Ottoman Naval Gunnery in the Eighteenth Century

Ottoman ship-of-the-line which name is Peleng-i Bahri 1777s (Tiger-sea) with 58 guns

The first time cannons were used on Ottoman ships was during the siege of Constantinople to hit the city walls from the sea. Guilmartin, however, tells about a contemporary Turkish sketch preserved in Topkapi Palace showing two Ottoman siege bombards in action and he suggests that this may represent the earliest type of gun mount regularly used aboard galleys, considering the similarity to a German woodcut depicting the port of Venice and illustrating a book published in 1486. This woodcut shows a bombard, made of wrought iron or bronze cast in ‘hooped’ form, mounted on the bow of a galley tightly pinioned between heavy horizontal timbers lying alongside the barrel and supported by a much heavier vertical post to absorb the recoil.

If we take a look at Ottoman ships carrying cannons, irrespective of the century in which they were used, we see that among the ones powered with oars were galliot (kalite), brigantine (perkende), saika (şayka) with three guns, mahone (mavna) with 24 guns, galley (kadirga) with 13 guns and bafltarda with three heavy guns and several light guns. Among sailing ships carrying guns were sloops (şalope) of 12 guns, brigs (brik), ağribar with over 30 guns, corvettes (korvet) with 20–30 guns, barça with over 80 guns, galleons (kalyon) with 60–80 guns, three-decked galleons (üç ambarh kalyon) with 80–120 guns, frigates (firkateyn) with 30–70 guns, kaypak/kapak with 80–100 guns and uskuna with 16 guns.

In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, beside warships, merchant ships were observed to have guns as well. Guns required for the merchant ships owned by the state were generally provided from the Tophâne-i Âmire, while the ones for the private non-military ships were purchased or hired in return for a certain amount of money.

Considering the galleons constructed following the systematic adoption of sailing ships in 1682, we see that four out of ten galleons were 50 zira and had 80 bronze guns while the remaining six were 45 zira and had 60 guns. These sizes seem to be comparable to the ones of European ships.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, 112 guns were required for a three-decker built in 1700, and 130 guns for a big galleon kebîr kalyon constructed in 1701. The sizes of these guns were between three and 16 kiyyes. Broken guns or the ones needed to change were transferred to the Tophâne-i Âmire in order to be replaced with new ones. Broken ones were melted down to be cast into new guns.

Looking at the first-, third-, fourth- and fifth-rate Ottoman ships between 1736 and 1739, it is seen that the Çift Aslan, a first-rate ship, could carry 108 guns of 8-112, 22-48, 2-24, 30-18, 28-12, 18-8 pounders. The İki Bağçeli and the Büyük Gül Başh, two third-rate Ottoman ships, had 66 guns on board each. Sixty-six guns of the İki Bağçeli consisted of 4-112, 24-48, 2-18, 28-12, 8-8 pounders, while there were 28-24, 2-18, 28-12, 8-8 pounders on the Büyük Gül Başh. A fourth-rate ship, the Yaldizh Şiahin, carried 62 guns of 26-18, 28-12, 8-8 pounders; another fourth-rate ship, the Mavi Aslan, had 50 guns of 22-12 and 28-8 pounders. The Mavi Firkata, another fifth-rate ship, could carry 36 guns of 8 and 4 pounders.

Of course, these were not the only ships of the period in question. Panzac, in addition to mentioning the gun capacities of the ships between 1736 and 1739 as mentioned above, focuses on the ones operating in a more limited time period. To give the gun capacity of some other ships between 1737 and 1738, the following names can be mentioned: the Çift Kaplan with 102 guns, the Sipah-i Bahr with 98 guns, the Malika-i Bahr with 98 guns, the Yaldizh Hurma with 72 guns, the Deve Kuşu with 68 guns, the Şiadirvan Kiçh with 68 guns, the İspinoz with 68 guns, the Küçük Gül Başh with 66 guns, the Akrep Başh with 66 guns, the Beyaz At with 66 guns, the Al-qasr with 62 guns, the Zülfikar with 62 guns, the Selvi Bağçeli with 62 guns, the Yaldiz Bağçeli with 58 guns, the Ejder Başh with 56 guns, the Yildiz Kiçh with 54 guns, the Ay Bağçeli with 54 guns, the Sari Kuşlakh with 54 guns, the Kirmizi Kuşlakh with 52 guns, the Yaldizh Nar with 52 guns, the Baba Ibrahim with 52 guns, the La PremièËre with 46 guns, the La Seconde with 46 guns, the Küçük Şiahin with 46 guns, the Serçe Kuflu with 44 guns, the Beyaz Şiahin with 38 guns, the La Bleue with an unknown number of guns. The following table, drawn by Panzac, gives a general idea of the rates of the ships and the number of guns present on them for five different leading powers of the world between 1735 and 1740.

The Ottoman navy consisted of 33 ships: 27 ships of the line (of which four were three-deckers with 98–108 guns and 23 were two-deckers) and six ships of the fifth rank. In the second half of the eighteenth century, as the oared ship became obsolete, giving way to sailing ships such as the galleon, the three-decker, the frigate and the corvette, the number of cannons on the ships began to increase. Therefore, parallel to the growing need for ships, the manufacture and order of new cannons and ammunition increased. Ottoman documents often mention correspondence between authorities about the urgent need for the manufacture of cannons to be used on galleons and other types of ships in 1793–94. It became routine for new ships to be equipped with cannons and shells cast, manufactured and processed in the shell works and the Humbarahâne within the Tersâne-i Âmire.

The Ottoman authorities, including Sultan Selim III, were aware of the deficiencies of the naval ships in terms of gunnery. Selim III was so interested in contemporary war techniques and weapons that he wrote a treatise (risâle) on the subject. The second part of the treatise was on flares (fişlekler) and the third part on cannons (toplar). It seems that the Kaptan Pasha checked the treatise and stated that Ottoman naval ships were deprived of these flares and cannons, and ordered the procurement of these weapons.

Nationality Name Guns Category Type Acquired Fate Finished

Ottoman Empire Mahmudiye 128 First Rate Ship of the Line 1812/12/26 Broken Up 1822

Ottoman Empire Selimiye 122 First Rate Ship of the Line 1797/02/22 Broken Up 1841

Ottoman Empire Mesudiye 118 First Rate Ship of the Line 1798 Last Mentioned 1864

Ottoman Empire Fethiye 118 First Rate Ship of the Line 1801 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Kebir Üç Ambarli 114 First Rate Ship of the Line 1715 Last known service 1720

Ottoman Empire Cift Aslan 108 First Rate Ship of the Line 1726 Disarmed 1737

Ottoman Empire Cift Kaplan 102 First Rate Ship of the Line 1728/09/01 Last known service 1737

Ottoman Empire Fatih-i Bahri (A) 100 First Rate Ship of the Line 1746/02 Last known service 1751/11/16

Ottoman Empire Perr i Bahri 100 First Rate Ship of the Line 1746/02 Last known service 1751/11/16

Ottoman Empire Nusret-numa 100 First Rate Ship of the Line 1748 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Nasir-i Bahri (A) 100 First Rate Ship of the Line 1748 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Tijfet ul Muluk 100 First Rate Ship of the Line 1760 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Sipahi-i Bahr 98 First Rate Ship of the Line 1726 Disarmed 1737

Ottoman Empire Malika-i Bahr 98 Second Rate Ship of the Line 1726 Disarmed 1737

Ottoman Empire Fethiye 96 Second Rate Ship of the Line 1827 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Tesrifiye 96 Second Rate Ship of the Line 1834 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Fevziye 96 Second Rate Ship of the Line 1836 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Nir-i Sevket 96 Second Rate Ship of the Line 1842 Last known service 1850

Ottoman Empire Burc-u Zafer 86 Second Rate Ship of the Line 1770 Sunk in Action 1770/06/24

Ottoman Empire Peyk-Zafer 86 Second Rate Ship of the Line 1841 Last known service 1878

Ottoman Empire Meheng i Bahri 84 Second Rate Ship of the Line Unknown Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Hisn i Bahri 84 Second Rate Ship of the Line Unknown Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Ziver-i-i bahri 84 Second Rate Ship of the Line 1751/01 Last known service 1751/01

Ottoman Empire Anka yi Bahri (A) 84 Second Rate Ship of the Line 1801 Last known service 1807

Ottoman Empire Ankay i Bahri 84 Second Rate Ship of the Line 1801 Last known service 1807

Ottoman Empire Tevfik Nyuma 84 Second Rate Ship of the Line 1803 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Sadd a Bahri 84 Third Rate Unknown 1807 Captured 1807/07/01

Ottoman Empire Badi-i Nusret 82 Second Rate Ship of the Line 1797 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Tavus-i Bahri 82 Second Rate Ship of the Line 1798/12/22 Last Mentioned 1825

Ottoman Empire Necm i Sevket 80 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1815 Last known service 1850

Ottoman Empire Kuh i Revan 80 Second Rate Ship of the Line 1819 Sunk in Action 1827/10/20

Ottoman Empire Arslan i Bahri 76 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1794 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Heybetendaz 76 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1796 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Besaretnüma 76 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1797 Burnt to avoid capture 1807/07/03

Ottoman Empire Kaplan i Bahri 76 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1799 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Seddülbahir 76 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1799 Captured 1807/06/30

Ottoman Empire Peyk i Mesiret 76 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1820 Wrecked 1854

Ottoman Empire Hilal i Zafer 74 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1781 Captured 1790

Ottoman Empire Mukaddeme i Nusret 74 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1787/05/31 Condemned 1801/03/28

Ottoman Empire Sehbaz i Bahri 74 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1793 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Ejder i Bahri 74 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1793 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Asar i Nusret 74 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1793 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Sayyad i Bahri 74 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1797 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Kilidülbahir 74 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1799 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Mansuriye 74 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1803 Sunk in Action 1822

Ottoman Empire Mukaddeme i Hayir 74 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1807 Deleted from list 1857

Ottoman Empire Burc i Zafer 74 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1815 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Fatih i Bahri 74 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1819 Sunk in Action 1827/10/20

Ottoman Empire Feyz i Huda 72 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1789 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Bahr i Zafer 72 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1789 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire The Black Horse (A) 70 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1708 Last known service 1724

Ottoman Empire Siyah At Basli 70 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1708 Last known service 1724

Ottoman Empire The Dragon (A) 70 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1715 Disarmed 1737

Ottoman Empire Ejder Basli 70 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1715 Disarmed 1737

Ottoman Empire Çifte Ceylan Kiçli 70 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1717 Last known service 1717

Ottoman Empire The Two Gazelles (A) 70 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1717 Last known service 1717

Ottoman Empire Yaldizli Hurma 70 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1717 Last known service 1730

Ottoman Empire The Gilded Date (A) 70 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1717 Last known service 1730

Ottoman Empire The Grey Horse (A) 68 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1717 Last known service 1732

Ottoman Empire Kula At Basli 68 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1717 Last known service 1732

Ottoman Empire Pertev i Nusret 68 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1793 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Ziver i Bahri 68 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1796 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire The White Horse (A) 66 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1708 Last known service 1737

Ottoman Empire Beyaz At Basli 66 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1708 Last known service 1737

Ottoman Empire The Great Rose (A) 66 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1710 Last known service 1730

Ottoman Empire Büyük Gül Basli 66 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1710 Last known service 1730

Ottoman Empire The Scorpion (A) 66 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1715 Last known service 1737

Ottoman Empire Akrep Basli 66 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1715 Last known service 1737

Ottoman Empire Sadirvan Kiçli 66 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1717 Last known service 1737

Ottoman Empire The Sprinkling Fountain (A) 66 Third Ship of the Line 1717 Last known service 1737

Ottoman Empire Sugur Chitzli 66 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1732/09 Last known service 1737

Ottoman Empire Ankay i Bahri 66 Second Rate Ship of the Line 1772 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Melek i Bahri (A) 66 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1776 Sunk in Action 1790/09/08

Ottoman Empire Melik ul Bahr (A) 66 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1776 Sunk in Action 1790/09/08

Ottoman Empire Melike Bahri 66 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1776 Sunk in Action 1790/09/08

Ottoman Empire Ejder-i Bahri 66 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1782 Foundered 1788/12

Ottoman Empire Hilal i Zafer 66 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1790 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Gulbang i Nesuret (A) 64 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1780 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Malbaik Nesuret 64 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1780 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Causse 64 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1801 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Ifrit Basli 62 Third Rate Unknown 1717 Last known service 1717

Ottoman Empire The Demon (A) 62 Third Rate Unknown 1717 Last known service 1717

Ottoman Empire Yaldizli Sahin 62 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1724 Last known service 1737

Ottoman Empire Fethü’l-fettah 62 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1774 Last Mentioned 1790

Ottoman Empire Fethu l Fettah (A) 62 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1774 Last Mentioned 1790

Ottoman Empire Küçük Gül Basli 60 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1711 Last known service 1732

Ottoman Empire The Little Rose (A) 60 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1711 Last known service 1732

Ottoman Empire Rodos 60 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1770 Captured 1770/06/26

Ottoman Empire Meaid Fettuh 60 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1776 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Semend i Bahri 60 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1783 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Fatih i Bahri 60 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1791 Stranded 1799

Ottoman Empire Çifte Teber Kiçli 58 Fourth Rate Unknown 1717 Last known service 1717

Ottoman Empire Two Halberds (A) 58 Fourth Rate Unknown 1717 Last known service 1717

Ottoman Empire Mesudiye 58 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1772 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Feyz i Huda 58 Fourth Rate Unknown 1777 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Peleng i Bahri 58 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1777 Captured 1790/09/09

Ottoman Empire Hifz i Huda 58 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1777 Broken Up 1793

Ottoman Empire Tevifk i Ilah 58 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1777 Broken Up 1793

Ottoman Empire Medilli u Cedid 58 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1781 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Hüdaverdi 58 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1787/09/25 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Cedid-i Midilli 58 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1790 Last known service 1790

Ottoman Empire Mansuriye 58 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1790 Sunk in Action 1790/09/09

Ottoman Empire The Two Pointed Sword (A) 56 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1710 Last known service 1732

Ottoman Empire Zülfikar Kiçli 56 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1710 Last known service 1732

Ottoman Empire Akçasehir 56 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1717 Last known service 1717

Ottoman Empire The Cypress Garden (A) 54 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1714 Last known service 1737

Ottoman Empire Servi Bagçeli 54 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1714 Last known service 1737

Ottoman Empire Ay Bagçeli 54 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1714 Last known service 1737

Ottoman Empire The Moon Garden (A)54 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1714 Last known service 1737

Ottoman Empire Sari Kusakli 54 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1717 Last known service 1737

Ottoman Empire Yaldizli Nar Kiçli 54 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1717 Last known service 1737

Ottoman Empire The Star Garden (A) 54 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1717 Last known service 1737

Ottoman Empire Yildiz Bagçeli 54 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1717 Last known service 1737

Ottoman Empire Yellow Belted (A) 54 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1717 Last known service 1737

Ottoman Empire The Gilded Grenade (A) 54 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1717 Last known service 1737

Ottoman Empire Inayet i Hak 54 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1773 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Nüvid-i Fütuh 54 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1776 Broken Up 1793

Ottoman Empire Hediyyetul Muluk 54 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1777 Sunk in Action 1788/06

Ottoman Empire Nusret Ozdan 54 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1782 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Ikab i Bahri 54 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1783 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Maadem e Bahr 54 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1783 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Meal ul Nusret Bahr 54 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1783 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Fuean i Bahri 54 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1783 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Besir i Zafer 54 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1784 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Nasir i Cenk 54 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1784 Sunk in Action 1788/06

Ottoman Empire Kirmizi Kusakli 52 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1717 Last known service 1730

Ottoman Empire Red Belted (A) 52 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1717 Last known service 1730

Ottoman Empire Nasir i Bahri 52 Fourth Rate Unknown 1776 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Ceylan i Bahr 52 Fourth Rate Unknown 1777 Last known service 1801

