Silver Bullet Blunder

Dec. 1, 2009

In World War II, Japan committed serial blunders in its use of airpower. These may aptly be compared to layers of an onion, with one blunder encasing another. Japan’s incompetence greatly aided the US in its drive for victory in the Pacific, and even today, Japan’s misuse of its so-called “silver bullet” air force serves as a cautionary tale to airmen.

Two decisions, easily understandable given Japan’s war aims prior to Pearl Harbor, proved to be grave strategic errors.

A Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero takes off from the carrier Akagi on its way to attack Pearl Harbor.

The first of these errors was the conclusion Tokyo drew from its initial successes in aerial warfare. Japanese rulers became convinced that Japan would conquer China, because its fighters ruled the skies and its land-based bombers could fly long distances to wreak havoc on helpless cities.

The second major mistake was to gamble, in late 1941, that Japanese naval airpower could carry out a surprise attack on US naval and air forces so devastating that it would knock the American colossus permanently out of the war. Ironically, Japan’s leaders were erroneously led to this conclusion by the fielding of several outstanding new aircraft. Introduction of these airplanes helped convince Japanese leaders that the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Force was at its peak.

The seeds of the Japanese disaster in World War II lay in its 1889 Meiji Constitution which placed the Army, and later the Navy, on a level equal to that of the civil government—with all three reporting to the emperor. The 20th century saw an ascendant military culture coerce civilian government into approving its adventurism. The pride in Japan’s military prowess prevented its leaders from understanding just how strong its potential opponents were, because of both population and industrial capacity.

Technological Infusion

The confidence stemmed in great part from Japan’s decisive defeat of Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. The victory accelerated Japan’s transformation from an isolated nation beset by internal strife to a major player in the international arena. This advance was aided by infusions of technology and military doctrine from Europe, which provided modern arms and an overlay of modern methods for Japan’s Army, Navy, and eventually its air forces.

The Japanese were adept at learning—able to absorb information from foreign sources, tailor it to their own needs, and produce their own indigenous designs. Their capable engineers did so well that it took only from 1911 to 1936 for Japan’s aircraft industry to go from building basic biplanes to creating first-class aircraft.

Despite Japan’s growing military might, its leaders felt threatened by the traditional Anglo-American dominance of commerce and natural resources. They resented Japan’s dependence on foreign oil, the lifeblood of their Navy. To strengthen their nation’s industrial base, Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931 and created the puppet state of Manchukuo.

The need for more resources induced the Japanese leaders to embark on one of their greater strategic errors—the 1937 invasion of China. From this initially successful venture, Japan’s leaders drew conclusions that eventually proved fatal.

The early successes of the Japanese in Asia also prevented recognition of just how harmful the rivalry between the Imperial Japanese Army Air Force and the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Force was. It ranged from the absurdity of not sharing technical information on aircraft being developed for both services to the travesty of Japanese Army radar stations not informing their Navy counterparts about incoming US air raids. The competition began at Imperial General Headquarters and existed at every level until the final day of the war.

This bitter interservice contentiousness was abetted by the effect their respective tutors had on the service cultures. The IJAAF, taught by the French and later influenced by the Luftwaffe, concentrated on the indirect support of ground troops.

Taught by the British, the IJNAF adopted a more strategic outlook, influenced by the naval tradition that the fleet with the longest-range guns and torpedoes had the advantage. It departed from normal custom by developing a strong land-based air force to complement their aircraft carriers.

The IJNAF thus assumed the greater share of offensive duties in China where suitable targets were often many miles deep in Chinese territory. It established bases in China from which its long-range bombers could operate against the interior. Flying a majority of the missions, especially those which garnered useful publicity for propaganda, strengthened the IJNAF’s position in budgetary battles.

Like other navies at the time, the Japanese Navy was largely controlled by big gun battleship admirals. They believed that Japan, in the spirit of the decisive Battle of Tsushima of the Russo-Japanese War, would achieve its destiny with a victorious fleet action in Japanese waters against the United States Navy.

