Category Archives: Strategy

The Pentagon Needs To Rethink Its Worst-Case Scenarios Against China And Russia

The following article originally published on Forbes and is republished with permission.

By Bryan Clark

Pentagon force planning is a dense and complicated blend of assumptions and projections, but operational scenarios are its most impactful ingredient. Their importance varies as administrations change and threats come and go, but depictions of the situations U.S. military forces and systems need to address are essential to setting investment priorities. Unfortunately, organizational inertia and a desire to compete for dollars lead U.S. military services to plan for scenarios that privilege their largest existing programs–even as America’s adversaries are moving on to an entirely different type of warfare.

During the past decade, DoD naturally focused its planning on peer competitors China and Russia or nuclear-armed rogue states like North Korea. The most stressing campaigns U.S. forces could face against these adversaries dominate DoD analysis, under the assumption that worst-case scenarios like an invasion of Taiwan also capture the needs for “lesser-included” cases like a lengthy blockade of Japan’s southwest islands or a sustained submarine threat off the U.S. coast. 

Recognizing DoD’s focus on high-intensity warfighting, its potential adversaries are methodically developing strategies and systems that circumvent the U.S. military’s advantages and exploit its vulnerabilities by avoiding the types of situations for which U.S. forces have prepared. DoD may be falling into a trap by continuing to use a narrow set of high-intensity conflicts as its pacing threats. 

The New Battleground

As part of their efforts to bypass U.S. military strengths, the Chinese and Russian militaries seek to make information and decision-making the main battlegrounds for future conflict. Concepts such as the People’s Liberation Army’s System Destruction Warfare or the Russian military’s New Generation Warfare direct forces to electronically or physically degrade an opponent’s information sources and communications while introducing false data that erodes the defender’s orientation and understanding. 

In their hybrid or gray-zone campaigns, Chinese and Russian military and paramilitary forces complement information operations by isolating or attacking opponents without significantly escalating the confrontation. Avoiding actions that provide a rationale for U.S. retaliation narrows the options available to U.S. commanders and provides Chinese and Russian forces a decision-making advantage. 

Decision-centric operations like those pursued by the PRC and Russian governments will likely be a significant form of future conflict, especially as more confrontations occur outside the context of large-scale existential combat where attrition could be more decisive.  

During the late Cold War, the U.S. military’s revolutionary approach to precision-strike warfare leveraged the then-new technologies of communication datalinks, stealth, and guided weapons. Similarly, decision-centric warfare may be the most effective way to militarily exploit artificial intelligence and autonomous systems, which are arguably today’s most prominent technologies. 

The characteristics that win decision-centric operations will not be the ones prioritized by attrition-centric scenarios driving Pentagon planning today. Instead of lethality and survivability being all that matter, adaptability and sustainability will provide an advantage in conflicts where information and decision-making form the main lines of effort. The commander that is able to retain more options over a longer time during an informationized confrontation is more likely to make better or faster decisions than the leader of a less adaptable force. Moreover, the more adaptable force will be able to impose greater complexity and degrade the decision-making of opposing commanders. 

A Different Set of Worst Cases

Situations DoD plans for today like short, intense invasions of Taiwan, Baltic NATO allies, or South Korea do not prioritize the adaptability and sustainability needed for decision-centric conflicts. These scenarios favor heavily-armed and well-defended ships, aircraft, and troop formations that are expensive to buy and sustain. Because of their cost, these forces are not available in large numbers; because they are self-contained multi-mission units, they cannot easily be reconfigured or recomposed. And because they are built to fight major theater war, today’s U.S. forces are disproportionate for the sub-conventional confrontations often presented by China and Russia.

The divergence between U.S. defense planning and the changing character of war suggests DoD needs a new set of worst-case scenarios. Like a football team relying on the “prevent defense” to protect against long passes, DoD is leaving itself open to the ground game being pursued by its competitors.

DoD should increase the priority of scenarios that center on information and decision-making, such as protracted blockades or quarantines of allied territory or islands; sustained gray-zone campaigns against allied or partner governments; or air and sea denial operations in international waters or airspace. Instead of quickly turning into canonical invasions, these scenarios could episodically intensify and deescalate over an extended period as the combatants attempt to resolve the confrontation. For example, the ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine may be more relevant than Russian tanks rolling across Latvia in 2 days. 

The attributes needed for decision-centric conflict are not widely represented in today’s U.S. military, which truly makes these situations worst case for DoD. A set of decision-centric planning scenarios would likely prompt U.S. military services to rebalance away from large, monolithic platforms and formations toward smaller, disaggregated units that include more autonomous systems. In addition to being less expensive to buy and sustain, more disaggregated forces would be more easily recomposed in theater to improve adaptability and give commanders more options.

Unless DoD begins to rethink its scenarios and rebalancing its forces, recent Chinese and Russian gray-zone successes in the East and South China Seas or Crimea could become the norm and the U.S. military could find itself losing a battle of inches against patient competitors who are willing to play the long game.

Bryan is a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, where he leads the Center for Defense Concepts and Technologies. He has led studies during the last decade for DARPA, OSD, the Navy, and the defense industry exploring ways new technologies can be applied to military challenges and operations. Prior to becoming a think tanker, he was a career enlisted and officer nuclear submariner.

Featured Image: Amphibious dock landing ship Changbaishan (Hull 989) and Jing’gangshan (Hull 999), along with 3 Landing Craft Air Cushions (LCAC), attached to a landing ship flotilla with the South China Sea Fleet under the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy, steam in waters off the Xisha Islands during the maritime coordinative training from March 6 to 11, 2019. (Photo via Jian)

Peter Swartz on Creating Maritime Strategy, Pt. 3: The End of an Era

In Part Three, Swartz describes tensions with the Joint Staff over strategy in the aftermath of Goldwater-Nichols, how the forward presence mission consumed maritime strategy after the Cold War ended, and how the interacting communities of Navy strategists that created the 1986 Maritime Strategy faded away.

Read Part One, read Part Two.

Swartz:…The other thing we had…was the continuity. Three CNOs, five generations of action officers, and we stayed with a similar message and we can reach back and say we had a pedigree of Sea Strike, Sea Plan 2000, early OP-603, and other antecedents of the strategy, and we had the SSG doing what it was doing, so we had that continuity all through the decade. I mean, it took the collapse of the Soviet Union to knock it off its pedestal. Not bad.

And then, CNO Admiral Kelso pulled the plug on the name. Now, he had a different problem. It was 1990–91. The Navy was on the ropes: Desert Storm. Maritime Strategy dead. “Okay,” he said, “I’m putting it up on the shelf and I’ll take it down if I need it. Right now we need a Navy policy.” I would not have done that, I would have said we’re changing our strategy, the world is changing, so we’re changing with it. Here’s our strategy now.

But, they didn’t do that and so the word “strategy” became an anathema. And, of course, he was trying to be real joint and so he was buying into the “services don’t do strategy” line of the Joint Staff. Now, his situation was: He’s a CNO. He’s a four-star. He’s a member of the JCS [Joint Chiefs of Staff] and he’s up against Powell. I ain’t going to second-guess his ability to get stuff done, right? But when he pulled the plug on the name and on the very concept of the Navy having a strategy, that gave “strategy” sort of a bad name in the Navy and you had to call it something else—concept of operations, this, that, the other. And then, people started critiquing the old Maritime Strategy and saying, “Well, you know, it wasn’t really a strategy anyway, the way Peter is talking. It was an OPLAN.” Okay, guilty as charged. I don’t know what the hell it was. I know it was effective and we called it strategy.

We told a story. I learned that, later on when I did war games, one of the reasons why war games are so effective as a teaching device and, as you know, you internalize stuff from participating, is because the scenario in the war game tells a story and stories are powerful. And we told a story: “You start off in peace and then all hell breaks loose and there’s a crisis and then there’s a war and the war starts, you’ve got guys mobilizing and transporting themselves and then bullets start to fly, and then, finally, you kill them. Oh, and then—hey, here’s all the problems with the story I just told you.” So, that was a story, that was a powerful message.

Some of this other stuff, man, you read it, I mean none of this is a page turner, but I mean you really don’t want to turn that page on some of this other stuff. You know: The 9 “-ilities” and the 7 “-isms” and the 14 characteristics and the 9 opportunities and the 4 challenges. Who can keep that stuff straight? Ours, I thought we could keep straight.

Peeks: You mentioned…From the Sea and those sort of documents that came out right after Desert Shield/Desert Storm…From the Sea is the one that seems to have had the biggest, longest-lasting impact on the Navy and, I guess, well, two-part question: One, I guess, do you agree with that assessment of…From the Sea, and two, if so, what made it more enduring than The Way Ahead and documents of that nature?

Swartz: On one level, you’re right, and I think that’s because of “document fatigue.” I think that most analysts that got into it—and you’re talking to the main analyst who got into it—we’re appalled at the fact that when you wound up adding it all up, you discovered that the Navy had come up with 35 separate capstone documents since 1970. Only the Maritime Strategy era—which was about eight years or so, let’s say from say ’81 through ’89—that was pretty consistent. They called it the same thing and it had the same outline and it had the same underpinnings, conceptual underpinnings, but all these other things were all different. Nobody could keep track of them.

If you had been in the Pentagon in the 80s and you then went to sea and came back, it was the same old Maritime Strategy you remembered from your earlier tour except now it had been updated. But, if you had been in the Pentagon in the 90s and you went to sea after…From the Sea came out, then when you came back you discovered that…From the Sea was defunct and now it was supposed to be Forward…From the Sea. But meanwhile, it was a new CNO because Boorda had gone and so therefore the new CNO—there was a new article out signed by him called “Anytime, Anywhere.” Is that replacing Forward…From the Sea?

I think…From the Sea stayed on the books because nobody—having done it, being the guy who finally did it [in the CNA Capstone Strategy Series]—nobody had the stamina or the time or the funding to slice through all that stuff and figure out what was what. So, in retrospect looking back, there was the Maritime Strategy era and then the…From the Sea era, so that’s at the 10,000-foot level.

But, when you came back you had a new CNO and you had a new Secretary and you really had to slave everything to that new document, and so there was a constant scampering to change around everything you were doing to be justified by the new document that had just come out. And so, people were busy and trying seriously to use each document as they came along…I mean a new guy comes in and says, “I don’t want to do what the old guy did, I want to do what I want to do,” everybody saluted and said, “Yes sir.” Many people saluted, it’s not just the Marine Corps, many people saluted and said, “yes sir,” and we’ll work on that and here you go.

Another dynamic that’s going on, of course, while all this is going on is: Back in the ’80s when we were doing the Maritime Strategy and I’d go down and brief it to the Joint Staff, Joint Staff colonels (I wasn’t paying attention to the Navy guys there) would be sitting there like this looking at me, like, “Son, you have no business writing the strategy. That’s the job of us, like any other joint strategic document.” And I would say, “Yes, but your joint strategic documents are either pablum or log rolling. This is different. And, what we ought to do is just sit down and have an interservice—let’s not call it joint—strategy based on the Maritime Strategy. You can easily add the Army and the Air Force in to it—they’re already there—and have a global multi-service approach.” They’d say, “We don’t do multiservice. We do joint and it’s got to go through the joint system and Goldwater-Nichols just gave us a shot in the arm.” And I’d answer, “We’re not going to do that. I didn’t come down here to give you either the pablum or log rolling. That’s not what we’re doing.” So, that was going on in the ’80s.

What was going on in the ’90s? Same briefing. Navy would go down to give the briefing. Joint Staff guys, which now include front-running Navy guys sitting there, going, “That’s baloney, you have no business doing that, that’s not yours, you can’t call it strategy and I’m going to have the Chairman write a letter to the CNO saying that you can’t call it strategy.” So, the climate is very different, the word “strategy” disappears. Kelso said so in his testimony when he became CNO, “I don’t need a strategy, I need a policy. We’ve got a strategy. It’s up on the shelf. If we ever need it again we can take it down.”

Incidentally, I once got a call a couple of years ago from a retired captain, old friend of mine, now senior Navy civilian, Chris Melhuish—head strategy guy at Fleet Forces Command— and he asked me if I had copies of the old Maritime Strategy and NATO CONMAROPS, and if I could send them to him (which I did). And, that’s my date. I have it written down, the date at home (it’s 9 March 2017). I said that’s the date that he took it down off the shelf. It was that phone call—the date the Maritime Strategy came back down off the shelf again.

Peeks: …did CNO Kelso’s changes to OPNAV organization have an effect or was that just sort of shuffling the deck chairs?

Swartz:…So what about OP-06? Well first of all, we’ve got to change all the nomenclature and make them N3/N5 cause we’re “joint-izing” everything and, second of all, we don’t really need an N5 because we’re getting all this pushback from everybody saying that N5 is strategy and planning, but that’s all done jointly now. What we need is an N3, so we should all have strong operators, not necessarily strong planners, in those jobs, in N3/N5.

And so, you can see where this is headed: N3/N5 is being downgraded by a number of pressures. The people that are supposed to be in N3/N5, they’re now down on the Joint Staff, so it’s a weaker staff. It’s designed that way by the guys who created Goldwater-Nichols…The N3/N5 had real jobs, and real things, and there were really important people who worked there during that time, as I mentioned some of them, Joe Bouchard, Sam Tangredi, smart guys, but they were up against an N8 juggernaut that was deliberately created.

The POM build began with Bill Owens and one of the things Bill Owens did was revive systems analysis in the Navy. So did Kelso. Systems and campaign analysis had been under a cloud because Lehman was unhappy and Watkins was unhappy and Small was unhappy, and systems analysis was downgraded. That all changed. Owens said, “I want N81 to run the show at the beginning of the POM build.” Well, for the previous eight years, it had been a Maritime Strategy presentation that opened the POM build because everything was supposed to be strategy-based allegedly and that was Lehman’s mantra, and, for that matter, that was shared by Hayward and Small and Trost. But it wasn’t shared by Owens and Kelso.

So, what happened to starting off the POM with an OP-06 presentation, N3/N5? It went away. “We got…From the Sea. Are you going to use that?” “Yeah, that’s…From the Sea. That does what it does, whatever it does. Meanwhile we got a POM to build, with lots of campaign analysis, so there’s no time in the schedule for a…From the Sea briefing, let alone for a flag officer discussion of what it means for the POM and budget. And besides…From the Sea is unclass, so not to be taken too seriously.” So, that was going on also…

Peeks: …you’ve just talked about how the rise of the programmers and the downgrading of N3/N5 changes the process of developing Navy strategy. Did it have an impact on the substance of Navy strategy and policy?

