The Prussian General Staff: Meritocracy in Arms. Part 4a.

‘Berliner Siegessäule monument’. By Mario Zorro (author). All rights reserved


Conclusions and analysis

The battle is over, and the enemy is entirely defeated. The officer is proud; after many years of careful preparation, the outcome has been entirely positive. Yet he knows victory is not only due to preparation and planning alone. The high degree of autonomy and room for initiative he was allowed to exert allowed him to react to many unexpected situations both he and his troops faced during the encounter. And now, as he stands proud and looking at the battlefield, little he suspects his nation is about to change History for decades to come, thus shaping a century. All thanks to the victory of that day. And all thanks to a very unique and remarkable military institution and system: the Prussian General Staff.


The Prussian General Staff became a very influential and legendary institution in History and in Military Affairs, becoming also the trademark of a nation and its armed forces. This is not a surprise, for it forged its fame through the impressive victories achieved by Prussia in the last half of the 19th century, forging the tactics and techniques that revolutionized warfare, emerging from defeat during the Napoleonic Wars. That defeat sparked the emergence of this institution and sparked the changes it introduced; even after the 1918 defeat, the General Staff introduced further changes by crafting new tactics and doctrines that are now a cornerstone of modern warfare and of many armies.

Innovations with a deep impact weren’t only of tactical and operational nature, as it focused on the quality of officers, their education and preparation – at the point of enabling them to have initiative instead of blindly following orders – thus contributing heavily to warfare. Indeed, the best armies are those having the best warriors within their ranks, or the best soldiers or even the best leaders; the General Staff crafted the most remarkable armies by crafting those guiding the soldiers in the field, those materializing the strategic intentions of the top leaders. The General Staff also made of the military an art and a discipline by emphasizing in the study of warfare and every aspect of it. It also brought meritocracy in the art of war.

However, its place of origin and effectiveness sparked several myths. Other myths also emerged due to the close relation to the particular place it emerged from, being that place rather polemic.


The myths

Since Prussia-Germany is the place of origin of the General Staff, it is quite inevitable that the general perception of it as a negative factor in German and Universal History, due to the role of the country in the last two centuries. In addition, several misconceptions about the essence of the General Staff and the Prussia-German army emerged thanks to the depiction of both elements in popular culture and the general imaginary.

In the light of this, it is necessary to review and debunk these myths again, with the sole aim of contributing to a more accurate – and less ideologized – image on the General Staff, the Prussian-German armed forces and on Military Affairs in general.

The first myth is precisely about Military Affairs, with the general perception being that the militaries are just about simply following orders and of a rather uneducated and unprepared, instinctive and ‘brute’ mindset and essence lacking any intellectual activity. The same Prussian-German Army is viewed as such too. This study shows that reality is very different. As von Scharnhorst once put, warfare requires a large amount of intellectual work and preparation: the strategy and tactics are something to be carefully considered, the adversary is to be deeply studied and understood, and history and other disciplines are deeply study in order to perform either in peace or wartime, according to Schoy (n.d.). Moreover, initiative and responsiveness are required many times to allow the fulfilment of the general objectives or to solve an operational problem thanks to a careful intellectual training aimed at enabling careful evaluation of a given situation; the General Staff instilled this. This rebukes this first myth[1].

This takes us directly to the second myth, concerning the Prussian-German Army: the myth of this army being a very strict, vertical and authoritarian army operating with mathematical precision, being then inflexible and perfectionist, neutralizing any chance of initiative. The fact is that this army, thanks to the General Staff, allowed a wide degree of autonomy and initiative, learning from mistakes, avoiding pressure and evaluating its performance, using debriefings to address operational issues (Bergamino & Palitta, 2015; Cau, 2011; Condell & Zabecki, 2009; Corum, 2009; Klein, 2001; Millotat, 1992; Schoy, n.d.). Even during the Third Reich, these were core operational principles.

The next myths stand on the political dimension. The third myth, for instance, is about the supposition of the General Staff working very closely with the National Socialist regime in preparing for WWII, mainly due to the widespread association of the German military and its military traditions and culture with the Nazis and with Militarism, thanks to the image forged by the Allies after both World Wars. In reality, the General Staff was part of the ‘old’ Prussian traditions the Nazis – and Hitler, most of all – despised. Also, tactics used by the Wehrmacht were devised during the Weimar Republic, thanks to the efforts of Hans von Seeckt and the keeping of traditions and functions of the General Staff thus laying the ground for the revenant armed forces. And relations between the Führer and the General Staff were rather strained and conflictive due to three reasons: opposing principles, strong disagreements on operational aspects, and political opposition at the point of many General Staff officers taking part in the 20th of July 1944 assassination plot against Hitler. The result was the relegation of the General Staff to a secondary role during the war[2].

The fourth has two dimensions: one, that a non-democratic system cannot spark a system like the General Staff nor to spark militaries having flexibility, responsiveness, adaptability and initiative; that more liberal and democratic regimes are the perfect ground for this. Second, the idea of Prussia and the Imperial Germany being authoritarian societies with little political participation to the citizens.

A first observation on the myth’s first dimension: the Prussian General Staff was in fact part of the needed military and political reforms Prussia needed in the early 19th century, rooted also in liberal and reformistic ideas incarnated by von Scharnhorst and his principles on education, merit, autonomy and impartiality, as Görlitz (1985), Gunther (2012), Klein (2001) and Schoy (n.d.) clearly pointed out. Also, by the times of Friedrich II Der Große and afterwards, a proto-General Staff emerged that laid the foundations of meritocracy, independent command and freedom on action, even though they were more the product of operational needs during the 7 Years War, according to Görlitz (1985), Klein (2001) and Millotat (1992).

Furthermore, the German Army that emerged after WWI and in the early years of the Nazi regime had as core principles flexibility, responsiveness, responsibility, adaptability and initiative. Even despite of the characteristics of the same German society. As Condell & Zabecki (2009) point out, whereas the German Society is based upon acceptation of authority, social rigidness and bureaucratism along and the clear verticality of the political system prior WWII, the Wehrmacht was based upon Auftragstaktik, freedom of movement and initiative. Moreover, the commander was tasked with communicating clearly the orders or intentions and even to clarify them to the subordinated officers did not understood them; the subordinated commander was allowed to request such clarification. And even the chain of command was that smooth that diminished the barriers between ranks and prompting the officers to “live with and share the same experience of the troops” (pp. 19-27).

Interestingly, even the Allies ended in mirroring and incorporating many German operational principles into their own so to defeat the Wehrmacht, with the Americans showing particular interest and basing their operational principles in the early Cold War upon those of the Wehrmacht (Corum, 2009, p.10 and p. 13; Condell & Zabecki, 2009, pp. 35-36).

The conclusion here is that a system and an army with the abovementioned principles and characteristics can emerge regardless of the type of political regime, and even that a liberal/democratic regime are not necessarily a requisite for those principles and characteristics.

Now we can analyse the second dimension of the fourth myth, of Prussia and the Imperial Army being authoritarian and allowing little to none political participation to the citizens, so to test the perception of their “undemocratic” nature and considering it was under these two political systems the General Staff emerged and evolved. If looking at Prussia and the Imperial Germany from a current point of view, the indeed might appear entirely “undemocratic”. However, the reign and reforms introduced by Friedrich II Der Große were rather liberal as his mindset was “Liberal” considering the trend of absolute monarchies then, and thanks to the influence of Enlightenment, Illustration and of Voltaire in Alte Fritz, as Schmitz (2012) points out[3].

Also, the socio-economic and political reforms – and their already mentioned impact in the military sphere – during the Napoleonic Wars led to gradual but increasing liberalization of the Prussian society, with relatively widespread education, liberalization of peasants and the emergence of important industries – whose role would be crucial in the future – taking place. Of course, these reforms were scaled-down after the defeat of France, but their pace was irreversible in Prussia, as Bömelburg (2012) remarks. With the event of 1848 more advances took place, with a Constitution and a Parliament – the Preußischer Landtag – emerging and based upon a “3 class-system”, despite the brief length of such events, following Barth (2012a) and Barth (2012b)[4]. In fact, even one of the main philosophers of liberalism stated that Prussia was an ideal model for English politics, according to Clark (as cited in Barth & Schmitz, 2012, p. 126).

After the Prussian victory of 1971 and the emergence of the Empire, the previous reforms further consolidated along Liberalism, being strong in the Western provinces (Rheinland, Baden and Württemberg) thanks to the influence of the French Revolution ideals and as trade was their main economic activity. Prussia and Bayern remained strongly conservative, with the Junkers being the most influential actor within Prussia and with the peasant, small bourgeoisie and city inhabitants being liberal, according to Guillen (1973). A new Constitution emerged as well, which incorporated many of the previous reforms and allowing the provinces a wide margin of autonomy, with Bayern and other even allowed to keep their own armies and Defence Ministries and their own bi-cameral Parliaments. The Landtag became a representative organ for the provinces with elections by voting upon the abovementioned three-class system, with participation being limited (Guillen, 1973).

A national representative Parliaments emerged in the shape of the Reichstag and Bundestag, consolidating the emergence and role of political parties, being a key in counterbalancing the power of the Kanzler[5]. The Reichstag indeed controlled the actions of the government, legislating to vote the laws and blocking those proposing by the Kanzler, forcing von Bismarck to seek ad hoc coalitions or even to threaten its dissolution[6]. Even von Bismarck, despite his despise for a Parliamentary regime and the emerging democratic political dynamics, introduced universal vote yet for limiting the autonomies of provinces (Guillen, 1973).

The same emergence of political parties further evidences the quite democratic and free nature of German Imperial Politics. As Guillen (1973) points out, the Reichstag enabled their role despite their initial inability to make use of mass political participation and other issues that limited their impact. This resulted in little participation and prevalence of interest groups. In any case, political parties were crucial in allowing or denying the Kanzler to advance on his policies through support or opposition, with the latter being common[7]. Participation increased, however, thanks to the increasing social issues and demographics, increasing political mobilization and participation and making politics more dynamic, at the point of many sectors calling for a British-style Parliamentary-Monarchy. This led to clashes prior and during WWI that sparked timid reforms and promises for additional ones after the war. In addition, the Kanzler and even the Kaiser had to wage political campaigns to secure seats for their parties of preference at the Parliaments. And the same Kaiser Wilhem II had an initial liberal orientation, aiming at a ‘popular monarchy’ despite a return to conservatism, following Guillen (1973).

Indeed, the people was not the main sovereign as it is nowadays, nor the Imperial German politics were a Parliamentary-Monarchy strictly speaking with the Kaiser often having the last say, yet it was very far from the very authoritarian and absolutist state it is usually depicted.

And clearly this dynamic and participative political system affected the military more than once, rebuking also the ideas of Militarism being the strong political force and orientation in Prussia and the Imperial Germany. The military budget was one of the main sources of tensions between the Kanzler and the Legislative and representative bodies, which repealed many times any military reforms or increase of credits for the military. This was the case in 1863 with the Liberals rejecting a proposed military reform and budget by the King and then Kaiser Wilhem I, and in 1906 with a similar event with a proposed increase of the budget to support military operations in Southwest Africa and a proposed military law by Kanzler Caprivi. Approvals were quite occasional, like that of the proposal to reinforce the army and the navy in 1907, following Barth (2012b) and Guillen (1973).

With the myths and misconceptions being addressed, it is now time to talk about the disadvantages and advantages of the (Prussian-German) General Staff system.


The shortcomings of a system

The General Staff system has a registered good performance, with countries that adopted or introduced this system faring well in conflict, chief among them Israel, or giving a good fight despite facing the odds, like Germany in WII. But this system is far from perfect, having faults and defects that hampered its performance and that of the armed forces. These issues were of inherent nature or due to external factors.

The first issue consisted on the everlasting problematic relation between the General Staff – and the military – with the political sphere in the shape of the strong intervention in politics during the Imperial Era, specially under von Moltke the Young and von Schlieffen, as it intervened heavily in the decision-making and framing of foreign policies (Epkenhans, 2010; Klein, 2001; Millotat, 1992). Israel faced a similar problem prior and during the Yom Kippur War[8].

The second issue, very related with the previous ones, was the lack of political and military clarity under von Moltke the Young and von Schlieffen, with serious consequences for the Imperial Germany and worsened by the strained relations between Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Chiefs of General Staff. The same Kaiser lacked strategic and political clarity at the point of being ignored and replaced by Hindenburg and Ludendorff, as Epkenhans (2010).

The third issue, operational in nature, is the limitations and problems caused by Auftragstaktik, with issues taking place during the War with Austria and the Franco-Prussian War as many units executed wrongly manoeuvres that resulted in heavy casualties and even jeopardizing the outcome of the whole campaign, following Kennedy (2005) and Gunther (2012).

The fourth issue affected the debriefing and feedback principle due to external factors. For instance, as wave of overconfidence, stagnation and arrogance became a trend after 1971, with exercises and manoeuvres being more a biased way to validate preconceived ideas on plans and the army’s capacity. Strategic, political and diplomatic aspects were also set aside (Herwig, 1998). Israel faced this problem too, as an accurate political evaluation on Syria and Egypt was absent and intelligence information was fitted to preconceived ideas on the adversary by the Israeli top brass, with arrogance, stagnation and overconfidence emerging too (Herzog, 2003; Herzog, 2006; Murray, 2009).

