A Signature Naval Battle

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Today marks the 66 anniversary of the battle of Midway Island, a key engagement that, if it had gone the other way, would have potentially crippled the U.S. naval capability for good. I know you guys are more into looking at the future of defense, but sometimes I think it's good to step back and remember how we got where we are.

From the Navy history center:

The Battle of Midway, fought over and near the tiny U.S. mid-Pacific base at Midway atoll, represents the strategic high water mark of Japan's Pacific Ocean war. Prior to this action, Japan possessed general naval superiority over the United States and could usually choose where and when to attack. After Midway, the two opposing fleets were essentially equals, and the United States soon took the offensive.

Japanese Combined Fleet commander Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto moved on Midway in an effort to draw out and destroy the U.S. Pacific Fleet's aircraft carrier striking forces, which had embarrassed the Japanese Navy in the mid-April Doolittle Raid on Japan's home islands and at the Battle of Coral Sea in early May. He planned to quickly knock down Midway's defenses, follow up with an invasion of the atoll's two small islands and establish a Japanese air base there. He expected the U.S. carriers to come out and fight, but to arrive too late to save Midway and in insufficient strength to avoid defeat by his own well-tested carrier air power.

Yamamoto's intended surprise was thwarted by superior American communications intelligence, which deduced his scheme well before battle was joined. This allowed Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, the U.S. Pacific Fleet commander, to establish an ambush by having his carriers ready and waiting for the Japanese. On 4 June 1942, in the second of the Pacific War's great carrier battles, the trap was sprung. The perseverance, sacrifice and skill of U.S. Navy aviators, plus a great deal of good luck on the American side, cost Japan four irreplaceable fleet carriers, while only one of the three U.S. carriers present was lost. The base at Midway, though damaged by Japanese air attack, remained operational and later became a vital component in the American trans-Pacific offensive.

This brings up an excellent point, though. My good friend Bob Dudney, the editor of Air Force magazine, recently wrote an editorial cautioning against Gates' rhetorical punch at the services' obsession with future technological developments -- or "next war-itis" as he put it.

Are Pentagon leaders really serious about this? Is Gates himself serious about it? He has embraced a stylized image of a future world landscape dominated by shadowy, lightly armed enemies sallying forth from remote redoubts and engaging in nonstop urban warfare. In case Mr. Gates has forgotten, it was not that long ago that the US had to use main conventional forcesprincipally air forcesto win the 1991 Gulf War. More recently, high-end forces were needed to fight in Bosnia, Serbia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. None of these operations would have been possible without advanced, front-line weapons.

Gates wants to cure the services of "next-war-itis," but he would only weaken the patients.

Neither Gates nor anyone else can safely predict the likelihood of major conventional war. Surely the Pentagon leader is aware of the huge buildup of fighters, warships, and other modern arms in China and Russia, as well as regional threats posed by the likes of North Korea and Iran. If it is true that the eruption of a major clash of conventional arms is not likely, it is because US air, sea, and land forces are strong enough to deter any aggressive moves. That is hardly a reason for turning away to deal with lesser problems.

While I see Gates' point, I also think it's important to hedge against future "full spectrum" threats. You can easily modify training to accommodate new battlefield problems, but developing and fielding equipment -- something as big as a fighter jet or an aircraft carrier -- for such an unseen eventuality could prove fatal.

So take some time today to consider how things could have been if the battle of Midway had gone the other way, and how differently that desperate time might have unfolded had the U.S. truly prepared itself for resurgent powers with full-spectrum threats in the interwar years.

(Thanks to NC for the Dudney gouge)

-- Christian

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