Book Review: Strategy Shelved: The Collapse of Cold War Naval Strategic Planning


by Steven T. Wills

Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2021. Pp. x, 292. Notes, biblio., index. $39.95. ISBN: 1682476332

A Navy in Need of a Strategy?

A research analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses, Dr. Steven T. Wills states that the US Navy last devised a coherent overall strategy against a peer naval actor between 1982 to 1994. The rapid expansion of China’s fleet and renewed Soviet aggressions, however, have made it obvious to many observers that the US Navy needs a fresh approach now – and also that its leadership has been struggling to find an appropriate strategic response.

Dr. Wills explains that we are less prepared today for challenges we presently face against peer competitors at sea, largely because of distracting strategic lapses of the 1990s, which were prompted both by macro-events and by politics during this era.

As circumstances change, the author believes that an understanding of just how a nation’s once-successful naval strategy was created in the near past -- and then was unraveled--will be crucial to the proper development of a new one.

The two global events that the writer highlights were clearly beyond what contemporary military thinkers were considering at the time:

a) the collapse of the Soviet Union and its navy in 1989; and

b) the quick, overwhelming ground victory in the First Gulf War in 1991, which left the US Navy’s contribution marginalized.

The third factor, however, was a product of American politics – the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act of 1986.

Its intent was to correct what certain critics had identified as the causes of America’s military frustrations: a lack of joint and regional controls on the services. This legislation emphasized a “process . . . centered on the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff,” who directed coordination of disparate assets. As it turned out, the policy tended to foster budgetary and force-structure preservation rather than forward-looking strategic concerns. It consequently became harder for any far-sighted war planners, who weren’t number-crunching analysts, to get the attention of top leaders.

The author makes the case that the outcome of the Act meant that the Navy eventually lost control of it’s “force-structure design, many operational concepts, and ultimately its trained officers responsible for their creation.”

The combination of these three external pressures, Wills argues, slowly deconstructed the clear and successful directions that had been presented by the earlier “Maritime Strategy” strategic initiatives of the 1980s.

These “Maritime Strategy” policies had been presented, modified, and refined by the collaborative and creative strategic staff of OPNAV (the Chief of Naval Operations) after 1982. The author believes that the OPNAV staff generated “the pre-1986 strategy, budgeting, and force planning system, which produced the finest strategic and operational US military thinking since WW2.” The personnel of that staff were gradually dissipated, however, under the incentives of the G-N Act’s changes.

Dr. Wills is critical of what replaced the “Maritime Strategy” directives: 1994’s “…From the Sea” white paper, issued by the CNO at the time, Admiral Frank. B. Kelso. The document reflected all of the post-1989 geostrategic and political influences. During the last 25 years or so since publication, “. . . From the Sea” and its iterations have stressed the idea that the US Navy’s focus should primarily be supporting land operations against regional powers with negligible navies. “Blue-water” combat against an equal became a neglected concept.

But now the USN is faced with that distinct possibility . . . once again.

The book’s final chapter ends on a hopeful note. It refers to a recent “Maritime Strategy” document (December 2020), released by a sea-service collaboration: the Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard. It’s very title signals its newly assertive intent: “Advantage at Sea – Prevailing With Integrated All-Domain Naval Power.”

Moreover, Defense News magazine (September 15, 2021) reports that this team effort will be supplemented by “an ongoing Global Posture Review and a 2022 update to the National Defense Strategy” that should “provide the U.S. Navy more clarity on what its roles and expectations are in the future.”

Wills generally writes crisply, and he has intensely researched his complex subject, heavily relying on original sources and interviews with participants. For casual readers, however, the chronological folding, refolding, and unfolding of the strategy-creation narrative during decades past will not be easy to follow. They won’t be helped by a plethora of acronyms and a host of transient personalities, or by occasional repetitiveness. Nevertheless, for the interested, the United States is in the midst of conceiving a new strategic stance for its Navy, and Dr. Wills offers a uniquely insightful examination of how such thinking is done.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Our Reviewer: A former naval officer, Richard Jupa was a senior finance editor at a major credit rating agency for more than two decades. He is the co-author of Gulf Wars, on the 1991-1992 Gulf War, and has published over a dozen articles on contemporary conflicts.




Note: Strategy Shelved is also available in several e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with the New York Military Affairs Symposium (

Reviewer: Richard Jupa   

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