Le’ Notes #6: Naval warfare and maritime strategy

This post discusses naval thought and maritime strategy from the three renowned thinkers: Mahan, Corbett, and Till.

Ah, maritime strategy. One of those niche areas where I actually didn’t have to read anything for the week’s lecture since I got the basics down. And no, despite the featured image of the Kagero-class destroyer Amatsukaze, I won’t be touching anything Kantai Collection related. I just find Amatsukaze cute, that’s all.

Despite humans being seafaring creatures for a large portion of history (this was especially true for ancient Indonesians and Polynesians), naval thought only became a “real science” when Mahan started out describing elements of naval power. From thereon, we’ve seen naval thought and maritime strategy develop over the years, from warships to merchant fleets.

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The history of Sea Power is largely, though by no means solely, a narrative of contests between nations, of mutual rivalries, of violence frequently culminating in war. – Alfred Thayer Mahan

Humans have been using ships to conquer the seas for trade, cultural exchange, and even dominance since ancient times. However, the first attempt to codify naval thought and sea power was done by Alfred Thayer Mahan in his work The Influence of Sea Power Upon History. Mahan’s work was the first to actually politicize naval power and build the foundation of maritime strategy. Mahan envisioned the sea as a battlefront, where nations could fight to gain control and command over. As Sir Walter Rayleigh said, he who can conquer the sea can conquer the world.

Mahan was obssessed with building large naval fleets. Just to clarify, a “fleet” in Mahan’s sense was a combination of both warships and merchant ships. This was due to Mahan’s case study, the British empire, being both a naval power and economic behemoth. Mahan argued that having strong fleets would bolster maritime trade and allow an empire to project power across the seas.

There are six conditions that contribute to the success of a maritime nation:

  1. Geography: a state that borders the sea will be more likely to develop into a maritime power. Archipelagos enjoy the largest geographic bonus.
  2. Physical conformation refers to the lay of the land, whether or not the state has a long coastline or enough beaches to create ports.
  3. Extent of territory
  4. Population: simply put, the more people you have, the more potential sailors you have.
  5. Character of the people: like the Bugis people of old Indonesia, a positive towards seafaring helps a lot in boosting a nation’s sea power
  6. Character of the government: sea expeditions are expensive and governmental support is essential. China was once a strong maritime power, but when the government turned their backs on the sea, their maritime glory days diminished.

As far as naval doctrine goes, Mahan was obssessed with decisive battles so much so he was nicknamed the “Jomini of the sea”. His centre of gravity would focus on the opposing fleet. This was evident during World War II, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Having been educated in Mahanian thought, the Imperial Japanese Navy thought the Americans would be out of the war if they destroyed their main fleet.  Turns out the Japanese strategy was a bust, because they underestimated the American industry.

To summarize Mahan:

  • Organized fleets are the chief component of naval power
  • Fleets are an offensive weapon, along with naval bases
  • Kantai Kessen, or decisive naval battle, is the objective
  • Attaining command of the sea is the ultimate objective

However, not all ideas are perfect. Mahanian thought was criticized by the French school. The French school of naval thought was more concerned with sea power of smaller proportions. They argued that Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) were the most essential objective that needs to be maintained, not fleets. The French school stood for sea denial, as opposed to sea control. They advocated to strike at merchant fleets, since sea trade routes were delicate and the destruction of merchant vessels were far more destructive than targeting only warships.

In 1911, Julian Corbett then came up with Some principles of maritime strategy. Drawing a lot from Clausewitz, Corbett argued that principles of land warfare cannot be translated verbatim to naval warfare since the sea is obviously a different medium. One of Corbett’s seminal contributions was the introduction of limited war in naval thought. Instead of seeking the conquest of the other’s fleet and maritime territory, Corbett argued that naval warfare should be conducted with limited objectives, namely the control of SLOCs and sea trade routes. The idea was that the sea, being fluid and uncertain, cannot be controlled in a way you could control land territory. The only way to gain naval superiority was to deny your enemy access to your waters. The Germans understood this, which is why their U-boats sought out merchant fleets.

Another important contribution that Corbett made was this: sea power should help shape events on land. While Mahan was obssessed with the sea and nothing but the sea, Corbett saw that navies should be able to influence political events on land. One example was “gunboat diplomacy”, where states would station battleships near the waters of the adversary and use the threat of force to compel the other.

Enter Geoffrey Till, a contemporary maritime thinker. In Seapower: A guide for the 21st century, Till proposes that the essence of sea power is not just about who has the bigger ship, but is rather a combination of factors at sea and on land, i.e. all of the nation’s resources. Till hints that fisheries, maritime trade, and even naval industries play a role in shaping a state’s sea power.

Till also presents the concept of a post-modern navy. There are two types of navies in the world: modern and post-modern. Modern navies are the likes of Mahan and Corbett; obssessed with firepower and power projection. Since the time of decisive naval showdowns have passed and given the increased complexity of security problems in the world, a new breed of navies have emerged: the post-modern navies. Unlike their predecessors, post-modern navies are more concerned with preserving the systemic status quo i.e. world peace and order, rather than state interests. Dubbed as “the heart of the globalization process”, post-modern navies often carry out missions such as:

  1. Sea control, brown-water navy characteristics
  2. Humanitarian expeditionary operations (ex: Aceh tsunami 2004)
  3. Focused on establishing good order at sea  (ex: MALSINDO counter-piracy patrols)
  4. Maintenance of maritime consensus (ex: protection of fisheries in the Arafura Sea)
  5. Cooperative naval diplomacy

All of these missions are geared towards the protection of the global maritime commons, which is at the heart of globalization. Without free access to seas, there will be no globalization.

The bells ring…

Just a quick wrap-up on the subject:

  • Mahan was the first to politicize naval power. Mahanian thought is centred on the offensive use of fleets to seek command over the sea.
  • Corbett contends that maritime strategy should be geared towards achieving limited political objectives and influencing events on land.
  • Till’s post-modern navies depart from the roles of the traditional navies and seek to safeguard the global maritime commons. They were born due to the globalization process.

Le’ Notes is a collection of my lecture and reading notes, summarized, revised, and ready-to-go. Think of it as a bag of chips; it’s easy to eat, but don’t expect a lot of nutrition. Or, you can think of it as a starting point to learning more about other things that might interest you.

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