In the realm of naval strategy authors, few rise more prominently that Dr. Norman Friedman. Well-known in naval circles as an author of over 30 books, he also is closely associated with the professional wargaming community. Books like his Naval Firepower: Battleship Guns and Gunnery in the Dreadnought Era (Naval Institute Press, 2008) are THE technical source for serious naval wargamers. Having recently “retired” (yet again), Dr. Friedman’s latest book turns his attention to the US Naval War College and the use of wargames before World War II.
In Winning a Future War: War Gaming and Victory in the Pacific War (Naval Historical Center, 2019), Dr. Friedman not only tells us about the history of wargaming at the US Naval War College in the 1930’s, but shows us a bit about the games used to explore the transformation of naval power at that time.
If it seems obvious that any [US] naval officer aware of the march of technology would have developed the massed carriers and the amphibious fleet, the reader might reflect that the two other major navies failed to do so. The Japanese did create a powerful carrier striking force, but they made no effort to back it up with sufficient reserves to keep it fighting. They developed very little amphibious capability useful in the face of shore defenses: They could not, for example, have assaulted their own fortified islands, let alone Normandy or southern France. The British built carriers, but accepted very small carrier air groups because, until well into World War II, they saw their carriers mainly as support for their battle fleet. Like the Japanese, they did not develop an amphibious capability effective against serious defense. Each of the three navies was staffed by excellent officers, often with the widest possible experience. What set the US Navy apart?
War gaming at the US Naval War College at Newport, Rhode Island, seems to have been a large part of the answer…. As the fleet’s strategic and tactical laboratory alongside the full-scale Fleet Problems, the Naval War College had enormous impact on the way the US Navy prepared for a future war. (Introduction)
How well did the games prepare the US Navy? Dr. Friedman relates a post-war statement by Fleet Admiral Nimitz that says, “in the course of the games, at one time or another, someone or other at the college experienced everything that happened in the Pacific, other than the kamikaze warfare at the end of the war” (p. 161).
From a historical wargaming perspective, the Appendixes in Winning a Future War provide insight into the games and rules used by the Naval War College. It is interesting to read about how game designers at the college wrestled with depicting emerging technology. In many ways, Winning a Future War is the reality book to be read against prophetic Great Pacific War: A History of the American-Japanese Campaign of 1931-33. The Great Pacific War was a 1925 novel by British author Hector Charles Bywater which discussed a hypothetical future war between Japan and the United States. The novel is commonly recognized for “accurately predicting” a number of details about the Pacific Campaign of World War II.
For really serious readers of naval history, Winning a Future War has an excellent companion in To Train the Fleet for War: The U.S. Navy Fleet Problems, 1923-1940 (Albert Nofi, Naval War College, 2009). Like Winning a Future War, that title is available as an eBook or from the Government Printing Office bookstore – and shipping is free!
Students of naval history in the Pacific during World War II and wargamers should both read Winning a Future War. The book shows why wargames are essential for planning, and ultimately winning, wars past and future.