Ottoman Empire Tilsim i Bahri 52 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1783 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Cerid i Zafer 52 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1783 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Bed i Nusret 52 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1785/06/02 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Badere-i-Zefee (A) 52 Fourth Rate Frigate 1799 Captured 1807/07/05

Ottoman Empire Bedr i Zafer 52 Fourth Rate Frigate 1799 Captured 1807/07/05

Ottoman Empire Al At Basli 50 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1715 Last known service 1724

Ottoman Empire The Red Horse (A) 50 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1715 Last known service 1724

Ottoman Empire Fakih i Zafar 50 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1784 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Sehber i Zafer 50 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1795 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Mesken i Gazi 50 Fourth Rate Ship 1796 Sunk in Action 1807/05/10

Ottoman Empire Burc i Zafer 48 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1790 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Mazhar Tevfik 46 Fifth Rate Unknown 1774 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Muradiye 46 Fifth Rate Frigate 1776 Sunk in Action 1788/06

Ottoman Empire Ejder Basli 46 Fifth Rate Ship of the Line 1776 Captured 1788/06/18

Ottoman Empire Korc i Zafer 46 Fourth Rate Ship 1778 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Seyyar-i Bahri 46 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1779 Sunk in Action 1788/06

Ottoman Empire Fatih-i Bahri 46 Fifth Rate Frigate 1779 Sunk in Action 1788/06

Ottoman Empire Sehbay i Bahri 46 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1783 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Sespay-i Bahri 46 Fifth Rate Frigate 1787 Foundered 1788/12

Ottoman Empire Sehper-i Zafer 46 Fourth Rate Unknown 1788 Sunk in Action 1788/06

Ottoman Empire Bodrum 46 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1788 Sunk in Action 1788/06

Ottoman Empire Günes Kiçli 44 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1711 Last known service 1724

Ottoman Empire The Sun (A) 44 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1711 Last known service 1724

Ottoman Empire The Bird Garden Caravella (A) 44 Fifth Rate Frigate 1717 Last known service 1717

Ottoman Empire Kus Bagçeli Karavele 44 Fifth Rate Frigate 1717 Last known service 1717

Ottoman Empire Mavi Arslan Basli 44 Fifth Rate Ship of the Line 1717 Last known service 1730

Ottoman Empire The Blue Lion (A) 44 Fifth Rate Ship of the Line 1717 Last known service 1730

Ottoman Empire Pulad i Bahri 44 Fifth Rate Ship 1782 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Mur i Bahri 42 Fifth Rate Frigate 1775 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Mazhar 42 Fifth Rate Frigate 1778 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Iks Pay 42 Fifth Rate Frigate 1780 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Sekir i Zafer 42 Fifth Rate Frigate 1782 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Ead e Hak 42 Fifth Rate Frigate 1784 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Ir e Zafer 42 Fifth Rate Frigate 1784 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Murg i Bahri 42 Fifth Rate Frigate 1784 Foundered 1784

Ottoman Empire The Crown (A) 40 Fifth Rate Unknown 1717 Last known service 1717

Ottoman Empire Taç Basli 40 Fifth Rate Unknown 1717 Last known service 1717

Ottoman Empire Yildiz Kiçli 40 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1717 Disarmed 1737

Ottoman Empire The Star (A) 40 Fourth Rate Ship of the Line 1717 Disarmed 1737

Ottoman Empire Bülheves 40 Fifth Rate Frigate 1796 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Bul Heves (A) 40 Fifth Rate Frigate 1796 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Uri Bahar 40 Fifth Rate Frigate 1807 Captured 1807/03/21

Ottoman Empire Ayet i Hayir 40 Fourth Rate Frigate 1807 Sunk in Action 1807/05/10

Ottoman Empire The Blue Caravella (A) 38 Fifth Rate Frigate 1717 Last known service 1717

Ottoman Empire Mavi Kiçli Karavele 38 Fifth Rate Frigate 1717 Last known service 1717

Ottoman Empire Yilan Basli 34 Fifth Rate Ship of the Line 1714 Last known service 1724

Ottoman Empire The Snake (A) 34 Fifth Rate Ship of the Line 1714 Last known service 1724

Ottoman Empire Mazhar i Saadet 34 Fifth Rate Frigate 1785 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Dad i Hakk 34 Fifth Rate Frigate 1785 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Uri Nasard 34 Fifth Rate Frigate 1807 Captured 1807/03/21

Ottoman Empire Erid Fettul 32 Fifth Rate Frigate 1772 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Perr i Bahri 32 Fifth Rate Frigate 1772 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Nejim e Zafer 32 Fifth Rate Frigate 1772 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Tim Zafer 32 Fifth Rate Frigate 1784 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Rehber i Nusret 32 Fifth Rate Frigate 1784 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Gvinet Hazat 32 Fifth Rate Frigate 1784 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Mashar Hidaet 28 Fifth Rate Frigate 1778 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Nusret Nüma 28 Fifth Rate Frigate 1791 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Zaver Küsa 26 Sixth Rate Corvette 1796 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Saika i Bahri 26 Sixth Rate Corvette 1798 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Aziz Fezzan 26 Sixth Rate Corvette 1807 Sunk in Action 1807/07/05

Ottoman Empire Lvitsa 26 Sixth Rate Corvette 1829 Captured 1829/01/28

Ottoman Empire Kaplan Basli 24 Sixth Rate Frigate 1774 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Ferah Nüma 24 Sixth Rate Corvette 1791 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Hediye i Hakini 22 Sixth Rate Corvette 1789 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Raad-i Nahri 22 Sixth Rate Bomb Vessel 1790 Last known service 1790

Ottoman Empire Cedid Bomba 22 Sixth Rate Bomb Vessel 1790 Last known service 1790

Ottoman Empire Sihab-i Sakib 22 Sixth Rate Bomb Vessel 1790 Last known service 1790

Ottoman Empire Berk-i Hafiz 22 Sixth Rate Bomb Vessel 1790 Last known service 1790

Ottoman Empire Berk-i Bahri 22 Sixth Rate Bomb Vessel 1790 Last known service 1790

Ottoman Empire Fara Numa 16 Unrated Corvette 1807 Captured 1807/03/21

Ottoman Empire Candia 14 Unrated Brig 1829 Captured 1829/01/28

Ottoman Empire Siyah Arslan Basli 0 Fourth Rate Unknown 1717 Last known service 1717

Ottoman Empire Green Belted (A) 0 Fourth Rate Unknown 1717 Last known service 1717

Ottoman Empire Yesil Kusakli 0 Fourth Rate Unknown 1717 Last known service 1717

Ottoman Empire Kerem-i Bahri (A) 0 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1786/10/26 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Peyk i Zafer 0 Sixth Rate Corvette 1786 Last known service 1786

Ottoman Empire Kerem-i Bari 0 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1786/10/26 Last known service Unknown

Ottoman Empire Serheng i Nusret 0 Fifth Rate Frigate 1790 Last known service 1790

Ottoman Empire Salabet Nüma 0 Sixth Rate Corvette 1790 Last known service 1790

Ottoman Empire Bidayetül Fütuh 0 Fifth Rate Frigate 1790 Last known service 1791

Ottoman Empire Hisn i Gurab 0 Sixth Rate Corvette 1791 Last known service 1791

Ottoman Empire Kaid i Zafer 0 Fifth Rate Frigate 1791 Last known service 1791

Ottoman Empire Murg i Bahri 0 Sixth Rate Corvette 1791 Last known service 1791

Ottoman Empire Has Gazat 0 Sixth Rate Corvette 1791 Last known service 1791

Ottoman Empire Cabbar i Bahri 0 Fifth Rate Frigate 1791 Last known service 1791

Ottoman Empire Berk i Hatif 0 Fifth Rate Frigate 1791 Last known service 1791

Ottoman Empire Berk i Bahri 0 Fifth Rate Frigate 1791 Last known service 1791

Ottoman Empire Bais i Nusret 0 Fifth Rate Frigate 1791 Last known service 1791

Ottoman Empire Cedid i Gümrü 0 Fifth Rate Frigate 1791 Last known service 1791

Ottoman Empire Burc i Bahri 0 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1801 Last known service 1801

Ottoman Empire Berk (A) 0 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1801 Last known service 1801

Ottoman Empire Berk i Hatif (A) 0 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1801 Last known service 1801

Ottoman Empire Berk i Bahri (A) 0 Third Rate Ship of the Line 1801 Last known service 1801

Ottoman Empire Nesim i Futuh 0 Fifth Rate Frigate 1807 Sunk in Action 1807

South Georgia 1982

The first great strategic debate to face the war cabinet concerned operations against South Georgia. The island was 800 miles beyond the primary objective – 800 miles of hostile sea and danger from submarines. It was largely irrelevant to the recapture of the Falklands, and would probably be surrendered automatically once the major Argentine positions had been taken. It seemed a major diversion of effort to dispatch Thompson’s entire brigade to South Georgia, whatever the attractions for the marines of a rehearsal for greater things to come. Conversely, the use of only the small force embarked aboard Antrim and Plymouth seemed too risky. It would be a devastating beginning to British operations in the South Atlantic to suffer any kind of failure against such an objective. Virtually the entire navy staff, including Leach and Fieldhouse, advised against it.

The decision to press ahead against South Georgia, like so many others of the campaign, was primarily political. The British public was becoming restless for action, more than two weeks after the task force had sailed. Buenos Aires remained intransigent. Questions were even being asked in Washington about Britain’s real will for a showdown. The former head of the CIA, Admiral Stansfield Turner, suggested on television that Britain could face a defeat. British diplomacy needed the bite of military action to sharpen its credibility. To the politicians in the war cabinet, South Georgia seemed to offer the promise of substantial rewards for modest stakes. The Antrim group was ordered to proceed to its recapture.

The detached squadron led by Captain Brian Young in Antrim rendezvoused with Endurance 1,000 miles north of South Georgia on 14 April. The British believed that the Argentinians had placed only a small garrison on the bleak, glacier-encrusted island. The submarine Conqueror, which left Faslane on 4 April, had sailed direct to the island to carry out reconnaissance for the Antrim group. She slipped cautiously inshore, conscious that an iceberg 35 by 15 miles wide and 500 feet high had been reported in the area. Her captain reported no evidence of an Argentine naval presence. The submarine then moved away north-westwards to patrol in a position from which she could intervene either in the maritime exclusion zone, or in support of the South Georgia operation, or against the Argentine carrier, if she emerged. A fifteen-hour sortie by an RAF Victor aircraft confirmed Conqueror’s report that the approach to South Georgia was clear.

On 21 April, Young’s ships saw their first icebergs, and reduced speed for their approach to the island, in very bad weather. The captain summoned the marine and SAS officers to his bridge to see for themselves the ghastly sea conditions. The ship’s Wessex helicopters nonetheless took off into a snowstorm carrying the Mountain Troop of D Squadron, SAS, under the command of twenty-nine-year-old Captain John Hamilton. Antrim had already flown aboard a scientist from the British Antarctic Survey team which successfully remained out of reach of the Argentinians through the three weeks of their occupation of South Georgia. This man strongly urged against the proposed SAS landing site, high on the Fortuna Glacier, where the weather defied human reason. Lieutenant Bob Veal, a naval officer with great experience of the terrain, took the same view. But another expert in England very familiar with South Georgia, Colonel John Peacock, believed that the Fortuna was passable, and his advice was transmitted to Antrim. The SAS admits no limits to what determined men can achieve. After one failed attempt in which the snow forced the helicopters back to the ships, Hamilton and his men were set down with their huge loads of equipment to reconnoitre the island for the main assault landing by the Royal Marines. One SAS patrol was to operate around Stromness and Husvik; one was to proceed overland towards Leith; the third was to examine a possible beach-landing site in Fortuna Bay.

From the moment that they descended into the howling gale and snowclad misery of the glacier, the SAS found themselves confounded by the elements. ‘Spindrift blocked the feed trays of the machine guns,’ wrote an NCO in his report. ‘On the first afternoon, three corporals probing crevasses advanced 500 metres in four to five hours . . .’ Their efforts to drag their sledges laden with 200 pounds of equipment apiece were frustrated by whiteouts that made all movement impossible. ‘Luckily we were now close to an outcrop in the glacier, and were able to get into a crevasse out of the main blast of the wind . . .’ They began to erect their tents. One was instantly torn from their hands by the wind, and swept away into the snow. The poles of the others snapped within seconds, but the men struggled beneath the fabric and kept it upright by flattening themselves against the walls. Every forty-five minutes, they took turns to crawl out and dig the snow away from the entrance, to avoid becoming totally buried. They were now facing katabatic winds of more than 100 m.p.h. By 11 a.m. the next morning, the 22nd, their physical condition was deteriorating rapidly. The SAS were obliged to report that their position was untenable, and ask to be withdrawn.

The first Wessex V to make an approach was suddenly hit by a whiteout. Its pilot lost all his horizons, fell out of the sky, attempted to pull up just short of the ground and smashed his tail rotor in the snow. The helicopter rolled over and lay wrecked. A second Wessex V came in. With great difficulty, the crew of the crashed aircraft and all the SAS were embarked, at the cost of abandoning their equipment. Within seconds of takeoff, another whiteout struck the Wessex. This too crashed on to the glacier.

It was now about 3 p.m. in London. Francis Pym was boarding Concorde to fly to Washington with a new British response to Haig’s peace proposals. Lewin, anxiously awaiting news of the services’ first major operation of the Falklands campaign, received a signal from Antrim. The reconnaissance party ashore was in serious difficulty. Two helicopters sent to rescue them had crashed, with unknown casualties. For the Chief of Defence Staff, it was one of the bleakest moments of the war. After all his efforts to imbue the war cabinet with full confidence in the judgement of the service chiefs, he was now compelled to cross Whitehall and report on the situation to the Prime Minister. It was an unhappy afternoon in Downing Street.

But an hour later, Lewin received news of a miracle. In a brilliant feat of flying for which he later received a DSO, Lieutenant Commander Ian Stanley had brought another helicopter, a Wessex III, down on the Fortuna Glacier. He found that every man from the crashed helicopters had survived. Grossly overloaded with seventeen bodies, he piloted the Wessex back to Antrim and threw it on to the pitching deck. His exhausted and desperately cold passengers were taken below to the wardroom and the emergency medical room.

A disaster had been averted by the narrowest of margins. Yet the reconnaissance mission was no further forward. Soon after midnight the following night, 23 April, they started again. 2 Section SBS landed successfully by helicopter at the north end of Sorling Valley. Meanwhile, fifteen men of D Squadron’s Boat Troop set out in five Gemini inflatable craft for Grass Island, within sight of the Argentine bases. For years, the SAS had been vainly demanding more reliable replacements for the 40 h.p. outboards with which the Geminis were powered. Now, one craft suffered almost immediate engine failure and whirled away with the gale into the night, with three men helpless aboard. A second suffered the same fate. Its crew drifted in the South Atlantic throughout the hours of darkness before its beacon signal was picked up the next morning by a Wessex. The crew was recovered. The remaining three boats, roped together, reached their landfall on Grass Island but, by early afternoon, they were compelled to report that ice splinters dashed into their craft by the tearing gale were puncturing the inflation cells. The SBS party in Sorling Valley was unable to move across the terrain, and had to be recovered by helicopter and reinserted in Moraine Fjord the following day. All these operations provided circumstantial evidence that the Argentine garrison ashore was small. But they were an inauspicious beginning to a war, redeemed only by the incredible good fortune that the British had survived a chapter of accidents with what at this stage seemed the loss of only one Gemini.

