All posts by Joe Petrucelli

Bill Owens on the Strategic Studies Group and Taking Strategy to Sea

1980s Maritime Strategy Series

By Joe Petrucelli

CIMSEC discussed the development of the 1980s Maritime Strategy and the role played by the CNO Strategic Studies Group with Admiral William Owens (ret.). Admiral Owens was part of the first SSG during 1982. In this discussion, he discusses changes brought about by the Maritime Strategy, the implementation of the Maritime Strategy concepts by the fleet, and what lessons the Maritime Strategy and SSG have for the modern era.

What was new about the Maritime Strategy and how was it a shift from 1970s concepts and plans?

For the Navy and the Marine Corps, for the entire Defense Department, and for our country the Maritime Strategy was a turning point in the Cold War! For most of the years since World War II the United States Navy and Marine Corps had been focused on how to most efficiently get land and air forces into Central Europe to protect against a Soviet attack. This was the focus of all our force planning. All our analytic efforts in the Pentagon and the grand majority of money in the defense budget was organized around that particular task. The Maritime Strategy changed all of that in profound ways.

Can you briefly describe your personal involvement in the strategy development process?

My personal role was as a member of the first Strategic Studies Group, the SSG. This SSG and the concept was set up by Admiral Tom Hayward, the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO). And it is thanks to Tom Hayward, his vision, and his leadership style, that we wound up with a Maritime Strategy that materially changed everything.

Tom Hayward established the group under Bob Murray, a wonderful gentleman who had been the Under Secretary of the Navy. My personal involvement then was as one of the eight members of that first SSG. Admiral Hayward had personally chosen the eight of us, one from each branch of the Navy and two from the Marine Corps, to spend a year together. That was a transformative year for me and for all of us. As a submariner, I had spent all of my years, about 18 of them, in the submarine force, and had very little experience in the grand strategy of the Navy or the Defense Department. Indeed, I had very little knowledge of the other branches of the Navy, such as the fighter community, the surface navy, the amphibious forces, or the Marine Corps. This year changed all of that for me personally and immersed me in what was, we thought, the principal effort to bring together a very different position for our Navy.

While Secretary Lehman had talked about a different strategic force and several had talked about the need for a more offensive Navy, never before to my knowledge had we put together such a broad view of what the Navy and Marine Corps could possibly execute as principal members of U.S. forces. It is important to note Admiral Hayward’s role in the formation and tasking of the SSG, and in his leadership in imagining the entire year for the eight of us. I will always remember that as a precious lesson of how to lead! The CNO told us personally when we asked “what was the deliverable,” that he did not know. He said, “I formed this group because I have tremendous confidence in each of you, and I expect you to spend a year with no restrictions to do something good for the United States Navy and to make the year worthwhile in every respect, including for yourself.”

Follow-up sessions with Admiral Hayward occurred only two or three times during the year, and under Bob Murray’s leadership we had no restrictions, all doors were open, and all lines of thought were encouraged. This was the only time in my entire time in the Navy that I saw this degree of complete confidence and “gutsy” leadership to do something very special for our Navy and our country.

The SSG is often cited as a key (if not the key) driver behind the emergence of the Maritime Strategy. But at the same time, other initiatives and groups, including exercises such as Ocean Venture ’81, the OP-603 strategist community, the Advanced Technology Panel, and Secretary Lehman’s personal involvement were combined with pre-SSG elements such as Sea Plan 2000 and the Global War Games. In your opinion, which of these elements were the most significant and how did they interact with each other to create what we know as the Maritime Strategy?

While many of these products were well-known to us, there were none in my opinion which laid out the specifics of a new Maritime Strategy, one that would indeed change all of the force analysis, and that would change the thinking in the Congress and in the inner halls of the Kremlin. Regarding which organization came first with the Maritime Strategy, I leave it to the readers. But from our standpoint in the SSG, we had been sent by Admiral Hayward to “do good for the U.S. Navy,” and after many, many discussions among ourselves and many other potential activities that we could have undertaken, we chose to look at how the United States Navy and Marine Corps could play a much more offensive role in what was then the great challenge, the Soviet Union. I know that others were interested in this work, the CNO’s staff was doing work on strategy, and Secretary Lehman had done some work thinking about the Navy of the future.

But for us, we were not aware of any macro-level strategy for our country that dealt with the use of offensive maritime forces. Additionally, when we were looking to brief various commands, through Bob Murray and Admiral Hayward, there was a decision that we should go and visit all of the four-star U.S. Navy commanders to represent a new way of thinking about our Navy, which we called the Maritime Strategy. So, regarding who the originator was, from our standpoint we believed that we were taking the lead and had founded something that could be very special for our country, and I believe it was the SSG who dubbed it the Maritime Strategy.

How did the SSG, and through it the Maritime Strategy, influence and spur innovation in real-world fleet operations and exercises, both at the theater and at the tactical levels? What role did the SSG’s extensive travel to operational fleet commands, or the feedback received from the theater commands and flag ranks, help influence the strategy?

Commander Art Cebrowski and I were the two most junior officers on the first SSG. The natural flow had us both involved in developing presentations, doing some writing, and then eventually being the two briefers that took the Maritime Strategy to each of the four-star commanders-in- chief of the theaters. As such we were able to internalize and absorb the many comments that we received, which were at first quite doubtful, and then in a growing way, believing that there was indeed a new way possible to use naval force. Eventually Art and I started to feel more and more confident. With Bob Murray as an enormous mentor, a shield, we had a great interface with CNO Admiral Tom Hayward to continue our work and then to broaden it.

We noticed that within a few months exercises were being conducted in the various fleets, especially Seventh Fleet, to test out some of the concepts in the field. But more importantly, each of us was blessed to move on to become more senior and start exercising these concepts ourselves. As a young one-star admiral, I was able to mass four dozen attack submarines far forward and “demonstrate to the Soviets directly that we were there in numbers.”

When we looked at the ability of the United States Navy to take the battle forward to the Soviet bastions, to the northern flank of Norway and even the Arctic, when we were able to use carriers, surface forces, and the submarine force together far forward both in the Atlantic and the Pacific, we started to realize that we were having an impact on the Soviets themselves. No longer were the bastions and the northern and western flanks totally the property of the Soviet Union. After the Cold War was over, there were intelligence reports reflecting the critical difference the Navy and Marine Corps’ positioning had had on strategic thinking in the Soviet Union and indeed in their reflection that they could not win, no matter how much they poured into their defense systems.

Why did the Maritime Strategy “work,” if it did, and what about the process has been so hard to replicate?

