The Navy: The Transoceanic Period, 1945-1992


by Michael A. Palmer

Victory in World War II vindicated U.S. principles of sea power. The navy had proven wrong its interwar critics who had argued that naval power had become obsolescent. Naval forces had demonstrated tremendous mobility, sustainability, flexibility, and striking power, especially in the Pacific.

Nevertheless, with the end of the war, the future of U.S. naval power was once again in doubt. Political leaders expected the wartime Grand Alliance to continue to function smoothly in the postwar world. There remained no potential naval threat. Whatever the demonstrated shortcomings of strategic air power during the war, the advent of the atomic age appeared to make the air-delivered bomb the ultimate weapon. The trend toward integration of the services--jointness--threatened control of naval aviation and amphibious forces. Critics justifiably asked: What roles and missions could a postwar navy play that the other services could not perform just as well, if not better, and perhaps more cheaply?

Naval leaders--among them Admirals Chester W. Nimitz, Forrest P. Sherman, Robert B. Carney, Richard L. Conolly, and Arthur W. Radford--and civilians, most notably James V. Forrestal, secretary of the navy and later secretary of defense, guided the service through the postwar period. By 1947 the navy had developed a viable strategic concept, despite the intensity of intra- and interservice arguments. The battles with joint organizations--the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the newly created Department of Defense--and with the nation's civilian political leadership were at times vicious and would remain so for years to come, as demonstrated by the cancellation of the carrier United States and the subsequent refusal of many high ranking naval officers to quietly accept Truman administration decisions regarding naval force structure--the revolt of the admirals--in 1949. The navy managed to survive, however, as a sizable, balanced force with a major role to play in U.S. national security policy, although it no longer could claim to be the nation's first line of defense.

Postwar naval strategy began to take shape within a fortnight of Japan's surrender. In September 1945 the Joint Chiefs of Staff identified the Soviet Union as the most likely enemy of the United States, helping to focus the efforts of military planners. At first it was unclear how sea power could be brought to bear against the Soviet Union, a land power without even a moderate-sized oceangoing navy that was not susceptible to a naval blockade or a guerre de course waged by U.S. submarines. The planners soon discovered, however, that there were naval tasks that would have to be performed in the event of a Soviet-American conflict. If war began with a Soviet ground offensive to drive U.S. and Allied armies from the Eurasian mainland, such forces would have to be evacuated by naval units. The scarcity of atomic weapons during the early postwar years meant that any strategic air campaign, viewed by most planners as the sine qua non of Allied victory, would be primarily conventional in nature and, until the advent in the 1950s of the intercontinental bombers, would also have to be conducted from forward bases in the British Isles, the Middle East, and Japan. U.S. naval forces operating in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the Pacific would have to shield these bases. The Soviets, in possession of advanced U-boat technology, were likely to build up a force of submarines to threaten Allied sea lines of communication (SLOCs), which would have to be protected by naval forces.

The difficulties experienced by the Allies with German U-boats at the end of World War II led many British and U.S. naval strategists to favor forward, offensive operations against submarine bases. The experience of operating off the coast of Japan in the face of land-based air power had shown that strikes against Soviet submarine bases were feasible. As a result, the U.S. Navy and the Royal Navy formulated the notion of the use of sea power applied ashore along the Eurasian periphery, thus entering the transoceanic era. In 1949 this forward maritime strategy would also become accepted NATO doctrine and would remain the core of Allied conventional naval thinking throughout the cold war.

The new concept was fairly simple. In the event of war, Allied carriers would strike hard at enemy naval and air bases around the periphery of the Soviet Union. Amphibious units would reinforce threatened positions or retake lost ones, perhaps conducting raids or invasions against the Soviet Union itself. U.S. submarines, armed with advanced sonar and eventually powered by nuclear energy, would no longer stalk merchant-ships but would hunt down Soviet submarines as they left their bases, before they could reach the SLOCs.