On 24 April, the squadron received more bad news: an enemy submarine was believed to be in the area. The British already knew that Argentine C-130 transport aircraft had been overflying the island, and had to assume that the British presence was now revealed. Captain Young dispersed his ships, withdrawing the RFA tanker Tidespring carrying M Company of 42 Commando some 200 miles northwards. It seemed likely to be some days before proper reconnaissance could be completed, and any sort of major assault mounted. Above all, nothing significant could be done until more helicopters arrived. That night, the Type 22 frigate Brilliant joined up with Antrim after steaming all out through mountainous seas from her holding position with the Type 42s. She brought with her two Lynx helicopters. Captain Young and his force once again moved inshore, to land further SAS and SBS parties. British luck now took a dramatic turn for the better.

Early on the morning of 25 April, Antrim’s Wessex III picked up an unidentified radar contact close to the main Argentine base at Grytviken. Endurance and Plymouth at once launched their Wasps. The three helicopters sighted the Argentine Guppy class submarine Santa Fe heading out of Cumberland Bay, and attacked with depth charges and torpedoes. Plymouth’s Wasp fired an AS 12 missile, which passed through the submarine’s conning tower, while Brilliant’s Lynx closed in firing GP machine-guns. It may seem astonishing that, after so much expensive British hardware had been unleashed, the Santa Fe remained afloat at all. It was severely damaged, and turned back at once towards Grytviken, where it had been landing reinforcements for the garrison, now totalling 140 men. There, the submarine beached herself alongside the British Antarctic Survey base. Her crew scuttled hastily ashore in search of safety.

There was now a rapid conference aboard Antrim, and urgent consultation with London. The main body of Royal Marines was still 200 miles away. But it was obvious that the enemy ashore had been thrown into disarray. Captain Young, Major Sheridan of the marines and Major Cedric Delves, commanding D Squadron, determined to press home their advantage. A composite company was formed from every available man aboard Antrim – marines, SAS, SBS – seventy-five in all. In the cramped mess-decks of the destroyer, they hastily armed and equipped themselves. Early in the afternoon, directed by a naval gunfire support officer in a Wasp, the ships laid down a devastating bombardment around the reported Argentine positions. At 2.45, under Major Sheridan’s overall command, the first British elements landed by helicopter and began closing in on Grytviken. There was a moment of farce when they saw in their path a group of balaclava-clad heads on the skyline, engaged them with machine-gun fire and Milan missiles, and found themselves overrunning a group of elephant seals. Then they were above the settlement, where white sheets were already fluttering from several windows.

As the SAS led the way towards the buildings, a bewildered Argentine officer complained, ‘You have just walked through my minefield!’ SAS Sergeant Major Lofty Gallagher ran up the Union Jack that he had brought with him. At 5.15 local time, the Argentine garrison commander, Captain Alfredo Astiz, formally surrendered. He was an embarrassing prisoner of war, as he was wanted for questioning by several nations in connection with the disappearance of their citizens while in government custody on the Argentine mainland some years earlier. Britain was eventually to return him to Buenos Aires, uninterrogated. Somewhat reluctantly, the fastidious Royal Navy began to embark a long column of filthy, malodorous and dejected prisoners aboard the ships. The following morning, after threatening defiance by radio overnight, the small enemy garrison at Leith, along the coast, surrendered without resistance. The scrap merchants whose activities had precipitated the entire drama were also taken into custody, for repatriation to the mainland.

The British triumph became complete when a helicopter picked up a weak emergency-beacon signal from the extremity of Stromness Bay. A helicopter was sent, managed to home on it, and recovered the lost three-man SAS patrol whose Gemini had been swept away in the early hours of 23 April. They had paddled ashore with only a few hundred yards of land left between them and the Atlantic. Thus, with a last small miracle, the British completed the recapture of South Georgia, the first operation of the Falklands campaign, without a single man lost. One Argentine sailor had been badly wounded and one was killed the following day in an accident.

The news of the operation was immediately relayed back to London. A sense of relief turned to euphoria. Two days earlier, Mrs Thatcher had personally visited Northwood to be briefed by Field-house and his staff and to endure with them the agonised suspense of the SAS and SBS debacles. Her constant supportive remarks to the fleet staff made a deep impression. The simplicity of her objectives and her total determination to see them achieved came as a welcome change to men used to regarding politicians as hedgers and doubters.

Sunday’s news was greeted by the public as a triumph long expected and not a little overdue. The British people had, after all, been led to believe that the task force was irresistible. As a result, when Mrs Thatcher joined John Nott on the steps of Downing Street and called to waiting pressmen, ‘Rejoice, just rejoice!’ it seemed a curiously hard and inappropriate heralding of the onset of war. Yet it was the reaction of a woman overwhelmed with relief. The first stage of her gamble had only narrowly been rescued from catastrophe.

The euphoria was not confined to London. On 26 April, aboard his flagship Hermes, Admiral Woodward gave a rare interview to a task-force correspondent, in which he declared robustly, ‘South Georgia was the appetiser. Now this is the heavy punch coming up behind. My battle group is properly formed and ready to strike. This is the run-up to the big match which, in my view, should be a walkover.’ The British were told, he said, that the Argentinians in South Georgia were ‘a tough lot. But they were quick to throw in the towel. We will isolate the troops on the Falklands as those on South Georgia were isolated.’ Woodward subsequently denied much of the substance of that interview as reported in the British press. But, to many of his officers, it had the authentic flavour of the admiral, anxious to inspire the greatest possible confidence in what his task force could do.

French Navy: 1870s to 1904 Part I

French cruiser Chasseloup Laubat, on the Hudson River, New York.

The maritime strategy of the Third Republic in the years before the First World War falls into two very different phases.

From 1871 to the last decade of the 19th Century strategic thinking has been described by one French historian as a ‘Cold War’ against the traditional enemy Great Britain. Naval thought in this period believed that this must sooner or later end in full open warfare between the two nations. Although Emperor Napoleon III did not personally subscribe to this view his early 1860s navy was one of the finest in French history, leading the world in technology and superior to a neglected Royal Navy. Almost at the end of his reign a largely unexpected factor in naval strategy appeared with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Naval policy moved to the Mediterranean with Toulon as the major base. For ‘Cold War’ theorists a capability of closing the Canal to British merchants and warships was tempting and led to the quest for a Red Sea naval base. Paradoxically, though the trade and strategic common interests of Britain and France was to lead to joint French-British naval operations to ensure free movement through the Canal in 1881, 1915, 1939-40 and 1956.

By the end of the 1870s many French warships had been overtaken by technological developments and become obsolescent while the Royal Navy had returned to development. It was becoming clear that a major warship construction programme to match Great Britain was out of the question. Thinking and policy had therefore to be reviewed, and on both land and sea argued for the building up of colonial and naval force that would make France so close a second-ranking power after Great Britain and the Royal Navy that French interests would be secure, particularly in the Mediterranean. The colonial empire was to provide resources, additional military manpower and bases. These base ports were to constitute points d’appui, of strength from which blue water warships could set forth to harry British commercial shipping in a guerre de course war of attrition. For the defence of the Atlantic and Channel coasts much cheaper vessels, coast defence floating battery ships and light forces would suffice. The head of government, Jules Ferry, in his first 1880-81 and second 1883-85 administrations strongly supported the acquisition of colonies, though this policy was later to be the prime cause for his fall from power. The governments that followed him over the next fifteen years were only relatively less enthusiastic. Alliance with Russia, cemented with exchange naval visits, was seen as an important part of the containment of British expansions. A Russian naval visit to Toulon in 1893 provided a political ‘naval scare’ reaction in London. A group of naval theorists headed by Rear Admiral Aube, author of an important work, La Guerre Maritime et les Ports Français, and mostly composed of young officers, the Jeune École, envisaged an encircling chain of worldwide bases extending from Tunis, Obock (later Djibouti), Madagascar, Mayotte (Comoros), Saigon, a base in Tonkin, Nouméa, Tahiti, Tuamatu (Papua), the Panama Canal and Guadeloupe. By 1890 a rationalisation had proposed three major fortified bases, Martinique, Dakar and Saigon, with seven smaller and only lightly defended sally ports, Guadeloupe, Haiphong, Nouméa, Diego-Suarez, Port Phéton (Tahiti), Libreville and Obock. For the defence of the metropolis Dunkerque, Brest, Lorient and Toulon were to continue their traditional functions, Toulon benefiting from concern over Italian naval building. Anti-British feeling reached a crescendo at the time of the Fashoda crisis in 1898, with increased support for all the overseas bases. But already the growing military and naval threat of Imperial Germany was beginning to concentrate minds on the much more serious threat to the nation.

Warship construction was to reflect the changes in policy. The government that immediately followed the end of the Second Empire still aspired to follow the traditional naval policy of a fleet equal or superior to Britain’s Royal Navy based on a line of capital ships, called ‘First Rate Armoured Ships’ at the time. These capital ships were to be supported by ‘Second Rate Armoured Ships’ for coastal defence, by ‘armoured cruising ships’ and a number of sloops and gunboats. In 1872, before the drive for colonial expansion had come to dominate policy, the Minister for the Marine, Admiral Pothuau, set out a traditional and modernisation programme for the decade. This programme was almost immediately faced with the problems to bedevil French naval construction for the next hundred years, the ever-increasing costs of the technological advances needed for warships, inadequate access to iron and steel and, compared with Great Britain the small number of shipbuilding yards. Construction of major warships often took five or six years, sometimes even longer. Politically the public saw spending on the Army as the priority and the navy greatly reduced, some even arguing for its abolition. Pothuau’s options were limited.

The Marine 1879-80

The Marine’s line of capital battle ships that France could put to sea at the end of the 1870s was in consequence formed of obsolescent ships built in the years before or during the Franco-Prussian War, with the few more modern vessels completed in the following eight years, much but not all of the 1872 programme, forming a total of twenty-one (not including one purchased from the United States which proved to be valueless).

The ships were a very mixed collection. The earliest sixteen were old-fashioned broadside ironclads, the latter five were central battery vessels. The mix of construction patterns and different armaments created difficulties of maintenance and supply of the 1870s ships still in service, the oldest was Solferino completed in 1862, a sister ship had earlier been destroyed in a fire. These were designed by the pioneer of ironclad ships, Henri Dupuy de Lome, they displaced 6,700 tons and were built with a massive ram bow, to be a feature of French capital ships for the next twenty years, they were well armoured, equipped with ten 9.4-inch guns and could manage a top speed of 13 knots but still retained a full barque rig of sail. Following Solferino were the ten ships of the Provence class completed between 1865 and 1867; these were Flandre, Gauloise, Guyenne, Magnanime, Provence, Revanche, Savoie, Surveillante, Valeureuse, and Héroine averaging 6,000 tons. Their armaments varied and were altered from time to time in the 1870s being usually eight 9.4-inch and four 7.6-inch guns, their speeds varied between 13 and 14 knots, all again were barque rigged.

Design then moved from broadside main armament to broadside barbette battery ships with the Océan class completed in 1872-3, Océan, Marengo and Suffren. Much thicker armour protection had raised tonnage to an average of 8,800 tons. Their main armament included four 10-inch and four 9-inch guns, their speeds remained at 13 to 14 knots, their rig for sail was reduced to barquentine. They also carried dropping gear for four 14-inch torpedoes.

Two further ships, Friedland and Richelieu were the last to be under construction before the fall of Napoleon III, each taking nine years in building and only entering service in 1876. Friedland displaced 8,800 tons with armour and speed similar to the Océan class but with a main armament of eight 10.8-inch guns. Richelieu and the last three ships to be at sea by the end of the decade, Colbert, Trident and Redoutable were slightly larger but otherwise similar, these too lost their sail rigging after entry into service.

In support of this battle fleet were a variety of vessels, eleven ‘Second Rate’ coast defence vessels armed with 6.4-inch guns, four armoured rams with 9.4-inch guns and a speed of 12 to 13 knots to provide force behind the rams, and six coastal bombardment monitors armed with two 9.4 or 10.8-inch guns. All these, less expensive than the ‘First Rates’ and therefore welcomed politically were thought to be useful as a second line, capable of dealing with damaged enemy ‘Frist Rates’ and chasing enemy cruisers away.

The three classes of ‘armoured cruising ships’ ranged for 3,500 to 4,000 tons in size. The five smaller vessels were armed with four or six 7.6-inch guns, the six larger with six 9.4-inch and one 7.6-inch gun. The ‘First Rates’ were mostly based at Toulon, the coast defence ships at Cherbourg and cruisers at Brest poised for a sortie into the Atlantic. In addition there were thirty-eight ‘unprotected cruisers’ with tonnages and armaments varying greatly. The majority were armed with 6.4, 5.5 or 4.7-inch guns depending on their size, the larger last three had 7.6-inch guns. The earlier ships speeds did not exceed 14 knots, the last could raise 16 knots.

Much thought and experimentation was given to torpedo boats, the possibilities of the torpedo as an excellent naval defence weapon against the known ‘close blockade’ strategy of the Royal Navy in the event of war becoming even more clear. In 1875-6 nineteen small torpedo boats were built, twelve in Britain. Their tonnage ranged from 10 to 26 tons and they were poor sea boats. In 1877 a further twenty-eight all over 30 tons were built in France. The torpedoes carried were carried in a variety of ways, some as spars in the bow of the boat, others in bow tubes, others in a launching gear to be slung over the side of the boats. The boats speed was some 18 knots with crews of eight to ten men. They were presented as a mobile defence ‘David’ against an adversary’s battleship ‘Goliath’ attacking ports, and also as ‘democratic’ in comparison with the ‘reaction’ of battleships. They were very popular among young officers, a posting infinitely preferable to being a junior officer on a ‘First Rate’ even if at this stage they only served in home ports. Critics of the torpedo boats pointed out that they were dangerous for crews who became exhausted very quickly in anything approaching a choppy or rough sea, and that their chances of striking an opponent’s big ship were doubtful, especially if their target warship and others subjected them to a hailstorm of light weapon fire. Some also argued that smoke from their funnels would provide the torpedo boats with cover for a close approach, others said that smoke would confuse the torpedo boat’s aim.

Warship Construction 1880-99

The next fifteen years became ones of controversy over the structure that the Marine should adopt in the increasingly bitter ‘Cold War’ with Great Britain. At international level as well as Russia other possible naval allies were sought, one was Japan when the highly skilled designer Emile Bertin was at work in the Japanese arsenal at Yokosuka. In France in rigorous, at times passionate, debate admirals and strategists, notably Étienne Lamy, argued over the bases and ships most likely to mount a successful challenge to the Royal Navy’s two-power standard and battleship building programme. The Jeune École with Admiral Aube briefly Minister for the Marine in 1886-7 saw the battleships as expensive, vulnerable to torpedoes and a naval guerre de course as the future pattern of naval warfare. They argued that over fifty torpedo boats could be built for the cost of one battleship and small fast cruisers could sail out from worldwide points d’appui to attack British trade while all that was needed to secure metropolitan and overseas ports were flotillas of torpedo boats. Others believed that effort would have to be concentrated on a smaller number of more powerful bases, particularly if those overseas were going to require a land force garrison. Interest became focused on three areas, the Atlantic where ships from Dakar together with others in Martinique from where ships in the Caribbean could jointly threated Britain’s trade with the New World, and the Indian Ocean where Britain’s links with India could be cut and French links with Indochina made more secure. The difficulties facing the French economy in the 1880s fuelled debate at the political level. Imperialists favoured expansion into Tunisia – partly to forestall Italian ambitions – and Indochina together with designs upon Madagascar. Operations were to follow, although many argued that they were not affordable. Many naval officers too were concerned that so much of the Marine’s budget was being spent on bases and colonial interior occupation rather than on ships, while Italy was now a growing menace.

Until the middle 1890s the capital ships completed for the Marine were the nine whose construction had begun in the 1870s, together with thirteen that were completed in this period. Except for the first three, the two Courbet class, Courbet and Dévastation and the Admiral Duperré none were rigged for sail. They and others to follow in the 1890s merit their description by Oscar Parkes, the British battleship historian

Since the seventies French design had exhibited a strong leaning towards the bizarre and ‘Fierce face’. Piled up superstructures, preposterous masts, uncouth funnels, tumblehome sides and long ram bows with no attempt at achieving any symmetry or balance in profile produced an aggressive appearance …

Perhaps subconsciously the Vauban tradition had entered into the minds of constructors; it was certainly a period of great uncertainty over design and experimentation.

