The Coming Revolution in U.S. Naval Strategy

The post–Cold War era is over.

The Chief of Naval Operations, John Richardson, winged his way to Newport around the beginning of the month to discuss maritime strategy with the Naval War College (NWC) teaching and research faculty and generally hobnob with students, staff and faculty. Which is fitting: the Navy’s top uniformed officer should tarry at its intellectual seat from time to time—gleaning such strategic and operational insight as we ivory-tower dwellers alongside the Narragansett Bay can supply.

While delivering prepared remarks in NWC’s Spruance Auditorium, Admiral Richardson returned to a theme he enunciated as commencement speaker in 2013: that the college has undergone three intellectual revolutions since its inception in 1884. What’s more, Richardson maintains that a fourth revolution is gathering as the navy’s and nation’s post–Cold War strategic holiday expires. If so, what’s to be learned from bygone revolutions? Can insights from past controversies help the leadership hasten the coming of—or at least avoid stifling—another novus ordo seclorum?

Paradigm shifts are messy things. As Thomas Kuhn noted, shattering long-accepted ways of interpreting the world and operating within its bounds is far from orderly. Scientific method notwithstanding, it’s seldom a straightforward process of gathering new information, processing it dispassionately and amending your worldview. It’s a scientific Fight Club. People get invested in the old paradigm. And, as gatekeepers will, they counterattack against Young Turks who espouse new and untried ideas that threaten that investment.

Presiding over radical change—neither leaping at the latest fad nor quashing insurgents who push new ideas—constitutes a leadership challenge of the first order. The Naval War College’s first revolution took place under the college’s founders: Admiral Stephen Luce, its first president, and Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, its first strategy professor and Luce’s successor as president. Creating something new is hard and uncertain, as Luce and Mahan found. Indeed, the college might not have survived but for Mahan’s works of sea-power history and theory, which brought renown to the institution while establishing Newport as a center of strategic thought.

The second Copernican moment unfolded during the interwar decades, when the likes of Admiral W. S. Sims prodded the college and the navy to learn from World War I and start getting ready to confront the next big thing, Imperial Japan. (He knew how to prod: as a junior officer, Sims wrote to President Theodore Roosevelt bewailing the sad state of U.S. Navy gunnery and fire control. The rumbustious TR had him designated inspector of target practice despite—or because of?—the temerity he showed in bypassing the chain of command.) War Plan Orange, the navy’s plan to steam across the Pacific and smash the Imperial Japanese Navy, was perhaps the best-known product of Richardson’s second revolution.

The third paradigm shift turned the college upside down in the 1970s. That’s when Admiral Stansfield Turner oversaw the installation of a new curriculum grounded in strategic theory and military history. We employ a derivative of it to this day. Vietnam supplied the chief catalyst for the Turner revolution (accompanied by the emergence of Admiral Gorshkov’s bluewater Soviet Navy). How, U.S. military officers and officials wondered, had the United States managed to win virtually tactical engagement in Indochina yet come up short in the strategic and political realms? How do you win all the time but lose the war?

For Turner, the answers to America’s post-Vietnam quandary—or, more precisely, ways to think about answers—lay in perusing history and theory. Studying conflicts ranging back to classical Greece and Rome would reveal timeless insights. Acquaintanceship with martial sages such as Mahan and Carl von Clausewitz would in turn equip graduates to think deeply about diplomacy and warmaking—and to render wise counsel to senior commanders as they scaled the ranks. Vive la Turner révolution!

These three revolutions had different origins, and thus unfolded along different lines. The Luce/Mahan revolution is an obvious one. Founding something is revolutionary by definition. It replaces something with something new. Or, in the case of the Naval War College, it replaces nothing with something.