Tag Archives: sea power

Remember War: Prophet Makarov Ignored in his Native Land

This article is part of CIMSEC’s “Forgotten Naval Strategists Week.”

The fleet reflected the empire it served. The centuries-old dynasty that expanded its rule with an iron fist continually fell back on its own hubris, believing its decisions like a cloak of Catholic papal infallibility and that its enemies were incapable of mounting any serious challenge. The Romanov dynasty, and its courtiers, ignored the factors that enabled their primacy, unable to foresee their own demise within a decade; and it was with this aura of invincibility that the Baltic Fleet was ordered on its months-long journey to the Far East. But that aura wore off quickly and gave way to the relentless cold, penetrating rain as the fleet got underway, foreshadowing the hail of Japanese shells that would ultimately devastate them. As one Russian officer wrote a year later, “surely this was no day to inspire hope in the hopeless…and a hopeless band it was.” (White, p. 597) The eventual battle in the straits of Tsushima, as with earlier engagements between the two powers during the Russo-Japanese War, reflected the works of Admiral Stepan Makarov. Japanese adoption of his concepts led to its victory; Russian rejection led to its defeat.

makarovpicRussia failed to prepare for war. It neglected to provide appropriate maintenance of its fleet, provision its ships, or appropriately train and educate its personnel. Russia had the opportunity to comply with their top theorist but failed to do so.   Admiral Stepan O. Makarov (or Makaroff prior to 1918), was widely published on naval theories as well as a practitioner. Makarov, who had graduated first in his military class, published his first article at the age of 19 in Morskoy Sbornick, the Russian version of Naval Institute’s Proceedings. He eventually published over fifty books, articles and major papers. He was an early proponent of wireless communication between ships – which was later used by the Japanese instead of the Russian Navy. With the advent of torpedoes, he designed torpedo boats as well as torpedo boat tactics for the Russo-Turkish War.

Makarov studied foreign wars. Writing following the Spanish-American War, he suggested the lessons showed that: navies must rely on its guns; they must never sacrifice artillery to armor; more artillery and torpedoes are necessary; armor doesn’t assure victory, it only retards the defeat; and a victory exacts the same conditions on land and sea. (Makaroff, “Views of the Lessons of Santiago”) One author evaluating Makarov in a 1965 Proceedings article noted had he “been born in other times and circumstances, he might well have been one of the world’s universal geniuses.”

Makarov’s seminal work proved as diverse in its theoretical, operational, and tactical considerations as other strategists. The first tenet, like that of Sun Tzu, was the influence of morale upon success in battle. To prove this historically, Makarov focused largely on Admiral Horatio Nelson. So close was he to Nelson’s order before Trafalgar, (“No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy”) that he developed his own corollary, “only he who does nothing never errs.” In his detailed study of Trafalgar, he notes that Villeneuve “displayed a dejected frame of mind.” (Makarov, Tactics, p. 78) He quotes Napoleon that “you must tell cowards that they are brave men if you wish them to be so.” (Makarov, Tactics, p. 81)

In studying the Battle of Santiago, Makarov again noted the importance of morale since the Americans were confident in artillery and sought combat; the Spanish, by contrast, “came out of Santiago with the absolute certainty of meeting the disaster that awaited them.” While in Port Arthur under attack, Makarov personally took command of the Novik and left the safety of the harbor to render assistance to another ship, displaying the boldness that resulted in Nelsonian loyalty throughout the Russian fleet.

He wrote that “the maintenance of proper spirit on shipboard is a matter of the highest importance.” (Makarov, Tactics, p. 45) Such was clearly not the case when the Baltic Fleet got underway there “nothing but toil discomfort, anxiety” (White, p. 597) and later learned of the Asian Fleet’s fate, having weeks more to contemplate what awaited them.

The second tent was training and education. “Officers and men must be trained so as to fit them for war,” he wrote. Lieutenant R.D. White writing in Proceedings about Tsushima suggested that one of the flaws of the Russian fleet was that the Baltic Fleet’s Admiral Rodjestvesnski held his “first practice maneuvers with his whole squadron the day before the battle.” Another officer blamed the Minister of Marine who allegedly suppressed the Grand Naval Maneuvers, condemning the squadrons “to an enforced idleness.” Furthermore, “only one staff officer had received a military education.” The Russian officer related that “every Russian will answer, ‘Ah, if Makaroff had been there.’”

