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In a speech published in the October 1990 SUBMARINE REVIEW, then-Rear Admiral Bill Owens identified jive characteristics as imperatives for our strategic offensive forces if they are to keep their relevance in the 21st century: survivability, operational flexibility, targeting flexibility, cost effectiveness, and room for growth. Some might argue that these are also among the personal traits that Admiral Owens has had to master in meeting the challenges of such evolving billets as N-8, the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Resources, Warfare Requirements &: Assessments), and as Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Dealing with change-both revolutionary and evolutionary-has been a constant theme in Bill Owens’ thoughts and actions, and with the publication of High Seas. he has put into print some of his personal views about the changes facing the Naval Service.

While preparing this issue’s review of High Seas, we had an opportunity to meet with Admiral Owens and discuss his motives in publishing the book and his evolving perception of the changes and challenges facing our national defense. The following is a summary of our questions and his comments.

Question: Since we represent a submarine-oriented audience, we would like to begin by asking about what you see as the factors affecting the future of our Submarine Force?

Admiral Owens: Two of the factors that submariners really need to consider in addition to fiscal constraints and budget considerations are, first, the subtle nature of change in deterrence, and second, the need for increasing jointness.

In looking at deterrence, we need to ask what ls it in the new world order or disorder of today? Does the current policy of engagement and enlargement of democracy-as described in the National Security strategy-require us to maintain the same strategic deterrent as throughout the Cold War. Obviously, this deterrent has moved primarily to sea in our Trident fleet. .. but will nuclear deterrence be effective in deterring new world threats? What does that mean for Trident?

Submariners will continue to become more joint. We are spending a lot more time at periscope depth. In years past we didn’t express much interest beyond SEAL and other operations … but now must continue to think more about how we interact directly with the battlefield ashore.

Question: Talking about the subtle nature of deterrence leads to a question you discuss in the book: how long can single-superpower deterrence last?

Admiral Owens: That’s a good question and one I worry about. The rules of deterrence were obvious in the Cold War. But will potential opponents question our willingness to use force in the future? If we stick to the rules for intervention as expressed in the Weinberg Doctrine-the requirement for always using overwhelming force-will potential aggressors assume we can’t afford to resist their moves? Saddam Hussein obviously did.

That’s why I challenge the Weinberger Doctrine’s requirement for overwhelming force in the book … I think we can sometimes use force surgically and still minimize the risk to our forces. And I think that our willingness to use force in other than overwhelming fashion actually enhances deterrence.

I thought my challenge to the Weinberger Doctrine would be the most controversial part of the book, but thus far it hasn’t raised much notice.

Question: About the jointness factor-what you refer to as the practical meaning of jointness in the book-is there a point where a focus on jointness inhibits the development of naval expertise?

Admiral Owens: No, I don’t think so. In fact, if I was writing the book today, I’d be considerably more aggressive in promoting the need for jointness. Standing Joint Forces have much to offer; they could be the way we operate in the future. All Naval officers need to develop an awareness of how the other Services operate and how what they do complements our own capabilities. The only way we can develop this awareness is by living it. We would realize considerable benefit if we pushed jointness early in careers; I can envision all midshipmen spending a year at the Air Force Academy or West Point. I don’t think we are preparing our junior people well for the adaptive environment of which they will be a part.

Question: What impact do these factors have on sub-technology and operations?

Admiral Owens: An immediate problem area is the challenge to maintain our stealth strike capability and yet be able to send and receive intelligence information at the high data rates that current technology is developing. Right now, satellite data rates can’t match what is going on in fiber optics and microwave technology … I don’t know if that’s solvable. If we can’t get data to subs at the rates that fiber optics can get it to other joint command nodes-are we going to be out of the loop? Will submarines be able to respond to the calls for sub-munitions strikes ashore? Microwave transmission via UAVs might be one way. I can envision another possible solution involving stringing fiber behinds subs … maybe 200 nautical miles of fiber … but again, we have to satisfy the stealth requirements. Improving C3 while maintaining stealth is the first technological and operational challenge.

Question: Some say that the Navy’s success in getting the different warfare unions to agree on the hard downsizing and recapitalization choices of the past few years had more to do with circumstances and your personality and influence as N-8 than the organizational changes in OPNA V. Which is more important: the person assigned to fashion the consensus or the organizational structure?

