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EVER since the days of the great struggle against the attempts of Louis XIV to establish a domination of the world, as the world then was, the Mediterranean has been a sea of the highest importance to the British people. This importance has arisen from two separate and distinct elements.
In the first place, the Mediterranean is a sheet of water in which Great Britain has constantly -- and inevitably -- been called upon to play her part in active coöperation with those European coalitions which have been brought into being for the purpose of resisting the aggressions of some acquisitive Power and of maintaining the liberties and public law of Europe. It has been there that British naval power showed itself capable of performing effective and active functions in aid of the European family, as distinguished from the "passive" functions of defense essential to her own security. More and greater battles than Passaro and the Nile have been fought by her fleets in the Atlantic and the North Sea; but in all those European struggles against great perturbators, the decisive theatre, in the ultimate analysis, was on land, in Europe, and the instruments which produced the decisions were the armies. In these struggles, naval power in the Mediterranean could more directly affect the operations of the land forces of the enemy and of the Coalitions than it could elsewhere. The wars of Queen Anne and Napoleon show how the fortunes of the allied cause waxed or waned with the presence or the absence of a British fleet in the Mediterranean.
The fact that the Government of Great Britain in the war of 1914-18 elected to depart from its historical policy of using its great sea power and small land power in combination, and to constitute Britain into a continental military state, does not invalidate the importance of the Mediterranean. The conception, though not the execution, of the strategy of the Dardanelles expedition was in accordance with the policy of British Ministers, since William III's time onwards, of using sea power to move armies to places on the rim of the main theatre where the effects they would produce would be wholly disproportionate to their size.
At different times, and in different ways, the European struggles were concerned with power to transport military force by sea. The situations varied. In some, it was wished to move armies from Spain to Italy; at others, between France and Italy, between Austria and Venice, between France and Greece, Turkey and Egypt. If the Low Countries have been the cockpit of the European armies, the Mediterranean has been -- if the term is permissible -- a cockpit at sea.
This may be called the continental or international aspect of the British interest in the Mediterranean. It was there that Britain could directly influence the course of the military campaigns. "The period," Sir Julian Corbett has remarked, "during which England abandoned the Mediterranean coincides exactly with the zenith of Louis XIV's power. . . . Within a year of the reappearance of a British fleet within the Mediterranean, Namur capitulated and Louis was facing the first of that series of reverses which brought his Empire about his ears."
The second aspect of the Mediterranean has been more particularly national, namely, the defense of that great national interest, her trade with the East. This interest has steadily grown since the foundation of the Levant company in 1581. Within a little more than half a century after this beginning, Englishmen recognized that the permanent security of the trade could be assured only by the maintenance of a naval fighting force within the Mediterranean. Spasmodic appearances of a squadron could give no more than temporary protection to the trade, which, in consequence, could sail only at long intervals. A steady flow of commerce consistent with economic needs was impossible when the sea force, for want of a harbor, could be present only for comparatively brief periods. The fundamental fact that endurance, in its strategical meaning, could be provided only by the possession of bases (disregard of which fact is responsible for some of the wasteful expenditure on ships in their modern design) was clearly appreciated by such statesmen as Cromwell, Charles II, Marlborough, William III, Stanhope and Pitt, as well as by every seaman to whom the charge of the security of the Mediterranean fell. So each in his turn took measures to furnish two things: a naval force of a character and size adequate to perform the duties required, and a base, or bases, aptly situated to enable it to remain on the spot and perform those duties.
There are some today who hold that even Great Britain's possession of sea power would not of itself enable her to make any contribution to the common cause in a system of "collective" security. These advance the theory that in order to play her part and pull her pound as a "good European" she must rival her neighbors in the air. In so far as those fighting instruments which move in the air are effective in the operations of a campaign at sea, there is some justification for this view; for they are as much an integral part of the naval flotilla as those other craft which move on or below the surface of the water. But in the sense that the aid which Britain can give to those with whom she may be associated in the preservation of the liberties of Europe and the public law can only be in the form of incursions into an enemy country by invasions or bombardments, this is a conception which fails to recognize the part which her power has played in the Mediterranean. In all those struggles the British army was insignificant when compared with the armies of the Continent. But the power to close or open the sea routes over which it was desired to move armies in the Mediterranean made her (and in their time the Dutch) a welcome ally. The view ignores no less the economic influences, and though an undue effect may at times have been attributed to these, an observer who brushes them aside lightly owing to the fact that they are slow-acting can have given little study to the economic influences in European wars from the days of Elizabeth to those of the twentieth century.
