Tag Archives: cold war

Chief of Naval Operations Zumwalt’s Project 60, Part 1

Project SIXTY was Admiral Elmo “Bud” Zumwalt’s plan of action for his term as Chief of Naval Operations, lasting from July 1, 1970 to June 29, 1974. In it Admiral Zumwalt describes a resurgent naval threat from a peer competitor, the need to rebalance the mission focus between sea control and power projection, and how to optimize the fleet in the context of budgetary pressures. 

Project SIXTY will be republished here on CIMSEC in three parts. This republication is drawn from the U.S. Naval War College’s Newport Papers, specifically “U.S. Naval Strategy in the 1970s, Selected Documents” edited by John B. Hattendorf. 


Memorandum For All Flag Officers (And Marine General Officers, Dated SEP 16, 1970

Subj: Project SIXTY

1.  In July I told you that I would make an assessment of the Navy’s capabilities and problems for a presentation to the Secretary of Defense in early September. With the benefit of your insights and assistance, this task, Project SIXTY, has been completed. Secretary Chafee and I made the presentation on 10 September to Secretaries Laird and Packard and follow-on discussions with them are scheduled.

2. I consider that the substance of this presentation sets forth the direction in which we want the Navy to move in the next few years. The decisions that we make, and implement, at the command levels of the Navy should be consistent with these concepts. Further, I am passing this paper to the CNO Executive Panel, and its Programs Analysis Group, as the primary guideline for their deliberations in advising me on actions we should take and on the suitability of current programs. The Panel will consider the Project SIXTY paper as a dynamic statement of the direction that the Navy is to move and will adapt new concepts and ideas to keep the guidelines current and in-step with the threat and our best thoughts. 

3. I am forwarding the Project Sixty Presentation to you, under cover of this letter, to guide your actions as well to keep you fully aware of my thinking and to encourage your support as we move ahead. 

 

 


My purpose today is to report to you on our naval strengths and weaknesses and the actions we are taking, or will propose, to achieve the highest feasible combat readiness. The report reflects our survey of the Navy to date and sets forth the change of direction which we think necessary. It is impossible to discuss these changes outside the context  of potential budget reductions. We will indicate the effect of such reductions; they would curtail our capabilities critically, regardless of our actions. However, we hope to emphasize the theme of the changes that we feel must be undertaken, whether we can maintain our present expenditures or not.

The Navy’s capabilities fall naturally into four categories:


NAVAL CAPABILITIES

  • ASSURED SECOND STRIKE
  • CONTROL OF SEA LINES AND AREAS
  • PROJECTION OF POWER ASHORE
  • OVERSEAS PRESENCE IN PEACETIME

  • Assured Second Strike Potential,
  • Sea Control by our attack submarines, dual-mission carriers, escorts, and patrol aircraft,
  • Projection of power ashore by our dual-mission carriers and the amphibious force, and
  • Overseas presence in peacetime

We want to see where each of these capabilities fits into the possible conflict situations that we may face in the decade ahead. What, in short, does the country require of its sea forces?


SIGNIFICANT CHANGES IN SOVIET THREAT OF LATE ’60s

  • NUCLEAR PARITY
  • EMERGENCE OF STRONG, WORLDWIDE DEPLOYED SOVIET NAVY

We are looking at this matter at a time when two factors have developed, of the highest importance to the power relationship between the U.S. and the Soviet Union:

  • Nuclear parity, and
  • The emergence of a strong, worldwide-deployed Soviet Navy

ASSURED SECOND STRIKE POTENTIAL

The initial Navy capability is the contribution it can make to an assured Second Strike potential.

Strategic deterrence must come first. Soviet achievement of nuclear parity, deployment of SS-9’s, and potential deployment of MIRVs have all raised the value of our sea-based strategic forces, and we are close upon the point when more of our deterrent forces will have to be based more securely. We are confident that the Navy can design and build a secure, effective ULMS (Underwater Long Range Missile System). If the national decision is to rely more heavily on sea basing— that is, to have ULMS operating before 1980—we must soon decide to accelerate.

SEA CONTROL AND PROJECTION

The other major naval missions at sea involve our sea control and projection forces.

The recent changes in relative strategic power between the Soviets and ourselves also have important implications for these conventional forces.


SEA CONTROL AND PROJECTION

NUCLEAR-CONVENTIONAL  RELATIONSHIPS

  • SEA CONTROL GUARANTEES INVULNERABILITY OF SEA BASED MISSILES
  • NUCLEAR PARITY INCREASES LIKELIHOOD OF CONVENTIONAL CONFLICT

On the one hand, the credibility of our ability to control the sea is essential to the credibility of our strategic sea-based deterrent. On the other hand, now that we have lost our superiority and are reducing our conventional forces, the Soviets are more likely to use military force to achieve their political objectives. The importance of the portion of our conventional force that is capable of overseas presence has thus been increased.


SEA CONTROL AND PROJECTION

  • NIXON DOCTRINE
  • NEW SOVIET NAVAL CAPABILITY

From the naval standpoint, these relationships are influenced further by the Nixon Doctrine and by the large, modern Soviet Navy that emerged in the 1960s.

The continuing withdrawal of the United States from foreign bases and—in Asia—the change in the forms of armed support we plan to make available to our allies, place additional responsibilities on our sea control and projection forces. Both will employ the dual mission carrier—the new CV concept. The Sea Control forces will see to it that sealift supplies get through to our allies. Projection forces will maintain a ready deterrent to avoid any misunderstanding of our intent and provide support promptly if needed. The Nixon Doctrine has effectively raised the threshold at which we would commit land forces overseas. We have moved closer to a situation in which Soviet or CHICOM involvement is the primary circumstance that might force us to intervene. We therefore face conventional war that will not include the sanctuary of full use of our sea lines of communication. The Soviets have conceded us this luxury in the past, in part because of our nuclear superiority, in part because of their belief that we could defeat them at sea in conventional war.

But now the Soviet Navy has evolved impressively in both size and spectrum of capabilities. Its technical and industrial base operates at high levels of design, development, and production. The Soviet Navy has been constructing and deploying submarines and surface ships at an ominously high rate. The quantity and technical quality of these ships has been rising sharply.

What does this new Soviet naval capability mean to us?

In strategic terms, the Soviet Navy is a worldwide force whose routine deployments reach into the Mediterranean Sea, the Indian Ocean, and Caribbean, as well as the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Today the Soviet naval presence in the Mediterranean is as great as ours; 10 years ago it was negligible. We devote fewer than 800 ship days a year to limited parts of the Indian Ocean; the Soviets’ reach over that area has gone from zero ship days to 2400 in the past 3 years. Their submarine activity is four times as intense as ours and covers all the sea lanes of the world.

As you know, the Soviets have more attack submarines than we do. And they are building at a rate of 10–14 a year; we are building three. The Soviets are reducing the advantage we had in quality by building new, quieter classes of submarines. These new submarines have unique features that are so good we may copy them. In just two years, the Soviets have produced at least 6 new designs in submarines. Their new attack submarines are 3½ to 5½ knots faster than ours. Beyond this, they are giving priority to the Yankee-class ballistic missile submarines, building them at a rate of 6 to 8 a year.


SEA CONTROL AND PROJECTION

  • SOVIET SUBMARINES
  • 10–14 NEW SSNs PER YEAR
  • QUIETER
  • NEW DESIGNS (FASTER)
  • PRIORITY TO YANKEE CLASS SSBNs (6–8/YEAR)

These factors give the Soviets several advantages:

SOVIET ADVANTAGES

  • INCREASED OUT OF AREA PATROLS
  • DECREASED U.S. ACOUSTIC ADVANTAGE
  • SPEED

  • With greater numbers of submarines, routine out of area deployments can be increased without alerting our intelligence. Their readiness to fight is kept at a high level.
  • Quieter submarines decrease the acoustic advantage on which our submarine barriers and underseas surveillance systems depend to detect Soviet submarine transits.
  • Their speed advantage permits the Soviet submarines to use leap-frog tactics and brute speed in attack or evasion underseas.