Swartz: In general, broad-brush terms, very general broad-brush, I would maintain the answer is “no.” Specifics, “yes.” Specific threats were different. Specific weapon systems were more salient in one era then another. But, in general, the U.S. Navy was still the U.S. Navy. Global. Joint (the way the Navy likes to be joint, which is coordinated, not integrated. But, we became a lot more integrated just because it was the law of the land). Forward.

Combat-credible forward presence replaced the Maritime Strategy as the underpinning for the Navy. It always had been part of the Maritime Strategy too, but now it consumed the Maritime Strategy: You keep as much stuff as you could possibly get away with, ready, as far forward as you can, near the world’s trouble spots, and sure enough they’ll find things to do, which, of course, they did. We’ll keep a full-up fleet in the Middle East and a full-up fleet in WESTPAC. We haven’t got enough ships any more to keep one in the Med, but during the ’90s, when the Yugoslav mess went, we had to take stuff away from the Pacific and Middle East in order to feed the Med. But, once the various Yugoslav problems resolved themselves, the carrier strike group and the amphibs were yanked out of the Med to go elsewhere because we had a much smaller fleet…

Combat-credible forward presence in two hubs, as much as you can get out there, was the strategy, and of course what the Navy did was it wound up breaking the force, but it didn’t know that at the time. This was the thing it was delivering to the country, and “Please don’t cut us anymore because we’re delivering something to you, look, we’re really straining, we got ships out there now, we got rid of all the old rules and they’re out there for nine months at a time and we’re really stroking, because we need to be there.” That was central to all of these documents— offensive, aggressive. “Why are they out there?” “Well, because they can smack somebody right away.”

…So, in 2005, after Admiral Vern Clark was the CNO, Admiral Mike Mullen was chosen to be his successor. Mike Mullen was a former N8, Mike Mullen was a programmer, I think his academic stuff was all science and technology of some type, and he became the CNO and he said, “I think we need a strategy.” Everybody was like, “Oh, we don’t do strategy anymore.” But he said, “I do strategy. In my last job I was over in Naples and I had to be the guy who worried about Yugoslavia in my NATO hat and I had to worry about Europe, and I needed strategy and my staff wasn’t equipped as well as I hoped it would be. I brought one member of my staff back with me, Commander Wayne Porter, my strategist, and I want a strategy. You, N3/N5, John Morgan, write me a strategy.” Morgan said, “Got it. We’re going to have a strategy.”

And Morgan said, “The way you do it is you cast a wide net. You create a whole lot of buzz about strategy.” So, he cast a wide net and created a whole lot of buzz about strategy. He went to [Naval History and Heritage Command] and said, “Write me, whatever.” He came to CNA and said, “Run me a conference.” He came to Lockheed Martin and said, “Run me a workshop.” He went to Johns Hopkins’s APL [Applied Physics Laboratory] and said, “Do me war games.” He went to the Naval War College…So, there was all of this activity and there was money. We all got money and we all did stuff. We did war games and we wrote think pieces and organized debates.

We had conferences and meetings and seminars and then …the strategy finally came out, and all that activity stopped. Bryan McGrath and John Morgan’s CS21: A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Sea Power came out. In 2007. It said that the job of the Navy was to support globalization and to facilitate the fantastic global world economy, especially the enormous amount of trade that was increasing exponentially, and which benefited the U.S. and U.S. national security greatly. The following month, the economy collapsed, and trade shriveled. It was bad luck, and bad timing. Moreover, all the Navy money went away for all of these workshops and war games and everything else. And so, the multi-organizational naval network that had helped create the strategy unraveled…

Peeks: …with your work with N5, you’ve sort of had a unique vantage point on the Navy’s strategy enterprise and so, since your retirement, how would you assess the Navy’s efforts to nurture a cadre of strategy-minded officers?

Swartz: They went straight downhill. Well, no, that’s not exactly true. The way you ask the question: The Navy continued to educate officers—very, very good officers—in the same subjects that I and my colleagues had been educated in and at some of the very same schools, most notably the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy…The Navy continues to educate. Right now, they’ve got guys in school learning about China and Russia and whatever. That part is continuing, I believe…

But…when it comes to assigning these guys to a shop or related circle of shops, which used to happen routinely in the ’70s and ’80s, the Navy doesn’t do much. So, maybe one of those guys might wind up in N50 or N5I, or maybe he won’t. Maybe there’s some guy who used to be in N5I, who comes back again later as a captain (there is one right now, Rome Ruiz, who had been a lieutenant in the nuclear shop and now he’s the deputy to Admiral Will Pennington). Or not. What used to happen was that the OP-06 flag officers who were involved—and we have fewer of them now—used to call the Bureau all the time and scream for bodies—educated, experienced bodies. That dialogue almost doesn’t exist anymore, to my knowledge.

Now, I don’t know everything and I haven’t been in the Navy for years, and maybe if Bruce Stubbs was sitting here he’d say, “No, no, I was on the phone with the Bureau just the other day.” But I doubt it. And, the reason they could do that back then was because the people at the other end of the line at the Bureau knew that if they hassled the two-star or the captain who was calling for him, that pretty soon their boss’s boss, the three-star, the Chief of Naval Personnel, would get a call from Vice Admiral Bill Crowe or Vice Admiral Art Moreau or Vice Admiral Ace Lyons or Vice Admiral Chuck Larson as OP-06 saying, “I need X and he’s appropriately educated and experienced as a strategist, so why are you sending him to, say, N4?” And, that was the system and it worked, and that’s why you had all of these educated and experienced guys crammed into OP-603 in the 1980s: a combination of self-selection and the Bureau putting up with it and active recruiting by the flags who were in the business. That created both the hard core of guys who were in OP-603 [and] the wider area of guys who were in OP965 and OP-00K and related shops, and at Newport and Monterey, and so we all knew each other and it was a powerful network. It’s what gave the Navy the Maritime Strategy. Today, none of that happens, or almost none of it happens…

…the heart of it should be the three-star picking up the phone and calling the Chief of Naval Personnel and saying, “I can’t run my shop for the CNO and to further Navy equities without sub-specialists, and I’ve only got five out of 35 officers who are sub-specialists and that’s a lousy percentage and I need more.” I don’t believe those conversations take place. One of the reasons they don’t take place (my theory) is that usually the three-star himself had never had a tour in N3/N5. He’s not Crowe, Moreau, Lyons, Joe Moorer, whoever. To him, his officers are interchangeable, and the questions he’s asked and the things he’s asked to do by the CNO are largely in his N3 hat, not his N5 hat, and in his policy hat, which is close to the N3, not to the N5. And so, he’s comfortable taking just normal competent fleet sailors who can do that kind of work.

And, the idea that he’s going to have guys write strategy? He’s not asked for it by his Secretary as Lehman demanded from his CNOs. The CNO’s not being asked for it by his colleagues on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Chairman doesn’t need his advice on strategy because he’s got a Joint Staff to do it, some of whom are the very guys that the CNO should have on his staff, thinks Peter. But instead, they’re down in the J5 being socialized by sitting next to Army and Air Force officers, so they’re first-rate joint guys, but they don’t know Navy. “Good,” Arch Barrett and Jim Locher would say. “I didn’t want them to know that. I want them to know Army and Air Force.”

