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Battle of Tsushima: The First Naval Battle of the 21st Century

Lieutenant George Hageman, JAG, USN

(Reprinted from Naval History with permission; Copyright © (2020) U.S. Naval Institute/www.usni.org. Note: This essay is published, below, as it was originally submitted by the author.)

Introduction

The Battle of Tsushima, fought in May 1905 between Russia and Japan, was the decisive engagement of the Russo-Japanese War. Though typically seen as the opening chapter of 20th century naval history, it is in many ways the opening chapter of 21st century naval history as well. Though the United States played no role in the battle, other than to host the peace negotiations at Portsmouth Navy Yard in New Hampshire three months later, we should still keep the Battle of Tsushima in this new era of great power competition.

The Battle of Tsushima was notable in four main ways. First, it was the debut of a new world power (Japan) and the shocking demise of an old one (Russia). Second, it demonstrated how difficult it is to fight a regional conflict against a regional power with a geographically dispersed two-ocean Navy. Third, it showed how a new power could harness new technological advances to completely change the balance of power. Fourth, it showed how old paradigms of naval customs and international law can crumble when a new power joins the game.

Each of these four lessons has profound relevance for the United States Navy in the 21st century, specifically as it relates to China. Here, China is the new power on the world stage, and the United States is the one at risk of falling off the podium. China is the regional power that can concentrate its forces easily, while the United States is the one that is dispersed throughout the world. China is the one at the forefront of several technological developments that is not constrained by tradition or sunk costs. And lastly, China is the one that has been willing to upset international norms in pursuit of its goals while the United States remains tied to the old rules.

The Battle of Tsushima

Japan had just barely become a regional power at the turn of the 20th century.[1] Isolated from the outside world until the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry’s “black ships” in 1853, it was stuck in the past until the Meiji Restoration of 1868.[2] With the Chrysanthemum Throne restored, Japan sets its imperial ambitions on the resource-rich lands of the Korean peninsula and Manchuria (Manchukuo), both loosely controlled by Qing China.[3] Japan conquered large portions of both in 1894, but the resulting Treaty of Shimonoseki omitted the all-important Liaodong peninsula and Port Arthur (now Dalian, China) from the list of Japanese concessions.[4]

Instead, the European powers gave the land to Russia, which desperately needed a warm-water port like Port Arthur to base its Pacific Fleet.[5] Currently, all it had was Vladivostok further north, covered in ice for several months of the year.[6] With the support of the other European powers in the region, Russia began building railway connections to Port Arthur and expanding its naval presence, to the great embarrassment and shame of Japan. Once again, from the Japanese perspective, the Europeans were inserting themselves in Asian affairs and in Japan’s hard-won sphere of influence.

By 1904, Japan had had enough. They wanted Korea and Manchuria back, and that meant getting the Russians out. On 8 February, the Japanese Combined Fleet sailed from Sasebo to launch a surprise attack on the Russian First Pacific Squadron at Port Arthur. As if the parallels to the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor thirty-seven years later were not obvious enough, the Imperial Japanese Navy’s flagship at Pearl Harbor (Akagi) flew the exact same flag previously flown by samurai-born and British-trained Admiral Togo Heihachiro’s flagship (Mikasa) at the Battle of Port Arthur.[7] Though the naval battle itself was largely a draw, it helped cover the Japanese landing force as it worked its way up Korea and into Manchuria. The Japanese forces were accompanied by a few American observers, including then-Lieutenant Douglas MacArthur.[8]

When news of war reached Saint Petersburg, the Russians began preparing to send reinforcements: ground troops along the single-track Trans-Siberian Railway as well as naval assets from the Baltic Fleet (renamed the Second Pacific Squadron).[9] The Second Pacific Squadron began its arduous months-long voyage from Reval (now Tallinn, Estonia) through the North Sea, down the west coast of Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope, up to Madagascar, across the Indian Ocean, through the Straits of Malacca, up through the South China Sea, past Formosa (now-Taiwan) and the Philippines, before ultimately arriving in theater.

Meanwhile, the Japanese continued to achieve success in their ground campaign. They successfully took Port Arthur in January 1905 after a long siege, and then decisively defeated the Russian Army at the Battle of Mukden in March 1905 (possibly the largest land battle in history up to that point, and the same Mukden that would later serve as the pretext for the Japanese invasion of Chinese Manchuria in 1931). By the time Russia’s Second Pacific Squadron arrived in May 1905, its supplies were low, its men were exhausted, and its original goal of breaking the siege at Port Arthur was no longer possible. Instead, the Second Pacific Squadron under the command of Admiral Zinovy “Mad Dog” Rozhestvensky raced towards the last remaining Russian port at Vladivostok to link up with the remaining Russian naval assets, hopefully before the Japanese regrouped after their victory at Port Arthur.[10]

Admiral Togo anticipated that the Russians would take the Tsushima Strait route between Korea and Japan, as opposed to going around the Japanese mainland, because it was shortest way to get to Vladivostok.[11] He knew that the transit would take approximately eight hours given the exceptionally strong current in the strait, and he deployed scout ships to systematically patrol the strait and await their arrival.[12] Fortunately for the Russians, heavy fog covered their movements.

