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Employment of Naval Forces

By Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, USN

"Who Commands Sea - Commands Trade"

Former CNO Discusses Use of Navy in Maintaining Security of United States on day of departure from Navy Department as CNO

From the Monthly NEWSLETTER - March 1948

Reproduced by
Armed Forces Staff College
Norfolk 11, Virginia

1 Each Student
1 Each Faculty Member
10 Secy File
[cover page]


Sir Walter Raleigh declared in the early 17th century that "whoever commands the sea, commands the trade; whosoever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself."

This principle is as true today as when uttered, and its effect will continue as long as ships traverse the seas. That this period extends beyond the foreseeable future is apparent when it is realized that the 100,000 long tons of cargo which 44 ships can transport from San Francisco to Australia monthly would require for the same purpose 10,000 four-engine C-87 airplanes manned by 120,000 highly trained personnel, plus 89 seagoing tankers to provide gas along the route and at the far end of the run.

Cargo carrying aircraft will no more replace vehicles of the same type on the seas than they will those on land. In fact, cargo-carrying ships will become increasingly important to the United States both in peace and in war. Our national resources in petroleum products alone are inadequate for the prosecution of a long war. A realistic appraisal of the requirements in material for this nation to engage in war shows that an uninterrupted stream of imports will be essential, and that the volume of these imports is such that they must come by sea.

The United States possesses today control of the sea more absolute than was possessed by the British. Our interest in this control is not riches and power as such. It is first the assurance of our national security, and, second, the creation and perpetuation of that balance and stability among nations which will insure to each the right of self-determination under the framework of the United Nations Organization.

Our present control of the sea is so absolute that it is sometimes taken for granted. As a result there is a faulty tendency, under the assumption that any probable enemy in a future war possesses only negligible apparent fleet strength, to give no major offensive role to the Navy - only a supporting role and the prosecution of anti-submarine warfare. Opposing fleets have been eliminated, it is reasoned, hence ours should be reduced to a mere support force and its appropriations transferred to certain types of aircraft which would be the answer to all our problems of offense and defense.

The answer is not so simple. Technology in warfare, as in all else, has simplified some details but has greatly complicated the aggregate. The submarine and the torpedo, far from eliminating combatant surface ships, produced the depth charge, sonar and electronic sounding and the anti-submarine aircraft which in two wars have successfully defeated them. Similarly, the airplane in its application against naval forces has already given creation to the proximity fuse, homing missiles, electronic ranging and gun control, and carrier attack aircraft which, during World War II, repeatedly defeated concentration of Japanese land-based aircraft wherever encountered.

Our present undisputed control of the sea was achieved primarily through the employment of naval air-sea forces in the destruction of Japanese and German sea power. It was consolidated by the subsequent reduction of these nations to their present impotence, in which the employment of naval air-sea forces against land objectives played a vital role. It can be perpetuated only through the maintenance of balanced naval forces of all categories adequate to our strategic needs (which include those of the non-totalitarian world), and which can flexibly adjust to new modes of air-sea warfare and which are alert to develop and employ new weapons and techniques as needed.


A report made in 1657 by one of Cromwell's admirals that: "After we destroyed the ships we plied our guns against the forts…" indicates that the purpose of achieving sea power and the recognized practice of applying pressure against an enemy wherever he can be reached by naval forces has not changed from that day to this. The basic objectives and principles of war do not change.

The final objective in war is the destruction of the enemy's capacity and will to fight, and thereby force him to accept the imposition of the victor's will. This submission has been accomplished in the past by pressure in and from each of the elements of land and sea, and during World War I and II, in and from the air as well. The optimum of pressure is exerted through that absolute control obtained by actual physical occupation. This optimum is obtainable only on land where physical occupation can be consolidated and maintained.

Experience proves that while invasion in some form - of adjacent sea areas, covering air spaces, or enemy territory itself - is essential to obtain decisions in war, it is sometimes unnecessary to prosecute invasion to the extent of occupying a nation's capital or other vital centers. Sufficient of his land, sea or air territory must be invaded, however, to establish the destructive potential of the victor and to engender in the enemy that hopelessness which precedes submission. The reduction of Japan is a case in point.

Naval forces have always played a vital and often deciding role in warfare by invading adjacent sea areas to project their pressure on enemy territory. Before the invention of gunpowder, in the days of Greece and Rome, there was no such thing as "fleet in being." Naval forces were built as they were needed, and the transport had equal standing with the man-of-war. The latter served to clear the narrow seas for the transport to discharge its force of men and weapons upon enemy territory where the decision was obtained.


