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The Battle of The Coral Sea’s 75th Anniversary: Intelligence Lessons for Today

By Paul Becker (Rear Adm., USN, Ret.)

88-159-ai
“Scratch one flattop!” Aflame from stem to quarter, the Japanese aircraft carrier Shoho falls victim to U.S. Navy dive and torpedo bombers on 7 May 1942 during the Battle of Coral Sea. Death of the Shoho, painting, oil; by Robert Benney; 1942. NHHC accession #: 88-159-AI as a Gift of Abbott Laboratories.

May 4th marks the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea, an epic maritime engagement between the U.S. and Imperial Japanese Navies in early World War II.  This was history’s first sea battle where opposing ships never saw or fired upon each other and only carrier-based aircraft engaged the enemy.

The outcome was a tactical draw (each side lost one aircraft carrier) but a U.S. strategic victory for three reasons:

  1. It foiled the Japanese attempt to capture Port Moresby, New Guinea which would have in turn threatened northeastern Australia,
  2. It was the first setback for the Imperial Japanese Navy which seemed unstoppable early in the war with triumphs ranging from Ceylon to Hawaii, and damaged two other Japanese aircraft carriers which would subsequently be unavailable for action in the Pacific’s next major sea battle,
  3. The breakthrough role that Pacific Fleet Intelligence personnel played in deciphering Japanese code allowed the U.S. Navy to arrive at the right place and right time to engage a numerically superior enemy on our terms.

Intelligence lessons learned from the Coral Sea are relevant today.  The painstaking efforts by Pacific Fleet cryptanalysts and intelligence personnel to fuse radio signals with other sources of information (human, photographic, media, etc.) resulted in a timely, relevant product called “Operational Intelligence (OPINTEL).”

Just as single source radio intelligence did not offer complete understanding of the adversary then, modern single source cyber access does not offer complete understanding of an adversary now. Mastery of the all-source art of OPINTEL is just as essential for maintaining battle space awareness and enabling a commanders’ decision advantage in 2017 as it was in 1942.

The tools and speed of collecting and processing raw data have changed, but the imperative for critically analyzing, evaluating and adding “so what?” and “what’s next?” judgments has not.  Training and employing seasoned intelligence professionals with a broad range of experiences and a comprehensive historical and cultural understanding of our adversaries is just as essential for warfare commaBecker Uniformnders today as it was for warfare commanders in World War II.

The Navy’s next opportunity to apply the decision advantage made possible through OPINTEL following Coral Sea would be at the monumental Battle of Midway in June 1942 … more on that next month!

Editor’s Note: Paul Becker, Rear Adm., USN (Retired) is the former Director of Intelligence for the U.S. Pacific Command and Joint Chiefs of Staff.