The Battleship Race Won and the Strategy Lost

Btlshp USS Arizona NARA-5900075

USS Arizona Built in 1913 and was the second and last of the Pennsylvania Class “super-dreadnought” battleships and primarily served stateside during WWI. She was part of the escort of the USS George Washington that carried President Wilson to the Paris Peace Conference on December 13, 1918. 31,400 tons and required a crew of 1,385. She was sunk on December 7, 1941 at Pearl Harbor by the Japanese leading the United States into WWII. 1,177 lives were lost when the Arizona was destroyed.

In 1897 the US navy was ranked as the sixth most powerful after Great Britain, France Germany, Russia, and Japan. The naval appropriations of 1898 resulted in the US navy moving up to fourth position by 1902; and by 1908 it had only Great Britain ahead of it as the supreme maritime power. Between 1895 and 1910, in a span of 15 years, a new navy had been created in consonance with the Mahanian strategy of the battle between capital ships. Much of this drive to build bigger battleships was the result of international competition rather than an absolute need. The rapid arming of Japan and its conquest of Manchuria had pleased the American government as it was quite ambivalent on whether the main threat to the US in the Pacific came from-Russia or Japan. The defeat of the Russian main fleet at Tsushima by Admiral Togo alarmed the Americans into a clearer understanding of where danger lay. Much of the confusion in Washington arose as a result of intense lobbying from London, which pushed for American rearmament as an additional bulwark against the Kaiser’s building of a High Seas Fleet. During this phenomenal growth period, the same questions reappeared. Did a strategy drive the rearmament, or did the newly created force drive strategy? On record we have only two documents-Plan Black and Plan Orange-to work from to solve this conundrum. Plan Black can hardly be said to fall within the ambit of strategy. It would be difficult even to consider it to be relevant at the operational level. It was, at most, a tactical plan for a onetime operation, involving the interception of an alleged German intention to occupy Culebra with a seaborne invasion force and then attack the east coast. Considering the relative strength of the German and British fleets and the need to support the centre of gravity in central Europe, this was not a realistic course of action the Germans could possibly have thought up. Even if we discount the fact that in 1905 naval planners could not have forecast what the submarine would do to change naval warfare in the next decade, Plan Black could at best be described as an alibi for what had already been decided-the rebuilding of the US battle fleet.

Plan Orange, on the other hand, was acutely perspicacious. It described the plan to recapture the Philippines through a central Pacific thrust after its capture by the Japanese in the initial stages of a war-a scenario duplicated almost exactly 40 years later. The great dilemma was whether the fleet should be concentrated in the Pacific or the Atlantic, or split into two, each half being considerably weaker than either Japan’s or Germany’s navy. This dilemma was partly solved by the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, an achievement which took over a decade. The idea began with the US-inspired revolt of the people of Panama against Colombian rule in 1903, supported by the US navy. To dominate the Pacific from Washington by building the Panama Canal, enabling a concentration of force, is certainly grand strategy. But was it all part of a plan? Perhaps a person like Theodore Roosevelt was capable of thinking out grand strategy on that scale, but there is little evidence that the navy department was thinking along these lines. Underlying the frantic battleship race that preceded World War I were the varying rates of economic growth of the countries involved and their standing as world powers based on their economic might.

If the US was catching up with Great Britain in the number of battleships, it still had quite far to go to develop a comparable maritime strategy. In 1900 Great Britain already had a maritime strategy worldwide, to protect her far-flung empire as well as to ensure peace on her terms anywhere on the world’s oceans. To give Whitehall the ability to exercise command of the Royal Navy worldwide, Britain had established global undersea cable links, that were later backed by HF stations, permitting a ship in any part of the world to be within easy communication distance of a powerful radio station. This complicated communications tentacle, which really was the heart of Britain’s ability to react to any situation on any of the world’s oceans, had no comparable equivalent in the US. In fact, if force levels and communications are judged to go hand in hand, it was not until the late 1950s that the US had a comparable worldwide communications system for her navy.

