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Andrew Marshall’s Reflections on Net Assessment

Andrew W. Marshall, edited by Jeffrey McKitrick and Robert Angevine, Reflections on Net Assessment. Andrew W. Marshall Foundation and Institute for Defense Analyses, 2022, 331 pp, US $10.00., ISBN 978-0578384238.

By BJ Armstrong

Known throughout parts of the American national security establishment as “Yoda,” referred to by The Atlantic as the “Brain of the Pentagon,” and respected worldwide for his decades of strategic work at RAND, the National Security Council, and finally in founding and running the Office of Net Assessment, Andrew Marshall was a critical figure in the Cold War and post-Cold War history of American security and strategy. He was also an intellectual figure who left a limited imprint on the literature of American national security, having written the vast majority of his work for classified audiences and publishing very little in the open.

The two generations of “Jedi” who were trained by him during their time working in the Office of Net Assessment are strategists, scholars, and consultants who prefer their own moniker as “graduates of St. Andrew’s Prep,” and who have published widely and influentially in a myriad of topics. For those who never attended the “prep school” before it closed with his death in 2019, Marshall’s own words and thoughts are much harder to come by. Today’s scholars and practitioners of national and defense strategy are reliant on these acolytes for much of our insight into the running and thinking of ONA. Reflections on Net Assessment, edited by Jeffrey McKitrick and Robert Angevine for the Andrew W. Marshall Foundation, offers a rare glimpse into Marshall’s own thoughts and approaches to strategy and security, and is an insightful contribution to the wider national security community.

Across seven chapters, Reflections offers transcripts of a series of oral history interviews primarily conducted and transcribed by Kurt Guthe during the 1990s. The interviews included Guthe and Marshall, as well as a number of unnamed colleagues who likely were contemporary or former members of the ONA staff, in dialogue about a wide range of topics. It appears, from several comments made during the interviews, that Marshall was considering writing a book or memoir reflecting on his then nearly five decades of service. He ultimately never wrote the book. However, the content of the interviews overlaps so clearly with the content and details included in former ONA staff members Andrew Krepinevich and Barry Watts’ book, The Last Warrior: Andrew Marshall and the Shaping of Modern American Defense Strategy, that it seems likely they carried forward on Mr. Marshall’s intent by writing the book themselves based largely on these oral histories. For Reflections, McKitrick and Angevine took the transcripts made by Guthe and formatted and edited them, created short contextual essays to remind readers of the milestones in American history which the interviews often mentioned, and overall did an excellent job of organizing the book for publication.

As is the case when reading raw or lightly edited oral histories, anyone looking for insights will be taken on a circular trip. In the case of the interviews with Marshall this often includes fascinating minor details of his background and education, insights into the inner workings of multiple Presidential administrations and their Departments of Defense, and occasionally sharp personal opinions and foibles. In the case of these transcripts, the interviewers themselves often head off on tangents sharing their own memories and interests. While this sometimes derails Marshall’s intended subject, and sometimes moves the conversation away from Marshall’s personal insights (even occasionally trying to answer questions for him rather than letting us read what he really thought), it is also likely the price of admission for such candid discussions with interlocuters who themselves are likely highly accomplished and intelligent strategists and researchers.

In addition to the fascinating look inside the mechanisms and intellectual infrastructure of American national security and strategy making, three key insights from Marshall repeatedly rise to the surface of the conversations included in this book. First, the importance and role of asking good questions. Second, the nature of influence within the American national security establishment. And finally, the ability, or lack of ability, of security organizations to do intellectual work together or share insights, and the training or lack of training of the members of these organizations in deeply intellectual work.

Marshall repeatedly shares that his primary goal throughout his career was not to find solutions to American defense and security problems, but instead to find ways of asking the right questions. By finding and researching the right questions, his view of net assessment was that it could present the military with the real parameters of the problems that needed to be solved. He quite clearly believed that the military services themselves were the real experts at determining the tactical, operational, and strategic solutions to the challenges of the Cold War (and eventually post-Cold War world). But he seemed to believe that they often struggled to do the deep work and research needed to ask the right questions and determine what the root challenges actually were.

In this respect, Marshall was a deeply inductive thinker. His instructions to members of his staff to “go read everything” on a topic in order to get started, presupposed his intense dislike of strategic work that tried to shoehorn threats or challenges into an already existing framework or the use of a deductive model that insisted on following a theory. He described two types of defense analysts, “theory oriented” versus “reality oriented” people, and lamented that there were far too few focused on reality. In this approach, inductive instead of deductive, Marshall might be seen more as a historical thinker than the social scientist he was by training, and his ideas followed in the wake of strategists of prior generations like Corbett and Clausewitz.

