The Future of Sea-Power


SEA-POWER is emerging from this war with a higher prestige than ever, but with somewhat chastened ambitions. In no previous war has sea-power exercised a more decisive influence than in this; in no previous war has there been, relatively to its magnitude, so little fighting between the battle-fleets of the combatants. The military side of naval power has been almost completely obscured, and may never come to the front again; but what we may call the civil side has been more important and decisive than it has ever before been in history. In the future sea-power will be as important as in the past, but it seems clear from the events of this war that it will assume very different forms.

Before the entry of America into the war, few would have ventured to assert so confidently that the future of seapower as England understood and as Captain Mahan expounded it, would be as great as its past. In December of 1916 and the opening months of 1917, the destruction by the German submarines was at its worst; and if at the end of the war we could say with any confidence that we had taken the measure of the submarine, it was due in no small measure to the decision of the United States to throw in their lot with the Allies. There were other reasons for this decision than the German outrages at sea; but it was these, more than the misconduct of Germany’s army in Belgium and elsewhere, more even than the abuse of American hospitality by German diplomatic and consular agents, that convinced America that she could not remain neutral. History has thus refused to repeat itself. Toward the end of the Napoleonic wars, the United States went to war against us on behalf of the freedom of the seas, as they understood that phrase. In this war she fought on our side against the catchword of the freedom of the seas, as it has been put into practice by Germany, but in support of the reality of the free seas as she has understood it. The long controversy between the two countries on the laws of war at sea has thus ended in a reconcilement, which, based on common danger, will, it is to be hoped, develop into something permanent and complete.

It was fortunate for England that Germany, ever since she began to aspire to sea-power, had had at the head of her Admiralty, a man so completely destitute of original ideas as Admiral von Tirpitz. In the long period of naval competition that preceded the war, nothing was more remarkable than the convention by which every Admiralty sought to find out what every other Admiralty was doing, and to do the same thing itself. To read the Parliamentary debates and the newspaper discussions of that time, one would have thought that the art of naval war had been reduced to a sum in simple arithmetic. In certain circles of naval opinion the idea apparently was that the object of having a navy was rather to avoid battle.

The Dreadnought itself would seem to be an application of that idea. It was to be so fast that it could show its heels to everything else on the sea; and secondly, it was to have such long-range guns that nothing could ever come near it without being destroyed. Naval battles, if there were any, were to be won, not by closing with the enemy, but by keeping as far away from him as possible. But, as might have been foreseen, the object of the enemy with an inferior fleet was precisely the same, namely, to keep as far away as possible; and the greatest of our naval problems, namely, to force an enemy to fight who did not want to do so, and to fight on our own terms, was never approached. It is, in fact, impossible to discover a single point at which Dreadnoughts constructed and developed on these ideas came into contact with the real needs of England as an island power. Just as the chancelleries of Europe envisaged foreign politics as a game of chess played according to certain arbitrary rules of their own, so naval war, before this war began, was to be a new wargame, played, not in accordance with the facts of human nature, but in accordance with a code of rules which people supposed, without much thinking, would be observed by the belligerents. The game of ‘capping Dreadnoughts,’ which was pursued with so much vigor before the war, has as much — and as little—to do with the real problem of naval operations, as they were revealed in this war, as a Punch and Judy show has to do with the facts of human nature.

The result was that the ships that people quarreled so much about before the war, were never heard of during its progress, except incidentally, in battles like that of the Dogger Bank and Jutland, which were quite indecisive. The battle of Jutland, indeed, proves that the main idea on which the Dreadnoughts have been built was ridiculously unsuited to the conditions of naval warfare in northern waters. In an action fought at distances of ten or twelve miles radius, a Dreadnought is doubtless supreme — in fighting other Dreadnoughts; but, in the North Sea, she is also, in nine days out of ten, nearly blind at that distance. On the other hand, if she closes the distance, she is apt to lose all the superiority which her builders thought to attain; and in the middle distances she suffers under the same disadvantages, owing to her lack of secondary armament, as those of a soldier of the Macedonian phalanx, with his long lance, in conflict with the short sword of the Roman legionary. At the end of the first day of the battle of Jutland, the British fleet had the Germans all but surrounded; but the distances were so great, owing partly to the fear of submarines, and partly to the design of the Dreadnought, that the German ships in the thick mist had no difficulty in slipping through. The battle would not have ended so in the pre-Dreadnought and pre-submarine days, when capital ships would have come to closer quarters.

Thus the Dreadnought, conceived altogether without reference to the problem of how to force an enemy to fight against his will, proved itself quite incapable of making use of the one opportunity with which chance has presented us in this war of forcing a decisive fleet action.

