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Fourth International, January 1942


By James Cadman

Naval Power Today


From Fourth International, vol.3 No.1, January 1942, pp.21-24.
Transcribed, Edited & Formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for the ETOL.


Naval warfare, like land warfare, is a process which has evolved steadily through the years and which has closely reflected the economic development of capitalism from its infancy. It was an American bourgeois naval expert, Admiral Alfred T. Mahan, USN, strangely enough, who for the first time linked up economics and naval power as two inseparable and interwoven elements.

Mahan in a series of treatises entitled The Influence of Sea Power upon History discussed the relation of seapower to the rise and fall of great empires throughout the ages and propounded the correct view that the economic advance and decline of these nations could be traced in the development of their respective navies. He demonstrated that as capitalism developed, as nations became more dependent on overseas trade and commerce, and as great merchant empires arose, the need by the state for a navy to protect its merchant marine and the dependency of the navy on the industrial and economic resources of the state, became increasingly greater. Thus, in terms of “cause” and “effect,” economic development was the cause, naval power the effect. Keeping in mind the fact that the navy is merely one unit in the entire process of total warfare, closely coordinated with the other units, the army and the airforce, all three in turn being coordinated with the industries and the state, we can go on to a more specific and restricted analysis of naval power.

The Effects of Industrial Revolution Upon Navies

Technically speaking, the most revolutionary changes in warship design and construction took place around 1860-1914, the boom period of industrial capitalism. Although steampowered war vessels were already known before this period, it was not until the Civil War in America, and the expansion of the British and French empires, and the unification of Germany that naval power entered its “golden age.” Previously the navy had been centered about one main unit, the “ship-of-the-line” – large wooden sailing vessels carrying 40 to 80 muzzle-loading cannon. Naval battles were featured by ship-to-ship encounters in which frigates were grappled to one another. Victory depended less on strategy and, more on sheer force. Gradually however the tactics of naval war changed as ships changed.

The naval battle of Mobile Bay in 1862 in the American Civil War featured the use of torpedoes on a large scale. Another famous battle at Hampton Roads in 1862 between the Monitor and Merrimac saw the clash between all-steel vessels for the first time. As steel and steam-powered warships became common in all countries, naval warfare became more complicated. Other classes of ships were developed to carry out tasks which the larger and slower vessels were unable to perform. Lighter, faster craft called cruisers were constructed for scouting, harassing and reconnaissance work; monitors and gunboats to protect the coastline; destroyers and torpedo-boats for torpedo attack and still later, the submarine.

The peak in naval expansion was the great naval race between Britain and Germany from 1902 to 1914 brought on by the economic war between these great imperialist powers. Battleships and battlecruisers of tremendous tonnage and armament made their appearance, and principles of naval strategy which remain to this day were laid down. World War I saw war on the seas intensified to a hitherto unprecedented degree and the war’s termination was followed by a flood of controversy, discussion and debate among naval experts everywhere on the lessons to be drawn for the future.

The theories which were confirmed and expounded then and the strategy of naval warfare as it was followed in the last war have not been altered basically to this day although technical innovations since then have brought about certain material and tactical changes. It was true in World War. I, just as it is true today, that the battleship – a battleship may be generally defined as the largest and most heavily armed and armored ship in the navy although in respect to tonnage this definition does not always hold true – is the main unit of the fleet with all other classes of ships performing subordinate duties. In the last analysis, it is by the battleship (the panzer-division of the navy so far as fire-power is concerned) with its tremendous aggregation of armament (each of a battleship’s 8- to 15-inch guns equals the power of two million rifles) that the course of the battle is decided. The battlecruiser, a type to which belonged the ill-fated HMS Hood, combines the features of a battleship and a cruiser. Its armament plus speed enabled it to penetrate a hostile naval formation to secure information and make it fast enough to hunt down commerce-raiders. For the sake of speed, however, it was necessary to sacrifice armor protection, thus making the battlecruiser extremely vulnerable to high-explosive shells.

