The Legacy of Unfinished Revolutions

By James Holmes

Unfinished revolutions have happened before. When Admiral W. S. Sims was a lieutenant, he was assigned to the Asiatic Station on board the battleship Kentucky (BB-6), the pride of the U.S. Navy. After studying the ship’s design, he pronounced it a “crime” against naval architecture. That flamethrower approach came to typify his reformism. Friends sought in vain to dissuade him from using the adjective “hopeless” when describing the state of the U.S. Navy in correspondence with Washington. He knew no fear.

Sims also got to know Captain Sir Percy Scott of the Royal Navy, who had pioneered something called “continuous-aim firing.” Up until then, gunfire was a matter of training the gun mount at a target, setting the elevation, waiting for the ship to roll until the target was coming into the sights, then firing. Elevation was more or less fixed. That’s why Jack Aubrey in the film Master and Commander orders gunners in HMS Surprise to “Fire on the uproll!” Yet the tactical environment and reflexes of individual crewmen fettered both the accuracy and the rate of fire. During the Battle of Manila Bay, Dewey’s Asiatic Squadron scored only a minute percentage of hits—only 121 of some 9,500 rounds fired—against an anchored, and thus stationary, Spanish fleet.

Scott combined others’ inventions—newfangled telescopes and easy-operating gun elevating gear in particular—to enable gunners to keep the barrels on target while the ship rolled and pitched around them. Crews could make constant, minute adjustments, elevating or depressing the guns to score a hit regardless of the hull’s motion. According to historian Elting Morison, Scott recorded a 3,000 percent improvement in his ships’ rate of accurate fire almost overnight. This grabbed Sims’ attention. He inspected U.S. Navy fire-control techniques and hardware and determined they were not up to the challenge of continuous aim. The Navy would find itself at a serious if not catastrophic disadvantage if it went up against a fleet thus equipped.

Alarmed, Sims began firing a barrage of reports to the Bureau of Ordnance detailing U.S. gunfire inadequacies and extolling the British system. These fell largely on deaf ears.

Sims’ message was not just unwelcome but also undiplomatically phrased. It hurt delicate feelings among senior officers and begat ill will. As a result, as Morison tells it, the Navy bureaucracy was reduced to arguing that a working system—continuous aim—was mathematically impossible. A revolution in naval affairs that already had taken place was impossible!

Except it wasn’t. Lieutenant Sims ultimately got the Navy to embrace his gunfire revolution by writing directly to President Theodore Roosevelt—twice—who apparently had him appointed Inspector of Target Practice for the entire Navy. By the time he left that post, Sims was widely regarded as “the man who taught the U.S. Navy to shoot.”

Why refuse to see reality, as the Navy old guard did a century ago? Such responses are far from atypical in human affairs. In 1962, MIT professor Thomas Kuhn wrote a book titled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, contending that human knowledge does not progress through an orderly process of falsifying old theories as new facts and ideas emerge. It progresses through a messy, herky-jerky process whereby the keepers of an existing “paradigm” for explaining the world around us fight against new paradigms that promise to better account for reality.

A paradigm is something like common law: it furnishes the axioms from which we reason. Seldom do we call these axioms into question—until we have to. A “crisis” ensues once too many “anomalies” or a few glaring anomalies accumulate, separating the paradigm’s claims from observed reality. Once the anomalies are undeniable, the gatekeepers no longer can defend the paradigm. The way opens for gatecrashers to install a better paradigm.

That is how Kuhn sees progress happening: fitfully and with much weeping and gnashing of teeth. So it is with institutions. The U.S. Navy of Sims’ day was the custodian of a paradigm seemingly ratified by the victories at Santiago and Manila Bay in 1898. U.S. gunnery did not appear to be broken. So why fix it? It took a W. S. Sims—a workaholic officer with an ornery streak and the willingness to disregard his career prospects—to shatter the old paradigm. And it worked. Continuous aim became standard procedure for surface combatants by the time World War I rolled around. Kuhn would classify this as a “paradigm shift,” complete with all the turmoil that goes with it.

Paul Kennedy confirms that these were indeed revolutionary times. In fact, he believes a far bigger revolution than continuous aim was crashing against the naval profession a century ago: undersea warfare. At the Current Strategy Forum last June, Professor Kennedy suggested that submarines constituted a major part of the revolution that swept the early 20th century—and that neither the surface nor the submarine navy has yet fully come to terms with it.

