Why the Imperial Japanese Air Forces Failed in World War 2


The Second World War to a large degree was determined by the disparity of the economic capacities and manpower between the Axis and the Allies. Yet, solely looking at production numbers and men can lead to a deterministic or even fatalistic interpretation that prevents us from looking at other factors that also played a vital role in the defeat of the Axis Forces.
This video is based on the article: The Imperial Japanese Air Forces by Osamu Tagaya. (See Description)

High Level Organization

The Japanese leadership was well aware of its limited capabilities in both resources and industrial capacity. Yet, it failed to unify the two branches of the Japanese Armed Forces, notably the Imperial Japanese Army and the Imperial Japanese Navy to focus on one strategy in the years leading to the war. The Army for a large part saw as their main enemy in Russia and later the Soviet Union, while the Navy determined the United States of America as their principal foe. Both branches couldn’t agree and since they were not subordinates of the Japanese Government, there was no unifying power to force them into cooperation. This lead to two different strategies that were competing with each other for resources, manpower and equipment. This also lead to parallel development of similar aircraft types, like bombers and prevented the creation of uniform standards. (Tagaya: p. 178-180) Such inefficiencies and waste of resources are problematic in general, but in combination with limited industrial capacity and resources such effects weigh several magnitudes higher than for industrial giants, like the United States.

Army Shortcomings – The Japanese Army Air Force (JAAF)

Let’s take a look at the shortcomings of the Japanese Army Air Force. Since the Japanese Army Air Force was mostly developed for tactical support of a land war against Soviet Union, it lacked capabilities for naval navigation and long-range capabilities, something that was crucial for their use in South East Asia and especially the islands of the Pacific. As a result the Navy had to fly long-range bombing missions in the Philippines for the Army. (Tagaya: p. 179-180)

One major problem was that the Japanese Army lacked strong advocates for air power in its ranks. This was due to the fact that the Japanese had a very limited amount of army officers with air combat experience. Although the Japanese were among the first to use combat aircraft in World War 1, it was a short a limited engagement in 1914. These experiences were too limited to convince enough officers of the importance air power. The army initiated two times the creation of an independent air force as a third branch, like Germany and the United Kingdom with the Royal Air Force. Yet, the Navy disagreed, because they feared that similar to the British RAF that the Fleet Air Arm would only play a marginal role in an independent branch. (Tagaya: p. 180-185)
The main roles for the Army Air Force lay in recon and air combat, whereas bombing missions received only limited attention. This is reflected in the slow build-up of its bomber squadrons in the 1920ies.(Tagaya: p. 182)

For a short time the Army like the Navy saw the United States as their main opponent, during that period the development of a large four engine bomber was started. Furthermore, there were projects to use aircraft catapults on land-bases in order to circumvent the problem of building long air strips after an invasion of the Philippines. Yet, once the Army focused again on Russia and Asia, these projects were discontinued in the early 1930ies. Due to annexation of Manchuria by the Japanese an extended land border to the Soviet Union changed the strategic situation. Furthermore, the development of the TB-3 bomber by the Soviets put the Japanese home islands into the range of the Soviet Air Force. (Tagaya: p. 182-185)
Around the mid 1930ies the Army started a major expansion of its air arm and in 1937 declared the destruction of the enemy’s air force as the primary mission. Yet, in the conflicts in China and with the Soviet Union the Army Air Force mainly contributed on a tactical level. Furthermore, in 1940 the emphasis on destruction of the enemy air force was weakened and the offensive power remained mostly on a tactical level. (Tagaya: p. 185)

The main problem with Japanese Army aviation lay in a lack of initiative and a conservative senior leadership that was mostly reacting to international developments instead of formulating its own doctrines. This lead to a shortage of officers with proper experience during the rapid expansion. (Tagaya: p. 186)
“This often resulted in poor leadership and unimaginative staff work, giving rise to operations that where questionable in their effectiveness and all too predictable and conventional in nature.” -Osamu Tagaya:The Imperial Japanese Air Forces, p. 186 (link in the description)

The Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN)

IJN Achievements

Now, before we take a look at the shortcoming of the Imperial Japanese Navy, which were quite different to those of the Army. Let’s take a look at their initial achievements first.
The Navy unlike the Army had strong advocates for air power in its ranks. This is due to the fact the modern Navies usually have a more open attitude towards technology and innovation. After all an infantry division consists mostly of men, whereas a battleships consists mostly of steel with a lot of technological components and a handful men.
The Imperial Japanese Navy was a pioneer in naval aviation. It built the world’s first purpose-built aircraft carrier the HIJMS Hōshō in 1922. Furthermore, it introduced the first operational deployment of an all-metal monoplane carrier-fighter plane in 1937. And in 1940 it was able to perform the mass deployment of torpedo and dive-bombers in coordination with fighters launched from several aircraft carries, something no navy at that time was able to do. Right before Pearl Harbor, the IJN had more aircraft carriers than any other Navy and had the world’s leading naval air arm.

