Everyone says it: Newport, as in where the U.S. Naval War College is located and where yours truly works, underwent a golden age of strategy-making during the interwar decades. It must usher in a new golden age to prevail in strategic competition against the likes of China and Russia. Revisiting the service’s and Naval War College’s roots will shed light on the new, old dilemmas besetting them.
Indeed it may—if posterity understands that long-ago age.
Here’s the legend. Godlike figures such as W. S. Sims bestrode Naval War College game floors during the years following World War I, bequeathing wisdom to posterity. (Theodore Roosevelt instituted war planning vis-à-vis Japan in 1897, while serving as assistant secretary of the navy, but planning didn’t really hit its stride until after the Great War.) The product of their labors was War Plan Orange, which set forth the basic design for war against Japan. The U.S. Pacific Fleet sallied forth starting in December 1941 and smote down the foe by putting the design into practice.
So brilliant were their deliberations, vouchsafed Admiral Chester Nimitz after World War II, that next to nothing took U.S. naval commanders by surprise in Pacific combat. Only kamikaze tactics caught them off guard, according to Nimitz.
Like many legends, this one conveys essential elements of truth. But the passage of decades tends to rub the rough edges off any story, especially a tale of military triumph. The reality of naval war planning was messier than mythmaking implies—not to mention more interesting and more instructive for strategists gazing across the Pacific toward a new antagonist a century hence. The process of wrangling over, drafting, critiquing, and periodically revising Plan Orange bore little resemblance to dispassionate Platonic debates carried on while strolling across sunny uplands of martial enlightenment. It bore more resemblance to grinding sausage.
Strategic ideas clashed in those days, in other words, but there was more to strategy-making than high-minded exchanges of views. Edward S. Miller retells the story in War Plan Orange: The U.S. Plan to Defeat Japan, 1897-1945. Generations clashed. Oldtimers steeped in the lore of Spanish-American War victories at Manila Bay and Santiago de Cuba quarreled with youngsters of a more cautious, methodical bent. Intuitive planners clashed with professionals. Over time, as idea collided with idea and faction with faction, the conceit that the U.S. Navy could lunge across the Pacific and rescue the Philippine Islands and Guam from a Japanese assault yielded to a more prudent view.
The less gung-ho construct forecast that America’s Western Pacific possessions would fall to Japanese arms. U.S. forces stationed in the region stood little chance of overpowering the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) in Asian waters, by then a marine preserve for the Rising Sun. To undo aggression, the U.S. Pacific Fleet would have to fight its way back into the theater, undertaking a campaign that would span years and exact bitter costs. And indeed, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) intended to mount “interceptive operations” from formerly German-held islands awarded to Tokyo as a “Mandate” under the terms of the Versailles Treaty, the covenant terminating World War I.
Under interceptive operations, IJN commanders envisioned staging combat aircraft from airstrips on the Mandate islands and submarines in the waters between. These superempowered light craft would repeatedly ambush the Pacific Fleet with bombs or torpedoes as it lumbered westward. Attrition from pinprick strikes would cut the fleet down to size as the precursor to a decisive battle somewhere in the Western Pacific. A less numerous but materially excellent and spirited Japanese navy would prevail over a larger opponent by increments.
Americans came to agree with their future antagonists about how a future war would play out. Miller documents how the realities of Japanese local supremacy, not to mention the logistical rigors of a cross-Pacific offensive, gradually dawned on the Orange planners. They came to assume America would lose at the outset in the Western Pacific while standing in the Eastern Pacific. Naval forces would then be compelled to steam across thousands of miles of ocean—much of it under fire. They estimated IJN subs and planes would contest the last 3,000 miles of the voyage. A counteroffensive might consume years. This stark reality disabused the Orange planning community of any lingering boosterism.
Their slow, fitful journey from hubris to sobriety is worth bearing in mind as the U.S. Navy resumes war planning in earnest. Substitute Communist China for Imperial Japan. To what extent would a nouveau War Plan Orange resemble its forerunners from the interwar decades? Well, it would parallel the Orange plans of old in certain respects while diverging in others. China can take comfort in some of the parallels; others should discomfit it. The reciprocal is true of the United States and its Asian allies and friends. What works to China’s advantage should worry them, while what wrongfoots China constitutes their opportunity.
