Sea Control Remains Critical

By J. Michael Robertson

Indeed, difficulty in identifying the enemy is the Achilles' heel of such approaches. One former Chief of Naval Operations likened this backward-first approach to war planning to "trying to design a machine tool without knowing whether it is going to manufacture hairpins or locomotives." 1 By describing the way we will fight without establishing a framework for determining who the enemy is likely to be, we are putting the cart before the horse. Only by identifying likely enemies and what their armed forces are capable of and how their doctrines, cultures, and history likely will influence their approach to war, can we gain confidence in our present doctrine.

The Gulf War provides an example of this in reverse. After spending four decades preparing for a European land war that would match our mechanized and air forces against an opponent of equal—if not perhaps greater—capabilities, the United States and its allies fought Saddam Hussein in a war that not only emphasized our strengths but also emphasized his weaknesses. To paraphrase Dean Acheson, in the future we may not be so fortunate in our enemies.

The heritage of sea power provides us with some tested and proven guidelines for determining what the future holds. Alfred Thayer Mahan, Halford Mackinder, and Julian Corbett tell us what the major future challenge to U.S. security and to that of our allies is likely to be and how we can best go about meeting that challenge. It is time to return to the study of these classic authors, and reflect on what they have to teach us.

Naval capability is linked directly to economic vitality. The Spartan king Archidamus was confident at the outset of the Peloponnesian War that if Spartans would concentrate on building a fleet of ships to match Athenian naval power before declaring war, they could be relatively sure of the outcome. As Archidamus understood it, land powers defeated sea powers in one (or both) of two ways: By defeating the sea power in sea battle, or by denying it the resources needed to sustain a navy. Eventually, by cutting Athens off from its Ukrainian grain supply and by denying it specie from local mines and colonies, Sparta won the war.

Here, in a nutshell, is the key to defeating naval power—by controlling the seas in battle or by establishing local sea control at crucial points, denying the enemy the resources navies must have. Each of these two points later gained a champion: Mahan for decisive war at sea; Corbett for local sea control.

Mahan noted how land powers in ancient times developed sufficient sea power to overcome their naval antagonists. 2 Rome attacked Hannibal's strategic center of gravity indirectly during the Second Punic War, by cutting the Carthaginian supply line through Spain. During the First Punic War, it used low-tech innovations in its minimal fleet to defeat the Carthaginian Navy. Rome was able to adapt in wartime, relatively unhindered by its lack of seamanship skills and technological inferiority.

In his 1976 book, The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery , Paul Kennedy introduced a new variation on this theme. He argued that naval capability is related to economic strength, which in turn stems from the ability to gain control over large land masses and exploit them.3 In the Cold War, the Soviet Union's economic and technical inefficiencies were too great a burden for its superior geographic position to overcome. Nevertheless, according to both Mahan and Mackinder, land powers can develop or reconstitute their strength more quickly than insular states, even after cataclysmic defeat—a thesis that a post-Cold War Russia is struggling to prove. Since we lack any understanding of the type of enemy we are likely to face, this Mahan-Mackinder argument provides a reasonable framework for determining potential enemies.

At present, the list of enemies who would challenge U.S. naval power in conventional naval warfare is a short one. China at this point cannot, and much of Russia's fleet is rusting away, with little or no maintenance. 4 The exception, however, is Russia's submarine fleet, which continues to grow and shortly after 2000 will be the world's largest. 5 Their Akula-class submarines-believed to be quieter than any in the U.S. Navy—still are being deployed at Cold War levels. In addition, Russia has tested new submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and keels have been laid for a new generation of nuclear submarines more advanced than the Akulas.

The Mahan-Mackinder thesis would seem to support the idea that the ability of Russia and China to build or reconstitute their navies cannot be assessed solely in Western terms. For example, the argument that the Chinese PLA-Navy lies at the bottom of China's modernization priorities is weakened by the fact that Chinese ballistic missile modernization is under way and in a few years likely will have the ability to reach the North American mainland with more than a token force of missiles. And arguments that inventory should not be confused with capability fail to note that Beijing tends to view its armed personnel as expendable resources. In terms of power projection, China seems committed to obtaining or building aircraft carriers—and oilers can be purchased readily. What is certain is that the nation that produced Sun Tzu is unlikely to overlook such an integral part of their fleet; it has devised a more oceangoing doctrine with the intention of fulfilling it.

The Mahan-Mackinder thesis shows us that despite its current shortcomings, a China committed to building an oceangoing navy may soon become a threat. Because of Beijing's less-centralized hold on the economy, China is hampered less by the inefficiencies that weakened the Soviet Union and may prove a formidable threat faster than we realize. Similarly, the Russian submarine fleet already poses a naval threat. The only thing keeping this from becoming a more ominous threat is the present leadership in Moscow—which can change.

