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By Lieutenant Niel L. Golightly, U.S. Navy
The 1986 Maritime Strategy is headed for the ash heap. The Navy needs to discard three mistaken Cold War assumptions, now overtaken by events, and press on with the task of building a fighting fleet that will be effective in a dizzying array of potential Third World contingencies.
Stung by charges that it was a fleet without a doctrine, in 1986 the U.S. Navy released “The Maritime Strategy,” its concept for fighting a protracted world war at sea against the Soviet Union.1 The Navy outlined its strategy in bold but calculated strokes. In the spirit of pioneer navalist Alfred Thayer Mahan, it called for aggressive, forward operations against the enemy’s fleet and its bases. Supporters called it vigorous and foresighted; critics called it ill-conceived and suicidal. Virtually no one, however, pointed out that it was largely irrelevant.
By 1986 the geopolitical foundation on which the U.S. military establishment built its postwar strategy had already begun to crumble, a process that only has accelerated since then. Events leading into 1990, especially in the Soviet Union and Europe, reflect the most fundamental realignment of geopolitical power since 1945. That realignment does not mean that the world is a safer place for the United States and its allies; neither does it mean that U.S. power at sea is any less crucial to the defense of national interests. It does mean, however, that many of the comfortably reliable Cold War assumptions that underpin the Maritime Strategy are no longer valid, and if the Navy is to do its job into the 21st century, it needs to rethink its role, its organization, and its values.
The Three Strategic Mistakes
Strategic military doctrine in the United States is fundamentally committed to preparing for—and thereby deterring—a world war with the Soviet Union. The nation’s nuclear arsenal, its conventional military force structure, its major alliances, and its politico-strategic debates are preponderately devoted to the idea that an obvious and viable determination to resist armed communist aggression will dissuade Soviet leadership from launching a military attack on the West.2 So far World War III has not broken out, and it is as tempting as it would be wrong to rest U.S. strategic dogma on that laurel alone. In truth, U.S. national defense strategy depends on three increasingly mistaken assumptions, and the Maritime Strategy subscribes to them all.
Mistake #1: A conventional defense is safer than a nuclear deterrence. Deterrent theory has evolved considerably since the Eisenhower administration’s candid reliance on the threat of massive nuclear retaliation to deter any kind of Soviet aggression.3 Critics at that time pointed out that the threat of nuclear attack was grossly inappropriate—' and therefore politically untenable—in cases of limited Soviet aggression. Furthermore, after the Soviets developed a long-range nuclear capability of their own, it seemed no longer certain (if it ever was) that a U.S. president would initiate a nuclear exchange in response to a conventional Soviet invasion in Europe—risking, as d were, Chicago or New York for the sake of Hamburg> Brussels, or Paris. An unbelievable threat was no threat a* all, and the assumption spread that, while American nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and bombers may have deterred Soviet nuclear ICBMs and bombers, they did nothing to deter conventional attack-
The NATO partners traditionally have preferred to close this credibility gap by linking the defense of Europe to the U.S. strategic nuclear umbrella through the deployment of a range of nonstrategic nuclear weapons, from artillery shells and short-range tactical missiles to intermediate forces and sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs). The strategy of “flexible response” officially adopted by NATO in 1967 rests on the theory that varying levels of Soviet aggression should be met with varying levels of conventional and nuclear response. The threat, for example, to meet a Soviet infantry breakthrough on the North
German Plain with a few well-placed nuclear artillery rounds is presumably more credible—and therefore a much more effective deterrent—than the threat to strike the same targets with SLCMs, ICBMs, or long-range bombers. The strategy further relies on the Soviets’ calculation that a low-level nuclear battle in Europe would quickly escalate, ending with a mutually suicidal exchange of strategic weapons. Fear of escalation dissuades Moscow from taking even the first aggressive step.
In short, Europeans have tended to see U.S. military power—especially its nuclear component—as principally a means to prevent war in Europe by threatening the early use of nuclear weapons. The United States, on the other hand, although it has never explicitly renounced the early (or even first) use of nuclear weapons, has long hoped to mount a conventional defense of Western Europe.4 The United States is culturally indisposed to accept the seemingly defeatist notion that only the mutual threat of annihilation will preclude a nuclear war. This country is uncomfortable with an arcane and paradoxical defense policy that depends on a threat to use unusable weapons, and it has, therefore, persistently encouraged its allies to build a nonnuclear defensive capability. The Maritime Strategy is, at least in part, a product of that visceral desire to fight wars the way they have always been fought.
