#Reviewing 21st Century Knox

21st Century Knox: Influence, Sea Power, and History for the Modern Era. David Kohnen, ed. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2016.

Early in the century, a naval officer and historian sought to use his knowledge to help shape the Navy that he believed the nation needed as it faced a time of great uncertainty, expanding roles and missions, and impending war of a scale few could sense. While one can identify many parallels to modern times in this description, the century in this case is the Twentieth, not our own. Dudley W. Knox, for whom the research library at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA is named, looked to the future of the pre-World War I Navy and hoped that he could help to shape it based on lessons from the past in a way that would help it be ready to meet and defeat any enemy. Knox was a man ahead of his time, describing what today have become some of the most pressing challenges to the American way of war. In the terminology of his time, he wrote about challenges that we today refer to as anti-access and area-denial threats to our ability to project power and maintain access to the global commons, and he even considered naval integration efforts. This volume, part of the 21st Century Foundations series from the Naval Institute Press, will help the current generation of scholars and practitioners in the security and defense realms gain a better appreciation of just how much Knox’s ideas still matter.

The book’s editor, Dr. David Kohnen of the U.S. Naval War College, selected the essays in the book from among the broad corpus of Knox’s published scholarship during a Naval career in uniform and out which spanned more than five decades. Arranged chronologically so that readers can appreciate the development of Knox’s ideas over time (in this case, between 1913 and 1950), many of these essays originally appeared in the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings. The selections include Knox’s 1913 honorable-mention entry in the prestigious U.S. Naval Institute General Prize Essay Contest. (He would take the top prize the following year, placing him in the company of the likes of Mahan and King before him, and Stavridis, Misso, and Wilhelm after.) Kohnen writes a brief introduction to each essay, followed by Knox’s full text which comprises the bulk of each chapter. The book also includes a more extensive introduction and short conclusion written by the editor.

President Franklin Roosevelt and Knox (Naval War College)

While all essays in the book are worthwhile, two gems stand out. The first is a previously unpublished essay which aptly illustrates one of the main threads winding throughout the book: influence, in this case the personal kind. The essay details Knox’s partnership in support of naval history with the nation’s longest-serving president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, which all FDR aficionados will want to read. In this particularly poignant and touching 1948 essay, Knox details several vignettes in an enduring and influential relationship with FDR. Roosevelt nurtured a well-known and deeply-held affection for naval affairs, not the least of which were historical matters and naval art, and in this fertile ground Knox cultivated ties that spanned decades. These genial, intimate sketches of Roosevelt as a naval history buff and of Knox as a dependable source for naval historical information provide a window into how Knox furthered the naval historical enterprise throughout his long association with the Navy.[1] Knox himself would eventually achieve one-star rank, yet his personal influence extended beyond rank throughout his association with the Navy and naval affairs. Inside the Navy, Knox’s close ties to contemporary and friend Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King were critical in lending audience and cache to his initiatives on behalf of naval historical efforts.

The second notable essay is the final chapter of the book in which Knox examines inconsistencies between service doctrines and “unification” (re-labeled by Kohnen as “root problems in joint doctrine” for the contemporary audience). Sadly, several issues Knox identifies in this 1950 essay remain unresolved in modern warfighting strategy and doctrine. For example, Knox makes a strong case for aircraft carriers as the preferred method for placing striking power in proximity of enemies while maintaining safety from threats through mobility. Addressing critics who claimed carriers were vulnerable to attack from land-based aircraft, Knox writes that “[carriers] are very hard to hit from the air, especially so for pilots of land planes who are seldom proficient when their target is moving at high speed.”[2]

“In these days of guided missiles, jet propulsion, atomic power, and a great variety of other new weapons and devices we cannot, of course, rely too precisely upon recent wartime experience for future guidance.”

While Knox could not know in 1950 the degree to which adversary capabilities to hold U.S. aircraft carriers at risk would eventually develop, he realized the lessons of developing technology, writing, “In these days of guided missiles, jet propulsion, atomic power, and a great variety of other new weapons and devices we cannot, of course, rely too precisely upon recent wartime experience for future guidance.”[3] Contrary to the thinking of leading strategic airpower advocates of the day in the newly-independent U.S. Air Force, Knox saw many problems with the concept of using excessively long air bridges to project power against overseas foes. The farther aircraft had to fly to service targets, the less payload they could carry, meaning more individual aircraft were necessary to have the same effect as if the base from which the missions originated were closer to their target areas. (All the better if the “base” floated, was made of steel, and could move at a high rate of speed.)

