Japanese Naval Transformation and the Battle of Tsushima

By Zemitis, Darrell H. | Military Review, November-December 2004 | Go to article overview
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Japanese Naval Transformation and the Battle of Tsushima


Zemitis, Darrell H., Military Review


THE JAPANESE NAVY's defeat of the Russian fleet in the Battle of Tsushima in 1905 demonstrates the major transformation that took place in the Japanese navy during the previous decade. The Japanese navy was concerned with defeating the Russians, who had been increasingly making threatening incursions into Manchuria and Korea in search of warm-water ports. To counter Russia's moves, Japan pursued a three-pronged approach to completely transform its battle fleet's capabilities, producing innovations in munitions and explosives; tactics; and doctrine. The focus was on the classic Mahanian decisive naval victory in which the sole object was command of the sea and destruction of the enemy fleet. (l) The Japanese navy's transformation and expansion culminated with what maritime strategist Sir Julian Corbett calls "the most decisive and complete naval victory in history," the victory of the Japanese fleet over the Russian fleet in the Battle of Tsushima. (2)

A New Battle Fleet

The centerpiece of the Japanese transformation effort was a new battle fleet. This effort was remarkable in several ways. First, the Japanese resolved to create a true battle fleet from the ground up. Whereas Japan had gone to war with the Chinese in 1895 with a makeshift force of warships put together over the years, the new Japanese fleet would be a homogenous force designed to defeat a specific threat--a Western navy. (3)

The heart of the new battle fleet was to be four new battleships that would be built by the British plus two other battleships built under a previous program. The second unique aspect of expansion was that it was a conscious effort to make a quantum increase in Japan's naval strength relative to all other naval powers. (4) This effort was most evident in the specifications for the four new battleships, the design of which took advantage of new developments in armor, allowing for increased protection at tremendous weight savings. The Japanese also insisted that the four new battleships were to be compatible in speed and gun caliber with the two existing ships to ensure that all six could operate effectively as a single unit. (5) The goal was not merely to create a fleet on par with Russia's, but to create a fleet that clearly surpassed any other navy's existing capabilities in both armament and armor.

The third distinctive aspect of the new combined fleet was that it would be balanced. At the time, many navies were constructing battleships, but the Japanese realized that "just as in the army, the infantry was supported by the artillery, cavalry, and engineers ..., so battleships [needed to] be supplemented by lesser warships of various types." (6) The fleet needed to be rounded out with armored cruisers to seek out and pursue the enemy and destroyers and torpedo boats capable of attacking the enemy near his home ports.

Innovative Munitions

Although the technology and construction of the battle fleet was largely of Western origin, the Japanese made the most revolutionary technological contributions in the area of naval explosives and ammunition. They combined three unique technologies: Shimose gunpowder, thin-skinned munitions shells, and the Ijuin fuze. (7)

A variant of explosives developed by the French, Shimose powder detonated with a much higher pressure and more extreme heat than previous variants. The Japanese navy maximized these characteristics by developing thin-skinned shells, allowing a far greater percentage of the munition's weight to be made of explosives, which produced a much greater bursting effect. The Ijuin fuze allowed the shell to explode on impact rather than after it had penetrated the armor of enemy ships.

This combination of elements was unique among modern navies because their use ran counter to contemporary naval tactics. At the time, developments in naval munitions focused on inflicting the maximum internal damage to ships by using thick, armor-piercing shells.

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