July 2019 Essay: Naval Lessons From the Lead Up to the First World War

My wife would tell you that for some reason I own far too many books on First World War Naval History.  Personally, I thoroughly enjoy the history of Europe post the German wars of Unification (>1871) through the outbreak of the First World War.  Some of my favorite college courses covered the treaty system of Bismarck and debates as to who was to blame for the outbreak of the First World War.   Over time, I have become familiar with the naval history of the First World War.  I think it might have started when I read Robert Massie’s book Dreadnaught.  My fascination with this period of history is both tactical and strategic in nature.

Lost in thought one day, I began thinking about the run up to the war in 1914 and what had been the naval strategy of Germany and England.  Dreadnaughtwas launched in 1906. Eight years later fleets of Dreadnaught Class warships were engaged in combat in the North Sea.  From the lead ship of all big-gunned ships launched in 1906, Germany and England would build 46 Dreadnaught Class ships and 16 Battle Cruiser class ships.   Sixty-two (62) ships built in 90 months, or a ship every 45 days.

Dreadnaught a Short History

In 1905 the Royal Navy had 62 battleships in service or under construction.  102 years after the Battle of Trafalgar, England had 26 more battleships than France, who was their historic rival for European hegemony.  When compared to the fledging Imperial German Navy (IGN), England had 50 more battleships than Germany.  At the beginning of the twentieth century, it took 2-3 years to design and build a battleship.  These were not investments that nation-states made quickly or without considerable thought, yet having recently run a large procurement process to build new battleships, the Royal Navy under the leadership of the First Sea Lord, Admiral John Fisher, did the unthinkable – they built a new ship that obsoleted all the ships that had come before.  Why did they do this?  Was there a competitive force or threat to their existing fleet?  Did they need a new ship that would obsolete all their current investments?

Here is a pictorial summary of the HMS Agamemnon, a state of the art English battleship laid down in the 1905.  Agamemnon was a member of the Lord Nelson class of battleships and was designed at a time when there was much spirited debated bordering on controversy regarding the direction of future battleship design.

In 1903, Vittorio Cuniberti published an article entitled “An Ideal Battleship for the British Fleet,” in Jane’s publication All the World’s Fighting Ships.  Vittorio was the chief naval architect of the Italian Navy.  His article called for the development of all big gun ship (i.e. twelve 12-inch guns) displacing 17,000 tons.  The thinking in the naval community around an all big gun ship had already been occurring, but Vittorrio’s article provided thought leadership and helped generate perceived momentum around the concept of an all big gun ship.  The United States as well as Japan had budgeted for the construction of ships with 12-inch guns, but they were not due for completion until 1907.  In the early part of the twentieth century, naval construction required public and political oversight, as it was the single largest military expense and consumed vast resources.  Ship construction at the time was a significant capital commitment of a nation’s budget and required legislative approval.  Even today, the most powerful navy in the world, the U.S. Navy, has a publicly available ship construction plan.

On October 1, 1906, H.M.S. Dreadnaught slipped into the English Channel, one year and one day from the laying of her keel.  Over the next few days, she conducted high-speed runs in excess of 21 knots displaying the power of her steam turbine engines, a first for a warship of her size (18,000 tons).  Her ten 12-inch guns could engage targets at 10,000 yards.  She was fast enough to outrun any ship her size and she was powerful enough to outgun any other ship of her class.  Jane’s declared she was the equivalent of two or three of battleships of the designs that had preceded her.  Dreadnaughtwas a lethal and brilliant combination of striking power, speed, reliability and armor that could choose to fight when, where and who she desired.

In 1907, Dreadnaughtbecame the flagship of English Home Fleet and assumed the responsibility of the guardian of Pax Britannia at the very zenith of the Empire and only six years after the death of Queen Victoria.  When details of her design became public, it was apparent that this single ship hailed as a triumph by her designers, was in fact a colossal blunder in the eyes of many.

piece of wanton and profligate ostentation

“[that] morally scraped and labeled obsolete [the entire British Fleet] at the moment when it was at the zenith of its efficiency and not equal to two, but practically to all the other navies of the world combined.”

