Back to the Future?

Back to the Future?

07 Dec 23
Posted by: Dr Dave Sloggett
Message from the Editor

In 2012 [100/2, p. 154] the author considered the history of the Japanese attack on Darwin of 19 February 1942 as a comparison for possible Chinese air operations in the 21st century. As was the case with Pearl Harbor, a surprise attack by long-range air assets raised questions about the security of bases in the region. A 20 minute read.

The events of 7 December 1941 at Pearl Harbor still haunt the United States and its military planners. What the then President described as an ‘event that will go down in infamy’ is not readily discarded from the psyche of the United States military and specifically its Navy. The attack on Pearl Harbor, whilst learning many lessons from the attack by the Royal Navy on Taranto in November 1941, was literally out of the blue. Two months later on 19 February 1942 the Japanese repeated the same military surprise when they attacked the Australian city of Darwin at 09:58 hrs.

Both of these attacks largely achieved their objectives, although the intent to destroy the United States carriers remained unfulfilled. They were simply absent from Pearl Harbor on the day of the attack. This fact led to numerous conspiracy theories suggesting that the United States administration had forewarning of the attacks and allowed them to occur in order to force a reluctant American population into the war with the Axis powers.

Such conspiracy theories almost always accompany any major intelligence failure. Nevertheless, in attacking Pearl Harbor pre-emptively, the Japanese wrote a new chapter into the history of naval aviation. By sailing their aircraft carriers such a vast distance and maintaining strict radio silence, they proved that naval air power could be used to achieve a strategic objective, in this case significantly to impair the United States’ naval capability in the Pacific Ocean. The effect of this was to restrict very severely the United States’ naval capability to intervene in Japan’s wider territorial ambitions. With the USN temporarily unable to manoeuvre, Japan embarked upon a wide-ranging set of military objectives. One of these required the town of Darwin in northern Australia to be attacked.

The Australian Pearl Harbor – First phase

As far as the Japanese military planners were concerned Darwin was a strategic target. Reconnaissance flights over the Darwin area in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor had revealed a significant naval presence there. With Japan planning an attack on Timor and Java the threat from the naval forces and aircraft based at Darwin had to be neutralised.

The attack developed in two waves. The first was highly reminiscent of the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was even led by the same man, Commander Mitsuo Fuchida. The first wave of 188 aircraft was launched from the very same Japanese aircraft carriers that were to be sunk in the Battle of Midway four months later. These aircraft carriers were operating in the Timor Sea to the west of Darwin, well within the 3,000 km range of the aircraft involved in the strike force. It consisted of 36 Mitsubishi A6M Zero aircraft which provided the top cover for 71 Aichi D3A Val dive bombers and 81 Nakajima B5N Kate torpedo bombers. All the aircraft involved in the raid had been launched from the carriers by 08:45 hrs.

As the first wave approached Darwin they overflew Melville Island. A local Australian coast-watcher radioed an immediate warning to the Royal Australian Air Force base at Darwin. However, the local military forces dismissed the warning as they believed it was a flight of United States Army Air Corps P40 Mustangs returning from an abortive attempt to reach Timor.

The first ship to be attacked was the HMAS Gunbar. Nine A6M Zero fighters roared in at low level strafing its decks. The vessel was an auxiliary minesweeper that had been built in 1911 and commissioned into the Royal Australian Navy in 1940 at the start of the war. Her crew comprised four officers and 23 seamen, nine of whom were injured in the attack with one person dying from his injuries.

As the attack unfolded, the Japanese bombers targeted the other vessels in the harbour and sank three warships (USS Peary, HMAS Mavie and the USAT Meigs). Five merchant vessels were also sunk and a further ten damaged. The total loss of life from the attacks has been estimated at close to 300 people killed. This was significantly lower than the death toll at Pearl Harbor despite the fact that more bombs were dropped by the Japanese on Darwin.

Ironically the USS Peary (DD-226), a Clemson-class destroyer, had only arrived in Darwin the day before the attack, having narrowly escaped a blue-on-blue incident when bombed accidently by Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Hudson bombers. Having entered Darwin to refuel, the Peary had left on the eve of the attack only to pick up a submarine contact. The rest of the night was spent chasing shadows as the Peary tried to home in on the submarine. This consumed a lot of fuel so the ship was ordered back into Darwin to refuel. That decision sealed her fate.

