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GiledPallaeon

Mahanian Diatribe, Now with the Long-Promised Soviet Sequel

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Like @Snipafist suggested, I have moved my Mahanian diatribe into a new thread we can solely dedicate to naval history, geopolitics, why Teddy Roosevelt damned the Russian Empire after Alex II's good heart did him in, and whatever else strikes our fancy. @CaribbeanNinja I genuinely hope this helps answer some of your questions without just giving you more. I am happy to answer anything you ask to the best of my ability. Now then, Alfred Thayer Mahan, otherwise known as God's idiot to naval theory. (That's not unfair enough IMO that I care that it is.)

TL;DR: Alfred Thayer Mahan was an influential American naval theorist from the 19th century who got a lot of things right, and got the more important things wrong because his focus was the past and not the future.

In particular, Rear Admiral Mahan was a member of a school of naval thought focused on strategic points as critical to the conduct of a war at sea. Examples of such points include choke points, such as the Panama and Suez Canal, Cape Good Hope, Cape Horn, etc, and strategic forward bases with supplies, fuel, dockyards, and everything else needed to supply a navy operating abroad. He further supposed that a navy’s primary strategic function was sea control, both to deny the sea to the enemy and to control trade on the oceans, logically supposing that if a nation cannot trade, its economy and its warfighting capability will wither and die (essentially correct). Additionally he discussed how total sea control will give the navy a significant advantage in amphibious and near-coastal operations (mostly correct). Much of his studies were focused on the case study of the 17-18th century British Royal Navy (RN), and its wars with France, Spain, and Holland. Besides his naval theories, then-Captain Mahan wrote what was for fifty years the biography of Horatio Nelson, rehabilitating his image as a national hero in Great Britain. We’ll get to why his history focus versus futurism and blinders on case studies is bad in a minute.

The strategic element that he is most known for is the one he got wrong, decisive battle, or as the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) called it, “Kantai Kessen”. This supposes that if the existing naval disparity is not so great that the leader at sea cannot exert sea control by its mere existence, as the Royal Navy was able to for most of the 18th and 19th centuries, it should seek out a battle with the capital ships of its enemy and destroy them in one titanic clash. The IJN was particularly in love with this theory (though everyone favored him until Jackie Fisher, Chester Nimitz, Ray Spruance, and Karl Donitz proved he was only kind of right) because of their own success with the strategy at the Battle of Tsushima during the Russo-Japanese War.

Short history bit: in August 1904 the IJN attacked the Russian Far East Fleet at anchor in Port Arthur and destroyed it as a fighting force, before beginning a series of invasions into Manchuria that put the far larger Russian Empire on the back foot, between tactical incompetence and fighting at the far end of a single double-tracked rail line. In his infinite wisdom, Czar Nicholas II ordered the Russian Baltic Fleet, the most powerful force in the Imperial Russian Navy to sail around Africa, around Southeast Asia, and steam into battle against the Japanese to avenge the Port Arthur attack. Unsurprisingly, the Japanese savaged the Russian warships that had just sailed 20,000 miles without ally or refit in a classic example of Mahan’s theory of decisive battle. This effectively ended the naval component of the war, and allowed the Japanese to negotiate fairly favorable terms at the Treaty of Portsmouth, offsetting that they had not encountered the full awakened power of the Russian armies in Manchuria only then arriving. (Aside: President Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for the Treaty, only to doom the Russian Empire to collapse. The outcome of negotiations irreparably damaged the reputation of Sergei Witte, chief Russian negotiator and Nicholas II’s former finance minister, and one of only two people in Russia after the assassination in 1881 of Czar Alexander II, Nicholas II’s grandfather, who had a good shot at preventing the political disaster that birthed the Soviet Union a decade and a half later.)

Here’s the issue: while the victory at Tsushima sounds like classic Mahanian decisive battle, it only worked because one side had sailed literally around the world to fight in the other’s backyard. To call the engagement lopsided would be like calling the Russian Empire a little big. There is only one other significant example of a decisive battle attempt in the age of battleships: World War 1’s Battle of Jutland. For the entirety of that war, the Royal Navy sought to attack and destroy the German High Seas Fleet as a way to secure the North Sea for Allied use. The Germans, for their own part, knew the High Seas Fleet was no match for the Royal Navy, and sought to maintain their own battleships (BB) as a fleet in being to tie down RN assets in a fruitless blockade. Finally in 1916 the High Seas Fleet sortied in an effort to pick off and destroy a part of the RN Grand Fleet, only to end up facing most of it in the pitched battle that was Jutland. Strategically, Jutland was a crushing victory for the British, as the German capital ships never left port again after the battle. Tactically it was a sizable defeat, as the British lost three battlecruisers (BC) with all hands for only one German BC, and for that reason only a partial vindication of the decisive battle theory.

However, despite the goings-on of World War II and the advent of the aircraft carrier, as well as the pure, unadulterated industrial power of the United States, the conservative faction controlling the IJN Admiralty insisted on maintaining an adherence to Kantai Kessen. Much of the Japanese advances prior to World War II, including world-class long range torpedoes, cruisers and destroyers that excelled at night-fighting, and all of their carrier doctrine insisted on using their forces to whittle down USN advantage to the point Japan’s own advanced battleships could enter the fray and decisively rout the Americans. Many of the operational choices made by the IJN, including the construction of the Yamato class battleships, the lack of reconnaissance aircraft natively embedded in aircraft carrier air wings, and an incomplete respect for the American industrial output all contributed to the eventual end in the Pacific in Allied favor.

