Tag Archives: Naval History

Clausewitz and Corbett are Now Too Much

clausewitz-1
Carl von Clausewitz

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.”

Corbett
Sir Julian Corbett

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

wylie2
Rear Admiral Wylie

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

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Alfred Thayer Mahan

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.

The Gutting of Ukraine

By Norman Friedman

UkraineChina 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 here and was republished by permission.

House of Cards: Finding a Winning Political Strategy for the Navy

I was already at work when I heard about the article in Politico Magazine. After descending from Capitol South Metro Station on another windy and frosty day in Washington, D.C., I overheard some staffers talking near the security checkpoint in the Rayburn House Office Building. Unsurprisingly, they were on their phones, retweeting and sharing a link about the Navy with their friends. “The Navy ship count could be a political gamechanger,” a boyish-looking aid in a dark suit remarked. Another staffer, who looked like he was fourteen, claimed it would be a tragedy to decommission the aging Oliver-Hazard Class Frigate. I removed my iPhone from my pocket, took off my winter gloves, and then perused my Facebook news feed to see if anyone posted anything. CDR Salamander – unsurprisingly – had fired the first salvo: “We’ve been saying this for years.”

 The article in question was “The Navy’s Hidden Crisis,” written by Robert C. O’Brien, a former advisor to Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney. In his muddling attempt to explain the Navy’s Crisis – once again using ship count as the only metric to assess fleet strength – he politically mischaracterizes the need for an agile and robust fleet. This type of rhetoric is predictable from Mr. O’Brien, who has always claimed the “waters are getting more dangerous” in explaining the need to build more ships. One could surmise this was a response to President Obama mocking Romney two years ago in the third and final presidential debate. “You mention the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916,” President Obama rebuked that evening, “well governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets.” The President went on, “We have these things called aircraft carriers and planes land on them . . . we have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.”

With only a few weeks left before the election, this decisive broadside to Romney’s foreign policy battleship, combined with the former governor’s “47 percent comments,” sank him in the national election.

It is unlikely the Navy’s ship count will take center stage in 2016 as a campaign talking point. After all, the Navy and foreign policy matters rarely decide elections. The more salient economic issues are, the more likely they will affect which way voters’ decide the next Electoral College. As New Yorker staff writer Amy Davidson has pointed out, “Boat confusion is an old and telling political problem.” The number of ships does not necessarily register as a national imperative, even though open sea lines of communication provide the American culture of consumption. When politicians like Representative Randy Forbes or Senator John McCain talk about the number of ships and its relationship to national security, the public mind simply floats away.

By focusing on ship count, O’Brien’s argument is antiquated and politically irrelevant.

The Capitol Dome is under reconstruction – perhaps the Navy’s political message should also be rebuilt.

Although the public either misinterprets or ignores the need for a strong Navy, in recent years, the Pentagon has provided a strong and clear political narrative to Congress. Through multiple hearings to the House and Senate Armed Service Committee (HASC / SASC) subcommittees in Readiness and Seapower, combined with an aggressive strategy informing our nation’s policymakers, Navy leaders have successfully conveyed the need for a multifaceted force. On the Hill, the House and Senate Offices of Legislative Affairs meet regularly with the Armed Service Committees and ensure their full participation in ongoing strategies and fiscal matters. These engagements, which began centuries ago, have always been the winning political strategy for the Navy.

Lieutenant Junior Grade Rosende makes a convincing argument in the January issue of Proceedings about the Navy’s engagement with the people, but it is not accurate to suggest that the advocates of naval power convinced an “inward-looking citizenry” that a navy was a vital to American interests. History reveals the opposite is true. Leaders in the Gilded Age either made executive decisions or lobbied Congress in backroom deals to pursue the requisite platforms. There was no public discourse on the future of the force and to presume it took place is flatly absurd.

The Navy should not concern itself too much with generating an informed public. Rather, we should continue to educate politicians on both sides of the aisle. While I would certainly like the public to understand where the Navy fits within the national debate on the size and breadth of DoD writ large, it is not a political reality to suggest the Navy will take center stage in 2016. Unfortunately, the Navy does not attract voters. A position we are likely to hear in primaries will be the support of a large and robust naval force, and the continued fiscal support for research and development to keep ahead of our potential adversaries. There will be little discussion on the “right number of ships” because it will be met with the same type of strategy President Obama used in 2012.

Rethinking political messaging in order to avoid the same quagmire that sealed the Navy’s fate the last four years is recommended. Over time, especially after the collapse of the USSR and the reduction of capital ships, the sea services drifted away from counting and tried a new strategy: catchwords. In recent years, the term “readiness” has become the major criterion of training and the political lexicon in the Navy.

