Japanese assault on the entrenched Russian forces, 1904.
Le Patriote Illustré

THE inevitability and the imminence of an armed conflict between Japan and the Soviet Union are both of them matters open to doubt; and this writer is among the most skeptical. But if such a war comes, its initial course can be predicted with considerable confidence. Three underlying factors would in particular condition its character.

First of all, the initial blow would be struck by Japan. From the Russian point of view, delay is most advantageous. Each day that the stroke can be averted means a stronger, more efficient Red army at the front and a more solid industrial organization at the rear. In addition, the Soviet leaders know perfectly well the domestic advantages of a defensive war, as well as the international value of establishing a clear-cut case of aggression against their opponents. It is obvious Russian policy to postpone and await the shock.

Secondly, a Russo-Japanese war would have few naval implications. Japan's fleet is dominant in the Far East; and Russian activity at sea would be limited to minor submarine operations out of Vladivostok. Under-sea craft are reported at that port, and their forays would have considerable value in keeping Japanese war vessels at a distance, particularly aircraft carriers, and in raiding the water communications between Japan and the mainland. On the other hand, Russia's European coasts are plainly beyond Japan's reach. The two countries are alike invulnerable by sea. Thus, in the broadest sense, neither antagonist can apply military-economic pressure on the other, and any blockage of imports must be achieved through political, not armed action.

The third point requires more elaboration. It turns about the fact that the potential theatre of war is dominated by what is called the Baikal region. Lake Baikal is nested in a complex of mountains stemming out of the mid-Asiatic ranges, which in turn have to their east the dry moat of the Central Asian deserts. The Baikal mass is prolonged to the north-east by the Vitim plateau. Parallel to this massif, and hovering above the Trans-Siberian railway, run the Yablonoi mountains, vulnerable to flank attacks, but still a formidable strategic obstacle. Japanese military tenure north and west of Manchuria would be insecure so long as hostile forces could roll out from or around this barrier. A Japanese victory without its possession would be sterile. On the other hand, there is no conceivable need of Japan's advancing further afield. The Baikal region is just as effective a barrier against an advance from the west as it is against a thrust from the east. To push west of the mountain mass would lengthen Japanese communications without any compensating strategic advantages. For the Japanese, then, a successful war means the prompt capture of the Baikal region. For the Russians, the essentials of ultimate victory are contained in the defense of this territory. It is the decisive zone of a Russo-Japanese conflict.

The picture is both clarified and elaborated by an understanding of conditions east of the Baikal region and north and west of the Manchurian border. This vast territory has practically no industrial development and is served by a single railway, the Trans-Siberian, and its extension the Ussuri railroad. No unified system of motor roads exists and the capacity of air transport is slight. Over the railway must be transported practically every weapon and every pound of powder used by the Russian army in Eastern Asia. If the Trans-Siberian is cut permanently anywhere east of Baikal, the resistance of the Russian troops eastward of the break is limited to the duration of their munitions supply; for there is no reasonable likelihood of its replenishment. Now this section of the Trans-Siberian is peculiarly vulnerable to Japanese thrusts. Vladivostok itself is only a hundred miles from the Korean border. At Pogranichnaya and Manchouli Japanese-controlled railways stand ready to pour armies into Siberia. Another railroad is creeping toward Aigun. The natural corridor of the Sungari river is pointed squarely at Habarovsk. The plan of the Russians to construct a railway from Verkhne-Udinsk southward toward Kiakhta indicates how sensitive they are to the threat of an advance across the Mongolian plains. Eastern Siberia cannot be held by the Russians against a Japanese advance in force. For the former, as for the latter, the Baikal region is the decisive zone.

Does this mean that, in a war with Japan, the Russian army would retire incontinently to the mountains, giving up a thousand miles of foreground without a blow? Hardly. Elementary strategy rules that an opponent should be brought up against the final defense position as late and as badly mauled as possible; and Russia, committed to a strategy of attrition, would seek all the more to defer the decisive battles. How can the Russians accomplish these missions? Primarily, they can fight a gigantic rearguard action up the Pacific slope of Siberia. It is certain that they would do so, but the battle, or rather series of battles, would be hampered by the difficult geographic situation already described. In the second place, and at the same time, the Red Army can defend Vladivostok.