In a modern context, Mahanian doctrine has two problems. First, Mahanian doctrine assumes truly decisive battle can be found. This presupposes both a crushing tactical victory, whether in one action or many, and that across the course of the war, the enemy will not have the time, resources, or ability to replace his losses. Regarding America in the Pacific, Isoroku Yamamoto, Harvard-educated commander in chief of the early Japanese war effort (before his assassination by a squadron of Marines in P-38 Lightning fighters) and architect of the Pearl Harbor attack, correctly identified that the first condition was improbable and the last nearly impossible for Japan to achieve in 1941. In short, decisive battle is almost impossible. The efforts of Japanese strategists to force such engagements in the Coral Sea, and in June 1942 at Midway led to devastating defeats when superior American tactics ambushed and destroyed the veteran core of the IJN’s carriers, a blow compounded by the rapidly swinging tide of materiel American industry brought to bear.

The second and more fundamental issue is this: Mahan assumes that sea control is both necessary and sufficient to control and protect trade as appropriate. The US Navy and the Kriegsmarine both proved neither of those is a safe assumption. During the Second Battle of the Atlantic, the campaign during World War II by Nazi Germany to undermine and destroy supplies shipped to the British Isles nearly succeeded, despite total sea control by the Royal Navy. At one point in mid-1943, Winston Churchill was advised that he had a month, six weeks at the outside, before starvation on the Isles would set in, and he would be forced to sue for peace. Now, as it happened, that point roughly coincided with the turning point in the Atlantic, as new technology and a glut of new ships overwhelmed the battered U-boat (German submarines) fleet’s ability to continue laying waste to Allied supplies. In that regard, the U-boats foreshadowed the use of submarines during the Cold War and into the present day, where giants of the deep prowl the world’s oceans, operating where and when they please, and generally defying conventional force concentration doctrines.

The same occurred in the Pacific. Japanese submarines were designed, built, and operated as fleet auxiliary units, attriting the enemy before and after battle was joined. In contrast, American submarines were large, powerful, long-ranged commerce raiders that devastated the oil, rubber, and other war materiel shipping that the Japanese Empire relied on in order to make war. This degraded the ability of the Japanese to respond to the losses across 1942, even as the new Essex class carriers replaced all the elder destroyed carriers (besides hero ship USS Enterprise). I would further note that although Midway is often cited as the turning point of the war in the Pacific, it was in no way a decisive battle under Mahanian thought. American battleships made no appearance, and the Japanese ones were allowed to escape back to continue the fight for the rest of the war. More importantly, it allowed the US Navy to fully commit to the offensive, rather than continue to check the Empire’s headlong rush outward.

From a certain perspective, the Allied strategy after Midway did follow Mahanian strategic points theory to a degree. Only critical locations for the advance towards Japan were assaulted and taken. Lesser facilities were neutralized with air attack and left isolated and impotent in the Allied rear areas. However, Mahanian doctrine makes less room for aircraft carriers than it does for submarines. Air power means that battleships’ guns are irrelevant in the face of aircraft carriers’ information dominance, speed, reach, flexibility, and economy of firepower. An aircraft carrier, especially a modern supercarrier, is a strategic point unto itself, a mobile one capable of exerting total dominance so far as her air wing’s weaponry can reach. Japan’s “unsinkable aircraft carriers” in the outer island chains were simply evaded or ignored by the superior flexibility of the Allies, who freely gave the IJN several options during the Philippines campaign for the strategic battle they desired, only to force the battle on their own terms and savage what remained of the IJN’s second rate capital ships.

There are two major outgrowths of Mahanian doctrine, IMO, worth consideration today. The first is the idea of the battlecruiser as developed by Jackie Fisher, First Lord of the British Admiralty in the years leading up to World War I. In addition to correctly identifying the lessons of Tsushima and leading the world with the development of HMS Dreadnought, the world’s first true battleship, Admiral Fisher invented the idea of a battlecruiser with Dreadnought’s cousin, HMS Invincible, a large, well-armed, fast capital ship designed as a nation’s extended reach at sea. Battlecruisers were intended to sail the world, policing trade lanes and exerting will, and capable in battle of protecting merchant ships and attacking and destroying enemy raiders. This doctrine was favored by the British, and has been adopted in an extended format by the US Navy’s Arleigh Burke class destroyers. This doctrine was also ignored at Jutland, where British battlecruisers engaged German battleships and got annihilated, doing something they had no right to be doing, while the German BCs that traded in firepower instead of armor for their speed (because they were intended to fight with instead of around the battleships) were able to weather the fire of British super-dreadnoughts like the Orion class.

The second, relatively academic outgrowth of Mahanian doctrine is the current intellectual battle between American aircraft carriers and what is known as anti-access/area denial, or A2/AD, a strategy employed by China, Russia, and other nations in an effort to exert sea control by denying US aircraft carriers the ability to safely operate in zones near their shores. The fortifications of China’s South China Sea island claims as a new version of the “unsinkable carrier” idea to protect China’s extremely vulnerable overseas trade and imports (most notably petroleum) are direct descendants of Admiral Mahan’s ideas.