  • Individual Ready Reserve
  • Physical Readiness
  • Deployment Readiness
  • Navy Surge Readiness
  • Family Readiness
  • Fleet Readiness
  • CNO’s Warfighting Tennant No. 3: “Be Ready”
  • Sequestration Hurts Readiness

Evidently, Readiness is a bad way for the Navy to assess and encompass the breadth of our problems. Exhibit A: U.S. Navy Ship Count is down to 279 – and falling.

The word “Readiness” may make waves in Congress and especially in HASC and in SASC, but due to the Navy’s inherent complexity in meeting maritime challenges, we should redefine and expand our political employment. As Lincoln Paine aptly points out in The Sea and Civilization, “Maritime Activity includes not only the high seas and coastal voyaging, but also inland navigation.” Thereby the world was shaped in obvious ways by the economic, demographic, and technological attributes by the development of maritime transportation. Maintaining this flow of ideas, goods, people, and perspectives is essential for the global way of life. The oceans inherently knit the world together.

USS MILIUS (DDG-69) underway in the Persian Gulf.
USS MILIUS (DDG-69) underway in the Persian Gulf.

So does the nation need to be educated on the need for a powerful fleet? American history reveals that naval power has been sustainable for centuries without an informed public, but if the Navy decides to move that way, ship count should not be the only metric in which judge the value of the sea service. Many defense critics and the public at large view the Navy’s budget proposal with skepticism. While most naval strategists believe that we should be building ships as quickly as possible for the Pivot to Asia, branding it correctly to Congress means everything, not just proclaiming, “Build! Build! Build!” over and over.

 The Navy is inherently different from the other services – and perhaps infinitely more complicated – so it should stop compartmentalizing itself politically in the same fashion as the Army or the Air Force.   Tell the complete story – not the tale of “Readiness.”


 

LT Alex Smith is a Surface Warfare Officer who serves as a Navy Liaison Officer at the U.S. House of Representatives. He recently completed his Masters in American History at the George Washington University while serving as an NROTC Instructor.

Fit to be a Frigate?

LCS 3One of the most persistent complaints about the Littoral Combatant Ship (LCS) is that it is not fit to replace the retiring Perry class frigates. LCS has been characterized as under-armed in comparison with the Perry class, and not capable of assuming the roles and missions of a frigate. In light of these criticisms it’s useful to examine what constitutes a frigate in the second decade of the 21st century. What sort of frigate does the U.S. Navy need to meet present requirements? Finally, does the LCS, in both its current form, and as envisioned in the frigate upgrade meet those requirements, particularly in armament? The answers may surprise LCS critics who continue to call for a Cold War frigate as the solution for 21st century naval missions.

The definition of the frigate as a naval combatant has been in constant flux since the end of the Second World War. It appeared in the Second World War as a British Royal Navy (RN) classification for an independent antisubmarine warfare vessel. By 1945, the term “frigate” generally meant a ship of 1300-2000 tons; less than 350 feet in length; a speed of less than 25 knots, and an armament focused on antisubmarine weapons.

The U.S. Navy substantively changed the frigate designation after World War 2 with its first generation of purpose-built aircraft carrier escorts. The demise of the Axis surface fleets, the well-established threat from air attack, and the rise of a Soviet Navy based on submarines called for a new, affordable combatant that could meet these challenges. A ship roughly 6000 tons in displacement, a speed comparable to fleet carriers, and capable of mounting significant antiair (AAW) and antisubmarine (ASW) weapons was seen as an ideal cross between the expensive, man-power intensive cruiser and the cheaper, but less capable destroyer class. The new ship was designated first as a “hunter killer” (CL) and later as a “frigate” (DL) with missile armed versions classified as DLG’s. Destroyers, such as the Forrest Sherman class and their missile-armed immediate successors, the Charles Adams class remained general purpose combatants optimized for a variety of roles, but generally less capable than frigates. Smaller combatants optimized for antisubmarine warfare remained labeled as destroyer escorts (DE’s).

This condition persisted until the mid 1970’s. U.S. frigates had approached the size and capabilities of World War 2 cruisers in the California and Virginia class DLGN (nuclear-powered) frigates of 10000 tons and nearly 600 feet in length. The traditional antisubmarine warfare escort had also grown in size and capability. Many of these ships, such as the FF 1052 Knox class were significantly larger than the 1940’s-era ships they were replacing. These changes compelled the U.S. to re-designate a number of its warships in 1975 to better reflect the changes in the frigate classification since 1945, as well as to combat a persistent myth that the U.S. had less cruiser-designated ships than the Soviet Union. The frigates were divided into guided missile cruisers and destroyers based on size and capability. U.S. destroyer escorts were renamed as frigates.

