Secretary John Lehman on Strategic Credibility and Leveraging Command of the Seas

1980s Maritime Strategy Series

By Dmitry Filipoff

CIMSEC discussed the 1980s Maritime Strategy with Secretary John Lehman, who served as the 65th Secretary of the Navy in the Reagan Administration from 1981-1987. In this discussion, Secretary Lehman looks at how the Navy tied the Maritime Strategy to force structure goals, how it built credibility with Congress, and how the Navy could offensively leverage command of the seas in a major conflict today.

How would you describe the Maritime Strategy and how was it a shift from 1970s concepts and plans?

First, the Maritime Strategy was global, not driven by NATO. It was geopolitical and based on a recognition that in the Cold War geography was a huge advantage to the U.S. and its allies. The Soviet Union was a relatively land-locked power and the U.S. and its allies were capable of easily establishing command of the seas. It was part of a three-dimensional national strategy: to maintain nuclear parity with the Soviets, to recognize that the Warsaw Pact had clear superiority in land forces, but to neutralize that advantage with overwhelming naval supremacy. President Reagan believed that the West could win the Cold War without armed conflict and that it was time to move from containment and détente to a forward strategy to demonstrate that if the East attacked NATO they would be defeated. An offensive U.S. Navy could not only protect the sea lanes, but could surround Soviet power, sink the Soviet fleet, and use the seas to blockade, mine, and strike deep into the Soviet heartland.

Navy concepts and plans in the 1970s were driven by post-Vietnam naval deterioration, exhaustion, and underfunding compounded by the almost desperate search for détente by Presidents Ford and Carter. Under Carter, the national strategy focused almost entirely on the central front in Europe, assigning only a supportive and defensive role to the Navy, with budgets reduced accordingly.

To many of us veterans of the Kissinger National Security Council and the realist academic world, this “swing strategy” was absurd. Dick Allen, Sam Huntington, Bing West, Fred Ikle, myself, and others began to meet irregularly for lunch and dinner to discuss strategy, often with active duty sailors like Jim Holloway, Ace Lyons, and Peter Swartz, who were then engaged in the mortal combat of PRM 10. It was in those informal gatherings that the Maritime Strategy first began to take shape.

In your book Command of the Seas, you said “Many retired admirals believe that the secretary of the navy should stick to administration…and leave strategy and requirements to the admirals. It never occurred to me as secretary that strategy was none of my business. In fact, it had to be my business.” How did you wield the office of the Secretary of the Navy with respect to developing and advocating for the Maritime Strategy? How should Navy Secretaries view their role on crafting strategy?

Under Title X, the SECNAV is responsible for the personnel, equipping, training, and readiness of the Navy and Marine Corps to carry out the missions assigned to them by the national strategy. Effective naval strategy is what integrates and determines the kinds of personnel policies, ships, aircraft, weapons, and training that are needed for the naval services. Hence ensuring that naval strategy is sound should be seen as the first priority of the SECNAV.

This was especially true when I was sworn in on February 5, 1981, because the new president inaugurated two weeks earlier had changed national strategy and the role that naval strategy must play, a shift in effect from a defensive to offensive posture. I had been selected because my education and experience was in geopolitics, strategy, and military affairs. I therefore had to take the lead in changing the strategy and its doctrine, concepts, and plans. My handpicked SECNAV staff included proven strategic thinkers and operators with experience in walking the walk as well as talking the talk. My immediate successors’ role in strategy was not to be a change agent but to understand the strategy and to see that it was being carried out. When the Cold War ended in victory some years later however it was time again for a new strategy.

My task as SECNAV was made easier because the CNO, Admiral Tom Hayward, was a natural strategist and had already implemented a forward strategy in the Pacific when he was Commander of the Pacific Fleet before becoming CNO.

In the future, SECNAVs must always understand naval strategy and its concepts, implementation, and its role in procurement and training.

How did the Maritime Strategy manifest in real-world fleet operations and exercises? What was the significance of these exercises?

The Maritime Strategy led immediately to dramatic changes in Navy pronouncements in Congressional testimony, beginning with my strategy testimony at the Senate Armed Services Committee the day after I was sworn in, and in public speeches, articles, and press and TV appearances by senior flag officers and civilians. A full-scale effort was immediately begun to change training syllabi, doctrine, concepts and plans, and wargames. Exercises took a little longer to modify, with the first being Ocean Venture ’81, in the North Atlantic, Norwegian, and Barents Seas. RIMPAC and other exercises in the Pacific and Mediterranean soon followed. In each, offensive mirror-image strike raids were practiced along with the usual anti-air warfare, anti-submarine warfare, and other training. In addition to the traditional training the exercises now had two additional important purposes, one was to develop new tactics using the new technology coming into the fleet, while testing real world effectiveness under the beady eyes of embarked teams of Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) operations analysts. The other prime purpose was to demonstrate to Soviet tattletales and observers how good we were and how they could not beat us.

