Doctrine -USN -The Nuclear Age


USS Louisiana (SSBN-743) arriving for the first time at her new home port at Naval Base Kitsap in Bangor, Washington, on 12 October 2005. USS Louisiana (SSBN-743) is the 18th and last ship of the United States Navy’s Ohio class of nuclear-powered fleet ballistic missile submarines. She carries Trident ballistic missiles and has been in commission since 1997. She is the fourth commissioned ship to bear the name of the U.S. state of Louisiana.

National strategy and the US navy now began to proceed along two different tracks with the capital ships and their nuclear ordnance being the navy’s answer to the Soviet Union, and the same ships with conventional ordnance and amphibious forces acting to `contain’ Soviet expansion. Global strategy was thrust upon the US navy as the Royal Navy first withdrew from the eastern Mediterranean and then from east of Suez. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s `Lend Lease’ had come much too late to prevent the impoverishment of Britain, forced to lift huge amounts of ordnance stores on a cash-and-carry basis until 1941. Having lived beyond her means during much of the war, the post-war Royal Navy had shrunk to maintaining only a north Atlantic presence by the mid-1960s. The US navy, therefore, found enough to do in the peacetime roles of the navy, which if pushed to the limits would see the navy acting much like it did in the Pacific campaign-the establishment of sea control over a specific area and the deployment of marines under the umbrella of a favourable air situation. This role was the secondary role of the US navy and one which she cared not to publicise too much; however, it would continue as a steady and unbroken thread throughout the twists and turns of maritime strategy during the next four decades. In the meanwhile, maritime strategy was undergoing one of the frequent lows that it goes through when it temporarily falls subordinate to technology. The 1950s and 1960s saw the development of the nuclear submarine and the submarine-launched missile, both of which were such marvels of advanced technology that they were bound to dominate thought on the employment of navies for some time to come. The idea of fitting nuclear missiles in submarines was one of those bold strokes of technical genius for which the Americans are justly famous, and the nuclear-powered attack submarine came as a timely answer to Soviet Union’s only international challenge at sea-the 350-boat threat to the Atlantic SLOC. The threat to the reinforcement of Europe, which had to be completed before the Red army and Warsaw Pact forces would overrun western Europe, soon replaced the sea control umbrella for amphibious operations as the mosaic against which the US navy had to fashion a suitable strategy. This became the conventional maritime strategy of the US and it in no way altered the conditions that applied during the two world wars. The centre of gravity of the world war would remain in central Europe and US maritime activity would be tied to helping the Western armies retain the edge over the expected Warsaw Pact armoured thrust in the Fulda gap.

The 1960s saw the US navy with a truly balanced force for the two-track strategy that was being followed-the large carriers acting as the nuclear deterrent (but struggling to hold their own against advances in bomber and rocket technology), and the large nuclear attack submarine force aided by fixed wing aviation to be used to refight the battle of the Atlantic. The sway that technology held over strategy strengthened once again with the introduction of the George Washington class of nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBN). These boats when introduced became as much a threat to the Soviet Union as to the large carriers’ strategic nuclear role. Their introduction was watched critically by Sergei Gorschkov, who dominated Soviet maritime strategy for the next quarter century as the only strategist in the last two centuries who had been able to articulate a coherent strategy and build a navy thereafter. The everincreasing levels of nuclear warheads in each nation’s armoury had in fact already whittled down the relevance of the carriers’ nuclear load to a marginal level by 1972 when SALT I was signed.

The major concern of US naval strategy vis-a-vis the Soviet Union failed to prepare the US navy for success in the Vietnam War. Indeed, if ever a war was fought without a strategy, it must be Vietnam for most of the key decisions were taken by civilian experts in Washington whose background in strategy was completely abysmal. The Vietnam War is, therefore, a poor example from which to draw any military conclusions because the thin dividing line between peace and war had been crossed and the war should have been fought according to the principles of war. In fact, every one of them was breached because the civilians on the president’s staff who controlled the progress of the war were quite without knowledge of the principles and ran the war like a crisis, with communications running from the highest office to commanders many ranks below. Public apathy to the war, which later escalated into hostility, is a factor too serious to permit an analysis of military lessons from this war. Nevertheless, the US navy did find itself in virtually the same situation in Vietnam as it had in the Civil War.

At sea was a massive armada of carriers with no enemy to fight. In the jungles and paddies of Vietnam was a riverine force which performed a truly memorable job in influencing the course of the land war. The contribution of the riverine force to winning the Tet offensive is well recorded but the glamour and the publicity, and the failures, belonged to the carrier air operations conducted from Yankee and Dixie stations. The usefulness of the riverine strategy was, unfortunately, emphasised by the heavier casualties suffered by American sailors performing this duty and the people’s pressures against the war forced the White House to withdraw all riverine forces and hand over the operation to the Vietnamese. The relative incompetence of the South Vietnamese forces versus their North Vietnamese counterparts is another all-pervading factor that made victory possible for Hanoi. For this reason the merits of the strategies adopted by the US in the South are difficult to judge. The US admiral in charge of naval operations in Vietnam, Zumwalt, went on to become the next CNO. While CNO be tried to implement what he had learnt about naval strategy while leading US naval forces in Vietnam. He failed, just as a revision of maritime strategy after the Civil War failed, caught up once again in the needless controversy over propulsion, this time nuclear versus conventional.

