When the U.S. War of Independence mushroomed into an international maritime conflict with the entry of France and Spain, Great Britain made the best of the situation by prioritizing.
ling British Empire over which King George presided. Strategy thus is about setting and enforcing priorities and reshuffling priorities and resources as the times and surroundings change around us. George and his lieutenants exercised self-discipline, downgrading lesser commitments to concentrate resources where they were needed most. In so doing, they made the best of trying times.
The American colonies—Britain’s prime cause for waging war in the 1770s—ended up among Britain’s less pressing commitments. Faced by a hostile alliance, London demoted the colonies to preserve higher priorities in the Caribbean Sea, maritime Europe, and the Indian Ocean. This strategy succeeded. Great Britain suffered a stinging reverse in the U.S. War of Independence, to be sure. It would have fared far worse had British leaders failed to tame their desire to do everything, everywhere, at the same time. Self-mastery served the Crown well.
London was less prudent before the American Revolution, when Parliament let the Royal Navy slip relative to probable foes. Sage statesmen and strategists marshal naval means in peacetime adequate to fulfill their most likely goals in wartime. For seafaring powers such as Georgian Britain (and the contemporary United States), nurturing a sizable, capable, battle-minded navy constitutes part of strategic upkeep. That remains true whether a challenger for nautical supremacy has yet appeared on the horizon. One will come along sooner or later.
The British experience shows that skimping on naval power yields false economies. Penny-pinching degrades numbers of hulls and battle capability in peacetime, compelling political leaders to make painful choices—or even surrender critical interests—when war comes. Taken to extremes, cost-saving measures increase the likelihood of war—a far pricier undertaking than tending the fleet in peacetime. Prewar preparedness constitutes the cheaper alternative.
Georgian Britain thus furnishes a mixed bag of lessons. Namely these: A sea power can get itself into trouble through tightfistedness. It can recover from prewar mistakes, in part or in whole, by realigning priorities amid the din of war. And it can mend its ways after the war, bolstering its prospects in future endeavors. By eschewing Britain’s worst practices while emulating its best, present-day U.S. naval leaders can flatten out the cycles in maritime history. They can render the troughs shallower—and uplift the average state of naval preparedness in the bargain.
A Secondary Theater in the Maritime War
The Revolutionary War represented a puzzling affair. Ostensibly fought to reaffirm British sovereignty in North America, it metamorphosed into what historian Alfred Thayer Mahan termed a “truly maritime war.” North America was a subsidiary theater in that larger war.1
How did this come about? Britain’s two chief rivals, France and Spain, allied themselves to the Americans when it became apparent General George Washington & Co. could prevail against Britain. France joined in 1778, Spain a year later. The two Bourbon monarchies wanted possessions Britain had wrested from them in past rounds of fighting, in particular the Seven Years’ War (1756–63). They longed to administer a comeuppance to Britain for winning too big in that conflict. And as Mahan observed, France lusted for “maritime and political superiority over England.” Geopolitical mastery constituted French rulers’ “animating motive” and “one supreme end.”2
The allies’ interests lay mainly outside continental North America. They could bog down the British expeditionary force by supplying the American rebels with armaments, stores, and men. That would free them to attack British holdings elsewhere on the map. And, so they did. The conflict raged not just across Atlantic waters but in the Caribbean and Mediterranean. Fighting even sprawled into the Indian Ocean, where Britain and France were wrangling to determine who would rule the subcontinent.
As the French and Spaniards opened new combat theaters, the British leadership divided the Royal Navy in an attempt to defend them all—even while subdividing its expeditionary fleet in North America.3 The results were predictable: Atomizing an armed force is a dangerous thing. Divide it into smaller and smaller packets and you weaken each packet, exposing it to defeat. The onset of alliance warfare thus imperiled British interests across the world while attenuating British fighting strength at any given place.
The Franco-Spanish-American alliance, then, comprised a strategist’s nightmare. No force can be stronger than likely foes at all places and times. So, after France and Spain joined the war, wrote historian Russell Weigley, the British
had to treat the American mainland as a secondary theater. Since their global triumph in the Seven Years’ War, they had complacently allowed their naval strength to wither so badly that the Admiralty could no longer guarantee the home islands against invasion when threatened by the combined fleets of the Bourbon monarchies.4
Think about that. British leaders placed the safety of the homeland—the paramount priority for any ruling regime—at risk for the sake of interests far from home. Having failed to amass sufficient naval resources in peacetime, they exposed themselves to dreadful strategic choices in wartime.
