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Hattendorf, Mahan On Naval Strategy (XXI)

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Matt Domsalla

SAASS 600/9

On Naval Strategy Precis

Mahan on Naval Strategy is a compilation of Mahan’s works including The Influence of Sea Power Upon History 1660 – 1783 and his lectures at the US Naval War College. Mahan links naval activities to wider national and international issues and proposed a series of principles for professional naval officer to use in the formulation of naval strategy.

Data: Mahan, Alfred T. Mahan on Naval Strategy: Selections from the Writing of Real Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, Edited by John Hattendorf (Annapolis: US Naval Institute, 1991)

Author: Alfred T. Mahan graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1859, served as the president of the US Naval War College, and retired as a Captain, though was promoted to Rear Admiral in recognition of his service in the Civil War. He was born at West Point in 1840, where his father, Dennis Hart Mahan, was a professor of civil and military engineering and dean of the faculty. During the Civil War, Mahan served on various ships on blockade duty and also at the Naval Academy, where he served under Lt Cmdr Stephen B. Luce on the USS Macedonian. Mahan also served on the USS Iroquois in the Asiatic Squadron, and then commanded the USS Wasp. Luce asked Mahan to join him at the newly established Naval War College in 1885 to teach naval history. Mahan then succeeded Luce as the president of the College. His lectures at the War College eventually appeared as The Influence of Sea Power Upon History 1660 – 1783 (1890) and Naval Strategy Compared and Contrasted with the Principles and Practice of Military Operations on Land (1911). Mahan claims his epiphany one the importance of sea power occurred while reading Mommsen’s The History of Rome. For Mahan, control of the sea or lack of it was the clue to the rise and fall of empires.

Context: Mahan wrote toward the end of the Pax Britannica. The Pax Britannica was not forced upon the world by the operations of a large navy, rather, other nations accepted British ascendancy in the areas of finance, industry, commerce, and shipping. The Pax Britannica ended when other nations bean to industrialize, produce steam machinery, lay iron railroads, and construct iron ships form the products of their own factories.

Technological changes included the change from wood to iron, sail to steam, and round shot to shells, resulting in not only a new technological emphasis, but a new approach to naval tactics and strategy.

Mahan also wrote at the end of US westward expansion, so the nation could only expand overseas.


Evidence: Historical study, primarily of Britain and France.

Central Proposition: The fundamental principle of all naval war [is] that defense is insured only by offense, and that the one decisive objective of the offensive is the enemy’s organized battle fleet.

Other Major Propositions: National and international functions can be discharged only by command of the sea.

The office of statesman is to determine, and to indicate to the military authorities, the national interests most vital to be defended, as well as the objects or conquest or destruction most injurious to the enemy, in view of the political exigencies which the military power only subserves. The methods by which the military force will proceed to the ends thus indicated to it… are technical matters, to be referred to the military or naval expert by the statesmen. If the latter undertakes to dictate in these, he goes beyond his last and commonly incurs misfortune.

Sea power alone is not the cause of greatness or wealth of a state. The due use and control of the sea is but one link in the chain of exchange by which wealth accumulates; but it is the central link, which lays under contribution other nations for the benefit of the one holding it, and which, history seems to assert, most surely of all gathers to itself riches.

Wars are won by the economic strangulation of the enemy from the sea.

Concentration was the predominant principle of naval warfare.

Never divide the fleet.


· Internal Consistency and Comprehensiveness –Mahan neglected to define with any precision the term sea power. He uses the term loosely to mean (1) command of the sea through naval superiority and (2) that combination of maritime commerce, overseas possessions, and privileged access to foreign markets that produces national wealth and greatness. Mahan neglects the utility of naval artillery and of sea-borne infantry assaults against targets ashore. defined, categorized, explain, connect, complete?

· External Validity – Historians have found fault with his analysis on the grounds of oversimplification by omission. Mahan’s theories do not account for the rise of non-maritime empires such as Russia, Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Turkey, or Bismark’s Germany. Furthermore, factors other than naval superiority must be taken into account to explain Britain’s victories over France between 1688 and 1815 - land operations on the Continent and diplomatic successes.

Comparison and Synthesis: Jomini’s writing deeply influenced Mahan, who is sometimes called the Jomini of the seas.

Corbett applied Clausewitz’s philosophical approach to understanding the nature of warfare to naval affairs. So, Corbett went beyond Mahan, subsuming his ideas and placing them in wider context.

