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Sea Control 264 – Marine and Naval Aviation with Nate Lauterbach

By Walker Mills

Nathan Lauterbach joins CIMSEC’s Jonathon Frerichs to talk about his recent article in USNI Proceedings “Marine Aviation is Naval Aviation.”

Download Sea Control 264 – Marine and Naval Aviation with Nate Lauterbach



1. “Marine Aviation Is Naval Aviation,” by Nathan Lauterbach, USNI Proceedings, April 2021.

2. Commandant’s Planning Guidance, by David Berger, United States Marine Corps, July 2019.

3. Tentative Manual for Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations, by United States Marine Corps, 2021. 

4. “Marines Update Force Design After a Year of Experimentation in the Field,” Megan Eckstein, USNI News, April 26, 2021. 


  • Jonathon Frerichs
  • Keagan Ingersoll
  • Walker Mills
  • Nate Lauterbach

Walker Mills is Co-Host of the Sea Control podcast. Contact the Sea Control team at Seacontrol@cimsec.org.

An Alternative History for U.S. Navy Force Structure Development

By John Hanley

U.S. Navy and Department of Defense bureaucratic and acquisition practices have frustrated innovations promoted by Chiefs of Naval Operations and the CNO Strategic Studies Groups over the past several decades.1 The Navy could have capabilities better suited to meet today’s challenges and opportunities had it pursued many of these innovations. This alternative history presents what the Navy could have been in 2019 had the Navy and DoD accepted the kinds of risks faced during the development of nuclear-powered ships, used similar prototyping practices, and accepted near-term costs for longer-term returns on that investment.

Actual events are in a normal font while alternatives are presented in italics.

Admiral Trost and Integrated Power Systems

Recognizing that electric drive offered significant anticipated benefits for U.S. Navy ships in terms of reducing ship life-cycle cost (including 18 to 25 percent less fuel consumption), increasing ship stealth, payload, survivability, and power available for non-propulsion uses, and taking advantage of a strong electrical power technological and industrial base, in September 1988, then-U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Carlisle Trost endorsed the development of integrated power systems (IPS) for electric drive and other ship’s power for use in the DDGX, which became the Arleigh Burke (DDG-51) class destroyer. He also established an IPS program office the following fiscal year.2

To reduce technical risk, the Navy began by prototyping electric drive on small waterplane area twin hull (swath) ships, including its special program for the Sea Shadow employing stealth technology. Using a program akin to Rickover’s having commissioned the USS Nautilus (SSN 571) in just over three years of being authorized to build the first nuclear powered submarine, the Navy commissioned its first Arleigh Burke destroyer with an IPS in 1992. Just as Rickover explored different nuclear submarine designs, the Navy developed various IPS prototypes as it explored the design space while gaining experience at sea and incorporating rapidly developing technology.

Admiral Kelso and Fleet Design

Admiral Frank Kelso became CNO in 1990 at the end of the Cold War, shortly before Iraq invaded Kuwait. Facing demands for a peace dividend. Admiral Kelso noted that the decisions the he made affected what the Navy would look like in 30-50 years and asked his SSG what the nation would need the naval forces for in future decades. The future pointed to the cost growth of military systems producing a much smaller fleet if the practice of replacing each class with the next generation of more expensive platforms continued. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Colin Powell’s Base Force proposal in February 1991 called for reducing the Navy to 451 ships with 12 carriers by 1995, reducing the fleet from 592 ships (including 14 carriers) in September 1989. Having just accepted this, Kelso’s SSG briefed him that that cost growth would result in a Navy of about 250 ships by the 2010s if the Navy and Defense Department continued to focus on procuring next generation platforms rather than capabilities.

Building upon his reorganization of OPNAV and inspired by the joint mission assessment process developed by his N-8, Vice Admiral Bill Owens, Kelso disciplined OPNAV to employ this methodology. The effort reoriented Navy programs toward payloads to accomplish naval missions in a joint operation, rather than focusing on platform replacement. As restrictions on Service acquisition programs increased,3 Kelso worked closely with the Secretary of the Navy to fully exploit authorities for procuring systems falling below the thresholds for Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) approval to gain experience with prototypes before committing to large scale production costing billions of dollars. Under the leadership of Owens and Vice Admiral Art Cebrowski, the Navy made significant progress in C4ISR systems needed for network centric warfare that were interoperable with other Services systems.4

Beginning the Revolution

In 1995, Chief of Naval Operations Jeremy (Mike) Boorda redirected his CNO Strategic Studies Group to generate innovative warfighting concepts that would revolutionize naval warfighting the way that the development of carrier air warfare did in World War II.

The first innovation SSG in 1995-1996 identified the promise of information technology, integrated propulsion systems, unmanned vehicles, and electromagnetic weapons (rail guns), among other things. They believed that the ability to fuse, process, understand, and disseminate huge volumes of data had the greatest potential to alter maritime operations. They laid out a progression from extant, to information-based, to networked, to enhancing cognition through networks of human minds employing artificial intelligence, robotics biotechnology, etc. to empower naval personnel to make faster, better decisions, for warfighting command and sustainment. For sustainment they imagined “real-time, remote monitoring systems interconnected with technicians, manufacturers, parts distributors, and transportation and delivery sources; dynamic business logic that enables decisions to be made and actions to be executed automatically, even autonomously; and a system in which sustainment is embedded in the operational connectivity architecture, becoming invisible to the operator except by negation.” Their force design proposed a netted system of numerous functionally distributed and physically dispersed sensors and weapons to provide a spectrum of capabilities and effects, scaled to the operational situation.5

