Anthony R. Wells. A Tale of Two Navies: Geopolitics, Technology, and Strategy in the United States Navy and the Royal Navy, 1960-2015. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2017. Illustrations, charts. 264 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-68247-120-3.
Reviewed by Corbin Williamson (Air University, Air War College)
Published on H-War (April, 2017)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
This work stems from Anthony R. Wells’s experiences working in British and American naval intelligence during the Cold War. He states in the introduction that A Tale of Two Navies is not a formal history but rather “a discursive analysis of selected themes” related to naval thinking from the 1960s to the present (p. 2). Each chapter is devoted to a specific theme.
The first chapter, which is worth the price of the book, compares the American and British political systems within which each navy exists, emphasizing the impact of organizational structures and bureaucratic changes over the course of the late twentieth century. The US Navy is run by civilian leaders who, after confirmation by the US Senate, report to the secretary of defense and the president. In contrast, the civilian heads of the Royal Navy are sitting members of Parliament, and as active members of the legislature answer to both the prime minister and to Parliament. Different approaches to funding and budgets also distinguish the two navies. In the American system, funds are provided through the US Congress where the House and Senate Armed Services Committees play critical roles. The professional head of the navy, the chief of naval operations (CNO), regularly testifies before these committees and typically enjoys close relations with members of both of these committees and the long-serving committee staffs. Congressional power to compel uniformed officers and civilian officials to testify on any subject deemed necessary is a stark contrast to the British system, where senior Royal Navy officers have far less contact with members of Parliament. The sitting government is represented in Parliament by civilian officials, supported by long-serving civil servants, not officers as in the American case. As a result, “a four-star admiral in the Royal Navy has nothing like the political influence, access, or interaction that his equivalent does in the United States” (p. 8).
The judiciaries also reveal differences between the two systems as the American president’s power to nominate judges who are then confirmed by the Senate gives American jurists a more political flavor than in the United Kingdom where the barrister profession (lawyers) makes appointments in an independent process. Wells demonstrates a strong familiarity with both systems, as evidenced by his repeated references to specific congressional committees as distinct from the full House or Senate.
He also traces the growing centralization of authority in both defense bureaucracies and the impact of this process on each navy. The 1947 creation of the US Department of Defense along with the secretary of defense and his supporting undersecretaries and assistant secretaries in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) began a process of centralizing power in the American defense establishment. However, the CNO and the secretary of the navy retained their positions and importantly, their staffs. Furthermore, the US Navy and Marine Corps provide officers to serve within OSD and the Joint Staff, the supporting organization for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The presence of naval officers within OSD and the Joint Staff gives the US Navy influence within the centralized defense bureaucracy.
In contrast, the Royal Navy’s civilian head, the First Lord of the Admiralty, lost his cabinet membership to the minister of defense in 1946. The Royal Navy lost even more authority in 1964 when the Ministry of Defense fully engulfed the individual service ministries and the First Lord position was abolished. The permanent secretary within the Ministry of Defense, a career civil servant, became more powerful as a result as did the chief of the defense staff, the senior officer in the armed forces. The British Army has enjoyed greater prominence since then, holding the chief’s job seven times compared to six times for the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force combined. These structural changes paralleled a reorientation of British defense policy away from global responsibilities and toward the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the 1960s and 1970s, which led to the Royal Navy losing its large conventional aircraft carrier fleet in the process. Wells suggests that this loss reflected the influence of a growing, powerful, and centralized defense bureaucracy and a turn of events that has taken fifty years to correct.
In contrast, the American CNO and secretary of the navy retained their access to the influential armed services committees in Congress and their powerful chairmen, buttressed by the CNO and Department of the Navy staffs. Appearances before these committees ensured a continued voice for the US Navy. Wells concludes that defense centralization during the Cold War served the US Navy better than the Royal Navy in part due to the presence of a unitary, written Constitution in the United States and the US Navy’s access to established forums where officers could argue for a maritime strategy. The consequence for Britain was the disavowal of “centuries of well-conceived and well-executed British maritime strategy” (p. 35).
