Maritime Power

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BRITAIN’S WAR AT SEA, 1914-1918: THE WAR THEY THOUGHT AND THE WAR THEY GOT

PROF GREG KENNEDY

Prof. Kennedy’s latest publication ‘Britain’s War at Sea, 1914-1918: The War they Thought, the War the Fought’ is now available from Ashgate Publishing.

The concept of “lessons-learned” has become a growth industry in the realm of academic, and not so academic, writing on Western strategic and operational processes within defence and security topics. In the aftermath of failed operations to reconstruct Iraq and Afghanistan into viable, functioning states, many questions about what the post-Iraq and Afghanistan world holds for the use of military power are being asked, particularly regarding doctrinal and tactical matters. The limited utility of Western military power in dealing with the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria and now the threat posed by the rise of Islamic State, has created a ground-swell of literature that all points to lessons of the near-past having to be studied in order to learn lessons as to, primarily, identify what went wrong and how to avoid repeating such mistakes in the future. In the United Kingdom (UK) in particular, this search for lessons in manifest in the much-delayed Iraq Inquiry set up under the leadership of Sir John Chilcot. As such, most of the lessons-learned processes are reactive and avoidance oriented, instead of proactive and initiative oriented. Furthermore, the majority of these inquiries and questions about lessons learned are land warfare oriented. A distinctly land-focused historical appreciation of Britain’s role in the First World War during present commemorations and appreciations, with respect to the 100 year anniversary of that conflict, has only served to exacerbate this historic misunderstanding of Britain’s ability to learn about and prepare for future wars. This focus on a land environment approach for trying to use the lessons of the past, with both near and distant historical examples, belies the true nature of the past and current UK strategic need: to understand the use of sea power and the maritime domain in defence of the national interest.

This study utilizes a comprehensive methodology to interrogate one of the most significant periods of Britain’s maritime past with regard to lessons learned and preparation for future conflict. In the period leading up to the First World War the nature of the international system was complex and fluid, changing rapidly due to social, technological, commercial, fiscal and cultural pressures. As such it is an appropriate period to use for comparison to today’s international condition, which is described as being also in such a state of flux and transition. Furthermore, within the British strategic policy making elite, questions about what nations could be relied upon to be allies, neutrals or opponents were also fundamental to strategic planning for the future. Much like today and the choices presented to the UK’s strategic policy making elite, questions about how the world worked and why, how much money to spend on what, and what aspect of military power was most appropriate to the nation’s strategic condition, made such planning fraught with difficulty. However, one element of that strategic consideration process was clear: the centrality of the continued use and access to the maritime domain for all of the nation’s, and the empire’s, continued national security and prosperity in any peace. For Britain any general European war would require a maritime strategy to be utilized in order to create, apply and disseminate power on a global scale. Such is arguably still the case for Britain’s strategic position in the world as a key economic, political and military actor, that is absolutely dependent on the continued good governance and use of the seas in such a fashion.

The book’s focus will look at how various aspects of that maritime security question were appreciated before the war, and how, if any, those appreciations changed due to the actual realities of the war itself. Issues relating to technological change, force structures and positioning, appreciations of potential allies, education, intelligence and the need to wage economic warfare as the first line of national defence, are dealt with by an international array of scholars. What is produced is a useful case study of the merits and perils of war planning and lessons learned in an under-appreciated area of both First World War studies, and, contemporary discussions about the UK’s strategic way ahead. As such, it is an important work of history that can be read with benefit by contemporary UK policy makers, as well as students of history. For what better approach to “lessons learned” is there than a comprehensive and sound knowledge of history? History is, after all, the core intellectual discipline that is the very essence of the methodological underpinnings of such exercises.

Image: The British Grand Fleet sailing in parallel columns in World War I, via wikimedia commons.

USS Jason Dunham

The Crimean crisis and Russia’s maritime power in the Black Sea

by DR DEBORAH SANDERS

One of the many consequences of the Russian annexation of Crimea and the seizure of the majority of the Ukrainian navy’s, assets, capabilities and infrastructure is that it has, at least in theory, increased dramatically Russia’s maritime power in the Black Sea. But is this actually the case?

It seems self-evident that the seizure of Crimea by the Russian Federation has led to a significant increase in Russia’s maritime power: its ability to use the maritime domain to achieve a political effect. Russia took ownership of 12 of Ukraine’s 17 major warships, including Ukraine’s two most modern corvettes Ternopil and Lutsk, all of its military infrastructure and bases, including the Ukrainian Navy’s principal Staff College in Sevastopol, and the majority of Ukraine’s naval aviation and air assets located on the peninsular.

