November 2021

John T Kuehn's picture

November 2021 Handgrenade

Red Storm Dissipating?

Myths and Reality—Some Thoughts on the US Navy 1980s Maritime Strategy

John T. Kuehn

[[Note: A longer than usual Handgrenade, informed by some very real, recent conversations with some of the principals and key scholars at Annapolis on September 23-24, 2021 and some subsequent email traffic with the same principals.]]

Having returned from the McMullen Conference where one of my papers dealt with context for the 1984 Maritime strategy, some caveats are in order (in addition to the standard government disclaimer below).

First, I came into the Navy just as this strategy was being written and implemented, flying operational and strategic level reconnaissance missions in EP-3 Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) aircraft in the Pacific Far East,  conducting research and writing a classified thesis at Naval Postgraduate School on the Outer-Air Battle to support aspects of the Maritime Strategy from 1986-1988, and then serving as the electronic warfare officer on a Carrier Battle Group staff during THE last of the Cold cruises in the Mediterranean about USS Coral Sea (CVA-43) and USS America(CV-66)  battlegroups with Carrier Group TWO in 1989.  We left and the Cold War was a thing in May 1989 and by the time we arrived home (November 1989), on a different carrier than the one we left on, the Cold War was effectively over. 

This is all my way of saying my relationship to these events is not, and cannot be (at least until someone rewires the human psyche) that of a detached historian and academic. But I will strive for objectivity and see if I can avoid the natural human temptation for hyperbole (a particular problem with naval aviators), or at least minimize it.

 I had skin in the game when it comes to Maritime Strategy of the 1980s, literally: both as an intelligence collector and analyst off the coasts of Vietnam, China, and the USSR, and at the operational level with the centerpiece of that strategy, the US Navy Aircraft Carrier Battlegroup (CVBG) during a Mediterranean deployment in 1989.

What was the Maritime Strategy?

The best primer for historians remains Norman Friedman’s book of the same name, published by the Naval Institute Press a bare 2-3 years after the strategy’s implementation.[1]

For our purposes here it was a very Mahanian strategy aimed at taking the war to the Soviet Red Banner Fleet at sea, wherever that fleet might be.   As the strategy was being implemented intelligence was coming in, some of which might have come from missions I flew, that the Soviet maritime strategy was not what the leaders of the Navy, including former Navy CNO Admiral Thomas Hayward, thought it was. The idea that the Soviets intended to cut the NATO sea lanes with the United States was not the major thing underpinning what the Soviets intended to do with their fleet.  The Soviet Plan was to create “bastions” in the Sea of Okhostk and the Barents Sea where Soviet Ballistic Missile Submarines could shelter in safety with the submarine component of the Soviet nuclear arsenal/deterrent.  The Soviet fleet was really built with an eye to protecting these high value targets (HVTs) at sea.  For example, the Kiev class aviation rocket cruisers (sometimes called carriers) were built to do things like attack interloping US surface ships in the bastions with long range anti-ship cruise missiles, as well as to launch VSTOL aircraft to shoot down P-3 patrol aircraft hunting Soviet submarines.   The surface to air missile system on the Kiev class was designed to shoot down lower performance aircraft, like P-3s, E-2s, and EP-3s at the “edges” of the bastions, if not inside them.

The Maritime Strategy advocated going on the offensive in these waters, placing these units at risk, primarily with US fast attack submarines.  There was also a conventional component to the US strategy built around aircraft carriers and later battleships, an offensive component meant as a maritime economy of force intended to tie down additional Soviets resources, a forward defense if you will but one that could be used to strike Soviet targets in both the European and Far Eastern theaters.

