The End of Uniformed Naval Strategic Study?

By Steve Wills

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson’s recent decision to dissolve the long-running Strategic Studies Group (SSG) has prompted questions regarding the group’s recent viability, and whether it has made measurable contributions to naval strategy or national security. The answers to these questions are debatable to be sure. The real questions to ask are does the U.S. need mid grade and senior uniformed naval officers to think seriously about naval strategy? Should that “strategy” be something more than mere platform numbers, 30-year shipbuilding plans and associated budgets? What processes best inform and support generation of usable strategy, and how can Navy uniformed personnel, civilians and supporting contractors best support a strong, 21st century U.S. Maritime Strategy. An SSG that is returned to its 1980’s roots is the best process to achieve that goal.

The SSG was founded by CNO Admiral Thomas Hayward in 1981 with the specific mission of supporting a new era of strategic thinking by uniformed naval personnel in how to counter the rising Soviet Navy. A short review of the works of John Hattendorf, Peter Swartz, and John Hanley details the SSG’s significant influence on the development of naval strategy in the 1980’s. The efforts of the SSG were crucial to making the Maritime Strategy work at the operational and even tactical level of execution. It was a “disruptive” organization in that it had direct access to every senior officer in the Navy cosmos of that era. It had a number of innovative individuals within its ranks who later made flag officer rank. This organization was one where the people were as much the product as the concepts they created.

The SSG’s success was perhaps based on its direct association with the 1980’s era Maritime Strategy. The conditions for the SSG’s work and its own charter have considerably changed since the 1980’s. The Cold War ended in 1991, and with it the focus on defeating a global opponent. CNO Admiral Mike Boorda changed the SSG’s charter in 1996 to a focus on “revolutionary naval warfare concepts” rather than “Grand Strategy.” The group is now larger, more “joint” in construct and includes more junior personnel. Perhaps this is the wrong mix for supporting strategic thinking and development?

The SSG may not now seem to be as working well because it does not have a similar grand strategic construct to guide it it as it did in the 1980’s. In his 1990 Senate Armed Services Committee hearings, CNO Admiral Frank Kelso said a nation “didn’t need a strategy if it did not have an enemy.” The Maritime Strategy was soon placed “on the shelf” and was never really replaced. White papers such as “From the Sea” and more detailed concepts such as the 2007 and 2015 Cooperative Maritime Strategies have appeared, but none are in the same league as the 1980’s Maritime Strategy, a concept described by former Dean of Naval Warfare at the Naval War College Barney Rubel as one that could used as a “contingent warfighting doctrine.”

(Oct. 5, 2015) Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. John Richardson meets with the fellows of the CNO Strategic Studies Group (SSG) at the U.S. Naval War College (NWC). Richardson visited NWC to address the students and faculty and to meet with the SSG. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Nathan Laird/Released)
(Oct. 5, 2015) Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. John Richardson meets with the fellows of the CNO Strategic Studies Group (SSG) at the U.S. Naval War College (NWC). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Nathan Laird/Released)

The disestablishment of the SSG is also, in effect, a dismissal of the efforts of the U.S. Naval War College; the home base of the SSG since its commission in 1981. The SSG was originally anchored to the War College to physically remove its members from corrosive Washington D.C. politics and to leverage the traditional capabilities of the College as a center of strategic excellence. Is the Naval War College now just another Joint Professional Military Education (JPME) degree production location? This decision seems to entirely separate the War College from its traditional role as a center of deep strategic naval thinking. Is it really so difficult and costly to move a dozen Commanders and Captains to Newport, as the 1980’s-era SSG did, so that they can think about big picture ideas without the usual distractions inherent in basing them in the National Capitol Region (NCR)?