To counter these and other threats to its maritime interests, the United States has embraced the ". . . From the Sea" concept of projecting power from the sea to littoral areas. This approach is premised on the belief that the U.S. Navy, with no oceangoing rival to challenge it on the high seas, will have its role reduced to logistics and fire support for troops on land. The assurance that this configuration of unipolar sea power will remain static comes from the presumed U.S. dominance in high-tech areas. The conviction that threats to U.S. interests largely will be confined to land or brown-water forces and countered by technical preeminence has become the reigning foundation of naval strategy.

This confidence, however, should be tempered by certain realities. The Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) has been driven by civilian research and development, not by developments in military technology. During the Cold War, military budgets were heavier in research and development and the best technology first went to the military before being adapted for civilian use. Today that situation is reversed. Much of the technology underlying the RMA is derived from off-the-shelf electronics-available to almost anyone with the money to pay for them. In addition, new technologies bring with them new vulnerabilities. As one observer puts it, "In every military revolution there lurks a countervailing, offsetting, revolution." 6

The littoral warfare approach is equally vulnerable, both tactically and strategically. The Navy lacks a doctrine for fighting in littoral areas—a gap that ". . . From the Sea" cannot close. The Marine Corps, for example, is concerned that there will not be adequate covering fire for ground forces injected into a littoral situation. With the battleships missing from our arsenal, such fire support would have to come from carrier-based aircraft, which becomes a problem if weather does not cooperate. Expensive missiles or smaller-bore guns on other naval ships are not adequate substitutes for the Marine Corps' needs.

Neither does the Navy appear to have a doctrine that involves it in Air-Land Battle, the concept currently guiding Army and Air Force doctrine. Students of naval tactics cite our limitations in antisubmarine warfare in shallow water, mine detection and sweeping, defense against antiship missiles, and sea-based logistics. One analysis holds that the Navy will have to establish a mainland base to help "kick down the door," perhaps at great cost. Or, as one Army general put it, in the future "our strategic `center of gravity' will be getting there." 7

These observations combine to forge a third, perhaps greater, strategic criticism of littoral warfare. This approach places great confidence in the belief that future wars will involve the Navy in brown-water areas, where ships will act largely as platforms for combined-arms support for troops, and that sea control will be assured by our technical preeminence. These twin beliefs, however, may be difficult to attain.

If Mahan and Mackinder are indeed correct, and land powers that improve their economies will be able to make great strides, and if the RMA is based largely on commercially available technologies, then these navies may soon pose a threat to the U.S. Navy, even in blue water. Increasingly, threats to sea control are coming from the land. Diesel submarines, mines, and land-based missiles and airplanes are the major threats in littoral areas at present. In the open ocean, the typical threat may include long-range missiles fired from ships over the horizon or from land, or air-launched missiles from land-based aircraft. Other threats come from conventional oceangoing submarines, which number in the hundreds worldwide, or from aircraft carriers. "By focusing on unexploited technologies," one study suggests, nations might skip entire development cycles. For example, some borrowing of U.S. technology stimulated the Soviet Revolution in Military Affairs, brought on by the marriage of long-range delivery systems and nuclear warheads. 8 A similar leap in naval technology, or the development of countermeasures to our high-tech arsenal, could have a profound impact on our ability to maintain sea control.

Such a paradigm leap in technology, of course, requires considerable support and infrastructure. In our experience, development of these capabilities took a great amount of time and treasure. What this argument fails to account for, however, is that for some countries, the value of these weapons may lay less in exercising global power than in enhancing political deterrence, where military loss can be turned into political gain. The potential consequences of this should be evident to any student of the Vietnam War.

This view also reflects a certain arrogance regarding the adaptability of other nations, where minimal proficiency or "bronze medal" technology may be enough to serve national interests. 9 Their relative lack of technical proficiency with these sorts of weapons can be offset by understanding that they do not necessarily have to defeat the U.S. Navy in a sea battle. Instead, the aim more likely is to prevent the United States from deploying in brown-water areas by inflicting a politically unacceptable loss on either our ships or our logistics train.

In any event, the Mahan-Mackinder thesis, combined with the nonexclusive nature of the RMA, may make littoral warfare a dangerous prospect.

This strategic deficiency, where we have begun to think less about warfare at sea and more about projecting power from the sea, can be remedied in Mahanian terms. In a sense, we have come full circle. His theory of naval strategy involved ocean dominance, expressed through a united grand battle fleet seeking decisive battle with the enemy. Rear Admiral William Sampson's victory at Santiago in 1898 ensured U.S. dominance in the Atlantic and prevented a significant Spanish fleet, which feared a U.S. invasion after the defeat of its squadron in Cuba, from meeting Admiral George Dewey at Manila Bay. Ocean dominance proved its worth.

Both sides sought decisive battle in World War I, but the German fleet's reluctance to seek a decisive battle after their victory at Jutland and their success in the U-boat campaign marked a turn away from Mahan. Indeed, Japan's search for the decisive naval engagement in the Pacific brought it disaster at Midway, and Admiral Bull Halsey's Mahanian search for decisive engagement at Leyte Gulf almost brought disaster to our Philippines campaign.

