This article is part of the National War College’s contribution to the series “Compete and Win: Envisioning a Competitive Strategy for the Twenty-First Century.” The series endeavors to present expert commentary on diverse issues surrounding US competitive strategy and irregular warfare with peer and near-peer competitors in the physical, cyber, and information spaces. The series is part of the Competition in Cyberspace Project (C2P), a joint initiative by the Army Cyber Institute and the Modern War Institute. Read all articles in the series here.
Special thanks to series editors Capt. Maggie Smith, PhD, C2P director, and Dr. Barnett S. Koven.
In 2006 the United States Navy published a startling photograph. The picture clearly showed a Chinese submarine, periscope raised, with the USS Kitty Hawk in the background. That the photo was taken by an antisubmarine helicopter hovering over the submarine was lost in the initial wave of reactions but the point was clear: a new, modern force had arrived, and it posed a direct threat to our primary naval strike power. US naval power and strategy has a rich history that includes epic battles, catastrophic losses, and stalwart traditions. Around the globe, naval forces have long been the power of empires and used to extend a nation’s reach beyond its geographic homeland. At the dawn of the twentieth century, it was not uncommon to hear British and German naval officers toasting with De Tag! (To the Day!) and to clink their raised glasses in the acknowledgement that they would one day meet in a decisive battle at sea. For navalists, a battle between the world’s greatest navies was a certainty.
For the US Navy and other great navies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Mahanian theory predicting a decisive battle at sea between the world’s great powers has dominated strategy discussions. The ruling classes and top theorists became firmly entrenched in an ethos of then-modern conflict that demanded expansion, expected conflict with other great powers, and predicted a great naval battle for command of the sea. According to Alfred Thayer Mahan, eliminating an enemy fleet by capital ships—a navy’s most important ships, typically the largest and leading or primary ships in a naval fleet—in a decisive battle would not only win command of the sea, but would also win the war. Ironically, when war finally came the supposedly decisive naval battle of World War I at Jutland was anything but decisive—Mahan’s theory of naval warfare was instead shown to be decisively misguided.
Of course, history never really repeats itself, but its echoes tend to carry forward into modern times. Most often, history’s echoes ring painfully familiar and today’s great power competition—a thinly disguised reference in US strategic parlance to competition specifically with China—is no exception. But another echo is also starting to ring—namely, the presumption that competition will inevitably lead to war. The fact that China is building a modern navy is viewed by Western analysts with alarm, but not panic. Dark quotations from the “Thucydides Trap” and dire warnings of how China’s militarization of man-made islands will somehow close the South China Sea are frequently predicted to result in any number of global catastrophes. War, it is said, will hinge upon US naval power being able to engage the Chinese navy successfully, to ensure command of the sea and theoretical victory. Many navalists wonder if De Tag! is upon us once again.
Today our formidable Navy is preparing for battle with gusto, stressing capital ship power—namely, aircraft carriers—to execute Mahanian style battle in an offensive strategy, seeking out and destroying the enemy at sea. But the reason we assume China will engage at sea and play our game is unclear. The foundation upon which modern naval strategy is built is fatally flawed, relying on dubious theory, and selectively listening to the echoes of history. Unlike other naval powers, the United States Navy clings to Mahanian theory as rationale for its force structure and strategy. While going all in on Mahanian theory has enabled an enormously powerful Navy that can travel and strike globally—virtually unopposed—the adherence to Mahanian theory has resulted in a limited record of operational success in the twentieth century. And, crucially, the Mahanian US Navy is particularly unsuited for a projected conflict with China.
Even a neutral observer—a near impossibility in the practical sense—is likely to wonder why the United States continues to rely on outdated theory despite having the ability and capability to update, modernize, and strategize for the modern era. The reason we do so is simple: we want to return to it. We rationalize incorporating dated theory into modern warfare with dubious historical examples and assumptions. The result is a protracted attempt to mold any potential adversary into our desired theoretical vision and the continuation of some bad habits—theorizing war against our ideal enemy instead of the enemy we have, envisioning an enemy that fits a desired vision to match how we want to fight the next war, and developing an understanding of modern conflict that is rooted in a selective instead of wholistic examination of a century of naval conflict.