The seizure of Crimea has also led to a significant increase in Russia’s maritime borders in the Black Sea. It has given the Russian Government control over the Kerch Straits and unfettered control of the Sea of Azov. Russia has therefore not only increased its maritime footprint and assets in the Black Sea, but is also no longer bound by the former Ukrainian restrictions on the movement, supply, updating and modernisation of the Russian Black Sea Fleet which were part of the Black Sea Fleet basing agreement signed with the Ukrainian Government in 1997.

As a result the Russian Black Sea Fleet will also be modernised and augmented militarily. The Russian Government plans to invest almost three million dollars to improve the aging bases of the Black Sea Fleet and the airfields, docks and military barracks seized from Ukraine. Plans to position anti-ship missiles, air defence systems and naval aviation assets in the newly annexed peninsular, as well as to increase the number of Russian troops in Crimea from the previously prescribed 25 thousand to 40 thousand by 2019, will also increase Russia’s maritime force project capabilities.

As I argue in my recent book Maritime Power in the Black Sea, in actuality, the situation with regard to Russia’s maritime power is more complex. An examination of changes in Russia’s maritime capability, i.e. its military and non-military assets, does not tell us the whole story. In order to fully understand how the crisis in the region has affected Russia’s maritime power, it is important to consider how the utility and application of maritime power is shaped by the particular context or environment in which the Russian Government uses the maritime domain.

Maritime power is relative and, as such, what a state is trying to achieve, and against whom, or what, is a fundamental consideration. The Russian seizure of Crimea and its support for separatists in Ukraine has created a more challenging maritime environment for all six littoral states in the Black Sea. But it has created problems for the Russian Federation in particular, not least because relations with key neighbours, such as Turkey, have become strained and Russian relations with the West, especially the US, have reached a new low.

For example, relations between Turkey and Russia have deteriorated over Turkish opposition to the illegal Russian annexation and Turkish concerns that the Russian Government is not respecting the rights of the 300,000 Crimean Tatars living in Crimea who make up 12% of the region’s population. Illustrating Turkish concerns, last month the headquarters of the governing body of the Crimean Tatars, the Mejlis, was surrounded and searched; heavily armed police have repeatedly searched Tatar restaurants, madrassas and mosques; and a number of Tatars, opposed to the Russian annexation of Crimea, have gone missing or been murdered.

Russian relations with the West have also reached crisis point, creating a less benign maritime security environment for Moscow both within and outside the Black Sea. In response to events in the region, many of the Black Sea littoral states, including Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania and Georgia, have increased their military cooperation with NATO, and the US has increased its military forces and maritime presence in the region. In a clear sign that the Black Sea is likely to become a more challenging environment for the Russian Federation, the US has asked the Romanian Government for permission to increase the number of US troops and aircraft stationed in the Mihail Kogalniceanu military base in Romania.

In a direct challenge to Russia’s maritime power, the US has not only maintained a regular naval presence in the Black Sea with the USS Truxton, the USS Donald Cook and the USS Taylor all conducting port calls in Romania, but has also announced plans to sustain this tempo in the future. Highlighting that the Black Sea has become a more contested and confrontational maritime zone, in March this year, a Russian fighter jet made repeated provocative, close range, low altitude passes above the US Navy destroyer USS Donald Cook just hours after it entered the Black Sea.

In the end, then, it is important to understand that maritime power is about more than just capability: it is about influence. So while the capability of the Russian Black Sea Fleet has increased, the context, i.e. the maritime environment, in which the Russian Government tries to exert this influence, has clearly become more problematic.

Image: Ukrainian navy frigate Hetman Sahaydachniy leading Turkish patrol boats, TCG Kalkan and TCG Tufan and the Georgian Coast guard platform Sokhumi during an exercise in the Black Sea.

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The Admiralty, the Air Ministry and the Battle of the Atlantic, 1940-43

by DR TIM BENBOW

The ‘Battle of the Atlantic’ against the U-boats was the most vital campaign for Britain between mid-1940 and early 1943.  It had to be won if Britain was to remain in the war let alone shift over to the offensive.  Gaining this critical success was made more difficult by the general mismatch between resources and the vast range of demands on them, in campaigns on land, in the air and at sea all across the world.  Yet, as I argue in a recently published article entitled ‘Brothers in arms: the Admiralty, the Air Ministry and the Battle of the Atlantic, 1940-43’, this overstretch was greatly exacerbated by the avoidable misallocation of available resources in the form of very long-range (VLR) aircraft.

The most pressing need was to close the ‘mid-Atlantic air gap’, where the existing land-based aircraft of RAF Coastal Command could not reach.  The Admiralty, together with the head of Coastal Command, repeatedly argued for VLR aircraft to be allocated to the protection of shipping rather than bombing Germany, only to be rebuffed by the senior leadership of the Royal Air Force.  It is important to be clear about what was being sought: the Admiralty was not asking for resources to be shifted from producing aircraft to producing warships, nor was it asking for aircraft to be given to the Navy instead of the RAF (although given the parlous position of the Fleet Air Arm, this would have been no bad thing).

