Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Catch and Release: Spies or Fish

During the 1930's, the Soviet Union worked to place a number of agents in the United States. The lines were clearly drawn: the Soviets stood opposed to the American understanding of freedom. The FBI worked to uncover such spies; they were usually sent back to Moscow when they were found. That was an especially obvious move during those years in which the Soviet Union was allied with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. When American diplomats began to sense that the Soviet Union might become Hitler's enemy instead of Hitler's friend, and when the Soviet Union appeared as America's ally against the Nazis, our treatment of Soviet spies became ambiguous.

On the one hand, the FBI continued to uncover agents who were accessing and exporting classified and sensitive information and who were undermining America's national strength. On the other hand, the State Department wanted to maintain good working relations with the Soviets who were bound with us in opposition to Hitler.

Two incidents exemplify this trend. One happened shortly before the official split between the Soviets and the Nazis. Historian Medford Stanton Evans writes:

One such case arose in 1938, involving the Soviet agent Mikhail Gorin, surveilled obtaining confidential data from a civilian staffer of the U.S. Navy. The FBI nabbed both suspects, who were charged with espionage violations and convicted. The naval employee would serve four years in prison, but the Soviet agent would walk free, thanks to State Department intervention. According to the FBI's account, the judge in the case, "on recommendation of the Department of State, and through the authorization of the Attorney General, suspended the execution of Gorin's original sentence and placed him on probation."

Over the decades, there has been a tension between the State Department - home of diplomats - and the intelligence community, charged with gathering information and keeping information from the foreign governments. By 1941, Hitler was ready to attack the Soviet Union, which he did in June of that year, largely surprising the Soviets. At that point, the Soviet Union became the explicit ally of the United States, and the pressure from the State Department to downplay anti-American espionage by the Communist Soviet government became greater.

Even more troubling to the Bureau was the 1941 case of the Soviet superspy Gaik Ovakimian. Having tracked his endeavors in behalf of Moscow, the FBI arrested him for violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act and thought it had him dead to rights. Again, however, the State Department stepped in to change things. The FBI memo about this says "arrangements were made by the Soviets with the United States State Department for the release of Gaik Ovakimain and his departure for the Soviet Union." The somewhat doubtful reason given for this lenient treatment was that the Soviets would reciprocate by releasing six Americans held by Red officials.

The excuse for releasing a known Communist spy was 'doubtful' because of the six hoped-for releases, only three would make it back to the United States, and of those, two turned out to be Soviet agents.

Catch and release is an activity enjoyed by some fishermen, but when it comes to Communist spies, it's probably not the best way to deal with them.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The U.S. Gets into WWI

During the late 1800's, and even after the turn of the century, the writings of Alfred Thayer Mahan influenced the military and naval thinking of the United States. Mahan stressed the importance of a strong navy. The United States was becoming a global power instead of a regional power, and naval strength would, according to Mahan, be the key to ensuring that the U.S. would not be overshadowed or manipulated by other nations. Mahan's books had a significant impact, not only on America's strategic thinkers, but on military leaders in numerous other countries as well. Historians have mixed views of Mahan: on the one hand, he was accurate to emphasize the importance of controlling the seas not only for military dominance, but also for economic dominance by means of controlling international commerce; on the other hand, in his admiration for naval power, he underestimated the importance of armies moving across, conquering, and controlling areas of land.

The influence of Mahan led to expectations - some accurate, some to be disappointed - about America's next major military involvement. Mahan's ideas seemed to work in the Spanish-American War, but by 1917, technology had changed, and the war in question had a different geographic configuration. Historians Allan Millett and Peter Maslowski note that

during the green April of 1917, as America entered "The Great War," a United States senator cornered a General Staff officer and asked the critical strategic question of the intervention: "Good Lord! You're not going to send soldiers over there, are you?" Some eighteen months later, the answer was clear as the American Expeditionary Force of over 2 million men, cooperating with the armies of France and the British Empire, bludgeoned Imperial Germany into an armistice. Supporting the AEF stood a Navy and Marine Corps of over 600,000. In the United States and in places as far separated as northern Italy, polar Russia, and Siberia, another 2 million American soldiers served the war effort and diplomacy of the Wilson administration. World War I was the debut of the United States as an international military power. Like most debuts, the war brought its share of high anticipation, major disappointment, dogged accomplishment, and exaggerated exhilaration.