At 0330 on 27 May, the fog temporarily lifted and the Japanese sighted the Russian fleet sailing in two columns, with the stronger Russian First Division (consisting of four massive Borodino-class battleships, Knyaz Suvarov, Alexander III, Borodino, and Orel) on the starboard side and the weaker Russian Second and Third Divisions (consisting of smaller ships) on the port side.[13] Admiral Togo sortied his fleet and steamed towards the Russians, using a new radio system to communicate and share the Russians’ movements.[14]

Admiral Rozhestvensky believed that the Japanese fleet, coming from the north, would sail on his port side to unleash broadsides against the weaker Russian column. He was fine with that outcome because it would allow his stronger First Division to sail northwards towards Vladivostok before the Japanese could turn around and follow them.[15] Instead, Admiral Togo turned his column to his port side, each ship in succession, and then brought them across the face of the Russian line towards the starboard side, thereby “crossing the T” just as they were coming into range and just as he had been taught during his time studying overseas with the British Royal Navy.[16] The Russian fleet, heavy and slow due to all the extra coal for their long voyage, had difficulty reacting in a coordinated manner.[17]

The Russian fleet fell into disarray after the “Togo turn” as Japanese shells continued to rain down on them.[18] The battle proceeded into the night, when swarms of Japanese destroyers and torpedo boats led by Admiral Kamimura cleaned up the dispersed remnants of the Russian fleet. By the end, three Russian battleships were sunk and a fourth (Orel) surrendered. In total, the Russians lost 100,000 tons worth of displacement. Over 12,000 Russian sailors were killed or captured.[19] In contrast, the Japanese lost only three small torpedo boats and suffered less than 1,000 casualties.[20] Only three Russian ships made it to Vladivostok.[21] Admiral Rozhestvensky was sent to recuperate in a Kyoto hospital, where Admiral Togo and then-Lieutenant Yamamoto (later Admiral Yamamoto in WWII) met him in person to reassure him that “defeat is a common fate of a soldier” and “there is nothing to be ashamed of in it.”[22]

Lesson #1: New Power Displacing an Old Power

Russia underestimated the Japanese throughout the Russo-Japanese War.[23] So did all of the other European powers.[24] After a century of carving up China in the Opium Wars and colonizing nearly every other corner of the continent, they did not believe an Asian country could ever go toe-to-toe with the largest European power in both area and population.[25] Because of this stereotype, the war had huge psychological aftereffects. In Europe, the Central Powers were emboldened to push up against Russian interests in Eastern Europe, culminating in WWI.[26] In Russia itself, the profound national embarrassment strengthened the hand of the Bolsheviks against Tsar Nicholas II, culminating in the October Revolution of 1917.[27] In Japan, the surprising victory led to supreme overconfidence in its military abilities, culminating in the strategically unwise decision to attack Pearl Harbor and wake the “sleeping giant.”[28]

The parallels to the 21st century should be obvious. The United States is the dominant world power, but China is fast approaching in both economic and military strength.[29] As rising powers are wont to do, China is already clashing with the United States in the South China Sea, Taiwan Strait, Hong Kong, trade and tariffs, etc.[30] There is a tipping point at which the rest of the world will no longer see America as a dominant, unbeatable force—much like the world came to realize about Russia (and Europe in general) after the Russo-Japanese War. The conflict between China and America is arguably inevitable, but our reaction to it does not have to be. We are aware of the dangers of underestimating China (like Russia underestimated Japan), and we are shifting our strategic planning guidance accordingly.[31]

