ON DECEMBER 29, 1934, Japan denounced the Five Power Treaty signed at Washington on February 6, 1922, as part of the general Pacific settlement agreed to at that time by the United States, Great Britain, France, Italy and Japan. According to Article XXIII of the Treaty there must be another conference within a year of its denouncement. Unless all parties to that agreement should decide unanimously not to meet, it therefore seems that a conference must be held before the end of the present year. Will this naval conference include other states in addition to the five original signatories to the Five Power Treaty? As such questions are not settled by majority vote, it would seem that one objection would prevent the inclusion of other states. Even so, the fact remains that the political and military status of other countries has changed since the Washington Treaties were signed, and these changes will have to be taken into account.

Three treaties were negotiated at the Washington Conference, and all were tied together for a purpose. This purpose was: one, to promote world peace; two, to promote peace and fair practices in the Far East; three, to provide security in national defense for all the peoples concerned; four, to reduce their military burdens. In a way, the Five Power Treaty is the sanctions clause of the others. Through it the signatory nations can effect the purpose mentioned without employing force, whereas a single nation in order to attain that same purpose almost inevitably would have to resort some day to the use of force. Despite Japan's special geographical location in propinquity to the mainland of Asia, which confers certain advantages and certain disadvantages, and despite the fact that she is acutely susceptible to disturbing events in the Far East, the pertinent question remains: Can one nation act in the rôle of five and still preserve the purpose of the Washington Treaties, which she claims is her purpose, and do it better than if she had remained an active member of the original group? To break the Five Power Treaty and supply nothing equally good, or to change its character so that it loses its present force, is in effect to damage the entire bloc of Washington Treaties. This inescapable fact is one of the weak points in the Japanese position.

What is the just basis of one state's claim for naval parity with another? In a claim of this sort, if any intent exists which has back of it the principle of aggression, this fact itself prejudices the claim and renders it unacceptable according to the principles established by the Washington Treaties and the Kellogg-Briand Pact. "National prestige" may furnish a popular basis for an insistent plea for parity, but not necessarily a just one. "National security" may or may not be the basis of a just claim for parity. It requires more conclusive proof than its mere statement. After all the technical data has been submitted and weighed, the claim still must stand the acid test of intent.

Does the principle of equality of arms help better to insure peace than does the ratio principle? It has not done so in the past, nor does it seem probable that it will in the future, unless it is accompanied by a genuine intent for peace. Whenever this intent has been absent, and its place taken by fear, suspicion and greed, then equality in arms coupled with free competition in arms has always shown itself a breeder of war. So long as the preservation of peace is not the governing motive of all the powerful nations, or so long as this motive is hindered from functioning effectively, the ratio principle must stand as a safeguard between peace and war. Abandon the ratio principle, and further advance along the road of arms limitation seems blocked.

Would equality in arms coupled with a plan for reduction of arms offer a better insurance for continued peace than the present limitation of armament scheme based on the ratio principle? Would it be less costly in the end? The answer to both questions is no. Once accept the equality in arms principle as a right upon demand, and it becomes the right of all nations. It is a return to the practices in vogue before the present limitation of arms scheme was tried, bringing into force again the old custom of balances of power. Its tendency is to throw into partnership those states whose motives are aggressive, on the share-and-share alike basis, and to bring together in another group those who seek protection through coöperative action. A struggle ensues between the forces aggressive and the forces protective. When the balance is broken, war begins. The appalling cost of actual war more than offsets any first saving under the "equality-reduction" plan.

Despite the Manchukuo and Shanghai incidents, and despite the naval discussions which have been going on in London and which have filled so many columns of the press, there is considerable evidence that the main political factors which will determine the course of the coming naval conference are centered to a large extent in the continent of Europe. In 1921-22, when the Washington Conference was arranged and held, Europe was numb from the effects of the late war. The same problems remain in the Orient today; but with the revival of the old war atmosphere in Europe, other problems, perhaps even more pressing, demand attention.

Such are some of the political factors which must be taken into consideration when the technical details are fitted into the picture to make it complete.