The final major thoughts on Mahan I will post here will echo Snipafist’s comments in the original thread, which is that his most pernicious trait was how popular he became. Mahan’s case study was pre-19th century Britain, a strategic era much unlike the industrial warfare of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Britain’s status as an island nation makes its need for a powerful, capable navy particularly dire and apparent, as it both tries to feed and supply itself first from an intercontinental empire and today from the international trade system today, and as it attempts to influence matters on the continent of Europe it’s practically and strategically attached to. The vast majority of other nations in the world have no comparable need for such a navy. Since the United States has the great fortune of two allies on its two land borders, and two vast oceans between it and the majority of humankind, it too needs a strong navy, and Japan is an Asian mirror of Britain’s situation. By contrast, Germany’s only need for a navy is to deny its enemies access to its northern borders, and only for truly extended operations does its navy need true power. The idea that the High Seas Fleet might ever need to match, or should match, the RN Home Fleet completely ignores the global responsibilities of the latter force to protect not only British interests but British survival around the world, a challenge not faced by the Germans. The only other modern nation with a somewhat comparable situation to Britain is the People’s Republic of China, which while possessed of a large land border, is effectively hemmed in on all sides by geography. (I don’t know about you but I’m not marching into China over any combination of Siberia/Gobi Desert/Afghanistan/Himalayan mountains.) China’s reliance on maritime oil trade is another point in the comparison’s favor, but Chinese interest (at present) in simple regional hegemony instead of global power projection is perhaps a damning counterpoint.

For those interested in the study of a navy that struck fear into the hearts of the most powerful navies in its time, and couldn’t have given fewer flying f***s about Mahan, I suggest a study of Soviet strategic doctrine. I can expound on that here some if anyone is curious. Any questions, comments, or concerns?

Edited by GiledPallaeon

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Very little is commonly known about Soviet navy and doctrine.  In fact the Wows forums are chock full of derision for Soviet bias. Yes please? 

 

Also, maybe its late, but I completely missed why China is analogous to Britain.  Except in terms of a perhaps faulty adherence to Mahanian doctrine. 

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Yeah, I second the request for an essay on Soviet Naval Doctrine. . . heck, I'd love to read about any military doctrine, be it land, air, sea, or whatever else there may be. :D

Also: great article/essay, I enjoyed reading it!

Edit: Thanks for writing this! My apologies for having to edit this in. . .

Edited by GhostofNobodyInParticular

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Great job and I too would like to know more about Soviet doctrine. I was reading your blog post on the Chinese carrier that was repurposed from a Soviet carrier and found your discussion of the major differences between Soviet and US carrier designs to be intriguing.

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7 hours ago, Blail Blerg said:

Also, maybe its late, but I completely missed why China is analogous to Britain.  Except in terms of a perhaps faulty adherence to Mahanian doctrine. 

As I understand it Britain, the US, Japan and China can all defend themselves from most enemies so long as they control sea access. They are all essentially "islands" from a military standpoint. Thus naval doctrine can figure largely in their defense strategies.

The outgrowth from the Russo-Japanese war of 1905 was the onset of battleship fever. The all big-gun ship was, seemingly, proven by the extreme range that the Japanese ships engaged the Russian fleet - obviating the need for multiple calibre secondary guns. The Dreadnought and her ilk followed shortly - leading to an arms race that was as expensive as the nuclear arms race of the modern era.

Edited by Democratus

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53 minutes ago, Democratus said:

As I understand it Britain, the US, Japan and China can all defend themselves from most enemies so long as they control sea access. They are all essentially "islands" from a military standpoint. Thus naval doctrine can figure largely in their defense strategies.

The outgrowth from the Russo-Japanese war of 1905 was the onset of battleship fever. The all big-gun ship was, seemingly, proven by the extreme range that the Japanese ships engaged the Russian fleet - obviating the need for multiple calibre secondary guns. The Dreadnought and her ilk followed shortly - leading to an arms race that was as expensive as the nuclear arms race of the modern era.

Democratus is correct. As I mentioned in the post, the vast majority of China's land borders are geographical boundaries that prevent serious trade or travel across them. The only slices where that does not apply are the far northeast with Russia and Korea, and a sliver of the South that reaches around the Himalayas to make touch with Indochina. Further note that everywhere that the border reaches anyway, much is either unfriendly/a rival to China (Russia, India, all of the American allies in East Asia), unstable (North Korea, Pakistan), or simply empty with nothing really for China to invest in (Afghanistan, Mongolia, Central Asia). Some 98% of Chinese commerce moves by sea, accounting for 22% of GDP. For a sense of scale, the port of Shanghai alone moves in less than sixty days the same value of goods the entire land border sees in a year. This includes the vast majority of the energy supplies the country relies on, including 56% of petroleum, and the majority of the coal in the southern provinces, since internal transportation networks do not efficiently connect the mines in the north with the industries in the south. China is working on a strategic oil reserve of half a billion barrels, but that will only supply the country's needs for about three months at the 2014 peacetime level of exertion. Tag in a political system that sees itself as cornered and without friends (a position not without merit), and you have a tiger on an island only partially of his own making.

EDIT: Some sources for my figures include the ever-reliable STRATFOR, and solid defense blog War is Boring. And the World Bank.

Edited by GiledPallaeon
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Regarding the Soviets, I will have a longer essay for you guys later, but the short version is that despite ongoing political ambitions of being a great naval power, all of Russia's ports, particularly the warm-water (a term used rather loosely) ports face significant geographic restrictions. I profess no deep understanding of Stalin era doctrine, other than that he insisted the navy continue to design and build all-gun cruisers, (what the West would call battlecruisers), and battleships up until his death in 1953. After that, most Soviet doctrine was built on the work of Sergey Gorshkov, who focused the navy first and foremost as a force to prevent offensive NATO operations against the Soviet heartland, and against the ballistic missile submarines that were the most survivable second strike deterrent available to the USSR. Soviet doctrine also held that the greatest threat to a submarine was not a submarine, but an aircraft, making American aircraft carrier battle groups Enemy No. 1. I'll expand on the differences in aircraft carrier design and focus on submarines/air defense/carrier aviation versus anti-ship missiles/anti-submarine doctrine/land-based naval aviation later, but the fundamental assumption by the Soviets was that the Navy was to hold off NATO while the Red Army won the ground war, using a network of missile armed submarines, long range bombers, and unique approach to destroyer and cruiser development to whittle away or destroy American carriers outright, and to destroy NATO convoys in the North Atlantic in a Third Battle of the Atlantic. That's why Russian surface-to-surface missiles are among when not the best in the world even today, just like their surface-to-air missiles (adaptations from defeating NATO's air superiority on land). Hopefully that's comprehensible.

