Drakkar – Defence, Strategy and Security Blog: Three years


Time is one of the elements in the universe that remains a constant. But despite this supposed constant nature, perception of its speed can be quite relative. Three years ago, on a day that looks quite far away, this blog was established with the initial purpose of serving as a branch, a specialized complement for a former and previous initiative. Initiative whose inner dynamics gave further reasons for this blog to emerge, yet to serve as an independent and individual initiative. Three years seem indeed like a long time, yet this time went by with quite a fast speed.

During this time the Blog and the author both witnessed many interesting events and milestones. In the mid-2016, number of viewers and visitors skyrocketed. In March-April 2016 the author was given the opportunity of contributing to a very interesting and equally promising project called Plane Encyclopedia, providing some articles reviewing warplanes of various periods in aviation history. I strongly recommend it to be visited, as the warplanes reviewed and illustrated are rich in detail and also in an insight of the operational needs and strategic context – or combat experiences – that gave way to those incredible machines. The work of everyone taking part of Plane Encylopedia is also another reason that makes the site worth of a visit. Many thanks to them, by the way, for allowing me to help in crafting such interesting initiative. In fact, one of the people involved in Plane Encyclopedia contributed to ‘Drakkar’ with a renewed and better looking logo. Many thanks to that person.

Back to ‘Drakkar – Defence, Strategy and Security Blog’. The growth in terms on quantity, a bit on quality (though clearly more need to be done on this regard) and the number of views and visits is quite impressive. At the turn of its first year, for example, the number of viewers and visitors was around 150 and 91 respectively. By the third year, the abovementioned rise in viewers and visitors resulted in a total of 7,983 viewers and 6,143 visitors (by the time of writing this reflection). Something that exceeded even my most optimistic expectancies. It is a very good development, all in all.

Also, the number of articles reached a total of nearly 50 pieces, with half of them being of the times where the ‘Drakkar’ was sailing on its own. Yet mere statistics are not enough to fully evaluate and assess the performance of this initiative, even less to see if its meeting its initial purpose and objectives. Like the Prussian General Staff, it is time for a feedback and self-examination of ‘Drakkar – Defence, Strategy and Security Blog’ after this time.

First of all, the birth of ‘Drakkar’ took place during quite stormy days, days that pointed out the need and the advantages of sailing by my own, to do my own ways, instead of sailing with unreliable and not-so dependable company. Three years after such a stormy birth, ‘Drakkar’ is validating the idea of autonomy and of doing things by oneself as worthy. There is indeed an ample degree of autonomy and of application of one’s own standards, priorities, schedules, topics and path.  But as autonomy is a perk, this is also a big challenge. As Friedrich Nietzsche once said: “Freedom is the will to be responsible for ourselves”. It is not only the will but also the required characteristic freedom or autonomy ask. In other words, walking on your own allows you to enjoy autonomy and freedom, but also requires a high degree of responsibility. It is a very asking and challenging path. It asks a lot of yourself by pushing you to give the best of talents and qualities to deliver a good article, thus testing yourself at unexpected ways. It is easy to escape the big and asking responsibility freedom and autonomy asks by taking the easy path of pleasing others by submitting to their standards and requirements. But it is hard to be asked to be responsible to yourself and your own projects for the level of discipline and hardship is even higher. One needs to be though and brave to take such an endeavouring path.

Simply because one is placing oneself under a hard test every time a new piece is to be written, every time a careful and detailed research is required to craft such piece, every time editing an article is like the little devil mocking and pointing out the mistakes and failures detected on each draft. Because every new article and topic is a jump straight into the unknown, every article is a test by itself, a challenge to be able to deal with failure, to learn from it, and improve on the march while learning. It is also because it challenges to write in a language that it is not the mother language, and also to deal with other languages one can master at some degree.

But responsibility is not only required: discipline, constancy, commitment, a strong will and dedication are also required in order to undertake the task of walking by oneself and run a project that it is very asking. Capacity to deal with failure and mistakes, to have the strength and patience to deal with the loads of information during research and to have a clear aim for each piece, and to avoid monotony or repetition are all required as well. To make every article interesting or readable is a challenge on its own. And to do much with the very scarce resources one has.

So, we have responsibility, discipline, constancy, dedication, strong will, patience and strength as requirements autonomy/freedom requires. You need to love what you do, you need to be interested and be passionate for what you do; yet love and interest and passion are not enough. The abovementioned traits are required to put such love, interest and dedication to have a goal and advance towards it. Yet another important lesson ‘Drakkar’ – and the topics treated here – is flexibility. It acts as an antidote to discipline becoming a strait coat rather than an asset; it also enables one to have better reaction capacities or responsiveness when the way is not appropriate to reach into an aim. The secret is to learn to balance both and advance with both.

Second, ‘Drakkar’ was intended to be a self-learning process for many aspect, ranging from professional to personal. The abovementioned first point is a first evidence that it is fulfilling its (self)educational purpose. This comprises the first set of lessons learned since this project began to run. The other set of lessons ‘Drakkar’ has provided is that one indeed learns in many ways, from the same topic one is working on, to the realization of the things needed to undertake a project run basically by one person. Moreover, one is enabled to improve, to experiment and to decide the course of action product of such learnings.

This learning purpose of this project is providing lessons useful for Life and for the various aspects of a person: from personal to professional aspects, that allows self-examinations aimed at yielding improvement.

This brings us to the third purpose of ‘Drakkar’: to highlight the gaps and shortcomings and solve issues, and to recognize and further strengthen the advantages and assets. But such highlighting is not enough if a good spirit of self-criticism is not developed. One must always criticize everything, but mainly one must criticize oneself in order to allow such self-improvement and learn more about what one is capable of and what not.

Fourth, ‘Drakkar’ is serving its purpose of further increasing my knowledge on topics that are of both personal and professional interests, as every article requires a research that brings more lights and knowledge. It is also purposed at contributing with its content to the knowledge of anyone interested in the topics covered by this blog.

Now, on the shortcomings or issues ‘Drakkar’ might be having. This project has allowed me to work, write and structure the content the way I consider more suitable. This could be a problem considering that English is a language were brief and direct texts tend to be preferred over very lengthy and detailed ones. I’m aware I might be jumping over more than one rule of writing in English. Also, our times require texts to be short and brief as the rhythm of life puts speed and briefness as main preferable traits.

But the level of detail and length of the articles (at the point of having many parts) are of my preference for many reasons. One is the clear interest for the topics. Another is the high value I put for detail, for everything is detail from my perspective. Le Diable est dans les details. The more the details about a problem, an event, a battle, a strategic position and objectives, or a military system, the easier the comprehension of them. Details allows a better understanding and to grasp the nature and the elements and factors of the subject of study and analysis, let alone the implications and lessons the subject might provide. It might be at times misleading for the minds that prefer a more direct and direct approach, and they might be right. Yet detail allows a better understanding of the subject, a better learning from it. To say that a given Great Power has a number of warships is not enough to get the whole picture and to understand why the number of warships is having is important. Detail allows one to know how those warships can contribute to its power projection and security, how they enable said power to wage war or meet its strategic interests. Because it is also important to know the strategic needs, the strategic and operational concepts and doctrines that resulted in such warships – or the development of naval power – to be developed and built, the operational behaviour, the strong and weak points of those commanding those warships and the skills of those crewing them. It is necessary to understand the mindset that framed the development and deployment – and operation – of said warships. It is necessary to know the political elements and the role played by geography in conjunction with the strategic interests in the development and operation of those warships. Detail allows one to do so.

Moreover, the nature warfare, military history and military affairs, defence, security and strategy have is, from my point of view and despite the idea of being ‘direct’ topics, complex. It is complex as the articles have made evident so far. And given such complexity, detail is necessary to be able to understand their nature and the nature of the problem(s) they are dealing with. Indeed, the idea is not to be stuck with details, yet a brief and simple approach is not helpful when studying on analysing those topics; it might even mislead or give the wrong ideas about them.

Now, the time that takes between one piece and another is very lengthy. This is true, and it might signal laziness, lack of commitment and lack of constancy and dedication. Yet the reality is very different. One is the call by other duties. Another is my preference for such amount of time to allow the readers to have their time to read, enjoy and analyse the lengthy and detailed articles. I also prefer to avoid delivering content at a high frequency that could be self-defeating by ‘bombarding’ the public with content each two or three days. Moreover, ‘Drakkar’ is still small like to reach such frequency. I also prefer to take time to prepare a good or decent article by doing a careful and exhaustive research: if time is needed to craft something of value or with a decent degree of quality, I prefer to take such time instead of producing far too general and superficial content.

The idea behind this Blog and its content is not to have ‘far too general’ and ‘rush’ articles. Instead, the idea is to have articles to read carefully, to read and re-read them time and time again so to absorb, debate, discuss and learn from the information given. This Blog wants to deliver articles to be read while taking a warm cup of coffee or tea while the reader reads the details of the content. This Blogs seeks to contribute to their inner debates, curiosity, interests and personal or professional formation in the sense of providing another source among many of knowledge and debate on certain topics. This Blogs wants people to take their time to read and absorb the information given. To enjoy what their are reading. These approaches might be the curse of my philosophical side, but I wanted this Blog to be a source of lessons and knowledge not only for me, but also for those interested in the same topics as I. If the reader feels this Blog is contributing to their intellectual curiosity, if the reader is ‘forced’ to ask, to question… then ‘Drakkar’ is fulfilling another one of its purposes. Of course, I don’t pretend to be an authority, for I am also learning in the process, being ‘Drakkar’ the tool for that. There might be also gaps, missing points or point one might disagree with. After also, mine is only but one voice among many, some with more expertise than I. Yet I hope that my voice is a contribution to the people taking their time to read, as well as for myself.

There is a lack of illustrations and maps. This is definitely true, and it is something I must work on, so to make the article more user-friendly, more dynamic and less heavy to grasp. The idea is to work soon on acquiring the needed skills to incorporate illustrations and maps where needed.

And many projects are pending. That is also true. At the moment there are other priorities, but I haven’t lost the aim of materializing them. When I finish with the current schedule, I will set myself to put those projects into fruitions.

This reflection is going a bit long… unsurprisingly. But the time, the reach and the things that took place in these three years this project have been running worth it. The exercise is – and will always be – necessary.

Now, what does the future holds? Who knows? The idea is to keep the gradual growth and to see the possibilities ‘Drakkar’ might have, the heights it can reach, the paths it might take, the possibilities it might open, and the pace it might acquire. For the time being, it is still an exercise, a firing range, a field or an intellectual manoeuvre and exercise aimed at testing abilities, hone skills, detect the shortcomings and to see how improvements can be made, as well as to keep its purpose of being a learning tool and a way to… know more myself and improve myself.

After these three years, ‘Drakkar’ is still a small initiative, with a high chance to grow. Back in the time between the 8th and 11th centuries, men from the north took sail in longships to seek for new – needed – lands and fulfil their thirst for discovering new lands, unbeknown to them the destiny the winds would be taking them, the things they would encounter, the fate of their expeditions and their very lifes. The same is going on with ‘Drakkar’. I don’t know where the winds might take this ship product of intellectual and personal curiosity and of the need to discover new professional and intellectual ‘lands and seas’. But like the Norsement of those days, the unknown might lead to new promising paths and events, to possibilities I cannot imagine, even now. Only time will tell.

And last but not least, I want to say a special thanks to the people that took their time to read the very lengthy and heavy pieces talking about a topic that is not – apparently – that attractive or interesting considering the prevailing mentality and ideals nowadays. thanks for their patience and curiosity, and if there are people keeping track of ‘Drakkar’, thanks for waiting for the next piece(s). As I said before, I hope that I am a contributing voice here.

Many thanks once and again.

Midway: When the Airplane Sunk an Empire (Part IV)

Image: ‘U.S. Navy ships sail in formation during a live-fire gunnery exercise‘. by Official U.S. Navy Page. Released under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) License.

Analysis and Conclusions


The Empire of the Falling Sun and the Rise of the Eagle

The waves settle down beneath a blue sky and the warmth sun of the Pacific. The waters that were the scenario of a very intense and violent action, are returning to their previous calm state once the battle is over. Yet the seas were the only thing able to return to its previous state; Japan and the United States were very different once the battle was over.

For instance, when the battle started, Japan was the undisputed owner of the Pacific; as the battle ended, the bulk and best of the Japanese aircraft carrier fleet went beneath the waves, decimated. With them the aims of Japan and its quest for defeating the US Navy were shattered beyond point. Also, and as the aircraft carriers were the main assets for the encounter, being used in large scale and with no other warship taking direct part, the battle was historic.

The outcome of the Battle of Midway was unmistakably decisive for the War in the Pacific, not to say for the fate of the belligerent countries. At first, it changed the tide in the favour of the United States, giving it almost entirely the initiative afterwards, benefited by it industrial and economic weight. Yet Japan was far from absolute defeat, and more battles and campaigns – like Guadalcanal and the Gulf of Leyte, to name a few – would be necessary to defeat them and destroy their Navy. As Dahms (1963) Murray and Millet (2005) pointed out, Japan was still having a very good fleet with good quality traits, such as the very skilled artillerymen skilled enough for night-time combat and armed with good guns (as the Battle of Guadalcanal would make evident). And it still decided to carry on with the operations to seize some islands in Melanesia. Nonetheless, Japan was on total decline after the battle.

This decline was due to the heavy losses suffered by Japan, which were hard to replace as the economic and industrial might of Japan were very weak. But there was another factor that accelerated such decline and hampered Japan’s performance (for the rest of the war). Indeed, Japan proved to be a hard enemy to defeat, but as Canales & del Rey (2016) and Murray & Millet (2005) explained, the Imperial Navy kept the outcome of the battle from the Army, worsening the clash between both branches, and also lost its aggressiveness and initiative, relegated to a mere defensive strategy. This despite having 4 aircraft carriers, numerous island and naval bases at its disposal, and the chance to replace the losses (yet at a lengthy and costly process, worsened by the extension of the war in time).

As it became a mere defensive weapon, the Japanese yielded the initiative almost entirely to the US Navy and put itself under the mercy of a determined and advancing US Navy, thus weakening and defeating itself. The US Navy, on the contrary, was about to receive new and better naval aviation and aircraft carriers, acquiring the needed tools to push the Japanese back regardless of costs and time… as time was clearly in favour of America.

Being a mere defensive tool meant that the Japanese Navy contributed in consolidating the initiative the US Navy acquired, and also ended in placing itself under the crosshairs of the advancing US Navy under a long and painful self-weakening dynamic. A US Navy that was about to receive more advanced fighters, torpedo-bombers and bombers, alongside new and state of the art aircraft carriers that would enable it to push the Japanese back, no matter the costs and no matter the time – and time was definitely in favour of the Americans.

Worse enough, the defeat at Midway only worsened the serious issues within the Imperial Navy and the Armed forces in general. First, the rows between the aircraft carrier school and the battleship school, with the latter prevailing and making the Navy to look for a decisive encounter with battleships, so to repeat the deed of Tsushima, even for a good time after Midway, as Gibelli (1972), Kennedy (2007) and Thomas (2007) remarks. This, of course, is one of the most basic strategic mistakes Japan made: to repeat the same strategy and formulas of past conflicts – which normally are different in context and nature. This is but one of many strategic mistakes of Japan, which will be reviewed below.

Lessons from the high-seas

Every battle provides two series of lessons. First, lessons related to international affairs and geopolitics, considering that battles are not only part of a conflict but – like wars – a result of years of tensions and competition between two or more powers over a given geographical area, with such tensions and competitions having a crescendo when colliding at any point. Even if that point is located in the middle of nowhere. Second, lessons of military nature: this means, strategic, tactical and operational lessons, being all intertwined.

War is politics by other means…

This is one of the main statements by Clausewitz about war, very crucial to understand the factor behind a war and a battle[1]. As such, the place where politics by other means can take place might be at that same given point in the middle of nowhere, with an apparent lack of strategic value – having in fact a lot, as it was reviewed. Battles have a tendency to take place in locations of some value for either side or both, even if those locations are not located at places that could be considered valuable – like a crossroad, a pass, or a geographical area and accident. Actually, areas of strategic interest for naval purposes can be islands or straits far from inhabited areas and from the shore, increased only if located near important SLOCs. In fact, trade and economic interests can add value to such position; even more, interests elsewhere could make that given point even more important, moreover if it is vital to protect those far interests. This was the case with Southeast Asia, Pearl Harbour and the same Midway for Japan and the US. For the former, to protect the conquered territories of Indochina and Indonesia and their valuable oil and other resources. For the latter, to support its advance to the Philippines and to protect both the Hawaii Island and the continental territory. Midway was simply a valuable platform for supporting national interests and projecting power either east or west[2].

This importance was correctly assessed by both sides simply because of its location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, hence making vital its control or neutralization. Since the US controlled it, it was pivotal for US naval (power) projection into the Philippines and to protect its territories.

Given the important geographical location of Midway, the second lesson is that geography and geopolitics are important, even more during battles. Moreover, when considered in group alongside previous and current political development and a large historical background, one can understand the strategic and national objectives and interests as they can be framed by the aforementioned factors[3]. This is when war becomes politics by other means, as it becomes necessary to meet them and/or assert them vis-à-vis the adversary.

This holds even more true when two or more competing nations have overlapping interests right over the same area[4]. Therefore, competition will inevitably follow, even reaching an open conflict; prior the conflict and during the “peaceful” stages of competition, competing powers would be placing their military assets at locations crucial for asserting and protecting their interests, and to project thus their power towards the area of interest[5]. Those assets would be ready to defend those areas when conflict sparks, with battles normally deciding who controls what and who can’t. Like the Battle of Coral Sea.

Since competition is inevitable, the period prior Midway showed that diplomacy and rapprochements might not help in preventing the inevitable, as rivalling powers will see each other with concern and suspicion, even preparing for conflict during rapprochement and diplomatic efforts. As they assessed the other as a threatening competitor, they will be preparing the war – and plans – against the other, even if at a point both sides are allies for a period of time. Moreover, diplomatic bargains and agreements can be counterproductive, as concessions by one side can further stimulate the ambitions of the other, as it could see them as a blank check to advance further on its interests. The deals between Japan and the US are the example here. And such bargains can only give one side more time to prepare for war.

In the same way, measures aimed at curbing the interests – and advances towards – of one side could further stimulate its assertiveness and aggressiveness instead of halting it, as that said might see it as a blockade against it thus being encouraged to be more aggressive. This is very likely when concessions took place previously, or if that said power is forced to give up on its gains, being resentful at the point of being alienated. If there are pressing economic concerns worsened by sanctions and blockades, odds for open conflict – strategically questionable or not – will be very high.

At sea is not a chess but a game of Go…

As it was stated in the partIIIa, strategy is very similar to the ancient Chinese game of Go, where the aim is to surround the enemy by occupying the most number of tiles. On naval warfare this is the main principle driving its action, be peacetime or wartime. It might sound simple, but this is far from reality. Indeed, land warfare also requires the control of important strategic locations, but encounters are more like a chess; naval encounters might have this chess-alike nature, but battles tend to have more the essence of Go behind. The common underlying element is that warfare at any dimension are still rules by the general principles of strategy.

Naval warfare requires a good level of preparedness and responsiveness, simply because the commander of naval forces must be aware of threats above the sea, on the sea and under the sea; it is also subjected to the fog of war, which has a larger extension thus making harder for him to detect the enemy fleet while avoiding detection at the same time, and despite the current technology. As such, naval warfare is not only a set of Go, but also a game of cat and mouse where both are more like ghosts looking for each other.

In the light of this, Midway provides a good number of lessons of strategic and military/naval nature. Lessons that could be useful even in the light of high technology and powerful naval weaponry.

The first one is the abovementioned desire of the old battleship school to wage the tactics and strategy of a past war. Not only because it is a repetition of the same formula that will work only once, but also because of the big technological difference between Tsushima and World War II: on the former the battleship, still ruled by most of the traditional naval tactics; on the latter, the aircraft carrier. It is unwise to use the tactics that were useful in a past war. As Musashi (2007) puts, repeating the same technique is wrongful. Another important strategic mistake the Japanese made is the most common and most harmful of all mistakes possible: they underestimated the Americans at the point of thinking they would not be willing and ready to take on their challenge[6]. This was further stimulated by Japan’s overconfidence on its on assets and capacities, and the relative easy victories they achieved for the first six months, which made them think they were invincible. They underestimated their enemy while overestimating themselves.

This mistake prompted, in turn, a third mistake. This was comprised by arrogance, which might benefit the adversary, as it did in the end. As arrogance, overestimation and overconfidence usually do, the Japanese thought that further military victories and conquests were possible. This not only led to an overstretching of the very scarce resource of Japan, worsened by the fact that the war was becoming lengthy against their best hopes. This attitude also resulted in giving the Americans the chance to understand and know better the Japanese, and to realise their strong and weak points, thus adapting themselves to be able to defeat them. Midway was the result of such process of ‘understanding the adversary’. And this is a rule in every conflict. Arrogance is the worst enemy of every army, and warfare is about understanding the enemy while being adaptable[7].

But there are more strategic mistakes made by the Japanese. For instance, be by bad luck, wrong evaluation or both, it failed in destroying the warships that ultimately allowed the US to put in practice its pre-war plans and exert a flexible and mobile initiative and offensive, let alone to set in motion its overall strategy. As the aircraft carriers were left untouched, the US kept the assets enough to strike back despite inferiority, with the Tokyo Raid being an example. When attacking, the objective must be accomplished at its fullest[8]. Also, despite a recognition to the dire situation and no alternatives for Japan, a surprising and pre-emptive strike could be a self-defeating move, even more if the enemy is not evaluated correctly. As Japan attacked Pearl Harbour, it filled the US with determination enough to make use of its industrial and economic power; this might be the additional consequence of unprovoked pre-emptive strikes, as they can simply give the targeted nation to be fully determined in defeating the aggressor. Any force must consider carefully who attacks, and where is about to hit.

There were two additional mistakes by the Japanese. First, the division of forces weakened the strength of the attack. Second, the operation lacked adequate preparations and, as it will be reminded below, there were serious issues with the chain of command. In any case, the chain of mistakes of strategic and operational nature compromised the very scarce but valuable naval assets of Japan. As such, it is important to remind that, given the importance warships have for the strategic objectives, power projection and prestige of a naval power, naval operations require a very careful planning so not to lose these same high valuable assets that are quite hard to repair, unless having enough industry to cover the losses at a good rate. In any case, the loss of warships is also a serious issue, as they are useful for harming the adversary strategically by controlling areas of the sea and denying the adversary to control them, or even access them, at the point of hampering its same economic interests and stability as a nation[9]. In the light of this, the aim of Japan of destroying the US Navy in a single encounter by ambushing the bulk of its diminished fleet was in strategic terms, very accurate. It was the strategic and operational mistakes what doomed the plan.

But additional factors other than strategic also contributed to the outcome of the Battle of Midway, providing also a wide array of lessons.

As a matter of fact, the composition of forces and assets of both sides were equal at a first glance, since Japan and the US were having aircraft carriers, naval aviation – fighters, bombers and torpedo bombers embarked in the aircraft carriers – and their respective intelligence services, which were very capable and skilled with good preparation and training. But a closer look reveals the how the crucial differences between the two adversaries played a role in the battle, and in the end, in the war.

For instance, the strategic and material superiority of the Japanese Imperial Navy and the very dire and inferior situation of the US Navy was deceitful. As such, an adversary with superiority in numbers and with a good strategic situation facing a weakened adversary does not have its victory granted.

Here is where the first difference takes place. This is the aircraft carrier and its air power. As it was reviewed in part IIIa, both sides committed at developing the aircraft carriers in technical and operational aspects, at the point of having the most operationally efficient and capable warships of this time, capable of carrying a large number of airplanes and anti-air defences. Even their designs were very similar, which enhanced flight deck operations and allowed to concentrate the electronic equipment in a single area. Also, both sides developed and designed the airplanes purposed to be operated in the vessels, with well-designed, sturdy, capable and well-armed airplanes. In other words, assets matters; but even more, technology matters. Simply because good assets can make the difference when facing the adversary in battle.

The keywords for this acquisition of good assets are “right policies”. Such policies are the main requirement and the crucial element behind the creation of assets needed to meet and/or asserting national interests (defence and deterrence included), let alone to allow a nation to fight a war. Assets are also crucial for the conflict that would be foreseen by the strategists of each nation, as it was the case with Japan and the US, for both clearly assessed that war with other was inevitable at a certain point. Given how crucial is the preparation of assets prior a conflict, it is also important to implement any military build-up very carefully, as the most minimum fault might have very serious consequences for the fate of a nation. here is where the second difference lies. And it is here also where Japan was filled with several fault-lines that resulted in its defeat at Midway, and in the end, costing it the war.

As it was remarked, the Japanese focused on having very high-quality aircraft carriers and other naval (air) assets, which can be a very good input for operations. The problem is that elite-based forces and assets are also very hard and costly to replace, even more when those are the set of initial forces. In addition, they are especially vulnerable to exhaustion and attrition, with losses forcing the quality of the armed forces and fleet to be sacrificed for quantity. This negative effect is further worsened if the bulk of the armed forces is based upon elite forces, moreover if the abovementioned lack of financial and industrial solid basis is present. This was the first fault-line that costed japan the battle of Midway[10].

If the material resources available are very scarce, making difficult the replacement of losses, such difficulty will worsen if there are strong competition and rivalries within the armed forces as it was the case between the Japanese Imperial Navy and the Army. Political aspects were also present, especially the bitter clashes between the civil government and the armed forces. All of the previous factors, when combined, constitute the second fault-line: the resulted in a lack of cooperation between the Imperial Navy and the Army and a lack of cooperation between the government and the armed forces, and also in a lack of overall unified (strategic) criteria. The Japanese attack against Midway had their forces divided; in reality, there was a strong and self-defeating division within Japan that weakened the force of its offensive and the force and solidness of its armies and fleets. They were defeating themselves long before the battle. A similar situation can defeat any nation beyond any repair.

The third fault-line within Japan, which also nearly neutralized any advantage Japan had thanks to the initial superior quality of its assets, was the abovementioned prevalence of the ‘Old Battleship School’. In a more general sense, any current within the armed forces in favour of an outdated and strategically irrelevant assets, will result in hampering the technological development by denying their own armed forces of assets and weaponry that could bestow a better firepower or a certain advantage vis-à-vis any adversary. This could also result in ignoring other types of weapons that can be useful for securing the country in wartime or allowing the armed forces to effectively threaten the enemy; Japan ignored anything related to submarine and anti-submarine warfare, increasing the vulnerability of its sea-borne supply lines as the US submarines were free to strangle Japan by attacking the commercial ships. Submarines were also used as mere scout during the battle.

This is a sharp contrast with the case of the US Navy, as it implemented more efficiently the policies oriented at creating the needed assets (and the needed quality), alongside the devising of the needed tactics and operational aspects of both aircraft carriers and naval aviation, and the appointment of skilled officers – familiar with that type of assets – as commanders. Innovations that enhanced capacities of both warships and warplanes were the product of exercises and drills, which effectively complemented the abovementioned measures. More importantly, the Navy’s own flexible and independent structure, the attention given to AA defences on the ships, and the available resources enabled the US to create a good quality Navy in basically every aspect. This quality would make itself evident during the Battle of Midway. And basically, for the rest of the war.

Strategically speaking, the US did something that now we can evaluate as pertinent, if not entirely correct, and this is to take initiative. Despite facing adversity and having numerical or material inferiority, not to mention that strategically speaking, it was a compromised situation, the US Navy decided to have some aggressiveness and initiative right immediately after Pearl Harbour, from the Tokyo Raid that had a very strong psychological impact[11], and the limited but fiery offensives at basically all the fronts in the Pacific. This initiative also helped the Americans in gaining valuable experience and learning more their adversary, identifying the Japanese strengths and weaknesses and thus devising both the weaponry and tactics to deal with them. Initiative is to be maintained always, even when facing the odds. The Americans knew their enemy by experience. This accumulated experience, as a result, prepared the US Navy for the battle to come. In relation to this, and as it was abovementioned, the wrongful Japanese against Pearl Harbour awoke the “sleeping dragon” the US was, then using all its available resources to wage war against Japan, enhancing its forces and their performance upon the abovementioned accumulated experiences. In contrast, the Japanese were subjected to exhaustion, attrition and losses[12]. The Americans were able to turn defeat into victory by adapting and maintaining initiative, being able to overcome themselves in the process[13].

