This week the British Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, announced a £1.1billion contract to build nuclear reactors for the next generation of British submarines that will replace the current Vanguard-class SSBNs. Though he stopped short of saying that this guaranteed Britain would renew Trident, with a formal decision due to be made in 2016, it is a clear step further in that direction, despite the divisiveness of the issue within both the government and national politics. The Conservatives’ coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, are openly against renewal on cost grounds and are investigating alternative deterrent options. The Scottish National Party are ideologically opposed to the idea of weapons of mass destruction being present within Scotland, with the current Trident fleet based in Faslane, and with no alternative locations in England at present without huge financial and environmental expense. The issue is even more politically charged with a referendum on Scottish independence scheduled for 2014, where a yes vote would potentially torpedo Britain’s ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent. That is an issue in itself, with the missiles in essence leased from the United States.
Britain’s ability to construct nuclear submarines is at least being safeguarded with this investment, which as my last post suggested was one of the tough choices the government had to make, and what industries it prioritsed in the national strategic interest. On the flip-side, who loses out? The Royal Navy is overwhelmingly in favour of Trident’s renewal, as the service would be indespensable to the missile’s deployment. But with tensions rising over the Falklands, the recent fishing dispute with Spain in Gibraltar, Somali piracy, and humanitarian atrocities being committed in Syria, surely what the RN needs right now is more surface ships. The Vanguards and their successors can’t help Britain with these current flashpoints, while the vessels that could make a difference, destroyers and frigates, have been cut down to just nineteen. There are forms of deterrence other than the nuclear kind, and a more visible naval presence in the world’s trouble spots could provide that, preventing problems from escalating to a point where intervention becomes a whole lot more costly, both financially and to human lives.
Dr Daniel Owen Spence is Lecturer in Imperial and International History at Sheffield Hallam University, United Kingdom, and publishes on nineteen and twentieth century maritime history.
…today, about the constitution of modern fleets? When Corbett spoke about battleships, cruisers and the flotilla, he focused on the integrated fleet functions these ships performed more than their individual capabilities. Even their names reflected this attitude, contrary to later ship types like the aircraft carrier, submarine or torpedo boat. Corbett was aware that such classification was not constant and that technology was rearranging the old structure of fleets:
We retain the three-fold nomenclature, but the system itself has really gone. Battleships grade into armoured cruisers, armoured cruisers into protected cruisers. We can scarcely detect any real distinction except a twofold one between vessels whose primary armament is the gun and vessels whose primary armament is the torpedo. But even here the existence of a type of cruiser designed to act with flotillas blurs the outline, while, as we have seen, the larger units of the flotilla are grading up to cruiser level.”
Corbett believed that the constitution of fleets ought to reflect the dominant strategic and tactical ideas at a given time. With these thoughts in mind, what kind of prevailing strategic and tactical ideas are expressed by structureless fleet? Do modern navies posses a clear structure? If not, either his theories are obsolete or our concept of ships and fleets is dangerously detached from strategy.
Confusion over fleet constitution, in any time, seems to be caused by three reasons. One is technology, and the addition of new capabilities. Another is perhaps best expressed in the wisdom of Thucydides regarding the reasons for conducting a war – Fear, Honor and Benefit. Fear is rooted deeply in psychology and affects the perceived level of threat. The final reason is inability to predict the future, despite all scientific progress in forecasting. Attempting to follow Corbett’s logic, a navy performs the basic functions of striking, scouting and screening in three dimensions – surface, air and below surface. The three sources of confusion, on the other hand, cause navies to give a ship capabilities in all functional areas and in all domains at the same time. We want to give our scouting force fighting power, forgetting a bit about another statement from Corbett:
The object of naval warfare is to control maritime communications. In order to exercise that control effectively we must have a numerous class of vessels specially adapted for pursuit. But their power of exercising control is in proportion to our degree of command, that is, to our power of preventing their operations being interfered with by the enemy. Their own power of resistance is in inverse proportion to their power of exercising control; that is to say, the more numerous and better adapted they are for preying on commerce and transports, the weaker will be their individual fighting power.”
At this point LCS comes to my mind. Still controversial and presenting challenges to implementation, this project possesses a unique capability. Through modularity and autonomous, off-board systems, it offers a possibility to correct errors in its initial operating concept. Controversy surrounding this ship would be best resolved by return to the roots of the concept and intended function. Answering the question “what is this ship?” is far more important than its actual capabilities. The story of HMS Jervis Bay dramatically illustrates the difference between concept and capability. In May 1940, this armed merchant ship was performing its function of escorting a convoy, consisting of 37 ships, when they encountered German pocket battleship Admiral Scheer. The price for the British was high as almost 200 men died and the ship lost, but the HMS Jervis Bay fulfilled its mission despite having almost no capabilities, charging the Admiral Scheer and enabling the convoy to escape. One way to avoid paying such a price is to give every ship enough fighting power (with all the attendant controversy over exactly how much is enough). Another is to give fleet a more defined structure:
On cruisers depends our exercise of control; on the battle-fleet depends the security of control.”
