Review of From Mahan to Corbett?

Daisuke SEKINE,Research Fellow of the OPRF


On December 11, 2011, an online international current-affairs magazine, The Diplomat, carried an article titled “From Mahan to Corbett?” by James R. Holmes, an associate professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College. Analysis of this monthly report has covered this article and examined the maritime strategy of Sir Julian Corbett (1854−1922), a British historian and strategic thinker.

The superordinate concept of “Air Sea Battle,” the Joint Operational Access Concept (hereafter JOAC), was announced last December. In this regard, the article mentioned that the superiority of the United States in military strategy was threatened in the current international security environment; it introduced the different ways in which Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840−1914) and Corbett perceived command of the sea, along with the significance of the JOAC. Corbett’s theory was different from that of Mahan, who was suspected to have advocated “navalism” and an “ocean supremacy theory.” Corbett stressed on land space as being the most important for human life. He offered incisive suggestions for modern military operations by advocating a “maritime strategy” based on a sophisticated joint operation. When the issue of seapower is debated in Europe and the United States, the general tendency is to focus on the strategic theories of Mahan, who advocated sea power, and of Corbett, who stressed on maritime strategy. (In practice, their theories should not be classified in such a dualistic manner.) However, Corbett is undeniably little known in Japan. This analysis attempts to introduce Corbett’s strategic theory and compare it to Mahan’s.

1. Outline

(1) The announcement of the JOAC seems to signify a healthy shift in the attitude toward the contested regions of the globe.

(2) The Soviet Union was dissolved twenty years ago. With no major rival, the U.S. armed forces grew accustomed to “commanding” the global “commons,” the seas and skies beyond the jurisdiction of any government. If the United States no longer had to fight for control of the commons, it was logical for American leaders to refocus their energies on “power projection” in embattled regions. Command seemed a virtual U.S. birthright.

(3) In recent years, however, regional powers like China and Iran have bought or built weaponry that equips them to challenge U.S. mastery of offshore waters and airspace. U.S. commanders can no longer assume that they can gain access to forward bases in places like Japan or Bahrain, let alone project power onto foreign shores with impunity. The JOAC acknowledges the old yet still-relevant reality that external powers may encounter resistance from strong local powers that boast sizable advantages when fighting in their own backyards.

(4) The JOAC’s central idea is that “cross-domain synergy” across military services will be critical to piercing the “anti-access” and “area-denial” measures of regional antagonists. Equally important is that this document tries to dispel any lingering illusions about untrammeled U.S. access to disputed regions.

(5) More likely, say the JOAC’s drafters, the U.S. expeditionary forces will have to impose local, temporary superiority at critical places on the map at critical times. “Superiority in any domain,” it observes, “may not be widespread or permanent; it more often will be local and temporary.” Only the complete integration of land, air, and sea power can help commanders exploit “fleeting local opportunities for disrupting the enemy system.” If the United States holds command at the outset of a conflict, it may lose command eventually and have to restore it by force of arms. It may be no coincidence that the JOAC was released the day after the seventieth anniversary of the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor—the last time U.S. sea and air forces found themselves driven from the Western Pacific and had to battle their way back.

(6) The JOAC seems to mark a transition from “Mahanian” to “Corbettian” assumptions about warfare in regions like the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean.

(7) Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan exhorted naval commanders to seek out and defeat enemy battle fleets, thereby winning command of the sea. He defined command as “overbearing power” that rid vital waters of the enemy’s flag or, at most, allowed the flag to appear as a “fugitive.” He seemed to assume that permanent, absolute command of important expanses was possible.

(8) Mahan’s contemporary, British historian Julian Corbett, agreed that “permanent general control” was a worthy goal, but also insisted that it might prove unattainable. He believed that the “normal position” was an “uncommanded sea,” simply because no navy was big and wide-ranging enough to be at all places at all times. Therefore, naval commanders needed to think in terms of wresting control of key points from adversaries for finite intervals.

(9) However, naval campaigns need not proceed in a linear fashion. According to Corbett’s classic treatise Some Principles of Maritime Strategy (1911), logic dictates that fleets overcome enemy fleets before exercising command, which involves blockading enemy shores, landing troops, and doing the other things that victory entitles a navy to do.