The US Naval intelligence proved to be much better than that of Japan, acknowledging that both were of good quality. Sun Tzu once stated that war is basically based upon deception[14]. As such, it is in the intelligence services where the capacity to set the deception or to detect it lies. This is the main reason why they are a very important element within any armed forces, as well as the fact they can penetrate deeper into the fog of war. Or more practically – and related to the Battle of Midway – it can break through the codes of the enemy, deciphering them and then capable of detecting its intentions[15]. In addition, a good intelligence service can be a very helpful tool for a commander to gather, process and evaluate the information correctly and efficiently – as it was the case with Admiral Nimitz – so to devise good strategies and plans for the battle. Hence, a good intelligence service is simply a must. On this way, it is also imperative to protect the own information – not to say the codes for such information – so to prevent the enemy to know one’s intentions. And a good intelligence service could dismantle the adversary’s own deception by setting a counter-deception, at the point of making it to make mistakes and to ‘reveal’ itself and its plans. Intelligence is as vital as information is. It is crucial to know the intentions and essence of an enemy[16]. As Musashi (2007) remarks, it is vital to have intuition. This intuition can be in great part thanks to good intelligence services.

As it was made evident, the commanding factor is equally crucial during any battle and war[17]. Mainly due to the fact that good leadership is vital, and even more for naval warfare. Traits such as character, personality, skills, training and formation, alongside flexibility, and capacity for initiative and responsiveness are all vital when a commander must take a decision during a very crucial – and often heated – moment requiring split-seconds decisions. Nimitz and the American subordinates were an example of this. Also, the Americans were able to grasp the possibilities and the aims of the Japanese.

In the same way, shortcomings will become that evident at the point of damaging the operational outcome of forces beyond repair. The Japanese, in fact, were having a large number of shortcomings on the commanding factor. For instance, the Japanese commanders were very strict and stuck to the textbooks, blindly following orders thus lacking flexibility and responsiveness and lacking initiative. Moreover, some of the Japanese commander were not the adequate commanders for the type of operations and assets used. There was also hesitation and lack of decision, as Nagumo lost valuable time when deciding the tack of attacks to execute after the initial bombing of Midway; it was because of this lack of decision that ordnance was stored on deck, being vulnerable to the bombs of the American SBD Dauntless dive-bombers.

If the commanders are full in overconfidence and arrogance, they and their forces will be going to battle blind to the real nature, strengths and capacities of the adversary, clearly underestimating it. This is worsened if there is no concrete information on the enemy, or if the same enemy has set a rouse to further deceive the commander in question, aided by his arrogance and overconfidence. As such, there is a general tendency for evaluating and expecting the enemy to behave in accordance to the ideas, preconceptions and prejudices… or basically to expect for the enemy to behave the way one would like upon oneself logic. This was the greatest mistake of Yamamoto, and a mistake that is a direct way to an important defeat.

Additionally, a good chain of command is important as it transmits and materializes orders and plans efficiently and right time, managing properly the action of subordinates and troops or sailors. As such, a good chain of command giving room to initiative, flexibility, responsiveness, independence and a sort of deliberative attitude can achieve a better operational performance resulting in a good outcome. The US was able to win at Midway thanks to this fact as well. On the contrary, a very authoritarian, inflexible and rigid chain of command that prevents initiative, flexibility, independence, responsiveness and subordinates to do suggestions will lead any force into bad performance and defeat. And a strong reliance on textbooks and preconceived ideas also denies capacity to react to situation out of the textbook of the plans, resulting in mistakes and consolidating the path towards defeat.

…until the time for the encounter arrives

With this said, now there can be a closer approach to the battle itself. First, an important battle can be – most of the times – pre-defined by previous encounters and events, as well as by elements beyond the military ones. The Tokyo Raid is a clear example, as it impressed the Japanese very deeply, at the point of insecurity. That insecurity and other considerations made japan to execute further operations, with Coral Sea and Midway included. The same Coral Sea battle played a role by diminishing the Japanese naval forces, diminishing the imbalance in number of forces and highlighting the US capacity to recover from any loss[18]. And the Japanese offensive against Ceylon delayed the changing of the codes, giving ample time for their deciphering by US Naval intelligence. In addition, Japan failed in neutralizing the most important naval asset of any navy – even then when attacked Pearl Harbour. It was their ‘lost opportunity’[19].

Secondly, and as it was briefly pointed out above, the Battle of Coral Sea gave the US Navy to take the initiative, and also the opportunity to test and hone tactics, being able to ‘measure’ and understand better its adversary. This is the observation here: well-learned lessons and the implementation of those from past encounters and operations can enable one to prepare well the own forces, and to wage with optimal performance a battle.

Third, luck and chance are, inevitably, elements that will be present in any battle[20], with the outcome of any being almost decided by these two factors. They can overcome the most fully prepared plans by any army or navy. As von Moltke once stated: “plans never survive the first encounter with the enemy”, with von Clausewitz remarking that luck is the ultimate element both in war and battle[21]. As such, it was at a good extent a chance and luck that the US Naval intelligence was able to break the Japanese coded due to their slight mistake of not changing them for a while; it was a matter of luck that the US carrier forces were able to detect first the Japanese the same way the Japanese submarines were not able to detect the US aircraft carrier forces as they were delayed in reaching their ordered position. It was also a matter of luck that the American dive-bombers found the air defence system of the Japanese concentrated on other threats, finding their way open, and exhausted by the actions of the previous uncoordinated waves of airplanes. And its was a matter of luck that all the dive-bombers converged almost simultaneously, with luck being the factor that made those airplanes to sink and empire, when a series of bombs happened to strike just were the ordnance was accumulated, sentencing the Japanese aircraft carriers and its aims.

And fourth, battles can be a decisive moment, yet not enough to put a war to an end inmost of the times; more encounters, a large campaign and more battles might be needed for one side to entirely defeat the other side.

At the seas, airpower is king

When thinking about naval warfare, the first thing coming to mind is about warships, facing each other with their guns or even with their missiles, and about submarines chasing each other or even threatening the commercial or military ships of the adversary. This is still true, somehow, but since the wake of the 20th century and both world wars, four new weapons emerged as important, with two of them becoming the capital ship for every important navy: those are the submarine, the missile, the aircraft carrier and the naval aviation. The last three are the ones that changed the shape of naval warfare. As controlling the air space is essential for any country during any war or campaign, having a warship capable of carrying airplanes is important to gain that control over the skies, so to protect the own forces and to defeat effectively the enemy forces, is important[22]. But also having the right airplanes for the task is necessary: planes able to neutralize the enemy air assets, airplanes capable of hitting the heart of the enemy territory, airplanes capable of defending the own naval forces, airplanes capable of hitting the enemy ships and submarines that are far away from the own forces[23].

The battles of Coral Sea, of Midway, of the Gulf of Leyte, the Falkland Wars, the same Battle of the Atlantic, and the series of small conflicts and interventions taking place in the third world after WWII, are all an evidence of the importance the aircraft carrier and naval aviation has regained for naval warfare and for the abovementioned operational objectives. Moreover, the aircraft carrier and the naval aviation are now an essential asset – and tool – for every major navy to assert its interests, project its power and determine the outcome (be military or political, or both) of any situation or crisis taking place somewhere else and that might affect those interests[24]. Also, the primacy of the airplanes shows how a small and comparatively cheap asset can change the course of a conflict or assert/deny the interests of a given nation, in a short period of time and with more room for action and agility in comparison to sea-based assets. And as with Midway, how a few decimated the best of a fleet.

In the light of this, it is clear that naval warfare evolved in both World Wars at the point of becoming the main weapon in relation to sea power, as its capacities allowed any navy to effectively neutralize and/or destroy the naval assets of the adversary, altering or changing the outcome of a conflict. The airplane proved its value and dangerousness as it was able to destroy the bulk of a carrier force in less time than an encounter with warships would have required, as it was the case in Midway. Or the capacity of the airplane to dislodge the ‘choking’ campaign against the shipping lanes by the U-boots, as it happened in the Battle of the Atlantic with the escort carriers and the aviation embarked there. Even more, the naval airplane proved to be capable of changing the fate of a nation, shattering its strategic and national objectives and ambitions or consolidating its hegemony over a disputed territory, let alone the national and strategic interests. Naval warfare has changed for good, with (naval) air power becoming as important as the battleships and guns were once. There is however, one striking similarity: as the old battleships and gunships, the aircraft carriers and their air assets are used as a political tool for intervention and crises. In any case, the introduction of new technologies hints that in the future, the carrier-based airplane will remain crucial in an era where power is airborne and where pilotless and intelligent air assets are gradually becoming mainstream. It is yet to be seen, however, how naval warfare will be changed by those new technologies and developments.




[1] See: Von Clausewitz, 1999, p. 37, p. 47, and pp. 291 – 309. And: Herwig, 1998, p. 70.

[2] Also, a war elsewhere can bring a given rising power into the area of interest of a local power – like the US-Spanish 1898 War did with the US – that will feel challenged, even more as the new power can see necessary to protect the newly acquired territories closer to the mainland of the local great power. This protection requires military/naval assets, obviously.

[3] As Friedman (2015) puts, Geopolitics basically frames the behaviour and pursuit of national interests by the nations – and their leaders – and other international actors (pp. 30-31). Owens, in turn, points out that Geography constraints or facilitates the foreign policy and strategy of every nation, and the way they assess their (in)security vis-à-vis other states (pp. 59-60).

[4] This competition can take place between a rising and a traditional great power, two rising powers or two traditional powers. And even between a local and an outsider great power.

[5] This lesson is similar to the one reached during the analysis of the Battle of Kadesh… simply because this is a sort of general law when studying the dynamic between great powers and the inevitable tendency for competition and conflict. See: The Battle of Kadesh, part III.

[6] To be fair, the Americans also underestimated the Japanese seriously up until Pearl Harbour, as Murray & Millet (2005) pointed out.

[7] Adaptability is a ‘must have’ attribute for every armed force, air force and navy, according to Murray (2009). Cfr. p. 1. In relation to arrogance, this is listed as one of the worst faults of the commander by Sun Bin (1996).

[8] See: Musashi, 2007, p. 39 and p. 49.

[9] The most prolific examples are the blockade of Germany by the Royal Navy in WWI, the German submarine campaigns in both world wars, and even the American submarine campaign against Japan in WWII. See also footnote 19.

[10] As Sun Bin (1996) puts, trying to compensate the things that are lacking and that an enemy state has in large surplus will harm the own forces. See: p, 143.

[11] Striking fear by a surprise in the hearts and minds of the enemies is an important tactic for Musashi (2007). The Tokyo Raid did basically that.

[12] As Murray & Millet plainly put, Japan simply made a political – and strategic – mistake when attacking US territory. See: p. 261.

[13] Following Musashi (2007), it is imperative to adapt by experience to the enemy, and to overcome and improve oneself, as well as to have always the initiative.

[14] See: Sun Tzu, 2014, p. 37.

[15] The Japanese lack of care with their own codes contributed the US Navy intelligence to break their codes and uncover their plans. And set the famous rouse.

[16] Knowing the enemy and knowing oneself is something that both Musashi (2007) and Sun Tzu (2014) point out as essential for any war or battle.

[17] Following Musashi (2007), the general – or admiral – is like the master-carpenter, managing the forces and how the plans will take place, while the soldiers – or sailors – are those who put into practice the plans (pp. 17-19).

[18] The reparation of the USS Yorktown, which was damaged in the Battle of Coral Sea, in a very short period of time, is a feat and an example of US capacities to recover any sort of loss. Noteworthy to remind that the Japanese actually considered her as sunken.

[19] Cfr. Cau, 2011, p.169; Macdonald, 1993, p. 64; and Canales y del Rey (2016).

[20] See: The Battle of Kadesh, part III.

[21] See: Von Clausewitz, 1999, p. 44.

[22] Cfr. Bergamino & Palitta (2015), Canales y del Rey (2016), Crawford (2001), and Kaplan (2008).

[23] As Ross & Sandison (2008) points out, aircraft carriers – and embarked air assets – have at either peace or wartime 9 tasks: corrective force; preventative force; precautionary force; demonstrative force; disaster relief; ASW; air defence; strategic/tactical reconnaissance and strike; and air-to-ground support (p. 79).

[24] As Kaplan (2008) points out, and in a more general approach, fleets are important instruments for political power, as it is the mean that facilitates the most the projection of national power far from the main territory, even more in combination with the air power – naval or land-based – and exerting political and diplomatic pressure (pp. 78-79). Friedman (2015) also points out that naval power is important for the control of the two main oceans, as well as of the international economic system (p. 23). This allows to understand more the capital importance aircraft carriers have for both naval and national power.




Bergamino, G. &., Palitta, G. (2015). El Gran Libro de la Guerra. [L’arte della guerra, Herminia Bevia, trans.]. Madrid, Spain: Editorial Tikal (Original work published in 2015).

Canales, C. &., del Rey, M. (2016). De Salamina a las Malvinas. Madrid, Spain: Editorial EDAF.

Cau, P. (2011). Batallas del Mundo. [Battaglie, Maria Pilar Queralt, trans.]. Madrid, Spain: Editorial Tikal (Original work published in 2006).

Crawford, S. (2001). Portaaviones y Acorazados [Battleships and Carriers, José Luis Tamayo, & L. Martín, trans.]. Madrid, Spain: Editorial LIBSA (Original work published in 1999).

Dahms, H. G. (1974). La Segunda Guerra Mundial. [Das Zweiten Weltkrieg, Victor Scholz, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Editorial Bruguera (Original work published in 1963).

Friedman, G. (2015). Los Próximos 100 Años. [The Next 100 Years, Enrique Mercado, trans.]. Mexico, D.F.: Editorial Océano (Original work published in 2009).

Gibelli, N. J. (1972). La guerra se aproxima Australia. In La Segunda Guerra Mundial (Vol.4. pp. 97–120). Buenos Aires, Argentina: Editorial Codex.

MacDonald, J. (1993). Grandes Batallas de la II Guerra Mundial (pp. 64 – 71). [Great Battles of World War II, Luis Ogg, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Ediciones Folio (Original work published in 1993).

Murray, W. (2009). Military Adaptation in War. Alexandria, Virginia: Institute for Defense Analyses. Retrieved from: http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/dod/ona_murray_adapt_in_war.pdf on 26.06.2017 (IDA Paper P-4453).

Murray, W. & Millet, A. R. (2005). La guerra que había que ganar [A War to be Won, Critica S.L, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Critica. (Original work published in 1998).

Mushashi, M. (2007). Artes de Combate Samurai. [Gorin no-sho, Horacio Lasalle Ruano, trans.]. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Editorial Quadrata. (Original work published in c.a. 1645).

Owens, M. T. (Autumn 1999). In Defense of Classical Geopolitics. Naval War College Review, 52(4), 59-76.

Ross, A. T., & Sandison, J. M. (2008). A historical appreciation of the contribution of naval air power. Papers in Australian Maritime Affairs, 26. Retrieved from: http://www.navy.gov.au/sites/default/files/documents/PIAMA26.pdf on 29.11.2017

Sun Bin. (2005). El Arte de la Guerra II. Versión y comentarios de Cleary, T. [The Lost Art of War by Sun Tzu II, Alfonso Colodrón, trans.]. Madrid, Spain: Editorial Edaf. (Original work published in 1996 by Cleary, T.).

Sun Tzu. (2014). El Arte de la Guerra. (25 Ed.). Madrid, Spain: Ediciones Martínez Roca.

Thomas, E. (2007). Mar de tormenta. La última gran campaña naval de la historia [Sea of Thunder. Four Commanders and the Last Great Naval Campaign 1941-1945, Critica S.L, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Critica. (Original work published in 2006).

Von Clausewitz, C. (1999). De la guerra. [Vom Kriege, A. Díez, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Idea Books. (Original work published in 1832).

Defining Neutrality II – Sweden (3a)


The case of Sweden (Part III)

When the Cold War ended, a wave of optimism emerged, as peace was thought to would remain almost perpetually, with history supposedly coming to an end as the competition between the two superpowers was over, ending 42 years of constant tensions and threat of large-scale conflict. Sweden adopted this approach rather enthusiastically, having some cautions nevertheless. This period also brought challenges and new dilemmas to neutrality policy, at the point of losing its centrality; a strong defensive approach was no longer necessary hence redefinitions, due to the end of the Soviet Union, new international dynamics and political processes – like the European integration project – and new security threats.

Non-alignment, due to these factors, became the main Swedish foreign and security policy framework, with neutrality remaining only nominally. Interestingly, after the Cold War, Sweden set aside and then retrieved – partially – armed neutrality, mainly due to the comeback of the Russian threat.

This period is indeed very interesting and complex, as Swedish neutrality was defined again and again. To understand how this complexity took place and why it forced such frequent re-definitions, it will be reviewed in three small periods. The first period is between 1991 and 2001, with the post-cold War reforms – based upon the period’s optimism – and the new international dynamics, including the crises at the Balkans and other new security threats, sparked the first reforms to neutrality. The second period spans from 2001 to 2014, with further new security threats – terrorism mainly – and the re-emergence of old threats taking place, thus sparking more re-redefinitions. And the last period spans from 2014 to nowadays, with Sweden concentrating mostly on the re-emerging old threat.

The Post-Cold War: Neutrality after the winds of change (1991-2001)

This period was characterized by the abovementioned post-Cold War approach, and the emergence of new political processes and security threats, with Sweden implementing several foreign policy and military reforms, redefining neutrality thus making it very particular.

It lost its ‘armed’ element, becoming mostly into ‘non-alignment’, product of the reforms. Firstly, Sweden began to focus on domestic affairs as defence was not urgent (Tirpak, 2017). Secondly, engagement with international organizations and institutions was furthered. It joined the North Atlantic Cooperation in 1992, the NATO Partnership for Peace (PfP) in 1994, it took part in two NATO-led operations in the Balkans (IFOR and SFOR), it joined the EU and the Western European Union – as observer – in 1995; all of this took place despite non-alignment being the main policy and mostly because of economic considerations[1]. By the end of the Cold War, defence spending was high – 1.3% of GDP – and then were reduced following the end of the Cold War; new security threats, the spark of inner conflicts near Europe with serious effects should spilling, all required military-civil tools and international cooperation, hence the reforms (Bergman, 2004; Basset, 2012; Gotkowska, 2013; Hetmanchuk, 2012; Lindström, 1997; Pashkov, 2009; Sweden.se, 2014; Swedish Defence Commission, 1999; Westberg, 2013; von Sydow, 1999; Vaahtoranta & Forsberg, 2000).

The Swedish Armed Forces (Försvarsmakten) received new operational missions through reforms. Focusing on interoperability with international organizations, neighbour countries and regional partners, and focusing on reduced size for flexibility and mobility took place. Also, conscription was evaluated while the Home Guard (Hemvärnet) was to be expanded (Bergman, 2004; Swedish Defence Commission, 1999; Vaahtoranta & Forsberg, 2000; von Sydow, 1999). Capacities to provide and receive support in a cooperative solidarity spirit, and interoperability during crisis management operations were given to the Försvarsmakten, becoming also their main framework. They were implemented when deployed in the Balkans, with Sweden contributing to protection of civilians and regional stabilization. Sweden, then, relied on collective security and international law while national defence capacities were reduced (Gotkowska, 2013; Westberg, 2013, von Sydow, 1999).

Nevertheless, Sweden still assessed that some important threats were present. Indeed, despite no large-scale attack was not considered as military power and political differences around were reduced, political instability and potential limited attacks – through cyberwarfare and terrorism – along weapons of mass destruction and airstrikes required Sweden to retain considerable defence capacities. The abovementioned reforms were oriented also on this direction, thus merging civil and military crisis management assets, including civil defence and infrastructure protection (Swedish Defence Commission, 1999; Vaahtoranta & Forsberg, 2000; von Sydow, 1999).

Reforms and joining multilateral instances could be perceived as going against neutrality and non-alignment. Very far from it. For instance, Sweden considered that shared values, respect for international law, diplomacy and multilateralism with the EU were valid to join it. This also allowed Sweden to take part in NATO and EU-led peacekeeping operations, to achieve peace and prevent conflicts with both organizations as a mean, being PfP very ideal given its flexibility and freedom of participation. The EU was also deemed an alternative for security due to its cooperation by consensus and economic collaboration basis, being Sweden’s way to open to Globalization. Also, non-alignment was set as pre-condition for participation in operations abroad, with cooperation going beyond the military and into non-military aspects (Bergman, 2004; Lindström, 1997; von Sydow, 1999; Vaahtoranta & Forsberg, 2000)[2]. This became a turning point in Swedish neutrality[3].

Sweden became more involved with Europe and with its most immediate neighbourhood, with the EU membership being a vehicle for such. The same with UN peacekeeping operations, since like those of NATO and the EU, were a way to prevent conflict, achieve conflict and fulfil its own norms, Human Rights and values-based foreign and security policies. In fact, they became a good complement for non-alignment. Cooperation was central indeed, as Sweden would provide any EU – and Nordic – country victim of an attack or a disaster with assistance, expecting the same from them (Bergman, 2004; Pashkov, 2009; Westberg, 2013)[4]. Relations with the US became as important as relations during the Cold War, becoming more formal. Sweden considered the transatlantic relations crucial, while considering the EU should have valued more US presence – and NATO – in Europe; the same EU was deemed a very weak actor, especially in crisis management (Vaahtoranta & Forsberg, 2000).

The flexibility and adaptability of Swedish neutrality was made evident. It managed to adapt itself and the Försvarsmakten to the EU Common Defence and Security Policy (CDSP). The first re-definition of neutrality in 1992 allowed this, as it stated that neutrality was to be maintained – and ensured as an option – in wartime, avoiding alliances in peacetime. It was also stated that the EU security equalled that of Sweden, enabling it then to address any crisis or conflict in the vicinity. This opened also the door for close defence cooperation with other Nordic states, regardless of their varied security mechanisms, and having political consultations (Basset, 2012; Bergman, 2004; Lindström, 1997; Ugwukah, 2014; Vaahtoranta & Forsberg, 2000). This Nordic-based security cooperation remains, being very important for Sweden.

A similar security cooperation with the Baltics emerged, being equally important for Sweden. For instance, Sweden would intervene if any Nordics or Baltics were attacked. Sweden also co-operated with its neighbours in operations, like the Nordic-based battalion in Bosnia under UN command in 1993, which was the product a Nordic/Baltics-based defence structure idea, with joint battalion deployed mainly for peacekeeping. Baltics troops were also deployed under Swedish command. In addition, efforts with Finland to enhance the EU conflict management capabilities took place alongside strong bilateral cooperation in security[5]. Contacts with NATO and Russia took place as well[6]. And PfP became a tool for the Nordic/Baltics-based defence cooperation and by taking part in exercises, discarding the Baltics ‘neutralization’, supporting instead their armed forces’ establishment with material, assets and instructors. It also supported their path towards NATO (Lindström, 1997; Swedish Defence Commission, 1999; von Sydow, 1999; Vaahtoranta & Forsberg, 2000).

Sweden further contributed to the EU. It helped in shaping the EU as a security actor by insisting on the integration of the Petersberg Tasks within the EU core security tasks and in CSDP, helping it to meet its objectives and own security aims. Yet non-alignment remained as a pre-condition for taking part in EU-led operations, with the EU not to become a collective defence body and remaining a cooperative defence body only (Bergman, 2004; Basset, 2012; Westberg, 2013)[7].

The post-Cold War re-adaptation wasn’t smooth, though. During the Kosovo crisis, Sweden did not intervene until the aftermath, as there was no UN approval for use of force against Serbia and Sweden objected NATO interventions. Its own principles forced also such absence. A sense of regret emerged later as Sweden stood idle while the crisis unfolded. Then, neutrality was again re-defined so to address the issue of similar crisis requiring no UN approval for intervention, maintaining the multilateral and regional approach, alongside the no-alliance and non-alignment principles (Bergman, 2004). This event highlighted the limits the Swedish humanitarian side had when colliding with Neutrality and non-alignment

From the 9/11 to Crimea (2001-2014)

The turn of the new century brought further reforms and new re-definitions to neutrality and non-alignment. New security issues emerged along those already manifesting since the 90’s; old threats also began to re-emerge.

After the 9/11 attacks, a new re-definition came to be necessary. The no-alliance, non-alignment and the EU as a vector of regional stability principles were maintained. But further flexibility was given, allowing Sweden to take part in EU-led operations and to contribute to its rapid reaction forces, since they were considered a force for peace and stabilization, capable of enforcing Human Rights, and a good tool for Baltics security. It was also recognized that neutrality was not central or possible anymore. Also, the requirement for cooperation, with the EU not to become a collective defence body, was kept (Bergman, 2004).

Foreign policy aims remained the same. Maintenance of peace and autonomy, safeguarding Swedish citizens, contributing to international peace and security remained central; security co-operation by political consultations with the Nordics as well (Bergman, 2004; Ugwukah, 2014). In fact, this cooperation became further important, evolving to become a genuine security tool having an Arctic/High North security scope, materialized in the shape of the Nordic Defence Cooperation (NORDEFCO). It has as four pillars: developing a Scandinavian Rapid Reaction Force; a Joint Naval unit for patrolling; to control the Icelandic airspace; and to work in other security aspects. The focus is placed on the member states’ air forces with exercises in the High North, Southern Sweden and Northern Denmark, and with the Swedish, Finnish, Norwegian and Danish air forces taking part. There was also aims of participating in NATO Iceland Air Policing (Gotkowska, 2013; Pashkov, 2009).

The Försvarsmakten was a subject of further reforms too. Internationalization and further reductions took place, thus taking part in global and regional deployments – like EU-led operations Artemis and Concordia – while deepening participation in NATO’s assistance to Baltics defence. PfP exercises are joined by the three services so to gain further interoperability and to show Sweden as a reliable and capable partner. Human Rights and rule-of-law remained as frameworks. Interestingly, Sweden participated in NATO-led ISAF in Afghanistan and its reaction forces, in the anti-piracy operations in Somalia, in rescue operations in Chad and Mali, supported Security Sector Reform in Kosovo, and in NATO intervention in Libya[8]. CSDP and the EUBGs became additional main security frameworks for Sweden, with a 2004 Security Strategy stating that Sweden would act in case any EU was attacked. Conscription was finished in 2010 in favour of a rapid reaction force on a volunteer-basis and with interoperability, flexibility and versatility as principles (Bergman, 2004; Basset, 2012; Göranson, 2012; Gotkovska, 2013; Pashkov, 2009; Swedish National Audit Office, 2014; Tirpak, 2017)[9].

With terrorism becoming the main security, measures to tackle it emerged. This took place regardless of Sweden being neutral and not a likely target, affecting neutrality. In fact, terrorism and its impact prompted such measures, alongside the new threats, both requiring multilateral approaches to address them. Hence, the new re-definition confirmed the obsolescence of neutrality and non-alignment. Its participation in ISAF was due to the understanding of non-state actors in international security and the emerging security issues[10]. It also explains its implementation of anti-terrorism measures, advancing also on a EU-based security architecture (Basset, 2012; Bergman, 2004; Pashkov, 2009).

As the decade was coming to a close, a threat of old began to arise again. For instance, the 2008 Georgia War, Russian assertiveness and cyberattacks against Estonia in 2008, alongside mock nuclear attacks against Sweden made the public to support a military strengthening. Also, a new 2009 Defence Decision and Security Strategy emerged, assessing that though direct attacks were unlikely, they weren’t impossible. National defence then became a priority again alongside crisis management operations, with increased issuing of armament and equipment to some units, and reintroducing regional commands. A new Defence Decision followed in the earlier 2010’s, keeping Sweden’s commitment to any Nordic or EU state in case of attack or natural disaster, keeping also solidarity and interdependence as tool to secure Sweden (Gotkowska, 2013; Tirpak, 2011). A debate on joining NATO also emerged, as it was becoming attractive due to Russian assertiveness in the vicinity, alongside event in the Arctic, where Sweden is having strong interests, following Pashkov (2009).

This period marked the end of the post-Cold War optimism, and evidenced the damage made by reforms. It also evidenced some things, as the return of Russia made solidarity – and cooperation – with the EU and the Nordics more necessary, as well as the need to overhaul the Försvarsmakten. This became even more evident as the Försvarsmakten was left almost unfit for national defence given the previous reforms, with Russian assertiveness threatening to further stretch the scarce defence resources (Gotkowska, 2013).

