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Zumwalt Replacing Mahan

July 15, 2009

Searching for the Right Strategist

Jackie Fisher in 1883

Jackie Fisher in 1883

Today America could use an Admiral Jackie Fisher, that eccentric but brilliant naval reformer who brought the British Royal Navy into the 20th century, finally bringing some sanity to the crisis in shipbuilding brought on by the industrial revolution giving us armored ships, steam propulsion, quick firing guns with explosive shells, and torpedoes. At the very least we could use a General Petraeus, whose winning strategy in Iraq appears to be working and whose tenets are transforming the US Army as we know it, making it more useful in a conflict consisting of light but lethal threats.

The Navy we have today currently espouses the tenets of Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, probably the most famous naval strategist in history. Often the most quoted, his views of command of the sea as first espoused in The Influence of Sea Power on History are certainly the most emulated, not only in his home country but around the world. Essential in America’s rise as a world power, he could boast of no less a disciple than Theodore Roosevelt, President, war hero, and naval advocate who could clearly see his country taking its rightful place as a great influence on maritime affairs.

More than another Mahan, America today needs Julian Corbett, a British naval strategist from the same era who understood command of the sea involved more than just winning the decisive battle. Afterwards there were other essential tasks for the Navy, in peace and war, for the gunboat and the cruiser, such as escorting convoys, showing the flag, guarding overseas commerce, and supporting troops in amphibious operations. While Mahan knew how to win wars, Corbett understood what it took to win the peace. Instead of waiting for our own Corbett or Fisher to come on the scene, America already has such a strategist wrapped up in one package as recently as 30 years ago in war hero and former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo Zumwalt.

Elmo Zumwalt Jr. who of all our naval leaders would understand the pressure currently facing our overworked and stretched-thin fighting forces at sea. Many of the difficulties faced by the Navy in Admiral Zumwalt’s day: a shrinking fleet, mounting threats from a peer enemy, introduction of revolutionary weapons at sea, all are forcing our current naval leaders to come to terms with the service’s future.

Facing Block Obsolescence

Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr.

Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr.

Admiral Zumwalt became the nation’s youngest Chief of Naval Operations July 1, 1970. He immediately faced a fleet in crisis, worn out from long years of war service in Vietnam, in which the US built half as many warships as the Russians. Facing a block obsolescence of World War 2 construction, the fleet shrank during his watch from 769 in 1970 to 512 by 1974. Zumwalt was not one to leave troubles for future CNO’s to handle, but began a meticulous and sweeping program to restore numbers back to the fleet and create one ready for war.

Under the official title of “Project 60” the plan was more famously known as “High-Low”, which concerned the type of high tech, exquisite warships the Navy mainly was buying, and the low tech but very useful ships he wished to introduce. It is ironic then that the fleet shrank under Zumwalt, but this was the fault of Navy and civilian planners who had failed to order significant escort type ships to replace the well-used and essential destroyers from the world war. Since the 1950s and led specifically by Admiral Rickover, the emphasis in new ship construction had been almost wholly of the high end variety including supercarriers, advanced missiles escorts, and especially nuclear powered submarines. Such vessels offered wondrous new capabilities to the fleet, but in turn much was overlooked, such as important wartime functions of antisubmarine warfare and convoy escort. Such important functions of a Navy required vast numbers of ships, something which the Navy rejected as irrelevant in the airpower age.

The new CNO’s reform would help to turn back this ominous trend, especially as the once land power centric Soviet Union turned its eyes to the sea. During the 1960s while the US was distracted in the Southeast Asian Conflict, the Russian Navy expanded in size as well as scope of operations. Between 1966 to 1970, the USSR built 209 warships from attack submarines to surface combatants, while the USN only added 88. Some might contend that the quality of  Americans warships was so much greater, but this fails to make up for stretched thin operating forces, with crews worn out from extended operations to make up for numbers.

Preserving the Blue Water Navy

Zumwalt’s critics would decry the purchase of less costly warships as an attempt to replace the Blue Water high end force with a weaker, less capable group of ships. Clearly from the CNO’s writings this was far from the case, as he stated in his memoir “On Watch”, Concerning the Pegasus class of 170 ton patrol hydrofoils (more on this craft tomorrow) he said:

PHM’s advantage to the Navy is that in those places where it can operate, it will replace on a one-to-one basis much larger ships, with much larger fuel consumption and big payrolls, thus freeing those ships for essential deepwater duties, and more important, making it possible for the larger and more valuable ships to be outside the range of surprise Soviet cruise missile attack.

And concerning the small “Air capable Ship” better known as the Sea Control Ship, he saw them not as carrier replacements, as the air admirals and members of Congress feared, but extensions of naval airpower in coastal zones, and ensuring the survival of the bigger ships:

The solution to the problem is to deploy big carriers out of reach of cruise missiles and replace them with low-value ships that at the same time have some defensive capability, to wit Sea Control Ships.

His intent then was to ensure the survival of such very costly, and hard to build USN capital ships, while the smaller and expendable warships could take the first wave of an attack. He also could see greater economic incentives in deploying smaller ships on leisurely peacetime patrol missions, rather than sending battle groups with their thousands of sailors for purposes of “showing the flag” or gunboat diplomacy. But instead today we see a zeal to preserve the Blue Water fleet by ignoring or down-playing the littoral mission and warship alternatives, to the extent that which they seek to save is in danger of total loss. 

Read this review on his 1976 book “On Watch”:

How does Zumwalt appear in historical perspective? He is like the Perrys and Isherwoods who wanted steam-powered rather than sailing ships; like Stephen B. Luce and Alfred Thayer Mahan who would teach the meaning of sea power; and most like Bradley A. Fiske, who served as the equivalent of CNO during the early years of Woodrow Wilson’s administration and who was not listened to when he demanded that America prepare for a war he saw coming.

All statistics are from “On Watch” by Elmo Zumwalt Jr.

Tomorrow:Revisiting the High Low Navy

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Burleson permalink*
    July 22, 2009 1:36 pm

    Mr. Zumwalt, in no way could I do your father justice on this blog, but we do our best. You’re very welcome.

  2. Jim Zumwalt permalink
    July 22, 2009 1:13 pm

    Thank you for your article. I obviously read it with an element of bias–but I thank you for your tribute to a man who was not only a visionary and superb leader, but a devoted and loving father as well.

  3. Mike Burleson permalink
    July 17, 2009 3:35 pm

    Thanks Jack. Need more sailors and soldier like this today!

  4. Jack Rogers permalink
    July 17, 2009 1:54 pm

    Elmo Zumwalt was not only fine CNO, but he was then, what became a rarity in the military of the 70s and 80s, an officer who truly cared about welfare and progression of the men he commanded.


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