hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Could Pearl Harbor Happen Again?

“Tora, Tora, Tora”
Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, Mission Commander, Air Component, Imperial Japanese Navy,  Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941 to signal achievement of complete surprise two minutes before commencement of attack on US Pacific Fleet.

Alphen, Netherlands. 7 December. Could Pearl Harbor happen again? Seventy-five years ago today, at 0605 hours Central Pacific Time, Vice-Admiral Chuichi Nagumo hoisted the signal “Climb Mount Niitaka” aboard his fleet flagship the aircraft-carrier Akagi.  Five minutes later the first of 353 fighters, dive-bombers and torpedo-bombers of the Imperial Japanese Navy rose from the decks of six Japanese fleet ‘carriers’ some 136 nautical miles NNE of Pearl Harbor. Three hours later four US battleships of the US Pacific Fleet lay sunk, together with a host of cruisers and other warships as the last Japanese warplanes headed back to their fleet leaving 2403 Americans dead, 1778 wounded, and having also destroyed 188 US aircraft.  

To answer the question at hand one has to compare the current relationship between Western policy, strategy and military capability with that of the US in 1941. The key policy decision that led the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor was the July 1941 decision by the US, Britain and the Netherlands (government-in-exile) to impose a complete oil embargo on Japan as Tokyo moved to seize the vital oil and rubber resources in the Dutch East Indies. Washington had been moving towards such a decision ever since the Japanese had launched a policy of expansionism in East Asia during the 1930s.  

Whilst President Roosevelt was fully aware that war with Japan was a possible eventuality there was little or no relationship at the time between US policy and strategy.  Worse, there was absolutely no relationship between US policy, strategy, and military capability. Even whilst the ‘appeasing’ British rearmed in the 1930s US forces remained stuck in a post-World War One time-warp. This was particularly the case for the US Navy. Whilst the Americans possessed three fleet aircraft-carriers at the time the ‘van’ of the fighting fleet was comprised of ageing World War One battleships. These ships also formed the backbone of the US Pacific Fleet. US military air and land power was also markedly inferior at the time of Pearl Harbor to its German, Japanese and British counterparts.

Fast forward to today and there is a growing gap between Western policy, strategy, and military capability, on the one hand, and strategic reality, on the other, as the balance of power shifts away from the West. As in the days prior to Pearl Harbor too many Western leaders believe the West’s illiberal adversaries will somehow heed calls to respect toothless international law and weak and weakly-applied Western economic sanctions – covenants without the sword as Thomas Hobbes would once have called them. In other words a ‘Pearl Harbor syndrome’ again stalks the corridors of Western political impotence.

A ‘Pearl Harbor’ today would of course take a very different form from the carrier-strike of 1941, although a surprise military attack on NATO forces cannot and must not be ruled out. More likely is that such an attack would take place in conjunction with a wave of mass destruction terrorism, information warfare, and some attempt at cyber-Armageddon. After all, the use of carrier air power in 1941 was simply a surprising means to a shocking end with the aim of effectively knock the US out of a war Imperial Japan saw as inevitable. Tokyo hoped at the time that such a strike would enable Japan to gain a decisive advantage that would enable her to successfully fight a war with an intrinsically far stronger America.

In the event of a new ‘Pearl Harbor’ the West would be forced into a long war to prevail as it was in 1941. Equally, as in 1941, once the Western democracies began to mobilise the immense and intelligent resources available to them they would likely eventually prevail. The problem is that the application of such Western liberal rationalism is not normally what prevents illiberal regimes from acting. Moreover, the cost of failed deterrence would be enormous be it in terms of lives, geld, and political credibility. There is another problem; an eventual victory could not be guaranteed. Therefore, for the sake of re-establishing credible deterrence what matters now is that unlike in 1941 Western policy, strategy and military capability must again be aligned.

In the event the Japanese failed at Pearl Harbor because they also failed militarily and strategically. They failed strategically because they did no damage to the US homeland, which became the ‘great arsenal of democracy’ as American industrial capacity was rapidly transformed into military might as American genius was applied to the war. They failed militarily because the Imperial Japanese Navy failed to locate and sink Admiral William (Bill) Halsey’s aircraft carriers which were fortuitously not present at Pearl Harbor.

The absence of the carriers on that fateful day was both indicative and decisive. First, Admiral Halsey agreed with Admiral Yamamoto, the Japanese fleet commander, that in the vast expanse of the Pacific aircraft carriers not slow battleships were the decisive power-projecting naval weapon of the age. Whilst in the wake of Pearl Harbor Yamamoto lost the carrier v. battleship battle in the ultra-conservative Tokyo of the time, US carrier air power was to prove vital in the later conduct of the war. Second, one of the carriers absent from Pearl Harbor, the USS Enterprise, was to play a vital role in the decisive American victory at the Battle of Midway six months later which took place between 4 and 7 June 1942. The Japanese lost four carriers at Midway, whilst the US lost only one, a defeat which decisively tipped the balance of naval power in the Pacific in America’s favour and opened the way to the brilliant island-hopping strategy with which America won the war in the Pacific.    
The irony is that the Japanese had been inspired to carry out Operation AI by Operation Judgement, the Royal Navy’s 11-12 November 1940 attack against the Italian fleet base at Taranto. At Taranto 21 Swordfish bombers and torpedo-bombers, under the command of Lt Cdr M. W. Williamson RN, 815 Squadron Fleet Air Arm, sank one Italian battleship and badly-damaged two others.  

There is one final irony. Today, the last operational British aircraft-carrier HMS Illustrious will be towed from Portsmouth en route to Turkey and scrapping. In five months the first of the two new Queen Elizabeth-class super-carriers will arrive in Portsmouth to begin sea trials. It was a forebear of the soon-to-be no more ‘Lusty’ that launched the attack on Taranto that so inspired the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor.

Could Pearl Harbor happen again? Yes, if Western leaders fail to properly align policy, strategy and military capability and in so doing render deterrence no longer credible. Indeed, such an attack would be the preferred 'weapon' of choice of an enemy.

In memory of the servicemen of both the United States and Imperial Japan who lost their lives serving their countries on 7 December, 1941.

Julian Lindley-French  

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