Importance: Mahan’s two greatest contributions to the development of naval thought were (1) linking maritime and naval activities to wider national and international issues, and (2) spelling out a series of principles for professional naval officers to use in the formulation of naval strategy.

Mahan was the first naval theorist to be widely read and appreciated. His works were read in Britain and Germany. Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz and other Germans were influenced by Mahan’s work. The German Navy Law of 1898 was the first of four that kindled the naval race with Britain, eventually resulting in WWI.

Mahan asked his readers to give serious though to questions such as the meaning of the concept of national interest; the moral dimensions of military force; the responsibilities, as well as the opportunities, of world power; the composition of fleets; the logistical requirements of warfare; and, most importantly, the use of navies as instruments of national policy.

Personal Significance:


· “The history of Sea Power is largely… a narrative of contests between nations, of mutual rivalries, of violence frequently culminating in war. The profound influence of sea commerce upon the wealth and strength of countries was clearly seen long before the true principles which governed its growth and prosperity were detected… therefore the history of sea power, while embracing in its broad sweep all that tends to make people great upon the sea or by the sea, is largely a military history.” (1)

· “Many of the conditions of war vary from age to age with the progress of weapons, there are certain teachings in the school of history which remain constant, and being, therefore, of universal application, can be elevated to the rank of general principles.” (2)

· “The power to assume the offensive, or to refuse battle, rests no longer with the wind, but with the party which has the greater speed.” (7)

· “War has such principles; their existence is detected by the study of the past, which reveals them in successes and in failure, the same from age to age. Conditions and weapons change; but to cope with the one or successfully wield the others, respect must be had to these constant teachings of history in the tactics of the battlefield or in those wider operations of war which are comprised under the name of strategy.” (8)

· “The unresting progress of mankind causes continual change in the weapons; and with that must come a continual change in the manner of fighting – in the handling and disposition of troops or ships on the battlefield.” (9 – 10)

· “At a very conspicuous and momentous period of the world’s history, Sea Power had a strategic bearing and weight which has received scant recognition.” (14)

· “It is as defective to omit sea power from the list of principal factors in the result, as it would be absurd to claim for it an exclusive influence.” (22)

· “Naval strategy has indeed for its end to found, support, and increase, as well in peace as in war, the sea power of a country.” (24)

· “The necessity of a navy, in the restricted sense of the word, springs, therefore, from the existence of a peaceful shipping, and disappears with it, except in the case of a nation which has aggressive tendencies, and keeps up a navy merely as a branch of the military establishment. As the United States has at present no aggressive purposes, an as its merchant service has disappeared, the dwindling of the armed fleet and general lack of interest in it are strictly logical consequences. When for any reason set trade is again found to pay, a large enough shipping interest will reappear to compel the revival of the war fleet.” (28 – 29)

Discussion of the Elements of Sea Power

· “In these three things – production, with the necessity of exchanging products, shipping, whereby the exchange is carried on, and colonies, which facilitate and enlarge the operations of shipping and tend to protect it by multiplying points of safety – is to be found the key to much of the history, as well as of the policy, of nations bordering upon the sea.” (30)

· “The principal conditions affecting the sea power of nations may be enumerated as follows: (1) Geographical Position, (2) Physical Conformation, including, as connected therewith, natural productions and climate, (3) extent of Territory, (4) number of population, (5) character of the people, and (6) character of the government, including therein the national institutions.” (31)

· “Their needs and genius [of the English] made them merchants and colonists, then manufacturers and producers; and between products and colonies shipping is the inevitable link. So their sea power grew.” (39)

· “All men seek gain and, more or less, love money.” (53)

· “The character of a great people breaks through or shapes the character of its government, and it can hardly be doubted that had the bent of the people been toward trade, the action of government would have been drawn into the same current.” (54)

· “The tendency to trade, involving of necessity the production of something to trade with, is the national characteristic most important to the development of sea power.” (56)

· “First in peace: the government by its policy can favor the natural growth of a people’s industries and its tendencies to seek adventure and gain by way of the sea… Secondly for war” the influence of the government will be felt in its most legitimate manner in maintaining an armed navy, of a size commensurate with the growth of its shipping and the importance of the interests connected with it.” (88)

· “From time to time the superstructure of tactics has to be altered or wholly torn down; but the old foundations of strategy so far remain, as though laid upon a rock.” (95)

Foundations and Principles

· “The definitions of strategy, as usually given, confine the application of the word to military combinations, which embrace one or more fields of operations, either wholly distinct or mutually dependent, but always regarded as actual or immediate scenes of war.” (100)