In devising an instrument to replace the Five Power Treaty, now denounced, two methods of naval limitation are proposed. Which is better, to adopt the so-called "global tonnage scheme," or to adhere to the present method of limitation of total tonnage and numbers in types of naval craft? The debate on this question has waged back and forth. The global theory sounds simpler, and on first thought might appear likely to lead more quickly to a general agreement. But it is open to a serious objection. At best it is only a halfway concession to the principle of limitation of armament. If during a conference on arms limitation the negotiators have in the background of their minds the idea that preparation for war is still more essential than preparation for peace, and if conditions either natural or agreed to impel them to accept a lesser total tonnage allowance than they want, then the tendency of such negotiators would be to prefer the global theory, for it leaves latitude in making adjustments to suit fancied individual needs. But when the total tonnage figures are large, as they must be amongst the foremost naval Powers, there is created within the total envelope an intensive competitive spirit and a spirit of suspicion, the very things which the limitation principle seeks to avoid. Further, under the global theory there is not that accentuation of type which is one of the characteristics of the present system. If, then, it becomes proper to stress the advantages of one type of ship, or to point out the objections inherent in another, the public mind is not so well prepared to deal intelligently with the matter. Lastly, if in the course of discussion compromise is necessary, it would seem easier and more practicable to adjust the global principle to the present system than vice versa.

What is the value of the so-called escalator clause? It has an important function; but that function is not to give one Power an undue advantage over another. Its invocation need not necessarily create the competitive spirit. It is written into agreements in order to provide for unforeseen contingencies which might arise later affecting the national security of a country, and in order to allow that country latitude to meet them. An escalator clause was written into the London Treaty and undoubtedly will find a place in subsequent agreements. It is likely to prove helpful in effecting compromises between different viewpoints.

I shall now try to describe the principal technical differences between the British line of thought and our own. They arise first of all from the general position each country probably would occupy at the outbreak of war; and, second, in the sort of operations each navy would be called upon to undertake in the event of hostilities. The differences in these two respects find expression in different needs as regards types, numbers and size of naval craft.

Great Britain and the United States occupy somewhat unique positions vis-à-vis other nations in that both are essentially naval powers and not military powers. But if war breaks out their positions are not the same. British thought must always take cognizance of the fact that, whatever the cause of the war, or in whatever part of the world it occurs, Great Britain is liable very promptly to become one of the contenders whether she wishes to or not. She has the peculiar distinction -- with its disadvantages as well as its advantages -- of being of all the Great Powers the foremost exponent of natural sea power. A state possessing "natural" sea power is one whose security and very existence is vested in the sea. Another peculiar distinction lies in the fact that the British Commonwealth of Nations is an entity whose individual members are scattered all over the world. There exists no counterpart of the relationship of each member of the British Empire to other members and of each member to the whole. At the outbreak of many wars which might conceivably arise, the probabilities are that at first the United States would not be drawn in. This fact has led Americans to regard themselves as the Great Neutral in case of war. Britain has inclined to take the far-horizon view; we have inclined to the shorter-range view.

Translating this into naval parlance, we may say that Great Britain takes the view imposed by strategy, while we adopt what might be called the tactical view. Our past experience has been more on the order of the individual ship engagement. The picture Great Britain sees is more on the order of the World Battle. In our individual engagements we have found that ruggedness and strength are all-important factors, leading us to favor these fighting qualities in each type of ship and in each individual of that type. Great Britain of course recognizes these essentials, but her wide-flung world responsibilities force her, in view of treaty limitations on tonnage and in view also of expense, to place an importance on numbers of ships greater than the importance which we give to numbers once our mass or fleet needs are met. We build the biggest and best in each type of ship that the law allows. Our defense problem, in case we are forced into war, tells us this policy is correct. It also fits perfectly the problem confronting us as the Great Neutral.

However, there are also more specific and particular matters which determine our conclusions. Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond in an excellent book which he has just published,[i] and in his two articles in FOREIGN AFFAIRS,[ii] sets forth at length his thesis that the purpose of sea power could be accomplished just as effectively if the ships constituting the backbone of naval strength, the battleships, and those a part of whose duty it is to serve as the eyes of the fleet, the cruisers, were reduced drastically in size. He makes a very able plea that the cost of maintaining a larger naval establishment would then be appreciably less. This is quite true, and in theory and in principle the argument is sound. British naval authorities themselves, though they do not go to the lengths advocated by Admiral Richmond, still would like to see substantial reductions made in the size of battleships and cruisers. It is the Admiral's contention that ships grew in size due to the struggle for ascendancy between the gun and armor, and that there is no logical reason why we should not reduce in size immediately.

