Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?

Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat - 19FortyFive

Rudyard Kipling to U.S. Navy: Get Real to Get Better

An artist rendering of the Zumwalt class destroyer DDG 1000, a new class of multi-mission U.S. Navy surface combatant ship designed to operate as part of a joint maritime fleet, assisting Marine strike forces ashore as well as performing littoral, air and sub-surface warfare.

The Gods of the Copybook Headings smiled beatifically on the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps last week. For poet Rudyard Kipling the simple headings British schoolchildren copied over and over to learn penmanship in yesteryear expressed eternal truths about life. Truths such as “Stick to the Devil you know,” or “If you don’t work you die.” Flout the precepts imprinted on a copybook’s pages, warned Kipling, and “As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn / The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!” In other words, there’s a fateful cost to self-delusion. 

Reality endures, and it doesn’t care whether you believe in it or not. Take heed. 

Admiral Samuel Paparo gets Kipling’s brand of wisdom, or so it seems. The U.S. Pacific Fleet commander told the U.S. Naval Institute’s WEST 2023 symposium in San Diego that the Navy can no longer make efficiency the North Star of combat logistics. “Operating in uncontested environments,” he observed, “our logistics enterprises operate on business principles.” But when war clouds gather over theaters like the Western Pacific, “we’ve got to think less in terms of maximum efficiency and more in terms of maximum effectiveness.” 


Admiral Paparo’s words marked his—and, I hope, the navy’s as a whole—rediscovery of a bleak, stubborn, permanent verity of naval warfare. Namely, that naval overseers cannot count on having precisely calibrated amounts of supplies delivered from rear areas to expeditionary forces on demand in times of war.

They have to set aside the peacetime U.S. Navy’s cult of efficiency to thrive in wartime. After all, foes such as China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have every incentive to break the U.S. joint force’s distended supply chain across the Pacific Ocean. 

The logic of attacking enemy supply routes is impeccable. Disrupting a fighting force’s logistics train starves it of ordnance, fuel, stores, and spare parts, along with support services such as repair and medical care. Draining a force of supplies drains it of battle power, the next best thing to defeating it in action. Deprived of warmaking kit, it vacates the scene of action—leaving its antagonist holding the contested ground by default. 

That’s good enough for China. PLA commanders will take the W however they can get it, as indeed they should. Why fight a pitched battle if you can win by assaulting lumbering tankers or ammunition ships?  

Now, “just-in-time” supply chains make perfect sense in the business world, where the law safeguards the movement of matériel from one place to another. Honda and Toyota compete in the marketplace, not—one hopes—by bombing rivals’ supply chains. So, barring a calamity like a global pandemic, management can count on factors of production showing up when needed, and in the right quantity. Just-in-time logistics keeps waste to a minimum, holding down costs and boosting profit in the process. 

Efficiency is how firms prosper. 

But no police force safeguards military movement when war rages. Martial institutions inhabit an entirely different competitive world from business, and that world is inimical to efficiency. To be sure, officialdom might get away with just-in-time practices in tranquil times.

And if tranquil times go on long enough—say, for thirty years following the Cold War—naval commanders might convince themselves that permissive surroundings will last forever. They might come to regard perpetual peace at sea as the natural order of things. And if they succumb to this fallacy, they might redesign the logistics system to deliver the bare minimum of beans, bullets, and black oil to the fleet upon request. 

In so doing they spend precious taxpayer dollars efficiently. 

In short, efficiency is seductive. Keeping surplus matériel on hand appears wasteful, and lawmakers understandably balk at deliberately funding waste out of the public treasury. But excess inventory is a prime need in wartime, when just enough for peacetime operations is too little in all likelihood, and when too much might be enough.

When an antagonist is doing its damnedest to degrade your supply chain, subtracting vital goods from your armory, only an excess of material support promises a decent shot at having enough of everything where you need it, when you need it. 

And staging superior force at the scene of combat at the right time is what field generalship—or admiralship, if that’s a word—is all about. 

So an excess of most everything—armaments, fuel and stores, spare parts, repair capability, and on and on—might be enough to offset losses that mount as hostile forces lash out at friendly supply bases, along with transport ships and aircraft that haul goods into the battle zone. This is the new, old reality of sea warfare. 

One hopes Paparo succeeds at restoring an older, flinty-eyed, more realistic mindset to the U.S. Navy as it competes strategically and girds for war. As the late, great Anglo-American strategist Colin Gray put it tartly, “history reminds those willing to be reminded that bad times always return, and that every war-free period is actually an interwar era.” 

Thus spake the Gods of the Copybook Headings. Abide by their wisdom and flourish; ignore them and suffer the consequences. 

MORE: B-21 Raider: China Should Fear America’s New Stealth Bomber 

MORE: H-20: China Is Building a New Stealth Bomber 

MORE: Is Russia’s Su-57 Felon Stealth Fighter a Total Bust?

Author Expertise and Experience: 

Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation & Future Warfare, Marine Corps University. The views voiced here are his alone. 

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.”



  1. Jacksonian Libertarian

    February 19, 2023 at 8:22 pm

    “Captains should study tactics, but Generals must study logistics.”

    75+ Million tons of shipping were lost in WW1 and WW2, and the vulnerability of surface ships has become extreme since then. The risk has become so bad, that a war with China would see most surface ships wiped out. Logistics will have to be by air, ground, or submarine in contested areas, or not at all.