This strategy came under a lot of criticism, from critics liked James Fallows,  Barry Posen, and Robert Komer, as being destabilizing and overly risky.  One of its more questionable operational constructs was the idea of “hiding” aircraft carriers in Norwegian fjords or even in the Kurile Islands that border the Sea of Okhostk as a way to use radar terrain masking to protect them from anti-ship cruise missiles.   The problem here is that it also offered the Soviets the option of escalation with tactical nuclear weapons—terrain does not mask carriers/battlships against nuclear weapons so well-- in areas where civilian casualties would be extremely low and thus present an acceptable risk for escalation to limited nuclear war.  It also elicited a Soviet response overseas, along with the US deployment Pershing II and ground launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) in Europe.  These were met with a Soviet “equivalent response” at sea that serendipitously played into the hands of the expanding and improving US fleet of the 1980s—leading the Soviets to forward deploy cruise missile and older SSBN hulls to the east and west coasts of the United States.  These deployments resulted in great “practice” for US anti-submarine warfare (ASW) forces, as well as (and more importantly) stressing some of the forces the Soviets needed for their bastion concept.  For example, the cruise missile submarines were needed for anti-carrier warfare against US carriers penetrating Soviet bastions.

 More research needs to be done on the precise nature of how much that stress to the Soviet fleet, and requirements to “meet” the Maritime Strategy on even terms contributed or accelerated Soviet maintenance and budget problems that helped lead to accession of Mikhail Gorbachev and then the implosion of the Soviet states.   In sum, the lesson might be that the Maritime Strategy succeeded, but not for the reasons its original designers envisioned.  And the fleet that was built to execute it is still structured and intended for use in the same way, except it is 1/3rd the size of that fleet.   What do you think? Maritime Strategy a good thing, or a not so good thing, or something in the middle (which is sort of where I am)?

The views are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Navy, Naval War College, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


[1] Norman Friedman, The Maritime Strategy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1988).

At best, the Maritime Strategy was a sign the Navy remained more Halsey than Spruance. Or if one prefers, a rejection of Corbetts theories of using seapower in favor of Mahanian efforts to seek out Decisive Battle. At worst, the Maritime Strategy was primarily a budgetary strategy--a way of justifying expanding the Navy so that it could go on the offensive, take losses and win.

In a hypothetical USA-USSR war in the 1980s, the USN could *not* win the war by itself. But they could lose it. As Churchill said of Jellicoe in WW 1, the USN was in the position to "lose the war in an afternoon" if a disastrous fleet battle up in the Barents Sea freed up the USSR to aggressively choke off sea lanes between the USA and Europe (as well as force air routes southwards, so even airlift to Europe would be impacted). QED, driving the cream of the USN deep into the USSR's bastions, where their land-based air could double up their missile loads and their large numbers of diesel-electric submarines take on a much greater threat, was strategically un-sound (which is a polite way of saying a bloody stupid idea).

Mind you, it is deeply unsatisfying to realize the Corbettian fruits of sea control without winning the laurels in Decisive Battle. Jellicoe was a cold calculator who made the right call (deploy line to port) to place the Royal Navy in perfect position across the T at Jutland. Jellicoe also turned the battle fleet away rather than risk sending it through mass torpedo salvos, secure in the knowledge that his main mission was securing control of the sea--which preserving the Grand Fleet helped do. Beatty was the dashing, aggressive and often sloppy leader who led stimulating charges into the teeth of the foe but kept losing control of his ships and taking grievous casualties/throwing away opportunities in the process.

The USN's embrace of the Maritime Strategy has echoes of Churchill's analysis of Jutland, where to paraphrase (but pretty closely) "Jellicoe did everything right. But the next time, the Royal Navy should look to Beatty's example." Or in a USN history context, better Halsey charging off at the enemy rather than Spruance staying where he needed to be to actually, you know, carry out the mission at hand. Why let supporting the other services get in the way of Glorious Decisive Battle! To quote Halsey, "Attack, repeat attack!"

Of course, as a budgetary strategy the Maritime Strategy was excellent. It provided a stirring rationale for a 600-ship navy and all that. But one does hope that if the disaster of a "Red Storm Rising" WW 3 had happened in the 1980s USN leadership would not have tossed the heart of the Navy into great danger/after a secondary target for little strategic benefit--just as Beatty (Heligoland, got away with it) and Halsey (Leyte, had his tail saved by Taffy 3 and Kurita) had done. We need more Jellicoes and Spruances, thanks.

Nuclear Deterrence is not nor was not a myth.

Brodie's comment the point of nuclear weapons was to avoid their uses. Even so, he set forth the limited war views of tactical nuclear escalation.

Strategists may change but that alone does not guarantee
their understanding of nuclear war and interrelation with conventional warfare is either sound or correct in a world where nonuse is the objective.

In a world of use tactically one would need consider how success or failure of this strategy would impact decisions re: nuclear war capable responses or the lack of them.

Far more likely, the scenario of nuclear exchange steps front and center.

Mike, "Maritime Strategy" is a topic that has always been contentious, especially for Cold Warrior-era participants like me.
As for a "second Battle of the Atlantic," in a conventional war with the Red Banner Fleet, I went into that in the original post with my discussion of the emerging intelligence from guys like Rich Haver that identified the Bastion Strategy for the Soviets.
Just to emphasize the point, the Soviets did not have a strategic SLOC interdiction campaign in mind for their own maritime strategy. They were thinking nuclear. There is more on it here in Marcus Faulkner's interview with Peter Swartz:

Peter Swartz's reminiscences will probably trigger some more responses...

I do agree with your fundamental point--we need more Jelllicoes and Spruances (and Fletchers for that matter, quiet professionals who understand the big picture) as our role models for naval command at sea.
John Lundstrom once told me, "John, do you realize that it was the black shoes who tended to do a better job in command of the carriers, at least on the operational level, in the War in the Pacific?" I still find HP Willmott's criticisms of Halsey in Leyte Gulf well-informed and reasonable (which was not the case with all of Ned's writing, may he rest in peace).

Corbett criticized (fairly in my view) Nelson, and that caused him no end of resentment from the RN officer corps.
Here is one of my favorite quotations on that issue, and it can apply to some of the overly STEM-ized admirals in the Navy today:

“When one of these automata at last received his flag, some mysterious gift of grace then enabled him, without preparation or training, to do all the thinking and make all the decisions for the force now under his command.” Corelli Barnett, referring to Royal Navy Flag officers prior to WW I, 1916, from The Swordbearers (179)

