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March 18, 2007

Planning War

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

From time to time news media get the vapours when finding that the U.S. military has plans for fighting one unlikely foe or another. Usually such spikes of moral indignation are followed by (1) lack of interest by the sensible public at large, and (2) hurried publication of yet another "scandal" in the continuing media effort to render the country nearly defenseless.

Truth is, serious military organizations have always done planning. In the distant past, this was probably informal, sizing up potential enemies, pondering ways of dealing with them, and possible consideration of equipment and logistics needed to do the job.

With the rise of the General Staff system in the 19th century Prussian army, planning became formalized. By the early 20th century most major powers devoted staff officers to the task of planning wars against numerous potential opponents under a variety of circumstances.

The virtue of planning for a number of contingencies is that a good deal of time and effort might be saved at the start of a suddenly-emergent conflict. The filed plan is pulled out and quickly modified to suit actual conditions -- much simpler than starting from scratch.

The United States was in some ways tardy in creating permanent staffs. But that did not inhibit planning by the Army and the Navy. Between the world wars numerous plans were drafted and periodically revised.

Major powers and countries considered to be moderate threats were given code-names based on colors. The U.S. was called Blue. Germany was Black, France was Gold, Russia was Purple, Japan was Orange, Mexico was Green, Britain was Red and its dominions were Scarlet, Ruby and so forth. A war with Mexico, for instance, would be written up using the colors as tokens for the countries involved and might include sentences such as : "Blue fleet will proceed from Guantanamo to the Veracruz area around Day 10 and aircraft from Lexington and Saratoga will destroy such Green naval craft as can be found."

I would be fascinated if I could read 1920s war plans against unlikely enemies such as France or the British Empire. (A plan for Britain and Canada is sketched here.)

The most famous of these plans is the Orange series which has been fairly well documented. One of the books I re-read every few years is Edward S. Miller's War Plan Orange. It was first published in 1991 by the Naval Institute Press, and I see that a paperback edition is coming out in a few days.

Miller observes in the Introduction:

War Plan Orange, the secret program of the United States to defeat Japan, was in my opinion history's most successful war plan. In plans developed before the war, Japan was code-named Orange, the United States, Blue, hence the name of the plan developed over nearly four decades by the best strategic minds of the military services. As it was implemented in World War II, it was remarkably successful, especially considering the difficulties of Pacific geography and the many political and technological changes that had occurred over the years. The prewar plans of the other great powers proved, by and large, to be costly failures. The vaunted German General Staff, for example, won campaigns but lost wars.

This is broad-brush. In the book, Miller devotes chapters to the changing organizational status of naval planning as well as the personalities and strategical preferences of key officers. He does the best he can with available documentation to trace changes in Plan Orange over time, even after the "color plans" got amalgamated in the immediate pre-war Rainbow efforts.

As for his claim that Plan Orange succeeded, he does not mean that there was a literal Plan Orange that was slavishly followed. He asserts that general concepts were followed and that some logistical and other details were adapted to conditions in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack. (Conspiracy buffs will be disappointed to learn that having most of our battleships taken off-line during the first hours of the war was not a planned contingency: Orange plans assumed that the Navy would be able to use the things.) Also noted is the fact that some leading admirals in wartime had been involved with Plan Orange earlier in their careers and therefore had a good understanding of the likely shape of a Pacific Ocean war.

To me, one of the most interesting aspects of Plan Orange was the flip-flopping regarding the Philippine Islands acquired in the 1898 war with Spain. One school of thought had it that the Philippines should be defended as vigorously as possible. Forces in the islands would be built up and a base for reinforcements established in Mindanao, the large southern island. Troops would be assembled as rapidly as possible and a battle fleet along with troopships and logistical-support vessels would steam there. Should the Imperial Japanese Navy try to intervene, it would be destroyed. (A 1920s account of such a war by British naval journalist Hector Bywater can be obtained here.)

The other school of thought was that defending the Philippines against attack from comparatively nearby Japan was lunacy. So was sailing a battle fleet directly to the western Pacific for a Decisive Battle with Orange. Warships are degraded a certain percentage for each thousand miles they travel, so a one-hop sortie would pit a sub-par Blue fleet against a fully capable Orange one in a situation somewhat analogous to that of Russia's Baltic Fleet that sailed halfway around the world to its decimation at the hands of Togo at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905. Instead, this faction proposed an island-hopping campaign similar to that later employed by Chester Nimitz in World War 2.

