Lessons from the 600-Ship Navy

1 year, 7 months ago


The U.S. Navy of the 1980s provides a reminder what serious peer competition in the naval sphere looks like and the resources and human willpower that it requires. E. B. Potter describes the 1980s buildup to counter the Soviet Union as the “most expensive peacetime military buildup in the nation’s history, to cost $1.5 trillion in five years . . . the Navy would be built up from 456 to 600 ships, including 15 carrier-centered battle groups.”1

The 1980s maritime strategy and naval buildup was advocated by senior officers in uniform, approved by civilian leadership, and then laboriously implemented across all levels. Growing pains were worked out, and complex exercises in frigid environments executed. The renaissance of naval strategic thought in the late 1970s and subsequent buildup of the 1980s should provide a source of strength and inspiration to today’s sailors and civilian defense officials. Lessons in strategy, fleet exercises, and force structure remain directly relevant.


A clearly defined naval strategy with concrete operations and tactics guided the 1980s naval expansion. John Lehman, Secretary of the Navy from 1981 to 1987, notes that President Ronald Reagan “approved the Navy recommendation to begin at once pursuing a forward strategy of aggressive exercising around the vulnerable coasts of Russia,” and “this demonstrated to the Soviets that we could defeat the combined Warsaw Pact Navies and use the seas to strike and destroy their vital strategic assets with carrier-based air power.”4 Active-duty naval officers such as Admiral James Holloway, Admiral Thomas Hayward, and Admiral James Lyons had long been advocating for such a strategy. These officers, as well as many others, rejected the consensus view of the previous Carter administration on the role of the Navy in a war with the Soviet Union:

We’ll get back to that. We have questions about the differences between then and now. The real threat to America is from the south. The border is wide open. Russia and China’s vested interests are in letting the US continue its long, slow, ugly decline into the wastebin of history, although America seems bent upon hastening that demise. Who is going to man, oops, person this Navy; Nigerians, Nicaraguans?

The primary lesson is that when it’s not your money, who cares what it costs? That 1980s Navy never got paid for.

Carter subscribed to the NATO strategy that called for employing most of America’s military resources to support the Allied front in Germany. The Navy’s primary role would be defense of the Atlantic SLOC [sea lines of communication], a task that would not require many large deck carriers. Carter’s SLOC strategy prompted Admiral Holloway and a number of naval analysts to warn that if the Navy implemented this policy, it would be unable to perform other vital wartime tasks . . . the strategy essentially ceded the Pacific theater to the Soviets.5

It takes years or a decade to develop warfare systems technologies. We’re no fan of Carter, but one thing he never gets any credit for is signing the bills that enabled a massive technology uplift to all branches of the Department of Defense. The foundation for many technologies that would be used in Desert Storm was started in the 70s and early 80s.

I joined the Navy in the 1980s. The training was excellent. There was a no-nonsense business approach to all phases of operations. The enlisted men were trusted and respected (if they worked). There was no radical transformation at the time using the military as a testbed for the integration of the perverse.

Lehman (SecDef in the 80s) describes how the Navy visibly drilled around clearly defined operations and tactics that flowed from the 1980s global maritime strategy:

Nine months after the President’s inauguration, three U.S. and two Royal Navy carriers    executed offensive exercises in the Norwegian Sea and Baltic. In this and subsequent massive exercises there and in the northwest Pacific carried out every year, carrier aircraft proved that they could operate effectively in ice and fog, penetrate the best   defenses, and strike all of the bases and nodes of the Soviet strategic nuclear fleet.10


In a 1986 defense of the maritime strategy in Proceedings, Lehman described the scale of the naval exercises of the 1980s and how strategy guided this training:

Title 10 of the U. S. Code charges the Secretary of the Navy with ensuring the highest level of training appropriate to the responsibilities placed upon both the Marine Corps and the Navy. That is what strategy provides to us—a framework within which to train. For example, U. S. naval forces recently conducted a major training exercise, “Ocean Safari 85,” with our NATO allies and the U.S. Coast Guard and Air Force. The “Safari” assembled off the East Coast of the United States and fought its way across the Atlantic, moved north of England and east of Iceland, and ended up in the Norwegian Sea. Approximately 155 ships and 280 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters operated for four weeks in this environment, against 19 real Soviet ships and submarines and 96 Soviet aircraft sorties.11

Taking “great-power competition” as more than just a buzzword requires robust naval exercises so that the Navy can practice like it would fight when confronting a peer adversary. Exercises of such magnitude require depth in the force structure.

