Lessons from Pearl Harbour and Future Threats

On the 80th anniversary of Pearl Harbour, it’s worth asking could it ever happen again? A conventional war over Ukraine is clearly a threat – but is it one the Russians would risk without first trying to significantly weaken the West’s resilience though a cyberstrike? As they sow, so would they reap.

Blain’s Morning Porridge 7th December 2021: Lessons from Pearl Harbour and Future Threats

“May God have mercy upon our enemies, because I won’t.”

This morning – On the 80th anniversary of Pearl Harbour, it’s worth asking could it ever happen again? A conventional war over Ukraine is clearly a threat – but is it one the Russians would risk without first trying to significantly weaken the West’s resilience though a cyberstrike? As they sow, so would they reap.

Today is the 80th anniversary of Pearl Harbour. “A Day that will live in Infamy”, said President FD Roosevelt. It was the pivotal moment of the Second World War – the event that precipitated the US into the conflict. Many modern historians believe the administration was secretly relieved it happened – overcoming isolationists at a stroke. Although the death toll was lower than 9/11, Pearl Harbour still reverberates around the globe – don’t poke the hornet’s nest. There is nothing like this Morning’s quote above from General George S. Patton to sum up the American attitude to an unprovoked war.

Churchill said he slept “the sleep of the saved” on hearing the news, delighted the Arsenal of Democracy had finally joined the fight. He was right – whatever short-term reverses and stumbles subsequently occurred, the USA’s economic might and production capacity ensured final victory. It’s worth remembering America never declared war on Germany. The Reich declared war on America on Dec 11th – thus also reaping the Allied whirlwind.

We’re all familiar with the story of Japan’s mistake.

The Japanese simply didn’t understand America. They bet the farm on a quick devasting strike, hoping it would encourage the Americans to negotiate on embargos. They achieved a solid tactical win sinking 7 old Battleships, but it was a strategic disaster. They failed to cripple America by sinking the two American Aircraft Carriers on exercise close to the Islands, although they probably could have by adopting a more flexible approach to operational planning. American emerged pre-eminent from the conflict. Japan remains the only nation to have been nuclear bombed into submission.

Does Pearl Harbour hold many lessons for the modern age?

Later today Joe Biden will meet President Putin on the diplomatic equivalent of the Zoom call. Biden will warn about Russia’s troop build-up around Ukraine, while Putin will confabulate about Ukraine being a Nato thorn through Mother Russia’s heart.

It will be a poker game. Putin is betting the West will prove unwilling to sacrifice “boots-on-the-ground” defending an Eastern European nation that essentially was part of Russia for centuries. As is typical in today’s geopolitics, it all accompanied by fake news, misleading headlines, bots and outright misdirection – designed to persuade western audiences its hardly worth intervening.

The US intelligence services sound pretty certain Putin intends us to think he will make a play for Ukraine early in the new year. The units around the border can quickly be brought up to strength with reservists. However, defence analysts have pointed out Russia has limited economic resources, and even scarcer military ones, to sustain any conflict with NATO – should it go to Ukraine’s aid. The days of 8000 Soviet tanks and 57 divisions set to roll over the North German plane are history.

What if Putin has no intention of risking his precious military assets on recovering Ukraine? His best hope is persuading the West to let him have it. The troops on the border may be there as part of a maskirovka – the finely honed Russian strategy and art of deception. Let the enemy see one thing while doing something else.

Maybe the maskirovka is to cover joint action with China – the Ukraine being a front for something gruesome in Taiwan. Unlikely.

What else might it be? The threat of withholding gas from Europe? It would certainly cause misery, but with the ultimate consequence of bankrupting Russia if Europe permanently disengages as a purchaser. A move against the Baltics would be met by trip-wire Nato forces and harden European attitudes even more than a move against Russia.

Perhaps war by other means?

Asymmetric warfare is commonly understood as a bunch of Kalashnikov wielding tribesmen swamping a modern, trained army. A tad embarrassing, and an effective way to undermine apparent military credibility. Just because the Americans so decisively “advanced backwards” from Afghanistan has little bearing on Ukraine.

The other end of the military spectrum – hypersonic missiles able to take out US Carrier groups in the South China Seas and Drone Swarms set to clear the beaches of Taiwan are also unlikely. Ukraine is more likely to be conventional slog – should it come to that.

The threat is more likely to come from another vector.

The West’s critical vulnerability could prove our addiction to digitisation. Western Economies have gone fully digital, making them vulnerable as a prime cyberwar target. The Russians, as we know, are no slouches when it comes to cybercrime.

Yesterday I fired up my new company laptop for the first time. It takes longer to boot up because it’s got multiple new security features built in, plus dual factor authentication. I now use a 12 character password – which would take a normal computer decades to break. The delay is a momentary distraction, but its state of the art software keeps my data and the firm safe. Unfortunately, most UK banks are running code nearly as old as me, and I can pretty much guarantee many businesses are running programmes on a host of obsolete operating systems.

