Thursday, July 30, 2009

Flaws in Sun Tze's thinking? The Battle of Midway 1942.

The ancient military historian, Sun Tze, is often quoted and his philosophical maxims used by many military/business leaders.

Its seems however, that perhaps they take his quotes a little too literally and apply his principles without careful and deep thought.

I'm currently reading a book about the great Battle of Midway 1942 - 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 deception???

Sometimes war is based upon a simple test of strengths. You find an objective and strike at it with all your might. Your enemy fights you for it. Simple Brutal Strength. This is called the direct method - 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 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 a seperate plan to capture the faraway Aleutian Islands way up near the North Pole.

So instead of thinking like a logical soldier he devised a ballet plan. Very pretty but very complicated.

Now if he had sent his entire force of aircraft carriers to capture the objective. He would have succeeded totally. One force could have smashed the Island's defences. The other could be held in reserve to defend the fleet and attack any lurking enemy ships. He may even had the numbers to use one carrier for pure scouting duties.

However he didn't. He wanted to be clever and employed deceptive tactics. He also left behind one of his key ships because he felt it needed some rest. The attacking Japanese carriers also carried about 70% of their air crew strength. Total Four carriers.

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

But Knowledge however is one thing. Action is another.

The US Navy was in a pretty bad shape. One of its carriers had been badly damaged in an earlier battle. However it repaired it almost overnight in time for the battle. The US also packed the small island with every fighter plane it could send.

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 small remote island of Wake resulted in tremendous casualties for the Japanese.

Midway Island, however, was closer to the American main bases and by that time, could have been expected to be strongly defended.

Worse, the Japanese didn't bother with a careful search plan. Reconaissance isn't a very heroic job for 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 - "Few Battle Plan usually work or the enemy may not be expected to follow your orders."

In fact this scenario came out during the prepratory wargames. However the Japanese commanders chose to restart the game like noob gamers. I wonder whether Sun Tze encountered this sort of problem? "If the plan doesn't work, you better learn to improvise."

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 the Japanese fleet of its 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 prepared to fully ready to attack an enemy carrier force.

The solution really should have been to break off the attack and head away from the area - capitalizing on the fact that US planes had a shorter range liability. Meanwhile, the Japanese should 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 - in force!!! So he moved closer to 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.

To make matters worse, he decided to wait until all his planes which had attacked Midway had returned back before attacking the new threat with a full force.

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.

Anyways, by the time the Japanese fleet had recovered the 1st group of planes sent to attack Midway, and were preparing to launch the force to attack the enemy carriers - a couple of US divebombers appeared and bombed the Japanese carriers.

It was serious but it shouldn't have been fatal. Unfortunately, the Japanese carriers were full of planes loaded up with bombs, aviation fuel. Result - Kaboom!!!!

The main Japanese carrier, the Akagi, received just one bomb hit. But that bomb blew up all the Japanese bombers waiting in the hangers. Everything went off with a bang.

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

Worse, 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.

Perhaps that's the another adage Sun Tze didn't teach - "Those who don't learn from history are condemned to repeat it."

or "Good warriors own up to their mistakes."

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