Vice Admiral Hank Mustin on New Warfighting Tactics and Taking the Maritime Strategy to Sea

1980s Maritime Strategy Series

Vice Admiral Hank Mustin had a reputation as a tactical innovator and operationally aggressive commander at sea. At the apex of his career in the 1980s Cold War U.S. Navy, Admiral Mustin played a critical role in the Navy’s force development, especially with taking the Maritime Strategy to sea and working out its operational and tactical foundations. In a piece entitled “Maritime Strategy from the Deckplate,” Admiral Mustin declared, “The difference between strategy and tactics depends on when the shooting starts: prior to the shooting, we talk strategy; after the shooting starts, we talk tactics…The Maritime Strategy provides the basic tactical framework for success and the stimuli to keep our tactical thinking alive to meet tomorrow’s challenges.”

Below are select excerpts from Admiral Mustin’s oral history, conducted by Dave Winkler of the Naval Historical Foundation and republished with permission. In these excerpts, Mustin shares his insights on developing operational and tactical methods for executing the Maritime Strategy at sea, how the bastion strategy of the Soviets affected tactical development, and how the offensive thrust of the Maritime Strategy required operational experimentation. 

Be sure to also explore another CIMSEC republication of Admiral Mustin’s insights in “Vice Admiral Hank Mustin on Naval Force Development.”

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Winkler: …[CNO] Admiral Zumwalt was concerned about this battle for the Atlantic because of the onrush of Soviet submarines, keeping the sea lanes open. In the late ’70s the Soviet submarine force kind of retracts, and because of the range of their ballistic missiles they could hit you from Murmansk now; they kind of develop a bastion strategy and actually retract from their forward positions in the Atlantic. What was the assessment to this?…How was the Soviet threat being reassessed?

Mustin: …the bastion theory really came into play after Bud Zumwalt on the watch of [CNO] Jim Watkins and [SECNAV] John Lehman, with the development of the Maritime Strategy—’79, ’80, ’81. What the bastion strategy meant was that, just as we were saying we wanted to move more of our strategic nuclear response capability to sea, so were the Soviets…In order to protect their bastions, instead of sending their SSN force out into the Atlantic to attack our convoys, they were going to retract their SSNs up into the North Cape area and the Kola area to protect their boomers, just as you said. And they would attack our convoys with long-range Soviet naval aviation—the Badgers and the Bears and the Backfires. They had aircraft that could fly all the way down to Cuba from the North Cape.

What this meant to us, all of a sudden, in the surface Navy was that, whereas before we had looked at protecting the sea lanes as a predominantly ASW problem— which the submariners loved, because that meant more submarines—now we looked at it as an AAW problem. That meant that you de-emphasized ASW, because now their submarine force is all going to be way up north. We’ve got to pick convoy routes that go down south, and we’ve got to be prepared to defend against regimental-size raids of Soviet aircraft that could fly down and attack our convoys. That was one of the principal arguments for the Aegis system that we were going to put in the DDGX. The FFG 7 had no, essentially, air defense system. It had an SM-1, open-ocean capable. So there was an enormous shift in threat assessment in the surface Navy that we started in conjunction with the bastion theory.

Which meant that we really butted heads with the submariners. Our logic, which was later confirmed by the bastion theory, was even if they send their submarines out into the Atlantic, when you looked at the numbers of submarines they could send, you found that the only way they could saturate your defenses was with large numbers of aircraft firing large numbers of missiles at you. So we figured that we could handle the ASW threat with the towed arrays and the things that we had bought, but we could not handle the saturation air raid threat that now was brought into place with the advent of Soviet naval aviation and their long- range capabilities, and the AS-4 [missile] and their long range missions. You know, they had 200-mile air-to-[surface] missiles. We had no way to deal with that 200-mile missile, even with carrier air. This brought into sharp focus the need for Aegis, in the NATO context. Luckily, we had seen these kinds of issues coming in that ’73 war. And the Aegis ships were just starting to trickle in….When I was ComSecondFlt we only had two Aegis ships in the Atlantic Fleet. That was 1984. That’s how long it took to get it to sea…

…[Vice Admiral Joe Metcalf] said that he thought that the Striking Fleet Atlantic, which was the only striking fleet in NATO at the time, was a NATO position that had not been given sufficient emphasis by the U.S. Navy or the U.S. Government. So he thought that the Second Fleet Commander ought to tilt more toward the Striking Fleet role and less toward the Second Fleet role. The Second Fleet role being essentially one to handle the Caribbean, but to work forces up to deploy to the Sixth Fleet. He viewed the Striking Fleet role as very, very important. I would never really have considered that in that light unless he had made those observations.

I started thinking more and more about it as the background for the Maritime Strategy started to emerge. As the notion that we would no longer be fighting the battle of the Atlantic in the Atlantic became extant, mainly because we thought the Russians would retreat to their bastions up in the Murmansk area and the Kola Peninsula area, the way that the Navy could contribute in the battle for Europe became very, very different.

