When the Well Runs Dry

By Thomas C. Hone

This force had cooperated with Britain’s Royal Navy in mounting seaborne invasions of North Africa, Italy, and France, and it had worked with Allied naval and air forces in breaking the effort by German submarines to blockade Britain during the war. In the Pacific, thousands of ships had battled enemy forces and transported and sustained Marine and Army ground and air units as they penetrated Japan’s defenses. By April 1945, with the beginning of the invasion of Okinawa, the U.S. maritime force was in the process of parking a joint American military force on Japan’s doorstep—in effect bringing all the elements of national power across the Pacific for a face-to-face confrontation.

Under Secretary of the Navy Robert Work has called the maritime force that invested Okinawa a “sea-based operational maneuver fleet.” By his calculations, it “could lift 13 division equivalents.” Moreover, these ground units could be augmented by “an additional five airborne divisions, giving the U.S. a total of 18 . . . assault divisions out of a combined Army and Marine force structure of 96 divisions.” 2 This was an extraordinary capability. Nearly 20 percent of all the country’s ground units could be projected across oceans by sea and by air. World War II had changed the United States from a nation isolated by two oceans into one practiced at projecting force across oceans.

Postwar Demobilization

The issue facing the country after World War II was whether the United States could afford and was willing to preserve this large maneuver fleet. In one sense, the answer was no. The Truman administration and Congress did not even accept the Navy’s plan to field several modern carrier task forces plus submarines and substantial Marine Corps air and ground forces. 3 However, a very large number of amphibious ships and auxiliaries—almost 2,000—was mothballed. Many of these vessels would be useful during the Korean War and through the 1950s. Some even lasted into the war in Vietnam, and the four Iowa -class battleships were activated as late as the 1980s and early 1990s.

The sea-based operational maneuver fleet was eliminated as an active force after World War II. There was no obvious need for it—no enemy like Japan to fight. In addition, it wasn’t clear that any navy like the one that had surrounded Okinawa in April 1945 could survive attack by nuclear weapons. But, as noted, elements of it survived in mothballs; just as important, the idea of a transoceanic maritime force that could have a strong military and diplomatic effect at the operational level of war also endured. It would resurface later as the Maritime Strategy of the 1980s.

The Crisis of 1949

The critical 1949 juncture came about because of a dispute about missions. The leaders of the Army Air Forces had emerged from World War II convinced that air power was key to the future security of the United States. To achieve that end, they and their civilian supporters successfully pressed Congress to create the U.S. Air Force in 1947.

Supported by W. Stuart Symington, the first secretary of the Air Force, the senior officers of the new service argued that long-range bombardment from the air had replaced any maritime force as the nation’s “power projection” component. As General Carl Spaatz, the first chief of staff of the Air Force, put it: “The development of air power has brought a new concept to military science. Wars are no longer decided exclusively by battles between surface forces. Now the emphasis is upon destroying the enemy’s industrial capacity to wage war.” 4

In the December 2011 issue of Naval History , Jeffrey Barlow showed that bureaucratic wrangling between the Air Force and Navy had by 1949 become very intense. 5 The previous year, in a series of meetings between then–Defense Secretary James Forrestal and the three military service chiefs, the latter could not agree unanimously on the allocation among the services of roles and missions.

Despite this lack of consensus, Forrestal granted the Navy permission to construct a large aircraft carrier that could launch jet bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons. The new ship and its air group seemed destined to take their places in the nation’s developing strategic nuclear arsenal. With the carrier and its bombers, the Navy could, like the Air Force, project power through nuclear attacks.

However, Forrestal was replaced by Louis A. Johnson at the end of March 1949, and the new Defense secretary canceled the carrier less than a month later. Secretary Johnson also reduced the Navy’s funding for research and development, and he cut “the Fleet Marine Force by one-fifth and Marine aviation by one-half.” 6 Barlow in previous research had detailed the gradual but persistent squeeze on the Navy by simply counting ships and sailors.

For Fiscal Year 1951, Defense Secretary Johnson proposed to reduce the number of attack carriers to to four.

Moreover, as far as Louis Johnson and the civilian and military leaders of the Air Force were concerned, the Navy existed to combat other navies, and the Soviet Union had only a submarine force. Therefore, the U.S. Navy existed to combat submarines. To wage an effective antisubmarine campaign, the service only needed enough destroyers and submarines to contain the Soviet force. Ships such as carriers and cruisers were useful for showing the flag but not fighting the Soviet Union. Because funds for national defense were scarce, the Navy and Marines needed to hand off missions to the Air Force and Army.

