Category Archives: Interviews

A Conversation with Dr. Andrew Erickson on Chinese Naval Shipbuilding

By Sally DeBoer

On the occasion of the publication of his newest book, Chinese Naval Shipbuilding: An Ambitious and Uncertain Course, the 6th volume in the USNI Press’ Studies in Chinese Maritime Development Series, CIMSEC spoke with editor and author Dr. Andrew Erickson, Professor of Strategy in, and a core founding member of, the U.S. Naval War College (NWC)’s China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI). 

SD: Dr. Erickson, thank you so much for joining CIMSEC to talk about your new book, Chinese Naval Shipbuilding. This topic is of great interest to our readership, and your book is perhaps the most comprehensive, detailed, and up-to-date look at the growth, and specifically the methods and implications of that growth, of the People’s Liberation Army – Navy (PLAN). To begin, can you tell us a bit about yourself and what brought you to this topic?

AE: In twelve years in Newport, I’ve been privileged to help establish the U.S. Navy (USN)’s China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) and turn it into a recognized research center that has inspired both the Air Force’s China Aerospace Studies Institute and the Naval War College’s Russia Maritime Studies Institute. In my own analysis, I’ve explored new areas of Chinese-language methodology and worked to develop new concepts and findings that can enhance U.S. understanding of, and policies toward, China.

With the support of CMSI’s current director, Professor Peter Dutton, I have recently applied our Institute’s resources to examining the industrial underpinnings of one of this century’s most significant events, China’s maritime transformation. Strong strategic demand signals and guidance from civilian authorities, combined with solid shipbuilding industry capability, are already driving rapid progress. 41m2jjlessl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Yet China’s course and its implications, including at sea, remain highly uncertain—triggering intense speculation and concern from many quarters and in many directions. Moreover, despite these important dynamics, no book had previously focused on this topic and addressed it from a USN perspective. Like the CMSI conference on which it is based, the resulting volume in our series with the Naval Institute Press, “Studies in Chinese Maritime Development,” focuses some of the world’s leading experts and analysts on addressing several crucial questions of paramount importance to the USN and senior decision makers: To what extent, and to what end, is China going to sea? What are China’s prospects for success in key areas of naval shipbuilding? What are the likely results for China’s navy? What are the implications for the USN?

SD: Part One of the text deals with Foundations and Resources, meaning the foundations of China’s shipbuilding industry and the assets supporting its efforts. The first chapter, in fact, explores how the evolution of China’s maritime strategy impacts future ship design. From your perspective, what primary mission needs will drive Chinese shipbuilding over the next quarter century, and what effect will that have on the fleet?

AE: China’s primary focus remains upholding its interests and promoting its disputed claims in the “Near Seas”—which encompass the waters within the First Island Chain (the Yellow Sea, East China Sea, and South China Sea)—as well as defending their immediate approaches. It also has a growing desire to increase operational capability in the “Far Seas”—beyond the First Island Chain. This is essentially about being able to project power. First, to improve the defense of China itself; and second, to defend China’s growing economic interests abroad, which largely depend on unfettered access to the sea.

However, operating at greater distances from China places greater demands on its naval platforms as it becomes far more difficult to support surface ships, submarines, and aircraft the farther they move away from the coast. If we look at the desired capabilities for Far Seas operations, then we should expect improvements in surface combatant area anti-air defenses, anti-submarine warfare, and strike warfare. Chinese deck aviation components are largely air defense assets right now. A robust land attack/strike capability is the next step. Improvements in acoustic quieting are absolutely necessary if PLAN submarines are to survive being targeted in deeper, blue water environments. Shifts toward anti-submarine and strike warfare will represent the biggest likely changes in combat capabilities. Also required: a significant improvement in Chinese logistics support to sustain deployed platforms. The PLAN has started actively pursuing these goals, but it will take some time before it masters them.

SD: China’s rise as a global sea-going power is recent, relatively speaking. Has China’s shipbuilding industry been more proactive or reactive to perceived and notional threats? How does the influence of the Chinese Communist Party affect this? One facet your contributors raise repeatedly is Chinese civilian shipyards’ overcapacity and the problems stemming from that.

AE: China’s shipbuilding industry has been assigned an important role and set of requirements by its civilian and military masters: the Party, State, and PLA. The present naval buildout dates to the mid-1990s, apparently catalyzed and accelerated in part by a series of events that impressed China’s leaders with their inability to counter American military dominance. These included Operation Desert Storm (1991), the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis (1995-96), and the Belgrade Embassy Bombing (1999). This suggests that China has been more reactive than proactive regarding external events that affected it at a national level. The fact that many PLAN systems are based on foreign systems reinforces this reactive aspect. That said, China’s rapid growth also means that it is closing the technological gap and is nearing a point where it could transition to a more proactive approach.

SD: One absolutely fascinating aspect of Chinese shipyard infrastructure is that its two largest conglomerates, China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC) and China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC), are publicly traded. Have you given any thought to the potential oddities or complications of such an arrangement?

AE: Yes—discussion of this arrangement and its implications has pervaded the conference and the book. China’s state shipbuilders enjoy diversifying bases and increasing extent of financial resources, potentially facilitating greater dynamism and innovation. Following the past decade-plus boom and recent consolidation, depressed civilian demand creates mounting incentives to seek compensatory naval contracts. Yet these state-owned enterprises retain tremendous inefficiencies. Their institutional culture remains influenced by legacy values, norms, and incentives. Their monopoly structure remains one of the central impediments to improving efficiency and innovation. On the other hand, private yards are oriented toward short-term, profit-minded thinking and are not funded to engage in long-term R&D-intensive projects. While CSIC and CSSC have increasingly undertaken naval and para-naval business to absorb excess yard capacity after commercial “Peak Ship” construction occurred around 2012, private yards have largely been left to fend for themselves. Throughout the industry, bureaucratic barriers to efficiency and effectiveness remain a problem, especially for propulsion and shipboard electronic systems and their integration into ships.

SD: Can you speak to the issue of maintenance? Was this new expanded fleet designed with any kind of maintenance scheme or program in mind? Do you foresee effective maintenance being a limiting factor for the PLAN in the near future, and why?

AE: As one of the conference attendees with shipyard management experience emphasized, a navy’s ownership of ships has not one but three basic phases: (1) platform/system acquisition, (2) operations/sustainment/modernization, and (3) disposal. China has pursued phase one front-end procurement with alacrity, but lacks the comprehensive familiarity with phase two that a more mature navy, like that of the United States, has learned through painful, expensive experience.

American public and private sector infrastructure (the industrial base) dedicated to lifecycle sustainment is significantly larger than the industrial base necessary to build ships. Like a goat that tasted great but will strain a python’s digestive tract, a major mid-life maintenance bill for the overhauls of all China’s new ships will start coming due in the next 5-10 years. This requirement to “pay the piper” after years of massive buildout and increasing deployment amid acute maintenance infrastructure underinvestment haunted Soviet naval development in decades past; China may now be poised to reap a similar whirlwind even as economic slowdown imposes tougher tradeoffs. In any event, China’s investment in sustainment and modernization will inform its strategy for naval operations; this merits further research. Related questions concern the degree to which China is developing an inventory of repair parts and logistics infrastructure; as well as the extent of its surge capacity to sustain a fleet suffering significant battle damage.

SD: An issue of great interest to our readers is the possibility of President-elect Trump’s promise of a “350-ship Navy” and increased military spending across the board. Do you believe that such a development (to the extent possible over the short-term of a 4-to-8-year administration) will have an effect on the way China develops its shipbuilding industry and Navy?

AE: Both the United States and China appear to be in a state of considerable flux, at least from a naval force structure perspective. The U.S. shipbuilding plan has been in disarray. The Congressionally-mandated Alternative Carrier Study and the USN-sponsored Fleet Architecture Study are designed to provide significant input to the Force Structure Assessment being assembled by N81, the Assessment Division of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. As part of the Fleet Architecture Study, Congress has requested alternative reports from a federally-funded research and development center (FFRDC) and a private think tank. These efforts are envisioned to inform the fiscal year 2018 budget and the new thirty-year shipbuilding plan. This new thinking, combined with President-elect Trump’s proposed initiative, has made the American side of any future strategic comparison extremely fluid. Given the challenges at hand, it is imperative that the next Secretary of the Navy come into the job with deep knowledge and experience concerning fleet architecture and construction. Congressman J. Randy Forbes, who has endorsed our volume, is considered by many in the USN and shipbuilding communities to be the ideal candidate.

As for China, its slowing economy and gross overcapacity in many industrial areas make it very unlikely to be able to remain on the current shipbuilding binge. Any straight-line projection based on the last 10-15 years is therefore fraught with peril. Nevertheless, China has already parlayed its possession of the world’s second largest economy and defense budget into the world’s second most powerful navy. Working with China’s other services, the PLAN will be increasingly capable of contesting American sea control within growing range rings extending beyond Beijing’s unresolved feature and maritime claims in the East and South China Seas. Moreover, China is spending a relatively low percentage of GDP on defense, and could afford to greatly increase spending on naval shipbuilding if determined to do so.