Hence the need to address this issue affecting the Försvarsmakten, along with other related problems. The 2012 Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences, in fact, made a study given the regional instability, reaching interesting conclusions. First, the ‘declaration of solidarity’ was deemed unfit for dealing with Russian military and intelligence activities. Second, the Försvarsmakten has good expeditionary capabilities, good assets and well-trained personnel, but the problems were gaps on national defence and nearby high-intensity conflicts capacities. Third, there was a lack of AA defences and of personnel, with the navy lacking AA defences forcing the Swedish Air Force (Flygvapnet) to do AA defence, lacking long-range attack capacities. And fourth, there was a lack of priorities. It was concluded the reforms were to be blamed, as they made the Försvarsmakten to have few units, few personnel – given issues on recruitment – and lacking financial resources for defence for long periods of time, requiring assistance[11]. Moreover, the lack of economic growth could hamper the acquisition of needed new equipment – such as submarines, UAVs, infantry fighting vehicles and transport planes (Gotkowska, 2013; Swedish National Audit Office, 2014).

Problems affecting the Försvarsmakten are not the only source of concern, as it seems the EU is not positively evaluated. Hence Sweden is not considering furthering cooperation with the EU given its lack of military focusing, having capabilities only for interventions but not collective defence. NATO was considered not to be mirrored or the US to be set aside. Also, Poland was deemed a potential good element for defence cooperation – though not a secure one – as there could be shared threat assessment and close cooperation for prevention and cooperation. And Sweden is looking for new ways of military cooperation and new partners to advance on interoperability and participation under NATO Reaction Force, and to work on new security threats (Gotkowska, 2013).

The re-emergent Russian threat would become worse. The annexation of Crimea, the refugee crisis and the increased threat of terrorism would prompt further debates on neutrality, non-alignment and NATO membership, following Tirpak (2017). The need to overhaul the Försvarsmakten would be highlighted too.

The Bear returns (2014-today)

The world was taken by surprise and in shock when Russia annexed Crimea, and conflict in eastern Ukraine involving a Russian-backed separatist group. The geopolitical and security implications were important for Sweden, given Russia’s proximity and as its assertiveness is taking place the most in the Baltics and the arctic, where Russia and Sweden are having interests.

Sweden felt then the need to do something, as the adverse conditions were worsening. As a result, readiness and deterrence were to be enhanced, with the Flygvapnet becoming important for national defence, readiness and deterrence. The public kept its support for the Försvarsmakten overhauling and modernization[12]. Incidents involving Swedish and Russian fighters and surveillance and SIGINT planes – even an airliner was involved – justified further such support. Sense of vulnerability was increased as Russian assertiveness was taking place in the Arctic, as a potential clash might take place given overlapping interests there. The 2015 Parliamentary White Paper recognized this issue: it reaffirmed Sweden as neutral, yet it stated Sweden would fight alongside other states while increasing defence spending to 2.2% of GDP. This was also a recognition that military force was again a foreign policy tool (Gotkowska, 2013; Tirpak, 2017).

Redefinition of neutrality and non-alignment became inevitable, along other measures. Increased military relations with other countries, the EU and NATO were deepened, with Sweden seeking to establish stronger transatlantic links with the US, including interoperability between Swedish and American forces, joint training and exercises, cooperation on armaments, R&D, multinational operations and a development of a joint trainer jet – the Boeing/Saab T-X. Cooperation between the Flygvapnet and the US Air Force in technology, ammunition and interoperability was aimed too. In addition, and as an alternative to NATO membership, further defence links with Norway and Finland were established, including exercises at squadron level with air forces; increased focusing to the Baltics as a main security area took place too[13]. The ‘dispersed air base’ system was re-introduced while partnership were further implemented alongside interoperability (Gotkowska, 2013; Tirpak, 2017; Sweden’s Defence Policy 2016-2020, 2015).

In addition to the realization of fixing the damage done by reforms, a debate on joining NATO emerged. Membership was indeed considered, yet some political sectors are insisting on the post-cold War optimism and underestimating the threat Russia is to Sweden and its neighbourhood. Interestingly, convergence on threat assessment with the EU and NATO resulted in Swedish mechanized units taking part of NATO Northern Group despite being out of NATO official defence discussions (Gotkowska, 2013).

Discussions on the need to reinforce the Försvarsmakten yielded important steps to be taken and solve the issue(s).

Fixing an army

One of the most important steps taken by Sweden is the Sweden’s Defence Policy 2016-2020, published in 2015. This document manages the military overhauling, preparedness and interoperability, being a product of the aforementioned debate and a materialization of measures.

This policy aims at increasing the Försvarsmakten combat capabilities and to ensure collective force. As such, it defines its tasks as four: protection of life and health; ensuring society functioning; protecting values, rule of law and Human Rights; and protecting interests, rights and sovereignty. They are framed by a solidarity-based security; war prevention and rise of threats against Sweden, her neighbours and the Baltics and Europe; a support to the UN and EU aims of promoting peace and democracy. The Försvarsmakten also have to assist civil agencies when required and protect civil society, with cooperation with NATO being important, mostly for acquiring capabilities – including all weather/arctic capabilities – and for contributing to international security, let alone for accomplishing their tasks. Cooperation with the Nordics, the Baltics and the US remains core principle, alongside territorial defence with Finland (Sweden’s Defence Policy 2016-2020, 2015). Hence, cooperation remains fundamental and useful for the Försvarsmakten to become stronger and more capable.

The policy proposes 9 measures to strengthen the Försvarsmakten. First, the implementation of new training system for officers. Second, to increase presence in the Baltics and in Gotland, as the island is a cross-point between sea and air lanes. Third, to upgrade the AA defences. Fourth, to increase the quality of the Home Guard (Hemvärnet). Fifth, to reorganize the Army (Armén) into 2 mechanized brigades. Sixth, to retrieve the Civil Defence as it could support the Försvarsmakten in war time, protecting and securing vital social assets.  seventh, to acquire enhanced cyber capabilities. Eight, to modernize psychological defences given their importance on keeping the democratic order during a crisis. And ninth, to acquire long-range precision strike capabilities, mainly for the Flygvapnet. In addition, a merge between the Försvarsmakten, the civil society and political, diplomatic and financial means is considered, so to enhance Sweden’s security while cooperating with other states and organizations (Sweden’s Defence Policy 2016-2020, 2015)[14].

What Sweden needs for materializing military overhauling is the same thing the EU needs to achieve security: an increase to defence budgets. Such increasing would give the Försvarsmakten the capacities to manage the current unstable scenario, enhance its combat capabilities and increase intelligence through increased training and exercises[15]. Moreover, there is a need for investing in basic material and logistics; to add a motorized battalion; to deploy regiment units with mechanized and armoured companies in Gotland to make a battlegroup; to upgrade the armoured and infantry combat vehicles; to add more bridge layers and new anti-tank weapons, plus 4 mortar platoons for the Hemvärnet. Active cyber-defences, renewed civil defence and more investment on recruitment and sustaining of soldiers were also deemed necessary (Sweden’s Defence Policy 2016-2020, 2015; Tirpak, 2017).

The three services, in turn, will receive important additions in assets and equipment, to enhance capacities, evidencing how Sweden will manage a renewed threat by retrieving many aspects of the previous version of neutrality[16]. First, the Armén would receive the abovementioned investment in basic equipment, logistics, training and exercises, and anti-tank missiles, deployed mainly in Gotland. These measures will enable the Armén to withstand high intensity conflict with increased reconnaissance, armoured, mechanized, AA assets and other battalions and companies: battle tanks and combat vehicles are to be upgraded with AA mid-range missiles to be acquired too (Sweden’s Defence Policy 2016-2020, 2015).

The Flygvapnet and the Navy (Svenska Marinen) will receive additions as well. The Svenska Marinen would implement mid-life upgrades to 2 Gävle-class corvettes with additional corvettes of this class, 2 Gotland-class submarines, 7 patrol boats (4 to be fitted with SW capacities), and 2 Stockholm-class corvettes to be re-fitted as patrol boats. New anti-submarine light torpedoes and helicopters, more crews, a new SIGINT vessels and 2 new submarines would be added. The Flygvapnet will receive 4 Wings enhancing all-time readiness, an air transport squadron, and air combat control and air surveillance battalions, and a new helicopter Wing (which would reinforce Svenska Marinen and the Armén with ASW and transport, respectively), would be activated. Trainers would serve alongside fighter in wartime, with the latter increasing in number of units to be received – reaching a total of 70 units. The AA capacities would be increased by fitting the Saab J39 Gripen with missiles – and short and medium range AA missiles (Sweden’s Defence Policy 2016-2020, 2015; Tirpak, 2017).

And as a last, recruitment is to be re-established. This has the purpose of increasing retention of soldiers and personnel and to increase social support. The reserve system is to be restored too, focusing on a cost-effective system by high quality training. Interestingly, a dual volunteer-conscript system was considered (Sweden’s Defence Policy 2016-2020, 2015).

Some steps have materialized or are in the verge of, with some unspecified additions that could benefit the Försvarsmakten. For instance, the main Swedish submarine builder might fit the new A26 submarines with vertical launchers capable of firing Tomahawk cruise missiles, or installing them in vessels to receive mid-life upgrades. Although not openly mentioned for Sweden, it would be no surprise if it receives those submarines with the new weapons systems or even those currently in service; it must be reminded that acquiring long-range strike capacities is one aim[17].

Moreover, Sweden will increase military spending. Defence budget would be of additional 8.1 billion kronor for national defence, alongside an annual increase of 2.1 billion kronor. Conscription will be indeed re-established with troops deployed in Gotland and becoming closer to NATO, yet not ready to join the Alliance (Reuters, 2017)[18]. An additional deal to invest in defence took place, with 6.8 billion kronor for the Försvarsmakten, and 1.3 billion kronor for the Civil Defence. this to increase the former’s capacities by purchasing new vehicles and ammunition, increasing available positions in officer education and training, and receiving more soldiers. These steps could benefit cooperation abroad (The Local Sweden, 2017).

Yet while the reforms were clearly harmful for Sweden’s defence, by no means it means new assets wouldn’t be received. While not as extensively produced, new assets and weapons systems were introduced in the post-Cold War period. Many were product of developments during the Cold War while others were brand new. All were optimized to fulfil the new operational tasks and conventional defence. The most remarkable, being the spearhead of Sweden’s defence is the Saab JAS 39 Gripen, developed in the late 70’s to replace older platforms such as the J 37 and the J 35, and in service since 1995, being a capable multi-mission platform receiving upgrades and updates. The Saab 340 AEW&C (S 100B ARGUS) tasked with electronic surveillance and early warning was introduced in 1997. The Armén received important new combat vehicles, chief among them the Stridsvagn 122 (a Leopard 2 partially made in Sweden) and the CV-90 infantry combat vehicle and CV-90-120 light tank. The Svenska Marinen modernized and re-fitted the Stockholm and Göteborg class corvettes (retiring 2 of them after the Cold War) for operations abroad, being deployed off the Lebanese coast during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War and in the anti-piracy operations off the Somalian coast in 2009. The new generation stealth Visby class corvette was also introduced from 2002 to 2015 (5 units), providing Sweden with state-of-the-art surface combat systems. And Gotland class diesel-electric submarines, fitted with AIPS (air-independent propulsion system) were also introduced (Sharpe, 2001; Turner, 2003; Chant, 2006; Jackson, 2012).

NATO: to join or not to join? That’s the question

Since the end of the Cold War and especially today, in the light of Russian assertiveness, the question of joining NATO has been lingering in the air, involving the issue of neutrality and non-alignment. Yet it is clear that Sweden needs NATO as much as NATO needs Sweden. This is very true for Sweden, as its location has always made it vulnerable to Russia’s power, even more today due to three reasons: first, its location makes its especially vulnerable to Russian assertiveness. Second, any crisis in the Arctic will affect Sweden directly. And third, the Baltic sea is especially vulnerable, especially the island of Gotland, making it crucial for Sweden. This results in Sweden being of the middle of strategic triangle or arc, with Russia being a threatening factor against its three sides.

Sweden and NATO are no stranger to each other, since Sweden joined the PfP in 1994, and took part in many NATO post-Cold War interventions to develop its capabilities and ability to co-operate with NATO forces and partner countries, mainly for peace-support operations. Tensions with Russia have prompted NATO, Swedish and Finnish increased cooperation. Sweden is highly valued by NATO as it has provided important contributions and its location makes it very important for its security efforts (Aronsson, 2015; NATO, 2017). This could hint closer cooperation between Sweden and NATO for its defence and for securing the ‘Eastern flank’.

The US also values Sweden and its contribution for European security and stability. For instance, the US Army commander in Europe considers Gotland a strategically important point for countering Russia in the Baltics (The Local Sweden, 2017). Russia also has its evaluation on Sweden and NATO, being a negative one. For instance, Russia threatened military action if Sweden joins NATO as it considers such event a threatening encroachment. Sweden, as a result, declared her willingness to keep non-alignment, as it kept Sweden safe from threats[19]. But Sweden is facing a tragic situation, as Russian actions pushed Sweden closer to NATO and the US. And it seems the same US is contributing to this, as the current administration has casted doubts over cooperation agreements, of which Sweden has some with the US: Sweden might move closer to NATO as it needs security reassurances against Russia, although Sweden keeps insisting on staying out of NATO due to historical factors[20]. It seems that Sweden will have no choice but to join NATO, alongside the implementation of other security measures and policies.

In the light of this: what is the best course of action for Sweden then? Should it join NATO or remain by the sides? In fact, can Sweden remain by the sides in the light of the current crisis with Russia, or it will have to implement a new re-definition of neutrality, or to abandon it entirely? Will the proposed military modernizations suffice to protect Sweden? These questions and others will be answered in the last (analytical) part about Swedish neutrality.



[1] Interestingly, PfP was evaluated as a possible way onto NATO membership, though such remains very controversial. Nonetheless, it became crucial for the cooperative security approach, mainly by exercises, common standardization in equipment and other aspect with NATO Allies (Pashkov, 2009).

[2] In fact, the ‘humanitarian’ leg of Swedish foreign policies were kept and enhanced, with large flows of aid to developing countries, following Bergman (2004).

[3] However, neutrality as such was set aside following Sweden’s joining in the EU, as Bergman (2004) points out.

[4] Close cooperation with many EU countries’ defence industries was established, so to address an almost dependence on US-made equipment, and to acquire better equipment, according to von Sydow (1999).

[5] Cooperation is focused on 5 pillars: arms procurement, maritime surveillance, peace support, exchange of personnel and civilian crisis management. Defence structures were also harmonized, with Sweden fighting alongside Finland should it joins NATO (Vaahtoranta & Forsberg, 2000).

[6] Dialogues with Russia were taking place while there were concerns over the Baltics joining NATO, with Russia being considered a reduced threat yet a factor to be considered in the area, given the political instability then could have sparked a rise of nationalism, following Lindström (1997).

[7] In any case, Sweden supported the EU collective defence despite objections on collective defence, considering such a helpful tool against terrorism, and deeming the EU to have an integrated approach on defence with conflict prevention and peace support (Bergman, 2004).

[8] It was the second time Sweden took part in an intervention abroad using air assets like in Congo in the 60’s. 8 JAS 39 Gripens with more fighters for recce, and a C-130T transport airplane took part tasked with enforcing the no-fly zone, under PfP frameworks. See: Basset, 2012., and Göranson, 2012. Though Sweden ended its participation in NATO-led KFOR in 2013, three military advisors remain at the NATO Liaison and Advisory Team and the HQ of KFOR. In Afghanistan, it remains part of NATO Resolute Support Mission with advisory teams to the Afghan armed forces and support personal at the HQ in the north, a German hospital, and airfield and support units for troops. See: Mission of Sweden to NATO. (n.d.). Ongoing mission: RSM and KFOR. Sweden abroad. Retrieved from: http://www.swedenabroad.com/en-GB/Embassies/Nato/Sweden–PFP/Sweden-in-NATO-led-operations–sys/Ongoing-operations-RSM-and-KFOR-sys/ on 02.11.2017

[9] Defence industry and integration with industries of the UK, Spain, Italy, Germany and France take place since then, focusing on R&D and capability creation. See: Pashkov, 2009.

[10] Sweden remained there until 2014, leading the northern provinces PRTs after being present initially in Kabul, using civilian and military assets – including heavy ones – while engaging the Taliban; it sought to provide stability and development and humanitarian support (Göranson, 2012; Sweden In Afghanistan, 2017).

[11] The needed assistance could be problematic, as it can spark Russian retaliation or a pre-emptive strike, since Sweden could be used by NATO as a base for supporting the Baltics. But NATO stated in 2012 it would not responsible for non-allies’ security, with Norway stating a similar thing, according to Gotkowska (2013).

[12] It is noteworthy to remind how Russia was evaluated after the Cold War. See footnote 6.

[13] The most remarkable cooperation agreement is that with Finland, considering both nations are the most directly affected by Russian threats, and that both are neutrals or non-aligned nations. Established in 2013, it is aimed at improving security in the region and a better and more cost-efficient use of resources and defence related aspects, as well as to increase interoperability and joint action both home and abroad. Training and exercises, air and maritime surveillance and possible use of basic infrastructure are the tools for this cooperation, which could seek to develop a Finnish-Swedish Naval Task group to be operational by 2023, increased interoperability between the Swedish Air Force and the Finnish Air Force – mainly on joint operation capacity, common base operations and common Command and Control – and a joint Finnish – Swedish Brigade. See: Government Offices of Sweden. (2015). Defence Cooperation between Sweden and Finland. Government Offices of Sweden. Retrieved from: http://www.government.se/government-policy/defence/defence-cooperation-between-finland-and-sweden/ on 01.11.2017.

[14] That cooperation would have a regional, national defence and planning for wartime scenarios focusing, plus a global insight. The Baltics are important for Sweden’s defence strategy, according the Sweden’s Defence Policy 2016-2020 (2015).

[15] This is useful to fight hybrid warfare and propaganda and cyber-threats, as they could hamper Sweden to have autonomous foreign and defence policies.

[16] Interestingly, a joint forces approach is a main scope, stimulating cooperation between services, enhancing interoperability and flexibility, adaptability and responsiveness.

[17] See: Yeo, M. (2017). Saab A26 submarine gets vertical launched Tomahawks. Defensenews. Retrieved from: http://www.defensenews.com/air/2017/05/17/saab-a26-submarine-gets-vertical-launched-tomahawks/ on 14.10.2017

[18] Conscription was retrieved due to the increasing insecurity around Sweden making readiness a must, and as the volunteer system was not giving enough personnel. The result will be a mixture of volunteer and conscript. US conditioned support to NATO, strong public support and concerns over Baltics security also prompted this retrieval, according to Roden (2017) and the Government Offices of Sweden (2017).

[19] See: Gutteridge, N. (2017). ‘A threat that must be eliminated’ Putin’s chilling message to Sweden over NATO membership. Sunday Express. Retrieved from: http://www.express.co.uk/news/politics/813166/NATO-Russian-president-Vladimir-Putin-chilling-threat-Sweden-join-alliance on 29.10.2017

[20] See: Milne, R. (2016). Swedes Ponder Joining NATO as Trump Presidency Focuses Minds. Atlantic Council. Retrieved from: http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/natosource/swedes-ponder-joining-nato-as-trump-presidency-focuses-minds on 29.10.2017



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Hendrickson, R. C. (2013). Sweden: a NATO special partner? NATO Review. Partners – who needs them? Retrieved from: http://www.nato.int/docu/review/2013/Partnerships-NATO-2013/Sweden-partnerships/EN/index.htm on 21.10.2017

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Ugwukah, A. (2015). Neutrality as Foreign Policy Principle: A Historical Evaluation of Swedish Posture. Historical Research Letters 17, 27-42. Retrieved from: http://www.iiste.org/Journals/index.php/HRL/article/view/20141 on 16.10.2016

Vaahtoranta, T. & Forsberg, T. (2000). Post-Neutral or Pre-Allied? Finnish and Swedish Policies on the EU and NATO as Security Organizations. UPI Working Papers (29), 2-43. Retrieved from: https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/19260/WP29.pdf on 16.10.2016

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Midway: When the Airplane Sank an Empire (Part IIIb)

Image: ‘80-G-7878’ by National Museum of the U.S. Navy. Released under Public Domain Mark 1.0 License

Destination: Fate. The battle.

The pilot detects his target: there it lies, a visible warship beneath his SBD Dauntless dive-bomber wings, having a remarkable wide red circle at its deck. He also realizes that there are no enemy fighters to stop them. He decides to attack, and orders his squadron to attack the warships and other similar ones that were also detected. The planes dive towards their targets while facing as only opposition the Japanese flak. In a full display of bravery, they execute their attack with determination and cold blood. When they are flying away from the enemy fleet, the leave 3 Japanese main aircraft carriers in flames, doomed to lie until the end of times at the bottom of the sea. but not only the Japanese carriers are doomed, as the attack shatters the aims of Japan to be the dominant power in the Pacific. The brave US Navy pilots changed a war and History with a dozen of planes and bombs.

Midway is among the most decisive and great naval battles in History, like the battles of Salamis, Lepanto, the defeat of the Spanish ‘Invincible Armada’, Trafalgar and Jutland/Skagerrak. Yet the Battle of Midway stands for being the first decisive battle where the airplane and the aircraft carrier decided the outcome of a battle – and even a war[1]. This naval battle basically represents the rise of a new type of warship, which back then was received with mixed assessments and serious doubts, and faced the opposition of those preferring the battleship over those that envisioned the aircraft carrier as a decisive weapon, displaced the battleship as the capital ship, according to Crawford (2001).

As it was reviewed in the first part, Midway became important as it allowed the US to guard the routes going to the east towards Hawaii, guarding also these islands, the naval base of Pearl Harbour and the American Pacific coast. It was also important for supporting any operations with the air and naval base placed there, being also a relay station for a trans-Pacific submarine cable connecting Hawaii and the Philippines. For Japan, it was valuable a prize to win, as it would allow the Japanese Navy to reach Hawaii and the continental US, providing also a shield to operations – and conquests – in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific. It would provide also a platform for naval power projection to neutralize US efforts.

Considering these factors, it was a matter of time for Midway to become the scenario for an epic and decisive battle between two regional hegemons, that decided the fate of the Pacific War and of two great – naval powers. And it was the scenario where History would be changed, being the zenith of the geopolitical competition unleashed by the US and Japan, and the ultimate clash between Leviathans. And just like the encounter between the two gigantic mythological creatures, the seas (and the world) would shake tremendously.

A haunting air raid and a prelude

The Battle of Midway was preceded by another battle roughly a month, often shadowed by the Battle of Midway, which prevents people to realize the importance of this preceding battle: the Battle of Coral Sea. This battle is important as it meant an opportunity for both contending navies to have a brief and preparatory encounter, all under a set of naval operations that reinforced or diminished their operational capacities of either side, or simply pushed to commit all. And even this battle made one of the sides to have a wrong assessment of its opponent, which would be decisive in Midway.

As it was aforementioned, the Battle of Coral Sea was the very first naval encounter where the aircraft carriers became the main warship of choice, where direct contact between both fleets did not take place except the embarked naval planes. The battleship also played no significant role here (Canales & del Rey, 2016; Cau, 2011).

The battles of Midway and Coral Sea were possible thanks to an apparently unrelated event that would prove crucial for the Pacific War. This event was the air raid by Major “Billy” Mitchel against Tokyo and other cities 18th of April, 1942[2]. This air attack, performed by a mere dozen of B-25 Mitchell medium bombers which was at first mocked by the Japanese press, managed to instil fear and insecurity in the Japanese high command and main admirals. First, it managed to highlight the vulnerability of Japanese cities to American air power. Second, doubts were casted over the established Pacific security zone. As a result, many concluded that the bombers couldn’t have taken off from aircraft carriers given their size, but rather from an airbase in an island. As Midway became the obvious answer to this question, Yamamoto and the Japanese Imperial Navy considered necessary to seize Midway to prevent further similar attacks. It was also necessary to meet other objectives in China and near Australia so to stop renewed ‘hit-and-run’ American, and cut supply lines between the US and Australia. The Japanese were conscious of the value of Australia as a forward base for the US to retake the Pacific, along with the fact that General Mac Arthur was actually based there, hence the importance of isolating it (Dahms, 1974; Gibelli, 1972; Murray & Millet, 2005; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969; Thomas, 2007).

The ‘Operation MO’ was hence devised, aiming at attacking the Tulagi, the Salomon Islands and Port Moresby; with New Caledonia, Fiji and Samoa to be targeted so to besiege Australia. The Japanese Imperial Navy advanced towards the targeted areas, dividing its forces, but unaware that the US Navy was ready thanks to its intelligence services. The Battle of Coral Sea started in consequence: when the Japanese seized Tulagi, the USS Yorktown attacked, while the USS Lexington attacked the Japanese convoy. After this, the Japanese decided to look for the American aircraft carriers to no avail, as both fleets were not able to detect each other. Mistaken sightings by both sides, whose planes thought they detected the main fleets, led to ineffective attacks and sinking of tankers and destroyers mistaken for battleships and aircraft carriers (Gibelli, 1972, Canales y del Rey, 2016).

At a point, both fleets detected each other, unleashing the first aircraft carrier battle in History: The Japanese carriers Shoho, Zuikaku and Shokaku fought the US carriers USS Lexington and USS Yorktown. The result of the battle is hard to determine at first sight, as the US Navy clearly took a comparatively hard rate of losses, by losing the USS Lexington and having the USS Yorktown severely damaged, considering the US Navy was short of aircraft carriers. The Japanese managed to weak the US Navy further, yet they missed an opportunity to destroy the US naval forces deployed thanks to the indecision by the Japanese commanding officer to pursue the American warships. This mistake would have severe consequences for the Japanese in Midway[3]. But the Japanese suffered the loss of the light aircraft carrier Shoho, and with the Zuikaku and the Shokaku having lost most of their air wings, hence being neutralized, even more as the last one suffered heavy damages. Tactically, the Japanese were clearly victorious. But in a strategic sense, the Americans managed to ward off Japan and to neutralize its aims of landing in New Guinea and block Australia, as Japanese air superiority was neutralized and the landings were forced to be cancelled (Cau, 2011; Canales & del Rey, 2016; Dahms, 1974; Gibelli, 1972; Murray & Millet, 2005; Ralby, 2013; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969). That is one of the important elements the Battle of Coral Sea had.

Yet there were other factors behind this battle’s importance for the Battle of Midway. For instance, the battle provided the US Navy with an opportunity to implement operational and tactical lessons learned at the ‘hit-and-run’ limited operations implemented in the islands of Wake, Rabaul and New Britain; and to test its strategy to fight the Japanese. It also benefited the US Navy by providing enhanced knowledge over its adversary, which would be crucial for the incoming battle. And as a last, the fact that two Japanese aircraft carriers were neutralized, denying them to take part in Midway, allowed the US Navy to face the Yamamoto more easily, as the balance of power was slightly reduced. The outcome of the power would have been different if the Zuikaku and the Shokaku would have taken part in the Battle of Midway (Canales & del Rey, 2016; Gibelli, 1972).

Noteworthy to remark, that the intelligence played a vital role in this battle, the same way as it would do in the Battle of Midway, as it alerted Admiral Frank Fletcher bout the Japanese aims and intentions, prompting him to gather a naval force to thwart such plans at the north of Australia (Canales & del Rey, 2016; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969).

A Navy against the ropes

After the Battle of Coral Sea, and despite managing to dislodge and even neutralize the Japanese plans, the US Navy was in a bad shape to still face the Japanese on a head-on confrontation. It was already weakened after Pearl Harbour and the aforementioned battle further weakened it, thus facing the adversary in inferiority of conditions, having only 4 aircraft carriers in contrast to 10 of the Japanese. Yet it must be reminded that the fast repair of the USS Yorktown made it to be the 4th carrier, while absence of the the Zuikaku and the Shokaku, and the loss of the Shoho meant the Japanese were having 7 aircraft carriers in reality. In any case, even the two task forces assembled by Admiral Nimitz to face the Japanese Imperial Navy, the Task force 16 and the Task Force 17, were very small and having scarce assets. For instance, Task Force 16 was comprised by the USS Enterprise and USS Hornet, 6 cruisers and 11 destroyers; Task Force 17 was comprised by the USS Yorktown, 2 cruisers and 6 destroyers[4]. Both forces were very small in contrast to the total force deployed by Japan in Midway and their supporting operations: 9 battleships, 5 aircraft carriers (one was a light carrier), 14 cruisers, 32 destroyers, 21 submarines and 700 airplanes (Canales & del Rey, 2016; Cau, 2011; Macdonald, 1993; Murray & Millet, 2005; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969).