Kennedy calls this revolution the “1906 Question” and suggests it left us with a hangover in the form of a “Dreadnought complex,” namely, the ingrained assumption that all platforms need to be big, heavily armed, multimission, and pricey—capable of tangling with enemy heavy combatants all by themselves. Why 1906? Because that’s the year the Royal Navy launched HMS Dreadnought, the world’s first turbine-driven, all-big-gun battleship. This new man-of-war demoted vessels sporting mixed batteries of big and lesser guns and driven by reciprocating steam engines to secondary status. It reset the terms of naval competition.

By historical accident, 1906 is also the year the Kaiser’s navy finally got around to building subs—one of the new technologies, including torpedoes, sea mines, torpedo-toting surface craft, and carrier aviation, that undermined the supremacy of armored dreadnoughts in naval warfare. Kennedy maintains that we have yet to accept that the submarine represents the “devastator” of all things floating on the surface while also carrying the latest payloads—including unmanned vehicles—and boasting the ability to hunt enemy subs.

To him, this adds up to a revolution the custodians of an order founded on major platforms—the Dreadnoughts of our age—have yet to embrace. We experience cognitive dissonance from time to time—we know intellectually what subs can do—but somehow this knowledge doesn’t translate into action. In Kuhn’s terms, too few anomalies have accumulated to generate a crisis, collapse the old paradigm, and compel us to formulate something more fitting for the times and operational surroundings. There has been no Pearl Harbor of undersea warfare to force us to take the revolution in naval affairs seriously.

Germany underperformed in undersea warfare in two world wars. It got a late start on submarine construction before World War I, and it went to war before it finished fitting out a navy for World War II. Hitler’s Kriegsmarine could have done far worse given sound leadership. Japan likewise underperformed, failing to use an impressive inventory of fleet boats to impede the U.S. advances across the Central and South Pacific. And we never got into a hot war with the Soviet Union—a war in which subsurface combat would have played a major part.

In short, our foes have never deployed submarines to their full potential. If defeat had stared us in the face during a global conflict, or if German, Japanese, or Soviet submarine warfare had exacted such a toll on our shipping as to make victory at sea unaffordable, we might have taken heed of the technological revolution and shifted our paradigm for maritime strategy long ago.

Also in the early 20th century, sea power scribe extraordinaire Julian Corbett saw a “revolution beyond all previous experience.” Technical breakthroughs were upending timeless verities about how to structure fleets and deploy them in action to compel foes to do our bidding. Maritime history—for Corbett, “the age of sail”—became an untrustworthy fount of insight into future sea combat in which small torpedo-armed craft could hammer the armored battleship.

Submarines, torpedo boats, and aircraft had little place in Corbett’s or Alfred Thayer Mahan’s scheme of things, in large part because they wrote before those new instruments of war came into their own. Because of this historical accident, the strategic canon is mostly silent on the subjects of undersea and aerial warfare.

And yet Corbett in particular sold himself short. During the age of sail, ships of war were classified as “capital ships” that fought in the line of battle; “cruisers” that fanned out to control the sea lanes under the protection of the battle fleet, after the fleet action had been won or the rival fleet was blockaded in port; or “flotilla” craft, lightly armed or unarmed ships that performed the mundane administrative chores. The advent of super-empowered cruisers or flotilla craft able to land heavy blows against the battle fleet muddled this tripartite arrangement, but Corbett nonetheless gave us a timeless way to think about the functions various ships perform.

If a navy is stronger than its opponent, it opens by vying for “command of the sea” or “permanent general control” of the sea. It tries to settle things in an afternoon, crushing the opponent or bottling it up in port. If a navy is too weak to fight for maritime mastery, it can try to deny a stronger adversary control of important waters while weakening that adversary and building up its own combat power. And once a navy has won command, it gets to exercise command. Cruisers and the flotilla craft exercise command, mainly because they are cheap enough to build in bulk. These lighter craft guard the sea lanes for friendly shipping while denying access to hostile shipping; they can land troops, bombard foreign shores, and on and on. The fruits of victory fall to them. After winning the fight for command, the battle fleet reverts to a supporting role, protecting the cruisers and flotilla at what Corbett calls their “special work,” lest the defeated foe regenerate the power to pose a new threat.

Such timeless precepts can help us fashion a strategy harnessing the power of submarines, and along with it a new paradigm for naval warfare.