YEARLY CONSTRUCTION OF NUCLEAR SUBMARINES 

NOW BUILDING CAPACITY Avg. time to build 1 Sub.
USSR 14–20 35 21 MOS.
U.S. 3 6* 27 MOS.

*WHEN POSEIDON IS COMPLETE, U.S. CAPACITY WILL BE 10–12 A YEAR.


And, highly important, the Soviets, with their large capacity and high building rate, can exploit technical improvements more rapidly than we can. They have a potential production level of 35 nuclear submarines a year without facility expansion.


GROWTH IN SOVIET MISSILE-LAUNCH PLATFORMS 

1960 1970
MAJOR MISSILE WARSHIPS 6 49
MISSILE PATROL BOATS 6 158
CRUISE MISSILE SUBMARINES 0 62
RECONNAISSANCE AND MISSILE AIRCRAFT 215 454
TOTAL 227 723

The Soviets have concentrated on weapons for use at sea. This chart shows the buildup in missile-launching vehicles in their naval inventory.

Their surface fleet continues to grow in size and quality relative to ours.


US VS USSR GENERAL PURPOSE NAVAL SHIP CONSTRUCTION 1966–1970 

US USSR USSR/US IN %
MAJOR COMBATANTS 11 17 155
MINOR COMBATANTS 47 182 387
AMPHIBIOUS SHIPS 14 6 43
ATTACK  SUBMARINES 26 43 165

They are building more ships than we are; amphibious ships are the only category in which we have been outbuilding them.

And the Soviets are enhancing the effectiveness of these forces with a high quality capability for electronics warfare and communications. This includes active and passive countermeasures directed at our systems, intercept equipment covering all of our emitters, and excellent facilities for communications jamming, deception, and intelligence. These assets are drawn together by a highly secure, worldwide communications system.

The Soviet Navy I have touched on here can be deployed in all the oceans. To maintain our own position, our Navy must be based on the two-ocean concept. We cannot concentrate forces in one ocean unless we are prepared to accept in war the loss of control of the other oceans—and thus the destruction of the Free World Alliance.

As an example of this limitation, in the first naval capability to be examined—that of support of war on land—we have looked at alternative ways to provide lift across the Atlantic. The lift mission cannot be performed by air alone. For a NATO war in the mid-1970’s, JCS plans call for moving seven million tons of military dry cargo and five million tons of military POL in the first six months. Of this total only 6% could be moved by air. This is consistent with our experience in Southeast Asia, where 96% has moved in ships.


SEALIFT IS ESSENTIAL

  • IN A NATO WAR IN THE MID 1970’S, AIRLIFT WILL BE ABLE TO HANDLE ONLY 6% OF MILITARY CARGOES REQUIRED
  • IN SOUTHEAST ASIA, ONLY 4% HAS MOVED BY AIR

Heavy reliance on sealift is an integral part of the U.S. role as a sea power. It emphasizes the absolute need to be able to control the seas if the nation is to exist. This slide shows why the sea control role must be a main concern of the U.S. Navy. Seaborne trade is several times more important to the U.S. than to the Soviets. Oceans lie between us and our allies; most of the Soviet alliances are with contiguous nations.


SEABORNE TRADE

(MILLIONS OF LONG TONS) 

1958 1965
U.S. 274 395
USSR 26 90

ALLIANCES

WITH CONTIGUOUS NATIONS WITH NON-CONTIGUOUS NATIONS
U.S. 2 43
USSR 7 4

POTENTIAL  ENEMIES

U.S.: NO CONTIGUOUS ENEMIES

USSR: CHINA AND NATO


Support of war-on-land requires not only the ability to lift forces across the seas but also the ability to project power ashore.

At reduced force levels, we should be concerned about the threat to sea projection forces during the early days of a NATO war. The situation on each flank is different.


NATO WAR

MEDITERRANEAN THREAT FACTORS

  • CONTINUOUS OPERATIONS OF SOVIET SHIPS
  • SOVIET ACCESS TO PORTS
  • SOVIET USE OF AIRFIELDS

A combination of factors has given rise to a serious threat in the relatively restricted sea area of the Mediterranean. There are three such factors:

1. Continuous operation of Soviet ships in the Mediterranean,
2. Soviet access to ports that were closed to them less than a decade ago, and
3. Soviet use of airfields in the UAR and Libya. 

Because we lack adequate surveillance capabilities, we cannot keep full-time track of Soviet submarines in the Mediterranean. For their part, the Soviets’ surface ships trail our carriers, ready for a first-strike attack in the event of conflict.

Yet, the Soviet naval presence in the Mediterranean demands militarily that we maintain our SIXTH Fleet at generally current force levels. Politically, the whole ambience of NATO requires us to assume that those forces—or augmented forces—will be in place and subject to early and very heavy attack at the outbreak of hostilities.

On the northern flank, however, political circumstances do not require our permanent or prior presence. Hence, before moving in to support forces on land, we would probably operate from mid-ocean to erode the Soviets’ submarine force, sweep up their surface ships and, as Allied land-based air operations took effect, slow down the rate of sorties from enemy air bases.

These considerations also raise the question of the importance of the naval air strike responsibility in NATO. NATO plans call for using all our carriers in this role. Because of air base shortages in Europe and competitive SAC requirements for tankers, I consider that mission of central value in holding the line on the NATO flanks until planned Air Force reinforcements can be deployed from CONUS. Though some feasible measures will reduce the naval problem, the essential deficiency is in forces.

I should add that strategic warning does not lessen the Soviet naval threat, but it might give us time to move our forces from the Pacific. Strategic warning might also permit the Air Force to make deployments, though bases would be a limiting factor.

Support of the land battle in a NATO war would thus require naval carrier strike forces. Therefore, most of our sea control forces would be engaged in protecting these projection forces. There would be little left to provide more than random security to the sea lines of communications. We would then be ceding to the Soviets this linchpin of rapid reinforcement upon which NATO depends to stabilize the conflict on land and reduce the likelihood of escalation.

Within likely budgets, this heavy commitment in one ocean would, in our judgment, require the movement of naval forces from the Pacific, abandonment of the Pacific  area west of Hawaii, and cession of control of those waters—including all of Japan, for instance—to the Soviet Far East Fleet. We can also lose sea control in the Atlantic as a result of events in the Pacific. The Soviets can give direct or proxy support to a North Korean attack on South Korea. The logical first response to that situation, as in South Vietnam, would be strikes by our carrier aircraft. Our analysis of the threat in the Sea of Japan at the time the EC-121 was shot down indicates a requirement for at least four carriers, with large protecting forces. Again, within likely budgets, our forces will be inadequate for sea control in the Pacific in the face of Soviet involvement—or threat of involvement—at sea, unless we move the bulk of our naval forces to the area. But that would cost us control of the Atlantic and the sea lines that support NATO.

These considerations present us with a number of hard alternatives in the face of budget reductions, if the Navy is to be in a position to make the necessary contribution to the nation’s security.


