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The Hepburn Board: A Model for Preparing for Great Power Competition?

A U.S. Navy F-35C Lightning II fighter jet performs during the California International Air Show in Salinas, California, Oct. 29, 2021. The F-35C has a larger wingspan and internal fuel capacity as well as stronger landing gear than the F-35A and F-35B variants. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Andrew D. Sarver)

Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. administrations have slowly reexamined America’s role in the Pacific and the potential competition with China in a Great Power Competition. In 2015, President Barrack Obama stated the U.S. sought to preserve and enhance a stable and diversified security order in which countries pursue their national objectives peacefully.” 

During the Trump administration, it was apparent that the National Defense strategy shifted to one that highlighted potential peer-to-peer military engagements with Russia and China. This was put into place rather than the counter-terrorist activities that had highlighted the defense department for almost 20 years. 

In fact, on his first day on the job in 2019, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan gathered civilian leaders of the military services to deliver a simple message: “China, China, China.” In late July 2020, Admiral Philip Davidson, head of the Indo-Pacific Command, asked Congress to give him a powerful new missile defense system, modern training ranges, and billions more dollars for exercises, troop rotations, and other programs designed to blunt China’s growth. 

Preparing for Adversaries

One of the main questions was how best to prepare the U.S. military to face this emerging adversary. Recently, the U.S. Marine Corps began the process of restructuring to better prepare “for great power competition and expeditionary warfare operations.” The response includes the U.S. Navy training for possible combat in the Pacific. 

Learn from Experience

While it is important to train for future operations in the Pacific, as a historian, I suggest that we can learn lessons from past efforts. These lessons helped to prepare the U.S. Navy for its last large-scale war, World War II, to gain a model for preparing for future conflicts. 

While the conventional narrative is that the U.S. was unprepared for the start of World War II in the Pacific, that was untrue. While not fully mobilized, the American government had taken vital steps to expand its Navy and its bases that would serve as the basis of the great fleet that would stop Japanese expansion and later crush the Japanese empire. One of the important planning documents for that expansion was the Hepburn Board Report (1938) which could serve as a model for the planning the U.S. military needed to do in the Pacific. 

During the 1930s, the Empire of Japan initiated both economic and military expansion within the Pacific Rim. This was done in hopes of creating a greater sphere of influence within the region. This expansion, known first as the New Order in East Asia, and later as the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere culminated in 1937 with Japan’s invasion of mainland China, a U.S. ally. The U.S. government, seeing threats to its strategic partners in Asia from the expansion of Japan, began revising its war plan and started planning for new bases in the region

In 1934 Naval expansion started with the Vinson-Trammel Act. The act constructed the U.S. fleet to the limits of the Washington and London treaties. In May 1938, in response to Germany’s annexation of Austria, the U.S. Congress passed the Naval Expansion Act of 1938 (Second Vinson Act), which called for the expansion of the fleet by 20 percent, and the construction of 3,000 naval aircraft. Also, Section 10 of the act stated that the “The Secretary of the Navy is hereby authorized and directed to appoint a board … to investigate and report upon the need, for purposes of national defense, for the establishment of the additional submarine, destroyer, mine, and naval air bases on the coasts of the United States, its territories and possessions.” In July 1938, Secretary of the Navy Charles Edison appointed Admiral Arthur J. Hepburn, former commander-in-chief of the US fleet, to chair the board to review American defenses in the Pacific and make recommendations on how the defenses might be strengthened

Formation of a Board

The makeup of the board was partially responsible for its success. The chair, Admiral Arthur Hepburn, was a graduate of the Naval Academy and during his almost 40 years in the fleet had served in almost every position in the navy including head of Naval intelligence, captain of a battleship, naval representative to numerous arms control talks, and commander of the fleet. 

Other members of the board included Captain Arthur L. Bristol, Jr., the first commander of the USS Ranger, the first American aircraft carrier built from the keel up; Read Admiral Edward J. Marquart, Captain Ralph Whitman, Civil Engineer Corps, and Lt. Comdr. William E. Hilbert, the recorder. The board had officers with diverse backgrounds, but they understood the changes in naval operations and the importance of naval aviation. 

The Hepburn Board quickly but methodically reviewed the existing Naval War Plans for the Pacific (War Plan ORANGE), and other documents from various naval bureaus to determine the needs of the United States in protecting the Pacific. Regarding the review process, Hepburn stated, “I would say that every item that the board has suggested has been considered in the past some time by one department or another or by the Joint Board involved, and they have been put down as projects to be attained when they can get the money.” In December 1938, the Hepburn Board submitted its final report to Congress, which focused on the expansion of naval aviation bases in the Pacific. The report recommended:

25 naval air bases, 15 of which would be in the Pacific area. The board proposed additional development of the existing Pacific stations at San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Sitka, and Ford Island (Hawaii) and [the] creation of new bases at the following places: Kodiak (Alaska), Unalaska (Aleutian Islands), Kaneohe Bay (Hawaii), Midway Island, Wake Island, Johnston Island, Palmyra Island, Guam, Canton Island, and Rose Island (Samoa). 

Furthermore, the board recommended the expansion of the naval air training station at Pensacola and an additional air training station at Corpus Christi, Texas. The report also called for additional destroyer bases across both coasts. But the report set these items as priorities: (1) improvement of air facilities at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii; (2) submarine and air bases at Wake Island, Midway Island, and Guam; (3) air facilities at Johnston Island and Palmyra Island; (4) air and submarine bases at Kodiak and Sitka; and (5) submarine facilities at San Juan, Puerto Rico. 

The Hepburn Board Report was met with excitement by the US public and political leaders. The New York Times called the report “the most complete ever written so far as the navy, air and submarine defenses of the nation are involved.” Congress quickly took up the funding bills that would cover the $326,216,000 needed to implement the recommendations, and after some debate, within a year “practically all the board’s recommendations, except those relating to Guam, were carried out and contributed materially to our position when war actually developed.”

Not everyone was happy with the plan. Kathleen Barnes, from the Institute of Pacific Relations, argued in 1939 that the plan would change the focus of the Pacific Islands, and “Now they seem fated to form part of a far-flung naval line of fortification.”

While the Hepburn Board Report was not the only blueprint for America’s defense strategy before World War II, it was a key component that offers lessons for today’s defense planners. First, the board was created by a bi-partisan effort of Congress (House vote, 294-100; and Senate vote 56-28). Second, the officers selected for the Board had diverse naval careers including naval intelligence and supporting diplomatic efforts, and the commander of the first American carrier. Hepburn advocated for the expansion of naval aviation, even though he was an old-school “Black shoe” Naval officer.

Even though the Board members might not have been part of the naval aviation group, they saw its importance in future conflicts. Finally, the Board took a total approach to American Naval strategy. They advocated for not just bases in the Pacific, but also the Atlantic and the Caribbean. They called for expanding existing facilities and creating new ones. Moreover, they remembered that expansion of personnel and equipment required training and maintenance facilities.  

Of course, the Hepburn Board Report did not cover all of the needs of the U.S. Navy in World War II, and its recommendations reflect the operational methods and strategic goals of the time. But the concept of the Hepburn Board can serve as a model for reimagining American basing and deployments to face an emerging adversary in a Great Powers Competition.  

Edward Salo, Ph.D., is an associate professor of history, and the associate director of the heritage studies Ph.D. Program at Arkansas State University. Before coming to A-State, he served as a consulting historian for various projects across the globe. 

Written By

Edward Salo, Ph.D., is an associate professor of history, and the associate director of the heritage studies Ph.D. Program at Arkansas State University. Before coming to A-State, he served as a consulting historian for various projects across the globe.