The fifth issue is the risk of the officer – usually a high rank or the same Chief of General Staff – concentrated more on ‘doing politics’ or in pleasing political figures and leaders and other high ranks to advance his career, instead of – and at the expense of – fulfilling his duty of preparing and fitting the armed forces for having a good level of preparedness and capacities. This is the danger of the ‘courtesan officer’ that compromises the efficiency of the General Staff the same Armed Forces alike and of military-civil relations. Autonomy and initiative of field officers, detection and correction of operational – and other – issues, and the definition of strategic consideration being hampered too[9].

A sixth issue – related to the first one – is the concentration of the military and the General Staff on dictating politics instead of being aware of domestic and potential adversaries’ political developments, as it was the case prior and during WWI with the military basically running the German Empire (Epkenhans, 2010; Klein, 2001; Millotat, 1992). This prevents the military of performing well given its intervention in a foreign field and its usual mismanagement that compromises strategic aspects.

A seventh issue, of more contemporary nature and rooted in some concerns (especially within the Bundeswehr), is the possibility of the advising officer or the field officer undermining the authority of the commander, and of meritocracy being negative to the officers’ corps (Millotat, 1992; Schoy, n.d.). This situation can take place despite the General System being designed to orientate officers at assessing and being capable of taking decision on their own if needed, increasing also the effects of the fifth issue and with inner rivalries or something similar emerging.

And eight issue is the tendency to focus on the tactical aspect at the expense of the strategic aspect – even despite the fact of strategic aspect considered as crucial – and the emergence of operational issues in consequence. This was a problem the German Army had during WWI, but the Wehrmacht suffered especially from this, as preparation of air and land assets had a more tactical nature with strategic considerations being ignored, leading to defeat. As Condell & Zabecki (2009) pointed out, the Truppenführung – the field manual of the Wehrmacht – and operational doctrines developed prior and during WWI were strongly focused on tactical and operational aspects leaving strategic and political aspects behind (pp. 20-23, and p.32). Artillery, combat intelligence and logistics were also dismissed by the German General Staff when framing the Truppenführung, having a heavy toll in operations during WWII, following Condell & Zabecki (2009).

This problem took place in other armies that implemented the General Staff system, being the IDF the most remarkable – and strikingly similar – case: the IDF General Staff and the same IDF were concentrated on air power and armoured warfare while lacking a combined-arms doctrine and infantry and artillery support, as well as infantry-tank co-operation and neglecting infantry weaponry and night warfare[10].

This is one of the most serious issues the General Staff system had, hence being a sort of ‘fabric defect’ of this system, rooted in the mindset of the military that sparked and developed it. This is something every officer and Chief of General Staff shall correct by taking into consideration the political and strategic factors, crucial in any war, and regardless of the preference for operational and tactical aspect – that might be framed by the same strategic and geographical situation.


System of advantages

The abovementioned issues clearly evidence that the General Staff system is far from perfect. Yet despite them, the General Staff system was – and still is – a very effective and functional system. of course, and as Kennedy (2004) remarked, it was not mistake-proof. But it was the study by General Staff officers of past issues and their corrections what enable the system to work properly.

This is the first advantage of the General Staff system. The study of the past was of high importance for the Prussian General Staff to learn from the past and apply the lessons mainly by debriefing and feedback, alongside education and study of military history and of past wars and campaigns to encourage reflections on their origins, developments and lessons by such wars and campaigns. Those studies also allowed officers to reflect upon military topics, as weel as by a comparative analysis with reading used as tool for this (Dimarco, 2009; Guderian, 2006; Herwig, 1998; Klein, 2001; Millotat, 1992; Schoy, n.d.). This study of the past is crucial even nowadays, for its provide armies with invaluable lessons form past campaigns and wars to look for lessons in future conflicts, enabling also the officers to have a high analysis capacity thus maximizing their operational performance, thanks also to debriefing and feedback.

The second advantage is advanced planning for the next – potential – conflict in peacetime. It is quite obvious nowadays, but this was an important innovation made by the Prussian General Staff, allowing and enhancing the preparation of armed forces to deal with any potential situation and scenario. This is complemented by the devising of new ways to wage war – in tandem with technological innovations – and by preparation of defensive and offensive/counteroffensive plans, along the study of mobilization and detection of operational and asset issues to address them[11]. Being intertwined with study of past conflicts and campaigns, their lessons were applied to the solution of current issues alongside exercise and manoeuvres.

The third advantage is the focusing on the education and preparation of low and middle ranks (or officers) and the remarkable mixture between theory and practice, and the application of acquired knowledge in practical aspects, maximizing the previous advantages. The results were – and are now – highly skilled and well-prepared officers capable of compensating issues at strategic and leadership levels (Dimarco, 2009; Guderian, 2006; Görlitz, 1985; Gunther, 2012; Kennedy, 2007; Herwig, 1998; Klein, 2001; Millotat, 1992; Schoy, n.d.; Vego, 2012). This is an accurate approach, considering that it is on the soldiers were the efforts of war are being carried, with officers and sub-officers being important as they direct the troops, hence in both lies the key to success and the fulfilment of tactical and even strategic aims. War is decided by soldiers and officers in the field, highlighting the importance of the latter as they can issue the orders and take crucial decisions capable of deciding or altering the course of a battle, of a war and even of history. Hence the importance of their education and preparation.

The fourth advantage is the Auftragstaktik (or general-command) principle, which further increases the preparation and performance of officers thanks to the room for initiative and independence of decision and movement, taking place at unit, army or group of armies levels. General strategic and operational objectives, lack of constraints and a decentralized command and control maximizes the effects of this advantage. The room for interpretation or modification of orders by the officer(s) is also crucial, as he, unlike the superior officer(s), is actually in the field hence having a better judgement and evaluation of the situation[12]. Flexibility, absorption of risk and failure, and the commanding officer assuming responsibility increased the benefits of this advantage too (Görlitz, 1985; Gunther, 2012; Kennedy, 2007; Klein, 2001; Millotat, 1992; Schoy, n.d).

In addition, interoperability and interdependence between units is considered as such is crucial for fulfilling general objectives as units are required to support each other, as well as different arms, hence being combined-arms tactics central. This increases the firepower and operational optimal performance when in operations, in conjunction with the other principles of Auftragstaktik. (Guderian, 2007; Jackson, 2012; Kennedy, 2007; Klein, 2001; Millotat, 1992; Murray & Millet, 2005).

The fifth advantage is the importance given to meritocracy, aimed at ensuring high-quality and good preparation of officers, and to improve leadership and compensating also the abovementioned issues, and to ensure a top-quality advice to field commanders, benefiting the armed forces in general. This also work in tandem with education and the study of the past, enhanced by removal of dogmas or ideological/political preconceptions, doctrines and ideas to allow an officer to have an independent, receptive, flexible, realist, practical and responsive mindset; all crucial to deal with the unpredictable nature of war (Dimarco, 2009; Görlitz, 1985; Millotat, 1992; Schoy, n.d.).

The sixth advantage is the implementation of manoeuvres and exercises, as the allow testing and enhancement of plans and assets, tactics and doctrines, and to find and solve issues alongside debriefing and study of the past (Guderian, 2007; Herwig, 1998; Jackson, 2012; Klein, 2001; Murray & Milet, 2005; Schoy, n.d.). These tools are also useful for training both troops and officers given their value for learning and provision of near-combat training.

The seventh advantage, close to the previous one, is the implementation of wargaming for similar purposes (Bergamino & Palitta, 2015; Klein, 2001; Millotat, 1992; Murray & Millet, 2005; Schoy, n.d.; Vego, 2012). Though not precisely introduced by the Prussian General Staff, it was an important element within that system, contributing to education and preparation of officers, as Vego (2012) remarked.

The eight advantage is the emphasis placed on technology. Nowadays it is normal and taken for granted, but it was the Prussian General Staff system what maximized the combination of technology with military aspects, grasping its benefits. It was von Moltke the Elder and von Schlieffen who introduced the consideration of technological advances and innovations into operational, tactical and strategic considerations (Bergamino & Palitta, 2015; Chant, 1999; GlobalSecurity, 2011; Görlitz, 1985; Gunther, 2012; Guderian, 2007; Herwig, 1998; Jackson, 2012; Kennedy, 2007; Klein, 2001; Herwig, 1998; Millotat, 1992). This advantage allows any army to have cutting-edge assets and capabilities, operationalizing technology and incorporating into command and control and assets, contributing to preparedness. This is very important as technological advances are faster, introducing new elements and dimensions and hence new threats and challenges.

The ninth advantage is a sum of the previous ones, in the shape of the series of innovations introduced in technological, operational and tactical aspects, being the Panzerdivisionen and the same Blitzkrieg the inevitable examples, since they were the result of studies of the past war – WWI – and the absorption of innovations introduced by the allies then, alongside exercise and manoeuvres to test and improve the new techniques (Bergamino & Palitta, 2015; Cau, 2011; Chant, 1999; GlobalSecurity, 2011; Görlitz, 1985; Guderian, 2007; Gunther, 2012; Herwig, 1998; Jackson, 2012; Kennedy, 2007; Klein, 2001; Millotat, 1992; Murray & Millet, 2005). The General Staff system allows any armed force to grasp the benefits and possibilities brought by technological developments and innovations and to devise new operational techniques, doctrines and strategies; this is valid also for the detection of innovations and developments introduced by past or potential future adversaries.

The tenth advantage, a derivate from the Auftragstaktik principle, is the smooth chain of command thanks to the wide degree of initiative and direct communication between commanders and subordinated commanders and officers, facilitating transmission of orders. It also enhances relations and performance of the chain of command overall from the top to the bottom and vice-versa, enabling the field commander/officer to prepare and execute plans independently while making use of responsiveness and high capacity for reaction. It allows him to detect and take advantage of opportunities when possible (Görlitz, 1985; Gunther, 2012; Herwig, 1998; Kennedy, 2007; Klein, 2001; Millotat, 1992; Murray & Millet, 2005; Rommel, 2006).

The eleventh advantage is also a very crucial one as it involves politics. The General Staff required – and still does – the officer to have awareness of political developments at home and abroad to grasp the influence of politics in the shape and objectives of his own armed forces and those of the potential adversaries, allowing also evaluation of their performance and characteristics prior and during a war. This is also helpful to grasp strategic and national objectives his own nation and other might have and how they might model their armed forces in accordance[13]. The requirement for having awareness of socio-economic, cultural and other factors is also largely beneficial (Clausewitz, 1999; Dimarco, 2009; Herwig, 1998; Millotat, 1992, Schoy, n.d.).

And the last, twelfth advantage is the value and operational principles laid by the Prussian General Staff, made evident already at this point and that framed the mindset and guidelines of officers, complementing the formation for operational purposes with value-based orientation and formation. The effects are the good performance and contribution by officers to the war waged by their countries with their integrity and ethics being framed and applied. These principles by the General Staff should be the north for every officer in any armed forces.

With the debunking of many myths surrounding the armed forces, the Prussian General Staff and the Prussian-German armed forces and its the advantages and disadvantages being discussed, the benefits the General System has for current armed forces is made evident on a general sense. The next part will discuss the role and benefits a General Staff system could have for armed forces facing reforms and reduced defence budgets. It will also discuss the role the General Staff might have in the light of the current types of conflicts and wars.




[1] Of course there are armed forces where this is not the case, but I think it depends more on the (military) culture framing said armed forces.

[2] Cfr: Condell & Zabecki, 2009; Guderian, 2007; Jackson, 2012; Klein, 2001; Millotat, 1992; Murray & Millet, 2005.

[3] Nevertheless, the system of rule under Alte Fritz was less dependent on rank and function and more on the proximity to the sovereign, as Schmitz (2012), remarks.

[4] Similar representative bodies emerged also in other German States.

[5] The Kanzler, in turn, was chosen by the Kaiser hence being subordinated to him, exposing inly the intended political courses to the Reichstag, as Guillen (1973) remarks.

[6] As Guillen (1973) pointed out, the Bundestag was its equal, capable of blocking laws approved in the Reichstag, approve taxes and other economic and trade affairs, and influence on foreign affairs, as well as to be able of dissolving the Reichstag.

[7] This generalized opposition but also some temporal support, mainly by parties of the Left and the Liberals before and after the Unification, are made evident by both Barth (2012b) and Guillen (1973).

[8] See: Herzog (2003), Herzog (2006), and Murray (2009).

[9] See: Schoy (n.d) and the Part 2b of this study. In addition, this problem is related with the other side of the coin, which is the sovereign having a very negative impact a policymaker could have in the military sphere, at the point of either hampering its performance or preventing it to meet any set strategic and national objectives. All due to mere political reasons at the expense of strategic objectives. Cfr: Part 2b.

[10] See: Herzog, 2003; Herzog, 2005; and Murray, 2009. This problem might be also by the focus of the Prussian-German Army on deciding a conflict on a fast manner, following Condell & Zabecki (2009).

[11] See: Bergamino & Palitta, 2015; Cau, 2011; Chant, 1999; GlobalSecurity, 2011; Görlitz, 1985; Guderian, 2007; Gunther, 2012; Herwig, 1998; Jackson, 2012; Kennedy, 2007; Klein, 2001; Murray & Millet, 2005; Schoy, n.d.