Clearly, the US Navy was facing a dire situation, as it was at absolute disadvantage and facing a very resolved enemy willing to use his naval superiority to destroy its opponents, and expanding further while consolidating its advances. But as the US Navy was between the wall and the sword, it began to learn how to deal with the sword. Following Gibelli (1972) and Murray & Millet (2005), the US Navy began to wage some limited but important counterattacks in the islands of Wake, Rabaul and New Britain; at these operations, the US Navy learned how to match the Japanese naval and army aircraft. Also, the US Navy numerical inferiority was compensated by two important elements: the quality of the command, in the person of Admiral Nimitz, and the excellent intelligence service that gave a hint about the Japanese plans. As it was reviewed in the previous part, all of these factors were decisive in the Battle of Midway.

The Encounter: A Chess at the Seas

Operations at Midway were part of the general aforementioned plan by the Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, so to tackle the American limited ‘hit-and-run’ type operations, including the ‘Doolittle Raid’ over Tokyo. As a result, the Imperial Navy would advance towards Midway to seize this valuable strategic outpost, and to destroy the US Navy aircraft carriers by ambushing them into a decisive encounter. The aims were to further secure the territories and resources recently seized, but also to seize Hawaii and seeks a beneficial armistice, destroying also the US naval power before its industrial might would change the balance of power. Hence, an amphibious force would take Midway, placed at the reserve force and under Yamamoto’s direct command, which included battleships like the famous Yamato. The advance would be in three axis of advance: a fleet under Admiral Chuichi Nagumo’s command would attack Midway, having the bulk of the aircraft carriers; another fleet under Admiral Boshogiro Hosogaya’s command would execute the diversion attack against the Aleutians; and a reserve fleet under Admiral Nobutaka Kondo’s command having a couple of aircraft carriers and battleships, which would seize Midway after the US Navy destruction (Canales & del Rey, 2016; Cau, 2011; Dahms, 1974; Gibelli, 1972; Macdonald, 1993; Murray & Millet, 2005; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1974)[5].

The Japanese were positive that the plan would work and that they would be facing a very weakened enemy, as they thought they would be facing only two aircraft carriers and a navy diminished in firepower, heavily affected by the series of defeats prior the battle, sailing towards battle in full overconfidence. Little they knew that the Americans were not only ready to face Japan on an intelligent manner, but also that they were having a third, unexpected carrier: the same USS Yorktown the Japanese thought it was sunk at Coral Sea, as it was quickly repaired and put back into service. First, Admiral Nimitz was already informed of Japanese intentions and plans thanks to the intelligence services, being able to devise a proper answer while setting his own counter-trap and creating two task forces: 16 and 17, the former having the USS Enterprise and the USS Hornet under Spruance command, and the later having the Yorktown and under command of Fletcher. The surprise factor was lost for the Japanese as their plans were discovered, while advancing in confidence (Canales & del Rey, 2016; Cau, 2011; Dahms, 1974; Macdonald, 1993; Murray & Millet, 2005; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969; Shepherd, 2003; Thomas, 2007).

Nimitz’s was prepared to face the Japanese and not to fall on their deception at the Aleutians, mainly thanks to the work of the intelligence services that deciphered the Japanese code, denying the Japanese the element of surprise. His sixth sense contributed to prepare the US Navy to face the Japanese more efficiently, as he ignored the fleet of Hosogaya when a scout plane detected it, judging correctly that it was a diversionary attack and not the main advance force. He also suggested Fletcher and Spruance to take advantage of Midway as a ‘fourth carrier’ impossible to sink and reinforced with further airplanes and AA defences, advising them to concentrate on taking the Japanese aircraft carrier while avoiding the Japanese battleships. This evidences Nimitz’s – correct – recognition of the potential the aircraft carrier-based aircraft attacks groups to counter the Japanese (Cau, 2011; Dahms, 1974; Murray & Millet, 2005; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969).

The battle began at 4th of June 1942 with two simultaneous events: first, the attack made by around 100 Japanese planes departing from all the 4 Japanese aircraft carriers against Midway at 0430 hours, that destroyed deposits and facilities but failed in neutralizing the base entirely, as the airstrips were left mostly intact and all the base airplanes were able to strike back[6]. Second, the sighting of the Japanese fleet some 1,125 km southeast off Midway by a PBY-40 Catalina at 0552 hours. After Midway was bombed by the Japanese, the American launched a series of counter attacks between 0705 and 0837 hours; this was the second stage of the battle, with the Midway-based airplanes trying to attack the Japanese aircraft carrier fleet to no avail, falling victims of the Japanese AA and fighters[7]. Another air attack at 0920 by the US Navy followed, having the same results yet forcing Nagumo to change the position of his aircraft carriers; this attack also gave Nagumo a hint on the American aircraft carriers position. This situation made the Americans to look for the Japanese aircraft carriers, which were detected by mere chance: when the American airplanes where returning from another unsuccessful attack, they spotted a lone Japanese warship, which led them into the bulk of the Japanese fleet as they decided to follow it. At the same time, Japanese scout planes detected the American aircraft carriers (Canales & del Rey, 2016; Cau, 2011; Dahms, 1974; Gibelli, 1972; Macdonald, 1993; Murray & Millet, 2005; Pacific War Historical Society, n.d.; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969).

The third stage of the battle began when the US Navy launched another attack against the Japanese aircraft carrier from all the three aircraft carriers between 1020 and 1022 hours, though uncoordinated and with some airplanes – especially the torpedo-bombers and the fighters – nearly wiped out by the Japanese AA defences and fighters once again. This time, however, the attack would be benefited by three factors, thus being the decisive one. First, the combination of good luck for the Americans along (and due to) the mistakes of Nagumo. As it was reviewed in the previous section, Nagumo ordered the aircraft carriers to give priority to the planes coming from the attack against Midway, yet being undecided on the type of armament to install on the reserve planes. Midway was not entirely neutralized thus a new attack was deemed necessary, while his subordinates were advising an attack against the recently detected American fleet[8]. Nagumo then changed his mind, but only after 40 precious minutes were lost after the scout managed to confirm the composition of the US fleet, after detecting it at 0728 hours[9]. Second, the previous American attacks against the Japanese aircraft carriers forced their fighters to fly at low altitude and to be on low fuel and ammunition; this allowed the SBD-3 Dauntless dive-bombers to find no opposition and to reach their targets undetected until it was too late for the Japanese. These planes managed to destroy the best of the Japanese aircraft carrier fleet and the Japanese aim of expansion, changing the course of the war, as the Kaga, the Akagi and the Soryu were destroyed[10]. And third, Spruance’s initiative and aggressiveness that actually set most of the American attacks against the Japanese fleet: this attitude allowed the Americans to exploit their assets thus achieving an impressive victory (Canales & del Rey, 2016; Cau, 2011; Dahms, 1974; Gibelli, 1972; Macdonald, 1993; Murray & Millet, 2005; Pacific War Historical Society, n.d.; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969).

The fourth stage of the battle was when the Japanese decided to strike back against the USS Yorktown from the surviving aircraft carrier Hiryu with two attacks between 1054 and 1245 hours, after receiving the shocking information that they were facing not two but three aircraft carriers, including the USS Yorktown. They inflicted several damages to the American aircraft that ended in sinking it, along with a torpedo fired by a Japanese submarine that sentenced the ship, which sank at 0458 hours of the 7th of June[11]. This, however, would be a very short lived victory for the Japanese, as the US Navy counterattacked with the planes of the USS Hornet and the USS Enterprise, sinking the Hiryu at 1703 hours. After these events, both fleets tried to detect each other to no avail, with Yamamoto resolved to destroy the US Navy remaining aircraft carriers and Midway’s base with his battleships and cruisers, failing in that purpose as well. Both fleets withdrew from the scene. Yet adversity was not over for the Japanese yet, thanks to the decision of Takeo Kurita, commander of a small squadron of 4 cruisers and 2 destroyers tasked with shelling Midway, to sacrifice the cruisers Mikuma and Mogami that collided during the night while escaping from a US submarine that detected it. This submarine directed the embarked airplanes to attack them, sinking the Mikuma and heavily damaging the Mogami by the 5th of June. The Japanese left Midway in full shock after losing 4 of their main and best aircraft carriers, along 275 aircraft and 3,500 skilled sailors and aviators to an adversary having fewer units, and having in comparison fewer losses: the USS Yorktown, 1 cruiser, 1 destroyer, 50 airplanes and 307 men (Canales & del Rey, 2016; Cau, 2011; Dahms, 1974; Gibelli, 1972; Macdonald, 1993; Murray & Millet, 2005; Pacific War Historical Society, n.d.; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969; Shepherd, 2003; Thomas, 2007).

Yet the Japanese were reluctant to accept defeat. Following Dahms (1974), the Japanese still considered possible to win the war and to recover from the hit received at Midway. But such optimistic assessment was met with the crude nature of reality, as the defeat imprinted a heavy psychological impact in the Japanese military. Despite of the fact it was still having superiority in quantity and quality of naval and air assets, in reality, the losses were heavier for Japan: it lost the best air and naval assets it had, which were hard to replace given the mentioned system in the previous part, the lack of enough skilled pilots and instructors, and the lack of enough resources to replace the material losses[12]. This was worsened by the fact that a fast and decisive victory was not achieved, dooming Japan to wage a long war it could not sustain. Even worse, the initiative was now in the hands of the US, as the Japanese shifted to a mere defensive stance, being reluctant to face the US Navy in a direct encounter until the epic and massive Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944. Yamamoto also lost support for new daring and risky operations, and the Imperial Navy doomed to gradually retreat and lose territory – and warships – to the United States, as it lost its supremacy at sea and became unable to advance further at sea. Japan’s stubbornness in trying to establish bases remained as they tried to establish bases in Guadalcanal: the upcoming long battle there would finish what the battles of Coral Sea and Midway achieved (Canales & del Rey, 2016; Cau, 2011; Gibelli, 1972; Murray & Millet, 2005; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969).

The Battle of Midway proved to be very decisive for the war between the United States and Japan, as it changed the course in a definitive way, at the point that at least in the Pacific Ocean, it made Japan to retreat and lose territory to US advance, being a long and steady decline of the Japanese Empire that ended in its ultimate defeat. For the United States, Midway meant its consolidation as the main Pacific power, along the point in which it was able to stop the advance of an enemy that had the upper hand in the earlier phases of the war. Yet after Midway, the US had a long way to bring the Japanese Empire down and become the hegemonic nation in the Pacific. Nevertheless, Midway was a decisive victory for the US Navy that allowed the American industrial might to give the US the assets to emerge victorious. The eagle simple emerged victorious after the battle.



[1] Of course, Midway was not the first battle of aircraft carriers: the first one where these vessels were used, was in the Battle of Coral sea, whose outcome also contributed in the outcome of the Battle of Midway, as it will be explained below.

[2] Following Dahms (1974), the ‘Doolitle Raid’ also prompted Japan to reject proposals of common operations by Germany and Italy.

[3] The Japanese thought that both US aircraft carriers were sunk, as the USS Yorktown was badly damaged. This optimistic assessment led to miscalculations that led to overconfidence by Yamamoto and ultimately, his defeat at Midway (Gibelli, 1972).

[4] Canales & del Rey (2016) point out that the US was having only 19 submarines available for the battle.

[5] Noteworthy to point out that, as the Japanese were not having the Radar like America, they had to resort to submarines to detect the American aircraft carriers. This was another disadvantage as the submarines were in position with some delay, as well as the main force of Yamamoto (Gibelli, 1972; Macdonald, 1993).

[6] At the same time, a scout plane was launched from the cruiser Tone; this plane would detect the American fleet and become the eyes of Nagumo. See: Pacific War Historical Society, (n.d.). and: Canales & del Rey, (2016).

[7] This first counterattack was possible also by the fact the aircraft were ordered to either disperse or to become airborne and to counterattack or meet the Japanese attack. See: Pacific War Historical Society, (n.d.).

[8] The inability to neutralize Midway was a result of Nagumo’s decision to arm some of the planes with torpedoes, in fear of encountering US naval forces, following (Canales & del Rey, 2016).

[9] These changing decisions had as a result that the ammunition was not correctly stored, but rather scattered in the hangars as well as on the flight decks, which were also full of planes; this fact alone maximized the effects of the bombs dropped by the SBD-3 Dauntless. See: Canales & del Rey (2016), Murray & Millet (2005), and: Macdonald (1993).

[10] The Hiryu was spared because at that very moment it was sailing in a more advanced position than the other carriers, following the Pacific War Historical Society, (n.d.)

[11] Interestingly, and according to Pacific War Historical Society, (n.d), the Japanese were not aware that they were attacking the USS Yorktown for a second time.

[12] In fact, and following Dahms (1974), Japan only managed to build 2 new aircraft carriers to cover the losses, while the US was able to build 6 main aircraft carriers plus 19 escort aircraft carriers.



Canales, C. &., del Rey, M. (2016). De Salamina a las Malvinas. Madrid, Spain: Editorial EDAF.

Cau, P. (2011). Batallas del Mundo. [Battaglie, Maria Pilar Queralt, trans.]. Madrid, Spain: Editorial Tikal (Original work published in 2006).

Crawford, S. (2001). Portaaviones y Acorazados [Battleships and Carriers, José Luis Tamayo, & L. Martín, trans.]. Madrid, Spain: Editorial LIBSA (Original work published in 1999).

Dahms, H. G. (1974). La Segunda Guerra Mundial. [Das Zweiten Weltkrieg, Victor Scholz, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Editorial Bruguera (Original work published in 1963).

Gibelli, N. J. (1972). La guerra se aproxima Australia. In La Segunda Guerra Mundial (Vol.4. pp. 97–120). Buenos Aires, Argentina: Editorial Codex.

________________. Victoria estadounidense en Midway. In La Segunda Guerra Mundial (Vol. 2. pp. 121-144). Buenos Aires, Argentina: Editorial Codex.

Macdonald, J. (1993). Grandes Batallas de la II Guerra Mundial (pp. 64 – 71). [Great Battles of World War II, Luis Ogg, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Ediciones Folio (Original work published in 1993).

Murray, W. & Millet, A. R. (2005). La guerra que había que ganar [A War to be Won, Critica S.L, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Critica. (Original work published in 1998).

Pacific War Historical Society. (n.d.). Battle of Midway – Events of 4 of June 1942 (Morning). Retrieved from: http://www.pacificwar.org.au/Midway/June4.AM.html on 20.05.2017

_____________________________. The Midway Counter-attack on the Nagumo Carrier Force. Retrieved from: http://www.pacificwar.org.au/Midway/Midway_attacks.html on 20.05.2017

_____________________________. Vice Admiral Nagumo Feels the Pressure of American Air Attacks from Midway. Retrieved from: http://www.pacificwar.org.au/Midway/Nagumo_under_pressure.html on 20.05.2017

_____________________________. The Search for Nagumo’s Carriers. Retrieved from: http://www.pacificwar.org.au/Midway/June4.AM2.html on 20.05.2017

_____________________________. The Tide of Battle Turns at Midway. Retrieved from: http://www.pacificwar.org.au/Midway/June4.AM3.html on 20.05.2017

_____________________________. Battle of Midway – Events of 4 of June 1942 (Afternoon). Retrieved from: http://www.pacificwar.org.au/Midway/June4.PM.html on 20.05.2017

_____________________________. Battle of Midway – Events of 5 and 6 June 1942. Retrieved from: http://www.pacificwar.org.au/Midway/June5_6.html on 20.05.2017

Ralby, A. (2013). Atlas of Military History: from Antiquity to the Present Day. Bath, UK: Parragon Books.

Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe. (1969). Los primeros cañonazos. In Historia de la Segunda Guerra Mundial (Vol.I, pp. 39–79). [Eyewitness History of World War II, Editorial Marin, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Editorial Marin. (Original work published in 1969).

Shepherd, J. (2003). 1942. In USS Enterprise CV-6. Retrieved from: http://www.cv6.org/1942/1942.htm on 15.01.2017

Thomas, E. (2007). Mar de tormenta. La última gran campaña naval de la historia [Sea of Thunder. Four Commanders and the Last Great Naval Campaign 1941-1945, Critica S.L, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Critica. (Original work published in 2006).

Midway: When the Airplane Sank an Empire (Part IIIa)

Image: ‘NL82GA Douglas Dauntless’ by Paul Nelhams. Released under Creative Commons Attribution- ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) License.


A clash of Leviathans

Naval warfare is very different than land or air warfare in many aspects. Mainly, direct encounters are in general at distance and can take considerable periods of time, moreover when new weaponry with longer range were introduced. And this difference with land warfare was little at least in ancient times, were naval encounters involved direct, hand-to-hand combat. Yet there are some exceptions, as many land and air battles have taken a long period of time, like sieges to fortresses or the Battle of Verdun, and the Battle of England, to name a few.

Another difference is that – in this regard is quite similar to air warfare – the same dimension in which it develops means that it can take at one specific location or at a large extension of water, let alone that the geographical and maritime characteristics of the seas must be considered. This applies to the immediate scenario and also to the more strategic scenario (a large portion of a sea or ocean). This means that naval battles can take from tens or hundreds of kilometres, something true as naval weaponry increases its range and that there are air assets devised for naval purposes. In addition, and in a more modern context, naval warfare requires consideration from sea, submarine and air-based threats, having a ‘tri-dimensional’ essence. Even land-based (and any land feature) threats might be considered if operations require a close presence to land-masses.

Another important characteristic of naval warfare are the types of assets it requires. This might sound obvious, yet it must be reminded that naval assets are scarce – and with high costs – that requires a very careful planning, else loses will have high implications with warships not that easily replaceable. The Battles of Santiago and Manila Bay, mentioned in the previous sections, are just a few examples among many. But there is another reason: following Crawford (2001), battleships and aircraft carriers are the symbol of a nation’s naval power, ambition and wealth. It must be reminded that WWII was a war of battleships and carriers, meaning that they were not only the main naval strategic assets, but the clearest exemplification of a nation’s prestige, whose losing or maximization meant a great difference between long-term victory and/or short-term defeat.

Basically, that naval warfare can be compared to the Chinese game of Go, for it means that controlling important parts of the sea provides strategic advantage and access to resources and valuable trade shipping lanes, or the possibility to ‘strangle’ the enemy, like the blockade against the German Empire during WWI evidences. Deception plays a far more crucial role here.

But naval warfare shares similar characteristics with the other types of warfare. It is equally affected by the fog of war, it requires careful and skilful preparation, the need to design good strategies and tactics. Only that the position of the enemy is far harder to guess or to know, along with the quantity of its assets deployed, and a threat from the air or under the surface are both a constant risk.

The Battle of Midway is one example of all the abovementioned characteristics of naval warfare and its rather particular conditions. A review on the strengths, assets and main strategic and operational doctrines of the adversaries might help in comprehending not only the nature of naval warfare, but also to understand why the Battle of Midway had the outcome it had, despite some similarities between both contending navies. Also, the Battle of Midway was the decisive encounter that marked the culmination of the geopolitical competence – and open conflict – between Japan and the United States.

The Weapons:

The Battle of Midway witnessed the conjugation 4 important weapons and assets that played a crucial role in defining its outcome, at the point of being all crucial to one of the contenders’ plans, even helping them to detect the aims and intentions of their counterpart. These elements, no other than the aircraft carrier and the naval aviation, the intelligence and the commanding skills of the admirals, captains, officers and commanders, they were crucial in defining the outcome of the battle.

The aircraft carrier

The aircraft carriers were developed at a large extent by the main powers after the Great War: The British Empire, the Japanese Empire and the United States. Its development was possible mainly by developments in aviation and in the payload that required readapting air assets. The HMS Furious, HMS Argus and HMS Hermes by the British Navy, and the Hosho by the Japanese, were the first of these vessels[1]. During the interwar period and by WWII, the aircraft carriers were enhanced to the point of allowing aviation to execute long-range attacks, outdating the battleships; the attacks on Pearl Harbour by Japan, the air raid against the Italian Navy base Taranto, and the sinking of the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse by Japanese torpedo-planes and bombers were a confirmation of their benefits over the battleship. The aircraft carriers simply meant a redefinition of naval warfare (Cau, 2011; Canales & del Rey, 2016; Crawford, 2001; Bergamino & Palitta, 2014).

However, and curiously, the Royal Navy did not give the same importance to the aircraft carrier despite the valuable experiences it had during WWI with this type of warship, being rather conservative and considering the battleship as the main assets for naval power, and despite having nearly a dozen of aircraft carriers. For instance, after the RAF was created, the naval aviation fell under its control and had a last position in priority, and there was a lack of admirals with knowledge on airpower. This made the British Empire to fall behind the development of the aircraft carrier and related tactics (Murray & Millet, 2005). As a result, the United States and Japan became the main nations in aircraft carrier development, as it will be reviewed below.

Midway was a battle of aircraft carriers, where the results of years of efforts by both the US and Japan were evidenced by two of the most remarkable American and Japanese aircraft carriers that took part. From the Japanese side, it was the Akagi, designed originally as a cruiser but later modified as a carrier due to the 1922 Washington Treaty, carrying 60 airplanes. It later received further modifications that gave its final ‘classical carrier-shape’ configuration, allowing her to carry heavier planes and lighter AA guns. This carrier was among the naval spearhead in both Midway and Pearl Harbour, being destroyed in the battle (Crawford, 2001).

From the American side, it was the USS Enterprise, which was the product of US interwar period designs and developments in aircraft carriers, allowing up to 96 planes, although the normal load was 90 warplanes. It became a prominent carrier from the Battle of Midway onwards, as it contributed to sink 3 of the 4 aircraft carriers deployed by Japan during the battle (Crawford, 2001; Shepherd, 2003).

The naval airplane

The airplane was another decisive weapon in Midway, as it ultimately defined the outcome of the battle. Like the aircraft carrier, it had a long and hard way to become an important asset in naval warfare, and it became the second factor behind the obsolescence of the battleships. Following Crawford (2001), by the turn of the 19th century, the airplane was foreseen as a capable and valuable naval weapon; in the light of this, the US Navy tested a plane to be used in a ship in 1911, with one landing in the USS Pennsylvania. The WWI and the 20’s witnessed a further development of the airplane, as it was used for reconnaissance and spotting. Even some airplanes, navally speaking, were used to explore, escort warships and chase for submarines (See: Livesey, 1993, p.142). But the crucial moment for naval aviation was the demonstration made by the then aviation Major “Billy” Mitchell, as he used an airplane to show its capacity to sink a battleship, by targeting the former Imperial German warship SMS Ostfriedland in 1921. The following year the first US carrier became operational (Crawford, 2001).

But the battleship old school was reluctant in accepting the rise of the aircraft carrier and naval aviation over the battleship, despite the evident potential both had. Nevertheless, attacks by both aircraft carriers and naval aviation during WWII, that resulted in the sinking of very armoured and armed battleships. As a result, naval strategists realized the need of air control to guarantee the survival of the battleships, relegating them as mere AA platforms of for shore bombing to support amphibious operations, especially by the US in the last half of the Pacific War (Crawford, 2001). Moreover, the importance of air power in naval strategy was made evident in many ways, like the US strategy against Japan: it had air power and air offensive as an organic part of its strategy against metropolitan Japan, going hand-to-hand with naval power (Murray & Millet, 2005).

It was naval air power what ultimately doomed the Japanese Empire and its aircraft carriers, turning the tide of the battle and of the war itself. A simple naval aircraft, the Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless dive-bomber was the plane that sunk an empire, defeating the Japanese and halting their advance. It was armed with 4X 12,7mm machineguns at the wings and a twin-mounted 7,62mm machine gun, it carried a 454kg or a 227kg bomb, with a couple of additional 114 or 57kg bombs mounted in the wings. It could reach speeds of up to 405 Km/h. It became one of the most decisive planes in WWII, contributing to the most decisive US naval victories despite of the fact it lacked the flying characteristics of other planes, and sinking many Japanese warships; Midway was a proof of its capacities (Berger, 2015; Cau, 2011; Chant, 2001; Macdonald, 1993).

The Intelligence

If Pearl Harbour was a product of a skilled intelligence service deployed by Japan, the Battle of Midway allowed the US to defeat the Japanese on this field, at the point of being the Battle of Midway a battle of aircraft carriers and a battle between the intelligence services of both nations.

But it was the US Naval intelligence service the one that had an important role in defining the outcome of the battle. First, the experience accumulated by US intelligence for 20 years, time in which it was able to intercept Japanese diplomatic and military messages, which was later on complemented by information gathered by submarines and airplanes doing reconnaissance. Second, the Japanese raid in the Indian Ocean had an equally crucial role as the ‘Doolittle Raid’, in the sense that it delayed for two months the Japanese changing of codes, enabling US intelligence services to intercept and decipher Japan’s messages (Canales & del Rey, 2016; Murray & Millet, 2005).

The support given by the British decipher services, was crucial for the US Navy intelligence could intercept a Japanese message mentioning an attack against a target denominated as “AF”. In addition, the naval intelligence service, by suggestion of Joseph Rochefort – and reportedly, Admiral Chester Nimitz, as he was positive the “AF” target was Midway – decided to confirm the meaning of “AF” by making Midway to deliver messages reporting any issue or novelties[2]. Midway mentioned a problem with the water supply, and later on a Japanese message was intercepted, reporting that “AF” was having issues with the water supplies. As a result, the Japanese objectives were detected and known, allowing the US Navy to disarticulate the Japanese plans of luring the US Navy into the Aleutians, as they planned a diversionary attack there, and keeping Midway safe. This also allowed Admiral Nimitz to devise a strategy to counter the Japanese plans against Midway and the US Navy (Canales & del Rey, 2016; Cau, 2011; Dahms, 1974; Macdonald, 1993; Gibelli, 1972; Ralby, 2013; Murray & Millet, 2005).

Japan also deployed its intelligence services prior the battle, only that it was defeated in the end, contributing in the sinking of the most valued Japanese carriers and the demise of the Japanese Empire. They set radio messages between positions in Japan and a fake fleet, so to cover Yamamoto’s fleet advance towards Midway. But as their codes were deciphered, the US Navy was able to set a counter-trap to both the Japanese Navy and the intelligence, fighting both back (Cau, 2011; Macdonald, 1993).

The Commanding factor

It is said that the human mind is one of the most powerful weapons in the world, and a weapon that any army could take advantage from. The role the Admirals and commanders had in the battle could validate this statement, as their decisions, capacity to design a strategy and even their formation were important in defining the outcome of the battle. And in a more general sense, it is the commander and admiral (or general), the one capable of defining and grouping tactical considerations, plans and doctrines for assets into an organic and comprehensive plan. His intuition, assessment and even capacity to guess the enemy plans, as well as to design an effective and clear response to such plans, can result in victory or defeat.

Of all the commanders involved in the battle, Admiral Chester Nimitz was the most remarkable. Not only he assessed correctly the place of the attack, having the valuable aid of the intelligence and despite Washington’s idea that it was Hawaii the real target, but he crafted the sound victory the American aircraft carriers had over their Japanese counterparts. This was due to his advice to his immediate subordinated commanders, Frank Fletcher and Raymond Spruance, on where to position their aircraft carriers and how to avoid the bulk of the Japanese force (Gibelli, 1972, Macdonald, 1993; Murray & Millet, 2005). But his contributions to victory took place even before the battle, as he kept all officers in their posts after Pearl Harbour, stating that a disaster like such would have happened to anyone, contributing to keep the morale and the combativeness spirit, following Macdonald (1993). It was his strategic and leaderships skills what contributed the most to make of Midway a remarkable victory despite having less assets than the enemy.

Spruance and Fletcher contributed to the American victory in Midway as well. According to Canales & del Rey (2016), Gibelli (1972) and Macdonald (1993), Spruance was capable of anticipating the enemy movements, having a very independent character that shaped his operational behaviour and that was exploited when ordered by Fletcher to attack, committing all and taking advantage of initiative while the Japanese where recovering their planes. This was also possible by his disregard for manuals and his decision to launch the attacks by waves, which were costly but effective. ‘Initiative’ is a word that would define briefly his character, and that initiative ended in maximizing the power of the aircraft carriers and the naval air arm. Fletcher, in turn, contributed in allowing Spruance to make use of his initiative and his operational behaviour.

