Japanese Air Power Blunders in World War II

Mitsubishi A6M Zero

Mitsubishi A6M Zero

Churchill described the Soviet Union as a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. ” The serial Japanese airpower blunders during World War II can be compared to the layers of an onion, one tightly encasing another. The mistakes vary in size and scope from the catastrophic (the attack on the United States) to the banal (incredible inter-service rivalries) to the trivial (intricately built retractable hand-holds to enter a fighter). Among these errors, there is at least one from which the United States might draw a useful inference today.

The seeds of the Japanese plunge into disaster lay in its national constitution which placed the Army on a level equal to that of the civil government, with both reporting to the Emperor. The twentieth century saw an ascendant military culture coerce the civil government to acquiesce in its adventures. Neither element had any genuine understanding of Japans comparative industrial strength to that of its potential opponents. Japan’s defeat of Russia in the 1904/05 war accelerated its rapid transformation from an isolated nation, beset by internal strife, to a major player in the international arena. This advance was aided by massive infusions of technology from Europe, which provided modern arms for Japan’s Army, Navy and, most particularly, future air forces.

The Japanese were excellent students, able to absorb the information from foreign sources, tailor it to their own needs, and then produce the product—battleships, artillery, aircraft, instruments—indigenously. They did so well that it took only from 1911 to 1936 for their aircraft industry to go from building pseudo-Farman biplanes to creating world class aircraft such as the Mitsubishi AM5 fighter and GM3 bomber.

Japanese leaders felt that their success in establishing a formidable military establishment was threatened by the traditional Anglo-American dominance of commerce and natural resources. This and excessive—almost pathological–pride in their military capability induced the Japanese leaders to embark upon one of their greatest strategic errors—the 1937 invasion of China. Ironically this venture, so successful at first, taught the Japanese air forces lessons that ultimately proved fatal at the political, strategic and tactical levels.

The rivalry of the Imperial Japanese Army Air Force (IJAAF) and the Imperial Japanese Naval Air Force (IJNAF) was extreme. It went from the pre-war absurdity of refusing to share technical information on aircraft being developed for both services to the ultimate travesty of World War II, when Japanese army radar stations would not communicate information on incoming American air raids to the Japanese navy units responsible for defense of the homeland. It existed at every level, beginning at Imperial General Headquarters.

This bitter rivalry was abetted by the effect their respective tutors had on their cultures. The IJAAF, taught by the French, concentrated on the indirect support of ground troops. The IJNAF, taught by the British, adopted a more strategic outlook, one influenced by the naval tradition that the fleet with the longest range guns and torpedoes had the advantage. The IJNAF thus assume the greater share of offensive duties in China where suitable targets were often many miles deep in Chinese territory. It established bases in China from which its long range bombers could operate against the interior. Flying a majority of the missions, especially those which garnered headlines, strengthened the IJNAF’s position in the budgetary battles.

Like other navies at the time, the Japanese navy was largely controlled by big-gun battleship admirals. They believed that Japan, in the spirit of the Battle of Tushima, would achieve its destiny with a victorious fleet action against the United States. Over time, some of those leaders, influenced by the more flexible Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, saw how well air power had worked in China and began to call for long range aircraft to be the tip of Japan’s sword.

Japanese engineers strove to meet this call, trying to balance large bomb loads, armament, armor, fuel and structural strength against speed, altitude and range requirements. As in all countries, the Japanese engineers designed to military specifications. It was here that hubris influenced decisions which would lead to high performance aircraft that would reveal fatal flaws when met with capable opposition. The engineers were called upon to design aircraft that would meet what was now a basic tenet of Japanese military philosophy: future wars were to be short, sharp and victorious. The Japanese were to do all the shooting and bombing, and the enemy was to succumb quickly. To achieve this, the Japanese air forces wanted aircraft with great speed and range. Bombers were to have large bomb loads, while fighters were to be maneuverable.

