Julian Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy

Author background: Born in 1854. He never served in the military. After graduating from law school, he became an author, journalist, and noted historian. He was a founding member of the Navy Records Society. He became a lecturer at the Royal Naval College in 1902 and criticized the Admiralty’s strategic thought. He became the unofficial historical advisor to the Admiralty and supported reforms which changed the Royal Navy almost overnight. The book was originally a series of lectures at the Royal Naval College. He was able to build on Mahan's book from 20 years earlier. He was lecturing to a hostile crowd. From 1871-1900 Germany had been the dominant continental land force. Around 1900 Kaiser Wilhelm started reading Mahan and decided to build a navy to challenge British supremacy at sea. Russo-Jap War, battleship was king, old/stubborn admirals, colonialism/privateering abolished, British empire in decline.

Thesis: Naval strategy is not a thing by itself. Its problems can seldom or never be solved on naval considerations alone, but it is only a part of maritime strategy—the higher learning which teaches us that for a maritime state to make successful war and to realize her special strength, army and navy must be used and thought of as instruments intimately connected. Developed two-fold definition of strategy: major (grand) and minor (operational art). Unlike Mahan, he proposed that the naval fleet does not always have to seek out the opposing navy. If unable to achieve command of the sea, the next best method is to deny the enemy his command of the sea. It is not an either or proposition...the sea can be "uncommanded".


- War is a continuation of policy

- - navy is an instrument

- - First determine the type of war

- The interest and requirements of a sea power differ in fundamental ways from those of a land power.

- - Land warfare is unlike sea warfare in several fundamental respects.

- Maritime strategy – the principles governing a war in which the sea is a substantial factor.

- - paramount concern of maritime strategy is to determine mutual relations of army and navy in a war plan.

- Naval strategy determines the movement of the fleet after maritime strategy has determined what part the fleet should play in relation to land forces.

- - It is almost impossible that a war can be decided by naval action alone.

Naval strategy – Command of the sea

- The object of war is to force our will upon the enemy

- The object of naval warfare must always be directly or indirectly either to secure the command of the sea or to prevent the enemy from securing it

- Corbett says ”Command of the sea means nothing but control of maritime communications, whether for commercial or military purposes.”

- Command of the Sea is for the purpose of protecting the trade

Limited War

- Corbett went beyond Clausewitz’s continental outlook and showed that Limited War is the ideal type of war for a maritime power, especially an island power with watery defenses against territorial invasion.

- A “Fleet in Being” would occupy the stronger fleet while cruisers and other ships or small flotillas ranged abroad to dispute Command of the Sea and pressure sea LOCs.

Implications for Strategy

- Multiple instruments of power and means are required to obtain strategic ends, not just a Navy

- Protecting lines of communications (air, land, or sea) are vital in the defense strategy of a nation in peace and war

- applied Clausewitz and Jomini to naval strategy to counter Mahan and thwart sea power-only strategy, promote joint/combined ops

- Local Superiority: Geographic (General/Local), Temporal (Permanent/Temporary)

- Conduct of naval war: seek and destroy, blockade, "fleet in being," minor counterattacks

- Goals: Command of Sea & Passage of commerce (lifeblood of nation)

Sugar’s tips on Corbett

Corbett was not a naval officer, he came from a wealthy family whose patriarch had been a successful architect. Corbett graduated from Cambridge with honors after studying to be a lawyer (uh, I mean barrister – sorry, Shaun), but he never took the bar, and instead spent a few years traveling on the Continent. He was approached to write children’s’ histories of British heroes, namely Admiral Nelson and Francis Drake. Afterwards, he wrote a biography on Nelson for adults, in which he put the romance aside and criticized the man who had arguably become Britain’s “Saint” as being strategically reckless, choosing battles that if lost would have left Britain wide open for invasion. He saw Nelson acting as a warrior rather than an admiral, inferring that he was an “over promoted captain” who had more luck than judgment- taking big risks for little comparative advantage was a poor strategic choice in Corbett’s view.

What gives him the moxie to write this? Perhaps it was partially because he had read Clausewitz before – a decent English translation existed, but Corbett would later produce modern translations of the sections he uses in his works. In the end, the biography doesn’t hurt his reputation – he becomes a close friend and ally of the First Sea Lord, Admiral Jackie Fisher (remember him and the dreadnoughts from the last tips?)

Heavily influenced by the Prussian, but not simply repeating him, Corbett believes that you shouldn’t use theory as a formula for action; it should rather be used to educate an agile commander to use his intuition and experience. He sees command of the sea as a means, not an end in itself, and that command of the sea is meant to influence what you’re doing on land more than what you’re doing on the sea. (Interesting trivia note that makes his point– the location of Jamestown was chosen largely because it sat on a point on the James river where only shallow hulled Spanish ships could approach, and the first thing the colonists did was to build an artillery fort to control that approach from the sea) For Corbett, sea control is about protecting communications locally, not finding and eliminating an elusive enemy fleet. In Corbett’s view, Mahan’s approach of seeking a decisive battle is not so much wrong, just incomplete, and ignores the value of “guerre de course”, or attacking commerce. Smaller, more limited efforts like the British privateers picking off Spanish galleons, “Washington’s Wolf Pack” in the American Revolution, and later commerce raiding by German cruisers around Africa in WWI all showed how such an approach can force opposing navies must make disproportionally large expenditures to deal with even a few small privateers or commerce raiders (think of the Horn of Africa and Somali pirates today) . They must institute convoys which become hugely expensive (time is money in the world of commerce, and now you have to wait for your slowest ship), and send multiple ships to try and find a highly mobile enemy that they often can’t pursue or capture due to speed/ draft considerations.

Even after a decisive naval battle, Corbett argues that you still need the capability to blockade after the victory. In the American Civil War, the Union did not face a significant Confederate naval threat, but it still took them from 1861 until 1865 to improve their rate of interception of blockade runners from 1 out of every 10 to 1 out of every 2. Elimination of an enemy battlefleet doesn’t necessarily guarantee naval superiority locally.

Corbett also looks at naval power beyond the relative combat powers of both countries battlefleets, and how that power can be used through less direct means, leading to his concept of the “Fleet in being” – one which is not offering battle, but must always be considered as a threat. With this argument, it was not the choice to seek a Mahanian decisive battle that led to the Japanese victory in Tsushima Straits in 1905 – the battle occurred where it did because the Japanese fleet had to stay close to Port Arthur to keep the inferior Russian “Fleet in Being” bottled up. Even though the Russian fleet in the port wasn’t strong enough to defeat the Japanese fleet, it’s very presence there, protected by the fortified port, still forced the Japanese to keep a disproportionally large naval force there to prevent Russian raiding of its vital sea lines of communication supporting its land efforts in China and Korea.

One of the biggest takeaways from Corbett in his time – if naval warfare is more about protecting SLOCs , and if nearly all major fleet actions take place in the littorals (only one major fleet on fleet action in naval history takes place out of sight of land before 1939, 1st of June battle in 1793), then the basic force structure of the fleet should be build around cruisers, with battleships to reinforce them, and not the other way around.

One of Corbett’s negatives – he did not predict the effects of submarine warfare, and may have had the single biggest influence on costing Britain the first year of antisubmarine warfare in WWI because of his opposition to the convoy system.

Applicability to us – I think that there are lots of ties between his theories and airpower, especially when you get to comparing sea control with air superiority. “Fleet in being” definitely applies to air and space forces as well…



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