March 01, 2024

Open Thread 151

It's time once again for our regular open thread. Talk about whatever you want, so long as it isn't Culture War.

I've finally gotten one of these out pretty much on time!

We're about two months out from our New England meetup, and the AirBnB is getting close to full, so sign up if you haven't already. It will be a great time, and you should come.

Overhauls are The Proximity Fuze Part 2, Modern Propulsion Part 4, The Designation Follies, A Brief Overview of the British Fleet, and for 2023 the carrier double feature on the Nimitz and Ford classes.


  1. March 01, 2024Matt said...

    Any thoughts around here regarding the recent hubbub about Russia supposedly pursuing either a nuclear-powered antisatellite weapon or actually planning to put a nuclear weapon in orbit?

  2. March 01, 2024EngineOfCreation said...

    Can you write an article on naval drones, in light of recent Ukrainian successes in that area?

  3. March 01, 2024muddywaters said...

    @EngineOfCreation: previous discussion.

  4. March 04, 2024Alex said...

    Many historical works seem to minimize the impact of the damaged and destroyed Standard-type battleships in the Pearl Harbor attack. The rationale seems to be a combination of:

    1. Aircraft carriers ended up being much more important, and those weren't there

    2. The battleships were very dated ("obsolete" is probably too strong). The youngest (West Virginia) was launched in 1923.

    3. Their top speed of 21 knots wasn't enough to keep up with carrier task forces.

    4. Even once they were available (e.g. Colorado, Maryland, and Tennessee were all available by mid 1942), they weren't used in the major surface actions in the Guadalcanal campaign. In Neptune's Inferno, James Hornfischer claims that this was due to fuel constraints (the Navy didn't have enough fuel in-theater to operate the battleships), though I haven't seen this specific claim elsewhere.

    At the same time, the US Navy had 6 modern cruisers in Pearl Harbor on December 7 (2 New Orleans-class heavy cruisers, and 4 Brooklyn-class light cruisers, all commissioned between 1934 and 1939). Most of the cruisers played active roles in the South Pacific in 1942.

    Given the situation, would the Japanese have had more impact on the US Navy's ability to react if they had prioritized hitting the cruisers, rather than the battleships?

  5. March 05, 2024bean said...

    The first part of my answer is "it's irrelevant, the Japanese would never do it". For all of the criticism of the USN's "gun club", the Japanese version was a lot more powerful, and there was no way they'd go after cruisers instead of battleships. (This is also the reason that the stuff about "what if they'd gone after the oil" is nonsense.) And to be clear, I don't think this is wrong within their own frame. The basic idea behind the strike was to shock the US into negotiations (obviously stupid, but that's what they were thinking) and if they sank a bunch of cruisers, our response would be "well, at least they didn't get the battleships".

    There's also an element of the dog that didn't bark here. We don't know what the slow BBs would have done in a world where they weren't destroyed because the surviving ships were essentially the USN's reserve force and by the time we had enough to use them offensively, the primacy of the carrier had been firmly established. But I don't think it's safe to assume hitting the cruisers would have been more impactful.

  6. March 07, 2024John Schilling said...

    Also, Wikipedia suggests that only two of the Pacific Fleet's ten heavy cruisers were at Peal on 12/7/41. They could in theory have picked up six of the Fleet's eight light cruisers, if they could have distinguished them from the air, but that's still <45% of the total. Plus the Asiatic Fleet adds another heavy and light cruiser. Seems like the cruisers weren't available to be sunk in port because they were busy cruising.

    Also, if the idea is to stop the US from effectively using its fleet carriers, sinking the carriers will work a lot better than sinking the cruisers "necessary" to screen them. The carriers are easier to identify, probably easier to sink, and definitely harder to replace. If you can't sink the aircraft carriers because they're not in port, then where do you expect their screening cruisers to be?

  7. March 07, 2024Alex said...

    I agree that going after the cruisers still wouldn't make the plan "work" on the strategic level. There was nothing they could have hit on Oahu that would have brought the US to the table in the way they seemed to imagine.

