is on establishing and maintaining maritime superiority echoes through the corridors of power as if it were a revolutionary idea. The emphasis in the surface force on distributed lethality, the push to acquire platforms such as the littoral combat ship (LCS) and DDG-1000 guided-missile destroyers, and the vision of a 355-ship fleet share sea control as their central idea. Yet sea control is not a new concept. Retired Captain Wayne P. Hughes’ classic work Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat notes that “It has long been axiomatic that naval influence cannot be exercised before ‘sufficient’ control of the sea is secured.”1 The novelty of the Navy’s contemporary approach is the innovative spirit of implementation.
No clever sailor ever won a battle at sea with unrealized ideas. Distributed lethality, the Chief of Naval Operations’ “A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority,” and Naval Surface Forces’ “Surface Force Strategy” are all predicated on tactical action. Distributed lethality only works when warfighters know how to distribute ordnance downrange effectively, on target, and on time. Junior officers need a contextual framework to understand and execute the Navy’s broader vision of sea control. That framework is best found in the pages of history.
Naval leaders such as Stephen Luce and Alfred Thayer Mahan understood the critical importance of historical study for dominance of the sea. Naval War College historian John B. Hattendorf says Luce “believed that from historical knowledge, officers could begin to generalize about the nature of navies and thereby provide the groundwork for professional thought.”2 Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral John Richardson’s “A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority,” says that to achieve high-velocity learning the Navy must “begin problem definition by studying history” to avoid repeating the errors of the past.3 Yet relearning old lessons is why distributed lethality is characterized by its authors as a “renaissance in surface-force employment” as opposed to an evolution in surface-force employment—a rebirth of a bygone approach unfamiliar to the midcourse and junior officers of the post-9/11 Navy.4
A properly applied historical methodology built on the foundation of the tactical past can teach young officers how to win tomorrow’s battles with today’s weapons. Captain Hughes’ “six cornerstones” of naval tactics provide an ideal framework for doing so.
Six Cornerstones and History
The first cornerstone is “men matter most.” According to Hughes, “Leadership, morale, training, physical and mental conditioning, willpower, and endurance are the most important elements in warfare.” The great intangible of war—namely, inspired and thoughtful leaders combined with a steadfast will to win—should not be underestimated. Commodore George Dewey’s victory at the Battle of Manila Bay on 1 May 1898 vividly exhibits the truth of the principle.
Anticipating war, Dewey spent most of April 1898 drilling his crews in Hong Kong and at sea en route to the Philippines. Dewey’s leadership and training culminated in the complete destruction of the Spanish fleet without a single U.S. fatality. He later said that the battle was won not in Manila Bay where he fought but in the Hong Kong harbor where he trained. The leadership he displayed in the training and mental conditioning of his crews enabled him to secure one of the greatest lopsided victories in the history of the Navy.5
Today, Admiral Richardson believes mental conditioning, or toughness, is one of the four core attributes of the naval profession.
The Battle of Aboukir Bay
Hughes’ second cornerstone is that doctrine is the glue of tactics. He calls doctrine “a comprehensive and practiced plan of action,” the process in which a sea commander establishes a fleet’s “battle methodology” before hostilities begin. Doctrine contributes to unity of tactical purpose, reduces unnecessary or confusing communication during action, and instills initiative among subordinates.
A perfect historical example of this is Rear Admiral Horatio Nelson’s defeat of the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile in August 1798. Nelson spent June and July 1798 formulating his battle plan and discussing his primary doctrinal consideration with his captains—principally the concentration of firepower by doubling up British ships on the French line. The original plan was to do so to seaward of the French ships anchored in Aboukir Bay; this was overtaken by the realization at the outset of action that the French fleet was moored in such a way as to allow British ships to pass down the landward side of the anchored French vessels. The French, being required to fight both sides, suffered a defeat that climaxed in the explosion of the French flagship L’Orient. The willingness of the Royal Navy to exploit a tactical lapse in the heat of battle despite months of training to fight a different way demonstrates the improvisational strength of well-crafted and well-understood doctrine. Nelson’s doctrine of concentrated firepower was clearly understood by his commanding officers, and that understanding enabled improvisation and initiative to achieve unity of purpose regardless of battle plans.
Tactical threats in today’s world of antiaccess/area denial require a return to what the CNO calls “decentralized operations, guided by commander’s intent”—doctrine—because chat rooms and satellite voice communications will not win the next naval conflict.
The Battle of Lake Champlain
Hughes’ third cornerstone advises that to know tactics, you must know technology. In Hughes’ words, “The tactician stays ready by knowing his weapon systems.”
Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough demonstrated he was a ready tactician at the Battle of Lake Champlain on 11 September 1814. Macdonough recognized that his sailors lacked the seamanship to fight the British fleet on the open lake, especially given the British advantage in cannons against his own shorter-range carronades. Macdonough’s only hope of winning a decisive victory would be to fight at close range where his guns would be most effective. He also understood the critical importance of being able to present a fresh broadside to the enemy in the heat of battle, and so he anchored all his ships off Plattsburgh on the New York side and rigged each ship with kedge anchors that would allow them to pivot in place.
Macdonough’s plan worked. With most of the 26-gun flagship Saratoga’s starboard guns out of action, he ordered his men to haul the kedge out, turning her to present her undamaged port broadside to the 36-gun British flagship HMS Confiance. Macdonough’s tactical pivot proved too much for the British and they were quickly forced to strike their colors. This left British Major General Sir George Prévost unable to sustain his land forces in the New England interior, forcing a retreat from Plattsburgh.6
Macdonough defeated the British based largely on his understanding of weapon systems and how to employ them tactically. He understood that he had to fight the British at close range to maximize his weapons and he had to be able to maneuver tactically at anchor in such a way that he could effectively double his firepower when it mattered most.
The three tenets of distributed lethality are: increase the offensive lethality of all warships; distribute offensive capability geographically; and give ships the right mix of resources to persist in a fight to forge tactics based on modern technological advancements.7 Offensive surface-to-surface missiles, low-cost medium-range strike weapons, long-range antisubmarine warfare weapons, and railguns will form the backbone of technologically based tactics in the next fight.
The Battle of Valcour Island
The fourth cornerstone resonates with the post-9/11 generation of naval officers because the bulk of their seagoing careers has been dedicated to it: the seat of purpose is on land. Hughes notes that “sea battles are not fought for their own sake” but most often have been “connected with events on land, usually in an immediate, direct, and obvious way.”
The Battle of Valcour Island in October 1776 is one such example. The loss of New York City to the British in August and the looming invasion of northern New York by Major General Sir Guy Carleton spelled almost certain doom for the patriot cause. The British sought to divide and conquer by splitting the rebellion in two through New York, and American leaders fully understood the calamity of any British success. Carleton and Brigadier General Benedict Arnold—still a patriot at this point—both realized that whoever wanted to control New York had to control the road that ran along the western shore of Lake Champlain. Sea control of the lake therefore equated to control of the road. Carleton and Arnold spent the summer hastily building fleets before engaging in battle on 11 October. Arnold and his hodgepodge flotilla were defeated soundly, but the tactical defeat proved an immense strategic gain. The lengthy naval arms race to control Lake Champlain prevented Carleton from conquering upstate New York before the winter of 1776–77, forcing him into winter quarters.8
Arnold’s understanding that sea control was essential in achieving the desired objective on land gave the Americans time to regroup, eventually winning the Battle of Saratoga—and French recognition with it—as a result.
Sea control is not about control of the sea for its own sake but rather to influence or aid the war on shore. As Vice Admiral Thomas Rowden, Rear Admiral Peter Gumataotao, and Rear Admiral Peter Fanta explained in their January 2015 Proceedings article defining distributed lethality, “Hunter-killer [surface action groups (SAGs)] seize maritime-operations areas for subsequent activities (including power projection), perform screening operations for larger formations, and hold adversary land targets at risk.”9 The role of the upgunned expeditionary strike group (ESG) in the distributed lethality construct is yet another example of the tactical priority of land-based objectives. Hunter-killer SAGs and upgunned ESGs both demonstrate the interplay among the maxims, as well.
Vice Admiral Thomas Rowden, shown here addressing the crew of the USS John Paul Jones (DDG-53), and his “Distributed Lethality” co-authors advocated for a “renaissance in surface-force employment,” not incremental change. (U.S. Navy / Laurie Dexter)
The Battle of New Orleans
Hughes’ fifth cornerstone is a principle taken from Admiral Nelson, who said, “A ship’s a fool to fight a fort.” Major shore installations often are tough nuts to crack because in general they boast more and longer-range weapons than their floating adversaries while often possessing advantages in terms of repair and resupply.
Captain David Farragut’s conquest of New Orleans in April 1862 offers a good example. Two strong forts to the south—Fort St. Philip and Fort Jackson, boasting 128 guns between them—protected New Orleans.10 When Farragut’s forces began bombarding the forts on 18 April, he quickly recognized that his fleet was not in a position to disable them from the sea.11 His daring solution was to sail his fleet past the forts on the morning of 24 April, rendering them ineffective with mobility rather than firepower. The gamble paid off. Farragut lost only one ship in his run past the forts and captured the city of New Orleans without having to fire a shot.
