Captain James Matthew Patton. USN (ret.), served 1956-1986. Commanded USS VOLADOR (SS-490) and Naval Ocean Systems Center, San Diego. Earned Ph.D. in International law at the Fletcher School of law and Diplomacy 1972 and served on the State Department Policy Planning Staff 1974-1977. Selected by Admiral Thomas B. Hayward as Head of the War Plans Branch at CINCPACFLT Headquarters 1977-1980 and subsequently served as Executive Director of the CNO Executive Panel 1980-1981.
Makalapa Crater on Oahu, Hawaii, Headquarters of the U.S. Pacific Fleet-1976, about half way between the Cuban Missile Crisis and the fall of the Berlin Wall: midnight in the long dark night of the Cold War.
The headquarters on the crater’s edge had been emplaced to organize, equip and train the fleet that, through a combination of sea battles, amphibious assaults, unrestricted submarine warfare and, finally, sea-based air strikes powerfully enabled the defeat of the Japanese Empire in World War II. The same headquarters had directed the fleet and its Marine Corps component through the wars in Korea and Vietnam. In terms of sheer warfighting command activity, perhaps no American military headquarters could match Makalapa for similar intensity over such a long duration.
Now, in 1976, a new fleet Commander-in-Chief might hardly recognize this headquarters. By 1976, the inevitable effects of a U.S. defense strategy that was NATO-centric and, insofar as the U.S. Navy was concerned, entirely oriented on the security of the lines of communication across the Atlantic Ocean, had drained the fleet headquarters of its aggressive spirit-and had drained the Pacific Fleet of its warfighting muscle. The great fuel tanks buried under Red Hill were nearly empty and the vast magazine at Lualualei contained ordnance more appropriate to the battles of World War II than combat with a modem enemy.
The Pacific Fleet itself reflected the national fixation with defending Western Europe at the expense of other places. The main striking force of the fleet, the carriers, were fewer in number than those in the Atlantic Fleet and, in disregard for the much greater sea distances in the Asia-Pacific theater, all but one were fossil-fueled. Two carriers, MIDWAY and CORAL SEA, could not support the most modem Navy fighter aircraft, the F-14. Likewise, the distribution of surface combatants and submarines favored the Atlantic Fleet by at least a 3:2 advantage.
Perhaps the most debilitating effect on the Pacific Fleet was the war plan that it was bound to implement in the event of hostilities with the Soviet Union. OPLAN 5000 mandated that the main body of the fleet would fight in the Atlantic and, in some circumstances, movement to that ocean would begin even before the actual commencement of hostilities. This strategic deployment of nearly half of the Navy was called The Swing Strategy.
Strategies and war plans have consequences. Implementation of the Swing Strategy would obviously leave the Asia-Pacific theater uncontested and cede the initiative throughout the theater to the Soviet Union. Who could deny that Japan might be intimidated into at least a neutral stance or that China might reevaluate its bellicose front with the Soviet Union-a front that tied down enough Soviet forces which, if rapidly redeployed to Europe, could certainly overwhelm NATO and might bring on the use of tactical nuclear weapons? Absent at least a spirited defense, the Aleutian chain could provide a ready access for the Soviets to Alaska, Canada and the western United States.
Strategies and war plans also have champions and the Swing Strategy enjoyed almost a generational respectability. NATO and the Atlantic Fleet confidently expected that early losses in the Battle for the Atlantic would be replaced by units of the Pacific Fleet. Any argument that the revered strategy might be flawed would need powerful evidence that the Pacific Fleet could be put to better use.
How best to use the Pacific Fleet against the Soviet Union? How to remain in the Pacific and deny the Soviets a windfall initiative? How to plan combat exchanges with the Soviets that would be advantageous to the United States? In short, how, when and where to fight and how to make that fighting worthwhile? These questions perplexed the fleet’s new Commander-in-Chief in 1976, Admiral Thomas B. Hayward.
Being a combat-tested naval aviator in the Korean War and having commanded the U.S. SEVENTH FLEET, Admiral Hayward elected to begin his search for answers by assigning to his headquarters staff the requirement for preparing a detailed plan for striking the major Soviet base at Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka Peninsula with conventional weapons. He reasoned that, by focusing his staff on that single mission, he would uncover the deficiencies in his fleet’s warfighting capability. Armed with that knowledge, he could better weigh the fleet’s contribution to a war with the Soviet Union in any theater. If the staffs ability to plan battles had not atrophied he would learn whether his fleet could provide a sensible and viable alternative to swinging into the Atlantic.
No staff can plan without certain basic guidance. Admiral Hayward emulated his World War II predecessor, Admiral Chester Nimitz, by reinvoking the latter’s rule of Calculated Risk-and going beyond that to establish the analytical metric of acceptable alteration. Admirals Nimitz and his CNO senior, Admiral Ernest King, had accepted certain losses in aircraft and ships in four decisive sea battles of 1942, buying with those losses the destruction of the core of the Japanese Imperial Fleet and opening the way for the later assaults on Japan itself. Admiral Hayward reasoned that achieving the strategic goal of denying the initiative in the Asia-Pacific theater to the Soviets and, thereby, influencing decisions in Tokyo and Beijing-and, perhaps in Moscow itself-woutd be worth the same level of attrition endured by the Pacific Fleet’s World War II commander.