That city is strongly fortified; and its mere retention by the Russians would necessarily occupy a Japanese besieging force at least half as large again as its garrison. Blockaded and isolated, its eventual fall would be certain; the length of time it could hold out would be determined primarily by munitions stocks rather than man power. But a prolonged defense there would do much to slow up a Japanese advance to the mountains. Furthermore, Vladivostok's superb harbor with its numerous approaches is a splendid base whence submarines can at least annoy and perhaps seriously hamper the water transfer of troops and munitions from Japan proper to the Asiatic mainland. Finally, Russia's retention of Vladivostok, the terminus of the Trans-Siberian railway, would effectually block an important communications route. And the possession of it by Japan would distribute the military load to be borne by Dairen and the Korean ports. Its importance as fortress, sea-base and terminal is clearly indicated by the steady reports as to its fortification in the last two years. In terms of the old bi-dimensional warfare, it is reasonable to suppose that there would be created here a rough analogy to the first Russo-Japanese war, with Vladivostok taking the place of Port Arthur. The injection of aviation into this situation serves to intensify it and to modify it, not fundamentally but still profoundly.

It is here necessary to digress and to compare the rival air forces of the Soviet Union and of Japan. Russia is able to concentrate (and apparently has sent to the Far East) some five hundred airplanes, of which more than forty and less than a hundred are heavy, long-distance bombers. Japan has in the neighborhood of a thousand military and naval planes ready and suitable for combat. Both forces are unproved, but their quality may be assumed to be good. While the two nations are deficient in antiaircraft weapons, it will be shown that the lack weighs more heavily against the Japanese.

Much has been said about the vulnerability of Japanese cities, built of wood and paper. Significantly enough, this danger of incendiarism via the air, afterwards dwelt upon so elaborately by the whole "horror school" of writers on modern war, was first pointed out by Japanese who were interested in increased military budgets. In the opinion of this writer, wholesale and indiscriminate bombing of Japanese population centers may be discounted. None can be more deeply versed in the psychology of peoples at war than the rulers of present-day Russia. None can attach more importance to this factor. The cardinal aim of Moscow should be not the defeat, but the repulse of the Japanese armies. It should look for victory, not on the field of battle, but in the hearts of the Japanese people. Its aim should be to create a war-weary and demoralized nation, ripe for a social upheaval, rather than to break the Japanese armies in action. It should seek to numb its opponents rather than to sting them into a passionate resistance. Air attacks from Vladivostok against Japan proper eventually must cease with the fall of that stronghold; freed from the aerial menace, the citizens of Nippon would remember past Russian "outrages" without fear of their repetition. And on the absolute scale, the ability of a hundred bombing planes to destroy even one city in the period of their tactical life cannot be conceded. For these reasons, the indiscriminate unleashing of aerial destruction against the civilian population of Japan seems most unlikely.

Furthermore, the potential theatre of war offers splendid opportunities to an alert Russian air force based on the Vladivostok area and operating against purely military objectives. In that region it is on the flank of the whole Japanese communications zone. Munitions factories in Japan proper (as distinguished from towns as the object of indiscriminate attack), the Korean ports, Dairen, the railroad ganglions of Mukden, Hsinching (Changchun) and Harbin, all these are within its range. By properly selecting points of aerial attack, the Russians could seriously impede, if not dislocate, the smooth forward flow of Japanese supplies, munitions and reserves. More than that, if they were skilfully led the Russians might be able to immobilize for the period of their action most of the Japanese aviation. Japan's deficiencies in anti-aircraft material have been noted already. Given a few successful air attacks on scattered vital centers, the temptation to Japan would be to use aerial units for local defense, resulting in the dispersion of forces, the ineffective protection of any one locality and the possible crippling of Japanese aviation in the fighting zones. Finally, Japan cannot be sure of being able to coop up the Russian air forces in the Vladivostok area. As the Japanese ring closes in on the fortress, they can always fly away, even if not at their pre-war strength.