Now, likely U.S. political and strategic aims raise a troublesome prospect: that the U.S. Pacific Fleet may not enjoy the luxury of what Miller terms a “cautionary” advance across the Pacific. Reconquering the Philippines or Guam could wait; today the United States may have to win quickly or not at all.
U.S. forces, that is, may have to attempt an express “Through Ticket” advance of the sort beloved of the early Orange planners—and court the hazards, costs, and logistical overstretch a cross-Pacific charge entailed, and that planners ultimately pronounced unacceptable. Why? Because China will have time on its side in most contingencies, from wresting Senkaku, Spratly, or Paracel islands from their occupants to venturing a cross-strait assault against Taiwan. U.S. forces must contend with the tyranny of distance—a tyranny People’s Liberation Army (PLA) defenders can compound by strewing sensors, ships and planes, and armaments across Western Pacific seas and skies, and by lofting shore-based munitions seaward toward the approaching U.S. force.
Japan could contest 3,000 miles of ocean; the uppermost estimate for the range of China’s ship killing DF-26 anti-ship ballistic missile is 2,500 miles. And it’s far more convenient and less arduous for China to contest geographic space. The DF-26 and its shorter-legged cousin, the DF-21D, are truck-launched missiles that can be fired from the mainland. The IJN had to disperse clots of combat power around the Mandate islands to oppose a U.S. naval advance. The PLA can essay an “access-/area-denial” strategy without bothering to occupy and defend outlying real estate—flyspecks vulnerable to being seized from their defenders, isolated, or bypassed. And PLA access deniers enjoy the concentrated magazine capacity of Fortress China, whereas Japan had to disperse resources throughout the Western and Central Pacific to mount a forward defense against Americans.
It's starting to feel like the interwar decades again—but only in some ways.
Suppose Beijing opted to risk a cross-strait invasion of Taiwan. Take it from an old naval artilleryman: amphibious operations are no simple matter even when the auguries are good. And an attack on Taiwan would be far from auspicious for PLA forces. If you transpose a map of probable landing beaches on Taiwan onto the map of the actual Allied landings in Normandy in 1944, the imagery is striking. The two amphibious zones are comparable in size, while Taiwan’s coastal terrain rivals Normandy’s as an obstacle to troops storming ashore. PLA soldiers and marines will have their work cut out for them should the Chinese Communist leadership ordain that the island be taken by force.
But the fact remains: Allied forces did plow into the teeth of Nazi defenses in June 1944, they did establish a beachhead in France, and they did break out of their coastal enclave into some open-field running by late July. The Reich fell less than a year after D-Day. The Allies deemed the costs and perils of amphibian warfare worthwhile, and they won. So the D-Day precedent—far from soothing misgivings among Taiwan and its patrons—implies that PLA troops could barge ashore within a few days or weeks, blast their way off the beaches a few weeks or months after that, and subdue the island’s guardians within a year of opening hostilities. Nor does the fact that Germany confronted a second front in the form of an ascendant Soviet Army ease such worries. The mainland coast overshadows the island—opening up countless operational vistas. Any PLA generalissimo worth the name will have incorporated a secondary assault into the overall war plan. Like the German Army will see manpower and resources siphoned to other points of impact.
In short, the political and strategic disjuncture between then and now should set Chinese hearts aglow. If the PLA can protract a future Pacific war the way the IJN did, it may well achieve its goals. If it took U.S. forces a year or more to reach the scene of combat, and if the PLA indeed met the Normandy standard for operational tempo, then Chinese force would be dug-in by the time U.S. forces got into action. Would they land on the island to dislodge PLA defenders? Doubtful. Speed, then, will be of the essence as U.S. forces try to succor Taiwan. With no leisure for the plodding, methodical, and, in relative terms, safe advance that saw the U.S. Navy through the Pacific War, today’s Seventh and Pacific fleets may have to charge into action—punching their Through Ticket to Asia. It’s a cross-Pacific dash or nothing. Advantage: China.