Category Archives: Book Review

Reviews of recent and upcoming foreign policy and maritime books of merit.

Toward a New Maritime Strategy


Toward a New Maritime Strategy

Toward a New Maritime Strategy: American Naval Thinking in the Post-Cold War Era. Peter D. Haynes. Naval Institute Press, 2015. 304pp. $49.95.

Review by James Holmes

Peter D. Haynes has written a singularly useful book for anyone interested in how the American sea services—shorthand for the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard—think about, make, and execute maritime strategy. Captain Haynes is a naval aviator, sports a Ph.D. from the Naval Postgraduate School, and serves as deputy director for strategy, plans, and policy at the U.S. Special Operations Command.

Now, it’s doubtful he has penned a bestseller. There just aren’t that many folks out there in the wider reading public inclined to get their navy geek on. That’s a shame. But it should be required reading for readers of these pixels, and for anyone entrusted with devising, prosecuting, or overseeing endeavors on the briny main. It will adorn my bookshelf from henceforth.

So much for the overall verdict. Let me share two big takeaways I culled out of Toward a New Maritime Strategy. First and foremost, this is a venture in self-knowledge. Take it from the ancients: that’s important. Know thyself, commanded an inscription at the entryway to the Greek temple at Delphi, where supplicants went to ask counsel from the god Apollo.

Knowing who we are as the seafaring arm of American foreign policy will alert us to habits of mind and patterns of behavior that prevail within the services. In so doing it helps us glimpse our future while alerting us to pitfalls and obstacles we’re apt to confront. Knowing ourselves is half the battle, as a Chinese sage of famous memory once advised.

Which is a roundabout path back to Haynes’s treatise. As the title advertises, the book is about strategy-making since the fall of the Soviet Union. The author, however, starts by delving into the prehistory to today’s strategic debates. He traces the maladies he discerns to the Cold War’s early days as much as to its endgame. Enamored of its tactical and operational success in the Pacific War, deprived of a peer adversary, and with the U.S. Air Force clamoring for an outsized share of the defense budget for the atomic age, the navy leadership in effect lost its vocabulary for thinking about and debating maritime strategy.

This was an unintended consequence of change in the marine surroundings. The navy commenced deployments around the Soviet periphery unbidden in the immediate post-World War II years. The proportion of sea time in a mariner’s career swelled as a result, making “sustained superior performance at sea” the benchmark of excellence—and thus of promotions, awards, and all manner of good things.

However healthy it may be for seamanship and tactical skill, sea duty affords little leisure for studying larger matters such as diplomacy and strategy. Other factors—the mania for scientific-technical disciplines, increased stovepiping between the surface, submarine, and aviation communities, and on and on—only compounded the career penalties besetting would-be strategic thinkers.

For Captain Haynes, in short, the early Cold War begat an organizational culture unfriendly to strategic thought. Culture is resilient. Oftentimes that’s a good thing. It provides intellectual ballast in tumultuous times.

But it can be a bad thing—as the greats attest. “To change anything in the Na-a-vy is like punching a featherbed,” as Franklin Roosevelt reportedly exclaimed while serving as assistant secretary of the navy during World War I. “You punch it with your right and you punch it with your left until you are finally exhausted, and then you find the damn bed just as it was before you started punching.”

Or as FDR’s secretary of war Henry Stimson joked after World War II, “the peculiar psychology of the Navy Department … frequently seemed to retire from the realm of logic into a dim religious world in which Neptune was God, Mahan his prophet, and the United States Navy the only true Church.”

In Roosevelt’s and Stimson’s spirit, Haynes suggests that navy culture worked against higher-order thought long after the war. Indeed, this failing constitutes a recurring theme as he examines strategy-making efforts spanning from the 1980s through the triservice 2007 Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower. His account of these enterprises—which gave rise to directives bearing titles like From the Sea and Sea Power 21—is worth perusing at length.

Second, Haynes attests to the hazards of placing inordinate faith in the social sciences when drawing up strategy and designing forces. Exhibit A: the 1991-1992 Naval Force Capabilities Planning Effort. This was the project that resulted in …From the Sea, the navy’s first post-Cold War statement of how it viewed the surroundings and intended to manage them. The planning effort convened a group of senior U.S. Navy and Marine officers and civilian academics.

