Throughout history, professional military officers have studied the past to learn strategic planning and decision making. While history remains the best means to study strategy, it is problematic due to imperfect knowledge of actual events and personal biases infecting hindsight. If these are some of the problems, what are solutions to using history in a more effective manner as a tool to sharpen strategic thinking? This paper examines how practitioners can develop strategy by demonstrating a methodology for constructing alternate courses of action in a historical case study. Studying options, using information known at the time and that could have been gleaned with a greater investment in intelligence, is one of the building blocks to developing a strategically analytical mind. Gaming-out options starts with identifying the enemy’s most likely and most dangerous strategic course of action. From this point one can develop a theory of victory (TOV), meaning a concept of what conditions are necessary to defeat the enemy’s strategy, such as gaining command of the sea or winning a decisive land battle. With a theory of victory, one can then develop an overall strategy, effectively a blueprint, to accomplish it. The strategy is then honed by comparison to the enemy’s most likely response. This analysis results in alternate courses of action that are in turn honed until the most efficient and effective strategy to achieve the policy objective has been determined. The goal is to implement a history-driven process that can be carried forward to developing future strategic contingencies.
The 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War serves as our model because its historical record provides clear data of the belligerents’ policy objectives, orders of battle, their internal political structure, the geostrategic landscape, the theater’s infrastructure, and clear geographical features that dictated Japan’s lines of attack. Simplifying the exercise is that this war was a limited conventional struggle between two great powers with little to no interference by allied or third-party nations. Furthermore, the belligerents foresaw a military confrontation well before the first shots and had time to develop and resource a chosen strategy. Due to limitations of space this paper will be confined to an overview of five Russian strategic options.
Nine months prior to the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War, General Alexiev Kuropatkin, Russia’s Minister of War, toured the Far East and predicted a Japanese attack. The Russian Imperial Navy had also anticipated war with Japan and gone so far as conducting war games to assess the likelihood of victory.[i] Their foresight provides the temporal starting point to examining Russian strategic options to counter a possible Japanese offensive.
The question is: how does one build strategic options? Following Sun Tzu’s prescription to “know thyself and thy enemy” and Carl von Clausewitz’s admonition that policy is the primary determinate of the nature of war, the Russians first needed to discern Japan’s policy objective. By knowing what they sought to gain from the war, Russian leaders could then determine Japan’s optimal TOV and thereafter their strategy. Russian planners could have further dissected this strategy’s operational components, discerning Japan’s course of action by determining the strategic end state and logically discerning how the Japanese military would arrive at it. From this point, Kuropatkin could then develop Russia’s optimal strategic counter. The methodology worked in the following manner. Prior to Japan’s surprise attack on the Russian fleet based at Port Arthur (now Lushan, China), the Japanese government had publicly opposed Russian encroachment into the Korean peninsula and Manchuria. In the case of war the obvious Japanese policy would be to drive the Russian government and military permanently out of these regions and supplant their authority. Defeating Russian forces in Manchuria was their only means to accomplish the policy. This strategic end state required control of the sea to project the army ashore and then secure a land victory to break Russia’s will. Owing to Russia’s drastically larger manpower and financial resources, the Japanese recognized the need for a relatively short war that only decisive battles could deliver. Japan’s most likely strategic course of action informs analysis of Russia’s options to counter it and achieve its policy objective of retaining control of Manchuria and increasing influence in the Far East.
Strategic Naval Option 1: Decisive Naval Battle
The United States’ legendary naval theorist, Alfred Thayer Mahan, argued that Russia’s best option was to prepare for and execute a decisive naval battle using the seven battleships of its Pacific Squadron. Arguably the Russians had critical advantages over the Japanese at sea. Overall, Russia possessed a much larger fleet and if properly concentrated, as Mahan advocated, it could have traded ships with Japan and still won the war. If Russia was victorious at sea, Japan could not have landed on the Asian mainland, hence Russia would have retained Manchuria and achieved a quick, decisive victory! Because Japan could only win the war on land, Russia had the advantage of being able to risk its fleet and if defeated, fall back on the army to deny the Japanese their objective.
