Book Review: Winning a Future War: War Gaming and Victory in the Pacific War


by Norman Friedman

Washington, DC: Naval History and Heritage Command, U.S. Department of the Navy, 2018. . Pp. xii, 276+. Illus., maps, appends., notes, biblio., index. $23.99 paper. ISBN: 1782669078

Wargaming and the Pacific War

The “Future War” that Dr. Friedman’s title speaks of is of course the U.S. Navy’s Pacific War, which turned very narrowly on the carrier battles of 1942. Both sides developed these unique, powerful striking forces from scratch and over 20 years for this specific moment. So why did the US Navy win? Why did the Japanese fumble tactically at a few crucial moments, and we – barely – didn’t? Midway above all has the same potential significance as a turning point as Gettysburg and Jutland. All three illustrate the ultimate mystery of warfare: how to defeat (or not lose to) a powerful, capable, thoughtful opponent who has readied himself for this battle with long study and preparation. The narratives, technology, and tactical command decisions of the ’42 carrier battles have been studied at length, but certain vital underlying factors have not, and that is the subject of this book.

In their Kaigun; Strategy, Tactics, and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy 1887-1941”, Evans and Peattie state that some of the factors they were unable to consider were the Japanese Navy’s administrative structures and naval education and training, as well as the national educational and social base on which the Imperial Navy rested. The technology and tactical command decisions of the carrier battles have been studied exhaustively, but these vital, underlying areas are where military historians of today find themselves looking for the answer to the ultimate questions – that is to say why one side won, and the other didn’t. For example, it has often been remarked that the Japanese practice of basing their carrier aviation on highly trained enlisted pilots was a major mistake; their numbers were seriously diminished by combat and proved irreplaceable due to the lack of any adequate training program. But perhaps the Japanese simply lacked the human resources, in college and particularly naval academy graduates to follow the expensive US Navy practice of encouraging large numbers of naval officers to train as both aviators and regular fleet officers, rotating back and forth between the two in the course of their careers. These officer-pilots gave us an extremely intelligent and flexible body of flying personnel, and a uniquely air-minded fleet officer corps. But perhaps the Japanese lacked sufficient numbers of even the high-quality high school graduates needed to even think about large scale replacement for their enlisted master-pilots?

Studying these differences between the US Navy and the Japanese reveals how little we understand America’s own systems of naval administration and training, at least insofar as they were different from those of other nations, and made the Navy uniquely what it was. Nascent naval aviation may owe much to the quality and numbers of Annapolis graduates, Adm. Moffett’s long tenure as head of the Bureau of Aeronautics, Adm. Reeves’ command of the Langley, or the advanced, scientifically-oriented American educational system in general. Friedman makes a strong case, however, that the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., during the years 1919 -1934 was a unique institutional asset for the Navy, developing critical aspects of aviation, tactics and strategy that in 1942 were proven in the test of war. A major source of this insight was the NWC’s extensive, sophisticated system of war-gaming.

Of course, the US Navy practiced and demonstrated its thinking in yearly fleet exercises, but here the fleet was mainly testing its professional skills and training, rather than its ability to think analytically and imaginatively. The critical element of the NWC program was “situational awareness”. Dr. Friedman puts it thusly,

“…the Naval War College examined the logic likely to drive the other major powers, particularly Japan. That was the method the college had long been teaching to students who had to provide an ‘Estimate of the Situation’ before deciding what to do. The first stage was not what they wanted out of a negotiation or problem. The first stage was to guess what the enemy wanted, and what the enemy’s logic was likely to be.”

This search to understand the enemy’s thinking revealed much if not everything about the events of WWII: for example, that Japan’s war would be defensive, but offensive in the early stages, seeking the attrition of the US fleet in its “War Plan Orange” western offensive. Meanwhile the US would be unable to relieve the Philippines, and would be forced to capture island bases en route to the scene of its decisive fleet engagement with the enemy fleet prior to the blockade and economic strangulation of Japan – pretty much what actually happened.