Back to my view: The Navy’s different. The medium is different. Water is different from land. The legal regime of water is different from land. Mobility is different. Et cetera. Therefore, the Navy’s different. There is a thing which is a separate body of knowledge called Maritime Strategy. It’s a component of the National Strategy. It’s not against it, but it’s got its own roots and its own reasons and its own raison d’être and its own expertise, and we’re shortchanging it and not using it right…

…The big exercises, the big fleet exercises against submarine fleets? We got rid of the forces and got rid of the exercises. NATO staffs, over-staffed, just a waste of time? Get rid of all of them. NATO consolidated and got rid of all the staffs. So, the fleet staffs that knew strategy all contracted, and the relationship with the allies atrophied and went away. The exercises, war games, [and] strategy work at the SSG dwindled…in the ’90s, the very elements that interacted, plus the interactions, went away. So yes, it’s different now due to the SSG change, the N51 change, Global War Game going away, and SECNAVs and CNOs no longer interested in enunciating a strategy…

I already mentioned that N3/N5 no longer kicked off the POM build with a statement and discussion of strategy. And, far fewer follow-on tours…follow-on tours became a rarity, right? You did it once, and then that was it.

Peter Swartz is a retired U.S. Navy captain, a former CNA Research Program Director, and currently an adjunct Principal Research Scientist at CNA. Most of his Navy assignments related to strategy, policy and allied engagement, including two tours as an advisor with the South Vietnamese Navy; helping set up the Navy’s Zumwalt-era intercultural relations program; coordinating Navy staff talks with key European allied navies; helping conceptualize, draft and disseminate the Maritime Strategy of the 1980s; directing the US Mission to NATO’s operations division as the Berlin Wall was coming down; and serving as Special Assistant to CJCS General Colin Powell during the First Gulf War.  At CNA he primarily focused on analyzing U.S. Navy and Marine Corps strategy and policy, including their historical roots. In 2020 a Festschrift was published  in his honor (Conceptualizing Naval and Maritime Strategy) by several of his colleagues, and the Naval Historical Foundation awarded him its Commodore Dudley Knox Lifetime Achievement medal.

Ryan Peeks is a historian at the Naval History and Heritage Command, and the author of Aircraft Carrier Requirements and Strategy, 1977-2001.

Justin Blanton is a historian at the Naval History and Heritage Command.

Featured Image: August 8, 1983. An aerial port quarter view of the battleship USS NEW JERSEY (BB-62), foreground, underway with a Spruance-class destroyer. (Photo via the U.S. National Archives)

Peter Swartz on Creating Maritime Strategy, Pt. 2: Secretaries and Exercises

In Part Two, Swartz discusses the role of Navy Secretary John Lehman in conceptualizing the 1986 Maritime Strategy, major exercises that manifested the strategy at sea, and how Navy strategists “broke the code” of how to present the Navy’s warfighting contributions to the Pentagon bureaucracy.

Read Part One here.

Peeks: …We were wondering if you could discuss the role Secretary [of the Navy John] Lehman played in developing the Maritime Strategy, and was there a connection between it and his 600-ship target for Navy force structure?

Swartz: …When he became the Secretary of the Navy…having thought a great deal about strategy, written about it, and being by now pretty proficient in what he thought was Navy strategy and should be Navy strategy, he declared that the Navy needed a strategy and, fortuitously, it had one: It was what he said it was, as Secretary.

And he did that in a series of [speeches], press conferences, articles and testimony, and so on all through 1981 and 1982, his first year in office. His message was not really codified for a couple of years, but when it was codified, when you look back at it, you could see he developed a very, very clear—and I was a codifier by then—clear, three-part message. The message was: “First, you need a strategy. President Reagan has a strategy—an overall National Strategy—and I as Secretary of the Navy and the Navy as an institution have a Maritime Strategy.”…it was a strategy that was global, but mostly he talked about the Norwegian Sea. It was a strategy that was forward, it was against the Soviets, it was aggressive, and the centerpiece of it were carrier battle groups.

Second, the way he discussed it: “In order to carry out that strategy, I need 600 ships. That’s the bare minimum, but we might be able to pull this off if you guys give me 600 ships.” This was the theme of the testimony. “You shouldn’t give it to anybody who doesn’t have a strategy. You should give the money to somebody that has a strategy, and we in the Navy have a strategy. It’s sound, it’s valid, it’s been validated by war games and exercises and so on, and that’s what you should do.”

Third: “Moreover, 600 ships cost a lot of money. I get it—I’m going to save you money. This strategy and this 600-ship Navy is affordable: through two-carrier buys, getting rid of layers of bureaucracy, competition wherever it could possibly be, no gold plating, no bells and whistles.” …Tell me a program that was innovative and revolutionary that was instituted by John Lehman? Nothing comes immediately to mind. That’s because he wasn’t chasing rainbows. He wasn’t there in order to come up with the next wiz-bang thing 20 years from now. He was about systems there on the ground right now, in the water: “This is what we’re going to do against the Soviets and I need more ships now and I need more money now, and I’m going to save you money by the way in which I’m going to procure those ships and aircraft.” That was his three-part message: strategy, 600 ships, affordability.

So, to that extent, he was definitely involved in shaping the strategy, his own declaratory message, and his view—which he still feels—that if you haven’t got a strategy, you’re out of Schlitz. “You need a strategy and, by God, we’ve got one.” Now, the connection between the 600-ship Navy and the Maritime Strategy was contentious. First of all, the slogan “600 ships” predated much—but not all—of the writing and speaking about the strategy and, in fact, given our system, when you go up to the Hill to get the money to get the ships to implement the strategy, you have to tie the strategy to the ships and the money, whereas there were other people back in the Pentagon that said you don’t need more than 600 ships to do it. My colleague Commander Harlan Ullman in OP-965 said that then and got chastised for his trouble: “You’re never going to get the 600 ships, it’s not going to happen, the country can’t afford it, I don’t care about all of your affordability measures, you’re not going to be able to do it.” He and the Secretary certainly parted ways on that. So did the CNO, Admiral Watkins. They shut down Harlan’s shop, which was 965…

Larry Seaquist, who followed me and Roger Barnett on the strategy desk in OP-60, maintained that there was no linkage whatsoever between the 600-ship Navy and the Maritime Strategy: Strategy was strategy and wasn’t linked to the number of ships you had, and [he] decried anybody who sought to justify 600 ships by using the strategy.

So, different people had different views on all of this. Lehman’s view was pretty clear, and I got to be the guy who spelled it out and fed it back to him: “This is what you believe?” He said, “Yeah, let’s do this: the strategy. Need 600 ships for the strategy. Need affordability measures in order to be able to get the 600 ships.” That was his message as I understood it.

