Tag Archives: Royal Navy

Sea Control 148: United Kingdom Maritime Strategy with Dr. Eric Grove

By Cris Lee

Join us for the latest episode of Sea Control for a conversation with Dr. Eric Grove on the UK’s maritime strategy, the evolution of its national security strategy in the post-9/11 era, and force structure debates in the current era.

Download Sea Control 148 – United Kingdom Maritime Strategy with Dr. Eric Grove

A transcript of the interview between Dr. Eric Grove (EG) and Roger Hilton (RH) is below. The transcript has been edited for clarity.

RH: Hello and moin moin, Center for International Maritime Security listeners. I am Roger Hilton, a non-resident academic fellow for the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University, welcoming you back for another edition in the Sea Control podcast series.

Great Britain is one of the few island civilizations that for centuries served as the center of a sprawling global empire. Obviously, this success would not have materialized without their prowess at sea. This mastery of everything maritime was captured in perfectly in Peter Hopkirk’s book, The Great Game, when Captain James Abbott explains the extent of territory and power of Queen Victoria to a Khivian Tribal Lord. A glance at the map, he said, would show him that the seas occupied 3 times as much of the earth’s surface as the land. Adding, that wherever the ocean rolls, there my queen has no rival.

Here today to help us update the state of this mastery is Dr. Eric Grove. Dr. Grove is a commanding authority on naval history and a fellow at the Royal Historical Society, a vice president and fellow of the Society for Nautical Research and a member of the Council of Navy Records Society. In addition, he is author of Vanguard to Trident, the standard work on the post 1945 Royal Navy. Dr. Grove, welcome aboard today.

EG: I’m very happy to be able to talk with you on this very important subject.

RH: Well, I couldn’t agree with you more. With so much of the media both at home and abroad focusing on the state of Brexit, it will certainly be refreshing to hear your thoughts about Stanhope to Zambellas and the UK’s naval strategy in the 21st century.

Your piece begins by declaring your positivity about the state of the Royal Navy from the time of the Vienna Congress in 1815 to the beginning of the current century. Following the end of the Cold War in 1991, this produced mixed results for the Royal Navy. On one hand, the concentration of resources and preoccupation with continental commitments of ground and air forces had ended. A positive in theory which you mention in your piece. In opposition, due to the peace dividend, the Royal Navy suffered serious cuts. Prior to reviewing the 1997 Strategic Defense Review, can you contextualize what those budget cuts meant for listeners?

EG: Well, the Navy didn’t suffer as much as the other services. In fact, the Army lost about 120,000 people in so-called “options for change process” which some people criticized because it wasn’t focused enough. The Navy lost about 60,000 people, but the cuts were limited. The number of frigates and destroyers came down from about 50 – actually it was more like about 45 to about 40, which sadly turned out to be a little less than that. But the Navy on the whole was able to argue that in these new strategic circumstances, it should suffer least.

Now, the continental commitment had been tremendous – the commitment of ground and air forces in Europe had been a major factor in British defense policy throughout the Cold War. The fact that that continental commitment, if not being abandoned, was being wound down meant that the space, if you’d like, for the Royal Navy was actually rather greater in terms of the overall defense budget. So, although there were cuts, they weren’t as significant as they might have been. One might say the priority of the Royal Navy overall in British defense policy increased.

RH: In 1997, the British people overwhelming elected Labour’s Tony Blair. As you and I both know his record has shown he was not shy in foreign policy.

EG: Absolutely.

RH: Immediately his government commissioned the strategic defense review, which you describe as a major triumph for the Royal Navy. Consequently, Labour’s more interventionist oriented foreign policy was greater than their predecessors, the Conservatives under John Major. Dr. Grove in practical terms, what did the SDR mean for the Royal Navy? What are the positives and negatives that our listeners should recognize in such a complex document?

EG: Well, the most important thing was the decision to purchase two large aircraft carriers. These were the only platforms actually mentioned in the introduction by Defense Secretary George Robertson to the Review, as he put it, in the future, we can’t expect the crisis to come to us, we have to go to the crisis. And so, the two aircraft carriers were in there. Apparently, there had been quite a lot of controversy right up to the publication of the Review. We know a lot about this Review because in those days of open government they allowed the BBC in to do a fly-on-the-wall-documentary. And there you see the carrier very ably being defended in perhaps a slightly unlikely Baltic scenario, supporting an eastern European country. So, going for the aircraft carrier and making the carrier the centerpiece of the future Navy was I think a major victory although some would say it was putting a lot of eggs in those baskets. But on the other hand, it was a great success.

The cuts to the surface fleet were kept limited. And to submarines, and so it looked as if the era of continentalism was really over and that British strategy would have a maritime emphasis. They actually even asked the academics about this Review. I went to a meeting in Coventry, in the Midlands of England as far north as civil servants would let the government go without falling off the end of the world, and I said at one point, if you don’t know who you’re going to fight when and where, then maritime forces and maritime platforms are more important. And a junior defense minister nodded sagely, so I think I made my mark.

RH: I mean there’s no doubt and I think you would agree that Secretary of State Robertson was on to something when he said you had to go to the crises rather than expect them and as everybody would recognize, an aircraft carrier is the ultimate tool of power projection.

EG: Absolutely, yes.

RH: And so much utility to it. Something that I found super interesting in your piece was how you mention the previous Whitehall defeats of 1966 and 1982 for the listeners. So maybe you can also elaborate on how the Navy overcame their previous Whitehall defeats from those periods.

EG: Well in 1966, there was a big argument between the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy as to what could do the east of Suez job, the job of intervening east of Suez in the Indian Ocean and the Southeast Asian areas best as far as air power is concerned. And the Royal Navy was really out-argued by the Royal Air Force whose apparent command of modern analytical techniques really impressed Defense Secretary Healey. Who later said in fact he’d been rather hoodwinked but still. Then again in 1981, Defense Secretary John Nott who’d been put in to bring the budget of the program into greater congruence lost faith in the power of the naval staff because he had been told things in the United States about the future shape of the battle of the Atlantic and he believed the Americans rather than the Royal Navy. In fact, it was a time when strategy was changing toward the more forward strategy of the 1980s.

They began to recognize that the Whitehall battle was as important as any battle and perhaps more important than most. And by the late 90s, the Royal Navy had got rather good in arguing its corner within the Ministry of Defense. And I think as I say if you look at this TV program, it’s very interesting to see how well the naval officers are arguing and how positively, and the Royal Air Force and the civil servants are both on the defensive.

RH: That’s a positive for our listeners who know that into the future, the Royal Navy will be able to defend their positions adequately well and hopefully not suffer too many devastating budget cuts.

EG: Better, but of course the balance shifts at various times as we shall see later on.

RH: Our listeners should get the popcorn as the tensions between the rival factions is something out of theater. Dr. Grove, as the Royal Navy enters the new millennium, you claimed its new expeditionary strategy was justified and cite operations specifically in Sierra Leone that helped its stabilization as an example of proof. You subsequently identify a watershed moment – the attacks of September 11th – as a negative turning point for the Royal Navy, as it led to the re-emersions of a continental strategy. In fact, Europe was replaced with Asia in your words. Before going into more detail, can you explain why Navy personnel loathed the concept of continental strategy.

EG: Because it took attention away from what they regarded as the important dimensions of an island nation. An island nation needs a Navy if it wants to protect itself and project power. And having to put so much emphasis on a major commitment to ground troops, not just troops but their families as well. Back in 1981 there was a major conflict between the First Sea Lord and the Ministry of Defense who wanted to say well why not bring families home, it will save a great deal of money. Although, actually bringing the families home, trying to find facilities in Britain, it meant also bringing the troops home and would actually have spent money rather than have saved it. But in general, the Royal Navy disliked very much being tied down to sort of a single threat, in Germany, and largely a land and air threat in Germany rather than a more substantial global threat. And you can see in the writings of people like Admiral Richard Hill for example, one of the leading thinkers of the Navy at the time, a considerable frustration that the continent was taking resources away from a more balanced strategic policy.

RH: But if it was disadvantageous against the Royal Navy, who was it in favor of, specifically was it the Army or the Air Force?

EG: Well both, it was the Army and the Air Force, it was both land and air contribution. It  certainly helped the Army. The Army was able, very easily, to argue its case because it had a 200 km section of the central front, it knew precisely who it was going to fight, it had a very good idea of what it needed and actually it increased the sophistication of its doctrine. It invented the concept of doctrine in British defense circles in the later Cold War period. The Air Force too. One needed a considerable contribution of aircraft as well. And so, this became the priority. And one saw it in fact, particularly in the 1981 Defense Review, the John Nott Defense Review. Where in fact, with respect to the Atlantic commitment, the Chief of Staffs had tried very hard in the 70s while under pressure from the defense reviews to come up with the four pillars of British defense policy. But certainly seeing it in 1981, with the land and air contribution to central Europe, was considered to be much more important than the contribution to the North Atlantic. And that was something that naturally the gentlemen in dark blue didn’t like.

RH: If we did a quick counterfactual exercise Dr. Grove, if September 11th had never happened, how do you think the Royal Navy would look today?

EG: I think it would look somewhat larger. I think we would have kept a carrier capability throughout the century so far, we wouldn’t have done away with the carriers as they were later done away with. Thankfully, temporarily I think, it would be relatively larger, and I think given the kind of operations that might have occurred and such as Sierra Leone which I think we’ll be coming back to. I think that in these circumstances, if strategic circumstances stayed the same we’d have more frigates and destroyers, we’d have had perhaps a marginally larger attack submarine force, and we’d certainly not have abandoned carriers as we did temporarily in the 2010s.

