The need to gain and maintain control of the seas has been the primary goal of navies for centuries. There are a multitude of reasons for this and numerous ways to accomplish it. One way was to achieve victory in a decisive battle. This question dominated naval thinking for many years.
Sea Control and Power Projection
The concept of a decisive battle is rooted in classic Mahanian naval doctrine (put forth by American naval theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan) who argues, among other things, for command/control of the sea. Similarly, another theorist, Julian Corbett, also supported Mahan’s concepts of achieving command of the sea through a decisive battle but argued that command of the sea is a relative concept and not an end in and of itself (Till, 2013, p. 66). (We’ll save the ideas of Mahan and Corbett for another time).
Historically, warfare in the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries, saw few European commanders apart from Napoleon, attempting to end campaigns in a single afternoon. Between 1650-1815, there were very few “decisive” land battles. At sea, the concept of a decisive battle has little meaning. According to B.H. Liddell Hart, “There is no blitzkrieg possible in naval warfare – no lightning flash over the seas, striking down an opponent” (as cited in Palmer, 2005, p. 64).
While the famous Battle of Trafalgar may have been a decisive battle in 1805 against the French and Spanish fleets, the reality is that the war continued for another 9 years, although the Royal Navy maintained control of the sea from then on. The indecisive nature of many naval battles has more to do with the nature of naval warfare. Navies don’t possess the power to bring wars to a quick and decisive end. Mahan wrote about the influence of sea power, not its decisiveness of it. Similarly, Colin S. Gray wrote about its leverage. A decisive victory at sea didn’t mean the end of the war in an afternoon, but rather a prelude to the use of a blockade or securing freedom of the seas. Neither of which yields quick results (Palmer, 2005, p. 64 – 65).
Wayne Hughes and Robert Girrier (2018) note that the goal of naval operations is generally that of either sea control or power projection. Sea control is aimed at protecting sea lines of communication and focuses on destroying enemy forces that threaten those lines. Power projection employs sea control by using strikes ashore or amphibious landings. Theoretically, the main objective of a fleet is the destruction of the enemy’s fleet in a decisive battle. The strategic premise is that the destruction of the enemy fleet clears the way for further naval operations. In practice, the decisive battle rarely occurs unless both sides choose to fight, and history is replete with examples of one side avoiding a decisive battle. This helps explain why there have been so few battles at sea (in comparison to battles on land) (p. 231).
What Makes a Battle ‘Decisive’?
First, let’s define what exactly constitutes a decisive battle. Not all battles have clear winners and losers. Not all battles are decisive. Geoffrey Till (2013) notes the following about a decisive battle:
[A battle is decisive] not just for the immediate damage and loss the victor inflicted on the vanquished, but much more importantly for what happened at sea afterwards. A battle decisively won could effectively confer upon the victor command of the sea, the ability to use the sea decisively for his own purposes and to prevent his enemy from doing the same.(p. 158)
In other words, it’s not enough to simply win a naval battle but to win in such a way that defeats the enemy’s ability to effect command of the sea.
How Do You Win a Decisive Battle?
Historical surveys of naval battles generally point to the following characteristics which are considered critical to achieving a decisive naval victory:
Paraphrased from Geoffrey Till (2013, p. 165-170).
Operational level concentration
Commanders at the operational level must create conditions that allow battles to be won at the tactical level. Ideally, forces must be concentrated on achieving one operational objective before dispersing or moving on to others. For example, in the 17th century, the Dutch were often caught between the operational needs of either directly confronting the British or protecting their merchant vessels. Alfred Thayer Mahan (and other theorists) stressed the importance of concentrating on and destroying the enemy force before dispersing to exercise sea control.
Accurate tactical picture
Self-explanatory. Commanders need an accurate picture of the enemy and their movements. This has arguably become more important and abstract as distances and speed have increased with the progression of technology. Decisions must now be made in a shorter span of time.
Effective command and control
A fleet must fight cohesively. Three components are crucial here. First, the means of communication (flags, radio, computers, etc.). Second, the quality and strength of leadership. Third, a balance between centralized control and delegated authority.
