Category Archives: History

Naval and maritime history section.

History of the Navy Laboratory System

This piece was originally published by the International Journal of Naval History, and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Robert V. Gates, Ph.D.

Abstract: The role of the federal government in science and technology has evolved since the founding of this nation. Likewise, the role of the Navy and, specifically, the organizational structure of the Navy in science has evolved. This paper presents a brief history of this evolution and, in particular, on the development of the Navy laboratory system.

The laboratory system can trace its origins back to the establishment of the Naval Torpedo Station in Newport, Rhode Island in 1869.  Certain aspects of the laboratory system can be related back to the earlier engineering activities at the Washington (D.C.) Navy Yard and even to the naval shipyards.  Throughout this early history, the Navy’s Research, Development, Test and Evaluation (RDT&E) establishments were aligned organizationally with three bureaus: Bureau of Ordnance (BuOrd), Bureau of Ships (BuShips), and Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer).  The bureaus, which reported to the Secretary of the Navy’s office through a uniformed bureau chief, represented the material procurement side of the Navy’s bilinear structure.  The operational forces – the other side of the organization – reported to the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO).

U.S. Naval Proving Ground, Indian Head, MD.

U.S. Naval Proving Ground, Indian Head, MD.

The federal government, and the military departments in particular, have a somewhat limited history in science and technology. 1  The emphasis in the Navy has been on weapons development based on testing and engineering or, put another way, on the production or acquisition of the required weapons or ships.  Interest in basic and applied science developed, for the most part, during World War II.  Hence, Navy RDT&E establishments that predate World War II were often of one type and those that developed during the war years were of another.  For example, the BuOrd activities at Dahlgren and Indian Head and the BuShips activity at Carderock all have their origins at the Washington Navy Yard and were primarily testing or production facilities.

In contrast, other activities put a greater emphasis on research, such as the Naval Ordnance Laboratory at White Oak, which had its primary growth during World War II, and the Naval Ordnance Test Station at China Lake, which developed from a California Polytechnic Institute laboratory during the war years.  In the end, the bureau laboratories concentrated on the support of system development and acquisition and did very little basic research.  Most of the research was performed by the Naval Research Laboratory under the control (after World War II) of the Office of Naval Research.  Further, BuOrd establishments, since they worked in areas where there was little or no commercial market, differed from those in BuAer and BuShips.  This was manifest in the relationships between the laboratories and the bureaus (and in the assignments the laboratories received) and between the laboratories and non-governmental institutions.

The organization of the military and the nature of government science and technology and research and development came under review after World War II.  By the late 1950s and early 1960s, there was a great deal of interest developing around the Navy’s RDT&E organizations.  Much of this interest can be characterized, in retrospect, as concern with the strategic management of the laboratory system.  To one degree or another, this concern has persisted for the last four decades.  Over the years there have been a variety of forces – that changed over time – that shaped the problem of strategic management of the Navy laboratory system.  The solution, however, has taken the same general form – reorganization.

Developments of the Bureaus

At its founding the Navy was very small and equipped mostly for coastal operations.  During the Jefferson administration (in 1806), for example, there were fewer than 250 officers and approximately 900 seamen in the Navy (Cunningham 1978).  The Navy Department was the smallest in Washington, D.C. with a staff that consisted only of the Secretary and Accountant of the Navy and 12 clerks (Cunningham 1978).  The military officers controlled activities at sea and civilians administered the shore establishment. The Navy Department administered six shipyards.  The responsibility for superintending these yards was combined with that of the Naval Agent in all of these yards except Boston.  The Naval Agents were responsible for “the building, fitting, and supplying of a naval force” (Cunningham 1978).  The situation changed after the War of 1812.

A review of the Navy’s performance during the war identified a need for more professional staff and for an organizational change.  Consequently, the Board of Naval Commissioners was established in 1815 and assigned duties relating “to the building, repairing, and equipping of ships and superintending of Navy Yards” (Franke 1959).  This change was justified by the increase in the size and scope of the business not by an increase in its complexity.  In fact, there was very little “invention” evident in the Navy since most shipbuilding was still done by craftsmen and most guns were of European origin or design.  This organizational change marked the first sign of the bilinear organization that characterized the Navy well into the 20th century.

Awful explosion of the "peace-maker" on board the U.S. Steam Frigate Princeton on Wednesday, 1844-02-28. New York: Published by N. Currier. Currier & Ives. A size. Lithograph print, hand-colored. Currier & Ives (LOC PHOTO)
Awful explosion of the “peace-maker” on board the U.S. Steam Frigate Princeton on Wednesday, 1844-02-28. New York: Published by N. Currier. Currier & Ives. A size. Lithograph print, hand-colored. Currier & Ives (LOC PHOTO)

The Commissioner organization proved to be inadequate due to a lack of technical skills to address the more complex and expanding technical problems that were developing.  It was replaced by the Bureau system.  Five bureaus were established in 1842: Yards and Docks; Construction, Equipment, and Repair; Provisions and Clothing; Ordnance and Hydrography; and Medicine and Surgery (Furer 1959).  The number and nature of the bureaus changed on several occasions (e.g., after the Civil War and several times between 1900 and 1959) but the system lasted until 1966.

This same period saw the development of the test and engineering stations and activities that were the forerunners of the current Navy laboratory system.  Among the earliest of these was the Experimental Test Battery established by Lt. John A. Dahlgren at the Washington Navy Yard in 1847.  Dahlgren was also named Head of Ordnance Matters at the Navy Yard.  These particular developments were motivated by the ordnance weaknesses revealed in the War with Mexico and, especially, by a gun explosion on the U.S.S. Princeton that killed the Secretary of the Navy and the Secretary of State as they attended a shipboard demonstration (Peck 1949).

In the remaining years of the century, other engineering and test stations were established and were usually associated with one of the bureaus.  This included, for example, the Naval Torpedo Station in Newport, Rhode Island (1869), the Naval Gun Factory (1886) and the Experimental Model Basin (1898) at the Washington Navy Yard, and the Naval Powder Factory at Indian Head, Maryland (1890).  The trend continued through World War II.  By the time of the establishment of the Director of Navy Laboratories in 1966, there were 15 Navy laboratories associated with the bureaus.

Changing the Organization

1.First firing at Lower Station of the NPG Dahlgren, VA on  16 October 1918 (USMC 7”/45 caliber tractor mounted gun). (U.S. Navy photo)
1.First firing at Lower Station of the NPG Dahlgren, VA on  16 October 1918 (USMC 7”/45 caliber tractor mounted gun). (U.S. Navy photo)

Throughout this period (1842-1966), the Navy was characterized by a bilinear organization – the “users” of the weapons and systems and the “developers and acquirers” of these systems.  The users were the operating forces that after 1915 reported to the Secretary of the Navy through the Chief of Naval Operations.  The developers and acquirers were the bureaus whose Chief, a flag officer, reported to the Secretary.  The science and technology system in the Navy can also be characterized as bilinear in nature.  In this case, the two components are foundational (or basic) research and systems development (including applied research).  In the post-World War II Navy, basic research was the responsibility of the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and the Naval Research Laboratory.  Systems development with the associated applied research was performed by the bureau laboratories.  One point of contention was the relationship between the two components.  ONR (in a position represented by Vannevar Bush) viewed the overall process as linear – development was preceded by applied research and basic research.  This implied that management of the entire process (preferably by ONR) was required.  The bureaus, being more interested in developing and improving systems, were less concerned with basic research than with technology that was available to be applied to the systems under their cognizance.

This led to issues of funding and control of the research agenda.  One result was the establishment of an organization to plan and budget for research in the Department of Defense – the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Research and Engineering) in 1957 and the Director of Defense Research and Engineering (DDR&E) in 1958.  The services followed suit.  In the same year, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Research and Development) replaced the Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Air) for planning research in the Navy.

These changes set the stage for a series of studies that changed the face of the Navy laboratory system.  The studies addressed elements of the strategic management of Navy research (although that term does not appear to have been used):  control, budget, staffing, and facilities.  Undersecretary of the Navy William Franke released a study of Navy organization (Department of the Navy 1959) that recommended that the bilinear structure of the Navy be retained.  His committee observed that there was confusion concerning the responsibility for the development of certain systems, such as missiles.   They proposed to solve this by combining the Bureau of Ordnance and Bureau of Aeronautics to form the Bureau of Naval Weapons.  They anticipated that this would also eliminate the need for additional independent program offices such as the one set up to develop Polaris.

The Task 97, or Fubini report, (Department of Defense 1961) noted several problems with DOD laboratories: low morale, non-competitive salaries, substandard physical plants, and difficulties with executive management due to dual leadership (civilian and military) and lack of technical qualifications.  The report recommended that the laboratories be placed under the control of the service Assistant Secretaries for Research and Development and that there be a single laboratory director and changes to improve the Military Construction (MILCON) process (under the service Assistant Secretaries).  They also proposed an increase in salaries for laboratory directors and government scientists and engineers.

