Command of the Seas

by John F. Lehman Jr.
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Command of the Seas

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2199

A number of complex and difficult questions confront modern military and political policymakers, questions involving the intricacies of international diplomacy, the making and unraveling of alliances, and the increasing sophistication and cost of modern weapons. Sometimes, however, the most difficult questions are the simplest and most basic. For the contemporary naval strategist, the question is stark in its simplicity: What is the purpose of a modern navy?

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Only when that question has been answered, and not unless and until it has been resolved, can a navy be built and deployed. Around this question revolves all debate, because what a nation wants its navy to do will determine what sort of navy it must have, what ships that navy will contain, where it will be stationed, and how it will fight during conflict.

To the uninitiated, all navies might seem much the same: a collection of surface warships, aircraft, and submarines whose purpose is to close with the enemy fleet and destroy it. Actually, there are a number of navies in the world today, following different policies and pursuing different goals. There are “brown water” navies, concerned primarily with coastal defense; there are navies whose major purpose is protection of trade or territorial waters valuable because of natural resources such as oil reserves or commercial fisheries; a few countries have a token navy as a badge of nationhood; and there are two significant “blue water” navies, which have taken all the oceans of the world as their operating territory. The two blue water navies are those of the United States and the Soviet Union.

The fact that there are only two major navies in the modern world is the backbone of John Lehman’s book, Command of the Seas, and indeed the rivalry between these two fleets is implied in the book’s very title, since true command of the seas can be exercised by only one navy. Accordingly, Lehman defines his goal in straightforward terms: The United States Navy must be the strongest and the best in the world.

This is a legitimate answer to the strategic question. Is it a realistic answer? Lehman’s book attempts to answer that second question by providing a detailed and sometimes contentious account of what he calls “building the 600 ship navy.” As secretary of the navy under Ronald Reagan, Lehman saw his mission as the revitalization and rebirth of the American fleet, bringing it to the point where it could successfully contest command of the seas anywhere, at any time, either against the major opponent, the Soviets, or their minor but dangerous surrogates, such as the Libyans, Cubans, or miscellaneous minor annoyances.

It would appear from Lehman’s book, however, that his main opponents were not agents of the Communist bloc but rather fellow members of the Reagan Administration, entrenched bureaucrats in the Pentagon, and those in Washington who did not share his passionate belief that command of the seas was the proper goal of United States maritime strategy. Because of the controversy aroused by Lehman’s vision, and the methods he chose to implement it, a consideration of his concept of strategy and the precise meaning of “command of the seas” is necessary.

What is Lehman’s conception of naval strategy? He presents eight principles to define it: Naval strategy is based on a comprehensive national strategy, defined by the president; this national strategy in turn provides the navy with maritime tasks; these tasks “require maritime superiority,” a statement which is central to Lehman’s role for the navy; naval strategy must be disciplined, which is to say that it must be realistic in its assessment of its role and its resources, and coordinate the two accordingly; a corollary principle to this is that United States naval strategy must be based on a realistic assessment of the threat—in this case, the threat being the Soviet navy and the fleets of its satellites; maritime strategy must be global; such a global strategy must integrate not only all United States forces, but the fleets of our allies as well; finally, maritime strategy must be a “forward strategy,” designed to carry the battle to the enemy, rather than waiting on events.

Now, these principles of strategy are unexceptional for the most part, and simply offer expanded versions of a typical definition of strategy. Lehman does seem to have a bit of confusion as to the distinction between strategy and tactics, but since it does not affect the essential thrust of his message, the blurring can be safely ignored by most readers. Lehman’s book is not an in-depth study of maritime strategy, and his principles are intended to be no more than the most basic of guidelines; his true concern is how he fashioned “the 600 ship navy,” and how it was used during the Reagan Administration. For this purpose, the eightfold principles he gives the reader are workable enough.

There is one major exception, and that is Lehman’s assertion that a national maritime strategy necessarily requires “maritime superiority,” and his equation of this superiority with overall command of the seas.

These concepts of naval warfare are not original with Lehman, as he would doubtless be the first to acknowledge. In fact, Lehman is openly and proudly a disciple of America’s most famous naval strategist, Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan.

Modern naval thought, especially in the United States, is generally traced back to Mahan, whose writings and teachings during the last years of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth were decisive. Mahan, like Karl von Clausewitz, is often quoted but little understood, and his theories have often been simplified to meet the needs of contemporary politics.

Lehman, unlike most of those who invoke Mahan, seems to have a genuine grasp of the admiral’s thought; still, he sometimes overstates the case. At one point, Lehman writes that it has become “orthodoxy” that the United States Navy should be “superior not only to any other navy but also to any potential combination of naval adversaries.” Mahan on this subject is clear: What matters is not the merely potential opponents, but the likely ones. Beyond that, the prudent and reasonable naval strategist will keep in mind the limitations imposed upon possible opponents.

In an article entitled “Preparedness for Naval War,” published first in 1896 and reprinted the following year in his book The Interest of Amenca in Sea Power Present and Future, Mahan had this pertinent comment:The United States, in estimating her need of military preparation of whatever kind, is justified in considering, not merely the utmost force which might be brought against her by a possible enemy, under the political circumstances most favorable to the latter, but the limitations imposed upon an opponent’s actions by well-known conditions of a permanent nature.

This is precisely the call for a realistic assessment that tempers Mahan’s more often quoted remarks; it is an assessment which is too frequently missed by Lehman—though not totally ignored by him—in his consideration of the potential Soviet threat.