The Maritime Strategy worked because there was an open mind in the leadership ranks of the Navy, there were very active supporters in OP 603, and in the intelligence community. And I would note that Rich Haver was particularly valuable to us in gaming and supporting our efforts. Rich was a senior civilian, an intelligence professional working in the Chief of Naval Operations office directly in what was called Code 009. He was extremely interested in the SSG’s deliberations and participated in many of our wargames and discussions. He was also a source of information from the intelligence community, and we spent considerable time with Rich regarding the intelligence implications of our thoughts on the Maritime Strategy. We saw a lot of Rich in Newport with the SSG.

Underlying it all, of course, was Tom Hayward and Bob Murray’s terrific leadership. They were the single most important factors in driving the success of those first SSGs! I think it was hard to duplicate the work of the first three or four SSGs, as follow-on CNOs did not lead the effort in the same sense that Tom Hayward did, and there was never another Bob Murray. I think the concept is strong and could remain strong under the right leadership. In other words, “take the very best from the warfare communities, give them a free rein for a year, and ask them to deliver a product that is worth the time and effort for their Navy and Marine Corps.” I don’t think that ever happened again after the first two or three SSGs.

How did the strategy interface with the POM process? What was its budgetary and programmatic influence, what mechanisms channeled this influence, and how did these processes change over this time period?

Because of senior leadership and our exposure to all of the Navy’s four-star officers, there eventually was considerable support and understanding of what the United States Navy and Marine Corps capability was, and I believe that flowed through every branch of both services. Especially for those of us who became three- and four-star officers, we drove the Maritime Strategy as part of all of our budgeting and programmatic directions. It was a critical part of my own efforts both as the first N-8 in the Navy staff and as the Sixth Fleet commander, and then the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Putting pressure on the Soviet Union, and indeed realizing that the Navy and Marine Corps were operating forward, aggressively, and offensively, I believe this carried over after the Cold War ended in the way we thought about our service. It changed the paradigms of World War II. Of course, the submarine force had always been operating forward. But now we were able to operate with other branches of the Navy and Marine corps in a very offensive forward position, and we coordinated those actions with other naval forces to make a much larger difference. In many ways the Maritime Strategy was a coming-of-age for maritime forces.

What lessons can be taken from the 1980s for engaging in modern great power competition, both specifically about the role of the SSG and its functionality, and more generally about the centrality of the Maritime Strategy in 1980s great power competition?

Many of the lessons of the 1980s pertain to naval and Marine forces today, and will in the future. And when we are thinking of great power competition it allowed us to think of truly offensive and game-changing actions in the forward theaters, which pertains as much in today’s world as it did then. I predict that this will continue as we look to the future.

The lessons of the SSG were profound for me. The degree of thinking and engagement that a dedicated, supported from-the-top-group of quality officers can provide, was stunning. Art Cebrowski and I, I’m sure, had our lives changed in many ways from this experience. The leadership lessons learned from Tom Hayward, Bob Murray, and others who supported us also had a profound effect on Art and myself. And I have to add, the loss of Art Cebrowski to our entire Defense Department was a loss that is more than one could ever have imagined.

How did the strategy enhance the Navy’s ability to tell its story to outside audiences, such as Congress, the other services, and allies? How was it received and challenged by outside audiences?

The Maritime Strategy dramatically enhanced the Navy’s confidence in what it already knew in part that it could do. Whether it was with Congress, where the demonstration of the Navy and Marine Corps offensive forces working jointly with the other services became known, or with our allies, where this broad naval offensive power was broadly accepted, the maritime strategy was clearly now a part of everything we did. And in many cases, such as the United Kingdom, our allies joined as part of our forward-thinking Maritime Strategy.

Many audiences of traditionalists, including several of our four-star commanders at the time, were strongly unconvinced, even disapprovingly so. But it did not take long with continued exercises, demonstrated capability, and a realization on the Hill that this was something that could truly change America’s position in the world of military power, that there was widespread acceptance.

For many of us throughout our careers, we took pride in showing our friends and allies around the world and in the United States the true power and ability of our maritime forces to operate freely, jointly, and with substantial capability even in the most challenging areas. It is hard to say this needs to be proven now, since this is the way our country’s military services take military force forward, with naval forces on the leading edge!

Admiral William Owens (ret.) is a retired four-star U.S. Navy admiral. He was Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and was Commander of the U.S. Sixth Fleet from 1990 to 1992, which included Operation Desert Storm. Owens also served as the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Resources. Owens was the Senior Military Assistant to two Secretaries of Defense (Secretaries Cheney and Carlucci) and served in the Office of Program Appraisal for the Secretary of the Navy. He began his military career as a nuclear submariner. He served on four strategic nuclear-powered submarines and three nuclear attack submarines, including tours as Commanding Officer of the USS Sam Houston, USS Michigan, and USS City of Corpus Christi. He currently serves as an executive in the private sector, as well as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Joe Petrucelli is an assistant editor at CIMSEC, a reserve naval officer, and an analyst at Systems, Planning and Analysis, Inc.

The opinions expressed here are the author’s own, and do not necessarily represent the positions of employers, the Navy, or the DoD.

Featured Image: October 22, 1988 – Guests observe the Nos. 1 and 2 Mark 7 16-inch/50-caliber guns being traversed and elevated as the battleship USS WISCONSIN (BB 64) “comes alive” during its recommissioning. (National archive photo)

Mike McDevitt on the Strategic Studies Group and Connecting Strategy with Programming

1980s Maritime Strategy Series

By Joe Petrucelli

CIMSEC discussed the development of the 1980s Maritime Strategy and the role played by the CNO Strategic Studies Group with Rear Admiral Michael McDevitt (ret.). RADM McDevitt served on the second SSG and went on to serve in operational and programmatic roles implementing the Maritime Strategy. In this discussion, he discusses changes brought about by the Maritime Strategy, the attempts to bureaucratically ensure that strategy informed navy programming, and what lessons the Maritime Strategy and the SSG have for the modern era.

What was new about the Maritime Strategy and how was it a shift from 1970s concepts and plans?

The maritime Strategy was new in a number of ways. First, it was strategically dangerous, and as a result was controversial because it embraced the use of U.S. anti-submarine forces, primarily nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs), in a campaign to sink Soviet nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). The goal was to eliminate or substantially reduce the Soviet nuclear strategic reserve (follow-on strike capability). The argument in support of this course of action was that as Soviet SSBNs were sunk this would negatively affect Soviet “correlation of forces” calculations, creating a perception of increased vulnerability and lead them to seek war termination. The counter argument was it would cause the Soviets “to use them rather than lose them,” thereby triggering nuclear war.

Secondly, the Maritime Strategy was intended to be a global strategic approach, in short, the navy would “horizontally escalate” the conflict. The assumption was that war would break out on the Central Front (a Soviet invasion across the inter-German border). Rather than merely fighting the Soviets in and around Europe, the U.S. Navy would expand the war to Asia by using Pacific Fleet capabilities, especially those stationed in Japan, to attack Soviet bases in the Soviet Far Eastern Military District (TVD). High on the list were Soviet Backfire (TU-22M) bomber bases. The main implication for the navy was that the Pacific Fleet would stay in the Pacific and not be “swung” to the Atlantic. Today of course any conflict with China would require Atlantic Fleet forces to “swing” to the Pacific. Admiral Hayward, who was the CNO who established the SSG, was a big proponent of attacking the Soviet Navy on a global basis, especially in the Pacific. He was a former Pacific Fleet commander who hated the “swing strategy.”