President John F. Kennedy directed the Bureau of the Budget to review government contracting for research and development (Bureau of the Budget 1962).  The resulting Bell Report noted that some 80 percent of federally funded R&D was done through non-Federal institutions and that it was in the national interest to continue to rely heavily on these institutions.  Nevertheless, there were government roles in R&D that could not be abdicated and there were concerns that needed to be addressed – maintaining the technical competence required to manage non-government R&D and performing R&D directly.  The study recommended that scientist’s salaries be increased as well as opportunities for more interesting work assignments and professional development. It was also proposed that laboratory directors be given more direct responsibility for personnel and facility issues.  This was echoed by the Furnas Report (Office of Director, Defense Research and Engineering 1962).  This Defense Science Board (DSB) report additionally recommended programs that allow government scientists to spend a sabbatical period in industry or university laboratories (and vice versa) while it cautioned against strengthening government laboratories at the expense of not for profit and industry laboratories.

Rear Admiral Rawson Bennett wrote a report (Department of the Navy 1962) that reviewed the management of Navy R&D.  He noted a number of problems: fragmentation of executive responsibility on the developer/acquirer side of the bilinear organization, lack of a long range plan for R&D, difficulty of transitioning from ideas to development, and a shortage of “truly expert personnel, both military and civilian.”  He also observed that it is difficult to maintain an adequate technological base through basic R&D given the greater attraction of development.  He made recommendations concerning organization both outside and within the bureaus: formation of a “supra-bureau” level executive, Chief of Naval Logistics; consolidation of all R&D guidance under the Deputy CNO for Development; and realignment of some bureau responsibilities.  He also offered some proposals for addressing problems that he perceived with personnel, facilities, and funding.

In 1963, the Secretary of the Navy established the Naval Material Support Establishment (NMSE) and assigned overall responsibility for coordination of the material bureaus to the Chief of Naval Material (CNM).  This organization continued the bilinear structure since the CNM reported to the Secretary independently of the CNO (Booz, Allen, and Hamilton 1976).

The Director of Navy Laboratories (DNL)

Chalmers Sherwin, Deputy Director Defense Research & Engineering, made proposals for changing the management and operation of in-house DOD and Navy laboratories (Sherwin 1964a,b).  In the DOD study he proposed that a Weapons System Development Organization (WSDO) be formed to manage most applied research and development programs and test and evaluation centers.  He also proposed a Department Laboratory Organization (DLO), under civilian leadership, to manage all basic research and to perform in-house research and exploratory and advanced development.  The head of each DLO (called the Director of Navy Laboratories in the Department of the Navy) was to report to the service Assistant Secretary for Research and Development.  His proposal would implement many of the recommendations of the Bell Report.

Chalmers Sherwin
Chalmers Sherwin

The Sherwin proposal for the Navy applied the fundamentals of his DOD plan.  He proposed the establishment of the DNL, reporting to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Research and Development), and nine principal Navy R&D laboratories subordinate to him.  The Navy concurred with many of Sherwin’s observations but disagreed with his organizational proposal.  The Navy responded with studies by RADM J.K. Leydon (1964) and the Assistant Secretary of the Navy (R&D), Robert Morse (1965).  Both studies argued for the traditional bilinear organization and for keeping R&D closely linked to production, procurement, and maintenance (i.e., no organizational barrier between research and system development).  Both advocated a review of policies and processes concerned with personnel, military construction, and financial management.  Morse proposed to keep the principal laboratories linked to the bureaus and to establish a DNL coequal to the Chief of Naval Research (CNR) and Chief of Naval Development (CND).  The DNL, reporting to the Assistant Secretary, would be responsible for long-range planning for personnel and facilities.  He also proposed to change the budget structure and programming procedures to provide block funding to the laboratories.

The Assistant Secretary of the Navy chartered a review of all in-house research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E) activities by Dr. William P. Raney.  (Department of the Navy 1965) Raney’s task force identified nine major Navy capabilities and proposed that an RDT&E activity be established for each.  These RDT&E activities were to be formed through an examination of existing activities leading to decisions about consolidation, relocation, or elimination of some of them.  Raney’s report makes a number of such specific recommendations.

These studies culminated in two actions.  First, in August 1965 it was decided that the four material bureaus would be abolished within a year and replaced by Systems Commands.  In 1966, it was further decided to replace the Naval Material Support Establishment with the Naval Material Command (NAVMAT) and to assign the CNM to report to the CNO (Carlisle 1993b).  This marked the end of the bilinear structure in Navy R&D.  The major Navy laboratories were to report to the CNM rather than to the systems commands that succeeded the bureaus.

Second, in December of 1965 Secretary of the Navy Instruction 5430.77 established the Director of Navy Laboratories.  The DNL was to report to the Assistant Secretary and was to also act as the Director of Laboratory Programs in the Office of Naval Material.  He was assigned responsibility for the in-house Independent Research (IR), Independent Exploratory Development (IED) programs, the in-house exploratory development technology programs, and the associated funding.  He was also given authority to control the RDT&E MILCON program and the distribution of civilian personnel, to establish laboratory requirements and policies, and to direct long range planning for RDT&E resources.  It is interesting to note that the first person asked to be the DNL, Dr. Gregory Hartmann (Technical Director of the Naval Ordnance Laboratory), turned it down.  He described the DNL/DLP position as “awkward and perhaps untenable” and was convinced that the DNL had little real responsibility and authority over the laboratories (Smaldone 1977).  (Note that the budget controlled by the DNL was typically 3 to 5 percent of a laboratory’s budget.  The balance came from the systems commands.)

In 1966, the Director of Defense Research and Engineering (DDR&E), John Foster, asked Dr. Leonard Sheingold to lead a Defense Science Board study of in-house laboratories.  The DSB proposed that the laboratories be reorganized into weapons centers.  Soon after the DDR&E directed that the Navy initiate planning to establish weapons systems development centers, the CNM approved a plan for their establishment.  Implementation of the plan in July 1967 started a process of reorganization that moved the Navy from 15 principal laboratories to 6 weapons centers over a period of some 7 years.

Changing the Processes

There were other important changes in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  As late as 1967, the laboratory financial systems were as disparate as their management histories.  The Department of Defense initiated Resource Management Systems (RMS) in the late 1960s.  The Navy converted all of the CNM laboratories to Naval Industrial Funding (NIF) in 1969.  NIF had been introduced in the Naval Research Lab and Naval Ordnance Lab as early as 1953 (and earlier in the shipyards).  While this process aided financial management in the laboratories, they never realized its full benefits due to limits on the availability of funding, personnel ceilings, and procedural rules.  (Booz, Allen, and Hamilton 1976)

A second major change was the implementation of Project REFLEX (Resources Flexibility).  In 1967, in response to a Civil Service Commission study of in-house laboratories, Project REFLEX was initiated to test the feasibility of removing controls on staffing levels at the laboratories in favor of fiscal controls.  The 3-year experiment in the CNM laboratories ran from 1970 to 1973.  Despite favorable reviews by the GAO and the DNL, it was allowed to expire.

The laboratories – both Defense and Navy – continued to be studied throughout the 1970s.  The Task Group on Defense In-House Laboratories and the second DNL, Dr. Joel Lawson, identified a number of laboratory problems that needed to be addressed.  They included the lack of clarity in roles and systems for which each lab has responsibility, conflict between the sponsors of established programs and the purveyors of new ideas – the laboratories, insufficient discretionary funds under the direct control of the laboratory directors, and the lack of full utilization of laboratory expertise and resources (Office of Director, Defense Research and Engineering 1971; DNL 1971, a,b).

The Office of the Director, Defense Research and Engineering and the Secretary of the Navy sponsored studies of laboratory missions and operations.  The Hollingsworth study recommended a recasting of the laboratory mission statements and a requirement that sponsors assign work and funding to the laboratories in strict accordance with their missions.  This was intended to reduce the laboratory competition for funds that NIF motivates (as well as the resulting mission overlap) (Hollingsworth 1974).  The Navy-Marine Corps Acquisition Review Committee (NMARC) suggested that the Navy needed to reaffirm the bilinear structure of Navy R&D (Department of the Navy 1975).  They proposed to do this by assigning the CNM more responsibility for the management of development funding under the supervision of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy (R&D).

Most of the studies in the 16 years from 1960 to 1976 that addressed the in-house Navy laboratories supported a policy of coordination of research under the Secretary of the Navy, added levels of review and oversight to the R&D process, and added more complex financial accounting systems.  The most recent studies (e.g., Hollingsworth and NMARC) raised the concern that the changes had created as many problems as they had remedied.  In addition, there was a growing concern about the technology base and the ability of the Navy to integrate the efforts of the systems commands to develop ships and airplanes.  During the Carter and Reagan presidencies the emphasis shifted to a concern with the bureaucratic (and, hence, inefficient) processes of government and privatization.  As part of this, it was appropriate to also consider the specification of required in-house facilities and capabilities (Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering 1980).

