BILL OWENS ON THE STRATEGIC STUDIES GROUP AND TAKING STRATEGY TO SEA
March 31, 2021 MARITIME CYBER SECURITY
CIMSEC discussed the development of the 1980s Maritime Strategy and the role played by the CNO Strategic Studies Group with Admiral William Owens (ret.). Admiral Owens was part of the first SSG during 1982. In this discussion, he discusses changes brought about by the Maritime Strategy, the implementation of the Maritime Strategy concepts by the fleet, and what lessons the Maritime Strategy and SSG have for the modern era.
What was new about the Maritime Strategy and how was it a shift from 1970s concepts and plans?
For the Navy and the Marine Corps, for the entire Defense Department, and for our country the Maritime Strategy was a turning point in the Cold War! For most of the years since World War II the United States Navy and Marine Corps had been focused on how to most efficiently get land and air forces into Central Europe to protect against a Soviet attack. This was the focus of all our force planning. All our analytic efforts in the Pentagon and the grand majority of money in the defense budget was organized around that particular task. The Maritime Strategy changed all of that in profound ways.
Can you briefly describe your personal involvement in the strategy development process?
My personal role was as a member of the first Strategic Studies Group, the SSG. This SSG and the concept was set up by Admiral Tom Hayward, the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO). And it is thanks to Tom Hayward, his vision, and his leadership style, that we wound up with a Maritime Strategy that materially changed everything.
Tom Hayward established the group under Bob Murray, a wonderful gentleman who had been the Under Secretary of the Navy. My personal involvement then was as one of the eight members of that first SSG. Admiral Hayward had personally chosen the eight of us, one from each branch of the Navy and two from the Marine Corps, to spend a year together. That was a transformative year for me and for all of us. As a submariner, I had spent all of my years, about 18 of them, in the submarine force, and had very little experience in the grand strategy of the Navy or the Defense Department. Indeed, I had very little knowledge of the other branches of the Navy, such as the fighter community, the surface navy, the amphibious forces, or the Marine Corps. This year changed all of that for me personally and immersed me in what was, we thought, the principal effort to bring together a very different position for our Navy.
While Secretary Lehman had talked about a different strategic force and several had talked about the need for a more offensive Navy, never before to my knowledge had we put together such a broad view of what the Navy and Marine Corps could possibly execute as principal members of U.S. forces. It is important to note Admiral Hayward’s role in the formation and tasking of the SSG, and in his leadership in imagining the entire year for the eight of us. I will always remember that as a precious lesson of how to lead! The CNO told us personally when we asked “what was the deliverable,” that he did not know. He said, “I formed this group because I have tremendous confidence in each of you, and I expect you to spend a year with no restrictions to do something good for the United States Navy and to make the year worthwhile in every respect, including for yourself.”
Follow-up sessions with Admiral Hayward occurred only two or three times during the year, and under Bob Murray’s leadership we had no restrictions, all doors were open, and all lines of thought were encouraged. This was the only time in my entire time in the Navy that I saw this degree of complete confidence and “gutsy” leadership to do something very special for our Navy and our country.
The SSG is often cited as a key (if not the key) driver behind the emergence of the Maritime Strategy. But at the same time, other initiatives and groups, including exercises such as Ocean Venture ’81, the OP-603 strategist community, the Advanced Technology Panel, and Secretary Lehman’s personal involvement were combined with pre-SSG elements such as Sea Plan 2000 and the Global War Games. In your opinion, which of these elements were the most significant and how did they interact with each other to create what we know as the Maritime Strategy?
While many of these products were well-known to us, there were none in my opinion which laid out the specifics of a new Maritime Strategy, one that would indeed change all of the force analysis, and that would change the thinking in the Congress and in the inner halls of the Kremlin. Regarding which organization came first with the Maritime Strategy, I leave it to the readers. But from our standpoint in the SSG, we had been sent by Admiral Hayward to “do good for the U.S. Navy,” and after many, many discussions among ourselves and many other potential activities that we could have undertaken, we chose to look at how the United States Navy and Marine Corps could play a much more offensive role in what was then the great challenge, the Soviet Union. I know that others were interested in this work, the CNO’s staff was doing work on strategy, and Secretary Lehman had done some work thinking about the Navy of the future.