Another aspect of this was that my zeal for making this the Navy officer corps’ strategy ran right into the theology of “this strategy is John Lehman’s ‘Sermon on the Mount’ tablets that he’s brought down from the mountain. This is given to you by John Lehman,” which he did very little to diffuse with remarks that he would make like, “You guys are lucky I didn’t become Secretary of the Air Force,” and so on. Yes, he still does have a pretty healthy ego, and he has a lot to have a healthy ego about. He’s pretty good. But, before I went to work for him, I was no fan of his overwhelming presence in the discussion of Maritime Strategy because it ran counter to what I was trying to do re: the Navy officer corps. I thought that to the extent that it was his and Republican and Reaganite, then it was partisan and therefore not something that I could get involved in, working in OPNAV—and not something that the Navy should advocate.

So, for example, for an effect of my handiwork, when it came time to publish the special issue of Proceedings in 1986, you’ll notice that the first entry in my “Contemporary U.S. Naval Strategy: A Bibliography” is a Hayward article, not a Lehman speech; and, if you take a look at the pictures that adorn it, you’ll notice that the first big pictures are of Admiral Watkins and Admiral Hayward, and then there’s a smaller picture of John Lehman, even though he wrote one of the lead articles. That’s because Fred Rainbow and I arranged things that way. Fred Rainbow was the editor-in-chief of Proceedings, and he and I were in each other’s pockets at that time. The overwhelming association of the strategy with Lehman by some ran headlong into my desire to make sure that I was using the TACAIR guys, the submarine guys, all of the uniformed communities, roping everybody in, showing how they fit and all of that.

And, another aspect of Lehman that I only learned about relatively recently, but which is highly topical…he decided to write a book a few years ago on exercises at sea and the Maritime Strategy, and he called me up and asked me for some help. I said “yes” and that’s all in the book. The book came out [about two years ago] and it’s called Oceans Ventured.

What I had not realized until I got involved in it was how deeply he felt about the importance of the exercises. To me, what had been important was the declaratory policy and the speeches and so on, the Global War Game up at Newport, the activities in the SSG, et cetera. Well, of course! I was a staff puke. I didn’t go to sea. But, that was not Lehman’s view. Lehman’s view was that the very centerpiece of the strategy had been the exercises, and the book title Oceans Ventured is a takeoff, of course, on the title of the first exercise, Ocean Venture, in 1981, in which he and Admiral Lyons were involved—Lyons as the fleet commander —to go to sea and demonstrate to the Soviets at sea, not by some speech that his speechwriter wrote (or some speech that he wrote, because he wrote a lot of his own speeches), or by some staff work that I did buried down in some trench in OP-06. His main method of communicating with the Soviets was by U.S. Navy warships at sea doing things.

I had never really realized and certainly never internalized it, until I got involved with the book and I discovered how deeply he was involved in that. He was involved in the choosing of aggressive admirals to go to sea and do things, hence the salience of Lyons, Mustin, [Vice Admiral Jerry O.] Tuttle, and others—Kelso, who he regarded as a very aggressive submarine commander, et cetera. And, that was another aspect of the strategy that goes hand and hand with that: He was still also a commander in the Naval Reserve. And, as such, he participated in these same exercises: He flew in them. When they were making simulated strikes on the Kola [Peninsula], which he was speaking about before the Congress, he was actually in the cockpit next to Joe Prueher simulating bombing the Kola off some fjord in Norway. He was personally flying there.

And, then the last point I’ll make on Lehman and the Maritime Strategy was, when the Soviets started to crumble, he fell off the Maritime Strategy, way before the CNO, who was a man who didn’t like him and who he didn’t like either, Admiral Trost. [Lehman] said, as a private citizen again just reading the newspapers in early 1990, “Okay, they’re finished. They’re toast and we ought to be using the reserves more”—remember, he’s a reservist—“and we ought to be doing this and we ought to be doing that, we have to put more work in the reserves, and we should be less aggressive.” I don’t remember the exact words, but he said this in at least a couple of venues.

The CNO went nuts. Admiral Trost said—and he said this publicly—“Hasn’t he been watching what they’re doing? Hasn’t he—how can he possibly say things like that?” Admiral Trost went to the very end of his tour, which was the middle of 1990, believing in his heart of hearts—and he still believes it for all I know—that nothing had changed fundamentally on the Soviet side. They were throwing new construction ships in the water. They had seven carriers built or under construction, and he was going, “What do I do with that? Perestroika and Glasnost and peace and freedom and all of that, I’m not seeing it. I’m seeing seven carriers built or under construction.” Kelso fell off immediately when he first became CNO, so the break point was very clear then, but for several months, Lehman and Trost had been sparring, and Lehman had already fallen off the strategy…

Peeks: So, following up on what you said—and this is kind of a delicate question—but you mentioned Admiral Hayward, you mentioned Admiral Trost, and they had well-publicized issues with Secretary Lehman and they certainly weren’t the only senior admirals who did as well—from where you sat in OPNAV and the Secretariat, what, if any, friction between Lehman and the senior leadership of the Navy, what did that look like? Did that affect Navy staff ’s ability to do its job?

Swartz: Probably, but it didn’t affect me very much, and the reason is because there was very little daylight between Lehman and the flags when it came to the Maritime Strategy. The daylight between them was in programs and budgets like the F/A-18 and how much it should cost and who should build it and how fast should the rate be and how it should be configured. The issues had to do with tradeoffs between this and that, the platform shops wanting to put bells and whistles on a new construction and Lehman saying, “No, I want to get it in the water.” There were huge programmatic issues between Lehman and many of the senior flags on programs, F/A-18 being a major one.

But not in the area that I toiled in. This came out when he and I were talking about the book and he would say something about some admiral and I’d say, “But not the Maritime Strategy, sir. He did X or Y or Z or he wrote this.” And Lehman would say, “He did?” And I said, “Yeah, you were fighting with him over programmatics. That’s what Secretaries of the Navy and the Navy staff do. I get it. You did it a lot more than other people because you were you. But on the strategy, I didn’t see very much difference among you all.”

Peeks: So, sticking with the Maritime Strategy and even before Goldwater-Nichols, strategy and operational plans: I mean, they’re the province of the combatant commanders, the Joint Staff, OSD—how did the Navy Department attempt to get other stakeholders to buy in to its new strategy and how successful were those efforts?

Swartz: Well…much of what I’m talking about is before Goldwater-Nichols and even after Goldwater-Nichols. Goldwater-Nichols really didn’t kick in until [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Colin] Powell, which is what, ’89? So, this is all before all of that and before Desert Storm.

So, the Navy said, we thought, and I still believe, that the Maritime Strategy was really the maritime component to the National Military Strategy. That’s how we always presented it. Now, there might have been some people who presented it differently, but certainly myself and Roger Barnett, Admiral Moreau—I can’t remember: I’d say that Admiral Lyons did that, I’m not sure that Secretary Lehman did it, but we certainly always presented it as the maritime component to the National Military Strategy. And, in the strategy briefings and documents we cited—and we went through all the national documents, the NSDDs [National Security Decision Directives] and the Defense Guidance and the JSCP [Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan], so on and so forth, and pulled stuff out. In OP-06, that’s what you did, you contributed to joint documents, and so we knew what was in them and we knew what we liked in them and we knew what we didn’t like in them, and so we knew how to hitch ourselves to them and embed ourselves in them.

