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The Maritime Strategy is in danger of becoming a victim of its own success—and its own assumptions. We must not ignore the possibility of escalation to nuclear warfare, and plan accordingly.
Prize Essay 1987
During the past six years, the Navy has been experiencing a renaissance of strategic thinking, marked by discussions of naval strategy more intense than any peacetime strategic debate since the days of Alfred Thayer Mahan. The result has been the weaving of traditional naval thinking into a coherent concept for early, forceful, global forward deployment of maritime power. This concept is called the Maritime Strategy.
As the professional consensus of the Navy and Marine Corps leadership, the strategy codifies maritime contributions to deterring war or accomplishing U. S. war aims, should deterrence fail. Used to justify programs in Washington budget battles and to rationalize and harmonize the operational plans of fleet commanders, the strategy was considered by a former Chief of Naval Operations to be the “focus for our profession.”
The strategy is so coherent and so widely accepted within the naval profession that it risks becoming a victim of its own success by changing from a method for organizing strategic thought into a substitute for such thought. Despite repeated denials by senior officials, some critics outside the Navy—and, occasionally, some naval officers who fail to understand the strategy’s purpose—portray it as a script to be followed unquestioningly, regardless of circumstances, rather than the flexible approach to global coalition warfare it actually is. This attitude is especially dangerous because the Maritime Strategy, like any strategy, is based on a series of assumptions. If those assumptions do not materialize, we must be ready to modify the strategy if we are to attain our wartime goals.
Some of the assumptions underlying the strategy are well understood and widely discussed. The Maritime Strategy assumes—indeed, is derived from—a specific national military strategy of deterrence, forward defense, and global coalition warfare. The strategy seeks to counter a specific Soviet strategy that assigns the Soviet Navy the main missions of protecting its ballistic missile submarines and defending the sea-based approaches to the Soviet Union. Finally, while it serves as a guide for building the Navy of the future, the strategy is a current forces strategy, fully capable of being implemented today. Other assumptions are stated neither so frequently nor so clearly.
The Chance of Nuclear Conflict: One of the strategy’s most important assumptions is that the nuclear threshold will not be crossed and any future war will remain conventional. This assumption is almost certainly correct. Neither logic nor Soviet doctrine suggest that nuclear war at sea alone is plausible. Even if it were, the Maritime Strategy has been designed to inhibit such escalation.
With regard to Soviet doctrine, an extensive 1984 RAND study of Soviet military literature discovered
“No literature evidence to support the view that release authority for tactical nuclear weapons is a Navy matter nor that tactical nuclear war at sea alone would be initiated by the Soviets. The decision to initiate tactical nuclear war at sea appears neither a Navy decision nor one that will hinge on Navy matters.”
This conclusion is not terribly surprising. The Soviet
military is dominated by officers of the Soviet Ground Forces and Strategic Rocket Forces (which grew out of the artillery). Soviet military doctrine is also dominated by the land war in Europe. Because of this orientation, the Soviets would prefer to keep a future war conventional, since they have the preponderance of conventional force in Europe, regardless of the advantages they might derive at sea from escalation.
If the Soviets were tempted to consider such escalation, both national policy and the Maritime Strategy seek to dissuade them. By altering the nuclear correlation of forces at sea, the strategy makes escalation less attractive each day. Additional leverage over Soviet nuclear decisionmaking comes from the Soviet preoccupation with the land campaign. The U. S. ability to retaliate against targets ashore serves as a powerful deterrent to Soviet initiation of nuclear war at sea. This deterrent is stressed in the congressional testimony of senior Defense Department spokesmen. For example, the Secretary of Defense’s 1984 Annual Report notes that “our sea based forces for land attack . . . support our policy that we will not permit the Soviets to limit a nuclear war to the sea.” Thus, our policies reinforce Soviet predispositions and make the use of nuclear weapons in a war at sea highly implausible.
Implausible, however, does not mean impossible- While initial nuclear weapons use at sea is unlikely, othef paths to escalation may be less so. Disparities in conventional land combat capability in Europe could force NATO to escalate to avoid defeat. If NATO conventional defense holds, the Soviets in turn might elect to escalate. Finally’ either the British or the French could decide that their supreme national interests require employment of their own nuclear forces. The Soviets might well respond to such use with nuclear strikes on all NATO forces. Once nuclear use occurred ashore, it might prove impossible to prevent at sea.
The history of war has many cases where pre-hostilities assumptions proved incorrect. In the late 1930s, it was assumed that a future naval war would be dominated by the line of battle, with submarines accompanying the battle forces as scouts and aircraft carriers playing an important but secondary role. The reality of World War II was quite different. It is the business of strategists to hedge against similar surprises. As such a hedge, we need t° consider how we would implement or modify the Maritime Strategy in the face of an opponent’s use of nuclear weapons.
