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Fire One, Fire Ten: Implications of the Torpedo Scandal of World War II

On 23 July 1943, the USS Tinosa, an American submarine on war patrol in the Pacific, spent the entire day trying to sink the Tonan Maru, a high-value, unprotected Japanese oil tanker. The Tinosa fired fifteen torpedoes and the net result was that twelve torpedoes hit the target but only one of them exploded. The Japanese ship eventually escaped and when the Tinosa returned to headquarters at Pearl Harbor, the commander of Pacific Fleet submarines describes the young skipper as still being almost speechless with rage.[1] This episode was the most egregious example of a strategic problem that plagued the U.S. Navy during the first half of World War II in the Pacific. The Pacific War was primarily a naval war and American submarines were intended to play a strategic role but they began the war armed with Mark 14 torpedoes that suffered from not one but three crippling design flaws. Even more surprisingly, it took almost two years during the war to identify and correct the problems with this highly classified and advanced weapons technology. This state of affairs imposed unnecessary delays on the United States as it sought to exploit Japanese vulnerabilities and frustrate Japanese strategic plans. The strategic consequences of the torpedo problem were so significant that it led one historian to conclude “The torpedo scandal of the U.S. submarine force in World War II was one of the worst in the history of… warfare.”[2]

Reflecting on the torpedo scandal is valuable for 21st-century strategic leaders because this episode provides important insights into the integrated nature of strategic decision-making and the unforeseen implications of rapid strategic change.

Reflecting on the torpedo scandal is valuable for 21st-century strategic leaders because this episode provides important insights into the integrated nature of strategic decision-making and the unforeseen implications of rapid strategic change. It took the first twenty-one months of the war to identify and fix defective torpedoes, in part, because of a vicious bureaucratic war that existed between submarine commanders in the Pacific and the powerful Bureau of Ordnance back in the United States. The Bureau insisted that the unsatisfactory performance of torpedoes derived, not from design flaws, but from the incompetence and inexperience of submarine commanders and crews. As we will see, decisions made in the interwar years about technology, doctrine, and organizational structure greatly exacerbated this interagency war. The Navy leaders who made these choices did not recognize the interlinking nature of strategic decisions nor did they foresee important consequences of rapid strategic change.

USS Tinosa (SS-283), broadside view, c. 1944 (Wikimedia)

The initiation of hostilities at Pearl Harbor was a surprise to Americans but the identity of their opponent was not. The U.S. Navy had been anticipating war with Japan for decades and American submarines turned out to be of strategic importance in the Pacific War. Japan was an island nation that needed a large navy to project combat power and a large merchant fleet to import raw materials. American submarines became astonishingly successful at exploiting both of those vulnerabilities. They were able to completely isolate Japan from imported food and raw materials, which was a task that German U-boats failed to accomplish against England in both World Wars. American submariners, who comprised two percent of the U.S. Navy, were responsible for more than half of all of the Japanese ships that were sunk during the Pacific War.[3]

The torpedo problem began when the U.S. Navy decided to upgrade its torpedoes after World War I. Instead of firing a torpedo at a warship and attempting to punch through its armor plating, it was considered more effective to have a torpedo explode beneath its keel and, in effect, break its back. This required the new Mark 14 torpedo to have three control mechanisms––a depth control mechanism, a magnetic exploder, and a contact exploder. At the beginning of the Pacific War, no one in the U.S. Navy realized that the Mark 14 torpedo suffered from crippling flaws in all three control mechanisms.

In an era of constrained resources, the Navy adopted a weapons system whose cost prevented both proper testing and realistic training.