But for us, we were not aware of any macro-level strategy for our country that dealt with the use of offensive maritime forces. Additionally, when we were looking to brief various commands, through Bob Murray and Admiral Hayward, there was a decision that we should go and visit all of the four-star U.S. Navy commanders to represent a new way of thinking about our Navy, which we called the Maritime Strategy. So, regarding who the originator was, from our standpoint we believed that we were taking the lead and had founded something that could be very special for our country, and I believe it was the SSG who dubbed it the Maritime Strategy.
How did the SSG, and through it the Maritime Strategy, influence and spur innovation in real-world fleet operations and exercises, both at the theater and at the tactical levels? What role did the SSG’s extensive travel to operational fleet commands, or the feedback received from the theater commands and flag ranks, help influence the strategy?
Commander Art Cebrowski and I were the two most junior officers on the first SSG. The natural flow had us both involved in developing presentations, doing some writing, and then eventually being the two briefers that took the Maritime Strategy to each of the four-star commanders-in- chief of the theaters. As such we were able to internalize and absorb the many comments that we received, which were at first quite doubtful, and then in a growing way, believing that there was indeed a new way possible to use naval force. Eventually Art and I started to feel more and more confident. With Bob Murray as an enormous mentor, a shield, we had a great interface with CNO Admiral Tom Hayward to continue our work and then to broaden it.
We noticed that within a few months exercises were being conducted in the various fleets, especially Seventh Fleet, to test out some of the concepts in the field. But more importantly, each of us was blessed to move on to become more senior and start exercising these concepts ourselves. As a young one-star admiral, I was able to mass four dozen attack submarines far forward and “demonstrate to the Soviets directly that we were there in numbers.”
When we looked at the ability of the United States Navy to take the battle forward to the Soviet bastions, to the northern flank of Norway and even the Arctic, when we were able to use carriers, surface forces, and the submarine force together far forward both in the Atlantic and the Pacific, we started to realize that we were having an impact on the Soviets themselves. No longer were the bastions and the northern and western flanks totally the property of the Soviet Union. After the Cold War was over, there were intelligence reports reflecting the critical difference the Navy and Marine Corps’ positioning had had on strategic thinking in the Soviet Union and indeed in their reflection that they could not win, no matter how much they poured into their defense systems.
Why did the Maritime Strategy “work,” if it did, and what about the process has been so hard to replicate?
The Maritime Strategy worked because there was an open mind in the leadership ranks of the Navy, there were very active supporters in OP 603, and in the intelligence community. And I would note that Rich Haver was particularly valuable to us in gaming and supporting our efforts. Rich was a senior civilian, an intelligence professional working in the Chief of Naval Operations office directly in what was called Code 009. He was extremely interested in the SSG’s deliberations and participated in many of our wargames and discussions. He was also a source of information from the intelligence community, and we spent considerable time with Rich regarding the intelligence implications of our thoughts on the Maritime Strategy. We saw a lot of Rich in Newport with the SSG.
Underlying it all, of course, was Tom Hayward and Bob Murray’s terrific leadership. They were the single most important factors in driving the success of those first SSGs! I think it was hard to duplicate the work of the first three or four SSGs, as follow-on CNOs did not lead the effort in the same sense that Tom Hayward did, and there was never another Bob Murray. I think the concept is strong and could remain strong under the right leadership. In other words, “take the very best from the warfare communities, give them a free rein for a year, and ask them to deliver a product that is worth the time and effort for their Navy and Marine Corps.” I don’t think that ever happened again after the first two or three SSGs.
