Japan's Folly Could Be China's Gain in a War against America

The possibility that China’s submarine force would adopt a focused strategy of attacking transport nodes cannot be ruled out—something Japan failed to do in World War II.

As the 70th anniversary of the ending of the bloody Pacific War looms in August, many Chinese scholars will no doubt be writing about Tokyo’s wartime atrocities and perceived post-war failures to reckon with grave misdeeds in China and elsewhere.  But among Chinese naval analyst, the focus is quite different.  They are not particularly interested in Japan’s war against China, but rather have taken up a different theme:  a special issue of the March 2015 edition of 现代舰船 [Modern Ships] probes in detail the failures of Japanese naval strategy during the Pacific War.  

TNI readers understand well that the last naval battles undertaken among the fleets of the great powers occurred during World War II, so that China’s lessons from that massive conflict are hardly of simple academic interest.  In order to divine these lessons, which could well influence contemporary Chinese naval strategy, this edition of Dragon Eye will probe one Chinese article from this interesting series that takes as its focus the strategy and employment of Imperial Japan’s submarine fleet in the Pacific War. The conclusion of this analysis is not difficult to discern.  Indeed, the article’s title asks whether or not Japanese submarine strategy was a “巨大的错误”[huge mistake].   The overall conclusion is that Japanese submarines failed to take advantage of the “soft rib” of the U.S. armed forces by the method of “破交” [attacking transport nodes].

This Chinese analysis is sufficiently sophisticated to recognize explicitly that the Japanese submarine force confronted numerous challenges whatever the nature of its strategy.  According to this analysis, they were slow in diving, their large size made it difficult to evade enemy sonars, and their lack of climate control decreased crew efficiency. Their fire control systems lagged behind those employed by the Allies. Obviously, Japanese yards could not turn out boats on a scale that could match the American building effort.  It is also noted that American code-breakers provided the U.S. Navy with the necessary information to intercept and destroy many Japanese submarines.  Above all, according to this analysis, the Japanese submarine force suffered from a lack of radars, so they were unable to attack in bad weather or at night like American submarines.

On the other hand, it is pointed out that, at least at the beginning of the war, Japan’s submarine force was quite impressive in many respects. The large Japanese submarines had solid range, good speed on the surface, advanced periscopes and superb torpedoes, as well.  Moreover, the force was crewed with volunteers, suggesting its elite status.  And yet, as this Chinese analysis explains, successes for this elite force were far outweighed by its failures.  As is well known, the Japanese Navy’s midget submarines ultimately did not play any major role in the Pearl Harbor attack and were all sunk. With about two dozen Japanese submarines operating in the war zone near Guadalcanal in late 1942 and early 1943, “They sank a certain number of American warships, and especially the aircraft carrier Wasp [黄蜂], but they completely failed to launch attacks against the enemy’s transport ships,” the author observes.

The math did not favor the Japanese submarine strategy of prioritizing attacks against U.S. capital ships.  According to this analysis, Japan lost six of nine submarines deployed to the Gilberts campaign in 1943.  Similarly, 14 of 22 Japanese submarines deployed into the Marianas campaign during 1944 were destroyed.  “By the time of the October 1944 Leyte Gulf battle, the Japanese submarine force had ceased to exist as a fighting force.”  True, Japanese strategists also made some costly and obvious mistakes, such as building large numbers of specialized transport submarines to bring supplies to beleaguered Japanese island garrisons cut off by the American island-hopping strategy.  This effort is described in this Chinese analysis as “仅具有象征性意义” [just having symbolic value]. Another problem cited by this naval analyst is that the Japanese submarines were strictly subordinated to the command of surface groups, so that they became a “tactical force, but not a strategic asset.”  But ultimately, it is claimed that as Allied anti-submarine warfare (ASW) improved and Japanese submarines continued to attempt risky attacks, their situation “越来越像是自杀” [seemed more and more like suicide].  For additional evidence, the Chinese article cites figures suggesting that of about 100 Japanese submarines destroyed in combat during the Pacific War, 58 were sunk by surface ships, implying that they were lost in the clearly risky endeavor of attacking Allied warships.