BOOK REVIEW: To Train the Fleet for War – The U.S. Navy Fleet Problems, 1923-1940

by Albert A. Nofi, Naval War College Press. Newport, RI (2010)

Reviewed by Corbin Williamson

Albert Nofi’s To Train the Fleet for War: The U.S. Navy Fleet Problems, 1923-1940 adds to the growing literature on the interwar United States Navy with a discussion of the organization and course of fleet problems. Nofi is an accomplished naval historian who worked in public education in New York while designing war games before moving to the Center for Naval Analyses as a research analyst. Nofi completed his doctorate in military history at City University of New York and has since retired. He argues that the previous monograph on the fleet problems, Testing American Sea Power, was focused on the relationship between the problems and technological innovation and change.[1]To Train the Fleet for War provides comprehensive coverage of the fleet problems by setting them in the context of the Second World War. The account is based on the records of the fleet problems held at the Naval War College as well as secondary works on the interwar U.S. Navy. Nofi concludes that through the fleet problems the U.S. Navy came to understand future combat operations “in terms of surface, undersea, and marine forces integrated into a combined arms “naval force” (xxvi) and “learned to fight World War II” (321).

The work is divided into three parts with multiple chapters in each part. Part I includes a description of the state of the Navy during the interwar period and the structure and background of the fleet problems. Nofi emphasizes that the fleet was composed of a mix of new, recently modernized, and older vessels manned by a small, high quality base of enlisted personnel and officers. The fleet problems themselves are described as “systematic free play battle exercises” that were designed to provide realistic training for the fleet as a whole and commanders in particular. In some form or fashion, the fleet problems all examined some aspect of War Plan Orange, the U.S. Navy’s plan for war with Japan.

For each problem, the fleet would be divided into two or more not necessarily equal groups, with each group assigned a color such as black, blue, white, orange, or grey. The commander of each group would be given a mission and would produce his plan for completing said mission several weeks or months in advance of the problem. Each group sought to complete its objective in the face of opposition from the other group. Attacks by gunfire, aircraft, torpedoes, and submarines were simulated and damage was accrued to ships and aircraft based on scoring rules interpreted by umpires, themselves naval officers. The rules governing damage and accuracy were not always borne out by experience in World War II, but did provide a level playing field and were often updated. After the problem was concluded, an open review and critique of the problem was held in front of the officers who had participated in the problem. Nofi argues that these reviews were frank and honest, a quality he sees as critical for the improvement of the interwar Navy.

The bulk of the work consists of descriptions of each fleet problem, including the background, plans, course, result, and conclusions for each problem. In addition, many of the problems were preceded or followed by exercises that are also described in detail. Nofi highlights the perception and use of naval aviation in each problem as well as developments in other aspects of naval warfare. He emphasizes the influence of tight, interwar budgets on the problems that affected the use of dummy torpedoes, safety rules about operating aircraft, and speed restrictions to limit fuel consumption.

The conclusion draws together themes identified in passing throughout the work, resulting in a very readable monograph. Nofi identifies several patterns in the problems: they all tested aspects of War Plan Orange; when other services were involved their involvement was inter-service, not joint; and over time the problems became longer, more secretive, and involved a greater percentage of major fleet units. He states that “despite all the experimentation with aircraft and aircraft carriers, submarines, amphibious operations, and underway refueling, from first to last the main concern of the fleet problems was the battleship and how best to employ it” (287). At the same time, Nofi sees the most significant advance coming out of the fleet problems as the creation of the carrier task force and an initial understanding of its proper employment. He ends the work by noting lessons that modern militaries can draw from the fleet problems, such as the importance of allowing technical innovations to reach maturity before passing judgment and the need for openness, flexibility, and frankness in exercise reviews.

To Train the Fleet For War should become the standard work on the Navy’s fleet problems for the foreseeable future.

[1] Felker, Craig C. Testing American Sea Power: U.S. Navy Strategic Exercises, 1923-1940. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2007.

Corbin Williamson is a master’s student in history at Texas Tech University, focusing on 20th century military and naval history. His thesis will examine cooperation between the Royal Navy and the US Navy in 1941, specifically the repairs performed on British warships in US shipyards.

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