When the battleship Yamato was launched in August 1940, the Japanese Empire possessed a weapon that was designed with one target in mind, the battleships of the U.S. Navy. At 70,000 tons and armed with nine 18-inch guns, the largest caliber naval rifle ever deployed on a warship, the Yamato was actually intended to take on several comparatively lightly-armed and lightly-armored American battleships simultaneously in a climatic battle for control of the Western Pacific. That battle never occurred – the Yamato was sunk by more than four-hundred U.S. carrier aircraft during what amounted to a suicide mission to attack the U.S. invasion force at Okinawa in April of 1945. Nevertheless, both the Japanese and U.S. navies worked throughout World War II to bring their opposing battle lines into contact. No less than 6 U.S. battleships (Massachusetts, Indiana, New Jersey, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Missouri), 7 cruisers (including the brand new battle cruisers Alaska and Guam) and 21 destroyers were dispatched to meet Yamato just in case the aviators failed to find their target.
Although the demise of the Yamato in such a lopsided victory was welcome from the American perspective, it was not preordained. The Yamato was the superweapon of its day, it threatened the U.S. battle line and even the outcome of the anticipated climatic naval battle for mastery of the Pacific. U.S. planners recognized Yamato as a problem and they subjected that problem to mathematical “analysis” to understand its nature and to devise cost-effective ways to mitigate the threat. U.S. Navy planners worked to find a solution to this Japanese superweapon “left of battle,” so to speak, long before Yamato sailed for Okinawa.
Today, everything from hypersonic vehicles, cyber intrusions, autonomous vehicles, and 5G networks are identified as emerging superweapons that threaten the U.S. Navy’s prospects in the western Pacific. Nevertheless, as these various technologies wax and wane along the Gartner hype cycle, evaluations of potential applications, net assessments, and mathematically informed analysis rarely inform debate.[i] What follows is not just a call for today’s Navy to “think about things more,” but to instead employ the full panoply of mathematical analysis, optimization techniques, systems analysis, modelling and simulation, and even qualitative assessment to better understand how to employ weapons based on new technologies and their potential impact on some future conflict. A look back on the Yamato problem can help us understand why today’s officers will find it difficult to assess the new technologies that are touted as the source of the next superweapon at sea. Few would disagree that officers need to embrace a longstanding naval tradition by using analysis now to win the next battle, thereby bolstering deterrence and reducing the likelihood of war in the future. What is less understood is that when it comes to assessing new technologies, analysis appears less compelling “left of battle,” that is, before wartime experience resolves questions about weapons based on novel technologies.
Sizing Up Yamato
Although the Yamato’s 18-inch guns could loft a shell about 46,000 yards, a bit more than the 42,000-yard range of the 16-inch guns deployed on the newest Iowa-class battleships that were entering the U.S. fleet at the start of World War II, effective engagements at sea would occur at less than maximum range. Both types of battleships could also fire a salvo at about thirty-second intervals. The Yamato, however, did possess a significant edge in the overall weight of its broadside (about 29,000 pounds) to the Iowa (24,000 pounds), giving the Yamato a distinct twenty percent advantage in a “slugging match.” Yamato’s thicker armor amplified that advantage.
U.S. planners first seemed to gravitate towards a “more of the same” solution to compensate for the lighter broadside and armor of their capital ships. Japanese ship construction could not compete with American industry – the Japanese would only manage to launch the Yamato and her sister ship Musachi by the end of the war. By planning for the construction of six Iowa-class battleships, the United States might be able to avoid a “fair fight,” so to speak, so that multiple Iowa battleships could engage a single Yamato. A 3:1 engagement would then subject a Yamato to nearly 150,000 pounds of shot each minute, while each Iowa would only be subjected to about 19,000 pounds of ordnance in return. Ceteris paribus, U.S. battleships would quickly win such an encounter. In a sense, what analysis revealed was that quantity has a quality all its own; building a larger number of relatively inferior weapons can sometimes defeat a smaller number of superior weapons.
