The U.S. Naval Institute on Naval Strategy. Thomas J. Cutler, ed. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2015.
Plato likened the guidance of a state to the navigation, piloting, and crewing of a ship at sea. The analogy holds for the strategist and a war effort. The strategist is the navigator with skills that few others have but he may not always be the captain who leads the crew, those that must actually carry out the strategy. Strategy is not responsive to constant or wild adjustments; the hand on the rudder must be subtle and steady; the mind behind it focused on the north star of the political end state. It is for this reason that one could expect that the navalist’s mind more easily grasps the nature of strategy than that of the continentalist. For centuries, ship’s captains engaged in strategy both military and diplomatic with little guidance and no recourse to seek more just by the nature of communications and the distance that a ship could carry them.
The strategic mind of the navalist is on full display in the latest Wheel Book from the U.S. Naval Institute, Naval Strategy, edited by Thomas J. Cutler, is paired well with the earlier installment, Naval Tactics by Captain Wayne P. Hughes Jr., USN (Ret.). Cutler’s volume, however, is the meatier one as it includes articles by Admiral J.C. Wylie, Sam Tangredi, Milan Vego, Samuel Huntington, Sir Julian Corbett and Admiral James Stavridis, amongst others. The essays by Wylie and Corbett are themselves worth the price of admission, although Wylie’s also appears as an appendix in the recent reprint of his book, Military Strategy (also available from the Naval Institute Press.)
Oddly though, those two essays along with Admiral Stavridis’ appear very late in the book. This is unfortunate because they are the only essays to wrestle with the question of the difference between naval or maritime strategy and land or continental strategy. This is a central question in the subject of naval strategy it would be useful for the student to examine it in the very beginning.
Rather than begin with a discussion of what naval strategy is, the book instead begins with a number of selections that discuss the purpose of the United States Navy. While certainly interesting, at times the articles drift away from strategy and into policy, and only the policy of the United States at that. In my opinion, the policy of purpose for the United States Navy is important but isn’t quite naval strategy.
Another strong and enjoyable portion of the book is two essays on the naval strategies of the first World War. World War II is a heavily researched and popular topic but the first conflict is of equal importance. Norman Friedman examines why the topic is relevant today and, in an article from 1921, Captain Thomas G. Frothingham, USN, examines the naval strategies of the major belligerents and lessons for the United States.
The only weak selection in the book is “Winning Without Fighting” by Lieutenant Daniel Adams. Originally published in September of 2000, it’s easy to dismiss the essay with the hindsight of 2015. But there are other reasons still for such a dismissal. Lieutenant Adams misinterprets important strategic theorists and argues against the use of “Decisive Force.” After 14 years of indecisive use of force on the part of the United States, we could use a lot more focus on decisive force. Cutler should be commended for including a company grade officer’s article but in an age where many company grade officers are beginning to write about naval strategy, there are certainly better examples.
The strategic mind of the navalist is on full display in the latest Wheel Book from the U.S. Naval Institute.
It is vitally important for naval officers especially to understand naval strategy, given the distance from the United States at which our fleets operate and the diplomatic, political, and economic interests that are so inherently part of the naval profession. The final paragraph of the book, which is part of an excerpt from Admiral James Stavridis’ book, The Accidental Admiral, seemingly echoes the need for the navalist to be both tactician and strategist: “My advice, based on four years in NATO, is this: plan with an eye towards the tactical horizon; recognize that the sailing directions for the long-distance voyage are going to be frequently revised as the wind and seas change; and, above all, keep the ship sailing forward with purpose and do not allow yourself to merely drift before the elements on an uncaring sea.” This advice is both relevant to and sums up the mindset of sailors across the millennia, and highlights that an outlook focused solely on the tactical level is a luxury that no naval officer can indulge in. Like the crew of Plato’s ship, the naval officer needs the skills of both navigator and captain, long-term strategist and short-term tactician. Cutler’s work as editor of Naval Strategy offers the junior naval leader, or the senior one in need of catching up, a fine introduction to the issues of naval strategy, many of its accomplished luminaries, and the importance of naval strategy itself.
Captain B. A. Friedman is a field artillery officer in the United States Marine Corps. He has written for numerous military journals and sites and is the author/editor of 21st Century Ellis: Operational Art and Strategic Prophecy from the Naval Institute Press. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the official position of the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
Disclosure: The author of this review is also an author with the Naval Institute Press and a graduate of the U.S. Naval War College of which the editor of the reviewed book is a professor.
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Header Image: The aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) operates in the Arabian Sea during sunset on Jan. 5, 2013 | Petty Officer 3rd Class James Stahl, U.S. Navy