The problem is not quite so simple. While it is quite true that the rivalry between gun and armor did help to increase the size of fighting ships, it is also true that naval ships grew in size and speed -- like the merchant marine, like the machines in industrial plants -- due to perfectly natural causes incident to the characteristics of the age in which we live. There also grew apace, to match the times, those auxiliaries of the battleship, the destroyer and the submarine, while their principal weapon, the torpedo, carried ever greater and more powerful charges of high explosive. The deadly mine, hidden under the waters, became a greater and greater menace. Then the aircraft arrived, with its air bombers capable of dropping huge charges of high explosive. Now were it true that any of these auxiliaries -- the aircraft, the destroyer, the submarine -- could replace the fighting heart of the fleet, the battleship, and its eyes, the cruiser, and still preserve the essentials of sea power, and if it were able to do so at smaller costs than those of the present system, then let them assume that rôle. The history of military art reveals, however, that whatever the first claims be, in the end the fundamental and essential is never replaced by the auxiliary.

To grasp this it might be well to state what the essentials of sea power are. Says Admiral Richmond: "It has consisted in the power to control movements at sea. Sea power is power in that form which enables its possessor and prevents his opponent from moving military forces by sea; which prevents an opponent from receiving, by way of the sea, the goods he needs, either for his people or his fighting forces, and sending across the sea in exchange the goods with which he pays for them." It permits the possessor to do those things which he denies to his opponent. Ever the old and tried fundamentals of war have reasserted themselves and proven true against newer claimants; always the new weapon has proven itself to be the auxiliary -- a very useful one sometimes, but auxiliary nevertheless -- of the main weapon, the gun; and the ships which carry this weapon are still the main vehicle for enforcing sea power. They live day in and day out in all sorts of weather, keeping their silent watch or prescribing the conduct of hostilities. Despite all the claims its proponents make for it, in a military sense, air power can never replace land-based man power, nor in the naval sense can it replace the fighting heart of naval strength. As to money expenditures, in order to effect the desired results the auxiliary arms have proven themselves more costly in the end. Per ton of efficiency, the battleship is the cheapest naval investment we have, and the longest lived. It has grown in size, and maintains its size, largely in order that it may be able to protect itself against the newer weapons of attack, the torpedo and the air bomb. By all means let us reduce the size and costs of capital ships whenever possible, but let us know just what we are doing, and let the attempt be made along constructive and not along destructive lines.

Were it not for Great Britain's impelling necessity for numbers, and the attendant cost of constructing the present-size battleships, it is doubtful if the British viewpoint would differ much from our own. Take an assumed total tonnage of 350,000 tons. Out of this may be constructed ten 35,000-ton battleships, carrying 16″ guns, or fourteen 25,000-ton vessels carrying a less powerful armament both for offense and defense against gun, torpedo, mine or air bomb. Which force do you think the sound naval tactician would choose? Probably the almost unanimous decision under present conditions would be for the ten-ship force; and the disproportion grows as the total tonnage increases. Other factors being equal, the total cost of constructing the ten-ship force should be considerably less than that involved in constructing the fourteen-ship force. Wherein, then, is the American policy unsound in building the ships which American naval men think will satisfy their own needs best?

This answer is nevertheless not entirely satisfactory to those whose needs differ from our own, nor does it meet the desires of those who, while not held responsible for the results of the advice they give, would like to see expenditures curtailed regardless of efficiency. Let us approach the problem, then, from a different angle. Let us imagine that some day, following the plan of limitation of armaments, it might be found possible to abolish the submarine, prohibit the offensive mining of the seas, restrict defensive mining to stated distances off one's own shores, prohibit bombing from the air, limit the size of torpedoes just as the calibre of guns is now limited. In that case the entire picture would change. The principal elements in a battleship to be considered are gun, armor, vulnerability to under-water attack and to attack from the air, and fuel capacity. Speed is not so essential in this class of ship as invulnerability. So long as a ship remains vulnerable to underwater attack, the gun and the armor and the displacement to carry them are matters of smaller moment. This suggests the logical line of approach to the problem of displacement when artificial methods such as limitation by agreement are tried. Considerable tonnage must be builded into a vessel to care for the vulnerability factor. Remove the dangers, and it will be more easily possible to arrive at compromise figures for gun and armor and displacement.

