The United States of America was, is, and will remain a maritime nation. Flanked by vast oceans, covered from the north by Canadian arctic and the south by Mexican desert, the United States occupies one of the strongest strategic positions of any nation in history. This, however, comes at a cost: to trade and interact with most of the world, America must cross the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This exposes American trade to hostile nations, even relatively weak ones. This is not a new concept for American strategic planners. The United States’ first overseas conflict, the Barbary Wars, stemmed from this exact vulnerability. That struggle continues to this day, with the most recent example being U.S. Navy intervention in the Maersk Alabama hijacking by pirates off Somalia in 2009. Therefore, it has always been in the vital interest of this country to maintain a strong, well-resourced, and well-led navy. Without one, there is no conceivable way the United States could continue to maintain the world’s greatest economy in today’s globalized world.
Whenever America was most threatened or imperiled by conflict, the United States Navy has always stepped up to meet the challenge. From sparring with the great powers of Europe, to constricting the Confederacy, decisively defeating the Imperial Japanese Navy, and deterring the Soviet Union, the U.S. Navy has a proven track record of keeping America safe. By projecting outwards, the United States has kept war and devastation away from American shores. This is a solid policy, but it is one that requires a strong navy to pursue in any meaningful manner. This is further enhanced by a robust network of allies which the United States currently enjoys, but these nations will not sit on the frontlines without clear evidence of credible and capable American commitment to their own security. In this regard, what better signal of commitment is there than the strongest Navy in the world off their coast?
A strong navy, used in concert with allied nations and backed up by a vigorous economy, is a potent deterrent to conflict and enables diplomacy. It convinces adversaries that war is either unwinnable or too costly to wage. This helps the United States negotiate favorable outcomes through diplomacy, which will always be preferable to war. Some might argue that by building a strong navy or military in general, it promotes jingoism and can escalate tensions between rivals. While this is certainly true in some historical instances, I would argue that in America’s case it has prevented conflict much more than it has incited it. For example, during the Cold War, the U.S. Navy integrated with the rest of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and played a crucial role in containing the Soviet Navy in the North Atlantic. If not for their strong presence, any effort to reinforce NATO forces at the inner German border, in the event of a war with the Warsaw Pact, would have been spoiled by Soviet submarines. As we know, that war never happened and that is due in no small part to the U.S. Navy, which was both large and technologically advanced during that time period.
Yet again the United States stands at another crossroads in history. The post-Cold War peace is slowly eroding as revisionist powers seek to alter, through coercion, the international order to their benefit. Some nations, considered “near-peer” competitors, boast strong naval capabilities of their own. China is in the midst of a particularly large naval buildup using their extensive industrial base and newfound wealth to rapidly increase the quality and quantity of their naval forces. The U.S. Navy once again finds itself center stage in a great power rivalry after a nearly three-decade hiatus. The conflicts are dynamic, the competition is intense, and the advantages are fleeting. This is the new reality that we face today as a nation returning to competition with near-peer states. A strong United States Navy brings with it many tools that are useful to strategically outmaneuver these competitors. Chief among these tools is flexibility. In a world diseased with uncertainty, flexibility is the cure. It is not only critical to warfighting, but critical to avoiding conflict. A strong, well-trained, flexible navy is able to respond and adapt to new situations to maintain escalation control, but also fight to win if things go south. More on the warfighting side of the house, flexibility better enables U.S. forces in key regions to counter asymmetric threats or weapons – a favorite among some of the more prominent American adversaries. Another key tool is presence. A bigger, stronger navy is able to be deployed to build partnerships, deter potential enemies, and quickly respond to threats in more places across the globe. One only has to look at the recent chemical weapons use in Syria and the subsequent American response to realize that this not an abstract theory, but a proven concept.
For the United States, a strong navy is not a “want” but a “need.” Historically, it has been extremely effective at advancing U.S. national interests. It is critical to deterring foreign adversaries and maintaining prosperity, not just for the U.S., but for all nations. Nations that have free and unrestricted access to global sea lanes for trade are more likely to grow and prosper which reduces the chance of conflict inside and outside its own borders. Throughout history, a strong navy has been a source of national pride and the United States is no exception. It gives us confidence and optimism as a society, and allows us to sleep at night knowing that someone has our backs.
Patrick C. Lanham graduated from Cocoa Beach High School and will be attending the University of Central Florida to study International and Global Studies. He may be reached on Twitter @p_lanham or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured Image: USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) transits the Pacific Ocean with ships participating in the RIMPAC 2010 combined task force. (U.S. Navy/MC3 Dylan McCord)
Admiral Sergei S. Gorshkov’s legacy as a naval leader and strategic thinker has not been entirely forgotten. Reports of his death, however, were not greatly exaggerated. Largely ignored by the NATO navies that once studied him so intently as the head of the Soviet Navy for much of the Cold War, Gorshkov remains an inspirational symbol in the two countries that should come as no surprise: Russia and China.
