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The Russian Navy: Strategies and Missions of a Force in Transition

Russia Resurgent Topic Week

By Michael Kofman

On October 7th, Russia’s Caspian Flotilla launched land attack cruise missiles into Syria, bringing into relief the steady modernization of the Russian Navy (RFN), and its recently added strike capabilities. Dominating the Caspian is not a difficult challenge for the Russian flotilla of Gepard-class frigates and Buyan-M corvettes, but the ability to launch cruise missiles at targets in Europe or the Middle East potentially over two thousand kilometers away is emblematic of the future Russian Navy. Together with the Northern, Pacific, Baltic, and Black Sea Fleets, the RFN is a force in transition. Russia’s surface and submarine force today is quantitatively a fraction of the size of its Soviet ancestor, but it is undergoing revival, investment, and reconfiguration to become a qualitatively different force. Today’s Russian Navy is intended to pursue both traditional missions such as strategic deterrence and status projection, along with sea denial, sea control, and coastal defense.

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Russia’s latest maritime doctrine, released in July, is an incredibly ambitious document with visions of carriers, multirole landing ships, new destroyers, and a host of platforms indicating parity with the U.S. and power projection across blue waters in the maritime domain. However, these dreams, reaching out into 2050, are unlikely to be realized for a slew of reasons, including budget constraints, defense industry capacity, inefficiencies, and technological shortcomings. Russia’s defense budget this year, at 3.3 trillion roubles or 4.2% of GDP, is the largest it has ever been since the Soviet Union, but given prevailing economic conditions, it is unlikely to be seen at these levels for years to come. Financial constraints aside, Russia also lacks a vision for the missions these carriers or amphibious ships would perform. They are political aspirations on paper at best, while much of the actual maritime strategy and thinking on the future of Russian naval power is unlikely to reside in this document.

Instead of unattainable, and unrealistic, dreams of power projection with a large blue water navy, the RFN seems set to become primarily a green water force. Increasingly based around smaller and more advanced ship classes, with capable long range anti-ship and land attack missiles, this fleet will be designed to project conventional deterrence. In practice, Moscow is investing in the achievable, while paying lip service to the unnecessary. Hence, in the coming years, Russia will remain primarily a regional naval power. One area where the maritime doctrine rings true is the concentration of effort and assets facing NATO forces in Europe and along the Arctic, best embodied in modernization of the Northern and Black Sea Fleets.

The desire to establish “non-nuclear deterrence,” voiced in the Military Doctrine released in December 2014, is a more important driver behind Russian thinking. This strategy is based around long range precision weapons, multiple vectors of attack, and the ability to inflict high costs to NATO in select regions such as the Baltic, Black, and Barents Seas. In this respect, Russia’s naval developments should be viewed in conjunction with spending on additional maritime aviation and coastal defenses, such as the Su-30SM and the Bastion-P. However, Russia’s maritime aviation is a small force and organizationally in the hands of its air force. The more important trend in the Russian navy is that a small missile boat, or a frigate, armed with the new line of Kalibr missiles (SS-N-27A and SS-N-30A), can pose a similar threat to a Tu-22M3 bomber at a better stand-off range and have excellent land attack options.

In the Russian submarine force, strategic deterrence remains the paramount mission, particularly with the new Borey-class of SSBNs steadily replacing older Delta IVs and IIIs. Power projection seems mostly a mission for the submarine force, especially given the troubled shipbuilding program. In the coming years, older Soviet platforms will be steadily phased out. However, with delays in production of new multi-role ships, the Russian navy looks increasingly better underwater. The best example is a new squadron of six improved-Kilo diesel submarines being added to the Black Sea Fleet, armed with the same family of land attack and anti-ship missiles. The new Yasen-class multirole submarine, along with modernization projects for older SSNs and SSGNs, will restore some of the Russia’s sea power in the underwater domain.There is a marked increase in Russian submarine activity and patrols, up by fifty percent according to Russian Navy chief Admiral Viktor Chirkov, along with a newfound interest in underwater cable and oceanographic mapping.

