. From 2013 to 2016, the Chinese delegation was led by a deputy chief-level People’s Liberation Army (PLA) general officer. This year, Beijing sent Lieutenant General He Lei, the Vice President of the PLA’s Academy of Military Science.

Many have speculated about China’s motives, and Shannon Tiezzi of The Diplomat offers one of the best analyses to date. The focus of this article is to build on the extant analysis and explore whether the deliberate choice produced a diplomatic win or loss for Beijing. To do so, I will recap some of the rhetoric aimed at China during the SLD along with the Chinese response.     

China’s Decision

Why did China send a “lower-ranking” representative with no formal government position and no apparent defense credential to lead its delegation to Asia’s premier security forum? Tiezzi provided some possible explanations (analytical baseline) in her well-written article titled “Why is China Downgrading Participation in the Shangri-La Dialogue?”  She suggested that Beijing’s decision was a preemptive and subtle refutation of the SLD’s agenda, and pointed to a deeper problem that China has with the annual dialogue itself. The stated agenda of “upholding the rules-based regional order, practical measures to avoid conflict at sea, and nuclear dangers in the Asia-Pacific,” made Beijing an easy target of reproach for its provocative actions in the South and East China Seas (ECS/SCS) and perceived inability to curtail Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile development ambitions. Beijing also chooses not to discuss its maritime disputes in any multilateral forum, asserting that bilateral negotiations are the appropriate mechanism debating such contentious issues. The SCS is a recurrent SLD topic – and China, much to its chagrin, has little influence over the non-friendly –and the Chinese might say hostile – agenda.

Besides a desire for bilateral negotiations, other explanations for the lower-ranked SLD representation include Beijing not wanting to undermine its public diplomacy campaign of global governance and desire to extend its strategic momentum from the inaugural Belt and Road Forum (BRF) in Beijing 14-15 May and the 19th China-European Union (EU) Summit (CES) in Brussels 1-2 June. Since the release of a white paper outlining its updated foreign policies on “Asia-Pacific Security Cooperation” last January, Beijing has pushed a harder strategic narrative of global benevolence. China’s guiding principles for its new altruistic foreign policy are based on its Confucian culture of universal peace and sharing, and are rooted in its belief that the 21st Century is an epoch of globalization and economic interdependence. Ideally, a strategic network will be established in all the regions of the world to achieve “universal peace, international order, and global prosperity.”

China will increasingly be called upon to find solutions to global challenges (and opportunities), such as terrorism, climate change, free trade, and economic development. In his opening BRF remarks, President Xi Jinping stated that “we should build the Belt and Road into a road for peace, road of prosperity, road of opening up, road of innovation, and road for connecting different civilizations.” While at the CES, Premier Li Keqiang said that China and the EU are “contributors and beneficiaries of world multipolarization and process of economic globalization, and under the current situation, China and the EU should confront the instability of the international situation with a stable bilateral cooperation.” 

Note: On 2 June, Beijing unexpectedly announced the cancellation of the 2017 Xiangshan Forum – annual regional security conference organized by China and widely seen as a rival (counter) to the SLD – due to pressures at home and abroad. Cited reasons include major leadership reshuffles, clashes with other events, and a desire to allay fears of Asian neighbors.            

Rhetoric Aimed at China

Beijing’s decision to downgrade its footprint at the SLD may not be so surprising considering the keynote speech by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, remarks by American Secretary of Defense James Mattis during the first plenary session (United States and Asia-Pacific Security), and comments by Japanese Minister of Defense Tomomi Inada during the second plenary session (Upholding the Rules-based Regional Order). Important highlights from these speeches include:

– Turnbull asserted that Asia’s future peace and prosperity depend on preserving the rules-based regional order that has worked so well for so long. He suggested that China can only expand its strategic influence to match its economic might within the bounds set by the same rules-based regional order; implied that Beijing was undermining that order in Asia by unilaterally seizing or creating territory and militarizing disputed areas; warned that a coercive China would drive its regional neighbors to bolster alliances and partnerships between themselves and the United States; and exhorted his regional neighbors to assume greater responsibility for their own security and prosperity.

– Mattis called out China for disregarding other nations’ interests and international law, militarizing the SCS, and undermining regional stability. He reiterated that the United States would continue “to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, and demonstrate resolve through operational presence in the SCS and beyond”; urged China to recognize that North Korea has become a strategic liability and cautioned Beijing that seeking cooperation on Pyongyang did not mean Washington would not challenge Chinese activities in the SCS; and restated the United States’ steadfast commitment to the defense of Taiwan as outlined in the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). 