US military personnel inspect a downed Zero on Akutan island in Alaska in 1942.

Eventually, some of those leaders, influenced by the more flexible Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, saw how well airpower had worked in China and began to demand that long-range aircraft become the tip of Japan’s sword. The IJNAF believed that with long-range airpower, it was conceivable that Japan could acquire its most needed natural resource—oil—by conquests in Southeast Asia.

A New Tenet of War Philosophy

Japanese aeronautical engineers strove to meet the IJNAF challenge, trying to balance large bomb loads, armament, armor, fuel, and structural strength against speed, altitude, and range requirements. The engineers were called on to design aircraft that would meet a new tenet of Japanese military philosophy: All future wars were to be short, sharp, and victorious, with the Japanese doing all the shooting and bombing. To achieve this, the Japanese air forces wanted aircraft with great speed and range. Bombers were to have large bomb loads, while fighters were to be supremely maneuverable. The engineers achieved these goals, but the trade-off was that they were designing aircraft without armor, self-sealing tanks, or redundant structural integrity.

Through 1938, the military experience in China seemed to validate this design philosophy. Despite instances of determined opposition by the Chinese Air Force, the Japanese established near air superiority that permitted them to bomb key targets almost at will. The introduction of excellent aircraft such as the Mitsubishi G3M twin-engine, land-based bomber and the Mitsubishi A5M fighter (later code-named Nell and Claude, respectively) reinforced this thinking. The IJNAF made world headlines with its ruthless bombing of Chinese cities, in operations conducted by as many as 90 aircraft over hundreds of miles of territory.

The twisted wreckage of US airplanes smolders at Wheeler Field, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941. Japanese leaders assumed a knockout blow would lead to a swift victory.

Japanese aircraft performed well in great part because they were flown by highly trained crews, many seasoned by combat experience. The combat missions were supported by equally well-trained ground crews. This combination of top-notch aircraft and crews shaped Japanese thinking about the type and size of the air forces it would need to attack the United States. Discounting the fact that their Chinese opponents were ill-trained and ill-equipped, the Japanese leaders now believed that a major war could be won by a small number of superior aircraft flown by superb crews. From this, followed the requirements for aircraft selection, production quantities, and pilot training standards—which paved the way for the failure of Japanese airpower in World War II.

The Japanese leadership decided that an annual production of about 5,000 aircraft designed for offensive operations was sufficient. Perhaps still blinded by the concept of a victorious fleet action in local waters against the United States, the leaders did not realize that airplanes alone were not enough, and that air bases, aircrews, and maintenance personnel were equally essential. In samurai style, the crews were to be obtained by training methods that bordered on sadistic.

The Mighty Zero

In his memoirs, the great Japanese ace Saburo Sakai wrote about the excessive discipline of pilot training in the IJNAF. He noted that more than 1,500 applied for a slot in his pilot training class, only 70 were selected, and 25 graduated.

By 1940, Japan produced several aircraft equal or superior to their foreign counterparts in many performance parameters. These included the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter, Mitsubishi G4M bomber, Aichi D3A dive bomber, and Nakajima B5N torpedo airplane (later respectively nicknamed the Zeke, Betty, Val, and Kate).

A Japanese aircraft carrier tries to escape US attackers as it burns during the Battle of Midway in June 1942.

The Zero was for several years the premier carrier fighter in the world. Possessed of reasonable speed (345 mph) and armament (two 20 mm cannon and two machine guns), it was extremely maneuverable, and its operational range exceeded 1,000 miles without external tanks. After its operational debut in 1940, the stellar performance of the Zero caused a critical conceptual shift. Instead of Navy fighters being primarily concerned with fleet air defense, they were now seen as far-reaching offensive weapons. Their mission was expanded to include destroying enemy air defenses and strafing ships to suppress anti-aircraft fire. The Zero was the “silver bullet” of Japanese airpower—its superior performance and superior pilots would assure that only a relative few would be necessary to defeat any enemy air force.