SD: The text concludes that, should spending and shipbuilding continue on its current trajectory, the PLAN will be a match for the U.S. Navy in terms of hardware by 2030. In realistic terms, how and where are the first dollars of notional increased U.S. military spending applied to best protect the primacy of American sea power? Is there a realistic way for Washington to address this in the (relatively short) time frame of 14 years?

Dr. Erickson testifying before Congress.

AE: As I’ve testified before Congress, the place for Washington to start is clear: maintain and build on formidable undersea advantages to which Beijing lacks effective countermeasures and would have to invest vastly disproportionate resources in a slow, likely futile effort to close the gap. American shipyards can expand production lines already in use to increase the construction rate of Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) from two-and-potentially-falling to a solid three per year. These submarines are ideal for denying China the ability to hold and resupply any forcefully seized features. The Virginia Payload Module allows for useful increases in missile capacity. Given China’s ongoing limitations in anti-submarine warfare and the inherent difficulty of progressing in this field, it could spend many times the cost of these SSNs and still not be able to counter them effectively.

SD: Part Two of Chinese Naval Shipbuilding addressed some historical peculiarities of China’s shipyard infrastructure compared to that of other nations with similar or comparable capability, including the Republic of South Korea (ROK), its closest regional competitor in terms of tonnage produced. What’s striking is the diversity of output, turnover of new facilities/closing of old ones, and the variable nature of investment and success. One reason given for this by contributors Sue Hall and Audrye Wong is the “intermingling of merchant and military shipbuilding.” How will consolidating military shipbuilding under a state umbrella improve or restrict the PLAN’s growth?

AE: Privately-owned Chinese shipyards remain weak compared to Korean and Japanese counterparts. It is large state-owned enterprises that will likely lead Beijing’s maritime strategic-industrial transformation. In aggregate, and increasingly together, CSIC and CSSC possess great resources and capacity. CSIC and CSSC were unified until 1999, then divided along geographic and functional lines so as not to compete directly. CSIC has the majority of R&D centers, and is to date the primary builder of surface ships and submarines for the PLAN.

Some of our contributors believe true reintegration will occur—as widely reported in Chinese and foreign media—as part of broader efforts to increase efficiency and available resources and to consolidate China’s shipbuilding industry into fewer facilities of greater quality and capability, specifically to reach a State Council-mandated reduction in the number of commercial shipyards from several hundred to sixty. Those doubting that meaningful merger will occur observed that most unions to date exploit geographical efficiencies and that this “low-hanging fruit” has been thoroughly plucked. China is also attempting to ameliorate organizational and technological impediments by emphasizing integration of commercial and naval shipbuilding processes, which some industry experts believe could improve quality and efficiency. Reflecting widespread skepticism among Western specialists concerning the extent and efficacy of such approaches, others maintain that this will actually reduce efficiency and increase challenges because of the fundamentally different natures of naval and commercial shipbuilding. If China somehow succeeds in enhancing market-oriented performance while strengthening centralized oversight—a difficult combination to achieve—it will have the wherewithal to deploy a formidable navy indeed.

SD: One aspect of the PLAN we haven’t discussed much is the development of a robust domestic nuclear submarine program. According to an IHS Jane’s Defence and Security Forecast cited in the book, some $27 billion will be applied to new nuclear- and conventionally-powered projects in the coming years. Why has the PLAN struggled to make the kinds of strides in its subsurface fleet as it has in other areas, and how do you foresee the PLAN’s subsurface fleet evolving between now and 2030?

AE: Propulsion quite literally determines how fast and far Chinese warships can go, and what they can accomplish in many respects. Yet it remains the Chinese shipbuilding industry’s single biggest shortcoming, and hence one of China’s key naval weaknesses. The PLAN is, literally, underpowered; a situation that is unlikely to progress until China’s precision manufacturing capability improves. Nuclear propulsion advances—especially in power density and acoustic quieting—remain difficult to ascertain, but a key variable affecting future progress will be the degree of Russian assistance. China is working hard to acquire, develop, and master relevant technologies, but improvements will be slow, difficult, and expensive. Another related issue is that PLAN nuclear submarines are noisy. This is a significant problem, not only from a survival perspective, but also because high self-noise degrades the ability of the submarine to search effectively.

SD: Speaking of subsurface advancements, you and your chapter co-authors discuss the role and possible overstated impact of Air-Independent Power (AIP) technologies with regard to newer conventional Chinese submarines. Many see the efficacy and impact of AIP on China’s subsurface prowess as somewhat of a foregone conclusion, but perhaps that isn’t so. Can you expand on that a bit for the AIP-believers in our readership?

AE: Sea power requires tremendous power! Propulsion determines how fast and far a ship can go; overall power determines what it can accomplish in a given location. The density of water (829 times greater than air) imposes an unforgiving reality on these dynamics: the cubic, or greater, relationship between power and speed. For a ship to go three times faster, at least twenty seven-times the power is needed.

Furthermore, modern advanced weapons systems require high and growing amounts of power to operate their sensors and weapon systems. Nuclear power, the ultimate gold standard, offers unparalleled performance. Among conventional systems, AIP greatly extends the time a submarine can cruise at low speed without draining its battery and risking detection. AIP systems have significant limitations, however: they require large tanks that are cumbersome to deal with in the design, they do not eliminate the need for the submarine to ventilate, and they do not add to the time a boat can operate at a “burst” speed. All variants suffer shortcomings. Fuel cells require ultra-pure metal hydrides that need several dozen hours to refuel with hydrogen—a dangerous fuel. Even advanced Sterling AIP suffers limited efficiency in using oxygen and the products of combustion have to be pumped overboard, creating depth constraints and additional rotating machinery noises. In sum, an AIP submarine has far too little power or stored energy to resemble a “baby nuke.” Germany and Japan are introducing Lithium-ion batteries as a conventional power alternative; Chinese researchers are watching this trend closely.

SD: We would be remiss not to mention China’s aircraft carrier ambitions. How important is the development of an indigenous aircraft carrier program to the PLAN’s overall viability as a global sea power, and what barriers remain for China’s shipbuilding industry in pursuing a fleet of domestically designed aircraft carriers?

AE: Given difficulties inherent in upgrading marine and aviation propulsion, power, and launch technologies—as well as motivations and choices informing it—an evolutionary design path seems likely for China’s aircraft carrier program. This is part of a larger pattern of substantial remaining challenges for China’s shipbuilding industry, particularly in the area of systems integration. Compared to the United States, China retains particular shipbuilding limitations concerning propulsion, information technology, aviation, certain advanced weapons systems, and other complex systems.

For example, shipboard electronics are important to the PLAN’s desired upward trajectory in sophistication, scope, and scale of operations. However, in-depth examination of the Type 054A Jiangkai-II frigate’s electronics suite suggests that—despite increasing prioritization—organizational parochialism, insufficient coordination, and other inefficiencies continue to impede Chinese progress in this vital area. Common to these bottlenecks is the centrality of sensitive, high-performance components that must work together as a sophisticated system-of-systems. This makes it particularly difficult for China to successfully pursue its preferred hybrid approach: obtaining critical foreign technologies and other inputs, developing indigenously those unavailable from abroad, and integrating the results on a “good enough” basis.

SD: Let’s wrap up with a final, and admittedly awfully broad, question. It’s becoming more expensive for the United States to build and maintain high-end warships. Is this same trend true of China and, whether or not the answer is yes, what are the implications of that for the global balance of power?

AE: For over a decade, China’s military maritime modernization effort (including its shipbuilding output) has affected requirements for USN capabilities, particularly by renewing focus on high-end warfare. This has triggered intense debates concerning strategy, budgets, and force architecture, which remain ongoing. The largest, most capable components of China’s growing Chinese distant-waters fleet will increasingly resemble a smaller version of the USN. China will thus have impressive Far Seas-relevant naval forces second only to those of the United States.

However, Beijing has not yet fully experienced the true long-term cost of sustaining top-tier sea power, which tends to eventually outpace economic growth substantially. This will impose difficult tradeoffs concerning budgets and force structure. In an exceptional achievement for a historically continental power, China has already arrived as a major maritime nation, but will face increasingly difficult choices moving forward. Message to Beijing: welcome to the sea power club; now, be careful what you wish for!

Dr. Andrew S. Erickson is Professor of Strategy in the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute and Associate in Research at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. Erickson is the editor of, and a contributor to, two volumes: Chinese Naval Shipbuilding (Naval Institute Press, 2016) and Proceedings of the 47th History Symposium of the International Academy of Astronautics (Univelt, 2015). He is coeditor of, and a contributor to, eight volumes; including the remainder of the six-volume Naval Institute Press book series, “Studies in Chinese Maritime Development.” The views expressed here are his alone.

Sally DeBoer is serving as the President of CIMSEC for 2016-2017.

Featured Image: Three Type 052D Luyang III guided missile destroyer (DDG), seen here in various stages of construction, are lined together at the Jiangnan Changxingdao Shipyard. (

“The Fleet at Flood Tide” – A Conversation with Author James D. Hornfischer

The Fleet at Flood Tide: America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944-1945 by James Hornfischer
The Fleet at Flood Tide: America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944-1945 by James Hornfischer.

