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In March 2015 the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations, in cooperation with the Commandants of the Marine Corps and Coast Guard, released the sea service’s new strategic document The Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower. This document is one of many that can help inform a discussion which has been simmering in maritime circles about naval strategy in the 21st century. Over the past several years articles, doctrinal documents, and debates relating to “Air-Sea Battle” (ASB, renamed Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons or JAM-GC), “Offshore Control,” and “Joint Operational Access,” have tended to dominate these discussions. This is particularly true with reference to the Indo-Pacific region, but it is clearly not exclusive, with plenty of discussion of Persian maritime aspirations and the potential for a Russian return to the world’s oceans.
The purpose of this article is to lay out some of the concepts and fundamental principles of naval strategy, as developed by the classical naval strategic thinkers, to help inform these discussions. As Bernard Brodie once wrote in one of his books on naval warfare, “contrary to popular belief, there is nothing especially esoteric about the basic principles of warfare.”[i] With a foundational frame of reference described, the underlying ideas behind concepts like ASB/JAM-GC, Offshore Control, and Joint Operational Access will be examined through the lens of strategy as opposed to the funhouse mirror of budget policy and administrative maneuvering in the Pentagon.
Even with the volume of writing on naval operations in the last decade, articles have tended to lack a genuine engagement with the concepts and structures in the theory of naval strategy. These debates, particularly centered on the operational concept turned budget bogeyman “Air-Sea Battle,” have spilled over into the pages of Infinity Journal as well. Some authors have identified ASB as a “fad” and others questioned its relevance to “strategy” as classically defined. Yet a careful reading of these articles and others, and a detailed consideration of their footnotes, offers readers the conclusion that the subject has been divorced from the actual thinking, writing, and theory of naval strategy. The issue is deeper than continentally minded strategists unstudied in the strategic theory related to the sea. The supporters and developers of the concepts behind ASB, the supposedly competing idea of Offshore Control, or of doctrinal views described by the Joint Operational Access Concept, have also been unable or unwilling to connect their “operational concepts” with maritime strategic theory. There is an odd and disquieting trend to avoid the theory of sea power and the tenets of naval strategy all together.[ii]
Command of the Sea
The initial point of any discussion of naval strategy is command of the sea. As historian and navalist Geoffrey Till has written, command of the sea “is one of those ringing phrases that dominates the imagination but confuses the intellect.”[iii] While the phrase is regularly attributed to Mahan, almost all of the leading naval thinkers have written about this concept. Mahan described the goal of sea power, and the establishment of command of the sea, as “the possession of that overbearing power on the sea which drives the enemy’s flag from it, or allows it to appear only as a fugitive.”[iv] This explanation comes after historical examples in which he details how some nations have achieved the condition, making it clear that it was neither perfect nor total. Much like Clausewitz’s comparisons between the idealized and theoretical forms of warfare, and the actual and frequently limited execution of war, the concept of command of the sea must be seen with a similar theoretical eye.
There is general agreement in traditional naval strategy that obtaining command of the sea is the foremost consideration; the preliminary to any other naval goals. The concept of command of the sea is not based in the exclusive physical conquest of a body of water and the occupation of said space in the way that a continentalist or land power strategist might view it. Instead the focus of command of the sea is what it provides the nation that has achieved it, because it is very unlikely it will ever be total or uncontested. Whether during wartime or peace, the ocean serves as the world’s great super-highway. Warfare, particularly on the global scale that has become the norm of the 20th and 21st centuries, depends on that highway to maintain communications with the theater of conflict. Air travel and air cargo have made a difference in speed but the tonnages carried are miniscule in comparison, and a combatant force supplying itself on a far shore by air will not be able to keep up with one supplied by sea.[v]
Each of the combatant forces in a war must compete for the ability to use this highway to achieve their ends. That competition is the fundamental starting point of any naval war; it is the heart of the contest for command of the sea. Nearly every war demonstrates the importance of this initial element of naval strategy: from the Battle of the Atlantic in World War II, to Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar, without which the Duke of Wellington’s Army could not have safely begun a campaign in Spain which led to Waterloo. There tend to be two ways naval forces achieve command of the sea. The first is a decisive fleet engagement. Like Nelson at Trafalgar, in the purest form, the destruction of the opponent’s fleet will give the victor’s ships free rein and the ability to control what happens on and from the sea. The second is to keep the enemy’s naval ships from ever leaving port, thus eliminating the ability to contest the superior force’s preponderance.