The third tenet was the use of ordnance. His statement that “firing without aiming is the best way to lose” was simplistic, but given the Baltic Fleet’s experience at Dogger Bank and Tsushima, the Russians would have been better served by targeting and improving their hit ratios. In Proceedings, Bradley A. Fiske assessed as a Commander and Inspector of Ordnance that the Japanese fleet’s handling was better; Japanese gunnery was better, and they were better prepared in war.” The Russians, due largely to nervousness and inexperience, were opening fire at 10,000 yards or more, which was too far to be effective, and many shells were simply defective. The Japanese, by contrast, reserved fire until they were within 6,000 yards until they closed to 3,000 yards. One Russian executive officer who survived the battle noted that the “principal cause of our defeat was our technical proficiency”.

The fourth tenet was the use of torpedoes, on which Makarov was one of the experts among all nations. From the advent of torpedoes as a new technology, to the design of torpedo boats, to the development of tactics, to the introduction of an entirely new type of warfare, Makarov was arguably without peer. In this, the Japanese were superior to the Russians during the conflict, inflicting heavy damage or deterring ships as a result.

The fifth tenet was “preparation for war.” His motto was “Remember War” – as if war were always imminent. Makarov arrived in Port Arthur in early March 1904. According to one of his officers, the “efficiency of the fleet was improved and [his] personality and drive inspired everyone under his command.” The Russian directive for Makarov’s forces at Port Arthur was simple: “Hold until reinforced.” The expectation was that the Far East Fleet should remain at anchor in the protection of the harbor. Makarov disagreed and ordered his ships to get underway as often as possible, often engaging Japanese forces. Had Russia adopted this tenet, the Baltic Fleet might have fared better at Tsushima. Makarov wrote that “Nelson understood how to maintain the health of his crew during long sea cruises,” a factor ignored by the Russian admiralty. Another issue was that the Baltic Fleet took mostly coal for its long voyage and not enough ammunition.

Finally, he supported the concept of the fleet working with ground forces to achieve victory (Makarov, Tactics, p. xxvi). The Russian land and naval forces had little coordination, with the exception of the one month Makarov was in Port Arthur. More adept at this type of joint operation was the Japanese Navy,   Makarov’s influence and effectiveness were, however, mitigated by political and personal realities. First, some of his work wasn’t entirely original. In his Discussion of Questions in Naval Tactics, Makarov’s delves deep into Clausewitz, Jomini, Nelson, Napoleon and Russia’s own Geenral Dragomirow.

With regard to his own theories, some turned out to be outdated within years of his death. In his major work, for example, he devoted an entire chapter on the design and tactical use of ram ships, which some might suggest outlived their use with the Battle of Actium. But the 19th century was no stranger to ram ships. In 1835, Captain James Barron designed a tri-hulled, steam-driven paddle-wheel ram ship. Charles Ellet, Jr.’s ram ships found moderate success during the U.S. Civil War. Ramming was employed at the Battle of Lissa during the Austro-Italian War. Prow-configured capital ships for potential ramming continued to be incorporated into U.S. designs, such as with the USS Olympia.

Makarov also failed to successfully employ some of his own maxims. One was that one must risk to win battles. Another, as previously noted, was to illuminate harbors and employ reconnaissance boats. Ironically, a month after taking command at Port Arthur, he was advised that something was seen in searchlights outside the harbor. Believing it to be one of his own boats, he went to sleep. The following morning he risked all by getting underway; his ship soon hit a mine and Makarov was killed.


Makarov failed to gain sufficient support from his own government or fellow senior officers. Makarov was also at odds with the local Viceroy, Admiral Yevgeny Alexeiev, because he believed “politics and military matters did not mix,” a fatal flaw in someone who hoped his concepts would be implemented doctrinally. Tsar Nicholas II did not consider the Navy a priority, given Russia’s land-mass and need for a large standing army, until the waning months of the war.

Imperial Russia’s dependence on its land forces to protect its western borders and achieve its objectives in the east came at the risk of a marginal navy, ill-prepared for war, and failing to subscribe to the naval principles of one of its own admirals. That deficiency was exploited by the Japanese who not only studied Makarov’s principles but employed them at Port Arthur and Tsushima. This should not be surprising given that Fleet Admiral Heihachiro Togo “in all his travels kept Makarov’s book on naval tactics beside his bunk, until he almost knew it by heart.” (Warner, p. 238)


Works Consulted and Cited



  • Makarov, Stepan O., Discussion of Questions in Naval Tactics.
  • Podsoblyaev, Evgenii F. (translated by King, Francis and Biggart, John), The Russian Naval General Staff and the Evolution of Naval Policy, 1905-1914. The Journal of Military History 66 (January 2002): 37-70.
  • Warner, Denis and Warner, Peggy, The Tide at Sunrise: A History of the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-05; Frank Cass, London 1974

ARTICLES from: United States Naval Institute Proceedings.