The example of Farragut on the Mississippi River in 1862 is an important one for today’s naval officers. “If a fort (whatever its composition) is weak,” writes Hughes, “then crush it. If it is strong, avoid it.” Naval vessels possess an ability to maneuver that no shore-based fortification can replicate. As such, achieving sea control does not require the destruction of all enemy fortifications on land. Rendering a shore installation or battery tactically obsolete can achieve the same objective as destroying the enemy position—and with fewer casualties.
The Battle of Midway
Hughes’ final cornerstone is to attack effectively first. Hughes describes this principle as “the very essence of tactical action for success in naval combat.”
In June 1942, Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance decided to launch an aerial assault on the Japanese carrier fleet near Midway Atoll at a longer-than-optimal distance so as not to lose the element of surprise. Japanese Vice Admiral Nagumo Chuichi had received reports that there was an enemy carrier to the northeast, but he hesitated to launch an immediate strike; he failed to attack effectively first.12 The initial U.S. assault on the Japanese carriers was not very effective and resulted in extremely heavy casualties for the obsolete Devastator torpedo bombers. The silver lining of the torpedo-bomber attack, however, was that it distracted Japanese fighters long enough for the Dauntless dive bombers to concentrate firepower with cumulative advantage and sink three Japanese carriers in rapid succession, followed by a fourth later in the day. The entire war in the Pacific shifted as a result of attacking effectively first.
Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance and Japanese Vice Admiral Nagumo Chuichi each had an opportunity at the Battle of Midway to attack effectively first. Chuichi hesitated, but Spruance did not. (Naval History and Heritage Command)
Today’s naval officers must be ready to win the war with the weapons they have and they must know how to use them to utmost effect. The CNO’s “Design” is not predicated on the rapid procurement of a weapon system so advanced that it will win the war for the fleet. Instead, it stresses employing the systems the Navy already has to maximum effect. As the document puts it, “[See] what you can accomplish without additional resources.” This is not to say that procurement of new weapon systems is not vital to gaining a competitive edge against peer competitors. The “Surface Force Strategy” is driven by a desire for “deliberate resource investment for modernization and for the future force.”13 The fanciest weapon systems in the world are useless, however, if not used effectively. The beating heart of distributed lethality is not sea control by procurement but sea control by offensive action.
Distribute Lethality One Ensign at a Time
The pleasure of having been commissioned has not yet faded from new ensigns’ faces before they are buried in an avalanche of personal qualification standards, under-instruction watches, and the daily hustle and bustle of ship life. They know little about distributed lethality, “A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority,” or the “Surface Force Strategy.”
The Navy must teach its officers the six cornerstones—and then teach them how to use them as a contextual framework for understanding the tactical past. That knowledge then can be used to teach them how to win the tactical future. Ships should make history a part of officer training and a part of qualification boards. History rightly taught can unlock the present as much as it can reveal the past. Hughes believes that, “All fleet operations based on defensive tactics . . . are conceptually deficient.” That sentiment resonates well with the Navy’s current push toward offensive operations, but how does one prove such an important claim? The answer is with history.
John Paul Jones wrote, “It is the work of many years’ study and experience to acquire the high degree of science necessary for a great sea officer.”14 History is part of that science. To be most effective, the renaissance of surface-force employment must be accompanied by a renewed zeal for historical application to contemporary problems. The success of the Navy’s future depends much on its understanding of the past.
1. CAPT Wayne P. Hughes Jr., USN (Ret.), Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat, 2nd edition (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000). All quotations taken from pp. 1–45.
2. John B. Hattendorf, “Stephen B. Luce: Intellectual Leader of the New Navy,” in James C. Bradford (ed.), Quarterdeck & Bridge: Two Centuries of American Naval Leaders (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997), 210.
3. U.S. Navy, “A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, Version 1.0” (January 2016).
4. VADM Thomas Rowden, RADM Peter Gumataotao, and RADM Peter Fanta, USN, “Distributed Lethality,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 141, no. 1, (January 2015).
5. Vernon L. Williams, “George Dewey: Admiral of the Navy,” in Bradford, Quarterdeck & Bridge, 259–60.
6. Craig L. Symonds, Historical Atlas of the U.S. Navy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995), 52.
7. Commander, Naval Surface Forces (CNSF), “Surface Force Strategy: Return to Sea Control,” 10.
8. Symonds, Historical Atlas, 10.
9. Rowden, Gumataotao, and Fanta, “Distributed Lethality.”
10. Symonds, Historical Atlas, 93.
11. William N. Still, Jr., “David Glasgow Farragut: The Union’s Nelson,” in Bradford, Quarterdeck & Bridge, 128–30.
12. Symonds, Historical Atlas, 148–50.
13. CNSF, “Surface Force Strategy: Return to Sea Control,” 2.
14. James C. Bradford, “John Paul Jones: Honor and Professionalism,” in Bradford, Quarterdeck & Bridge, 31.
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