The View From Olympus: On the Nature of Fleets

Four recent incidents in the Pacific Fleet, including two in which destroyers collided with merchant ships, killing U.S. Navy sailors, have brought a rash of consequences.  Careers have been terminated, the basics of navigation have received new emphasis (including a wise return to pencils and paper instead of electronic devices) and the Navy’s on-watch/off-watch cycle has been altered.  But one of the most basic reasons for our overworked, overstressed Navy has received no attention.  We seem to have forgotten the nature of fleets.

Fleets are mobile.  This is why navies are so important to would-be world powers.  Moving an army to some distant part of the world and supplying it there is a massive and therefore slow operation.  Fleets, in contrast, can move quickly over long distances.

This is not something new, or a consequence of modern technology.  It came in the 16th century with the displacement of galleys by large sailing ships.  By the time of Sir Frances Drake and the Spanish Armada, ships and fleets could get to any part of the globe accessible by water.  The strategic mobility of fleets was actually undermined by new technology in the form of steam propulsion.  Because steamships had to coal frequently, they were more dependent on the land than were ships driven by the wind.  The replacement of coal by oil for fuel and then of steam by fuel-efficient diesels for propulsion restored most of the strategic mobility ships and fleets had in the day of sail.  Both can now move quickly from home ports to any sea where their presence is required.

What this means, and has meant for centuries, is that most of the time ships and fleets are in their home ports.  Small detachments may be stationed around the world, the gunboats of gunboat diplomacy.  But gunboat diplomacy worked because the gunboat was a reminder of the powerful fleet that could come quickly if the gunboat needed support.  Other than these gunboats and small detached squadrons, the rest of the navy was comfortably at rest in its home harbors.  There was, and is, no need for it to be anywhere else, not only in peacetime but often also in war.  It can go where it needs to when it needs to.

The U.S. Navy seems to have forgotten this central aspect of the nature of fleets – and not only the Navy, but policy-makers who direct the Navy as well.  The incidents in the Pacific Fleet are being ascribed in part to the exhaustion of officers and sailors whose ships are deployed virtually all the time. The Navy claims this shows it needs more ships.  What it actually needs is to remember it is a Navy.  It is by its nature mobile.  Those ships do not need to be deployed, most of them anyway. 

In the past, when navies had to deploy most of their strength over long periods, they had great difficulty sustaining themselves.  The Royal Navy, by the time of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, had developed a unique ability to maintain large fleets on duty blockading French ports for years on end.  Individual ships, not just fleets, found themselves blockading Brest or Toulon for months or sometimes years, touching land only to obtain fresh water and fresh food.  Again, this was easier with sailing ships than with ships powered by engines, and also with crews who had no fixed term of enlistment.

In 1914, when that same Royal Navy had to keep the sea for several months until Scapa Flow could be made into a secure anchorage, the strain on both ships and men was enormous.  That is the same strain now afflicting our Pacific Fleet and perhaps the rest of the Navy as well.  The difference is that it is not necessary.  It is a consequence of forgetting the nature of fleets.

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who is very well read in military history, should understand this.  He should not wait for the Navy to remember the nature of fleets.  Nor should he allow the State department or the White House to make demands on the Navy that reflect ignorance of navies’ inherent mobility.  Most of the time, most of the U.S. Navy’s ships should be in home port.  It is Secretary Mattis’s job to put them there.