To investigate the relevance of the fleet-in-being concept in US Navy planning for the new era of great power competition and to evaluate its possible place with respect to other strategic missions in a range of scenarios for future war.
Fleet-in-being is defined as withholding the main force from battle to pose a threat to an adversary.* The aim is to tie up their forces in a defensive posture and prevent their use for other tasks. First adopted by the Royal Navy in the late 17th century—it has, for obvious reasons, been employed by the weaker side. But it has also been used by the stronger navy if its offensive commitment seemed unlikely to affect the course of the war as a whole and/or because the potential loss of forces might have catastrophic consequences. Admiral Jellicoe’s decision to withhold the Grand Fleet during the First World War is the celebrated example of the latter. Jellicoe was popularly recognized as the man who could lose the war in an afternoon.
Jellicoe’s withholding decision was famously—to students of Soviet naval strategy—praised by Admiral Gorshkov in the series of articles in Morskoy sbornik entitled “Navies in War and Peace” (1972-73). Gorshkov was not so much writing history as making a veiled “announcement” that the Soviet Union had adopted a withholding strategy, not to fire but to keep SLBMs as a strategic nuclear reserve protected by the GPF navy. Gorshkov, however, was more the bona fide historian when he also praised the ability of naval forces in-being to favorably affect the course of postwar negotiations with defeated enemies and for dealing with “erstwhile allies.” Gorshkov lamented the Tsarist navy’s inferiority at the end of the Crimean war, which obliged Russia to accept the unfavorable terms of the Treaty of Paris. This he saw as an example of the political utility of—in this case, British and French—naval forces as fleets-in-being.
Defense Secretary James Mattis announced in January 2018 that henceforth great power competition would constitute the basis for US defense planning. This historic change has dictated a review of the Navy’s experience during the Cold War in search of lessons relevant to the new era: Which strategic tasks should be carried forward unchanged (e.g., SLOC protection), which might need to be radically modified (e.g., early forward commitment of the carrier force), and which should be held in abeyance or even abandoned entirely (e.g., strategic ASW).
Review of recent experience is not enough. The Navy must also consider historical concepts for the employment of naval power that played little or no role in its thinking during the Cold War. The fleet-in-being, along with the global blockade concept, is a leading example.
What Kind of War
The shape that war may take in the 21st century gives reason to reconsider the fleet-in-being concept. Clausewitz tells us “The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish…the kind of war on which they are embarking.” While it is impossible to foresee the future, it is nonetheless necessary to specify “the kind of war”—the range of strategic scenarios—that Navy planning must address.
World War II and the Cold War involved great land powers with ground forces engaged or squared off on a continental scale. There could be war in the 21st century of similar dimensions. It might have geopolitically tectonic consequences or even existential ones because of the arsenal of nuclear weapons possessed by the sides.
Equally, if not perhaps more, likely is a “small” war even with powerful peer competitors like China or Russia. Such a war, fought over relatively small stakes, might come about by accident, misunderstanding, or miscalculation. It is fairly easy to envision a small war where the importance of the issue at stake becomes magnified by nationalist sentiments.
Indeed, future-minded historians like Y.N. Harari have already speculated that a variety of emerging technological and economic factors—leaving aside human stupidity—make war between the great powers on a continental scale less and less likely.** This line of thinking does not mean a big war is impossible. It simply means that Navy strategic thinking should also encompass the possibility of small wars whose outcomes fall short of decisive victory: either stalemate, or perhaps a “victory” by one side that leaves the other with accumulated grievances and revanchist impulses. Thus arises the possibility of a small war leading to a series of small wars.
The primary advantage of the fleet-in-being strategy is its high efficiency—defined, like the concept in physics from which it arises – as the ratio of the useful effect on the adversary’s behavior compared to the effort expended. If you possess the ability to attack, you do not have to attack. The sheer existence of that ability—perhaps enhanced through deployment, maneuver and deception—forces your adversary to prepare to counter, precluding other damaging actions.
Thus, fleet-in-being holds considerable promise to meet SLOC protection needs. The existence of powerful offensive forces, both surface and subsurface, can tie down enemy forces in a defensive posture. The existence of the US submarine force alone seems nearly guaranteed to keep the Russian sub force close to home defending SSBN bastions. Put yourself at the desk of the prudent naval planner in Moscow. Would you send your submarines forward, leaving undefended your homeland and the SSBNs that guarantee its survival?
Fleet-in-being fits well with a blockade strategy (see the posts Global Blockade vs. Russia and Global Blockade vs. China). In that strategy the carrier force would be assigned the task of sweeping the adversary’s naval and civil ships off the world’s oceans. Thus the force would have a strategically important task that makes it unavailable for immediate forward commitment, in effect preserving the carriers as a fleet-in-being.
Finally, fleet-in-being is a strategy that has powerful effects on the adversary’s behavior but nonetheless conserves forces for commitment later in the war, attacking when conditions for success are favorable, negotiating a ceasefire from a position of strength, and dealing with the postwar world. It may be well suited to the kinds of wars—big and small—that Navy planning should confront. Big wars are examined below under “cons.”
In small wars, as outlined earlier, pyrrhic victory would carry ignominy. The advantages accruing to the side that emerges with a strong fleet-in-being are obvious.
