The Neptune Factor: Alfred Thayer Mahan and the Concept of Sea Power

Image of The Neptune Factor: Alfred Thayer Mahan and the Concept of Sea Power
Release Date: 
February 15, 2024
Naval Institute Press
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“Sea power will remain a vital tool of national power, and Mahan remains one of the foremost thinkers on the strategic purpose of naval forces to meet national objectives.”

Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan’s classic work The Influence of Sea Power upon History: 1660–1783 is one of those works, like Clausewitz’s On War, that is often quoted-sometimes out of context—and just as often paraphrased—yet it remains a staple of discussion among students and naval officers on the creation and use of maritime power to meet a nation’s strategic security goals.

Nicholas Lambert's The Neptune Factor combines biography, a historiography of Mahan’s more extensive body of work, and a history of the times in which Mahan served to give the most comprehensive look at this often-misunderstood strategic thinker who many credit with helping create the modern U.S. Navy.

Captain Mahan was no mere theorist. A naval officer whose career spanned nearly 40 years, including the challenging era where naval vessels transitioned from wood and sail to steel and steam, Mahan held several commands at sea before embarking on his more notable service at the new U.S. Naval War College under his long-time mentor and sponsor, Rear Admiral Stephen Luce.

Here he was given the charge to create a course to teach naval officers about the strategy of naval power and the role of a navy. This time was without a doubt one of the nadirs of the U.S. Navy, which went from a highly capable and relatively advanced navy during the Civil War to virtual non-existence in the late 1870s and early 1880s.

But Mahan did not create a course merely covering naval tactics and the desired technical capabilities a navy should design in a new fleet. Instead, he made an extensive study of the use of naval power at a higher level during one of the most turbulent times in European and American history to look at the interaction of economic strength, naval power, and domestic politics to develop a surprisingly enduring tome that provides a model of using naval power not just for warfighting but to advance a nation’s diplomatic and strategic interests in peacetime.

His thinking about the use of the world’s oceans as the primary transit route for world trade fit neatly into what has been described as the first era of globalization as steamships, telegraphs, and other innovations drove economic growth, a cornerstone of his thinking about how nations become great maritime powers. The author conducts an extensive analysis of his research and thinking, as well as the many myths about how much influence his work actually had on the virtual rebirth of the U.S. Navy at the end of the 19th century.

One of the principal areas Mahan examined was the classic argument of what kind of navy a nation needed. Making a nod to the ongoing debate on this very question in the U.S. Congress, Mahan stated that the traditional use of commerce raiders, historically merchant vessels outfitted as warships in the age of sail, while still a viable option, would not in the long run be able to achieve the same strategic purpose or have the same ability to project power in peacetime as a large Navy composed of modern steel and coal powered battleships.

This debate continued up until the time right before the Spanish-American War, where the revitalized U.S. Navy proved itself in battle and put an end to the debate about using commerce raiding as the primary American naval strategy. Mahan was particularly interested in the navy’s role in defending American interests in a strategically vital isthmus canal, soon to be the Panama Canal, that was a prime diplomatic and economic goal of a rising United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

As the author also notes, although Mahan achieved great fame for his work, becoming feted by the British elite in particular, it may not have been his greatest work. Taking a critical look at the research, style, and composition of Influence the author opines that Mahan's later works—The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1793–1812 and Sea Power in Relation to the War of 1812—were as equally well researched but written in a more coherent style. Unfortunately, these works, although equally popular at the time, have not received as much attention from later historians or contemporary naval officers.

Mahan did not live long enough to see 20th century technology make many of his theories into operational reality. The use of submarines as the new commerce raiders completely changed the nature of sea control and commerce protection in the world wars and the rise of aircraft carriers able to project sea control, to use the modern term, over vast ocean spaces made it possible to operationally implement Mahan’s theories about using naval power to not just defeat an opponent’s battle fleet, but to choke off their maritime commerce completely, using economic warfare as a tool for military victory.

As the U.S. Navy deals with a new set of threats and challenges in the 21st century, Mahan is getting a well-deserved second look. In this new era of globalization, where the supply chain for many products spans the planet and any disruption to sea-borne commerce has far reaching consequences, his thinking about the interaction of economic might, strategic thought, and naval force composition remain relevant today.

The U.S. Navy is not only dealing with threats from a rising Chinese navy and a resurgent Russian navy, but previously unimaginable threats such as the use of drones and ballistic missiles to attack merchant shipping in the Red Sea by a failed state terrorist group.

Sea power will remain a vital tool of national power, and Mahan remains one of the foremost thinkers on the strategic purpose of naval forces to meet national objectives. The Neptune Factor provides a long overdue historiography and analysis of his entire body of work and its impact on the development of naval strategy and doctrine during that crucial time of naval development.