WITH THE present and projected naval building programs, it is possible that the United States Fleet will soon be the largest and most powerful in the world. While Britain is also building at maximum speed, the attrition that her fleet is suffering, and may continue to suffer, in the current war, changes the possibility into a probability. The necessity for the United States to possess a fleet of such strength has been adequately discussed by statesmen, by naval authorities, and by civilians. Two thirds of the world’s inhabitants are at war, engaged in mad conflict that may grow more and more devastating to all participants. Already the responsibility for preserving the peace and integrity of the Western Hemisphere is settling naturally and logically upon the shoulders of American Sea Power. Before the holocaust is ended, that responsibility may be extended to the preservation of civilization itself. Our people realize the danger and the threat and our nation is building its defenses at sea with a wholehearted energy. Upon that bulwark will depend our ability to stem the tide of war and to lead the world back to sanity and peace.
Modern sea power is represented by an ever increasingly complex organization. The organization includes building facilities, repair bases, supply bases, training bases, and transportation facilities, suitably protected, for underwater craft, surface craft, and aircraft. The fundamental element of our sea power, however, is the Fleet. Our industrial organizations are able to produce war vessels of all types that are believed to be the equal of any in the world. Our scientists and our laboratories are continually busy inventing, improving, and perfecting means and devices to add to the efficiency of our material. Perfection of material is an important requirement in this age of science and material, but it is even more important that we should not lose sight of the fact that ships alone do no! make a fleet, or win a war. The mind, the spirit, the lifeblood of the fleet are the men who man it.
It was a maxim of Napoleon that “the moral is to the physical as three to one.” Whether or not this ratio is exact is not important; it represents the opinion of a great military genius. In our preoccupation with the problems of producing means, weapons, and numbers, we must not forget to retain in its proper perspective the importance of the brain that is to animate this huge fighting machine; the brain that is to guide and apply the force that represents the moral and physical effort of a nation of more than 130,000,000 Americans.
This brain comprises all of the officers and men that man the fleet. Their training, education, and morale will determine the unity and co-ordination with which our total force is applied. Much attention is being given, in our naval service, to training and morale; the results are very satisfactory. No doubt there is room for further improvement and such improvement should be diligently sought, but it is not the purpose of this article to examine the subject of training and morale in general.
The experience of centuries has shown that, due to its very nature, military authority must flow from a single source. Other systems have been tried, but with disastrous results. The people, through their representatives, may decide for war or peace, but most of the strategical and all of the tactical direction of the most powerful fleet in the world must lie in the hands of one man—the Commander in Chief. His actions may bring victory or defeat. In his hand lies the safety of a hemisphere, perhaps the destiny of a civilization.
Since the nation is spending hundreds of millions of dollars and untold effort in producing a material Navy of sufficient strength to carry out its mission, it seems not only fitting but necessary that a corresponding energy and care should be used in determining the identity of the man who is to carry this tremendous responsibility. Under the present system of selection and promotion, it is impossible for any but able men to reach the grade of admiral. The process of selection continues and only the ablest of admirals may reach the position of Command of the Fleet. The system of selection used is good but this is not enough. We insist that our ships, and our material, be not merely good but the best. It is even more important—perhaps still in the ratio of three to one—that the Commander in Chief be not only an able man but that he be the most able of all.
During years of peace, there has been a tendency among officers of the Navy as well as among our lawmakers in Congress to consider high rank and command only as a just reward for long and able service. This has resulted in a certain amount of inflexibility in the selection system.
Under the present law a period of 7 years in each rank or echelon is prescribed as a maximum and 4 years as a minimum. As the law is administered in practice, the full 7 years in each rank is made necessary by the fact that only the top one-seventh of the officers in each grade are actually considered for promotion to the next rank. Theoretically, three-sevenths of the officers in the rank are eligible but the junior two-sevenths are practically barred from consideration by the proviso that if any officer twice has a junior selected over him, he becomes ineligible for further consideration. The final result then is that an officer commissioned ensign at the average age of 22 years must be 29 on becoming a lieutenant, 36 upon reaching the grade of lieutenant commander, 43 upon reaching the grade of commander, 50 upon reaching the grade of captain, and 57 upon reaching the grade of rear admiral. The rear admiral must serve for some time in that capacity to have an opportunity to demonstrate his fitness for the higher commands. Normally, he is between 60 and 62 before he is considered for appointment as Commander in Chief of the Fleet. He has generally only 2-4 years to serve before he passes the retirement age.
