Alexander Clarke’s second article examines the Royal Navy’s reaction to the emergence of the USSR’s Sverdlov Class gun cruisers.
“Although the Russian lack of aircraft carriers would make it hazardous for their Cruisers to operate outside the range of shore based fighter cover, the presumed long range of the Sverdlov Class makes it possible for them to operate as ocean raiders, particularly if the Russians have reason to believe that Allied carriers will not be met.”[i]
Surface raiders were a potentially deadly threat to a global trading nation such as Britain; whilst submarines were a problem, they were a containable problem – especially before the development of nuclear power. However, as had been demonstrated by the German cruiser Admiral Graf Spee of River Plate fame [ii] and others, surface raiders were for more unrestricted – hence killing them became such a priority. [iii] Therefore when the Soviets [iv] were seen to be constructing a similar capability a reaction was only a matter of time.
The most commonly referenced British reaction to the emerging Soviet surface raider threat is the Buccaneer bomber, which were of course principally focused on not only low level nuclear strike of ground targets, but also the hunting down and destruction of surface raiders. [vi] The Royal Navy’s (RN) response though was not simply limited to this one thing, and in fact whilst carriers were focused on as the premier tool of global reach, it was realised there would never be enough available for the RN to achieve the global presence which would be required to protect the arteries of trade & supply from raiders/hunt those raiders down.[vii] Therefore just as it had during the 1920s and 1930s the RN turned to surface combatants.
While it is important to qualify this work with the understanding that the location and destruction of enemy surface raiders was not the sole, arguably perhaps not even a primary factor in the driving of warship design/development/procurement during this period it was a significant factor which should be considered as it can provide significant lessons for future design/development/procurement. This work will examine the relevant information in two sections: the first section will discuss what the Soviets Union did build, and just as importantly what the RN thought they were building. It is necessary to discern and differentiate both as it is in that the keys to understanding the RN’s and British Government’s operational perceptions as well as their opinion of their own strengths and weakness lie. The second section will move to the RN’s response; investigating what was planned, what was asked for and what was actually built. Wherever possible this work will apply context through the use of comparable allied construction. Finally this work will seek to bring all the threads of discussion together to answer the question that is its purpose; to what extent did the RN’s understanding of Soviet cruisers affected its ship procurement during the beginning phase of the Cold War.
To every action there is always…
The Sverdlov class were the second class of cruisers built by the Soviet Union following World War II (or the Great Patriotic War), they were the successors to the Chapayev class.[viii] However, the Chapayev class was designed during that conflict, and the Sverdlovs were the first class started after WWII. They were a significant part of plans which included Battleships and Aircraft Carriers – plans that were aimed at providing a brand new globe traversing Soviet Fleet.[ix] The Sverdlov’s range of 9000nm at 17kts which meant they were able to traverse vast tracts of ocean, and was not dissimilar to the Graf Spee’s 8,900nm at 20kts.[xi] They also compared well with those vessels put forward by other navies. [x] Due to the planned battleships and aircraft carriers not coming into existence (as a result of various internal political reasons as well as limitations of national industry [xii]) the Soviets had built a scaled/adapted version of the very effective (although ultimately defeated) WWII German navy.[xiii]
The USSR therefore found itself in possession of a force orientated around surface and sub-surface raiders, aimed at defending the USSR and its territory by in effect re-fighting the Battle of Atlantic/Arctic Convoys to prevent American resupply of their western European allies. An understandable strategic decision, as the Arctic convoy battles had left in many ways a greater memory in the minds of the Soviet leadership than the British: due to actual invasion, the USSR (like Malta) [xiv] had on occasions been just one or two ships away from defeat.[xv] Surface raiders were key to such as strategic notions as without their range and operational scope, submarines alone (especially in the pre-nuclear age) could not have achieved anywhere near the required results. However, the mirror was not an exact reflection of the German Navy, whilst Stalin might have insisted on the use of German technology and other modifications, the Sverdlov class were still very much Soviet in concept and design as can be seen by their lines (Figures 2 & 3).
