Category Archives: History

Naval and maritime history section.

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)

The Fleet Problem Exercises: An Investment in the Future

By Walker Mills

Introduction

“Foe’s Force Superior.”1

“All ships except those laid up will take part in exercises.”2

“Forty-thousand men of the United States Navy and land forces of the United States Army here began a ‘battle’ at midnight tonight…”3

In the 1920s and 1930s the United States Navy had a problem. The fleet was almost completely comprised of ships that the Navy had never used in combat – the fleet’s last major combat actions were in the Spanish-American War. New classes of platforms that operated under the sea and in the sky threatened to even more drastically change naval warfare than the updates to battleships and cruisers since the last war.4 So the Navy ran a series of large-scale exercises with the goals of preparing the fleet for potential conflict, experimenting with new weapons and tactics, and refining operational plans.

These major exercises, some 21 in all, are unique in Navy history for several reasons. At first glance it is their scale that impresses, they often utilized every carrier and well over half of the battleships, cruisers and destroyers in the fleet for the duration of a single exercise measured in weeks, and that was conducted over thousands of miles of ocean and coastline.5 But upon closer inspection the appetite for innovation and tolerance for risk is even more impressive. Scenarios were truly free-play and designed so that the ‘blue force’ was often likely to lose and fight significantly shorthanded from the beginning.

The Navy conducted Fleet Problems across the Caribbean and the Pacific from Mexico to Alaska and Hawaii to Puerto Rico, with the last Fleet Problem held in 1939. By WWII virtually every senior leader in the Navy had participated in one problem or another either as a direct participant or as a planner. But these Fleet Problem exercises have not often received as much attention as other naval developments during the interwar period like arms limitation treaties and technological changes but the exercises were similarly if not more important in preparing the U.S. naval service for the Second World War.

Martin T4M-1 torpedo bombers of torpedo squadron one fly over USS LEXINGTON (CV-2) on 26 February 1929, shortly after that year’s fleet problem. Note aircraft laid smoke screen in distance. (Naval History and Heritage Command photo)

In 1923, the U.S. fleet conducted Fleet Problem I off the coast of Panama. At the time, the fleet was organized in a way where all of the vessels in the Navy fell under the operational command of the Commander-in-Chief United States Fleet, Admiral Hilary P. Jones. Jones was able to pull ships based in the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Pacific for the exercise or simply “maneuvers” as they were known. The exercise force divided into two parts referred to by color. Each iteration was blue against another color. Blue represented the United States, orange for Japan, red for Britain, and black for Germany. But in the 1920s political developments quickly made clear that the primary naval threat was orange. The Navy even went so far as to transpose Pacific geography on the Caribbean for some of the exercises with Japanese ports in the Windward Islands and the Panama Canal standing in for Manila and Corregidor. The first Fleet Problem focused on defending the Panama Canal from attack and it was scored as a resounding defeat for the defenders – the blue force. But the exercise was considered a major developmental success in that it led to critical assessments like the need to improve fleet communications, especially with aircraft and submarines to coordinate complex maneuvers.6

The exercises were designed to challenge and expand the thinking of the participants – they were not simply Mahanian duels of the battle line. They included, by modern definitions, both hybrid warfare and irregular warfare. The first Fleet Problem started without a formal declaration of war by the aggressor – foreshadowing the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor nineteen years later.7 In the third Problem one of the fleets sent an intelligence officer undercover as a journalist to place notional bombs at fuel depots and key canal control installations and obtained a schedule for the opposing fleet’s transit of the canal.8 In the fifth Problem the blue fleet received an “intelligence bonanza” after cracking the codes used by ‘black.’9 The exercises were also coupled with diplomatic initiatives and often ended with grand reviews of the fleet – huge public relations boons for the Navy.10

The Fleet Problems were often joint – combining land and sea-based forces (the Air Force did not yet exist as a separate service) and challenging commanders to decide which of their forces were the best to achieve their objectives. For example, during Fleet Problem III in 1924, 1,700 Marines landed under cover of night and seized Fort Randolph – a Army Coastal Defense fortification on the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal. Quickly overrunning the defenders, they moved on to seize a nearby submarine base and naval air station. The umpire for that part of the exercise proclaimed “The problem has conclusively shown that a Marine Expeditionary Force is a powerful weapon for a Commander-in-Chief engaged in any such operation…”11 In the next Problem the Marines employed an amphibious tank for the first time in their assault on the island of Culebra.12 The maneuvers also included significant notional, or as they were called at the time ‘constructive’ land forces to generate developments on land that would influence the play of the problems at sea. One Fleet Problem included a constructive expeditionary force of 150,000 soldiers.13 This jointness forced naval leaders to expand their thinking to include expeditionary operations and to try and adapt their tactics to leverage the advantages of land-based aviation and forces. This made for essential training for what would later be the island-hopping campaigns in the Pacific.

The Fleet Problems helped drive innovation in the Navy and gave naval leaders and Congress the information they needed to design a modern battle fleet. Some of the early lessons were the inability of legacy submarines to keep up with the battle line – leading to the development of faster and larger ‘fleet’ submarines. The Fleet Problems also led to the requirement for supply ships capable of cruising at twelve knots or faster. It was during maneuvers in 1924 that the Navy first employed the “riding abeam” or  the broadside method for underway replenishment.14 In the 1930s that the Navy developed the concept of “carrier task forces” and proved that carriers can operate most effectively and magnify their offensive combat power when separate from the fleet.15 Conservative thinking argued that aircraft were better employed defensively or as spotters for battleship guns but this was ultimately rejected based on experiences from the Fleet Problems. Repeated experiments and exercises eventually created a naval air arm that “became the principal means of naval strike by the end of the war…”16 The experiments were field by live-fire against target ships and the use of dummy bombs against specially modified ships covered in wooden planking. It is worth noting that in the Fleet Problems alone the U.S. conducted more mock air attacks on ships than were actually conducted by all combatants in the First World War – and sunk in training about half as many large warships as were sunk in the war.17 It was this experimentation that laid the groundwork for the Navy to develop an unmatched naval air arm during the Second World War.

