Thursday, July 7, 2016

A Ship's A Fool To Fight A Fort

A Ship’s A Fool To Fight A Fort

Well, there’s an old adage that’s stood the test of time … or has it?  ComNavOps is a student of history and a believer in the lessons it has to teach.  On the other hand, ComNavOps is also a questioner of history and an analyst.  Is this adage still true?  Let’s take a closer look.

[note: this post is inspired by comments in a recent post and I thank the various commenters who contributed to the discussion]

The adage is credited to the Royal Navy’s Admiral Nelson and dates back to the age of sail.  In that time, the adage was literal.  It referred to a ship and a fort fighting a cannon duel.  Today, the meaning has evolved to encompass a much broader scope but we’ll come back to that.  In the age of sail, the advantage was completely with the fort.  The fort was almost invariably at a higher elevation and could fire down on the ship.  The fort was generally constructed of massive stone and earthen works which were extremely resistant to cannonballs.  By comparison to a ship, the fort generally had larger magazines, a larger “crew”, and often larger guns.  The ship had limited and predictable maneuverability due to its dependence on the winds.  The fort was a fixed target but the ship was not much more mobile!

In short, the fort held a massive advantage over a ship.  It’s no wonder the adage was born – it was true!

Is it still?  If it’s not, what has changed to invalidate it?

The ship has changed.  Ships are now much faster, more maneuverable, somewhat stealthy, and can appear and disappear at whim.  If one considers submarines as ships, they have become extremely stealthy.  However, for purposes of this discussion, we’re going to exclude submarines as a special case that the adage was never meant to apply to.  Ships can also launch aircraft and from great distances.  Ships can now engage a “fort” without ever being detected.

The fort has changed.  The term “fort” has come to mean all of the surrounding and supporting land rather than a single fixed fortification.  Thus, land based aircraft, long range, land based, anti-ship missiles, long range artillery, and the supplies in the surrounding area have all become part of the “fort” and none need to be in the same physical building or even in the same local area.  An airbase can be hundreds of miles from the “fort”, and still be part of the “fort’s” defenses.

So, both the ship and the fort have changed but have the changes altered the traditional huge advantage that the fort enjoyed?  Well, it’s obvious that the original adage is no longer relevant and meaningful.  It applied to a very specific and localized scenario that no longer exists.  Thus, there’s no point discussing it.

So, moving on, what is the modern version of the adage?  The meaning of the adage has changed to mean that a ship can’t survive within range of land based weapons so I guess the adage, now, is,

A ship’s a fool to approach land.

Now, the question is, is that true?

Well, by way of partial answer, here’s another adage,

The seat of purpose is on the land.

Recognizing the timeless applicability of that, ships have no choice but to approach land.  The only question is how to do it and do we have ships that are designed to operate and survive near land (recognizing that “near” can mean within a thousand miles, today)?

Let’s look at history, briefly, for some guidance.  WWII was a continual demonstration of the viability, effectiveness, and survivability of ships near land (within a hundred miles, back then, instead of a thousand miles).  The US Navy routinely conducted near-land operations in the face of determined resistance.  Yes, some ships were sunk but only a relative handful.

Consider the example of Okinawa and the kamikaze attacks.  This is an excellent example of ships fighting a fort – the fort, in this case being the island and all the land based kamikaze aircraft supporting it.  The fort/kamikaze had the advantage of huge supplies of weapons (the kamikaze aircraft) and an unending supply of pilots – typical fort/land advantages.  The ships, however, succeeded, and quite handily if not without damage and death.  If memory serves, none of the carriers, battleships, cruisers, or transports were sunk.  The picket line destroyers and escort vessels paid a price but that was their function and they performed it quite well.  The ships fought a fort and won completely.

A more recent example is the Falklands War.  The British fleet fought a fort/land and won, though not without losses.  In fact, the conflict served to illustrate the inherent difficulties in locating a naval force at sea, even one tied, operationally, to predictable areas.  It also demonstrated the difficulty in assembling and conducting an effective, co-ordinated attack against mobile naval forces.

Let’s look at a less successful example that borders on the classical scenario.  The British/French Dardanelles campaign in WWI involved an attack by several battleships and cruisers (albeit old/obsolete ones) against the straits held by the Ottoman Empire.  While the direct ship versus land gun duels appeared to have favored the British/French ships, the ships were routed due to the presence of mines.  Several ships were sunk and damaged and the operation failed.  Without the mines, the ships would have succeeded.  With the realilty of the mines the ships failed.  Whether one views this operation as validating the adage or not depends on whether one views mines as part of the fort/land defenses or part of a navy versus navy conflict.  The net result is that the mines were there as part of the fort/land defenses and the attacking force was unprepared to deal with them.  This simply demonstrates that the attacking force must be properly equipped to approach land and deal with the fort/land defenses.  Ill-prepared forces are going to lose in any scenario!

History, then, suggests that there is no particular problem with approaching land as long as the attacking force is prepared for the defenses that are present.

So, where does the balance of favor lie today?  I believe it lies with the ships. 

While the fort/land side of things retains the traditional advantages of large magazines in the form of “unlimited” aircraft, missiles, artillery, and manpower, the mobility and stealth advantages of the ship side of things more than negates the fort/land advantages.  The ultimate truth is that you can’t shoot what you can’t see.  All the aircraft and missiles in the world are useless if you can’t give them targets and a naval force that can remain hundreds of miles out to sea is a difficult target to find.  Conversely, the fort/land defenses are largely fixed and known and very susceptible to cruise and ballistic missile attack.

The biggest advantage the fort/land enjoys is the ability to “flood” the skies with surveillance aircraft.  If it can do that successfully and locate the attacking naval force then it can prevail.  If not, it loses.  However, those same aircraft are vulnerable to destruction from cruise/ballistic missile attacks on their airbases either directly by destroying the aircraft on the ground or indirectly by destroying the airbases ability to operate aircraft in general.

So, I see no prohibitive reason why ships can’t operate near land as long as they are prepared and equipped for it.  Modern history (WWII and on) bears this out.  Thus, the traditional adage is no longer meaningful and the modern version of the adage is untrue.

