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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat

Note from Nimitz: You Need Lots of Ships to Take Risks in War

U.S. Navy
ARABIAN GULF (June 8, 2022) The Kuwait navy missile attack craft Failaka (P3715) steams alongside the U.S. Navy guided-missile cruiser USS Port Royal (CG 73) during a passing exercise while operating in the Arabian Gulf, June 7, 2022. Port Royal is deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations to help ensure maritime security and stability in the Middle East region. (U.S. Navy photo)

Niccolò Machiavelli, meet Chester Nimitz. In his Discourses on Roman history the Renaissance Florentine philosopher-statesman claimed that human beings do not relish change. In fact, he verges on saying people can’t change as the times and surroundings change around them. They get stuck as events march on.

Thankfully for World War II America, Fleet Admiral Nimitz was an exception to the Machiavellian rule.

Machiavelli was right to fret, though. Stasis is dangerous amid flux. A society can come to grief if individuals allergic to adaptation wield positions of high authority. An authoritarian society stands in particular peril. After all, there’s no one to remove an authoritarian ruler from office when circumstances shift. A more liberal society finds it easier to adapt because—even though individuals may not change—a liberal society can replace people who have fallen behind the times with others fit for the times.

In so doing an open society gives itself a fighting chance in times of menace.

To fortify his case Machiavelli relates the parable of Fabius and Scipio, two Roman generals during the protracted Second Punic War against Carthage. In 218 B.C. a Carthaginian host captained by the warlord Hannibal crossed the Mediterranean Sea, made its way across the Alps into Italy, and inflicted a series of grave defeats on the Roman army. Unable to overcome Carthaginian prowess, Romans found themselves playing defense on their own ground. To gain time to gather soldiers and matériel sufficient to outfight Hannibal, the Senate appointed Fabius Maximus, nicknamed “the Delayer,” to orchestrate the defense. In ensuing years the defensive-minded Fabius mastered the art of clinging to and wearing down the foe. His legions made a habit of remaining nearby the Carthaginians in the field and harrying them without venturing an apocalyptic battle Rome stood little chance of winning.

Fabius succeeded, winning time for Rome to marshal its resources. The republic gathered itself. Trouble is, his temperament prevented him from making the transition from defense to offense when opportunity beckoned. Indeed, he argued strenuously against taking the offensive. Machiavelli makes Fabius the face of change-averse humanity. Fortunately for Rome’s martial prospects, the Senate could dismiss commanders from their posts and appoint fresh faces suited to the times. Senators chose the offensively minded Scipio to carry the fight to Hannibal. He did that and more, crossing the Mediterranean to attack the problem of Carthage at its source in North Africa. Under his command the Roman army scored successive triumphs culminating at the decisive Battle of Zama in 202 B.C. His feats garnered Scipio the honorific Africanus, among other laurels.

So, it seems, Machiavelli adjudges that political leaders must change commanders to position themselves for victory as the fortunes of war wax and wane. Nevertheless, he does seem to entertain faint hopes that a few superior individuals might be able to master their human aversion to change, and thus keep apace of the times. Which brings us back to Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander-in-chief of U.S. forces in the Pacific theater, a.k.a. CINCPAC. Historian Craig Symonds doesn’t explicitly make the tie-in to antiquity in his masterful new leadership study Nimitz at War: Command Leadership from Pearl Harbor to Tokyo Bay.

But Machiavellian insights fairly burst off the pages of his treatise.

Were he among the quick today, Machiavelli would herald Nimitz as one of those rare individuals who can keep up with mercurial times. As Symonds shows, the core precept animating Nimitz’s strategic and operational thinking was what he called “the principle of calculated risk,” codified in his instructions to the fleet before the Battle of Midway in 1942. To oversimplify a trifle, calculated risk in June 1942—when the remnants of the fleet trounced at Pearl Harbor were all Nimitz had to battle back with—meant fleet commanders should refrain from a major engagement unless they stood to inflict worse damage on the Imperial Japanese Navy than they suffered. They should preserve precious assets—aircraft carriers in particular—unless they were convinced they could do disproportionate harm.

As indeed they did at Midway, sinking four Japanese flattops in a day while losing just one. They gave worse than they got.

Nineteen forty-two saw Nimitz in his Fabian guise, searching for ways to harness scant resources to mount an active defense against a domineering foe. But as Symonds shows, CINCPAC’s Fabian interlude lasted only until mid-1943, when ships of war fitted out under the Two-Ocean Navy Act of 1940—a measure that in effect authorized the construction of a second, better U.S. Navy—started showing up in bulk in the Pacific. At that stage, the principle of calculated risk came to warrant offensive action. After all, once the resource balance swung toward the U.S. Navy and affiliated joint forces, they could afford to absorb heavy punishment in their quest to subdue an Imperial Japanese Navy whose resources were slowly dwindling. They could increasingly take losses where Japan increasingly could not.

