First Honorable Mention, Arleigh Burke Essay Contest
Once a navy has achieved command of the seas, littoral operations are a natural progression; sea power’s ultimate aim always has been to influence events ashore. Here, an F/A-18 launches from the carrier America (CV-66) during operations off Bosnia, carrying naval striking power inland.
In his 1953 essay, “On Maritime Strategy,” Admiral J. C. Wylie wrote, “When a maritime power is reasonably successful in securing the sea for its own use (that is, in repressing the enemy’s power to interfere unduly), then it can turn to the second, or exploitation phase of maritime strategy.”1 He defined this second phase in terms of effecting some degree of control on land or in achieving a form of economic control over the enemy. His assertion was that the aim of sea power is to extend its control of the seas, once gained, to the land. In the continuing debate over the roles and missions of the post-Cold War Navy and the design of a force structure into the next century, influencing events ashore must be revived as a prime objective.
The U.S. Navy traditionally has been embedded in Admiral Wylie’s first phase of strategy, usually defined by Alfred Thayer Mahan’s control of the sea and concentration of force. Only when these had been achieved—including, in modern times, extending this control to the air and subsurface domains—could the Navy exercise the incidental and subsidiary roles of power projection ashore, amphibious operations, and logistic support. We executed a similar strategy in World War II in the Pacific and integrated the same lessons in our plans for war with the Soviet Union.
After 45 years of planning for a great and decisive sea battle, searching for an opportunity to influence events ashore directly seems incredible. Strategy based on power projection is unfamiliar ground for most naval officers, and it generally is considered to be an inferior application of sea power. But today we have the world’s largest, most technologically advanced and highly trained maritime fighting force, capable of commanding the seas wherever and whenever desired, and with this superiority comes a unique strategic opportunity to have a direct impact on events ashore—to engage in the exploitation phase of maritime strategy. That is the objective, whether we must fight first on the high seas or in the littorals. Our adversaries will not necessarily be distinguished by blue-water sea power, but rather by continental power. We must appreciate the Navy’s role in making our land power decisive.
Command of the Sea in Maritime Strategy
The classic writings of Mahan and Sir Julian Corbett brought the world’s navies into the modern age of warfare. Their naval theories, however, were influenced by leading continental strategists; both recognized the value of sea power, not only in terms of military advantage, but also in bringing economic hardship to an enemy. It was Mahan, of course, who put sea power in the nation’s lexicon and championed command of the sea: “the possession of that overpowering power on the sea which drives the enemy’s flag from it, or allows it to appear only as a fugitive; and which by controlling the great common, closes the highway by which commerce moves to and from the enemy’s shores.”2 The objective of Mahanian sea power was the destruction of commerce and the economic strangulation of the enemy. Primary naval strategy centered on destruction of the enemy’s fleet, for great navies existed to protect their commerce. Command of the sea was an absolute, and the fleet was an offensive weapon whose effectiveness in battle was grounded on the principle of concentration of force.
Corbett also believed in command of the sea, but he had a more comprehensive and sophisticated view of naval power: “Command of the sea means nothing but control of maritime communications, whether for commercial or military purposes. ... By occupying her maritime communications and closing the points of distribution in which they terminate, we destroy the national life afloat, and thereby check the vitality of that life ashore so far as we depend on the other.”3 Command of the sea was a relative term specific to war, for such command normally was in dispute, and the nation that had it was not automatically exempt from attack. Rather, it was successful on the whole, while its opponent’s efforts were not decisive. Corbett argued for dispersal of forces to mislead the enemy about their intentions or actual size. He developed a theory of limited war and a strategy rooted in defensive warfare to secure control of lines of communication: battle between fleets was not a prerequisite for control of the seas. And again, the ultimate goal was to bring economic pressure to bear.
Both Mahan and Corbett developed maritime strategy in an age when both routine and decisive threats to the conduct of commercial trade existed. Naval strategy was a means to inflict economic damage on an aggressor nation by denying it the use of the sea for trade. But less than three decades after the publication of his masterpiece, Mahan’s “highways” were being used less for trade than for the sustenance of the Allied land offensives in Europe during World War I and later in the Pacific during World War II, as well. Indeed, the magnitude of logistic support required in the world wars greatly limited international commerce during these periods. No longer did nations fight only to command the sea for economic strangulation of the enemy; sea control now had definitive military advantage. The concept of decisive fleet battle lost support, and defensive operations and attrition warfare proved their value. As Corbett had outlined, the U.S. Navy in World War II first fought to secure command of the seas, then to prevent the dispute of such command, and ultimately it exercised that command to carry amphibious operations to the doorstep of the Japanese home islands, while an aggressive submarine campaign cut off their vital strategic materials.