RH: Forgive me, but I have to ask this question, but if your desired wish to have an expanded Navy had materialized, how do you think that would have influenced British foreign policy? In terms of being able to go do more crisis-oriented situations or what would be the real impact on drafting of foreign policy?

EG: Well, we might’ve done more in Africa, I mean I think one of the trends at the very early years of the 21st century were operations in Africa. And I think even the operations then were sort of stretching the armed forces somewhat. And I think therefore there may have been perhaps a more gently interventionist policy shall we say in various parts of the world where British government was trying to intervene as a force for good which was what they used to say. And of course, we have the Blair doctrine of humanitarian intervention. Whether that might have backfired badly is of course something we can’t say, but I think what did certainly happen was that the commitment to Iraq and to Afghanistan greatly helped the Army in its pressure to make the Army the major service, and in fact almost come up with a cultural change where the media began to refer to servicemen as soldiers.

RH: I mean no doubt the pursuit of very sought out financial resources was extremely buoyed by both the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan but hopefully as we move forward, you can elaborate on if you think if England is in fact losing its island nation ethos, which is the lynchpin to Great Britain’s great success in the past.

EG: Well, you could say it’s the opposite now. I mean, you mentioned at the start about Brexit but in fact actually, you might argue that our desire to leave the European Community or European Union, is in fact part of Britain redefining as a sort of a second rank, not second rate, but second rank global power. So, I think that some future historians might see a sort of secular trend taking place, of Britain repositioning itself as a more global power, and so you know perhaps we’re in the middle of some great historic trend but certainly it could help the Navy somewhat but of course the budgetary pressures remain very considerable.

RH: I couldn’t agree with you more though, but I mean as Great Britain ventures out to the unknown abyss at the moment I think you would be in agreement that the Navy will only start to gain more relevance, if they’re trying to reposition themselves as a second rank global power with access to world markets.

EG: That’s right yes. We need to go back and look at Admiral Richard Hill’s, of late he died recently sadly, but his book ranked medium naval powers. Because I think that is certainly the role which Britain wishes to fulfill. The British still consider themselves to be a world power if not a superpower and if they want to be so, then certainly maritime forces are very important. Now, whether in fact that Navy will get the resources to do that given the balance of shall we say political power in the ministry of defense or within the armed services is a moot point. I think Cameron had been converted to a born-again seapower man by the time he resigned. The position of the present government of course is so preoccupied with other things it’s hard to say.

RH: I mean there’s so much uncertainty but I mean some of the wild theories about substituting the European trade…I’ve even read about Great Britain potentially joining NAFTA? And you have a very sympathetic regime, or should I say administration with President Trump. So obviously with such great logistical issues the Navy will once again play a major role and in facilitation of capital and goods.

EG: Well, I think once the carriers come into service I think people will be quite surprised actually, the potential of Britain’s maritime forces. The problem is of course, are the RAF really wholeheartedly behind the idea of the joint force. I mean one reason the carrier came along back in 1998 was because there was an accord between the RAF and the Navy to set up Joint Force 2000 but it originally was Joint Force Harrier as it became and they hadn’t come up with a name for it but of course the first squadron, the 617 squadron of the Royal Air Force the Dam Busters’ is in fact a joint RAF-Naval affair, but there’s only one squadron.  And as some critics have said we have this wonderful carrier which looks marvelous, and I was on board her recently and she is marvelous, but, you know, what about her aircraft? Now she’s going to go to the Far East in 2020 with a combined British and American group, which goes right back to the origins of the carrier, actually, that in fact the idea was that it would give Britain a say in the actions of a joint force air component commander. So, having a combined air group on board is actually a very important thing. And this of course brings in another dimension. The Royal Navy as, shall we say, is part of the cement in the Anglo-American strategic relationship.

RH: Nine years on from 9/11, the British government was occupied by a Conservative, Liberal-Democrat coalition led by David Cameron and Nick Clegg. Outside of its borders as we’ve already mentioned and discussed, the UK was firmly involved in both Afghanistan and Iraq which as history has shown did not go according to plan, to compound problems a wave of economic decline through the Great Recession was sweeping Europe and North America. Against the backdrop of this coalition government it undertook as you mention a hurried Strategic Defense and Security Review. An SDSR. To begin with can you clarify the difference between an SDSR and an SDR.

EG: Well, the idea was, in principle that in fact that one should look at national security in the round set in how the National Security Council was set up to try to come up with a policy which made more sense. Unfortunately, the lead was quite clearly the Treasury. They couldn’t afford everything. And as I said at the time the Army wrapped itself in its Afghan blanket which proved to be extremely effective and kept it nice and warm and the other armed services paid the price, particularly the Navy. I remember my late wife coming into the bedroom on the night of the review and saying “Eric, they’re scrapping Ark Royal” and I couldn’t believe it because right up to the end of that Review, and it demonstrated a sort of disconnect between higher security policy and the actual defense posture and the budgeting for it. It looked as if, the Harriers, the short takeoff and landing Harriers, operating from the aircraft carrier Ark Royal at the time would survive and the land-based Tornadoes would go. But there was, right at the end of the Review, a serious counterattack by the Chief of the Defense Staff, a senior RAF officer, and would you believe, a Tornado officer, who convinced the government that it should be the Harriers that should go, without necessarily telling the Prime Minister, rumor would have it, that in fact that would be the end of the aircraft carrier. But once they were committed to the demise of the Harrier, and this was a problem of course because the Joint Force put the RAF in the driving seat, as far as the carrier air groups were concerned. And they decided on their own priorities, they wanted to keep the Tornado, and so the Harriers went, and the carrier capabilities went also, because officially it was estimated that there would not be a requirement for aircraft carriers in the next 10 years or so. Things didn’t turn out quite that way.

RH: I mean to think that carriers are never needed is a bit of a farcical proposition. From my perspective at least.

EG: It was an overambitious one (laughs).

RH: But based on everything you just said then, what was the major takeaway for the Royal Navy based on the hurried SDSR, was it the takeaway of the Ark Royal or was it the last-minute pressure to keep the Tornadoes?

EG: Well as far as the Navy was concerned, it was the loss of Ark Royal. It came as a big surprise, now the current commanding officer HMS Queen Elizabeth, the new aircraft carrier, which is coming into service, was the last captain of the HMS Ark Royal. And he learned on the news that his ship was going to be decommissioned. Which only goes to show the hurried nature of the final decisions of the Review. And it was the loss of the carrier that was the important thing. Yes, the submarine force would be retained to a very large extent, a marginal reduction from eight to seven, new submarines would be coming into service, the nuclear deterrent was to stay, and in that period the amphibious force, although it was notably reduced, one of the amphibious transport docks would be going to reserve. But nonetheless, the rest of the Navy on the whole, suffered not quite so badly as perhaps it might have done, but the real loss was the loss of the aircraft carrier, the loss of carrier strike. And this caused a tremendous, in the fleet air arm, certainly in the air component to the Navy, it caused a tremendous, well no, a near revolutionary feeling as I found when I gave an after-dinner speech down at Yeovilton, the naval air station shortly afterwards. I’ve never seen a more mutinous bunch of young officers in my life.

RH: Mutinous is the perfect word to describe where we’re heading next, Dr. Grove. You make no effort to hide your disappointment about the paradoxical commitments to power projection based on the 2011 Defense Planning Assumption.

EG: That’s right absolutely.

RH: And now for our listeners the real palace intrigues starts. Can you elaborate on the tensions between the Army and the Nvy against the RAF and specifically the role of the famous Tornado mafia?

EG: Well yes, I mean, the Tornado force, the sort of long range strike force is very close to the soul, one might say, the soul of the Royal Air Force. The Royal Air Force in the 1920s acquired strategic bombing as its major role, it was their major offensive capability in the Second World War, to which virtually all else gave way. It was the nuclear delivery system for a long time, in fact I think the RAF has never quite forgiven the Navy for taking over the nuclear delivery role. It was one reason they were so determined to hang on to limited war and air power in the east of Suez in the carrier controversy of the 1960s. And so, the RAF has tended to emphasize certain aspects of air power, leaving maritime airpower and naval airpower in the hands of the Navy. And now in fact the Navy wanted back in the 60s something rather like the current joint force. And they offered a partnership with the Air Force on carrier-based aircraft. But the Air Force turned that down. Because it wanted to use the east of Suez scenario for its long-ranged land-based jets. And that of course is what the Air Force really believes in. Now if the only way they’re going to get something like F-35 aircraft is to actually go along with the Navy and go along with the government in the joint force, well and good. But certainly, as late as the SDSR in 2011 they put the maintenance of their Tornado force way above their contribution to Britain’s carrier force and if that meant the end of the carrier force, so what.

RH: Another point that you raise regarding the 2011 Defense Planning Assumptions is the role of BAE, specifically in a hiatus in building that would mark the end of the industry. Could you comment a little bit within the procurement realm about the significance of what that would mean for BAE and for future carriers.

EG: This is very important actually, because the government of that time was so against carriers. Basically, Cameron and the Conservatives in particular saw the carrier program as a nasty Labour job creation scheme. And they wanted in fact in a perfect world, cancel the second carrier or in fact if not that, put the first carrier into reserve and build the second one. But they were certainly playing with the idea of cancelling the second carrier. And the chairman of BAE, sponsored I think by the Navy, to some extent, wrote to the Prime Minister and said look, if you scrap the second carrier, if you don’t build it, there isn’t going to be a shipbuilding industry because, BAE will have to lay off most of its shipbuilders, you say you want a new frigate, but that’s not going to be developed for in time to retain the workforce. Basically, if you scrap the second carrier, you will destroy the British warship building industry, indeed the British shipbuilding industry. And the government could hardly, that letter was leaked, it was certainly published, and the government could hardly do anything else but keep the carrier Prince of Wales. The idea originally being that the Prince of Wales would be the ship brought into service and what would happen to Queen Elizabeth? Well she might be put into reserve, etc. That actually didn’t happen. But certainly, the main reason that the second carrier was retained, the fact that the carrier force was retained was basically industrial, rather than strategic. It wasn’t as many people say, that cancelling the ship would’ve cost more than building it that’s not the case. The real point was, that if you cancel HMS Prince of Wales, the second aircraft carrier, you will cease to have a warship building industry.

RH: Without being overdramatic, it is somewhat of an apocalyptic situation for Great Britain not to have a shipbuilding industry. What would the alternative have been in the defense policy if Great Britain did not possess an organic shipbuilding industry then?

EG: Well, it would certainly create a lot of unemployment along the Clyde. And given the fact that the carrier was also being built on the Tyne, on the river Mersey and down in Appledore, it would’ve created considerable unemployment, and that would have been politically unwelcome. BAE would have continued building jet fighters although this is a whole new issue which we can’t go into about the future of the Typhoon and so on. Certainly, BAE also got in on the F-35 program. One tends to forget that a significant part of the F-35 is built actually in Lancashire in the northwest of England. So, BAE would’ve continued, but certainly I think it was the jobs implications, the fact that BAE would’ve had to have laid off most of its shipbuilding people, and this would’ve led to considerable social problems, and indeed political problems, it might’ve made the Scottish Nationalists more powerful than they became.

RH: Outside of the social issues that you just described in detail, would the other areas of the British defense policy be able to pick up the slack with the massive diminishment in British Navy?

EG: Not so much shipbuilding no. I mean, nowadays British shipbuilding depends very much on warships. The carrier program has been a tremendous fill in for the shipbuilding industry. I always say when I talk about it you know, it’s not just expenditure on a ship there’s been investment for example on the Cammell Laird which allowed them to take on extra work, a major shipbuilder on the Mersey. There’s been a tremendous investment in skills and so on in British industry. And in fact, not for the first time, naval policy has been, governed perhaps is too strong a word, but strongly influenced by industrial factors. Way back in 1909 there was a crisis. We wanted battleships and we won’t wait. That was to get private shipbuilders to invest in shipbuilding capacity. During the 1920s and 30s there were great concerns about the decline in the shipbuilding industry and building ships. In the 1970s, it was quite a boom then, and it was to keep the shipbuilders in work. So, in fact this sort of interplay between naval policy and industrial and social policy is very important.

RH: So, thank you again for the various options that came with the 2011 Defense findings and assumptions. After being obstructed for a considerable amount of time by the Tornado mafia, you praise the 2011 edition of the British maritime doctrine, for our policy wonks out there it is JDP 0-10. It is the first release since the mid-1990s. Can you run the listeners through how the document represented the natural evolution through the wisdom of Sir. Julian Corbett and his belief in the roles of navies, in affecting what happened ashore?

EG: Well yes, I mean I was involved actually in the first edition of Maritime Doctrine. I was a co-author way back in the 1990s. And in fact, in the latest issue, my own ideas were trying to develop future sea power, a sort of the triangle of naval roles, you know: warfighting, constabulary, and diplomatic had been developed there. But yes, I mean Corbett is sort of the origin, really of British maritime strategic thought. His idea of command of the sea being something from limited periods of time and limited areas chimes in very well with the doctrine of sea control which the Americans developed in the 1970s, and which is now standard naval thinking around the world.

The idea he called it in 1911, the mounting of plex munitions, we call it power projection now, and he also emphasizes which is perhaps the most important thing, that in fact, one needs to think of a maritime strategy and not just a naval one. A naval one is almost incidental to using the sea as an important strategic factor, supporting troops ashore, supplying them, might not necessarily be actually marines, but as he said in the principles of maritime strategy, a major role in the Navy is what it allows your army to do. So therefore, the idea was that there was an overall maritime strategy that Britain could pursue. In some ways he was defeated. He was trying in the pre-first world war period, to avoid, we go back to it, a continental strategy. As things turned out, we couldn’t do that, or we didn’t do it. But certainly, the idea of naval power being part of a joint maritime strategy, the fact that there should be an emphasis on the sea, as an area over which one deploys forces ashore, the idea of power projection is very important. He didn’t say so much about the peacetime roles of naval power. Although he does at times refer to the policing function of certain ships. This kind of thing which we now call maritime security, the constabulary role. But certainly, in his balanced way at looking at maritime strategy, he took Clausewitz to sea, including Clausewitz’s ideas on limited war which was a very sophisticated foundation for the development of British naval thought, in the 20th and into the 21st century, and something that I certainly and my colleagues, who have produced doctrine over the years, have tended to emphasize.

RH: Clausewitz at sea, that’s a first. For our listeners, in case you are interested, Corbett’s most famous work is Some Principles of Maritime Strategy which I think you’ll agree Dr. Grove remains a classic among students of naval warfare.

EG: Absolutely. I in fact produced the United States Naval Institute edition in the classics of naval strategy series with my own introduction and footnotes, etc. That’s not an advertisement, but I think it’s still available, and certainly I mean I argue that, better than anyone else including Mahan, Corbett was able to tease out from the experiences of the past, lessons and principles perhaps for current and future application. That really was his genius.

RH: For our listeners I’m going to read out Corbet’s four concepts, and it’s striking how applicable today.

Number 1. Control lines of communication focus on the enemy and maneuver for tactical advantage,

Number 2. The aspects of political, economical and financial dimensions of waging war as well as with the technological and material aspects of war,

Number 3. The primary of politics in a war and devising an appropriate strategy to protect the national interest,

EG: That’s Clausewitz (laughs)

RH: Yeah, and number 4. The emphasis on efficiency at battle while preserving costly assets. That fourth one is interesting as if there was a budget around the corner and he had to do a little bit of bootstrapping.

EG: Well, I think he was a bit concerned, about the Mahanian idea of you must fight a battle at all cost. This of course gets us into arguments that we can’t get into detail about the battle of Jutland, how far Corbett was responsible for the, perhaps some might argue, rather timid and non-aggressive approach of the Royal Navy at the battle of Jutland, certainly people at the time said he was. As I made clear in my introduction in my edition back in ‘88. And certainly, the fact that you don’t go into a headlong rush. In fact, he was rather critical of Nelson, he was enough of a heretic to be that. Headlong rush in Trafalgar. He thought that modern warships were too much of a national investment to be risked like that.

RH: Its definition in terms of maritime power projection was wide ranging in utility and more importantly address the needs of the security landscape. Based on your expertise, can you address how maritime security provided for where UK interests needed protection? And for our listeners, maybe you could provide some examples to illustrate your point.

EG: Do you mean the concept of maritime security as part of the three-fold role if you see what I mean, rather than maritime security in a much broader sense?

RH: I think it was much more of the refined sphere I was referring to.

EG: Well maritime security of course, British contributions to evacuating nationals from various places, various times, from Lebanon for example, in relatively recent years. Dealing with anti-piracy operations, in fact there was this great growth in piracy and this led to the Royal Navy playing a leading role in dealing with it. Developing tactics such as fast boarding and this kind of thing, in fact it might be argued that piracy and anti-drug operations became the main roles of the Navy, for a time actually, in the 21st century, the maritime security role came to dominate. This led to debate about whether one needed sophisticated frigates or destroyers to take part in these operations. So maritime security in the broadest sense. Particularly with the possibility of terrorism at sea which I always thought whose threat was hyped a bit too much. But nonetheless, you know keeping good order at sea became perhaps the predominant role of the Royal Navy for most of the 21st century so far. Although that is changing now.

RH: I mean everything you said is right on when you refer to these, the British maritime doctrine refers to these as benign operations. And like you said in terms of humanitarian, the British assistance during disaster relief operations after the Indian Ocean tsunami, and again with the trends in climate change, the rising sea levels, the very frequent environmental disasters that have occurred. I think we’re both in agreement that the Navy will have to play a much more of a dual role in this type of operation in addition to power projection.

EG: Absolutely, well it was one of the arguments in favor of the aircraft carrier is that it’s a box that floats. And it could be used for anything, and certainly I noticed that the naval spokesman had been arguing the case for as you say the benign role, in which a sense you can differentiate perhaps from constabulary in the broadest sense. Constabulary is the application of laws perhaps using a certain amount of force within our mandate etc., but benign as you say in disaster relief and so on. That’s a term we invented actually in our original edition of British Maritime Doctrine back in the 90s, but yes, these broad roles, and in fact warships including the biggest, including the carrier, are being justified very much in terms of disaster relief and so on and it’s not special pleading. These are the kinds of things, things that float and have space, and can operate helicopters, and operate medical facilities.

RH: Another asset outlined in the British Maritime Doctrine is the more traditional role which was Britain’s international engagement, as in the aim to prevent conflict from emerging. Can you elaborate on theory and in practice what the concept of conflict prevention from the Royal Navy actually means?

EG: It’s the ability to sort of deploy forces of a contingent basis, perhaps visibly, perhaps not, so that measures can be taken in due time to deter action and or control action should it occur. One thinks of perhaps, the operations of the British aircraft carrier in the Adriatic, in the 1990s which I had the privilege of seeing when I was writing something for Ark Royal and I was onboard her. And having a contingent force in the ship to actually support the peacekeeping force ashore should that get into trouble, we always try to be within range of the Army ashore. So as a contingency force hopefully in fact flying overhead to deter and prevent people who might want to interfere with the activities of the UN protection force, poise, is a British maritime term. Poised to protect as Ark Royal liked to say. So, you can keep something poised on international waters, where you could move, but you could also produce a graduated and potentially forceful response ashore. You don’t want to use force if you can avoid it. So that you can help control and stabilize what goes on ashore. You can see it too in Operation Palliser, the Sierra Leone operation in 2000. Perhaps the most successful of Mr. Blair’s wars. Where in fact you brought in naval forces, maritime forces, these could land troops, these could provide troops ashore, they could support them, and they could also overfly and deter the Sierra Leonean rebels and others in the hugely sort of disorganized affair ashore from interfering with the British because if they did, they might suffer air attack. We didn’t have to carry out the air attacks, but the deterred threat was there.