When considering the nature of influence within the American national security establishment, Marshall was far more sanguine that someone of his reputation might be expected to be. Despite being held up as something like the godfather of American success in the Cold War, Marshall instead saw influence as a far more nuanced and limited thing. He did not seem to believe that very many of the reports and studies conducted by ONA or for ONA really affected the military services or overall national strategy very much. As he repeatedly points out, his audience was actually the Secretary of Defense individually in an effort to (once again) get the Secretary thinking about how to ask the right questions.

In Marshall’s opinion, new ideas often simply resulted in the services rebranding things they were already doing. In the case of both “competitive strategies” and the “revolution in military affairs,” which described the development of the reconnaissance and precision strike complex of the future, Marshall and his staff described how the services merely attached those labels to programs or new weapons that were already in development or in service. Marshall claimed that real influence only came when you changed the vocabulary of strategic discussions, and moved beyond the initial re-labelling phase to get service staffs to rethink their approaches by forcing them to consider the ideas behind the new labels. This kind of influence, interestingly, was not something Marshall believed he genuinely could control once released into the wild.

Finally, Marshall returns in his discussions to the relationships between the organizations inside the intellectual infrastructure of American national security and strategy making. The National Security Act of 1947 fundamentally reformed the American government’s security elements just as Marshall’s career was beginning. Across almost six decades he observed how new organizations, like the CIA and the National Security Council, changed over time. One of his strongest observations was how over time, convinced of their own expertise, these organizations became less collaborative and less open to outside ideas, either from government or civilian sectors. As organizations built their own internal cultures they entrenched and became less and less likely to share ideas or information. These organizations and their enclosed cultures, Marshall observed, also became less and less capable of producing the kind of inductive and deep-thinking analysts in their newer generations of employees. By the Reagan Administration, not only were the military services treating each other as bureaucratic adversaries, but so was much of the intelligence community and other elements of the intellectual infrastructure of American security and strategy.

As the U.S. Navy continues deeper into the twenty-first century, talk of a “new” Cold War is common and there has been a strong tendency to reach back on the successful methods of the “old” Cold War. The history of ONA and Mr. Marshall’s methods seem ripe for replication in our contemporary world as we face the challenge of China, the resurgent but chaotic Russia, and regional challengers in a multipolar world. There will be a temptation to ask about the “competitive strategies” necessary to overcome our adversaries, or to determine the next “offset” in a new “revolution” in military affairs that will lead to success. But, following Marshall and his interlocutors through their circling discussions of his experiences and approaches, this starts to appear exactly like the kind of “theory-oriented” thinking that he lamented from defense analysts. In order to be “reality-oriented,” perhaps we need to return to the roots of Marshall’s insights.

Today, who is making sure that the U.S. Navy is asking the right questions? Who is defining the vocabulary and the intellectual infrastructure of how we think about our contemporary challengers? And are we learning from each other, and developing the next generation of analysts who will be creative and intelligent enough to do the deep work, “read everything,” and come up with creative new ideas rather than rehashing old models? Andy Marshall believed in focusing on finding the right questions and defining their parameters. In Reflections on Net Assessment, naval and national security practitioners and analysts can still learn a great deal from Yoda in his own words, if we do the reading and remain reality-based in our search for wisdom in confronting the challenges of the 21st century.

BJ Armstrong is a historian and Principal Associate of the Forum on Integrated Naval History and Seapower Studies. He is the co-author of Developing the Naval Mind and author/editor of the forthcoming revised and expanded second edition of 21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era. Opinions expressed here are offered in his personal and academic capacity and do not reflect the policies or views of the U.S. Navy or any government organization.

Featured Image: Andy Marshall attends his retirement farewell ceremony at the Pentagon on Jan. 5, 2015. (Photo by Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz/U.S. Air Force)

Cuban Missile Crisis: Soviet Submarines Attack?

By LtCol Brent Stricker

“It would be well for your government to consider that having your ships and ours, your aircraft and ours, in such proximity is inherently DANGEROUS. Wars have begun that way, Mr. Ambassador.” –Jeffrey Pelt, The Hunt for the Red October


The lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis remain relevant today when nuclear powers struggle in crisis and do their best to avoid escalating to conflict. As a prime example, the Russia-Ukraine War has similar parallels to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The United States objected to Soviet missiles in Cuba seeing them as a direct threat to the United States and the Western Hemisphere. Russian President Vladimir Putin provided NATO expansion and “military development of the territories of Ukraine” as a similar existential threat to Russia justifying the invasion of Ukraine. A review of the confrontation between the navies of the Soviet Union and the United States during the crisis may inform the Western powers supporting Ukraine in its current defense against Russia.