A succession of SACLants had said that they were somewhere around a hundred ships short of being able to escort the convoys to Europe that the European strategy, the SACEur strategy, said were required to be there within ten days, and then to support the war. So you had a SACEur European strategy that required a continuous stream of convoys, and you had a series of SACLants who said: We can’t do the job because we don’t have enough forces. Of course the SACEur strategy said: If I don’t get this stuff then I start to lose, and if I start to lose, I go nuke. So this was not a small-time political exercise by any means.

And separate from all of that, the Navy’s role had been envisioned by the Army as being only one of providing the convoy escorts, because the principal operation that the Army viewed this as was a central front operation through the Fulda Gap and the plains of Germany, and the Navy’s role, principally in the Sixth Fleet, was very, very peripheral. So NATO funding put the Navy at the bottom of the pecking order, and the arguments in our Pentagon for U.S. funding put, in the NATO context, the Navy at the bottom of the pecking order—way, way behind the Army and the Air Force. All of this stuff was in the back of my mind when I started to look at the battle of the Atlantic. I determined that we can’t fight the battle of the Atlantic in the Atlantic, based on the testimony of a succession of Supreme Allied Commanders in the Atlantic.

But if the Russians are going to go up into their bastions, what we should do is go up into the fjords in Norway, and from the shelter of the fjords we can attack, not only the Soviet fleet and keep it penned up in its bastions, but the Soviet facilities in Kola. And also we can prevent the loss of Norway. So we can win the Battle of the Atlantic in Norway.

The SACEur’s counterpart of the Center for Naval Analyses had done a study that said: If the Soviets invaded Norway they would take it over in three days. The reason that they would take it over in three days was because they had total air superiority. They’d do this in the winter and these Soviet tank divisions would just come across the northern plains of Norway and then just stream right on down through the country. Then you would lose the Baltic Sea and things would get very dicey in the central front, because the Soviets would have the northern flank.

I did some analyses. I said, okay, we have all the SACEur study estimates, and we did some analyses with the Center for Naval Analyses rep on my staff, Dave Perin, who’s now a big wheel over there. He was my OEG rep. We said, okay, we’ll take the Norwegian air order of battle, which is the key operation here. Now if we add in one carrier, you still lose the land battle. If we add in two, it becomes a wash. And if you add in three carriers, air wings, we win. So the secret is that we have to get three carriers up there. But they have to be there when the war starts. They can’t try to fight their way up, because the Soviets will have taken over the place in three days, so fighting your way up will get more and more difficult. The only game in town to do this, to offset this Soviet air superiority, is carrier air, because there aren’t enough airfields in north Norway to support a U.S. Air Force TransLant or influx of U.S. airplanes. No air strips. Therefore you need to have the carriers up there.

And how are we going to figure out how to make the carriers survivable in the face of this enormous Soviet fleet? The answer was: If we would go operate inside the fjords, we could use the radar shadowing provided by the mountains to confuse the Soviet air-launched anti-ship missiles. So we could handle Soviet air attacks, and we could seal off the fjords by mining so that Soviet submarines couldn’t get in there. We should be able to do this in the time that our spooks had determined it would take the Soviets to reinforce their forces in the region enough to make this eight-division purge across the northern tip. That was a period of about twelve to fourteen days. So what I developed was a logic that said: When we think we’re twelve to fourteen days away, we should send the two Atlantic Fleet carriers up there, and take the carrier out of the Sixth Fleet and send it up there. That was the strategic plan.

Now, in order to do that we had to figure out a number of practical things. Number one, we had to figure out whether we could operate airplanes in the fjords, because they’re a very restricted space. Number two, we had to determine whether all of my thoughts about the radar shadowing were accurate. And number three, we had to see whether we had the force structure and the rules of engagement and things like that to permit the sealing-off of these fjords so that the three carriers could operate in there. In order to do that we structured a series of NATO exercises, major exercises with all the forces, to test this theory out.

VADM Mustin discuses details of a fleet exercise in Norway aboard USS Mount Whitey (LCC-20). Naval Institute Photo Archive.)

We did this twice on my watch. The first time we went up and just flew a few sorties, and it turned out to be a piece of cake. We also took a bunch of B-52s to see about dropping the Captor mines to seal off the fjords from submarines, and we started to work on the idea of integrating with the air defenses of Norway. We got some airborne radars that were equivalent to the best that the Soviets had, and we flew passes at the carriers. What we determined was that the radar shadowing was so effective that the Soviet airplanes could not launch air-to-ground missiles at these carriers until they were inside the minimum range of these missiles. Plus, in order to come in to even try to get a shot, they had to get within the range of our surface-to-air missiles from our missile destroyers and cruisers. So that, instead of shooting at their missiles, we’re now shooting at their airplanes. There’s a very, very significant difference.