Admiral Owens: It is not change in organization that is the key; it is change in the process. Organization structure doesn’t get things done; the process does. The success we had in fashioning and running the R3 B [Resources and Requirements Review Board] was due to the fact that changes to the process of decision making were institutionalized. All the participants agreed on the validity of the process.

However, individual leadership is still critical. It believe that if you live in a time of change, effective change must be led from the top. There are three elements: you have to have the right people, spending the right amount of time, doing and thinking about the right things. And you must have perseverance and courage.

Question: A final question… given the fact that putting your personal views-as opposed to official policy-into print in book length form requires considerable effort and entails some element of risk to your career … why did you write this book?

Admiral Owens: When my son was at the Naval Academy, I saw that despite the ongoing changes following the collapse of the Soviet Union, he and the other midshipmen were still using the same Cold War era texts and studying Naval history and policy in much the same way I did. There wasn’t anything written about naval matters in the post Cold War environment. So I decided that it was important to write about the post Cold War world from the perspective of someone who was living through it and dealing with the changes. Even if some of my ideas prove to be real mistakes, I hope that those who lead our Armed Forces in the future might take away some lessons about living in a time of change.


by Admiral William A. Owens, U.S. Navy Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995
188 pages, $27.95, ISBN 1-55750-661-2

Reviewed by Sam J. Tangredi

The best way of coping with change will always rest with the imagination and perceptiveness of those who happen to be there when it occurs.”

That understated quote—from one of the very last pages of Admiral Bill Owens’ Hi&h Seas-is the key to understanding his purpose in writing this remarkable and readable volume, the first book-length narrative on the making of post-Cold War naval policy.

Hi&h Seas is an unusual introduction to how the Navy took the initiative in adapting to the changes in the world environment following the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is unusual in that it is a literary hybrid: not quite a history, not quite a memoir, not quite an official policy pronouncement, and not quite an unofficial forecast. Rather, it is a mixture of all the above; nine chapters that promise to reveal how the current Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff really thinks about the policy issues facing America and shaping the Navy.

Therein lies the very factor that makes this book remarkable. Bill Owens is an active-duty Admiral, at the mid-way point in his tour as Vice Chairman, with considerable potential for continuing his naval career as a unified CINC (again), CNO, JCS Chairman, or in another high-level policy position. Hi~h Seas-though undoubtedly passed without too much dispute through the security and policy review process (after all, he is the second highest ranking U.S. military officer)-is not meant to be official. Rather, the Admiral claims that it represents his personal views on recent and current issues affecting military strategy.

Such candor (as alluded to in the previous interview) entails at least some small degree of professional risk. As any experienced staff officer will admit: once alternatives or disagreements (however small) to official policy are put into print, they frequently have way of polarizing opposition and generating hostility within a decision-making bureaucracy that routinely prizes anonymity. This is particularly true if such unofficial musings appear to conflict with the current political consensus within-or beyond-OSD. As John Collins writes in his classic survey ~ Strategy, “few [militaryJ prophets of change reach print before they retire”. Admiral Owens’ decision to publish openly at book length indicates an intellectual boldness that is in itself quite admirable.

But is he a prophet of change? Since the theme concerns change, and since the Admiral makes more than a few recommendations about the shape of naval forces to come, it would, at first glance, seem easy to answer in the affirmative. But, as the author modestly admits, the book is more about dealing with change than prescribing particular changes. Similarly, the author freely acknowledges his intellectual debt to key members of the leadership who fashioned the current Navy force structure program, particularly the other members of the OPNAV Resources and Requirements Review Board (R3B). As one of the participants some would say the key intellectual participant-in these strategic and organizational debates, Admiral Owens decided that it was
important to record what he saw and did over the past five years-a task that is as much practical as prophetic. An environmentmeot of change was handed to him; his primary objective is to tell the reader how he handled it.

Practical might likewise be an apt description for the Admiral’s efforts because, by focussing his book on the impact of the post· Cold War world on recent naval policy, he also frames the questions that naval planners have debated and will continue to debate throughout history: What is the threat? What are our objectives? What should our forces consist of? And bow much is enough? His patient treatment of these questions makes the book a good supplemental text for naval planning courses. The issues themselves may have been continuously debated throughout the Cold War, but there remained a rough consensus among American decision makers. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the operational consensus known as the Maritime Strategy no longer seemed to make sense in a world where there would be only one global naval power.