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1 hour ago, GhostOfArdaedhel said:

Oh hey look, a Mahan essay. I'll have to read this later. Had to memorize his "war, when declared, must be waged offensively, aggressively" quote in school, but never really read much of his writing in class.

Yeah this is another case where I think his quotes have a kernel of truth but are often applied much too generally. I would rewrite that sentence to read, "A campaign intended to end or to hasten the end of the war should be fought offensively and aggressively." Tactical aggression is usually a good thing, but should always be metered to sensible levels. The same applies to offensive thinking. A strategist should always be seeking to either acquire or maintain hold of the tactical and strategic initiative. That is often related to, but distinct from offensive operations (see Battle of Midway). I'm probably being pedantic and I don't think anything I've said is controversial, but I still think it merits saying.

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A well written and very educational post(s) sir!  My hat's off to you...and I look forward to reading more of whatever you have in store!  Your concise and engaging explanation of Mahan's theory (with examples!) is a better summary than anything else I've read.

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1 hour ago, Forgottenlore said:

Well, that was a generally interesting and enjoyable read.

I, however, have missed the original thread that this spun off of. How did you guys get on this topic, and did it relate to Star Wars in any way?

@Blail Blerg made a comment in one of the Euros threads about the possibility of emergent doctrines in Armada, particularly decisive battle vs carrier action. There was a bit of bemusement as to what decisive battle exactly is, which I can't discuss without discussing that it's stupid. Thus, this.

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19 hours ago, GiledPallaeon said:

Soviet doctrine also held that the greatest threat to a submarine was not a submarine, but an aircraft, making American aircraft carrier battle groups Enemy No. 1. I'll expand on the differences in aircraft carrier design and focus on submarines/air defense/carrier aviation versus anti-ship missiles/anti-submarine doctrine/land-based naval aviation later, but the fundamental assumption by the Soviets was that the Navy was to hold off NATO while the Red Army won the ground war, using a network of missile armed submarines, long range bombers, and unique approach to destroyer and cruiser development to whittle away or destroy American carriers outright, and to destroy NATO convoys in the North Atlantic in a Third Battle of the Atlantic. That's why Russian surface-to-surface missiles are among when not the best in the world even today, just like their surface-to-air missiles (adaptations from defeating NATO's air superiority on land). Hopefully that's comprehensible.

Don't forget nuclear torpedoes as a gigantic middle finger to carrier task forces.

And I will echo the others - thank you for the great writeup; I'm very much looking forward to a more complete analysis of Soviet doctrine. Especially the ever-fascinating maskirovka angle that permeated (and still permeates) across all service branches as well as foreign policy.

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4 hours ago, DiabloAzul said:

Don't forget nuclear torpedoes as a gigantic middle finger to carrier task forces.

And I will echo the others - thank you for the great writeup; I'm very much looking forward to a more complete analysis of Soviet doctrine. Especially the ever-fascinating maskirovka angle that permeated (and still permeates) across all service branches as well as foreign policy.

Now I have to bring up the T-15's doctrinal descendant, the mythical Status-6 Kanyon. Oh well

Edited by GiledPallaeon

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My apologies all for how long this has taken to type out. One of my classes this semester is designed to be absolutely absurd, and in that regard it is an unqualified success. I’m not sure what overall fluency in either Soviet history or naval doctrine overall I’m dealing with here, so I’m going to aim fairly low, because I know if I don’t, the explanations after will be longer than the original, so please don’t take it the wrong way. (I promise I’m not trying to be condescending.)

The first thing that has to be understood about Soviet naval doctrine is that it was not all that different from the rest of the Union’s doctrine, which contrary to NATO fears was fundamentally defensive. Burned into the Russian psyche is the litany of invasions throughout their history that have savaged their lands, going all the way back to the Teutonic Knights in the 12th century. Then you tag in the Mongols, the Swedes, the ongoing wars with the Poles, more Germans, the French, the Germans two more times, and the threat that was the United States, and you’re starting to get near an oversimplified understanding of how paranoid the Russian people (and by extension their government) is. A lot of Russian foreign policy, particularly during the Soviet and modern periods can be understood in this light. After so many devastating invasions, the Russians don’t just desire, they need a series of buffer states around their borders to give them protection and warning from enemies. The Warsaw Pact wasn’t just Stalin’s need to dominate those around him and an extension of his view on Lenin’s global revolution ideas (a separate discussion for another day). The same applies, to a degree, to the modern efforts to destabilize the Baltic States (viewed as a potential jumping off point for the NATO invasion of Russia that isn’t going to happen) and the rather effective efforts to collapse Ukraine as a functional state, after the expressed desire to join NATO. ANYWAY

Before we get any farther unfortunately, we have to make one more detour: nuclear warfighting. If you understand how MAD works and almost threw up in your mouth/screamed in rage at this clip, you can skip these next two paragraphs. For everyone else, the Russians don’t consider nuclear weapons any different than conventional explosives, just ones with their own nasty side effects. That allows them to consider the limited over-escalation that is the cornerstone of their tactical doctrine. In other words, when cornered the Russians will attempt to estimate how far is too far for the other guy, then step just past that line to force an end to the war. During much of the Cold War, that line was the mass employment of tactical nuclear weapons (less than 100 kilotons of TNT in yield, targeting large concentrations of NATO land forces). They expected this to work because NATO would then have to either use their own tactical nukes, which would end in a stalemate, or escalate to a strategic exchange, which they highly doubted the decadent West would be willing to do. A strategic exchange of nuclear weapons is what most people think of when they hear the phrase “nuclear war”; large, high yield nuclear weapons annihilating cities, factories, militaries, entire ways of life, delivered on thundering rockets faster than the eye can see, destroying civilization as we know it.

