#Reviewing A Tale of Two Navies

As the United States struggles to cultivate new strategic partnerships, the task of carefully tending to existing partnerships remains critical to positively shaping an ever-changing geopolitical landscape. When considering existing partnerships, there is none closer than that between the United States and Great Britain, specifically between the respective navies. In A Tale of Two Navies: Geopolitics, Technology, and Strategy in the United States Navy and the Royal Navy, Anthony R. Wells describes this bond as a “unique relationship within a special relationship.”[1] Wells is undeniably qualified to make this assessment, as he is the only living person to have served both the Royal Navy (as a British citizen) and the U.S. Navy (as an American citizen)—in both instances as an intelligence specialist. Wells’ experience in the intelligence field forms the bedrock for a careful examination and comparison of political structures, strategic interests, operational successes (and failures), and future challenges.

Wells accurately asserts that the unique relationship between the British and American navies was forged under the leadership of Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt during the Second World War. The combination of intelligence sharing and maritime strategic planning served as the “golden thread that contributed so significantly to ultimate victory.”[2] However, by 1960, a full fifteen years after the end of World War II and the subsequent dawn of the Cold War, the American and British navies were headed in very different directions, due in large part to structural differences in their respective governments. While senior uniformed leadership in the American navy enjoyed incredibly close and legally guaranteed relationships with elected politicians, the influence enjoyed by the Royal Navy’s leadership was diminished to the point that Wells describes it as being “in the position of a second cousin, once removed.”[3] 

Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt relax in the grounds of the White House in Washington DC prior to a daily meeting of the joint Chiefs of Staff from the United Kingdom and United States to discuss Allied war strategy. (World War II Today)

The disparate levels of influence each navy had in shaping not only research and development, but also overall national defense strategies, resulted in a globally-focused American Navy, partnered with a Royal Navy which in an era of decolonization and reduced defense expenditures had become more regionally focused. This divergence marked a dramatic shift for the Royal Navy, whose proud history was defined by advancing and protecting the interests of an empire on which the sun never set. While the story of the American and Royal Navies could have come to a premature end here, their historical, cultural, and philosophical ties remained strong, specifically in the face of an increasingly capable and bellicose Soviet Union.

Wells goes to great lengths to demonstrate how the partnership evolved for the benefit of both nations, and quite possibly the entire world despite the diminished capabilities of the Royal Navy as it entered the 1970s. The fact that the Cold War, for all intents and purposes, remained “cold” is due in large part to the intelligence and technical-data sharing carried out by the American and Royal navies. One particular area where this collaboration proved fruitful, and one in which Wells was intimately involved, was anti-submarine warfare. It is in this discussion that A Tale of Two Navies provides several captivating examples of ingenuity, innovation and, in some cases, good old-fashioned cloak-and-dagger espionage.

While the exchange of information was a key factor in the Soviet’s inability to match combined anti-submarine warfare capabilities, Wells points out that the communist economic model did them no favors. The lack of free-flowing capital to support individual and corporate research and design stifled risk taking and innovation, effectively keeping Soviet submarine technology relegated to second-best. There are two prescient warnings the reader should take away from this section. First, despite the economic handicap imposed on Soviet submarine development, one must never underestimate the crippling effect of treacherous spies. Though the combined fleets held an advantage over the Soviets, John Anthony Walker and his small band of collaborators ensured the advantage remained small enough to keep the Soviets in the game. Second (and perhaps more important) is that submarine development in 21st century communist China should not be confused with that of the 20th century Soviets; the Chinese state-run pseudo-capitalist economy is quite different from, and more efficient than the traditional communist economic model that hindered the Soviets.

Woven throughout his work Wells provides summaries of operational experiences that both tested and strengthened the close relationship between the U.S. and Royal navies. These cases include the infamous USS Liberty incident during the Six-Day War, the Falklands War, the first Gulf War, post-9/11 operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. Shown in each of these discussions is that intelligence sharing often proved more beneficial than any measure of so-called hardware sharing may have. This fact serves to underscore that in an era where the size of the respective fleets remained dramatically tilted toward the Americans, information remained the most powerful weapon, and the British were more than capable.

USS Liberty (AGTR-5) receives assistance from units of the Sixth Fleet, after she was attacked and seriously damaged by Israeli forces off the Sinai Peninsula on 8 June 1967. (U.S. Navy Photo/Wikimedia)

Looking to the future, Wells suggests that both nations must work toward developing clearer expressions of national maritime strategy. He points to Combined SeaPower: A Shared Vision for the Royal Navy–United States Navy Cooperation, co-authored by former First Sea Lord Admiral Sir George Zambellas and former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert as a reasonable starting point. However, the flaw that Wells identifies with this document is that it serves as an expression of how without clearly answering the question of why. Why are the combined navies the best means to advance shared national interests? As the U.S. Navy appears poised to grow in size and end-strength and the Royal Navy prepares to launch its first two Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers (as well as four new Vanguard class SSBNs), the question of why remains relevant. Students of history and navalists alike understand the answer to this question, but these two groups do not require convincing. Politicians, media commentators, and the voting taxpayers are owed an answer, particularly in light of the immense financial outlays associated with ship-building and the corresponding risks that come with putting them to their intended uses.

Sir Lawrence Freedman, Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College London, described A Tale of Two Navies as a “labor of love.” This description is spot-on. Anthony Wells has called upon his vast and incredibly impressive experiences to shine a light on a this “unique relationship within a special relationship.” The shared history of both the American and British people and their navies, in concert with shared visions for how the world ought to function is indeed special. But, beyond simply being special, this relationship is critical in underwriting global security. A Tale of Two Navies has a place on the shelves of all who study and strive to understand the importance of effective maritime partnerships and strategy.

Jack Curtis is a Naval Aviator who graduated from the University of Florida and the Naval War College. He is a proud member of the Tailhook Association as well as the Military Writers Guild. The views expressed are the author's alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Navy, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: The Royal Navy destroyer HMS Gloucester (D96) transits alongside the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) during the U.K.-sponsored joint exercise Saxon Warrior 11. (Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Joshua D. Sheppard/U.S. Navy Photo)


[1] Anthony R. Wells, A Tale of Two Navies: Geopolitics, Technology, and Strategy in the United States Navy and the Royal Navy, 1960-2015 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2017), 1.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Wells, 31.