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.
The Luce/Mahan revolution also accompanied a phase change in U.S. maritime history. By the 1880s, the U.S. Navy was dispelling the “dead apathy,” as Mahan termed it ruefully, of the post–Civil War years. The fleet shrank to around fifty creaky wooden men-of-war. It wasn’t even the Western Hemisphere’s strongest navy. But Congress authorized the republic’s first modern battle fleet in 1883—putting paid to the notion that America could make do through raiding enemy merchant shipping in wartime rather than out-dueling enemy fleets. The college helped the navy divine how to configure and use that fleet. Revolutionary times.
The interwar revolution came on the heels of a wartime victory, but a victory of a peculiar sort. Whereas Mahanian gospel proclaims that clashes among fleets of capital ships decides the fates of navies and nations, World War I meant convoy and antisubmarine duty for the U.S. Navy. Battleships remained largely idle. Puzzling out whether this “war without Mahan,” as George Baer calls it, represented the future of naval warfare was a task of considerable moment for service potentates.
The navy, moreover, was still acclimating to being a “navy second to none” for the first time in its history; to using the Panama Canal, which beckoned America’s strategic gaze southward, to swing forces from Atlantic to Pacific and vice versa; and to confronting a peer challenger in the Far East, manifest in Imperial Japan. This mélange of factors, it seems, combined to yield revolutionary times.
The Turner revolution fell into still another type: defeat. Thinkers like Florentine official Niccolò Machiavelli caution that the timber of humanity predisposes us to keep doing what worked last time. Until it doesn’t. Then you have to undertake some soul-searching, devising new ways of doing things that fit the times and the surroundings. So it was in Newport following the Indochina debacle. Defeat clears the mind while creating conditions ripe for intellectual revolutions. So there: Newport history furnishes three models for revolutions in naval strategic thought.
But if CNO Richardson has this right, isn’t something missing from the chronicle? If major upheavals coupled with resolute leadership beget Copernican change, it appears at least two revolutions are conspicuously absent from Naval War College history: one after World War II, another after the Cold War. You’d think vanquishing Japan, reorienting for the atomic age and the Cold War, and prevailing in the Cold War constitute events comparable in scope and consequence to laying the keels for armored steamships, quelling the U-boats or losing in Vietnam. So why didn’t either of these two dogs bark?
Take the post–Cold War transition first. That looks like the easy one. If defeat clears the mind, Machiavelli might quip, overwhelming triumph dulls it. It reaffirms old verities. Why stage a revolution if there’s nothing to overthrow? Even today you hear old-timers of my vintage joke about what a pushover the Soviet Navy was—as though the U.S. Navy had battled its archenemy and won.
Nevertheless, the naval leadership proclaimed in effect that history had ended. Service chieftains, that is, issued strategic directives declaring that America no longer needed to fight for command of sea or sky. It could assume it had accomplished that fundamental task more or less permanently—and thus could turn its attention wholesale to projecting force ashore from the sea. Narrowing the sea services’ operational field of view to a subset of traditional missions demanded no revolution. Nor, it seems, was there a W. S. Sims or Stansfield Turner to force the college and the navy to think anew.
The post–Cold War years thus constituted a revolution foregone. The real mystery, though, is why the post–World War II years passed without intellectual trauma. The world changed around the college radically between 1945 and, say, 1953, when negotiators reached an armistice suspending the first armed East-West clash of the Cold War, and when the Soviet Union detonated its first thermonuclear bomb. The U.S. Navy, moreover, had to beat back a threat to its very existence during those years, as the U.S. Air Force positioned itself at the core of U.S. nuclear strategy—and claimed not just missions but an outsized share of the defense budget.
Death ground, as Sun Tzu calls it, should concentrate minds—except it didn’t, judging from the words of eminent naval officers. Naval War College president Richard Conolly, to name one, took the service to task for emerging from the Pacific War as a corps of superb tacticians and administrators that had utterly lost the art of—indeed, the vocabulary for—debating strategy.
Nor was the navy or the Naval War College bereft of strong leadership. Destroyer-squadron commodore extraordinaire Arleigh Burke rose to the post of CNO, for instance, while the likes of Admiral Ray Spruance led the college. All the ingredients of a revolution—external stimuli coupled with hardheaded leadership—thus appeared to be in place. And yet, it seems, strategic thought remained stagnant. Some combination of complacency, the loss of a focal point for strategy—an enemy around which to structure strategy and forces—and the ambiguous nature of Cold War strategic competition must be at fault.