Before Johnson was nominated and approved by the Senate as secretary of Defense, civilian and military leaders of the Navy understood that funding for Navy and Marine Corps programs and personnel would decline. But by May 1949, senior Navy officers feared that the outcome of the intense debate over service roles and missions would leave the Navy and Marines without their air units. Instead of cuts in spending, these services believed they were facing the elimination of capabilities that were and would remain absolutely essential. 7 For this reason, Admiral Louis Denfeld, chief of Naval Operations, publicly opposed Johnson’s fiscal proposals for FY-51 and Johnson’s position with regard to the roles-and-missions debate. In response, Navy Secretary Francis Matthews dismissed the CNO on 27 October 1949.

Sherman: Diplomacy and Knowledge

Things looked pretty grim for the Navy, especially for Navy and Marine Corps aviation, when the new CNO, Admiral Forrest P. Sherman, took over at the beginning of November 1949. But things were not as bad as they seemed. Sherman, a naval aviator and the former chief planner for Admiral Chester Nimitz in World War II, was able to develop a good working relationship with Johnson. He drew on that relationship to protect the Navy’s budget and shield Navy and Marine aviation from efforts to shift their functions to the Air Force.

Sherman had more going for him than just his personality. He also argued successfully that the Navy had a strong role to play in attacking the Soviet Union in any major war. 8 For example, he accepted the argument of the Navy’s critics that the service could best support national strategy by covering convoys to Europe; but, as historian Michael Palmer showed, he put his own twist on it: “The worst place to protect a convoy is at the convoy. The worst place to protect a city from air attack is at the city. The best place is at the bases from which the airplane or submarine comes. The next best place is en route—the worst place is at the target.” 9

Another arrow in Sherman’s quiver was the work being done by the Navy Department on technologies developed during World War II. In November 1948, the Navy’s General Board, a small group of senior officers who advised the secretary of the Navy, conducted reviews of most of them, including sonar, electronics, welding, cryogenics, guided missiles, automated displays for data received from radars and sonars, closed-cycle submarines, oceanographic surveys, air-to-air missiles, and supersonic aircraft capable of being launched from carriers. 10

Spending on research and development during World War II had opened up a number of technological possibilities, and the board was trying to identify those with the greatest promise for the Navy in light of the growing confrontation with the Soviet Union. The good news was that real progress was being made in areas such as antisubmarine warfare, electronics, missiles, and high-performance aircraft. Spending in these areas paid off once the country found its forces engaged in Korea and committed to supporting the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, created in 1949.

After World War II, the large maneuver fleet was replaced by a Navy and Marine Corps with the primary missions of antisubmarine warfare and limited amphibious operations. The fleet was sustained by ships taken out of mothballs, some new construction (such as the carrier Forrestal [CV-59] and her sisters), and war-built vessels modernized with the technologies described to the General Board in 1948.

Zumwalt and the 1970s

When Admiral Elmo Zumwalt was sworn in as the 19th chief of Naval Operations on 1 July 1970, the Navy was being squeezed from two directions. One was the active forces, wearing out from years of heavy use. The other concerned the remnants of the World War II operational maneuver fleet. They had little service life left. Given the need to fund the war in Vietnam, modernize the country’s strategic missile and air forces, and sustain the conventional forces serving with NATO armies in Europe, there wasn’t enough money left to modernize the Navy’s active force and also rebuild the operational maneuver fleet. 11

Zumwalt quickly created a team of officers to craft solutions to several problems. These included the need to replace older ships, deal with a stronger and missile-armed Soviet navy, and address personnel issues in the U.S. Navy. His Project Sixty took two months to develop recommendations such as creating effective defenses against Soviet-launched antiship missiles, developing a new torpedo for submarines, and constructing new open-ocean convoy escorts, hydrofoil missile boats, and antiship missiles. 12 Project Sixty also addressed the issues of drugs and race relations that plagued the Navy at the time. 13

To pay for new technologies and new ships, Zumwalt ordered the decommissioning of older vessels, especially those in reserve. His policy was to get rid of ships that were no longer needed and use the monies that had been allocated to their maintenance and upkeep for new construction. But new ships cost more—sometimes much more—than those they replaced. The result was a shrinking Navy. In Zumwalt’s four years as CNO, the service went from 769 active warships to 512, and the number of “destroyer types in reserve fell from 267 to 70.” 14

To deal with the high and growing cost of modern ships, Zumwalt followed a “high-low” policy of procurement. Some new vessels would have the best technology available and be multipurpose combatants. Other new ones would be low-end, with less capability. The Spruance -class destroyers were at the high end, while the Perry -class antisubmarine frigates were at the low end.