The strategy itself, as I mentioned earlier, included discussion of how TACAIR played, how AWACS played, how the Air Force tankers played, how the Army played, what the Army was doing, Hawk [anti-air missile] batteries in Iceland, things that were helpful on the flanks that we could use them for, Air Force space systems, Air Force strategic lift that we needed (and we needed a lot of it), Air Force tactical fighters in Iceland were all part of the Maritime Strategy, they’re all in there. As a matter of fact, by contrast, you won’t see any Navy in the Army’s AirLand Battle and you won’t see any Navy—except decried and, “Gee, we’re not sure what they were actually doing”—in Air Force aerospace doctrine from that period, but you see a lot of positive Air Force and Army references in the Maritime Strategy. That was by design. That was Peter Swartz and Ace Lyons and Roger Barnett.

And, I can remember briefing the strategy internal to Navy with the big three sitting in front of me—OP095, 090, 06, Baggett, Trost, Lyons—and me putting up the slide on Air Force TACAIR and explaining the Air Force laydown and what we expected them to do. Admiral Baggett erupted out of his chair and asked me why was I shilling for the Air Force? “What are we doing?” And, I remember Lyons getting up and cleaning his clock and defending me and protecting me as I was taking all these arrows from this three-star.

Yeah, the strategy was allied, it was Army, it was Air Force, and nobody noticed. Now, why was that? Well in part because at the very same time that we were doing this, and we had this strategy and it was avowedly joint and allied in our view and we built that into the briefing, we were also simultaneously fighting like hell against Goldwater-Nichols. And, so what everybody “knew” was that “the Navy’s against jointness, so how could the Maritime Stra …”—if you didn’t actually read it, which nobody in the other services actually did, right?—“so how could the Maritime Strategy—be joint?” asked the chatterers.

But, if you go in to the documents you’ll see —because I drew the maps, wrote the pictures, wrote the copy—that the Air Force and the Army were given their due. When Admiral Watkins decided to go public with the strategy in January of ’86 in Proceedings, I was talking to Fred Rainbow about pictures. So we, Fred and I, were looking at pictures and I said that we’ve got to get some Air Force and Army pictures. He said fine, so he went to wherever he goes for Air Force pictures and he got AWACS aircraft and tankers refueling Navy F-14s and all kinds of appropriate stuff. So, then he went to the Army. They slammed the door. “No. The Maritime Strategy is a Navy budgetary ploy, why would we support that?” So, there are no pictures in the special issue of the U.S. Army, even though I wanted to show Army Hawk batteries in Iceland. He was told not to do it, got his hands slapped for it, and didn’t do it. The Army was [against] it even though we talked positively about the Army in the Maritime Strategy.

Admiral Bill Pendley, Admiral T. J. Johnson, and other admirals really felt strongly about this. They understood that what had happened was that we in the Navy had now broken the code on how to present how you fight the war. The joint system had reduced everything to pablum. (Well, partly that was because the Navy wanted it to be pablum, because we didn’t want to be told what to do by the joint system, same with the other services, except the Army. The Army wanted to control the joint system. The Navy just wanted to be out of it.)

…First of all, it was my firm belief, Roger’s firm belief, and I believe Admiral Moreau’s firm belief, that the lingua franca, the way to get anybody’s attention in the building, the way to do anything, was through a SECRET brief. That’s how people talk to each other in the Pentagon. Unclass? “Real men don’t do unclass, you know.” TS? Too hard, got to sign for it, go in a special room. Codeword? Even worse. The SECRET briefing is the central vehicle for how the Pentagon communicates with itself and therefore the basic Maritime Strategy had to be a SECRET briefing. (We later will talk about “Well, what happened in the ’90s, when we had an incessant stream of unclassified documents?” Beats the heck out of me why, right? This year the Strategy is finally SECRET again.) But we in the 1980s were clear that the Strategy had to be a Secret briefing.

TS was the war plans and so you were suddenly criticized: “Well, you guys are describing war plans.” “No, no, we’ve dumbed down the war plans. We’ve gone to the war plans and we’ve gone to the SECRET annex or the concept of ops, which is SECRET, and we’ve used that, we haven’t used TS.” We didn’t care whether a plan called for, say, three carriers at such and such a point on D+9. That was TS. What we cared about was the general thrust and intent of the commander and what he was trying to do. That was usually unclass, CONFIDENTIAL, or SECRET.

…Another part of it was, as I just said, I honestly believe that “we broke the code.” We knew how to present Navy strategy in a way that was compelling and truthful, and guys that came afterwards said, “We can’t do it like they did it in the days of the Maritime Strategy because first of all, that doesn’t showcase ‘me’.” Again, I was not big on that. If I had done that to Stan Weeks or he had done that to me, the thing would have collapsed. The point was not to do that. And Larry Seaquist and me and all of that, yes, there was rivalry, but there wasn’t out-and-out warfare and there wasn’t ignoring—“Well, if it was in their strategy, then we’re not going to put it in our strategy.”

We didn’t have that. They have that all the time nowadays: “Well, CNO X put out this, so now new CNO Y is in here.” “I’m [Secretary of the Navy] John Dalton, a Democrat, and every day I come out of my office and I see this picture of [Secretary of the Navy] Sean O’Keefe, a Republican, with . . . From the Sea in his pocket, I need one too.” That was one impetus for Forward…From the Sea.

There are several examples of all of that, many of which I can’t relate. We weren’t in that mode and that was a reason why we were successful.

Read Part Three.

Peter Swartz is a retired U.S. Navy captain, a former CNA Research Program Director, and currently an adjunct Principal Research Scientist at CNA. Most of his Navy assignments related to strategy, policy and allied engagement, including two tours as an advisor with the South Vietnamese Navy; helping set up the Navy’s Zumwalt-era intercultural relations program; coordinating Navy staff talks with key European allied navies; helping conceptualize, draft and disseminate the Maritime Strategy of the 1980s; directing the US Mission to NATO’s operations division as the Berlin Wall was coming down; and serving as Special Assistant to CJCS General Colin Powell during the First Gulf War.  At CNA he primarily focused on analyzing U.S. Navy and Marine Corps strategy and policy, including their historical roots. In 2020 a Festschrift was published  in his honor (Conceptualizing Naval and Maritime Strategy) by several of his colleagues, and the Naval Historical Foundation awarded him its Commodore Dudley Knox Lifetime Achievement medal.

Ryan Peeks is a historian at the Naval History and Heritage Command, and the author of Aircraft Carrier Requirements and Strategy, 1977-2001.

Justin Blanton is a historian at the Naval History and Heritage Command.

Featured Image: June 16, 1983. A starboard bow view of the nuclear-powered strategic missile submarine USS MICHIGAN (SSBN-727) underway. (Photo via the U.S. National Archives)

Peter Swartz on Creating Maritime Strategy, Pt. 1: Tactics and Creators

Captain Peter Swartz (ret.) served over 27 years as a U.S. Navy officer, mainly as a specialist in strategy, plans, and policy. Swartz subsequently joined the Center for Naval Analyses and continued to support the analysis and development of Navy strategy, serving there full-time for more than 25 years. A heedful student of history and an industrious researcher and analyst, Swartz is a venerable authority on Navy strategy.

In a 2019 oral history taken by Ryan Peeks and Justin Blanton of the Naval History and Heritage Command, Swartz discussed the trajectory and highlights of his career, including the development of the historic 1986 Maritime Strategy. Excerpts from this oral history will be republished with permission on CIMSEC in three parts, and will focus on the development of both the 1986 Maritime Strategy and the Navy’s community of strategists.