In the long history of British domination of the seas, it is safe to say that the Royal Navy fought as many engagements against shore objectives as it did on the high seas. Singularly it was the defeat by his shore batteries of a Royal Navy squadron off Toulon that gave Napoleon early in his career disdain for British seapower. It was this same British seapower, in the form of a tight blockade which denied world intercourse to him but assured it to his enemies, and in the victories of Copenhagen, the Nile and Trafalgar, which was the controlling factor in his eventual defeat. Also the great British strategic bastion of Gibraltar was captured in 1704 by a force of Royal Marines and seamen landed from a naval squadron which had first pounded the Spanish garrison into a state of confusion and despair.

The Naval history of our own Civil War is a vivid portrayal of the employment of naval forces against an enemy without a fleet. Naval forces were a controlling factor in the Confederate defeat and in shortening the war. The Confederate States had no fleet. They were a consolidated land power with the advantage of interior lines and the possession of several large sea and river ports affording access to world commerce which they vitally needed. The Federal States outlined their naval missions as (a) the blockade of Southern ports along a coastline of more than 3,000 miles; (b) the reduction, in conjunction with the Army, of Atlantic and Gulf strongholds; and (c) the occupation and control of the Mississippi and its tributaries.

The blockade was established and soon Confederate commerce, as such, ceased. Naval operations started on the western rivers in the first year of the war - November, 1861. They were mainly in conjunction with the Army but frequently objectives were accomplished by naval gun and mortar fire alone. By April 1862 with the passage of Farragut's squadron past the Mississippi entrance forts and the capture of New Orleans, the Confederate States had been sealed on the Western, Gulf, and Atlantic boundaries. It is safe to state that had they been unmolested by sea power and had they received money, men, and munitions from Europe, South America, and Mexico they might well have consolidated their secession.

The development between World Wars I and II of naval aviation provided naval forces with a striking weapon of vastly increased flexibility, range and power. The development and use of this weapon in World War II against both sea and land objectives is one of the great achievements in modern warfare. It spearheaded our Pacific attack. First, it swept the sea of all naval opposition. Then it became the initial striking weapon in the capture of Guam, Saipan and Iwo Jima - the advanced bases from which long-range bombers were able to strike the vital centers of the Empire. Finally like the British squadron in 1657, our Navy, "after destroying the ships it plied its guns against the forts" and participated directly in the destruction of those vital centers on Okinawa and the home islands by gunfire and bombing; in spite of the concentration of Japanese air power our Navy made possible the success of our gallant ground forces.

In all of these operations the employment of air-sea task forces demonstrated the ability of the Navy to concentrate aircraft strength at any desire point in such numbers as to overwhelm the defense at the point of contact. These operations demonstrate the capability of naval carrier-based aviation to make use of the principles of mobility and concentration to a degree possessed by no other force.


In addition to the weapons of World War II the Navy of the future will be capable of launching missiles from surface vessels and submarines, and of delivering atomic bombs from carrier-based planes. Vigilant naval administration and research is constantly developing and adding to these means. In the event of war within the foreseeable future it is probable that there will be little need to destroy combatant ships other than submarines. Consequently, in the fulfillment of long accepted naval functions and in conformity with the well known principles of warfare, the Navy should be used in the initial stages of such a war to project its weapons against vital enemy targets on land, the reduction of which is the basic objective of warfare.

For any future war to be a sufficient magnitude to affect us seriously, it must be compounded of two primary ingredients: vast manpower and tremendous industrial capacity. These conditions exist today in the great land mass of Central Asia, in East Asia, and in Western Europe. The two latter areas will not be in a position to endanger us for decades to come unless they pass under unified totalitarian control. In the event of war with any of the three we would be relatively deficient in manpower. We should, therefore, direct our thinking toward realistic and highly specialized operations. We should plan to inflict unacceptable damage through maximum use of our technological weapons and our ability to produce them in great quantities.


Initial devastating air attack in the future may come across our bordering oceans from points on the continents of Europe and Asia as well as from across the polar region. Consequently our plans must include the development of specialized forces of fighter and interceptor planes for pure defense, as well as the continued development of long range bombers.

Offensively our initial plans should provide for the coordinated employment of military and naval air power launched from land and carrier bases, and of guided missiles against important enemy targets. For the present, until long range bombers are developed capable of spanning our bordering oceans and returning to our North American bases, naval air power launched from carriers may be the only practicable means of bombing vital enemy centers in the early stages of a war.

In summary it is visualized that our early combat operations in the event of war within the next decade would consist of:


Protection of our vital centers from devastating attacks by air and from missile-launching submarines.
Protection of areas of vital strategic importance, such as sources of raw materials, our advanced bases, etc.
Protection of our esential lines of communications and those of our allies.
Protection of our occupation forces during re-enforcement or evacuation.


