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Moving Targets and Intelligence Failure

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Excellent article on the development of Japanese carrier aviation in the months before Pearl Harbor:

The picture that emerges is of an enemy carrier force whose capabilities in late 1941 were mutating almost overnight. The Kido Butai of December 1941 was entirely different from the force that began exercising together in the summer of that year. It was 50 percent larger in terms of flight decks, could make much longer voyages, and was capable of speedily launching and efficiently coordinating huge groups of attack aircraft. In their frantic efforts to prepare for Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had created a brand-new monster.

Consider the difficulties of tracking the development of this particular beast. You are an American naval intelligence officer and probably relatively junior in rank. You may or may not have any naval aviation experience. Via traffic analysis, naval attaché reports, and other sources of information, it is your job to keep track of Japan’s carrier force and predict what it’s up to. But in the final analysis, you are the product of a navy that has not made the same conceptual leap that your enemy has. As far as you know, carriers are used for scouting purposes in conjunction with the battle line. They operate solo.

Parshall and Wenger also detail the more conventional intelligence failures, including lack of technical knowledge about Japanese carriers and aircraft, privilege for this (weak) technical knowledge against harder-to-acquire doctrinal knowledge, and general unwillingness to take foreign naval innovation seriously. The most interesting point, however, is the idea that capabilities are in some sense unknowable to the actors themselves, and thus are particularly difficult for outsiders to appreciate. At the beginning of 1941, even the Japanese didn’t quite have a sense of what they had or were working toward. Training, doctrine, and institutional structure made up the core of Japan’s naval aviation capability, but didn’t exist in January 1941 in the same way that they existed in December 1941.

Conventional concepts of coercion often rely on “will” in addition to “material” capabilities to explain success and failure. Smart analysts generally understand that “will” is an unknowable quantity; leaders consistently under- or over- estimate the capacity of their own people or of an enemy people to resist. Process intervenes, tribal dynamics and triggered in unpredictable ways, etc. Models of war initiation such as Fearon’s Rationalist Explanations for War rely more on asymmetric information and intentional deception about capabilities to explain why wars happen. It’s interesting to think, then, about how capabilities might be just as slippery as will; for various reasons, policymakers may lack a good understanding of their own capabilities, not to mention enemy capabilities, when thinking about war. That’s not precisely what happened here, as the Japanese understood what they wanted and then set about developing the capability to achieve their (short term) goals, but nevertheless there’s space for a considerable amount of misunderstanding, misperception, and disagreement.

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