At 10:45 hrs USS Peary was attacked by Japanese dive bombers. As the air raid warning had sounded the vessel had got under way and was zigzagging across the harbour. Sailors manned machine guns to try to repel the attacks. Despite manoeuvring, the Peary was hit by a stick of five bombs. The first exploded on the fantail. The second was an incendiary bomb and exploded on the galley deck house. The third bomb failed to explode but the fourth and fifth hit the forward ammunition magazines. The last bomb detonated in the after engine room. Peary sank stern first at around 13:00 hrs having suffered 88 men killed in action and 13 wounded. It was the single biggest loss as a result of the attack.

Phase two

The second wave arrived over Darwin around midday. It comprised two elements. The first was made up of 27 G3M Nell bombers that were based in Ambon on the Indonesian island of Seram. Their flight path was relatively simple, heading virtually due south over a range of around 1,000 km and overflying the Banda Sea and the outer islands of East Timor. With no air defence threat in the area the bombers’ route to Darwin was clear. The 280 km/hour cruise speed of the G3M bombers would have resulted in them taking around three to four hours to arrive overhead at Darwin.

The second element consisted of another 27 G4M Betty bombers that had taken off from the air base at Kendari on the Indonesian island of Celebes (now Sulawesi). Their route was slightly longer at over 1,300 km. With a maximum operating range of just over 6,000 km the G3M aircraft would have made the return journey virtually unopposed as the air defences of Darwin had not received a lot of attention.

Flying at a cruise speed of around 350 km/hour the G4M aircraft would also have taken between three and four hours to arrive over the target. Their take-off time from Kendari would have been very similar to the time the G3M bombers had departed from Ambon covering the extended range at a higher cruise speed. The take-off times for the aircraft in the second wave would have been quite close to the time that aircraft were leaving the aircraft carriers.

As they approached Darwin the two land-based groups of the second wave separated. Flying at 18,000 feet they attacked the RAAF base at Darwin from the south-west and north-east. The two formations arrived over the air base simultaneously. The Japanese bombers turned after their first bombing run and made a second pass over the air base delivering another attack. The attack on the RAAF base lasted a total of 20 minutes and resulted in the destruction of six Hudson bombers, and a Hudson and Commonwealth Air Craft Corporation Wirraway (‘challenge’ in Aborigine) trainer aircraft were badly damaged. Two American P40 Mustang aircraft and a B-24 Liberator were also destroyed and six members of the RAAF were killed.

In the afternoon the Japanese launched further attacks on the American supply ships Don Isidro and Florence D which were near to Bathurst Island and heading for the Philippines on the morning of the raid. The Don Isidro was quickly sunk by the attacks 40 km north of Melville Island with the loss of 11 of the crew of 84. Florence D was also attacked and sunk off Bathurst Island with the loss of four killed. The survivors were rescued by HMAS Warrnambool (J-202), an Australian Bathurst-class corvette which had survived the attack on Darwin.

Fast forward

Seventy years on from the attack on Darwin the Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and the President of the United States appear to have learnt some lessons from the pre-emptive nature of the attacks on Pearl Harbor and Darwin. When they met in November 2011 they agreed to a plan that would see 2,500 United States Marines based in Darwin. In 2012 an initial build-up of 250 Marines will be the first group to arrive in Darwin.

Today it is not the threat from Japan that concerns the United States and the Australians. It is the rapidly advancing military capabilities of the Chinese. Their military capability to defend what they refer to as their strategic interests in the South China Sea has created a side effect. Whether or not that was intended is hard to judge. The Chinese are less than transparent when it comes to outlining their military capabilities or intent.

That said, the development of the new J-20 fighter and the rapid build-up of PLAN naval forces will, by the turn of the decade, give China the ability to project significant military power well beyond their traditional boundaries of the First Island Chain that links the southernmost point of Vietnam through the north of Borneo, past the top of the Philippines to Taiwan and on to Japan. The reported unrefuelled operational range of the J-20 is estimated to enable it to provide combat air cover out to 1,500 nm from the Chinese mainland. Whilst this does not bring Darwin into range, in-flight refuelling would enable Chinese J-20 fighters to reach the Australian mainland and attack the RAAF bases at Darwin and Tindal.