After the Battle of Tsushima, when Britain signed an alliance with Japan, there was much heartburn in Washington. Under the terms of the alliance, Britain would remain neutral if Japan fought one power but would join Japan if the Japanese had to fight two powers simultaneously. Britain made some concessions to the US to placate Washington, but both sides kept a wary eye on each other’s battleship-building programmes. By 1905 Mahan was accepted by the navies of the US, UK, Germany, Russia, and Japan as the source of all maritime wisdom. France alone remained aloof from a total acceptance of Mahanian strategy. Since all of these nations viewed the big battle as the final arbiter of sea use, a battleship-building contest began which was limited only by the governments’ ability to pay for them. The blind adherence to the cult of the battleship was responsible for the US entering World War I without any credible idea on what the navy would do in such a war. In any case, until 1910 the US visualised that Japan would be the likely threat. The reason for this presumption is not clear other than that Japan was the nearest Asian power with a large number of battleships; there was no economic rivalry, no conflict of interests. An alleged Japanese attempt to occupy a port in Mexico on payment was resisted and the Japanese backed down. Perhaps with the hindsight of what we know about World War II, we may tend subconsciously to support the US naval view that Japan would be the next enemy, but it must be remembered that much of the Japanese desire to expand into South East Asia, and conquer the Philippines en route, lay three decades away. The Americans faced only one threat in World War I, and that was the German submarine, a weapon they had no idea would affect the course of the war to the extent that it did. If the miscalculation on the future role of the submarine was painful, the anticipation in Washington that the submarine would have to fight according to the existing laws of war was a downright blunder. This led to the Lusitania carrying almost 2,000 passengers along with 4 million rounds of small arms ammunition-a deadly combination. The responsibility for the destruction of the ship must lie squarely with US naval authorities who permitted a war-like act by a large and vulnerable passenger ship.

Many have questioned Britain’s maritime strategy in the Royal Navy’s approach to World War I. The strategy in part was indeed thorough and well thought out, particularly the blockade of Germany and the refinement of the co-operation between the navy and the ministry of economic warfare. The rest of the strategy-the role of the main force, the battleship fleet-is what has come under criticism. Judged against the yardstick of the criticisms levelled against British strategy, the US maritime strategy must surely take a beating. At the beginning of the war, before Admiral William S. Sims took up his post in London, the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) is reported to have told him that as far as the US navy was concerned, they would just as soon be fighting the British as the Germans. 9 If we read more into this, the failure of the US navy to fashion a more serious strategy against the Germans than Plan Black is quite understandable, since the European enemy was indeterminate. But this understanding must then be validated by a US naval strategy for war against Great Britain. Such a plan, if it existed, had yet to be publicised although war-games played before 1914 reportedly had the Royal Navy in the role of the `enemy’.

An admission of the absence of a US maritime strategy against any European power comes from the 1916 Naval Appropriations Act put up to the Congress. The earlier request, made in 1915, for a massive battleship force to meet any possible combination arising from an alliance between two powers from among Britain, Germany, Austria and Japan had been hobbled by the politics of the presidential elections. Nevertheless, the Act when it was passed in 1916, laid down the foundations for a navy that was meant to challenge the supremacy of the British navy after World War I. For what purpose this supremacy was to be challenged is most unclear. No American commercial interests would have prospered by facing off the British navy in any part of the world-at least at the end of World War I. If there was a link between the political goals of the US and the strategy of its navy up to 1914, it has yet to emerge.

In the meantime, the only worthwhile American maritime strategy during the course of the war had to be implemented by cunning and subterfuge against the wishes of the CNO, Admiral William S. Benson, the officer who superseded 26 admirals to become CNO. This extraordinary event occurred when the senior admirals revolted against the overweening powers of the secretary of the navy, Joseph Daniels. The contribution of the US towards winning World War I was to supply both men and material in dozens of convoys safely through U-boat waters by escorts which had to be diverted from screening the battleships. Eventually the US built almost 400 escorts after pressure from Admiral Sims in London had convinced the navy department that the continental war in Europe was the main theatre and that an American contribution to it would require only anti-submarine escorts from the US navy. In all, 1,200,000 men of the American army and Marines were landed in France. Equally important, not one American battleship fired a shot in anger throughout the war. The five battleships of the US navy attached to Admiral David Beatty’s fleet arrived long after Jutland and replaced five older battleships decommissioned for the purpose of providing crews for ASW vessels.

When the war ended, a considerable amount of anti-British feeling existed among the American delegations that went to Paris. Much of this was caused by Britain’s firmness in imposing the blockade against Germany where many items produced in the US had been declared contraband. At the same time, the British had been reasonable in releasing those American items which were used for munitions if they were convinced that the Germans could have easily replaced the US product with an equivalent. Nevertheless, the Americans were convinced that the British intended that a regime should be enforced on the world’s oceans where trade would proceed only with the permission of the Royal Navy. The chief weapon of negotiations for the Americans was their unwillingness to concede the primary position to the Royal Navy in battleship tonnage. For the British it was their threat to scuttle President Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations. The stalemate continued and no solution was found until 1922, when the existing ratios of battleship tonnage for Britain, US, Japan, France and Italy were finalised at 5:5:3:1.75:1.75.