This wasn’t a new idea. It had been applied during World War II, when the newest destroyers were high-end and the mass-produced destroyer escorts low-end. Given the growth in cost of combat ships, Zumwalt had little choice but to pursue this concept in his effort to modernize the Navy. 15 At the same time, he defended the service’s F-14 fighter program, the construction of another new Nimitz -class aircraft carrier, and the Aegis antiair-warfare system.

Zumwalt was concerned about the way in which the Soviet navy was moving away from the shores of the USSR. The deployment of substantial Soviet naval forces into the eastern Mediterranean in 1973 during the Arab-Israeli October War led him to call for a larger Navy than President Richard Nixon had in mind. But Zumwalt wanted more ships so they could blunt any effort to disarm and disable the Navy’s carriers with a surprise first strike. Therefore, he supported the development of the Pegasus -class missile-armed hydrofoils and the sea-control ship, a relatively small carrier that could launch helicopters and vertical short-takeoff and landing aircraft such as the Harrier. His argument was that modern naval warfare would begin without warning—with a rapid exchange of missiles. Thus the Navy needed a screen of smaller but well-armed ships to absorb the initial attack, strike blows of their own, and give the big carriers time to organize major attacks against the growing Soviet fleet.

Powell’s New Base Force

As historian Lorna Jaffe discovered: “When General Colin L. Powell became Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in October 1989, he brought to the position his own views on the likely shape of the world in the 1990s and a determination to restructure the U.S. Armed Forces to meet this new environment.” 16 General Powell had learned a lesson from his experience on the Army staff in the early 1970s, when that service’s budget was rapidly cut by almost half. The reductions left the Army a hollow force, with great deficiencies in training, material, and maintenance. Powell was determined not to allow the end of the Cold War to bring in its wake a sudden and across-the-board slashing of the defense budget. Instead he wanted reductions to be gradual and based on a new concept of American strategy.

What Powell had in mind was a logical shift from U.S. forces that were deployed forward to Europe and the western Pacific to a military that could deploy to deal with regional conflicts. Powell and like-minded officers and civilians understood that with the Cold War standoff ending, the United States needed a smaller and more mobile force to keep a U.S. presence in the world, but not one anchored to Cold War garrisons and bases. It was clear by 1990 that the Warsaw Pact was breaking down, and it was just as obvious to Powell and others that Americans would expect reductions in defense spending as a consequence of reduced tensions.

Powell’s new approach was to craft U.S. forces around a concept of a “minimum force necessary for the United States to pursue its interests as a superpower.” 17 Put another way, he advocated smaller forces that were both more modern and more mobile, arguing that the military services would have to shrink, but that they did not have to lose the military capabilities that gave them advantages in regional conflicts. At the same time, he suggested that the country could preserve enough of its defense industrial base to “reconstitute” it if necessary, if another nation took the place of the Soviet Union as primary challenger to the United States.

Powell’s concept of the minimum force required to protect U.S. strategic interests in the post–Cold War world was eventually accepted in the Defense Department and by then-President George H. W. Bush. Over five years, the Army’s manpower would come down from 18 active divisions to fewer than 12—to 535,000 soldiers total. The Navy’s active strength would fall from 587,000 sailors to 509,700; the number of Navy ships would decline from 551 to 451.

Judicious Use of a Lower Budget

The debate over whether to move to the base force was strenuous, because uniformed leaders feared that reductions in strength would be accompanied by a decreased investment in new weapons and training. They feared the creation of unready and far less-capable military forces. Powell’s counterargument was that any effort to stave off major reductions in defense spending would lead inevitably to hasty cuts that would indeed produce hollow forces.

The bad news for the Navy was the immediate reduction in ships, aircraft, and personnel.

The good news was that the smaller Navy would be more modern and therefore more capable. 18 In 1985 the service had 14 active aircraft carriers, only 3 of which were the nuclear-powered Nimitz type. By 1999 the Navy had 8 Nimitz -class and only 4 conventionally powered carriers. Similarly, in 1985 there were 9 nuclear-powered and 19 conventionally powered guided missile cruisers, but by 1999 most of those 28 had been decommissioned, replaced by 27 newer Aegis-equipped ships of the Ticonderoga class. And in 1985 the Navy had 41 guided-missile destroyers, a number that had dropped by 1999 to 26—but 24 were the more capable Aegis ships of the Arleigh Burke class.

