Essays & Reviews

The Maritime Classics and the New Eurasian Age

In Architects of Continental Seapower: Comparing Tirpitz and Gorshkov, Captain Jeremy Stocker explores the writings of the German Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz and the Russian Admiral Sergei Gorshkov, concerning the creation and purpose of large navies by continental states, and their challenge to maritime states. (CSD has previously highlighted Gorshkov’s The Seapower of the State, and Red Star Rising at Sea, in which Gorshkov notes Mahan’s influence in the naval thinking of both continental and maritime states.) Stocker references China and India as rising naval powers for which these issues and experiences might be relevant. Of course, their geopolitical conditions are more analogous to a nation like France, which has both continental and extensive maritime exposure.

In Admiral Gorshkov: The Man Who Challenged the US Navy, Norman Polmar, Thomas A. Brooks, and George E. Federoff also touched briefly on the Mahan connection. They concluded that while Gorshkov’s definition of the Soviet view of command of the sea was reminiscent of Mahan’s stress on decisive victories over enemy fleets, it differed in its execution. Gorshkov argued that the Soviet Navy need not destroy the US Navy if it could pin it down in a secondary theater and exploit its command of the seas in the main theater. 

In another recent book and article, Geoffrey Gresh has addressed what he characterizes as the real competition that has emerged in recent years across maritime Eurasia between the continent’s main rivals—China, Russia, and India—as they vie to achieve great power status and to expand beyond their regional seas. He argues that the rising competition will dominate and shape the upcoming century as each power increases its geoeconomic, geopolitical, and naval embrace of maritime Eurasia from the Baltic, Black, and Mediterranean Seas to the Indian Ocean, Pacific Asia, and the Arctic. In his introduction, he reviews the relevance of Mahan and Corbett to this discussion. But in Gresh’s view, what Mahan and geographer Nicholas Spykman never imagined was the melting of the Arctic, the subsequent growing unification of maritime Eurasia’s disparate regions, and the emerging competition between Eurasia’s land powers at sea.

That said, Gresh contends that the study of Mahan does have its utility in this context. None of the three Eurasian land powers he examined have achieved global maritime dominance similar to that of the United States today or Great Britain at the end of the nineteenth century, but the work of Mahan in his opus The Influence of Seapower upon History, 1660–1783 helps contextualize those characteristics that assist a great power in achieving global preeminence on the high seas. Though Gresh notes that some of Mahan’s thinking is outdated (e.g., his discussion on colonialism) and debatable (e.g., absolute “command of the sea”), there is still much to ponder when applying some of his thinking to the modern era and how we understand maritime competition today. Furthermore, China, Russia, and India all apply elements of Mahan’s thinking to their own maritime strategies today.

Gresh reminds us that Mahan stressed six main attributes that influence sea power and how great powers can use the sea to influence world affairs, achieve great power status, and thus affect the course of history: (1) geographical position, (2) physical conformation, (3) extent of territory, (4) size of population, (5) national character, and (6) character and policy of governments. In particular, the first three elements are mainly tied to geography, making them relevant to Eurasia today, especially to Russia and the opening of its High North. Russia is already taking advantage of this fact, but the melting Arctic may soon assist Russia in reasserting itself as a global maritime power. 

According to Gresh, China, Russia, and India also employ certain elements from both the British maritime strategist Sir Julian Corbett and the Jeune École, or Young School. First, many have cited Corbett’s comments on seaborne trade being the Achilles heel for many great powers: “When other things are equal, it is the longer purse that wins. . . . The most effective means we can employ to this end against a maritime State is to deny him the resources of seaborne trade.” Though we have not witnessed a physical maritime trade war in recent memory, it is not out of the realm of the possible as China, Russia, and India grow concerned about maritime shipping routes, international investments, and strategic choke points. 

