William Hamilton: Freedom of the seas: America’s most vital interest
September 1, 2008
Following the Russian invasion of Georgia, we are seeing increased Russian naval activity in the Black Sea and even the Mediterranean.
This suggests that Vladimir Putin may be trying to revive the Czarist dream of Russia as a world-class naval power. But other than on the Black Sea, the ingress and egress to which is controlled by Turkey (a member of NATO), Russia has no year-round, warm-water ports.
At the turn of the 20th Century, both Russia under Czar Nicholas II and Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm II tried to become world-class naval powers and failed, with consequences that set in train other events that would have terrible consequences for the rest of the world.
In 1904, Russian and Japanese interests collided over Korea and Manchuria. When the Russians would not cut a deal to give the Japanese access to Manchuria’s coal and iron, Admiral Togo used a sneak attack (sound familiar?) to sink Russia’s Far Eastern Fleet while at anchor inside Port Arthur.
Czar Nicholas II decided to teach the Japanese a lesson. In 1905, he sent Russia’s Baltic Fleet 18,000 miles to Japan. But the wily Japanese taught the Russians a lesson. They sank the entire Baltic Fleet in Tsushima Strait. The lesson: Orientals could employ battleships and cruisers better than Occidentals, an idea that would eventually find expression in another sneak attack at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
After reading Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power on History, Kaiser Wilhelm II decided Germany would challenge Great Britain’s mastery of the sea by building more battleships than the British. The Kaiser’s “pet” project was a major step in a chain of escalating tensions leading to the slaughter of World War I.
Obviously, the Russians, Germans and the Japanese thought mastery of the seas would get them what they thought they needed. The Russians needed the relatively warm waters of Port Arthur. The Kaiser, whose breech birth left him with a withered left arm and a fragile ego, found comfort in building battleships. The easy victory over the Russians at Tsushima in 1905 convinced the import-dependent Japanese that they could rule the Pacific Ocean.
At the outset of World War I, Britain’s greatest fear was not losing the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in France, but of a climatic sea battle in which major elements of the Royal Navy would be lost to the Kaiser’s High Seas Fleet. The Kaiser, however, decided the Royal Navy was too strong. Britain’s naval superiority obviated the Kaiser’s investment in battleships.
Ironically, the Royal Navy might have ended World War I almost at the outset by adopting the plan of retired Admiral Sir John Fisher to land the BEF on the Baltic coast of East Prussia, only 90 miles from Berlin. Combined with a Russian attack on Germany from the East, Germany would have been forced to abandon its invasion of Belgium and France.
But with the Kaiser’s battleships guarding the Baltic, Fisher’s daring plan got scant attention. Even so, Fisher may have been the inspiration for General MacArthur’s brilliant landing 100 miles behind enemy lines at Inchon, South Korea, in 1950. Of course, MacArthur had absolute naval superiority. That, again, is the lesson in all this.
Assume the United States had to choose between the loss of its naval forces and the loss of its ground forces in some gigantic battle. Which would it be? Pray that choice would never have to be made.
But while a maritime nation like the U.S. could survive a major loss of ground forces, the loss of our ability to keep open the sea lanes we need for trade and commerce would be absolutely devastating. For example, if a hostile navy could keep foreign oil from reaching our shores, our economy would collapse.
So, until we achieve independence from foreign fossil fuels, history suggests that the U.S. Navy is our primary military asset.
” Retired Army officer, syndicated columnist and featured commentator for USA Today, William Hamilton, is a graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and a member of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers.
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