In Harm's Way
The Navy’s new strategy for global conventional war is aimed at scaring the Soviets ,but it should scare us, too—it could lead to global nuclear war
BY JACK BEATTY
I hope Gary Hart’s book gets a big sale . . . in the Soviet Union.
IT IS CALLED “THE MARITIME STRATEGY,” AND IT MAY be the most important innovation in naval warfare since the Second World War. It is certainly the most controversial. Aside from the Strategic Defense Initiative, which is thus far only in its chrysalis stage, the maritime strategy represents the major change made in United States war planning by the Reagan Administration. This change has been labeled unnecessary, reckless, profligate with the dwindling exchequer, and a sure way to erode the firebreak separating conventional from nuclear war. Its critics have included the liberal military reformer Gary Hart, the conservative strategist Edward Luttwak, and the professional navalist Admiral Stansfield Turner. Its defenders are drawn mostly from the ranks of the men who now live by this strategy, as in war some of them would die by it: the serving naval officers and the civilian strategists brought into the Pentagon by John Lehman, who has just resigned after serving as Secretary of the Navy for the first six years of the Reagan Administration.
Although Lehman has been credited with devising the maritime strategy, it was not born in his bathtub. He did. however, marry it to an ambitious re-armament program that he had backed even before becoming Secretary—one aimed at building a 600-ship Navy, including 15 aircraft carriers, by 1989—and he became the strategy’s most public advocate and controversialist. According to the Navy, the father of the maritime strategy is Admiral Thomas Hayward, who during the seventies was the commanderin-chief of the United States Pacific Fleet. Surveying his responsibilities in the lees of the Vietnam War, Admiral Hayward saw a convergence of two discouraging trends: the decline of the U.S. naval forces from 5,718 ships (including 98 aircraft carriers) in 1945 to 460 ships in 1977, and the dramatic increase in Soviet naval strength and reach—to Vietnam, Syria, Angola, Ethiopia, South Yemen, and Cuba. In a May, 1979, essay in the Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute, Hayward called for a venturesome use of U.S. naval forces in any future war with the Soviet Union. Only by seizing the initiative early in such a war, he argued, could the Navy make up for the disparity between its shrinking resources and the growing threat. Hayward’s call for a strategic rethinking fell on favorable ears in the Reagan Administration, which had entered office pledging to restore U.S. defenses, and after a two-year study the Navy announced key elements of its new strategy in February of 1983.
Critics of the maritime strategy point to a second, unstated fear driving it—not of the Soviet Navy but of the U.S. Congress. In their version, the intellectual case tor the maritime strategy received a mighty institutional push when in 1979 an official of President Jimmy Carter’s Office of Management and Budget, Randy Jayne, gave a lecture at the Naval War College that struck fear in the hearts of the admirals. Jayne warned the Navy that it had better come up with a strategic rationale to justify its budget requests at a time when restoring the credibility of our ground defense of Europe was an urgent priority of U.S. foreign policy. Either that, he said, or the Navy would shrink further. Their minds thus concentrated, the admirals devised a strategy that justifies procurement of stateof-the-art weaponry in the name of deterring the Soviet Union from invading our NATO and Western Pacific allies.
By now the maritime strategy has an all but unstoppable institutional momentum behind it—one driven by money appropriated by Congress for Lehman’s 600-ship Navy but not yet spent—that has given force and flesh to the theory and that will give more to it in the decade ahead. In short, the maritime strategy, unlike Star Wars, is a reality. When Alexander Haig was still the NATO Commander, he remarked that the next big war would be a “come as you are” affair. Should that war break out tomorrow, the maritime strategy is how the Navy will go. It will go, above all, “in harm’s way.” Visitors to the Naval War College, in Newport, Rhode Island, hear that bit of nautical bravado again and again. The harm referred to is formidable indeed, for the maritime strategy is the Navy’s template for global conventional war with the Soviet Union.
As recently as the Carter Administration, the Navy’s main job in the event of a conventional war in Europe was to serve as a transatlantic ferry for the Army, and, at the extreme of derring-do, to practice “defensive sea control” against Russian submarines. These are not missions that consort with glory, and the Navy has now found one that does. It is to leave a good deal of the ferrying to our European allies and to switch the main emphasis from defense to offense. A naval offensive against a land power the size of the Soviet Union may sound absurd, but it is daring beyond all cavil. More, it has a warrant from history.
At congressional hearings and in War College lectures the Navy reproduces something it refers to as the “measles chart”—a map of what it hopes to avoid in the next war by striking at Soviet submarine bases and water bastions. The dots on the chart signify the Allied ships sunk from January to July of 1942, for the United States the very beginning of the Second World War. There are 450 dots, and they represent the work of only fourteen U-boats. Attrition of that order was sustainable in 1942, the Navy says, because the United States had 5,000 ships in its merchant fleet. Today it has 465, or roughly one and a half ships per Soviet submarine. The Soviet subs are based at a number of ports on the Kola Peninsula, which is in the extreme north of European Russia; and, in the Soviet Far East, at the ports of Vladivostok and Petropavlovsk and in the protected waters of the Sea of Okhotsk.
The first objective of the maritime strategy is to destroy the Soviet subs in their bastions before they can “surge” out into the untrackable reaches of the Atlantic (32 million square miles) or the Pacific (63 million square miles), where they would frustrate the effort to resupply the NATO forces fighting on the Central Front in Europe by cutting the sea lines of communication—SLOCs—connecting the United States to Europe, or cut Japan’s oil lifeline from the Persian Gulf and supply lines between America and Japan. The naval offensive against the sub bases can be understood as preventive medicine: a vaccine against another outbreak of measles.
The second objective of the maritime strategy is to pin down Soviet ground and tactical air forces at the far-flung edges of the Russian land mass, and thus keep them from being shifted to what would be the critical battle along the Central Front in Europe. This mission is sometimes discussed under the rubric of “horizontal escalation,” as opposed to “vertical escalation” from conventional to nuclear war. Horizontal escalation would entail a series of conventional naval and amphibious attacks on the Soviet mainland—the Soviet Far East, the Black Sea, and the Baltic Sea are regularly mentioned—and on (belligerent) Soviet proxy states around the world, as well. In short, horizontal escalation threatens the Soviets with what Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger has called “worldwide war.”
The mere threat of worldwide war, the Navy argues, strengthens deterrence. Should deterrence fail, and the Soviets invade Europe, worldwide war would help NATO win the ground battle in Europe by limiting the forces the Soviets could deploy there.
When the third objective of the maritime strategy was announced, in January of last year, in a white paper published in the Naval Proceedings, it made headlines. It is to destroy not only the Soviet attack submarines (SSNs), which can spread the measles, but the Soviet ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs), which can unleash nuclear annihilation. According to Admiral James D. Watkins, the former chief of naval operations, an attack on the Soviet SSBNs would reduce “the attractiveness of nuclear escalation by changing the nuclear balance in our favor.” He writes, “Some argue that such steps will lead to immediate escalation, but escalation solely as a result of actions at sea seems improbable, given the Soviet land orientation.” In other words, because roughly two thirds of the Soviet nuclear deterrent is in land-based missiles (where about one fifth of the U.S. deterrent is), attacks on the SSBNs would not panic the Soviets into launching tactical nuclear strikes against the Navy ships menacing their SSBNs or strategic strikes at missiles based in Europe or the continental United States. Through the fog of war the Soviets would somehow see that our anti-SSBN campaign was not the opening phase of a first strike against their nuclear deterrent. They would, paradoxically, recognize that it was a defensive strategy, aimed at keeping the conventional war from escalating into a nuclear one.