The key to adopting Mahan’s strategy was immediate action the moment Kuropatkin realized war was to occur in the near future. First, the Russians should have appointed their best admiral, the dynamic, charismatic and already internationally renowned Vice-Admiral Ossipovitch Makarov, to command the Russian Pacific Squadron at Port Arthur. The history of the war revealed what Russian leaders already knew of Makarov’s capabilities. In one month of command, before his ship, the Petropavlosk, struck a mine and carried him down with it, he drastically improved the sailors’ seamanship, gunnery, and morale to an extent that the Russian Pacific Squadron could challenge the Japanese navy on an equal footing. Second, Kuropatkin should have ordered and resourced a naval “intelligence preparation of the battlefield” (IPB) of the Japanese navy’s order of battle and capabilities to identify his own navy’s requirements. To win control of the sea, Russia needed overwhelming superiority of battleships, a problem Russia could have been rectified with ships idling in European waters. A reinforced fleet, with Makarov at the helm, would have been fully capable of winning decisively at sea. Seeking out the Japanese fleet for a decisive battle would have been relatively easy, because it was bound to protecting the army coming ashore. Makarov could have struck immediately after Japan fired the first shots or waited until a substantial force had come ashore and then destroyed the Japanese warships, leaving a significant portion of the army stranded in Korea. Kuropatkin’s strategic, operational, and tactical naval options would have abounded with proper preparation, which Russia was wholly capable of doing because they foresaw the coming war, possessed the world’s third largest navy, and were blessed with an excellent fighting admiral.
Strategic Naval Option 2: Commerce Raiding
If the Russians had deemed decisive naval battle too risky, a secondary naval option would have been a commerce war. Japan was particularly vulnerable to this strategic option due to its relatively small merchant marine, the refusal of neutral vessels to carry Japanese war materials, and the reality of its navy having to guard against the possibility of a Russian fleet sortie from Port Arthur. Mahan rightly assessed that Russia’s flawed disposition of its commerce raiding cruisers, deployed alongside the battleships based at Port Arthur, rather than dispersed to unguarded Vladivostok, meant it was unprepared to seize opportunity after Japan attacked. Implementing this strategy, though, would have required forethought beyond what Mahan discusses. As with the prior strategy, European based cruisers should have been shifted to Vladivostok in the ten months prior to war to have made this a viable option. Makarov could have conducted exercises, identified his ablest commanders, and used the naval IPB to discern the best operational approaches to this strategic option. Russia did none of these preparations and found itself with ad hoc commerce raiding operations which proved a dedicated strategy of this nature had much potential to change the course of the war, if it had been properly planned for and resourced. For example, three Russian cruisers sank Japanese transports carrying critical war materials such as siege guns for Port Arthur and American made locomotives Japan needed to project its army into Manchuria. Some analysts concluded that loss of the siege guns alone delayed Port Arthur’s fall by months and drastically increased casualties. With proper coordination, the Russian battleships of the Russian Pacific Squadron could have threatened the Japanese army’s sea lines of communication on the western flank of the Korean peninsula to pin Japan’s limited naval forces. If the Japanese navy hunted the commerce raiders they would have exposed the army to a sortie from the main Russian fleet. To leave the raiders unmolested could have crippled the lifeline to Japan, rendering the Japanese forces already ashore vulnerable to a Russian army riposte. Once again, Russia’s failure to explore strategic options before the war left it unprepared in another strategic dimension. Japan was able overcome Russia’s deadly commerce raiders because they were so few and the lethargy of the Russian Pacific Squadron after Makarov’s death allowed them to eventually dispatch naval forces to find and sink the Russian cruisers.
Strategic Land Option 1: Trade Space for Time + Eventual Decisive Battle
Irrespective of the naval options, Russia could have analyzed three land strategies. Kuropatkin’s chosen strategy was a limited withdrawal along the Russian line of communication – the South Manchurian Railway – to await reinforcements before shifting to the strategic offensive. Kuropatkin assessed that in the initial months of the war, Japanese forces outnumbered his men in theater; therefore, he would gain time and preserve his army’s strength by the classic method of trading space. Time would allow Russian engineers and laborers to improve the Trans-Siberian railway, Asiatic Russia’s lifeline to its European counterpart. This strategy necessitated withdrawal of all Russian forces in southern Manchuria to the city of Liaoyang, roughly 120 miles from the Yalu River. The merit of Kuropatkin’s strategy was that it accomplished his goal of buying time to increase Russian numbers over the Japanese. At the Battle of Liaoyang, the Russians possessed 158,000 soldiers and 609 guns against 125,000 Japanese and 170 guns.[ii] Yet the Russian army was defeated at this potentially decisive battle and the subsequent larger engagement at Mukden because it was an untested and poorly trained force, led by a commander who conceded every strategic, operational, and tactical initiative to his opponent!