We said, ‘Let there be dreadnaughts’ what for? We did not require them. Nobody was building them and if anyone had started building them, we, with our greater shipbuilding resources, could have built them faster then any country in the world.” – David Lloyd George, a future Prime Minister of England

Why would someone build a ship that obsoletes all of the prior naval investments they had made?  The best quote I found to answer Dreadnaught’scritics, was from her first captain, Reginald Bacon: “Knowing as we did that Dreadnaught was the best type to build, should we knowingly have built the second-best type of ship? What would have been the verdict of the country [i.e. England] if Germany…had built the Dreadnaught? What would have been the verdict of the country if a subsequent inquiry had elicited the fact that those responsible at the Admiralty for the safety of the nation had deliberately recommended the building of second-class ships?

A Fleet from Nothing

German naval history prior to 1900 is really nothing to write about.  It was mainly constrained to coastal defense, interior waterways and their merchant fleet.  Yet, this rising industrial power was able to build a fleet, develop a naval officer corps, recruit enlisted ranks and build the required supporting infrastructure in the span of 10-12 years that was a threat to the greatest fleet in the world, the Royal Navy (RN).  This was not a surprise outcome; it was a plan.  The German Navy was built as an industrial program and a component of that plan was to first build a canal called the Kiel Canal.  The canal would be widened for the post Dreadnaught Era, which is another indication of the disruptive effect of Dreadnaught.  The Kiel Canal was not just any canal; it was a 59-mile long secure passage that connected the Baltic and North Seas.   From nothing, with no meaningful history as a naval power, Germany was able to build in a short period of time, a credible threat to Royal Navy that actually altered the traditional tactics of the Royal Navy in European waters.

Historical Similarities:  The German High Seas Fleet was primarily built to take on the English Home Fleet in the North Sea and the waters around Great Britain. Is the continued development of the PLAN designed to take on the US Navy in the waters around the South China Sea?

Zone of Denial

During the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) the Royal Navy executed a near flawless close blockade of French and Spanish ports.  It was a crippling, suffocating tactic against Napoleon and the French Empire. The English had command of the sea, trade routes and could move troops and supplies faster than overland routes. Many Royal Navy ships were at sea for months and on station for years.  This is where the ability of the Royal Navy to project sea power closely upon the enemy ships and ports was learned, developed and mastered.  The Royal Navy had a zone of control around European waters.  There was no real threat of an invasion of the English home islands because the Royal Navy was projecting power far from the shores of Great Britain and they controlled the approaching waters.   It was only due to the development of new weapon systems such as the submarine, as well as the construction of the Dreadnaught Class ships, that altered the tactics of the Royal Navy when hostilities broke out in 1914.

Breaking the effectiveness of the close blockade strategy was the product of the German industrial revolution.  Germany was becoming an industrial force capable of building ships and submarines that caused the British to react and alter their traditional naval strategies. The zone of denial that the Royal Navy controlled was pulled back from close at shore and became more regionalized around the North Sea with the Grand Fleet even being deployed to Scapa Flow for most of the war.

Historical Similarities:  Rising industrial power and new weapon systems can provide a nation-state the ability to alter the long held historical sea power balance. New technologies can provide a nation-state the ability to project power, where there was no ability to project power in the past.

A Long Time Between Conflicts

Before the outbreak of war in the summer of 1914, the last major fleet battle fought by the Royal Navy was the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.  In this most famous battle, Lord Nelson commanded his ships to close with the enemy. This was all well and good in the age of sail, but one hundred and nine (109) years later, it would not be advisable for Dreadnaught Class ships to close with each other for boarding.

109 years is a long time between battles.  There were off and on conflicts around the world.  The United States fought a Civil War right at point in time that sail evolved to steam and wooden sides became iron, but the navy of the Confederate States of America was no match for the navy of Union States.  A couple of aging Spanish fleets were destroyed by the U.S. Navy in 1898, but the most famous naval conflict was the Russo-Japanese War and the Battle of TsushimaStrait in which the upstart Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) destroyed the Russian fleet in the course of a busy afternoon.  An irony of the Battle of TsushimaStrait is that an upstart Asia nation-state with a fleet composed of ships built in English shipyards defeated a historically powerful European nation-state.