RH: That’s a perfect segue Dr. Grove because staying within the international engagement asset role, let’s take a trip back in time and discuss deterrence. I think you would agree, looking back at history is sometimes the best way to speculate on the future. Especially since, deterrence as a contemporary concept has been resurrected due to the deteriorating European security landscape for numerous reasons.

EG: Quite so.

RH: As you know, new prime ministers are asked to write letters of last resort on their first day in office which are sealed and given to the captains of the UK’s submarines in the event that the government is wiped out by nuclear strike. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is on record saying nuclear weapons are not the solution to the world’s security issues. They are a disaster if ever used. We spoke about it very very lightly already can you describe the primary function of strategic deterrence at sea within the UK framework?

EG: Well basically, Britain deploys at all times one nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine with a number of apparently eight missiles with up to 40 warheads on board. These provide a range of potential nuclear responses. One suspects that about two of the missiles are single warheads, one with a low yield warhead one with a high yield warhead, and the rest carrying multiple targeted reentry vehicles. This gives you a spectrum of potential responses which any potential enemy should know about. And it deters everything from on one level the use of chemical weapons against British forces in the field, to a full scale attack on the United Kingdom.

One imagines in fact that it would only be in extreme circumstances that nuclear weapons might be used, hence the letters of last resort, what Mr. Corbyn would write: heaven knows, but of course one doesn’t know what’s in there and one hope would any potential aggressor would in fact take the worse possible solution. And it’s interesting too, how a captain would react if Britain had been knocked out and apparently, they monitor the long wave Radio 4 programs actually apparently as a sign of what’s been happening and if they disappear something has gone dreadfully wrong. So yes, I mean at the top end of all this deterrence you have the deterrent force. Britain remains, despite the attitude of a small number of people in the Labour party, committed to retaining a deterrent, there is a new so-called successor class of submarines, the first is called HMS Dreadnought, the other which is currently under construction just over the way from where I live, in northwest of England and there’re going to be three more, probably three perhaps two but I expect a total force of four. Each can carry up to twelve missiles, and they will retain the capability in close cooperation with the United States, but with totally independent British operational control.

RH: I mean no doubt, in the event that Jeremy Corbyn was ever elected it would definitely have a major effect on the Trident delivery system. And as well even without Corbyn in power, the Scottish Nationalists are very much against nuclear posture of Great Britain. Complimentary to strategic deterrence is conventional deterrence which is risen in respectability, according to your professional perspective since the 1990s.Can you start by distinguishing the difference for our listeners, between strategic deterrence and conventional deterrence, and explain why maritime forces are particularly well-suited for conventional deterrence.

EG: Right well, strategic deterrence is considered to be fundamentally nuclear. And that you have a secure second-strike capability in your submarine, this cannot be taken out by your potential opponent, and it gives you a set of nuclear options, including full scale Armageddon if Britain suffers nuclear attack. Conventional forces of course play a part in an overall deterrence strategy, certainly they did in the days of the Cold War, because the idea was you started fighting at the conventional level, and then perhaps you will escalate in controlled kind of way. The Trident force can still do that, it used to be called sub-strategic capability, Now I think that’s out of fashion, as any use of nuclear weapons would be strategic.

As far as conventional is concerned yes, demonstrating to a potential opponent if they engage in some kind of operation, they will face a conventional response which might well defeat that operation. The best example of this perhaps was back in the early 70s when HMS Ark Royal flew its aircraft over Belize to try and prevent an invasion coming because it was thought there might be and the thought of having to operate against a strong force of Buccaneers and Phantoms rather put the potential aggressors off. And of course maritime forces could be brought to bear extremely effectively. The RAF would’ve had great difficulties in doing anything over Belize because it was out of range, but bringing aircraft within range of the potential target is what maritime platforms can do and that’s the basic argument in favor of Britain having a carrier capability being restored in the 2020s.

RH: Your example illustrates perfectly as you say in the piece that conventional deterrence is the UK government’s most versatile military means.

EG: Absolutely. Yes.

RH: The last major asset per the British maritime doctrine that you described is the concept of presence as a multiplier of UK influence. The very famous First Sea Lord Mark Stanhope acutely recognized the benefit of this concept which still stands today. Can you elaborate on this concept and integrate it into the 2003 Operation Keeling that took place in Sierra Leone? While the Invasion of Iraq was ongoing.

EG: Yes, I mean presence in general is having a force in the area and making it known, in fact I just marked a PhD thesis, very interesting, which argued in fact there was a fundamental concept in the idea of visibility. Having maritime forces that can be brought to bear and being visible, greatly enhances deterrence. Of course, to some extent, you can have a deterrence force which might be there or might not be there hence the importance of submarines. Having a capacity to be there can be important. I mean well you could argue that the Falklands War broke out because we were doing away with our naval presence in the area. It wasn’t very powerful in  itself, HMS Endurance the ice patrol ship, but it was an important intelligence gatherer, and announcing it was going to be withdrawn gave the Argentines the impression that in fact we were not serious about defending the Falklands. And the invasion went ahead. So, having some kind of naval capability in the area as a mark of national interests and national commitment is very  important.

RH: Prior to getting into the specifics of Operation Keeling, I just want to tell the listeners that the Sierra Leone civil war began in March of 1991 when the revolutionary United Front with the support of special forces of Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia intervened in Sierra Leone in an attempt to overthrow the Joseph Momoh government. The resulting civil war lasted 11 years and left tens of thousands dead. So, Dr. Grove, how does Operation Keeling fit in with the concept of presence with Sierra Leone?

EG: I think in a way, the important thing in Sierra Leone was that firstly we showed a willingness to intervene. And then by deploying ships, we showed a continuous willingness to intervene in the area to help stabilize things. And I think that that is the important thing. If you are in the area, and if you can bring forces to bear in the area. And if you have shown and demonstrated a capacity albeit in a limited way to use force ashore as we did in Sierra Leone, then I think that it could act as a very stabilizing influence. It didn’t solve the Sierra Leone problem, but certainly it prevented a victory by the RUF, by the rebels, which could have had disastrous consequences. Both in terms of what happened in Sierra Leone and what it indicated to those elements such as the Liberian government at the time who wanted to sort of pursue their highly selfish interests.

RH: No, it speaks volumes to the effectiveness of the strategy, that while it didn’t end it, it at least prevented more bloodshed.

EG: Absolutely.

RH: Fast forward to the National Security Strategy and Strategic Deference Security Review of 2015 which outlined the United Kingdom’s defense strategy up to 2025. The threats faced by the UK included its overseas territories and overseas interests that have increased in scale diversity and complexity since 2010.

EG: That’s right.

RH: It highlighted 4 particular priorities that are likely to be priorities for the UK in the coming decade. They are:

Increasing threats posed by terrorism, extremism, and instability, the resurgence of state-based threats, the impact of technology, especially cyber threats, and the erosion of rules based international order making it harder to build consensus and tackle global threats.

Based against a litany of threats, as outlined by the national security assessment, can you contextualize the 2015 SDSR within a maritime context?

EG: Yes, I think those were actually quite good in a way. They said that the terrorist threat is the most likely, which is true of course, we have suffered terrorist attacks, but the important thing I think is to say the second one, that in fact the increasing confrontation on a rather more traditional level, with powers, you can’t mention it, but particularly Russia and so on. Cyberwarfare, very important. Of course, there has to be an investment in that, but in the maritime side it demonstrates that we have to reorient ourselves away from a primary constabulary-based navy or a navy that was doing primarily constabulary roles, back toward a more traditional warfighting role. The Russian submarines are out again in the Atlantic.

I was down in the fleet air arm station in Carl Drove’s recently, the anti-submarine helicopter headquarters, and the captain there was saying a major preoccupation is keeping an eye on Russian submarines. Of course, our problem there or one of the problems is that in 2010, we did away with our fixed wing maritime patrol aircraft and it will take time for this capability to be restored. They’re operated by the RAF but they’re part of our maritime capability.

The carrier force, very important. I’ve been engaged in some discussions about the possibility of going back to something like a forward maritime strategy. Of course, the number of American carriers might not be sufficient so having a contribution to a forward carrier force and amphibious forces in the use of the northern flank, very important.

Operations in the Baltic, Operations in the Mediterranean, and of course depending on the relationship of China with its neighbors, in the East China Sea, given the fact that Mr. Trump is making rather conciliatory noises, it’s interesting to note that the carrier will be going to the Far East, partly I think for diplomatic reasons, but also probably to show that we can help strategically there, so in fact in the changing environment, going back to the future and having a more warfighting navy is important.

There are question marks about the new frigate program, the new lighter frigate which will be marvelous for the constabulary role, perhaps ought to have the capability to carry out higher level operations. I mean whenever I go to the staff college and see the junior naval officers there I argue this case very strongly. We have to go back to an expertise on anti-submarine warfare, an expertise on anti-air warfare, anti-surface ship warfare, all these various dimensions of warfighting. And this is something that is going to have to come back, it’s priority too, it’s perhaps less likely, but on the other hand, it is much more likely than it used to be.

RH: I mean I couldn’t agree with you more with all of the threats posed by new technologies and cyber penetration. It is sometimes easy to forget the validity of going back to basics in terms of protecting interests and projecting power.

EG: That’s right.