How should strategists rank theaters or campaigns against one another? As strategist Carl von Clausewitz wrote, combatants should undertake secondary endeavors only if they promise “exceptionally rewarding” gains, and only if diverting resources to these endeavors does not place more important ventures at undue risk. Reward, resources, and risk represent Clausewitz’s three Rs. These criteria help strategists decide whether to launch or abjure an enterprise of less than surpassing worth.
As a corollary, commanders should curtail secondary commitments if they no longer appear exceptionally rewarding, or if by pursuing them more crucial efforts are placed in jeopardy. In other words, savvy leaders prosecute secondary undertakings on a not-to-interfere basis with enterprises commanding overriding importance. They set priorities, enforce them ruthlessly, and revisit and revise them when circumstances warrant.
Bowing to cost/benefit logic, the British government reviewed its imperial interests afresh and then decided to relegate the campaign in the colonies to secondary status. In 1779, King George III declared that the Caribbean Islands “must be defended, even at the risk of an invasion of [the British Isles]. If we lose our sugar islands, it will be impossible to raise money to continue the war”—and an ignominious peace would ensue.5
Protecting the Caribbean Islands from France and Spain, then, constituted an indispensable enabler for victory in the wider war. The sugar islands took precedence over all else. Lord Sandwich, the First Lord of the Admiralty, portrayed Britain’s plight thus:
. . . England till this time was never engaged in a sea war with the House of Bourbon thoroughly united, their naval force unbroken, and having no war or object to draw off their attention and resources. We unfortunately have an additional war upon our hands, which essentially drains our finances and employs a very considerable part of our Army and Navy; we have no one friend or ally to assist us . . . .6
Sandwich admitted, moreover, that Britain was a laggard in naval preparedness: “[H]ad we been early enough in our preparations, and had not suffered [our Bourbon rivals] to go on arming and building without keeping pace with them,” the Royal Navy would not have confronted such a mismatch in numbers and capability. Had rearmament begun sooner, the Royal Navy could have landed an “effectual blow” against the French Navy before Spain entered the war.7
If Britain had struck before the allies joined forces, concluded Sandwich, “we should probably still have been triumphant everywhere.”8 It would have defeated inferior antagonists in sequence before they combined. Instead, short on ships and manpower relative to the allies, the Royal Navy found itself dividing fleets among multiple oceans and seas.9 In 1778, noted Mahan caustically, France could mount superior forces in the Atlantic. British leaders felt compelled to disperse the fleet across the globe to safeguard distant mercantile traffic and naval stations.10 Scattering flotillas about left the Royal Navy shorthanded in the Atlantic Ocean.
In short, Great Britain boasted too few assets to protect all of its imperial commitments. More pressing interests were at stake in the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, European waters, and even the Indian Ocean than in North America. It could ill afford to write them off. Instead the leadership designated the colonies as what modern military folk call an “economy of force” theater. It reduced support for the American campaign to the bare minimum needed to keep the effort alive.11
In effect, London postponed a decision on North America until British forces took care of more important business elsewhere. If Britain prevailed in other theaters, it could reallocate forces freed up there for combat in the colonies. In contemporary parlance, it would hold in America, win elsewhere, then win in America. Things, of course, did not go its way.
The British calculus for managing multiple theaters nevertheless suggests a menu of options for the present-day U.S. Navy. First, strategic leaders could persevere with a single theater as the main theater. As a corollary they would have to accept the risks, hazards, and opportunity costs of demoting other theaters to secondary status. Second, they could redesignate the primary theater as an economy-of-force theater, doing just enough to stave off defeat. They would deem another theater more crucial, letting it claim the bulk of U.S. resources.