Poor History: Mahan Vindicated?
Mahanian theory was a poor predictor of events in World War I, but it could be argued that Mahan’s theory was vindicated in World War II. In 1945 the United States Navy stood at the height of its power. Relatively new as a capital ship force—the first modern battleships of the great white fleet had sailed in 1907—the US Navy undertook a massive expansion to prepare for war, both materially and philosophically. Pearl Harbor demonstrated how the battleship had been eclipsed by the aircraft carrier. The Navy immediately adapted—taking what it learned at Pearl Harbor, the Navy grew to thirty fleet carriers by 1945, and added hundreds of smaller ships to fight Japan in a distinctly Mahanian fashion. Ultimately the primary tool of victory in the Pacific was carrier power.
However, as the United States emerged from World War II as a superpower pitted against the now-hostile Soviet Union, Navy admirals took the lessons learned at Pearl Harbor and argued for the continued development of larger “super carriers” to provide the US Navy with a forward-deployed naval strike capability. In its push for bigger and better carriers, the Navy was making a distinctly Mahanian argument supported by the overwhelming victory in the Pacific during World War II. As a military service, the Navy saw its growth as key to its survival as a service—especially as post-war funding became more limited and it was unclear which service would be prioritized for growth in the new bipolar superpower era. Despite hostility from the other services—especially the Air Force, which understood power projection as its singular province—the Navy got what it wanted and aircraft carriers, a capital ship force that could execute Mahanian theory of decisive battle, became the bedrock of the US Navy’s intimidating fleet.
But the lessons taken from World War II and the rationale for a battle fleet of capital ships was a selective one that ignored how World War II was a two-ocean war, and how the war in the Pacific had a markedly different character from the war in the Atlantic. The war in the Atlantic was not a carrier war, but rather one in which the primary threat was the German U-boat, a formidable enemy whose potential success threatened the entire Allied war effort. The Atlantic was a small-boy war of destroyers, escorts, and antisubmarine aircraft, with little Mahanian theory influencing the plan. To defeat the undersea U-boat threat, the Navy relied on a unique combination of defensive measures, intelligence, and small-unit actions. As the Navy set a course for modernization and expansion, it failed to encompass the historical lessons from its World War II Atlantic experience. Instead, the core philosophical ethos focused on capital ships and how carriers were needed to fight a peer at sea. The strategy overlooked the lessons learned from the smaller antisubmarine forces that won in the Atlantic. Ultimately, the problem of future warfare was more complex than the Navy chose to acknowledge.
Failed Paradigms: Creating an Enemy
In the post–World War II era, the United States fell deep into the Cold War, and great power competition was focused on the US relationship with the Soviet Union (and to a lesser extent, China) within the context of containing communism. During this time, the Navy continued to argue that a Mahanian strategy reliant on its capital ships was the best way to accomplish containment and to keep command of the sea. Outside of naval planning circles, few understood the difficulties with, and inherent weaknesses of the Navy’s approach.
Most noticeably, during the Cold War, the US capital ship fleet had no peer opponent. The Soviet Union, although developing as a modern naval power, was not imperial Japan and would never present the same formidable foe at sea. The Soviet surface fleet was small by comparison, and its combat power remained questionable. The poor condition of the Soviet surface ships kept them close to home, and while the Soviets were certainly capable of global deployment, they rarely strayed far in large groups of credible combat power. These facts were ignored by a succession of Navy admirals who were determined to keep the focus on capital ships. The ruse continued into the late 1970s when then-Chief of Naval Operations Elmo Zumwalt went so far as to testify that the Soviets, as a great power, had surpassed US naval strength. In the final years of the Soviet Union, the myth continued as US government printing offices kept producing slick publications outlining the threat posed by the Soviet surface fleet and how US carriers would defeat them in combat.
The irony is that the Soviet navy did pose a threat at sea, but not in the manner pushed by the US Navy. During the Cold War the Soviets developed a substantial force of nuclear submarines—almost twice the size of the US submarine fleet. Instead of a World War II Pacific-like battle, the Soviet Union’s investment in submarines should have signaled to the US Navy that any future war at sea would be far more like the battles fought in the Atlantic and that carrier power was secondary. Incredibly, naval strategists did not shift to focus on building an antisubmarine force composed of smaller ships and attack submarines. Instead, the Navy continued to identify its carrier fleet as the primary means to defeat the undersea threat despite the lessons learned in World War II in the Atlantic. In the 1980s, the Navy introduced a new Maritime Strategy, which was an aggressive forward deployment to the far north intent on bottling the Soviet surface and submarine power in their bases, while simultaneously conducting strikes against enemy bases in the frozen Kola peninsula. Naturally, such actions would—in theory—provoke the Soviets to sail their weaker force out to sea and engage in battle at sea. In short, De Tag! was back.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent opening of the former Soviet Union showed how the US Navy got its strategic assumptions and paradigms wrong. The Soviet navy was, as some had suggested, intended to operate in defense of the homeland. Ultimately, the Soviets did not consider the US Navy’s strategy of a forward deployment and command of the sea within striking distance of the Soviet homeland—in this case, the frozen Kola peninsula—a relevant threat. The US Navy’s entire strategy and the force structure built to execute it, was mistaken. Which brings us to the present day and China.
Rising from the Ashes: Mahan in the East
Following the photo of the Chinese submarine near the USS Kitty Hawk, China continued to add to its naval power. In 2011, China launched its first aircraft carrier and subsequently built a series of small naval bases on man-made islands off the mainland coast cementing it as a peer naval power capable of threatening US dominance at sea. The Chinese navy is being built for offensive operations in the spirit of Mahan, and it is possible that De Tag! is here again.
Given our history of producing naval strategies based on flawed assumptions and incorrect core beliefs, we should be wary of making similar mistakes with our naval strategy toward China. Assumptions about how the Chinese will employ military force at sea are echoing historical mistakes, including the notion that China is building its navy to engage in an open-sea battle, or that any strike warfare against the Chinese mainland will be decisive, and that capital ship dominance is the sole enabler of US command of the sea.
Currently, US naval strategy emphasizes the concept of “freedom of the seas”—a concept that Mahan would have wholeheartedly endorsed—and is focused on access, or the free flow of ocean-born commerce. However, a strictly military approach to protecting shipping-lane access to enable international trade is woefully dated. Freedom of the seas is an established international norm, codified in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, but the United States has refused to ratify the convention over sovereignty concerns. Therefore, in theory, the United States is using its naval powers to enforce an international treaty it has not even signed. Freedom of the sea is intended to protect merchant ships and trade routes, but the United States is no longer a dominant merchant power. The US strategy is really committing our naval power as a global police force—much as the British Empire did—at significant cost and risk, to protect foreign ships that are already bound by the UN convention. Using our naval power in this manner is becoming increasingly provocative and history shows that wars have started over mishaps and incidents at sea.
If we assume the rhetoric of great power competition is correct and war is inevitable, or at least likely, the Navy is correct to prepare. But blindly continuing its love affair with Mahanian naval theory could be catastrophic. China is not Japan or the Soviets and presents a new, formidable threat. Militarily, the Chinese navy, although modern, is very much a regional force. And despite an aggressive building program, China is not yet an overwhelming threat to US naval power. The presumption that China is seeking Mahanian-style battle despite the given combat power of the US Navy is not credible. To win at sea, the United States must consider the adversary we face, not the adversary we want to face.