(10) On the other hand, as Corbett explained in Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, war “is not conducted by logic, and the order of proceeding which logic prescribes cannot always be adhered to in practice.” The “special conditions of naval warfare” rendered it “inevitable that operations for exercising command should accompany as well as follow operations for securing command.” In other words, a navy might have to exercise command before winning the war and accept the attendant dangers and hardships.

(11) As the U.S. Army, Navy, Marine, and Air Force commanders ponder over how to execute the JOAC, they could do worse than dust off that old a copy of Some Principles of Maritime Strategy.


(1) Julian Corbett

In this article, Holmes explains the thinking behind acquiring command of the sea and the importance of joint operational capability based on Corbett’s strategic theory. Though a contemporary of Mahan, Corbett developed strategic theories on maritime space that were different from Mahan’s. The following is a brief summary of Corbett’s career.

Corbett was born on September 12, 1852. He graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge, with a first-class law degree and then became a barrister. However, he did not seem dedicated to his vocation and began to go on overseas trips and produce maritime novels. He began working for the Navy Records Society in 1893 and taught the history of naval affairs at the University of Oxford in 1903. He never served in the armed forces unlike others who wrote seminal books on naval strategy, such as Mahan, Philip Colomb (1831−1899), Herbert Richmond (1871−1946), and Raoul Castex (1878−1968). Possibly because of his career, Corbett’s strategic theory covers a wider field than Mahan’s theory, which aimed to encourage naval officer education on the history and construction of a larger American navy. Unlike Mahan, Corbett summarized the results of his research; his book, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, came out in 1911.

(2) Corbett’s Strategic Thought

Navy as an Extension of Policy

On studying the work of Karl von Clausewitz (1780−1831), the Prussian author of On War, Corbett had a strategic observation on the need to relate strategy and diplomatic policy. Corbett said that one of the functions of fleets was to “support or obstruct diplomatic effort” and he regarded war as a form of political intercourse and a continuation of foreign policy that begins when force is introduced to achieve aims. Even though previous naval history books had never highlighted the comprehensive relationship between naval, military, and political events, Corbett covered not only naval operations but also foreign and national policy and the personalities involved in his work. Unlike Mahan, his most significant contribution to maritime thought was his finding that the success of the British maritime empire could be attributed to not only seapower but also the combined interplay and exploitation of all its naval, military, economic, and diplomatic powers in a comprehensive manner. He also insisted that the maritime and continental schools of strategy should not compete against, but complement each other.

Limitations of Sea and the Complementary Relationship with Land

Corbett applied Clausewitz’s idea to the development of the theory of “limited war.” With command of the sea, an insular country or a country isolated from great powers by the oceans could expand or reduce the scale of war on its own terms. Such a favorable strategic environment enables such countries to conduct “war limited by contingent.” In fact, Britain adopted a businesslike approach to the situation in Europe and controlled the balance of power there by making the maximum use of seapower.

On the other hand, through the study of naval history, Corbett understood the limitations as well as the advantages of seapower. He investigated how the navy influenced the outcome of war through ways other than its operations. Despite the fact that Britain won the Battle of Trafalgar, Corbett took considerable notice that the Napoleonic Wars continued for another ten years. He felt that seapower was used defensively in war and that it was powerless during the final stage of a war against a great continental power. Corbett also imagined that if Britain had sea power alone, it could be a mere balancer for Europe, but not overpower, a continental European foe, and joint operations between naval and land forces and continental allies were essential to defeat a formidable continental opponent. Many of Corbett’s readers at the time were surprised that he considered the Battle of Trafalgar as an event that highlighted the limitations of sea power rather than the glory of the navy.