Third, they could reclassify a theater as a “war by contingent” theater, allocating just enough forces to cause problems for a powerful foe. Victory no longer would be the goal; troublemaking would. Or, fourth, they could perform “strategic triage,” winding down a theater altogether because its rewards no longer justify the expenditure of resources.12
Sounds perfectly rational, doesn’t it? But it takes self-discipline to downgrade or triage a commitment. Its “sunk costs” help explain why. Electorates expect returns commensurate with their investment in public endeavors such as war. All too often, though, circular logic takes hold: The more a combatant spends on an undertaking, the more constituents demand it spend. The leadership concludes it must reap enough gains to justify lives, ships, or treasure expended.
Economists caution against inverting cost/benefit calculations thus. Past expenditures must not determine future expenditures. British political leaders wisely refused to throw good resources after bad in an attempt to hold every parcel of real estate comprising the empire. They undertook strategic triage in North America—declining to let the sunk-cost fallacy ensnare them.
False Economies Beget Strategic Catastrophe
As Lord Sandwich conceded, things need not have reached this parlous state. The British government need not have triaged the American colonies had it maintained a navy sufficient to uphold imperial commitments. Neglecting the material dimension of strategy in peacetime cost Great Britain the American colonies—the central segment of the empire’s western rim—in wartime. British mistakes were foreseeable and unforgivable.
False economies thus cost Britain dearly. Mahan took British leaders to task for letting the Royal Navy dwindle in size and capability following its triumph in the Seven Years’ War. The Royal Navy had to make do with an inferior fleet at home in order to station adequate numbers in the Americas. The leadership had flouted time-honored policy, and thus was forced onto the defensive once France and Spain entered the war:
It had been a maxim with the best English naval authorities of the preceding era . . . that the British navy should be kept equal in numbers to the combined fleets of the Bourbon kingdoms,—a condition which, with the better quality of the personnel and the larger maritime population upon which it could draw, would have given a real superiority of force. This precaution, however, had not been observed during recent years.13
In other words, the Royal Navy historically trusted superior seamanship, gunnery, and élan to make the difference in contests between fleets equal in numbers. Yet the human factor could never offset too lopsided a numerical mismatch. And during the U.S. War of Independence, writes Mahan, the British fleet remained “habitually much inferior” to the allied fleet in European waters.
Indeed, Mahan faults the leadership not just for failing to maintain parity but for failing to construct a surplus of vessels. The Royal Navy needed more ships than the combined French and Spanish fleets in order to keep equal numbers at sea. After all, men-of-war needed to rotate home from blockade duty periodically to refit.14 The allied fleet was spared the rigors of blockade duty—and thus could get by with fewer hulls.
Mahan’s rebuke has a contemporary ring to it as the United States considers how to rebuild and deploy its own fleet after taking a quarter-century’s holiday from high-seas competition. Like Britain in 1763, the United States won too big for its own good in 1991. King George’s ministry sought to economize on naval spending and let the Royal Navy shrink below sensible standards. With no peer adversary in sight, U.S. leadership likewise harvested a “peace dividend” from victory in the Cold War.
That was a grave error. Washington let fleet numbers dwindle to a point where the U.S. Navy finds it hard to oversee the maritime system of trade and commerce while facing down new competitors. Ends now outstrip naval means to all appearances. Mahan’s critique of the Royal Navy’s lack of reserve strength likewise is telling. In its quest for efficiency, the post–Cold War U.S. naval leadership seemed intent on fielding just enough ships crewed by just enough sailors for steady-state peacetime steaming in routine operations.
Navies, however, do not need barely sufficient resources when combat or emergencies loom. They need excess ships and manpower to fight on when the fleet suffers battle damage and casualties—as it will. It makes little sense to assume abnormal conditions will never befall a force meant to go in harm’s way. The U.S. Navy should take that lesson from George III to heart.
Turning About the Turnabout of Fortune
Defeat is impermanent. Britain and its navy bounced back from disaster despite losing the American colonies. They preserved the holdings imperial leaders treasured most. After the war, they set British sea power on a firmer footing—girding the Royal Navy for the struggles against France that lay in store. Liberal societies are resilient when well led. They can learn from their mistakes and perform better in the future. The contemporary United States must heed that lesson—and resolve to do better.
Two battles marked Britain’s naval renaissance: the Battle of the Virginia Capes (1781) and the Battle of the Saintes (1782). French and British fleets fought to a tactical draw at the Virginia Capes, off the Chesapeake Bay. That draw, however, permitted Franco-American ground forces to press their siege of General Sir Charles Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown. Denied seaborne support, the redcoats capitulated in October 1781—bringing the American war to its de facto end.
Yorktown marked the low point for Britain, but the fleets met again the following year near the Iles des Saintes, a small West Indies archipelago. British seamen mauled their foes in the rematch—and salvaged the Royal Navy’s fortunes.15 Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond points out that Britain regained command of Caribbean seaways through the fleet action while inducing the allies to make peace. Richmond adds, for good measure, that antebellum governments could have warded off defeat in North America as well, had they kept the Royal Navy fit for action. The Saintes, he wrote,
restored the command of the sea in the West Indies and . . . predisposed the enemies to abandon their designs; and peace followed in 1783. When so much was done with the inferior forces at the disposal of the sea commanders, little imagination is needed to discern how much might have been done, and what losses would have been avoided, if the statesmen of Britain had . . . attended to the needs of the country’s sea power, maintaining it on a scale adequate to the extended services it was to be called upon to perform.16
Richmond singled out Prime Minister William Pitt for special praise. Pitt the Younger formed a government in December 1783, after the American war reached its end. Even though “the country lay under the shadow of a threatened bankruptcy and was in urgent need of economy and the rehabilitation of its finances,” observed Richmond, Pitt found the money to recruit additional sailors and lay new keels.17 Taken to task for profligacy, the prime minister
replied that no one could wish more than he for economy, but the best economy that any country could practice in time of peace was to keep up such a force and take such measures of defense as would be most likely to render that peace permanent and induce its duration; so long as the necessary force for the country’s defense was maintained, it was the less likely that its tranquility would be disturbed.18
Having endured setbacks during the U.S. War of Independence, Great Britain found astute political leadership—leadership that prepared the empire for tests to come during wars with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. U.S. officialdom should take note. If the United States truly means to keep its commitments to allies across the globe while acting as custodian of freedom of the sea, it must field a navy adequate to those purposes. Otherwise its interests and world standing will suffer—perhaps grievously.
Britain was fortunate to escape the U.S. War of Independence with as few losses as it did. Contemporary America might not be so lucky. Take it from William Pitt, and from his monarch: A well-armed peace is cheaper and less hazardous than war.
Liberal sea powers, then, can undergo ups and downs. Statesmen and naval commanders can flatten out the boom-and-bust cycle by managing economic and military resources prudently, exercising self-discipline when considering new foreign commitments, and summoning the gumption to discard old commitments that no longer command the importance they once did. In so doing strategists can make the downturns less deep, bolstering long-term strategic performance.
Conjure King George!
2. Ibid., 509.
3. Ibid., 514–17.
4. Russell F. Weigley, The American Way of War (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973), 21.
5. “From the King,” letter from George III to Lord Sandwich, 13 September 1779, in The Private Papers of John, Earl of Sandwich, ed. G. R. Barnes and J. H. Owen, vol. 3 (London: Navy Records Society, 1936), 163–64.
6. “Memorandum: Paper Read in the Cabinet by Lord Sandwich, Delivered to the King and Communicated to Lord North—Sept. 1779,” 14 September 1779, in Private Papers of John, Earl of Sandwich, vol. 3, 170.
7. “Memorandum: Paper Read in the Cabinet by Lord Sandwich,” 14 September 1779, in Private Papers of John, Earl of Sandwich, vol. 3, 171.
9. Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 514–17.
10. Ibid., 45.
11. The Pentagon defines economy of forces as: “The judicious employment and distribution of forces so as to expend the minimum essential combat power on secondary efforts in order to allocate the maximum possible combat power on primary efforts.” U.S. Department of Defense, Joint Publication 1-02, Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, 15 February 2016, 73.
12. Marc Genest and James R. Holmes, “Welcome to the Age of Strategic Triage,” The National Interest, 23 August 2016, http://nationalinterest.org/feature/welcome-the-age-strategic-triage-17450.
13. Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 524.
14. Ibid., 527–28.
15. Ibid., 387–91, 485–501.
16. Herbert Richmond, Statesmen and Sea Power (1946; reprint, London: Oxford University Press, 1947), 156–57.
17. Ibid., 158–59.
18. Ibid., 159.