Yet we still must consider war with China a possibility and therefore must reinvigorate the debate over how best to employ US naval power and the Navy’s composition. Aircraft carriers, while impressive, are becoming increasingly vulnerable, not less so. The newer threats of hypersonic missiles, targeting from space, and cyber present unique challenges for the US Navy and the loss of a single carrier will have enormous consequences. Additionally, even if the US Navy achieves command of the sea, it may be irrelevant due to modern strike capabilities. History has shown that the ability to strike an adversary’s mainland from sea is not decisive in war—including examples from North Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Additionally, it is important to recognize that in war, an enemy will play its own game, not ours. China understands US naval capabilities, tactics, and theory and to assume otherwise is foolish. However, in open waters, China’s naval power is effectively neutralized by our combat power. China fears isolation and its own lack of access to trade and shipping routes, and with our seaborne allies, it is possible to keep a hostile China in check. Developing a flexible naval force, increasing trade alliances, and signing onto the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea are key to any naval strategy to combat China.
The United States has a mighty history of seapower and maintains longstanding traditions that our US Navy bears with pride. But as times change and power shifts, it is critical for the US Navy to avoid clinging to antiquated naval theory to rationalize a fleet that supports a familiar strategy instead of a strategy that will counter modern threats at sea. The question is not if the US Navy should maintain its capabilities to engage in, and decisively win, a battle at sea—which it absolutely should—but instead, whether the current naval strategy is based on sound assumptions and is focused on modern-day threats and challenges. Whether we will once again see De Tag! is uncertain but clinging to the myth of Mahanian theory and capital ship invincibility is a losing strategy.
Dr. R. B. Watts is a professor of national security strategy at the National War College. He retired from the US Coast guard as a captain after serving twenty-six years on active duty, including six sea tours with both the Navy and the Coast Guard. He holds an advanced degree from the Naval War College in strategic studies, master’s degrees from Old Dominion University in history, American Military University in international naval studies, and the Naval Post Graduate School in homeland security, and a PhD from the Royal Military College of Canada in war studies.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense, or that of any organization the author is affiliated with, including the National War College, National Defense University, and US government.
Image credit: Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Rawad Madanat, US Navy
The Atlantic theater did see carrier use. While signals intelligence, decryption, and convoy escorts did much to thwart U-boat effectiveness, the extension of air cover from, both shore-based and carrier-borne, had tremendous effect. In fact, US carrier-borne night fighters equipped with some of the earliest aircraft mounted surface search radars, helped hamper U-boat operations at night (typically when they would surface to charge).
Repeated forced dives by aircraft presence (where U-boats could not attack or maintain adequate speed) allowed convoys to escape. The U-boat was never eliminated, just it’s freedom of maneuver was severely curtailed by the threat of observation. Carries played a role in the ASW mission and warding of surface raiders.
Today's submarines are far more dangerous than WW2 U-boats. WW2 anti-U-boat tactics are OBEd. As in WW2, war in the Pacific would be a battle for land air bases. Unfortunately, basing requirements (runways and logistical support) have been neglected in the race for airborne performance. Throughout history mobility, concealment, and deception have played a key role in military effectiveness, but thanks to our focus on airborne performance our ability to exploit mobility, concealment, and deception will be very difficult, but not impossible.
I want to echo Trevor – talk about a misapplication of history to theory! History must first be correct for the theory to be validly examined. The "Black Pit" was where the U-boats were most effective once the US entered the war and began convoys – outside allied air cover. Once aircraft carriers began traveling with the convoys, not to mention blimps, and long range reconnaissance aircraft, it was not longer the "Happy Times" for the U-boats. Even at that, and despite their success, U-boats were still not recognised as the foremost threat to the North Atlantic convoys. With the exception of men like Dönitz, most naval officers on both sides regarded surface warships as the ultimate commerce destroyers.
The battle at Jutland WAS decisive in that Germany tried to break the allied blockade which was slowly starving Germany into submission ,that Germany failed to break the blockade only underscores the power of Mahan point.There can be no better example of naval power and Mahanian principles of sea power (ie control of the sea lanes)than that of allied naval denial of German trade in w w 1,which was instrumental in weakening Germany civilian support for the war and brought mutiny into the imperial navy.If things become more unstable in the south China sea lessons learned 100 years ago are still relevant today,navigation in the world's most important sea lanes are of extreme importance to a nation's well being,most of the world's trade is done on the oceans and freedom to navigate is still an existential need for our economy and our allies as well.