What Kuropatkin had gained in time and men in his wholesale retreat, he lost in infrastructure (ports and railroads), key terrain (landing sites, mountain passes, and choke points), and opportunities to hone the army’s operational and tactical skill. Retreating into southern Manchuria left all amphibious landing zones throughout Korea and the Liaotung Peninsula undefended. After the Japanese came ashore they found almost every avenue of approach to Dalny, a commercial port and the most significant logistical hub of the entire war, open, with the limited exception of one regiment at Nanshan, where the Liaotung Peninsula narrows to its most defendable point. While the small Russian force fought a heroic defense, it was outnumbered 10:1. Kuropatkin had left Port Arthur’s garrison to defend itself and simply abandoned Dalny, potentially dooming the Russian Pacific Squadron. Perhaps the worst effect of Kuropatkin’s strategy was that the token resistance he did offer was fodder for Japanese victories. Russian battlefield defeats boosted Japan’s international standing, allowing it to float critical loans, unify its people, and devastate Russian morale on the home front, eventually culminating in revolution.
Strategic Land Option 2: Scorched Earth + Trade Space for Time + Eventual Decisive Battle
Assessing his army as initially too weak to fight a decisive battle, Kuropatkin could have moved his forces deeper into Manchuria, beyond Japan’s logistical reach, while destroying all infrastructure in southern Manchuria. Planning for this strategic option would have included sending the Pacific Squadron back to Europe to preserve this valuable asset and avoiding the disastrous effects on Russian morale stemming from its loss. With no fear of abandoning the fleet, Kuropatkin would have possessed a free hand to withdraw the army and destroy war resources without immense political pressure to hold ground. A scorched earth methodology would have destroyed infrastructure Japan required to project its army into southern Manchuria. For example, after capturing Dalny, Japanese General Yasukata Oku reported, “Over 100 warehouses, barracks…were found uninjured. Over 290 railway cars still usable…. Docks and piers uninjured.”[iii] Ashmead-Bartlett Ellis, a British reporter, confirmed Dalny’s value to the Japanese war effort, reporting “Every day numerous trains steam out of the station laden with troops and stores for Oyama (Field-Marshall Iwao Oyama) and his half-a-million of men.” Ellis went on to describe the docks, harbor, and breakwaters as “splendid.”[iv] Furthermore, Dalny’s rail line connected it to Port Arthur and to the South Manchurian Railroad which ran through the towns of Liaoyang and Mukden, sites of the war’s two largest battles. In his memoirs, Kuropatkin would inadvertently incriminate himself regarding leaving the infrastructure intact referencing, “the delivery of heavy howitzers [that destroyed Russian defenses] and the landing of other siege material was greatly facilitated by the existence of Dalny.”[v] Japan’s use of Dalny as a logistical hub illustrates that a scorched-earth methodology would have increased Japan’s war costs and drawn-out the war in Russia’s favor.
If the Russian army had been safely beyond Japan’s reach, Kuropatkin could have improved the Trans-Siberian Railroad while training and equipping his force for a counteroffensive. A primary factor in Japan’s preemptive strike was the recognition that steady improvements in the Trans-Siberian railroad would eventually permit Russia to deploy a force that could overwhelm their manpower and resources. At the outset of the war, the Trans-Siberian Railroad lacked 600 of the necessary 900 locomotives deemed sufficient to sustain a massive force. It had a large gap at Lake Baikal and was single tracked. Through prodigious effort, the Russian supply situation had drastically improved by March of 1905; however, by this stage Kuropatkin’s many defeats had helped spark revolt in European Russia and the army was a demoralized force.[vi] Avoiding costly human losses and husbanding material and manpower until the railroad was prepared to sustain a large army, would have allowed the Russians a transition to the offensive with overwhelming force against a foe attempting to sustain hundreds of thousands of men across too much desolated space, with its manpower and finances exhausted by a long war.
Strategic Land Option 3: Active Forward Defense + Eventual Decisive Battle
Perhaps the most daring, yet rewarding, land option would have been for Russia to conduct an active defense based on defending against Japanese amphibious landings, and waging a fighting withdrawal until reinforcements arrived from Europe to tip the military balance toward a strategic offensive. Preventing the Japanese from coming ashore in sizeable numbers would have preserved Manchuria’s infrastructure, saved the battleship fleet at Port Arthur, and provided Kuropatkin’s forces with all the advantages of the central position. Denying the Japanese easy and early victories would have bolstered the army’s morale and skill, dried up Japanese war loans, and perhaps forestalled the Russian Revolution of 1905, which denied it the option of extending the war.
