^ The Naval Battle of Gravelines
Image Courtesy of Nicholas Hillard’s Painting: Elizabeth I and the Spanish Armada
Retrieved From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Armada
Global Ascendance via Naval Dominance
Wisdom, they say, is timeless. Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan in 1890 penned down one such classic of imperishable permanence. Not many know of it. Perhaps because the towering insights it depicts limit its audience to a few shrewd men.
Be as it may, the book goes around by the name of The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783. Captain Mahan was a lecturer in naval history and the president of the United States Naval War College.
Numerous strategists regard this account of naval history as revolutionary, to the point of being the single most influential book in naval strategy. After all, it is a blueprint on the key role of naval strength in building and maintaining a country’s economic and political might.
And there is no dearth of those who think the adoption of the policies outlined in the book was one reason for the naval arms race that eventually culminated in the First World War (WWI). That influential!
Just to put things in perspective, oceans cover about 71% of the earth surface. The ocean can therefore be a great pathway to penetrate to the remotest corners of the globe for commerce or for war. Provided you have robust means to travel on water and guard your voyage routes.
In the book, Captain Mahan argues how Great Britain’s economic, military, and political clout was the direct consequence of her naval prowess between 1600 and 1783. This was also the time when the naval mettle of Britain’s European rivals was steadily tumbling.
Remember how a change of wind direction helped the English put down the vigor of Spain’s Invincible Armada in 1588 at the coast of Gravelines? To which King Philip II of Spain famously remarked I sent you out to war with men, not with the wind and waves.
Seems, Mother Nature herself was driving the sails of English warships and propelling the upswing of the English star. Not to belittle English valor, for Spain was the dominant global power of the day. Stubborn persistence against all odds will always be the hallmark of winners.
The point is, Britain’s ascent to global preeminence began in the seventeenth century, which is precisely the starting point for the era portrayed in Captain Mahan’s book.
Britain then snatched away France’s overseas colonies including Canada in the mid-eighteenth century. This was so despite the French army being the largest and best-trained institution of the time.
Why? Because Britain employed the world’s best navy, one that could quickly and conveniently provision its army anywhere on the globe. As Napoleon Bonaparte aptly put it, an army marches on its stomach. Too bad, the British acted on the tenet long before the French ruler worded it.
Now, Britain is an island and must have felt the need to establish a strong navy and commercial fleet from a very early time. Necessity truly is the mother of invention. And innovation, of course.
Speaking of earlier times, ancient times, naval power has been the definitive measure of an empire’s global economic-political hegemony ever since the Greeks stemmed the rising tide of Persian belligerence at the naval battle of Salamis in 480 B.C.
Coming to aircraft carriers, Russian navy’s flagship vessel, the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov will reach Syrian shores by January 2017. The Russians clearly want to fight U.S. influence in the Mediterranean reinforced by the U.S. carriers USS Truman and USS Eisenhower.
Need any more proof on the immortality of wisdom and the perpetual relevance of the navy? And the towering importance of aircraft carriers in the geopolitics of today?
Twentieth Century & the Advent of the Aircraft Carrier
While Germany flooded its navy with great many resources before and during WWI, for reasons best known to her then rulers, she chose to use the navy sparingly in the war.
By doing so, she lost a titanic opportunity. For, the Germans had come to within a whisker of snatching global naval supremacy from the British. Her submarine force more than compensated the ineffectiveness of her surface naval force.
Unsurprisingly, Britain and her rising ally, the United States, made it a point to diligently confiscate all of Germany’s potent fleet after the war ended in 1919.
If you want peace, prepare for war. So goes an old adage. The implication is, your strength acts as a deterrent for your opponent who then avoids taking up arms against you.
This holds good till you reach a certain point up to which mutual respect prevents confrontation. Thereafter, the strategy produces diminishing returns as the great build up of weapons and forces on both sides makes war inevitable. The very basis of the old adage then stands negated.
