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Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy (XXI)

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Matt Domsalla

SAASS 600/10

Some Principles of Maritime Strategy Precis

Some Principles of Maritime Strategy by Sir Julian Corbett begins by setting out the utility and the limitations of the theoretical approach to war. Corbett emphasizes Clausewitz and grasps the true nature of Clausewitz’s analysis of the relationship of war and politics. Corbett recognizes that limited objects produce limited wars. Corbett argued that strategists should first “determine the nature of the war, to be sure that they do not mistake it for something nor seek to make of it something which from its inherent conditions it can never be.” Limited maritime threats could play a significant role in complicating the overall strategic perceptions of a major continental opponent fighting a war for high stakes. Corbett argues for giving the true shipping protection function of cruisers the maximum priority.

Data: Corbett, Sir Julian S. Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, Edited by Eric Grove (Annapolis: US Naval Institute, 1988)

Author: Sir Julian Corbet is considered to be Britain’s greatest maritime strategist, and yet he came from a non-naval background. He studied law at Trinity College and became a barrister. He became a novelists, and his works had a maritime focus. His first serious historical writing was a two volume work on Sir Francis Drake, Drake and Tudor Navy (1898). He was a founding member of the Navy Records Society. In 1902 Corbett was invited to the Royal Naval College to give lectures to the War Course. The intent behind having a civilian teaching history at the RN College was that he would emphasize the political factors that “deflected” strategy. Corbett published England in the Mediterranean: A Study of the Rise and Influence of British Power Within the Straights, 1603 – 1713 in 1903. Corbett published a work on Nelson, The Campaign of Trafalgar, in 1909. Some Principles appeared in 1911.

Context: Corbett wrote during the rise of the HMS Dreadnought and the development of the torpedo, submarine, airplane, and the radio.


Evidence: Historical study, primarily British naval history.

Central Proposition: The object of naval warfare must always be directly or indirectly either to secure the command of the sea or to prevent the enemy from security it.

Other Major Propositions: Naval strategy does not exist as a separate branch of knowledge. It is only a section of a division of the art of war. War is a form of political intercourse, a continuation of foreign politics which begins when force is introduced to attain our ends.


· Internal Consistency and Comprehensiveness –Corbett failed to see that technical development, notably the perfection of the submarines as a seagoing weapon, would soon force a new emphasis on the direct defense of shipping when war with Germany actually occurred. Corbett could not be expected to foresee the full and revolutionary potential of the airplane. Corbett addresses defense against invasion and combined operations. defined, categorized, explain, connect, complete?

· External Validity – The rapid march of technology (submarines and torpedoes) has not invalidated the basic theory of his section on the constitution of fleets. Corbett’s intellectual framework, which distinguished the battle function from the control function and both from costal activities is of considerable assistance in helping make sense of the different roles of late-twentieth-century naval forces.

Comparison and Synthesis: Corbett follows Mahan in his emphasis on main fleet operations, but he parts company with Mahan on the question of concentration and dispersal.


Personal Significance:

Part I Theory of War

The Theoretical Study of War – Its Use and Limitations

· “[Theory’s] main practical value is that it can assist a capable man to acquire a broad outlook whereby he may be the surer his plan shall cover all the ground, and whereby he may with greater rapidity and certainty seize all the factors of a sudden situation.” (4)

· “Theory is, in fact, a question of education and deliberation, and not of execution at all.” (6)

· “[Theory] can at least determine the normal… Having determined the normal, we are at once in a stronger position. Any proposal can be compared with it, and we can proceed to discuss clearly the weight of the factors which prompt us to depart from the normal.” (9)

· “We are accustomed, partly for convenience and partly from lock of scientific habit of thought, to speak of naval strategy and military strategy as though they were distinct branches of knowledge which had no common ground. It is the theory of war which brings out their intimate relation. It reveals that embracing them both is a larger strategy which regard the fleet and army as one weapon, which coordinates their action, and indicates the lines on which each must move to realize the full power of both. It will direct us to assign to each its proper function in a plan of war; it will enable each service to realize the better limitations and the possibilities of the function with which it is charged, and how and when its own necessities must give way to a higher or more pressing need of the other.” (10 – 11)

· “It discloses, in short, that naval strategy is not a thing by itself, that its problems can seldom or never be solved on naval considerations alone, but that it is only a part of maritime strategy – the higher learning which teaches us that for a maritime State to make successful war and to realize her special strength, army and navy must be used and thought of as instruments no less intimately connected that are the three arms alone.” (11)