Also highly vulnerable to shell-fire is the aircraft-carrier, a rather recent innovation whose entrance on the theatre of war was made following the introduction of the airplane. Fast but lightly armed and armored, this war-vessel must be constantly accompanied by battleships or cruisers as its purpose is that of a sea-going airdrome rather than that of a battle-craft.

The Strategy of Naval Warfare

A major factor which differentiates military from naval warfare is that while armies can be molded for trench or attrition warfare with actual battle being a secondary motive, the main aim in naval strategy is the battle. That is, a clash between two great fleets such as the one at Jutland.

What happens when this takes place? The two opposing fleets move in “battle” or parallel formation. That is, with the battleships in one long line flanked on both sides by parallel lines of cruisers and destroyers, and with a force of light scout units in the van. Once the scouting vessels of both sides have made contact, the two fleets move parallel to each other at a distance of from 6 to 15 miles from one another. While the heavier units exchange salvos, the destroyers and light cruisers dart back and forth, firing torpedoes, harassing the foe and protecting their own big ships from similar tactics by the enemy. Far in the rear of the fight, aircraft carriers launch their deadly cargoes into the air and air fights may take place. The strategy followed by each admiral will be that of concentrating the fire of his big ships on a certain portion of the hostile fleet while preventing the other portions from coining to its aid.

Large scale naval battle, however, occurs very, rarely in modern war because opposing fleets are rarely of equal strength and the governments of the powers concerned are unwilling to hurl their fleets into a brief combat which might decide the entire war. Naval warfare both in the present and last world war was characterized by the blockade on the part of a stronger naval power. Blockade does not necessarily imply that the fleet of the blockading nation is lying in wait off the coast of its opponent but that the blockaded power is incapable of carrying on normal overseas trade because it is unable to protect its merchant marine from seizure or destruction on the high seas. That is, its navy is unable to venture forth from its harbors in order to convoy its shipping. Blockade as practiced by Britain today is carried out by a network of naval craft (supported by aircraft) which continually patrol and scour the oceans in search of enemy merchantmen. The Contraband Control system, in which all vessels entering British controlled waters are searched for contraband, is another powerful British blockade weapon. The British have already succeeded in apprehending almost 3,000,000 tons of goods bound for the Reich.

Any discussion of blockade leads directly to a consideration of the mine, the submarine, the airplane, and the effect of each of these on naval strategy. Mines are nothing more than huge steel balls of TNT anchored by chains beneath the ocean surface. They are detonated either by sound waves, by contact with a ship’s hull or by magnetic attraction. Their widespread use in the last war resulted in “blisters” and “bulges” (additional armdred protection) being added to the battleship’s hull. The effect that submarine warfare has had on naval strategy is approached only by the effect of airpower on the armed forces.

The Role of the Submarine

The submarine is definitely a defensive weapon; a weapon employed by a weaker naval power against a stronger one and consequently, a weapon of attrition. The sub of today is basically the same weapon it was in the last war, with few modifications. It is still extremely slow, and extremely vulnerable to depth-bombs and shell-fire and when on the surface is incapable of coping with any but the very smallest naval craft, although it is usually equipped with anti-aircraft cannon or machine-guns and the largest ones even carry 5-inch guns. The present-day undersea craft are equipped with under-water listening devices by which they can dispense with the use of the periscope in determining the position of on-coming merchantmen. The larger type of submarine can travel thousands of miles without refueling, powered by their diesels on the surface and electric motors while submerged.

Submarine warfare brought about far-reaching changes in naval technique. Psychologically its greatest triumph was in bringing a rude awakening to British naval experts who had placed unbounded confidence in the supremacy of their great fleet. It made it possible for the first time for a weak naval power to challenge a strong one with any degree of success. Gradually, certain weapons and devices were developed to counteract the danger of U-boats but not before tremendous damage had been wrought. Today, destroyers armed with depth-charges, mine-fields, patrol bombers, and underwater nets can control the submarine menace but only if they are used in sufficient quantity. Britain’s great problem is in her lack of an adequate supply of these devices. All these devices must be coordinated in one vast campaign while the merchant fleet is rerouted into convoys under tbe protection of destroyers, cruisers, and planes. The convoy system, however, is an awkward, expensive and time-wasting means of carrying on trade but to date it is the only system by which merchantmen can be protected from raiders. Its primary requirement is a large amount of naval craft to escort each convoy. Fortunately for Britain, the Axis does not have a formidable surface fleet at its disposal. Its underwater raiders are a graver menace.