Soviet Submarines Bound for Cuba

In addition to its missiles and bombers, the Soviet Union intended to establish a naval base in Cuba. A submarine flotilla was dispatched before the crisis began. Ryurik A. Ketov, the commander of one of these submarines, wrote of his experiences during the crisis. The Soviet Navy made a critical error in sending Foxtrot class diesel submarines to Cuba as these boats were designed for northern latitudes and were required to run on the surface or snorkel to recharge their batteries. Oddly, the Soviet leadership in Moscow seemed unaware that diesel boats, and not nuclear powered submarines which could make the entire trip submerged, were being sent to Cuba. This would lead to confrontations with the U.S. Navy who attempted to force these boats to surface.

To make this confrontation more dangerous, the submarines were each armed with one nuclear tipped torpedo. The Americans were unaware of this, and mistakenly assumed as the Soviet submarines were identified as Foxtrots that they did not have nuclear weapons. The torpedoes also required the voyage be covert, with the boats expected to stay undetected.

The torpedoes were a last-minute addition to the voyage added a week before. The torpedoes were each guarded by a designated officer who slept by it. They were not fully combat ready. The designated officer would prepare the weapon for use and was the only one carrying the keys to load the torpedo. The boat captains were provided vague instructions for the use of the nuclear torpedoes.

As Captain Ryurik Ketov recalled:

“Vice-Admiral A.I. Rassokha He said, ‘Write down when you should use these. . . . In three cases. First, if you get a hole under the water. A hole in your hull. This is the first case. Second, a hole above the water. If you have to come to the surface, and they shoot at you, and you get a hole in your hull. And the third case – when Moscow orders you to use these weapons’. These were our instructions. And then he added, ‘I suggest to you, commanders, that you use the nuclear weapons first, and then you will figure out what to do after that.’”

The crisis began while the flotilla was underway. The Soviet crews were able to monitor U.S. radio broadcasts to keep current with the emerging events. This was how they first learned of Soviet missiles in Cuba and the quarantine to be imposed on Cuba. 

As the flotilla headed south toward the quarantine line, conditions aboard the boats began to deteriorate. The internal temperature of the boats rose. The Foxtrots were designed to operate in northern latitudes and began to experience difficulty as they approached the Caribbean. Captain Ketov noted, “there was an insufficient supply of fresh water for the crew, no air conditioning in the compartments – which would otherwise have facilitated the smooth operation of the boat’s machinery – and most importantly, no one had experience in servicing equipment under such high temperatures.” This became worse as the boats tried to avoid U.S. Navy anti-submarine (ASW) patrols forcing the boats to attempt to recharge using snorkels which were unable to vent the boats with fresh air.

The Kennedy administration was anxious to avoid a misunderstanding when confronting Soviet ships, particularly submarines. Defense Secretary McNamara had the U.S. Navy developing a system to signal the submarines. These signal instructions were provided to the Soviets in a Notice to Mariners (NOTMAR). The surface ships would drop practice depth charges (PDCs) above a submarine and transmit the signal to surface. Submarines were expected to surface with a bearing to the east. The NOTMAR stated the signaling devices were not harmful. The Soviet captains never received the NOTMAR.

The flotilla was soon closing with the U.S. Navy ASW forces. The U.S. Navy was broadcasting in the clear, and at first the Soviets were suspicious. Captain Ketov wrote, “We started to listen to US radio stations, and compared their announcements with US ASW communique´s, as well as with messages from home, we came to believe that these transmissions could be taken into account to determine where and when the ASW ships and planes would be located.” The U.S. Navy was able to locate and track three of the four submarines. When located, PDCs were dropped on the submarines which the Soviets perceived as attacks.

The Soviet crews found themselves in a physically stressful and dangerously perceived environment. They could not know if a war had begun, and the constant explosions and heat were taking their toll. Captain Ketov noted, “My men began fainting from heat stroke, and the increase in humidity started to affect the operating condition of the equipment. The average air temperature inside the submarine rose to 113 degrees Fahrenheit, and up to 144–149 degrees in the engine compartment.” They each had a nuclear torpedo, but no specific instructions on when or if they could use it.

This situation nearly came to a head during the efforts to force the B-59 under Captain Savitsky with flotilla commander Captain Arkhipov aboard. The U.S.S. Beale encountered the submarine at 4:49 p.m. on 29 October 1962 and spent the next four hours signaling her with PDCs and hand grenades. Captain Savitsky was heard to say, “‘Maybe the war has already started up there, while we are doing summersaults here’ Political Officer Valentin Grigorievich, screamed “We’re gonna blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all – we will not become the shame of the fleet.’” The nuclear torpedo was not assembled—otherwise flotilla commander Captain Arkhipov might not have been able to convince Savitsky to not fire on the Beale.

The B-59 was eventually forced to surface at 8:59 p.m. due to its low battery levels. The Soviet crew was greeted by a ship’s band playing jazz. This surreal situation might have fit into a scene from Dr. Strangelove.