[12] Orders, in turn, have to be brief and direct so to allow agility and to facilitate relations between the high and field commanders and officers.

[13] This also requires a deep study of the political mindset or ideologies framing the politics and strategic objectives of a given country.



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Brig. Gen. Herzog, M. (2003). Introducción. In C. Herzog, La Guerra del Yom Kippur. [The War of Atonement, Gerardo di Masso, trans.]. (pp. 11-22). Barcelona, Spain: Inèdita Editores (Original work published in 1975).

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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: 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: 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;, 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:–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: 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: 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: on 29.10.2017

[20] See: Milne, R. (2016). Swedes Ponder Joining NATO as Trump Presidency Focuses Minds. Atlantic Council. Retrieved from: on 29.10.2017



Aronsson, A. (2015). The Geostrategic value of Greece and Sweden in the Current struggle between Russia and NATO. Atlantic Council. Retrieved from: on 29.10.2017

Basset, B. (2012). Factors Influencing Sweden’s Changing Stance on Neutrality. Retrieved from: 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: 16.10.2016

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

Gen. Göranson, S. (2012). Speech by General Göranson, Supreme Commander of the Swedish Armed Forces at the National Defense University, Peking, 20th of March 2012. Försvarsmakten. Retrieved from. on 16.10.2017

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: on 20.04.2014

Government Offices of Sweden. (2015). Defence Cooperation between Sweden and Finland. Government Offices of Sweden. Retrieved from: on 01.11.2017.

Government Offices of Sweden. (2015). Swedish Defence Policy 2016-2020. Government Offices of Sweden. Retrieved from: on 16.08.2017

Government Offices of Sweden. (2017). Sweden re-activates conscription. Government Offices of Sweden. Retrieved from: on21.10.2017

Gutteridge, N. (2017). ‘A threat that must be eliminated’ Putin’s chilling message to Sweden over NATO membership. Sunday Express. Retrieved from: on 29.10.2017

Hendrickson, R. C. (2013). Sweden: a NATO special partner? NATO Review. Partners – who needs them? Retrieved from: on 21.10.2017

Hetmanchuck, N. (2012). Swedish Foreign Policy: Neutrality vs. Security. Retrieved from: on 16.10.2016

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

Lindström, G. (1997). Sweden’s Security Policy: Engagement – the Middle Way. Occasional Paper (2), 1-58. Retreived from: on 21.10.2016

Ministry for Foreign Affairs & Ministry of Defence (2017) Summary of the Report of the Inquiry on Sweden’s Engagement in Afghanistan 2002-2014 (Summary SOU 2017-16). Government Offices of Sweden. Retrieved from: on 29.07.2017

Milne, R. (2016). Swedes Ponder Joining NATO as Trump Presidency Focuses Minds. Atlantic Council. Retrieved from: on 29.10.2017

Mission of Sweden to NATO. (n.d.). Ongoing mission: RSM and KFOR. Sweden abroad. Retrieved from:–PFP/Sweden-in-NATO-led-operations–sys/Ongoing-operations-RSM-and-KFOR-sys/ on 02.11.2017

NATO. (2017). Relations with Sweden. NATO. Retrieved from: on21.10.2017

Pashkov, M. (2009). Swedish Security Model: Peace-loving, Well-armed Neutrality. National Security & Defence (1), 40-43. Retrieved from: on 16.10.2016   

Reuters. (2017). Sweden to raise military budget by SEK 8 billion through 2020. Reuters. Retrieved from: on 21.10.2017

Roden, L. (2017). Why Sweden is bringing back the draft. The Local Sweden. Retrieved from: on 21.10.2017

Sharpe, M. (2001). Jets de Ataque y Defensa [Attack and Interceptor Jets, Macarena Rojo, trans.]. Madrid, Spain: Editorial LIBSA (Original work published in 1999). (2012). History of Sweden: War, Peace and Progress. Retrieved from: on 16.10.2016

Swedish Defence Commission. (1999). European Security – Sweden’s Defence (Summary). Retrieved from.—swedens-defence on 16.08.2017

Swedish National Audit Office. (2014). Summary: The Armed Forces – a challenge for the Government. (RiR 2014:8). Audit Reports concerning the defence area 2010-2014. Swedish National Audit Office. Retrieved from: on 16.08.2017

The Local Sweden. (2017). Sweden’s government and opposition parties agree new defence deal worth billions. The Local Sweden. Retrieved from: on 21.10.2017

Tirpak, J. A. (2017). Northern Exposure. Air Force Magazine, 100 (02), 54-58. Retrieved from: on 28.07.2017

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: on 16.10.2016

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Yeo, M. (2017). Saab A26 submarine gets vertical launched Tomahawks. Defensenews. Retrieved from: on 14.10.2017


The Prussian General Staff: Meritocracy in Arms. Part 3b.

Image ‘PB383’ by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Released under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) License.


The Prussian General Staff influence and legacy (II)

In the previous part, the legacy and influence of the Prussian General staff in the current German armed forces and the US armed forces was reviewed, pointing the elements that remains in the case of the Bundeswehr along those absent while considering Germany is the main inheritor of the Prussian General Staff. The interest and slow but steady adoption – and implementation – of the General Staff system and its principles within the American armed forces.

The US is not the only example of an army interested in adopting the General Staff system and its principles. For instance, the British Empire, Russia/Soviet Union and France also introduced this system in full or in part, and just like the US, as a result of a needed change of doctrines evidenced by their own operational experiences. But it was during WWII, that such adaptation became necessary so to match the Germans’ doctrine in the case of the US, Great Britain and Russia, following Corum (2009).

The British Empire

In the British case, such implementation was gradual, with WWII being the final catalyst. British implementation and adaptation of the General Staff system started after witnessing the impressive performance of the Prussian Army in the German Unification Wars and the Franco-Prussian War, with the Boer War sparking further reforms. By 1912, a publication structuring the British Staff functioning appeared, being a mixture of the Prussian/General Staff with the British approach[1]. During WWII, Bernard Montgomery, head of the 8th army and rival of Rommel, further introduced the General Staff system in that army. Nevertheless, the figure of Chiefs of Staff was only for units of corps level upwards, until the 1980’s (Johnston, 2008). This was a stark contrast with Prussia/Germany.

The Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force (RAF) also established their own Staff Systems. In the Royal Navy’s case, in 1911 a General Staff was implemented by Winston Churchill after a strong opposition by many Sea Lords, with a dual staff system being implemented in the interwar period with a Chief of Staff for operations and an officer for support. A supporting body denominated the ‘Secretariat’ was also established. But this Staff was not as functional as that of the British Army (Johnston, 2008). In the case of the RAF, its own General Staff system was a product of the Army’s strong influence during its emergence. The RAF General Staff had three branches: air, technical and administration, having equal ranking and separate heads at tactical level, with the last two branches working under a single officer and the air branch having its own officer (Johnston, 2008).

Russia/Soviet Union

The Russian/Soviet case is also interesting in the way the General Staff system evolved there. Following Eisel (1993), a first stage is when the General Staff system (on its Frederician format) was introduced by Peter the Great, due to his admiration for the West thus basing such on the Prussian and Swedish models. It was enhanced through time mainly on its education and selection processes, addressing perceived gaps. A second phase is a more sophisticated and complex Russian/Soviet General Staff, yet suffering a direct and high political influence. This version is product of the training provided to Soviet officers by German officers in exchange for clandestine facilities for manoeuvres in the USSR[2]. In peacetime, the Soviet General Staff was subordinated to the Ministry of Defence; in wartime, it was subordinated to the STAVKA, the highest instance with decision-making powers in the USSR, and the Secretary General of the Communist Party, along many top officers being part of it (Eisel, 1993). The odds for political influence in the military, hampering its performance, were pretty high, since important political figures were part of the high commanding body (in wartime) and the General Staff was a mere subordinate. The risks of the “courtesan officers” keen on playing politics were also high, as well as politicization of the army, nepotism and corruption.

The Soviet General Staff had a similar role like its Prussian/German counterpart. According to Eisel (1993), the Soviet General Staff was tasked with basic strategic planning and defining missions for each service, with the particularity of being comprised by officers from all branches (evidencing a highly centralized command structure), and with their organizations’ performance and individual fidelity to the party and its affairs as grounds for promotion and future assignments. This also increased the risks mentioned in the previous paragraph.


The French case is equally interesting, considering that France was the nation that suffered the most under the efficiency and abilities (not to say the principles) of the Prussian/German General Staff. Such background also forced this nation to adopt many of the principles of the Prussian General Staff after its defeat in 1871. First, and following Eisel (1993), the French military realized the need to overhaul its own staff system, which was organized upon functional lines but came to stagnation after Napoleon I disappeared, considering such system emerged during his reign[3]. Then, a Staff training school was established in 1818, with Staff Officers having a rotary service between staff and field tasks like the Prussian General Staff officers. An 1833 reform made officers to serve for General Staff after being selected, and to include in the curriculum planning and drafting of maps; despite this, bad performance and defeat were the final outcome given the way the General Staff system was implemented by the French.

The resulting operational (bad) performance and defeat in 1871, prompted the French Army to implement reforms more in line with the Prussian General Staff principles. According to Eisel (1993), after the Crimean and Franco-Prussian War, educational reforms were implemented with officers rotating between General Staff and field tasks. And after WWII two military bodies were established in 1950 to enhance preparedness. There is a National Defence General Staff with a military officer as a head and who in turn is subordinated to the French Prime Minister, followed by the Armed Forces General Staff with its own Chief of Staff.

Israel: General Staff with a special touch

Israel is another example where the General Staff system and its principles are being applied; if not entirely, at least in part and with the incorporation of very particular characteristics. The direct influence of Prussia in the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) is yet to be established[4]. However, it is clear that many IDF operational principles are similar – or at least are an adaptation of – to those of the Prussians. The context, location, culture and strategic and operational needs of Israel might explain such close resemblance[5].

More in detail, and following Murray (2009) and Senor & Singer (2011), the IDF relies heavily on professionals and the reserve force – similar to Prussia back in the bismarckian era – due to its own population size, which is very small. This requires the IDF to have a small force capable of mobilizing the scarcely available human resources[6]. In addition, the very limited space Israel has, reduces the margin for reaction, all while facing multiple threats and even with a dual-nature threat by facing adversary neighbouring hostile forces and irregular warfare. This also results in a very small number of officers, who also have to manage with tasks more common to higher ranks.

On the same General Staff System, the IDF General Staff is headed by the Chief of General Staff and the Chief of the ground forces, followed by the heads of the Navy and the Air Force, which are the second branch. The heads of different military affairs (Intelligence, Manpower, Operations, and Planning, Technologies and Logistics Directorates) come as the third branch, with the Heads of Operational regions/Theatres (which are four) being the fourth branch, and the heads of various military affairs or officers serving as liaison between the military and the politicians, among others[7].

There are two remarkable characteristics of the IDF General Staff. First, the Intelligence Division, which was – at least by 2002 – the main military intelligence gatherer and analyst of the Middle East and worldwide strategic context, acting also as political advisor to the government and the Defence Minister and the Prime Minister, yet unable to intervene in politics and decision-making, according to Peri (2002). The fact that this division is mainly tasked with awareness of the strategic context resembles another similarity between the IDF General Staff and the Prussian General Staff, as such awareness is crucial for assessing the strategic context and any threat from the surroundings.

But if the Intelligence Division is unable to intervene directly in politics and decision-making processes, the Planning Division of the IDF General Staff can do so. Following Peri (2002), this division can have a role in politics and in any policy-making regarding defence. This division also emerged from the Operations Division and only for military planning, covering in 1969 strategic planning as well as national interests, including political-economic aspect of national security. This is another important parallel of comparison between the IDF General Staff and the Prussian General Staff; while the latter took such aspect into account but not entirely, the former clearly considers such with special attention, recognizing the influence of politics influence in operations, war planning and national defence. This gives the impression that the IDF General Staff is more advanced or complex than the Prussian system on this sphere.

Interestingly, this division became an independent branch within the IDF General Staff with special scope and functions. As Peri (2002) points out, the Planning Division became a fully independent branch of the General Staff, yet subordinated directly to the Chief of General Staff and the Defence Ministry; it is also a joint military-Defence Ministry unit, with faculties to jump into civilian and political spheres. There is another interesting trait of the IDF General Staff. For instance, and according to Peri (2002), the Chief of General Staff acts as the commander of all the branches or services of the IDF, and tasked with preparing for war and of building military power and managing military operations. The Chief of General Staff is also a link between the military and the politicians, being the main military advisor to the government, meaning that politics can permeate heavily the military. The members of the General Staff have, in fact, an important political weight and influence, being crucial in many political processes and events besides the strategic ones, following Murray (2009) and Peri (2002).

One of the most particular characteristic the IDF General Staff has, similarly to the Prussian General Staff are the debriefings. Following Senor & Singer (2011), debriefings take place on a daily basis, for either operations or exercises, including a self-examination even if operations are successful. In addition, sub-officers have more autonomy (planning included) during operations, having also a very adaptable mentality that enables creativity and complexity, at the point of finding solution to problems on their own while in operations (as the Prussian General Staff established in principle), which resulted in new tactics, like those designed in the field by tank crews facing the anti-tank missiles in 1973[8]. This is possible due to the value the IDF gives to flexibility, initiative and innovation. This characteristic is not perfect nor entirely functional or applied entirely, as it will be explained below.