Enter Bill Owens the doer, who happened to be there. During his prior assignment as Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Resources, Warfare Requirements & Assessments-N·8 in OPNA V-speak-the author was the bead of the R3B and, de facto, the top architect of naval force structure at a time viewed as critical for the very survival of the Navy. The Cold War had just ended; the Bush Administration had unveiled its reconstitution strategy; the media, and perhaps even the public, was clamoring for a peace dividend; and the events of Desert Storm seem to indicate a need for a new type of maritime strategy. Admiral Owens, as he modestly describes it, may have been but one of a number of officers at the scene, but it was a scene that also included a staff reorganization that broke the power of the platform barons and made N-8 second only to the CNO in wielding bureaucratic authority.

Thus, it fell to Admiral Owens to help develop and support the CNO’s new vision and at the same time integrate the competing priorities of the formerly all powerful warfare specialty unions. In effect, his choices became the Navy’s resource strategy for air, surface and undersea warfare. Whatever the final result, it was him who sounded the alarm that a defense budget train wreck was coming and that the Navy needed to accelerate ship decommissioning and unit disestablishment in order to set the course for recapitalization.

High Seas details these events (and some of the follow-on policies that the Admiral continues to advocate as Vice Chairman) in a deductive manner from strategic theory to specific program. The first chapter begins with the author’s theory of post-Cold War deterrence. Middle chapters describe politico-military concerns, technology and current military operations. The final chapters detail the resource decisions behind “Force 2001,” the currently programmed Navy structure for Focward … From the Sea, and outline ideas the author calls Force 2021, which is best described as the Navy Admiral Owens would build if he was still N-8 (or CNO) and that he advocates from his tangential position as Vice Chairman. Needless to say, it is his Force 2021 recommendations that are likely to collect the most critical comments from active duty readers.

That is not to say that Admiral Owens shies away from other controversies. On the contrary, there is much to debate in this book. The author admits deliberate provocation in taking on some of the tenets of the Weinberger (some might caU it the Weinberger-Powell) Doctrine-primarily the concept that the United States should use overwhelming force whenever we employ military force.

However, his articulated differences with Weinberger-Powell actually appear more semantic than dramatic. Overwhelming force can be defined in many different ways by many different beholders. Since the whole point of the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine was to avoid a Vietnam-like open-ended quagmire, and since Admiral Owens expounds on the need to deter such potential quagmires from happening, primarily through superior military technology, the differences appear less pronounced on paper than in the author’s perception. Admiral Owens is clearly not in favor of quagmires, even if he would not be as cautious as Admiral Crowe or General Powell in supporting overseas intervention.

Interspersed among the chapters are a number of short fragments of personal observation-appearing somewhat like flashbacks in a movie. These short fragments tie the book together by revealing slices of the author’s personal motivation for writing the book and identify the experiences that have shaped the Admirals judgement, particularly his experiences as Commander of the Sixth Fleet. These pithy asides prove to be some of the most engaging portions of the book … sea stories that are anecdotes of impending world changes.

But to fully understand the tone and impact of the book, one
must see it as an exposition in deductive reasoning. Throughout, the author is building his case for why the Navy’s recent force structure decisions are correct and why they lead inevitably to his further proposals. Even those who might disagree with these proposals must admire the logic of his approach.

First, the opening chapter lays out the author’s view of how to continue deterrence in a single superpower world. He posits, as a working definition, that the objective of post-Cold War deterrence is to “dissuade potential opponents from developing or using their military forces in ways the United States finds objectionable”.

In itself, that definition might call for the United States to maintain military superiority over potential opponents-begging the question of how much superiority? The author pursues this question by initially reversing the perspective and assessing the strategies that an aggressor might use to negate U.S. military superiority. He comes up with four strategies that an aggressor might use: to conduct fait accompli aggression, to threaten high U.S. casualties, to threaten a protracted quagmire, and to split any U.S.-led coalition.

Obviously, these are from Gulf War lessons learned-all of them being strategies attempted, albeit ineptly, by Saddam Hussein. Assuming that other potential aggressors may have learned from Hussein’s ineptness, Admiral Owens proposes a deterrent posture to counter each. It is only a little simplistic to say that his solution rides on the common elements of: forward military (primarily naval) presence, willingness to use force, information warfare capabilities, and continuing American superiority in military technology.

