Peter Swartz on Defining The Maritime Strategy

1980s Maritime Strategy Series

By Dmitry Filipoff

CIMSEC discussed the 1980s Maritime Strategy with Capt. Peter Swartz (ret.), who at the time served as a naval strategist on the OPNAV staff, and worked to refine and disseminate the Maritime Strategy. In this discussion, Swartz defines the contents of the strategy, its primary tenets, and how it maintained a remarkable degree of continuity across nearly a decade of naval leadership.

What did U.S. maritime strategy consist of before the 1980s strategy emerged?

The Maritime Strategy stood on the shoulders of numerous previous U.S. Navy thinkers and operators. For most of these predecessors, Navy strategic thought for years had advocated forward offensive operations against the Soviets, relegating protection of seaborne war material to forward U.S. allies and forces as a secondary concern (much to the dismay of some in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint and EUCOM staffs, and the Army and the Air Force). These operations were conceived of as being global, aggressive, flexible, joint, allied, involving all the Navy’s warfare areas, technology-enabled, relevant to peacetime, crises, and war, and relevant especially to the NATO flank regions, the Arctic, and the western Pacific. Bureaucratic tensions between the Navy and others were particularly high during the Carter Administration, with adverse effects on the Navy’s influence and budget, causing the Navy to intensify its efforts to develop and explain its thinking.

This thinking manifested itself by the end of 1982 on several tracks – all preceding and influencing – the documents now considered to be the Maritime Strategy. CNO Admiral Zumwalt’s Project SIXTY had showed the power of one central coherent planning document for the service. CNO Admiral Holloway had helped the Under Secretary of the Navy guide a Navy study on how the Navy could make a strategic difference against the Soviets. This study – SEAPLAN 2000 – gained wide distribution among the Navy staffs and spawned an initiative at the Naval War College – the annual Global War Games – in which the concepts embedded in the Maritime Strategy would be wargamed in ever-increasing depth, breadth, and complexity. In his Naval Warfare Pub (NWP) 1, Strategic Concepts for the US Navy, Admiral Holloway also showed the explanatory power of parsing Navy operations in terms of “warfare tasks:” anti-submarine warfare, anti-air warfare, anti-surface warfare, and so on, vice “platforms” or “communities,” (e.g. carrier aviation, surface warfare, submarine warfare, etc.). This was echoed in the newly introduced fleet battle group command-and-control concept of “composite warfare commanders,” and Admiral Hayward’s expanded OPNAV Directorate of Naval Warfare (OP-095).

Admiral Hayward had himself developed an offensive aggressive anti-Soviet “Sea Strike” concept when he was Commander of the U.S. Seventh Fleet in the western Pacific, and then Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, prior to becoming CNO. He and his staff had briefed the concept widely, and when they arrived in Washington, they applied many of its principles to a series of CNO-approved documents—some highly classified and some public. As CNO, he routinely convened conferences of senior Navy flag officers to examine and discuss issues of Navy strategy. Hayward also approved the creation of OP-603 – a new branch in his Plans, Policy, and Operations Directorate (OP-06). It was staffed with officers handpicked from his existing branches by the OP-60 Division Director, Rear Admiral Bob Hilton, for their knowledge of national and Navy policy and strategy, and their skills in crafting strategic-level documents and briefings.

Concerned that U.S. Navy flag officers were not adept enough in strategic thinking, CNO Admiral Hayward enabled outgoing Under Secretary of the Navy Robert Murray to establish a small group of promising and operationally astute commanders and captains (“flag material’) in Newport to study and apply strategic and operational thought to the naval problems of the day. This became the CNO’s Strategic Studies Group (SSG). The first cohort reported to Murray at Newport in the fall of 1981 to examine operational concepts focused on winning the battles of the Norwegian and Barents Seas, and into the Arctic. Their robust travel schedule and access to senior joint and Navy commanders would give the SSG enormous influence in socializing the concepts they explored – and those of the Maritime Strategy more generally – throughout the U.S. and allied military establishments.

At the same time – the fall of 1981 – Vice Admiral James A. “Ace” Lyons launched a massive series of exercises in the North Atlantic, in which he, the U.S. Second Fleet, the NATO Striking Fleet Atlantic, and complementary U.S. Air Force forces tested, demonstrated, and then widely publicized the forces and tactics – especially cover and deception – needed to implement the Maritime Strategy in the Norwegian and Barents Sea. South American, French, and Spanish navies participated as well.

