Book Review: Fleet Tactics by Wayne Hughes

Fleet Tactics by Captain (ret.) Wayne Hughes is something of a classic in modern naval thinking. Some have even labeled it as a modern day version of Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Seapower Upon History. The book serves as a treatise on naval warfare, specifically focusing on how it has evolved and what has remained constant into the present day. Hughes’ Fleet Tactics is not a series of books, rather, the title has been updated twice in the history of its publication, as is seen below:

  • Fleet Tactics: Theory and Practice (1986)
  • Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat [2nd edition] (1999)
  • Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations [3rd edition] (2018), Co-written with RADM Robert Girrier.

The first part of the text is actually a historical survey of naval warfare as it has evolved from the age of sail to the modern era. Hughes examines developments such as the line of battle, the dominance of the big gun battleships in WWI, the development of aircraft carriers and radar in WWII, the changing nature of naval operations during the Cold War, and the evolving nature of missiles and information technology in the present. Following the historical examination, overall constants, trends, and changing variables are identified. Underscoring all of these are what Hughes calls the “six cornerstones” of naval warfare that have remained over time. They are as follows:

  1. Sailors matter the most
  2. Doctrine is the glue of tactics
  3. To know tactics, you must know the technology
  4. The purpose of naval warfare is on land
  5. “A ship’s a fool that fights a fort.”
  6. Attack effectively first

(Hughes, 2018, p. 18 – 30)

There are many other observations within the text, including comparisons between naval and land warfare. However, Hughes cautions against turning strategy and tactics into a mere checklist of generalizations. In fact, he compares modern naval warfare to a chess game, but instead of one board there are multiple boards in a three-dimensional space where the pieces can jump from one board to another.

It’s important to note what this book is and what it isn’t. While the title of Fleet Tactics denotes a discussion of specific naval tactics (such as the famous ones like crossing the T), this book isn’t a catalogue of tactics. So, you won’t find descriptions such as, “this tactic was used in situation A and that tactic was used when the enemy did XYZ.” The book doesn’t really examine many engagements with a high-level of tactical detail. If anything, it provides the reader with a grounding on how to broadly think about naval warfare from a tactical and operational perspective. It won’t teach you how to fight any particular type of battle because the variables are too many and the technology is always changing.

Owning all three editions, I’ve actually gone through them page by page and compared the text. (Yes, really). Something I’ve noticed is that each edition is rooted in the current naval thinking of the time. The first edition was published in 1986, during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union still existed, and there was concern that Soviet naval buildup presented a possible threat to U.S./NATO interests. When going from one edition to the next, the bulk of the text remains unchanged. The main differences between each updated edition are the addition of chapters addressing changing technology and lessons learned from more recent naval engagements. The 2nd edition includes a chapter on the development of tactics concerning the use of and defense against anti-ship missiles. It also provides a fairly simple mathematical model for missile salvos, and gives some thoughts on operations within the littorals which were a major concern at the time of its publication in 1999. The 3rd edition adds chapters focusing on more strategic matters and the emerging capabilities of information warfare, cyberwarfare, and the use of drones within naval networks. Again, all issues that were making headlines at the time of publication.

Ultimately, there’s a lot to be said about this book. The text is dense and full of information. Having read through it several times and taken copious notes, I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface because there’s so many things to keep in mind. Sadly, Capt. Wayne Hughes passed away on 3 December 2019 at the age of 89 (Lundquist, 2020, para. 1). However, this book, along with his various papers and lectures served to further the education of many naval officers in thinking analytically about how the battlefield has changed over time and what fundamentals need to be kept sharp to stay ahead of the curve. Fleet Tactics examines a broad swath of naval history and how technology and theory have been integrated into both trends and constants. It’s a great start for anyone looking to have an understanding of how naval warfare works and how to think about naval battles in a systematic way.

Overall, a 5 out of 5.

References

Hughes, W.P. & Girrier, R.P. (2018). Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations (3rd Ed.). Naval Institute Press.

Lundquist, E.H. (2020, January 10). RIP Wayne Hughes. DefenseMediaNetwork. https://www.defensemedianetwork.com/stories/rip-wayne-hughes-navy-captain-nps-dean-and-author/.

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