But the most Israeli characteristic that permeates its General Staff system is the same cultural approach this country has. For instance, and according to Senor & Singer (2011), the IDF is framed by two particular cultural approaches: rosh gadol and rosh katan. The first refers to a culture of following orders under what could be an Auftragstaktik approach, while placing aside mere discipline and even challenging the chief or officer; this is the prevailing approach there. The second refers to mere following of orders. That there is a wide rosh gadol approach means that there is a lack of rigid hierarchies with performance being the main criteria and the reason for subordinates to evaluate and even remove a high rank officer. And this cultural trait played a role in two important wars Israel faced: The Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War, as it keeps doing so now.

In relation with the Officers’ Corps, Senor & Singer (2011) remarks that, as the high officer ranks are understaffed (mind the abovementioned population limit), the mid and low rank officers are the most crucial piece within the IDF performing tasks normally a high-ranked officer would do, which benefits the IDF as it stimulates initiative and boosts operational flexibility. This was also critical for the abovementioned wars and the current operations. Combined with the cultural approach mentioned above, the operational efficiency of the IDF is maximized.

Two additional elements increase the impression there are strong similarities between the IDF General Staff and Prussian/German General Staff system, not to say some influence of sorts. First, the high sense of self-criticism and self-learning, along with the premise that mistakes are an acceptable source for learning and improvement, while avoiding ‘standardizations’ (Senor & Singer, 2011). Second, the importance given to technology. However, technology seems to be both an aid and a handicap, as it results in commanders relying heavily on such, losing the ‘sense’ of being in the battlefield and potentially hampering their operational performance when in combat (Senor & Singer, 2011).

Just like the Prussian/General Staff (and the German army), the IDF General Staff and the IDF were tested in combat, highlighting the latter’s qualities and deficiencies. They also provide an empirical example on how the system can contribute a military to address an intense crisis. These tests were the Six-Day War and the War of Atonement[9].

The deficiencies of the IDF General Staff system were very numerous, and at both command and operational level with serious consequences for the IDF performance in combat, which became very evident during the Yom Kippur War.

First, mobilization of reserves was delayed, rushed and disorganized, lacking also a proper alert as the control of the Sinai Peninsula meant that chances for a timely alert were reduced. Reserves weren’t the only units facing problems of mobilization. In fact, the armoured units and the artillery also lacked early warning and were slowly deployed given the same mobilization problems as such was improvised, worsened by the lack of decision (and even the negative by the Defence Minister) by the top-brass to execute a fast mobilization once the conflict started (Herzog, 2006; and Murray, 2009)[10].

Second, the astonishing victories of the Six-Day War and events during the Attrition War made Israel to commit serious strategic mistakes. It underestimated both Syria and Egypt, ignoring that Egypt (specially) began a process of evaluating its own military and the mistakes of 1967, thus failing in detecting Egypt and Syria’s hostile intentions and resulting in operational mistakes that will be explained below. It was estimated that Egypt would not wage a war until having recovered its air power, evidence of the sense of security. In addition, the 1967 victory also resulted in a lack of – crucial – self-examination or criticism and debriefing after the war, preventing the analysis of operational mistakes which were simply ignored, and missing the fact the Egyptians were not well deployed in 1967. It also prevented Israel to foresee the abovementioned evaluation and adaptation process by the adversaries, and their political aims behind a new (limited) war with strong diplomatic manoeuvres[11]. Overconfidence, relaxation, stagnation, arrogance and complacency were also factors behind the wrong assessment on the intentions of the adversary and the capacity of the own forces, as they were considered enough to deal with an aggression. To have some strategic depth was important for Israel (and even so nowadays). Yet paradoxically, the strategic depth the Sinai provided after its seizure in 1967 also reinforced the beliefs the Egyptians would not attack, as their airfields and Israeli southern towns were now wide apart (Herzog, 2003; Herzog, 2006; and Murray, 2009).

Third, operational mistakes with serious implications took place, which were many. For instance, the high emphasis placed on armoured warfare and aviation meant that a doctrine of combined-arms, infantry weaponry and mobility, and night-time warfare were neglected. There was an over-focusing on the tactical sphere at the cost of the overall management of large units in a general (strategic) context or even in the battlefield. Tanks and aviation were considered more than enough for any conflict, even to deal with the AA missiles. The armoured units also lacked good support by the infantry, given this over-focusing at the cost of proper infantry support and mobility, which took some toll on the tanks. Artillery was also hampered, which strained the same Israeli Air Force (IAF) and denying the troops proper fire-support once the IAF was affected by the Egyptian AA missiles. To make matters worse, mobility did not receive enough attention and forces were divided and uncoordinated (benefiting the strategy of the adversary and weakening any counterstrike), along with the fact that the supply system performed poorly as it was strained. The same Bar-Lev line became a problem itself, as it neutralized the Israeli superiority in mobile warfare when it became mere defensive line, and many tactical factors were ignored, like the sand-wall made by the Egyptians as platforms for attacks. There was widespread relaxation and discipline issues, with half-trained reservists manning the Bar-Lev line and accidents and negligence being the norm (Herzog, 2003; Herzog, 2006; and Murray, 2009)[12].

Fourth, the same military intelligence, enrooted within the General Staff, was riddled with mistakes and issues that resulted in the crisis at the earlier stages of the Yom Kippur War. The intelligence failed in providing accurate assessment and early warning to Israel; it did not provide the political and military high command with solid information, hampering a timely mobilization of the reserves as well. Even worse, it dismissed solid evidences on the imminent attacks by the Egyptians and the Syrians, preventing also the acknowledge of data on certain weaponry, like the ‘Sagger’ anti-tank missiles, preventing the adoption of tactics and awareness by the crews of the tanks prior the conflict. Even worse, the information gathered by the Military Intelligence was ‘accommodated’ so to fit in the preconception the adversaries wouldn’t be able to attack, strengthening the deceitful sense of security based upon a wrong evaluation on the adversaries, considering an attack would take place when their air power would be fully re-established. In contrast, the adversaries had an enhanced intelligence that was even capable of ‘penetrating’ the IDF at the point of having sensible information on the Israeli units deployed at the Sinai (Herzog, 2003; Herzog, 2006; and Murray, 2009).

And fifth, the political and high command level had considerable failures with a considerable impact in the IDF performance during the war. For instance, the political leadership failed in providing good guidance prior and during most of the conflict to the military, as well as to wage a counter-diplomacy to answer that of the Egyptians and Syrians, underestimating also their capacity to launch a new attack. Equally, the military leadership – mainly at theatre of operation level – also had important operational and command and control issues. It failed in defining solid and accurate solutions to the problems posed by the Bar-Lev Line, and it failed in assessing and associating correctly events at both the Golan and the Sinai prior the war, and during the conflict it tended to issue wrong orders[13]. Both political and military levels failed in detecting the political aims behind the war by Egypt and Syria, and even the deployment of AA missile defence system by the Egyptians while taking advantage of a ceasefire during the War of Attrition (Herzog, 2006; Murray, 2009).

Such mistakes are explained by a series of political events in the Middle East, which also led to wrong assessments and overconfidence. Following Herzog (2006), the first was the US support and supply of weaponry to Israel; the second was the US defence of Jordan as Syria intended to invade it during its September 1970 Civil War; and the same conflict within Jordan that yielded peace at the border between Jordan and Israel. Interestingly, the IDF General Staff committed another crucial mistake regarding the political context, as it seems that, following Herzog (2003) and Herzog (2006), it ignored the role of the Soviet Union’s critical supplying Egypt and Syria with weaponry as well as with political support, encouraging somehow the 1967 and 1973 wars and the regional instability. It also ignored the weaponization of oil as a mean to support in politics what was to be done through the military.

More in detail, the key political and high military level figures had serious mistakes that, if it wasn’t for the military culture of Israel and the General Staff system, would have had terrible consequences for Israel. Following Herzog (2006), the Ministry of Defence was having interest in some aspects of the armed forces (like frontline and operations and plans) but not in the more daily aspects, neglecting the aspect that ensured the functionality of an army. He also tended to leave most of the responsibilities to the General Staff and the Chief of General Staff as well as the Ministry’s personnel.  And during the crisis, he was unable to cope with it, as he was very cautious, delaying the mobilization orders, and unable to impose his will or reach a decision. The Prime Minister, in turn, tended to be authoritarian, doctrinaire and inflexible, not allowing alternative evaluations and exerting an unorganized style of government (Herzog, 2006). And the same Chief of General Staff was in part responsible for the wrong assessment, although he was also deceived by the wrong intelligence provided. The most worrisome issues regarding the same General Staff were those related to the performance of its different branches, affecting troops discipline, intelligence, equipment and supplies (Herzog, 2006).

But there weren’t issues only at the top political and military levels, as the field-grade ranks or unit-level command had its considerable problems too. For instance, and according to Herzog (2006) and Murray (2009), the Southern Command HQ (Suez Canal/Sinai) was the most problematic, as its commander was still in process of getting used to the scenario (yet this issue was due to the problematic policy of rotational command by the IDF, which limited the commander’s performance), being also the most sceptical commander at field level on the capacity and intention of the adversaries to wage war. He was also deceived by the wrong intelligence. But he was also unable to exert a good command of the troops thus being incapable of addressing the crisis and even contributing in immobilizing the troops at the Bar-Lev Line, worsened by the inaccurate plans the previous commander – Sharon – which consisted on the IDF resisting and then counterattacking as soon as possible without waiting for the reserve forces. And when it counterattacked, it resulted in heavy casualties as such lacked coordination and proper artillery support, as well as lacking concentration. Orders were also inaccurate.

The Northern Command HQ (Golan) was also having issues of its own, but were a fairy-tale in contrast to those the Southern Command HQ faced. This Command was having a very competent commander, but it failed in having a common HQ for the two armoured brigades that allowed independence but at the cost of coordination. Yet one of the brigades had an officer that also underestimated the Syrian while dispersed too much its armoured units. Here, the lack of infantry support to the tank units was also being felt. Nevertheless, operations here were more successful than in the Sinai (Murray, 2009).

As it was abovementioned, these operational and command issues were neutralized by the IDF capacities and by the same General Staff system, as well as the skills the high command and the single soldier had. The following positive aspects and measures taken during the conflict evidence the possibility of the General Staff system to neutralize or compensate for these kind of issues, as it was intended originally to do; this was maximized by the fact it was implemented within a proper (military) cultural context. The adversary also played a role in helping the IDF and its General Staff system, as it committed more mistakes than the Israeli alongside its own operational and command issues. Curiously, and following Herzog (2006), some of the issues in the IDF also had a positive role that sparked adaptation during the conflict.

On the chapter of mobilization and mobility, the Israelis were able to exploit their doctrine of mobilization of reserve forces, which fought well thanks to the training and experience. In addition, the high capacity for adaptation (with agility) yielded a positive outcome for the IDF during the war, alongside the focusing of the IDF in small units. The fact that the main HQ and the Northern and Southern Commands exerted no direct control over the units meant that they could operate with full autonomy and to exert initiative and implement ad hoc measures, despite the lack of a sort of Auftragstaktik, this also gave rom for improvisation during combat, as an improvised combined-arms tactic was implemented. This situation allowed units to ignore or contest orders that were not accurate or even disconnected with the reality of the battlefield, in 1967 and 1973. Each and every single unit of the IDF, from commissioned and non-commissioned officers to the most single soldier and tank crew behaved like this even without any support from the top-brass, thus changing the very adverse situation Israel was facing. Other factors such as skills, motivation, quality of the chain of command – after all – and the courage and perseverance, were factors that contributed to this (Murray, 2009; Herzog, 2006).

The top-brass and the unit-level command also contributed to the impressive victory Israel achieved against all odds. First, the same Chief of General Staff and the Defence Minister gave some warning. Also, the later assessed accurately the role of the USSR and did the right appointments during the conflict, while the former acting with determination by ordering a general mobilization and exerting a good command, let alone to send the right units at the right time and materializing an early counterstrike by thinking with anticipation. They also replaced a bad commanding officer with a good commanding officer at the Southern Command, prioritizing also the Northern Command, which was the most threatened. Second, the Prime Minister issued the military with strong leadership and good decision making (like rejecting the proposed pre-emptive attack against Syria by the Chief of General Staff), thus providing the military a clear direction of the war from the political side at least on that aspect. Third, Generals Sharon and Bar-Lev good commanders and high level of initiative, capable of addressing a very intense crisis (and despite Sharon’s tendency to have public rows with other officers). Generals Gavish and Eytan wer also cautious enough to train and prepare its units under their command for the incoming war and weaponry they would be facing. And fourth, the military command was able to exploit Egypt’s mistake of advancing further the Suez beachhead to support Syria, allowing Israel to exploit its superiority in armoured warfare and to counterattack, taking advantage of its offensive mentality (Herzog, 2005; Murray, 2009).