So their saturation air raid attacks on the carriers were absolutely neutralized by the radar shadowing idea. And the notion that they would go nuclear against U.S. forces, which had always been one of the problems with the war at sea, now meant that they were going nuclear against one of the land components in Europe, because we were inside Norwegian territorial waters and near Norwegian cities. So there was no way to isolate this conflict at sea, which is one of the big bugaboos in the rules of engagement. The rules of engagement in NATO are no different from the concerns that the U.S. military has today, but they’re exacerbated because at the time you had sixteen countries worrying about it instead of three services…

…The utilization of the Marines and the amphibious forces and how we would operate them all became part of that strategy. This was all done at very high levels by me, with the senior commanders in NATO on board with this. It became an important element in the U.S. position in NATO and the U.S. strategic concept for NATO. And of course the salesmanship of it was very difficult because there are a lot of people in NATO who say that this was a defensive alliance, and these were offensive moves. I was falling back on Admiral Sharp’s problems in Vietnam, where he said that there has never been a war won by a solely defensive strategy. You can have an overall defensive strategy but there must be offensive elements in it.

Therefore the basic strategy that I was proposing was that we would go up and defend Norway. The way we would defend them was that we would defeat these attacking Soviet armies by guaranteeing air superiority in the northern region. A lot of people in Washington did not realize what was going on up there. When I went up the first time with the America, the commander of the Norwegian air forces in the northern region came out for lunch with the prime minister and the minister of defense. He said, “How many airplanes have you got on this ship?” I said, “We have about a hundred.” He said, “That’s three times as many as I have in all of northern Norway.” So when you talk about adding three carriers up there you are talking about nine times the air power suddenly available…

…Anyway, in that particular element of the Second Fleet tour, I was able to significantly change the organization of the NATO structure in the Atlantic, and to make major changes in strategy for how the U.S. and NATO navies would be employed in the NATO tactical sense. And to try it all out and work it. Books have been written about this by NATO historians. One’s called, “The Battle for the Fjords.” There’s about a chapter devoted to what I just told you in this book, about all this stuff. It meant that I was concentrating on this particular bag of tactics, and not very much on working up the forces to go to the Sixth Fleet, because I was working them up to go up and fight in the fjords. That was a very different kettle of fish, and a whole different bag of tactics. All of a sudden the exercises that we were running down in the Caribbean, now we’re drawing off little geographic sections that look like fjords and operating in them, instead of pretending that we’re operating somewhere in the Med. Having said all that, we got all that done.

It was a very, very significant development of the Navy’s evolution of the Maritime Strategy, and how we played in the overall Cold War…I’ve been told by a number of people that that was one of the pieces that persuaded Mr. Gorbachev that he’d go broke trying to defeat the free world in the Cold War, so he just decided to stop. There were many others, but that one happened to come at a time when a number of other things cascaded along, arms control developments and things like that.

So I was very proud of that strategic concept. There were a lot of opponents of that. Many of the aviators didn’t think we could do it at all, but after the first time we got in there and flew some, they were the most enthusiastic supporters.…That was a very interesting set of events in NATO. All done under the Striking Fleet Atlantic hat, and all sort of started off by that little kernel that Joe Metcalf planted during our turnover when I relieved him.

Henry C. Mustin was born in Bremerton, Washington on 31 August 1933, the son, grandson, and great-grandson of distinguished naval officers. Vice Admiral Mustin, a destroyerman, served at sea in the Pacific and Atlantic Fleets in USS Duncan (DDR 874); as Commanding Officer USS Bunting (MHC 45); as a plankowner in both USS Lawrence (DDG 4) and USS Conyngham (DDG 17); as Commanding Officer USS Henry B. Wilson (DDG 7); as Commander, Destroyer Squadron 12, homeported in Athens, Greece; as Commander, Cruiser Destroyer Group 2; and as Commander, U.S. Second Fleet and NATO Striking Fleet Atlantic. He served ashore in Vietnam with the Delta River Patrol Group; as Flag Lieutenant to the Commander-in-Chief Pacific; as Executive Assistant to the Commander-in-Chief U.S. Naval Forces Europe; as Director, Surface Combat Systems Division in the Office of Chief of Naval Operations; as Deputy Commander Naval Surface Force, Atlantic Fleet; as Naval Inspector General; and as Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Plans, Policy, and Operations). He retired January 1, 1989. He passed away on April 11, 2016.

David F. Winkler earned his Ph.D. in 1998. from American University in Washington, DC. He has been a historian with the non-profit Naval Historical Foundation for over two decades. His dissertation Cold War at Sea: High Seas Confrontation between the U.S. and Soviet Union was published by the Naval Institute Press in 2000, was republished under the title Incidents at Sea: American Confrontation and Cooperation with Russia and China, 1945 – 2016 in December 2017. He was selected in early 2019 to be the Class of 1957 Chair of Naval Heritage at the U.S. Naval Academy for the 2019-2020 academic year and the Charles Lindbergh Fellow at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum for the following year. Winkler received his commission as a Navy ensign in 1980 through the NROTC unit at the Pennsylvania State University. In addition to a B.A. in Political Science, he has an M.A. in International Affairs from Washington University. He is a retired Navy Reserve commander. 

Featured Image: December 1, 1985 – A starboard quarter view of the guided missile cruiser Valley Forge (CG 50) firing a missile from its aft Mark-26 Launcher during sea trials. (Photo via U.S. National Archives)

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