The move towards the Maritime Strategy published in an unclassified version in 1986 began almost eight years earlier. The US naval deployment plan incorporating a `forward strategy’ was profoundly affected by Gorschkov and his clearer vision of the future version of the big battle. The fact was that in the mid-1960s, when the George Washington class was followed by the Lafayette class the world witnessed the birth of the new capital ship. However, just as the battleship admirals had failed to see that the Mahanian strategy was alive with the carrier replacing the battleship as the main actor in the big battle in World War II, the carrier admirals also failed to see that the carrier had been eclipsed by the SSBN as the capital ship of the navy. The failure to understand that the actor had changed partly came from an unwillingness to accept that the battle had extended to such ranges that command and control had become diffuse, that tactical brilliance was no longer required during and after weapon release, and that admirals of opposing forces had ceased to fight each other in the big battle.

Gorschkov, unburdened with the baggage of vested interests, readily accepted the SSBN as the capital ship of the future and designed his strategy and his force architecture to fight the big battle around the SSBN. Success against the capital ships of the US navy meant survival for the Soviet Union in a nuclear exchange, and survival of his capital ships meant the destruction of the enemy’s heartland. The rest of the navy he fielded to support this essentially Mahanian strategy and in so doing he unwittingly led the US navy into a far clearer and coherent maritime strategy. Much of Gorschkov’s strategy was based on the essentially Russian theory of an all-arms encounter. His nuclear submarines (SSN) and the majority of his destroyers (classified PLK or BPLK for Boloshoi Protivolodochny Korabl- ASW or large ASW vessels) would act in support of maintaining the freedom of action for his SSBN. The Soviet navy’s major innovation of helicopter carriers also fitted into this strategy. However, by going in for an all-arms approach and actually fielding ASW vessels in support of a submarine campaign, Gorschkov accepted that the US carriers would be drawn into the battle, but despite their size and ordnance-delivery capability their role would be only an auxiliary one, that is, the third or fourth step in the escalation of moves to protect or attack SSBN. The nuclear attack role of the large carriers would be dealt with at the same time by his shore-based aircraft and SSM-equipped warships would take on the carriers in their efforts to upgrade the safety of operation for his SSBN. Naturally he presumed that the US navy would escalate in roughly the same manner as he would in his combined arms approach leading from step one-the deployment of SSBN. However, nothing in Western naval literature supports his belief that any Western navy would field the rest of the navy in support of submarines. In fact, at the time when Gorschkov expected that all his naval forces would be acting in support of the main battles raging underwater, the US navy was developing tactics and technology to enable the SSN to be used to escort carrier forces, quite the reverse of Gorschkov’s intentions. Nevertheless, while his SSN and SSBN were guaranteed support from the destroyers and helicopter carriers, he was aware that the pressure of all these surface forces in the operational area would draw the attention of the American carriers. So he felt the escalation process would continue and the US navy would be drawn willy-nilly into a combined arms strategy even though the US strategists themselves had never articulated one in any of their plans.

The publication of the Maritime Strategy was a giant step forward by the US navy, long criticised for not articulating a strategy as had the other two services. Gorschkov was in fact wrong when he assumed, in the early 1970s, that the US navy would be drawn into an all-arms battle automatically. This took some time as Herrick’s authoritative work on strategy-Soviet Naval Strategy: Fifty Years of Theory and Practice17- was widely disbelieved as painting too cautious and conservative a picture of Soviet naval strategy. Herrick’s book was perhaps first accepted by the Center for Naval Analysis (CNA) as being the truth in the mid-1970s when CNA analyst James Connell, in his work Soviet Naval Diplomacy, implied that the Soviet SSBN would be tightly controlled in a region closer to the Soviet Union and their missiles withheld for the peace talks. In actual fact Gorschkov’s combined all-arms strategy would have been workable with the primitive Soviet C3I systems only by controlling forces geographically and instituting vigorous measures to prevent mutual interference. Much of the Western antipathy for supporting submarines with other platforms came from the difficulty of tactically controlling submarines, a difficulty quite often overstated by the submarine community whose captains were much happier executing wartime tasks that did not involve identifying high explosives (HEs) and electronic emissions before firing. All this in fact pointed to the Soviet navy’s area of SSBN operations as being very small, within the air-strike range of Soviet naval aviation and within range of continued support of the surface forces. The realisation that Herrick had been stating the truth began to permeate the naval strategic community only when Admiral Hayward founded the Strategic Studies Group in 1980. This group was given the major responsibility to link strategy to force architecture because it was true that up to then official policy statements had merely dealt with various rationales for a 450-ship, or a 600-ship, or 800-ship navy by simply aggregating the number and types of ships in various geographical areas. According to Hattendorf, the new approach by the SSG `established the basic tenets and conceptual feasibility of a forward maritime strategy. They focused on Soviet missions and sensitivities and used a theater-wide combined arms approach to exploit western advantages.’ The forward maritime strategy had, therefore, been official strategy for over five years when it was published in January 1986 in an unclassified form. It had been circulated as a classified document in 1984.

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