The Strategic Triangle: The Air Corps Tactical School and Its Vision of Future Warfare

The Strategic Triangle: The Air Corps Tactical School and Its Vision of Future Warfare

By Dr Heather Venable

It is evil to approach war with fixed ideas; that is, without an open and flexible mind, but it is certain to lead to disaster to approach it with the inapplicable formulas of the past.[1]

To the U.S. Army’s Air Corps Tactical School’s (ACTS) Class of 1936, Major Harold George proclaimed, ‘[W]e are not concerned in fighting the past war;–that was done 18 years ago.’[2] Having dismissed much of the value of studying the First World War for insights into air power, George emphatically returned to this theme a few minutes later, reminding his students that they sought to ‘peer down the path of future warfare. We are not discussing the past.’[3] Similarly, Major Muir Fairchild emphasised the problems caused by the ‘lack of well established principles, developed from past experience, to guide the air force commander.’[4] Suggesting that little of value could be derived from a study of the First World War, it is no wonder that one monograph focusing on the impetus for the Royal Air Force and the U.S. Army Air Forces’ strategic bombardment campaign of the Second World War highlighted the inter-war period as a source of problematic thinking. Tami Davis Biddle’s Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare has stressed the ACTS motto as fittingly emblematic of its institutional culture: ‘we progress unhindered by tradition.’[5]

A_Concise_History_of_the_U.S._Air_Force_Page_14-1
Austin Hall at Maxwell AFB. Austin Hall was the home of the Air Corps Tactical School before the Second World War. (Source: Wikimedia)

Paradoxically, however, ACTS instructors struggled not to mine the First World War for historical lessons. Fairchild spent almost one-tenth of his lecture reading from the British official history of the First World War in the air, The War in the Air.[6] Similarly, George identified one historical lesson as central to future warfare: Germany had been defeated in the First World War not because its army had surrendered but because its people had crumbled.[7] As Lieutenant Colonel Donald Wilson explained, it was the ‘collapse of the German nation as a unit’ – largely because the people constituted the ‘weak link’ – that explained the war’s end (emphasis in original). As a result, ACTS ought to focus primarily on targeting civilian morale, albeit indirectly.[8]

Their vision can be modelled in order to depict how ACTS conceived of strategic bombardment and how these ideas changed as they began contemplating how to apply these ideas against Germany in the Second World War. Air War Plans Division (AWPD)-1 and AWPD-42, drafted in July of 1941 and August 1942, respectively, demonstrated important shifts in thinking about air power’s application. Moreover, they presaged a far more tactically minded employment of American air power in the Combined Bomber Offensive than has been recognised generally.[9]

This model draws on a modern interpretation of Carl von Clausewitz’s famous triangle, which is often thought of today as consisting of the following three legs: the government, the people’s passions, and the military.[10] The ACTS model could be depicted as follows: air power is best used at the strategic level to bend the enemy’s will; thus it should focus on affecting an opponent’s government and people because this approach provides the most direct path to achieving one’s desired political ends. A tactical focus on fielded forces, by contrast, is far less desirable because it is fundamentally inefficient. On occasion, however, a focus on the military might have a significant strategic effect. In other cases, an effect on electricity, for example, might have a strategic effect on the government and people as well as a more tactical effect on the military.

Diagram 1 Venable

This thinking went beyond ideas of an ‘industrial web,’ which continue to dominate many scholars’ discussions of ACTS thinking.[11] By zeroing in on the concept of a national structure, ACTS worked to link kinetic effects on industrial targets to the military as well as to the population, thus helping to refresh some aspects of strategic thinking in the wake of the Industrial Revolution – albeit with critical flaws. This thinking can be seen in ten recently published lectures of ACTS edited by and commented upon by Phil Haun. Of the more than 60 lectures presented at ACTS, Haun has identified these ten as representing the school’s ‘most mature thinking’ while reaching the greatest number of officers.[12]

A kind of national structure potentially could make room for a wider array of effects than an industrial web theory could, even if it struggled to make causal links between effects and political ends. By 1936, for example, ACTS envisioned a strategy that targeted the ‘vulnerabilities’ of ‘modern industrial nations’ aimed primarily at one point of the triangle: the people, as reflected in two lectures by George and Captain Haywood Hansell.[13] These lecturers advocated the destruction of carefully selected points in societies to cause ‘moral collapse’ – or effects on the population – as the immediate effect of strategic bombardment. The nation’s ‘will to resist’ was ‘centered in the mass of the people,’ as Hansell explained. Attacks on ‘vital elements upon which modern social life is dependent’ allowed for a focus on an opponent’s will rather than the more circuitous and inefficient focus on its means.[14] Hansell struggled to connect the effect on the people to any ‘express[ion] through political government.’[15] In effect, he wished away the government leg of the triangle. George further reasoned that even if strategic bombardment failed to have the desired effect on the population, it could have a positive effect on the military leg of the triangle due to the abundant material requirements of industrialised warfare.[16]

As such, George’s lecture anticipated a more mature 1939 lecture by Fairchild, which better integrated the effects of selected industrial attacks on two legs: people and the military, with the hope of simultaneously:

[r]educing the capacity for war of the hostile nation, and of applying pressure to the population both at the same time and with equal efficiency and effectiveness.[17]

Fairchild’s carefully parsed assumption about equal effect is dubious; after all, airpower thinkers have been infamous for their promises to be able to quantify the effect. Moreover, again, the government leg of the triangle remains absent. His point that the enablers of industry such as electricity and oil are ‘joined at many vital points’ places these critical aspects within the triangle, thereby potentially affecting each point, at least in theory.[18] Fairchild reasoned regarding the importance of preventing one’s opponent from acquiring key materials, such as petroleum, as well as the transportation system and electricity.[19] Today it is common to describe ACTS as efficiently identifying key industrial bottlenecks, but such a characterisation falls short of Fairchild’s greater vision. He did not seek to attack industry so much as ‘national structure,’ as he described it.[20]

For Fairchild, this vision appealingly provided a convenient shortcut to waging war so common to advocates of strategic attack. The ‘resulting shock effect’ and the ‘degree of facility with which these installations may be destroyed’ lured airmen with the perennial promise of being home by Christmas.[21] In doing so, Fairchild made assumptions emblematic of ACTS thinking by envisioning a kind of paralysis complemented by efficient destruction.[22] These effects allowed the ‘maximum contribution toward the Allied aim in the war at that time,’ unlike what he regarded as a more ineffective and tactical focus on the fielded forces, which airmen viewed as synonymous with slow attrition.[23]

This theory came to life in AWPD-1, hurriedly envisioned over nine days in July of 1941 by former ACTS instructors such as Lieutenant Colonel Harold George, Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth Walker, Lieutenant Colonel Orvil Anderson, Major Haywood Hansell, Major Laurence Kuter, Major Hoyt Vandenberg, and Major Samuel Anderson. All but one of these officers had attended and/or taught at ACTS. The plan posited 154 targets of strategic attack to be destroyed in six months in the following priority:

  1. Electricity;
  2. Transportation;
  3. Oil;
  4. Aircraft factories;
  5. Aluminium sources;
  6. Magnesium
  7. Air support in joint operations.

In compiling this list, air planners claimed to adhere to the strategic vision of the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy’s War Plans ABC-1 and Rainbow 5, which in Europe required an air offensive designed to reduce German air and naval assets and material while preparing for a ground offensive. However, the planners did not set out a traditional air superiority campaign with an array of targets, including airdromes, aeroplanes, and factories. Rather, they adhered to Fairchild’s emphasis on national structure, relegating aeroplane assembly plants – the first hint of an air superiority campaign – to the fourth priority.[24]

The emphasis of ACTS continuing into AWPD-1 is modelled below, showing the split emphasis on the military and the people as two legs of the triangle, with the people receiving the primacy of focus. A plan focused on enablers such as electricity and oil doctrinally targeting national structure represented the most matured form of ACTS thinking, albeit with a problematic hope in the efficacy of strategic attack.

Diagram 2 VenableBy September of 1942, however, this vision underwent a substantial change in focus, as the emphasis shifted down the spectrum toward more tactical means. AWPD-42 prioritised the destruction of the Luftwaffe, albeit still attained primarily through industrial means in the form of attacks against aeroplane and engine factories. Regardless, such a change represented a significant change in thinking away from more general enablers such as electricity to war material itself that had a less immediate effect on society as a whole. Second, the US Army Air Forces needed to concentrate on submarine building yards, before finally turning its attention to transportation in order to sever the ‘vital link in the Germany military and industrial structure.’[25] Electricity, the epitome of a structural target, had dropped from first to fourth place.[26] In effect, AWPD-42 represented a more traditional and tactical focus, designed as it was to interdict material, though admittedly at its source, before seeking to paralyse the economy.[27] The model below reflects this distribution with more emphasis placed on the military rather than the people, as the general trend in thinking shifted toward destroying a military’s ability to meet its material requirements. Production to strike at the enemy’s fielded forces – rather than the dual enablers of the people’s will and military means – received the greatest focus in AWPD-42.

Diagram 3 Venable

The notion of a quick and easy path to victory through strategic attack proved a chimaera, as it has so often in history. Germany responded to attacks against its aircraft factories, for example, by dispersing them.[28] It also fully mobilised its economy in 1944, although it could do only so much to make up for poor strategic choices. Germany had a price to pay in reduced efficiency; but so too did the Allies in terms of the very kind of attrition that they sought to avoid in the first place. It was not enough to wage an air superiority campaign against factories. German fighters and American fighters and bombers battled each other well into 1945, especially during the Battle of the Bulge.[29]

Modelling and parsing out how ACTS envisioned strategic bombardment provides a historical case study in conceptualising strategic attack and changes in thinking over time. Doctrinally, the US Air Force continues to insist that air power used in strategic attack has the ‘potential to achieve decisive effects more directly without the need to engage enemy fielded forces.’ It cited several operations over the last 50 years in which the Air Force denied its opponents

[a]ccess to critical resources and infrastructure, defeat[ed] enemy strategies, and decisively influence[d] the enemy to end hostilities on terms favorable to US interests.[30]

Amidst the U.S. military’s reemphasis on great power conflict, it is useful to return to the fundamentals to consider how, exactly, a strategic attack might help to achieve its desired ends through a focus on the military, the people, and the government.

