Admiral Tom Hayward on Challenging War Plans and Revamping Strategy

1980s Maritime Strategy Series

By Dmitry Filipoff

CIMSEC discussed the 1980s Maritime Strategy with Admiral Tom Hayward (ret.), who initiated much of the Navy’s efforts toward changing war plans and adopting a more offensive role that would later be embodied in the Maritime Strategy. In this conversation, Admiral Hayward discusses how he came to learn of the Swing Strategy, how he initiated efforts to revise war plans, and how he advocated for these changes as commander of the Pacific Fleet and as the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO).

How did you learn about the Swing Strategy as a senior commander and begin to change the war plans for the Navy?

It’s helpful to begin by providing some context. You have to put yourself back in the position of being an operator, and I myself was an operator when the Vietnam War was coming to an end. I’m no academic, I’m a tactician, and you try to get the immediate job done. So I commanded an aircraft carrier in Vietnam, focused on running strikes 24/7. In the context of global warfare, throughout that whole period of time, the Russians and their Pacific Fleet modernized a lot and clearly got to be bigger and better than our Pacific Fleet. But I didn’t focus on that at the time. I’m just the skipper of a carrier and my job is to get the guys over the beach and back safely.

We had a requirement to stand down every now and then to simulate the war plan launching of nuclear weapons, and this went on all over the fleet, as I far as I know. In the context of how the Seventh Fleet and the carriers would respond, our job was to launch nuclear weapons when so ordered. So we would exercise that. I’d pay some attention to it, but not in great detail, and made sure the exercise was taking place and got what we wanted out of it. Just a standard requirement of running the ship.

I got promoted to Rear Admiral and was eventually sent back to Washington. In all of my jobs for the next 10 or so years, I was trying to help get the Navy back on its feet post-Vietnam. When I went out later to command Seventh Fleet, I was dealing with plenty of logistics problems and getting the Navy back into rhythm again, with all the ships being way behind on maintenance. The primary responsibility of me as Seventh Fleet commander and later at PACFLT and so on was getting things back in shape, sorting things out, and getting our readiness back. We had major, major upkeep issues, retention, all those kinds of issues.

After settling down in Seventh Fleet, I said to the staff, “Let’s go through the war plans, what are they? I haven’t paid any attention to them.” And that’s the first time I found out that seriously what we were supposed to do under a certain DEFCON much of Seventh Fleet was to run and hide down among some islands in the South Pacific and pretend they can’t be found. And then they would use nukes when ordered to execute the war plans. And that’s when I started thinking that’s crazy, we’ve got a fleet out here we’ve got a fight, the Russians have a Pacific Fleet here. That was the real start of my working with the staff and my own thinking about other options. Because that was a lousy choice and we needed to start looking at how we should really do this.

How did you work on that while commanding the Pacific Fleet?

Around that time I get promoted to lead PACFLT. So my perspective changes where I’ve got the whole fleet to worry about now and not just Seventh Fleet. In that context, my priorities were still way over on the side of readiness and getting our Navy back to operating again. We had huge problems. We think we have problems now, back then we had horrible budgets, broken down people and platforms, drug problems, all those day-to-day things that affect readiness in a big way. Our readiness was terrible. So my highest priority at the time was readiness.

However, at the same time I had my ops guys start thinking about the war plans. That’s when I became even more familiar with what was in the war plans about the Swing Strategy. That’s around the time when Captain Jim Patton joined my staff and became the action officer for all my thinking on this and did the research and provided the background on these issues. It became very clear to me that the Swing Strategy was the wrong answer.

That’s when I formulated Sea Strike, the staff came up with that name. The idea was that the strategy would take the fight to the Russians and get them to tie down their eastern armies, which they could otherwise have swung to the west in the event of a major conflict. We were going to put them on the defensive. We knew from intelligence the Russians were logically very sensitive to homeland security. It took many months to put together a plan with all the extensive details and then think about how to wargame it, practice it, put it into effect.

But some people would say, ‘You didn’t promote it at the time.’ I said, absolutely not I didn’t promote it. If I had gone to even the CNO, Admiral Jim Holloway, or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and tell him we wanted to change the war plans, it would surely have been squelched.

Furthermore, I didn’t know yet whether it was a practical thing to do. But I knew that what was already planned was definitely impractical. Send all our fleets to the Atlantic? Crazy idea.

That took place when I was at PACFLT, developing the plan, getting it ready to exercise, work out the obstacles and the hurdles to get through it, and get it to the point where we could be confident about it and then take on the issue of changing the war plans.

It was very clear when I got to be CNO, especially after I got all the debriefings about the way in which DoD was heavily biased toward the Central Front of Europe. Bob Komer, he was Defense Secretary Harold Brown’s loud mouthpiece about why we needed to swing the Navy, and saying the only reason we have a Navy is for getting the Army into Europe. I wasn’t aware of his being too much at the forefront of the issue until I became CNO. Prior to becoming CNO, Harold Brown came out and visited me at PACFLT. Before that, Senator Sam Nunn was out in the area and we briefed him on the whole program. He was very taken by it and it wasn’t too much longer after that when Harold Brown came out. That’s when the seed was planted back in the Washington environment that the Pacific Fleet was looking at alternatives.

