Command of the Seas

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?

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...

(The entire section is 2199 words.)


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