Conventional U.S. bias ignores the fact that the irreversible existence of opposing nuclear strategic arsenals has underwritten the relative peace between the superpowers for 45 years. The durable, if tense, stability of the Cold War has rested on the likelihood that aggression by either side would lead to nuclear war. Its enormously destructive means is inconsistent with any rational political end; as Prussian strategist Karl von Clausewitz pointed out, the probable destruction of one’s society denies any possibility of political gain. In short, direct armed aggression as an instrument of policy against another nuclear power is not an option.
The irrationality of nuclear war, however, does not imply irrationality of nuclear weapons. Quite the contrary: the goal of any deterrent strategy should be to draw the clearest possible line between any level of aggression and the invocation of a nuclear defense. The severe irony of any attempt—including that of the Maritime Strategy—to raise the nuclear threshold by demonstrating the intent to fight a full-scale conventional world war is that it simply increases an aggressor’s incentive to wage a destructive conventional war below that threshold. The argument that a conventional war-fighting posture increases the West’s military options in the event of war misses the point. The lack of options at any level above relatively limited conventional conflict virtually guarantees that a major war-' because it would certainly lead to nuclear war—will not break out.
Mistake #2: The West’s most pressing threat is an outright Soviet invasion of Europe. Too many U.S. military careers, budgets, and weapon systems are built on the as' sumed imminence of an armored Warsaw Pact blitz into Europe and its peripheries. The Maritime Strategy-^ although it acknowledges the existence of other scenarios^ is no exception.
That preoccupation is misplaced, for probably not sine® the United States committed its nuclear arsenal to the se' curity of Europe after World War II has the Kremlin serf ously weighed the option of a military invasion to its west’ As Ambassador George Kennan pointed out in 1947, Bol' shevik Vladimir Lenin’s apostles are “sensitive to con' trary force . . . ready to yield on individual sectors of th® diplomatic front when that force is felt to be too strong.’' Modem Soviet strategists, imbued with an aversion to tak' ing uncalculated or excessive risks, concluded from th® beginning that the nuclear variable—despite Western an*' iety about credibility, windows of vulnerability, and coun' terforce-versus-countervalue arguments—rendered 3
brute-force invasion of the capitalist West far too risky ^ light of the uncertain benefits it would bring.
The Cold War of deterrent and counterdeterrent has thUs
been less about preventing armed conflict than it has been about countering diplomatic extortion.6 The Berlin Crisis °f 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis of the following year—often cited as the world’s closest calls with nuclear War—are more accurately seen as part of Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s not-so-subtle program for testing the West’s W'U. Author Bernard Brodie, among others, argues that the Soviet leader never had any intention of letting either crisis erupt into open war and that he would have pressed his claims in Berlin and Cuba only if the United States had acquiesced. In both cases, U.S. nuclear arms (backed by
hmness of will) prevented a loss of political capital at east as much as it deterred war.7 Even before the advent
Perestroika the Cold War had clearly become, to paraphrase Admiral Carlisle A.H. Trost, Chief of Naval Operations, a war of political maneuver.8
Current upheavals in the traditional patterns of global P°wer have made the Soviet invasion assumption even J*>°re awkward. Poland and Hungary have dramatically roken ranks with the Communist Bloc, and the Berlin Wall has fallen. Confronted by all these changes, the Kremlin has merely shrugged. Prompted partly by the nUclear stalemate and partly by economic despair, Soviet new thinkers have gone to great lengths to convince the ^°rld that communism has matured. The idea that Presi- ent Mikhail Gorbachev’s government, or even a reactionarY successor to it, could reverse its accelerating internal reforms, re-impose imperial control on Eastern Europe, and launch a massive military invasion into the armed and indigestible states of the West is contrived at best— Specially in light of the fact that even the most hard-line Postwar Soviet regimes failed to take much more propi-
tious opportunities to launch overt military attacks. The risks are too high, and the prospective gains are too few. The Soviet Union has never let the Marxist doctrine of historical inevitability interfere with cold calculations of geopolitical profit and loss.
