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Christopher SteinitzPeter M. SwartzJohn T. Hanley
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In 1981, Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Thomas Hayward established the CNO Strategic Studies Group (SSG) to prepare potential Flag officers for three- and four-star command, stimulate strategic discourse among the Navy leadership, and enhance the reputation of the Naval War College. The institution existed until 2016; however, in 1995, CNO Admiral Jeremy M. (Mike) Boorda changed its focus from strategy to naval warfare innovation.

The first fourteen SSGs are remembered as having made significant contributions to U.S. Navy policy, operational art, and tactics, and to the development of the Maritime Strategy. Until now, there has been little systematic documentation or analysis of the SSG’s contributions to the U.S. Navy’s strategic endeavors in that era. At the request of the Director of the CNO’s SSG, CNA has documented the history of SSGs I-XIV, using archival research, open-source literature, interviews, and personal recollections of a key author.

Establishing the SSG

When Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Thomas B. Hayward established the SSG in 1981, the Navy had begun to develop an atmosphere that was conducive to strategic and operational innovation. Changes in the U.S. defense establishment in the wake of the Vietnam War set the stage for a revival of strategic thinking in the Navy during the late 1970s and 1980s. The 1970s had seen the introduction of a host of nextgeneration systems into the U.S. Navy’s fleet, and new, revolutionary systems were on the horizon. The capabilities available to the Navy were changing the way that it could counter the Soviets. New sources of intelligence were also changing the strategic perspective of the Navy. Across the fleet, officers were innovating naval operations in their deployments, and changes in OPNAV were also reflecting the Navy’s efforts to process the changing strategic inputs.

Developments at the Naval War College (NWC) were also contributing to the atmosphere of strategic thinking. Professor Francis “Bing” West produced Sea Plan 2000, a naval force planning study. Sea Plan 2000 in turn contributed to the establishment of the Global War Game series in 1979. The change in presidential administration in 1981 also served as a catalyst for establishing the SSG, as it ushered in an era of increased defense spending and a more aggressive stance in matters of policy and strategy vis-a-vis the Soviet Union.

The SSG concept began with outgoing Under Secretary of the Navy Robert J. Murray, who had seen these strategic changes unfolding and identified a gap in the Navy’s thinking. Murray envisioned an organization that he called the Center for Naval Warfare that would be based in Newport and would “serve as a focal point, stimulus, and major source of strategic thinking.” It would report directly to the CNO and exist at his sole discretion to study topics of the greatest importance to the Navy.

After Murray created the program from scratch with SSG I, the yearly program remained largely consistent through SSG XIV. The approach relied on several key elements: readings, lectures, and research; meetings with experts; war games; and interactions with high-level Navy activities and leadership. The year began with an orientation period that included extensive readings and lectures by NWC faculty and outside experts. In addition to the standard academic interactions at the NWC, the SSG fellows spent considerable time visiting other relevant academic institutions, forward commands and staffs, and non-government organizations. The SSG relied heavily on games, although the sorts of games it used changed over time in response to differing analytical needs. The SSG fellows participated in the Navy’s most prominent senior-level events, such as the Navy CINCs Conferences, Global War Games, International Seapower Symposia, Current Strategy Forums, conferences conducted by NWC and the Center for Naval Analyses, Navy Long-Range Planning, and Cooke Strategy Conferences.

During these years, the SSG consistently produced analysis of direct relevance to the CNO. The early SSGs focused on generating new strategies and operational concepts for the use of seapower against the Soviet Union. The later SSGs in this series turned their efforts towards futures analyses to help the CNO man, train, and equip the Navy for future threats.

Impact of the SSG

Over the course of this study, CNA conducted interviews with dozens of former SSG fellows, directors, and staff members, and all living former CNOs who either oversaw SSGs I-XIV or served on one as a fellow. To a person, they spoke highly of the value of the SSG and its impact on their career. They also freely offered their perspectives on the reasons for its success.

Much of the success of the SSG is linked to its close association with the CNOs and with the CNO’s engagement with the SSG fellows. The CNOs hand-picked top officers for assignment to the SSG and met with the group regularly over the course of the year. The CNO typically assigned the SSG to study a particular topic. Early on, the SSG succeeded largely due to the assistance of Bob Murray, the most recent former Under Secretary of the Navy. Without him, it is not likely that the nascent SSG would have had the resources, access, or legitimacy that was required to firmly establish itself as an influential strategic institution.

The most important product of the SSG was its cadre of officers, many of whom would go on to shape both the U.S. Navy and the broader U.S. government. Nearly half of the SSG fellows from this era were promoted to Flag rank; at its peak in 2000, 30 percent of Navy four-star officers were SSG alumni. Two SSG fellows eventually became CNO. The fellows briefed their findings and recommendations not just to the CNO but also to senior Navy leadership as a whole. This dialogue served to pollinate strategic and operational concepts across the Navy and proved to be a more valuable SSG product than the final written reports, which were typically only distributed to a few recipients, including the CNO.

The success of SSG I heavily influenced the subsequent development of the SSG and its further success. The first SSG not only provided a template for the progress and activities of future SSGs but also achieved an immediate reputation as a valued contributor to Navy thinking and action. The SSG’s success was also partly due to the receptive climate for war-winning operational concepts that existed in the U.S. Navy in the early 1980s. The SSGs were more influential in studying central Navy deterrence and warfighting concepts during the Cold War than in studying future trends and crisis response after it had ended.

Lessons from the SSG

Should the Navy again consider establishing an organization to support the strategic education of future three- and four-star officers and to stimulate strategic thought at the highest echelons of Navy leadership, we offer a number of recommendations, based on our study of SSGs I-XIV. These include the following:

  • The CNO should be personally and actively engaged with the SSG.
  • The SSG should be small and free of other bureaucratic responsibilities.
  • It should contribute to the Navy’s most important contemporary issues, and
    should have the clearance and access necessary to support its mission.
  • It should use the best experience and methodologies from inside and outside
    the U.S. Navy, and should have the latitude to pursue these in support of its
  • It should start with a bang, as it will set a precedent for its future success.

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


  • Pages: 62
  • Document Number: DRM-2016-U-014211-1Rev
  • Publication Date: 9/23/2016
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