Changes in the types of fighting ships, the transition from sail to steam, the introduction of the ironclad ship and the torpedo boat in its varied forms, each in its turn introducing a danger in some new form to commerce, and to which, at the moment, no adequate reply appeared practicable, have prompted the suggestion that commerce through the Mediterranean should cease in time of war: with the rider that, since bases have no purpose except in war, security in the Mediterranean should cease to be an element in the British policy of defense. On this Admiral Colomb, writing in 1888, observed:
It is probable that no strategist or statesman seriously contemplates nowadays a scheme of Imperial Defense which assumes the destruction or diversion of the flow of British trade between the Pillars of Hercules. It is no doubt the fact that from time to time there springs up a certain advocacy of alternate routes to the East. But I am not sure that I have met with any proposal to abandon the Mediterranean as a preliminary measure for the defense of the Empire.
Such a diversion occurred during the War of 1914-18 owing to the difficulties experienced in guarding shipping against the submarine. The cure was found in the convoy system, and the trade through the Mediterranean was resumed. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that circumstances might again arise calling for such a diversion, embarrassing as it is bound to be to commerce. If British sea power should prove inadequate to provide the means of defense simultaneously with controlling the military lines of communication, the elementary principles of war would dictate that of two objects the one of lesser importance must be sacrificed to that of greater. The military situation in the Mediterranean would be eased by relieving, for a time, the naval forces of their purely defensive function, giving them in consequence greater freedom to use their whole efforts in active operations, in combination with Britain's allies, against the fighting forces of the enemy. The sea would not become an open road for all the military or mercantile forces of the enemy, nor a road closed to the military movements of the British and their allies.
So the same conditions which British statesmen in the past aimed at fulfilling require to be fulfilled today if Great Britain is to play her part in a common cause and secure her national economic interest: adequacy of numbers, aptitude of types, and security of harbors so placed that they can serve the purpose of repairing, storing, victualling and recuperating the fleet.
The practical question which then arises is, whether in view of the changed conditions of territorial possessions or changes in the types of fighting instruments it is possible to fulfil those requirements. Have new weapons come into existence against which the ship is so vulnerable as to be certain of destruction or disablement? Are the harbors so exposed that they can no longer be used? Are other harbors, out of reach of attack, located so far from the areas in which force must act if it is to be effective that they are strategically useless?
To meet the attack from the air, ships have been increased in size in order to carry the armor and embody methods of construction which shall protect them against the bomb and the torpedo. Yet, when the long story of the rivalry of the missile and the armor is studied, one thing stands out. However powerfully the ships may be armored, in the long run the gun and its shell beats the armor. The size of the ship has been tripled and her cost increased tenfold, with a disadvantageous result from the economic point of view and a purely sterile one from the point of view of strategy. No fleet has ever been able to remain and survive in a harbor dominated by the artillery of an army, whether that artillery was the field pieces which drove the Mediterranean fleet out of Ventimiglia and Toulon, the heavy siege pieces which sank the Russian fleet in Port Arthur, or the movable guns which made the ships move out of Suvla Bay.
Has, then, the range of the gun now become the range of the bombing plane? In other words, is the plane, in reality, a gun with an extended range? It is regarded in that light by some authorities. If it be correct that the plane is capable of doing all that the gun has done, within the range of its flying endurance, Mediterranean strategy is affected in two ways. All bases within the range of aircraft become as untenable as were all bases within the range of those guns. All areas through which shipping has to pass which are within reach of the plane become as closed to shipping as a coastal route under the fire of shore guns.