Decline of the DNL

By 1985 there was increasing Congressional and press criticism of Navy procurement practices.  There was also a view that there was duplication and excessive management layers in the Defense and Navy R&D system.  When the CNM, Admiral Steven White, resigned in March 1985, Secretary of the Navy John Lehman took the opportunity to disestablish the Naval Material Command and, thereby, reduce a level of management in the procurement system.  The Naval Electronic Systems Command was changed to the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command at the same time.  The DNL and Navy laboratories were assigned to the Office of Naval Research.  The Chief of Naval Research reported to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Research, Engineering, and Systems).  The systems commands would report directly to the Office of the CNO.  These moves were intended to reduce the number of management levels, streamline communications, and improve the development of systems.   They were also supposed to preserve the independence of the laboratories.  It was felt that the laboratories might cease to exist and would get caught up in solving short-term problems if they reported directly to the systems commands (Carlisle 1993b).

This organizational change only lasted 10 months.  In February 1986, the DNL and the laboratories were placed under the managerial control of the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command.  There was concern expressed by the other systems commands at the prospect of “their” laboratories being placed under the management control of another systems command.  There was a feeling in some circles that the purpose of the reorganization was to reduce the involvement of the laboratories in development activities.  As a result of the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 and Defense Department reorganization studies, a major reorganization of Defense R&D was undertaken.  Two important changes were the increased role of the operating forces in setting requirements and the establishment of the Program Executive Officer (PEO) structure.  The PEOs were to be responsible for system acquisition and reported to the newly constituted Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Research, Development, and Acquisition) (ASN (RDA)).  The intent was to move control of major acquisition programs from the systems commands to the ASN (RDA).  The laboratories maintained their independence from the systems commands although one thing did not change – most laboratory funding came from activities other than the one that exercised management control.

At about the same time, Coopers and Lybrand (1986) undertook a major study of Navy Industrial Funding.  They concluded that the individual laboratories were well managed but found that the ONR laboratories only controlled about 25 percent of the Navy’s RDT&E appropriation.  Further, the laboratories expended just 7 percent of their funding on technology base (about one-half of that out-of-house) and seemed to be evolving into contracting centers.  The Defense Science Board (1987,1988) and the Office of Technology Assessment (1989) continued to study how effective DOD was in managing and maintaining the defense technology base.  They all raised some concerns and made several recommendations including moving towards consolidation of laboratories under DOD aegis (OTA, 1989) and creating new executive positions in DOD and the services to provide oversight and guidance for science and technology programs.

The Navy Base Structure submitted its report to the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission in 1990.  Its recommendations formed the basis for the commission’s approach to base closure, as required by Public Law 101-510.  The recommendations outlined a significant realignment of the Navy laboratory system – 4 megacenters were to be established and, in the process, 10 activities were recommended for closure and consolidation into other activities.  Additionally, 16 others were marked for realignment (Department of the Navy 1991).

A Federal Advisory Commission (1991) also favored the warfare center concept and recommended that it be implemented in January 1992.  This commission was concerned about the possible loss of laboratory identity and the disruption of the workforce.  Consequently, it also recommended that the warfare centers be part of the DOD Laboratory Demonstration Program.  These proposals were implemented in January 1992 and the major Navy R&D centers were joined to form the megacenters and were attached to the appropriate systems command (e.g., the Naval Surface Warfare Center was established as part of the Naval Sea Systems Command).  At the same time, the Director of Navy Laboratories Office was disestablished.

Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) Dahlgren, Va. (Aug. 19, 2004) – Naval reservists, scientists and engineers work in the Integrated Command Environment (ICE) Human Performance laboratory located at NSWC Dahlgren, Va. U.S. Navy photo (RELEASED)

This paper has addressed the studies performed over a 30-year period that led to the establishment of the DNL, its modification, and its abolishment.  The studies have not stopped however.  Throughout the 1990s the BRAC process continued and there were a collection of studies that addressed efficiency (e.g., the reinvention studies and standardization of business systems and processes), the costs and effectiveness of the Defense laboratory structure, contracting out and privatization, and consolidation and realignment.  Although the systems commands have each taken a different approach to organizing and managing their programs and their associated laboratories, this basic structure has continued to the present.  There have been a variety of organizational and management changes that have modified the relationship between the system commands and their included R&D centers.

Robert V. Gates, Ph.D.
U.S. Naval War College


Books, Articles, and Reports

Allison, David, Ed.  The R&D Game: Technical Men, Technical Managers, Research Productivity. Cambridge, MIT Press, 1969.

Allison, David K. and Joseph Marchese.  Index of Oral Histories Relating to Naval Research, Development, and Acquisition.  Washington, D.C.: Department of the Navy, 1992.

Amato, Ivan.  Pushing the Horizon: Seventy-Five Years of High Stakes Science and Technology at the Naval Research Laboratory. Washington:  GPO, 1999.

Anspacher, William B., Betty H. Gay, Donald E. Marlowe, Paul B. Morgan and Samuel J. Raff.  The Legacy of the White Oak Laboratory.  Dahlgren, VA: NSWCDD, 2000.

Arthur D. Little, Inc.  “Basic Research in the Department of Defense.”  10 November 1960.

Baile, Kenneth C.  “Historical Perspective of NAVSWC/Dahlgren’s Organizational Culture (NSWC MP 90-715).” Dahlgren, VA: NSWC, 1991.

Beason, J. Douglas.  DOD Science and Technology: Strategy for the Post-Cold War Era.  Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 1997.

Bowen, Harold G.  Ships, Machinery, and Mossbacks.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954.

Bush, Vannevar.  Science: The Endless Frontier.  A Report to the President.  Washington, 1945 (Reprint 1990).

Carlisle, Rodney P.  Management of the U.S. Navy Research and Development Centers During the Cold War. Washington:  GPO, 1993.

________.  Powder and Propellants: Energetic Materials at Indian Head, Maryland, 1890-1990.  Washington:  GPO, 1993.

________.  Navy RDT&E Planning in an Age of Transition. Washington: Department of the Navy, 1997.

________.  The Relationship of Science and Technology: A Bibliographic Guide. Washington: Department of the Navy, 1997.

________.  Where the Fleet Begins: A History of the David Taylor Research Center. Washington: Department of the Navy, 1998.

Christman, Albert B.  Sailors, Scientists, and Rockets: History of the Naval Weapons Center, China Lake, California, Volume 1. Washington: Department of the Navy, 1971.

________.  Target Hiroshima: Deke Parsons and the Creation of the Atomic Bomb. Annapolis. MD: Naval Institute Press, 1998.

________.  “Evolution of Navy Research and Development.”  Draft Paper, Undated.

________.  “You Can’t Run a Laboratory Like a Ship.”  Undated.

Colvard, James E.  “Roles of In-House R&D Institutions in a Free Enterprise System.”  Johns Hopkins APL Technical Digest.  Vol. 5, No. 3, 1984.

________.  “Warriors and Weaponeers: Reflections on the History of their Association Within the Navy.”  Unpublished Paper, 30 May 1995.

________.  “Closing the Science-Sailor Gap.” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings. June 2002, 74-77.

________.  “Historical Perspective on Naval R&D.”  Presentation to Naval Research Advisory Committee (NRAC), videotape, Undated.

Cunningham, Noble E.  The Process of Government under Jefferson. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978.

Conversion of Defense Research and Development Laboratories” (Adolph Report).  30 September 1991.

Gerrard-Gough, J.D. and Albert B. Christman.  The Grand Experiment at Inyokern: History of the Naval Weapons Center, China Lake, California, Volume 2. Washington: Department of the Navy, 1978.

Hedrick, Captain David I., USN.  “Research and Experimental Activities of the U.S. Naval Proving Ground.”  Journal of Applied Physics, March 1944.

________.  “U.S. Naval Proving Ground, Dahlgren, Virginia: History, April 1918 – December 1945 (NPG-H-1).” Dahlgren, VA: NPG, 1945.

Hollingsworth, G.L. “A Review of Laboratory Missions and Functions.” August 1974.

Luttwak, Edward N.  Strategy and Politics.  New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1980.

________.  Strategy and History.  New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1985.

________.  Strategy.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.

McCollum, Kenneth G., Ed.  Dahlgren. Dahlgren, VA: NSWC, 1977.

Naval Research Advisory Committee.  “Report on Naval Research and Development.”  Washington: Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Research, Development, and Acquisition, October 1994.

Ray, Thomas W.  “‘The Bureaus Go On Forever …’.” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings. January 1968, 50-63.