· “Naval strength involves, unquestionably, the possession of strategic points, but its greatest constituent is the mobile navy.” (106)

Position, Strength, Resources

· “The strategic value of any place depends upon three principal conditions:” (1) its position, or more exactly its situation; (2) its military strength, offensive and defensive, and (3) the resources, of the place itself and of the surrounding country.” (111)

· “The sea, or water, is the great medium of circulation established by nature, just as money has been evolved by man for the exchanges of products. Change the flow of either in direction or amount, and you modify the political and industrial relations of mankind.” (118)

· “In war, the defensive exists mainly that the offensive may act more freely. In sea warfare, the offensive is assigned to the navy; and if the latter assumes to itself the defensive, it simply locks up a part of its trained men in garrisons, which could be filled as well by forces that have not their peculiar skill. To this main proposition I must add a corollary, that if the defense of ports, many in number, be attributed to the navy, experience shows that the navy will be subdivided among them to an extent that will paralyze its efficiency.” (128)

Strategic Lines

· “The most important of strategic lines are those which concern the communications. Communications dominate war.” (144)

· “Other things being equal, the greater the distance the greater the difficulty of defense and of attack; and where there are many such points, the difficulty of defense increases in proportion to their distance, number, and dissemination.” (156 – 157)

· “Rapid distant expeditions, then, are more feasible by sea than by land, because of the greater mobilities of navies; but they are also less decisive in their effect than an equal success won in the mother country or over the fleet, because the blow is delivered upon the extremities and not at the heart.” (167)

· “The supreme essential condition to the assertion and maintenance of national power in external maritime regions is the possession of a fleet superior to that of any probable opponent.” (168)

· “In naval war the fleet itself is the key position of the whole.” (168)

· “In war the proper main objective of the navy is the enemy’s navy.” (176)

Distant Operations and Maritime Expeditions

· Uses examples of Syracuse and Alexandria

· “The application of a principle to a particular case is often difficult, in war or in morals.” (211)

Operations of War

· “When such a success had been won, the particular expedition, having next to secure and preserve that which had been gained, passes from the offensive, with which it started, to the defensive, and that the true part for the navy to bear in such a defensive is the offensive-defensive.” (219)

· “[The size of the navy] should be so great, and its facilities for mobilization and for maintenance of supplies should be such, that a foreign country contemplating war should feel instant anxiety because of the immediate danger that would arise form that navy, either to itself, or to its dependencies, or to its commerce.” (227)

· “The proper objective is not a geographical point, but the organized military force of the enemy.” (231)

· “Great political results often flow from correct military action; a fact which no military commander is at liberty to ignore.” (247)

· “The history of war is full of instances where sound military principles have been overridden by political of sentimental considerations, by lack of military skill in the commanders of fleets and armies, or of moral courage to bear a great responsibility.” (273)

· “Science discovers and teaches truths which it has no power to change; Art, out of materials which it finds about it, creates new forms in endless variety… Art acknowledges principles and even rules; but these are not so much getters, or bars, which completes its movements aright, as guides which warn when it is going wrong. In this living sense, the conduct of war is an art, having its spring in the mind of man, dealing with very various circumstances, admitting certain principles; but beyond that, manifold in its manifestations, according to the genius of the artist and the temper of the materials with which he is dealing.” (278)

· “Maxims of war, therefore, are not so much positive rules as they are the developments and applications of a few general principles.” (278)

Considerations Governing the Disposition of Navies

· “Logically separable, in practice the political, commercial, and military needs are so intertwined that their mutual interaction constitutes one problem.” (281)

· ”Applied even to military and naval leaders, it errs by lack of qualification; but for the statesman, under whom the soldier or seaman acts, the political as well as the military conditions must influence, must at times control, and even reverse direction.” (282)

· “So political conditions may right be allowed at times to overweight military prudence, or to control military activity.” (283)

· “The question between military and political considerations is therefore one of proportion, varying from time to time as attendant circumstances change.” (283)

· “As commerce is the engrossing and predominant interest of the world today, so, in consequence of its acquired expansion, oversea commerce, oversea political acquisition, and maritime commercial routes are now the primary objects of external policy among nations.” (287)

· “When war has been accepted as necessary, success means nothing short of victory; and victory must be sought by offensive measures, and by them only can be insured.” (289)

· This of course leads us straight back to the fundamental principles of all naval war, namely, that defense is insured only by offense, and that the once decisive objective of the offensive is the enemy’s organized force, his battle-fleet.” (298)

· “War is a business of positions.” (313)

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