Furthermore, Corbett believed that the navy was required to assist the army, diplomats, and allies by putting pressure on hostile forces in diverse ways to achieve a greater goal. Although Mahan often used the term “naval strategy,” Corbett maintained a distance from the term “navy supremacy group” by using the term “maritime strategy” in a broader context and making a terminological distinction between “naval strategy” and “maritime strategy.” Corbett insisted that inhabited land was the most important strategic space, and he underscored the significance of joint operations by the navy and army. He called this “maritime strategy.” He believed that naval and military history should never be separated and that the army should consider how the navy can help them and vice versa. Corbett believed that the relationship between seapower and landpower should be complementary, not an adversarial, and defined maritime strategy as an extension of continental strategy. Corbett’s point of view was not easily influenced by dualistic terms and he took a comprehensive and panoramic view of national strategy, considering the original purpose of a state.

Command of the Sea and Sea Lines of Communication

As mentioned in “From Mahan to Corbett?”, Mahan and Corbett had differing views on command of the sea. One of the main reasons for Corbett’s continued skepticism toward the concept of absolute command of the sea was the difference between land and sea as a strategic space. Human beings are unable to occupy the sea, unlike land, so that they can exclude forces other than friends from the sea, or reside at sea. Corbett discussed command of the sea as follows:

That error is the very general assumption that if one belligerent loses the command of the sea it passes at once to the other belligerent. The most cursory study of naval history is enough to reveal the falseness of such an assumption. It tells us that the most common situation in naval war is that neither side has the command; that the normal position is not a commanded sea, but an uncommanded sea.

He insisted that command of the sea is not a dualistic concept like “black or white” or “winner takes all.” He clarified the difference between land and sea as strategic spaces, saying, “The object of naval warfare is the control of communications, and not, as in land warfare, the conquest of territory.” While he acknowledged that the navy’s ideal is to wipe out the enemy’s fleets, as Mahan held, he pointed out that this ideal might not be realized. He believed that one of the two goals of naval operations was to obtain or dispute the command of the sea and the other was to exercise such control of communications as it previously had. Corbett emphasized the superiority of defense and dispersion of forces in naval war and insisted on the significance of silent pressure using the navy’s presence, like the “fleet in being,” a strategy to temporarily disperse and avoid the enemy’s forces. Such opinions differed significantly from those of Mahan, who placed importance on the concentration of forces and a decisive fleet battle. Undeniably, Corbett was challenging Mahan’s idea. On the other hand, his strategic theory, said to be as an application of Clausewitz’s theory and similar to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, is an example of the application of a theory, and can be applied to other things as referred to hereafter.

(3) Mahan or Corbett?

Mahan earned his place in history by emphasizing that oceans, navies, and international relations were of paramount importance to states. He emphasized the following three notions: “maritime commerce was essential to the economic prosperity of a great power”; “the best means of protecting one’s own trade while interdicting the enemy’s was to deploy a fleet of battleships capable of maintaining naval supremacy”; and “a nation with naval supremacy could defeat a country that was militarily pre-eminent.” In 1890, when he published The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660−1783, “control of the sea was an historic factor which had never been systematically appreciated and expounded.” The Times of London then proclaimed that Mahan was “the new Copernicus.” Halford Mackinder (1861−1947), called the founder of modern geopolitics, said of Mahan’s work, “The ocean was one ocean all the time, but the practical meaning of that great reality was not wholly understood until a few years ago—perhaps it is only now being grasped in its entirety.” Mahan is most commonly remembered for emphasizing the significance of sea lanes and the shipping industry, the importance of naval stations, the concentration of naval forces, and the positive effects of naval blockades. He received praise for publishing The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660−1783, from the leaders of the great powers and navy circles at the time. Such arguments, however, became a target for criticism because Mahan’s works had the potential to trigger a new round in the arms race, cause navalism, and failed to foresee the importance of scientific and technological progress. Later, it was suggested that he was the main source of the decisive battle doctrine, the “Big Gun Navy,” and the principle of the big navy, and he was called an expansionist and a propagandist.

On the other hand, Corbett developed his strategic theories to neutralize Mahan’s navalist outlook, which was highly popular at the time. Indeed, he observed the significance of joint operations, limited war, adjusting naval operations for political or diplomatic purposes, the control of sea lines of communication, and the attack and defense of commercial shipping and the fleet-in-being strategy. Corbett wanted his works to be more a common guideline for a state’s general policy than something to overemphasize the role of the navy. He was unable to overcome students’ skepticism in his lecture at Royal Naval College, Greenwich, because he was a citizen with no military experience. His strategic thought that underscored the superiority of defense became a focus of criticism—both the Royal Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy were opposed to such thought. His works continued to be ignored for decades after his death, even in the United Kingdom and the United States, but since then, they have gained gradual acceptance.