On the Japanese side, Yamamoto and Nagumo were the most remarkable high and mid-level commanders, whose mistakes prior and during the battle doomed the Japanese Empire to defeat. Regarding Isoroku Yamamoto, he was very skilled and had the valuable input of knowing the Americans well, thus being able to assess them correctly. But Yamamoto went to battle full in overconfidence and underestimated the Americans, as he thought the US Navy was having only 2 aircraft carriers and that it would be weakened by the effects of previous defeats. He considered that Midway would be an astonishing victory, despite the fact that the damaged carriers from the previous battle (Coral Sea) were not repaired, and that he lacked the same amount information Nimitz had on the enemy forces. And that the US Navy was already on alert. Moreover, he made the wrong decision of choosing Chuichi Nagumo, as he was skilled in torpedo war but not for aircraft carrier operations (Canales & del Rey, 2016; Cau, 2011; Macdonald, 1993). He failed in not knowing well his enemy and underestimating it, this were his most terrible mistakes.

Yamamoto’s mistakes were of strategic nature, but Nagumo’s mistakes were of tactical nature. First of all, he decided to stick to the manuals, as Japanese manuals stated that half of the reserve planes was to be kept, while waiting for the first wave, so to send a full force. Second, he was undecided – given his age – thus freezing operations for a crucial amount of time after the US forces were spotted, and ordering various times a change of armament of the airplanes. The result were aircraft carriers’ decks full of planes, oil and ammunition, vulnerable to the hit of a single bomb. And third, he approved plans without careful analysis (Canales & del Rey, 2016; Macdonald, 1993).

The fleets:

The Fleet of the Rising Sun

As it was aforementioned, Japan and the US were the main nations in developing the aircraft carrier and tactics in the interwar period.

In fact, Japan gave priority to the aircraft carriers and naval aviation. This resulted in naval aviation personnel and assets to be very skilled and well-trained, just like the Navy, constituting an elite within the Japanese armed forces. Its fleet of 10 aircraft carriers were the core of the naval aviation, which was complemented by land-based naval aviation. This enabled Japan to gain impressive victories and conquests up until Midway (Cau, 2011; Kennedy, 2007; Murray & Millet, 2005).

The Japanese aircraft carrier was supported by other policies oriented at making the Navy a good instrument for materializing Japan’s strategic objectives, which was the third in rank and having the most skilled and capable personnel of all the services, being an elite and capable for night time combat. The warships were also very advanced and modern, built after Japan denounced the Washington Treaty, updating and enhancing their tactics, and creating also fast and well-armed new warships or simply modernizing old battleships (Murray & Millet, 2005)[3][4].

But the Japanese Navy and naval aviation were having four main drawbacks, that would have important incidence in the Battle of Midway, not to say that they made Japan to take the worst part of the outcome. First, the same elite essence of the Navy personnel, which was prone to fatigue and vulnerable to losses, as they were a very valuable yet scarce asset: quality had to be sacrificed to cover the losses. Second, the industrial base over which it was based, as it was rather fragile and incapable of supporting a long-term war: scarce resources and competition with the army over the same resources meant that Japan would find difficult to replace losses (Kennedy, 2007; Murray & Millet, 2005).

Third, a drawback of political nature, which shaped the essence, strengths and capacity of the Japanese Navy, but also its weaknesses, in fact, the latter would be highlighted during the battle. Lack of constant policies and the civil-military disputes weakened the Japanese Navy from within, and the abovementioned Navy and Army competition resulted in uncoordinated policies, which in turn resulted in uncoordinated strategies and operations. They had no unified strategic view, having instead different assessed enemies, priorities and areas of operations. The Army’s strong influence and political power hampered the Navy’s strategic policies and operations; for instance, the victorious campaign towards the South was mainly an Army’s campaign, with the Navy playing a secondary role. The army also gave little support to further naval operations in 1942 (and despite its impressive performance and victories) (Gibelli, 1972; Kennedy, 2007).

Fourth, a drawback of military nature. If the political problems weakened the Navy from within, the military issues neutralized its operational advantages for instance, Midway was a battle riddled with mistakes. The aircraft carriers were still undervalued by the still prevailing old battleship school; the Navy was not able to keep its codes from being deciphered by the adversary; it lacked escort aircraft carriers; and submarine and antisubmarine warfare was simply not considered (Kennedy, 2007)[5].

And fifth, the same Japanese economy and its heavy dependence on foreign raw materials and resources. This was the result of a sort of cycle that emerged from the same Japanese policies and needs. Japan’s economy was strong up until the first post-war, when the first economies woes began to trouble the government. As a solution, territorial expansion and exploitation of East Asian markets were decided, requiring the creation of military assets to materialize that expansion and grant the needed economic solidness. This led to an increased dependence on raw materials and on foreign exchange, thus increasing the debt to finance the rearmament; this also forced Japan to attack Western colonies to secure additional resources and enhance its economic stability. But as Japan expanded in Asia, it drawn US attention resulting in further embargoes. This made some Navy officers, politicians and men from the Army to unsuccessfully negotiate a lifting of the embargo, given the heavy influence of the Army and those on favour of territorial expansion. It also forced Japan to advance further (Canales & del Rey, 2016; Dahms, 1974; Kennedy, 2007; Murray & Millet, 2005).

The Eagle’s Fleet

The US gave equally importance to the aircraft carriers and naval aviation, not to mention the Navy itself. The efforts in the development of its own carrier resulted in the US having the most capable aircraft carriers in the war, mainly thanks to four elements. First, the development by the US Navy of tactical-operational and technical aspects of aircraft operations. Second, the appointment of Admiral William Moffet, whose leadership resulted in boosting the aircraft carrier fleet. Third, the decision by the US Congress to enable airmen to have command over aircraft carriers and Navy’s air bases. Fourth, drills and tests contributing in shaping the size and capacity of the aircraft carriers, as the experiences evidenced the benefits embarked aviation would have if deployed in large groups, along the introduction of landing gear and instruments in both the aircraft carriers and airplanes, maximizing their operational efficiency. The types of engines for the airplanes were shaped by experiments on deck, resulting in the US Navy having air assets with good performance and easy maintenance. And exercises in supporting amphibious operations by the aircraft carrier air wings evidenced the benefits they would have in supporting such operations, let alone the offensive power of aviation (Murray & Millet, 2005).

There were another factors that gave further strength to the US Navy to face and answer back Japan, despite the heavy losses suffered in the six months after Pearl Harbour. First, the same US Navy structure. Second, the close work with the Marine Corps during the interwar period to device a coordinated and complementary strategy and assets when facing Japan, with the close co-operation and air support between the amphibious troops and the aircraft carrier aviation. Second, the political support given by the US government, benefiting the Navy in general as it supported the construction of new warships – aircraft carriers included – and the creation of a naval aviation force, mainly under the Navy Second to None law. Third, as the importance of naval airpower became clear, the US Navy gave considerable emphasis to AA defences and tactics to take maximum advantage of embarked aviation. Fourth, the same US industrial and economic might, which allowed the US to wage two wars in different scenarios, and also to absorb and replace the losses rather easily, unlike Japan and its very weak industrial base[6].  And fifth, the Washington Treaty not only served to momentarily halt the expanding Japanese naval power; it also served the US to reduce its land armed forces and invest more in both the Air Force and the Navy, thus implementing the abovementioned naval construction programmes (Kennedy, 2007; Murray and Millet, 2005). All of these factors would play in favour of the US during the battle.

Both forces, and their aircraft carriers, would have their ultimate encounter in the Battle of Midway, having a sort of warm-up in the previous Battle of Coral Sea: this battle in particular had an important role as it gave the last elements whose influence would be crucial for the outcome of Midway. Both battles will be the topic of the next section, considering the importance the Battle of Coral Sea had for the Battle of Midway, and that both were the first naval battles were the aircraft carriers played the main role. And also, to realize how crucial where the assets and weapons deployed by both contenders in the battle(s).




[1] In fact, Japan was the first in appreciating the use of the heavy aircraft carrier. Cfr: Macdonald, 1993, p-64.

[2] Other potential targets were ordered to report problems as well, so to detect clearly which was the target designated as “AF” by the Japanese (Macdonald, 1993).

[3] Japan even built warships well above of what the Washington Treaty allowed in terms of displacement tons and firepower.

[4] The USS Yorktown, a carrier that took part in the Coral Sea Battle, was very damaged and it would not have been able to operate until three months after extensive repairs.

[5] Another indicator of the prevalence of the ‘old school’, is the fact that the Japanese knew the American aircraft carriers weren’t at the base, but they were deemed as not decisive targets – unlike the battleships – and not even searched during the attack following Canales y del Rey (2016).

[6] In any case, it is important to point out that, despite the economic and industrial might of the US, it wasn’t entirely prepared in terms of quality and readiness, according to Murray and Millet (2005). In addition, the US was still facing a very compromised strategic situation prior the Battle of Midway, which required very prepared and capable personnel and assets to change despite the sole economic and industrial capacity.



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Cau, P. (2011). Batallas del Mundo. [Battaglie, Maria Pilar Queralt, trans.]. Madrid, Spain: Editorial Tikal (Original work published in 2006).

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Midway: When the Airplane Sank an Empire (Part II)

Image ‘Unknown Ship from the Great White Fleet’ by Ed Bierman. Released under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) License

Image ‘Unknown Ship from the Great White Fleet’ by Ed Bierman. Released under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) License


Setting the course towards Midway: Strategic background II

Previously, the rise of Japan as an Asia-Pacific great power was reviewed, from the Meiji restoration until the moments prior to Pearl Harbour and the Japanese campaigns in the Western Pacific and South East Asia. This review aimed at explaining why Japan regarded the targeted territories as vital, and also to portrait the very long path that Japan took from its emergence as a great power onto its sound defeat at Midway, thus losing the war. This section will focus on the American side, briefly explaining how the United States became a Pacific Power and then considered (equally) important its Pacific possessions. In other words, to explain what the US had a stake in the Pacific and how such stakes came to be.

Once an again, it must be reminded that a given battle has a much longer background back into history, and Midway is no exception, as it was one of the most epic, decisive and remarkable encounters between two great powers that were disputing their hegemony in the Pacific. And hegemony that was grounded on the common interests both nations were having over similar areas, often colliding despite some diplomatic manoeuvres.

The arrival of the Eagle to the Pacific

It’s the night of the 30 of April, 1898. The American sailors are excited, and with good reasons. Three months earlier the USS Maine suffered a mysterious explosion that sent her to the bottom of the sea in Habana Harbour, Cuba. The US and Spain declared war against each other roughly six days earlier, and the US decided to put its naval assets into motion, so to attack Spanish colonies in the Pacific and the Caribbean, answering the Spanish declaration of war. The sailors are navigating under the command of Commodore George Dewey, whose fleet is setting sail from Hong Kong, ready to face the Spanish fleet at Manila Bay. They knew, then, they would be facing the enemy the following morning, a thought that maybe made many of them to think to themselves, and to question if they would be fit for the task. Little they knew that the next day, they would have contributed in crafting the rise of the US as a great (naval) power… as a Pacific great (naval) Power[1].

The sinking of the USS Maine was indeed the small spark that started a war between a very old and decaying empire, and a nation that was enjoying the sweet fruits of a nascent economic, industrial and naval power, having before it a very promising future. Curiously the US path towards Midway began not at the Pacific, but at the other side of the world, in Cuba. The Spanish repression against the Cubans and their desires for independence were known to the American public, which forced the government to send the battleship into Havana to protect the Americans living in the city. As the battleship exploded and sank, so did a war and an old Empire, for after Spain declared war on the US, it would end in suffering a sound defeat, marking the definitive ending of an empire[2]. Two naval encounters took place, deciding the war in the favour of the US: Manila Bay and Santiago. On the former, US naval forces commanded by Commodore George Dewey that sailed from Hong Kong to Manila Bay, faced the Spanish fleet stationed there, basically destroying it. On the latter, the Spanish strategy of avoiding any direct encounter with the US Navy only resulted in their fleet being pinned down at Santiago, being ultimately destroyed (Crawford, 2001; Ralby, 2013).

The result of the war would be important for the US, Japan and the Pacific in the decades to come. While Cuba gained independence, other Spanish possessions in the Caribbean and the Pacific were ceded, such as Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines (which was sold for $20 million), following Crawford (2001) and Ralby (2013). But the long-term effects would be crucial for the history of the Pacific for the next century, not to mention that the aftermath of that war opened the way for the US-Japanese rivalry that would have its most prolific encounter at Midway. What the war did was to give the political consolidation for the rise of a nation that was already witnessing an important economic growth – and where the First World War would simply mark the beginning of the US global hegemony. The war also gave increased importance to the Navy, as it was the service highly funded, being perceived as the first-line of defence against any aggression and the main tool to support American diplomacy and trade in the Pacific and other areas. The war, in other words, confirmed the status of naval power the US acquired, opening by this way further involvement of the US in Asian affairs, such as China[3]. But this victory made the US to deal with the duties of preserving the order at the newly acquired territory, for an insurrection followed until 1901 (Crawford, 2001; Halberstam, 2009; Jackson, 2002; Kennedy, 2007; Ralby, 2013).

The United States sought to secure its newly acquired possessions, which meant it had to wage the aforementioned war in the Philippines so to consolidate its reign over the island. This was complemented by a secret deal with Japan to ensure that this nation would recognize – and respect – US ownership over the newly acquired territories (Halberstam, 2009; Ralby, 2013). Diplomatic support was also common during and after WWII, where the US, after being pressed on by its Allies – most notable France and the British Empire – recognized Japanese sovereignty over the former German colonies: the Marshall, Marianas and Palaus Islands (Gibelli, 1972).

But it seems that regardless of such efforts, the US and Japan were bound to clash over who would be the hegemon in the region. Following Erickson & Wuthnow (2016), both nations were concerned of each other, with the US being particularly worried for the safety of the Philippines and Guam, thus devising a war plan by 1911 preparing for a war against Japan. Plans for such conflict were even drafted, with particular attention to the small Micronesian islands and the fast recapture of Guam, as part of the strategy to be used against Japan. Furthermore, the US recognition of Japanese sovereignty over former German colonies resulted in an erosion of the strategic security of US Pacific territories (Hawaii, Wake Island, Guam and the Philippines), prompting the US to increase its military presence by deploying naval assets and reinforce their bases, following Gibelli (1972).

The confrontation between the United States and Japan was all but inevitable, as both nations set to assert their interest in the Asia-Pacific region. Course of collision was about to take place, and Midway would be the scenario for an epic encounter.

A complicated Diplomacy

It seems that, at least at the beginning of the Japanese and US hegemony in Asia and the Pacific, both nations had some initial agreements based upon their respective interests. According to Halberstam (2009), US President Theodore Roosevelt aimed at securing US dominance over the Philippines thus reaching a secret agreement with Japan, granting Korea in exchange of Japanese recognition US rule over the Philippines. But as it was aforementioned, both nations were concerned of each other, and I could state that the previous diplomatic attempts after the Spanish-American War by President Roosevelt might have either encouraged or given enough time for Japan to prepare for its war against the United States, as such compromises constituted a white card for Japanese expansionism in the Pacific.

Such diplomatic manoeuvrings did not relegate only to the case of the Philippines. As Japan took part in WWI on the side of the Allies, it was allowed to extend their Pacific colonial empire – alongside the profits gained from the Allies’ need for ammunition and merchant vessels – as well as territories in China, which was met with resistance by China. The British Empire, France, Russia and Italy were supporting Japan’s pretensions, and the first two pushed the US for its support on what it was agreed with Japan. As the US agreed, a political crisis sparked, which became one of the reason behind the Congress’ reluctance to ratify the Society of the Nations (Gibelli, 1972).

And in the period between WWI and WWII, diplomacy was not a unidirectional affair. The US, in an attempt to curb Japanese expansion in the Pacific, launched the Washington Conference 1922 and managed to break the alliance between Japan and the British Empire. Moreover, the US was able to set a limit on the naval power of each main naval power (The British Empire, the US and Japan), as well as limiting the fortification of bases in the region, except for Singapore and Hawaii. Japan was also forced to give up its Chinese gains by the US and other countries, and denied its request of having more parity of naval power in London, 1930 (Gibelli, 1972).

Moreover, the British Empire and the US became close allies, mainly due to the strategic situation in 1940, requiring the drafting of a common plan to face the Axis. The plan (ABC-1 Agreement) basically contemplated the British empire to send the Royal Navy to reinforce Singapore, while the US would send part of its fleet in support of the British in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, having a more defensive stance on the Pacific. Yet this agreement was decisive to make the US to intervene in the war (Gibelli, 1972). The attack on Pearl Harbour and South East Asia by Japan made the US to face not only Germany but Japan as well, and the aforementioned agreement basically served as the framework from which the US would prioritize between the two theatres of war. Nonetheless, the secondary role the Pacific would have for the British-American efforts did not mean this scenario was less important. In fact, US industrial and military might almost made the Pacific a main scenario as Europe, with the war there being mostly a war of the US.

Diplomacy was also a constant element in the last stage towards the war: Japan tried to resume negotiations in order to secure American recognition of Japan’s economic rights in China, Manchuria and other areas, in exchange of a Japanese withdrawal from Indochina and China, although this one would remain a free country under Japan’s tutelage. But the US rejected the Japanese proposals by firmly stating that economic blockade would be eased only if Japan withdrew from Indochina and China, guaranteeing the full sovereignty of the latter. The US was fully committed in maintaining the status quo at the Pacific, along with supporting the “open doors” policy[4]. Therefore, diplomacy came to fail, advancing the pace towards the war, and the fact that the Japanese diplomats that were in Washington by the time Japan attacked Pearl Harbour, was the final nail of diplomacy’s coffin (Murray & Millet, 2005).

Full speed towards Midway

As the economic needs of Japan were becoming more pressing, the embargo becoming stronger by the day, and the race of both sides to assert their interests, the Japanese-American clashes were inevitable, and so the Battle of Midway. Time was simply running out for Japan and if America was very staunch on keeping the embargo for the sake of China and the European colonies, Japan was staunch in holding its grip further over China and look more towards the European Southeast Asian colonies and its resources[5]. The key economic targets were Malaysia and the Dutch East Indies (currently Indonesia), but the Philippines became important as a strategic shield against any US-British counteroffensive against the main Japanese advance towards south[6]. The same importance had the neutralization of the US Navy on the Pacific. Consequently, the Philippines and Pearl Harbour became primordial targets the same way as Malaysia, Borneo and the East Indies (Bradley & Powers, 2003; Gibelly, 1972; Kennedy, 2007; Murray & Millet, 2005; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe , 1969) [7].

As the US Pacific Fleet warships were still smoking in the aftermath of the attack, Japan began to advance towards its primary objectives: Malaya and the Philippines. But there were other areas that fell under the conquering marching armies of Japan: Hong Kong, where the Commonwealth troops resisted the more, the isles of Guam, New Britain, and Gilbert, with some providing valuable locations for strategic projection, like flat-lands suitable for airstrips. The Isle of Wake also gave considerable resistance to the Japanese advance for two weeks before its falling. Singapore also fell, with a very poor defence and leadership, and the lack of proper air power, helping the Japanese (Gibelli, 1972; Murray & Millet, 2005; Ralby, 2013; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe).

Noteworthy to mention the plans, the order of battle and advance of Japan at this point, where the Japanese Navy would become the main element of Japan’s advance. As the Battle of Midway had the outcome we already know, it is no surprise to realize why it became a turning point for both sides of the war. 5 armies, 12 divisions, 4 independent brigades and two air groups with 700 aircraft each would comprise the non-naval component of Japanese advance towards south. 4 divisions from Indochina and Hainan Island would take Malaya; two divisions and the two independent brigades were to seize Luzon and Manila Bay – to neutralize the main Philippine-American defence air and land capacities – starting from Formosa and Ryukyu Islands; three divisions based in the main Japanese islands and Indochina would then take East Dutch Indies once objectives at Malaysia and the Philippines were accomplished (Gibelli, 1972, Murray & Millet, 2005).

As the existing allied forces in the area were weak, the Japanese made significant advances and victories during the initial stages of the campaign, having a combined British-Dutch naval force that was no match for the Japanese counterparts and lacked an important asset: air cover. The US naval force there was also small[8]. As the Japanese at this point were having good intelligence service than those of the allies: they were able to realize the adversaries’ lack of preparation and quality, then concentrated on destroying the significant naval and air opposition. The Japanese Imperial fleet divided itself into two forces for this purpose: one was comprised of six aircraft carriers, two battleships, two cruisers and 11 destroyers, tasked with attacking Pearl Harbour. The second force was comprised of 8 battleships, two aircraft carriers and 100 cruisers and destroyer, which concentrated in materializing the Japanese campaign at southeast Asia (Gibelli, 1972; Murray & Millet, 2005; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969).

The Allies seemingly overstretched their defence area of operations, pushing far the very scarce sources they had at hand: and a result, not only Singapore and Malaya fell, but also Thailand. In addition, British battleships HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse were sunk by the Japanese naval aviation, as this one enjoyed full air superiority. As this took place, two important political-strategic event took place: first, the British Empire suffered a political blow that shattered the basis for British dominance and a blow from which it would never recover. A second one is that Australia became a closer ally of the US, as it considered that the US would give better options to address the Japanese threat against its territory (Gibelli, 1972; Muray & Millet, 2005; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969).

Burma and Thailand also fell, putting India, which was the most important British colony by the times and a tempting target for Japan for economic and political reasons, the Indian Ocean and Australia under Japan’s crosshairs. Consequently, the Dutch East Indies fell under Japan, which where the last Japanese target, at least of their initial planned advance, destroying in the advance not only the Allied troops, but a small Allied fleet of 5-6 cruisers and 9 destroyers at the Battle of the Java Sea. The oil fields of Indonesia were in Japan’s hand, at it seemed that Japan met its strategic objectives by securing the control over strategic areas and resources in southeast Asia. Australia’s northernmost harbour along with Ceylon were attacked by the Japanese Navy and its aircraft carriers (Gibelli, 1972; Murray & Millet, 2005; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969). As Murray and Millet (2005) put, these easy victories made Japan to commit further a strategic mistake that would cost them the bulk of their carriers at Midway, and the war and their empire in the end: such mistake were the belief that the Japanese army and navy were both invincible and superior to their adversaries. Midway was bound to be a painful lesson for such arrogance.

Moreover, and despite Japanese initial successes in Asia and the shock of the surprise attack against Pearl Harbour, there was a small detail that made somewhat possible the Battle of Midway and which sentenced Japan to suffer absolute defeat in the war and to suffer two nuclear attacks. The most prized target was missed: the US aircraft carriers USS Enterprise and USS Lexington were not in Pearl Harbour by the time of the attack, thus being safe from the attack and even one became crucial for the Battle to come and further American war efforts in the Pacific[9]. The Japanese simply did not try to locate the two aircraft carriers and their naval groups, neither it considered a full invasion of Pearl Harbour (Cau, 2011; Murray & Millet, 2005; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969). However, it must be reminded that, although these could have been decisive actions – and that by not neutralizing at least the US carrier force proved a big mistake – in reality, Japan aimed more at neutralizing the American fleet in order to win time and deter the US not to fight Japan with a single and decisive strike, that became not that decisive after all.

And, as the Japanese needed to protect their recent conquests in southeast Asia and Western Pacific, as well as the seized invaluable resources, by 1942 Admiral Yamamoto – the architect of Japan’s initial victories – devised a plan to ambush the US Pacific Fleet at Midway[10]. Both fleets were about to meet in battle, in what would be the most epic and decisive naval encounter of WWII in the Pacific. this will be the topic of the next part, a narration and analysis of the encounter and the factors that decided the outcome, as well as the forces that took part in the battle.



[1] It is important to remark that Midway was annexed by the US, at least two decades before the American victory at Manila and Santiago. Also, Hawaii became important for the US since the 1840’s, with the US tightening its grip over the island in 1893 as it overthrew the last Hawaiian queen (Lilioukalani), and becoming more important during the Hispanic-American War, due to the island’s bases value as a way station to the Philippines. Alfred Thayer Mahan, in fact, recognized the strategic importance of the island as being basically the only possible outpost in the Pacific See: Ellis, 2002; ushistory.org (2017); & Holmes (2013).

[2] Bergamino & Palitta (2015) point out three important factors that led to the Spanish-American War and the following transformation of the US as an Asia-Pacific power. First, the American public opinion which, encouraged by the press, pushed for the US to declare war on Spain following the USS Maine incident. Second, the clear support the US was giving to the Cuban rebels and their quest for independence, which strained the relations with the old empire. And third, the famous Monroe Doctrine that contributed to the hostile relations between the two nations.

[3] Another effect of the war was that, given its outcome, it changed the mentality of the US and its thinking on national power and purposes, at the point of making this nation to consider to have way stations along sea routes (Holmes, 2013). This fact can explain why the US, in the end, sought to acquire and protect a varied number of island across the Pacific.

[4] Or the legal principle that conceded all nation equality in international trade, as Cau (2011) explains. See: p.164.

[5] Japan was not only pushed by the embargo and its other economic woes, but it was encouraged by the war in Europe and the German offensives in France and the Soviet Union, while considering that the US and the British Empire wouldn’t be able to handle with two fronts, let alone the public opinion not willing to support another war. See: Bradley & Powers, 2003, p,72; and: Kennedy, 2007, pp. 541-542.

[6] Basically, Japan needed the Dutch East Indies’ oil to support its efforts in China. See: Ralby, 2013, p.179.

[7] Hong Kong, Thailand and the Wake Island and Guam became secondary targets, but by no means irrelevant.

[8] The Dutch Navy had 3 cruisers, 7 destroyers and 15 submarines in the region. The British had 1 battleship, 1 battlecruiser, and 23 cruisers and destroyers. The aircraft carrier suffered damages on-route and for this reason there was no air cover. The US, in turn, had 3 cruisers, 13 destroyers and 29 submarines (Murray & Millet, 2005, p.256).

[9] Noteworthy to point out that Japan, like the US, had a high appreciation for the potentialities of aircraft carriers, being this the reason why both Pearl Harbour and the Battle of Midway saw such assets as the main weapon of choice by both sides, and also why Japan aimed at destroying those of the US. Another two carriers would join the war: the USS Saratoga and the USS Yorktown. This one in particular would have an important role in the battle to come. See: Cau, 2011, p. 169; and: Macdonald, 1993, p.64.

[10] See: Macdonald, 1993, p.64.




Bergamino, G. &., Palitta, G. (2015). El Gran Libro de la Guerra. [L’arte della guerra, Herminia Bevia, trans.]. Madrid, Spain: Editorial Tikal (Original work published in 2015).

Bradley, J., & Powers, R. (2003). Iwo Jima. Sies hombres y una bandera. [Flags of our fathers, Albert Sasot Mateus, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Editorial Ariel (Original work published in 2000).

Cau, P. (2011). Batallas del Mundo. [Battaglie, Maria Pilar Queralt, trans.]. Madrid, Spain: Editorial Tikal (Original work published in 2006).

Col. Ellis, D. R. (2002). The History and Strategic Importance of the Midway Island. (20020806 399). Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania: US Army War College. Retrieved from:   http://oai.dtic.mil/oai/oai?verb=getRecord&metadataPrefix=html&identifier=ADA404725 on 09.08.2016

Crawford, S. (2001). Portaaviones y Acorazados [Battleships and Carriers, José Luis Tamayo, & L. Martín, trans.]. Madrid, Spain: Editorial LIBSA (Original work published in 1999).

Erickson, A.S., & Wuthnow, J. (2016). Why Islands Still Matter in Asia. The National Interest. Retrieved from: http://nationalinterest.org/feature/why-islands-still-matter-asia-15121?page=show on 15.01.2017

Gibelli, N. J. (1972). La expansión japonesa. In La Segunda Guerra Mundial (Vol.2. pp. 121–140). Buenos Aires, Argentina: Editorial Codex.

________________. Marcha hacia el Sur. In La Segunda Guerra Mundial (Vol. 2. pp. 181-200). Buenos Aires, Argentina: Editorial Codex.

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________________. Japón amenaza a la India. In La Segunda Guerra Mundial (Vol. 2. pp. 221-240). Buenos Aires, Argentina: Editorial Codex.

