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Japan Air Power
Lessons That Live Air Group 31 A Message Japan Air Power Doomed? Where? Dilbert A Naval Aviator Fate

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By Leonard Engel

Because the Japanese air force has devastated helpless Chinese cities does not mean it is a potent aerial armada. Here are some cold facts.

Originally published in the January 1941 issue of Flying and Popular Aviation.

There is only one considerable air force in the world about which less is known today than about the mysterious Red air fleet of the U.S.S.R. That one is the Japanese. The editors of FLYING AND POPUI.AR AVIATION therefore — or should I say, nevertheless—feel it a fit subject for inquiry.

Here is that it has been possible to learn about the men and planes that have been battering virtually defenseless Chinese cities day after day for nearly 3 years. The information comes from a variety of sources, none of them public and none of them official Japanese. Tokyo doesn’t talk much about anything military or economic and that silence goes double for matters aeronautic. It has not been possible to obtain up-to-the-minute figures in all cases.

Japan has two air forces—an army air corps and a naval aviation service—as does the United States, the only other major power without a unified and separate air command. At this writing the Japanese army has something under 2,500 ships of all types, including trainers; the navy, less than 500. Numerically, the Japanese forces are the smallest of the six major air fleets, whose approximate current strengths are: Germany, 25,000-30,000 planes; Great Britain, 10,000-12,000; U.S.S.R., 10,000-20,000; Italy, less than 5,000; U.S.A., about 5,000. Japanese planes are also the poorest qualitatively, but more about that later.

A year ago, the air corps had 3.000 pilots including reserves, and the navy, 2,100. Just about half of these were commissioned officers, the rest enlisted men.

The Island Empire’s seven army and navy air schools cannot turn out more than about 600 pilots a year. All of which, again, is small potatoes compared to the other major powers, where training commanders are accustomed to counting their yearly output in thousands instead of the hundreds.

In one respect Tokyo can claim to lead the world—namely, complexity of its governmental organizations. Even our own War and Navy Departments are put to shame in this. The organization of the Island Empire’s air services is no exception to the general rule.

The basic unit, as in other countries, is the squadron, but the Japanese squadron is smaller than ordinary. Pursuit, interceptor and heavy bomber squadrons contain only 10 planes and observation and light bomber, only nine. (The usual bomber squadron in other countries contains a dozen ships plus a spare; the fighter squadron, 18 warcraft.)

Japan has 106 combat squadrons altogether of which some 35 are pursuit and the rest are divided equally among light and heavy bombardment and observation. Total combat machines: about 1,000. About one-fourth of the Japanese air corps is based on Manchuria, part of the huge garrison (300,000 men, the crack Kwantung army, best of the Island Empire’s forces) so far immobilized north of China by Tokyo-Moscow mistrust. Another quarter is in Central China, a sixth in North China and a quarter—mostly pursuit and scouting—is in Japan itself.

Here is where the organization begins to get dizzy. In the first place, a squadron is not necessarily made up of the same type of planes. It is not unusual to find observation and bombing craft in the same squadron.

Squadrons are grouped into "air regiments." An air regiment is supposed to contain four squadrons, but in practice the number ranges from two to five. It is most unusual to find all the squadrons in a regiment—which corresponds roughly, very roughly indeed, to the American group and the British wing—made up of the same type of plane.

Air units stationed in China are under the army commanders in charge in the particular area in which they operate; Manchuria-based ships are directed by the Kwantung army staff from its headquarters at Dairen, the big Japanese port wrested from Czarist Russia 35 years ago. Squadrons in Japan proper, Corea (first Japanese mainland colony, "annexed" in 1910) and the island of Formosa make up a G.H.Q. air force. This is divided into three wings. The biggest, of four regiments, is in Japan itself; two-regiment wings are in Corea and Formosa.

The inadequacy of the Island Empire’s air corps in numbers by western standards is even more striking in the case of the naval air service, although only when the latter is contrasted with its only possible naval opponent: the United States. Naval aviation, in general, is limited by the capacity of a navy’s ships to carry warplanes. At first sight, the Japanese seem to be well off: seven aircraft carriers—more than either the United States or Great Britain has—are in commission. But here the equality ends. Japanese carriers, surface ship for surface ship, are inferior to the British. And the British are far inferior to the American.

The six American carriers can handle about 600 planes under wartime conditions; their peacetime complement is 450. British carriers have a total capacity of 250. The Japanese capacity is even smaller. The fact is that American naval designers build better carriers than the British—and the British, better than the Japanese.

