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Good Evening, Drifters

This week Secretary of Defense Mark Esper rolled out DoD’s new plans for a massive build-up of the U.S. fleet, including a big boost to submarine building, developing a building new classes of unmanned vessels and even talked about incorporating new unmanned aircraft beyond MQ-25 into the carrier air wing.

You can read about that here:

With DoD’s fleet of 2045, the US military’s chief signals he’s all-in on sea power

One of the things that caught my attention was near the top of Esper’s remarks, he made reference to the great patron saint and prophet of American Seapower, Alfred Thayer Mahan. Esper’s point was that the Navy was facing decline and that it needed an influx of energy, new ideas and resources to maintain the U.S. as a great global power.

So, is Mahan becoming relevant again? That’s what I want to talk about tonight.

A.T. Mahan was a naval officer and a professor at the Naval War College in the late 19th Century. His great contribution to Western society was his 1890 book The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, where he argued, based on Britain’s rise to power in the 17th and 18th centuries, that a big and powerful fleet made for a big and powerful global power.

It’s more complicated than that. I’m probably not explaining it as well as I should.

I know, I’ll phone a friend!

Cmdr. Benjamin Armstrong is a professor at the Naval Academy and a Mahan scholar. In his 2013 book, 21st Century Mahan, Armstrong presents a collection of Mahan’s essays and offers commentary and contextualization. You can buy that here:

21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era  

So, strap in and welcome to another in my occasional series Drift Conversations: Mahan Edition.

Let’s Drift!


Talking Strategy 

The Drift: What was Mahan’s Thesis and what do you think is still ringing true today?

Benjamin Armstrong: A big part of why I did my book on Mahan a few years ago was this notion that some of his ideas are eminently relevant for us today.

Big picture, what was Alfred Thayer Mahan writing about? In order for us to understand that we have to understand who he was writing for: A United States of America in the late 19th Century that wasn’t yet a global power.

When his second book, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, comes out in 1890 it’s an aspirational book. It is about the British and how the Royal Navy contributed to British power around the world. And the basic thesis was that in order to be a great power, in order to be a global force and have a role in global politics, you have to have a Navy.

And it’s not just any Navy, it’s a Navy structured on this idea of a battle fleet. The American Navy was structured at that point around commerce raiding and defensive operations. He was trying to fundamentally change the way the United States saw its Navy.

He had this focus on a battlefleet Navy: Battleships that would fight other battleships from other navies. So, he’s trying to convince America of this and he’s largely successful. People point to the 1898 Spanish-American War and they see Mahan’s influence. The Navy won the decisive battles of that war against Spain, a great power. America ultimately replaces Spain as a great power.

TD: So, he was the battleship guy then?

BA: We have to remember that he wrote a lot of things. He wrote about a dozen books. If we count the op-eds in the New York City newspapers, he probably wrote upwards of 300 articles. He wrote about the role of navies in peacetime. He wrote about the role of navies in military power, but also in economic and diplomatic power.

The caricature of him is that he was the big fleet, battleship guy. And that was an important part of what he thought, but it is insufficient to just think of him that way.

TD: Mahan is top of mind for me because Defense Secretary Esper referenced him in his rollout of the 500 ship Navy. But Michele Flournoy, who many presume will be a significant player in a potential Biden Administration, has referenced him as well in his describing the sea as the great global common, a highway. The way we police the global common today is more through this system of alliances and a rules-based order. Does Mahan play into that or is that later thinking?

BA: I think Mahan does play into that, but what it is really is building off Mahan’s ideas about America’s place in the world and its global strategy that manifests themselves in the way we’re talking about it today. Mahan said, many times, that commerce and the economic power and survival of a nation, is one of the fundamental tasks of a Navy. He says that in Influence of Seapower Upon History: Job number one is protection of the nation’s economy.

Did Mahan envision a world where the United States is a global hegemon, the way we are today? Maybe he aspired to that, but I don’t know if he envisioned it. He wrote an article in 1890 in Harper’s about America looking outwards. It’s at the end of the manifest destiny period where the United States has been populated, and now if we want to continue to grow and prosper we need to look outward to the world’s oceans and to the rest of the world.

In a way he is foreshadowing what America does: It does look out to the rest of the world. Some historians have labeled this period of American history as “isolationist. I don’t think that’s entirely accurate. But it was more limited in how it viewed its role in the world.

But when you reference Flournoy’s views, she is describing a peacetime role for the Navy in a way I think Mahan did speak to.

TD: There are those who blame, rightly or wrongly, Mahan’s influence for the naval arms race between Germany and the United Kingdom that preceded World War I. Do you think there is any danger in two great powers out-Mahan-ing each other?

BA: There’s kind of a chicken-or-the-egg argument here. It depends on how much you think books and ideas matter in the world. Did Mahan write a book that changed the world, or did Mahan write a book that accurately described the world as it was?

If you believe Mahan wrote a book that described the world as it was, then what happened in the run-up to World War I was kind of independent of Alfie. He was just telling people how things were and he was proven correct: There was a naval arms race and it contributed to the start of the largest war the world had ever seen to that point.

So, the question is, do you think that’s what historians do? Or do you think its more of a polemical kind of undertaking and he wrote a book to try and cause trouble?

Mahan wrote a book that he thought accurately reflected Britain’s past, but of course he then made arguments based on that past: If this is an accurate reflection of the way things were, then America aught to emulate it. That was the argument he was making.

But it was focused on American people, he wasn’t talking to the British people or the German people. He just happened to describe great power dynamics. My take is that he described those dynamics accurately and that’s why it seems like he caused World War I.

TD: Thank you for your time, Cmdr. Armstrong.

On to The Hotwash.

The Hotwash

Hey, so I’m not sure if anyone noticed this week but I wrote a couple of stories based on an INSURV inspection report. That’s new.

If you’ll recall, in 2012 the Navy made INSURV classified, presumably because it didn’t like having its dirty laundry aired quite so publicly.

Well, in the 2019 NDAA, Congress finally ran out of patience with the Navy’s foolishness around INSURV and forced them to produce a releasable, unclassified report.

Here’s the two stories I wrote form that report, check ‘em out:

US Navy inspections of Ingalls-built ships uncovered significant problems, report shows

US Navy’s aging surface fleet struggles to keep ships up to spec, report shows

More Reading

Two Thumbs Up. SECNAV Braithwaite Names First FFG(X) USS Constellationv

OFRP: Navy warship returns from nine-month deployment

Important Reminder (article from February): The US Navy’s vaunted deployment plan is showing cracks everywhere

Navy Scours Budget To Build More Ships; SecNav Looks To WWII Carriers As Model For Future

Crippled Icebreaker Healy To Get Complex Rebuild; Huge Engine Heads To Panama Canal

The Navy needs industry to tackle software-defined networks, data sharing

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