Jerry Seinfeld could make convoys the subject of a standup routine: what’s the deal with them? Or, more to the point, what’s the deal with navies that seem bent on unlearning hard-won lessons from past oceanic wars? Navies such as our own. The U.S. Navy leadership has reportedly informed the chiefs of the U.S. Military Sealift Command and Maritime Administration that “you’re on your own” when trying to run supplies or manpower across the Atlantic, Pacific or Indian oceans to support operations along the Eurasian rimlands. The navy can spare no escort ships to protect them.
That’s right: the threadbare U.S. sealift fleet must shift for itself in a far more lethal strategic environment than merchant mariners faced during the world wars, when the likes of Germany and Japan sought to cut the sea lanes U.S. armies, air forces and their logistical trains had to traverse just to reach battlegrounds in Western Europe and the Far East. It appears about 231 civilian ships are available for the logistical effort. That sounds impressive—until you consider that Axis submarines and surface raiders sank or damaged over five hundred U.S. merchantmen in 1942 alone.
And Axis boats were rudimentary diesel contraptions, not the nuclear-powered killers bristling with anti-ship missiles and sophisticated torpedoes that now prowl the deep. The logic behind open-seas raiding is simple and irresistible: defeat the logistical effort supporting a great-power military operating far from home and you defeat that military. The most overpowering expeditionary army accomplishes little if it can’t reach the theater of conflict or has little food to eat, ordnance to fire or spares to repair equipment.
If there’s one lesson high-seas warfare teaches, then, it’s that lesser powers go after merchantmen. Revolutionary America did it; Napoleonic France did it; Imperial and Nazi Germany did it; Imperial Japan did it. Weaker antagonists strive to interrupt shipments of manpower, ordnance and stores of all sorts needed to support expeditionary operations on distant battlegrounds. Or they damage the commerce on which seafaring nations depend to fund war making. Either way, a weaker antagonist can do a stronger foe grave harm by chipping away at its merchant fleet. Better yet, the weak can strike piecemeal without risking a toe-to-toe battle they might lose.
How to counter raiders? The time-tested method is to gather freighters, transports and tankers into convoys, provide them a retinue of escort ships—generally light surface combatants such as corvettes, frigates or destroyers—and send them on their way through embattled waters. Convoy duty is strategically defensive but tactically offensive in outlook. During the transit, in other words, the escorts keep company with the civilian vessels entrusted to them and await attack. When submarines or surface raiders come calling, the defenders try to blunt the attack and then hunt down the assailants. Through offensive defense they safeguard the merchantmen and the precious supplies they bear.
Over the years I’ve postulated that convoy operations bear a striking resemblance to counterinsurgent (COIN) operations in certain respects. Both strategies aim at defending the defenseless—villagers in the case of COIN, freighters, tankers and transports in the case of convoy duty. Thus, they deny attackers what they crave, namely access to the village or convoy. If predators come after villages or merchantmen, the wise protector stations sentries sporting superior firepower to guard them. After all, defenders know the foe must either show up on the scene or forfeit its strategic aims. The enemy has to come to you if you’re the guardian of a village or convoy.
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But there’s another parallel between counterinsurgent warfare and convoy duty: armed forces hate both chores. They’re unsexy. They offer little glamour or renown, unlike big-unit battles. There’s no way to win in an afternoon. You have to win by increments and over time. Over time, commanders either grow neglectful toward the “other war,” expend their energies chasing around enemy main units in the countryside or the brine, or both. Few relish the humdrum, less than satisfying, day-in-and-day-out missions needed to vanquish insurgents or saltwater predators.
The U.S. Army resolved never again to fight insurgents after the debacle in Vietnam. It deliberately forgot—and had to rediscover the art and science of counterinsurgent warfare in the crucibles of Afghanistan and Iraq. Hence the acclaim heaped on General David Petraeus’ brilliant “new” COIN manual for Iraq—a manual that refurbished time-worn, but forgotten ideas.
Nor is forgetfulness a solely American thing. Having grudgingly embraced convoys during the Napoleonic Wars, Great Britain’s Royal Navy had to learn afresh during World War I, when Imperial German U-boats transformed the Atlantic Ocean into a killing ground for Allied merchantmen. Britain could have well starved under the press of undersea warfare. And having entered the Great War because of unrestricted submarine warfare and spent 1917–1918 combating the U-boat menace, the U.S. Navy had to relearn elementary facts about anti-submarine warfare during World War II. Hence the grievous losses off American shores in
1941–1942. These were the wages of institutional forgetfulness.
It seems the Seinfeld effect spans centuries of sea combat. What’s the deal?
Something even more basic may help account for such myopia. It may be that there’s a quirk to dominant combatants’ cultures. A force accustomed to dominating all it surveys may assume away challenges from lesser foes, especially if such foes have proved troublesome in the past. Having been stymied by Vietcong fighters and their North Vietnamese backers, U.S. Army commanders in effect erased counterinsurgent warfare from their institutional memory. The Vietcong were at once beneath notice and unbeatable at a price America was prepared to pay.
Dominant navies—the Royal Navy in its imperial heyday, the U.S. Navy today—likewise prefer to gird against rival battle fleets rather than invest scarce resources in vessels, methods and tactics useful for escort duty. The greats of maritime history would be aghast. Sir Julian Corbett, arguably Britain’s premier sea-power theorist, portrays control of the sea lanes as the core purpose of maritime strategy. In turn, the purpose of sea-lane control is to allow friendly merchantmen to pass across the oceans unmolested. The battle fleet is merely the protector of unarmed shipping and an enabler for this unglamorous-seeming function. If a major battle takes place, it takes place to protect commerce and logistics that underwrite the war effort on land.
No one covets sentry duty. British tars found naval raiders and privateers of old an unworthy but also stubborn foe. U.S. mariners may be repeating their mistake. If so, the first year of the next war could be 1942 all over again. That’s a trauma no one should want to relive.
James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific. The views voiced here are his alone.