Devastating bombing attacks from land and carrier bases on vital enemy installations.
Destruction of enemy lines of communication accessible to our naval and air forces.

Occupation of selected advanced bases on enemy territory and the denial of advance bases to the enemy through the coordinated employment of naval, air and amphibious forces.

Of the above activities or functions there are certain ones which can be performed best by the Air Force, and certain others which can be performed best by the Navy - it is these two services which will play major roles in the initial stages of a future war. The 80th Congress took cognizance of this fact when, in the National Security Act of 1947, it specifically prescribed certain functions to the Navy, its naval aviation and its Marine Corps. In so doing the Congress gave emphasis to the fact that the organizational framework of the military services should be built around the functions assigned to each service. This is a principle which the Navy has consistently followed and is now organized and trained to implement.

Defensively, the Navy is still the first line the enemy must hurdle either in the air or on the sea in approaching our coasts across any ocean. The earliest warning of enemy air attack against our vital centers should be provided by naval air, surface and submarine radar pickets deployed in the vast ocean spaces which surround the continent. This is part of the radar screen which should surround the continental United States and its possessions. The first attrition enemy air power might be by short range naval fighter planes carried by task forces. Protection of our cities against missile launching submarines can best be effected by naval hunter-killer groups composed of small aircraft carriers and modern destroyers operating as a team with naval land-based aircraft.

The safety of our essential trade routes and ocean lines of communication and those of our allies, the protection of areas of vital strategic importance such as the sources of raw material, advanced base locations, etc., are but matters of course if we control the seas. Only naval air-sea power can ensure this.

Offensively, it is the function of the Navy to carry the war to the enemy so that it will not be fought on United States soil. The Navy can at present best fulfill the vital functions of devastating enemy vital areas by the projection of bombs and missiles. It is improbable that bomber fleets will be capable, for several years to come of making two-way trips between continents, even over the polar routes, with heavy loads of bombs.

It is apparent then that in the event of war within this period, if we are to project our power against the vital areas of any enemy across the ocean before beachheads on enemy territory are captured, it must be by air-sea power; by aircraft launched from carriers; and by heavy surface ships and submarines projecting guided missiles and rockets. If present promise is developed by research, test and production, these three types of air-sea power operating in concert will be able within the next ten years critically to damage enemy vital areas many hundreds of miles inland.

Naval task forces including these types are capable of remaining at sea for months. This capability has raised to a high point the art of concentrating air power within effective range of enemy objectives. It is achieved by refueling and rearming task forces at sea. Not only may the necessary supplies, ammunition and fuel be replenished in this way but the air groups themselves may be changed.

The net result is that naval forces are able, without resorting to diplomatic channels, to establish offshore anywhere in the world, air fields completely equipped with machine shops, ammunition dumps, tank farms, warehouses, together with quarters and all types of accommodations for personnel. Such task forces are virtually as complete as any air base ever established. They constitute the only air bases that can be made available near enemy territory without assault and conquest; and furthermore, they are mobile offensive bases, that can be employed with the unique attributes of secrecy and surprise -- which attributes contribute equally to their defensive as well as offensive effectiveness.

Regarding the pure defense of these mobile air bases the same power projected destructively from them against the enemy is being applied to their defense in the form of propulsion, armament, and new aircraft weapons whose development is well abreast the supersonic weapons reputed to threaten their existence.

It is clear, therefore, that the Navy and the Air Force will play the leading roles in the initial stages of a future war. Eventually, reduction and occupation of certain strategic areas will require the utmost from our Army, Navy and Air Force. Each should be assigned broad functions compatible with its capabilities and limitations and should develop the weapons it needs to fulfill these functions, and no potentiality of any of the three services of the Military Establishment should be neglected in our scheme of National Defense. At the same time each service must vigorously develop, in that area where their functions meet, that flexibility and teamwork essential to operational success. It should also be clear that the Navy's ability to exert from its floating bases its unique pressure against the enemy wherever he can be reached in the air, on sea or land is now, as it has been, compatible with the fundamental principles of warfare. That our naval forces can be equipped defensively as well as offensively to project pressure against enemy objectives in the future is as incontrovertible as the principle that every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

In measuring capabilities against a potential enemy, due appreciation must be taken of the factors of relative strength and weakness. We may find ourselves comparatively weak in manpower and in certain elements of aircraft strength. On the other hand we are superior in our naval air-sea strength. It is an axiom that in preparing for any contest, it is wisest to exploit - not neglect - the element of strength. Hence a policy which provides for balanced development and coordinated use of strong naval forces should be vigorously prosecuted in order to meet and successfully counter a sudden war in the foreseeable future.


Published: Tue Sep 12 09:41:35 EDT 2017