Sapolsky, Harvey M.  The Polaris System Development: Bureaucratic and Programmatic Success in Government.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972.

________.  Science and the Navy: The History of the Office Naval Research.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990.

Smaldone, Joseph P.  “History of the White Oak Laboratory.”  Silver Spring, MD: NSWC, 1977.

Smith, Bernard.  Looking Ahead From Way Back.  Richmond, IN: Prinit Press, 1999.

Westrum, Ron.  Sidewinder: Creative Missile Development at China Lake. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1999.

Wright, Capt. E.A.  “The Bureau of Ships: A Study in Organization (Part 1).”  Journal of the American Society of Naval Engineers, February 1959, 7-21.

________.  “The Bureau of Ships: A Study in Organization (Part 2).”  Journal of the American Society of Naval Engineers, May 1959, 315-27.

Primary Source Material

Archival material cited in this manuscript is from the Warfare Center Collection of the Operational Archives, Naval Heritage and History Command at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. unless otherwise noted.  The primary source material listed below was supplemented by official reports from the Technical Library at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren Division, which are listed above.

Unpublished Reports, Memoranda, Letters, and Instructions

Booz, Allen & Hamilton.  “Review of Navy R&D Management, 1946-1973.” 1 June 1976.

Bureau of Ships.  “A Functional Approach to BuShips.”  Bureau of Ships Journal, June 1965, 6-8.

Chief of Naval Material (CNM), “Installation of NIF in CNM Laboratories,” Memorandum dated 12 December 1967.

Comptroller General of the United States.  “Report to the Congress:  Project REFLEX (Resource Flexibility) – A Demonstration of Management through Use of Fiscal Controls without Personnel Ceilings, Report B-165969.”  21 June 1974.

Coopers & Lybrand. “Management Analysis of the Navy Industrial Fund Program: Naval Laboratories Review Report.” June 1986.

Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Development) (DCNO (D)) to Chief of Naval Operations (CNO),  “Distribution of Functions in Navy Department,” Memorandum dated 19 April 1966.

Director, Defense Research and Engineering (DDR&E) Study dated 25 October 1966 “Problems of the In-House Laboratories and Possible Solutions.”

Director of Navy Laboratories. “A Plan for Improving the Effectiveness and Utilization of the Navy’s In-House Labs” (Lawson Report). 25 May 1971.

________. “How Can the Labs Best Serve the Navy?” (Second Lawson Report). July 1971.

Galantin, Admiral I.J. (CNM) to Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Research and Development, “RDT&E Management,” Memorandum dated 28 June 1965.

Hilyer, Robert, “The Future of the Department of Defense In-House Laboratories in the World of Research and Development,” Transcript of speech delivered to the Inter-laboratory Committee on Personnel Administration (ILCPA) – West Coast on 26 January 1977.

Leydon, J.K.  “The Management of Navy In-House Laboratories.” 17 December 1964.

Marchese, Joseph to Howard Law “Summary of Fifty-five Reports that Involve Management of Military R&D,” Letter dated 6 August 1987.

Morse, Robert W.  “On the Management of Navy Laboratories.” 4 January 1965.

Naval Weapons Center (NWC) Operating Principles, 1974

Naval Weapons Laboratory.  “Recommendations for the Development of the Naval Weapons Laboratory (NWL AR-103).”  Dahlgren, VA: NWL, 1968.

NAVMAT INSTRUCTION 5430.26 “Director of Laboratory Programs; establishment of,” 26 April 1966.

NAVMAT INSTRUCTION 5450.8 “Navy R&D Laboratories; command relationships and management policies for,” 27 June 1967.

NAVMAT INSTRUCTION 7000.13 “Laboratory Acceptance of Funds; policy on,” 23 October 1968.

Office of Director, Defense Research and Engineering.  “Report of the Defense Science Board on Government In-House Labs” (Furnas Report). 6 September 1962.

________.  “Report of the Task Group on Defense In-House Labs” (Glass Report). 1 July 1971.

SECNAV INSTRUCTION 5420.158 “Advisory Group to ASN (R&D) on Laboratory Matters; Establishment of,” 2 January 1964.

SECNAV INSTRUCTION 3900.13A “Management of Navy Research and Development Laboratories,” 1 November 1966.

SECNAV INSTRUCTION 3900.13B “Management of Navy Research and Development Resources and Installations” 1 June 1971.

Sherwin, Chalmers.  “A Plan for the Operation and Management of the Principal DOD In-House Laboratories.” 16 November 1964.

________.  “A Proposed Plan for the Organization of the Principal Navy In-House Laboratories.” 16 November 1964.

U.S. Bureau of the Budget.  “Report to the President on Government Contracting for Research and Development” (Bell Report). 30 April 1962.

U.S. Civil Service Commission.  “Problems in the Management of Department of Defense In-House Laboratories.” 27 December 1967.

U.S. Department of Defense.  Task Force 97 Action Group.  “Review of Defense Laboratories: Progress Report and Preliminary Recommendations” (Fubini Report).  September 1961.

U.S. Department of the Navy.  “Report of the Committee on Organization of the Department of the Navy” (Franke Report).  31 January 1959.

________.  “Research and Development Management Study,” Review of Management of the Department of the Navy.  Volume II, Study 3.  19 October 1962.

________.  Task Force on In-House RDT&E Activities.  “Memorandum for Policy Board, In-House RDT&E Field Activities Study” (Raney Report).  April 1965.

________.  “Director of Navy Laboratories, establishment of (SECNAV INST 5430.77).”  20 December 1965.

________.  “Report of the Navy-Marine Corps Acquisition Review Committee.”  January 1975.


  1. The U.S Constitution (Article I, Section 8) gives Congress the power to “promote the progress of science” by protecting patents and to regulate standards for weights and measures.  These and agricultural research characterize government science for the first 150 years of the republic.

“The Fleet at Flood Tide” – A Conversation with Author James D. Hornfischer

The Fleet at Flood Tide: America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944-1945 by James Hornfischer
The Fleet at Flood Tide: America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944-1945 by James Hornfischer.

By Christopher Nelson

A passionate naval historian, Jim Hornfischer finds time in the early morning hours and the weekends to write. It was an “elaborate moonlighting gig” he says, that led to his latest book, The Fleet at Flood Tide: America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944-1945

The Fleet at Flood Tide takes us back to World War II in the Pacific. This time Hornfischer focuses on the air, land, and sea battles that were some of the deadliest in the latter part of the war: Saipan, The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot, Tinian, Guam, the strategic bombing campaign, and the eventual use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  

The battles Hornfischer describe share center stage with some of the most impressive leaders the U.S. placed in the Pacific: Admiral Raymond Spruance, Admiral Kelly Turner, Admiral Marc Mitscher, General Holland “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, and Colonel Paul Tibbets. It is quite a cast of characters.

Hornfischer, to his credit, is able to keep this massive mosaic together – the numerous battles and personalities – without getting lost in historical details. His writing style, like other popular historians – David McCullough, Max Hastings, and Ian Toll immediately come to mind – is cinematic, yet not superficial. Or as he told me what he strives for when writing: “I then dive into the fitful process of making this rough assemblage readable and smooth, envisioning multiple readers, from expert navalists to my dear mother, with every sentence I type.”

The Fleet at Flood Tide is his fifth book, following the 2011 release of Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Gudalcanal. Hornfischer — whose day job is president of Hornfischer Literary Management — also found time to write The Ship of Ghosts (2006), The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors (2004; which won the Samuel Eliot Morison Award), and Service: A Navy SEAL at War, with Marcus Luttrell (2012). Of note, Neptune’s Inferno and The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors have been on the Chief of Naval Operation’s reading list for consecutive years.

I recently had the opportunity to correspond with Jim Hornfischer about his new book. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

How did the book come about? Was it a logical extension of your previous book, Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal?

All these years on, the challenge in World War II history is to find books that need writing, stories that need telling with fresh levels of detail, or in an entirely new frame. After Neptune’s Inferno, I was looking for a project that offered expansive territory in terms of geography, people and operational terrain, fresh, ambitious themes, and massive amounts of combat action that was hugely consequential. When I realized that no single volume had yet taken on the entirety of the Marianas campaign and followed that coherently to the end and what it led to, I had something. I wrote a proposal for a campaign history of Operation Forager, encompassing all its diverse operations on air, land and sea, as well as the singular, war-ending purpose to which that victory was put. The original title given to my publisher was Crescendo: The Story of the Marianas Campaign, the Great Pacific Air, Land and Sea Victory that Finished Imperial Japan. In the first paragraph of that proposal, I wrote, “No nation had ever attempted a military expedition more ambitious than Operation Forager, and none had greater consequence.” And that conceit held up well through four years of work. Everything I learned about the Marianas as the strategic fulcrum of the theater fleshed out this interpretation in spades.