Closing the loop and returning to the opening question. The chapter title in which Sir Julian Corbett expressed his views on fleet structure is “THEORY OF THE MEANS—THE CONSTITUTION OF FLEETS.” The subject so defined will never be obsolete. I am still curious how he would today find a way through the jungle of new technological innovations which seem to force us to constantly revise operating concepts, and bring us a clear view on the theory of the means.
Przemek Krajewski alias Viribus Unitis is a blogger In Poland. His area of interest is broad context of purpose and structure of Navy and promoting discussions on these subjects In his country
The MV Alaed, a Russian cargo vessel reportedly shipping armament to Syria, including attack helicopters, has lost its insurance coverage due to illicit cargo clauses, CNN reports. This comes after calls from the U.S. government on the British government and subsequent pressure on London-based The Standard Club, insurers of the vessel’s owners, FEMCO.
UPDATE: Tues, 0630 EST
Dutch authorities hailed the Alaed as it passed the Dutch coast, prompting the vessel to turn north. Alead is reportedly near the Hebrides archipelago off Scotland’s west coast, according to The Telegraph. Scottish site STV.TV says the vessel “was last recorded under way less than 55 miles off the coast of the Port of Ness village in the Isle of Lewis,” and headed for Vladivostock according to AIS information(possibly falsely inputted) provided by the ship tracking site marinetraffic.com. The vessel has since moved out of range.
UPDATE 2: Tues 1400
Press reports indicate British Foreign Secretary William Hague has confirmed Alaed is returning to Russia, most likely Kaliningrad. Maritime experts speculate it was ordered to turn back by Russian authorities as it may have had enough fuel to reach Syria without stopping and not been subject to the EU’s ban on weapon shipments as a Russian vessel.
The Alaed is just the latest in a series of cargo vessels bound for a war zone suddenly thrust into the spotlight after reports surface of a purported arms shipment. The Kang Nam, a North Korean cargo vessel turned around in 2009 after the world’s attention focused on its voyage to a mystery destination (likely Myanmar) with a mystery cargo (likely small arms and RPGs). Similar incidents have occurred in the past with North Korean vessels such as 2011’s MV Light incident.
As with the Kang Nam, the objective of the international community in this incident is likely to deny the Alaed an ability to refuel in a friendly port of call enroute to its final destination. With the loss of insurance, the Alaed will find it difficult to legally enter many ports on the way to Syria and may be forced to turn around. If the vessel is able to continue, it runs a good risk of being boarded by some of Syria’s more proactive neighbors enforcing an EU arms embargo, such as Turkey, which boarded the German-owned Atlantic Cruiser in April after similar reports of on-board weapons. Embarrassingly for Turkey, such reports turned out to be false, so they might be more reluctant to repeat the episode with out definitive proof before hand. Nor are all suspect cargoes bound for the al-Assad regime. Also in April, Lebanon stopped the Sierra Leone-flagged Lutfallah II, which definitively was smuggling weapons for the Free Syria Army.
On a side note, it’s hard to take the interview at 1:55 with the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff completely seriously when you realize what’s immediately behind him. That’s right, a cupcake tank that fires cupcakes:
LT Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He is the founding director of the Center for International Maritime Security and holds a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.
The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.
Is China today in the same strategic position as pre-First World War Germany? If China’s current economic rise and expanding naval power makes it the modern counterpart to Wilhelmine Germany, does the U.S. face a similar set of strategic choices as turn-of-the-century Great Britain? The British response to Germany’s new fleet was to redouble its efforts to build a more powerful Royal Navy, and critics who believe that the current size of the U.S. Navy is too small contend that the U.S. needs to respond in a similarly aggressive manner. For two recent examples of this line of thinking see hereand here, and a counter-argument that contends a naval arms race with China is just not worth it here. Hereis another piece arguing that the true historical counterpart to China was the US. Does this analogy provide useful insights into what should drive current U.S. maritime strategy or acquisition efforts?
A century ago the globally deployed British fleet ensured security of the seas, but its prominence was increasingly challenged by the expanding naval power of many states worldwide, particularly Germany, as well as fiscal constraints at home. The famous “People’s Budget” of 1909 proposed by the Liberal government attempted to juggle guns and butter, raising taxes in order to balance “an enormous deficit” and the need “to create new revenue for the Army, the Navy, and Old Age Pensions.” 
