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Size doesn't matter; getting over our big-ship envy.

Scott Shuger is a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly.

* This People's Navy: The Making of American Seapower. Kenneth J. Hagan. Free Press. $27.95.

In concluding that the battleship Iowa explosion could only have been the result of a demented mind, the official investigators probably weren't mindful of the Princeton episode of 1844. On February 28 of that year, Secretary of State Abel P. Upshur, who in his previous job as secretary of the Navy had been a vigorous advocate of naval weapons development, was a guest aboard the frigate as it cruised down the Potomac to conduct a demonstration firing of a new 12-inch gun called the "Peacemaker." Due to faulty engineering, the gun blew up when it was fired, decapitating Upshur.

Such overlooked parallels indicate that the U.S. Navy is now old enough to suffer severe memory loss. In this book,* Kenneth Hagan-a professor of history at the Naval Academy as well as its archivist and museum director-shows what's been forgotten. Hagan's a contrarian about the Navy's hallowed theme that its purpose is to command the seas with capital ships designed to engage and defeat those of our enemies. His point is that a careful reading of history shows that a big-ship battle fleet has never been that well justified by combat results. His survey suggests that big-fleet fever has always been less a matter of raison d'etre than of raison de budget and raison de looking good.

Basically, there are two different ways to make war with ships. You can let them operate individually to attack enemy merchant vessels and small individual warships (the nautical term for this is guerre de course), or you can have them work together in fleets designed to engage the counterpart main fleets of the enemy, which are trying to do the same (that's called guerre d' escadre). Guerre d' escadre has many of the features of conventional army warfare: massed firepower, difficult logistics, and less than optimal maneuverability-all achieved at great expense. On the other hand, guerre made course suggests guerrilla war: hit-and-run tactics made possible by a low profile and self-sufficiency-costing much less.

The godfather of the big battle fleet idea in America was a 19th-century naval officer named Alfred Thayer Mahan, an original faculty member and the second president of the Navy's think tank, the Naval War College. Mahan's 1890 opus, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783, set forth the Royal Navy of Horatio Nelson as the model our navy should follow. Mahan's impact on subsequent naval developments was tremendous. Under the sway of Mahanian principles, Teddy Roosevelt sent the Great White Fleet around the world, Franklin Roosevelt militated for increased battleship construction, and John Lehman urged a 600-ship navy. (And strong doses of Mahan are still a staple of the history and strategy courses taught to midshipmen and officers in training.)

From 1890 until 1941, in the U.S. Navy guerre d'escadre meant the primacy of the battleship. But after Pearl Harbor, the dreadnought began to give way to the aircraft carrier. At such battles as Coral Sea and Midway, carriers were far more devastating to the Japanese navy than battleships could ever have been. It may have been guerre d'escadre's finest hour. But like the "gun club" admirals before them, the flyboy admirals failed to see that their weapon of choice didn't cover all the requirements of naval warfare either. In time, they too became blinded to the usefulness of submarines and other ship types and tactics by their love of big-fleet warfare.

Hagan points out that this blindness was rich in precedent. He notes that Mahan's tome consistently downplayed tactical and technical innovations, and sums it up as "a blend of history and propaganda." Indeed, Hagan reserves one of his most pointed passages to observe that Nelson's great victory at Trafalgar at the head of a wooden sailing fleet was "largely irrelevant" to the steam-powered, iron-clad American navy that was in service by the time Mahan was writing. Against the battle fleet theory, Hagan marshals many other historical counterexamples: During the Revolutionary War, America prevailed despite an inferiority in ships of the line (the big-gun battleships of the day) by devoting its scarce naval resources to small ships designed to raid the enemy's commerce. By war's end, Revolutionary privateers had seized 600 vessels. During the Civil War, Confederate blockade runners had a 92 percent success rate in breaking past the Union's far more advanced ironclads; three Confederate raiders, operating independently of each other, destroyed over 100 Union merchant ships. In World War I, it was first the success against and then the containment of German submarines that dictated the outcome of the naval war-the war's only battle fleet engagement, the Battle of Jutland, was inconclusive, and no American battleship fired even one shot in anger. In World War II, freelancing submariners again did the most damage: In four months during 1940, German U-boats, on patrol only 6 or 8 at a time, sank 274 merchant ships. American submarines were deadlier still, accounting for 4.8 million tons of Japanese merchant shipping-more than 3.5 times the tonnage destroyed by U.S. carrier aircraft. And in the Cuban Missile Crisis, it was the small surface combatants rather than the carriers that made the quarantine" of Castro work.