Theory of War

· “Naval strategy is but that part of it which determines the movement of the fleet when maritime strategy has determined what part the fleet must play in relation to the action of the land forces; for it scarcely needs saying that it almost impossible that a war can be decided by naval action alone.” (15)

· “The paramount concern, then, of maritime strategy is to determine the mutual relations of your army and navy in a plan of war.” (16)

· “War is a continuation of policy, a form of political intercourse in which we fight battles instead of writing notes.” (18)

· “Theory formed upon the abstract or absolute idea of war would not cover the ground, and therefore failed to give what was required for practical purposes.” (25)

· “Clausewitz’s difficulty in adopting his abstract theory as a working rule was that his practical mind could not forget that war had not begun with the Revolutionary era, nor was it likely to end with it. If that era had changed the conduct of war, it must be presumed that war would change against with other times and other conditions.” (25 – 26)

· “If a theory of war was to be of any use as a practical guide it must cover and explain not only the extreme manifestation of hostility which he himself had witnessed, but every manifestation that had occurred in the past or was likely to recur in the future.” (26)

· “The policy is always the object; war is only the means by which we obtain the object, and the means must always keep the end in view.” (27)

· “The first value, then, of his theory of war is that it gives a clear line on which we may proceed to determine the nature of a war in which we are about to engage, and to ensure that we do not try to apply to one nature of war any particular course of operations simply because they have proved successful in another nature of war.” (28)

Nature of Wars – Offensive and Defensive

· “The classification “offensive and defensive” implies that offensive and defensive are mutually exclusive ideas, whereas the truth is, and it is a fundamental truth of war, that they are mutually complementary.” (33)

Nature of Wars – Limited and Unlimited

· “Whatever the object, the vital and paramount question was the intensity with which the spirit of the nation was absorbed in its attainment.” (42)

· The difference between ‘limited’ and ‘unlimited’ meant “there might be a limit beyond which it would be bad policy to spend that vigor, a point at which, long before your force was exhausted or even fully developed, it would be wiser to abandon your object rather than to spend more upon it.” (43)

Limited War and Maritime Empires

· “For a true limited object we must have not only the power of isolation, but also the power by a secure home defense of barring an unlimited counterstroke.” (57)

· “Limited war is only permanently possible to island Powers or between Powers which are separated by sea, and then only when the Power desiring limited war is able to command the sea to such a degree as to be able not only to isolate the distant object, but also to render impossible the invasion of his home territory.” (57)

· “Limited wars do not turn upon the armed strength of the belligerents, but upon the amount of that strength which they are able or willing to bring to bear at the decisive point.” (58)

· “A war may be limited physically by the strategical isolation of the object, as well as morally by its comparative unimportance.” (59)

Wars of Intervention – Limited Interference in Unlimited War

· “There were those designed purely for the conquest of the objects for which we went to war, which were usually colonial or distant overseas territory; and secondly, operations more or less upon the European seaboard designed not for permanent conquest, but as a method of disturbing our enemy’s plans and strengthening the hands of our allies and our own position.” (61)

Conditions of Strength in Limited War

· “The elements of strength in limited war are closely analogous to those generally inherent in defense.” (72)

· “Limited war permits the use of the defensive without its usual drawbacks to a degree that is impossible in unlimited war.” (72)

· “[Moltke] held that the strongest form of war – that is, the form which economically makes for the highest development of strength in a given force – is strategic offensive combined with tactical defensive.” (73)

· “However great the controlling influence of the political object, it must never obscure the fact that it is by fighting we have to gain our end.” (86)

Part II Theory of Naval War

Theory of the Object – Command of the Sea

· “The object of naval warfare must always be directly or indirectly either to secure the command of the sea or to prevent the enemy from securing it.” (91)

· “Command of the sea, therefore, means nothing but the control of maritime communications, whether for commercial or military purposes. The object of naval warfare is the control of communications, and not, as in land warfare, the conquest of territory. The difference is fundamental.” (94)

· “Whereas on land the process of economic pressure, at least in the modern conception of war, should only begin after decisive victory, at sea it starts automatically from the first. Indeed such pressure may be the only means of forcing the decision we seek, as will appear more clearly when we come to deal with the other fundamental difference between land and sea warfare.” (101)

· “Wars are not decided exclusively by military and naval force. Finance is scarcely less important. When other things are equal, it is the longer purse that wins.” (102)

· “Framing a plan of war or campaign, it must be taken that command may exist in various states or degrees, each of which has its special possibilities and limitation. It may be general or local, and it may be permanent or temporary.” (104)

