From posts to DAVIDWEBER.NET forums on 1/13/2012 and 1/14/2012

Haven's "strategic blunder" of attacking Marsh as part of Operation Thunderbolt

    I haven't read all of the posts on this thread about the "strategic blunder" of attacking Marsh, and I have no intention of doing so at this point. However, Duckk has called the thread to my attention, so I will say the following.

    It's always easy to recognize strategic errors in retrospect, and there's always a temptation to say "I would never have been stupid enough to do that" given the ability to look at facts not known to the person planning the strategy. And facts which are not controllable by the person planning strategy can obviate an otherwise sound approach. For example, if the Japanese had caught the carriers of the Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor on December 7, instead of just the battleships, final American victory in the Pacific would have been delayed probably by at least an additional seven or eight months, and the Battle of Midway very probably wouldn't have been possible at all, even with the American ability to read Japanese coded naval transmissions. The consequences to the outcome of World War II in the Pacific might well have been… profound. Or, if the Japanese plan had called for repeated strikes on Pearl, which could have taken out the repair facilities and inflicted additional serious damage on the bottomed American battleships, the attack would have been much more decisive even without the carriers being in port. And, of course, there are other examples, as well, throughout history.

    In the case of Thomas Theisman's strategy for Operation Thunderbolt, the key considerations from Haven's perspective were:

    (1) The Star Kingdom of Manticore was not negotiating in good faith and was lying about our diplomatic correspondence. (Note: Haven believed this because of Giancola's manipulation of the diplomatic correspondence, but it was nonetheless a "fact" upon which they based their planning and Thunderbolt's objectives.)

    (2) The Republican Navy had superiority in numbers of pod-layers but an inferiority in quality of pod-layers. That is, they had acquired a greater number of platforms than Manticore possessed, but those platforms were individually less capable.

    (3) Both sides had demonstrated in the previous war that strategic depth, in and of itself, was not a decisive advantage in the face of deep-penetration attacks.

    (4) The Star Kingdom of Manticore had demonstrated in the previous war that it would continue to fight despite significantly unfavorable numerical odds and that it had an unpleasant tendency to win battles anyway.

    (5) With the additional ships coming out of Bolthole and their other yards, the Havenites could anticipate that their numerical superiority would continue to climb, at least in the short and midterm, although Manticoran and Grayson expansion of production lines would eventually (probably) catch up.

    (6) At least some of the Manticoran construction capability was located at peripheral yards (Grendelsbane) which the Republic would have an excellent chance of taking out in the opening moves of a new war.

    (7) A substantial portion of the Royal Manticoran Navy's combat strength was deployed to the Marsh System in the face of growing tensions with the Andermani.

    (8) High Ridge's inept diplomacy had done grave damage to the Manticoran Alliance. Erewhon had jumped ship and signed up as a Havenite ally, and Haven's intelligence analysts believed that even Grayson was likely to stand aside in a fresh war against Manticore.

    There were, of course, other considerations, but those were the major ones.

    The key point to understand here is that Thomas Theisman and Eloise Pritchart had great faith in Manticore's willingness to fight. As Theisman remarked later, Manties don't run from a fight. As a consequence, Theisman had made the Royal Manticoran Navy, not any territorial targets, the primary strategic objective. Destroy the RMN and Manticore would have no choice but to accept terms (which would have been fairly generous) from the Republic; allow the RMN to survive and allow it time to recover, and Manticoran technological superiority, strategic and tactical skill, and sheer bloody mindedness would probably allow the Manties to defend themselves successfully and, later, move over to the offensive. That, as it happens, was a very accurate assessment of the situation, even without any advance information on Apollo. Absent any indications of Apollo's existence, of course, Theisman believed he had a somewhat wider window in which Havenite numerical superiority would compensate for Manticoran technological superiority, but he very accurately appreciated all of the other factors listed above.

    He opted to launch Thunderbolt in the form in which it was launched because he believed it was necessary to achieve the most decisive and comprehensive initial victory possible. His immediate objective was the destruction of Royal Manticoran warships; his secondary objective was to secure strategically and politically critical territory (i.e., Trevor's Star) as jumping off points for future operations (and to deny those jumping off points to the Manties, of course) and as important diplomatic counters in any peace negotiations; and his tertiary objective was to win decisively enough in the early engagements to convince those secondary powers which had already withdrawn from (or seemed prepared to withdraw from) the Manticoran Alliance to leave the Star Kingdom militarily and diplomatically isolated.

