Pacific Carrier War

In Military History, Featured



On the blog today, author Mark Stille, discusses the Japanese and US' tactics and strategies durng the war in the Pacific. 

The Pacific War is often viewed as a carrier war. The popular vision of the war is that of wide-ranging carrier task groups conducting sweeping attacks with all other naval components playing supporting roles. This may have been the case during the last half of the war as the United States Navy (USN) advanced on Japan, but for the first part of the war Japanese and American carriers lacked the power and logistical support to generate strategic effects. As envisioned by Admiral Yamamoto Isoruku, the opening strike on Pearl Harbor by the Imperial Japanese Navy’s (IJN) carrier striking force (the Kido Butai) with its six fleet carriers was to be a decisive operation with strategic implications.  Instead of giving Japan strategic leverage over the United States, the Pearl Harbor attack was an undeniable strategic disaster for Japan.

 The Kido Butai was also not the only reason for Japan’s initial wartime successes. Land-based air power spearheaded the Japanese advance in Southeast Asia. When Japanese carriers faced American carriers in the Coral Sea and at Midway, they were checked and then defeated for the first time. At Midway, the Kido Butai spearheaded a strategic operation; due to Yamamoto’s blundering, it fought unsupported and was defeated. In the second half of 1942, the Kido Butai fought the USN’s carrier force to a standstill in two carrier battles but proved unable to stop the American advance. This was a turning point since the Japanese carrier force (including its pool of experienced aviators) was gutted in the process and was not committed again until mid-1944.

 A strong carrier force was a vital component to Japan’s defensive strategy in 1944. But by the time the IJN was forced on the strategic defensive, the power of its carrier force had waned to the point where it was unable to support Japanese island garrisons under attack. Despite two more attempts to fight a decisive battle at the battles of Philippine Sea and Leyte Gulf, the IJN’s carrier force was unable to exert any real influence over the outcome of either encounter. It was wholly impotent for the last nine months of the war.

 The USN adopted the carrier as centerpiece of the fleet much earlier than the IJN. Since the USN spent the majority of the war on the offensive, it was imperative that it master carrier operations and warfare and develop the Fast Carrier Task Force into a true power-projection weapon. The Americans were able to do this by combining an unparalleled level of production in ships and aircraft with technology that vastly improved fleet air defenses, making the carrier force more survivable. All this was supported by an impressive commitment to fleet logistics that made the carrier force capable of sustained power projection. This combination simply overwhelmed the IJN.

 After stopping the Japanese advance in 1942, American carriers made irrelevant the Japanese concept of forming a defensive cordon and forcing the Americans to mount costly attacks against it. The USN massed carriers and sea power at selected key locations and then isolated and overwhelmed the Japanese defenders. The only hope for the Japanese of reversing the tide was by using their carrier fleet to relieve their besieged garrisons. By this time the IJN’s carriers were outmatched numerically and technologically.

 The true power of the USN’s Fast Carrier Task Force was displayed during the last year of the war. After smashing the Japanese fleet at Leyte Gulf, the American carriers overcame another deadly threat in the form of suicide aircraft. The ability of the Fast Carrier Task Force to endure the kamikaze threat, allowed it to mount a crippling blockade of Japan and made it a war-winning strategic weapon.

 A close examination of the carrier battles indicates the Japanese excelled at the tactical aspects of carrier warfare. These strengths resulted in excellent reconnaissance operations (with the salient exception of Midway), consistent strike coordination, and coordinated strike tactics with a powerful torpedo bomber that provided a consistent ship-killing capability. While excellent at offensive operations, defensively the IJN’s carrier force exhibited poor fleet air defense capabilities, resulting from ineffective CAP tactics and weak antiaircraft defenses. Both the strengths and weaknesses of the IJN’s carrier force reflected the priorities of the IJN in general.

 The Americans excelled at the operational and strategic aspects of carrier warfare. Fleet air defense was also a strength, primarily because of the fragility of Japanese strike aircraft and the Americans’ ability to develop and rapidly deploy improved technology. Offensively, the USN’s carrier force displayed an inability to coordinate strikes driven by single air group tactics and communications problems, and ineffective torpedo bombers and/or torpedoes that created a reliance on dive-bombers for offensive punch.

 Scouting was an important priority for both sides and both usually devoted considerable resources to it. However, gathering information from scouting aircraft is only a step in the intelligence cycle. Analyzing the information and successfully communicating it to decision-makers is key. At Coral Sea, the Japanese failed to take advantage of invaluable scouting information on May 6 and were prevented from taking advantage of even better scouting information the next day through an incredible sequence of communications problems that prevented them from springing a trap on the unsuspecting Rear Admiral Frank Fletcher. The battle could easily have been a Japanese version of Midway, with the Japanese playing the role of ambusher due to the incomplete intelligence provided to Fletcher. Coral Sea was the first carrier battle, so it was marked by information gathering and dissemination errors on both sides.

 Midway was the only carrier battle in which an ambush was successfully executed. This was primarily due to Japanese arrogance and overconfidence, which led to a fatal lack of emphasis on reconnaissance. Had the Kido Butai taken scouting more seriously, it would have negated the American edge in strategic intelligence and may have created a battle in which Nimitz’s carriers were destroyed. Without doubt, Midway is the most famous naval battle of the Pacific War. In spite of its heavy losses there, the Kido Butai was rebuilt and went on to fight two more battles in 1942, including its only victory over the American carrier force.

