FLEET TACTICS WITH CHINESE CHARACTERISTICS I

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.

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FLEET TACTICS WITH CHINESE CHARACTERISTICS II

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.

FLEET TACTICS WITH CHINESE CHARACTERISTICS III

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.

FLEET TACTICS WITH CHINESE CHARACTERISTICS IV

Strategic Preference #3: Mao Zedong, Meet Alfred Thayer Mahan

The strategic preferences we are discussing are not fixed; they are leanings. As the PLA Navy approaches parity with the U.S. Navy, Mao’s grammar of active defense will come to resemble the Mahanian scheme for concentrated fleet-on-fleet engagements. Recall that the third and final phase of Mao’s strategy of the weak is the conventional counteroffensive that brings about final victory. What comes before—the strategic defensive, the strategic equilibrium—are transitory expedients, not desirable states. If Beijing believes the PLA is now the stronger contender, it can skip the phases that presuppose China is outmatched and proceed straight to a conventional offensive.

Mao’s endgame was a conventional battlefield victory. Mahan hoped to open with a fleet-on-fleet engagement that likewise yielded victory. Both strategists agreed on the imperative to vanquish the foe’s main force in decisive combat at some stage. The only difference was how to sequence operations and engagements to bring about a fleet action.

Hughes’ third scenario, massed attack, thus may now be part of the PLA commanders’ portfolio of options. As noted before, some Chinese strategists look directly to Mahan for strategic insight. The well-known pundit Zhang Wenmu cites Mahan’s maxim that economic prosperity hinges on deploying stronger naval forces at strategic locations. From this Zhang concludes that China must “build up our navy as quickly as possible” in preparation for the “sea battle” that constitutes the “ultimate way for major powers” to resolve economic disputes. Zhang, it seems, foresees decisive fleet actions.

How might such an engagement come about? One plausible scenario: a sequential PLA strategy could unfold by increments, climaxing in a Mahanian test of arms. Small-scale engagements would progress stepwise toward the ultimate reckoning. Or, if the PLA felt the balance of forces favored it from the outset, Beijing might seek a decisive battle with the U.S. military right away rather than progress through Mao Zedong’s phases of war. The strong have little need for the strategies of the weak.

Venturing everything to gain everything is not so dramatic a break with Mao as it seems. Mao enjoined weaker powers, not stronger ones, to give ground and concentrate against isolated enemy units. Once Chinese forces build up to parity or relative superiority over their foes, they will enjoy far more operational and tactical options, including the option of inaugurating the conventional counteroffensive Mao believed they must eventually prosecute to achieve victory. If the strategic setting favors offensive action, then, there is no reason for the PLA not to get right to it.

Indeed, Mao departed from his own pattern when circumstances warranted. Despite grave reservations among his comrades, Mao prevailed on them to intervene decisively in the Korean War, convinced that a massive initial blow would push UN forces off the peninsula. His gamble failed miserably. Still, such logic—perhaps compounded by wishful thinking—could again grip Chinese commanders. Below we discuss some factors that might impel them to risk a fleet action early.

Maoist Operational Grammar Isn’t So Different from Mahan’s After All

As we noted above, offensive Mahanian battle is compatible with Maoist traditions when conditions suit. Having ensnared U.S. forces deep inside China’s contested zone, the PLA can assume the exterior lines, applying Mao’s operational logic far more broadly than he anticipated. Mao himself contemplated globe-spanning exterior lines, albeit in a diplomatic rather than an operational sense. His contemporary followers might apply his theory in ambitious ways, pursuing a counteroffensive promising outright naval victory. Maoist theory would converge with Mahanian theory, urging them on.

Death Ground

The CCP regime could find its survival at stake in some Taiwan or South China Sea contingency. Self-preservation is the top priority for the CCP, as it is for the rulers of any state. A cross-strait war, to name the most obvious contingency, would call Chinese national unity into question—and the legitimacy of the regime along with it. U.S. intervention thus might summon forth an all-out PLA assault. If the communist regime’s longevity hinged on victory, self-restraint would recede in importance. Or a similar calculus could take hold should the United States mount a blockade of Chinese resource shipments, endangering China’s economic vibrancy and thus standards of living for the populace. All bets are off should some U.S. action place China’s leadership on what Sun Tzu dubs “death ground”—where it is imperative to fight to the utmost or perish.

Now or Never

China often deprecates America’s political staying power, but it may fear a repetition of December 1941, when an Asian sea power last underrated America’s will and capacity to fight across the Pacific and paid the price for it. Chinese commanders resigned to armed strife against U.S. forces might aim a knockout blow at U.S. naval task forces that venture into the China seas. If Chinese forces did not achieve a solid victory, however, Beijing might provoke the kind of massive U.S. counterstroke that followed Imperial Japan’s attack at Pearl Harbor. But there is a major difference: today’s counterpart to “Pearl Harbor” sits within reach of strike forces based on the Chinese mainland. The PLA need not replicate the long, tortuous voyage the IJN undertook to assail Oahu in 1941. It can rain missiles on U.S. Seventh Fleet bases such as Yokosuka and Sasebo from nearby. And unlike IJN carrier aviators operating at the end of their logistical tether, PLA rocketeers can sustain their bombardment until the job is done thoroughly. A killing stroke would foreclose the prospect of massive American retaliation, and such a stroke is increasingly thinkable for Beijing.

Dare All to Gain All

Should the PLA offer decisive battle and win, its triumph would hasten China’s rise to regional and world eminence, reordering the Asian and perhaps global systems. America would not quickly rebuild its navy—or regain its superpower status, which turns on supremacy in the maritime commons—following a catastrophic defeat. We doubt that Beijing would initiate war solely to knock out the U.S. Navy. Chinese thinkers grasp the political, economic, and military costs of great-power war and evince little appetite for it. Still, the allure of a final reckoning might prod Chinese commanders to risk the fleet if they were already leaning that way for the reasons discussed above.

That Chinese decision makers could hazard a climactic fleet action does not mean they are fated to do so. Much will depend on how they estimate the military balance in Asia. Thus, monitoring how Beijing appraises its comprehensive national power relative to that of the United States and other rival powers will supply important clues to Chinese maritime strategy and tactics.

Can the United States Preserve Its Naval Mastery?

U.S. officials, commanders, and shipwrights must exercise foresight, refine training and doctrine for Asian sea combat, and pay constant attention to upgrading the material dimension of strategy. Military professionals like to point out that they traffic in capabilities rather than intentions. How should U.S. naval commanders prepare for Chinese integrated attacks at sea?

By embracing Wayne Hughes’ advice, for one thing. Hughes urges ship designers to extend the range of U.S. missiles while bolstering U.S. Navy expeditionary forces’ detection and targeting ability. Constant work on ships, planes, and armaments is crucial. So is constant work on the human factor. Hughes enjoins commanders to refine their tactics so as to preserve or restore their advantage over prospective adversaries such as China. In particular, American seafarers need to regain the Navy’s proficiency at electromagnetic emissions control (EMCON), which manages electromagnetic emissions such as radar and radio to keep enemy forces from detecting U.S. task forces. It means muffling the force’s electronic signature or silencing it altogether. Properly done, EMCON hobbles enemy scouting and targeting. Aggressive electronic warfare is likewise central to U.S. information superiority.

Who holds the edge in weapons range and scouting effectiveness at present? To date, China has won the contest for greater range. Every one of its antiship missiles outranges the U.S. Navy’s Harpoon, granting PLA Navy captains multiple engagement opportunities before American ships can close the range enough to fire back. The PLA’s YJ-18 boasts four times the Harpoon’s range. The U.S. Navy and defense firms are now competing in the range war, however. The Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office has repurposed the SM-6 interceptor for surface-warfare engagements, a new long-range antiship missile is under development, and engineers have fitted the Tomahawk land-attack cruise missile with sensors and software to conduct surface engagements. If pursued, the latter in particular will boost vessels’ striking reach into the hundreds of miles. Naval commanders will sleep more soundly once such weaponry reaches the fleet. Faster is better when fielding these armaments.

Nevertheless, when and if the PLA perfects its ASBMs, U.S. forces will be forced to operate within the DF-26 or DF-21D threat envelopes, especially if developments bear out the upper estimates of those missiles’ reach. These figures exceed the maximum range advertised for any U.S. land-attack cruise missile or for any ship-launched aircraft armed with antiship or land-attack missiles. Depending on the variant, the U.S. Navy’s Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles boast ranges officially reported at 1,600–2,500 kilometers. The F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet, the mainstay of today’s carrier air wings, has a combat radius of 723 kilometers with a standard bomb load and external fuel tanks. Add another 321-plus kilometers for the Super Hornet’s joint air-to-surface standoff missiles (JASSMs) and 804-plus kilometers for the extended-range variant (JASSM-ER).

At extreme range, then, the F/A-18 can hit targets roughly 1,500 kilometers away. That is almost precisely the low-end estimate for DF-21D range and deep within DF-26 range. The F-35C Lightning II stealth fighter will improve on the Super Hornet’s range, clocking in with a combat radius estimated at 1,111 kilometers. For the F-35, that makes the extreme striking range 1,915 kilometers—beyond the minimum estimate for the DF-21D’s range but well within the maximum. If the DF-26 proves out, carriers would have to venture deep within the ASBM envelope to do their work. Beijing’s buildup of its fleet, and of its shore-based sea-power arsenal, is pushing the culminating point of the attack farther offshore for U.S. task forces, raising the costs of entry for the U.S. military into Asian waters.

With regard to manned aircraft, the PLA Navy’s J-11 fighter/attack aircraft, a derivative of the Russian Su-27 and Su-30, boasts a tactical radius of 2,000 kilometers if refueled in flight. In theory, it could hold U.S. vessels at risk up to 2,400 kilometers distant from its base if armed with YJ-12 ASCMs which boast a range estimated at 250 to 400 kilometers. This pushes the engagement zone well beyond the inner island chain, supporting China’s goal of sea denial in and around Taiwan and the approaches to the South China Sea. And this discussion leaves aside the contributions China’s J-15 might make. The J-15, under development for use on board PLAN carriers, has a combat radius of around 1,500 kilometers, and a family of stealth aircraft is under development that appears able to operate out to the second island chain.

The favorable balance of aircraft and missile ranges now allows Chinese strategists to look beyond the Taiwan impasse. They appear comfortable that they can deny the United States access to the waters shoreward of the first island chain. Now look at the American side. For close-in encounters like one off Taiwan, which could involve landing U.S. Marines or interdicting Chinese landing forces, U.S. forces must venture within the cruise missile envelope and well within range of missile-armed aircraft flying from airfields on the mainland. Layered defenses for carrier and amphibious groups will be thinner and more permeable in these cramped quarters. Response times for U.S. defenders will plummet as a result. This is what it means to operate within range of Fortress China and its fortress fleet.

