Between wars a great many thoughts are conceived and a great many words are written on strategy. Some will redefine the term. Some will categorize the term, breaking national strategy into military, economic, and foreign strategy. And all will examine wars of the past to show that the principles of Mahan, Douhet, or Clausewitz, or some other equally famous writer on strategy were correctly or incorrectly or never applied.
Not so often, however, does one see a detailed treatise in popular or even professional publications on the subject of tactics. This is very likely as it should be, when one considers that tactics are more in the nature of the detailed plans of carrying out strategy; hence, the sort of ideas that will occur more readily to the operator at sea, and, further, of the sort which one would be very wise to keep from any potential enemy.
As a matter of fact, the big names associated with the principles of sea power, air power, or land warfare are relatively easy for any military student to pick out. But who can name the man who first conceived naval dive bombing, or the ahead-throwing weapon attack on submarines, or the submarine night-surface approach on a convoy?
This paper then starts with a two-fold assumption. First, that military strategy is the broad plan for waging a war, cold or hot; and second, that tactics are the details of battle in which the commander faces an adversary.
The Element of Tactics
First, then, what are the elements of tactics? Before answering this question, let us look at certain obvious facts concerning the physical world about us. It is, in part, a material world, in which the action carried out by, through, and on material has an all important significance. Simply stated, one cannot separate how one acts from the wherewithal with which one acts. To move a mountain has only part of a meaning. To move a mountain with a hand shovel has a complete meaning, and a meaning totally different from moving a mountain with a hydrogen bomb. In like manner, it is impossible to discuss tactics without completing the picture by defining the kind of hardware assumed.
Recently an idea has been introduced into the U. S. Navy, called the “Weapon System” concept. This concept would have us no longer think of the effectiveness of one ship versus another, or of one detection system versus another, or of one weapon versus another weapon. Rather we are asked to view the ship, its detection system, and its weapon as an entity, a complete weapon system. Thus we see a system of mutually dependent parts, in which a poor ship might be offset by an outstanding weapon, or an outstanding detection system might be rendered completely ineffective because of a poor weapon.
This writer would ask you to go one step further and think not just of a Weapon System, but rather of a “Weapon System Operation” which for brevity’s sake will be shortened to “Weapon-Operation.” He would then suggest that battles are fought by your Weapon-Operation, over which you have control, against the enemy’s Weapon-Operation, over which the enemy has control. And these battles are fought in the natural world of sea, storm, and darkness about us over which only God has control. The elements of tactics then are shown in Figure 1.
By way of illustration, consider the World War II “ASW destroyer-depth charge-searchlight sonar” weapon system. To say it is or was, or would still be effective against submarines is a meaningless statement. As a matter of fact, it is of interest to see how many wardroom arguments start just this way. The debate proceeds for fifteen minutes before the two participants settle down to introduce the missing elements of this tactical or Weapon- Operation discussion. They then decide to narrow the argument by considering:
a. The World War II “ASW destroyer-depth charge-searchlight sonar” weapon system plus
b. The assumption that this hardware has picked up a sonar contact while sailing in a convoy screen in
c. Natural surroundings such as daylight, isothermal sonar conditions and mild sea state against
d. The contact, which is in actual fact a type VII German U-boat plus
e. A skipper who is attempting screen penetration at periscope depth, and who has decided to fire a high speed, straight running torpedo at any escort who closes to within 500 yards.
Once all the elements are introduced, the discussion can progress more intelligently, but until that time the two debaters can easily be talking in entirely different ball parks.
Starting then with a Weapon-Operation as the basis for bringing destruction to the enemy, which is after all the end product for which a military must seek in wartime, let us examine the paths through which tactical development makes progress.
Paths for Tactical Improvement
Essentially, two ways are available. First, the capability of the Weapon System can be improved, and second, the operational procedures for using the Weapon System can be improved.
The mark of Weapon System improvement is new hardware with increased capability. A multitude of examples exist from World War II, or any war for that matter. From World I, the introduction of the submarine and the airplane remind us of vast tactical changes brought by these two new items of hardware. From World War II, radar as a new detection device; the carrier as a new ship type; the homing torpedo, the glide bomb, the ahead- throwing ASW projectile as new weapons; the snorkel; and the bigger submarine battery as a new twist to an old vehicle; the various amphibious landing craft; and other material changes, ad infinitum, brought about new tactics unheard of in battle before this war.