The Maritime Strategy in Conventional War: The basic structure of the Maritime Strategy is well known. It contains three phases.
► Phase I—Deterrence or the Transition to War: In tfns phase, rapid worldwide forward deployment of the Nav> and Marine Corps will both reinforce deterrence and prepare for war. The massive nature of the forward movement demonstrates national will; its global nature conveys an unwillingness to: cede any area to the Soviets by fault, defend only some allies, or allow the Soviets the>f preferred, single-theater strategy. Should deterrence fa**' the second phase will go into effect.
^ Phase II—Seizing the Initiative: During this phase, we will seek to establish sea control as rapidly and as far forward as possible, in order to pass to the third phase. ^ Phase III—Carrying the Fight to the Enemy: This phase will involve the direct application of maritime power against those assets the Soviets value most, including their homeland.
Such a strategy contributes to deterrence, promotes alliance solidarity, ensures unimpeded reinforcement of Europe, diverts Soviet resources and attention from the Central Front, and provides unique war termination leverage. One aspect of war termination leverage is particularly relevant to a possible nuclear phase. The strategy includes attacks on Soviet nuclear-powered fleet ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), not only to tie down the general Purpose forces defending them, but also to make the Soviet calculation of the nuclear correlation of forces deCreasingly favorable over time. Soviet fears that the war fuight escalate—and the fact that such escalation becomes less attractive each day—provide powerful leverage for war termination.
. Nuclear Weapons and the Maritime Strategy: Conven- honal strategies are easy to comprehend, but discussions °f nuclear warfighting strategies have an inherent aura of unreality. Once the nuclear threshold has been crossed, it ls difficult to predict or even understand the conflict s c°urse, much less its outcome. Definite boundaries to fur- on r escalatl°n are difficult to discern. There is, however, l^e Plausible boundary: attacks on the U. S. and Soviet Of^uds. Each side might avoid such an attack for fear the C *rnrnense devastation retaliation would bring. Thus, Uej6 C°Uld be a trans*tory period during which war contin- and tactical nuclear weapons were employed, but homeland attacks were proscribed. This period would probably be brief; either both sides would step back from the nuclear abyss or further escalation would occur. But once again, “probably” does not mean “certainly.” A tactical or theater nuclear phase might last long enough for maritime power to have a substantial impact. Thus, we must extend—not replace—the Maritime Strategy to include consideration of such a tactical nuclear phase.
Several significant changes arise from the use of nuclear weapons. Since neither the nuclear decision nor its timing are likely to be under Navy control, we will immediately be thrust back into the second phase of the strategy— seeking to regain the initiative. Broad strategic goals will remain unchanged, but the strategy must immediately embrace a new goal of preventing further escalation, as well. Finally, it will be essential to seek truly rapid war termination. Further escalation to the strategic level threatens to destroy the United States. Continued theater nuclear conflict threatens to destroy our allies. Neither result can be tolerated. Consequently, rapid war termination without further escalation must become the overriding U. S. strategic objective once the nuclear threshold has been crossed.
In addition to an altered strategic objective, other changes follow nuclear use. Nuclear weapons are not only immensely destructive, they have extremely long-range effects, as well. Electromagnetic pulse from exo-atmospheric detonations could adversely affect solid-state devices (e.g., most Navy computers) over ranges of hun-
Once the nuclear threshold has been crossed, we will have to revise our strategic objectives—drawing back our aircraft carriers to lure Soviet bombers farther from their bases, while our SSNs deploy to the Arctic to press the campaign against their SSBNs.
dreds of miles. Flash blindness from night atmospheric detonations could hamper pilots dozens of miles away. Port facilities and fixed repair sites can be destroyed by ballistic missiles, after only minutes of warning. Thus, the area in which a single engagement can directly affect U. S. forces will grow to thousands of square miles— elminating, in essence, any rear areas. This expansion of the battle space will be particularly important for ships and aircraft, not so much for submarines.
As the battle space expands after the introduction of
nuclear weapons into a U. S.-Soviet conflict, so too will the relative capabilities of the two opposing fleets. There is universal agreement that the U. S. Navy will be superior to the Soviet Navy in a conventional war, but the gap narrows once nuclear weapons are introduced. Both sides will gain a significant capability for conducting nuclear strikes against targets ashore. For tactical use at sea, hoW' ever, the Soviet nuclear arsenal is far more robust. 0f particular concern is the large number of Soviet nuclear antiship cruise missiles. Improved antiship capabilities inherently favor the Soviets, because our surface fleet is crucial to our strategy while theirs is not.