What is important about all these events is they involved nation-states not named England.  England entered the First World War with a cadre of leaders without significant experience in large fleet combat operations.  German naval leaders did not have much combat experience either, but the German Navy did not have the reputation of the Royal Navy. Lord Nelson spent large portions of his naval career in combat.  Technological change was glacial in the age of sail and when Nelson’s fleet sailed against Villeneuve’s fleet, his ship captains were all immensely experienced in naval combat and knew the tactics Nelson wanted to employ – they did not need to interrupt signal flags.  Much like the Royal Navy in 1914, the last major fleet action fought by the United States was the Battle of Leyte Gulf and the Sibuyan Sea in 1944.  I think it is a credible argument that for much of the Cold War the US Navy practiced active deterrence against the Soviet Navy, but for the most part the US Navy has been without a naval rival for seventy-five (75) years.

Historical Similarities:  Do upstart naval powers have an advantage against incumbent naval superpowers in a time of technological change?  This was the point that Winston Churchill was making when said of John Jellico that he was “…the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon.”  One nation’s definition of winning or losing may not equal the opponent’s definitions of the same.

The Two-Power Standard

In 1899 the English Parliament passed what would become known as the two-power standard.  In short, it set an objective that the Royal Navy would maintain a fleet the size of the combined two closest rival fleets. At the time, those two rivals were France and Russia.  Over time, the Japanese would sink the Russian fleet in 1905 and détente with France would lesson the English concern about French naval power.  The emerging threat would become Germany and only Germany had the economic and industrial power to build a fleet to match England. Combat operations during the war would reveal that the two-power standard was very difficult to maintain on a global scale with all the tasks the Royal Navy had to undertake as well as remain vigilant against the German High Seas Fleet.  There were great debates about the battleships sent to the Dardanelles, to the Falklands and when the United States entered the war her ships sent to England were used to relieve some of the patrolling and escort duties of the Royal Navy.  It turns out that the two-power standard was replaced by a teaming concept between the navies of the Allied Powers versus the Central Powers.

Historical Similarities: On a global scale, the US Navy is unmatched by any other naval power, but it can be worn down and beaten through attrition.  The same fear that England had during the First World War and like England, the US Navy needs the fleets of other nations to take on duties to free up naval assets in time of conflict.  The deterrence factor of joint-naval operations with aligned nation-states will be a critical factor to offset emerging naval powers.  It is less about the cost and expense of the US Navy and more about the cost and expense required to confront a unified naval force in which the anchor player is the US Navy.

Projection of Sea Power is Difficult

In the Post-Dreadnaught Era, which is nearly 113 years, only three navies have had the ability to project sea power beyond their local waters and only two have had the ability to project power on a global basis.  These three navies were the Royal Navy from 1906 to 1991, the Japanese Navy from 1935 to 1944 and the United States Navy from 1942 to the present day. Sea power and the control of the seas was intellectually championed by Alfred Thayer Mahan in his 1890 book The Influence of Sea Power Upon History.

Even today, Mahan’s book is influencing naval scholars.  I assume the reader is conversant in Mahan’s contributions and therefore a recitation is not necessary.  Here is a linkto book by Chinese Naval Scholar Hu Bo, published out of Peking University entitled China’s Sea Power in the Post Mahan Era.  Quoting from that page “The meaning of the sea power has been expanded in the post Mahan era; however, sea control and the command of sea are no doubt the core concepts of sea power. Hu further points out that China should make a rational sea power goal in international maritime politics, strengthen domestic consensus, and stabilize international expectations.”

Increasingly in the digital age, projecting sea power is not simply a matter of how many carrier battle groups can a nation field or how many nuclear submarines can be deployed. Modern day sea power projection is becoming a data problem, a network problem, and a compute and application problem.  Weapon systems need target information and connectivity to battlefield sensors.  A ship will become a modern day data center a sea with the ability to collect, process and act on data fed to it from the tactical (i.e. battle space) as well as strategic (i.e. global) systems.

This presents a number of increasingly difficult technical problems to be overcome.   When the First World War started, it was the assumption of naval strategists that combat would occur at much closer distances (<10k meters) than it did in actual practice.  At the battle of Dogger Bank HMS Lion opened fire at 18k meters and the same distance of first engagement was true at the Battle of Jutland.  It turns out that ship commanders fired their guns as soon as they were within the range of the enemy.  In a time when the guns could shoot at the limits of visual range, flag signals were the dominant method of communication.  Many ships still burned coal that reduced the visibility of signal flags, there was no air support, no reliable wireless system and the result was that command and control of ships was challenging in the fluid battle space of naval combat.  Additionally, the North Sea is not really known for bright and sunny days.