Concerned by the danger posed by Germany’s new naval power, Britain’s leaders implemented an aggressive naval modernization program, ultimately resulting in ships like the Dreadnought-class battleship and its successors, which were bigger, faster, and better-armed than anything else afloat. However, restricted by the amount of money available to construct newer and more capable ships, this procurement of better ships was also accompanied by a withdrawal by the Royal Navy from much of the globe, as well as a significant drawdown in the size of the fleet itself. The new-look Royal Navy would prioritize manning the most modern large ships, which would be stationed in home waters, ready to face the threat posed by the German Navy in the North Sea. Victory against or neutralization of the German High Seas Fleet (Hochseeflotte) became the aim of the Royal Navy. Winston Churchill, civilian head of the Navy as First Lord of the Admiralty from 1911 to 1915, noted that “if we win the big battle in the decisive theatre we can put everything straight afterward.”
Sir John Fisher (commonly referred to as “Jackie”) removed 154 ships (primarily small cruisers and gunboats) from the “effective list” after becoming First Sea Lord (the senior Royal navy officer) in 1904, as well as eliminating or combining several of the overseas “stations” into a fewer number of fleets. He also changed the orientation of the forces afloat, with the newest and most capable platforms primarily deployed to the new commands in the Channel and Atlantic. This reduction and reorientation in deployed afloat forces was enabled by a significant geopolitical shift. Rather than being the sole guarantor of global maritime security, Britain essentially outsourced those obligations through agreements with states such as Japan (with which a naval alliance allowed British withdrawal from the Far East), France (the Entente shifting responsibility for the Mediterranean largely to the French Navy), and a realization that combating the growing U.S. Navy in the Western Hemisphere was both impossible and undesirable. This approach towards outsourcing maritime security to other allied or aligned powers was could be considered similar to that of a “thousand-ship Navy” in its recognition of the limitations that a single state has in imposing its naval power everywhere at all times.
What lessons can the U.S. today learn from how the Royal Navy was reshaped a century ago? Britain’s strategic calculus was much simpler vis-à-vis Germany than the US and its current relationship with China. The only reason for the German naval program was to fight or deter the Royal Navy, and in such a conflict it “would need a fleet able to overpower the biggest contingent the Royal Navy was likely to station in home waters.” The German fleet Admiral Tirpitz built was designed to engage in a symmetrical conflict with its British counterpart. In contrast, China’s naval expansion is quite different. Instead of building carrier battle groups, The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is emphasizing anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities to keep other powers out of adjacent waters like the South China Sea, East China Sea, and Yellow Sea. Chinese naval strategy seems to revolve around A2/AD as a means to keep the US away, as “their goal is to deter US forces from intervening in regional disputes.” The choice faced by Jackie Fisher and Winston Churchill as to how to respond to the Germans was simple, assemble a battle force that could win in the North Sea.
The choices faced by the U.S. due to its current security challenges are not as clear cut. The 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance which implemented the “Pacific Pivot” indicated that the U.S. “will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region.” The focus of the U.S. military cannot just switch entirely to China, however, as the Middle East remains a critical theater. The same document notes that “the United States will continue to place a premium on U.S. and allied military presence in – and support of – partner nations in and around this region.”
Faced with an uncertain world, the2007 Maritime Strategy similarly (and understandably) hedges when discussing what types of missions that the Navy should be able to accomplish. Its six “Core Capabilities” reflect both high-end war at sea (Forward Presence, Deterrence, Sea Control, Power Projection) as well as more prosaic tasks (Maritime Security, Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response). In a world in which war at sea with a near-peer competitor is not necessarily likely, but in which non-state actors such as terrorists, pirates, and illicit smugglers either exploit or are the main threat to freedom of the seas, the notion of ignoring these missions in order to maintain an overwhelming battle force may not be as wise in a constrained fiscal environment as the presence provided through “Influence Squadrons.” Those advocating for a more maritime security-oriented force are calling for the opposite of Fisher’s reforms, instead bringing back the gunboats and coastal security force at the expense of the battle fleet.
One clear lesson from the Anglo-German naval arms race is that the answer is not to just buy more ships. The Royal Navy certainly engaged in a naval modernization program and expansion of the battle force, but complemented that effort with a shift in strategy, focusing the combat mission of the fleet on a single task, and eliminating the Royal Navy’s global responsibilities. U.S. responses to the challenge of a rising China should be echoed by similar adjustments in strategy and force employment that address current (and likely future) maritime security needs rather than having an arbitrary number of surface platforms. Jackie Fisher slashed the quantity of ships in the Royal Navy because they did nothing towards accomplishing the mission, the priority for the US now should be to set its maritime priorities, and then ensure that the force structure can accomplish those missions.
1. George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England: 1910-1914 (New York: Capricorn Books, 1935), 19.
2. Paul M. Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery (Amherst: Humanity Books, 2006), 214-226.
3. Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes, Red Star Over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2010), 48.
Lieutenant Commander Mark Munson is a Naval Intelligence Officer and currently serves on the OPNAV staff. He has previously served at Naval Special Warfare Group FOUR, the Office of Naval Intelligence and onboard USS ESSEX (LHD 2). The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official viewpoints or policies of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.