General Naval Tactics. Theory and Practice

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General Naval Tactics; Theory and Practice. By Milan Vego. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 2020

Reviewed by Tim Coyle

The exercise of naval tactics in history is replete with examples of triumph and tragedy, brilliance and incompetence and victories which changed the world. Naval battles have been picked over, analysed and re-analysed by generations of naval staffs and historians, both academic and amateur with 100% hindsight and not without certain amounts of bias.

Brilliant admirals such as Nelson at Trafalgar, Togo at Tsushima and Nimitz at Midway led naval forces manned by well-trained personnel under innovative and fearless commanders. Other famous battles were inconclusive – significantly Jutland, where British tactics were hindered by poor intelligence appreciation, signalling, failures by subordinate commanders (Beatty) and Jellicoe’s hesitancy in the face of suspected submarines.

The book’s author, Milan Vego, is an academic naval historian and former naval officer. His study of naval tactics is extensive and intensive. At its core is the appreciation of the place of tactics alongside strategy and the operational art. Historically, line officers ignored the deeper implications of tactics in favour of practical applications of weapons systems and related technologies. Vego draws out the lessons learnt from naval battles and uses history to support tactics theory. However, he does not offer the analysis as a template to be strictly followed for current and future naval contingencies. Theoretical principles do not absolve the contemporary tactician from innovative thinking.

The book’s 12 chapters discuss various tactical categories – theory and practice, mutual interdependencies of fleet components and the relationship to strategic and operational aspects. They cover differences between major and minor tactical objectives, what constitutes the tactical level of naval warfare and the distinction between offensive and defensive tactics on tactical employment. The characteristics of attacks, strikes, raids, engagements and battles are examined as are command and control organisations and combat support in the shape of intelligence, information warfare, logistics and force protection.

Vego states there are relatively few Western-sourced theoretical studies of naval tactics. This contrasts with the former Soviet Navy publications on tactical employment and single and combined arms planning. Except for tactical manoeuvre and fires, little was written in the West on other naval tactical topics. Vego uses a vast bibliography of textbooks, histories, biographies and related sources to distil a contextual and variegated study of all-source naval tactics.

The study of naval tactics in history offers the contemporary practitioner much to assimilate. There are lessons to be learnt from every naval battle, regardless of the period in which it was fought. Trafalgar exemplified great tactical leadership of seasoned crews. Tsushima was a triumph of a technologically superior fleet (trained by the Royal Navy) operating close to home bases against an incompetent and dissipated Russian Baltic Fleet. Midway saw Nimitz use his brilliant Station HYPO intelligence team to annihilate the Japanese carrier fleet.

The most recent naval campaign, the Falklands War, is now 40 years ago. Operating at the extremity of its operational ranges with enormous logistical lines, the naval campaign was ‘a close-run thing’, particularly in air defence and ASW – this from a first world navy against a second rate fleet, with the exception of the courageous Argentine naval pilots.

While studying and absorbing the complexities of this topic, set in a theoretical and historical context, the strategic and operational environment has now reverted to peer-on-peer confrontations with vastly improved systems and restraints. Contemporary tactical issues are clouded and complicated by ‘grey zone’ maritime campaigns so effectively demonstrated by the China Coast Guard and the People’s Maritime Militia with the People’s Liberation Army-Navy ‘below the horizon’. This proxy war at sea poses new tactical challenges to regional navies. Therefore naval tacticians, while respecting lessons from the past, must focus on the new normal.

General Naval Tactics provides a most comprehensive analysis of naval tactics. It is a complex and heavy read; however, it should serve as a primer for naval tacticians, Its main purpose is to spur the modern naval thinker to use the principles of general naval tactics to ‘workshop’ innovative tactics not just in fleet-on-fleet engagements, but in the grey zone of hybrid warfare.

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