On the other hand, the mark of operational procedure change is some new way of using the old hardware. As an example, one sees the World War II German U-boats unable to close targets because of the submarines’ limited endurance and extremely slow speed (four to five knots) while submerged. To solve this tactical problem, the German skippers, under cover of darkness, surfaced their boats, not only to charge batteries, but also to close aggressively and attack their prey as high speed (seventeen to eighteen knots) surface torpedo boats. The greater surface endurance and higher speed coupled with the submarine’s low silhouette and darkness gave the U-boat such maneuverability and speed advantage over the large bulky Allied convoys that, literally, groups of thirty to forty ships were torn to shreds. The wholesale installation of radar on Allied ships and airplanes finally put a stop to this, but not before the German surfaced submarine attack had created tremendous damage to the Allied merchant navy.
The use of destroyer-escorts in the hunter- killer group represents another World War II change in operational procedure resulting in tactical improvement. As a matter of interest, the question of whether to concentrate escorts in the screen around a convoy, or whether to order several escorts away as a hunter- killer team to close U-boats sighted miles ahead of the convoy, caused serious and heated debate amongst our own and British naval officers at the beginning of World War II. The book, Walker, R.N. describes in detail the part the famous British anti-submariner, Captain Walker, Royal Navy, played at the beginning of the British War in developing and proving the destroyer hunter-killer concept, and thus, incidentally, solving the problem of what tactics to use with an ASW destroyer.
Originally, of course, the ASW destroyer was conceived as operating in a screen directly around the convoy. One school argued that the defense of the convoy was the all important consideration, hence under no circumstances should destroyers be detached from the screen. The other school argued that the submarine sighted miles ahead by an airplane, or located by radio direction finder ahead of the convoy was a known and positive contact, therefore of greater danger than some possible contact nearer the convoy, but which had not even been determined to exist. The later, more aggressive tactics of closing to kill any and all positive submarine contacts finally proved itself the more effective.
Other examples of operational procedure change exist in great number. The battleship, the cruiser, and the destroyer were used as artillery to back up amphibious landings; the submarine was used as a life guard for air strikes; the carrier was used as a floating air field to bring small aircraft to battle submarines at sea. Each of these was a new way of using the old hardware.
Up to this point, then, two notions have been formulated. First, tactics must be viewed in terms of a Weapon-Operation. Second, tactical changes come about either through a change in the Weapon System or a change in the operational procedures for using a Weapon System, or both.
A Superior Weapon-Operation
Once these two ideas are incorporated into one’s thinking, other pertinent thoughts on tactics and tactical development soon follow.
Battles are not necessarily won by superior weapons, nor do inferior weapons necessarily guarantee defeat. But rather the outcome of battle hinges on a superior Weapon-Operation. Better guns, better ships, better radar can easily lie penalized by poorly trained crews, poorly formulated operational procedures, or unimaginative, unaggressive actions which the enemy can see are developing hours before an engagement takes place. Fletcher Pratt in Battles That Changed History points out that Lord Horatio Nelson’s success at both the Nile and at Trafalgar were battles of roughly equal forces, but ones also in which aggressiveness was keynoted by Nelson’s statement to his captains, his “band of brothers,” that “No captain can go far wrong who lays his ship alongside the enemy.”
Both of these battles also demonstrated the genius of the tactician, Nelson, who somehow contrived to maneuver two British ships alongside of each of one-half the French force, while the other half of the French force was out of position and hence had nobody to fight.
At the Battle of Midway, on the other hand, Admirals Spruance and Fletcher were outnumbered by four Japanese carriers to three American carriers, one of which was the carrier Yorktown, not completely repaired from damage received at the Coral Sea battle. And yet because the American forces were not supposed to be at Midway, by Japanese estimates; were not supposed to be able to attack the Japanese carriers, by Japanese estimates; the American planes did attack the Japanese carriers while the Japanese planes were either down from a strike on Midway, or still returning. Clearly, this was a victory because the American forces wanted it so and worked for it.
As a matter of fact, in battle, there is no requirement that a Weapon-Operation be good or bad, only that it be better than that possessed by the enemy. One can see that given two pieces of war hardware which are roughly on a par, such as a submarine versus a destroyer, or a carrier task force versus an air- defended land mass, or a surface ship versus another surface ship, the victor will be determined only by the outcome of the clash between the minds and the wills of the two opposing commanding officers. Furthermore, given hardware of an inferior capability, for example, a ship of slower speed, a submarine with poorer torpedoes, or a carrier with fewer planes, the tide of battle can still be swung by a commanding officer whose operational procedures embody the correct elements of surprise, aggression, concentration of effort, imagination, courage, and all the other many and pertinent characteristics which always distinguish the way one person more than another successfully accomplishes an aim in this life.