Group members based their deliberations largely on the “Manthorpe Curve.” This graph, the brainchild of then-Deputy Director of Naval Intelligence Bill Manthorpe, represented an attempt to foretell how the strategic environment would evolve over the coming twenty years. Captain Manthorpe based it on his study of the past, looking at patterns of rise-and-fall and regional flare-ups. He forecast turbulence following the Soviet collapse, intermittent regional threats, and the rise of a potentially hostile empire around 2011.

Schools of thought coalesced around these three intervals: Cold War aftermath, midterm regional troubles, advent of a new peer competitor. Those worried about managing the transition to the post-Cold War world coveted large numbers of inexpensive constabulary-like platforms. Carrier aviators and a few fellow travelers called for pummeling rest-of-world threats selectively to keep them from mutating into global problems. Submariners beseeched the sea services to husband their technological edge, investing in top-end platforms—like attack and ballistic-missile subs—that it would take to face down another Soviet-caliber antagonist.

Such are the demands on a global sea power that feels obliged to manage the system of international trade and commerce, keep a lid on regional troublemaking, and discourage a Eurasian hegemon from challenging the international order it leads.

But isn’t strategy the art of staying in tune with the times? Why not realign strategy and forces to cope with immediate problems rather than hedge against a great-power struggle that may never come? That’s what some members of the Naval Force Capabilities Planning Effort urged. And indeed, …From the Sea in effect codified this view, proclaiming that the U.S. Navy could afford to focus on projecting power ashore because no one threatened its command of the sea.

Yet adapting to new, less trying circumstances is imprudent when it wrong-foots efforts to meet foreseeable challenges of greater consequence later on. For this observer the message that leaps out from the Manthorpe Curve is this: history granted post-Cold War America only a short respite—in historical terms—before the onset of the next great-power challenge. It was imperative to start getting ready then. It takes a long time to regenerate advanced weaponry and adept users—the lineaments of combat power—once those resources lapse. By adapting then, the naval leadership let the material and human capacity for readapting languish.

Think about it from the vantage point of 1991-1992. The generation of commanders destined to face Manthorpe’s next big thing circa 2011 was already in uniform. They were junior to mid-career officers. Having them unlearn the skills and habits needed to wrest maritime command from a serious foe was a decision of colossal moment.

Ships, aircraft, and armaments to wage the new struggle needed to be dreamt up, built, and tested to be ready when a new rival came on scene—meaning now. We’re now scrambling to reinvent capabilities—long-range anti-ship missiles, among many others—that atrophied when history ended a quarter-century ago. Others have disappeared without replacements.

Such insights are scattered throughout Toward a New Maritime Strategy. Lastly, it’s a book reviewer’s sad but sacred duty to join the nattering nabobs of negativity—that is, to find some fault with the work under review. One quick but significant critique. Maritime strategy is about more than naval strategy. It’s even about more than a navy and its corps of sea soldiers. Haynes can be taken to task for neglect on this point.

For the United States, any genuinely maritime strategy should encompass the U.S. Coast Guard, whose commandant, after all, was the third co-signer of the 2007 Maritime Strategy. Yet this sister sea service is largely invisible in Haynes’s account. The tension between this book’s title and subtitle is revealing: Toward a New Maritime Strategy, but American Naval Thinking in the Post-Cold War Era.

There’s more truth-in-advertising in the latter than the former. What was that hybrid constabulary/combat service doing during the era under study, how did its leadership contribute to the making of the Cooperative Strategy, how does the strategy shape its operations, and how does coastguardsmen’s maritime thought resemble and differ from that of fellow seafarers? What changed after 9/11, when the U.S. Coast Guard became an arm of the newly created Department of Homeland Security?

More attention to the coast guard, in short, would have enriched Haynes’s commentary while imparting a truly maritime flavor to it. But I quibble. Opinionated as it is, this book may win Peter Haynes few friends within the naval establishment. One hopes it influences people, nevertheless—reacquainting the services with their cultures, strengths, and foibles as they reenter a competitive age of sea power. Read it.