Admiral Boorda passed away just as the SSG was preparing to brief him. After he became CNO, Admiral Jay Johnson decided to continue the SSG’s focus on innovation focus when he heard the SSG’s briefing.6 The next SSG in 1997 advocated many of these concepts in more depth, emphasized modularity, and added a revolutionary “Horizon” concept on how the Navy could man and operate its ships that in ways that would increase the operational tempo of the ships while changing sailors’ career paths in a manner that would provide more family stability and time at home.7 The following SSG worked with the Naval Surface Warfare Centers on designs for ships using IPS armed with rail guns that could sustain and tender large numbers of smaller manned and unmanned vessels for amphibious operations and sea control; among other enhancements.8 Subsequent SSGs extended such concepts, added new ones and enhanced designs for the future.9

Despite pressures on Navy budgets, OPNAV created program offices to pursue naval warfare innovations at a rate of about $100 million per year for each effort, though some programs required less.10

Building on the U.S. Army’s efforts to develop a rail gun for the M-1 tank, the Navy began heavy investment in prototyping rail guns in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. By 2005 prototypes had been installed in Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. Since only warheads were required, magazines could hold three times as many projectiles as conventional rounds. The ability to shift power from propulsion to weapons inherent in IPS also stimulated more rapid advances in ship-borne lasers and directed energy weapons.

Rather than designing new airframes, the Navy automated flight controls to begin flying unmanned F/A-18 fighters and A-6 attack aircraft as part of air wings to learn what missions were appropriate and what the technology could support. This led the fleet rapidly discovering ways to employ the aircraft for dangerous and dull missions, reducing the load on newer air wings. Mixed manned-unmanned airwings began deploying in 2002. It also led to programs for automating aircraft in the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base boneyard to allow rapidly increasing the size of U.S. air forces in the event of war. Using lessons from existing air frames, the Navy began designing new unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs).

The Navy prototyped lighter than air craft for broad area surveillance; secure, anti-jam communications, and fleet resupply. These evolved to provide hangers and sustainment for unmanned air vehicles.

Figure 1: The Boneyard at Davis-Monthan AFB, Tucson, AZ (Alamy stock photo/Used by permission)

Figure 2: Sea Shadow (IX-529), built 1984 (U.S. Navy photo 990318-N-0000N-001/Released)

Building on the success of the 1995 Slice Advanced Technology Demonstrator11 operated by two people using a computer with a feeble 286 processor and lessons from the stealthy Sea Shadow, the Navy began prototyping similar vessels of about 350 tons designed for rapidly reconfiguring using modular payloads of that could be for different missions including anti-submarine warfare (ASW), mine warfare, sea control and air-defense using guns, strike, and deception.12 These prototype vessels used IPS and permanent magnet motors for high speed in high sea states. Initial modules employed existing systems while the plug-and-play nature of the modules allowed rapid upgrades. By 2005 the Navy had a flotilla of this version of optionally-manned littoral combat ships forward stationed in Singapore, refining tactics and organizational procedures. By 2010 the Navy had built a prototype of the SSG’s stealthy UCAV assault ship with a squadron of UCAVs.

Figure 3: SLICE ACTD 1996 (about 100 tons). (Pacific Marine & Supply Co. photo)

Figure 4: UCAV Assault Ship concept in 1997

The Navy replaced the Marine’s existing Maritime Prepositioning Force and redesigned the Navy’s Combat Logistics Force, with a cost saving $17 billion over 35 years using a common hull form using an integrated propulsion system, electric drive, and electromagnetic/directed energy weapons in a logistics and expeditionary ship variants. The electric drive freed space for unmanned surface, air, and undersea vehicles to support both combat and logistics functions. The expeditionary ships were capable of sustaining operations for 30 days without resupply and large enough to configure loads for an operation, rather than having to go to a port and load so that equipment came off in the appropriate order, which was the extant practice. The logistics variant could accommodate a 400-ton vessel in its well-deck to serve as a tender for forward deployed flotillas. The force was designed to project power up to 400 nautical miles inland using a larger tilt-wing aircraft than the V-22, which could fly at 350 knots.

Command decision programs emphasized the use of algorithms to inform repeated decisions. Building on combined arms ASW tactics employing surface, air, and submarine forces that proved successful in the 1980s, the Navy developed an undersea cooperative engagement capability for the theater ASW commander, exploiting maps of the probability of a submarine being at a particular location in the theater. This included development of advanced deployable arrays that allowed the Navy to surveil new areas on short notice. Additionally, capabilities to surveil and deliver mines using undersea unmanned vehicles were enhanced to allow maintaining minefields in adversary ports and choke-points.

One of the biggest advancements was in fleet sustainment. Technologies and policies that industry and had applied provided a roadmap for changing the Navy’s maintenance philosophy. Netted small, smart, sensors; networks; and on-site fabrication enabled the development of a cognitive maintenance process. By 2010 watchstanders no longer manually logged data and neural networks predicted times to failure. Platform status could be monitored remotely. Detection of anomalies in operating parameters would trigger automatic action in accordance with business logic. Using data from computer aided design both provided tutorials for maintain equipment, and identified parts needed to conduct repairs; allowing automatically generating parts requests. Inventory control systems ordered replacement parts as they were used. Sharing this data across the fleet and the Navy made much of the manpower involved in supply redundant. Ship’s force was freed from supply duties to focus on fighting the ship. Providing the data to original equipment manufacturers allowed them to track failure rates and update designs for greater reliability. Additive manufacturing (3D printing) allowed deployed ships to make parts needed for rapid repairs and reduced costs for maintaining prototype equipment and vessels. Only a few years was required to return investments required to transition to sustainment and inventory practices used by industries such as Caterpillar, General Motors, and Walmart (and now Amazon). Sustainment practices allowed ships to remain forward deployed in high readiness for much longer periods. Advances in employing AI for sustainment contributed exploiting AI for weapons systems.