Earlier this year, Admiral Viktor Chirkov, the current commander-in-chief of the Russian Navy, pointedly chose the 105th anniversary celebration of Gorshkov’s birthday in his childhood home of Kolomna to make some bold statements about the navy’s future in the 21st century. After laying flowers at Gorshkov’s monument, Chirkov formally announced that Russia will be back in the aircraft carrier business with plans to build a new-generation one comparable in size to a U.S. supercarrier. Given the current state of Russian shipyards and the tremendous costs involved, defense analysts greeted the announcement with skepticism. There was good reason to doubt this most recent news: Russia had already announced in 2005, and again in 2008, that it would begin to build carriers by 2010. According toJane’s Defence Weekly, the new multipurpose, dual-design (two ski-jump ramps and electromagnetic catapults each) carrier is called Project 23000E or Shtorm (Storm).
17th-19th C. Sea Power of the State: Admiral Chirkov getting a tour of USNA Museum in 2013 from CIMSEC member Claude Berube. Was the Russian navy chief trying to get advance info on the #CarrierDebate? (Photo credit: USNA PAO)
Of course, Admiral Gorshkov once promoted the virulent anti-carrier stance of the Soviet Union. He mocked the platform as too expensive and too vulnerable and echoed Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s view that they were “floating coffins.” Yet, the Soviet Navy’s need to be untethered from the sole support of land-based naval aviation first resulted in helicopter carriers for anti-submarine warfare and amphibious operations in 1967, then eventually in large-deck carriers for fixed wing aircraft toward the end of the Cold War – the Kuzntesov (still in service, although with considerable time in the repair dock, in the Russian fleet) and the Gorshkov (sold to India).
Gorshkov would likely have applauded Chirkov’s ambitious50 ship building plan for 2015 that included a mixture of surface and subsurface vessels. In particular, the resurgence of nuclear submarine production, especially the Borei-class ballistic missile sub, is a reminder of how Gorshkov once used submarines as the cornerstone of Soviet naval power and prestige for decades.
Chirkov also announced that 30 ships and submarines were currently deployed around the world, which indicated a modest but nonetheless significant return to the pattern of out-of-area patrols and presence missions for the Soviet Navy that Gorshkov introduced to much fanfare in the mid-1960s. This May’s joint Russian-Chinese naval exercises in the Mediterranean also supports the views that the Russian Navy is “rebalancing” to the region while the Chinese Navy may intend to secure its energy supply lines at the western edge of the “New Silk Road.”
Above all, Gorshkov would probably have approved of Chirkov’s vision: the adoption of an “ocean strategy” that will seek to reestablish Russia’s global reach and promote its political and economic interests. Chirkov’s choice of language harkened back to the efforts of his Cold War-era predecessor to justify a blue-water navy. Notably, Chirkov did not directly challenge the supremacy of the U.S. Navy as Gorshov did in the late 1960s. Rather, Admiral Chirkov’s mission, at least for the moment, is to put Russian naval forces back on the path to restoration, not on one toward great power rivalry.
Gorshkov was associated with the phrase “’better’ is the enemy of ‘good enough.’” In other words, Chirkov must get the Russian Navy back to Gorshkov-era “good enough.”
There is also nothing revolutionary in Chirkov’s pronouncements. The navy’s primary missions are still, as in the Cold War, strategic deterrence and defense. It will likely not be as rapid as the transformation after the Cuban Missile Crisis, either. The Russian Navy, according to defense analyst Dmitry Gorenburg, will slowly grow through a phased recapitalization scheme that will unfold over 20 years. The pace of naval construction is, of course, subject to change based on evolving political and economic imperatives.
To further underscore that Admiral Gorshkov has not passed entirely into irrelevance, a pair of Russian military writers (one a retired navy captain) paid homage to him in a recent article for Voyennaya Mysl [Military Thought], the elite journal of Russia’s Defense Ministry for nearly a century. In “The Sea Power of the State in the 21st Century,” the authors noted that Gorshkov’s seminal 1976 book, The Sea Power of the State, took an expansive view of sea power that included naval, merchant, fishing, and exploration capabilities. Gorshkov envisioned the World Ocean as one immense domain upon which to assert Russian national power. These authors, however, wished to scope the definition of “the country’s sea power” down to “the navy’s real combat power” in order to illustrate the special place that navies hold in geopolitics.