By Christopher Nelson

A passionate naval historian, Jim Hornfischer finds time in the early morning hours and the weekends to write. It was an “elaborate moonlighting gig” he says, that led to his latest book, The Fleet at Flood Tide: America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944-1945

The Fleet at Flood Tide takes us back to World War II in the Pacific. This time Hornfischer focuses on the air, land, and sea battles that were some of the deadliest in the latter part of the war: Saipan, The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot, Tinian, Guam, the strategic bombing campaign, and the eventual use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  

The battles Hornfischer describe share center stage with some of the most impressive leaders the U.S. placed in the Pacific: Admiral Raymond Spruance, Admiral Kelly Turner, Admiral Marc Mitscher, General Holland “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, and Colonel Paul Tibbets. It is quite a cast of characters.

Hornfischer, to his credit, is able to keep this massive mosaic together – the numerous battles and personalities – without getting lost in historical details. His writing style, like other popular historians – David McCullough, Max Hastings, and Ian Toll immediately come to mind – is cinematic, yet not superficial. Or as he told me what he strives for when writing: “I then dive into the fitful process of making this rough assemblage readable and smooth, envisioning multiple readers, from expert navalists to my dear mother, with every sentence I type.”

The Fleet at Flood Tide is his fifth book, following the 2011 release of Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Gudalcanal. Hornfischer — whose day job is president of Hornfischer Literary Management — also found time to write The Ship of Ghosts (2006), The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors (2004; which won the Samuel Eliot Morison Award), and Service: A Navy SEAL at War, with Marcus Luttrell (2012). Of note, Neptune’s Inferno and The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors have been on the Chief of Naval Operation’s reading list for consecutive years.

I recently had the opportunity to correspond with Jim Hornfischer about his new book. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

How did the book come about? Was it a logical extension of your previous book, Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal?

All these years on, the challenge in World War II history is to find books that need writing, stories that need telling with fresh levels of detail, or in an entirely new frame. After Neptune’s Inferno, I was looking for a project that offered expansive territory in terms of geography, people and operational terrain, fresh, ambitious themes, and massive amounts of combat action that was hugely consequential. When I realized that no single volume had yet taken on the entirety of the Marianas campaign and followed that coherently to the end and what it led to, I had something. I wrote a proposal for a campaign history of Operation Forager, encompassing all its diverse operations on air, land and sea, as well as the singular, war-ending purpose to which that victory was put. The original title given to my publisher was Crescendo: The Story of the Marianas Campaign, the Great Pacific Air, Land and Sea Victory that Finished Imperial Japan. In the first paragraph of that proposal, I wrote, “No nation had ever attempted a military expedition more ambitious than Operation Forager, and none had greater consequence.” And that conceit held up well through four years of work. Everything I learned about the Marianas as the strategic fulcrum of the theater fleshed out this interpretation in spades.

As you said, in the book you focus on the Marianas Campaign, and there are some key personalities during the 1944-45 campaign. Namely, Raymond Spruance, Kelly Turner, and Paul Tibbets are front and center in your book. When scoping this book out, how did you decide to focus on these men?

As commander of the Fifth Fleet, Raymond Spruance took the Marianas and won the greatest carrier battle in history in their defense along the way. Spruance, to me, stands as the finest operational naval commander this nation ever produced. After all the ink spilled on Halsey and the paucity of literature on Spruance, it was, I thought, time to give him his due. Kelly Turner, Spruance’s amphibious commander, has always fascinated me. After his controversial tour as a war plans and intelligence guy in Washington in the run-up to Pearl Harbor, and then in the early days of Guadalcanal, surviving a dawning disaster (and did I mention he was an alcoholic), it’s incredible that Turner retained Spruance’s confidence. Yet he emerged as the leading practitioner of what CNO Ernest J. King called “the outstanding development of the war”: amphibious warfare. He has been poorly credited in history and deserved a close focus for his innovations, which included among other things an emphasis on “heavy power”—the ability to transport multiple divisions and their fire support and sustenance over thousands of miles of ocean—as well as the first large-scale employment of the unit that gave us the Navy SEALs.

As for Paul Tibbets, he and his top-secret B-29 group were the reason for the season, so to speak, the strategic purpose behind all the trouble that Spruance, Turner, and the rest endured in taking the Central Pacific. Without Army strategic air power, the Navy might never have persuaded the Joint Chiefs to go into the Marianas in 1944. And without Paul Tibbets and his high performance under strenuous time pressure, the war lasts well into 1946. Did you know that it was his near court-martial in North Africa in 1942 that got him sent to the Pacific in the first place?

General Carl Spaatz decorates Tibbets with the Distinguished Service Cross after the Hiroshima mission/USAF Official Photo
General Carl Spaatz (l) decorates Colonel Tibbets (r) with the Distinguished Service Cross after the Hiroshima mission (USAF Official Photo)

Early in the book you say that naval strategy was driven more by how fast the navy was building ships and not by battle experience. How so?

Well, of course the naval strategy that won the Pacific war, War Plan Orange and its successors, was drawn up and wargamed in the 1930s. But at the operational level, nothing prepared the Navy to employ the explosion of naval production that took place in 1943 and 1944. Fifteen fast aircraft carriers were put into commission in 1943. Thus was born the idea of a single carrier task force composed of three- and four-carrier task groups. The ability to concentrate or disperse gave Spruance and his carrier boss, Marc Mitscher, tremendous flexibility.

They realized during the February 1944 strike on Truk Atoll that it was no longer necessary to hit and run. There had been no precedent for this. Instead of hitting and running, relying on mobility and surprise, they could hit and stay, relying on sheer combat power, both offensive and defensive. That changed everything.

By the time the Fifth Fleet wrapped up the conquest of Guam, the carrier fleet was both an irresistible force and an immovable object. That was a function of a sudden surplus of hulls, and the innovations that the air admiralty proved up on the fly in the first half of 1944. Most of these involved making best use of the new Grumman F6F-3 Hellcat, fleet air defense, shipboard fighter direction, division of labor among carriers (for combat air patrol, search, and strike), armed search missions (rocket- and bomb-equipped Hellcats), the concept of the fighter sweep, adjusting the makeup of air groups to be fighter-heavy, night search and night fighting, and so on.

Grumman F6F Hellcats of VF-8 in flight/Wikipedia
Grumman F6F Hellcats of VF-8 in flight (Wikimedia Commons)

Just as important was the surge in amphibious shipping. In 1943, more than 21,000 new ‘phibs were launched of all sizes. The next year, that number surpassed 37,000. That’s the “fleet at flood tide” of my title. As Chester Nimitz himself noted, the final stage of the greatest sea war in history commenced in the Marianas, which became its fulcrum. Neither Iwo Jima nor Okinawa obviated that. And that concept is the conceit of my book and its contribution, I suppose—the centrality of the Marianas campaign, and how it changed warfare and produced America’s position in the world as an atomic superpower.

Spruance, King, Halsey, Tibbets, Turner ––  all of them are giant military historical figures. After diving into the lives of these men, what surprised you? Did you go in with assumptions or prior knowledge about their personalities or behavior that changed over the course of writing this book? 

I had never fully understood the size of Raymond Spruance’s warrior’s heart. I just mentioned the Truk strikes. Did you know that in the midst of it, Spruance detached the USS New Jersey and Iowa, two heavy cruisers, and a quartet of destroyers from Mitscher’s task force, took tactical command, and went hunting cripples? This was an inadvisable and even reckless thing for a fleet commander to do. He and his staff were unprepared to conduct tactical action. But he couldn’t resist the chance to seize a last grasp at history, to lead battleships in combat in neutering Japan’s greatest forward-area naval base.

Japanese Admiral Chuichi Nagumo/Wikipedia
Japanese Admiral Chuichi Nagumo (Wikimedia Commons)

Also, I hadn’t known how much Spruance exulted in the suicide death on Saipan of Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, the executioner of the Pearl Harbor strike and Spruance’s opponent at Midway. Finally, I was unaware of the extent of his physical courage. Off Okinawa, in the space of two weeks in May 1945, two of his flagships, the Indianapolis and New Mexico, were hit by kamikazes. In the latter, he disappeared into the burning wreckage of the superstructure, to the horror of his staff, and turned up shortly afterward manning a fire hose. That’s a style of leadership that the “cautious” COMFIFTHFLT is seldom credited for.

Regarding Tibbets, I mentioned his near court-martial in North Africa. Few people know this happened, or even that he served in Europe at all, but he was among the finest B-17 squadron commanders in the ETO in 1942. The lesson of his near downfall is: Never mess with a line officer whos destined to become a four star. This would be Lauris Norstad, Tibbets’s operations officer in North Africa, who went on to become one of the most important USAF generals of the Cold War.

You touch on this in your book, but the war stressed all of these men greatly. And each of them handled it in their own way. Taking just Spruance and Tibbets as examples, how did they handle the loss of men and the toll of war?