Happily, the Germans were obsessed with the same ideas that we were, and with very much less justification. It is at any rate an intelligible principle for the greater sea-power to have such a preponderance of Dreadnoughts that any fleet action with it is hopeless; in other words, to win the war at sea without the necessity for any battle at all. But it passes comprehension how Germany could ever have hoped to use her capital ships for any purpose at all against numerical superiority, and, therefore, why she should have had any at all.

But had Germany before the war proceeded on the plan of building up a fleet that was not merely a copy of ours, but embodied ideas of her own, and expressed a naval strategy of her own, she would have done terrible mischief in the surprise and confusion of the first few months, and might conceivably even have overthrown our naval power. She understood the use of mines from the very beginning, but it was only gradually, and, as it were, by accident, that she tumbled to the tremendous importance of the submarine and the torpedo. At the beginning of the war, a very large fleet of submarines, such as she possessed later and used with full realization of its power, might have driven our fleet out into the Atlantic. This fact stares us in the face from every page of Admiral Jellicoe’s book. As it was, we were given time to devise counter-measures, and the enemy, to make up for the opportunity he had lost at the beginning, began to make war on all sea-borne commerce without distinction, with the result that he made an enemy of every neutral that dared oppose him. The greatest naval victory gained in the last ten years was Lord Fisher’s success in bluffing Von Tirpitz into the belief that seapower lay in Dreadnoughts and in other capital ships. Had Von Tirpitz been less of a conventional Father Neptune, he would have seen that, for Germany at any rate, sea-power lay in smaller craft. Victory is won always by differentiation, never by imitation.


Shall we say, then, that sea-power lies in multiplication of the smaller craft — light cruisers, destroyers, and submarines? More than all naval craft, these have done the bulk of the work. For one battle in which capital ships have been engaged, these have fought a hundred; and in addition they have had the task of protecting battleships, of carrying on the blockade, and of protecting convoys and trade-routes. It would have paid us at any time in the war to have had ten destroyers and submarines for each Dreadnought. And yet the naval usefulness of these craft had very strict limitations, even in this war; and in future wars they will be still greater. When there are no longer any huge overgrown battleships for them to menace, and when the destruction of commerce is a thing of the past, as it is to be hoped it will be after this war, the natural role of submarines will be in coast-defense. The submarine, skillfully used, has, in fact, made invasion — at any rate, of a protected coast — extremely difficult. The submarine, moreover, is a comparatively cheap craft, and a poor nation, by the help of it, may make itself the equal of the strongest naval power so far as the protection of its coasts from invasion is concerned. Similarly, the role of destroyers is likely to be reduced, when we realize President Wilson’s ideal of the free seas.

The plain fact is that sea-power consists, not in multiplication of fighting ships, but in the mercantile marine. The fighting ships are the mere insurance premium of sea-power. Sea-power itself consists in the freedom to use the communications of the sea, alike for the purposes of military expeditions and for the needs of peaceful commerce. The great revelation of the war, alike on sea and on land, has been the enormous and preponderating influence of what may be called the civilian element of power in war. In England, at the beginning of hostilities, the army was regarded as a profession, governed by purely technical rules, which at no point came into contact with civil life, It came on the British people as a great new discovery that wars were won in the factory and in the laboratory, quite as much as in the field; and that the slate of war was not a negation of civil life, but rather the application of the efficiency acquired in civil pursuits to the different but still analogous tasks of war.

The German ideal of a nation in arms has, in fact, been justified, though not in the sense of its expositors. War is, and will always be in the future, the application of the whole mind and energy of a nation to the task of defeating its enemies. It will never be again, except, of course, for mere police wars, the work of a military caste. The vice of German militarism is that it combined the enlistment of the whole forces, intellectual and material, of a nation, with the dominance of a caste. Our own, and preeminently the American, ideal of military efficiency has been the adaptation of civilian virtues and civilian efficiency to the purposes of war. It is the militia ideal of an army as distinguished from the professional ideal.

