Category Archives: History

Naval and maritime history section.

The U.S. Navy in the War of 1812: Winning the Battle but Losing the War, Pt. 1

By William J. Prom

Introduction

Many popular American histories of the War of 1812 portray the conflict as a series of stunning successes for the young nation and the United States Navy in particular. This is a war that included storied events like the U.S. frigate Constitution earning the nickname ‘Old Ironsides,’ the U.S. frigate Essex’s cruise of the Pacific, and numerous victorious frigate duels against the preeminent naval power of the era.

Some histories gloss over the U.S. Navy’s failures enough that it even appears the young nation won a war against the most powerful navy in the world. Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, however, summed up the war quite differently stating that “although relieved by many brilliant incidents, indicative of the real spirit and capacity of the nation, the record upon the whole is one of gloom, disaster, and government incompetence, resulting from lack of national preparation, due to the obstinate and blind prepossessions of the Government, and, in part, of the people.”1 The U.S. Navy’s actions before and during the War of 1812 deserve critical examination to better evaluate the service’s success and understand how the war was fought. A consideration of the U.S. Navy’s preparation and conduct of the War of 1812 as a whole and at Lake Champlain in particular provides enduring lessons regarding maritime superiority and adversary-oriented planning.

Part One will discuss the U.S. Navy’s performance in general and Part Two will focus on Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough’s actions on Lake Champlain.

The Path to War

After resolving the Quasi War with France in 1800 and establishing peace in the Mediterranean with the Barbary States in 1805, the U.S. Navy’s clear antagonist was the British Royal Navy. Britain and France were in a relatively uninterrupted state of war with each other since the start of the French Revolution. The conflict intensified when Napoleon took control of France in 1803. To maintain their dominance on the seas, the Royal Navy relied on impressing sailors to man their ships. As a seafaring nation of immigrants mostly from the British Isles, American sailors were prime candidates for impressment into British service. American sovereignty and citizenship meant little to a monarchy that regarded its citizens as subjects indefinitely.

The British Government issued the first of their Orders in Council on January 6, 1807 to bolster their blockade of France. These Orders justified seizing and inspecting neutral ships to prevent any aid to Napoleon. American merchantmen were regularly stopped by the British to inspect cargo and impress sailors. On June 22, 1807, the most egregious infraction occurred when the frigate HMS Leopard stopped the American frigate Chesapeake off Norfolk. When the American Captain James Barron refused to allow the British aboard to inspect for suspected deserters, HMS Leopard opened fire.  Chesapeake was unprepared to engage and had to surrender after firing a single shot. The affair ended with three dead and eighteen injured aboard Chesapeake before giving up four suspected deserters to the British. President Thomas Jefferson believed that had Congress been in session or had he requested it, war would have been declared right then.2

The incident enraged the American public, but no change occurred with naval funding, manning, or deployment.  President Jefferson levied a heavy embargo against the British, and for their part the British Admiralty recalled HMS Leopard’s commander and admitted the error. The situation deescalated and soon the American public was enthralled by the revelation of Vice President Aaron Burr’s conspiracy and trial for treason. However, despite repeated American requests the British did not rescind the Orders in Council. Instead, they issued more and the impressments continued.

President James Madison spoke before Congress on June 1, 1812 regarding relations with Great Britain. He cited the impressment of American sailors, disregard for American sovereignty, and the plundering of American commerce as evidence of a state of war existing between the two nations.3 Since 1800, Great Britain captured 917 American ships and impressed 6,257 American seamen.4 With support from the War Hawks who sought to acquire Canada, Congress declared war on June 18, 1812. Ironically, the British rescinded the maligned Orders in Council two days earlier.

In 1812 the British Navy included 130 ships of the line with 60-120 guns and 600 frigates and smaller vessels. And the U.S. Navy at that time? Seven frigates fit for sea, three needing repairs, eight brigs, schooners, or sloops, and 165 gunboats (of which 103 were in ordinary or under repair). Never large to begin with, the U.S. Navy almost evaporated after hostilities ended with Tripoli in 1805. Cuts continued even after the ChesapeakeLeopard incident in 1807, and accelerated in the spring of 1810.5 Naval historian Charles O. Paullin described succinctly that when Congress declared war, “the Navy Department was unprepared in every essential means, instrument, and material of naval warfare. It had no dry docks. It had few ships. With the exception of the naval establishment at Washington, the navy-yards were in a state of neglect and decay.”6 Thankfully for the U.S. Navy, Napoleon thoroughly occupied the British Navy and the American declaration of war was entirely unexpected by the British government. Of their hundreds of warships, the British had only one ship of the line, seven frigates, and a dozen smaller vessels operating out of Halifax in the summer of 1812.7

In the year before declaring war, Congress and the Navy Department did little to prepare for the conflict. In a country where many questioned the need for or even dreaded the existence of a standing military, the small staff of the Navy Department focused more on relevancy and survival than war preparations. Only months before the war, Congress slowly began a meager build-up but spent nothing on ship construction. Perhaps out of hubris, only weeks after declaring war Congress approved $829,000 for purchasing, repairing, and equipping captured enemy vessels. So much opposition to or disinterest in the war existed that Congress couldn’t pass a bill to build more ships until January 1813. They approved $2,500,000 for four ships of the line and six frigates—25 percent more than the Navy Department’s entire 1811 budget. These warships would never see combat against the British.8

The Maritime Frontier and the War at Sea

The U.S. Navy began the war with three objectives: defend the maritime frontier, capture enemy warships and merchantmen, and maintain naval superiority on the lakes. Defending the maritime frontier consisted of guarding the American ports with gunboats, barges, or other small craft. This consumed almost half the U.S. Navy’s personnel without even adequately manning every vessel. Early in the war, Congress spent almost $2 million to reinforce the maritime frontier, but unless supported by land-based defenses, they were entirely ineffectual.9 They occasionally discouraged small enemy vessels from entering harbors or landing, but could not stop attacks from entire British squadrons.10 In August 1814, Rear Admiral Cockburn’s squadron overwhelmed the flotilla defending Washington and landed Major General Ross’s army, which burned down the capital city. The money spent on gunboats could have built eight frigates, but most unfortunately, they were made from materials originally allocated for six ships of the line.11

The war at sea to capture enemy warships and merchantmen was the most desirable objective for naval officers and the most popular in historical accounts. The numerous ship duel victories in this theater are some of the most famous victories of the early U.S. Navy. They include Captain Isaac Hull and the frigate Constitution’s capture of the frigate HMS Guerriere, Captain Stephen Decatur and the frigate United States’ capture of the frigate HMS Macedonian, and Captain William Bainbridge and Constitution’s victory over the frigate HMS Java. These and most other victories at sea, however, occurred in the opening months of the war. By early 1813, the British had eleven ships of the line, thirty-four frigates, and fifty-two other vessels operating off North America, while the U.S. had only two frigates at sea.12 By November 1813, the British established a commercial blockade that stopped all traffic regardless of nationality across the entire east coast south of New England.13

The resources of the British Navy quickly overwhelmed the U.S. Navy’s famous heavy frigates. After evading the blockade out of New York in May 1813, Decatur’s squadron of the frigates United States and Macedonian and sloop Wasp had to escape to New London, CT.  They remained there for the rest of the war. After sinking HMS Java, Constitution saw little action. Even though the British did not yet have Boston under a full blockade, they kept “Old Ironsides” in Boston Harbor for most of the war. The frigate Congress managed to slip out of Boston, only to return by the end of the year too damaged to repair. Her guns were stripped and she spent the rest of the war in ordinary. The frigate Constellation never escaped Norfolk throughout the war.14 Again with a voice of reason, Mahan evaluated the U.S. Navy’s conduct of the war at sea accurately:

“Tradition, professional pride, and the combative spirit inherent in both peoples, compelled fighting when armed vessels of nearly equal strength met; but such contests, though wholly laudable from the naval standpoint, which under ordinary circumstances cannot afford to encourage retreat from an equal foe, were indecisive of general results, however meritorious in particular execution.”15

Ultimately, no amount of successful frigate duels could win a war against the most powerful navy in the world.