Thirdly, it promoted an offensive use of the 600-ship navy and explained how and why the 600-ship navy would actually be used. The strategic intent of the strategy was to put pressure on the Soviet “flanks” by using carrier air (keep in mind in those days each air wing included aircraft capable of delivering nuclear weapons) and SSNs. While I do not claim to be an expert on navy strategies in the 1960s and 70s, they all revolved around the primary mission of securing the sea lines of communication (SLOCs) to Europe so the bulk of the U.S. Army could get there in time to keep the Red Army from overrunning western Europe. Based on intelligence, the Maritime Strategy judged that the vast Soviet submarine fleet would not be involved in attacking SLOCs and instead would be protecting their own SSBN forces. Yet another reason for an anti-SSBN operation.

Finally, the strategy was strongly informed by the absolute best intelligence available. It was not simply an aspirational document, many of the ideas and concepts (including novel tactical ideas) embedded in the strategy found their way into official war plans, were constantly wargamed, and practiced in major fleet exercises.

I would also add that it rested on a number of assumptions regarding Soviet behavior and their reactions to U.S. operations that could have been very wrong. Similarly, some innovative tactics suggested by the SSG such as using the radar shadows created by steep walled fjords and small islands emerging from deep water in the Aegean and in Northeast Asia to protect carriers were very risky. The idea was that anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) radar seekers could not discriminate between the merged radar return of the land and ships operating nearby, thus protecting them from Backfire-launched ACSM’s. This implied that carriers might have to fly from anchor, something I witnessed years later in Diego Garcia.

What was your personal involvement in the Maritime Strategy development process?

On the eve of detaching from destroyer command in July 1982 and heading to a good assignment in Washington, my orders were changed, and I was assigned to the second Strategic Studies Group (SSG) at the Naval War College. I had no idea what the SSG was and did not want to go. I received a phone call from the CNO’s office and was told to shut up and execute my orders. It turned out to be a transformative career experience because it exposed me, for the first time, to real world maritime strategy and exceptionally good intelligence. Note the small “m and s,” what we know today as “the” Maritime Strategy” did not exist, it had not yet been written. SSG 2’s task was to globally expand, if practicable, the concepts developed during the first SSG that sketched offensive operations beyond the GI-UK gap against the Soviet Northern Flank.

The eight of us were divided into two teams, one to focus on the Pacific, and one to focus on the Mediterranean. I was the surface guy on the Med team. It is probably best to not go into any details about our work beyond what I suggested in responding to your first question. It was a full year of study, wargaming, discussion, many visits to the Office of Naval Intelligence and CIA, and travel to LANTFLT, NAVEUR, and 2nd and 6th Fleets. And of writing, theorizing, arguing, and then finally briefing our product to the CNO and many three-stars and four-stars. Former Under SECNAV Robert Murray led the SSG. He was, and remains, a notable strategist in his own right and was a terrific leader and mentor to all of us. His presence during our travels guaranteed that we had access to senior officers and officials, who left to their own devices probably did not look forward to being questioned by five captains, two colonels, and one commander about how they planned to fight the Soviets.

The SSG is often cited as a key (if not the key) driver behind the emergence of the Maritime Strategy. But at the same time other initiatives and groups, including exercises such as Ocean Venture ’81, the OP-603 strategist community, the Advanced Technology Panel, and Secretary Lehman’s personal involvement were combined with pre-SSG elements such as Sea Plan 2000 and the Global War Games. Which of these elements were the most significant and how did they interact with each other to create what we know as the Maritime Strategy? 

The SSG was not the key. The Maritime Strategy had many parents, it was an iterative process; it did not emerge full-blown overnight. The most influential player by far was CNO Admiral Tom Hayward who started the U.S. Navy down the maritime strategy road. He saw a need for naval strategic thinking and made it an imperative. When John Lehman became SECNAV he completely embraced what Hayward had initiated, and brought the energy, vision, and political savvy necessary to link his 600-ship navy vision to a believable concept of operations that came to be called the Maritime Strategy. It was not a passing fancy for him, he kept his foot on the gas pedal in terms of training and exercises once the initial headwork was done. SSG work caught his eye because it provided an operational template of how naval forces could actually be used to make a strategic difference in what had long been viewed as a continental conflict that only demanded safe and efficient taxi service from the Navy. Because of his interest, the most senior naval officers had to consider seriously the work of the SSG.

But, in terms of pulling all threads together into a coherent strategic document that took seriously inputs from fleet commanders, the credit should go to the OP-603 team. Those of us in SSG 2 did not think we were writing “the” maritime strategy. At the end of our year however, we did think we had knit together a concept of operations that would be effective in the two theaters of operations we addressed.

Finally, I think it would be a grave mistake to not acknowledge the seminal importance of the CIA’s National Intelligence Estimate (NIE 11-15-82D of March 1983). It was being written while SSG 2 was doing its work, and all the players mentioned in your question were aware that it was being prepared and benefited from its findings. It has since been declassified and is included as an appendix in John Hattendorf’s Naval War College Newport Paper 19, “The Evolution of the U.S, Navy’s Maritime Strategy, 1997-1986.” It is definitely worth reading today.

How did the SSG, and through it the Maritime Strategy, influence and spur innovation in real-world fleet operations and exercises, both at the theater and at the tactical levels?  What role did the SSG’s extensive travel to operational fleet commands, and the feedback received from the theater commands and flag ranks, help influence the strategy? 

It is important to keep in mind that only the first two SSGs had any direct influence on what we know today as the Maritime Strategy. OP-06 was already briefing an early version of the maritime strategy in late 1982, early 1983. By that time, the fleet commanders recognized that both the new CNO Admiral Watkins and SECNAV Lehman had positive views about both the OP-06 work and the products of SSG1 and 2, and as a result were testing many of the supporting operational concepts and tactical ideas at sea. In short, by the summer of 1983 the institutional navy was engaged, and the work of subsequent SSGs was certainly important but not central to the Maritime Strategy itself. 

Why did the Maritime Strategy “work,” if it did, and what about the process has been so hard to replicate? 

It worked because it provided a credible answer to key strategic and budgetary questions. Why do you need a 600-ship navy? What will you do with it? It explained to the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the White House, and most importantly the Congress why you needed a navy that size. It did this by having a good story that explained how the navy would actually be used in case of general war in Europe. And it explained how the Navy “would make a strategic difference” to the country.