Dr Heather Venable is an Assistant Professor of Military and Security Studies at the U.S. Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College and teaches in the Department of Airpower. She has written a forthcoming book entitled How the Few Became the Proud: Crafting the Marine Corps Mystique, 1874-1918.

Header Image: A Boeing Y1B-17A in flight near Mount Rainier in Washington state, c. 1938. (Wikimedia)

[1] Quoted in Lieutenant Colonel Donald Wilson, ‘Principles of War’ in Phil Haun (ed. and commentator), Lectures of the Air Corps Tactical School and American Strategic Bombing in World War II (Lexington, KT: University Press of Kentucky, 2019), p. 71.

[2] Major Harold George, ‘An Inquiry into the Subject ‘War” in Haun, Lectures, p. 35.

[3] George, ‘Inquiry’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 37.

[4] Fairchild, ‘Air Power and Air Warfare’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 48. For another similar lecture opening, see Captain Haywood Hansell, ‘The Aim in War’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 73. This same tension between rejecting history yet almost immediately jumping to a discussion of historical examples can be seen in Major Frederick Hopkins, ‘Tactical Offense and Tactical Defense’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 100-8. Hopkins also sought relevant lessons from the Spanish Civil War, for which Biddle has argued some airmen were too dogmatic to do. See Tami Davis Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas about Strategic Bombing, 1914-1945 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), p. 171.

[5] Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare, p. 138.

[6] Fairchild, ‘Air Power and Air Warfare’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 52-4.

[7] George, ‘Inquiry’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 40-1. George even concluded his lecture by returning to this theme. Ibid., p. 44. Also see Lieutenant Colonel Donald Wilson, ‘Principles of War’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 62 and Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 144. Also see Haun, ‘Introduction’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 8.

[8] Major Muir Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 140. Of course, one’s intent can differ from one’s effects, as occurred in the Second World War due to bad weather and the challenges of precision bombing. For this ethical discussion, see Douglas P. Lackey, ‘The Bombing Campaign: The USAAF’ in Igor Primoratz (ed.), The Bombing of German Cities in World War II (New York: Berghan Books, 2010), pp. 39-59.  Even with precision, indirect effects on civilians can be highly problematic. See Daniel T. Kuehl, ‘Airpower vs. Electricity: Electric Power as a Target for Strategic Air Operations,’ Journal of Strategic Studies, 18:1 (1995), pp. 237-266.  

[9] See, for example, Heather Venable, ‘The Strategic Bombardment Campaign that Wasn’t? The Army Air Forces in the European Theater of Operations, 1942-1945,’ The Strategy Bridge, 6 May 2019.

[10] For background on how those ideas are improperly attributed to Clausewitz, see Christopher Bassford and Edward J. Villacres, ‘Reclaiming the Clausewitzian Trinity.’ By contrast, Clausewitz himself set out elements of emotion, chance, and reason. See Christopher Bassford, ‘Teaching the Clausewitzian Trinity.’

[11] For this characterisation of an ‘industrial web theory,’ for example, see Scott D. West, ‘Warden and the Air Corps Tactical School: Déjà Vu’ (Thesis, School of Advanced Airpower Studies, 1999), p. v and 1.

[12] Haun, Lectures, p. xv.

[13] George, ‘An Inquiry’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 43.

[14] Hansell, ‘Aim in War’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 78, 81 and 84. Even as Hansell insisted this was the ‘primary strategic objective’ of Air Forces, he did not make this link for navies’ ability to blockade, instead taking the more Mahanian view that the primary role of the Navy was to destroy other navies. In this way, he highlighted his bias for air power as offering unique shortcuts. Ibid., p. 84.

[15] Hansell, ‘Aim in War’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 77.

[16] George, ‘An Inquiry’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 43. Fairchild similarly highlighted the importance of this military capacity. See Fairchild, ‘Primary Strategic Objectives of Air Forces’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 188-9.

[17] Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 143.

[18] Fairchild, ‘Primary Strategic Objectives of Air Forces’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 189.

[19] Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 152-7.

[20] Fairchild, ‘Primary Strategic Objectives of Air Forces’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 182.

[21] Ibid., p. 185.

[22] Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 166.

[23] Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 166. For the very rare recognition that ground operations occasionally could be decisive, see Fairchild, ‘Primary Strategic Objectives of Air Forces,’ p. 186.

[24] ‘Appendix 2: AWPD-1’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 232-3.

[25] ‘Appendix 3: AWPD-42’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 258.

[26] ‘Appendix 1 – Trenchard Memo,’ p. 232 and ‘Appendix 3: AWPD-42,’ p. 258 in Haun, Lectures.

[27] While highlighting the more overt focus on supporting an invasion, Robert Futrell argued that the ‘strategic philosophy of the two studies was virtually the same.’ See Robert Futrell, Ideas, Concepts, Doctrine: Basic Thinking in the United States Air Force (Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Air University Press, 1989), p. 131. For a discussion of strategic interdiction as compared to operational interdiction, see Robert Pape, Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), p. 75.

[28] Haun, Lectures, p. 3.

[29] See Danny S. Parker, To Win the Winter Sky: The Air War over the Ardennes, 1944-1945 (Conshohocken, PA: Combined Books, 1994), pp. 248-305.

[30] Curtis E. LeMay Center for Doctrine Development and Education, Annex 3-70 Strategic Attack, ‘Fundamentals of Strategic Attack,’ last reviewed 25 May 2017.

#BookReview – Be Bold

#BookReview – Be Bold

By Dr Ross Mahoney

Air Chief Marshal Sir Frederick Rosier with David Rosier, Be Bold. London: Grub Street, 2011. Hbk. 256pp.

5125bvndQHL._SX343_BO1,204,203,200_

Air Chief Marshal Sir Frederick Rosier had a long and distinguished career in the Royal Air Force (RAF). Granted a short service commission in 1935 (p. 19), he was the last Air Officer Commander-in-Chief (AOC-in-C) of RAF Fighter Command before it merged with Bomber Command in 1968 to form Strike Command. This autobiography, written with his son David who finished it after his father’s death in 1998 (p. 10), highlights many interesting facets of service in the RAF during two pivotal events in twentieth-century history; the Second World War and the Cold War. Concerning the former, this book gives us a view from a rising junior officer who served in both frontline and staff positions during the Second World War. Regarding the latter, we have a view of the Cold War and its threats from the perspective of an officer rising to senior command. As such, it illustrates many of the challenges and ambiguities associated with senior leadership.

The genres of autobiographies and memoirs and the associated field of biography remain an ever popular and vital element of military history. While it is often easy to criticise biographers of hagiography and autobiographers of viewing the past through the prism of hindsight, they do offer valuable insight to the past. Indeed, biographies and memoirs/autobiographies are arguably the most commercially viable method of making military history accessible to wider audiences. Additionally, biographies and memoirs/autobiographies are an essential source for historians seeking to understand the period they study. More specifically, with regards to the RAF, there are too few accounts either by or about senior officers who served during the Cold War period. Indeed, for officers who served during the Cold War, we are unlikely to see the type of voluminous personal papers that we see with such former senior officers as Marshal of the Royal Air Force Viscount Trenchard and Admiral of the Fleet Earl Mountbatten. As such, it has become more critical that the service experience of these men be recorded. In this vein, memoirs and autobiographies offer a useful adjunct to the historians’ toolkit as they, just like oral history, can offer a personal view on many of the events that we read about in official archival sources. Thus, Rosier’s account is much welcomed.

Most interesting for this reviewer is that Rosier’s career offers an insight into his career progression and leadership development in the RAF. Rosier’s career illustrated that it was possible for suitable short service officers to be granted a permanent commission. This had been Trenchard’s expectation when the short service scheme had been established. After the Second World War, and granted a permanent commission, Rosier followed the typical route to senior command with attendance at both the RAF Staff College in 1946 (pp.156-162) and the Imperial Defence College (IDC) in 1957 (pp. 208-214). Rosier also spent time as Directing Staff at the recently opened Joint Services Staff College between 1950-52 (pp. 186-190). However, his reminisce about his time as a student at the RAF Staff College highlights a fundamental problem with autobiographies; the issue of confusion. Rosier lamented (p. 156) that the inter-war course at the RAF Staff College had been two years. However, this is inaccurate as they were only a year. As such, we must always be careful about what an auto-biographer recollects.

RAF-T 8374
At the parade to mark the disbanding of RAF Fighter Command held at RAF Bentley Priory on 30 April 1968, Air Marshal Sir Frederick Rosier KCB CBE DSO ADC, the last Air Officer Commander in Chief of the command stands with several of the most famous Second World War aces, from left to right: Air Vice Marshal ‘Johnny’ Johnson CBE DSO** DFC*, Group Captain P.W. Townsend CVO DSO DFC*, Wing Commander R.R.S. Tuck DSO DFC** DFC (US), Air Commodore A.C. Deere OBE DSO DFC* DFC (US) and Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader CBE DSO* DFC*. (Source: © Crown Copyright. IWM (RAF-T 8374))

Rosier’s posting from the Central Fighter Establishment (CFE), to Fighter Command as Group Captain – Plans in 1954 (pp. 200-1) also highlights the process of career management in the RAF. It highlights the influence that seniors officers had in determining someone’s career. Rosier related that he had expected a posting as Group Captain – Operations at Fighter Command. However, this had been changed to a posting to the Royal Aircraft Establishment. This was not to the liking of the AOC-in-C of Fighter Command, Air Marshal Sir Dermot Boyle, who managed to have that posting changed to that of Group Captain – Plans. This was an unexpected turn of events as Rosier had not served in a plans position up to this point in his career.

