A Prophet of Power for Our Times


By Steve Deal

As a new Lieutenant (junior grade) Navy pilot flying the P-3C Orion over the Indian Ocean in the early 1990s, I like many others was carefully trained in the art of “recognition, identification, and grouping” – or “RIGing” as most of us called the maneuver.

RIGing was part of an assigned surveillance mission where we would positively identify every ship we could find with the fuel and time we had available.  Detecting first by our radar and then visually by descending to as low as 200 feet above the oceans, we would fly 500 yards off the starboard (right) beam of the vessel, and lumber on by, at the fuel conservation speeds of a big-wing, propeller-driven patrol aircraft.  With a 35mm camera and four to five sets of human eyes, we would call out the name and registration of each ship (labeled on the stern, or back of the ship) and the order and variety of ship superstructure from aft to forward (back to front).  Other crewmembers dutifully recorded these findings in a log, along with the exact latitude and longitude, course, speed, and observation of probable cargo loading (riding high in the water meant little load, the waves at the waterline meant the opposite).

This we would repeat in a 10-hour mission possibly 30-50 times.  Climbing back to an altitude where our radar could again map the outlines of surface ship traffic, we would pick the next opportune target, and then descend again, perform the same procedure, over and over.  Mowing the lawn, as some used to say, over endless acres of open sea.  Far from the cerebral team sport of anti-submarine warfare, ostensibly our main national mission; yet without any associated anxiety that the job would not be done.  Thousands of ships were out there at sea, and we could be the masters of our destiny for at least one day.

I often wondered then at 24 years old, having been commissioned at 21, with perhaps two years of flight school and a small amount of time in my assigned fleet squadron gaining initial qualifications:  what are we doing with this information?  Who is using it, and why?

Using my imagination and the very few answers that could be gleaned on the atoll of Diego Garcia, a British-owned Indian Ocean territory the U.S. was using at the outset of Desert Storm, I conjured the logs might be wired to some grand combination of U.S. Naval Intelligence, perhaps the U.S. Treasury or Commerce departments, perhaps even the Central Intelligence Agency and select allies.  With all this effort expended, we as a nation had to know at a glance the global map of commerce.  We must know where all goods (and therefore, economies) were coming and going, from which port of departure and arrival, and more importantly, whom we would protect while enforcing global freedom of the seas for navigation and trade, and whom in times of conflict we would not.

Even after ending a 27-year active-duty Navy career, I never found out exactly what that work of RIGing was used for – and it was indeed work getting the venerable P-3C, first designed and built in the 1960s as a military derivative of the 1950s Lockheed Electra airliner, out to the furthest-flung stretches of world ocean near the turn of the twentieth century and beyond, literally flying the wings off many of them and burning through countless engines while doing so.

It wasn’t until I knew I would be assigned to return to the Navy as a civilian, more than two years after retirement, that my youthful imagination was married to a new understanding of how that information might be used.  That was in early 2018, when Admiral William F. “Bill” Moran, then Vice Chief of Naval Operations, asked me to come back and assist the new Undersecretary of the Navy, Thomas B. Modly, with the creation of a clean sheet review of naval education, a study of the impacts of learning Modly championed that hadn’t been conducted in over 100 years.  Before my start date, I scoured every archive I could find about progressive naval leaders.  I drove to Hyde Park, New York and dove into the boxes of former Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Delano Roosevelt; I searched the online records of his cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, who famously served in the same position before him, taking the reins of the Navy (and the nation, perhaps) when an attack on the U.S.S Maine occurred in a sleepy Cuban port.  And I found every book I could – reading leaders like Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Admiral William Sims, and most of all, First Sea Lord Jackie Fisher, who had seen the transformation of the Royal Navy from wooden hulls and sail to coal and paddles and then oil-fired engines and armor, submarines, mines, fast cruisers and dreadnoughts.

In all this research, there was one book I found in my stacks upon stacks that astounded me in its realism and purpose – one that as Thomas Hobbes famously wrote of his translation of the historian Thucydides, “secretly instructs” between the lines of many painstaking archival discoveries and flashes of insight: Nicholas A. Lambert’s Sir John Fisher’s Naval Revolution.  I knew a little about Fisher from my days speechwriting for the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff and Chief of Naval Operations, which sometimes involved pleasurable days in the Pentagon library (a formidable resource I reckon still remains underutilized to this day, possibly unknown to many).

Yet Lambert uniquely brought Fisher to life.

By interweaving the archival finds of intimate letters between English leaders, their families, and even would-be lovers with research in the official records of multiple government departments to produce a tightly woven narrative, Lambert taught how a coherent governmental interagency process could be orchestrated to effect national will and remain predominant on the world scene.  In so doing, he immersed the reader in history as it was being made, better than anything else I read.  This was not neat and tidy history written with the benefit of hindsight, but history that grappled honestly with the complexity of the national-security policy process — above all, with budgetary considerations, as omnipresent then as they are now, but which many of the other histories of force transformation that I read curiously neglected.

When I read Fisher’s Naval Revolution, I marked it up in pencil with questions, looked Lambert up online, found he was working for the Navy (as the then-Class of 1957 Chair of Naval History and Heritage), and just called him.  And he actually picked up the phone.  A few fascinating conversations later, he was invited to an “idea dinner” by Admiral Bill Moran held at his government quarters, seated with leading policy-makers of the time, a few of whom still serve in high office today.  Lambert patiently taught then at table just as he does to willing readers, drawing on the insights developed in his two subsequent books, Planning Armageddon followed by The War Lords and the Gallipoli Disaster, which are well worth reading by US defense officials for their insights into economic warfare, civil-military relations, and the challenges of formulating national-security policy in a democracy.