ALTERNATIVES

  • COMMIT ALL NAVAL FORCES TO SEA CONTROL
  • CONCENTRATE FORCES IN ONE OCEAN
  • INCREASE FORCES TO A LEVEL COMMENSURATE WITH TWO-OCEAN NEEDS

  • One course would be to commit all or nearly all the forces available, including the carriers, to the sea control mission. If so, the NATO air strike responsibility would have to be significantly reduced or even eliminated. In Asia, the cutting edge provided by attack carriers in a situation such as Korea would be reduced drastically if the Soviets chose to become involved at sea. At our lower force levels, we simply could not risk the irretrievable loss of sea control by hazarding our few carriers in land battles close to Eurasia.
  • Another course would be augmentation of forces from one ocean to the other in time of crisis or conflict, as an integral part of our strategic planning. If so, we would have to accept the risk or actual fact of Soviet control of the other seas and the implications of that result for the Free World Alliance.
  • The only real solution is maintenance of forces at the FY-1970 level or, for greater assurance, an increase of forces. This alternative will retain the naval option to provide the President with a mobile strategic contingency force whenever required and ensures greater confidence in our capability to support the deployment of Army and Air Force units.

Let me speak now of other naval capabilities that are required and that will fit into the force implications just discussed in the war-on-land case.

In addition to possibly contesting for control of sea lanes incident to a war on land, the Soviets’ naval strength enables them to start a war restricted to the sea. Such a conflict could be directed at Free World merchant shipping, at our naval forces, or at some combination of the two, the choice depending on the Soviets’ objective. The Soviets might also wage such a war by proxy.

If we were not already engaged in conflict, we could commit maximum available forces immediately to the sea control mission. There would be no conflicting requirements for projection of power ashore, though our ability to provide a strategic contingency force for another crisis would be reduced. This slide shows the results of a recent study of such a war at sea, including a high intensity war and a guerrilla war at sea. The study assumed present force levels projected ahead. In this study, our losses are heavy. They would be heavier at the lower levels we are now planning on.

How our allies—we—and the Soviets estimate the outcome of such a conflict could have a significant influence on responses to other situations. The Soviets surely gave this matter prominence in their decisions during the Cuban missile crisis. In our judgment, their naval course since that time originated then. Whether any President will ever again be willing to impose a blockade will depend on his assessment—and ours— of the risks if war at sea were to result. His decision will also depend on whether we proceed now to provide him with credible tools. To expect our allies to help us counter a Soviet initiative at sea will depend primarily on their view of our ability to pursue such a conflict successfully.

Admiral Elmo “Bud” Zumwalt served as the nineteenth Chief of Naval Operations of the U.S. Navy, from 1970-1974. 

Featured Image: Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt. Jr., USN, Chief of Naval Operations (left), and Rear Admiral Robert S. Salzer, USN, Commander Naval Forces Vietnam, discuss their recent visit to Nam Can Naval Base, Republic of Vietnam, as they fly to their next stop, May 1971. Official U.S. Navy Photograph.

Winning the Cold War at Sea with Reagan-Era Navy Secretary John Lehman

By Dmitry Filipoff

CIMSEC had the pleasure of asking The Honorable John F. Lehman, Secretary of the Navy under the Reagan Administration from 1981-1987, questions on his new book Oceans Ventured: Winning the Cold War at Sea 

Q: Your tenure as Navy Secretary was guided by President Reagan’s new national security strategy. How did the 1980s U.S. Navy operationalize this new strategy?

A: President Reagan was quite clear in his naval strategy and policy. Eight months before his election, he declared “We have to maintain a superior navy. We are a nation with vital interests and commitments overseas, and our navy must stay ahead of the Soviet buildup. This means commissioning the ships and developing technology which will enable the United States to command the oceans for decades to come.”  He believed strongly in the importance of confronting and negotiating with the Soviets from a position of strength – a position based on adequate and appropriate forces as well as the will and capability to use them should that ever be necessary. We in the Navy provided him that strategy. He fully embraced the force goal of a 600-ship Navy and its 15 carrier battle groups and 100 attack submarines, along with the tenets of The Maritime Strategy: Offensive, forward, global operations at sea and from the sea, as a critical component of an aggressive and forward total joint and allied strategy. In this he was fully supported by Secretary of Defense Cap Weinberger, myself as Secretary of the Navy, and a succession of Chiefs of Naval Operations. There was no daylight between any of us on these fundamentals.

The strategy was operationalized through accelerating the Navy’s building and deployment program; developing and promulgating suitable concepts and tactics; gaming those concepts and tactics at Newport and other institutions; and – most importantly and centrally – demonstrating, practicing, and analyzing them at sea, forward and throughout the world, from the very moment the President took office in 1981. This involved both a revamped forward exercise program as well as responding to real-world crises globally on a daily basis. In 1987, when the administration published its first formal public statement of its national security strategy, achieving and maintaining maritime superiority was enshrined as one of its bedrock ideas.

Q: How did the Soviets respond to the new Maritime Strategy and how did it influence their operations and diplomacy?

A:  They were aghast. At first, they didn’t know what to make of it, so they responded in kind: Throwing wave after wave of ships and aircraft at us wherever we popped up on their periphery – a periphery that they had long taken for granted as being their own backyard, and as vital launching space for further expansion. We were prepared for this, and indeed welcomed it, using their approaching forces as ‘targeting services’ to help refine our own tactics and to signal to them that the days of a free ride on the world’s oceans had come to an end. They also redoubled their own building program, putting their naval industrial base into overdrive – and in the process helping wreck their own economy. Then, when they saw we weren’t backing down, they began to tend to their own defenses, and started pulling in their horns, circling their wagons. This of course, was exactly what we had in mind, as it eased the pressure they had been putting on Norway, Japan, and other forward allies, and on American and allied forces facing them in Europe and Asia. They were particularly taken aback by the prowess of our commanders at sea in cover and deception operations. To kill a ship you need to find it first, and our commanders stayed up nights thinking up ways to bluff, trick, hide, and conceal their forces at sea so that they couldn’t be found. They also railed against The Maritime Strategy loudly and publicly. “Remarkably odious,” Izvestia snarled. “It is hardly possible to imagine anything worse.”

They had their own tricks, of course, in the form of American spies – sailors and government civilians – who were delivering our plans and orders to them by the trash bag-full. And they exploited these greed-heads to the maximum extent that they could. Finally—and this we hadn’t planned as extensively for – they started a massive propaganda campaign calling for a wide range of naval arms control measures that would barely affect their own capabilities but that would hamstring us to a fare-the-well. Fortunately, not just the U.S. Navy but the U.S. nation rose to that challenge, dismissing their proposals for what they were – ploys to cut and constrain our vital naval capabilities while giving them the protection they now craved, and leaving us vulnerable to Soviet challenges at sea. At the very end of the decade, they began shutting down their far forward operations and facilities in Africa and elsewhere, and scrapping hulls that they had kept in their inventory far past their useful lives. But they continued – right up until the Soviet Union disappeared – to throw a multitude of new well-armed hulls in the water – a challenge we had to pay attention to until their country was no more.

Q: How did American maritime superiority contribute to the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union?

A: American maritime superiority made essential contributions. It ensured that their far forward forces – like those in Cuba, Africa, and the Indian Ocean – would not be available in a fight, and that our own considerable allied and forward forces always would be, reinforced and resupplied from North America. Maritime superiority meant we could threaten them from all directions, at once or serially, flexing our forces to come at them in the Norwegian Sea, the Arctic, the eastern Mediterranean, and the western Pacific, and reinforcing their need to protect and defend their forces close to their homeland, instead of surging out into the broad oceans and threatening our own shores. American maritime superiority meant that their strategic ballistic missile submarine force – on which their warfighting doctrine relied as a necessary nuclear strategic reserve – was not going to survive the early days of a war, should our president so decide. Finally, American maritime superiority meant that they could never catch up. We would always strive to be ahead of them – and succeed, no matter how many new ship classes they constructed or spies they paid off. As President Gorbachev plaintively remarked in 1989 to President Bush on board the Soviet cruise ship Gorky off Malta, “We are encircled by your Navy.”