In addition, the Navy claims, the campaign against the Soviet SSBNs would give the West a stick with which to prod the Soviets into quitting such of Western Europe as they might have seized. Continue your conventional attack on NATO and you will suffer the impairment of one leg of your land-sea-air nuclear triad: that, the Navy argues, is the choice with which the Soviets would be confronted. (The reader will note a robust contradiction in this thinking. On the one hand, the Soviet SSBNs are said to be expendable, “given the Soviet land orientation.” On the other, destroying these expendable assets would suffice to force the Soviets into giving up any ground they had won and calling off the war.)
Fears that changing the balance of nuclear forces against the Soviet Union will lead to escalation are “based on a misreading of Soviet doctrine,”writes Captain Linton F. Brooks, a Navy officer now serving on the staff of the National Security Council, in much the strongest defense of the maritime strategy. To quote from his article in a recent issue of International Security:
Not only have the Soviets long accepted anti-SSBN operations as a legitimate military task (and one they would undertake were they able to do so); they have also long assumed that the United States will conduct such operations in time of war. Such an assumption is reasonable from the Soviet standpoint, both because of doctrinal mirror-imaging and because senior naval officers giving Congressional testimony have consistently stressed the practical difficulties of distinguishing between types of submarines and have indicated that all types of submarines would be legitimate wartime targets. Thus, while in the West the explicit acknowledgment that attacking SSBNs was a component of the overall Maritime Strategy was news, in the Soviet Union it was not.
The maritime strategy was conceived against the background of a “change in the global military balance of power that has been surpassed only by the advent of thermonuclear weapons,” in the words of John Lehman. That change, as we have seen, is the growth of Soviet naval power and the regular deployment of Soviet ships to “contentious and vulnerable chokepoints” and major sea-lanes in all the oceans of the world.
Historically, wooden ships being frangible by ice, Russia was never much of a naval power. Catherine the Great may have recruited John Paul Jones to command her warmwater Black Sea Fleet, but the American habit of victory at sea did not catch on in Russia, which saw two of its fleets sunk in the 1904-1905 war with Japan and whose Navy thereafter was notable chiefly for furnishing the Bolshevik Revolution with sailors bored to mutiny by being so long confined to port while the First World War raged all around them. In the Second World War the Navy’s role, as one writer puts it, “was sufficiently marginal for 400,000 sailors to be drafted to serve as foot soldiers in the vital land battles.” But under S. G. Gorshkov, appointed Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union in 1956 and retired only in 1985, the Soviets built up their fleet considerably. Indeed, their ships now far outnumber ours, though the actual numbers—Navy spokesmen testifying before Congress give estimates ranging as high as 1,700—are mischievous. Edward Luttwak’s recent Pentagon and the Art of War shows why: “For the Soviet Navy, one ship list prepared by the U.S. Navy shows 1,324 ‘surface combatants,’ as against its own 285 surface warships; 367 submarines, as against 99; and 770 auxiliaries, as against its own 105 logistic and support ships. The figures are, of course, grossly inflated, but even the most sober count that excludes the old, the inactive, and the small would still list 290 major Soviet surface warships [and] 119 nuclear and 157 diesel attack submarines.” However numerous, Soviet vessels do not appear to be of high quality. “Soviet ships are so unreliable that only one ship in five is ever actually underway,” one source says. “Even on patrol they spend much of their time at anchor or breaking down and being towed.” Nor do the Soviets appear to give tender thought to the convenience or safety of their sailors, particularly in their nuclear-powered ships. The defense writer Andrew Cockburn claims that “old sailors’ homes in Russia have hairless inmates”—sailors who have been exposed to depilitating doses of radiation—and he retails a joke told by sailors in the non-nuclear Baltic Fleet about their brothers in the nuclear Northern Fleet:
Q: “How do you tell a man is from the Northern Fleet?”
A: “Because he glows in the dark.”
There is, however, nothing funny about the Soviets having the largest fleet of strategic-missile-carrying submarines in the world; 64 boats fitted with just under 1,000 nuclear-tipped missiles, some of which have a range of 8,300 kilometers (we have 37 submarines carrying nuclear missiles). These SSBNs alone make the Soviet Navy a formidable force.
There is nothing more terrifying than ignorance in action.
—Goethe (on a wall plaque at the Naval War College)
THE REAGAN ADMINISTRATION HAS BEEN ACCUSED of lacking strategic vision, of engaging in a directionless debauch of dollars these past six years. That charge is unfair. The Strategic Defense Initiative is the boldest departure in nuclear strategy in a generation. And the same could be said of the maritime strategy in the field of conventional war. Captain Brooks, of the NSC, is not boasting when he says that “a renaissance of strategic thinking has been taking place within the U.S. Navy.”
That renaissance has been incubated at the Naval War College, a complex of stark buildings sited on the flanks of Narragansett Bay. Since its curriculum was toughened by Admiral Stansfield Turner, in the early 1970s, the War College has become intellectually adventurous. Through it every year passes a cadre of the Navy’s brightest officers, who are obliged to study wars ancient and modern, as well as to attend to the strategic theories of Carl von Clausewitz, Julian Corbett, and the totemic Alfred Thayer Mahan. To teach these experienced students, the War College has hired some of the country’s ablest military historians and strategic-studies specialists. It invites distinguished lecturers representing many different points of view to hold seminars and give lectures. While I was visiting the college not long ago, William Lind, one of Gary Hart’s defense advisers and the co-author of America Can Win, spoke at a seminar. This was an act of extraordinary intellectual generosity on the part of the War College, since Lind is among the sharpest critics of the big-carrier Navy, and he is widely execrated among its officers. “We are today building, not a navy, but the world’s largest and most expensive naval museum,” Hart and Lind write in America Can Win. “The basic problem is simple. Our only serious naval opponent is the Soviet navy. The Soviet navy is primarily a submarine navy. Our current navy, built around big aircraft carriers, is largely irrelevant to the task of fighting submarines.”
Besides intellectual openness, the most notable feature of the Naval War College, to me, was the offense-mindedness of the officers in the seminars I sat in on. Now, at a war college you’d expect to hear more virile talk than at a conclave of the Americans for Democratic Action. Still, I also sat in on classes at the Army War College, and the Army’s future leaders seemed to me to think in markedly more defensive terms than their opposite numbers in the Navy. (Their attitude is understandable, since the Army’s mission is to defend NATO territory, but then, that is supposed to be the Navy’s mission too.) I wish that I could convey this attitude in a more impressive way than by means of an anecdote, but I cannot. The anecdote, however, is resonant of a whole way of thinking.
