The Age of Great Sea Battles Isn't Over
The U.S. Navy can’t forget the Gods of the Copybook Headings.
This week, as every graduation week since 1949, the great and the good of maritime strategy converged on Newport for the Naval War College’s Current Strategy Forum. Your humble scribe served on a panel that examined the question: “What do classic works of strategy have to teach us about America’s strategic predicament in the world today?” Herewith, I share with you a smoothed-out version of my remarks:
Classic works have a great deal to tell us: they furnish a starting point for assessing our situation, and they keep us grounded. These are both vital functions. Just ask Rudyard Kipling. In 1919 Kipling published a poem titled “Gods of the Copybook Headings.” Copybook headings were proverbs or maxims that British schoolkids used to copy over and over to practice penmanship. There was a heading at the top of each page, and the students would copy it over and over to fill the page. Therein lay wisdom.
Indeed, Kipling claims that common-sense truisms like “If you don’t work you die” outlast the false Gods of the Marketplace, or the Zeitgeist, or the latest Vision that grips a society or institution. If you lose touch with such permanent verities, he tells us, then “As surely as Water will wet us, [and] as surely as Fire will burn, / The Gods of the Copybook Headings [will] with terror and slaughter return!”
The poem is Kipling’s admonition to heed the wisdom of the ages, using timeless precepts to organize our thinking. And it’s his warning not to delude ourselves that we can repeal fixed, timeless facts of human existence. It constitutes his warning against yielding to fads.
How does this fit with the topic of our panel? Well, classic works of strategy reveal how the Gods of the Strategic Copybook Headings work. Treatises on strategic theory aren’t algorithms or how-to manuals. You can’t flip them open and run the checklist when some strategic problem confronts you. What they do is help us think about our strategic predicament and opportunities, and they anchor us in reality.
Like Kipling’s poem, the classics provide students of strategy with intellectual ballast. And they steady our temperament. Those steeped in the classics aren’t too beguiled by the latest thingamajig to emerge from a weapons lab, or by the latest Big Idea to come out of academia, or out of the business world. By and large, these things are superficial and fleeting. They shouldn’t buffet us too much.
Seldom are those steeped in the strategic canon gulled into thinking that technology, tactics or organizational methods will let us escape permanent dynamics of human conflict. Still less do they succumb to claims that History with a capital H has rendered basic facts about martial strife moot.
Which brings me to sea-power theory. In 1992 the American sea services published their first post–Cold War strategic directive, entitled “. . . From the Sea.” It’s a remarkable document. In the preamble the sea-service leadership declares rather starkly that America owns the sea. We had won big. The Soviet Navy had vanished from the high seas, much as the Imperial Japanese Navy adorned the seafloor in 1945. With no one left to fight for command of the sea, we could afford to concentrate on projecting power ashore from this offshore safe haven.
The leadership thus sent a strong bureaucratic signal: that battle is passé. That History with a capital H had repealed the most basic fact about naval warfare, namely that you have to win maritime command if you hope to exercise command. It’s no accident that many of the capabilities we’re now scrambling to recreate—long-range anti-surface warfare, to name one—started to decay after 1992. Such atrophy was in keeping with the times, and with official guidance.
Kipling would shake his head at our presumption.
As would Captain Mahan and Sir Julian Corbett, our two sages of sea power here at the College. These were men who looked to history—to the age of wooden ships and iron men—in search of permanent things. They sifted through the past for enduring lessons to help naval officialdom shape future strategy.
Around here we often ask students whether they’re Mahanian or Corbettian, but that’s a false choice. Mahan and Corbett agree on a lot. Together they articulate a composite logic and grammar of maritime strategy that remains as compelling as it was when they wrote a century ago.
Now, Clausewitz teaches that international competition and war have a grammar all their own—the grammar of violent interaction between antagonists determined to get their way. But they don’t have their own logic. The logic of competition comes from policy—from national purposes.
So maritime endeavors are about purpose and power, policy and strategy. Mahan excels at explaining the purposes that drive nations to do business in great waters, while Corbett explains how to use sea power on the operational level to help fulfill national purposes. Mahanian logic, Corbettian grammar: you might almost call it a unified field theory of sea power!
Look at purpose. Mahan tells us the purpose of sea power is to assure commercial, political and military access—in that order—to vital theaters such as East Asia, South Asia and western Europe. To that end, maritime strategy is about amassing commerce, fleets of merchantmen and warships, and naval stations to support distant voyages. Commerce is king for Mahan.
And in case some rival tries to bar commercial, political or military access, maritime strategy is about building a battle fleet capable of fighting “with reasonable prospects of success” against the strongest foe it’s likely to encounter in the waters where it matters most. Winning command of the sea is the surest route to success in maritime strategy. Mahan is the theorist of the stronger navy.
And power? Corbett has little to say about the logic of sea power. His bosses—the likes of Queen Victoria and Admiral Jacky Fisher—knew why Britain needed a navy. But he has a lot to say about the grammar of sea combat. Corbett says he agrees with Mahan that seeking a decisive fleet engagement soon after the outbreak of war is the right course to pursue 90 percent of the time.
Nevertheless, he spends an inordinate amount of time delineating a strategy for that other 10 percent of the time—when we’re the weaker combatant and need time to build up strength and turn the tables on our opponent. This is what Corbett calls “active defense,” or sometimes a “fleet-in-being” strategy. (It’s also eerily similar to Mao’s concept of active defense, which has been and remains the core of Chinese military and maritime strategy.)
Contrary to popular lore, a fleet-in-being is neither inert nor passive. Its commanders try to balk a stronger foe, frustrating his endeavors through offensive tactical blows while searching out ways to make themselves the stronger contestant at the decisive place and time. Flipping the naval balance could mean concentrating scattered fleet detachments. It could mean building additional ships. It could mean finding seagoing allies, or fracturing enemy alliances. Or it could mean doing things that induce the enemy to disperse his strength or do dumb, self-defeating things.
So active defense is a restless, forward-leaning approach to naval warfare—even as its practitioners remain prudent about methods for prosecuting it. “True” defense, then, is about offense for Corbett. It’s about deferring the verdict of arms while positioning ourselves as the stronger antagonist. Rather than seek a decisive battle when the outcome is in doubt, Corbett counsels commanders to be patient—postponing a decision until the contest appears likely to go their way. He thus provides a complete guide to sea combat, spanning both weaker and stronger contenders, where Mahan provides only a partial picture at the operational level.
So there’s your unified, Mahanian/Corbettian copybook. Current or aspiring maritime powers should harness diplomatic, economic and military resources to open access to foreign theaters, and build fleets of merchantmen and warships to carry on and protect commerce there. Should someone oppose U.S. commercial, political, or military access by force, the navy should seek a decisive battle when circumstances appear promising.
If the U.S. Navy is the likely winner where it counts, when it counts, then commanders should seek battle early, as Mahan wants. If not, they should take their cue from Corbett, mounting an active defense until prospects for victory brighten. Either way, decisive battle is the eventual goal.
Only then can we exploit command of the sea. That’s the fallacy of “. . . From the Sea”: it assumed America could enjoy the fruits of command without fighting for command, and would do so more or less forever. It assumed History was on our side following the Soviet collapse—and would remain on our side. That was a dangerous assumption, and we’re coping with its fallout to this day.
No victory is permanent unless we make it so. Let us resolve never again to declare a holiday from maritime history—even if we win big in our next geopolitical competition, as we did in the Cold War and World War II. Great sea powers don’t get to take holidays, especially when maritime history is just beginning for ambitious, saltwater-minded rivals like China.