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History Lesson: The Battle of Java Sea

On the heels of Pearl Harbor, Allied forces were handed a crushing defeat by the Japanese. The battle has lessons for today’s military planners.

By Robert Farley for

On December 8, 1941, an Allied naval officer might reasonably have thought to himself “It’s not that bad.Really, could be worse.”  The United States Navy (USN) could still pack a punch, and it could rely on assistance from the Royal Navy, the Royal Dutch Navy, and the Commonwealth navies.

Over the next three months the Japanese would take advantage of Allied confusion at every level to win a series of devastating victories over Allied naval forces.  The Battle of Java Sea, fought on February 27, 1942, marked the high tide of Japanese naval power in the Pacific. Poor organization, strategic confusion, inter-service competition, and national infighting doomed an Allied task force to destruction at the hands of the Imperial Japanese Navy, opening the door to the conquest of Java and the rest of Southeast Asia. Indeed, the Battle of Java Sea is the nightmare that American naval planners have when they hear terms like “offshore balancing.”

The World of December 8, 1941

The United States Navy remained potent. At Oahu, five American battleships lay sunk or aground, but the port facilities at Pearl Harbor remained in good condition, and the aircraft carriers of the Pacific Fleet had avoided damage. Three battleships escaped with only light damage, with a fourth undergoing regular maintenance in the Puget Sound. Three fast carriers, twelve heavy cruisers, eight light cruisers, and fifty destroyers remained ready for action, a force which could potentially cause huge problems for the Japanese. Reinforcements were on the way; USS Yorktown would join the Pacific Fleet in late December, with USS Hornet arriving in March. Other ships were forward deployed; the Asiatic Fleet included one heavy cruiser, two light cruisers, and thirteen destroyers.

From its bases in Singapore and Colombo, the Royal Navy also remained in fighting shape. The most powerful surface unit in the Pacific was HMS Prince of Wales, the fast battleship that six months earlier had inflicted the mission-killing blow on the German Bismarck. Support for Prince of Wales included the old battlecruiser Repulse, four light cruisers and five destroyers. Much more help was on the way. Two fast and one slow carriers would arrive in Ceylon in the months after Pearl Harbor. Jutland veteran HMS Warspite was working up in the Puget Sound at the time of the Japanese strike. By March, the Eastern Fleet would include four Revenge class battleships, seven cruisers, and sixteen destroyers. The loss of Prince of Wales and Repulse on an ill-conceived mission to intercept Japanese forces invading Malaya severely dented, but did not destroy, British naval power in the Far East.

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The local navies also contributed. The Royal Australian Navy possessed two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, and five old destroyers, and New Zealand could contribute another light cruiser. Finally, the Dutch defended their vast possessions with three light cruisers, seven destroyers, and a number of smaller warships.

Against this, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) could marshal six fleet and four light carriers, ten battleships, eighteen heavy cruisers, twenty light cruisers, and 126 destroyers. The Japanese had certain advantages; while their ships weren’t necessarily any newer, the IJN had a more casual attitude towards treaty compliance than either the United States or the United Kingdom. The Japanese also trained rigorously at night warfare, and displayed excellent gunnery skills at all times.  Finally, the Japanese Type 93 (“Long Lance”) torpedo could strike targets at longer range and with greater punch than Allied torpedoes.

The biggest Japanese advantage, however, came in Allied disorder. Despite the growing threat of war with Japan, the Pacific Allies never engaged in much more than arms length interaction before Pearl Harbor. Shortly after the scale of the Japanese offensive into Southeast Asia became clear, the Allies established an administrative unit to manage the collective war effort.  ABDA, or American-British-Dutch-Australian Command, consisted of the air and naval assets available to the Allies in the Southeast Asian region. Formally under the command of General Archibald Wavell, the central task of ABDA was to resist Japanese conquest of the Dutch East Indies.

Battle and Aftermath

The Japanese took swift advantage of Allied disorder. After neutralizing American forces in the Philippines, the IJN launched a series of high risk, high reward invasions of Dutch and British possessions, relying on air support and ship-to-ship superiority to defeat Allied forces. The Japanese began advancing into the Dutch East Indies (DEI) in strength in early February, driving disparate Allied naval forces back and harrying their bases with unceasing air attacks.