Germany’s victories in 1940 had weakened the European hold on their colonies in Southeast Asia. By the autumn of 1941, the Japanese, pressed by their lack of natural resources and American sanctions on imports, decided to seize the oil-rich territories they had coveted for so long. The geopolitical factors grew in importance. With Great Britain savaged by German aircraft and submarines, the Japanese discounted British ability to react in the Pacific. Even more important, Germany seemed to be on the point of disposing of the Soviet Union, relieving the Japanese Army of its greatest fear—a Russian invasion of its puppet state Manchukuo.

These misapprehensions stemmed from failures within the Imperial General Headquarters that included bad intelligence, provincial thinking of military leaders, and their inability to learn from their experiences in the field. While they had overcome Chinese opposition, they had nonetheless suffered heavy losses from fighters, flak, and the inevitable mishaps inherent in the conduct of high-tempo, long-range operations.

Japanese leadership, strangely uninhibited by the stalemate in China, decided to add the United States, Great Britain, Netherlands, and Australia to their enemy list. They were willing to go to war with a total of 2,625 first-line aircraft and a pilot pool of about 6,000, of whom some 900 were experts. This force, tiny by later war standards, was to inflict the decisive defeat that would force a demoralized United States to negotiate peace. Japan would then control the resources of the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.”

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was executed with great skill and daring on the part of its aircrews, and for the next six months, one Japanese victory followed another until what was called the “victory disease” inflamed Japanese thinking.

A Japanese airplane decked out in camouflage moments before it is destroyed by low-level bombing in the East Indies.

Quality and Quantity

The American people did not react as planned, however, and slowly but inexorably, the industrial might of the United States responded in a way undreamed of by all but a few of the Japanese leaders. Over the next four years, Japan slowly increased the number of aircraft it produced from about 5,000 in 1941 to just more than 28,000 in 1944. Japan’s total aircraft production from 1941 through 1945 was about 66,000, compared to more than 300,000 by the United States in the same period.

Also, while the US developed new and more advanced aircraft in great quantities, Japan was forced to rely on improved versions of the airframes with which it had begun the war.

Japan’s relatively limited increase in aircraft production was never matched by an increase in the numbers of pilots trained, nor in the quality of their instruction. As a result, the skill level of Japanese pilots declined markedly after 1942.

Ultimately, Japan trained about 61,000 pilots, nearly half of them in 1944. Japanese pilot losses totaled 40,000 with many due to accidents.

Equally important, the Japanese kept their experienced pilots in combat continuously, instead of using them to train a large reserve of competent pilots. Expert pilots inevitably killed in combat were never replenished because of the inadequate training program also impaired by fuel shortages.

In contrast, the US World War II pilot training program was continually upgraded by the rotation of combat pilots into instructor positions. Beginning in 1943, American pilots, taught by veterans, entered combat with hundreds of hours of flying time, many of them in operational aircraft.

Japanese pilot training time fell off drastically until, at the end of the war, their pilots might enter combat with less than 100 hours’ flying time and only a few in their combat type.

B-29s bent on taking out Japan’s industrial base take off from Guam. Unlike Japan, the US arsenal was able to churn out aircraft with both quality and quantity.

A similar trend developed in the construction of air bases, supplies, and logistics. The United States devoted the time and material to create new bases quickly, then amply supplied them with both parts and personnel. This was entirely beyond the scope of Japanese planning, with the result that Japanese bases were almost universally badly constructed, ill-equipped, and devoid of even critical elements such as a good water supply, medicine, and adequate food.

The lesson that Japan’s military leadership learned the hard way against the United States in World War II was that while quality was important in establishing air dominance, it was a mistake to discount quantity—particularly when facing extended periods of conflict.

Similarly, while a “silver bullet” air force of superb fighters and bombers, manned by superb crews, might be adequate in warfare, there is no way to accurately predict the strength of future enemies.

Walter J. Boyne, former director of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., is a retired Air Force colonel and author. He has written more than 600 articles about aviation topics and 40 books, the most recent of which is Hypersonic Thunder. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “How the Predator Grew Teeth,” appeared in the July issue.