Courbet, a central battery ship after nine years of building entered service in 1886. She and her sister Dévastation completed in 1882 displaced 10,500 tons and were armed with four 13.4-inch guns and had a speed of 15.5 knots. Admiral Duperré of 11,000 tons was of a more advanced design with four 13.4-inch guns mounted in pairs in barbetttes near the bow and stern. Her speed was slightly slower. All three ships carried four torpedo tubes. The next six ships, four of the smaller Terrible class of 7,500 tons, Caiman, Terrible, Indomptable and Requin and two of the next class Admiral Baudin and Formidable of 11,700 tons, all followed the centre line barbette plan, the Terrible ships with two huge 16.5-inch guns and the Admiral Baudin ships with three 14-inch pieces, all with speeds of 14 knots. The next ship, Hoche was the first to have her two 13.4-inch gun main armaments in single turrets with a further armament of two 10.8-inch guns; as a ship she was faster reaching 16 knots but unstable in a seaway. Equally unstable, spoken of as ‘submarines’ were the next three ships, completed after ten years in building in 1893, were the 10,500 ton Marceau, Magenta and Neptune with twin 13.4-inch guns, two each in in barbettes fore and aft. The last ‘First Rate’ laid down in the 1880s was the 11,000 ton Brennus, with three 13.4-inch guns in two centre line turrets, two forward, on aft. Brennus also carried four of the much improved 18-inch torpedo tubes and had a speed of 18 knots. In general, all the 1880s ships were unstable, too much having been attempted on the displacement and the 13.4-inch gun was unsatisfactory, replaced in many ships by 10 or 12-inch later in service.

Less expensive than the ‘First Rate’ were ten ‘Second Rate’ coast defence ships, two of the 5,000 tons Tonnant class were armed with two 13.4-inch guns, the remaining eight of the Fuseé and Achéron classes with a single 10.8-inch weapon. Four armoured cruising ships were completed in the 1880s, all rigged for sail with armaments of four 9.4-inch and one or two 7.6.-inch guns; they were obsolete in both design and speed, 14.5 knots, before they were even completed. Of more use was the first Protected Cruiser, Sfax, of 4,000 tons armed with six 6.4-inch and ten 5.5-inch guns, torpedo tubes and a speed of 16.7 knots. Sfax represented the Jeune École plan for point d’appui based commerce raiders. Thirteen Unprotected Cruisers of tonnage between 2,360 and 3,700 tons armed with 5.5-inch guns, some also with four 6.4-inch weapons and one with only 3.9-inch all joined the fleet. As an experiment four ‘Torpedo Cruisers’ with 3.9-inch guns and five torpedo tubes and eight fast torpedo gunboats were also built, along with a small number of sloops and conventional gunboats.

The arguments of the Jeune École were to take shape in the form of the seventy small torpedo boats that entered service in the 1880s. the first twelve were all under 30 tons, some only 9 tons, all except for two could only carry one 14-inch torpedo mounting, most could manage 17 to 19 knots. The remaining fifty-eight were larger, capable of operating in open seas, with tonnage moving from the 43 tons of the earlier boats to the 53 tons of the last. These carried four torpedoes and most reached speeds of 20 knots or more.

Much still remained experimental. It was thought at first that the smaller boats could be carried into action aboard larger warships, but it soon became clear that this idea was unworkable. The larger warships would have to come to a halt to drop the boats, causing disorder and risks to themselves, seas might be too rough, few large ships had the space to carry torpedo boats particularly if the boats themselves carried spar torpedoes, and in any case spar torpedoes could be fixed on the bows of their own picket boats. Instead a merchant transport ship, Japon, was modified as a torpedo boat carrier, carrying six small boats. But to the middle 1890s it was still claimed that the continued onset of a mass of torpedo boats would prevail over battleship squadrons though critics developed the argument that the development of searchlights would illuminate the boats for easy destruction by battleships guns.


HMS Taciturn, one of the ‘Super T’ conversions, by Tom Connell.

Forays by British submarines into dangerous waters off northern Russia could only happen thanks to Hitler’s scientists and engineers.

In the closing weeks of the Second Word War a special commando unit, which boasted James Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming, as one of its operational planners, had raced for Nazi technological secrets. It wanted to secure them before they were destroyed or the Soviets got them. One of the key achievements of 30 Amphibious Assault Unit (30 AU) was capturing snorkel technology and also advanced submarines at Kiel on Germany’s Baltic coast. The British amassed nearly 100 surrendered German submarines at the Northern Irish port of Lishally, near Londonderry.

The Type XXI U-boat was a revolutionary kind of submarine, with high-speed batteries providing up to 17 knots submerged. This was extraordinary when the most Allied boats could manage submerged was 9 knots. Snorkel masts enabled Germany’s advanced diesel submarines to stay submerged – and safe from enemy attack – while venting generator fumes, recharging their batteries and sucking in fresh air.

Capable of impressive submerged endurance, via use of the snort mast (as the snorkel became known), the Type XXI had a sleek, supremely hydrodynamic hull form, with no external guns other than cannons mounted within the fin.

Combined with boosted battery power delivering high underwater speed a Type XXI did not have to surface to attack a convoy. It could fire 18 torpedoes (three salvoes) in around 20 minutes, which was as long as it took any other submarine to load a single torpedo.

The Type XXI could manage 50 hours submerged on batteries at full capacity (charged), an endurance that could be doubled by reducing energy consumption by 50 per cent. Other submarines could only achieve half an hour submerged on battery power, or 24 hours if they shut almost all equipment down. Using the snort to recharge the batteries, the prime objective for a Type XXI was an entire patrol submerged (and it took only three hours’ snorting to recharge batteries). It was also very stealthy at low speeds, using what were called creeping speed motors (on rubber mountings) to absorb noise. The Type XXI could safely dive up to 440ft (90ft deeper than the most modern Second World War-era British submarine), with a crush depth of more than 1,000ft.

Fortunately for the Allies only two ‘electroboots’ ever deployed on combat patrol during the Second World War. Crew training, technological defects common to any cutting-edge technology, and intensive bombing kept the majority of the 120 ‘electroboots’ non-operational. They were captured or destroyed. Even more remarkable were Type XVIIB boats, which used air-independent hydrogen peroxide propulsion, removing the necessity to even poke a snort mast above the surface.

Following a series of top-level meetings, it was decided the British, Americans and Russians should each have ten U-boats of all varieties, the remainder to be scuttled in Operation Deadlight.

The Soviets had limited contemporary experience on the open ocean in any kind of warship – during the Second World War the Red Navy fought mainly in littoral waters or operated along rivers and other inland waterways.

As a result the Russians requested that Royal Navy crews sail their allocated U-boats to Leningrad. The Soviets hid their lack of confidence on the high seas behind claims that they were being given defective submarines. The British had, though, delivered detailed seaworthiness assessments of the boats to their new owners.

The Americans, who took two XXIs, would base the design of their new Tang Class upon the Nazi boat type. They also reconstructed some of their newer Second World War-era submarines, under a programme entitled Greater Underwater Propulsive Power, or GUPPY, to incorporate German innovations.

Some Type XXIs were even pressed into service, the British operating two. While one was scrapped in 1949 after running on trials, the other was given to the French. They commissioned seven ex-German U-boats into their fleet, one of the Type XXIs seeing service into the late 1960s.

Even the Swedes, neutral during the conflict, recognised the necessity of acquiring revolutionary U-boats if their own navy was not to lose its status as a leading submarine operator. They raised U-3503 – scuttled inside their territorial waters – from the bottom of the Baltic and towed her to a naval base. Experts carried out a dry-dock inspection of her innovations before the submarine was scrapped. In the mid-1950s, when they needed to revive their submarine arm as part of NATO, the West Germans adopted a similar practice, locating U-boats sunk during the war and raising them.

Faced with a sudden need to match the West’s operational capability the Russians made the most of their inherited U-boats. Four of the ten they received from the British were Type XXIs, seeing service in the Soviet’s Navy’s Baltic Fleet for nine years. They also wasted no time in replicating the Type XXI in the Zulu and Whiskey classes of diesel boat. The British decided to implement what they had gleaned from the XXIs in a radical reconstruction programme for some of their T-Class submarines. Eight boats, including HMS Taciturn, were taken in hand between 1950 and 1956. Cut in two, they had a whole new section inserted containing two more electric motors and a fourth battery. It gave them a submerged top speed of between 15 and 18 knots but this could only be maintained for a short period. There were no external guns – these were removed as part of the rebuild – for they were given sleek streamlined outer casings. A large fin enclosed the bridge, periscopes and masts. Space was also made for specialist intelligence-gathering equipment.

Taciturn and her reconstructed sisters were known as the ‘Super-Ts’. Externally she bore little, if any, resemblance to the submarine that had emerged from the Vickers yard at Barrow-in-Furness in the north-west of England in 1944. Taciturn was blooded in action against the Japanese. She sank a number of small vessels and also joined forces with her sister submarine Thorough, both using their 4-inch deck guns to bombard shore targets. The first to receive the Super-T conversion, Taciturn was a perfect solution for cash-strapped Britain, almost bankrupted by the Second World War, yet needing to match the rising threat of Russian naval power. Construction of brand-new boats was not possible for some years. Submarines built to combat Hitler’s Germany and militaristic Japan were refashioned using the fruit of Nazi science to become the best Britain could send against the Soviets.

It was Vice Admiral Sir Geoffrey Oliver who proposed the Royal Navy’s much reduced submarine force should take the war to the enemy.

Staking out Soviet submarine bases in the Kola Peninsula and on the shores of the White Sea, they would eliminate the threat before it could break out into the vastness of the Atlantic. Oliver, who first went to sea as a midshipman in the battleship Dreadnought in 1916, also saw action in the Second World War as a cruiser captain. He had even commanded carrier strike forces, so was a well-rounded tactician, though never a submariner. His April 1949 paper – written when Oliver was Assistant Chief of the Naval Staff (ACNS) – gave impetus to the conversion of Taciturn and her seven sister boats into Super-Ts. If things turned hot they would sink Soviet boats in the Barents Sea, hunting down and killing them with torpedoes, or laying mines.

The precedent for using submarines to destroy other submarines had been set in the recent world war. British boats sank 36 enemy submarines, while the Americans claimed 23 Japanese. All but one of the targets was sunk while on the surface. The distinction of hunting and killing an enemy submarine while both were submerged fell to Lieutenant James Launders in HMS Venturer. His successful attack on U-864 off Norway, on 9 February 1945, remains the only one of its kind and was achieved after Venturer trailed the zig-zagging enemy boat for some hours. Having fixed the German’s position – and likely future track – via ASDIC, Launders fired a spread of four torpedoes, at 17-second intervals. U-864 managed to evade three, but steered into the path of the fourth and was blown apart.

By the mid-1950s Britain’s navy simply had to be more aggressive and push its submarines forward, to repeat Launders’s remarkable feat in order to make up for withered global sea control capability. It had not only ceded supremacy on the high seas to America, but was facing relegation into third place by the burgeoning maritime might of the Soviets. Even before the Second World War Stalin had been urging Red Navy chiefs to build a battle fleet that would break free of the traditional coast-hugging role. Within three months of the fighting in Europe ending, Stalin decreed the USSR should create a powerful ocean-going navy. Unfortunately, the vessels that started to come off the slipways, such as Sverdlov Class cruisers, were outmoded before they were launched. They replicated Nazi technology without taking it much further.

May 1955 saw the creation of the Warsaw Pact, which militarily melded the USSR with its satellite states in Eastern Europe to counter NATO.

Emboldened by Kremlin concessions to protests for more freedom in Poland, on 23 October 1956 200,000 Hungarians took to the streets, objecting to the presence of Russian troops in their country. Their revolution was brutally suppressed by the Red Army. Around 20,000 Hungarians paid with their lives for daring to try and cast off the Soviet yoke.

Even as Russian tanks crushed dreams of democracy on the streets of Budapest, the Soviets were threatening nuclear war against Britain and France in response to an invasion of Egypt.

The Americans did not back their Second World War allies’ bid to take back control of the Suez Canal by force, while the new Soviet overlord, Nikita Khrushchev – supporting the fervent Arab nationalist leader Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser – warned he would unleash ‘rocket weapons’ against London and Paris.

Despite a measure of military success, it was President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s fury at his allies going it alone that forced them, ultimately, to withdraw from Suez. The Cold War had turned nasty, but open warfare between the two armed camps had been avoided. Beyond confrontations on land, lethal shadow boxing between the naval forces of East and West was already a facet of the Cold War confrontation.

In April 1956 the mysterious disappearance, and probable murder, of a frogman trying to spy on Soviet warships within sight of Taciturn’s home base in Gosport heightened tension.

The Russians were returning the courtesy of a British naval diplomatic mission to Leningrad the previous year. As the aircraft carrier HMS Triumph and her escorts sailed up the river Neva, they passed building yards containing dozens of surface warships and submarines in various states of completion. Many in the British naval community had refused until then to believe the Soviets really were undertaking such an ambitious programme. Their hosts had not actually meant to leave so much on display. When the British naval squadron sailed back down the Neva, smokescreens were generated in front of the building yards. With Triumph’s height as an aircraft carrier, it was still possible for naval intelligence specialists to take photographs.

When the Russian Navy sent the cruiser Ordzhonikidze to Portsmouth she carried no less a person than Nikita Khrushchev. On the British side there was a great desire to learn as much as possible about the Russian warship – a temptation too hard to resist, especially as she was parked in the centre of the Hampshire harbour.

Lionel ‘Buster’ Crabb, a well-known veteran of daring underwater exploits in the Second World War, was ordered by M16 to see what he could find out about the Ordzhonikidze. Crabb had already covertly inspected the propulsion of a Sverdlov Class cruiser in 1953 -Sverdlov herself, when the vessel was anchored at Spithead for the Coronation Review of Queen Elizabeth II – discovering an innovative bow thruster. Three years later it was worth seeing what else might be below the water-line. Crabb stayed at the Sally Port Hotel in Portsmouth with his MI6 handler, who signed the register as ‘Mr Smith’. After the former naval officer departed to carry out his dive, ‘Mr Smith’ cleansed the room of Crabb’s civilian clothes and other belongings. Newspapers were soon carrying stories about Crabb disappearing on an espionage mission. The Navy maintained he was testing new diving equipment in Stokes Bay, just down the coast, rather than diving in Portsmouth Harbour. Soviet sources said sailors aboard the cruiser had spotted a frogman. An official complaint was lodged with the Foreign Office. Nobody publicly admitted to anything. The head of MI6 was forced to resign by the Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, for launching an ill-advised mission without specific authorisation by the government. The Navy had allegedly assisted MI6, providing a boat and a naval officer to support Crabb’s dive.

It was claimed the local Special Branch squad sent someone to rip out relevant pages in the hotel register.

The furious British government cancelled various military intelligence-gathering operations, including deploying submarines into the Barents Sea. This caused massive loss of face for the Royal Navy but in the absence of British boats taking part, the Americans received a confidential briefing on surveillance skills from Cdr John Coote. He had captained the Super-T boat HMS Totem on at least one recent spying mission in the Arctic. At one stage Totem had to surface so one of her officers, Peter Lucy, could carry out temporary repairs to a defective S-band search-receiver. Mounted in the periscope it picked up potential threats by detecting radars of searching aircraft and surface vessels. Normally such a procedure required a workshop, but Totem was hundreds of miles from home. Lucy would be working solo in the housing at the top of the fin and if the Russians loomed over the horizon Coote would dive the boat under him. Lucy would have to swim for his life and, if captured, probably suffer a grisly fate at the hands of Soviet interrogators. Several months later, Cdr Coote told senior British naval officers and the US Navy that intelligence gathered on the Soviet Navy in the Barents had revealed a weakness in its AS W capabilities. To gain such an edge risks were justified.