Today’s overly timid naval strategists seem to feel that the risk of losing even a single ship somehow proves that a ship can’t operate near land.  Partly, this comes from a lack of operational wisdom and experience (given that we never practice these kinds of operations, it’s kind of understandable) and partly from a risk aversion due to the staggeringly expensive cost of modern ships.  Losing even one would, indeed be a disaster because we only build a very few ships due to the cost.  Ships have become too expensive to risk doing the jobs they were built for!

The remaining issue that stands out from this discussion is mines.  Setting aside the almost semantic debate about whether they constitute a fort/land’s defenses or a naval on naval battle, the fact is that mines are, and will be, a major factor in operating near land.  Any attacking naval force had better be prepared to deal with them and prepared to do so while under fire.  The US Navy is woefully unprepared to do so.  Again, though, mines do not invalidate the ability to operate successfully near land as long as the attacking force is prepared for them.

So, the prevalent belief that

A ship’s a fool to approach land.

is false.


  1. Hmm. No sure how far that saying really reflects Nelson's opinion.

    Copenhagen: he took the shallow-draught ships of the Baltic fleet in to fight the Danish forts, anchored ships and floating batteries: and won.

    Incidentally, you may be interested in that battle as an early example of swarm tactics. 40 Danish gunboats went out to attack one British battleship: 24 sunk by cannon fire, rest fled or ran aground.

    Look up also Exmouth's attack on the fortifications of Algiers, 1816: successful, though with a worse casualty rate than Trafalgar.

    It all depends on circumstances.

    1. So, what's your conclusion as it relates to military operations today?

    2. You are forgetting the importance of space-based and shore based surveillance (i.e. satellites and skywave radars).

      I postulate that the 'scouting' advantage is now very much in the fort's favor. Not the ships.

    3. Satellites are incapable of providing targeting data and both satellites and radars are quite susceptible to early destruction. Over the horizon radars are, generally, large, fixed installations and would be very early and easy targets in any campaign.

    4. As I said, it all depends on circumstances.

      Nelson and Exmouth fought successfully against forts because they had:
      Enough, powerful, well-armed ships to defeat the forts.
      Resolute, experienced commanders determined to defeat the forts.
      Ships that had been tried out enough in previous battles, so that their commanders understood very well what their ships could do.
      Crews that had fought in enough battles to know what they had to do.
      Targets that were compact enough to be defeated by the available ships.

      Now tell me: how many of those factors apply to the USN in a hypothetical attack against an enemy? And against which enemies?

    5. "As I said, it all depends on circumstances."

      You're essentially repeating the post where I said,

      "So, I see no prohibitive reason why ships can’t operate near land as long as they are prepared and equipped for it."

      So, you agree with the premise. Great!

      As far as the USN, you get that the post was an analysis of the adage, not of the USN's ability (or not) to operate in contradiction to it? Nevertheless, I'll answer. The USN's ability to operate near land is a function of the target, time needed to be in the operational area, quality of the enemy, number of ships, aerial supremacy (or not), enemy resources within relevant distance, degree of surprise, and a host of other factors. That's a long-winded way of saying, "it all depends", which is exactly what both of us said!

  2. Precision guided munitions make a huge difference. Before this, PT boats, minisubs and aircraft had to get close to ships to launch. Now they can just let loose in the general direction from great distances and flee.

    1. OK, so how does ship to ship combat relate to the ship/fort issue of the post?

    2. The land provides the fort-like protection in that small boats, small aircraft, helicopters, and mini-subs can hide in inland waterways and dirt strips protected by the land mass from large ships. When things look right, they make a dash seaward toward the offshore fleet, launch their weapons just as they are detected and targeted, and flee.

      Simple weapons like submersible PT boats

      and small seaplanes as this guy discusses

      will surprise and sink three billion destroyers that foolishly operate near shore.

    3. Whether "land" includes purely naval weapons like mines, patrol boats, and the like is debatable. If those are considered part of land defenses then attacking ships that shelter behind points of land or nearby islands must also be "land" forces and the battle becomes land versus land. Common sense would suggest that things that float are naval forces not land forces. They may fight in support of land but are not, themselves, land forces.

      Again, this is almost a semantics debate and, therefore, pointless.

      Further, the notion of small craft dashing out from cover, wreaking destruction, and then vanishing is romantic and attractive but unrealistic.

      The history of PT boats in WWII proved that this notion was unrealistic. Successful PT attacks were extremely rare. The difficulty in finding targets by a platform with only very limited sensing capability is simply too great. Even today, a modern missile boat has no sensing capability that wouldn't pinpoint its own position and lead to its own destruction. Further, attacking ships are likely to be many hundreds of miles at sea - not exactly a quick dash away! How likely do you think it is that billion dollar destroyers will be wandering around a few miles from shore, obligingly waiting to be sunk?

    4. Are you suggesting that our Navy should stay out of the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the entire Med? It should stay our of Philippine waters and Indonesia, and the sea of Japan? The enemy will also have small UAVs and fishing boats for spotting. If ships come within 50 miles of any coastline or island, the risk a nasty surprise.

      Recall the Egyptian missile boat that sunk and Israeli destroyer.

    5. Who are you directing this to?

  3. Maybe for combating shore threats, surface combatants just need the classical suite: a long stick (embarkimg stand-off weapons - other than aircraft - in relevant numbers), good eyes (i.e. Targeting solution), a shield (hard and soft) and good mobility.

    Plus a couple things: The ability to maintain all this for enough time. Doctrine. Training. Leadership. Political and citizens support.

    Just that! :)

  4. 1. Except PLAN will be an anti-ship specifically configured fleet (i.e its missile boat/corvette/frigate/DDG) that can extend out, under its land-based coverage, to where the US fleets sits. It will be ship (USN) vs. ship+land (PLA).

