Ten Seconds to Live or Die

“The difference between a good officer and a poor one is about ten seconds…”
“The difference between a good officer and a poor one is about ten seconds…”

Commodore Arleigh Burke, the second commander of the storied Little Beavers of Destroyer Squadron 23, first uttered those words shortly after taking command of the squadron in October 1943. He came to this conclusion after studying the Battle of Tassafaronga and validated it through his own observations of combat at sea. The same thinking that led to future Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Burke’s conclusion, echoes today in the words of current CNO Admiral John Richardson, who states in the Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, “The margins of victory are razor thin – but decisive!” [1]

The Little Beavers Learn to Fight

Commodore Burke analyzed three intersecting variables to come to his ten second rule: the Japanese Type 93 torpedo (the Long Lance), the new U.S. search radar (the “Sugar George” or SG) and the necessity of mission command (what he called “faith” in subordinate commanders). The Long Lance torpedo was a monster. It was longer than 9 meters, could travel up to 20 miles at speeds up to 52 knots, and had a warhead in excess of 1000 lbs. This torpedo “out-sticked” (had a longer range) and outperformed the American Mark XV torpedo in all aspects. But, fortunately for the U.S. Navy, its range exceeded the range at which Japanese ships could detect their American prey.

This is where radar gave the U.S. Navy an advantage. The SG radar could detect enemy ships beyond 15 miles—a long distance on a dark night in the South Pacific. This advantage, however, was only realized if U.S. Navy commanders were empowered to attack as soon as they detected their foe and had a fire control solution. Waiting for permission or answering peppering questions from higher headquarters inevitably wasted the brief tactical advantage.

The mission command aspect of the fight was (and remains) essential. Commodore Burke contemplated this as he watched U.S. warships underperform early in the war. On taking command he allowed his destroyers to attack the enemy as soon as they made contact—without waiting for orders. This required the approval of his boss, Rear Admiral Aaron Merrill. Quite directly, Commodore Burke told his boss, “I want you to have enough faith to let me get going on doctrine the moment I make enemy contact, and without first getting permission from you.” [2]

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