Book Review: To Train the Fleet for War: The U.S. Navy Fleet Problems, 1923-1940


by Albert A. Nofi

Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 2010. Pp. xxiii, 418. Illus., maps, tables, appends., notes, biblio., index. $58 paper. ISBN: 978-1-884733-69-7

During the period between the World Wars, the US Navy enjoyed 23 years of almost unbroken peace.  Crash disarmament after the "War to End All Wars" was followed by a series of naval arms limitation treaties (1922, 1930, 1936), and severely restricted budgets during the Great Depression (1929-37).  With few demanding overseas deployments, what the Navy mostly did was train.  Slow promotion cycles and low personnel turnover allowed the Fleet to train to a very high standard of expertise in seafaring and sea-fighting, with a few notable gaps, like convoy operations and anti-submarine warfare.

The Fleet Problems were the centerpiece of the Navy's annual training cycle.  In To Train the Fleet for War, historian Albert Nofi provides a masterful study of how the Fleet Problems actually worked. Because so many of the senior officers who shaped this period had passed away or retired by the outbreak of WWII, they are often obscure, or forgotten, even to history buffs and researchers (a useful Appendix provides a capsule biography of virtually every officer mentioned in the text).  With unique access to long-neglected archives at the Naval War College, Nofi was able to explore every aspect of this poorly understood era of American naval history.

An introductory section explains the composition, manpower, organization and procedures of the interwar Fleet. The main narrative section of the book documents each of the 21 Fleet Problems, usually with a map of the exercise area, description of the "scenario," the forces involved, the sequence of events and the all-important after-action critiques.  The Fleet Problems made extensive use of "constructive forces," whereby one ship represented several notional vessels or a single plane might stand in for a squadron.  There was also "constructive geography," in which vast exercise areas in the Caribbean or around the Hawaiian Islands represented parts of the Western Pacific, suitably rotated and re-mapped.

Planners gave great attention to the "Rules of the Game," and operators were often creative in bending or sometimes breaking the rules to gain a tactical advantage.  Although the mathematics of battleship gunnery were well understood, there was much debate over the potential effectiveness of aircraft and submarines, with proponents arguing fiercely for higher hit probabilities and greater damage percentages.

Initially the only credible threat was Britain's Royal Navy, a traditional ally, but potentially an adversary in trade disputes.  Not surprisingly, from very early on, the Navy assumed that the enemy in any future war would be Japan.  As war clouds gathered over Europe in the late 30's, the Axis threat to Latin America and the Caribbean was taken more seriously.  All of these threats were examined and re-examined in the Fleet Problems, as the Navy evolved from a service that viewed the future as a series of Jutland-like battleship clashes to one that was quickly able to transition into the naval force that held the line and turned the tide in 1942.

The Conclusions section of the book is likely to be of greatest interest to today's naval officers, senior officials and analysts. It discusses the enduring lessons of the Fleet Problems and their relevance for the future of the Navy.

Some of these hard-won lessons include:


  • Innovations require time to mature
  • Don't confuse exercises with reality
  • Foster openness, flexibility, and frankness (one today's Navy really needs to rediscover!)
  • Experimentation, readiness, and operations do not mix well
  • Exercise the commanders (not just their subordinates)
  • Do the critique now (not months later, when most participants have moved on to new jobs).
 As a summary, it would be hard to improve on the final paragraphs of this superb book:

Working in a financially constrained environment, with a mix of old systems, upgraded systems and new systems, the Navy managed to solve virtually all of the problems inherent in conducting a major maritime war on a global scale, while exploring and developing the basic principles of such fundamental tools of naval warfare as carrier task force operations, amphibious landings, underway refueling, and more, while conducting experiments with new technologies in communications, radar, camouflage and so forth, thereby creating the fleet that not only won the Second World War, but contributed significantly to victory in the Cold War and continues to dominate the world?s oceans and to project power deep inland.

The fleet problems were the way the US Navy learned to fight World War II, and are an outstanding example of how a military service can educate itself.


To Train the Fleet For War has been given the 2011 John Lyman Book Award in Navy History by the North American Society of Oceanic History ( and awarded Honorable Mention by the New York Council of the The Navy League of the United State for the Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt Prize in Naval History for 2011 (

To Train the Fleet For War may be ordered from The Naval War College Press

Reviewer: Mike Markowitz   

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