The strong tendency to see the goals of command of the sea as permanent and general, both from naval officers and from others who dabble in naval affairs, makes it appear to be an impossible and unworkable concept in the modern era. As a result, since the end of World War II another phrase has been introduced to the naval strategy lexicon: sea control. Because command would not be as total and complete if, as those who misread the traditional strategists claim, degrees of control were introduced to replace the concept of command of the sea. Those who described sea control did it with new language that in essence said the same thing as the classical theorists: with geographical and temporal flexibility and a moving scale of totality in their description. From Mahan, to Corbett, to Brodie, command of the sea had always been a matter of degrees.[vi]
Whether using the classical phrase “command of the sea” or the neo-strategic language of “sea control,” the first concept any discussion of naval strategy must cover is how, when and where a force obtains the ability to keep its enemy from using the vast maneuver space of the sea and thus open the opportunity for the successful use of that maneuver space for its own purposes. As the French Admiral and naval strategist Raoul Castex wrote in the years between the World Wars, “domination of maritime communications permits a double action, economic and military, against the enemy… virtual free use of the sea confers opportunities for coastal raids, seizures on the high seas, and conditions permitting, old-fashioned blockade.”[vii]
Exercising Control: Blockade, Bombardment, and Boots
Mahan, Corbett, Castex and others, all agreed that while it may be possible, and was the best case scenario, it was unlikely that establishing command of the sea would be sufficient to obtain the political objective desired in a conflict. In a theoretical form of war, an opponent who had lost command of the sea would surely see the futility of continuing the conflict and relent, but it was easily recognized such idealized rationality was not likely to happen.[viii] Instead, the naval strategist would then be required to exercise the command of the sea that had been established, leading Corbett to his famous but often misrepresented dictum that “in no case can we exercise control by battleships alone.”[ix]
Exercising the control which command of the sea offers to the successful naval force takes many forms and has many variations. However, with an eye for clarity, the options available to a naval strategist can be generally collected into three categories. A nation with command of the sea can attack the enemy’s shipping and commerce, strike at targets ashore with their sea based weapons, or launch an amphibious operation to land ground forces in the adversary’s territory. In the simplest terms, exercising control means using the “3 B’s” of blockade, bombardment, or boots on the ground.
The first thing achieving command of the sea gives the strategist is the opportunity to interdict the enemy’s shipping. This can take a number of forms: from the capture of warships and the elimination of the enemy’s ability to conduct amphibious or other operations, to the destruction of commercial or essentially civil shipping. In Mahan’s strategic “trident,” which tied the military, political, and economic sources of power together, this is the most effective way for one nation to take control of or threaten another nation’s economic well-being. Yet it also tends to be slow to have effect. Sometimes known as guerre de course, or the war against commerce, the word blockade has come to represent this element of naval strategy in recent writing.[x]
Interdiction of shipping can be executed in a number of ways. The commanding force can sink enemy vessels outright, as was eventually done by American submarines in the Pacific during World War II, or first capture and inspect the suspected ships as was required during the age of sail. These decisions offer a number of tactical and operational considerations that must be addressed by planners. These should also be informed by strategists, as each has a relationship with the political goals that make up the ends desired by any belligerent. Whether talking about enforcement of international sanctions regimes or unrestricted submarine warfare, the interdiction of enemy shipping, known in this recent shorthand as blockade, is a fundamental element of naval strategy.[xi]
The second general category of operations used to exercise command of the sea is the attack of land targets by naval forces. In classical terms this is described as bombardment. When Lord Admiral Pellew sailed into the harbor at Algiers in 1816, with his combined fleet of British and Dutch ships to put an end to Barbary piracy, his demands were rejected until a massive bombardment of the Algerian harbor and city had taken place. Then capitulation was total. In the late 20th and 21st century the range, precision, and capability of maritime forces to strike at targets ashore grew exponentially from the days of sailing ships. As that capability increased so did the ability of bombardment to achieve certain strategic ends.[xii]