A central theme of their essay, based on historical examples, was that countries without sea power do not have “a decisive voice in world affairs.” Russia used a strong navy in the past, the authors argued, to maintain its place in the top tier of nations. The blow to Russian prestige was great at the end of the Cold War with the demise of the Soviet Navy:
… the loss of the core of its powerful oceangoing navy during the political and economic reforms in the late 1980s and early 1990s cost the country dearly. It caused other nations, Russia’s neighbors and rivals on the high seas, in the first place, to rethink their attitude to this country. It was deserted by many allies and friends, and its image of a great sea power has faded.
Thus, the article indirectly endorsed Admiral Chirkov’s current strategy of “looking to the ocean” and his plan for a navy that can once more defend Russia’s national interests and secure it against threats. The authors acknowledged, however, the huge lead by the U.S. Navy in air-sea battle concepts and that of American expertise in network-centric naval warfare. Indeed, “it is difficult, even hopeless at times, for Russia to take up this challenge for economic considerations.” Nonetheless, they concluded, it is a price that must be paid for the return to greatness on the world stage.
Writers in Chinese open source literature have also found reasons for optimism in the example set by Admiral Gorshkov during the Cold War. According to Lyle J. Goldstein at the Naval War College’s Chinese Maritime Studies Institute, some naval analysts in China “are extremely interested in Gorshkov, his legacy, and Soviet naval doctrinal development in general” [per his correspondence with this author]. They are impressed by the rapid transformation of Soviet naval power under Gorshkov as well as his ability to check U.S. power with his own oceangoing navy. Moreover, they also appreciated, based on Gorshkov’s lesson, that a “balanced fleet” can also emphasize undersea platforms while never reaching parity with U.S. carriers.
China’s recent strategy white paper elevated the PLA Navy’s status and explicitly tied naval power to China’s geopolitical ambitions and economic development with the navy’s dual missions of “open seas protection” and coastal defense. Indeed, sea power will play a central role for the Chinese state in the 21st century:
The seas and oceans bear on the enduring peace, lasting stability and sustainable development of China. The traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned, and great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests.
On the other hand, Gorshkov’s legacy shows that sea power, once achieved, can be transitory due to geographic, economic, and political factors. His is also a cautionary tale, for Russians and Chinese alike, not to pursue sea power beyond what a nation can support. As Goldstein noted, “… the [Chinese] authors do indeed directly connect the all-out Soviet naval expansion of the later Cold War, and the commensurate enormous investment of Russian national resources, to the demise of the USSR.” Moreover, there is the potential riskinvolved in Russia’s attempt under Vladimir Putin to return to the past glories of the Soviet superpower era yet fall well short of his goals. This naturally includes naval ambitions for aircraft carriers that never make it beyond the concept stage. Even the modernization of smaller surface ships such as frigates (including the new Admiral Gorshov-class) is now endangered by Russian actions in the Ukraine.
Both Russia’s and China’s navies may also face the same dilemma as that of the Soviet Navy by the mid-1960s if naval construction outpaces professional knowledge and practical experience. As Robert Farley noted, the Soviet Union “built blue water ships long before it built the experience needed to conduct long range, blue water operations.”A more provocative and aggressive stance toward the U.S. Navy, coupled with the deficiencies in Soviet training and this lack of a “blue water look,” resulted in repeated incidents at sea such as collisions that many feared might escalate during the Cold War.
Ultimately, sea power as an expression of great power status is beginning to look in the early 21st century much as it did in the 20th century. The investment in costly blue-water navies still speaks volumes about a country’s geopolitical ambitions and its strategic calculus – where it sees itself in the world and hopes to be in the future. The writings and accomplishments of Admiral Sergei Gorshkov are also a timeless reminder that in order to assess navies, one must still look at what they say, what they build, and what they do. In Gorshkov’s case, what he did remains much more memorable than anything he wrote.
Jessica Huckabey is a researcher with the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) and a retired naval reserve officer. She is writing her doctoral dissertation on American perceptions of the Soviet naval threat during the Cold War. The opinions are her own and not those of IDA or the Department of Defense.