It also worked because the United States had what I would call an “official enemy.” It was politically correct to talk openly about what was needed to stop Soviet aggression in Europe, and to punish the Soviets globally by attacking them wherever found. When the Cold War ended, other than North Korea or Iran, the U.S. ran out of “official enemies,” and as a result, the rationale for naval forces shifted to an era that CNO Admiral Watkins had dubbed the “Violent Peace.”

Necessarily, the Navy’s public rationalization had to shift to what the Navy actually had been doing throughout the Cold War except, of course, fighting Russians. The focus became the importance of combat credible forward presence and fighting limited wars. This was an accurate operational characterization of what the Navy did, and continues to do, but these are very hard arguments to shape into a compelling “naval strategic story.” In short, since 1991 there has been no widely agreed upon enemy that could generate a significant enough demand signal for a major navy buildup or naval strategic story like that of the early 1980s.

It appears that China may now be filling that gap today. Thwarting Chinese aggression against treaty allies and important friends (e.g., Taiwan) is a major strategic problem. Interestingly, what the Office of the Secretary of Defense calls China’s operational concept, anti-access/area denial (A2/AD), is nothing more than a derivative of what the Soviets had planned to do to keep U.S. Navy carrier forces as far away from Soviet territory as possible. Of course today smart ballistic missiles and 24/7 space-based surveillance and targeting make it a lot harder to deal with that threat compared to 35 years ago. The problem of how to credibly honor our defense obligations to countries that live in the shadow of China’s capability suggests to me that a new SSG is needed to focus on this problem.

How did the strategy interface with the POM process? What was its budgetary and programmatic influence, what mechanisms channeled this influence, and how did these processes change over this time period? As part of this, can you describe the Summary Warfare Appraisal process and how that worked? 

A perennial complaint from those that critique the POM (the program objective memorandum) process in OPNAV is that it is strategy-free. In reality this is not entirely true since systems have been assessed against threats to be credible. In my day, the navy program was the domain of DMSO of Navy Program Planning (OP-090). To inject strategy into the process CNO Hayward transformed an existing DMSO into a new organization named Director of the Office of Naval Warfare (OP-095). Shortly thereafter the VCNO (Admiral Bill Small, another very influential strategic proponent) told 095 to assess the navy program against the emerging Maritime Strategy. He wanted to make certain the Navy was programing capabilities that were relevant to the strategic concepts embodied in the strategy. This involved a number of assessments, directives, and so forth from the CNO directing that program sponsors follow the strategic objectives, as defined by 095.

After my SSG assignment ended in July 1983, I wound up in the middle of this “experiment” when assigned as the Deputy Director of OP-950 (Warfare Appraisal Branch), an office headed during my time by Rear Admiral Bobby Bell and then-Rear Admiral Bill Fogarty, both terrific bosses. Our job was to create a “report card” for the CNO on how well the rest of OPNAV was doing in following the dictates of the strategy. The report card would be in the form of a briefing to the CNO and all his three-star DCNO and DMSOs. It was called the Summary Warfare Appraisal. My main job was to oversee the building of this briefing and then be the one who briefed it to the CNO and others. At the time OP-095 was headed by Vice Admiral Lee Baggett, a brilliant officer, who left no detail to chance. Since the Summary Warfare Appraisal was full of individual programs, all of which we had to evaluate/grade, Vice Admiral Baggett and I spent hours in his office while he annotated his copy of our report card with telling programmatic details, including recommendations to kill, enhance, or sustain a given program based upon whether they contributed to the Maritime Strategy or not. There was a great deal of preliminary work that went into this process, especially detailed programmatic assessments of individual warfare areas (e.g., ASW, AAW, Strike, and so forth) which were measured against maritime strategic criteria.

The goal of the report card brief was to obtain CNO approval. Once CNO approved, as modified by discussions during the brief, we (OP-950) drafted a directive from CNO to OPNAV on how to modify the program to bring it into line with maritime strategic objectives. During my two-and-a half years of doing this, the process had many twists and turns as three-star personalities changed, and the Maritime Strategy became more widely understood and accepted within the higher levels of the Navy, especially OPNAV. On balance it was a process that CNO Watkins liked and was comfortable with, and it did connect strategy with programs. When he retired, as usual, the next CNO had his own ideas on how he wanted to address strategy-program integration. By that time I was back at sea, and that was someone else’s problem.

What lessons can be taken from the 1980s for engaging in modern great power competition, both specifically about the role of the SSG and its functionality, and more generally about the centrality of the Maritime Strategy in 1980s great power competition? 

Dealing with two great powers is going to be harder than it was to deal with one. While Russia and China are not allies, and probably have no intention of joining a war against the United Sates in support of their close neighbor; they may share intelligence and surveillance information, sell weapons systems and ammunition, and take advantage of Washington’s distraction with the other. Washington should not, but could easily, ignore treaty allies who might be threatened by an unengaged Russia or China. These are all unique problems that do not map well against the 1980s.

We cannot forget that the Maritime Strategy never had to be executed. For all our clever ideas, we could have gotten our asses kicked conventionally. Just consider, in 1982 the Soviet Navy had 278 submarines, not counting SSBNs, and 1,200 naval combat aircraft. The Maritime Strategy’s timing was fortunate. Less than a decade after it was issued the Soviet Union put itself out of business. That had a lot to do with Mikhail Gorbachev and not much to do with the Maritime Strategy. It was an incredibly risky strategy, and frankly in hindsight, I doubt the president would have permitted an anti-SSBN operation because of the risk of escalation to nuclear war.

What was important about then that needs to be applied today was the totality of the intellectual horsepower the Navy Department brought to bear on the signal task of making a case for a navy that could make a strategic difference in the event of great power war. Today, the navy needs to recognize that in a fight with China its biggest problem is not just the PLA Navy; it is also the PLA Rocket Force, the PLA Air Force, and the PLA Strategic Support Force. It is the totality of China’s military power that can be brought to bear in East Asia. If it were strictly a navy-to-navy faceoff, the PLA Navy would be in deep trouble. 

Rear Admiral Michael McDevitt (ret.) served on the second SSG after a destroyer command and went on to command a destroyer squadron, and after flag selection, an aircraft carrier battle group. He subsequently served as the Director of the East Asia Policy Office for the Secretary of Defense, the Director for Strategy, War Plans and Policy (J-5) for U.S. CINCPAC, and the Commandant of the National War College in Washington, D.C. He founded CNA’s Strategic Studies division in 2000, and since stepping down as a Vice President in 2012, has been active as a Senior Fellow, leading several major projects related to maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas and China’s ambition to become a “great” maritime power. He is the author of the recent book China as a Twenty First Century Naval Power, published by the U.S. Naval Institute Press.

Joe Petrucelli is an assistant editor at CIMSEC, a reserve naval officer, and an analyst at Systems, Planning and Analysis, Inc.