Because it was impossible to guarantee that the United States would enjoy that firepower advantage when an encounter occurred, naval architects went back to the drawing board to see if they could design a U.S. battleship that would be superior to the Yamato. A more sophisticated analysis went into the design of the new Montana-class battleship, which would be built on hulls designed for the Iowa-class. Instead of attempting to increase the size of the big guns on the Montana to exceed the 18-inch cannon on the Yamato, U.S. naval architects increased the number of 16-inch guns on the Montana to twelve, up from the nine 16-inch guns carried by the Iowa-class. As a result, the Montana’s broadside would enjoy about a ten percent advantage (32,400 pound vs. 29,000) in throw weight over the Yamato. More importantly, its twelve cannons would also possess a greater probability of actually hitting the target than Yamato’s nine larger guns. If each round had about a 10% chance of hitting a target, then the likelihood of a Montana achieving three or more hits with a 12-shot salvo was 11%, while Yamato had only a 5% chance of achieving three or more hits with a 9 shot salvo. Roughly speaking, a Montana could score three or more hits for every 2 or more hits scored by a Yamato, giving the Montana about a 20% advantage in firepower, the same advantage enjoyed by the Yamato over the Iowa. The left of battle analysis behind the Montana revealed that increasing the firepower of existing platforms – an evolutionary improvement — was a cost-effective way of besting the opponent’s superweapon.
Data gleaned from the first six months of World War II combat in the Pacific, however, led the Navy to adopt a far more radical response to the Yamato. Because of the unusual circumstances surrounding the Japanese victory at Pearl Harbor, some Navy strategists wanted to reserve judgment on the future of the battleship in the face of obviously effective carrier aviation.[ii] Following the carrier-dominated battles of the Coral Sea and Midway, however, it was no longer possible to avoid that judgment. What the air battles demonstrated was that the aircraft carrier could engage a battleship literally hundreds of miles before the battleship could be brought into effective range (about 20 miles with radar guidance and somewhat less than that with ship-based optics). The important measure of effectiveness was no longer weight of fire, or speed of fire, or even the probability of scoring a hit, it was the range at which a target could be engaged. By broadening their analytical aperture to include aircraft, officers recognized that an asymmetrical weapon had transformed the superweapon Yamato into a target years before the first Montana would have plied the world’s oceans. Battleships would no longer be the dominant weapon in naval warfare.
It might be tempting to attribute this apparent technological myopia to the battle between battleship admirals of the so-called “gun club” and pioneering naval aviators. That would be a misreading of the Yamato story – by working a series of Fleet Problems during the 1920s and 1930s, naval aviators began to gain an accurate perception of the potential of the aircraft carrier. Nevertheless, as the work of the naval historian Craig Felker suggests, these promising findings were undermined by concerns about the frailty of aircraft and the ability to conduct effective aircraft operations in an unforgiving wartime environment at sea.[iii] Indeed, the death of Admiral William A. Moffett, the most effective pioneer of the naval aviation, in the crash of the airship Akron in 1933 did little to undermine the perception that aircraft were too unreliable to be counted on in war.[iv] What is especially revealing is how many issues the Navy actually worked out in the interwar period – carrier operations, amphibious landing, underway refueling – without having a fundamental impact on procurement strategies that would shift the balance between guns and aircraft in the Fleet.[v]
By July 1942, the Navy revised its priorities, placing submarine construction first and relegating battleship construction to the back burner as sixth in priority.[vi] In a move accelerated to the speed of wartime, the U.S. Navy ended its battleship program by July 1943, cancelling plans to build Montana-class battleships.[vii] The end of the battleship era had come, an end sealed by the fate of the Yamato two years later.
Where is the Analysis?
Today the Navy faces a technological tsunami. A growing list of potentially disruptive technologies, if not potential superweapons, compete for consideration. Artificial intelligence, the emergence of 5G networks, additive manufacturing, quantum science, new energetics, synthetic biology, and new types of “systems of systems” in naval warfare appear to be within reach of friend and foe alike. The Navy is also working hard at innovation. Nevertheless, Navy planners at times appear overwhelmed by these emerging technological opportunities and seem unsure about which technologies and operational concepts to pursue. Motivating this concern about new technologies and the slow pace of innovation is the fear that one of these new technologies might constitute a disruptive approach to naval warfare, an asymmetric response to the carrier-dominated U.S. Navy.