Status projection via naval power remains an important national priority, as it arguably has been since the time of Peter the Great. While differences abound in Russian defense circles over the amount of spending on the navy, given the country is primarily a land power, Moscow remains committed to the notion that it cannot be considered a great power without visible hallmarks of naval power. Hence Russia is investing in the modernization and refit of the Kirov-class battlecruisers, at great expense to other priorities, with perhaps 1.7 billion roubles for Admiral Nakhimov and over 2 billion roubles for Peter the Great. The goal is to maintain a unique set of capital ships to conduct flag waving, strategic messaging, and a host of other status projection missions. While the Kirovs may be anachronistic, status projection is held at an even higher premium today because it is tied to the public perception of Vladimir Putin’s personal brand of leadership, which in Moscow is as important as the objective results of foreign policy.

The most prominent mission for the Russian Navy today is supporting the military intervention in Syria, including provision of air defense using the Slava-class missile cruiser Moskva and sustaining the force via sea lines of communication from the Black Sea, dubbed the “Syrian Express.” The Black Sea Fleet (BSF) is in charge of this operation in the Eastern Mediterranean, managing a rotating squadron of roughly ten ships, largely composed of Soviet era landing ships and the BSF anti-submarine warfare group. Originally stood up to support the Syrian regime in 2013, the Mediterranean squadron will become a more permanent fixture according to official statements, independent of the conflict’s trajectory.

The intervention in Syria is a useful study on the state of Russian sea lift and capacity for expeditionary warfare. Russia compensated for the lack of available sea lift, an expensive asset to have lying about for a country that has not done expeditionary warfare since the Afghanistan War, by simply re-designating commercial carriers (ironically purchased from Turkey). The RFN trains provision of mobility and sea lift for ground forces during annual strategic exercises, but even for a relatively close operation such as Syria, clearly lacks the requisite assets.  With limited platforms available for expeditionary warfare, the RFN is focused instead on being able to move forces around the country’s vast regions. This is an especially challenging mission in the Arctic and Pacific, largely uninhabited expanses of terrain where exerting sea control is taxing. Traditional expeditionary warfare is not something the Russian navy is geared for, plans for, or expects to be doing much of in the future.

The RFN will remain strongest facing NATO in the European theater, effecting sea denial and conventional deterrence, with smaller and more modern platforms. While Russian ships may venture out into the North Atlantic, most such forays will be limited to strategic communication, training, or flag waving missions. The submarine force will form an important element in a strategy of nuclear and conventional deterrence, maintaining the ability to strike the U.S. homeland. Around Russia’s periphery, a host of sea patrol ships and cutters for the FSB border guard will work to improve sea control along the coastline. The Arctic is an area of particular anxiety for Moscow, despite little traffic through the Northern Sea Route. Russian leaders envision long term economic competition over Arctic resources. They are seeking to invest in military and rescue infrastructure today in order to establish firm control over access to the region in the future. When it comes to sea control and sea lift the Russian strategy is mindful of cost constraints and structured around surging capacity when needed.

As envisioned today, the Russian Navy is not likely to become a global peer competitor to the U.S. but represent a more potent regional challenge, particularly to NATO allies. NATO will have to deal with a resurgent Russian presence in the Mediterranean and the ability of Russian ships to conduct long range strikes from within the comfort of established A2/AD zones close to their bases of operation. While the net sum of Russia’s naval strategy could be characterized as regional and largely defensive in nature, the practical results are not simply negative from a security standpoint for NATO, but present new challenges for a stretched U.S. Navy. Russia’s shipbuilding program will proceed fitfully at best, but the changes already in progress within the RFN are yielding results that will require adjustment and adaptation on the part of the U.S. and its allies.