Earlier in April 1814, the British extended their blockade to include New England. American imports shrank more than 25 percent from 1811 and exports dropped from $108 million in 1807 to less than $7 million.16 In August, the British marched on Washington, D.C. and burned down the capital city. To deny the British any resources, the U.S. Navy burned down the Washington Navy Yard themselves, including the U.S. Navy’s first 74-gun ship of the line, Columbia.  Of the seventeen sea-going U.S. Navy vessels at the start of the war, only seven remained by its end.17 By the end of 1814, the British held almost as many U.S. Navy sailors as prisoners as the U.S. Navy had sailors out to sea.18 Signed on December 24, 1814, the Treaty of Ghent restored pre-war territorial borders but did not address the U.S.’s greatest concern, impressment. The British already ceased the practice. They had far less need for sailors after Napoleon’s defeat at Leipzig earlier in October 1814.

Part Two will provide a counterexample to the U.S Navy’s performance with Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough’s preparations at Lake Champlain.

William graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2009 and served for five years as an artillery officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, deploying to Afghanistan and afloat. He now writes with a focus on early American naval history.

References

1. A.T. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relation to the War of 1812 (London: Sampson, Low, Marston & Company, 1905), 1: 290.

2. Walter R. Borneman, 1812: The War That Forged a Nation (New York: Harper Perennial, 2005), 24.

3. “June 1, 1812: Special Message to Congress on the Foreign Policy Crisis — War Message,” Miller Center, February 23, 2017, https://millercenter.org/the-presidency/presidential-speeches/june-1-1812-special-message-congress-foreign-policy-crisis-war.

4. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relation to the War of 1812, 1:299-300.

5. Charles Oscar Paullin, Paullin’s History of Naval Administration, 1775-1911 (Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 2012), 142, 148-150, 154; Theodore Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York: Putnam, 1902), 1:109-110.

6. Paullin, Paullin’s History of Naval Administration, 147.

7. Ships at Sea extract from the Admiralty Office, July 1, 1812, in William S. Dudley and Michael J. Crawford, eds., The Naval War of 1812: A Documentary History. 3 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Naval Historical Center, 1985), 1:180-182; Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 1:109-110.

8. Paullin, Paullin’s History of Naval Administration, 147-149.

9. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 1:244-246; Paullin, Paullin’s History of Naval Administration, 147-154.

10. Paullin 147-148, 151-154; TR 98-100

11. J. Russell Soley, “The Naval Campaign of 1812,” Proceedings 7, no. 3 (October 1881) https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/1881-07/naval-campaign-1812.

12. First Secretary of the Admiralty John W. Crocker to Admiral Sir John B. Warren, February 10, 1813, in Dudley and Crawford, The Naval War of 1812, 2:16-19; Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relation to the War of 1812, 2:13.

13. Borneman, 1812, 174.

14. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 1:204-208; Borneman, 1812, 175.

15. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relation to the War of 1812, 1:289.

16. Borneman, 1812, 216; Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relation to the War of 1812, 1:406-407; Allan Reed Millett and Peter Maslowski, For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America (New York: Free Press, 1994), 112.

17. Soley, “The Naval Campaign of 1812,” Proceedings 7, no. 3 (October 1881).

18. Jones to Madison, October 26, 1814, in Dudley and Crawford, The Naval War of 1812, 3:631-636.

Featured Image: “Action between U.S. Frigate Constitution and HMS Java, 29 December 1812″Painting in oils by Charles Robert Patterson. It depicts Constitution (at left), commanded by Captain William Bainbridge, exchanging broadsides with the British Frigate Java off Brazil early in the action. (Wikimedia Commons)

Sailing True North: James Stavridis on Admiralty and the Voyage of Character

By Dmitry Filipoff

CIMSEC had the opportunity to discuss with Admiral James Stavridis (ret.) his latest book, Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of CharacterIn this book Adm. Stavridis profiles ten historical admirals, revealing their character traits, leadership skills, and what their life accomplishments can teach modern Sailors and society. 

Q: From Fisher to Zumwalt, Rickover, and Hopper, you profile trailblazing admirals who built their legacies on innovation and reform. What can these leaders teach us about driving change into large organizations, and how to manage the risk that comes with innovating?

JS: Most of the admirals profiled in Sailing True North were innovators to one degree or another, but especially Fisher, Rickover, Zumwalt, and Hopper. As Steven Jobs of Apple said, “The difference between leaders and followers is innovation.” And it is worth observing that the innovations developed by these trailblazers were at times successful, and at other times ended in failure. But each of their stories as innovators had several common attributes. Indeed, the three key lessons for anyone seeking to move truly big organizations through successful innovation come from “the inside out.” First, building consensus from within; then obtaining committed support from outside the organization; and stubborn persistence. Achieving all of these requires an inner strength of character and deep self confidence.

Admiral Zumwalt was a “shock to the system” of the Navy and never slowed down to bring the organization along. While some of his initiatives survived his tenure (notably real progress on race relations), many of them failed – from very youthful commanding officers to beards for Sailors. I too learned the hard way that if you want to change an organization, it is necessary but not sufficient to have a big idea. When I took over at U.S. Southern Command, I wanted to change the focus of the military combatant command from a warfighting entity to an interagency structure optimized for the soft power missions of South America and the Caribbean. But I failed to build an internal consensus on the change, largely through overconfidence that my idea was so brilliant that everyone would simply fall in line. I was able to ram the changes through, but the next commander simply reversed course. So the first lesson in innovation is laying out a coherent case and building internal support.

The second key is getting outside support. When Grace Hopper wanted to bring the Navy into the computer age, she worked hard at connecting the chain of command with new technologies. She went on the road endlessly talking about computing and innovation as the keys for the Navy to move forward. Inspiring change requires not only support and buy-in within the organizational lines, but also convincing external stakeholders to move forward as well. Personally, I truly learned this while as the supreme allied commander at NATO, where we needed all 28 nations to move forward in consensus to make change – so I spent an inordinate amount of time on the road convincing European leaders to make necessary changes in our operations, from the Balkans to Afghanistan to counter-piracy.

Grace Murray Hopper, in her office in Washington DC, 1978. (Photo by Lynn Gilbert)

Third and finally, stubborn persistence is almost always necessary. The world hates change, and as a general rule, three out of four innovative ideas will fail. Taking no for an answer is not an option if you truly believe in the importance of the outcome. Admiral Sir Jackie Fisher was a deeply committed innovator, but frequently his ideas were rejected for lack of resources, professional jealousy, or fear of change. Yet he pounded away year after year and decade after decade and wrenched the Royal Navy into the 20th century – with fast capital ships, submarines, gunnery improvements, and many personnel changes. When I led the Navy’s innovation think tank, Deep Blue, in the days after 9/11, we failed on many ideas – but some vital ones emerged and changed the way the Navy fought in the Global War on Terror. 