When wars attain a certain magnitude, and are prolonged, it is obvious that this is the ideal that promises the surest success. The stock of purely military ideas accumulated by the profession is exhausted almost as soon as its human material of a highly trained, professional standing army. It must renew its strength by close contact with civil life, and the civilian soldier is ultimately the deciding element in any war between nations in arms. Everyone sees and understands the application of these principles to war on land; indeed, they are the chief subject-matter of our quarrel with Germany; for when we talk about overthrowing German militarism, what we mean — among other things — is the establishment, for the purposes of a great war, of a civilian soldiery as opposed to that of a professional army. What is not generally understood is that the same principle applies equally to war at sea. Here, too, the real maker of victory is, after all, not the admiral, not even the crews of our battleships and dostroyers, but the merchant mariner. Without him, our navies might be supreme on every sea, but there would be no naval power, no ability to use the highways of the sea to support the nation’s life. If the submarine menace, though still serious, has no longer any chance of being fatal, we owe it mainly to the merchant marine. And the chief contribution of America to the naval power of the Entente was, not her battleships and destroyers in European waters, but her shipyards and the new merchant service that she placed at the disposal of the Entente. There can be no naval power without a merchant marine; there can be no real supremacy at sea without a large, contented seafaring population.

At the Conference at Paris after the Crimean War, when the rules for maritime war were under consideration, America refused to consent to the abolition of privateering, because, as she said, it would weaken the natural protection of a power that had not a great navy. Just, as England on land has always been the champion of the rights of a civilian population against an invader, so America at sea has similarly championed the rights of the privateer at sea.

The course of the war has proved America to have been right. During this war practically the whole of the merchant marine has been in a sense privateers. Letters of marque have been in effect issued to them by their governments, not indeed to wage war on the enemies’ shipping, but to do work of even greater national importance — to bring in supplies for the sustenance of the people and the maintenance of the army, and to defend themselves against enemy submarines that should try to interrupt them. Not only have these privateers been necessary to supplement the strength of the weaker naval powers, as America foresaw, but the greatest naval power of all — Great Britain — has found itself under the necessity of using them to the greatest possible extent.


What then is the future of sea-power, or, rather, what objects do we expect it to serve in the future? Are we, in future wars, to drift in our adaptation of the old principles of naval power to modern conditions, as we have done in this one, or are we to have a clearly defined policy from the outset, leaving nothing to chance, but providing for every contingency that can be foreseen?

The old functions of naval power were, roughly, these: (1) to prevent invasion; (2) to defeat the enemy’s naval forces if they put to sea, or, failing that, to keep them penned up in their harbors; (3) to deny to the enemy any military advantage from the use of the sea by his own ships or by the ships of neutral powers; (4) to blockade the enemy’s coasts, irrespective of the military advantage to be derived from the blockade.

The first and second of these functions will remain unchanged, so long as fleets exist at all; but in the light of the experience in this war, the means of discharging them are likely to be very different. It can no longer be said that an immense preponderance of capital ships is necessary to protect a country from invasion. It is not the German Dreadnoughts or cruisers that have prevented us from landing on the shores of Belgium or Germany, but the fortifications, the mines, and the submarines. Nor is it our Dreadnoughts and cruisers that have prevented an invasion of Britain, as is shown by the fact that for the greater part of the war they have been stationed in northern waters, well away from the area of the narrow seas in which, if anywhere, the enemy might be expected to attempt a landing. For a considerable period at the beginning of the war, indeed, as Admiral Jellicoe has told us, the Grand Fleet was not between us and Germany at all, but in the western seas. The submarine and the mine between them, abominable as their misuse has been in this war, have undoubtedly made it easier to repel invasion. The smallest naval power, if it has sufficient industrial resources to make mines and submarines and to erect shore-fortifications, is secured against the strongest naval power; and on the whole that is not a bad thing for the world at large. At any rate, so far as the military action of the fleet is concerned, no one can contend that it is an instrument of aggression. And on that fact is based the British contention that sea-power is an instrument of liberty. Right here is the differentia between German militarism and British sea-power.

But the main controversy of the future will arise as to the discharge of the other two functions of the navy, namely, those of military and of commercial blockade. Ever since the days of Benjamin Franklin, the United States has insisted that warfare on sea-borne commerce, as such, is indefensible; that the condemnation, and still more the destruction, of merchant ships and cargoes at sea is as wrong as t he confiscation of private property on land; and that the highways of the sea cannot reasonably be barred to sea-borne commerce for civilian as distinct from military use.

This distinction between civilian and military commerce in modern war is doubtless a very difficult one to maintain; still, a great deal of the law of contraband is based on the distinction, and more law than the law of contraband. To bomb barracks and forts is legitimate; to bomb unfortified towns is inhumane. To take the supplies of an army is the object of every general; to lay waste a country is cruel. If you say that you cannot keep up the distinction, then you accept the evil logic to which the German mind has succumbed in this war, and must come to the conclusion that, with the introduction of universal service, the distinction between soldiers and civilians is obsolete; that it is as fair war to terrify towns as to strike panic into the enemy’s lines; that killing babies in their cradles is as permissible as bombing soldiers in their billets.