Is this so? If it so be, all those movements outlined in the preceding remarks, movements which were the expression of Britain's ability to assist her continental allies and to secure her own trade (the security of that trade having its own relation to assistance of those allies) become impossible. The bases essential to the fleet become untenable, and the fleet is disabled. It cannot perform its functions.
It is not so. The analogy is inexact. The gun has a far higher degree of accuracy and greater volume of fire and ammunition supply. It is always present upon the spot. Its use is not debarred by gales. The gun, the projector of the missile, is practically immune: the record of bombardments tells the tale of its immunity. On the other hand, the projector of the bomb, the plane, difficult to destroy at great heights though it may be, is very far from immunity at ranges at which effective practice is to be expected against targets of a restricted size. Ships are such targets, and the smaller they are the less is the expectation of hits. It seems sometimes to be supposed that because occasional hits will be made, ships must shun areas in which aircraft act. It would be as logical to argue that because ships in battle are liable to be hit they must shun battle. A ship, even a small ship, is by no means necessarily put out of action by a single hit, though the possibility exists, and applies to large ships as well as small. We saw great ships disappear under a single salvo at Jutland.
The analogy with the gun is in fact incorrect, and it would be wrong to say that because shore batteries can command the waters lying within their zone of fire the plane can exercise a corresponding degree of control within the distance of its flight. A more correct and closer analogy is to be found in the torpedo boat, the small swift vessel whose protection lies in her speed and in the small target she presents, and whose armament is the torpedo, a missile inaccurate except at close ranges, as the number of hits made by torpedoes in battle shows.
To say this is by no means to say that the bomb or the torpedo is a missile to be contemned. The lesson is that precisely as when a ship is passing through a zone in which torpedo attack by surface craft is possible, and precautions have to be taken or injury may occur, so precautions must be taken and injury expected in zones like many of those in the Mediterranean where raids upon shipping from the air may be made. But attack in such areas will be raids. It is not to be supposed that permanent cruising forces can be maintained in the air and the area kept under a constant threat as an area commanded by guns is threatened. The old lesson taught by experience is applicable to air forces. To keep a force capable of effective action in a position at sea where it shall exercise a permanent control requires either great endurance or great numbers of reliefs. The endurance of aircraft is measured in hours. The number required for permanent occupation is astronomical.
It is just to remark, however, that permanent cruising in the air in the narrower parts of the Mediterranean may not be necessary. Scouts of a type which can keep the sea and cannot be driven off may give notice by radio of the approach of ships, so that within a few hours an air force may arrive from a shore two hundred miles distant. Theoretically this has an attractive sound. In practice such procuring and transmitting of intelligence is less easy and less certain. No greater mistake could be made than to assume that the passage of a body of shipping through a particular zone is predictable with the exactitude and regularity which a successful system of the nature outlined demands. Moreover, such a system presupposes the allocation of a very considerable air force, in permanent and instantaneous readiness to proceed whenever a report is received. This implies that it is both practicable and wise to impose long periods of inaction upon a considerable mobile force of a type which, in war, has many demands made upon it.
In its essence, therefore, the situation as regards shipping passing through those parts of the Mediterranean in which air forces can act comes down to this: that what is the equivalent of a new form of torpedo boat of limited cruising endurance has come into existence. Its high speed enables it rapidly to reach a spot where the presence of a quarry has been reported. Reporting depends upon the power to maintain scouting forces, and though the submarine offers considerable opportunities as a scout, we have seen that she is by no means a certain outpost. The inaccuracy of the missile makes it necessary that the attacking air force be present in large numbers, which are in consequence totally withdrawn from any other services. These conditions, difficult as they may be to fulfil, are, however, not impossible of fulfilment.
Shipping would therefore need defense. But it would need defense whether or not there were this addition to the flotilla, for the other types of naval craft, from the battleship to the destroyer, are also capable of making sallies: as we saw the High Sea Fleet making a sally in force in April 1918. It never was possible, even in those days when British naval superiority was greater than it ever has since been -- in the Napoleonic Wars -- to confine an enemy to port. Still less is it possible today. We should therefore expect to see that happen which has happened before. Escorts, capable of meeting whatever force in its various types is expected to put to sea, are allocated to convoys. To the types appropriate to meet the attack by surface vessels there must now be added others apt to the purpose of aerial gunfire. Such are small vessels capable of delivering a larger volume of fire rather than a few great ships.
