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.
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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)

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