  • Fiske, CDR Bradley A., “Why Togo Won”
  • Japanese General Staff (Official Version), “Battle of the Sea of Japan”
  • Lockroy, M., “The Lessons of Tsushima”
  • Mahan, CAPT A.T., “Reflections, Historic and Other, Suggested by the Battle of the Japan Sea”
  • Makaroff, S.O., “Views of the Lessons of Santiago”
  • Makaroff, S.O., “Device for Minimizing the Effects of Collision at Sea”
  • Mitchell, Dr. Donald W., “Admiral Makarov: Attack! Attack! Attack!” July 1965
  • Posokhow, Admiral S., “Recollections of the Battle of Tsushima” aboard cruiser Oleg,
  • Schroeder, CAPT Seaton, “Battle of the Sea of Japan”
  • Sims, LCDR William S., “The Inherent Tactical Qualities of All Big-Gun, One-Caliber Battleships of High Speed, Large Displacement and Gunpower”
  • White, LT R.D., “With the Baltic Fleet at Tsushima”


Claude Berube teaches at the U.S. Naval Academy. He is the immediate past chair of the Editorial Board of Naval Institute Proceedings. He is the co-author of three non-fiction books and the author of his debut novel, “The Aden Effect.”



The Paradox of Admiral Gorshkov

This article is part of CIMSEC’s “Forgotten Naval Strategists Week.”

It’s time to discuss the Soviet Navy, so dust off your Norman Polmar guides and your early Tom Clancy novels. Or just ask an old salt and Cold War vet if the Red Fleet used to be a big deal. You might even check with Vladimir Putin, who is well aware of this recent yet quickly forgotten chapter in Russian history. Putin would no doubt fondly recall the man responsible for the rise of the Soviet Navy and for its operational and intellectual direction in its heyday: Admiral Sergei Gorshkov.

Gorshkov took command of the Soviet Navy in 1956 at age 45 and oversaw the Soviet Union’s expansion into a global sea power until his retirement in 1985. By comparison, the U.S. Navy had eight Chiefs of Naval Operations (CNOs) during the same period (and potentially more if not for Arleigh Burke’s own unprecedented longevity). Gorshkov’s career demonstrated that he was both a survivor and an extremely patient man. He made it through five Soviet leaders in the post-Stalin period, so he knew how to play his political cards right with the Kremlin. He also survived a defense structure dominated by WWII-era communist party officials fixated on land power and Red Army marshals who were contemptuous and ignorant of naval matters in equal measure. Thus, Gorshkov clearly understood the limits of inter-service rivalry and intellectual rigor within the Soviet system.

Admiral Gorshkov waited patiently for his opportunity to transform the Soviet Navy from a submarine-dominated, sea denial force with a coastal and defensive orientation into a blue water fleet – though still a sub-centric one – that had strategic strike, power projection, and global presence missions. Above all, the Soviet Navy under Gorshkov had ambitions to challenge U.S. sea supremacy, even if his words did not always match his service’s deeds or capabilities. “The flag of the Soviet navy now proudly flies over the oceans of the world,” the navy chief warned Americans from the cover of Time magazine in 1968, and “[s]ooner or later, the U.S. will have to understand that it no longer has mastery of the seas.” But first, Gorshkov had to achieve mastery over his own navy in the post-Khrushchev era.

An inveterate hater of navies in general, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev was nonetheless enamored of submarines and presided over the construction of the largest peacetime submarine fleet the world has ever seen (well over 400). After submarines on their own proved to be of limited utility, to put it mildly, during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, Gorshkov capitalized on the humiliation of Khrushchev and of his own navy to press for a more balanced fleet. Gorshkov specifically wanted large surface combatants as well as a greater naval role in Soviet strategy and policy.

It was during the naval expansion period from the mid-1960s through the 1970s under Brezhnev that Gorshkov authored the works that put forth his vision of sea power, Russia’s maritime heritage and destiny, and the naval component of that particular Soviet fixation, operational art. Gorshkov’s writings fueled vigorous debate amongst Soviet naval experts in the West and established a strategic discourse for the superpower naval rivalry that, in hindsight, was truly remarkable.