The 20th century American strategist Rear Admiral J.C. Wylie said, “I believe deeply that strategy is everyone’s business.”1 The expansion of internet-based strategic commentary, and the greater distribution of traditional sources of strategic discussion like the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, and The Naval War College Review have certainly played a role in achieving Admiral Wylie’s desire. The works of strategic theorists such as Carl von Clausewitz, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Sir Julian Corbett, and Wylie himself are discussed on a daily basis in multiple global mediums. Many would-be strategic thinkers are happy to drop comments from all four of these experts within their writings in support of the policy they advocate. These “hipster” strategists and their overly-familiar homilies to the teachings of “Uncle Carl” and “Sir Julian” (as if these long-dead strategists were their drinking companions) often obscure the backgrounds, geopolitical world views, and national goals of these noted military theorists. The world is rapidly leaving behind the period of the U.S. “unipolar moment” (1991-2008). It is now entering a new multipolar period of great power and non-state actor activity reminiscent of the period that ended in 1945 with the defeat of the Axis powers. While the works of all four have a role to play in determining the next U.S. military strategy, the writings of Mahan and Wylie have much more currency than those of Clausewitz and Corbett. Their focus on operational vice strategic issues is a handicap in a new age when preliminary strategic decision rather than operational art is the key. While it is evident that both Clausewitz and Corbett were masters of the strategic geography and warfare methods in their own times, their applicability in the second decade of the 21st century is problematic at best. For these reasons, the U.S. should ignore the strategic “hipsters” and their plethora of Corbett and Clausewitz quotations and instead embrace the sound combination of strategic, operational, and tactical thinking found in the works of Admirals Alfred Thayer Mahan and J.C. Wylie.
The works of Carl von Clausewitz and Sir Julian Corbett are directly influenced by their backgrounds, associations, and by the geopolitical situations of their respective nations during their lives. Clausewitz wrote On War at a time when his nation was recovering from the wreckage of Napoleonic Europe, and just beginning to compete with the Austrian Empire for domination of the Confederation of German States that emerged from the final breakdown of the Holy Roman Empire. Since the re-emergence of the nation state in the late Middles Ages, state structures have been primarily geared for the making of war for offensive and defensive purposes. Well known Ohio State University military historian Geoffrey Parker noted that in the period from 1641-1815, “hardly a decade can be found in which at least one battle did not take place.”2 The rise of the bureaucratic European state from the Renaissance forward was primarily directed toward a nation’s army, which Clausewitz described as “the center of gravity” for leaders from Alexander the Great to Frederick the Great.3 It is perhaps no wonder then that a staff officer from a land-locked garrison state organized primarily for life and death military contests against similar European monarchical elements would determine that “war is merely the continuation of policy by other means.”4 While this key phrase has been mistranslated and Clausewitz clearly desired to subordinate the military to civilian authority, his ideas on conflict are firmly rooted in the Prussian military experience.5 The geography of the book is limited to operational and tactical discussion. Geographic locations, whether the Rhine River, the fortress of Olmutz, or the forests of Russia and Poland are treated as obstacles to an army’s tactical or operational movement rather than as strategic strong points to be taken or lost. The continued existence of the armed forces of the nation as an employable tool of the monarch, rather than the possession of any one or more key geographic locations is what matters. On War was written in German and intended for the use of other Prussian Staff Officers with world views analogous to that of Clausewitz. It is very much a product of an army-centric central European world view. Prussia had a known reputation as a warlike state. Napoleon Bonaparte said, “Prussia was hatched from a cannonball” and the French aristocrat and later revolutionary the Count of Mirabeau said, “War was Prussia’s national industry.”
The writings of Sir Julian Corbett are equally reflective of the general mindset of the British Empire at the high noon of its existence in the late 19th and early 20th century. The Royal Navy (RN) had not faced a peer competitor in pitched battle at sea since Trafalgar in 1805. The Naval Defence Act of 1889 brought with it the” two power standard” measure of British naval superiority where the RN would maintain a number of battleships equal or superior to the next two ranking naval powers. France and Russia struggled to match the British in quality and quantity of warship construction, but largely failed in their endeavors to create equivalent fleets. The chief threats to imperial security were not from enemy battle fleets or direct attacks on the British Isles, but rather assaults on the vital imperial lines of communication and supply. The French in fact largely eschewed battleship construction for a time and instead concentrated in the construction of large commerce-raiding cruisers. The RN saw these ships as a direct threat to the security of the Empire. Protection of the lines of communication between London and Cairo, Delhi, and on to Singapore and Sidney was vital to commercial activity and provided the British the ability to rapidly reinforce beleaguered dominions threatened by external invasion. The problem of reinforcing India against a Russian invasion through Afghanistan in particular was a source of great concern to British statesmen and military leaders from the period of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 onward to the early 20th century.