James Holmes is professor of strategy at the Naval War College and senior fellow at the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface warfare officer and combat veteran of the first Gulf War, he served as a gunnery and engineering officer in the battleship Wisconsin, engineering and damage-control instructor at the Surface Warfare Officers School Command, and military professor of strategy at the Naval War College. His most recent books (with long-time coauthor Toshi Yoshihara) are Strategy in the Second Nuclear Age and Red Star over the PacificDesignated an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010, Red Star over the Pacific has been named to the Navy Professional Reading List as Essential Reading. The views voiced here are his alone.

Readers interested in reviewing books for CIMSEC can contact the book review editor at

The Future of Warfare



Ghost Fleet. P.W. Singer & August Cole, (2015). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. New York, NY: 404 pp. $28.00.

Review by Brett J. Patron

If you’ve ever wondered what an operationalized version of Eisenhower’s “military industrial complex” might look like, noted national security analysts Peter W. Singer and August Cole have a book just for you.  A true triad of military, bureaucrats, and corporations overthrows a long-running government to form an uneasy alliance to run a rather large country. Singer and Cole throw us the first of many curves by teeing this up, not in the US, but China…or, as they now call themselves, “The Directorate.”

This first fiction effort by the duo delivers wide-ranging action at a frenetic pace.  The story begins in outer space and, in mere moments, the action plunges far below the Pacific Ocean’s surface. Throughout the  story, as venues change, the reader gasps for breath and delves back in as the action continues. This is a Tom Clancy-esque thriller with most of the pieces one would expect: people unexpectedly thrust into difficult situations; well-researched, accurate portrayals of current capabilities; imaginative exploration of new, emerging, or desired technology; as well as good old fashioned palace intrigue and political gamesmanship.

For those making the Clancy connection, you’ll find this book of the Red Storm Rising genre — a look at how a world war type scenario would likely go.  Ghost Fleet looks at how the “Pivot to Asia” could go – and it can go bad pretty fast. It also plays on many of the fears that serious analysts ponder regarding military procurements, military readiness and other economic tradeoffs.  Buoyed by the massive changes spurred by their recent revolution, the Directorate decides that it is time to achieve their “Manifest Destiny” in the Pacific. A major energy discovery gives them the opportunity to challenge US supremacy in the Pacific and even take on the US militarily, with the tacit assistance of Russia.

What ensues is a massive and coordinated sneak attack that cripples US capabilities throughout the Pacific Rim, most notably in Hawaii. The Directorate, now occupying US sovereign territory and positioned to prevent response either from space or across the vast ocean, looks to turn America into a third-rate client state. To counter this the US decides to reactivate ships (and some aircraft) mothballed by the significant  cuts that US politicians foisted upon itself. This is the rebirth of the Ghost Fleet that gives this story its name.  It also evokes a slightly different comparison: this is the Navy’s version of “Team Yankee.”  Team Yankee was a very popular “must read” in the late 1980s, especially popular with the mechanized/armor community of the Army. It is about warfare at its base level, but with existential impact. In this case, the crew of a one-of-a-kind ship, which was rejected by the Navy when cuts were made, is being brought back to life by a crew desperately trying to make it work in trying circumstances and fights the battle of its life for a noble cause.

Singer and Cole introduce a number of characters:  A navy officer whose transition to retirement is rather violently interrupted; a Marine thrust into the role of guerrilla; a Sun Tzu-quoting Chinese admiral; and a seductive assassin. The story explores the very tempestuous relationship between father and son bonded in a moment of crisis while wrestling with demons of the past. The duo’s style offers some nice bonuses. The reader gets a murder mystery. The idea of “privateers” in the 21st Century is presented.  For the geopolitical thinkers, Singer and Cole skewer a lot of the shibboleths of current alliances and ask “who will really ‘step up’ when the going gets tough?” The authors present some very interesting ideas of what could happen and what could emerge if all the geopolitical knowns were to suddenly change.  Rather than distract, these threads are woven into a complex but compelling story that is both provocative and frightening.