The potentialities of aviation thus enhance the value of the Vladivostok area to Russia. The necessities of air warfare also complicate the problems of the defense. Military airplanes spend three-fourths of their time on the ground. When not in flight they are peculiarly vulnerable to air attack. The result is that they must be dispersed in small groups, usually of twenty or thirty planes, to evade observation, to assure quick take-offs and to minimize losses. This means the provision of a large number of flying fields -- already occupied, ready for occupancy, and even dummy fields to mislead the enemy. The fields must be near railways or motor roads if the planes are to be fueled and munitioned. They cannot be too close together, or the effects of defensive dispersion are lost. Consequently, the maintenance of a Russian air force around Vladivostok implies the defense of a whole area rather than of a fortress. Where possibly 50,000 soldiers could fulfill the mission of Vladivostok in bi-dimensional war, its defense as an air base should require in the neighborhood of three times that number of troops.

While Russia's air objective clearly would be the Japanese supply and transportation systems, equally obviously Japanese aviation would seek to find and destroy the Russian air force. If the Soviet flying fields were widely dispersed, that fact would tend to prevent any sweeping blows; and Russian anti-aircraft defense, being limited to relatively small areas, should be more intense and hence more effective than Japan's. There always remains the chance already suggested that the initial air attacks from Vladivostok might be so effective as to pin the Japanese aviation down to local defense missions at a great number of scattered points; but this is an ultimate possibility and by no means probable. Some may hold that Japan's first move, coinciding with or preceding the declaration of war, would be a swift blow at the Russian air bases, that the torpedo boats which crept into Port Arthur harbor on February 8, 1904, would have modern counterparts in wheeling squadrons of sun-blazoned attack planes which would carry the news of war in the fragmentation bombs that they drop on a grounded Russian aery. Such a belief is logical, but it overlooks the fact that the Soviet air force is not tied down to the Vladivostok area until it commences operations. Before that time it is only necessary to have flying fields in readiness; they do not have to be occupied. So far as can be ascertained from press reports, the bulk of Russian aviation is at present held well to the west and north of Kavarovsk.

On the basis of the foregoing data it is now possible to envisage the first phase of a Russo-Japanese war, on the assumption that conditions were substantially what they are today and that no other Power were involved. The task is undertaken in all diffidence. Men do not plan alike, and nothing is more certain in war than that events seldom happen as planned. The best that can be claimed for the next paragraph is that it is rational; but for that very reason it can predict neither blunders nor inspirations on one side or the other. What is related is what could happen, not what would or should happen.

The war opens with a Japanese aerial attack on what Japan hopes is the grounded and defenseless Russian air force. Some destruction is effected, but the Red aerial fleet is not crippled. Japan blockades Vladivostok and institutes a naval patrol of the whole eastern Siberian coast. Almost simultaneously the ground forces come into contact. The Russian mobilization is revealed as having two centers of gravity. One is around Vladivostok, and defends certainly as far north as Pogranichnaya, possibly to Kavarovsk. The second pivots around Chita, but its lighter concentrations extend to the east of Blagoveshchensk. From the Korean-Siberian frontier, along each of the railways radiating out from Harbin, through Jehol and Urga toward Kiakhta, Japanese columns plunge outward. From Japan proper her mobilized armies stream across the sea, first reinforcing the columns on the march, then forming a strategic reserve to exploit any crack which may be opened in the long Russian line. Despite aerial and submarine interference, that tide flows on. Russian resistance is fiercest around its two centers of gravity. The Red armies roll back sullenly, toward Vladivostok and the Baikal massif respectively. There is much hard fighting, no disaster. Finally the Japanese are fifty-odd miles from Vladivostok. The Russian air force, worn down to half its initial strength, leaves the doomed fortress. Japanese generals heave a sigh of relief. After hardships and uncertainties, the Russian air force, still a coherent entity, rejoins the main Soviet army now concentrated in the Baikal area. That army has been hard pressed but not disorganized. It has inflicted greater losses than it has received. The Trans-Siberian railway, under full load and overload, rushes replacements of men and supplies. Against it is arrayed the maximum power of Japan. It is now at least six months, at most a year, since the outbreak of hostilities. The armies are in the decisive zone. Now, and only now, can the answer be sought to the question: Can Russia hold Baikal?