In addition to Corbett and his writings on seaborne trade, Gresh points out that the Jeune École believed that reliance on foreign trade (colonialism) for capitalism made a country’s economy vulnerable, especially through maritime trade. This nineteenth century school of thought emerged in France as naval strategists began thinking through alternative strategies to challenge Great Britain as the global naval superpower. The Jeune École strategy still resonates today as smaller or weaker powers think about using maritime commerce as a weapon to threaten or challenge a more powerful nation or navy in a guerre de course, or commercial war. The greatest fear today, however, is that China, Russia, and India are moving increasingly away from a strategic naval approach that is more akin to the Jeune École, while beginning to project greater “Mahanian proclivities” that are more offensive and proactive in nature as these nations develop their blue-water capabilities.

Commercial war aside, Corbett’s thinking on sea power is a relative construct, not an absolute one, which still resonates in current debates. In contrast to Mahan, according to Gresh, Corbett argued that a nation needed both land and sea forces to carry out successful operations. He thought that a nation could possess fewer ships and still maintain a successful strategy at sea. Naval partners might be perceived as decentralized and weak, but if organized well, they could quickly unite to become more formidable, dominating certain choke points or maritime regions. Corbett called this a “fleet in being” or “a collection of ships that can quickly coalesce into a unified fleet when necessary.”

For a Corbett-like analysis, it does not take a lot for an emerging power such as Germany or France during the nineteenth century, or Russia and China today, to control certain strategic sea lanes of communication or to be a menace on the high seas, especially along the narrow maritime pinch points that line Eurasia. 

As India turns increasingly toward the sea geo-economically, politically, and militarily, the strategist community, navy, and government have evoked the historical works of two prominent Indian strategists from the 1940s and their thinking on the maritime domain specifically: K. M. Panikkar and Keshav Vaidya. The notion that the navy can support India’s endeavor as a “net security provider” has become more prevalent in the government’s rhetoric.

Panikkar and Vaidya wrote in a complementary fashion on topics related to the criticality of leveraging the Indian Navy and a forward presence to protect India’s strategic interests across the Indian Ocean region. In 1945, Panikkar wrote that “the future of India will undoubtedly be decided on the sea.” He also asserted the importance of building up an ironclad “steel ring” of bases as an “archipelagic defense” to protect the Indian Ocean’s sea lines of communication (SLOCs), in addition to its coastal defense. This forward presence was one essential way to protect against China’s rise at the time, and it included a forward presence from Socotra to Singapore, with Mauritius, Ceylon (today’s Sri Lanka), and the Bay of Bengal islands in between. For his part, Vaidya advocated for a forward basing presence while focusing more on advocating the establishment of an invincible blue-water navy to protect both India’s coastline and larger maritime interests along the Indian Ocean’s frontiers. As he argued in 1949, “Even if we do not rule the waves of all the five oceans of the world, we must at least rule the waves of the Indian Ocean.”

Vaidya acknowledged that Mahan influenced much of his thinking, arguing that India needed to be the hegemon of the Indian Ocean. Mahan, as well as Corbett, continues to factor strongly into India’s current-day maritime strategic thinking, and he is quoted frequently. The maritime doctrines published over the past decade make consistent Mahanian references related to the Indian Navy’s need to project power and control the SLOCs, strategic islands, and maritime choke points. Furthermore, a growing desire exists to see the navy maintain a more proactive presence throughout the littoral, defending India’s geostrategic and geo-economic interests.

Corbett has also influenced India’s maritime strategic thinking through his writings on sea denial, sea control, and SLOC security. Many Indian maritime strategists value Corbett’s writings on the critical relationship between the “national exchequer and the national quiver.” As Corbett writes, “When other things are equal, it is the longer purse that wins. . . . Anything, therefore, which we are able to achieve towards crippling our enemy’s finance is a direct step to his overthrow, and the most effective means we can employ to this end against a maritime State is to deny him the resources of seaborne trade.” 

Retired Indian chief of Naval Staff Admiral Arun Prakash saw merit in the work of Corbett’s maritime strategy and advocated specifically for more focus on sea denial, sea control, and SLOC security. He has also argued that India must continue maintaining an advantage over China, which still lacks an adequate supply, replenishment, and logistics network to sustain Chinese naval operations far from its home ports. This may be the case today, where India holds a geographic advantage, but this is quickly changing as China constructs an alternative maritime supply and logistics network, complete with its own undersea cable system.