US Navy Wargames Are Fraudulent, Miniscule and Pointless
The US Navy of the 1930s trained incomparably harder and with far more integrity
The Navy’s most famous exercises were the series of 21 major Fleet Problems conducted between 1923 – 1940. These massive exercises not only presciently predicted the course of the WWII naval campaign but also developed the doctrine and tactics that would become the foundation of our WWII naval operations.
From the Wikipedia compilation of Fleet Problems, here is a summary of the exercises.(1) Look them over and note the remarkable similarity they bore to the actual WWII naval operations.
Fleet Problem I
Held in February and March 1923 and was staged off the coast of Panama. The attacking Black force, using battleships to represent aircraft carriers, tested the defenses of the Panama Canal. A single plane launched from Oklahoma—representing a carrier air group—dropped 10 miniature bombs and theoretically “destroyed” the spillway of the Gatun Dam.
Fleet Problem II
Simulated the first leg of a westward advance across the Pacific.
Fleet Problem III
Focused on a defense of the Panama Canal from the Caribbean side. The Blue force was defending the canal from an attack from the Caribbean by the Black force, operating from an advance base in the Azores. It was to practice amphibious landing techniques and the rapidity of transiting a fleet through the canal from the Pacific side.
In the exercise, a Black force special operations action resulted in the “sinking” of Blue force battleship New York in the Culebra Cut which would have blocked the canal.
Fleet Problem IV
Simulated the movement from a main base in the western Pacific to the Japanese home islands—represented in that case by islands, cities, and countries surrounding the Caribbean.
Fleet Problem V
Held in March and April 1925 and simulated an attack on Hawaii. The Black force, the aggressor, was given the United States’ first aircraft carrier, Langley along with two seaplane tenders and other ships outfitted with aircraft, while the defending Blue force had no carriers. In addition, aircraft aboard the battleship Wyoming could not be launched for lack of a working catapult. Langley’s positive performance helped speed the completion of aircraft carriers Lexington and Saratoga.
One aspect of Fleet Problem V was conducted near Guadalupe Island off Baja California and involved attacking a lightly held position and refueling at sea.
Fleet Problem VI
Held off the west coast of Central America in early 1926.
Fleet Problem VII
Held March 1927 and involved defense of the Panama Canal. The highlight of the exercise was Langley’s successful air raid on the Panama Canal.
Fleet Problem VIII
Held in April 1928 between California and Hawaii and pitted Orange, a cruiser force from Pearl Harbor, versus Blue, the Battle Force. It also involved a convoy search and anti-submarine operations.
Fleet Problem IX
This scenario in January 1929 studied the effects of an attack upon the Panama Canal and conducted the operations necessary to carry out such an eventuality, and pitted the Battle Fleet (less submarines and Lexington) against a combination of forces including the Scouting Force (augmented by Lexington), the Control Forces, Train Squadron 1, and 15th Naval District and local army defense forces. In a daring move, Saratoga was detached from the fleet with only a single cruiser as escort to make a wide sweep to the south and “attack” the Panama Canal, which was defended by the Scouting Fleet and Saratoga’s sister ship, Lexington. She successfully launched her strike on 26 January and, despite being “sunk” three times later in the day, proved the versatility of a carrier-based fast task force.
This was the first major test of independent carrier task force operations which would eventually become the model for WWII naval operations in the Pacific.
Fleet Problem X
Held in 1930 in Caribbean waters. This time, however, Saratoga and Langley were “disabled” by a surprise attack from Lexington, showing how quickly air power could swing the balance in a naval action.
Fleet Problem XI
Held in April 1930 in the Caribbean.
Fleet Problem XII
USS Los Angeles moored to USS Patoka, along with other ships off Panama during Fleet Problem XII.
Held in 1931 in waters west of Central America and Panama. Black, attacking from the west, was to land forces and establish bases in Central America and destroy the Panama Canal, while Blue defended with an aviation-heavy fleet.
Blue’s two carrier groups, centered on Saratoga and Lexington, attacked the invasion fleets but failed to stop the landings and got too close to the Black fleets.