Q: The book takes its title from a major exercise, and it is heavily focused on exercises throughout. Why this specific focus? Why are these exercises valuable for naval forces and national security writ large?

A: The Maritime Strategy included a host of interlocking initiatives, but none were more important than the forward at-sea exercises. Like other exercises, they had a number of vital and worthy goals: To train, to test, to experiment, to practice, to hone. But much more importantly, these exercises – especially the very earliest ones like Ocean Venture ‘81 in the Norwegian Sea and its initial companion exercises in the North Pacific – were designed to – and did – send the most powerful of all signals to the Soviets: Presidential candidate Reagan’s “peace through strength” campaign motto was now firm U.S. policy, not a discarded slogan. They also signaled to the plucky Norwegians, our other NATO allies, the Japanese, the South Koreans and others that we once again “had their back.” We really did. And they signaled to those naysayers among the defeated Democrats and in ground combat-oriented American and allied headquarters to get on board, because this President and his like-minded appointed officials were serious, and in charge.

And yet – despite all that has been written about The Maritime Strategy and its effects – including my own work – there hasn’t been much attention paid to the exercises. Operators go to sea and scribes do the writing, and the scribes – even the operators among them – have short-changed the role of the exercises in favor of learned dissections of the role of secret intelligence or wargaming, or exegeses on the evolution of the documents, or any of the many other elements that came together to comprise the “perfect storm” of The Maritime Strategy. This book is intended to put some balance into what had become an important – but unbalanced – literature (see my bibliography). And to pay tribute to the brave and clever Navy operators who devised and carried out these maneuvers – many necessarily in atrocious weather – in the Arctic, the Barents, the Norwegian Sea, the Med, the Sea of O, the Sea of Japan, and elsewhere.

Q: These exercises were often led and designed by leaders with a wily reputation, leaders like Admirals Hank Mustin and Ace Lyons as you discuss in the book. What distinguishes great operational and tactical innovators such as these men?

A: The U.S. Navy is certainly fortunate to have among its numbers a goodly share of “operators” – seamen, aviators, and tacticians who enjoy going to sea and putting warships, aircraft, and their crews through their paces. For them, it’s the ultimate in “fun and zest,” as my old mentor Admiral Bud Zumwalt used to say. They aren’t hard to find in the Navy – everyone knows who the “sea dogs” and “good sticks” are. But it can be hard to place them in senior operational positions where their talents can shine. One of the most important jobs a Secretary of the Navy has to participate in is the identification of those stalwarts, and then ensuring they get assigned top jobs where they can do the most good. I spent a fair amount of time on that when I was secretary, and I believe most of my choices panned out well. And so did the Soviets (see the vignette in the book where post-Cold War Russian admirals are crowding a window to get a glimpse of Ace Lyons at a conference).

John Lehman (Secretary of Navy) posing beside attack plane & in cockpit after completing regulation training week as Naval Reserve commander at Oceana Naval Air Station. (Photo by Mark Meyer/Time & Life Pictures/)

Speaking of Ace, he illustrates another important point as well: Many of the Navy’s most skilled operators are also among its most well-educated and experienced in naval strategy, policy, and global fleet operations. Again, the trick is to identify these folks early on and develop them with alternating sea and shore tours and repeat tours in plans and policy billets so that they can get the necessary breadth and depth of experience once they reach high flag rank. Ace was a famous ship-driver and deception specialist at sea, but he also had had four tours in OP-06 (today’s N3/N5) before being promoted to flag (well before my time, incidentally), as well as tours as a student at both the Naval War College and the National War College. All that, plus his drive, brains and imagination, made him a formidable Navy leader. Hank Mustin –  the other famed mariner you mentioned – had a similar special background, including student tours at the Naval Postgraduate School and the Naval War College, a combat tour on the rivers of Vietnam, and several OPNAV tours in surface warfare planning and crafting CNO Zumwalt’s Project SIXTY – an ancestor of The Maritime Strategy. So the Navy has these men and women – with the right education, experience, aggressive mindset, and imagination. It’s up to the top leadership to develop their careers sensibly and move them quickly into the most demanding top positions, even if it means goring some sacred cows like cookie-cutter career patterns and “Buggins’s turn.”

Q: You described a “virtuous circle” that kept strategy current and evolving. As described in the book, it consisted of fleet exercises that fed into the work of key institutions like the Strategic Studies Group, the Center for Naval Analyses, the Naval War College, and others, who then informed new fleet exercises. Please discuss how this virtuous circle worked.

A: It worked in a number of ways, all essential. First of all, there were the formal linkages. For example, the Navy’s educated and experienced strategists in OP-603 crafted Maritime Strategy briefings that were used by OPNAV and the Secretariat to kick off the POM development cycle each year. Many OP-603 officers had had Naval War College or similar civilian educations that had taught them the principles of naval strategy. These experts also briefed their products to the CNOs and myself, to the Strategic Studies Group (SSG) and the professoriat at Newport, and to a host of others – in the other services, on the Hill and overseas, for example. They listened as much as they briefed, and brought useful new insights back with them to update and polish their briefings. Meanwhile, I was providing the essential political direction that was sorely needed to shift the Navy to a more aggressive posture, and my staff ensured that my speeches and other emanations found their way to OP-603, the SSG, and other homes to direct and influence the growing strategy and the 600-ship Navy program. It took a couple of years of this iterative process before the ever-changing and ever-improving slide decks could be converted to actual documents, but they eventually were. Having benefitted from all these inputs, they proved extraordinarily influential.

Meanwhile, the SSG used its freedom and high-level access to explore extensions, variants, and alternatives to facets of the strategy, and fed them to myself and the CNOs. Some then found their way into the next iteration of the strategy briefing. The fleet commanders – supported by their seagoing CNA operational analysts – debriefed their strategy-influenced exercises extensively, within the Pentagon and on the Hill. Programmers and budget-crafters thus heard firsthand how the strategy – and their programs – were faring forward at sea, facing off against Soviet Backfire regiments and submarines. And they learned what needed changing. Meanwhile once per year, the Naval War College convened a Global War Game to examine elements of the strategy. Players included SSG staff and fellows, Hill staffers, OP-603 strategists, Naval War College and Naval Postgraduate School professors, unified command reps and, of course, the fleets and others. They took back to their commands and offices and classrooms the insights they had gained from the games, and submitted recommendations to the gamers on what might be done better or different next year – and to OP-603 to revise their baseline. Overlaid on all of this were inputs from the Navy’s intelligence officers and CNA, which injected important and counter-intuitive “Red” views into the strategy concepts and media, and enabled the strategy to be further developed at various levels of classification.

Then too, The Maritime Strategy benefitted from the Navy’s rotation policies – when intelligently applied. Conceptualizers and practitioners swapped positions regularly. Examples abound: Ace Lyons went from running Ocean Venture and other Maritime Strategy exercises to serving as OP-06, responsible for updating the strategy briefings and documents, then on to the Pacific Fleet, to apply what he knew in the waters off Kamchatka and Vladivostok, through imaginative use of a revitalized and forward-operating Third Fleet. Hank Mustin likewise went from running imaginative exercises as COMSECONDFLT/ COMSTRKFLTLANT (“Mustin in the Fjords”) to OP-06. And it wasn’t only the flags: CAPT Larry Seaquist, for example, came down from the SSG to run the OP-603 strategy shop, then went on to command USS Iowa at sea in Maritime Strategy exercises, and then on to strategy staff positions on the Joint Staff and OSD. CDR Ray Conrad – one of the Navy’s pre-eminent NATO experts – moved from OP-603 to a destroyer command in which he “walked the talk” in frigid North Pacific exercises, and then moved on to NATO headquarters where he inculcated a generation of allied officers and civilians in the Maritime Strategy’s principles. He was joined there by Peter Swartz, with whom he had earlier worked in OP-603. Swartz subsequently was picked up by CJCS GEN Colin Powell as a Special Assistant during the Gulf War.

