GENERAL NAVAL TACTICS: THEORY AND PRACTICE

Reviewed by: IAN SPELLER

General Naval Tactics was first reviewed in the Winter 2021 edition of The Naval Review, however, following feedback from the author, a second review has been undertaken.

DR JAMES BOSBOTINIS
BOOK REVIEWS EDITOR

 

Milan Vego is a former US naval officer and is currently Professor of Operational Art at the US Naval War College. He has published a number of well-regarded works on strategy and operations, including recent books on operational warfare at sea (2017) and on the exercise of sea control (2020). Here he turns his attention to naval tactics, which he defines as the “theory and practices of planning and conducting combat actions/measures by naval forces aimed at accomplishing tactical objectives”. He, quite rightly, points out that there has been much less written on naval tactics than on maritime strategy, or naval history more generally, and he aims to address that imbalance. His approach is to “point out commonalities of naval tactics” over a broad sweep of history, in order to identify and explain enduring ideas and constructs, providing a theory that is general rather than specific. The intent is to address enduring principles and, in pursuing this aim, Vego deliberately limits his engagement with current and emerging tactics and technology; a choice that may reduce the appeal of this book for some readers.

This book is published as part of the US Naval Institute’s ‘Blue and Gold Professional Library’ series which has, for over a hundred years, produced specialist works designed to be of use to professional naval officers. Aiming to describe and explain key aspects of naval tactics, and to address theory in a way that makes it easy to understand, the book suits the purpose of this series very well. The subject is of obvious relevance to naval officers, and to anyone else whose needs or wants to understand naval activity at the tactical level. The book may also appeal to the general reader but its length, the rather specialist subject matter and the style of writing suggest that this was not the intended audience.

Over twelve chapters and 340 pages the author displays, at some length, his enviable grasp of naval history and theory. Subjects covered include leadership, tactical design, decision-making, planning and execution, doctrine, combat support, command and control, methods of tactical engagement, tactical training and elements of naval tactical actions. Many of the chapters have a dedicated conclusion, but not all, and the book ends rather abruptly, without a concluding chapter. This is unfortunate as some final remarks to tie together the analysis, in the chapters and in the book overall, would be useful.

Vego draws on a very wide range of sources, reflective of an impressive research effort, and there is much here that one would not find in most general works. The approach is designed to draw on ideas and actions from a broad sweep of history, but the historiography is not always up-to-date. Classic studies, such as Arthur Marder’s work on the inter-war Royal Navy, remain interesting but they do not now provide the best or most accurate understanding of the period or the issues. On the other hand, of course, this is not a book about history. More significantly, there is no reference to Wayne Hughes and Robert Girrier’s Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations, the 3rd edition of which was published by the US Naval Institute in 2018, in the same series as this book. This has been the ‘go to’ text on naval tactics for many years and failure to engage with it represents a notable omission.

One should also note the rather limited engagement with recent professional or doctrinal sources; thus, for example, discussion of the main features of a “modern naval battle” (p.71) is supported by reference to two interesting sources from the 1980s, a period as close to the Second World War as it is to the present. This is reflective of the attempt to derive enduring principles, and I accept that the great writers of classic maritime strategy all looked back in order to project forward, but there was something of a missed opportunity here to have established key principles and then to test them against 21st century ideas and concerns.

The author’s style is rather prescriptive. The book includes a series of pronouncements on naval tactics, many of which are eminently sensible, but the case tends to be stated rather than proven. The work of naval tacticians is dealt with in a rather piecemeal manner. While the book may be informed by the writings of tactical theorists and practitioners, it does not introduce these to the reader as coherent bodies of thought or practice. Nor does it explain to the reader why some ideas have been adopted and others have not. The result is not entirely satisfactory.

The analysis is supported throughout by examples taken from history. These are meant to illustrate the author’s analysis not to prove it, an important distinction. Sometimes this works very well, as on page 9 where the Battle of Leyte Gulf is used to explain the relationship between tactical actions and operational objectives. In other places it is less effective. There can be something of a scattergun approach, with various very brief examples thrown at the reader, usually without much explanation or context. It is not an approach that promotes reflection on the complexity of naval history, or on the difficulty of deriving reliable ‘principles’ from its study. Historians will find much to argue with. It would have been better to provide fewer examples, but to explore these in a little more depth.

Despite the above, Vego offers much food for thought and there is lots here that will be useful and interesting to those who want an introduction to naval tactics and who have the stamina to stick with it; even the enthusiast will find this hard going in places. Any addition to the literature on naval tactics should be welcomed, but it seems unlikely that this book will usurp Hughes and Girrier as the most popular introduction to the subject.