These exercises went on in all theaters and every year. After each one there was thorough analysis of what worked and what didn’t, changing and refining tactics, improving weapons and getting better. By the late 1980s both U.S. and Soviet sailors and leaders believed that we would defeat the Soviets handily. That is of course real deterrence. The proof of its success was demonstrated not only by sensitive intelligence, but also by the now famous “Akhromeyev Map” and Gorbachev’s now public complaints about being “surrounded” by the U.S. Navy.

How did the Maritime Strategy interface with the POM process? What were the budgetary and programmatic influences of the Maritime Strategy?

In some previous and current periods, naval strategy (if you could call it that) has been derived from predicted budgets. During the 1980s, the process was reversed: first strategy, then requirements, then the POM, then budget. This was possible because the president, SecDef, SecNav, CNO/CMC, and the comptroller were all aligned on policy.

Because of that alignment and the unified message, and the simple logic of the strategy and the programs derived from it, plus the strong congressional relations and public affairs campaigns, we were able to get congressional support for the whole of the program throughout the 1980s, even two two-carrier buys. Without the strategy that could not have happened.

What was the relationship between the drive toward a 600-ship fleet and the Maritime Strategy? How did you tie force structure goals to strategy?

In all intra-DoD and interagency meetings, all classified and unclassified pubs, all congressional testimony, and public affairs, there was a disciplined message: first strategy with a global map, from strategy came five theaters of vital interest, from those theaters came the Soviet threat in being, from the threat in each theater came Navy force levels, along with allies and our Air Force and Army partners, force levels which were necessary to defeat that threat. The numbers needed to prevail in each theater were tested every year in the exercises and in the wargames at Newport. From those five totals came: 15 carriers, 100 SSNs, 140 cruisers and destroyers, 100 frigates, and the rest, adding up to 600. The logic was simple and compelling, and we never wavered year to year. More importantly, we delivered what we said we would: ships and jets on time, and on and under budget; an affordable fleet.

How did the Maritime Strategy enhance the Navy’s ability to tell its story to outside audiences, such as Congress, the other services, and allies? How was it received and challenged by these outside audiences?

The easily understood simplicity and logic of the Maritime Strategy was a great advantage, as was its unchanging consistency year after year. Unlike some prior periods, there were no significant disagreeing leaks from within the Navy or Marines. Truth to be told, there were some admirals who had drunk the kool-aid in the previous administration and made it known to friends in Congress and the press that they did not like the new strategy, but they soon retired. (Stansfield Turner would always turn up on Sunday talk shows and tell people like Sam Donaldson that the Maritime Strategy was “dangerous” and that the 600-ship navy was “too expensive.”)

What lessons can be taken from the Maritime Strategy for engaging in modern great power competition?

History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes. It is rhyming today. Once again we face a hostile world power, accompanied by an axis of lesser powers, including Russia, Iran, and North Korea, whose only common bond is hostility to the U.S.

We need a new Maritime Strategy. We need to think as a naval power and not as a land power. Naval powers use geography to their advantage. Land powers feel imprisoned by geography. It must start as always with a contemplation of the world map. Once again we find that geography and geopolitics favors us and our allies. Our principal competitor, China, is far more dependent on unfettered use of sea routes for trade and resources than was the Soviet Union. China is threatened by limited access to those vital routes, which are surrounded by American friends and allies, and beset by straits and chokepoints that can be easily interdicted. These are severe vulnerabilities to China’s economy.

To our strategic benefit, the continuing Chinese military buildup seems to be modeled on their study of Western Cold War victory and Alfred Thayer Mahan. The force they are building is not being optimized to deal with the strategy that will best serve U.S. and allied deterrence.

In the Cold War, Soviet strategy and posture was organized around the confrontation of huge armies massed in Central Europe. China’s strategy seems to be building toward a capability in the shorter term to deter U.S. forces from interfering with a military takeover of Taiwan, or if deterrence were to fail, to attack and defeat American forces at sea. For the longer term they seem to be building toward an unquestioned capability to command the Western Pacific and additional sea-lanes crucial to their economy. Such a strategy would include the Mahanian capability of destroying the American Pacific Fleet in a grand fleet battle. They have been turning the South and East China Seas into a maritime fortress in the expectation of an American Normandy-style invasion. They are making a great mistake.