In 1943, then, Nimitz’s risk calculus indicated that the time had come to don his Scipio Africanus mantle. After all, you can take a more venturesome posture when you have a spare of something. Lose that something, and you can pick up the spare and carry on. Embracing that logic was the genius of Chester Nimitz.

Reminiscing about great leaders of yesteryear is a pleasant pastime, but there are glum undertones to Symonds’s account of Nimitz at war. CINCPAC acquitted himself like a Fabius when events thrust a defensive strategy of poverty on him, and morphed into a Scipio when U.S. industry supplied him the wherewithal to prosecute an offensive strategy of plenty. But today’s U.S. Navy and Marine Corps force structure is lean in the extreme, with barely adequate numbers of ships, planes, and ordnance, not to mention humdrum but indispensable capabilities such as shipyards and strategic sealift. Were he in charge of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command today, Nimitz’s fealty to the principle of calculated risk might compel him to remain in Fabian mode, waging defense more or less permanently.

No strategy of plenty is in the offing nowadays.

But you don’t win with a Fabian strategy and forces. All you do is stave off defeat. That’s worth pondering in Washington DC as Congress draws up defense budgets and the Pentagon debates how to employ such armaments as it does field. Let’s bias the risk calculus in favor of victory.

A 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.” The views voiced here are his alone. Holmes also blogs at the Naval Diplomat

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”

13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. cobo

    July 24, 2022 at 12:27 pm

    “Machiavelli adjudges that political leaders must change commanders to position themselves for victory as the fortunes of war wax and wane.” In America’s curent state it is the political leaders that must be changed. I don’t mean ping-pong back and forth between sold out democrats and sold out republicans. The entire sclerotic leadership from wealthy investors, financiers and corporate leaders to the political elite and their managerial handmades, throughout the military, the media, academia and the rest of supposed societal leadership – it’s all diseased and needs to be purged, then the commanders in the military can rise to what lies ahead. Everyone seems to have bought into this “end of empire” stage for America… Not yet baby

    • Jack

      July 26, 2022 at 1:38 pm

      Read “The End of the World Is Only the Beginning” by Peter Zeihan. You’ll see how well positioned to succeed in the 21st Century. China committed national suicide with the One-Child Policy with a huge gender imbalance and a demographic that will half their population by 2050. The US has a lot of issues, but the Millennial Generation is big in the US; not so for the rest of the world.

      • cobo

        July 26, 2022 at 4:50 pm

        When you add in the advantages we will have with greater integration with our southern neighbors, and yes, that will happen – I suggest “Aztlan Brigades” ready to rampage across the Earth – what’s coming isn’t the olds, but it isn’t what the global communists want to see.

  2. Stefan Stackhouse

    July 24, 2022 at 12:31 pm

    Yes, but geography has given the US a strategic depth that the Romans could only dream of having. Unless you are saying that “China must be destroyed”, all we really need is a strong defense.

  3. GhostTomahawk

    July 24, 2022 at 2:05 pm

    Who is the enemy? When was the last time our navy engaged another navy? The time this story was written about? I’m all about maintaining an offensive posture but I believe our military is stagnant in thinking and creativity. Our ships are antiques by the time they go from drawing board to construction. Cost overruns and massive delays by our developers means by the time something is developed like the F22 or F35 its essentially a new phone needing upgrades and software updates.

    The new war is being done with drones and cyber attacks. New war is done with economics. While China gobbles up American companies and infrastructure America keeps dumping money into cost overrun projects like Aircraft carriers.

  4. Jacksonian Libertarian

    July 24, 2022 at 6:02 pm

    I’m disgusted by the lack of assembly lines that can mass produce the smart weapons (drones, missiles, etc.) that will be consumed in large numbers in the event of a near peer war with Russia or China. The war in Ukraine has illustrated just how limited the inventories of smart weapons is in the 1st World, and the many years it will take to replace the ones donated to Ukraine.

    One of the criticisms of the Japan of WWII was that many of their weapons were hand made and couldn’t be replaced in a timely fashion, where as the US was mass producing its weapons.

    Only 3 F-35’s are produced each week, 30 Javelins, Stingers aren’t in production at all and will take years and a redesign to make again. Most of the US’s inventory of weapons are hand made and are incapable of being mass produced without years of developing a production line which must be hand made.

    You fight a war with the Army you have, not the Army you wish you had.

    The US should never buy a weapon system without buying the factory system that can mass produce it.

    • cobo

      July 25, 2022 at 2:35 pm

      “The US should never buy a weapon system without buying the factory system that can mass produce it.”

      Absolutely !