    2. Also, China is the size of lower-48. For every 400x60m 'sinkable deck', there can be 10 3000mx100m 'unsinkable decks'. A mission-killed carrier is a ball-and-chain to its entire CSG; everybody has to leave. A cut runway is a half-hour delay to 'patch up the holes'; there can be double-triple redundancy for sorties continuation all over its highly infrastructured coastal area.

    3. Your example of British fleet in WW1 (or Falkland), and USN in 1944/45 Pacific were cases of opposition who either never were sea power equipped (Turkey, Argentina) or its sea power denuded already (IJN). China is fresh out of box; think of USN sailing against JV version of 'US West Coast + USN'.

    1. You're grossly underestimating the damage and oversimplifying the repair process for an airbase. It's not just a case of blowing tiny holes in the runway. An attack on an airbase would target control towers, fuel storage, hangars and maintenance facilities, radar, etc. - all the things that make an airbase actually functional. None of those things are quickly and easily repaired. Even runway repair is not as quick and easy as you portray. Modern aircraft require scrupulously clean runways. Any FOD will kill a modern aircraft and a runway repaired with piles of loose dirt and rock, which is what I presume you're suggesting, would not be conducive to successful aircraft operation.

      Also, you seem to think I'm suggesting that a handful of ships are going to attack all of mainland China by themselves. Nothing could be less likely which is why I didn't suggest it!

    2. Now let's look at this from a strategic pov,

      1. USN is basically a 10-small-airport-with-support-system. Mainland China is a one large '100-airport-with-support-system'. The lethality and difficulty you described on airport attack/repair applies for both, except land airports don't sink and there are more of them.

      2. If USN must bring in USAF into the fight on a credible minimal nuke deterrence nation, what's the end game you are looking for? Remember, China, conventionally, does not know how to fight less than bring the whole armed forces into the fray (because they don't want to be invaded again). Therefore, how slippery and rapid do you want to go down that slope?

      The US has a habit of fight first, then figure out how to end it (and still not good at it). Just how you figure to end a fight against a credible nuke power?

    3. I'm going to repeat a short paragraph from my previous comment since you seem to have missed it.

      "Also, you seem to think I'm suggesting that a handful of ships are going to attack all of mainland China by themselves. Nothing could be less likely which is why I didn't suggest it!"

    4. "If USN must bring in USAF into the fight ..."

      If????!! Jointness is the foundation of how the US military will fight. Of course the Air Force will be part of every fight right from the beginning!

    5. Your point about end games is a good one. The US does, indeed, jump into fights without good end games in mind!

    6. Repairing airbases is technically simple, particularly now with the advent of truck based control towers and connecting tiles that can be used to cover filled in craters. I don't know if the Chinese aircraft have the same mechanisms to prevent FOD that the Russians do, but I would assume so. The could probably use roads if need be.

    7. Andrew, did you carefully read and consider the implications of the comment about damage to air bases? I'll repeat, it's not just about filling craters or operating a control tower from a truck. An air base without functioning hangars, maintenance faciities, fuel storage, spare parts, radars, electrical power, weapons storage, etc. is a non-functioning air base and those things are not easily reconstituted.

    8. I should have been clearer in my post. No doubt you'll lose alot of infrastructure and capability to maintain and control that airfleet, but it still can be in the fight if those mobile, truck based (radar, fuel, maint, etc.) assets are available. Not to play on the hype of Russian aircraft ruggedness, they are still better at operating in poorer conditions then their western contemporaries. So to sum it up, technically the planes that survive are still a threat even if the airbases get bombed heavily due to most russian aircrafts designs ruggedness in regards to FOD & maintance. Additionally, if we were to disregard improvised airfields, the percentage of repairs needed to began bare bones operations again are lower then what they would be for us in a similar situation, for the same reason of aircraft ruggedness and the mobile assets taking the place of damaged / destroyed infrastructure. Technically and theoretically possible.

    9. Wow! You seem to believe that Russia has entire truck-based air bases. Have you thought through how many trucks it would take to duplicate an entire air base? Do you believe that Russia has not only air bases but the exact duplicate of all its air bases sitting in trucks just waiting to go?

      Just for one air base, how many trucks would be needed to house all the required spare parts, spare engines, etc.? Hundreds probably. How many fuel trucks would be needed to fuel the aircraft and all the trucks? Again, hundreds probably. How many generators would be needed to power radar trucks, control tower trucks, maintenance needs, etc.? Dozens probably, and they'd need more fuel to power them - more fuel trucks. Where would all these truck drivers live, sleep, shelter, eat, shower? How about the additional hundreds of aircraft maintenance techs? How many trucks would it take to carry the aircraft munitions? Many, many dozens probably. I could go on but we're already into many hundreds of trucks, probably thousands, and you think these are all sitting around waiting to go?

      Even if they existed, that would be a mammoth and inviting target to also be hit.

      Do you have a shred of evidence that Russia has truck based air bases?

    10. Wow. P-18 truck mounted radar, used for detection and air traffic control, developed in 1970. Your completely over-estimating the number of trucks, I put the number closer to 40, and because of fuel and ammo. This type of a secenario has been trained in and practiced. It has been done.

    11. What do you think Im implying?

    12. As fate would have it, my units horizontal engineering section just got tasked with constructing a temporary airfield for UAV and rotary wing. If you dont mind, ill talk with them on this matter more in depth when I see them in a week or so and revive this discussion with hard facts and their opinions.

    13. After further research into the (surprisingly vague) subject and talking to my unit's horizontal assets, I still feel it is a plausible, (thou as I stated in earlier posts not efficient or preferred) means of continuing combat sorties in spite of airbase being damaged or destroyed.

      Temporary airfields or highway strips can used as staging point for parts and other supplies till the original airfield can be repaired. In fact most countries (Switzerland, China, Pakistan, and The US to name a few) actively incorporate highways stripes in ti road systems for that purpose, with ground support equipment being store near it so it can be utilised as a airbase. If any aircraft survive the the original attack, they'll most likely be sent to these temporary runways.

      While Air traffic control can theoretically be conducted by anything with a radar, there are purpose built platforms for the purpose, with the p-18 I cited before being a prime example, and it requires three trucks to operate.