The best training for command of the Fleet in war or national emergency must be experience in that same command prior to the war or national emergency. At the present time, there are two officers on the active list of the Navy who have had previous experience in commanding the Fleet. If the President believes that war is imminent, he has no reserve of experienced active officers from which to select the man who is to carry the burden of destiny upon his shoulders. A study of history reveals that almost without exception, the greatest military and naval leaders have developed their abilities at a relatively early age. There may be no Napoleons or Nelsons in our Navy, but even if there are, unless we make our system of advancement more flexible, they will find their talents obscured in a minor role when the day of battle comes.
This situation can be remedied by minor changes in our present law and by changes in its application. The primary requisites for high command are ability and experience. Even though they are educated in the same school, all men have not the same initial ability and do not develop at the same rate. Some reach the maximum of their abilities in performing the duties appropriate to a lieutenant; some are not limited. Experience must necessarily be associated with the element of time but the length of time necessary to acquire it varies widely with different men and different circumstances. It is believed that the minimum of 4 years in each rank or echelon of command is well fixed. It is only necessary then to make selection a real selection up rather than a selection out so that very outstanding officers may be selected after 4 years in grade. In every large group of officers, there must be a few that are so outstanding among their fellows that a selection board will have little difficulty in finding them. If mistakes are made by one board, they will probably be corrected by the next. In the end, a chance is offered to those who are consistently most able through all the grades to arrive at the rank of admiral at a relatively early age. If this policy is pursued in time of peace, then there will be a reservoir of officers on the active list who have had an opportunity to demonstrate their fitness to command the Fleet and who have increased their abilities by the actual exercise of that command. When war comes, the President will not be faced with the necessity for arbitrarily choosing a relatively unknown and inexperienced man to carry the destinies of the nation.
The number of officers who are promoted after only 4 years in a command echelon will be relatively small as compared to the total number involved, so that the normal flow of promotion will be very slightly slowed. The objection may be raised that the great majority of officers who are passed over by the more rapid promotions of some will feel that they are excluded from an opportunity to exercise the highest command. The fact is that as long as the length of the tour of duty in command of the Fleet remains as it is now, that command must be exercised by exactly the same number of men; the only difference being that those who are destined never to reach the position of Commander in Chief will know it sooner.
In the same connection, if a real system of selection up were instituted, recognizing that the capabilities and limitations of officers, as well as other men, differ widely, we might easily eliminate the present abominable business of separating all officers into two classes as “fitted” and “best fitted.” In any group, only one man can be truly “best fitted” while all of the others should be susceptible of rating in gradually descending order. Any line drawn through the group, rating one part “fitted” and one “best fitted,” must necessarily be unjust in the wide distinction drawn between the least “best fitted” and the most “fitted.” If a line must be drawn it should be drawn only between the “fitted” and the “unfitted” and the “unfitted” should go out. In a system of real selection up, any officer may be allowed to find that rank which is the ceiling of his abilities and to remain there until he reaches a retirement age appropriate to that rank without holding back more able men who merely happened to enter the service a year or so later. Any officer on the active list of the Navy should be eligible for advancement whenever a selection board considers that he has sufficient relative merit and no officer should have to consider himself finally “passed over” until the day of his final retirement.
War acknowledges principles and even rules, but these are not so much fetters, or bars, which compel its movements aright, as guides which warn when it is going wrong .... The conduct of war is an art, having its spring in the mind of man, dealing with very various circumstances, admitting certain principles; but, beyond that, manifold in its manifestations, according to the genius of the artist and the temper of the materials with which he is dealing. To such an effort dogmatic prescription is unsuited. —Mahan, Naval Strategy.
The modern Navy has reached such an advanced stage of technical development that it is necessary that many if not the majority of officers should become specialists in some particular branch. These technical developments in material are indispensable if our Fleet is to compete on even terms with any other modem Navy. When the Commander in Chief takes his fleet into action, he must be able to depend upon the smooth and efficient functioning of his engineering plants, his fire control systems, and his communication systems. Such functioning can be guaranteed only if the ships are manned by officers who are expert technicians as well as naval officers. The rapidity of the development in material makes it practically impossible for any one man to become thoroughly proficient in all types of ships, in steam and electric engineering, radio, sound, gunnery, fire control, etc., in addition to being a competent seaman, navigator, tactician, and strategist. It is therefore necessary that a large number of officers specialize in one particular branch of service in addition to the maintenance of a broad knowledge of all branches of naval activity.