Not long after Coote showed the Americans how valuable Royal Navy missions in the Barents were, the British PM was warned that without them the US-UK defence relationship was at risk. It was felt the Americans would press ahead with the submarine surveillance programme anyway, denying the British access to data collected. Eden was still worried about the possibility of such forays sparking a hot war, so he remained true to one of his favourite sayings: ‘Peace comes first, always.’

Eden’s subsequent Suez misadventure led only to national humiliation and his resignation, in January 1957. Harold Macmillan, a firm supporter of the Anglo-American ‘Special Relationship’, succeeded him. The new PM authorised resumption of British participation in submarine deployments to the Barents. He was only too well aware that Soviet military doctrine was following a new direction that would require intelligence gathering in Northern seas. For while Khrushchev agreed with the need for a powerful global navy he saw there was no point in trying to match Western strength, but rather to outflank it. A battle-cruiser programme was cut, the number of Sverdlovs under construction revised downwards. Khrushchev announced a ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’, which sought to steer the Russian armed forces away from huge, lumbering conventional formations, to smaller high-tech units. They would deploy missiles with nuclear warheads.

Many of these new weapons would, from the 1950s onwards, be tested at firing ranges and detonation test sites located on the island of Novaya Zemlya. The Barents, Arctic and Kara seas washed its shores, but it was from the western side that it was most approachable by submarines.

To Khrushchev nuclear weapons were a means to achieving superpower punch while enabling a reduction in military spending, diverting resources instead to the civilian economy. Submarines armed with missiles would be a key component of the USSR’s defence revolution. To enact this element Khrushchev turned to a man he had served alongside during the 1941–45 war, Sergei Gorshkov, making his old comrade in arms Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Navy in 1957. The ascent of Gorshkov would reinvigorate the Soviet Union’s naval forces and make them more aggressive, both in home waters and overseas.

On 9 June 1957, what remained of a corpse in a diving suit – minus head and hands – was found in the sea off Chichester. It was difficult to identify, although a scar on a knee was supposedly a match for Crabb. While an inquest recorded an open verdict the coroner decided that, on balance of probability, it was him. One popular theory was that Crabb had been spotted by the Russian cruiser’s own frogmen on security duty. He had either been captured alive and taken aboard ship or killed in the water. More recently it has been suggested Crabb was sucked into the Ordzhonikidze’s screws. When at anchor in a foreign port, the cruiser turned them vigorously from time to time as a standard counter-measure against snooping frogmen.

With Crabb apparently suffering a grisly fate at the hands of the Soviet Navy – during a spying mission just a few hundred yards from Taciturn’s home berth at HMS Dolphin – did any submariner need to be reminded the Cold War could be fatal?

Byzantine Fire on the Water

The low state of medieval maritime technology ensured that battle tactics were just as basic. They had hardly progressed since Roman times. Confrontations at sea remained messy affairs that almost invariably devolved into unpredictable ship-against-ship mêlées. This helps explain why large-scale naval engagements were rare during the Middle Ages. Few naval commanders were willing to risk all in a single battle subject to so many uncontrollable variables. As on land, clashes at sea normally occurred only when one side or both could not avoid it.

The fact that there was no reliable ship-killing weapon compounded the uncertainty surrounding the outcome. The waterline ram or rostrum of the classical era was ineffective against the sturdier, frame-first hull construction which began to develop in the Mediterranean as early as the seventh century and found full implementation by the eleventh century. It proved utterly futile against the more robust ship architecture of the northern seas, even in Roman times. In his Commentarii de Bello Gallico (‘Commentaries on the Gallic War’), Julius Caesar said of the dense oak vessels of the Gauls, ‘Our ships could not damage them with the ram (they were so stoutly built).’ As a result, no warship in either the north or the south was known to have sported a ram by the seventh century. It was replaced on the Byzantine dromōn by a spur, a sort of reinforced bowsprit used to assist in seizing and boarding an enemy ship. The only weapon developed in the medieval period capable of destroying an entire vessel was ‘Greek fire’, a secret petroleum-based incendiary invented by a Syrian artificer named Kallinikos in the seventh century. Documentary and graphic sources indicate that it was spewed from specially constructed siphon tubes mounted on the bows of dromōns. Unfortunately its utility was extremely restricted. It had limited range and could only be deployed in calm or following winds.

Siphons for spewing ‘Greek fire’ were eventually mounted on protected platforms at the bow and possibly amidships. The parapeted forecastle (xylokastron) housed the main siphon, called the ‘raven’ (katakorax), while the castle amidships was the kastelloma. The aftercastle contained the kravatos, a structure to shield the kentarchos or captain.

The First Siege of Constantinople and the Advent of ‘Greek Fire’ (672–7)

Once Muawiyah had moved his capital to Damascus and consolidated his grip on power, he began preparations for an enormous expedition against Constantinople itself. In 672 he was ready. The caliph unleashed at least two separate fleets on the south coast of Asia Minor. Their activities must have kept the Karabisian fleet fully occupied. Both Crete and Rhodes were raided. One Arab fleet wintered in Cilicia (the southeastern coast of Anatolia) and the other in Lycia (on the south-central coast). Word of these incursions galvanized Constans’ son and successor, Constantine IV, into action. According to Theophanes, the emperor ‘built large biremes bearing cauldrons of fire and dromones equipped with siphons and ordered them to be stationed at the Proclianesian harbour of Caesarius [Constantinople’s Theodosian harbour]’. In 673 Muawiyah’s fleets surged into the Sea of Marmara and ravaged the Hebdomon district just southwest of Constantinople, then captured Kyzikos on the south shore of the sea. Here they established a base camp for incessant attacks on the city.

Constantinople would endure this maritime assault for the next several years, but the emperor was in possession of a terrible new weapon which would finally – and precipitously – end it. Residing in the city at that time was a Christian refugee from Heliopolis in Syria (modern Baalbek in Lebanon) named Kallinikos. Theophanes described him as an ‘architect’ or ‘artificer’ who had ‘manufactured a naval fire [or sea fire]’ which floated on the surface of the sea and could not be extinguished by water. Its precise ingredients were kept a closely guarded state secret and remain a mystery to this day. This has led to endless speculation through the ages and repeated attempts at replication. A similar Muslim concoction of the twelfth century was said to have included ‘dolphin’s fat’ and ‘grease of goat kidneys’. Early scholarly conjecture centred on saltpetre as the main component (as in gunpowder) or some form of quicklime, but recent empirical investigations, particularly by renowned Byzantinist John Haldon, have revealed that its primary ingredient was probably petroleum-based – most likely naphtha or light crude oil. The Byzantines had access to the oil fields of the Caucasus region northeast of the Black Sea where crude seeped to the surface. The theory is that Kallinikos may have distilled this into a paraffin or kerosene, then added wood resins as a thickening agent. The mixture was then heated in an air-tight bronze tank over a brazier and pressured by use of a force pump. The final step was the release of the flammable fluid through a valve for its discharge from a metal-sheathed nozzle, affixed with a flame ignition source. In a 2002 clinical test of this theory, Haldon and his colleagues, Colin Hewes and Andrew Lacey, were able to produce a fire stream in the neighbourhood of 1,000 degrees Celsius that extended at least 15m (49ft).

It was very probably a compound similar to this that Constantine caused to be loaded onto his dromōns in the autumn of 677. The fearsome new weapon was unleashed from swivel-mounted siphons in the forecastles with horrific results. Theophanes testified almost matter-of-factly that it ‘kindled the ships of the Arabs and burnt them and their crews’. To the Arab victims of his frightful invention, it must have seemed like some early version of ‘shock and awe’. The fact that they would have had no idea of how to combat the weapon must have compounded their panic. Water would have been ineffective. At that point they could not have known that the only way to extinguish the ‘liquid fire’ was with sand, vinegar or urine. The siege soon collapsed. What was left of the Arab armada withdrew, only to be severely mauled by a violent winter storm while passing abeam Syllaem in Pamphylia (on the south coast of Asia Minor between Lycia and Cilicia). Theophanes said, ‘It was dashed to pieces and perished entirely.’

The Second Siege of Constantinople and the Fall of the Umayyad Dynasty (717–50)

The continuing turmoil in Constantinople could not have gone unnoticed in Damascus. Earlier that same year Sulayman ibn Abd al-Malik assumed the caliphate and inaugurated his rule by propelling his brother, Maslamah ibn Abd al-Malik, into Asia Minor at the head of 80,000 troops, while a huge armada of reportedly 1,800 vessels made its way around the south coast. Constantinople was about to experience its most dire confrontation with Islam until its final fall over seven centuries later.

The details of the ensuing epic engagement are discussed in a separate section at the end of the chapter as an example of sea combat in the period, but it suffices to say here that it unfolded in a manner similar to the siege of 672–8, with much the same result. As the Arab forces approached Constantinople in the spring of 717, Leo the Isaurian, the strategos of the Anatolikon Theme, engineered a coup to replace the ill-suited Theodosios III on the throne. Under his inspired leadership as Leo III, the Byzantines then used dromōns spewing ‘Greek fire’ to break up an Umayyad attempt to blockade the Bosporus. The besieging Arab army fared even worse. A particularly harsh winter ravaged it with deprivation and disease. And the following spring offered little relief. Nearly 800 supply ships arrived from Egypt and Ifriqiyah, but their Coptic Christian crews switched sides en masse. Without the precious provisions which these ships carried, Maslama’s troops fell easy prey to the Bulgars of Khan Tervel, with whom Leo had formed a propitious alliance. The Bulgars butchered some 22,000 of the Arabs. Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz, the new caliph, had little choice but to recall his forces. It was a battered Umayyad army that retreated across Asia Minor in the autumn of 718 and only five vessels of the once massive Muslim armada managed to run the gauntlet of autumn storms in the Hellespont and Aegean to reach their home port.

It was a disastrous Muslim defeat, which should have put Islam on the defensive for decades to come, but inexplicably Leo chose this time to delve into the religious controversy that was to be the bane of Byzantium. In 726 he inaugurated Iconoclasm (literally, ‘the smashing of icons’) by ordering the removal of the icon of Christ over the Chalke entrance to the imperial palace in Constantinople. In 730 he followed up this action with an imperial decree against all icons. This polemical policy was to rend the fabric of the empire for the next fifty-seven years. It proved particularly unpopular in Italy and the Aegean areas. In early 727 the fleets of the Hellas and Karabisian Themes revolted and proclaimed a certain Kosmas as emperor. Leo managed to devastate and disperse these fleets with his own, again using ‘Greek fire’, the secret of which was apparently restricted to Constantinople at the time.

The episode, nonetheless, prompted the emperor to dissolve the troublesome Karabisian Theme and restructure the provincial fleets in order to dilute their threat to the throne. Leo placed the south coast of Asia Minor, formerly a responsibility of the disbanded Karabisian Theme, under the authority of the more tractable droungarios of the Kibyrrhaeot fleet, whose headquarters was transferred to Attaleia (present-day Antalya). Land-based themes, like the Hellas and Peloponnesos, were also allowed to maintain fleets of their own. These modifications to fleet organization were probably intended to help defuse naval power and make it more subservient to the emperor.

Despite their humiliating failure before the walls of Constantinople, the Umayyads took advantage of continued Byzantine upheaval both in the palace and in the Church to nibble away at the edges of the empire. A long period of raid and counter-raid ensued between Damascus and Constantinople, mostly involving either Egypt or Cyprus. But ultimately the Byzantines’ advantage in naval organization, possession of ‘Greek fire’ and virtual monopoly of such critical shipbuilding materials as wood and iron ensured they would prevail, at least in the eastern Mediterranean. The climax of the contest came in 747, when the Kibyrrhaeot fleet surprised an enormous armada from Alexandria in a harbour on Cyprus called Keramaia (exact location unknown). ‘Out of 1,000 dromōns it is said only three escaped,’ professed Theophanes. This was undoubtedly a chauvinistic exaggeration, but Umayyad naval power was evidently broken by the outcome of the battle and never again posed a serious threat to the Byzantine Empire. The Umayyad Dynasty came to an end just three years later when the Abbasids led by Abu al-Abbas as-Saffah crushed Caliph Marwan II at the Battle of Zab (Mesopotamia) in late January 750. The subsequent Abbasid Caliphate moved its capital from Damascus to Baghdad and focused its initial attention on the East.


Type 001A aircraft carrier

Having reviewed more intangible aspects of Chinese maritime strategy such as geopolitics, historical precedent, and strategic thought, we now turn to more prosaic matters. How will China put its strategy into practice using the implements it has assembled through fleet building? China’s navy is maturing and developing the arsenal to carry out a forceful maritime strategy. In the interim, however, “sea denial” is still the best concept for managing the nation’s nautical surroundings. Such an approach will suffice until Beijing has rounded out a fleet on par with the finest rival fleets likely to appear in Asian seaways.

Sea denial aligns with long-standing Chinese traditions. A successful sea-denial navy is at once humble and enterprising: it frankly admits its inferiority to prospective antagonists while refusing to admit defeat. It neither flees vital waterways nor resigns itself to passive defense. That the weaker contender can win—or accomplish its goals by keeping its foe from winning—sometimes escapes China watchers. In the late 1990s, for instance, two prominent Sinologists declared that China’s innate feebleness at sea forced it to shelter passively within the first island chain, where it would wage a strategy of “protracted defensive resistance.” U.S. naval supremacy, they maintained, was too stifling to permit anything more ambitious.

We dissent. A sea-denial force works around its weaknesses while exploiting the advantages it does enjoy. It need not vanquish hostile forces outright. Its function is to clear foes from designated waters for a finite interval or, better yet, to deter them from entering in the first place. A sea-denial strategy succeeds if it wards off stronger foes long enough for the nation to fulfill its larger strategic objectives. Sea denial thus constitutes a strategically defensive strategy that inferior powers prosecute through offensive tactical and operational methods. Even if the PLA Navy remains weaker than its likely opponents, it will stay on the operational and tactical offensive. The U.S. Navy and its allies must anticipate that.

The hybrid offensive/defensive style of combat conforms philosophically to Alfred Thayer Mahan’s dictum that even lesser navies can impose local command on important waters—as indeed Mahan beseeched the U.S. Navy to do in the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico, even though it remained weaker on the whole than Great Britain’s Royal Navy. At the same time it conforms to Mao Zedong’s concept of “active defense,” which yokes offensive tactical means to defensive strategic ends. Today as in the age of Mao, the PLA portrays active defense as the core of Chinese military strategy. China’s first formal military strategy white paper, released in 2015, declares:

The strategic concept of active defense is the essence of the [CCP’s] military strategic thought. From the long-term practice of revolutionary wars, the people’s armed forces have developed a complete set of strategic concepts of active defense, which boils down to: adherence to the unity of strategic defense and operational and tactical offense.… Shortly after the founding of the PRC in 1949, the Central Military Commission established the military strategic guideline of active defense, and later, in line with the developments and changes in the national security situation, had made a number of major revisions of it.

Intriguingly, China’s Maoist approach likewise conforms to precepts set forth in Sir Julian Corbett’s writings about maritime strategy—writings Chinese strategists have investigated in recent years. “True defense,” proclaims Corbett—a contemporary of both Mao and Alfred Thayer Mahan—means balking a stronger opponent’s strategy while awaiting the chance to administer a counterpunch. The British theorist even hit on the same term—“active defense”—to show how a weaker navy can dispute a stronger navy’s maritime command until it makes itself stronger and wrests away command for itself. Active defense, clearly, is a concept with heft and longevity in China’s way of sea warfare.