The work shifts from bureaucratic and organizational concerns to specific naval roles during the Cold War: secure nuclear deterrence, sea lines of communication protection, and naval diplomacy. Wells emphasizes the time and investment required to build, deploy, and maintain modern navies, especially nuclear-powered submarines. The Royal Navy’s determination and commitment to operating these ships, even at the cost of shrinking the surface fleet, underscores the status conferred by these warships. The chapter concludes with a survey of Soviet efforts in the early Cold War to counter Anglo-American undersea warfare advantages, especially through intelligence gathering.
These intelligence efforts were paired with technical and operational innovations. Technical improvements, such as double hulls, allowed Soviet submarines to dive deeper, and submarine designs that prioritized weaponry over crew habitability expanded their combat capabilities. The Soviets also developed innovative tactics, such as overloading Western naval task force defenses with large numbers of missiles and torpedoes. In addition to these technical efforts, the Soviets sought to expand combat operations into regions where they had expertise: under the Arctic ice and in shallow waters.
The transition from chapter 3 to chapter 4 illustrates one aspect of the book that can be chronologically jarring for the reader. The final paragraphs of chapter 3 discuss the relative American national advantages, such as technological innovation that Wells argues played a key role in ending the Cold War on American terms. On the next page, chapter 4 takes the reader thirty years back into Cold War naval operations in the Mediterranean during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Wells analyzes the use of American and Soviet naval forces for posturing and messaging during this conflict and provides a useful graphic timeline of political and naval events. The chapter concludes with an extended discussion of the Israeli attack on the intelligence-gathering ship USS Liberty during the war.
The following chapter describes the array of methods American and British intelligence used to gather information about the Soviet Union: submarines with listening devices, spies, and photographic and electronic listening satellites. Wells argues that intelligence cooperation lies at the heart of Anglo-American naval relations, perhaps understandably given that the author spent much of his career in intelligence. In the arena of Soviet submarine capabilities, he reveals a divergence in intelligence assessments in the 1970s. American intelligence agencies tended to underestimate Soviet developments in submarine design and quieting while British agencies predicted significant improvements in Soviet undersea capabilities. Wells argues that this difference stemmed from the emphasis placed by US intelligence on the Soviet failure to match American advancements in acoustic and electronic signal processing and computing capabilities more broadly.
A salient failure of US counterintelligence was the spy ring run by John Walker, a communications specialist in the navy who passed critical communications intelligence and codes to the Soviets from 1968 to 1985. The information Moscow received from Walker’s spying represented one element of a major Soviet scientific effort to develop ground-breaking techniques for locating underwater submarines, possibly from space. Wells notes that these efforts ultimately did not pan out, though research into “non-acoustic” anti-submarine warfare techniques continues.
Wells then turns to the Falklands War, highlighting the role of the Royal Navy’s nuclear submarines, as James Jinks and Peter Hennessy did in 2015 in The Silent Deep: The Royal Navy Submarine Service since 1945. The following chapter examines a number of technical innovations, primarily of US origins, that came into service in the 1980s and 1990s: Tomahawk cruise missiles, the Aegis air defense system, and the Seawolf-class submarine. The Tomahwak saw extensive use in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, which Wells discusses briefly before turning to network-centric doctrinal innovations pioneered by US Navy organizations in the 1990s on the West Coast. The book then briefly traces the early 2000s campaigns against terrorism, highlighting naval contributions. This chapter demonstrates Wells’s preference for foreshadowing. On pages 198-199, he references material in four separate instances that is still to come: “We will analyze this point....”
A Tale of Two Navies provides an insider’s account of the concerns, especially in undersea warfare, and challenges faced by the American and British navies during the latter half of the Cold War. Since the author relies heavily on his own experiences, the work does not reference a number of recent historical publications on the topics he discusses. The comparative assessment of American and British bureaucracy, political systems, and organizational structures in the first chapter is fascinating and illuminating. A number of photographs enliven the text as do several charts. The sparse bibliography consists of two pages of secondary sources followed by two and a half pages of Wells’s own writings. The book is recommended for general readers interested in an insider’s perspective on the Cold War at sea.
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Corbin Williamson. Review of Wells, Anthony R., A Tale of Two Navies: Geopolitics, Technology, and Strategy in the United States Navy and the Royal Navy, 1960-2015.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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