    As a result, he planned a series of attacks, using effectively his entire available naval force (minus a reserve force to cover Nouveau Paris itself). He selected as his targets Havenite systems held by Manticore where he could pick off the various picket forces, Grendelsbane (in order, hopefully, to destroy the sizable force picketing it, as well as capturing or at least destroying the yard facilities there and the ships under construction), Trevor's Star (where his primary objective was the defending Manticoran fleet, not the wormhole terminus itself), and the Marsh System (where Manticore had left another substantial force isolated and unsupported far from home). He apportioned his attack strength based on a (very accurate) estimate of the Manticoran forces assigned to each of his objectives. He did not apportion his attack strength based on the assumption that Grayson would dispatch significant forces to both Marsh and Trevor's Star. Grayson's involvement was, in many ways, the equivalent of Japan's not catching the carriers at Pearl Harbor. It was an element beyond his control, although he at least had a pretty convincing reason to believe the Grayson Space Navy would not be deployed to assist the RMN against a surprise attack no one knew was coming. For that matter, he had reason to believe that Grayson might well stand aside entirely, but the point here is that there were no indications at the time Thunderbolt was planned and launched that Grayson would send military assistance to the Star Kingdom when the Star Kingdom's government had expressly refused to even ask for that assistance.

    Without the presence of Grayson units at Trevor's Star, Javier Giscard probably would have carried through with the attack. It's unlikely that he would have been able to take both the system and the warp terminus, but Thunderbolt never envisioned his taking and holding both of those objectives. The objective was Third Fleet and the destruction of the support infrastructure which had been built up in and around the system. A secondary objective was, of course, the morale and political effect of losing the Star Kingdom's newest member star system, but the political objectives were very definitely just that — secondary — beside the military objective: Third Fleet.

    Theisman never even considered the possibility of a series of "demonstration attacks," because in his opinion (and mine) that would have been both stupid and futile. The main thing it would have done would have been to give the Manties time to regain their strategic balance, and although they were outnumbered in the new types, they still retained a very significant technological superiority. A strategy beginning with "demonstration strikes" would only have insured yet another long, destructive war.

    Aside from the objectives Theisman actually hit, there were no militarily important objectives other than the Manticoran home system itself, and as the Battle of Manticore demonstrated, attacking the Manty home system would have been a very risky throw of the dice indeed. All of the other (minor) Manticoran naval bases and facilities between it and the Haven System were located in the star systems of Manticoran allies, and the last thing Theisman or Pritchart wanted to do at this point would be to drive Manticore's angry allies back into the Star Kingdom's arms by attacking/threatening their home territory.

    The attack on Marsh was not an attack on territory; it was an attack on the RMN's combat capability. In many ways, it was the portion of the operation over which Theisman was most ambivalent, but he signed off on it in the end because the Manties had been kind enough to expose a significant chunk of their combat power where no one could possibly support it and where it could never be expecting a Havenite attack. Had the Protector's Own not been sent to Honor's support, Lester Tourville's attack would have succeeded, at which point the Marsh attack would have been seen as a brilliant strategic success. And it ought to be pointed out that the Protector's Own was not sent to the support of the Star Kingdom of Manticore, but rather personally to the support of Steadholder Harrington. Neither Theisman nor any of his analysts — nor, for that matter, any Manticoran analysts — ever saw that one coming, because none of them appreciated Benjamin Mayhew's intense, personal loyalty to the friend who had saved his own and his family's lives or the fact that he had the power to deploy that force in that fashion without even discussing it with any other members or portions of his government.

    Thunderbolt was envisioned from the beginning as a decisive strike intended to destroy virtually the entire modern Manticoran navy outside Home Fleet itself. It was planned and formulated to do that because Thomas Theisman correctly appreciated that the Navy was the critical component in Manticore's ability to resist the Republic of Haven's demands — which, by the way, he believed were thoroughly just and reasonable. What he sought was a situation in which Manticore's military position was sufficiently close to hopeless, and in which the Star Kingdom was sufficiently isolated from its erstwhile allies by its own prewar actions and its disastrous post-Thunderbolt military position, that it would accept the offer of a reasonable peace settlement. And that peace settlement would have included the return of Trevor's Star (if Giscard had succeeded in taking it and holding it). In effect, Theisman and Pritchart were planning to kick the crap out of the RMN and then offer a peace settlement based on their prewar diplomatic demands with no additional demands. Their entire purpose would have been to demonstrate that their demands/objectives were reasonable, and they would have been careful to avoid humiliating Manticore any more than necessary to obtain those minimal terms.

    The key as both of them saw it was to destroy the Manticoran navy's combat capability and, specifically, to eliminate the highest possible percentage of its pod-laying wall of battle, in order to create an extended period of time in which Manticore would, effectively, be at Haven's mercy much as Haven had been at the climax of White Haven's offensive at the end of the previous war. There would have been differences, of course, because Home Fleet would still have been intact, as would the rest of the Manticore Binary System's "fixed" defenses, whereas not even the Haven System could have resisted White Haven's attack for long, but the analogy is still valid, and Manticore's strategic options would have been equally unpalatable. Again, the objective was never the conquest of the Star Kingdom, or even significant territorial demands on it; it was to create a situation in which Manticore had no choice but to accept a reasonable — indeed, in many ways a generous — peace settlement.

    It was a sound strategy, firmly based on the available combat power on both sides; on an assessment of Manticoran psychology, morale, and resilience which was probably accurate; on an assessment of the attitudes of the Star Kingdom's allies which was substantially accurate; and on an analysis of where the RMN's deployments had made its combat units most vulnerable. It had a thought out, rational, and reasonable diplomatic component, and the only two places where it failed — Marsh and Trevor's Star — it failed because the Manticorans had been heavily reinforced by Grayson units against the desires and/or knowledge of the High Ridge government. There was no way in the world Theisman could have predicted that or counted upon it, and there was also no way in the world he or any of his planners could have learned of the movement of Grayson reinforcements to Trevor's Star in time for them to have changed their thinking or planning.

    I understand that it's been argued that the Havenite intrusion into the Andermani sphere of interest was a major miscalculation. Once again, however, that's a case of being wise after the fact. Neither Theisman nor Pritchart knew about the games Giancola was playing with the Andermani diplomats, so neither of them had any reason to suspect the Andies might feel "used" or betrayed by Thunderbolt. Thunderbolt never approached or violated Andermani territory; Marsh was an independent star system allied with the Star Kingdom of Manticore, not with the Andermani Empire; and neither Theisman nor Pritchart had any reason to suspect that the Grantville Government would turn around and offer to partition Silesia with the Andies (after spending literally generations resisting Andermani penetration into the Confederacy) as the price for a military alliance with the Empire. The attack on March was a major factor in the way that entire diplomatic/military transaction worked out, but that was because of facts not in the possession of the people planning the operation and resulted, in the final analysis, from a diplomatic concession (i.e., backroom deal) between Manticore and the Empire which no one could have predicted before the fact. Because of that, arguing that Marsh was a strategic blunder because it brought the Andermani into the war is very much a case of being wise after the fact. Indeed, there is exactly zero reason to believe that Willie Alexander and his government wouldn't have offered exactly the same deal to Gustav Anderman in order to acquire his military support even if Lester Tourville had never come within a hundred light years of the Marsh System. Desperate situations lead to desperate measures, and Willie is nothing if not pragmatic when he has to be.

    In retrospect, it's clear that Thunderbolt was not the clear-cut strategic victory Theisman and Pritchart had hoped for. It can be argued that Thunderbolt was actually a strategic defeat, but I personally think that would be an inaccurate assessment. The Republic of Haven retained the strategic initiative, the numerical advantage, and (arguably) the advantage in total combat power, until Apollo completely unbalanced the existing tactical environment. Theisman was content not to throw his forces into a meat grinder like a head-on attack on the Manticore Binary System because his numerical advantage was continuing to increase even with the Andermani's entry on Manticore's side. Honor's infrastructure raids were throwing him off his pace, but they were not presenting a fundamental threat to his overall strategy — which was to continue to push for a diplomatic settlement and simultaneously to increase his combat advantage until it reached its maximum level and only then — and only if there was no other alternative — launch a general offensive which could prove militarily decisive. It was the interjection of Apollo into the mix, not any strategic planning errors in Thunderbolt, which led to the failure of the Theisman/Pritchart strategy for fighting the renewed war with Manticore.

