Lessons We can Learn from Pearl Harbor

Studying the Pearl Harbor catastrophe the United States military suffered on 7 December 1941 is more important than ever.

Many observers compare the 14 September 2019 drone attacks on the Saudi oil processing facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais to Pearl Harbor. The comparison is apt because of the strong similarities between the two events.

In both attacks, a surprise attack with a new weapons technology caught a powerful military off guard. Moreover, in both cases defenses failed completely.

In addition, both attacks caused catastrophic losses to the nations targeted. Japanese warplanes sank 20 warships, including seven battleships, and knocked most of the US Pacific Fleet out of service at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Observers estimate the drone strikes at Abqaiq and Khurais shutdown 50% of Saudi Arabia’s oil production capacity.

Furthermore, both attacks exposed potentially catastrophic weaknesses in defenses. Notably, Saudi Arabia’s 313 fighter jets and 122 batteries of antiaircraft missiles could not protect the oil facilities from the drones. At Pearl Harbor both antiaircraft guns and U.S. fighter planes were ineffective.

Military historians regard Pearl Harbor as a paradigm shift in warfare. To explain, Pearl Harbor marks the end of the battleship age and the beginning of the dominance of the aircraft carrier at sea.

What Pearl Harbor could Teach us about the Drone Age?

Here are three lessons Pearl Harbor can teach us about the Drone Age:

Lesson One: They will ignore Dangers from New Technologies

The threat torpedo bombers poised to warships port was old news in in December 1941.

In fact, over a year before Pearl Harbor British torpedo bombers sank half of Italy’s battleships in harbor at Taranto. On the night of 11 November 1940, 21 Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers took off from the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious off the Italian coast.

The obsolete cloth biplanes sank the battleship Conte di Cavour and heavily damaged the battleships Littorio and Caio Duilio and a heavy cruiser. The British losses comprised two Swordfish biplanes and four airmen.

At Taranto, the British crippled the Italian Navy, the only Axis surface force in the Mediterranean. Plus, the British showed it was possible to use torpedo bombers in shallow water. Formerly, naval experts had believed you needed 100 feet of water for aerial torpedoes to work.

Impressively, the British achieved all that damage with one aircraft carrier and 21 old biplanes. American commanders paid no attention to Taranto, but Japanese Naval officers did. Had the US Navy studied Taranto, the admirals could have scattered the battleships; or kept them at sea, to lessen the damage from an attack.

Likewise, we have had nearly 20 years of attacks to show us the dangers of drone warfare. The CIA carried out the first fatal drone attack in 2001, Digital Trends reports. The Human Rights Institute claims that US drones killed up to 155 civilians in Pakistan in 2011, nearly eight years ago.

Moreover, a drone reportedly started a fire that destroyed $1 billion worth of ammunition at Balakliya, Ukraine on 23 March 2017, Market Mad House observes. Thus, the destructive capability of drones was a fact long before 14 September 2019. However, as at Pearl Harbor, military commanders were not paying attention.

Lesson Two: Prejudice Will Shape National Policy and Military Decision Making

Racial prejudice made it hard for many Americans; including President Franklin D. Roosevelt (D-New York), to take the Japanese threat seriously.

Like many Americans in 1941, FDR was a white supremacist who believed white people were naturally smarter than Asians. In addition, FDR; like most white supremacists, believed the Asian Japanese were incapable of creating or using modern technology.

However, some American military officers had a different opinion of Japan. Author Craig Shirley claims an Office of Naval Intelligence Memo to FDR on 4 December 1941 noted that Japanese spies were “paying particular attention to the West Coast, the Panama Canal and the Territory of Hawaii.”

Moreover, American intelligence broke the Japanese code over a year before Pearl Harbor, Joseph E. Persico alleges in The New York Times. In fact, FDR himself admitted “this means war” when he read a decrypted message on 6 December 1941.

Yet nobody alerted the commanders at Pearl Harbor and the Pacific Fleet was not at sea. Thus, FDR and US military commanders apparently believed the Japanese were incapable of attacking Pearl Harbor.