That idea of a strategic exchange is built on the theory of MAD: Mutual Assured Destruction. MAD posits that when two rational actors possess the power to destroy each other, and that regardless of who strikes first or why the other will be destroyed, nuclear war will not occur. In order for that theory to work, there is a requirement called second strike capability, namely the ability to nuke the other guy into oblivion after he nuked you first (thus “second strike”). Second strike then developed the idea of the nuclear triad. The principle behind the nuclear triad is diversifying the delivery methods of your side’s nukes, making it effectively impossible for a first strike to surgically deprive you of your own arsenal. The three legs of the triad are land-based bombers (and aircraft carriers if you’re the US Navy prior to the 1990’s or the French in the present), intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). The vast majority of countries armed with nuclear weapons usually also have the ability to load them as warheads on cruise missiles as well, though these are not usually considered part of a country’s triad unless they don’t field SLBMs (notable examples Israel and Pakistan).

For the Soviets, there was an interesting dynamic at play with their triad re: the American counterpart. For most of the Cold War, one of the only areas the USSR consistently led the United States in was the development of large rockets. This was fine for the ICBM leg, but ran into the issue known as the Soviet ship-building industry when it came to SLBMs. The major reason the Soviets were able to maintain parity during the Cold War in that arena was a, how shall I put this, rigorous testing and development regimen that may or may not have relied on line units to be the errors in its trial and error methodology. However bloodily it required, the Soviets were eventually able to develop a functional SLBM arsenal capable of reaching American and European targets without extending themselves that far from their bases (thank you Arctic launch routes). This included the only area where Soviet submariners consistently outdid their NATO colleagues, under-ice operations under the polar ice cap, an area Russia still leads the West in today.

Remember, the Soviets saw their nuclear forces as a backstop, the ultimate insurance of their national sovereignty. Priority number one for the the Navy was protecting those submarines. Here, not for the first time, the geography of Russia played to Soviet advantage. Almost all ballistic missile submarines (SSBN, which stands for Saturday, Sunday and a Bunch of Nights Submersible Ship, Ballistic, Nuclear) were assigned to one of two ports, Polyarny, near the large Northern Fleet base at Murmansk, and Vladivostok, where the Far East Fleet was stationed. Both of these ports open onto inland seas that can be easily controlled by a defender, the White Sea, and the Sea of Okhotsk. These seas became what the VMF (lit. “War-Sea Fleet”, the full Russian term for the navy) called “bastions”, central hubs where the SSBNs could hide, protected by thick, layered defenses. By contrast, in theory anyway, American SSBNs patrol the world’s oceans, using their superior stealth to disappear into the vast depths that cover 70% of the planet’s surface.

This protective mission was the primary mission of the VMF, but not the only strategic imperative. The other three were, in order of priority, protect the Union’s coastlines (most of which are themselves protected by ice eight or nine months of the year), deny the use of the sea to the enemy, particularly in the event of a Third Battle of the Atlantic, and project force abroad, both in support of Soviet geostrategic objectives and in aid of fellow Communist regimes around the world against the capitalist pigs. Note that power projection, one of the primary missions of the US Navy (USN) ranks dead last in the ordered priorities, whereas every other mission is strategically defensive in nature.

However defensive the strategic theory was, Soviet tactical doctrine was unabashedly aggressive, particularly in the mission that came to dominate its thinking, a symbolic and kinetic masterstroke: sinking USN aircraft carriers. From a symbology perspective, the advantage of sinking an American supercarrier is obvious. They are gigantic warships, American power made manifest in a way few other projects can rival, and are only semi-jokingly called four square acres of mobile American territory. They are the pride of the USN, and are considered by most of the unwashed masses nigh unsinkable. The images of a burning Nimitz or Kitty Hawk would send shockwaves around the world, and the Soviets knew it.

Kinetically, the Soviets actually had two reasons to prioritize the American superships. The first is obvious: whatever its faults, an aircraft carrier has an economy of force no other sea-based platform can match, period. Their ability for sustained combat operations and more importantly sustained assault is unparalleled, and when combined with the prodigious powers of their escorts, they can dominate the seas around the carrier in a way no other naval unit can. There is however one other reason the Soviets sought to sink them that most Americans (myself included) would not agree with: the Soviets believed American carriers to be the greatest threat to the SSBN bastions available to NATO. More generally, they held that the greatest threat to a submarine is an aircraft, which leads the discerning soul to question why the Nimitz was a greater threat than say HMS Invincible, a ship more likely to be carrying more anti-submarine aircraft, particularly the helicopters that haunt the nightmares of submariners. (By contrast a F-14 interceptor or an A-6 attack jet couldn’t detect a submarine, let alone wield a weapon that could attack one.) Yes, yes, the ability of an American carrier battle group to crack the bastion’s defenses is significant, but once done so, they are not much more of a threat to the submarines. (The shipyards are another story.)