As you said, in the book you focus on the Marianas Campaign, and there are some key personalities during the 1944-45 campaign. Namely, Raymond Spruance, Kelly Turner, and Paul Tibbets are front and center in your book. When scoping this book out, how did you decide to focus on these men?

As commander of the Fifth Fleet, Raymond Spruance took the Marianas and won the greatest carrier battle in history in their defense along the way. Spruance, to me, stands as the finest operational naval commander this nation ever produced. After all the ink spilled on Halsey and the paucity of literature on Spruance, it was, I thought, time to give him his due. Kelly Turner, Spruance’s amphibious commander, has always fascinated me. After his controversial tour as a war plans and intelligence guy in Washington in the run-up to Pearl Harbor, and then in the early days of Guadalcanal, surviving a dawning disaster (and did I mention he was an alcoholic), it’s incredible that Turner retained Spruance’s confidence. Yet he emerged as the leading practitioner of what CNO Ernest J. King called “the outstanding development of the war”: amphibious warfare. He has been poorly credited in history and deserved a close focus for his innovations, which included among other things an emphasis on “heavy power”—the ability to transport multiple divisions and their fire support and sustenance over thousands of miles of ocean—as well as the first large-scale employment of the unit that gave us the Navy SEALs.

As for Paul Tibbets, he and his top-secret B-29 group were the reason for the season, so to speak, the strategic purpose behind all the trouble that Spruance, Turner, and the rest endured in taking the Central Pacific. Without Army strategic air power, the Navy might never have persuaded the Joint Chiefs to go into the Marianas in 1944. And without Paul Tibbets and his high performance under strenuous time pressure, the war lasts well into 1946. Did you know that it was his near court-martial in North Africa in 1942 that got him sent to the Pacific in the first place?

General Carl Spaatz decorates Tibbets with the Distinguished Service Cross after the Hiroshima mission/USAF Official Photo
General Carl Spaatz (l) decorates Colonel Tibbets (r) with the Distinguished Service Cross after the Hiroshima mission (USAF Official Photo)

Early in the book you say that naval strategy was driven more by how fast the navy was building ships and not by battle experience. How so?

Well, of course the naval strategy that won the Pacific war, War Plan Orange and its successors, was drawn up and wargamed in the 1930s. But at the operational level, nothing prepared the Navy to employ the explosion of naval production that took place in 1943 and 1944. Fifteen fast aircraft carriers were put into commission in 1943. Thus was born the idea of a single carrier task force composed of three- and four-carrier task groups. The ability to concentrate or disperse gave Spruance and his carrier boss, Marc Mitscher, tremendous flexibility.

They realized during the February 1944 strike on Truk Atoll that it was no longer necessary to hit and run. There had been no precedent for this. Instead of hitting and running, relying on mobility and surprise, they could hit and stay, relying on sheer combat power, both offensive and defensive. That changed everything.

By the time the Fifth Fleet wrapped up the conquest of Guam, the carrier fleet was both an irresistible force and an immovable object. That was a function of a sudden surplus of hulls, and the innovations that the air admiralty proved up on the fly in the first half of 1944. Most of these involved making best use of the new Grumman F6F-3 Hellcat, fleet air defense, shipboard fighter direction, division of labor among carriers (for combat air patrol, search, and strike), armed search missions (rocket- and bomb-equipped Hellcats), the concept of the fighter sweep, adjusting the makeup of air groups to be fighter-heavy, night search and night fighting, and so on.

Grumman F6F Hellcats of VF-8 in flight/Wikipedia
Grumman F6F Hellcats of VF-8 in flight (Wikimedia Commons)

Just as important was the surge in amphibious shipping. In 1943, more than 21,000 new ‘phibs were launched of all sizes. The next year, that number surpassed 37,000. That’s the “fleet at flood tide” of my title. As Chester Nimitz himself noted, the final stage of the greatest sea war in history commenced in the Marianas, which became its fulcrum. Neither Iwo Jima nor Okinawa obviated that. And that concept is the conceit of my book and its contribution, I suppose—the centrality of the Marianas campaign, and how it changed warfare and produced America’s position in the world as an atomic superpower.

Spruance, King, Halsey, Tibbets, Turner ––  all of them are giant military historical figures. After diving into the lives of these men, what surprised you? Did you go in with assumptions or prior knowledge about their personalities or behavior that changed over the course of writing this book? 

I had never fully understood the size of Raymond Spruance’s warrior’s heart. I just mentioned the Truk strikes. Did you know that in the midst of it, Spruance detached the USS New Jersey and Iowa, two heavy cruisers, and a quartet of destroyers from Mitscher’s task force, took tactical command, and went hunting cripples? This was an inadvisable and even reckless thing for a fleet commander to do. He and his staff were unprepared to conduct tactical action. But he couldn’t resist the chance to seize a last grasp at history, to lead battleships in combat in neutering Japan’s greatest forward-area naval base.

Japanese Admiral Chuichi Nagumo/Wikipedia
Japanese Admiral Chuichi Nagumo (Wikimedia Commons)

Also, I hadn’t known how much Spruance exulted in the suicide death on Saipan of Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, the executioner of the Pearl Harbor strike and Spruance’s opponent at Midway. Finally, I was unaware of the extent of his physical courage. Off Okinawa, in the space of two weeks in May 1945, two of his flagships, the Indianapolis and New Mexico, were hit by kamikazes. In the latter, he disappeared into the burning wreckage of the superstructure, to the horror of his staff, and turned up shortly afterward manning a fire hose. That’s a style of leadership that the “cautious” COMFIFTHFLT is seldom credited for.

Regarding Tibbets, I mentioned his near court-martial in North Africa. Few people know this happened, or even that he served in Europe at all, but he was among the finest B-17 squadron commanders in the ETO in 1942. The lesson of his near downfall is: Never mess with a line officer whos destined to become a four star. This would be Lauris Norstad, Tibbets’s operations officer in North Africa, who went on to become one of the most important USAF generals of the Cold War.

You touch on this in your book, but the war stressed all of these men greatly. And each of them handled it in their own way. Taking just Spruance and Tibbets as examples, how did they handle the loss of men and the toll of war?

Spruance, in his correspondence, often described war as an intellectual puzzle. He could be hard-hearted. Shortly after the flag went up on Mount Suribachi, he wrote his wife, “I understand some of the sob fraternity back home have been raising the devil about our casualties on Iwo. I would have thought that by this time they would have learned that you can’t make war on a tough, fanatical enemy like the Japs without our people getting hurt and killed.” That’s a phrase worthy of Halsey: the sob fraternity. And yet when he toured the base hospitals, he felt deeply for the wounded in war.

It was for this reason that Spruance opposed the idea of landing troops in Japan. He favored the Navy’s preference for blockade. But those were perfectly exhausting operations at sea, week after week of launching strikes against airdromes in Western Pacific island strongholds, and in the home islands themselves. By the time Admiral Halsey relieved Spruance at Okinawa in May 1945, Spruance was exhausted both physically and morally.  

Paul Tibbets suffered losses of his men in Europe, but in the Pacific he was stuck in a training cycle that ended only at Hiroshima on August 6. Later in life, he considered the mass death and destruction he wrought as an irretrievable necessity. Responding to those who considered waging total war against civilian targets an abomination of morals, Tibbets would say, “Those people never had their balls on that cold, hard anvil.” I don’t think the moral objectors have ever fully credited either the tragic necessity or the specific success of the mission of the atomic bomb program: turning Emperor Hirohito’s heart. Tibbets was always unsentimental about it. 

Why is Spruance considered a genius?

Admiral Raymond Spruance, USN/Alfred J. Sedivi, courtesy of the U.S. Naval Institute
Admiral Raymond Spruance, USN (Alfred J. Sedivi, courtesy of the U.S. Naval Institute)

He was the ultimate planner, and through his excellence in planning, naval operations became more than operational or tactical. They became strategic, war-ending. It was no accident that Raymond Spruance planned and carried out every major amphibious operation in the Western Pacific except for the one that invited real disaster, Leyte. He was in style, temperament, and talent a reflection of his mentor, Chester Nimitz. The Japanese gave him the ultimate compliment. Admiral Junichi Ozawa told an interviewer after the war that Spruance was “impossible to trap.”

Switching gears a bit, what is your favorite naval history book?

It’s a long list, probably led by Samuel Eliot Morison’s volume 5, Guadalcanal, but I’m going to put three ahead of him as a personal matter: Tin Cans by Theodore Roscoe, Japanese Destroyer Captain by Tameichi Hara, and Baa Baa Black Sheep by Gregory Boyington. This selection may underwhelm your readers who are big on theory, doctrine, and analytical history, but I list them unapologetically. These were the books that set me on fire with passion for the story of the Pacific War when I was, like, twelve. If I hadn’t read them at that young age, I don’t think I would be writing today. It is only a bonus that all three were published by the company that’s publishing me today, Bantam/Ballantine. We are upholding a tradition!

