This is one of the best posts on Strategic and Operational Planning that I have read since I taught the thing.

There is so much good there, I had trouble getting a pull quote – but here is a teaser that hits on a lot of the problem the Navy has had from DDG-1000 to LPD-17’s diesels.

In the past, priests created complex liturgies, lawyers created complex law codes, and scribes created complex writing systems. The complexity they introduced and strove to maintain created information asymmetries that allowed them to maintain their power and control over the masses. In our times, the same thirst for control led to the creation of intentional complexities like collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), credit default swaps (CDSs), mortgage-backed securities (MBSs), littoral combat ships (LCS), thousand page legislative bills, ever thickening law books, capstone concepts, and, yes, magic bullets. Complexity is power and credentialed complexity is more power. Given enough people creating enough information asymmetries, whatever feedback loops left standing become so calcified that the whole social system becomes fragile.Ideas of strategic paralysis, where victory is dependent upon an intentional complexity of knowledge so perfect that you can identify enemy centers of gravity exactly and target them exactly and hit them exactly, are equally prone to failure. The possibility, as Kiras points out, of friction destroying the best laid plans, turning the tables, and surprising a budding wielder of strategic paralysis is even greater than the chance to inflict strategic paralysis on the enemy. The user of strategic complexity is as likely to be caught in his own trap as he is to spring it on the enemy. He has a big target on his chest that is clearly labeled HIT ME WITH A BLACK SWAN. PLEASE.

A strategy of attrition is more robust: create a strategic margin of safety and poke the other guy till he gives in. Tactics used in a framework of strategic attrition are small, discrete, and compartmentalized. One mistake isn’t fatal. Attrition supports an iterative approach where trial and error can be employed. The tactics that work best can be learned and shared. The tactics that fail can be abandoned and forgotten. If attrition had a slogan it would be REDUNDANCY, REDUNDANCY, REDUNDANCY. Diversify. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Attrition is the strategy your grandmother would follow if your grandmother happened to lead a war effort.

Unfortunately, contemporary Americans are obsessed with the comparative advantages of efficiency. The coming of the spreadsheet and other information technology enabled a generation of MBAs and their fellow travelers to practice false prophecy and false economy on a scale beyond the imagination of previous generations. Redundancies make the MBA and the quartermaster blue; there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth in the Gehenna of accounts payable. It is tactically logical to eliminate redundancies as inefficient: the human mind is inherently reductionist.

Something we once knew – but got too “smart” to remember. Read it all.

Hat tip AndrewB.

Posted by CDRSalamander in Strategy

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  • UltimaRatioReg


    That is BRILLIANT. Absolutely brilliant. Engineered complexity is precisely what our Achilles’ Heel has been for the last decade and a half. But it is verbalized superbly here. Thanks to you and to Andrew for finding it.

    Above is the back-story to the adage that, the less sophisticated your enemy, the less your technological advantage means.

    We should pay heed. But I doubt we will. Smashmouth warfighting systems employ less technical and policy weenies than does the overly-complex hash we have made of it lately.

  • virgil xenophon

    Prior to Gulf we had never won a war since the Civil war save by the use of overwhelming logistical advantage which made possible wars of attrition. (The Revolutionary War and War of 1812 the exceptions–the first with the aid of the French and the second by able diplomats with their negotiated war-ending treaty sealed by Jackson’s victory at New Orleans.) While tactics based on the OODA-Loop are credited with wins in Gulf I & II those wins and the subsequent re-configuration of our force posture are based upon the slender reeds of unfettered secure communications and wpns platforms greatly reduced in number and variety. That wins over opponents the caliber of Sadaam’s conventional army in Gulf I prove the wisdom of this trend/tactic when contemplating future wars involving fighting, say, a resurgent China in it’s back-yard is of, shall we say, dubious wisdom, to say the least. Curtis LeMay thought SAC meant we could do away with the Navy and the British thought F-111s could replace the Royal Navy “East of Suez” in the early 70s. Well, SAC is gone, the F-111s never materialized, but the threat and mission remain–but with no Royal Navy worth calling a Navy and America following close behind circling the drain. It took a 1000 ship Navy with 100 carriers to defeat Japan. Japan had no natural resources and 30 million people. China is rich in resources and has 1.6 billion people. As the “au courrent” phrase goes: Do the math.

  • YN2(SW) H. Lucien Gauthier III

    I started reading a work titled “Unrestricted Warfare” written by two Chinese Air Force Colonels back in ’99. In it there is this quote:

    “This is because proposing a new concept of weapons does not require relying on the springboard of new technology, it just demands lucid and incisive thinking. However, this is not a strong point of the Americans, who are slaves to technology in their thinking. The Americans invariably halt their thinking at the boundary where technology has not yet reached”

    They called us out on quite a bit of what we talk about today.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    YN2 Gauthier,

    I downloaded a copy of that book when it first was published. Very interesting stuff. Pay particular attention to the cyber warfare concepts. Yet today, the USG and DoD will give the cop-out line that the book doesn’t “represent official Chinese policy”, however, if you look at the premises they had set forth in that book, they have used that portion in particular as a road map to exploit US defense, industrial, and business capabilities.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    *Burma Shave*

    When I was involved in some large-scale cyber-security exercises with DHS through Dartmouth, that book was taken VERY seriously by the private sector.

  • Byron

    Virgil, :

    Battle started the day before the Treaty of Ghent was signed (12/23/1814) and concluded on 1/26/1814. A boy from Loo-si-ana ought to know that, you 🙂

  • Grandpa Bluewater

    Setting Army foodfights aside (the Navy has plenty, thanks),
    there are no sacred cows. Sacred cow priests, theologians, evangelists yes, there are many. But cows,… just big dumb herd herbivores with good milk and meat which can pull a cart or a plow (slowly), whose dung makes effective fertizer and whose hide can be made into leather. Really useful critters, not requiring the application of clergy. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

    The good book is right hard on folks who hang around gold statues of cows with clergy alleging they are holy and to be worshipped. Funny how they (the priests of cows) never raise a callus with a pitchfolk. Metaphorically speaking, of course. Could it be…a sign?

    Real animal husbandry, now that’s a (lot of) chore(s). Kind of like tactical proficiency and strategic wisdom.

    Never trust a pitchman selling faster, cheaper, one size fits all, no sweat, no drag snake oil. There is only one result….(Cue Ms Tyler, please): http: //

    I’m with URR…way cool post.

  • YN2(SW) H. Lucien Gauthier III

    This is basically the point I am hoping that the SECDEF has been going after in his speeches back in late Spring.

    When we look to buy a new weapon system, we’re incredibly vague on our requirements, then we change our mind about its design, and we end up with a mess of bells and whistles. I know, I’ve lived it.

    R-ADM, ADM. Harvey has mentioned that program a few times. As a YN I live and die by two things: My printer and R-ADM. The printer I’ve got no worries about. R-ADM, is a program designed to do everything from the muster reports, to a DIVOs notebook. Because of the convoluted nature of its interface, no one uses it completely. In an age where I can download a program with a single function wirelessly on my iPhone in less than five minutes for less than five dollars. Why do I have a all-encompassing program that I was never formally trained on to do a lot of things that don’t matter to me?

    One program, small in size, easy to update/fix/troubleshoot. Sounds a lot like ships we could use as well…

  • Byron

    Henry, be ever so glad you’ve never had to do tag outs with that incredible piece of software, eSOMs. What used to take 30 minutes can take up to half a day. I even got to write a Lost Time report given that two days after the tagout request, the ship still hadn’t completed the task in eSOMs. I had to go toe to toe with the CHENG on another because you can only input x bytes of data into the program and it will accept no more. The only twidget who could clear it was on leave.
    CHENG: No can do, twidget not here.
    Me: Don’t care; get paper, pencil, skull sweat.
    CHENG: I’ll get a “Bad dog, bad dog, no bone for you!”.
    Me:Don’t give a damn, it’s your ship, it’s your system that’s tits up, and you asked us to come fix it, I don’t have a dog in the hunt. I started to walk out of CCS and CHENG had a change of heart.

    Everyone hates eSOMs, contractors and the ship both.

  • RhodeIslander


    a semi-planing hull form. As in, get-up-and-go-fast.

    Even in relatively smooth seas, LCS-1 is an overweight porker.

    Even its 1 “selling point” does not exist when loaded with fuel and weapons. Max speed in this photo is less than FFG-7 class.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    That’s stealth, all right. Nobody on a coastal lookout would see that wake or anything.

  • Byron

    Not to mention the IR sig off those diesel exhausts…

  • virgil xenophon


    Hey mister! 🙂 I knew that!–which is why I used the word “sealed.” You don’t think the British would have honored the treaty if they had won and gotten a death-grip on New Orleans and the entrance to the Mississippi and the interior of the continent do you?


    Excellent post!

    The thing that people forget is that the larger the conflict, and the larger and more complex the opponent, the less likely there is to be a single “silver bullet” answer. It is interesting that Clauswitz did not advocate attrition, he merely recognized that against a capable opponent, attrition will likely be your only option. The many advocates of revolutionary change, especially at sea, have generally been wrong, if not tactically than strategically. Whether it was the “Jeune Ecole”, the U-Boat, Deadnaughts, Carriers, or whatever, the simple fact is that systems adapt to accomodate change. And when the systems are big enough or resilent enough, they have depth to accept losses while they change their tactics. Evolution, given time, will always win in the end.

    What does this mean to LCS? We should, to steal a phrase, build a little, learn a lot, then repeat.

  • Scott B.

    What’s wrong with that : you guys never seen a sub preparing to submerge ?

    Oh wait, what do you mean it’s not a sub ?!?!


  • UltimaRatioReg

    Sure, sure. It’s a sub! It’s a frigate! It’s an amphib! It is whatever you want it to be!

  • Scott B.

    URR said : “Sure, sure. It’s a sub! It’s a frigate! It’s an amphib! It is whatever you want it to be!”

    A sub ? A frigate ? An amphib ? Whoa…

    And I thought it was just an *unrated mini-mothership of the flotilla with C2 node capabilities*…

  • ArkadyRenko

    Couple points:

    First of all, the geographic organization of the Pacific is driving the US towards a war of attrition against China. However, you won’t like what such a war would look like. Namely, carriers operating from 1500 nm away, launching UAVs, which will go out, launch some missiles, then return to base. Quite exciting, I guess, to some people. But more likely just to be extremely boring. And in the meantime, China will secure Taiwan.

    Second point, the idolization of attrition is quite odd. Do you really want to start ship swapping in a war? Is your idea of a Navy one that sacrifices ships and sailors because of an inability to do anything better? Look at WWI, the classic example of attrition, who won that war? No one, they just bled themselves dry after 4 years. Attrition succeeds only after a long, drawn out time. I admit, that in some situations, you have no other option than to use a variation of attrition. Though, there are always draw backs.

    For example, a battle in the Straits of Hormuz would rely on the USN essentially eliminating the Iranian Navy one speed boat at a time. That will take time, and probably cause more than a small economic crisis in the meantime.

    The core problem with a blind acceptance of attrition is that, well, you may become so hide-bound that you are even less willing to experiment. Attrition, remember, becomes a cold hearted calculation of whether your loss rate is better or worse than your opponents loss rate. It is, in a word, returning to body counts. Modern COIN theory is most decisively not attrition. COIN attempts to outflank the insurgents; by turning the population and leaving the insurgents as fish out of water.

    If COIN was pursued like attrition, it would be an attempt to kill all the terrorists at a better exchange rate than the terrorists killed you.

    I would be hesitant to embrace attrition with such uncritical praise. Attrition vs “strategic paralysis,” whatever that means, I could never understand that, has nothing to do with the LCS. Don’t let your opposition to the LCS lead you down into silly territory, where you begin contemplating, ‘how you can get the loss exchange ratio best in your favor.’ Your problems with the DDG-1000, LPD-17, LCS-1, have nothing what so ever to do with the debate between Attrition and the Indirect Approach. Don’t muddy the waters with ego gratifying but ultimately useless arguments.

    And, having seen what is discussed on this Blog, no one here is really discussing strategy at a level where it becomes a debate between attrition or some other indirect approach.

    Two quick final points:

    1: Attrition against the Chinese? Hah, that’ll work against a population 3 – 4 times as big as the US. And, the Chinese aren’t engaging in attrition, look at the ASBM, that is an expensive, engineering intensive approach to deal with a specific problem. It is an assassin’s mace, not a grind stone.

    2: One doesn’t need to know everything to plan in a manner inconsistent with attrition. Instead, the greatest generals are characterized by being able to act even while ignorant. If you read your Clausewitz even closer, he said that the key is to act decisively and intelligently, even when inevitably information is poor or incomplete. It would be the height of folly to say: “We don’t know everything about our opponent, therefore, let us grind him down.”


    You seem to misinterpret the gist of the posting. It is not that you should seek an attrition strategy, but rather that you should expect one because against a living, breathing opponent, dramatic shocks that paralyze the ability of the enemy to resist are few and far between. Case in point,
    Jeune Ecole (sorry for the spelling, my keyboard doesn’t do French): Torpedoes make the capital ship obsolete! Wait, you can’t deploy medium caliber quick firing guns and torpedoboat destroyers, no fair!
    Unterseeboot: We will destroy your commerce! Wait, convoys, no fair!
    Nuclear Weapons: Who needs anything else?
    Simply put, virtually every new device in warfare can be countered. And against a large and capable foe, they will do so fairly rapidly. ASBM? let’s not surrender just yet. Just like the rifled gun, submarine, torpedo, heavy bomber, magnetic mine, ASCM, etc, there will be counters. It may require changes in tactics (deception anyone) or new countermeasures (SM-3, ECM, etc), but it is not a silver bullet, even if it works (which is still to be seen).

    Insurgency is a classic attrition strategy, as a result population centric COIN is also an attrition strategy. It just seems like it isn’t because it attrites most of the insurgents through other, hopefully non-violent means. In fact, a purely Hunt the Insurgent Strategy (called various things) is actually more of an “assasins mace” since they want to surgically kill the insurgents and then everything will be OK again. In COIN, you want to attrite the existing insurgents (kill them, co-opt them, arrest them, etc) and reduce their ability to make more (deny sanctuary, reduce grievences, change the threat calculus, etc).

    COIN is actually a lot like the battle of the Atlantic. The population is the merchant ships (which you need enough of to supply the war), the defenders are the escorts, and the U-boats the insurgents.
    First, you have to defend the ships, so you have convoys, evasive routing, escorts, aircraft, etc. But merely defending the ships is not enough because the U-boots will keep coming back.
    Second, you have to attrite the existing U-boots. Think of the battle of the Bay of Biscayne, Hunter killer groups, bombing of U-boat pens, mining harbors, etc. All were designed to attrite the U-boats.
    Finally, you need to stop new U-boats from being built. Bomb the shipyards, interdict raw materials, and ultimately capture Germany.
    Do your part better and faster than the other side and you win.

    Now classic population centric COIN:
    First: Secure the population by protecting them which also tends to reduce the numbers of insurgents by killing, capturing, and converting the insurgents as they try to influence the population centers, just as U-boats were sunk attacking convoys.
    Second: Attrite the existing insurgents by co-opting them, killing the die hards, arresting them, etc.
    Finally: Eliminate the source of insurgents. Deny them sanctuary, address their grievences, etc. Change the calculus so that being part of the system is better than fighting against it.
    Do your job better and faster than the other side and you win.

    So sorry, population centric COIN is by its vary nature a purely attrition strategy. You slog it out and, if you are good and with a little good luck, eventually you win. But it is not about killing insurgents, just as the battle of the atlantic was not about killing submarines. It is about protecting your source of power, be it supplies to continue the war or population that wants or accepts you being in charge.

    Final point,
    Look at Kosovo. Airpower is king, war will be over in three days, precision bombing will carry the day, etc.
    We bomb for three days, no surrender. We stop bombing? Why, because they were going to quit after three days so we didn’t have a plan!
    Regroup, do it all over again, still no surrender. Finally, after we “grind it out” for 40 days, the Serbians agree to the conditions they had already agreed to before the war started and we declare victory.

    Lesson to Learn? You may desire to win using some other strategy than attrition, but you better be prepared to slog it out because history has taught us that most wars end up as wars of attrition whether the two sides wanted it that way or not.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    Echoing what USNVO states, the “attrition” you speak of is not a tactical or operational plan, but a concept that simple, flexible plans to bring overwhelming combat power to the decisive place and time is STILL the way to go.

    Our modern tendency is to have an overly complex set of both weapons systems and strategies that, the more complex they are the more vulnerable to disruption, will leave us in many circumstances with somewhat less than overwhelming anything, allowing the enemy the initiative to choose the decisive place and time.

    Battles and wars are lost by ceding the initiative to the enemy. As stated above, be prepared for a lot longer fight than you had envisioned. And be prepared to hit hard and often.

  • Byron

    Is it me, or is most of our technology defensive? Just saying..

  • Benjamin Walthrop

    A few questions for the attritionistas…

    It’s really not clear to me what is being advocated here. I mean it basically goes without saying that ALL OTHER THINGS BEING EQUAL a simple, flexible plan to bring overwhelming combat power to the decisive place at the decisive time is still the way to go. While that statement is true, I am not convinced it is particularly useful as any sort of measure regarding force shaping in the USN. In fact, it could be reasonably argued that the Navy already has that approach covered with the SSBN weapon system which has the added advantage of combining a high attrition capacity with high efficiency execution.

    We do have a technologically developed Navy, but at the same time there is strategic depth in both numbers and fleet make-up today that could only be matched by potential competitors if you combined the next 10 or 11 navies in the rest of the world.

    To suggest that most of our technology is defensive in nature misses the forest for the trees. The entire fleet is an offensive weapon system.

    It all sort of seems like the call to go back to the “simpler time when ships were wood and men were iron” nostalgic debate that has raged for generation after generation of Americans.

    Please help me by suggesting some concrete examples of Navy procurement decisions that could lead to the utopian vision of a simple straightforward approach that would magically imbue the Navy with the ability to avoid strategic paralysis and grind it out along an attrition warfare approach that don’t exist in the fleet today or the one being built to replace it.

    It would do us all a service to remember that today’s technological “goat rope” often mature into the backbone of our armed forces combat strength (ie: helicopters, missiles, DDG-51, naval aviation, laser guided bombs, gunpowder, etc.)

    If you’re talking about the attrition of political will, than you might have a point, but unfortunately that is part and parcel to geographically well situated democracy. The solution to that problem has historically had some unfortunate downsides as well.


  • UltimaRatioReg


    From the standpoint of the US Navy, I would venture that the simple and flexible approach to strategic and operational planning points us down the road of a larger number of less expensive units that can have a presence and still have a decisive capability.

    Small numbers of very expensive warships whose targeting and weapons systems rely on an overly complex imformation/C2 architecture do not adapt well to an enemy that can disrupt/defeat that architecture, as there is no “manual backup” in many cases.

    Also, comparing the US Navy to other navies on a ship-for ship basis is not the most meaningful of comparisons. No other navy has global commitments, save for PERHAPS the RN. All 80 ships of it.

    For instance, comparing the US Navy in its entirety to the PLAN is missing the point. What can 7th Fleet bring to a trouble spot in an area where the PLAN has operated for some time? And what losses to anti-access systems must be assumed? Taking those factors into account shrink the odds precipitously.

    There are those who believe (me among them) that a 280-odd ship Navy of current mix is inadequate for US maritime commitments. Certainly an 8-CVN 230-ship Navy will be so, particularly with both Russia and the PLAN engaging in significant shipbuilding, or with stated intentions to do so.

  • Derrick

    Is comparing hull counts a sure method of comparing the fighting capabilities of opposing navies?

  • ArkadyRenko

    This article, in a second light, really doesn’t make much sense at all.

    Classic Attrition is the steady and simplistic destruction of the enemies forces. The example is the battle of Verdun. The Germans attacked Verdun not to seize the terrain, but to bleed the French dry. That is attrition. Attrition doesn’t maneuver to achieve greater advantages, attrition doesn’t attack weak points to compel a retreat, attrition doesn’t strike at supply lines to weaken the enemy or hamper mobility. Attrition aims to destroy the enemies forces faster than they can destroy yours. The idea of superior force at the critical point doesn’t apply to attrition. Because, for attrition, the critical point is only the enemies body count, nothing more, nothing less.

    Other strategies can be called attrition, for example Napoleon’s campaign before Austerlitz. But that campaign was decisively not attrition, it was an attempt to maneuver around the enemy to achieve a decisive victory without the destruction of the enemy forces. Napoleon didn’t seek to grind the Austrians down in a series of battles, Napoleon tried to defeat the Austrians through maneuver and attacks at crucial supply areas. That is strategy of motion, not a strategy of attrition.

    Now argument put forward here is: the natural state of warfare is attrition, therefore the Navy should be prepared to fight a war of attrition. For example, it should aim to reduce its reliance on technology and instead go for more tried and true weapons.

    However, I don’t understand how a cheaper Navy or a less technologically reliant Navy will have a better chance fighting in the South China Sea. With or without technology the threat is the same. An advanced Soviet style reconnaissance strike complex, only this time with even more advanced weapons, here the ASBM. What no one has successfully argued, in my opinion, is that less advanced warships, operating in larger numbers, would be superior to a smaller number of more advanced warships.

    And, fundamentally, the goal of fighting with ships in the South China Sea may just be flat out mistaken. It may just be the case that, if China wants to, it can control the South China sea far more than we are able to contest it, absent air bases in the surrounding countries. In that case, surface ships are not the answer, it will be subs.

    Finally, attrition is a simple strategy of solely seeking to destroy the enemies combat power without regard to any other strategic goals. It is not a grand strategy for simple and flexible ships. You could build the Navy to fight a war of attrition, but you can’t build the Navy along a strategic frame given by the nebulous concept of “attrition” given above.

  • The Battle of Stalingrad was supposed to be another winnable battle of attrition. It was, by the heretofore militarily inferior side. Had the Germans stuck with their technologically superior open terrain deep armored/mobile envelopments and surrounded the city on both sides of the Volga, they hardly would have had to fight at all, let alone been catastrophically defeated.

    Anyone promoting fighting a battle let alone war of attrition on the Asian mainland is serving the enemy and heading us to our complete and utter destruction … if, for no other reason, we just don’t have the bodies to lose.

  • Chuck Hill

    What we have to guard against is the attitude that we can do with less because we technologically superior or simply more clever than the other guy. I’ve already seen this attitude manifest in our air and ground forces. This sort of thing leads to nasty surprises.

  • UltimaRatioReg



    I don’t know how else the post could be read, but apparently it can.

  • Benjamin Walthrop

    Many who argue for a more numerous less technologically capable force assume that such a force structure (by its very nature) would be less expensive (or deliver more capability for the same price tag). This is a very big assumption that the proponents of this approach have not been adequately able to demonstrate with any sort of rigorous analysis that I’ve been able to find to date. This is a big smoking hole in the balance sheet of commentators who argue for this approach from my perspective.

    It’s one of those things that looks good on paper, and makes for some interesting sound bites in the press but is probably based on some very optimistic assumptions. If INSURV results are any indication (and I believe that they are) the USN seems incapable of maintaining the current fleet in the material condition that many desire (or more accurately what they believe is required). This problem is not primarily driven by the high tech C4 and weapons systems deployed, but by the pedestrian low tech propulsion, auxiliary, and structural systems of ships. Do some research on the percentage of the USNs maintenance budget that is spent on corrosion control. Paint systems are certainly not rocket surgery, but they do represent an outsize percentage of maintenance requirements. How does this inconvenient truth translate to affordability in a more numerous lower tech fleet. The last time I looked, steel and paint are some of the lowest tech components of our ships (as is fuel), but sadly those low tech components end up being major cost drivers over the lifecycle of those same ships. An even greater number of supposedly cheaper but lower tech platforms merely exacerbates this maintenance and operations budget “bogey,” and this is just one example of many (manning anyone) that could be argued with actual data rather than sentimental hogwash.

    I will grant that procurement costs would probably be less burdensome with lower technology systems, but since procurement costs (including research and development) are only 30%-40% of major weapons system lifecycle costs based on historical data, I suspect that the lower tech more numerous attritionistas are selling a bill of goods. At best, it is a short term (20 year) solution that will have the unintended consequence of degrading the civilian technology infrastructure that supports the US military’s combat capability requirements. COTS has been tried and found to be wanting. Would you really want Windows Vista being the backbone of even the lowest tech C2 network?

    Like it or not, after WWII, the US chose to counter higher mass with higher tech, and after 50 or 60 years of those decisions we are probably stuck with it going forward. The interrelationships between manning decisions, technology and infrastructure investment, and other seemingly unrelated economic factors have conspired to make this decades old approach almost structural in nature. That said, a more balanced fleet can be acquired over time, but like many Americans the folks pushing for a different direction want to see big course changes quickly and call upon long dead military strategists to make their case. While interesting, this is not a particularly relevant approach because back in the real world the plodding advance of a democratically elected government moves at the pace of a democratically elected government (thank goodness).


  • I have noticed in reading many posts over time the increasing thoughts that China is an enemy of the United States. In 1907 after the Russo/Japanese War, Japan made the United States her budgetary enemy for the purpose of determining the size of her Navy. This developed a perception of hostility when both countries were allies in 1907. Over the next two decades this perception grew so by the late 1930’s certain Japanese officials actually wanted war with the US. Of course in the end this brought disaster to the Japanese people.

    In my humble opinion the US Navy has not made a good case for developing a naval strategy post cold war. Without another naval power it must create a threat to justify its size and the money spent on it.

    China will never be a major global naval power. She does not have the geography which is one of the key elements if you study Mahan. Malaya, Sumatra, Java, Borneo, Phillipines, and Japan, all provide choke points to the open oceans that a few subs could establish a distant blockade and eliminate any commerce from exitting or entering the South China Sea. China needs oil and gets most of it from the Middle East. She would have to develop a Navy capable of something similar to Japan’s WWII Navy and actually seize these territories and then try to hold them. In addition other than nuclear weapons China has no real capability to stop US industrial capacity for war if the US fully mobalizes. China has no real interests in going to war with another nuclear power.

    The US Navy should never justify itself based on another nations Navy. The US must develop what capabilities they want from their Navy and establish this. In this regard staying power is the true measure of naval power. The great error in todays fleet was made in the 70’s when it replaced the first generation of surface ships of the carrier era (WWII battleships, cruisers, destroyers)and developed the equalivent of a light AA cruiser for all escort duties. A general purpose destroyer around 3,000 tons was abandoned, along with the larger surface escorts which provided large magazines, major firepower, and tremendous staying power, that complemented the carrier airwings. In addition modern armament can not be re-loaded at sea a huge disadvantage from WWII.

    Logistical support also has diminished and in my opinion the US Navy has abandoned the Marines when it concerns a forced entry operation. This results in a Navy that must concentrate in huge numbers in order to have enough ammunition and supplies to maintain combat operations for more than a few days. It must rely on friendly ports normally based in another country which is undependable to rely on. The Navy should develop a strategy based on staying power and not base itself on any other nations navy. This would require a complete re-design of the surface navy and its logistical support something that is in complete dis-array today.

    Just my 2 cents,


  • Derrick

    So is the US Navy vulnerable to enemies that use strategies of attrition? I would hope that the carriers and their supply ships would carry enough supplies to conduct combat operations over a sustained period of time, say a month…to give time for re-supply ships to move in.

    I agree with the posts that think building a navy against another nation’s navy, such as China’s, is a bad strategy. Personally I tend go with this person’s strategy:

    Only problem I can dream of is that it appears to be a very costly and expensive strategy.

  • Chuck Hill

    Great discussion. Another way to think about this, related to Benjamin Walthrop’s comment is that we can divide life cycle into fixed up front costs and long term variable costs. The high tech stuff tends to be highly effective relative to its annual cost, but needs a long life to amortize its high fixed costs. The low tech solution tends to be highly effective relative to its initial fixed costs but variable costs are higher for the for given levels of effectiveness.

    So what happens is in peacetime you tend to accumulate the high tech high initial cost items (CVNs, DDGs, SSNs) because your planning horizon is long and you want to minimize variable costs. When at war or when you can see one coming, your planning horizon gets much shorter so you start adding the low tech stuff (SSKs, DEs, corvettes)

  • Derrick
  • UltimaRatioReg


    I must disagree with several of your assertions.

    “In 1907 after the Russo/Japanese War, Japan made the United States her budgetary enemy for the purpose of determining the size of her Navy. This developed a perception of hostility when both countries were allies in 1907.”

    The Japanese began to build naval power in relation to the United States (as we began vis-a-vis Japan) at the beginning of the last century because they recognized, as did we, that the ambitions of the two countries in the Pacific were mutually exclusive and likely to lead to hostility. We did not go to war because either country built naval budgets based on the others’ sea power. We built the respective US and IJN navies to counter the other because we were on a collision course for war to determine supremacy in the Pacific.

    The IJN of 1919-1945 was in no way a global navy. But for a short and moderately successful raid into the Indian Ocean (helped by a badly botched Royal Navy response) in April 1942, the Japanese never put significant naval forces outside of Pacific waters. The PLAN is also not a global force (yet, though this is their clear and stated ambition), but is built to dominate the same region, the same island barriers, for the same resources and defensive reasons as the IJN was built and deployed in 1941-43.

    Your point, though, that the US should not build a Navy merely to offset China is correct, in the final analysis. Our decades of planning for War Plan Orange from 1919-1939 ignored the demand for US Navy presence elsewhere in the world’s waters. Indeed, that the size of the Navy was badly underestimated by the events of 1939-40 was apparent in the aggressive emergency shipbuilding plans of those years which bore the massive fleets of 1943-45 that defeated Japan.

    But from 1942-late 1943, the US Navy struggled to provide sufficient warships, amphibs, transports, and auxiliaries to cover the Solomons, the Gilberts, New Britain, and New Guinea in the Pacific, while simultaneously being engaged in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and preparations for OVERLORD.

    Chuck’s point is exactly right. The balancing of the US Navy, between higher numbers of lower cost units and low-density, high-cost units, and the respective planning horizons to an appropriate level of sufficiency to be flexible and powerful enough to “be ready to fight tonight”, remains a very critical and neglected task.

    Robert, some other of your points are indisputable. The US Navy has not made a good case for the expenditures. It should, it must, but it hasn’t. We need a global Navy ready to influence and fight anywhere at any time against any threat. You are also correct as to the USN/USMC relationship, and your point about abandoning the 3,000-ton destroyer type for a larger and more sophisticated platform is also spot-on.

    My belief is that the USN gets plenty of shipbuilding money. What the Navy does with it, well, that is a much more problematic subject…

  • Dear UltimaRatioReg,

    Let me clarify my point about Japan in 1907. There are papers in Japan’s National Archives which point out how the Army chose Russia as their budgetary enemy and the Navy chose the United States as their budgetary enemy to base the amount of funds each service would recieve. There are actual papers authorizing this “plan” beginning in 1907 (even has a title) and this was how the budgets were going to be determined in the future. So this was an actual Japanese policy to base their naval expediture on another nations navy, signed by the Emperor himself.

    It was not intentional, but this was the first domino to fall that would lead to war, because it developed this “perception” that the US was hostile to Japan in 1907. The net result was it got Japanese Naval leadership thinking and placing in the minds of their recruits the next enemy would be the US when in reality the next war would be with Germany. In 1907 Great Britian and the US were Japan’s allies and would be through WWI and were very significant trading partners. Japan’s economy in 1907 was largely self sufficient because coal was the main energy source and not oil yet. Japan still did not have the infrastructure to build a large Navy on her own and was largely ordering ships from Great Britain. The US Naval build up between 1907-1918 was not aimed at Japan but was actually an arms race to counter both Britain and Germany.

    By the Washington Treaty of 1920 or was it 1921? This perception had grown so intense in Japan that certain Admirals could not accept the 60% ratio of battleships finally agreed too, forgetting that this treaty saved Japan from becoming bankrupt and the 8-8 fleet program would have never been completed anyway. This treaty also broke up the British/Japanese alliance. It was here in the 1920’s that US focus changed, as Japan and the US began to compete for the Pacific.

    The split budget between Japan’s Army and her Navy also generated a disfunction because each service was planning its own seperate war instead of a National Policy for defence. In doing so her Navy focused on defeating the US Navy instead of deterance and avoiding a war with the US.

    So my point is basically when I read many articles today about the current US Navy, I keep seeing some people say China is our next “enemy”. This worries me, are some making the same mistake Japan did in 1907?

    By creating a miss-perception that China will become a nation that could actually challenge the US for supremacy of the worlds oceans and that justifies our need for 12-13 carrier battlegroups. This is not a defence policy but a naval bureaucracy trying to justify itself. I love the Navy and change can be extremely difficult to a bureaucracy with so much tradition and history behind it.

    I would love to talk more about how the US Navy took the wrong lessons from history and this played a critical role in the 1970s in ship building, with its ramifications now coming out, however I have to go so maybe a later post.


  • UltimaRatioReg


    Though you make several correct points, there are several others that are wide of the mark, particularly conclusions regarding Japan and the PLAN.

    Japan did not choose the US Navy or the Russian Army as possible opponents arbitrarily. Japan estimated that the only navy after 1904-05 capable of challenging Japanese ambitions in the Pacific was ours. Similarly, they estimated the only land army capable of challenging Japan in its Asian continental ambitions was Russia’s. (Both of Japan’s assumptions were correct, by the way.)

    The friction between the US and Japan, and the respective navies, was not due to them being the focus as arbitrary adversaries. The converse was true. National interest, maritime tradition, and industrial capabilities determined the collision course.

    The lack of a unified national strategy was indeed a shortcoming of Japanese policy makers in the interwar period. But the competition between the US and Japan for the Pacific went back many years before the Washington and London Treaties. Japan began to execute its plans for the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” in 1931, barely a decade after the Washington Treaty. That and the war in China, and the sinking of Panay, cemented Japan as an adversary of the US.

    Your assertion that the war with Japan when it came being the result of military miscalculation and misunderstanding is false. The war was desired, planned for, and started by Japan. The miscalculation came in whether they could win in the six months’ grace period after the US entered the war. The popular assertion that “war is a failure of diplomacy” is found wanting when discussing Japan and the 20th Century dictatorships. Nations recognize the potential for conflict in achieving their ambitions among their rivals. Some seek to avoid that conflict, others seek to bring it about.

    Two things about China. One, they have stated their global ambitions on the world’s oceans. Perhaps not between now and 2015, but what about in 2035? Or 2050? Two, the PLAN is on the verge of successfully denying the Western Pacific to those elements of the USN that might be spared from other missions or conflicts, which obviates the USN’s presence mission in WESTPAC, with predictably disastrous results to US national interests and to US allies. That is a strategic fact of life, not anybody’s justification.

  • Chuck Hill

    I have to say I can see Robert’s position regarding how a dynamic is set in motion by a combination of preconceptions, the desire to justify a force’s existence, and national hubris.

    You saw the same dynamic between France and Italy in the interwar period. Their respective navies were designed to fight the other even though they had been allies in WWI and seemed to have no major interests in conflict. I don’t know which navy or country first started them down this road but the process was clear and enshrined in the Washington Treaty. In this position, you have to pick a potential adversary that is neither too weak nor overwhelmingly strong. Italy did not build against the British Navy, because that appeared impossible. They didn’t design their navy against a weaker power, say Greece, Yugoslavia, or Albania, because that would not have provided justification for their ambition.

    Having said that. If another country is building up their forces to fight you, it is only logical build your own forces to counter them.

    The encouraging aspect of this is that just as France and Italy were balanced by the Washington Treaty, so were the US and Britain, but despite years of developing plans for war between the US and Britain we avoided allowing the apparent parity to develop into conflict.

    I have often thought that before WWII the Japanese and US actually shared an interest in ousting the colonial powers from Asia. If the Japanese had worked toward that end, instead of establishing their own colonies, we might have been allies. Unfortunately they had spent too much time reading Mahan.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    I would argue that the dynamic was NOT set in motion by preconceptions, or by an attempt to justify a force. The dynamic was set in motion because, while both the US and Japan may have had a common goal of ousting colonial powers in the western Pacific, Japan’s corollary to that was to replace those powers with herself, to the exclusion of all others.

    That goes much deeper than simply being hubris. That was a national (and in Japan’s case, racial) viewpoint of themselves as the rightful and unchallenged masters of the region. There may have been common interests between the US and Japan, but the nature of the Japanese empire, indeed its entire character, made it incompatible with the United States.

    Russia and Germany shared many common regional goals in the 1920s and 30s, but their incompatibility would, in the end, make war between them all but inevitable.

  • There is a very good book entitled Mahan to Pearl Harbor by a good Japanese historian whom because the book is not in front of me I do not remember his name. (I’ll write it down and can post in tomorrow) However he does a good job of showing all the “dominos” that fell leading Japan to war. I may not be very good at communicating in a short post but we are far more in agreement than maybe my posts convey. The author also makes a point that in his opinion the 1907 “budget plan” was the very first mistake made in a long chain of mistakes for the next 34 years. I do not wish to convey that this one mistake was all that contributed to the decisions to go to war only that it was the earliest or very first mistake made by Japan.

    I do not wish to divert this thread from its original topic and I am afraid I have.