Traditional Naval Bases Still Matter

Wednesday, January 21, 2015
Image credit: 
Poster Collection, US 6913, Hoover Institution Archives.

The importance of naval bases—hence the need to protect them—and the extraordinary efforts required to make up for bases lost, ranks high among the many lessons of which the month of January should remind persons concerned with America’s military viability.

In January 1942, Japan—by completing its capture of America’s largely undefended naval bases in the Philippines and Guam—crippled the U.S. Navy in the Pacific far more grievously than it had in its December 7 attack on Pearl Harbor. Without its Western Pacific bases, the U.S. Navy could no longer operate in force in the region. Oil-guzzling fleets had an operational radius of only two thousand miles from port.

The Navy, tailoring its operations to the logistics available, constituted small task forces that could be fueled while underway. On January 17, 23, and 28, 1942 the U.S. Navy’s Task Forces 8 and 17, centered respectively on the carriers Enterprise and Yorktown, refueled at sea from the oilers Platte and Sabine, prior to striking at Japanese objectives in the Gilbert and Marshall Islands. The Navy had to build a lot of supply ships and to learn a lot about “underway replenishment” (UNREP) quickly, to supply its war in the Pacific as it fought to conquer makeshift bases ever farther westward.

Only with the recapture of Guam and the Philippines could the U.S. bring the bulk of its forces to bear against Japan. The importance of these bases is the reason why Japan had made the U.S. promise not to fortify them the sine qua non of its agreement to the 1921 Naval Limitation Treaty. The U.S. missed the point that an un-fortified base, a base that cannot be defended, is useless.

In our time, some suggest that the application of nuclear power to naval propulsion has diminished radically the importance of bases. But this applies only to submarines. Aircraft carriers, though able to move freely under nuclear power, are vulnerable more than ever when operating outside the range of friendly land-based airpower and within the range of hostile bases, from which a wide variety of threats can be deployed in great quantities. In short, history’s lesson that the sea is most conveniently controlled from the land is as true as it ever was.

Moreover, in our time, military bases that are within the range of a major power’s land-based forces are vulnerable to a variety of threats that range from troops to ballistic missiles.

Hence, remembering how bereft the U.S. Navy was in January 1942 when it could no longer use Guam and the Philippines, should cause us to think hard about what China might do to deprive us of the use of Guam and Yokosuka, and what defenses we would have to deploy to make sure we could continue to use them.

About the Author

More from Foreign Affairs & National Security