In Part One, Swartz discusses how various groups viewed their roles as creators of the strategy, and how emerging tactics and technology were feeding into strategy development.

Peeks: …the [1986] Maritime Strategy has meant and means different things to different people. Could you explain what the Maritime Strategy was from your perspective, and the goals and intentions of its framers?

Swartz: That’s a fair and important question. The Maritime Strategy was a lot bigger than me and it was a lot bigger than what I saw and what I did, and I know a lot more about it now looking back at it and having talked to people than I knew at the time…So yes, it meant different things to different people, I think.

What did it mean to me and the people I was around? We were trying to educate the officer corps, we were targeting the Navy. We were living off the 1978 event that happened in the Carter administration, when Randy Jayne, a very distinguished U.S. Air Force combat veteran fighter pilot with a Ph.D., an Air National Guardsman, and a director for defense programs in the Carter Office of Management and Budget, got up in front of a whole room full of admirals at a Current Strategy Forum in Newport and read them the riot act for not having their act together and not knowing what they were doing. And, Navy consultant John Lehman was sitting in the audience. He writes about this in his book Command of the Seas. He said to himself, “Boy, this outfit’s in trouble. The admirals are all sitting on their hands and putting up with this.”

Well, I’ll tell you, Lieutenant Commander Swartz never had travel money to go to Newport, but he and Lieutenant Commander Stark and Lieutenant Commander Dur and Commander Mauz and all our colleagues in OP-60 were sitting back in their trenches in the Pentagon hearing the reports and reading—oh, there were reporters there, so this was in The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post—we were reading the reports and saying, “You’ve got to be kidding me! We know the answer! If we had been there, we would have stood up and just stuffed our rhetorical fists right down his throat and told him the Navy has its act together: “Here’s what we’re going to do, here’s how we’re going to do it!” So, based on that experience, which, as you can see, is still very vivid in my mind, and it was vivid in somebody else’s mind whom I didn’t even know at the time, John Lehman’s, right? I mean, it was quite an event, and reading the press reports, it was quite an event.

I wanted to educate Navy officers so that they wouldn’t sit on their hands when they were being attacked by some goddamn Air Force guy masquerading as a civilian and taking money away from the Navy that should have been spent to enable the nation’s naval power because we were doing good stuff.

My other objective was to deter the Soviets. So, how much do you tell the Soviets about the strategy? Well, enough to give them pause and not enough to give away secrets, and that was always a problem and an issue. But, what I was trying to do with those two things, which were sometimes antithetical, because if you’re trying to educate the Navy officer corps you want to tell them the way it really is, and if you’re trying to deter the Soviets, there’s some things you want to keep from them or try to bluff them on.

Admiral Small’s objective [was] related but different: He was trying to get the Secretary off OPNAV’s back and to have strategy really drive the POM, which for me, as you could tell, was sort of one of the many things that I thought I had to do, but I would say that was central to him. He was a great man, the VCNO. John Lehman and he didn’t get along on programmatic issues, but on strategy they were aligned.

[Admirals] Lyons and Mustin wanted to scare the crap out of the Soviets, and make sure they knew that if they came outside they’d die. They believed that and that’s what they wanted to do, and there were lots of people who worked for them who wanted to do that, too.

The submarine force said: “We’re doing this anyway, we were always going to do this. There’s nothing in here that’s new. What’s new is people talking about it. You’re not supposed to talk about any of this stuff.”

I think for most people in the Navy it was a sensible approach on how you use the U.S. Navy’s offensive power to deter and defeat the Soviets. But that wasn’t very different from Holloway or Zumwalt—it was different from Zumwalt regarding the need for more big carriers—but it wasn’t very different from Holloway or others: “I’ve got this aircraft carrier. It’s loaded with all these airplanes, new airplanes now, I got F-14s, right? And new weapons, right? I’ve got Phoenix. And I’m not going to let the Soviets get anywhere near close to an aircraft carrier, with that, and therefore our A-6s are going to knock the crap out of anything that we want.”

And then, of course, what did the Maritime Strategy mean to the Army? It was all programmatic. It was bureaucratic infighting. It was the Navy “trying to take money from me. It’s Navy’s turn now that Carter is out.” They never could rise above—I never found anybody—[Colonel] Harry Summers, I guess, maybe toward the end of his life, an exception—I never found anybody in the Army who thought otherwise. Some in the Air Force got it, some didn’t. Some were more like the Army. Certainly everybody at PACAF [Pacific Air Force] got it. PACAF had no meaning outside the Maritime Strategy. The whole rest of the Air Force was focused on…nukes and the Fulda Gap, except they weren’t concerned with the ground operation, they were going to go strike.

And then there were a whole bunch of people who thought the Navy was wrong and so they thought the Maritime Strategy was evil: John Mearsheimer, Barry Posen, academics like that, Ambassador Bob Komer, the retired, unreconstructed Carterite. Ron Kurth, famous excellent Russia expert and Navy admiral said, “Peter, we’re never going to fight the Soviets, what the hell? What we’re doing is steaming around the world doing this and doing that and putting out fires, and that’s where we’ve got to put our money and our focus and our brains to, not this. This isn’t going to happen.” I had to respond, “Yes, sir, but the policy says that a big war with the Soviets is what we are directed to program and budget for, not a small-wars Navy”—kind of the same era we’re in today, right?

So yeah, it meant different things to different people. It was much bigger than what we in OP-603 were doing. There were other nodes that thought they were doing the Maritime Strategy and that they were the center. The way I tell the story, this is sounding very, very OP-60 centric, right? Well, that’s how I looked at it.

But, if you were talking to SSG (Strategic Studies Group) alumni, especially from the first couple of SSGs (Bob Murray, John Hanley, Bill Owens, Art Cebrowski, Skip Armstrong, Mike McDevitt, et cetera), they’d all tell you that the main seat of development of the Maritime Strategy was in the SSG. The SSG was trooping around and talking to all the four-stars all around the world and socializing these ideas, and I was keeping in touch with them—and Stan [Weeks] before me was keeping in touch with them—to know what it was that they were doing, but they thought they were the centerpiece.

And, years later, I got to sit down with alumni of the old ATP, the Advanced Technology Panel, super secret. They knew that they were the Maritime Strategy, and that what we were doing at the “Secret” level and even the TS [TOP SECRET] level in the war plans was—to them—fiction and PR: “What we are doing with the new intel, real-world operations that you can’t know anything about and real-world plans that you don’t know anything about. That’s the Maritime Strategy. And it probably will never really be declassified what the Maritime Strategy really was about.” So, if Alf Andreasen were sitting here, he would say something like that. [Captain] Dave Rosenberg, who’s written that highly classified history, would sit and nod and say, “Okay, that’s enough, you can’t say anymore.” Former DNI [Director of Naval Intelligence] Rear Admiral Tom Brooks would sit and smile and not say anything…

Peeks: …if you could talk about it at the unclass [unclassified] level—what role did then-recent developments in policy, technology tactics, intelligence, or other fields have in the development of the Maritime Strategy?