Air Power and Naval Strategy

In any naval work printed within the last two decades one eventually comes upon a chapter entitled “seapower vs. airpower.” The flood of literature which this controversy alone has caused would fill a sea. The subject is an important one. It is a mistake, however, to speak of “seapower vs. airpower” for then one falsely assumes that these are diametrically opposed forces and that neither has the slightest connection with the other. Quite the contrary! Aircraft in cooperation with naval craft are used today by Britain to maintain the blockade, and to search for surface and undersea raiders. Planes are used to guard convoys, to act as observers and scouts by the fleet and. to cooperate with the fleet in landing operations (e.g., the “Luftwaffe” in Norway) or in evacuations (e. g., the RAF at Dunkerque), or against other fleets. Many classes of warship carry several airplanes; some types such as aircraft carriers carry only airplanes. What all this confirms is that airpower and seapower actually complement one another.

Even granting, for the sake of argument, that airpower is a more potent force than seapower, that would not, as many air enthusiasts would have us believe, dispense with the need for navies. Mahan was correct: there will always be the need of naval vessels as long as commerce and trade continue. Airpower cannot replace seapower unless it can perform the tasks that seapower performs. For example: airplanes cannot transport thousands of troops plus heavy mechanized equipment over an ocean nor can they operate in every type of weather as can ships. They cannot convoy merchant-vessels during an Atlantic storm in January as does the smallest destroyer. Thus far airpower has functioned best in conjunction with other weapons such as the army or navy, rather than by itself. It cannot be denied, however, that the hitherto unassailable status of the surface fleet has been severely shaken by the airplane and that warship construction has had to be radically altered to keep in step with this new development.

The Role of Torpedo Planes

Warships, particularly battleships, have had their decks reinforced with layers of steel plates and have been equipped with numerous “pom-poms,” anti-aircraft cannon, and machine guns to resist air attack. Much of the excess superstructure on old-time warships has been eliminated to decrease the damage wrought by aerial bombs. Furthermore, the fleet when not adequately supported by its own planes often finds itself at a distinct disadvantage in operations against planes. Not only is it unable to approach shores on which hostile aircraft are based but even far out at sea it can be attacked by long-range bombers. Anti-aircraft crews are greatly handicapped in firing at speeding planes from a moving deck. Instrumental inaccuracies increase with the range and height of the target, for the speed of the plane often forces anti-aircraftsmen to guess the firing range.

Even more dangerous to warships are torpedo planes which descend to within 15 feet of the water and launch their charges within 50 feet of the ship. Here the only protection outside of anti-aircraft fire are “bulges and blisters” along the water-line of the hull. However, not all the disadvantages are with the ships. Planes are seldom successful in bombing a small elusive target which throws up sheets of anti-aircraft fire thereby forcing the aircraft up to altitudes from which accurate bombing is almost impossible. What is more, larger naval craft have demonstrated their ability to absorb an enormous amount of punishment, not only because of their protective devices but also because of the fact that aerial bombs explode on contact. The force of the explosion is upwards, and the hull remains unpierced. There are special armor piercing bombs but these must be dropped from great heights in order to gain the necessary momentum. Moreover, aerial bombing on the high seas cannot be carried out by regular aircraft but only by specially constructed long-range bombers which are very expensive to maintain and to manufacture and consequently most nations possess only a limited number of them. Naval aircraft often bombard airbases of enemy planes operating against the fleet. This illustrates once again how the air arm aids and supplements the naval arm.

