Mahan, Corbett, Douhet & Mitchell: The Naval and Air Theorists

At the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth there was an increased attention to the strategic possibilities of naval and air warfare. Naval warfare played an important part in military history and most military histories included descriptions of famous naval battles like Salamis, Lepanto and Trafalgar. Up to that time, military theorists had a tendency to primarily pay attention to and analyze land warfare. Four theorists were critical in bringing attention to the strategic possibilities available in warfare conducted with naval and aircraft, Alfred Mahan, Julian Corbett, Giulio Douhet and William Mitchell. Are these theories still relevant today? What can we learn if we apply their ideas to two recent conflicts in an attempt to assess their importance and relevance to continuing military activity in the twenty-first century.

The Indo-Pakistan War of 1965 and the Faulkands War of 1982 both took place within twenty years of each other in the middle of the Cold War era. They took place on almost opposite sides of the world, one just north of the tropics, the other just north of Antarctica. One conflict was between somewhat balanced forces from neighboring states, states that until recently had been a single colonial possession of the British Empire. The other conflict was between two nations in different hemisphers—a Latin American military junta, a regional power, but considerably over-matched against a European power with a fading global empire and an 8,000-mile supply line to the battlefield.

One thing that seems clear from looking at just these two examples is that most combat situations are unique. It is difficult, and probably unadvisable, to create generalizations that would apply to both situations. Of our four theorists Corbett and Mitchell seems to have the most inclusive theories that are open to a wider range of considerations and approaches. They both sense the need for a variety of solutions, often ones that work in combination with others.

But what is most important about these four naval and air theorists is not the details of their strategic plans. Situations and technologies change and will create the need for new theories. What is important about these naval and air theorists is how they creatively looked beyond the established military conventions of their day. Mahan is notable not for the details of how win a war through decisive naval confrontation and command of the sea, but because he saw the possibility of creating strong strategic advantage using naval resources at the time when most military theorists were only thinking about land warfare. Corbett is important not because he proved Mahan wrong, but because he saw beyond Mahan’s application of Clausewitz to naval warfare and suggested new and innovative methods for achieving naval and strategic advantage. Douhet’s may not have foreseen how well a population could withstand strategic civilian bombing or how accurate and effective anti-aircraft measures could be. However, his real value is in seeing the use of aircraft beyond it’s tactical use in surveillance and close combat support and it’s possibilities as a decisive strategic weapon. Mitchell had the advantage being most recent and as a result his ideas of integrated forces and the defensive capability of aircraft may seem the most applicable in our survey. As technology continues to change and the nature of war evolves, Mitchell will also seem more and more out of place but we will see that his real value was not in what he said, but how he was able to see beyond the established military conventions of his day and inspire us to continue to do the same.

Mahan, Corbett, Douhet and Mitchell


~ by severalfourmany on January 18, 2008.

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