Three of the Japanese carriers are brand new 10,050-ton sister ships: the Soryu, Hiryu and Syokaku. The Syokaku was placed in commission only late this summer. These three can each carry about 30 planes. For purposes of comparison, Uncle Sam’s newest are the Enterprise, Yorktown and Hornet, of which the Hornet is still building. The American vessels are 20,000-tonners with a peacetime complement of four squadrons (72 planes) and a wartime capacity of about 100. The greater American capacity is due not only to their larger size, but to better utilization of space and the ability of American manufacturers to turn out smaller planes still able to meet the rigorous requirements of sea duty.

The biggest Japanese carriers are the Kaga, a 27,000-tonner originally laid down as a 39,000-ton battleship and altered following the 1921 naval limitation treaty among Great Britain, France, the United States, Japan and Italy; and the Akagi, also a 27,000-tonner. The Akagi started life as a 42,000-ton battle cruiser.

The Kaga and Akagi carry 30 planes apiece normally, but can handle as many as 50. The Akagi would be able to handle more if the Japanese had run the flight deck the length of the ship and used the space beneath it for hangars. But so far, only American designers seem willing to go in for overhangs and the like.

The other Japanese carriers are small and slow (speed is essential to a carrier because it is such a vulnerable ship; it takes only a couple of bomb or shell hits to wreck the flight deck). They are the Ryuzyo and Hosyo, about 7,000 tons and 20 planes each. Speed: 25 knots. Carriers should do 30 knots or more. Three new carriers are under construction but will not be ready for at least two years.

Including shore-based seaplanes and flying boats, the naval air service had in commission, just before the outbreak of war in Europe about 100 fighters, 150 torpedo bombers and 75 heavy bombers (which are not comparable to our own patrol flying boats, but which are not ship-based craft). It has been only in the last year that the Japanese navy has completed installation of catapults on its battleships and cruisers to launch spotting planes.

If relatively little is known about the numbers and distribution of Tokyo’s air arms, even less is known of the ships they employ—except that they are not big league in quality or performance. Fortunately, however, the Japanese have a curious numbering system which enables the outsider to make a pretty good guess at the caliber of Japanese warcraft.

Models produced originally in Japan in 1935 are known as Type 95: for example, Type 95 pursuit and Type 95-1, 95-2 and 95-3 trainers. Ships produced in 1936 are Type 96; in 1937, Type 97. There are Type 97 observation, pursuit, light and heavy bombardment planes. Now it happens that Type 97 models, produced in 1937, are no better than 1935 models developed in Europe and the United States. Japan was thus at least two years behind the parade two years ago (the 97 series of models did not go into service until 1938, of course). Despite Herculean efforts to catch up, the Japanese are undoubtedly further behind today. The stimuli of war in Europe and the armament program in the United States have boosted air performance in the West way beyond levels attainable in Japan.

The 97 series of planes is the first of modern construction. The heavy bomber is a four-motored job whose top speed is about 260 m.p.h. The maximum bomb load, however, is only 3,000 pounds; maximum range (maximum bomb load cannot be carried at maximum range) is 2,200 miles. Type 97 pursuit and observation ships approach 300 m.p.h. These planes still are standard.

A later twin-engined bomber, Type 98, is the Fiat BR-20M, built under license. The Japanese air force also has 80 Italian-built Fiats purchased in 1938. The Italian-built BR-20M is a pretty good bomber for a 1938 model: 256 m.p.h. top speed on two 1,000 h.p. Fiat radials. Gross weight of the plane is just over 11 tons. It is not believed, however, that the Japanese version is quite so fast or efficient, partly because Japanese-built engines do not deliver the same power as the Italian.

Japan’s aircraft factories, following several years of intensive effort on the part of the government to encourage their development, now are in a position to produce about 2,500 planes a year of all types—if they can get the materials. Raw materials are a difficult problem. Neither Japan nor China, for example, produces much bauxite, the ore from which aluminum is extracted. In the past, Tokyo has met a considerable part of its aluminum requirements by purchases in the United States, but the urgent need for aluminum in this country and the possibility of an embargo make the U. S. an unreliable source for Japan.

The Japanese engine industry has yet to pass the thousand-horsepower stage of development. The 2,500 planes a year is somewhat more than is necessary to maintain the air force at its present strength.

Another indication of the poor quality of Nippon’s planes is the fact that about one-third of the planes in China wear out each year and one-fourth in Japan. This does not include losses inflicted by the small Chinese air force.

It may well be asked why Japanese military planes are so few and so poor in comparison with other powers. An important reason is the fact that civil aviation is in an extraordinarily low state of development. In other countries, notably our own, when military air appropriations were at an ebb, an aircraft industry based on transport and charter services and private flying was able to lay the groundwork for much of the later expansion in the military field.

