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THE INFLUENCE OF NAVAL STRATEGY ON
NATIONAL SECURITY PLANNING, 1945-1955
by
Dr. Michael A. Palmer
Contemporary History Branch
Naval Historical Center

I would like to begin by contrasting the very different World War II experiences of the United States Navy and the United States Air Force.

While I do not mean to denigrate its accomplishments in World War II, if you look at the Air Force during the course of the war, the Air Force failed to live up to prewar expectations in many ways. That is not to say that the Air Force strategic bombing campaign was not effective, nor to say that it did not help bring about the defeat of the Axis powers, but the strategic bombing campaign did not work out quite the way many people had predicted. The bombers did not always get through and the effectiveness of strategic bombing against cities, against urban-industrial societies, was not what had been expected. Again, I do not mean to imply that the campaign was not cost effective, but the successful application of strategic air power proved more difficult than its proponents had foreseen.

All of that changed, at least in the national popular perception, with the dropping of the atomic bomb. In August and September 1945 it appeared that at last the Air Force's strategic bombing concept and technology had begun to mesh and that a few bombers armed with the new bomb could indeed bring about the kind of results that air power theorists had been talking about as far back as the end of the First World War.

The World War II experience of the U.S. Navy was quite different. If you look at the experience of the Navy, you see a service the performance of which in many ways exceeded prewar expectations. Take, for example, the submarine offensive against Japan. Before the Second World War there were few, if any, people, who foresaw the capability of the submarine arm used as a strategic weapon against the Japanese empire. After the Dardanelles offensive of the First World War in 1915, there were many who believed that the days of amphibious operations were over. Yet pioneers, especially in the U.S. Marine Corps and its supporters in the Navy, continued to work and develop amphibious doctrine. In both the war in Europe and the war in Asia we see the application of that doctrine in amphibious operations. There were many before the war who believed that aviation had made navies obsolescent, going back to Billy Mitchell's attacks on German battleships in the 1920s. There seemed to be some indication of that early in the Second World War with the German successes in Norway in 1940 and in Crete in 1941. Yet, in the Pacific war the Navy took unto itself air power, placed it on the carriers, and operated successfully, not just against the Japanese Navy but ultimately against Japan itself. The U.S. Navy did very well during the war, exceeding prewar expectations.

Then suddenly along comes the atomic bomb and in a flash, quite literally, the very effectiveness of the Navy is called into question. Did we need a Navy in an atomic world? And to the extent that we did, how survivable would it be? It may have been difficult to hit a ship with a B-17, as the Air Force found out during the Midway campaign, but it was not as difficult to score a near-miss with an atomic weapon on a ship.

So whereas the Air Force at the end of the war saw its concepts vindicated, not only by the results that they achieved during the war, but also through developments in technology, the Navy saw its very successful experiences, as well as its very existence, questioned. For example, a January 1946 Foreign Affairs article by Bernard Brodie, a well-known American strategic thinker, asked, what's the Navy going to do now? It did a great job in World War II, but what can the Navy do for the United States as a nation in the coming years?

There were additional problems that the Navy faced at the end of the war. Its principal and traditional enemy--Japan and its Imperial Japanese Navy--had been defeated. The only surviving naval force of any account was that of Great Britain, and it was very difficult to find an American in 1945 who considered war with Great Britain likely. The Navy's wartime thinking about the postwar world had also been colored by a variety of political assumptions inherent in the foreign policy of the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. There had been an expectation during the war that the wartime alliance of Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union would continue into the postwar world and that we would all be a bunch of happy allies who would police the world and make sure that all nations behaved themselves. Given that kind of atmosphere, a world almost devoid of potential enemies, why did we need a large Navy? So, between 1943 and 1945 the Navy drew up plans for the postwar world, which called for large forces; but the plans offered no substantial reason why such forces should be maintained.

At the end of the war, the U.S. Navy entered the post-Mahanian age. The days when it could make the arguments of Alfred Thayer Mahan to justify itself no longer had meaning. The Navy had to find some new reason for being and had also to find a new enemy. (Early in 1945 the Air Force was identifying the Soviet Union as an enemy, months before the Navy.) The Navy began to get some new direction from what was becoming the national security apparatus with JCS Paper 1518 of September 1945, which identified the Soviet Union as the most likely potential enemy of the United States, and which also called for forward basing of American military elements, principally naval and air.

The Navy still faced a problem in deciding how to apply sea power against a virtually autarkic land power such as the Soviet Union, a country very much different from the empire of Japan, an island empire that relied heavily on its naval forces and on imported resources. What the Navy needed at the end of the Second World War was a new philosophy of sea power, a new strategic concept that would provide a reason for being and a justification that could be taken quite literally to the Hill, to get the funding needed to survive as a substantial force in the new National Defense Establishment.

During 1946 and 1947 the Navy developed a "transoceanic strategy," a term used by Samuel Huntington in a 1954 Proceedings article. The pre-1945 period, the Mahanian period, had been an "oceanic" era, during which navies were constructed to combat other navies on the seas and to win command of the seas in a Mahanian sense. In 1946 that was no longer a problem. The United States commanded the seas. The dilemma was, what were we going to do with it? Huntington later argued that the United States needed a strategic concept that would allow it to apply sea power against the shore, against the littoral of the Eurasian land mass.