With a view to restrict a naval arms race, one that precipitated WW I in part, major powers flocked in Washington D.C. in 1921 for the Washington Naval Conference. The outcome was the establishment of caps on naval resources.
Back then, Japan was on the winning side. She accepted limits just below Britain and the U.S. only to renege later. The U.S. and Britain largely adhered to the limits for most of the fifteen years after the conference.
Things changed in the late 1930s when a war on a global scale became a fait accompli, it was only a matter of time. The U.S. reinforced its naval strength with aircraft carriers. Britain and the U.S. each had seven carriers. Japan had ten. Surprisingly, Germany and Italy had none.
For all his brilliance (let’s give the devil his due!), it is a mystery as to why the genius of Adolf Hitler did not invest in aircraft carriers. Perhaps, a strategic miscalculation. Perhaps, the oversight of a great mind.
Britain and the U.S. clearly preferred aircraft carriers over conventional battleships. Japan invested in both. Very soon however the aircraft carrier was to emerge as the new instrument of naval predominance.
American and British foresight yielded rich dividends during WW II. The war did not start on an optimistic note for British carriers though. A German naval battleship and submarine sunk one each of Britain’s carriers while carrier-based Japanese aircrafts drowned another.
Then at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese launched an aerial assault from six aircraft carriers. No navy had employed six carriers before and none did later. Seems the Axis Powers were running away with it. It was then that the Allies proved their resilient valor.
Britain’s aircraft carriers proved instrumental in safeguarding naval supply lines in the Atlantic and the Arctic. They also played a crucial role in frustrating the unsinkable German battleship Bismarck to a slow trot and successfully destroying six Italian battleship at Taranto Harbor.
Just five months after and despite the massacre at Pearl Harbor, the U.S. held back the Japanese at the famous Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942. This was the first naval battle fought exclusively between aircrafts launched from rival carriers.
Less than a month later, U.S. fighter planes from three aircraft carriers sunk four Japanese carriers at the Battle of Midway. When your enemy is dead, bury him. The U.S. did so at the Battle of the Philippine Sea, handing down the Japanese navy a resoundingly decisive defeat.
And when her carrier-launched aircrafts destroyed the mega Japanese warships Musashi and Yamato respectively in 1944 and 1945, the battleship surrendered its long-held crown to the aircraft carrier.
Victories at the battles of Coral Sea and Midway marked the naval ascendency of the U.S. Her rivals were crippled and war losses had reduced her allies to badly mauled victors.
Aircraft carriers rendered valuable services during the Korean War, Vietnam War, and the U.S.’ global war on terror. One spectacular example of the carrier’s utility came in the Falklands War that Britain won at great distance from its shores.
It was only in 1967 that the Soviets commissioned their first aircraft carrier, a helicopter carrier rather, the Moskva. And most of the carriers of the USSR and, later, Russia were aircraft carrying cruisers, not genuine aircraft carriers in the true sense of the term.
With the capacity to provide a floating base to fighter jets and helicopters, aircraft carriers empower their master nation to place its air force in close proximity to an area of its interest that is far, far away from its territorial boundaries without establishing airbases in or around the region.
Such point of interest can be a warzone or a strategically or economically important spot. It costs a fortune to build airbases and guard them against omnipresent threats. Aircraft carriers too come at exorbitant price tags, but much less so.
Through all this, a country can extend its military muscle across the globe. In the quicksand-like arena of international politics where they fight for every inch of influence with a ferocity that would shame a tiger shark, such extension of domination comes highly prized.
Two heads are usually better than one. By combining the best of naval power and air force, aircraft carriers establish a fantastic and, perhaps, singular synergy.
Officially, the U.S. operates ten aircraft carriers, all nuclear powered and called supercarriers. But there are nineteen U.S. warships you can tag as aircraft carriers, the other nine being amphibious assault ships or helicopter carriers.
Now, the deck space of the ten supercarriers is over twice that of the deck space of all other carriers with other navies around the world. An important reason for why the U.S. is a superpower.