It is perhaps no wonder that the writings of Corbett, and the opinions of his most significant interlocutor, First Sea Lord Admiral Sir John Fisher, focus on protecting these imperial lines of communication rather than in the engagement of enemy battle fleets in decisive combat. Corbett defined “command of the sea” as means nothing but the control of maritime communications, whether for commercial or military purposes. The object of naval warfare is the control of communications, and not, as in land warfare, the conquest of territory.”6 Corbett seldom references geography except as loci of communications. These “naval positions” he defines as “firstly, naval bases and, secondly, the terminals of the greater lines of communication or trade-routes and the focal areas where they tend to converge, as at Finisterre, Gibraltar, Suez, the Cape, Singapore, and many others.”7 Corbett’s rather loose reference to specific locations is explained by the fact that the principle audience of his book, British naval officers who sat in his War College courses, had no need of a strategic geography course. As Clausewitz’s lectures were written to inform Prussian military officers, so Corbett’s concepts of operational warfare were designed to be employed by the Royal Navy in defense of the far flung British Empire. The RN had spent the last 300 years striving to control key geographic positions around the world in order to isolate opponents and protect its own lines of communications. Admiral Fisher in 1904 said “five keys (Singapore, the Cape of Good Hope, the entrance to the Suez Canal, Gibraltar, and Dover at the entrance to the English Channel) lock up the world!”8 The radical new component of naval force structure Fisher proposed to defend these routes was the heavily armed, high speed battle cruiser.9 Corbett for his part emphasized the importance of “cruisers” and specifically labeled them as central to control of the routes communication.10 British statesmen of the period were equally well versed in the Empire’s strategic geography. It was the civilian First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Selborne, who conceived of the masterful geographic re-balancing of the Royal Navy in reply to big geopolitical changes at the dawn of the 20th century.11 Even the average British citizen of the late 19th and early 20th century understood that the maintenance of the nation’s sea power was of vital importance to its national interest. One popular English music hall song of the period exclaimed, “We don’t want to fight but by Jingo if we do, we’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too.” Working among such knowledgeable geopoliticians as Selborne and Fisher, Corbett could comfortably maintain focus on the operational aspects of “imperial” warfare.
Potential U.S. application of both Clausewitz and Corbett in the 2nd decade of the 21st century is problematic at best. Clausewitz’s maxim that “war is a continuation of political action (mistranslated or not)” is, however, not a useful tool for nation not as centrally organized for war as was 19th century Prussia. Admiral Wylie said, “War for a non-aggressor nation is actually a nearly complete collapse of policy.”12 In the coming of war then, he says, “nearly all prewar policy is utterly invalid because the setting in which it was designed to function no longer corresponds with reality.”13 From Wylie it is fairly clear that the paranoid Prussian garrison state model has little relevance to a democratic government committed to the preservation of peace and active deterrence of war. Corbett’s operational concepts embodied in Some Principles of Maritime Strategy are more applicable to contemporary U.S. strategic issues. His notion of “Sea Control”, however, is more constrained by its focus on the maintenance of communication with other parts of the British Empire than contemporary U.S. requirements to police global common spaces. The most important of these imperial communication routes was that from Great Britain itself to India. British historians Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher wrote, “To all Victorian statesmen, India and the British Isles were the twin centres of their wealth and strength in the world as a whole”.14 They further noted that the principal reason for the establishment of British colonies in Africa was the preservation of the communication route to India from the British Isles.15 There is no U.S. equivalent of India as a focal point around which U.S. global communications must be constructed. U.S. strategic interests are global in nature, but more distributive than those of late 19th and early 20th century Britain. The wars of the past decade in Afghanistan and Iraq also seem to have discouraged many U.S. defense and foreign policy elites from contemplating similar efforts to influence events ashore through the deployment of ground forces. Accordingly, the concept of Sea Control, as defined by Corbett may not be of the same importance for naval forces for the foreseeable future.
Most importantly, both the writings of Clausewitz and Corbett both supported well-established strategies.