As it was abovementioned, the same adversaries contributed to Israel’s victory and the proper functioning of the General Staff system and its principles, mainly by their own operational issues. Indeed, as Murray (2009), Herzog (2003), and Herzog (2006) explain, Egypt designed a war with a limited objective while learning from the lessons of 1967 and taking into account the strengths and weaknesses of Israel, making use of a combined-arms tactic and training that focused on crossing the Canal and securing a bridgehead. They exploited the surprise factor, the Israeli overconfidence and misjudgements, and international diplomacy, focusing on neutralizing the tanks and the air power, the bedrocks of the IDF military doctrine, and attrite Israel while dividing its forces.

But as soon as war became unpredictable with its ever-changing circumstances during combat, Israel could exploit its adaptation capabilities, which the adversaries could not match, changing the course of the war in favour of Israel. As soon as the Egyptian and Syrian were forced to deal with unpredictable situations, their armies were required to improvise, to have quick thinking and take responsibility; abilities they clearly lacked. They were simply not prepared to deal with unpredictable situations during combat, resorting heavily on the authority given the rigid and inflexible mindset framing their militaries, and their strong focusing on planning. The IAF also contributed in limiting the Egyptian and Syrian advance, as it forced them to be anchored to the AA missiles; once the adversaries were forced out of these aegis, it had no problem on destroying the Egyptian ground units in conjunction with the armoured units (Murray, 2009; Herzog, 2006).

The example of the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur war allows to understand the benefits and limits the General Staff system has. Many of the limits might have origins from other factors beyond the same General Staff system, yet clearly will end in affecting it one way or another. But the General Staff system – and/or some of its principles – fulfilled its purpose, which is to compensate for strategic, operational and command problems – even overcoming pre-conceptions on the adversary – with the Auftragstaktik, adaptation, flexibility, the independence and space for initiative at unit-level command and troop, as well as at high command level. It even led to victory when defeat looked certain. An ample discussion on the advantages and limitations of the Prussian General Staff system will be the topic of the next – closing – part of this study.




[1] This approach, having roots in the New Army Model by Cromwell, consisted on three main bodies: A Staff for operational aspects, another for personnel and administrative affairs, and a ‘quarter-master’s staff’ for logistics. Usually, the last two bodies worked as a single one, hence having two Staff officers. See: Johnston, (2008).

[2] But also, the implementation of German-like operational doctrines, as Corum (2009) remarks. See above.

[3] The French system is denominated by Johnston (2008) as the ‘bureaux’ approach at both high and field HQs, having four main sections: one tasked with administrative tasks; another with armaments, hospitals and engineering; another with operations and communication; and a fourth for HQ tasks. All were headed by an adjuntant general and with a Chief of Staff as main commander. By WWI this transformed into a three-branched General Staff, one for administrative issues, another for intelligence, and a third for operation and planning affairs. See: pp. 27-28.

[4] Many Israelis were of European origin, making the country and its military Western in essence, according to Murray (2009). This might explain why the General Staff system is implemented in Israel.

[5] For instance, the geographical context and territorial limit was very similar to that of Prussia, meaning that Israel indeed lacks strategic depth. This forced the IDF to have an offensive mentality, framing its operational doctrine and making it to seek for a counterattack as soon as possible and deep into enemy territory, so to decide the conflict (Herzog, 2006; Murray, 2009).

[6] This system would be put under heavy test during the 1973 Yom Kippur (or War of Atonement), mainly due to political considerations and the fact it took place during one of the holiest periods for the Israelis, following Herzog (2005), Herzog (2003) and Murray (2009). In addition, a partial mobilization in May upon inaccurate alerts and the economic costs of such deterred a timely mobilization prior the war according to Van Creveld (as cited in Murray, 2009, p.19).

[7] See: Israel Defence Forces. (2015). The General Staff. Retrieved from:

[8] Yet at least one commander trained his units to face this particular threat, as it will be pointed out below.

[9] The War of Attrition, which took place between 1967 and 1973, was also crucial for the Yom Kippur War, as it was the conflict taking place in a very decisive scenario as the Sinai and the Bar-Lev Line were. Egypt waged very limited attacks to attrite and test the Israelis while seeking to create the conditions for recovering the lost territory, taking advantage of the static situation the Israelis put themselves in by relying heavily on the Bar-Lev Line (Herzog, 2006).

[10] See footnote 6.

[11] Murray (2009) remarks that such attitude is widespread, as the militaries worldwide are not that keen on accepting criticism from lower ranks and from people outside it. Nevertheless, self-criticism, self-examination and debriefing are pillars in the Israeli military culture.

[12] Nevertheless, and according to Herzog (2006), the armoured units were very crucial in the battlefield prior a good planning, suffering only a 25% of casualties by infantry-operated anti-tank missiles.

[13] Interestingly, and according to Murray (2009), there was no control of units in the field during the Six-Day War. Units acted upon their own judgement, exerting initiative, as there were no direct orders or an efficient communication system delivering them to control their actions.



Lt. Col. Corum, J. S (2009). Prefacio. In B. Condell., & D. T. Zabecki (Eds.), Wehrmacht – El Arte de la Guerra Alemán. [On the German Art of War. Truppenführung, Alejandro Pradera, trans.]. Madrid, Spain: La Esfera de los Libros (Original work published in 2001).

Maj. Eisel, B. (1993). An American General Staff: An Idea Whose Time Has Come? Fort Leaveworth, Kansas: School of Advanced Military Studies. Retrieved from: on (ADA274042).

Herzog, C. (2006). La Guerra del Yom Kippur. [The War of Atonement, Gerardo di Masso, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Inèdita Editores (Original work published in 1975).

Brig. Gen. Herzog, M. (2003). Introducción. In C. Herzog, La Guerra del Yom Kippur. [The War of Atonement, Gerardo di Masso, trans.]. (pp. 11-22). Barcelona, Spain: Inèdita Editores (Original work published in 1975).

Israel Defence Forces. (2015). The General Staff. Retrieved from: on 25.06.2017

Maj. Johnston, P. (2008). Staff Systems and the Canadian Air Force: Part 1. History of the Western Staff System. The Canadian Air Force Journal, Summer 2008, 1(2), 20-30. Retrieved from: on 24.11.2016

Murray, W. (2009). Military Adaptation in War. Alexandria, Virginia: Institute for Defense Analyses. Retrieved from: on 26.06.2017 (IDA Paper P-4453).

Peri, Y. (November 2002). The Israeli Military and Israel’s Palestinian Policy. From Oslo to the Al Aqsa Intifada. (Peaceworks No. 47, November 2002). Washington DC, USA: United States Institute of Peace. Retrieved from: on 25.06.2017

Senor, D., & Singer, S. (2011). Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle. New York, USA: Twelve.

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: on 20.05.2017

_____________________________. The Midway Counter-attack on the Nagumo Carrier Force. Retrieved from: on 20.05.2017

_____________________________. Vice Admiral Nagumo Feels the Pressure of American Air Attacks from Midway. Retrieved from: on 20.05.2017

_____________________________. The Search for Nagumo’s Carriers. Retrieved from: on 20.05.2017

_____________________________. The Tide of Battle Turns at Midway. Retrieved from: on 20.05.2017

_____________________________. Battle of Midway – Events of 4 of June 1942 (Afternoon). Retrieved from: on 20.05.2017

_____________________________. Battle of Midway – Events of 5 and 6 June 1942. Retrieved from: 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: 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.



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).

Berger, R (Ed.). Aviones [Flugzeuge, Vicenç Prat, trans.]. Colonia, Alemania: Naumann & Göbel Verlagsgessellschaft mbH.

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).

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).

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. 4. pp. 121-144). Buenos Aires, Argentina: Editorial Codex.

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).

Livesey, A. (1995). Grandes Batallas de la I Primera Guerra Mundial (pp. 134-143). [Great Battles of World War I, Ediciones Folio, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Ediciones Folio (Original work published in 1989).

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.

Shepherd, J. (2003). 1942. In USS Enterprise CV-6. Retrieved from: on 15.01.2017

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 (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 (, 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 (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.



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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).

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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: on 20.04.2014

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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).

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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: on 16.10.2016 (2008). Dispersed Basing. Retrieved from: on 21.12.2016

The Prussian General Staff: Meritocracy in Arms. Part 2a.

Image ‘ps162’ by Joe Robinson. Released under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) License.

Image ‘ps162’ by Joe Robinson. Released under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) License.


The history of the Prussian General Staff, reviewed in two previous articles, reflects how the Prussian General Staff (and the military) was connected with the development of Prussia (and even Germany after 1871 and up to 1945). The General Staff even played a crucial role in shaping it. In addition, the Prussian General Staff was the product of brilliant minds and the changes in ways of thinking, of social order and even of warfare, especially during the Napoleonic Wars.

In addition, the way how the Prussian General Staff worked was hinted throughout the review, as the contributions of many brilliant military minds (von Scharnhorst, von Moltke and others), though having general common origins and perspectives, added special traits to it, defining the way it would function. However, a more thoroughly approach is needed, not only to complement the historical review, but also – and mainly – to understand better how the Prussian General Staff worked, what were the main elements shaping it and making it to world, and how it carved Prussia/Germany’s most remarkable military feats.

How the Prussian General Staff worked

The Prussian General Staff began to emerge during the Napoleonic Wars, but it took almost half a century to institutionalize within the Prussian armed forces, becoming very prominent and crucial by the 1860’s, the decade in which the rise of Prussia began to take shape. It is by these years in which the General Staff had a more defined way of functioning, as the culmination of the ideas set up by von Scharnhorst reached their maximum. This, for instance, also shaped the history of the second half of the 19th century – in Europe – and up to 1914, sparking changes in military doctrines and strategies. It started, following Goerlitz (1985) and Schoy (n.d.), as the manifestation of a very needed modernization of the Prussian army during the Napoleonic Wars, by a series of reforms to allow Prussia to cope with France war tactics. And it was basically the tool that allowed Prussia to take advantage of many innovations introduced by the French Revolution (like popularization of war) and the Industrial Revolution, professionalization, flexibility and merit, thus mastering warfare for a century[1]. It must be reminded, again, that the army was an organic part of the Prussian state and its structure, with the army and the same General Staff being important actors, even politically, within the nation, following Goerlitz (1985).

Organizing an army, organizing the General Staff

Kennedy (2007) explains that the Prussian General Staff introduced a ‘military revolution’ (which also sparked a strong Prussia/German influence in European affairs). For instance, the Prussian army was implementing a very particular system of short military service, which consisted of three years of mandatory military service and four additional years in the reserve. Also, 7 annual recruitment waves, with 1 for the Landwehr (or national militia), were being implemented[2]. This militia was tasked with performing garrison and rear guard duties. Nevertheless, this system was efficient, as it provided Prussia with enough manpower to wage its campaigns regardless of its relative small population[3]. Needless to say, the General Staff took advantage of this organization and knew how to channel the resources and manpower given by such.

This organization of the Prussian army can be traced back to von Scharnhorst, who wanted to articulate the army into divisions (or brigades) as a mean to maximize the scarce resources Prussia was having back then, with each division/brigade headed by a field commander and having its own general staff. Moreover, the army was to serve as a drafting mechanism for the reserve corps (Goerlitz, 1985).

There was indeed a previous version of the General Staff, dubbed the ‘General Quartermaster’, tasked with recruitment, supplies and organization, and having some mid-rank officers acting as order couriers and others assisting generals in reports and data compilation. However, and unlike the General Staff that would follow, there were no military advisors to the field commanders neither it was a permanent institution, being established right after war sparked. Independence of movement was, however present, being a product of operational needs than the product of the army realising the benefits of such deployments (Goerlitz, 1985).

The General Staff itself, was structured with four sections: The core General Staff itself, comprised by four officers (senior operations, senior supply and administrative, intelligence and training officers); Adjuntant for administrative tasks and personnel issues; Legal, Intendant (medical, supply and veterinary); and Transport, specialized on transport and equipment (Johnston, 2008). This structure, noteworthy to point out, was the product of the evolution of the General Quartermaster until the General Staff itself.

Furthermore, three further divisions were established in 1867, whose taks was to monitor all matters of military interest in both Prussia and abroad. The first division was responsible for  Sweden, Norway, Turkey and Austria. The second division was responsible for what is now Germany, Italy and Switzerland. The thrid division was responsible for France, England, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and America (Millotat, 1992).


The Prussian General Staff took advantage of the recruitment system, and by the hand of Helmuth von Moltke ‘the Elder’, it also maximized the potential the officer corps would have, as he took the most skilled from the war academy and instructed them in the framing of plans and in preparing for potential future conflicts. These plans were to be prepared and reviewed before the spark of war. As it was mentioned in the previous articles, independence of decision and framing operational actions under a mission command (Auftragstaktik) doctrine was one of the main traits of the Prussian General Staff. Officers were instilled to practice management of armies or groups of armies having the possibility of independence of movement and even to have their own initiative, thus acting while having in mind the strategic and operational objectives. This practice was, by the way, established by von Gneisenau, who introduced the method of issuing general directives, and enhanced by von Moltke ‘The Elder’. But independence of movement did not set a restriction on operational interdependence between units. Rather the contrary, the deployment of various units envisaged interdependence for the sake of mutual support an overall success. Similarly, combined arms tactics were stressed, as interdependence between different arms was of tactical importance (Kennedy, 2007; Klein, 2001; Millotat, 1992)[4].

