Mahan died in 1914, missing the great bloodletting of World War I. How he would have explained away the fact that both Germany’s and Great Britain’s massive surface navies were reduced to near uselessness throughout the war is anyone’s guess. Churchill probably best explained British naval inactivity when he pointed out that Admiral John Jellicoe, commander of the Grand Fleet, was “the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon.” Given the rapid advancements in missile technology, it is possible, maybe even probable, that the day is not far distant when U.S. policymakers may judge, as Jellicoe and Churchill obviously did, that their nation’s surface fleet is much too precious to risk in a conflict zone.
In any event, as it was during the war against Napoleon, Britain’s blockade in World War I was a hindrance but never had a decisive impact on the brutal land war, though it led to mass starvation once hostilities ceased. As mentioned above, one must look very hard, indeed, to discover any conflict that was decided by sea or air power. Rather, for 2,500 years of recorded history, the ultimate arm of decision has always been a state’s or nation’s army.
Ask a group of historians to list the decisive sea battles of history and you would likely get near-identical lists from all of them: Salamis, Actium, Lepanto, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, Trafalgar, and Midway. But did any of these battles, on their own singular merit, turn the strategic tide? At Salamis, for instance, the mostly Athenian fleet did break the back of Persian naval power. Less discussed, however is that it was an infantry assault at the Battle of Plataea, the following year, that actually evicted the Persian army from Greece for all time. Still, Persia remained a constant and looming threat to Greece until, 150 years later, Alexander’s armies crushed the Achaemenid Empire and thereby secured Western Civilization. Likewise, during the Roman era, Augustus did not break Antony’s and Cleopatra’s power at Actium. That was done by the hard-marching legions that invaded Egypt the following year.
Many historians also neglect the fact that the losses the Ottomans suffered at Lepanto were replaced within a year, and that the Ottoman threat to the West was not ended until the sultan’s army was broken before the gates of Vienna. The defeat of the Spanish Armada, on the other hand, did have serious repercussions that continue to echo down through history. But it is unlikely that Spain would have allowed that defeat to stand, except that its resources had already been exhausted by its 80-year land war with the Netherlands. Similarly, the Battle of Trafalgar may have shielded Great Britain from Napoleon, but French power was not broken at sea. That was accomplished deep in the Russian vastness, at the Battle of Leipzig, and finally by solid British infantry at Waterloo. In the modern era, Midway is correctly credited with turning the tide of the Pacific war. Still, victory at Midway did not negate the need for three years of bloody ground fighting across the Pacific island chains.
One may ask if air power has achieved any greater strategic success. Here, of course, the historical track record is much shorter. Air forces were important but not a major strategic factor in World War I. By the time of the Second World War, however, air-power enthusiasts were making huge claims for the efficacy of air forces as the decisive element of war. And, while the respective air forces of the principal combatants did, indeed, accomplish much, nowhere, except in the Pacific theater, did air power produce the decisive results claimed for it. The Luftwaffe, for instance, failed to bring Great Britain to her knees. Similarly, as we have seen, Germany, despite the Allies’ massive strategic-bombing campaign, produced more war matériel in 1944 than it did in 1942. Only in the Pacific did air power deliver a decisive outcome, and then only through exterminating cities with atomic bombs. Prior to that, even the incineration of Japan’s wooden cities with fire bombs had done little to break Japan’s will to continue the struggle.
Despite the advent of the atomic era, the Korean War reminded America and the world that the utility of land power was not an end. As the historian T. R. Fehrenbach wrote, “You may fly over a land forever; you may bomb it, atomize it, pulverize it, and wipe it clean of life — but if you desire to defend it, protect it, and keep it for civilization, you must do this on the ground, the way the Roman legions did, by putting your young men in the mud.” Nothing in the succeeding decades has done anything to alter the fundamental truth of Fehrenbach’s observation.
Despite dropping more ordnance than was used in World War II, air power was not decisive in Vietnam. Nor could it bring an end to the internecine fighting in the Balkans. That was accomplished only when the 1st Armored Division, under the most trying of conditions, crossed the Sava River and enforced peace by placing American land combat power between the warring parties. Air power was a crucial ingredient in the Coalition success in Operation Desert Storm. Still, after six weeks of heavy bombing, the Iraqi will was not broken, and it was left to Coalition land forces to defeat the Iraqi army and evict it from Kuwait. The same held true after 9/11. Although air power contributed its full worth in both Afghanistan and Iraq, land forces remained the crucial ingredient of success.
History, therefore, presents one inescapable conclusion. Air and sea power are necessary, sometimes even crucial, ingredients for strategic success, but they are never sufficient in and of themselves to attain positive strategic results. If the next century is to be another American century, with the continuation of the Pax Americana, then this nation must possess a land force — Army, Marines, and Special Forces — of sufficient capacity to meet the numerous challenges, as well as opportunities, an uncertain future will present.
— Jim Lacey is professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps War College. He is the author, most recently, of the forthcoming Moment of Battle. The opinions in this article are entirely his own and do not represent those of the Department of Defense or any of its members.