627_12 Sunburst The rise of Japanese Naval Air Power 1909-1941: Mark Peattie

Author: Mark R. Peattie is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and was a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He is currently a visiting scholar at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford, where he is directing a pioneering, and international collaborative effort on the military history of the Sino-Japanese war of 1937–45, sponsored by the Asia Center at Harvard University.

Central Proposition: Peattie explains the rise of Japanese naval aviation and then relates it to its eventual defeat or rather impending defeat early in 1941. Japanese airpower begins development shortly after the Wright brother’s first flight, so unlike its sea power the gap between West and East was not as pronounced during development. However, the Japanese were dependent upon Western aviation developments and doctrine in the early years. They had many of the same arguments that occurred through other air developing nations such as the relevance of sea-based airpower, land-based airpower, independence, type of aircraft (pursuit, bomber, recce), and the doctrine of airpower strategic bombardment or supporting land and sea forces. Japan also possessed airpower theorists that talked about the impending advent of airships of awesome potential (p 3) that would change warfare forever from two to three dimensions.

CH 1:

Early combat experience shaped Japan’s ideas about airpower. The Tsingtao Campaign and the observation of WWI aviation in Europe led Japan’s theorists to advocate for air power versus battleships (p13). They viewed that airpower more than any other option could provide recce and bombing in support of land and sea forces. Post WWI Japan rushed to get training and technical expertise. The Semphill mission from the former officer in the Royal Air Force provided a “quantum leap” in for the Japanese air force (p19). Despite their desire for Interwar limits on airpower and bombing, the Japanese built their first aircraft carrier and in 1923 a British pilot from RNAS captain, William Jordan, made the first take-off and landing from the Hosho aircraft carrier.

CH 2:

In the 1920’s the Japanese industry started the process of producing airplanes. There were two approaches to this. The Mitsubishi company used outside influence and designs in their aircraft produced and the Nakajima company used mainly its own engineers and designers from the beginning (p25). The industrial landscape was also formed regarding the process of competition and selection. The Prototypes System meant that designers competed and if lost the firm was expected to reproduce the winning design or be a second source supplier. This method influences military procurement in Japan today (p28). However, there was a negative side to the process being the competition between Army and Navy. This competition led to bitter rivalry and a lack of sharing design or other resources.

In the 1920’s Japan also set up a robust pilot training system. This training was focused on a small number of highly qualified students who received lengthy and diverse training. (p32)

Following the US demonstrations of airpower against ships, Japan’s airpower theorists had competing ideas about the use of torpedoes versus bombs when attacking a ship. They flushed out tactics and works on technology for both. Technology for torpedoes lagged until the late 1930’s. (p37)

By the end of the 1920’s there was agreement on the need to control the air above the great gun duel of ships, but in the mid-1930’s there was recognition that airpower needed to be used offensively and enemy carriers needed to be the logical targets of airpower. (p40)

During the 1930’s the “golden years for development of fighter tactics”, the Japanese air force focused on air-to-air tactics and had multiple exercises that stressed inter-service competition. For the navy aircraft in a defensive role seemed to be at a disadvantage to the bomber. There was a general opinion that fighters no longer had an operational role. (p45) There was a focus on designers to increase speed and maneuverability of fighters to narrow the gap. (p 46)

The Japanese naval airpower combat experience of Shanghai demonstrated “the above average naval skills of the pilots, and the relative precision of the navy’s bombing techniques when the weather was clear.” (p51)

CH 3

This chapter focuses on the development of the aircraft carrier and the problems associated with it. The first problem was the scope of the designs (weight and capacity) the second problem was the incorporation to the battle plan (guns or airpower). Post the Washington Treaty expiration, which limited steel imports, the effort, was made to increase the capability of the carrier fleet. The Japanese used the British system to organize vertically versus horizontally (US) and did not build with advanced plating or fire extinguishing systems on board. Both the type organization and the lack of protection return to haunt the Emperor’s carrier fleet during WWII.