This tradition would play an important role for the German army after WWI, its survival in the interwar period, and the basis for the effectiveness of the army in the earlier stages of WW2. It was stipulated, under von Seeckt’s command, that field commanders would follow general guidelines while being free of any constrain, allowed to exert personal initiative under the frames of the mission (limits), following Klein (2001). Furthermore, interdependence and combined arms would be the basics of the German armoured warfare doctrine of the 20’s and 30’s[5].

The importance of mission command, or auftragstaktik, for the Prussian General Staff is such that it deserves to be analysed in depth. As it was mentioned before, this principle allowed field commanders to take actions upon their assessment of any operational situation, having always as aim the fulfilment of the main – strategic – objective(s), and being able to not strictly follow commands. This led to a decentralized command and control that was very effective when it came to wage battles and wars, having a considerable contribution in Prussia’s victories on the second half of the 19th century and even at WWII, even becoming a model for the current German army and other armies that desired to implement it (Gunther, 2012)[6].

Furthermore, the auftragstaktik allowed field commanders and officers to transmit and interpret the received orders, taking as a basis their perception of the operational situation they would be facing. This not only provided the abovementioned flexibility and room for personal initiative through decentralized command, but also allowed the army to absorb risk and failure, with the commander accepting responsibility in such a case, and his field commanders capable of understanding (and articulating) the aim and purposed means. This understanding was considered a crucial requirement by von Moltke, as it would provide them with general frameworks along with freedom for materializing the strategic/general aims. Equally important was for commanders to provide brief but sufficient instructions, with orders being equally brief and less prescriptive, so both field commanders and officers could act instead of waiting for orders (Goerlitz, 1985; Gunther, 2012; Kennedy, 2007; Millotat, 1992)[7].

Brief and clears orders (or general directives) were important not only for an agile execution of plans, but also to make easy the relation between the high commanders and the field commanders. According to Gunther (2012), the general orders were to be emitted by the high command with a general nature, so to allow the field commander to add details considering that they were closer and able to understand better the conditions at the battlefields, and even going against the content of the order if their actions were favourable to meet the general objectives. Moreover, for von Moltke, the commanders were to emphasize the purpose – through short, brief and clear orders – but not to define the method of execution, while field commanders and officers could disobey orders if they considered the situation required a different course of action, and those same field commanders to provide timely and accurate reporting to allow the high commanders to understand the situation (Gunther, 2012)[8].

The Auftragstaktik did not worked at its fullest, and many situations almost neutralized it or evidenced how risky it was for operational outcome. Following Gunther (2012), during the Franco-Prussian War, von Moltke was almost unable to stop independent actions by field commanders that threatened his plans for synchronization and mobilization. But that disadvantage also had a positive side, as those commanders seized the initiative – often without awaiting orders – upon their detection of French intentions and weak points and exploiting them, also able of giving feedback. Their action even forced the French to change their plans, dislodge their organization or making mistakes that played in favour of Prussia and leaving the initiative to Prussia. Moreover, this principle enabled the field commanders to detect and solve problems on the march (Gunther, 2012)[9].

Planning (for) the next encounters

The framing of plans was not relegated to crisis or pre-war times. In fact, and during peacetime, the General Staff would be tasked with studying new ways to organize war, devising offensive and defensive plans, counteroffensive and mobilization plans as well. War was to be defined quickly and decisively, with previous and careful analysis of problems, taking also risks while balancing initiative and caution (Cau, 2011; Goerlitz, 1985; Gunther, 2012; Kennedy, 2007). This nature also responded to von Moltke’s transformation of the General Staff, which became less academic and more a command instrument, placing emphasis in mobility, speed and precision. The following century witnessed the General Staff applying the same principles even after a defeat, similarly to the earlier days back in the Napoleonic Wars. War games and map exercises were implemented during the command of von Seeckt, testing the junior officers and generals (Klein, 2001).

Meritocracy through education while learning from the past

Yet for most of the times, if not during the entire existence of the General Staff, education was one of the main characteristics and the reason it produced officers of high quality, as von Scharnhorst considered that the lecturer was also a crucial part in the process. In fact, the study of military history and past campaigns was one of the educational focusing of the military academies under the General Staff’s supervision, as well as studies on operational issues. Even since the earlier days of the General Staff, von Scharnhorst highlighted the importance of theoretical and applied disciplines, as well as of educating military leaders from an early age, thus making cadets to attend courses in order to promote them on educational and skills basis[10]. Reflections on military affairs were encouraged, making use of historical examples, as von Scharnhorst considered war to be a complex discipline requiring high training, study and training. Reading, furthermore, would enrich officers by knowing from other’s experiences and insights, with education balancing field exercises, theory and personal studies. Production and publication of the best papers analysing strategic, tactic and military affairs was a way to grasp and apply such experiences. Examinations were always a constant, even for re-joining civil life (Dimarco, 2009; Guderian, 2006; Herwig, 1998; Klein, 2001; Millotat, 1992; Schoy, n.d.).

This emphasizing on learning from the past became important in the last decades of the General Staff. This period (1919 to 1945) could be labelled as the period in which all of the characteristics and features of the General Staff, as well as the innovations introduced by it, reached their maximum level and allowed the Third Reich to achieve impressive victories at the early days of WWII. This was due to von Seeckt’s examination of the innovations introduced in 1918, innovations that were carefully studied as well as the experiences acquired during the Great War, setting the basis for the armoured and mobile warfare doctrines and tactics that would give way to the famous Panzer Divisionen and the Blitzkrieg. Noteworthy to remark that these new doctrines and tactics took advantage of decentralized authority and analysis and exploitation of the adversary’s weaknesses, not to mention that both were cornerstones of those new tactics and doctrines (Murray & Millet, 2005; Jackson, 2012).

Indeed, tanks were to operate as an independent unit, discarding the ideas of tanks to be used as mere support for the infantry, as the analysis and studies on interwar French and British experiences on the matter evidenced as the best doctrine to pick. And evidencing the spirit of the Prussian General Staff, problems and their solutions were detected and implemented on the march, with exercises implemented to test the developed theories and even testing secretly built tanks in Sweden. Such exercises and tests were also useful to spot issues and set a definitive configuration of design, weight and armament, as well as to validate the Panzerkrieg doctrines developed by the interwar-period General Staff (Guderian, 2005; Jackson, 2012).

The General Staff thus aimed at training the best officers or to put them into top positions so to improve the leadership quality, where the main aspects of such selection process are talent and merit or skills as previously mentioned. The idea behind the General Staff was to set up a system where those with skills, merits and qualifications would gain important positions and function within the army, interestingly with a ‘middle-class’ composition instead of sole nobility. Moreover, the officers and staff assistants were – and still are – required to be aware of world affairs and the different factors – from political to economic – affecting military affairs, following Dimarco (2009), Millotat (1992) and Schoy (n.d.).

This selection of the best contributed in bringing back the German army to its feet following the 1918 defeat, thanks to Hans von Seeckt. In fact, the best ones were selected for this purpose, where again war heroes and most notably the nobility were taken as reasons for not selecting officers to comprise the new general staffs, as general staffs (at unit level) were allowed to persist by the allies (Chant, 1999; Murray & Millet, 2005).

Education was to be complemented with good analytical and critical skills. Following Schoy (n.d.), von Scharnhorst considered that any dogmas and rigid ideas should be scrapped, allowing the students to have independent and critical thinking alongside a receptive mind, capable of responding to the circumstances and unexpected factors and events during a battle. This, as mentioned before, was the core fundament of freedom of action under a mission command that would characterize the General Staff and the Prussia/German army. In relation to this, von Scharnhorst always aimed at compensating deficiencies at high level of command, with the establishment of unit-level general staffs and education, education that would produce selected officers able to run the army, and able to take decisions in the absence of the commander or to advise him on operational decisions. The commander, thanks to the advice of his officers, was capable of taking any independent decision. These advices were required to be based on qualified reasoning and thought, and not on mere wishful thinking (Dimarco, 2009; Gunther, 2012; Millotat, 1992; Schoy, n.d.).

Exercises and manoeuvres as source of learning

Field exercises were also an important characteristic of the Prussian General Staff, namely, war games and manoeuvres. Von Scharnhorst deemed them as important, for they would allow training near combat conditions instead of drills and daily duties, following Schoy (n.d.). In addition to war games and manoeuvres, historical campaigns and operations implemented by potential adversaries were studied. But the far past was not the only subject of study, as mistakes during exercises and war games were studied, which resulted in a readjustment of instruction, organization and weaponry[11]. This allowed the Prussian army – via the Prussian General Staff – to absorb and learn from mistakes, allowing improvements in many ways[12]. Also, technology and transportation infrastructure was important for the Prussian General Staff, with a special department for railroads within the General Staff established, in order to make sure troops and supplies could reach destination fast, reflecting how the General Staff and the Army were both able to take advantage of the technologies bestowed by the Industrial Revolution. Moreover, von Moltke ‘the Elder’, stimulated the introduction of rifled weapons, such as the Dreyse rifle. Similarly, journeys for reconnoitre (Übungsreisen) the terrain and possible operational areas – even abroad – were implemented during training (GlobalSecurity, 2011; Goerlitz, 1985; Herwig, 1998; Kennedy, 2007; Klein, 2001)[13].

As it was stated before, the General Staff not only focused on the past. Following Goerlitz (1985) and Herwig (1998), the General Staff was in fact committed to review the military literature of the times, newspapers, journals and even parliamentary debates. The idea was to scrutinize the novelties in warfare, tactics and strategy – even new military technology – introduced by other nations, and to be analysed and adopted and enhanced, if necessary, preparing for the next war. This was something that would characterize the General Staff from its beginnings, making it to be ahead of its adversaries even after defeat: the armoured warfare principles and tactics are the most prominent example.

This, in fact, was kept in the 20th century, when the General Staff, under the lead of von Seeckt, would place special attention to transport, supply, organization, railways, air defence, engineering and command post exercises. Moreover, übungsreisen under von Seeckt would consist of officers traveling to other countries to be aware of newly introduced tactics and assets (Chant, 1999; Klein, 2001). This evidences how the General Staff was capable of intertwining even in the earlier 20th century, the operational and training aspects with the technological advances, making both spheres to co-relate and work as one.

War gaming

War games is also another aspect of the General Staff that, like Auftragstaktik, deserves special attention, as it became a sort of trademark of the Prussian General Staff and army, and in fact complemented the development of this combat principle, helping in the devising and testing of plans and doctrines. Following Vego (2012), games of this sort were already existing, yet it was in Germany where the modern versions of such games where invented and developed from the 17th to the 19th centuries, used for educating and training commanders and their staffs, as well as for rehearsing and testing plans for potential future operations. The special characteristic of these games and their evolution was that the pieces and the board were representing the units and the features – type of terrain, geographical accidents, etc. – of the area of operations, and the dynamics of the games served also to support the need for having general staff officers to advise the players/commanders in both the board and the real battlefield. Even von Moltke saw the benefits provided by war games for training officers, for the abovementioned testing of plans and as a complement of the Übungsreisen, thus implementing them[14].

Von Schlieffen took the war games development and impact even further, aiming at further testing plans and aptitudes of the officers in training and often reflecting the potential geopolitical and strategic situation the German Empire was facing back then: in other words, operations against Russia, the British Empire and France. Therefore, wargames were based on war plans, with the addition that they were meant to highlight any potential problem that could emerge. Even so, von Schlieffen reminded his officers to maintain initiative, for wargames would not provide predefined solutions (Vego, 2012). However, wargames did not escape to the biases and mistakes of the chiefs of General Staff. Following Vego (2012), despite von Moltke ‘the Young’ attempts to improve war plans upon outcomes of wargames, the lack of simulating the diplomatic and political context acted against this.

Nonetheless, defeat did not mean the end of the General Staff efforts to always look for quality and preparation. Neither it was the end for the wargames. According to Vego (2012), von Seeckt and others that followed him during the interwar period, took advantage of wargames and their potential for training, with an increased value for preparing the future army and officers in the light of heavy restrictions imposed by the Allies. War games also kept their initial purpose, but they were also used for preparing the army officers in mobile warfare, to study past campaigns and to improve the doctrines that were being developed during this period. During WWII, wargames were also used, mainly for studying on-going problems.

Technology matters

The importance technology in general would have for the Prussian General Staff would be a characteristic until 1945. Following Klein (2001), it was von Schlieffen and Von Moltke the ones that introduced this characteristic to the General Staff, as they made any operational and tactical calculus to include technological developments and innovations, even grasping the interdependence between tactic and technological advancements and the convenience of such relation in order to save lifes and achieve victory in the battlefield. Furthermore, this knowledge was applied to the areas of materiel and command as well. This grasping of warfare and technology would play its first fruits during the Franco – Prussian war, with telegraphs used to deliver orders, and artillery used extensively, let alone the introduction of breechloading Dreyse rifles and the utilization of railways through a department for that sole purpose within the General Staff (Bergamino & Palitta, 2015; Gunther, 2012; GlobalSecurity, 2011; Herwig, 1998; Kennedy, 2007; Klein, 2001; Millotat, 1992).

