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John T. HanleyPeter M. SwartzChristopher Steinitz
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The CNO Strategic Studies Group (SSG) was conceptualized by outgoing Under Secretary of the Navy Robert J. Murray and formed in 1981 by Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Thomas B. Hayward. Its purpose was to prepare potential Flag officers for three- and four-star commands, stimulate strategic discourse among the Navy leadership, and enhance the reputation of the Naval War College—or, as the SSG’s first Director, Robert J. Murray, put it, to turn “captains of ships into captains of war.” This new group had immediate impacts on the development of the 1980s’ Maritime Strategy and war plans. The Reagan administration came into office announcing a more aggressive stance vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, including a more offensive declaratory policy and a robust naval rebuilding program. Internally the Navy had been pressing for a more offensive strategy. Intelligence was penetrating deeply into Soviet intentions and practices, and opportunities to improve U.S. strategy, operational art, tactics, and plans were plentiful.

What the SSGs did

Overseen by the founding director, Robert Murray, SSG I (1981-1982) developed warfighting strategy aimed at defeating the Soviets, especially in the Norwegian Sea campaign, while avoiding nuclear escalation by either side. Their strategy employed operational art and tactics that combined the best attributes of naval, joint, and allied forces considering the geography in each theater of operations. They conducted detailed analyses and games focusing on NATO’s northern theater. Their operational art evolved into what two SSG Fellows, Captain (select) William A. Owens and Captain (select) Arthur C. Cebrowski, later named “systems-of-systems” and “Net-Centric Warfare,” respectively. SSG I also travelled extensively, engaging Washington-based and forward naval and joint staffs in intense debates and heightening awareness of naval forward strategy and operational issues. SSG II (1982-1983) built upon SSG I’s strategy, as well as its modus operandi, adding operational concepts and tactics for maintaining aircraft carriers forward in the eastern Mediterranean and northwest Pacific, gaining sea control, and striking Warsaw Pact forces and Soviet airfields at the outset of war.

SSG III (1983-1984), under Director Robert Wood, witnessed the invasion of Grenada and bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut during the fall of 1983. Seeking to address additional warfighting needs, they turned to developing strategies for dealing with Soviet client states (Cuba and Libya) and developments in the Persian Gulf, in the context of both a war with the Soviets and other contingencies. They sought to use these contingencies to develop broader principles for strategies applying military, economic, and diplomatic power to achieve U.S. aims and broaden the Maritime Strategy. They stimulated the development of contingency plans and stirred strategic debate among naval commands. SIXTH Fleet found their contributions very helpful. SECOND Fleet strongly disagreed with their approach. These first three SSGs influenced the drafting and initial revisions of the Navy’s classified Maritime Strategy, first briefed in the fall of 1982 and first published as a document in 1984.

As the SSG’s influence on the CNO and Navy strategic and operational concepts became apparent, senior naval officers and OPNAV sought to affect their studies. This resulted in CNO James D. Watkins formally promulgating SSG objectives, tasks, and organizational relationships. He made the SSG “the Navy’s focal point on framing strategic issues and the conceptualization/development of concepts for naval strategy and tactics,” and firmly established that they worked only for the CNO.

The first three SSGs determined their own topics to study. However, Watkins believed it was his moral responsibility to prevent war with the Soviets. He tasked SSG IV (1984-1985) to work in conjunction with a select team from the OPNAV staff to develop strategy and plans for using naval and joint forces to deter Soviet aggression. SSG IV and their OPNAV counterparts explored deterring the Soviets both from considering the use of force and from employing armed force during a crisis. They developed naval options, contributing to the development of options involving all services that the Joint Staff adopted and the Unified Commanders-in-Chief (CINCs) subsequently employed in exercises and operations.