In this specialization, there is danger since there is introduced a tendency to exaggerate the importance of one technological branch above the others. It is especially important that the education and experience of officers who are to exercise high command should be broad enough to embrace a general knowledge and understanding of all activities of the service. It is essential that each be given its proper weight in relation to the others. At the same time, through the maze of technicalities, there must be a clear vision of the ultimate goal—perfection in the art of war.
It is obvious that if every officer in the Navy follows the course that will best fit him for the supreme command, the efficiency of the Navy will suffer from a lack of capable specialists. It is also obvious that not every officer, nor even a large percentage, will ever be able to attain the highest command. For this reason and in order that officers may not be penalized in rank, pay, and security for performing specialized duties that are necessary to the efficiency of the naval organization, it is necessary that increasing numbers of officers be designated for engineering duties only in their particular branch.
For training for high command, there are two essential schools—the school of experience at sea, and the War College a- shore. The first needs no comment; it has been the traditional school for naval officers since navies have existed and, for most of that period, has been the only school. It crystallizes and ingrains the characteristics of leadership to such an extent that they become an integral part of the personality. It provides the rock foundation on which the military character must be built. However, as ships grow bigger and as science goes more to sea, it becomes possible for one on sea duty to be as truly a clerk in an office, or a scientist in a laboratory, as if one were at a desk ashore, or in the laboratory at Bellevue. Assignment to duty on board a seagoing ship is not always synonymous with “experience at sea.” In such cases, the responsibility for obtaining actual or real experience at sea must rest upon each individual officer. Such experience may be entirely extraneous to his assigned duties, but to obtain it is a duty that he owes to himself. Adults cannot be forced to learn unless thay have the will to do so. However, it should be the duty of commanding and other responsible officers to afford every opportunity to all of the officers under their command to obtain a maximum of benefit from operations at sea. Since one of their principal concerns is that of selecting individuals for future high command, every fitness report should contain detailed comment as to the use that has been made of. the opportunity for self-training in addition to comment on performance of assigned duties.
The War College gives the young officer his first opportunity to command fleets; his best opportunity to visualize naval problems as a whole. Here he may be the chess player instead of one of the pawns. The facilities of the game board afford the best training for the tactician short of actual command of units at sea. The solution of problems and the chart maneuvers afford the best training for the strategist short of problems occurring in war. These, combined with the opportunities for study and discussion of history, of naval battles, and of fleet exercises, comprise the true school of the naval officer—the study of war.
In ordering officers to the War College, it is essential that the greatest discrimination and judgment be used in selecting officers who have demonstrated that they merit this opportunity. The whole question of assignment to duty during an officer’s career has an incalculable influence upon his eventual fitness to command the fleet. The basis for assignment to duty and the basis for selection for promotion for line officers are so closely interwoven that it seems very desirable, perhaps it will be eventually necessary, that both functions be exercised by the same board. Most certainly there should be some close connection between assignment to duty and selection for promotion.
If the War College is to fulfill its designed function, it is absolutely essential that Mahan’s advice be followed in avoiding “dogmatic prescription.” The conduct of war being an art rather than an exact science, it must be studied as an art rather than “taught.” The fundamental importance of the College in our scheme of naval education is such that a position on the college staff should be considered as the highest assignment available on shore. A principal duty of the staff, aside from their study and presentations, should be the exercise of their judgment as to the relative abilities of the students who attend the college. It is often there that an officer has his first opportunity to demonstrate his- ability to master the art of war.
The comment is often heard that selection boards have great difficulty in making just decisions because of the fact that nearly all fitness reports are very similar. This difficulty might be lessened to a great extent by giving varying weights to duty assignments. For example, an outstanding mark for a duty assignment at the War College should certainly be given greater weight than an outstanding mark for a tour of the same length on recruiting duty. In the same manner, the record achieved by an officer exercising a command at sea should be given greater weight than when occupying a less responsible position or one requiring less use of initiative and judgment.
