Washington’s Missing China Strategy
To Counter Beijing, the Biden Administration Needs to Decide What It Wants
THE particular problem before the ill-fated Geneva Conference was the extension of the Washington Limitations Agreement to cruisers, destroyers and submarines, and the American formula there presented was identical in principle with the provisions of the Washington Treaty relating to battleships and airplane carriers, in that it involved limitation of the total tonnage of each category of ship, coupled with substantial freedom as to numbers and displacements of the individual units in each category. While the majority of laymen were disposed to assume a priori that a principle sound for battleships would necessarily be sound for all other fighting vessels, and hence anticipated a successful outcome of the Geneva Conference, this view was not shared by many students and specialists, who correctly foretold the outcome of the Conference. Fortunately the failure of the American effort at Geneva can be correctly ascribed to the fallacy inherent in the underlying assumption, viz: the practicability of extending the principle of battleship limitation to cruisers, destroyers and submarines, and not to any lack of good faith or good will on the part of any of the participating Powers. Correctly estimated, then, the failure at Geneva should be taken to involve nothing more than the permanent closing of one particular avenue of approach. This being so, the public should now be in a mood to welcome and give serious consideration to any suggestion looking towards the attainment of the general object sought by approach from a different angle.
In the July issue of Foreign Affairs the well-known British naval publicist, Mr. Arthur H. Pollen, makes a novel and arresting suggestion, namely, that Great Britain and the United States entirely abandon the torpedo and its most efficient and useful carrier, the submarine. The economic advantage which might follow the adoption of this suggestion would be relatively insignificant, and its adoption would be fatal to the fulfillment of the naval policy necessary to realize the aims and aspirations of the American public. But in view of Mr. Pollen's very valuable past contributions to naval literature and his well-established reputation for independent and original thought, his opinions cannot be dismissed with a mere wave of the hand; on the contrary, it is incumbent upon those who disagree with him to justify the contrary faith which is in them. It is accordingly next in order to state as tersely as possible the case so persuasively put by Mr. Pollen, as well as the opposing view.
In brief, the counts in Mr. Pollen's indictment of torpedo warfare in general, and of submarine warfare particularly, may be summarized as follows: (1) He holds that the torpedo itself is incapable of inflicting serious or decisive damage upon the modern battleship by reason of the recent development of special underwater protection designed to minimize the effects of torpedo explosions. (2) He holds that the submarine, on account of its inherent and unchangeable characteristics and limitations, has, except under very special circumstances, substantially no chance of successfully torpedoing surface warships. (3) He holds that the armed convoy of merchant ships offers a complete and adequate defense against submarine attacks, and that, in consequence, the submarine has no substantial value as a commerce destroyer. (4) He contends that the above conclusions are vital and permanent truths conclusively proven by experience in the World War.
Addressing ourselves first to the question of the destructive power of the torpedo, it is common knowledge that during the World War many scores of ships were sunk by torpedoes and many others seriously damaged. The casualty list included cargo and passenger ships of all classes and sizes, transports, colliers, tankers, submarines, destroyers, cruisers and battleships. Consequently, if experience proves anything incontestably, it proves that the battleship does not constitute the only worthwhile torpedo target, and that the continued use of the torpedo would be justified, even if the battleship itself enjoyed the non-existent immunity claimed for it. As to battleship immunity, we should always bear in mind that in the development of fighting ships and naval matériel, unending competition exists between the offense and the defense, as illustrated, for instance, by the familiar duel between gun and armor, and that the fortunes of that competition vary from year to year, that is to say, that at one selected moment the offense may overbalance the defense, and that at another selected moment the contrary may be true. It should be obvious that in any serious war the matériel employed cannot all be of the very latest design, so that in war the most modern offensive weapon may be opposed to obsolescent or obsolete defense, and vice versa. As to guns and armor, the World War afforded many instances of this truth, and exactly the same thing is true with regard to the torpedo and the anti-torpedo protection of battleships. Excluding units damaged but not actually sunk, also all units more than twenty years old at the outbreak of war, the record of torpedo victims in the World War includes fifteen battleships. At the outbreak of the war, eight of these were more than ten years old, and it is therefore not surprising that their anti-torpedo protection proved wholly ineffective even against antiquated or obsolescent torpedoes which were freely used during the war. There remain seven battleship victims ranging in tonnage from ten to twenty-three thousand tons, and in age from zero to six years. Clearly then, the statistics do not in themselves justify the theory that the torpedo is effective against nothing but old and obsolete ships.
