Thursday, July 30, 2009

Flaws in Sun Tze's Art of War? Example The Battle of Midway 1942.

The ancient military historian, Sun Tze, is often quoted and his philosophical maxims used by many military/business leaders. He attempted to boil down military strategy and tactics to philosophical maxims like:

"Know yourself. Know your Enemy. A thousand Battles! A thousand victories!"

Its seems however, that perhaps his quotes are taken too literally and applied without careful and deep thought.

On another level, there's probably a serious problem in trying to boil down something complex like warfare into a few pat maxims. And it becomes silly if you make them absolutes. Like this one:

"All warfare is based on deception"
Sun Tze

I'm currently reading a book about the great Battle of Midway 1942 - SHATTERED SWORD (a beautifully well written and researched history book by the way) where the Japanese Navy suffered a disastrous defeat at the hands of the American forces. The writer points out that Admiral Yamamoto, the Japanese commander in charge, applied Sun Tze's principles:

18. All warfare is based on deception.
19. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.
20. Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.

I disagree with that universal maxim. Not all warfare is based upon deception. And what happens if the enemy sees through your crafty plans???

Sometimes war is based upon a simple test of strengths. You find an objective and strive to capture it with all your might. Your enemy fights you for it. Simple Brutal Strength. This is called the direct method - Clausewitz's way - the (old) Western way of war.

It may surprise many people but in May 1942 the Japanese Navy was actually stronger than the US forces. It had more carriers, more battleships, better cruisers/destroyers, superior fighter planes, and better trained sailors and airmen.

Everyone knew this.

However Yamamoto felt he should lure the US Navy into attacking him so that he could destroy them in one big battle.

But to do this - he designed a complicated battle plan with his forces spread widely over the huge Pacific ocean. His main objective was the capture of Midway Island. But there was also an independent separate plan to capture the faraway Aleutian Islands way up off Alaska. It wasn't a feint btw.

After capturing the Midway Islands he assumed the Americans would advance and get caught in a mighty pincer movement before being destroyed by the battleship fleet held in reserve. Wow.

So instead of a war plan - we get the Nutcracker ballet concert. Very pretty but very complicated. And what happens when the diva has a hissing fit?

The ill conceived plan was based on the assumption the enemy would be deceived and follow their part in Yamamoto's script.

He should have been more cautious. In an earlier battle, the Battle of Coral Sea, US carriers appeared out of nowhere and attacked the Japanese fleet as it advanced to capture Port Morseby. They destroyed one small carrier and in effect disabled the two main fleet carriers. USN aviators were also pretty good - shooting down a huge number of Japanese planes+ killing their invaluable veteran aircrew. A bad sign but no one seemed to care.

Now if Yamamoto had sent his entire force of aircraft carriers to capture the objective. He would have succeeded totally. One force (Kaga, Junyo, Ryujo) could have smashed the Island's defences. The other (Akagi, Soryu, Hiryu, and the Zuikaku) could be held back in reserve to defend the fleet and attack any lurking enemy ships. He would even have had the luxury of using two small carriers (the Zuiho and Hosho) for purely scouting duties. For good measure he could also have brought his battleships, including the Yamato, placing them at the vanguard to provide AA support and to divert the attention of US bombers away from the vulnerable carriers.

However he wanted to be Sun Tze. Deceive the enemy. Defeat him.

18. All warfare is based on deception.
19. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.
20. Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.

And he was confident his plan would work - so confident that he left behind one of his key carriers because he felt it needed some rest. The attacking Japanese carriers also carried about 70% of their air crew strength. Four carriers out of 11. Enough to defeat the forces of one small puny enemy island.

Unfortunately for Yamamoto, the USN had broken Japanese navy codes and knew about his plan.

Knowledge however is one thing; action is another.

The Americans had 6 carriers but 3 were too far away to take part in the battle. And one was badly damaged.

The US Navy was in a pretty bad shape. It only had 6 carriers. Three were too far away to help. That left only 3 carriers and one was the Yorktown which had been badly damaged in an earlier battle. However it was repaired almost overnight in time for the battle. The US also packed Midway island with every fighter/bomber plane it could send; so in effect, they had a defacto unsinkable carrier.

When the Japanese Navy attacked the island - it found its defenses were extremely strong. But that should not have surprised them. An earlier attack on the smaller remote island of Wake resulted in tremendous casualties for the Japanese.

Midway Island, however, was much closer to the American main bases and six months into the war, could have been expected to be strongly defended.