The B-59 was the closest the crisis came to a nuclear exchange. While the Kennedy administration had attempted to mitigate this with the NOTMAR, the confused situation aboard the submarines and the perceived threat of armed conflict at any moment made war very risky. On the Soviet side, “at least some officers in the Soviet military command thought that it would have been better if the submarines used their weapons rather than allow the US forces to force them to the surface.” The Soviet captains insisted they were never forced by U.S. Navy ASW efforts to surface; their drained batteries required it.


Uncertainty and confusion amongst the Soviet Captains concerning the ASW activities by the U.S. Navy could have led to a nuclear confrontation. Despite the precautions of the NOTMAR to the Soviet Union, this message was never transmitted through bureaucratic channels to submarine commanders. Vague orders on the use of nuclear tipped torpedoes and the heat and confusion might have caused a local commander to launch these weapons, dragging two nuclear powers into an escalating exchange both desperately wanted to avoid.

This potentially escalatory exchange at a pivotal moment in the Cuban Missile Crisis offers a cautionary tale for the continuing conflict in Ukraine. The availability and usability of bureaucratic channels, for example, seems an important starting point not only to ensure messages are received but that communication can even take place. And while uncertainty and confusion were potentially unavoidable in the Cuban Missile Crisis’ near-nuclear exchange, the Kennedy administration’s anxiety to avoid a misunderstanding when confronting Soviet ships might still hold implications for Western powers in their support of Ukraine in the current conflict there.

LtCol Brent Stricker, U.S. Marine Corps, serves as a military professor of international law at the U.S. Naval War College. The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the U.S. Marine Corps, the U.S. Navy, the Naval War College, or the Department of Defense.

Featured Image: Soviet submarine B-59, forced to the surface by U.S. Naval forces in the Caribbean near Cuba. (Credit: U.S. National Archives)

The Swedish Navy in NATO: Opportunities and Challenges

This article was first published in the KÖMS’s journal, No. 4/2022 and is republished with permission.

By Dr. Sebastian Bruns

With its significant geopolitical, strategic and military changes stemming from Russia’s war against Ukraine, 2022 has the potential to go down in history as a true watershed year. Among many other critical developments, Sweden’s decision to apply for NATO membership constitutes another significant departure from its long tradition as a non-aligned nation.It is with much political fanfare that Stockholm and Helsinki are expected to join a reinvigorated transatlantic alliance that not only finds an old nemesis on its Eastern front, but also renewed American leadership in the post-Donald Trump U.S. presidency. Experts are looking in particular at what military capabilities Sweden and Finland will bring to NATO.2 This article will provide some thoughts on the Swedish Navy, what it will bring, what NATO needs from it and where some overlaps and opportunities exist.3

For starters, the Tre Kronor Navy celebrated its 500th anniversary this year. Founded in 1522, it therefore brings to the forefront a very long tradition as a sea power. If one does not follow conventional wisdom, sea power status does not depend solely on the size of a country’s navy, but also the maritime mindset of a country’s people. By way of comparison, the German Navy will celebrate its 175th anniversary in 2023, a much more modest commemoration due to Germany’s checkered naval history. Since its post-World War II rebirth, the West-German Bundesmarine and its post-Cold War successor, Deutsche Marine, have had laudable successes as alliance navies, usually operating internationally under an EU, NATO or UN mandate. The Swedish Navy might look to their example as it seeks to create a mindset that covers national, territorial and alliance defense.

If anything, Sweden’s rich naval tradition can help re-navalize NATO. The Alliance is coming off two decades of land-centric counterinsurgency, counterterrorism and state-building operations in Afghanistan, which has created an officer and political-strategic corps of continentally-thinking individuals. While Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and incursion into Eastern Ukraine began to change NATO’s mindset drastically towards more conventional aspects of deterrence and warfighting across domains, it remains very much culturally dominated by army and air force generals, despite carrying the “North Atlantic” in its name. Given the maritime component of the new era’s challenges – such as Russian undersea activity, a focus on the Arctic, Baltic, Black, and Mediterranean Seas, as well as the increasingly confrontational posture of the Chinese Navy in their Indo-Pacific backyard and beyond – it is high time for NATO to focus on the naval aspects of its members’ security.

The Swedish Navy brings to the table a wide experience in national and territorial defense at sea and in the protection of commercial shipping, two core naval missions spanning a wide spectrum. Moreover, the Swedish Navy has some experience in multilateral maritime operations, such as the EU’s counterpiracy mission ATALANTA (2010) and the UNIFIL maritime task force (2006-2007). More recent NATO accessions include former Warsaw Pact countries that had little to no joint and combined naval expertise.