Inspiring change – the heart of innovation – is in the end a challenge of character. To make others leap into the unknown with you requires not only a brilliant idea, but the inner self-confidence that others admire.

Q: When it comes to Admirals Nimitz, Nelson, and also Themistocles, these leaders are remembered for earning decisive success in conflict. What can we learn from these leaders on what it takes to be a successful wartime commander?

JS: The warfighting Admirals Themistocles, Nelson, and Nimitz all faced extreme existential levels of combat – they literally carried the future of their countries on the decisions they made.

First, each was a shrewd judge of subordinates, selecting the right commanders, then giving them plenty of leeway when it came to actual combat. And each was skilled at building operational and tactical teams that could work seamlessly on the vast battlespace of the world’s oceans. Of note, Nelson’s “band of brothers” never required elaborate battle plans of detailed instructions, nor did the subordinate admirals of WWII or the galley captains of the Battle of Salamis.

Second, each of the three set the values of their nation ahead of their own agendas. In terms of their inner character, each burned with zeal for their homeland, and were willing to make extreme personal sacrifices to succeed.

Third, all were masters of the technology of the day in terms of understanding what we would call the “kill chain” in today’s world. They mastered their craft coming up and were able to use all of the combat tools at their disposal.

And finally, each of the three were strategically minded, highly aware of the interconnection of the individual battles and campaigns they led to the “larger picture” of the global conflicts each faced – Themistocles with Persia, Nelson with Bonaparte’s France, and Nimitz with the Japanese Empire.

Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson (Lemuel Francis Abbot)

All of these come from qualities of inner character, of course. To know others, you must be aware of your own inner set of values. Patriotism and a willingness to be part of something far larger than yourself is crucial, as is the discipline and diligence to master the technology of the time. And the quality of strategic thinking is one that is honed through reading, study, and practice. Each of these admirals – none of them perfect, by the way – had all four of those qualities.

Q: For Zheng He and Sir Francis Drake, these leaders traveled far from home on uncertain voyages, and their superiors afforded them a great degree of discretion to act as they saw fit. What can be learned from how these leaders skillfully managed the independence of command?

JS: Even across the great distance of centuries, both Zheng He and Drake stand out in their ability to lead into the unknown. Yet they used a very different set of tools to do so, reflecting their highly different backgrounds and character. Zheng He, a eunuch and courtier as well as a warrior, was a skilled bureaucrat who could marshall significant resources to build overwhelming fleets. His inner character was one of sacrifice and seeking to gain glory for his master, the Han emperor. Drake, on the other hand, was an angry, brutal leader who used the lash, harsh punishment, executions alongside a reward system built around theft and plunder.

What they shared in common was a driving, energetic personality; strong physical stature; and above all personal courage. To lead into extreme danger and the unknown requires inner energy and self-confidence that can be instantly intuited by a crew. Both of these admiral had those qualities in abundance.

Q: This book was not written strictly for a military audience, because as you write in the introduction, “I am also motivated by a growing sense in this postmodern era that we are witnessing the slow death of character…” Of the many qualities and virtues of these admirals, which do you think both today’s U.S. Navy and society writ large need the most? 

JS: Above all, the intertwined qualities of humility, empathy, and listening are fading in many of our leaders across the political spectrum. The relentless pounding of tweets, blogs, Instagram posts, and the deluge of transmission shortens attention spans and reduces our ability to thoughtfully process what we hear. Too many have their transmit side set to max, and their receive side turned off. Character is about quiet self-confidence which allows us to listen to our friends and our critics as well. These are vital in both the military world and civilian life. Not all of the admirals in Sailing True North were humble and empathetic, and often when they stumbled it was for a lack of humility. There is a powerful lesson in that.

Honesty is also a character quality increasingly diminished in a world that seems to shrug off lies, half-truths, and exaggerations with a cynical comment and a knowing look. So often, we see people providing the “easy wrong” answer instead of the “hard right” one. Some of the admirals in the book played it loose with the truth from time to time, but all were at heart unafraid of the truth and wielded it with great effect at crucial moments of decision. We live in an utterly transparent world, and in the end the truth will come out. We need to pay more attention to veracity.

Lastly, I worry that in an age of accelerating technology, we are not innovating fast enough. Advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning, materials, nano-technology, and above all synthetic biology are merging. Can we move fast enough – both inside the military and in the larger civilian world – to keep up? So innovation, a deeply seated quality of character, is vital.

Q: None of the admirals in the book are by any means perfect individuals. Which of their flaws and faults did you find to be the more fascinating?

JS: The anger of Admiral Rickover fascinates me. Having encountered it personally several times (not pleasantly), I feared him. Yet his driven, intense personality also created a kind of cult of admiration among many. I entitled the chapter of the section about him, “The Master of Anger,” and I don’t know if it was something he used consciously or it was merely who he was. In today’s world, we would see many aspects of the “toxic leader” in Rickover, yet the results he delivered and the deep affection he inspired in many contradict that assessment.

Certainly Sir Francis Drake – a killer (both of his own men and victims in his raids) is a bundle of contradictions. His harsh treatment of pretty much anyone he encountered achieved a level of brutality we can only glimpse across the centuries. But he helped defeat the Spanish Armada and achieved great results for queen and country. Another very contradictory personality, with both flaws and virtues.

And Jackie Fisher’s towering ego can be maddening to encounter. He had to be the center of everything, his ideas were always right, and he brooked no interference in his schemes, ever. He must have been a wildly annoying contemporary in the admiralty. But he delivered enormous reform to the Royal Navy and did it all with a certain charm – he was a famous ballroom dancer and was in a passionate marriage.

Admiral of the Fleet John Arbuthnot “Jacky” Fisher, 1st Baron Fisher of Kilverstone (George Grantham Bain Collection)

Q: Throughout the book you relate your personal experiences, whether being a seaborne commander or an officer on staff duty in the halls of the Pentagon. You candidly reflect on past mistakes and flaws, but how did you see yourself grow as a leader over the course of your career?

JS: I started out, like many junior officers, with a lot of arrogance about my own skills. It took me a long time to find balance between self-confidence and over-confidence. My peers, especially my naval academy classmates, helped me with that. Over time, I became a better and more humble person. A big part of that was simply growing older, having children, meeting failure along the voyage, and other natural events.

Also, speaking of balance, I have struggled to find the right balance between career and family. David Brooks, in his marvelous book, The Road to Character, speaks about the difference between our “resume values” (Annapolis grad, Phd, 4-star admiral, NATO commander) and our “eulogy values” (good father, loving brother, best husband). I could do better on those eulogy values in terms of the time I devote – I remain very driven on the professional side. But that is the beauty of the human condition, right?  

In the end, we get to choose how we want to approach the world, knowing that our small voyages are so often going to end up sailing against the wind. There is immense comfort in understanding that the value of the voyage will be in seeing that beautiful ocean, and knowing that when we look at it, we see not only vast expanses of salt water, but eternity itself. That voyage for me continues, and I try hard every day to keep sailing as close to true north as I can. 