Finally, the officers whose aim is to fit themselves for command of the fleet will do well to heed the advice of Mahan in his introduction to Naval Strategy—
... to master, and keep track of, the great current events in history contemporary with yourself. Appreciate their meaning. Your own profession, on its military side, calls of course for your first and closest attention; but you all will have time enough to read military history, appreciating its teachings, and you can also keep abreast of international relations, to such an extent that when you reach positions of prime responsibility, your glance . . . will quickly take in the whole picture of your country’s interests in any emergency, whether that be pressing or remote. . . . Aim to be yourselves statesmen as well as seamen.
The functions of the Commander in Chief may be divided into three classes: administrative, strategical, and tactical. The administration of a fleet is not essentially different from that of any other large organization. The principal requirement is that there shall be little or no change necessary upon the transition from peace to war. In general, the greatest possible simplicity will be conducive to the greatest war-time efficiency. During long periods of peace there is a tendency to more and more centralization of administrative authority with its consequent increase in the load of correspondence and communications. This peace-time centralization of control may serve good purpose in promoting uniformity of action and indoctrination in smaller units. However, the good is certainly counterbalanced by the discouraging of the exercise of initiative and judgment by subordinate commanders. In addition, the greater the decentralization of administrative functions, the more flexibly and efficiently they will be exercised in time of war.
The strategical functions of the Commander in Chief in war time afford opportunities for displaying in its highest form his mastery of the art of war. In the exercise of these he brings into play his knowledge and understanding of history, of previous campaigns, of current events and their interpretation, of international relations and diplomacy, of national characteristics, and of leading personalities involved. He shows his grasp, not only of the fundamental objectives of the war or campaign, but also of the many inextricably related minor factors that influence them. However, strategic decisions as a general rule are the result of relatively leisurely thought and consequently the responsible authority has the privilege of consultation with his subordinates and the advantage of their advice and recommendations. The responsibility of the Commander in Chief for the final decision is in no way lessened and his personal knowledge of all the factors involved is no less necessary by reason of this fact. The weighing and sifting of the ideas of others requires as much judgment and understanding as the weighing of one’s own. Any commander would be culpably negligent of his duty, however, if he failed to give due consideration to the suggestions which were the products of the experience and study of his assistants and subordinates.
The tactical functions of the Commander in Chief are inherently different from the strategical principally in that the time element is shorter. After contact with an enemy is made, especially in these days of high speed ships and aircraft, there is little time for consultation, reflection, or even communication. Decisions of tremendous importance must be made almost instantly. Strategic decisions have laid the groundwork and have led up to this point. Faulty or erratic tactical decisions may destroy everything. It is now that the long arduous years of training must bear the fruit of perfect mental discipline in the commander and of perfect indoctrination in his subordinates. Mahan has said that the quality most necessary in a Commander in Chief is “that faculty of quick and instant action, in which all the processes of thought and will blend into one overpowering conviction and impulse that lesser men never know.”
Since the making of correct tactical decisions is the principal duty of the officer in tactical command and the one on which success or failure depends, it is essential that he have a maximum knowledge of the instantaneous situation and a minimum of interference from extraneous activities. Mahan again has said that there are
always two moments of greatest importance in a sea fight; one which determines the method of the main attack, the other the bringing up and directing of the effort of the reserve. If the first is more important, the second perhaps requires the higher order of ability; for the former may and should proceed on a predetermined plan, while the latter may, and often must, be shaped to meet unforeseen emergencies.
In consequence of this he concluded that
if the Admiral cannot, from the conditions of sea warfare, occupy the calmly watchful position of his brother on shore, let there be secured for him as much as may be ... by being in the most powerful ship in the fleet; if this ship be in the reserve, the Admiral keeps to' the latest possible moment the power of Commander-in-Chief in his own hands.
Since this advice was written, fleets have become larger, embrace more types, fight at longer ranges, and the commander’s problems are correspondingly more difficult. In Nelson’s day, the admiral could see all of the ships of his own fleet as well as practically all those of the enemy. It is believed that the principal tactical mistakes at the Battle of Jutland could be attributed to the lack of this ability. Neither Jellicoe nor Scheer was able to see the field of battle. Communications, no matter how rapid or how efficient, cannot present to the commander an instantaneous picture of the situation, after action has started. As soon as the flagship joins the action, the problem is so much further complicated by the indescribable maelstrom of battle. It is almost beyond reason to expect that a commander, crowded with his staff into a tiny conning tower, shaken by the continuous blasting of his own guns as well as by the probably concentrated fire of the enemy battle line, his vision obscured by smoke, his ears deafened by the din of battle, probably struggling with the intricacies of a gas mask, can make calm, reasoned, correct tactical decisions governing distant units that he cannot see and whose positions and circumstances he does not accurately know. The probabilities are that he will not make such decisions and the distant units of the fleet will find themselves deprived of the guiding hand of a Commander in Chief just when it is needed most to exercise a co-ordinating influence; or what is far worse, they will receive orders based on inaccurate knowledge of the situation which will destroy their initiative and yet not give them an effective course of action.
