In November of 1942, the U.S. Navy wrested the warfighting initiative from imperial Japan and set the course toward victory. Less than a year after Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor and proclaimed that all of Asia belonged to Emperor Hirohito, American successes in two naval battles permanently altered the course of the war. In the words of the Naval War College, the “operational initiative” lay with the American Navy.
The two battles were distinctly different. The first—and by far the most famous—was the clash on June 4, 1942 near the island of Midway. Of Japan’s six aircraft carriers, four were destroyed. Japan was forced to abandon its plan to expand its control across all of the Pacific and concentrated instead upon protecting its occupation of East Asia. It was a classic naval battle between two fleets aimed at establishing blue water dominance.
In contrast, six months later, the seven naval battles of Guadalcanal, culminating in mid-November, were fought to determine control of the land. After Midway, Admiral Ernest J. King, commanding the U.S. fleet, orchestrated the 1st Marine Division assault against Guadalcanal to pierce the Japanese Pacific perimeter. For three months, the Marine lodgment was battered by successive assaults by numerically-superior Japanese soldiers. The navies on both sides slugged it out to provide reinforcements and logistics. In mid-November, the heavily depleted Japanese fleet withdrew, leaving to be destroyed four transport ships with thousands of soldiers and tons of food. From November on, the Japanese were fighting on the defense and being steadily pushed back. On land, the battle took the lives of 1,592 Marines. At sea, the battle for Guadalcanal took the lives of over 5,000 American sailors.
In the Midway battle, American naval aviators demonstrated remarkable initiative at the squadron level, taking enormous chances without clear orders from above. In the Guadalcanal battles, the captains of individual ships—from destroyers to battleships—engaged the enemy amidst chaotic nighttime conditions and garbled communications.
Those naval battles occurred three-quarters of a century ago. Since then, our navy has not been contested at sea. But wars, like hurricanes, recur. Our navy will be challenged to battle again. When that occurs, the necessity for decentralized initiative will be paramount. Why? Because hypersonic missiles and satellite tracking now challenge the concept of close-in group defense. That means carrier task forces clustered around large deck carriers offer four or more tempting targets at a time. Dispersion clearly is one key to survival. But if the task forces spread out, then communications and synchronization are disrupted. Each commander of each ship is the war-fighting decision-maker. If this is the future, then naval training must reject the concept of centralized command and control. It should be replaced by what General Mattis has termed “command and feedback.” Each ship commander executes the mission received long before hostilities begin, and, with communications cut off, executes and reports back. The next senior command up the chain that has re-established communications, then takes that data, evaluates based on other cumulative data, and issues the next mission order.
Communications to higher headquarters are certain to be severely disrupted, if not entirely severed. Individual ships, their crews and commanders, will have to fight alone. Movies have long featured the dramatic tension as a captain of a ballistic-missile submarine opens the sealed orders designating pre-determined targets. All our capital ships now carry conventional missiles that can strike targets hundreds of miles away. The time will come when every ship will sail with a corresponding target list. In the next war against a high-tech enemy, the degree of initiative and risk undertaken by dozens of individual ship commanders, cut off from directives from the top, will play a role equivalent to the battles of Midway and Guadalcanal.