On 21 October 2005 the Royal Navy marked the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, proudly celebrating the victory of Britain's most famous admiral and his "band of brothers" over the combined French and Spanish fleet commanded by Admiral Pierre Villeneuve. The presence of Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson, or his spirit, was no doubt palpable.
Nelson's plan at Trafalgar was audacious, simple, and brilliant. With his 27 men-of-war, Nelson would cut Villeneuve's line-ahead formation of 33 ships in two places, effectively neutralizing the enemy fleet's van, which, because of the wind, could not quickly reverse course. This maneuver achieved temporary British numerical superiority over a larger enemy fleet. Nelson in HMS Victory led one column; Cuthbert Collingwood in HMS Royal Sovereign led the second.
British doctrine was pure firepower: Rake the bowels of enemy ships to destroy or incapacitate the ability to shoot back. French doctrine was maneuver: seek the lee to gain sea room and immobilize the enemy by incapacitating his rigging and sails. Nelson also had a crucial psychological advantage. Villeneuve knew he had lost the confidence of Emperor Napoleon I and knew he was facing a superior enemy. At the end of the day and the cost of his life, Nelson won one of the greatest battles in naval annals.
But, despite this great victory, two questions have rarely been addressed. Suppose that Villeneuve had beaten Nelson? Would Napoleon have won, and would French have become the lingua franca of England? And if Trafalgar was such a decisive strategic battle, why did it take another decade for Napoleon finally to be defeated at Waterloo in 1815?
Admiral John Jervis, the Earl of St. Vincent, to Prime Minister William Pitt answered the first question. St. Vincent the First Lord of the Admiralty, did not know whether Napoleon would attempt to invade England, but the admiral was sure that British sea power would destroy any invading fleet. That was a lesson learned by the Spanish in 1588 and one Adolf Hitler would relearn during World War II. The few dozen miles separating England from the continent would prove to be an insurmountable barrier, even if Nelson's fleet had been defeated.
That it took another decade to end Napoleon's reign gets to the strategic nature of war and victory or defeat. To win, enemy will and capacity to fight must be broken or neutralized. It is exceedingly difficult for navies to achieve those ends decisively and alone and especially in relatively short order. Themistocles did do at Salamis in 480 BC. But that was a battle of armies embarked in ships in confined waters. Admiral Heihachiro Togo annihilated the Russian fleet at the Battle of Tsushima Strait in 1905. But it was mutual exhaustion that ended the war.
Navies in these cases are vital but not sufficient to win wars, a conclusion that surely applies today in the fight against jihadist extremists who use terror, not navies and armies, as their main weapons. How then can naval forces be made more relevant in this struggle?
First, naval forces project power and influence of all sorts ashore. That means, in certain tactical situations such as in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Marine Corps and Army land forces must be the main battery, and, as with the Royal Navy after Trafalgar, the Navy provides the supporting force. Imaginative use of sea basing is thus one issue of greater strategic import.
Second, the United States has been deficient in conducting its public and preventative diplomacy. Relatively inexpensive actions today can prevent serious crises later. Naval forces are ideally suited for these military-diplomatic tasks and have carried them out for centuries.
Third, naval forces are critical in a "hedging" strategythai is, how to cope with a future that is opaque. Some insurance is needed for as yet unknowable contingencies. Because of inherent flexibility, independence from fixed locales ashore, and the ability to surge, naval forces fit this role.
Trafalgar was a seminal battle. And its lessons, if the right questions are posed, remain relevant.
Mr. Ullman is a columnist for Proceedings and the Washington Times. A television commentator, his newest book is Owls and Eagles—Ending the Foreign Policy Flights of Fancy of Hawks, Doves and Neo-Cons.