Where America has failed to carry out to its logical conclusion a principle which is as old as American politics itself is in not perceiving that this distinction necessarily implies the abolition of commercial blockade as a legal institution. If you are preventing the enemy’s merchant ships from leaving his ports, or neutral ships from going into his ports, by the establishment of a blockade, it seems illogical and perverse to say that the enemy’s ships should be immune from capture if they do manage to get out to sea. It is a worthless concession to exempt private property at sea from capture, if one of the main objects of your naval policy is to prevent it from ever getting to sea at all.

And this difficulty lies at the very heart of the controversy with regard to the freedom of the seas. The freedom of the seas is one of the oldest and greatest of America’s political ideals, and reasonable Britons do not allow their views in regard to it to be prejudiced by the horrible and cruel caricature Germany has made of it in this war. But it is certainly in need of restatement. On the one hand, the American doctrine of the immunity of private property at sea from capture needs to be considerably modified. On the other hand, the law of blockade, which Great Britain has always maintained in its full severity, should be considerably mitigated. We cannot separate the reform of the law of capture at sea from the reform of the practice of blockade.

The three principles of any change of law that will work at all appear to be these. In the first place, the list of contraband will have to be very greatly extended. If war, as Clausewitz taught, is only a form of politics, and if success in war is best assured by the adaptation of civil efficiency to the new conditions, as has been argued in this article, it follows that we must greatly extend the list of contraband. The distinction between absolute and conditional contraband should be swept away, for it has never been found to be workable. Instead, we ought to have a list of contraband articles to which all belligerents must adhere, and which cannot be added to except by permission of some international court. Instead of an international prize court, what we want is rather an international court to decide what additions, if any, can legitimately be made to the established lists of contraband. Any ship, whether belligerent or neutral, carrying these articles within an area defined by proclamation, should be liable to capture and condemnation by the prize courts of the captor. All other commerce should be perfectly free.

Secondly, the existing laws of naval war give an unfair advantage to the Continental power which has railway communication with a neutral country, as compared with an island power which must import everything from overseas. This advantage should be neutralized by an extension of the law of continuous voyage. The old doctrine of continuous voyage contemplated only a voyage between seaports. For example, a hundred years ago, if England had been at war with Germany and at peace with France, a ship carrying contraband, say, from New York to Hamburg, but touching at some neutral port on the way, was still good prize for a captor, even when on its way to the neutral port and before it had left the neutral port for a hostile destination. The ultimate destination would determine the character of the cargo. This system has been worked out in this war in the case of Holland and other small neutral countries. But it would also have to be applied equally to the great countries. If, for example, we were at war with Germany and France were neutral, a cargo of contraband which could be proved to be destined for German use could not escape capture and condemnation on the ground that it was consigned to a French port and intended to be sent thence by rail to Germany, The system of rationing would present enormous difficulties in the case of great commercial countries, and these arrangements again might properly be left to be scheduled by the same international court which decided the lists of contraband.

Lastly, subject to the exception of contraband articles, commercial blockade should be abolished, and only a strictly naval blockade maintained. All goods consigned to ports used as naval bases — and shore-fortifications might reasonably be held to bring any port under that category—should be subject to condemnation as contraband, and the ships carrying them made liable to confiscation. All goods, except contraband consigned to other than naval ports, would be free.

With these provisos and safeguards, Great Britain might well consent to adopt the American principle, the freedom of the seas, and the last outstanding cause of difference between the two countries would then be removed. If this war has proved anything, it has proved that the retention of the right of capture has not paid this country. In a recent letter to the Times, Lord Inchcape, Chairman of the Peninsular and Oriental Steamship Company, advocated a shipbuilding crusade for Great Britain. The British Mercantile Marine, he estimated, will have lost at the end of the war from one fourth to one fifth of its 1914 tonnage, even with allowances made for new construction and for confiscation of German ships. On the other hand, America, Japan, and Holland have added considerably to their ocean-going fleets. It is an extraordinary paradox that a war in which the British Navy has been so indisputably supreme in the military sense should promise to end in really serious anxiety for the preservation of the supremacy of our mercantile marine. Clearly, under existing practice of capture and destruction, military supremacy at sea does not make for commercial supremacy.