Unfortunately, a nation cannot afford to be too inferior in hardware as compared to its enemy, because there may not be enough outstanding commanding officers to offset the superior hardware of the enemy. The loss by the Japanese of so many good naval carrier pilots at the Battle of Midway is often given as step one in the final defeat of the Japanese carrier navy. In like manner, there is no doubt that the German U-boat arm in 1943'and 1944 was fighting its Atlantic battle with mere babes for skippers in comparison to the 1939-1940 years.
And so it goes. The few brilliant leaders may win a few battles by outstanding personal performance, but the war, which is composed of many battles, may be lost because the majority of good, but only average, leaders are overwhelmed in battle by superior enemy hardware.
On the other hand, when the tide of war is running favorably, the brilliant leaders can do more than a lion’s share of the damage. In the book By Guess and By God, a story of British submarines in World War I, by Mr. W. G. Carr, the preface written by Admiral S. S. Hall R.N. reports this interesting fact: “During World War I, Germany had some 400 submarine captains, but over sixty per cent of the U-boat success was accomplished by but twenty-two of these four hundred officers.”
Obviously success is guaranteed by good hardware and good leaders. But what happens so often is that all the first line nations become relatively equal in hardware capability during the peace time years preceding a war. Witness the capability of the German submarines or the Japanese carriers at the onset of World War II. Then the outcome of battles is determined by one thing alone— who has the best commanding officers?
Hardware Changes Slowly
The second thought on tactics and tactical development arising from considering battles fought by a Weapon-Operation is this: The hardware which makes up a weapon system changes with painful slowness. On the other hand, operational procedures can change at the snap of the finger of a capable commanding officer.
The reason for the slow production of hardware is a fact of life. To build planes, and ships, and bullets requires men, and material, and hours. A nation’s pool of men is just so large, and hence great demands on the nation for many different types of military hardware can only be furnished in time. Today, in 1958, a U. S. submarine requires three years to construct, a destroyer three years, and a carrier four years. Naturally, in wartime this might be accomplished faster, if the building yards were free from enemy bombardment. New types of weapons such as guided missiles, or anti- and pro-submarine torpedoes, require not only long periods of time for production, but also must go through a lengthy design, prototype development, and operational checkout phase before they even get into production. Small wonder then that although the Press may play up a new and different piece of naval hardware, many years go by before the Fleet is completely equipped with it.
The operational procedures for current hardware, on the other hand, are a different story. Within the performance capabilities of various weapon systems, we see that a commanding officer can do as he pleases, when he pleases. It therefore follows that if a particular tactical problem arises in peacetime during training against one’s own forces, or in wartime when engaging the enemy, the quickest road to success is to seek for new tactics by changing operation procedures.
This point is usually quite obvious in wartime, because the wartime commanding officer is playing for keeps. In peacetime, the situation may differ in that a hit by the opposition does not carry the same disastrous result. One can easily check off the lack of success in peacetime exercises to poorer weapons, and merrily sail for port and the officer’s club. Then, when the exercise critique comes along, one simply screams loudly for better weapons. The new hardware may one day arrive, but in the meanwhile quick success might be at hand through a new way of using the old hardware. In fact, an over-developed preoccupation with the new hardware yet to come is without doubt one of the mental burdens which the present day naval officer carries around.
Moreover, implicit in these above statements is the obligation of a commanding officer; in war, to do the best he can with the hardware he has; with the hardware he has because he can be sure there will not be any new types furnished during the battle; in peace, to train himself to do the best he can with the hardware he has, because this is the challenge he will face in wartime.
In addition, of course, while learning to get along with what is at hand, the commanding officer must conscientiously seek after the production of new and better hardware. However, he must never count on fighting his future battles with hardware he hasn’t yet received. The war may arrive, and the hardware may not.
Interestingly, the commanding officer, when he views his obligations to his country, sits squarely on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand he must do the best he can with what he has. This naturally requires a great deal of optimism on his part. On the other hand, he is at fault if he presents a falsely optimistic view to the procurers of his new hardware, for then new hardware may be even more tardy. In these matters, the best course undoubtedly is for the commanding officer to view himself as a private citizen and ask only for what he sincerely feels that his country realistically needs.
