Category Archives: 1980s Maritime Strategy Series

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)

Brad Dismukes on the Soviet Navy and Attacking Ballistic Missile Nuclear Submarines

1980s Maritime Strategy Series

By Dmitry Filipoff

CIMSEC discussed the 1980s Maritime Strategy and its relation to the Soviet Navy with Brad Dismukes, who served at the Center for Naval Analyses at the time. In this discussion, Dismukes discusses concepts of Soviet naval operations, whether the Maritime Strategy was a reaction to Soviet naval activity, and the follies of engaging in anti-submarine warfare against nuclear missile-carrying platforms.

How would you describe the overall capability and combat credibility of the Soviet Navy at the beginning of the 1980s? Was Soviet naval capability trending toward becoming a more challenging threat?

The Soviet Navy was getting steadily more capable—but at unpredictable rates across its many platforms and systems. A key dimension of improvement was submarine sound levels. In the period from 1983 to 1986, the Akula-class SSN was just entering service. It proved to be nearly as quiet and undetectable as its U.S. counterparts.

In terms of timing it is perhaps ironic that in January 1986 the U.S. Navy was just making public the Maritime Strategy. Its most important innovation was adoption of the strategic anti-submarine warfare (SASW) mission. That mission aimed to send U.S. SSNs under ice in the Arctic and the Sea of Okhotsk to kill Soviet SSBNs. The latter were being protected by the Soviet general-purpose-force navy—under ice, by their SSNs. The super-quiet Akula made accomplishing SASW much more difficult if not, as the Akula force grew in numbers, perhaps strategically out of reach.

How would you describe Soviet naval strategy during this period, and how did the Soviets plan to employ their fleet if major conflict broke out with NATO?

The fundamental stance of the Soviet Navy across the 70 years of its existence was defensive. Its strategic tasks were to defend the homeland, defend the seaward flanks of the Red Army against attack from the sea, and (after 1973) to defend sea-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) aboard SSBNs. These three functions were to be performed in a layered, seamless, land-sea defense in depth scheme.

The ICBMs aboard Soviet SSBNs formed the nation’s strategic reserve—the ultimate assurance of national survival and the durability of such victories the Army might achieve. Sea-based missiles fell under the aegis of the Defense Council, the nation’s highest politico-strategic body (the equivalent of our National Security Council). The land-based ICBMs of the Strategic Rocket Forces (SRF) were the provenance of the General Staff (the equivalent of our Joint Chiefs of Staff). The SRF’s missiles were assigned a military task—to destroy the enemy and produce victory. The avy’s missiles had a political task—to underwrite the durability of that victory, to deter further or potential nuclear strikes on Soviet territory, and to guarantee the survival of the Soviet state.

In 1973 the navy took on a strategic role it never had before, justifying the huge investments made in the production of the SSBN force and the general-purpose navy to protect it. As far as I know, no one has been able to explain why for the strategic reserve function the Soviets did not instead choose to rely on their large force of road- and rail-mobile ICBMs—a question Michael Kofman has raised recently, as did Michael McGwire back in the mid-1980s. Whatever the answer, the fact is that the Soviets did buy expensive ballistic missile submarines—as their Russian successors continue to do.

The defensive orientation of the Soviet Navy and the importance of the national-level tasks it was assigned meant that the Soviets did not intend to use the navy offensively to attack Western sea lines of communication (SLOCs) on the high seas—to refight the WWI and WWII Battles of the Atlantic. Obviously you cannot send your SSNs forward to attack the SLOCs in force and also hold them back for defense in depth.

Were there “Western-preferred” concepts of wartime Soviet naval operations? Did understandings of wartime Soviet naval strategy evolve and encourage a subsequent shift in U.S. naval operations and strategy?

Understanding did evolve, but fitfully and involving two remarkable strategic errors. The first has been well-recognized since the early 2000s. For nearly 30 years, after the beginning of the Cold War, the Office of Naval Intelligence imputed to the Soviet Navy the intention to fight a third Battle of the Atlantic. This estimate was based mainly on theories held by intel specialists and by planners. Intel extrapolated from the experience of WWII and the well-recognized propensity of the Red Army for offense. It concluded that the huge size of the Soviet submarine force (approaching 400 platforms at one point) could only be explained by an intention, not to defend, but to attack. Planners, following the maxim that the planner’s first obligation is to defend his own vulnerabilities, concluded that the Soviets intended to attack the SLOCs (as they would do if they were sitting at a planner’s desk in Moscow). In effect, the planner’s worst-case scenario merged with intel’s most likely: Western SLOCs were the Soviets’ strategic target.