Regarding the cruiser, Admiral Richmond has this to say in the section of his book dealing with overseas bases: "This element of sea power is very far from being a 'mere' matter of abstract principles. It has one particularly practical application, which affects the costs of navies today. For three reasons the United States has opposed a reduction in the size of the 'cruisers' to a figure well below that so unthinkingly adopted at Washington." The first two of the objections stated refer to the importance of cruisers in comparison to merchant marine ships, and are subservient to the third objection. The author's statement of our third claim is, "that a nation which has no oversea possessions requires these large ships in consequence of the great distances across which naval action has to take place." This comes nearer to the mark. In all fairness it should be stated that at the time of the Washington Conference we had no cruisers nearly so large as 10,000 tons (our largest was 7,050 tons), but Great Britain did have. So when the suggestion was made to accept 10,000 tons as the upper limit for the size of the individual unit, it was agreeable to us. Somewhat contrary to expectations, we have since developed an excellent vessel. The fact that we do not have any overseas bases where we can overhaul, supply and dock has handicapped us in one of the essential elements of sea power, but we have attempted partially to overcome this handicap by greater attention to the service of transport and supply which, as an army commander knows, is vital to the forces at the front. This inherent weakness causes us to stress greater carrying capacity, greater strength and greater power of survival in each individual unit, to the end that we will have an efficient, compact fighting fleet capable of longrange work. To make amends -- if amends be required for the position we take -- and realizing fully that a 10,000-ton 8″ cruiser is probably much better than a smaller one armed with the 6″ gun, and to compensate those who require more cruisers than we do, we have always been willing to write an adjusting or compensating clause into any agreement, as was done in the London Treaty, whereby those that took more 8" cruisers got fewer 6″ cruisers and a smaller total tonnage and numbers of ships.

In our building programs we have always constructed the largest and strongest in type: we have never believed much in what might be called in-between ships. Some day it may be possible to fix a lower upper tonnage limit for the individual cruiser and return to the 6″-gun for its armament. But this much is assured: whatever limit is agreed upon, it should be sufficient to give us the cruising radius we feel we need, and of that we are better judges than anyone else. Moreover, the time chosen for this transition should be propitious, for it is these transition periods which cause the naval expert much anxiety.

I have compared our approach to technical naval problems with that of the British. Do any technical differences exist between ourselves and France, Italy and Japan? In the past there have been no differences to speak of between Italy and ourselves. With France we are in general agreement except in the matter of the submarine. Until recently our stand regarding technical matters was fairly well in accord with that of Japan -- except in the matter of submarines, where Japan stood with France. Lately Japan has come out with a set of new naval definitions of her own coinage and suited to her own needs, without any special regard to historical precedent, namely that battleships and aircraft carriers are offensive ships and submarines are defensive. This argument will not stand scrutiny. It is the manner in which these ships are used which makes of them offensive or defensive weapons, and of course any one of them can be used in either way easily.

Is the submarine really the efficient naval craft its proponents claim it to be? At the beginning of the World War the primary rôle of the submarine was supposed to be defensive, that is, it was designed to work fairly close to and in defense of one's own shores. It thus acted much in the manner of a movable under-water mine. Very soon, however, it pushed out and began to act directly against the enemy -- that is, in what in technical parlance is known as offensive operations. It sought the enemy, instead of waiting to be sought. It first sought out warships built to fight warships, and in the beginning it was extremely successful. It sank several old battleships and was looked upon as a deadly menace, the counter for which had not yet been found.