In contrast to the Soviet Navy, the U. S. Navy gains relatively little from the ability to employ nuclear weapons at sea. Except for bombs, most Navy nuclear weapons are aging and obsolete. The one at-sea area in which the United States may gain some militarily significant capabil'
) wil' rhere icriof
gain5 aponS ns afe :h
>s airborne antisubmarine warfare (ASW). In this area, ntual interference issues are less severe and nuclear ePth bombs offer some improvements in capability over °nventional light torpedoes.
Y ^arfighting Implications: The combination of the re- ISed strategic objectives and the new warfighting condi- i created by the introduction of nuclear weapons will uence all warfare areas. The obvious impacts include e following:
jj ^ntiair Warfare: Antiair warfare (AAW) will probably On tte most demanding warfare area, once nuclear weap- ns have been employed. The great number of Soviet sub- laar,ne-, air-, or (of somewhat less concern) surface- inched nuclear antiship cruise missiles poses an im- banSC challenge> because a single missile that penetrates a t,e group defenses can disable or destroy even the largest ship. Current Navy nuclear AAW weapons will do little to offset the advantage the Soviets gain from nuclear antiship missiles. If restrictions on homeland strikes preclude attacking bomber bases, fleet air defense will pose an exceptionally demanding problem.
The situation will not be hopeless, however. For example, aircraft carriers at sea will fare far better than fixed airfields ashore. But aggressive forward operations may prove impossible without unacceptably high risks. The solution may be to draw back U. S. forces, causing Soviet land-based bombers, which pose the greatest threat, to travel farther to attack battle groups and creating more chances for bomber attrition en route. In any event the extreme difficulty of establishing an effective AAW defense against nuclear antiship cruise missiles places a premium on destruction of Soviet antiship platforms—during the conventional phase of the war, before escalation. "
Strike Warfare: With escalation to the strategic level of immense and immediate concern, conventional strikes on the Soviet homeland by dual-capable forces would almost certainly be unacceptable to political leaders. At the same time, it will become exceptionally important both to ensure survival of strike platforms and to provide reserve nuclear striking power to influence the land war directly. Assuming the destruction of air bases ashore, carrier battle groups may comprise a substantial fraction of surviving allied tactical air power. Therefore, the Navy may be required to project power—both nuclear and conventional— directly onto the Central Front. These considerations, coupled with the AAW problems, suggest that the carriers that survive the initial Soviet nuclear strikes should be pulled back, regrouped, and employed where their unique capabilities can make the best contribution to rapid war termination.
Nuclear land-attack cruise missiles (TLAM/N) present special considerations. It might appear that crossing the nuclear threshold should require a radical change in the employment of TLAM/N-equipped ships. The inevitable pressures for such a change must be resisted, however. The fraction of the TLAM/N force that serves as a nuclear reserve will obviously not be employed during this period; weapons controlled by theater commanders may prove inferior to aircraft for strikes outside the Soviet homeland in support of the inherently fluid land battle. Thus, TLAM/N- equipped platforms may be best employed by continuing their normal missions. This is especially true for submarines because of the increased importance of ASW in discouraging further escalation, once the nuclear threshold has been crossed.
Antisubmarine Warfare: With a premium placed on rapid war termination without escalation, U. S. ASW forces will need to expedite their campaign against Soviet SSBNs. Altering the nuclear balance by destroying such submarines is a chief source of war termination leverage. Other ASW missions should receive a lower priority. Assuming battle group withdrawal from extreme forward areas, direct battle group defense will be somewhat less demanding. The importance of protecting resupply shipping will depend on the nature of the supplies being shipped. Under the assumption that war termination must be rapid, material for long-term endurance and sustainability will become relatively less important.
As the anti-SSBN task becomes more urgent, however, it will become more demanding. The sonar surveillance systems (SOSUS) stations and forward P-3 deployment sites will almost certainly be among prime Soviet targets for nuclear strikes. If tactical warning permits, some P-3 aircraft may survive, but their supporting infrastructure will not. Thus, responsibility for continuing the forward z ASW campaign will fall primarily to attack submarines 1 operating near the Soviet homeland or under the Arctic ice |
With the entire attack submarine force committed to 5
forward areas in anti-SSBN operations, open-ocean anti- I submarine warfare will depend on the battle group’s own J assets and those P-3s that have survived Soviet nuclear attacks and which can still reach the battle group.
without the benefit of external cuing. The only apparent way to expedite the campaign will be to increase the number of submarines by sending essentially the entire attack submarine force into the forward areas and depending on P~3s and battle group assets for open-ocean ASW.
Amphibious Warfare: Escalation to the tactical nuclear level will make opposed amphibious assault difficult, if not impossible. Since the tactical nuclear phase will need to be ended rapidly, there will be little time to assemble ussault forces not already en route to the objective area. At [he same time, it will probably be prudent to cancel any Previously planned assaults that have not actually begun. Nuclear weapons coupled with long-range ballistic missile delivery systems make command of the air—a prerequisite for successful amphibious operations—basically unobtainable. Therefore, with the possible exception of small, covert raids, amphibious warfare will essentially have no role after nuclear escalation.