________________. La guerra se aproxima a Australia. In La Segunda Guerra Mundial (Vol. 4. pp. 97-120). Buenos Aires, Argentina: Editorial Codex.

Halberstam, D. (2009). La Guerra Olvidada. [The Coldest Winter. America and the Korean War, J. Madariaga, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Crítica Editorial. (Original work published in 2007).

Holmes, J.R. (2013). The Geopolitics of Hawaii. The Diplomat. Retrieved from: http://thediplomat.com/2013/05/the-geopolitics-of-hawaii/ on 18.01.2017

Jackson, R. (2002). Destructores, Fragatas y Corbetas [Destroyers, frigates and corvettes, Igor Aristegui, trans.]. Madrid, Spain: Editorial LIBSA (Original work published in 2001).

Kennedy, P. (2007). Auge y Caida de las Grandes Potencias. [The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, J. Ferrer Aleu, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Editorial deBolsillo (Original work published in 1987).

Macdonald, J. (1993). Grandes Batallas de la II Guerra Mundial (pp. 64 – 71). [Great Battles of World War II, Luis Ogg, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Ediciones Folio (Original work published in 1993).

Murray, W. & Millet, A. R. (2005). La guerra que había que ganar [A War to be Won, Critica S.L, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Critica. (Original work published in 1998).

Ralby, A. (2013). Atlas of Military History: from Antiquity to the Present Day. Bath, UK: Parragon Books.

Rothberg, A., Fredericks, P. G., & O’Keefe, M. (1969). Días de infamia. In Historia de la Segunda Guerra Mundial (Vol.I, pp. 284–319). [Eyewitness History of World War II, Editorial Marin, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Editorial Marin. (Original work published in 1969).

ushistory.org (2017). Hawaiian Annexation. U.S. History Online Textbook. Retrieved from: http://www.ushistory.org/us/44b.asp on 18.01.2017

Defining Neutrality II – Sweden (2)


‘Stridsvagn 103 Tank’. By Mario Zorro (author). All rights reserved


The case of Sweden (Part II)

Sweden is a country whose neutrality policy made of it a remarkable case by those in favour of neutrality, yet its neutrality is surrounded by some myths and/or misconceptions, since many portray Sweden as an example of neutrality given its strong institutionalist approach – at least from a first glance –, with such being the sole reason why its neutrality was left untouched during WWII and the Cold War. The other myth is that being an institutionalist nation, keen on keeping peace, Sweden was unarmed or unprepared to deter any aggression under the aegis of such approach. And on the same way, that Sweden’s neutrality was pristine. In order to test such myths and misconceptions, it is important to make a closer analysis to the periods to be reviewed here: the interwar years, World War II and the Cold War, since they proved crucial in shaping and defining Swedish neutrality.

On the previous part, a brief precedent to Swedish neutrality policy was pointed out, being such based more on trade and some political considerations – orientated towards the foreign affairs sphere – and that was very short-lived. Then, it was explained that Sweden’s neutrality policy had a quite unclear and complex origin, explained perhaps by the very unstable times that characterized the Napoleonic Wars. Nonetheless, it is clear that Swedish neutrality emerged thanks to the heavy shock after the loss of Finland and the aim of keeping Norway under its rule, with the nation deciding not to embark itself into expensive wars as well. A neutrality policy became the tool to keep Sweden out of war and to risk entanglement by any alliance.

Therefore, a calculus of national preservation or survival, and not altruism as one commonly thinks, was the main rationale behind the Swedish Neutrality. Nor it was ‘neutral’ or impartial in the strict sense of the word, as Sweden acted many times in ways far from impartiality or pure non-alignment, and even leaned towards one great power at one point or another. This situation reached the point of almost making Sweden to be involved at WWI. And of course, from time to time acted like the old Great Power it once was. This calculation would be a common driver behind neutrality in the decades to come.

The interwar Period: the beginnings of modern Swedish Neutrality and armed neutrality

WWI was the period where the first characteristics of armed neutrality manifested, as the Nordic nation began to implement such a policy in the face of the surrounding threats and conflicts. This policy was bound to become one of the main pillars of Swedish Neutrality during most of the 20th century. But the interwar period and the early days of WWII were very decisive for Sweden’s neutrality policy.

For instance, the two following decades had a variable degree of application on the neutrality policy and assessments on the international context. In principle, and following Ugwukah (2015), the two decades witnessed the Swedish governments willing to maintain the neutrality tradition, confirming that such was to become the main north of Swedish foreign policies. It was that the level of importance of neutrality, that projects of a Joint Nordic, or Swedish-Finish joint defence policy were kept only at the blueprints. Neutrality was kept, alongside non-alignment, with security based on a strong national defence, according to Sweden.se (2012).

But Swedish neutrality, in the sense of non-alignment or even isolationism (as this side of neutrality policy was also an organic part of it) was, once an again, not entirely complete or respected. An evidence of such is Sweden’s actions during WWII, but its own neutrality policy was in fact, stretched right after WWI. Following Westberg (2013), Sweden initially believed that the idea of collective security – via the League of Nations – would be safeguarded by the great powers during the interwar period. But as Germany and Italy did not respected the international order, and those powers did nothing to safeguard it, Sweden decided to retrieve its neutrality policy. But circumstances made Sweden to stretch its own policy, even during these two decades and despite such retrieval.

One clear example is the – unconscious – role Sweden played in the development of German tanks and armoured warfare during the interwar period. For a start, the desire of Sweden to establish its first armoured corps and integrate the newly armoured warfare into its army prompted the nation to buy a tank, the LK II/ Stvr m/21-29, from Germany in secrecy and under the table, as the Versailles Treaty was already in motion[1]. 1921 marked then the year when armed policy was stepped up for preserving neutrality policy with the introduction of assets that would help in enforce both policies, this case the tanks.

Furthermore, Sweden played a very important – again unconscious – role in the development of the German armoured weapon and its doctrines. The same Stvr M/21-29 were used for such, with Heinz Guderian, one of the architects of the Panzerkrieg and Blitzkrieg, driving one of them while in a trip to Sweden, in a journey aimed at further analysing the nature of armoured warfare (Guderian, 2007). Also, some of the famous weapons of Germany, like the 88mm dual-use gun, where designed under disguise by personnel of Krupp at the Swedish company Bofors (Chant, 1999)[2].

In any case, as the years went by and the world was advancing towards WWII, Sweden further advanced on its own armed neutrality program, realising that the context was asking for assets, such as tanks, for assert its neutrality. The LK II/Stvr/21-29 was soon replaced by the Stvr M/31, developed with German assistance as Joseph Vollmer acted as chief of development, and entering in service with the Swedish armed forces in 1931. The Stvr L-60 followed 3 years later, marking a characteristic trait of Swedish defence industry, neutrality and defence policies, which would come to have an incidence on the production of naval and air assets as well. This was the decision of Sweden to develop, build and procure its own armament so to avoid being cut off supplies in case of a war (Jackson, 2012).

The last interwar tank made by Sweden was the Stvr M/38, which was another milestone tank in the sense that it was the first one in incorporating a much more powerful main weapon than its predecessors (a 37mm gun). But as the war started the same year it was introduced, curiously hampering any prospect of import, given the needs for Sweden to have defence material (Jackson, 2012).

On the air and naval spheres, the Swedish Air Force was not strengthened until WW2 itself, except for the implementation of the BAS 90 dispersed bases system some years before the conflict. This system was implemented as Sweden considered a war against both Germany and the USSR by the end of the 30’s, requiring dispersed forward bases for air strikes as well as (dispersed) rear bases. These bases were camouflaged, with the airstrips made of grass and sown with three different types of grass, and the facilities to look like farming buildings (X-plane.org, 2008)[3]. The devising of such basing system was a proof of how Sweden saw its armed neutrality policy as a mean to defend its integrity and to stay away effectively from any foreign conflict. It also evidences Sweden was assessing the international situation, which required some measures to be taken. The naval sphere also witnessed some overhauling in the light of both policies and context. For example, the Göteborg class destroyers was developed in this period, entering in service during WWII, as it was considered the Swedish navy was in need of better and modern units, precisely to defend its neutrality by defending its coasts (Jackson, 2002, p.197)[4].

World War II: concessions and armed neutrality

The spark of World War Two made Sweden to realize that its security was in high peril, thus implementing further its armed neutrality policy. As a result, Sweden introduced enhanced armoured assets, such as the Stvr M/39, Stvr M/42, Stvr M/41 and Stvr M/40 tanks, and the Terrängbil M/42D, Pansarbil M/39 and Stormartillerivagn M/43 105 SPG, whose aim was no other than to provide Sweden with some protection against any surprise attack by Germany, as it occupied Norway. The threat of a breaching of Sweden’s neutrality was a real danger[5]. As the war progressed, the perceived threat shift from Germany to the Soviet Union (Jackson, 2012).

The same was done at the Flygsvapnet, as the aim was to provide Sweden with air assets enough to secure its own neutrality and security while avoiding too much dependency on foreign-made air assets. in fact, it was the embargoes on arms what prompted this decision as well, making Sweden to further stress its policy of independence in relation to military and defence assets, though it received foreign-made material at the last stages of the war. Advanced technology and innovations on the field were also considered for the overhauling of the Flygvapnet. In consequence, the FFVS J 22 fighter, the Saab B 17 dive bomber and recce airplane, and the Saab B 18 bomber, were all developed and entering into service during this period. Others were developed as well, though saw service after the war.

Yet the war also forced Sweden to implement some of the most questionable policies vis-à-vis Germany and Russia, as it stretched negatively the nature and aims of its neutral approach. It remained neutral, though not entirely passive. First, and just like in 1919, Sweden intervened under the table by assisting Finland with some voluntary troops and armament, and other military cargoes, like the air defence vehicle L-62 Anti II, accepting also Finnish evacuees, as this country was under the aggression of the Soviet Union[6]. But new traits of its neutrality policy began to emerge, as Sweden also provided sanctuary to Danish and Norwegian resistance group members, sheltered refugees from Estonia, Finland and Denmark and even saved Jews victims of the Nazi regime (Pashkov, 2009; Lindström, 1997).

Of these situations, the Finland case was a crucial one for Sweden, as it was a neighbouring country whose conquest by the Russian, could have brought Sweden’s historical adversary – and threat – closer to home. Indeed, and as Hetmanchuck (2012) remarks, seizure of its neighbour by Russia – or the sole prospect of it – was undesirable. And as this was perceived an important threat, the deployment of Swedish volunteers assisting Finland took place.

Second, Sweden allowed the transit of German soldiers on leave and even of a division from Norway to Finland, through Sweden. Third, troops transports and airplanes from Germany were allowed to transit over Sweden, while providing Germany with some key supplies (Globalsecurity, 2014; Lindström, 1997). Both were mere concessions that Sweden made with Germany, in order to avoid occupation by the Third Reich, as the threat perception of occupation was increasing – and considering Sweden was practically surrounded, following Gotkowska (2013) and Hetmanchuck (2012).

Many will find these actions questionable, and they might be. Yet it is important to remind that Sweden was having a more pragmatic approach towards its own neutrality policy, along with the fact that the context simply required Sweden to have such pragmatism[7]. As Ugwukah (2015) points out, Sweden took such pragmatism in consideration, as the nation paid attention to the surrounding circumstances and the needed policies to preserve its neutrality and territorial integrity, in the light of such context. And neutrality is a policy open to modification any time[8].

In addition, the fact that these concessions took part while at the same time Sweden was rearming, proves that the country was protecting its neutrality and security by two means, that I find sort of mutually complementary: armed neutrality and diplomatic measures. Making some concessions while at the same time preparing to defend its neutrality at any cost should needed. Also, it is noteworthy to remind the positive actions by Sweden during the war, evidencing the sketches of some traits of Swedish neutrality, especially during the Cold War: humanitarian actions. Either ways, Sweden managed to stay out of the war, with neutrality’s main aim – which was to avoid being dragged onto a war by any alliance entanglement, and preserve Swedish territory safe from war – fulfilled.

The Cold War: “Non-alignment in peace, neutrality in war… and humanitarian any time”

The Cold War is the most interesting and defining moment for Sweden’s history and neutrality policy, as armed neutrality was maximized and Sweden implemented a new approach for its neutrality during this period. As it was mentioned before, these new approaches shaped the concept or idea many people have about Sweden, fuelling the myths and misconceptions about neutrality, and even maintenance of peace. But the Cold War was also a period where Swedish non-alignment was stretched and strengthened, combining its policy of independence in production and acquisition of military hardware, with cooperation with other nations. ‘Pragmatism’ seemingly framed and defined Swedish policies on neutrality the same way as during WWII.

At first, the Cold War period introduced new elements and traits to Swedish neutrality policy, at the point of making to believe Sweden was protected by such elements – whose basis were laying at international institutions. Noteworthy to point out that such new elements were rooted in the WWII, and were also possible by the very pragmatic nature of Swedish neutrality. The most prominent example is her actuation at the UN after its enrolment in 1946, following Gotkowksa (2013), Ugwukah (2011) and Sweden.se (2012): Sweden served as a mediator in many important conflicts, also taking part in many peacekeeping operations (like the Suez in 1956 and the Congo in 1964), as well as urging the great powers at the UN to use their resources in favour of weaker nations. Also, and along its Scandinavian neighbours, it played – and still do – a crucial role in development cooperation and assistance in the developing countries, all in the light of its non-alignment and non-partisan approach[9].

Furthermore, and following Westberg (2013), Sweden became focused in policies related to arms control and economic development, as well as a mediator between the two superpower blocks and the support for various peace initiatives, especially during the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, and all within the general aim of preserving the country’s independence, yet keeping Sweden away from the then European Economic Community, precisely to safeguard the non-alignment side of its neutrality policy. Sweden also criticized some interventions and wars waged by both blocks, like the Vietnam War, Afghanistan, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, having no fears of the political consequences with both superpowers after such critiques, according to Pashkov (2009).

Hence the notion that Sweden was protected by its institutionalist approach. Yet this idea is very far from the truth. The same goes for the idea that being a neutral nation means being unarmed and unprepared to face conflict when needed, as many confuse ‘neutrality’ with ‘military weakness’. Rather the contrary, a nation wishing to keep its peace, its territorial integrity and its neutrality clearly needs to invest in military assets, moreover if its facing a rather difficult context and geographical position.

According to Kaplan (2008), Sweden’s neutrality was won by the very aggressive submarine fleet of this country, at the point of not even requiring NATO protection[10]. Indeed, it was Sweden’s implementation of armed neutrality policy what managed to protect the nation’s security and neutrality, even more than the sole reliance on institutions. It allowed Sweden to exert credible deterrence by military power and enjoy neutrality. But on the other hand, Sweden did reach for NATO for some sort of protection, especially at the early years of the Cold War. For this period – and its characteristics – made Sweden to further advance on its armed neutrality policy and on developing and producing its own defence assets, with the defence industry and the army both increased and even developing for a brief time its own nuclear arms programme (Pashkov, 2009)[11].

The submarine fleet mentioned by Kaplan (2006) was important for Sweden, as it was intended to ward-off any naval surface and undersea incursions and reconnaissance against its long shoreline. The result was the 6 Hajen class units (based on a German Type XXI U-boat), the six Draken class units, the very capable and manoeuvrable Sjöormen class with 5 units, and the 3 units Näcken class (Chant, 2006).

Independence on military assets was not absolute, however, as many of those assets received cooperation from the US in their development, or were licensed-built versions of US weapons. And of course, Sweden was operating many foreign-made equipment. Secret agreements between NATO, for defence under a worst-case scenario, and the US, for the technical assistance in development and fabrication of equipment. In fact, Sweden and NATO knew they could count on each other, as NATO saw Sweden and its considerable military power as a buffer protecting Norway as well as a helpful element in the defence of Scandinavia, and Sweden saw NATO as an aid in case of armed encroachment, with NATO’s air forces able of assisting NATO in case of Soviet attack (Bergman, 2004; Lindström, 1997; Vaahtoranta & Forsberg, 2000)[12].

Moreover, for the US, Sweden was far more vulnerable given that Finland was also neutral, worsened by the refusal of Denmark and Norway to allow foreign troops and bases in their territories. And as Sweden’s actions in WWII undermined its neutrality credibility, the US saw as necessary to establish informal relations with Sweden, so to bring it closer to the West, clearly doing so at least in economic terms by making them to abstain from transferring US strategic material and technologies. And even taking part in the Marshall Plan (Rickli, 2004).

The US, in the light of strengthening the very important and strategic “northern flank”, decided to further strengthen Swedish armed neutrality, according to Rickli (2004). The US, in consequence, provided Sweden with assistance in aerospace – missiles – and anti-submarine warfare, with both nations exchanging intelligence as well. Even the Flygvapnet could collaborate with NATO and provide bases in case of war. The US was also benefited, as it could receive anti-tank weapons and cross-country vehicles made by Sweden (Rickli, 2004; Parnell, n.d.; Vaahtoranta & Forsberg, 2000). The result of technical cooperation between the US, NATO and Sweden was exemplified on the development of the Saab J 29 Tunnan, the Saab 32 Lansen, the Saab J 35 Drakken and J 37 Viggen, the Saab 105 and the Saab J 39 Gripen (developed during the Cold War but entering in service after it)[13]. Most, if not all of these fighters and fighter-bombers and trainers incorporated many technologies made in the US, developed in cooperation with the US, or armed with US-made missiles.

Even WWII assets were kept, like the M/42D, or upgraded, like the Stvr 74, which was WWII a Stvr M/42 with a new turret and gun[14]. The first vehicle served until the turn of the new century, while the later served for most of the Cold War. Also, battle tanks or armoured vehicles such as the Stvr 103 (which came to reflect the defensive stance of Sweden given its design), the PvB 301 (a conversion of WWII-era Stvr M/41 into an APC), the PbV 302 APC APC, and the Ikv 91 light tank, were developed. Self-propelled artillery and tracked troop transports were developed as well, such as the Bandkannon and the Bv 202[15]. Furthermore, WWII aerial designs intended for such conflict were put into service and equally enhanced, as it was the case with the Saab J 21 and A 21R[16].

Its non-alignment would have seen compromised and even neutralized by these facts. But if anything, Swedish neutrality is flexible in essence, which means that agreements of the sort could take place for defence purposes in case of war, yet at the same time Sweden was implementing a very non-aligned and rather impartial role[17].

But neutrality policy was a must for Sweden, nonetheless. Following Ugwukah (2011), its strong ties with the West – which would explain why Sweden would lean towards these nations – and its very strategic geographical location prompted Sweden to adopt such policy, precisely to avoid entangled and strangled by either superpower and keep its independence. And it seems that Sweden had in consideration not to harm Finland’s independence with any alignment with the West, according to Lindström (1997). This was beneficial for Finland, as Sweden’s strength helped in maintaining its independence as well (Vaahtoranta & Forsberg, 2000).

Some considerations…

The same way as with neutrality, a policy of armed neutrality was needed in order to exert a real defence of the nation’s peace and neutrality. Pragmatism seemed to shape actions aimed towards this policy hence the secret agreements with the US and NATO in defence and technological development. Sweden needed simply weapons to keep its action at international organizations and maintain its neutrality. Therefore, it decided to create military power in order to grant itself that peace and neutrality, with deterrence being primordial for this. A neutral nation is, by no means, a weak nation. and more often than not, it will be forced to have considerable military power to defend it.

Now, what is the future of Swedish neutrality policy in the light of the post-Cold War? How the optimism of the 90’s and the new insecurity in the Baltics and the Arctic – with Russia being again a central element of concern – influenced Swedish neutrality? Will Sweden remain neutral or it will be forced to give up it entirely? The next section will examine the period after the Cold War until our current days, answering these questions and providing a personal stance on the Swedish neutrality and its future.



[1] Regardless of how questionably this move was, Sweden was forced to take this course and decide for the German-made LK II, as the British options were either too heavy or too expensive. And even as the LK IIs were in service, some units had to be cannibalized for spare parts given the Treaty, until 1927, according to Bocquelet (2014). Moreover, it seems Sweden was developing its own armoured assets, with the Germans offering technical assistance. It might be that they also took the chance from Sweden’s aim and experiences to develop in secret their own armoured assets and the tactics.

[2] In fact, the Bofors model 29 of 75mm AA gun was developed earlier by the Krupp engineers working for Bofors, serving as a model for the posterior German 88mm gun. See: Hogg, 2002, p.113.

[3] The Swedish Air Force (Flygvapnet) was created in 1926 taking units from both the army and the navy. In regards to the dispersed bases system, the aim was to reduce the chance of any damage as a product of an attack against its air assets, dispersing the units (X-plane, 2008).

[4] This naval policy can be traced back to 1869, where it maintained a very strong navy with defensive purposes. See: Crawford, 2001, p.61.

[5] For the Stvr M/38, Stvr M/39, Stvr M/40 and Stvr M/42, see also: Jackson (2012).

[6] Yet refused to allow the British Empire to send some troops to Finland via Sweden, and while it steadily began to implement some restrictions to imports to Germany (after Stalingrad), it also restricted its own press so to avoid any hostility by Germany (Globalsecurity, 2014; Parnell, n.d).

[7] Gotkowska (2013) remarks, in fact, that Swedish neutrality was having such approach for most of its time, with declarations of neutrality met with actions aimed at adapting to the surrounding challenges of the days.

[8] Cfr, p.35.

[9] Sweden also took active part in the implementation of sanctions against South Africa during the apartheid, in assisting the liberation movements and providing humanitarian assistance to refugees of both South Africa and Namibia. See: Ugwukah, 2011, p.39.

[10] Cfr, p.80.

[11] Westberg (2013) states that this armed neutrality was also sparked by Sweden’s desire to show a clear commitment to its own neutrality and to exert deterrence in order to avoid any invasion.

[12] It is important to remark, in order to avoid any confusion, that despite such agreements, Sweden never aligned with NATO and actually looked for staying out of conflict, should it had started. Cfr, Ugwukah, 2011, pp.31-32.

[13] See also: Sharpe, 2001, pp.257-266.

[14] For Stvr 74, see: Jackson, 2012, p.190.

[15] For further information on the military vehicles, see: Haskew, 2012; Jackson, 2012; Trewhitt, 2001; and Turner, 2003.

[16] For additional information on the J 21 and A 21R, see: Chant, 2001, p.284. And: Sharpe, 2001, p.258.

[17] See also: Lindström, 1997, pp. 4-5.



Bergmann, A. (2004). Post-Cold War Shifts in Swedish and Finnish Security Policies: The compatibility of non-alignment and participation in EU led conflict prevention. (Paper). Retrieved from: https://ecpr.eu/Filestore/PaperProposal/49b849a8-45b3-44cb-aca4-280060f1fa4a.pdf 16.10.2016

Bocquelet, D. (2014). Stridsvagn m/21 & m/21-29. Tanks Encyclopedia. Retrieved from: http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com/ww2/sweden/Stridsvagn_m21-29.php on 17.12.2016

Chant, C. (1999). La Maquinaria de Guerra Nazi. [The Nazi War Machine, Macarena Rojo Gonzalez, trans.]. Madrid, Spain: Editorial Agata (Original work published in 1996).

Chant, C. (2001). Aviones de la II Guerra Mundial. [Aircraft of World War II, Juan José Guerrero & Inés Martín, trans.]. Madrid, Spain: Editorial LIBSA (Original work published in 1999).

Chant, C. (2006). Barcos de Guerra. [Warships Today, Fabián Remo & Fernando Tamayo, trans.]. Madrid, Spain: Editorial LIBSA (Original work published in 2004).

Crawford, S. (2001). Portaaviones y Acorazados [Battleships and Carriers, José Luis Tamayo, & L. Martín, trans.]. Madrid, Spain: Editorial LIBSA (Original work published in 1999).

Globalsecurity. (2014). Swedish Neutrality. Retrieved from: http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/europe/se-neutrality.htm on 27.10.2016

Gotkowska, J. (2012). Sitting on the Fence. Swedish Defence Policy and the Baltics Sea Region. In: Point of View, 33. Centre for Eastern Studies. Warsaw, Poland. Retrieved from: https://www.osw.waw.pl/sites/default/files/pw_szwecja_ang_net.pdf on 20.04.2014

Gral. Guderian, H. (2007). Recuerdos de un Soldado. [Erinnerungen eines Soldaten, Luis Pumarola Alaiz, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Inèdita Editores S.L. (Original work published in 1952).

Haskew, M. E. (2012). Vehiculos Acorazados de Combate 1945-Actualidad [Postwar Armoured Fighting Vehicles 1945-Present, Antonio Rincón, trans.]. Madrid, Spain: Editorial LIBSA (Original work published in 2005).

Hetmanchuck, N. (2012). Swedish Foreign Policy: Neutrality vs. Security. Retrieved from: http://pol.illinoisstate.edu/downloads/conferences/2012/2AHetmanchuk_Swedish.pdf on 16.10.2016

Hogg, I. (2002). Artilleria del Siglo XX [Twentieth-Century Artillery, José Luis Tamayo & Juan José Guerrero, trans.]. Madrid, Spain: Editorial LIBSA (Original work published in 2000).

Jackson, R. (2002). Destructores, Fragatas y Corbetas [Destroyers, frigates and corvettes, Igor Aristegui, trans.]. Madrid, Spain: Editorial LIBSA (Original work published in 2001).

Jackson, R. (2012). Panzer: Modelle aus aller Welt von 1915 bis Heute. [Ralf Burau, trans.]. Bath, UK: Parragon Books.

Kaplan, R. D. (2008). Por tierra, mar y aire. [Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts, Jordi Vidal, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Ediciones B (Original work published in 2007).

Lindström, G. (1997). Sweden’s Security Policy: Engagement – the Middle Way. Occasional Paper (2), 1-58. Retrieved from: http://www.iss.europa.eu/uploads/media/occ002.pdf on 21.10.2016

Cmrd. Parnell, C. L. (n.d.). Security Assistance and the Neutral States of Western Europe. Retrieved from: http://www.disam.dsca.mil/pubs/Vol%208-3/Parnell.pdf on 16.10.2016

Pashkov, M. (2009). Swedish Security Model: Peace-loving, Well-armed Neutrality. National Security & Defence (1), 40-43. Retrieved from: http://www.razumkov.org.ua/eng/files/category_journal/NSD105_eng_9.pdf on 16.10.2016   

Rickly, J. M. (2004). The Western Influence on Swedish and Swiss Polciies of Armed Neutrality during the Early Cold War. In Schwok, R. & Curzon-Prince, V. (Eds.), Europe: Interactions globales – Global Interactions (117-134). Genève, Switzerland: Institut européen de l’Université de Genève. Retrieved from: http://archive-ouverte.unige.ch/unige:21419 on 22.12.2016

Sharpe, M. (2001). Jets de Ataque y Defensa [Attack and Interceptor Jets, Macarena Rojo, trans.]. Madrid, Spain: Editorial LIBSA (Original work published in 1999).

Sweden.se. (2012). History of Sweden: War, Peace and Progress. Sweden.se. Retrieved from: https://sweden.se/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/History-of-Sweden-high-resolution.pdf on 16.10.2016

Trewhitt, P. (2011). Blindados de Combate [Armoured Fighting Vehicles, José Luis Tamayo, trans.]. Madrid, Spain: Editorial LIBSA (Original work published in 1999).

Turner, J. (2003). Tanques y Vehículos Militares Modernos [Tracked Firepower. Mighty Military Machines, José Luis Tamayo, Juan José Guerrero, & Fernando Tamayo trans.]. Madrid, Spain: Editorial LIBSA. (Original work published in 2002).

Ugwukah, A. (2015). Neutrality as Foreign Policy Principle: A Historical Evaluation of Swedish Posture. Historical Research Letters 17,27-42. Retrieved from: http://www.iiste.org/Journals/index.php/HRL/article/view/20141 on 16.10.2016

Vaahtoranta, T. & Forsberg, T. (2000). Post-Neutral or Pre-Allied? Finnish and Swedish Policies on the EU and NATO as Security Organizations. UPI Working Papers (29), 2-43. Retrieved from: https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/19260/WP29.pdf on 16.10.2016

Westberg, J. (2013). Sweden’s policy of neutrality. In: Novaković, I. S. (Ed.). Neutrality in the 21st Century – Lessons for Serbia, Essay Compendium. Retrieved from: http://www.isac-fund.org/download/NEUTRALNOST-ENG-F-2WEB.pdf on 16.10.2016

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Defining Neutrality II – Sweden (I)

Image ‘Gustavia -Old Swedish flag in Museum’, by Roger W. Released under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) License.