Furthermore, there were some other aspects were the IJN achieved leading roles. In terms of aircraft the Zero outmatched all it counterparts and sometimes even land-based aircraft. Furthermore, the IJN possessed a strong land-based naval bomber force the so called “rikko” units, which were initially developed to counter the limits on the number of carriers due to Naval Treaties. These units sank the Royal Navy’s battleships the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse early on in the War. Also the attack on Pearl Harbor and the following half year the IJN basically marked the start of domination of aircraft carriers in naval warfare. (Tagaya: p. 186-187)

IJN Shortcomings

Yet, despite all these achievements in naval aviation, it is quite surprising that the IJN didn’t drop the battleship as a core weapon prior or after these initial successes of carriers. Its fleet organization still focused on the battleship and didn’t create a complete carrier task force organization, unlike the US Navy later in the War. Although, the enormous amounts of resources put into building the Yamato and Musashi super-battleships are to a certain degree understandable, because before the war in the pacific, it was not clear how important carriers would be, but the reluctance to change the naval organization was major flaw. This is also reflected by the presence of Japanese Battleship fleet at the Battle of Midway in June 1942. (Tagaya: p. 187-189)
One major flaw of the IJN was its focus to primarily target enemy warships and often ignore the enemy supply ships. Like after the defeat of the Allied cruisers at the battle of the Savo Island, where the transport ships were left unharmed. This was not just one incident, the IJN submarine doctrine focused on destroying enemy warships as did the Japanese air men. To some degree this maybe hindsight bias, but misjudging the strategic value of merchant ships and supplies, probably stemmed from the focus on a classical decisive battle thinking.
In defense of the Japanese, we need to take into account that even the Western Allies that focused on strategic warfare early on didn’t focus on the German supplies in their bombing campaigns, it took them until May 1944 to focus at fuel production, which severely limited the mobility and combat effectiveness of all German forces. (Deutsche Reich & 2. WK: Band 7; S. 483-485) In the Pacific with its long supply lines between the islands, the strategic value of attacks against merchant shipping was about as crucial as fuel for Germany. Because, without supplies and fuel ground, naval and air forces are extremely limited in their effectiveness. (Tagaya: p. 188-189)

Japanese Capabilities

Let’s take a look at Japanese capabilities. As mentioned before the focus of the Japanese Army and the Japanese Navy was on supporting battles. This narrow view lead to a neglect of logistics and other crucial elements. Similar to the German Luftwaffe there was a certain neglect for all elements that didn’t surround actual combat, yet to a far greater extent. After all, the Luftwaffe possessed one of the leading air transport arms in the beginning of the war quite contrary to the Japanese that lacked transport aircraft. For instance the Japanese lacked pilots for ferrying aircraft to the front lines and their capabilities to construct airfields was limited. Furthermore, there was a severe lack of warning and communication equipment like radar and effective radios sets for fighters. (Tagaya: p. 189; Corum: p. ) Unlike the German Air Force in Western Europe, the Japanese couldn’t rely on an existing infrastructure in the Pacific, thus these shortcomings reduced the combat effectiveness and readiness of their units. As a result naval bombers were used several times to drop supplies, because there were no transport aircraft available. This was in stark contrast to the Allies that airlifted an infantry division from Australia to New Guinea. Furthermore, the Japanese periodically used combat pilot to ferry planes due to lack of ferry pilots.
The lack of mechanized engineering equipment to create and improve existing airfields also had severe long term effects. It not only resulted in a huge delay and back-breaking labor on the Japanese side, additionally, the resulting installations were often very limited in size. As a result Japanese airfields were usually congested with planes that were parked closely to each other on several occasions this lead to severe losses when those air fields were attacked. (Tagaya: p. 189-190)

Often these attacks occurred without any warning, due the Japanese lack of radar equipment. Although the Japanese were once among the leaders in radar technology, they fell behind by not investing and employing the technology for military purposes.

