In the two decades before the United States entered World War II, the military developed war plans for all sorts of potential conflicts, identified by colors, as in War Plan Purple for Russia, Gold for France, Red for Britain, White for another U.S. civil war, Yellow for China and Orange for Japan. Initially these War Plans were planning exercises to justify military staffs spending a lot of time compiling information on the logistical and operational problems that might be encountered.
The only one of these plans that kept getting more attention, especially in the 1930s, was War Plan Orange. The other War Plans largely fell by the wayside for practical and political reasons. Orange was different, because Japan had long been on good terms with the United States and an active ally during World War I. Even before Germany turned into a dictatorship and began preparing for war, Japan was already fighting China, a war that unofficially began in 1931 when Japanese troops invaded Manchuria and made plans for taking control of Chinese coastal waters. To the West, the Sino-Japanese war officially began in 1937 when Japan attacked major Chinese coastal cities like Shanghai and quickly captured them. American naval planners were not surprised because in the 1930s they were making frequent, often yearly, updates and revisions of War Plan Orange. This involved a closer look at Japanese military capabilities and what the U.S. Navy discovered was frightening. The West had long recognized the growing power of the Japanese Navy, so much so that the 1920s Washington Naval Limitation Treaty of 1922 was meant to limit a naval arms race among the five major naval powers after World War I, including Japan, along with the U.S., Britain, France and Italy. By 1931 it was clear that the Japanese were cheating, using deception and the establishment of a secretive police state that made it difficult to monitor the growth of its fleet.
The invasion of Manchuria also diverted attention from the growing Japanese naval threat in the West Pacific. Japan was doing all this with a much smaller economy than the United States but was able to put a lot more of that economy to work for the military. The U.S. Navy wargaming and war plan efforts in the 1930s accurately predicted what the Japanese could, and ultimately did do during World War II. The only thing Japan or War Plan Orange did not foresee was the Japanese use of Kamikazes and the American development of nuclear weapons. Those two surprises arrived after Japan had lost any chance of winning and the nukes actually shortened a war the Japanese were planning to fight until most Japanese were dead.
After World War II, once the four-decade long Cold War began, the color-coded war plans were replaced with less colorful and more numerous OPLANs (Operational Plans). In the early 21st century the U.S. Navy quietly resumed detailed planning, including war gaming and fleet exercises informally known as OPLAN Orange. What details of the new Orange that have emerged mainly concern the need to commit major portions of defense spending to dealing with problems revealed during the planning and wargaming.
Nor much has been revealed about Chinese weaknesses and vulnerabilities but you don’t need a military planner to point out what those are. An economist will tell you that China is extremely vulnerable to having its overseas trade disrupted, even for a short period. In the 1930s Japan’s only such vulnerability was importing oil from the United States and the newly developed oil fields in the Dutch colonies that became Indonesia. Other natural resources were imported from Japanese controlled Korea and northern China. Today China is, like 1930s Japan, a dictatorship but one that maintains control by increasing living standards and feas another slide back into the regional separatism that has been a major problem for thousands of years.
China must, like World War II Japan, win quickly or at least compel a battered United States to cede control of the West Pacific and Indian Ocean to China. Unlike the 1930s, the enemy has powerful local allies in the form of Japan, South Korea and India. The Americans and Indians have nukes. So does Russia, now a Chinese client because China does not have allies. Russia is dependent on the Chinese economy for survival. Back in the 1960s Russia seriously considered nuking China before it became a major threat. The American warned Russia to not ever try that. Russia fears China, just as World War II Japan feared Russia. In both cases Russia agreed to be a bystander, at least until it was clear who was losing.
China is far more economically vulnerable now than Japan was then. China cannot feed itself and is much more dependent on oil imports. China maintains a 90-day oil reserve, but most of it is stored above ground and very vulnerable to non-nuclear ballistic missile attack. China has a lot of these missiles aimed at Taiwan and American bases in the West Pacific, but the Americans have more ABM (anti-ballistic missile) systems than China. OPLAN Orange devotes a lot of effort to determining how China would carry out another surprise attack, with an impact greater than what Japan hoped to achieve. During the December, 1941 surprise attack on the main American fleet base in Hawaii (Pearl Harbor) Japan ignored the more important, to the U.S. fleet, logistic and maintenance facilities at Pearl Harbor. Their attacks on other bases and territories in the West Pacific were meant to solve their own supply problems, without realizing that the U.S. had similar vulnerabilities when it came to sustaining a large military effort in the Pacific.