However, concrete facts showed this was simply wrong. The Soviet Navy never planned to attack Western SLOCs. It did not seriously contemplate the mission; it did not buy the platforms or logistics force implied; it never trained against defended, maneuvering convoys; it never mounted a major anti-SLOC exercise in the North Atlantic (or anywhere else); and it was likely not up to the anti-SLOC task if somehow it had been ordered to execute it.

Unfortunately, the Navy’s 30-year misreading of the Soviet Navy’s strategic intentions led it to adopt war plans contrived to fight shadows and to acquire ships and weapons optimized for battles that were never to be fought.

This initial failure of strategic intelligence was followed by a less-recognized second failure. In the case of the SSBN strategic reserve and the assignment of the Soviet general-purpose navy to defend it, intel’s recognition of change lagged reality by about eight years. The strategic reserve mission commenced in 1973 when the first SS-N-8-armed Delta-I became operational. At that very time the Soviets “announced,” in their veiled, byzantine language (in the so-called Gorshkov series in morskoy sbornik, 1972-73) the existence and the importance of their strategic reserve. Understanding of this was publicly recognized, but that recognition was ignored by the intel community. It was not until 1980-1981 that Navy special compartmented intelligence (SCI) sources confirmed the existence of the Soviet strategic reserve at sea and the general-purpose navy’s assigned mission of defending it.

The result was revolutionary. Finally in possession of a valid understanding of their Soviet competitor, the Navy quickly developed the Maritime Strategy with its mission of attacking the reserves in their bastions. It is not only a philosophical question to reckon the consequences of this eight-year delay in terms of forgone opportunities and misdirected efforts. If the Navy had recognized the Soviet strategic reserve in 1973, near the time that it came into existence, the Navy of 1986 and thereafter would likely have had a different composition and its operations and exercises would have taken a different shape.

Accurate strategic intelligence is obviously essential. Even the most talented strategic planner’s effort is wasted if based on a spurious understanding of the world.

How did the Soviets publicly react to the Maritime Strategy, such as when it published? And how did the Soviets react to the exercises the strategy encouraged? Or were these U.S. naval operations a reaction to prior Soviet naval activity?

This involved an action-reaction sequence. The first thing to say is that Soviet action initiated the sequence. The Maritime Strategy was a reaction. The Soviets, fundamentally defensive-minded at sea, almost certainly anticipated a need to defend their SSBNs and planned accordingly from the earliest days of SSBN development. (I have no direct evidence on this point, but I do have a professional admiration for the thoroughness and foresight of the planning of the Soviet General Staff, as does everyone else familiar with it.)

So in 1973 the Soviet strategic reserve went to sea. In 1986 the Maritime Strategy appeared in unclassified form. After 13 years, the Americans were finally preparing to do what the Soviets had long been preparing to counter. From this perspective one would hardly expect a “reaction” on the part of the Soviets. At the strategic level, the Maritime Strategy produced not a response but the continuation of business as usual.

Whatever the Soviets may have said in public about the Maritime Strategy was in a strategic sense ephemeral. Far more eloquent and strategically meaningful was a Soviet demonstration in the language of action: One way to defeat U.S. SASW—or at least, render it nugatory, pointless—was to show that if a unit were under attack, it could fire its nuclear missiles in a very short period of time. Reportedly, on August 6, 1991, a Northern Fleet Delta-IV submarine performed a full salvo underwater launch of all 16 of its SS-N-23 missiles in less than four minutes.

A general statement about the action-reaction phenomenon between the navies of the great powers seems in order. The Soviets were (and their Russian successors likely are) attentive to changes in public expressions of U.S. intentions. They are far more concerned, however, with U.S. capabilities (for example, the ice-hardened features of the Seawolf class and later SSNs, and the capabilities displayed by U.S. actions at sea like ICEX 2020 and its predecessors). Changes in U.S. capabilities might lead to changes in our competitor’s thinking, but such changes are unlikely to affect his defensive proclivities nor alter his fundamental force employment intentions.

What lessons could be learned from engaging in great power competition with the Soviet Union at sea?

