Tac Talks: Developing operational tactics

Tac Talks No. 47
Tac Talks No. 47

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CMDR Barton Harrington

The tactics used by navies are for the most part developed in times of peace. Especially, as is currently the case, when there is a long period between naval combat. (It can be argued the last time significant naval forces actually fought against one another was in 1982 during the Falklands War). While peacetime affords ample opportunity to develop and practice tactics, it must be recognised that once in combat these tactics will likely need to be adapted in response to whatever real world situation is faced. This is because the naval tactics developed in times of peace are, by their very nature, done so without the opportunity to fully understand how an adversary will employ their own forces and tactics in conflict.

Of course, intelligence assessments can give us some insight into how our adversaries may act, but this has its limits. Compounding this is the complex world in which navies operate, where there a many potential adversaries all of whom may have different tactics. As a result, once peacetime tactics are put to the test in combat we must be ready to identify any shortfalls, have mechanisms in place to analyse those shortfalls and quickly develop and disseminate revised tactics.

Since the end of the Second World War it has been relatively peaceful in the maritime domain. The last enduring period of peace in the maritime sphere was during the late nineteenth century. Wayne P Hughes in his book ‘Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat’ identifies the period from 1865 until the beginning of the First World War as the ‘Golden Age of Tactical Thought’.[1] Similar to the present, this period was one of few naval engagements and the advent of new technologies. However, despite the fact that during the ‘Golden Age’ great emphasis was placed on developing tactics to encompass the new technologies (and vice versa), the First World War still threw up many tactical surprises.

Battle-spaces are getting more complex, and we must adapt and integrate to meet the challenges and opportunities afforded by new technologies.
Battle-spaces are getting more complex, and we must adapt and integrate to meet the challenges and opportunities afforded by new technologies.

Hughes acknowledges that “deception, accidental surprise, and the limited payoff of speed were underestimated or miscalled.”[2] These are hardly minor shortfalls. To this list of deficiencies of the First World War, inadequate tactical communications, poor targeting methods and fire control systems and ordnance shortfalls can be added.[3] Even though the ‘Golden Age’ was considered a great period of tactical thought, the naval tactics developed during this period came up short once the firing began.

So what does this mean? In short, it means that naval tactics can (and should) be developed in times of peace, but it must be recognised that these tactics - developed in isolation from actual conflict - have limits. During conflict, navies need to be prepared to quickly adapt tactics - or even start again from scratch - and must be ready to disseminate this information quickly.

Two case studies will now be used to illustrate how tactics have been developed during conflict in the past.

Thach Weave


At the outbreak of war with Japan the American F4F Wildcat fighter was little match for the Japanese Zero in terms of speed and manoeuvrability.[4] Prior to America entering the war an intelligence report was produced which, based on observations of the Zero fighting in China, highlighted the Zero’s strengths over the F4F. Lt Cdr Jimmy Thach, a squadron commander, considered the disparity between the two aircraft and concluded that the US’s current tactics would be ineffective against the superior aircraft.

The American’s standard flight formation of the day was to fly in sections of three aircraft. However, in response to the information in the intelligence report, Thach changed his formations to two aircraft per section operating in groups of two sections. He also increased the distance the sections were displaced from each other.[5] When attacked from behind the F4Fs would commence a weave which would allow the wingman or supporting section to bring the Zero into its line of fire and use its superior gunnery. This tactic became to be known as the ‘Thach Weave’ and was successfully used for the first time at the Battle of Midway.

Thach had identified that tactics developed during peacetime were not suitable and needed to be adapted to suit the particular enemy and aircraft. Once he identified this shortfall and understood what his enemy was likely to do based on combat reports, he was able to develop new tactics. Once the worth of this innovative tactic was recognised, Thach was sent back to America as a flight instructor.

Solomon Islands Campaign


From August 1942 through to November 1943 a series of naval engagements took place around the Solomon Islands and Bougainville. These battles were fought by the Japanese who were attempting to reinforce their positions on Guadalcanal and Bougainville using surface units, and the Americans who were trying to prevent them from doing so.[6] The Americans had air cover superiority during daylight hours so the Japanese were forced to carry out their resupply missions at night. Each side had its own particular strengths: the Japanese had the lethal Long Lance Torpedo with its extended range and were used to operating at close quarters at night, while the Americans had superior radar.