Yet, although Lehman writes that United States naval forces should be superior to all potential adversaries, he realistically backs away from a flat demand for that requirement in his detailed description of his concept of naval strategy. For one thing, he wisely realizes that the Soviet fleet of some seventeen hundred vessels does not require a United States fleet of the same number, because the United States can count upon the fleets of other nations such as those in the NATO alliance.

Lehman does not quite suggest that the United States embark upon a naval race with the Soviet Union, attempting to gain maritime superiority simply by building more and more sophisticated ships and submarines. He does advocate upgrading the existing fleet, and is a staunch defender of bringing back battleships into active duty, even though such vessels have not been used in combat since World War II, and have proven quite vulnerable to air and submarine attack. Lehman’s suggested use in his book for the battlewagons was to bombard snipers in Lebanon.

Reviewing United States commitments around the globe, and the sites he considers likely candidates for naval intervention both in peace and possible conflict, Lehman calculates there is a need for a six-hundred-ship navy, composed of the following: fifteen carrier battle groups (an aircraft carrier and its attendant vessels); four battleship battle groups; one hundred attack submarines (submarines designed to fight other submarines or enemy surface vessels); ships necessary to transport marine amphibious forces; an “adequate number” of ballistic missile submarines; and the required support vessels, which range from mine sweepers to tankers.

Lehman seems to recognize that parity, rather than outright superiority, is sufficient to assure command of the seas. It is not mere material differences in tonnage and numbers that prove decisive in naval combat, but the quality of personnel and the ability of commanders. In this sense, Lehman certainly follows Mahan’s thoughts, as he does with his call to revitalize and expand the United States merchant marine, which would be an indispensable component in any armed conflict.

How well would Lehman’s theories fit into actual naval warfare? He attempts to answer this question in part 3 of his book, “The Navy in Action.” Here Lehman reviews naval operations by the British during the Falklands War; he also considers three instances of United States naval action: in the rescue effort in Grenada, in the Lebanon imbroglio, and in the raid on Libya.

The conflict between Great Britain and Argentina over the desolate islands known as Falklands to the British, the Malvinas to the Argentines, was one of the most significant land and naval engagements since World War II and as such was a matter of intense interest to military men, strategists, and statesmen of all nations. It was viewed as the only comprehensive test of modern military weapons since Vietnam, and an indication of the performance of those weapons in actual battle.

Lehman maintains that the lessons of the Falklands support his theories on naval warfare, specifically that large ships—battleships and aircraft carriers—are the backbone of a modern fleet, and that these ships are not inherently vulnerable to attack and destruction by either submarines or air-launched missiles. Lehman attributes the loss of six major British ships to poor air defense, lack of readiness on the part of the crews, or insufficient armor. A heavily armed battleship such as the USS New Jersey, he claims, would have been practically immune to the Argentine assaults. Carrier groups, he further asserts, do not need protection from attack, but rather provide it.

Lehman is clearly a supporter of the big ships, especially the battleship, which he cites as the weapon of choice for a situation such as Lebanon, where the vessel can sit safely at anchor beyond reach of the enemy and accurately shell targets miles from the shore. In fact, Lehman’s major quarrel with the Reagan Administration’s stance on Lebanon was that American troops—primarily the 341 Marines who were killed or wounded in a suicide bomb attack—were placed in an untenable position and sacrificed for no purpose.

While Lehman makes some excellent points concerning aircraft carriers, his arguments regarding battleships are not quite as persuasive. True, the New Jersey could provide additional firepower in a situation such as Lebanon, but its similar role in Vietnam was hardly decisive. The history of battleships reveals similarly mixed evidence. The only major confrontation of the heavy vessels in World War I was inconclusive, and during World War II, Allied fleets made very little use of battleships other than preinvasion bombardment and convoy patrol. As Ronald Spector points out in his work, Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan (1985), the Allies never really needed battleships in the war against Japan. Lehman’s brief for the big vessels, while vigorous and engaging, must be returned not proved. There remains the suspicion that Lehman, like so many other naval thinkers, has fallen for the allure of the battleship as what Robert O’Connell in Of Arms and Men: A History of War, Weapons, and Aggression (1989) calls a “totem of armament.” It is, O’Connell says, the perfect image of what we conceive a weapon should be: large, armored, visually impressive, and loud.

As secretary of the navy, Lehman’s underlying purpose was to increase the might and prestige of the United States Navy. His ostensible opponent was the Soviet fleet, but along the way he tangled with a number of closer foes, military bureaucracy, Admiral Hyman Rickover, the strategies adopted by the Carter Administration (like his boss, Lehman continued to campaign against Carter long into the 1980’s), and the other services. His chapter on the Grenada invasion is a scathing critique of the mythos of “joint operations.” As author of Command of the Seas, Lehman’s purpose is to explain his course as secretary, highlight his successes, fix the blame for failures (mostly on others, it should be noted), and argue the case for a strong and highly visible United States Navy. While some readers might disagree with his conclusions, few will remain unimpressed with the verve and energy of this study.


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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 67

American Spectator. XXII, June, 1989, p.49.

The Christian Science Monitor. January 9, 1989, p.13.

The Economist. CCCX, February 18, 1989, p.96.

Guardian Weekly. CXL, February 26, 1989, p.20.

Library Journal. CXIV, April 1, 1989, p.101.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, February 19, 1989, p.13.

USA Today CXVII, May, 1989, p.95.

The Wall Street Journal. February 16, 1989, p. A12.

The Washington Post Book World. XIX, January 29, 1989, p.1.

Washington Times. January 9, 1989, p. E7.

The World & I. IV, May, 1989, p.405.

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