Spruance, in his correspondence, often described war as an intellectual puzzle. He could be hard-hearted. Shortly after the flag went up on Mount Suribachi, he wrote his wife, “I understand some of the sob fraternity back home have been raising the devil about our casualties on Iwo. I would have thought that by this time they would have learned that you can’t make war on a tough, fanatical enemy like the Japs without our people getting hurt and killed.” That’s a phrase worthy of Halsey: the sob fraternity. And yet when he toured the base hospitals, he felt deeply for the wounded in war.

It was for this reason that Spruance opposed the idea of landing troops in Japan. He favored the Navy’s preference for blockade. But those were perfectly exhausting operations at sea, week after week of launching strikes against airdromes in Western Pacific island strongholds, and in the home islands themselves. By the time Admiral Halsey relieved Spruance at Okinawa in May 1945, Spruance was exhausted both physically and morally.  

Paul Tibbets suffered losses of his men in Europe, but in the Pacific he was stuck in a training cycle that ended only at Hiroshima on August 6. Later in life, he considered the mass death and destruction he wrought as an irretrievable necessity. Responding to those who considered waging total war against civilian targets an abomination of morals, Tibbets would say, “Those people never had their balls on that cold, hard anvil.” I don’t think the moral objectors have ever fully credited either the tragic necessity or the specific success of the mission of the atomic bomb program: turning Emperor Hirohito’s heart. Tibbets was always unsentimental about it. 

Why is Spruance considered a genius?

Admiral Raymond Spruance, USN/Alfred J. Sedivi, courtesy of the U.S. Naval Institute
Admiral Raymond Spruance, USN (Alfred J. Sedivi, courtesy of the U.S. Naval Institute)

He was the ultimate planner, and through his excellence in planning, naval operations became more than operational or tactical. They became strategic, war-ending. It was no accident that Raymond Spruance planned and carried out every major amphibious operation in the Western Pacific except for the one that invited real disaster, Leyte. He was in style, temperament, and talent a reflection of his mentor, Chester Nimitz. The Japanese gave him the ultimate compliment. Admiral Junichi Ozawa told an interviewer after the war that Spruance was “impossible to trap.”

Switching gears a bit, what is your favorite naval history book?

It’s a long list, probably led by Samuel Eliot Morison’s volume 5, Guadalcanal, but I’m going to put three ahead of him as a personal matter: Tin Cans by Theodore Roscoe, Japanese Destroyer Captain by Tameichi Hara, and Baa Baa Black Sheep by Gregory Boyington. This selection may underwhelm your readers who are big on theory, doctrine, and analytical history, but I list them unapologetically. These were the books that set me on fire with passion for the story of the Pacific War when I was, like, twelve. If I hadn’t read them at that young age, I don’t think I would be writing today. It is only a bonus that all three were published by the company that’s publishing me today, Bantam/Ballantine. We are upholding a tradition!

What is your research and writing process like?

It’s all an elaborate moonlighting gig, conducted in relation to, but apart from, my other work in book publishing. It takes me a while to get these done in my free time, which is stolen mostly from my generous and long-abiding wife, Sharon, and our family. But basically the process looks like this: I turn on my shop-strength vacuum cleaner, snap on the largest, widest attachment, and collect material for 18 to 24 months before I even think about writing. Having collated my notes and organized my data, I then dive into the fitful process of making this rough assemblage readable and smooth, envisioning multiple readers, from expert navalists to my dear mother, with every sentence I type. I stay on that task, early mornings and weekends, for maybe 18 more months. Then, in the case of The Fleet at Flood Tide, my editor and I beat the draft around through two or three revisions before it was finally given to the Random House production editor. Then we sweat over photos and maps. History to me is intensively visual, both in the writing and in the illustrating, so this is a major emphasis for me all along the way. I never offload any of this work to a research staff.

In spite of all of this effort, the result is usually, maddeningly, imperfect in the end. But it is always the best I can do, using this hand-tooled approach under the time pressure that inevitably develops.

What’s next? Are you already thinking about what you want to write about after you finish the book tour and publicity for The Fleet at Flood Tide? Do you have a specific subject in mind?

One word and one numeral: Post-1945.

Last question. A lot of our readers here at the CIMSEC are also writers. What advice would you give to the aspiring naval historian?

Think big. Then think bigger. Then get started. And focus on people and all the interesting problems they’re facing.

James D. Hornfischer is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Neptune’s Inferno, Ship of Ghosts, and The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors, winner of the Samuel Eliot Morison Award. A native of Massachusetts and a graduate of Colgate University and the University of Texas School of Law, he lives in Austin, Texas.

Christopher Nelson is a naval officer stationed at the U.S. Pacific Fleet headquarters. A regular contributor to CIMSEC, he is a graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and the U.S. Navy’s operational planning school, the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School in Newport, Rhode Island. The questions and comments above are his own and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

Featured Image: Marines on the beach line during the invasion of Saipan in 1944.  (USMC)

Commodore Dudley Wright Knox – Sailor, Writer, Sage

By Christopher Nelson

The U.S. Naval Institute’s popular and well-reviewed 21st Century Foundation series continues to grow. This past May, Dr. David Kohnen added to the list with his 21st Century Knox: Influence, Sea Power, and History for the Modern Era. 

Captain Dudley W. Knox as a member of the "Planning Section" of the "London Flagship" headquarters of the Commander, U.S. Naval Forces in Europe, Admiral William S. Sims. Having arrived in London for Christmas in 1917, Knox synthesized operations with intelligence by organizing future planning efforts within the headquarters. (U.S. Navy Photograph)
Captain Dudley W. Knox as a member of the “Planning Section” of the “London Flagship” headquarters of the Commander, U.S. Naval Forces in Europe, Admiral William S. Sims. Having arrived in London for Christmas in 1917, Knox synthesized operations with intelligence by organizing future planning efforts within the headquarters. (U.S. Navy Photograph)

In a review published on CIMSEC back in August, Captain Dale Rielage, USN, said that “Knox offers an example of how an officer with ideas and the willingness to challenge the status quo can have a profound influence on the U.S. Navy.” To learn more about Commodore Knox, and how he challenged naval thinking, I talked with Dr. Kohnen about his new book. 

Finally, I am excited to tell you that Dr. Kohnen has provided us with pictures of Commodore Knox and Admirals King and Sims that have never been published. They are published here for the first time.

Professor Kohnen, welcome. Thanks for taking the time to talk about your new book. So, to start, why did you want to write a book about Knox?  

Chris, thank you, I greatly appreciate this opportunity to discuss Commodore Dudley W. Knox. Indeed, I firmly believe that Knox stands among the most significant naval thinkers in American history. His ideas truly resonate, as the themes he addressed in his historical work during the first fifty years of the twentieth century informed the development of the U.S. Navy “second to none.” Through his close personal associations with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King, Knox became one of the key architects in designing the foundations of U.S. Navy professional military education, in understanding American naval history and traditions, and in advancing the idea of employing the U.S. Navy as an international peacemaker. Knox remains one of the most important figures in understanding American concepts of “sea power” thorough two world wars and into the Cold War era.  From my own studies of his life and historical works, I firmly believe that Knox offered strategic observations on concepts of maritime strategy, which transcend into the twenty-first century. I also firmly believe that our Navy should revisit the ideas Knox offers in his writings in order to be better informed of the historical foundations, which have shaped contemporary discussions concerning the future of American sea power and the military policy of the United States.

(Previously Unpublished) U.S. Navy Captain Ernest J. King worked closely with Knox and the London Flagship staff to coordinate Atlantic Fleet operations with intelligence. After 1917, King temporarily served as Chief of Staff to the Commander, Atlantic Fleet, Admiral Henry T. Mayo. Drawing perspective from wartime experience, King collaborated with Knox to frame a U.S. Navy strategy for professional military education after the First World War.

Knox advised the strategic decision makers who created the U.S. Navy “second to none” and the post-imperial vision of replacing historical empires with multinational alliances under the United Nations. Given his close friendship with Roosevelt and King, I have come to view Knox as a figure perhaps comparable to a Thomas Cromwell, or the fictional consigliore from the Godfather movie, as depicted by the Hollywood actor Robert Duvall. By the way, Knox was also a mentor for Duvall’s father, Commodore William H. Duvall, who served in destroyers in both the Atlantic and Pacific during the Second World War.

I first became aware of Knox as I was working on my dissertation, which focused on Ernest J. King. In the process of writing, I started reconstructing the circle of personalities surrounding King in order to understand the bureaucratic culture and primary group dynamics, which characterized the social character of the U.S. Navy during the first fifty years of the twentieth century. As I am sure you know, the story of Ernest J. King begins during the reconstruction era after the Civil War. He eventually served as Chief of Staff of the Atlantic Fleet during the First World War. Among King’s best friends and closest shipmates was a guy named Dudley Wright Knox. Of course, Knox and King shared a deep interest in history. 

Knox had ties with historical figures in American military history. His father was a general officer in the Army, and he had relatives in the service going all the way back to the American Revolutionary period. So Knox is already one of these people who is inclined to think in historical terms.  