Meanwhile, a transformation was taking place in the intelligence community, which for years had maintained that the immense Soviet submarine fleet posed a potentially mortal threat to trans-Atlantic shipping in the event of a NATO-Warsaw Pact war. This view had been challenged throughout the 1970s by a small group of naval analysts, mostly at the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA), whose analysis of Soviet open-source literature had led them to believe that the Soviets’ highest-priority mission at sea was to protect their nuclear ballistic missile submarine fleet in “bastions,” with considerably less attention paid to attacking convoys in the North Atlantic. New and highly sensitive intelligence convinced the Navy’s Office of Naval Intelligence that the CNA analysts were right, and they began to proselytize among the Navy’s operational leaders, who initially were highly skeptical. The implications for Navy strategy of this new intelligence focus came under deep study, especially by the Navy’s highly classified Advance Technology Panel (ATP) and related bodies.

How did the Maritime Strategy describe the global context in terms of threats, geopolitical risks, and great power competition with the Soviet Union?

It was the final era of the Cold War. The militaries of two well-armed hostile blocs had been planning to fight each other on a global scale for a generation, and – until the last part of the decade – were planning to continue to plan for another generation at least. Losing the Vietnam War had been a big jolt to the American military, as had the “no more Vietnams” backlash from the American public, and declining defense budgets. Moreover, it seemed that the Soviets were on the march everywhere: Aiding Communist parties and peace organizations in Western Europe, squashing restiveness in occupied eastern Europe, taking advantage of revolutions in Iran and Ethiopia; wooing clients states like Libya, Iraq, India, Syria, and Vietnam; subverting governments in Central America and Africa; threatening Japan and China; egging on the North Koreans; and invading Afghanistan. The Nixon Administration was beset by scandal, the Ford Administration struggled, and the Carter Administration refocused the U.S. military on Central Europe, leaving the U.S. Navy with little to do but escort convoys across the Atlantic, and cede budget dollars to the Army and tactical Air Force.

The Reagan Administration – exuding confidence – sought to reverse these trends, in part through a massive defense buildup and in part through more aggressive pushback against Soviet initiatives, overt and covert. Republican defense expert and naval reserve A-6 B/N naval flight officer Dr. John Lehman was appointed Secretary of the Navy to spearhead this effort for the fleet. Lehman’s program was simple: Lay out a winning and doable strategy, explain why 600 ships were needed to carry out the strategy, and take tough business measures to make it affordable. The Maritime Strategy recognized all this. It touted the Navy’s capabilities, experience, and intentions regarding maintaining the peace forward throughout the world, reassuring America’s allies, responding to crises as required, and – especially – helping deter (or making a strategic difference should deterrence fail) a Soviet attack.

If some U.S. Navy concepts seemed risky, the Navy believed the risks were less than its critics believed, and/or calculated that they were worth taking in a time of war. It was well-recognized that the president would make all final wartime decisions on force employment in any case. Civilian control of the military was expected and supported. But he would rely on the Navy – admittedly only in part – for recommendations and expert advice. And debating, gaming, and exercising the Maritime Strategy for a decade gave the Navy a firm basis to give that advice.

Midway through the decade, after Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, policies began to change in that country. Some in the U.S. – and the Navy – recognized this early on; for others it took the disintegration of the USSR at the end of 1991 to convince them. As the world changed, and the Cold War ended, so too did the utility of the Maritime Strategy as the U.S. Navy’s central organizing operational concept.

What were the main tenets of the Maritime Strategy? How did it describe the contributions the U.S. Navy can make in steady state competition during relative peacetime, and the contributions it would make toward war termination against the Soviet Union?

The main tenets of The Maritime Strategy were:

  • It is not a standalone strategy. It is the naval component of the national military strategy
  • U.S. naval operations make the strategic difference in peacetime diplomatic initiatives, deterring aggression, deterring nuclear war, reassuring allies, and/or achieving war termination on favorable terms against the Soviet Union or any lesser powers
  • The Navy in peacetime routinely uses port visits, exercises, and various exchanges and training venues as vital tools to back up U.S. diplomacy, show resolve and support, and deter unfriendly actions
  • The U.S. Navy is very competent in strategy-making
  • The Maritime Strategy explains what the nation gains from meeting its 600-ship naval force goal
  • It explains to sailors and taxpayers alike why the Navy does what it does
  • It sends a message to the Soviets that we are thinking about you, we are ready, and we are good. Today is not the day for you to attack.
  • It tells the other services and allies that the U.S. Navy values your contributions, and recognizes its responsibilities to support you
  • The Navy recommends global, forward, offensive, joint, and allied approaches to deterrence and warfighting
  • The Navy has the capability and intention to carry out the strategy through all naval warfare areas: Strike, amphibious warfare, anti-air warfare, anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, electronic warfare and deception, mine warfare, naval special warfare, supported by effective intelligence and logistics operations.
  • The strategy is technology-enabled. The Navy needs and uses the best mature technology.
  • Electronic warfare and deception are robust U.S. Navy warfighting capabilities. The Soviets will not be able to find us until we are on top of them.
  • The Navy has thought through the general direction of the entire global maritime campaign, notionally breaking it down into three phases: 1) Transition to war 2) Seizing the initiative, and 3) Carrying the fight to the enemy. The actual orchestration and timing of those phases, and the relative importance of each theater and naval warfare area, will be decided by the National Command Authorities and the combatant commanders as the unfolding situation demands. But the Maritime Strategy provides a foundation on which to build specific plans and operations.
  • The Navy is flexible: The strategy gives a baseline of what the global warfighting problem might look like on and from the sea. U.S. naval forces can and will maneuver throughout the world ocean as circumstances dictate.
  • The Navy has thought through the implications of its strategy to achieve war termination on favorable terms and understood its risks as well as advantages. It is prepared to offer the National Command Authority options as well as its preferred and recommended way ahead.
  • The Navy has studied the Soviet Union and is prepared, if directed, to destroy targets that the Soviets hold most dear. It hopes thereby to deter any conflict with the Soviet Union, but it also has the will and capability to actually destroy those targets, therefore preventing the Soviets’ planned correlation of forces.
  • The story that the Maritime Strategy painted is fraught with uncertainties in need of further examination: Presidential decision-making, readiness, nuclear escalation, warning/reaction time, call-up of reserves, allies not coming into the war, Soviet clients coming into the war, sister services too taxed elsewhere to help, estimates of the enemy were wrong, National Command Authority disagreement with Navy advice, civilian lift availability, and others.

What were the roles and missions of the Marine Corps in the strategy?

The Marine roles were important but flexible: To help deter Soviet attacks, and if deterrence failed, to conduct amphibious and airlanded operations forward on one or both of the NATO flanks, in the Soviet Far East, and if needed, against outlying Soviet surrogates such as North Korea, Cuba, Libya, Vietnam, or Syria. Throughout the decade of the 1980s the Marines became significantly more invested in defending Norway and Denmark in particular, with vehicles and equipment for an airlanded Marine Amphibious Brigade stored in caves in Norway. Marines became increasingly adept at winter warfare. Navy carriers practicing and demonstrating the strategy far forward – and carrying out real-world operations as well – often had Marine Corps tactical aviation squadrons assigned. And Navy surface combatants and carriers with nuclear weapons onboard had U.S. Marine Corps detachments to help secure them.

This was all laid out in each successive maritime strategy briefing and document, classified and unclassified, to which Marines assigned to Headquarters Marine Corps (HQMC) made significant contributions, often as naval officers in their own right, transcending their core warfighting task of amphibious warfare. CNO Admiral Watkins and Marine Commandant General Kelley jointly signed out a more detailed classified Amphibious Warfare Strategy, dovetailed with the Maritime Strategy, in 1985. The Commandant provided a similarly-titled unclassified essay along with the CNO’s and SECNAV John Lehman’s Proceedings articles in January 1986. Marine Commandants did not co-sign the classified Navy Maritime Strategy documents, but Commandant General Al Gray intervened personally to rewrite portions of the 1989 version, just as he was re-orienting the Marine Corps more toward potential operations in the Third World, and away from increasingly unlikely conflicts in NATO theaters.

How did the Maritime Strategy feature roles for the other services and for allies?

The Maritime Strategy went out of its way to describe the contributions of the other services and allies in some detail, largely because the Navy simply could not execute the strategy on its own, and that had been true since the start of the Cold War.

U.S. naval planning had for years included chopping various U.S. Coast Guard units to the Navy in time of war with the Soviets. These plans mostly involved outfitting some cutters as anti-submarine warfare ships, and port security, and were incorporated easily into the Maritime Strategy. A new initiative – creating wartime Maritime Defense Zones placing USCG area commanders under U.S Navy fleet commanders – was also under development during the 1980s.

Naval forces relied on the U.S. Air Force for land-based tanking and AWACs command and control services, for strategic airlift, and for complementary tactical fighter squadron support from Iceland, Norway, and elsewhere, as well as B-52s capable of firing Harpoon missiles at surface targets and laying mines. Successive CNOs and Air Force Chiefs of Staff signed numerous memoranda of understanding all through the 1970s and 1980s to cement these relationships. On the other hand, the Navy took seriously its responsibility to ensure that the Army and Air Force units in Central Europe and Northeast Asia were resupplied and reinforced from the continental United States. The Navy, however, planned to do this principally through forward offensive operations, while many in the other services would have preferred sole Navy emphasis on close-in Naval Control and Protection of Shipping (NCAPS), e.g., convoy escort.

To many in the other services – especially in the Army – the Maritime Strategy was a Navy budgetary ploy to take money away from them and give it to the sea services. Navy leaders – especially Rear Admiral Bill Pendley as OP-60 – made numerous overtures to their Air Force and Army counterparts to join with them in turning the Maritime Strategy into a truely balanced multi-service document. They argued that the basic outline was sound, and all that would be needed was to plug some more Army-specific and Air Force-specific data into the text. In fact, the Navy had already done just that, at a basic but useful level. But little came of those efforts. The Army had its own warfighting concept under development – AirLand Battle (for which it was striving to obtain Air Force buy-in) – but made no significant attempt to include naval forces in it – unlike the Navy regarding its sister services in the Maritime Strategy.

The Maritime Strategy recognized the important role that allied navies would play in any war with the Soviets and incorporated them where necessary. Allied commanders and staffs were routinely briefed on the Maritime Strategy, and allied coordination in implementing it was a frequent topic throughout the 1980s at bilateral navy-to-navy staff talks, CNO-to-CNO visits, and allied naval war college presentations and curricula. At-sea exercises with allies were frequent to practice interoperability and reassure publics that the U.S. Navy really would come to their aid. Relations with specific flank countries – Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Greece, Turkey, Japan, South Korea – and their navies – were close. But issues constantly arose in discussions with them on how to provide reassurance and practice interoperability effectively without stirring up an aggressive but paranoid Soviet bear unduly. Changes in allied governments sometimes affected exercise plans. NATO had its own Concept of Maritime Operations (CONMAROPS) which dovetailed well with the Maritime Strategy, largely through the efforts of the U.S. Navy’s cadre of experienced NATO experts in OP-603 and on NAVEUR and NATO staffs.

China at the time was a friendly nation, although not a fully-fledged ally, and its importance in the military balance viz-a-viz the Soviet Union – and the reassurance provided by the U.S. Seventh Fleet – was acknowledged and discussed in the Maritime Strategy.

How did the Maritime Strategy evolve through the 1980s? Did it feature much continuity even with turnover in leadership?

It had unusual continuity, evolving steadily through the 1980s, as new CNOs and fleet commanders, flag officers, branch heads, and action officers replaced their predecessors in the Pentagon, on the fleet staffs, and at the Naval War College. It started as a set of secret briefing slides drafted by the Navy’s experts in OP-603 (now N72) and OP-605, and approved by senior Navy leadership in the fall of 1982. In 1983, successor drafters in OP-603 built on those slides and used feedback from numerous briefings to various audiences (especially flag officers and especially successive OP-06s (now N3/N5s); and on new inputs from the intelligence community; the fleets and Navy warfare communities, Unified and Navy component commanders and their staffs; and the newly-constituted CNO Strategic Studies Group (SSG) in Newport.

Navy leadership approved of the enhancements, and OP-603 then continued to brief and improve the briefing until the spring of 1984, when it was finally published as a secret OPNAV document with written text to go with each slide. Successors in OP-603 improved that document, and it was updated and approved by Navy leadership and republished in 1985. These classified versions had originally been directed to kick off the annual POM build within OPNAV, but they rapidly transcended that important internal bureaucratic role and became much more broadly used. Responding to swelling demand, an authorized unclassified version was crafted in OPNAV OP-00K, signed by top Navy Department leadership, and published in January 1986 by the U.S. Naval Institute. This version was supplemented over the next four years by three signed articles by then-CNO Admiral Trost, as well as a widely-distributed unclassified video version. The classified version was updated and distributed in 1989 for the last time, just as the Soviet threat was starting to unravel.

