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America Smashed Imperial Japan's Navy at Leyte Gulf: What Lessons Can China Learn?

October 20, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Asia-Pacific Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Imperial JapanWorld War IILeyte GulfU.S. NavyWar

America Smashed Imperial Japan's Navy at Leyte Gulf: What Lessons Can China Learn?

We asked one of the world's leading experts for answers.

Strategists in China make a habit of engrossing themselves in history. Betimes ideology tinges the findings they coax from the historical record, as one might expect from citizens of a communist regime—or indeed from human beings, full stop. Yet politics seldom invalidates their analyses of workmanlike topics in tactics, operations, or strategy. These, after all, involve the mechanics of how the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will help Chinese Communist Party (CCP) magnates fulfill their political purposes. Inquiries into martial subjects are mostly apolitical since they cover the how, not the why, and thus are safe for free-range thinkers to explore. For example, PLA analysts seemingly have little trouble setting aside their natural skepticism toward Alfred Thayer Mahan and other Western strategic theorists. They afford Mahan & Co. respect and draw guidance from them despite their entanglement with the imperial legacy that so affronts patriotic Chinese.

All of that being the case, it cannot have escaped notice in China that the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Battle of Leyte Gulf is bearing down on us, warranting a fresh look back. Fought in the waters and skies around the Philippine archipelago on October 24–25, 1944, Leyte Gulf ranks as the largest naval engagement in history by some measures. It was surely history’s last decisive fleet engagement (to date). As such it commands more than antiquarian interest in Communist China, a seafaring power on the make. Reviewing it can help PLA strategists, force designers, and commanders divine how to prosecute a future naval war in the Western Pacific—the same battleground where the U.S. Navy faced off against the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) during World War II. What lessons will, and should, Beijing learn from studying the battle? Four candidates:

All warfare is grounded in deception:

Capital ships make good decoys even if denuded of their main battery—in the case of an aircraft carrier, its complement of warplanes. The IJN’s inventory of aircraft, and especially aviators to fly them, was sorely depleted following the June 1944 Battle of the Philippine Sea, meaning Japanese carrier task forces had little to throw at the U.S. Pacific Fleet and amphibious forces as they lumbered toward the Philippine Islands that fall. Accordingly, IJN commanders made the “Northern Force” of carriers and escorts overseen by Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa a decoy force, hoping to lure Admiral “Bull” Halsey and his U.S. Third Fleet carrier forces away while IJN surface fleets converged on the island of Leyte to smite General Douglas MacArthur’s expeditionary ground force and its Seventh Fleet protectors. Recalled Halsey in 1952: “The Japanese northern forces were expendable so long as they gave the southern forces the opportunity to destroy our forces lying off the beaches at Leyte.”

The ruse worked. Exaggerated reports of damage done to Leyte-bound IJN forces on October 24 led Halsey to underplay the IJN threat. The Third Fleet commander kept his fast battleships with his carrier task forces to pursue and pummel the Northern Force rather than leave them behind to guard the San Bernardino Strait, the gateway to Leyte Gulf for Admiral Takeo Kurita and his Center Force. Mayhem ensued on the morning of October 25 when the Center Force, built around the super-dreadnought Yamato and fellow heavyweights, fell on “Taffy 3,” Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague’s contingent of light carriers, destroyers, and destroyer escorts lying just offshore. The Japanese Shō plan for Leyte Gulf bore little fruit—but that wasn’t Ozawa’s fault. His stratagem was the one element of the plan that succeeded brilliantly. He dangled something in front of Halsey that Halsey couldn’t resist. And, in his haste to seize the bait, the American commander neglected to bar the San Bernardino Strait. Disaster could have ensued had Kurita not lost his taste for battle after U.S. aircraft and light surface combatants swarmed against the Center Force, sowing chaos. Had he pressed his assault on the American fleet, the outcome would have been far different—probably in Japan’s favor.

Deception has been central to China’s way of war as long as there has been a China. Studying Leyte Gulf reaffirms what PLA strategists are already primed to believe about sea combat.

Don’t take deception to excess:

There’s danger in that. Like any virtue, guile and cunning can be carried to excess—and metamorphose into vice. Japanese commanders were given to intricate battle plans and force dispositions. The best-laid schemes of mice and men go awry amid the fog and friction of war—leaving schemers with nought but grief and pain to show for their efforts. A multitude of problems accrue when you fragment your forces, and the IJN encountered them all. Coordinating effort proves increasingly difficult, especially when planners set a timetable that allows little slop time for setbacks, miscommunications, or plain human goofs. IJN contingents were often too widely dispersed to render one another mutual support, as at Midway. Nor, at Leyte, could they keep to the Shō plan’s heavily scripted movements.

