Flight Ops

Flight Ops

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Fiction, Science Fiction and Military Strategy and Thinking

On very rare occasions I am asked to suggest some sort of reading list for prospective Naval officers. Or even for prospective Marines.

It has been my usual practice to refer the person seeking advice to the Chief of Naval Operations Professional Reading Program which contains a very good selection. Most of these are historical or "current events" in nature, such as Joel Holwitt's Execute Against Japan or Robert Kaplan's Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power.

There are some great books on the challenges of war at sea on that list, as well there should be. These include James D. Hornfischer's Neptune's Inferno and The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors.

On the other hand, sometimes there are recommendations for books in the "speculative" fiction arena - which some might call "science fiction." These would include Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers about which the keepers of the CNO list wrote:
The rigors of military life, the sacrifices that such a life entails, the raw fear before going into battle, the burdens of leadership—all are captured masterfully. Like most sci-fi that stands the test of time, Starship Troopers is about much more than futuristic hardware and shootouts with space creatures. It is, above all, a novel of ideas, a book that stimulates thought about citizenship, responsibility, duty, and the role of the individual in society.
Another recommendation, retired CPO Jeff Edwards'The Seventh Angel which we are informed "... focuses on the crew of a fictional Arleigh Burke destroyer and the civilian technicians operating an unmanned robot submersible to stop a rouge actor with nuclear weapons."

Yes, there is other fiction on the lists, including Patrick O’Brian's Master and Commander ( don't stop with the one book, the whole series is terrific). I assume that C.S. Forster's Hornblower series lies somewhere on the list. The slightly more risque Dewey Lambdin Alan Lewrie series may or may not be there, but it is quite good, even if a little historical stretching goes with it.

But I digress.

As a young officer serving in a ship you learn that one key thing is to be "forehanded." This is not just a tennis term, but rather another was of saying "looking to the future." It means learning to contemplate what actions you would take "if . . ."

As in "What would I do if the rudder stopped responding?" "What steps would I take if there was a fire in a berthing area?" "What would I do if a fleet of enemy ships suddenly appeared to threaten the jeep carriers which I am escorting?" You can make up your own scenarios. Some you can base, like the last one in my sequence, in a historical context. Others? Well, if you like (and the watch is sufficiently boring), you can get into odd thoughts - "What would I do if a flying saucer suddenly appeared over the ship?"

It isn't too much of a leap from that to appreciating the authors of science fiction - who mostly write about "What if ...?" Better than than, as the introduction to old radio series X-1 announced,
These are stories of the future; adventures in which you'll live in a million could-be years on a thousand may-be worlds.
Which gets me back to the point of this post, if you bear with me a little longer.

Mahan wrote in his "Introductory" to The Influence of Sea Power:
It is not therefore a vain expectation, as many think, to look for useful lessons in the history of sailing-ships as well as in that of galleys. Both have their points of resemblance to the modern ship; both have also points of essential difference, which make it impossible to cite their experiences or modes of action as tactical precedents to be followed. But a precedent is different from and less valuable than a principle. The former may be originally faulty, or may cease to apply through change of circumstances; the latter has its root in the essential nature of things, and, however various its application as conditions change, remains a standard to which action must conform to attain success. War has such principles; their existence is detected by the study of the past, which reveals them in successes and in failures, the same from age to age. Conditions and weapons change; but to cope with the one or successfully wield the others, respect must be had to these constant teachings of history in the tactics of the battlefield, or in those wider operations of war which are comprised under the name of strategy.

It is however in these wider operations, which embrace a whole theatre of war, and in a maritime contest may cover a large portion of the globe, that the teachings of history have a more evident and permanent value, because the conditions remain more permanent. The theatre of war may be larger or smaller, its difficulties more or less pronounced, the contending armies more or less great, the necessary movements more or less easy, but these are simply differences of scale, of degree, not of kind. As a wilderness gives place to civilization, as means of communication multiply, as roads are opened, rivers bridged, food-resources increased, the operations of war become easier, more rapid, more extensive; but the principles to which they must be conformed remain the same. When the march on foot was replaced by carrying troops in coaches, when the latter in turn gave place to railroads, the scale of distances was increased, or, if you will, the scale of time diminished; but the principles which dictated the point at which the army should be concentrated, the direction in which it should move, the part of the enemy's position which it should assail, the protection of communications, were not altered. So, on the sea, the advance from the galley timidly creeping from port to port to the sailing-ship launching out boldly to the ends of the earth, and from the latter to the steamship of our own time, has increased the scope and the rapidity of naval operations without necessarily changing the principles which should direct them; and the speech of Hermocrates twenty-three hundred years ago, before quoted, contained a correct strategic plan, which is as applicable in its principles now as it was then. Before hostile armies or fleets are brought into contact (a word which perhaps better than any other indicates the dividing line between tactics and strategy), there are a number of questions to be decided, covering the whole plan of operations throughout the theatre of war. Among these are the proper function of the navy in the war; its true objective; the point or points upon which it should be concentrated; the establishment of depots of coal and supplies; the maintenance of communications between these depots and the home base; the military value of commerce-destroying as a decisive or a secondary operation of war; the system upon which commerce-destroying can be most efficiently conducted, whether by scattered cruisers or by holding in force some vital centre through which commercial shipping must pass. All these are strategic questions, and upon all these history has a great deal to say. ***