The Navy began experimenting with the Horizon concept which called for creating flotillas of ships with the majority forward deployed with departmental watch teams rotating forward to allow sailors more time at home in readiness centers where they could train and monitor the status of ships to which they would deploy. Sailors would spend 80 percent of their careers in operational billets, advancing in their rating from apprentice, to journeyman, to master as they progressed. Assigning sailors to extraneous shore billets to give them time at home was no longer required.13 Readiness centers were established originally for smaller classes of ships, and the concept was in place for Burke-class destroyers and incoming classes of surface combatants in 2008.14 The advantages to this operational approach included: (1) the number of deployment transits were substantially reduced; (2) gaps in naval forward presence coverage in any of the three major theaters was eliminated; (3) two of the three ready platforms remaining in CONUS were operationally “ready” platforms 100% of the time, and all three over 90% of the time.15 New non-intrusive ways of certifying the platforms and crews as “ready” for operations freed them from the yoke of the inspection intensive inter-deployment training cycle and joint task force workups. This allowed the Navy to move away from cyclic readiness and towards sustained readiness.

The U.S. Navy in 2019

Using extensive prototyping of small manned and unmanned vehicles, weapons, combat, and C4ISR systems enhanced by AI with human oversight and control, the Navy in 2019 had a diverse set of capabilities to deal with rapidly emerging security challenges and opportunities. Forward stationed and deployed flotillas with their tenders provided surface and undersea capabilities similar to aircraft flying from a carrier.16 The agility provided by this approach over past acquisition practices developed for the Cold War allowed the Navy to enhance budgets for those prototypes that proved successful while accelerating learning about how to integrate rapidly changing technology. The success of rail guns and directed energy weapons as standard armaments on dispersed forces flipped the offense-defense cost advantages for air and missile defense. Implementing the sustainment and readiness concepts removed large burdens from ship’s forces that allowed them to concentrate on warfighting rather than maintenance and administration.

The Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy in 2019

One downside was that the PLA Navy closely observed and copied the USN. Through industrial espionage and theft of intellectual property, the PLAN acquired USN designs as the systems were begin authorized for procurement. With process innovation, China was able to field many of these systems even more quickly than the U.S., resulting in greater challenges even than the rapid build-up of Chinese maritime forces and global operations over the past decade. This taught the U.S. to think through competitive strategies, considering more carefully the strategic effects of adversaries having similar capabilities, rather than blindly pursuing technological advantages.


Captain John T. Hanley, Jr., USNR (Ret.) began his career in nuclear submarines in 1972. He served with the CNO Strategic Studies Group for 17 years as an analyst and Program/Deputy Director. From there in 1998 he went on to serve as Special Assistant to Commander-in-Chief U.S. Forces Pacific, at the Institute for Defense Analyses, and in several senior positions in the Office of the Secretary of Defense working on force transformation, acquisition concepts, and strategy. He received A.B. and M.S. degrees in Engineering Science from Dartmouth College and his Ph.D. in Operations Research and Management Sciences from Yale. He wishes that his Surface Warfare Officer son was benefiting from concepts proposed for naval warfare innovation decades ago. The opinions expressed here are the author’s own, and do not reflect the positions of the Department of Defense, the US Navy, or his institution.



1. As CNO, Admiral Tom Hayward established a Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the Naval War College in 1981 with the SSG as its core. His aim was to turn captains of ships into captains of war by giving promising officers an experiences and challenges that they would experience as senior flag officers before being selected for Flag rank. He personally selected six Navy officers, who were joined by two Marines. The group succeeded in developing maritime strategy and subsequent CNOs continued Hayward’s initiative. Over 20% of the Navy officers assigned were promoted to Vice Admiral and over 10 percent were promoted to full Admiral before CNO Mike Boorda changed the mission of the group to revolutionary naval warfare innovation in 1995.

2. This decision, however, was subsequently reversed due to concerns over cost and schedule risk with DD-21 (Zumwalt Class) being the first large surface combatant with IPS. The Navy established the IPS office in 1995 vice 1989. (O’Rourke 2000).

3. The Goldwater-Nichols Act in 1986 restricted Service acquisition authorities and created significant challenges for the Navy (Nemfakos, et al. 2010).

4. Owens and Cebrowski were assigned to the first SSG as Commanders and shared an office. Their concepts for networking naval, joint, and international forces to fight forward against the Soviets significantly influenced the Maritime Strategy of the 1980s and led to changes in fleet tactics and operations. Owens went on to serve as Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff with Cebrowski as his J-6 continuing their efforts. Cebrowski later directed OSD’s Office of Force Transformation in the early 2000s.

5. (Chief of Naval Operations Strategic Studies Group XV 1996). Imagine distributing the weapons systems on an Aegis cruiser across numerous geographically dispersed smaller vessels to cover more sea area while providing better mutual protection; elevating the phased-array radar to tens of thousands of feet using blimp-like aircraft; all networked to enhance cooperative engagement while providing a common operational picture covering a wide area.

6. Jay Johnson had served as an SSG fellow 1989-1990 and initially was unsure whether to return to the previous SSG model.

7. (Chief of Naval Operations Strategic Studies Group XVI 1997)

8. Most of the detailed descriptions below are statement from what the SSGs envisioned would happen.

9. The SSG focused solely on naval warfare innovation beginning in 1997, substantially changing the mission from making captains of war, until CNO John Richardson disestablished it in 2016.

10. 1997 was the nadir for Navy procurement budgets following the post-Cold War peace dividend. Focused on the Program of Record, OPNAV decided not to pursue SSG innovations.

