18 Dec 20
Posted by: Andrew Livsley

It is surprising how few books there are on tactics given how important they are. We have Hughes’ Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations (2018) of course, but little else. I was therefore looking forward to reading Vego’s new book.

I cannot however work out who it is written for. It isn’t the naval operator who wishes to become better at their craft. Rather than offering an analytic construct balanced with practical advice as Hughes does, Vego just dissects the different aspects of the art into ever smaller subcategories. For example, we are told that ‘effects’ can be divided into physical or psychological, direct and indirect, desired and undesired and cognitive and non-cognitive. This takes a wearying three pages and is of limited use, for we are never told which are more important or how to combine them. Having experienced that one winces when we set about dissecting targets over five pages. I find tactics fascinating but I stopped reading several times and only got to the end because I’d agreed to write this review.

Nor however is the book written for the academic. Vego is out of date with recent historiography, for example following Marder on Royal Navy anti-submarine warfare preparations before the Second World War rather than the correctly revisionist Franklin or Llewellyn-Jones. His strange choice of references extends to using me for the events of the Battle of Tassafaronga. There are of course many people who have studied it far more than I have. There are plenty of other examples.

Vego’s attempt to discuss tactics nearly independently from the technology is also unconvincing. The entire art of anti-submarine warfare, for example, only exists because of a set of technologies that enable submarines to be built and operated. As Hughes points out, “to know tactics, know technology”.

Unfortunately, the writing is also poor, with prepositions missing and hints at the word order of a different language. For instance, we are told that “Scale of the military objective to be accomplished determines the level of war to be conducted”.

I didn’t want to be negative about this book. Milan Vego’s life story, escaping communism for the West, then serving as a merchant seaman before moving to academia, is inspiring. And though his Operational Warfare at Sea (2009) has many of the same faults as this book, his earlier Soviet Naval Tactics (1992) is rather good. But there is no part of General Naval Tactics that is not covered better elsewhere. Avoid.