  5. Mordecai

    July 24, 2022 at 8:05 pm

    Maybe we can sweet talk China into augmenting our fleet for us as the war between us rages on, after all we have them all of our manufacturing, all of our secrets and all of our technology free of charge.
    We’ve been in a fifth generational war with China since 2019, and not a soul in the Pentagon can even sense it yet, neither can the military industrial complex yet comprehend it that their toys are useless in it.

    Too bad sarcasm can’t be used as a depth charge.

  6. Error402

    July 24, 2022 at 8:05 pm

    In any struggle (or battle or war) for survival, ya need to ‘go for the jugular’ i.e. deliver decisive strike.

    In 1942, some jap commanders urged for rightaway invasion of hawaii, but yamamoto was too cautious;he wasn’t ready to go for broke.

    What did people like soemu toyoda advocade-stop the stupid advance into china and send all fighting resources to the pacific. Go for jugular.

    In 2022, putin was right to come to the rescue of the donbass peoole. But he failed to level kyiv at the onset and thus US now sending rocket launchers to zelensky in kyiv. Putin didn’t exercise his jugular option and now biden is calling the shots.

    US is now planning to take down china (after ukraine) using taiwan as bait or cause or ‘casus belli’ , and china needs to draw a lesson fron above.

    NEVER let your foe dictate the course of events. Once push resolves into shove, level AT ONCE taipei to complete rubble with a one-shot blow. GAME OVER !!!! !!! !!!

    In any struggle for your very survival, GO FOR THE JUGULAR.

  7. HAT451

    July 24, 2022 at 11:30 pm

    Ask the Chinese and Koreans when WWII started. For them it was way before it started in Europe. What has been simmering on the Korean Peninsula, Middle East, Ukraine, and South China Sea, is about to explode into WWIII.

    I advocate an immediate increase of our defense budget of about 25%, with about 5% going to training our servicemen, repairing equipment, and replenishing expendable supplies. The balance, about 20% should go to increasing major end items production, restarting production lines, research & development, and developing the capability for production of items we can not organically currently produce as a nation. In other words 20% should be for items that takes many months to years to develop and produce.

    If we become armed to the teeth as a nation, that does not mean we have to go war, what it does mean that anyone wanting to go to war with us, will have to think twice, and that then becomes a deterrent to war.

  8. Tersitus

    July 25, 2022 at 6:04 pm

    Maybe something like the “Grant Doctrine” would be an apt name for this superior-resources-based “calculated risk” approach to warmaking.

  9. Barney Rubel

    July 25, 2022 at 9:19 pm

    Holmes is certainly correct concerning the availability of resources and the ability to take the offensive, and certainly a commander’s ability to recognize when circumstances warrant shifting gears is critical. But that said, and not to denigrate Nimitz in any way, I must point out that the calculated risk concept originated with King, who had his eye on early offensive ops (which turned out to be Guadalcanal). He sent guidance to Nimitz not to unduly risk his carriers and cruisers. Nimitz’ staff chewed on it for several weeks, going through different versions including “calculated chance.” As events transpired, Fletcher and Spruance had essentially no chance to act on the calculated risk message because the position of Point Luck was close enough to Nagumo’s task force to prevent a retreat if the scouting process had panned out any different than it did. I plotted all this out. Moreover, according to members of his staff, Nimitz was dead set on engaging the Japanese, so the famous calculated risk message was not worth the paper it was written on.

    The US took the offensive in the Pacific in August 1942. We did it before we had overwhelming force. It was a near run thing and the Japanese could have won had they played their cards right, but the nerve, persistence and grit of American fighting men and their commanders carried the day. This is where strategic risk was taken, not in the Gilbert’s in 43. By then we could steamroll the Japanese like Grant did to Lee.

    If there was a risk karma chameleon in the Pacific it was Spruance, a normally cautious guy that went against type at Midway by ordering a half-launched strike to proceed on hazy locating information. At Saipan he played it close to the vest by keeping Mitscher tied to the beachhead.

    I am in total agreement that we need lots of platforms AND ammo in the form of missiles if we are going to have any chance of defeating China in their own littoral. A study of USN operations from Leyte through Okinawa reveals the necessity to absorb losses even when both our equipment and material is superior. In addition to deficiencies in ship numbers and shipbuilding, the US has no adequate ability to replace aircraft losses. In 44-45 there was a literal conveyor belt of replacement aircraft going from the factories to the fast carriers. We will need such a conveyor for missiles in a future war.

    • cobo

      July 26, 2022 at 4:58 pm

      Barney, fascinating anaysis! “nerve, persistence and grit” and the alignment of industry and material acquisition to see it through. You go hard and fast with what you have and get what you need – easier said than done, but never done by the squeamish.

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