The future of maritime conflict—a response to Hugh White
9 Sep 2015|


Hugh White’s equally ‘spirited’ response to my critique raises several questions in my mind. Unsurprisingly, I differ with him on several points. I accept—and have said elsewhere—that, unlike on land, the defence has no inherent advantage over the offence.

But, Hugh’s point that ‘the defence must succeed all the time’ is over-stated. It may be true enough in revolutionary and insurgency theory, but, in the context that we’re discussing, what the defence needs to do is succeed enough to achieve the aim required. As Hugh has recognised, there may be a price to be paid, but there always has been a price and, in war, there always will be. What we have to be sure is that the end justifies the means.

Furthermore, while any defence force has to manage a tension between the need for current readiness and investment in the future, it also has to manage a tension between specialisation and flexibility. The difficulty with specialisation along the capability lines proposed by Hugh over many years is that it’s an invitation to an asymmetric response. For example, I don’t disagree with the need for better fuel stockpiling on a national level, but I think that such stockpiling to support denial operations reflects the sort of makeshift solution required when one has been side-stepped by the adversary. How long can one continue either operationally or nationally before the stockpiles are exhausted?

I think that the problem with Hugh’s decrying the ability to conduct sea control would be made clearer if we substitute ‘sea transport’ for ‘sea control’. Do we really think that in a future conflict, sea transport won’t be required for both operational purposes and national ones?

There’s also a fundamental issue of the approach to discussing these problems. Implicit in some of Hugh White’s commentary—and the recent contribution by Nic Stuart—is that senior military personnel (including retired naval officers) tend to be caught in the past and take an inherently conservative approach to technological innovation. This is true in part, but it would be much more accurate to describe their outlook as one of hedging. It’s a truism that revolutions in military affairs occur when doctrine changes, not when technology is introduced. The reason for this is that doctrine can’t change until the technology is made to work and work reliably. This generally takes time.

Experienced military personnel know from their experience that what can go wrong, does go wrong. No battle plan survives contact with the enemy and everything done is subject to what Clausewitz describes as ‘friction’, when what’s important to do seems simple, but the very simple becomes very hard to achieve. Ironically, given the parallels to the realities of fighting elections, there’s often a sympathy between experienced politicians and the experienced military when contemplating difficult decisions in dealing with an adversary.

As a historian, as well as a former naval officer, I also often wish that navies—and others—understood history better, and cited historical examples more carefully, because the progress of technological change has never been as straightforward as myth would have it. Personally, I blame the invention of science fiction, which preceded the heavier-than-air flying machine, but generated a popular tendency to confuse the potential a new technology may offer with the reality achieved.

Nic Stuart mentioned the lack of understanding of the future of aircraft carriers in pre-war navies, but the case is much more complex than this. By 1938 the Americans, Japanese and British were all spending more on their naval air arms than their battle squadrons, while the Americans in particular had developed their aviation warfare doctrine for the Pacific campaign to the point where Admiral Nimitz was able to claim after 1945 that the only surprise had been the kamikaze suicide aircraft. The British, stymied by lack of funding, strategic over-commitment, technological lag, and bad whole-of-government organisation, make a fascinating case study—interesting as much for what they got right as wrong.

My ideas about a future conflict in which networks will be attacked could well be wrong. But I do think that I’m right in saying that local systems of systems which can generate their own three dimensional picture of the battle space from their own resources—onboard and offboard—will prove survivable. Not always, but perhaps enough. This is a key reason why I find the potential to deploy multiple unmanned vehicles under, on and over the sea as being so important.