The voyage provided the U.S. Navy with operational insights that would prove useful during the next 100 years, especially in terms of exposing U.S. Navy planners to the problem of truly global logistics. A huge battleship squadron steaming around the planet in peacetime is impressive, however, wartime combat requires sustaining the fleet with fuel and ammunition.
The Navy hired private colliers from around the world to support the voyage. "In effect," Nofi said, "the USN was using contractors for global support. So using contractors like KBR isn't a new idea." However, Nofi pointed out, the Navy ultimately decided it was a bad idea, or at least an inadequate answer. "It took the Navy until the 1930s to convince Congress to purchase sufficient support ships -- fleet auxiliaries so the Navy could support its warships" in transoceanic combat operations.
The Great White Fleet's voyage took place in peacetime, when contractors (the privately owned colliers) were eager and available. "Upon analyzing extended naval movements (such as the Great White Fleet)," Nofi said, "the question the Navy faced was would these privately owned support ships be available in wartime? Moreover, would their crews be willing to sail with battle fleets in hostile waters?" The Navy concluded if it had to fight a global war, it needed its own auxiliaries manned by Navy personnel who knew that fighting in wars was their job.
The same question confronts contemporary war planners. In the 1990s, the Pentagon decided to cut military support structure and hire private contractors.
The Great White Fleet returned to Norfolk on Feb. 22, 1909, after a journey of 43,000 miles. Go to www.history.navy.mil/library/online and click on "gwf cruise" for a detailed article on the voyage, as well as an excellent bibliography.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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