But his fourth and most recent book is singularly important for them to read.   In The Neptune Factor: Alfred Thayer Mahan and the Concept of Sea Power (the S in Sea Power is purposefully fashioned into a dollar sign), Lambert turns his attention from Britain’s most visionary naval officer to the United States’ most visionary naval officer.  His method, as in all his work, is not to proceed from received wisdom about his subject, but to go back to the original sources.  The result is a book that explains – far better than any account of Mahan known to me – why he is still read in Beijing today, and why he would repay closer reading in Washington.

Lambert’s Mahan is not the crude evangelist of decisive battle between battleships he is often caricatured as but a subtle and evolving thinker about the relationship between naval and economic power.  Rejecting the notion that Mahan should be read for his contributions to some abstract naval theory, Lambert insists on the need to put him in his historical context — which was dominated by massive economic change.  Domestically, U.S. industrialization powered a turn towards global dominance in the decades after Reconstruction, and before World War I, America already led the world in many decisive economic factors, although still dependent upon its power mentor, Great Britain.  Internationally, this period of American industrialization, as true of the Second Industrial Revolution more broadly, was accompanied by the first era of globalized world trade.

Mahan, as Lambert shows, was intensely interested in both domestic and international economics, corresponding about it not only as a young officer with his friends but also — and this is one of Lambert’s archival nuggets — as a recognized authority with leading economists of the day.  What many still see as Mahan’s life’s work, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783, was actually only his first monograph.  Although this book made Mahan into an international superstar unlike any other previous American naval officer (or possibly since), Lambert demonstrates that it was merely an initial point of departure for Mahan’s further intellectual journey – his preliminary thoughts.  And, as I was grateful to note, Lambert agrees that Mahan, especially in his first works, was and remains just a touch difficult to read as he wrestled for a narrative within them.

As time went on, Mahan moved from his early, more limited emphasis on naval force as a projection of physical power to the much deeper interdisciplinary appreciation of naval force as integral to the global economic system and to the United States’ domestic stability.   Lambert guides the reader through Mahan’s follow-on writings, which few seem prepared to indulge in today, or for that matter, as Lambert shows, even just a few years after Mahan’s time on earth had passed.  When his own writings reflected his increasingly sophisticated and nuanced view of American’s role on the global stage, his popularity inversely suffered.  The naval Icarus of his day died in less than happy terms, to be later resurrected over and over by those who would lift only fragments of his intellectual journey – mainly, the parts that mattered to them and their agendas, rather than any desire to see Mahan as a thinker and person in full.

Lambert’s book underscores just how unfortunate the loss of the historical Mahan to myth has been, and why it is so important to recover him today.  Manifestly, Lambert’s Mahan-in-full is more relevant to contemporary US national-security policy than the legendary Mahan obsessed with “kinetic” combat operations.  Does a conflict with China seem more likely to center on a Midway-style clash of aircraft carriers, or does it seem more likely to center on economic warfare, via deliberate derangement of the infrastructure of the global trading system in this, humanity’s second era of globalized world trade?

No less important is Lambert’s inspiration to young students of power today.   His unequalled treatment of Mahan demonstrates many truths between the lines, and they resonate.  Mahan the prophet of naval power was also a sometimes-prickly human being, who struggled with his own personal demons and insecurities – about the doubts of his peers, about the relevance of his own naval career, even about his personal financial security.  Hence Lambert’s study resonates as much for its personal as its intellectual lessons:  the importance of networks and mentors.  How thoughts and views necessarily evolve as one matures.  How difficult it is to remain focused upon the love of study for its own sake.   The siren songs of fame and lucre.  What to do with second chances.  How service to country still matters today.

Then there are the professional lessons which each leader will read differently, perhaps, according to their personal experiences and reflections:  how battling back autocracy’s endless overreaches requires a constant and coherent interagency approach.  How the Navy is a potentially essential coagulant of such interagency coherence, if properly led and resourced to engage in global competition through its natural, pivotal role in a necessarily capitalistic medium – even if that role in advancing American power is unwanted by the Navy itself.  Why such conflict requires the contemplation of the necessary tools of power which often seem less than honorable: espionage, the political will to leverage earned interdisciplinary capabilities, the potential of naval force as an economic weapon.  In the end, lessons on how a synthesis of naval force can both lift the dreams of many through the defense of the commons for all in times of relative peace, and also create a readiness to favor one’s own economy in conflict, sometimes at the detriment of other innocents not caught up in the power struggle themselves – uses our own competitors are likely planning against us today.

These lessons described above are far from the only ones to be derived from a rewarding read and re-read of The Neptune Factor.  Perhaps the best tribute that can be paid to Lambert’s work is that it offers a few answers to the wonderings of a young Lieutenant pilot, enthusiastically deployed to the far corners of the Indian Ocean to do his small part of a more comprehensive national security strategy.  As a historian, Lambert does not say what U.S. strategy should be.  But The Neptune Factor offers ample food for thought for those who want American naval power to fulfill its true purpose – protecting and advancing the naturally unstable sovereignty of democracy, for both ourselves and those willing to partner in the effort.

Steve Deal, Captain, U.S. Navy (Ret.) served as Deputy Chief of Staff to the Secretary of the Navy and Deputy Chief Learning Officer for the Department of the Navy. During his twenty-seven years on active duty, he commanded Patrol Squadron Forty-Seven, in Ali Air Base, Iraq; Joint Provincial Reconstruction Team Khost, Afghanistan; and Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing Ten in Whidbey Island, Washington. 




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