Nonetheless, it is clear that this posting was designed to give Rosier further experience of working with the other services and with allies; an essential prerequisite for senior command. Rosier recorded (p. 204) of this period as one ‘of broadening my education.’ What is more, this section of this autobiography, and that describing his time at the IDC, comes in a chapter entitled ‘Climbing to the Top.’ Indeed, after his time at Fighter Command as Group Captain – Plans, Rosier went on to be Director of Plans in the Air Ministry in 1958 after having spent time at the IDC. Again, at the Air Ministry, Rosier served under Boyle who by now was Chief of the Air Staff. Importantly, periods of service in staff positions were an essential marker in an officers rise to senior command primarily because this experience not only insured that individuals came into contact with those who could nurture and shape one’s career but also that it further developed ones understanding of the organisation that they would, potentially, one day lead.

In addition to this vital period of staff work, Rosier inter-weaved his career with significant periods as an operational fighter commander. This notably included time in North Africa during the Second World War where he was, alongside the future Air Chief Marshal Sir Kenneth Cross, a key fighter leader in the Western Desert Air Force (pp. 63-114). During this period, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. Indeed, except for his time at the Air Ministry and a period as Senior Air Staff Officer at Transport Command, Rosier’s career was very much tied to either fighter aircraft or Fighter Command more specifically.

Finally, and importantly, in the context of the Cold War Rosier also spent time working within the coalition system. Between 1948 and 1950 he served on an exchange tour with the recently formed United States Air Force that also included time at the US Armed Forces Staff College (pp. 171-85). Rosier also served with the Central Treaty Organisation and his final command was as the Deputy Commander-in-Chief of Allied Forces Central Europe.

In conclusion, this is a very valuable autobiography of a senior RAF officer. In addition to the critical facets discussed above this book provides an excellent insight into life in the RAF in both war and peace. It also provides some excellent insights into the important personalities of the period. For example, Rosier recalled his visit to the Soviet Union in 1956 while he was at Fighter Command. His most notable recollection (pp. 205-6) was an incident during an open-air reception at the Kremlin where both Nikolai Bulganin and Nikita Khrushchev got drunk and related in their respective speeches how much they disliked each other. This book is recommended to anyone with an interest in the RAF.

Dr Ross Mahoney is a contract Historian at the Departments of Veterans’ Affairs in Australia as well as the owner and Editor of From Balloons to Drones. He is a graduate of the University of Birmingham (MPhil and PhD) and the University of Wolverhampton (PGCE and BA). His research interests include the history of war in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, air power and the history of air warfare, and the social and cultural history of armed forces. To date, he has published several chapters and articles, edited two books, and delivered papers on three continents. He is a member of the Royal Historical Society and a Vice-President of the Second World War Research Group. He can be found on Twitter at @airpowerhistory.

Header Image: Aircraft past and present of the Central Fighter Establishment at RAF West Raynham in October 1962, as the unit moved to RAF Binbrook in Lincolnshire. The aircraft pictured here represent the various aircraft used by the constituant organisations which merged to form the CFE. The aircraft are (left to right): Supermarine Spitfire (P5853) of the Central Fighter Establishment, English Electric Lightning F.1 (XM136) of the Air Fighting Development Squadron, Gloster Javelin, Hawker Hunter F.6 (XF515) and Hawker Hunter T.7 (XL595) both of Fighter Combat School. (Source: © IWM (RAF-T 3476))

#BookReview – The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory

#BookReview – The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory

By Eamon Hamilton

Craig F. Morris, The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2017. Notes. Bibliography. Index. 272 pp.

Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory

The strategic bomber has stood as one pillar of American military strength since the Second World War, and even today, the deployment of B-1s, B-2s and B-52s to forward bases across the globe sends a strong message to potential adversaries. Serving as a true ‘Book of Genesis’ chapter to this capability, The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory by Craig F. Morris covers the period of 1916 to 1942 and explores the growth of an idea within the United States Army, rather than deal primarily in technology or personalities. By recounting how air power theory matured (and was withheld) within the United States Army, he also delivers an excellent case study on how an organisation reacts to disruptive technology.

There is a stark comparison in air power capability that comes early from Morris. The book’s introduction begins with the arrival of United States Army Air Force B-17s in England in 1942. Operationally untested, their existence still spoke of the maturity of America’s investment in technology, organisation, and air power doctrine during the interwar period. Contrast that scene with the experience of the United States Army’s 1st Aero Squadron in Mexico in 1916, which Morris covers in his first chapter. There is obviously no suggestion that the 1st Aero Squadron’s Curtis JN-3 biplanes were to be used as bombers against Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa; what Morris does is illustrate the lack of intellectual depth the United States Army had with its heavier-than-air aviation capability. While the technology was relatively new, that lack of innovation remains surprising considering how the First World War had quickly illustrated the utility of aviation.

The Mexican adventure serves another purpose – it introduces several personalities from the 1st Aero Squadron who were sent to Europe when the United States entered the First World War. The most significant focus of The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory falls on 1917 to 1919, which stands to reason – it is here that the Aviation Section of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) first encountered the idea of strategic bombing from the Allied (and Central) powers. This transfer of ideas is explored mainly through the experiences of Edgar S. Gorrell, a veteran of the 1st Aero Squadron in Mexico who was sent to Europe to study how the United States would grow its aviation forces in the First World War. The AEF ground commanders wanted aviation to provide the battlefield reconnaissance and air defence, but Gorrell’s exposure to Allied air power theory led him to become a proponent of using bombers to open a ‘new front’ on an enemy’s warfighting infrastructure, effectively bypassing the war in the trenches on the Western Front.

Gorrell-Edgar-S (Harris & Ewing)
Lieutenant Edgar S. Gorrell studied aeronautical engineering at MIT following the Mexican campaign of 1916. (Source: US Air Force Historical Research Agency)

Gorrell is the personality most consistently covered in The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory, which is arguably a testament to the aviator’s recordkeeping and his early advocacy of strategic bombing. The First World War ended before Gorrell could successfully argue the case for an American strategic bomber force, but the Armistice allowed him to leave two critical legacies to the future of air power development. Gorrell was tasked with organising the official history of the AEF, an assignment which allowed him to draw together air power lessons from the AEF and Allied into an official post-War record. On top of this, he drove a post-war bombing survey that examined what impact Allied bombing made on Germany’s warfighting effort.

When dealing with the events of 1919 to 1942, The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory does not enjoy the singular narrative focus that Gorrell’s experiences during the First World War afforded it (Gorrell left the military as a Colonel in 1920 at the age of 28, worked in the motoring industry, and died in March 1945). In Morris’ defence, strategic bombing theory in the interwar period was driven by complex variables, from personalities such as Billy Mitchell and rapidly growing aviation technology; through to economic resources (like the Great Depression), along with shifting strategic and foreign policy. The main conflict affecting strategic bombing theory (and the introduction of a supporting capability) was between the US Army’s General Staff, and aviation proponents within the Air Corps, as the Air Service had become in 1926. As aviation technology grew and the Air Corps Tactical School developed its ideas for air power, the Army General Staff were justifiably worried that a strategic bombing capability would lead to an independent Air Force, and a competitor for government funding.

Air Corps Tactical School
The Air Corps Tactical School (created as the Air Service Field Officers School in 1920) went beyond its mandate of training officers to also become an engine for air power theory development in the interwar period. (Source: US Air Force Air University)

The examination of this conflict makes The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory an excellent study in how organisations react to disruptive technology (both positively and negatively). The parallels to modern disruptive technologies (for example, autonomous systems, or space-based systems) do not feel completely analogous, given the purely historical lens of this book. That being said, it gives numerous examples of both innovative and misguided thinking at different levels within the United States Army in dealing with aviation. While history arguably vindicated the strategic bomber concept, Morris does well explain Army’s reservations with this new field.

One of the most significant qualities of The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory is also the chief criticism – by covering 25 years in 207 pages, it is very concise. The narrative is clear, comprehensive, and does not feel like any essential facts have been left out. However, the quality of Morris’ writing would comfortably permit this to be a longer work, and the narrative could afford to provide further exposition to selected events, technologies and personalities (beyond Gorrell), that shaped and developed air power theory. On several occasions, this reviewer found himself looking for other resources to further his appreciation of the events in this book – especially about the limited performance of bomber aircraft during the First World War.

While remaining engaging to read, Morris’ work is academically well-presented. It both recounts history as well as briefly discussing the views of academics and historians on the subject matter where relevant. There is considerable inertia when it comes to people’s understanding of events from a century ago, and Morris is clear when he debates, debunks or reaffirms the established narratives of other authors. The introduction specifically accounts for early air power studies into strategic bombing by historians/academics including Mark Clodfelter, Stephen McFarland, I.B. Holley, and Maurer Maurer.

Martin_B-10B_during_exercises (National Museum of USAF)
First flown in 1932, the Martin B-10 was a revolutionary bomber not only for the United States Army Air Corps, but for the world. Design features such as all-metal construction, enclosed cockpit with rotating gun turrets, full engine cowlings and retractable landing gear would be standard design features for bombers over the next decade.  (Source: National Museum of United States Air Force)

Overall, The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory is clear and well-sourced and can be easily approached by anyone with no depth of knowledge of the central subject matter. This reader found it to be enjoyable and informative, providing a good account of early strategic bombing theory and American air power development. While being a self-contained work, it is likely to whet the reader’s appetite for reading works covering related subject matters.

Eamon Hamilton graduated from the University of Western Sydney with a Bachelor of Communications (Journalism). He works as a Public Affairs Officer for the Royal Australian Air Force. He lives in Sydney. He runs the Rubber-Band Powered Blog and can be found on Twitter @eamonhamilton.