As mentioned, one aspect of Soviet naval strategy during the Cold War that proved particularly difficult for Westerners to understand was the Soviets’ decision not to attack the SLOCs—not to attack its Western adversary’s greatest vulnerability. But this was not a historic anomaly. No, today the U.S. Navy is doing exactly the same thing in planning versus China. Everyone knows that China’s greatest (self-acknowledged) maritime vulnerability is its dependence on seaborne commerce and other uses of the sea. China (and to a lesser degree, Russia) has become vulnerable to coercion by sea denial and vulnerable to global strategic blockade. Yet the U.S. Navy gives no sign whatsoever of planning to attack that vulnerability in war. It does not explain why. It simply ignores blockade. As a result, the Navy casts itself in an ancillary, fundamentally defensive role with no offensive use except strikes ashore, and national-level strategy documents provide no place for the use of the nation’s sea power and exploitation of its geopolitical advantages.

However, the most important lesson concerns strategic ASW (SASW). It is a negative one. The logic of SASW during the Cold War cannot be extrapolated to today’s era of great power competition. Quite the contrary. SASW should be eschewed under all foreseeable circumstances. (“All” is used advisedly here.)

This is not a theoretical issue. In 2018, a Navy spokesman let it be known that in a war with Russia the Navy intends to use its submarines “to deny bastions to the Russians,” on behalf of “defending the homeland.” The homeland defense objective was repeated in March 2020. An SSN exercise in the Arctic was described as needed “to maintain readiness and capability to defend the homeland when called upon,” according to Rear Admiral Butch Dollaga, Commander, Undersea Warfighting Development Center. Rear Admiral Dollaga was speaking officially to the Russians and to the world via the Navy’s Office of Public Affairs.

What threat to the U.S. homeland might emerge from the Arctic was left unnamed. Russian submarine-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles, deployed in the Arctic (and Sea of Okhotsk) are the only plausible candidates. The idea that one could “defend the homeland,” presumably by reducing the damage the United States would suffer from a Russian intercontinental nuclear attack, is simply contrary to obvious fact and logic. Even if SASW killed every Russian SSBN before it launched its missiles, just a small fraction of remaining Russian missiles ashore would be more than capable of utterly destroying the nation.

This reality was fully recognized by the Maritime Strategy—which never named “defending the homeland” (then called “damage limitation”) as it objective. The Maritime Strategy sought instead to use SASW as leverage for “war termination”—meaning to end combat ashore with Western Europe more or less intact and still under control of the NATO alliance. This last point was what the war was about. It is the crucial difference why SASW made some sense during the Cold War but not today.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union posed a highly credible threat with conventional arms to Western Europe. The U.S. viewed Europe’s integrity as so vital to its own security that it threatened to fire nuclear weapons as far up the escalation ladder as necessary on behalf of Europe’s defense. The U.S. implicitly was willing to put its own territory at nuclear risk.

A lively public debate surrounded SASW. Advocates saw it as a possible way for the West to avoid initiating even tactical nuclear war or add to the effects of nuclear escalation on Soviet behavior. Opponents of SASW saw that it put U.S. territory at grave risk (as did SASW’s advocates), questioned whether its execution was operationally feasible, and held serious doubts that SASW could produce satisfactory war termination. SASW was formally adopted as part of the National Security Strategy of 1986.

Today the strategic situation is radically different. Russia holds local conventional superiority on its immediate periphery. But Russia poses no threat to Western Europe or to anything else the U.S. regards as vital to its security. Today it is the West that has general superiority at the conventional level—especially at sea. Today, SASW could have no war termination objective because there is no big “World War III” to be fought, and lesser wars, as in the defense of NATO members on Russia’s borders, can be deterred or, if necessary, fought successfully at the conventional level. In sum, SASW would put the nation at risk on behalf of no identifiable vital interest. Vast risk, negligible reward.

Most important to remember, “defending the homeland” through SASW remains today just what it was during the Cold War: a highly dangerous objective that is clearly impossible to achieve. It is a chimera. Rather than “defending,” it would lead to the homeland’s destruction.

Even before the SASW mission could lead to that catastrophe, simply prosecuting it would likely produce two lesser but still dire consequences. First, no one has asked the Navy what would happen if a pair of its 3,000-pound torpedoes struck a Russian SSBN. What happens to the hundreds of multi-megaton nuclear warheads carried by the missiles on board? How much radioactive material would likely be dispersed in oceanic waters and on the seafloor? How widespread might it be immediately and in subsequent months and years? Might one or more warheads detonate? Do Navy plans mean the Arctic Ocean may glow in the dark? U.S. citizens in Alaska and those of allies in the UK, Norway, and Japan would be curious about the matter. Indeed, so should U.S. planners. Would modern SASW operations result in a new 21st-century definition of pyrrhic victory: gaining sea control of waters that humans can no longer use?