For the independent Air Force, any requirement for more bombers was a boon and would help further service priorities. Knox believed that a focus on strategic bombing as a primary mission only served to divorce Air Force culture from supporting surface forces (be they ground or naval) and instead focused them on the ethereal concept of victory through airpower alone, something that to this day has not been proven possible. (On these grounds, Knox opposed an independent air force, reflecting a debate that continues through the present day.) Knox’s naval service, which predated the advent of airpower in the service of military ends, and extended through the creation of an independent air force, gave him a unique position to observe first-hand the trials and tribulations attendant to the integration of warfare in a new domain. Knox wrote that

The flyers of the Air Corps nearly all lacked proficiency and training as soldiers. Even General [William] Mitchell, the principal early leader, had been first commissioned from civil life into the Signal Corps and never had considerable military line experience. Almost automatically this whole background led the Air Corps to develop aviation as something quite apart from the Army proper, and ultimately, actually to separate from it.[4]

Fast-forwarding a century, there may be parallels and lessons here for contemporary warriors aiming to integrate cyber warfare into the profession of arms. To what extent is our own cyber capability being developed and integrated in a fashion that focuses on harmonization and integration with existing capabilities, not development of yet another “cylinder of excellence”?

Throughout the book, Knox repeatedly argues on behalf of the central role of naval forces not just in high-end warfare scenarios, but also as a way to prevent conflict through another type of influence. Chapter five, “The Navy as Peacemaker,” focuses on how strong and able naval forces will provide a deterrent against other countries thinking about stirring up trouble. Knox saw military weakness as provocative, writing, “Virtually all of our foreign wars possess the common aspect of having American non-preparedness, or assumed relative weakness, as a cardinal element in their origin. They thus point to military-naval strength as a general preserver of peace for the United States.”[5] Living in the era before significant threats existed from non-state actors, Knox did not consider how effective warships might be in countering that category of threats. Beyond just waving the stick, a softer touch such as that provided through endeavors like the annual Pacific Partnership mission focused on disaster relief and medical and engineering projects and exchanges throughout the Indo-Asia-Pacific region might also be considered as one of the ways naval forces can have significant effect prior to the onset of armed hostilities. Knox probably would have enjoyed leafing through the 2013 Navy-Marine Corps-Coast Guard Maritime Security Cooperation Policy and appreciating the degree to which planners have worked to codify how the naval services now work together jointly to “prevent war, operate forward in new and flexible ways, and [are] postured to prevail should conflict arise.”[6]

USNS Mercy (T-AH 19) departing San Diego to participate in Pacific Partnership 2016.

Knox identified some of the difficulties inherent to joint operations, including challenges to command and control, interoperable communications, and the development of habitual working relationships between sister service organizations long before 1986’s Goldwater-Nichols Act. He saw little that he liked in the culture of the U.S. Army, referring to it as “a loosely knit aggregation of semi-independent Corps, rather than an Army” and noting that its branches operated as “each almost a separate empire.” Because of this institutional cultural baseline, Knox believed that the Army inherently tended toward “dis-unification,” whereas “[w]ithin both the Navy and the Marine [C]orps, integration amounts to an instinct.”[7] Instinct or not, it is worth noting that the Marine Corps’ 2014 capstone concept, Expeditionary Force 21, enshrines efforts toward greater naval integration with the Navy, Coast Guard, and special operations forces as its number one focus area.[8]

In the final analysis, this book and its distillation of ideas and thinking that came from Knox’s “50 years before the mast” during a time period during which Knox had a front row seat as the U.S. Navy changed from a small, relatively weak force into one with truly global responsibilities and missions, is an essential read for all naval officers.

Gary Sampson is a U.S. Marine Corps officer currently assigned to Okinawa, Japan. He is a 2009 Scholar of the George and Carol Olmsted Foundation. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent those of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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[1] David Kohnen, ed., 21st Century Knox: Influence, Sea Power, and History for the Modern Era (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2016), 145.

[2] Ibid., 143.

[3] Ibid., 144.

[4] Ibid., 138-9.

[5] Ibid., 118.

[6] U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Coast Guard, Maritime Security Cooperation: An Integrated Navy-Marine Corps-Coast Guard Approach, January 2013, 1. Available at http://www.marines.mil/Portals/59/Med%20Res%20Maritime%20Security%20Cooperation_An%20Integrated_USN-USMC-USCG_Approach%20w%20PCN.pdf; accessed July 16, 2016.

[7] Kohnen, 21st Century Knox, 136.

[8] Headquarters Marine Corps, Expeditionary Force 21, March 4, 2014, 29. Available at http://www.mccdc.marines.mil/Portals/172/Docs/MCCDC/EF21/EF21_Capstone_Concept.pdf; accessed July 17, 2016.