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. He will observe also that changes of tactics have not only taken place after changes in weapons, which necessarily is the case, but that the interval between such changes has been unduly long. This doubtless arises from the fact that an improvement of weapons is due to the energy of one or two men, while changes in tactics have to overcome the inertia of a conservative class; but it is a great evil. It can be remedied only by a candid recognition of each change, by careful study of the powers and limitations of the new ship or weapon, and by a consequent adaptation of the method of using it to the qualities it possesses, which will constitute its tactics. History shows that it is vain to hope that military men generally will be at the pains to do this, but that the one who does will go into battle with a great advantage,—a lesson in itself of no mean value. (emphasis added)
In science fiction we can find examples of the underlying principles Mahan writes of being applied to "could-be years ... on a thousand may-be worlds."

"What if?" Let's face it, reading Mahan can be a tough slog. But . . . science fiction writer David Weber uses Mahan to set up his novels in the Honor Harrington series (get the first book in this series, On Basilisk Station, free here). These books are quite readable. What does Mr. Weber say of this series?
What I didn't know when I pitched the ideas to Jim was that he had been looking for someone to write an interstellar Horatio Hornblower series for the better part of 20 years. As soon as he read the first sentence of the proposal -- "Honor Harrington is a 6'2" female, Eurasian starship captain in the service of the Star Kingdom of Manticore" -- he basically told Toni Weisskopff "Write him a contract. No, make it two contracts! No! Make it four contracts!" I don't know for certain that he ever read all of the other proposals at all . . . and given the Honorverse's success, I'm not going to complain if he didn't!

As for the reasoning process that led me to create this particular literary universe, I knew that I wanted to do a military novel, that I wanted it to be about a very long running war, that I wanted to have "good guys" on both sides, and that I wanted it to be of a naval character. I actually started out looking at the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage, but I decided that the naval aspects of those wars were too limited. Seapower in those wars was really primarily logistical -- transporting armies and keeping them supplied -- rather than the sort of "command of the sea" warfare in the tradition of Alfred Thayer Mahan that I really wanted to write about. Which, of course, caused me to turn to the wars that Mahan had actually analyzed -- the Napoleonic Wars between the British Empire and Revolutionary and later Imperial France.

Once I'd chosen my historical template, I sat down and constructed the basic universe: political units, available technologies, naval strategic and tactical doctrines, historical evolution, etc... And, I will confess, I deliberately constructed my navel technological toolbox in a way which would create something with clear parallels between three-dimensional space-going warfare and the two-dimensional broadside warfare of the eighteenth century.
So, Mr. Weber took that part Mahan wrote about "conditions changing" and set it in space far in the future. He kept the principles of war - logistics (Mahan calls them "communications"), the tyranny of time and distance, and that part about "the proper function of the navy in the war; its true objective; the point or points upon which it should be concentrated" - and placed them into the future. The point being that whether it's the French and English fighting 200 years ago or the Star Kingdom of Maniticore fighting the Republic of Haven 2000 years from now, the underlying principles of war will apply.

Mr. Weber also writes the Safehold series in which a human world has intentionally kept itself from being high tech but into which a change agent is introduced who faces the challenge of pushing progress while evading both in-planet and extra-planetary enemies. A relatively rapid change from oared galleons to steam powered war ships and from spears to gun powder parallels the same process in our history, as it should since Mr. Weber intended that to be the case. Again, the underlying principles of war govern. But under it all, lurks the question "What if . ..?"

And shouldn't that be the fundamental military question for both strategy and tactics? As in "What, given constraints of a limited budget and trained manpower, should our strategic naval posture be?" "What if we had 10% more funding?" "What if we had 10% less?" "What strategic changes does nuclear power for warships bring?" "What about laser weapons?" "Robotic and semi-robotic vessels and aircraft?" "What are the threats to a modern fleet by a modern swarm attack?"

Things to ponder on one of those nights on an independent transit of the Pacific or in other quiet moments.

Reading good science fiction can help stimulate that pondering.

By the way, the Commandant of the Marine Corps reading lists can be found here. Yes, there are scifi books on them. The Coast Guard Commandant's lists can be found here. A list I prepared last year is here.


  1. OOOH! Mahan, Heinlein and Weber all in one post. Well Done, and I am an aficionado of all of them.

  2. Great post.