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Concepts of Sea Power – Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan ; By Cmde V Venugopal Menon (Retd.)

Updated: Mar 6, 2023


Image Courtesy: The U.S Naval Institute

Article 71/2021

The following are the excerpts from the talk delivered by Commodore V Venugopal Menon (Retd.) on Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan’s Concepts of Sea Power to the postgraduate students of Rashtriya Raksha University, Gujarat.


Introduction

Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan was a United States Naval officer and historian who is referred to as the most important American strategist of the 19th century. His book, the influence of sea power upon history made him world famous and perhaps the most influential American author of the 19th century. From his evaluation of these relationships, he then developed and propounded his theories of sea power as an instrument for projecting and expanding the United States power and influence throughout the world. It is entirely true that much of Mahan’s writing bears the imprint of that particular time in which he lived and must be considered in historical context.


Alfred Thayer Mahan was born in 1840 at West Point, his father, Dennis Mahan, was an instructor in engineering and military science at the Military Academy.  After a year at Columbia, his son obtained entry into the Naval Academy, where he graduated just prior to the Civil War. As a line officer, Mahan pursued for about twenty-five years a rather routine career in standard billets. It was perhaps inevitable that, in the wake of the Civil War, the country’s energies and attention were directed to the settlement and development of its vast continental domain; and the Navy at this time found itself in a rather poor state with neither motivation nor money adequately to span the transition from sail to steam and on to the other technological advances. At this point in his career, Mahan had managed to impress his intellectual capacity upon Rear Admiral Stephen B. Luce, who in the early 1880’s no longer accepted with equanimity the idea of a Navy aimlessly adrift.  One of Admiral Luce’s accomplishments in his crusade was the establishment of the Naval War College. His summons to Mahan to lecture at this institution on the art of war and naval history signaled Mahan’s emergence from obscurity to a position in the forefront of the expositors of strategic thought.  It is a matter of record that, prior to his call from Admiral Luce, Mahan held views that in latter-day parlance would be termed isolationist: that the United States should avoid expansion into overseas territories; that the United States should not incur heavy naval expenditure, not only to save money but also to minimize the undue military influence in the governmental processes; and that the Navy’s wartime functions should be limited to commerce raiding and coastal defense. However, in the course of his studies, he discovered that ‘control of the sea was a historic factor which had never been systematically appreciated and expounded.’ Concurrently, his own analysis of the factors pertaining to sea power as an instrument of national power resulted in the transformation of his own thinking. This naturally led to and probably embrace the concept of the sources of sea power, whether commercial or military; depending upon the position of the particular country, the character of its coasts, its harbors, the character and pursuits of its people, its possession of military ports in various parts of the world, its colonies,  its resources in the length and breadth of the world.


The first and most obvious light in which the sea presents itself from the political and social point of view is that of a great highway; Notwithstanding all the familiar and unfamiliar dangers of the sea, both travel and traffic by water have always been easier and cheaper than by land.  In Mahan’ s day, Britain was at the zenith of her ascendancy as the seat of a world empire; and Mahan’s historical analysis extracted from the story of Britain’s rise the factors which had enabled her to achieve wealth and dominion in the face of opposition from various foes in many ways superior to her except in the medium of the sea. Mahan detected and propounded parallels to the strategic position of the United States as this nation reached the limits of its continental expansion. As stated previously, Mahan had moved in the 1880’s from an isolationist viewpoint to one in 1890 whereby,  he could see no future for the United States except that she should expand her influence and power outward beyond her sea frontiers in order to achieve political greatness and economic wealth. In essence, Mahan’ s doctrine stated that: (1) The United States should be a world power; (2) Control of the seas is necessary for world power status; (3) The way to maintain such control is by a powerful Navy. But let us here be very careful not to exclude the non-naval elements of sea power which are so vital a part of Mahan’s overall concept. In speaking of United States outward expansion, he stated: . . . home trade is but a part of the business of a country bordering on the sea. Foreign necessaries or luxuries must be brought to its ports and finished products exported either in its own or foreign ships.  The ships must have secure ports to which to return and must be followed by protection throughout the voyage. This protection in time of war must be extended by armed shipping. In another passage Mahan gives this succinct definition of sea power: . . . sea power in the broad sense . . . includes not only the military strength afloat that rules the sea or any part of it by force of arms, but also the peaceful commerce and shipping from which alone a military fleet naturally and healthfully springs, and on which it securely rests.


It is most important to note the connect  he envisages between the naval and non-naval portions of a nation’s overall maritime posture: the merchant shipping requires the protection of naval forces; on the other hand, the fundamental requirements of a Navy are realized in the existence of an adequate merchant marine base.  It is true that certain countries such as Norway and Greece have developed sizeable merchant fleets without proportionate naval protection; likewise, Mahan himself recognized that certain political circumstances might lead a nation to the development of naval strength in the absence of proportionate mercantile interests.  Therefore, I leave you with this  summation of Mahan’s thesis which was provided for him several hundred years earlier by Sir Walter Raleigh: He who rules the sea controls the commerce of the world and thus the riches of the world and finally the world itself. Having stated the strategic necessity for outward United States expansion, Mahan then set forth to define the principal conditions affecting a nation’s ability and will to project its influence across the sea; THE PRINCIPAL CONDITIONS AFFECTING THE SEA POWER OF NATIONS viz Geographical Position, Physical Conformation, Extent of Territory,  Character of the Population & Character of the Government.


Geographical Position

As to the first of these, Mahan perceived that Britain’s ascendancy on the seas had in part stemmed from her relative immunity from attack by rival land powers. Moreover, her position athwart the most important Atlantic trade routes enabled her to dominate the commercial flow between Europe and the resource areas in America, Africa, and Asia; and in time of war, to sever her enemies’ access to vital materials. As to the United States, Mahan saw even greater potential for maritime dominance in this country’s freedom from the burden of land defense against strong neighbors and in the dominant position of this country relative to the vital trade routes established through the Panama Canal.


Physical Conformation

Proceeding down the list, Mahan evaluated the many deep, defensible harbors along the United States seaboard as an indispensable element in the establishment of both commercial and naval maritime strength. Moreover, the linking of many of US harbors with the continental interior, by the natural means of the navigable river system as well as by the rapidly developing man-made links of railroads and canals, provided access for raw export materials and manufactured goods to their points of export.


Extent of Territory & Character of Population

The next two elements must, to some extent, be considered together, in that Mahan implied that, whereas national capacity and strength depended upon the nature and extent of its territory. He felt that a nation’s expansion beyond her sea frontiers was dependent upon an overflow of people, who might man the ocean-going fleets and execute national commercial and political pursuits overseas;  Mahan goes on to point out that the national character and aptitudes of the people condition the development of sea power. The tendency to trade is the national characteristic most important to the development of sea power.


Character of Government

And last on this list, but certainly not least, Mahan perceived that governmental attitudes and processes inevitably conditioned a nation’s outlook on overseas commerce and naval strength. He reasoned that if the advocates of maritime commercial expansion and those of naval preparedness held a preponderant voice in the councils of government, a nation would inevitably support and expand its maritime posture.  and it was largely his purpose to attempt to condition the people, but more particularly the government, to an appreciation of the opportunities and the challenges offered by the favorable stance of the United States in the essentials of sea power.


Four Pillared Foundation of Naval Strategy

It should be recognized that the incisive thesis that we’ve thus far discussed was truly a concept of national strategy, as conceived in today’s acceptance of that term. Now, as we have seen, Mahan’s primary object and the transcendental theme was the political and strategic importance of sea power, he evaluated historical naval events with a secondary object of determining, in his words, Heading principles of a four-pillared foundation of naval strategy 1. Concentration 3. Offense 2. Objective 4. Communications.