It would be foolhardy beyond belief to execute SASW without knowing the answers.

Second, success in the SASW mission would very likely trigger a Russian response with tactical nuclear anti-submarine warfare weapons. Russia inherited many of these from its Soviet predecessors, and it has made clear it will not hesitate to answer Western conventional superiority with nukes. The U.S. cannot answer in kind (even if it wished to) because it no longer possesses such weapons. Therefore SASW could push the Russians across the nuclear threshold at sea with unforeseeable consequences.

Indeed, if Russia starts losing to SASW or anywhere else at the conventional level, it may choose to fire its nuclear weapons first at sea for both military and political effect. At sea immediate collateral damage is minimal, there would be no comparable Russian targets afloat against which the U.S. could respond in kind, and the Russians could calculate that crossing the nuclear threshold at sea in response to U.S. SASW could fracture the NATO alliance by driving some members out of the war, if not out of the alliance itself.

Deterring Russia’s use of nuclear weapons is the greatest challenge the U.S. and its allies would face in a war with Russia. Doing so at sea while executing SASW is the worst possible test case.

Today strategic ASW is one those rarest of missions where failure is a better outcome than success.

Bradford Dismukes is a political scientist who worked with (1969–1999) and directed (1974–1989) a group at the Center for Naval Analyses that supported and critiqued ONI and Navy Staff planners in what was then OP-06. He is coeditor of Soviet Naval Diplomacy. He is a retired captain, USNR, with service in naval intelligence.

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

Featured Image: January 1, 1987 – An overhead view of the Soviet Sovremenny class destroyer Stoykiy (DDG-645) underway. (U.S. 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)

Robby Harris on Writing Strategy and Steady State Competition

1980s Maritime Strategy Series

By Dmitry Filipoff

CIMSEC discussed the 1980s Maritime Strategy with Capt. Robby Harris (ret.), who helped draft the 1986 unclassified version of the strategy that published in Proceedings. In this discussion, Harris discusses how the unclassified version was initiated, how steady state competition and crisis response figured into the strategy, and how bold leadership at the highest levels of Navy leadership elevated the importance of maritime strategy.

What was your personal role and relationship with the Maritime Strategy?

In September 1982 as a brand-new Navy commander I reported for duty to the Navy’s Long Range Planning staff (OP-00X) under then-Rear Admiral Chuck Larson (later CINCPACFLT and CINCPAC). I already had higher education credentials and experience in the strategy and policy world, like many of my peers who worked on the strategy at that time. OP-00X was personal staff to CNO Admiral James Watkins. Soon after I reported for duty Admiral Larson was transferred and the OP-00X staff was combined with the staff of the CNO Executive Panel (OP-00K). OP-00K also was personal staff to the CNO responsible for providing staff support to the civilian members of the CNO Executive Panel (CEP). OP-00K provided strategic advice directly to the CNO with zero intermediaries, i.e., we did not report via the Vice CNO. The CNO Executive Panel (CEP) was a Federal Advisory Committee and the CNO was the only service chief with his own Federal Advisory Committee. Members of the CEP included some of the Cold War’s most noted strategists, including Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter, James Woolsey, Helmut (Hal) Sonnenfeldt, Henry (Harry) Rowen, Andrew Marshall, and others.

Because of the prominence of the CEP membership, CNO Watkins directed that the Maritime Strategy be briefed and discussed with the CEP several times. As a CEP staff officer, I sat in the room and observed the briefings and discussions on numerous occasions. By late 1983 I had heard the strategy briefed and discussed many times at a very high level. By early 1984 after listening to the strategy so many times it occurred to me that the strategy should be declassified and printed in USNI Proceedings. Because of my position on the CNO’s personal staff I was able to make the recommendation to CNO Watkins. CNO Watkins approved my recommendation and I was sent off to Annapolis to meet with Fred Rainbow, the editor-in-chief of Proceedings, to deliver the CNO’s decision. In late 1985 before I detached from the OP-00K staff Captain Linton Brooks and I wrote the first draft of the CNO’s Proceedings article. There were many more drafts after that initial one. The rest is history.