Lieutenant General He Lei, vice-president of the Chinese PLA Academy of Military Science, talks with foreign officials during this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. (chinamil.com)

– Inada leveled similar criticism against China in her speech. She implied that Beijing bore most of the responsibility for the extant regional instability; criticized China for “unilaterally” altering the status quo in the ECS and SCS and undermining the rules-based regional order; called out China for its continued destabilizing militarization of the SCS; urged Beijing to follow international law and respect last year’s tribunal ruling on the SCS; and expressed support for U.S. freedom of navigation operations in the SCS.

Chinese Response

The Chinese response was expectedly swift and coordinated, but ultimately uninspiring. The Chinese delegation held a media briefing on the summit’s sidelines at the end of the second day, defending China’s position as a rising power that abides by international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea; repeating longstanding policy positions on Taiwan, North Korea, and SCS; and expressing frustration that Beijing is unfairly singled out for criticism. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs followed the tepid response the next day and called out Mattis and Inada’s statements on the SCS and Taiwan as “irresponsible” and recycled previous talking points:

– China has indisputable sovereignty over the Spratly Islands and their adjacent waters, and stays committed to peacefully resolving disputes with countries directly concerned through negotiation and consultation and upholding peace and stability of the SCS with Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries.

– China respects and safeguards all countries’ freedom of navigation and overflight in the SCS under international law, but definitely opposes certain country’s show of force in the SCS under the pretext of navigation and overflight freedom, challenging and threatening China’s sovereignty and security.

– China builds relevant facilities on the islands and reefs of the Spratly Islands for the purpose of improving the working and living conditions for people stationed there, and better defending its sovereignty and performing China’s international obligations and responsibilities.

– Thanks to the efforts of countries in the region, the situation in the SCS Sea has calmed down and turned positive.

– The Senkaku Islands have been part of China’s territory since ancient times; patrol and law enforcement activities by Chinese government vessels in the relevant waters are justified and legitimate; China is resolute in safeguarding its territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, and will continue with its patrol and law enforcement activities in the future.

– China’s position on the Taiwan question is clear-cut and consistent; China stands firmly against the so-called “TRA” unilaterally made by the United States and requires the United States to honor the One-China policy and the three China-U.S. joint communiqués.

– China is clear and consistent about opposing relevant countries’ deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, and again urge them to immediately stop the deployment.  

So What and Now What

Given the circumstances, Beijing may have miscalculated. By downgrading its presence at the SLD, China ceded the strategic narrative and initiative to the United States. Specifically, Beijing yielded Washington and its regional allies and partners a public platform to stake out their strategic positions, counter the Chinese strategic messaging, and further encourage China to become a more responsible global stakeholder that contributes positively to the international system.

To date, Beijing has “2 (wins), 2 (losses), and 1 (tie), and 1 (undetermined)” in major international affairs for 2017 – Xi underperformed at the Trump-Xi Summit; Xi recovered and outperformed at the BRF; Li acquitted himself (and China) well at the CES; the SLD delegation seemingly did not; and the inaugural U.S.-China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue (D&SD) resulted in no joint U.S.-China readout, fact sheet, or outcomes document – indications suggest dialogue made no significant progress on North Korea or the SCS; and the G20 Summit outcomes are still being ascertained. Next up are the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting in Danang (Vietnam) 11-12 November, and the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Manila (Philippines) 13-14 November, and the second Trump-Xi Summit in Beijing (TBD).

All in all, the apparently poor showing at the SLD was a setback for Xi’s 2017 strategic agenda. He wants and needs a successful diplomatic year to build political capital and momentum leading into the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in late 2017. There is widespread speculation that Xi is trying to promote more members of his faction to the Central Committee and the Politburo, a necessary interim step if he wants to change CPC’s rules to serve an unprecedented third term as president (and/or retain his other two titles of general secretary of the CPC and chairman of the Central Military Commission) and maintain power and influence beyond 2022.

Tuan Pham has extensive experience in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, and is widely published in national security affairs. The views expressed therein are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Government. 

Featured Image: Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull speaks during the International Institute for Strategic Studies 16th Asia Security Summit in Singapore on June 2, 2017. (DOD photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jette Carr)