In the works of the older naval strategists, like Mahan and Corbett, the importance of bombardment is mentioned but admittedly received less focus. This was because of the issues involved in range and the connected ability to place an adversary’s interests and valuable targets at risk. As the 20th century developed, thinkers whose work was founded in these classical strategists increased the focus on striking targets ashore and what came to be known as power-projection. The ability to place an adversary’s shipping at risk and the ability to land military expeditions ashore dominated late 19th and early 20th century strategic thought, but the introduction of technology, that made maritime strike more useful, rightfully led to the increase in its place in strategic thinking. The inclusion of naval strikes ashore, in the list of operational methods for exercising command of the sea, gained prominence to the point that in the 1990’s official U.S. naval doctrinal and strategic documents tended to focus on this area.[xiii]
The third general category for the exercise of command of the sea is the landing of ground forces in what the early thinkers termed military expeditions. More recent strategic language calls amphibious operations, or what today’s popular culture refers to “boots on the ground.” Mahan was well known for his suspicion of military expeditions, and many writers have told us he was against their use as a tool of sea power. This, as with many assertions about Mahan, is divorced from his actual writing. Mahan recognized the importance of landing troops to achieve the political objectives of a naval power, but he warned it must be done with an understanding of the temporal and geographic nature of command of the sea. In short, he feared the tendency to try and launch a military expedition prior to achieving sufficient command of the surrounding waters. Transports and the vessels of amphibious operations tend to be vulnerable to organized naval forces. With proper strategic planning, and operational execution, Mahan wrote about the value of such operations.[xiv]
Corbett’s writing, particularly in Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, expanded on the place of amphibious operations in over-all naval strategy. He was later joined by Castex who wrote, “if navies would do more, they must conduct combined operations, enterprises of vast scope that transcend the limitations on the sea’s ability to operate against the land.” Amphibious operations take many forms: from small raids ashore to attack strategically important positions, to massive assaults aimed at defeating the enemy and occupying large amounts of their territory. How, when, and where to conduct these kinds of operations have long been a central part of naval strategy.[xv]
The Art of Naval Strategy & Today’s Doctrine
Establishing command of the sea and exercising the control allowed by that command through blockade, bombardment, or putting boots on the ground, is a simplified way of looking at the basics of naval strategy. Admittedly, from the discussion above, these principles appear sequential, but that is not necessarily the case. They are simply building blocks of naval warfare and can be put together in an almost infinite number of ways. Mahan described the conduct of war as an art: “art, out of materials which it finds about it, creates new forms in endless variety… according to the genius of the artist and the temper of materials with which he is dealing.”[xvi]
Understanding how to combine the elements of naval warfare described is the central task of naval strategy. Each has its own temporal and geographic elements in play as well as a moving scale of totality. They should not be considered strategies by themselves or in isolation. Instead, if a navy’s fleet and resources are its means these should be the ways in which a strategist employs them in order to achieve the political ends desired from the conflict. Thus, localized command of the sea may be all that a naval force can accomplish, but it also may be sufficient to achieve the political objectives desired. Command might also only be established for a very specific period of time: such as the Japanese in the waters around Hawaii during the Pearl Harbor attack, when the bulk of the U.S. Fleet was in port and the Imperial Japanese Navy was able to achieve sufficient command of the sea to conduct a strategically significant bombardment. As John Hattendorf has related, “there are gradations that range from an abstract ideal to that which is practical, possible, or merely desirable… control is to be general or limited, absolute or merely governing, widespread or local, permanent or temporary.”[xvii]
This scaling of the principles of naval warfare, and their combination into a method by which the naval strategist hopes to achieve his nation’s goals, is the heart of the task. Attacking an enemy’s economy and well-being, through exercising control over their shipping, tends to be a long process but also presents opportunity to control escalation. Landing forces ashore can drive to faster conclusion but tends to place more blood and treasure at risk. Mixing and matching the competing strategic level strengths and weaknesses to develop a sound approach to achieving national objectives takes an appreciation of these factors. As Brodie observed, “to say that the basic principles of war are easy to understand is not to say that it is easy to comprehend the finer points, or what is more important, to determine upon a wise plan of strategy to carry it out.” These are some of the fundamentals we should be discussing when considering the doctrinal and operational writing of maritime affairs in the 21st century.
