It’s Unclear If the U.S. Would Win a New Battle of Midway

OOn the morning of June 4, 1942 the U.S. Navy attacked four Japanese aircraft carriers to destroy one. The enemy striking force Kido Butai was devastated and the War in the Pacific changed dramatically. Six months prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Americans were retreating. While it took three years to defeat Japan (which was still in the Solomons farther south), it became clear that the tide had changed. The Commander of the Pacific Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz’s strategic intelligence was key to this victory, but it was mainly due to the efforts of some highly skilled dive-bomber pilots, and their Douglas Dauntless plane. These pilots were responsible for setting the fires on four Japanese ships.

The Order that these men helped create today is at stake and it’s not certain that the U.S. could win another battle of Midway. The West is facing a significant naval threat in the Pacific for the first time since World War II. The People’s Republic of China—a communist dictatorship—poses both an ideological threat and a strategic one. It is building an oceangoing navy that has a growing capacity to transport; in fact, it will soon be able to put into service the country’s first ever aircraft carrier. In fact, according to a U.S. Department of Defense report in 2020, the PRC now boasts “the largest navy in the world with an overall battle force of approximately 350 ships.” It menaces Taiwan directly and has established a massive military presence in the contested South China Sea. Beyond this, Beijing’s “Belt and Road Initiative,” which seeks to transform the whole of Eurasia, and the maritime “String of Pearls” concept, which attempts something similar in the Indo-Pacific, shows the PRC’s vaulting ambition.

In the recent years, both the United States of America and other Western nations have gradually begun to accept this reality. In February 2016, Admiral Harry Harris, chief of US Pacific Command, warned Congress that he believed that “China seeks hegemony in East Asia.” In April last year, the Australian secretary for home affairs, Michael Pezzullo, announced that the “drums of war” were beating in the Pacific and that the nation needed to prepare accordingly. As for the PRC, leader Xi Jinping has warned advisers to “prepare for war” in the South China Sea.

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In fact, the People’s Republic of China poses some of the same problems for the United States as Imperial Japan did in World War II, but on a much larger scale. Like Imperial Japan, the PRC’s leaders believe that the current order in the region is illegitimate and stacked against their interests. No matter how you view these demands and claims, they should not be dismissed or ignored. If we don’t deal with them, or prepare to counter them, then we may suffer another Pearl Harbor—but there is no guarantee that we have done the necessary preparation to earn another Midway.

There are two main reasons for concern. First, the U.S. Navy is, as former Navy Secretary John Lehman has written, “stretched too thin and woefully underfunded.” Its ship and dockyards are in crisis. Seth Cropsey (director of the Center for American Seapower) lamented that the fighting navy is currently only 297 strong. This is less than half the amount during Reagan’s administration. It is charged with deterring the PRC as well as Russia, Iran and North Korea. The second reason is that the PRC will not oblige America by accepting a trap in middle of Pacific Ocean like the Japanese at Midway. More likely, it will inflict an unexpected defeat in the South China Sea.

In these circumstances, as Elbridge Colby, former deputy assistant secretary for defense and the lead author of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, has argued, Washington must prepare to win a war with China—one which it cannot afford to lose—precisely in order to prevent that war from happening. In the Pacific, as David Zikusoka of the Center for a New American Security wrote, the United States’ best hope may be to draw the PRC into a complex struggle on many fronts far from home. America, he argued, has learned “how to fight away games,” whereas the PRC has not, or at least not yet. This is ultimately about deterrence. “The defense establishment,” Zikusoka said, “needs to start thinking about how it would fight a Second battle of Midway to ensure it never has to fight at all.”

When a military confrontation arises between the West and the People’s Republic of China, it will consist in large part of a contest for the sea. Some aspects of this conflict will look like a struggle for islands. There are many outposts that hide such important information as Midway. These outposts control access to North America’s continents. This will also be a battle for naval resources between ships that strike each other with missiles or aircraft from further away. The battle of Midway has attracted renewed attention because it bears tactical and strategic similarities to an upcoming scenario. This battle offers valuable lessons on the importance of the fundamentals of intelligence and reconnaissance or principles of surprise, simplicity and aggression. The obvious lesson from the Douglas Dauntless Dive-Bomber is that it was a powerful and sturdy weapon. It was also well-prepared for battle.

U.S. Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless dive-bombers prepared to target the Japanese cruiser Mikuma which was set on fire by U.S. Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless in June 1942.

Images Group—Getty Images

The Battle of Midway has been a subject of intense interest for the PRC, which is not surprising. China is, Lyle Goldstein stated in the National Interest in 2017, “hopes to get right what Imperial Japan got wrong.” Tactically, they have criticized the submarine and carrier deployment and the immense risk of exposing the Kido Butai so far from home. They also noted that the economic preparations for long war were inadequate to replace battlefield casualties. A more cautious approach, they have concluded, might well have “caused the Americans to bleed heavily” and seek a negotiated solution.

Lessons from Midway have been a bit different for us. The battle demonstrates that procurement wins all wars. “You have two kinds of equipment,” said the only survivor of a Torpedo Squadron destroyed at the battle of Midway, George Gay at the end of his book Sole Survivor. “Experimental and obsolete.” His point was that the military was in continual need of improving its equipment. Dauntless was built, the American carriers were constructed before wartime; critical dive-bomber pilots received their wings prior to Pearl Harbor.

The Battle of Midway also teaches us about war in our world. One danger in thinking World War II is a response to Pearl Harbor attack is that one may believe the war problems are solved when wartime comes.. Now is the time to get ready for the next Midway.

Continue reading: The Real World War II History Behind the Movie Midway

Since the Battle of Midway, it has been over 80 years. There has been a lot of change. Modern weapon systems are more sophisticated and lethal than ever before. Strategically, the situation has changed. The United States and Japan are allies now. But one thing is certain. The Indo-Pacific is the center of an intense contestation in East Asia. Unfortunately, the job of dive-bomber pilots may have to be repeated.

America’s preparedness is lower than when it was shocked at Pearl Harbor. The U.S. carrier force in December 1941, despite the defeat of the battle fleet and before America’s great industrial engine began its endless production, was powerful enough to stop and turn the tide. The U.S. Navy today is an impressive force but only a fraction of the power it once had. Its real quality will be demonstrated only when it is put to the test—that is when we will know which of its systems are the Devastators and which are the Dauntlesses of our time.

As conflict between the United States and the People’s Republic of China looms in the Pacific, there is still a critical lesson in Midway for our time. The devastatingly efficient attack by the dive bombers is not an accident, as some might suggest. They accomplished exactly what was expected of them. It was equally important that the equipment they used, especially the Douglas Dauntless, performed exactly as it was designed. American taxpayers received excellent value for their peacetime money. The Battle at Midway would have been won even if America had not constructed a single ship or pilot after Pearl Harbor. The United States should today not trust chance or amateur genius but have military readiness in times of relative calm. Midway’s question isn’t whether we were fortunate in the past, but whether or not we are willing to believe that luck will be there today.

This article was adapted from Silver Waterfall: America Won the War in the Pacific, MidwayPublicAffairs now has Steven McGregor and Brendan Simms. Copyright © 2022 by Brendan Simms and Steven McGregor.

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