The opinions expressed here are the author’s own, and do not necessarily represent the positions of employers, the Navy or the DoD.

Featured Image: May 1, 1985 – A port bow view of the Spruance class destroyer USS HAYLER (DD 997) executing a high-speed maneuver. (National Archive photo)

John Hanley on Convening the Strategic Studies Group and Assessing War Plans

1980s Maritime Strategy Series

By Joe Petrucelli

CIMSEC discussed the development of the 1980s Maritime Strategy and the role played by the CNO Strategic Studies Group (SSG) with Dr. John Hanley. Dr. Hanley served as a core member of the SSG during the 1980s and 1990s. In this discussion, he provides unique insights into the changes brought about by the strategy, the organizations and factors that contributed to its development, what made the SSG effective, and what lessons the strategy and the SSG have for the modern era.

What was new about the Maritime Strategy and how was it a shift from 1970s concepts and plans?

The Navy’s strategy in the 1970s was essentially an extension of operations in the Atlantic from World War II. Supreme Allied Commander Europe’s (SACEUR) war plans called for delivering 10 Army divisions to Europe in 10 days. Most senior Navy officers and strategists envisioned the Soviet Navy conducting a submarine campaign against our convoys delivering troops and material to Europe the way the Germans had in WWII. For example, CNO Elmo Zumwalt developed FFG-7 frigates as an anti-submarine warfare (ASW) escort force, and President Carter’s Presidential Review Memorandum 10 called for swinging the Pacific Fleet to the Atlantic.

As a submariner, I was familiar with our war plans and the exercises that we conducted to develop tactics and technology for countering the Soviet Navy. The focus of the effort in the Atlantic was to stop Soviet submarines from penetrating the GI-UK gap.

At that time, General Bernie Rogers, SACEUR, was on the record stating that he would have to begin using tactical nuclear weapons after about three days of combat. We knew that the Soviets paid close attention to the “correlation of nuclear forces” and to “combat stability” for their naval forces. We also had intelligence that much of their navy would be tasked to defend their nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) with long-range missiles in bastions in the Arctic, Sea of Okhotsk, and elsewhere, and against carrier and B-52 attacks against Russia itself.

During visits to the regional commanders-in-chief (CINCs) the SSG found that the war plans for each region were on different timelines. The SSG believed that attacking the Soviets in their Northern (Barents, Greenland Seas), Southern (Mediterranean), and Far East (Pacific) theaters of military operation simultaneously would limit the forces the Soviets could devote to the “Central Front,” creating arguments for delaying SACEUR’s initiation of the use of nuclear weapons, and that sinking their SSBNs would affect Soviet calculations, therefore raising the threshold for their use of nuclear weapons.

The strategy called for U.S. submarines and ASW forces to deploy rapidly and engage the Soviets in the heart of their operating areas, while establishing air control over and holding areas like northern Norway, Thrace, and Hokkaido as bases for strikes against Soviet Naval Air, which would allow the carrier battle groups to prudently operate within range of Soviet air bases and support ground operations. This Maritime Strategy was a strategy for employing combined and joint forces to control maritime theaters that could have a decisive effect on the outcome of the war, and not just delivering the U.S. Army and supplies to Europe.

What was your personal involvement in the strategy development process, focusing on the SSG and the Maritime Strategy?

I was a reserve submarine officer with the submarine development squadron that scheduled, designed, collected data, reconstructed, and analyzed submarine exercises, as well as data from real-world operations. In my civilian job, I spent the majority of my time doing the same kind of work for fleet exercises around the world for submarines in support of carrier battle groups. This work provided a lot of operational data supporting the design of tactics, technology, and effects of command-and-control schemes.

For my two weeks of active-duty training in 1982, I was looking for something interesting to do. A submariner friend at the Naval War College told me of this new Strategic Studies Group that was looking for some analytical help. I signed up and spent two weeks sharing an office with then Captain-selects Bill Owens and Art Cebrowski. The first task they gave me was to lay out a timeline for deployment of the Soviet Northern Fleet using some intelligence data that had recently become available, and then lay out a scheme (using actual war plan features) for deploying our Atlantic submarine force, using readiness data for both forces. We then worked on an engagement scheme that submariner Bill Owens, working with maritime patrol air (MPA) pilot Captain Dan Wolkensdorfer, called combined-arms ASW.

Extant plans had our submarine, surface, and air ASW forces (we had recently retired the ASW carriers) operating independently in deconflicted areas, mostly to defend against Soviet submarines deploying to the Atlantic. Our scheme called for blanketing the areas north of the GI-UK gap with submarines. The first priority for our submarines in their patrol areas was to sink the Soviet Navy anti-air warfare (AAW) ships to begin peeling back the onion of Soviet defenses using asymmetric advantages. This would allow P-3s to press further north and serve effectively as standoff weapons for submarines, both saving submarine torpedoes and reducing our submarine losses, which would increase our detection and attack rates of Soviet submarines. We also discovered that these AAW ships were outer air defenses that may have interfered with B-52 strikes, as our B-52s refueled over the Barents on their way to Russia. This scheme required sharing surveillance information and was the beginning of Owen’s systems-of-systems concepts.

The final day of my two-week duty, Bill Owens and Hon. Robert J. Murray (Center for Naval Warfare Studies dean and CNO SSG director) invited me to lunch and asked if I could stay. I arranged to do so.

Having laid out the operational concept, my job was to do the sea control/ASW analysis to depict timelines for Soviet SSBN losses, as well as losses to both fleets, comparing independent to combined arms ASW approaches. Art Cebrowski had the lead for the campaign analysis for air control and holding northern Norway. The data from fleet exercises was very helpful. Next, I prepared a brief for an upcoming wargame, and later prepared a brief for Owens and Cebrowski to present to the Navy leadership and to a Navy CINC’s conference. I wrote SSG I’s final report using the briefing, some additional research, and notes provided by Owens and Cebrowski.

Where Owens and Cebrowski had done detailed analysis for the Soviet Northern theater, SSG II formed two teams to do a similar level of detailed analysis for the Soviet Southern and Far East theaters. I assisted in the analysis, and for laying out a similar approach for the Pacific. Later, I worked with COMSUBLANT to change their war plans and prepare a briefing for them to use on the changes in the war plan.

The SSG is often cited as a key (if not the key) driver behind the emergence of the Maritime Strategy. But at the same time, other initiatives and groups, including exercises such as Ocean Venture ’81, the OP-603 strategist community, the Advanced Technology Panel, and Secretary Lehman’s personal involvement, were combined with pre-SSG elements such as Sea Plan 2000 and the Global War Games. In your opinion, which of these elements were the most significant and how did they interact with each other to create what we know as the Maritime Strategy?

