Amphibian Amnesia

Geopolitical realities continue inexorably regardless of this regime’s defiant ignorance. The disconnect between those realities and American preparations continues to widen at an alarming rate. William Lind at least corrects Robert Kaplan’s navalist hyperbole in November’s Atlantic Monthly. Lind observes:

Sure, but can it perform brown water missions that we need?

We do not need naval supremacy because, as Kaplan writes, “’Regular wars’ between major states could be as frequent in the 21st century as they were in the 20th.” If states are so foolish as to fight “regular wars,” they will find most are won by non-state, Fourth Generation elements as defeated (and sometimes victorious) states disintegrate.

Rather, we need naval supremacy because in a world where the state is weakening, water, and transport by water, grow in importance. People today think of land uniting and water dividing, but that became true only recently, with the rise of the state and the development of railways (which can only function in the safety and order created by states). From the dawn of river and sea-faring until the mid-19th century, water united and land divided. It was easier, safer, cheaper and faster to move goods and people by water than by land.

So it will be again in a 21st century dominated by Fourth Generation war and declining or disappearing states. Already, in places such as the Congo, the only way to move is on the rivers. A country that can control waterways anywhere in the world will have a great strategic advantage. Given our maritime geography and our long and proud naval tradition, that country should be the United States.

Unfortunately, we are not developing the naval capabilities we need to do that. The reason shows once again the importance of military theory. The U.S. Navy has to choose between two naval theorists, Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan and Sir Julian Corbett, and it has chosen wrongly.

Lind goes on to explain why Kaplan misreads Corbertt while noting correctly in passing “Kaplan gets Mahan right, but not Corbett. Mahan in essence wrote naval theory for children; I was much impressed by The Influence of Sea Power on History when I was fifteen.” Certainly, waiting for the ‘decisive battle’ did not help the Imperial Navy. One minor quibble with Lind is his seeming assertion that sea transport will grow back as the cheapest form of transportation. It’s always been the cheapest. When the Soviets had the Trans Siberian railway they still found it cheaper to use sea lanes to supply the East.

It’s also easy to misunderstand the geopolitical essence of Great Powers. Great Britain was never an Amphibious Power. What Corbertt wrote about naval theory emphasized indirection, suasion and a host of sophisticated naval applications for a maritime State. This marked all of her successes through the early 1900s. When Great Britain forgot her essential maritime nature and tried to become an Amphibian Power, the result was the Somme, and all that came after up to September 3rd, 1939 and beyond.

By contrast, the United States remains uniquely an Amphibian Power — a continental geopolitical entity capable of sustained power projection to secure key resources and objectives along the Eurasian littoral and Africa. The Rummy OSD’s pushing of the ‘expeditionary’ concept had merit refocusing thinking away from static WW II era forward deployments. Apart from the wastage and destructive impact on our Force and budget (and impact on Iraqi civilians), Iraq is not a clear cut violation of our essential Amphibian Nature. More disturbing are the regime’s reckless commitments and infrastructure gaming across Central Asia. This new Great Game locks us into a deadly contest with the two anchors of the Eurasian World Island, Putin’s now radicalized Russia and increasingly confident China. Both are in their natural element. Such a continental game is beyond an Amphibian Power and we can not win in the long run. Extrication will exact heavy costs — in real or symbolic terms.

I’m just waiting on a friend


Kaplan’s mission is to carry water for the Threat Inflaters in and out of government. With procurement wars on the horizon among the services, the elusive ‘peer competitor’ is to justify each services’ pet weapons platforms. For the Navy that remains recognizable descendants essentially from WW II. We can attest to Lind’s description of the Navy’s disdain for a ‘brown water’ presence. We had a very brief interaction via a defense analyst with some senior flag rank Navy types in 2004 discussing the now problem-wracked Littoral Combat Ships (LCS). These small, modular ships (their capabilities could be swapped out like changing a hard disk drive) are intended to perform the mission Lind underscores. The overall Navy despises these ships. The Navy’s self image is still defined by ‘Jedi Knights’ sitting in expensive targets taking off from even bigger targets, the floating runways.

The Israelis are interested in the LCS as platforms but will likely vastly upgrade the armament.