Header Image: A Boeing Y1B-17 in flight. This aircraft would eventually be developed B-17 Flying Fortress. (Source: Wikimedia)

#BookReview – Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force

#BookReview – Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force

By Alexander Fitzgerald-Black

Brian D. Laslie, Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force. Lexington, KT: The University Press of Kentucky, 2017. Notes. Bibliography. Index. 21 b/w Photos. Hbk. 236 pp.

Architect of Air Power Cover

With Architect of Air Power Brian D. Laslie, Deputy Command Historian at NORAD and US Northern Command and an Adjunct Professor at the US Air Force Academy had two mutually supporting goals. The first is to offer readers a biography of General Laurence S. Kuter, one of the select few US Air Force (USAF) officers to serve the majority of his 35-year career as a general officer (the others were Generals Curtis LeMay, Lauris Norstad, and Hoyt Vandenberg). The second is to acknowledge that Kuter’s

[c]areer dovetailed with the rise of an adolescent air power and ended with a fully grown and mature air force capable of global monitoring and response. (p. xi)

In other words, Kuter was an architect of the USAF. Many of the modern USAF’s principles and methods owe their origins to his work.

The biography is organised chronologically, beginning with Kuter’s adolescence and time at West Point and ending with his service as a four-star general commanding the Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) and North American Air Defense Command (NORAD), retirement, and passing. Laslie has assembled an impressive array of sources to discuss Kuter’s life and career. He draws on Kuter’s incomplete autobiography, collections at the USAF Academy library (including Kuter’s papers and those of several his contemporaries), oral histories, diaries, and letters. One highlight of the book is how Laslie captures Kuter’s relationship with his high school sweetheart and wife, Ethel Kuter (née Lyddon). Ethel’s diary was slowly overtaken by references to Kuter beginning in 1922, and the pair wrote over 1,000 letters to each other during his time at West Point.

Laslie takes his readers on a mission to understand why so little has been written about Kuter. One reason is that Kuter did not make a name for himself with flying exploits or by leading air formations into battle. Kuter did not join the US Army Air Corps because of romantic visions of flight. Instead, he joined to be a better artillery officer. Only later did he become fully immersed in exploring a new kind of warfare – mainly at the operational rather than tactical level. In August 1941, Kuter became one of the authors of AWPD-1, the first comprehensive plan for winning the war against Germany through aerial bombardment. In the early months of America’s Second World War, Brigadier General Kuter (one of the youngest general officers in the US Army) was a go-between for General George C. Marshall and Lieutenant General Henry H. Arnold. He also had a significant hand in setting up the latter’s Air Staff as the US Army Air Forces achieved autonomy. Kuter made a name for himself with his organisational skills rather than his combat command ability.

Recognising this, Arnold sent Kuter to Europe in late 1942 to gather command experience. Kuter commanded the Eighth Air Force’s 1st Bombardment Wing under Brigadier General Ira Eaker. One of Eaker’s assistants, James Parton, later claimed that Eaker had fired Kuter for declining to fly on combat missions. Laslie has proven these accusations to be unquestionably false. In fact, while Eaker gave Kuter the worst performance reviews of his career, he also tried to retain Kuter’s services. Laslie believes Eaker did this to provide Kuter with more time to prove himself; he had served under Eaker for only five weeks.

© IWM (CNA 408)
Senior Allied Air Commanders gathered at the Headquarters of the North African Tactical Air Force, Ain Beida, Algeria. Left to right: Air Marshal Sir Arthur “Mary” Coningham, Air Office Commanding, NATAF, Major General C A Spaatz, Commanding General, North-west African Air Forces, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Mediterranean Air Command, and Brigadier General L S Kuter, Deputy Commander, NATAF. (Source: © IWM (CNA 408))

This is another of the reasons for the lack of attention afforded Kuter. He never stayed in one place long enough to make a name for himself. Kuter’s next stop was North Africa. He would serve as the deputy to Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham, commander of the Northwest African Tactical Air Force. He served in this position for only four months, but he still made immense contributions to the war effort and the future of the US air power. Kuter’s brainchild was FLAX, a well-planned and executed operation to destroy the Axis air bridge between Sicily and Tunisia. He also learned how to implement a proper ground support system in the field. When he returned to Washington to work under Arnold his experiences in North Africa were codified in Field Manual 100-20. This document is considered both the air force’s ‘declaration of independence’ and the basis for the USAF’s tactical air power concepts to this day.

Kuter’s next command opportunity overseas was in the Pacific. Now a Major General, Kuter was quickly replaced in a reshuffling of officers following the defeat of Nazi Germany in May 1945. He then moved to Air Transport Command, where he supported General Douglas MacArthur’s buildup in Japan following the island nation’s surrender. After less than a month, Kuter once again returned to Washington. As Laslie notes, ‘as soon as [Kuter] established and organized the flow of men and material, he was pulled from the theater.’ (p. 122)

Another reason Laslie offers us for Kuter’s relative obscurity is the man’s level-headedness. People want to write about innovators and controversial figures, not respectable architects. Laslie makes this observation early in the book: ‘If the famous early aviators – men like Curtis LeMay and Jimmy Doolittle – were cowboys, then Kuter represented the first-generation lawman who came to town to impose order.’ (p. 18) One of the arduous tasks Kuter had to handle while working under Arnold in 1942 were the requests from various theatre commanders for more and better aircraft and properly trained crews. At the time, there just were not enough aircraft to train crews in the United States and supply US Army Air Forces in Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific. President Roosevelt had also promised the Royal Air Force a share of American aircraft production. This added strain was worth it since many British Commonwealth pilots already had combat experience. Although the theatre commanders could be quite forceful in their requests, Kuter never let it get the better of him, and his level-headedness set him apart from many of his contemporaries. Perhaps, therefore, when Arnold could not attend the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Kuter attended in his place. In doing so, Kuter jumped the queue in front of three-star generals.

Continental_Defense_Warning_Systems
Continental defense warning systems of the North America. (Source: Wikimedia)

Kuter’s Cold War career is equally fascinating. He never held or coveted the positions of Chief of Staff or Vice Chief of Staff of the USAF (perhaps another factor in his relative obscurity). His work establishing the USAF Academy and achieving accreditation for the Air University were architectural moves that produce new generations of air force officers that continue to mould the modern USAF. As a four-star general, Kuter commanded America’s aviation in the Pacific theatre, consolidating these forces under one command: PACAF. He also oversaw NORAD as it dealt with growing Soviet missile offensive capability in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

In his preface, Laslie notes the difficulty associated with writing biography suggesting that:

Historians must tread the perilous course of being objective while at the same time proclaiming why subject needs individual attention in the first place. (p. xi)

Laslie has played this balancing act marvellously. He pulls no punches, willingly calling out Kuter when his ideas or actions were wrong, especially his belief in strategic air bombardment as a war-winning approach. Laslie carefully provides the reader with enough context so that he or she may understand why Kuter made these errors. In fact, it is these very moments, so well captured by Laslie, that make Kuter and the history of the USAF such a fascinating subject.

Alexander Fitzgerald-Black has a Master of Arts in Military History from the University of New Brunswick and is a Master of Arts in Public History candidate at the University of Western Ontario. Alex’s first book, Eagles over Husky: The Allied Air Forces and the Sicilian Campaign, 14 May to 17 August 1943, will be published in early 2018. His research interests include air power in the Second World War, with a particular focus on the Mediterranean, and Canadian military history. He operates his blog at alexfitzblack.wordpress.com and can be reached on Twitter @AlexFitzBlack.

Header Image: Republic of Korea Air Force Lieutenant General Cho Won Kun flies with the 35th Fighter Squadron out of Kunsan Air Base, c. 2009. The 35th Fighter Squadron forms part of the 8th Operations Group of the 8th Fighter Wing. The 8th Fighter Wing is assigned to the Seventh Air Force, which reports to PACAF. (Source: Wikimedia)

Blinded by the Rising Sun? American Intelligence Assessments of Japanese Air Power, 1920-41: Part 3 – 1937-41

Blinded by the Rising Sun? American Intelligence Assessments of Japanese Air Power, 1920-41: Part 3 – 1937-41

By Justin Pyke

Editorial Note: In the final part of a three-part article, Justin Pyke examines American intelligence assessments of Japanese air power during the inter-war years. This final part examines issues between 1937 and the outbreak of war between America and Japan in 1941. Part one and two of this article can be found here and here.

Japan’s air services had successfully weaned themselves off of their foreign dependence by 1937. American intelligence assessments continued to identify the strategic and industrial weaknesses of Japanese air power accurately but became poor concerning technology and tactics. Japanese information security was tighter than it had ever been. Hence, American observers formed their conclusions through open sources and preconceived notions. When evidence emerged contradicting the prevailing view of Japan’s lack of technological innovation, they were ignored or explained away. Assessments of Japanese personnel began to swing toward a consistently negative view. These failures in assessing Japanese technology, tactics, and personnel from 1937-41 contributed to the defeats at the outset of the Pacific War.

Zero
A captured Mitsubishi ARM ‘Zero’ in flight, c. 1944 (Source: National Naval Aviation Museum)

The Americans had relied on access to Japanese air stations and factories to gain their information until the early 1930s. This avenue was closed with the start of the war in China. In place of the old sources, American observers came to rely extensively on open sources, like official Japanese press releases, supplemented with the precious little information that could be drawn from chance sightings of Japanese aircraft by Westerners.[1] A meaningful assessment of Japanese air power’s performance in China, or detailed technical information of a specific aircraft, would surface on occasion. The information gained from open sources at best-reiterated views that had been in place for almost two decades and at worst became more critical and inaccurate about Japanese capabilities.

American assessments of the Japanese aviation industry remained accurate, despite Japan’s turn towards tight information security. However, the preconception that Japan could not innovate technologically remained pervasive. A July 1937 report was typical. It acknowledged the advances made by the Japanese aviation industry, accurately identified the numerous weaknesses present, and stated that a ‘dearth of local inventive ability’ was a critical failure.[2] Another report referred to the numerous industrial weaknesses as a ‘cancer,’ and went on to claim that Japan continued to rely on copies of foreign aircraft, acquired either through production licenses or ‘outright mimicry.’[3] American assessments combined recognition of the real weaknesses of Japan’s aviation industry with the fiction that it still relied on the copying of foreign aircraft designs.

