A New Sea Power Strategy: What Would Alfred Thayer Mahan Do?

A couple of weeks ago the U.S. Naval War College hosted the Current Strategy Forum, 2014. It was a two day conference which brought the soon-to-be graduates of the War College programs together with fleet planners and strategists, some of the world’s top scholars, and a few of us strap hangers to discuss maritime and military strategy in the 21st century. The lectures and panels were all live-streamed and then posted to Youtube, so you can watch them yourself here.

One of the things Admiral Greenert said, and was repeated a number of times by the other Admirals, was that the OPNAV staff is looking for help in working on the new iteration of the Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (CS21). One of the things the organizers of the conference failed to offer, however, was an obvious outlet to provide the feedback. This is reflected in some of the internet “after action” writing, including a post written with obvious frustration by a War College student and published at Steeljaw Scribe and CDR Salamander.

Luckily, the anonymous student stumbled upon the perfect way to provide the feedback: writing about it. CAPT “Barney” Rubel (ret), the outgoing Dean of Naval Warfare Studies in Newport, points this out in his recent monograph “Writing to Think.” He tells us that taking the time to sit down and write about professional subjects like strategy and policy has the ability to clarify and organize things, making our thoughts more useful.

Dispositions of Navies

One of the names which came up a few times at Current Strategy Forum was Alfred Thayer Mahan. One of the godfathers of the Naval War College and professional military education, his name has also become a nearly mandatory cliché when discussing naval strategy. Much of the Mahanian discussion focuses on “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History.” Because of the book’s focus on the age of sail we hear that it’s a shame he didn’t write something more useful for us in the 21st century. If only he had written something relevant to navies with engines instead of sails, that discussed how to dispose of a global fleet in a time of relative peace, with rising great powers. If only.

In 1901, Mahan wrote an essay for the British journal National Review entitled “Considerations Governing the Dispositions of Navies.” It was a study of why, where and how a nation should exercise their naval forces in times of relative peace, “for the dispositions of peace should bear a close relation to the contingency of war.” While the essay is little known compared to his seminal book, the noted strategist of the 1930s and 1940s Herbert Rosinski wrote that it was probably some of Mahan’s best work. It gets directly to the heart of the questions a document like CS21 must answer, what are the ideas which govern how we deploy and use our fleet today?

Three Thoughts from The Prophet

The first thing Mahan calls for in his essay is “an antecedent appreciation of the political, commercial, and military exigencies of the state.” At the turn of the 20th century the world was experiencing globalization with an unprecedented scale and speed. Mahan believed any strategic appreciation of how or why to use navies had to be informed by that reality. Because naval power plays a role in military affairs, commercial or economic interests, and the political or diplomatic interaction between states, they should be seen as “an articulated whole,” and all three must be addressed by today’s strategic thinkers. The drafters of a strategic document like CS21 must consider these three factors, and should explain how the Navy views its interaction with each of them individually, as well as a whole, around the globe today.

Another area of the essay for today’s writers to consider is Mahan’s discussion of forward deployed naval forces. Mahan believed America was safest when threats were dealt with far from our own shores. That required not just a navy, but a forward deployed navy which was able to respond quickly because it already had presence around the world. He also highlighted the relationship between offense and defense in naval war, a balance that was a bit different than the way land power strategists have thought about it.

Mahan reminds his readers, “he who has but half way to go does double the work.” Because of this, he writes that the locations for overseas bases are critical and must be selected with strategic elements in mind. He touches on the maintenance of allies and partners as well as the facilities needed to repair and resupply ships in theater, rather than always having to bring them back to the United States. In modern terms he’s talking about the value of forward basing and forward stationing and some of his ideas will likely have direct relevance to those who are working on CS21.

The final element of “Considerations Governing the Dispositions of Navies” I will point out is Mahan’s discussion of technology and fleet constitution. One of the pieces of conventional wisdom about the great navalist is that he was a bit of a Luddite and did not understand the advance of technology, or its importance to naval operations. Thinking about it for a moment, it seems a bit silly to suggest an officer whose career straddled the shift from sail to steam wouldn’t understand how technology impacts naval affairs. In his essay Mahan’s writing also helps to dispel some of that myth.

The airplane and the tactically useable submarine were still a few years away when he wrote the piece. However, he does discuss the importance of the new wireless telegraph technology. He suggests that by using their radios ships could network together and cover much larger distances. Scouting (or what we today call ISR) could be impacted dramatically and the wireless would present the ability for numerous small ships to come together and operate as a massed and coordinated group when needed, but also provide the ability for them to disperse for presence operations.

Importantly, Mahan also discusses the constitution of the fleet. The kinds of ships a naval force needs, the balance of numbers or types, is a vital part of any vision for naval affairs or sea power. In the 21st century we add aircraft, submarines and other platforms and systems to the question as well. Starting with Mahan’s outline isn’t a bad idea. We are commonly taught he was a battleship man and was focused on big guns and big ships. His writing in this essay clears up some of that conventional wisdom as well. Mahan wrote a Navy needed three elements which made up a balanced fleet. The battle fleet was the obvious starting point and required battleships and armament which could defeat another nation’s fleet. Mahan also wrote that a navy needs numerous cruisers to work with the battle fleet, but which can also deploy independently for the protection of commerce and naval diplomacy. Finally, Mahan suggested a balanced naval force required small craft which could serve as scouts as well as move toward the shore and serve in close to the enemy’s coast.

Mahan was writing about ships, but obviously today aircraft and submarines can complete some of the tasks he discusses, though not all of them. A new version of CS21 will require a discussion of fleet constitution and technology, but it must focus on the “why.” At the very end of his essay Mahan points out that after the qualitative must come the quantitative. Establishing how many ships and assets you need is a vital part of peacetime naval policy.

Sea Power and the 21st Century

Reading Alfred Thayer Mahan’s work will not provide a prescription for today’s issues or a checklist the drafters of a new CS21 should follow. One of the other great myths about Mahan is that his purpose was to provide step by step instructions for maritime success. He is frequently called the Jomini of naval thought. But Mahan didn’t believe in checklists, he didn’t believe in maxims as hard and fast rules. When he used words like principles or maxims, he was describing historical precedents providing naval officers and strategists with ideas to consider. He wrote the purpose of studying and learning historical principles isn’t to tell you exactly what to do to get things right, it’s to give you a hint that you’re about to do something wrong.

The officers working on the new document likely already have many of these concepts in mind. However, there is a great deal more in “Considerations Governing the Dispositions of Navies” which the modern navy can learn from. I’ve just highlighted three elements I think are particularly interesting and relevant to CS21. But don’t trust me, read Mahan himself. You can find the essay either in Chapter 2 of “21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era” or you can do a little bit of searching on the internet and probably find it for free download. Mahan’s great value isn’t in telling us what to do or think; it is in helping us ask the right questions. As he told us in another essay, “the instruction derived from the past must be supplemented by a particularized study of the indications of the future.”

B.J. Armstrong is a naval officer, helicopter pilot, and a PhD candidate in War Studies with King’s College, London. He has served as an amphibious search & rescue pilot and led an MH-60S gunship detachment in Operation UNIFIED PROTECTOR and in counter-piracy and counter-terror operations in the Middle East. He is editor of 21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era. The views expressed are those of the author alone and are presented in his private capacity. This first appeared at the Naval Institute Blog. The views expressed in this article are the author's alone and do not represent the official position  of the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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