His second chapter zeroes In on the use of military force and the requirements for overseas presence. It is not by chance, to quote that old Soviet introductory line, that the author uses the term overseas presence, vice the term forward presence. Overseas presence is an acceptable joint term that is considered all-Service inclusive; forward presence has a decidedly naval ring to it, even if the Air Force is attempting to virtually steal it. Nevertheless, Admiral Owens makes the case that post-Cold War/post-budget cuts/right-sized overseas presence is, by definition, primarily a naval task.

He modifies this somewhat by supporting a view-similar in concept to Admiral P .D. Miller’s adaptive force packages-that the Navy should also serve as a bridge for other Services. The most obvious example is how the Anny got to Haiti: in Army helos flying from aircraft carriers. But in essence his arguments follow the Department of the Navy’s Forward … From the Sea logic. Given the fact that the ocean is the best intenationally unrestrained anti-gravity platform on which to base military forces near an opponent’s territory, his logic is pretty unassailable. Admiral Owens also makes the argument, based again on his experience as commander of the Sixth Fleet, that most nations prefer to have U.S. warships nearby, rather than any other form of foreign military presence.

It is in the area of the commitment to use force that Admiral Owens attempts to take the greatest exception to past doctrines. But as previously discussed, his reasoning for opposing Weinberger-Powell remains unclear. As an alternative, he suggests a “dual doctrine for the use of military force” that accepts most of the Weinberger-Powell criteria but couples it with a “pragmatic view” that “credible, proportional” force can be utilized without risking “heavy casualties”. However, an additional feature of this pragmatic view is that “a commitment of U.S. forces to conflict can be revoked with relatively small political cost”.

Despite the author’s claim of a radical departure from Weinberger-Powell, the dual doctrine, at its core, still looks pretty close. Weinberger-Powell was developed when the Soviet Union could still play patron in prolonging a Vietnam-type conflict. In Admiral Owens’ post-Cold War version, U.S. forces would rely on technological (read overwhelming) superiority; would seek to minimize casualties; and would get out if involvement appears a quagmire. Since the dual doctrine does not express support for McNamara-style body counts, signaling via attrition warfare, or open-ended commitments, it just doesn’t seem much of refutation of Weinberger-Powell.

But at the same time, the Admiral’s pragmatic view that the United States can revoke commitments and disengage with but small political cost remains highly questionable. Quite frankly, the book provides a less than thorough examination of this facet. The Admiral again invokes America’s superiority in the military technological revolution and our sole superpower status as reasons why it has become easier to disengage from ongoing commitment gone bad. But his argument ends there. Does he mean domestic or international political costs? Our recent involvement in chasing warlords and being chased out of Somalia would not appear to be a sterling example of disengagement.

In chapter three, the author discusses the political leverage of advanced military technology through a brief look at the potential future of sea-based Theater Ballistic Missile Defense. This is followed by an even briefer chjipter on political-military coordination that concludes that the State Department should give more cooperation to what DOD is doing via military-to-military contacts.

The fifth chapter is entitled Operations, and it is here that the author discusses the doctrinal change to … From the Sea; jointness inter-service rivalry; and Navy-Marine Corps integration. If the reader is confused by his use of the term NETF (Navy Expeditionary Task Force) in the place of the traditional Carrier Battle Group (CVBG) or Amphibious Ready Group (ARG), it’s only because the newer term is utilized for program planning, but is still rarely seen in the public media.

It is also in the fifth chapter that Admiral Owens has his first discussion, albeit brief, on submarines and submarine warfare. His conclusions correspond to current wisdom: subs need to get better in operating in the littorals, yet at the same time, need to continue their dominant roles in sea control and deterrence. While there is no discussion of the Seawolf/industrial base issue in the book, the author does argue that submarines can conduct the stealthy strike mission faster and more efficiently than B-2 bombers.

Having worked through theory and doctrine, the sixth chapter, entitled Building a New Navy, and the seventh, Force 2001, provide the nucleus for the book’s insider’s view of the initial … From the Sea-era program planning process. This is the best unofficial expiation of these decisions to be found in print, and it will remain of value to naval historians and future program planners as they assess the success of these programs. The author does not attempt to provide the individual program details that appeared in the official pamphlet/monograph Force 2001: A Program Guide to the U.S. Navy (1994 edition), published under Admiral Owens’ guidance as N-8. But the overview provided in High Seas fills in the gaps and answers the question of how the program developed within the minds of its proponents.

