Forget the Movie: China Is Studying the Battle of Midway
China hopes to get right what Imperial Japan got wrong.
Key point: Aircraft carriers will be critical to any future naval war.
China’s aircraft carrier program is maturing. The first photos have now emerged that show Liaoning operating with a decent clutch of J-15 fighters, as well as helicopters on deck. The aircraft are now painted in telltale battle gray, rather than the yellow used with the initial prototype aircraft. It is difficult to tell for sure, but one may assume that the testing and training regimen has been intense. True enough, the Liaoning was bought from Ukraine and it is, unlike American “big decks,” conventionally powered rather than relying on nuclear power. It also has a ski-jump bow to assist with take-off rather than catapults, which are one of the most critical technologies for efficient carrier operations since they allow aircraft to extend their range with increased weapons payloads.
On the other hand, the J-15 (a knockoff of a Russian design) appears to be a rather formidable fighter and attack aircraft. Additionally, nuclear-powered carriers are still encumbered by logistics: high-tempo aircraft operations—not to mention the battle group escorts—still require enormous amounts of fuel. The convincing for the argument that the PLA Navy aspires to go beyond a modest flirtation with the aircraft carrier concept is the news that construction of Beijing’s second carrier is now well underway.
For the last five years, the Chinese naval press has produced reams of analysis on carrier operations. One example of this is the detailed reports examining U.S. Navy accidents related to flying off carriers. There is no substitute for experience, of course, but it should be recalled that the U.S. Navy has not employed aircraft carriers in combat against another significant naval force since World War Two.
On the 74th anniversary of the greatest of all carrier battles, Midway, this edition of Dragon Eye will peruse some recent Chinese writings concerning the epic battle that turned the tide in the Pacific War during June 4th and 5th 1942. One such article was published by a researcher of the Academy of Military Sciences (军事科学院) in Beijing in the prestigious Chinese military journal Military History (军事历史). Although not comprehensive, the article does draw on both American and Japanese sources, and could offer some insights into evolving Chinese thinking about aircraft carrier doctrine in contemporary and future naval warfare. Not surprisingly, the analysis establishes at the outset the decisive role of U.S. codebreakers in revealing “all the planning details of the Japanese combined fleet” (日军联合舰队的所有计划细节). Similarly, the United States were also believed to have had superior battlefield surveillance efficiency. However, intelligence failures are not the central thrust of the essay that focuses more on military leadership culture and, in particular, the perverse role of “battleship-ism” (大炮巨舰主义) within the Japanese naval leadership. Japanese admirals are criticized here for their attachment to “traditional methods” in the manner they organized their forces prior to the Midway battle. Thus, it is explained that the “designated main force of battleships” (称为主队的战列舰部队) was placed behind the carrier force, so that after the initial contact, the battleship force could “then enter the fray to launch the decisive blow” (再投入主队展开决战). But that approach, according to this PLA analysis, left the large Japanese aircraft carrier force substantially exposed to American attack. Moreover, it is noted that the four Japanese aircraft carriers were protected by a dedicated force of two battleships, three cruisers and twelve destroyers, but such a force “certainly could not provide an effective screen for four aircraft carriers” against air and submarine attack from multiple vectors.
Other factors in the Japanese defeat at Midway identified by this Chinese military analyst include the ineffective employment of the Japanese submarine force. Here it is noted that out of a total force of twenty-one boats, just one single Japanese submarine was deployed proximate to Midway Island during the campaign. Another mistake pointed out in this piece is that the Japanese carrier strike force had two contradictory missions at Midway, both supporting the invasion of the island and also destroying the U.S. Navy forces in the area, so that at a critical juncture, the Japanese Navy was “chasing two rabbits at the same time” (同时追两只兔子). Finally, a variety of specific command decisions are also criticized. Thus Admiral Nagumo, Commander of the Japanese carrier strike group, is faulted for not sending out enough scout planes and especially for conducting simultaneous sorties from all four decks. To the latter point, it is explained that if Nagumo had timed his strike waves (keeping two decks in reserve) more prudently, than the disaster would not have befallen the Japanese fleet.
Another Chinese naval analysis is also worth consulting regarding the Midway battle. This piece, part of a series that examined all aspects of Japanese naval strategy in the Pacific War, appeared in 2015 in the magazine 现代舰船 (Modern Ships), published by the giant Chinese warship building conglomerate CSIC. An earlier Dragon Eye took a close look at Chinese thinking about Japanese submarine strategy from this same series of articles. One of these papers focuses on Tokyo’s strategic options during the crucial period of 1942 to 1943. While not much detail is offered regarding the Midway Battle itself, the analysis notes that it was the uncomfortable shock that followed the Doolittle Raid (杜利特空袭) that prompted the Japanese to undertake the “high risk” battle for Midway. Indeed, it is noted that Midway was well outside the range of Japanese land-based airpower and that the island had little strategic significance. A major theme of this assessment is that a significant cause of Japan’s defeat was its inability (after Midway) to supply sufficient numbers of well-trained pilots in the context of severe attrition on both sides. In the end, the conclusion is that Japan might have succeeded in bringing about a negotiated settlement with the US if only it had more cautiously sought out battles that were advantageous in time and space to the Japanese Navy. In such circumstances, it could have “caused the Americans to bleed heavily.” (使美军大出血)
On this solemn anniversary of the Midway Battle, Americans must first and foremost remember the extraordinary heroes of those dark days. On June 4th 1942, several entire squadrons of intrepid US Navy pilots were sacrificed. For example, every single one of the fifteen aircraft from Torpedo-8 flying off of USS Hornet was lost in the battle—cruelly yielding up just one lone survivor from the original 30 aviators. The discussion above may offer some limited insights into the contours of China’s future employment of aircraft carriers. However, US leaders surveying numerous flashpoints across the Asia-Pacific would do well to reflect on this solemn anniversary regarding the terrible sacrifices made at Midway so many years ago. Our leaders must eschew the shallow jingoism that is so prevalent in our political discourse and seek energetically to resolve differences among the great powers through creative diplomacy.
Lyle J. Goldstein is Associate Professor in the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. The opinions expressed in this analysis are his own and do not represent the official assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other agency of the U.S. Government. This article originally appeared in 2016 and is being republished due to reader interest.