The death of the SSG may be indicative of a larger lack of historical self-examination by naval leaders when making significant strategic decisions. The 2003-2012 process where the surface Navy closed the basic training school for new Surface Warfare Officers (SWOSDOC) at Newport, RI, tried to replace it with computer-based training and then subsequently returned to schoolhouse training could have been avoided had people looked at why the surface warfare school training program was instituted. New technology and a desire for greater professionalism caused ADM Zumwalt to implement a more regimented training program for surface officers. It was recognized that the previous, “journeyman” training program of the 1950’s and 1960’s was not sufficient to provide operators for then new ships like the DD 963 class, or deal with the increasing complexity of surface warfare. Those same conditions were in play in the early 2000’s as the fleet decreased in size, but was beset with greater responsibilities, made greater use of commercial off the shelf (COTS) material, and was developing whole-ship computing environments through programs like “smart ship” and IT21. In killing SWOSDOC, the Navy in effect steamed over its own towline and needlessly weakened its junior surface warfare training program. Sadly, the dissolution of the SSG may be following a similar pattern to that of the basic Surface Warfare Officers School. Excellence in a process has become more important than the product that is created.

The Navy seems to be groping again toward a concept of real geopolitical strategy as it did in the 1970’s. The 2015 Maritime Strategy is a step in that direction. The 1991-2010, “strategy” of 30-year shipbuilding plans, force structure, and budget management is no longer sufficient for the current environment that again features peer/near peer competitors in addition to non-state actors. The Navy needs uniformed personnel (preferably with a defined career path such as CNO’s operations analysts) to examine and recommend grand strategy. The global maritime battlespace has always made naval leaders deep strategic thinkers. The other services do not think along the same geographic lines. The U.S. has no strategic land frontier such as the Franco-German one of 1870-1945 where the Army might build grand strategy. The Air Force alternately operates in support of operational Army requirements or ignores geography altogether in its strategic bombing efforts.

The post 1986 Goldwater Nichols era of geographically isolated combatant commanders “drawing lines in the sea” and overly focused on land-based events disrupted the ethos of strategic naval thinking. Naval leadership must support the idea of the naval officer as a strategic thinker. Sadly, dissolution of groups like the SSG makes this more difficult to achieve. The Navy seems to have returned to the conditions of 1981 when incoming Secretary of the Navy John Lehman said that naval officers “did not do strategy.”

There is hope, however, to correct these deficiencies within the CNO’s “Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority.” It states that, “history should be studied so that old lessons do not have to be relearned.” History suggests that the SSG in its pre-1996 format provided excellent support to the creation and implementation of the Maritime Strategy of the 1980’s. Learning-centered technologies, simulators, online gaming analytics and other tools not available in the mid 1980’s could further expand the reach and impact of 22 mid grade officers working on big picture ideas in the relative quiet of Newport. Such an organization for a new SSG would do much to maximize combat effectiveness and efficiency. It could be a team effort across the Navy’s strategic enterprise and would do much to reinvigorate an assessment culture and processes. An SSG that returns to its pre-1996 roots and adopts the best practices as recommended by “high velocity learning” can have as great an impact in building 21st century maritime strategy as did the SSG of the mid 1980’s.

Steve Wills is a retired surface warfare officer and a PhD candidate in military history at Ohio University. His focus areas are modern U.S. naval and military reorganization efforts and British naval strategy and policy from 1889-1941. 

Featured Image: Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson speaking at the Naval War College. (Photo: MC1 Nathan Laird, US Navy)

7 thoughts on “The End of Uniformed Naval Strategic Study?”

  1. Too late for this year. Do we have a rising set of peer competitors? I had thought we might need more of a strategy to deal with human migration issues. Blockades seem so old fashioned.

  2. Thanks for an interesting and important article. It will be interesting to see how the CNO works to get the planning support he will need. Kudos.

  3. Dangerous development indeed. Officers, in particular those in important jobs, do not have the time to read, think, and write. To this one might add the increased importance in many countries of the politically correct – the enemy of creative thinking. The fact that most contemporary strategic thinkers are academics and/or retired officers seems to constitute evidence.
    It is, however, vital for the future of any navy that it allows its officers to be creative and to do research or at least read, reflect, and write. If not, it risks sinking into intellectual stagnation that it will pay a high price for the day it becomes necessary to defend the vital interests of the country.