Contemporary naval leaders and analysts widely acknowledged Gorshkov’s contributions to Cold War naval thought. Gorshkov’s American counterpart in the early 1970s, CNO Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Jr., encouraged the U.S. Naval Institute to publish Red Star Rising at Sea in 1974. The volume was a collection of 11 articles by Gorshkov published as the series, “Navies in War and Peace,” in Morskoi sbornik (Naval Digest). The article topics spanned from Tsarist times to the Cold War and offered insights on the direction of Soviet naval thinking. Notably, the volume was itself a compilation of earlier Proceedings articles that featured commentary by preeminent American admirals (including four former CNOs) on each of the original Gorshkov articles. As such, Red Star Rising is a time capsule of not only Gorshkov’s ideas but also U.S. perspectives on his philosophy on sea power – as strategist Rear Admiral J. C. Wylie wrote in his commentary, “a rare glimpse into the mind [of the opponent]” – and American reactions to the Soviet naval threat during a crucial period of Cold War naval history.

As the series title implied, Gorshkov presented the case for a strong, balanced fleet with substantial peacetime and wartime missions. The Soviet Navy, in his view, had an especially important role in supporting the Soviet Union’s political objectives and exerting its influence abroad. To not undertake this mission, Gorshkov argued, would cede the ideological battleground to the U.S. Navy as an instrument of “peacetime imperialism.” However, Gorshkov’s real motive, as speculated by experts at the Center for Naval Analyses at the time, was to defend the Soviet Navy’ position internally and to keep its growth trajectory heading upward in the era of SALT and détente.

Gorshkov followed up the articles with a book-length treatment of his views, The Sea Power of the State. The book appeared at the height of the post-Vietnam debates over perceived U.S. weaknesses in the face of a growing Soviet naval threat. It also solidified Gorshkov’s reputation as a dominant figure in Cold War naval thought, which was also notable for a Russian’s entry into the maritime strategy realm that was usually dominated by Anglosphere thinkers.


In the book, Gorshkov offered a non-controversial view that sea power provided “the capacity of a particular country to use the military-economic possibilities of the ocean for its own purposes.” He also took the most expansive view possible for what sea power encompasses. His definition not only included the obvious military, merchant, and fishing components, but also the scientific-technical field. Gorshkov emphasized that sea power is also about a link to the ocean environment in an “inseparable union.” To that end, Gorshkov cast himself as an advocate for oceanography and mapping. A visually stunning and expensive series of ocean atlases bore his name as editor during the same period (it was an “opus” that had “all the grandeur and majesty of a Bolshoi production of Boris Gudonov,” according to one American reviewer).

Gorshkov followed three broad principles when marketing his strategic ideas. First, ideas on sea power must be grounded in history. Gorshkov had slim pickings, admittedly, upon which to build a case for Russia as a great maritime nation – unlike Alfred Thayer Mahan’s embarrassment of riches with British history and the Royal Navy – beyond what Peter the Great briefly attempted several centuries ago. Gorshkov also burdened his readers with the usual clichéd Marxist-Leninist dialectic contortions of historical truth. Not surprisingly, his abuses of the historical record were mainly intended for domestic consumption and to overcome the strong land power dogma within Soviet society. Gorshkov vigorously promoted the idea that great powers needed great navies, and so he used history as an appeal to a national identity and a purpose far away from Russian littorals.

Second, Gorshov’s writings indicate that he understood that naval power aspirations must be firmly grounded in theory. Whether it was his earlier use of the term “naval science” in the 1960s, or his later discussions of “naval art,” Gorshkov focused on putting Soviet naval developments and the USSR’s growth as a maritime nation into a larger intellectual framework. This practice was particularly important when Soviet leaders imposed force structure decisions on the Soviet Navy that did not make for sound strategy or even operational sense. To that end, it is possible that Gorshkov likely needed ghost writing help from some brilliant theoreticians and fellow naval officers like Vice Admiral K. Stalbo to reverse engineer theory to fit a desired reality. Gorshkov, helped by allies in the Soviet leadership and by the course of world events, succeeded in carving out a strategic role for the Soviet Navy. Gorshkov made his case most strongly for the wartime missions of long-range naval operations against the enemy’s shore, such as strategic strike and amphibious landings, an area chronically neglected Soviet army strategists.

Finally, Gorshkov grasped what could be called the “optics” of sea power. He believed that ideas are best illustrated with powerful images. He knew, in the best Mahanian tradition, that navies were symbols of great power status and should be used as an instrument of policy. Gorshkov pushed the Soviet Navy’s peacetime role in promoting the interests of the Soviet state and spreading communist influence through presence missions around the globe. An impressive Soviet warship in a foreign port did not raise the same alarms as Soviet tanks or missiles showing up in distant lands. Moreover, navies with a transoceanic reach were an excellent, albeit tremendously expensive, way to coerce allies and confound adversaries. Gorshkov proved to be a master of both outcomes.