Figure 2: the Sverdlov class (image from National Archives [xvi]), this picture taken from an RN intelligence assessment highlights the clean lines and efficient looking hull bely the many problems which had had to be overcome by the rather undeveloped post-World War II(WWII) ship building industry in the USSR.[xvii]
Figure 3: the Sverdlov class (image from National Archives [xviii]), the fixation of the RN’s raiding worries for several years, this plan illustrates how heavily armed they were with twelve 152mm in four triple mountings, twelve 105mm in six double mountings all combined with a heavy Anti-Aircraft armament, torpedoes, sophisticated sensors, a top speed of 33kts and a range of 9000 nautical miles.[xix]
The Sverdlov’s range and displacement of more than 16,000tons compared positively with that of the pocket battleship/heavy cruiser Admiral Graf Spee.[xx] The 152mm or 6in guns (in RN speak) that provided their main batteries defined the Sverdlov Class as light Cruiser in origin rather than a pocket battleship, and were not dissimilar to those used by Ajax & Achilles at the Battle of the River plate. The choice of those guns instead of larger (nominally 8in guns) was an indicator of the intended purpose of the Sverdlov class.
The original order was for 40 vessels, and they were to be deployed with all the major Soviet fleets.[xxi] Sverdlov class ships first entered service with the Krasnoznamennyi Baltijskii Flot (KBF, Red Banner Baltic Fleet based at Kaliningrad) and Chernomorski Flot (CF, Black Sea Fleet based at Sevastopol). It was only as more of the class came into service that they were allocated to the Severnyi Flot (SF, Northern Fleet based at Severomorsk) and Tikhookeanski Flot (TOF, Pacific Fleet based at Vladivostok). After a transition period the KBF would contain three, the CF five, the SF just two, and the TOF received four.[xxii] All this though was to come; what the allies and the RN especially perceived, was the Soviet’s amassing a surface raider force at their all year ports with Atlantic/Indian Ocean access far beyond that which had been possessed by Nazi Germany.
This threat was felt so because the Sverdlovs’ main battery whilst not able to match those of larger ships (the legacy heavy cruisers and battleships still in service), were (especially in the pre-missile age) more than adequate when coupled with their heavy Anti-Aircraft (AA) armament to defend themselves against any likely opponents.[xxiii] This class of armament was certainly powerful enough to decimate any merchant vessels they found, as well as effective against shore targets of opportunity. More importantly their numbers and disposition meant that while in theory they could be blockaded in during any conflict, the likelihood was that some would already be at sea; like the Admiral Graf Spee had been. [xxiv] The consequence being they would be outside the blockade and would have to be hunted down while they ran amok amongst world’s sea lines of communication (SLOCs) – the very lines of communication that international trade and war supplies would use and therefore that Britain would be dependent upon.[xxv]
The RN, as is illustrated by its own documents, the Supplementary Naval Intelligence Papers relating to Soviet & European Navies – Soviet Cruisers[xxvi] and Particulars of Foreign War Vessels Volume 1 – Soviet & European Satellite Navies[xxvii], had a pretty accurate view of the Soviet designs. Although of course understanding changed with time, and some figures given in the former appreciation had changed by the time the latter was written. An example of this knowledge is that the RN knew that the 105mm secondary armament were three-dimensionally stabilised, allowing them to be used as AA weapons. The RN also knew that alongside the 105mm there were sixteen twin 37/60 Bofors type mountings for close range engagement: weaponry that was combined with an extensive radar fit, (using NATO ‘nicknames’) a Big Net, a Sea Gull and 1-2 Knife Rest(s) all for Air Search as well as a Slim Net, a High Sieve and a Hair Net for Air/Surface Search.[xxviii] This comprehensive sensor and weapons fit meant that the Sverdlov class was very capable of protecting themselves on solo raiding missions.[xxix] Although certainly they were the most probable wartime scenario, solo missions however were not the biggest fear for the RN. The biggest worry were Task Groups, two or more Cruisers, possibly with Destroyer escorts. Such formations were felt to be a direct threat to any allied naval task group without an aircraft carrier.[xxx] However, it was not just the Sverdlovs’ war time potential that presented a problem for the RN.
The Sverdlovs were impressive; they had a crew numbering more than a thousand officers and men and their overall capabilities were a statement of Soviet power and reach. Such a statement was important to demonstrating the success of the communist system in the global battle for hearts and minds, or influence (as it was termed then), that was the constant feature of the Cold War.[xxxi] With their size, elegant design, space and radius of operation they were perfect tools for carrying out naval diplomacy – something they were used for regularly, even making successive visits to Britain itself.[xxxii] This for a Britain in the process of decolonisation, of transitioning from Empire to Commonwealth, served to as a further catalyst for the fear that former colonies might be tempted to turn to communism and therefore to change from being allies to enemies or perhaps more importantly suppliers to deniers.[xxxiii]
…An equal and opposite reaction.
The Sverdlov entered service with the Voenno-Morskoj Flot SSSR (VMF -Military Maritime Fleet of the USSR) in 1952.[xxxiv] The RN had twenty-nine cruisers on its books: twelve cruisers in service, two for training, twelve in reserve and three under construction/stalled building.[xxxv] These cruisers were the products/legacies of experience gained through the two world wars, countless minor actions and of course all the ‘peace time’ operations that had been feature of the previous century, years when such vessels were reliable backbone of the RN’s abilities. In peace time they showed the flag around the world supporting diplomacy, trade and peace (or perhaps more accurately – stability). During war time they were the leading escorts and the principle trade protection assets; it was the vessels of this type that were charged with clearing the oceans of the enemy. It is unsurprising therefore that when the RN perceived a commerce raiding strategy being developed by the Soviets, it turned to cruisers.[xxxvi]
The RN went through different levels of planning as the years transitioned and more information became available as to the role and nature of the VMF’s cruiser build, as well as how the Soviet used them. In 1949 a paper entitled “Ships of the Future Navy” concluded that conventional cruisers and destroyers would be replaced by an all-purpose light cruiser.[xxxvii] The RN’s plan to the same grand scale as the Soviet plan for the VMF, envisaging the replacement of twenty-three cruisers and fifty-eight destroyer leaders with 50 of the new light Cruisers. At that point, the new cruisers were described as cruiser-destroyers and planned to be armed with 5in guns while displacing less than 5,000tons. The conceptual cruiser-destroyers would displace two-thirds less than a Sverdlov, putting them at an obvious disadvantage despite them being envisaged by some studies as a counter to threat posed by that class.[xxxviii] The cruiser-destroyer program was not the RN’s sole cruiser design programme, however.
The guided-weapons (or missile) cruiser, the project which was a leap ahead from the all-gun cruisers that the Sverdlovs represented was well underway.[xxxix] It would prove the downfall of the phenotype of the all-gun cruiser.[xl] It was another cruiser-destroyer program; but differed in that it would eventually see service as the backbone of 1960s/70s RN surface forces, the County Class destroyers.[xli] In 1954 however the proposal was a cruiser with a displacement 18,300tons full load, and fitted with the same twin 6in guns as then in service equipping the Minotaur class.[xlii] This vessel therefore would have exceeded the size/status of the Sverdlov class in a basic way; and completely outclass it in terms of air defence capability due to being fitted with a twin launcher for Sea Slug Surface-To-Air Missiles (to be fed from a forty-eight cell magazine). Unfortunately this design was also dropped for various reasons in 1957, the most obvious being the financial restrictions upon the RN.[xliii] It was decided to go with a cruiser-destroyer design, and in the coup de’ grace to further new cruisers classes the design team responsible for them were transferred to the nuclear submarine project – reducing the likelihood of new designs emerging to virtually zero.[xliv] However, the RN still had several cruisers in service during this period, and furthermore it was during this time that the three Minotoaur class light cruisers, whose construction had been suspended following WWII, were modified and completed as the Tiger Class.
In 1954, two years after the Sverdlov entered service and only a year after it had visited the UK for the Queen’s Coronation Review, work began again on the Tiger class vessels.[xlv] Their construction as Minotaur class ships had been suspended not only due to the spending freeze bought in at the end of WWII (because of which there had been very limited funds for anything), but also because of a desire to step back and digest the lessons of the war before charging into new construction.[xlvi] These ships were seen as way to accelerate the entry of those digested lessons into service when it was decided to complete their construction, without the cost of a new class if there were mistakes.[xlvii]
Many felt the most important lessons were to do with firepower; a new 6in gun had been developed and was fitted to the Tigers when they entered service – each gun/barrel had a rate of fire of 20 rounds a minute, so the Tigers with two double gun turrets could each provide 80 rounds a minute of fire support for amphibious operations, as had proved to be important in the Korean War.[xlviii] The guns would also be excellent for destruction of merchant shipping, another projected operational role.[xlix]. The three Tigers as originally built had no guided weapons, but they were still considered useful: the RN did not expect guided weapons to come into service that quickly and believed that even when they did guns would have a place still in the fleets armoury. [l] The gun was successful, and the possibility of upgrading legacy vessels such as HMS Belfast of the Town class vessels was considered.[li]
This was not to be though and neither were the Tiger class really, none completing more than nineteen years as a commissioned vessel.[lii] This was in stark comparison to the Town Class’ average service life of thirty years.[liii] These were especially short service periods given that two of the Tiger class vessels (Tiger and Blake, the third, Lion, wasn’t in good enough condition even for this) had very extensive midlife upgrades/conversions, gaining missiles and helicopters at expense of the aft 6in turret.[liv] Their demise was a symptom of the wider cuts to Defence and Naval Spending; but it was also a reflection that these ships were not really up to the task required of them. With a range of 8,000nm at 16kts and a top speed of only 31.5kts they were just not enough to take on the Soviet surface raiders. They had been operationally confined to Task Group Operations and instead of providing a limited substitute for the aircraft carriers, the Tigers had needed their protection. For task force operations, the Tiger Class’ weapons and sensor fit was good, and provide an adequate contribution.The Tiger Class was not up to the standard needed for that primary, or justifying, mission of cruisers; protecting the SLOCs from surface raiders.[lv] Without that justification the Tigers became a very hard ‘sell’ for the RN in face of Treasury questions.[lvi][lvii]
Given these limitations, to what extent did the Royal Navy’s understanding of Soviet cruisers affect its ship procurement during the beginning of the Cold War? If impact was measured only in paper work generated, research accomplished and debate instigated then the Sverdlov class did have more than an equal and opposite reaction from the RN. However, the metrics for measurement of impact must also include materiel generated, in this case the resulting ships. Materiel analysis is complex; the RN had cruisers in service and because of the suspended Minotaurs/Tiger class it had the option of hedging its bets instead of building new vessels in response – despite all the innovative and interesting options that were examined. This certainly explains why the most visible response in terms of material to the Soviet surface raider threat was the development of the Buccaneer strike aircraft; an asymmetric response that made the most of what was available, rather than a more direct viable solution to the threat of Soviet surface raiders that the Sverdlov class represented.
Unfortunately for the RN, the transitional period of the 1950s limited the available options not only in terms of technology, but also in terms of what the fleet would be. One aspect of the transition from Empire to Commonwealth was the loss of the highly visible role/budget justification of imperial policing. In comparison to this contraction, technology was driving an across-the board classification-blurring increase in the size of warship designs as they were sought to accommodate the addition increasingly sophisticated equipment/weaponry; an example of this blurring being the cruiser-destroyer concept. In a time when there were many other draws on the public purse, such as the National Health Service, Nuclear Weapons and rebuilding a nation devastated by WWII, the growth of individual warships resulted in higher costs for the vessels themselves, for new systems and technology and for training.
In the end, the RN’s response was mostly (as far as surface ships were concerned) a vicious paper tiger. Adequate or even great designs on paper translated into warships completed during the period that were not up to the tasks they were envisioned to do. The importance of the response was such that successive Admiralty Boards put extensive effort into design programs, focused so many resources and fought so many Whitehall battles for vessels. Not entirely fruitless, these negotiations did lay the ground work for many other concepts to become reality, vessels which were up to missions required of them and which would be of considerable value in future conflicts. In addition to these benefits, the eventual selection of the 4.5in gun as the standard deck gun for all escorts after flirtations with 6in, 5in & 3in, and the decision to purchase Exocet SSM were consequence of the debates that affected not just the RN’s cruisers, but the whole fleet. Furthermore it must be remembered that throughout this period, the RN was never less than the second navy of NATO, and it kept to its own style – partly due to spending limits, but also perception of mission.[lviii] Whilst the USN went for the ‘Super Power Fleet’ as enshrined by experience of war in the pacific, the RN built something different, similar in image and scale definitely but always different – meaning the Soviets always had to consider the British when building their own ships.
This conceptual relationship between the Royal Navy and Soviet Navy was perhaps best illustrated by the fact both the Soviet Navy and the RN built Aviation Cruisers – or rather that is what they chose to describe their carriers for differing reasons.[lix] Furthermore, this piece of history does perhaps serve to shed some light on today’s events, and the current Russian naval rearmament.[lx] The procurement of Mistral class LHDs from France [lxi] along with the construction of new classes of warship in Russian Yards, is not a Mahanian challenge for dominance of the sea [lxii] but a quest for projection of influence and power which would serve to dispute that dominance.[lxiii] In simple terms the Russians like their Soviet predecessors in the 1950s are not seeking to match anyone in strength, but to match them in capabilities so as to be able to influence events in their favour. The question remains though whether their current naval rearmament will be as influential on the RN’s future construction today as it did in the 1950s, when it not only mobilised cruisers from slipways, but more importantly mobilised minds in search of countermeasures, producing systems, practices and decisions which effect the RN to this day.
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Defence Industry Daily. 2014. “Russia Orders French Mistral Amphibious Assault Ships.” Defence Industry Daily . February 12. Accessed February 22, 2014. http://www.defenseindustrydaily.com/russia-to-order-french-mistral-lhds-05749/.
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Scott, James Brown. 2008. Source taken from a Series of Lectures given in 1908: Peace Conference at the Hague 1899; Report of Captain Mahan to the United States Commission to the International Conference at the Hague, Regarding the Work of the Second Committee of the Conference. Accessed March 4, 2012. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/hag99-07.asp.
I (TNA – Admiralty: 239/533 1960) – General Remarks
II (TNA – Admiralty: 116/4109 1940, TNA – Admiralty: 116/4320 1941, TNA – Admiralty:
116/4470 1940) – the Soviets were also very interested in the various German Navy
Cruiser actions, especially the voyage & demise of the Admiral Graf Spee (TNA –
Admiralty: 223/714 1959)
III (TNA – Cabinet Office: 106/332 1947, TNA – Cabinet Office: 106/335 1948)
IV Please note when talking about the Cold War period Soviet will be used instead
Russia as the denominator, however when discussing post-Cold War period Russia will
be used as it.
V (TNA – Admiralty: 116/4109 1940)
VI (White 2009, 35, Thetford 1978, 66-7)
VII (TNA – Ministry of Defence: 5/84/146 1958, TNA – Ministry of Defence: 6/51/104
1958, TNA – Admiralty: 1/30086 1955-6, TNA – Admiralty: 116/5632 1948-52)
VIII (TNA – Admiralty: 239/821 1959)
IX (Rohwer and Monakov 2006, 199) – It is interesting to note that the RN’s documents
underestimate the endurance (estimating 8,700nm at 18kts (TNA – Admiralty: 239/821
1959)) although still respectful.
X The RN’s Minotaur class could do 6,000nm at 20kts (Friedman, British Cruisers; Two
World Wars and After 2010, 407) and the USN’s Worcester class which could do
9,000nm at 15kts
XI (Jane’s 2001) – the fact that it’s not dissimilar should be no surprise considering
Stalin’s fixation on using both captured and some pre-WWII procured German
technology as a starting point (Rohwer and Monakov 2006, 198)
XII (TNA – Admiralty: 1/23041 1948-51, TNA – Admiralty: 116/5632 1948-52)
XIII Something the Soviets had done extensive study on, and which the RN was
interested in – for example they obtained a translation of the book Some Results of
the Cruiser Operations of the German Fleet by L.M.Eremeev (TNA – Admiralty: 223/714
XIV (Pearson 2004, Smith 2002)XV (Kemp 1993)
XVI (TNA – Admiralty: 239/533 1960)
XVII (Rohwer and Monakov 2006, 197-9)
XVIII (TNA – Admiralty: 239/533 1960)
XIX (Rohwer and Monakov 2006, 199, TNA – Admiralty: 239/533 1960)
XX (Rohwer and Monakov 2006, 199)
XXI Although only 25 were ordered and 14 eventually built – some in a modified form
(Rohwer and Monakov 2006, 276-7)
XXII (Rohwer and Monakov 2006, 276, TNA – Admiralty: 239/533 1960)
XXIII They could chuck a 115lb shell, 34,000yrds at a speed of 2,850ft/s (TNA –
Admiralty: 239/821 1959) or in metric, a 52.16kg shell, 31.09km at a speed of
868.68m/s (or Mach 2.55)
XXIV (TNA – Admiralty: 116/4109 1940, TNA – Admiralty: 223/714 1959)
XXV (TNA – Admiralty: 116/5632 1948-52)
XXVI (TNA – Admiralty: 239/533 1960)
XXVII (TNA – Admiralty: 239/821 1959)
XXVIII (TNA – Admiralty: 239/533 1960, TNA – Admiralty: 239/821 1959)
XXIX Hence the need to develop a new aircraft to replace those already in the process
of being procured or in service – many of the latter
XXX (TNA – Admiralty: 239/533 1960)
XXXI (TNA – Ministry of Defence: 5/84/146 1958)
XXXII (TNA – Foreign Office: 371/106559 1953, TNA – Foreign Office: 371/122817 1956,
TNA – Foreign Office: 371/122821 1956, TNA – Prime Ministers Office: 11/1014 1955)XXXIII Admiral Ralph Edwards could have been argued to have been rather perceptive
when writing in the 1949 Ships of the Future Navy (TNA – Admiralty: 116/5632 1948-
52) that “Overseas police duties, calls for which, in a ‘Cold War’ type of peace, may be
expected to increase rather than diminish”.
