The navy, as before, needed to maintain security of global trade routes and a heightened home-front defensive posture as well as keep pace with the growing navy of Germany. Admiral of the Fleet Sir John “Jackie” Fisher, as First Sea Lord, set about to transform the Royal Navy by eliminating obsolescent vessels and thus freeing up finances and sailors; by acquiring relatively inexpensive submarines and torpedo boats for coastal protection, enabling the Home Fleet to move to the high seas; and by also acquiring big-gunned and fast (but lightly armored) battle cruisers for foreign stations.
What can the United States of the early 21st century learn from the British experience of the early 20th century? To stimulate debate about declining budgets and strategic opportunities, here are three thoughts inspired by history’s parallels.
Maintain a balanced Fleet.
For naval forces, the strategic and operational landscapes can shift quickly. A fleet that has tilted away from general-purpose capabilities and toward specific mission platforms, or has removed entire capabilities through vertical cuts, may find itself completely out of the fight when it does not have what is necessary to prevail against an unexpected enemy or change in the nature of combat. Furthermore, a balanced fleet promotes equilibrium in the industrial base, which better enables prompt expansion of capacity if needed to pace rising foes.
The Royal Navy, at the beginning of this period of interest, perceived the navies of Russia and France, deployed to foreign stations for commerce raiding, as it primary threats and in response built the aforementioned battle cruisers. In the sea fights of World War I, these lightly armored ships performed well in the Battle of the Falklands, executing a mission for which they were designed, but suffered disastrously in the main fleet action of the Battle of Jutland.
In a period of downsizing budgets, there will be pressure to acquire smaller, less capable platforms to preserve force-structure numbers, and pressure to cut whole capabilities to preserve capabilities elsewhere. The future of warfare, however, is never certain; maintaining a balanced fleet is an important strategic hedge against that uncertainty.
Subject new technology to rigorous practical testing by sailors .
The proof of the worthiness of almost anything in the Navy comes from real sailors testing it under realistic conditions. There is nothing better than practicing as you would fight to wring out the practicalities of employing new technology. The Royal Navy’s approach to main fleet action in this period became increasingly reliant on large-caliber long-range guns. The advantage of those big guns was dependent on an adequate fire-control system, which in that pre-radar age was itself dependent on good visibility. However, the Royal Navy in the Battle of Jutland did not benefit from this advantage as the weather was poor—hardly a surprise for the stormy North Sea, which, ironically, had long been expected to be the likely location for main fleet action with Germany.
When defense budgets are in decline, there often is pressure to disproportionately cut training and testing to conserve ordnance and utilize saved funds elsewhere in the Navy. However, without rigorous application, we unwittingly may become reliant on technology that is either of false promise or of too great a complexity to master on short notice if the timing of our next fight is not of our choosing.
With a balanced and tested Fleet, practice innovative employment.
The minds of our naval leaders always will be of utmost importance to our naval success. It is not enough to rely on a few key individuals making their way through the wickets of promotion to be at the right place at the right time to make the decisions that are the difference between victory and defeat. We need a sustainable culture of creativity, innovation, and adaptability in our officer corps. We also further need opportunities for those qualities to be tested and grown. In this historical example, thinking in the Royal Navy was inspired—and constricted—by the Nelsonian tradition of climactic battle. There was a strong expectation for “Trafalgar II” and, in fact, Admiral of the Fleet John Jellicoe steamed his ships into battle at Jutland just like the sailing ships’ line of battle of a century before. Jellicoe’s later admission that he had not read any books by Mahan was perhaps indicative of his level of curiosity in naval employment.
In a period of downsizing budgets and personnel reductions, there will be pressure to cut education, fellowship, and war-gaming programs and, consequently, stymie development of potential “integrator” officers. However, we need those officers as the trend in modern naval operations is toward ever wider-ranging and more complex actions—requiring officers, correspondingly, to think more widely and thoroughly . . . and employ their Navy more innovatively.