TL;DR: Alfred Thayer Mahan was an influential American naval theorist from the 19th century who got a lot of things right, and got the more important things wrong because his focus was the past and not the future. His positive contributions succinctly laid out key strategic points for waging a war at sea, but his negative focuses retarded the growth of offensive thought for over half a century, and directly led to the naval arms race between Germany and Britain that contributed to the start of World War I, and created what became “Kantai Kessen”, the doomed Japanese strategy that precipitated the strike on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
Let’s start with a short biography. Alfred T. Mahan was born on September 27, 1840. He graduated second in his class from the US Naval Academy in 1859, and went to serve on several ships during the Civil War and later commanded a ship during the little-known War in the Pacific, protecting US interests in South America. His record at sea was mediocre at best, particularly in navigation (his ships were involved in an inordinate number of collisions, with both moving and stationary objects), and he was known to prefer shore duty where possible. in 1885 he was assigned to the Naval War College, teaching history and tactics. During his tenure at the NWC, he befriended future president Theodore Roosevelt (a fellow lecturer) and British historian John Knox Laughton, whose combined work in later years straddled each other’s.
During his time at the NWC, Rear Admiral Mahan began a series of in-depth studies of British naval history, developing into his own “new” views on strategy and tactics at sea. In particular, RADM Mahan was a member of a school of naval thought focused on strategic points as critical to the conduct of a war at sea. Examples of such points include choke points, such as the Panama and Suez Canal, Cape Good Hope, Cape Horn, etc, and strategic forward bases with supplies, fuel, dockyards, and everything else needed to supply a navy operating abroad. He further supposed that a navy’s primary strategic function was sea control, both to deny the sea to the enemy and to control trade on the oceans, logically supposing that if a nation cannot trade, its economy and its war-fighting capability will wither and die (essentially correct). Additionally he discussed how total sea control will give the navy a significant advantage in amphibious and near-coastal operations (mostly correct). Much of his studies were focused on the case study of the 17-18th century British Royal Navy (RN), and its wars with France, Spain, and Holland. Besides his naval theories, then-Captain Mahan wrote what was for fifty years the biography of Horatio Nelson, rehabilitating his image as a national hero in Great Britain. We’ll get to why his history focus versus futurism and blinders on case studies is bad in a minute.
The strategic element that he is most known for is the one he got exceptionally wrong: decisive battle, or as the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) called it, “Kantai Kessen”. This supposes that if the existing naval disparity is not so great that the leader at sea cannot exert sea control by its mere existence, as the Royal Navy was able to for most of the 18th and 19th centuries, it should seek out a battle with the capital ships of its enemy and destroy them in one titanic clash. The IJN was particularly in love with this theory (though everyone favored him until Jackie Fisher, Chester Nimitz, Ray Spruance, and Karl Donitz proved he was only kind of right) because of their own success with the strategy at the Battle of Tsushima during the Russo-Japanese War.
Short history bit: in August 1904 the IJN started the Russo-Japanese war by attacking the Russian Far East Fleet at anchor in Port Arthur and destroying it as a fighting force, before beginning a series of invasions into Manchuria that put the far larger Russian Empire on the back foot, between tactical incompetence and fighting at the far end of a single double-tracked rail line. In his infinite wisdom, Czar Nicholas II ordered the Russian Baltic Fleet, the most powerful force in the Imperial Russian Navy, to sail around Africa, around Southeast Asia, and steam into battle against the Japanese to avenge the Port Arthur attack. Unsurprisingly, the Japanese detected the Russians near Taiwan and savaged the Russian warships in an ambush that had just sailed 20,000 miles without ally or refit in a classic example of Mahan’s theory of decisive battle. This effectively ended the naval component of the war, and allowed the Japanese to negotiate fairly favorable terms at the Treaty of Portsmouth, offsetting that they had not encountered the full awakened power of the Russian armies in Manchuria only then arriving. (Aside: President Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for the Treaty, only to doom the Russian Empire to collapse. The outcome of negotiations irreparably damaged the reputation of Sergei Witte, chief Russian negotiator and Nicholas II’s former finance minister, and one of only two people in Russia after the assassination in 1881 of Czar Alexander II, Nicholas II’s grandfather, who had a good shot at preventing the political disaster that birthed the Soviet Union a decade and a half later.)