From a naval perspective, NATO is currently dominated by the large and capable navies of the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. The U.S. Navy and Royal Navy have driven naval rejuvenation in the Baltic Sea more so than NATO’s Baltic members. This is hardly surprising and should empower littoral states to follow suit, where possible.4 In addition, smaller but potent maritime powers such as Italy, Spain, France, the Netherlands and Denmark are part of the Alliance and can serve to re-focus on the maritime flanks and fronts of NATO.According to Geoffrey Till, noted navalist and sea power expert, the Swedish Navy could be understood as falling right between a type 4 blue-water navy, the lowest in that category, tasked with regional power projection, and the most capable non-blue water navy, a type 5 regional offshore coastal defense navy.6

While such attempts to rank navies should be taken with caution – the risk of comparing apples and oranges is real, even at sea – such conceptual undertakings offer hints at levels of ambition for a navy, as well as their potential to add to NATO’s capabilities for combined operations. At the same time, as Austrian naval doyen Jeremy Stöhs has pointed out, Western navies face a true dilemma in the accelerating quest for high-end technology and the political, operational and financial costs this incurs on small- and medium-size navies.7

A different approach for sizing up navies was offered in 1995 by naval historians Jon Sumida and David Rosenber, aptly grouped as “Five Ms”:

  1. Men (and Women), or the naval personnel;
  2. Machinery, or the types of ships, aircraft and other vehicles that navies employ;
  3. Management, or the type of command structure as well as the political framework that shapes a navy’s roles and missions;
  4. Money, or the kind of funding into navies which, at the core, are long-term supply-based financial investments rather than demand based;
  5. Manufacturing, or the industrial base in a country to sustain a navy.

In 2000, the late German naval historian Wilfried Stallmann added a sixth “M”: Mentality, or a navy’s strategic culture.8 A more contemporary and potentially more quantifiable approach would look at the size and nature of the fleet, its geographic reach, its functions and capabilities, its access to high grade technology, its reputation and the technological excellence it provides. While an in-depth discussion of these aspects is beyond the scope of this article, the technological excellence that Sweden can potentially bring to NATO and its navies is worth a closer look.

The Swedish naval capability contribution covers four notable assets, including small combatants, amphibious boats, and forthcoming submarines and signals intelligence ships.

The Visby-class corvettes are a sleek and capable class of ships that are optimized for Sweden’s rugged coastlines. Their low radar signature can help “hide” them from enemy sensors. They will provide assets to the Standing NATO Maritime Groups that operate in the Baltic and Northern flank area, lending much needed credibility to NATO’s littoral components. Last but certainly not least, their very modern design, which one hopes will be continued somewhat in a prospective successor class, serves to display the technological superiority that NATO member states’ shipyards can churn out. Navies, which often operate “out of sight, thus out of mind,” need to impress upon their peoples their role to create the critical support for such long-term investments. Short of frigates, corvettes like the Swedish ones could be interesting for other Baltic littoral states that do not yet operate such medium-sized warships.

Visby-class Corvette of the Swedish Navy. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Sweden’s amphibious assault element, in particular the CB-90 fast boats, which have garnered interest around the Baltic littoral states (e.g. in Germany), is another worthwhile contribution to the alliance and the Northern flank. Amphibious warfare has gained significant attention in the Baltic Sea, whether through pre-2022 Russian Navy drills, allied amphibious elements operating as part of the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF), or repeated visits by the U.S. Navy’s USS Kearsarge (LHD-3) amphibious readiness group this past summer. While the big decks represent the high end of amphibious warfare, Baltic littoral states and NATO should train and exercise offensive and defensive small boat operations from the sea as well.

Finally, two technological features that are not yet in the water. First, the future Swedish A-26 submarine – an ambitious project for a next generation undersea capability – is likely to be a contender for NATO’s preferred non-nuclear boat. ThyssenKrupp MarineSystem’s air independent propulsion submarines (type 212A/CD) remain the challenger, while the Netherlands and others look for a proper model for their force regeneration. A more competitive market ought to help NATO member states in general, though Kockums has not built an indigenous submarine in more than 25 years. To their enduring credit, Swedish submarines continue to have a high standing in the United States, due in part to its lease of HSwMS Gotland from 2005-2007. Another asset that still has to prove its viability is the future HSwMS Artemis, a signal intelligence ship that is currently two years overdue amidst the reverberations of the pandemic as well as major hick-ups in this Swedish-Polish joint venture.

With its rich partnership with NATO navies, Sweden will be well placed to get underway. NATO navies, whether on individual and national deployments or as part of rotational Standing NATO Maritime Groups (SNMG), are a significant presence in the Baltic Sea. NATO operates two of these standing groups in the Northern European area of operations, a larger surface ship group (SNMG 1, the former Standing Naval Force Atlantic, STANAVFORLNT), and a mine countermeasures group (SNMCMG1, the former Standing NATO Force Channel, or STANAVFORCHAN, and Mine Countermeasures Force North Western Europe, or MCMFORNORTH, respectively) grouped around smaller surface combatants and tenders.