The modern history of the US Navy begins with the Spanish-American War of 1898. In contrast to the land forces at the time, the Navy exhibited a high degree of efficiency and precision. The engagements at Santiago and Manila Bay were almost unprecedented in their crushing decisiveness.

US Imperialism Moves to Naval Supremacy

In the period prior to the outbreak of the first World War, American naval thought and design followed the patterns set by Britain and Germany who were then engaged in their great naval race. The American fleet made no noteworthy progress at this time, showed very little initiative. When the war broke out in 1914, it was inferior in quality both to British and German navies and it ranked fifth in respect to size. This condition prevailed until 1917, when the entry of the US into the war was followed by a naval building program of such magnitude that by the time of the armistice, the US fleet was second in size only to Britain and inferior to none in quality. The termination of the war did not terminate this advancement. The American imperialists continued with their program of naval expansion. The fear and suspicion which this program aroused in British and Japanese imperialist circles were largely responsible for the Naval Disarmament Conference in Washington in 1922.

Ostensibly organized for a general reduction of fleets, this Conference, in which all the great powers with the exception of Germany and the Soviet Union participated, achieved none of its avowed goals. Each side was eager to outlaw types of naval craft which might be used by a potential foe. Each demanded concessions from the others while preparing to concede nothing. For example, Britain demanded that submarines be banned but insisted that cruiser construction be in no way retarded. Japan and Italy bitterly opposed the construction of large and expensive war vessels but chaimpioned strongly the submarine and the destroyer. The great saviors of democracy, the US imperialists, attained the apex of hypocrisy by favoring naval disarmament but only if the existing ratios of naval tonnage were maintained (America had then almost as large a navy as Great Britain). The upshot was that very little was conceded by anyone and France, Japan, Italy entered on general programs of naval expansion with Britain soon to follow.

The real period of over-all US naval expansion came in 1939 at the time of the passage by Congress of the naval program bills, containing appropriations for the construction of a “two-ocean navy.”

The ostensible motive upon which the Roosevelt administration embarked upon this tremendous naval policy was the threat of a combined assault on the Americas by the European and Asiatic Axis powers in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. This program is planned to give the US a navy of 701 war vessels aggregating 3,547,700 tons by 1947, the largest accumulation of naval power the world has ever seen. The “two-ocean navy” is now well on its way with naval craft being launched monthly from dozens of shipyards throughout the nation. Naval power, however, is not, as we know, confined strictly to naval vessels but takes in a much wider field. Of vital importance is the problem of bases.

Warships, necessarily carrying only limited supplies of fuel, ammunition and naval stores (and this is even more true during wartime) require bases near the theatre of operations where they can replenish their supplies, repair damage, and retire in case of reverses. Because the navy is so dependent on bases its radius or cruising range is directly affected by the proximity of these supply posts. There is an old naval axiom that the further a fleet travels from its bases the more vulnerable it becomes.

Bases fall into two categories, secondary bases which are small refueling posts far out at sea such as Guam or Midway Islands, and primary bases such as Pearl Harbor in Hawaii somewhat in the rear of the envisaged battle line, powerfully fortified, with facilities and a harbor to care for and shelter an entire fleet. In addition there are countless supply and repair vessels, tenders, and tankers which accompany the fleet and aid in its maintenance. This indicates to what extent the merchant marine and the navy are interrelated.

In planning for the construction of its “two-ocean fleet” the Navy Department has not omitted these factors from its calculations. Not only are the necessary merchant vessels already in the process of production but the problem of bases has already been solved. In order to extend the radius of the Atlantic Fleet – which is the primary naval motive – the US has acquired bases from Great Britain, in Newfoundland and throughout the West Indies and these together with the powerful bases already existing at Key West, Pernambuco, Beemm, and bases in Central and South America give the US the dominant position in the Atlantic. This superiority has been substantially strengthened by the recent addition of the new 35,000 ton battleships North Carolina and Washington to the Atlantic Fleet.