It was told by a Marine Corps colonel about Admiral Kidd, the raffishly named former Commander of the Atlantic Fleet. A Soviet ship, steaming through a formation of U.S. ships during the mid-1960s, rashly pointed its guns at Admiral Kidd’s ship. The Admiral immediately ordered his men to take up their battle stations and trained every gun on the Soviet ship, now passing close by. “Do you want to start World War Three?” the startled Soviet captain signaled Admiral Kidd. “If I do,” that dauntless seaman replied, “you will be the first to know.” The class laughed heartily at the punch line. I did too. Later, though, my timid civilian heart reproached me, giving me sober second thoughts about the Admiral’s audacious retort on the brink of war.
from incidents like that, and from conversations with teachers and officers, I came away from the War College with the impression that being a soldier of deterrence cannot be easy. All this talk about preventing war goes against the motivational springs of the profession of arms. Much more satisfying to change the subject to the lustier one of fighting, and winning, a war. One of the uses of the maritime strategy, to the Navy if not to the nation, is that it spurs morale. This grand offensive theory (which, to be elear about it, contemplates a naval attack on Russia in response to a Russian attack on Europe) helps to establish institutional esprit. The weary naval officer goes to bed at night having bent his brain all day to a scheme of victory. As we shall see, there is some doubt whether the President would allow the Navy to put its war plans into action. But the plans are there, in the minds of the officers and on the drawing boards of possibility, and they give off a compelling charisma. This alone gives the Navy a powerful interest in holding on to them. That institutional interest, in turn, may account for what students of strategy call motivated bias in the Navy’s vision of how things will go in the next war.
Motivated bias is seeing realities as you need to, for institutional reasons, and not as they are. Chief among the great instances of motivated bias in military history are the offensive war plans drawn up by the Great Powers before the First World War. In making this comparison, I don’t mean to be portentous; 1987 is not 1914. Still, among the reasons that 1914 remains such a symbol of cataclysm is the way the offensive war plans of the Great Powers caused a local crisis to escalate into general war.
Those war plans rested on a belief in the ineluctable superiority of the offense over the defense. In words that could have come from a Naval War College lecture on the maritime strategy, General Alfred von Schlieffen, the author ot Germany’s war plan, laid it down: “Attack is the best defense.”The general who would implement Schlieffen’s plan in 1914, Helmuth von Moltke, held to the same principle. In France, Moltke’s future antagonist at the First Battle of the Marne, Joseph Joffre, the Chief of Staff of the Army, wrote that his service “no longer knows any other law than the offensive. . . . Any other conception ought to be rejected as contrary to the very nature of war. The French Army, Marshal! Foch maintained, had “a single formula for success, . . . namely, the decisive power of offensive action undertaken with the resolute determination to march on the enemy, reach and destroy him.”The British military, Stephen Van Evera writes in an illuminating essay in International Security, “rejected defensive strategies despite their experience in the Boer War which demonstrated the power of entrenched defenders against exposed attackers.”A British general of the period wrote, “The defensive is never an acceptable role to the Briton, and he makes little or no study of it.”Even in Russia, which had beat back Napoleon’s invasion on the defensive, the “cult of the offensive,”as Van Evera terms it, took hold.
In his book The Ideology of the Offensive: Military Decision Making and the Disasters of 1914, Jack Snyder shows how this cult biased the powers’ reckoning of the risks involved in taking the offensive. Their fundamental mistake, put in the center of their war plans like a magnetic north of error, was to view “the necessary as possible.”It was, for example, necessary for Germany to defeat France in one great battle in order to be able to switch troops from France and send them against Russia, the enemy on Germany’s eastern border. It was just not possible. The German war planners indulged in “needful thinking" about the realities of warfare in the age of the locomotive and the machine gun, to name two of the technological developments that had tipped the balance to the defense.
This rough logic applies to the Navy’s plan for victory in Europe. According to one commonly held view, the conventional defense of Europe would require either a conventional buildup on the Central Front or a means of limiting the forces the Soviets can bring to bear in any attack across it. The buildup, however, is not possible given political realities, and the thinning out of Soviet forces isn’t possible given military ones. The maritime strategy’s emphasis on diversionary attacks recognizes the necessity of limiting Soviet strength at the front and, because it is necessary, assumes it is possible.
“Just as our World War II experience indicated that secondary fronts were required to defeat Germany, it is essential to any successful strategy that the Soviets be faced with a multi-theater challenge,”writes Rear Admiral William Pendley, the Navy’s director of strategy, plans, and policy. The Admiral’s use of “essential” is a telltale touch. He assumes that, on land, in Europe, NATO’s choice, as another Navy man puts it, is to “lose quickly or lose slowly.” But persuasive books and articles make the case that NATO’s fighting potential is thus derogated for reasons of budgetary politics, and that it would stand a better than fair chance of stopping whatever the Soviets threw against it. The Admiral’s analogy, moreover, would have us believe something quite improbable: that the three or four carriers that the Navy would use to attack the Soviet sub bastions and bases in the Far East can do the work of the 400 divisions that the Soviets fielded on their “secondary” front against the Germans in the Second World War.
Something intrinsic to offensive strategies accounts for such motivated bias. Defense is more empirical. You let the enemy commit himself and then exploit the opening he has given you. Navy officers deride this kind of thinking as “reactive,”a word you often hear to characterize what was wrong with U.S. strategy in Vietnam. Yet Waterloo was won on the strategic defensive; so was Gettysburg. And so. Colonel Harry Summers argues in his influential book on the military lessons of Vietnam, might the Vietnam War have been won.
The main contribution made by the Allied navies to victory, in the European theaters of both world wars, was through defensive measures like the blockade and the convoy system. In the Second World War the Navy won the Battle of the Atlantic not by attacking the German submarine bases with its carriers—that would have exposed them to the stings of land-based German bombers—but by defending the convoys with frigates, destroyers, and corvettes. According to one scholarly work, “in the entire war only 25 ships were sunk by U-boats when both air and surface escorts were present (out of a total of 2,828 lost to submarines).” The Navy’s new, offensive model is derived instead from the Pacific theater of the Second World War. The island-hopping offensive conducted there by carriercentered task forces, however, was tantamount to an intervention in the Third World, not to an attack on the mainland of a great power. Across the Pacific the Navy had air superiority. It will not enjoy this advantage off the Sea of Okhotsk or the Kola Peninsula.
It is hard to believe that thoughtful military planners would actually do this.
—Admiral Stansfield Turner
ADMIRAL TURNER IS REFERRING TO THE ATTACKS ON the Kola Peninsula contemplated as part of the first objective of the maritime strategy. The Kola Peninsula is 125 miles above the Arctic Circle, and from midNovember to mid-January the sun does not rise above the horizon; yet, thanks to a vagrant current of the Gulf Stream, a stretch of the Kola coast is free of ice year round. Three major Soviet ports lie along this stretch of coast. They are Polyarnyy, a base for the surface ships and submarines of the Red Banner Northern Fleet; Pechenga, a naval base and fishing port only eighteen miles from the NATO lines at the Norwegian border; and Murmansk, a center for the Russian fish-processing industry and the site of two large shipyards. There are other, smaller bases on the Kola, approximately forty military airfields, and the barracks of two army motorized divisions and a marine regiment. Half of the Soviet Navy’s submarines, and a quarter of its surface ships, naval aircraft (including its Backfire bombers), and naval personnel, are attached to the Northern Fleet. The fleet’s mission is the defense of the Russian homeland; since ballistic-missile submarines were added, in the early 1960s, this has come to mean defense of the seaborne leg of Russia’s nuclear deterrent, the SSBNs.