Fleet Problem XIII
Fleet Problem XIII began in March 1932, one month after Army/Navy Grand Joint Exercise 4. Blue, based in Hawaii, was to sail east and invade three “enemy” ports on the North American Pacific coastline to try and gain a foothold for future operations. Blue had nine battleships, one aircraft carrier, and many lesser ships. Black defended with one modern aircraft carrier and some fictional battleships, as well as a number of actual cruisers, submarines, and many other ships.
Blue’s advance was quickly located by Black’s picket line of submarines which then took heavy losses from air attack. Both sides put a priority on destroying the enemy aircraft carrier, launching air attacks almost simultaneously after a few days of probing. Significant damage was laid on both carriers, with Blue’s carrier eventually “sunk” by torpedo from a Black destroyer.
After-action critiques stressed the growing importance of naval aviation, and an increased need for the construction of aircraft carriers in the event of a war in the Pacific. Submarines operating at or near the surface were seen to be critically vulnerable to air observation and attack. The exercise showed that one carrier was insufficient for either fleet attack or area defense, so the practice of two or more carriers operating together became policy. Admiral Harry E. Yarnell said that six to eight carriers would be required for a Pacific campaign, but no orders were placed for new carriers, as Depression-era financial difficulties caused President Herbert Hoover to limit naval expenses.
Fleet Problem XIV
Held February 10–17, 1933, Fleet Problem XIV was the first naval exercise to test simulated aircraft carrier attacks against the west coast of the United States. Pacific cities had for decades vied for permanent stationing of U.S. military assets, and vulnerabilities exposed through the exercises were used by metropolitan navy boosters to leverage their cases. In spite of early Navy plans for San Francisco to be home port for the main west coast fleet, these plans had failed to materialize with San Diego incrementally gaining the majority of navy investments.
Fleet Problem XIV coincidentally occurred the month before Franklin D. Roosevelt, a former Assistant Secretary of the Navy, took the office of the presidency. The results of the exercise between the U.S. Navy’s ‘black’ and ‘blue’ fleets, were mixed. The simulated attacks had certainly been mitigated by the defensive ‘blue’ fleet, however the ‘black’ fleet had scored key victories with strikes on San Pedro and San Francisco, California, respectively.
Fleet Problem XV
Held in May 1934 in Hawaii, this was a three-phase exercise which encompassed an attack upon and defense of the Panama Canal, the capture of advanced bases, and a major fleet engagement.
Fleet Problem XVI
Held in May 1935 in the northern Pacific off the coast of Alaska and in waters surrounding the Hawaiian Islands, this operation was pided into five distinct phases which were thought to be aspects of some real naval campaign of the future in which the U.S. would take the strategic offensive.
Fleet Problem XVII
This problem took place off the west coast of the U.S., Central America, and the Panama Canal Zone in the spring of 1936. It was a five-phase exercise devoted to preparing the fleet for anti-submarine operations, testing communications systems, and training of aircraft patrol squadrons for extended fleet operations, and pitted the Battle Force against the submarine-augmented Scouting Force.
Fleet Problem XVIII
This exercise was held in May 1937 in Alaskan waters and in the vicinity of the Hawaiian Islands and Midway, practicing the tactics of seizing advanced base sites—a technique later to be polished to a high degree into close support and amphibious warfare doctrines.
Fleet Problem XIX
This operation in April and May 1938 gave the navy added experience in search tactics; in the use of submarines, destroyers, and aircraft in scouting and attack, in the dispositions of the fleet and the conduct of a major fleet battle. In addition, the exercise again dealt with the matter of seizing advanced fleet bases and defending them against minor opposition. Fleet Problem XIX also tested the capabilities of the Hawaiian Defense Force, augmenting it with fleet units to help to defend the islands against the United States fleet as a whole. The last phase of the exercise exercised the fleet in operations against a defended coastline.
Fleet Problem XX
Took place in February 1939 in the Caribbean and Atlantic, and observed in person by President Franklin Roosevelt. The exercise simulated the defense of the East Coast of the United States and Latin America by the Black team from the invading White team. Participating in the maneuvers were 134 ships, 600 planes, and over 52,000 officers and men.
Fleet Problem XXI
An eight-phase operation for the defense of the Hawaiian area in April 1940.
Fleet Problem XXII
Scheduled for the Spring of 1941, but cancelled.
