Guns and Gear

World War II Holds Lessons For Deterring China Right Now

Harold Hutchison Freelance Writer
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When discussing the DF-21D, an anti-ship ballistic missile entering service with the People’s Republic of China, it is helpful to remember that China is not the first country that tried to use a weapon to inflict attrition on American naval forces. Japan also sought to use attrition to help defeat the United States – a strategy that failed in World War II.

Prior to World War II, Japan’s strategy was to try to whittle down American naval power in the event of a conflict to give the main Japanese fleet a better chance in the planned “Decisive Battle” by weakening the numerically superior American fleet. One way to do this was to use long-range weapons like the Type 93 Long Lance and the Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” to attack American forces before they could fire on Japanese vessels. Japan also was relying on the Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” to ensure air superiority at great distances from its carriers.

Japan needed such a strategy. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s statement about America being “a sleeping giant” was borne out. American industry, even in the throes of the Great Depression, was out-producing Japan – and it wasn’t even close. The key for Japan was to use smaller units (often destroyers) to either damage or sink larger American units (like cruisers or battleships) in lopsided engagements.

One instance where Japan succeeded in executing those tactics was the Battle of Tassafaronga on November 30, 1942. This battle took place during the Guadalcanal campaign, a lengthy slugging match in which both Japan and the United States took heavy losses. A squadron of Japanese destroyers using Long Lance torpedoes sank one heavy cruiser and seriously damaged three others – losing only one destroyer in the process of doing so. This was the sort of exchange Japan had to make in the run-up to their planned “Decisive Battle” that would take place in the Western Pacific.

The Long Lance was well suited for its intended use in long-range attacks as part of Japan’s strategy. Weighing just under 6,000 pounds, it had a maximum range of just under 22 nautical miles (or knots), and a top speed of 52 knots. It also had a 1,080-pound warhead, capable of delivering devastating blows to cruisers – and this torpedo helped account for one Allied carrier, eleven allied cruisers, and eleven destroyers.

Another weapon Japan relied on for this was the Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” bomber. With a range of over 3,700 miles, this plane helped Japan “reach out and touch someone” with up to 2,200 pounds of bombs or an air-launched torpedo. Such long range would enable the Japanese to attack an American fleet from beyond the range of carrier-based planes, or to deny surface ships the ability to operate in waters without fighter cover. This bomber sank the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battle cruiser HMS Repulse just days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Mitsubishi A6M, famously known as the Zero or Zeke, needs little introduction. In the first year of the Pacific War, it dominated its opponents with long range (over 1,900 miles), a great deal of maneuverability, and a powerful armament (two 7.7mm machine guns in the nose, two 20mm cannon in the wings). However, when a Zero crashed in the Aleutians in June 1942, and was later recovered by the United States, the Americans not only learned how to beat it in a dogfight, they were able to develop a new fighter, the F6F Hellcat, which swept the Zero from the skies.

America overcame those weapons (and Japan’s strategy) largely by having a lot of quantity, but they also developed countermeasures in the form of tactics and new technology. For instance, the Betty was eventually defeated when the United States developed fighter-direction tactics and deployed the “variable-time” or proximity fuse, which made the dual-purpose five-inch guns on U.S. Navy ships much deadlier. Similarly, the Long Lance was neutralized as Americans deployed both improved radar systems and developed new tactics for night fighting.

Japan also failed because the weapons that they relied on had some serious risks for as well. The Long Lance achieved its long range by using pure oxygen. This added to the risks when a ship was on fire. The heavy cruiser Mikuma was lost during the Battle of Midway when the cruiser’s Long Lance torpedoes were detonated by fires after suffering five bomb hits during several air strikes. Mikuma was not the only Japanese ship to be lost due to its own torpedoes exploding, either. Another notable loss was the heavy cruiser Furutaka, which sank during the Battle of Cape Esperance – again due to the Long Lance torpedoes catching fire. In the case of Furutaka, the fires provided an aiming point for American naval gunfire. The Zero’s maneuverability and long range came because the plane was not armored. If a Zero was hit, only a very lucky or skilled pilot could bring his damaged plane home. Much more often, the result of a brief burst of .50-caliber machine gun fire hitting home on a Zero was the plane being shot down, and the highly trained aviator dying.

Like the Long Lance, the Betty also had some drawbacks that would prove decisive – and they also came about due to the design that made the Betty into a valuable tool. The Betty’s long range came about by sacrificing armor. While the Betty remained a fast bomber and could deliver a torpedo against a ship over a thousand miles away – the plane couldn’t take much damage before it was shot down. Pilots on both sides compared the plane to a lighter because of how easily it caught fire when it was hit. Worse, the Betty’s lack of survivability meant that Japan lost highly trained personnel when the planes were shot down. The most notable loss was Admiral Yamamoto, who was killed when Tom Lanphier shot down the Betty he was flying in on April 18, 1943. Many of Yamamoto’s staff officers were killed when a second Betty was shot down in that same mission by Rex Barber.

While the development of new tactics, the deployment of new technology, and the design tradeoffs that Japan accepted helped contribute to America’s victory in the Pacific, the American success in World War II was primarily due to the fact that America got a running start on a naval buildup with the Naval Act of 1938 and the Two Ocean Navy Act of 1940. Today, a similar naval build-up, combined with the deployment of new technology and the development of new tactics, could help America defeat a Chinese attempt to control the Western Pacific.