Boiled down to its central thesis, today’s discussion of JAM-GC is an examination of command of the sea in the modern world. The official writing of the ASB Office, and now the JAM-GC Office, repeatedly uses the word “access.” The 2015 edition of the Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower also embraces this idea by dedicating a whole discussion to “all-domain access.” From a strategic standpoint, rather than operationally or technologically, the Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2AD) struggle is about ensuring that one naval force cannot maintain access, and the other force can deny that opponent the ability to use the area. Like the introduction of the concepts of sea control, A2AD simply replaces the long standing strategic and conceptual understanding with new jargon and contemporary examples. What the ASB/JAM-GC doctrinal documents are really talking about, in the terms used by classical naval theory, is command of the sea.[xix]
Some modern analysts might claim that the A2AD challenge has nothing to do with command of the sea. They proceed to explain that it’s about creating a space where the enemy can’t go, so the enemy can’t use that area to achieve their objectives. Yet this line of logic sounds nearly identical to Mahan’s goal of “possession of that overbearing power on the sea which drives the enemy’s flag from it,” which was quoted earlier. When the theoretical concept of command of the sea was first developed the sea was the only global common that needed to be fought over. In the 21st century the air above the oceans, space, and the cyber realm are all contested as well, but the theoretical construct remains valid even if the commons have expanded. What concepts like JAM-GC are doing, when viewed through the lens of traditional naval strategy, is discussing the ways naval forces achieve command of the sea.
When considered alongside the elements of traditional naval strategy the counter- proposal to ASB/JAM-GC, first published by T.X. Hammes and called Offshore Control, does not really appear to be a counter-proposal at all. Built around the establishment of a blockade and the interdiction of shipping, what Hammes describes is focused on exercising the control which command of the sea establishes, rather than the fight for command itself. Hammes and the advocates for strategies that favor blockade add an important element to the discussion. The considerations inherent in exercising command are illustrated in their analysis, and their thinking illuminates one of the important options available in naval strategy. However, despite the claims Offshore Control is itself a strategy, it is impossible to develop a strategy without a specific political objective. Because of this, the excellent writing on Offshore Control should be read as one of the potential alternatives when deciding what mix of blockade, bombardment, and boots on the ground is best used to achieve the nation’s desired ends.[xx]
Official Department of Defense publications have not been the only place that ASB/JAM-GC has been discussed. The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment’s (CSBA) Air Sea Battle: A Point-of-Departure Operational Concept report has a much more expansive view of the ideas encompassed than the actual doctrinal and official writing. In the study led by Jan Van Tol, CSBA expands beyond the establishment of command of the sea and developing the ability to maintain access, while also looking at how the same or similar technologies and operational concepts could be used to strike at targets ashore. In this conceptualization of an air and sea battle the authors move from command of the sea to the use of bombardment to achieve the political ends desired. Much like how the writing on Offshore Control is almost exclusively focused on blockade, the treatment of ASB by CSBA is relatively focused on striking targets ashore and also misses some of the art of the choices that need to be made in naval strategy.[xxi]
Finally, the third element of exercising command of the sea also has a place in the modern discussion of doctrine and operational concepts. The Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC) and the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Force 21 doctrinal documents are focused on the operational challenges of putting boots on the ground in the 21st century. Like the CSBA report, the JOAC doctrinal document addresses some of the modern concepts necessary to achieve command of the sea, but it does so with contemporary Pentagon jargon and think tank speak rather than engagement with traditional strategic concepts. As opposed to the CSBA analysis, the focus then shifts to the concepts necessary for getting troops on the ground. Expeditionary Force 21 follows a similar discussion, though as is to be expected, it has a greater focus on the amphibious operations to get Marines across the beach.[xxii]
Naval Strategy…It’s a Thing
Understanding the foundational theories and strategic writing on sea power is vital to a proper discussion and debate of naval warfare in the 21st century. For the first decade and a half of this new millennium there has been an overarching focus and dominance of the strategic thinking of land warfare in the United States and much of Europe. This occurred for good reason, particularly as the United States and other western nations attempted to develop successful strategies and plans for difficult conflicts ashore in the Middle East. However, as the next decade approaches, many foresee the return of maritime affairs and naval conflict with the rise of new great powers and an increasing role of economic competition between nations. Because of this, those who are interested in military and national strategy must come to the realization the continentalist thinkers who have dominated the discussion for decades are not enough.
Viewing today’s debates on naval strategy through the lens of traditional maritime strategic thought offers officers, policy makers, and thinkers a framework and a clarifying structure. Naval power is a part of the joint or combined power of a nation, and as such its relationship to land is central to its strategic thought. The ability to achieve command of the sea is the central and vital starting point, but it provides a beginning rather than an end to itself. Instead, how that command is exercised through the use of blockade, bombardment, and putting boots on the ground dictates the interaction between naval power and the land. A naval strategist, in his or her contribution to an overall military and national strategy, must understand the artistry of mixing and matching the mediums and materials described, and they must consider them in a balanced way to achieve the nation’s goals.
[i] Bernard Brodie, A Layman’s Guide to Naval Strategy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1943), p. 13.