Here’s the issue: while the victory at Tsushima sounds like classic Mahanian decisive battle, it only worked because one side had sailed literally around the world to fight in the other’s backyard. To call the engagement lopsided would be like calling the Russian Empire a little big. There is only one other significant example of a decisive battle attempt in the age of battleships: World War 1’s Battle of Jutland. For the entirety of that war, the Royal Navy sought to attack and destroy the German High Seas Fleet as a way to secure the North Sea for Allied use and release the capital ships of the Grand Fleet for other duties. The Germans, for their own part, knew the High Seas Fleet was no match for the Royal Navy, and sought to maintain their own battleships (BB) as a fleet in being to tie down RN assets in a fruitless blockade. Finally in 1916 the High Seas Fleet sortied in an effort to pick off and destroy a part of the RN Grand Fleet, only to end up facing most of it in the pitched battle that was Jutland. Strategically, Jutland was a crushing victory for the British, as the German capital ships never left port again after the battle. Tactically it was a sizable defeat, as the British lost three battlecruisers (BC) with all hands for only one German BC, and for that reason only a partial vindication of the decisive battle theory.
The end of World War I in 1918 did little to affect the popularity of decisive battle. Any military historian worthy of the term can tell you the inter-war years between Jutland and the invasion of Poland in 1939 created a world at the outset World War II that promised a very different conflict. Airpower was coming into its own as long-range strategic bombers and strategic reconnaissance airplanes entered the equation. Brigadier General Billy Mitchell proved in 1921 that it was more than possible for aircraft to effectively attack and destroy surface ships, even the vaunted dreadnought-type battleships then in production around the world. Every major naval power, including the US, Britain, Japan, and Germany embarked on projects to develop fleet aircraft carriers. Nonetheless, the conservative faction controlling the IJN Admiralty insisted on maintaining an adherence to Kantai Kessen. Much of the Japanese advances prior to World War II, including world-class long range torpedoes, cruisers and destroyers that excelled at night-fighting, and all of their carrier doctrine insisted on using their forces to whittle down USN advantage to the point Japan’s own advanced battleships could enter the fray and decisively rout the Americans. Many of the operational choices made by the IJN, including the construction of the Yamato class battleships, the lack of reconnaissance aircraft natively embedded in aircraft carrier air wings, and an incomplete respect for the American industrial output all contributed to the eventual end in the Pacific in Allied favor.
In a modern context, Mahanian doctrine has two problems. First, Mahanian doctrine assumes truly decisive battle can be found. This presupposes both a crushing tactical victory, whether in one action or many, and that across the course of the war, the enemy will not have the time, resources, or ability to replace his losses. Regarding America in the Pacific, Isoroku Yamamoto, Harvard-educated commander in chief of the early Japanese war effort (before his assassination by a squadron of Marines in P-38 Lightning fighters) and architect of the Pearl Harbor attack, correctly identified that the first condition was improbable and the last nearly impossible for Japan to achieve in 1941. In short, decisive battle was almost impossible. The efforts of Japanese strategists to force such engagements in the Coral Sea, and in June 1942 at Midway led to devastating defeats when superior American information and tactics ambushed and destroyed the veteran core of the IJN’s carriers, a blow compounded by the rapidly swinging tide of materiel American industry brought to bear.
The second and more fundamental issue is this: Mahan assumes that sea control is both necessary and sufficient to control and protect trade as appropriate. The US Navy and the Kriegsmarine both proved neither of those is a safe assumption. During the Second Battle of the Atlantic, the campaign during World War II by Nazi Germany to undermine and destroy supplies shipped to the British Isles nearly succeeded, despite total sea control by the Royal Navy. The ineffectuality of surface raiders sortied by Grand Admiral Raeder, including the pocket battleships of the Deutschland class, and the advanced battleships Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, the famous Bismarck, and her sister Tirpitz were moot next to the carnage wrought by German attack submarines. At one point in mid-1943, Winston Churchill was advised that he had a month, six weeks at the outside, before starvation on the Isles would set in, and he would be forced to sue for peace. Now, as it happened, that point roughly coincided with the turning point in the Atlantic, as new technology and a glut of new ships overwhelmed the battered U-boat (German submarines) fleet’s ability to continue laying waste to Allied supplies. In that regard, the U-boats foreshadowed the use of submarines during the Cold War and into the present day, where giants of the deep prowl the world’s oceans, operating where and when they please, and generally defying conventional force concentration doctrines.
The same occurred in the Pacific. Japanese submarines were designed, built, and operated as fleet auxiliary units, attriting the enemy before and after battle was joined. In contrast, American submarines were large, powerful, long-ranged commerce raiders that devastated the oil, rubber, and other war materiel shipping that the Japanese Empire relied on in order to make war. This degraded the ability of the Japanese to respond to the losses across 1942, even as the new Essex class carriers replaced all the elder destroyed carriers (besides hero ship USS Enterprise). I would further note that although Midway is often cited as the turning point of the war in the Pacific, it was in no way a decisive battle under Mahanian thought. American battleships made no appearance, and the Japanese ones were allowed to escape back to continue the fight for the rest of the war. More importantly, it allowed the US Navy to fully commit to the offensive, rather than continue to check the Empire’s headlong rush outward.