The essentially defensive mission of the Northern Fleet, and indeed of the Soviets’ three other fleets, is “alien to American naval thought,” in the words of one scholar. Our SSBNs operate independently and depend on their own stealth, not surface ships and attack submarines, to assure their survivability. But Soviet SSBNs do not have this luxury. In order to get to the open ocean Soviet submarines have to pass through narrow enemy-held choke points, like the Bear Island gap off the North Cape of Norway and the Aleutian gap northeast of Japan—passages that are, in the words of a recent writer on the subject, “almost as extensively wired for sound as a Hollywood studio.” Thus the Soviets keep their subs in defended bastions, like the waters of the Barents Sea, off the Kola.
An attack on the Kola would begin with history’s first allout submarine battle, pitting U.S. attack subs against their Soviet counterparts. The U.S. subs would have to “roll back" the Soviet subs from the Norwegian Sea, and from the approaches to the Barents Sea, before the Navy would risk sending carriers to bomb the Kola bases. In a searching paper published in the invaluable International Security, John Mearsheimer, a strategic analyst at the University of Chicago, calculates that the Soviet Northern Fleet includes 41 ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs) and 140 cruise-missile and attack subs (SSNs). Once the maritimestrategy quota is filled, the Navy will have 100 attack subs. When you deduct from this total the number on Pacific duty, the number that would be held back to defend NATO’s lifelines, and the number normally in port for repairs, you have roughly 30 subs left. That means 30 of our submarines versus 181 of theirs, if you count their SSBNs, and 140 if you don’t. This outnumbered force would confront “an impressive array of land-based aircraft and surface combatants . . . , specifically designed to participate in ASW [anti-submarine warfare] operations,” as Mearsheimer puts it. Finally, the U.S. subs would face “a huge arsenal of mines”—a threat that the Navy’s anti-mine capability, in the words of Admiral Wesley McDonald, the former commander of the Atlantic Fleet, is “woefully inadequate” to counter.
Defenders of the maritime strategy argue that Mearsheimer’s figures are misleading, in two ways. First, he counts “non-operational” boats in the Soviet total, and second, he obscures the qualitative edge possessed by the U.S. boats. The odds, in short, would not be so bad as the naked numbers make them appear.
Against these claims, in turn, one must set the sovereign fact that this sub-versus-sub battle would take place in or very near Soviet waters. And this home-field advantage, coupled with the overwhelming Soviet superiority in numbers, means that one would have to make a leap of faith to imagine the rollback campaign succeeding. But suppose it did succeed. Suppose the U.S. aircraft carriers were steaming into position to launch their air strikes against the Kola. What dangers would they be likely to face? Admiral Turner and Captain George Thibault, writing in Foreign Affairs, have drawn a vivid picture of those dangers:
With modern reconnaissance techniques, such a major force would be detected long before it arrived within striking range of a Soviet base. The Soviets would have time to minimize their forces left in port or on airfields and to put the rest on full alert. By the time the carriers were within 1,600 miles of Soviet air bases, they would be within range of over90 percent of the U.S.S.R.’s landbased bombers. Yet, the Soviet bases would still be over 1,000 miles beyond the range of carrier aircraft.
Traveling at 25 knots for those last 1,000 miles, the carrier force would be subject to Soviet air bombardment for nearly two days before it was close enough to strike Soviet bases. The force would also be subject to attack by submarines and surface ships with long-range missiles that would have been deployed along the route. . . .
At a point 400 to 500 miles from the Soviet bases, the carriers could finally launch an attack with whatever aircraft were left after two days of Soviet attacks. . . . Most Soviet ships and aircraft would have left their bases or airfields when they received warning of the approach of the carriers. Thus, if the carriers wanted to destroy them, the carriers would have to remain in that exposed position and continue attacking long enough to catch the ships and planes that come and go as they require repair, replenishment or refueling—a considerable period of time. Unless nuclear weapons were used, even the attacks on base and airfield facilities would have to be repeated as repairs were made. With the carrier task force in a forward position long enough to do the job correctly, the chance of losing part, if not all of it, would be high simply because the trends of technology give the attacker who employs the new stand-off weapons like Fxocet [antiship guided missiles] a considerable advantage today.
The loss of three or four of the Navy’s 12 to 13 carriers, in what would have to be a gamble to suppress the Soviet Navy in this manner, would be a major catastrophe. No President could possibly permit the Navy to attempt such a high risk effort. There simply would be inadequate fallback forces to handle other threats, especially to the North Atlantic sea lanes.
The Navy counters criticism of this kind by stressing how much punishment its carriers can take. “We learned the hard way what weapons effects are at the Battle of Okinawa,”John Lehman told the producers of “Battle for the Norwegian Sea,” a documentary for the PBS series Frontline. “We had five carriers hit by kamikazes which were more formidable weapons than Soviet cruise missiles. And we did not lose a single one of the large carriers to those attacks even though there were multiple hits on those carriers. . . . We’re satisfied with the survivability of our carriers.” Interviewed for the same program, Norman Friedman, a naval analyst formerly affiliated with the Hudson Institute, also cited a Pacific-theater battle in making the point that the Navy actually wants the Soviet longrange anti-ship Backfire bombers to attack. “In the Philippine Sea in 1944 the Japanese lost their entire naval air arm . . . trying to destroy an American task force. If we concentrate fighters on the carrier we have a fair chance of doing the same sort of thing to the Backfire force. . . . It’s very important to keep in mind it’s not an infinite source of airplanes waiting to come out. There are all of about three hundred bombers in Soviet naval aviation. These bombers have elite crews. Once the crews have been killed, and the bombers shot down, they don’t come back.” The Backfires destroyed, each carrier can unleash its thirty-four attack planes against the bases and ports on the Kola. “They’d lose their whole strategic submarine fleet if they lose Kola,” Lehman said.
The Navy claims that in its war games and in the at-sea exercises it conducts, the carriers always get through, but according to former Lieutenant Commander Dean Knuth, who umpired one of these fleet exercises, the Navy interprets these tests with motivated bias. “I was reporting that the carriers were in fact vulnerable against submarines,” Knuth said in the Frontline documentary. “And the article that I was asked to write for the Naval Proceedings reported this vulnerability and the Navy declared my article to be secret. . . . somehow the results were modified by the time that they were reported on at the top levels in the Navy. And specifically when the then commander-in-chief of the Atlantic Fleet reported to the Senate Armed Services Committee . . . that aircraft carriers did the job so well it was a reason to fund additional nuclear aircraft carriers, and that funding happened and they got what they wanted.”
LET’S STEP BACK TO PUT THE DISCUSSION INTO PERspective. I have been laying out the salient arguments against the Navy’s rationale for the first objective of the maritime strategy. The Navy’s idea is that what it calls “forward operations” and Mearsheimer calls “offensive sea control” would be necessary to prevent Soviet subs based on the Kola from cutting NATO’s supply lines. Attacking the Kola, therefore, would be an antimeasles vaccine. Administering that vaccine, as we have seen, would be costly. But is it, in any case, strategically necessary to run such high operational risks?
A strong case ean be made that offensive sea control would not be necessary to ward off the measles, that a defensive strategy would achieve the same end, and that such a strategy, because it would call for a different force structure, would cost the taxpayer significantly less to support.
