Aug 18

War Games

Wednesday, August 18, 2010 1:31 PM


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.

  • Jim Valle

    Prados probably makes a more detailed case for Nimitz’ comment in his book but I’m kind of surprized by such a catagorical remark. What about the superior performance of Japanese naval aircraft, particularly the Zero fighter? What about the Japanese prowess at night fighting with excellent optical rangefinders, expert gunnery and flashless propellant? How about the Long Lance torpedo and the tactic of launching them at long range accurately at night and before opening up with gunfire? Those “surprizes” cost us nearly all of our prewar carriers and a lot of cruisers and destroyers until we caught on to what we were up against. It seems that only the aviators were quick to develop new tactics like the Thatch Weave to counter what the Japanese sprung on them during 1942 and early ’43.

  • Jim Valle

    Fastplayer’s comment is unintelligible to me. What’s he trying to say?

  • Wen discussing the defeat of Axis nations or Axis navy,We should consider in any action after September of 1939 as far as WWII conflict is concerned the idea of Investment. It was the Allied powers as a whole and the United States as the leader of this idea that gave us victory.

    We invested the time to train our Marines and increase their training
    We invested our time in building ships and planes to recover pilots, these Aircraft Rescue Vessels returned many pilots to use.

    We invested time in weapons development, action plans, air power to over come the advantages the Axis had.

    We invested time to code braek and even protect our own codes for use to plan battles and carry them out.

    It is sad to see and say this though that we as a nation have not invested the time to teach the value of this concept any more.

    Robert West
    naval Historian

  • any of you folks playing axis and allies minis out there

    [email protected]