Naval strategy

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Naval strategy is the planning and conduct of war at sea , the naval equivalent of military strategy on land.

Naval strategy, and the related concept of maritime strategy, concerns the overall strategy for achieving victory at sea, including the planning and conduct of campaigns, the movement and disposition of naval forces by which a commander secures the advantage of fighting at a place convenient to himself, and the deception of the enemy. Naval tactics deal with the execution of plans and maneuvering of ships or fleets in battle.


The great aims of a fleet in war must be to keep the coast of its own country free from attack, to secure the freedom of its trade, and to destroy the enemy’s fleet or confine it to port. The first and second of these aims can be attained by the successful achievement of the third – the destruction or paralysis of the hostile fleet. A fleet that secures the freedom of its own communications from attack is said to have command of the sea.

Naval strategy is fundamentally different from military strategy. At sea there is no territory to occupy. Apart from the fisheries and, more recently, offshore oilfields, there are no economic assets that can be denied to the enemy and no resources that a fleet can exploit. While an army can live off the land, a fleet must rely on whatever supplies it carries with it or can be brought to it.


Torrington and the fleet in being

The British Admiral the Earl of Torrington allegedly originated the expression fleet in being. Faced with a clearly superior French fleet in the summer of 1690 during the War of the Grand Alliance, Torrington proposed avoiding battle, except under very favourable conditions, until the arrival of reinforcements. By maintaining his fleet in being, he would prevent the French from gaining command of the sea, which would allow them to invade England. Although Torrington was forced to fight at the Battle of Beachy Head (June 1690), the French victory there gave Paris control of the English Channel for only a few weeks.

Introduction of the guerre de course

By the mid-1690s, privateers from French Atlantic ports, particularly St. Malo and Dunkirk, were a major threat to Anglo-Dutch commerce. The threat forced the English government to divert warships to the defence of trade, as convoy escorts and cruisers to hunt down the privateers. In France, the success of privateers against the Anglo-Dutch war effort stimulated a gradual shift from the employment of the Royal warships as battlefleets (guerre d’esquadron) towards supporting the war on trade (guerre de course). The allied convoys presented large targets for commerce raiding squadrons. The most dramatic result of this shift was the Comte de Tourville’s attack upon the allies’ Smyrna convoy on 17 June 1693.

The disadvantage of the guerre de course when pursued as a battlefleet strategy, rather than just by smaller vessels, is that it leaves a country’s own trade defenceless. Individual raiding squadrons are also vulnerable to defeat in detail if the enemy sends larger squadrons in pursuit, as happened to Leissegues at the Battle of San Domingo in 1806 and Von Spee at the Battle of the Falkland Islands in 1914.

Hawke, St Vincent and the close blockade

Until after the end of the 17th century it was thought impossible, or at least very rash, to keep the great ships out of port between September and May or June. Therefore continuous watch on an enemy by blockading his ports was beyond the power of any navy. Therefore too, as an enemy fleet might be at sea before it could be stopped, the movements of fleets were much subordinated to the need for providing convoy to the trade.

It was not until the middle of the 18th century that the continuous blockade first carried out by Sir Edward Hawke in 1758–59, and then brought to perfection by Earl St Vincent and other British admirals between 1793 and 1815, became possible.

Mahan, Corbett and the development of theory

It was only at the very end of the 19th century that theories of naval strategy were first codified, even though British statesmen and admirals had been practising it for centuries.

Mahan's influence on strategy

Captain, later Rear-Admiral, Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840–1914) was an American naval officer and historian.

Influenced by Jomini's principles of strategy, he argued that in the coming wars, control of the sea would grant the power to control the trade and resources needed to wage war. Mahan's premise was that in the contests between France and Britain in the 18th century, domination of the sea through naval power was the deciding factor in the outcome, and therefore, that control of seaborne commerce was secondary to domination in war. In Mahan’s view, a country obtained "command of the sea" by concentrating its naval forces at the decisive point to destroy or master the enemy’s battle fleet; blockade of enemy ports and disruption of the enemy's maritime communications would follow. Mahan believed that the true objective in a naval war was always the enemy fleet.

Mahan's writings were highly influential. His best-known books, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783, and The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1793–1812, were published in 1890 and 1892 respectively and his theories contributed to the naval arms race between 1898 and 1914.