Admiral James Stavridis is an operating executive at The Carlyle Group and Chair of the Board of Counselors at McLarty Associates. A retired 4-star, he led the NATO Alliance in global operations (2009 to 2013) as Supreme Allied Commander, focused on Afghanistan, Libya, the Balkans, Syria, counter-piracy, and cyber security. Earlier, he was Commander U.S. Southern Command (2006-2009) responsible for Latin America. He has more than 50 medals, 28 from foreign nations.

In 2016, he was vetted for Vice President by Hillary Clinton and subsequently invited to Trump Tower to discuss a cabinet position in the Trump Administration.

Admiral Stavridis holds a PhD in international relations and has published nine books and hundreds of articles in leading journals. His 2012 TED talk on global security has over one million views. Admiral Stavridis is a monthly columnist for TIME Magazine and Chief International Security Analyst for NBC News, and has tens of thousands of connections on the social networks.

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Content@cimsec.org

Featured Image: Chief of Naval Operations Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz at his desk in the Navy Department. (Naval History and Heritage Command Photo #80-G-K-9334)

Confederate Sea Denial and Tactics of Asymmetric Naval Warfare

By LCDR Jason Lancaster, USN

Introduction

Today the U.S. faces renewed global competition, and conventional and asymmetric naval threats. The future U.S. way of war must innovate beyond the Second World War strategy of out-producing adversaries, since the U.S. has fewer shipyards and its rivals may have greater industrial capacity. Luckily, U.S. history offers examples of the U.S. as both a dominant power as well as an underdog. The Confederate States Navy provides an excellent example of an under-industrialized innovative underdog struggling to defend itself against an industrial juggernaut.

Naval Asymmetries in the U.S. Civil War

During the “War Between the States,” also known as the American Civil War, the Union Navy held as close to permanent general sea control for the duration; but the Confederate Navy waged an effective campaign to deny sea control in the littorals of key port cities. Maritime strategist and theorist Julian Corbett divided the concept of sea control between local or general, temporary or permanent. Sea control means controlling the sea lines of communications (SLOCs) one side needs to maintain while fighting to deny that control to the adversary. One does not need to control the sea to deny it to an adversary. Sea control does not mean that the enemy will not be able to raid SLOCs, but rather those raids will not have a decisive impact on the war.1  

The Confederate Navy is considered a failure by popular belief because the Southern fleet was unable to break the Union blockade. The navy designed by Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory was not built to break the blockade, but for “desperate and unequal battle to protect land against sea.”This battle began poorly. The Union Navy waltzed into Port Royal, South Carolina, steamed past the Confederate guns at Fort Hatteras, and took control of the North Carolina sounds. Both ports were defended by guns that were out-ranged by the Union Navy. 

The Confederate Navy needed a new plan, and with limited resources only a few places could be adequately defended. Secretary Mallory and General Robert E. Lee compiled a list of priority ports. Union leaders of the Blockade Board did the same. Interestingly, both concurred that the key Southern ports were Norfolk-Richmond, Wilmington, Charleston, Savannah, Mobile, New Orleans, and Galveston.

In order to defend these ports Secretary Mallory focused his limited resources on denying sea control by increasing the survivability of warships through iron armor and improved anti-access weapons such as accurate long-range artillery and mines. When established together, this Confederate three-pronged approach successfully defended key Confederate ports. The new Confederate Navy was built to deny sea control near key Confederate ports to enable blockade runners to continue to supply the South, so that the army could continue to resist ashore. Charleston, Wilmington, and Richmond were not conquered by naval invasion but rather fell to the Union army advancing from the rear or, like Mobile, required weakening the Union blockade of Charleston to mass the forces required to invade. This trident approach enabled the South to maintain local sea control in the vicinity of key ports to keep those ports open.

The theory was that mines and narrow channels limited the maneuverability and fighting effectiveness of ships operating in littoral waters. Well-placed minefields forced ships within range of coastal defense artillery which increased the accuracy and damage of the Confederate Brooke rifles.4 Damaged vessels that got past the mines and coastal defense artillery would have to face the ironclads. This system successfully defended Charleston, Wilmington, and Richmond.

A map of the American Civil War. (Wikimedia Commons, Click to Expand)

However, the Battle of Mobile Bay demonstrated the inherent weakness of the system. The bold and innovative Union commander Admiral Farragut was not deterred by the mines. He placed anchor chains along his ships’ sides as improvised armor and steamed past the forts with their heavy guns to swiftly attack the single heavily outnumbered ironclad. CSS Tennessee’s steering system was outside the protective armor. Once the steering chains had been shot away, Tennessee was unable to maneuver and was overwhelmed by superior numbers.5 

Ironclads

From the beginning, it was clear that the South was at a distinct disadvantage in terms of shipbuilding. With little maritime tradition, few shipyards, and a meager industrial base she could not out-build the Union. Secretary Mallory knew ironclads were the answer. Before the Confederate capital had even moved to Richmond, Secretary Mallory was planning an ironclad navy. On April 26, 1861, Secretary Mallory wrote to the chairman of the House Committee on Naval Affairs:

“I regard the possession of an iron-armored ship as a matter of the first necessity… Inequality of numbers may be compensated by invulnerability; and thus not only does economy but naval success dictate the wisdom and expediency of fighting with iron against wood, without regard to first cost.”6

In Norfolk, Lieutenant John M. Brooke and Chief Naval Constructor John Porter cooperated on a design for a casemate ironclad built on the hull of the frigate Merrimack. With modifications, the basic design became the standard for Confederate ironclads. Richmond and Charleston each completed three ironclads, along the rivers of North Carolina, four were completed, and Savannah and Mobile each completed one. More ironclads were under construction along the Mississippi and other cities. But construction was hampered by material shortages and transportation issues. Throughout the war, 50 ironclads were laid down and 22 of them were commissioned.

However, most Confederate ironclads had maneuverability issues resulting from under-powered engines and deep drafts. Engineering plants were under-powered because the South lacked the capability and expertise to build new plants and used whatever old systems could be salvaged.7

Congressional appropriations and civic societies, including women’s ironclad societies, raised money in major cities to support construction of ironclads like CSS Chicora and Palmetto State in Charleston. Both congress and the citizenry had an expectation that the ironclads would go to sea and break the blockade. Congressional pressure often forced untimely offensives that resulted in disaster. For example, CSS Atlanta was captured by Union forces after she sortied from Savannah in an ill-advised attempt to break the blockade of Savannah against the recommendation of her captain. She ran aground at low tide in the river and was forced to capitulate.   