The next year, Watkins tasked SSG V (1985-1986) to extend deterrence beyond warfighting to the Soviets’ attempts to extend their influence, and to others who would use force to challenge U.S. interests and allies. He felt that national responses to crises were reflexive: the typical response was to send aircraft carriers, whether it was appropriate or not. He intended the strategy and plans to be national, involving other agencies and branches of government, and the White House. SSG V developed methods for anticipating actions inimical to U.S. interests and evaluating naval options for deterring, preempting, or responding to such acts. They developed templates for the Navy, CINCs, and other military services and agencies to use in preparing plans. While the Joint Chiefs appreciated the SSG’s concepts, Watkins retired before he could see his initiative fully implemented.

By 1986, the Navy’s approach to its Maritime Strategy had matured considerably in its operations and exercises at sea, as well as in its plans and pronouncements. Captain Larry Seaquist had come down from SSG III to head up the OPNAV strategy office. He not only revised the existing strategy document but also co-drafted a companion amphibious warfare strategy and participated in maritime strategy deliberations and implementation decisions at the very highest levels of classification. Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) John Lehman, CNO Watkins, and Commandant of the Marine Corps (CMC) General P. X. Kelley published an unclassified but authoritative version of The Maritime Strategy as an addendum to the Naval Institute Proceedings in January 1986. CNO Carlisle A. H. Trost had the SSG VI (1986-1987) Red Team explore what the Soviets might do to counter it. SSG VI, playing Red, developed approaches for defeating the United States, and then developed counters to that “worst case” scenario. While they provided intelligence indicators for what the Soviets might do, in retrospective, Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost, perestroika, and sufficient defense initiatives pointed to the coming demise of the Soviet Union.

Trost had benefited from living, studying, and traveling overseas and dealing with early Soviet naval arms control proposals in his assignments as an Olmsted scholar and military assistant to the Under Secretary of Defense and Under Secretary of the Navy. As with Hayward, he viewed broadening the education of future Flag officers as the greatest benefit of the SSG. While primarily concerned with continuing Soviet naval modernization, he tasked SSGs VII (1987-1988) and VIII (1988-1989) with studying political-military developments in the Pacific and Mediterranean/Mideast, respectively, including Soviet arms control initiatives. Sensing the Soviet decline, U.S. allies and security partners in Asia and Europe questioned the continuing need for U.S. bases and forces in their territory. Concerned that forward naval forces would conduct the types of operations that SSG IV had recommended, Gorbachev pressed for naval arms control. SSG VII did not accept fundamental assumptions regarding the behavior of allies in war plans for the Soviets and North Koreans, fomenting debate on whether they should be assumptions or objectives. This thinking motivated the development and institution of cooperative engagement strategies and plans (now called Theater Security Cooperation plans). SSG VIII saw the need to employ alliances developed to contain the Soviets for a broader range of contingencies, principally countering terrorism, as a key driver of future naval operations.

Trost tasked SSG IX (1989-1990) to review the continuing relevance of the operational concepts underlying the Maritime Strategy in the light of strategic arms reductions and agreements on conventional forces in Europe. The concepts developed by SSGs I and II had remained as the foundation for war plans in the maritime theaters. In war games during the fall of 1989, SSG IX found that the canonical Warsaw Pact invasion of Europe was no longer feasible. Then the Berlin Wall fell. SSG IX recommended studying other contingencies involving U.S., Soviet, and other major power interests. Trost agreed. An Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia offered an interesting case to study, even though consideration of such a contingency was against U.S. policy of supporting Saddam Hussein as a bulwark against Iran. SSG IX wargamed the invasion in February 1990 and found that, indeed, the Red Team had to reevaluate all decisions that the Soviets made in light of their desire to remain a great power while needing Western economic help. The SSG also identified many challenges that the Navy and United States would have in fighting a large, modern force halfway around the world with few prepositioned forces. In March 1990, the SSG's logic for studying this case was ahead of its time by several months and senor military leaders did not accept it. They considered Iran to be the enemy and Saddam Hussein to be helpful. Trost retired from CNO in early July. SSG IX’s work received little notice until Hussein began deploying his forces toward the end of July. The materials from the game assisted several SSG IX Fellows in their next assignments and informed some preparations for Operations DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM.

When Frank B. Kelso II became CNO in 1990, he faced demands first for a peace dividend and, shortly after, for preparations for Operations DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM. Needing a more up-to-date value proposition for the Navy, he tasked SSG X to study the future security environment and its implications for the Navy and Marine Corps. SSG X (1990-1991) adopted a scenario-planning technique developed by Royal Dutch Shell that looked at broad economic, demographic, energy, resource, environmental, technological, and social trends out to 2010, and identified what they saw as implications for international security and the naval forces. They hoped to have the Navy adopt scenario planning as a strategic planning technique and use it much like Shell did. However, Kelso had turned to Total Quality Leadership as the Navy’s approach to strategic planning.

SSG XI (1991-1992) continued SSG X’s work, focusing it more specifically on trends involving allies and potential adversaries, with an emphasis on military forces. Like SSG X, they decided to focus their efforts on providing the context for developing Navy strategy and plans rather than engage in debates regarding specific future Navy platforms. Also like SSG X, they emphasized that military power needed to be integrated with other elements of national power, and employed with other like-minded nations to protect and sustain the global, inter-connected system. U.S. leadership would be a major determinant of the future. Kelso had just agreed to reduce the Navy from the Cold War target of 600 to a Base Force of 450 ships. SSG XI briefed him that continuing to do business the way that the military-industrial-congressional enterprise had done since WWII would result in the Navy having closer to 250 ships by 2012. Consumed by adjusting to evolving post-Goldwater-Nichols Act relationships within DoD, the Tailhook scandal, fallout from the Navy’s investigation of the USS Iowa (BB-61) turret explosion, and other issues of the day, he had difficulty accepting SSG XI’s analysis of the likely size of the future Navy.

SSG XII (1992-1993) continued the effort to understand what the nation and the Navy could do to sustain U.S. influence as both its military forces and its share of the world’s economy diminished. Again, they looked to whole-of-government approaches and employing the kinds of institutions the United States had put in place following World War II (the United Nations (U.N.), World Bank, alliances, etc.). They recommended actions that the CNO could promote within the Department of Defense (DoD) and at the White House, as well as policies and programs to prepare the Navy for the future. Under continuing pressure from his many other concerns, Kelso did not have the energy to pursue many of SSG XII’s ideas. Some of SSG XII’s ideas received a better reception at the Joint Staff, the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), and the White House than in the Navy.

SSG XIII (1993-1994) selected their task. The Bottom Up Review had mandated further force reductions, cutting the Navy to 400 ships, but U.N.-mandated operations increased. Secretary of Defense (SECDEF) Les Aspin made forward presence a criterion for force sizing, though no agreed-on intellectual foundation existed. Paralleling a study by OPNAV OP-06, SSG XIII decided to look at naval presence and influence. Their strategic studies and operational backgrounds led to innovative concepts for understanding both influence and ways to obtain more presence from fewer naval forces. The SSG’s innovative concepts appeared to some to undermine OPNAV’s calculations and arguments for a specific number of Navy surface ships. Admiral J. Michael Boorda relieved Kelso as CNO before SSG XIII completed their year. Boorda preferred OPNAV’s work to the SSG’s.

Boorda explored whether and how to change the Group. He tasked SSG XIV (1994-1995) to project trends and bound future possible national and international developments to 2005, and then give him specific recommendations as to what he should do with his remaining three years as CNO. SSG XIV presciently portrayed growing challenges from China and Russia, the emergence of Islamic terrorism, and domestic challenges, and made recommendations to position the Navy and the nation to respond. Boorda, however, viewed the work of the SSG in the 1990s as having become “too pol-mil and not enough mil-pol.”

A CNO Executive Panel task force study on naval warfare innovation impressed Boorda. He implemented the CEP’s recommendations and tasked the SSG with forming “concept generation teams” for revolutionary naval warfare concepts incorporating emerging technology. Beginning in 1995, the emphasis of the SSG was transformed, from preparing future three- and four-star officers and promoting strategic debate, to delivering tangible products to the CNO.

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Statement A (Public release/Unlimited) Specific authority: N00014-16-D-5003.


  • Pages: 328
  • Document Number: DRM-2016-U-014152-Final
  • Publication Date: 9/23/2016
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