vr, John T. Kuehn

An interesting review of the Maritime Strategy of the 1980’s, but I would ask a number of questions:
1. Why is it surprising that the US Navy would seek to achieve a sequential “Mahanian” great power defeat of the Soviet Navy? Sir Julian Corbett’s ideas sprung from the historical operations of the Royal Navy and the British Army where the Army was “a projectile to be fired by the Navy” in Britain’s numerous ground campaigns in both Europe and farther afield in the empire. One only need look to Cornwallis’ campaign in America through 1781, and that only failed when the RN was not available a a critical juncture. In the late Cold War the US Navy had no immediate ground campaign to directly support other than on the flanks of the Soviet Empire (Norway and the Mediterranean Sea) where the parallel USMC Amphibious Strategy dovetailed with that of the maritime strategy to land troops to support NATO members and attack the Soviets. The US Navy was also worried about having to fight though the Soviet navy before ever getting to play Corbett’s strategy to land troops and attain sea control to support them.
2. In terms of “losing the war,” the US assumed that the NATO war could be lost (Secretary Lehman said so,) but that the Naval war had to be won. The Soviet Navy was not deployed to inflict enough losses on the USN “in an afternoon,” (but the PLA could do that today.) The US plan to move through the Norwegian and Barents seas in order to destroy the Soviet Navy, attack the Soviet homeland bases and potentially destroy the Soviet second strike capability was a sequential operation and was not poised to happen in a day. The strategy is divided into a series of phases where the Soviet Navy is worn down over time. No one was planning a suicidal carrier airstrike on the heavily defended Soviet homeland on the first day. As to the defense of the Soviet bastions, the Soviet submarine force defending the bastions was comprised of their best units, and thankfully we never discovered how “escalatory” it would have been to attack the Soviet SSBN force. John Mearsheimer and Barry Posen thought it would be escalatory where the US Navy leadership and specifically the Maritime strategy authors such as CAPT Linton Brooks were more convinced that the loss of their SSBN’s might help move the Soviets toward war termination.
3. As to Jutland, the Cold War US Navy was seeking the decisive battle that Admiral Sir John Jellicoe could grasp. If one looks at the Grand Fleet’s pre-Jutland battle orders one is not surprised by Jellicoe’s maneuvers. What I have always found most impressive (as a career surface warfare officer,) was that Jellicoe successfully deployed from cruising to battle formation using math in his head on a windswept, often smoky open bridge. I agree with you fully that Jellicoe was seeking strategic rather than operational victory, but unfortunately the British pubic had not been told and was still seeking Trafalgar where one would not happen except for extreme German incompetence.
4. There is a fallacy that the Maritime strategy was just a prop for the 600 ship navy plan. Many scholars including John Hattendorf and Peter Swartz have suggested the two were complementary concepts that developed together but also separately. The 600 ship navy was a compromise figure from the Sea plan 2000 study and previous work by CNO’s Holloway and Hayward on fleets of 400, 600, 800 and 1000 ships. 600 ships could cover the Atlantic, Pacific, and Mediterranean but could not cover the Indian Ocean or the Persian gulf as well. The Maritime Strategy also originated in the 1970’s; both from the “Forward strategy” suggested by Secretary Lehman, Naval War College professor Bing West, Professor Robert Strauss-Hupe and others as well as ADM Hayward’s “Sea Strike” concept from his time as the Pacific Fleet commander. Both the Maritime Strategy and 600 ship navy had multiple origins and one cannot argue which cam first, “the chicken or the egg.” The reason that they worked is that Navy Secretary Lehman had the ear of President Reagan who was fully in support of the forward strategy idea and a fleet large and capable enough to carry forward. Pentagon budget denizens don’t like to think that strategy can exist without being conjoined at the hip to a budget, but one can think creatively and employ what one has very effectively.
5. Today’s US Navy has a lot of Jellicoe-type officers and very few Beatty’s or Halsey’s. Our zero-defect culture may have sadly winnowed out some potential future admirals. The real problem is that few flags today have commanded actual fleet-sized formations doing something akin to combat operations. Like the 19th century Royal Navy stations, many of our ships carry out individual missions much of the time to show the flag, fight pirates, be a “deterrent” and the like. We inherited this role from the Royal Navy after 1945, as it was weakened and bankrupted by two world wars and as RN Naval Constructor said in his books, the Royal Navy had fallen dramatically behind in most aspects of naval technology just before and during World War 2 and just could modernize, patrol east of Suez and other places and still live within its budget. The US Navy can learn many things from the history of the RN from the Naval Defence Act of 1889 to the December 1941 sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse and perhaps the first of those is to have a firm and effective naval/maritime strategy and a fleet appropriately sized and designed to achieve that strategy. Whatever its faults the 1980’s Maritime Strategy and 600 ship navy have been the best US examples of this art and are worth emulating in the future.
Steven Wills

Possibly Mr. Willls and Prof. Kuehn would elaborate on their understanding of the Maritime Strategy. Mike Condray's remark re: a budget Navy seems in need of further discussion also.

Planning for the Maritime Strategy as mentioned here was begun at the end of the 1960s, Marine Plans were under development in 68-69 wath the design and construction begun upon LHA type ships. Their purpose was however, would suggest as much about the counter strategy of combatting Communist theory and practices evolved from 'Wars of National Liberation, to appeal to post colonial countries and peoples to take their side against the Western Democracies.

Anticipating operations and warfare in tropical and subtropical zones were specific to their purposes and creation for application of Marine operations; based as much on the Vietnam experiences as the importance of the Pacific and its regions. These would have carried the Navy into the 1980s and not only those areas but Desert zones as well.

It was also to avail of warfighting capable forces below the nuclear threshold as both sides sought to avoid nuclear war and still conduct their efforts at global domination and overturning each others systems of ideologic, political rule.

That Freedom was one of the contesting political and philosphic ambitions for themselves and other people was deemed, essential to the difference between totalitarian experiences and liberty as the right of peoples. Military equipment, Navy forces of the US were both vital and central to that desire outcome, The Marines would be in the lead of those presences. This was understood by 1970.

The aspect of "Maritime Strategy" in the 1980s my comment refers to is the idea that in the event of a NATO-Warsaw Pact conflict the U.S. Navy's best strategy would be to go north into the Barents Sea and put the USSR itself at risk of naval strikes (air, cruise missile) while also threatening the Soviet Navy's "bastion" where the USSR would likely have its nuclear missile submarines.

As a warfighting strategy that idea was terrible on multiple accounts. Putting the cream of the US Navy outside of significant land based air support and into a place where the Soviet Navy would have support of considerable land-based air at shorter ranges (higher missile loads) as well as effectively enabling the large USSR force of diesel-electric submarines was bad enough. If the plan failed, the risk to the vital sea lanes between the North American and Europe would be much higher, and without those sea lanes a war of any significant length would be lost unless NATO pushed the nuclear button (at which point for all intents and purposes the war was already a massive, tragic failure).

Worse, the plan really didn't offer much in the way of positive payoff--and even the potential payoff was potentially catastrophic. Aircraft carriers are not good airpower projection assets against a major land based air force--simply not enough aircraft/sortie generation capabilities. The best outcome reasonably to hoped for in the event of success would be for a "Doolittle Raid" effect where a couple of demonstration strikes caused an over-commitment of Soviet assets better used elsewhere. The down side would be a USSR threatening and possibly using nuclear weapons to "blow big holes in the water" (a lot less collateral damage/civilian population in the way in the Barents Sea) if they perceived their nuclear missile submarines to be at risk. Taking operational actions that *if they succeed* make escalation up the nuclear warfare spectrum more likely is, um, not optimal. The upside doesn't match the downside even if the "Maritime Strategy" successfully took the fight to the Soviet Navy up north.

Hence my characterization of the Maritime Strategy (as articulated by the concept of building/concentrating a massive naval strike force and launching a counterstroke against the USSR by going after the Barents Sea/Soviet nuclear submarine bastion) as a budgetary strategy rather than a warfighting strategy. A warfighting strategy that probably results in bad strategic outcomes *whether it succeeds or fails with its operational objectives* is, I submit, a rather poor warfighting strategy. Your note highlighted the idea of the Maritime Strategy as providing warfighting options below the nuclear threshold as part of competeing while avoiding nuclear war; directly putting Soviet nuclear assets at risk is not exactly compatible with trying to avoid nuclear war.

On the other hand, as a *budgetary* strategy it does articulate a concept that can be used to argue with Congress/the public that calls for as robust a Navy as possible. Hence the characterization of the Maritime Strategy of going offensive into the Barents Sea if we faced a US-USSR WW 3 as a rational budgetary strategy but not a rational warfighting strategy.

I hope clarifying what I meant by "Maritime Strategy" as the concept of offensive Naval thrust into the Barents Sea is useful because (as your note highlights) there are a *lot* of different concepts that could come under the heading "Maritime Strategy." What you articulate with Marines etc sounds a lot like the "....from the Sea" ideas tossed around in the 1990s (admittedly, not for a major power war). Naval forces do have considerable advantages and flexibility for such contingencies, even if (like the use of a CV to carry a pile of US Army helicopters--see recent tests of US Army Apaches on a CV in the Arabian Gulf) the potential uses are somewhat heretical in the eyes of naval aviators.