Tactically, certain things could not be tested realistically in fleet exercises; for example, night battle maneuvers and overwater flight, with early aircraft with unreliable engines and few electronic aids, were quite dangerous. Yet the latter was changing quickly and drastically, and the tactical implications of advances in aircraft design had to be studied as they were taking place, only possible with war gaming. When there were no carriers in 1918, carriers were being demanded and planned; when the slow little Langley was the only carrier, the huge fast battlecruiser conversions were building. When their planes were fragile biplanes with Morse radio or no radio, all metal aircraft with powerful radial engines were under development, and voice radio, homing beacons, radar, and fighter direction were being perfected or discovered. Thus when the Saratoga and Lexington demonstrated in exercises their power to make mass carrier surprise attacks against Pearl Harbor and the Canal Zone, such strikes were still likely not possible against a fleet at sea – except in war games. Here they revealed some essential lessons that proved wholly true for the actual 1942 carrier battles, particularly the tremendous vulnerability of carriers and their flight decks, and the tremendous expenditure of planes and pilots in brief battles. This underscored the absolute need to locate the enemy’s carriers FIRST and attack them FIRST to achieve air superiority with its many advantages over the developing sea battle. Plainly the Japanese entered the war without a correct appreciation of these things, and it cost them Midway.

Of course, some things could be learned neither from exercises nor war games. For example, the effectiveness of barrage fire from large guns or of automatic weapons against dive bombers was vastly overestimated until the appearance of radio-controlled target drones shortly before the war. Hits proved far fewer and less damaging than expected. Also the effectiveness of fighters, originally relatively slow biplanes with forward firing twin guns, was seriously underestimated, while that of rear seat flexible guns was over-estimated. Nonetheless, war games revealed that there was no substitute for the full-sized fleet carrier, fast, seaworthy, with the long flight decks and capacious hangars necessary to accommodate and operate the largest possible strike groups. At the same time, Washington Treaty restrictions turned Navy thinking towards supplementary means of increasing the number of aircraft with the fleet. One was flying boats supported by tenders so they could be forward-deployed quickly, which came to fruition in the numerous PBY wings in the Pacific war. (Hopes that the Norden bombsight would make the PBY – and the TBD – into an effective high level bomber were disappointed, however.) An interesting blind alley that was studied very carefully was the “flying deck cruiser” with cruiser guns and armor plus a short flight deck and small air group. Arguments against this hybrid design were many; but the point was that such ships were explicitly permitted by treaty and not counted against carrier tonnage. Had some been built, could they have proved useful in 1942, supporting the fleet carriers with reconnaissance, combat air patrol, reserve aircraft, as did the light and escort carriers in 1943? The Japanese, of course, tried large auxiliaries and liners designed for conversion to light carriers, and floatplane mother ships to achieve the same things.

This book deals with many significant issues besides aviation: the Washington Treaty, cruiser limitation, and gaming a hypothetical war with Britain. But it carries the understanding of the thoughts, plans, and motivations of naval aviation between the wars and the gestation of the USN carrier force to a wholly new level. This book is essential reading for those interested in these topics, though dense with fact, it is not the easiest reading. Dr. Friedman is certainly the ultimate master of navigating and interpreting original naval primary source documentation, and he provides the actual correct answer to a host of “Why did they…? How could they have…? questions perplexing this student’s mind for decades. Of Dr. Friedman’s 40-some books, this is the best yet. May there be forty more!



Note: Winning a Future War is also available in several e-editions.


Our Reviewer: Robert P. Largess is the author of USS Albacore; Forerunner of the Future, and articles on the USS Triton, SS United States, the origin of the towed sonar array, and the history of Lighter-than-Air. He has contributed book reviews to ‘The Naval Historical Foundation’ ( and The International Journal of Naval History ( He earlier reviewed The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command, King Arthur’s Wars: The Anglo-Saxon Conquest of England, and Clouds above the Hill: A Historical Novel of the Russo-Japanese War.

StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium


Reviewer: Robert P. Largess    

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