Image ‘Gustavia -Old Swedish flag in Museum’, by Roger W. Released under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) License.


The case of Sweden (Part I)


Switzerland is one of the most renown neutral nations in the last 100-200 years, and the particularities, reasons and future of its neutrality policies were reviewed in a couple of articles about its neutrality. But there is another remarkable international case of neutrality, another country with a long tradition of neutrality despite its former position of Great Power. That, indeed, might be the only difference in regards to the Swiss case, as many traits of its neutrality have considerable common elements with those of the Swiss case. However, it is important to remark that, regardless of some similarities, each case has its own characteristics. This country is Sweden, which for instance, was one of the neutral nations mostly affected by the geopolitical changes in its neighbourhood from 1814 onwards, especially during the 20th century. As this country adopted a policy of neutrality in 1814, it had enjoyed some relative peace for 200 years, yet its neutrality policy that has not been entirely rigid – to put in in a way – in contrast to that of Switzerland.

A Precedent

Swedish neutrality is about 200 years old. But it seems that there was a brief precedent in which neutrality, at the most, was the main policy only by the name. As Müller (2011) points out, a brief period of neutrality took place from 1780 to 1783 and under King Gustav III, when Sweden took part in the (first) League of Armed Neutrality. But if these years could have marked the dawn of neutrality era, in reality Gustav III’s aim behind such membership responded to strategic and geopolitical interests thus setting aside these years as the time when neutrality began. For instance, he aimed at keep Denmark and Russia divided, and also to face Russia while restoring its former position as a Great Power (Müller, 2011)[1]. There was clearly no intention of keeping Sweden entirely neutral through this league.

There was also another factor behind Gustav III’s brief neutrality policies, and that was to benefit from trade through a free port (Mastrand, on the West Coast and near to Göteborg) in wartime, as it was the case with French and American privateers, which gave Sweden an opportunity to expand its commercial interests into the Atlantic and even into Asia, and to establish a colony policy (Müller, 2011)[2]. Furthermore, Swedish aim of joining the league was to protect its trade when hostilities should have sparked between the major powers, considering it had a fleet of 1224 trading ships, yet it found several opposition from other states part of that League – Denmark and Russia – that, in the end, marked the failure of it. And Sweden’s relative isolation also played a role. The very short-lived colonial policies of Sweden and the trade with Asia were the remarkable casualties of such failure (Müller, 2011).

After defeat, after victory, and the 19th Century

Therefore, and after the failure of the League, Sweden simply resumed its war-like attitude, which had disastrous consequences for the nation. The period between 1809 and 1814 come as the accurate years marking the beginning of Sweden’s neutrality policy era. After 300 hundred years of frequent warfare, the Scandinavian nation simply decided to follow such a policy, giving up the previous great power politics and its aims of becoming a dominant Baltic power, and simply to avoid being entangled into wars given the policy of alliances (Bergman, 2004; Hetmanchuk, 2012; Ugwukah, 2015; Vaahtoranta & Forsberg, 2000)[3]. But the shocking loss of Finland after a brief war with Russia, whose loss was the result of an agreement between Russia and England to push away Sweden from England in exchange of taking Finland out of the Swedish Kingdom (Treaty of Tilsit). Sweden’s involvement in the Napoleonic Wars and the new government of King Karl XIV Johan, also set Sweden onto this course. For instance, and although neutrality started between 1812-1814, it was officially labelled as a state policy by King Karl XIV Johan by 1834, when increasingly hostile relations between Russia and the British Empire risked the Baltics to become a theatre of operations, allowed him to officialise neutrality both home and abroad, with impartiality taken as a main basis for such. Such neutrality policy was also meant to be implemented in case of war in the future (Basset, 2012; Edgren, 2009; Feldbæk, 2001; Globalsecurity, 2014; Gotkowska, 2012; Pashkov, 2009; SverigesRadio, 2009)[4].

In addition, there was a war against Denmark, which ultimately led into a Union between Norway and Sweden for almost a century, as well as to the beginning of Swedish neutrality, as it was the last war in which Sweden took part, shovelling for a time its hostility against Russia, and enjoying a sort of geographical isolation. This war was a product of an alliance between Sweden and both Russia and the United Kingdom, where Sweden agreed to contribute to the efforts against Napoleon and to give up any territorial claim on Finland, invaded and seized by Russia. In exchange, Sweden received Russian and British – mostly British – support in the Swedish-Danish war, which resulted in the union between Sweden and Norway, union clearly supported by Sweden’s new allies. Sweden also intended to claim Norway as part of its territory and against Denmark (Feldbæk, 2001; Sandbekken, 2005; Sweden.se, 2012; Westberg, 2013).

In any case, the policy of neutrality had various reasons for such being the only course the Scandinavian nation could take, by the hand of Karl XIV Johan. According to Basset (2012), the Napoleonic Wars and the revolution in military affairs – strategy tactics, the composition of the armies and even technology – along the military and economic losses Sweden sustained during the wars, the size and geographical isolation from Europe were the main factors behind the adoption of neutrality. Lundquist (2013), adds that this policy aimed at isolating Sweden from the rest of Europe too, yet being open to adapting to any circumstance that could provide an opportunity and reportedly being a policy that made Sweden to lean towards the British Empire than to Russia.

Furthermore, a policy of neutrality became a main ambition for it would guarantee a more independent path in regards to international affairs, and since Sweden was geographically located between two major Great Powers – this situation would repeat itself during the Cold War – having strong interests with both, it wanted to protect them, following Ugwukah (2015). Such interests were trade interests and to address the large military power and proximity of Russia, and to maintain the industrial, commercial and naval interests with the British Empire. (Ugwukah, 2015)[5].

But neutrality was not a permanent, easy policy for Sweden to maintain. For instance, Sweden’s way to safeguard its national security forced it to stretch its neutrality and non-alignment. First, Sweden tended to orientate to different great powers – Russia, the British Empire and then Germany – to grant its security[6]. Second, three small wars that had the Baltic region as scenario took place, testing Sweden’s neutrality and resolve to keep it – though it was Sweden’s relative weakness what prevented in the end its participation by Denmark’s side on the Schleswig War – and the changing balance of power following the Prussian victory of 1870. Third, the introduction of the railway and iron-clad warships almost neutralized the almost isolated and semi-insular position Sweden had (Ugwukah, 2015).

Furthermore, and in relation to the first and second issues, the successors of Karl XIV Johan – Oskar I and Karl XV – implemented rather a policy of military alignment, by sending 4000 soldiers to assist Denmark in reasserting its authority over Schleswig and Holstein, following a desire of the German population to join the German confederation and an invasion by some German states in 1848. 1855 was the year in which the Crimea War sparked, with some British and French warships operating at the Baltics as it became another theatre of operation, prompting Sweden to sign an alliance with both the Great Britain and France, further eroding Sweden’s neutrality. But Sweden would retake an absolute path of neutrality during the 1863 Dane-Prussian War, refusing to send military support to Denmark and adopting a neutral and ‘passive’ policy, which would last until WWI (Feldbæk, 2001; Ugwukah, 2015).

The turn of the Century: The First World War and the aftermath – roots of Swedish Armed neutrality

Swedish neutrality was a policy that was difficult to implement, as it was mentioned before, yet it was intended to be indeed flexible and adaptable to the circumstances and opportunities the event would provide. It is perhaps this flexibility that explains why Sweden’s neutrality have been controversial, especially during the 20th century, where its neutrality and ‘non-alignment’ policy was put under question many times, following some stances and actions that Sweden took during this period. And it also explains why it has been able to endure the different tests it faced throughout its implementation.

During World War I, Sweden remained neutral and therefore out of the carnage. As Lindström (1997) and Basset (2012) points out, when the crises that sparked in 1912 – which accelerated the pace towards World War I – at the Balkans, and North Africa took place, Sweden – alongside Denmark and Norway – declared its commitment to neutrality. Therefore, Sweden remained out of the war[7]. But even if neutrality was a national policy of Sweden, it was not entirely accepted and it faced a risk, though not that considerable, of being derogated. During WWI, in fact, there was a considerable group of Swedes (some of the royals) that supported Germany, wanting the country to lean towards the German Empire as it was having a strong political, economic, cultural and military influence over the Scandinavian nation. France and Great Britain were also a subject of sympathies in Sweden, but as Russia was part of the Entente – and the sour memories of 1809 were still fresh – it made difficult for many to fully support the Entente, even pleading for Sweden to join the War on the Side of the Central Empires (Chi-Kyu, 2007; sverigeturism, n.d. SverigesRadio, 2014)

However, and despite this fact and the fact that the then Swedish Prime Minister – Hjalmar Hammarskjöld – and many military officers, public servants and Social Democratic Party were very friendly towards the German Empire, King Gustav V’s cautiousness prevailed and therefore Sweden remained neutral, implementing also and for the first time a policy of Armed Neutrality, following Chi-Kyu, (2007), Sweden.se (2012) and sverigeturism, (n.d.). This armed neutrality policy was to become one of the main traits of Swedish neutrality from there on, just as the Swiss neutrality. Thus, Sweden’s foreign policies were standing on three pillars: neutrality-passiveness, non-alignment and armed neutrality.

Yet the absolute isolationism proved to be hard to accomplish, as the conflict affected Sweden strongly, prompting also Sweden to lean towards England and the Allies. As Sweden was exporting food to the German Empire, the blockade imposed by the allies began to affect the economy, and as a bad harvest and imports of food took place at the same time, the country had to reach an agreement with the Allies in order to get supplies and food. The political sympathies also changed during the conflict, turning towards the British Empire instead of the German Empire (sverigeturism, n.d.). This fact alone challenges the ‘non-alignment’ of Sweden, and evidences that inner politics would have made this rather impossible to accomplish. The same would go for ‘passiveness’.

Neutrality was also put under question abroad by Swedish inner affairs. The abovementioned discussions between the neutralists and the pro-Germany groups was one factor. Another one was a domestic political crisis that had its origins over King Gustav V desire for the military service extension to be rapidly defined, and the following resignation of the liberal prime minister, the conformation of a conservative cabinet and their dissolution of the second chamber (Ugwukah, 2015).

Then, after the war ended, an event taking place in the neighbouring Finland would further test Swedish neutrality, passiveness and non-alignment, let alone the idea of isolation. When the Independence and Civil war sparked in the new-born nation, Sweden undertook some actions that spoke against its neutrality, as during the war it firstly occupied the Åland Islands at the west of Finland (with a large Swedish population), prompting the League of Nations to request Sweden to return the island[8]. And then, at the same time, a group of Swedish volunteers (up to a thousand) assisted the Whites against the Reds (Russian/Soviets aiming at keeping control over Finland through a communist state) during the Independence and the Civil war under Gustav von Mannerheim’s command, and notably taking part at the Battle of Tampere while fighting side-to-side with the famous Prussian-trained Jägers and 12000 German soldiers (Juhani & et.al, n.d.; Sakshaug, 1969; Sparks, 2014; SverigesRadio, 2014).

Moreover, Sweden also intervened in the Estonian Independence War, or at least volunteers of this nationality actively participated in this conflict, supporting the new-born state’s armed forces in their fight against both Russia/Soviet and German forces. Even a Swedish major – Martin Ekström – took command over the Finnish volunteer unit that took part as well in the liberation of Estonia[9].

In any case, and as Ugwukah (2015) points out, Swedish neutrality practically resisted the domestic context, gaining a very special position in the country as it basically avoided it the havoc and suffering the war brought upon the belligerents, laying also the basis for Sweden to contribute to other, more high causes in the times to come.

These actions overall suggest that, while having neutrality as main foreign policy North, Sweden was somewhat prepared to assert its interest proactively, almost re-implementing its old great power politics. And perhaps these actions indeed reflect the very flexible and circumstantial nature of Swedish neutrality. The times that were about to come (the World War II, the Cold War and the post-Cold War and 21st Century) were about to stress further Swedish neutrality, let alone that Swedish stance on its own neutrality vis-à-vis the international context was about to be tested. These facts, which made Swedish neutrality very particular from that of Switzerland, are going to be pointed out and analysed further in the next part, where a question about Sweden’s neutrality before the new security and geopolitical context will be done as well.



[1] And it seems that, according to Müller (2011), Sweden’s implementation of neutral policies can be traced back to the Anglo-Dutch Wars, the Anglo-French Wars and even the American War of Independence, profiting from those policies at least in trade.

[2] Another free port, Slite, in Gotland, was not successful due to Russia’s reluctance to support it, as it could have harmed Denmark, its closest Baltic ally, and its negative to establish commercial relations with Sweden. See: Müller, 2011, p.147-148.

[3] Noteworthy to remark that, following Ugwukah (2015), Swedish neutrality is based upon a definition of neutrality by the Hague’s convention of 1807.

[4] Edgren (2009) even suggests that the loss of Finland served Sweden, by avoiding the possibility of another war with Russia. Nonetheless, this might be a factor among many – neutrality included – to explain this phenomenon. And perhaps this loss might have helped to reach a settlement that allowed too the materialization of neutrality.

[5] Or as Basset (2012) puts it, Sweden desired to preserve its territory and sovereignty, as well as to protect its economy from the effects of war. See: p.10.

[6] Cfr. Andren (As quoted in Ugwukah, 2015), p. 33.

[7] Cfr. Bergman, 2004 p,6; and Chi-Kyu, 2007.

[8] However, and following Sakshaug (1969), the Swedish occupation of Åland was justified as the Swedish population was being harassed by Russian soldiers following the Russian Revolution, thus requesting for unification with Sweden, which in turn sent troops to protect the Swedish population that was subjected to aggression by the Russians.

[9] Cfr. Kalevipoeg. (2006). The Estonian Liberation War. Retrieved from: http://www.allempires.com/article/index.php?q=estonian_liberation_war on 22.10.2016



Basset, B. (2012). Factors Influencing Sweden’s Changing Stance on Neutrality. Retrieved from: https://www.ideals.illinois.edu/bitstream/handle/2142/34336/Bassett_Bergen.pdf?sequence=1 on 16.10.2016

Bergmann, A. (2004). Post-Cold War Shifts in Swedish and Finnish Security Policies: The compatibility of non-alignment and participation in EU led conflict prevention. (Paper). Retrieved from: https://ecpr.eu/Filestore/PaperProposal/49b849a8-45b3-44cb-aca4-280060f1fa4a.pdf 16.10.2016

Chi-Kyu, S. (2007). Sweden and world War I. ZUM.de. Retrieved from: https://www.zum.de/whkmla/sp/0708/chikyu/chikyu1.html on 22.10.2016

Edgren, H. (2009). When Finland was Lost. Background, Course of Events and Reactions. NOREUROPAforum 19(2), 61-82. Retrieved from: http://edoc.hu-berlin.de/nordeuropaforum/2009-2/edgren-henrik-61/PDF/edgren.pdf on 21.10.2016

Felbæk, O. (2001). Denmark in the Napoleonic Wars. A Foreign Policy Survey. In: Scandinavian Journal of History 26(2), 89-101. Retrieved from: http://www.kb.dk/export/sites/kb_dk/en/nb/komponentgalleri/nb/713787158x1x.pdf on 20.10.2016

Globalsecurity. (2014). Swedish Neutrality. Retrieved from: http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/europe/se-neutrality.htm on 27.10.2016

Gotkowska, J. (2012). Sitting on the Fence. Swedish Defence Policy and the Baltics Sea Region. In: Point of View, 33. Centre for Eastern Studies. Warsaw, Poland. Retrieved from: https://www.osw.waw.pl/sites/default/files/pw_szwecja_ang_net.pdf on 20.04.2014

Hetmanchuck, N. (2012). Swedish Foreign Policy: Neutrality vs. Security. Retrieved from: http://pol.illinoisstate.edu/downloads/conferences/2012/2AHetmanchuk_Swedish.pdf on 16.10.2016

Juhani & et.al. (n.d). Swedish Brigade. War of Independence. Mannerheim.fi. Retrieved from: http://www.mannerheim.fi/06_vsota/e_ruotpr.htm on 20.04.2014

Kalevipoeg. (2006). The Estonian Liberation War. All Empires. Retrieved from: http://www.allempires.com/article/index.php?q=estonian_liberation_war on 22.10.2016

Lindström, G. (1997). Sweden’s Security Policy: Engagement – the Middle Way. Occasional Paper (2), 1-58. Retreived from: http://www.iss.europa.eu/uploads/media/occ002.pdf on 21.10.2016

Lundquist, D. (2013). Swedish Security & Defence Policy 1990 – 2012. The transformation from neutrality to solidarity through a state identity perspective. urn:nbn:se:fhs:diva-3821. Stockholm, Sweden. Retrieved from: http://fhs.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:626364/FULLTEXT01.pdf on 02.02.104

Müller, L. (2011). Sweden’s neutral trade under Gustav III: The ideal of commercial independence under the predicament of political isolation. In Stapelbroek, K. (Ed.). Collegium 10, 143-160. Retrieved from: https://helda.helsinki.fi/bitstream/handle/10138/25834/010_08_Muller_2011.pdf;sequence=1 on 16.10.2016

Pashkov, M. (2009). Swedish Security Model: Peace-loving, Well-armed Neutrality. National Security & Defence (1), 40-43. Retrieved from: http://www.razumkov.org.ua/eng/files/category_journal/NSD105_eng_9.pdf on 16.10.2016   

Sakhshaug. E.C. (1969). Aspects of the Åland Islands Question. Dissertations and Theses. Paper 745. Retrieved from:  http://pdxscholar.library.pdx.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1744&context=open_access_etds on 22.10.2016

Sparks, (2014). The Warfare Historian. Finland’s Civil War 1918: Red & White Suomi and the Kinship Wars, 1918-1922. Retrieved from: http://warfarehistorian.blogspot.de/2014/02/finlands-civil-war-1918-red-white-suomi.html on 20.04.2014

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SverigesRadio. (2014). “Swedish activism” in WWI. SverigesRadio. Retrieved from: http://sverigesradio.se/sida/artikel.aspx?programid=2054&artikel=5931605 on 21.10.2016

Sverigeturism. (n.d.). The 20th century. Sverigeturism. Retrieved from: http://www.sverigeturism.se/smorgasbord/smorgasbord/society/history/20th.html on 22.10.2016

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China, US defence spending and real military capabilities: When economics can deceive. p1


“Greater powers and resources do not guarantee tactical superiority”

Sun Bin, The Lost Art of War


One of the current debates in foreign affairs and security circles, as well as in the sphere of international political economy, is the debate about the difference between US and Chinese military spending. The main argument of this debate is that the logical imbalance does not justify the existing concerns the US is having about Chinese military and naval capacities.

If anything, the a priori assumption based upon a difference on mere economic indexes is a symptom of a world that, nowadays and from my point of view, is privileging the economy above anything else, strategy included. Our current world is a one in which the idea that the economy can solve, prevent or explain how the world works, prevails. Yet today’s world is missing one important point: economy is only a part of the political spectre, and sometimes – if not always – it is very interconnected with military-strategic issues.

As Sun Bin’s quote should make plainly clear, it does not matter how great a military power can be, or how large the – financial – resources are, in the end both could be neutralized. Many, with their economist mindset might find this rather absurd. A great military power supported by a great amount of resources could not be defeated or even be concerned by a regional adversary whose military power and resources are comparatively lower. They, like the current economic-centred world we live in today, are missing two important concepts, dismissing also a discipline the world should not set aside. Those two concepts are ‘tactics and strategy’, while the discipline that should be paid special attention is called ‘history’[1].

The aim here is to show why this debate is basing upon a very wrong ground, leading to wrongful a priori assumptions, and why even the nation with the most military power and economic resources is right on being concerned about a localized threat. History is a good tool to show some of those cases in which, despite the clear balance of power before a conflict, the outcome was different from what was expected.

The facts behind the debate

To start with the proposed discussion here, it is important to take a look at the facts that are structuring the debate under question, and also to point out the situation regarding the levels of defence spending and in what they are being invested in, considering that this could provide a first basic glance on both sides’ statements.

When approaching the statistical data, the results would speak by themselves. For instance, and looking at the year 2015, the US spent the astonishing sum of US$596024 million by 2015. In contrast, China spent approximately the sum of US$214787 million by 2015, according to SIPRI (2016)[2]. Furthermore, the same data presented in GDP percentage spent on defence and military shows what could be considered a huge gap: The US is investing 3.5% of the GDP, in contrast to Chinese 2.1% of the GDP (BBC, 2015; Rinehart, 2016). It seems that, even in times of austerity and sequestration, the US can enjoy some supremacy in resources in contrast to China, and that supremacy could mean having the lion’s share in assets.

The problem of focusing only on economics is that the sole numbers do not tell the whole story, only providing a very brief, general and – from my perspective – superficial view of an issue. Looking at the aforementioned data one might draw the conclusion that, in case of conflict, the US could be at great advantage. The problem is that one must look beyond the mere numbers and ask three important questions, so to have a detailed picture and therefore reach more sustained and informed conclusion. The first question is in which assets or weapons the investment is being made. The second question is the geopolitical and strategic situation of both sides. And the third question, which strategies and tactics are being devised and what are the assets that are being created in the light of those strategies and tactics, and in the light of their strategic situations. Or to put it simply: the intentions behind the assets, the assets created to materialize such intentions, and the space where they will be used.

The first question can be answered rather easily, dividing it into two parts. According to the BBC (2015), the balance of power between the US and China is as it follows: Firstly, China has 2,333,000 military personnel versus 1,433,150 military personnel of the US. Secondly, China is the one that is having the upper share in some assets, such as in tanks – 6540 versus 2785 – but in others it lags behind the US. This last one, for instance, has 2397 fighters – against 1667 of China – of which 246 are stealth fighters – against 6 prototypes of China. Furthermore, the US has 517 drones against “some” of China, having also 450 ICBM launchers versus 66 of China. Navally speaking and following the Secretary of Defence (2016) and the BBC (2015), China seems to have the lesser hand in contrast to the US, having only one aircraft carrier to 10 of the US; between 66-69 submarines (4 SSBN, 5 SSN and 57 diesel-powered Attack Submarines) to 73 of the US; around 17-23 destroyers to 62 of the US; 52 frigates, 23 corvettes, 27 LST (Tank Landing Ship); 22 Medium Landing Ships; 3 amphibious transport docks; and 86 missile patrol craft[3].

There is something that must be considered in the naval statistics, and that is the Chinese Naval Aviation assets, considering that they are playing an important part in Chinese territorial claim policies, and would play an equally important role in case of a head-on confrontation with the US or any other adversaries. Following Lewis-Rice, Maloney & Payne (2014), the Chinese Naval Aviation has 188 combat aircraft (14 long-range bombers and 64 ground-attack aircraft), 19 special mission aircraft (3 SAR, 13 EW, 3 MPA and 3 AEW), 32 transport aircraft, 93 combat helicopters, and 40 training helicopters and aircraft[4].

The facts might look impressive and conclusive beforehand, but again, many knots are left untied. Such knots can be tied by making an analysis of the geopolitical and strategic situation each country has vis-à-vis the other one.

Where the Dragon Stands

China is currently having important territorial claims and disputes over areas and regions that happen to have valuable resources the Chinese economy needs, along its ‘claim’ over Taiwan, which it considers a ‘rebel province’ and not a sovereign state. This, of course and following (Fravel & Liebman, 2011), means that China has to develop the necessary military assets and strategies to protect those claims that are, given the reasons behind them, strategically important. Also, naval assets have been developed having in mind the protection of natural resources imported from abroad. But overall, what China considers it EEZ needs to be protected from third parties. Now that the general strategic aim was briefly explained, it is time to take a look at the strategic areas of interests for China.

China is supporting its territorial claims at the South China Sea, using a ‘nine-dash line’ to encompass most of the area, which overlaps with either territorial waters or territorial claims by other nations, such as Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. The build-up, mostly military in nature, of outpost in the Spratly Islands as well as the construction of artificially made island will strengthen Chinese position in the area, let alone the control over the neighbouring maritime areas with air and naval assets[5]. The Scarborough Reef and the Second Thomas Shoal, in turn, has seen a continued presence of the Chinese Coast Guard, increasing tensions with the Philippines. The Luconia Shoals, Reed Bank and Paracel Island are areas within the South China Sea where other disputes between China and its Southeast Asian neighbours are takin place (Secretary of Defence, 2016).

The Senkaku Islands are another area where China is having strong territorial claims, almost placing it on collision course with Japan, since those islands belong to Japan. Chinese maritime law enforcement vessels and aircraft have been patrolling near the islands so to challenge Japanese sovereignty, while China keeps claiming they belongs to it and would response to any perceived ‘external provocation’. This situation has made Japan to scramble fighters and ships to ward off those of China, increasing the odds of a new Sino-Japanese conflict (Secretary of Defence, 2016).

Taiwan is another strategic issue that is important for China, and from which a confrontation with the US might take place, considering the island-nation is a close ally of the United States. For instance, and following the Secretary of Defence (2016), Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aim is to coerce or attempt an invasion of Taiwan, as it considers that credible threat of use of force would prevent Taiwan’s absolute independence. And China is clearly ready to use force in such a case. Most of Chinese military and naval build up has as one of the main ‘legs’ the invasion of Taiwan. In this order of ideas, China would have three main aims in case it decided to attack Taiwan: to deter a potential US intervention; or to delay such intervention in case it fails to prevent it, by waging an asymmetrical and limited but quick war; or to reach a standstill and pursue a political solution (Secretary of Defence, 2016)[6]. The strategic tool for the Taiwanese case is denominated ‘near-seas active defence’, as it has as aim the reunification of Taiwan with China[7]. Noteworthy to point out that this strategy is also known as the ‘first island chain’, which stretches from the Kurile Islands to Borneo, encompassing Japan, Taiwan, the Yellow Sea, East China Sea and South China Sea (Li, 2011)[8].

In this order of ideas, China could exert alternative measures in case of an attack against Taiwan, according to the Secretary of Defence (2016)[9]. The first of them is the exertion of a naval and air blockade, forcing Taiwan-bound ships to stop for inspection in mainland ports. The second option is the mixture of disruptive, punitive, or lethal under a limited campaign, where political, economic and military infrastructures could be targeted by special forces and aiming at undermining the people’s confidence on the government. Or simple to undermine the will of the adversary. The third option is an air and missile strikes against military and communication assets to degrade defences or break the will of the adversary. The last option is an amphibious assault against Taiwan or any of its overseas islands – simply to show military capability and political resolve in the case of the islands – which, by the way, would require both sea and air superiority, and sustained supply lines. This option would also require urban warfare and counterinsurgency operations in case Taiwan is successfully seized.

The main strategy that will serve China to assert and secure its interests it’s the Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/D2), whose main aims are to dissuade, deter or – if the case – defeat a potential intervening third-party mainly – but not only – in a Taiwan scenario (Secretary of defence, 2016). This strategy could be applied for other similar scenarios where Chinese forces require this strategy, like the Senkaku Islands or the South China Sea territorial claims. What makes this strategy particularly concerning are the “seven operational pillars” it has, which provides China with tools and frameworks enough to address a contender with superior resources and assets, neutralizing its strategic and tactical superiority as well. These “operational pillars” are as it follows, according to Secretary of Defence (2016): Information operations; cyber operations; long-range precision strikes; Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD); surface and undersea operations; space and counterspace; integrated air defence system; and air operations. It is noteworthy to remark that the current Chinese military modernizations, but especially those of the air assets and naval assets, are oriented towards these “operational pillars” and A2/D2 strategy.

As it was mentioned before, the ‘near-seas active defence’ is purposed as one of the strategic tools for Taiwan and the territorial claims, which happen dot be close to China. But there is another counterpart, or rather, a complement purposed for long-range scenarios. This is the ‘far-seas operations’ strategic tool, which is aimed at complementing the strategic tool for near seas, protect economic and trade interests that are sea-based, and to enable China with long-range naval offensive capacities, this strategic tool is also known as the ‘second island chain’, which stretches from Japan to the Moluccas, and until the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, Micronesia and Palau, encompassing the Philippines Sea and this nation, the Celebes and Moluccas seas (Li, 2011).