Then I started mapping out his associations. I’m an intelligence officer in the Navy. So in the same way you do that as an intelligence officer, I began doing that with these historical figures. When you look at the association between King and Knox you start to see other associations. You begin to then see the connection between King, Knox, Nimitz, and then Halsey, Spruance, and the whole gang.  So you have this close circle of naval officers who periodically bumped into each other during their careers in the naval service.  

Now, in this circle of naval officers, Dudley Knox looms large in the discussion. Knox was a little bit older than the rest of them and he was so sharp minded that people like Ernest King would look to him for advice, perspective, and just good conversation. 

Of course, those were the days before distractions like television and the internet. These guys, then, spent their time focusing on their profession – reading the professional literature that should be read for people who want to think about strategy, naval operations, and the maritime dimension. These are books that unfortunately have become obscured in the contemporary context. You think about some of the things that Knox and his contemporaries were reading, people like John Knox Laughton and Spencer Wilkinson. These guys were aware of Corbett long before anyone else was aware of Corbett. They are an interesting group of people. That’s why I started gravitating to Commodore Knox. 

Knox, however, was not my main focus in my PhD studies — my focus was Ernest King. But now I had all these “left-overs,” the cutting room types of material after I finished the dissertation on King. And all that extra material was there, so I wrote a paper that I gave at the Oceanic Society of History Conference. On the panel was Claude Berube and B.J. Armstrong. I gave this paper about Knox, and shortly after I finished B.J. slipped me a note. B.J. wrote, “You need to write the book on Knox.” I looked at him and was like, ‘OK, whatever.’ After the conference we went to the pub and B.J. told me about the 21st Century Series and its focus. He convinced me that what I had on Knox would work quite well within the context of the 21st Century Series. It came together relatively quickly because I already knew a lot of things about Knox that simply didn’t exist in the secondary literature — and still doesn’t exist. I’m pretty happy how this little piece came together. It was a great way of bringing Knox back to the 21st century professional naval audience. 

And we are not done with Knox. Once I get some other things done, it is my full intention to go back and do something more substantial about Knox. He certainly deserves a focused biography for all the work that he did and the influence that he had, which I highlight in the collection, specifically his associations with Ernest King and Franklin Roosevelt.

Retired Captain Dudley W. Knox presents President Franklin D. Roosevelt with the final volume of an edited collection official naval records relating to U.S. Navy strategy and operations during the undeclared War with France between 1798 and 1801. After four years work, Roosevelt and Knox worked together to complete these volumes by 1938. Roosevelt insisted upon referring to the "Quasi-War" with France, much to the chagrin of Knox. However, Roosevelt specifically chose this phrase for the title of the work, as the underlying point of the work centered upon how he intended to employ the U.S. Navy in support of American neutrality strategy before the Second World War. Together, Roosevelt and Knox used history to inform American naval strategy in both peace and war.
Retired Captain Dudley W. Knox presents President Franklin D. Roosevelt with the final volume of an edited collection official naval records relating to U.S. Navy strategy and operations during the undeclared War with France between 1798 and 1801. After four years work, Roosevelt and Knox worked together to complete these volumes by 1938. Roosevelt insisted upon referring to the “Quasi-War” with France, much to the chagrin of Knox. However, Roosevelt specifically chose this phrase for the title of the work, as the underlying point of the work centered upon how he intended to employ the U.S. Navy in support of American neutrality strategy before the Second World War. Together, Roosevelt and Knox used history to inform American naval strategy in both peace and war.

I assume it is difficult as an editor to decide what to include in a book and what not to include, particularly if a subject is a prolific writer. How did you go about making those decisions?

That’s an interesting question. So, Commander B.J. Armstrong is the editor of the series, and we’re also good friends. I’m prolific in terms of, well, I like to use a lot of words to say things. And I like to use footnotes and I like to explore every avenue in my analysis. That results in large manuscripts. B.J. was draconian as an editor in executing the sixty-thousand word limit. That really constrained me in terms of what I could do in terms of Knox. We actually cut two essays that I wanted to include just to make sure the pieces fit within the context of the 21st Century Series.  

So the balance of putting together Knox’s biographical details, which are not out there in the secondary literature, there’s no real comprehensive biography of Knox available to us – so for the time being, at least, this book is a starting point for a detailed biography, which needs to be written. And if somebody else doesn’t do it I’m going to do it once I get King off my plate. When you think about editing and the choices that you have to make, what I did is I focused on the themes that the CNO is focusing on with his “Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority.” I also considered pieces in light of some of the discussions that are ongoing here at the U.S. Naval War College, contemporary questions of American maritime strategy, naval leadership, ethics (but Knox always talked about the “naval ethos” opposed to ethics), and I think those differences are worthy of discussion. Knox also strongly talked about the importance of understanding the foundations of history in order to frame contemporary discussions about the future. He wrote about these themes. The way he did it was so profoundly unique that Knox remains worthy of consideration in the contemporary context. So, when I assembled these essays I followed those points when selecting the essays in the book.

My favorite essay is actually the last one. It turns out in my mind as the most interesting within the contemporary context. He’s talking about the problem of unification among the services. He’s writing at the time of the revolt of the admirals, which was just erupting. And there all of these problems between the Army and the Navy. The Air Force was newly created; the armed forces security agency; the Central Intelligence Agency; all these new things that came after World War Two. Knox is reeling against the tide as the future was being mapped out. I think Knox was a little bit reluctant to embrace these new ideas because he was still looking at things from the perspective of the past. He understood the problems that came with the bureaucratic changes that happened after the Second World War, which, from Knox’s point of view really didn’t measure up in terms of American ways of war — the American tradition of having a clearly defined civilian command over the military. Knox was worried about a progressive military industrialization of American culture. He wrote about this.  

After that last essay, Knox sort of said ‘look, we need to rethink how we are talking about problems of war.’ And he did talk about the importance of how navies are different from armies, and that armies require naval support. Armies are there to conduct operations ashore to achieve an effect ashore. But armies and navies are different, they operate in different environments, and both need airpower to conduct those operations.

So when you follow Knox’s logic he is saying this separation of an air force is a really bad idea. It creates another bureaucracy. As a result you are going to create more flag billets and you are going to see more investment, not less investment, in the military. Knox is reeling against that. Then he does this nice comparison of “Hey if I build an aircraft carrier it is going to last 40 years, you can use it for multiple functions, and use it during peacetime. Rather than if you build a fleet of bombers where its only function is going to be useful if you need to drop a bomb.” Knox did not agree with that sort of approach.   

Are there other Knox writings that didn’t make it into the 21st Century Knox but should be read as well?

Dudley Knox was prolific. B.J. and I would go around and around about which essays should go in the book. So like I said earlier, the important part was zeroing in on themes that are immediate interest to the contemporary U.S. Naval professional. That sort of dictated how we were going to put together this little collection. When I compiled the essay that were selected, I focused on the questions of strategy, doctrine, leadership, and of course, the ethos of American naval service. The one thing that I would say that is important in the process of selecting the essays, is that Knox and his associates had this perspective that the naval service has multiple functions. It is not just war. I think Knox would have a problem with contemporary words like “warfighter” because it is too specific. Knox would have reminded us that the Navy is always operational rather if we are at peace or at war. So when you look at his essay titled “Naval Power as a Preserver of Neutrality and Peace,” it is an important essay because he is basically riffing off an essay Teddy Roosevelt published in 1914 titled “Our Navy, Peace Maker.” Now, these themes are important because it is a way of thinking about military service that is different than some of the conversations that we have here in the contemporary era. For example, when you look at their careers, Knox’s generation, coming out of the naval academy at the beginning of the 20th Century, they remained in the naval service for the remainder of their lives. Knox even served in retired status as director of naval history until his death.  

(Previously Unpublished) Dudley W. Knox requested transfer to the retired list of the U.S. Navy, seeking to broaden U.S. Navy efforts to engage the American public in understanding the influence of sea power upon history. During the 1920s and 1930s, Knox helped organize historical research and preservation efforts within the Navy Department. In this role, he also remained heavily involved with the Office of Naval Intelligence. Fusing historical research with efforts to meet contemporary challenges, Knox served as a trusted personal adviser to President Franklin. D. Roosevelt. The painting behind him is that of a destroyer escorting a convoy during the First World War. During the war, Knox was heavily involved in convoy operations.
(Previously Unpublished) Dudley W. Knox requested transfer to the retired list of the U.S. Navy, seeking to broaden U.S. Navy efforts to engage the American public in understanding the influence of sea power upon history. During the 1920s and 1930s, Knox helped organize historical research and preservation efforts within the Navy Department. In this role, he also remained heavily involved with the Office of Naval Intelligence. Fusing historical research with efforts to meet contemporary challenges, Knox served as a trusted personal adviser to President Franklin. D. Roosevelt. The painting behind him is that of a destroyer escorting a convoy during the First World War. During the war, Knox was heavily involved in convoy operations.