In the final analysis, Admiral Gorshkov as a naval strategist is a paradox: his impact on naval thought is at once considerable and negligible. To be sure, Gorshkov ranks among the great naval leaders of the 20th century. He was a consummate planner and innovator in addition to his political skills. He was also a proponent of salami-slicing to achieve his goals long before it became fashionable in the South China Sea. Analysts and historians asked if Gorshkov was a Russian Mahan or a Red Tirpitz to better fit him into the Western canon of naval strategy. There is also no denying that Gorshkov profoundly influenced not only the Soviet thinking on sea power, but also impacted the course of the U.S. Navy during the Cold War. So, as befits the mark of an important naval strategist, Gorshkov’s ideas mattered and were carefully weighed by allies and adversaries alike.

Yet, Gorshkov’s writings lacked the longevity of Mahan’s or Sir Julian Corbett’s works. His appeals to Russia’s sea power potential and its tenuous claims to naval greatness proved ephemeral – and likely helped to push the Soviet state to collapse. Gorshkov’s ideas, in retrospect, reflected a particular aspect of the Cold War and fulfilled their strategic purpose. As a result, Gorshkov is not a source today for timeless lessons on naval strategy, nor are his works still widely read or even discussed in the maritime nations that once followed him so closely. He has been “forgotten” in that sense. Perhaps in the case of Admiral Gorshkov, it is not his writings but his overall approach to the dilemma of a weaker navy challenging a stronger naval power, while at the same time building a maritime foundation and pursuing regional and global ambitions, that is truly instructive.

Chinese naval watchers in the U.S. naturally looked for a Chinese Mahan in Admiral Liu with the rise of China as a naval power. Another potential issue is a Gorshkov-style naval leader and thinker in Asia who understands the limits of his authoritarian state’s naval power, knows how to finesse its lack of maritime heritage, is politically adroit, and can successfully craft the words and images to at least appear to challenge U.S. naval supremacy. Gorshkov’s specific ideas may be of limited use today, but the legacy of his persistence in pounding the square peg of sea power into a land power-centered round hole lives on. His brand of strategic leadership and intellectual engagement could once again tie the U.S. in analytical and operational knots for years to come.

Jessica Huckabey is a researcher with the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) and a retired naval reserve officer. She is writing her doctoral dissertation on American perceptions of the Soviet naval threat during the Cold War. The opinions are her own and not those of IDA or the Department of Defense.

Sea Power: A Personal Theory of Power

This essay, is part of the Personal Theories of Powerseries, a joint Bridge-CIMSEC project which asked a group of national security professionals to provide their theory of power and its application. We hope this launches a long and insightful debate that may one day shape policy.

Air and land power leave monuments to teach us of their authority: from the House of Commons’ bomb-scorched archway to the nation-wide wreckage of the Syrian Civil War. Sea power’s traces are washed away by its namesake — no rubble marking the battle of USS Monitor vs. CSS Virginia nor shattered remains of the convoys from the Battle of the Atlantic. The power with which the sea consumes is the same power with which sea power is imbued. Sea power’s force, persistence, and fluidity –the vast opportunities afforded by the sea — create three properties: the gravitational, phantasmal, and kinetic manifestations of its power.

The Fundamental Nature of Sea Power

Sea power is the physical or influencing power projected by independent mobile platforms within a sea. Like the vast waters of the deep oceans, sea power does not “flow” from a source like air power would, nor does it need to “settle” as land power does. The sea is a large and open commons in which a platform can achieve mobile-and-independent semi-permanence. Being “mobile” gets to the core of sea power; it’s an ability to maneuver a semi-permanent threat at sea or anywhere near or touching the sea. Sea power provides a unique mid-point between persistence and mobility.

Airmen prepare to load a Mark 60 CAPTOR (encapsulated torpedo) anti-submarine mine onto a B-52G Stratofortress. US Navy
Airmen prepare to load a Mark 60 CAPTOR (encapsulated torpedo) anti-submarine mine onto a B-52G Stratofortress.
US Navy

Ordnance merely aimed or fired towards the sea is not sea power. Land-based aircraft dropping sea-mines is not sea power, just as naval gunnery on land targets is not land power, nor flying artillery shells air power. Land, sea, and air power can all be used to combat each other; their powers are not restricted to effects within or through their own medium. Our types of power are the spectrum of capability afforded by nature of one’s presence within a medium.