The pivot of American naval power is the Panama Canal, for this vital waterway is the shortest link between the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets. In case of war it would be the means by which the US Navy could most rapidly shift forces to a threatened area. Many naval experts have already envisioned that the first step by a potential foe would be either the attempted capture or destruction of the canal in order to split the US Navy. Powerful defenses and numerous bases in and around the canal have diminished the chances of success for such an attempt. It is feared, however, that hostile forces operating from remote bases in South or Central America will constitute the chief threat to the canal.

The Struggle for the Pacific Ocean

Although army officers consider Germany as the chief danger to the Western Hemisphere, American naval officers whether in naval construction, in strategy or tactics have always had one principal foe in mind Japan. Since the great battle of Tau-Shima in 1905 at which the Japanese smashed the Russian fleet in one of the greatest naval engagements of all time, American naval thought has centered about Japan’s growing naval might and American naval officers have planned and prepared for the day when “Der Tag” with Japan would come.

In view of current events on the international arena and the entry of the US Navy into a virtual “shooting-war” it is apropos to examine the American naval position vis-à-vis the Axis powers. The US Navy is today not only the largest in the world but probably the best qualitatively. Although it is hampered by a number of over-age vessels, many of these have been modernized and rebuilt. Its newer ships are superbly constructed and the efficiency, seamanship, and gunnery are of the highest type. American warships are not built as much for speed as for hitting power. Thus new American battleships, cruisers and destroyers are large and both heavily armed and armored.

American capitalism, taking the initiative, has not only obligated itself fully to aid Britain but has thrown the weight of its navy into the Atlantic at a time when Axis naval strength there is infinitesimal. Combined American-British naval power in the Atlantic is crushingly superior to the Axis navies consisting only of the tiny German Nuvy and the already crippled and battered Italian fleet now blockaded in the Mediterranean. Sporadic attacks by submarines and lone surface-raiders are about the only naval action which the Axis can take in the Atlantic and these constitute more of an annoyance than a real threat.

The Japanese Sea Power

The picture in the Pacific however is not so one-sided. Although it has not engaged in a large scale naval war since 1905, the Japanese Navy, the third largest in the. world, is one to be reckoned with. In technical perfection it is not up to American standards, but its size and efficiency make it very formidable within a radius of about 2,000 miles of the Japanese Empire.

The Japanese Navy has also been engaged in a large scale building program during the last few years but it is doubtful that any of the 45,000 ton battleships it is building will be ready before 1943 or that it will be able to equal or surpass the tonnage of the US Navy. The operating range of the Japanese Navy has always been restricted by lack of effective bases in the South Pacific close to possible theatres of war and it is for this reason that French Indo-China has recently been seized. Even so, it will be several years before Saigon, the capital on the southern tip, can be equipped to base the entire Japanese fleet. Although the small British and Dutch squadrons in the Far-Eastern area are not adequate to check Japan’s might, the territories there, such as the Philippines, Malay, and the Dutch Indies, are stoutly fortified and strongly garrisoned. In an attempt to acquire any of these territories, the Japanese would face a protracted struggle in which troops would have to be transported over 2,000 miles of water. Such operations could be harassed by submarines and bombers based at Singapore and in the Dutch Indies.

In the event that war did break out between Japan and America, it is likely that Japan, while retaining the initiative in the Eastern Pacific, would be forced on the defensive by the US fleet and would try to avoid major clashes with the latter. Operating from its great base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the strongest point in the Pacific, the US fleet would set up a blockade of Japan, from the Aleutians in the north to Australia in the south. Fighting would probably be sporadic and confined to minor clashes between small squadrons or individual ships and large scale raiding operations by submarines and planes to cripple the Japanese merchant marine and harass the shipment of Japanese troops and supplies to the Southern Pacific. Actual attack on Japan proper would not be feasible as the Aleutian Islands in the north, the closest American possessions to Japan, are not equipped with bases for such an endeavor. Such a war would in all likelihood continue until Japan’s already weakened economic structure is no longer able to hold up. A war between Japan and the US would be certain to end in a defeat for Japan because of the overwhelmlig economic preponderance of her rival.

September 1941

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