      Fuel, parts, and ammo is the biggest problem, due to the larger logistical supply train as you stated. In my experience thou, a mechanized brigade while be larger and requiring more supplies, has around only 3 heavy cargo trucks per company, with around I guess 75 trucks per brigade. I arrived at that firgure by multiplying the number of trucks with in my company, by the number of companies in a battlion, to the number of battalions with a brigade. Thats nearly 5000 thousand personnel and several hundred tanks and armoured vechiles that require extensive maintenance daily to operate. If we can do that with 75 trucks, why wouldn't we be able to support the remnants of an airwing for a few sorties a day or every other day?

      Side note, it took the horizontal unit less then 2 days to actually clear & build the airfield and dugouts. The vechiles then parked in the dugouts began UAV operations. That was I admit, was just training, but further illustrates the possibility of operating from improvised conditions.

    14. It may be theoretically plausible (what isn't?!) but not practical nor practiced. It's one thing to operate a few UAVs for a few days but it's another thing, entirely, to operate an air wing (even a reduced one) on an on-going basis.

      Consider spare parts. Let's be ridiculous to illustrate the point. Let's suppose you can fit all the spare parts in one fully loaded truck (an actual airbase has warehouses full of parts - it would require many, many trucks). So, we've got a fully loaded truck of spare parts. A tech decides he needs a new conipulator valve. How does he get it? Well, unless the part just happens to be in the very back wall of parts on the truck, he has to unload the entire truck, part by part, slowly working his way from the back of the truck to the front, until he finds/reaches the one he wants. That's insane.

      The only workable way to "truck" spare parts is to set up the truck like a store with shelves on one side (or both sides, depending on the width of the truck) and a large walkway the length of the truck to enable access to any part on the truck. That, unfortunately, reduces the actual storage capacity from a theoretical 100% to, perhaps, 10%-20%. Thus, instead of being able to use one fully loaded parts truck, we now need 5-10 partially loaded trucks for that same load.

      Now, apply that to the warehouses full of parts on an actual airbase and you see where the huge numbers of trucks come from.

      I can go through this explanation item by item for all the things that make up a functioning airbase but you get the idea.

      By the way, have you thought of the first non-starter in this chain of events? When the airbase initially gets hit and the runways are pitted and there is no fuel, munitions, parts, control tower, radar, etc. How do you even get the aircraft out of that devastation and to a road or wherever the new truck-base is? The aircraft can't take off. They need to be checked for damage, the runways are non-functional, the diagnostic computers are destroyed, there's no fuel, etc.

      As you contemplate all this, recall the original premise - that a ship can penetrate to their attack point, attack, and leave before a counterattack can be mounted. In our airbase scenario, even allowing for a truck base for sake of discussion, it would still take multiple days to get set up (as you noted in your UAV example where they started with no problems whatsoever). By that time, the ships are long gone.

    15. "... 2 days to actually clear & build the airfield and dugouts. The vechiles then parked in the dugouts began UAV operations."

      You didn't specify the type of UAVs in your example but you do understand that F-15/35/22/16s are an order of magnitude (at least!) more complex than any UAV? They require far, far more diagnostics, support, spares, fuel, specialized tools, technicians, mission planning, munitions, etc.

    16. From the start I said theoretically possible. I agree with you it isn't a practical long term solution, just a short term one. The last time I could find this being used in a combat was the India-Pakistan war of 1971, with Pakistan rebasing their Mig-21s to runway strips and operating them from there.

      I forgot to mention the damaged runway would have to be repaired for the aircraft to be repaired, good catch. I did discuss that with that horizontal unit thou, they said they would fill it in and put a specialized tarp on it that basically good for taking off on.

      UAV of course are simpler to do in this secenario and in real life. The runway they constructed would need additional resources to handle jets.

    17. A few corrections.

      Firstly I meant India's Mig-21s; they also anticipated the airfield strikes from Pakistan and relocated suppliers to these temporary bases.

      Secondly, the "tarp" method of crater repair is the old method. We currently use a binary chemical mixture to fill in craters, and dependant on the size of the hole, it takes around an hour to hardened.

  5. Military maxims are dangerous: the weak minded accept (or reject) them as gospel, the lazy ignore the points to their peril.

    The author of this particular maxim was a master of the art and ruthlessly ignored it *when the conditions favored* - note that Nelson created the conditions to ignore his own advice!


    1. I attempted to say the same but, as usual, you've summed it up much better!

  6. Given the mine hunter of the futures is the LCS, the Navy will be unprepared for quite some time.

    1. That, and many other factors, lead me to conclude that the Marines/Navy are not serious about amphibious assault.

    2. The Department of the Navy is not even remotely serious about high end warfare, let alone forced entry operations.


  7. The "fort" has also changed, it can be mobile and dispearsed, disregarding islands of course. Meanwhile, the ship has become dependent on airpower as its offensive weapon. If we were to depend on the ship to destroy a hardened installation, a fortress not to dissimilar then those that guarded the fjords of Norway during WW2, I doubt it could. The fort is superior and more lethal then ever, while ships have become neutered.

    1. An interesting observation - I note the Russians rely upon the missile instead of aircraft.

      Hypersonic missiles have truly awesome potential to destroy hardened structures.


    2. I have to somewhat disagree. The main strike weapon of the Navy is the Tomahawk cruise missile. The aircraft (carrier) is used only in extremely permissive environments. When a peer war starts, we'll find the carrier winds up escorting and protecting the Burke Tomahawk shooters and opening localized areas of air superiority for Air Force bombers.

    3. Do you think that would change if we had a strike aicraft with the range and payload of an intruder?

      I've thought that if we had a plan like that that with a combat radius of maybe 800 miles could launch a stealthed cruise missile with a range of 800 miles, it would give the carriers tremendous options and versatility in striking fixed targets. It would be the equivalent of Sugar Ray Leonard vs Hagler; stay at arms reach and hit from the outside. Keep moving.

      Combine that with SSGN's or Virginias with the VPM and things get interesting for the enemy quickly.

