26 May 22

Fighting the Fleet is timely given the return of great power competition and the current Russo-Ukrainian war. In five tightly argued chapters the authors, two retired US Navy Captains, explain how fleets would fight today, how to understand the implications, and how to win. It is written firmly within the tradition of J.C. Wylie and Wayne Hughes, both also US Navy. Indeed at first glance some might find Hughes’ Fleet Tactics slightly more discursive approach more accessible. That would be to miss how clearly written this book is, stripped of some of the additions to Fleet Tactics’ third edition, and the significant original analysis it contains.

It is a particular triumph that the equations are so simply explained. I am no maths genius, as my teachers would have confirmed, but I found them easy to understand. They genuinely added clarity and precision to the text. In addition, important aspects of the uncertainty of battle are properly investigated, not just highlighted but with an attempt to understand them. One might wish for more footnotes, to see where the arguments come from, and a longer bibliography, but those would have lengthened the work. Meanwhile the clarification and suggested simplification of the “C4ISR” acronym (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) is persuasive. Among the best sections are a clear explanation of naval manoeuvre and the requisite degree of concentration.

I was however left with a simple question: is it all true? More precisely, does the book present a useful mental paradigm with which to understand and so prepare for near future naval combat?  Saying that we don’t know what the next war will look like may be the only truly justifiable answer, for we haven’t had a major war at sea for over 70 years, but it’s also not good enough. It is our job as naval professionals to have a conception of the future war that, though inevitably not perfect, can be good enough to be a basis for preparation. Indeed there is much advantage to gain from having a concept that is more accurate than that of our adversaries, and there is useful evidence for those who look.

Fighting the Fleet gives us one plausible view, that a major part of the struggle will be to get target quality information and that the result will be worked out through the exchange of salvoes of weapons. Professor Sam Tangredi would agree. In the opposing corner are people such as T.X. Hammes, USMC (Ret), who has argued, most recently at the RUSI Seapower conference in April 2022, that a mix of ever more satellites, uncrewed aerial vehicles and computing power will make the battle area nearly transparent. A.F. Krepinevich in his excellent ‘Maritime Competition in a Mature Precision-Strike Regime’ (on the www) takes the middle view, though his title shows how he thinks matters are moving.

There are however other approaches. Geoffrey Till in Understanding Victory argues for a broader view of what is required to win. We should also consider Stephen Biddle’s Military Power, which takes a different analytic approach. Biddle draws out the advantage given by the effective integration of systems. Though he is focused on land combat, his conclusions surely have resonance at sea, where there is an element of paper-scissors-stone. The dipping helicopter can attack the submarine, but the submarine can attack the helicopter carrier and so on. Biddle therefore gives the mathematical side to Luttwak’s point in his work Strategy that one cannot defend optimally against multiple different threats and the human focused point made by Leo Murray in Brains and Bullets that people are bad at dealing with divergent threats.

Though there is some overlap between these different approaches, there are also areas of disagreement. So who is right? The answer is important for on it, in large part, depends success or failure in the next war. We face a problem like that of armies in the 1930s as they tried to work out how tanks would change land warfare.

Whatever your inclinations, Fighting the Fleet is an impressive contribution to the discussion, reaching beyond the all too common simple aphorisms to draw out important implications. Whether you find it more convincing than, for example, Hammes, is for you to decide. However, even if you favour the ‘transparent battle area’ view, there is much to learn in Fighting the Fleet. Recommended.