Admiral William Sowden Sims was building his career as a naval officer in the years before WWI, in the same years during which Mahan's views were influential. Mahan had not foreseen the importance of the submarine, and the importance of convoys and the other defensive measures which would become important in an era in which the submarine gained much significance. Mahan's hypotheses about naval warfare were centered around the concept of decisive battles. In WWI, convoy duty and submarine hunting would be important as well. Given the international prevalence of Mahan's ideas, a defensive tactic taken by some navies was simply to refuse to be engaged in a 'decisive battle.'

Admiral Sims, commanding U.S. naval forces from his station in England during WWI, had to create new concepts about naval warfare to fit the new circumstances. Working with his English counterparts, he was able to develop effective anti-submarine tactics. This can be interpreted variously as moving past Mahan's views, or as simply updating Mahan's hypotheses. Historian Russell Weigley writes:

By the time the United States entered the World War in April, 1917, the intermediate objective of command of the sea had in a conventional sense been achieved. The Royal Navy had the German High Seas Fleet securely bottled up in German coastal waters. Unfortunately, when the United States entered the war the German submarine campaign was making conventional command of the sea appear a very bad joke. William S. Sims, now a rear admiral, arrived in London soon after the American declaration of war to learn from the Admiralty's statistics that Great Britain was within measurable distance of strangulation. The submarines were sinking one ship of every four that left England, and the British were able to replace only one ship in ten. With the submarine and the self-propelled torpedo employed against a vulnerable maritime nation, the guerre de course, the commerce-raiding war, was becoming an immense German success, Mahan to the contrary notwithstanding. Indeed, one of the principal mistakes the Germans had made was to have paid too much heed to Mahan and to have built too many battleships and not enough submarines before the war.

In any case, WWI did not occur as Mahan thought it might, first because armed conflict on land was more than significant and did not leave the matter to be settled at sea, and second because the naval fighting did not center around one or more decisive battles, but rather around convoy duty and submarine warfare. Mahan died in 1914 and did not live to see WWI. Admiral Sims commanded those U.S. naval forces which operated from England during the entire American involvement in WWI. He is considered to be an excellent naval officer, and he authored a book about the naval aspects of WWI; his work is still honored by the U.S. Navy.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Pacific War That Wasn't

Of the U.S. ships sunk at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, what would have happened if the majority of them had survived the attack and gone on to meet the Japanese – or some other – fleet in a traditional naval battle? We’ll never know, of course, and good historians routinely caution against speculation of this nature. Yet with exactly this hypothetical question historian Trent Hone begins his article on “The Evolution of Fleet Tactical Doctrine in the U.S. Navy, 1922 – 1941” in The Journal of Military History.

Of course, it is merely a rhetorical device, meant to grab the reader’s attention; it succeeds. Having gotten our attention, Trent Hone wishes to explore the a question more appropriate to a serious historian: what did Navy officers envision as a naval battle during the pre-war years? By war’s end, submarines and aircraft carriers would assume a much greater role. But the Navy, which began its glory years with Teddy Roosevelt’s “great white fleet,” had three or four decades of battle planning prior to Pearl Harbor’s destruction. What were they planning?

One main feature of their tactics and strategies involved fleet formations. A fleet is composed of various types of ships: battleships, cruisers, destroyers, tenders, and other types of ships. Naval vocabulary is a world unto itself, and worth exploring: a battleship is the largest and heaviest of the traditional naval vessels, heavy with arms and heavy with armor, introduced after the end of sailing ships and with the advent of the steam, coal, and oil era; a cruiser is small and light, lightly armed, and lightly armored, and therefore very fast; a destroyer is even faster, smaller, and lighter; the battlecruiser has light armor but heavy arms, allowing it to be faster than a battleship; a tender supports or supplies other vessels. There are many other classes of boat, including: armored cruiser, aircraft carrier, gunboat, heavy cruiser, monitor, pocket battleship, submarine, and torpedo boat – to name but a few. Within these categories, one can distinguish, e.g., between pre-dreadnought and post-dreadnought battleships, or between light cruisers and heavy cruisers.