When I got to be CNO and all the other issues that go with that, I got a briefing on the war plans for supporting Europe. I saw potential for the same sort of strategic logic I saw in confronting the Soviets in the Pacific and the potential for offensive warfare. This was actually a global issue, and the Navy has a major role to play on the flanks. The flanks being the Mediterranean, the North Sea, the North Atlantic, and elsewhere. We could tie down a lot of Soviet options that might be in their playbook to support the central front, but they wouldn’t be able to execute those options with the Navy and the Marines going after their flanks.

I brought in key flag officers, and folks like Bing West and others, and I started articulating where I wanted to take this. We needed to get buy-in from leadership, because the first reaction would be, “This is a crazy idea.” I gave a talk on a global, forward Navy to every War College in their auditorium. I got the flag officers all together and got their interaction. We got buy-in that there was a new role for the Navy, and it was way beyond escorting the Army to Europe.

When you were PACFLT you said it was risky to change the war plans. Were you in a better position to advocate for that as CNO?

I sure was, of course. Remember, the DOD all had other things on their mind, too. The big obstacle was getting Bob Komer to quiet down. But nobody ever came up and said, ‘You guys can’t do that.’ I don’t know precisely where we got to the point that we rewrote the general war plans, maybe Jim Patton knows that. He was down in the trenches making the details come together. I had brought him back to Washington not long after I was CNO and he kept assisting with the development of the global Navy strategy.

As CNO I’m still heavily involved in readiness issues. The drug issue was a huge thing, retention and recruiting was massively difficult. Harold Brown and President Carter were cutting the budget and making it harder and harder. The nation had turned against the military badly at that time. That’s where my attention was, and gradually changing the perception of the Navy’s global role.

About two-thirds of the way through my tour was when John Lehman came onboard. He apparently was having somewhat similar conversations with others on the future Navy posture and strategy. When he took over as SECNAV, he had his own priorities, but in this area, we were in synch. He wanted to raise the visibility of the Navy, increase the size of the Navy, and of course with President Reagan he came in with more money. And a lot of that went to readiness. We got spare parts, got training to where it belongs, more at-sea time and flying time, all those things that get you ready. In the meantime, 2nd fleet out there was getting instructions to do a “Sea Strike” exercise in the Atlantic.

After the Reagan Administration comes in, was there a much more receptive audience, especially with building the readiness needed for that kind of strategy?

The word “strategy” was not the driver necessarily, the Navy and all the services were so worn out and needed to get back into shape. I didn’t sell the budget on the basis of strategy but on the basis of the combat readiness of our units.

There are readiness categories, C1, 2, 3, and 4. C1 means I’ve got everything I need for combat. C2 means I’m short some things but we’re in pretty good shape. C3 means we’re getting kind of shaky, and at C4 you’re real shaky. Our readiness was so bad I created C5. That rattled around the building a lot. I was accused with playing games with the budget, and you’ve got to face that kind of thing all the time. But C5 meant that I am unsafe to steam or fly. Lo and behold, an AOE out of Norfolk was about to depart on deployment when the skipper rang the C5 bell. All hell broke loose, ‘Oh Hayward is playing games,’ and so on. I got in front of Congress and I told them to get down there and see what was going on.

That was the start of a major turnaround. That year I think we got about a 26 percent increase in pay, and many readiness-related things. When the real world finally got their attention, all this typical game playing that goes on between budgeteers and accountants, it got pushed to the side a bit. It was an honest effort to see how bad we were getting. That skipper called it right. He didn’t have enough qualified people onboard that ship to go on deployment. Today you wouldn’t get that far.

In the context of the Swing Strategy, I told staff to basically ignore it and we would build our own strategy, and if we can do our due diligence and do this thing right, then we could change the war plans.

What is the value of having a global Navy that can go on the offensive, rather than a more narrow purpose? What lessons are there for today?

The concept of having the enemy worry about you is a major element in deterrence. That was the overriding, broad strategic thrust of having the Navy play a proper and significant role in presenting the adversary with a meaningful threat. A new strategy would give the Navy a valuable deterrent role. The Navy could be in a position to constrain the Soviet ability to launch nukes and affect their ability to focus on a conventional assault on the central front.

We shouldn’t fight China today, whether it’s nuclear or non-nuclear. We have to posture and work all of our policies, foreign policy, commercial policy, and so on to be oriented toward presenting a deterrent in all its dimensions against what President Xi may be thinking about doing, and which could upset the global balance of power.

The role today in the broad sense remains the same, it is to deter. We can’t fight a land war with China. We have to use maritime power in a very constructive way to present deterrence.

Admiral Tom Hayward entered the naval service in World War II through the V-5 Naval Aviation Cadet Program, then transferred to the Naval Academy, from which he graduated in 1947. He has commanded a fighter squadron, a carrier air wing, and an aircraft carrier. In 1973-1975 he was the Navy’s Director of Program Planning, then served as Commander, Seventh Fleet from 1975-1976. From 1976 to 1978 he was Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet, then finished his career as the 21st Chief of Naval Operations from 1978-1982.

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at

Featured Image: November 15, 1985 – An elevated stern view of the aircraft carrier USS SARATOGA (CV 60) underway. (Photo by PH1 P.D. Goodrich via the U.S. National Archives)

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