OK, I have finished Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery. It has been a long time since a single book gave me so much to think and blog about.
His bottom line is that military might rests on economic power, especially in the industrial era. But he says that the British Navy could have done better in World War II.
He lists three major errors in the Royal Navy's understanding of conflict in the mid-20th century:
--They overvalued the power of battleships and underestimated the threat to surface ships presented by aircraft and submarines.
--They neglected the major naval lesson of World War I, which was that the submarine had forever altered the nature of maritime combat.
--They didn't really understand the best role for aircraft carriers, which they saw more as scouting vessels for battleships than as the striking arm of the fleet.
The result was that during World War II the British Navy was the biggest navy in the world, so it wasn't so much weak as it was irrelevant to the tasks at hand.
This is an interesting warning to those who believe we don't really need to think as long as we are strong. I wonder if our military establishment today resembles the Royal Navy of 1938 more than we understand -- that is, big, powerful, and irrelevant. That's my scary thought for the day.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.