Sir, much to appreciate about your article. Thank you.
If I may make a point.
RE: Mahan, The Decisive Battle, Jutland!
The battle, Jutland, was a draw, a strategic "win" for the Brits because had the Germans won decisively or even gained the strategic initiative the British position would have, thereafter, rapidly spiraled down to a complete loss.
For the British, a maritime power, Jutland, was a wager, which if lost would have cost them the war. Germans being a continental, could only loose a fleet.
It would be fair to say that the British Admiral Beatty was the only man in the conflict who could have lost the war for his country in a single afternoon–as somebody said, name of which I have neglectfully forgotten.
This author should have written this piece a decade ago. Then, his argument might hold weight. But instead, Dr. Watts' article presents a strawman argument. First, the Navy's number one and two shipbuilding priorities are the Columbia and Virginia class submarines, respectively. His lengthy story about the USS Kitty Hawk being surprised by a Chinese submarine misdiagnoses the problem as the USN's love for Mahan. In reality, the problem was a lack of ASW (Anti-submarine Warfare) capabilities in the Carrier Air Wing (CVW), which now reside in the MH-60R.
Second, the Navy seeks to employ the distributed maritime operations (DMO) concept with a more diversified (and numerically more extensive) fleet of less expensive (for example, FFG-62, Flight III DDG) and unmanned ships.
Although aircraft carriers remain in production, their role is not simply to control the sea. CVWs conduct many missions beyond strike and sea control. The author fails to comprehend how carrier-based aircraft complicate an adversary's sensors, disrupting A2AD (Anti-Access and Aerial Denial) systems. Further, along with the USAF's Air Combat Employment (ACE), carrier aviation is central to the joint warfighting concept (aggregating to produce a significant effect and disaggregating to survive.) Hiding a CVN is challenging but not impossible.
In sum, I enjoyed Dr. Watts' prose, but his superannuated understanding of maritime warfare misses the mark.
Captain Watts heart, and intent, are in the right place. Certainly the way the United States Navy thinks about command of the sea and using maritime or sea power needs questioning, debate, and dialog.
However, to say Jutland was indecisive is an error that could have easily been corrected by reading the work of James Goldrick, or the older work of Jon Sumida. Simply put, Jutland put the the seal on any attempt by the German high seas fleet to break Britain's control of the North Sea and thus her blockade of Germany, to say nothing of the other central powers. Can the Royal Navy be criticized for ship design and many other factors? Sure, but bottom line she had the more powerful surface fleet after Jutland ended. The status quo favored Britain and that's what Jutland delivered.
The real errors occurred with respect to submarine warfare, but the approach taken with the Duff committee came up with a viable solution–escorted convoys. However, the RN and leaders (Jellicoe was first sea lord by now) can be criticized for the lateness of the implementation of the solution. Again, one must be careful not to build one's arguments on thin understandings of history. Too, there is plenty of evidence out there to point to more recent naval developments and lines of analysis to criticize how the US Navy thinks. Watts' article is strongest when it does that.
Mahan, and Corbett, and Wiley, and other maritime theorists asked the right questions. They came up with answers for their times and places–we must do the same, but asking the right questions isn't hard, they tend to be the same questions. What do you want to do in war and policy that involves the sea? How do you want your Navy to underwrite the answers to that first question? Mahan's chapter 1 with the six geo-political principles governing sea power remains germane today. They help you understand yourself and understand your adversaries–two components from Sunzi (Sun Tzu). Corbett's more focused discussions also remain germane in thinking about what one might actually do with one's fleet in a crisis or in war.
As for the viability of aircraft carriers, I tend to agree with Watts, building an operational approach for every situation that relies overwhelmingly on a carrier-centric fleet "unbalances" the fleet. don't get rid of them all, but don't plan with single-minded obsession based on a utility that has not been fully demonstrated in a contested maritime environment since 1945.
for my Arguments in this regard see: "Carriers and Amphibs: Shibboleths of Sea Power,” Journal of Advanced Military Studies (Fall 2020), Marine Corps University: 106-118.
