The Maritime History of a War Weary Naval Fleet

September 25, 2018 Topic: History Region: Americas Tags: HistoryNavyWarStrategySubmarines

The Maritime History of a War Weary Naval Fleet

John Lehman’s new book, Oceans Ventured: Winning the Cold War at Sea, could help America gird for what comes next on the high seas.

I like John Lehman’s new book Oceans Ventured: Winning the Cold War at Sea . It reminds me of how I won the Cold War with a little help from a few of you slackers.

Well, I may have had a little more help than that. After all, I was a dissolute high-schooler for part of the interlude Lehman retells, which roughly spans from 1980 to 1991—then a dissolute college kid, and then a dissolute surface-warfare officer in training. But I made my way onto the wine-dark sea in time for the Cold War’s endgame!

The author served as President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of the navy from 1981 to 1987. Alongside Chief of Naval Operations James Watkins, he was the principal architect of the Reagan administration’s aggressive new Maritime Strategy. Lehman’s book Command of the Seas set forth the rationale for an offensive-minded strategy many years ago; Oceans Ventured: Winning the Cold War at Sea recounts the operational details of how the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps put the strategy into effect in concert with fellow U.S. armed services and treaty allies. There’s much here for today’s naval magnates to ponder as they try to help the U.S. Navy regain its competitive footing vis-à-vis near-peer opponents such as the Russian Navy and China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy.

If there were a one-liner that sums up the Lehman/Watkins strategy—adopted in classified form by 1982 and made public in the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings in 1986—it might be this: no more passive defense. This marked a significant turnabout from the 1970s. Secretary Lehman rightly points out that the U.S. Navy was a spent force coming out of the Vietnam War. It degenerated into a “hollow” force at the same time the Soviet Navy went on the march under the tutelage of its founding father, Fleet Adm. Sergei Gorshkov . Hollow forces tend to assume a defensive crouch vis-à-vis rival pugilists rather than compete with derring-do. And indeed, U.S. and allied navies more or less wrote off northern waters as a Soviet naval preserve. They were a Soviet sanctuary or “bastion” where ballistic-missile submarines could shelter.

The American naval establishment transcribed this reticent mindset—Lehman brands it a “Maginot Line” mentality, and this is no compliment—into operations. In the Atlantic Ocean the NATO allies rigged a barricade across the “G-I-UK gap”—the waters separating Greenland from Iceland and Iceland from the United Kingdom—in hopes of confining Soviet surface forces and especially attack submarines to the icy waters off Eastern Bloc shores. Engineers strewed acoustic sensors along the seafloor while NATO antisubmarine forces arrayed themselves behind the line in hopes of tailing and, in wartime, sinking Soviet units that crossed the G-I-UK picket line into the North Atlantic. If they succeeded, Western surface traffic could lumber across the ocean unmolested.

 

Meanwhile Western navies planned to form convoys to escort transports carrying manpower and war materiel across the Atlantic to Western Europe to help beat back a Soviet ground offensive into West Germany. Convoys, too, fall into the category of passive defense. Escort vessels await attack and then try to fight off the predators when they appear. The passive approach can work. Convoy strategies sufficed for Great Britain during the Napoleonic Wars and for the Allies during the world wars. But they do surrender the initiative to entrepreneurial foes, who enjoy the liberty to choose the time and place of battle. Moreover, navies built for convoy duty tend to be made up of large numbers of lightly armed combatant ships optimized for antisubmarine warfare. These are not forces that can wrest command of the sea from antagonists that deploy warships bristling with heavy armaments and back them up with land-based air power.

This was a glaring flaw in Western fleet design during the 1970s. A navy must win command before it can exercise command, using the sea as a thoroughfare for military and commercial shipping. Yet the passive approach appeals to navies that find themselves floundering owing to budgetary woes, recruiting shortfalls, or other troubles. It is—or appears to be—a way to skirt the economics of sea power when times are tight.

As the Center for Analyses noted in 1996, material and human maladies afflict a hollow force like the 1970s U.S. Navy. Its ships fall short of their design potential. Maintenance problems hobble its endeavors. “Poor quality sailors seem the rule,” while “meaningful training is both scarce and questionable.” Laments CNA, the U.S. Navy endured “all of these problems and more” during the 1970s and early 1980s. Such woes sapped American strength while imprinting defensive habits of mind and deed on a sea service that historically thrived on carrying the fight to distant foes in their own waters.

In short, the Maritime Strategy represented an effort to rebuild U.S. naval power and notify the world that the enterprising U.S. Navy of old was back. It announced that new ships and weapons would join the naval inventory. It changed the tone, rejuvenating morale in the ranks. And it called for arraying that newly resuscitated sea power around the Soviet periphery. Deploying a spread offense at sea, believed naval officialdom, would siphon Soviet military resources from the central land theater in Western Europe.