Lesson #2: Fighting a Regional Conflict with a Global Force

Russia’s defeat was by no means guaranteed. It was a vast empire covering 9 million square miles and 123 million people. But in the local, regional context of northeast Asia, its vast resources could not easily be brought to bear. Its fleet was the third largest in the world but the majority of it was in the Baltic Sea, tens of thousands of miles away.[32] Its long journey to Tsushima Strait was a large reason for their defeat.[33] That long journey started off terribly when the Russian fleet accidentally killed two British fishermen in the North Sea near Dogger Bank after mistaking them for Japanese torpedo boats (on the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, no less).[34] As a result, the British used their foreign policy weight to prevent the Russians from accessing German and Spanish coaling stations.[35] They also threatened to restrict Russian ships from passing through the British-controlled Suez Canal. Instead, most of the Russians took the long way around using low-quality coal (roughly 17,000 tons per thousand miles) transferred from colliers pulling alongside them at sea.[36] By the time they arrived, their ships were poorly maintained due to the low-quality coal, their food had spoiled during the long journey, and coal dust packed in every corner of the ship (including berthing) filled the lungs of its sailors.[37] Additionally, by passing through the tropics, many sailors incurred tropical diseases and the ships developed all kinds of flora and fauna on their hulls.[38]

An American conflict with China would involve a similar “concentration of forces” problem. The United States is unquestionably the stronger of the two and will continue to be for quite some time. But the United States is a global Navy. The People’s Liberation Army Navy only has to fight in one theater, and that theater is conveniently right next to their ports, their repair facilities, their supply depots, and their coastal defense cruise missiles[39]. While the United States has naval assets in the area at Yokosuka and Sasebo, the disparity in local power is far smaller than the global statistics imply.[40] China can fight a local conflict in the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea and establish a new status quo before the United States can bring significant forces to bear.[41] Even with faster transit times and closer bases than the Russians had in 1904, the Americans still face the risk of a regional-level power imbalance. Moreover, the United States relies on the help of allies in the area, like the JMSDF, ROKN, and ROCN. But those alliances may not last forever—a single incident like the Subic rape case in the Philippines in 2005[42] could upend the political scene, just as the Dogger Bank Incident did in 1904.

Lesson #3: Flexibility to Harness a New Technology

Although Russia’s four Borodino-class battleships were new, the technology inside them was sometimes outdated or difficult to use. The Japanese, in contrast, had seen the importance of radio technology (invented by Guglielmo Marconi only ten years earlier) and adopted its own Japanese-made version in every single ship of the Combined Fleet.[43] On the day of the battle, when heavy fog prevented the use of signal flags, Japanese scouts were able to relay tracks of Russian ships back to the rest of the fleet.[44] As Admiral Togo himself put it, “in spite of the thick mist which confined the vision to within five nautical miles, the information thus received enabled me at a distance of several tens of miles to form a vivid picture in my mind of the condition of the enemy.”[45] The Japanese had also equipped their ships with newer Barr and Stroud rangefinders accurate up to 6,000 yards,[46] while the Russians only had decades-old Liuzhol rangefinders accurate up to 4,000 yards.[47]  Finally, the Japanese had far more combat experience and training with the new technology.[48] By the Battle of Tsushima, Admiral Togo’s fleet had fought several naval engagements against the Chinese and the Russians and had made use of their radio and range finding technology each time.[49] Admiral Rozhestvensky’s fleet, sailing from the Black Sea, had no recent combat experience other than killing a few British fishermen.[50]

Currently, the United States holds the technological advantage over China in almost all sectors. However, as the more established power, the United States is naturally less flexible. Due to tradition and custom and sunk costs, our natural tendency is to keep making incremental improvements to existing technology rather than to attempt risky innovation. China does not have that problem. It has the flexibility to go all-in on new technologies that could turn the tide, just as radio and rangefinders did at the Battle of Tsushima. For example, China can take the lead in cyber warfare, and indeed is already doing so by stealing trade secrets and personal data from American military contractors.[51] It can use Chinese-produced hardware and software to spy on American military personnel, as it is already accused of doing with Huawei and Tik Tok.[52] It can further develop hypersonic missile technology to thwart American missile defense systems[53], or anti-satellite missiles to thwart satellite-based communications (like its infamous test in 2007).[54]

Lesson #4: Constraints of International Norms

The Battle of Tsushima was notable, not just for technological differences, but also for differences in respect for international norms. When the Russians were trying to sneak past the Japanese on the way to Vladivostok, they kept their hospital ship lighted as was customary at the time.[55] That lighting helped the Japanese identify the Russians through the fog, enabling Admiral Togo to sortie his fleet at the right time and place. After the battle, some (though not all) sources say that the Russians under Admiral Nebogatov tried to surrender by raising signal flags indicating a surrender, but the Japanese kept firing. They switched to a white tablecloth flag and later a Japanese flag but the fire continued.[56] Only once the Russian ships stopped their engines did the Japanese stop firing.[57]

