The rise of modern naval strategy, from 1580-1880

By Mike Fogarty*

The rise of modern naval strategy can be analysed through several themes: including; imperial rivalry, colonial expansion, technological change, ship design, construction, signalling, weaponry and propulsion. Navies became professional and states funded their allocations. Tactics should be separated from strategic doctrine. Fighting instructions were enhanced by the innovations of the industrial revolution.

Technology aside, the formation and application of maritime strategy accompanied a complementary revolution in service education, and naval thinking was radicalised. Sea power is an enabling function of state foreign policy. Gray develops that construct in his seminal work. It has a multiplier effect. Navies are a vital instrument of military power as they exist to defend their state and project force against countries hostile to their national interests. The fleet combat these threats.

The title of this article might be considered a non sequitur. Perforce, any discussion of naval strategy in that date range can hardly be modern. The historian Maitland once adjured that what is in the past was one in the future. The selected date range is arbitrary but this essay needs to rule off on a start and end time-line. We are dealing with three centuries of naval history and it is contingent that we analyse the emerging strategies throughout that continuum. This is not to decry the rapid technological developments which have outstripped any comprehension of events long in the past. Indeed, it is worthy of its own study, from 1881 to 2018. It is enough to reflect on that segued progress as in any recrudescence. The antecedents of naval strategy up to 1880 were the progenitors of the growth of strategic and tactical doctrine. Navies submit to that functionality over an accretion of time amid change.

Naval strategy emerged incrementally. ‘In 1890 Alfred Thayer Mahan affirmed the historic primacy of the Royal Navy in British strategy. For two hundred years (1660 to 1783), England had reigned as “the great commercial nation of the world” through its maritime hegemony.’ Naval strategy in Britain forged its own paradigm and sea denial to an enemy informed those very instincts. Tactics preceded any congruence of strategy and the British learnt from their enemies as they developed their fleet strategies. By 1800, Britain was relatively stable and was spared the political, social and economic convulsions which wracked much of Europe following the French revolution. In the nineteenth century, many continental states were engulfed in wars against each other yet Britain consolidated a winning strategy which France and Spain could no longer match.

Britain became the predominant sea power as it defeated or subdued its European enemies. Britain warred to defend its ability to command the seas wherever its interests were threatened and the Royal Navy was often unchallenged in that mastery. Sea denial is not an abstract concept, as Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham reaffirmed. ‘One of the most important advantages of sea power (is) that the sea is an international highway.’ That is a Mahan maxim.

Strategy should not be mutually exclusive. In the absence of a large continental army, major sea powers formed alliances with those who did. European powers also depended on their sepoys. Gray offers persuasive evidence on the reinforcing assets of sea and land warfare. ‘Sea power, land power and air power are partners rather than foes. Each needs the others if success in war is to be achieved.’

Sea power proved influential during the emergence of the “great age of sea Power.” France was once a traditional enemy of Britain and their imperial ambitions were contested across old and new worlds. While Britain lost some battles, supremacy came with their victory in the Napoleonic wars. The Royal Navy enforced a blockade on French ports effectively cowering if not reducing France’s hegemony and their reach. Mastery of the sea need not be fixated on large naval battles, however decisive.

A strong navy can act as a deterrent to thwart enemy adventurism. ‘The task of naval power was to gain ‘command of the sea’, which made it possible to use the oceans as a highway for one’s trade and a barrier to that of the enemy; and that command was the perquisite of the strongest capital fleet.’

Britain became the pre-eminent global and imperial sea power by 1890. Its very survival depended on free and unfettered access to its imperial dominions and foreign trade. The British are a sea-faring people and that trait is an embellishment of a national genesis. Britain was an unabashed mercantilist power.

The French and the Spanish also fought foreign wars abroad against Britain wherever their imperial ambitions collided, as in America. Britain eclipsed its European rivals, much earlier, under Oliver Cromwell, in 1656, when Britain moved to defend its empire in the Caribbean. ‘Here indeed was a high-seas fleet capable of operating at long-range, on a permanent basis, as an ocean-going force: it was arguably the first in European history.’ British sea power was respected. ‘It was important that any minor despot know that an attack on a British merchant would lead to retaliation from the Royal Navy.’ Hattendorf extends that concept. ‘One can see repeated strategic patterns emerging as Britain became involved in alliances and used her navy to support them. It was supremacy in naval strength that allowed Britain to challenge France effectively.’ The reciprocal of commanding the seas is sea denial.

Aligned to the rise of British sea power, consider the historical forces within. The British took pride in their navy as it embodied the national spirit which made the land prosperous as socio-economic conditions improved. Lambert enunciates this sentiment. ‘British strategy was profoundly influenced by changes in the balance of power and the rapid development of technology during the nineteenth century. Britain had risen to greatness on its economic strength and the ability to avoid defeat at sea.’ Veritably, the British became the policemen of the seas as they exemplified a truism. A navy has many roles, often prosaic and understated. Hattendorf summarises the variegated roles which are also discharged in war and peace. Implicitly, he emphasises the need for bases, logistics and the safe convoy of troops.

The rise of modern naval strategy was multi-causal, not solely pre-determined by Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar. A prudent commander would as much avoid engaging with the enemy if caution dictated otherwise. Gray attempts to attenuate those factors. His sound reasoning is often tortuous as it invites some command of Cartesian logic. But he makes his case if always not put so simply. Naval strategy exists in a matrix which can be skewed, transposed and inverted. Beyond the aggregation of cutting edge technology it also adjures of any navy that their sailors imbue the fighting qualities expected of them.

* Mike Fogarty is a former naval officer and a retired diplomat. He graduated from UNSW at ADFA with an MA (Military History) in 2016.



Norman Friedman, Seapower as Strategy, Navies and National Interests, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 2001.

John Gooch, ‘The weary titan: Strategy and policy in Great Britain, 1890-1918’, in Williamson Murray, MacGregor Knox and Alvin Bernstein (eds.), The Making of Strategy: Rulers, States, and War, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999.

Colin S. Gray, The Leverage of Sea Power: The Strategic Advantage of Navies in War, The Free Press, New York, 1992.

John B. Hattendorf, ‘The Struggle with France, 1690-1815’, in The Oxford Illustrated History of the Royal Navy, by J.R. Hill (ed.), Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1995.

John B. Hattendorf, ‘What is a Maritime Strategy?’, In Search of a Maritime Strategy, The Maritime Element in Australian Defence Planning since 1901, by David Stevens (ed.), Canberra Papers on Strategy and Defence no. 19, Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University, Canberra, 1997.

Michael Howard, War in European History, Oxford University Press, London, 1976.

Andrew D. Lambert, ‘The Royal Navy, 1856-1914: Deterrence and the Strategy of World Power’, in E.J. Errington and K. Neilson, Navies and Global Defense: Theories and Strategy, Praeger, Westport, 1995.

Colin McInnes, ‘British Maritime Power: Military Perspectives’, in Christopher Coker, Michael Clarke and Colin McInnes, British Maritime Power, Historical, Security and Military Perspectives, The Centre for Defence Studies, London, 1997.

Geoffrey Parker, The Military Revolution, Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1988.

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