    If there was a major strategic error which could legitimately be charged to Thomas Theisman or Eloise Pritchart in the run-up to Thunderbolt, it was the decision to resume military operations at all. Once that decision had been made, the planning for Thunderbolt — based on all of the information and all of the projections available to Theisman and Pritchart — was fundamentally sound.



    There is a significant difference between Midway and Thunderbolt. Actually, Thunderbolt had more in common with Pearl Harbor than Midway, of course, because Theisman wasn't trying to draw the Royal Manticoran Navy into decisive combat to finish it off as a combat force; he was attempting to take advantage of the RMN's dispersal and lack of readiness.

    The more significant difference, however, is that the Imperial Japanese Navy recognized from the outset that it simply could not match American industrial capacity. That had been the entire reason Japan had been willing to sign the Washington Treaty in 1920 and hadn't simply walked out at London in 1930 but did walk out in 1934. In 1920 they had evidence the United States was prepared to complete the huge 1916 building program, and (presumably) to continue the naval arms race if necessary, and like the Soviet Union sixty years later, Japan's GDP and industrial base simply couldn't match what the United States could produce out of a far smaller percentage of its total capacity. So they accepted treaty-mandated inferiority because the 60% strength they got under the treaty was greater than they could have procured in an all-out building race. In 1930, with the Depression setting in, nobody could afford a major naval building program, so there was no point in walking out. By 1934, Japan had become convinced that the United States wouldn't build the biggest fleet that it could and that Japan, by being willing to commit a greater percentage of its national wealth to the project, could build a fleet that was qualitatively superior even while it might be numerically inferior.

    The reason I point this out is that the Republic of Haven faced exactly the reverse industrial equation. They could out build Manticore, because of the scale of their building program and the fact that they'd launched it first, and they had acquired effective technological near parity. If they took out the Royal Manticoran Navy, they weren't going to be distracted by a land war in Asia, by an advance towards Australia, or by the need to fortify island positions. They would be in the position of having a navy (when Manticore had just effectively lost its navy), of being able to move directly against Manticore's central, critical defensive requirements (the equivalent of Japan being able not simply to invade and occupy the Hawaiian Islands but to take out the Panama Canal, put troops ashore in Cuba, and possibly land an expeditionary force in Southern California) while anticipating that their numerical edge would actually increase over at least the next three years or so, and probably hold steady (at worst) after those three years, which is quite different from Yamamoto's estimate that he could run wild for 18 months before the sheer industrial power of the United States buried him.

    The joker in the deck, of course, was Apollo, which no one on the Havenite side could see coming. Since no one could see it coming, however, the strategic wisdom or un-wisdom of Theisman's operations plan should not be judged in light of the fact that it did come along.

    Over the course of history, there have been any number of military operations which "should" have worked and even "would" have worked if not for some factor, some piece of intelligence, some weapon system, some economic factor, the operations' planners simply didn't (and perhaps couldn't have) know about. Thunderbolt is one of those. That doesn't change the fact that it ultimately failed in its purpose of creating a situation in which a peace would have been negotiable, but it does mean (in my opinion) that it probably represented the Republic's absolute best chance of forcing a negotiated settlement essentially on its terms. Nor does it mean that it was not an intelligently conceived and capably executed operation which succeeded in most of its original objectives.

    On an aside, I understand that it's been suggested that instead of striking so hard and inflicting so many casualties, Theisman might have carried out a series of "demonstration strikes," to show that he could have hurt Manticore badly but chose not to. The logic here, apparently, is that if he hadn't destroyed so many ships and killed so many Manticorans, he wouldn't have created the pro-war mood of the Star Kingdom. That by "Pearl Harboring" the Star Kingdom he created a unified willingness to fight that wouldn't have been there before and probably fueled a Manticoran vengefulness which wouldn't have been there otherwise.

