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Dismantling the Fleet that Jackie Built Pt 1

August 25, 2009
Admiral John "Jackie" Fisher of the British Navy (1841-1920)

Admiral John "Jackie" Fisher of the British Navy (1841-1920)

 Last week we touched briefly on the need for an “anti-Fisher“, concerning the eccentric but revolutionizing British First Sea Lord from 100 years ago who emphasized the battlefleet concept above all other aspects of naval warfare. Admiral of the Fleet John Arbuthnot “Jackie” Fisher ordered the creation of the first all-big-gun battleship, HMS Dreadnought in 1904, which was the most efficient and powerful warship then in existence. At the same time he set out to drag the Royal Navy kicking and screaming out of its last century Imperial policing stance into a First-Rate naval power, a goal which he mostly accomplished. He thus set a marker in efficiency, training, and the need for the most powerful ships possible, by which all navies aspire to this day including the Royal Navy’s heir, the US Navy.

Specifically here are the main reforms instigated by Admiral Fisher during his first term as First Sea Lord (1904-1910):

  1. Nucleus Crew System-This was for the Reserve Fleet, meaning 2/5 of ship’s crew complement were onboard in case of emergency.
  2. Redeployment of the Fleet-The bulk of the Royal Navy was now concentrated in or near Home Waters.
  3. Discarding Obsolete Warships-154 older warships were sent to the scrapyards under this modernization plan.
  4. A Massive Building Program-The Royal Navy operating forces were now limited to 4 basic types:Battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and submarines, a system that exists, with some cosmetic additions of course(aircraft carriers and amphibious ships), to this day.

Today the West, and especially the USA has no peer enemy to match its command of the sea, having countered successive threats in the last century including the Germans, the Japanese, the Italians, and the Soviets. If there is any challenge to this ongoing dominance in the near term, it will be of a low-intensity Third World nature, or from a regional power like China.

Fisher as a midshipman, probably taken between 1856 and 1861.

Fisher as a midshipman, probably taken between 1856 and 1861.

We also think that all of the current problems faced by Western navies, from drastically shrinking force structures, aging ships, and over-worked hulls and crew, are of not of a budgetary nature, but clinging to dated ideas of naval warfare long past their time. Those tenets as espoused by Admiral Fisher might have been relevant in his day when all major navies deployed like vessels which must be countered by like warships. Yet in this day of many smaller threats, from peacekeeping duties, rogue missile powers, piracy, land powers invading their neighbors, our handful of capital assets are at risk to being overwhelmed by the work load. In this age of modern weapons as force multipliers, we think the ongoing battlefleet mindset centered around giant aircraft carriers, large amphibious ships, deep-diving nuclear attack submarines, and powerful missile destroyers is unnecessary and impossible to sustain.

We propose a dismantling of the reforms brought about during the great admiral’s tenure as First Sea Lord, which emphasized the concentration of force to contend with the threats of that era. We see this a safe alternative considering the power of modern weapons, and the only answer to high operating tempos and hair-trigger alerts that has brought an unbearable strain on today’s navies, as have the high cost of modern warships. In all navies we see ongoing difficulties in modernizing last century force structures, so much so that operating forces have been in steady decline since the Cold War, and old ships are forced to serve long past their prime, as with USN aircraft carriers and Canadian destroyers.

Tomorrow-The anti-Fisher Reforms!

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 23, 2009 6:20 am

    I suspect that was as captain or maybe younger.

  2. Michael permalink
    September 22, 2009 11:56 pm

    Good grief, he was young looking as an Admiral!

  3. Henry permalink
    September 5, 2009 6:59 pm

    Mike,
    Do you have an email address for direct contact?

  4. AaronW permalink
    August 27, 2009 6:40 pm

    To be fair, the Italians did their fair share in tying up the Med Fleet. And of course, the Brits perfected the carrier-based raid at Taranto that more or less crippled the RM and beat them into cowering at home. If it wasn’t for a few fortuitous near-misses, Malta may have fallen to an Axis landing supported by the RM and whoops!, there goes Egypt.

  5. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 26, 2009 6:45 am

    Clark, thanks for stopping by.

    Honestly I hesitated briefly adding the Eyties to this list, but they did deploy some excellent warships during the conflict, and though atrociously led, the British had to take all possibilities into account. Mussolini was a threat maybe like Saddam Hussein, not an ominous one, but couldn’t be ignored nonetheless.

    I agree that for major battles of course you must concentrate force, and Fisher had little alternatives, but they were there. The power of modern weapons, crew training, quality of your ship, all should be taken in account when deploying your battleships. Fisher was obsessed in the number of battleships, as is the USN today, but numbers did him little good, when he finally met the Germans on the high seas, or when the enemy turned to the insurgent submarine later.

    For small warships, you need numbers. For battleships this isn’t so vital.

  6. Clark permalink
    August 26, 2009 5:38 am

    Hi, found your blog via Galrahn’s. 2 thoughts on this:
    1) The Italians as a threat? Even lumped in with the Germans and Japanese, they were at best a speed bump, given their atrocious performance in combat.
    2)I maintain that concentration of force is necessary in battle. Not necessarily concentration of the fleet, given the ranges at which missiles can engage, but for one fleet to swamp the missile defenses of another, it needs to be proximate enough concentrate its fire on the target(s).

    While I respectfully disagree with Galrahn about large CVs, which are poorly-protected targets at best (I acknowledge my submariner’s bias), I’m not sure if smaller CVs are the answer, either. I like the Chinese Navy’s new networked missile boat concept (I guess since they’re in production, it’s more than a concept). True, the ships that have been built have short legs, but imagine the damage a pack of the lil buggers could do if 10 or 15 of them flushed their tubes at once. Or 25 or 30 of them. They can concentrate their power without being physically concentrated.
    If one were to imagine a slightly larger version with longer legs, it would be a conceivable way for the Chinese to exercise local antipiracy ops, showing the flag, etc, in the whole near-Pacific during peacetime, while providing massed firepower during wartime. Not global power projection, but given the Chinese’ historically coastal-defense-navy mindset, it would be moving in the right direction.

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