Seventy years ago a shocked and wounded United States turned to a hare-brained scheme to strike the Japanese home islands in retaliation for Pearl Harbor. Col. James Doolittle’s 16 B-25 bombers began their airstrike on Tokyo from the USS Hornet’s flight deck, a place they were never designed for, far out in the stormy Pacific Ocean. So outlandish was the notion of a carrier-based bomber attack that FDR’s airy fiction, “They came from Shangri-La,” became legend if not received fact.
The greatest effect of the Doolittle Raid, however offers a cautionary tale for the cyber age. The sight of American warplanes over the sacred grounds of the Imperial Palace was utterly mortifying to the Imperial Japanese Navy. Charged with protecting Japan and its possessions, the IJN now found sour the triumphal accolades following Pearl Harbor in the face of this fundamental failure.
In a ferocious response the IJN threw nearly every vessel and aircraft available into scouring the Western Pacific for the carrier task group (whose existence had been tortured out of captured B-25 crews in China). The tremendous volume of signal traffic generated proved to be a gold mine for Cmdr. Joe Rochefort, and the other crack codebreakers of the U.S. Navy. The vast flood of signal intelligence, to and from each member of the fleet, allowed Rochefort and his team to penetrate IJN communications — including preparations for the assault on Midway. This intelligence picture gave Adm. Nimitz the edge on his opponent Adm. Yamamoto and upon such advantages does history turn.
With each overflight by a foreign aircraft or incursion by a foreign vessel into contested waters, Japanese (and other) defense forces must be careful to calibrate and cloak their responses. With so many sensors and minds attending to activity in the East and South China Seas, the less one tips one’s hand the better. There are very high stakes of national “face,” social trajectories and vast resources in play, which will drive the kind of overreaction the Imperial Navy made in 1942. Practicing patience and keeping an eye on the long game when planes buzz overhead, while very hard, can open the freedom to act wisely.