      It would be nice if they kept upgrading the Tomahawk though, or made a stealth version to increase is probability of getting through enemy air defenses though.

    4. "I've thought that if we had a plan like that that with a combat radius of maybe 800 miles could launch a stealthed cruise missile with a range of 800 miles ..."

      Sure, but then that's not really an aircraft, is it? It's just an extended range missile with an aerial launch container rather than a VLS cell. The original comment referred to aircraft in the more direct and traditional attack role, I'm pretty sure.

    5. "The "fort" has also changed, it can be mobile and dispearsed, disregarding islands of course."

      I stated that the "fort" now includes all surrounding and supporting facilities. Let's be careful, however, not to extend the meaning to an entire continent. The adage, even the modern version, still implies a fixed attack location on land - a focused attack by ships against an actual point on land. It may not be a fort in the traditional sense but it is an actual point. It could be a vitally important manufacturing facility, a port to be seized for assault, a major air or naval base, or anything similar. What it is not, is a vague, undefined assault against an entire continent!

    6. We can easily do port strikes along with the their supporting infrastructure, what we cant do is easily pacify the defences. If all we plan on doing is destroying from afar is the logistics, thats not really a problem. The problem is we don't establish a presence to enable different type of operations that might be needed. To sieze a port, those mobile defenses will need to be destroyed, which entails probably air recon, which snowballs into having air superiority, just for the simple fact 5in guns aren't really for area suppression nor are Tomahawks good for mobile targets. If we cant establish air superiority, we cant find targets. Thus the ship alone, wouldn't be capable of taking a "fort". Any smart commander in charge of installation defenses will be dispersing his assets, even a short distance would be enough. He doesn't need a whole continent, just a few miles.

    7. Where in the post did you get the impression that I was talking about a ship actually occupying a fort/port all by itself????

      The post examined the modernized adage, "A ship's a fool to approach land", and concluded it's not true. To take that and leap to a ship occupying a port is a massive leap!!!

    8. You did say to sieze a port, which in turn means assets on site, whether aireal or seaborne. As my past comments stated, we could easily smash fixed targets. Nowhere did I state or advocate "Pirates of the Caribbean" style fort assault.

      The adage is quite true today, but as GAB pointed out, it really depends on the situation and assets available. I in turn used that logic and applied it the most likely target, China. Then the adage is definitely is true.

    9. China is the least likely (zero percent) chance of attempting a mainland port seizure! No sane commander would attempt it and not because of its fortress qualities but because there would be no strategic benefit that could possibly justify the cost.

      If we do a port seizure (not of mainland China!) it would be a massive undertaking and would involve all elements of the military. This takes us into a completely different topic.

    10. Then let me propose North Sentinel Island, to which the adage is false and a ship could park itself 2nm off and blaze away with the 5inchers till its heart content.

      Who else would have a "fort" like defence apparatus for key installations but the Chinese? The Russians' undoubtedly have defensive batteries but I doubt their a priority for funds or maintenance. Iran relies on an intial swarm tactics and weapons, that would be open to counter-attack by the reinforcement fleet. China is basically the only country that takes it defence seriously enough to fortifying their installations. They are the only player in neighborhood, that "fort" can be applied truthfully.

    11. Russia, China, NKorea, and Iran all have "fortified" targets protected by surface-to-air missiles, aircraft, anti-ship missiles, artillery, etc. In those countries, I'd wager that every worthwhile target has defensive capabilities of varying degrees.

      You may be taking the "fort" idea a bit too literally. In the modern discussion and the context of this post, "fort" refers to a fixed, specific target like an airbase, naval base, missile site, radar site, manufacturing facility, harbor, fuel storage, etc. as opposed to an actual fortified building (though it could - a command and control bunker, for instance, would be an actual fortified structure). The majority of targets, though, are not fortified structures but are fortified in the sense of having additional defensive support (that's what fortified means in this context) protecting them.

      North Sentinel Island??? Why would anyone want to shoot at it?

    12. I think I understand what your saying and in that context yes, ships are relatively safe approaching shore to strike targets.

      I mentioned North Sentinel island because at the time I was taking the "fort" concept to be entirely focus on China, and was trying to illustrate the two extremes of the spectrum. Barring China and taking what I think you mean by "fort" to mean any target to include those deep inland, for quick hit and run launches, I agree with your assessment of the adage is false, with in the scenario. I feel, even thou you have done several posts already on it, I feel the Chinese "fortress" problem should get revisited.

    13. "... I feel the Chinese "fortress" problem should get revisited."

      I have done some posts on this. What aspect do think needs further examination? I'm always looking for good subject matter.

    14. What the real threats are and how to deal with them with in chinese held waters. If you have already done a post on that, please link the name off the article and the year and Ill brush up on what was discussed.

    15. Look at the keyword listings that involve "China" or "Chinese" and you'll see many posts that cover a variety of topics from ship classes to geopolitics! If you haven't already done so, you need to get caught up. Most people spend an hour or so every night reading and rereading posts because of the vast amount of accumulated wisdom contained therein.

  8. “Horatio Nelson Never Wrote ‘A Ship’s a Fool to Fight a Fort’; It Was Jackie Fisher Who Invented the Attribution,” by Larrie D. Ferreiro, The Journal of Military History, 80:3 (July 2016): 855-56

    1. That's interesting. Unfortunately, I don't have access to that journal. For the time being, I'll stick with the overwhelming consensus that Nelson was the creator of the adage. As best I can tell, the adage pre-dates Fisher.