When you put together the chronology of some of these guys’ naval careers, and the numbers they spent fighting wars, it only adds up to about eight years. So what are they doing during this other time? So here you have people serving, this idea of service, the ethos of naval service, over a sixty odd year period, and their orientation is not to go find a war but to find ways to avoid a war through sea power. And of course this ties into the theories of Mahan and Luce at the end of the 19th century. Of course, their perspectives reflected an informed understanding of John Knox Laughton’s work, Spencer Wilkinson, Alfred Mahan, and others. 

Dudley Knox had some well-known mentors. Who were they and how did they influence him?  Knox, if I understood correctly, was concerned that there will be some challenges if you have a U.S. Air Force trying to support a naval surface force. He had some concerns about an independent air force. This was in a time when discussions of creating a U.S. Air Force sounded quite contentious. Was he concerned that air force aviators wouldn’t understand naval operations and vice versa?

The problem here centers on the question of who controls what. Knox observed post-World War I events, for example, the Washington Naval Treaty. Those events inspired Knox to write his first substantial book called “The Eclipse of American Sea Power.” He’s reeling against the fact that the average American policy maker is not educated enough to understand what they were doing when they were cutting the Fleet. After that fight in 1923, Billy Mitchell arrives and is fixated in creating an American equivalent to the British Royal Air Force, and Knox is reeling against this during his whole career because Knox is saying that the army needs airpower as much as the Navy needs airpower. But airpower for the sake of airpower is nothing. We don’t need a separate air force, he says. That’s Knox’s position for the remainder of his career.

Knox, I was interested to read, was quite the historian. In fact, one of your selections is his piece titled “Forgetting the Lessons of History.” And in my copy of your book, I underlined a section where he says he was quite frustrated with the lack of accessibility to naval archives — in particular, private collectors upset him. Why?

Knox recognized that private collectors are a major source of material that really doesn’t belong to them. They may have paid for it and they might have acquired these items for investment purposes, but from Knox’s point of view these items belonged to the nation. He became very frustrated with some of them because they liked to hang the painting on the wall or have the original commission of John Paul Jones just sitting there on the fire mantle, and Knox said that something like that does not belong on your mantle piece. It belongs to the Navy and to the nation. Through the good offices of FDR a lot of these pieces were acquired by the Navy at Navy expense for the purpose of preservation. And I must say, in the contemporary context, we have a lot of work to do in that front.

On Knox’s writings on naval leadership, he seems, at least to me, to have a reasonable position on naval ceremonies and etiquette. Why did he think that over-emphasizing naval etiquette was more dangerous than under-emphasizing it?  

I think over-emphasizing on anything can be dangerous. Knox is trying to say we should be proud of our naval service and celebrate our traditions. We have to live up to the image that we want to paint for ourselves as naval professionals — that’s what he is trying to say. Etiquette for Knox does not equate to naval proficiency. For instance, you could still wear white gloves and wear a sharp naval uniform but be a terrible naval officer. That’s what he is saying. You look at some of the things we emphasize in the contemporary context: can you do enough push-ups, can you run a mile and half in the right amount of time? Knox would have said ‘that’s ridiculous – who cares?’ Knox would have said if the guy can do the job and do it well, and if they are willing to serve, and as long as they are medically fit to be under-way, I don’t care if he has a beer-belly. If he is a good sailor then he is a good sailor – and he is a shipmate. So what are we doing throwing people out that are good sailors. That’s what Knox would have said. I’m channeling his ghost as I speak. There are these superfluous bureaucratic things that Knox and his generation would be reeling against – general training, that sort of stuff. You can follow the manual all day, but you are still not going to get it, in terms of being a naval professional.

When he is talking leadership, what he is saying is ‘look, if you are getting into the weeds, the details of some poor enlisted man’s job, you are not being a leader, you are trying to be an enlisted man. Let the enlisted people do the jobs that they’ve been assigned and develop a sense of teamwork.’ He would have said you have to develop that sense of cohesion and common vision.

As a historian yourself, I want to talk a bit about your writing and research process. Where did you end up going to do most of your research on Knox? 

As an analyst, I looked at his associations, and from there I looked at repositories where papers might be that make references that refer to Knox. The U.S. Naval Academy, The Nimitz Library has some great material, the Library of Congress has a gold mine of material. There’ papers in the National Archives from his official work that are hard to find, but they’re there. And of course, at the U.S. Naval War College, we have a substantial collection of interesting papers that relate to Knox and his associates. Specifically, the post-war efforts to develop professional military education standards under the Knox-King-Pye board. It was Dudley Knox and his associate Tracey Barrett Kitridge who helped Sims expand the library collection at the U.S. Naval War College from roughly 1,000 books to over 45,000 books within about a three year period – breaking all the rules and regulations required to get the job done.

(Previously Unpublished) Commander, U.S. Naval Forces in Europe, Admiral William S. Sims, salutes with the Commander, Atlantic Fleet, Admiral Henry T. Mayo, with their chiefs of staffs on board the flagship of the Atlantic Fleet, USS Pennsylvania (BB-38). After the armistice in November of 1918, Sims and Mayo assumed four star rank. Their close collaboration during the First World War provided the template for headquarters ashore to support future U.S. Navy operations at sea. Together, the staffs serving under Sims and Mayo pioneered contemporary concepts of joint and combined naval command.
(Previously Unpublished) Commander, U.S. Naval Forces in Europe, Admiral William S. Sims, salutes with the Commander, Atlantic Fleet, Admiral Henry T. Mayo, with their chiefs of staffs on board the flagship of the Atlantic Fleet, USS Pennsylvania (BB-38). After the armistice in November of 1918, Sims and Mayo assumed four star rank. Their close collaboration during the First World War provided the template for headquarters ashore to support future U.S. Navy operations at sea. Together, the staffs serving under Sims and Mayo pioneered contemporary concepts of joint and combined naval command.

The Knox-King-Pye board was another piece that I was unable to fit in this collection. I make some references to it other areas. One of the big things the board highlighted, and the reason it caused so much controversy, is that the board concluded that your average U.S. Navy flag officer was only educated to the lowest commissioned grade. If you think about that, in 1919 they are making the assertion that the average American naval professional went to the naval academy, graduated, became ensigns, and that’s the last time they had any education besides the life at sea. What Knox, King, and Pye concluded was one of the problems in the navy was the poor education of high ranking admirals. One of the people they had in mind when they wrote this was Hugh Rodman, who commanded a battleship division in the First World War. Rodman celebrated the fact that he didn’t read Clausewitz and Jomini – he thought he was just a darn good sailor. King and Knox thought he was a dullard. So in essence what Knox, King, and Pye are trying to do is say, ‘hey, flag officer, you might have the rank, but we are smarter than you.’

Also, as a writer and historian, how did you decide to organize this book? How do you organize your notes and thoughts when you are writing?   

I studied with Carl Boyd and the late Craig Cameron at Old Dominion University a long time ago – and both of them had different writing methods. First and foremost as a methodological point, I was conditioned by people like Carl and Craig to study the works of great historians like Michael Howard and Peter Paret. I have been so fortunate in my past studies, as Carl personally made it possible for me to interact with Peter Paret, John Keegan, and Admiral Bobby Inman. Because of Carl, I also had the opportunity to work with and develop close friendships with historians like the late Jürgen Rohwer and Edward L. “Ned” Beach.

Since my studies at Old Dominion all those years ago, I have subsequently had the unique privilege of studying under the immediate supervision of John Hattendorf at the Naval War College and Andrew Lambert at the University of London, King’s College. Hattendorf and Lambert loom very large as inspirations for the type of historian I would like to be. Michael Howard also inspires me to focus on the human dimension, as I consider the strange phenomenon of war. If anything, my studies of past wars have convinced me that contemporary strategic thinkers ought to take the approach that, unlike armies or air forces, Knox argued that navies provided unique means, “not to make war but to preserve peace, not to be predatory, but to shield the free development of commerce, not to unsettle the world, but to stabilize it through the promotion of law and order.”

From my education as a historian, I strive to employ the method that is more closely associated with Leopold von Ranke. Through primary archival research and documentary history, I try to replicate the conditions of the time in order to understand why people acted in the way that they did at the time. I strive not to superimpose 21st century concepts upon personalities like Knox or King. I’m trying to understand why they did things in 1919 within the context of 1919. I do take sort of a broadly humanistic approach in examining historical questions.

Now, it does cause some problems for me, because I was not actually there in 1919 and I will never actually get to meet people like Knox or King. By reading their papers and by placing them into their proper historical context, however, I must say that one can get a visceral sense of what made them tick (so to speak). Since they were able to navigate the unforeseeable cybernetic challenges of technology and the collapse of empires during the unprecedented upheaval of two world wars, I must say that Knox and King would certainly have something to say about the contemporary challenges we face in the twenty-first century.

When I’m talking to contemporary strategic thinkers at the Naval War College, I also have to help them understand why the past is still important within the contemporary context. Obviously, I want people to read my writing. So, one of the challenges is to make it such that these people that are no longer with us – people like Knox and King – that they resonate with contemporary readers. I look for things that provide connections to the contemporary reader, which of course helps us discussions about the future. 