Shipboard defenses will take on new importance under these circumstances. The U.S. Navy’s premier self-defense system, the RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM), is a semiactive radarguided missile fired from vertical launch systems or deck-mounted launchers. Its range is reported to be only forty-five kilometers, however, compressing reaction times for U.S. task forces against Chinese antiship weaponry like the Sunburn, with its sea-skimming cruise altitude, maximum velocity of Mach 3, and capacity for radical evasive maneuvers in the terminal phase. The YJ-18 cruises at subsonic speeds but accelerates to Mach 3 when approaching its target.

One study estimates the probability of a hit for a Mach 2.5 missile at 40 percent against a carrier group screened by Aegis combatants. The window for multiple ESSM engagements, then, will shut quickly under battle conditions. The Close-In Weapon System (CIWS), U.S. Navy warships’ point defense against aerial attack, is a radar-guided Gatling gun able to fire up to 4,500 penetrating rounds per minute. The range of CIWS mounts is so short, though, that their rate of fire provides cold comfort for shipboard defenders against airborne threats. The Navy is upgrading point defenses with “SeaRAM,” a defense system that marries CIWS radar and fire control with rolling airframe missiles to engage incoming missiles farther off board. The system’s range is classified but appears to be around eight kilometers. This represents an improvement over gunfire, but again, it amounts to short range when coping with supersonic missiles trying to evade shipboard defenses.

A significant disclaimer is in order. The technical specifications of China’s armaments appear imposing, but missile ranges are contingent on the PLA’s ability to detect, identify, and track U.S. warships at extreme distances. The Pacific Ocean is big, and the biggest fleet is vanishingly small by comparison. This factor imposes a deterrent to long-range surface engagements. U.S. Navy doctrine frowns on very long-range antiship strikes for fear of hitting noncombatants. There is little reason to think the PLA Navy, which has never been tested in high-seas combat, has leapfrogged this intricate technical and doctrinal challenge. Nor is there reason to think PLA commanders would cut loose indiscriminately, heedless of the danger to civilian shipping or the waste of expending scarce munitions against non-combatants—except as a desperation measure should the CCP regime find itself treading on death ground.

For now, our diagnosis is this: China holds the advantage in long-range antiship weaponry, but the United States is beginning to field systems that will cut into that advantage. U.S. naval commanders should no longer expect to strike with impunity at Chinese military assets, ashore or at sea, while keeping their own high-value platforms—carriers, amphibious landing ships, and Aegis cruisers and destroyers—out of harm’s way. Commanders should also realize that the fleet relies to an unhealthy degree on the carrier air wing for its offensive punch against sea and shore targets. These facts add up to a compelling brief not just for new shipboard armaments but also for initiatives such as “distributed lethality,” which will disperse firepower throughout the surface force. Once every ship is a fighting ship, the fleet’s dependency on a few squadrons of fighter/attack aircraft should ease.

How far offshore the PLA Navy will operate is a function of how confident Chinese commanders are in their anti-access defenses, how much risk Chinese commanders and party leaders are willing to assume, how much seamanship and tactical prowess Chinese mariners and airmen exhibit, and the technical feasibility of such systems as the ASBM. Together these factors will govern the point at which U.S. task forces will come under threat when approaching the Asian seas.

If our diagnosis is correct, the United States and its allies are in a danger zone. If American engineering stands at the verge of evening the range imbalance, and if Chinese commanders know that, the Chinese may be tempted to act before their advantage disappears. This may be why Beijing has shown signs of urgency in the South China Sea by dredging up seafloor to create military installations. Beijing has taken the risk of uniting a hostile coalition—but perhaps the CCP leadership rates that risk as less than the risk of taking a leisurely approach that soothes animosities but lets the United States recover its maritime supremacy in Asia. The region could be in for a bumpy ride in the coming decade or so.

Looking ahead, it is safe to say that the PLA’s tactical reach already extends beyond the first island chain. It is also safe to say that Beijing will soon be able to dispute U.S. command of the waters and skies between the two island chains, if indeed it cannot already. How far offshore China’s navy conducts exercises and what Chinese officers and pundits say about their doctrine will provide the best indicators available.

For planning purposes, the soundest assumption is that U.S. forces will face surface, subsurface, and aerial threats along more than one threat axis, especially as they close on Chinese shores. Within China’s contested zone, the PLA will fight on tactically exterior lines, mounting dispersed attacks to overpower U.S. antiair, antiship, and antisubmarine defenses. Accordingly, U.S. commanders must think about how American units can lend one another mutual support and make the expeditionary force a single, cohesive force. This will help balk Maoist strategies predicated on defeating an oncoming force bit by bit, picking off isolated units and annihilating them. Hughes terms this mutual-support strategy “massing for defense.”

The martial balance may continue shifting toward the PLA in the coming years as Chinese forces expand, improve their arsenal, and refine their tactics to make the best use of the contested zone. It will certainly continue shifting if the United States declines to make the conscious political choice to remain the world’s predominant sea power and guarantor of freedom of the sea. Primacy requires resources. Admiral J. C. Wylie points out that Congress makes strategic decisions all the time through the budgetary process. Indeed. No amount of seamanship or tactical wizardry will carry the U.S. Navy to victory in the Far East if U.S. mariners have too few implements for the fight.

‘We Are Heroes After All, Aren’t We?’*

Capture of a French regiment’s eagle by the cavalry of the Russian guard, by Bogdan Willewalde (1884)

Northern Flank: Austerlitz

2 December 1805

While Vandamme’s division dispersed the final remnants of IV Column from the plateau, Saint-Hilaire’s battle for control of the Pratzeberg still raged. At about 11.00am Langeron, still personally involved in the fighting, received word from adjutants despatched from IV Column, advising him with stark simplicity of the collapse of this force. Langeron ordered these messengers to pass on the shocking news to Buxhöwden, who remained inactive about a mile away on the hillock overlooking the Goldbach. Having been away from the rest of his command, fighting in Sokolnitz, for an hour and a half, and with no sign of help coming from Buxhöwden, Langeron realised he must find reinforcements himself. Leaving Kamenski to continue the fight, Langeron galloped off back to Sokolnitz.

At around the same time Weyrother, Kolowrat and Kutuzov approached the Pratzeberg, following the defeat of the other half of IV Column, doing their best to encourage the Austrian troops. Kutuzov, accompanied by a staff officer, Prince Dmitry Volkonsky, then reached Kamenski’s brigade just as it was in danger of being broken by a French attack, but Volkonsky rallied the Phanagoria Regiment by grasping their standard and leading them forward: order was again restored.

As Langeron headed off to find reinforcements, the Austrian battalions recovering from their attack on Thiébault’s line reformed within reach of Kamenski’s brigade. Their brigade commander, Jurczik, anchored his position on a small rise, where he concentrated some of his artillery. Major Mahler brought his battalion of IR49 Kerpen to the rise and drew the battalion of IR58 Beaulieu in to protect the flank. At the same time he moved two guns to a position from where they could enfilade the French line, which brought their fire to a halt for a while. Jurczik applauded his actions shouting, ‘Bravo! Major Mahler!’ Shortly afterwards Jurczik fell to the ground, fatally wounded by a French musket ball. He died two weeks later.

Once the Austrian battalions had recoiled from the French artillery, Thiébault joined his men with the rest of the division and together they attacked Kamenski’s brigade, driving them back and capturing a number of limbered Russian guns as well as retaking their own previously lost guns. Their impetus took them right to the summit of the Pratzeberg, and it was only with some difficulty that the officers managed to control the ardour of their men and halt the line. In fact, the infantry had now left their supporting artillery behind and with no word from Maréchal Soult or imperial headquarters, Saint-Hilaire felt his isolation keenly. Recognising the urgent need to drive the French off the plateau, and aware of their current exposed position, the Allies prepared to make:

‘a general and desperate attack at the point of the bayonet. The Austrian Brigade, with that under General Kamenski, charged the enemy; the Russians shouting, according to their usual custom; but the French received them with steadiness, and a well-supported fire, which made a dreadful carnage in the compact ranks of the Russians.’

But the Russians pressed on. Thiébault, close to the centre of the action, watched as the Russians:

‘charged on all sides, and while desperately disputing the ground, we were forced back. It was only by yielding before the more violent attacks that we maintained any alignment among our troops and saved our guns … Finally after an appalling melee, a melee of more than twenty minutes, we won a pause; by the sharpest fire and carried at the point of the bayonet.’

According to the notes kept by Thiébault, this ‘twenty minute bayonet battle’, claimed the lives of both Colonel Mazas, 14ème Ligne, and Thiébault’s ADC, Richebourg. Thiébault was fortunate to escape injury himself when his horse fell to a Russian shot. But as both sides recovered their breath, Général de division Saint-Hilaire rushed up to his brigade commanders, Thiébault and Morand, saying: ‘This is becoming intolerable, and I propose, gentlemen, that we take up a position to the rear which we can defend.’ Almost before he finished speaking, Colonel Pouzet of the 10ème Légère interrupted: ‘Withdraw us, my General … If we take a step back, we are lost. We have only one means of leaving here with honour, it is to put our heads down and attack all in front of us and, above all, not give our enemy time to count our numbers.’ Pouzet’s stirring words did the trick, and reinvigorated, the French clung tenaciously to the ground they held, repelling all Russian attacks.

While the Russians doggedly continued to attack, the Austrian battalions were being pressed back, despite the best efforts of Weyrother and Kolowrat. Having reformed close to a small rise, supported by their artillery, the battalions reformed and engaged the 36ème in a firefight, halting an enemy advance with volley fire. However, the French recovered and attacked again, driving IR58 Beaulieu back. Mahler attempted a counter-attack with his battalion of IR49 Kerpen and that of IR55 Reuss-Greitz but reported coming under ‘a very severe fire’ that caused many casualties. With his left flank now exposed to attack due to the repulse of IR58, his position was becoming extremely dangerous. However, he managed to keep his men together and prevented them from falling back for a while with the help of his adjutant, Fähnrich Jlljaschek. Moreover, by maintaining volley fire, he was able to remove his wounded safely to the rear.

But elsewhere, the Austrians were gradually being forced back. Mahler started the battle with only 312 men in his battalion and was now reduced to around eighty, through casualties and men lost as prisoners. There was little more his tiny force could achieve and as the battalion of IR55 on his flank began to retreat he ordered his men away down the eastern slopes of the plateau.

The odds were now stacked against Kamenski’s resolute brigade as more French troops approached the Pratzeberg. Released by Vandamme, the 43ème Ligne moved to rejoin Saint-Hilaire’s division and Boyé’s brigade of cavalry (5ème and 8ème Dragons) was also on its way to add their support. The weight of French numbers now began to tell on the Russian line. On his left, the threat of an attack on his open flank by the French dragoons forced Kamenski to wheel back the extreme left-hand battalion of the Ryazan Musketeers. Having soaked up all the preceding Russian attacks, Saint-Hilaire, judging that the time was right, ordered the French line forward, in what turned out to be the decisive charge. This time Kamenski’s men had little left to offer as the French poured forward over ‘ground strewn with the dead’, leaving no wounded Russians in their wake, capturing the Russian battalion artillery and retaking the highpoint of the Pratzeberg. Yet even in this moment of victory on the Pratzeberg the Russians inflicted another notable casualty: Saint-Hilaire was wounded and forced to retire to Puntowitz to have his wound dressed.

Having arrived back at Sokolnitz, Langeron sent for General Maior Olsufiev, who was fighting in the village and informed him of the need to send reinforcements to the plateau. The only troops immediately to hand were the two battalions of the Kursk Musketeers, held in reserve just outside Sokolnitz. With no time to lose, Langeron directed these to the plateau. He then attempted to extract his other battalions from the village but only succeeded in pulling back 8. Jäger and the Vyborg Musketeers. The remaining battalion of Kursk Musketeers and the Permsk Musketeer Regiment, now so completely entangled with III Column and its battle for the village, could not be withdrawn. But even as the two Kursk battalions began their march, unknown to them, they were marching to their destruction.

Kutuzov recognised that any further resistance by Kamenski’s brigade, after two hours fighting, would lead to their total destruction, so he ordered the retreat. Abandoning the plateau, they descended the south-eastern slopes to the valley of the Littawa, where they reformed. All along the valley other Allied units that had been driven off the plateau took up defensive positions or retreated to better ground. Before he left the plateau, Kutuzov despatched a hurried note to Buxhöwden, who still had not moved, ordering him to extract his three Columns from their bottleneck and retire. Soult’s two divisions were complete masters of the Pratzen Plateau, having swept away Allied IV Column along with Kamenski’s brigade of II Column by the sheer determination of their attacks. The time was probably around noon when, into this killing ground, marched the two lone battalions of the Kursk Musketeers, sent from Sokolnitz.

Believing the troops ahead of them to be Russian, they approached confidently but as they closed, Thiébault turned his exhausted men to face them and another firefight exploded. At the same time, Lavasseur’s brigade of Legrand’s division (IV Corps), which was occupying Kobelnitz, marched southwards presenting a possible flank threat to the Kursk battalions. To combat this move, the Podolsk Musketeers, part of III Column reserve, advanced to oppose them. Even without this intervention, the French troops on the Pratzeberg were in overwhelming numbers and soon began to surround the isolated Kursk battalions, who fought on for a while before collapsing amidst massive losses.

The victorious Thiébault, now mounted on his third horse – a small grey liberated from a captured Russian artillery limber – surveyed the destruction all around him. His own brigade had lost about a third of its strength, while another of his regimental commanders, Houdard de Lamotte of the 36ème Ligne, joined the growing list of wounded.

While this final struggle to clear the Allies from the Pratzen Plateau had reached its climax, elsewhere on the battlefield matters were also coming to a bloody conclusion.

Grand Duke Constantine, at the head of the Imperial Guard, had received no orders since a request arrived for him to send a battalion of infantry up onto the plateau. Since then his Guard Jäger had fallen back from Blasowitz, along with a supporting battalion of Semeyonovsk Guards. With only limited military experience, Constantine considered his options. To his right, masses of French infantry and cavalry were pressing aggressively towards Bagration, while to his left the Austrian cavalry, which had offered some protection on that flank, were withdrawing, having temporarily held back the advance of a massed infantry formation (Rivaud’s division of Bernadotte’s I Corps). Further to the left, up on the plateau, he could see that the French were driving back at least part of IV Column. Having surveyed the position, Constantine elected to pull back to his left rear (south-east), towards the Austrian cavalry and hopefully a junction with a reforming IV Column somewhere near Krzenowitz. At around 11.30am he turned his force, deploying the Guard Jäger as a flank guard.

In fact, he had not moved very far when he realised that the French troops previously held in check by the Austrian cavalry were now slowly advancing towards him. Up until now, Bernadotte had shown a marked reluctance to move forward since he crossed the stream at Jirschikowitz earlier that morning. Napoleon sent his aide, de Ségur, to ensure that Bernadotte carried out his orders, but the imperial messenger found the commander of I Corps agitated and anxious. Bernadotte indicated the Austrian cavalry to his front and bemoaned the fact that he had no cavalry of his own with which to oppose them, begging de Ségur to return to Napoleon and obtain some for him. De Ségur did as he requested but Napoleon had none to offer. However, now that the Austrian cavalry had withdrawn, Bernadotte cautiously advanced his corps, Rivaud edging slowing forward between the plateau and with Blasowitz to his left front, while Drouet led his division onto the lower slopes of the plateau in support of Vandamme.

Aware now of this forward movement, Constantine halted the Guard and faced them to confront this new threat. Behind him, the single bridge over the Rausnitz stream represented a very dangerous bottleneck. To gain time for his crossing, Constantine decided to strike a blow at the advancing French in an attempt to halt their advance. Forming the two Guard fusilier battalions from both the Preobrazhensk and Semeyonovsk Regiments for the attack, he held back the battalion of Izmailovsk Guards in reserve and organised the cavalry in a supporting role. Hohenlohe’s three Austrian cavalry regiments took up positions protecting the left and right rear of the Russian Guard: 5. Nassau-Kürassiere to the left with 1. Kaiser and 7. Lotheringen-Küirassiere to the right. The four battalions leading the attack advanced with much confidence, roaring ‘Oorah! Oorah! Oorah!’ and when still 300 paces from the opposing French line, they broke into a run that their officers were unable to control. Although facing a withering barrage of musketry, the Russian guardsmen did not halt and smashed straight through the first line of massed skirmishers, pushing them back onto a formed second line of infantry, which they attacked with the bayonet. These too gave way, but although elated with their success, the Russian attack ground to a halt and when French artillery opened up on them they began to fall back in disorder. But the threatening presence of the Russian Guard cavalry prevented any attempt at pursuit and kept Rivaud’s division firmly anchored to the spot.

Up on the plateau, Maréchal Soult studied the ground, now that Vandamme had cleared Miloradovitch’s men from his front. He noticed the movement of a large body of troops from high ground near Blasowitz towards the Rausnitz stream, imagining them some of Lannes’ men moving to cut off the Allied retreat, but then, near Krzenowitz they turned and headed west. The movement puzzled him and he ordered Vandamme to send a battalion out to the left flank of the division to observe it. Selecting 1/4ème Ligne, Vandamme sent their commanding officer, Major Auguste Bigarré, at their head to investigate, detailing his own ADC, Vincent, to accompany him. The undulations of the plateau hid the lower ground from view and Bigarré had advanced about 1,200 yards when Vincent, who preceded him with a few scouts, came galloping back and warned him of the presence of a large body of enemy cavalry. Bigarré instructed the battalion to move to its left and then returned with Vincent to see the enemy formation for himself. As he approached the vantage point, five squadrons of Russian cavalry began to accelerate towards his battalion that now moved into view. Bigarré and Vincent galloped back to the battalion and hurried it into square to receive the inescapable charge.

The Russian Guard cavalry had kept a watchful eye on their infantry as it fell back from the French lines, which presented a formidable obstacle to a cavalry attack. But then, descending from the plateau, a lone infantry battalion appeared. As the cavalry moved towards this tempting target, the battalion scrambled into square formation. The cavalry halted at what Bigarré described as long musket range, and instead of charging, unmasked a battery of six guns, which opened canister fire on the square, creating havoc in the packed ranks. Observing this from the high ground, Vandamme ordered the two battalions of 24ème Légère forward to support the 1/4ème, but they were too late, for the cavalry was already on the move.

Considering that the artillery had done enough damage to the square, two of the five squadrons of Horse Guards charged. The leading squadron rode into a hail of musketry and veered away, but the second squadron reached the square before the men had time to reload and smashed their way in, hacking and slashing at the infantry, who defended themselves furiously. The squadron swept right through the square, turned and rode back though it again.

Two previous bearers of the 1/4ème’s eagle standard already lay dead on the ground: now, gripped desperately by the battalion’s sergeant major, a soldier of twelve years’ experience named Saint-Cyr, it was under attack again. Three horsemen surrounded him and hacked it from his grasp leaving him with five sabre wounds to the head and right hand. By now the 1/4ème had collapsed and those still standing were fleeing back towards the plateau leaving about 200 dead and wounded on the ground. The two squadrons of Horse Guards retired eastwards to reform. Even before the battalion disintegrated, the 24ème Légère arrived, advancing in line. The remaining three Horse Guard squadrons spurred forward, and despite receiving a close range volley, smashed through the thin infantry line and sent them reeling backwards too. In the confusion and panic that followed, a soldier of the 1/4ème picked up a fallen eagle standard of 24ème Légère believing it to belong to his battalion and carried it to safety. It was now perhaps around noon as Napoleon arrived on the Pratzen Plateau to oversee the next moves.

Napoléon at the Battle of Austerlitz, by François Gérard (Galerie des Batailles, Versailles)

No sooner had he arrived than those accompanying him observed a great dark mass of men coming towards the plateau in some disorder. Maréchal Berthier commented, ‘what a splendid crowd of prisoners they are bringing back for you.’ But Napoleon was not so sure and ordered one of his aides, Général de brigade Jean Rapp, to investigate. Leading two squadrons of the Chasseurs à cheval of the Garde Impériale, supported by a squadron of the Grenadiers à cheval and a half squadron of the Mameluks, Rapp advanced down from the plateau towards the site of the Russian Guard cavalry attacks. As soon as he cleared the plateau he saw that:

The cavalry was in the midst of our squares and was cutting down our soldiers. A little to the rear we could see the masses of infantry and cavalry which formed the enemy reserve. The Russians broke contact and rushed against me, while four pieces of their horse artillery come up at the gallop and unlimbered. I advanced in good order, with brave Colonel Morland on my left, and [Chef d’Escadron] Dahlmann to my right. I told my men: “Over there you can see our brothers and friends being trodden underfoot. Avenge our comrades! Avenge our standards!”’

Rapp led his Guard cavalry straight towards the Russian Horse Guard squadrons that had just cut up 24ème Légère. The Russians, disordered by their attack on the infantry, turned away and galloped off after a brief struggle leaving the chasseurs à cheval to ride on into the ranks of the reforming Preobrazhensk and Semeyonovsk Guard battalions, as these infantrymen defended themselves with the bayonet. The French cavalry soon received support from the half squadron of Mameluks, who slashed their way into the ranks of the Preobrazhensk battalions, currently dispersed as skirmishers in the vineyards and already engaged with Rapp’s chasseurs. But now Rapp’s formations were disordered and Constantine took the opportunity to send in the leading three squadrons of the Russian Chevalier Garde to break their attack and free his beleaguered infantry. The charge met with success, causing Rapp to withdraw and reform while allowing the Russian battalions to draw back. But their respite was brief, as the rest of the French Garde Impériale cavalry now joined Rapp. The great cavalry battle – Imperial Guard against Imperial Guard – that followed is difficult to recount in much detail from the accounts that survive. Indeed one observer, Coignet, a soldier in the Grenadiers à Pied of Napoleon’s Guard, described how: ‘For a quarter of an hour there was a desperate struggle, and that quarter of an hour seemed to us an age. We could see nothing through the smoke and dust.’

The Russian Guard cavalry drawn from the Horse Guards, Chevalier Garde and Guard Cossacks mustered about 1,800 men – the Guard Hussars appear not to have become directly involved in the fighting. Against them the French Garde mustered about 1,100 men, from the Chasseurs à cheval, Grenadiers à cheval and Mameluks. Although short on numbers, the well-disciplined French cavalry were able to withdraw from the fighting and fall back on their nearest infantry formations, reorganise and re-enter the fray in formed bodies. The Russians did not have this luxury, as their own Guard infantry battalions were caught up in the mêlée and unable to fire for fear of shooting their own horsemen. It became clear that the French were gaining the upper hand and Russian casualties mounted alarmingly, particularly in the Chevalier Garde. In particular, the fourth squadron of this elite formation was all but destroyed – only eighteen men reputedly making good their escape – and its wounded commander, Prince Repnin-Volkonsky, captured and presented to Napoleon.

Russian reports claim that the Chevalier Garde lost sixteen officers, 200 men and 300 horses killed and wounded. The Guards battalions extracted themselves from the maelstrom and fell back on the support of the Izmailovsk battalion, then all continued back towards Krzenowitz. The battered Russian cavalry also broke off the engagement and fell back too, their retreat protected by the Guard Hussars who hovered threateningly to the north, and the stand made by Hohenlohe’s three Austrian cavalry regiments. The belated appearance above Krzenowitz of the three battalions of Russian Guard Grenadiers, numbering almost 2,000 men, but suggesting to the French the arrival of a new strong Russian formation, limited any further significant advance in this direction.

While the great cavalry battle to their front delayed Rivaud’s movements further, Drouet had finally led his division up onto the plateau to the rear of Vandamme. The retreating battalion of 4ème Ligne, which had fled back onto the plateau and streamed past Napoleon without stopping, eventually rallied when they rejoined Vandamme’s division, and despite their recent traumas, took an active part in the latter stages of the battle, unaware they had lost an eagle.

With the Pratzen Plateau secured by the gradual arrival of Bernadotte’s corps, Napoleon turned his back on the northern flank. It was now clear that his grand plan to swing Lannes and Murat unopposed into the rear of the Austro-Russian army had failed, but it was also clear that the attacks by Saint-Hilaire and Vandamme had split the Allied army in two. Leaving Lannes and Murat to drive Bagration back, Napoleon issued new orders that he hoped would lead to the destruction of the left wing of the Allied army, which still remained locked in the Goldbach valley.

On the extreme right of the Allied line, General Maior Prince Bagration, like Constantine, received no fresh instructions from army headquarters. His original orders, which he viewed with little enthusiasm, required him to hold his position until, becoming aware of progress by the Allied left wing, he was to advance directly ahead and, initially, capture the Santon. Accordingly, he had pushed forward at about 10.00am but encountered extremely strong and determined opposition from Lannes’ V Corps and Murat’s cavalry. His attempt on the Santon had failed and now the French cavalry had pushed his own horsemen back after a series of ferocious mêlées. The French had secured the village of Blasowitz and the Russian Imperial Guard appeared to be moving further away, cutting his last tenuous link with the rest of the army. Bagration abandoned any offensive plans and looked to the preservation of his command.

With the Russian cavalry driven back behind their infantry to reform once more, Lannes ordered his two infantry divisions forward: Suchet on the left, Caffarelli on the right. In the face of this advancing wall of infantry, Bagration ordered all eighteen guns of his battalion artillery to open fire, along with twelve from a horse artillery battery. The brunt of this bombardment fell on the 34ème and 40ème Ligne of Suchet’s division and 30ème Ligne from Caffarelli’s, while also mortally wounding GB Valhubert, who commanded a brigade in Suchet’s second line.

With the French infantry brought to a halt by this concentrated firepower, Lannes drew all his available artillery together and focused on knocking out the Russian guns. The more powerful French artillery came out on top in this duel and after a deadly exchange, the Russian horse battery was forced to withdraw with mounting casualties, leaving just the Russian battalion guns to support the infantry against the increasing threat. Lannes pushed his infantry on once more but now Suchet’s division became the target for a series of desperate cavalry charges by Bagration’s reformed horsemen.

However, assailed by musketry, canister fire and then French cavalry countercharges, all they could manage was to slow this advance. Caffarelli’s division, operating south of the Brünn-Olmütz road, encountered less opposition and pushed ahead of Suchet’s men to threaten Bagration’s left flank, secured on the villages of Krug and Holubitz. In fact, the garrison of these villages was not strong, both defended by the men of 6. Jäger under General Maior Ulanius – who had already suffered considerably at Schöngrabern – with recovering cavalry formations to their rear. Sometime around noon, GB Demont’s brigade (17ème and 30ème Ligne) and part of Général de brigade Debilly’s brigade (61ème Ligne), advanced determinedly against the two villages.

Up until now the jäger had managed to repulse any French cavalry showing an interest in their position, but heavily outnumbered by Caffarelli’s infantry – and despite an initial stout resistance – French troops drove 6. Jäger out at the point of the bayonet. However, despite a lack of support, Ulanius did manage to extricate some of his men and reach safety.

With the villages of Krug and Holubitz now in French hands, Caffarelli redirected 17ème and 30ème Ligne against the left flank of Bagration’s threatened line. To oppose them the Russian commander sent his reserve infantry, the Arkhangelogord Musketeer Regiment, commanded by General Maior Nikolai Kamenski II. Although the French and Russian infantry were fairly evenly matched, the French were always able to bring up supporting cavalry and artillery to disrupt the Russian lines whenever their own infantry fell back to reform for a fresh assault. At times the Arkhangelogord Musketeers were under attack from all sides, and at one point faced a charge by d’Hautpoul’s 5ème Cuirassier, suffering horrendous casualties in the process. This regiment, which marched into battle with about 2,000 men, later showed losses of 1,625. Kamenski II had his horse shot from under him and only escaped capture when another officer gave up his own mount.

With Suchet’s division pressing him more and more from the front, Caffarelli making inroads on his left flank and Murat’s cavalry ready to exploit any opportunity, Bagration gave the order to retreat. Despite constant French cavalry attacks, the Russian infantry held together, supported by self-sacrificing charges by the exhausted Russian horsemen, and fell back steadily, abandoning the road to Austerlitz and reoccupying the high ground north of the Posoritz post house. However, this constant pressure eventually caused a split and the Russian cavalry of V Column, commanded by General-Adjutant Uvarov broke away. In his report Uvarov wrote:

‘we continued to fight with fervour, from which the losses on both sides were substantial. At the same time artillery and infantry of the enemy, moving on my flanks, opened such a fire that even with all the courage of the regiments which were under my command, we had to retreat across the river situated behind us.

Podpolkovnik Ermolov of the horse artillery recalled the confusion that then prevailed:

‘Our losses multiplied even more when the men crowded together at the very boggy stream, over which there were very few bridges, and it was not possible to cross it in any other way than via a bridge. Here our fleeing cavalry plunged in wading, and a lot of men and horses drowned, while I, abandoned by the regiments to which I was assigned, stopped my battery, attempting by the means of a short range action to stop the cavalry pursuing us. The first pieces of ordnance that I was able to release from the press of our own cavalry, making several shots, were captured, my men were cut down and I was captured as a prisoner. The division of General-Adjutant Uvarov, crowding at the bridge, had the time to look around and see that it was running away from a force small in number and that the majority of the forces were concentrated on the heights and were not coming down into the valley. Those who pursued us were then forced to retreat and exterminated, and my freedom was returned to me shortly, when I was already close to the French line.’

When Ermolov returned and crossed the Rausnitz stream he found Uvarov’s command still in great disarray at the foot of the hill held by the Russian Guard Grenadiers. With them now stood the tsar, prompting Ermolov to observe that ‘there were no confidants present, on his face there was a look of supreme grief, and his eyes were filled with tears.’

Bagration continued his withdrawal in the face of ceaseless French cavalry attacks and artillery bombardment, drawing back across the Brünn-Olmütz road onto high ground overlooking it between Welleschowitz and Rausnitz. The Pavlograd Hussars suffered at the hands of the French cavalry as they protected this final move, but their sacrifice gained enough time for Bagration to take up this new position. Lannes and Murat now advanced to occupy the position abandoned by Bagration north of the Posoritz post house and found themselves in possession of row upon row of Russian knapsacks. It was the habit of the Russian soldier to take off his knapsack before entering battle to allow more freedom of movement, leaving behind him all his meagre personal belongings. But if the French soldiers expected to find luxuries and warm clothing they were disappointed. Captaine Lejeune, Berthier’s ADC, reported that each bag contained only:

‘triptych reliquaries, each containing an image of St Christopher carrying the infant Saviour over the water, with an equal number of pieces of black bread containing a good deal more straw and bran than barley or wheat. Such was the sacred and simple baggage of the Russians!’

Bagration must have been wondering just how long he could continue to hold his force together against these constant French attacks when help arrived. Advancing down the road from Olmütz with all speed appeared an Austrian artillery officer, Major Frierenberger, at the head of a column of twelve guns. As he came level with Welleschowitz he turned off and positioned his guns on the high ground rising to the north of the road. The official Austrian account of the incident continues the story:

‘The army he faced was a victorious one. It had deployed at the Posoritz post house, and was now in full advance, firing with its powerful artillery against whatever Russian troops and batteries came into view. The Austrian battery now opened up in its turn against the main battery of the French and their leading troops. The Austrians shot with such extraordinary skill that they compelled the enemy to pull back their batteries in a matter of minutes. Some of the hostile pieces were silenced altogether, and the advance of the whole French left wing was held back.’

The battle on the northern flank now ground to a halt. Lannes and Murat had expected an almost unopposed advance but became embroiled in a lengthy and costly duel that had lasted almost three hours. In the face of the resolute defence now offered by these fresh Austrian guns, with their own ammunition supplies almost completely expended and their cavalry exhausted, the two corps forming the French left wing halted, and like Bernadotte’s I Corps, awaited developments elsewhere on the battlefield.

Granted this unexpected respite, the survivors of Bagration’s Army Advance Guard and to the south, IV and V Columns, and the Russian Guard, did what they could to instil some sense of order in their greatly depleted ranks. These latter formations nervously occupied the eastern bank of the Rausnitz stream, anticipating a renewed French assault at any moment, but it never came. Napoleon saw a greater prize elsewhere.

* Captured Russian cavalry officer to Lieutenant Octave Levasseur, of the French horse artillery, 2 December 1805.

Early Ironclads: Europe and America I

Laid down at Castellamare in 1877 and launched in 1880, Italia took Brin’s revolutionary design of Duilio (1876) to an extreme.

While France and Britain laid down successors to the Gloire and Warrior, following their own different patterns, other European nations joined in. Two of the first were the rival powers of Austria and newly-united Italy. Indeed Italy ordered two small ironclads from France before the first Italian Parliament sat in March 1861, and that year she also ordered two larger vessels of the size and style of the Gloire-type from a New York shipyard. Similarly Austria started with two small ironclad corvettes, and in 1861 began three larger ‘Gloire’ ironclads. Russia ordered a 3,300-ton ironclad, with a projecting ram bow, from the Warrior’s builders in 1861, and another the following year, meanwhile converting two timber frigates; Ottoman Turkey ordered three 6,400-ton ironclads also from England, and Spain started building against the US Navy with a home-grown 6,200-tonner, at the same time ordering a rather larger vessel from France; other minor naval powers followed suit.

Meanwhile across the Atlantic, two strange deviant types were being hammered together in the more urgent conditions of the American Civil War. The secessionist southern states, inferior to the northern states in ships, shipbuilding and engineering capacity, had started the competition. The secretary of their small navy claimed: ‘Inequality of numbers may be compensated by invulnerability . . . a new and formidable type must be created.’1 The screw frigate Merrimack had fallen into their hands at the occupation of Norfolk, Virginia, with lower hull timbers sound and engines capable of repair, so they cut her down to the waterline and built upon the lower body an armoured battery or casemate. This occupied some two-thirds of the hull length, and was built of 20-inch pine sloping inwards from the waterline at about 45 degrees; 4-inches of oak was laid over this and then two layers of railway irons rolled down to plates 8-inches wide by 2-inches thick. This casemate was pierced all round with 14 ports for 10 guns, four of which were 6-inch or 7-inch calibre rifles, six 9-inch smooth-bores; a single funnel projected through the top. There were no masts or sails.

This craft, which had a cast-iron ram attached to her bow, was only an extemporized floating battery which would have been overwhelmed by even moderate seas; nevertheless reports of her construction caused a little concern in the North, turning by degrees into a great scare which allowed a Swedish engineer inventor named John Ericsson to gain approval in September 1861 for a novel ironclad, the outlines of which had been maturing in his mind for some 20 years, despite repeated rebuffs. His idea was an ‘impregnable fort’ in the shape of a revolving armoured turret ‘in the plain cylindrical form in order that attack from all quarters of the compass may be resisted with equal certainty’ . . . mounted upon a wide armoured deck whose sides would be carried below the waterline and overhang a narrow raft hull, containing the machinery, by such a margin that any shot would have to ‘pass through 20 feet of water’ to strike the hull, while the propeller and rudder on the centreline would be ‘absolutely protected’—this last feature Ericsson considered ‘perhaps the most important’.2

As built the ‘impregnable fort’ of this craft, named Monitor, was a drum 20 feet in diameter by 9 feet high, formed of eight layers of 1-inch plating, inside which were mounted two 11-inch smooth bore guns each firing 166lb balls at a very slow rate, something like one aimed round every seven minutes. The 1-inch thick iron deck on which this turret turned floated some 2-feet above waterlevel with armoured sides extending down to 3-feet below the water. This was the weakest part of the design; as the volunteer crew found when they sailed her out of the sheltered waters of New York, open seas swept over the deck and leaked through between it and the turret and down the openings for two collapsible funnels and two ventilators abaft the turret, besides juddering up under the armoured overhang as if to tear it from the hull. She was not in any sense a sea-going ironclad; in this and in her laminated armour, inferior to the thinner but homogenous plates of the European ironclads, she resembled the Merrimack. Neither could have lived with the Gloire or the Warrior. They enter the story, not because they were an advance or a lesson, only because they were the first ironclads in action against ships.

By freak chance the two vessels were completed within days of one another, and when on the morning of Saturday, 8 March 1862, the Merrimack, renamed Virginia, steamed unsteadily out from Norfolk to give battle to a Federal blockading force in Hampton Roads, the Monitor, two days out from New York, was struggling down the East coast just 10 hours away. These 10 hours were important though; they gave the Virginia time to prove in action de Lôme’s forecast about a lion amongst a flock of sheep, also Paixhans’ suggestion that the simple management of steam batteries would cancel enemy advantages in seamanship. For while the Federal force was composed of three fine frigates and a sloop manned by American sailors renowned for skill and panache, the Virginia’s crew was made up largely of Confederate soldiers with only a few days’ training aboard.

So the battery steamed slowly across bright water to where the timber sloop Cumberland and the veteran frigate Congress lay at anchor in a shoal channel near Newport News. Both thought so little of the danger that they remained at anchor and simply waited at their guns while ‘the thing’ they had been hearing so much about, swung its ugly battery towards them. When the Cumberland judged it within range, she fired her broadside of 9-inch smooth bores; soon the Congress joined in with a few 8-inch and her main battery of 32-pounders, and shore guns added to the flying round shot, but any balls which hit simply bounced off the sloping iron, neither making any impression nor diverting the battery’s progress towards the Cumberland which she eventually rammed below the fore channels. The sloop listed as water rushed in, and half an hour later she was gone, the first victim of ramming since the days of the galley. The Congress, meanwhile, realizing how irresistible was this opponent, set topsails and jib, slipped cable and making towards Newport News ran aground; the Virginia followed, took up a raking position off her stern and, silencing her, forced her to strike and set her on fire.

That evening the Monitor—directed by the supreme dramatist—arrived in the Roads; the Virginia’s crew made her out by the glow of the burning frigate. News of impending conflict between the two armoured craft spread quickly along both shores, and the next morning, which again dawned bright, spectators were out in crowds to watch the joust. The Virginia did not disappoint them. She steamed out at 8 o’clock, making for one of the grounded wooden frigates expecting the Monitor to interpose, as she did, and there developed a ponderous, close duel which proved mightily indecisive. Neither had the weapons to pierce the other’s armour as the Virginia was firing shell or grape, the Monitor cast iron balls which shattered on impact. Besides this her turret, which was turned away from the enemy during the seven minutes’ loading interval to prevent any accident to the gun port stoppers, developed the faults of all prototypes; the turning engine was hard to start and still harder to stop and the crew took to firing on the swing as the target appeared briefly through the ports. The Virginia directed volleys of musketry towards the swinging ports with as little effect as her shells against the armour, then decided to make for her original prey, the grounded frigate Minnesota. The Monitor followed and a ramming duel developed. This too was indecisive as the Monitor failed in her clumsy passes while the Virginia, which succeeded once, had lost her ram in the affair of the previous day and so made no impression. As the vessels came together the Monitor fired one of her great pieces with the muzzle almost touching the Virginia’s casemate, but although a section was crushed in, it was not pierced. The southern commander, for his part, called away the boarders, but before they could scramble over the vessels had drifted apart. So it continued until the vessels finally parted after some four hours with some casualties and a little damage to both sides, but no lives lost. The result was a draw, although the Monitor could claim to have prevented further damage to the Federal timber ships.

The Virginia was repaired, given more armour below her vulnerable waterline, and sallied out again in April, capturing some merchant vessels; the Monitor failed to meet her, so this time the southern vessel could claim to have achieved her purpose. Then, before she could put into operation a plan to capture the Monitor by boarding and driving in wedges between her turret and deck, Federal troops forced the Confederates to evacuate Norfolk, and she was burned by her crew to keep her from enemy hands. As for the Monitor she foundered later on a voyage around the coast.

However both these famous prototypes were followed by descendants which took part in the naval struggle along the rivers and bays of the southern states, and provided material for later naval thinkers to ponder as they searched for lessons which might help to clarify the new naval warfare. For instance a Southern floating battery named the Albemarle, laid down in a cornfield up the Roanoke river and armoured on the style of the Virginia with iron worked into shape over an open forge, made another successful ramming attack under fire in 1864. And this same vessel was later the victim of a daring torpedo boat attack. The boat, commanded by a young lieutenant named Cushing, had to drive at and over a barrier of logs which surrounded the ironclad, so that the torpedo, a case of gunpowder held out on a spar over the bow, could be brought into contact with the target and then fired with a pull on a line attached to its detonator. Cushing accomplished this extraordinary feat in the dark and under fire with so much presence of mind that he was able to sink the Albemarle and afterwards escape by swimming down the river.

A contemporary lithograph of Manhattan at sea

Later there was the famous episode at Mobile Bay when Admiral Faragut, crying ‘Damn the torpedoes! Go ahead!’ steamed the Northern fleet under his command close under the guns of the Confederate Fort Mogan and through a double line of mines (then known as torpedoes) into the Bay, miraculously losing only one vessel and her crew as he did so. This unfortunate vessel was the Tecumseh, an enlarged ‘monitor’. There were three other monitors with Farragut and one of these, the Manhattan, which carried two huge 15-inch smooth-bores in her 10-inch armoured turret, was responsible for putting paid to the most powerful Southern descendant of the Virginia, the Tennessee which came out to do battle with Farragut’s entire fleet.

These and other events of the Civil War were analysed in works on naval warfare, naval gunnery and tactics for many years following, as there was little other modern action proof to go on. But really the armaments revolution was moving too fast for the ‘lessons’ to be of value, and the Southern ships and weapons were too extemporized to be considered as much more than the desperate essays of an agricultural community: the most effective of the ‘torpedoes’ which Farragut charged over were made of lager kegs waterproofed with pitch; the armour of the floating batteries, while ingenious, was too sectional; the guns were not designed for armour-piercing. The ironclad actions were fought in sheltered waters, and there were few conclusions to be drawn for open sea. Perhaps most instructive was the cruise of the Southern commerce raider, Alabama, which destroyed a number of northern merchant vessels and evaded capture for almost two years before USS Kearsage finally sank her. This lesson was not lost on the French, nor on the British whose merchant marine was particularly exposed to such a form of warfare.

Early Ironclads: Europe and America II

König Wilhelm was also designed for ramming. Between 1862 and 1893 more warships were sunk or heavily damaged by accidental ramming than were sunk in battle.

Lissa naval battle, July 20th,1866; the Austrian navy against the Italian fleet. The RN Re d’Italia is sinking after being rammed by Tegetthoff’s flagship, the SMS Ferdinand Max.

The next ironclad battle occurred in 1866, when the fleets of Austria and Italy met off the island of Lissa in the Adriatic. This time there was real meat for analysis, or so it appeared, for the first-line vessels of both powers were sea-going warships in direct descent from the Gloire, some of the most recent construction. More important perhaps, it was the only fleet action which took place until the end of the century, so it had to be picked bare.