Concentration

The fundamental object in all military combinations is to gain local superiority by concentration.  Never attempt to straddle, unless your force is evidently so supreme that you have clearly more than enough.  Mahan detected in his historical studies a direct relationship between British successes in utilizing their naval mobility to achieve concentration of force at a critical point, as opposed to the French tendency to disperse their efforts to nuisance raiding and harassment of commerce.


Objective

Mahan envisioned the essence of naval strategy to embody the exploitation of the mobility of ships to achieve concentration of power at a decisive point, while at the same time holding firm at other potential points of action. From this concept stemmed his capsule definition of strategy as the decision ‘where to act.’ Proceeding from this first great principle, Mahan stressed the determination of a proper objective as an essential element of where to act. The objective of Naval Strategy in war is the enemy’s navy’;


Offense

Mahan’s third great principle of strategy involved his concept of the offensive, a principle that overlies almost all statements of the maxims of warfare. Mahan stated it thus: . . . the assumption of a simple defense in war is ruin. War, once declared, must be waged offensively aggressively.   This is not to say that Mahan did not recognize the necessity for defense under certain circumstances; but he cautions that ‘even though the leading object of the war be defense, defense is best made by offensive action.’ Mahan credits the ‘go-get-’em’ attitude of British commanders such as Rodney and Nelson as a determining factor in overcoming often superior material odds accruing to French commanders who too often adopted defensive, no-risk courses of action.


Communications

Finally, of the fourth of Mahan’s points of strategic principle – communications, in the full meaning of the term, dominate war. As an element of strategy, they devour all other elements. He particularly emphasized the importance of central position and interior lines and considered a nation with firm control of the sea to possess strong interior lines on a global basis. So long as the fleet is able to face the enemy at sea communications mean, essentially, not geographical lines but supplies of which the ships cannot carry in their own hulls beyond a limited amount implying the relevance of overseas bases.


He goes on, Nevertheless, all military organizations, land or sea, are ultimately dependent upon open communications with the basis of the national power.  Broadly considered, communications is the most important single element in strategy, political or military. In its control over them has lain the pre-eminence of sea power. The power, therefore, to insure these communications to one’s self, and to interrupt them for an adversary, affects the very root of a nation’s vigor.  different meanings to the word ‘communications.’ The word ‘logistics’ may be substituted for the word ‘communications’ whenever Mahan uses the latter.  In brief summary, Mahan believed that adequate control of the sea depended upon and assured the necessary communications in the broad sense, that enabled a nation to project its power and influence into the uttermost parts of the earth, into the very teeth of those forces which might challenge that nation’s security or prosperity.


Conclusion

Therefore, in closing, I would like to believe that my necessarily cursory coverage of the vast scope of Mahan’s concepts will serve chiefly to pique your curiosity and lead you to the study and evaluation of his works, to the end that his basic factors and principles may aid you in your consideration and formulation of current strategic concepts. In this context I would submit to your consideration the take of Bernard Brodie when he said, in effect, that until a ton of goods can move as cheaply by air as by sea, we must continue to control the sea. It is appropriate that I leave you with a Mahan quotation stemming from his consideration of the moral aspects of war:


"Power, force, is a faculty of national life; one of the talents committed to nations by God. Like every other endowment of a complex organization, it must be held under the control of the enlightened intellect and of the upright heart; but no more than any other can it be carelessly or lightly abjured, without incurring the responsibility of one who buries in the earth that which was entrusted to him for use . . . Until it is demonstrable that no evil exists, or threatens the world, which cannot be obviated without recourse to force, the obligation to readiness must remain; and where evil is mighty and defiant, the obligation to use force."

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(Commodore V Venugopal Menon is a distinguished member of C3S and has served in the Indian Navy for 29 years in operational roles, including commands at sea, and training and staff assignments at Naval HQ. In addition to the staff and war courses in the Indian Navy, he underwent the executive course at the Asia Pacific Centre for Security Studies. The views expressed are personal.) 

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