RH: Finally, prior to the 2015 SDSR, you praise the development of a strategic tripod of roles to support, to develop the size, shape, and capabilities of the future British fleet. As outlined by first sea lord Admiral George Zambellas. They are: Continuous sea deterrence, continuous carrier strike, and continuous amphibious readiness.

EG: Correct.

RH: To support these core capabilities, and meet the requirement of its international engagements, a new generation of surface combatants was called for. To date, has the introduction of the tripod system met or fallen short of your professional expectations?

EG: Well if we could keep it, it would be good, but continuous amphibious readiness is looking a little threadbare at the moment. The Ministry of Defense has been going through a serious cost cutting process, in fact the mine countermeasure force has been reduced. Not actually with the types of mine countermeasure ships that the Navy wanted to keep, it was just convenient to scrap two. You know one had lost its crew and the other was about to be refitted.

This demonstrates the problem of budgetary constraints and budgetary pressures with adherence to strategic and operational planning and it has been reported at the press, although it has been denied as being the final decision that in fact the two amphibious docks might be taken out of service. One currently is in reserve, one currently is in service, this would be a tremendous blow to the amphibious ability of the UK and to the Western alliance. So continuous amphibious readiness always seemed to be a little bit of an add on, although it had proved to be crucially important in the post-Cold War period. That appears to be under something of a cloud at the moment.

A continuous carrier strike is fine and continuous sea deterrence, but the problem is, is there enough budget to do all three things properly? And the answer is perhaps not. That is the challenge, but we must in fact, finesse together strategic and operational thinking and the shape and size of the fleet. There are signs that that is proving too fickle at the moment, so we’ll watch this space.

RH: Well based on your answer, it seems as if that the tripod system is meeting expectations but is unrealistic in application due to the limited funds to sufficiently finance all of these operations. Dr. Grove, based on our conversation, it goes without saying that the ability for the UK to continue to project power beyond its borders and respond to challenges in the 21st century will be dependent on Westminster being able to find and utilize a dynamic Royal Navy. Against the backdrop of Brexit it goes without saying this is true. As we submerge on another sea control series podcast, do you have any operational takeaways for the listeners or issues related to the UK’s naval strategy that we should keep an eye on moving forward?

EG: Well, I think first of all watch out for how far the air groups of the carriers are going to reflect the proper operational requirement. Which is 36 aircraft, that might be two American squadrons and one British squadron, I don’t think we get another British squadron until 2022. But certainly, the carrier strike capacity is so central that it needs to be properly serviced.

There may be some people in high positions that have said an increase in the strength of the Royal Navy is coming, because of the new cheaper Type 31E frigate or super corvette. Watch this space. Are we going to have these ships put into service faster than the rather more capable Type 26 ships? Are we going to maintain 19 frigates and destroyers, or are we going to increase? Are we going to maintain the nuclear submarine force with its cruise missiles, the answer is probably yes. How far though, will the nuclear deterrent program eat into the Navy?

I ended my book Vanguard to Trident with some considerable worries of the impact of the Trident force on the rest of the Navy. I’ve become somewhat of a born again Trident man, but unless the government is willing to spend more on defense, that depends very much on the economic results of Brexit: positively or negatively. Then we are going to have a crisis and we won’t be able to do everything we want to do. But that’s been the name of the game in defense policy in general and in naval policy in particular ever since the end of the Second World War and probably before it.

RH: So, a note to all of you Brexit followers, when you need a break from negotiations, be sure to follow all of Dr. Grove’s suggestions. Once again Dr. Grove, it was a pleasure hearing from you today, and I wanted to thank you for graciously passing on your wisdom and insight.

EG: Pleasure.

RH: If our listeners want to follow up on the UK naval strategy or desire a better outlook on the general maritime domain the Routledge Handbook of Naval Strategy and Security edited by Sebastian Bruns and Joachim Krause, published in 2016 is an indispensable resource to have. In addition, please visit www.kielseapowerseries.com for more info on the book and other podcasts derived from the book. Dr. Grove, you were at the Kiel Seapower series, do you have a quick comment for our listeners on it?

EG: It was very useful, it was a very useful talk and a very useful meeting and in fact I’m very pleased that in fact such high-level discussions on such an important matter were taking place. Kiel of course is in the Baltic, and that’s a whole different story, but you never know, we have thoughts of sending carriers there in the past, you never know we might do it in the future.

RG: Well with no shortages of maritime issues as Dr. Grove has echoed, within the greater geopolitical landscape, I will be back to keep CIMSEC listeners well informed. From the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University and its adjunct center for maritime strategy and security, I’m Roger Hilton saying farewell and Auf Wiedersehen.

Professor Eric Grove is an independent Naval Historian and International Strategic Analyst. Until January 2015 he was Professor of Naval History and Fellow in Security Studies at Liverpool Hope University. He was previously Professor of Naval History and Director of the Centre for International Security and War Studies at the University of Salford, and Deputy Head of Strategic Studies at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth. His publications include:- World War Two Tanks;Vanguard to Trident;The Future of Sea Power; Fleet to Fleet Encounters; and The Royal Navy Since 1815. Professor Grove has taught and lectured in North America, Australasia and Asia. He frequently contributes to radio and television programs on naval history and the wider security agenda.

Roger Hilton is from Canada and a graduate of the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna where he holds a Master’s Degree in Advanced International Studies. He has previous experience at the Office of the State Minister of Georgia for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration as well as with the delegation of the Kingdom of Belgium at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Since 2017 he is a Non-Resident Academic Fellow at the Center for Maritime Strategy & Security at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University in Germany. His research publications concentrate on transatlantic affairs and the post-Soviet sphere. 

Cris Lee is Senior Producer of the Sea Control podcast. 

China’s Base in Djibouti: Lessons from Germany’s Asian Colonialism

China’s Defense & Foreign Policy Topic Week

By Pawel Behrendt

The opening of the Chinese military base in Djibouti on August 1st is a landmark event; China finally has its first overseas military outpost. The parallel of similar activities undertaken by the Germans in China at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries is noteworthy for offering lessons on the relationship between force structure, maritime strategy, and overseas basing.

Djibouti is strategically located on the African shore of the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb, which separates the Indian Ocean from the Red Sea, making it proximate to one of the most important sea routes linking China with Europe. For years this small country has hosted military bases of foreign powers such as France, the United States, and Japan. Over the past decade, the existing facilities have offered crucial support to forces fighting Somali pirates. China takes part in this mission, too. However, with the development of the Belt and Road Initiative Djibouti has started to play a vital role on the Maritime Silk Road of the 21st century. Since about the year 2000 China has striven to build and secure its own presence in the Indian Ocean basin. After successfully establishing footholds in Pakistan (Gwadar) and Sri Lanka (Hambantota), the next logical step of the Belt and Road Initiative was at the doorstep of the Suez Canal – Djibouti.

Nevertheless, the news of the intention to build a Chinese base came as a surprise in mid-2015. Negotiations proceeded quickly, an agreement was signed in January 2016. The $600 million project was launched the following year. Works on the main body of the facility have already finished, but other parts are still under construction. In reality nobody knows how complex the base is going to be. The first convoy carrying troops to Djibouti departed on July 12 from the port city of Zhanjiang. The base was officially opened on August 1, a very symbolic date – the 90th anniversary of PLA. Beijing is reluctant to use the term ‘military base’ and instead refers to it as a “support facility” that will provide logistical support to forces taking part in UN missions in Africa and the anti-pirate operation. The existing agreement allows the PRC to station 6,000-10,000 troops (sources vary) until 2026. An additional bonus to Djibouti is a $14 billion infrastructure project.

The meaning of the first Chinese overseas base, however, goes far beyond the Silk Road and commerce. China has gained the ability, however limited it may be, to project power in the still unstable Middle East while also strengthening its position against India. Additionally, there are issues of prestige: the PRC has joined the small group of powers that maintain overseas bases. This is very important for a nation that is increasingly self-confident and aims to become a leading power. What most likely accelerated the decision to acquire overseas bases was the Arab Spring of 2011. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) was unable to evacuate Chinese citizens from revolution-torn Yemen and Libya and was forced to ask the U.S. and France for help. Both the Chinese leadership and many ordinary citizens regarded this as humiliation. Thus the buildup of the PLAN initiated in the early 21st century gained wider support and was indicated as one of the key objectives of the modernization and reorganization of the Chinese military. What’s more, a strong navy is seen as a mark of the status of a great power and as a crucial factor in securing crucial sea lines of communication (SLOCs). It must be pointed out that around 80 percent of Chinese oil imports come via the Strait of Malacca. The numbers are even more impressive when it comes to trade: despite extensive land infrastructure programs, around 99 percent of trade exchange with Europe is seaborne.

Historical Parallels with Germany’s Asian Colonialism

It is worth asking whether China really needs an overseas base and what are the chances of sustaining it in the event of a full-scale conflict. Very interesting conclusions come from the history of German colonial presence in Asia. The topic of obtaining an overseas base in Asia was brought up for the first time during the German Revolutions of 1848/49. The colonial idea found many advocates at the National Assembly in Frankfurt. This was connected with the brutal opening of the states of Asia to the world. The Far East was at that time a “Promised Land” where one could sell any amount of cheap European products and in exchange buy valuable tea, silk, and porcelain. However, for exactly half a century since the issue had been raised, Germany had done nothing to get an overseas base, even though the topic kept coming back like a boomerang. The reason was that the “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck saw core German interests in Europe and was strongly against any “colonial adventures” that could antagonize Great Britain.

