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Posted on Oct 31, 2021 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

From the Sea…To the Blue Water Beyond.  Book Review.

From the Sea…To the Blue Water Beyond. Book Review.

Ray Garbee

Strategy Shelved: The Collapse of Cold War Naval Strategic Planning.  Author: Steven T. Wills. Publisher: United States Naval Institute.  Price $ 44.95

A common assumption is that since the end of the Second World War, the United States Navy has ruled to world’s seas throughout the Cold War and onward into the 21st Century. The assumption is not without merit. At the end of the Second

World War, the United States Navy was the preeminent maritime strike force in the world. Counted separately, US naval aviation was the second largest air force in the world, only behind the U.S. Army Air Force. It was a state of affairs that scaled up the old phrase ‘send a gunboat’ into the more formidable action of sending a carrier battlegroup. And while ships did sail into harm’s way, the American public could assume that the sun never set on the ships of America’s Navy.


Steven T. Wills explores how Cold War naval strategy was developed, evolved and implemented in his book Strategy Shelved: The Collapse of Cold War Naval Strategic Planning. The works provides an excellent history of US maritime strategy during the Cold War as well as the challenge of formulating a modern naval strategy in a post-Cold War world.

Wills shows how the United States Navy embraced Mahan’s theories regarding command of the sea and applied them to their new role in a bi-polar Cold War. The narrative provides a lens through which to view how naval power remained a cornerstone of national strategy throughout the Cold War.

Mahan was dead, but long live Mahan!  Naval power remained a vital element of geopolitical strategy throughout the Cold War, but it was not always smooth sailing. The Navy faced budgetary constraints, technological advancements and the threat of global thermonuclear war. Clausewitz tells us that war is politics by other means. But the domestic political arena was a critical dimension of competition between the services and the civilian leadership. Dr. Wills dives into this critical area and illuminates the treacherous waters the Navy navigated as it worked to meet the needs of the civilian leadership while maintaining its warfighting abilities.

The Soviet Union’s efforts to expand their global political influence coupled with a major investment in their naval forces provided the Navy with a clear focus for strategy and operational needs The end of the Cold War was a ‘perfect storm’ that disrupted maritime strategy.

That storm consisted of three elements: The collapse of the Soviet Union, the Goldwater-Nichols Act, and the 1991 Gulf War. The collapse of the Soviet Navy eliminated the purpose of a US Navy that had spent decades preparing for a blue water war against Soviet aggression.

On the home front the Goldwater-Nichols Act mandated joint commands and strategy, which diluted the Navy’s focus on a maritime strategy. The extent administrative infrastructure that provided the strategic insights fueling deployment decisions and fleet composition was upended in the wake of the emphasis on joint commands and decision-making.

Lastly, the victories of the 1991 Gulf War validated the strategic and operational visions of the U.S. Army and Air Force, but deprived the Navy of a similar opportunity. To paraphrase H. Beam Piper, strategy may be formulated in the Pentagon, but it’s validated on the battlefield. Dr. Wills documents how – in terms of interservice integration and cooperation – the Navy fumbled the ball during the Gulf War. Deprived of the opportunity for a Mahan-esque decisive battle, the Navy was left without a clear “win” to present to the public. Lacking that results of a decisive “proof of concept” it was difficult to sell the US government on the continued need for a large standing navy in the demobilization of the 1990’s.

Beyond the narrative surrounding grand strategy, Dr. Wills does a solid job conveying the sense of how the more things change, the more they stay the same. The rivalry between the Air Force and the Navy dating back at least as far as Billy Mitchell’s sinking of the Ostfriedland was still going strong throughout the Cold War. The debate between the newly independent U.S. Air Force and the United States Navy over the funding for a new generation of “supercarrier” is one of several examples of the competition for control of global strike systems. For the Navy, this was a reliance on naval aviation as well as the development of the ballistic missile submarine. That competition extended into the modern era of ‘joint’ command, training and operations.

Wills presents an excellent history of naval strategy throughout the Cold War through the events of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. It’s an informative read as the narrative revisits not just major military operations, but the near constant political challenges shaping the current and future nature of the fleet.

The book provides an excellent overview of how the U.S. Navy remained at the forefront of technological advances throughout the Cold War and how that technological edge served and shaped maritime strategy.

The future USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) underway on its own power for the first time. The first-of-class ship — the first new U.S. aircraft carrier design in 40 years — will spend several days conducting builder’s sea trials, a comprehensive test of many of the ship’s key systems and technologies. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ridge Leoni/Released)

But it’s not just about technological transformation. Sun Tzu is known for his statement “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” Wills give detailed coverage to the role of the intelligence analysts and planning teams within the Navy. These teams were crucial in providing guidance and background to the leadership that allowed the Navy to succeed in both planning for the future and facing the immediate challenges. An example is Will’s recounting of how in the 1980’s, analysts identified a shift in Soviet naval strategy away from Admiral Gorskov’s blue water navy to a “bastion” strategy. While the analysts were at first dismissed by senior leadership, the shift was later acknowledged and then used as justification for first an aggressive forward deployment of units and later for justification in reducing the planned size of the fleet as the nature of the threat had evolved.

It’s this aspect of the narrative that offers advice to a wide audience. By focusing on the people that drive strategy, Dr. Wills offers a case study on how a large organization can manage transforming their culture to embrace a new paradigm. At the same time, the story paints a cautionary tale of the costs to stakeholders when they fail to adapt and collaborate with their peers. It’s a superb example of how you can either lead, follow or get out of the way.

Artist’s conception of the proposed USS Constellation class frigate

The book presents the reader with a good summation of the events that lead to the Navy’s challenge to formulate a new strategic vision for the post-cold war period. The reader is challenged to evaluate the current state of strategic planning and decide if the United States has a functional strategic vision that’s appropriate and achievable for the near future.

The past quarter century has been focused on fighting what in Queen Victoria’s day would have been termed “Little Wars”. Counter Insurgency (COIN) operations have been the staple of operations for the Army, Air Force and Marines. While the Navy public role often focused on the SEAL teams, the fleet was often providing a supporting role.

But the international framework appears to be evolving towards a return to peer-to-peer competition. In a global space where access to markets and resources is both a given and a critical feature, a national strategy that puts maritime security front and center will be critical to success. Wills has constructed an informative and accessible narrative. The book will appeal to a broad audience. It’s a multi-disciplinary work that touches on classic geopolitical theory, domestic defense policy, as well as political perceptions and decision making. Strategy Shelved should be required reading for anyone looking to understand the importance of a clear strategic vision in setting national policy and defining military capabilities.