We seem to be having Russian History Month. There has been the head of the Russian orthodox church reaching back 900 years to claim that neither Ukraine nor the Ukrainian church is “real.” Vladimir Putin has insisted that Ukraine is not a country because it “illegally left” the USSR. And on Tuesday, Russian diplomats insisted that Japan pay them back for gold supposedly stolen in 1920.
Over the last few weeks, Kos has written several times about the importance of logistics and how Russia’s issues on this front ensured that their plans to march into Kyiv didn’t just fail, but were doomed to fail. Kos has also taken a look at Russia’s multiple issues of communications and why it doesn’t have the experienced NCOs to hold together things on a tactical basis. Russia is also short of clear lines of command to maintain strategic goals, is saddled with a lot of poorly maintained equipment, and is utterly lacking in the intelligence necessary to predict the actions of their opponent at any scale.
On Tuesday, as ever more Russian forces are crowded into eastern Ukraine, President Zelenskyy desperately seeks the materials to keep his nation afloat, and everyone braces for a battle that will define the future. Let’s take a quick look at two battles where all those issues facing Russia were true. Except we’re not looking at Russia, we’re looking at the United States. And we’re not looking on the European steppes but at the Pacific Ocean.
On August 7, 1942, a massive U.S. fleet approached the islands of Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and Florida in the southern Solomon Islands. There the fleet successfully landed Marines, captured two airfields under construction, annihilated a small Japanese base, and drove construction workers into the jungle. After two days of hard fighting, U.S. forces stepped down from high alert on the evening of August 8. They had control of the islands, two large naval forces standing in the strait between Guadalcanal and Tulagi, a screen of destroyers guarding the entrance to the area, a carrier fleet providing air cover, and reconnaissance planes making loops to warn of any Japanese approach. The admiral in charge even expressed a wish that someone would attack, showing confidence in their position.
That night, a much smaller Japanese fleet sailed into the area under cover of darkness, opened fire on the southern half of the fleet, and either sunk or sent into flight every major ship. Then it turned to the north, did the same to the northern fleet, and escaped beyond small Savo Island after taking only light damage. On the U.S. side, four heavy cruisers were utterly lost. Another was seriously damaged and left adrift. Two destroyers were also left with serious damage, unable to continue the fight. 1,077 men were killed—almost as many as the Marines would lose on Guadalcanal over the course of that whole infamously terrible campaign. And all those troops onshore would be left without air cover, without cover from the sea, and short on supplies, setting up everything that was to come.
What went wrong? What didn’t. A U.S. spotting plane had seen the Japanese fleet—in fact, two planes spotted them while approaching. But those planes were under a different command. Since the naval operations were secret, the planes didn’t know the U.S. ships were off to their east and weren’t all that concerned about the course the Japanese fleet was taking. It took more than 8 hours for the first message to reach the U.S. ships. Even when it did, everyone misinterpreted what the spotting planes had seen.
It wasn’t just the planes that were under a different command. The naval fleet was actually split up among different admirals, and after the landing, the commander of the carrier fleet unexpectedly announced he was taking his ships and leaving the area. Surprised, the overall commander of the landing fleet called in his next in command for a conference. That next in command failed to put anyone in charge of the southern fleet, where he had been stationed, and no one bothered to notify the northern fleet of what was happening. In fact, no one bothered to notify the northern fleet that anything was wrong even after the Japanese sailed into the strait and attacked the southern fleet. The Japanese got to stage two separate surprise attacks because no one on the U.S. side thought to pick up a radio. And all during the fight, the two guys really in charge were somewhere else, complaining about the other admiral and the carrier fleet. They didn’t even see the action.
Command, control, logistics, communications … they failed every test. And the result may have added a year to the war in the space of just minutes.
What may seem stranger is that this battle came just after the resounding U.S. victory at Midway, a battle where combined groups of bombers operating from multiple carriers came together to sink three Japanese carriers and genuinely turn the tide of the war. How is it possible that the U.S. could be so coordinated at Midway and so utterly hapless at Savo Island? The answer is that it wasn’t.
There’s one more big factor in warfare that Kos hasn’t really discussed: luck.
As Kos has covered, Russia’s lack of NCOs, inexperienced soldiers, and top-heavy management style makes it hard for them to coordinate more than two or three battalion tactical groups (BTGs) at a time. In fact, most of Russia’s actions seem to be single BTGs, or even partial BTGs, being flung around Ukraine without the support they need to actually hold a position, or contest a position against dug-in opponents.
At Midway, the U.S. had exactly that same problem. The U.S. kept trying to get off waves of planes, but each carrier was having its own set of difficulties, resulting in planes going up in small clusters all morning, rather than forming a coordinated attack. A handful of fighters here. A slightly larger grouping of attack bombers over there. Some dive bombers who took a wrong turn and came from another direction.
None of it was working as designed, and the Japanese defenses took out these flights almost as soon as they arrived. Throughout most of the morning, not one bomb or torpedo reached a single Japanese ship, while several of the U.S. flights were wiped out to a plane.
However, that chaos turned out to be just what the U.S. needed. The Japanese had already launched half their planes and needed a 45-minute window to recover them, get them stowed away, and get another flight ready on deck. U.S. planes kept hitting them every time it seemed they were about to get that window. Not by design. By luck.
And when the Japanese finally managed to get all their planes landed, stowed, fueled, and re-armed for a response, that was when two separate flights of U.S. bombers—launched in different directions at different times—just happened to show up at once, hitting the Japanese fleet from opposite sides of the sky. Exhausted and frustrated by a morning of constant attacks, the Japanese watched as a handful of bombs went right through openings in the Japanese carrier decks and found all those planes. With their fuel. And their bombs. Japan lost three carriers, lost any chance at taking Midway, and may have lost the war. In about eight minutes. When Japan attempted a counterstrike, they lost carrier number four.
That happened despite U.S. issues with command, control, and communication. Sometimes, things just do.
As all those tanks in the Donbas get ready to roll, just hope that Russia has all Savo Islands, no Midways.