None of these observations argues that the Soviet Union, even if Gorbachev’s programs succeed, will soon cease to be a major political and military adversary of the United States. The combined weight of history, geography, and political and economic philosophy suggests that the Soviet Union will not gladly abandon its fundamental antagonism toward its most obvious rival. Even before the world had heard of Karl Marx, Alexis de Tocqueville predicted that the United States and Russia were destined to be the two preeminent contenders for global power. And Gorbachev certainly did not invent perestroika in order to concede that contest to the United States. The mere existence of Western nuclear-backed military power effectively ensures that the struggle will not be played out on a European battlefield. It will, however, be played out wherever the Soviets encounter no “contrary force.” Moscow will continue to maneuver for diplomatic and strategic advantage through arms control negotiations, manipulation of Western public opinion, espionage, and its support for armed Third World proxies.
And that leads to the third U.S. strategic mistake.
Mistake #3: Low-intensity and Third World conflicts are of secondary or peripheral strategic importance. Of the several hundred U.S. troops who have died in combat since the end of the Vietnam War, none have fallen to Warsaw Pact arms. Some academics argue about the extent of the economic and geopolitical interests of the United States in the Third World,9 but the conspicuous fact of international life remains that virtually every U.S. president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has found it necessary to employ conventional military force or the threat of such force against adversaries in all parts of the world; in nine out of ten cases, the agents of that force have been the
Navy and the Marine Corps.10
Ironically, while the Navy has been fighting what amounts to a tactical war in the Third World, U.S. strategic thinking has been confined by its institutionalized preoccupation with a traditional clash of arms between the great powers. The failure of U.S. strategy to provide conceptual and doctrinal support to its tactically engaged fleet means that U.S. responses to crises outside the set piece of NATO’s Central Front have often been ad hoc, inappropriate, and ineffective.
Third World violence, most often in the form of terrorism, is more than a distracting political harassment and more than a crime against the victims of individual acts. Terrorism—masquerading as Marxist insurgency, nationalist extremism, religious fundamentalism, or drug wars— is in fact a vehicle of organized aggression that poses a cumulative and fundamental threat to Western security. The ability of terrorist sponsors to disrupt international travel, commerce, diplomacy, and freedom of the seas through a program of random violence threatens the political and economic fabric of target nations. More important, it challenges the very legitimacy of liberal democratic governments by calling into question their will and ability to protect the lives, property, and rights of their own citizens.11 Furthermore, to the extent that Third World violence is encouraged and supported by the Soviet Union, it becomes part of the larger geopolitical competition between the superpowers.
Low-intensity threats in the Third World are not fully respected by the strategy-making community for a variety of reasons. First, a cultural predilection in the United States for the Big Game played by traditional rules means that it is ill-suited to limited, unconventional, and often insoluble conflicts in the world’s back alleys. The Pentagon plans best for “honest” wars with tangible goals that are susceptible to the application of overwhelming force; institutionally it is unsuited to a sustained effort for intangible goals that require finesse and innovation more than superior firepower and massive logistical support.12
Second, the Iron Triangle—that political coalition among the military services, the defense contractors, and their congressional patrons—feeds itself on a demand for sophisticated, expensive (and often questionably effective) weapons, which they rationalize by invoking the Soviet threat.13 There is no profit-motivated political constituency for the enhanced training, innovative tactics, ammunition stocks, and personnel support required to fight smaller but deadlier wars.
Finally, the United States has never come fully to political terms with the use of limited force for policy goals.
Post-Vietnam political wisdom holds that resorting to mil' itary force implies immoral or, at best, failed policy. In its sensitivity to charges of imperialist aggression, Washington has often been slow to accept that some challenges to its vital international interests are simply not susceptible to civil diplomacy or economic bargaining. The checkered success of U.S. military intervention in places such as Lebanon, the Persian Gulf, and Panama has artificially kept alive doubts about the viability of force as an agent of policy. The military’s lack of strategic emphasis on low- level conflict encourages many politicians to question the usefulness of measured armed intervention in any situation, and their reluctance to consider a military option discourages building a limited-force capability.
Toward a Fighting Fleet
The United States is, as every naval strategist since Mahan has pointed out, a maritime nation. Its security, economic and military, depends on its own and all other nations’ unhindered ability to participate in the peaceful international system of commerce built on global sea lines of communication (SLOCs). Long after the end of the Cold War, Third World threats to national interests and SLOCs will continue to require the application of U.S- maritime force, whether through conventional deterrence, sea control, power projection, or naval suasion. Indeed, iu terms of shots fired, lives lost, and damage sustained, the
Navy is already at war—albeit an undeclared, fitful, and ftustratingly unconventional one—in such places as the Persian Gulf and the eastern Mediterranean. The Navy therefore cannot continue to let unexamined Cold War dogma dictate its strategic philosophy.
The changing shape of the geopolitical world demands that U.S. naval strategy acknowledge two priorities: nu- olear deterrence (to ensure that Soviet new thinking does n°t stray from its progressive course) and limited warfare, building an effective maritime strategy on those priorities 'V'H require a subtle but powerful and critically important shift in the way the Navy thinks about itself. It must be ^ore than a change in doctrine or organization. It must be a keel-up overhaul of institutional attitudes and profes- s'onal values. The Navy, from the Chief of Naval Opera- h°ns to yesterday’s recruit, must think of itself as a fight- lng fleet and not just a fleet in being.
What does that mean in practice? First, it means debunking the myth of World War III. There may be a cer- |a>n appeal in planning for, as Admiral J.R. Hill put it, a
good clean conventional scrap” of the sort that gave us Admirals Bull Halsey and Chester Nimitz;14 but the Mari- hme Strategy’s assumption of a protracted conventional ^orld war undercuts the nuclear guarantee and commits ^e cliche military mistake of planning for the last war. It substitutes institutional dogma for strategic wisdom. Because a fleet that simply exists has so far been enough to deter the wan threat of Soviet attack, the Navy has come to Measure its own value in terms of size, expense, and tech- n°logical sophistication. The world war myth has nurtured an executive bureaucracy that has been able to bury expensive lessons—the Mayaguez, Grenada, Lebanon, the Stark, the Vincennes—about the effective use of maritime force in narrowly constrained police-action combat.
Second, the new maritime strategy needs innovative thinking more than innovative hardware. Decades of corporate naval experience address the static superpower competition between enormous and mutually deterred fleets-in-being, but the world war bias has discouraged the creation of a maritime strategy pitted against a random, decentralized, often irrational, and increasingly well- equipped profusion of small threats. ‘‘Organizations learn and adapt very slowly. They pay obsessive attention to habitual internal cues long after their practical value has lost all meaning. Important strategic . . . assumptions are buried deep in the minutiae of management systems and other habitual routines whose origins have long been obscured by time.”15 Author Tom Peters was writing about the business world in this quote, but naval leaders faced with rapidly changing strategic challenges will recognize the same problem.
A navy that can deal with a dynamic, unconventional, and highly changeable threat must itself be flexible, creative, and open to innovation. To that end, a key part of the new maritime strategy must be organizational reform— staffs must be cut, command structures simplified, communication improved, and innovation encouraged. Etfec- tiveness has to be valued over procedure; combat readiness over administrative proficiency. Values and objectives should flow down the chain ol command; methods and innovation should flow up. Experiments in new ship deployment patterns, leaner battle groups, small unit tactics, creative weapon employment, simplified reporting methods, and adaptive training methods must be encouraged, and the people driving them given the time, resources, and responsibility to see them through. The postCold War naval organization must build its strategy on (and actively develop) the ability, judgment, and motivation of the people on the tip of the spear.
New ship types, new airplanes, and new weapon systems are the quantifiable markers of a prestigious navy, but they are not as important as the fleet’s ability to use effectively the equipment and people it already has. The buildup in material naval force structure under the Reagan administration created for the Navy a balanced fleet, technically able to meet a wide variety of threats and execute a wide variety of missions. Under the current administration, the budget battles on Capitol Hill should focus more on money for training, for pay and allowances, and for operations and maintenance, than on money to build the elusive silver bullet.
Third, a warfighting maritime strategy must incorporate warfighting values, no matter how “limited” the war may be. Vice Admiral James Stockdale said it best when he addressed his pilots on board the USS Oriskany (CVA-34) enroute to Vietnam in 1965:
“ 'Limited war’ means to us that our target list has limits, our ordnance loadout has limits, our rules of engagement have limits, but that does not mean that there is anything ‘limited’ about our personal obligations as fighting men to carry out assigned missions with all we’ve got. If you think it is possible for a man, in the heat of battle, to apply something less than total personal commitment—equated perhaps to your idea of the proportion of national potential being applied—you are wrong.”16
Strategic theories do not often treat the question of organizational values, but the most elegant operational plans are wasted without an ethic of duty shared widely by the people who do the fighting. The paper war against the Soviet Navy could be waged without reference to fire, blood, and violent death. In low-intensity conflicts around the world, however, the Navy is facing real bullets, not just intelligence assessments. The term “low-intensity” is itself a misnomer, for conflicts in the Mediterranean, Persian Gulf, and Asia will be fought more and more with sophisticated—even unconventional—weapon systems demanding an increasing margin of human skill, commitment, and raw courage.