Post-World War II strategy formalized the primacy of the military advantage of superior sea power. The Soviet autarkic system had little use for international trade, but both the U.S. and Soviet militaries understood the importance of controlling sea lines of communication, both for support of client states and for pure advantage in war. As the U.S. Vice Chief of Naval Operations stated in 1950: “Exercising control of all the seas, as we must, is going to be a mammoth task. Note that I say exercise control. To do this we must have the control from the beginning, not fight for it for four long years as we did in the Pacific in World War II.”4
It was not until 1979 that Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Thomas Hayward would again voice the essential principle of our naval strategy in terms of maritime superiority. This emphasis on offensive posture, worldwide crisis response, and forward presence continued to gain ground in the 1980s, with the support of Admiral James Watkins, who followed Admiral Hayward as CNO, and Secretary of the Navy John Lehman. The goal of this Maritime Strategy was the “destruction of the Soviet Navy: both important in itself and a necessary step for us to realize our objectives and influence the land battle by limiting redeployment of forces, by ensuring reinforcement and resupply, and by direct application of carrier air and amphibious power.”5 The maritime strategy had two phases: win the war at sea; then exploit the powerful ability of the Navy to influence the land campaign.
Today, the U.S. Navy commands the seas. With a daily presence in the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf, and Western Pacific, we maintain a capability to secure sea lines of communication and deny their use to the enemy wherever and whenever required. There will be challenges to this dominance, but they are unlikely to come from blue-water navies. Instead, the threat will emerge from widespread acquisition of sophisticated weaponry. There are numerous countries with growing economies and national agendas that can build or purchase modern cruise-missile patrol boats but have nothing to gain by direct engagement on the high seas. They attained the fire power but do not require the endurance of a blue-water navy, either to protect commerce or national objectives or to multiply their military advantage. Future security threats will be of a regional nature, and the U.S. Navy maintains the ability to respond.
With command of the sea, the shift to littoral operations is part of a natural progression. The comprehensive planning and training required to fight a war with the Soviets often pushed littoral tactics to the back burner, but they certainly would have been required in due course. At issue is not a debate between littoral warfare and blue-water warfare tactics. It is about a comprehensive and flexible strategy that brings superior sea power to bear first against existing seaborne threats and then against land-based ones.
The Objective Is Ashore
A navy’s usefulness does not end with the defeat of the enemy’s naval forces. Corbett developed the idea of sea power as a distinct strategy, but he also had a formalized understanding of the total concept of war, including the need to integrate operations with the army. “Since men live upon the land and not upon the sea, great issues between nations at war have always been decided—except in the rarest cases—either by what your army can do against your enemy’s territory and national life or else by the fear of what the fleet makes it possible for your army to do. The paramount concern then of maritime strategy is to determine the mutual relations of your army and navy in a plan of war.”6 The United States is both a great land and a great sea power, but soldiers and sailors generally do not think of each other as complementary executors of national strategy. The Army is not used to thinking about what the Navy can do for it, and the Navy is not used to thinking about missions in terms of power projection alone. But it is in no small part because of maritime superiority that the post-Civil War Army almost always has fought on foreign soil; similarly, even with cruise-missile and other technological advances, the role of the foot soldier will never be eclipsed.
Nations long have recognized the complementary nature of strong sea and land power, and those that did not possess both often sought the missing element through acquisition or alliances. Though not determinative alone, sea power is decisive in war to the extent that control of the sea can be used to enforce the land effort. The British realized as much in 1939: “British statesmen believed that sea power tends to grow from unbalanced land power. In a sense they saw excessive land power as sea power delayed.”7 Consistently, and with good reason, the U.S. defense posture has focused, not on great or potential sea powers, but on threatening land powers: Germany in two world wars, the Soviet Union, North Korea, North Vietnam, Iraq, and the potential of an emerging China. The U.S. Navy, in turn, should base its predictions of future adversaries on calculations of the land power threat and expand its missions to include supporting the battle ashore.
The Navy has much to contribute to the conduct of the battle ashore. “By landlocking the foe, superior sea power can isolate, divert, and distract while using its inherent mobility to express a strategic and operational agility to achieve a useful measure of surprise.”8 Colin Gray has described sea power as a great “enabling agent”: command of the sea allows maritime powers to wage war more effectively than nations confined to a strictly continental strategy. Sea power can confine the continental battlefield and ensure our survivability in the land campaign. It enables our sustained movement of troops and supplies to the theater of operations and denies the same to the enemy. It can facilitate such special operations as raids, feints, and extractions. Sea power still enables an economic burden to be placed on an enemy through blockade and the denial of commerce. Finally, sea power directly affects the conduct of the land campaign by providing power projection in such forms as carrier aviation, naval gunfire support, and amphibious landings, as well as the strike capability of surface and submarine forces.