The Allies assembled a task force in mid-February in hopes of slowing or repelling the Japanese advance. Because the IJN concentrated its battleship, cruiser, and carrier strength on other tasks, this force could match many of the squadrons assigned to support the invasions. On February 27, 1942 a combined task force of Dutch, American, British, and Australian warships intercepted a Japanese transport convoy poised to invade eastern Java.

Dutch Admiral Karel Doorman commanded the task force from his flagship, the light cruiser De Ruyter. The Allied force also included the Dutch light cruiser Java, the British heavy cruiser Exeter, the American heavy cruiser Houston, and the Australian light cruiser Perth, in addition to two Dutch, two British, and four American destroyers.

Countering this force, the Imperial Japanese Navy had two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and fourteen destroyers. However, the Japanese forces were fresh, while several Allied ships had suffered damage from air attacks, and all Allied crews were exhausted from air attacks and continuous operations.

The two task forces sighted each other and began to exchange fire at around 4pm on February 27th. The Allies had an initial advantage in long range gunnery, although neither side inflicted significant damage until just after 5pm, when a shell hit HMS Exeter’s boiler room. This incident, called decisive by Vincent O’Hara, knocked Exeter out of line and threw the Allied force into confusion. Doorman and his flagship steamed ahead alone as the rest of the cruisers, out of communication, circled Exeter. Five minutes later the first Japanese Type 93 torpedoes approached the Allied line, sinking the Dutch destroyer Kortenaer in less than two minutes.

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Doorman reasserted enough control to see that Exeter could withdraw safely (with two destroyers in escort), losing the British destroyer Electra to gunfire in the process, then turned his remaining force back toward the transports.  The ABDA force brushed up against Japanese escorts again around 7pm, without effect. Doorman persisted, even as his force drifted apart; four American destroyers were forced to depart because of lack of fuel and torpedoes around 9pm, and the British Jupiter struck a Dutch mine around 10pm.

Nevertheless, the ABDA force made one last try at the transports shortly before midnight.  At this point Japanese torpedoes and night-fighting expertise made the difference; torpedoes struck and sank both Dutch cruisers before the force could approach the transports. Doorman went down with De Ruyter. The surviving two cruisers (the USS Houston and the HMAS Perth) retired to avoid destruction. Altogether the Allies lost two cruisers and three destroyers, plus one cruiser badly damaged, while inflicting no meaningful Japanese losses.

Aftermath

The destruction of the core of the ABDA force at Java Sea opened the floodgates. Houston, Perth, and an accompanying destroyer were sunk two days later as they tried to escape through Sunda Strait. Exeter and her escorts were caught and sunk south of Borneo. Japanese battleships and cruisers hunted down other refugees.  Organized resistance in the DEI ended in early March 1942. With Java secure, the IJN launched a devastating raid into the Indian Ocean in April 1942, sinking the carrier Hermes and a pair of heavy cruisers. The Allies were on the run.

Java Sea was a disaster on every level we use to evaluate military operations.  At the political/strategic level, the Allies could not agree on what to defend and what not to defend.  Each of the four participants focused on defense of their own priorities rather than on defeating the Japanese offensive.  As S.E. Morison writes,

"The British wanted more troops to be poured into Singapore, and to use the combined naval forces to escort them; the Dutch wished to protect their East Indies; the Australians to prevent an invasion of their country; and the Americans to prepare a comeback."

This left the Allies with different tolerances for risk acceptance, a problem that filtered into the operational and tactical levels. The Dutch, seeing their position at risk of permanent loss, were willing to run huge risks. Doorman decided, in desperation, to commit his ships to battle, even as it increasingly became apparent that he could not win. The British wanted to save as much as possible, while the Americans wanted to inflict damage that would tell down the road. An economy of force approach might have granted the inevitability of the fall of Java, while also preserving the goals of maximizing damage inflicted on the Japanese and minimizing losses.

At the operational level, Allied ships were unprepared for continuous operations in no small part because repair facilities and stores of ammunition were not well positioned. To be sure, the Japanese did an outstanding job of reducing the operational effectiveness of ABDA, most notably by conducting a devastating airstrike on Australian port facilities in Darwin on February 19th, and by an exhausting series of attacks against bases in Java. Nevertheless, better pre-war coordination of supplies could have helped the Allied war effort considerably.