The patrol frigate, later the FFG-7 Oliver Hazard Perry class was the zenith of American Cold War escort design. The Soviet Union was expected to deploy a significant force of subsurface, surface, and aviation platforms to destroy the expected Reforger re-supply convoys crossing the Atlantic to support embattled North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces in Western Europe. Unlike previous escort classes, the FFG-7 was designed as a multimission combatant in order to better meet the expanding Soviet threat. It too, like the LCS,  ballooned in cost. According to a January 3, 1979 General Accounting Office (GAO) report, the cost per ship increased from 64.8 million dollars a ship in 1973, to 194 million a copy by 1979.

This general classification system of U.S. surface combatants persisted through the end of the Cold War and the first decade of the 2000’s. After 1991, however, the international definition of the frigate category again began to change. Falling defense budgets across the Western world in the wake of the Cold War’s end compelled many nations to put more capabilities into fewer hulls, often designated as frigates, as a cost savings measure. These ships now occupy a place in many European navies analogous to that of the U.S. Arleigh Burke class DDG as the primary surface warships of those nations’ navies. Japan and South Korea have made similar changes, but have retained the destroyer classification for these larger vessels. Russia maintained the Cold War classification structure throughout most of the last 20 years, but its recent frigates are smaller than their late Cold War cousins. The Chinese Navy has followed the Russian Cold War model and gradually increased the size of its frigates as general patrol and escort ships. Although there remain several descriptions of the frigate type warship, the post-Cold War ship now associated the frigate classification has generally grown into a large and capable surface combatant for many nations.

Does the U.S. Navy need a frigate as defined by these new standards? At the end of their service lives, the Perry class had lost much of their (AAW) and (ASUW) sensors and weapons. Their MK 92 fire control system, MK 13 single arm missile launchers, and medium range Standard Missile (SM-1 MR) systems were largely out of date against the growing antiship cruise missile threat by the turn of the century. They had become the early 21st century equivalent of the late 19th century colonial cruiser, whose chief purpose was to show the flag and conduct low-intensity combat operations.

The U.S. high capability combatant class is well filled by the CG 47, DDG 51 and DDG 1000 class ships. Such a mass of AAW capable ships was not in service when the Perry’s were conceived. While the U.S. Navy requires a replacement for the Perry’s “show the flag” role, there appears to be no requirement for another medium capability convoy escort in the tradition of past U.S. frigate designs. The cruise missile threat is considerable for even high capability warships such as the DDG 51. A supporting frigate similar in size and capability to current European designs could be built, but would provide little in the way of additional capability beyond present ships. It would also not be a cost effective product for low end presence missions. Unlike during the Cold War, no potential U.S. opponent yet deploys a global naval force capable of simultaneously effectively threatening U.S. seaborne communications in multiple geographic locations. The absence of this threat for now obviates the need for 21st century version of the FFG-7. If that threat develops, advances in missile and torpedo technology will require high capacity escorts like the DDG 51 rather than a new FFG-7.

The frigate needed for the present Navy is not another Cold War antisubmarine combatant, or an expensive, but less capable version of the DDG 51. It should instead be a general-purpose warship capable of multiple tasks. It must conduct low threat missions such as counter-piracy and presence operations in order to free the DDG force for offensive and defensive missions in high intensity combat. It should be able to perform escort missions for amphibious and logistics force ships for limited periods in appropriate threat environments. The addition of a surface to surface missile armament should allow the frigate to conduct limited ASUW under the Navy’s emerging concept of distributive lethality. LCS’ endurance is 70% of the FFG-7, but it’s still sufficient for extended operations in comparison with smaller corvettes or missile patrol craft. The LCS baseline platform with 57mm gun, Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM), electronic warfare gear, boats, and large flight deck and hangar is an excellent replacement for the FFG-7 in low threat, presence missions. The ship can accomplish escort and additional warfare missions with the weapons and sensors provided in its warfare modules and frigate upgrade. The ship’s modular design readily accepts additional weapons and associated equipment. The frigate upgrade to the basic LCS hull has been derided as insufficient, but only if a 21st century FFG 7 is the desired product. The modifications envisioned for the LCS-based frigate meet current requirements and definitions for the 21st century frigate the Navy requires.

No would deny the LCS program has suffered significant problems over the course of its history. It introduced multiple new technologies in one platform in order to replace three classes of ship. Problems associated with this effort remain and will likely persist for some time. In spite of these issues, the LCS and its frigate variant represent the best choice for replacing the retiring Perry class frigates in their current role as presence, patrol, and low intensity combat platforms, as well as emerging surface warfare missions. The Navy does not need a 21st century Perry class frigate.

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”.