It is, perhaps, understandable why the Navy began World War II with a faulty torpedo. Torpedoes were astonishingly expensive in Depression-era America. The Mark 14 torpedo cost more than $10,000 in an era when a new car cost $700. As a result, the Bureau of Ordnance developed highly artificial testing procedures that were designed, in part, to safeguard their practice torpedoes so they could be used for multiple tests. The same budgetary considerations prevented end-users from noticing torpedo defects because submariners were never allowed to train with actual, functioning torpedoes. The bottom line was this––in an era of constrained resources, the Navy adopted a weapons system whose cost prevented both proper testing and realistic training.[4]

Mark 14 torpedo's as published in "Torpedoes Mark 14 and 23 Types, OP 635," March 24, 1945. (Wikimedia)

During the first months of the Pacific War, the submarine fleet experienced a great deal of self-inflicted operational turmoil that obscured the problem with defective torpedoes. Within five hours of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Navy headquarters unexpectedly issued an order that called for unrestricted warfare on all Japanese shipping––merchant ships as well as naval ships. This was a completely new and unexpected mission for American submariners. Despite having focused on the island nation of Japan for decades, U.S. naval doctrine had never envisioned using submarines to blockade Japan.

In the interwar years, submarines were thought of as stealthy ocean scouts that cautiously operated on the fringes of fleet actions. Training for this type of mission tended to reward prudent skippers who consistently followed established Navy doctrine. With the new mission of unrestricted warfare, American submarine skippers were ordered to boldly roam the Pacific and sink any ship with a Japanese flag. This required the submarine fleet to completely reconfigure its strategy, doctrine, and tactics. As a consequence, American submarines found themselves in unforeseen combat situations they hadn’t trained for that required aggressive and innovative tactical thinking. It gradually became clear that submarine commanders who had performed well in peacetime were not necessarily the most successful wartime commanders. During the first year of combat operations, it is estimated that thirty percent of submarine commanders were relieved of duty.[5]

The torpedo scandal demonstrates that sudden and unexpected changes to the interface between people, training, and technology can reduce the effectiveness of an organization.

Another reason for the delay in correcting the torpedo problem was that submarine warfare in World War II was a highly complex operation. Submarine crews exhibited a wide variety of operational characteristics––some crews were well trained, some were not; some skippers were very aggressive, some were not. They were facing enemy ships with a wide variety of operational characteristics––some were fast, some were slow, some were heavily armored, some were not, and submarine attacks were carried out under a wide range of combat conditions––day attacks, night attacks, submerged attacks or surface attacks. As a result, U.S. submarine operations in the first year of the war displayed an unpredictable range of success and failure. In 1942, the first full year of the war, U.S. submarines sank more than one hundred Japanese merchant ships but submarine commanders became convinced that defective torpedoes had deprived them of many other opportunities.[6] The number of variables in combat operations made it difficult to arrive at indisputable conclusions about torpedo performance.

Captain Theodore Westfall, Naval Torpedo Station Commanding Officer, and Captain Carl Bushnell of the Bureau of Ordnance inspect a Mark 14 torpedo at the Naval Torpedo Station, Keyport, Washington, 1943. (Wikimedia)

It took months of combat operations for submarine commanders and their superiors to come to the conclusion that the disappointing performance of the submarine fleet was primarily due to faulty torpedoes. Commanders in the Pacific began testing the various torpedo components in the summer of 1942––over the objections of the Bureau of Ordnance––and over the next year, the flaws in the three control mechanisms were isolated and corrected. On 30 September 1943, USS Barb left on war patrol with newly manufactured contact exploders. It was the first American submarine to go on patrol with a full load of reliable torpedoes––and the Pacific War was already half over.[7] There are two broad lessons that might be extracted from this history.

Lesson 1: Indecision can thicken the fog of war

Warfare, as Clausewitz reminds us, is the realm of uncertainty, risk, and complexity; all of which interact to create the fog of war. In the case of the Pacific War, senior commanders and war planners of the United States Navy thickened the fog of war for themselves by failing to decide on the most appropriate mission for its submarines. Navy leaders focused on Japan as a likely opponent for decades and they clearly understood Japan’s strategic vulnerability to blockade. They were reluctant to follow the implications of this strategic logic because they knew that developing doctrine for unrestricted warfare in the 1920s and 1930s would have run into a firestorm of domestic and international criticism, to say nothing of the drastic change in training practices that would also be necessary.

Despite the current popularity of decentralized organizations, there are significant strategic benefits that accrue to organizations that choose a degree of centralization.