    To that, I say nonsense.

    The Republic had already revealed the existence of a modern navy to the Star Kingdom. Manticore knew that Haven had acquired the capability to relaunch military operations and to fight far more effectively than they'd been able to ever before. Manticore knew that Haven was becoming progressively more impatient and disgusted over the failures of diplomacy and Manticore's refusal to negotiate a final peace settlement of the previous war. No "demonstration strike" was necessary to make those points clear, and so far, at least, Manticore had declined to change its position. (Of course the situation is complicated by Giancola's manipulation of the diplomatic correspondence, but the basic elements above still apply.) The only effect a "demonstration strike" was likely to have would be to warn Manticore that Haven was going to conduct active military operations against the Star Kingdom.

    Even at the best of times, "demonstration strikes" are a stupid, stupid, stupid way to initiate military operations against a significant, powerful opponent. Let me say that again — a stupid way to initiate military operations against a significant, powerful opponent. Unless your military advantage is so overwhelming that you can literally strike your opponent whenever and wherever you wish for minimal casualties and losses of your own, launching "demonstration strikes" is the best formula imaginable for eliciting a powerful counterstrike by your opponent. The only things that "demonstration strikes" would have accomplished would have been:

    (a) To demonstrate to the Manticoran public that the current Havenite leadership was a bunch of trigger-happy loons willing to rattle their sabers and provoke a resumption of full-scale military operations because it wasn't getting what it wanted at the conference table (i.e., the leopard had definitely not changed its spots).

    (b) To give the current Manticoran government an external opponent, of demonstrably greatly increased military capabilities, whose volatility vindicated the High Ridge cabinet's refusal to sign a "concessionary" peace settlement with it.

    (c) To wake up the Janacek Admiralty so that it took elementary precautionary steps to defend places like, oh, Grendelsbane, for example. At the very least, it would have moved the entire Royal Manticoran Navy to a wartime footing very quickly and pretty much precluded the elimination of so much potential, as yet incomplete combat tonnage without one hell of a fight.

    (d) To inspire Grayson to take the very steps it had actually already taken in the face of Havenite aggressiveness. This last point would probably be one that the Havenite strategists could have argued either way, but the actual consequence of "demonstration strikes" would have been to push Benjamin Mayhew into bringing the GSN to a wartime footing and reinforcing Manticore, whatever Haven's analysts might have concluded he was likely to do.

    It's highly unlikely that the Star Kingdom of Manticore, after having fought as long and as hard as it did against the People's Republic, would have responded to "demonstration strikes" by doing anything except re-manning its fleet and preparing for war and making damned sure that the Republican Navy would never again enjoy the advantage of surprise. It would have been a criminally negligent strategy for Thomas Theisman to have recommended or to have agreed to carry out. If you're the United States Navy and you're prepared to carry out a "demonstration strike" against Iranian oil platforms and to take on the Iranian Navy's two or three frigates, F4s, and gunboats in 1988 in order to "protect freedom of navigation," that's one thing. But do you really think that the United States Navy would have been prepared to carry out "demonstration strikes" on the empty terrain, let's say, outside Murmansk in the same year? And how much less would they have been prepared to pick off a handful of Soviet frigates in the Baltic or possibly depth charge a few Soviet submarines off Greenland as a "demonstration" that they meant business?

    I don't know where the notion of Havenite "demonstration strikes" against Manticore may have come from, but I think it should go back there as quickly as possible.

    Now, if you want to talk about the advisability of "demonstration strikes" against the Solarian League as a way to demonstrate that, compared to the Star Kingdom of Manticore, the Solarian League is not "a significant, powerful opponent," that's another topic entirely. The truth is that the SLN is completely and totally outclassed by current-generation Manticoran war-fighting technology. Even before Apollo was unveiled, that was not the case for Manticore vis-à-vis the Republic of Haven. Thomas Theisman may be many things, but he isn't dumb enough to walk up to a sleeping mountain lion, hit it across the nose with the barrel of a .30-.30, then stand back and see if it gets the point that he may intend to do it a mischief if it doesn't go sleep somewhere else. The thing to do is to stick the muzzle in its ear and squeeze the trigger, which is basically what Thunderbolt was intended to do.