Theory of the Means – the Constitution of Fleets

· “On cruisers depends our exercise of control; on the battle fleet depends the security of control.” (115)

· “The object of naval warfare is to control maritime communications. In order to exercise that control effectively we must have a numerous class of vessels specially adapted for pursuit. But their power of exercising control is in proportion to our degree of command, that is, to our power of preventing their operations being interfered with by the enemy. Their own power of resistance is in inverse proportion to their power of exercising control; that is to say, the more numerous and better adapted they are for preying on commerce and transports, the weaker will be their individual fighting power.” (117)

Theory of the Method – Concentration and Dispersal of Force

· “From the point of view of the method by which its ends are obtained, strategy is often described as the art of assembling the utmost force at the right time and place; and this method is called “concentration.” (128)

· “Concentration, in fact, implies a continual conflict between cohesion and reach, and for practical purposes it is the right adjustment of those two tensions – ever shifting in force – which constitutes the greater part of practical strategy.” (132)

· “The ideal concentration, in short, is an appearance of weakness that covers a reality of strength.” (152)

Part III Conduct of Naval War


· “In the conduct of naval war all operations will be found to relate to two broad classes of object. The one is to obtain or dispute the command of the sea, and the other to exercise such control of communications as we have, whether the complete command has been secured or not.” (161)

· Methods of securing command – by obtaining a decision, by blockade; methods of disputing command – principle of “fleet in being”, minor counter-attacks; methods of exercising command: defense against invasion, attack and defense of commerce, and attack, defense, and support of military expeditions. (165 – 166)

Methods of Securing Command

· “What the maxim [seeking out the enemy’s fleet] really means is that we should endeavor from the first to secure contact in the best position for bringing about a complete decision in our favor, and as soon as the other parts of our war plan, military or political, will permit.” (180)

· “We can never say that close blockade is better than open, or the reverse. It must always be a matter of judgment.” (200)

· “The general conclusion, then, is that however high may be the purely naval and strategical reasons for adopting open blockade as the best means of securing a decision against the enemy’s fleet, yet the inevitable intrusion of the ulterior object in the form of trade protection or the security of military expeditions will seldom leave us entirely free to use the open method.” (208

Methods of Disputing Command

· “A Power too weak to win command by offensive operations may yet succeed in holding the command in dispute by assuming a general defensive attitude.” (209)

· “Both on land at at sea defense means of course taking certain measures to defer a decision until military or political developments so far redress the balance of strength that we are able to pass to the offensive.” (211)

· “At sea the main conception is avoiding decisive action by strategical or tactical activity, so as to keep our fleet in being till the situation develops in our favor.” (211)

· “The art of torpedo warfare has developed very rapidly. Its range and offensive power have increased in a higher ratio than the means of resisting it.” (231)

· The unproved value of submarines only deepens the mist which overhangs the next naval war. From a strategical point of view we can say no more than that we have to count with a new factor, which gives a new possibility to minor counter-attack.” (231)

Methods of Exercising Command

· “In methods of exercising command are included all operations not directly concerned with securing command or with preventing its being secured by the enemy. We engage in exercising command whenever we conduct operations which are directed not against the enemy’s battle-fleet, but to using sea communications for our own purposes, or to interfering with the enemy’s use of them.” (233)

· “War being, as it is, a complex sum of naval, military, political, financial, and moral factors, its actuality can seldom offer to a naval staff a clean slate on which strategical problems can be solved by well-turned syllogisms.” (234)

· “If we have gained complete command, no invasion can take place, nor will it be attempted. If we have lost it completely no invasion will be necessary, since quite apart from the threat of invasion, we must make peace on the best terms we can get.” (239)

· “The most fertile areas always attracted the strongest attack, and therefore required the strongest defense; and between the fertile and the infertile areas it was possible to draw a line which for strategical purposes was definite and constant.” (261)

· “Where attack is most to be feared, there defense is easiest.” (261)

· “The vulnerability of trade is in inverse ration to its volume, and facility of attack means facility of defense.” (278)

· “By no conceivable means is it possible to give trade absolute protection.” (279)

· “The attack and defense of oversea expeditions are governed in large measure by the principles of attack and defense of trade. In both cases it is a question of control of communications, and if we control them for one purpose, we control them for the other.” (280)

· “No matter what fleet support the landing operations may require, it should never be given in an imperfectly commanded sea to an extent which will deny the possibility of a covering squadron being left free for independent naval action.” (294)

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