Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Just how important was Midway, anyway

From a comment on my BGG posting on the Big 3 of Naval Wargaming.

Regarding Midway's importance.

I'd like to suggest that Midway may be a "bigger" deal than some are giving it credit for. (It still might not make the Big Three of all time though).

While it is true that the US was embarking on a huge shipbuilding program, including carriers, that Japan could not hope to match, the context is still important.In the historical case, the Japanese lost their four most experienced carriers, many of their crew and the well-practiced elite organization that was the carrier strike force. Combined with the earlier rendering of the other first-line carrier division temporarily ineffective, the balance of power for 1942 was evened up, making the Guadalcanal campaign possible. Even with the damage done to the IJN at Midway, the Guadalcanal campaign was extremely hard-fought and both sides were reduced to almost no fleet carriers before it was over.

Historically, after conceding Guadalcanal the Japanese spent all of 1943 rebuilding their strength -- but the US strength increased much more quickly. The US forces were also very active and had time to perfect a much more sophisticated level of carrier ops than they practiced in 1942.By the time the fleets met again in 1944 the Japanese fleet was stronger (on paper) than they were at Midway, having reassembled a 5-carrier strike force, supported by 4 light carriers. What was lacking was the well-drilled expertise of the earlier fleet.

In contrast, the US fielded four task groups EACH of which was roughly equal to the whole US fleet at Midway. And each task group was much more proficient than the Midway forces, not even considering the improved equipment. Now consider the possible alternative history if the outcome had been reversed. Assume the Enterprise divebomber strike force also fails to find the Japanese fleet, as the Hornet package did. The Yorktown attack sinks the Soryu, but now the three surviving Japanese carriers launch a counterstrike against the now-revealed US fleet.

Under 1942 conditions a deckload strike by a carrier could be expected to sink or disable one opposing carrier (based on Hughes' book Fleet Tactics) so it's reasonable to believe that the expert aircrew from the three Japanese flattops could sink all three of the US carriers.

This would have put the events for the remainder of 1942 and 1943 into a much different context. Barring a later "Midway" style disaster the Japanese strike force would have remained more-or-less intact as a unit. Historically much of the Japanese experienced air crew was attritted away in the Solomons flying from land bases. This would not have happened if their carriers were still available.

Meanwhile the US Navy would have been under increased pressure (and the historical pressure was severe enough) to contest the Japanese, yet would have had little opportunity to assemble and practice the historical formidable forces. Instead there's a good likelihood that the available carrier forces would have been committed piecemeal under tactically disadvantaged conditions. This would have been the best case scenario for the IJN, repeatedly facing portions of the US fleet and defeating each in turn. Over the long-term attrition would have still eventually evened the odds. Japan simply could never hope to do more than possibly replace battle losses in carrier hulls. And one presumes that the hard school of experience would still have resulted in US improvements. Unless the Japanese reformed their air crew training policies. one would expect that some level of parity in capability would eventually be reached. But a US unable to begin a strong advance until 1944 or 1945 would have resulted in a very different war.

How would repeated US naval defeats have affected US public opinion? Pearl Harbor provided a powerful incentive to press on for a final victory, but the historical US public only had to endure about 6 more months of disaster before seeing the tide turn. How different would it had been if you tack on another 18 months of failure?Japan took a huge gamble taking of the US, a much more powerful country. But smaller powers have defeated larger powers before, and the Japanese themselves had the recent memory of beating Russia. They might still have lost in the end because of further events. But to have a chance of winning they needed to have a good outcome at Midway and if they had achieved that outcome I think it's being a bit too deterministic to think that they were doomed to lose anyway. History is full of less surprising victories than Japan achieving its war aims against the USA.

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