The American emphasis on Japanese industrial weakness was warranted. The continued shortage of machine tools, skilled labour, heavy equipment, and modern industrial techniques contributed to Japan’s lack of an aircraft reserve, slower rates of production, poor quality and quantity of spare parts, and the numerous other issues that undermined Japanese air power.[4] Greg Kennedy has emphasised this point when he stated that to view:

[tactical] success as demonstrative of the overall ability of Japan to manifest effective, modern air power is to misunderstand fundamentally the core attributes of air power.[5]

Ultimately, the weaknesses of Japanese industry identified by the Americans before the war worked to cripple the offensive capabilities of the Imperial Japanese Army Air Service (IJAAS) and Imperial Japanese Naval Air Service (IJNAS) during it.

Ki-61_at_Fukuoka_in_1945
A Kawasaki Ki-61 ‘Tony’ of the 149th Shimbu Unit at Ashiya airfield in Fukuoka, Japan, c. 1945 (Source: Wikimedia)

The most egregious error in American reporting from mid-1937 onward concerned the preconception that Japan was incapable of designing its own aircraft. Exceptions to this trend did exist, but they were easily drowned out by the overwhelming number of reports that reiterated the same trope of Japanese unoriginality.[6] Fictional aircraft were given corresponding European designs that the Japanese supposedly had copied.[7] When the Americans received hard evidence of Japanese technological innovation, these indicators were ignored or misunderstood. Excellent American intelligence on the B5N Carrier Attack Bomber (‘Kate’) was not used as evidence that Japan had moved away from copying foreign designs.[8] The G3M was immediately assumed to be a copy of the German Junkers Ju-86, while another report stressed the bomber was a Heinkel design with Junkers’ ailerons. In fact, the superlative bomber was indigenous in origin.[9] Even when American observers disagreed on what the aircraft was a copy of, there was no doubt that it had to be a copy of something.

These preconceptions were all the more dangerous as Japan introduced new aircraft that it would use against the West in 1941. The most famous of these was the A6M Carrier Fighter (‘Zero’/‘Zeke’). Despite some accurate reporting on the aircraft, it remained largely unknown in Western aviation circles.[10] In one instance, the testimony of a captured Japanese bomber pilot caused confusion when he explained that the A6M was designed to dive on the enemy, then zoom upwards and prepare for another dive, but not to engage in extensive combat aerobatics. This reflected IJNAS fighter doctrine, which was similar to that of the Americans, rather than the true capabilities of the A6M. The Americans interpreted the testimony to mean the new fighter lacked manoeuvrability.[11] The underestimation of the A6M seems like a minor error when viewed in isolation. Indeed, American pilots quickly gained an understanding of the fighter from their first combat encounters.[12] However, it was only a symptom of a much broader issue. Evidence that the Japanese had achieved rough technological parity with the United States was belittled or ignored. Individual Japanese aircraft may have been better or worse than foreign counterparts for their intended roles, but American assessments assumed a clear and decisive technological advantage where none existed. Nor did Japanese technological innovation stop with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Both air services introduced aircraft, such as the Nakajima Ki-84 Fighter (Hayate/‘Frank’), that matched some of the best American designs throughout the war.[13] The problem was not that leading-edge Japanese aircraft designs were worse than their American counterparts, but that they never were able to replace their ageing predecessors in sufficient numbers to matter.

The Americans dismissed not just Japanese innovation, but its personnel and tactics. American views of Japanese personnel became increasingly negative after the start of the war in China. Assessments of Japanese factory workers and mechanics significantly reduced in frequency and classified reporting on aircrews indicated that they were of poor to mediocre quality.[14] American observers also continued to emphasize Japan’s lack of pilot reserves and training facilities.[15] Popular literature took a firm stand on Japanese personnel and often relied heavily on racism and national characteristics. One such work listed a number of Japanese racial defects, and summarised them as ‘daring but incompetent aviators.’[16] Classified sources never degraded into this kind of drivel, despite American intelligence shortcomings concerning Japanese tactics and technology.

Captured_Aichi_B7A2_on_ground
A captured Imperial Japanese Navy Aichi B7A2 ‘Grace’, c. 1945. This was one of many capable indigenous aircraft introduced by the Japanese air services during the Pacific War. (Source: Wikimedia)

Surprisingly little reporting discussed Japanese aerial performance in China, and reports that did provide a more balanced, and accurate, assessment of Japanese capabilities.[17] Occasionally, Chinese pilots were interviewed on their combat experience against the Japanese. One report from September 1940 concluded that dive bombing by the IJAAS and IJNAS was ‘very poor,’ while horizontal bombing had ‘improved tremendously.’ Discipline among IJNAS twin-engine bombers was rated ‘excellent,’ and the carrier air groups were given particularly high praise. The most important piece of information provided by Chinese pilots was that the Japanese sent fighter escorts with their bombers whenever possible.[18] However, given the mixed quality of the Republic of China Air Force, their views concerning Japanese capabilities were easily dismissed.[19]

The American underestimation of the Japanese air services’ personnel, tactics, and technology from 1937-41 contributed to, though by no means caused, the early defeats in the Pacific War. However, Japan’s inability to rectify the fundamental problems within its air services and aviation industry crippled its air power as the war progressed, just as American observers had predicted. The accurate assessment that Japan could not win a prolonged war of attrition in the air against the United States was what mattered most. However, the errors in assessing Japanese tactics and technology caused serious problems over the short term. In their haste to predict the setting of the Sun, the Americans failed to appreciate the danger of its rise.

Justin Pyke obtained his MA in Military and Intelligence History from the University of Calgary in 2016. His main research interests include the Asia-Pacific War, military and politics of Imperial Japan, and the development of air and naval power in the inter-war period. He can be found on Twitter at @CBI_PTO_History.

Header Image: A Mitsubishi A6M2 ‘Zero’/‘Zeke’ at the US National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics Langley Research Center, Virginia on 8 March 1943. On 4 June 1942, a Japanese task force launched a strike against Dutch Harbor, Alaska from the aircraft carriers Ryujo and Junyo. Petty Officer Tadayoshi Koga was flying an A6M2 from the Ryujo. On the way back to his carrier, he discovered of bullets had pierced his fuel tanks and he headed for an emergency landing on Akutan Island. However, the plane flipped over on its back during the landing, and Koga was killed. The A6M itself was only slightly damaged. A Japanese submarine failed to locate Koga or his plane, but five weeks later an American naval scouting party found the Japanese fighter. The A6M2 was salvaged and shipped back to the USA where it was repaired, and went through an exhaustive series of tests in order to gain information about its strengths and weaknesses. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] A-1-m 15776, Dive Bombing in the Japanese Aviation, July 27, 1938, Naval Attaché Reports, 1886-1939, Box 68, RG 38, NA; Japanese Naval Activities in China, July 29, 1940, Naval Attaché Records, 1939-1941, 1940 File 59-124, RG 38, NA; Comments on Naval Aviation by Japanese Naval Aviators, August 23, 1941, Naval Attaché Records, 1939-1941, 1941 File 62, RG 38, NA.

[2] Expansion of Aircraft Manufacturing Industry, July 21, 1937, Selected Naval Attaché Reports Relating to the World Crisis, 1937-1943, Roll 2, RG 38, NA, p. 1.

[3] The Aircraft Industry in Japan, August 5, 1939, Naval Attaché Records, 1939-1941, 1939 File 165-233, RG 38, NA, pp. 1-2.

[4] Mark R. Peattie, Sunburst: The Rise of Japanese Naval Air Power, 1909-1941 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2001), p. 100; Erich Pauer, ‘Japan’s technical mobilization in the Second World War,’ in Erich Pauer (ed.), Japan’s War Economy (New York, NY: Routledge, 1999), pp. 54-5; Hagiwara Mitsuru, ‘The Japanese Air Campaigns in China, 1937-1945,’ in Mark Peattie, Edward Drea, and Hans Van de Ven (eds.), The Battle for China: Essays on the Military History of the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011), p. 243; Jonathan B. Parshall and Anthony P. Tully, Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway (Washington D.C.: Potomac Books, 2005), p. 89; Eric M. Bergerud, Fire in the Sky: The Air War in the South Pacific (New York: Basic Books, 2009), p. 21, 46; Sakai Saburo, Martin Caidin, and Fred Saito, Samurai! (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1991), p. 242.

[5] Greg Kennedy, ‘Anglo-American Strategic Relations and Intelligence Assessments of Japanese Air Power, 1934-1941,’ The Journal of Military History, 74:3 (2010), p. 772.

[6] William M. Leary, ‘Assessing the Japanese Threat: Air Intelligence Prior to Pearl Harbor,’ Aerospace Historian, 34:4 (1987), p. 274; 2085-947, The Capabilities of Japan in Military Aviation, June 23, 1939, US Military Intelligence Reports, Japan, 1918-1941, Reel 31, University Press of America, p. 1.

[7] Airplane Characteristics – Mitsubishi Type Zero Fighter, November 9, 1940, Naval Attaché Records, 1939-1941, 1940 File 125-202, RG 38, NA; New Dive Bomber in Production, August 2, 1940, Naval Attaché Records, 1939-1941, 1940 File 59-124, RG 38, NA.

[8] New Types of Aircraft, July 17, 1939, Naval Attaché Records, 1939-1941, 1939 File 89-164, RG 38, NA; Type 97 Torpedo-Bomber, November 16, 1939, Naval Attaché Records, 1939-1941, 1939 File 234-281, RG 38, NA; Specifications of Japanese Naval Bomber, Model 97, June 4, 1940, Naval Attaché Records, 1939-1941, 1940 File 59-124, RG 38, NA.