The United States, by contrast, has been in a kind of strategic drift since the end of the Cold War in 1991. It has been bereft until the past several years of a specific opponent or opponents around which to construct a replacement to the successive Cold War strategy of Containment. Defense reform efforts like the Goldwater Nichols Act of 1986 reduced the power of service chiefs who traditionally formulated strategy. In their place, a distributive combination of regional military commanders supported by joint and service elements from Washington D.C. created ad hoc operational solutions to regional issues. The first Gulf War of 1991, operations in the Balkans in the mid 1990’s and even the opening battles of the War on Terrorism in Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003) represent this focus on regional operational issues that often neglected wider strategic concerns. It is perhaps not surprising that the rise of joint-enabled operational solutions to these problems of the last two decades coincided with a rise in the quotation of Clausewitz and Corbett as the touchstones for this effort. Military historian Williamson Murray labeled this result as “operational solutions to strategic problems” in his description of the military policy of the German Empire, but his further description of its use of an “infallible central planning role for a general staff” and embrace of “an unquestioned cult of the offensive” could also characterize U.S. action in the period from 1991-2008.16
While it is not necessary to entirely remove Clausewitz and Corbett from the War College curriculum, it is perhaps time to limit their use in favor of those theorists who speak in terms of long range strategy, and those more relevant to the current U.S. experience. Admirals Alfred Thayer Mahan and J.C. Wylie represent such a combination of strategic thought supported by a more recent experience than either Clausewitz or Corbett. The works of Alfred Thayer Mahan cover a wide field of concepts and disciplines, but a large number combine the disciplines of history and geography as the principal components of strategic thought. Mahan described the importance of history in strategic thinking through a quote from the esteemed French naval strategist Captain Rene Daveluy as:
“History, being the record of experience, if exhaustively studied, brings out all of the variable factors which enter war; because history, however imperfect, forgets none of them. History is photographic, where as the rational processes, that is, when a man having established a basis of truth, builds up his system without checking it by history, the rational processes tend to be selective. History in short gives you all of the qualifying factors; whereas reason, in love with its own refinements, is liable to overlook that which should refine them.”17
Some of Mahan’s concepts are also rooted in the geostrategic situation that confronted the United States in his lifetime. His belief in the concentration of forces as vital to combat success was as much influenced by U.S. strategic geography and potential opponents as it was by the history of past British naval wars he imparted. In the years before the First World War the primary strategic threat to the U.S. homeland was expected to come in the form of a cross-Atlantic invasion by an aggressive European power such as the German Empire. Only through concentration of its battle fleet would the U.S. likely prevail against a cross Atlantic invasion force. Mahan’s greatest contribution according to Wylie was “his recognition of seapower as a basis of national power.”18
Admiral Wylie’s works represent a synthesis of work of Clausewitz, Corbett and Mahan, as well as that of 20th century air and guerilla warfare disciplines. Wylie’s work is remarkably enduring in that it acknowledges that “terrorism is not going to disappear tomorrow” in spite of the information revolution or other aspects of advanced technology.19 He respects and anticipates that advances in missile and guidance technology will make war at sea more challenging.20 Finally, Admiral Wylie’s thinking and associated analysis are firmly grounded in the American experience of war, an aspect of his work that Clausewitz and Corbett do not necessarily reflect. The Prussian officer and the British operational theorist still have a part to play in the War College classroom, but their role in the curriculum should be adjusted for current events.
A notable naval history conference held at the Naval War College in September 1992 declared “Mahan is not Enough” and rightly suggested that the works of Corbett, and British Admiral turned historian Sir Herbert Richmond had been unfairly ignored in the study of 20th century naval history and strategy. The message was also a warning that the United States did not focus enough on operational art in the achievement of its military and national objectives. The brief period of the American “hyper power moment”, however, ended in the period 2008-2010. The rise of new competitors, the return of old challengers, and increasing disorder throughout the globe calls for an emphasis on historical strategic thinkers like Mahan and Wylie rather than operational artists like Clausewitz and Corbett. The strategic hipsters would do well to remember that “Uncle Carl” and “Sir Julian” could not have developed in the absence of underlying strategy that supported their operational theories. Rather than be concerned about numbers of strategists trained, the War Colleges would do better to improve the strategic curriculum in order to train a new generation of Mahans and Wylies to confront the nation’s present strategic challenges.
Steve Wills is a retired surface warfare officer and a PhD student in military history at Ohio University. His focus areas are modern U.S. naval and military reorganization efforts and British naval strategy and policy from 1889-1941. He posts here at CIMSEC, sailorbob.com and at informationdissemination.org under the pen name of “Lazarus”.
1. J.C. Wylie, Maritime Strategy, A General Theory of Power Control, Annapolis, MD, Naval Institute Press, 1989, p. 1. 2. Geoffrey Parker, The Military Revolution, Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800, Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 1. 3. Parker, p. 168. 4. Carl von Clausewitz, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, On War, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1976, p. 87. 5. Wylie, p. 67. 6. Sir Julian Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, Project Gutenberg E-Book, released 16 February 2005, p. 94. 7. Corbett, p. 106. 8. Peter Kemp, ed,The Papers of Admiral Sir John Fisher, Volume 1, London, NRS, 1960, p. 161. 9. Nicholas A. Lambert, Sir John Fisher’s Naval Revolution, Columbia, SC, University of South Carolina Press, 199, p. 93. 10. Corbett, pp 114, 115. 11. Aaron l. Friedberg, The Weary Titan, Britain and the Experience of Relative Decline, 1895-1905, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1988, p. 135. 12. Wylie, pp. 67-68. 13. Wylie, p 68. 14. Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher, Africa and the Victorians, The Official Mind of Imperialism, London, Palgrave Macmillan, 1978, p. 17.
