FLEET TACTICS AND NAVAL OPERATIONS

December 1, 2018
Posted by: Andrew Livsey

As strategy and tactics are co-equals, neither succeeding without the other, we might expect a rough balance in published works on the two. This has been the case in the past: alongside Mahan and Corbett the late nineteenth century saw an outpouring of work on tactics as thinkers came to terms with the radical shifts in technology. Today we have similarly radical developments but while books on strategy abound, works on tactics are amazingly scarce.
This lack of books on tactics may be due to an erroneous belief that access to secret briefings on weapons and sensors is required to write meaningfully. Ironically the people privy to classified information are often so caught up in the details that they don’t consider tactics in the round either. The lack may also be due to the retreat of senior officers from tactics: I cannot find a modern parallel to the pre-First World War fleet exercise when it was widely assumed that the Admiral who won would be the next First Sea Lord.
There is, as I have obviously been building up to say, one man whose work forms a glorious exception. Wayne Hughes, a retired Captain of the US Navy, is an intellectual heavyweight with the gift of writing approachably. He has produced umpteen articles and several books, and been the inspiration for significant wider work. As one small example Yao Ming Tiah’s “An analysis of small navy tactics using a modified Hughes salvo model” (findable on any search engine) explains how inferior forces can win if they strike first, a point the Royal Navy should take to heart. Hughes has also had a consistent input into defence policy: his views have been carefully listened to for the past three decades. While linkages are inevitably opaque the current US Navy focus on ‘distributed lethality’, arming even auxiliaries with something capable of offense, is something Hughes has consistently argued for and may reflect his acolytes getting to senior rank. His influence extends beyond the USA, his work having been translated widely. Indeed it is probably fair to say that of all the significant navies the one he has had least effect on is our own.
The first edition of his Fleet Tactics came out in 1986, the second in 2000 and the eagerly awaited third is being reviewed here. Hughes is getting old and I wondered before release whether he was up to it. While the first edition was ground breaking the second seemed to be missing some developments in modern technology. Could he make the third a triumph?
The answer is yes. The third edition shares a quick survey of past tactics with its predecessors, along with the fundamental point that modern naval warfare is salvo warfare, the delivery of discrete pulses of energy, rather than the continuous attritional firepower of the age of sail. His salvo model is just detailed enough to be useful, with attack, defence, survivability and scouting factors all included, yet simple enough to be manageable by the uninitiated. We all know that getting the first hit in is important, but this can show how vital in different circumstances, and what variables are the critical ones to affect.
Critically though the third edition, now co-authored with Rear Admiral Robert Girrier, includes an even clearer exposition of trends and constants in naval warfare as well as being thoroughly updated to include information warfare, cyber operations, network centric warfare, unmanned craft and much else. There are also insightful comments on the different types of command and control suitable for operations in different circumstances, from major wars to peacetime operations. The balance between combat at sea and ships versus the shore is well struck. There are also more pointers than before for further reading.
One can always be picky. As with previous editions the focus is on above water warfare to the near exclusion of submarine or anti-submarine operations. The examples are also still disproportionately drawn from the Second World War in the Pacific, with only limited mention of more recent conflicts. The French Admiral of the Seven Years War was Suffren, not Suffern, despite the second edition getting this right! Surprisingly the bibliography, which claims to represent ‘all the works known on tactics’, misses a few useful recent studies, including some that are based on Hughes’ salvo model. Finally, there is insufficient on the role of human psychology or culture in the choice of tactics.
To focus on these quibbles would however be to miss the point. This book is by far the best on its vital subject, a tour de force that offers insight and challenges on nearly every page.
So who should read it? First should come anyone involved in tactics, from the battlestaffs to those involved in sea or shore-based training. Tactics are not details, they determine who win battles. Second should be historians: Hughes has done no archival research, but many historians would benefit from the understanding he gives on what they are studying. Equally importantly, it should be read by those writing our doctrine: parts of Fleet Tactics are simply superior to our own classified works. Recommended? Definitely.