11. Though OSD had programs for Advanced Technology Demonstrations (ATDs) to demonstrate technical feasibility and maturity to reduce technical risks, and Advanced Concept Technology Demonstrations (ACTDs) to gain understanding of the military utility before commencing acquisition, develop a concept of operations, and rapidly provide operational capability, acquisition reform beginning with the Packard Commission and Goldwater-Nichols and belief in computer simulation gutted the use of prototypes in system development.

12. The decision that the Littoral Combat Ship must self-deploy resulted in increasing the ship’s displacement by about an order of magnitude. Roughly ten of the smaller vessels could be purchased for each LCS. The missions in normal font are included in LCS modules.

13. Horizon sought to make 80% of Navy personnel available for deployment. In contrast, less than 50% of the Navy’s personnel were in deployable billets in 1996.

14. In 1997 the surface combatant 21 program which became the LCS and Zumwalt-class destroyers was scheduled for initial operational capability in 2008.

15. Based on a three to six-month depot availability once every five years.

16. Professor Wayne Hughes, Captain USN (Ret,) calls these a two-stage system.

Feature photo: Artist’s conception of DD-21: a low-signature and optimally-manned warship featuring railguns and an Integrated Power System (IPS). Public domain image.

Undersea Red: Captain Eric Sager on the Submarine Force’s New Aggressor Squadron

By Dmitry Filipoff

CIMSEC shared questions with Captain Eric M. Sager to discuss the Submarine Force’s new Aggressor Squadron (AGGRON). In this conversation, Capt. Sager discusses what AGGRON is doing to enhance undersea lethality, the vital importance of connecting adversary doctrine to submarine force development, and how a dedicated Red team makes for much more realistic high-end combat training.

How would you describe the role and mission of the aggressor squadron?

The U.S. Submarine Force stood up an Aggressor Squadron (AGGRON) in October 2019 as one initiative in support of the broader Department of Defense focus on strategic competition. AGGRON enhances all undersea forces’ training and readiness for potential conflict in every area of operations around the world, focused first and foremost on our strategic competitors in the maritime/undersea domain.

AGGRON is a team focused on high-end combat training through emulating competitors in all training and certification exercises. AGGRON serves as the undersea forces’ expert in employing competitors’ potential capabilities. AGGRON is also focused on improving undersea combat tactics, techniques, and procedures to ensure all doctrine is aligned against the continually evolving capabilities of our competitors. AGGRON personnel work with submarine crews at all stages of operational and training schedules and have drastically improved the Submarine Force’s ability to win in combat.

AGGRON Shirt Patch (U.S. Navy graphic)

How is the training experience different for Sailors who go up against the aggressor squadron compared to a blue-on-blue event?

AGGRON goes head-to-head with submarine crews to play the role of an active, thinking, and tactically engaged enemy force. AGGRON personnel engage with submarine leadership to ensure our forces are ready to predict and proactively position for expected adversary behaviors based on the close study of their capability and tactics.

This modeling of a capable competitor is geared toward driving the proper tactical decision-making by crews during combat operations and to develop muscle memory through repetition in combat training. AGGRON’s goal is to ensure our Submarine Force is always training against the highest fidelity. We have developed processes to refocus training and certification on higher-fidelity combat experiences and developed new tools and concepts to support high-end warfighting.

A Yasen-class nuclear-powered submarine of the Russian Navy (Photo via Lev Fedoseyev/TASS)

What are the core takeaways you hope Sailors gain from the experience? How can the Sailors use that experience going forward to independently improve their own warfighting skills?

Sailors leave every training event with a better understanding of how our competitors think and operate, with an emphasis on their current or near-term combat capabilities. Every training event better prepares each sailor to handle combat operations. We aim to produce winners and losers, just like there are in battle, and raise the force’s standards to ensure our sailors are continually more elite than the opponent. Sailors take these lessons forward, returning to the next exercise or training event more prepared to win.

What are the risks of mirror-imaging blue force methods in training and force development? What unique value and realism comes from being well-versed in adversary capabilities and doctrine? 

The risk is we will not train like we will fight; we would instead train against our own tactics, techniques, and procedures instead of that of our competitors. This methodology risks developing a false understanding of our capabilities and tactics as they relate to the competition, which would not maximize our lethality in combat.

Folding in OPFOR realism creates an entire force of warfighters that are experts on the nature of the competition. Each person is a link to success and when each person knows adversary capabilities and doctrine as well as the adversary themselves, there are less unforeseen circumstances in combat, therefore enhancing combat survivability and lethality.

Chinese Navy submarine recognition guide. Click to expand. (Graphic via Covert Shores by H I Sutton)

What are some key enablers for the learning experience surrounding AGGRON training? 

AGGRON has worked collaboratively with the Submarine Learning Center to ensure training on competitor capabilities, tactics, movements, and strategic objectives are all folded into each area of the schoolhouse’s integration with the waterfront. An adversary-focused culture has been inculcated in all pipelining schooling as well as deployment readiness training and certification.  AGGRON is intimately involved in the Submarine Force’s doctrine and tactical development processes, so that we are continually exploring and assessing existing and new tactics, techniques, and procedures to counter evolving threats.

How do you interact with other communities, including those with an ASW role, such as the surface and aviation communities?

The AGGRON is primarily resourced to train unit-level submarine crews, submarine squadron staffs, and Submarine Learning Site (SLS) staffs about what to expect from their potential opposing counterparts, and helps explore new tactics, techniques, and procedures to counter those threats. AGGRON fosters and cultivates relationships throughout the Intelligence Community to ensure that the most current and accurate intelligence is shaping training and simulation.

