How 'The Rules of the Game' Can Help the U.S. Navy

HMS Dragon’s Lynx helicopter fires flares. Flickr/Defence Images/© Crown Copyright 2013

Historian Andrew Gordon's naval strategy book warns about how maritime security can lead to culture decay.

Why would any sane naval commander execute an order sure to bring about catastrophe?

That’s among the questions historian Andrew Gordon investigates in his masterful work The Rules of the Game. Ostensibly about the 1916 Battle of Jutland, The Rules of the Game is really about the perils of winning too big in sea combat. The history of Jutland is there, and in abundant detail. But it mainly serves to frame the author’s meditations on how a culture of automatic obedience dulls individual enterprise and derring-do to the detriment of battle effectiveness.

Gordon’s verdict: winning too big—as the Royal Navy did at Trafalgar in 1805—makes a navy intellectually flabby over time. It debilitates the institutional culture. Victory begets cultural decay by sparing the navy the rigors of future combat, the truest test of martial adequacy.

A smashing triumph, then, is a perverse thing. It permits and encourages the victors to entertain illusions about their profession. Seafarers come to believe command of the sea belongs to them by birthright. Trouble is, it’s doubtful the next ambitious maritime power that comes along, intent on making itself master of the briny main, will consent to permanent inferiority. It will mount a challenge—as powers on the ascent have since time immemorial. It could prevail. Even newcomers that fall short can prove troublemakers of the first order.

High-seas battle is a harsh teacher. Adm. John Richardson, America’s chief of naval operations, or top uniformed naval officer, hopes to spare the U.S. Navy the teacher’s rod by restoring its competitive instincts and habits in peacetime. Admiral Richardson reports embracing Gordon’s appraisal so fervently that he opened his own checkbook to put Rules of the Game back into print after it had lapsed. A career nuclear submariner, that is, went out of his way to make a chronicle of steam-propelled dreadnoughts pummeling one another in the North Sea available to today’s generation of readers.

What ideas inspired such a gesture? Gordon tells an intricate tale, dwelling in large measure on the prehistory of Jutland. Let’s concentrate on that prehistory as well. In 1893 the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet commander, Vice Adm. Sir George Tryon, was leading one of two parallel columns of warships on board his flagship, the battleship Victoria, in fleet exercises off the North African coast. Tryon’s second-in-command, Rear Adm. Albert Hastings Markham, was heading the second column on board the battleship Camperdown.

It was time for the fleet to moor for the night, but it was headed away from the anchorage. Tryon ordered a reversal of course to aim his ships toward the anchorage.

He opted for a maneuver sure to make seasoned mariners blanch. The two columns would turn toward each other in succession, meaning each ship would put its rudder over as it reached the point where the lead ship originally came about. The columns would reverse course by playing follow-the-leader. Tryon’s and Markham’s squadrons would once again be on parallel courses but would be steaming markedly closer to each other than before the volte-face. Then they would make a port (left) turn into the anchorage.

Or that was the idea. Gordon maintains that Tryon’s pirouette would have constituted a “perfectly safe plan” if the columns had started out at least ten cables—or one nautical mile—apart. In fact only six cables separated them. They couldn’t turn tightly enough to execute the maneuver—and yet Tryon ordered it anyway. And Markham complied. In fact, at least three officers—Markham, and the skippers of Victoria and Camperdown—saw the hazard bearing down on them. They nonetheless failed to act as “circuit breakers” interrupting certain disaster.

A primer on navigation and piloting will help explain what happened. Ships have turning circles, just as cars and trucks do. They have momentum, and no way to grip the water the way tires grip the road surface to make a tight turn. Even simple course changes demand foresight, consequently.

And familiarity with one’s vessel’s handling characteristics. A ship’s “tactical radius” is the distance it travels along its original course before steadying up on a new course 90 degrees to port or starboard. The vessel traces along a 90-degree arc of a hypothetical circle, as though swinging around the circle’s center on a tether. The center lies the length of the tactical radius away from the ship, on the side toward which the ship is turning.