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Is It True That Naval and Air Campaigns are Best Evaluated as Peripheral Operations or Secondary Fronts?

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I have Masters degrees in National Security & Strategic Studies, Air & Space Studies, and Aeronautical Science. I am interested in history.

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Is It True That Naval and Air Campaigns are Best Evaluated as Peripheral Operations or Secondary Fronts?

While it may be true that overwhelming naval victories or lopsided air campaigns alone cannot deliver decisive strategic results, it would be a tragic error for history students and war planners to evaluate either on the same basis as peripheral operations or secondary fronts. Such an approach would most assuredly yield inaccurate lessons and may even lead to irresponsible strategic planning and institutional behavior in future. Naval and air operations are best viewed as necessary and integral parts of a country’s overall armed forces war campaign.

Julian Corbett Knew The Truth

Sir Julian Corbett pointed out that “it scarcely needs saying that it is almost impossible for a war to be decided by naval action alone,” but he did not relegate seapower’s contribution in warfare to a peripheral or secondary role. [1]

Indeed, in his conception of maritime strategy, Corbett very clearly stated the importance of integrating seapower with land forces: “naval strategy is [what] determines the movements of the fleet when maritime strategy has determined what part the fleet must play in relation to the action of the land forces.” [2]

This view of the navy’s important role in war was shown to have validity well before Corbett penned his précis. [3]

When they realized that “banging their head” against the Long Walls would not work, Spartan reassessment included incorporation of both land and seapower into their strategy.

The Peloponnesian War - Banging Their Head Against the Wall

The Peloponnesian War is illustrative: Sparta’s initial, and unsuccessful, strategy was to almost yearly attack directly with hoplites the city of Attica in an attempt to bring about Athens’ defeat. When they realized that “banging their head” against the Long Walls would not work, Spartan reassessment included incorporation of both land and seapower into their strategy. First, they created a fortified position at Decelea, which meant that “all Athenian provisions now had to come by sea.” [4]

The added expense incurred by the requirement to move goods by sea, along with “the destruction of property and loss of men which resulted from [the occupation], was one of the principal causes of [Athens’] ruin.” [5]

The ruination was not complete, however, until Sparta secured Persian funding to build a naval fleet. This allowed the Spartans to conduct the Ionian War, which eventually forced Athens to surrender: “The Spartan admiral Lysander employed stealth and superior tactical skill to capture—on the beach—almost the entire Athenian fleet in the Hellespont. After that disaster, the Athenians had no means left with which to prevent Lysander from blockading their city, starving her of the grain from the Black Sea region on which she largely depended, and ultimately forcing her to sue for peace.” [6]

Douhet and Mitchell (and Others) Stretched the Truth

By contrast, airpower theorists such as Guilio Douhet and Billy Mitchell (and even many modern day zealots) have claimed for that military arm the ability to deliver decisive strategic results on its own. The historical record does not readily support this contention, though, and it would be an even greater tragedy for historians and war planners to view airpower in this light. The responsible middle ground should place air forces in a position of equivalent importance to land and sea forces—all three are coequal, interdependent and necessary contributors to strategic success in war.

“The [Combined Bomber Offensive] caused German military leaders to drain much needed air strength away from the main fighting fronts to protect the Reich, weakening German resistance in the Soviet Union and the Mediterranean.”

— Richard J. Overy, "Why the Allies Won"

The Combined Bomber Offensive is Illustrative

That this assertion is true was first demonstrated most clearly in the Allied bombing campaign of World War II. Though the Combined Bomber Offensive in no way lived up to hype such as Stanley Baldwin’s declaration that “the bomber will always get through,” or the Air Corps Tactical School’s dogmatic belief in the supreme efficacy of daylight precision bombing, airpower nonetheless proved its worth in the war against Germany.