Needless to say, technology played an important role in the adaptations and preparations for the German army after WWI, as innovations in terms of tanks and armoured vehicles introduced by the Allies during this conflict were carefully studied, enhanced and built, resulting in the very famous German Panzers and their revolution in armoured warfare. In addition, German, allied and even neutral enterprises were outreached to develop the newly introduced hardware, and even to build, as it was the case with the tanks and the famous 88 mm AA/anti-tank gun (Chant, 1999; Guderian; 2007).

Smooth chain of command

The independence of movement and the room for the field commander’s own initiative is one of the proofs that the Prussian army was not entirely strict and inflexible, as well as the same General Staff. There is another proof that further evidences such flexibility: from von Gneisenau onwards, the general staff officers of the units were able to communicate directly with the head of the General Staff, even reporting directly to him and bypassing their most immediate commander (the commander of the units, following Klein (2001). Moreover, and according to Millotat (1992), position would weight more than the sole rank, with captains even being above high rank officers. This dynamic would take place not only in wartime, but also during peacetime. Later on, and under Von Moltke ‘the Elder’, the General Staff became very important, as the Chief of General Staff was able to attend important meetings where the Kaiser was present, and where important affairs where discussed, even being able to issue operational orders of his own (Klein, 2011).

The General Staff also connected the commander, his adviser or staff’s capacity to devise and execute plans, make use of forces and deploy them, and to make use of the geographical factors in his favour. All of this under the principle of flexibility as well. For instance, von Moltke considered that the planner – if he was the most skilled one – could effectively command the troops he would be able to mobilize, taking advantage of command and geography. Furthermore, ad hoc thinking was necessary in order to cope with the very unpredictable nature of war, considering how this nature would stretch pre-established plans. For example, it was required for the officers or commander not to base any movement on the assumption the adversary would do a predetermined move, as it would instead take an unexpected step. Therefore, the General Staff required capacity to react to such situations (Herwig, 1998). This, of course, meant that the commander and/or officer were to take unexpected steps of their own, taking advantage of the given uncertainty and flexibility when executing the war plans.

Von Seeckt went further, as he practically rejected an upside-down hierarchy, stressing instead that this structure was to be set aside, as combat was variable in nature with many different factors playing a role in the events’ evolution, as well as the very unpredictable will of the enemy (Murray & Millet, 2005).

In relation to the unpredictable nature of war, the General Staff also worked on grasping the uncertain nature of international politics, the changing circumstances and the identification of potential threats that would be emerging from that sea of chaos, allowing the definition of clear goals as Herwig (1998) explains.

These are what I consider the main characteristics that structured the General Staff, being also the main traits of its functioning on operational terms. However, the Prussian General Staff had other elements that shaped its work, being such of non-operational nature and located more at the philosophical, value and political spectre. Even the social composition of the General Staff – briefly mentioned here – defined its work and even its success. These elements and a brief discussion about themwill be focus of the next part.



[1] It is noteworthy to remind that Prussia was in a state of general stagnation, where reluctance to adapting, arrogance, and insistence on applying outdated tactics was the rule, along with bureaucratization (Schoy, n.d.; and Goerlitz, 1985).

[2] In detail, it was 3 years in the infantry, 4 years in the cavalry, 4 years in the reserve and 5 in the Landwehr, with the recruiting age being set at the age of 20. See: Cau, 2011, p.130.

[3] Education was, for instance, was another cornerstone of the Prussian Army, and indeed one that von Scharnhorst and other Prussian General Staff heads deemed important. But general education was also important, as most recruits were having basic education and higher levels, benefiting the tasks of officers to control, organize and supply the army (Kennedy, 2007).

[4] In fact, and following Klein (2001), von Moltke established the principle of “march separately, strike together”, where and in combination with state of the art weaponry back then, gave Prussia its remarkable victory at Königgrätz and the Franco-Prussian War. This also played into his minimalist approach on planning operations, the independence of command in war, and the mission oriented command (Klein, 2001).

[5] One patent example is Rommel, who in his memoirs states that officers of an armoured division must think and act independently, within the general plan and without waiting orders. See: Rommel, 2006, p.19.

[6] This fact alone does not explain the victories of Prussia and how the General Staff crafted them, as the reader must consider the other elements or characteristics of the General Staff (and the Prussian Army) here reviewed.

[7] Gunther (2012) even suggests that, as most chiefs of staff and primary advisors were not Junkers (noble landowners), their own independent actions were facilitated. On the other hand, detailed orders were deemed valueless as during operations, the situation could change unexpectedly and rapidly.

[8] Likewise, von Moltke considered that the commander was to be a person able to see through the ‘fog of war’ and grasp the real situation, taking quick decisions and executing them with efficiency and constancy, while considering his actions in an everchanging battlefield. See: Gunther, 2012, p.15.

[9] Gunther (2012) even considers that with the current advancements in military technology and communications, Auftragstaktik is still possible as a military principle. This is material for another discussion.

[10] Von Scharnhorst was clearly against promotion of officers on social background, connections or birth, according to Schoy (n.d.) and Millotat (1992).

[11] Experience was defined as important, at the point of being the basis of theory. Hence the equally importance of studying history for the officer’s judgement when it was needed to (Schoy, n.d.).

[12] Even victorious campaigns were subject to hard examination, as it was the case of the Franco-Prussian War, according to Herwig (1998).

[13] Von Scharnhorst in fact stated that “a properly instructed, theoretically and practically trained and practiced general staff is a necessary requirement for every power abroad” (as cited in Klein, 2001). This explains why the Prussian General Staff deemed important education and the implementation of the acquired knowledge via the framing of plans and executing war games and manoeuvres.

[14] See also: Bergamino & Palitta, 2015, p.209.



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).

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

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).

DiMarco, L. A. (2009). The US Army General Staff: Where Is It in the Twenty-first Century? Retrieved from: on 04.06.2016

Col. Klein, F. (2001). The Myth of the Prusso-German General Staff. Baltic Defence Review, 2001 (5), 133-144. Retrieved from: on 03.06.2016 (2011). German Military Railways. Retrieved from: on 24.11.2016

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).

Maj. Gunther, M. J. (2012). Auftragstaktik: The Basis for Modern Military Command? Fort Leaveworth, Kansas: School of Advanced Military Studies. Retrieved from: on 04.06.2016 (Monography AY 2012-02)

Herwig. H. H. (1998). The Prussian Model and Military Planning Today. Joint Forces Quarterly, Spring 1998 (18). Retrieved from: on 04.06.2016

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

Maj. Johnston, P. (2008). Staff Systems and the Canadian Air Force: Part 1. History of the Western Staff System. The Canadian Air Force Journal, Summer 2008, 1(2), 20-30. Retrieved from: on 24.11.2016

Kennedy, P. (2007). Auge y caida de las grandes potencias [The Rise and the Fall of the Great Powers, Ferrer Aleu, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Mondadori (Original work published in 1987).

Oberst. Millotat, C. O. E. (1992). Understanding the Prussian-German General Staff System. Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania: Strategic Studies Institute. Retrieved from: on 03.06.2016 (AD-A249 255)

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).

Rommel, E. (2006). Memorias del Mariscal Rommel [The Rommel Papers, Julio Fernandez & Yañes Gimeno, trans.]. Mollet del Vallès, Spain: Caralt. (Original work published in 1953).

Oberst. Schoy, M. (n.d). General Gerhard von Scharnhorst: Mentor of Clausewitz and Father of the Prussian-German General Staff. Retrieved from: on 03.06.2016

Vego, M. (2012). German war gaming. Naval War College Review, 65 (4), 106-147. Retrieved from: on 04.06.2016

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,

[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: 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: on 02.10.2016

Auslin, M. (2012). Why US Should Embrace Vietnam. The Diplomat. Retrieved from: on 01.10.2016

BBC. (2015). China military parade commemorates WW2 victory over Japan. BBC. Retrieved from: on 18.09.2016

Chanlett-Avery, E., & Rinehart, I. E. (2016). The US-Japan Alliance. Congressional Research Service. Retrieved from: on 02.10.2016

Chellaney, B. (2015). China’s Indian Ocean Strategy. The Japan Times.  Retrieved from: 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: on 03.10.2016

Kan, S. A., & Morrison, W. M. (2014). US-Taiwan Relationship: Overview of Policy Issues. Congressional Research Service. Retrieved from: on 02.10.2016

Kurlantzick, J. (2016). Will the United States Soon End the Arms Embargo on Vietnam? The National Interest. Retrieved from: on 01.10.2016

Lewis-Rice, Maloney & Payne (2014). World Air Forces 2015. Surrey, UK: Flightglobal. Retrieved from: 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: 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: 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: on 19.09.2016

Parameswaran, P. (2016). Why the Philippines is Critical to the US Rebalance to Asia. The Diplomat. Retrieved from: on 01.10.2016

Rinehart, I. E. (2016). The Chinese Military: Overview and Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service. Retrieved from: 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: on 02.10.2014

SIPRI. (2016). Military expenditure by country, in constant (2014) US$ m., 2006-2015. SIPRI. Retrieved from: 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.).

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

Image ‘Battle ship Mikasa’ by Taiyo FUJI. Released under Creative Commons 4.0 (CC BY 4.0) License.

Image ‘Battle ship Mikasa’ by Taiyo FUJI. Released under Creative Commons 4.0 (CC BY 4.0) License.


The date is the 4th of June, 1942. Two of the major aircraft carrier-based fleets of the world are sailing at full speed towards a battle that would seal the fate of their respective nations. Beneath the Summer sun, the crews of the airplanes are boarding their aircraft, ready to write history with their wings and bombs while facing each an enemy decided to win or perish. From the American side, it was a very risky gamble considering how badly damaged the US Pacific fleet was, and the risks and implications defeat would bring. For the Japanese, there was a lot to win, unsuspecting also that there was also too much too lose despite the illusion of absolute triumph the earlier victories made them to believe. In the end, it was the flag of the Empire of the Rising Sun the one that went beneath the waves as a result of a small group of eagles that destroyed the dreams of a perennial and invincible empire.

The Battle of Midway is among the most important (naval) battles in history, whose consequences determined the outcome of a war, evidencing also – like every battle in history – that a small factor like ammunition placed in the wrong place at the wrong moment, a broken secret code for communications, or an unseen squadron of bombers can change history, bringing empires to an end, while opening the way for other nations to rise. This battle is also the example of how in a single moment, the negative strategic situation of one side could change in an instant.

The Battle of Midway is also one of those battles that confirmed the changing trends in naval warfare, tactics and strategy, making of the aircraft carrier and its airplane, the main weapons for the conflicts and times to come, at the point of making such the most important asset to counter a crisis. It also confirmed the declining role of the battleships, which were the kings of the seas for nearly fifty years. This battle was not only an historical milestone, but also a milestone for naval warfare.

Setting the course towards Midway: Strategic background I

There are occasions in which something apparently insignificant and valueless, being located in the middle of nowhere, acquires a very important strategic value regardless of the abovementioned factors. Midway is comprised by two atoll-island that harboured a naval and an air base, located northwest of Hawaii, being an American advanced post guarding the routes eastward toward the Hawaiian island and the continental United States, and capable of supporting American war efforts for any possible conflict in the Pacific with its air assets (as war with Japan was assessed feasible by 1916). It was also important for it was a relay station for a communications submarine cable between Honolulu and Luzon (the Philippines), which would play an important role in the battle to come. It was also the main of defence for the US navy base of Pearl Harbour[1]. Midway was basically the strategic gateway towards the Eastern Pacific and the shield protecting both the Hawaii islands and the continental USA.

For the Japan, Midway was a strategic point whose controlling would allow the Imperial Navy to reach the abovementioned islands and the main US territory, considering its pivotal geographical location. It was a location that, if attacked (and seized), it could provide a strategic shield to its operations in Southeast Asia and Western Pacific, as well as to be an advanced base to project its naval power and offensives further east while neutralizing US naval efforts. In addition, Japan was interested in Midway so to build an intelligence outpost, thus having plans for invasion even back in 1938[2].

The Japanese and American simultaneous expansions in the Pacific during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, made Midway’s strategic importance to increase: It became an invaluable strategic point for the US, and when WWII began, so its interest for the Japanese Imperial Navy. This gradual strategic importance of Midway can only be understood by the strategic background around Midway, which is no other than the aforementioned expansions and strategic interests both the US and Japan were having in Asia, the West Pacific and, ultimately, Midway. This would allow us to understand the reasons of the Battle of Midway and why in particular it took place there.

The Empire of the Rising Sun

Japan’s rising as a major world power began during the 1867-1868 Meiji Restoration, with the Commodore Perry’s fleet entrance into Tokyo Bay and the bombardment of Kagoshima and Shimonoseki by the Royal Navy. Both events had a strong influence over the Japanese Emperor, who decided to make Japan a Great Power and to be equal with the Western powers, never to be dominated by it: basically to make of Japan an empire[3]. As a result, a strong navy and army evolved at the same time the nation was modernizing, which transformed Japan into the only Great Power in Asia, defeating China (which became a main target on economic premises) in 1894-1985 and Russia in 1904-1905, thanks to the modern weaponry and battleships used by the Japanese. Although after the conflict with China Japan was temporarily forced to give back Port Arthur and the Liaotung Peninsula, until the war with Russia[4]. Taiwan and Korea came under immediate Japanese control, with Manchuria being a sort of economic protectorate, being later on invaded in 1931, where the puppet state of Manchukuo was established in order to facilitate Japanese control over the area (Cau, 2011; Gibelli, 1972; Kennedy, 2007; Murray & Millet, 2005; Ralby, 2013; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969).

