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.
The conventional interpretations of the Pacific War generally holds that U.S. victory was inevitable given the gap in industrial production between Japan and the U.S. Nevertheless, this Chinese author argues that Tokyo did have a “机会窗口” [window of opportunity] during 1942. According to this reasoning, American air and ship escort capabilities were very weak at the outset of the war. To that weakness, add the immutable laws of geography. The Chinese strategist posits that transport time across the Pacific was 2.5 times that needed to cross the Atlantic. On this point, the author concludes that each supply ship sunk in the Pacific would have been equivalent to three ships sunk in the Atlantic. The author additionally posits that the U.S. was extremely reliant on a very few large ports because of “港口设施不足” [inadequate port facilities] on the American West Coast. The Panama Canal is also identified as an obvious target for interdicting supplies that were coming from the East Coast. Moreover, the destinations for these supplies (Hawaii, Australia, etc.) were also readily identifiable, suggesting again the ease of a purposeful interdiction campaign. A logistical issue that is not taken up in the Chinese article concerns the fact that Japan did lack for advanced bases to refuel and rearm subs that would hypothetically operate in the eastern Pacific. Such advanced bases did prove important for the very successful U.S. submarine campaign against Japan. Still, in a recommendation with possible echoes for current strategic dilemmas, the Chinese analysts conclude that Japan should have flooded the sea with submarines during 1942 in “珍珠刚和美国西海岸地区” [the area between Pearl Harbor and the American West Coast]. To reinforce the point, they assert that Germany sank an enormous number of ships off the American East Coast during 1942 while never deploying more than five U-boats to the campaign.
Could similar thinking impact Chinese submarine strategy in a hypothetical naval conflict between China and the United States? To be clear, the article discussed in this piece was not written directly by the Chinese Navy, but rather by a research and publication arm of the giant naval shipbuilding company, CSIC. Moreover, the Chinese author did not explicitly connect Japan’s submarine strategy errors to China’s contemporary submarine strategy. Still, a plausible linkage can be inferred given that the major purpose of the publication Modern Ships is obviously the enhancement of China’s naval capabilities.
The possibility that China’s submarine force would adopt a focused strategy of “破交” [attacking transport nodes] cannot be ruled out. Several months ago, the U.S. Navy Office of Naval Intelligence produced a fine summary of the PLA Navy’s “new capabilities and missions.” A prominent graphic “Figure 1-1” on the second page of this report seeks to illustrate “China’s Defensive Layers” and suggests that Chinese submarines will operate within three defensive zones, reaching no further than 1,000 nautical miles distant from China’s coast, but still in the western Pacific. Are we to infer that Chinese submarines will not attempt more ambitious missions further afield – perhaps even approaching sea areas proximate to the American homeland during wartime? That’s a long way to go for a diesel submarine, of course, particularly in the era of modern ASW and without an ability to refuel at forward bases. But the ocean is large, key ASW platforms (e.g. P-8s) may themselves be suppressed as part of a campaign and submarine sensors, communications, and weaponry are also vastly improved. China may ultimately opt for more nuclear submarines precisely to enhance the reach of these nascent power projection tools. For my part, I will not be surprised to see the first Chinese submarine show itself in the Atlantic during the coming decade. The trend toward more long distance PLAN submarine operations is already quite apparent. Such an outcome seems especially likely if US-China relations continue on their current trajectory toward practically unrestrained rivalry.
Lyle J. Goldstein is Associate Professor in the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RI. 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.
Editor’s Note: The following is a part of a new occasional series called Dragon Eye, which seeks insight and analysis from Chinese writings on world affairs. You can find all back articles in the series here.