As Peter Swartz rightly points out, the Navy would have had a Maritime Strategy without the CNO SSG. However, the details would have been quite a bit different and the OPNAV strategy may have had less effect on war plans. OPNAV was focused on programming and promoting the Navy, but the fleets and submarine force did their own planning.

As CINCPACFLT, Admiral Tom Hayward had developed his Sea Strike concept for attacking the Soviet Far East and strongly opposed “swinging” the Pacific Fleet to the Atlantic, noting that the battles may be decided by the time the fleet arrived. Others like Bing West had SECNAV Graham Claytor’s ear on pressing the Navy forward into the Norwegian Sea, which John Lehman fully supported. This started a debate over how to employ the Navy before Hayward and Murray created the SSG in 1981, with many senior admirals resisting the idea.

The first SSG focused on defeating the Soviet strategy, rather than starting with how to use the fleet; hence changing nuclear correlation of forces and simultaneous attacks in all theaters. As Owens, Cebrowski, and Wolkensdorfer developed and refined their concepts, Captain Ken McGruther, a protégé of VADM Art Moreau (OP-06), shared the SSG’s findings and thinking with OPNAV, which was developing the outlines of a similar strategy. In the fall of 1981, the Advanced Technology Panel (ATP) had new intelligence and turned to the SSG to conduct a wargame. In April 1982, the SSG conducted their fourth wargame using Owens’ and Cebrowski’s schemes. VCNO Bill Small brought the ATP (consisting of major leaders in OPNAV) to Newport for two days to review the game’s results and decided to use them as a basis for pushing Navy programs. CNO Hayward had the SSG (Owens and Cebrowski) brief the Navy flags. By their count, they gave their top-secret briefing to 162 flag officers, often receiving pushback, but creating a shared appreciation for their schemes. CNO James Watkins convened his first Navy CINC’s conference in Newport in October 1982. What was scheduled to be a 45-minute Owens/Cebrowski brief at the end of a day continued for hours, followed by then-CINCSOUTH, soon to be CINCPAC, Admiral Bill Crowe talking to Cebrowski over a map of the Pacific on the hood of a car discussing how the strategy would work in that theater. Changes to war plans began in earnest following that conference.

The first two SSGs played the theater CINCs in the Global War Games in 1982 and 1983 as another way to educate the participants on the strategy and campaigns while continuing to refine them. 1984 began a second five-year series of Global War Games focused on fighting an extended war, exposing more officers from all services and senior government officials to the strategy as participation expanded each year.

I was in the second row when SECNAV Lehman met with the SSG in Newport. He was enthusiastic about the strategy. However, he would say that whatever the question was, the answer was 600 ships.

How did the SSG, and through it the Maritime Strategy, influence and spur innovation in real-world fleet operations and exercises, both at the theater and tactical levels? How did the SSG’s extensive travel to operational fleet commands, and the feedback received from the theater commands and flag ranks, help influence the strategy?

As I mentioned, initial visits to operational commands first illustrated the disconnects in the timelines for attacking the Soviets. Both visits to the commands and their participation in SSG games creatively addressed the complex issues and enhanced communication contributing to consensus and commitment to action. Three of the major operational/tactical innovations were combined-arms ASW and the use of land masking to shield ships from Soviet AS-4 and AS-6 missiles, requiring their bombers to come into the teeth of fleet air defenses to attack, and the use of Marine Corps Tactical Air Operations Centers.

After serving as executive assistant to Vice Admiral Lee Baggett (OP-095) working to reconcile Navy programs with the strategy, Owens took command of SUBRON 4 in Charleston, SC. There he exchanged an officer with Jake Tobin’s VP squadron in Jacksonville, FL so that they could work on covert communications and combined ops at every opportunity. As Chief of Staff at COMSUBLANT, Owens helped to initiate no notice exercises for deploying the whole Atlantic Submarine force in three days – as the timelines were key. In command, both Cebrowski and Owens conducted wargames to familiarize subordinates with the strategy.

One part of the plan was to use AWACS to surveil the Barents and Greenland seas and provide targeting data on Soviet surface action groups to our subs. Then-Rear Admiral J.D. Williams commanding SUBGRU 2 worked with OPNAV to make Link 11 interoperable (the program managers had developed different versions) and conduct exercises to execute that concept.

As a reservist I also participated in NATO combined arms ASW exercises in 1986 and 1988 as we implemented them with our allies. The 1988 exercise involved a mobile ASW command center that now Rear Admiral Jake Tobin had created. It fit in a C-141 and we took it to an AWACS base in Norway to demonstrate that we could continue command if Northwood, UK was destroyed.

Rear Admiral Hank Mustin attended a debrief of an SSG II game employing land-masking havens. After first questioning whether aircraft could launch from carriers in restricted waters, he made Vestfjord a carrier battle group bastion when commanding Second Fleet. Similarly, Pacific Fleet began exercising land masking in the Aleutians and off of Japan.

Placing a USMC TAOC in northern Norway, Thrace, and Hokkaido was key to being able to link NATO’s Air Ground Defense Environment displays and other shore-based air ‘pictures’ with U.S. Navy Link 4 and Link 11 to coordinate air and sea-based air control and land attack. Because the Marines had to work with everyone, they had the only system designed to accept all pictures. This was a key component of Cebrowski’s defense of northern Norway, and the beginnings of his net-centric warfare concepts.

As CNOs Watkins and Carl Trost tasked subsequent SSGs to look beyond the Soviets and at other issues, the SSG interactions with operational commands spurred them to make plans for a wider range of contingencies. Often, the role of the SSG was in laying the intellectual foundations and creating templates that assisted commands in extending their planning and helped OPNAV extend the strategy to “gray-zone” operations.

Why did the Maritime Strategy “work,” if it did, and what about the process has been so hard to replicate?

John Hattendorf’s Newport Paper 19 shows how the strategy, and the way it was developed and communicated, created a renaissance in strategic thinking among the naval leadership. Few admirals could talk knowledgably about maritime strategy in the late 1970s, but essentially all could by the mid-1980s. When Hayward developed Sea Strike, he had briefing teams go around PACFLT to get the word out. He used the SSG to do the same with the top secret version of the Maritime Strategy. Subsequent CNOs continued that practice until Mike Boorda in the mid-1990s.

CNO Watkins had SSG IV work with the ATP again on a perception management campaign to deter the Soviets. Watkins viewed deterrence as a moral issue and wanted actual operations to show the Soviets that they were not ready to counter the U.S. Navy. This was highly classified. It resulted in both Navy and Joint plans. Rapid submarine force deployments and strike units moving under emissions control (EMCON) surprising Soviets were examples. The effects became apparent as Gorbachev pressed for naval arms control to stop these operations.

Where the strategy had less impact was in aligning Navy programming given the power of the platform barons; as demonstrated by VCNO Bill Small’s and many other memos.

Replicating the strategy has proven difficult for many reasons.