The Swedish Navy, upon gaining the operational prowess and formal legitimation to integrate, could dispatch one or more of its warships into the groups. At the same time, exercises such as the annual Baltic Operations (BALTOPS) and Northern Coasts (NoCo) will provide ample opportunity to train with other NATO navies in a joint and combined effort. NATO will likely require the Swedish Navy to account for regular but flexible naval presence as well. This should come as no surprise for Sweden given its frontline statues in the Baltic Sea, and it should use every opportunity to work with other NATO navies. A broader mindset, keeping in mind the military, constabulary and diplomatic use of the sea by navies,9 should yield a dedicated national naval or maritime strategy that addresses some of the trajectories outlined above.

It remains unclear whether NATO’s own “Allied Maritime Strategy,” published in 2011, will be rewritten – the need for which has been addressed in public forums repeatedly.10 In light of this, and absent a top-down effort, a bottom-up strategic effort would be very welcome by allied navalists. This ought to include some dedicated investments in the military-intellectual complex as well, given the need to study, research, advise, critique and explain naval matters to counter the infamous, often diagnosed “sea blindness.”

NATO, at least in the Baltic Sea and along its northern flank, is looking for cooperation agreements and a concurring mindset, not necessarily commands. There is much activity in the Baltic Sea in the latter field, and the Swedish military – already likely to be challenged to fill NATO billets around Europe and in North America – will be stretched to cover both staffing and operational requirements. Germany, for instance, is pushing hard for formats that attempt to offer new command, control and coordination functions in the Baltic Sea area, triggering some envy in other member states and the real risk of over-complicating NATO’s effectiveness in the region.11 Advanced Swedish-Finnish naval integration in recent years might offer a unique opportunity for true burden-sharing of two smaller militaries in NATO, and a chance to revive allied pre-2014 pooling and sharing initiatives in a meaningful way.

With the accession of Sweden and Finland into Norway, one discussion likely to resurface is whether or not the Baltic Sea is a “NATO lake.” As Hamburg-based Baltic Sea expert Julian Pawlak has rather brilliantly put it, “Designating the Baltic Sea as a ‘NATO lake’ is fatal in many ways. Besides the fact that, following such logic, it would already have been an ‘EU lake’ for some time, the use of the term suggests that the Baltic could be handled more or less exclusively by NATO, as an inland sea (which it almost is, politically), leading to the subsequent fallacy of complete sea control (which is certainly not the case).12 Sea strategists know that maritime territory can and will never be controlled in a manner that militaries do on land. In addition, if history is any guide, places such as the Mediterranean and the Atlantic have at one point been designated as NATO lakes – until they no longer were, with the incursion of then-Soviet submarines and naval assets in the Cold War and more recently by the aspiring Chinese Navy.13

Baltic navies would be well advised not to close or cordon off seas, and countries such as Germany have gone a long way to conceptualize that the Baltic Sea is intimately connected to the more contested and to the rest of the globe. Legal and etymological concerns aside, Baltic navies will still have to exercise sea control and all forms of naval warfare on the whole spectrum of conflict. A self-serving description of the Baltic as a “NATO lake” amounts to detrimental whistling in the woods at best, or wishful thinking and the willful degeneration of naval strategic thought and practice at worst.

The Swedish Navy can and must play an important role in the Alliance, and it should be encouraged to infuse its professionalism and maritime strategic culture into NATO, as well as identify partners with which it can aggressively pursue bilateral and multilateral programs so that NATO as a whole can be strengthened. Given existing formats, examples could be joining the German-Dutch amphibious cooperation to make it tri-partite, participating in the German-Danish-Polish (though for the time land-focused) Multinational Command East (MNC E) in Szczecin (Poland), offering its next-generation light corvettes/light frigates to partner navies, etc. Finally, the Swedes would also be well advised not to overstretch and avoid making the same mistakes as their soon-to-be fellow allies have done with regards to atrophying naval power in favor of a diffuse land power argument. Balancing national and alliance defense with international crises management remains the key challenge of the day for those wearing the uniform with the Tre Kronor.

Dr. Sebastian Bruns is a Senior Researcher at the Institute for Security Policy Kiel University (ISPK), where he served as the founding father of the adjunct Center for Maritime Strategy & Security, 2016-2021. From 2021-2022, he was the inaugural McCain-Fulbright Distinguished Visiting Professor at the United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland (USA). Since 2021, he is also a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC, and a Corresponding Fellow at Kungl. Örlogsmannasällskapet (KÖMS).

[1] At the time of writing, NATO member states’ parliaments are still in the process of deliberating the Swedish (and Finnish) requests. Two countries – Turkey and Hungary – are still in the decision-making process.

[2] For a broader and more operational discussion on the military issues, see John R. Deni, “Sweden and Finland are on their way to NATO membership. Here’s what needs to happen next.” Atlantic Council Issue Brief, 22 August 2022.

[3] This essay is based on the author’s Royal Swedish Society of Naval Sciences’ inaugural lecture, given on 24 August 2022 at the Swedish Maritime Museum, Stockholm.

[4] See, for instance, Sebastian Bruns, “From show of force to naval presence, and back again: the U.S. Navy in the Baltic, 1982–2017,” Defense & Security Analysis, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 35(2), pages 117-132, April 2019; Bruce Stubbs, “US Sea Power has a Role in the Baltic,” USNI Proceedings, Vol. 143/9/1,375, September 2017.

[5] For a discussion of the evolution of European naval power since 1990, see Jeremy Stöhs’ study, The Decline of European Naval Forces. Challenges to Sea Power in an Age of Fiscal Austerity and Political Uncertainty, USNI Press: Annapolis, MD 2018. Sweden is covered on pp. 161-167.

[6] See Geoffrey Till, Seapower. A Guide for the 21st Century. 4th edition, Routledge: Milton Park, New York 2018, p.147ff.

[7] Jeremy Stöhs, “How High? The Future of European Naval Power and the High-End Challenge,” Center for Military Studies University of Copenhagen, 2021.

[8] Cited in Sebastian Bruns, US Naval Strategy and National Security. The Evolution of American Maritime Power, Routledge: Milton Park, New York 2018, p. 32f.

[9] See “Triangle on the Use of the Sea,” based on Ken Booth (1977) and Eric Grove (1990), and vastly expanded, cited in Till, Seapower, p. 362.

[10] See Kiel International Seapower Symposia 2018 (on allied maritime ends), 2019 (on means) and 2021 (on the ways). Reports on each conference can be obtained through For more in-depth coverage on current issues that should drive an alliance-wide rework of its maritime strategy, see Julian Pawlak/Johannes Peters, From the North Atlantic to the South China Sea. Allied Maritime Strategy in the 21st Century, Nomos: Baden-Baden 2021 (=ISPK Seapower Series, Vol. 4).

[11] Edward Lucas, “Close to the Wind. Too Many Cooks, Not Enough Broth,” Center for European Policy Action (CEPA), 9 September 2021.

[12] Julian Pawlak, “No, Don’t Call the Baltic a ‘NATO Lake’”, RUSI Commentary, 5 September 2022. For a counter position, see Edward Lucas, “The Baltic Sea Became a Nato Lake,” Finnish Business and Policy Forum – EVA, 27 June 2022.

[13] For use of the term “NATO lake”, see Christina Lin, “The Dragon’s Rise in the Great Sea. China’s Strategic Interests in the Levant and the Eastern Mediterranean,” in Spyridon N. Litsas, Aristotle Tziampiris The Eastern Mediterranean in Transition: Multipolarity, Politics and Power, Routledge: London 2015.

Nail Polish for the Naval Warfighter

By Captain John P. Cordle (ret.)

Author’s note: The following story is a notional description of a discussion that must have occurred, because there is a detailed regulation covering a woman’s right to choose….the color of her fingernail polish. Since senior leaders spent so much time, research, and detailed factual analysis on the topic, dedicating an entire paragraph in Navy Regulations to the issue, it must be critical to warfighting readiness.

The year is 1993. After years of skirting the issue, the Navy is just putting the finishing touches on a new policy to allow women to fly in combat aircraft. Just before he was ready to sign, the Admiral realized that something significant was missing and he called his staff together for an urgent meeting. “Gentlemen – oh, and Barb,” he huffed, out of breath with excitement, “Where is the paragraph on women’s nail polish color policy?”

The men paled in anguish, aghast that this key fighting element had been overlooked and left out of the policy. Ashamed and embarrassed, they immediately convened an emergency war council meeting to discuss the issue and come up with a policy. Barbara (call sign “Barb,” a veiled reference to the way she corrected her male counterparts when they made comments that were trending toward inappropriate) was the only woman in the room–aside from the recorder, currently the Admin Officer but an aspiring fighter pilot herself–which would allow the official record to state that “female input was considered” in the decision (silent on what it was…). Barb looked down at her red nails, her favorite color, and started to protest: “Why do we need…?”

“Well,” one of the men interrupted her, holding up his hand in a shushing motion. “You can’t be flying a plane with just any color of nail polish.”

“Obviously,” said another.  

Harrumphs of approval filled the room. “So let’s make a list. What colors are there?”

“Huh?” said Barb. “Why do we need a policy in the first place? What difference does it make to you men what color my nails are?”

One of the men, a decorated Captain and fighter pilot, responded immediately on behalf of the group: “Hello – It’s distracting!”

More harrumphs. Now Barb was confused. “So what colors are distracting to you guys?”

“RED!” Three men shouted in unison, staring and pointing at Barb’s hands, to her horror. But the men didn’t seem to notice her discomfort – they were on a roll. “Forbidden!” the Captain said to the recorder, a young female Lieutenant, hiding her light blue Tiffany nails as she took notes.