Mr. Michael Kofman is a Research Scientist at CNA Corporation and a Fellow at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, D.C. Mr. Kofman holds a M.A. in International Security from the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University and a B.A. in Political Science from Northeastern University.

Read other contributions to Russia Resurgent Topic Week.

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Russia Resurgent Week Kicks Off on CIMSEC

By Matt McLaughlin

Welcome to Russia Resurgent Week at CIMSEC, where we attempt to shed some light on Russia’s objectives, capabilities and constraints. Russia has occupied the headlines for a variety of reasons in recent weeks, but this is not the place to visit for the latest updates. Rather, this week investigates the broad phenomenon of post-Soviet Russia’s rise. What are its tools? What will it do with them, and where? How do recent events fit into a broader strategic framework?

An impressive stable of international writers has contributed on a variety of Russia-related subjects. Interspersed are some pieces published earlier on CIMSEC that complement the latest work. We hope that by the end of the week Russia will be slightly less of a mystery, if still an enigma.

1 – The Russian Navy: Strategies and Missions of a Force in Transition By Michael Kofman
2 – The New Russian Naval Doctrine By Sean MacCormac
3 – The Development of Russian Naval Capabilities after the Cold War By Patrick Truffer
4 – Shipbuilding Constraints Drive Downsized but Potent Russian Navy By Dmitry Gorenburg
5 – Russian Navy Reads Sun Tzu’s Art of War By Vidya Sagar Reddy
6 – Cutting Through the Fog: Reflexive Control and Russian STRATCOM in Ukraine By Robert C. Rasmussen

7 – Is Russia’s Maritime Strategy Adrift? By Ben Hernandez
8 – Russia in the Arctic: Aggressive or Cooperative? By Laguerre Corentin
9 – Yours, Mine and Moscow’s: Breaking Down Russia’s Latest Arctic Claims By Sally DeBoer
10 – Russian & Soviet Fleets, 25 Years Apart  By Louis Martin-Vezian

Matt McLaughlin is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer. His opinions do not represent the Department of the Navy.

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To the Shores of Tripoli An Alternative History of the Birth of the U.S. Navy

Alternate History Topic Week

By Christopher Stephens

The United States has been a maritime power since its inception.  Maritime trading has always been essential to its economy and over the years has stretched across the globe.  Protecting these interests is the job of U.S. Navy.  Its origins date back to  when North African pirates began seizing American merchant vessels and holding their crews to ransom.  This article will explore what could have been if the United States had decided to appease the pirates instead of investing in a national navy to protect its economic interests on the high seas.  

The United States had barely stepped on to the global stage, when it faced its first foreign crisis. Its merchant fleets were increasingly coming under attack by North African pirates from the Barbary States.  This problem of piracy was hardly new:  since the 16th century, European commerce in the Mediterranean had been under threat from the Barbary Nations in North Africa.  These states consisted of Tripoli, Algiers, and Tunis, which were nominally protectorates of the Ottoman Empire, along with the independent Sultanate of Morocco.  The economies of this region were heavily dependent on piracy and a series of warlords, called Deys, maintained their power largely by bringing in tribute.  The European nations had found it easier to simply pay off the pirates rather than engage in sustained military action that would likely forge either temporary peace or require an expensive occupation of North African territory. 

American merchant shipping had, in its early years, been protected by European powers: by the British during the colonial period, and during the Revolution later by the French.  The onset of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, however, drew attention from the pirate threat in the Mediterranean and left American merchant vessels with European help.  Furthermore, upon achieving independence, the fledgling U.S. government found itself short of money.  The Continental Navy, which fought during the revolution, was disbanded and the remaining vessels were sold off to raise funds.   Unfortunately, this left American merchantmen to fend for themselves on the high seas. 

The first U.S. merchant ship was seized in October of 1784 by a Moroccan raider.  The crew was held captive for a decade and many wrote letters home describing the deplorable conditions of their imprisonment.  The resulting public outcry compelled renewed interest in dealing with this persistent pirate threat.