The U.S. Navy aircraft carriers USS Ranger (CV-4), foreground, USS Lexington (CV-2), middle distance, and USS Saratoga (CV-3) lie at anchor off Honolulu, Territory of Hawaii, on 8 April 1938 during exercise Fleet Problem XIX. (Wikimedia Commons)

The maneuvers were a significant undertaking – requiring months or a year to plan. For support in designing and in assessing the Fleet Problems, leaders relied on the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. During the months between problems the Naval War College also ran many sophisticated wargames that continued the practice of innovation and experimentation at a much lower cost. The games also contributed directly to the refinement of the operational plans for war in the Pacific. The wargaming was so intensive and exhaustive that Admiral Chester Nimitz would later glibly state that the Newport war games had predicted almost every event during the Pacific campaigns of the Second World War.18 The Fleet Problems were also effective because they were mostly public, and naval leaders presented the conclusions directly to Congress. They were also covered in the press, helping exercise conclusions influence budgetary decisions in the most direct manner.

Conclusion

Today, like during the interwar period, the Navy is trying to reimagine itself and operationalize new technology and new concepts. The integration of several classes of unmanned surface vessels and aerial systems again will mandate changes in the tactics and operations of naval forces. The U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander, Admiral Scott Swift, wrote last year that the Pacific Fleet is trying to use the Fleet Problem model for exercises, albeit on a much smaller scale, yet still they have been a resounding success.19 Other commentary in the pages of Proceedings and the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) have also called for the Navy to revisit the large-scale free play exercise of the 1920s and 1930s.20, 21 The Navy should look back on the high-priority it placed on innovation and experimentation during the Fleet Problems. Certainly, the Navy did not have the readiness problems or operational commitments then that it does now, and today’s fleet shoulders a significant humanitarian and constabulary commitment. But the value of doing large-scale exercises to prepare for war must be appropriately weighed against the myriad variety of demand signals.

The Fleet Problems were not easy to facilitate in their own time. The Interwar Navy was much smaller and more fiscally constrained with only about 90,000 men and dealt with especially severe Great Depression-era budget cuts.22 Stringent naval arms limits after the First World War meant that some of the Navy’s newest and most technologically advanced ships were scrapped or sunk as targets to keep the service within treaty limits.

Innovation and experimentation are never free and rarely cheap, but the Fleet Problems of the Interwar Navy offer a successful case study of how to go to sea to prepare for war even with limited resources.

Walker D. Mills is an active duty Marine Corps infantry officer. He is currently assigned to the Defense Language Institute in preparation for an exchange tour in Colombia. These views are presented in a personal capacity.

References

1. “40,000 Men Guard Canal from ‘Enemy’,” The New York Times ( 23 January, 1929).

2. “Navy to Maneuver in Pacific in 3 Months,” The New York Times (27 December, 1931).

3. “40,000 Men Guard Canal from ‘Enemy’,” The New York Times ( 23 January, 1929).

4. Norman Friedman, Winning A Future War: War Gaming and Victory in the Pacific War, Naval History and Heritage Command (Washington D.C.: 2017) 7.

5. Albert A. Nofi, To Train the Fleet for War: The U.S. Navy Fleet Problems, 1923-1940, Naval War College (Newport, RI: 2010) 327.

6. Ibid, 55.

7. Ibid, 52.

8. Ibid, 63.

9. Ibid, 75.

10. Ibid, 23.

11. Craig C. Felker, editor, Testing American Seapower: The U.S. Navy Strategic Exercises, 1923-1940, Texas A&M University Press (College Station, TX: 2007) 95.

12. Nofi, To Train the Fleet for War, 67.

13. Ibid, 60.

14. Ibid, 61.

15. Geoffery Till, “Adopting the aircraft carrier: The British, American and Japanese case studies,” chapter in Military Innovation in the Interwar Period, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, U.K.: 1996) 221.

16. Geoffery Till, “Adopting the aircraft carrier,” 225.

17. Nofi, To Train the Fleet for War, 30-31.

18. Norman Friedman, Winning A Future War: War Gaming and Victory in the Pacific War, Naval History and Heritage Command (Washington D.C.: 2017) 6.

19. Scott H. Swift, “Fleet Problems Offer Opportunities,” Proceedings, Vol. 144, No. 3 (March 2018).

20. Dale Rielage, “Bring Back Fleet Problems,” Proceedings, Vol. 143, No. 6 (June 2017).

21. Ryan Hilger, “Fight the Next Fleet Problem in the Solomons,” Center for International Maritime Security (28 January, 2019) http://cimsec.org/fight-the-next-fleet-problem-in-the-solomons/39529.

22. Nofi, To Train the Fleet for War, 13.

Featured Image: Martine T4M-1 torpedo bombers landing on USS LEXINGTON (CV-2) on 26 January 1929, during that year’s Fleet Problem. (Naval History and Heritage Command photo)