Take the first point—that an offensive strategy is not necessary. Mearsheimer writes that in the 1970s “the American intelligence community became convinced that the Soviets would keep most of their naval forces in the Barents Sea to protect their SSBNs.” Using measured understatement, he adds, “The Soviet decision to concentrate on protecting their SSBNs, which means that a large force of SSNs would not be surged into the Atlantic, does not correlate with the Reagan Administration’s muchadvertised switch from defensive to offensive sea control.”Measles-spreading would become a priority to the Soviets only in the event of a war of attrition in Europe. But the Soviets have shaped their forces to fight a blitzkrieg war in Europe. Their operational imperative, should war come, would be to drive the NATO armies off the Continent before the industrial might of the United States could be poured through a European beachhead against them. Attacking the SLOCs would be vital only if they failed in that objective.
Moreover, in today’s maritime world the mission of cutting the SLOCs connecting America and Europe is an increasingly unlikely one for submarines to carry out with a high expectation of success. As we have seen, in its briefings to Congress the Navy invokes the dread memory of 1942, when a handful of U-boats sank 450 U.S. merchantmen in seven months. Today, the Navy says, the United States has roughly 450 ships in its entire merchant fleet. The implication is clear that sinking them would be short work for the some 280 Soviet subs available for the job— that is, unless we sink those subs first.
Research conducted by Karl Lautenschlager, a defense analyst at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, puts this whole hit-them-before-they-hit-us logic under terminal statistical pressure. Consider: Although the United States indeed has only about 450 merchantmen, the Western Alliance has no fewer than 38,000 ships of all kinds available to it (including 14,000 ships over 1,000 tons—those that are the most significant militarily), or four times the tonnage that was available to the Allies at the beginning of the Second World War. Panama and Liberia have an additional 7,500 ships between them, most of which are NATO ships flying under flags of convenience. Passing over the possibility that neutral shipping would come to the aid of the Allies (as happened in the First World War, with fatal consequences for German naval strategy), the sheer number of NATO targets would confront Soviet subs with a daunting mathematical challenge. Each sub typically carries twenty-four torpedoes, and in the Second World War it usually took more than one to hit a ship. If the Soviets had a fleet of 450 to 500 attack subs, they might have a chance to buck these odds—might, in other words, be able to sink enough ships to cut the arteries between the United States and Europe. But the Soviets, according to Lautenschlager, are under the same imperative to gold-plate their weapons that we have seen in procurement for our services; in the familiar pattern, they are building fewer, bigger, and more sophisticated boats. Projecting their current building program into the future, Lautenschlager estimates that they will have only 240 subs in service by the 1990s, of which 60 will be available to strike at NATO’s SLOCs. Sixty against 14,000—to use only the number of large ships— does not seem like tough odds, and I have said nothing about the technological improvements in anti-submarine warfare since 1945. These trends—toward more merchantmen, fewer Soviet submarines, and better American ASW performance—have significantly eroded the antiSLOC, or commerce-warfare, mission of submarines. Commerce warfare, Lautenschlager concludes, is “regressing to commerce harassment.” If attacking the SLOCs is both a secondary and, given the trends mentioned above, a quixotic objective for the Soviets, defending their SSBNs is a first-order priority. With the bulk of their strategic weapons in land-based missiles, and their bomber force small and antiquated, the Soviets have a gaping window of vulnerability opening over their land-based nuclear deterrent. Having a far less vulnerable, if not invulnerable, sea-based deterrent is therefore the Soviets’ only safeguard against the threat of a U.S. first strike on their land-based systems. To the objection that we would never launch a first strike aimed at disarming the Soviet deterrent, one can say this: the Soviets don’t care what we say we will do; like us, they infer intentions from capabilities. And our capabilities—with a repertoire of weapons built around the highly accurate D-5 Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missile (to be deployed in 1989), the silo-killing MX intercontinental land-based missile, and the European-based fast-flying Pershing II missile, which can reach Moscow in the space of a regret— will soon be shaped for a first strike unless a major armscontrol treaty with the Soviets supervenes. The Navy expects to have twenty Trident submarines at sea by the turn of the century. If the Soviets do not add to their current total of 1,398 fixed-silo launchers until then, Lautenschlager calculates, the Tridents alone could wipe out their landbased deterrent. Meanwhile, the Soviets’sea-based deterrent will be put at risk by the anti-SSBN campaign of the maritime strategy. By itself, the anti-SSBN campaign is dangerous enough; seen in the light of our ominous new nuclear-force structure, it threatens the Soviets with the prospect of being naked to their enemies—a risky state of mind for them, and us, in a crisis. If Weinberger prevails upon Reagan to order the deployment of a missile defense by the early 1990s, this first-strike profile would be complete, since such a defense would theoretically allow us to shoot down the few Soviet missiles that survived the deadly hail of our Tridents, MXs, and Pershings as well as the undersea onslaught of the anti-SSBN campaign called for by the maritime strategy.
A return to defensive sea control on our part would seem mandated by the low priority that the Soviets give to cutting the SLOCs. A defensive sea-control strategy would not only provide more crisis stability; if any Soviet subs were sent to cut the SLOCs, it would allow NATO to fight them in friendlier waters, off the western coast of Norway, instead of in the perilous waters of the upper Norwegian and Barents Seas, off the North Cape of Norway—the harm’s way of the maritime strategy. The Soviet Backfire bombers that would come out after the U.S. surface fleet off the western coast of Norway, Mearsheimer points out, would have to go too far to bring along their fighter escorts. The Navy, closer to its own lines, would be able to use landbased ASW planes against the Soviet subs. Finally, a U.S. fleet shaped for such a strategy would be strong where our fleet is weak—in corvettes and frigates—and would not need the fifteen carriers called for by the maritime strategy (each of which, with its array of defensive ships, costs $18 billion to build and $700 million annually to operate). Mearsheimer estimates that the Navy could get by on ten carriers. Defensive sea control, in short, would be more efficient, both militarily and economically.
To make a stand off the west coast of Norway, outside fighter range of the Soviet bases on the Kola, the Navy counters, would write off northern Norway. Captain brooks asks, “If you were in the government of one of our allies, how would you react to an espoused strategy that said that in time of war we’d write off the bulk of one of our allies’ territories because it didn’t fit our strategic theories?” Vice Admiral Henry Mustin, lately commander of NATO’s Striking Fleet Atlantic, which would fight the battle of the Norwegian Sea, argues that losing northern Norway would be more than politically embarrassing; it would be fatal to NATO’s whole defense effort: “Naval power can make the difference between winning and losing the land battle in northern Norway. And that means the difference between winning and losing the Norwegian Sea and hence the Battle of the Atlantic and the land war in Europe.”
Is this so? Would a defensive sea-control strategy— which was the NATO strategy during the Carter Administration—write off northern Norway and with ir the Western world? Not at all, Mearsheimer says. In a recent interview with me he argued that northern Norway could be far more easily defended by ground-based aircraft than by the Navy’s carriers. There are several good military airfields in northern Norway, and the naval base in Troms county is defended by automatically controlled minefields and by guns built into the rocks. Moreover, the Soviets would face fearsome terrain if they tried to invade by land, and their feeble amphibious capability lessens the chances that they would come by sea. Norway has a good army, trained and equipped to fight a frozen war at the top of the world, and it is backed by the U.S. Marines, who by 1989 will have equipment sufficient to support a 17,000-man Marine amphibious brigade pre-positioned in Norway, waiting against the day.
