On War #238
October 23, 2007

Mahan or Corbett?

William S. Lind

[The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Lind, writing in his personal capacity. They do not reflect the opinions or policy positions of the Free Congress Foundation, its officers, board or employees, or those of Kettle Creek Corporation.]

In an article in the November issue of the Atlantic Monthly, "America's Elegant Decline," Robert Kaplan reminds us of a geostrategic reality we can easily forget in the face of Fourth Generation wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: we are inescapably a maritime power.

When Kaplan says that "Hulls in the water could soon displace boots on the ground as the most important military catchphrase of our time," he engages in navalist hyperbole, unless he is anticipating the general Resurrection when the sea will give up her dead. We face no credible blue-water naval challenger. The Pentagon’s threat inflators keep trying to puff the magic dragon, but the Chinese Navy remains merely a collection of ships.

We do not need naval supremacy because, as Kaplan writes, “'Regular wars' between major states could be as frequent in the 21st century as they were in the 20th." If states are so foolish as to fight "regular wars," they will find most are won by non-state, Fourth Generation elements as defeated (and sometimes victorious) states disintegrate.

Rather, we need naval supremacy because in a world where the state is weakening, water, and transport by water, grow in importance. People today think of land uniting and water dividing, but that became true only recently, with the rise of the state and the development of railways (which can only function in the safety and order created by states). From the dawn of river and sea-faring until the mid-19th century, water united and land divided. It was easier, safer, cheaper and faster to move goods and people by water than by land.

So it will be again in a 21st century dominated by Fourth Generation war and declining or disappearing states. Already, in places such as the Congo, the only way to move is on the rivers. A country that can control waterways anywhere in the world will have a great strategic advantage. Given our maritime geography and our long and proud naval tradition, that country should be the United States.

Unfortunately, we are not developing the naval capabilities we need to do that. The reason shows once again the importance of military theory. The U.S. Navy has to choose between two naval theorists, Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan and Sir Julian Corbett, and it has chosen wrongly.

Kaplan writes,

The best way to understand the tenuousness of our grip on "hard," military power (to say nothing of "soft," diplomatic power) is to understand our situation at sea. This requires an acquaintance with two books published a century ago: Mahan's The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783, which was written in 1890, and Julian S. Corbett's Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, which came out in 1911…

Mahan believed in concentrating national naval forces in search of the decisive battle: For him, success was about sinking the other fleet…

Julian Corbett, a British historian, did not so much disagree with Mahan as offer a subtler approach, placing greater emphasis on doing more with less.

Kaplan gets Mahan right, but not Corbett. Mahan in essence wrote naval theory for children; I was much impressed by The Influence of Sea Power on History when I was fifteen. Corbett in contrast writes for adults, focusing not on great naval battles but on the use of sea power in a larger context. That larger context is strategy suited to a maritime power, which expresses itself in amphibious warfare directed at a continental enemy’s vulnerable peripheries. Corbett's two-volume history, England in the Seven Year's War, is probably the deepest study of amphibious warfare ever written.

Where Kaplan really goes wrong is when he writes, "By necessity, the American Navy is turning from Mahan to Corbett." On the contrary, if you look at the U. S. Navy's shipbuilding program, it is almost purely Mahanian. Today as throughout the Cold War, the U.S. Navy is building a fleet perfectly designed to fight the navy of Imperial Japan. If someone wants to contest control of the Pacific Ocean in a war between aircraft carrier task forces, we are ready. Unfortunately, no one does, absent that general Resurrection when Shokaku and Zuikaku, Soryu and Hiryu will rise from their watery graves.

Were the U.S. Navy really to turn to Corbett, it would build lots of ships designed for operations in coastal waters and on rivers, often with troops on board. But such ships are small ships, and the U.S. Navy hates small ships. Some thirty years ago, when the Senator I worked for was trying to push the Navy into buying some small, fast missile boats, the PHMs, the then-Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Holloway, said contemptuously in testimony, "The U.S. Navy has no place for little ships."

That attitude has not changed. Kaplan quotes a former deputy assistant secretary of defense, Jim Thomas, as saying, "The Navy is not primarily about low-level raiding, piracy patrols, and riverine warfare. If we delude ourselves into thinking that it is, we're finished as a great power."

Those are precisely the missions we need a Navy for in a Fourth Generation world -- a world in which, as I have noted before, the term "great power" has no meaning.

William S. Lind, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.

To interview Mr. Lind, please contact:

Mr. William S. Lind
Free Congress Foundation
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Direct line: 202-543-8796

The Free Congress Foundation is a 28-year-old Washington, DC-based conservative educational foundation (think tank) that teaches people how to be effective in the political process, advocates judicial reform, promotes cultural conservatism, and works against the government encroachment of individual liberties.

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