Dealing between Morocco and the U.S. were not necessarily negative, however. Morocco was the first nation to recognize the United States in 1777 and subsequently signed The Moroccan-American Treaty of Friendship in 1786.  The other Barbary States were not as easily dealt with.  Algiers continued to demand tribute from the U.S. and ransomed captives, although a peace treaty was signed in 1796.  The agreement proved very costly for the U.S. (requiring up to 10% of its annual revenue) and military options were increasingly considered.  In 1801, Congress approved the construction of six frigates for use in protecting American shipping and compelling the Barbary States to allow American ships to sail the Mediterranean unscathed.  Tripoli declared war the same year after its demands for tribute were refused by the newly elected President Thomas Jefferson.

The U.S.S. Chesapeake, one of the U.S. Navy's original six frigates.
The U.S.S. Chesapeake, one of the U.S. Navy’s original six frigates.

A fleet under the command of Edward Preble was ordered to blockade the port of Tripoli.  The expedition was largely successful although losses were taken.  The decisive action of the conflict occurred when the former U.S. consul William Eaton led eight U.S. marines and approximately five hundred foreign mercenaries on an overland march to capture the city of Derne, and threatened the capital of Tripoli.  The fall of Derne marked the first U.S. victory on foreign soil (and is immortalized in the lyrics of the Marine Corps Hymn).  Tripoli subsequently signed a peace treaty with the U.S. in 1805, ending the first Barbary War.

With this first American victory on foreign shores, the Navy demonstrated its ability to project power over long distances and sustain an extended naval campaign away from home ports.  In addition, this was the first U.S. Marine landing and subsequent land campaign.  The U.S. had demonstrated that it could protect its citizens and could meet any aggressive acts against it with force. In addition, the U.S. was no longer compelled to pay tribute to any foreign nation.

A second Barbary War began when the War of 1812 again drew European attention away from North Africa.  Once again U.S. merchant ships were taken by pirates and again the Navy was dispatched to the Mediterranean.  In 1815, a fleet under the command of Stephen Decatur won several battles against Algerian pirates and forced Algiers to sign a treaty protecting American vessels from piracy.

Building a navy and launching military expeditions against the Barbary pirates was by no means a unanimous policy decision on the part of the U.S. government, however.  Even within Jefferson’s own party, the Democratic-Republicans, there was considerable opposition to the idea of creating a regular navy in the first place.  Many prominent Americans were skeptical of creating a centralized standing military because they felt is could be used by rulers to oppress its citizenry.  From the Anti-Federalist papers (Brutus X):

 “The liberties of a people are in danger from a large standing army, not only because the rulers may employ them for the purposes of supporting themselves in any usurpations of power, which they may see proper to exercise, but there is great hazard, that an army will subvert the forms of the government, under whose authority, they are raised, and establish one, according to the pleasure of their leader.”

Even if the military remained subservient to the state, there were concerns that a standing peacetime military would encourage the government to provoke wars and promote their own agendas that would not be in the best interests of the nation.  Still others felt that future of the new United States lay in expanding westward across the continent.  Building up a navy, they felt, would allocate resources away from this expansion.  In the end, Jefferson and his supporters won out, but it could have easily gone the other way.

Had history followed this alternate course, and the anti-navalists won out, the trajectory of America becoming a world power would have been curtailed.  The U.S. would have contended with numerous economic and geopolitical problems.  A U.S. Navy would have eventually been created, but not until an event such as the Civil War prompted renewed interest in military expansion.  Even then, the resources and expertise would not be in place to accommodate such a policy. 