But little by little the counter to the submarine was discovered. Listening devices and tracking methods were developed; great numbers of destroyers to run down the submarine were built, these craft also being fitted to drop depth charges, an underwater barrage of mines timed to explode at any required depth; nets and a very deadly form of mine were developed; aircraft came into the picture to spot the submarine and to attack it; large ships had both internal and external protection against the torpedo built into their hulls, making them proof against one or possibly even more explosions. Large ships learned to fan out, instead of remaining as closely bunched as formerly; they steamed at higher speeds, and learned to zigzag instead of following a steady course. When necessary, they learned to obscure their movements by smoke screens. And they were accompanied always by their little protectors, the destroyers. The destroyers, able to dart about at high speed and having light draft, were never themselves in any very serious danger of being struck by the submarine's torpedo; but in turn they became a serious menace to the submarine itself. The tables were turned.

Unable any longer to act efficiently against fighting ships, except largely as a matter of chance, the submarine then turned its attention to the unprotected merchant ships, especially those of low speed. Once again these operations were most successful, and the situation facing the Allies was fraught with great peril, even though against merchant ships of high speed using the proper tactics in submarine waters the percentage of sinkings was not unduly high. Again a partial counter was developed -- the convoy system, with protection by destroyers. Owing to the merchant ship's inherent characteristics, the submarine is always a menace to it regardless of what protective methods may be taken. So, too, owing to the submarine's inherent characteristics, the normal target of the submarine in the end becomes the merchant ship and not the fighting ship. In this respect its operations must resemble much the air bombing raids conducted against the unprotected civilian population behind the fighting lines. To build a submarine costs twice as much per ton as it costs to build a ship that floats on the surface, and when it is built its active life is one-half that of the larger ships. If at any time in its career it fails to qualify in a deep submergence test its usefulness is over, and it is liable to become the coffin of its crew. True, it is the one type of ship which can put out when a nation does not control the surface of the sea, and move toward an enemy to gain information; but if it is called upon to fight, its most effective target is the unprotected merchant ship. This is the craft which some attempt to call a defensive weapon. Its record speaks for itself, and is its own condemnation; but if one nation insists upon retaining the type the others must do so in self-defense.

In passing, it might be well to notice that by the London Treaty there was provided, in the exempt tonnage class, a small 2000 ton vessel of 20 knots speed carrying four 6″ guns. This craft is handy for the nations with big navies; but it should be especially useful to countries which cannot or do not wish to go in for great naval tonnage. On account of its all-around ability, the latter will probably find it in the long run more serviceable and efficient than any of the smaller special types like the destroyer and submarine.

The aircraft carrier does not seem to present any great problem. Despite the efforts which may be made to do away with the type, it has probably come to stay. Even were bombing abolished, it has other uses which make it valuable. The total carrier tonnage is small -- 135,000 tons -- compared to the total tonnages in the battleship and cruiser classes. The Washington Treaty set an upper limit of 27,000 tons for the individual unit. This undoubtedly is too large and could be reduced if there were any point in asking for such a reduction. Not huge size, but speed, habitability, certain sea qualities and adequate protection against air and small surface craft are the first essentials for the air craft carrier.

In the matter of the destroyer type there have been very few disagreements. At best it is a comparatively small ship. If ever the submarine is abolished the number of destroyers could probably be reduced, since one of their major activities would have been removed.

The technical matters which I have indicated here may present difficulties at the coming naval conference. But after all, the main question is political. It must be this: Will the good beginning in the establishment of security and the preservation of peace made at the Washington Conference be allowed to pass into the limbo of forgotten things?

[i] "Sea Power in the Modern World." New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1934.

[ii] "Immediate Problems of Naval Reduction," April 1931; "Naval Problems of 1935," October 1934. Other recent articles on naval problems published in FOREIGN AFFAIRS have been "The Setting for the 1935 Naval Conference," by Admiral William V. Pratt, July 1934, and "Japan's Demand for Naval Equality," by Admiral Kichisaburo Nomura, January 1935. Editor's Note.

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  • ADMIRAL WILLIAM V. PRATT, President of the Naval War College, 1925-1927; Commander-in-Chief of the United States Fleet, 1929-1930; Naval Adviser to American delegation at the London Conference, 1930; Chief of Naval Operations, 1930-1933
  • More By Admiral William V. Pratt