Thursday, 17 April 2014


Sir Julian Stafford Corbett was born on
November 12, 1854 in the United Kingdom. He was a prominent British naval historian and geostrategist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A contemporary of the celebrated American naval theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan, Corbett’s works helped shape the Royal Navy's reforms of that era. One of his most famous works is “Some Principles of Maritime Strategy”, which remains a classic among students of naval warfare. 
Corbett's most important contribution to the theory of naval warfare was the belief that what mattered most was not the Mahanian concept of physical destruction of the enemy, but the act of passage on the sea. Corbett argued that command of the sea was a relative and not an absolute and could be categorized as general or local, temporary or permanent. Corbett defined the two fundamental methods of obtaining control of the lines of communication as the actual physical destruction or capture of enemy warships and merchants, and or a naval blockade.

Corbett's concepts, which seem more and more relevant to modern conflict management, include controlling the lines of communications, a focus on the enemy, manoeuvre for tactical advantage, and the importance of the political, economic and financial dimensions of war as well as the technological and material aspects. He also understood the primacy of politics in war and in devising an appropriate strategy to protect the national interests and he stressed the necessity for efficiency in battle while preserving costly assets.

Sir Julian believed that navies can do several basic things.

If strong enough, they can take command of important sea areas for strategically relevant spaces of time. That usually means wresting control of these spaces from a hostile navy through battle. When sea control is achieved navies can exploit it by moving people and materiel without serious interference, land troops, or strike inland or alternatively not allowing their opponents the ability to do those things

If not strong enough to fight and win, they can prosecute an “active defense.” Defensive measures include thwarting a stronger opponent’s plans, or inducing that opponent to weaken himself while building up superior strength.

Peacetime functions can include maritime security, the constabulary-like missions navies discharge in peacetime. Maritime security is an umbrella term for upkeep of the global system of trade and commerce. Counter-piracy and counter-proliferation are counted among these functions.

This is what navies can do. They can dispute command, win command, exploit command and police the sea. Innumerable subordinate functions all fit within these basic categories. The question then becomes; what ships are necessary to fulfill these roles in an efficient and economic fashion?

One suggested answer is the “light frigate” which in some ways is simply an Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV) used as a frigate. The most prominent example may be the French Floréal class surveillance frigates. It is believed that these vessels can contribute to the peacetime functions of maritime security more cheaply then warships designed for the full spectrum of warfare.

Sir Humphrey at The Thin Pinstriped Line in a post entitled “The Royal Navy and Light Frigates - A solution in need of a problem?” has argued against their utility. Sir Humphrey points that while a high end warship can fulfill lesser roles, a vessel with lesser capabilities can not cope with high end conflict. He notes that acquiring such vessels might come at the expense of the full spectrum warships that currently make up the bulk of the Royal Navy.

Sir Humphrey may have missed an important point. It is true that that an expensive warship, like the Type 45 destroyer, or “The pinnacle of naval power” as Sir Humphrey describes them, can fulfill any role given it, but will it be given any role?

Canadian scholar James Pritchard has written about Gabriel de Sartine, Louis XV’s first secretary of the navy. He superintended the reconstruction of the French Navy after British Admiral Sir Edward Hawke smashed it at Quiberon Bay in 1759. Having managed the finances, he was intimately acquainted with the cost of outfitting a fleet. He also presided over French naval strategy for a time after France allied itself with the American colonists in 1778.”Sartine,” writes Pritchard “was anxious to preserve the great hoard of wealth that the navy represented. He may have feared to risk it without a guarantee of success.” He thrust risk-nothing tactics on French commanders as a result. Better to conserve precious ships, he believed, than hazard them in combat against the Royal Navy.

This is the problem that faces modern naval leaders. Corbett’s emphasis on preserving costly assets resonates with admiralties around the world. The cost, in both money and industrial capacity, to replace a modern warship can make both politicians and admirals loath to use them. The question then becomes: what use is a warship, no matter how capable, if they can’t or won’t be used.  

The loss of a Type 45 Destroyer would be devastating for the Royal Navy. Between the cost and the lack of industrial capacity it could almost literally not be replaced. Given these facts, how likely is the British admiralty, or the politicians who ultimately make the decisions, to hazard it in any but the most existential of circumstances?

When naval ships become so valuable that their loss becomes unthinkable they become unusable. Author Robert O’Connell has written about this phenomenon in his book “Sacred Vessels: The Cult of the Battleship and the Rise of the U.S. Navy”. 

Canada originally planned a follow-on order of 6 more Halifax class frigates after the first 12 were ordered. A fleet of some 18 frigates and 4 air defence destroyers was envisaged. Needless to say, this didn’t happen. We currently have a force of some 12 frigates and 3 destroyers. The current plan is to replace them with 15 Canadian Surface Combatants. Given the previous history of a continually shrinking Canadian Navy, it is unlikely that all 15 will be procured.

What use will a force of expensive and irreplaceable ships be? As well as having an unusable force, Canada is in danger of having a pointlessly small force. One answer to this dilemma is to look at smaller, less expensive, dare one say it, more expendable, ships. The OPV, the Light Frigate, the “frégate de surveillance”, no matter what you wish to call them, will have an important role to play in the formation a 'usable' navy.

Julian Corbett

Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, by Julian Stafford Corbett

Protector-class offshore patrol vessel

Floréal Class Frigate, France

The Royal Navy and Light Frigates - A solution in need of a problem?

Louis XV's Navy, 1748-1762, A Study of Organization and Administration
By James Pritchard

How to Measure an Aircraft Carrier’s Worth

Sacred Vessels: The Cult of the Battleship and the Rise of the U.S. Navy 
Robert L. O'Connell

Canadian Surface Combatant (CSC)