The massing of a big battle fleet was a necessity for Great Britain because of its particular geographic situation: an island nation in close proximity to rival powers. Hagan pointedly brings out the difference in the U.S. situation when he quotes Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Tracy's 1889 request for a fleet of armored battleships: "We must have a fleet of battleships that will beat off the enemy's fleet on its approach, for it is not to be tolerated that the United States ... is to submit to an attack on the threshold of its harbors." Since Tracy's statement, no foreign fleet has made that approach to our coasts, but the credit goes more to the wide expanses of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans than to our big ships, which didn't make any difference at Pearl Harbor.

C'est la guerre d'escadre

This raises an interesting point: Does the United States Navy need big battle fleets to protect its overseas outposts-or is it the other way around? The rise of the steam-powered transoceanic navy led America to an interest in overseas coaling and maintenance facilities. Expansion into the Philippines, Guam, and Hawaii soon followed. And the desire to obtain and protect a canal that could readily unite our Pacific and Atlantic battle fleets drove American intervention in Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras, Mexico, Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. The rise of our big navy multiplied possible flashpoints and lowered crisis thresholds: In 1897 Teddy Roosevelt directed the Naval War College to study what force would be needed to repel the Japanese from our then-new presence in Hawaii, while in 1891, the U.S. nearly went to war with Chile over the deaths of two sailors in a Valparaiso bar fight.

Hagan calls these developments "the new naval imperialism," which he notes differs fundamentally from the "gunboat diplomacy" we practiced for most of the ]9th century. The latter had the legitimate goal of protecting American citizens who found themselves endangered in foreign lands, while the former was nothing less than the occupation of foreign countries in order to alter their political and social structures to benefit our overseas naval operations. The earlier idea was better, argues Hagan. Naval buildups pursued to protect naval buildups make no independent sense.

It's this self-referential aspect of guerre d'escadre that's the big problem with it. Viewed through the lens of Hagan's historical exposition, America's big carrier navy can be seen to be a reductio ad absurdum. Although carrier aviation's greatest strength is its ability to destroy shipping and land targets that are otherwise inaccessible, a huge proportion of today's carrier weapons are designed to keep the carrier itself from being sunk: External firepower is actually quite low. At bottom, the Mahanian view calls for a self-involvement with technology and weapons that too readily leaves out real military and geopolitical considerations. A corollary to the self-reference problem is a potentially disastrous kind of inflexibility. Our carrier fleet was designed to fight in the open ocean against other blue-water navies. And yet this winter found half of all our carriers deployed in the Persian Gulf, where they operated in restrictive waterways against land targets. They adapted well, but one couldn't help but think of the Vincennes disaster, in which another capital ship designed to fight on the open ocean couldn't make the switch.

Because navies can go quietly over the horizon in ways armies can't, naval development presents a country with unique opportunities for going wrong. When a continental power like the United States disregards its natural defense barriers and builds big battle fleets, it has turned from geopolitical realities towards a troublesome kind of make-believe. This kind of navy exists only to defeat other navies that are similarly inclined. That's justifiable only if other navies like that already exist. (Modem history's best candidate for one is probably the Japanese navy from 1900 to 1945, although it's arguable that Japanese overseas ambitions were in part a response to our own previous expansions.) But what's troubling is that once the Mahanian turn is made it doesn't much matter if these other global navies exist.

Since the early 1950s, the United States Navy has developed a force of big-deck aircraft carriers, half of them nuclear-powered, to protect us from an alleged Soviet naval expansionism that never quite materialized. It's true that in Brezhnev's heyday, the Soviets operated far from home waters out of a large facility in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, but this is more of the chicken-or-egg problem-we built the base there to support our overseas navy. Is the new generation of Soviet aircraft carriers sufficient reason to press forward with more of our own? No-they were built in response to our carriers, and they fall short anyway. The Soviets do operate the world's largest submarine navy, but since the best way to sink a submarine is with another submarine, that doesn't justify building more carriers either. And most of the other Soviet naval developments-the long range aircraft, the cruise missiles-are threats primarily because we have invested so heavily in the capital ships they target.

So great is the internal momentum of the big-fleet fixation that it has even taken the withering of the Soviet navy under Gorbachev completely in stride. Hagan notes that John Lehman has credited the Soviets' recent naval retrenchment to the carrier-based fleet buildup he spearheaded. But beware: A theory that is "confirmed" by all possible evidence is too good to be true.
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Author:Shuger, Scott
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Apr 1, 1991
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