Penetrating deep into areas where Soviets had significant assets required electronic deception and emissions control. Admiral Lyons explained how central these concepts were to his fleet exercises in the Norwegian Sea and High North:

The first thing I did after taking command was to tear up the old canned Ocean Venture OPORD [operation order] . . . They were still using World War II carrier formations . . . such a formation was easily tracked by Soviet satellites. What we did was plot out Soviet satellite area footprints and time of exposure. We then went to dispersed dispositions. We used a number of cover and deception decoys and tactics.12

Lehman describes one exercise where Lyons endeavored to make “his entire strike group disappear” through emissions control and foul weather, then reappearing in the Norwegian Sea to the Soviets’ surprise.13 Utilizing military deception and emissions control effectively is a skill that requires practice and risk management but is necessary when operating within a peer adversary’s weapon’s release range.14


The 600-Ship Navy occurred without hollowing the force or falling behind in technological advancements. The 1980s buildup centered on proven platforms while at the same time making critical investments in precision-guided munitions, electronic warfare, and standoff jamming.18 Admiral Hayward (1980s Admiral who would climb to Chief of Naval Operations, the top naval man over all ships and units able to put to sea) made very clear that naval expansion must be made without a decline in readiness:

. . . units which are incapable of meeting the threat are, in a sense, worse than none, because they give some a false sense of our total capabilities vis-à-vis the Soviets. This means that quality cannot generally be traded off for quantity. At the same time, quantity does matter and there is clearly an absolute minimum in numbers of combatant units below which we cannot safely go.19

It’s almost laughable to think that the US could do this now. Maybe the Navy should focus on hiring MBAs in Diversity, Equity & Inclusion from Wharton Business School. This seems like the equitable thing to do.

Some defense planners today advocate wagering the future on unmanned systems, artificial intelligence, and cyber at the expense of traditional platforms to counter China.21 While these disruptive technologies undeniably require investment, using them to justify broad cuts in traditional platforms at a time when the Navy needs to grow would take on a dangerous level of risk. Indeed, the Ford, Zumwalt, and littoral combat ship highlight the pitfalls of betting that new technology can revolutionize naval warfare and offset a reduction in hulls. Senators Jack Reed (D-RI) and Jim Inhofe (R-OK) recently called for a more prudent approach to force structure, imploring “the return to an Aegis-type development model in which critical subsystems are matured before the Navy procures the lead ship of a new class.”22 Admiral Holloway wrote an entire Naval Warfare Publication to assist force-structure planning and emphasized the centrality of risk assessment:

Naval force structure is derived from consideration of strategy, threat, and risk. If proper strategy is projected, the threat correctly assessed, and risks accurately identified, uncertainty can be minimized and naval requirements can be established.23

All of our lives, we’ve been told that Reagan’s military buildup is what collapsed the Soviet Union. But, we ended up expending those munitions and fleet capabilities to destroy Iraq, a fourth-rate power.


  1. On October 26, 2022 at 10:30 pm, Georgiaboy61 said:

    Re: “All of our lives, we’ve been told that Reagan’s military buildup is what collapsed the Soviet Union. But, we ended up expending those munitions and fleet capabilities to destroy Iraq, a fourth-rate power.”

    The military are the proverbial tip of the spear, it is true – but the shaft, the logistical and industrial might behind that tip, are what win wars.

    The U.S. waged war in the Pacific during the Second World War on a scale which even today defies imagination. No other power on earth was capable of such a feat; only the United States could have done – and did in fact do it.

    It is roughly 6,000 miles from the California coast to Okinawa, yet when the U.S. engaged the Empire of Japan for control of that island, her forces enjoyed a cornucopia of supplies and material which dwarfed that of the enemy, who was fighting only a short distance from his homeland.

    It is not simply putting a 600-ship fleet to sea; it is being able to supply it with all of the essentials necessary to the conduct of industrialized warfare, from computer printer cartridges to surgical sutures to petroleum, oil and lubricants for the aircraft, ships and other mechanical devices.

