Naval Combat and Tactics

Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat.  Capt. Wayne Hughes, USN (Ret.)  Annapolis:  Naval Institute Press, 2000.  ISBN 978-1-55750-392-3.  Diagrams.  Notes & References.  Bibliography.  Maps.  Index.  Pp. 378.  $34.95.

This is another of those prophetic books I have been reading..and just finished after a long road.  NOTE:  This book is not for amateurs, and requires a comprehensive prerequisite knowledge of naval history, weapons, and tactics.

Capt Hughes has written THE tactical primer for naval tactics in the 21st century.  Although this volume was published in 2000, as an update to his original 1986 Cold War edition, it discusses in some detail many of the tactical and operational issues facing naval planners, strategists and deck plate officers today.

The book begins with a comprehensive survey of naval warfare beginning with the great ships of the line under Lord Nelson, through the era of the big gun battleships and the massive Battle of Jutland, into the transition to aircraft carriers and missiles, and ends with a discussion of satellite surveillance, modern command and control, and the utility of nuclear submarines.  Through each era of naval warfare, Capt Hughes breaks down the tactical issues facing naval commanders, how they attempted to deal with these issues, and the hi and lows of their attempts.

One of the many reasons this book is not for amateurs is that Capt Hughes actually uses mathematical models to highlight the effects of speed, firepower, scouting and reconnaissance, weapons and sensor ranges, and decision making to show the likely outcomes of naval combat and its comparison to real world results.  This modeling, which takes some digesting and contemplation of the graphs and figures provided, makes a compelling case for the "maxims" and real life lessons Capt Hughes tries to provide.

Some of the highlights of this book are the differentiations between land and naval combat, and why strategists and decision makers are likely to be disappointed when trying to apply theories of land warfare to naval combat.  The comparison table on pages 172 and 173 is particularly useful in highlighting the major differences between land and sea warfare.  Succinctly put, there is no wonderful maneuver warfare concept in naval Cannae or Vicksburg to surround, outflank or besiege your enemy until they surrender.  Naval combat is the last bastion of attrition warfare where you must sink ships (and submarines) and by definition have a bloody battle to win.  Capt Hughes does point out that attacking an opponents ports and home bases or their highly vulnerable supply and auxiliary ships may aid in your victory, but in the long term, naval combat is about fleet engagements.

The major focus of this book over his earlier edition is the shift from an emphasis on Blue Water big fleet engagements of the Cold War to the much messier and complicated "Green" and "Brown" water coastal operations more likely to occur in the 21st century.  The author describes in great detail the tactical difficulties of operating naval forces in the restricted environment of coastlines (hmmm, such as the Strait of Hormuz or the Taiwan Straits, perhaps) where a local power can supplement meager naval forces with land based air power, cruise missiles, and the new boogy man of naval warfare, Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles.

For the serious military or naval analyst or historian, this is a book that should be in your library, read, and digested.