American naval strategy should be quite different than the strategies that won WWII or the Cold War. Like the Maritime Strategy of the 1980s, it should be focused on the adversaries’ vulnerabilities, which in the case of China are completely different than those of the Soviet Union. China’s economy will always be dependent on uninterrupted sea-lanes spread all over the world.

The U.S. strategy to deter China should of course include the targeting of crucial mainland nodes through cyber and kinetic means, but it should be built primarily on the unquestionable capability to strangle China’s economy through closing chokepoints and straits, mining harbors, and sanctuaries. It is much, much easier to interdict such worldwide arteries than to protect them. The U.S. capability should be agile and unpredictable. Our combined forces should be designed and exercised to be rapidly configurable while moving between specific tasks and objectives. There are 50,000 islands in the Pacific, the majority well-suited for temporary offensive bases targeted on Chinese vulnerabilities. Horizontal escalation across the seas can roll up the center of gravity of China’s great power status: its global trade economy.

Without compromising some secret capabilities, the strategy should be advertised and exercised regularly as was done with the 1980s Maritime Strategy.

Such a strategy will require a larger fleet, with some different characteristics enhancing agility, flexibility, and rapidly evolving technologies, but not one materially larger than the 350- to 500-ship fleet already in planning.

A critical lesson from the Maritime Strategy is that the Navy must restore credibility with Congress and the public that it knows what kinds of ships, aircraft, and technologies are needed. And perhaps more importantly, it must know which platforms it will be able to procure at far lower cost than the recent examples of Ford, Zumwalt, and LCS.

To win back that credibility the Navy must find a way to escape the paralyzing shackles of the vast joint bureaucracy. The Navy’s leaders must restore their former iron grip on procurement, end the culture of change orders during production, and restore annual competition. Thanks to authorities enacted during Senator McCain’s tenure at the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Navy can reclaim the necessary authority, but it will take a strong SecNav and CNO to wield it effectively. Fortunately, the Marine Commandant is already in the lead with the right strategic vision.

The Hon. John F. Lehman Jr. is Chairman of J.F. Lehman & Company, a private equity investment firm. Dr. Lehman was formerly an investment banker with PaineWebber Inc. Prior to joining PaineWebber, he served for six years as Secretary of the Navy. He was President of Abington Corporation between 1977 and 1981. He served 25 years in the naval reserve. He has served as staff member to Dr. Henry Kissinger on the National Security Council, as delegate to the Force Reductions Negotiations in Vienna and as Deputy Director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. Dr. Lehman served as a member of the 9/11 Commission, and the National Defense Commission. Dr. Lehman holds a B.S. from St. Joseph’s University, a B.A. and M.A. from Cambridge University and a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. He is currently an Hon. Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University. Dr. Lehman has written numerous books, including On Seas of Glory, Command of the Seas, Making War, and Oceans Ventured: Winning the Cold War at Sea. He is Chairman of the Princess Grace Foundation USA and is a member of the Board of Overseers of the School of Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania.

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

Featured Image: March 12, 1986 – An F-14A Tomcat aircraft is launched from the aircraft carrier USS JOHN F. KENNEDY (CV 67) (National Archive photo by PH1 Phil Wiggins)

One thought on “Secretary John Lehman on Strategic Credibility and Leveraging Command of the Seas”

  1. Sec. Lehman states: “China is threatened by limited access to those vital routes, which are surrounded by American friends and allies, and beset by straits and chokepoints that can be easily interdicted. These are severe vulnerabilities to China’s economy.”

    True, but, Chinese holding of $1.1T of American debt (about 5% of GDP) is a significant vulnerability to the US economy. In fact, China owns debt from countries the world over, totaling more than 6% of *global* GDP. In many countries, they have preferential repayment terms and/or debt-for-infrastructure deals ( An isolation of the world’s largest or second-largest economy (depending how you calculate it) could easily cause reverberations resulting in immediate, “bloodless” Chinese control of key infrastructure and natural resources around the world. Put bluntly, China has positioned itself to benefit from just about any economic disruption in the world – particularly its own.

    Does this explain American reluctance to interfere with Chinese expansion in the SCS and elsewhere? How does this economic reality affect our current maritime strategy?

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