Streetwise Professor

November 27, 2012

A Little Perspective

Filed under: History,Military — The Professor @ 10:53 am

In the comments, So? mentions the successful Chinese landing of a J-15 jet on its new aircraft carrier as evidence of China rising.

It is an advance for China, definitely. But a baby step when you consider the complexity of carrier operations, especially at a true operational tempo, with 120 sorties (takeoffs and landing) per 12 hour flight day, sometimes surging to 190 per day. The ballet of the deck is an amazing-and amazingly dangerous-thing. Especially when you start doing it with live ammunition hanging from wings and waiting on deck, and especially especially when you do it day after day and crews become fatigued.

The US Navy has been doing this for close to a century. The accumulated experience and knowledge will take the Chinese a generation to match. (Only four navies-the US, Japan, the UK, and France have operated carriers in a serious way.)

And by the time China catches up with that, the US will have moved on. It is already moving on. For on virtually the same day China landed a manned jet on a carrier, the US loaded an X-47B Unmanned Aerial Vehicle onto the USS Harry Truman for flight testing:

So while China takes its first steps into the 20th century doing what the US (and the UK) first did in 1945-land a manned combat jet on a CV-the US is moving into the 21st by testing unmanned combat jet on a CV.

So who is really making history? And is a gap closing, or opening?

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  1. As significant as it may be, there is something very cargo-cultish about much of Chinese progress. The canonical example is the BMW-Mercedes frankencar from 6-7 years ago. The front was Mercedes, the rear – BMW. The J-20 fighter canopy is a carbon-copy of the F-22 canopy. (One would think with high-performance aircraft, where everything is tightly integrated into everything else, such verbatim copying of significant aerodynamic elements is a bad idea).

    WRT the carrier, I’ve read that the Chinese copied the color-coding of the vests from Americans. There is even a catapult officer theatrically crouching (“Hotshots”) and watching the take-off path of the plane, where the catapult is… but THERE IS NO CATAPULT ON THE VARYAG.

    FWIW, vis-a-vis USN, SSNs and SSBNs are much more important, and the Chinese ones hardly ever leave port. The carrier is better for showing the flag and showboating, that’s for sure. (IMO, a UAV carrier would be less impressive PR-wise).

    Comment by So? — November 27, 2012 @ 4:32 pm

  2. @So? The Chinese are known as imitators/copiers. Even when it doesn’t really make sense.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — November 27, 2012 @ 4:59 pm

  3. Hm. What do you think about War Nerd’s carrier posts? Are carriers really the cat’s meow?

    Comment by Candide III — November 27, 2012 @ 8:09 pm

  4. A propos Japanese operation of aircraft carriers, that is quite an interesting story. The IJN acquired their first carrier in 1922, spent about 20 years “perfecting” their operational technique, amassed the world’s largest operational fleet carrier force by 1942 – and lost 47% of their aircraft carrier tonnage in one day.

    That was four fleet carriers, at Midway, on June 4 1942. The loss was down to just *nine* bombs on target. Nine bombs incinerated four carriers, and one of those was doomed by exactly *one* bomb hit. It wasn’t even a very big bomb.

    This was not a one-off. Two years later, at the battle of the Philippine Sea, they again lost four carriers in one day. They had left the same admiral in charge so he wouldn’t lose face. Four months after that they made it the triple, by losing another four aircraft carriers in one day at the battle of Leyte Gulf.

    The IJN remains the only navy in history to have lost four capital ships in a day on three separate occasions. In total they built or started ~27 aircraft carriers of which 22 were sunk. The other five were either unfinished or wrecked at anchor. One blew up spontaneously.

    The Philippine Sea battle was instructive. One loss was a brand new carrier called ‘Taiho’. Having absorbed the lessons of Midway, where dive bombers devastated their fleet, they built their newest carrier with an armoured bomb-proof flight deck, massive AAA protection to repel dive bombers, and a fighter-heavy air group to intercept dive bombers.

    You’re ahead of me, aren’t you? Yep, ‘Taiho’ was – of course! – torpedoed and sunk by a submarine. A torpedo fractured the hull, on the other side of which was an avgas tank. Somebody switched on the air con to get rid of the smell, and someone elsewhere in the ship was smoking a cigarette, or firing a weapon, or playing with matches, or something…kaboom.

    Essentially Japanese carrier doctrine was that there was no need to bother with damage control, because their underarmoured, radioless, parachuteless aircraft had longer range. Thus they would always reach the enemy first, and it would always be themselves doing the bombing.

