Mahan on Naval Strategy

Central Proposition: (Pg 95) "Naval Strategy has for its end to found, support, and increase, as well in peace as in war, the sea power of a country." Control of the sea, or lack thereof, determines the rise and fall of a nation.

- Sea Power: As the term appears thrroughout his work, two principle meanings emerge

1. Command of the sea through naval superiority

2. That combination of maritime commerce, overseas possessions, and privileged access to foreign markets and national wealth and greatness

Elements of sea power

- geographical position (29)

- physical conformation - The seaboard of a country (35)

- extent of territory - length of its coast-line and its harbors that are to be considered. (43)

- number of population - staying power, or reserve force.

- national character - (50)

- character of the government - particular forms of government with accompanying institutions (58)

Decisive battle

He believes that a fleet seeking a decisive result must close with its enemy, but not until some advantage has been obtained for the collision, which will be gained by maneuvering, and will fall to the best drilled and managed fleet.(4) But if the true end is to preponderate over the enemy's navy and so control the sea, then the enemy's ships and fleets are the true objects to be assailed on all occasions.(288)

Commerce raiding- secondary operation of war (8) Principles – the teachings in the school of history which remain constant, and being, therefore, of universal application can be elevated to the rank of general principles.

- Concentration (the predominant principle)

- Fleet – to be decisive in war, a navy must be composed primarily of capital ships.

- Primary object of fleet -- engage the enemy’s fleet.

- Control of the sea – by reducing the enemy’s navy, is the determining consideration in a naval war.

- Offensive – both strategically & tactically, navies should be employed offensively.

-- Not speed but offensive power in action is the dominant action in war.
-- To choose that part of the enemy’s order which can least easily be helped (11)
-- Striking at the enemy’s line of communication (11)

Broader Applications

Mahan was the first naval theorist to codify naval strategy and his thoughts of “command of the sea” may have influenced early air strategists who drew parallels between air power and sea power. GiulioDouhet’sThe Command of the Air is an example. Airpower strategists have adapted some strategic principles developed by Mahan for air power. Two examples include: 1) control of the air determines the rise or fall of a nation, and 2) the best way to deny control of the air is to defeat the enemy’s air forces

Sugar's Tips on Mahan

Mahan is yet another case where you’ve really got to understand the historical context of his times to understand why he wrote, and why his message resonated. First, you have to consider the impact of technology on naval warfare. When Mahan wrote in the 1890s, nearly all of the serving admirals had learned their trade during the Age of Sail, and had seen the rapid change all the way from the ironclads of the American Civil War , including the introduction of torpedoes, submarines, and steam driven battleships. The US Navy had begun a modernization program in the 1880s, but had no battleships, and with the 25th largest Navy (behind even Brazil) it was still primarily a coastal defense force.

As indicated by the 1890 census, America had recently completed its North American expansion, and was emerging as a major economic power. The pull of Nationalism (Why should Manifest Destiny stop just because we’ve hit the natural borders?) and Eugenics (the belief that humanity could be advanced through superior genetics - guess who’s genes?) was still a strong one in the US in the late 1890s. Thus, the issue of whether or not the US should concentrate on internal issues (the position of Mark Twain and the Anti-Imperialist League, who were against a “Blue Water” navy), or reach out beyond its shores to “take its place in the world” through further expansion was a violently divisive issue in Mahan’s time. Rudyard Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden” is a great example of the political dynamics of the time, but most of his contemporaries ignored the subtle warnings about the risks of imperialism and instead pounced on the title to justify their already held beliefs .

As it has been throughout history, building and maintaining a Navy is extremely expensive, and the high degree of specialization required for fighting ships means that neither they nor their crews can pay for themselves by conducting commercial activities in peacetime. Thus, in the past, ships had been built as a capital investment (hence the term “capital ship”) meant to last for years and years to depreciate the cost – for example, HMS victory was built between 1759 and 1765 for the equivalent of $750 million 1998 US dollars, and was forty years old at the Battle of Trafalgar where she served as Nelson’s flagship. At the same battle, HMS Royal Sovereign was 100 years old. Nations could also reduce the cost of building navies by capturing other countries ships – at that same battle, 1/3 of Britians ships were previously captured ones. With the introduction of the technologies and weapons that immediately predated the introduction of the Dreadnaught (in 1906), fleets were becoming exponentially more expensive, and in some cases, ships were reaching obsolescence before they were even launched based on technological leaps by other nations.

Naval logistics had also changed dramatically with the switch from sail to steam. Most steam ships could sail no more than a week before they had to refuel with coal, which meant that access to coaling stations around the world was required for any sort of naval power projection. It was this requirement that often led to the “foreign entanglements” and” Imperialism” that Twain feared, but if one went in with Imperialism as an entering argument, they were simply a prerequisite for the other gains you sought.

The power of symbolism also heavily plays into the debate into whether or not to build a blue water navy. Given the expense of building battleships, having one was essentially a “status symbol” , and having a battlefleet was possibly the greatest physical demonstration of national power available to seafaring nations. If you believe that Empire is also an important part of your national image, the high expense of a navy is justified, and the size of the navy and the empire you can consolidate go hand in hand.