But in a major power war against a massive continental nation almost entirely immune to blockade whose main offensive thrust would almost certainly be over land, naval forces fall logically into a supporting role rather than a war-winning role in their own right. Naval leaders may struggle to accept that just as Army/Air Force leaders may struggle with accepting a supporting role where their capabilities are not primary. The solution, however, should not be to develop a naval warfighting approach that generates dangerous strategic downsides whether the warfighting approach succeeds *or* fails.

* [PDF] The Development of Nuclear Strategy - Bernard Brodie - similar pages
Aug 17, 2006 ... Bernard Brodie is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, University of ... are not likely to get a real conventional capability in Europe, ...

While this online publication may well fit as well under the Review on US military history since 1962, do post here re: the comments upon Maritime Strategy. Would wish that members read the entire Prof. Brodie publication which goes thru the Nixon History period and recognizes his contributions to understanding nuclear strategy thru both Rand Corp and Education in our Universities. He notes points mentioned before re: tactical nuclear weapons and their uses and nonuses, the goals of nuclear weapons to deter warfare and how nuclear weapons can and do relate to conventional warfare, plans and outcomes such as the discussed Maritime Strategy presented would invite.

What was not factored into this comprehension at the time was that outcome and experience which actually became the History of the Cold War conflict between Soviet Communism and the Free World Democracies,. Yet, that outcome fully conformed to the policy and practice sought historically during this last half to the 20th Century; that period of the Maritime Strategy. It was nothing less than the Containment policy set forth in post WW II 1940s by George Kennan and carried forward by the Truman Administration. To produce an environment in which Communism would be defeated by the
practices of Free Governments without the necessary resort to military forces to change Govts thru war. Indeed, Boris Yeltsin's historic break with Communism, internally, led to the collapse of the Soviet Communism by showing how little desire the Russian people had for a system and society based upon Communist practices and ideology. Hence the collapse of the Soviet Empire and a chance to breath free air; unfortunately, it did not last in a Russia whose own History has seemingly reverted to older practice of Russian autocracy and dictatorship. Still a glimpse was had of a Russia which could join with a family of Freedom loving Nations for a short time.

Did nuclear weapons obviate the needs for non-uses ? Maritime strategy of the Cold War did not receive any actual
experience in the way plans and conduct might answer what actually was expected to be the 'real world'. Deterrence as presented by Brodie here might well have been even more relevant for the actual outcome which has been brought forward by this opening 21st Century. Democracy still faces challenge for which Deterrence still remains a choice.

This has been an interesting thread. As Wyatt observes, "Maritime strategy of the Cold War did not receive any actual
experience in the way plans and conduct might answer what actually was expected to be the 'real world'."

What we might have, were it not locked behind the closed door of NSA/CIA/DIA "intelligence sources and methods," is an accurate picture of how the Soviet General Staff viewed a future war with NATO, in the 1970s and 1980s. Their "bastion strategy" accurately reflected the requirement to preserve a viable second strike capability, in keeping with General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev's 1977 "Tula Declaration," pledging no first use of nuclear weapons. I believe this declaration had no real peaceful intent, as the Soviets always expected that NATO forces would be the first to "go nuclear," using tactical nuclear weapons in response to the overwhelming conventional superiority of the Warsaw Pact forces. I believe the evidence from Soviet exercises, particularly CPXs, during and after Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov's tenure as Chief of the General Staff, would show a clear intention to fight and win a nuclear war in Europe. Ogarkov's much-publicized interest in improved conventional weapons, based on "new physical principles," may have deluded Western military leaders about this fact.

Of course, everything changed in 1988, when Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary and essentially called off the Cold War with dramatic force structure reductions in Eastern Europe, later followed by his caving in to the US/NATO "two track" strategy by signing the INF Treaty. Would the Maritime Strategy have worked against the "bastion strategy?" Would the US SIOP have provided effective counterforce results against the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces? Thank God we never had to find out.