How do you win? Strategists determine what must be done and why. Operational planners devise the when and where. Tacticians are left the most daunting question: How? Though tactical prowess cannot save a poor strategy, the success of both strategy and operational planning frequently ride on tactical achievement. Yet, unlike strategy, tactics are infrequently discussed. Many tactics hide behind layers of classification, and training commands train their students to memorize and execute “proven” “pre-planned responses.” In the exigencies of combat, muscle memory is critical, but discussion of how those tactics were proved is often lost.
These problems are particularly acute for naval tactics. No two navies have fought a major fleet engagement in more than seventy years, and those who would command ships in battle must wait until the twilight years of their careers before they can coordinate multiple units. The U.S. Naval Institute’s new Naval Tactics “wheel book” helps fill a yawning gap.
Unlike much rote tactical training, the book highlights the role of thinking and experimentation, particularly qualitative, historical study.
Edited by Captain Wayne Hughes, USN (ret.), Naval Tactics includes tactical essays from the past 110 years. Hughes highlights directly applicable tactical principles, such as continuing importance of tactical formations, as well as the drivers of tactical change while providing subtle comment on some of the most important challenges facing the U.S. Navy today. Many essays remain as relevant today as they were when written, 30 or more years ago. Unlike much rote tactical training, the book highlights the role of thinking and experimentation, particularly qualitative, historical study.
One might expect that Hughes, an operations researcher, would emphasize quantitative methods in developing and testing new tactics. He argues, however, that tactics require a combination of qualitative and quantitative analysis, or art and science, as he terms them: “The value of science is illustrated by operations analysis and quantitative calculations while the role of art is illustrated by the unique insights of great leaders who could reduce complex considerations into clear and executable battle plans.” The books emphasis on qualitative analysis is striking. Of its thirteen essays, only the oldest, a selection from Bradley Fiske’s “American Naval Policy,” contains any discussion of quantitative calculations.
This imbalance likely targets the intended audience, few of which will have operations analysis experience and many of whom may have no prior tactical education. Even so, it seems significant that as a tactical primer the book focuses on the art rather than the science of tactics, particularly when that art is presented as the stuff of “unique insights of great leaders.” Such insights are as likely the product of preparation and study as of inborn ability. The book’s existence presupposes one can learn to think tactically.
Hughes frequently omits the tactical conduct of a battle from his selections, focusing instead on the preparation for battle or the development of the tactics it would see employed.
In pursuit of that goal, the book clearly emphasizes rigorous historical study in combination with thought experiments. Eight of Hughes’s thirteen elections detail historical battles or the history by which a tactic was developed. Two of the remaining essays (the opening and closing) layout thought experiments. Surprisingly, Hughes frequently omits the tactical conduct of a battle from his selections, focusing instead on the preparation for battle or the development of the tactics it would see employed. This choice emphasizes the contingency of outcomes and further supports the importance of principles of thought.
Ultimately, the commander must be able to act and react in the moment of battle. In the words of Frank Andrews, when “two pieces of war hardware … are roughly on a par, … the victor will be determined only by the outcome of the clash between the minds and the wills of the two opposing commanding officers.” Here, numerical analysis breaks down, for while aggregate probabilities may suggest what generally works, the commander must determine the best course of action for his or her particular situation. Some officers may be born with talent, but for most no substitute exists for practice and study in developing the perspective and judgment required for making tactical decisions.
Without a doubt, combat experience teaches tactical thinking most effectively, but mistakes are costly and opportunities thankfully rare. Exercises provide the next best option. Although, Navy devotes more time to exercises today than it did when Bradley Fisk called for competitive “sham battles” to improve tactical performance over 100 years ago, the chances for practice remain few. Only the study of past battles, the principals they illuminate, and the discussion of the questions they stir, remains as an inexpensive and widely accessible option.
Operators will always highlight experience when finding ways to win, but too often today’s Navy eschews the investment in study that can prepare officers to take full advantage of operational opportunities. The selections and stories in Naval Tactics provide an excellent and engaging place to begin such study.
Erik Sand is an active duty U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer stationed at the Pentagon. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone do not reflect those of the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
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 Wayne P. Hughes Jr., ed., The U.S. Naval Institute on Naval Tactics, U.S. Naval Institute Wheel Books (Annapolis, MD: naval Institute press, 2015), xii.
 Hughes, Naval Tactics, 53.
 Hughes, Naval Tactics, 108.