And so it went. By the end of the decade, the upper reaches of the Navy – and the Pentagon and the National Security Council Staff – were shot through with officers who had served in a variety of guises in developing and implementing the Strategy, and who also served as mentors to the follow-on generation.

Q: The Navy of 1980 was in many ways still suffering from a post-Vietnam War malaise and had to shift from a power projection focus toward sea control against a great-power adversary, while still maintaining full-spectrum competence. A similar problem exists today. What did it take to reset the Navy’s mindset and skills to meet this challenge?

A: Well, that’s not quite accurate for the 1980s, although it does square with CNO ADM Zumwalt’s views in the early 1970s. What we faced in the 80s was the need to plus-up and advance both sea control and power projection – and strategic deterrence, strategic sealift, and forward presence to boot. We needed more carriers and strike aircraft, more and better amphibs and landing craft, more attack submarines that could work under the ice, more prepositioning and sealift ships to get the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps where they needed to go. Also, we needed to rapidly introduce into the fleet Tomahawk missiles, Aegis cruisers, Vertical Launching Systems (VLS), and a whole new family of strategic nuclear ballistic missile submarines. We had to do it all. We were up against the Soviet superpower, armed to the teeth and deployed worldwide. And not just their Navy, but the Red Army, Red Air Force, and Soviet allies and clients too.

What it took to reset the Navy’s mindset and skills were three things: 

(1) Development and promulgation of a global, forward, and aggressive Maritime Strategy that laid out what we needed to do and how and where we needed to do it, continually re-conceptualized, exercised, gamed, analyzed, discussed, and improved.

(2) A funded force goal of 600 ships, including 15 carrier battle groups, 4 battleship SAGs, 100 attack submarines, amphibious lift for a Marine Amphibious Force and a Marine Amphibious Brigade, and cruisers bristling with Tomahawks and Aegis.

(3) A vigorous campaign to drive and keep costs down, including restoring accountability and authority to officials, not bureaucracies, fixed price contracting, fostering competition, enforcing contract discipline, using common subsystems, technological innovation through block upgrades, terminating unproductive research and development programs, controlling gold-plating and design changes, and cutting bureaucratic layers.

Q: The United States has long been a maritime power. China, after millennia of focusing on continental power, is only recently but seriously focusing on developing its maritime power as a core component of its rise. Russia’s maritime power is a shadow of its Soviet past. What does history tell us about the value of maritime power for great powers and competition between them?

A: Great powers are not great powers without maritime power. And superpowers are not superpowers without maritime superiority. The United States – and, indeed, the entire world – has benefitted greatly from our acting as a superpower ever since World War II. That continues today. It would be a tragedy of the first order – for ourselves and all others—to allow our position as a superpower to slip. Central to maintaining superpower status, however, is maritime superiority. It is U.S. maritime superiority that guarantees freedom of the seas for the world’s commerce, connects us to our allies and innumerable interests around the world, and enables us to use the seas as a decisive global maneuver space, in peace and war.

In my six years in office, under President Reagan, America was spending almost six percent of our gross domestic product (GDP) on defense per year. That investment contributed mightily to our winning the Cold War. Today we are spending just a little over three percent. Given the plethora of challenges that Secretary of Defense Mattis laid out in his recent National Defense Strategy, it is difficult to understand how we will be able to continue to counter those challenges in the future, absent a deeper financial commitment from the American people and their representatives to maintain our maritime superiority and thus our status as the world’s essential superpower. It is the right and necessary thing to do, for ourselves and the world, and as the richest power on earth we can afford it. America can and should do this.

And that maritime superiority must be exercised worldwide and forward. Nelson beat Napoleon off Egypt and again off Spain, not off England. John Paul Jones fought the British off Yorkshire, not off New York. In the earliest and darkest days of World War II, we launched Army bombers from Navy carriers and bombed Tokyo. We won the Cold War at sea off the Kola, Kamchatka, Vladivostok, in the Eastern Med and under the Arctic ice, not off San Diego or Norfolk. Superpower maritime superiority demands forward operations “in harm’s way.” So we must be manned, trained, and equipped to fight and win globally and forward.

Q: Any final thoughts you would like to share?

A: I write this on Memorial Day. We can never forget those who sacrificed so much to bring us where we are in the world today. Sailors, Marines, Soldiers, Airmen, Coast Guardsmen, and civilian government workers and contractors have all given their lives to keep us strong, free, and prosperous. This includes some who died during the very exercises and operations I recounted in my book. They were critical to our winning the Cold War, and we must never forget them.

The Hon. John F. Lehman Jr. is Chairman of J.F. Lehman & Company, a private equity investment firm. He is a director of Ball Corporation, Verisk, Inc and EnerSys Corporation. Dr. Lehman was formerly an investment banker with PaineWebber Inc. Prior to joining PaineWebber, he served for six years as Secretary of the Navy. He was President of Abington Corporation between 1977 and 1981. He served 25 years in the naval reserve. He has served as staff member to Dr. Henry Kissinger on the National Security Council, as delegate to the Force Reductions Negotiations in Vienna and as Deputy Director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. Dr. Lehman served as a member of the 9/11 Commission, and the National Defense Commission. Dr. Lehman holds a B.S. from St. Joseph’s University, a B.A. and M.A. from Cambridge University and a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. He is currently an Hon. Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University. Dr. Lehman has written numerous books, including On Seas of Glory, Command of the Seas, and Making War. He is Chairman of the Princess Grace Foundation USA and is a member of the Board of Overseers of the School of Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania.

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Nextwar@cimsec.org.

Featured Image: USS Nimitz (CVN-68) and part of Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 8: four A-6E Intruders, two S-3A Vikings, six F-14A Tomcats, and four A-7E Corsairs. Second half of 1984. (Newport News Shipbuilding photo)

Declassified: US Nuclear Weapons At Sea

This piece was originally published by the Federation of American Scientists.  It is republished here with the author’s permission.  Read it in its original form here.

By Hans M. Kristensen

ASROC nuclear test.
ASROC nuclear test.

Remember during the Cold War when US Navy warships and attack submarines sailed the World’s oceans bristling with nuclear weapons and routinely violated non-nuclear countries’ bans against nuclear weapons on their territories in peacetime?

The weapons were onboard ballistic missile submarines, attack submarines, aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, frigates and supply ships. The weapons were brought along on naval exercises, spy missions, freedom of navigation demonstrations and port visits.

Sometimes the vessels they were on collided, ran aground, caught fire, or sank.

Not many remember today. But now the Pentagon has declassified how many nuclear weapons they actually deployed in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Mediterranean. In our latest FAS Nuclear Notebook published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists we review this unique new set of declassified Cold War nuclear history. 

The Numbers

The declassified documents show that the United States during much of the 1970s and the 1980s deployed about a quarter of its entire nuclear weapons stockpile at sea. The all-time high was in 1975 when 6,191 weapons were afloat, but even in 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there were 5,716 weapons at sea. That’s more nuclear weapons than the size of the entire US nuclear stockpile today.