The doctrine discussion was focused on the concentration or dispersal of the fleet. They decided on dispersal to reduce vulnerability but this effectively mitigated defense from the air or groupings of surface ships (p 75). Further, the air groups were weighted towards attack with torpedoes and dive-bombers and not attack. (p 76)

CH 4

In the 1930’s the destructive power of the carrier surpassed that of the battleship. The question about the relevance of naval airpower was not in question. The debate regarded the relevance of land-based power, in particular long-range bomber that occurred during this time. In addition, the Japanese battle fleet in the 1930’s was inferior in numbers to the US fleet. Both of the above reasons (dominance of the carrier airpower over land-power and inferiority in numbers) made Japan rely on its naval forces as the primary offensive power. (p 81)

Japan had the lead in airplane capability. Claire Chennault remarked the A5M was “one of the best pursuit airplanes in the world. (p 89) The Zero was “one of the most ingeniously designed fighter planes in aviation history (p 91). Its superior maneuverability exceeded the Allies airpower capes throughout the war. However, it was not rugged (no plating), did not have the power for higher altitude fights, and its air-to-air armament was weak. Therefore, Allied tactics would mitigate any advantageous the Zero initially had.

The Japanese aircraft industry was stifled by the infighting between the Army and the Navy. They did not share designs or even production facilities (p 99). Clearly, this was a huge disadvantage for Japan’s warfighting innovation and numerical output. Once the pacific moved to a war of attrition the aircraft industry was so riven by fissures there was little hope to match the output of the US. (p101)

CH 5

The use of airpower in China during 1937 -38 taught the Japanese several things: the bombers needed escorts, the bomber crews could not fly formation well, the Zero was very effective, aerial bombing was not conclusive, the interdiction of China LOCs didn’t stop flow of replacement forces/supplies, the fighter pilots training was superior. The other lesson they should have learned was that construction and repair of airfield was necessary (p 128). This would come back to haunt them in WWII.

CH 6

This chapter discusses the refinement of Japanese naval airpower. There are several notable things about the “forging of the thunderbolt”. First, their pilots where highly trained and their training had a wide aperture called sengi (combat skills). “The sengi training contributed significantly to the combat proficiency of Japanese naval air groups in the decade before the war” (p 133). In addition, their fighter tactics enjoyed a high degree of cohesion. “Navy pilots claimed to have developed a sixth sense (ishin denshin) by which they could communicate with the two comrades flying with them. (p 135) Finally, their equipment while having great characteristics such as maneuverability and speed lacked things such as radios and superior firepower (20 mm cannon insufficient in Zero), (p 137). All three things set Japan up for failure when it came to the war of attrition they faced in the Pacific. Their pilots faced attrition leading to inexperienced replacements that had inferior tactics and equipment than the allies. Given that, “Japanese carrier doctrine focused on preemptive tactical strike directed at the enemy’s carriers as priority targets supposed of course a concentration of massed aircraft” (p147) when this did not completely knock the US out of the war at Pearl Harbor the Japanese were eventually doomed.

CH 7

The initial actions of the Japanese were effective but not decisive. The failure of Nagumo to forgo the third raid at Pearl Harbor will be questioned by historians endlessly. However, the failures of the Japanese navy in the airpower regime are deeper that a single strike. Although the opening raids elsewhere in the Pacific “seriously reduced Allied airpower” (172), these raids gave intelligence and operations a chance to exploit the faults of Japanese airpower in CH6. Early losses although slight started to degrade the Japanese forces (174), and after the Battle of Coral Sea where both sides took significant losses the US had increased leverage due to manpower, production, and innovation advantages over the Japanese. These reasons led to the collapse of the Japanese over the Solomon islands (p 182) and the spiral downward with continued inadequate training via attrition (p 184). Peattie goes on to elaborate about causes of defeat of the Japanese naval airpower during the war. He states that, “Ultimately the most critical failure of Japanese naval air power was the failure of the navy’s leaders, before the war began to conceive the possibility that the initial stroke would not be mortal to the enemy, and that given time and superior strength, he would be able to apply his death grip.” (p 201)


Is culture of the fighting force more important than (Resources, technology, and leadership)?

Can the strategist avoid a quantity fight if they only possess quality?

We always think power plants and performance but are avionics “add-ons” more important -- Such as radios?

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