Historical Similarities: Projecting sea power in the modern era will be more about battle sensors, connectivity and data processing.  Ships will become data centers and like ships at Jutland, accurate information (i.e. data) will need to be reliably communicated.  The command and control problem at Jutland is simply expanded to a theater size problem in the modern era.  If a ship captain cannot get accurate and timely threat information, that captain is no different then Jellico sailing around the fog of the North Sea looking for Scheer.

Building Dreadnaughts Took the Will and Budget of a Nation-State

Any deep reading of the naval arms race in the lead up to the First World War, will reveal the scale and cost of the shipbuilding programs.  These building programs were debated in the governments and the press of the protagonists.  Both Germany and England used espionage to gather technical details about the ships, the guns, the armor as well as the true cost of the industrial commitment of each nation-state.

Since December 1941, the aircraft carrier has been the dominant conventional warfare platform for sea power projection.  Strike aircraft mounted on a mobile airfield turns out to be really good at military power projection.  An interesting sea power question is whether the aircraft carrier will remain central to naval sea power projection?  The aircraft carrier is not going away, but is there a cheaper and more plentiful strike option?

There was a recent post on the Wavell Room site regarding Chinese interest in the concept of the Arsenal Ship.  The post I am referring to can be found here.  Within this post they refer to an article from Naval Engineers Journal, Vol. 109, No. 6 in November 1997, by Lieutenant Greg W. Baumann, USN, in which he defines the concept of an Arsenal Ship on page 86 as “The Arsenal Ship is a missile-laden, forward-deployed, highly automated, optimally-manned ship that possesses a high degree of built-in protection and uses the most advanced communication networks available. The missions expected for the Arsenal Ship are: Halting Invasions. The Arsenal Ship provides massive numbers of advanced missiles, equipped with precision-guided munitions, to stop attacking armored forces. Long-Range Strike. Tomahawk cruise missiles from the Arsenal Ship will be used to attack the enemy’s center of gravity-destroying strategic targets, air defense sites and military infrastructure. Littoral Warfare. Using the ATACM and an advanced naval gun system, the Arsenal Ship provides naval fire support to forces ashore, countering enemy artillery systems and suppressing second echelon forces and air defense sites. Conventional Deterrence. The forward-deployed Arsenal Ship provides conventional deterrence against regional aggression in areas vital to U.S. national interests.”

Is Baumann the Cuniberti of today?  Are the concept and weapon systems that can be mounted on an Arsenal Ship the modern day version of Dreadnaught?  When I think of the Arsenal Ship, I am thinking about more than just the weapons package.  Dreadnaught’sdifferentiation came from speed, range, armor and power in a single naval ship element.  From the Wavell Room post they describe the Arsenal Ship as “…an advanced surface combatant incorporating all-electric technology to power directed energy weapons, electromagnetic railguns and missile launch systems, enabling the ship to provide area air and missile defence, anti-submarine, and long-range strike (using ballistic and cruise missiles) capabilities at ranges of up to 1,000 km.”

For me, the weapon systems are one aspect of the Arsenal Ship, but the other is the technology component.  Think of the Arsenal Ship a floating data center in a world with increasing amounts of undersea cables and increasing amounts of overhead satellites.  In some ways, the technical problems faced by ships and planes flying intercontinental routes are similar to broadband and wireless deployments.  To over come bandwidth delivery limitations, content delivery networks (CDNs) were developed.  The cloud providers and web properties have been deploying private fiber networks on land and undersea for years.  All designed to get a lot of data transmitted between far away points and keep that data synchronized.  When I look at the Arsenal Ship concept, I see it as a forward deployed compute system, a data center in a box with a weapons system of some kind on one side and linkage into a command and control system on the other side.  That is a system that must work without outages.

It is clear what China’s maritime development objectives are as they are laid out in their strategy white paper that can be fund here.  Within this paper the following quote appears “In line with the strategic requirement of offshore waters defense and open seas protection, the PLA Navy (PLAN) will gradually shift its focus from “offshore waters defense” to the combination of “offshore waters defense” with “open seas protection,” and build a combined, multi-functional and efficient marine combat force structure. The PLAN will enhance its capabilities for strategic deterrence and counterattack, maritime maneuvers, joint operations at sea, comprehensive defense and comprehensive support.