    Notwithstanding the superficial similarity to US and UK fleet carriers – which were both very hard to sink – dubious operational practice meant that the Japanese carrier force was a sharp but brittle weapon.

    If you are interested in a first-class, very accessible read on this subject, I recommend to you the book “Shattered Sword” by Parshall and Tully, c. 2005. They lay bare the utter ineptitude of the IJN at Midway, in excruciating and sometimes witty detail.

    Anyway – I concur with the supposition that having a carrier is not the same as knowing how to use it. Japan had the requisite generation to learn, and thought it had, and hadn’t.

    Comment by Green as Grass — November 28, 2012 @ 6:06 am

  5. @Thanks, Green. Yes, 4 June 42-the most 5 miraculous minutes in military/naval history. I read Parshall and Tully over the summer. Fascinating. Interesting details on Japanese carrier operations (both in terms of employment and deck/flight operations) as well as their appalling damage control. Quite a contrast when you consider American DC on Enterprise (in the Solomons) and Yorktown (Coral Sea and Midway).

    One quibble re the Philippine Sea. Japan lost 3 carriers, the Taiho and Shokaku to subs, and Hiyo to air attack. 3 other Japanese carriers were hit by bombs.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — November 28, 2012 @ 3:08 pm

  6. I’ve read somewhere that one other reason why the Japanese lost is that being materially poor, they were very risk averse with their capital equipment (not their human capital, obviously). While the Americans were much more aggressive and daring as far as risking their assets. Would this be way off the mark?

    Comment by So? — November 28, 2012 @ 5:00 pm

  7. As So? says, the J-20 looks ripped off from the US and Russian warplanes of the 1970s, somewhere between a Mig-29 and an F-14. The problem with copycat engineering is that you are lumbered with a product at least a generation old. If you ever go to Malaysia, you’ll notice that the national car – the Proton, which benefits from protectionist policies – all look like Japanese cars 10 years older than the Proton model you’re looking at. By the time they’ve gotten their hands on one, looked at it, and got the copies into production, the model is already outdated.

    Comment by Tim Newman — November 30, 2012 @ 2:19 am

  8. Daniel Yergin in The Prize makes a lot of the squeeze on Japanese oil supplies to explain why their naval operations were at times nonsensical. The oil supplies drove the tactics, effectively. I think Yergin makes too much of the issue regarding oil supplies in WWII generally, but where the Japanese were concerned he might be right.

    Comment by Tim Newman — November 30, 2012 @ 2:25 am

  9. Sorry, I meant J-17 in no. 7.

    Comment by Tim Newman — November 30, 2012 @ 11:43 am

  10. Jeez, J-15! *checks brain to see if working*

    Comment by Tim Newman — November 30, 2012 @ 11:44 am

  11. Thanks for the corrections Prof.

    @ So, the Japanese were actually quite happy to send their capital ships into harm’s way, but the problem was that they had spent 25 years amassing that fleet. They simply lacked the industrial base to replace it at anything like the necessary rate once it started getting picked off. Most of their completed carriers were conversions of other ships, including even civilian liners.

    Essentially, the IJN of 1941 was a regional force that had been able to puff itself up over 25 years to look like a major navy only because the two real major navies were being cut.

    Parshall and Tully show convincingly that even if the IJN had sunk all three of the USN’s carriers at Midway, it would have made exactly no difference. Seeing as America built 99 more carriers by 1945, the odd three here or there wouldn’t have mattered.

    Comment by Green as Grass — November 30, 2012 @ 12:18 pm

  12. @Tim,

    Actually the J-15 is a reverse-engineered Su-33 (navalised Su-27). It’s not cargo-cult when you make an exact copy. Franken-planes, like the J-20, where seeminly whole chunks of other aircraft are spliced it, are another matter, since aerodynamics is such a tricky subject.

    BTW, the imaginary catapult officer is now an Internet meme:

    Comment by So? — November 30, 2012 @ 6:31 pm

  13. Actually the J-15 is a reverse-engineered Su-33 (navalised Su-27).

    Ah. I was thinking somewhere along those lines. That explains it. So, 1970s aircraft it is, then.

    Comment by Tim Newman — November 30, 2012 @ 6:34 pm

  14. @Green,

    I knew that the IJN was a hollow force, but I was also under the impression that they were timid in the major engagements. Apparently not. Which brings another question. What the hell were they thinking? A sucker punch followed by a settlement?