XXXIV (Rohwer and Monakov 2006, 277)
XXXV (Wettern 1982, 396)
XXXVI (TNA – Admiralty: 116/5632 1948-52) – here they actually state, on the topic of
protection of seaborne trade, “This could be done by aircraft carriers, but more
extravagantly and less certainly”
XXXVII (Brown and Moore 2012, 29, TNA – Admiralty: 116/5632 1948-52) – An aim
arguably achieved only recently with the recent entry into service of the 8,500ton
Daring class Destroyers; at least in terms of displacement.
XXXVIII Design Study II (Brown and Moore 2012, 33, TNA – Admiralty: 116/5632 1948-
XXXIX (TNA – Admiralty: 1/23041 1948-51, TNA – Admiralty: 116/5632 1948-52, TNA –
Admiralty: 1/25609 1954, TNA – Admiralty: 1/23041 1948-51)
XL (Brown and Moore 2012, 32-3, TNA – Admiralty: 1/25609 1954)
XLI (Brown and Moore 2012, 35)
XLII (Brown and Moore 2012, 32)
XLIII (Mitchell 2011, 594) even though the budget actually increased slightly in real
terms when inflation is factored in, the cost of procurement of new systems &
repairing/upgrading/maintaining the war worked ships meant that expenses rose
XLIV (Brown and Moore 2012, 35)
XLV (TNA – Admiralty: 1/27600 1953)
XLVI This included aircraft, which at the end of World War II were arguably in a worse
state (A. Clarke 2013)
XLVII As shown by the emphasis placed on the Cumberland trials (TNA – Admiralty:
1/23041 1948-51)XLVIII (Hastings 2010, Hill, The Oxford Illustrated History of the Royal Navy 2002)
XLIX In simple terms each vessel could with their 6in guns alone deliver 5tons of
ordinance a minute at a range of up to 13 miles (Wettern 1982, 100)
L (TNA – Admiralty: 1/23041 1948-51, TNA – Admiralty: 1/25609 1954) – although it was
openly acknowledged that they were to be the last All-Gun ship (Wettern 1982, 100)
LI (Wettern 1982, 93-5, TNA – Admiralty: 1/23041 1948-51)
LII (Wettern 1982, 392-439)
LIII (Friedman, British Cruisers; Two World Wars and After 2010)
LIV (Friedman, British Cruisers; Two World Wars and After 2010, 319-21)
LV (TNA – Admiralty: 116/5632 1948-52)
LVI (TNA – Admiralty: 239/821 1959)
LVII If a service cannot even justify a weapon system to itself, the how is it supposed to
justify it to Ministers, let alone an organisation of the Treasury’s accountancy calibre?
LVIII (Grove 2005)
LIX (Brown and Moore 2012, 62-71, Friedman, British Cruisers; Two World Wars and
After 2010, 321-3) – Although to be technical the Invincible class were described as
‘Through Deck Cruisers’.
LX (Kislyakov 2007)
LXI (Defence Industry Daily 2014)
LXII (Mahan 1987)
LXIII In fact it seems to perhaps be a more Corbettian approach to naval strategy (J. S.