The declassified data provides detailed breakdowns for weapons in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Mediterranean for the 30-year period between 1961 and 1991. Prior to 1961 only totals are provided. Except for three years (1962, 1965 and 1966), most weapons were always deployed in the Atlantic, a reflection of the focus on defending NATO against the Soviet Union. When adding the weapons in the Mediterranean, the Euro-centric nature of the US nuclear posture during the Cold War becomes even more striking. The number of weapons deployed in the Pacific peaked much later, in 1987, at 2,085 weapons.

afloat_table
Click to view full size

The declassified numbers end in 1991 with the offloading of non-strategic naval nuclear weapons from US Navy vessels. After that only strategic missile submarines (SSBNs) have continued to deploy with nuclear weapons on board. Those numbers are still secret.

In the table above we have incorporated our estimates for the number of nuclear warhead deployed on US ballistic missile submarines since 1991. Those estimates show that afloat weapons increased during the 1990s as more Ohio-class SSBNs entered the fleet.

Because the total stockpile decreased significantly in the early 1990s, the percentage of it that was deployed at sea grew until it reached an all-time high of nearly 33 percent in 2000. Retirement of four SSBNs, changes to strategic war plans, and the effect of arms control agreements have since reduced the number of nuclear weapons deployed at sea to just over 1,000 in 2015. That corresponds to nearly 22 percent of the stockpile deployed at sea.

The just over 1,000 afloat warheads today may be less than during the Cold War, but it is roughly equivalent to the nuclear weapons stockpiles of Britain, China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea combined.

Mediterranean Mystery

The declassification documents do not explain how the numbers are broken down. The “Atlantic,” “Pacific,” and “Mediterranean” regions are not the only areas where the U.S. Navy sent nuclear-armed warships. Afloat weapons in the Indian and Arctic oceans, for example, are not listed even though nuclear-armed warships sailed in both oceans. Similarly, the declassified documents show the number of afloat weapons in the Mediterranean suddenly dropping to zero in 1987, even though the U.S. Navy continued so deploy nuclear-armed vessels into the Mediterranean Sea.

During the naval deployments in support of Operation Desert Storm against Iraq in early 1991, for example, the aircraft carrier USS America (CV-66) deployed with its nuclear weapons division (W Division) and B61 nuclear strike bombs and B57 nuclear depth bombs. The W Division was still onboard when America deployed to Northern Europe and the Mediterranean in 1992 but had been disbanded by the time it deployed to the Mediterranean in 1993.

B61 and B57 nuclear weapons are displayed on board the USS America (CV-66) during its deployment to Operation Desert Storm in 1991. The nuclear division was also onboard in 1992 but gone in 1993.
B61 and B57 nuclear weapons are displayed on board the USS America (CV-66) during its deployment to Operation Desert Storm in 1991. The nuclear division was also onboard in 1992 but gone in 1993.

As ships offloaded their weapons, the on-board nuclear divisions gradually were disbanded in anticipation of the upcoming de-nuclearization of the surface fleet. One of the last carriers to deploy with a W Division was the USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67), which upon its return to the United States from a Mediterranean deployment in 1992-1993 ceremoniously photographed the W crew with the sign: “USS John F. Kennedy, CV 67, last W-Division, 17 Feb. 93.” The following year, the Clinton administration publicly announced that all carriers and surface ships would be denuclearized.

afloat_last_carrier_1993
The last nuclear weapons division on the USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) is disbanded in February 1993. The following year the entire surface fleet was denuclearized.

Since nuclear weapons clearly deployed to the Mediterranean Sea after the declassified documents showing zero afloat nuclear weapons in the area, perhaps the three categories “Atlantic,” “Pacific,” and “Mediterranean” refer to overall military organization: “Atlantic” might be weapons under the command of the Atlantic Fleet (LANTFLT); “Pacific” might refer to the Pacific Fleet (PACFLT); and “Mediterranean” might refer to the Sixth Fleet. Yet I’m not convinced that organization is the whole story; the Atlantic numbers didn’t suddenly increase when the Mediterranean numbers dropped to zero.

The declassified afloat numbers end in 1991. After that year the only nuclear weapons deployed at sea have been strategic weapons onboard ballistic missile submarines. Most of those deploy in the Atlantic and Pacific but have occasionally deployed into the Mediterranean even after the declassified documents list zero afloat weapons in that region, and even after the surface fleet was denuclearized.

In 1999, for example, the ballistic missile submarine USS Louisiana (SSBN-743) conducted a port visit to Souda Bay on Crete with it load of 24 Trident missiles and an estimated 192 warheads. The ship’s Command History states that the port visit, which took place December 12-16, 1999, occurred during the “Alert Strategic Deterrent Patrol in support of national tasking” that included a “Mediterranean Sea Patrol.”

Risks of Nuclear Accidents

accident_belknap1975_brokenarrowflash

Deploying nuclear weapons on ships and submarines created unique risks of accidents and incidents. Because warships sometimes collide, catch fire, or even sink, it was only a matter of time before the nuclear weapons they carried were threatened, damaged, or lost. This really happened.

During night air exercises on November 22, 1975, for example, the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) and cruiser USS Belknap (CG-26) collided in rough seas 112 kilometers (70 miles) east of Sicily. The carrier’s flight deck cuts into the superstructure of the Belknap setting off fires on the cruiser, which burned out of control for two-and-one-half hours. The commander of Carrier Striking Force for the U.S. Sixth Fleet on board the Kennedy issues a Broken Arrow alert to higher commands stating there was a “high probability that nuclear weapons (W45 Terrier missile warheads) on the Belknap were involved in fire and explosions.” Eventually the fire was stopped only a few meters from Belknap’s nuclear weapons magazine.

accident_belknap1975
The fire-damaged USS Belknap (CG-26) after colliding with USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) new Sicily in 1975. The fire stopped a few meters from the nuclear warhead magazine.

The Kennedy also carried nuclear weapons, approximately 100 gravity bombs for delivery by aircraft. The carrier caught fire but luckily it was relatively quickly contained. Another carrier, the USS Enterprise (CVN-65), had been less fortunate six years earlier when operating 112 kilometers (70 miles) southwest of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. A rocket on a F-4 Phantom aircraft exploded puncturing fuel tanks and starting violent fires that caused other rockets and bombs to explode. The explosions were so violent that they tore holes in the carrier’s solid steel deck and engulfed the entire back of the ship. The captain later said: “If the fire had spread to the hangar deck [below], we could have very easily lost the ship.” The Enterprise probably carried about 100 nuclear bombs and was powered by eight nuclear reactors.

accident_enterprise1969
The nuclear-armed and nuclear-powered USS Enterprise (CVN-65) burns off Hawaii on January 14, 1969. The carrier could have been lost, the captain said.

Dozens of nuclear weapons were lost at sea over the decades because they were on ships, submarines, or aircraft that were lost. On December 5, 1965, for example, while underway from operations off Vietnam to Yokosuka in Japan, an A-4E aircraft loaded with one B43 nuclear weapon rolled overboard from the Number 2 Elevator. The aircraft sank with the pilot and the bomb in 2,700 fathoms (4,940 meters) of water. The bomb has never been recovered. The Department of Defense reported the accident took place “more than 500 miles [805 kilometers] from land” when it revealed the accident in 1981. But Navy documents showed the accident occurred about 80 miles (129 kilometers) east of the Japanese Ryukyu Island chain, approximately 250 miles (402 kilometers) south of Kyushu Island, Japan, and about 200 miles (322 kilometers) east of Okinawa. Japan’s public policy and law prohibit nuclear weapons. (For a video if B43 aircraft carrier handling and A-4 loading, see this video.)

accident_ticonderoga1965
An A-4 Skyhawk with a B43 nuclear bomb under its belly rises on an elevator from the hangar deck to the flight deck on the USS Independence (CV-62) in an undated US Navy photo. In December 1965, a B43 attached to an A-4 rolled off the elevator on the USS Ticonderoga (CVA-14) while the carrier was on its way to Yokosuka in Japan.