After a somewhat “slow” start, American and British bombers exacted a heavy toll on the Luftwaffe. “The bombing offensive caused German military leaders to drain much needed air strength away from the main fighting fronts to protect the Reich, weakening German resistance in the Soviet Union and the Mediterranean.” [7]

Though this fact might seem to suggest that the air campaign constituted a second front, it is more accurate and instructive to view it as part of the overall war plan against Germany: in the end, Allied air superiority over Europe was the critical prerequisite that allowed Operation OVERLORD—the 1944 invasion of France—to proceed and succeed without prohibitive losses.

In addition, and importantly, Allied tactical air forces were fully integrated with ground forces from summer 1944 on, and maintained air superiority for the entire drive into the heart of Germany.

That decisive combined arms campaign resulted in the crushing defeat of the Nazis in May 1945.

Discussions of Air and Naval Campaigns as "Peripheral Operations"?

Even if one were to attempt evaluation of air and naval campaigns as peripheral operations or secondary fronts, assumption of the effort would first beg consideration of some very important questions, such as

  1. What constitutes a peripheral operation or secondary front?
  2. Does peripheral or secondary necessarily imply something less important than the primary campaign?

In an attempt to answer these questions here, it will be helpful to examine briefly Britain’s Iberian Peninsula campaign against Napoleon and the Pacific theater in World War II.

Map of Spain and Portugal during the Peninsular War

Map of Spain and Portugal during the Peninsular War

Britain in the Peninsular War

Britain’s contribution to the Peninsular War is often called a peripheral operation. This characterization is accurate inasmuch as it captures the geographical realities of the effort, but it does not do much beyond that.

It is important to note that this "peripheral raiding strategy was pursued energetically by Britain as an independent source of pressure, or just as a sign of life, only when more immediately productive opportunities on land were signally absent. Generally, Britain preferred to contribute modestly on land in the decisive theater of operations, most typically the Low Countries and Germany, so long as such a theater was active. Britain did not commit her army to Portugal and Spain after 1808 because she was geostrategically attracted to the remote periphery of the continent. Rather, after the Franco-Russian treaties of Tilsit in July 1807, there were no active landpower allies, operating in a geographically more central theater, whose efforts could be joined. In the Peninsular War, Britain did what she could to keep the struggle alive, with an army able to fall back on a reliably commanded sea." [8]

Here, then, in the Portuguese and Spanish resistance against Napoleon, the British found a chance to grasp a beneficial strategic opportunity when other opportunities were lacking. While it would be too much of a stretch to call the Peninsular War decisive, it did make a “significant contribution to Napoleon’s downfall.” [9]

As Napoleon himself noted, “With 30,000 men in transports at the Downs, the English can paralyze 300,000 of my army, and that will reduce us to the rank of a second-class Power.”

More important than that, though, is consideration of the beginnings of Napoleon’s downfall as a whole. Considering that the Peninsular campaign was largely enabled by command of the sea obtained after the decisive naval battle at Trafalgar, it may be more instructive for historians and war planners to view the Peninsular campaign as one link in a successful chain of strategic events, as opposed to simply a “peripheral operation.”

The US in the Pacific, WWII

In much the same way that it was Britain’s choice to engage in a peripheral operation in Portugal and Spain when other options were found wanting, the United States chose to consider the Pacific as a second front in World War II. Even though the US was officially brought into the war by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the “Germany-First” strategy conceived earlier that year held sway. As early as March 1942, Winston Churchill, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the British and American Chiefs of staff all confirmed officially that the grand strategy was to be “decisive offensive action to beat Germany first and concomitant defensive operations against Japan.” [10]

It is important here to note two things implicit in the Allied decision to make Japan a secondary front.