The conflict was an offshoot of Bismarck’s grand policy for removing diverse north German states from Austria’s orbit and uniting them under Prussian leadership. He arranged a war with Austria, first tempting Italy into an alliance with the prospect of Austrian Venetia and Lombardy, territories they needed to complete their unification. But, while Bismarck’s army quickly defeated the Austrians at Sadowa, the Italians were beaten at Custozza; this was particularly embarrassing for the new nation, and weakened their position in any peace negotiations which Bismarck might achieve. They turned to their fleet. On paper it was superb. Since unification they had spent some £12 millions on it, millions they could ill afford, and materially it was far superior to the Austrian Navy which had been neglected since the initial burst into ironclad construction. However, the Italians’ ships and armament had come from different countries and they had no pool of marine engineers or modern gunners; nor, it seems, a tradition of naval discipline. The new force was a young and artificial creation, and the Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Count Persano, seems to have been overwhelmed by the practical difficulties of the situation. He did little training and, when the war started, nothing offensive.

The Minister of Marine tried to sting him to action. ‘Would you tell the people who in their mad vanity believe their sailors the best in the world, that in spite of the £12 millions we have added to their debt, the squadron we have collected is one incapable of facing the enemy?’3 When Persano still showed reluctance, he was ordered to take the Austrian-held and fortified island of Lissa, across the Adriatic from Ancona. His attempts to do so were reported to the Austrian Commander-in-Chief, Rear Admiral Tegetthoff, who put to sea to fight him.

Tegetthoff flew his flag in the Ferdinand Max; she was a barque-rigged 5,140 ton vessel on the lines of the Gloire launched the previous year with complete armour plating reaching a maximum thickness of 5-inches on 26-inches of timber backing. However, while she had been designed for a powerful battery of Krupp rifles on each broadside, the Prussian firm had been backward in supply and instead she had been fitted with 16 obsolescent smooth-bores throwing 56lb projectiles. She and a sister ship, Habsburg, which suffered the same disadvantage, were the spearhead of the fleet. In addition there were four smaller ironclad frigates of 3,000–3,600 tons which mounted in total 74 62-pounder rifles together with 66 smooth-bores. There were also numerous timber vessels including a ship-of-the-line, Kaiser.

The Italian fleet was more imposing. The flagship Re d’Italia and her sister Re di Portogallo were 5,700 tons, rather larger than the Austrian big ships and with rather thicker armour, although built to the same style. But their main theoretical advantage lay in their batteries; the flagship mounted 30 Armstrong 100-pounder rifles and two rifles throwing 150lb shells, while her sister ship had 26 of the 100-pounders and two throwing 300lb shells. In addition there were five ironclad frigates just over 4,000 tons mounting a total of 108 rifles and a few smooth bores, two smaller armoured vessels and a number of timber craft. Altogether the principal units in the Italian fleet were larger than their Austrian opposite numbers and mounted 200 modern rifled guns against only 74 smaller Austrian pieces.

The Italians also had a curious 4,000 ton vessel known as a turret ram, the Affondatore. Her design was probably due to the successful rammings of the American Civil War for she had a de Bergerac of a beak extending 26 feet; she also had a turret mounting two powerful Armstrong 300-pounder rifles, hence her designation, and she was armoured with 5-inch iron plate. The Italians expected great things from her.

So much for matériel comparisons: what was thought more important when the naval post mortems came to be written was the comparison between the querulous Count Persano and Tegetthoff, who ordered his mind and his fleet in a more positive way, exercised his ships and guns frequently, and was in all respects an inspiring leader.

He was certainly an agressive one. On the morning of 20 July, having sighted the Italian fleet, he formed his ships into three divisions behind one another each in double quarterline, like three arrowheads, with the ironclads leading, and charged at full fleet speed—something like 9 knots. His intention was to go through the Italian line and provoke a mêlée, partly because he knew the Italian rifles had the greater effective range and he needed to get in close, where the ‘concentration’ fire in which he had trained his gunners might tell, but primarily to ram, since his shells could not pierce the Italian armour. As the Ferdinand Max neared the grey-painted Italian vessels he signalled. ‘Charge the enemy and sink him’.

Persano, who had collected his fleet together from various positions around the island, intended to fight a line battle and make use of his heavier guns; he was not averse to ramming but he meant to disable some enemy ships with broadsides first and ordered his captains to engage unarmoured ships at 1,000 metres, armoured ships not outside 500 metres. Then he formed up with his ironclads in three divisions in line ahead, steaming north-north-east to meet the Austrians coming down south-east, placing his flagship in the centre division and his turret ram just to starboard, thus on the disengaged side of the centre division. His unarmoured ships were ordered to the disengaged side, distant 3,000 metres. So far his tactics appear sound. But then he decided to shift his flag from the Re d’Italia to the turret ram Affondatore; this meant stopping the ships concerned and a gap opened up between the first division of three frigates, and the rest of the line. Meanwhile the first division, disregarding orders, opened fire at Tegetthoff’s approaching ironclads, which were still about 1,000 metres off. The great clouds of smoke from their broadsides drifted astern, concealing the widening gap which Persano had created by his eccentric behaviour, and it was through this gap and smoke that Tegetthoff’s whole ironclad division, holding its fire, soon passed.

Once they were through the line Tegetthoff’s seven ironclads formed into two groups, one of which turned north to chase the Italian van (itself turning in to attack the Austrian unarmoured rear) while the main body of four frigates fell on the Italian centre. Meanwhile the second Austrian V formation of timber ships headed by the line-of-battle ship Kaiser, reached the Italian rear and, attempting to run down whatever they could see, provoked a mêlée which quickly became shrouded in dense gunsmoke. The situation was now exactly as Tegetthoff had hoped, a close, confused scramble, all central control lost and with it any possibility of cool, stand-off gunnery. Opportunism ruled the day.

It is impossible to follow all the contortions the ships were put through; the main object on both sides was to ram any enemy as they made him out, and while they held on with tight nerves for their target, often charging towards them for the same purpose, the guns’ crews waited for the shock and the chance to get in a broadside as they came together or raced past The collsions, near misses, touchings and scrapings, many between friends unable to get out of the way in time, were numerous, but at first none were fatal. Even the Affondatore failed to bring her prow into contact with such a ripe target as the Kaiser in two attempts, although she wrought fearful damage in the timber upperworks with 300-pounder shells at pistol-shot range. The Kaiser for her part, passed on from this desperate affair to try and ram the large frigate Re di Portogallo, which was steaming at her with the same intent, and spinning her wheel over at the last moment made contact abreast the Italian’s engine room, but at far too fine an angle to enter. Instead she scraped down the iron side, losing her bowsprit and taking a broadside of shells which brought down her foremast, turned her gun decks into shambles and started numerous fires. The Maria Pia, astern of the Portogallo, put two more shells into her as she came past and she retired to put out fires and reorganize the fighting decks.

Meanwhile, around what had been the Italian centre, Tegetthoff, who had been no more successful in ramming than Persano, saw through the fog of battle the Re d’ltalia apparently disabled; he made straight for her, his flag captain conning from the mizzen rigging. The Italian’s rudder had been damaged by collision or a lucky shell and she couldn’t turn her side as the Ferdinand Max’s stem approached at full speed, something over 10 knots, and drove straight in, tearing a gap of about 140 square feet, half below water. The Austrian flagship reversed engines and withdrew; the Re d’Italia listed slowly to starboard, suddenly lost stability, rolled to port and went down. Meanwhile a small Italian gunboat, Palestro, dashing in heroically to aid the ironclad, received a shell in her wardroom which set it alight and forced her to retire; later she blew up as the flames reached the magazine.

These were the only ship losses of the battle. For the rest, the astonishing series of abortive charges, scrapes and accidental collisions punctuated by broadsides at point-blank swinging targets continued until early afternoon. Then Persano led his scarred ships back to Ancona, while Teggethoff anchored his off Lissa, evidently the victor in possession of the field.

This battle again confirmed the value of armour as protection for ships and guns’ crews. The Austrian ironclads fired 1,386 shot or shell, the three largest of their unarmoured ships fired another 1,400, and the rest of their fleet joined in as well, but the total Italian casualties, apart from those drowned in the Re d’Italia and blown up in the Palestro, were eight killed, 40 wounded. The Italian fleet fired at least 1,400 shells, probably many more, but the total Austrian casualties in their armoured division were three killed, 30 wounded; the unprotected Kaiser meanwhile lost 24 killed, 75 wounded. Armour was not the only reason for such comparatively low casualties: another was the small proportion of hits, and even smaller proportion of hulling hits. For instance the Austrian flagship received a total of 42 hits, but only eight were against her armour, the rest were above. This was not unusual in fights between rolling ships, particularly with indifferently trained gunners, but in this case it was exaggerated by the twisting, turning, listing, passing nature of the fight, which although close, forced gun captains to fire the instant they saw a target briefly through the ports. Effective hulling gunnery required steady ships and steady courses. However, hits on thick armour failed to pierce even from the closest range.

But the main lesson drawn from the battle was the power of the ram. The dramatic picture of the Re d’ltalia disappearing at one blow, while so much gunnery had hardly accomplished anything, drove out all power of rational analysis. The facts, clear enough in all reports, were that ramming, tried and accidentally achieved scores of times by dozens of ships in ideal conditions, had failed every time it had been attempted against a ship under command; the single success had been against a ship unable to steer. Individual reports showed how a ship about to be rammed could, by a sudden turn of the helm, herself become the rammer, though at too sharp an angle to be decisive.

However, it must be remembered that steam was still in its infancy at sea, and naval officers, sail-trained and sail-thinking, while professing to despise engines, held them in some awe. Besides there was already a strong school, apparently logical and of French origin, in favour of ramming. The argument was: engines gave free movement, thus the ability to close and bring the whole gigantic momentum of the ship against the enemy at his most vulnerable point below the waterline, below armour. And compared with the energy of a ship in motion even the largest gun was little better than a pea-shooter. Such a logical approach took little account of an enemy’s evasive tactics. Practical experiment with models or small steam boats might have put it into perspective and explained the extraordinary inefficiency of the ram in its own conditions at Lissa. This is clear from hindsight and in the light of modern theory; what was clear in 1866 was that the ram had proved itself in battle, and this led naval constructors and most naval tacticians up false trails for decades.

On the other hand armour was undoubtedly master over the gun at the time, and at first it was not evident that the situation was going to change; so while the ram was overestimated, it was a reasonable addition to the armament of a warship at the time. The mistake designers and tacticians made was to treat it as almost the prime feature of a ship, bending other features such as the arrangement of guns, or fleets, to suit.

The other two lessons extracted from the battle were that morale counted for more than material force, and that line ahead was a bad formation for steam warships. Like the conclusion on the ram, both these were already well established ideas among those who liked to theorize about naval warfare, and Teggetthoff’s victory gave them practical respectability.