With all that in mind, many otherwise inscrutable Soviet decisions should start to make more sense. Heavy investments in large, fast surface-to-surface missiles with large warheads were made to scream through the vaunted American defenses and mission kill, or better sink, the titanic carriers. The famous Project 956 Sovremenny class destroyers were designed to, as I would say, offensively defend convoys and surface action groups from American carriers and cruisers. The same applied to the numerous types of long-range bombers used by Soviet Naval Aviation, including the entire Tupolev line of Tu-16 Badger, Tu-22 Blinder, and Tu-22M Backfire bombers (the latter two of no known relation, other than the numbers). Backed up by a sophisticated and dense network of ocean reconnaissance satellites designed to search for and find elusive American carriers, the bombers would sortie from northern bases to salvo dozens if not hundreds of missiles at their targets. Extreme losses were to be considered acceptable if the mission succeeded in burning a carrier to the waterline.

This also goes doubly for surface ships. The Project 1144 Kirov class heavy cruisers (they are not battlecruisers, not in any sense of that term I accept) were as massive and as imposing as they were to field enough weaponry to both credibly threaten an aircraft carrier and to have a prayer of defending themselves from a carrier’s air wing with a battery of long and medium range surface to air missiles. The Project 1164 Slava (lit. “Glory”) class cruisers were developed to be Kirovs on the cheap, after the monstrous ships proved to be prohibitively expensive to procure in large numbers. This was also the driving force behind Soviet carrier development, as I laid out in my blog post about the new Chinese carrier Liaoning, herself a bastard descendant of that philosophy (perhaps because she’s got the same job). Rather than walk through all that again here (if I need to explain the post further, please comment thusly and I will try), I’ll just leave that link. /end shameless self-promotion

Even Soviet submarines were in on the action. Elder scholars of the forum may remember the Kursk disaster in August of 2000. Kursk was a Project 949A Oscar-II class guided missile submarine. As large as an SSBN, she carried twenty four of the most advanced anti-ship missiles the USSR could build in special tubes outside her main hull, specifically to salvo at American and NATO warships. She was preceded in this by a series of submarines, including the Project 659 Echo, Project 651 Juliet, and Project 670 Charlie class submarines. Her legacy lives on today; the latest Project 885 Yasen class super submarines are armed with forty anti-ship missiles in addition to their torpedoes, and surviving examples of the Oscars are currently being refit with the latest Russian arms.

To deal with NATO submarines, Project 1151 Udaloy class destroyers supplemented cheap Project 1135 Krivak class frigates and numerous Project 671 Victor class attack submarines.The notorious Project 705 Alfa class submarines possessed world class speed in order to race out from entrenched bases to intercept oncoming NATO forces at the maximum possible range from the inner bastion defenses. They achieved this only with a unique, and rather maintenance-intensive reactor design that used liquid metal instead of pressurized water for coolant, allowing higher operating temperatures and thus power, but meant that the reactor could not be turned off over its 15 year lifespan.

As a final note, I will bring up a thing I mentioned by DiaboAzul, the T-15 torpedo. Cruise missiles weren’t the only weapons issued to submarines to sink carriers; many Soviet attack submarines were issued torpedoes armed with nuclear warheads to obliterate entire battle groups. There is a fairly famous anecdote of the Cuban Missile Crisis where an oxygen-deprived Soviet commander almost nuked one of the American carriers blockading Cuba, but was talked down by his executive officer, who refused to give his consent to fire the weapon. The original design of the Project 627 November class attack submarines, the first Soviet nuclear-powered attack submarines, did not have conventional torpedo tubes, but a single large tube for a massive torpedo, armed with a navalized version of the famed Tsar Bomba, the 100 megaton yield thermonuclear weapon. The T-15 was never deployed, and the November design was equipped with conventional torpedoes before commissioning, but that was always in the background of Soviet design philosophy.

The Status-6 “Kanyon” is its mythical modern descendant. The observant sort will remember that in 2015 there was a “leak” at a Russian military meeting of a new nuclear-armed torpedo. That was the Status-6. If one believes the conjecture (I don’t, at least not yet), it is a weapon some 1.6 meters (5.5 feet) in diameter, 24 meters (79 feet) long, capable of 100 knots sustained speed for ten thousand kilometers through a miniature nuclear reactor akin to those aboard long-duration spacecraft, cruising at 1000 meters (over 3000 feet) depth, and armed with a 100 megaton dirty warhead to cause massive radioactive tsunamis to destroy coastal facilities and cities of an unfortunate target. For some comparison, the most advanced American torpedo, the Mark 48 ADCAP, is generally held to be capable of 60 knots, only 2500 feet operating depth, armed with a 650 lb high explosive warhead. It is only 21 inches in diameter (533 millimeters), and 5.8 meters (19 feet) long. The rumors further hold an uncompleted Oscar-II, K-139 Belgorod, is being modified to carry six of the enormous weapons as a new, fourth leg of a modern Russian quadrad. Are the Russians working on this? Probably, but I wouldn’t rule out an honest troll here. I definitely don’t see a real threat to American or Western interests in this alleged submarine, which has not left her drydock to the best of my knowledge.

That’s all I have for now. Hopefully all of that makes sense. Is there anything else you guys would like me to write about next? Maybe my pet theory that Czar Alexander II both was critical to the winning of the American Civil War, and that as Russia’s last best hope, the same qualities that led him to nearly saving the Empire also led to his death? I’m also open to discussing most any topic from recent military history and modern defense affairs.

Edited by GiledPallaeon

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Thanks @GiledPallaeon, that was a very enjoyable read! I like your take on the subject, much more perspicacious and self-conscious than what we in Europe generally perceive the American view to be when it comes to our red friends.

Just one minor observation:

3 hours ago, GiledPallaeon said:

From a symbology perspective, the advantage of sinking an American supercarrier is obvious.

