A Revolution at Sea: Old is New Again


During World War II, Secretary of War Henry Stimson dammed the U.S. Navy’s approach to wartime strategy and famously wondered about “the peculiar psychology of the Navy Department, which frequently seemed to retire from the realm of logic into a dim religious world in which Neptune was god, Mahan his prophet, and the U.S. Navy the only true church.” Few, then or now, have any doubt as to the huge impact Alfred Thayer Mahan’s classic The Influence of Sea Power upon History had and continues to have on discussions of naval strategy. But, it may be time to demote Mahan’s masterpiece to the second rung, in favor of paying increased attention to Julian Corbett — particularly his tour de force, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy — whose writings demonstrate a better awareness of complex geostrategic environments than Mahan typically contemplated.

It is perhaps paradoxical that in our technological and information-based era we are even discussing naval theorists who were writing at the turn of the last century. But the dynamics of the ongoing revolution in naval affairs, coupled with a reawakened global great state competition, has created a situation eerily analogous to the strategic and operational challenges great power navies confronted on the eve of the Great War. By reexamining the strategic and operational concepts that drove naval planning when Mahan and Corbett were writing, strategists and policymakers can employ a valuable historical context to thinking about today’s problems. Although both authors published numerous other works displaying nuanced views on seapower and world affairs, for better or worse, great strategic thinkers are judged by their masterworks. So just as Clausewitz’s voluminous writings are ignored in war college classrooms in favor of On War, and Jomini is mostly reduced to The Art of War, in this essay, Mahan and Corbett are examined in terms of their best known and most impactful works.



When employing history as guidance for the future, it is just as important to consider the differences as it is the similarities. Foremost among these differences in naval warfare is the capacity of land-based fires to reach hundreds of miles out to see to kill maneuvering ships. This crucial contextual difference is forcing strategists to forget Mahan’s repeated assertions that the primary role of the fleet is to seek-out and destroy the opposing fleet, often independent of considerations of what was taking place on land. This Mahanian influence has been the driving force behind a century of navies striving to break free of the fetters bonding them to land. It is time to take a more Corbettean approach, where sea and land power are fully integrated into a new warfighting concept, one the U.S. Navy has been assiduously distancing itself from for over a century.

Even as Mahan was writing about “Those far distant, storm-beaten ships, upon which the Grand Army never looked ,patiently awaiting the chance to bring the French fleet to battle, he was neglecting any mention of the logistical revolution that had already altered naval warfare to such a degree that decisive sea battles were becoming increasingly rare events. For, in the years between the Seven Year’s War and the French Revolution, the Royal Navy had developed a capacity to sustain continuous blockades hundreds of miles from established naval bases, ensuring that most of its enemy’s fleets would rot without ever offering battle. For the prior three thousand years, ships and fleets in need of resupply had to return to port to take on ammo, food, and water. But by 1800, the Royal Navy was employing 18 specialized ships for the sole purpose of resupplying fleets while still at sea. In just a single quarter of 1801, these ships delivered to the Brest blockading squadron: nearly 10,000 tons of water, 10,000 pounds of cabbage, 28,000 pounds of potatoes, 1,000 pounds of turnips, 8,600 pounds of onions, and was delivering live cattle for slaughter 25 at a time.

This logistical revolution was a major step toward a long-held goal of all navies, and one applauded by Mahan, to reduce their dependence on land bases. At the time, the impact of being able to keep a fleet at sea year-round was nearly as great as the gunpowder revolution, which had made galleys — the backbone of naval power for 2,000 years — obsolete almost overnight. In the period Mahan wrote about, just two ships of the line could unleash more destructive firepower than all of the artillery Napoleon had at Waterloo. Consequently, it became necessary to fortify all major naval bases, since a fleet was vulnerable to a sudden attack without such land-based firepower, as Lord Horatio Nelson demonstrated when he destroyed the French Mediterranean Fleet at Aboukir bay in the Battle of the Nile. Nelson, by destroying the Danish fleet while it lay at anchor in Copenhagen, also established that even a well-fortified harbor does not necessarily guarantee a fleet’s safety. But, for the most part, ships anchored or maneuvering within range of land-based guns were mostly immune from naval firepower. Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood — Nelson’s second-in-command at the Battle of Trafalgar — made this abundantly clear when he complained about the monotony of maintaining the Toulon blockade: “[the French] cannot move a ship without our seeing them, which must be very mortifying to them; but we have the mortification also to see their merchant-vessels going along shore, and cannot molest them.” Collingwood was being stymied by French land batteries and heavy moveable artillery units that kept the British fleet at arms-length, where they could observe but not interfere. Still, what is important to note here is that the Royal Navy was increasingly throwing off the shackles imposed by the need to continuously return to local bases for the logistics necessary to continue operations. In fact, from the French perspective, their own bases had been turned into traps, where the Royal Navy enforced a policy of once-in-never-out.

