Sea Warfare

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Sea Warfare in the history of the American Republic has consisted of two missions—control of sea lanes and projection of power ashore. During the Revolutionary War, a great many American merchant ships were outfitted as privateers and preyed on the commerce of Great Britain. According to the records of Lloyds, between 1775 and 1781 American privateers captured 2,600 British merchantmen. The financial impact of these captures on the most influential Britons was an important factor in bringing about American independence. With higher priorities in Europe and India, the British navy attempted to blockade American ports with little success. American projection of power ashore was limited to small raids, but the brief blockade of the Yorktown peninsula by the French fleet under the Comte de Grasse in 1781 was crucial to Gen. George Washington's victory over Gen. Charles Cornwallis.

In the War of 1812, the principal operations of the U.S. Navy and privateers were in preying on British commerce, which they did with great success. They were much less successful in preventing the Royal Navy from capturing more that 100 American merchantmen, or in preventing the repeated projection ashore by the Royal Navy of successful invasion forces, including those which captured Washington, D.C., in August 1814.

During the American Civil War, the Union navy's principal mission was to prevent the use of the seas for resupply and commerce by the Confederacy. A secondary mission was to split the Confederacy in two by taking control of the Mississippi River and using its tributaries and other major systems to interdict communications and commerce with the Confederacy itself. The Confederate navy devoted its efforts to attempting to break the very effective strangulation of the Union blockade and to raiding Yankee commerce around the world. The nineteen Confederate raiders, most notably the Alabama, which took sixty union prizes under Capt. Raphael Semmes, were sail‐ or steam‐powered, heavily armed packets, some, like the Alabama, purpose‐built in England.

Following the Civil War, the U.S. Navy entered a period of considerable intellectual ferment and technological innovation. Alfred T. Mahan revolutionized thinking about naval strategy and marine warfare throughout the world; Mahan's The Influence of Seapower Upon History changed the course of world history and helped fuel the German‐British naval rivalry leading to World War I. It was a maxim of Mahan's theories that in addition to the classic naval tasks of raiding enemy commerce and protecting one's own and projecting power ashore, the U.S. Navy must have “a navy powerful enough not just to fend off the enemy, but to smite him down” and thereby achieve “command of the seas.” This doctrine of maritime superiority became the reigning orthodoxy in the navy from the late nineteenth century to the present.

Before American entry into World War I, the strategic attention of the navy had come to focus on the growing naval power of Japan. Beginning in 1911, “Plan Orange” was a strategy to fight a naval war against Japan and became the central planning focus of the U.S. Navy until 1945. There was virtually no plan for the war with Germany that came in 1917. The official “Plan Black” was an unrealistic scenario of Germany attacking the Caribbean. In the event, the navy focused almost entirely on fighting the German U‐boat threat in the North Atlantic and on conducting the transport of munitions and men to Europe. Despite another period of post‐war budget slashing, the 1920s and 1930s saw a great deal of technological innovation in the navy. Advanced versions of naval guns and torpedoes were developed, and American submarine design was brought forward. The most far‐reaching innovation was the introduction of aircraft carriers to the fleet, beginning with the commissioning of the USS Langley in 1922.

World War II was the largest naval war ever fought. While battleships fought important engagements and were indispensable in providing the naval gunfire for amphibious assaults in Europe and the Pacific, they were rapidly replaced as the central weapons system by seaborne air power. The sinking of the Bismarck by British carrier aircraft and the Repulse and the Prince of Wales by Japanese aircraft demonstrated that surface combatants, including the largest battleships, could not survive without the protection of air superiority. The Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway in 1942 made clear that aircraft would dominate the war at sea. Thereafter the war unfolded predictably with the U.S. submarine and then surface Pacific fleets interdicting Japanese logistics and blockading the home islands, while multiplying carrier and battleship task forces hunted down and destroyed the remaining elements of the Japanese battle fleet. Simultaneously, Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the Southwestern Pacific and Adm. Chester W. Nimitz in the Central Pacific retook the Japanese conquests closing in for the final invasion of Japan planned for late 1945.

The submarine emerged also as a devastating weapons system. For the first two years of the war, despite the fact that the United States was turning out two merchant ships a day, the Germans were able to sink shipping faster than it could be replaced. Once again, however, Allied air cover, and the lack of German air cover, turned the tide. Germany lost 827 submarines and did not pose a serious threat by the end of 1942.

In the Pacific, the American submarine force was enormously effective throughout the war in destroying Japanese commerce and military transport. Japanese submarines, by contrast, equipped with better torpedoes and some better designs, were never used effectively and had no impact on the outcome of the war. When final victory came in 1945, the U.S. Navy had 105 aircraft carriers, 5,000 ships and submarines, and 82,000 vessels and landing craft deployed around the world, manned by experienced citizen‐sailors on a ration of seventy reservists to each regular navy individual.