 In the meantime, the U.S. would have continued paying tribute to the Barbary States in order to secure safe passage for its merchants, thus straining the national budget.  Even if westward expansion became a priority, maritime trade would have remained the economic backbone of the country.   In order to continue its overseas trade, the U.S. would be forced to remain reliant on Europe for maritime protection or limit its trade with Europe accordingly and remain a strictly regional power.  Instead, America would probably turn its gaze southward to the Spanish colonies in Central and South America.  This alliance would almost certainly spark tensions with Britain, France, and even the Dutch, the primary competitors for territory in the Americas.  Any number of conflicts could break out, making the War of 1812 look like a border skirmish by comparison.         

Alternatively, an agreement could be reached whereby U.S. goods would be transported in European hulls to overseas markets.  Such an agreement would deter piracy at the cost of ceding control of the U.S. economic lifeline to foreign powers who could gain immense leverage by threatening to choke it off.  While this would have prevented a rising America from coming into coming into conflict with other states, ultimately, this would have the effect of reducing the U.S. to little more than a de facto European colony yet again. 

Strategically, policies like the Monroe Doctrine would not be viable for the U.S., given the lack a strong deterrent.  Other European competitors would have free access to U.S. waters and generally be able to do as they pleased.  Indeed, the Quasi War with France in 1798 and the War of 1812 proved that the U.S. needed a naval force that could stand up to the other European powers.  In both cases, the Navy was able to protect American interests at sea.  Hiring privateers for protection would be an option for the U.S., though likely an expensive strategy in the long run.  In addition, with naval action relegated to secondary importance, it is unlikely that the U.S. would develop the capability to produce homegrown warships.  Noted ship designers such as Joshua Humphreys, the designer of the first U.S. frigates, would take their expertise elsewhere, not to mention the great American naval commanders who would remain unknown. 

Instead the U.S. began a strong naval tradition of projecting power globally that would manifest itself in the coming decades with the Great White Fleet, the opening of Japan, and the Spanish American war, and continued into the modern era.  It is telling, perhaps, that the 2011 Libyan intervention is sometimes referred to the Third Barbary War.

Christopher Stephens is a graduate from the College of William & Mary and is currently with the Project for the Study of the 21st Century.  He has formerly completed internships with the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command and the Joint Forces Staff College.


Ohls, Gary J. Roots of Tradition: Amphibious Warfare in the Early American Republic. Ann Arbor: UMI, 2008

Peskin, Lawrence A. Captives and Countrymen: Barbary Slavery and the American Public, 1785–1816. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009

Tinniswood, Adrian. Pirates of the Barbary: Corsairs, Conquests, and Captivity in the 17th Century Mediterranean. New York: Penguin, 2010.

The Anti-Federalist Papers. Brutus X. January 24, 1788

United States Federal State and Local Government Revenue, Fiscal Year 1800, in $ million, usgovernmentrevenue.com.

“Looks Like a Chilean War”: The Baltimore Incident as Counterfactual Exercise

Alternate History Topic Week

By Thomas Jamison

On October 16th 1891, a group of USS Baltimore sailors, no doubt happy to have liberty after months at sea, set off to enjoy the delights of Valparaiso, Chile. After several hours (of, let’s be honest, presumably heavy drinking), a scuffle broke out between local Chileans and the American crew. The ensuing violence left two U.S. sailors dead, seventeen injured and a hemispheric relationship in tatters. Unable to resolve the issue locally, the USS Baltimore’s commander telegraphed Washington for instructions. The Chileans, meanwhile, held fast to their jurisdiction over the U.S. personnel, and the investigative proceedings more broadly, as a matter of national sovereignty. From these humble sparks came a war crisis over hemispheric leadership and the relative standing of the United States as a “great power.”