Standing aggressor or “opposing force” (OPFOR) units that are trained in the doctrine and tactics of potential opponents, or the “Red” force, are crucial for improving the realism of training exercises. A submarine aggressor force could certainly provide invaluable anti-submarine warfare training opportunities for the Navy’s surface and aviation communities as well.

Captain Eric Sager was commissioned in 1998, graduating from the United States Naval Academy. Sager’s operational assignments include division officer onboard USS HONOLULU (SSN 718) where he completed a Western Pacific deployment, serving as Engineer Officer on USS RHODE ISLAND (SSBN 740)(GOLD), completing four strategic deterrent patrols, and as Executive Officer on USS NORFOLK (SSN 714) completing an AFRICOM/CENTCOM deployment. Sager commanded USS CALIFORNIA (SSN 781), leading his crew on an unplanned surge deployment and a scheduled EUCOM deployment in 2016. He received the 2017 Vice Admiral Stockdale Award for Inspirational Leadership for his time in command. Ashore, Sager has served in various positions, including on the staff of Commander, Submarine Forces as the Tactical Readiness Evaluation Team Executive Officer, Deputy Commodore of Submarine Squadron Twelve, and as the Submarine Force Atlantic Prospective Commanding Officer Instructor. Sager is currently assigned as the Director of the Undersea Warfighting Development Center’s Aggressor Squadron.

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

Featured Image: English: NORFOLK (Oct. 28, 2011) Sailors assigned to the Virginia-class attack submarine Pre-Commissioning Unit California (SSN 781) board the boat as they “bring her to life” during a commissioning rehearsal ceremony the day before the Navy’s newest Virginia-class submarine is commissioned. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist John Osborne/Released)

A New U.S. Maritime Strategy

By Representative Elaine Luria

This article outlines the path that led to the U.S. Navy’s current strategic deficit and proposes a framework for a new maritime strategy, one that I believe should be immediately developed along with the corresponding force structure assessment. With a modest 5% additional investment in the Navy over the next five years, 90% of the changes required by this strategy can be achieved.

The Death of Naval Strategy

The Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 effectively ended U.S. naval strategy. Through this legislation, Congress affirmed its authority to step in and “right the ship” after a series of well-publicized military failures, which at the time seemed to lay squarely on the shoulders of the services’ inability to work together without service-specific parochial interests getting in the way. 

The Goldwater-Nichols Act affirmed and strengthened the role of Secretary of Defense and greatly expanded the power of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, effectively removing the Service Chiefs and Secretaries from any role in the operational chain of command and from any advisory role to the President. They were relegated to budget warriors – and the Navy was a ship not under command. 

The Act also sought to increase the caliber of officers in joint positions and required that all officers serve in a joint tour as a prerequisite for promotion to flag or general rank. As a result, the services realigned officer career paths to meet these new joint timelines. Each service had to align to statutory promotion boards, which ultimately drove the career path of each officer, resulting in officers moving as quickly as possible from one milestone tour to another. No longer could an officer afford to spend multiple tours on Navy staffs learning the craft of strategy. Strategy was only for the Joint Staff—only for the Chairman.

The Chief of Naval Operations (CNO)—the only service chief with “Operations” in his title— had a unique role since the position’s establishment in 1915. The official role of the CNO was codified in 1947 under General Order 5 as “(a) command[er] of the Operating Forces, (b) principal naval advisor to the President and the Secretary [of the Navy].” The ink had barely dried on the General Order, when forces in Congress and the White House set about to further the trends in unification of the armed forces. Over the next 20 years in a series of laws, the role of the CNO in operational matters was fully removed and by the 1970s, then-CNO, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, was convinced that the Navy “was confused about its justification for existence.” 

Thomas Hone noted in his book, Power and Change, that “OPNAV [the CNO’s staff] is a loose confederation, not an operational organization.” It was, however, not until 1978, when CNO Admiral Thomas Hayward, fresh off a tour as Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet, translated Zumwalt’s criticisms into real change. Hayward was convinced the Navy needed to be revitalized, strategically and tactically – simply put, the Navy needed a strategy around which to plan and program. As professor John Hattendorf of the Naval War College observed, “Hayward sought to change…from a budget battle to an analysis of the strategic issues of a global maritime power.” In 1981, Navy Secretary John Lehman built on Hayward’s Sea Strike concept to establish the goal of a 600-ship Navy, which he very nearly reached before leaving office.

Then came Goldwater-Nichols. One cannot deny that the Act has been successful in more fully integrating the services into a Joint Force, however, one cannot overlook the deleterious effects on strategy and procurement in the individual services that have resulted. As I wrote in Look to the 1980s to Inform the Fleet of Today, the Navy does not have, and has not had, a maritime strategy for the past 30 years. Moreover, the past 30 years have seen failures in ship class after ship class, resulting in a lost generation of shipbuilding. 

As “budget warriors,” many CNOs since the late 1980s have attempted to leave their mark on the service, and some have—for better or worse. However, it is precisely because the Navy has lacked a strategy that the success or failure of the Navy has relied solely on the strength of the CNO or Navy Secretary’s personality. As I noted in my article, Secretary Lehman’s bullish approach: “first strategy, then requirements, then the POM, then budget,” stands in stark contrast to the budget-driven Navy leadership of subsequent decades. 

What is, and is not, a Maritime Strategy?

A strategy is the military means to accomplish political ends – or as often quoted from Clausewitz, “a continuation of politics with other means.” 

This year, like many others, military leaders reiterated in repeated testimony before the House Armed Services Committee that they are “prepared to compete globally and fight and win the nation’s wars…” However, when asked what “win” means, the same leaders seem befuddled. The Chief of Staff of the Army recently testified that “winning with China means not fighting China.” I happen to agree with him, except, that was not the question—which is precisely the problem. We cannot define what “winning” means. When one cannot define winning, one cannot write a strategy.