From a certain perspective, the Allied strategy after Midway did follow Mahanian strategic points theory to a degree. Only critical locations for the advance towards Japan were assaulted and taken. Lesser facilities were neutralized with air attack and left isolated and impotent in the Allied rear areas. However, Mahanian doctrine makes less room for aircraft carriers than it does for submarines. Air power means that battleships’ guns are irrelevant in the face of aircraft carriers’ information dominance, speed, reach, flexibility, and economy of firepower. An aircraft carrier, especially a modern supercarrier, is a strategic point unto itself, a mobile one capable of exerting total dominance so far as her air wing’s weaponry can reach. Japan’s “unsinkable aircraft carriers” in the outer island chains were simply evaded or ignored by the superior flexibility of the Allies, who freely gave the IJN several options during the Philippines campaign for the strategic battle they desired, only to force the battle on their own terms and savage what remained of the IJN’s second rate capital ships.
There are two major outgrowths of Mahanian doctrine worth consideration today. The first is the idea of the battlecruiser as developed by Jackie Fisher, First Lord of the British Admiralty in the years leading up to World War I. In addition to correctly identifying the lessons of Tsushima and leading the world with the development of HMS Dreadnought, the world’s first true battleship, Admiral Fisher invented the idea of a battlecruiser with Dreadnought’s cousin, HMS Invincible. Invincible represented a new type, a large, well-armed, fast capital ship designed as a nation’s extended reach at sea. Battlecruisers were intended to sail the world, policing trade lanes and exerting will, and capable in battle of protecting merchant ships and attacking and destroying enemy raiders. This doctrine was favored by the British, and has been adopted in an extended format by the US Navy’s Arleigh Burke class destroyers. Of critical note, the RN did not intend for the battlecruisers to face of against true battleships in artillery duels, but rather use superior speed to stay at range and avoid contact. This doctrine was ignored at Jutland, where British battlecruisers engaged German battleships and got annihilated, doing something they had no right to be doing. In direct contrast the German BCs had designs that traded in firepower instead of armor for their speed (because they were intended to fight with instead of around the battleships) and thus were able to weather the fire of British super-dreadnoughts like the Orion class.
The second, relatively academic outgrowth of Mahanian doctrine is the current intellectual battle between American aircraft carriers and what is known as anti-access/area denial, or A2/AD, a strategy employed by China, Russia, and other nations in an effort to exert sea control by denying US aircraft carriers the ability to safely operate in zones near their shores. The fortifications of China’s South China Sea island claims are the strategic points forming a new version of the “unsinkable carrier” idea to protect China’s extremely vulnerable overseas trade and imports (most notably petroleum) and are direct descendants of Admiral Mahan’s ideas.
The final major thought on Mahan I will post here is that his most pernicious trait was how popular he became. Mahan’s case study was pre-19th century Britain, a strategic era much unlike the industrial warfare of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Britain’s status as an island nation makes its need for a powerful, capable navy particularly dire and apparent, as it both tries to feed and supply itself first from an intercontinental empire and today from the international trade system today, and as it attempts to influence matters on the continent of Europe it is practically and strategically attached to. The vast majority of other nations in the world have no comparable need for such a navy. Since the United States has the great fortune of two allies on its two land borders, and two vast oceans between it and the majority of humankind, it too needs a strong navy should it desire international influence, and Japan is an Asian mirror of Britain’s situation. By contrast, Germany’s only need for a navy is to deny its enemies access to its northern borders, and only for truly extended operations does its navy need true power. The idea that the High Seas Fleet might ever need to match, or should match, the RN Home Fleet completely ignores the global responsibilities of the latter force to protect not only British interests but British survival around the world, a challenge not faced by the Germans. The only other modern nation with a somewhat comparable situation to Britain is the People’s Republic of China, which while possessed of a large land border, is effectively hemmed in on all sides by geography. (I don’t know about you but I’m not marching into China over any combination of Siberia/Gobi Desert/Afghanistan/Himalayan mountains.) China’s reliance on maritime oil trade is another point in the comparison’s favor, but Chinese interest (at present) in simple regional hegemony instead of global power projection is perhaps a damning counterpoint.
For those interested in the study of a navy that struck fear into the hearts of the most powerful navies in its time, and actively did not care about Mahan, I suggest a study of Soviet strategic doctrine, which I will expound on here some in a follow-up post soon after this one. As always, thanks for reading, and feel free to comment and share. – GP