In general the Japanese efforts and capabilities surrounding communication and coordination were limited. There was a lack of effective shortwave radios, thus Japanese fighter pilots basically communicated with visual signals. This prevented to a large degree that they could fully exploit their initial advantages in training and equipment. Furthermore, it also prevented the creation of a proper ground- or carrier-based-control capabilities like the British used during the Battle of Britain or the US Navy developed throughout the war. (Tagaya: p. 189-191)

Japanese Priorities and their Consequences

Let’s take a look at the Japanese Priorities and their consequences. The Japanese focus on battle and combat units was the determining factor throughout the war and the lack of unified strategy between the Navy and Army showed a lack of foresight and strategic perspective. The missing unified strategy prevented a proper and effective allocation of Japans limited resources before and during the war. In contrast even though the United States enjoyed an abundance of industrial capacity and manpower, it still committed to the Grand Strategy of “Germany First” with the British. (Tagaya: p. 191-192)

The Japanese aircraft industry lagged behind in terms of powerful engines, this problem was circumvented by using no armor plates and self-sealing fuel tanks in their early models. Due their experiences fighting the Chinese although they assumed that these measures were sufficient. Unlike the Germans that improved their aircraft after their experiences in the Spanish Civil war.
Thus, during the Guadalcanal campaign Japanese losses increased and their highly-trained airmen thinned out quickly. The lack of proper training programs were similar to the Germans and since the Western Allies put a strong emphasis on training early, this soon lead to a situation where the average Japanese pilot was less trained than the average Allied pilot. (Tagaya: p. 191-193)
“In the end, the initial margin of superior training and experience exhibitied by its airmen proved insufficient to prevent serious attrition.” (Tagaya: p. 193)

Japanese Aircraft Industry

Let’s take a look at the Japanese Aircraft industry. Japan before and shortly after the First World War was dependent on Western technology and imported aircraft and equipment at that time. During the 1930ies they reached self-sufficiency in engine and air-frame design, but their development cycles were still quite long. Furthermore, in aircraft components and subsystems, like radios Japan was still very dependent on Western imports. The duration of the development cycles was a problem. Yet, this could have been dealt with by ordering follow-up types early enough, but the Japanese didn’t issued specifications for follow-up designs early enough. Prior to April 1942 there was serious effort invested to create a successor for the Zero fighter plane. If these measures would have been taken in 1940, then the Japanese could have had an aircraft to counter the Corsair or Hellcat when they arrived, but they still had to fight them with their modified version of the Zero. Furthermore, the initial successor of the Zero the A7M “Reppu” failed and wasn’t abandoned soon enough thus delaying the N1K1-J “Shiden”, which entered combat in October 1944 and its improved version the “Shiden-Kai” (also known by older war thunder players as the UFO) was ready in March 1945. Hence, even though the development cycles of the Japanese were not as fast as that of the United States, this problem could have been averted by ordering a replacement at an early stage. (Tagaya: p. 193-195) As a result the end of the war, the Japanese only fielded a handful of types that introduced during the war, whereas the United States replaced a large amount of its pre-war models.

Result of Training and Industry Policies

As a result, in June 1944 the Japanese faced highly trained US pilots with new superior planes in their slightly upgraded planes flown by poorly-trained pilots. This resulted in an ineffective air force, which had almost no other option but to resort to Kamikaze attacks due to insufficient training and equipment. Note that we are talking about average pilots here, because those win the war not a small number of extraordinary aces. (Tagaya: p. 192-193)


To conclude, similar to Germany, Japan wasn’t ready for a war long-war on a global scale in terms of its industrial capabilities. But only looking at the industrial side of a country when it comes to analyzing a war can be misleading, because one might miss important areas of improvement. One way to avoid this is, to take a look at engagements, when the economic power of the winning factions wasn’t yet the determining factor. For the War in the Pacific these were the Guadalcanal campaign and the Battle of Midway. In both cases the Japanese committed various errors and the United States proved to be a skillful enemy even without superior numbers. Thus, the turning point of the war in the Pacific was before the United States could bring its full numerical advantage to the table. Something that was clearly different from the war in Europe. (Tagaya: p. 196-197) Finally, the Japanese reluctance to move away from their strong focus on combat at the cost of logistics and support, played an important role in the reversal after their initial successes. (Tagaya: p. 196-197)


The video a summary of the article listed in the sources.


Books & Articles

  • Tagaya, Osamu: The Imperial Japanese Air Forces, In: Higham & Harris: Why Air Forces Fail
  • Corum, James S.: Defeat of the Luftwaffe, 1935-1945, In: Higham & Harris: Why Air Forces Fail
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