Japan’s participation in WWI proved to be a disappointment for the small nation, despite Japan’s seizure of German concessions in China and its Pacific colonies, and the economic benefits in ships and ammunition exports to the Allies. Other territories, including some in Siberia during the Russian Revolution, had to be returned following US and European pressures and their desire to maintain the “Open Door” policy[5]. Consequently, Japan began to adopt a Japanese hegemony approach, which was anti-European and against US ‘Open Door’ policies in essence, and with the Japanese military leading such policies. At the same time, the military emerged as a strong political group within the country, having clashes with the noblemen and some technocrats[6]. The latter held some influence in the 20’s and agreed to sign naval treaties – like the famous Washington Treaty of 1922 – allowing Japan to limit its naval build-up and being in inferiority by a ratio of 15:15:10 in contrast with the US and the Great Britain, to freeze its interests in China, and to fortify all of its Pacific naval bases (Gibelli, 1972; Dahms, 1974; Murray & Millet, 2005)[7].

But the military began to strengthen its political and social influence in the 30’s. The army was basically administrating both Manchuria and Korea, and as the introduction of new assets – the airplanes, mainly – brought closer the industrial complex (the famous zaibatsu) with the military. In the end, the army’s political power became so strong that it decided the conformation of the government, influencing o limiting also the power of the Emperor, making him to approve the army and navy’s war plans against Russia, China, and the European Colonies in Southeast Asia. The Japanese civil society, in turn, strongly supported the military as it perceived it the safeguard of Japan’s order, while the army was revisiting the previous naval treaties, clashing with the US and the British Empire[8] (Gibelli, 1972; Murray & Millet, 2005; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969).

It might have been that the Japanese expansionistic policies had as origin the decision of the Emperor after the Commodore Perry’s fleet at Tokyo Bay and the British gunships, but there were real economic needs underlying them: Japan considered the military and naval power on equal status to the economic power[9]. For instance, Japan’s industrialization needed the support of raw materials, of which Japan lacked and was forced to import, and it did not have important colonies with strategic resources[10]. Manchuria, Korea and Taiwan were not enough to sustain the country’s industrialization efforts. Then, the Great Depression hit, alongside strong economic barriers limiting its access to the markets of the West colonies markets in Asia, the strong hostility the Great Britain, Russia and the US had towards Japan and its economic activities in both China and Manchuria, and the collapse of the silk market in 1930. As a result, Japan saw the economic exploitation of Chinas as the only solution. This sparked strong opposition from the US, as the US felt China a close state beyond mere economic reasons, which were little in fact. Japan became into an authoritarian state as a result of all these factors combined (Dahms, 1974; Gibelli, 1972; Kennedy, 2007; Murray & Millet, 2005; and Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969)[11].

Russia, in turn, was having strong political interests in China. For instance, Russia was among the main supporters of Chiang Kai-shek, which alarmed Japan given the prospect of stronger military ties between the two countries. Meanwhile, the Kwantung army further deepen the control Japan already had over Manchuria, serving as a platform to advance towards China and as a way to disrupt Russian aid to either side of the Chinese Civil War. As insurgencies began to emerge in the West colonies of Indochina and the Dutch East Indies, Japan deemed them as beneficial in order to erode European influence over Asia (Murray and Millet, 2005; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969).

But it was Manchuria and China the most immediate objectives of Japan, mainly because of the potential benefits both would alleviate Japan’s economic woes. In Manchuria, a series of staged attacks gave the Japanese army a reason to fully seize Manchuria in 1932, establish a puppet-state, and ward-off any European influence by occupying key locations in Mukden. Later on, Japan began to attack Chinese northern outposts in 1933, which met little resistance from Russia and the West. Shanghai was attacked and then came under occupation, with Japan withdrawing from the Society of Nations and denouncing the naval pacts signed in the 20’s[12] (Kennedy, 2007; Murray & Millet, 2005; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969).

The actions in China had some strong consequences in Japan. The government cabinet was deposed by the military during the events in China. But even China was dividing the military over what to do there and their role. Even if the military agreed with actions in China, the Kwantung Army was having the final say, being the actor which set the path towards the war against the US, and ultimately the Battle of Midway. Japanese late alignment with the Axis was sparked by the situation in China, as suspicions about a Russian/communist involvement in China emerged, making Japan to sign the Anti-Comintern Pact with Germany[13] (Murray & Millet, 2005).

As a result of the abovementioned events, the Sino-Japanese War of 1937 sparked, contributing to bring closer US and Japan armed clash. Further Sino-Japanese clashes at northern China, made Japan to send five more divisions into China with the mission of deciding what Japan called ‘The Northern China Incident’. Initially, the Japanese army managed to occupy 5 northern Chinese provinces while facing a Chinese army that albeit more numerous than that from Japan, it was underequipped. But the geographical dispersion ended playing in favour of the Chinese, something the Japanese army, despite its better quality and equipment, and the famous samurai-based ‘Bushido’, was not able to handle given its comparatively smaller size. Direct negotiations with the Nationalists, puppet-states at northern China, and Chinese collaborators all allowed Japan to hold its grip over northern China and advance further south, reaching Shanghai and Nanking. It was during the conquest of Nanking that the Japanese army attacked also Western citizens and even American and British gunboats – the USS Panay and the HMS Ladybird – suffered air attacks (Murray & Millet, 2005; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969)[14].

Japan expected the conflict in China to be briefly decided through agreements with Chiang Kai-shek and his troops, but he called in for further resistance against Japanese occupation while ‘exchanging time for terrain’. The conflict was simply bound to be a long-time one, affecting Japan’s economic stability while the government radicalized further: as a result, and the need of the industry to support the war efforts, Japan depended more and more of especial raw materials available abroad. Furthermore, Japanese victories in China resulted in further expansionistic policies, with the armies advancing far south, seizing the isle of Hainan thus blocking China from sea and having a strategic platform from where to threaten the Philippines and the French colonies at Indochina. Such advance was deemed necessary by the military in order to seize more resources and to block Chinese supply lines at Indochina. At the same time, Japan decided to become the leader of a Japanese-made Asian order by overthrowing the Europeans and any Western and communist influences (Kennedy, 2007; Murray and Millet, 2005; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969)[15].

But the longer the war at China, the willing were many Western nations, being the US the main one, to provide China with aid and to consider the imposition of economic sanctions and even to intervene further, despite US strong policy of neutrality. Following, the 1911 Trade of Commerce and Navigation was abrogated by the US, restricting Japan’s access to US financial institutions. And once Japan established relations with the Axis, the embargo was tightened. The UK supported US measures against Japan, while Germany and the USSR established closer relations in 1939, complicating Japan’s strategic position at the point that the USSR had military clashes with Japan at the Soviet-Manchurian border.

Japan’s strategic position was also complicated by the war at China itself, as a guerrilla war – or what would be denominated currently as “asymmetric conflict” – ensued, which targeted Japanese lines of supply, emerged. As Japan was controlling only the coastal and northern areas of China, the bulk of the Chinese population was free from Japanese rule, let alone the fact that despite the heavy loses, the Chinese army was able to give a fight while fatiguing the Japanese (Dahms, 1974; Kennedy, 2007; Murray & Millet, 2005)[16]. The war simply resulted in a deadlock.

Japan re-established relations with Germany and other the Axis powers in 1940 with the Tripartite Pact, which established that Germany would provide Japan with military aid, only served to antagonize further Japan and the US. This pact, from the Japanese point of view, was meant to avert any military aid the US or the USSR would provide to China or the Southeast Asian European colonies. Germany’s advance through Western Europe only made the US more resolute in aiding China and the European colonies and moving the bulk of the US Navy to Pearl Harbour, revisiting even the neutrality policies. Then, a partial embargo against Japan restricted its access to scrap metal, steel, oil and other strategic resources, posing a serious dilemma for the Japanese on the courses of action to take (Gibelli, 1972; Murray & Millet, 2005).

Then, Germany invaded the Soviet Union and Japan signed a neutrality pact with the Soviet Union. Both events neutralized the soviet threat against the main islands and Manchuria. As a result, Japan was able to make use of its most important asset while concentrating in the South: The Japanese Imperial Navy and its aviation branch. The navy would help Japan in addressing the issues of resources and food, as the reserves were about to run empty. But alongside economic needs, there was also the aim of hampering US military aid to China so to prevent it to becoming a major risk. In doing so, Japan really never calculated that the US would go at war against Japan, as Germany was dominating most of Europe and threatening the British Empire, close to defeat the Soviets. Moreover, Japan considered the US a “weak and consumerist” nation unable to go to war (Kennedy, 2007; Murray & Millet, 2005).

When Japan began to implement a 1936 “keep the north, march south” strategy, it began to march towards French Indochina, which resulted in US freezing Japanese financial assets and to further strengthen the embargo[17]. 1941 was the year in which the mood for a Japanese-American war was at its highest, with Japan’s army and navy both doing detailed preparations for war. Japan was trapped between facing economic strangling or face the US; the choice became obvious. The navy, with its 2000 combat places, 10 battleships and 10 aircraft carriers, was ready to “go south”, but an attack against Pearl Harbour was required in order to neutralize US naval power and any US intervention once Japan invaded the Philippines[18]. Japan once again estimated that victory against the US would be achieved in a short period of time, with a strong and decisive strike (Dahms, 1974; Gibelli, 1972; Kennedy, 2007; Murray & Millet, 2005)[19]. Such assumption would mark the grave of the Japanese Empire, and doom the bulk of its aircraft carrier fleet to lie at the bottom of the ocean.

In the next part, a review on the Japanese actions prior Pearl Harbour will be reviewed, as well as the strategic effects such movements and the attack had, as they were the initial stage towards the Battle of Midway. On the same way, the strategic background of the US will also be reviewed, so to understand why it held interests in Asia and the Pacific, why it was considering those regions as vital, and what was the role Midway was playing in such events.



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).

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: on 09.08.2016

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

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).

Navy Recruiting Command. (n.d). Battle of Midway. US Navy. Retrieved from: on 11.08.2016

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). 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).



[1] See: Macdonald, 1993, p.64. And: Ellis, 2002, pp. 5-9

[2] See: Ellis, 2002, pp.9 – 11. Macdonald, 1993, p.64. And: Navy Recruiting Command. (n.d.). Battle of Midway. US Navy. Retrieved from: on 11.08.2016

[3] Such policies implied, among other things, the establishment of a mandatory military service of 3 years for every male between 17-40 years old, which made the army accessible for every Japanese, receiving training from French and German instructors. This resulted in one of the most powerful infantry in the world then. See: Bergamino & Palitta, 2015, p.205. On the other hand, Japan’s expansionism was nothing but the manifestation of the predominant ideas of imperialism that swept across Europe during those days, with Japan simply following suit. See: Dahms, 1974, pp.10-11.

[4] Japan emulated the German Empire in the process, as well as the British empire for its fleet build-up. In addition, the Japanese navy was crucial for both wars, with the Battle of Tsushima being its most famous feat. See: Cau, 2001, pp, 138-139. Gibelli, 1972-2, p. 121. And: Kennedy, 2007, p. 334.

[5] As Japan took over the former colonies in the Pacific, the US began to feel worried as they posed a threat to Hawaii and other North American Southeast Asian and Pacific territories, deploying naval assets. See: Gibelli, 1972-2, p.131.

[6] Bergamino & Palitta (2015) remark that the army’s importance was due to the fact the War minister reported only to the Emperor, resulting in an army with strong political influence. See: p.205.

[7] Despite the treaty, it seems Japan was building ships that were above the frameworks established by this very same treaty. See: Kennedy, 2007, p.476.

[8] Noteworthy to point out that Japan was a very unstable country, and for this reason the army enjoyed such perception and support.

[9] See: Kennedy, 2007, p.334.

[10] There were also pressing issues of demographic grow

[11] Only the 1% of US foreign investments made to China, as well as the 4% of exports, while US economic relations with Japan were far greater than with China. See: Murray & Millet, 2005, p.226.

[12] The inability of the Society of the Nations and other Great Powers in stopping Japan’s advances in China contributed in giving the military more power, at the point that they became the dominant sector until 1944. See: Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969, pp.39-47.

[13] This pact established the German and Italian hegemony in Europe, and Japanese hegemony in Asia, implying that all the signatories would assist each other mutually in case another power would attack any. This particular statement explains US involvement against the three powers. See: Cau, 2011, pp. 164-165.

[14] Although the Japanese gave compensations to the US and apologized for the incident.

[15] The tool to organize Japanese hegemony over Asia was the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

[16] However, the Japanese were exerting an almost total blockade against China and the Nationalist forces.

[17] It took advantage of the chaos that followed the falling of France and the Netherlands in 1940, as well as the British Empire concentration in defending its metropolitan territories. Also, the Vichy Regime authorized Japan to occupy Indochina.

[18] The reader must bear in mind that the Philippines was still under US administration.

[19] Some Japanese high officials, including Admiral Yamamoto, held some doubt about this evaluation.