March 3, 2022

Strategy Shelved discusses the military debates of the Cold War and aftermath about how to implement effective maritime strategy. The book laments the inability to maintain a global, strategic outlook, particularly after the Cold War, and Wills exposes his contempt for strategy that is unnecessarily curtailed by structural issues.

The book is a cautionary tale for an era of strategic competition. It advises against narrow thinking about the global maritime problem. It is a call to arms and welcome addition to the literature of the Cold War challenging the reader to think about what the essential purpose of a Navy is, what maritime power can lead to and the importance of the higher command in this effort. While he doesn’t implicitly talk about strategy in the higher plain of seeking command of the sea, Wills lauds the Maritime Strategy of the 1980s as the epitome of strategic design and force posture, as one able to support a global campaign and enable the enforcement of sea control when needed.

Strategy Shelved chronicles the challenges of US defence reform from the 1950s and shows how applying incorrect lessons from historical experience can limit national ambition. The book’s core issue is the debate over the effectiveness of centralised or decentralised control of strategy, clearly favouring the Navy’s permanent preference for centralised planning but decentralised execution. At the heart of this is the role of the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) and the Secretary of the Navy; how much control should they have over national strategy, what are their remits, or should they simply concentrate on force generation?

The narrative takes us through the arguments of the 1960s and Wills pines over the efforts of Admirals Arleigh Burke and Zumwalt as CNOs who were able to think and act strategically. They were supported by wargaming, a resourced staff, capability acquisition and live exercises executing a forward deployed strategy designed to reinforce Soviet maritime defensive priorities and create strategic dilemmas on the Soviet flanks. Although Wills rehashes a well-versed understanding of the 1982 ‘Maritime Strategy’, and accepts as an underlying assumption that this aided the fall of the USSR (which is debatable), he makes the point convincingly that the Navy was at least trying to think about how to conduct itself in a global theatre of operations. This culminated in the publication of the Strategy and the 600 ship Navy plan. Even if there was a certain level of alarmism over the Soviet threat, own force structure assessments were based on sound intelligence assessments. This created the conditions for success.

Ultimately, this did not last. Wills criticises the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 as an example of using operational lessons from Vietnam (lack of joint planning) to inform strategic design. This limited the ability of the CNO to act in a strategic fashion thereafter, and centralised operational authority through the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff direct to the regional Joint Commanders.

While this may have made operations more efficient, it did not allow a permissive environment to think strategically. 25 years of poor strategy has been the result where the US military establishment has been predominantly concerned with force generation and funding the short-term requirements of regional Commanders rather than thinking long term and globally. In 1992, the ‘Maritime Strategy’ was dropped for ‘From the Sea’ which promoted the Navy’s main role as supporting littoral warfare. Overnight the Navy reoriented itself as supporting operational effects. The ‘Maritime Strategy’ of the 1980s, by comparison, was about the Navy’s role in geopolitics, deterrence, and war termination philosophy. This is consistent with the conventional historical understanding that ocean going sea power is the foundation of global influence and has deterrence right at its heart. It is time to start thinking in this fashion again; it is time to start thinking globally again; it is time to start thinking about the war at sea again. It is time to bring strategy back off the shelf and end bureaucratic and financial lethargy dominating force posture and strategic design. As Will would argue, these issues are really for strategists to debate if we want to be successful in the future.