Rather, they were appealing for one Command of the RAF to be strengthened.  Moreover, the numbers sought were relatively tiny, in the tens compared to the thousands being produced – quite literally, the number lost in one fairly bad night over Germany.  The resistance to this modest proposal was all the more extraordinary because it was well known that the bombing offensive was failing to deliver anything like the results that had been promised.  Most historians, including many sympathetic to air power, accept that this failure to commit VLR aircraft to the Atlantic was an error.  So, how can this apparent failure of strategy and policy be explained?

The main problem was the strategic tunnel vision of the RAF leadership and their dogmatic obsession with winning the war by bombing.  The majority of senior airmen – and this applied to Portal, Chief of the Air Staff, as much as to Harris, head of Bomber Command – were utterly mesmerised by the strategic air offensive against Germany.  They refused to countenance any reduction in the effort devoted to it and bitterly resisted any suggestion that aircraft be transferred to the other roles of air power.

These included cooperation with the Army and the Fleet Air Arm (to which the RAF had a deep and abiding aversion), since these did not fit the narrow conception of air power that was prevalent among too many senior airmen.  It also applied to Coastal Command, which truly was the ‘Cinderella service’, derided at one point by Harris as a mere obstacle to victory.  Strategic bombing was little short of an obsession, a holy grail for the independent air force.  The result was that a relatively tiny transfer of VLR aircraft, which would have a minimal effect on the meagre results of the bombing offensive yet would have a decisive impact in the Atlantic, was treated almost as an existential threat.

The language used and the hysterical reaction to any proposal that infringed the theology of strategic bombing is remarkable: the use of air power in other roles was ‘diversion’, ‘plunder’ or even ‘robbery’, while Harris described any suggestion to reallocate a handful of aircraft as seeking the end of the bombing offensive and the ‘breaking up’ of Bomber Command.  Naturally, Bomber Command was the only ‘offensive’ arm of British strategy, with all the efforts of the Navy and indeed the Army dismissed as merely defensive.  As egregious a misunderstanding of strategy and misuse of language as this was, it was effective bureaucratic politics, calculated to appeal to Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister.

What made this failure of vision all the more ironic was that the increasingly desperate calls for more aircraft for the war at sea represented the Admiralty accepting something that proponents of air power had long argued; sea power now needed to be exerted by aircraft as well as by warships.  As far as the Air Ministry was concerned, however, nothing must interfere with the bombing offensive, not even protecting the shipping that was Britain’s lifeline in the war (without which, of course, Bomber Command and the rest of the RAF would swiftly be grounded).  As regards the utility of aircraft at sea the problem was not that the Admiralty did not get the principle; rather that, despite repeated efforts, they could not get the aircraft.

The heads of the other services (the Army was let down just as badly as the Navy) objected to their approach but appear to have been unwilling to risk the disruption that would ensue from any concerted challenge to the RAF’s principal article of faith; combined with the declining health of Pound, the First Sea Lord, this gave a regrettable edge in the bureaucratic clash to the stubbornness of the RAF leadership.

When the Chiefs of Staff are deadlocked, the decision should be taken by their political masters.  Yet no solution was forthcoming here for two reasons.  First, despite so often being disillusioned by the yawning gap between promise and delivery, Churchill proved unable to resist the seductive vision presented to him by the bomber barons.  This fatal attraction was exacerbated by the second factor, his remarkable inconsistency in setting and balancing priorities.

His government attached to various air and naval programmes and campaigns a range of labels including priority, high priority, highest priority, very highest priority, absolute priority, over-riding priority, first priority, A1 priority (and also 1A priority), extreme priority and supreme priority – let alone other terms such as (in a single memorandum, for different projects) ‘prime effort’ and ‘paramount object’.  This terminological mayhem represented an abdication of the need to establish clear and consistent priorities and hence to allocate resources appropriately.

Strategic bombing was only one (and far from the most important) of the roles of air power yet it soaked up scarce resources quite disproportionate to its contribution to the war effort, with a serious impact on other campaigns and roles.  The bomber offensive against Germany did eventually achieve a considerable amount, albeit never close to what its proponents claimed it would.  A small proportion of the resources devoted to it might well have achieved more far elsewhere, not least in the Battle of the Atlantic where the ideological fixation of the RAF at best needlessly extended the duration and cost of this vital campaign, and at worst risked defeat.

Image: By U.S. Navy (photo 80-G-474788), Post-Work: User: W. Wolny [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons