During the Anglo-French wars of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Royal Navy maintained a decisive edge over France and its allies. That advantage did not arise from the superiority of the Royal Navy’s vessels but instead from an intangible quality that was apparent from the Battle of the Nile to Trafalgar and beyond. It was “the Nelson Touch,” a culture of aggressive naval leadership inspired by Vice Admiral, First Viscount, Horatio Nelson. This culture permeated all levels of command, ensuring the Royal Navy’s mastery at sea.
The Nelson Touch is exemplified by his standing order: “But in case signals can neither be seen nor perfectly understood, no captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy.” Nelson, taking his cue from Shakespeare, referred to his fellow mariners as his “band of brothers.” And that band of brothers responded to his signal at Trafalgar – “England expects that every man will do his duty” – even as Nelson lay dying on the deck of his flagship.
During World War II, the U.S. Navy exhibited its own version of the Nelson Touch. Aggressive American admirals such as Chester Nimitz, Raymond Spruance, and William “Bull” Halsey were willing to place their vessels “in harm’s way” in order to achieve a decisive fleet action against the Japanese. After a period of decline during the 1970s, Navy Secretary John Lehman successfully reinvigorated an aggressive naval leadership that established and maintained U.S. maritime dominance during the 1980s.
Today U.S. naval power wanes as that of our adversaries, especially China, waxes. In part, this is the result of the Obama administration’s decision to “lead from behind.” The U.S. Navy is too small to deal with all the challenges it must confront. But there are problems internal to the U.S. Navy as well.