Strike from the Sea
No longer can we think of navies in the terms of Nelson’s day or of Jellicoe’s time. No longer do Beets oppose merely fleets. A modern navy must be prepared to meet enemy air forces, to assist in the containment or destruction of enemy forces on the ground, and to carry the war to the heart of an enemy by missile or plane bombardment or other means. The carrier task group, in World War II, the principal tactical grouping of our fleet, still retains tremendous strategic mobility, self-sufficiency and striking power; tomorrow, with jet planes and atomic bombs and guided missiles, a new form of naval striking force may do much to extend the long arm of American power to the “fringelands” of the world, and even deep into the continental land masses.9
Hanson Baldwin, 1947 Military correspondent, The New York Times
The Navy’s earliest venture into power projection was an amphibious one. Amphibious operations are the most direct reflection of superior sea power and its ability to affect events ashore. Whether used for raids, to secure ports, airfields, and command centers, or to achieve control of territory, such a power-projection capability is clearly desirable. A key component of amphibious operations is naval gunfire support. Shore bombardment of coastal targets remains a critical capability, too long neglected in the missile age.
Since World War II, the carrier battle group has been the traditional instrument of strike warfare. Once air superiority is attained, strike fighters can conduct both strategic and tactical missions, which the mobility of the carriers can facilitate. Together with the AV-8B Harriers of the amphibious ready group, carrier aircraft can conduct battlefield interdiction and close air support operations to support the ground troops. Deployed throughout the World on a continual basis, carriers remain the most visible symbol of U.S. power.
Ballistic-missile submarines, of course, have been the bulwark of our strategic deterrence triad. By definition, they are strike weapons designed for total war. In the continuing search for new roles, the attack boats also have looked at ways to join in strike warfare—adding a strike capability with vertical-launch Tomahawks to their antisubmarine and antisurface missions.
Perhaps the best example of the Navy’s emphasis on strike warfare has been the development and employment of the Tomahawk cruise missile on surface combatants. Tomahawk had been on the drawing boards since 1972, but no Navy warfare community truly adopted it until it was more-or-less forced on the surface community and finally made a glorious debut in the 1991 Gulf War. Tomahawk proved itself as an all-weather, stand-off, precision weapon that complemented the Navy’s existing strengths in maneuver and endurance. The added versatility of vertical launch provided the surface combatant with unparalleled firepower for a variety of warfare missions.
We now have a rare opportunity to move into the second phase of maritime strategy. Moving operations to the littoral does not engender a restricted range of strategies, but rather a liberation from the need first to fight a major fleet action before exercising command of the sea in support of the land campaign. By controlling the seas, the Navy can enable the movement of troops and supplies, amphibious operations, and shore bombardment, to help bring about a decisive outcome ashore.
The U.S. Navy can fight untrammelled on the high seas; we have the technology to monitor—if not curtail—any challenges to our superiority. Aggressive blue-water navies, even second-rate ones, take years to build and train. They often are generated, not by traditional maritime powers, but by land powers seeking to enhance gains ashore through victories at sea. The U.S. Navy can influence these events ashore and thus help fight the land battle.
Our doctrine and tactics are moving away from fleet battle and antisurface, antisubmarine, and antiair warfare toward offensive strike capability. Command of the sea— controlling sea lines of communication—always will be the Navy’s first objective, but it is only a means to a greater end.
1 Adm. J. C. Wylie. Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1989), p. 127; and "On Maritime Strategy," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, May 1953, pp. 467-77.
2 Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1805 (New York: Gallery Books, 1980), p. 91.
3 Julian S. Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy (Annapolis. MD: Naval Institute Press, 1988), pp. 94-95.
4 Roger W. Barnett and Jeffrey G. Barlow, “Maritime Strategy of the U.S. Navy Reading Excerpts," in Colin S. Gray and Roger W. Barnett, eds., Seapower and Strategy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1989), p. 330.
5 Barnett and Barlow, p. 347.
6 Corbett, p. 16.
7 Colin S. Gray, The Navy in the Post-Cold War World (University Park. PA: Pennsylvania State University Press. 1994), p. 67.
8 Colin S. Gray. The Leverage of Sea Power: The Strategic Advantage of Navies in War, (New York: The Free Press. 1992), p. 289.
9 Hanson Baldwin, The Price of Power (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1947), p. 198.
Lieutenant Commander Hottenrott is the operations officer on board the Kinkaid (DD-965).