As a matter of fact, however, the question at issue cannot be properly determined by mere statistics, since the situation we confront is a fluid one and not a static one, the real question being not what happened in the last war, but what may reasonably be expected to happen in the next one. It must be conceded that it is possible today to afford the battleship anti-torpedo protection sufficiently efficient to practically assure her against complete destruction by a single hit by the most efficient type of torpedo used in the World War. By the same token, she can be equally well protected against the results of a single salvo of the heaviest shell, but in neither case can we afford to overlook either the serious and possibly disabling damage which can be inflicted by a single hit or the chances of sufficient hits to accomplish destruction. In view of these facts, the abandonment of the torpedo would not be justified, even if the development of destructive power had stood still during the recent development of battleship anti-torpedo defense. This is by no means the case. As a matter of fact, it is quite possible today to construct torpedoes capable on occasion of completely destroying the very latest battleship by a single hit.
The logical deduction from the facts thus briefly recited is that the charge of ineffectiveness laid against the torpedo as a weapon for attack on battleships lies with substantially equal force against the gun, and that the abandonment of the torpedo on this account does not lie within the bounds of present-day possibility.
Granting to the torpedo, as we must, its appropriate place as a naval weapon, we still have to examine the charge of inefficiency brought against the submarine per se. At the outset, it should be remarked that since space is lacking for exhaustive treatment of the subject, we shall have to be content with a brief examination and discussion directed primarily towards elucidating the real lessons of the World War. In so doing, we must always recognize the fact that no conclusion can be sound except when the premises include every element contributing directly or indirectly to the result, and, moreover, that the value of any conclusion as regards the future must be dependent upon the established preponderance of permanent over mutable factors.
In its titanic struggle at sea with Germany, Great Britain enjoyed certain advantages which in the end proved decisive. The influence of these advantages affected every aspect and phase of the struggle, and every assessment of historical fact which excludes or underestimates them is worthless. The first of these two great advantages was that of geographical position, and the second was the substantial margin of sea power possessed by Great Britain at the outbreak of hostilities, a margin which in fact increased as the war progressed. A mere glance at the map will afford sufficient evidence of the enormous importance of the geographical advantages enjoyed by the British Empire. Since the German Empire possessed no sufficiently fortified outlying naval bases, the necessary consequence was that all its naval efforts, not sporadic in character, had to be launched from its own insignificant seacoast. From the German Coast, access to the high seas could only be obtained out of the Helgoland Bight or through the Kattegat and all of the lines of communication with the high seas were flanked by the British Isles, which stand relative to the German sea outlets like a loose-fitting cork in a narrow bottle neck.
Notwithstanding the proven inferiority of British matériel in certain details, such, for instance, as projectiles, armor protection and searchlight installations, British victory at sea in a war limited to surface navies was from the beginning inevitable by reason of the above mentioned advantages. While under the actual conditions of the World War, the limited use of the submarine proved insufficient to turn the scale, it cannot be denied that the German submarine effort materially influenced the progress of events and brought Great Britain to the very verge of a disastrous defeat. It is a historical fact that an inferior navy suffering under great strategical disadvantages almost succeeded in redressing the balance by calling the submarine into play. Under the circumstances, it is certainly pertinent to inquire whether the actual division of the German pre-war effort between surface and submerged power was sound. At the outbreak of hostilities, the Germans possessed only 28 submarines of an aggregate tonnage of 16,320. Of this total, ten units, aggregating 4,840 tons, were of inefficient, experimental types of little value for anything more than local operations in close vicinity to a base, so that the active and reasonably efficient force was reduced to 18 units, aggregating 11,480 tons. Taking the relative first costs per ton of the principal categories to be:
we find the equivalents to be -- in battleship tonnage 13,824, an insufficient amount for a single first-class unit; in cruiser tonnage 8,060, or two 4,000 ton units; in destroyer tonnage 6,455, or six first-class units. No one will be bold enough to allege that the addition to the German surface fleet of any of the above alternative equivalents would have had any material effect upon the outcome of the war, nor that any of them would have been able to inflict upon the Allies any substantial portion of the damage actually inflicted by the equivalent tonnage in submarines.
The truth is that at the outbreak of the war Germany possessed only a small submarine force, totally inadequate for a serious submarine offense. The effort made during the war to remedy this deficiency by providing a force of sufficient proportions in matériel and trained personnel to insure the defeat of the Allies was hampered from the beginning by the vacillating policies of the Government, with the result that the potential submarine power created by the Germans during the war was never sufficient to overcome the Allied defensive measures during those periods when the High Command had a free hand as to its employment.
