Beat to Quarters

John Adams re-examines the Pacific War by asking himself what Alfred Thayer Mahan would have done if he had commanded either the Japanese or American fleets between 1941 and 1945? Adam’s book asserts that in one sense Mahan was already present in because his doctrines drove much of the Japanese and American thinking during the Pacific War. Mahan was present at Guadalcanal, Midway and in Leyte Gulf. But however potent the spirit of the old admiral was, national politics and ego often created solutions which diverged from the Mahanian ideal. And these politically driven compromises may have extended the Second World War. Adams attempts to return the discussion to first principles by revisiting the great decisions of the Pacific War through Mahan’s prism.


Five pages into the book, as Adams was performing a restrospective based on the admiral’s principles it occurred to me that it would be a useful exercise to ask: what would Mahan do if he commanded the War on Terror? Were the same political ‘compromise’ effects at work? And to what extent? The discussion after the “read more” explores that line of thinking.

Adams says that Mahan’s ideas can be succinctly expressed in five sentences. Let’s see how each side, the US and al-Qaeda, measure up to the key concepts.

  1. The objective of your fleet is to destroy the enemy fleet. By this Mahan meant the destruction of the source of the enemy’s power to interfere with you.  In his view, the key problem in naval war was to focus on the enemy center of gravity. There was little use, he said, in attacking each little enemy outpost by itself. Destroy the source of their power and security — in this case the enemy fleet — and all the little outposts would fall automatically.
    • Even nine years after 9/11 there are no good official responses to the question: what is the enemy’s center of gravity? Or even, who is the enemy?  Is it in Afghanistan? Yemen, the Horn of Africa? Or is it something more abstract, like the sources of money and ideology that sustain it?  It is probable that Mahan would insist on finding answers to these questions.
    • In contrast, al-Qaeda has never wavered in the its decision to make the United States, its financial centers and centers of government the center of gravity.
  2. Never divide the fleet. Once the enemy’s center of gravity is known then focusing on anything else is a waste of time. There will be temptations do a little bit of everything, to provide a little bit of protection for everyone.  Politicians in especial will want to craft a compromise strategy. But as Adams says, “compromise is the bane of [Mahanian] strategy. Strategic thinking must pare the problem down to its most critical facet, and then make the hard, uncompromising choice to concentrate all to win at that facet. To hedge one’s bets is to risk not being strong enough at the decisive point … never NEVER divide the fleet.”
    • America may in fact be in pursuing the strategy of mopping up every outpost it can find without focusing on the enemy center of gravity. Ralph Peters in the New York Post argued that Afghanistan was once an important place, but it’s not central any more. “We know why we went in 2001, but al Qaeda’s long gone.” The strategic reasons for the “war of necessity” may simply be that it was not Iraq. By pursuing a committee approach to warfare, the US may actually be treating “dividing the fleet” as a desirable thing.
    • al-Qaeda on the other hand is pursuing the classic Mahanian strategy of forcing its enemy to divide its fleet while remaining a force that can concentrate its efforts at will. It is a “fleet in being”. It never presents a single physical target against which the US can concentrate. But that’s not necessary. The Russians learned in fighting Napoleon that the center of gravity is not necessarily physical. It solved the problem of concentration by identifying his center of gravity as the Grand Armee’s endurance. By luring him into Russia and destroying the Grand Armee’s endurance, they avoided the necessity of having to concentrate their armies against the French armies. But in a strategic sense the Russians did not “divide the fleet”; by choosing the right focus, they concentrated it.
  3. The nation that would rule the sea must always attack. Mahan believed that the only way to win was to retain the initiative.
    • To talk about pre-emption and initiative today is to court political disaster. The War on Terror is no longer even called a war. Victory has been discarded as an obsolete concept by the President himself. In its place are approaches that treat it as a chronic condition or another species of crime. That Khalid Sheik Mohammed is being tried for the 9/11 attack in order to be “brought to justice” is stark proof of this. What would Mahan make of treating warfare as a law enforcement problem? It is not clear whether the administration believes that initiative is even a virtue in war, or whether a state of war even prevails.
    • al-Qaeda on the other hand is always on the attack. Despite its smaller resources this organization retains the initiative even today.
  4. Well trained men are decisive fleet attributes. Over time, better leadership will prevail.
    • The US has a tremendously well trained force. However as Adams notes, the total effectiveness of the “fleet” consists of the joint effect of  material capability x personnel training x strategic leadership. ‘If one of these factors go to zero, then the entire term is zero.’ It is possible that the cumulative US effort is being zeroed out by the inept strategic decisions.
    • On the other hand al-Qaeda may have small values for all the three factors mentioned above, but because its strategy may have a non-zero value the joint effectiveness is still some positive number.
  5. To interfere with the commander in the field is generally disaster.
    • The number one rule in the War on Terror is to keep the commander in the field on a short leash; to spend months avoiding a meeting with him and to send thousand of lawyers to descend on his chain of command. Mahan would consider this a disaster, but Washington would consider it business as usual.
    • al-Qaeda is designed as franchise which allows for tactical flexibility within a single strategic framework. In many ways, al-Qaeda’s inability to communicate in real time with its field commanders re-creates the old Nelsonian environment of individual iniative.

The Japanese Imperial Navy put great store by Mahan’s teachings. Fortunately, so did the United States Navy. When they met, two strategically competent foes fought the greatest naval campaign in history. But today America’s adversaries in the War on Terror may be more faithful to the old admiral’s precepts than his strategic descendants. The correlation of forces between al-Qaeda and America is tremendously lopsided. What evens it out is the asymmetry in strategic competence.

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