Allied intelligence failed to account for the Japanese Type 93 torpedo. The “Long Lance” did not perform fully to expectation, mostly because of poor accuracy and premature detonations.  Nevertheless, the three hits (out of 153 torpedoes fired) sank two light cruisers and a destroyer, effectively deciding the battle in favor of the Japanese.  The USN received some intelligence as to the existence of the Type 93 as early as 1940, but did not work out the full implications of the weapon until 1943.

Finally, at the tactical level the officers of the ABDA force had trouble communicating with one another during battle. The damage to Exeter threw the entire force into confusion, especially because Exeter was supposed to operate as the primary translator of Dutch orders for the English-speaking ships. The American destroyers had a confused sense of the role they were supposed to play, and Allied air forces were not well integrated into the battle plan. The loss of Jupiter to a Dutch mine was one of the results of poor tactical communication, but throughout the battle American sailors often had little sense of Doorman’s intentions or expectations.

Lessons

America is in the throes of yet another debate about grand strategy, with terms like “deep engagement” and “offshore balancing” coming to characterize complex sets of policies towards allies and antagonists alike. Although the precise nature of the terms varies along with the preference of the author, Deep Engagement advocates tend to prefer robust, forward deployed U.S. military capability of the sort that we currently enjoy.  Advocates of offshore balancing argue that the United States can significantly draw down its military and political commitments and rely on normal balance of power politics to ensure that no state gains complete control over the Eurasian landmass.

“Avoid another Pearl Harbor,” recently amended to “avoid another 9/11” has animated U.S. security strategy since World War II. It might be more useful to think of grand strategy as a way to avoid another Battle of Java Sea. Predominance is one way to accomplish this; if the United States can defeat any enemy without the assistance of a coalition, then the coalition becomes militarily superfluous. But predominance is expensive, and often convinces allies to shirk their own commitments.

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Offshore balancing certainly may force U.S. allies to pick up the slack, increasing defense expenditures to match the perceived Chinese threat. Together, forces nominally allied with the United States could conceivably outmatch the PLAN and PLAAF in material terms.  But offshore balancing runs the risk of creating conditions that would allow a repeat of the Battle of Java Sea, where a single committed opponent managed to outwit and outfight a coalition on strategic, operational, and tactical grounds. Despite its material advantage, the ABDA never worked out a strategic conception that could concentrate force and bring it to bear against the Imperial Japanese Navy.

But in an important sense, ABDA performed as well as could be expected under the conditions.  The task for strategic planners, therefore, is to structure the underlying conditions so that any future ABDA coalition can perform much more effectively. Offshore Balancing or not, the USN should seek, at a minimum, a level of engagement that:

 – Ensures good communications between Allied forces;

 – Ensure that allies will have a strong understanding of each other capabilities,

 – Ensures that allies share intelligence about enemy capabilities;

 – Ensures that equipment and munitions stores, as well as repair facilities, are in minimum working order;

 – Ensure that a strategic dialogue takes place between coalition partners, such that even if the partners don’t agree on objectives, they at least    understand each other’s perspectives.

Obviously, modern technological conditions make it unlikely that some aspects of the disaster of Java Sea will be repeated.  Advanced sensors, communications equipment, and intelligence gathering capabilities make it unlikely that American ships will steer blindly into torpedoes they did not even know existed. We can imagine scenarios, however, in which military actions such as a cyberattack shut down advanced communications capabilities.  In such scenarios Americans might again find it difficult to communicate with their Japanese, Korean, or Indonesian counterparts. Technology can only ameliorate friction and the fog of war, not eliminate them.

The most likely future for the USN lies in some mix of predominance and retrenchment.  The USN will continue to be the most powerful player, but will need to rely on its allies for an edge against the PLAN, its most likely peer competitor.  The United States should perhaps look to something more akin to “offshore engagement,” which preserves opportunities for robust engagement while still giving allies sufficient reason to take care of themselves. Coalition operations always run into difficulties, but the scale of those difficulties depends on the degree of preparation that partners devote to solving problems.

Robert Farley is an assistant professor at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce. His work includes military doctrine, national security, and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money and Information Dissemination, and The Diplomat's Flashpoints Blog. He can be found on twitter at @drfarls.