Would such attacks result in rendering the maintenance of a flow of trade through the Mediterranean too costly, either in losses or military effort? This is a question to which a dogmatic answer is impossible. Opinions of the relative value of the surface craft and the super-surface craft are too divided to admit of dogmatism. But when all the strategical considerations are brought under review -- the conditions precedent to action, the conditions needing fulfilment for continuous operations -- the probabilities do not justify the somewhat light-hearted conclusion so often reached and expressed, that the new types of flotilla craft have it in their power to control the movements of shipping in the Mediterranean. Affect it they certainly will. But that they will deny the passage, that no defense against their attacks is practicable, are assumptions it is impossible to accept.
There is a further question. Emphasis has been laid upon the necessity for bases, and on the need that those bases secure: the word "secure" meaning not only that they are secure from capture but that their ships, docks and storehouses are secure from injury. Is it possible that the fleet will be driven from its bases, as the fleets were driven by gunfire in earlier times? Or driven to the use of bases so remote from the area where danger lies that their power to control would disappear?
The most favorable position for a base is one in which the fleet is so close that it can, with a reasonable degree of certainty, intercept any movement of the enemy. To be close to an enemy is to bring the base within range of the enemy's air force and thus to render it and what it contains and shelters liable to attack. Whether ships could lie in a base within range is again a question to which no dogmatic answer can be given. An estimate can be made and no more. Great expenditure has been devoted towards making a few ships impregnable to attack from the air, but it is a very great question whether such ships, so costly and irreplaceable, would, for all their protection, be kept in such bases, though it is more than probable that the smaller vessels would have to be placed in those positions -- a curious commentary on the policy of size. This, however, would not deprive the fleet of its powers either of defense of shipping or of controlling military movements if other bases beyond the range of aircraft were available. Though there is an advantage, there is no absolute need in convoy work for a base close to the enemy. Defense is needed throughout the voyage, and the Mediterranean voyage extends from the Canal to Gibraltar. Bases at the terminals fulfil the needs of this service.
But it is by no means certain that the defense of a fleet in a base, and of the base establishments, is impossible. The forms of defense against other natures of flotilla attack have taken two forms: obstructions in the shapes of mines, booms, breakwaters and nets; and artillery. In the air the same two forms exist; and while no one would say that they have reached the same degree of efficiency as that of the earlier kinds, it is hardly open to doubt that they are in a state of constant improvement. Ships can be moved to other bases: docks and stores cannot. But docks and stores "take a lot of destroying;" and it is not to be left out of consideration that the ships, docks and stores of an opponent are also liable to the same form of attack. Nor is it altogether irrelevant to note that the bombardment of an arsenal is accompanied by a great destruction of civil life in the crowded community which clusters round it and is liable to result in retaliation.
But putting aside this consideration, with all the incalculable effects of retaliatory warfare, the fact remains that if the great ships of one navy cannot lie in their bases because of the danger of attack from the air, neither can those of an enemy. They too must be removed further from the zone of action, and a point may be reached at which neither can play the part played by their predecessors of the line, and the struggle for command would develop between those smaller vessels which do not fear the air and whose losses are capable of being replaced.
Is it then possible, under the new conditions produced by new instruments, for Great Britain to exercise the powers she has hitherto possessed in the Mediterranean in aid of her allies and in defense of her own interests? The answer which the present writer would give is that it is: but that she needs to return to that policy which dictated the provisions she made for her cruising forces until recent years. This was expressed by Mr. Goschen in March 1896. The Admiralty program of cruisers, he observed (and it is to be remarked that "cruisers" include the modern flotilla) was based "not upon a comparison of cruisers other nations have, because their conditions are entirely different from ours, but upon the question what we have to defend, what services will have to be performed, in what direction the food supplies will have to be protected, and what resources we have."