Naval Tactics and Their Influence on Strategy, Pt. 1

CIMSEC mourns the passing of renowned thinker on naval tactics and strategy Capt. Wayne P. Hughes, Jr., who passed away peacefully on December 3, 2019. Author of the classic work Fleet Tactics and longtime researcher and faculty member at the Naval Postgraduate School, Capt. Hughes made extraordinary contributions to naval discourse. Below is one such contribution. 

The following piece originally featured in The Naval War College Review and is republished with permission. It will be republished here in two parts. Read it in its original form here.

By Captain Wayne P. Hughes, Jr., U.S. Navy, (ret.)

A viewpoint almost taken for granted among Defense officials is that national policy determines military strategy, which in turn deter­mines the quantities and allocations of forces. Let me offer a contrasting position:

“What actually halts the aggressor’s action is the fear of defeat by the defender’s forces, [even though] he is not likely to concede this, at least not openly.

“One may admit that even where the decision has been bloodless, it was determined in the last analysis by engagements that did not take place but had merely been offered . . . where the tactical results of the engagement are assumed to be the basis of all strategic plans, it is always possible, and a serious risk, that the attacker will proceed on that basis. He will endeavor above all to be tactically superior, in order to upset the enemy’s strategic planning. The latter [strategic planning] therefore, can never be considered as something independent: it can only become valid when one has reason to be confident of tactical success . . . it is useful to emphasize that all strategic planning rests on tactical success alone, and that – whether the solution is arrived at in battle or not – this is in all cases the actual fundamental basis for the decision. Only when one has no need to fear the outcome – because of the enemy’s character or situation or because the two armies are unevenly matched physically and psychologically or indeed because one’s own side is the stronger – only then can one expect results from strategic combinations alone.”

I have been quoting Clausewitz, of course. We should remember that Clausewitz dealt with ground warfare. The passage above is found in Clausewitz’ discussion of defense, which he and other analysts believe is the stronger tactical posture on land. As will be seen, I hold that the tactical nature of ground war often differs from sea war. Specifically, there has been no corresponding tactical advantage for the defense in naval combat. Nevertheless, in this instance I am happy to take Clausewitz as my text, and assert that what he thought to be the link between tactics and strategy on the ground applies even more strongly at sea, if that is possible.

The reason that a discussion of tactics is appropriate when discussing contemporary strategy is that strategy must rest on the rock of combat capability. One builds decisions from the bottom up: tactics affect the efficacy of forces; the correlation of forces reveals what strategy our forces can support, and a supportable military strategy governs national aims and ambitions.

This is the opposite of the Secretary of Defense’s “Defense Guidance,” which starts with national goals and policies, which in due course defines strategy, and which takes largely for granted that existing forces will be able to execute it. The top-down approach is proper for deriving force requirements to guide procurement policies, but force requirements – if they exceed existing force levels – can only be built in the future. If one is concerned with present strategy, he must know current capabilities and design his strategy accordingly. If the forces are inadequate, then a strategy which is part bluff may be necessary, but it is important for everyone to understand that the strategy is in fact not executable, so that the part which is bluff does not become forgotten and lead to self-delusion. As a case in point, many will remember the 2 1/2 war strategy that lingered on long after it was beyond our capabilities.

Firepower, scouting, and c2 are the three elements of naval force – the means – and attrition is the great end. In the back­ground I can hear Peggy Lee singing her song, “Is That All There Is?” Yes, I think that is all.

Of course, the design of a current maritime strategy is not really so simple that it can be built from the bottom up. The process is dialectical, with policy and strategy goals juxtaposed against combat capabilities. But current strategy, I insist, must rest on a foundation of realistic force comparisons.

Perhaps the sense of urgency about tactical considerations will be made more real by starting with this: It is demonstrable both by history and theory that not only has a small net advantage in force (not the same as forces) often been decisive in naval battles, but the slightly inferior force tends to lose with very little to show in the way of damage and destruction to the enemy.

At sea, there has been no counterpart to prepared positions and the effects of terrain, nor any thing corresponding to the rule-of-thumb, 3-to-1 attacker-to-defender ratio. There are no mountains nor swamps to guard flanks, no rivers to cross or defend, and no high ground. A fleet tactical commander keeps no force in reserve and all his energy is devoted to attacking the enemy effectively before the enemy can attack him. At sea, offense dominates in a way foreign to ground commanders. When a tactical commander is not competitive he had better stand clear; because, as I said, he will have little to show for the loss of his force.

In peacetime, every strategist must know the true combat worth of his navy, as compared to the enemy, or he risks deep humiliation with or without bloodshed. That above all was the tactical lesson for Argentina in the Falklands, which found its navy outclassed by the Royal Navy. In wartime, every strategist must know the relative fighting value of his navy – so carefully nurtured and expensive to build and maintain in peacetime. When committed in battle, the heart of a fleet can be cut out in an afternoon.