Grand Joint Exercise 4 (GJE4)
Similar to the Navy’s Fleet Problems, the Army and Navy held a few large, combined exercises. This particular exercise revolved around an attack on Pearl Harbor. Lexington and Saratoga conducted an air strike on Pearl Harbor on Sunday morning, 7-Feb-1932.(4) The attack was an unmitigated success with facilities, aircraft, and ships being decimated. Attacking aircraft even dropped sacks of flour on battleships to simulate bombs!(5) Army defenders protested the ‘inappropriateness’ of an attack on a Sunday morning and the unfairness of the attacking aircraft having deceptively approached from the direction of the mainland.(5) As we know, this was almost an exact foretelling of the actual Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
What is striking about these exercises is the sheer size compared to what we laughingly call exercises today. Today, a couple of ships that happen to pass each other is called an exercise whereas the Fleet Problems were actual, entire fleet exercises! The commanders learned to operate entire fleets and squadrons for real. Here’s an interesting explanation for the size of the Fleet Problems:
This large-scale participation was possible because very little of the U.S. Navy was forward-deployed, so forces could be brought in from the East and West Coast bases. (2)
Hmm … Better training thanks to reduced forward deployments. Does that sound familiar? This is exactly what ComNavOps has been calling for and yet we had it back in the 1920’s! History is shouting at us, telling us what we should be doing but we’re not listening.
Also noteworthy is that the exercises were not just technology demonstrations as today’s exercises are; they were scenarios that tested operations that we actually believed we might be called on to execute in a war.
The exercises tested specific aspects of War Plan Orange that we were unsure about which made the exercises highly relevant since they were taken from the actual operational plan of war with Japan.
Of particular note are Fleet Problems II (first leg of an advance across the Pacific), IV (advance on the Japanese home islands), V (attack on Hawaii), XVIII (seizing advanced bases in the Pacific via amphibious assault), XXI (defense of Hawaii), and GJE4 which exactly simulated the eventual Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
It was evident that as early as the 1920’s, the Navy was already anticipating war with Japan and developing the doctrine and tactics needed to conduct that war. What are we exercising today? What are we preparing for? In a word … nothing.
Note all the techniques, tactics, and operations that were tested and exercised that eventually became the foundation of our WWII naval operations.
The Navy has revived some minor exercises and fraudulently given them the name of ‘Fleet Problem’ but they do not even remotely capture the essence, purpose, or magnitude of the real Fleet Problems.(6)
Another interesting aspect of the Fleet Problems was that they were real in the sense that problems were not hand-waved away and the results, good or bad, stood.
… the Fleet Problems assumed there often would be a clear loser—and not a junior officer designated to be defeated, but an officer of stature and accomplishment. Senior officers could and did fail dramatically, were critiqued candidly and publicly, and continued to advance and lead. Indeed, across the 21 Fleet Problems, timidity and inattention seemed to be the only unforgivable errors in command. (3)
This is how you learn … by doing and, often, failing!
We need to bring back real fleet problems, not the small, pathetic, watered down efforts that we call exercises today – exercises which are conducted for just a few days while transiting somewhere.(5) We need to assemble entire fleets and conduct real war games. Here’s a few examples of some large scale fleet problems we should be conducting:
- How to operate 4-carrier combat groups and their escorts
- How to penetrate a thousand mile A2/AD zone
- Where and how to attack China
- How to defend or reseize Taiwan (if that’s even part of our geopolitical strategy)
- How to operate groups when we don’t have aerial supremacy
- How to operate non-carrier surface groups
- How to escort convoys and defend against subs, cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and aircraft
Of course, all of these possible Fleet Problems presuppose the existence of a modern War Plan Orange aimed at China and, sadly, I see no evidence that we have such a plan. We need a War Plan Pacific aimed directly at China and we need to start exercising it.
(1)Wikipedia, “Fleet Problem”, retrieved 5-May-2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fleet_problem
(2)Naval History and Heritage Command website, “Fleet Problem IX” https://www.history.navy.mil/browse-by-topic/heritage/usn-lessons-learned/fleet-problem-ix.html
(3)United States Naval Institute Proceedings, Captain Dale Rielage, Jun-2017, https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2017/june/bring-back-fleet-battle-problems
(6)USNI Proceedings, “Fleet Problems Offer Opportunities”, Adm. Scott Swift, Mar 2018, https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2018/march/fleet-problems-offer-opportunities
Source: Navy Matters