Midway, D-Day and Icebreakers

America just passed two important anniversaries — a pair of events that cemented our nation’s status as a global power.

We also witnessed a presidential announcement that serves as a stark reminder of how far behind the country is on an issue of great importance.

None of these things have anything to do with — at least not directly — coronavirus or the protests across the nation.

No surprise, then, that there was little mention of these matters in the mainstream press, let alone any examination of how they’re related.

But that’s why you come to the Whiskey Bar, right? To learn about the connections that others miss, and discover how the past offers us a glimpse into the future.

So let’s discuss some history; the Battle of Midway and D-Day. And with those events as context, let’s look at President Trump’s recent call to build a new fleet of icebreakers.

The Battle of Midway occurred between June 4–7, 1942, off Midway Atoll, about 1,350 miles northwest of Oahu, Hawaii.

Six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Imperial Japan sent a large and mighty fleet — including four aircraft carries — to seize tiny Midway Atoll and its strategic airfield.

From there, according to the plan, Japan would carry the fight forward to Hawaii.

Fortunately, the U.S. intercepted and decoded Japanese message traffic. The Navy knew that the Japanese were coming and moved the fleet to meet the foe.

Stakes were high. Japan had already wrecked the U.S. battleships at Pearl Harbor. Now the U.S. was committing its few aircraft carriers — just three — to the fight. If those vessels were heavily damaged or went down, U.S. strategic power in the Pacific Ocean would be nil.

Indeed, if the U.S. lost its carriers at Midway, the Pacific war could have well been over in a matter of a few hours.

So Midway was a naval battle, fleet versus fleet. But it was not a ship-to-ship slugfest. No blasting away at each other with large guns. Instead, the outcome hinged on airplanes.

In other words, Midway involved two domains of warfare, sea and sky. The connection was the aircraft carriers, which launched airplanes to perform the hard work of war.

American pilots benefitted from the intelligence forewarning. Plus, they were favored by Poseidon and Aeolus. That is, in a decisive quirk of fate, the U.S. side looked down at one critical point from blue sky onto an open sea and caught the Japanese planes parked on flight decks, fully fueled and armed.

American bombs rained down, things blew up and within a few hours the U.S. side had sunk four Japanese aircraft carriers.

aircraft carriers

In return, Japanese planes severely damaged one U.S. carrier, USS Yorktown. The unfortunate and immobile American ship was eventually sunk by torpedoes fired from a Japanese submarine.

The Battle of Midway was critical to the outcome of World War II in the Pacific. With the loss of four carriers and entire airwings, plus many sailors and pilots, Midway broke the back of Japanese naval combat power and throttled that nation’s military advance in the Pacific.

To be sure, after Midway there was much more war and hard fighting ahead against Japan; but post-Midway, the war clearly was far more winnable by the U.S. and allies.

In the long run, we can look back to Midway as the point that commenced a decades-long reign of U.S. power projection across the Pacific Ocean.

Indeed, back at the Naval War College, we called the Battle of Midway “America’s Trafalgar.” It demonstrated our country’s naval superiority as clearly as the British victory against the French and Spanish fleets in 1805.

One battle. A few key hours over a couple of days. And the effects still play out, 75 years later.

Now we move ahead two years to D-Day on June 6, 1944. This operation included three warfighting domains: sea, air and land.

Doubtless, you’ve seen movies like Saving Private Ryan or The Longest Day. You know that D-Day was an opposed landing, with hundreds of thousands of U.S.-British-Canadian soldiers hitting the beach and immediately battling a well-prepared, dug-in German army.

Meanwhile, thousands of aircraft roared through the skies. Transports dropped paratroopers. Bombers hit targets. Fighter aircraft provided cover for the ground attack. Battleships pounded the shore with naval artillery.

In Navy-speak, D-Day was a “littoral” operation, conducted in relatively shallow waters, as things are measured in the oceanic realm. At the same time, D-Day was a major naval battle. Indeed, D-Day is an excellent example of how a navy supports military power ashore; how a navy critically influences events on land through actions at sea.

The U.S. Navy — and of course the British Royal Navy — ferried troops and equipment across the English Channel to France. And if you back things up in time to well before D-Day, U.S. and British/Canadian naval power convoyed troops, equipment, fuel and supplies over from North America in the first instance.

Per that last point, if there are no “logistics,” there is no landing. There is no land war. Support and sustainment are the foundation to projecting power.

German resistance was stiff at D-Day. Many things could have gone wrong at many moments (and many did). U.S./Allied success was not preordained. In fact, General Eisenhower, who commanded the overall operation, had already drafted a note accepting full responsibility if the invasion had failed.