(4) China and Corbett

The intelligence assessment of the monthly report from May 2011, “Review: When Land Powers Look Seaward,” mentioned that China highly appreciated Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660−1783, and attempted to transform itself from a land power state to a sea power state by remembering the importance of protecting commercial intercourse and the sea lines of communication. China, taking into account Mahan’s strategic thought, treated seapower as a pillar of its national progress. However, in recent years, after Chinese seapower has gradually taken shape, China is attempting to evolve further as a maritime state by shifting its strategic direction toward the application of Corbett’s theory. This is explained in “China’s Navy: A Turn to Corbett?” written by James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara (a professor of the U.S. Naval War College), in the December 2010 volume of Proceedings published by the United States Naval Institute. According to this paper, the elaborate assessments of Some Principles of Maritime Strategy and comparisons of Corbett with Mahan have appeared gradually in Chinese military literature since 2008. Although they learned and incorporated the basic framework of sea power from Mahan, Chinese experts believed that “only knowing Mahan is dangerous” and were highly appreciative of Corbett’s sea power theory. This paper points out that the relationship between China and Corbett’s strategic theory is as follows: (1) Corbett’s theory, which places such significance on land, is highly relevant to China, which has the traditions of a great continental power; (2) the explanation and definition of command of the sea by the Chinese navy evidently uses Corbett’s theory as a reference; (3) Corbett, influenced by Clausewitz, insisted that the strategy of true defense or “active defense” involved waiting for a chance to strike back, and can be associated with Mao Zedong’s theory of protracted war; (4) the elastic cohesion of forces that Corbett advocated is suitable for China’s extended coastline; (5) the Chinese maritime periphery has a number of islands and territorial disputes, and Corbett’s works, which link naval power to landing operations, could help the Chinese navy strategize when conducting operations in such areas.

Mahan’s thoughts on the significance of the sea are profound and philosophical, and are relevant and persuasive even in changing times. China focuses its national maritime strategy on Mahan’s sea power theory but understands that knowledge of Mahan alone is not enough. Consequently, Chinese experts study Corbett’s strategic theory, which is well balanced and introduced a broader perspective. They use a combination of Mahan’s and Corbett’s theories in actual operations and policy aspects and attempt to apply their theories to the country’s strategic environment. China’s ability to set a definite goal and work promptly and flexibly in this direction inspires respect, even though its political system is a one-party regime.

3. Implications for Japan

Not only the application to a sophisticated joint operations essential to seize Taiwan, and the JOAC but also the efficacy of Corbett’s theory has attracted attention, such as in the case of the theory of space strategy that China is now promoting. Moreover, “offshore balancing,” which is currently becoming a much-discussed concept, is suggestive of the possible association of limited war that Corbett spoke of. His theory seems to have had a deep influence on both U.S. and Chinese strategy; hence, Japan, which is inevitably influenced by these two countries, must seek to comprehend both Mahan and Corbett. The incisiveness of Corbett’s forethought can be adapted even today and cannot be disregarded.

The views of both Mahan and Corbett contain weak and strong points. Different eras of history seem to validate or bring into question different parts of their arguments. Their reputations do change with time, but Mahan and Corbett are great figures in the history of strategic studies, and both arguments have their strong points. Which of them should be chosen, learned, and applied? The wisdom of a state or an organization is tested by its capability to assess and properly use sea power strategies and other strategies. What is worrisome is the fact that Japan is ill equipped to research strategic studies, and the lack of strategic-studies knowledge makes one feel insecure. Even those in Japan whose positions require them to have some background in strategic studies lack a theoretical grounding and have trouble discussing the arguments of foreign experts such as Holmes and Chinese experts. These individuals need to acquire both the theoretical knowledge and a background on current debates in the field.

From “Intelligence Analysis (February 2012)”