What is your research and writing process like?

It’s all an elaborate moonlighting gig, conducted in relation to, but apart from, my other work in book publishing. It takes me a while to get these done in my free time, which is stolen mostly from my generous and long-abiding wife, Sharon, and our family. But basically the process looks like this: I turn on my shop-strength vacuum cleaner, snap on the largest, widest attachment, and collect material for 18 to 24 months before I even think about writing. Having collated my notes and organized my data, I then dive into the fitful process of making this rough assemblage readable and smooth, envisioning multiple readers, from expert navalists to my dear mother, with every sentence I type. I stay on that task, early mornings and weekends, for maybe 18 more months. Then, in the case of The Fleet at Flood Tide, my editor and I beat the draft around through two or three revisions before it was finally given to the Random House production editor. Then we sweat over photos and maps. History to me is intensively visual, both in the writing and in the illustrating, so this is a major emphasis for me all along the way. I never offload any of this work to a research staff.

In spite of all of this effort, the result is usually, maddeningly, imperfect in the end. But it is always the best I can do, using this hand-tooled approach under the time pressure that inevitably develops.

What’s next? Are you already thinking about what you want to write about after you finish the book tour and publicity for The Fleet at Flood Tide? Do you have a specific subject in mind?

One word and one numeral: Post-1945.

Last question. A lot of our readers here at the CIMSEC are also writers. What advice would you give to the aspiring naval historian?

Think big. Then think bigger. Then get started. And focus on people and all the interesting problems they’re facing.

James D. Hornfischer is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Neptune’s Inferno, Ship of Ghosts, and The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors, winner of the Samuel Eliot Morison Award. A native of Massachusetts and a graduate of Colgate University and the University of Texas School of Law, he lives in Austin, Texas.

Christopher Nelson is a naval officer stationed at the U.S. Pacific Fleet headquarters. A regular contributor to CIMSEC, he is a graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and the U.S. Navy’s operational planning school, the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School in Newport, Rhode Island. The questions and comments above are his own and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

Featured Image: Marines on the beach line during the invasion of Saipan in 1944.  (USMC)

Breaking the Curse of Zheng He: The Enduring Necessity of a Strong American Navy

The following article originally featured on The Bridge and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.b

By Roger Misso

Once upon a time, there was a great and powerful nation. With booming trade, strong defense, and unparalleled pride, this land stood apart from all others as the finest in the world. As others struggled with disease, conflict, and stagnant economies, this country shone as a beacon in a storm. And importantly, its Navy was the envy of the world, protecting trade and sailing the high seas.

Monument to Admiral Zheng He in Melaka, Malaysia (Hasaan Saeed/Wikimedia)
Monument to Admiral Zheng He in Melaka, Malaysia (Hasaan Saeed/Wikimedia)

This nation was China, during the Ming dynasty in the 14th Century. The leader of its Navy was the quasi-mythical Zheng He, a palace eunuch who rose to glorious power, but was eventually erased from the history books.The rise and fall of Zheng He has striking parallels to the rise and fall of the United States Navy today. To avoid repeating the unfortunate history of seafaring superpowers, the United States must embrace the role of its Navy as an essential instrument of a successful, enduring nation.


In the middle of the fourteenth century in China, at the end of a line of harsh Mongol rulers, the Ming dynasty rose to power. One of the first acts of the new emperor, Zhu Di, was to build a massive naval armada. Rather than rely only on overland routes, he intended to exercise trade, diplomacy, and prove the sheer awe of Chinese power through his navy.

He nominated a palace eunuch who had risen in favor with the new regime, a Chinese Muslim by the name of Zheng He, to lead this force. Zheng was rumored to have “stood seven feet tall,” and his ability to speak both Chinese and Arabic was seen as a prudent choice for an expedition that would sail the Indian Ocean and interact with other Arabic-speaking peoples.[1]

Zheng He’s fleet boasted more than 300 vessels. Unlike the typical European ships of the day, his were of enormous, complex construction and opulent adornment. Each ship housed more than sailors—doctors, soldiers, engineers, and statesmen made Zheng He’s fleet a floating arm of Chinese influence. Indeed, for more than 30 years, China dominated the sea lanes to its west, ensuring safe passage of its trading vessels and even engaging in limited conflict to secure favorable bases of support for its large fleet.[2]


China’s dominance of the seas was short lived, however. New emperors came to power who viewed naval voyages as “extravagances.”[3] Rather than respect the value of a navy to a great power, rulers began to look inward. Political power was legitimized by building things Chinese subjects could physically see and attribute to the greatness of the emperor, as opposed to a Navy that operated far from China’s shores.

It is a historical irony that the Ming dynasty traded what was the world’s greatest naval power, and used their treasure to connect and finish the Great Wall into what it is recognized as today. Soon, internecine conflict and pride erased nearly any mention of Zheng He and the grand Chinese armada from the national memory.[4] For much of the next 600 years, China’s focus would remain within, even as their relative global power all but evaporated.[5]


The lessons of Zheng He’s China teach a great deal about how a global superpower maintains its own geopolitical interests in the face of shifting domestic priorities. A strong Navy is a decisive component of the military instrument of national power, based on its unmatched ability to project power around the globe.

From John Paul Jones to The Great White Fleet to today’s Navy, it is easy to view the lens of America’s Navy as another incarnation of Zheng He’s: an awe-inspiring representation of the nation’s technological and economic might. The founders of the United States recognized the importance of a Navy to a prosperous nation, specifically enunciating in the Constitution that Congress must “provide and maintain a Navy.”

Yet, as in Zheng He’s time, competing policy choices and uncertainty as to America’s role in the world has eroded the commitment to maintain a naval force representative of the country’s geopolitical interests. Austerity and sequestration have slashed budgets with scant regard for shipbuilding, maintenance, and future fleet architecture. 650 years later, the United States Navy has fewer ships to its name than Zheng He’s armada.[6]


The decline in quantity and quality of America’s ships-of-the-line will do great harm to the American people. The United States Navy is the bellwether of American power, protecting the nation from harm and safeguarding global commerce. The tragedy of both Zheng He and contemporary American navalists is their failure to adequately convince the population of the necessity of its Navy.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote that “industry, commerce, and security are the surest roads to the happiness and prosperity of people.”[7] The Navy has been the guarantor of American happiness and prosperity since the nation’s earliest days. Yet, as the visible vestiges of American commerce have transformed from small markets and shops to massive online storefronts with inventory shipped by robots from warehouses, the average citizen’s concept of how commerce is enabled may be declining.

To this citizen, the ubiquitous nature of the Internet and online commerce might seem to suggest that modern military forces are becoming obsolete in the face of digital citizenship. Few people think about the steps between pressing “purchase” and receiving a good at their doorstep. In a tumultuous political climate, this leads many to clamor for decreased military spending and a more insular focus on domestic affairs. Yet this sentiment erodes the very naval service that ensures massive online commerce can thrive in the first place.

The percentage and volume of global trade by sea has shown no signs of slowing down. Whether iPhones, oil, or automobiles, most of the imported items belonging to a typical household have come to this country by sea. These items are carried on ships without guns or inherent self-defense measures. These ships transit through chokepoints controlled by nations with their own interests, who would rather leverage their own power at the expense of America’s supply of Apple devices.

World shipping routes (T. Hengel/Wikimedia)
World shipping routes (T. Hengel/Wikimedia)

The importance of a Navy is not a difficult concept. For example, if a saboteur has blocked both ends of the street on which you live, you may think of three potential responses: 1) stay home; 2) find another way out, though you are likely to leave the house less often and bring fewer things with you; 3) fight back. For businesses and nations who ship goods by sea, the first two options are unprofitable and untenable. It is only through a strong Navy that the third option is possible.

The consequences of a declining Navy are perceptible and stark. Though it took a few centuries, China’s inward focus eventually led to the crumbling of their sovereignty and, eventually, occupation by a foreign power. More contemporary examples, such as Great Britain and Spain, are instructive as they show nations on the declining slope of naval power dependent on a foreign power—the United States—to maintain freedom of the seas in accordance with its own interests.

If the United States abdicates its role as global naval power, either deliberately or through unchecked erosion of capability and credibility, she risks a radical plummeting of national and economic might. Nature and the sea both abhor a vacuum; in yet another irony, if the United States cannot maintain the global sea lanes, China may take its place as guarantor. An American economy and national security dependent on Chinese interests and the application of Chinese naval power would be weak and brittle, bringing extreme hardship to the American people.