    2. Here is what I state in the above-mentioned article:

      Dozens of books since the 1950s have contained the quote “A ship’s a fool to fight a fort”, attributing it to Admiral Horatio Nelson . Nelson, however, never wrote that; none of the books of his published correspondence, nor the many biographies of Nelson make mention of this idea. Nor would Nelson have ever said it; he attacked several forts by ship during his career, at Cádiz, Malta and most notably during the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, in which he effectively used his fleet’s guns to engage and defeat both the Danish navy as well as the Tre Kroner fortress.
      Instead, it was Admiral John (“Jackie”) Fisher who invented that statement and attributed it, wrongly, to Nelson. On Oct 19, 1904, the day before he assumed the office of First Sea Lord, Fisher wrote a letter to First Lord of the Admiralty William Palmer, Earl of Selborne, introducing a series of proposals for naval reforms, including restructuring the fleets, revising the naval stations, creating new classes of warships and removing older, obsolete ones. One of Fisher’s initiatives was to have a small cadre of somewhat junior naval captains flesh out the details of these reforms, on the grounds that if more senior flag officers were to take charge, they would be accused of contradicting the very status quo they had earlier championed.
      In a parenthetical aside to Selborne, Fisher wrote that such inconsistency was in fact inherent in great leaders “Nelson most rightly said that no sailor could ever be such a born ass as to attack forts with ships”, Fisher wrote, “and then he went straight at them in Copenhagen” . He then argued that “circumstances alter cases”, meaning that you change your mind when the facts change. In other words, Fisher fabricated the Nelson quote from thin air, in order to bolster against any charges of inconsistency that might be leveled at him and his supporters for proposing naval reforms that went against previous doctrine.
      Fisher repeated this bon mot in 1916, where he reported to the Dardanelles Commission that he disagreed with the proposal to force the straits, maintaining that “there was the Nelsonic dictum that any sailor who attacked a fort was a fool”.
      A half-century later, Fisher’s lines about only “a born ass” and foolish sailors attacking forts, were picked up by naval historians and transformed into the pithier, but equally wrong, quote “a ship’s a fool to fight a fort”. It is now time to lay this particular myth to rest.

      Robert Heinl, Jr., The Dictionary of Military and Naval Quotations (Annapolis, Naval Institute Press 2014) p. 122.
      Nicholas A Lambert, Sir John Fisher's Naval Revolution (Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 1999) pp. 97-98.
      John Arbuthnot Fisher, Baron Fisher. Records by Admiral of the fleet, Lord Fisher (London, New York, Hodder and Stoughton, 1919) p. 129.
      John Arbuthnot Fisher, Baron Fisher. Memories (London, New York, Hodder and Stoughton, 1919) p. 66.

    3. Welcome! Honestly, I don't quite know what to make of this. The person you suggest invented the saying explicitly attributes it to someone else. While your explanation for Fisher's action is plausible, it seems equally plausible that Nelson coined the phrase just as Fisher says!

      I've seen the adage so many times that I want to say that it was in common usage before Fisher's time which would invalidate your theory but, to be honest, I can't pull a specific reference off the top of my head to prove that. I assume you've perused the general historical records to determine that the adage did not appear prior to Fisher's time?

      Your theory is interesting, I'll give you that! I guess I'll withhold judgement until I have a chance to do some research and see what the earliest instance of the adage is that I can find.

      Thanks for commenting on this.

    4. This is not the first instance of a quote being fabricated and then misattributed by the fabricator. Mark Twain never said "History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes"; it was the poet John Robert Colombo who put those words in his mouth in 1970.

  9. This is one of your best ideas for a piece yet CNO.

    Very very interesting.

    I’ve been weighing this up from either side for about an hour and a half now.

    With stand off weapons ( TLAM and Carrier Strike ) and cleaver commanders the Mobile Naval platform in this day and age has an advantage, Yes.

    But what are we talking about here ? Winning a war ? Nar, not going to happen.
    ( obviously as you said we have to actually TAKE the land at some point )

    You can beat them down. Spread them thin, create temporary holes in their defences. You might win a war on attrition ?

    But what about our “average” European NATO navy.

    Limited range Naval strike missiles, no carrier air power. Limited as sea replenishment. Often less speed and range. Limited internal supplies \ magazine. Isn’t this more like the traditional question you posed ? In this case I think Nelson may still have a point.

    [ We mustn't forget the power of the military sea lift command ( and the RFA ) ]

    If you start adding in defensive AWACS and Maritime strike aircraft like the Backfire or Blackjack things get sticky.

    I’m a lot of ways it emphasised how far ahead we are in some ways. And how critical maintaining SOME of our advantages is.

    This is one of those where the only way to know in the current environment is to try it. The tests are so few and far between, as technology rushes on ( thankfully ). They never quite turn out the way you think.


    1. Thanks. I try to educate and entertain and sometimes succeed! Sometimes not ...

      Some commenters have wandered off into the ship vs entire continent realm and that's not what I'm talking about. The adage was originally meant to apply literally to a single fort. Now it applies to a naval force trying to accomplish a specific task (raid, assault, whatever) against a SPECIFIC target, not against an entire continent with no defined target. So, keep that distinction in mind. A naval force may not be able to simply stand off the coast of China and beat the country into submission but they may be able to attack a specific base successfully or seize a port or some such specific and limited objective. Unlimited magazines only matter over an extended ("unlimited") time frame. If a naval force has a specific objective, they only need a specific amount of munitions so the unlimited capacity of the land is somewhat or largely negated.

      "... try it" That's so true. We need to wargame this stuff and do so realistically which we seem to have no desire to do.

    2. I'm sorry, but isn't 'continent' just a geographic term relative to 'time and distance'. A 'Fort' in your article is about 'firepower bring to bear'. If you google 'China' and look at its map (with distance marker). A 1000-mile-range ASBM launcher in Shanghai vicinity can cover China's entire coast line (from NK to VN). Isn't that what defines a 'Fort': how far its cannon can reach?

      As for lobbing missiles from standoff distance, isn't that same as trading cannon fires, with result decided by 'gunnery & masonry/carpentry & ammo supply'?

      Hence, don't you think, given the modern missile reach and surveillance capability, mainland China can be considered, more or less, a single 'Fort', and not a collection of unsupportable and disjointed forts?

    3. Anon,

      You are correct, but draw an over simplified conclusion.

      1. In the case of war, the USA is going to come with *all* instruments of military power: it will not be just a single carrier task force in the fight, there are a host of systems from all of the services (and other national assets) in the melee.

