You Might Not See This Image For Much Longer: Are Navies Obsolete?
In wartime, the seas will be barren of combat ships as we know them.
Lastly, it could be that navies as we currently know them stand at the cusp of obsolescence, but that necessity will squeeze navies into some radically different shape. The coming transformation could prove even more fundamental than the nineteenth-century changeover from sail to steam, wooden hulls to steel, and smoothbore cannon to naval rifles. A century-plus ago the Englishman Julian Corbett, arguably history’s foremost naval historian and theorist, professed bewilderment at the scope and pace of change during the fin de siècle years: “the whole naval art has suffered a revolution beyond all previous experience, and it is possible the old practice is no longer a safe guide.”
Corbett feared golly-gee technology had rendered history moot. When history no longer supplies a repository of lessons valuable for the future, he concludes, thinkers and practitioners must muddle through the best they can. We can “endeavor to realize the situation to which, in spite of all misgivings, we have been forced, and to determine its relations to the developments of the past.” He furnishes clues from his own lifetime. During the age of sail, navies were divided fairly neatly into three segments: the “battle fleet,” brawny ships-of-the-line that dueled enemy battle fleets for naval mastery; “cruisers,” or smaller, lightly gunned craft that were affordable in large numbers and fanned out to police the sea once the battle fleet had triumphed; and the “flotilla,” still more lightly armed and cheaper vessels that performed routine administrative chores at sea.
Technology upended this neat arrangement during Corbett’s career. Sea mines and torpedoes superempowered the flotilla, enabling rudimentary torpedo boats and diesel subs to strike heavy blows against battleships and cruisers that formerly would have brushed them aside. The twentieth century only accelerated the revolution, adding naval aviation and guided missiles to the mix. It may be that land-based anti-ship, anti-air, and anti-submarine defenses are completing the revolution whose start the English historian documented a century ago. Maybe battle fleets—contingents of large, lumbering, multi-mission craft susceptible to missile barrages—will be no more after the coming paradigm shift.
In wartime, the seas will be barren of combat ships as we know them.
But perhaps not barren of navies. Hyper-empowered flotilla craft—swarms of small, cheap, networked, manned or unmanned warships bearing missiles, directed-energy weapons, or other exotic technology—could assail hostile flotillas or shorelines in their bid for maritime supremacy. Losing one such craft in action would detract little from the fleet’s aggregate combat power, whereas losing a carrier or cruiser today represents a grievous if not mortal setback. In this life could come to imitate art. The future flotilla could be founded on a philosophy similar to that underlying the renegade Federation officer Krall’s fleet in the 2016 epic Star Trek: Beyond.
The wreckage when paradigms of space combat collide makes painful viewing for any longtime Star Trek aficionado. Krall’s swarm of tiny fighter spacecraft makes short work of the starship Enterprise, a capital ship optimized to fight Klingon or Romulan battle fleets but helpless against massed small-ship tactics. Enterprise gunners demolish any individual flotilla craft they target with phasers or photon torpedoes, but they only manage to target a small proportion of the enemy fleet before the starship meets its doom. In other words, Krall’s pilots lose a few isolated tactical engagements yet win the battle in resounding style.
Should naval warfare evolve along a sci-fi trajectory, navies will find their world turned upside down. If the flotilla came to menace the battle fleet in Corbett’s day, it would become the battle fleet in an age of swarm warfare. Assuming all combatants embraced the new paradigm, fleets of small craft would duel for maritime mastery. Heavy vessels—ship types that formerly belonged to the battle and cruiser contingents—would take refuge within protected berths until victory made it safe to venture onto the briny main. They, not the flotilla, would be supporting arms of naval power.
Granted, the technical barriers to such a future seem daunting. For example, sci-fi fighter planes need not obey the limits imposed by engineering. They can flit across interstellar distances using compact propulsion technology that doesn’t exist and may never exist. Whether naval flotilla craft could be endowed with sufficient cruising range to fight across oceanic distances with scant logistical support is a problem best left to engineering masterminds. Whether networks capable of coordinating swarm offensives could withstand hacking, jamming, or other forms of interference is another open question. (Spoiler alert: the Enterprise crew prevails through such indirect measures.)
It’s hard to imagine any of the scenarios postulated here coming to pass. But then, those who have lived their professional lives under a single paradigm invariably find it tough to imagine alternatives. Until the paradigm shift takes place and they—we—have to.
Where does this leave us? Reopening the U.S. Navy’s interwar playbook allows for a fresh look at sea combat. Then, the prospective foe was a battle-hardened Imperial Japanese Navy. Nowadays gaming is newly in vogue in naval circles. It would be worth testing out harebrained scenarios like these and critiquing the results with the utmost candor. Enlightenment can result from such exercises. Not long ago, for instance, I moderated a working group aimed at “breaking the mold” of ingrained thinking about sea power. Participants sought to smash our paradigm and envision what came next.
And so they did. Young Turks in the group concluded that the number of ships comprising a fleet is a secondary measure at best for whether the fleet is adequate unto its purposes. The true measure is whether it can stage superior combat power on a given battleground, at a given time, in conjunction with sister and allied military forces. Many implements—not just naval platforms cast in the traditional mold—can bring combat power to bear.
Be stronger at the decisive place and time: if there’s a universal law of military strategy, that’s it. And it ought to constitute the standard for evaluating the future of navies. Let’s detach combat power from familiar ship types, ordnance, and tactics. As Thomas Kuhn might say: let the gaming—and, if warranted, a paradigm shift—begin.
James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and the author of the forthcoming Brief Guide to Maritime Strategy. The views voiced here are his alone. This article first appeared in September 2019 and is being republished due to reader interest.