Through 1938, the military experience in China, (and to a far lesser extent, in the Manchurian border clashes with the Soviet Union) seemed to prove that this design philosophy was valid. Despite several instances of determined opposition by the Chinese air force and its Soviet cohorts, the Japanese established an air superiority that permitted them to bomb key targets almost at will. The introduction of truly superb aircraft such as the Mitsubishi GM3 bomber (later called the “Nell”) and the Mitsubishi A5M fighter (later the “Claude”) reinforced this thinking. Operations were conducted by as many as ninety aircraft over distances of hundreds of miles of rugged territory.

These and other Japanese aircraft performed so well in great part because they were flown by highly trained crews seasoned by almost daily combat experience. The combination of great planes and great crews validated Japanese thinking, shaping the type and size of the air forces with which Japan would attack the United States. This success, complemented by ingrained pride and denial, confirmed their concept that wars would be won by a limited number of superior aircraft flown by superb crews. It also dictated the requirements for aircraft selection, production quantities and pilot training standards. The latter were Spartan beyond belief, and so rigorous that they bordered on the sadistic. In his memoirs, the great Japanese ace Saburo Sakai wrote with barely contained emotion about the excessive discipline of pilot training in the IJNAF.

By 1939, Japanese ingenuity produced several aircraft which confirmed and enhanced previous planning. These modern types were equal or superior to their foreign counterparts and included the Mitsubishi A6M fighter, Mitsubishi G4M bomber, Aichi D3A dive bomber, and Nakajima B5N torpedo plane (later respectively the Zeke, Betty, Val and Nan.)

After its operational debut in 1940, the stellar performance of the Zero caused a further conceptual shift. Instead of Navy fighters being primarily concerned with fleet air defense, preserving the carriers, they were now seen far-reaching offensive weapons. Their mission was expanded to include destroy enemy air defenses and strafing ships to suppress anti-aircraft fire. The Zero was what would be called today the “silver bullet” of Japanese air power. Its superior performance, and its superior pilots, meant that only a relative few would be necessary to defeat any enemy’s air force.

The performance of the Zero and other modern aircraft, despite their modest numbers, changed Japanese naval thinking about the importance of airpower. Japanese military leaders now believed that they now had the means with which to hand America a sharp, swift, disheartening defeat, one that would lead to negotiations confirming Japan’s sphere of interest in Asia.

By 1941, the Japanese, pressed by their lack of natural resources and American sanctions on imports, decided to seize the oil rich territories in the southeastern Pacific. Some geopolitical factors affected their thinking. Great Britain had been savaged by Germany and the Japanese discounted its ability to react in the Pacific. Even more important, Germany seemed to be on the point of disposing of the Soviet Union, which relieved the Japanese army of its greatest fear—an invasion of its puppet state, Manchuko.

This optimism came from basic failures, including bad intelligence, the provincial thinking of the military leaders and their pronounced inability to learn from their experiences in the field. While they had overcome Chinese opposition, they had nonetheless suffered heavy losses from fighters, flak, and the inevitable mishaps inherent in the conduct of extreme-range operations

Unfortunately for Japan, these losses did not bring about a decision to increase the pilot training base, despite a demand from the field that training be expanded to 15,000 pilots per year. The Japanese put almost all of their experienced pilots into combat, and failed to build up a reserve of experienced pilots as instructors. As a result their training base suffered, even as their supply of expert pilots were lost in combat.

Therefore with about 3,300 first line aircraft and a pilot pool of about 6,000, of whom some 900 were experts, the Japanese leaders, uninhibited by their inability to defeat China, decided to add the United States, Great Britain, the Netherlands and Australia to their enemy list. They were impelled to do so by their belief that decisive defeat would demoralize the American people. The United States would then negotiate a peace that would give Japan control of the resources of what it called the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.”

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was executed with great skill and daring on the part of is aircrews. For the next six months, one Japanese victory followed another to the extent that what was called the “victory disease” inflamed Japanese thinking. The American people did not react as planned, however, and slowly but inexorably, the industrial might of the United States responded in a way undreamed of by most of the Japanese leaders.