In the first two months of the war, the Japanese offensive was most vulnerable because it had to conduct a risky series of complimentary amphibious operations. The Japanese First Army initially landed in central Korea, distant from Russian counterattacks, then marched north along dirt tracks, with only Korean coolies providing logistical support. These initial troops seized inlets that allowed the navy to keep advancing the army’s logistical base closer to the Yalu River, at the base of the Liaotung Peninsula. Victory at the Yalu would protect the eastern flank of the Second and Fourth Armies as they came ashore at beaches near Dalny and Port Arthur. If the Russians had contested northern Korea and defended the Yalu River, rather than Kuropatkin’s pitting of a mere 19,000 men against 42,000 Japanese, the Russians could have stalled the entire Japanese offensive, making time a weapon in their favor.
This Russian strategic option would have rested on a combination of prepared forward defenses supported by quick reaction forces (QRF). First, Russian intelligence needed to conduct an IPB of the Korean and Liaotung Peninsula’s topography to determine landing sites, lines of communications, and advantageous defensive terrain. Defending the beaches with a combination of garrison forces and QRFs would have drastically increased Japanese casualties and potentially slowed their advance along the Korean Peninsula to a crawl. On almost every beach the Japanese army was exposed coming ashore. For example, the Japanese Second Army landed in chest high water and had to wade ashore, across a long and vulnerable stretch. Their equipment continued to be offloaded on sandy beaches until the Japanese captured Dalny. If the Russians had opted to defend against amphibious landings, they may have been able to inflict a disaster similar to the British army’s debacle in World War I at Gallipoli. If driven back, the Russians could have fought from a belt of defensive positions to bleed the Japanese army and extend the war, thereby draining Japanese financial resources and exhausting their nation. The Russian army was fully capable of such a defense as it proved at the Battle of Nanshan and the siege of Port Arthur. Drastically outnumbered in both operations, the Russian defenders inflicted massive casualties on the Japanese. What would have been the strategic ramifications of such battles being fought before the Japanese had time to offload their entire army onto the continent and were bottled up on beachheads and narrow lines of communication, all the while Russian reinforcements poured in from Europe to seek the final decisive blow?
For military leaders, prognosticating a future war and predetermining strategy is extremely difficult, but if correctly anticipated, such insights provide opportunity to analyze, plan, resource, and even war game scenarios. In the 1930s, the United States Navy anticipated a naval battle similar to Midway, allowing its students, in particular Chester Nimitz, to study options to defeat the Japanese. This exercise bore fruit in perhaps America’s greatest naval victory. The Navy could not be certain of the future, but the evidence they observed allowed them to visualize realistic scenarios which were the basis of planning. Similar to Nimitz, Kuropatkin also foresaw war but unlike America’s great admiral he failed to subject his strategy to productive counter-thesis. While some may decry analyzing alternative historical strategies as smoke and mirrors, mentally exercising options not taken in the past helps develop critical skills applicable to future wars. A great challenge in the historical method is that historians tend to write on the paths taken, not hypothetical alternatives. And since historical information is the intellectual fuel for analyzing war, one must cobble together evidence and use logic to develop plausible alternatives. This methodology is hard for many analysts to internalize. How can one use strategies that did not take place? Fortunately, the Russo-Japanese War provides ample information to study a range of strategic options. Starting with the belligerents’ policy objectives and working through net assessments, strategic options begin to coalesce. In the Russo-Japanese War Kuropatkin possessed the resources to defeat Japan’s military, but he lacked a means to analyze the best strategic course of action.
[i] John W. Steinberg, Bruce W. Menning, David Schimmelpenninck van der Oye, David Wolff, and Shinji Yokote, eds., The Russo-Japanese War in Global Perspective (Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2005), 59.
[ii] Warner, Denis and Peggy, The Tide at Sunrise, A History of the Russo-Japanese War 1904-05, (London: Frank Cass, 1974), 354.
[iii] Ashmead-Bartlett Ellis, “The Times” 04 Jun 1904, Issue Number 37412, 7. https://bit.ly/2Qgjdhk
[iv] Ibid, 9-11.
[v] Kuropatkin, Alexiev. 1909. The Russian Army and The Japanese War, Being Historical and Critical comments on the Military Policy and Power of Russia and on the Campaign in the Far East. Translated by Captain A.B. Lindsay. Edited by Major E.D. Swinton, vol 1. New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1909, 127. Kuropatkin blamed other ministers for building Dalny’s infrastructure which he neglected to defend and/or destroy!