Admiral Togo’s conduct, with respect to the hospital ship and the surrender flag, may seem at first to be dishonorable. But Admiral Togo’s possible moral lapses are only part of the problem. This was the first battle between equally-matched Western and non-Western powers in a long time, and some of the norms that are taken for granted in one culture might not apply in the other. In the samurai culture in which Admiral Togo was raised, for example, giving your enemy a battlefield death was the more honorable thing to do.[58] There was also a possible translation issue as none of the Japanese officers were familiar with the particular surrender signal that the Russians hoisted.[59]

In the case of a US-China conflict, the two sides would most certainly have a different understanding of international law and international norms. It is already happening in the South China Sea, where China flagrantly violates the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea with its nine-dash line claims and challenging of U.S. ships conducting freedom of navigation operations.[60] If China barely follows the rules pre-war, who is to say that they will follow the rules during a pitched battle? Will they use their paramilitary fishing fleet equipped with military-grade equipment to conduct combat operations?[61] Will they use their own assets in a far more reckless manner than the American public would accept with American ships and personnel? The rules that we follow are not necessarily the rules that China will follow in the event of a conflict, as was the case when the Russians fought the Japanese at Tsushima.

Conclusion

The lessons of Tsushima are staring us right in the face. Literally. Admiral Togo’s flagship at Tsushima, the battleship Mikasa, is now a museum ship in Yokosuka, a few blocks away from Womble Gate.[62] An American task force sailing to confront the Chinese in the Taiwan Strait or South China Sea would likely sail right past the Mikasa on its way to the fight.

The analogy is not perfect: the U.S. Navy is much more dominant now than the Russian Navy was then. But the parallels are still there. China is a rapidly rising new power, concentrated within only one region, with some technological advantages, and an appetite for bucking traditional norms. If the United States wants to avoid being the Russia in this analogy, it can and must heed the lessons of the Battle of Tsushima.

 

[1] David C. Evans and Mark R. Peattie, Kaigun: Strategy, Tactics, and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy 1887-1941 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2012), 64.

[2] David Walder, The Short Victorious War: The Russo-Japanese Conflict 1904-5 (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 25.

[3] Walder, The Short Victorious War, 28.

[4] Evans and Peattie, Kaigun, 52.

[5] Constantine Pleshakov, The Tsar’s Last Armada: The Epic Voyage to the Battle of Tsushima (New York: Basic Books, 2002), 16.

[6] Evans and Peattie, Kaigun, 52.

[7] Dennis Warner and Peggy Warner, The Tide at Sunrise: A History of the Russo-Japanese War 1904-1905 (London: Frank Cass Publishers, 2002), 20; Edwin A. Falk, Togo and the Rise of Japanese Sea Power (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1936), 88.

[8] Walder, The Short Victorious War, 299.

[9] William C. Fuller Jr., Strategy and Power in Russia: 1600-1914 (New York: The Free Press, 1992), 398.

[10] J.N. Westwood, Russia Against Japan, 1904-05: A New Look at the Russo-Japanese War (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1986), 143.

[11] Evans and Peattie, Kaigun, 277; Reginald Hargreaves, Red Sun Rising: The Siege of Port Arthur (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1962), 173.

[12] Warner and Warner, The Tide at Sunrise, 495–96.

[13] Warner and Warner, The Tide at Sunrise, 499, 503.

[14] Evans and Peattie, Kaigun, 116; Walder, The Short Victorious War, 280.

[15] Warner and Warner, The Tide at Sunrise, 505.

[16] Evans and Peattie, Kaigun, 119.

[17] Evans and Peattie, Kaigun, 125.

[18] Evans and Peattie, Kaigun, 120.

[19] Warner and Warner, The Tide at Sunrise, 519.

[20] Warner and Warner, The Tide at Sunrise, 519.

[21] Warner and Warner, The Tide at Sunrise, 519.

[22] Warner and Warner, The Tide at Sunrise, 517; Pleshakov, The Tsar’s Last Armada, 315.

[23] Fuller, Strategy and Power in Russia, 375.

[24] Pleshakov, The Tsar’s Last Armada, 29; Westwood, Russia Against Japan, 1904–05, 152.

[25] Walder, The Short Victorious War, 43.

[26] Barbara W. Tuchman, The Guns of August (New York: Ballantine Books, 2004), 53; Hargreaves, Red Sun Rising, 182.

[27] Fuller, Strategy and Power in Russia, 407; Pleshakov, The Tsar’s Last Armada, 310.

[28] Ronald H. Spector, Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan (New York: Vintage Books, 1985), 37.

[29] Bernard D. Cole, The Great Wall at Sea: China’s Navy Enters the Twenty-First Century (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2001), 11.

[30] Graham Allison, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap? (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2017), 8; Cole, The Great Wall at Sea, 36.