[ii] Fontenot Greg and Benson Kevin, “Way of War or the Latest ‘Fad’? A critique of AirSea Battle”, Infinity Journal, Vol. 2, No. 4, Fall 2012, pp. 22-25. Nathan K. Finney, “Air-Sea Battle as a Military Contribution to Strategy Development”, Infinity Journal, Vol. 2, No. 4, Fall 2012, pp. 8-11.
[iii] Geoffrey Till, Seapower: A Guide for the Twenty First Century (London: Routledge, 2013), p. 145.
[iv] Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783 (Boston: Little Brown & Co, 1894), p. 138.
[v] Brodie, pp. 84-85
[vi] Till, pp. 150-152. Alfred Thayer Mahan, Naval Strategy: Compared and Contrasted with the Principles and Practice of Military Operations on Land (1911, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1975), p. 256.
[vii] Raoul Castex, Strategic Theories, ed. and trans. Eugenia C. Kiesling (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1994), p. 41.
[viii] Julian S. Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy (1911, Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1988), pp. 161-2. Castex, p. 43. Mahan, Naval Strategy, p. 18.
[ix] Corbett, p. 114.
[x] James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara, Red Star Over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2011), pp. 9-10. The term blockade truly reflects a tactical or operational description of keeping an enemy’s ships from entering or leaving port, rather than interdiction on the high seas. However, for the purposes of this article we will use a broader definition that is more common in today’s naval writing.
[xi] Joel Holwit, Execute Against Japan: The U.S. Decision to Conduct Unrestricted Submarine Warfare (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2009). William Sims and Burton Hendrick, The Victory at Sea (New York: Doubleday, Page & Co, 1920).
[xii] Alfred Thayer Mahan, Types of Naval Officers: Drawn from the History of the British Navy (London: Sampson, Low, Marston & Co., 1902), pp. 469-474.
[xiii] Brodie, p. 17. John B. Hattendorf, “Recent Thinking on the Theory of Naval Strategy” in John B. Hattendorf and Robert Jordan, eds, Maritime Strategy and the Balance of Power: Britain and America in the Twentieth Century (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989), pp. 154-155. “...From the Sea: Preparing the Naval Service for the 21st Century” and “Forward ... From the Sea” in John B. Hattendorf, ed, U.S. Naval Strategy in the 1990s: Selected Documents (Newport, RI: The Naval War College Press, 2006), pp. 87-100, 149-159.
[xiv] Mahan, Naval Strategy, pp. 205-209.
[xv] Corbett, pp. 280-304. Castex, p. 295.
[xvi] Mahan, Naval Strategy, p. 299.
[xvii] John B. Hattendorf, Naval History and Maritime Strategy: Collected Essays (Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing, 2000), p. 236.
[xviii] Brodie, p. 14.
[xix] U.S. Department of Defense, “Air-Sea Battle: Service Collaboration to Address Anti-Access & Area-Denial Challenges,” May 2013, http://www.defense.gov/pubs/ASB-ConceptImplementation-Summary-May-2013.pdf Terry S. Morris, Martha Van Driel, Bill Dries, Jason Perdew, Richard Schulz, and Kristin Jacobson, “Securing Operational Access: Evolving the Air-Sea Battle Concept” in The National Interest, 11 February 2015, http://nationalinterest.org/feature/securing-operational-access-evolving-the-air-sea-battle-12219 Joseph Dunford, Jonathan Greenert, Paul Zukunft, “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower,” March 2015, http://www.navy.mil/local/maritime/150227-CS21R-Final.pdf
[xx] T.X. Hammes, “Offshore Control: A Proposed Strategy,” Infinity Journal, Vol. 2, No. 2, Spring 2012, pp. 10-14. T.X. Hammes, “Offshore Control: A Proposed Strategy for an Unlikely Conflict,” Strategic Forum, National Defense University, June 2012, http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a577602.pdf
[xxi] Jan Van Tol, et al, “Air Sea Battle: A Point-of-Departure Operational Concept,” The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2010, http://www.csbaonline.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/2010.05.18-AirSea-Battle.pdf
[xxii] Department of Defense, “Joint Operational Access Concept,” January 2012, http://www.defense.gov/pubs/pdfs/JOAC_Jan%202012_Signed.pdf Department of the Navy, “Expeditionary Force 21: Forward and Ready, Now and in the Future,” March 2014, http://www.mccdc.marines.mil/Portals/172/Docs/MCCDC/EF21/EF21_USMC_Capstone_Concept.pdf