For the United States the Chinese military build-up has had a catalytic effect on its military thinking. In shifting its strategic focus to the Pacific Rim, and away from Europe and the Middle East, the Americans have had to fundamentally reappraise their military situation in the region. This re-think comes on top of a major defence review that has seen cutbacks forced on the United States military. Interestingly, in the light of the shift of focus, the USN fared quite well in the review in comparison with its Army and Air Force colleagues. The reasons for that will become apparent.

Looking objectively at the emerging Chinese military deployments it would be hard not to conclude that they will very soon possess a first-strike capability against all of the major United States land bases in the region in Japan (Kadena Air Force Base, Okinawa) and South Korea. Even Andersen Air Force Base on Guam is within range of a J-20 that does not need in-flight refuelling. These allow China to project military power across the full extent of the South China Sea and deter any other country that has laid claims to the area to be deterred from enforcing those claims. The recent spate of incidents in the area involving Chinese warships, marines and aircraft confronting Vietnamese, Japanese and Philippine military forces are a presage to what may come in the not too distant future.

This poses a major strategic problem for the United States. In Europe the United States military was able to deploy with strategic depth. It had plenty of land room in which to manoeuvre. In the Pacific Rim, however, that strategic depth simply does not exist. A first strike on any of the main air bases in the area would severely cripple the United States military’s response to any Chinese moves on the South China Sea or Taiwan. In this situation the military doctrine writers in the Pentagon have been busy. What they have come up with is the Air-Sea Battle doctrine. This replaces the Air-Land Battle doctrine that had resulted from the military deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Air-Sea Battle doctrine

The essence of the Air-Sea Battle is that United States military forces in the Pacific Rim must be capable of absorbing a first strike attack. Whilst every effort is being made to scale down the rhetoric associated with the publication of the strategy, it is obvious that as time has moved on the threat from China is now seen to dominate the discussion.

The United States’ assessment is based on some fairly clear military developments by the Chinese. One of these is their work in the field of anti-access and area denial (A2AD) capabilities. The development of the DF-21D Deng Fong missile system is one of the most concerning. This is purported to be a ballistic missile system that is capable of targeting the USN’s most prized assets in the Western Pacific Theatre of Operations (WPTO): the aircraft carriers.

The Chinese development of the DF-21D is linked to the situation that arose in 1995-96, when a bout of regional tensions over Taiwan threatened to spill over into conflict. As the Chinese and Taiwanese leadership squared up to each other the United States aircraft carriers sailed through the South China Sea in support of the Taiwanese. For many people in China this was tantamount to a national humiliation. They were simply unable to intervene and threaten the passage of the United States aircraft carriers. The idea behind the development of the DF-21D appears to be to provide the Chinese with an ability to threaten any movement of US aircraft carriers into what they regard as their territorial waters in the South China Sea.

Making statements about a capability and seeing it deployed in anger are different. To attack a moving aircraft carrier with a ballistic missile is not easy unless it has a nuclear warhead. A hit-to-kill attack on an aircraft carrier moving at speeds of close to 25 knots would require the development of a terminal homing system on the warhead. That would probably be based upon radar technologies as electro-optical sensors may be impaired by weather conditions. The initial cues for the launch of the DF-21D appear to originate from a chain of long-range high frequency (HF) radar systems that are being deployed by the Chinese. Ironically Australia is another country involved in the development and deployment of this technology.

The HF radar systems would detect the presence of the aircraft carriers. They would represent a significant target on the radar due to their size and radar echoing area, which cannot readily be reduced. Cues arising from the HF radar plots would then be passed into the rapidly developing Chinese Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence (C3I) infrastructure where data would be merged with observations drawn from other sources to provide an estimate of the position of the carriers. This would be relayed to the DF-21D launch sites and once launched updates would be provided to the missiles in flight.

But as the warheads re-entered, the launch of the missiles would have been relayed to the carriers who would have commenced manoeuvres designed to throw off the incoming warheads. Terminal guidance on the warheads would therefore be essential as some form of manoeuvring capability to avoid the inevitable attempted engagement by the Aegis-type destroyers which would be escorting the inbound missiles. Given the United States’ deployment of a limited ‘Star Wars’ capability in Alaska, the Chinese would have had to think about developing manoeuvring warheads anyway for the main elements of the ballistic missile force. Its relatively small size at the moment means that for it to remain a credible part of the kind of triad deployed by the United States a manoeuvring warhead would be essential.