I should point out that I felt that the Maritime Strategy as often briefed in DC in the early 1980s over-emphasized the role of the U.S. Navy in a conflict with the Soviets and did not sufficiently emphasize the day-to-day operations of the U. S. Navy in fostering the country’s economic standing and the post-WWII order (we didn’t call it the Liberal Order then!). My colleague Captain Peter Swartz informed me that I was not alone in my belief. Peter reported that “RADM Ron Kurth felt strongly about this as well, and pushed back at me hard in front of a room full of more senior flags that I was briefing. ‘Peter, we’re never going to fight the Russians! We’re going to continue to put out fires and deploy all over the world in lesser contingencies. That’s what the strategy should be about, because that’s what it is about, in the real world.’” Peter explains further that the strategy’s emphasis on fighting the Soviets was necessary to gain leverage with the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and the Joint Staff. Nevertheless, I thought that the strategy should place greater emphasis on the Navy’s role in ensuring conventional deterrence, crisis management, and tamping down localized conflicts and crises. 

Although I certainly am not solely responsible, the final version of CNO Watkins’ Proceedings article reflects several of my recommendations and areas of emphasis. Examples include:

“…our Navy devotes much of its effort to maintaining this stability. Potential crises and the aftermath of crises have increasingly defined the location and character of our forward deployments.” 

“Since 1948, the Third World has been the most common arena for United States-Soviet competition, and this pattern will continue.” 

“Among the greatest services we can provide the nation is to operate in peacetime and in crises in a way that deter War.”

“Figure 3 which illustrates the spectrum of conflict draws attention to the importance of the lower levels of violence where Navies are most often the key actors…”

“By its peacetime presence throughout the world, the Navy enhances deterrence daily.”

 “The heart of our evolving Maritime Strategy is crisis response…our ability to contain and control crises is an important factor in our ability to prevent global conflict.” 

“Crisis response has long been the business of the Navy and Marine Corps.”

“…our peacetime strategy must support U. S. alliances and friendships. We accomplish this through a variety of peacetime operations including ships visits to foreign ports and training exercises with foreign naval forces.”

“Although deterrence is most often associated with strategic nuclear warfare, it is a much broader concept…we must deter threats ranging from terrorism to nuclear war.”

“Through early, worldwide decisive use of sea power we—along with sister services and allies as appropriate—would seek to win the crisis, to control escalation, and by the global nature of our operations, to make clear our intention to cede no area to the Soviets…”

“Through worldwide peacetime operation and the ability to react in crisis, maritime forces play a major role in binding together alliances in preventing escalation.”

What was the impact of that Proceedings article on the debate surrounding maritime strategy? 

The Proceedings article made it possible for the deckplate Navy to become aware of the strategy. When the article was published in Proceedings in January 1986 I was in the Navy command pipeline schools prior to taking command of a destroyer. Most of my classmates (commanders and captains) were completely unaware of the strategy before it was published in Proceedings.

How did the Maritime Strategy describe the balance between operations for steady state competition and operations for high-end warfighting contingencies? 

Although I cannot take full credit for it, the article provides a nice balance between forward presence, crisis response, conventual deterrence on the one hand and strategic deterrence and warfighting with the Soviets on the other hand. (See Figure 3 from the strategy below). The fiscal largesse begun in the final years of the Carter Administration and the Reagan largesse made it feasible to do both: rigorous day to day ops for reinforcing the liberal rules-based regime and preparations for a big fight with the Soviets. Since the end of the Cold War we have not seen sufficient resources to do both well.

Why did the Maritime Strategy “work,” if it did, and what about its strategy development process has been challenging to replicate since then? 

My colleague Dr. Steve Wills would probably say the difference between the 1980s and today is the Goldwater Nichols Act (GNA), and there is merit to such an argument. But even before GNA, primacy for strategy development lay outside the services and was invested in the regional commanders and the Secretary of Defense (per the Eisenhower reforms of 1953 and 1958 which had already transferred control to the CINC’s for strategy planning). As my colleague Captain Robert (Barney) Rubel has written, even before GNA the CNO Watkins/SECNAV Lehman team was “coloring outside the lines.” That to the aside, because SECNAV Lehman was such a strong leader and had the firm support of President Ronald Reagan the Navy was able to move forward with the strategy. That condition does not exist today.

What lessons can be taken from the Maritime Strategy for engaging in modern great power competition? 

Strong advocacy of maritime strategy at the highest levels of government is essential.

Captain Harris commanded USS Conolly (DD-979) and Destroyer Squadron 32. Ashore he served as Executive Director of the CNO Executive Panel. He was a CNO Fellow in CNO Strategic Studies Group XII.

Featured Image: May 6, 1982 – An aerial port bow view of the Aegis guided missile cruiser USS TICONDEROGA (CG-47) underway during sea trials (U.S. National Archives photo)