What this book does do well — and in a scary way — is show how pervasive a wired world could be and what would happen if a major actor were to severely upset the proverbial apple cart. Among the discoveries in the opening salvos of The Directorate’s aggression are the vulnerability of so much of the electronics used both in military equipment as well as the networks that course through the US.  Ghost Fleet explores the extent to which autonomous systems change life and warfare.  Can we trust the electronics we buy from overseas? Do we depend too much on automatic, autonomous and “linked” systems in our basic and daily lives? What if a major competitor played on those fears with ruthless precision and execution? This will confirm the worst fears of the Luddite or conspiracy theorist. Those that are on the fence about the impact of autonomous systems will likely find that this book tips them one way or the other.

Two things that one would expect to find in such styled books are not found in this one. One is probably the book’s only serious flaw. The story does not give time stamps and the reader may not realize that the scenario has advanced in time as it changes chapter. Without this context, the reader may become confused on why or how things changed so fast within the story.

The other creative difference is a positive: there is very little discussion of the machinations of the American politicians. Singer and Cole — in a choice very likely calculated to avoid the politics of the moment — do not really describe much, if anything about the moves, motives, or response of the President, or most of the national security apparatus. While the Secretary of Defense is omnipresent, no one else is — nor are there any real discussions on national politics at play. Some may be greatly disappointed by this while others may find it a welcome departure in the genre.  Although cyberspace capabilities are a significant aspect of the storyline, this is not a book about “cyber war.”

If anything, this is may be the first real exploration of Demchakian “cybered conflict” in story form. Cybered Conflict is a construct provided by  Naval War College professors Chris Demchak and Peter Dombrowski. The premise is that the nature of conflict remains the same but that cyberspace capabilities add a new dimension. They further purport that cyberspace is not a separate domain, per se, but is instead just another aspect of how humans interact and compete. Cyberspace is itself not decisive but can certainly tip the scale in an existential conflict. There are ample examples in this book on how this could occur. It is certain to ignite debate on the nature of “cyber war.”

Thriller readers will find this a welcome addition to their collections. Thinkers, advocates, policy wonks, geeks and nerds will all find something to chew on that will confirm or challenge their own biases. Scheduled for a June release, this highly recommended story is a daring look at the fusion of traditional and modern warfare, delivered at “machine speed.”

Brett Patron retired from the US Army after serving twenty-two years with Special Forces, Special Operations, Infantry, and Signal Corps units. After retirement, he’s worked as a defense analyst, supporting Navy, Army, Marine, Special Operations, Joint and Cyberspace organizations. He is now an independent consultant, focused on cyberspace capabilities integration, doctrine development, and policy/law. He makes his home in Yorktown, Virginia.

Readers interested in reviewing books for CIMSEC can e-mail the book review editor at

The Specter of Stuxnet



Kim Zetter. Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World’s First Digital WeaponCrown/Archetype, Nov 11, 2014. Hardcover. 448 pages. $25.00.

Review by Shane Halton

Hollywood has been trying like hell to make cyber sexy. We’ve already had a Die Hard movie about cyber terrorism and soon we’ll have an international cyber thriller starring Thor, certainly the tannest hacker in film history. These types of movies have a long pedigree and all use the same basic template: there’s a group of heroes running around trying to catch a hacker before he uses his hacker skills to either blow something up (Live Free or Die Hard) or steal a lot of money (Goldeneye). This is the Cyber Warfare as Action Movie model.

The story of the Stuxnet Worm, as told by Kim Zetter in her fantastic book, Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World’s First Digital Weapon, could have continued this well-trodden path. The story has explosions (!) and the release of poisonous gas (!) but largely eschews the action movie format in favor of something of a cross between a more cerebral version of CSI and a 70s conspiracy thriller. Zetter wisely channels her narrative through the perspective of private sector forensic cyber researchers at Kaspersky Labs, Symantec, and VirusBlokAda, the Belarussian cyber security company that first detected Stuxnet in the wild and attempted to dissect it. These researchers worked the Stuxnet case (and the related ‘Flame’ Worm) on and off for years, always trying to tease out the answer to its central mystery– who created this thing and for what purpose?

Once the culprits and their nefarious intentions are ‘revealed’ (Zetter’s best guess is that Stuxnet was developed by the NSA and the Israelis, both of whom unsurprisingly failed to confirm or deny ownership), Ms. Zetter succinctly explains why releasing a Worm as powerful and potentially dangerous as Stuxnet might have been the least worst option available to the West when it was confronted with the looming threat of an Iranian nuclear weapons program. The author states that Stuxnet originally started out as a reconnaissance program designed to map the contours of the secret Iranian enrichment program. Later versions of the virus were more geared towards industrial sabotage- randomly altering the speed of centrifuges, opening and closing critical valves and reporting bad data back to the control system all in an effort to degrade the Iranians’ ability to enrich uranium. Though the required repairs to the program were costly and time-consuming, Iran was able to invest the time and resources necessary to overcome the damage caused by Stuxnet.

Once the big mystery is revealed, all that is left are the ramifications. Ms. Zetter spends the final third of the book expanding the aperture of her story in ways that are as compelling as they are unsettling. She delves into the ‘grey market’ of zero day vulnerabilities (software vulnerabilities that haven’t been publicized yet), in which individuals and hacker groups discover, catalogue and sell off software vulnerabilities to the highest bidder. Some of the buyers are software companies, others are security companies and some are hacker groups and nation states. Why would nation states be interested in software vulnerabilities? Ms. Zetter convincingly argues that organizations like the NSA, Mossad, and equivalent agencies in Russia and China use these vulnerabilities both to protect themselves from attacks and create offensive cyber weapons. Ms. Zetter describes how this process has likely increased exponentially since Stuxnet was first discovered in 2010.

The author goes on to describe the dilemma facing the NSA with regard to such vulnerabilities — to patch or not to patch? If you rigorously push out patches to software vulnerabilities you can help protect everyone. But if your goal is to gain access to and subvert enemy computer system the opposite logic is at least as compelling – patch nothing and exploit everything. Ms. Zetter quotes an analyst who describes this as akin to withholding a vaccine from everyone in order to ensure your enemy is infected with a disease. This discussion is extremely timely as well. During his May 2015 filibuster of the renewal of the Patriot Act, Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) cited documents leaked by the NSA contractor Edward Snowden discussing this dilemma and other instances where the NSA has been accused of deliberately watering down encryption standards in order to ensure it maintained its ability to access every computer system in the world.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of the story is the uncertain fate of Stuxnet itself. It is important to think of Stuxnet as being composed of two parts: the missile and the warhead. Zetter says Stuxnet’s designers spent a lot of time developing a ‘missile’ that could exploit vulnerabilities and avoid detection long enough to get its ‘warhead’ to the part of the system it’s targeting. When Stuxnet was released into the world it accidentally ended up on tens of thousands of computers across the globe. When the private sector researchers discovered and dissected it they published their findings (including the Stuxnet source code) online. Remember, every copy of Stuxnet contains the plans to build another Stuxnet, with the option to modify the missile or warhead portions as required. This means that since 2010 the plans to build your own copy of the most dangerous cyber weapon in history have been available for free online. One cyber security expert interviewed in the book likens the release of Stuxnet to following up the bombing of Hiroshima with an air drop of leaflets describing how to build an atomic bomb.

This book does two important things well. First, it tells the origin story of a dangerous new class of weapon in a way that is accessible to the educated lay reader. PW Singer, in his book on cyber security, describes ‘the glaze’ which is ‘the unmistakable look of profound confusion and disinterest that takes hold whenever conversation turns to workings of a computer.’ By keeping the focus on the human drama of the researchers unpacking the mystery of Stuxnet, Ms. Zetter never lets readers fall victim to the glaze. Second, the book serves as an excellent practical guide to the language and concepts of the cyber world; language and concepts that will undoubtedly play an ever larger role in our national dialogue as time goes by. 