Finally, the author provides a brief glimpse at his more radical ideas of what might be included in Force 2021 and wraps up with a conclusion of what is needed to forge “the passage ahead” -an ability to deal with constant change. His Force 2021 vision is buttressed by his two controversial platform proposals: mobile sea bases and the littoral supremacy ship.

The conceptual mobile sea base-a impressive model of which appears in the E Ring not too far from the Admiral’s office in the Pentagon-is essentially a series of offshore oil platforms linked together to form a giant air base. This joint-Service air base and arsenal, roughly the size of overseas land bases and capable of handling aircraft as big as the C-5. would be towed or motored (5- 10 knots) to a suitable area offshore of a crisis region. Admiral Owens calls the base a war-fight carrier, and refers to our current style aircraft carriers as presence carriers-implying that current carriers have a role in peacetime presence, but can not handle the increasing requirements for information warfare/high-tech combat in the littorals. This is premised on a the existence of a duality between warfighting and peacetime presence.

The proposed littoral warfare ship is a rough combination of DDG-51 combatant capabilities with the amphibious lift of the LX (future LPD-17 class). Impetus for this design includes both the littoral warfare focus and the resulting consolidation and savings of our shipbuilding dollars.

A third element of Force 2021 is Admiral Owens’ proposal to optimize future submarines for battlefield support by designing them to carry specialized, but interchangeable payload/weapons modules. These would consist of interior sections-land attack missile tubes, special operations modules, etc.-which could be physically inserted into a bull that consisted primarily of the reactor and propulsion plant and self-defense systems.

These proposals are intriguing, but their brief treatment in the book leaves a number of potential disadvantages unanswered.

In the case of mobile sea bases, the author’s choice of the term presence carriers for current CVNs is unfortunate, since it has the potential of alienating the aviation community-the very critics be needs to win over. His discussion of a future Navy with three mobile sea bases and only ten large carriers will require some salesmanship if it is to get off the blocks. As Admiral Owens admits, there is nothing remarkable new about the concept of building a.floating island. Nor has it been technically prohibitive; the problem remains defensibility. With an integrated air and missile defense, ASW perimeter. and supporting surface fleet, the war fighting carrier-island might make the need for overseas land bases completely moot. But defending a stationary platform against a determined opponent may not be as easy as defending a moving CVN. There is also the inevitable inter-Service control question, reminiscent of the 1960s Air Force demand, as the strategic Service, to operate SSBNs.

His proposal for a one-size-fits-all littoral supremacy ship-potentially 100 of which would replace all combatants and small deck amphibs-also carries the disadvantage of deliberately placing the 500 or so Marines aboard in the midst of combatantversus-shore or combatant-vs-combatant fire-tights. Admiral Owens admits this drawback, but does not quite wrestle it to the deck.

By contrast, the module submarine concept seems to present the best proposed solution currently being discussed as to how we can optimize subs to conduct littoral and power projection missions while at the same time retain our dominance in sea control and deterrence. Hopefully, the two pages outlining this concept will generate many pages of discussion within the submarine community.

Perhaps that is the greatest strength of High Seas: it can generate a heated discussion of the future at the same time it documents a participant’s view of the recent past. You can take exception to the assumptions or particular proposals, but you’ve got to admire the mosaic.

Given the complexity of the subject matter, the book is remarkably spry. The issues described may seem ponderous to some, but the prose is not. The pace is maintained by sprinkling an occasional controversial idea amidst a patient explanation of why the resource decisions, required to implement a … From the vision for the Navy, were adopted. There is plenty in this book that Naval professionals and analysts up-to-speed with decisions within the Beltway might already know. But for those far removed from OPNA V and JCS who want to know what in the world is the Navy doing and why is it doing it?, this book is the open source. The tone remains personal enough to reveal the nuances of Admiral Owens’ own reflections about what became (or might become) official policies. At the same time, it is also refreshingly modest.

In short, High Seas does exactly what the author says it does: provide a high-level, inside perspective on the Navy’s voyage to an uncharted world. It reflects a passage during which Admiral Bill Owens, more than any other still-serving officer, stood the watch as navigator.

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