The USS Cairo photographed in the Mississippi River area during 1862, with a boat alongside her port bow, crewmen on deck and other river steamers in the background. (Wikimedia Commons)

In Charleston, Chicora and Palmetto State conducted a sortie to attack the inshore blockading squadron. They damaged USS Mercidta and USS Keystone State. The Union blockading fleet abandoned the inshore blockade for several weeks until it became clear the two ironclads would not continue patrolling offshore.8

In North Carolina, the Albemarle sailed into the sound and sank the Miami and Southfield, and took part in the liberation of the cities of Plymouth and Washington. She was supposed to rendezvous with the Neuse to support the Confederate Army’s attack on New Bern, but was delayed. The Albemarle struck such fear into the Union fleet that they abandoned the North Carolina sounds. Albemarle was eventually sunk by Union Lieutenant William Cushing in a daring raid up the Roanoke River. Lieutenant Cushing used a steam launch equipped with a spar torpedo to destroy the ironclad.9

Richmond demonstrated the effectiveness of the fleet-in–being, behind obstructions, mines, and powerful artillery. The large Union fleet could not force the obstructions. In January 1865, Secretary Mallory wrote to Captain John Mitchell, commander of the James River Squadron, “If we can block the river at or below City Point, Grant might be compelled to evacuate his position.”10 On January 23-24, 1865, the Confederate fleet sortied, while Union ironclads of the James River Squadron were hundreds of miles away attacking Wilmington. This attack was defeated by the shallow depth of the James River and the Confederate commander’s caution. After a series of groundings, the Confederate fleet returned to its defenses. General Grant understood how close the Confederate Navy had come to raising the siege of Petersburg. If a Confederate ironclad got to City Point, it could destroy the Union supply ships that supported the Union Army besieging Petersburg. Despite frantic telegraphs, the Union James River Squadron did not steam to support the Union batteries. General Grant was lucky that Captain Mitchell had been spooked by the groundings and worried about the impacts of losing his fleet on the defense of Richmond.11 

Coastal Defense Artillery

The War Between the States is often used as a demonstration that the adage, “a ship’s a fool to fight a fort” was dead. It was assumed that advances in naval artillery meant that the ship would always win. If one examined the first few disasters of the war, this might be the case. Bold Union attacks in Hatteras, North Carolina, Port Royal, South Carolina, and Galveston, Texas showed the weakness of Confederate artillery early in the war. The Confederacy needed heavy guns. In addition to his work on the Virginia, Lieutenant John M. Brooke also developed a new artillery piece, the 6.4 inch Brooke Rifled Gun, which was outfitted on the Virginia for its contest with Monitor. The Union Parrot Rifled Gun had a single reinforcing iron band around the breech, but the Brooke Rifle had multiple reinforcing iron bands increasing the strength of the gun and enabling it to use more powder to give projectiles greater range.12 The 7 inch Brooke Rifle’s maximum-range of 7,900 yards easily out-sticked the range of Union Parrot Rifles and Dahlgren guns.13 In addition to developing this new gun, Lieutenant Brooke also developed new bolts to fire from the guns. On 26 October 1862, he wrote in his journal that one of these new bolts pierced three two-inch plates and cracked the wood backing.14 These new guns would play a decisive role in preventing the Union Navy from repeating the easy victories of 1862. 

While Lieutenant Brooke developed the Brooke Rifle, Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones was tasked with the manufacturing. In Selma, Alabama, the Confederate Navy created a foundry to turn out these guns. Through their resourcefulness, a successful, efficient foundry was created from nothing. Throughout the war, over 70 Brooke Rifles were cast in Selma and an almost equal number cast at Tredegar Ironworks in Richmond. These guns were vital to Secretary Mallory’s layered defense of Southern ports and armed both the forts and ironclads.

Norfolk was captured after Union troops landed near modern day Chix Beach far from Confederate defenses. Local Confederate leadership panicked as Union troops advanced on Norfolk. Unable to evacuate CSS Virginia, the Confederate Navy blew her up to prevent capture.

The road to Richmond seemed open. In May 1862, the Union Navy attempted to steam up the James River to capture the city. The Union force had two non-ironclad ships and three ironclads: USS Monitor, USS Naugatuck, and USS Galena. They were surprised by the Brooke Rifles at Drewry’s Bluff that caused massive damage to Galena and Monitor. Galena was hit over 45 times and was badly damaged, including suffering 25 casualties. The guns at Drewry’s Bluff bought time for the Confederate Navy to obstruct the river with mines and ironclads. The James River defenses would not be challenged again until 1865.15

In March 1863, Union Admiral Farragut attempted to run up river past the guns of Port Hudson on the Mississippi with his fleet of seven non-ironclad ships. Restricted room to maneuver, the strong current, and heavy Confederate shore-based gunfire caused havoc in the Union fleet. Only two of Admiral Farragut’s ships succeeded in passing the batteries. Every ship ran aground at some point in the engagement. Admiral Farragut’s ships were lashed together in pairs to minimize the risk of ships being disabled by gunfire and left to their own devices. USS Hartford and USS Albatross led the fleet upriver and were the only two ships to reach their objective. The second pair ran aground, and the shock of the grounding broke them loose of each other, damaging their engines and causing them to drift down river. Shot from the batteries damaged the boilers on USS Richmond, while her partner, USS Genesee, couldn’t make headway against the current and drifted down river. The lone ship in the rear, USS Mississippi caught fire after being hit with heated shot that exploded when the fire reached her magazines.16 In April 1863, Admiral DuPont attempted to force his way past the forts and batteries of Charleston with a fleet of ironclads. After several hours of bombardment, he failed. His force sustained massive damage. Three ironclads were put out of action for weeks, and one, USS Keokuk, sank from damage sustained during the fight.17

These guns not only heavily damaged ships that tried to force the passage, but their large range kept the blockading ships at bay, increasing the ability of blockade runners to enter the port. Wilmington’s geography provides an excellent example of the impact of heavy guns. Fort Fisher was constructed of sand at the tip of Cape Fear, protecting the two inlets into the Cape Fear River. Because of the distance between the two inlets, the Union Navy had to blockade both entrances which required more ships. The heavy guns of Fort Fisher included a 150 pound Armstrong gun, Blakely and Brooke rifles, eight and ten-inch Columbiads, and several 32 pounders. The 150 pound Armstrong gun and Brooke Rifles out-ranged the weapons of the blockading fleet by over a mile, forcing the ships farther offshore and increasing the number of successful blockade runners.18

Mine Warfare

Admiral Farragut’s famous quip to, “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” may be considered rash. He lost one of his ironclads, USS Tecumseh to Confederate mines (which were known as torpedoes at the time) at Mobile. If the mines had not become waterlogged, he might have lost more ships. Throughout the war, Confederate mines sank 29 Union ships and damaged 14 more.19

Mines struck fear into the hearts of Union sailors and impacted operations for commanders less daring than Admiral Farragut. Commander Matthew Fontaine Maury and Brigadier General Gabriel Rains led the Navy and Army torpedo research and production teams. Commander Maury’s experiences as a scientist and with electricity and transatlantic telegraph cable led to the development of the electrically detonated underwater mine. General Rains’ experience came from creating landmines and explosive booby traps during the Seminole Wars. While mines were a success, they were not perfect. Confederate manufacturing and new technology meant many became waterlogged duds and did not detonate, saving many more Union ships from a watery grave.

Mines were a controversial weapon in the 1860s; many thought mines lacked chivalry. Admiral Farragut said, “Torpedoes are not so agreeable when used by both sides; therefore, I have reluctantly brought myself to it. I have always deemed it unworthy of a chivalrous nation, but it does not do to give your enemy such a decided superiority over you.” Confederate Secretary of War George Randolph thought they should be used as a means to defend rivers and ports, but not just to kill the enemy. The Confederate Navy created offensive mines called the spar torpedo, a mine attached to a pole controlled from a ship.