Worse, the Japanese didn't bother with a careful search plan. Reconnaissance is boring work not fit for heroic samurai warriors. They relied on a few scout and float planes - one of them even flew over the American ambush forces and missed it.

So the Japanese attacked the island but found it strongly defended. Meanwhile the ambushing US carriers launched their own attack force.

The Japanese foolishly thought the plan would go according to script.
1. Deceive the enemy.
2. Then defeat him.

But what if Point 1 failed? The Japanese had no idea and still stuck with the rigid plan.

I wonder whether Sun Tze ever taught - "Do not expect enemy to follow your plan." ?

In fact, this scenario came out during the Japanese Naval preparatory wargames and half their fleet got sunk. However Yamamoto chose to restart the game like a noob gamer until he got the result he wanted.

Luckily for the Japanese, one of their search planes (on the Tone cruiser) was delayed and by the time it flew off it found the US carriers in its search sector. It dutifully advised of its unpleasant find.

But by now the Japanese attacking fleet was caught in a dilemma - it was trying to destroy the American forces on the Island and wasn't fully prepared to attack an enemy carrier force.

The solution really should have been to break off the attack and retreat west, away from the Americans. This would have made it harder for enemy to catch them, taking into account that US planes had a shorter range. Meanwhile, the Japanese could have launched every available plane to attack the lurking American carrier force.

Instead, the Japanese commander still stuck to the plan and doctrine. Destroy the enemy with all your men!!! So he moved closer towards the direction of the enemy carriers. In doing so he needlessly exposed himself to the twin dangers of being attacked on two sides - from the island and from the enemy ships. Being fearless warriors should not have made them stupid.

The plan of deception had failed 100%. But the Japanese admiral still foolishly stuck rigidly to it.

To make matters worse, he decided to wait until all his planes which had attacked Midway had returned back so that he could launch a full scale attack which had a high chance of sinking the enemy fleet. In an ideal situation, thats well and good. But right now???

Here's an adage Sun Tze might not have taught - Good is the enemy of best.

Sometimes you need to go with what you have. An ideal solution might not be the most appropriate one at the time.

Another lesson Sun Tze probably didn't teach... situational awareness. The authors of Shattered Sword also pointed out the Japanese's were so obsessed about achieving their immediate objectives, ie. (1) eliminating Midway's defenses, (2) sinking the surprise enemy carriers with all their planes, etc.. that they failed to take into account the changing situation.

Its also called Big Picture Thinking. Being aware of the larger issues and not narrowly focused on the short term objectives.

That's the same reason why Asian waters are devoid of fish stocks - they allowed their fishermen to catch all the fish they wanted - and then some more. No concern for the future. Its all about short term profits. What happened? Their seas are totally fished out. Result: no fish=no industry. Stupid conclusion: Blame Global Warming.

Anyways, by the time the Japanese fleet had recovered its Midway attacking planes, and were preparing to attack the enemy carriers - a couple of US divebombers appeared and bombed them.

The Japanese carriers were seriously damaged but it shouldn't have been a fatal blow. However, their hangers were packed full of planes loaded up with bombs and aviation gas. Result - Kaboom!!!!

The Japanese flagship, the Akagi, received just one bomb hit. But that bomb blew up all the armed and fully fuelled bomber squadrons waiting in the hangers. KA-BLAHHH BOOMMMM!!!!!!!!!

In the end, the Japanese lost all its attacking carriers against Midway. The USN lost just one carrier. Most of the Americans, importantly the captain and admiral saved themselves to fight another day. The Japanese captains, on the other hand, chose to go down with their ships - and their navy suffered the twin blow of losing highly trained officers and personnel whose experience had been learnt over decades. Like big warships, you can't produce veteran warriors like that overnight. I suspect Sun Tze didn't teach that either.

To illustrate the futility of oriental thinking, the Japanese chose to save face and hush up the disaster. The survivors were scattered away. Japanese news reported a great victory. Even the Japanese Army did not learn of it until a year later and was actually happy about it as their rival got shamed.

Perhaps that's the another adage Sun Tze didn't teach - "It is a greater shame to not learn from your mistakes than it is to make them."

I'm not saying that Sun Tze's ideas are obsolete. No. But I believe he placed too much emphasis on the need for subtlety. Warfare is not all about deception. Sometimes you can use judo to win. Sometimes you need a Mike Tyson to punch the enemy out.

Adherents to Sun Tze would probably point out that the Americans won because of their adherence to point 4 of Sun Tze's teachings:

4. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.


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