The situation changed in the late 19th century. Germany was an emerging power striving for a “place under the sun.” The young emperor Wilhelm II was determined to turn Germany into a global power and initiated the “Weltpolitik” (world politics), challenging Great Britain and France. The Kaiser was also influenced by the theories of Alfred Thayer Mahan. He had several copies of The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783, and the margins of one of them were densely covered with notes and commentaries. Thus Wilhelm II had a scientific leverage for his passions: a strong navy and colonies. He found a big ally in Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz. This politically talented officer was a supporter of the ideas of a naval buildup and obtaining an overseas base in China. What’s more, he was able to convince the Reichstag (parliament) to allocate huge sums of money for this purpose.

The dream of a foothold in the Far East came true in 1898. That is when China and Germany signed a treaty which leased the small fishing village of Qingdao (then Tsingtau or Tsingtao) to the Germans for 99 years. Within 16 years Qingdao evolved into one of the biggest ports of China. There was also a fierce discussion what to do with the overseas base. In official documents the term “Gibraltar of the Far East” began to appear. The German Admiralty wanted to create a mighty fortress and naval base. However, Admiral Tirpitz had different ideas. He was well aware that a globally meaningful Navy had yet to be built, and in the event of war the chances of coming to the rescue of the fortress were negligible. He thought holding Qingdao rested on good relations with Japan. Vice Admiral Friedrich von Ingenhol agreed; he bluntly said that in a full-scale war the base would be useless. Thus Tirpitz decided to create an equivalent of Hong Kong, an important trade port and a center promoting German culture. In this field the Germans managed to achieve quite a lot of success, creating—among other things—one of the first resorts in Asia.

1912 German map of Qingdao.

The admirals’ predictions came true, Japan decided that fighting alongside the Entente was more beneficial than remaining neutral or siding with Germany. So Qingdao played virtually no role in World War I and fell in November 1914 after a two month siege by joint Japanese and British forces. Similarly, the huge fleet of battleships built with a tremendous effort and use of resources, a fleet second only to the Royal Navy, stayed in its bases for most of the war. Tirpitz himself said, after he learned about the outbreak of war, that the Hochseeflotte (High Seas Fleet) would be useless. The main reason was geography. To rule the waves (and support distant basing) any navy needs unobstructed access to the ocean. Meanwhile, the North Sea and thus the main ports of Germany are separated from the Atlantic by the British Isles and Shetland Islands. This allowed the British to establish the effective distant blockade of Germany in 1914 and—save for the battle of Jutland (in German: Skagerrakschlacht)—avoid a major confrontation. The German Navy failed to find a counter for this strategy and as early as 1915 the naval war was ceded to the light forces and submarines. Neither the powerful shipbuilding industry nor the strong merchant fleet, nor the rich maritime traditions of northern Germany, were able to overcome the shortcomings of geography. The same scenario was repeated during World War II even despite the occupation of ports in France and Norway. Germany had remained a land power, and Britain, by virtue of being the dominant sea power, could maintain a network of meaningful military infrastructure across the globe.

China’s Present Challenge and Geographical Constraints

Despite being located on the opposite end of Eurasia, China faces the same problem as Germany due to the crucial role of geography separating the mainland from the Pacific Ocean. The first island chain comprises the Kuril Islands, the Japanese Archipelago, the Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, the Philippines, and the western shore of Borneo. The area thus inscribed includes waters directly adjacent to the Chinese coast. Despite the enormous resources invested in the fleet, the PLAN is only now starting to operate outside this border. More southwards China is separated from the Indian Ocean by the Malay Peninsula and the islands of Indonesia. There are also three “bottlenecks” determining maritime traffic between East Asia and Indian Ocean and Europe: the Straits of Malacca, Sunda, and Lombok.

Most of these strategic points on the map are controlled by the United States or its allies. For this reason, China has decided to create A2/AD (anti access / area deny) zones in the East and South China Sea that are to limit the space for adversary maneuver. Moreover, an intensive naval buildup is supposed to make any confrontation too risky by introducing a capability to project power beyond A2/AD zones adjacent to the mainland. In numbers the PLAN is now second only to the U.S. Navy. This resembles similar actions undertaken by Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. The U.S. response is also considering surprisingly similar to the countermeasures used by the British. Scenarios of military exercises conducted in the western Pacific by the United States and its allies do not imply a strike against the Chinese Navy and coast per se, but rather impose a distant naval blockade based on the first island chain.

There are also differences. Tirpitz was an advocate of the fleet-in-being doctrine, wherein the fleet by its existence alone puts pressure on the enemy. Such a theory resulted in building battleships which were not useless but rather not used. The Chinese leadership, among whom Mahan’s theories are gaining popularity like they once did in the German Empire, have learned this lesson. The buildup of the PLAN, besides including impressive programs like aircraft carriers and SSBNs, concentrates on SSKs, SSNs, and surface combatant escorts. The latter are related to the pursuit of strategic security on the maritime routes leading to and from China. Chinese admirals also do not claim to be interested in the fleet-in-being concept. The naval development plan has been described as being divided into stages corresponding to obtaining the ability to conduct operations beyond the subsequent island chains. Currently the stage of going beyond the “first chain” is underway.

The question is whether in the case of a hypothetical war against the U.S. and its allies the PLAN would be able to go beyond the safe haven of A2/AD zones and break through the blockade. Such an operation is feasible, but it would involve significant losses. In addition, the blockade is rarely carried out by the main force. Thus after the “defenders” break out into the open the fresh main force of “attackers” is already waiting for them.

The base in Djibouti is very unlikely to provide any sufficient relief. This is the case not only in the event of a confrontation with the United States, but also a confrontation with India whose prime location would allow it to freshly contest the PLAN if were to succeed in breaking through Asia’s maritime chokepoints.

Conclusion

China is geographically and historically a land power. As has been the case with Germany and Russia, a blue water navy can be an expensive sign of prestige and great power status rather than a real weapon of war. Power projection for a high seas fleet in a benign, peacetime environment is a different matter entirely. Germany’s historical experience with maintaining distant naval infrastructure reveals that such basing is often irrelevant in full-scale war and virtually impossible to sustain or defend against assault. China’s navy will need to grow significant capacity and capability if China wishes to continue establishing distant military bases for the purpose of projecting power while hoping to retain them in conflict. Alternatively, China could moderate its overseas ambitions by accepting that such bases are indefensible and whose loss should be affordable so long as China’s naval power projection can be checked by potential adversaries in both the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Pawel Behrendt is a Ph.D. candidate at the Faculty of Political Science of the University of Vienna, an expert at the Poland-Asia Research Center, and Deputy Chief Editor of Konflikty.

Featured Image: Chinese troops stage a live-fire drill in Djibouti. (Handout)

North of Norfolk

Fiction Topic Week

By Hal Wilson

“Is Jim in?” he asked, red-faced and dripping rain.

The front door underlined his question, slamming shut as abruptly as he had arrived.

“Hello Carl!” the kindly, old receptionist beamed. The question was redundant, but politeness demanded it; they both knew Carl was on-site. He was one of their few staff not already called up for the front. “What’s the matter?”

“Call him up, will you? There’s something urgent.”

She frowned – picked up her phone and dialled Jim’s line. He could hear the internal line bleep patiently, once, twice, three times… It ceased as the connection was made.

“Got a visitor,” she explained, “it’s Carl, something urgent for you… OK.”

She set the phone down.

“He’ll be up in a moment,”

Carl paced by the door, as if that could make time pass more swiftly.

He was an ageing man; hiding a modest paunch and greying hair. But he had an ex-rugby prop’s broad frame, and energy enough that people mistook him for greater youth. The receptionist, watching him, knew what was on his mind: the new arrival to town. Everyone was talking about it.

“Carl!” boomed a voice from the back of the room.

It was Jim, smiling as he heaved open a back door. Machine-sound and solvent smells followed; the essence of grinding metal and chemical cleaners; the natural home for maritime engineers like Jim. Brushing strips of swarf from his coverall, Jim shook Carl’s meaty paw.

“How’s it been in the sales team? Keeping busy?”

“How do you like the idea of some war work?” Carl replied.

“We already have contracts with…” Jim paused. “Wait. You mean they need…”

“They do,” Carl interrupted, taking Jim by the arm, “come on.”

Outside, the rain assaulted in thick drifts from the leaden sky. They hurried past the storage yard, where coffee-coloured steel tubes were stacked like so much timber. Soaked to the skin, they bundled into Carl’s car.    

“Any details about the job?” Jim asked, checking for his old-style pen and paper. The car sputtered alive, and they set off down the rain-slick road, heedless of the speed limit.

“Nothing yet,” was the answer, “I’m no good with technicalities anyway.”

“True enough,” Jim agreed.

They crossed the Great Ouse River on the back of a Victorian bridge, crenellated with iron gargoyles weeping in the deluge. The broad, brown waters of the river blurred by, giving way to the town along its banks. Here huddled lengths of terraced homes, lights burning in their windows as they waited out the storm. Much like the rest of these isles.

“How’s it been, anyway?” Jim asked, fumbling for small-talk with some engineers, his social skills left something to be desired.

“What? I only saw you last week.”  

“Well, just asking…”

“I’m fine,” Carl sighed, relenting, “just worried about the boys.”

“Still no word?” Jim ventured cautiously. The news from the east was grim. Estonia: gone, and with it some thousand British soldiers. Germany: ‘de-escalating’ – a betrayal, garbed in Teutonic politeness. All the while, Kaliningrad still held out.

Carl said nothing.

They drove on, through the heart of the old hanseatic town.

Here, they passed the Elizabethan gates of ochre ashlar, which once resisted Cromwell. There, they passed the town hall, built in the days of Drake. It had the aspect of a cathedral and a skin of chequered flint, declaring SEMPER EADEM above its door. Cobblestones rumbled beneath their wheels, and the narrow streets narrowed yet more until, at last, the river reappeared before them.

Carl pulled up in the lee of the old Customs House, sandstone-chiselled with all Wren’s hallmarks. Alabaster-capped by its Roman cupola, it watched them anxiously.