And China has structured forces around that method of defense. The Chinese military possesses, is procuring, or plans to acquire systems designed to make the seas and skies adjoining the Asian mainland no-go territory for any opponent. Beijing has purchased arms from Russia lavishly since the early 1990s. At the same time it has bolstered its domestic defense industry, allowing the PLA to field a variety of indigenous weaponry. Infusing new platforms and systems into the force alongside a more professional, more battleworthy corps of mariners has produced a leap in offensive PLA combat power.

Over the past two decades, modern diesel submarines—difficult to detect, track, and target in shallow offshore waters—have slid down the ways at Chinese shipyards or been purchased in significant numbers from Russian suppliers. One aircraft carrier is in service, another is nearing operational status, and future carriers are reportedly under design or construction. Destroyers equipped with sophisticated radar suites (touted as equivalent to the U.S. Navy’s state-of-the-art Aegis combat system), antiship missiles, and air-defense missiles increasingly form the backbone of the Chinese surface fleet. PLA Navy surface groups’ chances of withstanding long-range missile or air bombardment are brightening commensurately. This is doubly true so long as the fleet operates within range of shore-based fire support that augments the fleet’s firepower with missiles and aircraft dispatched from Fortress China itself. Shore fire support constitutes the PLAN’s great equalizer.

Accordingly, surface forces typically cruise underneath that protective umbrella. And the range and accuracy of shore-based assets are growing. This allows the PLAN to extend its combat radius while still tapping that great equalizer. Indeed, China may stand at the brink of rendering a strategic concept condemned by Mahan—the “fortress-fleet” tethered to shore fire support—viable for the first time. Mahan was writing in the context of the Russian Navy’s dismal performance during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5. He upbraided the Russian naval command for resorting to this “radically erroneous” way of combat, which fettered Russian commanders’ freedom of maneuver—ships had to remain within reach of the fort’s guns—while sapping their fighting spirit.

Mahan’s was a telling critique for an age of rudimentary naval technology, when the effective firing range for artillery was a few miles. It has lost cogency now that precision fire can reach scores if not hundreds of miles offshore. One imagines the Russian Navy would have fared far better against the IJN had shore gunfire boasted modern China’s range and precision to pummel Japanese fleets throughout the Yellow Sea and Tsushima Strait—the battlegrounds for climactic sea engagements in 1904–5. Russian gunnery could have cut the Japanese down to size from afar while affording Russian warships maneuver space aplenty.

In short, the day of the fortress fleet may have come. If so, footloose PLAN units will be able to roam waters Beijing deems important without leaving the protective cover of shore defenses. Defense will increasingly blur into offense under this aegis, even eastward of the first island chain. Advanced ground-based air-defense systems, capable naval fighter/attack aircraft, long-range cruise missiles, and even ASBMs reputedly able to find and attack vessels on the high seas are pivotal to China’s military modernization effort. If the Chinese package these assets wisely while developing the tactical proficiency to use them, they will gain confidence in their ability to deter, delay, or defeat any foreign force bold enough to attempt hostile entry into nearby seas or airspace.

China’s continent-spanning geography is invaluable to the PLAN’s sea-denial strategy because it furnishes plentiful sites for coastal bases and mobile missile batteries. Indeed, emerging military capabilities are explicitly designed to assail targets in offshore expanses from bases on the mainland. Furthermore, as weapons range improves, shore defenses can be positioned farther inland. Technology will make China’s deep continental interior a safe haven from which to punish intruding forces along the coastline.

This sanctuary will serve the purely military purpose of buffering PLA assets against attack. A PLA that turns strategic depth to advantage can compel enemy forces to enter the combat range of its weaponry, accepting battle on China’s political, geographic, and military terms. Such a strategy would have found favor with Mao Zedong, who famously urged his followers to lure enemies deep into Chinese territory. The Red Army would enfeeble its antagonists in the process, setting conditions for a devastating counterblow, and the weaker Chinese Communist legions would score a conventional battlefield victory in the end.

Just as important, defending from deep inland dares an opponent to escalate the fighting. Suppose U.S. forces struck at Chinese antiship missile sites located well inland. They would risk inflicting collateral damage under such circumstances, especially if targets adjoined populated areas. Duly broadcast by Chinese media outlets, images of civilian death or suffering could swing political sentiment behind Beijing—not just in China but among influential audiences elsewhere in Asia and in the international community. A backlash against a hardhearted or feckless America could result, no matter how just the cause that prompted the United States to take up arms.

Moreover, the United States would risk escalating a limited naval conflict to full-blown war against China, its leading trading partner and a fellow permanent member of the UN Security Council. China is a nuclear-armed power that brandishes mobile, increasingly effective, land-based and undersea strategic deterrent forces. The survivable retaliatory arsenal operated by the PLA Rocket Force would remain in reserve should conventional deterrence fail. No U.S. president would lightly make the decision to employ force under the nuclear shadow.

The historical record supports that contention. Americans showed restraint vis-à-vis the Chinese in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, declining to escalate “vertically” up the scale of violence. History also suggests that policy makers exercise caution before undertaking military actions likely to prompt “horizontal” escalation to new places on the map. In particular, the prospect of expanding the geographic scope of military operations deep into China’s interior would be daunting if not unthinkable to an American president. The repercussions from such a fight could well outweigh the presumably modest strategic goals at stake for Washington.

The odds of U.S. leaders climbing down from a dispute would improve under those circumstances, boosting the likelihood that China would prevail without an actual exchange of fire. Small wonder that Chinese fleet tactics fuse offense with defense; they come naturally to PLA Navy commanders while promising handsome dividends.

Massed, Dispersed, or Sequential Tactics?

The PLA’s increasing ability to integrate surface, subsurface, and aerial warfare into a defensive thicket against seaborne threats to China is remaking the strategic environment in maritime Asia, and the U.S. armed forces must keep pace. They must adapt their own methods and weaponry if they hope to preserve the maritime supremacy that has served U.S. interests—not to mention the interests of the region as a whole—so well since 1945.

Captain Wayne Hughes has supplied U.S. Navy mariners with a primer for sea combat in Asia. Hughes’ classic Fleet Tactics (1986) and its successors, Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat (2000) and Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations (2018), constitute a baseline for analyzing the challenges Chinese antiship tactics pose. However useful his treatises, though, they cannot stand alone. We mean no slight. Fleet Tactics aspires to school tacticians in a variety of settings and against a variety of potential antagonists. Indeed, Hughes describes his purpose as “to illustrate the processes—the dynamics—of naval combat” rather than to prophesy how particular contingencies might turn out. Thus, Fleet Tactics is largely silent on operational and strategic matters, and it is entirely devoid of political, cultural, and strategic context. As is the case with any good theory, its users can tailor it to varying circumstances.

This flexibility is a strength, but it could become a weakness if readers misuse Fleet Tactics. There is a decidedly technical feel to such accounts on naval tactics, which are de rigueur in U.S. Navy training institutions where warfighters learn their craft. The downside of the abstract approach to naval warfare is that, taken in isolation, Hughes’ works strongly imply that technology decides the outcomes of martial encounters. On the high seas, enemy fleets slug it out with volleys of precision-guided arms. When fighting close to enemy shores, defenders may fire antiship missiles at U.S. task forces, land-based aircraft may disgorge missiles from aloft, or diesel submarines may lurk below preparing to launch torpedoes or missiles. In both modes of fighting, the combatants hammer away with everything in their magazines, and the side that lands the first blow is the likely victor.

For Hughes, the arbiters of high-tech naval combat are (a) “scouting effectiveness,” meaning the proficient use of shipboard and offboard sensors, combat systems, and computer data links to find enemy units; (b) “weapon range,” the ability to inflict damage at a distance; and (c) tactics, which are determined by scouting effectiveness and the range of a fleet’s weaponry. Hughes’ text conveys the dynamics of sea combat, but its scope is limited. Seeker effectiveness or detect-to-engage algorithms will do much to shape the results of any U.S.-China clash at sea, as will missile ranges. But people, not machines, compete for naval mastery. Not for nothing did U.S. Air Force colonel John Boyd, one of the leading strategic minds of the Cold War, proclaim that people, ideas, and hardware—“in that order”—represent the prime determinants of competitive endeavors, warfare in particular. More to the point, Mao lambasted “the so-called theory that ‘weapons decide everything,’ which constitutes a mechanical approach to the question of war.… [I]t is people, not things, that are decisive.”

Outdistancing an opponent’s sensors and weaponry is far from the only challenge any U.S. naval offensive will face. Fleet Tactics shares this deficit of vision with standard net assessments that tally up numbers of platforms and their technical characteristics, often scanting the human element of war and politics. A larger view is in order. Consider one data point from Asian maritime history: Imperial Japan, which has emerged as a model for PLAN development. Ni Lexiong, a leading Chinese proponent of sea power, faults China’s Qing Dynasty for being insufficiently Mahanian in its 1894–95 tilt against Japan. China, Ni says, should bear in mind that Mahan “believed that whoever could control the sea would win the war and change history; that command of the sea is achieved through decisive naval battles on the seas; that the outcome of decisive naval battles is determined by the strength of fire power on each side of the engagement.”

That distinguished analysts such as Ni now pay tribute to Japanese sea power despite the bitter history of Sino-Japanese relations during the twentieth century marks a striking turnabout in Chinese strategic thought. Beijing’s willingness to consider the Japanese paradigm bespeaks increasing openness to non-Chinese, noncommunist sources of wisdom on military and naval affairs. Yet looking beyond Chinese traditions is eminently Chinese. Sun Tzu’s Art of War, probably written in the fourth century B.C., remains a fixture in Chinese strategic discourses. The Chinese sage counsels generals, “Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril. When you are ignorant of the enemy but know yourself, your chances of winning or losing are equal. If ignorant both of your enemy and of yourself, you are certain in every battle to be in peril.” This may be a truism, but it is one worth repeating, and it is important because it urges strategists to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of each belligerent and reject analyses blinkered by culture or ideology.

American commanders should heed Sun Tzu’s wisdom as well. They need to understand U.S. forces’ material and human strengths; acknowledge their own shortcomings; and come to terms with the ends, ways, and means likely to guide China’s efforts in crisis or war. Only thus can they fashion strategy for overcoming Chinese forces. The Mahanian geopolitical logic that helps govern Chinese maritime strategy could also help goad Beijing into a trial of arms involving the United States. Our purpose here is to explain what such a prospect means in operational and tactical terms. A few propositions:

•  If Mahan supplies the grand logic of maritime war, Mao Zedong’s operational-level writings on land warfare will inform Chinese tactics and operational practices in any clash off Taiwan, in the South China Sea, in the East China Sea, or at hotspots elsewhere along the Asian periphery. This is China’s martial grammar.

•  The South China Sea represents the most likely maritime theater for Beijing to conduct combined-arms attacks designed to saturate and overpower U.S. task groups’ defenses in support of China’s geopolitical and strategic aims.

•  PLA forces will integrate weapons systems, new and old, into joint “orthodox” and “unorthodox” attacks, executing offensive actions to attain strategically defensive goals. They will not depend on any single method or system, or solely on aerial, surface, or subsurface warfare. Multiple axes of attack, multiple weapon types, and preparedness to shift nimbly between the main and secondary efforts will represent hallmarks of China’s way of naval war.

Among the three tactical scenarios Wayne Hughes posits (described below), PLA Navy planners and commanders will probably incline toward dispersed attack, sequential attack, and massed attack, in that order. Unless Beijing grows so confident in its quantitative and qualitative superiority that it can simply hammer away, saturating American defenses at a single blow, it will stay with tried-and-true Chinese methods.

As Sun Tzu’s theories suggest, more acute understanding of oneself and the adversary could provide the margin of victory in an armed conflict against China. Now fast-forward from China’s Warring States period, when Sun Tzu purportedly lived, to nineteenth-century Europe. Recall that Carl von Clausewitz depicts war as “only a branch of political activity … that is in no sense autonomous” (emphasis in original). “Is war not just another expression of [peoples’ and governments’] thoughts, another form of speech or writing?” he queries before answering his own question. “Its grammar, indeed, may be its own, but not its logic.”

By this he means three things. First, war is the act of pursuing policy aims with the admixture of military means. The addition of violent means fires passions among the combatants—usually negative ones such as fear, rage, and spite—while bringing chance and uncertainty to the fore. Second, nonmilitary instruments such as diplomacy and economic coercion still have a part to play after the shooting starts. And third, warlike preparations and war itself are expressions of political and strategic thought. A violent clash of human wills is not easily reducible to rules, formulas, or statistics. Those schooled on Clausewitz cannot fully appreciate Chinese hardware and tactics without grasping the larger strategic, political, and cultural considerations that impart the logic—the purpose—to war.

Despite our dour tone, we are not prophesying naval war in Asia. There is ample room for debate about China’s intentions and its vision of its maritime destiny. Chinese naval power might evolve in a benign direction, although that prospect appears dimmer than it did when the first edition of this book appeared. We believe U.S. political leaders and commanders should do their best to shape conditions in favor of a maritime entente with China, but hoping for an agreeable outcome is not a strategy.

Washington, that is, can no longer afford a strategy of neglect simply because it reckons that the probability of a clash with China is low and wants to keep it that way. Nor, can the United States assume that its traditional strengths in naval warfare, including air power and undersea forces, will be sufficient to fend off China’s striking power at sea. By investigating the logic and grammar impelling Chinese sea power, U.S. strategists can estimate how the PLA Navy would mount an integrated, offense-minded defense against U.S. Navy carrier, amphibious, and surface action groups in Asian waters. Foresight will help them prepare for this eventuality.


Chinese Type 039A (Yuan-class) SS

Tactical Scenarios: Near Shore and on the High Seas

Hughes considers two very broad categories of wartime contingencies: (1) U.S. forces might close in on the coast of an adversary that boasts considerable land-based defenses but lacks a fleet able to stand against the U.S. Navy in open waters; (2) a prospective opponent might possess a fleet able to meet the U.S. Navy in highseas combat, operating more or less independently of land support. The permutations between the two paradigms are endless, as Barry Posen suggests in his definition of “contested zones.”

As Posen observes, a skillful though weaker adversary enjoys certain advantages when operating on its home ground, including nearby shore-based assets and manpower, short lines of communication, and intimate acquaintance with the tactical environment. A savvy power can parley these advantages into distinct strategic and operational advantages over the United States, imposing costs Washington might find politically unacceptable. If the costs of fighting China prove steeper than the stakes merit, rational U.S. leaders may refuse to pay them. Even a lesser foe, then, could induce U.S. decision makers to hesitate or perhaps even to withdraw U.S. forces following a traumatic event—say, the crippling or sinking of a major surface combatant or aircraft carrier. This dynamic—and it is worth spotlighting its pronounced psychological, nontechnical component—will characterize any military encounter off Chinese coasts for the foreseeable future.

The prospects for variety in the operating environment—especially in littoral combat—should give wise fleet tacticians pause. Strategist Bernard Brodie points to a perverse facet of naval warfare: “There are too few naval wars and far too few major naval battles to enable us ever to prove the correctness of a tactical theory” (his emphasis). Even an epic battle—a Trafalgar or Tsushima—represents just a single data point for evaluating a theory. The U.S. Navy fought its last major engagement at Leyte Gulf in 1944; China’s PLA Navy has never fought one. Fleet actions take place too seldom to allow for rigorous trend analysis or confident findings. It is a fallacy to extrapolate from one bit of information that may not even be accurate.

As Brodie notes, even a marginally different configuration of forces or tactics on the part of one combatant or the other could have produced a different outcome to a particular engagement. Analysts would then render a different—and possibly faulty, yet equally confident—verdict on the efficacy of the tactics deployed. Brodie might add that the times and technology change between the major battles that constitute the data points for analysis. It is hard to draw trend lines between disparate combatants, historical epochs, and geographic settings, and those who do should take care to leave generous margins for error.

With all of that in mind, Wayne Hughes posits three representative scenarios for naval engagements on the high seas: attack by massed forces on massed forces, dispersed attacks that arrive on top of targeted forces nearly simultaneously, and sequential attack. The latter refers essentially to attacks dispersed in time rather than space.