How did the strategy interface with the POM process? What was its budgetary and programmatic influence, what mechanisms channeled this influence, and how did these processes change over this time period?
Because of senior leadership and our exposure to all of the Navy’s four-star officers, there eventually was considerable support and understanding of what the United States Navy and Marine Corps capability was, and I believe that flowed through every branch of both services. Especially for those of us who became three- and four-star officers, we drove the Maritime Strategy as part of all of our budgeting and programmatic directions. It was a critical part of my own efforts both as the first N-8 in the Navy staff and as the Sixth Fleet commander, and then the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Putting pressure on the Soviet Union, and indeed realizing that the Navy and Marine Corps were operating forward, aggressively, and offensively, I believe this carried over after the Cold War ended in the way we thought about our service. It changed the paradigms of World War II. Of course, the submarine force had always been operating forward. But now we were able to operate with other branches of the Navy and Marine corps in a very offensive forward position, and we coordinated those actions with other naval forces to make a much larger difference. In many ways the Maritime Strategy was a coming-of-age for maritime forces.
What lessons can be taken from the 1980s for engaging in modern great power competition, both specifically about the role of the SSG and its functionality, and more generally about the centrality of the Maritime Strategy in 1980s great power competition?
Many of the lessons of the 1980s pertain to naval and Marine forces today, and will in the future. And when we are thinking of great power competition it allowed us to think of truly offensive and game-changing actions in the forward theaters, which pertains as much in today’s world as it did then. I predict that this will continue as we look to the future.
The lessons of the SSG were profound for me. The degree of thinking and engagement that a dedicated, supported from-the-top-group of quality officers can provide, was stunning. Art Cebrowski and I, I’m sure, had our lives changed in many ways from this experience. The leadership lessons learned from Tom Hayward, Bob Murray, and others who supported us also had a profound effect on Art and myself. And I have to add, the loss of Art Cebrowski to our entire Defense Department was a loss that is more than one could ever have imagined.
How did the strategy enhance the Navy’s ability to tell its story to outside audiences, such as Congress, the other services, and allies? How was it received and challenged by outside audiences?
The Maritime Strategy dramatically enhanced the Navy’s confidence in what it already knew in part that it could do. Whether it was with Congress, where the demonstration of the Navy and Marine Corps offensive forces working jointly with the other services became known, or with our allies, where this broad naval offensive power was broadly accepted, the maritime strategy was clearly now a part of everything we did. And in many cases, such as the United Kingdom, our allies joined as part of our forward-thinking Maritime Strategy.
Many audiences of traditionalists, including several of our four-star commanders at the time, were strongly unconvinced, even disapprovingly so. But it did not take long with continued exercises, demonstrated capability, and a realization on the Hill that this was something that could truly change America’s position in the world of military power, that there was widespread acceptance.
For many of us throughout our careers, we took pride in showing our friends and allies around the world and in the United States the true power and ability of our maritime forces to operate freely, jointly, and with substantial capability even in the most challenging areas. It is hard to say this needs to be proven now, since this is the way our country’s military services take military force forward, with naval forces on the leading edge!
Admiral William Owens (ret.) is a retired four-star U.S. Navy admiral. He was Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and was Commander of the U.S. Sixth Fleet from 1990 to 1992, which included Operation Desert Storm. Owens also served as the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Resources. Owens was the Senior Military Assistant to two Secretaries of Defense (Secretaries Cheney and Carlucci) and served in the Office of Program Appraisal for the Secretary of the Navy. He began his military career as a nuclear submariner. He served on four strategic nuclear-powered submarines and three nuclear attack submarines, including tours as Commanding Officer of the USS Sam Houston, USS Michigan, and USS City of Corpus Christi. He currently serves as an executive in the private sector, as well as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Joe Petrucelli is an assistant editor at CIMSEC, a reserve naval officer, and an analyst at Systems, Planning and Analysis, Inc.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own, and do not necessarily represent the positions of employers, the Navy, or the DoD.