15. Robinson and Gallagher, Africa and the Victorians, p. 464. 16. Williamson Murray, McGregor Knox, and Alan Bernstein, eds. The Making of Strategy, Rulers, States, and War, 1996, Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 80. 17. Alfred Thayer Mahan, Naval Strategy, Compared and Contrasted with the Principles and Practices of Military Operations on Land, London, Sampson, Low, Marston, and Co., 1911, p. 16. 18. Wylie, p. 34. 19. Wylie, p. 106. 10. Wylie, p. 102.
China has consistently supported Ukraine during its agony at the hands of Russian-supported separatists. One of the less-publicized reasons why is that China has relied heavily on Ukrainian firms to help modernize its military.
For example, the active phased-array radar on board Chinese Type 052C destroyers was developed by a Ukrainian company. The current Chinese main battle tank is essentially the current Ukrainian one. The firms involved are all in the heavily-industrialized area in which the Russian-backed forces are operating; it may even be that the Russians are specifically targeting particular Ukrainian towns and companies. From Mr. Putin’s point of view, the Ukrainian companies may be unwanted competitors with the military industrialists on whom he depends for much of his power. At the least, he is trying to put them out of business. The white trucks supposedly carrying humanitarian aid into Ukraine from Russia were actually arriving to plunder Ukrainian factories of their modern machine tools. What the West may not want to sell to Mr. Putin, his forces can steal.
The Ukrainian plants and development companies exist because of policies implemented long before the Soviet Union broke up. The rulers of the Soviet Union were always worried that nationalism would break up their country — as, in the end, it did. One of their insurance policies against breakup was to make it difficult or impossible for those in any one of the republics making up the Soviet Union to build key items independently. For example, gas turbine ships built in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) in Russia were powered by gas turbines made in Ukraine. Their torpedoes came from Kazakhstan. Sonobuoys came from Ukraine, as did helicopter dipping sonars. Some ballistic missiles came from Ukraine. The only shipyard in the old Soviet Union capable of building carriers was in Nikolaev, in Ukraine. However, any carrier built there was armed with weapons and sensors from elsewhere in the Soviet Union, mainly from Russia.
In Soviet times, none of this really mattered. The Ukrainian factory making gas turbines responded to commands from Moscow to deliver engines to St. Petersburg, just as any factory in Russia did. There was little or no distinction between what happened in Moscow and what happened in, say, Nikolaev — no border, no transfer of cash. To a considerable extent design organizations were set up in Ukraine in the early 1960s or the late 1950s because Nikita Khrushchev, who ran the Soviet Union, was Ukrainian. For example, Khrushchev decided to reward his homeland by transferring the Crimea to it. Unsurprisingly, Russians applauded its seizure, since they had never considered the transfer legitimate. Ukrainian independence is a much more substantial issue, although most Russians apparently consider it a spurious notion, its separation a penalty imposed by the West at the end of the Cold War.
Once the Soviet Union broke up, the Soviet -era distribution of facilities suddenly mattered a great deal. All of the constituent republics of the old Soviet Union were suddenly plunged from a world of command by Moscow to a world of cash purchases. The Ukrainian plant could still make gas turbines, but if Moscow wanted a set for installation in St. Petersburg it suddenly had to pay up with real money. That was not easy. In time the Russians built their own gas turbine factory, but while that was happening they had to power ships with steam plants, because the steam plants were being made in Russia.
Conversely, key components of the carrier Varyag, afloat at Nikolaev, could not be delivered because they could not be paid for. The yard had no way to complete the carrier. Parts of her weapon system were visible for some years on the pier alongside, incomplete and hence impossible to install. In much the same way the Ukrainians had no way of completing a Slava class cruiser left nearly completed when the Soviet Union broke up. The carrier proved saleable — its transfer may have been the beginning of Ukrainian arms exports to China — but the cruiser did not. Even Ukrainian governments clearly favoring the Russians could not conjure up the resources to give the Russians weapon systems or platforms they wanted, because it took cash to move equipment over the border.
With their Russian (ex-Soviet) customers no longer paying, Ukrainian firms looked elsewhere, and they seem to have found their main customer in China — which certainly did have lots of cash. Exports were not so much finished equipment (which would probably have required components from elsewhere in the former Soviet empire) as innovative designs, such as the active phased-array radar. From time to time the Russians have tried to police the export of military data and know-how from their country, but once the Soviet Union broke up Ukraine must have made such controls a mockery in many cases. That might not have mattered had Russian military R&D kept advancing at its pre-collapse pace, but the cash shortage stopped most of that, too. Ukrainians who knew what the Soviet Union had developed by the time of its collapse could sell just about anything Russians could.