The Enemy Must Use What He Has
The third thought derived from viewing the weapon system and its operation in combination is this. The hardware which an enemy possesses will, in all probability, be used. But by contrast, the operational procedures which he has worked out in peacetime may or may not be used. This thought is allied to the thought above that material is gathered and forged into weapon hardware at great cost to a nation, hence this hardware obviously must be used somehow when war comes to that nation. Operational procedures, on the other hand, can still be changed by the forthright and imaginative thinking of a capable commanding officer, enemy or not.
Furthermore, an enemy’s operational procedures, like our own, are formulated not so much on what will be used in a future war, but rather on these:
(a) What his own forces do in peacetime exercises against him. For example, our peacetime submarine commanding officers are faced day by day with the tactics of our own ASW forces. This is true of the Russians, the British, or anybody else. Hence our operating procedures are apt to concentrate more on competing with these brother units than with the unknown tactics of an enemy not yet engaged. Indeed, one very important reason for the Russian buildup of a sizeable surface navy may be to provide sparring partners for their mammoth submarine force.
(b) What his own forces did in some past war against some enemy whom he may never fight again. Thus, as example taken from our own Navy, our carrier forces will naturally retain certain operational procedures developed in the past world war against Japanese carriers in the Pacific and against German submarines in the Atlantic. That this is so makes sense, since memories of those past battles are still fresh in the minds of officers still serving in the present day carriers.
Hence, when new enemies meet, it is inevitable that the hardware available at war’s commencement must be used; it is likewise inevitable that the operational procedures will change radically.
This last statement contains a most important implication, which, perhaps, can best be brought out by this example. Suppose one views the size of the present Russian submarine arm, reportedly on the order of 450 to 500 boats, and compares that with the size of the German U-boat arm at the beginning of World War II, thirty boats, or with the maximum number of boats which the Germans had available at the very apex of their success in the Battle of the Atlantic, some 300 boats. One might then argue that because of the overwhelming Russian submarine fleet, because many of these boats have characteristics similar to the deep diving, higher submerged speed, snorkel German Type XXI boat, and because the quantity (not necessarily the quality) of our own ASW forces are diminished since World War II, that it is virtually impossible to defeat this Russian undersea horde at sea using conventional warhead weapons. Obviously then, one would argue, the Russian use of their total submarine fleet would constitute a first rate threat to the United States, hence, as a counter-attack we would have to unleash the Strategic Air Command and any other weapon system capable of hitting the Russian mainland with atomic and hydrogen bombs. Therefore, one would question, why bother to develop techniques for defeating the Russian submarine at sea, since we can only hope to defeat this threat, by calling out the Sunday Punch team anyway?
The answer to this question is found in the statement that the hardware created by a nation will very likely somehow, somewhere be used. How that hardware will be used cannot be predicted. Thus, a world agreement against the use of atomic weapons could deter us from bringing a Sunday Punch to bear on the Russian bases, harbors, and supporting installations. One could argue, of course, that if the chips were down, we could use atomic weapons anyway. Perhaps so. But we, above all other countries, respect the opinion of the majority in our own nation; hence, we very likely will hold that same respect for the opinions on which a world agreement is based. So we could be faced with an antisubmarine war using conventional weapons.
Possibly, too, the Russians could sell or give a certain number of their ships to Communist bloc nations. The press is currently reporting the transfer of three Russian ships to Egypt. This number could be increased considerably and might apply to other nations, such as Communist China. Then in any limited action in which the United States might engage, perhaps as part of a United Nations force against either China, Egypt, or any Russian satellite nation, a reduced but important anti-submarine war could be waged at sea. How would this be fought in terms of atomic bombs on the Russian mainland?
Certainly these and other situations could occur. Hence, the mere fact that a potential enemy has certain hardware on hand is reason enough to develop various ways and means of combatting it under any and all circumstances. In fact, the mere existence of the Russian submarine fleet is in itself sufficient justification for making ASVV one of the primary missions of the U. S. Navy.
As a matter of fact, the theory behind disarmament contains elements of this theme. If all nations agree not to build weapon systems, then obviously the hardware to create damage is not available when international tension arises; hence, idealistically, one can hope the matter in disagreement can be arbitrated before hardware can be built.