Despite the strategic truth of Japan’s vulnerability, the Navy high command never formally adopted the mission of unrestricted warfare until the day that the United States entered World War II. As a result, American submarines entered the war without the training and doctrine for waging war on Japan’s merchant fleet. The fact that unrestricted warfare was inevitable for the upcoming conflict and had been on the minds of Navy leaders became obvious when the Chief of Naval Operations issued the order to attack Japan’s merchant fleet within five hours of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The operational consequences of this startling strategic decision masked the true nature of the torpedo problem for many months. The general lesson here is that rapidly imposing a strategic change in extreme circumstances can have unanticipated and confusing consequences for organizations. The torpedo scandal demonstrates that sudden and unexpected changes to the interface between people, training, and technology can reduce the effectiveness of an organization.

Lesson 2: Organizational structure can be a surprisingly interesting topic

The twentieth century saw the creation of two new dimensions of naval warfare––air warfare and submarine warfare. In the interwar years, the U.S. Navy chose two completely different organizational structures to manage these new aspects of warfare.  To manage air warfare, the Navy chose a centralized structure and created a Bureau of Aeronautics which was a self-contained collection of all aspects of naval air. To manage submarine warfare, the Navy chose a decentralized structure that had the unintended consequence of compounding the torpedo problem and delaying the process of identifying and fixing the torpedo defects. During the war, the three fleets––Atlantic, Pacific, and Southwest Pacific Fleets––had their own headquarters and the highest-ranking submarine commanders in the U.S. Navy were stationed at each fleet headquarters. As a result, there was no one in Washington in a position of authority who could accelerate action or speak for the entire submarine community.[8] Additionally, there was no one who could ensure that all three submarine fleets shared information and coordinated their actions.

The general lesson here is that, despite the current popularity of decentralized organizations, there are significant strategic benefits that accrue to organizations that choose a degree of centralization. As the character of warfare assumes more and more dimensions––robotics, nanotechnology, cyberwar, space, etc.––it is useful to consider the lessons that the torpedo crisis teaches about the implications of organizational structure.


The Mark 14 torpedo was a miniature system of interlocking and interdependent systems––firing systems, propulsion systems, guidance systems, and stabilizing systems––and changes to any of these component systems could have unforeseen consequences for the other systems. In a similar sense, the process of strategic decision-making is a system of systems. A successful strategy is usually not the result of one single factor such as advanced technology. Effective strategy depends on a closely interlocking set of systems that need to work smoothly together. Technology, people, doctrine, organizational structure, and training must work in a coordinated and complementary manner. Failure to integrate all these elements will create leaders who are just as frustrated such as the submarine skipper of the USS Tinosa in July 1943––when he spent the entire day firing torpedoes into an enemy ship only to see it sail away intact.

Mike Hennelly served in the U.S. Army for 21 years.  Later, as a Ph.D. in strategic management, he taught strategy and leadership to cadets at West Point for seven years. He now provides seminars on strategic leadership to executives of some of the world’s largest companies in the United States and Asia.

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Header Image: USS Tinosa (SS-283) is launched at Mare Island Navy Yard on October 7, 1942. (Wikimedia)


[1] Charles A. Lockwood, 2017. Sink ‘Em All: Submarine Warfare in the Pacific. Maecenas Books, p. 96.

[2] Clay Blair, 1975. Silent Victory: The U.S. Submarine War Against Japan. Philadelphia and New York: J.B. Lippincott Company. p. 879.

[3] Theodore Roscoe, 1949.  United States Submarine Operations in World War II. Annapolis, MD: United States Naval Institute, p. 493.

[4] David E. Cohen, 1992. “The MK-XIV torpedo: Lessons for Today.” Naval History. Annapolis, MD: United States Naval Institute, vol. 6, Iss.4, p. 34.

[5] Blair, p. 361.  Also see Montgomery C. Meigs, 1990.  Slide Rules and Submarines: American Scientists and Subsurface Warfare in World War II.  Fort McNair, Washington, D.C.:  National Defense University Press. p. 162.

[6] Blair, p. 361. His summary for submarine activity in the Pacific in 1942 is pp. 359-362.

[7] Roscoe, p.261.

[8] Wilfred J. Holmes, 1966. Undersea Victory: The Influence of Submarine Operations on the War in the Pacific.  Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, p. 45.