The completion of the series of operations which may be described together as the battle for the foreground of Eastern Asia necessitates no evaluation of the relative strengths of the opposing forces. This is for the simple reason that the Russians, being concerned with prolonged resistance, delaying actions, and possible ruptures of communications, would seek naturally to allot the minimum of man-power required to utilize the munitions and equipment in the area. Meanwhile the Japanese find their forces strengthened by their favorable strategic situation. It is unnecessary to delve into either the dynamics or the psychology of war to perceive that they can sweep the Russians back to the main battle position. But once there, the adversaries are arrayed against each other and committed to the maximum sustained effort for decision. What are their relative effective strengths?

Qualitatively there is little to choose between the two armies. With the exception of aviation, neither is modern in the complete sense of the word. Each is short of artillery, mechanical combat vehicles and motor transportation; each has an imperfectly developed staff and command system. Both are traditionally brave and devoted, so far as individual soldiers are concerned. In a struggle such as is being considered, each army would assume the rôle for which it is best qualified by psychology and training: the Japanese on the offensive, the Russian in defense. In doctrine, the Japanese propensity to emphasize personal factors to the detriment of material is counterbalanced by a certain rigidity in current Russian tactical practice. All in all, man for man and unit for unit, the balance hangs very true.

The quantitative analysis of the opposing forces is another story, and that story cannot be told by a simple reference to available man-power. It is estimated that Japan, with two million trained men, can maintain at most a fighting force of some nine hundred thousand. At the outbreak of war she would logically set aside some three hundred thousand as home garrison, as stiffening for Manchurian troops along her communications, and as a potential expeditionary force to keep China quiet. Probably this initial subtraction from the field armies could gradually be made good. If the garrison troops were not called upon for operations, did not expend ammunition nor wear out equipment, the munitions, material and supplies produced for them could be devoted to the mobilization of an additional three hundred thousand for service in the theatre of war. Again, the Vladivostok operation would call for a detachment of from 150,000 to 250,000 men, with a tendency toward the higher number. The initial force deployed in the westward thrust would thus be from 350,000 to 450,000 men, probably nearer the former than the latter figure. But as the war progressed, the flow of reinforcements to the main army would continue. The replacements of the home garrison would come in a steady stream. Commitments around Vladivostok could be reduced to 50,000 men. As the Japanese prepared for the crucial assaults around Baikal, their man-power at the front might be prophesied to be 750,000 (a figure reached by subtracting the 50,000 men in the eastern Siberian garrison, and the wastage of 100,000 due to casualties not immediately replaced, from the 900,000 available in the theatre of war).

It will be noted that no provision has been made for Manchurian, Korean or colonial levies. The reason is clear. Japan is not limited by man-power but by her ability to maintain soldiers. The bottle neck by which her men must pass to the armies is economic, or rather fiscal. She can keep only 900,000 effectives in the combat zone and obviously would choose them from her own rather than from subject races.

Russia, too, has a bottle neck, but it is physical rather than fiscal. The Red army at peace strength numbers in excess of 700,000. Presumably a complete mobilization could bring six million men to the colors. Nor can there be any question of her ability to arm, supply and equip soldiers by the millions, given her control of industry, her ability to disregard the orthodox problems of finance, and her urge -- her mania -- for production. But before these millions may fight, they must reach the front; and once there they must be munitioned and supplied. Practically every man, some of his food, and all of his weapons and their missiles must travel on a narrow double strand of steel. The strength and efficiency of the Russian army in the decisive zone is a function of the capacity of the Trans-Siberian railway.