I begin with that methodology. I pick people to focus on and then I look for their papers. Of course, I try to read everything I can possibly get my hands on about these people. There’s not much on Knox, unfortunately. Soon you realize that you are dealing with these complicated personalities — and you are dealing with myths in the historiography, all the while trying to figure out what made these people tick. The more you know the more complicated it gets. You have to be disciplined to focus on the themes that are the most important to understanding the person you are dealing with, but also how that person continues to be important to the contemporary reader.

Once I have all my information together I’ll rough out an outline of the themes that I want to hit on. Those then become your chapter headings, and then each chapter has its own focus. Next, you do your best to try to tie all the chapters together into a comprehensive narrative with a strong opening argument in the beginning and a strong conclusion in the end, telling the reader what it means.

My last questions have to do with Knox’s legacy. What do you think, if anything, he anticipated as future challenges for the U.S. Navy? And second, what is the single most important thing you want readers to takeaway from Knox’s work?

Knox is part of that generation of naval officers who followed the vision of the “navy second to none.” He did it through two world wars and he did it during peacetime in efforts to avoid wars in the first place. Arguably, the navy you have today is the navy that Knox and his associates built. If we don’t recognize that then we run the risk of losing what they built. I would argue that Knox is with us everyday when a U.S. Navy warship gets underway. If anything, I would hope that contemporary U.S. Naval professionals just take some time to think about the rich history and traditions of our service. In some respects I am channeling the ghosts of Knox and King in stating that I firmly believe that we must recognize our responsibility of being the curators and caretakers of our U.S. Navy for the future interests of American seapower and in framing an informed approach to the future military policy of the United States. As an aside, I was pleased the other day that they got rid of the blue navy working uniforms. It was a uniform that Knox would have taken time to write about in a negative way. It would be great to see us get back into proper naval uniforms.

 Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz congratulating Commodore Dudley W. Knox with a Legion of Merit in 1946. During the Second World War, Knox returned to active status with assignment to the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations and Commander in Chief, U.S. Navy (CominCh). In this capacity, Knox served at large as a strategic adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King. Through their good offices, Knox established the Office of Naval History as a coequal branch of the Office of Naval Intelligence on the Operations Navy (OpNav) staff. For this service, King nominated Knox for promotion to commodore in 1945. The following year, the postwar Chief of Naval Operations, Nimitz, recognized Knox with the Legion of Merit Medal to mark his return to retired status. Nevertheless, Knox continued working within the Office of Naval History until his death in 1960.

Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz congratulating Commodore Dudley W. Knox with a Legion of Merit in 1946. During the Second World War, Knox returned to active status with assignment to the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations and Commander in Chief, U.S. Navy (CominCh). In this capacity, Knox served at large as a strategic adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King. Through their good offices, Knox established the Office of Naval History as a coequal branch of the Office of Naval Intelligence on the Operations Navy (OpNav) staff. For this service, King nominated Knox for promotion to commodore in 1945. The following year, the postwar Chief of Naval Operations, Nimitz, recognized Knox with the Legion of Merit Medal to mark his return to retired status. Nevertheless, Knox continued working within the Office of Naval History until his death in 1960. 

I am chagrined that some bureaucrat, probably sitting in a cubicle in the Pentagon, decided to abandon centuries of naval tradition by abandoning our enlisted rating system in favor of the air force and army models of focusing on rank. The rating system was really emphasized by Rear Admiral Stephen B. Luce who thought that military rank was ancillary to the mastery of a more focused professional trade, such as the quartermaster masters of navigation, the boatswain masters of seamanship, and the medical master corpsmen. If it is the last thing I do, our navy will someday return to its historical roots and develop a better understanding of why our U.S. Navy became what it now is within the contemporary context.  

Nobody knows what the future holds, but historical understanding provides means to anticipate and adapt to the unforeseeable future. Historians frequently face challenges in dealing with people who are more interested in bureaucratic routines, or mathematically framed engineering processes, or empirically clear solutions. Historians are unable to do this, because they do not tend to offer clear answers in black and white terms. All they can really do is offer contemporary strategic decision makers an informed perspective or a recommendation for a given course of action. Historians can only stand upon the foundations provided by historical understanding, but are not very good at articulating their ideas within the contemporary context as the engineers, lawyers, politicians, and policy-types tend to dominate the contemporary discussions of future strategy.  

Basically, I think it is important for us as naval professionals to consistently seek an informed understanding of the past in order to know in clear terms the influence of history upon seapower and in shaping the future military policy of the United States.

Dr. Kohnen, thanks so much for taking the time to chat. All the best to you.

Thank You, Chris. I enjoyed it.

David Kohnen earned a PhD with the Laughton Professor of Naval History at the University of London (Kings College London). As a maritime historian, he concentrates on naval strategy, organizations, and organizational group dynamics. Focusing on these general themes, he edited the works of Commodore Dudley W. Knox to examine historical foundations in contemporary maritime affairs in, 21st Century Knox: Influence, Sea Power, and History for the Modern Era (Naval Institute Press, 2016). In his previous book, Kohnen focused on the transatlantic alliance between the British Empire and United States in, Commanders Winn and Knowles: Winning the U-Boat War with Intelligence (Enigma Press, 1999).

Outside of his scholarly work, Kohnen’s naval service in the active and reserve ranks include two deployments afloat in Middle Eastern waters, two ashore in Iraq, and one supporting landlocked operations in Afghanistan. Balancing work as a Naval War College civil service instructor, Kohnen also serves in the U.S. Naval Reserve with the Executive Programs faculty at  the National Intelligence University in Washington, D.C. The comments and opinions in this interview are his own and do not represent the opinions of the U.S Navy or the U.S. Department of Defense.

Christopher Nelson is a U.S. Naval Intelligence Officer currently stationed in the Pacific. The questions and comments above are his personal opinions and do not reflect the opinions of the U.S. Navy or the U.S. Department of Defense.

Talking Strategy with Richard Bailey Jr., James Forsyth Jr., and Mark Yeisley

By LCDR Christopher D. Nelson, USN

U.S. Air War College Professors Richard Bailey Jr., James Forsyth Jr., and Mark Yeisley recently published an eclectic book of essays on strategy. The book, Strategy: Context and Adaption from Archidamus to Airpowercontains eleven essays that span strategic topics–from cyber warfare to irregular warfare. This book, then, has a little bit of everything packed into 320 pages. The editors, interviewed over email, took the time to talk about their new book and the nature of strategic thinking. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower, edited by, Richard J. Bailey Jr., James W. Forsyth Jr., & Mark D. Yeisley. (U.S. Naval Institute Press)

Gentlemen, welcome. Thank you for joining us to talk about your new book. I want to start off with a question for all of you. Of the eleven essays in the book–and all by different contributors–which one was your favorite? And why? 

Bailey: I have to give an unsatisfying answer to this, unfortunately, and not because I am trying to spare anyone’s feelings. After two years of working on this book, I freely admit that I love each chapter in different ways and for different reasons. I do think that Professor Dolman’s opening chapter is foundational for the chapters that follow it.

Forsyth: That’s a good question. I am a theory guy so I am naturally drawn to theoretical pieces–Dolman’s stands out as particularly interesting. However, I thoroughly enjoyed Rich Muller’s piece, which orbits around the importance of history and the teaching of strategy. I feel a bit of pressure here as I generally enjoyed them all. The book has a certain uneven quality, as collections often do, but I think that gives it a certain charm–there is something here for everyone.       

Yeisley: I would definitely say that the Bailey essay on thinking strategically on cyberspace and cyber power was my favorite, because of the framing he used to describe the tensions that exist within this realm. Balancing classical ideals of liberty versus order, the dichotomy that exists between cooperation and isolationism, and the question of choice between transparency and privacy are all social tensions that will remain so well into the near future. 

Professor Bailey, as you are probably well aware, and as one of the contributors mentions early on in the book, there are literally thousands of books on strategy. Where does your book fit in this discussion? Or maybe a better question is, does your book cover areas of strategy that are under appreciated in other works? 

Bailey: Most contemporary literature on strategy focuses on applications for business, and many suggest that a blueprint exists for strategic thinking and implementation. At worst, we may tend to seek out a cookie-cutter model and use that for all strategic problems.  In our opinion, we have to fight the human tendency to find a one-size-fits-all panacea for strategic challenges. Thus, we insist that strategic thinking requires a widening of one’s own intellectual aperture to consider different perspectives and assumptions. This helps us to improve our understanding of the strategic environment, and to become more cognitively flexible in the face of uncertainty. In my opinion, this is our most important contribution to the existing literature on strategy.

Professor Bailey, in your essay titled “Four Dimensions to the Digital Debate: How Should We Think Strategically About Cyberspace and Cyberpower?” you raise some important topics. There is one topic I’d like to focus on. You ask the question: “Are our existing military and governmental structures sufficient for both optimizing its possible strengths and defending against malicious attacks?” So, if you had the authority and the money to reorganize or create cyber organizations, what would they look like in the future? Do you envision a Cyber Combatant Command? Is it something else? 