Lieutenant Junior Grade Shane Halton is a naval intelligence officer currently stationed at the Joint IED Defeat Organization. He served as an enlisted intelligence specialist before commissioning through the STA-21 program. He has written about global air defense modernization trends and the effects of big data on intelligence analysis for Proceedings magazine. The views above are the author’s and do not represent those of the US Navy or the US Department of Defense.

The God of Submarines


Rear Admiral Dave Oliver, USN (Ret.),  Against the Tide: Rickover’s Leadership Principles and the Rise of the Nuclear Navy. Naval Institute Press. 178pp. $27.95.

Admiral Hyman George Rickover, USN, (1900 – 1986), has been gone now for almost thirty-years.  Yet his legacy remains — and not only in the boats he built, or the submarine culture he shaped, or even the incessant attention to detail and excellence — but also the theatrical.  Thus, most stories of the great man are told in either a tone of reverence or disbelief, but regardless, they tend to be entertaining.

I’ll never forget the first story that I had heard about the old man. When I was a young ensign, somehow his name came up during a conversation:

Officer: Hey, have you ever heard of Admiral Rickover and what he did when he interviewed officers for command?

Me: No, I haven’t heard about him.  What did he do?

Officer: Well, Rickover would interview every prospective commanding officer of a nuclear submarine. So, this one time, an officer was in his office and Rickover said to him, “Do something to make me mad.” The guy looks at Rickover, and then he knocks everything off Rickover’s desk, including a valuable model of a submarine.  Rickover was furious — but apparently it worked, the officer got the job and ended up commanding a nuclear submarine.  Crazy, huh?

Me: (Stunned silence).

A few years later, more stories would come up — and they always had something to do with his infamous interviews: Rickover stuffed officers in the broom closet next to his office if they gave a poor response to a question; Rickover sawed a few inches off the legs of the chair in front of his desk to confuse an officer interviewing for the program; and Rickover had no qualms about calling you an idiot.  The best, and really the only complete transcript of a Rickover interview comes from the late-Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, who, as a commander, interviewed with Rickover in the late 1950s for command of a submarine.  While Zumwalt passed the interview (although with a few stops in the broom closet along the way) he ended up going a different direction.  He became the first commanding officer of a  guided-missile frigate, and  years later,  the youngest chief of naval operations in U.S. naval history. His memoir, On Watch, is worth the price of admission for the interview alone.

Rear Admiral Dave Oliver, USN(ret.), however, has less to say about his interview with Rickover in his new book, Against The Tide.  Rather, Oliver has written an entertaining, slim volume that is a series of anecdotes and stories tied to leadership and management principles gleaned from years of observing and studying “the father of the nuclear navy.”

On Leadership: “I have the charisma of a chipmunk, so what difference does that make?”

– Admiral Hyman Rickover

Early in the book, Oliver tells us one of the more interesting stories about Rickover and his ability to expect the unexpected.  It is worth telling in full.

It was the late 1960s the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were in the middle of the Cold War. Oliver was deployed on his first nuclear-powered submarine, USS George Washington Carver (SSBN-656).  While returning from a patrol, somewhere in the Barents Sea, they received an encoded message from the boat that was enroute to relieve them.  The boat set to relieve them experienced a “technical problem.”  Oliver can’t say what kind of technical problem because, well, it “remains classified to this day.”  Thus, he simply refers to it as a “giraffe.”

The “giraffe” that this boomer had experienced was unheard of: “It was serious and was the first time this particular problem had ever arisen in the fledgling nuclear-power industry.” A message was immediately sent to Navy Nuclear Reactors.  Rickover would find out about the problem — it was only a matter of time.  Meanwhile, Oliver and the officers of the Carver sat down and tried to figure out a solution to the problem themselves, treating it as a real-world training evolution.  In a few hours they came up with a solution.  Oliver says that Carver’s solution took up twelve single spaced type-written pages.  They thought that they had figured it out and then hit the rack.  Hours later, Navy Reactors sent a message to “their sister ship” with instructions on how to proceed.  The length of the message?  Four words. 

