Surface Warfare Magazine
Sharing stories and news from Sailors across the U.S. Navy’s Surface Forces
 
4/1/2016
Driven Forward by the Past

There is something afoot in surface warfare. It began a couple of years ago, when Admiral Tom Copeman started talking about offensive operations, but it appears more prominent now. It is subtle, but it is important.

It is the unmistakable air of an organization getting its act together. It is the roil and churn associated with important debates about how best to deter and fight. It is the awakening of a new generation of men and women to the time honored lessons of our history.

And it is high time that this occurs, driven both by the needs of the global security environment and interestingly enough, by the 100-year anniversary this spring of the Battle of Jutland. In fact, this short piece is essentially a book review—a recommendation to everyone interested in the future of Surface Warfare to read the majestic work of history, “The Rules of the Game—Jutland and British Naval Command” by Andrew Gordon.

Driven Forward by the Past

You see, one hundred years ago this May, the Royal Navy came close to getting its clock cleaned by the German Navy, an opponent that had studied it closely, built up its capabilities and capacities, and bided its time--for decades. One hundred years before Jutland, after Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar and the dispatch of Napoleon, such an outcome would have been unthinkable. At that time (in 1815) the Royal Navy was unmatched and unmatchable. What happened in those 100 years? How did the Royal Navy suffer such a decline? This book offers a convincing case.

Gordon’s book is really two books in one. The first is essentially a minute by minute dissection of the actual Battle of Jutland, which I must admit is sometimes difficult reading. Of far more interest to me is the other part of this book in which Gordon lays out the hundred years of organizational decline of the Royal Navy that led up to the battle. It is the cautionary tale of a "fleet that had dozed unchallenged in the long calm lee of Trafalgar." It is a recounting of how tradition and culture served to frustrate tactical innovation. It is a stark reminder of the tested truth that peacetime operations tend to nourish habits that will fail in battle. And it reinforces once again that– as Gordon puts it– every proven military incompetent has previously displayed attributes which his superiors rewarded.

Reading this work recently caused me to think—and to think hard.

 

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Could the Battle of the Philippine Sea in 1944 have been the U.S. Navy Surface Force’s Trafalgar? Is there a Jutland on our horizon?

Obviously, one cannot be sure. But one hears and senses within today’s Surface Force an unmistakable message that we are not going to wait for our Jutland. The concept of Distributed Lethality—impacting as it does every single aspect of Surface Warfare—organization, training, acquisition, operations, tactics, leadership—perturbs the repose of a fleet that has perhaps, in fact, been dozing. It is an organizing principle around which the entire Joint Force might awaken—awaken to the gathering challenges of renewed great power competition, contention, and conflict. And re-awaken to the unique and irreplaceable advantages that geography and modern American Seapower confer upon this country.

There is great energy in our community these days. There is a buzz of enthusiasm, a readiness to think more assertively, and a thirst to consider the profession, the art, and the purpose of Surface Warfare. However, we cannot afford to let up. We must continue to refine the arguments in support of Distributed Lethality, we must honestly assess its benefits and costs, and we must prevail over inferior arguments—however loudly made. We cannot allow the bureaucratic noise of a peacetime Navy to dissuade us from thinking deeply about what a 21st century war at sea would look like, and how we would win it. We cannot become bound up in a pursuit of perfect safety, security, and survivability. We must instead do great harm to our adversary’s sense of these attributes through our own return to the offensive. Most of all, we cannot—as Andrew Gordon so eloquently put it—ever forget two important truths.

The first is that war-fighting commanders may find themselves “bereft of communications faculties upon which they have become reliant in peacetime training.”

The second is that “properly disseminated doctrine offers both the cheapest and the most secure command and control method yet devised by man.”

Read this book, my friends. And let it propel you to continue the good work underway. Surface Warfare Magazine

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