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Parallels of Land and Sea Power

August 6, 2008

This article first appeared in the summer 2007 edition of the now deceased Navy Review Newsletter. Enjoy!

Ancient naval warfare is often trivialized as merely land army tactics applied to the sea battle. For instance, the ram equipped galley fleets of the Greeks in a famous sea fight such as Salamis is often likened to the unstoppable Athenian phalanx with its rows of tightly packed spearmen. While this version may be accurate in many cases, it is equally true that the history of war at sea always mimics theories of land armies, and continues to do so to this day.

During the 1600s when the line of battle displaced the ancient galley tactics in North European Navies, the land powers were also perfecting their own tactics based on mass firepower. As the men of war of the British and Dutch battle fleets pounded one another at short range with ever advancing gunnery, revolutionary generals like Sweden’s Gustavus Adolphus was transforming war on land. Taking advantage of more mobile cannon, Army commanders transformed the gun into the Queen of Battles, an era that lasted for centuries. Likewise, the battleships developed by Europeans at this stage dominated naval thought until the 20th Century.

With mass firepower perfected on land and sea, stalemate was bound to occur. To get around stagnating tactics, the idea of maneuver warfare was reborn, again near simultaneously on land and sea. Such 18th Century warriors as the Duke of Marlborough, Frederick the Great, and George Washington used the new tactics to avoid strong defenses, seek out weak points, and strike where their enemy least expected. At the same time, British Admirals such as Anson, Rodney, and Nelson scrapped the rigid tactics imposed by the Royal Navy’s Fighting Instructions. Their own maneuver battles entailed breaking the enemy’s line and engaging individual warships in a chaotic but decisive melee.

Skip ahead to the 20th Century where the Industrial Age again caused stalemate in both environments. The machine gun and barbed wire slowed fighting to crawl on the European Western Front. Likewise on the naval front did mines, torpedoes, and submarines end Britain’s proven strategy of close blockade and threatened its command of the sea. The answer was of course, a return to maneuver and new technology. By the middle of the century the new tactics had been well-proven.

The blitzkrieg strategies of World War 2, as well as the Air Land battles of the Cold War made the bomber and tank team nearly invincible on land. The strategy was applied to sea with the new aircraft carrier task forces and amphibious groups. Just as the bomber/tank combination broke through static ground defenses allowing the infantry to take advantage of the breach, the carrier groups swept the seas of all opposition to give the amphibious forces a free hand. Such tactics allowed the conquest and reconquest of the African, Asian, and European theaters, and greatly refined, made possible astounding victories over well-armed but amateur Arab armies by Israel and the US.

The precision warfare of the 21st Century, personified by the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan finds its parallels at sea. Just as the new laser and self-guided bombs are transforming the way armies and air forces fight, so have cruise missiles, unmanned vehicles, and satellite GPS given naval theorists new material for future sea battles. So, the next time you hear ancient naval warfare flippantly dismissed as land tactics at sea, remember that the 2 have always been closely intertwined.


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