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A Japanese Mogani class cruiser burns after being bombed in the Battle of Midway in June 1942. Credit - Corbis—Getty Images
On June 4, 1942, the first day of the battle of Midway, the U.S. Navy sank four Japanese aircraft carriers for the loss of one of its own. This tore the heart out of Kido Butai, the enemy striking force, and changed the whole dynamic of the War in the Pacific where the Americans had been on the retreat since the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor six months earlier. It would take another three hard years to defeat Japan, which was still on the advance in the Solomons further south, but it was clear that the tide had turned. This epic victory came down to many things, including excellent U.S. intelligence and the strategic genius of Admiral Chester Nimitz, the Commander of the Pacific Fleet, but above all it was the achievement of a small number of highly-skilled dive-bomber pilots and their plane, the Douglas Dauntless. It was they who set the four Japanese carriers ablaze.
Today, the order that these men helped to create is once again under threat, and it is not clear that the U.S. would win a second battle of Midway. For the first time since World War II, the West faces a serious naval challenge in the Pacific. The People’s Republic of China—a communist dictatorship—poses both an ideological threat and a strategic one. It has built a large oceangoing navy with a growing carrier capability; the first domestically built aircraft carrier is expected to enter service in 2023. In fact, according to a U.S. Department of Defense report in 2020, the PRC now boasts “the largest navy in the world with an overall battle force of approximately 350 ships.” It menaces Taiwan directly and has established a massive military presence in the contested South China Sea. Beyond this, Beijing’s “Belt and Road Initiative,” which seeks to transform the whole of Eurasia, and the maritime “String of Pearls” concept, which attempts something similar in the Indo-Pacific, shows the PRC’s vaulting ambition.
Over the past few years, the United States and the rest of the Western world generally have slowly been waking up to this reality. In February 2016, Admiral Harry Harris, chief of US Pacific Command, warned Congress that he believed that “China seeks hegemony in East Asia.” In April last year, the Australian secretary for home affairs, Michael Pezzullo, announced that the “drums of war” were beating in the Pacific and that the nation needed to prepare accordingly. As for the PRC, leader Xi Jinping has warned advisers to “prepare for war” in the South China Sea.
In fact, the People’s Republic of China poses some of the same problems for the United States as Imperial Japan did in World War II, but on a much larger scale. Like Imperial Japan, the PRC’s leaders believe that the current order in the region is illegitimate and stacked against their interests. Whatever one thinks of these claims and demands, they are not simply to be mocked or disregarded. If we don’t deal with them, or prepare to counter them, then we may suffer another Pearl Harbor—but there is no guarantee that we have done the necessary preparation to earn another Midway.
There are two principal reasons to be concerned. First, the U.S. Navy is, as former Navy Secretary John Lehman has written, “stretched too thin and woefully underfunded.” Its ship and dockyards are in crisis. The fighting navy, as Seth Cropsey, the director of the Center for American Seapower, lamented, is now only 297 ships strong, fewer than half the number during the Reagan administration, and is tasked with deterring not only the PRC but also Russia, Iran, and North Korea. Second, the PRC is unlikely to oblige the United States by walking into a trap in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, as the Japanese did at Midway. It is more likely to inflict a surprise defeat in the narrow waters of the South China Sea.
In these circumstances, as Elbridge Colby, former deputy assistant secretary for defense and the lead author of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, has argued, Washington must prepare to win a war with China—one which it cannot afford to lose—precisely in order to prevent that war from happening. In the Pacific, as David Zikusoka of the Center for a New American Security wrote, the United States’ best hope may be to draw the PRC into a complex struggle on many fronts far from home. America, he argued, has learned “how to fight away games,” whereas the PRC has not, or at least not yet. Ultimately, this is about deterrence. “The defense establishment,” Zikusoka said, “needs to start thinking about how it would fight a Second battle of Midway to ensure it never has to fight at all.”
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When a military confrontation arises between the West and the People’s Republic of China, it will consist in large part of a contest for the sea. In some respects, this will take the form of a battle for the control of islands, many of them obscure outposts such as Midway, that govern access to the continents of Asia and North America. But in other respects this will be a battle between naval resources, between carriers that attack one another from beyond the horizon with aircraft or missiles. It is understandable, then, that the battle of Midway, which bears strategic and tactical similarities to a likely future scenario, has been the focus of renewed attention. The battle also offers important lessons about the value of fundamentals, such as intelligence and reconnaissance, or the principles of surprise and simplicity, as well as outright aggression. There is also the obvious lesson of the Douglas Dauntless Dive-Bomber, a sturdy and powerful weapon, built in adequate numbers in advance of the war.
Unsurprisingly, the PRC has taken a keen interest in the Battle of Midway and its lessons. China, as Lyle Goldstein wrote in the National Interest in 2017, “hopes to get right what Imperial Japan got wrong.” Tactically, they have criticized the submarine and carrier deployment and the immense risk of exposing the Kido Butai so far from home. Strategically, they have noted the failure to prepare the economy for a long war, so that battlefield losses could be replaced. A more cautious approach, they have concluded, might well have “caused the Americans to bleed heavily” and seek a negotiated solution.
Our own lessons from Midway are somewhat different. First of all, the battle shows that procurement wins wars. “You have two kinds of equipment,” said the only survivor of a Torpedo Squadron destroyed at the battle of Midway, George Gay at the end of his book Sole Survivor. “Experimental and obsolete.” His point was that the military was in continual need of improving its equipment. The Dauntless was designed, and the three American carriers built before the war; the critical dive-bomber pilots got their wings before Pearl Harbor.
Second, the Battle of Midway teaches us that war takes place not in some other world but in our own world. The danger of interpreting World War II as a reaction to the attack on Pearl Harbor is that it causes one to believe that the problems of war are solved during wartime. The time to prepare for the next Midway is now.
It has now been 80 years since the Battle of Midway. It would appear that much has changed. Modern weapons systems have a lethality and complexity unimaginable at the time of Midway time. The strategic situation is also different: the United States and Japan, for example, are now allies. One thing, though, remains the same. East Asia is still the site of a furious contestation, at the heart of which lies the Indo-Pacific. The job that the dive-bomber pilots did may, unfortunately, have to be done all over again.
But America is now less prepared than it was when it was surprised at Pearl Harbor. Despite the loss of the battle fleet, and even before the great engine of American industry began its relentless production, the U.S. carrier force of December 1941 was strong enough to stem and then turn the tide. Today, the U.S. Navy is a formidable force, but it possesses only a proportion of its former dominance. Its real quality will be demonstrated only when it is put to the test—that is when we will know which of its systems are the Devastators and which are the Dauntlesses of our time.
As conflict between the United States and the People’s Republic of China looms in the Pacific, there is still a critical lesson in Midway for our time. We have seen that the devastatingly effective attack of the dive bombers was not a fluke, as is sometimes suggested. They did exactly what they had been trained to do. Equally important was the fact that their equipment, and especially the Douglas Dauntless bomber itself, did exactly what it had been designed to do. The peacetime American taxpayers got excellent value for their money. Even if the United States had not built a single new ship after Pearl Harbor or trained a single new pilot, it would still have won the Battle at Midway. This means that the United States today should not trust luck or amateur genius, but military preparedness in times of relative peace. The question Midway poses is not whether we were lucky then but whether we want to trust luck today.
Adapted from The Silver Waterfall: How America Won the War in the Pacific at Midway by Brendan Simms and Steven McGregor, available now from PublicAffairs. Copyright © 2022 by Brendan Simms and Steven McGregor.