This developing naval paradigm, based on increased operational freedom of the fleet, was thrown into reverse by the advent of coal-reliant steam powered ships, which dominated the oceans at the time of Mahan’s writings. Navies, rather than gaining increasing independence from harbors, suddenly found themselves anchored to coaling stations. A battleship of the era could easily burn off ten tons of coal an hour. As even the largest ships carried less than 2,000 tons of coal, fleets were often limited to a mere week or two of active operations before having to seek out a coaling station. Moreover, in wartime, these dispersed coaling stations required substantial fortified garrisons, liberally supplied with long-range coastal artillery, lest they be wrecked or captured by an enemy squadron. In the steam age, naval power rested upon two key elements: a powerful fleet and a global chain of coaling stations.

Figure 1: Map of Shipping Routes, 1914 (Wikicommons)

The conversion to oil returned a measure of independence to the fleet, as ships could carry several times as much oil as coal. Moreover, as oil has a greater energy density than coal, the same tonnage of oil doubled a ships speed while extending its cruising range by as much as 50 percent. In World War II, fleets further increased their independence with the creation of the fleet train, capable of replenishing entire fleets while still at sea. By 1944, improvements in logistical methods had made the endurance of the crew and its leaders the key limiting factor as to the length of time a fleet could remain at sea. In fact, during the Central Pacific Campaign, the fleet remained continuously at sea for over a year, only switching names between 3rd Fleet and 5th Fleet depending on who was in command. In the postwar years, nuclear powered ships hugely extended the length of time ships and task forces could remain independent of shore bases.

Great power fleets were finally approaching the Mahanian ideal, where their only strategic concern was fighting each other. For all practical purposes, throughout the Cold War and in the two decades since, it has been possible to conduct effective fleet operations with only a few major bases, as nuclear-based carrier task forces could leave either U.S. coast and stay at sea indefinitely. Coaling stations and supporting naval bases became largely redundant, although some received new leases on life as homes for prepositioned war stocks (Diego Garcia) or land and air bases (Okinawa). Throughout the postwar decades, the U.S. Navy’s fleets and task forces were almost totally self-contained, typically only having to go into foreign ports to show the flag.

Once at sea, a carrier task force had sufficient organic firepower to protect itself from attacks from land-based aircraft, enemy surface vessels, and submarines, while still undertaking offensive actions. In fact, one of the major, if erroneous, critiques of the U.S. Navy’s 1986 Maritime Strategy was that the Navy was divorcing itself from larger strategic concerns — winning in Central Europe — in favor of fighting its own private war against the Soviet Navy. The truth of this assertion is immaterial, the crucial point is that the U.S. Navy clearly considered itself capable of conducting prolonged combat operations with little regard to what was taking place on land.

Those days are over. Stealth aircraft, missiles, and long-range artillery fires are rapidly changing the dynamics of naval warfare. The oceans, never a hospitable environment, are increasingly deadly, to the point where the survivability of independently operating naval task forces are in question. In a great state conflict, speed, deception, and defensive firepower will likely remain sufficient — at least in the foreseeable future — to protect task forces maneuvering over an ocean’s great expanse. This, however, will no longer hold true as ships approach an enemy coastline, where they will be easier to target and exposed to attack by thousands of missiles. In these circumstances, even superior defensive systems will rapidly expend all of their ammunition, leaving ships both defenseless and incapable of further offensive action. In a 21st century conflict, the item in need of constant replenishment is no longer coal or oil, but munitions, including missiles. But, in an environment as deadly as that within the first and second island chains is expected to be, logistic support vessels are unlikely to survive for long.

If U.S. naval task forces are going to survive and remain capable of offensive action, they require locations where they can replenish and operate in relative safety. This will be a vital role for survivable expeditionary advance bases, whose fires complexes will be crucial to assuring the success of the U.S. fleet, as well as its continuing capacity for offensive action. As currently envisioned, the Marine Corps’ expeditionary advance bases concept involves establishing a persistent presence on key maritime terrain (islands and chokepoints) and then emplacing long-range weapons systems within these bases. Once completed, these bases will serve several purposes, including creating an anti-access envelope, within which enemy ships and aircraft would be unable to effectively operate, as well providing secure locations for launching offensive fires at enemy ships and installations.

But it is in supporting naval task forces where Expeditionary Advance Bases will have its greatest utility. By stocking these defensible bases with anti-air and anti-sea missiles capable of engaging targets out to 500 miles, they will profoundly impact the Navy’s ability to fight and win against a peer state. On the one hand, each such base will control a circle of ocean with a diameter of 1,000 miles — 785,000 square miles — which will instantly become a lethal environment for enemy ships and aircraft. More crucially, if these bases can provide effective missile defenses and integrate their fires complexes with naval task forces, they will provide an envelope of three-quarters of a million square miles for naval ships to maneuver and replenish in comparative safety. Moreover, once a naval force begins operations within such a protective envelope, they will be positioned to enhance the defense of the land bases that are providing them with protective fires and air support. Needless to say, such land-based fires complexes will also have the same enhancing effect in support of airpower. In fact, defensible land-based fires may be the only thing making air operations possible by anything less than extended-range heavy bombers.

For centuries, navies have been trying to break free of their dependence on land bases, only, in the 21st century, to find themselves more dependent on bases than ever before. As such, the employment of mutually supporting bases and their integration with naval task forces is surely a “back to the future” moment. As such bases are sure to be a crucial element in the U.S. Navy’s plans to maneuver and survive in any future conflict, it is time to break out the maps and determine where these bases can best be emplaced to provide overlapping coverage of crucial chokepoints and to provide maneuver space for future offensive actions. Clearly, the geography of the world’s oceans is, once again, as vital to winning wars as it was in the 19th century.

Here is where Corbett can help us, as he took issue with Mahan’s emphasis on the destruction of the enemy fleet as the overarching purpose of one’s own fleet. While Corbett allowed that such an objective might sometimes, possibly often, be the case, he put much greater emphasis on naval strategy cascading down from a maritime strategy that was tightly integrated with military operations ashore. As such, Corbett considered it the height of folly to allow the fleet to operate independently of either greater strategic concerns or to neglect its roles in supporting land-based operations — something Mahan never truly concerned himself with. As Corbett noted, in the wake of the Russo-Japanese War, “war in fact becomes essentially amphibious, and so intimately are naval and military [land] operations knit together in a single theater that the work of the one service is unintelligible apart from the other.”

Corbett also placed great emphasis on seapower’s role in controlling crucial sea lanes, as well as the key role maneuver played in attaining this goal. He would surely have welcomed the use of land-based fires to assist naval forces in this vital mission. Moreover, Corbett often wrote of the necessity of fighting efficiently and of the need to protect costly assets. This is the very essence of a new expeditionary advance bases-based approach to naval operations, which seeks to protect costly assets, such as aircraft carriers, while boosting their efficiency in combat. Finally, Corbett placed great emphasis on the diplomatic, economic, and financial foundations of maritime strategy. He would have understood that an effective Pacific strategy in the 21st century relies on a strong economy that can assure secure funding for the large infrastructure costs involved in transforming the U.S. military’s approach to great state warfare.

But it is Corbett’s more detailed appreciation of the diplomatic elements of maritime strategy that points us along the path that will determine the success or failure of America’s entire Pacific enterprise. For, without close allies willing to allow the Marines Corps and Army to establish fires complexes within their territory, while also integrating their military capabilities with the U.S. military, the expeditionary advance bases concept will not work and the fleet will remain vulnerable. Such alliances have been the backbone of U.S. policy since the end of World War II. Yet, while military-to-military contacts apparently remain robust, trade disputes and other ancillary concerns are needlessly fraying the edges of U.S. alliance system precisely when the United States needs to be drawing its allies closer together.

Finally, one must note that none of this approach has been lost on the Chinese military, which appears to be decidedly more Cobettean in outlook than the U.S. military. They are clearly adopting much of the above outlined concept to create a South China Sea “bastion” in which the Chinese fleet can operate in relative safety. This bastion strategy is typically examined in terms of nuclear strategy and is often compared to the Cold War’s Soviet bastions that defended their SSBNs. While this is likely an important explanation for China’s actions in the South China Sea, it is not the only one. China’s missile-laden bases also allow China to project power hundreds of miles beyond the perimeter of its South China Sea bastion. In this regard, it may help to understand such bastions in terms of Allied advances in the Atlantic theater during World War II. Without the support of multiple Essex Class carriers, which Admiral King horded in the Pacific, the Allies decided the location of future amphibious operations in terms of the radius of effective air support. Similarly, China is measuring the effect of its military power on other states in terms of what can be effectively supported from within its bastion. Finally, one only has to peer across the Taiwan Strait to realize that the South China Sea is not the only bastion China is creating.

One can easily see how such bastions — America’s and China’s – are changing the character of naval warfare. For, even if eliminating the enemy fleet remains the U.S. Navy’s primary objective, this can only be accomplished after the defenses of the Chinese bastions are beaten down — something the U.S. Navy will only accomplish if it can operate within the safety of an oenvelope created by shore-based fires; in effect, its own bastion. Further, defeating enemy bastions is going to require a truly integrated multi-domain approach to conflict. No element of the joint force can ever again contemplate operating, or even surviving, alone in a war against a great power. Any path to victory in such a conflict rests upon the Navy’s acceptance of the fact that its capacity to maneuver and effectively conduct combat operations rests upon support from long-range land-based fires. Similarly, the Marine Corps and Army must understand that the survivability of these fires complexes is only going to be possible by adding naval fires to their own, and through the Navy’s capacity to control vital sea lanes.



Dr. James Lacey is the author of the recently published The Washington War. The above article represents the ideas of the author and are not a reflection of the position of the Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or the government of the United States.

Image: U.S. Navy (Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jeremy Graham)