Seven decades ago, in August 1942, the United States launched its first counteroffensive to stem a seemingly relentless Japanese advance across the South Pacific. American planners focused on the risk posed by a new Japanese airfield on the little-known island of Guadalcanal.
In this battle, waged by the ships and aircraft of the U.S. Navy, the 1st Marine Division (and eventually the Army’s Americal Division) stopped the Japanese advance cold. In a hard-fought, grueling, seven-month land, air and sea campaign, America forced Japan to retreat. The long road to Pacific victory had begun.
But the Guadalcanal campaign was about far more than just pitched combat ashore and point-blank naval engagements in the aptly named “Iron Bottom Sound.” The campaign was also about the Marine Corps and Navy shedding the last vestiges of peacetime routine, bureaucratic processes and quaint prewar notions of how warfare was to be conducted.
As James Hornfischer relates in his masterful work “Neptune’s Inferno: the U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal,” it was also about the Navy and Marine Corps shaking off “a fatal lethargy of mind” to adapt at a prodigious pace and absorb hard-won lessons while pitted in sustained combat.
The sea services were adapting to new types of warfare, including how to conduct amphibious assaults, carry out combined air operations and effectively command and control forces and operations spread over thousands of miles of ocean. They were also adapting to new kinds of powerful technologies, such as radar — which few senior officers initially understood how to effectively employ — and electronic fire control systems never before used in combat.
The learning curve for Marines and sailors at Guadalcanal was steep, but it paid off in every subsequent Pacific campaign.
The echoes of Guadalcanal continue to resonate for the Navy and Marine Corps in 2012 as they find themselves thinking anew about political and military changes in the Asia-Pacific. Numerous studies, reports and Pentagon strategies in recent years have concluded that America’s long-term security and economic interests are inextricably linked to events in the Pacific. China’s meteoric economic rise and corresponding increases in military and naval modernization only increase the import this region will exert on America’s future security.
These echoes are not just theoretical musings about past battles. Much of the strategic discourse in Washington these days revolves around the emerging operational challenges posed by the proliferation of anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) strategies being pursued by many nations and the counterstrategy, like Air-Sea Battle (ASB), that U.S. forces might use to overcome this threat. A striking case can be made that America faced similar operational challenges at Guadalcanal and prevailed.
A few examples of how the Guadalcanal campaign closely parallels today’s operational challenges serve as a useful reminder that history provides valuable insights that can help inform current thinking and planning:
A2/AD is not new. To carry out Guadalcanal landings and stay there, the Navy and Marines were operating well within the Japanese zone of fortified islands and whose forces and ships initially outnumbered U.S. forces. The Navy/Marine Corps’ nascent Single Naval Battle concept is a new attempt to address this challenge from a holistic view. But U.S. naval forces have successfully met and overcome the A2/AD challenge in the past.
Likewise, ASB is not revolutionary. In its essence, ASB is about ensuring the most effective meshing of capabilities, training, doctrine and thinking to overcome an adversary’s A2/AD strategy. At the time of Guadalcanal, this was all about combined arms — melding sea, air and ground capabilities and then synchronizing their use in combat. This was not easy to perfect.
Time and distance still matter, especially in the Pacific. This is an immutable characteristic of operating across this vast region. It was a constant concern in World War II and is an issue in any future operation, despite the reach of modern weaponry.
Logistics, logistics, logistics. U.S. forces on Guadalcanal were at the extreme end of the U.S. logistics chain, and ensuring a steady supply of men and materiel proved problematic. Future operations will likewise occur at the far tip of the U.S. logistics chain, and resupplying forces when bases, ports and the logistics ships themselves could well be under attack requires fresh approaches and an honest assessment of the health of the U.S. defense industrial base.
Understand your enemy. American forces consistently downgraded Japanese naval skills in terms of night operations, torpedo attacks and tactics, which resulted in the sinking of 24 major warships over the course of the seven-month campaign. To succeed, U.S. forces must redouble efforts to understand how potential adversaries think, plan and fight.
Change is the watchword for the Pacific as the U.S. “rebalances” its force posture after a decade of war ashore in Iraq and Afghani-stan. The Navy is planning to base 60 percent of its force structure in the region, and Marine brigades will rotate to Australia for training. Other changes will come, yet the lessons of Guadalcanal still echo with each of these deployments.
By Robert Holzer, a senior national security manager with Gryphon Technologies. The views expressed here are his own.