Three years later, on May 27, 1968, the nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Scorpion (SSN-589) suffered an accident and sank with all 99 men on board in the Atlantic Ocean approximately 644 kilometers (400 miles) southwest of the Azores. The Department of Defense in 1981 mentioned a nuclear weapons accident occurred in the Atlantic in the spring of 1968 but continues to classify the details. It is thought that two nuclear ASTOR torpedoes were on board the Scorpion when it sank.

accident_scorpion1968
The USS Scorpion (SSN-589) photographed in the Mediterranean Sea in April 1968, one month before it sank in the Atlantic Ocean. The Navy later located and photographed the wreck (inserts).

Risks of Nuclear Incidents

Another kind of risk was that nuclear weapons on board US warships could become involved in offensive maneuvers near Soviet warships that also carried nuclear weapons. Sometimes those nuclear-armed vessels collided – sometimes deliberately. Other times they were trapped in stressful situation. The presence of nuclear weapons could significantly increase the stakes and symbolism of the incidents and escalate a crisis.

Some of the most dramatic incidents happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 where crisis-stressed personnel on Soviet nuclear-armed submarines readied nuclear weapons for actual use as they were being hunted by US naval forces, many of which were also nuclear-armed. At the time there were approximately 750 U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in the Atlantic Ocean.

Less serious but nonetheless potentially dangerous incidents continued throughout the Cold War. In May 1974 the nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Pintado (SSN-672) collided almost head-on with a Soviet Yankee I-class ballistic missile submarine while cruising 200 feet (60 meters) below the surface in the approaches to the Petropavlovsk naval base on the Kamchatka Peninsula. The collision smashed much Pintado’s bow sonar, jammed shut a starboard side torpedo hatch, and damaged the diving plane. The Pintado, which probably carried 4-6 nuclear SUBROC missiles, sailed to Guam for seven weeks of repairs. The Soviet submarine, which probably carried its complement of 16 SS-N-6 ballistic missiles with 32 nuclear warheads, surfaced immediately and presumably limped back to port.

accident_pintado1974

On August 22, 1976, for example, US anti-submarine forces in the Atlantic and Mediterranean had been tracking a Soviet nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed Echo II-class attack submarine for ten days. The Soviet sub partially surfaced alongside the US frigate USS Voge (FF-1047), then turned right and ran into the frigate. The collision tore off part the Voge’s propeller and punctured the hull. The Voge is thought to have carried nuclear ASROC anti-submarine rockets. At the time there were around 430 U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in the Mediterranean Sea. The Soviet submarine suffered serious damage to its sail and some to its front hull section. (For a US account of the incident, see here; a Russian account is here.)

Even toward the very end of the Cold War in the late-1980s, nuclear-capable warships continued to get involved in serious incidents at sea. During a Freedom of Navigation exercise in the Black Sea on February 12, 1988, the cruiser USS Yorktown (CG-48) and destroyer USS Caron (DD-970) were bumped by a Soviet Krivak-class frigate and a Mirka-class frigate, respectively. Both U.S. ships were equipped to carry the nuclear-capable ASROC missile and the Caron had completed a series of nuclear certification inspections prior to its departure from the United States. Yet the W44 warhead for the ASROC was in the process of being phased out and it is possible that the vessels did not carry nuclear warheads during the incident. The declassified data shows that the number of U.S. nuclear weapons in the Mediterranean dropped to zero in 1987. The Soviet Krivak frigate, however, probably carried nuclear anti-submarine weapons at the time of the collision.

accident_blacksea1988
The nuclear-capable USS Caron (DD-970) and USS Yorktown (CG-48) are bumped by Soviet frigates during Freedom of Navigation operations inside Soviet territorial waters on February 12, 1988. For a video of the Caron collision, see here, and the Yorktown collision, see here.

Nuclear Diplomacy Headaches

In addition to the risks created by accidents and incidents, nuclear-armed warships were a constant diplomatic headache during the Cold War. Many U.S. allies and other countries did not allow nuclear weapons on their territory in peacetime but the United States insisted that it would neither confirm nor deny the presence of nuclear weapons anywhere. So good-will port visits by nuclear-armed warships instead turned into diplomatic nightmares as protesters battled what they considered blatant violations of the nuclear ban.

The port visit protests were endless, happening in countries all over the world. The national governments were forced to walk a fine line between their official public anti-nuclear policies and the secret political arrangements that allowed the weapons in anyway.

Public sentiments were particularly strong in Japan because it was the target of two nuclear weapon attacks in 1945. Japanese law banned the presence of nuclear weapons on its territory and required consultation prior to introduction, but the governments secretly accepted nuclear weapons in Japanese ports.

During the 1970s and early-1980s, opposition to nuclear ship visits grew in New Zealand and in 1984 culminating in the David Lange government banning visits by nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed vessels. The Reagan administration reacted angrily by ending defense cooperation with New Zealand under the ANZUS alliance. Only much later, during the Obama administration, have defense relations been restored.

afloat_SSN604_Oakland1979
The nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed attack submarine USS Haddo (SSN-604) is barraged by protestors during a port visit to Oakland in New Zealand in 1979.

The treatment of New Zealand was partially intended to deter other more important allies in Europe from adopting similar anti-nuclear legislation. But not surprisingly, the efforts backfired and instead increased opposition. In Denmark the growing evidence that nuclear weapons were actually being brought into Danish harbors despite its clear prohibition soon created political pressure to tighten up the ban. In 1988, this came to a head when a majority in the parliament adopted a resolution requiring the government to inform visiting warships of Denmark’s ban. The procedure did not require the captain to reveal whether his ship carried nuclear weapons, but the conservative government called an election and asked the United States to express its concern.

afloat_DDG17_Aalborg1988
The crew of the nuclear-armed destroyer USS Conyngham (DDG-17) uses high-pressure hoses to wash anti-nuclear protestors off its anchor chain during a standoff in Aalborg, Denmark, in 1988.

Across the Danish Straits in Sweden, the growing evidence that non-nuclear policies were violated in 1990 resulted in the government party deciding to begin to reinforce Sweden’s nuclear ban. The policy would essentially have created a New Zealand situation in Europe, a political situation that was a direct threat to the US Navy sailing its nuclear warships anyway it wanted.

These diplomatic battles over naval nuclear weapons were so significant that many US officials gradually began to wonder if nuclear weapons at sea were creating more trouble than good.

After The Big Nuke Offload

Finally, on September 27, 1991, President George H.W. Bush announced during a prime-time televised address that the United States would unilaterally offload all non-strategic nuclear weapons from its naval forces, bring all those weapons home, and destroy many of them. Warships would immediately stop loading nuclear weapons when sailing on overseas deployments and deployed vessels would offload their weapons as they rotated back to the United States. The offload was completed in mid-1992.

Two years later, the Clinton administration’s 1994 Nuclear Posture Review, decided that all surface ships would loose the capability to launch nuclear weapons. Only selected attack submarines would retain the capability to fire the nuclear Tomahawk land-attack sea-launched cruise missile (TLAM/N), but the weapons would be stored on land. Sixteen years later, in 2010, the Obama administration decided to retire the TLAM/N as well, ending decades of nuclear weapons deployments on ships, attack submarines, and on land-based naval air bases.

