Could the US Win a Modern-Day Battle of Midway?Roundup
tags: military history, naval history, World War 2, Battle of Midway
On June 4, 1942, the first day of the battle of Midway, the U.S. Navy sank four Japanese aircraft carriers for the loss of one of its own. This tore the heart out of Kido Butai, the enemy striking force, and changed the whole dynamic of the War in the Pacific where the Americans had been on the retreat since the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor six months earlier. It would take another three hard years to defeat Japan, which was still on the advance in the Solomons further south, but it was clear that the tide had turned. This epic victory came down to many things, including excellent U.S. intelligence and the strategic genius of Admiral Chester Nimitz, the Commander of the Pacific Fleet, but above all it was the achievement of a small number of highly-skilled dive-bomber pilots and their plane, the Douglas Dauntless. It was they who set the four Japanese carriers ablaze.
Today, the order that these men helped to create is once again under threat, and it is not clear that the U.S. would win a second battle of Midway. For the first time since World War II, the West faces a serious naval challenge in the Pacific. The People’s Republic of China—a communist dictatorship—poses both an ideological threat and a strategic one. It has built a large oceangoing navy with a growing carrier capability; the first domestically built aircraft carrier is expected to enter service in 2023. In fact, according to a U.S. Department of Defense report in 2020, the PRC now boasts “the largest navy in the world with an overall battle force of approximately 350 ships.” It menaces Taiwan directly and has established a massive military presence in the contested South China Sea. Beyond this, Beijing’s “Belt and Road Initiative,” which seeks to transform the whole of Eurasia, and the maritime “String of Pearls” concept, which attempts something similar in the Indo-Pacific, shows the PRC’s vaulting ambition.
Over the past few years, the United States and the rest of the Western world generally have slowly been waking up to this reality. In February 2016, Admiral Harry Harris, chief of US Pacific Command, warned Congress that he believed that “China seeks hegemony in East Asia.” In April last year, the Australian secretary for home affairs, Michael Pezzullo, announced that the “drums of war” were beating in the Pacific and that the nation needed to prepare accordingly. As for the PRC, leader Xi Jinping has warned advisers to “prepare for war” in the South China Sea.
In fact, the People’s Republic of China poses some of the same problems for the United States as Imperial Japan did in World War II, but on a much larger scale. Like Imperial Japan, the PRC’s leaders believe that the current order in the region is illegitimate and stacked against their interests. Whatever one thinks of these claims and demands, they are not simply to be mocked or disregarded. If we don’t deal with them, or prepare to counter them, then we may suffer another Pearl Harbor—but there is no guarantee that we have done the necessary preparation to earn another Midway.
There are two principal reasons to be concerned. First, the U.S. Navy is, as former Navy Secretary John Lehman has written, “stretched too thin and woefully underfunded.” Its ship and dockyards are in crisis. The fighting navy, as Seth Cropsey, the director of the Center for American Seapower, lamented, is now only 297 ships strong, fewer than half the number during the Reagan administration, and is tasked with deterring not only the PRC but also Russia, Iran, and North Korea. Second, the PRC is unlikely to oblige the United States by walking into a trap in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, as the Japanese did at Midway. It is more likely to inflict a surprise defeat in the narrow waters of the South China Sea.
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