This article is part of the National War College’s contribution to the series “Compete and Win: Envisioning a Competitive Strategy for the Twenty-First Century.” The series endeavors to present expert commentary on diverse issues surrounding US competitive strategy and irregular warfare with peer and near-peer competitors in the physical, cyber, and information spaces. The series is part of the Competition in Cyberspace Project (C2P), a joint initiative by the Army Cyber Institute and the Modern War Institute. Read all articles in the series here.

Special thanks to series editors Capt. Maggie Smith, PhD, C2P director, and Dr. Barnett S. Koven.

In 2006 the United States Navy published a startling photograph. The picture clearly showed a Chinese submarine, periscope raised, with the USS Kitty Hawk in the background. That the photo was taken by an antisubmarine helicopter hovering over the submarine was lost in the initial wave of reactions but the point was clear: a new, modern force had arrived, and it posed a direct threat to our primary naval strike power. US naval power and strategy has a rich history that includes epic battles, catastrophic losses, and stalwart traditions. Around the globe, naval forces have long been the power of empires and used to extend a nation’s reach beyond its geographic homeland. At the dawn of the twentieth century, it was not uncommon to hear British and German naval officers toasting with De Tag! (To the Day!) and to clink their raised glasses in the acknowledgement that they would one day meet in a decisive battle at sea. For navalists, a battle between the world’s greatest navies was a certainty.

For the US Navy and other great navies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Mahanian theory predicting a decisive battle at sea between the world’s great powers has dominated strategy discussions. The ruling classes and top theorists became firmly entrenched in an ethos of then-modern conflict that demanded expansion, expected conflict with other great powers, and predicted a great naval battle for command of the sea. According to Alfred Thayer Mahan, eliminating an enemy fleet by capital ships—a navy’s most important ships, typically the largest and leading or primary ships in a naval fleet—in a decisive battle would not only win command of the sea, but would also win the war. Ironically, when war finally came the supposedly decisive naval battle of World War I at Jutland was anything but decisive—Mahan’s theory of naval warfare was instead shown to be decisively misguided.

Of course, history never really repeats itself, but its echoes tend to carry forward into modern times. Most often, history’s echoes ring painfully familiar and today’s great power competition—a thinly disguised reference in US strategic parlance to competition specifically with China—is no exception. But another echo is also starting to ring—namely, the presumption that competition will inevitably lead to war. The fact that China is building a modern navy is viewed by Western analysts with alarm, but not panic. Dark quotations from the “Thucydides Trap” and dire warnings of how China’s militarization of man-made islands will somehow close the South China Sea are frequently predicted to result in any number of global catastrophes. War, it is said, will hinge upon US naval power being able to engage the Chinese navy successfully, to ensure command of the sea and theoretical victory. Many navalists wonder if De Tag! is upon us once again.

Today’s Assumptions

Today our formidable Navy is preparing for battle with gusto, stressing capital ship power—namely, aircraft carriers—to execute Mahanian style battle in an offensive strategy, seeking out and destroying the enemy at sea. But the reason we assume China will engage at sea and play our game is unclear. The foundation upon which modern naval strategy is built is fatally flawed, relying on dubious theory, and selectively listening to the echoes of history. Unlike other naval powers, the United States Navy clings to Mahanian theory as rationale for its force structure and strategy. While going all in on Mahanian theory has enabled an enormously powerful Navy that can travel and strike globally—virtually unopposed—the adherence to Mahanian theory has resulted in a limited record of operational success in the twentieth century. And, crucially, the Mahanian US Navy is particularly unsuited for a projected conflict with China.

Even a neutral observer—a near impossibility in the practical sense—is likely to wonder why the United States continues to rely on outdated theory despite having the ability and capability to update, modernize, and strategize for the modern era. The reason we do so is simple: we want to return to it. We rationalize incorporating dated theory into modern warfare with dubious historical examples and assumptions. The result is a protracted attempt to mold any potential adversary into our desired theoretical vision and the continuation of some bad habits—theorizing war against our ideal enemy instead of the enemy we have, envisioning an enemy that fits a desired vision to match how we want to fight the next war, and developing an understanding of modern conflict that is rooted in a selective instead of wholistic examination of a century of naval conflict.

Poor History: Mahan Vindicated?

Mahanian theory was a poor predictor of events in World War I, but it could be argued that Mahan’s theory was vindicated in World War II. In 1945 the United States Navy stood at the height of its power. Relatively new as a capital ship force—the first modern battleships of the great white fleet had sailed in 1907—the US Navy undertook a massive expansion to prepare for war, both materially and philosophically. Pearl Harbor demonstrated how the battleship had been eclipsed by the aircraft carrier. The Navy immediately adapted—taking what it learned at Pearl Harbor, the Navy grew to thirty fleet carriers by 1945, and added hundreds of smaller ships to fight Japan in a distinctly Mahanian fashion. Ultimately the primary tool of victory in the Pacific was carrier power.