[31] General David H. Berger, 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps, Commandant’s Planning Guidance (2019); John M. Richardson, A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority Version 2.0 (Washington: Chief of Naval Operations, 2018);

[32] Walder, The Short Victorious War, 43.

[33] Evans and Peattie, Kaigun, 86; Hargreaves, Red Sun Rising, 176.

[34] Warner and Warner, The Tide at Sunrise, 413.

[35] Warner and Warner, The Tide at Sunrise, 415.

[36] Warner and Warner, The Tide at Sunrise, 404.

[37] Warner and Warner, The Tide at Sunrise, 486, 490.

[38] Westwood, Russia Against Japan, 1904–05, 143.

[39] Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes, Red Star Over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2010), 103.

[40] Yoshihara and Holmes, Red Star Over the Pacific, 148.

[41] Yoshihara and Holmes, Red Star Over the Pacific, 191.

[42] Jennifer H. Svan, “Marine Convicted, Sentenced to 40 Years For Rape in Philippines,” Stars and Stripes (6 December 2006), https://www.stripes.com/news/marine-convicted-sentenced-to-40-years-for-rape-in-philippines-1.57601.

[43] Evans and Peattie, Kaigun, 84.

[44] Warner and Warner, The Tide at Sunrise, 501.

[45] Warner and Warner, The Tide at Sunrise, 501.

[46] Evans and Peattie, Kaigun, 79.

[47] Robert Forczyk, Russian Battleship vs. Japanese Battleship: Yellow Sea 1904–05 (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2009), 56-57.

[48] Falk, Togo and the Rise of Japanese Sea Power, 378.

[49] Evans and Peattie, Kaigun, 83; Walder, The Short Victorious War, 274.

[50] Hargreaves, Red Sun Rising, 180; Westwood, Russia Against Japan, 1904–05, 35.

[51] Gordon Lubold and Dustin Volz, “Navy, Industry Partners Are ‘Under Cyber Siege’ by Chinese Hackers, Review Asserts,” Wall Street Journal (12 March 2019), https://www.wsj.com/articles/navy-industry-partners-are-under-cyber-siege-review-asserts-11552415553.

[52] Drew Harwell and Tony Romm, “U.S. Army Bans Tik Tok on Military Devices, Signaling Growing Concern About App’s Chinese Roots,” The Washington Post (31 December 2019), https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2019/12/31/us-army-bans-tiktok-military-devices-signaling-growing-concern-about-apps-chinese-roots/.

[53] Bill Powell, “China’s Hypersonic Missiles, aka ‘Carrier Killers,’ Are a ‘Holy S**t Moment’ for US Military,” Newsweek (3 October 2019), https://www.newsweek.com/chinas-hypersonic-missiles-aka-carrier-killers-are-holy-st-moment-us-military-1462794.

[54] Carin Zissis, “China’s Anti-Satellite Test,” Council on Foreign Relations (22 February 2007), https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/chinas-anti-satellite-test.

[55] Westwood, Russia Against Japan, 1904–05, 145; Walder, The Short Victorious War, 280; Pleshakov, The Tsar’s Last Armada, 262; Georges Blond, Admiral Togo (New York: MacMillan Company, 1960), 216.

[56] Warner and Warner, The Tide at Sunrise, 516; Noel F. Busch, The Emperor’s Sword: Japan vs. Russia in the Battle of Tsushima (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1969), 182–86; Blond, Admiral Togo, 232.

[57] Warner and Warner, The Tide at Sunrise, 516; Busch, The Emperor’s Sword, 182–86.

[58] Falk, Togo and the Rise of Japanese Sea Power, 381.

[59] Busch, The Emperor’s Sword, 182–86.

[60] Ronald O’Rourke, China’s Actions in South and East China Seas: Implications for U.S. Interests—Background and Issues for Congress, (Washington: Congressional Research Service, 2019), 17; Cole, The Great Wall at Sea, 52.

[61] O’Rourke, China’s Actions in South and East China Seas, 17; James Kraska and Michael Monti, “The Law of Naval Warfare and China’s Maritime Militia,” International Law Studies, Vol. 91 (2015): 452.

[62] This is a rebuilt version. The original Mikasa blew up in port under mysterious circumstances during anti-peace riots shortly after the Treaty of Portsmouth was signed.  See Westwood, Russia Against Japan, 1904–05, 162.

****

Lieutenant George Hageman, JAG, USN, is a judge advocate at Region Legal Service Office Southwest in San Diego, California. He is a graduate of Harvard College, the University of Tokyo, and Harvard Law School. 

Published: Wed Aug 17 15:42:00 EDT 2022