Thursday, April 19, 2012

Midway - Once Again

This June we will observe the 70th anniversary of the battle of Midway, one of the half dozen most important naval battles in history (Salamis, Lepanto, Trafalgar, Tsushima, Jutland, Midway).

I was going through an account of the battle last night and two points kept coming back to me: the level of clarity of the assigned missions on each side and how they differed, and level of prudence – or what might be called skeptical planning – practiced on each side.

On the Japanese side Admiral Nagumo, at the key moment early on the first day, switched the load on the aircraft on the flight deck from torpedoes to bombs (from being ready to attack the US fleet when found, to re-attacking Midway island) - this led to the first in a series of false steps that left the Japanese carriers with airwings not ready to launch and their flight decks and hangar decks with more than normal levels of ammunition – bombs and torpedoes – then was prudent, leaving the carriers exceptionally vulnerable to attack.

On the US side Admiral Spruance, understanding the capabilities of his intelligence, and trusting the assessments that had been made relative to that intelligence, made the decision to launch the US air strike at the extreme range of those aircraft.

But, while much has been made about these decisions, and the luck – good an bad – on both sides, my repeated reading of the histories involved keeps leading me back to the conclusion that luck had nothing at all to do with it. Rather, it was a function of two superb tactical commanders, in very different situations, making a series of decisions based on two central issues: their understanding of the situation, and their understanding of their assigned missions.

On the US side, Spruance understood his mission to be: defend Midway – that is, prevent the Japanese landing, and attack and damage the Japanese fleet – while not unduly risking the US fleet. Spruance benefited from superb intelligence that had accurately predicted the Japanese attack, understood the disposition of forces, and had correctly estimated where the Japanese fleet would be at dawn of the first day of battle.

On the Japanese side, Nagumo understood his mission to be: attack and occupy Midway, and draw the US fleet out for an engagement – and this is where it gets difficult – with the main battleship force that was several hundred miles further to the west (Nagumo’s rear). Japanese forces and the Japanese commanders (Admiral Yamamoto as overall commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet) were unaware of any hint that their radio codes were being broken by the US, and were confident that they would enjoy tactical surprise. They did not expect the US fleet to be operating within striking range. (Nevertheless, they were conducting reconnaissance flights as was prudent. Unfortunately for the Japanese, these reconnaissance flights were their only hope of early alertment of the true situation vis-à-vis the US fleet, and the overall reconnaissance plan was not as robust or as effective as it needed to be or could have been.)

Both officers were superb; Nagumo was an exceptional officer, outstanding in every respect, bright, well educated, morally and intellectually tough, brave, and dedicated. And he was supported by a superb staff; also bright and very experienced. Spruance was equally as bright (or brighter), intellectually and morally tough, equally brave and dedicated, though with less experience than Nagumo. Spruance’s staff, which was in fact Admiral Halsey’s staff, was not only less experienced then Nagumo’s, they were working for Spruance for the first time and there was a good deal of friction in their efforts to support Spruance.

There are hundred of leadership lessons from this battle, but I will focus on just a few of the lessons to be learned from the two tactical commanders, without trying to review the entire battle, which others have done far better than I can.

At the center of Spruance’s decision-making is that Spruance kept focused on the prime mission of his fleet: protect Midway while not unduly risking the fleet. If Spruance could protect Midway, the Japanese advance was stopped. If he could inflict enough damage on the Japanese fleet, the Japanese advance would also be stopped. Spruance trusted his intelligence, and his airwing and squadron commanders understood the mission, the importance (and value) of striking the Japanese fleet first, and they also had been told to trust the intelligence. (Arguably, Admiral Fletcher, and the airwing commander on the third US carrier (HORNET) did not understand or fully trust the intelligence, hence all but one squadron of HORNET’s airwing flew to the wrong spot in the ocean and missed the engagement. The torpedo squadron joined up with the torpedo squadron from the other two carriers (ENTERPRISE and YORKTOWN) and did participate (at 100% causalities) in the attack.)

Nagumo on the other hand, had a more difficult mission in that he had two competing tasks: attack the island of Midway, clearing away defenses so that Japanese forces could be landed, and drawing out the US fleet, attacking and weakening the force and then drawing them further out into the northern Pacific where the Japanese battleships could sink them, eliminating the last major elements of the US fleet in the Pacific.