Japan operates a considerable number of airlines now, but they are a recent growth and are not heavily traveled. When I was in the Far East five years ago there was only one Japanese line operating within the mainland of Asia— the Japan Air Transport Company, which flew a couple of services in Manchuria. I trusted my life to its moth-eaten planes more than once; now that I look back on it, it gives me the shivers. When I look back, I recall that the American-operated outfit in China, the China National Aviation Company, didn’t have any too modern equipment at that time, except for a few Douglas Dolphins. But CNAC’s planes were positively 25th century compared with those flown by Japan Air Transport.

Civilian flying did not develop in Japan largely, I think, because of the poverty of the country’s people and because Japan is small. Another factor is that for years civil aviation has been under the thumb of the Ministry of Communications. The Communications Ministry runs the railroads along with the wire services and has never been particularly interested in the air. In Manchuria the giant South Manchuria Railway Company, which runs everything from half a dozen railroads to the dope traffic and red light districts, doesn’t care about airplanes either.

But there is an even more compelling series of reasons for the current state of affairs. It must be remembered that Japan arrived late on the modern industrial scene. The experience of the Japanese people with mechanical gadgets is definitely limited. They have not yet gotten much beyond merely imitating what others have done. At that they are the world’s finest, but imitativeness is little help in aeronautics. In the first place, aeronautical developments are more closely guarded by the major powers than are any others. Anything the Japanese obtain via the imitation route is bound to be three years old. Which is not extremely satisfactory at a time when every fighter plane designed is between 10 to 50 m.p.h. faster than its predecessor.

In the second place, planes being the most complicated and highly developed type of machinery in existence, a certain amount of native ingenuity is needed to make them work, even after you have been presented with the blueprints. And third, the Japanese system of small factories employing only a few semi-skilled workers—which system dominates Japanese industry—is not well adapted to the high degree of precision required in planes.

Some day, perhaps, the Japanese will have accumulated enough experience in a mechanical way to catch up, but that day will not come soon. One of the factors holding up its arrival is the educational system in Japan, which turns out a nation of blind patriots but gives only limited schooling in the mechanical arts. The general level of education in Japan is low. It takes a good educational system to turn out a nation of mechanics— and a nation of mechanics to run an air industry and air force. The Japanese’ blind patriotism is undoubtedly pleasing to Japan’s rulers. But it doesn’t cut any ice with a 1,000 h.p. motor. Motors just don’t understand noble sentiments.

It is no surprise, therefore, to learn that Japan’s five aeronautical research institutes—the institute at Tokyo University, the Army’s institute, the Navy’s aeronautical arsenal, the experimental laboratory of the Communications Ministry and the Central Aeronautical Research Institute—are not making effective progress in research. They are not in the same class as America’s NACA Langley Memorial Laboratory, or England’s Farnborough. Their equipment is deficient. Such modern apparatus as supersonic speed tunnels, refrigerated tunnels and variable density tunnels is unknown.

There remains one question: what of the Japanese ability to fly? Is it any greater than the Japanese ability to build planes? The answer is probably yes, although five years ago Japanese airman-ship was extremely poor. I wasn’t there at the time, but old hands in the Far East tell a story illustrating this. It is about a German pilot who used to be with CNAC, and an encounter he had with the Japanese.

It seems he was nominated by the German embassy in Tokyo as a special observer for some special piece of business that was to be shown. The night he arrived in Tokyo he drank himself too deep of Japanese beer, which happens to be quite strong. Somewhat in his cups, he boasted that he could knock down the 10 best Japanese pilots one after the other in a single afternoon of dogfights—with cameras, not guns, of course. He had not laid a hand to a fighting plane since the World War, but he was quite sure he could do it. He did—in less than two hours. He didn’t need the whole afternoon.

The Japanese have come a long way since then, particularly in bombardment and observation operations, through their practice in the China war. They now are quite proficient in these operations—although how they would perform against real opposition is not known. The relatively high toll taken by the few Chinese planes indicates, not too well. In loyalty, courage and readiness to follow orders, the Japanese pilot is second to no one, however. So far, the Japanese have shown no understanding of the tactics of massed aerial warfare on the World War II model.

In summary, the Japanese air force can be described as the sixth in the world in numbers and quality, as adequate to the job it has so far had to do. But it would not be adequate in the event of an encounter with either possible major opponent, the U.S.A. or the U.S.S.R., unless-in the case of the U. S. S. R.—simultaneous war in the west drained too many planes from Siberia.

Editors Notes:

Translation of Japanese ship names often resulted in more than one English spelling. The IJN carrier names, Syokaku, Ryuzyo and Hosyo in the article are more commonly known or spelled as Shokaku, Ryujo and Hosho. The author's data on the newer Shokaku and sister-ship Zuikaku (not mentioned) is also less than correct. There is more information on Japanese aircraft designations elsewhere on this site.


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