The Navy based the development of its postwar strategy on three elements.

First, the Navy had to apply sea power against land power not only during wartime but also during peacetime. Secretary of the Navy (later Secretary of Defense) James Forrestal sent the Navy's ships around the globe on visits to as many countries as possible, under a variety of guises, in an effort to keep the Navy operating globally so that if there were a crisis, the Navy would be on hand and its presence would not necessarily be seen as an escalatory step. American naval leaders, military and civilian, sought to use the Navy in a rather nineteenth-century fashion, as a gunboat Navy, to show the flag, to support American friends, and to deter aggression on the part of potential enemies.

A second set of critical elements in the development of the Navy's postwar strategy were the lessons learned during World War II in the Battle of the Atlantic. When we think of the Battle of the Atlantic we tend to focus too much on the early period of the campaign, on the years between 1939 and 1943, which witnessed the defeat of the U-boats. Mark Milner has written an excellent article, recently published in the RUSI Journal, in which he argues that it was really during 1944 and 1945 that we first saw the birth of modern antisubmarine warfare. The various technological developments in the submarine that the Germans introduced into naval warfare, such as the snorkel, pattern running and acoustic torpedoes (homing torpedoes), and the Type-21 U-boats of which only one actually became operational, were only countered in part by improved Allied ASW technology and tactics. These German advances, especially the snorkel, troubled the Allied ASW community during the final years of the war. To some extent, the United States and it allies lost the tactical initiative in the U-boat war, although they never lost the operational or strategic initiative because of the strategic bombing campaign as well as the advance of the Allied armies after the breakout in Normandy, which cost the Germans their forward bases in France. These Allied successes made it difficult for the Germans to prosecute the submarine war, no matter the advanced state of their technology.

Nevertheless, the Allies ended the Second World War troubled by the final stages of the U-boat war, especially the inshore campaign around Great Britain. This concern increased after the end of the war when the U.S. Navy received two Type-21 U-boats and in early 1946 exercises in the Atlantic discovered that the Type-21 could literally run rings around American escorts. The Navy had a great deal of trouble combating submarines with a very high submerged speed. This concern was evident at a June 1946 ASW Warfare Conference held in Washington. The distress was real because the Navy knew that German technology had fallen into Soviet hands. There was a presumption, albeit premature, that the Soviets would employ this technology in their own submarines. At the ASW conference, the minutes of which survive, the principal presented a rather doleful picture of what would happen if there was another battle in the Atlantic pitting Soviet submarines against American escorts. The Navy estimated that the snorkel alone had reduced the effectiveness of the premier submarine killer, the radar-equipped aircraft, by 95 percent. (The British estimated the lost efficiency at 90 percent.) After hearing the presentations, the senior officer at the conference, Vice Admiral Forrest P. Sherman, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Operations, a prime strategist in the Navy's hierarchy, commented: "As you know the strategic counter to this sort of thing is high emphasis on attack at the sources of the trouble." Sherman's statement essentially epitomizes the Navy's postwar strategy. If you cannot deal with submarines at sea, you go and attack them at their bases.

If the Navy felt compelled to adopt such an offensive approach because of lessons in the Atlantic war, it felt capable of advocating a forward, offensive strategy because of the lessons of the Pacific war, the third major element in the development of American postwar naval strategy. There are some similarities between how we look at the Pacific and Atlantic wars. When we think of the Pacific war we think of carrier battles. We generally focus on the early war period--the battles of Coral Sea, Midway, and the Solomons--when American carriers were pitted against Japanese carriers. But increasingly after 1943, in 1944 and 1945 especially, American carriers battled land-based, not sea-based Japanese air power, in operations that resembled those envisioned by the Navy in the 1980s. If, as Milner says, the birth of modern ASW warfare occurred in the Atlantic in 1944 and 1945, I think one can argue that modern antiaircraft warfare--AAW--developed in the Pacific in 1944 and 1945.

The main threat American naval forces faced from the Japanese in the final stage of the Pacific war was the kamikaze. What was the kamikaze? It was a precision guided munition; it was a cruise missile. Look at the Baka bomb hanging from the ceiling of The Navy Museum. What do you have up there? You have a large rocket with a warhead in the front, and instead of a silicon chip with some kind of computer, you have a kamikaze pilot substituting for the computer apparatus. There is not that much difference between a Baka bomb, or a regular Kamikaze, and a Soviet air-launched, air-to-surface missile such as an AS-4 or AS-6. The Navy met this threat with improved radar early warning, at this point not airborne, but surface-based with radar pickets extending out from the task force, and with improved methods of combat air patrol.

