Guest post by Dr. Dave Winkler of the Naval Historical Foundation.
The Naval War College’s multi-million dollar war-gaming facility takes advantage of the latest technologies to add realism to the scenarios. However, war-gaming at Newport harks back to an era long before computers where participants walked over large table-tops to move miniature fleets of varying colors. Before World War II, the Imperial Japanese Navy was Orange.
Of course Japan also conducted large sea-battle simulations against its potential cross-Pacific foe. Strongly influenced by their naval victories against the Russians in 1905, the Japanese naval leadership envisioned a “Decisive Battle” strategy. Japanese war gamers steamed the U.S. Navy across the Pacific to defend the Philippines and challenge the Japanese Combined Fleet. Japanese planners believed that through attrition tactics using submarines, destroyer flotillas, and aircraft, the American battle line could be severely weakened before arriving in the vicinity of Japan. Operating close to home waters, Japanese battleships would strike the coup de grace against the exhausted Americans.
Various versions of “War Plan Orange” actually did envision an American naval dash across the Pacific. However, logistics worried the Navy’s planners. For example, the 1917 version of the plan called for the availability of 494 colliers or tankers to fuel the Navy’s warships. Still, advocates for the cross-Pacific dash, labeled “Thrusters” by historian Edward S. Miller, believed Americans would become disillusioned with a long conflict and hence a lunge into the heart of the Japanese Empire would bring the war to a swift conclusion. The “con” group, dubbed “Cautionaries” by Miller, pushed for a more deliberate advance, countering that the swift conclusion forecast by the Thrusters might not be advantageous to America.
The naval dash strategy was tested repeatedly within the war-gaming hall at Newport with results that could have only pleased the Japanese had they been present to observe. In the wake of a 1933 war game, which ravaged much of the Navy’s battleline, the academics at the Naval War College projected a strategy of containing Japanese offensive actions to the Western Pacific while America built up its offensive forces. The forecast projected a four to five year struggle.
Despite the foreboding projections sent down from Newport, Navy planners in Washington, DC, retained the dash as part of War Plan Orange right up to 7 December 1941. Of course the Japanese attack preempted the execution of this portion of the strategy. However, the strategic thinking conducted at the Naval War College during the 1920s and 30s enabled the Navy’s leaders to overcome early setbacks to implement a credible war plan. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, reflecting about the Naval War College after the war, said “…nothing that happened during the war was a surprise…except the kamikaze.”
Sources: John Prados, Combined Fleet Decoded: The Secret History of American Intelligence and the Japanese Navy in World War II; and Edward S. Miller War Plan Orange.