Enough has been said to indicate the far-fetched character of the assumption that the failure of Germany to win the naval war demonstrated the inefficiency and in-utility of the submarine per se. The truth is that the force provided by the Germans in both surface and submerged craft was always inadequate for the tasks involved by the German war policies, and that the final result was not in any material degree affected by the individual or unit efficiency of any type of ship.
While the attrition of the Allied surface fleets brought about by German submarine action was not sufficient to change the balance of surface power, it was by no means negligible, and a study of the actions in detail demonstrates conclusively that no class of surface warship could operate with immunity in the vicinity of strong submarine forces. High speed zig-zagging, screening by destroyers and all other known measures of defense served merely to reduce the danger, not to eliminate it. The war confirmed the pre-war convictions that submarines had rendered close blockades impossible, had largely circumscribed the freedom of movement of the heavy forces, and had materially reduced the radius of action of battleship fleets by imposing upon them the necessity of attached anti-submarine screens. Except for the German submarines, the British Navy would have been free to operate at any moment in any part of the North Sea not guarded by mine fields or German coast fortifications. Actually, it was for months practically homeless, being in fact at one time driven from the North Sea to a base on the northern coast of Ireland, a move which was directly responsible for the loss by mining of the superdread-naught "Audacious." In other words, Germany through the submarine succeeded in imposing her will upon the Allies to a degree which would have been quite impossible in the absence of a submarine force. Moreover, she created an enormous drain upon the resources and man power of the Allies by forcing them to create and maintain a special defense against her submarines, which included not only aircraft, fixed obstructions and enormous mine fields, but a special navy of auxiliaries numbering many thousand craft.
Turning now from the general to the particular, and directing attention for the moment to the utility of the submarine as a commerce destroyer, there can be no reasonable doubt that the belated adoption by the Allies of the movement of merchant ships under convoy was an important factor in the ultimate defeat of the German effort. We are certainly not justified, however, in overlooking the other contributory causes, namely, the geographical position, aircraft, nets and other obstructions, mine fields, and the enormous anti-submarine navy, all of which were material factors resulting in reducing the number of submarines actually in operation, and lowering the morale of the personnel. The morale factor is in itself of vital importance, and the evidence as to the deterioration of German morale during the last year of the war, i.e., during the period of convoy, appears overwhelming. As a matter of fact, the principal advantage of the convoy system is that the submarine is deterred from making gun attacks on the surface and forced to attack submerged, using the torpedo. Except in the case of very modern submarines especially designed for this work, the supply of torpedoes is necessarily very limited, so that when the submarine is forced to use torpedoes to the exclusion of guns, her destructive capacity per cruise is materially decreased, which is the same thing as saying that the accomplishment of a particular mission must under these conditions necessarily involve the use of a larger number of boats. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to find any experienced submarine officer in the American Navy, or any (in all probability) in the British Navy, who would admit that the convoy system can be made effective to the extent of preventing or very materially reducing losses. It certainly involves an element of risk to a submarine not otherwise present. But war cannot be made without risk. It is pertinent here to add that many instances of the destruction by submarines of ships under convoy are revealed by the detailed history of the war. On the whole, then, we are certainly justified in stating that the convoy system is not a magic cure-all. On the other hand, we must admit that it is a useful defensive measure and against its value we must place on the other side of the balance sheet its material disadvantages, which are so well known as not to call for recital here.
In view of the failure of the Geneva Conference to reach an agreement with regard to cruisers, destroyers and submarines considered as an integral group, and the impossibility of progressing along the line of the abolition of the submarine, does it follow that further limitations are impracticable? In the writer's opinion the answer should be in the negative, even if the Geneva result be accepted as conclusive and final with respect to the particular categories dealt with there. There is no sound reason for assigning a permanent status to the battleship tonnages adopted by the Washington Conference. The battleship itself is by far the most expensive standard naval unit, and, moreover, each unit of battleship tonnage necessarily requires additional cruiser, destroyer and airplane carrier tonnage, to say nothing of the large and expensive shore establishments required for maintenance and repair. In consequence, the total battleship cost, direct and indirect, constitutes by far the greater part of the naval expenditure of those Powers which maintain battleship fleets. It is obvious, then, that the economies which might be effected by any practical limitation upon auxiliaries are of less importance than those which would flow from substantial reductions in battleship strength. The case for further examination of the battleship situation does not, however, rest solely upon the economic aspect of the problem, since there is very good reason to believe not only that the Geneva failure with respect to cruisers, destroyers and submarines was the logical result of the attempt to apply false principles, but that the Washington success with respect to battleships and airplane carriers was the logical outcome of the application of correct principles. Assuming for the moment the soundness of this analysis, do we need any further guide as to the nature of the only practical and profitable course open to us prior to the discovery and acceptance of a correct principle applicable to the so-called auxiliary types?