[9] Richard M. Bueschel, Mitsubishi/Nakajima G3M1/2/3 96 Rikko L3Y1/2 In Japanese Naval Air Service (Atglen: Schiffer Publishing, 1997), p. 20; Description of Navy Heavy Bomber, Type 96, July 26, 1939, Naval Attaché Records, 1939-1941, 1939 File 165-233, RG 38, NA; René J. Francillon, Japanese Aircraft of the Pacific War, Second Edition (London: Putnam Aeronautical Books, 1979), p. 350.

[10] Thomas G. Mahnken, Uncovering Ways of War: U.S. Intelligence and Foreign Military Innovation, 1918-1941 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002), pp. 79-80; Horikoshi Jiro, Eagles of Mitsubishi: The Story of the Zero Fighter, trans. Shojiro Shindo and Harold N. Wantiez (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981), p. 107.

[11] Leary, ‘Assessing the Japanese Threat,’ pp. 275-76; Horikoshi, Eagles of Mitsubishi, p. 85; John B. Lundstrom, The First Team: Pacific Naval Air Combat from Pearl Harbor to Midway (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2005), p. 486; Roger Letourneau and Dennis Letourneau, Operation KE: The Cactus Air Force and the Japanese Withdrawal from Guadalcanal (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2012), p. 13; Sakai et.al., Samurai, p. 83.

[12] John B. Lundstrom, The First Team and the Guadalcanal Campaign: Naval Fighter Combat from August to November 1942 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2005), pp. 535-36.

[13] See: Francillon, Japanese Aircraft of the Pacific War; Richard M. Bueschel, Nakajima Ki.84a/b Hayate in Japanese Army Air Force Service (Canterbury: Osprey Publishing, 1971).

[14] Notes on Japanese Naval Aviation, August 4, 1939, Naval Attaché Records, 1939-1941, 1939 File 165-233, RG 38, NA; Dropping of Aircraft Torpedoes by Japanese Naval Aircraft, September 26, 1939, Naval Attaché Records, 1939-1941, 1939 File 165-233, RG 38, NA; A-1-m 15776, Aerial Operations, August 2, 1940, Naval Attaché Reports, 1886-1939, Box 68, RG 38, NA; 2085-956, Handbook on the Air Services of Japan, September 27, 1940, US Military Intelligence Reports, Japan, 1918-1941, Reel 31, University Press of America, p. 36, 79.

[15] 2085-908, Military Aviation – General, July 29, 1937, US Military Intelligence Reports, Japan, 1918-1941, Reel 30, University Press of America, p. 3; W.D. Puleston, The Armed Forces of the Pacific: A Comparison of the Military and Naval Power of the United States and Japan (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1941), p. 231.

[16] Fletcher Pratt, Sea Power and Today’s War (New York: Harrison-Hilton Books, 1939), pp. 177-78.

[17] 2085-947, The Capabilities of Japan in Military Aviation, pp. 1-3.

[18] Comment on Japanese Air Force by Chinese Aviators, September 17, 1940, Naval Attaché Records, 1939-1941, 1940 File 125-202, RG 38, NA; Peattie, Sunburst, p. 110, 123.

[19] Peter Harmsen, Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze (Havertown: Casemate Publishers, 2013), p. 30.

Blinded by the Rising Sun? American Intelligence Assessments of Japanese Air Power, 1920-41: Part 2 – 1930-1937

Blinded by the Rising Sun? American Intelligence Assessments of Japanese Air Power, 1920-41: Part 2 – 1930-1937

By Justin Pyke

Editorial Note: In the second part of a three-part article, Justin Pyke examines American intelligence assessments of Japanese air power during the inter-war years. This second part examines issues between 1930 and 1937. Part one of this article can be found here.

The early and mid-1930s brought with them a fundamental change in the trajectory of the Japanese air services. Their dependence on foreign technology and assistance began to decrease at the same time American intelligence assessments began to drop noticeably in overall quality. This decline stemmed partly from the dramatic improvement of Japanese information security and the increasing influence of preconceived notions of Japanese unoriginality. Observations concerning the Japanese aviation industry and the broad strategic value of air power remained consistent and accurate, while opinions of Japanese personnel became increasingly contradictory.

Nakajima_Ki-27_at_Hamamatsu
A Nakajima Ki-27 ‘Nate’ fighter aircraft. (Source: Wikimedia)

Western observers were forced to rely increasingly on open sources in place of the informative avenues that they had used previously. The Japanese press reported generally on the air services, and the frequency of reports that paraphrased such news stories gradually increased and replaced the detailed assessments derived from other sources.[1] The amount of information gathered through tours of air stations declined dramatically from 1930-37.[2] Additionally, Western aviation experts and military officers were treated increasingly like spies.[3] The Americans still were able to gather much intelligence regarding strategic and industrial issues, but nothing provided the kind of detailed tactical and technical information that they had grown accustomed to having during the 1920s.

The assessments that came out of Japan from 1930 to mid-1937 continued to accurately track the rapid expansion of the air services, along with the problems that constantly plagued the aviation industry. A June 1930 report contained comprehensive details concerning aircraft production across the dozens of factories that had sprung up in the country. For example, the Kawasaki Dockyard Company in Kobe possessed approximately 200 machine tools in its aircraft and engine factory, almost all of American manufacture.[4] The Japanese had relied heavily on the importation of foreign machine tools during the 1920s and did so even more as the industry expanded. Despite the continuing weakness of the Japanese aviation industry, the author of another report was surprised at the ‘remarkable strides’ that the Japanese Army (IJA) and Navy (IJN) had taken during the previous year, both in quality and quantity of production.[5] Strategy drove these strides. The IJN wished to use air power to overcome the disadvantage in the surface fleet institutionalised by the Washington and London naval arms limitation treaties, and the Imperial Japanese Army Air Service would undergo a similar expansion following the annexation of Manchuria and the 1932 Shanghai Incident.[6]

Foreign observers closely followed Japan’s increased efforts to expand the air services. In 1934, the Soviet State Military Publishing Bureau published a book on the Japanese air services written by D. Streshnevsky.[7] His views on the quality of Japanese industry roughly coincided with those of the Americans. The book listed all the aviation-related factories in Japan and noted that almost every single one had been enlarged, reconstructed, or both. Despite these strides, the aviation industry still depended on imports. Fuel was the most critical shortage, due to Japan’s complete lack of indigenous sources.[8] Such discussions of strategic resources and industrial capability were a staple of intelligence assessments of Japanese aviation, justifiably.[9] In 1936, the American military attaché provided an excellent summary of the strategic and industrial elements of Japanese air power. He noted aircraft manufacturing, which already struggled with a lack of skilled workers, would be hindered even more after the outbreak of hostilities due to the need for expanded production while making use of the same limited pool of the workforce. Additionally, factories could easily be deprived of the raw materials needed to manufacture aircraft of quality and quantity.[10] Another report noted the slow rate of aircraft production meant that Japan was unable to maintain a sufficient aircraft reserve:

planes designated as ‘reserve planes’ are used as much as those in service, and the number may vary from none at all to a disproportionate percentage, especially where units are being equipped with new models.[11]

Overall, reports stressed that Japanese industrial practices were rapidly improving, but still struggled with many inherent weaknesses, such as a reliance on foreign techniques and a shortage of skilled labour, raw resources, and machine tools.

G3M_Type_96_Attack_Bomber_Nell_G3M-24s
An Imperial Japanese Navy’s G3M from Kisarazu Air Group over Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum, Nanking, 1938. This bomber entered service in 1936. (Source: Wikimedia)

Appraisals of Japanese technological progress began to slip in quality during the early and mid-1930s. The preconception that the Japanese were incapable of extensive technical innovation in aviation, which had been true during the 1920s, began to mask the Japanese progress in the area from the early 1930s. It is telling that the translation of Streshnevsky’s work was the only report from the American naval attaché’s office that emphasised Japan’s growing inventive capabilities.[12] Mr Parker of the Bristol Company expressed the typical Western view when he described the Japanese as ‘notorious copyists.’[13] Instead, by 1930 the Japanese were modifying foreign designs to fit their own needs rather than simply copying them wholesale, and an increasing number of designs were entirely of Japanese origin. Several capable indigenous aircraft were designed or entered service from 1933-37, such as the G3M Land-Based Attack Aircraft (‘Nell’), and combined to bring the Japanese air services up to rough technological parity with the West by the late 1930s.[14] By the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War in July 1937, the Japanese had achieved independence in the field of aviation design and manufacturing, something that went unnoticed by American observers.

American assessments of the quality of Japanese pilots, mechanics, and workers were increasingly varied and contradictory. Philip G. Lucas of the Hawker Company stated that the Japanese were ‘competent’ pilots who should not be underrated, implying that the common views held in the United States and Great Britain were inaccurate.[15] Parker and Mr Burgoine of the Bristol Company both agreed that the Japanese were ‘excellent’ fliers, but exhibited a lack of initiative and originality in their flights.[16] Two foreign air force pilots, one British and one German, were given increasingly rare opportunities to witness Japanese pilots in flight while they toured IJA and IJN air stations in early 1935. They both concluded the Japanese were ‘good’ pilots, but the Englishman noted that the Japanese were more ‘conservative’ in their manoeuvring.[17] Streshnevsky’s analysis of Japanese air performance over Shanghai in 1932 left a poor impression. Japanese bombing was ineffectual because of poorly trained pilots and insufficient bomb loads.[18] While reports on aircrew quality were contradictory, American observers continued to accurately note that Japan lacked the depth of aircrew reserves to keep up with the rate of attrition in a high-intensity air war.[19]

Americans assessed Japanese mechanics and workers much as they did their flying compatriots. Mr R. Moffett of the Wright Aeronautical Corporation condemned all the Japanese engineers, mechanics, and workers with whom he worked. Engine mechanics, ‘lamentably poor’ when tasked with correcting minor difficulties with auxiliary equipment, had to be shown the exact detailed procedure to follow. Enlisted men appeared ‘stupid.’ Moffett concluded that the Japanese ‘are striving far beyond their capabilities in the engine field.’[20] Other Western aviation representatives had kinder words for Japanese personnel. Lucas described the Japanese mechanics whom he met as ‘extremely intelligent’ and rated the overall quality of Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service maintenance personnel as ‘very high.’[21] Burgoine and Parker believed that the Japanese could learn rapidly through experience, and thought the mechanics in the aviation industry well-trained and ‘excellent,’ but lacking experience with machine tools.[22]

The American intelligence assessments of Japanese air power from 1930 to mid-1937 remained excellent regarding industrial and strategic issues but were noticeably less accurate regarding technology and tactics. Japanese military aviation had been an open door for intelligence gathering in the 1920s, but the opening gradually narrowed through the early 1930s and slammed shut with the start of the war in China in 1937. The preconception of Japanese unoriginality, particularly regarding aircraft design, became increasingly influential during the 1930s at a time when Japan was moving away from its foreign dependence. Meanwhile, the opinions concerning the quality of Japanese air and ground crews were diverse, varying wildly from praise to derision and everything in between. The lack of a clear and consistent snapshot of Japanese personnel became a major problem in the late 1930s, as did the assumption that the Japanese could not innovate in the aviation sphere.