Chinese military thinking

Chinese developments of the A2AD capabilities originate from their own doctrinal development work. The Chinese have shown themselves to be avid readers of the material published in open sources covering the problems and challenges faced by the United States in their military campaigns over the past 70 years. The lessons from Pearl Harbor and Darwin have not been lost on the Chinese military planners. When their thinking does emerge in Western publications, it appears to be full of references to the teachings of Confucius and Sun Tzu. The insights that are available from in-depth analysis of history are clearly valued in China. The mantra that we should ‘combine western technology with eastern wisdom’ is one that prevails. It is hailed as the ‘trump card for winning a 21st century war’. With China appearing to make strenuous efforts to use cyberspace to obtain Western technology, elements of this strategy appear to be coming into place.

One key element of the Chinese thinking is to try to avoid confronting the Americans in areas where the United States currently benefits from a superior capability. Being different in their approach is important to the Chinese, who follow a line that is based on the presumption that ‘we should not follow mechanically the United States’ theory’. The view that ‘we should not try to meet a new challenge by running after others’ is one that is often cited in publications which also take the view that the Chinese approach to conflict ‘should try to create our own superiority’.

Another famous set of quotations from Sun Tzu is also popular. In the Art of War he urged that military leaders in China should apply their forces deftly, commenting “be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent’s fate.” Had Sun Tzu been alive today he would certainly have understood the notion of stealth.

To this the Chinese add another very important factor from their historical analysis, the Assassin’s Mace or Shashoujian. In the late 1990s, partly in reaction to the outcome of the heightened confrontation over Taiwan, numerous military publications emerging from China spoke of the Assassin’s Mace – an ancient Chinese mace that could be concealed and employed with little or no warning. Whilst the Japanese carrier forces that were employed against Pearl Harbor and Darwin in WW2 could hardly be thought of as being a small instrument of war, their approaches to their targets were certainly stealthy and the attacks occurred with little or no warning.

The articles opined that this kind of military capability would allow the ‘inferior to defeat the superior’ – a clear reference to the position China then had with respect to the United States militarily. General Haung Bin, one of the leading proponents of this approach went on the record to note “we can fight a war with them (the United States); they will not be able to continue the war after a while. Moreover, we also have our Shashoujian.”

Today, as China builds up its military capability the range of developments span the full spectrum of warfare. The Chinese focus on cyber technology is well known. Its potential to cause surprise in the event of war is already the subject of a great deal of discussion in military circles, with some proponents arguing that some of the United States’ technology in the field of cyber-weapons should have been fielded against the Gaddafi regime in Libya to foreshorten the conflict in 2011. Wiser heads prevailed and the United States military machine did not show its cyber hand in that campaign – much to the inevitable frustration of the Chinese.

Developments in anti-satellite weapons, sea mines, advanced submarines, unmanned aircraft, the new developments of the DH-10 cruise missile and electronic warfare techniques all add additional diversity to the Chinese military capability. The disturbing power of electro-magnetic weapons also cannot be ignored. It would appear the Chinese are keen to add many new capabilities to their growing ways of applying Shashoujian. The aim, it would seem, is to do everything they can to reduce the manoeuvre room of the United States Navy in the WPTO.


That aim has a strong resonance with historians who recall the build-up to the outbreak of war between Japan and the United States that was initiated by the attack on Pearl Harbor. Seventy years on, the images of the Japanese Zero fighters and torpedo bombers flying out of the morning sky over Pearl Harbor still haunts the American military and political leadership. They were images that were readily recalled after the dreadful acts of terrorism in America in September 2001. They provided a wake-up call to the United States. Next time it could be Chinese aircraft carriers sneaking across the Pacific Ocean. The development by the United States of the Air-Sea Battle doctrine, whilst still in its earliest stages, has shown the nature of the problem facing the United States military if it is to prevail in the face of an initial onslaught from the Chinese. Making sure that it can develop an effective counter using a combination of its air and sea assets in the region is important if the United States is to avoid going back to the future.