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Book Review, NRJ 62.2

May 15, 2017 12:00 PM | David Eddy (Administrator)

American Sea Power and the Obsolescence of Capital Ship Theory

R.B. Watts

No one has been more influential in the historical development of American naval power than Alfred Thayer Mahan. At the turn of the Twentieth Century, Mahan’s theories became the basis for the U.S. Navy’s strategic development based on the capital ship, decisive battle, and command of the sea. Dr. R.B. Watts, a retired Coast Guard captain and Professor at the National War College, provides an excellent historical analysis of the U.S. Navy’s interpretation of Mahan over time and the shaping of the Navy’s strategy and force structure by that interpretation. He argues that the Navy remained consistently wedded to Mahanian capital ship theory despite the shifting threat environment. In light of post 9/11 “irregular” wars, Dr. Watts argues that the Navy has only taken very limited steps to meet the challenges of irregular warfare and remains anchored to Mahanian conventional capital ship theory; which, according to Watts, threatens to make the Navy both irrelevant and unsustainable.

American Sea Power and the Obsolescence of Capital Ship Theory provides an excellent history of strategic thought and doctrinal development within the Navy since Mahan published his seminal work in 1890. Dr. Watts convincingly demonstrates that the Navy constantly adapted, but always maintained the capital ship focus in attempting to deal with changing threat environments. He very effectively demonstrates the fairly consistent disconnect between the Navy’s thought and doctrine and the actual missions it was asked to accomplish. While naval doctrine and strategy remained focused on the “blue water” fleet and the decisive battle with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, it was consistently called to deal with irregular threats in multiple environments. Watts argues that, following the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the Navy should have adjusted its strategy to meet emerging irregular threats.

Dr. Watt’s coverage of the Navy’s historic struggles to match its theory to the actual threat environment is clear, cogent, and convincing. His assertions concerning post-9/11 naval strategy and his recommendations for the future, however, are more controversial and debatable. He describes navalists seeking to meet this new terrorist threat using classical naval principles, focused on forward deployed capital ships conducting strike operations against terrorists. He is overly critical of the Navy’s post-9/11 strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq, to the point of blaming the Navy and its strategy for failing to win both of those wars. Clearly a Mahanian in many ways, Dr. Watts seems to ignore Julian Corbett’s warning that wars cannot be won by sea power alone and he continuously downplays the importance of the Navy’s support to ground operations in these two land wars.

Dr. Watts advocates for a more balanced and affordable force structure for the Navy and a shift in focus to include the defense of the littoral United States from irregular threats as a primary mission for the Navy. His recommendations rely on certain key assumptions: that terrorists are a strategic threat to the United States, that the terrorist seaborne threat to the United States is beyond the capability of the Coast Guard and civilian authorities, and that the forward deployed Navy is failing to meet the irregular terrorist threat. Dr. Watts’ work, due to his strong historical analysis, is a significant contribution to the ongoing debate concerning the future threat environment and the future shape, role, and missions of the United States Navy within the context of the larger joint force.

  •  Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2016
  • 6” x 9”, softcover, vii + 222 pages
  • Notes, bibliography, index. $45.00
  • ISBN: 9780786498796

Reviewed by Sam Rogers, East Carolina University

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