Two caveats are in order. First, we are not predicting specific Chinese tactics; we use these three possibilities only as crude indicators of how Chinese forces might respond to a U.S. naval offensive.

The attacking force—“Force B” in Hughes’ nomenclature—could represent a mix of Chinese shore- and sea-based missile shooters supplemented by platforms such as minelayers or torpedo-firing submarines. The important question is whether Chinese strategic and operational preferences incline Chinese commanders toward massed, dispersed, or sequential attack. A related question: would Chinese commanders prefer to keep the PLA Navy closer to home, in keeping with the fortress-fleet approach, or would they feel comfortable dispatching the fleet for independent operations beyond shore-based cover?

Tactics for Striking at an Approaching Naval Force

Second, in the formulae Hughes develops to gauge the probabilities of U.S. defenses’ being overwhelmed or penetrated by “leakers” (platforms or munitions that get past the battle group’s layered defense), he avoids using the characteristics—ranges, warhead sizes, and so forth—of specific weapons systems. We follow suit for the most part. Capabilities change, while tactical principles apply across many contingencies. It falls to those closer to tactical and technical questions than we are to put the analysis and findings presented here into actual practice.

In short, China’s contested zone in littoral sea areas will comprise some composite of land and sea defenses. As the Chinese military extends its reach seaward—especially if a post-Taiwan era ever comes to pass—the high-seas component will naturally come to predominate. In Clausewitzian terms, as the PLA extends the range of land-based weaponry and continues building its oceangoing fleet, China will thrust the “culminating point of the attack” for its foes outward from its coasts. Clausewitz observes that when one state invades another, the combat power of the invading army starts to dwindle while the defending army grows stronger and stronger as the lines of communication with its bases shorten and it takes advantage of familiar surroundings.

The culminating point represents the crossover point at which the defender’s strength starts to surpass that of the attacker. A fleet that stands into an enemy’s maritime contested zone faces the same dynamic. U.S. Pacific Fleet relief forces will exhaust themselves if they push too far in the face of Chinese resistance. This phenomenon will bolster China’s prospects for denying the U.S. military access to important waters and for exercising sea control in those waters. Extending the reach of the PLA’s anti-access armory farther out to sea means the PLA can strike at the Pacific Fleet farther away and hasten the onset of the American culminating point. In all likelihood the PLA will strike in dispersed fashion, concentrating combat power from many axes atop its U.S. Navy targets at the same time.

Applying Maoist Active-Defense Grammar to Offshore Operations

Wars are not—and should not be—fought for their own sake. Politics and grand strategy impart the logic or purpose to warfare, assigning statesmen, soldiers, and mariners the ends toward which they strive. War’s grammar, on the other hand, is the ways and means whereby warring combatants try to reach those ends. Alfred Thayer Mahan proffered both a Clausewitzian logic of sea power premised on commercial, political, and military access to important regions and a grammar of naval strategy, operations, and tactics.

Mahan’s sea-power logic remains persuasive in China, it seems. Beijing has resolved to gain or preserve commercial, political, and military access to theaters it deems important to China’s national interests. Mahan’s writings on operational and tactical matters, on the other hand, have a musty if not archaic feel about them. He affirmed that the “offensive element in warfare” was “the superstructure, the end and the aim for which the defensive exists, and apart from which it is to all purposes of war worse than useless. When war has been accepted as necessary, success means nothing short of victory; and victory must be sought by offensive measures, and by them only can be insured.”

This vision of offensive battle comports with Chinese strategic proclivities, as does Mahan’s advocacy of forward bases and a robust merchant marine. But Mahan’s doctrine of battle between big-gun battleships is obsolete in an age of high-tech combat. Nor do Chinese analysts draw detailed lessons from his works beyond his injunctions to mass combat power at the critical place to prosecute a fleet engagement and to size fleets accordingly.

That Mahan has fallen into disrepute in operational and tactical matters is not surprising. As he admitted to Theodore Roosevelt, he was an indifferent fleet officer—“I am the man of thought, not the man of action,” he confided—and more than once he came up on the short end of a technical debate. He feuded with W. S. Sims, for example, on the question of whether new U.S. battleships should be fitted with all-big-gun main batteries or with a composite battery of big guns and lesser-caliber naval rifles. Richard Hough notes that Sims administered an “annihilating” rejoinder to Mahan’s advocacy of mixed armament, upbraiding Mahan for ignoring the combat punch of Japanese 12-inch gunfire at Tsushima.

Mahan’s poor performance in tactical debates in his own day makes it scarcely surprising that American and foreign tacticians nowadays look elsewhere for insight. Chinese officials, mariners, and scholars consult other martial traditions as they draft a grammar of marine combat—including their own. Chinese traditions offer a rich stock of land-warfare concepts, including the writings of Sun Tzu and, in particular, Mao Zedong, who etched his strategic outlook on contemporary China through personal example and voluminous writings on political and military affairs.

Admiral Xiao Jinguang, for instance, drew inspiration from Mao’s writings to develop his naval doctrine of “sabotage warfare at sea,”. One component of China’s current maritime strategy, “offshore waters defense,” takes its guiding precepts from the Maoist doctrine of active defense, an approach to warfighting distilled from Mao’s experiences in land campaigns against Imperial Japanese occupiers and the Chinese Nationalist Army. Indeed, Deng Xiaoping explicitly paid homage to Mao’s formula when he articulated his vision for China’s maritime strategy in the reform and opening era.

Mao scorned passive defense. His military writings are wholly offensive in character, even the material written during the wilderness years when his Red Army was vastly inferior to its enemies and had little choice other than to remain on the strategic defensive. Passive defense represented “a spurious kind of defense” for him, while active defense meant “defense for the purpose of counter-attacking and taking the offensive.” Even strategically defensive aims, then, were best attained through offensive ways and means. Passive measures were necessitated by an unfavorable balance of forces. They were transient. They were not the core of China’s national strategy, let alone its strategic preference. This outlook lends China’s quest for sea power much of its grammar.

To Chinese eyes, U.S. mastery of East Asian seas resembles the Nationalist Army’s strategy of “encirclement and suppression” transposed to the East, Yellow, and South China Seas. The Red Army did not reply to Nationalist Army ground offensives through passive means. It unleashed tactical offensives opportunistically to elongate the war, tire out enemy forces, and shift the balance of forces in the Communists’ favor. Patient action represented a precursor to a counteroffensive and ultimately to decisive victory.

Prompted by Mao and Mahan, Chinese naval strategists today talk routinely of prying control of the waters westward of the first island chain from the U.S. Navy’s grasp. They intend to surround and control these waters by offensive means, even if the United States still commands Asian waters at large.

True, Mao did warn against risking engagements in which victory was not assured, but it represents a grave mistake to equate such prudence with acquiescence in military inferiority. The strategic defensive was an expedient for Chairman Mao, not a desirable or permanent state of affairs. If the PLA heeds his advice, its grammar of naval war should give the U.S. Navy pause. America’s control of Asian waters does not render all naval battles unwinnable for Beijing. Washington must take seriously the reality that Beijing has adopted an intensely offensive naval strategy in its littoral waters. The PLA Navy is making itself a force to be reckoned with.

In this context, dispersed attacks on exterior lines are becoming increasingly thinkable for the PLA, as they were for the Red Army in its struggles against the Imperial Japanese Army and the Nationalist Army. (Operating along exterior lines is like operating around the circumference of a circle while the competitor on interior lines is located at the circle’s center and operates along its radii, with the advantages a central location confers.) The dispersed approach confers a variety of benefits. First, Maoist preferences predispose Chinese defenders to let U.S. forces close on Chinese shores, casting Americans in the part of Mao’s “foolish” boxer who “rushes in furiously and uses up all his resources at the very start.” Plunging deep into China’s offshore defensive zone attenuates the strength of the U.S. forces, weakening them before PLA defenders mount attacks from shore- and sea-based weaponry scattered around the battle zone.

Nor will the PLA confine its fleet tactics to any particular warfare domain. It will unleash missile barrages complemented by submarine attack, minefields, and the panoply of other tactics and systems on which China has lavished attention. As American forces come under the shadow of Chinese coastlines, the PLA will assume the exterior lines, rendering dispersed attacks possible along multiple threat axes. By deploying land-based implements of sea power, Beijing can bring the full force of its contested zone to bear, creating a 360-degree threat to U.S. expeditionary groups. In the ideal case, if those land-based forces are successful, the PLA may not even need to hazard the PLA Navy battle fleet in action.

Second, PLA commanders will concentrate their efforts on individual vessels or small detachments. Despite the tenor of Chinese commentary, U.S. commanders should not automatically assume that aircraft carriers will be the prime target for PLA action. Amphibious ships, for example, would make tempting targets in a Taiwan contingency, assuming U.S. Marines attempted to land to succor Taiwanese defense forces. Disabling or sinking one of the U.S. Navy’s Aegis warships would certainly give the United States pause, stirring memories of the October 2000 attack on the destroyer USS Cole and thus magnifying the political impact of such a feat of arms on the American electorate.

The PLAN might even set its sights on U.S. combat-logistics vessels transiting to or from the conflict zone. Despite the lower political profile of tankers and stores ships, depriving carrier or amphibious task groups of “bullets, beans, and black oil” would bring the U.S. effort grinding to a halt. Even a nuclear-powered carrier demands refueling every few days. Otherwise its complement of aircraft cannot fly, and it may as well have been disarmed.

Third, and closely related, the PLA will incorporate orthodox and unorthodox methods and weaponry into its defensive scheme in keeping with Mao’s and Sun Tzu’s warfare precepts. Western naval analysts commonly invoke the concept of saturation attack, implying that cruise missiles will be China’s sole implements in such a confrontation, or at any rate its implements of choice. This may be true. More likely, though, PLA saturation attacks will involve the concerted use of cruise, ballistic, and hypersonic missiles; aerial attack from manned or unmanned warplanes; mines; torpedo attack; electronic warfare; and cyber warfare. All of those weapons are ideal for a contested zone and complement more conventional means.

Antiship missiles might thus represent not the primary, orthodox element of an active-defense campaign but the secondary, unorthodox element. For example, missile attack would compel U.S. tacticians to look skyward while Kilo-class diesel boats loosed salvoes of wake-homing torpedoes (torpedoes that find their surface target by following the water turbulence churned up by the target ship’s propellers) against U.S. surface combatants from beneath. It also bears repeating that Maoist tactics emphasize fluidity. Astute commanders shift between axes as circumstances permit, making the unorthodox attack into the orthodox attack if it appears more promising, and switching back again if need be. Distinguishing orthodox from unorthodox tactics may prove next to impossible in the heat of battle—which is the point of this supple approach.

And fourth, Beijing will merge nonmilitary instruments into its defensive efforts by using diplomacy to augment Maoist active defense. China constantly wages what strategists dub “three warfares,” deploying psychological, media, and legal measures to shape opinion in China’s favor. It carries on this shaping effort in wartime and peacetime alike, in the spirit of former premier Zhou Enlai’s dictum that “all diplomacy is a continuation of war by other means.”

For instance, Beijing could impress upon Washington the lasting diplomatic and economic repercussions of taking on China over Taiwan. It takes time to debate whether a military undertaking is worth its price and hazards. The United States could pause to reflect, and its hesitation could grant the PLA enough time to attain its goals before U.S. forces intervened. Additionally, Chinese diplomats could act as coalition breakers trying to weaken or pick off U.S. allies. Discouraging Japan from granting the use of bases on its soil or impressing on Australia that it will pay a price for supporting U.S. military action would impair America’s strategic position in Asia. Indeed, without access to allied bases America has no strategic position in Asia. Denying access to them incapacitates them, which is almost as good as destroying them from China’s standpoint.

Beijing would turn operational achievements of Chinese arms to propaganda advantage using its three-warfares strategy. Even small tactical triumphs would weary the American populace while giving America’s allies second thoughts about supporting the United States against Asia’s central political and economic power. Asians understand that win or lose in a sea war, they will have to live with a vindictive China that has a long memory. Asymmetries in commitment to the allied cause could open fissures that China could pry open further—degrading or dismantling the alliance system that lets U.S. forces operate on exterior lines far from North American shores.


The South China Sea on the “Day after Taiwan”

The South China Sea offers an ideal case study for future conflict off Chinese shores. Chinese and Western strategists once forecast that the Pacific Ocean constituted the most likely theater of twenty-first-century maritime competition between the United States and China. Admiral Liu Huaqing, the modern PLA Navy’s founding father, espoused an eastward-facing strategy, perhaps stemming from China’s preoccupation with a possible Taiwan contingency. Even Liu, however, included the South China Sea among the “near seas” where the Chinese navy must gird itself to prosecute active-defense operations. And indeed, the South China Sea is a more probable locus for contingencies pitting the PLA against the U.S. Navy. Beijing’s claim to “indisputable” or “irrefutable” sovereignty over most of that expanse, its construction and arming of artificial islands, and its heavy-handed conduct toward Southeast Asian neighbors have shifted the center of gravity for high-seas competition southward.

The South China Sea is China’s crucial gateway to the Indian Ocean. At least four strategic challenges beckon the attention of Chinese strategists southward. First and foremost, Taiwan, at the northern edge of the sea, continues to obsess China’s leadership. A formal declaration of independence or a Taiwanese breach of a Chinese redline such as constitutional reform remains the most likely casus belli for Beijing. But the cross-strait dispute is no longer the all-consuming issue it once was. If it has not already, China will soon gain the confidence to start looking past Taiwan to other pursuits in Southeast and South Asia.

Satisfactory settlement of affairs in the Taiwan Strait will free up Chinese resources and energies, advance the cause of national unification, and break through Dean Acheson’s island-chain perimeter. To borrow from General Douglas MacArthur, regaining the island would also give the PLA its own offshore—and unsinkable (if also immobile)—aircraft carrier and submarine tender. Moreover, if China occupies Taiwan, which Admiral Ernest King called “the cork in the bottle of the South China Sea,” Chinese shipping bound to or from the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, or the Mediterranean Sea can reach Chinese seaports unmolested.

The second strategic challenge perplexing Chinese scholars and top officials is the “Malacca dilemma” or “Malacca predicament.” Former president Hu Jintao first articulated this strategic problem, which entails an attempt on the part of the United States and its allies to close the Malacca, Lombok, or Sunda Strait to Chinese shipping as an indirect riposte during a Taiwan conflict or some other Pacific imbroglio.

Assuring free passage through the sea lines of communication linking the Persian Gulf region and Africa with Chinese seaports—in particular through the Strait of Malacca—has thus taken on surpassing importance to China’s communist regime. The uninterrupted flow of oil, natural gas, and other raw materials across the bodies of water south and southwest of the mainland—the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean—will occupy an increasingly prominent place in China’s maritime calculus. This emerging energy security imperative suggests that tracking longer-term Chinese intentions and grand strategy in southern waters constitutes an urgent task for the United States.

Third, China has staked claim to the waters, air, and islands of most of the South China Sea at its neighbors’ expense. Indeed, the National People’s Congress in effect wrote China’s claims into domestic law in 1992. In 2009 the government submitted a map to the United Nations delineating its claims. A “nine-dashed line” enclosing an estimated 80–90 percent of the South China Sea bounds the area where China claims indisputable sovereignty. At its most basic, sovereignty means physical control of space within an area on a map. What the sovereign says there is the law, and others obey. Unsurprisingly, China’s claims to sovereignty in the region and attempts to enforce those claims have generated considerable tension.

Both national sentiment and the region’s value as a maritime thoroughfare animate Beijing’s policy, as do the undersea resources said to be found around the many islands to which China, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam have lodged claims. The seas are also a growing source of nutrition as a Chinese citizenry that enjoys rising disposable incomes turns its appetite to seafood. Even cartographers have joined the fray. One laments that the landmass of China resembles a rooster, an image unworthy of China’s majesty; but including the sea areas China has claimed gives the nation an appealing shape on the map—a torch. “Chinese map,” proclaims the mapmaker, “you are the collected emotion and wisdom of the Chinese people, their coagulated blood and raging fire, symbolic of their power and personality, the embodiment of their worth and spirit.”