U.S. Navy ships and aircraft. (
U.S. Navy ships and aircraft. (

More than ever, a strong Navy is required to protect the millions of tons of shipping that make possible American economy, infrastructure, and the basic political lives of her people. A citizenry may grow weary of land wars, but it cannot forsake trade and security. Nations that cannot protect open, unfettered access to the sea will fail. For these reasons, the United States Navy is not a nicety; it is a necessity.

History provides clear channel markers for decision makers today. The United States cannot repeat the curse of Zheng He; she must clearly articulate and re-prioritize a strong Navy that is present, capable, and credible.

Roger L. Misso is a naval officer, aviator, and speechwriter. He is currently a student at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a featured contributor to The Strategy Bridge. The views expressed in this article are the authors and do not represent the views of the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


[1] Stockwell, Foster. Westerners in China: A History of Exploration and Trade, Ancient times through the Present. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Publishers, 2003.

[2] Suryadinata, Leo. Admiral Zheng He and Southeast Asia. ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, 2005.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Turturici, Armando Alessandro. “China Across Sea in Early Ming Dynasty – the Figure of Zheng He.” Quarterly Journal of Chinese Studies, no. 3 (Spring, 2016): 111-114.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Status of the Navy.” Accessed online 4 Nov 2016.

[7] “From Thomas Jefferson to Francisco Chiappe, 9 September 1789.” National Archives Online. Accessed online 4 Nov 2016.

Featured Image: Treasure fleet of Admiral Zheng He (Caravan Daily) 

The Role of Cruisers in Promoting Russian Presence and Deterrence in Peacetime

The following is a two-part series on the role cruisers played in the Soviet and Russian Navy. The first part examines historical inspiration for developing a cruiser-focused force, concepts of employment, and strategic rationale. Part II will focus on how cruisers shaped the environment through forward presence during the Cold War, and how the nature of presence may evolve into the future. 

By Alexander Clarke

“A Man-of-War is the best ambassador.”

This is an often quoted phrase of Britain’s 17th Century Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell;1 a phrase stated in an age when seapower had shown promise of potential,2 but not yet attained the capabilities, or achieved the feats, that would truly make it demonstratively so.3 This words were said before the ministry of William Pitt (the Younger, Prime Minister 1783-1801 & 1804-6),4 before the works of Alfred Thayer Mahan5 and Julian Stafford Corbett6 were published, and before the age of Empire and Gunboat Diplomacy.7 Yet still, in just eight simple words, it sums up the root construct of all this history and thought that have, does, and will continue to shape the world and relations between states to this day. It does this because it succinctly sums up a principle function, and duty, of warships in ‘peacetime.’ A function, which is entirely entwined with navies’ roles of maintaining maritime security8 – enabling freedom of trade, as well as access to the bounty of the sea, and presence,the protection of interests, reassurance of allies, and deterrence of potential aggressors.

Maritime Security and Presence are big missions for navies, they are the roles of ‘peacetime’ which make ‘peace’ such a relative term for navies in comparison to armies.10 A situation accelerated by the fact that in ‘peacetime’ the rules of engagement become by necessity stricter, the constabulary duties (fishery protection, counter piracy, counter smuggling, etc.) get greater focus, and engagements with other nations, both friend or potential foe, become more nuanced and subjective. This though is nothing new, and despite the recent phraseological development of the ‘Oceanic Global Commons,’11 patrolling the world’s original super highway – the sea,12 has been the subject of discussion and debate probably since humans first set to sea. The best lesson that has been drawn from these discussions, is that there is always more to be learned.

So with the discussion started, it is necessary to explain the question, why focus on the Soviet, and successor Russian navy? That is explained by the fact that while the Soviets and the Russians have never achieved dominant status at sea, they have successfully managed to enhance their status, maximize their presence, and achieve a growing level of influence through leveraging the capability they had/have in ways that have limited other nations ability to interfere with their interests. This success has not been achieved by accident, instead it is a product of long running analysis;13 analysis which has diverged at a significant point from the traditional Anglo-American Western naval model14 – not through a different understanding of warfighting, but a different perspective on operations outside of warfighting.

As students of history the Soviets had seen how a land power, Germany, had not really gained anything, but lost a lot strategically by building a fleet which was shaped directly to challenge the largest sea power prior to WWI15 – conversely the same nation had got far closer to success with a more asymmetric approach both in that war and WWII. The prime example of this is a weapon of sea denial, the submarine.

Unfortunately, the experience of both WWI and WWII showed that submarines alone were not enough in war time; furthermore, it showed they are only really useful in wartime. In ‘peacetime’ they are good for intelligence gathering, Special Forces operations, and practicing for war. Submarines are so limited in conducting presence operations because they are by their very nature stealth units, and the visibility required for presence goes against this fundamental attribute. Furthermore, due to the physical and technological sensitivity of their hull coats and sonic signatures, even port visits to the closest of allies are fraught with potential risks that are more sensibly avoided. The use of submarines in the presence mission, therefore usually comes at the point of it becoming focused towards ‘conventional’ deterrence16 – rather than just overt presence.

This is where surface combatants come in, and it explains the evolving Russian approach with a growing focus on designs which were far more general purpose than specialists despite their often stated role of Anti-Submarine Warfare.17 No area is this seen more clearly than in the consistent focus on cruisers, and the ‘cruising mission.’18 Understanding the difference is something which will begin to matter more, not only because of the resurgent Russia, but the growth of other navies, for example China and India. These nations have not merely acquired equipment, they also draw heavily from the Russian (and by extension, Soviet) naval experience and practice in conceptualizing naval operations.

How and why the Soviets used the Cruiser…

The post-WWII Sverdlov class19 was where the Soviet navy started to bring their vision of cruiser capability to fruition. Pre-war plans had been very conventional and these post-war plans were heavily influenced by their understanding of WWII German naval surface raider operations.20 These operations had tied down large amounts of Royal Navy (RN) combatants, and had been very successful. For example the cruise of the ‘Pocket’ Battleship, the Admiral Graf Spee, whilst ending heroically (for both sides21) at the Battle of the River Plate,22 had sunk nine merchant ships, captured two ships, and ‘frightened’ at least one other. Although these are the easily measurable effects, there is no real way of quantifying how many Captains changed or altered their course, how many loads were late or connections missed, all as a result of the fear of where the German raider was – or just as strong, the fear of where it might be.

In any case, the effects were not limited to the merchant marine. According to the Soviet Historian L.M. Eremeev23 in his work Some Results of the Cruiser Operations of the German Fleet, the RN mobilized numerous forces to catch the Admiral Graf Spee, including Commodore Harwood’s South Atlantic Squadron, seven cruisers, two aircraft carriers, a battlecruiser, and at least three destroyers (although considering the escorts required by the capital ships mobilized, he was likely underestimating this number by a long way). This demonstrated to the Soviet Union the potential of surface ships, if used in a ‘cruiser warfare’ manner, to exert great impact upon operations disproportionate to the realistic capabilities of the vessel.

Figure 1.The Cruise of the Admiral Graf Spee, illustrating not only the number of its success but the range and breadth of them. (UK National Archives)24

Eremeev not only discusses these wartime achievements, but the political and national impacts of such ships being built. The Sverdlov class were (even in the post-WWII/early Cold War era), powerful looking ships, fitted with the very best radars the Soviets had available,25 and had an impressive array of weaponry (see Figure 2) for the period.26 They were also big – displacing 16,000 tons,27 which is roughly double that of a modern RN Type 45 Daring-class destroyer or the U.S. Navy’s Flight I Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. The Sverdlovs were ships which were just as useful for solo raiding missions and Task Group commands as they were for peacetime ‘impression presence’ and diplomacy missions. What’s more, the Sverdlov was a light cruiser design28 and there were even bigger ships planned.29

Maximum benefit was sought from every rouble of the naval budget30 by making the most of unit presence for peacetime missions and multiplication of assets to make any opponent’s attempts to use the sea as complex as possible.31 Warfighting was about sea denial, raiding, and the tying down of enemy forces while simultaneously making their movement difficult.32 Peacetime was for building relationships, strengthening alliances, for stretching muscles, gaining experience, and hindering other actors such as Britain and the United States in their attempts to shape the world whilst simultaneously seeking to shape it themselves.33 The 1950s Sverdlovs were not though the only class of ship built by the Soviets that would fit into this mould. They were more the beginning of a story, which would continue into the 1970s with the Slava-class, Kara-class,34 and the behemoth 28,000 ton Kirov-class ‘Battlecruisers.’35 Alongside these vessels were other cruiser designs, less capable in terms of combat and command, but still with comparable status, size and armament of cruisers;36 just as large a statement of intent and capability. This capability was different from western navies, as it was not built upon the warfighting prowess of aircraft carriers. The cruiser-centered force better suited the strategic vision and peacetime presence mission profile for the Soviet Union better than any other available option. 