The shift from foreign policy to a national security policy in which diplomacy and military power were closely intertwined also provided the navy with yet another and related role. Forward-deployed, offensively capable naval forces, generally built around carrier battle groups, became symbols of the U.S. commitment to its allies, most notably those in the eastern Mediterranean and the western Pacific. The outbreak of war in the Korean peninsula in June 1950 further strengthened the hands of U.S. navalists. Most notably during the carrier- supported Inchon amphibious assault of September 1950, the United States demonstrated that naval power still had an important role to play in the atomic age.

The resurrection of the navy's carrier program, with construction of the first supercarrier, the Forrestal, in the early 1950s, not only indicated that the service had a relatively secure future but ensured that the navy would remain a partner, albeit a junior one, alongside the U.S. Air Force in strategic nuclear warfare.

During the mid-1950s, the pressures of service unification and the shift toward President Dwight D. Eisenhower's New Look policy (sufficient deterrence based on massive retaliation) at first seemed to threaten the roles and mission of the navy, but the shortcomings of the concept of massive retaliation soon became evident. Naval forces demonstrated their crisis response capability during troubles in the Far East and Lebanon. Missile guidance technology led to the development of mobile, stealthy, and therefore survivable submarines (SSBNs) capable of launching intercontinental ballistic missiles (Polaris). These factors, combined with the excellent leadership for six years of Admiral Arleigh Burke, chief of naval operations, ensured that the navy continued to play an important role in national security policy.

During the 1960s, the navy faced some new and some old challenges. President John F. Kennedy brought a team of specialists to Washington who were determined to root out military inefficiency, which they attributed in large part to insufficient centralization. Practical experience, such as the debacle over the operational problems with the F-111, tempered these ideas somewhat. Crises in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, and the Pacific also demonstrated the value of naval forces. The navy also found itself playing a sizable role in the Vietnam War.

At the close of the 1960s, President Richard Nixon conducted "a retreat from empire," a major retrenchment for a country whose national security consensus had been shaken by the politically divisive war in Indochina. The Nixon Doctrine formalized the unwillingness of the United States to continue to "pay any price" or "bear any burden" in international affairs. It looked to local powers, such as Iran, to police the world's troubled regions and to provide the ground forces that might be necessary in a crisis, and, accordingly, it placed a premium on U.S. air and, especially, naval forces. While naval roles within Nixon's national security strategy were in many ways expanded, the force structure of the service was aging, the victim of neglect during the Vietnam War and reduced military spending in subsequent years. The mid-1970s and late 1970s were lean years for the navy and all the other services.

The United States faced a crisis in the Middle East when, in 1979, the foundations of the Nixon Doctrine collapsed with the fall of the shah of Iran. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980 contributed to instability in the region.

During his final years in office, President Jimmy Carter took steps to restructure U.S. policy in the Middle East, although too late to save his political future. In his 1980 State of the Union address, the president outlined what became known as the Carter Doctrine, warning that the United States would not allow the Soviet Union to threaten the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf. A 1980 pledge by Secretary of State Edmund Muskie went even further, putting the gulf states on notice that the United States would not allow anyone to interfere with oil tanker traffic through the Strait of Hormuz. To add muscle to these pronouncements, the Carter administration began to build up the Rapid Deployment Force, what would eventually become Central Command. In the interim, the president relied heavily on naval power. Carter expanded the naval presence of the United States in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean, marking the beginning of what would turn out to be a decade of crisis and war in the region.

This redirection of U.S. national security policy was matched by an intellectual renaissance in the U.S. military. All the services began rethinking their strategy, operational concepts, tactics, and doctrine. By the early 1980s, the navy had developed what it termed the Maritime Strategy, a highly controversial concept even though it embraced the established post World War II practices of forward, offensive operations by carrier, amphibious, and attack submarine forces, in order to seize the initiative from the Soviets in an initial, conventional stage of what the navy was certain would be a global war.