Today China has weapons that could disrupt economic activities via attacks on the Internet and satellite use, but so does the West. In the 1930s Japanese navy leaders told the army, which controlled the dictatorship, that the fleet could go on the offensive for about six months and if that did not induce the Americans to cede the West Pacific to Japan, the remainder of the war would have to be defensive against a rapidly growing American fleet. The reality was worse, as Japan failed to attack key logistical targets at Pearl Harbor, where they found none of the American aircraft carriers but plenty of oil storage sites and fleet maintenance facilities that were left alone as “not worthy of a warrior’s attention.” Japanese strategy did not involve using submarines against vulnerable American shipping that was needed to supply Australia, New Zealand and other areas Japan was unable to grab quickly. At the end of the predicted six-month Japanese naval superiority was gone and Japanese carrier capability crippled by the loss of half its carrier force during the Battle of Midway. The Americans could replace lost ships, aircraft and pilots much more quickly than the Japanese so those heavy losses early in the war were fatal for Japanese naval power.
Roles are reversed in OPLAN Orange, where China has greater ship building capability than the United States. To make that work China has to keep the sea lanes open for foreign imports. Maintaining sea access against hostile airpower, submarines and trading partners that see China as the aggressor is a daunting task.
The availability of nuclear weapons to both sides, as well as the increased importance of EW (Electronic Warfare) and long-range guided missiles makes preparations for a 21st century version of the December 1941 Japanese surprise attack more complicated. China puts more emphasis on developing, testing and in some cases using new hacking “weapons” on the U.S. by doing it through third parties, in this case criminal hackers based in China or Russia. Using sabotage as part of the surprise military attack is nothing new, but with Internet hacking tool now available, along with the ability to attack clandestinely in peacetime, China believes it now has a decisive weapon for surprise attack that will weaken the United States without angering it sufficiently to trigger a nuclear response. China is also vulnerable, more so than the United States, to electronic attacks via networks or wireless means. China is seeking to deal with this by modifying Chinese links to the international Internet so that China can quickly sever those international links and survive as a China-only Internet for a short period. The main reason for international Internet access is economic and Internet isolation cannot be maintained if it cripples the economy.
All this puts China’s new military bases in the South China Sea, which China is now claiming to own, into perspective. China wants control of the South China Sea to protect about 20 percent of its sea lanes to the Middle East. The six military bases built so far, most of them on artificial islands, are like ships at sea. All are tiny and most are simply sand recently dredged from the shallow waters of the South China Sea and piled atop existing reefs or rocks that are normally visible only at low tide. All these bases have to be constantly supplied with water, fuel and other supplies. Although these islands have only a few thousand personnel on them, they are as vulnerable as warships at sea with that large a crew, like one of the new Chinese aircraft carriers. The South China Sea islands have to be perpetually supplied, as if they were ships that never came back to port. Chinese carriers spend most of their time in port. Another advantage ships have is that they can move to avoid the frequent storms that pass through the South China Sea on their way to the Asian mainland. These typhoons are more powerful than their Atlantic equivalents (hurricanes) and deliver damaging winds and waves that do most of their damage on islands between where they all form before moving west and dissipating some of their strength on the thousands of islands in Southeast Asia. The South China Sea artificial islands have not been hit with a major storm yet, but it’s just a matter of time. Meanwhile, two of the new Chinese replenishment ships are assigned full-time to get water, fuel and military equipment to the crew of the immobile sand ships.
China has its own version of OPLAN Orange for the foreign threats and allows open discussion of these plans in China, especially in military journals. The open discussions are necessary to get useful ideas from a wider audience of military and civilian experts. There are often references to Japanese mistakes during their war with the United States. Less often do these discussions mention the main reason for the American threats to Japan was efforts to get Japan to halt its violence against China.
In China some things are simply not discussed in public.