It will be said that this destruction is the consequence of the German submarine campaign, which will not be repeated in any future war. But even so, it is doubtful whether the same or better results could not be achieved by surface craft. The Germans have shown singularly little enterprise in their war on commerce. Whatever may once have been the case, it is certainly no longer true that the law of capture tends to draw merchant shipping to the flag of the country with the supreme navy. The submarine campaign has driven this fact home with indisputable force. But if Germany had never sunk a merchantman with her submarines, but had used small surface craft to prey on commerce, it would still remain true that the law of capture is against the interests of an island country, in proportion as it is more dependent on overseas supplies and presents, in its larger mercantile marine, a bigger target in a guerre de course. If, to take a most unlikely supposition, we were ever at war with France, and she were to make a really enterprising use of small surface craft in preying on our commerce, such a war would deal a blow to the supremacy of our merchant marine every whit as great as that of Germany’s submarines in this war. The only question is, how to reconcile the security of our commerce in war with the maintenance of the power to punish an enemy for gross infraction of the law of war and of humanity.

Mr. Wilson, before leaving the Conference for America, is said to have told a party of American newspaper-men that the question of the freedom of the seas no longer existed as a cause of difference between America and England. He does not seem to have explained this somewhat hard saying further, and there are no signs that either England or America has modified its traditional views on the laws of war at sea. We must suppose, therefore, that what Mr. Wilson meant was that both the American and English doctrines are in process of fusion into a new law, which will combine the principles contended for by each. Is such a fusion possible? It is not only possible, but, thanks to the League of Nations, it seems now almost within sight.

The terms of this fusion have not, so far as is known, been worked out, and it is an interesting exercise to draft an imaginary agreement which will reconcile the American and the British traditions of the sea. Such an agreement might run something like this: —

Article 1. The law of naval warfare in the future shall vary according as the war is waged with the sanction of the League of Nations, or without its sanction. Wars waged with the sanction of the League are hereinafter styled public wars, and those waged without such sanction, private wars.

Article 2. In public wars, the full blockade, as practised by the Allies in this war, shall be permitted. Such wars being waged in defense of the common law of humanity, neutrals have an equal interest with the belligerents in securing their just termination, and they shall therefore contract to give no assistance to the enemy by land or sea, directly or indirectly, but shall enforce a pacific blockade against him.

Article 3. In private wars, the operations of blockade shall be restricted to the enemy’s naval ports and to theservice of actual operations against the enemy’s armed forces. Commercial blockade in private wars is hereby declared to be abolished, and there shall be full liberty of commercial intercourse between belligerents and neutrals, subject only to the prohibition of trade in contraband of war.

Article 4. The only lists of contraband which are binding on neutrals shall be lists drawn up by a naval committee attached to the permanent secretariat of the League of Nations, and such lists shall be revised from time to time.

Article 5. Sinking of merchantmen by belligerents is prohibited, unless it be the only means of preventing a breach of blockade legally established. Merchantmen are good prizes of war only in execution of a judgment of the International Prize Court.

Article 6. Where ships or cargoes are neutral property, they shall in all cases before condemnation be adjudicated upon by the International Court.

Article 7. The International Court, shall be set up by the Executive of the League of Nations and shall be a permanent part of its machinery.

A few notes of explanation may be added to this tentative draft. A sharp distinction, it will be seen, is drawn between wars sanctioned by the League and wars which are not. No wars will be sanctioned by the League except against a power or powers which have defied the provisions of the Covenant, or in defense of laws governing the conduct of war. The principal provision of the Covenant provides for an interval between the quarrel and the blow sufficiently long for the people to prevent war if they are minded to do so. If they are not so minded, they have become participes criminis, and as such have forfeited all right to civilian exemption from the operation of war, and have become liable to the rigors of the full blockade.

The distinction between the civilian and private citizen, and a soldier or sailor or agent of the government, is no longer tenable in such cases. Moreover, neutrals in such a war must not be allowed to draw any private advantage from their neutrality, but must cooperate with the League in establishing a blockade, and must submit to a rationing system for the satisfaction of their domestic needs.

In public wars, the law under this draft is the traditional law of the British Navy. On the other hand, in private wars the American principles are adopted. The distinction between civilian and soldier is preserved and maintained in its full rigor, and also the right of neutrals to trade as they will with the belligerent. The only restrictions on neutral rights are those of the law of contraband and of the doctrine of continuous voyage. But as neutral rights could be completely abrogated if the belligerents were free to promulgate their own lists of contraband, the only binding lists are those promulgated by the League itself; and similarly, in regard to the doctrine of continuous voyage, the onus of proof that a cargo consigned to a neutral port is really destined for belligerent use is upon the belligerent who intercepts it. These general principles can also be applied, mutatis mutandis, to operations of the belligerents in the air. The writer submits that if they are adopted, not only will Great Britain be made secure in her defense, but an old cause of difference between her and the United States will have been removed. Moreover, the offensive use of sea-power will not have been abandoned, but it will be kept in reserve for use, not in private quarrels between nations, but as a rod in pickle for nations that offend against the common rights of humanity.