This conveys not only the region’s importance for Chinese national dignity but also the interdependence between the sea and Chinese economic development. Beijing has sought to give effect to domestic law as it amasses dominant sea power, relying on a maritime militia and a modern coast guard backed up by the PLA Navy. Southeast Asia’s coastal states have not yet determined how to uphold their rights and privileges under the law of the sea in the face of an increasingly bellicose China.

Fourth, it has become apparent that undersea warfare imparts momentum to China’s southward maritime turn. In April 2008 Jane’s Intelligence Review disclosed that the PLA had constructed an impressive naval base complete with underground pens for fleet SSBNs, at Sanya on Hainan Island, in the northern reaches of the South China Sea. The news prompted a flurry of speculation among strategic thinkers in the West and Asia. “Must India be anxious?” asked one Indian commentator.

Many countries should be. To borrow a metaphor Chinese officials use, the Sanya base gives Beijing the first of China’s “two eyes” at sea—Taiwan being the other. Metaphors aside, basing SSBNs in the South China Sea would let the PLA Navy outflank U.S. and Japanese ASW efforts in northeast Asia while enabling the Chinese submarine force to operate on exterior lines. Sanya gives the navy a forward base not only for SSBNs but for attack submarines, aircraft, and surface units as well, projecting China’s combat reach outward in much the same way Taiwan would do in the Pacific Ocean. The artificial island redoubts to Hainan’s south have helped Beijing consolidate its control over this offshore preserve.

The South China Sea, in short, offers an ideal theater for the PLA to fight on tactically exterior lines while the United States operates along strategically exterior lines. The Luzon Strait, which separates Taiwan from the Philippines, has taken on new prominence now that operational Chinese units are stationed at Sanya. Regaining Taiwan would expedite Chinese military access to the strait—its outlet to the Pacific Ocean. In a day-after-Taiwan scenario, having emplaced PLA air and sea forces on the island, China would extend its reach seaward while occupying a commanding position opposite Luzon.

This positioning would render China’s logic of dispersed attack even more compelling. PLA forces could vector in attacks on U.S. Navy task forces not only from PLAN units at sea but also from sites on the mainland and, just as important, from Hainan and Taiwan—its twin offshore aircraft carriers and submarine tenders, to borrow MacArthur’s metaphor. Once armed with antiship missiles, the artificial islands could lend additional firepower to the mix, further complicating the tactical picture for U.S. commanders. By forcing the United States into perimeter defense, the PLA could open up promising tactical vistas for itself. It could feint in the South China Sea, for instance, stretching American defenses and situational awareness to the south while staging a breakout to the north, through the narrow passages piercing the Ryukyu Islands or the Japanese archipelago itself.

Taken together, this strategy adds up to an effort similar to the one the United States mounted in Mahan’s day, when the U.S. Navy set out to establish local ascendancy over superior European navies in the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. These were expanses of overriding economic and military importance to a rising United States that had fixed its gaze on Asia and Pacific markets and bases. Consequently, for U.S. naval commanders, revisiting U.S. maritime history while monitoring how China manages its “Caribbean” could supply a harbinger of future Chinese actions in the South China Sea.

Strategic Preference #1: Dispersed Sea Denial

To return to Wayne Hughes’ analytical template, what are China’s strategic preferences for naval warfare? How will China apply its panoply of new hardware to achieve the goal of sea denial? Following Hughes’ three determinants of tactical effectiveness, Chinese defenders will attempt to disrupt U.S. scouting, outrange U.S. weaponry, and exploit defects in U.S. fleet tactics, keeping American commanders off balance. Consonant with Mao’s injunction to cut off one of an enemy’s fingers rather than mash them all, PLA defenders will concentrate on individual U.S. units or small formations that find themselves remote from mutual support. They will operate along tactically exterior lines, concentrating firepower in space and time at the last minute to overpower American defenses. In short, they will fight according to the Maoist way of war, defeating a stronger antagonist piecemeal.

By playing up tactical victories in the world press, Beijing can hope to discourage the American people, peel off ambivalent U.S. allies such as Japan or Australia, and collapse the overall U.S. effort. Western analysts must monitor the PLA for inventive uses of China’s tactical and geostrategic advantages. Some representative weapon systems useful for dispersed but integrated attacks would include the following.

Antiship Cruise Missiles

The PLA has plowed major effort and resources into cruise missile procurement and development. Antiship missiles can be fired from ships, aircraft, and surface batteries, forcing U.S. Navy antiair defenders to cope with multiple threat axes. For instance, the fast, agile SS-N-22 Moskit (known in U.S. naval circles as the Sunburn) carried on board PLA Navy Sovremennyy-class DDGs has excellent prospects even against the U.S. Navy’s Aegis combat system, the latest in American technical wizardry and the system it was designed to penetrate. A decade ago a RAND report situated SS-N-22 and SS-N-27 antiship missiles at the heart of China’s strategy for a Taiwan contingency, strongly suggesting that the United States would find itself on the losing end of a cross-strait encounter in 2020. The YJ-18 missile now entering service boasts a range of 290 nautical miles—about four times that of the Harpoon, the standard antiship weapon in the U.S. Navy surface fleet for now. Ships carrying the YJ-18 could get in their licks long before U.S. warships could respond. Such weaponry, in short, makes an ideal candidate for orthodox or unorthodox antiship attack.

Antiship Ballistic Missiles

In 2010 Admiral Robert Willard, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, announced that the PLA’s DF-21D antiship ballistic missile (ASBM) had attained “initial operational capability,” meaning the ASBM had made its operational debut while still undergoing testing and refinement. The DF-21D boasts a range of 1,500–2,000 kilometers and can reportedly strike at moving ships on the high seas. In a 2015 military parade in Beijing the PLA displayed the DF-26, a ballistic missile with the range to strike Guam. The DF-26 reportedly has an ASBM variant, projecting the reach of Chinese anti-access defenses 3,000 to 4,000 kilometers offshore. If they live up to their hype, the DF-21D and DF-26 will expand the operating grounds for China’s fortress fleet immensely.

A China able to strike effectively beyond the second island chain with sufficient numbers of ASBMs could hope to replicate Imperial Japan’s strategy, which aimed at reducing the U.S. Pacific Fleet battle line far out in the Pacific as a precursor to a decisive engagement in Asian waters. Unlike Japanese forces, however, the PLA could mount such a strategy without bothering to seize and fortify Pacific islands. A working ASBM capability would signal that the PLA can act along exterior lines against U.S. naval forces across far greater distances than once thought possible. It could execute a Maoist strategy on a region-wide scale.

Stealth Aircraft

Stealth fighter/attack aircraft such as the PLA Air Force J-20 would make an ideal implement for unorthodox attack against U.S. airborne-early-warning and tanker aircraft. The J-20 sports a two-thousand-kilometer combat radius. Flights of elusive J-20s could strike at the U.S. Navy and Air Force surveillance and logistics capability, blinding American aviators while denying warplanes the fuel they need to sustain flight operations over the western Pacific. In short, PLA stealth aviators could encumber U.S. air power without fighting a major air battle against cutting-edge U.S. F-22 or F-35 stealth fighters. That is the very definition of an unorthodox attack.

And it would be well aimed. Showcased in Afghanistan, in two wars against Iraq, and in other conflicts of the past two decades, the modern American way of war is premised on winning the contest for information supremacy at the outbreak of war. U.S. forces have prevailed in large part because superior technology has given them a “common operating picture” of conditions in the battle space that no opponent can match. Airborne sensors detect and target enemy aircraft, ships, or ground vehicles from afar. Jammers and antiradiation missiles incapacitate enemy sensors attempting to gather data on and target U.S. assets. These tactics effectively paralyze U.S. adversaries during the opening phases of a military campaign, paving the way for an even more important battlefield condition: air supremacy.

J-20 or J-31 stealth jets could seriously degrade U.S. scouting effectiveness, one of Hughes’ chief determinants of tactical success. Weapons range means little without the ability to find and target enemy forces at long distances. Since the dawn of carrier warfare, U.S. maritime strategy has seen command of the air as a prerequisite for surface fleet operations. An operation near Chinese shores would be no different. If Chinese pilots struck down Airborne Warning and Control System or E-2D early-warning planes, they would wholly or partially nullify the U.S. edge in information warfare, slowing down and complicating U.S. aviators’ efforts to command the skies. In doing so they would blunt U.S. offensive action while exposing U.S. warships, including aircraft carriers, to air and missile counterstrikes.

A robust Chinese stealth air fleet would oblige U.S. commanders to devote energy and air assets to securing the skies. For instance, commanders might find themselves forced to assign scarce fighters to escort early-warning or tanker planes, taking the escorts out of the major fight and thus diluting U.S. combat power. Even if PLA stealth aviation remains inferior to its American counterpart it could open the way for PLA offensive-defensive operations in Mao Zedong’s sense. Debilitating the foe would boost the PLA’s chances of denying maritime command.

Undersea Warfare

The PLAN submarine fleet has aroused growing concern in U.S. defense circles, judging from scholarly commentary and the Pentagon’s annual reports to Congress on Chinese military power. Lethal, stealthy diesel-electric submarines such as Russian-built Kilos and indigenous Yuans or Songs can prowl China’s offshore contested zone while nuclear boats range farther afield, cueing PLA commanders as U.S. forces approach or launching nuisance attacks on the high seas. Armed with wake-homing torpedoes, even diesel boats can compel American ships to take radical evasive maneuvers. The torpedoes can distract and hamper a ship’s combat team while the PLA bombards the fleet with antiship ballistic or cruise missiles. Subsurface combat, in short, compounds an already wicked tactical problem.64 It could help dishearten U.S. forces or impose such costs that U.S. officials abjure the effort to pierce China’s contested zone, brightening China’s prospects for successful sea denial.

To sum up, if the PLA manages to force U.S. forces to fixate on any single domain—surface, subsurface, or aerial—it can then pose new challenges from the other domains. Nuclear and diesel attack submarines, missile-armed fast patrol craft such as the PLAN’s Type 022 Houbei, or “assassin’s mace” systems like minefields make good adjuncts to more traditional systems like ASBMs and shore-based aircraft. PLA commanders could combine and recombine these systems to dizzy American defenders. In a sense, then, we are witnessing a merger of time-honored strategic concepts: jeune école–style combatants wage war aggressively against high-end intruders, shore artillery lends fire support on a grand scale, and an ultramodern fortress fleet prowls the sea within reach of these supporting arms. Strategies of the weak are coming into their own.

A well-designed Chinese force package would impose a three-dimensional threat on U.S. forces, launching unorthodox and orthodox attacks along multiple vectors. The more stresses the Chinese can impose, the less likely U.S. forces will be to venture landward of the island chains or into the South China Sea. If China can even partially cancel out U.S. technologies that manage the fog of war, it can severely curtail U.S. forces’ freedom of maneuver along Asian coastlines—access the U.S. Navy has long taken for granted. In short, the combined effect of multiaxis assaults could induce U.S. forces to operate farther from Chinese shores, helping China achieve its goal of sea denial in the China seas.

One caveat is worth appending. Despite the bleak tenor of our commentary, we are not maintaining that these capabilities, alone or combined, will give China a decisive edge in littoral warfare, let alone outright military superiority over the United States. The PLA Navy is not some superhuman force. It remains a relative newcomer to naval warfare. While Beijing divulges few details about budgets or weapons acquisitions, the PLAN is not exempt from the cost constraints familiar to military services worldwide. It must surmount technological hurdles after starting from behind. Officers and sailors must take their ships to sea for sustained intervals to refine their seamanship and tactical acumen. When the PLA Navy will equal the U.S. Navy in material and human terms—if ever—remains an open question.

Moreover, the PLAN would have to coordinate closely with the PLA Air Force and Rocket Force to prosecute the joint campaign we are describing, so as to amplify the tactical effects of multidimensional attacks against opponent forces. Interoperability and interservice cooperation—skills that take years of practice to hone—would be at a premium. Whether PLA combat arms are up to these and kindred challenges remains an open question.

Certainly the PLA will press the operational and tactical advantages it possesses while striving to overcome its lingering shortcomings. Beijing can hope to drive up the costs of entry into waters and skies it cares about, deterring or hindering U.S. involvement in Asian conflicts. If successful, it will have fulfilled its defensive strategic aims. If the PLA can deny U.S. forces the ability to dictate events, it will have attained the most important goal of sea denial: seizing local control of sea and sky long enough to realize operational and strategic goals. The approach we have posited here comports with the experiences of the past forty-plus years of naval war. From Egypt’s sinking of the Israeli destroyer Eilat with Styx missiles in 1967, to Argentina’s sinking of HMS Sheffield in 1982, to Iraq’s Exocet attack on USS Stark in 1987, to Hezbollah’s crippling of the Israeli corvette Spear with a C-802 surface-to-surface missile in 2006, experience demonstrates that an inferior yet determined navy can hurt a superior one.

The Chinese have afforded these historical case studies close scrutiny. They have learned that the weak can force the strong to change their behavior even without winning outright. In each incident, a single missile hit brought about major tactical effects. In the cases of Eilat and Sheffield, a missile sank a ship altogether. Or missile strikes can score a “mission kill,” putting a ship’s combat-systems suite out of action while preventing its crew from accomplishing its mission. They can disable the stricken vessel. Sometimes, though, a missile is not required. USS Samuel B. Roberts, USS Princeton, and USS Tripoli suffered far-reaching damage from crude, cheap Iraqi sea mines during the late 1980s and early 1990s, furnishing an even more striking example of how sea denial works. Thus, tactics involving dispersed, multifaceted attacks promise the PLA a handsome return on a modest investment. Such tactics make sense according to sound principles of naval warfare as elaborated by Wayne Hughes. And they fit with Chinese strategic and operational traditions. If what comes natural works, it only makes sense for China to do it.

Strategic Preference #2: Cut Off the U.S. Navy’s “Fingers” One by One

PLA naval planners cannot count on defeating the United States by crippling or sinking a small, though politically significant, portion of the U.S. fleet. The strategy might work. It might elevate the costs of fighting China above the value Washington assigns the object at stake. Or it might not. America could prove less morally flabby than expected. Chinese strategists may draw a lesson from the Pacific war, the Korean War, the first Gulf War, and the 9/11 terror attacks: do not discount America’s will to fight. Hideki Tojo’s Japan, Kim il-Sung’s North Korea, Mao Zedong’s China, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda all calculated that the surprise, speed, and shock of initial successful campaigns would stun America into submission. All were wrong.

Prudence thus demands that Beijing consider the what-ifs. What should the PLA do if its sea-denial strategy fails to drive U.S. naval forces from important sea areas? Its most obvious fallback would be to keep doing what works. Picking off U.S. warships and formations piecemeal might eventually create a favorable environment for sea denial—so long as U.S. commanders kept playing into Chinese hands and presenting a “cooperative adversary.”

Successive minor victories at sea would resemble the battles Mao’s Red Army fought on strategically interior but tactically exterior lines against the Imperial Japanese Army and the Nationalist Army. Sequential-attack tactics would let the PLA whittle the U.S. Navy down to size over time, perhaps fulfilling its tactical and operational aims on the logic sketched previously. At a minimum, the tactics would gradually tilt the military balance toward China, enhancing the PLA’s prospects for a decisive counteroffensive—as Mao foretold. To be sure, this presupposes that Beijing has great confidence in its ability to manage escalation in nautical warfare. It behooves U.S. naval planners to keep tabs on Chinese strategic discourses, gauging whether PLA strategists entertain such confidence.

In short, Wayne Hughes’ second tactical scenario—sequential attack—would likely rank second in China’s hierarchy of naval tactics. The PLA may disperse offensive tactical strikes in time as well as space.