Month: March 2013

A quick talk with Professor Geoffrey Till of Kings College

What does studying Mahan not teach us about the nature of seapower in the 21st century?

Mahan doesn’t deal with the softer roles of modern navies, such as disaster relief, naval engagement and diplomacy and action against all types of criminal in defence of Maritime Security. he largely only deals with peer conflict between conventional navies, although he talked about situations short of war, indirectly more that many people think. Nor is he able to offer much guidance to very modern technology-driven roles like ballistic missile defence, the nuclear deterrent etc. For both reasons, some have argued that he is of declining relevance. But with the rise of naval competition between China and the US, there are signs he is returning to favour in both countries !

What can the Battle of Midway, for example, teach us about fleet engagements in the contemporary era?

Since few expect another Midway type engagement between carrier battle groups, then not many lessons in direct terms. But indirectly a great many – like the criticality of accurate intelligence (strategic as well as operational and tactical) , the importance of maintaining one’s aim, the necessity and the problems of concentrating naval force (+these days, different ways of doing it). Interesting points could be made about the future importance of battle even if you do accept the continued future of the prospects of peer-to-peer conflict.

The Battle of Jutland appears unique in that it was the only serious confrontation between the British and German navies during WW1. It has been argued that the Powers were loath to meet since they were both afraid of losing their precious and expensive navies, their greatest symbols of power. Could we expect a similar dynamic characterizing future US-China naval relations should a crisis develop?

The British were desperate to get at the HSF, once they realized that the threat of the submarine had been vastly over rated. But the strategic prospects of losing were so dire for the UK that Jellicoe arguably conducted the battle a bit more cautiously than he should. Maybe. The Germans knew they would lose against the Grand Fleet, simply on numerical terms if nothing else but were anxious to destroy the British Battle Cruiser fleet. When the main RN Battlefleet turned up the Germans got hammered and ran for it, using desperate asymmetric tactics and, frankly got lucky. They were so frightened by it they never tried it again in a serious way – though, contrary to legend, they did try it once or twice. At the prospect of a final go in 1918, the HSF mutinied. The problem with a similar encounter between the US and China is kind of related to that. A serious carrier or fleet battle between the two would almost certainly involve land attack, and that would almost certainly go nuclear sooner or later. That is the big deterrent, not just the fortunes of the carriers themselves.

According to number of strategic thinkers, nuclear weapons have made conventional wars between the Great Powers a thing of the past it is argued, since, to paraphrase Martin Van Creveld; “the link between victory and survival has been cut”. What does this portent for the trajectory of naval development?

The starting assumption is wrong, or at least so the bulk of the world’s navies seem to suggest by what they are actually buying in the main. They are continuing to invest in expensive war-fighting on the view that it remains necessary to deter conventional conflict. Otherwise they would be buying a lot more OPVs and patrol craft and a lot fewer big frigates, destroyers, carriers and submarines. The situation in the Asia-Pacific is getting more not less dangerous. The comparatively low priority attached by China and India to the development of nuclear weapons at sea, suggests that their real aim is to simply to deter others from using them and little more.

Could you explain the strategic significance of the submarine in South East Asia?

For Vietnam, submarines are the great ‘leveller’ – a means of sea denial against stronger (Chinese) naval forces in the South China Sea. likewise the Chinese against the Americans. For the US and the UK, and Australia, they are a means of projecting power in distant areas with minimum risk and assuring sea control. Thus sinking of the Belgrano. Small submarines have a variety of other critical roles – intelligence and the insertion of special forces.

Is there a naval arms race developing in the Asian-Pacific region?*

Big question! Read my recently published Adelphi Book, which is about exactly that. Broadly, if you mean an arms race like the Anglo-German one before WW1, no. It’s much slower, generally not considered such by the participants, and not aimed at anyone in particular. Obviously naval modernization has the potential to create something like this, specifically China v US, China vs Taiwan, SK v NK, Chian v japan, China v India, India v Pakistan, China v Vietnam……but it’s a long way short of that at the moment. Naval spending was a much higher proportion of government spending in 1909-12 than it is now. Finally even if if is a naval race would that produce conflict and war ? Not necessarily. It might even make it less likely.

Dr Till, thank you for your time.

*Is a naval arms race in the Asia-Pacific region developing ? Yes, no or maybe?” Is the title of a great lecture given by Professor Till at the excellent S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore in 2012.

Geoffrey Till is the Professor of Maritime Studies at the Joint Services Command and Staff College and a member of the Defence Studies Department, part of the War Studies Group of King’s College, London. His works have been translated into nine languages, and he regularly lectures at staff colleges and conferences around the world. His most recent book is “The Future of Asia-Pacific Sea Power (Adelphi series)”