“Huh?” said Barb. “Why do we need…?

“But the men were just getting started. “Blue! Black! White! Green!” There was a long silence, then – “PURPLE! Forbidden!” The recorder kept writing, her face blank but increasingly flushed.

“But we’ll be wearing gloves,” said Barb. “You can’t even see what color our nails are!”

The looks were cutting and in unison: “But we’ll KNOW- and be distracted!”

Barb continued, thinking about how one-sided this conversation was. She tried to relate on a personal level. “So if I want to choose a nice nail color for the weekend, I have to remove it or paint it over to come to work on Monday? Would you apply that rule to your wives and daughters?”

This earned Barb a quizzical look from the men; “duh – of course!” said one. “This is about warfighting and STANDARDS!” said one of the male commanders.

“Somehow this doesn’t seem fair,” said Barb, “since men aren’t impacted by this subject at all. It reminds me of the women’s hairstyle rules that caused a lot of women anguish due to premature hair loss” – she wondered if any of her male counterparts even knew what traction alopecia is. But again she was interrupted.

“Well, that’s not entirely true,” said one of the men, after all, “we often have to pay for it!” This elicited vigorous nods and a round of “hell yeahs” from the group.

Now came the moment of truth. Although it seemed like a foregone conclusion, and despite this being a military group, they were supposed to enforce a form of democracy: a vote. After all, nothing less was at stake as their ability to defeat a peer competitor in battle. The vote was settled quickly (6-3), with only the two minority officers (one Black and one Hispanic) siding with Barb. They shared that “sometimes you need empathy from the unaffected” but that did not resonate with the others; with that, a woman’s right to choose her own nail polish was eliminated.

Barbara was upset but decided to bite her tongue. She thought about other restrictive policies that had impacted her physical and mental health, like hairstyle requirements that caused headaches and hair loss, or shaving policies that negatively impact many Black male Sailors. What if MEN routinely used nail Polish? What if white men had PFB? Would that change the outcome? Of course it would, she thought to herself. She thought about lodging one final protest but remembered what one of her minority friends had shared: “Sometimes when you are being discriminated against,” she thought, “it’s not in your best interest to point that out…”

Barbara sighed and took the document in to the Admiral for signature. He lifted his pen and stopped. “Your nails – how did you pick that awful color? It’s very distracting- I can’t remember where to sign.”

“It’s the only one left that’s allowed,” she replied. “For what it’s worth, your wife recommended it.”

“Well,” said the Admiral, “that color has to go on the forbidden list, or there goes our war fighting readiness, right down the toilet,” he sighed, adding one more color to the list, and then placing his signature at the bottom of the page.

The final wording looked like this:

Nail polish may be worn, but colors shall be conservative and inconspicuous. White, black, red, yellow, orange, green, purple, grey, glitter, striped, or any sort of pattern/decorative nail polish is not authorized. French and American manicures (white and off- white tips with neutral base color only) are authorized. 

“My work is done,” he said with a satisfied grin.

Barb wondered about what “conservative and inconspicuous” meant to him, and if it meant the same to her. Why is red not distracting on fire extinguishers and flight deck jerseys, but as egregious as my nails? Could the problem be with the men in the room?  

The group adjourned, and the Captain who led them was deeply satisfied that this policy would save lives in battle and increase the air-to-air kill ratio at least twofold for the next generation. No longer will nail polish distract our fighting forces. This will be a great FITREP bullet! The Admiral’s grin spread to the crowd, as they reveled in their good deed.

Barb was grinning too as she left the office, thinking about her bright red toenails – deep inside her combat boots.

Author’s note #2: At this point, we will use visualization to transport ourselves into the future, with a reasonable solution to this issue:

“Greetings,” the Admiral said to the group of 12 women of various ranks in specialties from throughout the Navy. “Today, July 1st 2023, it is my pleasure to convene the first ever Women’s Uniform Board, with full decision authority over the regulations and designs that govern women’s uniform and grooming standards.”  She glanced down at her bright red nails and smiled at the board members. “By the way, in this room, you can call me, ‘Barb!’”

Dr. Cordle retired from the Navy as a Captain in 2013 after 30 years of service. He commanded the USS Oscar Austin (DDG-79) and USS San Jacinto (CG-56), and earned the U.S. Navy League’s Captain John Paul Jones Award for Inspirational Leadership in 2010. He was recognized in 2019 with the Surface Navy Association Literary Award and the U. S. Naval Institute PROCEEDINGS “Author of the Year” Award for his extensive writing on leadership, crew endurance, manpower, and diversity.

Featured Image: EAST CHINA SEA (July 16, 2020) Operations Specialist 3rd Class Michelle Sejour, from Orlando, Fla., coordinates messages from the combat information center while standing watch as a phone talker on the bridge of the amphibious dock landing ship USS Germantown (LSD 42). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Taylor DiMartino)