Until recent years, there has been no satisfactory solution to this problem and since the real need for a solution will not be felt until war comes, the problem has been ignored. Now there is a solution and Mahan’s advice, “If the Admiral cannot, from the condition of sea warfare, occupy the calmly watchful position of his brother on shore, let there be secured for him as much as may be,” can be followed, not by being in the most powerful ship of the battle line, but by being in the air.
It is now possible to build a soundproofed, multi-engined aircraft, large enough to accommodate the Commander in Chief and the Operations members of his staff, as well as adequate communication facilities. Such a plane can be made capable of speeds in excess of 250 miles an hour and of endurance for many hours. From it, the Commander in Chief may see with his own eyes, not only his battle line, but also his cruisers and his destroyers, and similarly those of the enemy. The whole field of battle is laid out beneath him as a chess board and he is free to move the pieces with the calmness, concentration, and accuracy of the chess player. If all units are not visible at one time, he may move rapidly enough to view them in quick succession. From his point of vantage, he can direct his smoke screens, his main body maneuvers, his destroyer attacks and his air attacks, thus securing a complete co-ordination of force.
Naturally if an airplane is to be used as a battle flagship, the permanent flagship should be an aircraft carrier. This type affords ample space and facilities for a flagship. Normally, every effort will be made to keep the carriers from the thick of the engagement due to their vulnerability. The fact of a carrier’s vulnerability may be raised as an objection to its use as a flagship. This objection is answered by the fact that at the most dangerous periods, the Commander in Chief will be embarked in his plane and that he can return with equal facility to any one of several carriers. It may also be said that there will be many occasions where adverse weather will prohibit aircraft operations. When this is the case, the carrier will be as effective as a fleet flagship as a ship of the battle line would be. Again it may be said that the life of the Commander in Chief is too valuable to be risked in an airplane. Experience has shown that in ordinary flying, aircraft are little more dangerous than any other craft. The principal danger is from enemy aircraft. For protection the flag plane may rely upon speed and evasion or upon fighter protection or both. The battle line itself is not entirely safe; and finally, wars cannot be fought without risk. If the Commander in Chief is shot down, the second in command will be in the battle line with whatever advantages that position may be considered to have.
The subject of this article, treated fully, would require many volumes. An attempt has been made to touch on only a few fundamentally important points that are worthy of consideration for the improvement and ultimate effectiveness of our Navy. The personnel of the Navy are of greater importance than the material. As one ascends through the various echelons of rating and rank to higher command, the importance of the individual increases. The Commander in Chief of the Fleet should represent the ultimate ability of the personnel of the Navy. Upon his shoulders rests an immeasurable responsibility.
Our present selection system, by law and practice, in its zeal to do injustice to none, fails to recognize that the abilities of individual men differ widely. Both law and practice should be amended as necessary to insure that the highest positions in the Navy are filled by the most capable individuals at such an age that they may have some experience in high command before they are called upon to bear the responsibility for the safety of the Nation. The good of the Navy should take precedence over the good of its individual officers.
In training officers of the Navy the requirements of technical specialization must be considered. In training for high command it must be remembered that “the proper study for a naval officer is the study of war.” The school of practice is real experience in responsible positions at sea; the school of theory is the War College. In times of peace, the War College must occupy a position of increasing importance. The close relation between selection and training indicates the desirability of combining the functions of selection and assignment to duty.
In administrative duties, the Commander in Chief should be guided by the principles of simplicity and decentralization. His strategical functions require the exercise of the entire range of his experience, his study and his understanding of the complete problem and national objectives. His tactical function requires that his training shall have become so ingrained in his mental process that correct decisions can be made instantaneously. The fundamental basis for a correct tactical decision is a complete and accurate picture of the momentary situation. With modern fleets, this can be best achieved if the Commander in Chief uses an aircraft carrier as his permanent flagship and an airplane for his battle flagship.