By the theory of naval war it must be reiterated we mean nothing but an enunciation of the fundamental principles which underlie all naval war. Those principles, if we have determined them correctly, should be found giving shape not only to strategy and tactics, but also to material, whatever method and means of naval warfare may be in use at any given time. Conversely, if we find strategy, tactics, or organisation exhibiting a tendency to reproduce the same forms under widely differing conditions of method and material, we should be able to show that those forms bear a constant and definite relation to the principles which our theory endeavours to express.
In the case of Anson's threefold organisation, the relation is not far to seek, though it has become obscured by two maxims. The one is, that "the command of the sea depends upon battleships," and the other, that "cruisers are the eyes of the fleet." It is the inherent evil of maxims that they tend to get stretched beyond their original meaning. Both of these express a truth, but neither expresses the whole truth. On no theory of naval warfare can we expect to command the sea with battleships, nor, on the communication theory, can we regard the primary function of cruisers as being to scout for a battle-fleet. It is perfectly true that the control depends ultimately on the battle-fleet if control is disputed by a hostile battle-fleet, as it usually is. It is also true that, so far as is necessary to enable the battle-fleet to secure the control, we have to furnish it with eyes from our cruiser force. But it does not follow that this is the primary function of cruisers. The truth is, we have to withdraw them from their primary function in order to do work for the battle-fleet which it cannot do for itself.
Well established as is the "Eyes of the fleet" maxim, it would be very difficult to show that scouting was ever regarded as the primary function of cruisers by the highest authorities. In Nelson's practice at least their paramount function was to exercise the control which he was securing with his battle-squadron. Nothing is more familiar in naval history than his incessant cry from the Mediterranean for more cruisers, but the significance of that cry has become obscured. It was not that his cruisers were not numerous in proportion to his battleships—they were usually nearly double in number—but it was rather that he was so deeply convinced of their true function, that he used them to exercise control to an extent which sometimes reduced his fleet cruisers below the limit of bare necessity. The result on a memorable occasion was the escape of the enemy's battle-fleet, but the further result is equally important. It was that the escape of that fleet did not deprive him of the control which he was charged to maintain. His judgment may have been at fault, but the strategical distribution of his force was consistent throughout the whole period of his Mediterranean command. Judged by his record, no man ever grasped more clearly than Nelson that the object of naval warfare was to control communications, and if he found that he had not a sufficient number of cruisers to exercise that control and to furnish eyes for his battle-fleet as well, it was the battle-fleet that was made to suffer, and surely this is at least the logical view.
- Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, by Julian Corbett
This blog adopted Bob Work's rating system for surface combatants (with permission) primarily for discussions like this, exploring fleet constitution through the prism of history and strategy. Julian Corbett defined first, second, third, and fourth rate ships as those that constitute the battle-line, and he described Cruisers as fifth and sixth rate vessels, with everything below that as unrated.
Using our rating system, we believe the same theories of Maritime Strategy he described above fits well for modern rating for ships in comparison. Based on our rating system, the Navy today has either commissioned or has ordered 86 first and second rate battleships consisting of 22 CG-52s, 62 DDG-51s, and 2 DDG-1000s. The Navy's strategy for fleet constitution in the future is to build 55 seventh rates (what Corbett would call unrated, or the flotilla) in the form of the Littoral Combat Ship. The US Navy has decided to build a fleet without the Cruisers that have dominated all previous naval eras. We note this because upon no era of naval history has a fleet without cruisers, or a ship capable of filling the sum of the roles Corbett assigns to Cruisers, has ever established and maintained Command of the Sea over an adversary during an extended period of naval war.
We therefore find ourselves constantly asking the question; Where is the cruiser? The Navy appears to have determined (without explanation) that the Principles of Maritime War have changed so much due to modern technology that Command of the Sea can be achieved with only battleships, and with that Corbett's principles regarding the roles of Cruisers within a fleet are no longer valid, indeed replaced by unrated platforms. Our problem with this view is that it must be done in the absence of historical study, as it has been proven for hundreds of years of maritime warfare that the Principles of Maritime War have not changed as maritime eras, often defined by technology changes, have.
It is important to note that historically, even in the more modern eras of war at sea, whether one is discussing WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the Falklands, or the Tanker Wars with Iran; the Cruiser as defined by Corbett continued to establish itself as the primary warfighter vessel required for command of the sea. Without any explanation why, this principle of maritime war is absent US Navy future plans.
We find the apparent lack of applied historical study to current fleet constitution in this context as unwise, but don't take our word for it...
It is then particularly in the field of naval strategy that the teachings of the past have a value which is in no degree lessened. They are there useful not only as illustrative of principles, but also as precedents, owing to the comparative permanence of the conditions. This is less obviously true as to tactics, when the fleets come into collision at the point to which strategic considerations have brought them. The unresting progress of mankind causes continual change in the weapons; and with that must come a continual change in the manner of fighting,—in the handling and disposition of troops or ships on the battlefield. Hence arises a tendency on the part of many connected with maritime matters to think that no advantage is to be gained from the study of former experiences; that time so used is wasted. This view, though natural, not only leaves wholly out of sight those broad strategic considerations which lead nations to put fleets afloat, which direct the sphere of their action, and so have modified and will continue to modify the history of the world, but is one-sided and narrow even as to tactics. The battles of the past succeeded or failed according as they were fought in conformity with the principles of war; and the seaman who carefully studies the causes of success or failure will not only detect and gradually assimilate these principles, but will also acquire increased aptitude in applying them to the tactical use of the ships and weapons of his own day.
The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783, by Alfred Thayer Mahan
We acknowledge that both Mahan and Corbett make a greater point within and outside these quotes that Navy's should apply the technologies of a particular era to their fleets constitution, and therefore the application of their principles of maritime strategy support the argument for the Littoral Combat Ship concept, a concept of a mothership for unmanned vehicles. However in the scope of applying those principles, it leads us right back to our original question regarding the principle characteristics that govern success within the context of fleet constitution.
That question being... Where are the Cruisers?