Historical Similarities:  China emerging as a naval power from their base as an industrial economic power, building a navy to allow it to project regional and then global power.  It sounds a lot like the German strategy against England in the lead up to the First World War.

Technical Difficulties of New Technologies

In the book Shattered Sword, the authors put forth a novel thesis that when the Kido Butai arrived northwest of Midway Island on June 4 1942, and faced the American carrier force to northeast, the battle was already lost due to doctrine.  I am not going to repeat the supporting elements of the thesis in the book, but the conclusion by the authors is that the innovation and power of the Kido Butai was finally defeated in the course of a single day because of the limiting effect of low entropic doctrine employed by the Imperial Japanese Navy.

If you are not familiar with naval military history a quick primer might be needed.  The Kido Butai was the formation of all the major Japanese aircraft carriers into a unified striking force.  The concentration of multiple carriers in a single, fast moving offensive striking force was a true innovation in naval combat.  Six Japanese carriers launched the strike on Pearl Harbor.  These carriers were organized into three air divisions and trained in unified operations as a single offensive weapon.  To create the Kido Butai, required innovation in tactics and tactics are a result of doctrine.  Part of the thesis in Shattered Sword describes how innovation stopped and rigid adherence to doctrine in all levels of the IJN doomed the operational actions of the Kido Butai at the battle of Midway.  The authors point to the book Fleet Tactics to understand doctrine.

Pages 29-33 in Fleet Tactics has a concise summary of doctrine, why it is important and how it is employed.  Here is my summary of those pages in ten simple points.

  • P29: Doctrine is the commander’s way of controlling his forces in writing, before military action.
  • P29: Doctrine enunciates polices and procedures that govern action.
  • P29: In its stringiest sense, doctrine enjoins the right behavior; its success depends on obedience, except when obedience leads to failure.
  • P29: Two points of doctrine must be remembered: it is vital and it must not become dogmatic.
  • P30: Doctrine may also be thought of as every action that contributes to unity of purpose.
  • P30: Doctrine is not what is written in books; it is what people believe in and act on.
  • P30: In the execution of good doctrine, there is always tension between conformity and initiative.
  • P30: There is a measure of entropy in all doctrine.  With too little entropy there is order and understanding, but no initiative.  With too much entropy there is creativity and change but no order.
  • P31: The clearest evidence of doctrinal deficiency is too much communication.
  • P33: In sum doctrine must be whole and firm but not dogmatic.  It must leave room for men of freewheeling genius, for such will be the aces of the next war.  But it must never surrender control, because control is the prerequisite of concerted action.

When we look back on Germany and their emergence on the world stage pre-1914, the development of the High Seas Fleet and technical limitations and challenges of the time, we see the same set of problems today.  The difference is the speed, scope and size of the operational theater.  The Pacific theater is much larger than the North Sea and the weapon systems are able to close these distances quickly, if the command and control technical problems can be overcome.   That is why there is a focus on technology acquisition.  The weapon systems are useless they can be quickly put on target accurately, when needed and that is a computational problem that requires a network, compute and storage resources to support the applications controlling the weapons.

The continued focus on Huawei and China in general is more than just about trade.  That was the thesis my prior post on China.  If you read this article it implies that many employees of Huawei had prior ties to the PLA.  I do not put much worth in this assertion as if you were to comb through the CVs of many people working for the top defense industry firms with the United States, it would reveal that most had some sort of service time in their career.  The difference might be that Huawei has a consumer products division, but really the point is moot in my view.   A more interesting fact to discuss would be the investments that Huawei is making in university research programs.  Nothing wrong with making investments in universities, but it should be noted that the Arsenal of Democracy and many of the systems deployed during the Cold War were results of linkage between university research programs and the US Government.  It is not wrong or evil, it is just intentional and there are reasons for these investments.

As always, my thoughts on these matters might be completely wrong.




2 thoughts on “July 2019 Essay: Naval Lessons From the Lead Up to the First World War

  1. Pingback: More of Evidence of Vertical Integration | SIWDT

  2. Pingback: Recent Musings from the World of Naval Warfare Studies | SIWDT

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.