The decisions that would be taken in Asia-Pacific capitols at the outset of hostilities would probably not be long in the making and, therefore, any offensive action by the Pacific Fleet must occur promptly after the initiation of combat anywhere between the U.S./NATO and the Soviet Union/Warsaw Pact. Admiral Hayward’s tasking for the headquarters staff became known as The Prompt Offensive Action Plan. As the planning progressed it became clear that the actual Time Over Target (TOT) depended on many factors, each of which illuminated strengths and weaknesses in the Pacific Fleet’s combat capabilities.
Once given the target, the approximate time frame, and the acceptable level of losses, the staff could determine the appropriate size of the strike: sufficient strength to saturate the enemy’s defenses while doing significant damage to the target. The damage inflicted should preclude near-term use of the harbor and support facilities at Petropavlovsk as well as the nearby forward operating base for Soviet Naval Air at Yelizovo. Damage to ships and aircraft at those sites would be considered a bonus. The enemy’s defenses, provided by Naval Intelligence, and the target-rich environment indicated that the strike must be made simultaneously by four carriers and their battle groups. The organization of the Pacific Fleet was, therefore, modified and schedules were adjusted over time so as to make that amount of combat power available within a short assembly period. Moreover, the fleet’s command and control scheme needed to change to accommodate the operation of a multi-carrier strike force. At-sea exercises that tested these adjustments and changes were instituted.
Beyond the enemy’s defenses in the immediate area of the target, the staff also had to consider the threat to the strike force from enemy submarines and long range bomber and missile-firing aircraft. In the mid-1970’s, the number and types of Soviet surface combatants outside the Sea of Japan represented no threat to the strike force. Careful analyses were done to balance the distance that the carriers would stand off from the target against the distance over which the enemy could accumulate sufficient forces to penetrate the layered defenses around the carriers. Clearly, the closer the carriers could approach the target the greater would be the damage that they could inflict (the main variables being bomb loads, tanking requirements and the number of sorties). Conversely, the closer to the target the greater the density of enemy submarines and aircraft (and the not-inconsequential quality and quantity of enemy reconnaissance).
There is a significant difference in the way that submarines and long-range aircraft are used in the defense of a site. Submarines move slowly relative to aircraft but they have endurance measured in weeks and months. Only submarines that have been deployed well forward before the approach of a strike force will be in positions to attack that force. Submarines, particularly Soviet Pacific Fleet submarines circa the mid-1970’s, could not reposition rapidly without being detected easily. Given the Order of Battle of the submarine portion of the Soviet Pacific Fleet, deductions were made for operational availabilities and Base Loss Factors and probable densities of patrol stations were calculated at various distances from Petropavlovsk. It would be the business of U. S. submarines to validate the locations of these stations and to concentrate prophylactic anti-submarine warfare along the approach paths of the carriers.
Long-range aircraft, such as the bombers and missile-firing planes of Soviet Naval Air, could respond rapidly and over significant distances to cues provided by reconnaissance assets. However, once launched, the endurance of these aircraft eroded swiftly so Soviet doctrine held them on the ground until the location of targets such as the U. S. strike force was known with certainty. These aircraft were not used for search and the use of their radars made them vulnerable to attacks from F-14’s equipped with PHOENIX missiles. Denying Soviet reconnaissance information about the presence in the Northwest Pacific, much less the locations of the carriers demanded a multi-layered cover and deception plan.
Finally, the withdrawal of the strike force was planned to take advantage of the U.S. facilities in the Aleutians. Prior to the Prompt Offensive Action Plan, the defense of those facilities had been delegated to organizations like the Alaska National Guard-with a mobilization and deployment schedule measured in months Reassignment of elements of the Marine Corps component of the Pacific Fleet remedied this situation.
All of the labors of the headquarters staff in response to Admiral Hayward’s tasking might have been consigned to the might have been being if Senator Sam Nunn had not been searching for a U.S. national strategy that would minimize the chances that conventional weakness would encourage Soviet aggression that might degenerate into war and the likely use of at least tactical nuclear weapons. The Senator visited CINCPACFL T headquarters and Admiral Hayward exposed him to the Prompt Offensive Action Plan by then, known to the staff as SEASTRIKE. On his return to Washington DC, the Senator encouraged Harold Brown, the SECDEF and Graham Claytor, the SECNAV, to listen to the plan. Surprisingly, they endorsed it and set in motion the termination of the Swing Strategy. Just as Admiral Hayward had planned, SEASTRIKE revealed the need for many improvements to the Pacific Fleet’s combat capabilities. Over time, and particularly after Admiral Hayward became the CNO, these improvements were made.
When the Reagan Administration arrived the Prompt Offensive Action Plan fit its agenda for obtaining peace through strength and the basic precepts of the plan were adapted for execution in the Atlantic as well as the Pacific. It was a short reach from that point to characterize the prompt and universal offensive employment of the U.S. Navy as a Maritime Strategy.