Over the next four years, the quantity of aircraft produced was increased, rising from just over 5,000 in 1941 to a peak of just over 28,000 in 1944.  Japan’s total production of aircraft from 1941 through 1945 was about 68,000, compared to well over 300,000 by the United States in the same period.

The expansion of the number of aircraft available for the field was never matched by pilot training with the result that the quality of Japanese pilots declined markedly after 1942. Even more important, the Japanese were never able to establish a realistic logistic and maintenance system to keep more aircraft available for action.

7 responses to “Japanese Air Power Blunders in World War II

  1. This is a superb synopsis of the Japanese flying forces of WWII & the errors in thinking & strategy. Walt, a great new site. Well done & congrats! Cheers. Buck

    • Buck, this may be a repeat on my part, I’m just learning the features of the web-site myself, but I wanted to thank you and to recall the very interesting days when I worked for you at in bringing the 8th Air Force Museum in Savannah to life! All best wishes

  2. Thanks, Buck, I appreciate it especially coming from you! It seems like a hundred years ago when we were working on the 8th Air Force Museum in Savannah, does it not?

  3. Walt…

    Great story in latest Air Force magazine about the Than Hoa bridge. I was a stan/eval nav in the 61st and was one of the initial cadre assigned to fly C-130’s modified with a B-47 nav/bomb system to test the capabilities of using that for more accurate drops. I flew with Major tom Case on these tests and we were able to determine the radar could increase CEP greatly. What developed from there was the concept of infiltrating upstream and dropping multiple 5000 lb charges with magnetic anomoly detectors as fuses…going off once the charge was inside the bridge’s magnetic field. About the time they started to get some ideas about all of that, I got transferred to the 316th TAW, newly formed at Langley AFB to tgransition KC-97 crews into Herks. I always regretted recommending Lt Monty Shingledecker as my replacement…considering how it all turned out. We lost some great guys on that mission.

    Two things of note: I ‘heard’ that they tested the whole package by blowing up an old railroad bridge on the Apalachiacola River (???). The other thing is, I also ‘heard’ that Tom and crew went in following the same route, times, et cetera the next night. I never understood why they didn’t change things up a bit, since Charlie wsn’t stupid about those kinds of things. I also heard that Dick Remers and crew had missed the pre-IP and dropped to close to the bridge for the fuses to work properly. Again, don’t know if this is true or not, but that was the scuttle-butt going around at the time.

    Again, thanks for reminding me of those bitter/sweet memories back at Sewart, etc. And if the Buck Shuler you correspond with was at Ramstein in the mid-70’s, tell him I said ‘hello’. We both worked for Pete Pedroli; in those days Buck was CE commander.

    Cheers…James B. (JB) st.John, col, USAF (Ret)

    • James, thanks for the informative input! This really helps, and I wish I’d seen it prior to finishing the article. Buck is a great guy and a great commander. You are not by any chance related to a flying school class mate of mind, 2 lt. Howard St. John, who, sadly, was killed when the B-25 in which he was flying in the back, as a passenger, crashed into a mountain not many months after our graduation.

      Best regards


  4. This was a fascinating and informative description of Japanese service rivalry and Japan’s strategic missteps during WWII in the Pacific. Japanese failure to train sufficient pilots was particularly devastating in the aftermath of the Battle of the Philippine Sea and the lead up to Leyte Gulf. Neverthless, VADM Ozawa’s successful efforts to decoy ADM Halsey’s 4 carrier groups north off Cape Engango with his essentially empty Japanese carriers could have seriously disrupted the beginning of our Philippines Campaign. v/r Doug Hime, Colonel, USAF Ret.

    • Dear Col. Hime, you are certainly correct; Halsey took a lot of criticism, and ironically interpreted it to be far more caustic than it was (which wasn’t easy!). You have to wonder how frustrated Ozawa must have been to have been ordered to do this mission, a basically defensive and inglorious one, and then to suffer the losses he did. Thanks for your comments!


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