What does winning with China look like? Numerous naval strategists including Sir Julian Corbett have argued that war cannot be won by naval (or air) action alone. Similarly, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Mark Milley, recently testified that “decisive outcomes in war are ultimately achieved on land…” Does this mean that we cannot have a decisive outcome with China without a ground invasion of the mainland? 

Today, the military rise of China threatens the balance of power globally and as Thucydides noted – the rise in power of one actor threatens all others. This is not to say that China—or any other country—does not have the right to defend itself, but that a country that does not share the ideals of a free, democratic world is disrupting international norms. As with the destabilizing actions of Russia, if not properly managed, China’s actions could be misinterpreted and lead to unintended conflict. 

It is precisely this ambiguity that drives the Navy’s need for a new global maritime strategy – and a complementary national maritime strategy that includes the full range of commercial maritime activities, domestic shipbuilding and repair, and Maritime law enforcement activities. The need is especially critical when defense resources are strained amid competing priorities from non-defense spending and among the services themselves. This naval strategy should be developed by naval leaders, not by the Joint Staff nor the Office of the Secretary of Defense. 

Since the end of World War II, the U.S. defense planning strategy has been a variation of a two-front war policy. Today’s National Defense Strategy (NDS) calls for the Armed Forces to be capable of “defeating aggression by a major power; deterring opportunistic aggression elsewhere.” By placing offense (defeating aggression) as the primary capability of our forces, it constrains thinking in the offense-defense balance of military strategy and has resulted in maintaining a large standing army and Cold War-era battle tactics as the preferred methods of training and equipping our forces.

Today’s “Maritime Strategy”

In the 1984 Maritime Strategy, “winning” meant keeping the conflict to a conventional war and supporting ground forces in driving the Soviets back to their own borders. This is the “deny and punish” approach still employed today. The Navy developed the strategy on the assumption, backed by intelligence, that any conflict with the Soviets would quickly engulf much of the globe. This required the Navy to be present and ready in three key regions simultaneously, instead of the “swing strategy” preferred by the Joint Staff. 

The Navy developed a maritime strategy based on a three-front conflict and centered it around the carrier battle group. The strategy did not consider limitations in maintenance, training, or employment. It was assumed every ship would be available in conflict and that the number needed was 600. 

If the same construct were applied to our force today using the current NDS, the Navy could simply use the Indo-Pacific Command Commander’s most demanding contingency to determine the number and type of ships required for the whole Navy. This resultant force structure would be well below the 355-ship requirement, even when accounting for “opportunistic aggression elsewhere,” and would likely fall below 250 total ships.

So, how did the Navy develop its current Battle Force 2045 plan that calls for somewhere between 382 to 446 manned ships and 143 to 242 large, unmanned vessels? 

Instead of starting with a single contingency, or multiple contingencies, the Navy made assumptions about force development, force generation, and force employment to drive their final assessment. The range of ships presented in Battle Force 2045 came about not from a global maritime strategy, but instead, three different studies were simply coalesced into a single force structure assessment, and the resulting force requirements present a range based on the final product of each study.

As a 2019 RAND Corporation study on defense planning noted, “different assumptions and types of guidance can produce very different results in the process.” In other words, our assumptions greatly drive outcomes. Combatant Commanders (CCDR) develop contingency plans to combat specific scenarios in their theater while the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, through the Joint Staff, is tasked with global strategic planning. The study concluded that “a common assumption is that the plans and programs of the defense planning process should be strategy-driven, but the final size and shape of the force are highly budget-influenced. When operating in that realm, defense planners do not have a reliable way of estimating—or quantifying—risk” (emphasis added).

Former Undersecretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2015, that the Joint Staff force planning process, the process that translates strategy into the forces we need, is deeply flawed and guided much more by parochial interests vice national interest. She goes on to say “the current process is antithetical to the kind of competing of ideas and innovation that the Department [of Defense] really needs…”

When a force structure assessment begins by using inputs like force generation and employment to counter specific scenarios, the output will always be dependent on current force employment constructs. The Optimized Fleet Response Plan uses a 5:1 model, where five ships result in one deployed. For example, if one wanted 100 ships deployed around the globe annually (the Navy’s traditional deployment rate), the force structure required would be 500 ships. However, if the force generation model is changed to 4:1, the total force would require only 400 ships. Further, if the force generation model was a forward deployed naval force (FDNF) model where ships are available two-thirds of the time (3:2), the force structure assessment addressing the same threat would only require 150 total ships. These force generation models are critical assumptions that drive the force structures used in defense planning.

In a seminal article, “Cruising for a Bruising: Maritime Competition in an Anti-Access Age,” Naval War College Professors Jonathan D. Caverley and Peter Dombrowski, note “the most likely location for great-power friction is at sea.” Many scholars have written about the balance of power that affects competition on land, especially over the last 20 years, but much less has been written about maritime competition and the offense-defense balance on the oceans. However, a truth remains, “when offense has the advantage, the security dilemma grows more acute, arms races grow more intense, and war grows more likely.” 

Naval platforms are ideally suited to provide a flexible deterrent option, however, Barry R. Posen and Jack Snyder postulate that the U.S. military is offensively minded, and one can see this through public testimony and statements of our military leaders. The defense side of “offense-defense” is often thought of as a natural output of a strong offense. This was true in the 1980s Maritime Strategy that envisioned an exclusively offensive plan and is what Caverley and Dombrowski refer to as the “Cult of the Offensive…” They argue that even if the Navy could instantly develop the fleet of the future, the doctrine of power projection would still dominate the thinking.

In the 1984 Maritime Strategy, the deterrent role was ancillary from the demand-based wartime strategy that resulted in the 600-ship requirement. In that strategy, deterrence was an output of force structure, and it articulated the requirement for a peacetime presence to fill deterrent roles, reduce response times, and provide policymakers with naval crisis-response options. One-third of the ships needed for wartime missions in each theater would always notionally be forward deployed under the strategy. However, by 1987, the 600-ship requirement was exclusively tied to a deterrent presence model. Vice Admiral Hank Mustin testified that dropping below the 15-carrier requirement would necessitate a discussion of “what [region] do you want to give up?”

Deterrence as a Strategy

I agree with many of today’s military leaders that war is not inevitable, but to conclude that the only way to win in the face of malign or belligerent nations is not to go to war is naïve at best, and is not grounded in a strategy that uses deterrence as its first principle. 

It would be better to acknowledge that we are not going to conduct a land campaign against China, so in conventional thinking, the U.S. cannot “win” a war, however, much as with nuclear war, deterrence should be considered “winning.” When military leaders use language like “fight and win,” it downplays the primary objective of deterrence and ultimately may shape force structure and force employment in the wrong direction. 

A deterrence strategy should not be a byproduct of an offensive strategy. According to a 2017 Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) study, in the decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, “the U.S. Navy pursued a deterrence posture that relied on modest levels of forward deployed forces that were smaller representations of the larger force. To avoid instability caused by regional powers, deterrence was premised on the promise of punishment that would arrive with follow-on forces.” Bryan Clark, testifying about the study in 2017, affirmed “the emergence of great power competition is going to put the onus on us to deter conflict with those great powers.” 

Each contingency plan has a phase of deterrence, or what the Navy terms “presence,” day-to-day requirements for ships at sea. In the past 20 years, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have dominated the Navy’s power projection requirements and structural cracks in our force generation and employment models have been revealed. Many ships have deployed back-to-back with maintenance truncated, only to have future maintenance availabilities extended to double or more of their original length, requiring another ship to deploy in their place. The Navy has tried to “reset” this cycle on several occasions, only to be told that they must surge again to meet emergent requirements. 

Today, the combined CCDR day-to-day requirements for all theaters would require 150 more ships than are presently in the fleet. Moreover, although the Navy can provide flexible strike options without the need for overflight consideration, the last two decades of war have shown that our Navy is not adequately sized using current force employment models to provide this enduring capability.

The inherent mobility of a navy provides a deterrent when present, but when removed it reminds enemies—and allies alike—of the unfixed nature of a mobile force, and could create the incorrect perception that an opening exists for aggression. Case in point is the recent deployment of the forward-based carrier Ronald Reagan from Japan to the Middle East. A ship can only be in one place at one time, therefore, political decisions or CCDR requests can also take away the deterrent that was present yesterday. 

The same is not true for forward based ground troops. During the past twenty years, the Army did not lower the troop levels in Korea or Germany to deploy them to Iraq and Afghanistan—but that is precisely what the Navy did with its own force posture commitments. Naval forces that otherwise would have been present in the Mediterranean, Western Pacific, and North Atlantic have instead persistently been deployed to the Middle East, leaving a massive presence gap that China has exploited.

A New Maritime Strategy

The same 2017 CSBA study cited earlier provides a compelling model for developing a new maritime strategy. This study proposes a revolution in naval strategy and presence. This new “deterrent strategy” would organize forces into distinct Deterrence Forces and Maneuver Forces, with each having separate force structures and missions. The study suggested that the Navy should “focus on sustaining an effective posture for conventional deterrence rather than an efficient presence to meet near-term operational needs.” 

The Deterrence Forces

Much has been written over the past 70 years about the actual success of deterrent strategies, but many believe it is a strategy worth pursuing. Deterrence cannot be measured in real time and although it is the cornerstone of our National Defense from nuclear to conventional conflict, there is no way to accurately measure its success or failure. Only in retrospect can we know that our strategy of deterrence has worked – and it has clearly worked in nuclear conflict, but not always in conventional conflict. 

In a deterrent strategy, the commitment of the defender, in this case the U.S., must be resolute and unwavering. As Robert Jervis noted, “perceptions are the dominant variable in deterrence success or failure.” Bruce Russett concluded that deterrence fails “when the attacker decides that the defender’s threat is not likely to be fulfilled.” This does not mean that the U.S. must respond to every provocation, as it often did during the Cold War, but as Michael J. Mazarr noted, “successful deterrence typically involves…taking steps to demonstrate both the capability and determination to fulfill a threat.” It is this capability and determination that may have led Michèle Flournoy to state that if the U.S. had the capability to “credibly threaten to sink all of China’s military vessels, submarines, and merchant ships in the South China Sea within 72 hours, Chinese leaders might think twice before, say, launching a blockade or invasion of Taiwan…” 

The Navy and Marine Corps by their inherent construct are uniquely positioned to provide both general (ongoing, persistent) and immediate (short-term, urgent) deterrent forces. In a 2020 article, Erik Gartzke and Jon R. Lindsay stated that “One of the defining characteristics of a naval force is its special role in projecting power. Navies enable countries to influence politics in more places, more decisively, farther from home.” The article provides an in-depth discussion of the role of naval power and identifies actions that demonstrate resolve and capability, and that make room for adversaries to reach bargains, rather than conflict. This is precisely the reason the U.S. Navy should be persistently present on the high seas around the globe. This deterrent presence cannot simply be the byproduct of the current Navy global presence construct. It must be intentional, persistent, and tailored to the individual theater.

The CSBA study provides a detailed proposal of the composition and deployment locations of the deterrence force, and although I do not agree with the entirety of the force structure or locations outlined in the study, the overarching concept it defines is valid and should be considered as a foundation of a new maritime strategy. 