Justin Pyke obtained his MA in Military and Intelligence History from the University of Calgary in 2016. His main research interests include the Asia-Pacific War, military and politics of Imperial Japan, and the development of air and naval power in the inter-war period. He can be found on Twitter at @CBI_PTO_History.

Header Image: Nakajima Ki-27 at Nomonhan during the Battle of Khalkhin Gol, c. 1939. This indigenous IJAAS fighter entered service in 1937. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] E-8-a 21984, Japanese Army desires for Unification of Army-Navy Air Service Opposed by Navy, March 20, 1936, Naval Attaché Reports, 1886-1939, Box 732, RG 38, NA.

[2] A-1-l 19973, Tateyama Naval Air Station, December 4 1930, Naval Attaché Reports, 1886-1939, Box 64, RG 38, NA; A-1-l 19973, Tateyama Naval Air Station, January 30 1932, Naval Attaché Reports, 1886-1939, Box 64, RG 38, NA; A-1-l 19973, Tateyama Naval Air Station, December 4 1933, Naval Attaché Reports, 1886-1939, Box 64, RG 38, NA; A-1-l 19973, Tateyama Naval Air Station, December 31 1935, Naval Attaché Reports, 1886-1939, Box 64, RG 38, NA; A-1-l 19973, Tateyama Naval Air Station, December 24 1936, Naval Attaché Reports, 1886-1939, Box 64, RG 38, NA.

[3] 2085-810, Military Aviation – General: Attachment of British Officer to the 4th Air Regt., February 10 1937, US Military Intelligence Reports, Japan, 1918-1941, Reel 29, University Press of America, p. 2, 15; A-1-a 21684, British Estimate of Japanese Aviation, Continued, May 1 1935, Naval Attaché Reports, 1886-1939, Box 10, RG 38, NA, 1; A-1-a 21684, British Estimate of Japanese Aviation, February 11 1935, Naval Attaché Reports, 1886-1939, Box 10, RG 38, NA, p. 2; A-1-a 21684,Visit to Japan of Mr Victor E. Bertrandias of the Douglas Aircraft Company, February 16 1937, Naval Attaché Reports, 1886-1939, Box 10, RG 38, NA, pp. 1-2.

[4] 2085-680, Aircraft Factories, June 8, 1930, US Military Intelligence Reports, Japan, 1918-1941, Reel 28, University Press of America, p. 4.

[5] 2085-844, Aircraft Building of the Army & Navy during 1931, March 6, 1932, US Military Intelligence Reports, Japan, 1918-1941, Reel 29, University Press of America, p. 1.

[6] Mark R. Peattie, Sunburst: The Rise of Japanese Naval Air Power, 1909-1941 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2001), p. 27; Yoichi Hirama, ‘Japanese Naval Preparations for World War II,’ Naval War College Review, 44:2 (1991), p. 69; René J. Francillon, Japanese Aircraft of the Pacific War, Second Edition (London: Putnam Aeronautical Books, 1979), p. 31. For further details on the interwar naval arms limitation treaties, see: Erik Goldstein and John H. Maurer (eds.), The Washington Naval Conference, 1921-22: Naval Rivalry, East Asian Stability and the Road to Pearl Harbor (London: Frank Cass, 1994); John H. Maurer and Christopher M. Bell (eds.), At the Crossroads between Peace and War: The London Naval Conference of 1930 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2014).

[7] A-1-a 21973, Development of the Japanese Air Fleet, March 5, 1936, Naval Attaché Reports, 1886-1939, Box 10, RG 38, NA; A-1-a 21973, Japanese Naval Aviation, June 1, 1936, Naval Attaché Reports, 1886-1939, Box 10, RG 38, NA.

[8] A-1-a 21973, Development of the Japanese Air Fleet, 6-12.

[9] A-1-a 21684, British Estimate of Japanese Aviation; A-1-a 21684, British Estimate of Japanese Aviation, Continued; 2085-812, Aircraft Production – Non-Governmental. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Company, Ltd. Nagoya Aircraft Works, June 7, 1937, US Military Intelligence Reports, Japan, 1918-1941, Reel 29, University Press of America; 2085-885, Air Information, April 28, 1934, US Military Intelligence Reports, Japan, 1918-1941, Reel 29, University Press of America; 2085-687, Reply to Evaluation of Reports, October 23, 1936, US Military Intelligence Reports, Japan, 1918-1941, Reel 28, University Press of America.

[10] 2085-687, Reply to Evaluation of Reports, October 23, 1936, US Military Intelligence Reports, Japan, 1918-1941, Reel 28, University Press of America, p. 1.

[11] 2085-810, Military Aviation – General, p. 1.

[12] A-1-a 21973, Japanese Naval Aviation, p. 5.

[13] A-1-a 21684, British Estimate of Japanese Aviation, p. 4.

[14] Mikesh and Abe, Japanese Aircraft, p. 45; Peattie, Sunburst, p. 86, 89. Also see: Francillon, Japanese Aircraft of the Pacific War.

[15] A-1-a 21684, British Estimate of Japanese Aviation, Continued, p. 2.

[16] A-1-a 21684, British Estimate of Japanese Aviation, p. 4.

[17] A-1-a 21684, Foreign Opinions Regarding Japanese Naval and Military Aviation, February 21, 1935, Naval Attaché Reports, 1886-1939, Box 10, RG 38, NA.

[18] A-1-m 15776, Fighting Experience of the Japanese Military Air Forces, March 17, 1936, Naval Attaché Reports, 1886-1939, Box 68, RG 38, NA, 6.

[19] 2085-687, Reply to Evaluation of Reports, p. 2.

[20] A-1-a 21684, Visit to Japan of American Aircraft Representative, p. 1.

[21] A-1-a 21684, British Estimate of Japanese Aviation, Continued, pp. 1-2.

[22] A-1-a 21684, British Estimate of Japanese Aviation, p. 4.

Blinded by the Rising Sun? American Intelligence Assessments of Japanese Air Power, 1920-41: Part 1 – The 1920s

Blinded by the Rising Sun? American Intelligence Assessments of Japanese Air Power, 1920-41: Part 1 – The 1920s

By Justin Pyke

Editorial Note: In the first of a three-part article, Justin Pyke examines American intelligence assessments of Japanese air power during the inter-war years. This first part examines issues in the 1920s.

In December 1941 Japan launched a campaign of rapid conquest against British, American, and Dutch possessions throughout the Asia-Pacific region. The Imperial Japanese Army Air Service (IJAAS) and Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service (IJNAS) proved critical to the success of these early campaigns. Although American authorities identified Japan as a primary rival after 1918 and focused most of their intelligence gathering efforts on the East Asian nation, they failed to appreciate the threat posed by Japanese air power in 1941. This failure was not as simplistic as the old historiography portrays.[1] Instead, intelligence assessments of Japanese air power passed through three distinct phases. During the 1920s, American observers maintained an accurate picture of Japanese capabilities. Japan was largely an open society, and its air services depended on Western assistance, meaning the Americans were able to track major developments. The early and mid-1930s was a transition period from the openness of the 1920s to the extreme secrecy that characterised the period from 1937 onward. With the start of the war in China, the Americans were almost completely in the dark regarding assessments of the Japanese air services’ technology, tactics, and personnel. One thing that remained consistent from 1920-41 was American observers accurately assessed the strategic and industrial limits of Japan’s air power. Success with these higher level assessments ultimately mattered more than the mistakes made assessing technology and tactics.

SempillMission
Captain Sempill showing a Gloster Sparrowhawk to Admiral Tōgō Heihachiro, 1921. (Source: Wikimedia)

Throughout the 1920s Japan worked rapidly to catch up with the developments of Western powers in the field of military aviation. During this period, American intelligence assessments remained accurate at all levels, from personnel, tactics, and technology to industry and the scarcity of raw resources. American observers quickly identified Japan’s heavy reliance on foreign assistance and the weakness of its aviation industry, while the quality and quantity of Japanese aviation personnel and aircraft were carefully tracked. As throughout the entire inter-war period, the assessments primarily addressed Japan’s ability to wage a protracted war of attrition in the air, rather than to focus on tactical and technical capability.

