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Conceptualizing Maritime & Naval Strategy: Festschrift for Captain Peter M. Swartz, United States Navy (ret.)

23 Jan 24

373 pages

Prof Andrew Lambert

Anyone familiar with Peter Swartz’s career will know what to expect in this impressive essay collection, those who are not will wonder why after consulting this excellent collection of 17 essays. Peter served ashore in Vietnam, before filling a succession of key posts in strategy and planning. Retirement merely widened the reach of his work, and his connections. Critically, as John Hattendorf observes, Peter “has been a loud voice in support of the study of naval history and the use of historical insights to inform current and future policy and strategy”. Rather than list the essays this review focusses on a few salient examples, where sophisticated thinking and analysis made a difference, examples that should prompt fresh thinking. Although the collection predates the Russian invasion of Ukraine it remains highly relevant. Peter D. Haynes contribution on CNO Admiral Elmo Zumwalt’s attempt to change the course of US Naval policy and strategy builds on Swartz’s role on the Admiral’s staff. Zumwalt’s Project SIXTY stressed sea control over power projection. Although the Project did not survive Zumwalt’s term, it left an intellectual legacy of fresh thinking and wider connections that enabled the development of the New Maritime Strategy of the 1980s.

Sarandis Papadopoulos emphasises how the failure to develop a clear and compelling strategic rationale in the Post-Cold War world left the USN without the intellectual capital to manage the inevitable resource drawdown. The inevitable result was a Navy that sacrificed assets, while retaining existing commitments and adding new tasks. One obvious result was poor procurement choices in the 1990s, the LCS and DDG 1000 concepts, were rapidly overtaken by PLAN modernisation and expansion. Sea control is not a core concern for the USA: unlike the UK America can feed, fuel, and supply itself from internal resources. It treated the Battle of the Atlantic as the key to projecting land power into Europe. Looking back to Mahan, Papadopoulos highlights the need for fundamental strategic thinking ahead of policy and procurement decisions in US and allied fleets. Strategic thought is cheap, widely available, and easy to access. It might be added that we still read Mahan and Corbett to see how they grappled with the impact of technological and geo-strategic change in a dynamic era.

Seth Cropsey’s consideration of the potential cost of America abdicating seapower relies on case studies of Venice and Britain. It might have been more relevant to examine precursor imperial hegemons, like Rome, the Ottoman Empire or Russia, as the most relevant units of comparison. Relatively small and weak powers like Venice and Britain were only powerful while they could control the sea, they were true seapowers. By contrast the United States, Rome, Turkey, and Russia were Mahanian Sea Powers, building great fleets to project power.

Finally, Michael Carl Haas’s re-examination of Cold War thinking builds on a key paper by Peter Swartz to highlight how the flawed assumption that there would be a third or fourth ‘Battle of Atlantic’ compromised US and NATO planning in the stand-off with the Soviet Union. Anxious to justify both budget and capabilities after the 1947 defence amalgamation, without challenging the Army or the Air Force, which dominated the new Defense structures, the Navy made the weak Soviet fleet of the 1940s and 1950s into a strategic threat, one that could attack the Atlantic communications required to reinforce and re-supply of American armies in Europe. This approach led to massively inflated Soviet submarine production figures, along with the capabilities of the boats. Intelligence breakthroughs, human and technical, ended that delusion in the early 1970s, revealing the emerging SSBN ‘bastion’ strategy. The deep history of Russian and Soviet naval activity against peer competitors has been wholly and understandably defensive. The force mix has always stressed coast and local defence, with a limited long-range capacity for distraction. While the USN of the 1940s to the 1970s was perfectly capable of defeating the Soviet fleet, it sacrificed the opportunity to achieve deterrent effect by challenging the Soviet defences from the sea. Haas’ bullet point conclusions on pp.216-7 ought to be placed before every naval leader in the western world. As he observes “Only historical insight, sound methodology, good training, and ingrained habit of active self-reflection, and the healthy scepticism of like-minded peers can prevent such outcomes from recurring in the future or, at any rate, mitigate their impact”. Jeremy Stöhs essay reinforces the point. “A return to close study of Russia’s history and strategic culture –largely ignored in the two previous decades, is of paramount importance” (p.339). Peter Swartz’s unclassified 2013 Centre for Naval Analysis 2013 paper is the obvious source for these insights.

Ever since Russia reached the sea it has been vulnerable to strategic and economic pressure imposed in the enclosed Baltic and Black Seas, and challenging Arctic Ocean. The invasion of the Ukraine post-dated this book, altering the calculus. NATO expansion, real and forthcoming, means Russia cannot control the Baltic, its’ main export route, and faces significant threats to key industrial, strategic, and political assets. Russian and Soviet leaders build navies and shore-based defences to resist the threat, not to seek control of the open ocean. The resulting strategic asymmetry enabled Britain, a relatively weak maritime power to coerce, and when necessary defeat, Russia for 200 years. In 1890 Mahan examined British success in a sequence of wars against France, to shape the strategic culture of the United States Navy and enhance its role in national strategy. Today he would focus on how Britain contained, and when necessary defeated, aggressive, expansionist Russian Empires between 1702 and 1919.

It is the suggestive quality of this thought-provoking collection that make it a fitting festschrift for Peter Swartz, an outstanding naval intellectual who has made a critical difference to the mental processes of his own, and other navies across five decades.