To date, scholars have tended to underestimate the Baltimore Incident as “a mere tempest in a teapot,” or at best a signpost en route to the War of 1898. That the crisis has inspired relatively little comment in English literature should obscure neither its significance to contemporaries nor its enduring relevance to strategic planners. Indeed, the Baltimore Incident  might better be understood as an acute manifestation of the larger, chronic competition between the United States and Chile over regional autonomy and control. When, in 1891, Chilean leaders provoked a confrontation with the U.S, they sought political advantage from the crisis (at a domestic and international level) and had good reason to be optimistic. Chile had used its maritime forces and commercial partnerships to defeat Spain (1866), Peru (1884) and to overawe the United States into diplomatic concessions in 1882, 1885 and 1888. By 1891, however, the realities of power-politics in the American Pacific had shifted dramatically. In the United States imperialist sentiment, domestic military production and a dedicated navalist lobby all underwrote a newfound bellicosity and assertiveness. Opinion in Washington held that Chilean regional primacy represented a substantial threat to American expansionism and, moreover, the self-image of the United States in the “great power” system. National “honor” was no idle phrase in the Harrison administration.

At this 1891 juncture for the “dominant position in the Western Hemisphere,” war seemed likely, perhaps even inevitable. As The New York Times reported on Christmas Day 1891: “Looks like a Chilean War, Little Hope Now of a Peaceful Settlement.” Nonetheless, and  to the chagrin of many, hostilities were averted in late January 1892 when Chile acceded to U.S. demands. The tantalizing question remains, what might have been? What if the United States and Chile went to War in 1890? What ramifications would conflict have had for the U.S. emergence in the great power system? And as long as we’re entertaining counterfactuals, what might defeat at the hands of “little Chili” have spelled for navalist ambitions and the U.S. role in South America?

The United States, Chile and the Pacific at the Fin-De-Siècle Such an outcome was hardly a remote possibility. In 1884, Chile emerged from the War of the Pacific (its territorial struggle with Peru and Bolivia over nitrate deposits), as the dominant naval power in the Pacific. That result seems as incredible today as it was obvious to contemporary observes. Secretary of the Navy John Long complained that in the 1880s, “the American Navy was inferior to that of any European and at least one South American power. Little Chile, triumphant over Peru, could have sent her Admiral Cochrane and Huascar against San Francisco and the United States would have been unable to repel them.” Likewise, the prize winning essay of the U.S. Naval Institute in 1884 lamented, “in our present condition, Brazil, Chili or the Argentine Republic might send a fleet of ironclads to devastate our seaport cities.” Overseas, in 1881, the London Standard noted (smugly, but with little exaggeration), “The American Navy, if not a phantom fleet, would certainly find it difficult to compete successfully with the Chilean fleet.”

Those observations reflected the scope of Chile’s investment in naval supremacy along the Pacific Slope in the 1880s and 90s. Chilean President Jose Manuel Balmaceda argued in 1891: Chile should be able to resist on its own territory any possible coalition, and if it cannot succeed in attaining the naval power of the great powers, it should at least prove, on the base of a secure port and a fleet proportionate to its resources, that there is no possible profit in starting a war against the Republic of Chile. Resources were appropriated accordingly and with some notable success. The most prolific Chilean naval historian estimated that (in absolute terms) the “peak of Chilean naval power was in 1899.” In 1882 Chile rebuffed—rudely—U.S. attempts to mediate an end to the War of the Pacific. In 1885, it countered U.S. incursions against the Colombians by deploying a gunboat to Panama. Most tangibly, in 1888 Chile annexed Easter Island as a symbol of its hemispheric stature and, more practically, a strategic (coaling/early warning) asset. By 1894, in a revealing detail, Santiago even began to export surplus warships to Japan.

Of the Pacific’s many foreign observes, none eyed Chile’s position with more concern than the United States. The central U.S. political objectives of the late nineteenth century were hemispheric expansion and the development of overseas markets, primarily in Asia—what Seward called “the chief theater of events in the world’s great hereafter.” Both efforts were contingent on an Isthmian Canal and/or sea lines of communication around South America, which in practice pushed the U.S. toward a policy of hemispheric hegemony. Andrew Carnegie captured the spirit of the age in 1882 when he wrote to then Secretary of State James Blaine, “You are exactly right. America is going to control anything and everything on this Continent. That’s settled. . . . No joint arrangements, no entangling alliances with monarchical, war-like Europe. America will take this Continent in hand alone.” In such an environment of imperial  ascendancy (U.S.) and regional resistance (Chile), the Baltimore Incident, or some similar provocation, was almost inevitable. 