Yet, US commanders knew the Japanese had up to nine aircraft carriers in 1941. Additionally, American admirals knew of the Taranto attack and knew the Japanese had torpedo bombers. However, the Navy took no actions to disperse the US fleet or add protection to Pearl Harbor.

Prejudice led to disaster at Pearl Harbor in two ways. First, American military and civilian leaders could not view the Japanese as equals; or a serious threat, because of longstanding racial and cultural prejudices. The notion that a non-Western country could be the technological equal of the United States was alien to most Americans in 1941.

Secondly, American naval commanders in 1941 were mostly battleship men who had a strong prejudice against aviation. For instance, battleship admirals were afraid Congress would reallocate their slice of the federal budget to aircraft carriers had they admitted the danger from torpedo bombers.

The Saudis demonstrated an identical hubris at Abqaiq and Khurais. First, Saudi commanders with a commitment to large and expensive American weapons refused to admit the potential capability of smaller and cheaper drones. Like American admirals in 1941, the Saudi commanders could be afraid to admit their expensive weapons are obsolete.

Second, the Saudis refused to admit their enemies; the Houthi movement in Lebanon, could hurt them. In addition, the Sunni Saudis could regard the Shia Houthis and their Iranian Shia allies as culturally and religiously inferior.

As at Pearl Harbor they made no serious effort to protect Abqaiq and Khurais from well-known weapons technology.

Lesson Three the Situation is Never as Bad as it First Appears

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”— Winston S. Churchill

In December 1941, many Americans and Japanese assumed that the United States had lost the war. People assumed America had lost because popular wisdom taught you needed a large fleet of battleships to win a naval war.

Many Americans assumed Japanese invasions of Hawaii and the West Coast were imminent in December 1941. People believed America was defenseless because they sunk the battleships.

However, popular wisdom was wrong in 1941; as Mussolini learned at Taranto. The United States had everything it needed to win in the naval war in the Pacific.

On 7 December 1941, the United States had eight aircraft carriers in service and five under construction, Bluejacket.com notes. Importantly, none of the carriers was at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941.

Moreover, the US Navy quickly learned from its mistakes and began fighting a defensive carrier war. The Imperial Japanese Navy, on the other hand, stuck to a terrible strategy of concentrating all its resources for one big battle.

Consequently, the Japanese did not make additional attacks on Pearl Harbor that could have disrupted US efforts to regroup. In particular, the Japanese could have destroyed huge reserves of fuel oil stored in Hawaii.

Another mistake was to use Japanese troops to seize British and Dutch colonies rather than invade Hawaii. Hence, the Japanese let the Americans keep and rebuild their main base in the Pacific.

Finally, the Japanese arrogantly believed the Americans could not break not their codes. In reality, US Naval Intelligence had been reading Japanese communications for over a year.

All these errors led to a humiliating defeat for the Japanese at the Battle of Midway in June 1941. At Midway, the US Navy sank four of Japan’s nine carriers and crippled the Empire’s offensive capability.

Ironically, the Americans turned the Japanese strategy of fighting one big decisive battle against Japan at Midway. They fought the great decisive battle, but the Americans won. Bizarrely, America and Japan fought the Battle of Midway, arguably the decisive battle of World War II over an uninhabited patch of dirt in the Pacific: Midway Island.

The first lesson from Midway; and from Abqaiq and Khurais, is that enemies can quickly change strategies to utilize new technologies. A related lesson is that military realities can change overnight, but military thinking only changes after defeat.

The US Navy only abandoned its battleship strategy because the battleships were no longer available. Thus the military industrial complex is unlikely to abandon its large expensive weapons systems; such as tanks, warships, and fighter planes, until enemy drones destroy those vehicles.

Pearl Harbor was a catastrophe, but it led to a renaissance in American military power. Only future history can tell us if the Saudi drone attacks mark the beginning of the end of American military dominance, or a resurgence of U.S. military might.