Shock of the New

Jackalope Pursuivant takes off from my post yesterday about Pearl Harbor.  If I were to give it a theme, I would call it "shock of the new."  From time to time folks, for example in the military, may say that they understand a new technology, but the fact that a few smart staff officers "get it" does not mean that the military has really adjusted itself to it.  Like any large organization, it has a culture and set of expectations and people who have been successful based on the old model of things.   They may say they understand that naval aviation has changed things, but they don't really adjust themselves until Pearl Harbor and Clark Field and Guam and Singapore are full of smoking ruins of planes and ships.

Dan's observation about how quickly the US dusted itself off and recognized that the world had changed is a good one.  One could argue that no one did this in WWI.  The Europeans had every chance to see what the machine gun could do even before the war in a few African wars.  Heck, the final year of the American Civil War around Petersberg was a preview of WWI, as was the ill-fated charge of the light brigade.  But armies were still dominated by cavalries and plumed hats and bayonet charges and elan vital. Even in 1916 and 1917, when they should have learned their lesson, commanders were still obsessed with making full frontal charges.  The Americans had the chance to watch the war for four years before they entered, and then promptly began committing the exact same mistakes based on the exact same faulty assumptions as in 1914.  (Neal Stephenson has a great take on American flexibility to craft radically new combat doctrine based on new facts in WWII in Cryptonomicon, absolutely one of my favorite books).

As for Pearl Harbor, I am reminded of a quote that was attributed to Frank Borman (at least in the From the Earth to the Moon documentary) when he was testifying about the Apollo 1 fire.  He called it "a failure of imagination" -- no one was even thinking about danger on the ground, all the focus was on space.  At the end of the day, the ultimate answer for Pearl Harbor's negligence in readiness was a failure of imagination.   They may have had war games and studies discussing Pearl Harbor attacks, and they may have addressed the possibility intellectually, but no one in command really believed that a couple of hundred aircraft would suddenly appear over peacetime Honolulu dropping bombs and torpedoes.


  1. Bobby:

    You should take a look at The Myth of the Great War by John Mosier. He does an excellent analysis of how the history you learned is misleading. Whereas the Allies were very much mired in old style thinking, the Germans were quite advanced, had clear strategic and tactical superiority, and showed the genesis of what was to become blitzkrieg later on. In fact, Mosier postulates that the Allies were well on their way to losing the war until America bailed them out. Its an interesting read that really changes how you look at WW I.

  2. mysterian1729:

    > He called it “a failure of imagination” — no one was even
    > thinking about danger on the ground, all the focus was on space.
    I suspect Mr. Borman was in CYA mode when he said that. North American had been trying to dissuade NASA from performing that particular test since it first came up for reasons that became obvious on January 27th. See Angle of Attack by Mike Gray. BTW, North American taking the fall for NASA paid off quite well later.

    The Gun, by C. J. Chivers, has a nice account of the impact the machine gun and the assault rifle had on infantry tactics and the slowness with which the lessons were learned.

  3. Benjamin Cole:

    It was recently discovered that a Japanese sub was active in sinking on of the US battleships at Pearl Harbor.

    BTW, the Chinese have 60+ tactical subs in the South China Sea. We have the Seventh Fleet, with about 50 ships in that sea, and one aircraft carrier.

    All of the US larger US ships (only about a dozen larger vessels) could be easily sunk by undetected quiet Chinese subs.

    I am not suggesting we somehow sound more money on that fleet--only that it could easily be sunk, and thus could trigger a war that no one in the USA would benefit from (aside from our defense industries, and maybe not even them).

    Naval tacticians have known that surface ships are extreme;y vulnerable for decades, from missile or torpedo. Yet we continue to waste hundreds of billions of dollars annually on such dinosaurs. Federal bureaucracies never die, including military agencies.

    A failure of the imagination.

  4. marco73:

    Tactical subs are only part of the equation. Wait until some nation, either China or Iran or North Korea, choose your poison, actually decides they want to target a carrier battle group.
    So we would have maybe $50 billion worth of warships frantically churning around trying to save their skin, while some remote operators are firing $1 million unmaned airborne drones from multiple hidden locations.
    So maybe they fire 100 drones a day, they could completely neutralize the entire fleet even if they score zero hits.
    Imagine that.

  5. Brian Dunbar:

    Dan’s observation about how quickly the US dusted itself off and recognized that the world had changed is a good one.

    It is. Yet .. the admirals, at least, had no choice. The ships they'd based their tactics on in November 1941 were on the bottom of the harbor.

    It was carriers and airplanes or nothing.

  6. Benjamin Cole:

    Marco 73:

    I believe the price tag on the new Gerald Ford aircraft carrier is $12 billion. Easily sunk.

  7. admin:

    Brian has a point - they had to learn to use carriers because the traditional Navy was at the bottom of the harbor. And you can come up with a counter example to the US military being open to change in the pacific - the US went years simply refusing to believe all evidence that their torpedos did not work. A lot of brave people took a lot of risk for a long time to shoot what were effectively duds.

  8. LJB007:


    I haven't read Mosier's "The Myth of the Great War" but I can say that the Allies and especially the British forces had learned from their mistakes from earlier in the war. A good example is the Canadian Corps capture of Vimy Ridge. The Canadians using with good planning,reconnaissance, and innovative tactics like rolling barrages were able overwhelm a German position that was believed to be invincible.