 The Guadalcanal campaign included two of the five carrier battles of the Pacific War. These two clashes, the battle of the Eastern Solomons and the battle of Santa Cruz, are somewhat overlooked compared to Coral Sea and Midway, but they helped determine which side would dominate the waters around Guadalcanal and were important steps in the neutralization of the Imperial Navy’s carrier force. Nagumo retained command of the carriers for both battles and was overly cautious on both occasions. The battle of the Eastern Solomons was the most tentative of any of the carrier battles and was therefore the most indecisive.

 Santa Cruz is perhaps the most interesting of any of the carrier battles. The trends discussed above were clearly evinced and reached their zenith at this battle. The Japanese took the lessons from Midway and applied them well. A critical mistake at Midway was their inattention to scouting. Japanese searches were effective at Santa Cruz with the Americans admitting that the performance of Japanese scout aircraft was superior to their own. Japanese CAP tactics were refined with fighters positioned at various altitudes. Even so, it is important to note that the Japanese CAP was unable to seriously disrupt an American strike group that found the Japanese carriers. The effectiveness of Japanese antiaircraft fire was marginal, so the best protection from air attack remained adept evasive maneuvering. Greater attention to damage control and improved damage control procedures were evident and these saved Shokaku from destruction. The Japanese tactic of using the Vanguard Force as an advanced screen for the carriers also proved successful and was noted in favorable terms by American after-action reports. In the next carrier battle, the Americans used the same tactic but with greater effectiveness.

 The American carrier force took a beating at Santa Cruz and barely escaped total destruction. The most controversial decision of the battle was Vice Admiral William Halsey’s failure to cancel his orders for his carrier force under Rear Admiral Thomas Kinkaid to move north of the Santa Cruz Islands. Halsey’s plan called for the sweep north of the Santa Cruz Islands only in the absence of enemy carriers. Even after it was obvious that Nagumo’s carriers were in the area, Halsey let the operation proceed. Though he clearly underestimated the degree of risk, Halsey was guilty of sending his only two carriers beyond the range of effective support from land-based aircraft to fight a Japanese carrier force twice as large. 

 At the tactical level, Santa Cruz was the worst performance by an American carrier force during the war. There were several reasons for this, including flawed doctrine, persistent communications problems, the poor level of training of Enterprise’s new air group, and a series of questionable decisions by Kinkaid. The American inability to coordinate air strikes was on full display, with the result being a series of piecemeal attacks mostly against secondary targets. Most damning was the fact that only ten of 75 strike aircraft attacked a Japanese carrier. Defensively, the Americans performed better but there were still problems. The performance of TF 61’s FDO was considered ineffective from Halsey on down. A major factor in this regard was inadequate warning due to radar problems on the carriers. After-action reports indicated that instead of intercepts taking place at the desired 20nm from the carriers, they were occurring only a few miles away, which gave the Wildcats insufficient time to destroy approaching Japanese formations. Santa Cruz was the last time in the war that Japanese carrier aviators caused serious damage to an American carrier task force.

 In the final carrier battle of the war, the IJN suffered a decisive defeat at the battle of the Philippine Sea. Of the nine Japanese carriers present, three were sunk, and two more were damaged. Of the 400 Japanese carrier aircraft available at the start of the battle, only 35 remained on June 21. The IJN’s quest for a decisive battle was again defeated. The failure of the decisive naval battle led to the fall of Saipan and was followed by the invasion of the remainder of the Marianas. This constituted a clear turning point for Japan as the horrors of war would soon be visited on the Home Islands in the form of B-29 raids.

 Of all the carrier battles, the outcome of the battle of the Philippine Sea was the most predictable. Even though the IJN carrier commander maneuvered his force successfully, his massive first strike did not provide victory as it had in 1942. Confident in his ability to defeat a Japanese first strike, Admiral Raymond Spruance fought a defensive battle. While that was a recipe for disaster in 1942, by 1944 the combination of poor Japanese aircrew training and American radar-directed fighter intercepts made even a large Japanese strike ineffective. It should be noted that the air battle of June 19 still gave the Japanese opportunities to strike blows. Several small groups of Japanese aircraft broke through the CAP to deliver attacks on American carriers. Had their skills been better, particularly in delivering torpedo attacks that had been deadly to USN carriers in 1942, the cost to the USN would have been higher.

 Spruance was the clear winner of the battle, losing only 130 aircraft and 76 aviators while crippling the First Mobile Fleet. However, his decisions can be criticized as the bulk of the IJN’s carrier force escaped.  Spruance’s incomplete victory still eliminated the Japanese carrier force as a factor for the remainder of the war. The fact that six of Ozawa’s carriers escaped with empty decks was of little consequence.

 Though it is somewhat superficial to compare losses, totaling the losses for each side for the five Pacific War carrier battles is illustrative. During these battles, the IJN lost nine carriers and the USN only three. Aircraft losses were also lopsided with Japanese losses nearing 900 compared to American losses of approximately 450. From an operational perspective, the Japanese were not able to achieve their objectives in any of the five carrier battles; the Americans were able to do so in all five. From this perspective, the Pacific War’s carrier battles were a key component of the American victory in the war.



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PAUL W posted on 6 Nov 2021 18:45:03
Thanks to KenA's review, I will be buying this book.

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