Logistics: The Maritime Strategy assumes a future war c°uld be prolonged and places a premium on logistics, deluding resupply, industrial mobilization, and ship rePair. Once nuclear weapons are introduced, several logis- hcs factors will change. Since forward repair facilities will Probably be destroyed, ship repair will be feasible only in the continental United States. Given the transit times involved and the premium on rapid war termination, logis- hcs efforts will need to concentrate on those tasks that can e accomplished quickly. Material in the resupply pipeline vvjll be important, while material in the industrial pipeline w'll be far less so. Finally, resupply and repositioning of Nuclear weapons, especially nuclear ASW weapons, will add new logistic complexity.
Lhe Nuclear Maritime Strategy: These strategic and weighting considerations suggest the general outlines of modified Maritime Strategy following escalation to the actical nuclear level. The strategic objective would be to regain the initiative lost to Soviet nuclear escalation, in °rder to carry the fight to the enemy and gain rapid war ermination without further escalation. In carrying the J|h( t0 the enemy, the principal targets should be Soviet BNs at sea and Soviet land forces in the non-Soviet arsaw Pact countries ashore. The objective at sea would e to induce war termination and discourage escalation by °ntinuing to alter the nuclear balance. The objective ^ ore would be to prevent the Soviets from defeating TO forces in the field while reducing the devastation to aUies by limiting nuclear strikes on their territory, u implementing this strategy, essentially all attack subbrines would be sent into Soviet bastions to continue the tr i • camPaign> concentrating on SSBNs. Maritime pa- 0 aircraft operating from undamaged U. S. bases would . SUlTle the entire ASW responsibility in the western At- bnt'c and eastern Pacific; beyond their range, ASW would dthe responsibility of sea-based ASW aircraft or, if unpaged facilities existed, redeployed P-3s. Carrier battle th°Ups Would be withdrawn from extreme forward areas; nu°^e in the Atlantic and Mediterranean would conduct paC:®ar strikes in support of the land battle; those in the Cl ic would continue to operate against deployed Soviet forces and would constitute a strategic reserve (depending on the situation in Korea, carrier battle groups might need to provide direct support to the land battle there).
Amphibious operations would be foregone; therefore, amphibious shipping might be used for resupply, assuming European ports were damaged. Those elements of the Marine Corps not previously committed to battle would represent the largest undegraded Western military force available and could be inserted into the European theater to augment the forces rendered ineffective by Soviet nuclear strikes. Finally, logistics and support forces would focus on those tasks that could be accomplished quickly, while the United States and its allies sought to terminate the conflict.
Conclusion: The immense destructiveness of nuclear weapons and the ease of their delivery suggest such radical changes in the nature of war that it seems impossible to visualize their employment. The most comfortable way to deal with such weapons and their impact on naval strategy is to ignore them. Almost certainly, U. S. power will continue to deter Soviet aggression. Even if deterrence fails, mounting evidence indicates that the Soviets envision a global war remaining at the conventional level, a contingency for which we have a well-thought-out, coherent, well-understood strategy. Given these facts, it seems a sterile exercise to discuss the strategic implications of nuclear war at sea. Should we not concentrate on continuing to improve the conventional Maritime Strategy?
We should do exactly that. Understanding our strategy for global conventional war is our most vital task, both because that is the most probable conflict and because it is the war to which sea power has the most to offer. Nevertheless, prudent military planners must consider unfavorable as well as favorable futures. Now that the Maritime Strategy is understood and accepted throughout the fleet, we must build on that foundation and devise related strategies for other levels of warfare.
The strength of the Maritime Strategy is that it is not a Washington-imposed dogma. Instead, it is the professional consensus of the Navy’s leadership. There is no similar consensus concerning naval nuclear warfare. The nuclear strategy postulated in this article is almost certainly wrong. Most first attempts are. Nevertheless, it represents an initial attempt to forge the required professional consensus on nuclear war at sea. Such a consensus can only arise from study and debate by Navy professionals both military and civilian. Before the Maritime Strategy! we could not have had such a debate, for we lacked the appropriate strategic framework. Now we have that framework. It is time to use it, and begin to face the strategic challenges of nuclear weapons.
Captain Brooks has spent most of his at-sea career in the submarine force. Ashore he has served in a variety of assignments associated with nuclear policy, maritime strategy, and arms control. An occasional contributor to Proceedings and other journals, Captain Brooks was awarded Second Honorable Mention in the 1984 General Prize Essay contest. He is currently Director of Defense Programs on the staff of the National Security Council.