The Maritime Strategy marked a return to Mahanian principles. By the early 1970s, Third World losses and the growth of the Soviet fleet pointed to the growing menace of an oceangoing Soviet Navy. The Maritime Strategy envisioned an offensive against the Soviets in their own home waters and in the Mediterranean.

Since that time, lassitude has overtaken strategic thinking in Washington. During Desert Storm, the United States deployed six carrier groups to the Gulf region. Given today's global interests, such a show of force would be nearly impossible to duplicate. For example, in June 1996 the Navy canceled the annual training deployment of the Independence (CV-62) to the Middle East because of concern over events in East Asia. Even during the Gulf War, had any other contingency arisen, until carriers could have been released for duty elsewhere, we would have been in an almost completely defensive posture—and therefore in a poor deterrent position. As one observer put it, "The deterrent effect of forward presence is a function of the credibility of that presence and the perception of resolve emanating from Washington. If either is perceived as lacking, the deterrent effect is diminished. 10

In Geoffrey Till's words, the Cold War's end may have marked "a triumph of Mahan's whale over Mackinder's elephant." 11 It also may have marked something more. With the proliferation of advanced technology and the availability of technology and technicians on the world arms markets, .the time may come when we will be tested in both brown-water and open-ocean areas. One of Mahan's main themes was the importance of exercising ocean dominance; of Corbett's, local sea control. The ability to do either may come into question, and sooner than we expect. The importance of exercising effective ocean dominance, which we now believe assured by our technological advantages and unmatched naval capabilities, deserves renewed attention, and the reexamination of naval classics marks the best possible way of going at it.

1 Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Harry Yamell quoted in George W. Baer, One Hundred Years of Sea Power: The U.S. Navy, 1890-1990 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), p. 90.

2 Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of History Upon Sea Power, 1660-1783 (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1987), pp. 13-21.

3 Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of British Naval Master (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1976), ch. 7 and 8. See also Eric Grove, The Future of Sea Power (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1990), pp. 4-5.

4 Thomas Hirschfeld, "The Year of the Rat," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, May 1996, pp. 56-59.

5 Robert J. Murray, The Wall Street Journal, 25 August 1995, p. 8.

6 Capt. Edward A. Smith, Jr., USN, "What '. . . From the Sea' Didn't Say," Naval War College Review 48 (Winter 1995): p. 18; Colin Gray, "The Changing Nature of Warfare?" Naval War College Review 49 (Spring 1996): pp. 14-15; RAdm. A. K. Cebrowski, USN, and Cdr. Michael Loescher, USN, "The New Warfare: SEW," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, February 1993, p. 93, as cited in Donald C.F.  Daniel, "The Evolution of Naval Power to the Year 2010," Naval War College Review 48 (Summer 1995), p. 67. The quote is Gray's.

7 See Capt. Wayne P. Hughes, USN (Ret.), "The Power in Doctrine," Naval War College Review 48 (Summer 1995): pp. 9-31, and "Mahan, Tactics, and Principles of Strategy," in The Influence of HistorY on Mahan, ed. John B. Hattendorf (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 1990), pp. 25-36; Capt. Bruce Linder, USN, "ASW as Practiced in Bimam Wood," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, May 1996, pp. 62-67; and Col. Gary Anderson, USMC, "Beyond Mahan: A Proposal for a U.S. Naval Strategy in the Twenty-first Century," Newport, RI: Naval War College, Newport Paper no. 5, August 1993. General's quote is from Barton Gelman, "Army's New Doctrinal Manual Sees High-Tech, Distant Battles," Washington Post, 15 June 1993, p. A19.

8 James J. Tritten and VAdm. Luigi Donolo, IN (Ret.), A Doctrine Reader: The Navies of the United States, Great Britain, France, Italy, and Spain, Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, Newport Paper no. 9, December 1995, pp. 134-35.

9 Peter D. Zimmerman, "Proliferation: Bronze Modal Technology is Enough," Orbis 38 (Winter 1994): pp. 67-82.

10 Anderson, p. 2.

11 Geoffrey Till, "Corbett and the 1990s," in Mahan Is Not Enough: The Proceedings of a Conference on the Works of Sir Julian Corbett and Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond, ed. James Goldrick and John B. Hattendorf (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 1993), p. 217.

Mr. Robertson is a consultant and professor at the American Military University, Manassas Park, Virginia.



Conferences and Events

2014 U.S. Naval Institute Annual Meeting

Wed, 2014-04-16

U.S. Naval Institute members and supporters are cordially invited to attend the 2014 U.S. Naval Institute Annual Meeting...

View All

From the Press

Award Presentation

Sat, 2014-04-26

"Wrecks, Rescues, and Mysteries: Air and Sea Disasters"

Sat, 2014-04-26

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership