The U.S. Navy Has Forgotten What It’s Like to Fight

The U.K.'s defeat at Jutland is a reminder of how a victorious force can get lazy.

A painting of the World War I Battle of Jutland shows the sinking hit of the British battlecruiser HMS Indefatigable shortly before its explosion on May 31, 1916. (Willy Stöwer/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
A painting of the World War I Battle of Jutland shows the sinking hit of the British battlecruiser HMS Indefatigable shortly before its explosion on May 31, 1916. (Willy Stöwer/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

The popular imagination remembers World War I as a tale of trenches, mud, rats, and barbed wire. But the grinding ground war between the entrenched armies in France wasn’t the only conflict. In the east, Russia and the Central Powers fought a war of movement over vast plains. In the south, Italian and Austro-Hungarian troops froze in the white war of the mountains. On the periphery of Europe, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk frustrated the Allied thrust at Gallipoli, while far away German cruisers wreaked havoc along the South American coast.

If there was one thing shared in all these theaters, it was a leadership struggling to comprehend how quickly war had changed, and to reconcile the lessons they’d been taught with the grim realities of the ground. For most, it was a drawn-out education. But for the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy, which had assumed it would win the glory it saw as its birthright, it was a single sharp shock—one with lessons that the U.S. Navy should be heeding today.

The Great War’s maritime battle has much to teach a U.S. Navy that has faced no peer in battle since World War II, and not even the prospect of an enemy since the Soviet Navy’s demise in 1991. The U.S. Navy has fallen into some of the same vices that bedeviled the Royal Navy by the turn of the 20th century, and that were exposed at the Battle of Jutland in 1916.

The Royal Navy had been anticipating a clash with the German Imperial Navy since the beginning of the war, in the confident knowledge that it would prevail. But at Jutland, off Denmark’s North Sea coast, the upstart German High Seas Fleet gave worse than it got against Britain’s Grand Fleet. The battle was inconclusive, but for an Admiralty that took British victory as the natural state of affairs, that was as bad as losing. Prewar British policy had been that the navy should be able to take on its two largest competitors at the same time. Yet so effective were German gunners, and so inept British maneuvering, that Battlecruiser Fleet commander Vice Adm. Sir David Beatty quipped: “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.” That blood was quite literal; the British lost 14 ships and more than 6,000 men—double the price the Germans paid.

There was, indeed, something wrong with the bloody ships, but the Grand Fleet’s woes were more cultural than material. Ship design was one problem; handling was a worse one. Since the Napoleonic Wars a century beforehand, Royal Navy commanders had taken to scripting out fleet movements in minute detail. The Admiralty published signal books explaining how: The signals crew in a flagship would encode an order from the admiral in a complex series of signal flags, hoist the flags up the yardarm on ropes, wait for signal crews on other ships to read and decode the message, then execute the order by hauling down the flags.

This system sounds awfully intricate for saltwater surroundings, and so it was; its efficacy was dubious even during peacetime maneuvers. Fleets mainly consisted of steam-powered surface ships whose boilers burned coal or thick oil. They belched forth black smoke, sometimes deliberately made by skippers to obscure their movements. Inadvertent smoke, hazy skies, or winds that twisted flags could blind the fleet just as easily, disrupting the nautical choreography that gladdened admirals’ hearts.

The sea is unfriendly to parade-ground efficiency by its nature. Few formations survive first contact with the enemy. They scatter amid the clangor of arms. Fighting degenerates into melees that pit individual ships or flotillas against each other. The battle’s outcome is the sum of many small-scale engagements. Tactical choreography hurts the cause if ship or fleet commanders are unused to operating off-script—and off-script is where single-ship encounters take place. Individual enterprise and derring-do, not orders from central authority, decide between triumph and defeat.

None of this should have come as news to British tars, but by 1916 the Royal Navy had in effect forgotten about the rigors of war against a peer competitor. Combat is the arbiter of what does and doesn’t work in naval affairs. But 19th-century Britain had no maritime rival to provide a reality check. Conflicts were limited to gunboat diplomacy, hunting slavers, and bombarding weak states. Fresh complexity encrusted each edition of the Signal Book as the 19th century went on, but few noticed that the system was unfit for a combat setting.

Tranquil times let Royal Navy officers indulge their proclivity for authoritarian command. Control freaks gravitate to the naval officer corps. What do officers do if there’s no one to fight? They obsess over scripted ship movements, strict obedience to orders, administrative busywork, spit and polish, and sundry other matters that do little to hone battle efficiency. One of Murphy’s Laws of Combat holds that no combat-ready unit has ever passed a peacetime inspection. But if the leadership talks itself into believing combat will never happen, a navy spends its time preparing for peacetime inspections.

At Jutland, history issued a grim verdict on British administrative prowess. Germany had only started building an oceangoing battle fleet around the turn of the century. Consumed with administrative trivia, the vaunted British Navy—which had ruled the waves for a century since the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805—came off worst against a fledgling navy crewed by landsmen reared on continental combat.

Perversely, the Royal Navy performed poorly at Jutland in 1916 in part because it won big at Trafalgar that long century before. In October 1805, an outnumbered fleet commanded by Lord Horatio Nelson, Great Britain’s god of sea warfare, crushed the combined fleets of France and Spain off the Andalusian coast. In doing so, Nelson’s force eliminated all peer opposition for the balance of the 19th century.

The Royal Navy had a busy 19th century, but it spent that century prosecuting imperial police actions rather than dueling rival navies. The aftermath of Trafalgar left the service unprepared when a formidable adversary appeared on the scene. Britain was a victim of its own success.

Admirals and sea captains long to vanquish their opposition in Nelsonian fashion, earning their own counterparts to Trafalgar Square. But smashing success dulls their competitive skills and reflexes for when a new challenger emerges—as it will, sooner or later, in the course of human events.

The 18th-century philosopher-statesman Edmund Burke marveled at this paradox. “Difficulty,” Burke wrote, “is a severe instructor … He that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves and sharpens our skill. Our antagonist is our helper. This amicable conflict with difficulty obliges us to an intimate acquaintance with our object and compels us to consider it in all its relations. It will not suffer us to be superficial.”

In a sense, Burke noted, my enemy is my friend. Competition demands that I make myself physically and intellectually fit and strive toward constant self-betterment. Lord Nelson had the French and Spanish navies to contend with. He knew he had to empower subordinate commanders to prevail over an adversary force stronger in raw numbers. He also understood the shortcomings of flag signals and told ship captains what to do if the system faltered: “in case Signals can neither be seen or perfectly understood, no Captain can do very wrong if he places his Ship alongside that of an Enemy.” French skippers liked to stand off and wage gunnery duels at a distance; Royal Navy doctrine exhorted British skippers to close the distance and blast into enemy hulls from knife-fight range.

Nelson’s instructions amounted to: if in doubt, get ‘em!

The hands-off approach worked. It unlocked the energy and ingenuity of individual seamen. As historian Andrew Gordon observes, though, Lord Nelson’s hands-off system started decaying even as he became Britain’s great national martyr, falling on the quarterdeck of his ship at Trafalgar. His immediate successors, such as the dramatic Lord Thomas Cochrane, kept the Nelsonian spirit alive during the wars. But the fetish for elaborate signals and administrative minutiae set in after the downfall of Napoleonic France, when danger no longer loomed. The Royal Navy could afford bad habits.

The result was something Gordon terms “the long, calm lee of Trafalgar.” In maritime affairs the lee is an illusory calm on the downwind side of some bulky object, whether it’s a ship or a landmass. The hull or shore blocks out the wind and elements—but only till the wind shifts or the ship changes course. Then the elements return with a vengeance. But if beneficiaries perchance shelter under a long lee, they may come to assume calm conditions are the natural state of things. They stop preparing for heavy weather because they think it no longer exists. And then a storm comes, and it buffets them with extra force because they’re bewildered and unready.

This phenomenon was on display at Jutland. Is the U.S. Navy impervious to the lee of victory? Hardly. In January 1941, Atlantic Squadron commander Vice Adm. Ernest King issued a memorandum condemning control freakery in the navy. King, who was promoted to admiral the following month, took senior officers to task for dictating not just what their subordinates should do but exactly how they should do it. He demanded they stop it and empower subordinates for the war he saw on the horizon. He sought to instill Nelsonian initiative throughout the officer corps, not just among admirals.

In effect, King concluded that the U.S. Navy of 1941 languished in the long calm lee of triumph in World War I. His message seemed to get through. The U.S. Navy acquitted itself admirably after suffering severe early setbacks from the December attack on Pearl Harbor through mid-1942. Submarines fanned out into the Western Pacific while the battleship fleet still burned in Hawaii. Carrier task forces launched hit-and-run raids against Japanese-held island bases.

By mid-1942, the navy amassed sufficient strength to halt the Japanese offensive at the Battle of Midway and seize the offensive. Victory followed victory from then on, and as a result World War II cast a long lee of its own. The last fleet engagement for the U.S. Navy was against the Imperial Japanese Navy in October 1944, at Leyte Gulf off the Philippine coast. Like Trafalgar, the Battle of Leyte Gulf was decisive; it spelled the end of the Japanese fleet as a fighting force. Nor did the Soviet Navy ever test its American rival in action. Forty years of cold war did little to banish the long calm lee of Leyte.

Like the Royal Navy at Jutland, the postwar U.S. Navy forgot about the chaos and uncertainty of fighting an equal foe. It lacked the ruthless instructor of whom Burke wrote. Where British officers grew dependent on intricate flag signals, American officers have come to lean on satellite communications, GPS, and other electronic crutches. Traditional implements of seamanship—paper nautical charts, compasses, sextants—have fallen into neglect.

Nor have senior commanders resisted the temptation to use high-tech communications to micromanage. World War I-era technology allowed commanders to encroach on subordinates’ freedom of action; modern technology positively encourages it. Fleet bosses can pick up the phone or keyboard and meddle to their hearts’ content. Combine naval magnates’ natural penchant for control freakery with technology that enables them to micromanage and you have a recipe for disappointment and defeat at the hands of a dynamic foe.

That foe might well be China. Like Imperial Germany, Beijing has been pouring resources into the navy in anticipation of a challenge from the global hegemon. A fight on China’s home ground, along coastlines bristling with ship-killing missiles, requires the United States to up its game. But like Great Britain, the United States has been concentrating on the material challenge posed by the new foe and not thinking about how its own culture might end up hampering—if not crippling—real action. The U.S. Navy would do well to ditch that hubris now, lest its future admirals be forced to wonder if there’s something wrong with their bloody carriers.

James R. Holmes is the J.C. Wylie chair of maritime strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and co-author of Red Star Over the Pacific: China's Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy. The views voiced here are his alone.


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