The emergence of nuclear weapons at the end of the war set the stage for a bitter struggle between the navy and the Air Force over roles and missions in the era of nuclear deterrence. The Air Force sought primacy with its long‐range bombers and the navy with its carrier‐based aircraft. Ultimately, both were relied upon, but they were eclipsed as delivery systems by the emergence of both land‐based and sea‐based missiles. In 1960, the first Polaris submarine was deployed on missile patrol with sixteen nuclear‐tipped missiles capable of launching while submerged and flying to targets in the Soviet Union. This strategic deterrent mission remains a fundamental part of the navy. Throughout the Cold War, naval aircraft carriers carried nuclear weapons and, beginning in the mid‐1980s, the Tomahawk cruise missile contributed to nuclear deterrence.

Sea warfare in the Korean War and the Vietnam War was limited to projection of power ashore. Korea saw the first use of jet‐powered aircraft flying combat missions from aircraft carriers. The strategic use of American carrier aircraft in bombing and mining North Vietnam is well chronicled and was the overwhelming bulk of U.S. Navy effort in the war.

After the end of the Vietnam War, the focus of the U.S. Navy swiftly returned to the growing Soviet naval threat to the sealines of communication and the threat of Soviet fleet ballistic missile submarines. This focus was called sea control and had the highest priority in naval planning through the 1970s. Because of the numerical superiority of the Soviet fleet of some 1,700 ships (compared to some 500 ships in the U.S. fleet plus an additional 500 in NATO and Allied navies), naval strategy took on a fundamentally defensive posture. Anti‐submarine warfare became the highest priority mission with research and development on surveillance, detection, and offensive and defensive weapons systems. Naval strategy was driven by the central importance of resupplying NATO in the event of an attack by the Warsaw Pact, and preventing Soviet submarines from interdicting the North Atlantic sea‐bridge below the “GIUK” gap (Greenland, Iceland, United Kingdom).

In the 1980s, with the adoption of a more assertive foreign policy toward the Soviet Union by the administration of President Ronald Reagan, the navy, led by Secretary John Lehman, fundamentally shifted its strategy to a more forward posture emphasizing immediate offensive operations in the event of a war initiated by the Warsaw Pact. To a continuing emphasis on sea control and anti‐submarine warfare was added a reassertion of projection by naval forces of strike power ashore in support of the land battle and deep into the Warsaw Pact. Naval task forces were trained and redeployed to enable the launch of Tomahawk cruise missiles from submarines and surface ships and air strikes from carrier‐based air wings. The integrated Reagan military strategy enabled the threat of significant offensive operations from the sea against Warsaw pact vulnerabilities.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the Soviet naval threat rapidly disappeared. Sea control and anti‐submarine warfare has remained a top priority of sea warfare because relatively low‐cost, effective diesel electric submarines have proliferated around the world, and all naval operations in the future are likely to encounter that threat. Nevertheless, the emphasis has again shifted to the projection of power ashore for crisis management and in support of land forces and peacekeeping efforts.

Whether the naval mission requirement is controlling or interdicting sealanes or the projection of power ashore, the same platforms, electronic systems, and weapons are employed. The foundation of sea warfare today is the aircraft carrier. These large, robust mobile air bases provide the protective bubble of air supremacy without which commercial and military surface ships cannot survive in conflict. The aircraft embarked on these ships include ten difference types of specialized platforms engaged in anti‐submarine, anti‐surface warfare, electronics, surveillance, intelligence, air combat, and surface strike.

Cruisers, destroyers, frigates, and corvettes are designed to engage simultaneously in anti‐submarine, anti‐aircraft, anti‐ship, and projection of power ashore through naval gunfire and Tomahawk cruise missiles. To this capability is now being added theater area missile defense using the Aegis radar system and the vertical missile launch tubes on cruisers and destroyers. All submarines in the American navy are nuclear powered and are either fleet ballistic missile submarines or attack submarines designed to detect and destroy enemy submarines and surface ships.

Navy and marine amphibious forces are designed and trained to transport and put ashore substantial marine land and air combat forces against enemy opposition. This involves the use of specialized ships that can simultaneously launch helicopter forces and seaborne landing craft and LCAC air cushion landing craft. The landed forces are provided direct fire support from guns and missiles aboard naval surface combatants, and from navy and marine aircraft flying from aircraft carriers, including the marine VSTOL Harriers flying from the amphibious ships. In the 1990s the Atlantic Fleet pioneered joint operations using aircraft carriers and amphibious ships to land entire army divisions, integrating army and air force aircraft with navy and marine. With the earth covered two‐thirds by water, space‐based systems for communications and intelligence are essential to sea warfare. Their product is integrated in all naval tactical planning and satellite navigation, and communications are primary resources for the fleet.
[See also Strategy: Naval Warfare Strategy.]


Alfred Thayer Mahan , The Influence of Seapower on History, 1892.
Samuel E. Morison , History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, 15 vols., 1947–62.
C. S. Forester , The Age of Fighting Sail, 1957.
Hiroyuki Agawa , The Reluctant Admiral: Yamomoto and the Imperial Navy, 1979.
John F. Lehman, Jr. , Command of the Seas, 1988.

John F. Lehman, Jr.