The Colomb brothers and naval warfare

In Britain, Captain John H. Colomb (1838–1909) in a series of articles and lectures argued that the navy was the most important component of imperial defence; his brother, Admiral Phillip Colomb (1831–1899), sought to establish from history general rules applicable to modern naval warfare in his Naval Warfare (1891). But their writings achieved nothing like the fame achieved by Mahan.

Corbett’s principles of maritime strategy

Sir Julian Corbett (1854–1922) was a British naval historian who became a lecturer at the Royal Naval War College in Great Britain.

Corbett differed from Mahan in placing much less emphasis on fleet battle. Corbett emphasized the interdependence of naval and land warfare and tended to concentrate on the importance of sea communications rather than battle. Battle at sea was not an end in itself; the primary objective of the fleet was to secure one’s own communications and disrupt those of the enemy, not necessarily to seek out and destroy the enemy’s fleet. To Corbett, command of the sea was a relative and not an absolute which could be categorized as general or local, temporary or permanent. Corbett defined the two fundamental methods of obtaining control of the lines of communication as the actual physical destruction or capture of enemy warships and merchants, and or a naval blockade.

His most famous work, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, remains a classic.

Impact of the World Wars

The submarine, introduced in World War I, led to the development of new weapons and tactics. In both world wars the submarine was employed mainly as a commerce destroyer and, as such, could not by itself gain command of the sea. But the guerre de course in the form of the submarine campaign almost defeated the British in 1917, until the belated reintroduction of convoy. The same strategy, deployed by the Americans, overwhelmed Japan in the Pacific from 1943 onwards. Similar German efforts to interrupt Allied trade with surface warships and auxiliaries operating as commerce destroyers on the trade routes caused great disruption and delay, but never truly threatened Allied communications in either war. The development of air power led to further tactical changes, including the emergence of aircraft carriers and naval air fleets. Rather than invade every Japanese-held island in the Pacific, the Americans developed the island-hopping strategy of neutralizing and then bypassing the major Japanese bases, only taking the islands needed to provide bases for the fleet or air forces. By the end of the Second World War, it was clear that command of the sea rested not just on control of the surface of the sea, but also the air above it and the waters beneath it.

Modern naval strategy

Increasingly naval strategy has been merged with general strategy involving land and air warfare.

Naval strategy constantly evolves as improved technologies become available. During the Cold War, for example, the Soviet Navy shifted from a strategy of directly contending against NATO for control of the bluewater oceans to a concentrated defense of the Barents Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk bastions.

In 2007, the U.S. Navy joined with the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Coast Guard to adopt a new maritime strategy called A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower that raised the notion of prevention of war to the same philosophical level as the conduct of war. The strategy was presented by the Chief of Naval Operations, the Commandant of the Marine Corps and Commandant of the Coast Guard at the International Seapower Symposium in Newport, R.I..[1] The strategy recognized the economic links of the global system and how any disruption due to regional crises – man-made or natural – can adversely impact the U.S. economy and quality of life. This new strategy charted a course for the three U.S. sea services to work collectively with each other and international partners to prevent these crises from occurring or reacting quickly should one occur to avoid negative impacts to the United States.

Sources & references

  1. Jim Garamone (2007-10-17). "Sea Services Unveil New Maritime Strategy". Navy News Service. Retrieved 2008-05-26.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • Adams, John A. If Mahan Ran the Great Pacific War: An Analysis of World War II Naval Strategy (2008) excerpt and text search
  • Dewan, Sandeep China's Maritime Ambitions and the PLA Navy Vij Books, ISBN 9789382573227
  • Hattendorf, John B. Naval Strategy and Policy in the Mediterranean: Past, Present and Future (2000) excerpt and text search
  • Padfield, Peter, 'Maritime Supremacy and the Opening of the Western Mind: Naval Campaigns That Shaped the Modern World, 1588-1782 (1999) excerpt and text search; Maritime Power and Struggle For Freedom: Naval Campaigns that Shaped the Modern World 1788-1851 (2005)
  • Paret, Peter, ed. Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age (1986)
  • Rose, Lisle A. Power at Sea, Volume 1: The Age of Navalism, 1890-1918 (2006) excerpt and text search vol 1; Power at Sea, Volume 2: The Breaking Storm, 1919-1945 (2006) excerpt and text search vol 2; Power at Sea, Volume 3: A Violent Peace, 1946-2006 (2006) excerpt and text search vol 3
  • Shulman, Mark Russell. "The Influence of Mahan upon Sea Power." Reviews in American History 1991 19(4): 522–527. in Jstor

See also