(Sorry - couldn't resist).

On another note, I liked the remark on the Tu-22 and the Tu-22M. Man, the differences are obvious enough on paper, but when you see them in the flesh, side by side, they don't look related at all. I'll see if I can dig up my photos from Monino, these things are quite the sight. Man, Soviet bomber doctrine would make for another epic essay. Or book. Or fracking HBO show.

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1 hour ago, Megatronrex said:

I just told Jr yesterday that I was hoping you'd do more of these diatribes.

Agreed!

And more blog posts. I have to say the Liaoning one is a big improvement over the old one on aircraft carriers, with which I had some fundamental disagreements. @GiledPallaeon, you've come a long way in these two years!

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...having said that, one must wonder whether, with the advent of unmanned vehicles (whether aerial, terrestrial or naval), the aircraft carrier is going to go the way of the battleship the very minute a conflict begins - and, as a corollary, whether clinging onto carrier groups as the ultimate expression of sea control may ironically end up being Mahanian. In that sense, Liaoning may end up being the new Scharnhorst: not a waste in itself, but the beginning of a long and expensive journey to nowhere.

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1 hour ago, DiabloAzul said:

Agreed!

And more blog posts. I have to say the Liaoning one is a big improvement over the old one on aircraft carriers, with which I had some fundamental disagreements. @GiledPallaeon, you've come a long way in these two years!

 

2 hours ago, Megatronrex said:

I just told Jr yesterday that I was hoping you'd do more of these diatribes.

Thanks guys I try. I'll try to clean both of those posts up and republish them on the actual blog. My big productivity issue (other than my university) is that most articles I was pissed off when I wrote them. I generally need a motivation to write one of these things out, so if you have a request that will work well. I'm also not sure I'd say your view of Americans re: the Soviets is misplaced at all. I just have reasons and experience there to see past the Curtain.

Regarding the old Dozen Aircraft Carriers post, it's probably a bit blunter than I would write it today. Most of my aim was to dispel the myths Mr. Easterbrook seemed to have locked onto. I stand by my general premises that the Zumwalfs aren't the Wonder Weapons he made them out to be, and that if the USN is going to continue to try to complete its modern taskings, the fleet simply must be bigger. It's a global force, the math just doesn't work. Would I revise everywhere I say carriers to capital ships? Almost certainly, but I haven't yet fully vetted the theory backing up that change.

Frankly I'd also be shocked if my views on the proper place and role for American foreign policy didn't grate yours a little bit. Given our backgrounds, I'm certain I'm idealistic where you're cynical (rightly so after Bush) and vice versa. But without that we can't have the discussion that leads us to where we need to go.

50 minutes ago, DiabloAzul said:

...having said that, one must wonder whether, with the advent of unmanned vehicles (whether aerial, terrestrial or naval), the aircraft carrier is going to go the way of the battleship the very minute a conflict begins - and, as a corollary, whether clinging onto carrier groups as the ultimate expression of sea control may ironically end up being Mahanian. In that sense, Liaoning may end up being the new Scharnhorst: not a waste in itself, but the beginning of a long and expensive journey to nowhere.

A new Scharnhorst maybe. Even considering the Soviet needs I'm not enamored of the sacrifices that philosophy requires. Regarding the much prophesied death of the carrier, I'll expand my rather detailed views later, but suffice it to say I'm in the middle of the extremes. I don't think anything is in a position to rob a CV of its place atop the economy charts, and I believe drones will further emphasize that point. On the flip side I think CVs are about to lose the information dominance that helped earn them overall dominance, and that there is about to be an explosion of ships carrying fixed wing aviation. I'll expound more on this later but I believe the return of the capital surface combatant is on the horizon to balanced the last seventy years of CV meta. ;)

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1 hour ago, GiledPallaeon said:

Regarding the old Dozen Aircraft Carriers post, it's probably a bit blunter than I would write it today. Most of my aim was to dispel the myths Mr. Easterbrook seemed to have locked onto. I stand by my general premises that the Zumwalfs aren't the Wonder Weapons he made them out to be, and that if the USN is going to continue to try to complete its modern taskings, the fleet simply must be bigger. It's a global force, the math just doesn't work. Would I revise everywhere I say carriers to capital ships? Almost certainly, but I haven't yet fully vetted the theory backing up that change.

Frankly I'd also be shocked if my views on the proper place and role for American foreign policy didn't grate yours a little bit. Given our backgrounds, I'm certain I'm idealistic where you're cynical (rightly so after Bush) and vice versa. But without that we can't have the discussion that leads us to where we need to go.

Oh absolutely. And I don't begrudge you those views at all. An additional bit of trivia - I grew up in a harbour town that was a frequent port of call for the Sixth Fleet, on their way to or back from bombing Libya or Iraq or Yugoslavia, or applying gentle persuasion on Cyprus or Turkey or Lebanon. So when I read your comments on how the Fourth Fleet does not engage in gunboat diplomacy I couldn't help but think that even if that were true, which is debatable, it's kind of missing the point ("No, your honor, I did not stab her... with my left hand.") ;)

Re drones, my point was not that "carriers" in the broadest sense would disappear, any more than "ships with guns" ever have. But rather that the current concept of the supercarrier may be obsolete fairly soon, and even medium carriers may become as niche as heavy cruisers became after WW2. I guess it really all depends on the evolving role of UCAVs in air superiority - as this is pretty much the only real advantage a CV brings to the table right now compared to, say, a much smaller ship capable of operating Reapers and cruise missiles.

