Key Point: China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has sought to remedy its lack of actual combat experience by the careful study of military history.
China’s military has not had much combat experience in recent decades, and this is recognized among Chinese military leaders as a potentially serious problem. The reasons for this scarcity of battlefield know-how are obvious and might even be praise-worthy. It has been nearly four decades since Beijing undertook a significant military campaign, so how would its armed forces have attained this knowledge? As I have argued many times before in this forum, nearly four decades without resorting to a major use of force represents very impressive restraint for any great power.
By contrast, the U.S. military has been at war almost continuously since 2001 and fought several smallish wars during the 1990s as well. But for all the innovations that these recent American wars have spawned (e.g., aerial drones, heavily-armored vehicles), it remains unclear that the lessons learned from small, counter-insurgency wars, such as Afghanistan, are actually applicable to high-intensity warfare of the type that might occur in a great power showdown.
China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has sought to remedy its lack of actual combat experience by the careful study of military history, including the bloody Pacific War as I have noted in other Dragon Eye columns. August is steamy in the South Pacific and so the Guadalcanal campaign that began in August 1942 was hell. It was through that campaign that the fate of the Pacific was decided. While the dazzling miracle of Midway gets infinitely more attention, the grinding attrition battle just a few months later of Guadalcanal, which could be termed the “Verdun” of the Pacific War, ultimately proved to be the turning point. Losing 38 ships and perhaps over 700 aircraft proved devastating for Japan, although these losses were quite similar to those suffered on the American side. The difference, of course, was that America could replace these losses quite easily.
Back at the end of 2017, the Chinese Navy’s official magazine Navy Today [当代海军] carried a reasonably detailed analysis of the crucial Guadalcanal campaign. The article concludes that Japan’s “command decisions and weapons development errors greatly increased the losses [指挥决策和装备研发上的失误更是大大加速了失败],” together with fundamental problems in Japan’s strategic culture. The Chinese analysis of Japanese mistakes in the campaign is neatly divided between errors in strategic judgment, operational and tactical errors, as well as mistakes in developing appropriate weaponry.
At the grand strategic level, this Chinese Navy analysis assesses that Japan’s mistakes in the Guadalcanal campaign were partly a failure to reckon with the true significance of the Midway battle a couple of months prior in June 1942. Tokyo seemingly maintained its offensive posture in the South Pacific without recognizing the fundamental fact of “the mobilization of America’s enormous industrial capacity [美国强大工业机器启动].” The analysis asserts that much of the Japanese military was not even informed of the truly devastating results (for Japan) of Midway and that Tokyo’s decision-making was plagued by an incessant and pervasive cult of the offensive. It is noted that the South Pacific could have been invaluable to Japan’s effort to sever U.S. supply lines, but that a critical shortage of airborne intelligence inhibited effective decision-making. The great importance of the U.S. capture of Henderson Field early in the Guadalcanal campaign is noted, and this Chinese analysis concluded, meant that the Japanese pilots flying from distant Rabaul could not offer effective support to Japanese ground troops on the contested island, while Japanese carriers “would not dare to overreach by approaching Guadalcanal” [未敢过分接近瓜岛]. Japanese strategic decisions are assessed to have been plagued by poor coordination between ground and naval forces in the completely “unclear situation [情况不明].”
This analysis also points out many Japanese operational practices that contributed to Japan’s defeat on Guadalcanal. First, it is noted that Japanese soldiers had previously taken pride in their prowess in night fighting and also close combat. Both elements were said to be hallmarks of Japan’s “bushido spirit” [武士道精神] or warrior ethos. Yet fighting of this type (in and around islands) implied relying on small caliber fires (e.g., mortars) rather than naval gunnery or air support for ground assaults. This “limited fire preparation” [有限火力准备] proved ineffective. The Chinese analysis notes, moreover, that Japanese assaults on Guadalcanal achieved neither stealth nor surprise. Then, there was the failure to concentrate sufficient forces. Initial Japanese attacks were too small and, by the time significant Japanese troops arrived, American defenses had been strengthened. Another fundamental Japanese error, according to this analysis, concerned logistics. Japanese forces were not only inadequately supplied, but also critically failed to target American rear supply depots [未攻击美方后勤补给物资].
Concerning weapons (and sensors), the PLA Navy analysis points out that the Japanese Navy put a premium on visual spotting, creating flying bridges on its battleships that were ever higher. This was occasionally effective but caused Japan to be lag behind in the vital trend of radar development, in which the Americans proved adept. The Chinese analysis also notes that the Americans skillfully employed a small number of tanks during the campaign, while the Japanese were completely unable to support their ground troops with armor. The tanks, according to this rendering, not only boosted the confidence of the American troops, but also played an important role in beating off Japanese attacks. A final point in the analysis is that the Japanese strategic culture of “the attack is first [进攻第一]” resulted in naval ship designs that had “weak air defense and anti-submarine capabilities [舰艇防空反潜能力弱].” The Japanese Navy’s ineffective sonars, for example, formed a significant limitation on its naval operations, according to this Chinese Navy rendering.
The above points do not, of course, imply that the Chinese Navy understands the Guadalcanal Campaign better than the countries that actually fought the battle. Indeed, one can find some contradictions in the Chinese Navy analysis. Thus, it is not quite persuasive to criticize Japan for having an offensive, risk-acceptant doctrine, on the one hand, and then simultaneously suggest that they lacked the daring to commit additional carrier forces. Still, it is not outlandish to suggest the analysis might reflect curriculum development within Chinese military academies. One might deduce from the above rendering that emergent Chinese naval and amphibious doctrine could quite possibly strongly prioritize intelligence, sensor development, firepower concentration and preparation, the interdiction of adversary logistics, amphibious tanks, as well as ship self-defense, including especially anti-submarine warfare. Readers may take some reassurance from the Chinese Navy analysis of the Guadalcanal campaign in that the PLA does not seem to be enthralled with the so-called “cult of the offensive” that can commonly afflict military organizations.
Lyle J. Goldstein is a research professor in the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the United States Naval War College in Newport, RI. In addition to Chinese, he also speaks Russian and he is also an affiliate of the new Russia Maritime Studies Institute (RMSI) at Naval War College. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions in his columns are entirely his own and do not reflect the official assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other agency of the U.S. government. (This first appeared in 2018.)