On the first morning of the first day of the battle Nagumo’s forces bombed Midway, while the aircraft remaining on the carriers were loaded with ordnance suitable for attacking US ships if they should be found. When his aircraft headed back to the carriers after the first attack on Midway and reported that they had not destroyed many of the targets on Midway, Nagumo, with no report yet that the US fleet was at sea, decided to download the ordnance on the aircraft on the carriers (weapons for use against ships), and upload weapons for use against the island’s defenses. When, a short while later he received the first detection of the US fleet, he had no aircraft to launch against the US forces. He ordered the weapons changed again. By the time the aircraft were ready to launch, the first strike, returning from Midway, had reached the Japanese carriers and was low on fuel. Nagumo had to delay the launch of the strike against the US fleet.

The lesson here for any leader is to understand your prime goal. Admiral Yamamoto shares the blame because he did not provide Nagumo with the clarity that would have allowed Nagumo to maintain a loaded strike force on deck – because there was no requirement to launch a second strike on Midway in short order. Nagumo could have slowly and deliberately conducted strikes on Midway all day, while maintaining an adequate response capability against a possible US fleet, but he felt the need to rush the restrike.

It is also worth noting that, while the Japanese approached Midway from the north-west, a more or less traditional approach, they could have approached from due west or the south-west, approaching with the invasion force, which would have allowed sustained attacks for at least a full day before the US carriers could be in position to challenge the Japanese. There were, at the same time sound tactical reasons for approaching as they did. I only point them out to highlight that the leadership made specific choices, based on their available information. Some of those choices were beneficial, some were not. But it was not luck that placed the Japanese carriers where they were on that June morning, nor was it luck that placed the US carriers where they were, but the decisions of the leaders involved.

It was fairly obvious then (and now) that if the US fleet were destroyed, the assault on Midway would have been a ‘gimme.’ And the obvious ‘tool’ to destroy the US fleet was the Japanese carrier force. Yet the Japanese plan envisioned the use of the Japanese battleship force as the tool for destroying the US fleet, drawn out after the Japanese had already (per the plan) landed on Midway. In retrospect (and so it seemed at the time to the overall US commander – Admiral Nimitz), the real Japanese plan should have been to draw the US fleet out and attack it with an overwhelming carrier force. (The Japanese actually had more carriers, but only used four in this specific battle, with another active off the Aleutians.) In short, the Japanese had a complicated plan, with too many ‘moving parts,’ unclear goals – in the sense that it wasn’t clear which goal came first, and the responsibility to sort it out placed on Admiral Nagumo. That they could have used a number of different options to attack the island and draw out a response from the US is obvious. The Japanese could have clearly stated that Nagumo’s number one task was drawing out and attacking the US fleet. But Nagumo had ‘two number ones.’

And, while Spruance trusted his intelligence and his staff’s plans, he was a sound enough tactician to recognize that the plans would not work flawlessly. There was great risk in the plan: three US carriers facing four Japanese carriers, with the Japanese having considerably more experienced crews. Spruance had to exploit his intelligence – which he knew to be superior, and that meant surprise. But he also insisted on continuing fairly aggressive reconnaissance flights to increase the odds of early detection of the Japanese fleet. At the same time, Spruance knew that if he kept his carriers well to the east that it would be difficult for the Japanese to ‘run them down’ while also preserving adequate fuel for the invasion force. If he was careful he could keep the fleet safe.

Spruance understood the precedence of his tasks, and benefited from the clarity that while he must stop the Japanese advance, he must not risk the fleet itself – risk was to be balanced. This allowed Spruance the additional clarity that, even though he had sunk the four Japanese carriers and achieved a spectacular victory, he not only need not, but should not pursue the Japanese fleet, despite the suggestions of literally everyone around him. Midway had been saved, the Japanese fleet had been badly mauled and pushed back, the US still had two large aircraft carriers. Mission accomplished.

None of us will ever face a situation as momentous as did the leaders on both sides at the battle of Midway. And both sides had truly superb leadership, not only with their senior leaders – Yamamoto and Nagumo on the Japanese side, Nimitz and Spruance on the US side. But we can learn from them. And three lessons that we should learn are these:

1) Be clear as to what your goals are, and what is the precedence: number 1, number 2 and number 3.
2) Get the best information you can on the situation, and the best assessment, and then keep evaluating it. Don’t ever get comfortable with your assessment.
3) Understand your risk, and never get so greedy in your success that you let go of prudence.


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