Figure 2: The Sverdlov class: this plan illustrates how heavily armed the ship class was with twelve 152mm in four triple mountings, twelve 105mm in six double mountings all combined with a heavy anti-aircraft armament, torpedoes, sophisticated sensors, a top speed of 33kts, and a range of 9000 nautical miles.37 (UK National Archives)38

The advantages were that cruisers are cheaper and easier to build and operate than aircraft carriers, can physically enter more ports to support diplomacy, and while being lesser in range of combat power than aircraft carriers were not necessarily lesser in combat capability within that more limited scope. This made them powerful tools for a nation which was seeking to flex its muscles around the world as a method of spreading its influence but not foment a naval arms race in the way that it was already in a strategic arms race.39 The Soviets realized that aircraft carriers, like Germany’s pre-WWI dreadnought battleships,40 would be seen as provocation and direct challenge. Cruisers were enough of challenge to be status worthy, but did not represent a direct confrontation of the carrier-centric NATO navies41 – therefore, would not be a direct attack on their confidence and thus a provocation. This is a policy though which did not stop with the end of the Cold War; in fact modern Russia has gone to great lengths to continue it.

Figure 3: the Kirov class cruiser that used to be called the Kirov, but in 1992 when this photo was taken had its name changed to Ushakov, alongside a Slava class cruiser which had also been renamed from the Admiral Flota Lobov to Marshal Ustinov. Source: CWO2 Tony Alleyne via Wikimedia Commons.42
Figure 3: The Kirov-class cruiser Ushakov that was formerly known as the Kirov alongside a Slava-class cruiser which had also been renamed from the Admiral Flota Lobov to the Marshal Ustinov. (CWO2 Tony Alleyne via Wikimedia Commons)42

They have done this by keeping as many of the Soviet-era ships in service as they are able to. Soviet cruisers are still the core of the Russian fleet and its capability to project influence worldwide.43 There has also been a resurgence in submarine production,44 and perhaps more interestingly, a focus on the procurement of new corvette-sized combatants.45 Additionally, there has been a significant reconstituting of amphibious warfare capability.46 Based, as this policy is, in a fairly simple and straightforward analysis of international relations that there are:

  • Actors – nations which take charge and command events
  • Reactors – nations which flow with the tide of events, only reacting to what happens
  • Contractors – nations which get others to act on their behalf

These are classifications which can, and do change from circumstance to circumstance. The Russians have clearly chosen to equip themselves to be ‘actors’ as often as possible. This is understandable as they do not have enough reliable, capable, allies to be ‘contractors’ – and even if they did, possible ‘contractors’ often do not have sufficient influence over the course of events to satisfy and sustain Russian interests. Being a ‘reactor’ would mean that Russia would automatically cede any influence on the pace and circumstance of events. This is more than just theory and direction, it is a policy which has been illustrated by real world events in Georgia,47 Syria48 and Ukraine.49

Dr. Clarke graduated with a PhD in War Studies from KCL in 2014, the thesis of which focused upon the Royal Navy’s development of naval aviation and aircraft carrier design in the 1920s and 1930s. He was supervised during this by Professor Andrew Lambert. Alongside this he has published works on the 1950s with British Naval History, and has also published on current events with European Geostrategy and the Telegraph online as part of the KCL Big Question series. He has maintained an interest in digital history, and is organizing, hosting, and editing a series of Falklands War veterans interviews for the Center for International Maritime Security and Phoenix Think Tank. Recent research outputs include presenting a paper at the National Maritime Museum’s 2016 conference on the ASW capabilities of the RNAS in WWI, and will be presenting a paper on the design & performance of Tribal Class Destroyers in WWII at the  forthcoming BCMH (of which he is a member) New Researchers Conference.  

1. Tsouras (2005), p.396

2. Rodger, The Safeguard of the Sea; A Naval History of Britain, 660-1649 (2004), pp.263-71

3. Rodger, The Command of the Ocean (2004)

4. Ibid, pp.364-6

5. Mahan (1987)

6. J. S. Corbett (1911)

7. Cable, Gunboat Diplomacy 1919-1979, Political Applications of Limited Naval Force (1981), and Clarke, August 2013 Thoughts: Naval Diplomacy – from the Amerigo Vespucci to a Royal Yacht (2013)

8. Clarke, Protecting the Exclusive Economic Zones – Part I (2014), and Clarke, Protecting the Exclusive Ecconomic Zone – Part II (2014)

9. Clarke, October 2013 Thoughts (Extended Thoughts): Time to Think Globally (2013)

10. Air forces, as has been highlighted recently also experience issues – with other nations probing air space; but still they do not face potential problems on the scale or diversity that navies could experience, especially navies belonging to nations with far flung territories strewn around the globe.

11. Flournoy and Brimley (2009)

12. Hipple (2014)

13. TNA: ADM 223/714 (1959), and TNA: ADM 239/533 (1960)

14. Sergey Gorshkov (1980, p.230) goes into great detail as to the diference between the idea of dominance at sea adopted by Russian in comparison to England, and America which had inherited the English model.

15. Massie (2005) – a conclusion which is further supported by the experience of Japan in WWII, it had also chosen to build a scaled battlefleet, and whilst with its challenges this did make some sense – its lack of infrastructure to support a rapid expansion of its fleet to equivalent levels meant that although it suited the cultural/political perception of its national leaders, it was not necessarily as sensible as a less conventional fleet structure might have been (Stille, The Imperial Japanese Navy in the Pacific War 2014).

16. A. Clarke, August 2013 Thoughts: Sea Based Conventional Deterrence; more than just gunboat diplomacy!  (2013)

17. Polmar (1991), and TNA: ADM 239/821 (1959), both highlight how often ships with very capable surface-to-surface and surface-to-air weaponry, for example the Kara Class (Polmar (1991), pp.155-7) are described as ASW Guided Missile Cruisers, yet both their SA-N-3 Anti-Aircraft missiles, and SS-N-14 anti-submairne missiles, had significant anti-ship capability (especially the latter, which being torpedos at their terminal stage are arguably more dangerous than a pure missile system)…furthermore as the class was built, one of the class, Azov, had it’s air-defence upgraded to include the far better SA-N-6 (which also has an anti-ship capability), and all of the class were built with extenseive command and control facilities.

18. Clarke, Europe and the Future of Cruisers (2014)

19. Clarke, Sverdlov Class Cruisers, and the Royal Navy’s Response (2014)

20. TNA: ADM 223/714 (1959)

21. TNA: ADM 116/4109 (1940)

22. TNA: ADM 116/4109 (1940), TNA: ADM 116/4320 (1941), and TNA: ADM 116/4470 (1940)

23. TNA: ADM 223/714 (1959)

24. TNA – Admiralty: 116/4109 (1940)

25. A. Clarke, Sverdlov Class Cruisers, and the Royal Navy’s Response (2014)

26. Rohwer & Monakov (2006), pp.199

27. Ibid, pp.197-9

28. Rohwer & Monakov (2006), pp.197-9, and Polmar (1991), p.164

29. Rohwer & Monakov (2006), pp.194-7

30. Gorshkov (1980), p.248, and Dismukes & McConnell (1979), pp.88-114

31. Gorshkov (1980), pp.213-77, and Dismukes & McConnell (1979), pp.1-30

32. Rohwer & Monakov (2006), pp.215-6, G. S. Clarke (2007), and Gorshkov (1980), pp.213-22

33. Rohwer & Monakov (2006), pp.215-6, G. S. Clarke (2007), and Gorshkov (1980), pp.245-53

34. Polmar (1991), pp.155-7

35. Ibid, pp.148-51

36. For example the Slava, Kresta and Kynada classes (Polmar (1991), pp.152-4 & 158-63)

37. Rohwer & Monakov (2006), p.199, and TNA: ADM 239/533 (1960)

38. TNA – Admiralty: 239/533 (1960)

39. Rohwer & Monakov (2006), illustrates this in their work by highlight how many grandiose naval schemes were planned, and enver completed; when if the will had been present, and decision had been made, then the Soviets under Stalin could have allocated the resources to do it.

40.  Massie (2005)

41. Clarke, Sverdlov Class Cruisers, and the Royal Navy’s Response (2014)

42. Wikimedia Commons (2015)

43. Janes (2006), or for those wanting quick verification of this then there is the Russian Navy Website ( or Wikipedia ( for those preferring something slightly more straightforward.

44. Cavas (2015)

45. Pike (2015)

46. Keck (2015), and Defence Industry Daily Staff (2015)

47. Georgia: McGuinness (2013), and King (2008)

48. Syria: Keck, Russia’s Aircraft Carrier to Visit Syrian Naval Base (2013), and Daily Mail Reporter (2011)

49. Ukraine: Harress (2015)

Featured Image: The Pyotr Veliky nuclear-powered Kirov-class cruiser. (Wikimedia Commons)