Moreover, a “small” war could easily become a big one should US losses be unexpectedly large—say, the thousands of casualties involved in the loss of one or even several CVSGs, not to speak of the great psychological impact the loss of such prominent symbols of national sovereignty would entail. The political momentum within the US of demands for revenge or compensation could transform a conflict over a relatively small stake into something much larger and more difficult to contain. It would be a tragic irony if Navy actions aimed at winning a small war contributed to or even triggered a massive escalation of hostilities.
Some may find consideration of such possibilities distasteful or even defeatist. However, sentiment should not cloud thinking about how to deal with possible cold realities. This scenario seems plausible and provides another reason to commit battle forces forward in as careful and calibrated a manner as the vicissitudes of war allow.
It is probably fair to say that the idea of withholding superior forces from battle has found little, if any, favor in the Navy’s strategic thinking in the modern era. Indeed, starting with Midway, offense was the dominant ethos of the Pacific campaigns of the Second World War. Along with its Cold War predecessors, the Maritime Strategy of the 1980s emphasized the forward commitment of the carrier force.
Fleet-in-being violates the offensive essence of the Navy. Many ask “what’s the Navy for in war if we are not going to use it?” In this case “using” means shooting at somebody or something. If you’re not doing that, you’re somehow not using your Navy.
This view seems misguided, ahistorical, and blind to the psychology of the adversary. Here, the dual-hatted warrior-strategist lets the first dominate the second. The Navy’s number one service to the nation is to be: to exist as a highly trained, powerful fighting force. This widely recognized capability protects the nation from attack from the sea and underpins the national security strategy of forward engagement through a system of alliances. This system depends on being able to use the seas connecting us with allies and projecting power ashore where needed. This peacetime expression of the Navy’s raison d’être is intensified when routine forward presence of forces is augmented in response to crisis.
In times of peace and of crisis the world takes notice—finds credible the inherent threat that the US Navy signifies. Allies, neutrals, and especially adversaries, make their long term plans and their immediate politico-military moves in light of their perception of this peacetime reality.
The notion that when peace turns to crisis and crisis to war the Navy must immediately start shooting, otherwise the adversary would find its inherent threat to do so incredible does not seem logical. Indeed, the fact of war would likely magnify the adversary’s concern with the threat the Navy poses. That is the psychological mechanism of the fleet-in-being’s effects on the adversary. Coupled with the two reasons for Jellicoe’s withholding—commitment forward would not have affected the course of the war and possible loss of naval superiority would likely have meant loss of the war as a whole—this is why the strategic case for fleet-in-being trumps, must hold in check, the warrior’s urge to go to battle.
Fleet-in-being is a universal effect. It knows no nationality. US planners would take it into account, perhaps without giving it that name. Consider the hypothetical of a US war with China. Navy planners would obviously focus maximum effort against the Chinese military. But they could not ignore Russia’s Pacific Fleet, particularly its submarines. These would pose a threat of covert action to the forces and infrastructure of the US and its allies. Forces would have to be allocated to deal with that potential whether or not Russia attempted such action. This allocation would likely be a permanent feature of the war. Indeed, a war with China would have to be fought with the danger of Russia’s overt intervention always in mind.
Fleet-in-being is in obvious conflict with the early forward commitment of the carriers that, as noted, was a principal feature of Navy thinking during the Cold War. In a big war in the future, decisions regarding the forward commitment of carrier tactical aviation should be based, as before, on assessments of the adversary’s expected responses to tacair strikes on its territory, and the contribution that carrier tacair might be expected to make on the course of the war.
To these, fleet-in-being considerations should be given equal weight. (I am indebted to Michael Kofman for pointing out that the Navy could have considered fleet-in-being options during the Cold War. As a Cold Warrior myself I can report that the idea never came up as far as I was ever aware. Quite the contrary, attack, and the earlier the better, dominated.)
Finally, historically, British naval leaders who adopted a fleet-in-being strategy, whether successful or not, often did not then fare well in the nation’s postwar political processes.*** Whether such history might affect today’s leadership of the Navy is unknowable.
Fleet-in-being is a concept that deserves careful consideration as the Navy thinks through strategies for future war, both big or small. It seems well suited to “small wars” that appear plausible, even with a peer competitor. Fleet-in-being complements a global blockade strategy should it be pursued.
The concept is in clear tension with the early forward commitment of the carriers that was the hallmark of the 1980s-era Maritime Strategy. A decision to commit the carriers forward need not be made simply because attack is their raison d’être—the mission that they have trained for and are eminently ready to carry out.
The dilemma that the Navy should consider is exactly the one that Jellicoe faced: My forces are the most powerful in the world. They are highly trained and eager to go to battle. But will their commitment at some particular point be likely to affect the course of the war as a whole? If not, why commit? Or, will their potential losses result in unsought escalation of the conflict, pyrrhic victory, or worse? History has yielded a favorable judgment on Jellicoe’s decision. Twenty-first century strategic thinking should take history’s judgment of fleet-in-being into account.
*See John B. Hattendorf, “The Idea of a ‘Fleet in Being’ in Historical Perspective,” Naval War College Review (Winter 2014). For a general assessment see Geoffrey Till’s magisterial Seapower: A Guide for the Twenty-First Century (4th ed.) (London: Routledge 2018).
**Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Ideas for the 21st Century (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2018), pp. 69-72.
***Hattendorf, p. 167
Bradford Dismukes, San Francisco, August 25, 2020