Probably the real conclusion to be drawn about the tactics of Lissa is that they were transitional. They belonged to a brief period during which the armourclad ship was impregnable to the great gun, and they appear to parallel the early days of the gunned sailing ship when the stout timbers of an Atlantic galleon could resist the heavy guns of the time and contests had to be decided by boarding and entering. All the principles of the massed charge and the attempts to clap vessels together distinguished that period too. And it was only as the great gun became sufficiently powerful to decide an action without recourse to boarding that tactics changed, and ships changed to take account of them.

As for Persano’s line tactics, they were not pursued with determination, indeed they were thrown away. There can be few more extraordinary lapses in fleet command than his self-provoked break in formation in the face of an enemy under a mile away and bearing down upon him. As a result it is not possible to say whether a steady, compact line holding its fire until Teggetthoff had closed to 500 metres would have been successful in preventing a mêlée at the opening; the chances are that effective range was too low, ironclads too invulnerable and the guns too slow in loading and firing for such a cool order to have disorganized a resolute enemy like Teggetthoff.

General Luigi Cadorna: A Reappraisal

The year 1866 was not an auspicious time to join the Italian Army. The service was still reeling from the disastrous influence of its constabulary duties during the brigantaggio, the period from the unification of Italy to the late 1860s, when the primary function of the army was maintaining law and order, and was not, therefore, organized to engage a major European opponent. Although theoretically reforms had been set in motion since the late 1850s, the Italian Army defeated at Custozza in June continued to be plagued by natural inertia, the causes of which were a rigid officers corps, a lack of operational precedents, and a dearth of natural resources and national cohesion. It was in this atmosphere that Luigi Cadorna began his military career.

When he joined the army, Cadorna, like his colleagues, faced slow advancement and poor salaries. However, certain ambitious and motivated officers were interested in the study of the art and science of war, forming a ‘dedicated and compact’ corps. Luigi showed potential and an exceptional ability to organize, and in 1892 at forty-two years of age, he earned his colonelcy. Nevertheless, he was overshadowed in many respects by his father. Raffaele Cadorna had enjoyed much success during his career, fighting in 1848–9, and serving in the Piedmontese Army in the Crimea. In 1866, his corps was one of the few noteworthy Italian success stories, which helped to distance him from Italy’s dismal failures in the Seven Weeks’ War. Raffaele’s crowning achievement came in September 1870, when he completed the unification of Italy by capturing Rome during the Porta Pia while the French were fighting the Franco-Prussian War.

The years after the demise of France as Europe’s chief land power was a monumental era in the evolution of warfare. It was in this climate that Luigi formulated the ideas that were to prevail later in his military tenure. He was quick to see that the Italian Army had to modernize in order to compete in European military circles. However, this was easier to conceptualize than it was to implement. The need for quick mobilization was readily apparent, but in Italy, with its mountainous terrain and regional population differences, the new standards of military rail organization proved difficult to realize. Military modernization was expensive; and although Italy spent most of her national expenditure on the armed forces during this period, by August 1914 Italy was still considered in its military infancy. Cadorna was just reaching the higher command positions as the Italian Army grappled with these imposing dilemmas.

Four years after being promoted to colonel, Luigi was appointed to the General Staff, and there had to wait fourteen years before obtaining corps command. When the Chief of Staff position became vacant around the same time, Cadorna was considered, but was passed over for the more pliant Alberto Pollio, although many believed that Cadorna was better suited to address many of the army’s more urgent problems. However, Pollio was pro-German, and therefore seemed to be a safe choice in this era of diplomatic and military instability. Pollio continued to plan military operations with Germany and Austria-Hungary, although the alliance had been deteriorating for some time. Indeed, the reason that Italy joined the Triplice in 1882 was the need to capitalize on German military prestige. The central difficulty with the alliance was that the national antagonism between Rome and Vienna hindered diplomatic and military co-operation, and by the turn of the century, many European commentators questioned its validity. From 1902 to the beginning of the First World War, Italy negotiated with Great Britain and France, although the Italian government did not want to see the French continue to grow into a Mediterranean power. This created an enormous rift between Italy’s political and military leaders, for the politicians kept the negotiations secret, and continued to do so right until Italy declared war in May 1915. To operate in a diplomatic and military climate that was basically Clausewitzian in nature, communications between the heads of state and the military leaders were a necessity. Correspondence between the Italian government and the military establishment was virtually non-existent, and when the representatives did talk about crucial matters, the meetings were normally strained and led to misunderstandings. Furthermore, the lines of communication between the army and the navy were worse than existed between the politicians and the generals. These conditions so hampered Italian military operations that Cadorna must have felt that he was an island in a sea of confusion. With no reliable information coming from any quarter, Cadorna became isolated in his own theories. This made him appear like a hapless and disconnected commander, out of touch with reality, and unable to keep his finger on the pulse of contemporary diplomatic and military attitudes.

Just after assuming his country’s highest military rank after Pollio’s death in July 1914, it seems that many of Cadorna’s characteristics became readily apparent. He was born of an aristocratic family in the northern Italian region of Piedmont, and therefore it was assumed that he inherited many ‘Nordic’ traits from his Germanic ancestors. He was a firm disciplinarian, who was often regarded as cold and indifferent to the conditions of his front-line soldiers. However, Cadorna was preparing the Italian Army for the storm of the First World War from the time he was appointed Chief-of-Staff until Italian mobilization, for he needed to rectify numerous weaknesses before the army could become an effective force. Cadorna was not a ‘from the front’ style of commander, choosing to lead by telephone and courier, staying behind the lines to perceive the front as a whole instead of becoming fixated on one particular sector. The truth of the matter was that most of his contemporaries could not produce solutions to the complexities of modern attritional warfare, and it was Cadorna’s misfortune that many considered the Italian Army defeated by its reputation before it was ever engaged in military operations.

In a conundrum rare in the annals of military-diplomatic history, Italy needed to align herself with the leading land and naval powers to achieve anything diplomatically. Desiring to manoeuvre behind the shield of German military might, Italian diplomats also had to consider that the Italian peninsula presented over 4100 miles of indefensible coastline, therefore Great Britain and the spectre of the Royal Navy heavily influenced any Italian military venture. Although this difficulty was not as severe just after 1871, due to the awe in which Germany was held after her impressive defeat of France, as the Royal Navy continued to assert its presence in world affairs, Italy’s diplomatic bonds with Germany and Austria-Hungary weakened. At the time of the Sarajevo assassination, Italy was in a quandary about what she would do in case of a European war. When Cadorna assumed command, he fell straight into this abyss, for he was not kept abreast of the vicissitudes in Italian diplomacy. While Italian politicians wrangled with Allied and Triplice negotiators for territorial compensation, Cadorna remained dangerously unaware of the change in Italian foreign policy. Just a few weeks before Italy was to announce that she was going to war with Austria-Hungary, Cadorna was informed to make the necessary plans for conducting an offensive against the Habsburg Empire. Cadorna, taken completely by surprise and astonished that he was kept in the dark for so long, rightfully exploded ‘What? I knew nothing!’ Much of the military planning to this time had been directed against France. Although exigency plans had been created for a war with Vienna, many changes had to be implemented before the Italian high command could enact any effective strategy against Austria-Hungary.

No one was prepared for the tactical realities of the First World War. Not only did Cadorna have to contend with an army that was materially weak and engaged in a nasty little colonial war, but, in addition, his theatre of operations was arguably the most difficult of the entire war. Hemmed in along the northern frontier with mountains often reaching elevations over 10,000 feet, the Italians were at a severe topographic disadvantage. Any other avenue of approach to the Austro-Hungarian Empire would have to be by sea, an unlikely prospect considering the strained relations that existed between the army and navy. Selecting the extreme north-east sector of the Austro-Italian frontier just north of the Adriatic Sea for his main effort, Cadorna soon found himself in a slugging match with a skilled and determined enemy. Since most of the writings about the influence of modern weapons on tactics were poorly received or simply ignored, Cadorna reacted to the stalemate in a typically First World War fashion: headlong assaults with massive concentrations of artillery and infantry. Although the existing historiography does not cover the matter in detail, it was an Italian characteristic to make up for the deficiencies in weapons and tactics with the blood of the foot soldier. To assuage the popular myths created by the debacle at Caporetto, and by British and American veterans of the Second World War, the Italian infantryman between May 1915 and October 1917 displayed abundant courage and zeal when coming to grips with the Austro-Hungarians. However, Cadorna failed to consider the wellbeing of his main instrument, for rest in the rear areas was almost unheard of in most Italian divisions. The morale of any soldier would be devastated by the rigours of combat without periods of recuperation.

Since Cadorna fought his war from behind the lines, the Italian high command was slow to develop tactical innovations that considered the hostile geography of the Italian front. More often than not, Italian infantrymen had to attack over rocky and rugged surfaces, up slopes averaging between thirty and forty-five degrees, against a well-equipped enemy protected by defences excavated out of solid rock. Much of what the Italians learned tactically was from the Austrians, who were refining tested German operational and tactical practices, or from the French, who were not known at this time to be a source of tactical innovation. A good example of this was the Austrian offensive in the Trentino in May 1916. Using loose formations that used terrain features to open holes in the Italian lines after a tremendous artillery preparation, the Austrians enjoyed some success before the weight of their attack caused the logistic apparatus to break down. Using this information to form infiltration units of his own, Cadorna shifted ample reserves and guns to the Isonzo while the Austrians were preoccupied with the Brusilov offensive on the Eastern Front to capture Gorizia in August 1916. Proving adept at handling large bodies of men over Italy’s less than adequate rail system, Cadorna shifted the brunt of his army and guns to the Isonzo after the abortive Austrian attack on the Asiago plateau. Massing one of the largest artillery concentrations ever to be used on the Italian front, and employing select infantry units at certain concentration points, the Italians captured Gorizia, Mount Sabotino, and carried the western section of the Carso plateau in two weeks, whereas before nearly six months of offensive action failed to secure any of these objectives.

At the beginning of the war, the Italian Army consisted of thirty-five divisions. When Cadorna started his eleventh battle on the Bainsizza plateau in September 1917, he had sixty-five divisions at his disposal. The drain of attritional mountain warfare and rapid growth produced severe problems, such as an acute lack of munitions. Cadorna had to organize, arm, and train over one million men in two years – not an inconsiderable feat for an institution that was not known for its organizational capacity, especially considering that going into the conflict the Italians were still suffering substantial casualties in Africa. It is in this realm where Cadorna did his best work, and if it were not for this progress, the results of the Austro-German offensive in October would have been far worse.

