Maritime and Expeditionary Dominance: Great Britain's Legacy to 21st-Century Strategy

By Kuehn, John Trost | Military Review, September-October 2003 | Go to article overview

Maritime and Expeditionary Dominance: Great Britain's Legacy to 21st-Century Strategy


Kuehn, John Trost, Military Review


OPERATIONS Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom underscore America's reputation as the world's most powerful, influential maritime power. Guaranteed access "from the sea" and "sovereign power forward" provides a critical capability, even in the campaign in landlocked, mountainous Afghanistan. (1)

More than 200 years ago the world began to accelerate exponentially because of developments wrought by the scientific and industrial revolutions. At that time, Great Britain and Napoleonic-era France were locked in a life-or-death struggle. That mere water could so frustrate his genius in his 20-year struggle with the British Empire infuriated Napoleon: "With 30,000 men in transports the English ... can paralyze 300,000 of my Army, and that will reduce us to a second-class power." (2)

Great Britain's power was based principally on a marriage of maritime power with effective diplomacy. After Napoleon's defeat, the world entered a period of peace with Great Britain as the global leader. The United States is the direct heir to Great Britain's mantle of maritime power and global leadership. (3)

The efficacy of sea power and the utility of the concept of command of the sea are vital topics for debate. (4) Alfred T. Mahan's famous 19th-century case study on Great Britain's rise as the dominant maritime power of the 18th and 19th centuries calls for a long-overdue return to the roots of the U.S. Navy. (5) Also on the hot-topic list is the debate regarding the advantages and vulnerabilities of working within the framework of multinational coalitions. (6) A synthesis of the themes--maritime dominance and coalition challenges--reveals a link. Maritime dominance, when examined from the historical precedent Great Britain set, supplies the methods that might help solve some of the challenges of 21st-century coalition warfare.

The debate leads to the question, "Is a military security strategy based primarily around expeditionary/maritime power-projection better suited to the United States as it advances into the 21st century?" Obviously, it is too late to decide if this strategy is appropriate for today's needs. The United States must fight current conflicts with the tools at hand, tools that were crafted to fight the Cold War.

Maritime-Based Strategy

The historical precedent for adopting a maritime-based strategy is essentially the same today as it was in Mahan's day; that is, it follows Great Britain's example. In the last 20 years of the 19th century, U.S. political and military leaders faced a rapidly destabilizing world. Strategic decisions, based in part on Mahan's influence, led to the U.S. Navy's expansion, resulting in a world-class navy that paid handsome dividends during two world wars and the Cold War.

Great Britain's example is no less relevant today than 100 years ago. Britain, which coupled a flair for coalition warfare with a sustained strategy of maritime dominance, refined a policy that combined aggressive economic policies, maritime dominance, and fighting continental opponents by proxy within coalitions. These are the same methods coalition forces are using in Afghanistan and, to a lesser degree, in Iraq. The British used this method to build a force structure around a large, vigorous Navy and a small (by continental standards), but highly professional, expeditionary army.

When Napoleon posed the most significant threat to its security, Britain defeated him. For over 200 years, British decisionmakers refined the Nation's strategy and in the process maintained the continental (and from a European viewpoint, global) balance of power. Until the 20th century, no other modern Western power had equaled this skillful combination of maritime dominance and coalition warfare to maintain and advance national interests. As it supplanted the British as the leader of the Western world, the United States has subtly and oftentimes uncomfortably borne the mantle of this method. …

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