A new naval strategy, in other words, must finally proceed from a genuine determination to nurture the professional values of the people who make it work. It needs to make a convincing commitment to setting uncompromising standards of excellence, driving accountability and responsibility to the lowest possible levels, responding to ideas flowing up the chain, respecting personal sacrifices, taking care of service families, and rewarding individual performance. Questions of institutional values are not peripheral to strategic thought, they are central to it. Without a professional ethic a strategy is little more than hollow doctrine.
For reasons both external and internal, the U.S. Navy needs a new strategy. It needs to build a doctrine for continued nuclear deterrence, but, more important, it needs to meet head-on the pressing threat of Third World violence. The new strategy will likely incorporate the traditional missions of naval warfare—power projection, sea control, naval suasion—and require a traditional analysis of objectives versus force structure. It will also require a coherent rationale, creative tactics, a change in materiel emphasis, and organizational flexibility. But the most critical requirement for the new maritime strategy is one that cannot be implemented by published doctrine; the change from a fleet-in-being to a fighting fleet will require ruthless innovation, committed leadership, and some new thinking about professional values.
'Adm. James D. Watkins, USN (Ret.) “The Maritime Strategy,” supplement to the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, January 1986.
2“West” is used throughout this article in its political rather than geographical sense, i.e. to include the Pacific and NATO Allies.
3The literature on postwar nuclear strategy is voluminous, but a particularly readable discussion (with bibliography) of the problem described here is David N- Schwartz’s NATO’s Nuclear Dilemmas (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1983).
4Frank C. Carlucci, Annual Report to Congress, Fiscal Year 1990 (Washington. D.C.: Department of Defense), especially Part I, Section C, “U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy.” One of eight listed National Security Objectives is to “reduce our reliance on nuclear weapons by strengthening our conventional and chemical deterrent,” (p. 34).
5“X” (George Kennan), “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” Foreign Affairs, July 1947, p. 575.
‘Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966).
7Bernard Brodie, War and Politics (New York: Macmillan, 1973), chapter 9- 8Adm. C.A.H. Trost USN, “The Morning of the Empty Trenches,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, August 1988, p. 14.
9Stephen M. Walt, “The Case for Finite Containment: Analyzing U.S. Grand Strategy,” and Steven R. David, “Why the Third World Matters,” International Security, Summer 1989, pp. 5-85.
,0As of 1978 R. James Woolsey had already counted more than 200 crises in which the United States was involved; of those “Navy and Marine forces were deliberately employed in 177 cases.” Naval conflicts in the Gulf of Sidra, Grenada, Lebanon, and the Persian Gulf have added to that number since then. See R. James Woolsey, “Planning a Navy: The Risks of Conventional Wisdom,” in Naval Strategy and National Security, edited by Steven E. Miller and Stephen Van Evera. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988).
“Benjamin Netanyahu, Terrorism: How the West Can Win (New York: Avon, 1986), especially chapter 8.
12Robert E. Osgood in his Limited War Revisited (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1979) forcefully makes this point, especially in pp. 82-86.
,3Hedrick Smith, The Power Game: How Washington Works (New York: Random ' House, 1988), chapter 8.
l4RAdm. J.R. Hill (RN), Arms Control at Sea (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1989), p. 118.
l5Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr., In Search of Excellence (Ne^ York: Harper and Row, 1982) p. 6.
16Paul B. Ryan, First Line of Defense: The U.S. Navy Since 1945 (Stanford, CA- Hoover Institution Press, 1981), Appendix A.
Lieutenant Golightly was selected as an Olmsted Scholar and is currently attending the University of Konstanz in West Germany. He has served »s a flight instructor in Training Squadron 25, and as landing signal officer' line division officer, NATOPS officer, and assistant operations officer UJ Fighter Squadron 14. Lieutenant Golightly was the winner of the Naval Institute’s 1986 Vincent Astor Memorial Leadership Essay Contest and wrote, among other Proceedings articles, "No Right to Fight,” an argu' ment in the December 1987 issue against allowing women in combat that incited much spirited discussion in subsequent pages of the magazine-