Nearly two years of continual action was not only sapping Italy’s material ability to wage the war, it was also draining her morale. Cadorna, a strict disciplinarian far removed for the realities of trench warfare, failed to allow his soldiers to have any substantial periods of rest and relaxation, and therefore they lost much of their elan. Moreover, the offensive posture of Cadorna’s military operations often forced Italian division and corps commanders to neglect their forward defences. Just after the Italian successes in September on the Bainsizza, Cadorna ordered defences to be strengthened, for the near capitulation of Russia had freed Austrian formations from other duties, and he feared an enemy offensive. Although the Italians had fortified certain areas, mainly in the topographically favourable stretches of terrain around Gorizia and the Carso plateau, the Austro-German army struck on the upper Isonzo, along a lightly defended ridge just south of the small town of Caporetto. The Italians had planned to use a mobile defence, but the speed of the enemy advance caught them completely off guard, and soon the Italian Second Army was in flight, while the Third Army was forced to enact a strategic withdrawal across the Fruili Plains. The enemy offensive forced Cadorna to leave behind much of his heavy equipment and artillery – the accumulation of two years’ hard work. These losses, and the capture of about 300,000 men severely crippled the Italian war effort.

Not having secured the defeat of the Austro-Hungarian Army after two years of extreme hardship and losses, Cadorna was sacked and replaced by one of his corps commanders, Armando Diaz. Cadorna’s cold and indifferent attitude toward not only his soldiers, but also toward the politicians had not ingratiated him with any power bloc that might have proved beneficial to him in case of a disaster. Therefore, Cadorna was supposedly kicked upstairs, and was sent to represent Italy on the Supreme Allied War Council. Soon thereafter, an investigation fixed the blame for the debacle squarely on his shoulders, and Cadorna retired in disgrace in December 1918. In all fairness, the Italian government needed a scapegoat, and since Cadorna was no longer the Chief of Staff and had directed the Italian armies since the beginning of the war, he was the logical choice. The government failed to pay attention to Cadorna when he warned that the front-line soldiers were being saturated with anti-war propaganda, which was growing vociferously all over Europe. He should have expected a great deal of criticism for his lack of preparedness when the Central Powers struck; however, the government should have realized that by attaching most of the blame to Cadorna, they had negated a fair record of success along the Isonzo during the first two years of the war.

The reputation of the Italian Army and Cadorna continues to languish. Holger Herwig, for example, recently deprecated him and his Austrian counterpart General Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf in the following way: ‘Both ignored terrain and weather. Both underestimated supply. Both stressed the will to fight. Both devised grandiose strategies that bore little relation to ready strength. And both insisted on their own infallibility.’28 However, Cadorna should not be uncritically blamed for the apparent lack of Italian progress during the war. He took an army embroiled in a colonial venture and forged it, under the most trying conditions, into one comparable with other European armies of the era. It is easy to say the Italian Army was bad, and that Cadorna was unimaginative or, as John Keegan puts it, a ‘château general’. However, the Italian Army had to attack in the most inhospitable front of the entire war, and was capable of capturing many key objectives, often when their efforts were hampered by lack of artillery and ammunition. The Austrian defences were exceedingly strong and set in mutually supporting positions across the front, providing Austrian machine gunners and artillery officers with strong positions for enfilade fire. Cadorna had conducted reconnaissance of the front before the war, and knew what his soldiers would have to face while fighting in the mountainous terrain. He was aware that operations on the Italian front would take patience and technical innovation, and was quick to adopt new weapons, such as the trench mortar and the teleferiche railway. The latter was a cable anchored to a base and stretched to the summit of an elevation, on which a cart or basket moved supplies and men to areas where the altitude and slope prohibited road construction. The need for mechanical assistance played an important role in the development of Cadorna’s army. Unfortunately, these gadgets were seen as the answers to tricky tactical and operational questions instead of being incorporated into existing doctrine, or being the catalysts for entirely new procedures. Often when certain divisions formulated new practices, the lack of communication on the administrative level prevented them from being disseminated. This is probably Cadorna’s most glaring fault, and shows just how isolated he was from the various contingents of his own army.

Contending with the rocky rugged terrain and the Austrian positional supremacy should have been an ideal catalyst for tactical innovation. However, the topographical compartmentalization of the front prevented the Italian high command from forming a clear picture of what was working or failing. Still, the Italians implemented some astonishing tactical changes, which were generally a result of learning from the enemy, or from division commanders who assessed certain areas and formed their units according to specific geographic problems. As the first four Isonzo offensives attempted to pierce the Austrian defences, the first just north of Mount Sabotino, the last three on the topographically more conducive Carso plateau, the Italians found it impossible to make any substantial progress against the enemy while using tactics that would not have been out of place on a battlefield during the Napoleonic era or during the American Civil War. This was not just an Italian problem – even the much vaunted Germans went to war in 1914 with tactical formations that were little changed since the victorious campaigns of 1866 and 1870–1. Realizing that they had to contend with perplexing terrain difficulties, and that their methods lacked the finesse to overcome and retain most defensive positions, the Italians began to search for solutions and, unfortunately, looked to the French for tactical answers. Although not as inept as many historians portray it be, the French Army was not exactly the source from which any belligerent would want to borrow military instructions at this stage of the war. The French were also enamoured by the results of the Wars of German Unification, and thought the answer to their military conundrum was to emulate the German model on a larger, more efficient scale. Each nation is a separate and unique entity, and therefore should forge its military accordingly. Therefore the problem with Italy, and indeed much of Europe, was that she should have been trying to create a national force based on her own capabilities and limitations instead of copying a successful yet dated German model. The Italian Army needed to be Italian, not a mere imitation of the German Army whose strength was as much from economic and industrial power as it was from any radical advances in the military arts and sciences.

By the time the Austrians struck in the Trentino, the Italians had received some tactical advice from the French, who were then going through the horrors of Verdun. However, the problem was not that they were receiving procedural assistance from the French, it was that they were usually receiving this help nearly six months after the tactics were first employed. Considering the rigid and ponderous methods prevalent in the Italian Army, it was usually several more months before any of this experience could be translated into military practice. Some procedures would take even longer to employ because of material deficiencies. The result was that the Italians were tactically and operationally behind most of the other major belligerents. A case in point was the massive artillery concentration used against Austrian defences on the Bainsizza. An overwhelming concentration of guns was nearly a constant goal of Allied and Central Power planners since the beginning of the war, the desire increasing after the German attack at Verdun. The attack on Verdun began in February 1916. The battle of the Bainsizza started in August 1917. This was just three months before the Central Powers introduced new tactical methods at Caporetto. Cadorna was methodical, but he often did not push tactical and operational changes fast enough, and hardly had time to use the old methods before he fell victim to a new set of offensive procedures.

Many historians wonder why Cadorna did not use the navy to land combat units in an area where geography would allow them to be employed more effectively. The army and navy never enjoyed a convivial relationship, and therefore could not count on each other to be the most ‘co-operative’ partners. Both were wary of enterprises that would waste resources and leave themselves in the lurch. Cadorna was hesitant to release any of his battalions to make a landing along the eastern coast of the Adriatic, and the navy did not want to risk its capital ships in the same enterprise, for they knew amphibious operations would force a major surface action with the Austrian Navy. Although the Italians had landed approximately 40,000 troops along the north African coast during the war with Turkey in 1910–1, the aftershocks of this campaign still weighed upon the minds of military planners. Moreover, the areas where troops could be landed did not offer better geographic conditions that existed on the Isonzo Front. Italian formations were landed in Albania, and promptly suffered a reverse in the field and had to be evacuated with the loss of much equipment. Another venture, where Italian forces were deployed in Salonika, did little more than isolate a sizeable force. The enterprise held little chance of tactical success, and did not make a strategic contribution until the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian armies late in 1918.

In hindsight, Cadorna seems to be just another commander that falls into the stereotype of a First World War general, an indifferent man who sent his soldiers to die by the thousands, while staying safely behind the front, out of harm’s way. This is only half true. Cadorna was conscious of the heavy losses the Italians were suffering – one and a half million casualties during the war, 460,000 of which were fatalities – if not from a humanitarian viewpoint, from operational realism. He knew that the Italian nation could not go on indefinitely due to its lack of natural resources and economic reserves. He used the only commodity the Italians possessed, a sizeable population base, until better operational and tactical methods could be developed. It was his misfortune that the Central Powers were generally the first to introduce innovative tactical and operational procedures, and just happened to test them in the secondary theatres before employing them on the Western Front.

It is curious that the Italians have been castigated for their debacle at Caporetto, as Cadorna skilfully withdrew his Third Army across the congested Fruili Plains, and even managed to salvage certain portions of the Second Army. Although trying to establish defensive positions on the major waterways in the eastern sector of the plains, he was forced back to the Piave River before he could restore his front. Geography and distance prevented the British or the French from saving the Italians, for by the time Allied troops reached Italy, Cadorna had stabilized the front, but had been fired in the process. Haig finally had to succumb to French pressure for overall direction of the war so that unity of command could re-establish Allied defences on the Western Front.

Cadorna was not totally forgotten after Caporetto. He went on to be the Italian representative on the Supreme Allied War Council, and exhibited an uncanny grasp of military problems. There are two reasons for this. The first is that Cadorna had invaluable experience in handling an army; the second was that he was a well-known theoretical writer about European military affairs, and had dealt academically with many problems concerning coalition warfare before the war. Cadorna’s problem was that he undoubtedly held the wrong post, for he could not deal appropriately with the minutiae of war. His father, the general who had shown some promise in the Seven Weeks’ War, realized his full potential as the Minister of War for the government of Tuscany in 1859. It was in this area where Cadorna showed his optimum potential. Once the politicians confided in him concerning Italy’s diplomatic endeavours, Cadorna followed their policies and worked energetically toward their realization. His realistic mind, although restricting his creativity, never allowed him to entertain fantastic or unrealistic schemes. This aptitude for the diplomatic-military sphere was clearly seen at the Supreme War Council, for he could quickly equate objectives with available means and gauge probable outcomes, not only in a military sense, but in the diplomatic realm as well. This could be a result of having to contend with Italy’s chronic lack of resources while trying to conduct a major war effort – something that he lost sight of during the offensives of 1915, but then addressed in future operations. Therefore, his organizational talents would have been better suited to the war ministry, and were not geared to the frustratingly complex phenomenon of a First World War army command. After the war, Cadorna busied himself with writing a book about the Italian front, much of which was in defence of his actions connected with Caporetto. Falling into relative obscurity, he was somewhat revitalized when Mussolini, ever the astute politician and consummate showman, made Cadorna a Field Marshal in 1924. This ceremony was an empty gesture, doing nothing to vindicate Cadorna’s reputation, which still suffers today from a lack of scholarship and interest. He will never be known as one of the great captains of history, but considering what he did with what he had available, his story deserves better treatment.

Soon the Western Front would be embroiled in a chaotic retreat, and many of the divisions sent to Italy would be recalled. However, with Cadorna fading into the history of the First World War, a new phase of the war emerged in Italy, as British and French contingents arrived to bolster their crippled ally.