Norway conducts a delicate “nordpolitik” toward the Soviet Union. It is a member of NATO, but it does not allow NATO troops to be based on its soil, out of fear of antagonizing the Russians, who are just over the border from the Norwegian county of Finnmark. Norway will, however, have that pre-positioned equipment for the Marine brigade, and it has agreed that the Marines would be flown in at the threat of war. If the East-West relationship were to deteriorate sharply, the Norwegians might well invite more NATO forces in, and nordpolitik be damned. The question for American taxpayers is not whether northern Norway should be defended but, rather, whether its defense requires $18 billion carrier battle groups when the same job can be done at approximately one fourth the cost by ground-based jet fighters. The Navy says that groundbased aircraft, being stationary, are more vulnerable to attack than aircraft based on carriers. But airfields can be defended by anti-aircraft missiles and fighter planes. And say this for airfields—submarines can’t sink them.
Once, I remember, we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. . . . It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts. . . . In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent.
—Joseph Conrad, “Heart of Darkness”
EVERYBODY WHO HAS READ “HEART OF DARKNESS” remembers that warship. It is one of the suburban absurdities that Marlow sees on his way down the west coast of Africa to his destination, the great river that leads to Kurtz. The warship stands for the utter fecklessness of the European effort to subdue vast Africa. For our purposes, it serves admirably to express the aura of absurdity that surrounds the Navy’s second objective for the maritime strategy and the 600-ship Navy—the seaborne campaign of horizontal escalation against the vulnerable flanks of the Russian land mass, and against such supposed wards of the Soviet state as Cuba, Angola, South Yemen, and Nicaragua.
The Navy defends the threat of horizontal escalation as a necessity to pin down Soviet forces who might otherwise be sent to the Central Front. In this way, it claims, horizontal escalation contributes to deterrence in Europe and would help the U.S. force a favorable end should deterrence fail and conventional war with the USSR begin.
Robert W. Komer, who was an undersecretary of defense in the Carter Administration, has written a book attacking the maritime strategy; he comes down especially hard on the idea of horizontal escalation. “Even if carrier strikes around the Soviet periphery could be carried out with great success with acceptable losses,” he writes, “it would be like sticking pins in the hide of an elephant.” Elephants don’t simply ignore pinpricks: they crush the wielder of the pin. And that seems the likely fate of the amphibious operations suggested as possible diversions by some maritime strategists.
General P. X. Kelley, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, has written of possible Marine landings on Sakhalin Island, in the Soviet Far East, or along the Baltic or the Black Sea coast of European Russia. “Used in this way,” he contends, “our naval forces can make the strategic difference.” Mearsheimer disagrees: he calls the Baltic and Black Sea scenarios “completely unrealistic.” Amphibious attacks, he argues, could be launched in those places only if the United States had local air and naval supremacy, which is unlikely in Soviet waters. Such attacks, moreover, would have to forfeit the element of surprise, since to be in a position to attack, U.S. ships would have to steam through narrow, easily monitored choke points like the Bosporus, at the mouth of the Black Sea, and the ∅re Sund and Skagerrak, at the approaches to the Baltic. Finally, an amphibious operation that might really “make the strategic difference” would require, Mearsheimer calculates, a force more like the five heavy divisions landed at Normandy than like the one and a half light divisions that the Marines have on hand for the job.
In order to mount the Normandy-type operation necessary to pose a plausible threat to the Soviets, and simultaneously to guard the European SLOCs and conduct antisubmarine warfare in the Norwegian Sea and secure Japan’s sea lifelines and pluck belligerent Angola and Cuba and Vietnam off the Soviet vine—to do all this would take a force larger than the 600-ship, 15-carrier Navy. This is a point made cogently by Michael MccGwire, a naval analyst at the Brookings Institute. The Navy “cannot be excused for creating the impression that a 15-carrier force . . . would ensure success in global war,” he writes. “Not only does the claim flout common sense, but it is contradicted by the JCS ‘prudent risk’ assessment, that at least 22 carriers would be needed. ... It is bad strategy, marketing or maritime, to exaggerate the capabilities at one’s disposal.”
If the attack on the Kola violates one maxim of war— never throw weakness against strength—the waterborne campaign around the periphery of the Soviet Union violates another. This point is tellingly made in an article called “The Reagan Defense Program”:
The Soviets are able to exploit their interior lines of communication in order to shift rapidly the geographical pivots of their force concentrations for power projection. Thus, they are in a position to move airborne forces and air forces swiftly along their periphery, and they can shift Backfire bombers to attack our fleets more rapidly than the United States can shift its aircraft carriers between widely separated sea regions near the Soviet Union.
The author of those words is none other than Fred Iklé, the undersecretary of defense for policy.
Clearly, horizontal escalation is not a credible strategy. And that is its cardinal flaw. Would the Soviets be deterred from invading Europe by the prospect of a few warships’ shelling their Asiatic ports or by the threat of a light division’s—for NATO could spare no more from the do-or-die battle on the Central Front—storming the beaches of one of their resorts? You don’t have to be a Clausewitz to answer that one. A gunboat bring at a continent is a risible threat.
We now live in the worst of all possible worlds. We plan potentially escalatory conventional operations, but we do not seem to understand their implications.
—the MIT strategist Barry Posen
THERE ARE ROUGHLY 3,500 TACTICAL NUCLEAR WEAPons deployed on Navy ships, but, according to one study, “The Navy has developed very little in the way of doctrine, tactics, strategy, or policy for the use of [tactical nuclear weapons] capabilities.” The Navy’s neglect of the subject of tactical nuclear war at sea is puzzling in light of the widely accepted idea that “there are good reasons for believing that the first use of nuclear weapons could take place at sea,” in the words of Desmond Ball, the head of the Strategic and Defense Studies Centre at the Australian National University. The maritime strategy raises special problems in view of this liability of naval warfare in the nuclear age. That strategy envisages pitting nuclear and conventionally armed and—to add a dangerous complication—dual-capable boats, the switch-hitters of naval warfare, against one another in a great gumbo of a battle. Maritime strategists are weirdly confident that this battle will not cross the firebreak between conventional and nuclear war. Yet that could happen at sea in a variety of disturbingly plausible contexts. For example:
• The Navy requires orders from the National Command Authority (jargon for the President and the Secretary of Defense) to use strategic or tactical nuclear weapons. But no technical restraints bar the use of Navy nuclear missiles, as they do Air Force and Army nuclear weapons. Everything depends on the discipline of the sub’s crew. Faced with a choice between death and the use of tactical nuclear weapons, a ship or sub commander may well find Spinoza’s venerable imperative—Being wants to stay in being—stronger and deeper in him than the regulations of his service.
• Ships make a comparatively attractive target for nuclear weapons. “The destruction of naval vessels would involve few if any civilian casualties,” Ball writes, “and attacks against them could be clearly distinguished as . . . limited operation[s] . . . profferring the possibility of containing a nuclear engagement to the sea.”
• “You have to have an appointment for the submarine to come up and listen.” The writer is referring to the communications problems endemic to underwater operations. A submarine cannot communicate with the National Command Authority from the deeps. It must rise up near the surface, where it becomes vulnerable to enemy detection. Consequently, communication between a submarine and the NCA can be as infrequent as once every twelve hours. Peace can break out in twelve hours. War can be avoided. Take an example given by Desmond Ball.
The HMS Conqueror received orders at 10:00 A.M. to attack the Argentine cruiser Belgrano at 4:00 P.M. on May 2, 1982. It had made appointments to come up for messages every two hours, so it came up again at 12:00 and 2:00, and received the same orders. Somewhere around 4:00 it attacked the Belgrano. Meanwhile, the United States and Peru were working feverishly to avert war. Their peace efforts were spurned by the British War Cabinet, but even if they had not been, Desmond Ball writes, “there was a real possibility that any attempt to rescind the Conqueror’s, orders would not have been received by the submarine.” A 3:30 change of heart would have been too late.
In claiming that it can fine-tune its anti-SSBN campaign in the maelstrom of war—sinking just enough SSBNs to coerce the Soviets, but not enough to panic them—the Navy not only assumes away the problems of command and control at sea; it also fogs recall of its own experience. In the one nuclear emergency of the postwar era, the Cuban missile crisis, there was a bad failure of communication between the Navy and the NCA. In a careful recent review of the crisis Scott Sagan, of Harvard’s department of government, concludes, “The available evidence suggests that, in the pressure of the crisis, there was inadequate time to review the rules of engagement for U.S. ASW forces and that the key decision-makers neither anticipated the vigor with which the Navy would pursue this mission nor fully understood what the operations would entail.” Specifically, the decision-makers did not understand that when the Navy, as part of its quarantine of Cuba, said that it would drop “harmless explosive sound signals” on submerged Soviet submarines to force them to the surface, it meant practice depth charges. In a not-forattribution interview a former senior naval officer told Sagan that a “zealous” commander dropped depth charges on a Soviet sub, and Sagan reports that either this sub or another one given the same treatment was so damaged by the explosions that it was unable to submerge again and had to return to the Soviet Union. There is still debate among scholars over whether the subs forced up during the crisis carried nuclear torpedoes. Even if they all were conventionally armed, the incident is scary enough. Obviously, the command and control of naval forces thousands of miles from supervision is a fraught thing. To assume otherwise is to view the necessary as possible.
The Navy assumes, further, that its captains will maintain nuclear discipline unto death. It assumes that the Soviets will follow suit—that they won’t initiate tactical nuclear war at sea in response to anything we might do against them. “Everything we know about their doctrine,” Captain Brooks says, “tells us they won’t. They won’t for a very good reason: they are concerned with the use of nuclear weapons in the land battle which dominates their thinking.” In other words, the Russians would be fools to jeopardize their conventional ground offensive by nuking our ships, since we would then blow their army into memory.
Captain Brooks’s view illustrates one of the chief differences between the assumptions used by the maritime strategists and those used by their civilian critics. The maritime strategists make no allowance for accident (nuclear war starting from an isolated clash between two nuclear-armed ships) or for inadvertence (nuclear war starting as an unintended consequence of the way we have chosen to fight the conventional war). Instead, they posit what the Soviets would do in this or that instance by citing Soviet doctrine. They also deploy a logic of deterrence. The more something we do frightens the Soviets, the better; sufficiently frightened, the Soviets won’t dare to invade Europe. The civilian critics of the maritime strategy look at the matter through the lens of crisis-control theory. Does the deterrent effect of the anti-SSBN strategy, which they don’t wholly deny, outweigh the risk that because of it a conventional war between the superpowers might escalate into a nuclear one? That is the question they ask, and their answer is no.
These different points of view make the two sides in the maritime-strategy debate seem to be talking past each other. It’s interesting, therefore, to find one backer of the maritime strategy and strong believer in the deterrence outlook who also accepts the crisis-control logic. That backer and believer is Colin Gray, a civilian strategist known for his tough-minded views. Writing in defense of the maritime strategy in the Naval Proceedings, he vents the very anxiety the Navy says is needless. “One cannot evade the dilemma that the better NATO’s nonnuclear forces fare on land and at sea, the stronger the incentive will be for the Soviets to engage in nuclear escalation.” This admission highlights how the Navy’s confidence that the Soviets will not escalate misconstrues the nature of the Soviets’ security dilemma.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the Navy’s rationale for the third objective of the maritime strategy—that an early and aggressive use of U.S. attack submarines against Soviet SSBNs would alter the nuclear balance of forces in favor of the U.S. and thus pressure the Soviets to end the war on terms advantageous to the United States.
What’s wrong with this aspect of the strategy? This: there is doubt that any President would let the Navy carry it out. As Admiral Watkins himself told the Senate Armed Services Committee in 1984, “All of our war games, all of our exercises that we have run . . . indicate that, in fact, we will not make the political decision to move forces early.” But the plan depends on moving forces early: they would be racing the Soviet SSBNs to the polar ice cap, where the latter would try to hide after they fled their Barents Sea bastions. A strategy that the nation’s political authorities may not allow to be pursued does not have a high deterrent value.
The reason this “counterforce coercion” strategy, to use Mearsheimer’s terminology, might be vetoed is as simple as death—it could cause inadvertent nuclear war.
The Navy assumes that the Soviets would accept the sinking of their SSBNs as part of the hazards of conventional war against a major sea power. But are the Soviets really likely to respond this way? For a superpower, as the MIT strategist Barry Posen has argued, nuclear weapons are “essential to the preservation of [its] sovereignty.” He continues, “Although it may seem paradoxical, the use of some nuclear weapons to protect the remainder of one’s strategic deterrent is probably among the most plausible scenarios for nuclear escalation.” The Soviets might accept the incidental destruction of some of their SSBNs, figuring that the U.S. attack subs could not distinguish between Soviet SSNs and SSBNs. But a concerted U.S. attack on the third leg of an increasingly vulnerable nuclear triad could well cause them to use what Mearsheimer calls “nuclear coercion” against our naval or strategic forces. The five nuclear-powered carriers now in our fleet have a total complement of 25,000 officers and men. Their destruction by nuclear mines or missiles would neither kill civilians nor be recorded for the evening news. Is any gain worth this possible risk—or the risk of our inevitable counter-escalation? This is the plan that the Navy would urge on a future President—on this President—upon the outbreak of war with the Soviet Union.
Leave out a war; this is the plan that the Navy would urge in a crisis. General Kelley, in the white paper on the maritime strategy, writes, “At the first sign of deepening tension or possible preparation for a general Soviet attack, U.S. and Allied forces will surge from their home ports and deploy as far forward as possible.”Admiral Watkins writes that the Navy “would seek to win the crisis,” and in testimony before Congress he has decried the “pattern of political inaction" revealed in war games—the President’s reluctance to approve the anti-SSBN campaign—and said that it could be “devastating” in the next conflict. “Somehow we have to build up in this crisis period, the transition to war, in a new way,” he said. “We have to think more aggressively in terms of the pre-positioning of forces.” Would the President be as alive to the risks of this time-critical strategy—attacking Soviet SSBNs before they can get under the polar ice—as the Navy war games assume? Or would he instead believe the Navy’s claims that using conventional weapons to tip the nuclear balance toward us would be a useful form of political-military pressure? Questions like this give counterforce coercion the look of a fuse.
What is really happening is that the United States is drifting by default toward a primarily maritime strategy.
—the former undersecretary of defense Robert Komer
THUS FAR WE HAVE BEEN CONCENTRATING ON THE sheerly naval critique of the maritime strategy. But that is not the way a President would look at the matter. He would be obliged to consider the maritime strategy in wider terms. He would have to ask himself. How does this fit in with the claims of the other services and with U.S. defense policy generally? And what is the nature of the Soviet threat against which these claims should be gauged? Such questions form the cost-benefit calculus of strategy. And in these wider terms the maritime strategy looks like a very bad bet indeed.