Three Tactics-Strategy Interrelationships

The fighting power of forces available determines strategic combinations. This does little to explain why tacticians emphasize not only forces as orders of battle but also the very tactics of those forces as elements of sound strategy. The answer lies in the distinction between forces and force – the difference between an order of battle and fighting power at a scene of action against a specific enemy, or what Russian military scientists call the correlation of forces and means. Here are three examples of how tactics and strategy are interrelated. The first example is in the realm of force planning, the Washington arena. The second deals with naval operations, the battle arena. The third illustrates the danger when either the strategist or the tactician lays his plans without due regard for the risks he may thoughtlessly impose on his counterpart.

First, in the U.S. and Nato studies of the military reinforcement and resupply of Europe in the 1960s and early 1970s, classical convoy tactics were used. The escorts formed a ring around the merchant ships. But the ASW screens so configured could not prevent the penetration of many torpedo­ firing submarines. The Navy’s strategists drew the conclusion that we should buy more ASW protection. Other strategists who toted up the Navy’s hardware bill said there must be a better strategy, better meaning less expensive. One solution was to preposition Army divisional combat equipment in Europe and then fly the troops over to marry up with it. No one questioned the soundness of the convoy tactics on which the gloomy losses were based until the early 1970s. Then some work being done concurrently by the Center for Naval Analyses and a small Nato study group at SacLant concluded that if you opened out the merchant ship formation and embedded the protection inside the convoys, the losses to merchant ships would be reduced by a factor of two or three.

These same studies of the tactical details of the convoy engagements revealed that the submarines ought to be able to find enough targets to unload all of their torpedoes on every patrol, unlike the experience of World War II when the average U-boat fired less than one-sixth of its torpedoes on a patrol. The number of torpedoes carried to sea, therefore, became a number of extreme importance. When the fact was appreciated, a more careful look was taken at the torpedo load of enemy submarines and it was decided that we had probably overestimated it, and in so doing overestimated the damage the subs could do over their lifetimes.

With the estimates of probable losses of merchant ships reduced dramatically, did convoying reenter as the preferred strategy? Not exactly, because there were too many other considerations – political, budgetary, and strategic, affecting the decision. The present attitude toward the desirability of convoying is, in some circumstances yes, in others no. Here the interrelationship with strategy enters the picture. If the maritime strategy described by Robert Wood and John Hanley in the previous issue of this journal is executable, then that will have a powerful and positive effect to reduce the need for convoying. If we are surprised as the allies were in World Wars I and II, then the strategist has some assurance that the tactics are in hand to convoy the most vital shipping – if we must.

Secondly, let us next consider a radically different example of the integration of strategy and tactics that shows up at the interface between land and sea, in what felicitously has been called “littoral warfare.” Navies are built and supported in order to influence events on land. It is almost impossible to find an instance of two fleets going out to fight like boxers in a ring – may the best ships win, to the victor goes the spoils and command of the sea. Seldom has the inferior fleet failed to appreciate its inferiority, and so it has been only some matter of gravest consequence which drew the weaker fleet to sea, usually to its doom and with little harm to the stronger.

One of the tactical implications is that the larger fleet in case after case has been burdened with the forbidden sin of split objectives. Look at the 1942-45 Pacific War. Japan or the United States, whichever was superior and on the offensive, almost always entered into battle with prioritized but nevertheless dual missions – to shield the movement of some vital force and to destroy the enemy fleet. The whole Pacific strategy-tactics interface can be studied and understood in that context. The maxim that a fleet should first gain control of the sea before risking an amphibious assault turned out to be impossible to follow, because without the overwhelming strategic consequences of invasion the smaller fleet would not fight. Now look at the sea battles in World War I, in particular those in the North Sea. In this case the battles came about by some subterfuge, a strategic entrapment –the British hoping to lure the High Seas Fleet into a death trap and the Germans hoping to snare some detachments of the Royal Navy, and whittle it down to equality. Since neither Britain nor Germany had a strategic motivation to come to battle at a disadvantage and since Scheer knew his fleet was decisively inferior, there was never a fight to the finish as strategists anticipated before the war. The German High Seas Fleet ended its days not with a bang but a whimper.

As the range of weapons and sensors increased, so did the direct, tactical interaction between land-based and sea-based forces. In my opinion there is no finer example than the Solomons Campaign of 1942-43 of ground, sea, and air forces all acting in concert, not coincidentally or serendipitously, but necessarily and vitally. A subject worthy of more study is the way these interactions on a wider, deeper battlefield will carry over into the realm of strategy and policy. Land-based aircraft and missiles already reach well out to sea. Sea-based aircraft have had an influence that is well known, and now missiles from the sea will also play a role. One of the tactical lessons of the Solomons is this: We do not plan to put the Marine Brigade into northern Norway merely to hold the land flank, but also to hold the maritime flank. The Marines and their accompanying airpower would fight from a vital piece of real estate that will support operations at sea as well as on the ground. It is hard to find a more apt example of littoral warfare in the making.