  1. First, it was a decision subsumed in the overall strategy for World War II; that is, even though there would be separate operational strategies for the European and Pacific theaters, both were part of the overall Allied grand strategy for victory in World War II.
  2. Second, the “Germany-First” proclamation referred mainly to urgency and level of effort and in no way implied that the war against Japan was not important. Indeed, after the first year of fighting, “the US Army had more troops, ground and air, deployed against Japan than in the European theater of war. In fact, by that time there were 350,000 soldiers deployed and conducting defensive operations in the Pacific theater.” [11]

Clearly, then—at least in World War II—secondary did not mean small or unimportant. Additionally, and as was demonstrated in the case of Britain’s Iberian Peninsula “peripheral operation,” it is possible—and even prudent—to consider conception and execution of operations against Japan as one link in an overall successful chain of strategic events.

What the US and its allies initially called a secondary front turned into the primary front for Japan and constituted a major war in and of itself. Japan was kept occupied in its fight with the US to the point that even if Japan had conceived of a way to help the Axis somewhere in or closer to Europe, constant US pressure in the Pacific would have made the effort supremely difficult.

In the end, the decisive combination of sea, land and air forces in the Pacific theater overwhelmed the Japanese, who capitulated “unconditionally” in August 1945.

Naval and Air Campaigns are Integral, Not Peripheral (or Secondary)

This all-too-brief review of portions of the historical record was intended to show the general lack of utility to be found in categorizing military operations as either peripheral or secondary.

As was seen in the first case, the periphery may sometimes be the only place in which it is strategically feasible to operate.

As was seen in the second case, secondary may be what is most prudent.

In both cases, however, the operations can best be considered in the way that they contributed to overall strategic success. In the end, neither could be considered sufficient in achieving all the objectives sought by the ultimately victorious belligerents, but both proved important and necessary contributions.

In much the same way, naval and air campaigns can and must be considered as integral parts of an overall war plan, and not as something separate and apart from the other efforts. American involvement in Vietnam provides an example of what can happen when strategic planners, military leaders and politicians ignore this admonition.

Related Lessons from Vietnam

During the Vietnam War, US military efforts never coalesced into a single, unified whole. While ground forces were fighting a war of attrition against conventional and guerilla forces, naval and land-based air forces first pursued an interdiction campaign characterized by gradual escalation and inconsistent pursuit of war aims.

“Johnson’s civilian advisers, the Air Force and the Army all favored a different strategy and [each of these three strategies took turns dominating the conduct of ROLLING THUNDER].” [12]

In addition, this part of the air war—which was fought mainly by the US Air Force—was “divided among at least three separate and uncoordinated commands” while the one fought by naval air forces was at least equally as schizophrenic. [13]

“Navy aircraft attacking targets ashore in support of the land war being fought by the Army and the Marine Corps, and in support of the air war being fought by the Air Force, were under [completely] different commands.” [14]

In the end, and to “minimize confusion, CinCPac Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp assigned to each service its own operating area, wherein each could fight its own air war.” [15]

In total, for its part, the US “Navy conducted three distinct campaigns. One was in the air over Vietnam, another was on the South China Sea, and a third was in the brown water of South Vietnam’s rivers.” [16]

Strategic Schizophrenia to the Very End

In 1972, the US conducted two separate strategic bombing offensives, dubbed Operations LINEBACKER I and II. These operations, pursued by the Nixon administration to achieve “peace with honor,” were designed to compel North Vietnam to “terminate a specific ground offensive and to rescue an ally from imminent defeat, but not to recapture lost territory.” [17]

While both offensives contributed to ultimate success in this regard, neither operation had anything whatsoever to do with original US objectives for the war.

To the extent that the Vietnam War was “winnable” at all on a military level, its best chance for success would have been realized with incorporation from the beginning of a unified, joint effort on the part of all US armed forces. As it was, military operations proceeded with a severe lack of overarching strategic guidance and sometimes even deteriorated to the point where they were little more than a pickup game, with each service concentrating on its own area of operations. In the end, the strategy that had the most major success was one with the negative aim of allowing the US to retreat with some semblance of dignity.