After the summer of 1992, only strategic submarines armed with long-range ballistic missiles have carried U.S. nuclear weapons at sea, a practice that is planned to continue through at least through the 2080s. These strategic submarines (SSBNs) have also been involved in accidents and incidents, risks that will continue as long as nuclear weapons are deployed at sea. Because secrecy is so much tighter for SSBN operations than for general naval forces, most accidents and incidents involving SSBNs probably escape public scrutiny. But a few reports, mainly collisions and groundings, have reached the public over the years.

accident_VonSteuben1968
USS Von Steuben (SSBN-632) after collision with tanker Sealady.

During a strategic deterrent patrol on August 9, 1968, the USS Von Steuben (SSBN-632) was struck by a submerged tow cable while operating submerged about 40 miles (64 kilometers) off the southern coast of Spain. As it surfaces, the submarine collides with the tanker Sealady, suffering damage to the superstructure and main deck (see image right). The submarine carried 16 Polaris A3 ballistic missiles with 48 nuclear warheads.

Two years later, on November 29, 1970, a fire breaks out onboard the nuclear submarine tender USS Canopus (AS-34) at the Holy Loch submarine base in Scotland. Two nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (USS Francis Scott Key (SSBN-657) and USS James K. Polk (SSBN-645)) were moored alongside Canapus. The Francis Scott Key cast off, but the Polk remained alongside. The fire burns out of control for four hours killing three men. The submarine tender carried nuclear missiles and warheads and the two submarines combined carried 32 Polaris A3 ballistic missiles with a total of 96 nuclear warheads.

Four years later, in November 1974, after having departed from its base at Holy Loch in Scotland, the ballistic missile submarine USS James Madison (SSBN-627) collides with a Soviet submarine in the North Sea. The collision left a nine-foot scrape in the Madison, which apparently dove onto the Soviet submarine, thought to have been a Victor-class nuclear-powered attack submarine. The Madison carried 16 Poseidon (C3) ballistic missiles with 160 nuclear warheads. The Soviet submarines probably carried nuclear rockets and torpedoes. Madison crew members called the incident The Victor Crash. Two days after the collision, the Madison enters dry dock at Holy Loch for a week of inspection and repairs.

accident_madison1974
The missile submarine USS James Madison (SSBN-627) in dry dock in Scotland in 1974 only days after it collided with a Soviet Victor-class nuclear-powered attack submarine in the North Sea.

After nuclear weapons were offloaded from surface ships and attack submarines in 1991-1992, nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines have continued to run aground or bump into other vessels from time to time.

On September 24, 1993, for example, after conducting a medical evacuation for a suck crew member, the ballistic missile submarine USS Maryland (SSBN-738) ran aground at Port Canaveral, Florida. The submarine was on a strategic deterrent patrol with 24 missiles onboard carrying an estimated 192 warheads. The Maryland eventually pulled free and continued the patrol two days later.

On March 19, 1998, while operating on the surface 125 miles (200 kilometers) off Long Island, New York, the ballistic missile submarine USS Kentucky (SSBN-737) was struck by the attack submarine USS San Juan (SSN-751). The Kentucky suffered damaged to its rudder and San Juan’s forward ballast tank was ruptured. In a typical display of silly secrecy, the Navy refused to say whether the Kentucky carried nuclear weapons. But it did; the Kentucky was in the middle of its 21st strategic deterrent patrol and carried its complement of 24 Trident II missiles with an estimated 192 nuclear warheads.

accident_kentucky1998
In 1998, the USS Kentucky (SSBN-737) carrying nearly 200 nuclear warheads collided with an attack submarine less than 230 miles (378 kilometers) from New York City.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The Obama administration has made an important contribution to nuclear policy by declassifying the documents with official numbers of US nuclear weapons deployed at sea during the Cold War. This adds an important chapter to the growing pool of declassified information about the history of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

The new declassified information helps us better understand the extent to which nuclear weapons were involved in day-to-day operations around the world. Every day, nuclear-armed warships of the US and Soviet navies were rubbing up against each other on the high seas in gong-ho displays of national determination. Some saw it as necessary for nuclear deterrence; others as dangerous nuclear brinkmanship. Many of those who were on the ships submarines still get goosebumps when they talk about it and wonder how we survived the Cold War. The tactical naval nuclear weapons were considered more acceptable to use early in a conflict because there would be few civilian casualties. But any use would probably quickly have escalated into large-scale nuclear war and the end of the world as we know it.

The declassified information, when correlated with the many accidents and incidents that nuclear-armed ships and submarines were involved in over the years, also helps us remember a key lesson about nuclear weapons: when they are operationally deployed they will sooner or later be involved in accidents and incidents.

This is not just a Cold War lesson: thousands of nuclear weapons are still operationally deployed on ballistic missile submarines, on land-based ballistic missiles, and on bomber bases. And not just in the United States but also in Britain, France, and Russia. Some of those deployed weapons will have accidents in the future. (See here for the most recent)

Moreover, growing tensions with Russia and China now make some ask if the United States needs to increase the role of its nuclear weapons and once again equip aircraft carriers with the capability to deliver nuclear bombs and once again develop and deploy nuclear land-attack sea-launched cruise missiles on attack submarines.

Doing so would be to roll back the clock and ignore the lessons of the Cold War and likely make the current tensions worse than they already are.

Instead, the United States should seek to work with Russia – even though it is challenging right now – to reduce deployed nuclear weapons and jointly try to persuade smaller nuclear-armed countries such as China, India, and Pakistan from increasing the operational readiness of their nuclear forces. That ought to be one thing Russia and the United States could actually agree on.

Background information:

Hans M. Kristensen is the director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists where he provides the public with analysis and background information about the status of nuclear forces and the role of nuclear weapons.

The research for this publication was made possible by a grant from the New Land Foundation, and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.

Reviewing Charles Glasers’ “China-U.S. Grand Bargain”

Guest post for Chinese Military Strategy Week by Peter Marino

In May of this year, the PLA released its most expansive defense White Paper ever. Having now firmly left in the past the original missions of the PLA simply to defend the Chinese mainland, the paper imagines a solidly regional, and even global, role for its armed forces to protect Chinese vital interests in economics and politics. This has understandably put additional pressure on US and Western defense planners to review their own strategic postures towards China and reassess how they intend to position themselves against it, as the post-First Cold War international architecture breaks down and a Second Cold War seems to be coming into focus. Squarely in the middle of any reassessment of U.S. strategic posture towards China would undoubtedly be Taiwan policy. Should the US hold to its commitments under the 1979 Taiwan Relations act? Should it strengthen these commitments? Or should it abandon them altogether? China specialists across the spectrum are weighing in. Today, I take a moment to review one such proposal, by Professor Charles Glaser of the Elliott School.1

[1] Charles L. Glaser. “A U.S.-China Grand Bargain? The Hard Choice between Military Competition and Accommodation.” International Relations 39, No. 4, Spring 2015, 49-90.

Peter Marino holds an MSc in Global Politics from The London School of Economics and is a graduate of Norwich University. He lived in Shanghai from 2003 to 2008 and served as head of China development for London-based Aurigon, Ltd. He founded and sold Quaternion, a political risk startup, and is currently establishing a new Think Tank for International Affairs aimed at promoting engagement with the “Millennial Generation.” He also produces Globalogues, a video blog with commentary on global politics and economics. The views expressed in this article are his own.

CIMSEC content is and always will be free; consider a voluntary monthly donation to offset our operational costs. As always, it is your support and patronage that have allowed us to build this community – and we are incredibly grateful.
Select a Donation Option (USD)

Enter Donation Amount (USD)