      2. No nation has an unlimited supply of weapons, sensors, or infrastructure; submarine or long range air launched cruise missiles can wreak havoc on this infrastructure.

      3. None of the systems (theirs, or ours) have been operationally used in high-end conflict; we do not really know how many key systems, EW, cyber, space... will perform. If it comes to war, there will be a lot of surprises and many assumptions about weapon effectiveness will prove false, which is a good reason to avoid war.


    4. Anon, you're just repeating what I said in the post about a modern fort including the surrounding and supporting area which includes airbases, artillery, missiles, etc.

      What you're failing to grasp is that we're looking at an adage that, by definition, involves a specific location/target. We're not talking about a ship standing 100 ft off the coast of mainland China and trying to beat the entire country into submission. We're talking about a naval force approaching land close enough to attack a single, specific target. The conclusion is that, yes, this can be done if the attacking force is properly prepared for the defenses.

      You also seem to want to make the discussion about mainland China. While it's conceivable that a base or some such would be a target for naval forces, I never proposed such actions. In fact, if you've read this blog, you'll note many occasions when I've specifically stated that assaults and ground actions against mainland China would be idiotic.

      Finally, you are completely failing to grasp the spatial realities. NO, CHINA IS NOT ONE MASSIVE FORT! Consider the spatial arrangement of an attacking naval force that wants to destroy a naval or air base somewhere near the coast of China (which is where the majority of strategically relevant bases are). The naval force only needs to approach within Tomahawk range (700-1000 miles) of the "fort". Thus, only a very few of "Fortress China's" weapons can be brought to bear. Missiles or aircraft hundreds of miles or more inland just don't have the range to reach a naval force that's 700-1000 miles off shore. Similarly, anti-ship cruise missiles hundreds of miles to either side of the target also do not have the range. The weapons that do have the range are limited in number (long range bombers) or have extreme targeting challenges to overcome (IRBMs) that render them, essentially, useless. And, of course, the attacking force isn't going to sit out there patiently waiting to give Fortress China a sporting chance to find them and attack. Instead, the naval force will approach launch range as stealthily as they can, launch, and immediately retire. The window of vulnerability of the attacking force, if they can even be located, will be very brief. Thus, no more than a tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of Fortress China's weapons will able to be used in defense.

      Of course, if the attacking force is an amphibious assault force that wants to invade mainland China then the force would have to approach much closer and stay much longer in a known location. But, no sane commander would attempt such a thing.

      So, the conclusion that a properly prepared attacking naval force can operate near land and successfully attack a "fort" is perfectly valid and, in many ways, the advantage lies with the ships.

    5. CNO,

      I didn't mean to deviate from your original thought of 'ship vs. fort'; I have a habit of extrapolate your blogs/example(s) to my pov of what's applicable (and relevant real world) today. And I believe, every Navy person, from sailor to admiral, probably has China's A2/AD in mind.

      Now, back to China/fort's 'look out'. Please google 'Beidou gps' and 'gaofen 4'. The former is China's global GEO-SAT deployment capability. The latter is its GEO-Spy-SAT capability. Theoretically and by extrapolation, combination of both tells me China can watch a CSG, from its home in San Diego/Hawaii to its Westpac battle station, 24/7. Also, CSG' standoff distance of 700-1000 miles backhand-confirms its weariness towards China's ASBM possibility. If China has near parity in ASAT(thus to convince the US that both should not go there), and can ramp up its ASBM production to a credible deterrent accumulation, then the ship (as in 'ship vs. fort') should be underwater in order to escape detection(& fort's cannon fire) & to shoot first.


    6. Tim, you're missing or misunderstanding several operational, tactical, and technological aspects of this. This blog exists to educate so let me see if I can help a bit, here.

      "China can watch a CSG"

      So many people have the impression, probably from watching TV spy movies, that satellites see everything, all the time, and can provide real time tracking and targeting. It's just not true. Satellites are in orbit and they come and go over any given spot on Earth - I'm ignoring the far less common geosynchronous satellites - so there coverage is spotty to begin with. Exercises have proven time and again that a CSG that doesn't wish to be found is a very difficult thing to find and track. Even if found, satellites do not provide targeting data, meaning that you can't shoot based on satellite information. Satellite information is hours (usually many hours) old by the time it can be used. Lastly, satellites will be the first items to be destroyed in a peer war.

      "CSG' standoff distance of 700-1000 miles backhand-confirms its weariness towards China's ASBM possibility."

      Standoff confirms the desire of the military shooter to shoot without being seen. This dates back to the first caveman throwing a rock. The standoff is a desire to avoid subs, mines, ships, aircraft, and missiles of all manner. It's just a general military desire.

      "ramp up its ASBM production to a credible deterrent accumulation"

      China's ASBM capability is probably their least effective anti-ship capability, bordering on non-existent. That's not because of numbers of missiles but because they simply don't have the targeting capability to use the missiles effectively. Of all the things the US Navy is afraid of from China, ASBMs are probably last on the list.

      In short, China's A2/AD is potentially formidable but not because of satellites or ASBMs!

    7. CNO,

      I stand to be corrected and educated always. I'm an engineer in the non-military field, to me natural laws/logic/rationale speaks first, last, and in between.

      Now back to A2/AD, isn't there another adage 'if you can see it, you can kill it'. Thus, seeing ~= killing.

      Gaofen-4 is a GEO-SAT with thermal/visual imager resolution of 400m/50m to pick up hot deck or heat dump in the wake. And Beidou is a 20-30 constellation of global navigation GEO-SATs. And remember the live streaming video of Chinese autonomous lunar landing/roving? To me, that's same as sending a SAT to park on the moon and live feed us the action. And your point of 'common (or uncommon)' is a matter of necessity, capability and capacity. If it's necessary, uncommon will become common if the capability and capacity are there.

      Also, I did a comparison calculation for finding needle in haystack. In my line of work, we need to find micron size defect on a 300mm-dia wafer, and it's all done with image recognition firmware (imager + shape ID software). If I scale up that 300mm wafer to the haystack of Pacific Ocean, that 'micron size' needle is a circle diameter of 60-70m. A carrier is about 6x of that needle.