In all of these versions, the name, phraseology, and basic tenets remained the same: It was still global, forward, offensive, aggressive, anti-Soviet, flexible, joint, allied, involving all the Navy’s warfare areas, technology-enabled, relevant to peacetime, crises, and war, and relevant especially to the NATO flank regions, the Arctic, and the western Pacific. CNO Admiral Watkins had just served as CNO Admiral Hayward’s VCNO. He was cognizant of and built on his predecessor’s thinking, setting an example that was noted and understood by his subordinates. CNO Admiral Trost had been Director of Program Planning for four years during Admiral Watkins’s term as CNO and had been part of the annual development and approval process of the Strategy. He too let it be known that the Maritime Strategy was still the basis of Navy thought during his term. Strategy drafters and mentors in OP-603, and later in OP-00K and elsewhere, understood the power that the continuity gave to the strategy’s messages, and built upon – vice replaced or ignored – their predecessors’ efforts.

From the beginning in 1982, the Maritime Strategy presentation had been directed to kick off the Navy’s annual POM build. To better enable this, the strategy became formatted with the same array of warfare areas as the next step in the POM build – OP-095’s warfare appraisals.

In terms of content and form, what lessons does the Maritime Strategy have for engaging in great power competition today?

Some lessons include:

  • The tenets of the Maritime Strategy are applicable today: Global, forward, offensive, joint, allied, flexible, involving all the Navy’s warfare areas, technology-enabled, and other tenets
  • Having a maritime strategy statement can be useful to explain the Navy view to its officer corps and also to others outside the Navy. It must be presented as the maritime component of the national military strategy.
  • Efforts should be made to align at all levels of classification, from UNCLAS through SECRET to levels above TOP SECRET. Ensuring consistency among these levels – as well as appropriate secrecy and security – is an important and continuing task for senior Navy leadership and those possessing special clearances.
  • Peacetime, crises, and war can be a useful construct to use, as is the parsing of naval operations by warfare task.
  • Admit that there are uncertainties that need more work to address. Continuously do that work.
  • Get a firm handle on what the competitors’ goals will be and how they will fight. Avoid mirror-imaging or using inapplicable World War II or Cold War analogies. Include examination of open sources. Understand enemy strengths, weaknesses, vulnerabilities, capabilities, and intentions. The Russians today aren’t the Soviets or the Germans, or Americans. The Chinese aren’t the Soviets or the Japanese, or Americans.
  • Build a cadre of strategy experts, and of China and Russia experts. Most importantly, put them in the appropriate billets.
  • Forward at-sea exercises are vital for deterrence, allied reassurance, and testing of tactics and hardware. Exercise results should be disseminated among all the elements of the maritime strategy enterprise.
  • The SSG was very useful to develop flag officers and to conceive and disseminate useful warfighting concepts. Consider reviving it. Same for the Global War Games.
  • Have strategy influence the POM. Use a presentation of the strategy to kick off the POM build. If that does not prove useful, adjust either the strategy or the POM build process. Ensure the structure of the strategy statement fits with the structure of whatever the next step is in the POM build to make it useable to the programmers.
  • The Navy can’t just consider navies. U.S., allied, and competitor air forces, missile forces, and space systems all have to be addressed in a maritime strategy.
  • Allied and potential partner navies and other services need to be kept informed – at the appropriate level of classifications – of the tenets of U.S. Navy thinking and what the U.S. expects of them as allies.
  • Plan for war termination before and during the war.

The Maritime Strategy was what naval analyst Dr. Mark Mandeles characterizes as a multi-organizational system. It was similar in that respect to the famous and successful interwar-period multiorganizational system that helped the U.S. Navy win in World War II – the systems and players that developed carrier aviation, conceptualized War Plan Orange, wargamed at the Naval War College, and exercised at sea in the legendary Fleet Problems. All these systems and players were coordinating formally and informally with each other, and without being straight-jacketed into a rigid bureaucratic hierarchy. Creating and maintaining such a system for the Maritime Strategy – and the all-important interactions among its elements – was understood by the SECNAV and successive CNOs and VCNOs as among their primary responsibilities.

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.

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

Featured Image: December 14, 1986 An overhead view of Battle Group Charlie underway in formation. The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS CARL VINSON (CVN-70) is in the center of the group. (National Archives photo by PH2 Protz)

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