Magazine | June 25, 2018, Issue

The Necessary Navy

John Lehman (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Zach Allan)
Oceans Ventured: Winning the Cold War at Sea, by John Lehman (Norton, 368 pp., $27.95)

Several years ago, when I was teaching at the Naval War College, I had occasion to write a case study on John Lehman for a seminar on strategic leadership. In this study, titled “John Lehman: Navy Secretary as Strategist,” I concluded that he was one of the three most consequential secretaries of the Navy in American history, and certainly the most important one since the creation of the Department of Defense and the downgrading of the service secretaries from cabinet status after World War II.

I argued that since the unification of the U.S. military services under a secretary of defense in 1947, the selection of Lehman was unique in that he did not fit the mold of service secretaries, who for the most part have been chosen because of their financial contributions to presidential campaigns. On the contrary, Lehman, a protégé of Henry Kissinger and others, was a serious strategic thinker who played a major role in shaping the grand strategy of the Reagan administration. It was this strategy that helped bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union and end the Cold War.

A number of factors contributed to the Soviet Union’s demise. Foremost among them was the decision to challenge the Soviets to an arms race, which the Soviet economy could not sustain. This economic strategy had several components. The first was a substantial increase in the U.S. defense budget that funded cutting-edge weapons. Second, and closely related, was a deliberate technological competition, including the development of stealth and the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a space-based anti-ballistic-missile program, which threatened to render obsolete the Soviets’ latest generation of ICBMs. The third was American support of the Afghan mujahideen, which helped sap Soviet morale.

The fourth was a series of U.S. military-service doctrinal changes that made it more likely that American forces could prevail in a conventional war with the USSR. The fact is that for many years, U.S. operational doctrine in the event of a war with the Soviet Union was a sham that ultimately depended on the American threat to use tactical nuclear weapons to deter a Soviet conventional attack against NATO. The credibility of that threat depended on the assumption that, in the face of Soviet conventional superiority, the United States possessed “escalation dominance,” i.e., the ability to prevail in the event of a nuclear exchange, and that it could in turn prevent the Soviets from threatening a strategic nuclear strike in response to America’s first use of tactical nukes. But the United States had lost escalation dominance by the mid 1970s. Soviet conventional superiority and the loss of U.S. escalation dominance meant that NATO was vulnerable to Soviet military threats.

The Army and the Air Force exploited emerging technologies and new operational concepts to develop a credible war-fighting doctrine in the event of a Warsaw Pact conventional attack. It involved the deep attack of Soviet follow-on forces and eventually became known as AirLand Battle operations. The Navy did the same, employing studies and war games at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., to develop Sea Plan 2000, the genesis of what would become the U.S. Navy’s maritime strategy.

The maritime strategy generated a great deal of controversy. It was opposed by analysts who focused on NATO’s central front — they said it threatened to divert resources to what they considered a peripheral purpose. And it was opposed by those who felt that a naval strategy that threatened action against Soviet bastions on NATO’s maritime northern flank and against Vladivostok in the Pacific was provocative and destabilizing. In fact, the maritime strategy proved to be a major contributor to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Oceans Ventured tells the story of “how a new president’s determination to change the nation’s course came together with a powerful strategy that could be implemented immediately through highly visible and dramatic operations,” Lehman writes.

While in itself the naval buildup and forward strategy did not end the Cold War, it did fundamentally change what the Soviets liked to call “the correlation of forces.” The realization by a new Soviet leadership that the global balance of power was rapidly shifting against them and that their failing economy prevented them from keeping up gave Reagan the leverage to negotiate the web of treaties and agreements that brought about the end of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. 

The title of the book is a play on “Ocean Venture ’81,” the name of the definitive exercise intended to test and refine the maritime strategy. Executed by the Second Fleet/NATO Strike Fleet under the command of Vice Admiral James “Ace” Lyons, Ocean Venture ’81 was the first of three large, imaginative, and, most significant, aggressive NATO naval exercises designed to bring the U.S. Navy into the icy bastions of the Norwegian Sea, which the Soviet navy believed to be sacrosanct. Lehman persuasively argues that the pressure that Ocean Venture ’81 and subsequent exercises brought to bear on the Soviet Union was instrumental in bringing it to its knees.

To understand the importance of the maritime strategy and its execution, it is useful to remember the state of the United States Navy in the 1970s. The U.S. Navy reigned supreme at the end of World War II, but it was the victim of its own success. The navies of Japan and Germany lay at the bottom of the sea, and the newly created U.S. Air Force now challenged the U.S. Navy as the first line of defense in the emerging Cold War. The lack of a maritime adversary and the Cold War emphasis on nuclear weapons weakened the budgetary position of the Navy. The Vietnam War also consumed naval resources as the fleet aged.

Navy culture also changed. Its traditional offensive orientation declined, as did its emphasis on strategic thinking, weakening the strategist-operator cadre that had served it so well in World War II.

In 1970, the Soviets launched a massive naval exercise, Okean ’70, which confirmed the view of American naval strategists that the USSR was determined to challenge U.S. maritime supremacy, just as American military planners were beginning to forgo the enormous strategic leverage of sea power. During the 1970s, NATO focused on the balance of NATO/Warsaw Pact ground forces, to the exclusion of all else. This was the situation that prevailed as Ronald Reagan became president and John Lehman became his secretary of the Navy.

Lehman was a tireless advocate of American naval power, and his arguments persuaded President Reagan and his national-security advisers. Lehman addressed the strategic and policy debates in his memoir, Command of the Sea. But developing a strategy is one thing; implementing it is another. Oceans Ventured focuses on the operational aspects of the maritime strategy, the way in which U.S. naval forces actually executed the strategy.

Lehman describes in some detail the operations that contributed to the ultimate success of the maritime strategy. These operations were executed by aggressive naval officers under extremely difficult conditions, especially in northern waters. Lehman’s account calls to mind the “Nelson touch,” the lasting influence of Lord Horatio Nelson on the Royal Navy during the Anglo–French wars of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Even after his death in 1805 at Trafalgar, captains of the Royal Navy continued to operate in accordance with Nelson’s standing order: In the absence of signals and command, “no captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy.”

U.S. naval commanders during World War II were also noted for their aggressiveness. But this aggressive orientation declined in the 1970s. Lehman’s selection of aggressive, offensively focused officers to implement the maritime strategy — “Ace” Lyons and others — suggests a “Lehman touch.”

Lehman leaves us with some thoughts about the future of U.S. naval power: “Our situation parallels that of the 1980s, and our adversaries are actively seeking to take advantage of our weakness. . . . The president’s diplomatic power is diminished by a Navy that is stretched too thin and woefully underfunded.” Lehman calls for the Navy to revive awareness of the central importance of strategy and to reconstitute the naval “operator-strategist cadre that proved so vital in helping to win the Cold War at sea.”

The problem with assessing the impact of naval power is that it operates indirectly. Even a decisive naval battle does not immediately affect the outcome of a war, as both Trafalgar and Midway prove. But naval power enables foreign policy. As the British naval historian Colin Gray once observed: If the United States wants to be a land power anywhere but North America, it must first be a sea power. And diplomacy flows from naval power as well. As Lehman remarks, “diplomacy is the shadow cast by military and naval power.” In Oceans Ventured, John Lehman makes a strong case for the role of naval power in winning the Cold War.

Mackubin Thomas Owens — Mr. Owens is the editor of Orbis and the author of U.S. Civil–Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil–Military Bargain.

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