31 Jul 20
Posted by: Vice Admiral Sir Tim Laurence

Small is Beautiful, they say, or Less is More for our younger readers, so while Charles Moore has needed 1,000 pages for the third volume of his biography of Lady Thatcher and Hilary Mantel 780 pages for Cromwell Vol 3, Professor Holmes of the US Naval War College has tried to sum up the essence of Maritime Strategy in a mere 150 pages. Has he succeeded?

Well, there are only three chapters. The first two set out the ground rules and the principles. It’s fairly dry stuff, a bit too USA-centric and Mahan-focussed perhaps for a British reader, but after all, this book is aimed first at young American officers. Notice I don’t say “naval officers”, because this book should be read as much at West Point as at Annapolis, at Sandhurst as well as at Dartmouth. It always amazes me how few of my fellow officers from the other Services took the trouble to study maritime strategy. Its not as if it’s especially complicated – as this small book clearly shows. But if you aspire to influencing or leading campaigns on the world stage, not understanding maritime strategy is like playing cricket with no pads, gloves or boots.

The fun of the book is in Chapter 3, entitled “What Navies Do”. This is a succinct summary of, as Holmes puts it, “…how navies further the operational, strategic and political aims entrusted to them”. Here the Mahan approach is contrasted with Corbett’s. Luttwak and Till are mentioned, as are Ken Booth, Andrew Gordon and many others; even Henry Kissinger gets a word in, though not ‘our own’ Richard Hill (perhaps Medium Powers are below Prof Holmes’s horizon.) It’s well written, covers the ground and provokes plenty of thought. He touches occasionally on how the underlying principles of strategy have to be moulded or adapted to contemporary circumstances. After several decades of unparalleled freedom of the seas for trade and communications, are we heading towards a more constrained picture? The Sea of Azov is now fully under Russian control. The South China Sea is at risk. Where else might coastal nations try to control or inhibit the ‘maritime commons’? In a recent article about Covid19, Henry Kissinger warned of a revival of the “Walled City” approach by states, tightening boundaries and restricting traffic – an anachronism “..in an age when prosperity depends on global trade and the movement of people.” Armed with James Holmes’s excellent pocket book, we will all watch with interest how this unfolds.