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)

3 thoughts on “Mike McDevitt on the Strategic Studies Group and Connecting Strategy with Programming”

  1. “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.”

    I commend RADM McDevitt with saying that the USSR did NOT collapse because we scared it to death.

    Now if the Maritime Strategy especially SASW were too risky to use what was the alternative to it other than the Navy trying to protect convoys and the Carrier groups doing what exactly?

    1. Thanks for your comment— even without SASW the pressure the Navy could put on the flanks and the Soviet Far East would be an important contribution. As I recall war games also suggested that the air battle over the Central Front would so exhaust both Soviet and NATO TACair, that even the relatively small CV air wings could make a disproportionately large contribution to the conventional fight in Europe. Who knows ?

  2. This was a superb read. As a guy who flew operational reconnaissance missions in EP3s against the Soviets in the 1980s this makes a lot of sense and Admiral McDevitt’s comments about what might have happened were reflected in the reality of Soviet reactions to US carrier ops in the mid-1980s in waters near the USSR in the Pacific. I know, I was on-station. Also, my subsequent graduate school research at Naval Postgraduate School contributed to Op-956 programs, the EW component in the process mentioned above. John T. Kuehn, CDR, USN (retired)

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