Ironically, despite all of the technological rhetoric, we face a situation today not entirely dissimilar to the one facing the U.S. Navy on the eve of WWII. Recent advances in anti-access and area-denial technologies, strategies, operations and tactics by emerging peer-competitors largely have one target in mind, the carrier battle groups of the U.S. Navy. Admittedly, many of these advances are more formidable on paper than in reality, but these tactical threats can have operational and strategic consequences. From an institutional perspective, these developments also threaten the bureaucratic dominance of the aviation community, much in the same way the interests of battleship admirals were threatened by both the Yamato and aviation in the interwar years.
Because the U.S. Navy’s current array of high-performance aircraft and multi-mission warships are so expensive, the qualitative edge produced by quantity is likely to be enjoyed by our peer-competitors. In other words, the “more of the same” response embodied in the Iowa-class building program is not a promising option for the today’s Navy. Increasing the firepower of individual platforms might be a viable solution to the anti-access and area-denial problem, but without analysis to identify and mathematically model specific threats, it is impossible to know what improvements are likely to make a difference in combat. Solutions might be available, but someone has to provide a net assessment of the problem as a starting point.
This leads to the possibility of an asymmetric, disruptive response to the anti-access and area-denial problem. Nevertheless, the history of disruptive technology and the battleship is not reassuring – asymmetric, disruptive technologies are difficult to assess before they are demonstrated in combat. When the Yamato, Iowa and Montana were designed, for instance, the offensive potential of carrier aviation was a matter of some conjecture. The Navy’s first carrier monoplane, the Brewster Buffalo (F2A), still only existed in artists’ renderings and it remained an open question if aircraft possessed the range, payload, and structural integrity for sustained combat. By the early 1930s, aviation enthusiasts believed that the pulsed firepower of the aircraft carrier could outrange and outgun battleships, but their models and analysis appeared to be largely conjecture to their more battleship-minded colleagues. Unlike the “left of battle” analysis that influenced the development of the Iowa-class and the Montana-class, the decision to abandon the battleship in favor of the aircraft carrier occurred “right of battle,” after the definitive evidence gathered at the Coral Sea and Midway was subject to analysis. Today, waiting for a “proof of concept” demonstration of one of the host of potentially disruptive technologies on the horizon seems like a recipe for disaster.
Left of Battle, or Right of Battle?
The story of the response to the Yamato highlights the role of analysis as a tool to conduct a net assessment of competing weapons systems, to explore doctrine and to a certain extent strategy, allowing officers to gain some foresight into likely combat outcomes. While it cannot predict the future with accuracy, analysis can identify the factors that are likely to drive battlefield outcomes in certain directions. In other words, analysis would allow one to predict not only that the Montana would defeat the Yamato, it also would have predicted that an aircraft carrier could have accomplished the same feat without suffering any damage in return. By the late 1930s, Navy-shipbuilding plans called for the construction of no less than 17 new battleships in four progressively larger classes and a six new battle cruisers to boot – the plan to build 23 new capital ships was the Navy’s answer to the looming threat of war in the Pacific.[viii] What is remarkable is how quickly the Navy abandoned the battleship and how quickly the locus of bureaucratic power in the Navy shifted from the battleship admirals to the aviation community.
Current U.S. Navy efforts to outpace the growth of peer competitors’ increasing anti-access and area denial capabilities loosely parallel earlier efforts to trump the Yamato. The Navy, for example, is looking to increase numbers quickly. The Pentagon has been upgrading amphibious assault ships to carry about 20 F-35s each, increasing the number of platforms that carry aviation strike assets.[ix] The Navy also is looking to increase the effective firepower of existing Nimitz-class aircraft carriers by equipping them with new MQ-25 Stingray autonomous tanker aircraft, a move which should increase the strike range of the carriers’ air wings. In a manner that also is reminiscent of the early days of carrier aviation, the Navy also is experimenting with a several new technologies, for instance, the Sea Hunter autonomous vehicle, to gain operational experience with a potentially disruptive weapon. So far, an “Admiral Yarnell” has not emerged to provide an innovative demonstration of one of these technologies, but eventually some new technology will emerge as a front-runner in the race to develop an asymmetric, disruptive weapon. History also suggests that Navy officers will be aware of this new technology because they will be involved in its weaponization.