Edited by DiabloAzul

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2 hours ago, DiabloAzul said:

Oh absolutely. And I don't begrudge you those views at all. An additional bit of trivia - I grew up in a harbour town that was a frequent port of call for the Sixth Fleet, on their way to or back from bombing Libya or Iraq or Yugoslavia, or applying gentle persuasion on Cyprus or Turkey or Lebanon. So when I read your comments on how the Fourth Fleet does not engage in gunboat diplomacy I couldn't help but think that even if that were true, which is debatable, it's kind of missing the point ("No, your honor, I did not stab her... with my left hand.") ;)

Re drones, my point was not that "carriers" in the broadest sense would disappear, any more than "ships with guns" ever have. But rather that the current concept of the supercarrier may be obsolete fairly soon, and even medium carriers may become as niche as heavy cruisers became after WW2. I guess it really all depends on the evolving role of UCAVs in air superiority - as this is pretty much the only real advantage a CV brings to the table right now compared to, say, a much smaller ship capable of operating Reapers and cruise missiles.

I won't argue the gunboat diplomacy point because it's 100% true of the USN and US policy as a whole. Our DIME is spelled M. (If no one gets this I'll explain in a minute.) I still think Fifth, Sixth or Seventh Fleets are better comparisons than Fourth for a list of reasons.

i just finished writing a paper on the future of UAVs in naval combat so I'll edit this soon when I'm off my phone but my conclusion was essentially that everyone is looking offensive and no one seems to be seriously considering defensive implications. The only area they don't just be "more" than fixed wing jets is information, which to me means they actually may solve the CVN first day of war issues (or at least mitigate them).

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Alright, @BiggsIRL, I promise I'll come back to the Falklands War, lots of interesting implications there for modern attack submarines and the proper level of aggression in combat operations, but I'm going to throw down a quick follow-up to the above notes about the future of UAVs for @DiabloAzul. Essentially, the only thing I believe that UAVs change is information. From an operational perspective, that's the only change. Compared to a fixed-wing aircraft, they simply offer "more" but don't change the equation, only its constants. In other words, a supercarrier with an all UAV air wing can have more aircraft flying farther, delivering more weapons in more dangerous environments, and performing higher sophistication missions, and while none of that necessarily means those improvements won't be ground-breaking, the operational effects won't be, except perhaps in scale.

By contrast, the information advantage enjoyed by aircraft carriers is about to go away. A carrier's air wing gives the ship two big advantages as I see it, economy of firepower, and information. Economy is obvious, you have reusable boosters for all your missiles and bombs, and a huge magazine rivaled only by the notorious arsenal ship concepts. Information is a little more ephemeral, but IMO the more important of the two. To demonstrate this point, I'm going to drag up some true historical minutiae: the Battle of Midway. The code-breaking that led to Nimitz's ambush gambit was important, but it wouldn't have meant a lot if his pilots couldn't have found their targets. Unlike the IJN pilots for most of the battle, they did, for one critical reason: American pilots, even ones flying dive-bombers and torpedo bombers were trained in reconnaissance and search techniques. Japanese strike pilots were not, instead relying on scout aircraft carried by the IJN's heavy cruisers. This is one of the under-appreciated reasons that as the war dragged on the Americans gained the upper hand: they were systematically (I'm not sure about intentionally) wiping out the Japanese recon pilot corps. (This is also the big reason behind the design of the Tone-class cruisers and the large, powerful catapults on several other classes.) Helicopters offer some of these advantages. but typically suffer from lack of range, cruising altitude, and weight and power requirements to lug a radar of sufficient size and power to make it worthwhile. The Soviets tried very hard to make this work for both the 1144 Orlan cruisers and the 1143 Kiev class and Kuzentsov class carriers, only to discover these exact limitations.

The gamechanger is a DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the US Department of Defense's toymakers) project called Tern. Tern is seeking to build a fixed-wing ISR (Intelligence. Surveillance, Reconnaissance) UAV, capable of flying off the helicopter deck of a surface ship. It achieves this by using a tail-sitter design, meaning the design takes off and lands vertically. Ignoring all the mumbo-jumbo for promotion, this video has some good animations of what that flight concept looks like in practice. This idea was toyed with during World War 2 as a rapid launch interceptor that could be launched from the decks of merchantmen, but no one could figure out how on Earth pilots were supposed to land and still be able to see during the rest of the flight. Tern is a game-changer because only a fixed-wing design is capable of carrying a sufficiently powerful sensor package at a sufficient altitude and speed to imitate the airborne early warning and surveillance functions available to land-based and carrier aviation. If it can imitate those functions, Tern is a lot smaller and requires significantly less support than a manned equivalent. It also allows commanders to be more aggressive with the unit, since a lost UAV is only money, not lives, and they can be made stealthier to boot. Those reconnaissance capabilities will allow surface action groups to roam the seas, regardless of whether or not enemies attack friendly satellite capabilities, and will allow for the first time truly effective use of over-the-horizon surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missile systems. The USN is already working on a fire control system to allow ships closer to battle to use the missiles launched by ships farther in the rear. Tern could potentially allow those ships to be even farther back themselves, using sensor data from the drone to provide tracking and guidance.

The troublesome part, for the USN anyway, is that like the vast majority of technological innovations this century, recon UAVs like Tern are fundamentally "democratizing", i.e. distributing the power available to lesser actors. Developing and maintaining a UAV fleet capable of these tasks is a lot less expensive and a lot less complex than attempting to build and field aircraft carriers and their air wings. These changes will equally improve those nations attempting to create anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) bubbles as it is for those nations faced with the prospect of fighting those strategies. In either case, the innate ISR, survivability, and lethality assumptions about surface combatants will have to be revisited as this technology reaches the seas. Does all that make sense, anything need further expansion?

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