      As for ASAT, it is '6 & half dozen' between the US and China. If Chinese SATs go off line, the same probably will happen to US SATs. Can the US-Mil fight a non-SAT war (or Tomahawk navigate 700-1000 miles of feature less ocean with inertia navigation?) Btw, it takes about 9-hour travel time to DA a GEO-SAT, currently none of US BMD missile goes that high (or, not publicly disclosed.)

      As for your standoff distance rock throwing example, the logic dictates
      1. If you can out throw the other guy, you get right up to the other guy's range, step back and shoot from there. And you don't care if the other guy sees you or not.

      2. If the other guy out throws you. Then you need to sneak in, and shoot & scoot.

      So, that '700-1000 miles' is either the end of Chinese reach; in this case, the CSG needn't to hide its presence. However, if the CSG needs to hide its presence, that could mean PLA out throws the CSG at that distance.

      Then we come to whether ASBM can hit something at that distance. I'm going to use couple examples.

      1. There 2007 ASAT test was done on a target 600km high, moving at mach 10, and the size of a small car. I'm not a mil guy, but you can probably circumscribe what kind of targeting requirement was involved. Also, in 2013/15, they shot up couple 'sounding rocket' to 30,000km high, presumably a non-destructive DA test on GEO-SATs. Again, you probably can guess what kind of targeting is involved.

      2. Just this year, the USN took a SM-2 (capable of intercept LEO-SAT or ballistic missile, which to me, is comparable to Chinese 2007 ASAT test.) and made it an ASM (and sunk a decommissioned Perry class frigate- which they could of sold to Taiwan for $100M, but I digress.) Which tells me, an ASAT missile is fully capable of being an ASM missile. Or, if one has ASAT missile, capable hitting target from LEO to GEO distance, then a 1000-mile ASBM is possible.

      Beside, China does not have anything that can get that far that fast. Everything else they have (i.e. obsolete long range bomber, 4/5 gen fighter, long range missile drone, attack subs, or surface missile ships) has to get within 200 miles of CSG to shoot, and getting pounded every step way in.

      Without SAT and ASBM, Chinese A2/AD is nothing.


    8. Tim, almost everything you stated is incorrect and appears to be based on misunderstandings and incorrect analogies and extrapolations. I have the impression that you're less interested in learning and more interested in arguing but I'll give you the benefit of the doubt one last time. Let's see if I can give you a better idea about satellite tracking. Your analogy of looking for flaws in a microchip is intuitively appealing yet badly flawed.

      Consider scanning the microchip if 20%-40% of the area were blacked out (clouds, fog, rain - yes, radar and IR can penetrate clouds to some degree but it's a significantly degraded degree). Suppose the surface of the microchip were a liquid and continuously moving and creating shapes that might look a lot like the object you're looking for (wakes, for instance) or might obscure your target (large waves obscuring wakes or breaking over ships). Now, imagine that instead of performing an endless pass or series of passes (not sure exactly how the scanning is performed) that systematically and thoroughly covers every square micron of area, you instead get only a single pass that covers a very limited area (a pass from a satellite covers only a very small area - yes, an image could encompass the entire ocean but at the cost of resolution) and then you have to wait a period of time for another pass to cover another section. Further, imagine that your imaging equipment is also being used by someone else for their own purposes and that they want to "look" elsewhere for other things (satellites are shared and tracking ships may not be the highest priority). Suppose that instead of only one tiny flaw, you found several hundred (all the ships in the Pacific at a given moment) and that only one of those was a legitimate flaw (the real target - the carrier). All ships look a lot alike from hundreds of miles up in orbit. A large tanker with its flat deck is almost indistinguishable from a carrier. Do we have recognition software that's that good? Not that's been acknowledged publicly! Suppose that when you find the flaw on the microchip and you want to go back and verify it (establish a track), it's moved (admittedly within a proscribed area). Remember, you have to wait for another pass. After all that, the results of a satellite pass have to be analyzed, sent to your boss for decisions (and to their boss and so on), relayed to a group that can use the information (an attacking unit), an attack has to readied (generally an extended time exercise), and the attacking unit has to travel the hundreds/thousands of miles to the target. While all that is happening, the target has moved and is long gone from its reported position.

      Thus, your analogy is appealing but completely unrealistic and unrepresentative.

      You've also ignored the actual data points of exercise after exercise that have proven that a carrier group is extremely hard to find.

      I hope you'll consider all this and that you're willing to learn from this and rather than instantly respond with an argument and that you'll instead do some research on actual military satellite performance and consider the impact of the many factors that are not included in your simplistic analogy.

      As I said, almost everything you wrote is similarly misunderstood but I'm not going take the time to try to guide you until I see that you're actually interested in learning. I hope you surprise me!

  10. Regarding History... in 1820, lord Thomas Cochrane, serving for the Chilean Government and commanding 3 ships, 100 marines and 250 soldiers defeated the spanish defensive system of Corral and Valdivia, formed by 7 castles and forts, which had 118 guns and were served by 800 regular spanish soldiers. (There were also about 1.000 militia men, but I'm not sure if they took part in the fight.)

    How did Cochrane achieved that? In the last hours of January 3rd, using deception (switching flags), he was able to close to the farthest fort ("Aguada del Inglés" / "Englishman watery") where Cochrane's marines and soldiers were landed. After capturing the first fort, Cochrane was able to defeat one fort after the other. In less then 24 hours, the whole defensive system was captured.

    Lessons for the future (i.e., for us)?

    1) You have to find a way to avoid being destroyed by the defensive system. For Cochrane it was deception by switching the flags.

    2) You have to remember that a defensive system is just that: a system. Once you destroy one of the parts of the system, the other parts become weak, and can also be destroyed.

    1. Good history and good lessons. Very nice comment. I appreciate it!

  11. What would be cruising speed of ww2 ship with top speed of 30 knots?

    1. Appears to be half speed, for over quadruple of efficiency in fuel (and major stress reduction).

    2. You've answered your own question. Did you have a point to make?