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What Can the Middle Ages Teach Us About US Naval Strategy?

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What Can the Middle Ages Teach Us About US Naval Strategy?

The history of European chivalry offers valuable insights for analyzing the Sino-US naval competition.

What Can the Middle Ages Teach Us About US Naval Strategy?

The Battle of Agincourt (October 25, 1415).

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“To wage war, you need first of all money; second, you need money, and third, you also need money,” goes the famous saying of Raimondo Graf Montecúccoli, an Italian who served in the armies of the Holy Roman Empire of German Nations.

Consequently, with the debate on the U.S. Navy’s budget for the next fiscal year raging on (see here and here), it is perhaps time to assess not  how much money is spent on the American navy, but whether it is spent wisely. The discussion surrounding China’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities and the costs that these capabilities impose on the U.S. Navy are especially worth examining in that regard.

For the lack of space here, let us just briefly investigate one aspect of the Sino-U.S. naval rivalry, the arms race between Chinese anti-ship missiles and American aircraft carrier battle groups from a financial perspective. A 2013 report by the Center for New American Security neatly summarizes the uneven financial equation of this arms competition. The paper notes that the cost of the DF-21D, a Chinese anti-ship ballistic missile, lies between $5 to $ 11 million:

 “Assuming the conservative, high-end estimate of $11 million per missile gives an exchange ratio of $11 million to $13.5 billion [the estimated cost of one nuclear-powered aircraft carrier], which means that China could build 1,227 DF-21Ds for every carrier the United States builds going forward. U.S. defenses would have to destroy every missile fired, a tough problem given the magazines of U.S. cruisers and destroyers, while China would need only one of its weapons to survive to effect a mission kill.”

In short, Chinese missiles are imposing asymmetrical financial costs on the U.S. naval forces. Interestingly, the U.S. Navy’s strategy to counter these threats is not too different from how European knights dealt with the advent of the English longbow on medieval battlefields during the late European Middle Ages.

For example, during The Hundred Years War (1337-1453) the principal question the English had to deal with was how to defeat mounted French noblemen — especially how to survive a mounted charge of armored cavalry. In the end, the English solution was to to rely on a single weapon system to defeat the French: the English yeoman longbowman. Here is a more detailed comparison:

The English reaction to the French knight and his conventional military dominance — a direct strategy:

  • Relied on single technology, the English longbow (providing an increase in cost efficiency and operational mobility) [ Side note: English longbowmen could much more easily form into a line of battle and could fight on any territory provided they had adequate wooden palisades which, just like Roman legionnaires, they usually carried with them.]
  • Less need of logistical support due to the absence of horses (the channeling of resources)
  • Only small detachments were necessary to defeat larger mounted armies (decreasing marginal costs)

The French reaction to the English yeoman longbowman — an indirect strategy:

  • Knights wore increasingly heavy armor (decreasing tactical mobility)
  • Heavy armor exhausted the horses (decreasing operational mobility)
  • Due to threat from longbows, special crossbow and infantry detachments had to be formed (diverting resources)

Thus to summarize, the English and French pursued two very different strategies for success on the battlefield, with the former emphasizing a direct, cost-efficient strategy and the latter (perhaps unknowingly) pursuing an indirect, resource-draining military strategy.

The direct strategy of relying on a single effective weapon imposed indirect costs on England’s opponents. The direct tactical response to the first French losses in the war (see the history here) should have been to form longbow units and abandon the mounted charge. However, feudal culture prohibited such a move; thus, indirect strategies were found to deal with the new threat, but they resulted in financial depletion and operational defeat of the French knights in the long run. The direct strategy of England based on one weapon enabled operational success and asymmetric expenditure of resources.

What does this mean for the U.S. Navy?

The direct strategy of medieval England in dealing with a continental threat neatly illustrates the potential for future U.S. adversaries to exploit the strict adherence to a U.S. naval doctrine based on the carrier by indirectly imposing costs. Whether Chinese anti-ship missiles can penetrate carrier defenses misses a key point, since the mere presence of anti-ship missiles imposes a heavy cost on U.S. Navy offensive capabilities as well as on its budget.

Aircraft carriers will be in service at least until 2050 and constitute one of the main U.S. instruments to project global power. One way or another, the defense of these prestige objects is tantamount to defending U.S. hegemony, just like the adherence to the mounted charge was tantamount to maintaining a privileged position in society for the European chivalry.

Hence, like the French knights, the U.S. Navy chose an indirect strategy to counter the Chinese missile threats and other anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategies. Looking at the history of the Hundred Years War, the belated but successful French response to the longbow was to kill the archers rather than protect the knights. Yet, with the ongoing advancement of missile technology, it will become increasingly more expensive and difficult to destroy Chinese missiles before they are launched.

As the CNAS report notes:

“The national security establishment, the White House, the Department of Defense, and Congress persist despite clear evidence that the carrier equipped with manned strike aircraft is an increasingly expensive way to deliver firepower and that carriers themselves may not be able to move close enough to targets to operate effectively or survive in an era of satellite imagery and long-range precision strike missiles.”

Is it time to rethink U.S. naval strategy?