Navy planning alternated between these strategies into the 1920s, but ultimately the conservative initially-concede-the-Philippines-to-Japan approach won out.

If this interests you, follow up on the links provided above.



posted by Donald at March 18, 2007


I wonder whether the concept of island hopping was conceived in Plan Orange? My guess is, probably not. Such brilliant strategies almost always arise in the cauldron of actual fighting.

Not that there's anything wrong with planning.The lamestream media's hooha-ing about the Bush Administration's Iran War Plan is jejune, in the extreme.

Posted by: ricpic on March 19, 2007 5:26 PM

I was under the impression that the actual WWII response to the Japanese invasion of the Philippines was crafted (over one very long night) by Dwight Eisenhower. Apparently he was given the assignment by Marshall, both because Eisenhower had served in the Philippines and because Marshall was giving him a little test, which apparently Ike passed with flying colors. Of course, this was, I assume, just the Army's response; I have no idea if Ike was expected to account for or accommodate what the Navy thought it was up to.

In a larger vein, planning for anything as logistically complex as a military campaign is so demanding that it calls out for dress rehearsals conducted during peacetime. As a result, if the Pentagon isn't cranking out war plans for every country from Canada to Bora Bora, it's not doing its job very well.

Granted, such warplanning activity can backfire if it develops too much momentum, as with the Schlieffen plan to invade France prior to WWI, which became a sort of substitute for actual strategic and diplomatic thought (and which was subjected to not nearly enough internal criticism by the German Army.)

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 20, 2007 2:23 PM

ricpic & Friedrich -- Well, you'll just have to read the book. The conservative Plan Orange did call for advancing by stages, though some of the islands weren't the ones actually used.

The Army was involved in Orange plans related to the Philippines because they had to furnish most of the troops for such operations. We're packed for the move, so I can't dig into the book for details. But my impression is that both services had save-the-Philippines advocates.

Furthermore, there were political pressures regarding the Commonwealth that helped forestall a final decision until late in the game -- MacArthur was authorized a build-up that was ongoing on 8 December (local time) when the war started. And it's true that Ike, MacArthur's chief of staff, did give Marshall advice. This advice led to a lot of (what we now call) PaleoCon criticism back in the 40s and 50s. Lord knows a read a lot of it when I was young. The gist being that MacArthur and the Philippines were stabbed in the back by FDR and his underlings.

FWIW, I've come to the opinion that the Philippines were probably indefensible barring a truly massive pre-war buildup of forces there.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 20, 2007 3:06 PM

Apparently, in the 1920s Canada drew up a contingency plans for invading the U.S. The idea was that, if war ever broke out, a defensive strategy would lead to the main population centres being quickly overrun, but an sharp incursion into the States might knock the Yanks off balance long enough for help to arrive from Britain.

Posted by: Intellectual Pariah on March 20, 2007 9:39 PM

Given that the U.S. has actually invaded Canada several times, I would say that the Canadian Army would be entirely remiss not to have warplans made up and drafted at this very moment. Of course, war is not the only action that should be planned for; I think the Canadians should have plans to respond to potential U.S. sabre-rattling or economic pressure as well. At a minimum such plans might give Canadian politicians some manuvering room in a crisis.

Also, it might be remembered that Canada owes its independence to "war planning" against the threat of U.S. invasion. During the Civil War, the British military attache in Canada looked south and asked himself what would happen if the U.S. decided to invade. He got hurriedly in touch with Whitehall and told them he strongly recommended that given the overwhelming probability that the U.S. would succeed in such an invasion, that the prestige of the British Empire would suffer far less if Canada was an independent nation rather than a UK colony. And so it was "pushed out of the nest" after some diplomatic manuvering in 1867.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 21, 2007 1:26 PM

I doubt anyone up here is planning for a full-scale war. The disparity in power is too great and our military is too closely integrated with yours. But I think you're right about sabre-rattling: the Forces very likely have plans to counter American bullying (or Danish passive aggregration, for that matter) over Arctic sovereignty and (in the American case) resource exports.

Posted by: Intellectual Pariah on March 21, 2007 9:11 PM

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