Enter the American Mahan, the son of Dennis Hart Mahan, who was a professor at West Point. The senior Mahan had translated and commented on Jomini, but the younger Mahan will later claim not to have knowledge of the Swiss theorist. (Given that Sportscenter had not yet emerged, how likely is it that the J man never came up in conversation in the Mahan household? Yeah, that's what I thought, too). Against his family’s wishes, Mahan went to the Naval Academy (take that, Dad!), and graduated second in his class in 1859. He served on several ships in the Union Navy in the Civil War, and eventually rose to the rank of Captain (and Rear Admiral in post retirement). Mahan was never known for his seamanship. He was chronically seasick, collided with something in nearly every ship he commanded, and admitted to his wife (apparently in correspondence) how hard steering ships was, and avoided sea duty. Despite this, he continued to rise in the Navy in both rank and prominence (a rise described by one biographer a akin to "a cheerleader becoming president”), largely due to his skill with a pen. The fact that he befriended an itinerant lecturer in 1887 who later became the president of the United States (Theodore Roosevelt) probably didn’t hurt his reputation, either.

In 1885, Mahan was appointed lecturer in naval history and tactics at the Naval War College, spent a year studying and writing, and then succeeded Luce as the president of the college. His studies and lectures between 1885 and 1889 became the basis for his most influential books, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783, and The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1793–1812, published 1890 and 1892, respectively.

Mahan was of the school that believed that American had the innate capabilities and resources to become a world power among the other great powers, and that it should do so by building a blue water navy on both coasts, and use it to secure territorial acquisitions. It was most likely a very conscious effort to sway public opinion in favor of this course of action from the start, rather than a thesis who was led to a conclusion purely by the facts. As my CGSC professor put it, Mahan “omitted a lot, and oversimplifies the rest” in his survey of history. (Sugar’s observation – looks a lot like Liddell Hart in "Strategy" in this regard).

If you take nothing else from Mahan, take these things: 1. Naval Power and National Power go hand in hand, 2. The battlefleet is the means to secure this power, 3. You don’t divide the battlefleet, you concentrate it and gain maritime superiority by decisively destroying the enemy’s battlefleet, not by attacking his commerce. The point of Mahan is empire, not just a navy. Mahan oversimplified in three words: Jomini at sea.

Mahan won out – the “Great White Fleet” was built, and despite a crisis in public opinion, the US expanded into the Philippines and Panama, and the US used naval power (and US Marines) to exercise hegemony South America for close to 150 years, the effects of which still shape our policy dealings in that region.

Mahan’s work struck a chord in Britain even more than it did in the US – when he went to visit, he was unexpectedly met by huge adoring crowds at the pier, and was immediately invited to visit the king. His book was exactly what was needed to justify the hugely expensive transition to dreadnoughts, which were initially proposed by Lord of the Admiralty Jackie Fischer in 1897 and first built in 1906, which cost $1.2 billion each in an economy where $700 a year was a decent wage, there was no income tax, and Britain was rapidly losing economic power relative to Germany. Mahan’s book becomes the “bedrock” of their acquisition strategy, if not their national defense strategy.

Relevance of Mahan: the Japanese victory against the Russian fleet in Tsushima Straits in 1905 only seems to further Mahan’s thesis to the uncritical eye (not so much for Corbett, as we’ll see next), and his theories have a major influence on nearly all of the major navies of his time – not hard to see how a prescriptive approach to naval war battle is appealing to some, just as Jomini’s approach was to most armies. Significantly, Mahan is almost quickly translated into Japanese and incorporated into their curriculum for training naval officers. His influence is indicated by the Japanese focus on decisive naval engagements rather than to protect their supply lines, a tendency that is ultimately exploited by the US Pacific submarine campaign, the codebreakers before Midway, and also by some guy named Kenney…



General Principles

Concentration: The predominant principle

Fleet: To be decisive in war, a navy must be compsed primarily of capital ships

Primary object of the fleet: engage the enemy's fleet

Control of the Sea: by reducing the enemy's navy... it is the determining consideration in naval war

Offensive: both strategically and tactically, navies should be employed offensively

- not speed but offensive power in action is the dominant action in war

- Choose the part of the enemy rder of battle that can be least easily helped

- Strike at the enemy's lines of communication

Other Principles: (Introduction of the book)

Coast Defense: Sea ports defend themselves, fleets are for the sea, the navy is for the offense

Communications: dominates war and is the single most important element

Concentration: Do not split the fleet!

Command of the Sea: National policy and national obligation

Defensive versus the offensive

- Success is nothing short of victory, and victory is sought on the offensive

- Not speed but power of the offensive action

- Defense allows the offense to act more freely

Fleet: Expensive and one must determine how your fleet is composed (Captial ships!)

History: Important to learn and to know history

National Policy: Very Clausewitzian in his thinking

Sea Power: Function of Navy is distinctly military. Protect commerce and enforce policies.

Implications for Strategy

Mahan was first naval theorist to codify naval strategy and thoughts of "command of the sea" and may have influenced early air strategists who drew parallels between air and sea power. Air strategists adapted some strategic principles developed by Mahan for air power. Two examples include 1) control of the air determines the rise and fall of a nation, and 2) the best way to deny control of the air is to defeat the enemies air forces.

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