Information and orders need to be passed up and down the chain of command with speed and accuracy. Horatio Nelson was the British epitome of being able to delegate authority by telling his men what he wanted them to accomplish, and then letting them do it.
This does not necessarily mean having all of your forces in one place, but rather, having your forces coordinated and supported with the same objective in mind.
Such is concentration reasonably understood, not huddled together like a drove of sheep, but distributed with a regard to a common purpose, and linked together by the effectual energy of a single will.
Again, Nelson was considered a master at dividing his forces to give the appearance of weakness, but in effect, he was able to concentrate those forces on the enemy’s weak points.
The ability to strike a balance between the aggressive pursuit of the initiative and careful consideration of other factors. A commander must consider the situation and what tactical maneuvers, if any, are required.
As they say, “An army runs on its stomach.” This is true both for armies and navies. The ability to supply your forces with ammunition, fuel, food, etc. is vital to the conduct of operations.
Consider the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps offensives across the Pacific and their effective use of the fleet train during WWII. Similarly, concerns over fuel shortages and gradually weakening supply lines severely limited the operations of the Imperial Japanese Navy throughout the conflict.
Use of the environment
The ability to exploit the physical characteristics of a battlespace (weather, coastline, sea states, underwater conditions, etc.). Even in the modern era, the congested characteristics of the littorals add weight to the idea that the environment will still play a factor in success or failure.
Perhaps one of the easiest concepts to comprehend is the application of sheer brute force. The ability to bring overwhelming firepower against an enemy was often the deciding factor of naval battles in the past. While the weapons and fire control systems have changed over the centuries, fighting for control of the sea is always technologically demanding and expensive.
Naval assets must be able to absorb damage and retain their capacity to perform their missions. A ship put out of action or sunk is of no use. This extends to the crew, as well. If the desire to avoid casualties or the feeling of being overly vulnerable takes precedence, then there will be a decline in the willingness to take risks.
The morale and commitment of the people doing the fighting are timeless factors that can determine survivability, success, or defeat. A well-trained and skillful crew can make all the difference. A ship without a decent crew doesn’t do anything.
It’s important to understand that this is not a recipe for naval victory. Simply checking off the boxes is no guarantee of success. If anything, the somewhat vague nature of these characteristics shows that every battle is somewhat different and that there is no tried and true formula for winning. Any number of these factors can have a preponderance in deciding the outcome of a battle.
In fact, Ian Speller (2014) suggests that the increasingly complex networked systems and nature of warfare place a higher emphasis on the coordination of numerous types of assets synergistically in campaigns that have military, political, economic, and societal aspects. In other words, singular decisive engagements may be a thing of the past and the focus on operational art may be taking more precedence (p. 110). This would imply that set-piece battles are no longer the norm and are something only found in Hollywood movies.
Similarly, Till (2013) also notes that the current trends of globalization and the focus of ‘post-modern navies’ on systems and partnerships to effect the freedom of navigation on the seas renders the idea of decisive naval battles more in line with the ‘modern navy’ and their focus on the exclusivity of nations and Mahanian doctrine (p. 32-40). The increasing connectivity of the world would suggest that single nations can no longer shoulder the burden, but rather multiple governments must be ready to cooperate and respond to a multitude of threats at sea of any sort of magnitude from terrorism to professional opposing naval forces.
Perhaps what it all amounts to is the effective use of one’s own, or multiple, forces to bring about not only an effective military but also an economic and political outcome. In the end, to achieve a decisive outcome in naval warfare, the enemy must lose its ability to control the sea.
Hughes, W.P. & Girrier, R.P. (2018). Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations (3rd Ed.). Naval Institute Press.
Palmer, M.A. (2005). Command at Sea: Naval Command and Control since the Sixteenth Century. Harvard University Press.
Speller, I. (2014). Understanding Naval Warfare. Routledge.
Till, G. (2013). Seapower: A Guide for the Twenty-First Century (3rd Ed.). Routledge.