Oceans Ventured

12 Jan 19
Posted by: Kevin Rowlands


This issue’s Book of the Quarter is a real eye-opener. Depending on your point of view we may or may not be in a new Cold War with Russia. Not the same as the last Cold War, of course, but with sufficient similarities and the same main protagonists to make a comparison worthwhile. Oceans Ventured is not a balanced, un-biased book looking at both sides of the last Cold War and doesn’t claim to be. It is the work of a man who was at the heart of the American naval fight through much of the 1980s. It provides, therefore, a unique, personal perspective from the inside Reagan’s Pentagon machine. Those who served at the time will find much in it to rekindle the memory. Those who didn’t will find much that they can apply to today’s challenges. Either way, it is a must-read.
The Book of the Quarter series aims to highlight one book, be it a history, memoire, biography or strategy and pique members’ interest. By buying just one book of naval relevance every three months (and selection criteria does include price) members can quickly build up a private bookshelf of quality.

Kevin Rowlands
Captain, RN.
Book Reviews Editor

by John F Lehman
(W.W. Norton – £19.99)
ISBN 9780 3932 5425 9

John Lehman, as many Naval Review members will know, was Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Navy. If, as his many admirers would argue, President Reagan was the man who won the Cold War, then Lehman was the loyal, skilful and determined lieutenant who led the naval fight in those final years of global, ideological confrontation. There is little doubt that the adoption of an aggressive maritime strategy based on forward presence, right up to the limits of the territorial waters of the Soviet Union, rattled Moscow. There is also little doubt that this strategy convinced Moscow that it had to compete in a renewed arms race after the detente of the 1970s. And there is no doubt that the inability of the Soviet economy to sustain the resultant high defence spending was a critical factor in the collapse of the communist system within a decade. That said, it is wrong and somewhat hubristic to claim, as this book’s blurb does, that when Ronald Reagan took office the United States was losing the Cold War and that it was his naval policies that turned the tide and delivered victory to the West. There is more to it than that, much more.
However, that minor gripe of geopolitical history aside, Oceans Ventured is a superb book and an absolute must for the naval scholar of the late Cold War period. Yes, it is biased and tells the story from a single political and national perspective, but this is a timey memoire from a privileged insider. Lehman was at the heart of the Republican national security establishment and he certainly made his voice heard, and his ideas felt, from the White House to the Kremlin, and from the Pentagon to ships at sea in the US Navy. At four decades removed it is easy to forget (or misremember) the malaise of the 1970s and the sense of rejuvenation and purpose that many on the American political right experienced when Reagan promised a 600-ship navy. It is interesting therefore to read in this book Lehman’s own account of the high points of his time as the civilian head of the US Navy. The hugely successful film Top Gun was made on his watch and there is a candid photograph reproduced in the book of Lehman with Tom Cruise, the film’s star. The power of public engagement, national narrative, of propaganda should not be underestimated. It is at least as important as the latest hard power weapons systems and tactics, and John Lehman knew what he was doing. The US Navy was an excited and willing partner in the making of Top Gun and it raised their public profile significantly. Lehman threw his weight behind the film for political reasons, not because of some deep love for Hollywood, despite his boss’s previous employment.
John Lehman himself was a naval aviator, a Cold War hawk, a member of the Committee on the Present Danger (surely a worthy topic for a book itself), and a Republican strategist who had advised Reagan in the years leading up to the 1980 presidential election. When Reagan won, Lehman was rewarded with high office and became Secretary of the Navy at the age of just 38 while still a serving Commander in the US Navy Reserve. With absolute faith in his own abilities and being a shaping mind behind the President’s intent, he pushed hard to change the navy from a demoralised, post-Vietnam force into a confident, front-footed service ready and able to take the fight to the enemy’s doorstep. There had to be cultural change, of course, but also rapid growth. The reconstitution of the US Navy during Lehman’s tenure is something to wonder at – the recommissioning of four iconic Second World War era Iowa class battleships was symbolic, but important too were ship life extension plans and a step change in new warship construction, including additional nuclear aircraft carriers.
But the bulk of Oceans Ventured’s content is not about overt politics or hardware, it is in large part a discussion and description of exercises. And herein lies an important truth for navalists. Exercises are not just about training ships and their companies for war or conflict or some vague concept of a future potential operation. In the naval domain exercises can be the operation. The day-to-day activity of navies is not time-filling or waiting for the big bay to come, it is what they do. Lehman instinctively knew this and it is telling that the book’s title is taken from the first major forward presence exercise that took place as part of his maritime strategy – OCEAN VENTURE 81. Whereas previous American administrations had effectively ceded the seas to the north of the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap to the Soviets, Reagan’s did not. They went to the High North, got close to Soviet ships and the Russian landmass, and then did the same in the Pacific and Mediterranean. They forced a kinetic response from a surprised foe and then kept going. By exercising, aggressively, in “enemy waters” they were sending a clear, unambiguous message to Moscow. This was hard-nosed naval diplomacy and ultimately, as part of a broader grand strategy, it worked. When Lehman describes the flight of a carrier-launched fighter in the Norwegian Sea, or the manoeuvres of US ships with Asian allies off the coast of Vietnam, he isn’t recounting a training evolution at an American equivalent of FOST. He is describing the Cold War at sea. And with the world as it is today, what navalist would want to ignore such a thing?

Kevin Rowlands
Captain, RN