Tag Archives: Deterrence

More Mahan and Corbett

The Battle of the Nile, 1798

In my last post I criticized those who overemphasize the size of a fleet as a measure of its operational effectiveness, using the historical example of the Royal Navy’s fleet modernization efforts prior to the First World War.  I did not offer any alternate criteria by which to judge what an optimally sized U.S. Navy would look like.  With discussions of what insights turn-of-the-century theorists such as Alfred Thayer Mahan and Julian Corbett would have on modern maritime strategy so popular right now, however, I thought there might be value to apply their models of sea power to evaluate the composition of today’s U.S. Navy.

Responding to a critique that the current fleet is the smallest it has been since 1917, Under-Secretary of the Navy Robert Work noted that the ability of the current fleet to accomplish its missions is as great as it has ever been, arguing that at a century ago “we didn’t have any airplanes in the fleet.  We didn’t have any unmanned systems.  We didn’t have Tomahawk cruise missiles.”

Critics of what they perceive as a too-small fleet claim that quantity is important because “presence” is necessary for command of the sea.  On its face this is logical, as without enough combat power at the right spot and right time, victory is impossible.  Having more ships makes it theoretically possible to concentrate a larger force at the decisive point, as well as providing more resources in more places to deter against the enemy, wherever they may be.  The only restriction in a navy’s ability to provide presence is the amount of resources that a state has at its disposal.

Mahan was opposed to any notion of presence itself providing any particular utility, expressing a preference for offensive fleet action, even when that end was accomplished by a fleet inferior in total size to that of its foes.  His optimal navy was “equal in number and superior in efficiency” to its enemies at the decisive point within “a limited field of action,” not necessarily everywhere.  It protected national interests “by offensive action against the fleet, in which it sees their real enemy and its own principal objective.”  Mahan would have not approved of an emphasis on presence as an objective, for his description of the undesirable alternative to his above strategy was one which requires the “superior numbers” needed to provide “superiority everywhere to the force of the enemy actually opposed, as the latter may be unexpectedly reinforced.”  Trying to outnumber the enemy everywhere at sea is an impossible end state in any situation in which a pair of opponents have remotely comparable resources upon which to draw.

Corbett’s view of sea power is more compatible with the notion that presence is important.  Corbett felt that what he called “Command of the Sea” was “normally in dispute” and that the most common state in maritime conflict was that of “an uncommanded sea.”  In that context, presence in terms of more ships means that a navy can employ its forces in more places, with command thus achieved.  It would be easier to achieve this state of command through presence in asymmetrical situations in which the smaller force is overmatched both in terms of quantity and quality.

War at sea often revolves around two factors: the ability to locate the enemy, and the ability to employ decisive force against the enemy first.  Until navies began to use aircraft in the early twentieth century, the only way to locate an enemy fleet was to actually see it from onboard ship (or ashore).  Until the introduction of wireless communications, the ability to pass any intelligence thus derived was also restricted to line-of-sight or the speed of a ship.  Mahan noted the difficulty to locate and track a fleet when he said that they “move through a desert over which waters flit, but where they do not remain.”

By having more ships (assuming they effectively employed them), a navy would theoretically have a better chance to locate the enemy on favorable terms.  Nelson could sail across the Atlantic (and back again) and around the Mediterranean without finding the French fleet because his “sensors” were limited to the visual range of his fleet.  The conflict between the German and British navies during the First World War was largely one in which the two fleets were unable to achieve their tactical objectives because they could not find each other (at least under tactically favorable circumstances).  In a more modern example, the American victory at Midway was made possible by SIGINT.  Because the US Navy knew that the Japanese intended to attack Midway, its fleet was placed in a position where they were more likely to find the Japanese first (even then however, each fleet was limited in their ability to locate the enemy to the range of their aircraft).

A smaller fleet which is enabled in its ability to project combat power over a larger area through technology to engage the enemy on its own terms would seem to be just as important as a large fleet.  Today’s U.S. Navy, with access to a historically unprecedented web of information made possible by sensors and surveillance assets in the air, on the surface and under the water, has the ability to win battles against a capable enemy because those sensors mean it can deliver ordnance against enemy targets first.  However, one of the more astute criticisms of Under-Secretary Work’s defense of the current fleet size is that it only works in war, not other situations in which it is not clear “whether replacing ships with aircraft is a legitimate approach towards maritime battlespaces in peacetime when that same effort has been largely ineffective dealing with other low intensity maritime problems like narcotics and piracy.” 

The debate over presence revolves around strategy and objectives, and whether the size and composition of a fleet matches up with those objectives.  If the U.S. maritime objective is the ability to operate at sea in any contested theater, then having a sensor-enabled battle force in which surveillance assets make decisive action possible before the enemy can act is more important than surface presence in terms of many ships.  Conversely, if the most important objective is to provide maritime security against illicit actors such as pirates or drug smugglers, then presence is more important.  As the linked post above from Galrahn notes, a UAV can enable kinetic offensive operations from another platform located far away, but it cannot board a suspect vessel and detain the crew.

The debate between the advocates of presence and a high-end battle force is actually one over the relative importance of the Maritime Security and Sea Control missions, and the resources devoted to each at the expense of the other.  Unfortunately, without a crystal ball, there is not a straightforward answer as to which is the more necessary one for the US Navy to conduct.

Lieutenant Commander Mark Munson is a Naval Intelligence Officer and currently serves on the OPNAV staff. He has previously served at Naval Special Warfare Group FOUR, the Office of Naval Intelligence and onboard USS ESSEX (LHD 2). The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official viewpoints or policies of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

A Nuclear Reaction…

This week the British Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, announced a £1.1billion contract to build nuclear reactors for the next generation of British submarines that will replace the current Vanguard-class SSBNs. Though he stopped short of saying that this guaranteed Britain would renew Trident, with a formal decision due to be made in 2016, it is a clear step further in that direction, despite the divisiveness of the issue within both the government and national politics. The Conservatives’ coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, are openly against renewal on cost grounds and are investigating alternative deterrent options. The Scottish National Party are ideologically opposed to the idea of weapons of mass destruction being present within Scotland, with the current Trident fleet based in Faslane, and with no alternative locations in England at present without huge financial and environmental expense. The issue is even more politically charged with a referendum on Scottish independence scheduled for 2014, where a yes vote would potentially torpedo Britain’s ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent. That is an issue in itself, with the missiles in essence leased from the United States.

How will HMS Vanguard’s successor deter Somali piracy?

Britain’s ability to construct nuclear submarines is at least being safeguarded with this investment, which as my last post suggested was one of the tough choices the government had to make, and what industries it prioritsed in the national strategic interest. On the flip-side, who loses out? The Royal Navy is overwhelmingly in favour of Trident’s renewal, as the service would be indespensable to the missile’s deployment. But with tensions rising over the Falklands, the recent fishing dispute with Spain in Gibraltar, Somali piracy, and humanitarian atrocities being committed in Syria, surely what the RN needs right now is more surface ships. The Vanguards and their successors can’t help Britain with these current flashpoints, while the vessels that could make a difference, destroyers and frigates, have been cut down to just nineteen. There are forms of deterrence other than the nuclear kind, and a more visible naval presence in the world’s trouble spots could provide that, preventing problems from escalating to a point where intervention becomes a whole lot more costly, both financially and to human lives.

Dr Daniel Owen Spence is Lecturer in Imperial and International History at Sheffield Hallam University, United Kingdom, and publishes on nineteen and twentieth century maritime history.

Iran and America: May I Have This Dance?

Someone is about to get served!

When you combine shadow boxing with peacocks and a dance-off you get the Wagah border closing ceremony. Since 1959, this flurry of fists and feet has marked the daily closing of the only road between India and Pakistan. British comedian Michael Palin calls it a “demonstation of how angry you can get without hitting anyone.” This doesn’t merely serve as a symbol of conflict between India and Pakistan. For US defense experts engaged with Iran, this dance of pride and prestige should serve as a model for those who might assume kinetic engagement with Iran is the best option.

Robert McNamara’s first lesson in Fog of War was to empathize with your enemy, “I don’t mean ‘sympathy,’ but rather ‘understanding’—to counter their attacks on us and the Western World.” To understand the Iranian intent for their conflict with the west, one must understand their motives.  In particular, Iran has no motive to get conventionally stomped into the dirt by the American military. They strongly value their strength and prestige as a regional power.  While the small-boat swarms, ASCM threat, and naval posturing outside the Strait of Hormuz might be troubling indeed, that sense of trouble is their primary purpose. Being sent back to the stone-age in exchange for a short but irritating jump on US forces would little serve Iran’s utility, and neither would giving the US an excuse to engage in such an operation. The conflict between Iran and the US is, like the Wagah border dance, one of power in appearance.

The nuclear weapons programme should also be viewed through the objectives of regional power. During the cold war, one of the obsessions of doomsday planners was survivability: would an arsenal be able to survive a first strike and retaliate? In the context of a diplomatic rather than kinetic exchange, a nuclear weapons program is more effective for Iran than an actual nuclear weapon. A physical nuclear weapon can be destroyed and gives justification for a kinetic strike on Iran. The vague idea of a nuclear weapons program spread across the country provides the defiant diplomatic fire-power combined with an opponent’s hope of negotiation without providing a justification for a strike or an actual object to destroy. No nation that has ever meant to use nuclear weapons as a serious strategic deterrent has ever made their program public before it was complete*: US, USSR, PRC, Pakistan, India, etc…  Iran has made its program “public” beforehand for a reason. It is Iran’s interest to keep the charade going as long as possible, never sacrificing the diplomatically useful weapons program for a weapon that could only serve only a limited military purpose.

With the political nature of the Iran conflict in mind, it is not in the US interest to begin kinetic operations against Iran. While the US has much less to lose from a conflict, the economic damage and ensuing regional instability from the loss of a major state and the unleashing of several associated terrorist organizations would be beyond crippling. As the US applies diplomatic/economic pressure and moves the military pieces around the board we are strategically positioning ourselves and shifting the state of play as the dancers weave around the ballroom. With war neither in the interest of or desired by either side, it is conflict by maneuver rather than melee. The purpose is to stay in the lead and drive the dance, not turn the room into a mosh pit where everyone loses.

*North Korea doesn’t count… it never counts.

Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.