    For a critique of Mosier's book go to the bottom of this link:,98218.msg1003195.html#msg1003195

  9. marco73:

    Benjamin, yes, and in recent years we've also put the Truman, the Bush, and the Reagan to sea. Wonder when we'll have a Clinton or an Obama carrier?
    My $50 billion was just a swag at the present value of the carrier and all the surrounding support ships and subs in a carrier group. I wouldn't be surprised at all if its $100 billion.
    I think a carrier would actually be quite difficult to sink, because they are covered will all sorts of defensive guns and missles, and the support ships create a defensive umbrella around the carrier.
    But the effectiveness of the fleet goes way down when they are expending all their effort avoiding incoming attacks.

  10. Bobby:


    Thanks for the link to the critique of Mosier. I read it and there is certainly space for discussion. Although the critique says that Mosier didn't discuss Allied successes, I disagree slightly and he did say the Canadians at Vimy Ridge achieved a significant vitory (although the critiquer is correct when he says it was the last major Canadian offensive because of their casualties). Anyway, its good food for thought and worth a read even if you don't agree entirely.

    I appreciate the link.

  11. vandiver49:


    A carrier's primary defensive arm is its airwing and support ships. Remove these assets and a carrier is a sitting duck. As someone who served on a DDG, the scariest things in the drink are diesel subs as one torpedo can crack the keel of anything above the water. The continual investment in outdated doctrine is not just a Navy problem. The Air Force refuses to embrace UAV's because the fighter mafia sees the writing on the wall. The USMC still exists even though we will never engage in an opposed beach landing and the Army still wants tanks when its clear that era of warfare has come and gone. It important to remember that a military is always ready to fight the last war, not the next one. I hope it doesn't take another Pearl Harbor type scenario for the DOD to make a change.

  12. IGotBupkis, Evoluted Biologist:

    >>> It was recently discovered that a Japanese sub was active in sinking on of the US battleships at Pearl Harbor.

    Unless this has been recently updated, it had been debunked, all known/acked Japanese subs in the region had been accounted for.

    >>> BTW, the Chinese have 60+ tactical subs in the South China Sea. We have the Seventh Fleet, with about 50 ships in that sea, and one aircraft carrier.

    All of the US larger US ships (only about a dozen larger vessels) could be easily sunk by undetected quiet Chinese subs.

    There is a great deal of presumption in this regarding publicly known-vs-unknown anti-sub tech. One of the chief concerns in the 1980s was that our boomers were nominally the only real protection against a surprise attack, which it was surmised might well succeed in taking out all the land-based ICBMs used for any counter-attack. Since the location of the boomers was largely unknown by the Soviets, they could not reliably take them out as a part of any attack.

    Now, one of the big concerns in the late 80s, prior to the end of the cold war, was the development of satellite technology, likely dependent on blue lasers, to make the ocean depths much less effective at hiding things, rendering the boomers openly visible to the Soviets.

    Now, it apparently took a good bit longer than expected to produce those blue lasers, but you might have heard of something "Blu-Ray"? Right. Blue lasers...

    In other words, if you really think that the USA does not have surveillance systems already which can do a much better job than is publicly realized in locating those ships, you're on drugs.

    My own biggest concern is an actual collapse of the Chinese economy. Right now, China has an excess of males, and the historical response to such situations is to get militaristic to "burn off" the males and allow them to compete for females in the process.

    But currently, such competition could be done economically rather than by attempted conquest. But if the Chinese economy collapses, what then, hmmm?

    I think our military can handle any threat by the Chinese... but it would be a lot nicer to avoid any actual testing of that, either way. Americans demonstrated one thing in Iraq, it's that, while our military is the best in the world, the whiny assholes making up the populace are Mao's Paper Tigers, ready to fold in short order. All someone has to do to win is to outlast the patience of the six-year-olds in the American populace.

  13. TDK:

    There are rather too many myths about the first world war, chief amongst them the idea that in 1916 people were still expected to make full frontal changes against enemy machine guns.

    The British Army started the war with just the Expeditionary Force, a fraction of the size of the French Army which itself was smaller than the German. About half the BEF was lost before the front lines stabilised. The dilemma then was to train a full size army without denuding the front line of the most skilled troops necessary to maintain the front. To expand the army in peacetime by ten fold would be a challenge, more so if the deed had to happen in two years.

    Many principles were developed during the war that are lost to the debate over tanks. The creeping barrage enable a force to advance only yards behind the dropping shells of your own side. The idea of infiltration an bypassing were understood.

    The principle problems suffered by attackers was that of communication and resupply. Up to your own front lines you had several backup systems to understand where the enemy were, where to concentrate forces and where not. Where the enemy had broken through and where to fire your artillery and send reinforcements. Once your men had advanced through no man's land the communications were unreliable and slow. Thus in a battle like the Somme, some sectors made good progress whilst others were held up. The trick is not to reinforce the attacks on the strong points but to bypass them and prevent them being reinforced. This is difficult to accomplish when communications prevent you from telling your side to lift the barrage away from the area you are trying to advance into. You need that to happen in the next 10-15 minutes. If not the enemy will already have reinforced.

    In 1918 the Germans made a last desperate attempt to break through in the West before American reinfocements arrived. That coincided with French Army mutinies. Undoubtedly a dark point for the allies but nonetheless they held.

    Victory was achieved in the weeks that followed by the virtually unknown "100 days offensive" when a large part of Belgium was captured by a mainly British force supported by French and Pershing in the South. It was this that convinced the Germans that the game was up.