The formation of a fleet, consisting of some combination of the above-named categories, is crucial to its success. In years between WWI and WWII, the Navy designed formations for three situations: cruising, approach, and battle. A ‘cruising’ formation is mainly for transporting the fleet from one place to another, in conditions when “the chances of contact were slight.” An ‘approach’ formation was for exactly that: approaching the enemy. Likewise, a ‘battle’ formation was for actually engaging the enemy.

Designing a formation was one thing. Carrying it out was another. Two key variables were necessary to executing a formation: a steady course, and the ability to turn. A steady course was dependent on technology: accurate maneuvering, and the ability to maintain a consistent speed; the slowest vessel in the formation determined the maximum speed of the formation; wheelhouse and rudder skills determined how consistent and how tight the formation could be. Turning was a complex activity: to turn one ship is easy; to keep a specific formation while turning an entire fleet is an exercise in vector physics. The answer to the question of turning was circular, or semi-circular, formations based on a series of arcs.

A steady course was important, not only for keeping formation, but for calculating precision firing from the heavy guns. For the most accurate firing, a ship had to keep constant speed and direction, with a minimum of pitch, yaw, and roll. Even so, the skills required for accurate fire included algebra, trigonometry, and calculus.

The U.S. Navy enjoyed a set of advantages, relative to the navies of other nations, in the 1920’s – the technological construction of their ships incorporated the best designs of guns and armor; aerial spotting increased the range of effective fire by many thousands of yards; fire had been organized by ‘director control’ in which all the guns of battle ship fired on the orders of one officers, and by ‘massed fire’ in which all the guns of a number of ships fired on the orders of one officer; the development of a computer – analogue, to be sure – which sped up the calculations; and an emphasis on arming ships with the most powerful sixteen-inch guns.

In this same decade – the 1920’s – the Navy dealt with two disadvantages: first, the elevation of its big guns was limited, keeping them from longer ranges; second, the speed of the fleet was slow.

In the next decade – the 1930’s – the Navy dealt with these disadvantages. The elevation of guns could be improved on existing ships, and new ships could be built so that their guns reached higher angles. Dealing with a slow average fleet speed was a thornier problem. Although newer ships could be constructed with faster capabilities, any group of ships was still limited by its slowest, and usually oldest, ship. This difficulty was resolved by new plans for formations and maneuvers. One innovation was the ‘reverse action’ in which the Navy’s ships would steam past the enemies ships, moving in the opposite direction – i.e., if the enemy boats were moving southward, the Navy boats would move northward. This increased the relative speed of the ships, making up for the Navy’s slower speed. This tactic was never put to any conclusive test, so it remains an innovation in theory.

Surveying the years from 1922 to 1941, Trent Hone generates a description of the Navy’s tactical doctrine: first, its goal was to have a definite plan for various situations – no improvising. Second, tactics were structured around known American advantages – powerful guns and strong armor – and known enemy disadvantages – possible opponents might lack the long range of American guns. Third, despite the goal of having plans for various types of situation, there was also an element of flexibility and decentralization; a battle plan was a ‘framework’ within which officers could apply ‘their own initiative.’ Fourth, the Navy wanted to seize the tactical initiative, not by means of the speed which it lacked, but by means of complex and unexpected maneuvers – e.g., the ‘reverse action.’ Fifth, long-range fire supported by aerial spotting became a clear preference of naval officers; the addition of airplanes made the guns much more effective. Sixth, aggressive offensive action concentrated on the enemy battle line, not only with powerful guns, but with airplanes bombing, dive-bombing, and launching torpedos was given primary effort in battle scenarios, as opposed to more cautious and conservative battle plans which devoted more resources to defensive maneuvers. Trent Hone continues his article by describing how new ships – the North Carolina and the South Dakota – were built with the Navy’s tactical doctrine in mind, featuring big guns with high elevation angles, high-tech armor, and higher speeds.

The Navy’s doctrines from the pre-1941 era were never really tested in combat. Hone closes his article by reviewing some battle plans and war game notes from mid-1941. How such battles – presumably against the Japanese – would have ended remains forever unknown.