Sea Power’s Gravity: An Inescapable Weight

Adversarial resources are strongly drawn into defense against sea power’s mobility and potency; in this manner, sea power’s weight, or “gravity”, holds down adversarial actions. Even a weak fleet huddled in port can generate sea power, forcing the enemy to pull resources away from more productive tasks to hold down an adversary’s most mobile threat — it’s fleet.

Take the Spanish-American War, for instance. The Americans had an abiding fear of the mere existence of Spanish sea power and the possibility that it would descend without notice on their coastline, shelling cities and port facilities. Though the Spanish fleet was ultimately wasted in a force-on-force fight, strategists have historically referred to a standing fleet whose purpose is to leverage mere threat as “fleet in being”. Rather than winning through firepower, an in-port “fleet in being” has potent effect on even far-away nations by the potential of their sure potential.

Today it is easier to imagine a mobile “capability in being”, rather than a stationary “fleet in being”. This also leverages the advantages afforded by the sea. The might of this “capability in being” has been illustrated in the past by Allied sea power’s forcing the Nazi’s into building the failed “Atlantic Wall”.

Joerg Karrenbauer Atlantic Wall — no. 3 http://www.karrenbauers.com/atlantic-wall/atlantic-wall-3-wissant-france/


In WWII, sea power afforded the Allies significant advantage, while the Reich’s land power was forced up against the coast to guard every inch of accessible shore of the Atlantic Wall. The Atlantic Wall stretched for hundreds of miles, covering every inch of Reich-held coastline. The scale of preparations and their drain on Nazi resources was enormous, but deemed necessary due to the threat of allied sea power’s mobile capability to penetrate of the continent.

The gravity weighs not only on an adversary’s defenses, but holds down an adversary’s desire to project power. Contrast the case of Taiwan to that of the South China Sea. American sea power has been a guarantor of unimpeded passage in the Pacific since the end of WWII. Taiwan’s existence reflects both the potential and the potency of American sea power, as was demonstrated in the 1996 crisis. However, China’s growing sea power creates space for it to unilaterally declare control of new areas in the South China Sea through ‘salami-slicing’, despite its neighbors’ protests.

Ultimately, sea power is tangible. Its destructive capability is only matched by its potential influence. Sufficient sea power, even hundreds of miles away, has enough gravity to hold down or absorb the resources of the mightiest land or air power. While the adversary of sea power must guard every crack in his armor, a sea power is at liberty to bide time and seek an asymmetry.

The Phantom of Sea Power: Pervasive Uncertainty

Ohio-class guided-missile submarine USS Florida (SSGN 728) US Navy
Ohio-class guided-missile submarine USS Florida (SSGN 728)
US Navy

Sea power’s gravity is complemented by the obfuscation and fluidity allowed by the sea. Armies leave a trail — they transit urban areas, gather supplies from the land, and generally reside where we do. The sea is far more secretive about its residents. Like silent undercurrents, sea power can be hidden from observers, summoning fearful phantoms.

The best modern example of the sea power phantom is the submarine at the 1916 Battle of Jutland. The mightiest fleet on earth could not bring itself to destroy the German fleet for fear of lurking U-boats. This example of sea-denial highlights a greater return than the expenditure of any ordnance.

Today, submarines have become greater tools for generating uncertainty. The submarine’s invisible presence places an adversary under threat of destruction by Tomahawk missile or direct action by inserted special operations forces. Further threat might be generated by the uncertainty of an un-located fleet or the aircraft that could come from anywhere deep enough for a carrier. Sea power has the unique ability to veil-and-move large amounts of force, leveraging fear of devastating capability hidden by the surface or the horizon.

Sea Power’s Kinetics: When Opportunity Knocks

The gravity and phantom of Sea Power is summoned by a credible threat. History speaks for sea power: the British Empire, the Napoleonic Wars, the Russo-Japanese War, Pearl Harbor, German unrestricted warfare, British logistics in WWII, island hopping, D-Day, and modern South China Sea bumper boats. In the interest of brevity, we will split sea power’s kinetic abilities into two categories: logistics and violence.