Bailey: That is a great question. I do consider cyberspace to be a ‘domain’ where the military is concerned, but recognize that there are many more stakeholders outside the military. As opposed to operations in the physical domains (land, sea, air and space), cyberspace operations require a different set of assumptions, particularly regarding our previous focus on elements such as time and distance. As our military forces become more dependent on access to cyberspace for efficiency and effectiveness, I think there will be a strong argument for making CYBERCOM a functional Combatant Command, much like we did with Special Operations Command. I also think discussions of a separate cyber service will continue, particularly as the desire for independently minded cyber professionals gets stronger. 

Professor Forsyth, you wrote an essay titled “The Realist As Strategist: A Critique.” This is a broad question, but I believe it is an important one. What do you think makes a “good” strategist? While you offer a critique of realism in your piece, I am curious if you believe there is a way in which one sees the world that tends to make for skilled strategist. To be clear, when I use words like a “good” or a “skilled” strategist, let us say for the sake of discussion that these people are able to formulate a strategy that achieves a successful end state.  

Forsyth: Another very important question and one with no easy answer. As is made plain in the book, the SAASS faculty have many ideas regarding the meaning of strategy. So many in fact that some time ago I decided to forgo a definition and focused instead on what strategists do. So, let me ask you: what do strategists do? In its simplest sense, strategists attempt to solve puzzles and place bets. The key word there is ‘attempt.’ As we know, some puzzles cannot be solved and, therefore, ought to be avoided. Deciphering which puzzles can be solved and gauging the costs of attempting to solve them are key elements of any good strategist. Now, how do we develop that sort of a mind? For one thing, one must read deeply and widely. Strategy is an interdisciplinary enterprise and one field alone does not hold the key. Second, one must develop the ability to build bridges across a wide body of what might look like unconnected knowledge. One must see the relationships that exist between history, theory, science, economics, etc, in order to ascertain what is to be done. In doing so one develops a bone deep sense of humility, something in short supply these days.

As to a way of thinking that serves strategy best–realism is a tradition worth defending. It has a rich history and its descriptions about the nature of international politics is a good place to start one’s education. However, it should not stop there, as I mentioned.  

Professor Forsyth, a short follow up. Do you believe that modern wars, namely those from the 19th century to today, start with moral considerations in mind, yet because we are human and emotional beings, that the realist inevitably comes to the forefront as leader and strategist? Does realism often consume moralism in strategic development and planning? If so, why? 

Forsyth: The tension between justice and necessity is as old as politics itself, and it will never go away. What I have become convinced of is this: even when the demands of justice and the demands of necessity conflict, as they so often do, one need not eschew all calls for justice. The relentless pursuit of interest can lead to a bad end, as I try to make clear in my short chapter in the book. What ‘consumes’ the Athenians is the growing realism of their policies, not the other way around. There is a lesson there: a strategy based solely on the pursuit of interest can be as dangerous as one based solely on moral concerns–the two hang together or should, as best they can.

Another question for the group. In your opinion, today, who is writing about strategy, whether on historical case studies or contemporary strategic thought, that is worth reading?  

Bailey: In my opinion, some of the most useful works on strategy today are those that explore how and why we think the way we do. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow is a good example. We cannot think about crafting, implementing, or evaluating strategies unless we first gain a respect for our own cognitive habits.  Some of those habits provide intellectual opportunities, while others present challenges and pitfalls to strategic thinking. Let me also say that there are some classics reflecting many of those same teachings. Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War contains concepts that, even 2,500 years later, are useful for today’s strategists.    

“Seeing Like A State,” by James C. Scott. (Google Books)

Forsyth: I just finished reading James Scott’s Seeing Like a StateI commend it to anyone interested in strategy and understanding the limits of what states can and cannot do. I also have Stephan Jay Gould’s magnum opus The Structure of Evolutionary Theory on my desk as summer reading–as my colleagues will tell you, it has been sitting there for a long time. I’ve always been intrigued by his ideas regarding change and the natural world and I am trying to ascertain the usefulness of his ideas and political change.

"Strategy," by Lawrence Freedman/Image: Google Books
“Strategy,” by Lawrence Freedman. (Google Books)

Yeisley: I just finished Lawrence Freedman’s Strategy: A History, and found it an excellent piece for both the professional strategist and anyone casually interested in a comprehensive history of strategic thought. It begins with the earliest origins of strategy among primates, then moves through Biblical times, into ancient Greek and Chinese thoughts on the subject, and in theory and from practical experience. The book travels through time at breakneck speed and finishes off with a view of strategy from the business world, which is a fairly modern concept in terms of books on the subject. One of its primary questions is also one of the most basic: is it truly possible to manipulate one’s environment to maximum advantage, or do we all remain vulnerable to the vagaries of our adversaries and surroundings? 

You each get to have one historical strategist over for dinner. Who’s coming?  And what would want to ask them? 

Bailey: I would invite Andy Marshall. Marshall served as the head of the Office of Net Assessment at the Pentagon from 1973 to 2015, and is credited with much of the long-term strategic thinking that advantaged the U.S. during the Cold War. I’d pick his brain about his intellectual habits, and about how he mentored those around him to serve in strategic roles.

“Admiral Bull Halsey: A Naval Life,” by Thomas Hughes. (Google Books)

Forsyth: Well, that is an interesting question. Another book I’ve just finished reading is Thomas Hughes’ Biography of Admiral Bill Halsey, Admiral Bill Halsey: A Naval Life. Another one I easily commend to all. Halsey was making Naval strategy at a time when the modern Navy was coming of age. His exploits in the Pacific theater seem particularly germane today and I’d like to ask him, ‘what do you think?’

Yeisley: I would resurrect a strategist whose life came to an end all too soon–I would invite Thomas Edward Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia) for a candid discussion of the basic concepts of irregular warfare from the Arab point of view. Lawrence was a fan of the indirect approach, and led his Arab forces in skirmishing attacks on thinly distributed Turkish forces along a major rail line. His words would have great worth in a time when the U.S. has spent billions fighting the same types of forces in Iraq and Afghanistan today. 

Professor Yeisley, in your essay, “Staying Regular? The Importance of Irregular Warfare to the Modern Strategist,” you state that some of the classical strategic thinkers and writers–like Sun Tzu and Clausewitz, for example, have something useful to say about irregular warfare.  How so? Is there one historical strategist you would recommend we read above all others when we are thinking about irregular warfare? 

Yeisley: If I had to choose one among the many classics on this subject, I would choose the writings of Mao Tse Tung as the one to read above all others. Mao created and then led an effort against the Chinese nationalists prior to WWII, adapted his tactics to fight against Japanese oppression, then adapted once again to ultimately win against his adversary and secure his place in Chinese history. While his ideology was anathema to the Western mind, his ability to train both his troops and the supporting civilian population to secure victories against armies far greater than his provides valuable lessons for strategists today.

Professor Yeisley, last question goes to you. In your essay you warn the reader that we need to be prepared for the “reality of future irregular warfare.” What advice would you give to those who must prepare for such a future?  

Yeisley: I would begin by acknowledging that the irregular warfare moniker may be somewhat of an anachronism these days. “Regular” warfare, whether it be interstate conflict or not, is becoming increasingly rare – whether that has to do with the rapid pace of global interconnectedness, or due to some other factors. The fact is that “irregular” warfare is becoming the norm.  That said, there seems to be little argument that this type of warfare will likely be the most prevalent in the next several decades at least. Yet the U.S. continues to prepare for conflict with a near-peer competitor, and sees China as the most likely to fit that bill. 

After over a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and spending billions on efforts in each of these states, we are still facing an uncertain future. More effort needs to be spent on identifying and addressing the causes of such conflict, and that will involve an effort that spans the gamut of U.S. instruments of power. Economic aid will be necessary to decrease poverty and improve the institutions necessary for future generations. Information campaigns will need to be improved to show the populations of these states our true intentions, and diplomacy must complement both these and military efforts to combat those diehards who insist on violence. But the stark reality is that such efforts will be costly and take a long time–and that will be the reality that is hardest to face for a nation whose public wants to win quick and go home.

Gentlemen, thank you so much for your time.

Richard J. Bailey Jr. is an associate professor of strategy and security studies, USAF School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. He holds a PhD from the Department of Government at Georgetown University. Rick is an active-duty U.S. Air Force colonel, with over 3,500 flight hours in various Air Force aircraft. His research interests include military strategy, cyber power, and civil-military relations. Rick will retire this fall and has been announced as the next president of Northern New Mexico College.

James W. Forsyth Jr. is the dean of the Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. He received his PhD in international studies from the Joseph Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver. While there he studied international and comparative politics, as well as security studies. His research interests are wide ranging, and he has written on great power conflict and war.

Mark O. Yeisley is a former USAF colonel and associate professor at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. He holds a PhD in international relations from Duke University. While on active duty he served in various operational and staff assignments, and he currently teaches for the Air Command and Staff College. His research interests include contemporary irregular war, ethnic and religious violence, and political geography.

LCDR Christopher Nelson, USN, is a naval intelligence officer and regular contributor to CIMSEC.  He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School (MAWS) in Newport, Rhode Island. The comments and questions above are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Department of Defense or the US Navy.

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