Prior to the war the Japanese had developed their tactics for night actions using their Long Lance torpedo. Employing these tactics, they were initially the dominant force. The Americans, on the other hand, used single lines of column, emphasised gunnery as their primary weapon and failed to react in a timely manner when the Japanese were detected on their radars. When the Americans attacked the Japanese the flash from their guns gave up their positions (and thus the advantage that radar had provided), alerting the Japanese who simply fired their Long Lance Torpedos and turned away. The American columns - beam on to their enemy - were an easy target for the Japanese torpedos.

Royal Australian Navy patrol boat HMAS Maitland conducts maritime surveillance activities as the sun sets over waters off the Solomon Islands, 2021. Photographer: SMNCIS Isaiah Appleton.
Royal Australian Navy patrol boat HMAS Maitland conducts maritime surveillance activities as the sun sets over waters off the Solomon Islands, 2021. Photographer: SMNCIS Isaiah Appleton.

In the first battle after the disaster of Savo Island US forces were commanded by Rear Admiral Scott who was tasked to reinforce Guadalcanal on the 11th of October 1942. During this he hoped to interrupt the Japanese resupply forces. He had studied the night battles that had taken place up to that point and trained his force accordingly.[7] The result was a partial American victory - not an overwhelming one - but a victory nonetheless. Unfortunately, the reason for victory was not clearly understood by all the Americans.

The next night engagement occurred six weeks later at Tassafaronga. The US again deployed a single column, making them easy targets for Japan’s Long Lance Torpedos, and used guns as their primary offensive weapon rather than their torpedoes. They also failed to appreciate the long range of the Japanese torpedos. To make matters worse, the Commander of the American force had taken command only two days prior. The result was five of the US’s six cruisers being sunk or damaged, compared to the loss of a single Japanese destroyer.[8] The Americans had failed because the tactical lessons that Scott had learned were not disseminated effectively.

From July through to November 1943 the Americans continued to developed tactics for night fighting. Instead of using gunnery as their main offensive weapon they employed their torpedoes. After detecting the enemy on radar American destroyers in small groups would rush the Japanese, fire torpedos and then turn away in case of Japanese counter torpedo fire. This allowed the Americans to initially attack the Japanese undetected as their torpedos could not be seen in the water at night. Guns were used to ‘mop up’ after the initial attacks.

The breakthrough for the Americans came at the Battle of Vella Gulf on 6-7 August 1943. Commander Moosbrugger was in command of six destroyers in TG 31.2. They detected the Japanese at approximately 20,000 yards, closed them and managed to fire 24 torpedos before being spotted.[9] Only one of the four Japanese destroyers survived. Unlike the units at Tassafaronga, Moosbrugger’s destroyer division had trained together since 1941 and had focused their training on night fighting using radar and torpedoes.[10]

The tactical improvement by the Americans was not linear and not all US Navy forces adopted the successful tactics at the same time. Following Vella Gulf on the 6th of October 1943 during the Battle of Vella Lavella, the American commander detected six Japanese destroyers and attacked using torpedos. From this promising start mistakes were made. The American commander ordered his units to open fire with guns before the torpedos reached their targets giving warning to the Japanese of both the American presence and their torpedo attack. The Americans then remained broadside to the Japanese making them easy targets for a Long Lance torpedo attack. Inexperience and units that had not worked together cost the Americans dearly.

The last two night battles of this campaign were decisive American victories. The Americans who were landing at Empress Augusta Bay successfully prevented the Japanese from repeating their success at the Battle of Savo Island. They used their radar well, conducted two torpedo attacks (one lead by Arleigh Burke) sinking a Japanese light cruiser and a destroyer, and damaged a heavy cruiser. One American destroyer was damaged. The American commander kept his cruisers out of range of the Long Lance torpedos letting the destroyers attack with torpedos. He then supported them with the heavy guns of his cruisers helping to disrupt the Japanese torpedo fire control solutions.