The administration of Ronald Reagan worked hard to rush these and many other Carter policies to maturity. To help support a three-ocean naval commitment, Secretary of the Navy John Lehman, the most active and effective secretary since Forrestal, became the administration advocate for a six hundred-ship navy, one element of a broad-based defense buildup. With its new strategy, a larger force structure, high retention rates, and capable platforms and weapons, the navy entered a period of expansion unmatched in the postwar era.

The Reagan administration made good use of naval capabilities. Trident-armed ballistic missile submarines patrolled the oceans as an increasingly critical element of the nuclear deterrent force, and the rejuvenated naval service continued to conduct its traditional postwar forward presence mission in the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the western Pacific. The navy supported military operations conducted against Lebanon, Libya, Grenada, and Panama, and between July 1987 and August 1988 fought an undeclared naval war in the Persian Gulf and its approaches against Iran in an ultimately successful effort to prevent the escalation of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War to the waters of the gulf. On 18 April 1988, during the course of these operations, the navy won its largest surface action (Praying Mantis) since World War II.

In the summer of 1990 a new crisis loomed in the Persian Gulf. On 2 August, Saddam Hussein sent Iraqi forces into Kuwait. The United States responded forcibly, initiating Operation Desert Shield to prevent Saddam from moving further south into the Arabian peninsula. The forward-deployed forces of the navy led the way. Carriers in the Gulf of Oman and the Red Sea covered the transfer of U.S. Air Force interceptors during their fly-in from bases in the United States, as well as the initial airlift of transports carrying U.S. Army airborne troopers to Saudi Arabia. Navy prepositioning ships rushed equipment and supplies for an entire marine brigade from Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean to the gulf. The navy guarded the sea lanes over which hundreds of ships during the next six months carried their cargoes to the gulf, while the United States and its allies built up a powerful force in the Arabian peninsula. The navy also began maritime intercept operations in support of a U.S.-led blockade and United Nations sanctions against Iraq.

On 17 January 1991, when it became clear that Saddam would not withdraw, Desert Shield became Desert Storm. The navy supported both the air and ground operations that ultimately forced the Iraqi army from Kuwait. During the subsequent months, as U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army assets withdrew, the U.S. Navy- Marine Corps team remained in the gulf, enforcing United Nations sanctions against Iraq in an effort to force Saddam to comply fully with the resolutions then in force. U.S. naval forces remained in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean as a symbol of the U.S. commitment to the security of the region.

For more than two centuries, the navy of the United States has served the nation well. It grew from a small force that performed a limited role, protecting U.S. commerce, into a large and powerful fleet that for most of the first half of the twentieth century was the first line of defense of the United States. During the cold war, while no longer the nation's premier service, it played critically important roles in support of U.S. national interests. In fact, the victory of the western powers in the cold war was a victory of maritime states over land powers, of Mahan over the geopoliticians. Few strategists in 1992, U.S. or Russian, were to be heard heralding the intrinsic strength of the Eurasian heartland.

Over the course of two centuries, the navy developed a strategic tradition of forward, offensive operations. During the Quasi-War with France, the Barbary wars, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and World War II, such operations became its hallmark or "way of war," to quote historian Russell F. Weigley. The Maritime Strategy of the 1980s reflected not only the realities of the postWorld War II era but also the service's well-developed strategic inheritance.

The effects on the navy of the end of the cold war and the collapse of the Soviet Union are unclear. It remains to be seen whether these events will usher in a fourth period in the history of U.S. national security and transform the country from one of the world's two superpowers to the globe's omnipower, and whether Americans will remain engaged internationally.

However the country chooses to act in the years ahead, the U. S . Navy will more than likely play an enhanced role in national security policy. Declining defense budgets will affect all the services, but less so the navy. Strategic deterrent forces will probably increasingly be seabased. The absence of a Soviet threat will probably undermine the alliance system of the United States, resulting in the closing of overseas bases and increased reliance on naval air and amphibious forces. The possibility exists that by the year 2000, the navy might be, once again, the nation's first line of defense.


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