“Let’s go,” Carl directed, braving the rain once more.

The downpour took them eagerly, hungrily, like a lusting lover; they could only shiver as sharp winds embraced them also, sweeping in off the Wash. Together they hustled to a nearby quay, frantic as they rushed down its length. At the far end, they scrambled aboard a waiting boat.

“Glad you boys could make it.”

It was Steve, the town ferryman, cocooned in waterproofs and greeting them at the rail.

Steve shook them by the hand (for they were each old friends), and they felt the warmth in his ever-calloused palms; saw the glint of eagerness in his hooded eyes. His craft was an open-sided, flat-bottomed thing, ideal for these tidal flats. Without another word, Steve got them underway. His two passengers could only shudder and stamp their feet – the wind was even fiercer down on the water.

And they had a fight on their hands. The ferry would normally glide to its landing stages on the easy tides of a river that – as befitting its name – often simply oozed. But now it braved the face of the afternoon tide. The waters were racing in with express-train ferocity, while miniature whitecaps frothed and broke amid the tawny waters. At the wheel, Steve simply stood like a statue, sharp eyes peering for detail. Stamping their feet, Carl and Jim could only curse the north wind, grabbing stanchions as the ferry bellied against every wave.

Suddenly, from starboard, motion drew their eyes. A pair of black-winged Cormorants cruised carelessly by, skimming scant centimetres above the rushing waters. The two passengers followed them with their gaze, taking in the town as the birds flew upstream: rain-slick roofs gleamed like gemstones as the sun struggled through low clouds above. Under each patch of shining slate peered the ivory-white outlines of windowpanes, each one tracking them with bated breath. Farther upstream, the port’s grain silo was half-swallowed by the concrete cloud, leaving a corrugated stump to the eye.

The town was a good place for the soul, by all accounts. But it was also scared.

Anyone looking upriver could understand why. Garbed in rusting blue, moored alongside the port, was the SCOTS KESTREL. It was just one of the grain bulkers marooned at the town over the last weeks. Beyond the port’s entrance lock were another two docks. Hidden behind the agribulk sheds, both were filled to capacity with millions upon millions in lost revenue.

There were steel-carriers, timber-ships and coal-haulers. All languished immobile. Each was waiting. Waiting – either for the order to convoy or for their insurers to resume trading. Whichever came first; as their old Baltic routes were best avoided for now.

Just as concerning was the newest arrival. It was anchored mid-river for lack of harbour berths.

Its flanks were gunmetal grey, with a bladelike bow and squat bridge amidships. Immediately aft was the ship’s mast, complete with swirling radar and hedgehog-spine aerials. Farther aft were crane assemblies dangling fast boats – and, behind them, a vacant helicopter pad. It flew the White Ensign, to be sure, but the ship gave no confidence. Not for Carl, at any rate.

It was shot through with rust. It was small. And it was alone. Carl could spot only one weapon aboard. It was some trifling pop-gun cannon, mounted on an open platform.

Insane, he decided. Who would sail in that thing?

“Almost there now,” Steve announced, rousing Carl from his frigid musings. Ahead, he noticed, the port-side crane was stirring at their approach, lowering one of the ship’s boats into the river. A member of the ship’s company stood astride, waving for them to approach. Steve angled his ferry until it was close alongside, gesturing with a flick for Jim and Carl to go.


Lieutenant Commander Hart breathed deep, closing his eyes for a brief moment.

The Russian had made it far too close.

He could still see the torpedo track in his mind, still hear the collective gasp of his bridge crew as it detonated late – on the far side of their helpless ship. Perhaps some Russian technician got sloppy. Perhaps some electronics failed at that one critical moment. Either way, terror had laid a dread hand on Hart’s shoulder, only to pull away. He exhaled, trying to harness this emotion. He would have to inspire some terror of his own in the P8 sub-hunters who dropped the ball. The useless pricks.

And then there was Keegan, the poor bastard. But that was something else entirely.

The bridge deckhead felt somehow oppressively low; the air itself seemed lifeless, as if robbed of its oxygen. He had the LED lighting off for now – its glare brought on headaches after enough hours – leaving the space with the half-dead ambience of the cloudy sky outside. But with the ship lying at anchor, its engines were still. Their comms, for now, had ceased their babble. It was quiet, at last. Praise God, it was quiet.

In the momentary peace, tea mug in hand, Hart idly pursued some mental mathematics.

Five day patrol – five times twenty-four: one hundred and twenty.

Deduct sleep – five times two, or three? Call it two-point-five… twelve-point-five.

And the shakeup at Pompey? Let’s say two times twenty four, minus six… forty-two.

One hundred twenty plus forty-two… minus, what was it? Twelve point five? Bloody hell… 

Hart rubbed at his eyes, despairing. Try as he might, he simply couldn’t finish his mental gymnastics. Even so, it confirmed what he already knew: this endurance was a young man’s game.

But then, if not him to command this ship, then who?

All his friends in the fleet, men and women he had known since the early days at Dartmouth, were already committed. Each and every one.  Every colleague he knew, through almost two decades in the Service, was either deployed or holding down countless shore jobs in the absence of the rest. There were too few hulls, and not enough crews for those they had anyhow. The last Hart saw, one of the old Type 23s was still by Portsmouth’s No. 1 Basin, just waiting for hands to sail her.

“Sir,” came a voice, stirring him back to life. It was Lieutenant Asher, his second-in-command.

“Number One.” He hoped she had missed his moment of weakness.

“The civilians are on the water,” she reported, “we should have them on board shortly.”

“Good. Ensure they only see the engineering spaces. And avoid talking about Keegan, if you can.”

“Of course, sir.” Asher understood the subtext. Don’t let them realise how strung out we are.

“And when you’re done with them, report back to me. We need to discuss magazine access.”

Asher saluted and exited onto the bridge wing. Heading aft, she drew her weatherproof smock close against the rain. Hart was tired – she had seen through his façade at once.

It was no surprise. The older generations avoided the EverReady stim-pills that kept her going longer. She spat in despair. She needed Hart at 100 percent: her own seagoing experience was nowhere close to his, and she knew it. It was down to him that they survived the last patrol – barely – but his reserves were spent.

Just like Keegan.

“Keep taking the bloody pills,” she muttered.


As soon as Carl and Jim were aboard the ship’s fast boat, the sailor waved for the crane operator to hoist them back up. Unsteady, the two bent their knees and hoped to save themselves embarrassment. The sailor regarded them as if they were drunk.

“You the engineer?” he asked, raising his voice above the wind. Carl noticed the sailor was young: incredibly young. There was no hiding the boyish face, despite his easy pose and deep voice.

Almost the age of my boys, he realised. Jim nodded in reply to the sailor.

“Lieutenant Asher will take you in,” the boy replied.

He pointed to a figure waiting at the ship’s rail, wrapped in a foul-weather smock. Carl and Jim looked sidelong at each other as the hoist thunked their boat back into place.

“Gents,” the figure called, “follow me.”

Jim started as he realized the figure was a woman. She regarded them with disdainful black eyes, almost as severe as the bun tying back her auburn hair.

“Are you Lieutenant Asher?” Carl asked, pretending to ignore his friend’s awkwardness.

“Come on,” she sighed, “time is a factor.”

They hurried along the waterlogged upper decks, ducking through an awkward doorway. Mercifully, the wind remained outside. But the ship’s narrow passageways were bathed in the clinical glare of LEDs, as though they were entering a surgeon’s operation. Ahead, Asher was already racing down the ship’s vertiginous ladder. Unsure of themselves, the two men lingered at the top. The treads were narrow, slickened by the raindrops from Asher’s passage. The climb was slow and treacherous; more than once, Carl felt he was about to slip.

Together below, Asher led them deeper into the ship’s guts. The engine room, lined with silvery heat-cladding, was deserted; its single gangway was flanked by two van-sized diesel blocks. Carl looked about himself, confused by light-studded consoles; looming extractor vents; labyrinthine pipes swirling around the engines.

“Here,” Asher pointed, “this is what we need you checking out.”

Looking over Jim’s shoulder, Carl understood little of what he saw.

“What, the shaft generator?” Jim asked, peering closer.

“No, that. That thing – there.”

Carl looked across at Asher, confused. How can she not understand her own machinery?

“Excuse me, Lieutenant, are you not the onboard engineer?”

Asher paused, hesitant. Crouched on his haunches, Jim looked up at her in curiosity.

“No. Keegan, our MEO – Marine Engineering Officer… he fell. Broke his neck where we came down earlier.”

“Good god,” Carl gasped, thinking back to his own unsteady climb, “I’m so sorry to hear.”

Asher nodded thanks.

“We suffered some damage in our last patrol,” she explained, “a shockwave from close in on the port side. It’s caused some damage to our propulsion. But Keegan’s deputy had to stay ashore with some kind of duodenal, and we don’t have our usual complement of senior technical rates. So, without Keegan, we don’t know how to fix it. At this rate, we’ll be doing bare steerageway all the way home.”

“Where’s the Machinery Control Room? Have you checked the switchboards, the DC links?” Jim asked, looking around.

“Yes, our artificers did thorough tests. No wider system faults.”

Producing his pen and paper, Jim scribbled urgent notes.

Carl, no engineer himself, only loosely understood what was being discussed. He watched as Jim rolled his sleeves and made closer, painstaking observations. Minutes passed as he gave running commentary to Asher – as if she could understand, either.

“The shaft pedestal is OK, by the looks of things… Maybe it’s the flanges… No, no, it’s misalignment! Maybe from the shockwave you mentioned.” He span around, locking eyes with Asher.

“Look, I’m eyeballing it here, but I reckon the jacking screws are misaligned. That’s going to overload your bearings. But we may have caught it before they need replacing.”