    My question is more "assuming you're doing the attack regardless, which targets should you prioritize"? The cruisers ended up being the primary surface combatants in the Guadalcanal campaign, so it's interesting to consider how the USN would have managed that campaign if the Pacific/Asiatic Fleets started with just 8/11 of their heavy cruisers and 1/5 of their modern light cruisers (the 4 Omaha-class cruisers were too old for surface combat with the IJN). My assumption is that the surface force would have been significantly more "stretched" to support the needs of both the carrier task forces and the surface actions in the Solomons.

    On the other hand, maybe the battleships would have done the job in the Solomons, and fuel/tanker constraints could have been addressed by just not moving them around that much (distances in the Solomons aren't that large by Pacific standards). My guess is that the battleships would not have done especially well in the night actions in the Solomons - the close ranges negate one of their biggest advantages, and it's not clear how many of the battleships even had a useful radar.

    I agree with bean that the Japanese never would have actually prioritized cruisers over battleships. Gotta go for the big boys.

  8. March 07, 2024Alex said...

    Unrelated separate question: How much impact did sub chasers have in the Battle of the Atlantic? Did they have any deterrent effect on coastal U-boats?

  9. March 07, 2024John Schilling said...

    I'm guessing that if the Japanese had prioritized hitting cruisers at Pearl Harbor, 1st Guadalcanal would have involved Hiei and Kirishima going up against maybe Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Nevada. Supporting a major amphibious operation in the Solomons is I think exactly what the USN would do with the slow battleships Japan didn't sink when they were prioritizing cruiser targets

  10. March 08, 2024redRover said...

    If we're playing Pearl Harbor what if, I think the really interesting question (which is admittedly far more counter-factual) is what happens if the carriers had been in port, and the battleships at sea.

  11. March 08, 2024Alex said...

    That's much more difficult to game out, because the USN response would have been very different without the carriers. My guess is that it would have set the US back ~1-2 years in the Pacific. The sinking of the Prince of Wales and Repulse demonstrated pretty clearly how vulnerable surface vessels were without supporting air cover, so long-range offensive operations would have been much more limited until the huge numbers of escort and fleet carriers could get built and their crews trained. It seems likely that the Japanese would have captured and fortified the Solomons and other South Pacific islands, which would have made it difficult for the United States to support Australia materially.

    I don't think it changes the outcome - the US material advantage was so enormous that Japan's only hope of winning was to break US resolve.

  12. March 08, 2024muddywaters said...

    and related to that: would "wait for the US carriers to come home" have been a viable plan?

    That would require enough intelligence assets to know whether they're home before launching the bombers (which seems plausible) and enough fuel and other supplies to wait (which might have been a problem).

    It also has the obvious risk that they might be noticed, raising the question of who would win a non-surprise battle. The Japanese carriers outnumbered the American carriers 6:2, but Hawaii also had land-based aircraft.

  13. March 08, 2024Erica Rall said...

    would “wait for the US carriers to come home” have been a viable plan?

    No. Even if we handwave logistical and intelligence constraints, there's also the problem of coordinating Pearl Harbor with other operations. Japan was trying to do several things at once in rapid succession to maximally capitalize on strategic surprise:

    1. Deliver formal declarations of war to the US and UK. This was botched historically: the declaration of war on the US was intended to be delivered 30 minutes prior to Pearl Harbor, but was actually delivered two hours after because the Japanese Embassy took too long decoding the message.

    2. Destroy the main striking force of the US Pacific Fleet.

    3. An amphibious invasion of the Philippines.

    4. A combined overland/amphibious campaign against British Malaya.

    5. An amphibious invasion of Wake Island.

    If Japanese intelligence knew a form date in advance when the carriers would be back at Pearl, planning everything around that date might have been possible. But holding everything ready to go within hours of the Pearl Harbor strike force spotting the carriers returning seems outlandishly unlikely, especially with the need to maintain operational surprise.

  14. March 09, 2024ike said...
    1. An amphibious invasion of Wake Island.

    Shouldn't that be Guam?

    I think 'conquer Hong Kong' was also on the itinerary for that day.