Setting aside ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs) for the moment, what is a U.S. Navy submarine in Corbett’s taxonomy? What does a nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) do? Is it a capital ship? Mahan defines a capital ship in effect as a ship that can dish out and take “hard knocks” in a duel with a hostile battle fleet. It seems fair to classify torpedo- and antiship-missile-armed SSNs as battle-line combatants. If the enemy battle fleet consists mainly of surface vessels, SSNs can strike at it with extreme prejudice; if the enemy organizes its battle fleet around subs, any U.S. Navy submariner will tell you the best ASW platform is another submarine. Thus, it is possible to foresee using SSNs to fight for command of the sea. This implies that surface forces—including aircraft carriers—fall more into the subsidiary cruiser or flotilla categories. They exercise command once we hold it.

What about conventional submarines? Paul Kennedy suggested the U.S. Navy could bulk up its fleet in part by making room for ultraquiet, inexpensive diesel-electric boats. He also stated rather pointedly that our submarine force betrays a Dreadnought Complex of its own: it’s on display when submariners insist that only an all-nuclear silent service will do.

That happens often. Advocates of nuclear propulsion commonly reply to proposals that the Navy procure diesels by contending that studies repeatedly have disproved their value. But diesels were used to devastating effect in the Pacific War 75 years ago, employing technology that was crude by today’s standards. For decades, the Japanese and South Korean undersea fleets have operated effectively amid congested Asian offshore geography, employing conventional subs that cost a fraction of what a U.S. Navy Virginia (SSN-774)-class SSN costs. (The price tag for Japan’s last Soryu-class boat runs almost precisely one-fifth that of a Virginia.)

Today, as in the age of Sims, it makes little sense to insist that what the U.S. Navy did in the past (and our allies are doing today) cannot be done. The Navy may not want to acquire diesel subs, for a variety of reasons, but that is different from being unable to reincorporate conventional boats into fleet operations. Let’s not conflate the two.

Where would diesel boats fall into a Corbettian scheme of naval warfare? They need not fall into the same category as SSNs. With their short range and endurance relative to SSNs, they seem more like cruisers. They would be ideally suited for picket duty—in particular, near what Corbett calls “focal areas,” narrow seas where shipping must converge and congregate to pass from expanse A to expanse B. SSNs could do the heavy offensive fighting while diesel boats police expanses scoured of the enemy fleet. They could deny enemy forces reentry into waters we command.

And where do, and should, unmanned vehicles fall into the Corbettian scheme of things? The Navy appears to have a universal tendency to use new platforms or gadgetry as an adjunct to what we already know how to do. For instance, in the 1920s and 1930s, the Navy thought of aircraft carriers as the “eyes of the fleet.” Carrier aircraft would scout ahead of the fleet, vectoring in dreadnoughts and cruisers to pound the enemy fleet to smithereens with artillery. In other words, the flattop was a fleet auxiliary, not a striking arm in its own right.

Pearl Harbor put an end to that way of thinking. William Moffett lobbied on behalf of carrier aviation until such time as U.S. naval strategy caught up with technology. Roughly speaking, Admiral Moffett was the W. S. Sims of naval aviation—a tireless proponent of a new way of doing things. We should consider the possibility that we are the U.S. Navy in the 1920s, overlooking a revolution in the making, and seek out and listen to whoever might be the Moffett of unmanned systems. We might not be standing on the brink of a revolution comparable to carrier aviation. But we might be.

In short, it is time to think afresh about maritime strategy. From a technological standpoint, we should take seriously Kennedy’s claim that we have never fully come to terms with the revolution in subsurface combat. We should call on the masters such as Corbett and Mahan as we try to bring subs into—and thus refresh and update—the strategic canon.

And from a larger standpoint, we should acknowledge that we are becalmed intellectually. Much like Sims’ navy, we have been basking in the afterglow of victory—the Spanish-American War for Sims, the Cold War for us. The sense that there is no reason to trifle with success makes it hard to admit that hardware, methods, and habits of mind seemingly vindicated by victory may no longer be up to the challenges before us.

Let’s discard paradigms that have outworn their usefulness—before disaster forces us to reinvent how we do things amid the clangor of battle.

Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from remarks delivered at the Undersea Warfare Alternative Futures Symposium, Naval War College, Newport, RI, 30 August 2017.

James Holmes is Professor of Strategy at the Naval War College and coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific (second edition forthcoming 2018 from the Naval Institute Press).


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