At the Battle of Cape Saint George on the 25th of November 1943 Arleigh Burke was in command of five destroyers. He used his force’s radars and torpedos superbly, sinking three Japanese destroyers without loss. This was the last of this series of night battles.

The Japanese over the period had been improving as well. However, they were merely refining what they were already doing, rather than amending their tactics to counter the American’s use of radar. They used more scouting assets, and radar ECM and even deployed rudimentary radar.[11] It was not enough to simply improve on what they had previously been doing.

Over the course of August 1942 to November 1943 the Americans developed their tactics from gunnery based single beam on columns to surprise torpedo attacks based on early radar detections. They learnt from their defeats and eventually passed on lessons between each other. Although this was done somewhat haphazardly, it was effective in the end. By the end of the campaign the Japanese were failing in their tactical develop in the same way that the Americans had at its commencement. Despite having a better offensive torpedo, their tactics became ineffective against the American’s use of radar.

HMA Ships Canberra, Hobart, Stuart, Arunta and Sirius taking part in a trilateral passage in the Philippine Sea with US Navy ships USS Ronald Reagan, Antietam and Mustin and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force’s Akizuki Class destroyer JS Teruzuki, 2007.
HMA Ships Canberra, Hobart, Stuart, Arunta and Sirius taking part in a trilateral passage in the Philippine Sea with US Navy ships USS Ronald Reagan, Antietam and Mustin, and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force’s Akizuki Class destroyer JS Teruzuki, 2007.

What can we learn?


As a navy moves from its peacetime training to combat tasking it is likely to realise that the way it has been training does not entirely meet the tactical situation in which it finds itself. The examples above highlight a few points that we should keep in mind when preparing for future operations. Namely:

  • Tactics will have to be tailored against an adversary using relative strengths against relative weaknesses. We many not initially know exactly what these are, as was the case of the Americans regarding the Long Lance torpedo. Therefore, good intelligence on how an adversary is likely to use their weapons is vital to tactical development.
  • Our tactics will have to be suitable for the environment in which we will fight. Radar was key for success for the Americans in night fighting.
  • We must acknowledge that our peacetime tactics may not be suitable for the task at hand and we must have streamlined ways - both formal and informal - to identify shortcomings, develop solutions to them and then train our people accordingly.

Thach (and the Americans) were fortunate to obtain intelligence about the Zero’s fighting capabilities. Thach recognised the F4Fs superior gunnery and leveraged off this. As a result he was able to develop defensive tactics that diminished the Zeros advantage in speed and manoeuvrability. As the Second World War progressed the Americans made the point of sending their best combat experienced pilots into instructing roles. They saw the need for combat experienced pilots to pass on the latest information.

The night battles around the Solomon Islands between August 1942 and November 1943 showed a gradual and, at times, disorganised development in night fighting tactics. The Japanese had developed their tactics around their Long Lance torpedo and were initially very successful. However, once the Americans understood their own strengths, in this case radar, and developed tactics accordingly they were able to defeat the Japanese. In contrast, the Japanese stuck rigidly to their original tactics and failed to adapt them to counter the American’s use of radar.

In both examples initially the Japanese had a superior ability to defeat the Americans. However, once a relative advantage was identified both the strengths of both the Zero and the Long Lance torpedo were able to be overcome. A failure to effectively pass on lessons initially cost the Americans in the Solomons.

We must be ready to modify our peacetime tactics into wartime tactics at short notice and possibly in the face of what may seem to be overwhelming odds. This may be done through formal methods such as post activity reports, quickreps, and tacmemos. However, we may also need to adapt faster than these methods allow. Face to face briefs in the operating area, informal discussion papers and electronic distribution of observations may in some cases be a more appropriate medium while more formal documents are prepared.


  1. Hughes, p. 60.
  2. Hughes, p. 88.
  3. Gordon, p. 581.
  4. Spector, p. 148.
  5. https://m.usni.org/magazines/navalhistory/1992-03/butch-ohare-and-thach-weave.
  6. Hughes, p. 123-4.
  7. Spector, p. 200.
  8. Hughes, p. 129.
  9. Spector, p. 239.
  10. Spector, p. 239.
  11. Hughes, p. 129.