It is a truism that no nation can assess its naval needs without reference to the forces maintained by the other Powers. In fact, the matter of relative strength is by necessity the determining factor. It must always be remembered, however, that while this consideration must necessarily control total strength, it is by no means applicable in detail to all categories of ships. The writer further believes that it can be affirmatively shown that the principle applies directly to battleship fleets and that it does not and cannot logically apply to detached cruisers, destroyers and submarines. It may be worth while to set forth briefly the foundations for this belief.
The fundamental fact to be kept always in mind is that the battleship is essentially a single purpose ship and necessarily inefficient by reason of its inherent qualities in the performance of any important war rôle other than offsetting its like. It lacks the necessary speed to take the initiative against cruisers and destroyers, and likewise, for obvious reasons, it cannot force the submarine to action. Its existence, in fact, weakens the offense directed at these types, since the protective screen, without which it cannot take the sea, necessarily diminishes the force which would otherwise be available for offensive action. It is an eminently unsuitable form of force for the attack upon commerce, and totally unnecessary for the adequate protection of commerce against attacks by other types. Similar considerations apply to the attack and defense of military lines of communication. Through the development of the submarine, the destroyer and the airplane, the battleship has lost its old-time ability to maintain a chosen position in the face of everything but superior force in the same form and the loss of that power forbids its use on blockade, and reduces to insignificant proportions its value for attacking shore establishments and troops.
When all is said and done, then, with two exceptions there is no war operation which ever has been or ever can be attempted by the battleship which could not be more efficiently performed by some other existing type. The exceptions referred to are: First, action against battleships; and second, action against that limited class of shore establishments, the defenses of which are too strong for the lighter types and not sufficiently strong to defeat the battleship. It is only fair to assume, as was demonstrated by the World War, that no shore establishment of great importance will be so weakly defended as to permit successful battleship attack, and we may thus fairly exclude this very minor rôle from further consideration and assert with confidence that the only plausible excuse for the existence of the battleship is the maintenance of the type by a foreign Power or Powers. In the minds of a minority but growing group of naval officers, led in the United States by that very distinguished naval officer, Admiral W. S. Sims, even the existence of foreign battleships is not a sound reason for their maintenance in the United States Navy. It is, however, not necessary to pass judgment here upon that very important issue, since our sole object now is to establish the fact that so long as that school is in the minority, the principle of relative strength must apply with full force to the battleship type. This being so, what more fertile field could be found for further limitation by agreement, which, while benefitting all alike financially, would involve no change whatsoever in relative strength? As matters stand today, the United States, Great Britain and Japan have accepted battleship ratios of one hundred, one hundred, and sixty respectively, with corresponding tonnages approximating 500,000, 500,000 and 300,000. Why could not every legitimate national need and aspiration still be met if these tonnages were reduced to say 300,000, 300,000 and 180,000? Indeed, unless there be elements in the situation known only to those in the inner circles, there would appear to be nothing in the way of reducing these tonnages down to the limit set by a safe preponderance over the tonnage available to any other Power or combination of Powers.
In closing, it may not be out of place to point out that the principle of relative strength cannot be applied without modification to cruisers, destroyers and submarines. These vessels have a number of different war rôles to perform, and the number or tonnage required by any particular nation is not definitely fixed by the number or tonnage maintained by any other nation. Other considerations, such as the extent and configuration of the coast lines, location of bases, lines of communication, dependence upon sea-borne commerce, etc., cannot with safety be disregarded, and, in the nature of things, the ultimate decision as to needs must be in every case a domestic one rather than an international one. If, however, the further limitation of battleship tonnage be brought about, a reduction in airplane carrier, cruiser and destroyer force will be automatically achieved, since any shrinkage in battleship force would release corresponding tonnage in the other categories for the other duties appropriate to the type, and thus help to provide, without further expense except for maintenance, the needed force in the fields which are not solely governed by relative strength.