Sea Power’s logistical ability is often the forgotten part of sea power. A British WWI poster highlights this best. “Britain’s Sea Power is Yours” consists not only of a fleet of warships, but an entire horizon of commercial and military supply vessels. The ability to execute and secure seaborne logistics and to use and defend access to the global commons is potent power indeed. The effects of sea power on Malta, from its seizure by Britain during the Napoleonic Wars to its stubborn survival against the mightiest air force in Europe during WWII, serves as a testament to the subtle potency of the physical and logistical components of sea power. This flexible logistics train can either build an offensive opportunity or sustain a force until such opportunity arises.

The purely destructive capacity of sea power has indirectly already been described. Gravity becomes matter, the Allied fleet putting the wedge’s thin edge to the Atlantic Wall. The force feared by the Nazis came to fruition on D-Day. The phantom materializes, as experienced by Allied convoys facing wolf packs in WWII. It starts with the ability to find the point at which the thin end of the massive wedge can be applied; mobile forces deploying their feelers across the open commons. The American dance-and-smash across the Pacific is the best example, as Nimitz “island hopped” around Japanese defenses and two fleets fought for the first time without even seeing one another. Sea power allows forces a degree of sustainability of land forces to wait out an enemy while carrying along the independent payload with a degree of mobility of air power to respond in time to the development of that opportunity.

Sea Power: The Power of Opportunity

When we say “sea” we are using a placeholder for the large-and-open commons in which a platform can achieve mobile-and-independent semi-permanence. We discuss space power, but ships in space could eventually meld into a future sea power narrative. In WWI, one could argue that Zeppelins carrying aircraft could have joined a sea power concept. Rather than limiting oneself to the conventional “sea”, consider where humans have instinctively decided they can put “ships” from the type of freedom and opportunity the medium affords.

Sea power may have neither the total enduring strength of land power nor the mobility of air power — but it has a strategically potent degree of both. This affords it a unique gravity, an ability to generate fear, and a physical footprint unique from other powers. It finds, creates, and exploits opportunities better than any other type. It creates opportunity and suppresses those of adversaries by virtue of its physical capability or its influence upon enemy action. Sea power is the power of opportunity.

Matthew Hipple is an active duty officer in the United States Navy. He is the Director for Online Content at the Center for International Maritime Security, host of the Sea Control podcast, and a writer for USNI’s Proceedings, War on the Rocks, and other forums. While his opinions may not reflect those of the United States Navy, Department of Defense, or US Government, he wishes they did.

Sea Power Matters: A Personal Theory of Power

This essay by LCDR BJ Armstrong is part of the Personal Theories of Power series, a joint BridgeCIMSEC project which asked a group of national security professionals to provide their theory of power and its application. We hope this launches a long and insightful debate that may one day shape policy.

This is offered not as a personal dogma, or a theory of overall power, but instead as some general thoughts on a specific element of national power: sea power.

“The Navy, within the Department of the Navy, shall be organized, trained, and equipped primarily for prompt and sustained combat incident to operations at sea.”

— Title 32, Code of Federal Regulations

It shouldn’t surprise any of us that combat at sea is the focus of the United States Navy. It seems perfectly rational. This focus, codified in law and embraced by recent tradition, results in a view of sea power that skews toward the wartime, both the operational and tactical. Over the past century this has resulted in a slow migration away from the true meaning of the word. “Sea power” has lost the broad political, diplomatic, and economic meaning and the importance that it once had, shifting away from its true and proper place in strategic affairs.

Inspiration and Foundation

Uniformed and civilian senior leaders are not solely responsible for this shift. Strategists, with a broad definition of the label, share a hand in the shift as well. The Clausewitzians and devotees of Sun Tzu have come to dominate the foundations of strategic thought in the 21st century. There is no doubt that the writings of these thinkers offer a great deal to inform military affairs today. There are, however, some issues with using the texts of the Prussian General and the Chinese courtier as baselines for modern views of strategy. In doing so, we take continentalist views of the relationships between states and military force and attempt to apply them to a globalized world.

The migration of sea power toward the operational and tactical, and the attempts to connect it to continentalist strategic ideals, can be seen partially in the rise in popularity of Sir Julian Corbett’s Some Principles of Maritime Strategy. As Alfred Thayer Mahan’s influence has declined Corbett’s has grown and is commonly cited as more “relevant” by naval officers today. Surely, part of this has to do with the simple fact that Corbett wrote more clearly than Mahan did. It also must be stated that one book is not illustrative of the entirety of the British lawyer and lecturer’s thinking on sea power. However, the tendency within Corbett’s book to focus toward operational issues, or the “grammar” of naval strategy, allows it to appeal to a more practically minded, combat centric officer corps.