Ask a Navy officer if he can imagine any set of political or national-security objectives for which the Soviet Union would invade Europe, and he is apt to reply that he cannot. Only by proceeding according to a calculation that reasons from Soviet military capabilities to the motives of the Soviet state—a “strategic fiction,”to borrow a phrase from the late Raymond Aron—can we imagine the Soviets doing such a thing. U.S. defense policy is premised on that strategic fiction. Every year, we proceed on the assumption that our armed presence in Europe, backed by our nuclear missiles, is all that keeps the Soviets from invading. When the Soviets don’t invade we take that as proof that our assumption was valid. That assumption costs the U.S. taxpayers about $130 billion annually to support. It may not be valid, but at those prices it certainly is real.
Someday some President, driven by budgetary imperatives, will import political and national-security calculations back into this strategic fiction. When he does so, he may conclude that we are paying far too much to ward off a threat that is just this side of unimaginable. However, until that day comes, we must, President-like, measure all U.S. defense spending against this fiction-tainted question: Does this expenditure add to or, by draining off funds needed elsewhere, detract from the goal of deterring the Soviets in Europe?
By that criterion, the maritime strategy has hurt, not helped, national security. From 1971 to 1984, Edward Luttwak calculates in The Pentagon and the Art of War. the number of Soviet divisions increased from 160 to 194; overall strength went up by 40 percent. When the Reagan Administration came into office, the United States had sixteen divisions. It has since added two light divisions, but, as Luttwak notes, the number of servicemen on active duty under Reagan and Carter is roughly the same. Where, then, has the money to counter those 194 divisions gone?
To the Navy and the strategic forces. As Caspar Weinberger told Congress in 1982, “The most significant force expansion proposed by the Administration centers on the Navy, particularly those components of it that have offensive missions.” Luttwak writes, “Of the $130.2 billion (1985 dollars) added to the defense budget by the Reagan buildup over and above the 1981 (baseline) level during the three fiscal years 1982-1984, the Army’s share of the increase was $28.5 billion, while the Navy did very much better with $43.8 billion.”The Navy’s shipbuilding budget grew from $7.5 billion in 1979 to $12.1 billion in 1985, and the size of the fleet has grown from 479 ships when Reagan took office to 558 today, on its way to John Lehman’s goal of a 600-ship Navy.
Turning to the future, a Congressional Budget Office study has found that to maintain the 600-ship, 15-carrier fleet, the Navy will need a three-percent annual increase in its budget well into the 1990s. Manning those ships, moreover, will require an additional 30,000 men and women, and they don’t work for nothing. This increased naval spending—much of it already earmarked—will come at a time when the overall defense budget is expected to grow by only one percent annually. Under those circumstances— a three-percent Navy commitment and a one-percent overall budget ceiling—something will have to give. The fear among some analysts is that Peter will be robbed to pay Paul, Peter being the ground and tactical air forces in Europe upon whom conventional deterrence rests.
The first skirmish in this battle of the budget should be fought this year. The Navy has just asked for two new’ carriers to replace two aging ones. The request struck many observers as odd, since in the budget that the Navy submitted last year it had said that no new carriers would be needed until the 1990s. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Secretary of Defense Weinberger was asked about this contradiction. What had changed in the world, Senator Carl Levin, of Michigan, wanted to know, in the few months since the last budget? Weinberger’s reply qualifies him for the bureaucrats’ Hall of Fame. Last year’s forecast was a “rolling” estimate, he said, meant to cover a five-year period. Each year begins a new five-year period, so a new estimate is required, the old one having been rolled over. Levin registered his disbelief and, after trying in vain to make the Secretary give a real answer, thanked him for his “rolling answer.”Taxpayers must hope that the Secretary will be made to justify this request with something other than persiflage and that Congress will review the mission those two carriers would perform, keeping two questions in mind: Does the maritime strategy make sense as a way to use existing U.S. forces, or, for that matter, any conceivable U.S. forces? And could submarines carry out that strategy better than carriers could? Let’s consider the second question first.
John Mearsheimer has talked to many Navy officers who think that the maritime strategy should be executed strictly by submarines. But, he says, they will not talk publicly, for fear that the Navy brass will “ruin their careers.” The congressmen should be free of that fear. The Navy is asking Congress for funding to build the Seawolf, a new class of attack submarine more expensive than the current Los Angeles-class subs, equipped with more torpedoes and able to do more tricky things under the polar ice. Should the attack on the Kola be executed not with carriers but with Seawolves equipped with short-range conventional missiles that can hit land targets? the congressmen might ask. And this will bring them to the broader question, Should it be executed at all? Or would the national interest be served by a return to a defensive strategy, which would be less expensive and less risky to carry out?
THE SOVIETS’ ATTAINMENT OF NUCLEAR PARITY during the 1970s required the United States and its allies to move closer to land-power parity to offset the nuclear stalemate and thus secure deterrence. Instead, the United States committed to building a 600-ship Navy. “At the level of grand strategy,” Luttwak writes, “this is the equivalent of outmaneuvering oneself: the L?nited States is giving its highest budget priority to naval forces, which in a major conflict with the Soviet Union would be the least useful, except to oppose the Soviet Navy, to which the Soviet Union gives the lowest budget priority.”
The naval buildup called for by the maritime strategy makes sense not as a force to fight a conventional war with the Soviet Union but as a force for intervention in the Third World. In the unquiet wake of Vietnam, Congress would have been unlikely to authorize an intervention fleet. Congress needed the Soviet rationale. What it got was the intervention fleet.
That fleet is an instrument not of our traditional NATOcentered foreign policy but of the post-NATO unilateralist foreign policy called for by an influential critic of NATO, Irving Kristol, who is reputed to have sway with Jack Kemp, who may be the next President. Preparing for a post-NATO world may turn out to be prescient. With opposition parties in both Britain and Germany now calling for the removal of American nuclear weapons, NATO as we know it is looking like a fossil. Change will come in Europe, opposition parties having a way of eventually getting into office, if not in this decade then in the next. And when it comes, the era of coalition defense may end. Spurning our nuclear weapons, the Europeans may find that Congress will call our boys home in reprisal, leaving the Europeans to see to their own defense. Ironically, Soviet acceptance of Reagan’s proposal for the elimination of all Soviet and American intermediate range missiles from Europe may work to hasten the coming of a post-NATO U.S. foreign policy. The proposed “zero option” treaty, writes the columnist Charles Krauthammer, “is God’s gift to American unilateralists” to whom the link to NATO is more a fetter than a bond of strength. Kristol and other writers have long complained that the United States should not have to suffer European balkings over the use of U.S. force in the Third World. With a post-NATO unilateralist foreign policy, the United States would not be inhibited by such balkings. Backed by a heavy-carrier Navy, we would be free to project our power as and where we saw fit. Such a Navy would give teeth to what has been called the Reagan doctrine—the U.S. effort to aid guerrilla fighters against revolutionary regimes in the Third World. Off Nicaragua the fleet has already been used to scare the Sandinistas. And should Jonas Savimbi, who leads the U.S.backed guerrillas in Angola, get in a tight spot, the fleet could help him out. That’s the sort of mission for which the 600-ship, 15-carrier battle group Navy is suited. But deterring the Soviets in peacetime and defeating them in war? This fleet is not the instrument for that job. □