And in those four words, Oliver says, they recognized its wisdom and — as a group — missed a safety consideration that just might have killed the entire crew.  Years later, Oliver ran into Rickover’s deputy for submarines, Bill Wegner.  Oliver says he thanked Wegner for that great four word response from what he assumed, was a group of Navy Reactor engineers.

As it turned out, the engineers came up with the same response as the officers on the Carver — something close to a twelve page type-written response to address the problem of the “giraffe.”  And this is where it gets interesting.  Wegner relayed to Oliver that when the event occurred, he went to Rickover’s apartment in Washington D.C. with a response in hand for the admiral’s approval to send to the boat. As Wegner tells Oliver:

“The admiral stood in the hall reading without comment and then invited me inside.  He went over to the rolltop desk that was just off the living room, reached into one of the pukas, and took out a half-inch thick package of yellowed envelopes encased by a rubber band.  He fanned through the pile, slipped one out from the pack and handed it to me. ‘Tell them this,“he said.”

“On the outside of the envelope, in Rickover’s handwriting was written ‘Giraffe’ … also inside, in Rickover’s distinctive scribble, was a three-by-five card with the four words we sent you.”

This pack of “emergency contingency plans” were there, sitting in Rickover’s desk, for the day the unexpected might happen.  Why they weren’t already onboard boats in the fleet, well, Wegner went on to tell Oliver that “…Rickover was not interested in anyone else in the Navy knowing how far he was willing to stretch engineering limits in an emergency situation.  Rickover believed in operating conservatively and safely.  In those envelopes he was going to give up a great deal of his safety cushion to provide an additional operating margin…” [Italics mine].

But not interested in letting anyone else know?  A story like this, then, can be seen in at least two ways: Rickover the genius; a man prepared for all seasons.  Or its opposite: Rickover was a micromanager that could have empowered his crews with information that in a different and deadlier circumstance could save their lives.  What does Oliver say at the end of this story?  He asks two of his own questions for the reader to ponder: “Do directors of companies sometimes accept risks they cannot evaluate until the bell tolls? And second, how do leaders avoid fooling themselves about the true condition of their own start-ups?”  Oliver ends every chapter with these kind of questions for self-reflection or discussion.  However, it would be nice to also hear Oliver’s take on the same questions he asks.

“There were a few times, yeah, that I hated him — because he demanded more from me than I thought I could deliver.”

– President Jimmy Carter

Leadership books that dip into the anecdotal stories of great men and women’s lives are often hagiographic. Oliver, as he says, respected Rickover second only to his father.  This admiration does not necessarily take anything away from the value of the work or the merit of Rickover’s principles.

But for every leadership book that sits on the shelf it is important to remember that one can learn just as much about leadership from a leader’s failures and shortcomings.  Rickover was a paradox on this count.  Oliver reminds us that one of Rickover’s mantras was  “Do the right thing.” Yet in 1986 Rickover was censured by the secretary of the navy for accepting over $60,000 in gifts from General Dynamics (twelve shower curtains?).  Rickover did not deny it, and he would later say that his “conscience was clear,” the gifts, he said, never influenced his decisions when it came to the submarine force.

Rickover was a contentious man, a brilliant man, and he had magical bureaucratic skills and vision: Imagine Peter Drucker and Steve Jobs all rolled up into one slight, white haired, five foot wiry frame.  And he could write.  Name a flag officer today that can wrap up Robert Browning, Walter Lippmann, I-Ching, Voltaire, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Aristotle into a single cogent essay.

Dave Oliver’s book is a nice volume to have on the shelf.  But it should not be read alone.  Rickover, his cult of personality, and his  legacy in the U.S. Navy needs a  larger context.  Polmar and Allen’s exceptional biography should sit right next to Oliver’s book for anyone who is considering learning more about this, the “father of the nuclear navy.”


Lieutenant Commander Christopher Nelson, USN, is a naval intelligence officer and recent graduate of the U.S.  Naval War College and the Navy’s operational planning school, the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School in Newport, RI.  LCDR Nelson is also CIMSEC’s book review editor and is looking for readers interested in reviewing books for CIMSEC.  You can contact him at  The views above are the author’s and do not represent those of the US Navy or the US Department of Defense.