In the end, D-Day established a long-term U.S. military foothold in Western Europe. Through the rest of World War II, the Cold War and up to now, the U.S. has kept troops and equipment emplaced across the continent.

Between the two events — Midway and D-Day — we see two opposite ends of seapower at work.

Midway was fleet versus fleet, in a naval battle of raw combat power with nothing else in the way. Key fighting involving relatively compact naval airplanes in the sky, attacking ship-targets on the surface.

D-Day involved bringing immense naval power close to shore, to support military objectives across a complex ground domain.

D-Day included significant naval gunfire against shore targets, but little in the way of naval aviation. Instead, D-Day involved a large element of ground-based airpower for cover and support, while transport ships moved people and combat equipment close enough to stage a landing ashore and seize ground.

Reflecting on events 76 and 78 years ago, Midway was the strategic origin of U.S. military power across the Pacific. D-Day was the opening gambit in a long-term, strategic U.S. military presence in Europe.

The two battles also point to America’s ability to control domains of war — the sea, the sky and land. And now, today, there’s another region of the globe where America is compelled to project strength. It also involves yet another domain of war.

Sad to say, though, the U.S. has fallen behind the times. So, here’s where that recent directive from Donald Trump makes it all painfully obvious.

On June 9, President Trump instructed the Department of Defense to begin planning for a new fleet of U.S. icebreakers.1

It’s not some hare-brained idea from the Orange Man. Indeed, it’s a worthy issue, and addressing it is long overdue.

Start with the fact that the U.S. has significant and legitimate national interests in the polar regions. In Alaska alone, there are fundamental issues of protecting national sovereignty, along with long-term issues of environmental assessment, natural resource claims and future development.

In other words, there’s much for the U.S., as a nation, to decide about what it wants to accomplish “up there.”

Of course, those regions involve a frigid temperatures and a literal sea of ice, creating a unique domain in which complex equipment must operate.

And as a long-time observer of these matters, it’s painful to note how little thought has been put into them, let alone supported over the decades.

Consider that the nation’s current icebreaker “fleet” consists of just two old, hard-to-maintain vessels. They are in bad condition and probably should have been laid up many years ago2. Depending on the vagaries of parts and supplies, they can sail or not. Crews and yard workers are heroic for keeping these ships in business.

Obviously, we’ve reached the point where the matter is so glaringly bad that it finally made its way up the bureaucratic food chain to the desk of the U.S. President. So, Trump signed off on a memo to conduct… “planning,” with a goal of ships in the water in nine years.

Ugh… Planning… Years… Washington, D.C., at work.

Of course, there are bits and pieces of an “icebreaker plan” here and there within the U.S. bureaucracy. I’ve met Coast Guard people who worry about ice and icebreakers. And people from the National Science Foundation. Even a few — very few — people in the Navy.

Russia, meanwhile, has a fleet of over 50 modern icebreakers, including several nuclear-powered vessels. Indeed, Russia has entire shipyards, and industrial and educational chains, devoted to developing maritime and naval power projection in polar regions.

Most importantly of all, Russia has a development plan for its polar regions.

It’s not that there’s a new “Ice Race” going on, as with an arms race. Nor is it dignified to frame all of this in comical old terms like an “Icebreaker Gap.” But it’s abundantly clear that the U.S. is far behind – by decades – and has much catching up to do.

Another key problem, from the outset, is money. The U.S. government is effectively insolvent, in terms of cash flow in and expenditures out. At the federal level, nothing works anymore absent “money creation” by the Fed and public debt incurred by the Treasury.

So how to pay for all of this? Good question…

Yet here we are, as a nation, far behind the curve. The U.S. is just beginning to stir in the realm of new “planning” for Arctic operations — for a polar presence — that requires complex and expensive machines, staffed by a type of American mariner of which there are few.

We’ll wrap it up by noting that geography matters. As does history, which is always instructive. Marry up geography with history, and you can begin to discern the outlines of national interests.

Midway and D-Day show the importance of naval capabilities; people and machines in place, well-led and boldly used.

At the same time, the icebreaker situation illustrates how neglect of national interests can box the nation into an untenable strategic corner. Because that’s where we are right now.

On that note, I rest my case.

That’s all for now… Thank you for subscribing and reading.

Best wishes,

Byron King

Byron King
Managing Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder

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1 Trump Memo Demands New Fleet of Arctic Icebreakers Be Ready by 2029, Defense News

2 One of America’s Two Icebreaker Ships is Falling Apart, NBC News

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Byron King

A Harvard-trained geologist and former aide to the United States Chief of Naval Operations, Byron King is our resident gold and mining expert, and we are proud to have him on board as the managing editor of Whiskey & Gunpowder.

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