Could the Russians be planning a major cyberstrike to break the West’s resilience ahead of any move on Ukraine? Over the last few years they have attacked and brought down many of the key elements of Ukraine’s economy – and made it clear it was them, demonstrating their abilities. Power, transport and banking have all been attacked, serving notice they won’t hesitate to do it again.

If the Russians can add to the current coronavirus gloom and deepen the sense of foreboding about the stagflationary threat, then why not further break the resilience of the West, and deepen the sense of siege mentality by taking out hospitals, transport, power and mobile phones with targeted cyber-attacks? All of these attack vectors have been tried and tested.

We tend to think the West are the good guys when it comes to Cyberwarfare. As well as hacking into Hillary Clinton’s email, we’ve all read about the Ruskies trying to take out US pipelines and infiltrate Nuclear power stations. There is a great story how a Chinese cyber-warfare unit hacked their way into US oil rig systems by means of a back door via the internet menu of a local Chinese takeaway restaurant.  Cyber warfare has evolved fast.

But so have the Americans and Brits. Under Trump the Whitehouse made no secret it was hitting back at Russian systems. The most successful cyber attack of all time was under Obama’s watch: the Stuxnet worm in 2010, when the Americans and Israelis took out Iran’s nuclear processing ability, got the programme inside the computers and caused uranium refining centrifuges to spin out of control. Earlier this year, the Israelis did it again – taking out a newer layer of Iranian machines.

The Americans let the information on the attack leak out, apparently convinced Iran would never catch up in terms of its cyberwar abilities. How wrong they were. Iran took out Aramco just a few years later with a strike leaving an image of a burning American flag on every PC in the firm. Since then they’ve attacked banks and infrastructure across the US.

The cyberwarfare risks to markets are perhaps as great as a conventional attack. Crashing western banks could trigger a chain of defaults. Banks are effectively only as strong as their counterparties. Even if most banks have strengthened their cyber defences, even one banking default could spread all kinds of financial mayhem.

If the attack is made on soft-targets, hospitals and transport, the effects could make Covid look like a picnic. Taking out satellites and coms would be equally destructive.

The West is more vulnerable because we are now totally reliant on digital apps and function. If the Russians can collapse our system the damage will be greater than anything we can immediately inflict on them.

But, here’s the key lesson from Pearl Harbour. A cyberstrike may well cripple the West. It could prove a devasting tactical victory. Yet, it would ultimately prove a strategic defeat as you can bet the Americans and the West will get more than even over time.

Keep an eye on the Cyber space.

Out of time and back to the day job…

Bill Blain

Strategist – Shard Capital


  1. I think if you do some proper research rather than relying on the popular press you will find that the Japanese were much more afraid of the Russians than they were the Americans. They ignored the two atom bombs completely and then decided to surrender to the USA as soon as Russia decided to enter the war.

    History also shows that the Japanese were right to choose the Americans to surrender to.

    • I was going to bin this comment, but then I thought.. why not post it and see what happens.

      The author is clearly deeply upset by my line: “Japan remains the only nation to have been nuclear bombed into submission.”

      I was amused by the purile insult about not doing “proper research”. What Mr Newton actually means – “how dare you post an opinion that disagrees with mine.”

      I think he rather missed the point of the piece…

      • Mr Newton makes an interesting point, that was news to me, and appears to be widely supported by historians. So today I’ve learnt from your article and its comments – as it should be. The comment struck me as neither deeply upset, nor puerile. Given your propensity to censor comments that you disagree with “how dare you post an opinion that disagrees with mine” is a tad ironic. Your articles are excellent and no doubt Newton agrees or he wouldn’t be here to comment. More tolerance of disagreement would be another string to your site’s bow.

      • It was a zero% relevant comment. But he is 100% accurate, and Japan’s Nuclear submission is a common phallacy (pun intended) that needs correcting. Finance has a tolerance for ambiguity that most other subjects don’t.

        Fire bombs killed 100k in a day in Tokyo – and a million homeless – that had as many deaths and far greater impact than the subsequent nukes. The end of WW2 in Europe was about the great race for Berlin. In Asia it would have been the same.

  2. The lesson from an investment point of view is to hoard actual cash so that when the ATMs stop disgorging and the Banks close you will be the last man standing who can operate freely.

  3. I have some sympathy for the Russian position on Ukraine. It is a large country of more than 40 million people that no Russian government can afford to join a hostile military bloc. Unfortunately Putin has chosen the whip rather than using honey to deal with his Ukrainian problem. Invading and occupying such a large nation ( its almost 1000 miles from east to west) would be an enormous military challenge even if NATO did nothing which is unlikely.