    Comment by So? — November 30, 2012 @ 6:45 pm

  15. @Green. It’s like Yamamoto said. “I can run wild for six months … after that, I have no expectation of success.” He was sane. Most of the Japanese military/naval establishment was not. They despised the US, and unlike Yamamoto, did not realize that attacking the US would unleash “the sleeping giant” (another Yamamoto phrase). They thought the US would fold because it was effete, not a warrior culture like Japan. Hitler made a similar calculation. They did not think through the material disparities between the US and Japan. Yamamoto understood this. He had also lived in the US, and knew that we would react to an attack. But Japanese political/military/naval culture was divorced from reality.

    Yamamoto was right almost to the day (6 months from 12/7/1941 to 6/4/1942). But as you say, even if the Japanese had won at Midway, they would have eventually have been crushed.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — November 30, 2012 @ 8:45 pm

  16. @So? If anything, the Japanese should have been more timid. They took huge risks-more strategic than operational-but huge risks nonetheless.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — November 30, 2012 @ 8:49 pm

  17. I believe it was Galrahn of InfoDissem who also argued that the Japanese loved overly-complicated plans involving feints and multiple efforts(like the invasion of Attu and Kiska during Midway-cf with the Operation Sho-Go 1, the Japanese response to the invasion of the Philippines, which insanely still almost worked, except for the courage and tenacity of a bunch of DEs, DDs, and CVEs) in hopes of creating a Mahanian master engagement a la what Jutland was supposed to be. They never realized that they did accomplish this in the naval campaign for Guadalcanal, but didn’t commit themselves to that engagement as a naval battle (vice just keeping their forces supplied).

    In other words, the Japanese loved being cute and smart vice just being effective.

    Comment by Armed with Inkstick — December 1, 2012 @ 2:11 pm

  18. David Ax, at Wired, reports the move will allow the X-47B to remain in flight well beyond 3,000 nautical miles — 10 times the ability of a traditional manned fighter.

    This will also put U.S. aircraft carriers outside the reach of, say, China’s ‘carrier-killing’ ballistic missiles and submarines.

    Getting rid of the fighter pilot is a huge boost to efficiency and the Navy will begin carrier trials on the USS George Washington in 2013.

    The X-47B’s manufacturer, Northrop Grumman also received contracts to modify long-range Global Hawks to serve as refueling tankers. When those aircraft come online, the entire process will be conducted with no pilot at all.

    Read more:

    Comment by Anders — December 1, 2012 @ 3:08 pm

  19. Getting rid of the fighter pilot is a huge boost to efficiency and the Navy will begin carrier trials on the USS George Washington in 2013.

    Have the pilots been told?

    Comment by So? — December 1, 2012 @ 5:29 pm

  20. @Armed. That argument long predates Galrahn. By decades. No later than Samuel Eliot Morison’s History of Naval Operations in WWII, the first volume of which appeared in 1947. Sometimes it could have worked for the Japanese-like at Leyte Gulf. Usually not, and even at Leyte they threw away the opportunity.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — December 1, 2012 @ 9:33 pm

  21. @Anders very interesting. D-21 ballistic missile is the biggest threat to CVNs. If the article is correct, and the X-47 is outside of its range, and has the ability to loiter for hours, it is much less of a threat.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — December 1, 2012 @ 9:55 pm

  22. Among Pacific war geeks there is a continuous debate about what was the decisive battle of the Pacific campaign, and the winner, usually, is that it was Pearl Harbor.

    Catastrophic defeats like Midway, Philippine Sea, and Leyte Gulf, and attritional disasters like Guadalcanal, were just the specific occasions when their navy was destroyed. None is really decisive, though, because no possible result at any of them could have caused the US to lose. Pearl is different because before the attack the outcome was in the balance – if the IJN had aborted the attack there’d have been no war so they might not have lost.

    The interesting thing about the Japanese war is how it continues to be misperceived in the west. Half the Japanese army was in China, a quarter was defeated by the Commonwealth in Burma and the other quarter was defeated by the USA in the islands.

    Japan had to wait until 1941 to attack because she needed most of her potential European enemies to be beaten or occupied elsewhere, and even then she still needed to sneak attack the USA as well.

    According to this book:

    Britain’s economy was about 3x the size of Japan’s in 1941; an Anglo-Japanese war could easily have been as big a disaster as the one she fought, looking at the resource disparity.

    Every now again you read counterfactual history in which the Germans win. It cracks me up how often Japan is always spared in these accounts…

    Comment by Green as Grass — December 3, 2012 @ 3:52 am

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