Title: United States. Natioal War College. Course 2, Syllabus - Topic 11: The Theory and Practice of Sea Power
TOPIC 11: THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF SEA POWER
15 October 1999
In these three things--production, with the necessity of exchanging products, shipping, whereby the exchange is carried on, and colonies, which facilitate and enlarge the operations of shipping and then protect it by multiplying points of safety--is to be found the key to much of the history, as well as of the policy, of nations bordering upon the sea.
Alfred Thayer Mahan
Ironic as it may seem, the Napoleonic era also influenced the two great naval theorists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Both the American naval officer, Alfred Thayer Mahan, and the lawyer from England, Julian S. Corbett, examined sea warfare between and among England, France and Spain from the late 1500s onward. Their studies occurred against the backdrop of military analysis by such theorists as Jomini and Clausewitz, and, in Mahan's case, the writings on war and tactics of his father, West Point professor Dennis Hart Mahan. The two naval theorists attempted to adapt what they read about the theory of war to sea power.
Mahan was a prolific writer, as both an historian and a military professional. He saw history as a means of better preparing naval officers for command at sea by providing a framework which could improve their ability to learn from actual experience. His 1890 book, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783, is important for two reasons. First, it lays out Mahan's ideas for achieving national power, which are more national strategy than military strategy. His inspirations were England, which used sea power to achieve and maintain greatness, and France, which failed to appreciate how sea power might serve a continental state and was unable to effectively use its navy to counter the English. Second, Mahan prescribes how to employ sea power against an enemy. He follows Jomini's approach by stressing the importance of lines of communication, concentration, and the offensive to destroy the enemy's fleet.
Corbett, on the other hand, borrows more heavily from Clausewitz in his approach to strategy. Like Mahan, Corbett addresses naval theory on more than one level. First, Corbett explains his theory of war. Anyone familiar with Clausewitz should recognize the profound influence he had on Corbett at this level. Second, Corbett lays out his theory of naval war and the principles of maritime strategy. Corbett shied away from prescriptive principles, however, believing--like Clausewitz--that principles should help educate the mind of the commander and improve his judgment. Third, Corbett examines the part naval operations play first in disputing and obtaining "command of the sea," and then in exercising, or exploiting, that achievement.
While many parts of Mahan's and Corbett's writings complement each other, you will discover they approach their subject with different purposes and from different perspectives. Together, they provide an interesting spectrum of ideas on the nature and purpose of naval power. The breadth of that spectrum is expanded even more when one takes into consideration the actual planning and practice of sea power during the latter part of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth.
- Analyze similarities and differences in theories for the application of military power on land and at sea.
- Analyze the applicability of Mahan's and Corbett's sea power theories in the current world.
Issues for Consideration:
- Should we perceive naval strategy and operations as simply the application of the principles of land warfare to another medium? Why or why not? What is different, if anything, about warfare at sea?
- Mahan wrote: "Communications dominate war; broadly considered they are the most important single element in strategy, political or military. In its control over them has lain the preeminence of sea power-as an influence upon the history of the past; and in this it will continue, for the attribute is inseparable from its existence." What contemporary evidence is there to support or refute Mahan's assertion?
- Assess Mahan's relevance for contemporary and future national security decision-makers and military strategists. Which aspect of his writing is more pertinent today--about what makes a nation great, or about the employment of naval forces against the enemy?
- Assess Corbett's relevance to contemporary and future national security decisionmakers and naval planners. Have technological changes made his theoretical concepts irrelevant, or, as Jomini argued, are the universal principles upon which theory is based constant while technology simply changes the tools of war?
- Evaluate the importance of moral factors from the perspective of naval theory. Are they more, less, or equally important as in the theories of land warfare?
- Did American naval strategists during the interwar years appear more concerned with implementing the fundamental concepts of sea power theory as handed down by Mahan and/or Corbett, or on developing practical solutions to perceived strategic problems?
* Jon Tetsuro Sumida, Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command: The Classic Works of Alfred Thayer Mahan Reconsidered (Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), Chapter IV and VII, pp. 43-58, 103-121. (Reprint)
* John Gooch, "Maritime Command: Mahan and Corbett, " Seapower and Strategy, eds. Colin S. Gray and Roger W. Barnett (London: Tri-Service Press, 1989), pp. 27-46. (Reprint)
* Julian S. Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy (London, UK: Longmans, Green and Co., 1918; reprint, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1988), pp. 305-325. (Reprint)
* Russell F. Weigley, "A Strategy for Pacific Ocean War: Naval Strategists of the 1920s and 1930s," The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1973), pp. 242-265. (Student Issue)
* J. C. Wylie, "Excerpt from 'Reflections on the War in the Pacific," in J.C. Wylie, Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1989), pp. 117-121. (Reprint)
* B. Mitchell Simpson, "Editor's Introduction," The Development of Naval Thought: Essays by Herbert Rosinski, ed. B. Mitchell Simpson (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 1977).
* Margaret Tuttle Sprout, "Mahan: Evangelist of Sea Power," Makers of Modern Strategy: Military Thought from Machiavelli to Hitler, ed. Edward Meade Earle (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1943), pp. 415-445.