John T. Kuehn, Ph.D.
The Battle of the Atlantic was fought by destroyers and escort carriers against U-boats because the heavy-ship fight was largely over by the end of 1940. Where a German battleship threat still existed (Tirpitz) it significantly changed the dynamic.
In the Pacific there were battleship actions until late in the war and the design assumption of the type–that it took a battleship to kill a battleship– was generally borne out.
Watts does NOT say or imply that the Atlantic theater did not see carrier use. Escort-class carriers arrived in large numbers late in the U-boat war and dovetailed with the vessels, weapons and tactics that the US and Britain already had been deploying in the Atlantic and that were increasingly effective in protecting the convoys. Watts argument (as I understand it) is that the carrier – and specifically the fleet-class carrier – was NOT CENTRAL to the anti-submarine war. By extension, he is calling into question the assumptions underlying current naval strategy which still centers on the fleet-class carrier and its attendant vessels. Are these assumptions still valid in the face of a near-peer (China) that's aggressively growing in naval capabilities that seem to have very different strategic assumptions? Will potential conflict with China resemble the US Pacific campaign in WW2? Or the Atlantic campaign?
I think it is futile to ascribe attachment to any theory as a driver for what the USN does. It is a creature of habit, and it is finding it hard to break its habit of relying on aircraft carriers for anchoring its presence and deterrence efforts. In these roles the carriers have been notably successful, Presidents reflexively asking where the carriers were when crises popped up. But the geopolitical and technological landscape is changing and it is legitimate to ask whether aircraft carriers remain cost effective. What muddies the waters in such a deliberation is slinging around Mahan's name as a substitute for thinking through what is really going on.
The latest NDP-1 invokes the term command of the sea after a decades-long absence, but perhaps because of that mis-defines the term, mistaking it for the US policy that having it enables; a free and open sea as the foundation of a global liberal trading order. Command has historically been a function of a significant strength imbalance among the navies of contending nations, the weaker refusing to directly challenge the stronger, thus allowing the nation with command to use the seas as it would, at an acceptable degree of cost and risk. One of the benefits of command is that the nation holding it can exercise it in peacetime, deploying its navy to enforce an international order congenial to its interests. This the US has done since 1945. It would have done this, Mahan or no Mahan.
But what now? A study done by Modelski and Thompson revealed that for the past 500 years the world has experienced five cycles of geopolitical competition ending in global war. Command of the sea, as measured by the ratio of naval power among the contenders correlated with the onset of war: when the relative concentration of naval power evened out, war followed. Whatever the causal relationship or lack thereof, the study does indicate a relationship between naval power and global leadership, and so for historical reasons must be taken seriously.
The USN has been exercising US command of the seas since WWII via the agency of aircraft carriers, by and large, but now continuing to do so involves escalating risk. The array of Chinese littoral defenses is such that by reflexively using carriers to deal with Chinese aggression inside the first island chain might end up costing the US global command of the sea. Realizing this, the USN is developing a missile-based fighting concept called Distributed Maritime Operation (DMO). While this may simply constitute a regional solution to exercising command at an acceptable risk, it could also signal the need to rethink the definition of command and the physical basis on which it is maintained and exercised. Nature and geopolitics abhors a vacuum, so if the US does not invest to retain command of the seas, somebody else will. There are many reasons both the US and China would want any shooting war to be short; nuclear escalation being but one. That desire might lead to wishful thinking about winning a decisive naval battle, but Jutland likely offers the paradigm. Command of the sea probably won't end a modern war, but as in the past it would facilitate using the seas as a strategic tool. Thus going "all in" on a decisive naval battle makes little sense. The ability to stay in the war is most important.
Mahan's and Corbett's writing are useful educational tools, but do not constitute bases for fleet design decisions.