Sea power, however, is much more than operational design or combat planning for forces at sea. It has to do with international relationships, economic power, commercial interests, diplomacy and statecraft. Its results are not seen solely at the business end of a Tomahawk missile or in ballistic missile submarine patrols, but also on the stock of shelves at Walmart and the price of gas at the pump. This confusion, between the battle fleet and the navy, between combat incident to operations at sea and the global power and influence of maritime forces, results from the view which labels sea power as a domain centered ideal, as another name for combat operations at sea, rather than a broader field with wider relevance to the world affairs.

Looking Outward

The concepts surrounding the importance of naval forces, and the role which maritime issues play in global affairs, go back centuries. From Thucydides to Sir Walter Raleigh the importance of power at sea had been recognized and written about long before Mahan began reading Gibbon at the English Club while on liberty ashore in Lima. Despite our modern focus toward it, combat between fleets was never the exclusive raison d’etre for maritime forces, or the only lever of power available to them. Raleigh illustrated this in the 17th century when he wrote, “whosoever commands the sea, commands the trade; whosoever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself.” In the United States this was echoed in 1787 by Federalist Paper No. 11, which advocated for the founding of the United States Navy on diplomatic and economic/commercial grounds instead of the need for wartime combat at sea.

In The Influence of Sea Power Upon History Mahan lays out the six elements of what makes a nation a sea power, none of which explicitly involve combat. Instead they are the factors that lead a nation to become a sea power. His initial discussion is as much political is it is military. In later works he continued to develop his thoughts on the position of sea power in world affairs. We all know the Clausewitizan truism that war is politics by other means. However, Mahan took things a step further and stated that political/diplomatic, economic/commercial, and military/combat considerations were all one integrated problem and that sea power was part of the connective tissue between the three in a globalized world.

This view of sea power, as something more than simply the when and how battle fleets are put together for combat, may be part of the reason that some continental strategists tend to struggle with the concept. Sea power strays into the realm of statecraft, global rivalries, and grand strategy in a way that may be uncomfortable for strategists focused on borders, territorial occupation, and the “decisiveness” of boots on the ground forcing a population to relent. The very concept of grand strategy is anathema to some, and debated by others, who claim the strict constructionist view of Clausewitz’s writing. These strategists tell us that the word “strategy” is reserved only for military combat. Today the concept of sea power is all too often viewed through this very limiting prism.

Bringing Balance to the Force

There are two dueling roles of navies that must be fulfilled to truly exercise sea power. One, as alluded to in the mission outlined by the Code of Federal Regulations, is to fight wars on and from the sea. This is critical. The ability to defeat adversaries lies at the foundation of the credibility needed to execute the rest of the sea power writ. But it is as much the beginning as it is the end of the sea power discussion.

The other mission of naval forces, which has been an important part of naval history for centuries, is to preserve the peace and secure the global system. This dual responsibility, conducting deployments and operations in both wartime and peacetime, has been central to American naval history since the very founding of the Republic. It was illustrated by Professor Craig Symonds when, in his study of the political debates on naval affairs in the first decades of the nation, he wrote:

All of President James Monroe’s surviving papers on the navy or on naval policy reflect a concern that it efficiently perform two distinct services: first, that it be adequate to cope with the daily problems of a maritime nation — smuggling, piracy, and combating the slave trade; and, second, that it provide the United States with a comfortable degree of readiness in case war should be forced upon the nation.

Despite this centuries old tension between the exercise of sea power in war and in peace, since 1941 the United States Navy has maintained itself on a war footing. The Second World War led directly into the Cold War and when the Soviet Union fell decades later the Navy’s institutional memory remembered nothing but a wartime posture. This mindset is not exclusive to the Navy. However, as a result the sea services have struggled with their vital role in the peace for more than two decades. Some have even resisted the discussion of their importance to the global system on a level above “combat incident to operations at sea.”

As we approach the centenary of Mahan’s death it is time to reexamine our modern conceptions of sea power. This will be a challenge. In recent decades naval officers have been taught strategy built on a land power framework and may have overlooked some of the fundamental differences between a continental view of national power and a global view international affairs. To uphold our responsibilities and American interests in the 21st century we must focus on a global view. It is time to expand the thinking, writing, and theory of sea power across the spectrum of its military, political, and economic implications. The broader obligations of a maritime state and a global power require it.

BJ Armstrong is a naval officer, helicopter pilot, PhD candidate with King’s College, London, and a member of the Editorial Board of the U.S. Naval Institute. He is the editor of “21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era.” The opinions and views expressed are those of the author alone and are presented in his private capacity.