Lessons from Operation Ke for the Marine Corps

November 23, 2020

­­­The U.S. military is ignoring the fact that someone must lose the much-talked about high-end fight against peer competitors. It might be the U.S. military that loses, and it would then have to retreat, withdraw, or evacuate in the face of enemy fire. U.S. Marine Corps planners working on the service’s new keystone concept of expeditionary advanced base operations should bear this in mind as withdrawals have received short shrift in various official documents on amphibious missions. In a western Pacific contingency, the concept posits the deployment of relatively small Marine units on territory within the first island chain and in the face of the burgeoning Chinese anti-access/area denial complex, rendering these lodgements susceptible to defeat in detail, as one analysis points out. For instance, a salvo or two of Chinese missiles could cripple or destroy an expeditionary advanced base given its relatively small size. Indeed, another study contends that “maintaining small and vulnerable units deep inside an adversary’s weapons engagement zone will be challenging.” Under such circumstances, amphibious withdrawal to another less exposed location will be imperative.



How best to deal with the challenges of this scenario is thus something worth looking into. Defense thinkers often look to history to solve current military problems, and insights from a relatively obscure aspect of the landmark Guadalcanal campaign during World War II could provide guidance in planning for amphibious withdrawals. This is Operation Ke-Go (or simply Ke) of January to February 1943 that saw Imperial Japan successfully evacuate much of its land forces from Guadalcanal, ending the six-month fight over the strategically important island.

The operation was executed in the face of Allied maritime dominance. Like the Japanese during Ke, Marine expeditionary forces would probably have to contend with enemy superiority during a future western Pacific contingency. After all, these relatively small and vulnerable Marine units will be deep within China’s engagement zone and have to play the “away” game as opposed to Beijing, which is the “home” team and could bring more combat power to bear. Various factors explain Japanese success in the Guadalcanal evacuation, but two of them stand out for their relevance to the notion of amphibious withdrawal in expeditionary advanced base operations: 1) Deception can ameliorate the lack of maritime superiority; and 2) It’s important to use the right platform for the job (that is, an appropriate vessel for embarking marines). But before discussing these two takeaways, a short account of Operation Ke is in order.

The Historical Background

In December 1942, Imperial Japan’s military high command decided that the Guadalcanal campaign was a lost cause. Having suffered grievous losses in the air, sea, and land domains, the decision was made to extricate what was left of Gen. Harukichi Hyakutake’s 17th Army from “Starvation Island.” Operation Ke would see over 20 destroyers partake in three “Tokyo Express” runs within the first week of February 1943 to evacuate as many as possible of the 12,000 Japanese troops still on Guadalcanal. The prognosis was gloomy: Imperial Japanese Navy chief Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto believed that only a third of Hyakutake’s men could be rescued, and at a cost of half the participating destroyers.

The outcome was entirely different, though. Almost 11,000 Japanese troops were extricated at a price of just one destroyer sunk and several others damaged. Such was the brilliance of Operation Ke that it has earned plaudits from Western and Japanese commentators alike. To illustrate, Paul S. Dull, writing in a seminal history of the imperial navy, maintains that Ke was “an amazing feat, almost impossible to explain.” Similarly, former Japanese destroyer captain Tameichi Hara described the operation as “one of the miracles of the war,” adding that the withdrawal was “phenomenal.” The main factor underpinning Ke’s success was that the Americans did not realize it was an evacuation until it was over. As James D. Hornfischer put it: “Secrecy was Operation KE’s byword,” and deception played a central role in maintaining this.

Mitigate with Deception the Likely Lack of Maritime Superiority

The correlation of forces was strongly against the Japanese during Ke: About 440 Japanese aircraft squared up against 570 Allied ones. Such was the edge the Allies held in the skies that Hara spoke of the enemy having “absolute supremacy of the air in the vicinity of Guadalcanal at this time.” The Japanese were also in an inferior position at sea, as only two small flat-tops, two old battleships, and three cruisers, together with their consorts, were to provide distant cover for the destroyers making the evacuation runs. On the other hand, Adm. William Halsey could bring to bear “nearly the full panoply of American naval power in the Pacific,” and that included two fleet carriers, three new battleships, and 13 cruisers. Japanese deception negated all these American advantages to a large extent. Therein lies the main takeaway for expeditionary advanced base forces that will likely be overpowered by Chinese forces in a western Pacific scenario. Indeed, Chinese preponderance could count for less if the Marine Corps takes a cue from Ke planners and uses deception astutely.

There were hence potentially three separate Japanese forces that could be involved in the upcoming battle that the Americans were preparing for: the destroyers making the evacuation runs, the force providing cover for it, and the “heavies” in Truk. Such a disposition of forces had precedence in earlier Japanese operations during the Guadalcanal campaign. During the October 1942 Battle of Santa Cruz, for example, Japan’s order of battle consisted of three dispersed entities (including one fronted by the Zuikaku and sister ship Shokaku) that sought to draw the Americans into a fleet battle. The way the Japanese maneuvered their forces during Ke suggested another engagement of a similar nature was in the cards. Indeed, Halsey was husbanding his capital units to engage the Zuikaku and other heavy units that were (mistakenly) expected to sally forth from Truk to the Solomons.

These deployments on the part of the Japanese made the American leadership adopt a wait-and-see approach, and this removed the immediate threat posed by the U.S. fleet to Ke forces. As a result, other than a half-hearted attack by three destroyers, only land-based airpower and torpedo boats interdicted the Japanese ships making the evacuation runs, and this contributed to Ke forces escaping relatively unscathed. So well did the Japanese deceive their enemy that Adm.  Chester Nimitz, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet during World War II, noted:

Until the last moment, it appeared that the Japanese were attempting a major reinforcement effort. Only skill in keeping this plan disguised and bold celerity in carrying it out enabled the Japanese to withdraw the remnants of the Guadalcanal garrison. Not until all organized forces had been evacuated … did we realize the purpose of their air and naval dispositions.

Coming back to the present day, there seems to be limited mention of withdrawals in literature on expeditionary advanced base operations and amphibious operations in general, let alone how best to facilitate them. For instance, the concept’s handbook, which was last updated in June 2018, makes no explicit mention of withdrawal-type missions. The closest this document comes to addressing such missions is when it alludes to “defensive maneuver” being enabled by mobility, but with no further elaboration on the issue. To be sure, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David H. Berger has stressed the need to “(d)evelop military deception, camouflage, cover, concealment, and obscurant capabilities to defeat terminal phase attack and challenge broad area surveillance.” However, this exhortation applies to Marine operations in general and is not specific to withdrawals or evacuations.

In the same vein, Joint Publication 3-02 Amphibious Operations, published in January 2019, describes the use of deception at various points, including in the section on amphibious raids. However, deception is not listed explicitly as a key enabler to withdrawals in the short two-page section (out of over 280 pages) devoted to such operations. This section also notes that “maintaining local air and maritime superiority is essential to provide for the safety of personnel during the withdrawal.”

But what if this cannot be attained? This is an entirely legitimate issue to raise given the ominous access-denial edifices of potential adversaries like China. Marine lieutenant colonels Brandon Turner and Jason Garza are on point writing that modern access-denial systems are hard to defeat and should therefore, instead, be “confused.” To this end, they rightly argue for an amphibious force-deception system that comprises “low-cost, high-signature (radar/electromagnetic), and expendable platforms that replicate the signatures of U.S. naval forces to deceive enemy sensors about position, track, and intentions.” This system is for the tactical level, and it needs to be integrated with deception at the higher levels of war for the stratagem to work as a whole as it did for the Japanese during Operation Ke.

All in all, the current lack of emphasis on amphibious withdrawals and on deception to enable them is surprising. Future such missions by the Marine Corps would likely be in the face of enemy superiority, and the use of such means as feints and ruses could even the odds. One can only hope that the classified versions (if there are any) of documents like those brought up above have already accounted for deception, or — at the very least — are looking into incorporating it. This stratagem profoundly helped the Japanese nearly 78 years ago during the evacuation of Guadalcanal, and there is no reason that it will not be useful in future operations of a similar nature for the Marines.

Have the Right Platform for the Job

One of the defining features of Operation Ke is that it was carried out entirely by destroyers rather than transport ships, as the former was deemed more suitable for the task at hand. This modus operandi was another key reason behind Japanese success in the withdrawal from Guadalcanal. Previous supply runs of the “Tokyo Express” had shown the futility of using dedicated transports to maintain Imperial forces on Guadalcanal, as these ships were slow and ill-defended. Hence, they made easy pickings for American airpower, even with destroyers escorting them. On the other hand, Roger and Dennis Letourneau assert that the “tin can” was slim, swift, and sinuous, and these three Ss enabled it to complicate enemy bombing runs as well as maneuver out of harm’s way during Operation Ke. Moreover, destroyers, being warships, possessed much better anti-aircraft weaponry than transport ships. In fact, most of the destroyers involved in Operation Ke were designed to screen Imperial capital units.

What is more, the Japanese destroyer had a reputation as a formidable opponent in surface combat as shown in prior engagements of the Guadalcanal campaign. And this came about largely because of its superlative fighting capabilities, such as its much-feared Long Lance torpedoes. Think of the Battle of Tassafaronga in November 1942, in which a severely overmatched, eight-destroyer Japanese force beat off five U.S. heavy cruisers, sinking one of them and damaging three others. All in all, Japanese destroyers had an excellent track record. They were also generally not deemed able to bring adequate men and equipment to change the correlation of forces ashore. The upshot was the Americans probably believed that letting light forces interdict the Ke runs was a reasonable approach to balance between “doing something” and hedging against the possibility of another fleet battle.