    The so-called “global war on terror” exposed the fragility of the much-vaunted American war machine – its insufficiently deep reserves of ordnance, ammunition, replacement parts, and indeed people themselves.

    We were told that the U.S. had the capability of fighting two small wars simultaneously, or one peer-versus-peer war. That proved to be optimistic. Our forces struggled to handle Iraq and Afghanistan together, and the military was only able to pull it off, personnel-wise, by use of the backdoor draft, a.k.a. the use of “stop-loss” policies which pulled inactive and retired personnel back into the active service for multiple tours.

    The truth of the matter is that our leadership, political and military alike, have failed us. President G.W. Bush should have mobilized the nation to go to war after the 9-11-2001 attacks, but he instead sent the armed forces to war, but told everyone else to go shopping.

    The Joint Chiefs and the foreign policy establishment failed again in epic fashion by diluting our effort in Afghanistan by opening a second-front – or separate war, depending on how you see it – in Iraq. They then compounded the error by trying to fight the war on the cheap, thereby stressing the force structure nearly to the breaking point.

    Over a decade ago, that failure was plainly evident. So much so that I penned an op-ed column about Afghanistan entitled “A Trillion Dollar Bridge to Nowhere,” and time, if anything, has proven my fears were more than justified. Iraq and Afghanistan were both expensive fiascos. The only people who “won” were the bankers and defense contractors, whose profits were purchased with the blood and suffering of our finest young men.

    And now that our nation faces genuine peer-level threats, it must do so with a force whose equipment is worn-out or inadequate, personnel who are exhausted and/or inadequately trained, and with an insufficient pool of young recruits on hand to serve new personnel needs. Many would-be recruits cannot meet the minimum standards required of basic training and boot camp. Our service academies are cesspools of Marxism and “woke” radicalism.

    In the mid-2000s, a portent of today’s difficulties took place, one unnoticed by everyday Americans outside of the national defense sector: Our land forces, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, were engaged in extensive operations in two theaters of war – and were burning through small-arms ammunition at such a rate that the ammunition manufacturers back in the U.S. (Lake City and elsewhere) could not meet demand. A rush order went out to IMI (Israeli Military Industries) which supplied the necessary shortfall of M855 5.56x45mm NATO ammunition.

    If our manufacturing base can’t meet demand for small wars, what makes anyone think that it is in any way adequate to the demands of a large scale, peer-to-peer conflict or even a world war? And similar shortages occurred across all branches of the U.S. military, and not just with the ground elements of the Army and USMC.

    Our foreign-policy establishment and its neo-con war-hawks, are writing checks with their mouths that our military forces and industrial base can’t cash.

  2. On October 26, 2022 at 11:50 pm, George 1 said:

    As Georgia Boy notes, we no longer have the industrial capacity to say nothing of the lack of social capitol to fight a peer opponent.

    I read some of blogs who mock the Russians concerning the current conflict. Many like to comment on the Russians as well as the Chinese losing military assets to accidents and such.

    We should consider that in just the last few years we have: Lost a multi billion dollar assault ship in drydock because the crew was not able to activate the fire suppression system. The system is activated by large buttons throughout the ship. We lost for a long time two destroyers because the woke crews could not manage to avoid huge container ships. We lost for a long time the Navy’s most advanced submarine because the crew could not avoid a geologic feature rising for the sea floor.

    Not to mention the numerous (stupid) ways aircraft have been lost. A few weeks ago a carrier aircraft rolled off into the sea because the brakes were not set after parking.

    No. We are not in a position to make fun of anyone and I would not like our chances if deployed against China or Russia. JMHO.

  3. On October 27, 2022 at 7:58 am, Drake said:

    “There was a no-nonsense business approach to all phases of operations. The enlisted men were trusted and respected (if they worked). There was no radical transformation at the time using the military as a testbed for the integration of the perverse.”

    This – I went through Marine training in the late 80’s. Very no-nonsense approach to preparing us to win battles. Everything else was subordinated to that goal.

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This article is filed under the category(s) Department of Defense,Navy and was published October 26th, 2022 by PGF.

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