America’s ‘Great Green Fleet’

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America’s ‘Great Green Fleet’

Dr. James Holmes on what the U.S. Navy’s biofuels-propelled fleet reminds us about history.

On June 27 a multinational fleet took to the seas off Hawaii for the biennial RIMPAC, or “Rim of the Pacific,” naval maneuvers. The U.S. Navy dubbed its contingent the “Great Green Fleet.” No, sailors haven’t been slathering garish green paint over the haze gray that traditionally festoons American hulls. Rather, dubbing it the Great Green Fleet showcases Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus’s “biofuels” initiative. The RIMPAC fleet and aircraft will burn a mix of biofuels and conventional marine fuels to demonstrate biofuels’ viability. Assuming there’s enough market demand for propellants derived from biomass to drive down their sky-high price, substituting them for conventional fossil fuels will help the navy offset costly price swings. It will also help ease the fleet’s and the nation’s dependency on imported petroleum.

The Great Green Fleet’s nickname draws a not-so-veiled allusion to Theodore Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet, the sixteen-battleship force that circumnavigated the globe just over a century ago (1907-1909). Sixteen battlewagons represented the navy’s entire complement, apart from those laid up in extended overhaul. As Roosevelt proclaimed, dispatching the battle line far from North America constituted a “striking thing.” Grouping RIMPAC with the world cruise thus rates top marks as an effort at branding. But is it good history? It never hurts to pay historical metaphors close scrutiny before embracing them. The best rule is: let the buyer beware.

On the positive side of the ledger, the Great Green Fleet moniker conjures up a legendary president who also happened to be a noted naval historian and former assistant secretary of the navy. Roosevelt was a hands-on leader. Even while occupying the Oval Office, he found time to hold forth on the minutiae of ship design. In 1908, the president famously sailed from his home on Long Island across to Newport, Rhode Island, to chair a Battleship Conference at the Naval War College. Conference attendees evaluated dispatches sent home from the Great White Fleet and recommended design improvements. U.S. battleships underwent significant modifications following the world cruise, owing in large part to presidential intervention.

An outdoorsman and ardent conservationist, furthermore, Roosevelt may well have approved of a biofuels initiative had the technology of his day permitted such a thing. He seldom shrank from voicing strong views on such matters—or from trying to put them into practice. That’s a legacy worth associating oneself with.

On the negative side, we can take issue with the assumptions behind the Great Green Fleet metaphor. Last year Secretary Mabus proclaimed, “In history, the Navy has always led in changing fuel types. We went from sail to coal in the 1850s. We went from coal to oil in the early part of the 20th century, and we pioneered nuclear in the 1950s. And we’re going to lead once again by establishing a market, by helping establish a market for biofuels now.” Likening the RIMPAC fleet to the Great White Fleet implies that Roosevelt’s battle line stood at the technological forefront for its day—and that a biofuels-powered navy is heir to that grand tradition.

The age of Roosevelt certainly added luster to the U.S. Navy’s reputation, but let’s not get too swept away with the Great White Fleet’s exploits. In fact, the navy was a follower—not a leader—in propulsion and fuels, at least until the nuclear revolution that followed World War II. Nor did it create markets for sails, coal, or oil the way Secretary Mabus hopes to generate demand for biofuels. Civilian industry and rival seafaring nations led the way.

Indeed, the United States was a relative laggard in maritime technology until after World War I. Both Roosevelt and Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote works of maritime history aimed at clearing away what Mahan called the “dead apathy” that stifled the naval service following the American Civil War. The fleet dwindled to about fifty rickety wooden vessels by the late 1870s, leaving the U.S. Navy distinctly inferior to the likes of the battleship-armed Chilean Navy. Only in 1883, well after other seagoing nations had made the shift, did Congress authorize the navy’s first armored steamships.

By no means, then, were Roosevelt’s battleship fleet and its retinue of escorts at the engineering vanguard. The Great White Fleet of legend was somewhat different from the real force. Its ships were “pre-dreadnoughts,” driven by coal-fired boilers and ungainly reciprocating steam engines. In 1906, Great Britain’s Royal Navy stole a march on its competitors by commissioning HMS Dreadnought, the world’s first all-big-gun battlewagon. The Dreadnought was also the first capital ship propelled by oil-fired boilers and steam turbines. These innovations granted the Royal Navy battle line not only a heavier broadside but a significant speed advantage over older generations of warships—including those comprising the Great White Fleet.

This is no knock on American technical prowess. For Britons, necessity was the mother of invention. Engineering ingenuity, the fact that German shipwrights were bolting together a “peer” fleet across the North Sea, and the bullheaded determination of First Sea Lord Jacky Fisher, Britain’s top uniformed naval officer, impelled the Royal Navy to preserve its lead in propulsion technology. The German High Seas Fleet quickly joined the dreadnought race, while the U.S. Navy remained somewhat behind. The first all-big-gun U.S. battleships entered service in 1910. The main battery on board the coal-fired USS South Carolina matched the Dreadnought for firepower, but the speed disadvantage persisted. That same year—a year after the Great White Fleet returned to port—the Delaware-class battlewagons, America’s first true dreadnoughts, finally joined the fleet.

What about nuclear propulsion, certainly a frontier tamed by Americans? Biofuels enthusiasts should temper their enthusiasm for the nuclear precedent. If the goal of U.S. Navy engineering innovation is to develop affordable fuels and propulsion plants, nuclear power has never completely fulfilled its promise.

The operational virtues of nuclear power are many, including nearly limitless range and endurance at sea. But nuclear plants don’t come cheap. At one time the fleet included not just nuclear-propelled aircraft carriers and submarines but also surface combatants. But the upfront costs of nuclear-propelled warships proved so steep that the navy gave up installing nuclear plants in cruisers, let alone destroyers and lesser men-of-war, long ago. The last nuclear-powered cruisers met their doom in the 1990s because refueling them—which requires an extensive shipyard overhaul—was too expensive. The partial nuclear revolution is a dubious precedent for those who tout the future affordability of biofuels.

And finally, there’s the matter of messaging. Theodore Roosevelt had both domestic and foreign audiences in mind for the Great White Fleet’s endeavors. In his memoir he recalled that his “prime purpose” for dispatching the fleet was “to impress the American people” with the U.S. Navy’s skill and élan. But Roosevelt also tailored his message to foreign observers. The fleet’s white color scheme signified its diplomatic purpose. South American crowds and officials greeted U.S. mariners warmly as they made port calls on the outbound leg of the cruise.

More to the point, the president wanted to show an ambitious Japan that it could never do to the U.S. Navy what it had done to the Russian Navy shortly before, during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. Two Russian fleets lay strewn across the Yellow Sea floor following the short, sharp clash between Russia and Japan. Most strikingly, the Baltic Fleet met its end at Tsushima Strait after cruising some 18,000 miles from the Baltic, around the Cape of Good Hope, through the Indian Ocean, and into Far Eastern waters. After the epic voyage, and with no chance for shipyard upkeep before battle, Admiral Zinovy Rozhestvensky’s force was in no state to take on Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō’s combat-hardened, freshly refitted Combined Fleet. The results were grim—and predictable.

Japanese war plans envisioned staging a new Tsushima should Japan ever come to blows with the United States. Roosevelt meant to prove to Tokyo that the U.S. Navy could accomplish what Rozhestvensky could not. It could surge across thousands of miles of ocean and arrive on station in fighting trim, most likely to defend the Philippine Islands. Roosevelt saw debunking the Tsushima model as essential to preserving the naval balance—and thus the peace—in East Asia.

If the audiences for the Great White Fleet were both foreign and domestic, the audience for the Great Green Fleet is almost purely domestic—and the message RIMPAC transmits to that audience is modest by contrast. Selling people on a propellant that drives ships through the water or warplanes through the air is far less ambitious than firing enthusiasm for the navy among a landward-facing populace. Chances are the Great Green Fleet will achieve fewer PR gains than its illustrious namesake.

What about foreign audiences? Today’s closest counterpart to Imperial Japan, China, already knows U.S. naval forces can reach East Asia. The U.S. Seventh Fleet has been forward-deployed there for decades. Task forces of various types routinely steam back and forth between American seaports and the region. What excited national pride in Roosevelt’s era has long been workaday routine. At most RIMPAC puts allies, prospective adversaries, and bystanders on notice that U.S. forces can operate in Asia more cheaply and sustainably than in the past. But again, that’s a rather nondescript message to send compared to the hooplah that surrounded the Great White Fleet.

In the end, there are no perfect historical analogies. Great Green Fleet it is. Let’s just keep the comparison in perspective.

James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College and the author of Theodore Roosevelt and World Order: Police Power in International Relations. The views voiced here are his alone.