The Indian Ocean is another scenario where China is increasingly present, considering that, according to Albert (2016), the Indian Ocean contains some important SLOCs connecting South and South East Asia with Europe and where shipments of oil goes by (32.2 million of barrels), not to mention that there are potential energy reserves. Moreover, 40% of world’s offshore petroleum is produced at that ocean, and the shores are basically having heavy mineral deposits, along with rich fisheries. As both India and China are having considerable economic growths – plus Chinese global influence – that pushes them to seek for energetic resources to sustain their economies, the Indian Ocean is becoming strategically important. This also is caused by US current focusing to Asia.

Therefore, and continuing with Albert (2016), China has invested in India’s neighbours’ infrastructure, the build-up of land and sea-based trade routes – the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road, both dubbed as ‘string of pearls’ – alongside increased naval presence, which is necessary for China to protect its interests at the region[10]. This presence is framed under what the Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China (2015) denominates “open seas protection”, which basically means protection of national, economic and strategic interests of China on that region. The possibilities of China transforming the Indian Ocean into a region as important as Taiwan, the Senkaku Island and the South China Sea, with similar infrastructures or naval bases is increasing. Following Chellaney, B. (2015), the ‘string of pearls’ is prompting China to create naval power and to protect the expanding maritime routes to the Middle East and through the Indian Ocean, as well as to projecting Chinese power towards Africa, Europe and the Middle East. This makes Pakistan a crucial element for China in the region, being the country where the two ‘silk Roads’ converge, while the acquisition of naval outposts for refuelling, replenishment and maintenance (of naval units) is the means to secure Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean[11]. In fact, the same China’s Ministry of Defence has recognized that supply facilities are necessary to provide PLAN vessels at the area with support. Facilities that are built as a “dual-use” facilities to disguise the real aim of the facilities, allowing also them to be used as commercial purposed facilities, as the ‘string of pearls’ are complemented by economic relationships with the host country (Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China, 2015).

What is the danger then of the Indian Ocean becoming another strategic important area for China? There are three main answers to this question. First, since Chinese presence implies a direct competition with India, China could make use of a A2/D2 to deal with India while warding off any third-party that could help this nation, only that having the assistance of considerable allies in the region, Pakistan mainly. Second, during a conflict in the other abovementioned areas, China could make of the Indian Ocean a secondary, distracting scenario so to push further US naval assets and stress further US strategic overstretch, eroding its concentration on a single area. And third, China could launch simultaneous offensives if its naval power is big enough for China to do so, allowing it to deal with potential adversaries at the same time.

Where the Eagle Stands

Now is the time to talk about the side that, according to the economic-centred main argument of the debate, would have nothing to fear as its superiority in (economic) resources and military assets grants it a sort of invulnerability.

However, and truth be told, the US, despite its supremacy on both instances, is in the fact the most vulnerable one. There is one reason behind such vulnerability that could neutralize its resources and assets superiority. The reason for this is no other than strategic overstretching, alongside the fact that this superiority in resources and assets is prompting US opponents to design strategies capable of neutralizing such. For what is of interest now, the strategic overreaching is going to be explained, alongside the strategic interests the US had in the region.

Following Janaro (2014), the US is facing three risks related to the strategic overstretching that could simply neutralized its overall advantages. First, the US has been facing a rather troublesome economic situation due to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and an increasing fiscal deficit as pensioners are increasing in numbers. Second, the military is simply pushed to the limits as it has to make simultaneous presence at various points of the globe. And third, the attrition product of a geographic overstretch while being involved in 5 different conflicts at the same time. All of these could affect negatively any US military campaign against China, alongside other additional strategic weaknesses that will be further analysed in the next section. With this taken into consideration, it is time to take a look at the US strategic interests.

The first strategic interest of importance is Japan, as it provides a platform for US readiness in Asia, according to Chanlett-Avery & Rinehart (2016), while the US provides Japan with security, a relation that has been deepened by recent events in the region, which includes Chinese increasing assertiveness affecting Japan directly – due to the dispute at Senkaku Islands. Moreover, the Japanese military capabilities contribute to US efforts in many fields, ranging from maritime defence cooperation, and ASW (anti-submarine warfare) support to space and cyber domains, including also BMD. Yet Japan is seemingly posing some challenges to US security activities in the area, despite Japan’s strong support, such as Japan’s remaining mistrusts on the prime minister by its neighbours, and the rivalry between Japan and South Korea, preventing the US to establish a block to address China and North Korea (Chanlett-Avery & Rinehart, 2016). Considering this context, it would not come as a surprise that the US that Sino-Japanese tension would end involving the US, considering the very close alliance and defence cooperation, not to mention that Japan could be also a target of any Chinese naval action and strategy.

The second important strategic interest is Taiwan. In fact, and following Kan & Morrison (2014), Taiwan has been of special importance to the US in security, economic and political aspects. Furthermore, Taiwan’s importance for the US is increasing by the day, given similar factors affecting also this nation. But the US is not providing enough support, following Mazza (2011). This is problematic, as there are three reasons Mazza (2011) considers the US should enhance support to Taiwan. First, if Taiwan is annexed by Japan, it would become an advanced Chinese naval and air base while providing China with depth, forcing the US to concentrate on neutralizing Taiwan in case of a conflict. Second, it would enable China to threaten Japan from the south. And third, Taiwan would allow China to control the Luzon Strait, which would strengthen Chinese position at South China Sea, warding off any foreign forces from the area, and acquiring both depth and a gateway to the Philippine Sea and the Pacific Ocean eastwards.

Now that US is rebalancing towards Asia, according to Kan & Morrison (2014), Taiwan is regaining more importance, even as an international security partner. But the country itself is posing challenges to the US, as it also has similar maritime territorial claims as China, where patrol vessels and armed incidents have taken place at both the Senkaku Islands and at the Luzon Strait, being the clashes with the Philippines the most troublesome.

A third important strategic interest, that is accidental in nature, is Vietnam. Accidental due to both nations’ shared concerns over China, driving them closer despite Human Rights issues in the nation, according to Auslin (2012). In detail, the current geopolitical and strategic context, involving China, is prompting Vietnam to be interested in US-made assets – like helicopters and fighters – while the US is considering in lifting the arms embargo, as Vietnam could serve as a counterbalance to China at the South China Sea when its military power is considered (alongside its valuable economic growth), according to Kurlantzick (2016).

A fourth important strategic interest is the Philippines. This nation is becoming a central element of US rebalancing to Asia, due to Chinese activities in South China Sea, as it would give the US forward bases and presence by stationing assets near a hot spot, let alone the region. Also, the Philippine is having an important role in the US-led Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative (MSI), organization aimed at improving monitoring, reaction and information sharing to air and maritime activity, and is having a good approach on freedom of navigation and diplomatic and peaceful resolution of disputes. And the Philippines partnership activities with other US key regional allies (Australia and Japan) is valuable, as it held exercises involving the US, Japan and Australia that has enhanced defence relations between the southeast Asian nation and Japan and Australia (Parameswaran, 2016).

And a last, very crucial strategic interest of the US in the region, are the overseas territories and bases it has on the Western Pacific, for they can provide fixed and “own” forward bases where materializing presence is possible. The United States has been taking such steps since 1996 and 2000 under the Clinton Administration and following the ’96 Taiwan Strait crisis back then, with the deployment of a SSN submarine in Guam, followed by further deployments of assets in the years that followed, complementing them with regional-based security cooperation mechanisms (Kan, 2014; Ross, 2013). Why the deployments to Guam in particular? Kan (2014) provides various reasons for this. The first is that is, indeed, important to enhancing forward presence. Second is that it serves to strengthen alliances. And third, it helps the US to manage the rise of China and it impact in the region, as well as for defending freedom of navigation. And more importantly, it has the advantages of being a US territory, it has the aforementioned strategic projection due to its location, and that it eliminates the ‘tyranny of distance’, as it brings the Western Pacific closer to the US.

The risks for the US are basically that if any of the abovementioned allies come under attack by China, the US will inevitably – unless there is a lacking of political will to do so – see to fulfil what the defence treaties stipulates, firstly. Also, these countries could come under attack by a Chinese calculation of striking the US bases located there – like Okinawa and the Philippines – or those on US soil, like Guam. After all, US bases in territories of other countries would mean a double strike against the US and the host nation, forcing their participation in a conflict where China could implement its A2/AD strategy and the other abovementioned strategies, which are mostly asymmetrical in essence, as it will be explained in the next section, which will focus on a detailed explanation on the risks the Chinese strategy entrails and how it can materialize the quote of Sun Bin: In other words, how the argument of higher military spending could be neutralized by a very important factor in warfare: tactic and strategy.



[1] This debate is somewhat similar to that about the supremacy of advance military technology versus more makeshift, simple and ‘traditional’ tactics.

[2] The Chinese data is an estimate made by SIPRI, and it must be considered also that Chinese data on this matter is not public, leaving plenty of ground to speculation. Cfr. SIPRI, 2016,  https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/Milex-constant-USD.pdf

[3] SSBN stands for nuclear-powered Ballistic Missile Submarines, while SSN stands for nuclear-powered Attack Submarines.

[4] SAR means Search and Rescue, EW means electronic Warfare, MPA means Maritime Patrol Aircraft, and AEW means Airborne Early Warning aircraft.

[5] These build-ups consist of deep channels, artificial harbours and dredging natural harbours, new berthing areas for docking larger ships, communication and surveillance systems, logistical support facilities, and airfields. See: Secretary of Defence, 2016, p.13.

[6] It is important to point out that China has been implementing a modernization programme of its forces, closing the technological gap with Taiwan and, by defect, the US.

[7] These strategic tool also have as aims to restore lost and disputed maritime territories – hence, it would be useful for the other territorial claims and scenarios, salve the Indian Ocean – and to protect China’s maritime resources, along with securing SLOCs in case of war, achieve nuclear strategic deterrence, and deter and defend against any sea-borne aggression. See: Li, 2011, p. 118.

[8] And it overlaps with, or it is almost identical to the ‘nine-dash line’.

[9] I dare to state that these measures could be implemented by China as complementary measures in order to support any main action against the island.

[10] See also: Chellaney, B. (2015). China’s Indian Ocean Strategy. The Japan Times.  Retrieved from: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2015/06/23/commentary/world-commentary/chinas-indian-ocean-strategy/#.V_cPUeCLSM8 on 06.10.2016

[11] Chinese naval build-up and increasing presence is also aiming at challenging US-led world order and secure its own global power status, according to Chellaney (2015).



Albert, E. (2016). Competition in the Indian Ocean. Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved from: http://www.cfr.org/regional-security/competition-indian-ocean/p37201 on 02.10.2016

Auslin, M. (2012). Why US Should Embrace Vietnam. The Diplomat. Retrieved from: http://thediplomat.com/2012/04/why-u-s-should-embrace-vietnam/ on 01.10.2016

BBC. (2015). China military parade commemorates WW2 victory over Japan. BBC. Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-34125418 on 18.09.2016

Chanlett-Avery, E., & Rinehart, I. E. (2016). The US-Japan Alliance. Congressional Research Service. Retrieved from: http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL33740.pdf on 02.10.2016

Chellaney, B. (2015). China’s Indian Ocean Strategy. The Japan Times.  Retrieved from: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2015/06/23/commentary/world-commentary/chinas-indian-ocean-strategy/#.V_cPUeCLSM8 on 06.10.2016

Fravel, M. T., & Liebman, A. (2011). Beyond the Moat: The PLAN’s Evolving Interests and Potential Influence. In: Saunders, P. C., Yung, C., Swaine, M., Yang, A. N. (Eds.). The Chinese Navy: Expanding Capabilities, Evolving Roles. (pp. 41 – 80). Washington DC: National Defense University Press.

Kan, S. A. (2014). Guam: US Defense Deployments. Congressional Research Service. Retrieved from: https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RS22570.pdf on 03.10.2016

Kan, S. A., & Morrison, W. M. (2014). US-Taiwan Relationship: Overview of Policy Issues. Congressional Research Service. Retrieved from: http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R41952.pdf on 02.10.2016

Kurlantzick, J. (2016). Will the United States Soon End the Arms Embargo on Vietnam? The National Interest. Retrieved from: http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/will-the-united-states-soon-end-the-arms-embargo-vietnam-16283 on 01.10.2016

Lewis-Rice, Maloney & Payne (2014). World Air Forces 2015. Surrey, UK: Flightglobal. Retrieved from: https://d1fmezig7cekam.cloudfront.net/VPP/Global/Flight/Airline%20Business/AB%20home/Edit/WorldAirForces2015.pdf on 06.10.2016

Li, N (2011). The Evolution of China’s Naval Strategy and Capabilities: From “Near Coast” and “Near Seas” to “Far Seas”. In: Saunders, P. C., Yung, C., Swaine, M., Yang, A. N. (Eds.). The Chinese Navy: Expanding Capabilities, Evolving Roles. (pp. 109 – 140). Washington DC: National Defense University Press.

Mazza, M. (2011). Why Taiwan Matters. The Diplomat. Retrieved from: http://thediplomat.com/2011/03/why-taiwan-matters/ on 01.10.2016

Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China (2015). IV. Building and Development of China’s Armed Forces. Zhaohui, D. (Ed.). Retrieved from: http://eng.mod.gov.cn/Database/WhitePapers/2015-05/26/content_4586713.htm on 02.10.2016

Office of the Secretary of Defense. (2016). Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2016. Department of Defence. Retrieved from: http://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2016%20China%20Military%20Power%20Report.pdf on 19.09.2016

Parameswaran, P. (2016). Why the Philippines is Critical to the US Rebalance to Asia. The Diplomat. Retrieved from: http://thediplomat.com/2016/04/why-the-philippines-is-critical-to-the-us-rebalance-to-asia/ on 01.10.2016

Rinehart, I. E. (2016). The Chinese Military: Overview and Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service. Retrieved from: https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R44196.pdf on 18.09.2016

Ross, R. S. (2013). US Grand Strategy, the Rise of China, and US National Security Strategy for East Asia. Strategic Studies Quarterly, 7(2), 20-40. Retrieved from:  https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/165269/Summer_2013.pdf on 02.10.2014

SIPRI. (2016). Military expenditure by country, in constant (2014) US$ m., 2006-2015. SIPRI. Retrieved from: https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/Milex-constant-USD.pdf on 18.09.2016

Sun Bin. (2005). El Arte de la Guerra II. Version y comentarios de Cleary, T. [The Lost Art of War by Sun Tzu II, Alfonso Colodron, trans.]. Madrid, Spain: Editorial Edaf (Original work published in 1996, by Cleary, T.).

The Prussian General Staff: Meritocracy in Arms. Part 1b.

Image 'Moltke Denkmal'. By Mario Zorro (Author). All rights reserved.

Image ‘Moltke Denkmal’. By Mario Zorro (Author). All rights reserved.

The first traits of the Prussian General Staff have been reviewed, along with the principles and concepts established by Gerhard von Scharnhorst, the most prominent mind behind its creation. How did his concepts and work evolved, and how much were they preserved, changed or enhanced by his successors? How did the General Staff evolved. And how did those successors kept building and enhancing the General Staff? This part will focus on the evolution of the General Staff after von Scharnhorst, the role it played in the Prussian victories of the second half of the 19th Century, the role it played during WWI, the period betweenthe wars and WWII. The relation the General Staff had with the political forces will be mentioned as well, in order to provide a much clear picture of the role it played beyond the military sphere.

The evolution of the General Staff

Following von Scharnhorst’s dead, von Gneisenau followed as chief of the QMG, which was later transformed into the General Staff, thus beings its very first head. He was an independent, bold and decided person, that was able to take initiative and even address a defeat suffered by von Blücher, as he ordered him to link up with Wellington, thus contributing to Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. He even devised tactics using the national resources, a decisive encounter after feint, manoeuvring and encirclement to defeat Napoleon. Von Blücher also became part of the General Staff as main advisor, as he himself recognized the value of highly trained and skilled assistants, being already selected by von Scharnhorst, and being able to connect with the common people. Von Gneisenau further developed the General Staff, by allowing the officers of the units own General Staffs to directly report and treat with him. He also implemented mission-based command with issuing general directives allowing subordinate commanders to have initiative and act independently within those general directives, as well as auftragstaktik or mission-type tactics[1]. The General Staff, during this period, also became an independent military institution, as it was separated from the War Ministry although it was still subordinated for operational planning and command. And more importantly, he established the right of the advising officer to take part on the command and control process (Gunther, 2012; Klein, 2001; Millotat, 1992; Schoy, n.d).

Another common myth about the Prussian army – and therefore the German army – is that it worked based on strict orders to be obeyed, stiffen hierarchy, little room for initiative, little freedom of action and officers unable to address any contingency as the plans were made very carefully and perfectly, needing only to follow them by the book. The review on von Scharnorst and the early days of the Prussian General Staff are the first argument to bust this myth. Furthermore, the principles established by him were further enhanced by his successors, being von Moltke the most remarkable one, at the point that his influence made of the Prussian Army rather flexible with officers capable of managing the unexpected, that very factor common in any battle.

Von Moltke, the Field Marshal that would play a decisive role in France’s defeat in 1871, also became chief of the General Staff (where also the General Staff received is current name), where he developed the concept of mission-based command, introducing uniformed training of the general’s officers (Klein, 2001). He also improved the General staff: it transformed it from an academic into an instrument of command, at the point the chief of General Staff became the chief of the High Command, and attending meetings concerning the General Staff and even issuing order independently. It also established three different divisions tasked with observing activities and any other matter of military interest and railroad related matters on three main geographical regions. These regions were: First, the North and Southeast areas; Sweden, Norway, Turkey, and Austria. Second, Central Europe, basically the small states of what would be Germany – the reader must bear in mind that these divisions belong to the times before the second German Unification under von Bismarck –, Italy and Switzerland. The third was in charge of Western Europe, basically France, England, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal. The USA was also under this particular division (Millotal, 1992)[2].

Von Moltke made also emphasis on mobility, speed and precision alongside the grasping of innovation product of the industrial revolution. War games over maps were also introduced to test and refine the strategies. Such innovations comprised rifled weapons and the railroads, able to exploited for mobilization, and new ways of communication. He also introduced a principle that would prove decisive even by WW2: the principle of “march separately, strike together”, which was in line with the mission-based command principle, comprising different frontal attacks making use of modern weapons and large number of troops[3]. He also stressed the importance of the small degree operations can be planned, focusing on the initial engagement, alongside independent command allowing also advice and mission oriented command (Bergamino & Palitta, 2015; Cau, 2011; Klein, 2001; Millotat, 1992)[4].

As the General Staff became a fully independent branch with specific and clear functions – thanks to the victories against Austria, Denmark and France – with direct access to the Kaiser (in 1883), von Schlieffen, who became the Chief of General Staff, enjoyed more independence and influence, even political. This was a troublesome aspect, as von Moltke and von Clausewitz tried to make the General Staff entirely apolitical. And the fact that the international context was very unstable did not helped in preserving this principle of neutrality, of which von Schlieffen simply adapted the previous concepts to such context, while increasing the army and introducing new equipment, technologies and command and control methods. He actually began to consider a threat on two fronts – and a war to address it – being such Russia and France, making the preparations for such contingence the main aim. He further exploited the tactical and strategic advantages of the railway network, the field artillery (with quick-firing cannons) and introducing new detailed maps. He retrieved the initial spirit of the importance of history for the General Staff, along other military-related sciences (Klein, 2001; Millotat, 1992).

For instance, and following Epkenhans (2010), The chief of General Staff reached the point of advising the Kaiser to go to war on two occasions – in 1887 and 1912 – after some crises in the Balkans involving Russia and Austria-Hungary in the first one, and the British empire in the second, in meetings where neither the chancellor nor the Secretary of foreign Affairs were present. This, however and as the same Epkenhans (2010) clarifies, was a result of the – abovementioned – social structure where the sovereign and the military were directly related, in addition to the latter sector’s strong political power and influence. It seems that after all, the General Staff could not escape to such socio-political structure, as Bismarck would protect the rights of the military and their budget against the parliament. Although relations were not always smooth and their power not that absolute. In fact, during the times of von Bismarck, there were clashes between the chancellor and the chief of General Staff about performing a victory parade in Vienna or requesting territorial demands, and even the Kaiser sided with Bismarck when the General Staff were against the plans of bombarding Paris with artillery. All in all, the foreign policies and domestic policies remained an affair of the chancellor, and eventually tactics and strategy. This particular irritated von Moltke, as he considered these two matters a prerogative of the military, considering how delicate the geo-strategic position of the German Empire was after the war with France (Epkenhans, 2010)[5].

The periods of both von Schlieffen and von Moltke II ‘The Young’ marked the transition of the army and the general Staff into a very unstable and troublesome century, while the nation was preparing itself for one of the most tragic conflicts ever, that would also bring an end to a period of time, taking with it some empires and monarchies of old. Under von Moltke II, the General Staff and the army continued with the preparations for the war against France and Russia, taking advantage of the rapidly developed new technologies and revisiting the command by using mission orders (Klein, 2001).

A troublesome century (1900-1945)

The turn of century was a very troublesome time for the German Empire in many ways: the international landscape only increased the very problematic geopolitical position of the nation, there were troubles and clashes with other Great Powers – mainly the traditional adversaries and concerns of Prussia/Germany – and, to make matters worse, the policies and the same figure of the Kaiser Wilhelm II troubled not only the foreign policies, but also the relation between the Kaiser and the military, affecting the General Staff in turn. This situation might explain why, in the end, the General Staff made use of its sort of high command position to basically displace the Kaiser as a governing figure during the war.

As Epkenhans (2010) points out, the ascent of Kaiser Wilhelm II began to trouble the relation between the Kaiser, the Chancellor and the military, as he interfered in absolutely anything, mainly in naval affairs as he favoured more the navy and tried to mold it upon the Russian army model. He deemed the navy as the weapon of choice to use the force in times where all the Great Powers were in an imperialistic race, or a more assertive foreign policy, aiming at contesting the British supremacy at the seas while protecting the German colonies overseas[6]. The problem relied on his indecisive nature that maximized the negative effects it could had on military-strategic affairs, further complicated by his desire to concentrate powers upon him, and leaving the Empire unable to cope well with crises when they took place. His intervention was that problematic that even the navy, despite its considerable power, was not ready to sail the treacherous waters and weather the gathering storms. The result was that the confidence of the military on him was simply lost, with the chancellor Hollweg sailing the ship towards WWI (Epkenhasus, 2010).

On the eve of WWI, the navy began to develop its own General Staff, and both navy and army respective staffs understood further the linkage between tactical and technological advancements, and apply such knowledge into the operational planning. During WWI, the General Staff increased its political power under von Falkenhayn first, and then with the famous duet Hindenburg-Ludendorff, at the point of dictating the policies of the state during the conflict, following the Kaiser’s inability to lead and design effective strategies[7]. Even after the war, the General Staff contributed in stabilizing the country, as the president Friedrich Ebert called the General Staff and the Prussian Ministry of War to repress the Bolsheviks, maintaining the role of the general Staff and part of the army basically intact and well into the Weimar Republic. It even survived the requirements of its disbanding made by the Allies following the armistice, only that in the units’ version instead of the bigger and central General Staff (Epkenhans, 2010; Klein, 2001; Millotat, 1992)[8].

The interwar period became a time in which, in the middle of scarcity and heavy restrictions, the General Staff manage to fulfil the spirit imprinted by von Scharnhorst, as it selected the best officers in order to rebuild the army regardless of heroics of social status. The person who kept the General Staff running – by taking advantage of the units’ general staffs – and laid the foundations of the reconstituted army was Hans von Seeckt, who put hands to work right after the end of the Great War. His three directives were the starting point for such process. The first one, was for each officer to serve and act according to the interests of the nation regardless of personal feelings or preferences. The second, was the alternation of staff and troop service, so the officers could be familiar with more operational issues. And third, the application of the lessons provided by war experience, previous analysis and study, alongside agility, mobility, clarity in orders, and ability to use – and maximize – available resources while facing heavily armed neighbours. He also kept and enhanced the ‘staff rides’, implementing war games and map exercises so to detect problems and find a solution, alongside papers on theory, weapons and other subjects. But concentration on a single task was avoided while intense training and practice were aimed at yielding uniformed operational thought. And of course, the mission-based command with freedom of action was retaken as a core principle, for von Seeckt considered that events during combat were variable and contingent factors were a rule, giving way to the commission of mistakes and ‘frictions’ (Klein, 2001; Millotat, 1992; Murray & Millet, 2005).

The main aim of von Seeckt, more specifically, was to examine the changes that emerged in the battlefields of WWII, examining the newly introduced tactic back then and exploiting the operational experiences of that conflict, with the aid of 57 commissions created for that sole purpose. The result of the findings, alongside the principles and his appointment of top-quality officers yielded the ‘combined weapons’ doctrine, which in turn, would help to establish the upcoming Panzer Divisionen and the premises of the Blitzkrieg and mobile warfare. These divisions and tactics development also followed the same spirit of the General Staff principles established by von Seeckt, as theoretical and empirical studies – based on the experiences of both British and French – were undertaken, as well as the famous ‘staff rides’ and exercises to test the concepts and theories, identify problems and work on their solution. The aim, of course, was also to modernize the army the same fashion as 1806 by introducing or adopting the new tactics and doctrines of the adversaries. As a result, the army was already having tactics and operational doctrines for the armoured divisions right before the first tanks were made available, developing such in the immediate post-war period and under the strong restrictions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles (Murray & Millet, 2005; Guderian, 2007; Jackson, 2012).

Another of the most common myths around the Prussian/German General Staff is that, it worked very closely with the Third Reich regime, and even that it simply materialized its military aims in full agreement with the regime. There are two observations on this regard: First, and is was abovementioned, the General Staff was already working on rebuilding the army under the direction of von Seeckt and other chiefs of General Staff in the interwar period, laying the foundations of the revenant German army and its operational doctrines a good time before the Nazis took power. Secondly, the relations between the General Staff and the new regime were rather conflictive, which that resulted in the secondary role the General Staff played by the most of WWII. The advent of the Third Reich sparked hopes that the General Staff would retrieve its former importance within the army, but soon the political requirements of the regimes to the troops was going against the spirit of objectivity and neutrality, as well as the clashes between the army and the ideas of the leader principles. As a result, and despite the important contribution by the General Staff in the interwar and the Poland and France campaigns period, the General Staff was relegated to a secondary role while being at odds with the regime. Even some of its officers took part in the assassination plot of July the 20th. The re-established War Academy allowed the General Staff to undertake the officers’ education at least (Klein, 2001; Millotat, 1992).

Furthermore, and following Guderian (2007), the General Staff and the dictator were having strong disagreements on operational issues even by 1944-1945, at the point that it simply displaced any influence this institution would have in the orders while concentrating all the decision prerogatives in his hands.

The rest is history and the outcome is already known, but it is very interesting to see how the General Staff simply shaped and structured not only an army, but also a nation, at the point that it gave the tools to wage war in the most efficient way, despite some political problems throughout its history. And even when victory was far from certain, yet being capable of shaping the history of the world. This is the history, the genealogy of the Prussian General Staff. In the next part, its essence will be thoughtfully reviewed, as it will help in understanding why it instils fears and admiration even nowadays, and how it contributed to shape a nation, an army, and the ways of doing warfare. In other words, the next section will focus on how the Prussian General Staff worked.



[1] The alternation of troop and General Staff service was introduced for officers, alongside the ‘staff rides’ as part of the General Staff officers’ training, although some issues with modernization and grasping new technologies persisted for a while. This troubled the General Staff influence on new weaponry and equipment (Klein, 2011).

[2] These division were basically observing the development and possible innovations introduced by the nations under their scrutiny, so to study the potential adversaries and prepare the own armies (Millotat, 1992).

[3] This principle would pay its worth as, during the Franco-Prussian war, the Prussian were able to understand and anticipate the plans of the adversary, at the point of forcing them to change their plans (Gunther, 2012).

[4] Other additional principles introduced were the assessment of the situation and the commander to decide the course of action.

[5] Von Moltke even suggested a preventive war against France or Russia so to address the famous ‘two-fronts’ threat, which was contested by Bismarck, who managed to persuade von Moltke about the idea (Epkenhans, 2010).

[6] Admirals von Bülow and von Tirpitz aided the Kaiser on this quest. For more information on the Kaisers’ role on this matters and on causing WWI, see: The Great War Series, Part V(a).

[7] Epkenhans (2010) even suggests that, given the lost vote of confidence, the military set course towards the armistice and the encouragement of the Kaiser to march into exile.

[8] After WWII, the General Staff was also a subject of judgement, being acquitted in the end (Millotat, 1992).



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