#Reviewing Oceans Ventured

Oceans Ventured: Winning the Cold War at Sea. John Lehman. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 2018.

President Ronald Reagan’s maritime strategy, the one that played such a pivotal role in hastening the end of the Cold War, was first drawn up on a napkin. John Lehman, not then in government service near the end of the Carter administration, sat at the Black Pearl in Newport, Rhode Island with Secretary of the Navy Graham Claytor, Deputy Secretary James Woosley, and Francis "Bing" West, President Reagan’s future Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, following a strategy session at the Naval War College. The gears greased with libations and drawn butter for their lobsters, the four of them molded a revolutionary new operating construct for fleet combat operations in the Norwegian Sea that laid the foundations for Lehman’s maritime strategy as Secretary of the Navy a few years later.[1]

Secretary Lehman’s readily accessible book tells the story as if you were having a casual conversation at the Black Pearl, listening to the reminiscences and sea stories of a well-traveled naval officer.

The story of the development and execution of U.S. maritime strategy in the 1980s, well documented and debated in the pages of the United States Naval Institute’s Proceedings, the Naval War College Review, and in the minds of the Navy’s current senior leaders, has finally been told from the perspective of its architect. Secretary Lehman, awaiting the declassification of several key Cold War documents, recently published Oceans Ventured, meticulously documenting the Navy’s aggressive operations in the 1980s. Secretary Lehman’s readily accessible book tells the story as if you were having a casual conversation at the Black Pearl, listening to the reminiscences and sea stories of a well-traveled naval officer. The Strategy Bridge’s readership will find Oceans Ventured relatable and refreshing.

Lehman’s memoir relates his tour through the lens of the Ocean-series of military exercises, starting in 1981 and continuing into the late 1980s. These exercises, true joint exercises with Allies, demonstrated American resolve in the far-forward regions of the Norwegian Sea in the Atlantic and into the Sea of Okhotsk in the Pacific—the Soviet’s  backyard. The exercises demonstrated the modernization and evolution of carrier battle group tactics, hiding from the Soviets as they surged forward from their homeports under emissions control, only to pop up in notional launch positions, forcing the Soviets to scramble to monitor. Lehman paints the growth of the Reagan-era exercises in complexity and in their desire to provoke a response from the Soviets. In these exercises the Soviets unwittingly played the Red Team, as their responses gave the United States the opportunity not only to gain intelligence on their operational and tactical doctrine, but also to observe first-hand how the Soviet’s technology and tactics improved, allowing American forces to both respond with new doctrine and train against them.

Many of the early tactical interactions with the Soviet Navy and Air Force, including the early and unannounced air intercepts, were coached directly by Vice Admiral James “Ace” Lyons to ensure the dangerous game America played could not stumble into another world war.[2] By the end of the Reagan administration, the Navy had mastered operating a carrier in Vestfjord, Norway, with submarines clearing out the fjord ahead of time and protecting the inlet so that the United States might operate with impunity. Every one of these exercises, designed to elicit Soviet responses and keep them confined to home waters, was crafted for tactical and operational innovation, to ensure that the Soviets continually saw new tactics and strategies, thus forcing them to remain on the defensive throughout the 1980s. This approach proved key in demonstrating that command of the seas could no longer be contested—the United States had won.

The Reagan years provide many lessons for today’s Navy as the United States looks to reassert its dominance in the global maritime commons. Lehman recalls President Reagan’s beliefs at the time:

It was time to venture forward from the successful but passive policy of containment to the more activist policy of rebuilding American naval forces to reassert maritime supremacy in all the seas surrounding the Soviet empire and convince them that if they attacked NATO, they would quickly lose the war at sea and expose themselves to attack from virtually all azimuths.[3]

USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) conducts a strait transit. (U.S. Navy Photo)

The modern American Navy’s strategy toward freedom of navigation patrols and theater security cooperation, while important, does not project power in the same way that aggressive, forward exercises do. A resurgent Russia and a rising China would be forced to fundamentally reconsider their grand strategies if the American Navy embarked on a revival of the Reagan maritime strategy. Secretary Lehman’s narrative fits well with recent speeches from both Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson on the possible shift from the traditional, predictable deployment model to a dynamic force employment construct characterized by unpredictability. Many officers and sailors of the Reagan era will recognize this as the flushing of East Coast ports for spontaneous deployments designed to keep the Russians on their toes.[4] Even today, elements of Lehman’s maritime strategy are creeping back into American operations, as demonstrated by the Harry S. Truman carrier strike group conducting not just a transit, but shorter term, deployed operations in the Atlantic, only the second such instance of operations since 2011.

The Reagan years provide many lessons for today’s Navy as the United States looks to reassert its dominance in the global maritime commons.

From a broader personnel perspective, Secretary Lehman weaves throughout Oceans Ventured the careers of other naval officers and their rise to fleet command. Lehman repeatedly states that the officers steeped in naval strategy through multiple tours in the Pentagon, the gaming floors of the Naval War College, and increasing experience operating at sea produced some of the most innovative and bold unit and fleet commanders.[5] It is a model that the American Navy would do well to reconsider as the strategic picture becomes more important than it has been in the last thirty years. The U.S. Navy of the 1920s and 1930s would have shifted the burden of advancing strategic thought to the General Board, a body comprised of senior admirals, but no such organization exists today. The gradual shrinking and lower overall experience base of the naval strategist cadre, in parallel to the broader inflation of the Chief of Naval Operations’ staff, has resulted in many strategists, both titled and informal, writing the strategy from too junior a perspective without sufficient mentorship and guidance from trained senior officers.

Secretary Lehman’s Oceans Ventured, is not only a tale well told, but more importantly is a veritable fount of wisdom on developing and executing a maritime strategy, something the U.S. Navy is relearning as recent world events shift back into the maritime domain from the mountains of Afghanistan and the deserts of Syria and Iraq. This book needs to be read and internalized at all levels.

Ryan Hilger is a U.S. Navy officer. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Navy, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: U.S. Navy Ships (Pakistan Times)


[1] John Lehman. Oceans Ventured. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 2018, p. 52.

[2] Ibid, p. xiv-xv.

[3] Ibid, p. 272.

[4] Ibid. p. 214.

[5] Ibid, p. 273