For a time, the Russians recovered to the point that they did have cash, but Russian military producers faced much higher costs at home, not least to feed an extremely corrupt political system. Now that a plunging oil price has cut Russian cash resources, it is even more difficult for them to buy from Ukrainian firms. It must be doubly difficult if they have to compete with much wealthier Chinese buyers. Theft is a much easier way to obtain the necessary products. Since it includes the theft of production tooling, the plants in question can be re-established in Russia, where their products will be far more affordable. Hence the systematic looting of plants in Ukraine. Looting also circumvents the effect of a falling price of oil, which drastically reduces hard-cash resources in Russia.
If the Ukrainian agony were all about money and access to technology, it would be unhappy enough. However, a major the driving force is nationalism. Vladimir Putin’s only important attraction for Russians is nationalistic: he is seen as a strong man who will restore the strength of the motherland, and he will also expunge all of those unhappy guilty memories of the Soviet past. In this narrative, the West is the enemy who broke up the Russian Empire and thus sought to crush Holy Russia. Anyone familiar with Russian history before the Revolution can recognize the sort of policy Mr. Putin is following. It takes a very committed Russian nationalist to say, as some have in recent days, that the falling price of oil is part of a deliberate plot on the part of ‘certain organizations’ in the West intended specifically to weaken Russia. Ukraine was the oldest part of the Empire, and its recovery excites Russian nationalists. Before he annexed Crimea, Mr. Putin was extremely unpopular. People in Russia saw him for what he was: a thief working with larger thieves to plunder their country. Afterwards his popularity soared, and old-style raw Russian nationalism became a ruling force.
Russian nationalism is opposed by Ukrainian nationalism. It may not be particularly powerful in the Eastern Ukrainian regions in which the Russians and their friends are operating, but in much of the country it is alive and well. Ukraine has a distinctive culture and language. The language and the alphabet are similar to Russian, but by no means identical. Ukraine enjoyed brief independence after the Russian Revolution. During the late 1920s and early 1930s the government in Moscow created a famine in Ukraine that killed 6 to 10 million people in the name of collectivizing farming. Ukraine had been the breadbasket of Europe, its wheat exports the major source of foreign currency to Czarist Russia. After collectivization, the Ukraine was badly enough ravaged that in the 1950s the Soviet Union found itself buying wheat abroad.
The horrors of the 1920s and 1930s remained fresh in Ukrainian minds when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. Initially Ukrainians understandably welcomed the Germans as liberators, only to discover that the racist Germans lumped them with the Russians as sub-human. Even so, they hated the Russians even more, and a low-level insurgency continued well into the 1950s. The Ukrainian view of the man-made famine is somewhat analogous to the Polish view of the Soviet massacre of Polish military officers in 1941 at Katyn. Each was a horrific crime committed by the Soviet Union and then buried. Under Soviet domination, denial that the Soviets had committed such crimes became a test of political loyalty. Once Ukraine and Poland were free of Soviet control, memory of such crimes helped generate nationalist hatred for the Soviets. When Mr. Putin glorifies the Soviet Union which produced him, he enrages those it tortured. Victims inside the Soviet Union are less than popular in the current nationalist climate, but victims outside are in a very different position.
To further complicate matters, another Soviet-era strategy for binding together the Soviet Union was to encourage ethnic Russians to settle in the various republics forming the Soviet Union. That produced large ethnic Russian minorities in countries like Latvia and Ukraine. Mr. Putin is encouraging the ethnic Russian minority in Eastern Ukraine to revolt against the government in Kiev. Although he is enjoying a short-term advantage, surely what he has done has made other post-Soviet governments uncomfortably aware that they may be harboring hostile minorities. They may decide to do something about them before they can revolt.
If that seems an extreme extrapolation, remember that before World War II Hitler exploited the manufactured resentments felt by a large ethnic German minority in Czechoslovakia (in the Sudetenland) to dismember that country (he did not have to resort to invasion or even to proxy invasion, as in Ukraine). Governments who remembered what minority Germans had done in the 1930s expelled them after Germany collapsed in 1945. Many Germans found themselves walking all the way across Poland from what had been East Prussia, and for years the cry to recover that territory resonated through German politics. What is likely to happen now in places like the Baltic states? Their governments lived through decades of repression in the name of the Soviet Union, but up to now they have been relatively restrained about the Russians in their midst.
Norman Friedman is author of The U.S. Naval Institute Guide to World Naval Weapon Systems. This article can be found in its original form at the Australian Naval Institute hereand was republished by permission.