Many observers are however not very convinced. They point to the enormous cost of aircraft carriers. The USS Gerald Ford, for example, will cost over $13 billion when it is deployed. The vessel is the most advanced aircraft carrier of the day though.
Their point is, is the cost justified when nations such as China are developing anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM) with a formidable 950 nautical mile range? And when the landscape of battlegrounds is fast changing – wars of the old kind are rarely fought these days.
Speaking of cost, aircraft carriers are less expensive than airbases. And with a life span of fifty years they provide windfall returns on investment by lending mammoth influence in international politics.
Tensions are fairly commonplace in the volatile vicinity of the Strait of Hormuz. This is the most important strategic choke point in the world because 20% of the world’s petroleum passes through here. Our present lifestyles make oil an essential commodity.
Placing an aircraft carrier in the vicinity can defuse tensions merely on account of the dread these mega warships inspire. You don’t even need to actually strike. What of the merits gained by preventing an escalation of conflict without even firing a shot? Isn’t that economical and relevant?
Coming to the issue of anti aircraft carrier missiles, there were many such Soviet-made weapons and submarines touted as aircraft-carrier-killers. Innovation helped nullify these hazards. The same will repeat.
Even otherwise, aircraft carriers of today are least vulnerable to attacks among military vessels of comparable size and capacity. Something that has earned them the sobriquet: powerhouse of the fleet.
An example will explain the situation better. Despite a strong desire to do so, Israel could not bomb the apparently-civilian nuclear facilities of Iran in the first decade of the 21st century. The way it had wrecked Iraq’s Osirak Reactor back in 1981.
Contrast this with what Britain did in the Falklands War of 1982. She trounced Argentina under the latter’s very nose, some 13,000 km from English shores. Why? Because, the British deployed aircraft carriers.
Britain Won the Falklands War Against Argentina some 8,000 Miles Away from English Shores & Very Close of Argentine Territory
This, next example may not sound spectacular because we expect the U.S. to win, but is no less important. During Operation Enduring Freedom i.e. the U.S.’ global war on terror, the nuclear-powered USS Theodore Roosevelt stayed put in its deployed area for 159 days without break!
Some observers suggest building smaller carriers. Small carriers however escalate the operating cost per aircraft because they can deploy fewer aircrafts. Plus, they lose their striking power.
Then again, hull steel is rather inexpensive and the savings from cutting down carrier size are meager. Moreover, a carrier has to carry basic equipment – radars and combat control equipment – which occupies a certain minimum space.
As of July 4, 2016, there are 37 active aircraft carriers with twelve navies. The U.S. of course has ten of these. Perhaps, the strongest evidence of the utility of aircraft carriers comes from the fact that top navies are still building them:
- The U.S. is pouring $13 billion in the USS Gerald R. Ford, the most technologically advanced carrier of today. It is also building two other carriers
- The United Kingdom is building two – Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales
- Japan, India, China, and South Korea are building one each
Other countries with commissioned, ordered, or under-construction aircraft carriers include Russia, France, Italy, Brazil, Spain, Thailand, Egypt, and Australia although some of these possess helicopter carriers only.
Eighteenth century French philosopher Voltaire made a touching observation when he said God is not on the side of the big battalions, but on the side of those who shoot best.
There would be no proverbial Davids surprising Goliaths with a knockout punch otherwise. Like the Greeks shocked the Persians at Salamis in 480 B.C. And, like the English jolted the Spanish at Gravelines in 1588 A.D.
Heroics apart, let us widen our gaze and adopt a broad interpretation of the adage: the issue is not one of availability of resources alone, but also of their effective mobilization and judicial allocation.
A vibrant naval force has always separated the great from the mere good, the superpower from the average power. We can at present, arguably of course, place space satellites on the same pedestal as of the navy.
Given the practical realities of planet earth and the geopolitical compulsions of today and tomorrow, aircraft carriers will continue to be the jewel in the crown of many a navy. The way they have for a century now. And, the navy will remain the great dividing ridge between powers.
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