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Seapower By Other Means: Naval Contributions to National Objectives Beyond Sea Control, Power Projection, and Traditional Service Missions

03 Nov 23

Edited by J OVERTON

(Nomos – £57.63)

ISBN 978 3 8487 7549 1

272 Pages

Prof Geoffrey Till

In 2021 at the biannual McMullen Conference at the US Naval Academy, a panel was set up to investigate what Samuel Huntingdon back in 1954 called the “subordinate and collateral responsibilities of navies”; namely those other than their traditional war-fighting tasks. The resultant papers inspired further work at the Institute for Security Studies at Kiel University (ISPK). This book, a collection of chapters on different aspects of a common theme by individual authors is the result of that project. There is the barest of introduction and conclusion. Each chapter is left to speak for itself. There is no attempt to pull it all together and come up with some kind of over-arching and generic treatment of the whole issue of what used to be called ‘Maritime Operations Other Than War’ (MOOTW).

In a way this not surprising in that, as this limited collection of illustrations shows, MOOTW covers such a range of wildly different things that navies do when not fighting each other that it is hard to find much commonality. You are left constantly trying to compare apples and oranges. All the same readers will be disappointed that the Editor and his colleagues didn’t at least explore the issue a bit more than they did. Are there things in common to be found? Are these different roles important enough to warrant the allocation significant resources in budgetary, doctrinal or fleet design terms? If so, how significant should ’significant’ be? We might, for instance, think about the brief appearance in the original 2007 version of the Cooperative Strategy for Twenty-first Century Seapower of HADR as a naval role of equal stature to sea control.

Moreover, the chapters themselves approach their individual subjects in rather different ways. Some are straight historical narratives, telling a story without much in the way of analysis. Other ‘historical’ ones do more to explore and explain if only in the way that the information is brigaded. Still others have a social science approach. This impedes a unity of approach as well. The order in which the chapters appear seems quite random too.

Nonetheless this collection of discrete chapters is of value in showing just how wide and important the responsibilities and value of navies can be. It does indeed do much to justify the title – Seapower by other means. It’s a useful reminder that there’s much more to naval responsibilities than simply fighting wars amongst themselves.

Readers of this journal may well be most interested in two straight historical explorations of the Royal Navy’s ventures in this area. Ranald Lindsay, for example, has produced a long and comprehensive account of the frankly amazingly varied activities of the British Pacific Fleet in the aftermath of the Japanese defeat, Prisoners of War had to be rescued. MacArthur’s refusal to allow preparatory moves for this task imposition before Japan’s formal surrender demonstrated that war-fighting comes first, despite the urgency of the humanitarian task. Troops had to be transported around, supported and supplied in order to take over from the Japanese in Malaya, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies and Hong Kong, The Navy had to communicate political messages to the Americans, the Japanese and the newly liberated locals. Lindsay shows how remarkably successful the BPF actually was even after its exhausting and demanding war-fighting campaign.

The other chapter of particular interest is an account of how the Navy, through the Royal Naval Air Service squadrons in France pioneered the notion of strategic bombing thereby setting up a rod for its own back in the years to come. The inclusion of this second interesting account also demonstrates just how amorphous this general topic actually is. Since such bombing was decidedly ‘kinetic’, in today’s jargon, it plainly sits outside MOOTW, but does of course conform to the subtitle of the book! Its inclusion is a nice illustration of just how difficult it is to classify the roles of navies closely as well as demonstrating that when you do decide to pay for a big one you often get so much more than it says on the tin.

As to the book, recommended, but with reservations.