Operation DESERT SHIELD/DESERT STORM

In stark contrast to Vietnam, the effort to eject Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait in 1991 was characterized by clearly defined military objectives and lengthy consideration of a concept of operations that eventually included effective integration and employment of all branches of the service.

The numerous political and military lessons learned by the United States in the Vietnam War loomed large in its conception and execution of the Persian Gulf War, or Operation DESERT SHIELD/DESERT STORM.

The comprehensive air campaign conducted by land-based and naval air forces, followed by the 100-hour ground campaign, can be called nothing if not a stunning operational success. U.S. and coalition ground, naval, and air assets all combined with devastating effect to deliver one of the most crushing military defeats in the history of warfare. That the war itself cannot now be considered a long-term strategic success should in no way detract from this reality. [18]

Indeed, in this war, fighting did not greatly suffer from a lack of understanding or belief in the efficacy of one military arm or the other. Military planners and leadership understood well the importance of and necessity for integrated employment of air, land and naval forces.

Conclusion

The history of warfare largely supports the contention that overwhelming naval victories or lopsided air campaigns alone cannot deliver decisive strategic results. But it is also important to note that since the introduction of each of these military arms, neither has landpower been able to deliver such results on its own. Students of history and planners of war cannot, therefore, responsibly evaluate any military branch’s contribution on the same basis as peripheral operations or secondary fronts. Indeed, the historical record suggests that categorization of wartime operations as peripheral or secondary is not overly useful in any case. In much the same way, to evaluate naval and air campaigns in this light may be to invite the learning of inaccurate lessons or, even worse, lead to irresponsible strategic behavior in the future. Naval, air and land operations are best viewed as necessary, integral, coequal and interdependent parts of a nation’s overall joint force campaign. Strategy should forever be conceived with this admonition in mind.

Sources

[1] Julian S. Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy (London: Longmans Green and Co., 1911): 13.

[2] Ibid.

[3] This view of the navy’s role in war is still valid today, though it does require expansion to include integration of naval air forces.

[4] R.B. Strassler, ed., The Landmark Thucydides (New York: The Free Press, 1996): 443.

[5] Ibid., 442.

[6] Ibid., 549.

[7] Richard J. Overy, Why the Allies Won (New York: Norton Press, 1995): 129.

[8] Colin S. Gray, The Leverage of Sea Power: The Strategic Advantage of Navies in War (New York: The Free Press, 1992): 42. Emphasis added.

[9] Syllabus, Strategy and Policy, November 2005-March 2006, College of Naval Warfare., C-22

[10] Lt. Colonel Gregory M. “Box” Cain, Evaluating Strategic Risks and Rewards of the Decision to Engage in Two Offensives in 1942 (S&P Essay: 8 January 2006): 2

[11] Ibid., 5.

[12] Robert A. Pape, Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War (New York: Cornell University Press, 1996): 177.

[13] Eliot Cohen, Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen and Leadership in Wartime (New York: The Free Press, 2002): 183

[14] George Baer, One Hundred Years of Sea Power: The U.S. Navy, 1890-1990 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994): 388

[15] Ibid., 388.

[16] Ibid., 387.

[17] Pape, 197.

[18] Though further discussion is beyond the scope of this essay, suffice it to say that war termination was—to put it mildly—somewhat lacking after Gulf War I. Clearly, the conflict did little to secure a “lasting peace” in Iraq.

Note from the Author

In the main, I would argue this paper has aged well. Though it's never been published before, it was originally written in 2005-2006 time frame. I believe the central contention is still valid to this day.

That said, there is a notable omission from the main proposition.

The advent of an all-new Space Force drives this point home.

The essay doesn't mention space only because space wasn't part of the question being asked and answered on the given day. If it were, the final sentence of this paper (after inclusion of logical and evidentiary arguments in the body of the paper, of course) might have read something like this:

Air, space, naval and land operations are best viewed as necessary, integral, coequal and interdependent parts of a nation’s overall joint force campaign. Strategy should forever be conceived with this admonition in mind.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 greg cain