Thirdly, as an example, let us look at the Mediterranean, and ponder the problem of the Sixth Fleet Commander. He is very conscious of the need to attack effectively first, but he knows American policy is unlikely to give him the freedom to do so. He also knows that policy has often required a forward, and exposed presence in the Eastern Mediterranean. His survival at the onset of war rests on two hopes to offset these two liabilities. The first is that he will be given the freedom of movement in sufficient time to take a geographical position that will make a major attack on him difficult. The second is that his Rules of Engagement will allow him to act with measured force when certain circumstances demand it. Since the steps he must take are in the nature of denying the enemy tracking and targeting information – “antiscouting,” a term I will define later – in my opinion both the location he must take and the actions he must be authorized ought to be tolerable at the policy level. Whether the modus vivendi now in effect is satisfactory both as to tactics (battlefield risks) and to strategy (political risks) I do not know. But it is important to see the conflict between the statesman’s political objectives and the naval commander’s tactical risks in a crisis. The tactician at the scene understands the primacy of diplomatic and political objectives. But an optimum political stance, such as a highly visible naval presence, can require a disastrous battlefield posture. The tactician and strategist both need agreement that to contain a crisis, the nation must be able to win twice, both politically and on the field of battle. 

In days gone by my solution to the Sixth Fleet’s tactical problem was to head west. To solve the strategist’s problem of the embarrassment of retreating in the midst of crisis, my strategists were to make clear well in advance of any crisis that when the fleet withdrew, that was not appeasement but a final war warning, the naval equivalent of mobilizing the reserves. I think now my solution was too pat. But if heading west is not the answer, then the strategist must collaborate with the tactician to find it. The tactical imperative at sea is to attack effectively before the enemy does so. This is simply too compelling a consideration for the strategist to wish away.

Captain Hughes is on the faculty of the Naval Postgraduate School, writes widely on maritime and national security affairs, and is author of Fleet Tactics, soon to be published-by the Naval Institute Press.

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (Nov. 27, 2019) The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Russel (DDG 59) and the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) transit the Eastern Pacific Ocean Nov. 27, 2019. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Matthew F. Jackson)

3 thoughts on “Naval Tactics and Their Influence on Strategy, Pt. 1”

  1. The arguments relate to large powerful navies. How do countries with small navies create a naval strategy? Using the UK as an example Britain was a seapower. Today with the increasing cost of naval ships and a decline from empire seapower the country has and will have a ‘small navy’ . This will be the case for many countries. Can the ‘grand strategy’ of sea power apply to small navies or is there a need to rethink the future of the smaller navy?

    1. Christopher – Small naval forces can indeed serve the four strategic and tactical roles of any naval force, as I stated elsewhere in another comment. They can do so by cooperating with much larger naval forces, supplying additional ships, aircraft, and other naval assets to the larger combined force. We did a lot of that in World War Two, when the main naval forces of the US and UK were augmented by naval units from the Free French, Netherlands, Australian, New Zealand, Canadian, and other yet smaller forces. And that is why today the US Navy participates collaboratively in naval exercises with much smaller naval forces from our NATO allies, Australia, India, New Zealand, Vietnam, and many other nations with small navies.

      The other consideration, though, is that most people tend to misconstrue the primary role of naval forces, assuming that it is to engage and defeat enemy naval forces .. that is only one of the four major strategic/tactical roles of naval forces. A small navy even acting on its own can still fulfill the other three roles quite well, and only when confronted by an obviously superior naval force would a tactical retreat be necessary and appropriate.

  2. Excellent analysis! The late Capt. Hughes comprehends what so many naval enthusiasts and/or analysis fail to appreciate, i.e., that navies exist to win land wars, and do not exist to win :naval wars”. Therefore a naval war not fought, and/or a naval battle not fought, can be just as decisive to outcome of the war as the naval war and naval battle that is actually waged. All naval war is ultimately about control of the land, and therefore control of the littorals that serve as communication lanes for land forces and their supplies.

    An example of a naval war not fought is the the European theater of WW Two, and of the UK, which had the greatest naval force on the planet from the end of the Napoleonic wars until the opening of WW Two in Europe. But it was the UK, not Germany, that was nearly defeated in the first three years of the war,. It was the UK, and not Germany, that was totally dependent upon marine transport for survival, because it was an island. So naturally Germany greatly threatened that transport with its very small yet highly effective fleet of U-boats, which very nearly won the war virtually all by themselves, and would have won the war had not technology (radar on surface ships and aircraft; and long range land based aircraft, and naval aircraft based on “hunter killer” escort carriers) eventually intervened by 1943. The German u-boat fleet therefore made unnecessary a large German surface fleet of battleships, aircraft carriers, cruisers, etc., and for the most part those ships were either destroyed early in the war, or were forced to remain in port, so that surface naval battles were only rarely fought. Even when such surface naval battles were fought, they were never decisive, and had essentially zero impact on the outcome of the war.

    The author fully appreciated the proper strategic and tactical roles of navies, which are fourfold: 1 – supporting land forces in the littorals; 2 -protecting marine supply lines; 3 – attacking and disrupting, or negating, enemy naval and maritime forces; and 4 – projecting political power through presence.

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