George Friedman’s Thoughts: Command of Space, Command of the Sea

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In order to begin thinking about space-based warfare, we need to think about sea-based warfare. The best place to do that is in World War II with the U.S.-Japanese war. When the United States forced its way into Japan, Japan lacked any powered instruments of production. It was a muscle-driven society. When they saw American warships, already having intelligence on British operations in China, the Japanese rapidly understood that their country could not be secure without a modern navy and that it could not have a modern navy without modern industrial plants. Japan surged from being a muscle-based economy to being one driven by petrochemical power. It was an enormous achievement.

But it also made Japan vulnerable in a way that it had never been before. Because of Japan’s peculiar geography, it lacked almost all industrial minerals. Japan had to import massive amounts of metal ores and, above all, oil. All of those imports had to traverse sea lanes. That meant that Japan’s economic development was vulnerable to foreign, hostile powers interdicting those sea lanes. Japan had to assume that at some point it would face this sort of challenge. So, the first edition Japanese navy, built by the British, was to be a defensive power that could protect the homeland from invasion. But that defensiveness also had to extend to assuring that Japan’s supplies of minerals from today’s Indonesia and Southeast Asia were secure. For that reason, its defensive mission appeared to other powers as offensive.

At that time, there were two rising powers in the Pacific: Japan and the United States. They first dueled over a coaling station. In the age of coal-powered vessels, ships had to refuel, as one load of coal gave them only limited range. For the United States, Hawaii was the key refueling point. There was no land between Hawaii and the West Coast, so if the U.S. held Hawaii, it was secure from attack. For Japan, it was the small islands of the Western Pacific. Japan took control of many of these islands after World War I. The U.S. held the Philippines, Guam and some other minor islands. But neither country could be secure while the other could choose to attack.

And, indeed, the Japanese attacked China, looking for raw materials and markets. The U.S. saw this as a threat; if Japan held China, it could build a fleet that could dwarf the Americans’. And since the U.S. had to have fleets in two oceans, it did what it could to thwart Japan. In the end, the U.S. tried to control Japan by interdicting access to oil from Indonesia and placing an embargo on steel and oil shipments from the United States. The U.S. believed that Japan would have to subordinate itself to the U.S., as the U.S. fleet was believed to be more powerful than the Japanese. Japan could not survive without oil, rubber, bauxite and all the rest, and the U.S. could cut off its supply.

The Japanese saw what the Americans were seeing, but they drew a different conclusion. They believed that the Americans were trying to break their economy. They also believed that engaging the U.S. at sea was uncertain at best. But where the U.S. had concluded that it had backed Japan into an inescapable corner, the Japanese concluded that they had to redefine the variables. A surface battle with the U.S. fleet could be disastrous. Therefore, they conceived of a war based on an air-sea battle.

Both the Japanese and Americans had aircraft carriers. The U.S. regarded them as an adjunct to surface warfare, but the Japanese saw them as an alternative to surface warfare. In their desperation, the Japanese innovated. They did not innovate technically; aircraft carriers existed along with torpedo planes, bombers and fighter aircraft. Where they innovated was in grasping the advantage that aircraft held against surface vessels and, believing what they saw, building operations and a strategy around the carriers.

The result was Pearl Harbor, where the U.S. Pacific Fleet was shattered because the U.S. Navy had underestimated the possibilities inherent in carrier-based warfare. The U.S. response was to use its own carriers to block the Japanese at the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway. The U.S. then seized a series of small islands to extend its land-based air control, until it could attack Japan proper.

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In all of this the battleship, which had been seen as the key to control of the sea, was marginalized. Now, control of the sea did not depend on surface ships but on command of the air. The aircraft carrier was a tool in delivering aircraft, but land-based aircraft were of similar value. The first American offensive on Guadalcanal pivoted on the question of who would control a small airfield there from which to launch aircraft.

The Japanese naval force was smashed at Midway. U.S. aircraft moved closer until they reached Saipan and Tinian, bringing U.S. bombers into range of Japan. This, supplemented by submarines, isolated Japan from its supply of minerals, and, where aircraft supported by amphibious forces broke the back of the Japanese navy, the submarines broke the back of the economy, which was what the war was about from the Japanese point of view.

The point here is that the presence of a new technology, and accompanying assumption of its significance, is often extraordinarily wrong. The Japanese, for all their brilliance, spent their national treasure on the Yamato, the largest battleship in the world. They believed, despite seeing all the possibilities of the aircraft carrier, that the war would be won by battleships. The U.S. evolved more quickly after disaster but still insisted on building battleships for the inevitable decisive surface battle.

The air-sea dynamic changed the rules of warfare. For the first time, command of the sea depended not on surface vessels but on aircraft launched from any base and on submarines. It was not the technology that was lacking. It was an understanding of what the technology meant. The more desperate a power is, the more it grasps the possibilities of technology. The Japanese were desperate when the U.S. placed sanctions on their country; the Americans when their fleet in Hawaii was destroyed.

In every revolution in warfare, the assumption by the more powerful power is that the technology being introduced is an adjunct to existing technology. The recognition that existing technology is no longer relevant is brought to bear only by desperation and defeat. The Japanese saw the possibility of air-based command of the sea but failed to appreciate how rapidly the U.S. would grasp the lesson and how quickly it would turn the lesson into carriers. The Americans failed to appreciate that putting Japan in a desperate position would cause it to attack based on completely different principles of warfare.

The dependency on space in warfare is far more radical than the dependency on air. The technology and the environment are orders of magnitude greater than what they were with aircraft. The United States, however, is treating space as an adjunct to the existing system made up of armored fighting vehicles, manned bombers and aircraft carriers. It sees the value of space. It does not see that space means the decline in value of many systems the U.S. treats as sacred.

The constant discussion of new technologies is important, but it is merely a preface. The real issue is the generation of new concepts and doctrines of war-fighting that arise from the new technology. The battle is won by the side that has resources but also the ability to understand that what was once the foundation of military power is now a drain on resources, and that the center of gravity of war is now something that seems to be a minor addition, like carrier-based torpedo planes.

The country least likely to grasp this is the one that feels most confident and, therefore, complacent. Desperation and fear drive military innovation. What is happening in space will cause all that is solid to melt into the air. It has to. We should bear Pearl Harbor in mind during the rest of our discussion on space.

George Friedman
George Friedman is an internationally recognized geopolitical forecaster and strategist on international affairs and the founder and chairman of Geopolitical Futures. Dr. Friedman is a New York Times bestselling author and his most popular book, The Next 100 Years, is kept alive by the prescience of its predictions. Other best-selling books include Flashpoints: The Emerging Crisis in Europe, The Next Decade, America’s Secret War, The Future of War and The Intelligence Edge. His books have been translated into more than 20 languages. Dr. Friedman has briefed numerous military and government organizations in the United States and overseas and appears regularly as an expert on international affairs, foreign policy and intelligence in major media. For almost 20 years before resigning in May 2015, Dr. Friedman was CEO and then chairman of Stratfor, a company he founded in 1996. Friedman received his bachelor’s degree from the City College of the City University of New York and holds a doctorate in government from Cornell University.