The most severe test the Navy faced in the final stages of the Pacific war was the Okinawa campaign during which the Navy, tethered to the beaches to support the landing, managed to hold on, although at a heavy cost. In the final stages of the campaign and during the final months of the war, the Navy cut loose and, operating in conjunction with strategic Air Force attacks against the Japanese home islands, roamed along the coast of Japan. What the Navy discovered in these operations was that it suffered very little compared to the Okinawa campaign, and achieved quite a lot, destroying about 1,000 Japanese planes on the ground. During this operation the ratio of planes destroyed in the air to those destroyed on the ground shifted dramatically. The Navy drew several conclusions from these operations. First, carrier battle groups, preferably the four-carrier battle group, could operate within range of land-based aircraft. Second, the best way to do so was to operate in a mobile, offensive fashion, seeking to destroy the enemy air force on the ground.

There is, of course, nothing novel or revolutionary in such an approach. As I understand it, official Air Force doctrine holds that the best way to destroy an air force is to destroy it on the ground.

The lessons of the Pacific and Atlantic campaigns, as well as the need to find some way to use sea power against land power, came together in 1946 and 1947 in the Navy's postwar strategy, a "transoceanic strategy" (formulated within the context of the Pincher series, essentially a succession of studies rather than plans, developed in the late-1940s), which dominated the Navy's strategic planning into the mid-1950s. The concept called for forward offensive operations against the bases from which the Soviet threat emanated. These plans called for operations against air and naval bases in the Kola Peninsula in the far north, in the Crimea (via, in early periods of the war, staging bases in Turkey), in the Maritime Province, in the Kuriles, in Sakhalin, and Kamchatka (Petropavlovsk). You may recall that there was a bit of a stink a few years ago when the press reported that Admiral "Ace" Lyons was staging mock attacks against Petropavlovsk. That all goes back to 1946 and 1947 when the Navy tried to find methods to counter Soviet threats at the source. The concept as developed relied on the carrier battlegroup, surface bombardment, amphibious operations, aerial and submarine laying of mines in Soviet harbors and narrows, and on the operation of killer submarines.

This latter concept was a new, if not revolutionary development. The submarine arm had performed well in the Second World War but after 1945 was left without a mission. In the early postwar years, the American submarine arm began the gradual conversion, mated with atomic power as a propulsive rather than as a destructive force, into an offensive attack arm designed to strike against an enemy's fleet.

In 1946 and 1947 the Navy planned to use its newly converted diesel killer submarines in narrows off Soviet bases to mine and to hunt and to destroy Soviet submarines as they left their bases heading towards the Atlantic and the Pacific sea lines of communication (SLOCs).

There was also discussion of using the Marines in amphibious operations against isolated bases in the Pacific, in Norway, or, in the final stages of a war, in the Crimea.

In conclusion, there are two points that should be stressed.

First, this was not just American thinking. The Royal Navy came to the same conclusions at the same time. Attack at source is actually a British term. When the Americans and the British came together in NATO in 1949, they held the first conference here in Washington, in October and November. At these meetings the Alliance established NATO's initial Concept of Maritime Operations (CONMAROPS) which called for attack at source. British and American admirals discussed plans for attacking the Kola in 1949. Some of the first joint operations undertaken by NATO were exercises to defeat a hypothetical Soviet attack against Norway.

Second, I think its important to keep in mind the roots of this strategy, because it resembles the Navy's strategy today. In 1946 and 1947 the Navy's strategic concept was based on inadequacy, both qualitative and quantitative. This is a time of budget cuts. Year after year, from the end of the Second World War until the Korean War, the U.S. Navy's budgets and forces grew smaller. The Navy had inadequate resources to fight the kind of battle that had been fought in the Atlantic during World War II. There simply were not enough escorts and patrol craft to fight that type of war, what you might want to call a defensively postured campaign. The Navy also faced technological inadequacy. The Navy was not planning to attack the Kola in 1946 because it thought it had a good handle on Soviet submarines, but because it did not think it has a good handle on Soviet submarines.

I would argue that if you look at the Navy's strategy since the late 1970s, although we tend to associate the Maritime Strategy with the Reagan defense buildup, if you look at its origins, and many have, it is really rooted in the Carter years, when the Navy's resources were going down and the Soviets began to produce qualitatively superior submarines. (I am not saying superior to our equipment, but superior to older Soviet types.) I would postulate that if budgets continue to decline and the Soviets keep improving their submarines, that (if history is any guide) rather than seeing the U.S. Navy retreat from a forward offensive strategy, you may actually see the opposite. If you want to insure that the Navy adopts an offensive forward strategy, the best way to do that is to insure the Soviet submarines continue to improve and get quieter so that the Navy cannot find them, and reduce the defense budget and the resources available to the Navy.

Those twin measures in 1946 and 1947 compelled the Navy to adopt an offensive, forward strategy, and under similar circumstances in the 1970s, when the Navy again had to contemplate what would primarily be a conventional war against the Soviet Union, it again resorted to the same kind of strategic solutions to these strategic problems. That strategic concept, developed in 1946 and 1947, dominated the Navy's thinking and found its way into the national strategic plans into the 1950s. Not until the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower, with the "New Look," "Massive Retaliation," and the origins of "Blazing Strategies," was the Navy's essentially conventional war strategic concept displaced by the basic strategic atomic warfare plans in which the Navy played an important, but secondary role to that played by the United States Air Force, which had won the initial postwar battle to become the nation's new First Line of Defense.


30 January 2003