Swartz: There was great effect…because four years before, during the Carter administration, the technology was falling in to place, the tactics were starting to fall in to place, but there were lots of people, especially in the Navy, who didn’t think we could pull this off: “We’re going to die. You know if we do this we’re dead, we can’t do this.” That’s not the way it felt in the ’80s because, as John Lehman points out in his latest book, the Carter administration didn’t slow down putting new systems into the fleet. They slowed down some, like Trident—but what they did do was they cut way back on the quantity of what was actually purchased.

But we now had F-14s and a guy like Art Cebrowski, who shows up in the SSG, has just come from an F-14 Navy for the first time in his life, alongside a guy like Bill Owens, who has just had command of a Los Angeles-class [attack submarine, SSN-688]. Well, there never used to be a Los Angeles-class and he had command of one. He had a very different mindset about what he could do with a submarine than the guys that had been there before, who had had command of diesel boats or the earlier classes of nuclear attack submarines. So, it was a lot of stuff that came in: The LHDs came into the fleet. A lot of stuff came into the fleet in the ’70s, and guys were rolling back in to OPNAV and back into other positions having just had command or served on these things. Commander Mike McDevitt had just come back from a Spruance [DD-963]. Well, there hadn’t been a Spruance before and he could do ASW things that he couldn’t have done before on an ASW ship (with Jay Prout as his XO, my colleague and Stan Weeks’s in OP-603).

So, we knew each other and we had this recent experience (not me, yeah, I had a new class of pencil!), but they had this recent experience of this stuff coming in and there was a lot of it, the new systems that came in in the ’70s. The Nimitz-class carrier came in in the ’70s. It was hard to remember how new it was… And, the Nimitz was quite a thing compared to what had come before, I mean the endurance and sortie rate and so on that you could do with it. And, we were on the cusp of new systems: Tomahawk, AEGIS, VLS, whew! And they were just coming in, not when I was writing, but they were coming to the fleet right afterwards, but you could taste it then.

And so you were mentally on a roll and that very, very positive attitude about the hardware that you had or were about to get, plus Reagan and Lehman saying, “Well, I’m not going to buy just two of them, I’m going to buy 16. I’m not going to buy five of these, I’m going to buy eight, right?” Wow, grand opportunity! I get a Spruance or an LHD or a whatever, a Nimitz [CVN-68], whatever, so this was heavy stuff. So, that’s on the system side and I believe that had an effect.

Tactics: Well, okay, the air battles: What are we going to do about all those Backfires coming at the fleet? Well, we got the hardware, but what are the tactics? So Outer Air Battle, the development of all that. Chainsaw and other tactics. CNA (Center for Naval Analyses) was heavily involved in that. And, strike warfare. The creation of the Super-CAG [carrier air wing commander] and Strike University [now Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center] were part of this. New kinds of fighter and strike tactics, and a new place to hone those strike tactics, Strike U, copying off TOPGUN [former U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School, now part of Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center]. TOPGUN itself was still pretty new then, too, in those days.

We were also looking at the Air Force and the Army, and they were doing some neat stuff. Army had AirLand Battle and so there was a revolution going on in the Army, and Air Force had introduced AWACS [Airborne Warning and Control System], and AWACS was cleaning up the battlefield. AWACS was terrific, and we were using AWACS, the Air Force AWACS, and we had our own new E-2Cs.

The Marines were using the Maritime Strategy to illustrate why they needed the systems they wanted, especially the V-22, the LCAC [landing craft, air cushion] and the AAAV [advanced amphibious assault vehicle]. LCAC came in. The V-22 eventually came in. AAAV proved an acquisition disaster. They were pushing for all that, because what they wanted was more reach in their amphibious assaults, which were part of the strategy.

Under-ice operations by the submarines: Not a new idea—again, if I had a submarine officer here, he’d say, “Peter, I was practicing under ice in 1957,” or whenever. But, they were doing it and they were honing it, and we had stopped building submarines with under-ice capability because we wanted the speed (that was the Los Angeles class). And then, as the strategy kicked in, then the reverse happened: The program started being driven by the strategy and the improved Los Angeles class was invented, this time with an under-ice capability.

So, back to tactics: I guess there were general tactical principles, like Attack-at-Source (“Why am I hitting the Backfire? Why aren’t I hitting the Kola [Peninsula] where the Backfire flies from?” “We’re not allowed to.” “But, if I were allowed to, could I? And shouldn’t they know that I could if I would?”) So there were issues there: Shooting the archers, not the arrows. Yes, Phalanx is fine, but if you’re busy trying to stop the missile as it’s coming right at you and it’s feet away, it would have been much better to have knocked out the Backfire 300 miles away and that’s why you’ve got the F-14 and the tankers and the E-2Cs to help. Cover and deception: You couldn’t do any of this if you couldn’t trick them. If they knew where you were—I mean naval warfare, much of what it’s about, is finding the guy, and so we didn’t want to be found. So, there was tremendous development in things that we can’t talk about here, but electronics, jamming systems on ships, systems on aircraft, special kinds of aircraft, decoys, and so on were all part of that. SEAD [suppression of enemy air defenses] using electronic means.

All of that was developed and, by developing it, it gave us a shot at pulling off the strategy. E.g.: You’re briefing the strategy. This guy in the audience says, “I just came from the fleet. We just figured out how to do that. We can do that.” Instead of all sitting there, going, “That’s OP-60 baloney, Peter, we can’t do that,” which is what it would have sounded like in years previous.

And then the submariners: The constant bottom-up pressure for a forward offensive strategy by the submariners, who didn’t give a damn about the Carter administration or this or that or the other. This is my view of them. I’m not accusing them of treason. They had a submarine and its job was to go as far forward as possible and kill everything it could find, especially other submarines, and that was going to include boomers [ballistic missile submarines], whether or not the policy was to kill boomers or not kill boomers or whatever. How the hell were you going to differentiate, anyway? And, Soviet boomers had attack capabilities, too. The practice of ASW, of their submarine tactics, had just continued right through all of this.

So, the interrelationship between the development of the technology, the development of the tactics, and the development of the strategy was there. They were feeding each other.

Read Part Two.

Peter Swartz is a retired U.S. Navy captain, a former CNA Research Program Director, and currently an adjunct Principal Research Scientist at CNA. Most of his Navy assignments related to strategy, policy and allied engagement, including two tours as an advisor with the South Vietnamese Navy; helping set up the Navy’s Zumwalt-era intercultural relations program; coordinating Navy staff talks with key European allied navies; helping conceptualize, draft and disseminate the Maritime Strategy of the 1980s; directing the US Mission to NATO’s operations division as the Berlin Wall was coming down; and serving as Special Assistant to CJCS General Colin Powell during the First Gulf War.  At CNA he primarily focused on analyzing U.S. Navy and Marine Corps strategy and policy, including their historical roots. In 2020 a Festschrift was published  in his honor (Conceptualizing Naval and Maritime Strategy) by several of his colleagues, and the Naval Historical Foundation awarded him its Commodore Dudley Knox Lifetime Achievement medal.

Ryan Peeks is a historian at the Naval History and Heritage Command, and the author of Aircraft Carrier Requirements and Strategy, 1977-2001.

Justin Blanton is a historian at the Naval History and Heritage Command.

Featured Image: October 29, 1984. An F/A-14A Tomcat aircraft from Fighter Squadron 21 takes off from the aircraft carrier USS CONSTELLATION (CV 64) during Fleet Exercise 85. (Photo via the U.S. National Archives)