However, as the United States emerged from World War II as a superpower pitted against the now-hostile Soviet Union, Navy admirals took the lessons learned at Pearl Harbor and argued for the continued development of larger “super carriers” to provide the US Navy with a forward-deployed naval strike capability. In its push for bigger and better carriers, the Navy was making a distinctly Mahanian argument supported by the overwhelming victory in the Pacific during World War II. As a military service, the Navy saw its growth as key to its survival as a service—especially as post-war funding became more limited and it was unclear which service would be prioritized for growth in the new bipolar superpower era. Despite hostility from the other services—especially the Air Force, which understood power projection as its singular province—the Navy got what it wanted and aircraft carriers, a capital ship force that could execute Mahanian theory of decisive battle, became the bedrock of the US Navy’s intimidating fleet.

But the lessons taken from World War II and the rationale for a battle fleet of capital ships was a selective one that ignored how World War II was a two-ocean war, and how the war in the Pacific had a markedly different character from the war in the Atlantic. The war in the Atlantic was not a carrier war, but rather one in which the primary threat was the German U-boat, a formidable enemy whose potential success threatened the entire Allied war effort. The Atlantic was a small-boy war of destroyers, escorts, and antisubmarine aircraft, with little Mahanian theory influencing the plan. To defeat the undersea U-boat threat, the Navy relied on a unique combination of defensive measures, intelligence, and small-unit actions. As the Navy set a course for modernization and expansion, it failed to encompass the historical lessons from its World War II Atlantic experience. Instead, the core philosophical ethos focused on capital ships and how carriers were needed to fight a peer at sea. The strategy overlooked the lessons learned from the smaller antisubmarine forces that won in the Atlantic. Ultimately, the problem of future warfare was more complex than the Navy chose to acknowledge.

Failed Paradigms: Creating an Enemy

In the post–World War II era, the United States fell deep into the Cold War, and great power competition was focused on the US relationship with the Soviet Union (and to a lesser extent, China) within the context of containing communism. During this time, the Navy continued to argue that a Mahanian strategy reliant on its capital ships was the best way to accomplish containment and to keep command of the sea. Outside of naval planning circles, few understood the difficulties with, and inherent weaknesses of the Navy’s approach.

Most noticeably, during the Cold War, the US capital ship fleet had no peer opponent. The Soviet Union, although developing as a modern naval power, was not imperial Japan and would never present the same formidable foe at sea. The Soviet surface fleet was small by comparison, and its combat power remained questionable. The poor condition of the Soviet surface ships kept them close to home, and while the Soviets were certainly capable of global deployment, they rarely strayed far in large groups of credible combat power. These facts were ignored by a succession of Navy admirals who were determined to keep the focus on capital ships. The ruse continued into the late 1970s when then-Chief of Naval Operations Elmo Zumwalt went so far as to testify that the Soviets, as a great power, had surpassed US naval strength. In the final years of the Soviet Union, the myth continued as US government printing offices kept producing slick publications outlining the threat posed by the Soviet surface fleet and how US carriers would defeat them in combat.

The irony is that the Soviet navy did pose a threat at sea, but not in the manner pushed by the US Navy. During the Cold War the Soviets developed a substantial force of nuclear submarines—almost twice the size of the US submarine fleet. Instead of a World War II Pacific-like battle, the Soviet Union’s investment in submarines should have signaled to the US Navy that any future war at sea would be far more like the battles fought in the Atlantic and that carrier power was secondary. Incredibly, naval strategists did not shift to focus on building an antisubmarine force composed of smaller ships and attack submarines. Instead, the Navy continued to identify its carrier fleet as the primary means to defeat the undersea threat despite the lessons learned in World War II in the Atlantic. In the 1980s, the Navy introduced a new Maritime Strategy, which was an aggressive forward deployment to the far north intent on bottling the Soviet surface and submarine power in their bases, while simultaneously conducting strikes against enemy bases in the frozen Kola peninsula. Naturally, such actions would—in theory—provoke the Soviets to sail their weaker force out to sea and engage in battle at sea. In short, De Tag! was back.