By December 1891, institutional and political incentives had pushed the would-be belligerents to the “ragged edge” of war. That month, as a U.S. task force transited toward South America, the USS Baltimore was replaced on station by the USS Yorktown, commanded by “Fighting Bob” Evans (an officer who could calmly confide in his journal, “I cannot see any good reason why I should not be perfectly civil and polite to [the Chileans], even if I have to shoot them tomorrow.”) Relations deteriorated further when, on New Year’s Eve 1891, the Chileans provocatively fired rockets in the Yorktown’s vicinity, and days later—some sources say —conducted torpedo drills using the U.S. vessel as a notional target. “Fighting Bob” Evans, surveying the scene from the Yorktown was typically blunt, “I don’t see how war can now be avoided.”

RADM Robley Dunglison "Fighting Bob" Evans
RADM Robley Dunglison “Fighting Bob” Evans

Waging War with “Little Chili” Bombast and hindsight aside, if it came to war between the U.S. and Chile the outcome remained highly contingent. U.S. navalist pretensions belied a central irony of the crisis. American leaders managed to assert that Chile was simultaneously a real threat to U.S. regional hegemony and that it would be relatively easy to defeat in an offensive war. That dissonance spoke to the larger uncertainty about the balance of power in the Pacific. Perceptions of Chilean naval expansion had helped spur U.S. naval expansion in the 1880s, but in 1891 U.S. forces remained relatively limited, and decidedly untested. Tracy, for one, was shocked to learn that “the best American naval expeditionary force which could be mustered at this time numbered scarcely twenty warships.” Moreover, many of these ships teetered on obsolescence. As the Naval Historian Timothy Wolters convincingly documented, in the 1890s:

Naval recapitalization in the United States lagged well behind political debates over, and public perceptions of, the new American navy. Intriguingly, the data show that immediately prior to the country’s war with Spain in 1898, the old navy still consumed about one-third of the navy’s fiscal resources, contributed three-sevenths of the service’s aggregate tonnage, and accounted for just over half of all vessels in the navy’s inventory.

The gap between perception and capability bred miscalculation. Establishing a clear balance of “real power” from which to base strategic planning was frustratingly imprecise.

That was all the more true because naval assessments at the fin-de-siècle were complicated by recent and largely untested developments in naval technology. Innovations in naval architecture (low-freeboard, armored warships; rapid firing guns) and the application of second industrial revolution technologies (electric firing systems; navigational aids; armor piercing shells) rendered traditional assessments of naval efficacy unsure. Chile’s fleet of torpedo boats, for example, presented a novel form of power in the Pacific. It was widely noted that during the Chilean Civil War, the Balmacedist navy had become the first in history to successfully use a propelled “automobile” torpedo to sink another warship. What impact these new weapons might have on the ability of the Chilean’s to defend their coast against aggression was hotly debated.

Complicating matters further were geographic realities that hampered U.S. deployments and ensnared military preparations with European shipyards. The Peruvian minister in Washington, Jose Yrigoyen, appreciated as much, cabling his government to describe “the difficulties the [U.S.] squadron will have in a war with Chile.” Without “coaling station in the Pacific,” he argued perceptibly, the U.S. ships would be forced to ferry coal from San Francisco, a “difficult task, above all if Chile dedicates a few of its ships to capturing this important element of the American squadron.” These geographic challenges injected a sobering realism into the United States’ preparations for war. No less than Mahan wrote, “we are so confident in our bigness and so little realize the great extra load entailed by the distance of Chili, in case of war.” Relatedly, in the winter of 1891, Chile retained the services of a British shipyard for additional ship construction over the objections of the Harrison administration. How the interruption of global supply lines via an Atlantic guerre de course might effect power projection in the Southern Hemisphere defied clear assessment. All this is to say, the war was hardly a foregone conclusion.