Subdivide your combat power into bits and scatter it all over the map and you subject yourself to defeat by increments. As Admiral Halsey contended in his account of the battle, “it is a cardinal principle of naval warfare not to divide one’s force to such extent as will permit it to be beaten in detail.” Dividing the IJN Center Force from the “Southern Force” and expecting them to fight their way through embattled waters, separately, beneath skies swarming with hostile air power, en route to a precisely timed juncture, was asking for trouble. And trouble is what the IJN got. Neither contingent made it to Leyte Gulf unmolested; the Southern Force never made it at all. Armed forces like imperial Japan’s, whose doctrines, plans, or strategies are too cute by half, set themselves up for failure.

Whether the PLA will succumb to the same temptations that bedeviled the IJN remains to be seen. CCP founding chairman Mao Zedong advised his Red Army, the PLA’s progenitor, that there can never be too much deception in war. That’s a pretty extreme statement, and Mao’s teachings are graven on the Chinese military mind. Because China’s way of war is predicated on deception, this takeaway from Leyte Gulf may prove hard for mainland analysts to grok.

Turn terrain to advantage in near-shore combat:

Some ancient U.S. Navy mariners will tell you terrain is meaningless in naval warfare—that sea combat is all about maneuvering for advantage on the open ocean. That would come as a shock to Leyte Gulf veterans. The IJN Southern Force, made up of detachments headed by Vice Admirals Shōji Nishimura and Kiyohide Shima, approached Leyte Gulf via a nighttime passage through the Surigao Strait. Nishimura and Shima were to join forces, make the transit, and rendezvous with Kurita on the morning of October 25. There they would combine their firepower and give U.S. naval forces a fatal beating. Nishimura’s flotilla transited the Surigao Strait in a column, only to plunge headlong into what Halsey called “one of the prettiest ambushes in naval history” as it exited the strait. (Shima arrived late and escaped the worst of the punishment.) As historian Samuel Eliot Morison reports, the narrow southerly passage widens to some fifteen miles as it empties into Leyte Gulf. That was more than ample room for Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf’s Bombardment Force of battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and torpedo boats to fan out and assail the Southern Force from many axes.

Fittingly, all but one of Oldendorf’s six battlewagons were Pearl Harbor veterans, raised from the dead, upgraded, and returned to combat service. In all likelihood the Battle of Surigao Strait witnessed history’s final instance of “crossing the T,” the classic naval tactic whereby one battle line crosses ahead of another at right angles in order to concentrate the fleet’s massed gunfire against the lead enemy ship. Selecting the ground for battle matters. Used artfully, geography channels and constrains maritime movement—setting the stage for decisive military results.

Surface action still pays off:

It’s commonplace to interpret the Battle of Leyte Gulf as the final death knell for surface warships in their contest with naval aviation for primacy in sea combat. It’s hard to gainsay that view. After all, carrier aviators sent the super-dreadnought Musashi—history’s biggest, baddest, most heavily armed battleship—to the bottom on October 24. Doubtless Musashi would have hammered a U.S. fleet carrier to shards had it closed to gun range—say, twenty-five miles. But it’s tough to imagine the IJN behemoth closing the distance against an Essex-class carrier boasting up to one hundred fighter, bomber, and torpedo planes that outranged Musashi’s 18.1-inch main guns many times over. (The Grumman TBF Avenger, for instance, could haul a full load of weapons 1,000 nautical miles.) The flattop would have executed multiple waves of air attacks before the battlewagon ever came within reach to get in its licks. It never would, barring some fluke.

PLA thinkers nevertheless might see Leyte Gulf as ratifying their approach to fleet design and maritime strategy, an approach in which the PLA Navy’s surface fleet plays an increasingly prominent part. If so, they would be correct to do so. Musashi and its consorts perished not because carriers outranged battleships but because IJN surface forces had no air cover. Americans ruled the air, and could pound away at the Japanese fleet with impunity. The obvious lesson: keep the foe from commanding the air and you shall go far. And indeed, that insight lies at the heart of PLA anti-access/area-denial strategy, a strategy meant to hold off U.S. carrier expeditionary groups as far as possible and as long as possible—buying time to accomplish China’s goals without interference. So long as PLA airmen can contend for air superiority on even terms, they can prevent a Leyte Gulf from befalling the PLA Navy. If they win air supremacy, they can hope to inflict a Leyte Gulf on hostile surface forces that venture within the anti-access zone.