Some point to Goldwater-Nichols shifting the planning to the Combatant Commanders. While true, it does not relieve the Navy of the need to generate concepts for its best use and have that conversation with the COCOMs as they develop their plans. The COCOMs rely upon their service components as their principal advisors.

A much bigger driver is that since the CNO lost control of navy operations in 1958, OPNAV has been focused on programming, not warfighting. CNO Watkins told his first SSG to tell him how to win without buying another **** thing. That’s not how OPNAV thinks. The COCOMs have to think that way, and then identify the things that they need, which rarely are platforms, but are capabilities like logistics, lift, electronic warfare, surveillance, and communications interoperability. The Pentagon view from my experience in the 2000s is that the COCOMs are always asking for too much with their short-term focus, therefore their Integrated Priority Lists are ignored. Ignoring their priorities for decades results in the short-term becoming the long-term. Enemies in the Pentagon are other claimants on DoD’s budget, not foreign powers.

The SSG was exceedingly helpful in bridging between the CNO, the D.C. establishment, the operating forces, both our government and foreign governments and their militaries, when it comes to strategy and issues of importance to the CNO. He tasked them with issues that he could not get answered as well elsewhere, often because the first challenge was formulating the real questions needing to be addressed. Concerned that the SSG under director Ambassador Frank McNeil had become too pol-mil and not enough mil-pol, and advised by the CNO Executive Panel on a scheme for naval warfare innovation, in 1995 CNO Boorda brought in retired Admiral Jim Hogg and changed the SSG’s mission from turning captains of ships into captains of war to naval warfare innovation. The focus of the program shifted from developing future Navy leaders by “having them sit in the seat before they got the job” (Hayward’s original intention) through addressing issues of pressing importance to the CNO, to focusing mostly on implications of future technology for naval warfare.

During the first 14 years, of the 88 Navy officers assigned to the SSG, 43 made flag, eight were promoted to four stars (along with General Tony Zinni, USMC), and 10 finished their careers with three stars. Because they continued to serve, the officers were able to further develop and implement the concepts that they had developed over their careers, putting greater substance under their contributions to the strategy. Though potential for flag rank remained a criterion, the numbers fell off with the subsequent SSGs. Why the naval warfare innovation scheme failed to affect the Navy in a manner similar to the early SSGs is a good subject to explore in the future.

One of the many new aspects of the Maritime Strategy is a push to include more use of the Naval Reserves, something that appears was linked to Secretary Lehman’s involvement and his realignment of the reserve forces to more directly support the active Navy. As a reservist at the time, can you describe that change and how the reserve-active relationship changed, if it did?

Lehman’s role as a reservist did help make the Naval Reserve air more relevant. Reserve air squadrons had active-duty officers running the squadrons of selective reservists. CNO Hayward did away with the similar structure in the surface reserve as the ships could not be properly maintained. My experience in having three reserve commands was that contributing to the gaining commands took a far second to loyalty to the Naval Reserve program in consideration for reserve flag promotions. I believe this changed after Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.

What lessons can be taken from the 1980s for engaging in modern great power competition, both specifically about the role of the SSG and its functionality, and more generally about the centrality of the Maritime Strategy in 1980s great power competition? 

First, our strategy must begin with defeating our adversaries’ strategies. DoD’s approach of focusing on shortfalls creates a laundry list far greater than budgets can cover, even when budgets are going up. The early SSGs were able to identify several things that would make a big difference.

Secondly, though some exceptional officers (such as Vice Admiral Stuart Munsch) can bridge the gap, the culture and incentives for programming in OPNAV and the Pentagon culture and processes make creating a similar maritime strategy in the Pentagon exceedingly difficult. The audiences are principally the Congress, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, and the American public, rather than the COCOMs and our adversaries. Making programming align with strategy has never happened, though CNOs have regularly reorganized OPNAV in pursuit of that objective. Also, as Peter Swartz has pointed out, required joint duty assignments results in many of the most talented Navy officers going to the Joint Staff rather than OPNAV, and Navy strategy and policy specialists often do not serve multiple tours in their specialty, where they could be mentoring and bringing the following generations along.

The Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the Naval War College continues to do great work. However, they simply do not have the reach, nor the clout of a CNO SSG.

The CNO SSG in the 1980s was:

  • Composed of O-6s at the top of their specialties and selected for their future promise by the CNO
  • Focused on warfighting and operations rather than programs
  • Given access to all levels of national intelligence and service special access programs
  • Given broad access to U.S., foreign government, and military officials as well as top academics and think tanks
  • Supported in an intellectual environment at the Naval War College and having access to analysis and games
  • Given a rigorous program of study and time to think and learn about the Navy, joint forces, and the U.S national security establishment
  • Accepting tasking only from the CNO
  • Communicating concepts broadly across U.S. and foreign security establishments

As such, it served an essential function in creating and implementing the 1980s Maritime Strategy, and could again make a big difference.

The Navy needs campaigns of learning that affect both programming and strategy, operations, and tactics. People cite the role of the Naval War College in the interwar years in building on Prussian military science of study, analysis, games, map and field exercises that evolved into the General Board of ex-officio and selected active and retired flag officers focused on fleet design. They worked closely with the Naval War College on games and Fleet Problem exercises that fed into war plans and fleet designs. Following WWII, the Naval War College no longer performed its driving role. With defense reform, the CNO and OPNAV became more isolated both from concepts developed at the Naval War College and the fleets; stove-piped into a PPBS paradigm of systems analysis that increasing relied on campaign simulations rather than prototyping.

For a time, the SSG served to recreate the kinds of interactions that existed in the interwar period. A Navy campaign of learning needs to recreate these kinds of interactions between theoretical and practical experiences. The COCOMs are allies in such a quest, not adversaries.

Dr. Hanley served with the first eighteen Chief of Naval Operations Strategic Studies Groups as an analyst, program director, and deputy director. He earned his doctorate in operations research and management science at Yale University. A former U.S. Navy nuclear submarine officer and fleet exercise analyst, he served as special assistant to Commander in Chief, U.S. Forces Pacific; in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (Offices of Force Transformation; Acquisition, Technology and Logistics; and Strategy); and as deputy director of the Joint Advanced Warfighting Program at the Institute for Defense Analyses. Retiring from government in 2012 after serving as director for strategy at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, he is now an independent consultant. 

Joe Petrucelli is an assistant editor at CIMSEC, a reserve naval officer, and an analyst at Systems, Planning and Analysis, Inc.

The opinions expressed here are the author’s own, and do not necessarily represent the positions of employers, the Navy or DoD.