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent opening of the former Soviet Union showed how the US Navy got its strategic assumptions and paradigms wrong. The Soviet navy was, as some had suggested, intended to operate in defense of the homeland. Ultimately, the Soviets did not consider the US Navy’s strategy of a forward deployment and command of the sea within striking distance of the Soviet homeland—in this case, the frozen Kola peninsula—a relevant threat. The US Navy’s entire strategy and the force structure built to execute it, was mistaken. Which brings us to the present day and China.

Rising from the Ashes: Mahan in the East

Following the photo of the Chinese submarine near the USS Kitty Hawk, China continued to add to its naval power. In 2011, China launched its first aircraft carrier and subsequently built a series of small naval bases on man-made islands off the mainland coast cementing it as a peer naval power capable of threatening US dominance at sea. The Chinese navy is being built for offensive operations in the spirit of Mahan, and it is possible that De Tag! is here again.

Given our history of producing naval strategies based on flawed assumptions and incorrect core beliefs, we should be wary of making similar mistakes with our naval strategy toward China. Assumptions about how the Chinese will employ military force at sea are echoing historical mistakes, including the notion that China is building its navy to engage in an open-sea battle, or that any strike warfare against the Chinese mainland will be decisive, and that capital ship dominance is the sole enabler of US command of the sea.

Currently, US naval strategy emphasizes the concept of “freedom of the seas”—a concept that Mahan would have wholeheartedly endorsed—and is focused on access, or the free flow of ocean-born commerce. However, a strictly military approach to protecting shipping-lane access to enable international trade is woefully dated. Freedom of the seas is an established international norm, codified in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, but the United States has refused to ratify the convention over sovereignty concerns. Therefore, in theory, the United States is using its naval powers to enforce an international treaty it has not even signed. Freedom of the sea is intended to protect merchant ships and trade routes, but the United States is no longer a dominant merchant power. The US strategy is really committing our naval power as a global police force—much as the British Empire did—at significant cost and risk, to protect foreign ships that are already bound by the UN convention. Using our naval power in this manner is becoming increasingly provocative and history shows that wars have started over mishaps and incidents at sea.

If we assume the rhetoric of great power competition is correct and war is inevitable, or at least likely, the Navy is correct to prepare. But blindly continuing its love affair with Mahanian naval theory could be catastrophic. China is not Japan or the Soviets and presents a new, formidable threat. Militarily, the Chinese navy, although modern, is very much a regional force. And despite an aggressive building program, China is not yet an overwhelming threat to US naval power. The presumption that China is seeking Mahanian-style battle despite the given combat power of the US Navy is not credible. To win at sea, the United States must consider the adversary we face, not the adversary we want to face.

Yet we still must consider war with China a possibility and therefore must reinvigorate the debate over how best to employ US naval power and the Navy’s composition. Aircraft carriers, while impressive, are becoming increasingly vulnerable, not less so. The newer threats of hypersonic missiles, targeting from space, and cyber present unique challenges for the US Navy and the loss of a single carrier will have enormous consequences. Additionally, even if the US Navy achieves command of the sea, it may be irrelevant due to modern strike capabilities. History has shown that the ability to strike an adversary’s mainland from sea is not decisive in war—including examples from North Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Additionally, it is important to recognize that in war, an enemy will play its own game, not ours. China understands US naval capabilities, tactics, and theory and to assume otherwise is foolish. However, in open waters, China’s naval power is effectively neutralized by our combat power. China fears isolation and its own lack of access to trade and shipping routes, and with our seaborne allies, it is possible to keep a hostile China in check. Developing a flexible naval force, increasing trade alliances, and signing onto the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea are key to any naval strategy to combat China.

The United States has a mighty history of seapower and maintains longstanding traditions that our US Navy bears with pride. But as times change and power shifts, it is critical for the US Navy to avoid clinging to antiquated naval theory to rationalize a fleet that supports a familiar strategy instead of a strategy that will counter modern threats at sea. The question is not if the US Navy should maintain its capabilities to engage in, and decisively win, a battle at sea—which it absolutely should­—but instead, whether the current naval strategy is based on sound assumptions and is focused on modern-day threats and challenges. Whether we will once again see De Tag! is uncertain but clinging to the myth of Mahanian theory and capital ship invincibility is a losing strategy.

Dr. R. B. Watts is a professor of national security strategy at the National War College. He retired from the US Coast guard as a captain after serving twenty-six years on active duty, including six sea tours with both the Navy and the Coast Guard. He holds an advanced degree from the Naval War College in strategic studies, master’s degrees from Old Dominion University in history, American Military University in international naval studies, and the Naval Post Graduate School in homeland security, and a PhD from  the Royal Military College of Canada in war studies.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense, or that of any organization the author is affiliated with, including the National War College, National Defense University, and US government.

Image credit: Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Rawad Madanat, US Navy