Strategy lessons from the Battle of Midway


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Strategy lessons from the Battle of Midway

Many historians regard the Battle of Midway as perhaps the most important naval battle of the past 100 years. Prior to the engagement, Japanese naval forces, using a series of offensive thrusts, had achieved a series of stunning victories over Allied forces—starting with their surprise attack upon the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, extending on to their conquests of the Philippines, Malaya and Singapore, and then to their victory at the Battle of the Coral Sea. After Midway, the Japanese fleet surrendered its offensive strategy and spent the rest of the war in a (losing) defensive posture. Famed military historian John Keegan called it “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare.”

While the tactical lessons from this historic battle have been well documented and applied by naval forces throughout the world, there is one important strategy lesson that has significant relevance to the business world today. That lesson has to do with the importance of not only aligning strategic objectives but also ensuring that the implementation tactics are themselves not contradictory. It happened at Midway, and it happens far too often now in the business world.

After months of planning that began almost immediately after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese objectives for their June 1942 assault on Midway were twofold. First, they wanted to use their combined fleet to invade and occupy the Midway Atoll’s two small islands and establish a Japanese air base there; this was key because the those airfields would be within striking distance of Pearl Harbor by Japanese land-based bombers. Second, the Japanese wanted to draw out and destroy the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s aircraft carrier striking forces—a final dagger to the heart of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, which had already lost most of its battleships just six months earlier at Pearl Harbor. While both objectives made sense in isolation, together they were incompatible because of the contradictory tactics necessary for success.

The invasion of Midway Atoll required precise planning involving long lead times and firm schedules. The planning and logistical requirements of launching an amphibious assault are overwhelming; the travel times of combat ships, troop carriers and all other support ships must be coordinated down to the minute—a challenge for any assault force, but in the case of the Japanese, one that was made even more challenging given the 2,500 miles of ocean that they had to travel just to get to Midway from the Japanese home ports. The entire movement had to be choreographed with no room for error.

Contrast that with their second objective of encountering and destroying the U.S. Pacific Fleet. For this objective, there was no timetable at all and even no guarantee that the U.S. Pacific Fleet would even leave its homeport of Pearl Harbor to respond to the Japanese advances at Midway. Unlike the rigid planning and tactics required for the planned assault on Midway, meeting this objective called for almost the exact opposite. The Japanese fleet needed to be as flexible as possible and free of any constraints—carrier aircraft had to ready at all times, fully fueled and loaded with proper ordnance.

As the actual battle unfolded, one of the key turning points was when Japanese carrier aircraft—loaded with bombs in support of the invasion—were unable to respond quickly to U.S. carrier-based attacks. The delay in getting these aircraft in the air with proper ordnance—in this case, torpedoes necessary to sink the U.S. carriers—was the difference between victory and defeat.

Gordon W. Prange, author of Miracle at Midway, the definitive history of the battle, had this to say about the contradictory nature of the two Japanese strategic objectives:

This seems so elementary that one hesitates to bring it to the attention of the intelligent reader. Nevertheless, in none of the principles of war did the [Japanese] Combined Fleet fall so flat on its collective face as this one. From the very beginning, Operation MI (Midway Island) was a monster with two heads, each arguing with the other. First, [the Japanese] planned to attack and seize Midway Atoll; second, [they] wanted to lure out and destroy the remains of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

The downiest of newly hatched ensigns could have seen that the twin objectives were fundamentally incompatible. To storm and occupy an island installation required a firm schedule tied to immutables of nature. An engagement with a mobile enemy fleet called for the utmost flexibility.

While the “downiest of newly hatched ensigns” may have seen the incompatibility of these two objectives, today’s business leaders sometimes have a more difficult time seeing inconsistencies within their own strategy. In isolation, each piece of the strategy puzzle may appear relevant and obtainable. But just as the Japanese found out with the disastrous results at the Battle of Midway, present-day executives need to look at these individual objectives as a single strategy. Only then will they will be in a position to judge (and reject when necessary) the pieces that don’t fit.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Patrick Lefler
Patrick Lefler is the founder of The Spruance Group -- a management consultancy that helps growing companies grow faster by providing unique value at the product level: specifically product marketing, pricing, and innovation. He is a former Marine Corps officer; a graduate of both Annapolis and The Wharton School, and has over twenty years of industry expertise.


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