The CSS Hunley, one of the world’s first submarines, and the first to sink an enemy vessel in combat, sank the USS Houstonatonic on blockade duty off Charleston in 1864. In addition to submarines, the Confederates developed the David-class torpedo launch. They were not true submarines, but their low profile made them challenging to spot at night. Throughout 1863, CSS David conducted attacks on USS New Ironsides, Wabash, and Memphis. The submarines and torpedo launches forced the Union blockade to remain farther offshore from Charleston to minimize the risk of submerged torpedo attack.

CSS Hunley (Conrad Wise Chapman via Wikimedia Commons)

Mines were effective by striking fear into the hearts of sailors and shaping the battlespace through deterrence. The presence of mines often persuaded Union admirals to not attack, earning effective sea denial for the Confederacy. Admiral Farragut’s famous line stands out because most admirals did not go full speed ahead – they stopped and sent boats to sweep for mines first or simply remained offshore.

Conclusion

Secretary Mallory’s Navy succeeded in its desperate struggle to defend land against sea. The Confederate trident approach succeeded at denying the Union Navy local sea control in the vicinity of key port cities and forced ships to often remain farther from the coast. The Confederate layered defenses enabled Confederate ports to remain open until the final collapse of the Confederacy. 

Despite an ever tightening blockade, the port of Wilmington blockade runners brought 3.5 million pounds of meat, 1.5 million pounds of lead, 2 million pounds of saltpeter, 500,000 pairs of shoes, 300,000 blankets, 50,000 rifles, and 43 cannon from Europe in the latter half of 1864. The Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of Tennessee received new uniforms and equipment that enabled them to continue the struggle. Fort Fisher, the gateway to Wilmington, was captured in January 1865 after two amphibious landings. The Army of Northern Virginia capitulated four months later.20

Today, the U.S. Navy is the largest in the world. However, it finds itself in another technological revolution similar to the rise of the ironclad. While it has the ships and assumes it has permanent sea control, rivals have heavily invested in the spiritual successor to the Brookes Rifle, the anti-ship cruise missile.

The U.S. Navy must learn from the Confederate example and create its own trident of technologies and tactics to out-compete rival advances. The U.S. Navy should rapidly construct new long range anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) that out-range opponents, improve and revive mine-warfare forces, and think hard about what evolution flows from the modern range and defense of the aircraft carrier. In addition, these advances should be shared with allies, such as Japan and the Philippines, who could utilize new American-developed sea mines and ASCMs to deny an adversary sea control near their littorals. Mobile long-range ASCM batteries on the islands of Luzon and Palawan could close the entire South China Sea to an adversary, much like Russian coastal defense cruise missile sites in Crimea can contest much of the Black Sea.

Great power rivals understand that a fleet-on-fleet engagement against the U.S. Navy is incredibly risky and have developed alternatives, just like the Confederate Navy developed alternatives to a fleet-on-fleet engagement with the Union. Now it is the U.S. Navy’s turn to learn from history, and develop its own counter-punch to ensure it maintains permanent sea control and open sea lines of communication.

LCDR Jason Lancaster is an alumnus of Mary Washington College and has an MA from the University of Tulsa. He is currently serving as the N8 Tactical Development Officer at Commander, Destroyer Squadron 26. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the U.S. Navy or Department of Defense.

Endnotes

1. Corbett, Julian, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, pp 125-127.

2. Luraghi, Raimondo, A History of the Confederate Navy, pg 4.

3. Simson, Jay, Naval Strategies of the Civil War, pp 129-131.

4. Ibid. pg 131.

5. Still, William N. Jr, Iron Afloat: The Story of the Confederate Armorclads, pg 210.

6. Ibid, pg 10.

7. Sims, pp 227-228.

8. Browning, Robert M. Jr, Success is all that was expected: The South Atlantic Blockading Squadron during the Civil War, pp 137-140.

9. Still, pp 212-213.

10. Coski, John M., Capital Navy, The Men, Ships, and Operations of the James River Squadron, pg 196.

11.Ibid, pp 202-205.

12. Brooke, George, Ironclads and Big Guns of the Confederacy, pg 127.

13. Drury, Ian and Gibbons, Tony, The Civil War Military Machine, pp 77-80.

14. Brooke, pg 115.

15. Coski, pg 46.

16. Page, Dave, Ships Versus Shore: Civil War Engagements along Southern Shores and Rivers, pp 316-319.

17. Browning, pg 140.

18. Drury, pp 79-82.

19. http://www.navalunderseamuseum.org/civilwarmines/ accessed 15 April 2019.

20. Stephen R. Wise, Lifeline of the Confederacy (Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 1988), pg 1.

Extended Bibliography

Coski, John M. Capital Navy: The Men, Ships, and Operations of the James River Squadron. New York: Savas Beatie, 2005.

Gibbons, Ian Drury & Tony. The Civil War Military Machine. New York: Smithmark, 1993.

Jr, George M. Brooke. Ironclads and Big Guns of the Confederacy: The Journal and Letters of John M. Brooke. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2002.

Jr, Robert M. Browning. From Cape Charles to Cape Fear: The North Atlantic Blockading Squadron During the Civil War. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1993.

—. Success is All That Was Expected: The South Atlantic Blockading Squadron during the Civil War. Washington DC: Potomac Books, inc, 2002.

Jr, William N. Still. Iron Afloat The Story of the Confederate Ironclads. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1985.

Luraghi, Raimondo. A History of the Confederate Navy. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1996.

Page, Dave. Ships versus Shore: Civil War Engagements Along Southern Shores and Rivers. Nashville: Rutledge Hill Press, 1994.

Simson, Jay W. Naval Strategies of the Civil War. Nashville: Cumberland House Publishing inc, 2001.

United States Naval Undersea Warfare Museum. http://www.navalunderseamuseum.org/civilwarmines/. 2019. http://www.navalunderseamuseum.org/civilwarmines/ (accessed April 15, 2019).

Waters, W. Davis. Gabriel Rains and the Confederate Torpedo Bureau. El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie, 2014.

Wise, Stephen R. Lifeline of the Confederacy Blockade Running During the Civil War. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1988.

Featured Image: “The Giant of Mobile Bay, CSS Tennessee” by Tom Freeman

A Navy Astray: Remembering How the Fleet Forgot to Fight

The following is adapted from remarks delivered at the annual CIMSEC Forum for Authors and Readers, covering the “How the Fleet Forgot to Fight” article series.

By Dmitry Filipoff

The article series covered many topics so I’ll try to narrow it down and focus on what I feel are some of the more important points.

When those two major reviews came out to try to explain why those fatal collisions happened out in the Pacific, one term that got used to describe how the Navy went wrong was the “normalization of deviation.” And this term is the main theme behind this article series, that the Navy is suffering from very serious self-inflicted problems and is deviating in many of its most important efforts in how it prepares for war. 

What specifically inspired these articles was writing published in Proceedings. Specifically, writing on the new Fleet Problem exercises by Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Scott Swift, and also writing by the Pacific Fleet intelligence director, Captain Dale Rielage, especially an article of his called “An Open letter to the U.S. Navy from Red.” These articles helped spark the series because of how they describe the character of the Navy’s exercises. And given the incredible importance that military exercises have, this issue really sheds light on systemic problems throughout the Navy.