Asher glanced at Carl, out of her depth.

“What are our next steps?”

“I want a second opinion,” Jim said, “let me go talk to my guys and we’ll get you a proposal in a few hours. I reckon we can replace the jacking screws for a temporary fix. Then it’s over to your guys in Pompey for a deeper look. The shockwave may have caused all sorts. Hull flexing, you name it.”   

“How long?”

“Hard to say. But we’ve got stocks on hand, what with all those docked ships deferring MRO work.”

Carl smiled, proud for his friend. Jim was in his element.

And, better yet, it was another sale to boost Carl’s own quarterly numbers.

“Lieutenant Asher,” he beamed, “sounds to me like you’re in luck.”


Lingering at the bridge windows, Lieutenant Commander Hart watched the local ferry leaving. The two passengers looked pleased with themselves. Hart gave silent thanks for the luck of reaching this place – they might yet make it to Portsmouth after all.

“How long?” he asked, glancing over his shoulder as Asher returned to the bridge.

“They’ll have a proposal for us soon. Beyond that he wouldn’t say. But he was confident.”

“What did you tell them about Keegan? They must have asked about our own engineer team.”

“I said he fell, sir. Broke his neck.”

“Hmmm. Better than the truth.”

“You said you wanted to discuss small arms magazine access?”

“Just so,” Hart said, knocking back the last of his tea. “Keegan should never have gotten access to that pistol. And how did we not see how he was headed for a breakdown?”

“We all are, sir.”

Hart set down his mug, as if it had grown suddenly too heavy. Asher watched him, hesitant.

“A friend of ours just shot himself, Asher. Without him, we were almost disabled. Don’t be flippant.”

“Sir, I’m deadly serious. We’re not going to last another patrol like this. Sooner or later, the P8 fliers will miss another contact. And then we won’t be submarine bait. We’ll be dead.”

Hart shot her a frosty glance. It softened almost at once. She was right, after all. He reached into a pocket, pulled free a signal message – fresh off the printer.

“I can’t argue with that. But I can give you good news. Read this.”

Asher looked across the message in front of her.

“From COMUKMARFOR,” she read, “return to HMNB Portsmouth for emergency refit and installation of Battle AI. Report ETA and LOGREQ!” Asher looked up, grinning for the first time in a long time. Hart was smiling right back at her.

“Number One, chase up our Navigating Officer, then have a word with the logistics rates. Tell them HMS KENNET is headed home.”

Hal Wilson explores future warfare challenges through narrative and fiction, and has been published by the Small Wars Journal. He has written finalist entries for fiction contests held by the Atlantic Council’s Art of the Future Project, as well as the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command. Hal lives in the United Kingdom, where he works in the aerospace industry. 

He graduated in 2013, with first-class honours in War Studies and History from King’s College, London, and is now studying a masters degree in the History of Britain in the First World War.

Featured Image: Maintenance by khesm (via Deviant Art)

Plaster The Ship With Paint – Dazzle & Deception in War

James Taylor, Dazzle: Disguise and Deception in War and Art. Naval Institute Press, 2016. 128 pages, $38.00/hardcover.

By Christopher Nelson

There is a fun little ditty in the last page of James Taylor’s book, Dazzle: Disguise and Deception in War and Art. It goes like this:

Captain Schmidt at his periscope,
You need not fall and faint,
For it’s not the vision of drug or dope,
But only the dazzle-paint.
And you’re done, you’re done, my pretty Hun.
You’re done in the big blue eye,
By painter-men with a sense of fun,
And their work has just gone by.
Cheero! A convoy safely by.

British composer George Frederic Norton wrote the tune for a close friend and fellow artist. The friend? His name was Norman Wilkinson. And more than anyone, he was responsible for one of the most iconic painting schemes on ships at sea. Known simply as “Dazzle,” or “Dazzle paint,”  it was a mixture of different shapes and colors covering the hull and superstructure of merchants and combatants, primarily in World War I, intended to deceive German submarine captains about a ship’s heading and speed.     

Yet years before World War I, Wilkinson established himself as a talented artist. Born into a large family in the late 19th century, in Cambridge, England, he moved to the southern part of the country as a young boy. It was there, in Southsea, England, that his artistic talents flourished. And like many artists, he benefited from the good graces of a well-connected benefactor. In Wilkinson’s case, it was his doctor. But not just any doctor. His doctor was the creator of  Sherlock Holmes –Arthur Conan Doyle. The famous author and physician introduced Wilkinson to the publisher of The Idler, a popular British magazine at the time. Wilkinson would go on to create some illustrations for The Idler and Today magazine. These illustrations were the first of many commissioned paintings, drawings, and posters to come. Landscapes, maritime themes, planes and trains, Norman Wilkinson would end up painting them all.

Author and Physician, Sherlock Holmes supported Norman Wilkinson’s early entry into English periodicals

In fact, military naval enthusiasts – and more than a few naval intelligence officers – might be surprised to learn that Wilkinson was later responsible for the World War II poster that depicted a sinking ship with the disclaimer: “A few careless words may end in this.” The poster is obviously a close cousin to the popular American military idiom, “Loose Lips Might Sink Ships,” a piece of operations security art by Seymour R. Goff (who had the interesting nom de guerre “Ess-ar-gee”) that was created for the American War Advertising Council in World War II. Prints of Goff’s work still cover the walls and passageways of U.S. naval shore facilities and ships today.

A Few Careless Words May End in This, by Norman Wilkinson/Wikipedia

When World War I began, Wilkinson, like thousands of British men, wanted to join up and, as the saying goes, “do his bit.” Eventually, he was assigned as a naval pay clerk and deployed to the Mediterranean theater in 1915. But by 1917 he was back in Britain, and Germany had resumed unrestricted submarine warfare. It was around this time that Wilkinson had an idea to protect merchant shipping. And as with so many great ideas, often hatched during the quiet, daily moments of life, Dazzle was born, not in a boardroom or on a chalkboard, but in a “cold carriage” following a fishing trip in southern England.  

Here Taylor quotes Wilkinson:

“On my way back to Devonport in the early morning, in an extremely cold carriage, I suddenly got the idea that since it was impossible to paint a ship so that she could not be seen by a submarine, the extreme opposite was the answer – in other words, to paint her, not for low visibility, but in such a way as to break up her form and thus confuse a submarine officer as to the course which she was heading.”

A few months later, with support from the Royal Academy of Arts, a friend in the Ministry of Shipping, and a few others, the “Dazzle Section” was created. Staffed with artists and modelers (many of them women), they were responsible for paint schemes that covered over 4,000 merchant ships and 400 combatants by the end of the war.  

Taylor does a fantastic job at detailing the personalities and the process that got Dazzle from Wilkinson’s mind onto the hulls of so many ships. Taylor discusses the numerous other artists that helped bring Wilkinson’s idea to fruition, the introduction of Dazzle to the U.S. Navy, and its brief return in World War II. He also highlights the dispute between Wilkinson and Sir John Graham Kerr, a professor of zoology at the University of Glasgow who for years claimed that he, not Wilkinson, should deserve credit for the creation of the dazzle concept. Taylor notes that Kerr “relentlessly campaigned to advance his claim that his scheme was in principle one and the same as Wilkinsons.”   

Camouflage pattern for Benson class destroyer in WWII/Wikipedia

Taylor’s Dazzle, besides succeeding in substance, also succeeds in style. About the size of a composition notebook, Dazzle is large enough to show illustrations of the paint scheme on merchant ships and combatants in clear detail, while it also includes photographs of the artists in the Dazzle sections at work. Hunched over large tables holding small models in their hands, artists carefully painted various Dazzle schemes on each model. Once the model ship was painted they placed it in what they called the “theatre.” This was no more than a room with a table and periscope. The model was placed a circular table and rotated, while another person looked through a periscope that was about seven feet away. “In this way, one could judge the maximum distortion one was trying to achieve in order to upset a submarine Commander’s idea on which the ship was moving.”  The colors that covered the model were then meticulously copied onto a color chart that was provided to the contractors who covered the ships in dazzle designs.

Yet the question still remains: Did Dazzle paint work? Did it deceive U-boat commanders? A small painted model in a theatre is one thing, but out at sea is something entirely different. 

Unfortunately, as Taylor says, we really don’t know. Dazzle painting was introduced late in the war. Naval critic Archibald Hurd noted that there was not “enough evidence” to determine its “efficiency.” Nor, as Taylor notes, did any captured German submarine captains say that Dazzle confounded their targeting of enemy vessels. A single sentence in a submarine log or captain’s diary –Verdammt die Tarnfarbe! – would be an indictment, but if it exists, it has yet to be discovered by naval historians.

Dazzle was intended to deceive U-boats about the ship’s speed and course/U.S. Navy File Image

Taylor, the former curator of paintings, drawings, prints and exhibition organizer at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, has written a book that does justice to Wilkinson’s work. The talented Dazzle artists would probably be amazed to see how far his paint scheme has come – as Taylor includes an entire chapter about Dazzle painting’s influence on modern art and how the big blocks of paint now cover cars and even Nike footwear.

My only critique is a request really, that the publishers make this book available in an e-book format for people who prefer the work on an electronic reader.

Regardless, Taylor’s detailed account of Dazzle, his careful selection of photographs, illustrations, and paintings, all printed and bound in a beautiful book is essential for anyone interested in the history of naval deception, World War I navies, or the rare but respected breed who enjoys the intersection of war and art. 

Lieutenant Commander Christopher Nelson, USN, is stationed at the U.S. Pacific Fleet headquarters in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and the Navy’s operational planning school, the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School in Newport, Rhode Island. He is a regular contributor to CIMSEC. The opinions here are his own.

Featured Image: Aquitania in Dazzle Paint/Wikipedia Commons