    Putin better think this through. China doesn’t even recognize his Crimean conquest so imagining the Russian tail is going to wag the Chinese dog is unrealistic.

  4. Mr. Newton is correct. After the second bomb, the Japanese leadership was evenly split on whether or not to surrender, and a coup attempt by ‘hardliners’ only narrowly failed; there remained a strong belief that American casualties during the Kyushu landings that the Japanese anticipated would be too high for them to sustain a conquest of the entirety of the home islands. Hirohito was the ‘tie-breaker’, and what swayed him – according to Japanese records – was the Soviet attack on Manchuria. Chinese resistance had collapsed shortly before, and the Japanese were counting on transferring large numbers of troops from ‘Manchukuo’ back to Japan. When the Soviets attacked on the mainland and began threatening the far north of Japan itself Hirohito recognised the game was up. Few would argue that the bombs didn’t accelerate the end of the Pacific war, but it remains an open question as to whether they were the sole catalyst. Personally, I think they were not.

    As for the wider point of your article…….I’m not sure what you’re getting at either. That Ford and GM were able to shift production from cars to tanks and planes in 1942 doesn’t tell us too much about the country’s relative capabilities in cyberwarfare today or its ability to build and maintain a winning advantage going forward. Furthermore, the US and its ‘allies’ are very divided societies. We are all now well-accustomed to the lies emanating from our intelligence agencies and their tame media. The usual chicken-hawks and jingoists on both sides of the Atlantic will of course encourage conflict as long as they and theirs are not in the firing line, and as long as their financial interests benefit (buy ITA??), but I suspect they will be met with fairly widespread indifference as far as the plight of the Ukraine is concerned. Not that the media will encourage us to ask the question, but many Americans will wonder how the US government would react to nuclear-capable delivery systems being placed in a hostile Cuba (ring any bells?). Many in the UK will ask what a country that so manifestly cannot control its own borders in the Channel or in Ireland is doing deploying forces to Estonia, Poland, and the Ukraine to deter a country that some will see as simply trying to defend itself against a NATO threat to its heartland.

    In sum, conflict in the Ukraine if it comes will not equate to Pearl Harbor, the West will not be as united as was the US this day in 1941, and neither the industrial nor technological strengths of the US at that time are as manifestly dominant today. Neither you nor I know the answer, but I certainly suspect that either or both Russia and China could do far more damage to the foundations of Western economies over a very short period of time than our snowflake, woke societies can accommodate. They will have war-gamed inflicting an intolerable amount of pain in as short a time as possible – something which, as Yamamoto knew only too well, the Japanese were always going to be quite unable to do after Pearl Harbor because of the limits imposed upon them by geography and the technologies of the time. This is not 1941.

    And one final thought: if you’re going to give such serious consideration to deleting comments from people with whom you disagree, or who you – rightly or wrongly – feel might not have grasped the point of your article – why bother having a comments section at all?

    • As I remember, Yamamoto wanted to consolidate his gains quickly and then sue the US for peace after six months or so. The battles of Coral Sea and Midway changed that plan.

    • I appreciate your thoughts here, particularly on the state of Western democracies. I infer from your comments that you also believe that the “wokeness” of Western societies make us less able to stomach a real conflict anymore. As for the divisions in our press, and by extension in our society and politics, I wonder what a real, genuine existential threat to our existence could do to reset the corruption within our democracies?

  5. Neither the Russians nor the Chinese are going to attack Ukraine and Taiwan. In spite of Trump’s weakening of our global standing, financial and economic power and military capacity, the United States is still way too big a threat to either country to make such a move. Besides, once Trump steals the 2024 election and installed as President-For-Life (Papa Doc), Russia can walk into the Ukraine and China into Taiwan.

    My major was Japanese studies at the University of Washington. Russia’s entrance into the Pacific War, at the invitation of the United States, had little impact on the outcome. The destruction of Nagasaki was the final nail in the proverbial coffin.

  6. Sorry to come across as being abrasive, and by the way I am not the least upset. Those in favour of nuclear weapons would prefer us to believe the propaganda that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought about the immediate surrender by the Japanese. But in fact Togo didn’t even call a cabinet meeting after Hiroshima and didn’t react immediately to the destruction of Nagasaki.

    He did, however, react immediately to the declaration of war by Russia and the occupation of the Kuril Islands.

    • Thanks Alistair..
      I was feeling bruised yesterday – some Crypto conman tweeted I was a drunk and abuser of women in response to recent article on Ponzi-Cryptos..

  7. I am curious about your thoughts on what would the West would do to get more than even over time?

  8. The phrase is, “a date which will live in infamy.” Roosevelt’s speech began with, “Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy.”

    Using ‘date’ was a reference to the actual day: December 7th.

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