In the modern context, the United States has a pressing need for a vessel suitable for not just evacuations, but the full gamut of amphibious operations in the anti-access era. To increase survivability, this platform should have a different set of the three Ss: speed, stealth, and self-protection. In other words, this vessel should have credible combat capabilities like the Japanese destroyers during Operation Ke as well the Guadalcanal campaign as a whole. On that note, Cmdr. Eric Schuck of the U.S. Navy Reserve avers that “when operating in an environment where sea and air control are doubtful and loitering fatal, speed, size, and mobility are critical.”

While his point is made in reference to logistics vessels operating in contested areas, it is just as applicable to their amphibious counterparts. After all, an extra minute spent in the adversary’s weapons engagement zone means another minute being exposed to detection and attack. Being faster and stealthier reduces this vulnerability, and this would facilitate the movement of friendly forces to another location. And a degree of self-defense would further enhance this vessel’s survivability.

It is worth noting that the U.S. Navy’s upcoming light amphibious warship that would underpin the expeditionary advanced base concept does not seem to possess adequately, at least on paper, all three Ss. For one, this vessel has a speed of only 14 – 15 knots, which is slow compared to the corresponding 20 knots of its larger brethren in the “Gator Navy.” Indeed, naval analyst Craig Hooper describes the light amphibious warship’s speed as akin to the “sedate pace of a tramp steamer.” Moreover, while its relatively small size (only 200 feet in length) confers upon it some low observability, the vessel does not appear to be stealthy from artists’ impressions of it.

It is telling that a Congressional Research Service report on the light amphibious warship notes that the survivability of the vessels would come not from their inherent qualities, but from “their ability to hide among islands and other sea traffic, from defensive support they would receive from other U.S. Navy forces, and from the ability of their associated Marine Corps units to fire missiles at Chinese ships and aircraft that could attack them with their own missiles.” Last of all, the platform’s self-defense is woefully inadequate given that it has just a 30-millimeter cannon.

Going forward, what is needed is perhaps a closer look at the three Ss of the light amphibious warship. In a world where there are few fetters on the defense budget, the three attributes should be easily augmented. The vessel will then be faster, less detectable, and armed at least with a point-defense weapon system or two. However, this cannot be easily achieved in the real world of military spending. Nevertheless, a deeper dive into the platform’s conception — given that it is still early days yet for the project — could yield a more optimal balance between cost and the three Ss. Moreover, now is arguably the ideal time to address this issue, coming on the back of former Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s unveiling of the 500-ship Battle Force 2045 plan. Otherwise, Hooper’s comment that the light amphibious warship “won’t be doing much more than sinking quickly in a real high-end fight” will unfortunately have the greater likelihood of coming true during a contingency with the likes of China.

On that note, Schuck’s suggestion made last year that the U.S. Navy choose the Danish Absalon-class hybrid warship-transport for its new frigate program has merit. After all, the Absalon functions pretty much like the destroyer-transports of World War II and would dovetail with the idea of expeditionary advanced bases in that it can accommodate up to 200 ground troops, which equates to probably a few reinforced platoon-sized Marine units called for in the concept. Moreover, the Absalon possesses the abovementioned three Ss, albeit at a cost of about twice that of the light amphibious warship. Nevertheless, it is still much cheaper than the European multi-purpose frigate design the Navy ultimately chose in April for its new frigate, which cannot function like a World War II destroyer-transport.

A Thoughtful Look at History

Winston Churchill once said: “The longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward.” The sage British statesman was spot on here, as historical events that seem far removed from the contemporary era can still provide lessons pointing to the way ahead.

To be certain, Operation Ke took place almost 80 years ago, and much in the operational environment has changed profoundly since then. Nevertheless, the fundamental challenges presented by conducting amphibious operations in the face of a great-power rival arguably remain the same. Perhaps, these missions are even more challenging today given the maturation of the reconnaissance-strike complex. While historical analogies should not be taken too far, Operation Ke nevertheless offers ample food for thought for Marine bigwigs in terms of considering how best to conduct withdrawals, and this is something that they have seem to have overlooked.

Donald Chisholm argues that “a certain misplaced optimism now makes it difficult to imagine a future situation in which an amphibious withdrawal might be appropriate. This would be thin gruel for the commander who confronts the real-world necessity for such an operation.” The U.S. Naval War College professor made this observation almost a decade ago in an analysis pertaining to amphibious withdrawals. His words are arguably never truer in today’s context, where the Marine Corps is pitting its keystone expeditionary advanced base concept against the rising military prowess of China.



Ben Ho is an associate research fellow with the military studies program at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. He writes primarily on seapower and airpower, and his work in these areas has been published with the likes of Joint Force Quarterly, Naval War College Review, as well as Proceedings.

Image: National Archives