When looking into the Navy’s major exercises, the keywords and themes that kept coming up were traits such as high kill ratios, training one skillset at a time, poor debriefing, and weak opposition.

The structure of training certification in the Navy usually took the form of focusing on individual skillsets and warfare areas – anti-surface warfare and anti-air warfare, and so on. But these things were not often combined in a true, multi-domain fashion. Instead, exercise and training certification regimes often took the form of a linear progression of individual events.

Opposition forces were made to behave in such a way as to facilitate these events. However, a more realistic and thinking adversary would probably employ the multi-domain tactics and operations that are the bread and butter of war at sea. But instead the opposition often acted more as facilitators for simplistic target practice it seems, which is why very high kill ratios were the norm. But more importantly, a steady theme that kept reappearing was that the opposition pretty much never won.

There are so many of these events, so many training certifications that had to be earned in order to be considered deployable that Sailors feel extremely rushed to get through them. And these severe time pressures help encourage this kind of training.

If you are losing and taking heavy losses then you should be taking that extra time to do after action reviews and extensive debriefing to figure out what went wrong, how to do better, and understand why in real war your mistakes would’ve gotten your people killed. The way this kind of conversation plays out is fundamental to the professional development of the warfighter, and it is an important expression of the culture of the organization.

When it comes to debriefing culture within the Navy’s communities you can see a difference in the strike-fighter community, where candid debriefing is a more inherent part of the way they do business, but the opposite was very much true of the surface Navy’s system. And what is being described here also applies more broadly to how things were done for larger groups of ships such as at the strike group level.

But overall the Navy’s major exercises often took a scripted character, where the outcomes were generally known beforehand and the opposition was usually made to lose. Training only one thing at a time against opposition that never wins barely scratches the surface of war, but for the most part this was the best the Navy could do to train its strike groups for years.

So is this common? It looks like all the services have done heavily scripted exercises to some degree, but there is a major difference between what the Navy was doing, and what the Air Force and the Army have been doing for a long time.

Unlike the Navy, the Army and Air Force have true high-end training events that they rotate their people through. For the Air Force this is a major exercise called Red Flag, and for the Army this happens at the National Training Center. They compete against opposition forces that often inflict heavy losses and employ a variety of assets simultaneously. Those forces are composed of units that are dedicated toward acting as full-time opposition for these events, such as the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, where units across the Army rotate through the National Training Center to face off against them specifically. The job of these standing opposition forces is to learn and practice the doctrine of foreign adversaries, and then put that into practice at these events to make for a more realistic fight.

But by comparison it seems the Navy doesn’t have a major standing formation to act as full-time opposition for the high-end fight. And as far as the Marines go, it looks like they have a history of issues that more closely resembles that of the Navy’s.

Now when it comes to the Chinese Navy, those public reports that the Office of Naval Intelligence puts out on foreign militaries paint a very different picture from what the U.S. Navy was doing. The Chinese Navy often trains multiple skillsets at a time, they do not always know the composition and disposition of the opposing forces they are facing off against, and they do not always know exactly what will happen when the event is about to go down.

They’ve been training like this for some time now, and with a specific emphasis on high-end warfighting at the very same time the U.S. Navy was focusing on the low-end spectrum of operations. The Chinese Navy has been focused on learning the more lethal skillset. So in very important respects, the Chinese Navy has been training much harder than the U.S. Navy for years.

Recently there have been some major changes for the U.S. Navy. There are the Fleet Problem exercises Admiral Swift started which seem to be the first consistent and truly challenging high-end exercise events the Navy has had in decades. The COMPTUEX exercise ships do before deploying is becoming more difficult, but through more virtual augmentation. The Surface Navy is going through these SWATT exercises which are now some of the most advanced events surface ships experience before integrating with strike groups.

But what all of these changes have in common is that they only began around two or three years ago. The extent to which the Navy will make the most of them is uncertain. What is clear however is that the corporate memory of the modern U.S. Navy is still heavily shaped by decades of quite unrealistic training.

But exercises go far beyond training. At the tactical level, they are the one activity that comes closest to real war. So exercises are supposed to play a vital function as proving grounds for all sorts of concepts, ideas, and capabilities. This goes to the very heart of one of the most important missions of a peacetime military, which is to develop the force for future conflict. The Navy’s exercise shortfall is far more than an issue of operator skill, it is a sweeping developmental problem.

Consider how you could go about exploring a new tactic, a wargame, or an operating concept. You come up with an idea, and refine it as much as possible through simulations or other methods. And then you finally try it out in the real world through an exercise. You make sure to use serious opposition to see where things may go wrong or backfire. You then rinse and repeat until you have a sturdy, resilient concept. And once you have that, you convert lessons learned in that experimentation into new training, you update the training events, and then rotate your people through those events so they have a chance to learn and apply the new thing.

But this isn’t how force development worked in the U.S. Navy.

When it comes to at-sea experimentation, relatively few warfighting ideas were ever tried in the real world to begin with. But if an idea managed to get tested in some sort of combat exercise it often went up against heavily scripted opposition. As a result, it had few (if any) rounds of trial and error.

But if they moved on in spite of that, the idea was perhaps turned into some publication that was then tucked away in a doctrine library somewhere. And there it’ll sit among many other publications that hardly anyone is really familiar with. 

But if they do happen to be familiar with it, they will not often have the chance to actually practice it and learn it in a live training event. But if they do have the chance to actually practice it, it most likely turned into just another check-in-the-box scripted certification event, lost among the dozens if not hundreds of other certification events that are all competing with each other for the time of the extremely busy Sailor. And the Sailors have no real choice but to rush through them and cut corners just to make due and get out on time for deployment.

What’s important to understand is that training is what makes force development stick. Training is what establishes that final connection between the skill of the deckplate Sailor, and all these warfighting concepts that are allegedly trying to evolve the force.

But so much of what the Navy did for force development didn’t go far because this habit of unrealistic exercising and this overflowing training certification system combined to doom so many warfighting concepts to being untested, unrefined, and untaught.  

For another important example on why training has to be linked with other parts of force development, you can look to the Navy’s wargaming enterprise. These wargames are really important to how the Navy thinks about the future, and among many things these wargames can inform war planning. But if you read more into it, these wargames aren’t nearly as scripted or as easy as the training events, and the fleet often takes very serious losses in these wargames. Especially against China. 

So what could be the implications of having a large disparity between the realism of training and the realism in wargaming? For one, it means the war plans the United States has drawn up for great power conflict are filled with tactics and operations for which the U.S. Navy has made barely any effort to actually teach to its people. To paraphrase a certain Defense Secretary, you go to war with the fleet you trained, not the one you wargamed.

Another major implication of the exercise shortfall was in how the Navy applied strategy to operations, or what the fleet was doing on deployment all these years. The Navy not only has the opportunity to work on force development within the work-up cycle, but also once ships are out on deployment. However, once ships deployed, their operations were mostly focused on missions that contributed little in the way of developing the fleet. 

It should be remembered that many of the low-end power projection missions that dominated Navy deployments during these past few decades, things like security cooperation, presence, and maritime security, were at first not seen as overriding demand signals for the Navy’s time. The strategy and policy documents the Navy was putting out just after the Cold War ended characterized the opportunity to do these missions as a luxury, one that was afforded to the Navy only through the demise of a great power competitor.