Powell’s vision came true for the Navy. The ship count came down, but the new force’s capability was greater. This does not mean the Navy had smooth sailing after the Cold War. In January 1991, Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney canceled the A-12 stealth carrier attack-aircraft program, leaving the Navy scrambling to find a replacement. Among the more positive developments, Tomahawk land-attack missiles were repeatedly fired successfully during Operation Desert Storm in January 1991.

In the fall of 1992, leaders of the Navy and Marine Corps signed From the Sea , the successor to the Maritime Strategy of the mid-1980s. The latter was a product of the Cold War—an ambitious approach to using these forces to offset the strong army of the Soviet Union. With the USSR dissolved, the Navy and Marines needed a new approach, reflected in From the Sea in terms of how best to use maritime forces to protect and pursue U.S. strategic interests.

Lessons for Today

The Navy Department’s budget rose during the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam and the final phase of the Cold War. But it declined severely after World War II, fell again when Admiral Zumwalt was the CNO, and dropped after the end of the Cold War. In the final analysis, what has mattered has not been this up-and-down pattern, but the department’s response to cutbacks.

The Navy lost its sea-based operational maneuver fleet after World War II, but during the war in Korea and afterward, it sustained U.S. overseas garrisons while the Marines refined their ability to conduct amphibious operations. With the development of the nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarine force, the Navy also assumed a major strategic-deterrent role.

In 2005, CNO Admiral Vern Clark made a very important point to the Senate Armed Services Committee: “The number of ships in the fleet is important. But it is no longer the only, nor the most meaningful, measure of combat capability. . . . In fact, today’s Navy can deliver more combat power than we could 20 years ago when we had twice as many ships and half again as many people.” 19

Clark’s point can be put another way: Charting the ups and downs of funding is a lot less meaningful than studying the ebb and flow of capabilities. And Navy and Marine Corps competencies have more than weathered the periodic storms caused by budget cuts.

1. Samuel L. Morison, ed., Table X: The United States Fleet , in United States Naval Vessels , Statistical Section, Office of Naval Intelligence (Atglen, PA: Schiffer, 1996), part 2, p. 2. Ships’ Data , 15 April 1945, was published by the Navy Department (Washington: GPO, 1945).

2. Robert Work, “Thinking about Seabasing: All Ahead, Slow,” draft paper provided to the author by Under Secretary of the Navy Work, no date, p. 62.

3. Jeffrey G. Barlow, From Hot War to Cold, The U.S. Navy and National Security Affairs, 1945–1955 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009), p. 55. See also Robert W. Love Jr., History of the U.S. Navy , vol. 2 (Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1992), pp. 291–92. For Navy shipbuilding policy during World War II, see Joel R. Davidson, The Unsinkable Fleet: The Politics of U.S. Navy Expansion in World War II (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1996), especially pp. 154–71.

4. General Spaatz’s remarks are in “USAF Yearbook, 1947,” a special edition of Air Power History , vol. 44, no. 3 (fall 1997), p. 11.

5. Jeffrey G. Barlow, “Naval Aviation’s Most Serious Crisis?” Naval History , vol. 25, no. 6 (December 2011), pp. 38–43. See also Barlow, Revolt of the Admirals: The Fight for Naval Aviation, 1945–1950 , (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1994).

6. Barlow, Revolt of the Admirals , p. 199.

7. For the degree of cuts, see Michael A. Palmer, Origins of the Maritime Strategy: American Naval Strategy in the First Postwar Decade (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1988), p. 48.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid., p. 70.

10. “Hearings before the General Board of the Navy,” 2, 4, 8, and 10 November 1948, National Archives, Microfilm M1493, Roll 27.

11. Malcolm Muir Jr., Black Shoes and Blue Water, Surface Warfare in the United States Navy, 1945–1975 (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1996), p. 203.

12. Ibid., pp. 208–20.

13. Norman Friedman, “Elmo Russell Zumwalt Jr.,” in Robert W. Love Jr., ed., The Chiefs of Naval Operations (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1980), pp. 365–79.

14. Muir, Black Shoes and Blue Water , p. 206.

15. Friedman, “Elmo Russell Zumwalt Jr.,” p. 371.

16. Lorna S. Jaffe, The Development of the Base Force, 1989–1992 (Washington, DC: Joint History Office, Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, July 1993), p. 1.

17. Ibid., p. 12.

18. For other reductions, see “Department of the Navy, 1993 Posture Statement,” March 1993, pp. 18–19.

19. Cited in Work, “Thinking about Seabasing,” p. 78.


Thomas C. Hone, an executive in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, is an award-winning author of many papers and books on naval subjects, including American and British Aircraft Carrier Development, 1911-1941. He has taught at the Naval War College and the National Defense University among other institutions.

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