  15. March 10, 2024John Schilling said...

    The Japanese attacked both Guam and Wake on 8 December 1941. It took them two days to overrun Guam, two weeks and two destroyers to capture Wake. Bravo Zulu James Devereux and the gunners of the 1st Defense Battalion.

  16. March 10, 2024Tony Zbaraschuk said...

    The Japanese could have effectively gone after the cruisers; the battleships were targeted with torpedoes and (for the inboard battleships) level bombers dropping converted battleship shells. The dive bombers had bombs probably too small to penetrate battleship deck armor, and were supposed to go after the carriers had any been in port. They ended up scattering bombs all over the place, including a number on battleships.

    They could have been sent after the cruisers instead, and probably would have done more damage than they did -- hitting Pennsylvania in drydock wasn't particularly effective.

  17. March 10, 2024muddywaters said...

    The Japanese later said they had assigned those aircraft to attack carriers and cruisers. I don't know how reliable a source that is, or why they actually attacked battleships if they had been told not to (though the obvious guess is that it might simply be difficult to tell a cruiser from a battleship without getting dangerously close).

  18. March 10, 2024Philistine said...

    Cruisers - especially heavy cruisers - were misidentified as battleships all the time, so ordinarily that part wouldn't be very surprising. In this particular case the flyers should have been briefed on where their assigned targets were anchored, though.

  19. March 11, 2024Tony Zbaraschuk said...

    There are always misidentification issues ;)

    Part of the issue, too, was that the second wave got really excited by the prospect of sinking Nevada in the harbor channel and so a lot of dive-bombers went after her -- the cumulative effect of the damage was enough to make her beach, but that's one of those things that partly depended on aging ship maintenance issues (like not-totally-effective leakproofing) that the dive bombers maybe shouldn't have depended on.

  20. March 11, 2024bean said...

    It's also worth pointing out that the Japanese first wave had its attack plan scrambled because of some signalling issues. The leader ended up sending the "attack as if unaware" signal twice, which coincidentally was the "they've seen us coming" signal, too. I wouldn't be surprised if that resulted in planes that would have hit cruisers going after the battleships instead.

  21. March 11, 2024muddywaters said...

    Why was Nevada even trying to leave the harbor?

    Chasing ~30-knot carriers in a 21-knot Standard has obvious problems. Especially when you don't know where they are and possibly don't have main gun ammunition.

    Having space to dodge would make her somewhat harder to hit, but if she does get sunk, deeper and less sheltered water makes that more likely to be permanent. I don't know whether this is a good tradeoff.

    Her action report says to get away from the burning Arizona, which is a reason to leave her berth but doesn't seem to require leaving the harbor.

    The commander's report suggests that a pre-existing plan to sortie was activated then cancelled. This would make sense if that plan was intended for "enemy sighted, prepare for surface battle" and it took time to realize that it wasn't a good idea against a carrier force with this much damage already done.

  22. March 12, 2024bean said...

    I'd guess it was basically instinct. If you're a ship under attack, your first response is going to be to get to sea. That's where you should be, and heading that way gives you more options, because you can decide to stay in the harbor at any point.

  23. March 13, 2024John Schilling said...

    A ship maneuvering at 20+ knots in the open sea is a much harder target than one tied up to a pier. Note that the Japanese scored 25 hits out of 36 torpedoes dropped (69%) at Pearl, vs 8 hits out of 49 dropped (16%) against Repulse and Prince of Wales two days later.

    Also, for all anyone at Pearl knew, the third wave of the attack was going to be an amphibious landing on Oahu, which is the sort of thing you'd want to have a battleship at sea to deal with.

  24. March 17, 2024muddywaters said...

    Thanks - if the value of being able to dodge is that big, it makes more sense. (A torpedo dropped at sea at the same short (<800m) range as used at Pearl Harbor, and correctly aimed to hit if the target takes no action, probably can't be dodged after it is dropped - that takes ~1000m - but maneuvering also raises the difficulty of properly aiming the torpedo to begin with, and being in a less tight line reduces the risk that one that misses you will hit someone else.)

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