As one anonymous reviewer also observed, given the myriad of existing commands, Pentagon bureaus, and surface ship, aviation, and submarine warfare “barons,” it is difficult to believe that the left of battle problem involving new technology is not being addressed by the U.S. Navy. Indeed, the element in the Pentagon’s Navy staff charged with conducting analysis – OPNAV N81, the “Assessment Division” – is filled with some of the best operations analysts in the world. Nevertheless, many of these activities, especially in the Pentagon, use analysis to justify budget requests or programmatic decisions to Congress, they focus on optimizing effectiveness and minimizing cost across systems that have already been selected for production. [x] Additionally, as Thomas-Durrell Young has noted, the Navy lacks the organization and staffing to direct all of this analysis towards agreed upon end states or to identify and present strategic choices to senior Navy officers.[xi] In a sense, N81 possesses an unparalleled capability to demonstrate budget optimization, but is less likely to offer tactical, operational and strategic assessments of novel technologies or experimental systems.
More than one Navy admiral has noted that analysts often fall in love studying a problem without devising workable solutions to their object of affection. Nevertheless, the “left or right of battle” issue needs to be better recognized by Navy strategists and planners when it comes to the art and science of selecting weapons and platforms. When employed to assess known technologies in specific strategic, operational, and tactical contexts, analysis can highlight cost-effective ways to defeat opposing systems long before battle occurs and planners will be willing to integrate these solutions into the Fleet – winning “left of battle” is an obtainable goal. The important caveat here is that analysis is often wielded by bureaucratically dominant elements of an institution in a way to preserve the dominance of their preferred weapons and practices. When asymmetric, disruptive technologies and weapons are involved, analysis carries less weight because it appears grounded in unrealistic or unproven strategic, operational, or tactical assumptions. Analysis of asymmetric, disruptive weapons can still carry the day, but analysis appears to hold sway “right of battle,” when recent experience makes analytic findings appear not only cut and dried, but a bit overtaken by events.
The Yamato case demonstrates that left of battle victories can be achieved when they involved relatively symmetrical technologies in well understood weapons systems. Nevertheless, it also suggests that analysis faces a much tougher right of battle problem – the last obstacle confronting the integration of new weapons derived from asymmetric, disruptive technology. Solving the right of battle problem can govern which opponent delivers a proof of concept demonstration in the next battle at sea. Failing to solve the problem can undermine deterrence, especially if risk-acceptant opponents are willing to gamble on new weapons to upset the balance at sea quickly.
[i] The Gartner hype cycle is a tool used to describe the maturity, adoption and social impact of emerging technologies and applications see Ivy Wigmore, “Gartner Hype Cycle,” TechTarget, October 2013. https://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/Gartner-hype-cycle
[ii] Robert O’Connell, Sacred Vessels: The Cult of the Battleship and the Rise of the U.S. Navy (Boulder: Westview Press, 1991), p. 316.
[iii] Craig C. Felker, Testing American Sea Power: U.S. Navy Strategic Exercises, 1923-1940 (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2007).
[iv] William F. Trimble, Admiral William A. Moffet: Architect of Naval Aviation (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2007).
[v] Albert Nofi, To Train the Fleet for War: The U.S. Navy Fleet Problems, 1923-1940 (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 2010).
[vi] O’Connell, Sacred Vessels, p. 316.
[vii] William Garzke and Roger Dullin, Battleships: United States Battleships 1935-1992 (Annapolis: Naval Instuture Press, 1995), p. 165.
[viii] O’Connell, Sacred Vessels, p. 306.
[ix] David B. Larter, “US Navy upgrades more ships for theF-35 as the future of carriers remains in flux,” Defensenews June 1, 2020. https://www.defensenews.com/naval/2020/01/01.yus-navy-upgrades-more-ships-for-the-F-35-as-the-future-of-carriers-remains-in-flux/
[x] For an example of this type of analysis sponsored by N81 see Edward G. Keating, Sarah H. Bana, and Michael Boito, Cost Adjustment Sheets and the Flying Hour Program (Santa Monica: Rand Corporation, 2012). https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/pdfs/ADA568695.pdf
[xi] Thomas-Durrell Young, “When Programming Trumps Policy or Plans: The Case of the U.S. Department of the Navy,” Journal of Strategic Studies Vol. 39, Iss. 7. 2016. 938-955