When it comes to the major campaigns the U.S. was involved in these past few decades, mainly Iraq and Afghanistan, what needs to be understood is that blue water naval power struggles to find relevance in these kinds of wars. A destroyer or a submarine can hardly do much to fight insurgencies or nation-build. So for the vast majority of the fleet’s ships they usually had to find other things for them to do with their time, including numerous missions that were certainly helpful but often optional

But because blue water naval power just cannot do much for counterinsurgency and nation-building campaigns, in the past twenty or so years of insurgent wars, if any of the services could have made the time to work on itself, it is the Navy.

In spite of their own crushing operational tempos the other services made sure to guarantee a large amount of time and forces for large-scale exercise events. Every year, hundreds of aircraft rotate through the Air Force’s Red Flag exercise, and a full third of the Army’s active duty brigades rotate through the National Training Center.

Compared to this the Navy is very different. It looks like for the past few decades the Navy has been spending almost all of its ready naval power on what the combatant commanders want.

So as the Navy looks to strike a new balance between spending its time on force development versus forward operations, this should be seen as an opportunity for the Navy to finally reclaim some of the fleet for itself, to devote ready naval power toward working on the Navy’s agenda and not just what combatant commanders want.

For example, the Navy will soon be standing up a surface development squadron that is exclusively focused on experimenting for force development. That is an example of guaranteeing time and ready naval power to be spent on solving Navy problems.

But overall, the Navy as an institution hardly recognizes force development as a major driver of fleet operations. Things like trying out wargames and concepts of operation in the real world must be recognized as some of the strongest possible demand signals for the Navy’s time and forces. So as the Navy reconfigures itself for great power competition it has to think about how it will strike a new balance between spending time on forward operations, versus spending time on working on itself.

The fleet can start with the strategic guidance the Navy has to align itself with. There is a new national defense and national security strategy that officially make great power competition the main priority. There is a mandate from the Chief of Naval Operations, for high-velocity learning, to learn better and faster. So what does the Navy need to learn about in an era of great power competition? A large part of that is high-end warfighting. So the Navy needs to identify what specific things have the most learning value when it comes to getting better at that specific problem set.

Look at the learning value of a Fleet Problem or a SWATT exercise, and compare it to maritime security missions or doing security cooperation with a third world nation. It should become plainly clear that these exercise events can teach the Navy far more about high-end warfighting than almost any forward operation. 

Some might say the Navy actually did work on itself in forward operations through exercising with numerous partners and allies. But the U.S. Navy often does not like sharing even moderately classified information with those partner fleets. This greatly limits the willingness of the Navy to flex its capability in front of partners abroad. There is also a lot of wariness over being watched by others when exercising in forward areas. 

And this is one of the major arguments that gets frequently raised about why the Navy shouldn’t do these exercises as much, that great power competitors are watching.

However, this is the modern state of competition. Great power competitors have their own satellite constellations, and they are hacking into your systems every single day, and they already know all kinds of things about you that you’d rather they not know. But this kind of heightened transparency between great power militaries is the new status quo. And for what it’s worth, when it comes to their exercises the Chinese realize they are being watched all the time but that doesn’t seem to be stopping them as much.

If the fact they are watching is enough to stop you from doing these events, then you will have allowed them to deter you from carrying out a vital learning experience. And if your forces are pushing hard in these exercises and defeating some serious opposition while competitors watch, then that could end up deterring them and working in your favor. But if they do happen to learn something from spying on your training then at least recognize that one thing they can never hack or steal is the skill of the warfighter. 

What the Navy has to do is break away from this tunnel vision-like focus it has had on forward operations for these past few decades, and do more to feed the colossal demand signal that is coming from the needs of force development. There are two elements that can drive this demand signal. One is the force development of competitors, and the other is the ever-evolving nature of disruptive capability surprise.

Looking at China, it is critical to understand that the Chinese military is an organization that is completely focused on its force development. They have no significant overseas operations that draw their attention elsewhere. And you can see the aggressiveness of their force development in the scale of their reforms. A few years ago they overhauled their theater command structure, created a new branch in the form of the Strategic Support Force, and cut several hundred thousand troops to shrink the size of the force for more even modernization. So it is important to recognize that the Chinese Military has made sure to retain enough decision space to make significant changes to its force development.

Looking at the Chinese Navy today, because their force has very few overseas commitments, the operating posture of their fleet has far more in common with the interwar period U.S. Navy than the modern U.S. Navy does. This can make them quite dangerous, because like the interwar period U.S. Navy (the Navy that would of course go on to win WWII) their operating posture allows them to spend most of their time on working on themselves.

Going to a second major demand signal of force development, that is disruptive capability surprise. Look at WWI, the machine gun, the trench, and big-gun artillery. When they finally put all these new capabilities together, it created a type of warfare that nobody had really seen before. Because of new technology the nature of tactical success had changed so much, but their peacetime force development failed to detect that. The surprise that came from those new weapons and the deadly tactics they produced was so disruptive that it ripped apart the operational and strategic plans of nations caught in great power war. 

So how to get a sense of that burden, of how much real-world experimentation needs to go into modern force development? Look to how networked combat between great power militaries has never happened before, or how fleet combat between great powers hasn’t happened since WWII. Look at everything that’s evolved since then. Electronic warfare, cyber, missiles, satellites, so much has changed, and our ability to truly know how all of that will actually come together to produce specific tactical dynamics and winning combinations is very difficult to know for sure.

Exploring the cross-domain nature of modern warfighting will be fundamental to understanding this problem. Consider the battleship, how if something is set up to where it’s gun line versus gun line, battleships will rule those engagements. But once other platforms are included, platforms that can act through other domains such as carriers, submarines, and land-based air, you can start to see how the tactics of one can rule out the tactics of another. So how could modern cross-domain interactions play out and reveal what’s decisive? This will drive up the resource burden for force development since it will demand experimenting with many different kinds of opposition at the same time, such as joint forces.

A lot of these questions are already being looked at by organizations within the Navy, but the furthest the analysis is able to go is often limited by virtual simulations. Some months ago we published an excellent piece on CIMSEC where people from the Naval Postgraduate School, mainly wargamers and operations research folks, discussed doing tens of thousands of simulations and models to discover tactics and operating concepts for a new unmanned surface ship. Those kinds of people certainly learn a lot about new tactics. But they will also tell you that they are absolutely craving more real-world experimentation.

Even so, it is still not enough to do realistic warfighting experiments and simulations. What is necessary is the candor and the will to act on their results, and the understanding that if a weapon is failing in the context of its application, then recourse must come through innovating its tactics. And if no tactical innovation can preserve a weapon’s utility, then it must be discarded. However, all the services and not just the Navy have some history of scripting their wargames and exercises in order to satisfy preexisting prejudices. But the politics of programmatics, the industrial base, and service identity should never be allowed to trump responsible force development. What is programatically comfortable today can easily cost lives and wars tomorrow. 

Whether it be the Navy’s paltry offensive firepower, its seriously degraded surge capacity, or poor standards for its vaunted Aegis combat system, the fleet is in dire need of course corrections. Now the U.S. Navy finds itself locked in great power competition against a rising maritime superpower, but only major change can ensure the American fleet will still command the seas. 

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Content@cimsec.org.

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (Aug. 4, 2018) – An F/A-18E Super Hornet takes off from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Devin M. Langer/Released)