Now this capacity is something which it is very difficult to estimate. In its calculation there must be included many other factors than the sheer ability of trains to shuttle back and forth between Lake Baikal and the Soviet centers of war industry and population. Car and locomotive supply, operating efficiency, the friction attendant on long hauls and, above all, terminal and unloading facilities, all play an enormous part; and about these there is little accurate information available. In the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05, the then single-tracked Trans-Siberian operated with great skill and raised the Russian forces in the Far East from approximately 100,000 men to a strength of 300,000 in a period of less than a year. The latter seemed to be a saturation point; Kuropatkin had some 310,000 men for the final battle of Mukden. The recent double-tracking of the Trans-Siberian should at least quadruple its capacity. Moreover, the hauls are shorter: the center of gravity of the Russian munitions industry has moved appreciably to the eastward since the fall of the Romanoffs, and the Baikal area is a good 1200 miles west of the theatre of the earlier conflict. On the other hand, the demands of modern war for material have also jumped three- and four-fold. With full consciousness of the likelihood of error, the writer nevertheless suggests that Soviet Russia can maintain approximately 400,000 effectives in the Baikal area. The current Russian concentration in the Far East, made in the shadow of war, comes well within this figure.

Let us assume that Russia can maintain and munition a field army 400,000 strong astride the Trans-Siberian. At once the question arises as to why she could not equip a large garrison nucleus of say 150,000 men in the Vladivostok area and cut it adrift; and then, while this detachment was occupying the attention of preponderantly larger Japanese forces, why could she not with her mobile army of 400,000 fall upon the Japanese in northern and western Manchuria while they were numerically inferior or at best of only the same strength? The answer lies on the map. Such an attack, to preserve its communications, must be frontal, down the Chinese Eastern Railway. It would be asking the Russians to batter against the Khingan mountains with certainly inadequate numbers, to place themselves in the position which they hope the Japanese would assume with reference to the Baikal area. In the operations in the Asiatic foreground we can expect local Russian counter attacks certainly, a counter offensive only if justified by events, and an initial offensive not at all. The more the problem is examined, the more clearly its basic elements stand out: a successful, if arduous Japanese advance to the Baikal region and there the battle, or rather a series of battles, for the decision.

What can be said of these culminating operations? Can the Russians make good their stand around the great lake? Numerically they would be inferior, the odds against them ranging from at least three to two to almost two to one. In aviation also they should be weaker if they have used their air force boldly in the first phase of the war. They are committed to the defense of a single area, and it is a military truism that any one position can be captured. But they would possess the advantages of position, of being on the defensive in rough and broken country, with great opportunities for organization in depth and for powerful counter attacks. Also, the communications dilemma of the first phase is partially reversed. Japanese supply movements would be constricted by the bottle neck of a captured section of the Trans-Siberian, and their lateral road net, north and south, would have to be improvised. On the other hand, with the Okhotsk railway creeping away from the Trans-Siberian to north and east, and with at least the temporary use of a line from Verkhne-Udinsk to Kiakhta, the Russian reserves and supplies could be shuffled rapidly and scientifically between critical points. All in all, a certain superiority must be assigned the Japanese; but it is far from overwhelming and it must be remembered that wars are not fought in vacuo nor decided in staff map rooms.

In a war in the near future between the Soviet Republics and Japan the military objectives of both Powers are not orthodox or identical. Neither seeks the classical formula, "the destruction of the enemy's will to resist." The Japanese must achieve the conquest of a single section of terrain, vast and distant, yet limited. There can be no question for them of the annihilation of Russia's armed power or the overawing of her continent-wide populace. The Russian aim is simply to cripple the Japanese will to attack, to sap Japan financially, economically and morally as well as militarily. If they attain this they have victory, even if their lines rock and stagger around Baikal. For the Japanese, then, even from the purely military point of view, there must be combined with the chance of defeat on the battlefield -- unlikely but still possible -- another chance, more formidable, of defeat by attrition.

We have now reached the boundaries of the military province in considering the potentialities of a Russo-Japanese war. Beyond lies the domain of the political writer. Yet perhaps a soldier may be permitted to look across that very narrow and badly delimited line. It would seem that, as things stand today, Japan holds a certain balance of force and a likelihood, but by no means a certainty, of victory in battle. Against this she must weigh, if not her existence, at least her institutions and her social order. The odds are disproportionate to the stake. A chance which it seemed obligatory to take when the Tsar's bayonets sparkled on the shores of the Gulf of Pechili does not invite to action, least of all single-handed, when the Soviet war planes drone no nearer than the Amur.

  • T. J. BETTS, General Staff, United States Army; formerly Assistant Military Attaché in China
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