The History of War at Sea

Big Serge writes a very long article that chronicles the history of naval warfare:

Because the sea fundamentally acts as a medium of transportation, naval operations therefore take on a surprising simplicity. Virtually all naval combat in history can be categorized in two general groups, these being amphibious power projection and interdiction.

Amphibious power projection is fairly easy to understand, and it means simply the use of naval assets to bring armed force to bear against targets on land. The form can vary wildly, of course – ranging from Viking longships disgorging a small army of raiders, to British sailing ships bombarding enemy fortresses, to modern amphibious landings such as the 1944 assault on Normandy, all the way to the contemporary American navy operating sorties from colossal nuclear powered aircraft carriers. In truth, there is not much of a conceptual difference between any of these things – the mobility and carrying capacity of the sea in all cases allows fighting power to be rapidly shuttled to decisive points.

Interdiction is the other form of the naval operation, and it means simply area denial – hindering or preventing the enemy from utilizing seaborne lines of communication, supply, and power projection. Interdiction has both strong and weak forms. The strongest form, of course, is the blockade – which deigns to screen all (or nearly all) ocean traffic to the target country. While a true blockade requires essentially unrivaled naval supremacy, there are weaker forms of interdiction, ranging from privateering (a sort of legal form of piracy common in the early modern era) to submarine operations against merchant shipping.

In short, one can argue that despite the enormous diversity of forms that naval warfare has taken, with astonishing evolution in both the tactical and physical aspects of the warship, navies throughout history have essentially attempted to perform two basic tasks: use the sea as a medium to nimbly and effectively project fighting power towards the land, and deny the enemy the free use of the sea. The cinematic clashes between the main bodies of surface fleets of course have their own tactical logic and intriguing dimensions, but they always support one (or both) of these goals.

One other brief conceptual note worth mentioning is that, rather, obviously, naval operations are both extremely capital intensive and by extension highly fragile. We are of course perfectly used to this notion in the modern age, where shipbuilding programs cost many tens of billions of dollars – the total cost of America’s new Gerald R Ford Carrier class is well over $100 billion, for example. The cost barrier to naval power is not, however, unique to the modern world. Indeed, it seems that it has always been true that navies are far more costly than armies.

Warships are expensive and intricate engineering products, subjected by the ravages of the sea to costly maintenance, and they require specialized (and thus expensive) expertise to both build and operate. In the First Punic War, Rome and Carthage both bankrupted themselves attempting to fight what amounted to a naval war of attrition – by the end of the war, Rome had to finance shipbuilding by squeezing the aristocracy for donations.

Furthermore, the specialized nature of naval engineering often prevents a simple conversion of aggregate national wealth to combat power. For example, at the beginning of the 20th Century Imperial Germany was unable to achieve its goals of pacing British shipbuilding, despite astonishing levels of economic growth and enormous spending on the navy. Between 1889 and 1913, Germany’s GDP grew three times as quickly as Britain’s, and Germany became the 2nd largest industrial economy in the world (behind only the United States). Despite these advantages, Britain’s long-established and vast shipbuilding capacities prevented Germany from achieving its force generation goals relative to the Royal Navy.

In short, the sea is an arena of high risk and high reward; it compounds the usual frictions of war with the added complication of intricate engineering and navigational problems. The enormous expense and the vast (and often highly skilled) manpower required to compete in high intensity naval operations by extension means that navies tend to be more fragile than armies – that is to say, vulnerable to decisive defeat and less able to recuperate fighting power. But this very fact has made battle a decisive instrument in the history of the ocean. The navy that can gain supremacy by crushing the enemy in pitched battle will generally keep it, and thus hoard its privileges thereafter. War on the water can be won or lost in a day, or an afternoon, or an hour, in an undulating foam of blood and wood.

As a general rule, the side that can afford to build more ships, and has the ability to do so, wins the war at sea. This is why the dominant naval power changes less often than the dominant land power, and why the USA can no longer be considered the dominant naval power despite having a larger navy than China or Russia right now.