Featured Image: December 1, 1988 – A bow view of the aircraft carrier USS CONSTELLATION (CV-64) underway with ships of Battle Group Delta. (National Archives photo by ENS Brad Gutillas)

A Question of Time: Improving Taiwan’s Maritime Deterrence Posture

The following essay is adapted from a report published by George Mason University’s Center for Security Policy Studies: A Question of Time: Enhancing Taiwan’s Conventional Deterrence Posture

By Joe Petrucelli

Just last month two U.S. Navy warships conducted a transit of the Taiwan Strait, reminding the world that the status of Taiwan remains contested and unresolved. Although China prefers to use peaceful means to achieve unification, it has not taken the possibility of force off the table. Accordingly, Taiwan remains one of the few states to endure the plausible risk of military invasion.

After visiting Taiwan to study this problem, a team of researchers, including the author, recently released a report advocating for a dramatic shift in Taiwan’s conventional deterrence posture. Among our recommendations, we call for Taiwan’s navy to change its current acquisition priorities and embrace an unconventional-asymmetric doctrine of sea denial.

We suggest this shift in maritime strategy because of what we termed Taiwan’s deterrence trilemma. At a strategic level, Taiwan must simultaneously accomplish three goals that exist in tension with each other:  

  • It must counter China’s grey zone challenges, which means Taiwan must project symbolic strength across its airspace and territorial waters;
  • It must raise the costs of invasion, which means it needs forces that can prolong any conflict and inflict unacceptable losses on the invaders; and
  • It must do both of these things in a resource-constrained environment defined by a general unwillingness to significantly increase defense spending

At least in the near term, a military invasion remains unlikely since the PLA faces a number of obstacles that complicate its ability to mount a successful invasion. Nonetheless, time is on China’s side and Taiwan’s naval doctrine and force posture remain misaligned. Although Taiwan has revised its strategy to emphasize multi-domain, asymmetric deterrence, it remains focused on purchasing high-end, high-capability systems such as the F-35B fighter, Aegis-like destroyers and diesel submarines, the “darlings of their service chiefs.” 

We argue that Taiwan should enhance its deterrence posture by adopting a more coherent and holistic approach. Specifically, we recommend that it adopt an elastic denial-in-defense strategy, which will consist of three core elements:

  • Accept risk in the grey zone. Grey zone aggression does not constitute an existential threat allowing Taiwan to rebalance its force to maintain “just enough” capability to push back against grey zone challenges, such sufficient naval strength to prevent and intercept unwanted excursions into Taiwanese waters;
  • Prioritize denial operations. Specifically, divest as many costly, high-tech platforms as possible so as to invest in large numbers of relatively low-cost, counter-invasion capabilities. This would raise the cost associated with bringing a hostile force close to Taiwan’s shores; and
  • Invest in popular resistance. The prospect of waging a prolonged insurgency will likely deter China’s leadership far more than the threat of fighting a relatively small, conventional force.

We are not the first to propose shifting to an asymmetric maritime force to deny China use of the seas as an invasion corridor. Numerous reports and analyses have suggested specific maritime platforms Taiwan should acquire to execute a sea denial strategy, such as fast missile boats, semi-submersibles, mini-submarines, mines, and coastal defense cruise missiles. We entirely agree with these recommendations and note that to date, despite talk of an asymmetric strategy, Taiwan has made only marginal changes. For example, while it has modestly increased its inventory of missile boats and anti-ship cruise missiles, Taiwan’s navy remains anchored around a relatively small and therefore vulnerable inventory of high-end platforms. 

The political reality is that Taiwan’s navy faces major resource constraints and so must make difficult choices. Accordingly, Taiwan should defer its high-profile procurement priorities, especially the Aegis-like destroyer and the Indigenous Diesel Submarine (IDS). These are technically challenging programs, especially given Taiwan’s lack of experience building similar platforms. Additionally, they are expensive enough that Taiwan will not be able to field them in large numbers and ultimately remain vulnerable to Chinese long-range strike and anti-access weapons systems. Taiwan’s current naval fleet, although aged, is sufficient to “show the flag” and resist grey-zone aggression for the near future. Instead of these planned procurements, Taiwan should significantly increase the numbers of low-cost, lethal platforms, even at the expense of other planned procurements.

These lower cost platforms, by the larger numbers procured, complicate adversary targeting and improve their force-level survivability against PLA strike capabilities. Taiwan should start by fielding a larger fleet than currently envisioned of its stealthy Tuo Jiang missile corvette and build on the lessons learned from these small corvettes to field a future small frigate. Both can fulfill peacetime missions but be built in large enough numbers to possibly survive in a wartime environment. By delaying the more ambitious destroyer and IDS programs and starting with smaller, less expensive projects, Taiwan can best prioritize limited resources.

This incremental approach also helps develop relevant technical capability, so that potential future submarine and large surface combatant programs are less technically risky when it becomes fiscally and strategically appropriate to build them. The immediate savings from delaying the destroyer and IDS programs can be diverted into the sea denial platforms that Taiwan needs now, ranging from the small frigate discussed above to even smaller missile boats, mini-subs and mobile anti-ship cruise missiles.

Moreover, Taiwan should eliminate its entire amphibious force. Bluntly speaking, Taiwan’s amphibious assault ships are strategically unnecessary as they are not immediately useful for confronting limited challenges to Taiwan’s territorial sovereignty or other “grey zone” aggression. They also have no ability to counter a cross-strait invasion. Rather than procure expensive amphibious assault ships and maintain aging landing craft, which generate sizable sustainment costs, Taiwan should retire this entire force. It can then shift these savings into further investments in counter-invasion capabilities.

Because Taiwan’s Marine Corps would be losing its sealift, it should be rebranded as Taiwan’s premier counter-amphibious force so as to fill a gap between the navy’s sea denial role and the army’s ground denial mission. Specifically, it would specialize in defending possible landing zones with mines and spread out hard points in addition to engaging landing craft with dispersed, near-shore weapons such as anti-tank guided missiles.

These proposals to transform Taiwan’s naval strategy and procurement plans would produce a force capable of waging a sea denial campaign against a conventionally superior opponent, tailored to the specific threat of a cross-Strait invasion. The changes in naval force structure would be mirrored throughout Taiwan’s armed forces, to include a reduction in army ground strength, the termination of plans to procure F-35B fighters, and accelerated procurement of similar asymmetric capabilities. To invest in popular resistance, we recommend transforming Taiwan’s two-million-man Reserve Force into a Territorial Defense Force prepared to conduct a lengthy insurgency campaign. By abandoning plans for a decisive battle and shifting to a posture that increases invasion costs and prevents a quick victory, Taiwan can better deter China.

Read about these recommendations and more in the full report: A Question of Time: Enhancing Taiwan’s Conventional Deterrence Posture.

Joe Petrucelli is a Ph.D. student at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government and a currently mobilized U.S. Navy reserve officer. The analysis and opinions expressed here are his alone and they do not represent those of the Department of Defense.

Featured Image: Tuo Jiang-class missile boat in service with the Taiwanese Navy. (Defense Ministry of Taiwan)