The accuracy of American assessments in the 1920s was due in large part to openness within Japan. Letters were constantly exchanged between the American naval attaché and the Japanese Navy Ministry. The letters requested information about the IJNAS, such as its organisation, the numbers of available aircraft, and the number of existing and planned naval air stations. The Navy Ministry answered these letters in full.[2] The ease with which the naval attaché obtained large amounts of information through direct communication with the Navy Ministry was remarkable, but the openness of the Japanese was not limited to such communication. Tours of aircraft manufacturing facilities and air stations were also open and casual. The Americans were not rushed through important areas. The level of detail in an extensive report on Japanese aircraft factories from 1925 was typical and revealed lax Japanese information security. Minor technical details and factory layouts were abundantly described throughout the report, revealing the high level of access Americans had at the facilities. Japanese workmen and designers were extremely forthcoming when asked direct questions about their work.[3]

Japan’s reliance on foreign assistance allowed the Americans to keep pace with its technological and industrial advances. A report in 1924 stated that Japan always sought out the best foreign designed aircraft that it could purchase, and copied these models, along with the means to produce them. The air services were also modelled after what the Japanese thought was the most advanced foreign air forces.[4] For example, the IJNAS relied on British assistance regarding industrial practices, aviation technology, personnel training, and tactics.[5] The American naval attaché constantly emphasised the Japanese inability to design and build aircraft without extensive foreign aid. After inspecting the aircraft factories, he concluded that they had yet to produce any indigenously designed aircraft or engines ‘of any value whatsoever.’[6] A general summary from 1927 noted that all Japanese aircraft were of foreign design and that these aircraft were underpowered and inferior to contemporary American designs.[7] This claim was an overstatement, but the number of indigenous Japanese military designs remained very small throughout the 1920s.[8] The motif of Japanese unoriginality would persist through to the beginning of the Pacific War, long after it had ceased to be true. In the 1920s, however, Japan did seek to develop its air power by following in the footsteps of the world leaders.

The inferior production methods of Japan’s major aircraft manufacturers were also highlighted. One such report noted that most of the machine tools in the factories were of American manufacture and the machine shops themselves were crowded, which led to inefficiency within the production process. Production was prolonged, particularly when a factory was ordered to manufacture new types of aircraft. During this process, foreign workmen were always employed to ensure a smoother transition.[9] The Japanese aviation industry’s inability to rapidly turn existing factories over to produce new models of aircraft persisted into the Pacific War. It undermined Japan’s ability to keep pace both qualitatively and quantitatively with their Western foes. For example, the J2M Navy Interceptor Fighter (Raiden/‘Jack’) first flew nearly three months ahead of the F6F Hellcat prototype’s first flight. Despite this, the first production Hellcat was completed in the same month that the J2M had only just been accepted for serial production. Six months later only 14 J2Ms had been delivered at a time when Hellcats leapt off the American production lines.[10]

The opinion of Japanese personnel was generally low but remained balanced. A 1926 memorandum held Japanese airmen and officers in high regard, referring to them as ‘well disciplined.’ Most pilots were described as ‘good,’ while the work of the mechanics was deemed ‘most praiseworthy.’[11] The naval attaché’s assessments of Japanese pilots were more critical. One report concluded that the Japanese have a ‘fair ability’ as pilots, but rated them poorly in all around efficiency.[12] The British aviators who had trained the IJNAS in the early 1920s informed the Americans of their low opinion of Japanese personnel, and this view was shared by Colonel Jacques-Paul Faure, head of the French Military Aviation Mission to Japan that had trained the IJAAS’ pilots.[13] A major 1928 report on Japanese aviation viewed mechanics within the Japanese air services as poor, although civilians brought in to help the military were good.[14] Conspicuous by its absence was any notion of the inferiority of the Japanese race despite the criticism levelled against Japanese personnel.

FrenchMilitaryMissionToJapan
The French Military Mission to Japan, 1918-1919 (Source: Wikimedia)

A handful of reports did, however, attribute personnel deficiencies to the national characteristics, or national stereotypes, of the Japanese people. One assessment stated that:

[t]he Japanese is not a natural flyer and rarely loves flying for its own sake. Neither is he a natural mechanic, nor has he any tradition of trained mechanics behind him.[15]

While it is easy to dismiss this statement as racist or irrational, it did contain some truth. The Japanese air services had a chronic shortage of trained mechanics, partly because Japan was not a fully industrialised nation like the United States or Great Britain. The Japanese economy, despite massive leaps since the Meiji Restoration, continued to operate ‘with one foot in the nineteenth century.’[16] Once again, the quality of Japanese pilots was called into question, but the report concluded that if American pilots were considered ‘very good,’ the Japanese were rated ‘good.’[17] This statement made it clear that the Japanese were inferior to their western counterparts, but it was hardly irrational or unfair.

The most noteworthy weaknesses that the Americans identified regarding Japanese aviation personnel were the lack of pilot training and reserves. In an information bulletin detailing the Japanese Diet’s 1924 budget for naval aviation, the naval attaché noted that the IJNAS had no reserve personnel at all.[18] Another report stated that ‘there are three schools of aviation, but only one [sic] army flying training school,’ and went on to detail the number of pilots available to Japan.[19] The 1927 general summary of the Japanese air services questioned the flying experience of the officers, and described the flying seen in Japan as ‘characterized by timidity and one could not help but feel that dash and spirit were lacking.’ The report concluded that the IJAAS and IJNAS were at:

[a]n elementary stage of development. None of them are capable of combat with well developed aviation, considering factors other than equipment.[20]

Taken as a whole, American intelligence assessments of Japanese air power during the 1920s were highly accurate from the strategic and industrial spheres down to the tactical and technological level. Lax information security measures within Japan provided American observers with a remarkable level of freedom. American reports assessed the ability of Japan to fight a protracted war in the air, where aircraft production figures, industrial efficiency, innovative aircraft design, strong pilot training programs, and sizeable pilot reserves were critical to achieving success. The correct conclusion was Japan did not yet possess air power that could seriously threaten the Western powers, but this would begin to change in the 1930s.

Justin Pyke obtained his MA in Military and Intelligence History from the University of Calgary in 2016. His main research interests include the Asia-Pacific War, military and politics of Imperial Japan, and the development of air and naval power in the inter-war period. He can be found on Twitter at @CBI_PTO_History.

Header Image: A Nakajima A2N carrier borne fighter that first flew at the end of the 1920s. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] For examples of the old view regarding American intelligence assessments of Japan, see: John W. Dower, War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (New York: Pantheon Books, 1986); David Kahn, ‘United States Views of Germany and Japan in 1941,’ in Ernest R. May (ed.), Knowing One’s Enemies: Intelligence Assessment before the Two World Wars (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986).

[2] A-1-u 17242, Letter to Captain K. Terashima, I.J.N., January 27 1925, Naval Attaché Reports, 1886-1939, Box 142, Record Group [RG] 38, National Archives and Records Administration [NA], Washington, D.C.; A-1-u 17242, Information on Air Services, March 5 1926, Naval Attaché Reports, 1886-1939, Box 142, RG 38, NA; A-1-u 17242, Letter to Mr McClaran, February 10 1925, Naval Attaché Reports, 1886-1939, Box 142, RG 38, NA.

[3] A-1-u 17242, Visit to Aircraft Factories, May 15, 1925, Naval Attaché Reports, 1886-1939, Box 142, RG 38, NA.

[4] 2085-630, Extracts from Report of Inspection of United States Possessions in the Pacific and Java, Singapore, India, Siam, China, & Japan, October 24, 1924, US Military Intelligence Reports, Japan, 1918-1941, Reel 28, University Press of America, 1.

[5] Mark R. Peattie, Sunburst: The Rise of Japanese Naval Air Power, 1909-1941 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2001), pp. 17-20; Jonathan Parkinson, ‘HIJMS Wakamiya and the Early Development of Japanese Naval Air Power,’ The Mariner’s Mirror, 99:3 (2013), pp. 318-321. Also see: John Ferris, ‘A British ‘Unofficial’ Aviation Mission and Japanese Naval Developments, 1919-1929,’ Journal of Strategic Studies, 5:3 (1982), pp. 416-39.

[6] A-1-u 17242, Japanese Air Strength, May 5, 1925, Naval Attaché Reports, 1886-1939, Box 142, RG 38, NA, 3.

[7] 2085-663, General Summary Japanese Air Service, June 1, 1927, US Military Intelligence Reports, Japan, 1918-1941, Reel 28, University Press of America, 8.

[8] See: Robert C. Mikesh and Shorzoe Abe, Japanese Aircraft, 1910-1941 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1990).

[9] A-1-u 17242, Visit to Aircraft Factories, 1, 8.

[10] Fighter Combat Comparisons No. 1: Grumman F6F-5 Hellcat vs. Mitsubishi J2M3 Model 21 Raiden (‘Jack’) (Teaneck: Tacitus Publications, 1989), p. 13.

[11] 2085-647, Memorandum for Major Baldwin, September 30, 1926, US Military Intelligence Reports, Japan, 1918-1941, Reel 28, University Press of America, 3, 6.

[12] A-1-u 17242, Japanese Air Strength, 3.

[13] Thomas G. Mahnken, Uncovering Ways of War: U.S. Intelligence and Foreign Military Innovation, 1918-1941 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002), p. 73; A-1-u 17242, Aviation, July 21, 1925, Naval Attaché Reports, 1886-1939, Box 142, RG 38, NA, 3.

[14] 2085-784, Report of Major W. B. Duty, September 20, 1928, US Military Intelligence Reports, Japan, 1918-1941, Reel 29, University Press of America, 83.

[15] 2085-748, Japanese Aviation: Army, Navy, Civil, July 20, 1927, US Military Intelligence Reports, Japan, 1918-1941, Reel 29, University Press of America, 2.

[16] Eric M. Bergerud, Fire in the Sky: The Air War in the South Pacific (New York: Basic Books, 2009), p. 17.

[17] 2085-748, Japanese Aviation: Army, Navy, Civil, 2.

[18] A-1-u 17242, Data for Congressional Hearing; Additional Detailed Information on Air Services, February 9, 1925, Naval Attaché Reports, 1886-1939, Box 142, RG 38, NA, 2.

[19] 2085-719, Information as to Japanese Aviation, February 9, 1927, US Military Intelligence Reports, Japan, 1918-1941, Reel 28, University Press of America.

[20] 2085-663, General Summary Japanese Air Service, 3, 7.