Indeed—looking forward to the 1905 Russo-Japanese War—we might even speculate about the use of torpedoes to asymmetrically attack U.S. capital ships (that is to apply a key innovation in second industrial revolution technology to obviate investments in steel, ships, guns etc…). The New York Times certainly did, arguing that “Naval constructors who advocate and powers that have adopted the policy of building larger and larger war ships with constantly- increasing thickness of armor will devote much study and sober thought to [Chile’s] first decisive exhibition of the effectiveness of the automobile torpedo in actual warfare.” Distance, new weapons systems and interruptible lines of communication all suggested that the United States might have fared no better than Spain had a generation (1866-72) earlier in its unsuccessful war with Peru and Chile (one which ended with the Spanish commander committing suicide to avoid humiliation). 

If Chile had defeated the United States in a limited regional war, it might have proved a a major setback for Tracy, Mahan and the like. It would likely have undermined U.S. stature in the great power system and elevated Chile on a par with, say, Japan. Indeed in the same way that Russian defeat in 1905 saw it recast as backwards, U.S. defeat might have seriously altered the time, place and manner in which it entered into the European great power system. It might also have seen Chile, backed by a commercial relationship with Great Britain, double-down on its program of navalist expansion and develop into a long-term regional competitor with the United States. It might even have encouraged Santiago to follow up on its territorial annexations (in the Atacama and Easter Island) to become a regional hegemon in its own right.


The resolution of the Baltimore Incident is at once a case study in crisis management and a cautionary tale of military and civilian leaders using war to advance their institutional interests. It is an equally useful reminder (and perhaps necessary corrective) of the limits of U.S. hemispheric control before 1890, and of the speed of the imperial-navalist transformation by 1898. The offensive capabilities of the United States morphed from a near-peer competitor with Chile in the 1880s into those of a global power in under a generation. In this sense, the Baltimore Incident is a window onto the United States “adapting to the status of a world power” amid a period of technological change and imperial rivalry.  The great diplomatic historian Ernest May argued that the United States became “a world power in many respects comparable to Great Britain or Russia or Imperial Germany” after the War of 1898. Looking back a decade, the Baltimore Incident marks an important precedent in a longer process of ascendancy. Considering alternative outcomes (namely defeat) further reminds us of that ascendancy’s contingent nature. As a nomological exercise, the Baltimore Incident suggests a raft conclusions. Namely, that regional actors often resist imperial hegemony in order to secure domestic cohesion; that military bureaucracies incentivize the militarization of foreign policy; and that technological progress can rapidly destabilize the balance of power, encouraging misperceptions and bellicosity. These tendencies belong as much to the twenty first century as they do the nineteenth. Parallels between the Baltimore Incident and recent Sino-Japanese tensions, to name one possible example, are almost irresistible. Consider in this analogy China as the Harrisonian United States and Japan as Chile; supported then, as now, by the world’s leading commercial power. It is conceivable, as in 1891, that a minor incident, like an attack on a foreign owned business, could encourage nationalist posturing in Beijing as a means to (1) rally domestic support, (2) advance the interests of recapitalizing military forces (a process ongoing in both China and Japan), and (3) assert regional primacy. That possibility should be especially concerning because of the comparative proximity of China and Japan and the profound uncertainties created by the militarization of digital technology. A critical perspective on the Baltimore Incident should sensitize policymakers to this relevant, but under-appreciated war scare. It should also reinforce the imperative of clear assessments of power as a tool for conflict mitigation amid the exaggerations of modern-day nationalism.

Tommy Jamison is a PhD candidate in International History at Harvard University. From 2009 to 2014 he served as an officer in the U.S. Navy. The views expressed here are his own.