In this construct, the Deterrence Force consists primarily of forward deployed naval forces, with a force generation model that produces a full year of deployed ship presence for every two ships, which is 2.5 times what we achieve today through purely rotational forces. The study’s force construct provides for a mix of low- and high-end forces, including unmanned surface and sub-surface vehicles. Carrier strike groups would not be part of Deterrence Forces.

The Maneuver Forces

While the Deterrence Force is the first line of defense preventing near-peer competitors from achieving a fait accompli, the Maneuver Force arrives to conduct sustained warfare, and will be augmented by the remainder of CONUS-based rotational forces when they arrive later.

In the CSBA study the Maneuver Forces are deployed on a more traditional, rotational model such as the Optimized Fleet Response Plan (OFRP) and are centered exclusively on carrier strike groups. The study provides for two carrier strike groups deployed continuously, but independent from current global force management plans. Instead, these forces “will need to be prepared for a wider range of possible operational environments, more potential adversaries, a larger number of alliance relationships, and a higher likelihood of being faced with high-intensity sustained combat.” In the study, the Maneuver Forces consist of multi-carrier task groups not assigned to a particular region, but free to move between theaters conducting major exercises, experimenting with tactics, and operating with allies. 

Next Steps

The Navy should develop a maritime strategy and corresponding force structure based on the Deterrence and Maneuver Force construct outlined in the CSBA study, make changes to operating models as rapidly as possible, and make their intentions widely known. 

The 2017 CSBA study makes a strong case for adoption of this new operating model and for making significant changes to future naval forces. We simply cannot continue to use the same outdated approach to conventional deterrence and expect to successfully deter peer competitors. The study concludes that:

“This [current] approach to conventional deterrence will likely not work against the potential great power aggressors of the 2030s, who are likely to seek the ability to achieve a quick, decisive victory over adversaries. Efforts to reverse the results of aggression would require a much larger conflict and would likely have global consequences that would create international pressure to reach a quick settlement. To be deterred in the 2030s, aggressors must be presented with the possibility that their goals will be denied or that the immediate costs to pursue them will be prohibitively high.”

The conundrum we face today is that there is no time to waste in developing this new strategy and method of operations. The CSBA study calls for significant investment in new platforms and overseas basing that are both costly and time consuming. 

Many of the force changes proposed in the study would take decades to achieve and proposals such as basing forces in Vietnam and the Philippines are unlikely to materialize. However, force employment and generation can be changed quickly, and existing infrastructure and basing agreements can be rapidly leveraged to achieve the goals of this strategy.

In order to quickly establish the Deterrence Force, I differ somewhat from the CSBA study in the proposed locations for these units and believe that we must take advantage of locations where we currently conduct routine operations and have existing infrastructure. These forces could be postured in a sweeping arc encircling China, from Djibouti to Diego Garcia to Singapore to Guam to Japan, very similar to the Akhromeyev Map. This would include standing up the First Fleet in Singapore, as proposed by the former Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite. We should work with allies in the region on increasingly-coordinated operations and extend and strengthen our compacts with island nations, such the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau, who have expressed a willingness to work closely with the U.S. to reject Chinese influence.

In the Mediterranean and European theater, deterrent forces should be based in Souda Bay, Spain, and Norway to counter Russian malign efforts in the region, with additional forces stationed in Alaska. This would also be a deterrent force poised to respond in the Arctic.

For the Maneuver Force, a slightly different approach than that discussed in the CSBA study is achievable today. Operating these maneuver forces using a FDNF CONUS-based model would position one carrier strike group on each coast, with the remainder of the carriers operating in a rotational model (such as OFRP) until it is their turn to rotate into the FDNF model. Additionally, the Japan-based FDNF carrier would remain on its current cycle. The two FDNF CONUS carriers would then split the globe and operate as maneuver forces in a regional model vice specific allocation to a combatant commander. 

Finally, I propose that by using existing platforms we can achieve most of the deterrent effect of this strategy in the next five years. We should increase DDG procurement to four per year (two per yard per year), rapidly ramp-up and expand the FFG program to a second production yard, modify current platforms such as the MK VI patrol boat with missile launchers, field the Naval Strike Missile on LCS, and convert commercial vessels to large VLS magazines. Additionally, while the Marine Corps fully develops its Expeditionary Advance Base Operations concept, they could begin testing the concept using the LCS and EPF platforms. I postulate that this deterrence effect can be gained for as little as a 5% increase in the current Navy budget ($10B) per year. Much as John Lehman wrote in discussing the development of the 1984 Maritime Strategy, 90 percent of the deterrent power of this buildup could be achieved in the first year. This was done by publicly declaring and explaining the strategy, especially its naval component, and taking actions that left no doubt among friend and foe that it would be achieved.


The United States has a unique role in history. Seth Cropsey and Bryan McGrath wrote in 2017, “the paradox of the American experience is that the U.S. is not simply a great power – it is an exceptional power, for which ideals count as much as strength.” It is this exceptional power – and responsibility – that requires exceptional thinking by the political and military leaders of our nation. This global maritime strategy can work, but the Navy will have to overcome substantial barriers to change in the Joint Staff, Combatant Commands, amongst the Services, and within the National Security Council and Congress. However, one cannot argue with a good plan. All we need is the plan and a few champions on Capitol Hill.

Representative Elaine Luria is a 20-year Navy veteran who represents Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District and serves as the Vice-Chair of the House Armed Services Committee.

Featured image: PERSIAN GULF (April 7, 2007) – Guided-missile cruiser USS Anzio (CG 68) conducts normal underway operations as part of Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) Carrier Strike Group. Anzio is on a scheduled deployment in support of Maritime Security Operations (MSO). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Angel Contreras)