    1. Cheap, long range, attritable, UAV’s are the fastest, easiest, and most flexible way to provide combat power to the battlefield.

    2. 100-200 small (1k-2k ton) lightly armed (2 tubes, 6-10 weapons) utility/amphibious/cargo AIP submarines, that can crawl up on a beach and deliver (roll-on-roll-off) a couple hundred tons of Cargo, service drones in contested waters, and provide widely dispersed security, are needed.

    3. High capacity weapons factories that can support the consumption rate of active combat. The waste of large inventories of obsolete weapons can be eliminated by only keeping large inventories of strategic raw materials that can be made into latest model weapons and equipment. The capacity of today’s weapons makers is pitiful, and the Government will have to buy the materials, factories, and provide the trained labor.

    All 3 of these should be immediately implemented, with surface ships mothballed or sold to help pay for it.

  2. Commentar

    February 19, 2023 at 10:20 pm

    The US Pacific fleet is at its most perfect or most desired peak as far as readiness for all-out war in east Asia is concerned.

    Japan and south Korea are veritable unsinkable US aircraft carriers as well as big reserves of immediate vital resources when the call for war goes out in east asia.

    War in east Asia could erupt as soon as Feb 2025, or right on the 3rd anniversary of the rus-ukro conflict, that is just after the 47th US pres is ushered into the oval office.

    The reason is by 2025, US Pacific forces (Navy & Army) will fully get their hands on hypersonic weaponry and the massively huge Ford aircraft carrier with f-35C fighters.

    With hypersonic assets plus f-35 stealth fighters, US Pacific fleet commanders reckon they will prevail in any war in east Asia (western Pacific).

    It will be ‘game over’ for countries like china & north Korea, unless they have missile or rocket arsenals the size of the solar system or maybe the milky way Galaxy.

    Finito for peace in Asia come 2025 !!! GAME O-V-E-R !!!

  3. 403Forbidden

    February 19, 2023 at 10:57 pm

    Just very recently, right after the US shot down $20 balloons with sophisticated missiles fired by sophisticated fighter jets, an organization called IISS loudly claimed that china soon or very soon, perhaps by next week, would have ‘more stealth fighters’ in its military inventory than the USAF.

    That’s exactly like missing the forest for the trees.

    Having a certain number of fighter jets more than the opposition doesn’t guarantee anything.

    In fact, it guarantees nothing.

    The US had thousands and thousands of fighter jets during nam but still got clobbered by the sandal-wearing NVA.

    Failed completely to view the forest because of the trees right in the front yard.

    Today’s wars are won via sheer tenacity and will to battle on (plus plenty of never-ending supplies) even if the blood oozes from every known pore.

    The jets available to uncle Sam during nam gave it no good advantage at all because the nam fighters simply refused to fall down on their backs.

    So, never ever fall on your back when the going gets tough, really really tough. The enemy will eventually give up and flee.

  4. ADM64

    February 20, 2023 at 10:16 am

    Some other things the Navy, the armed forces as a whole, and the nation might do well to consider in the spirit of revisiting Kipling: navigation is more than turning on the GPS, women and men are not interchangeable, sexuality within the ranks undermines discipline, all aspects of war against a competitive enemy will be physically demanding, outsourcing your industrial base to an enemy with four times your population isn’t smart, and education system that can’t teach fundamentals won’t give you a competent soldiery, numbers of weapons, ships, aircraft and troops matter, and lying to yourself about your enemies while failing to understand yourself is a recipe for defeat. One final thought: identifying the problem and “bravely” stating it doesn’t actually solve anything.

  5. Steven Naslund

    February 21, 2023 at 10:27 am

    The first poster is so far off it is terrifying

    1. Stockpiling raw materials is dumb. If the Ukraine taught planners anything it is that modern combat is fast and sudden, you will not have years to begin or ramp up production. What you have right now is what matters.

    2. Sending 200 small ship to deliver a beachhead guarantees defeat. You need to maintain control of the sea and air lanes to supply those troops.

    3. The Navy fleet is unimportant unless you control the airspace. Otherwise they are eventually vulnerable. You cannot defend against precision weapons unless you can threaten the enemy launch platforms. Close in defense eventually misses one and with modern weaponry that puts your ship on the bottom or out of the fight.

    In general the Navy cannot operate very well even in peacetime. The navigation accidents and the loss of a major amphibious carrier due to a fire dockside are glaring examples. If you cannot save a major warship from a fire dockside, how will you handle a fire at sea thousands of miles from home. Their only hope is to quit worrying about diversity, political correctness, fancy new systems and get back to the basics of naval seamanship and combat. I want to see a viable plan to defend a carrier battlegroup against 100 modern antiship missiles and what the projected losses are. Any other discussions are irrelevant.

  6. GhostTomahawk

    February 21, 2023 at 8:30 pm

    Too much peacetime. War is about warheads on foreheads. Logistics is important but in terms of the Navy, if there isn’t enough quality boats to overcome the quantity of boats of your enemy.. you’re going to lose. Ask the Nazis who over engineered their tanks and guns that they didn’t have the quantity to repel their enemies. We have relegated ourselves into technocrats who can’t fight real wars against real countries.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *