James Holmes

Why Have Surface Fleets Endured?

“As Clausewitz counsels, there’s no escaping the guesswork quotient in military affairs.”

A quick follow-up on the Naval Diplomat's doomsaying vis-à-vis the future of surface battle fleets. An astute reader notes that prophets have been foretelling the downfall of surface forces since I was a kid in the Bible Belt, listening to sidewalk preachers screech that end of the world was nigh. Why, he asks, has the prophecy never come to pass despite the evidence in its favor? He forwarded a now-obscure 1971 Foreign Affairs article from Paul Cohen, titled "The Erosion of Surface Naval Power." Cohen catalogs the technological forces arrayed against surface fleets in the mid-Cold War, predicting that "large surface vessels" could never withstand "the onslaught of the submarines, surveillance systems, homing weapons, and the rest of the paraphernalia of twentieth-century military technology." They would go the way of the battleships — formidable combatants overtaken by changes to the threat milieu.

Why have surface fleets endured?

My offhand response is that Cohen's prophecy may have been true and we didn't know for sure. Technological progress can render weaponry moot, but there's no way to tell without pitting old versus new in the closest thing there is to a laboratory environment — namely, battle. The U.S.-Soviet maritime competition was never put to the test of combat. In Sea Power in the Machine Age, strategist Bernard Brodie points out that naval engagements take place too seldom to draw firm lessons-learned. Extrapolating from a sample size of one, or a few, is intellectually hazardous. Worse (from an analytical standpoint, anyway), there have been no fleet engagements since Leyte Gulf in 1944. We have a sample size of zero, meaning that debates over the relative merits and drawbacks of various hardware remain largely abstract.

In The Political Uses of Sea Power, published not long after Cohen's article, Edward Luttwak opined that the outcomes of peacetime maritime confrontations were decided through a kind of poll: which contender did most observers believe would have prevailed in wartime? But again, perceptions can be out of sync with harsh realities. Luttwak alluded to this, noting that relatively backward but menacing-looking Soviet men-of-war often made a more impressive sight than advanced but less imposing U.S. Navy warships. Thus the Soviet Navy might come out on top in a peacetime showdown, whatever the results of actual combat might say. Bottom line, we enter the intellectual lists armed with the best weapons available, usually technical specifications, doctrine, tactics, and the like. But definite results to tactical debates are elusive absent a real-world trial of arms.

As Clausewitz counsels, there's no escaping the guesswork quotient in military affairs. Cohen may have had it right, lo these many years ago.