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.

8 thoughts on “The View From Olympus: On the Nature of Fleets”

  1. It must be important to understand why the US Navy is keeping so many ships deployed across the world.

    “However, given the COCOMs’ requirements for naval power presence in each of their regions, there is an impetus to have as many ships forward deployed as possible. Striking a balance between deploying ships to meet operational demands and keeping them in port to perform needed maintenance and provide relief to sailors is a constant challenge.

    Today, the Navy has 94 ships deployed globally—35 percent of the total available fleet and roughly on par with the 2016 level of 95 ships.25 While the Navy remains committed to deploying roughly a third of its fleet at all times, it should be noted that this is nevertheless an insufficient global presence because the total fleet falls well below necessary levels both for the Navy’s stated presence needs and for a fleet capable of projecting power at the two-MRC level. The Navy has tried to increase forward presence by emphasizing non-rotational deployments: having a ship “home-ported” overseas or keeping the ship forward stationed:26”


    It sounds as if the global regional commands (CENTCOM etc) are a factor, that each wants as many ships as possible kept within its area and under its control.

    There do not seem to be meaningful operational reasons; the US Navy has far more than it needs to deal with actual threats like Somali piracy, and proved ineffective in doing so. As far as I can tell, the US and other navies are no longer permitted to destroy on-shore pirate bases, making them almost entirely useless at the critical anti-piracy function.
    Keeping lots of ships in the western Pacific presumably has some utility in threatening China – whether that is desirable is another question. But most of these forward deployments seem entirely useless.

  2. Very few naval ships ever used diesel propulsion. And they tended to be very small. Battleships, Cruisers, etc. ran on steam – oil-fired steam, but still. I have a friend who was in the navy in the 80s and he had a steam qualification. Ships were BIG. Diesels are most useful for small to medium loads.

    Today large ships generally use gas-turbines that run on anything from kerosene to jet fuel. Even the big cruise lines are using this setup. (2 or 3 jet turbines that create electricity. Take the exhaust, create steam, and create more electricity. Everything is electric.) Previous gen tech used gas turbines to drive the propellers. (Fast, but not fuel-efficient.)

    That is of course if they aren’t nuclear – where the reactor generators electricity.

    The current generation of Swedish submarines use external combustion engines – according to my understanding – which are quieter than diesels. When they aren’t running on batteries.

  3. Uhh, those wind powered ships you put so much stock in during the Napoleonic wars? The French would break out whenever a storm blew through and pushed the British off station. You can’t win against the wind with sails.

    “Superior” strategic mobility? Are you on crack? The latitudes around the equator are still considered a big deal to cross in a sail ship, because there’s basically no wind. Steam saved DAYS whenever the doldrums had to be crossed.

    PS: I’ve heard of the “generations of warfare” concept. You guys have one thing completely wrong. What you call 4GW is actually the FIRST generation.

  4. Fourth “generation” since the Thirty Years’ War, an important historical turning point in the context of modern warfare. When talking wars versus non-states it made sense to categorize warfare’s devolution sequentially since the emergence of the modern nation-state.

  5. The thing is that the first type of warfare was what this guy erroneously refers to as “4th Generation.”

    I mean, judging by this post about naval power, his historical lens is far, far, FAR from perfect. Or good. Let alone accurate.

  6. Nice phone screenshot. Doesn’t explain why this guy is a proponent of calling it 4GW. I mean, it’s right there on the front cover of his (utterly unreadable and terrible) novel.

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