An interesting corollary to the certainty that created hardware will be used, and the uncertainty of how it will be used is this: The operational concepts which bring certain weapon systems into being may, in fact, never be valid when the hardware is finally used.
As an illustration, one sees the genesis in our own navy of the fleet submarine, which fought the Japanese Navy so successfully in World War II. This submarine was designed in the years before the war to have a high surface speed of twenty knots. To achieve this, it was given long, sleek hull lines, and a destroyer bow. The high surface speed was to allow it to operate with the fleet, hence it received its name, the “Fleet” submarine. However, when World War II arrived the designed high surface speed of this submarine was never used as called for in the fleet sub’s original concept. Instead, the high surface speed was found extremely useful for the long transit from Pearl Harbor to the Japanese Empire waters, and for closing and attacking Japanese convoys on the surface at night.
As another example, one sees the present destroyer of all navies, which is now an antiaircraft, anti-submarine, shore bombardment, jack-of-all-trades. It came into being before World War I, under entirely different operational thinking. The destroyer was originally conceived as a high speed, highly maneuver- able, gun-carrying ship to defend the fleet against the dagger thrust of motor-torpedo boats of equally high speed. Hence it received the name of “torpedo boat destroyer.” Later the destroyer assumed the operational duties of the vehicle it replaced, and finally, when World War II arrived, it was considered ideal to carry the depth charges necessary to kill the Nazi U-boat.
In peacetime, who can tell exactly how in some future battle a weapon system will be used tactically? Many might guess at certain possibilities, but the only point which has any real certainty is this: Hardware once created will very likely be used!
Peacetime Tactical Development
The fourth and last thought which occurs from all the above discussion on tactical development is this. There are two definite reasons for tactical development in peacetime. Most obvious and first, tactics are developed in peacetime to produce procedures for using the hardware available. This creates the necessary degree of war readiness, now. The natural by-products of peacetime operating are lessons learned about the inadequacies of the available hardware. The destroyer skipper unable to attack his brother submarine skipper soon has facts to back a request for new and different weapons.
Second, and by far the most important reason, peacetime tactical development creates a corps of people who are trained mentally to solve tactical problems. Naturally one hopes to develop operational procedures of lasting validity, peace or war. But one element of wartime tactics will always be missing from even the most realistic of peacetime exercises. That element is the possible death or severe physical damage to those engaged. Furthermore, what the enemy will do, how he will operate, can only be determined in war, for, in fact, he himself is not quite exactly sure in peacetime. Hence, one strives in peacetime, not for complete and lasting tactical solutions, but only for the creation of a corps of courageous, willing, and thinking people who can solve these problems in war.
By way of conclusion, these points stand out. To view the effectiveness of a weapon system, one must think of a weapon-operation, that is, one must view, not only the hardware, but how the nation’s commanding officer will use it. Tactics, then, can develop either through a weapon-system change or through a change in operational procedures. But leaders in wartime would do well not to count on a quick or miraculous improvement in the hardware of their weapon systems, when their country calls them forth to its defense. Rather they should count on a personal spirit, and mentality in themselves and their brothers-in-arms, developed through strenuous peacetime effort, which will permit them to do what they must with what they have. The fact that peacetime operational procedures must be thrown away is of no consequence. The fact that these leaders are flexible and alert enough to do so and can thereby achieve success is sufficient evidence that in peacetime they fulfilled their obligation to their country so as to be prepared for war.
People Count First
Properly, a postscript should be added to this paper to be sure its remarks are interpreted in the correct light. There is no denying that certain hardware; radar, the airplanes, and so forth, produced vast tactical changes in past wars. Certain new hardware produced in recent times, for example, the nuclear submarine, the guided missile, etc., will continue this process of change, indeed, will accelerate it. But, unfortunately, it is virtually impossible to obtain exclusiveness of use on any weapon. Even now, the Press is reporting the building of nuclear submarines by the Russians. One continues to hope, of course, that one’s industrial might will maintain a hardware lead, but even this is impossible when industrial giants face each other. As a matter of fact, one should seek after those hardware changes which will produce the quantum jumps in progress rather than squandering one’s industrial effort on the changes which will produce only the marginal gains. But let no one forget that one and only one element will finally sway the balance, when a country must defend the things for which it stands. That element is people; people who believe, people who will act, people who can think, people who have what it takes to outfight the enemy.