  4. Nice try, but there can be little doubt that N3/N5 undoubtedly already sent CNO Richardson a memo that says something like “… killing the SSG is ok, our strategic enterprise is in good shape, nothing to see here.”

    A little over two years ago ADM Greenert kicked off an effort to re-energize the service’s ability to identify, build and manage naval strategists. This effort essentially began because he was tired of reading the articles that said that the Navy wasn’t thinking strategically anymore. When he queried the staff about the truth behind these pieces, he discovered that there really wasn’t any systematic method to build and manage Navy strategists. In fact, he discovered that the most active naval strategy venue in the Washington DC area – the Strategic Discussion Group, was run by retirees and took place after hours – a situation he likened to “the Christians in the catacombs.”

    The OPNAV team that was charged with the effort to re-energize the Navy Strategic Enterprise was very deliberate about the rebuilding effort. In fact, one might say that they went about it very tactically, but not very strategically. Despite the ironic dearth of strategic vision, there was good work done. As a result the Navy now has a deliberate plan to create qualified strategists, a few billets identified as locations for “career strategists,” a cadre of personnel given an Additional Qualification Designator (AQD) as Naval Strategists, and the outlines of a personnel management plan. Unfortunately, the only thing missing is any real understanding of why the service needs to develop people who are capable of thinking strategically.

    Essentially, strategy is lost on an organization that only functions at the operational level. As a result of Goldwater-Nichols, the Navy only exists as a force provider. The CNO has a budget strategy and an acquisition strategy, and maybe a personnel management strategy (although I think that is questionable) – but what he certainly doesn’t have is a naval strategy. This is because he isn’t actually responsible for a naval strategy – and has no authority to execute one. So, OPNAV can publish as many visionary “strategic” statements as they want, but we all know these documents actually exist to justify the budget and acquisition plans – not as a Mahanian-style template for the global employment of naval force. The sad truth for the world’s greatest navy is that the last place in DoD where there is somebody is really thinking about the consequences of moving ships around the globe is at the service component level in the Combatant Commands.

    In the end, it doesn’t take much reading of history to recognize that as the global order changes due to perturbations in domestic and international politics, there is no service more necessary to the maintenance of the nation’s economic health and protection of sovereign values than the Navy. This is why the nation’s political leadership should be screaming for somebody, anybody, to create a strategic narrative that can explain the risk (and opportunity) of moving navy ships around the globe. Unfortunately, until we get such a vision, you can expect we continue a gradual, programmatically “fair” readiness degradation of all the services, watch an incoherent global employment effort erode the power of presence, and ultimately get forced into a corner by adversaries who actually read and understood the strategic lessons of our own past.

    1. N3/N5 is not the same powerhouse as the old OP06/OP603 juggernaut that was once 18% of the OPNAV staff. The SDG has been around for a long time and I seriously doubt that ADM Greenert only “discovered” it when he became CNO. AQD’s come and go. The next CNO could equally decide to end the strategy subspecialty. The Navy once had a Chair of Naval Strategy at NPS and from it vigorously promoted strategic thinking, but it died in the 1990’s in the absence of a peer competitor. As you suggest, no one is really responsible for strategy anymore, so why not let the CNO take the lead, as aggressive CNO’s like Zumwalt, Holloway, Hayward and Watkins did in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Their arguments ultimately carried the day. Current and future CNO’s can do the same. The time is right for the global vision of Maritime strategy that you suggest. More of us must try to carry the argument forward.

    2. One has to wonder what is wrong with retirees running the strategy business – the 20 year “career” is just long enough to get one through the tactical echelons with maybe two “shore” tours, generally involved with the conduct of Navy support to the Fleet. Getting a seat to see some national strategy is truly luck of the draw for shore tours, and getting education enroute will only happen when a community considers itself to have a surplus. The post World War II reforms may have addressed the leadership issues that war fighting exposed, but they did nothing to capture the benefits that accrued from having a cadre of long-serving officers with insights developed from a breadth of experience.

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