82. Memorandum From Richard T. Boverie of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Scowcroft)1


  • DRP Meeting, 9:30 a.m., Thursday, April 29, 1976, on the Navy Study

The purpose of the DRP meeting is to review the second half of the Defense/NSC study on US strategy and Naval Force Requirements.2 I understand that Secretary Rumsfeld would like to brief the study to the President at an NSC meeting later this week (possibly Saturday?). Rumsfeld is committed to meeting with Senator Stennis on Monday, May 3, to describe the Administration’s shipbuilding plans and to comment on the House Armed Services Committee’s shipbuilding program (which emphasized large nuclear-powered surface ships).

The Issue

For more than a decade the Soviet Union has been engaged in a major shipbuilding program which has transformed a limited coastal defense force into a major blue-water navy. At the same time, US naval force levels have declined significantly (50 percent since 1968) due to the retirement of ships built during World War II. But these adverse trends have been recognized for some time. It is for this reason that the President’s FY 77 budget includes $6.3 billion for 16 new ships, and the current Five-Year Defense Plan (FYDP) calls for building a total of 111 new ships at a cost of over $30 billion. Therefore, something significant is already being done about the adverse trends in the US/Soviet maritime balance. Thus, the questions now are:

—Should we be doing still more; and

—Should we take the approach of the House Armed Services Committee and favor larger, nuclear-powered surface ships.

The Role of Naval Forces in Our Overall Strategy

The review of the US military posture conducted in 1969 under the rubric of NSSM 33 resulted in an approved strategy for general purpose forces that required a total force structure capable of conducting an ini [Page 339] tial defense of NATO Europe or a joint defense with our regional Allies against a PRC attack in Asia (against either South Korea or Southeast Asia). The two defense efforts were mutually exclusive. To quote the description of this strategy in the NSSM 3 study:

The forces are designed so that major operations in one theater must be conducted at the expense of the major capability in the other, leaving a reduced capability in the non-war theater. For example, we could assist our Allies in Asia against a non-Chinese attack while simultaneously providing an initial defense of NATO but we could not conduct an initial NATO defense and a joint defense of Asia [against the PRC] simultaneously. If initially engaged in Asia, by disengaging we would have the capability for an initial defense of NATO.

NATO was to have priority, and as the US became less concerned about an attack by the PRC, our military planning focused increasingly on NATO confrontation in Europe. (The operative NSDM and a summary of the NSSM 3 strategy alternative are at Tab C.)4

The primary missions of the Navy under the NSSM 3 strategy are:

—Protection of the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) to Europe so that the Central Front can be reinforced by sea;

—Control of the Mediterranean to protect the SLOCs to Greece and Turkey (and later to permit force projection operations); and

—Minimal essential protection of SLOCs in the Pacific to permit the economic support of our Pacific Allies like Japan (and to tie down Soviet Pacific assets so they could not be shifted to the central areas of the conflict).

Of these missions, the protection of the sea lanes to Europe is the most important under our current strategy. Europe is the center of conflict; it is where the war is won or lost. For this reason, US military plans call for some US naval assets stationed in the Pacific in peacetime (to facilitate our rotational deployments) to be shifted to the Atlantic in wartime. Our strategy assumes that after a relatively brief period (up to 90 days), the war in Europe will either be over or will have escalated to nuclear conflict. The Pacific area would not be a significant theater of combat, and the impact on our Pacific Allies such as Japan would be largely economic—and for a relatively limited period of time.

The Capability of Our Naval Forces to Carry Out the Strategy

The CNO has recently assessed the US fleet as having only a “slim margin of superiority” over the Soviets. He said:

In the event of a conflict, we would retain control of the North Atlantic sea lanes to Europe, but would suffer serious losses to both US [Page 340] and Allied shipping in the early stages; our ability to operate in the Eastern Mediterranean at best would be uncertain. Our fleet in the Pacific could hold open the sea lanes to Hawaii and Alaska, but, by reason of the shortages of sea control and mobile logistics forces, we would have difficulty in projecting our lines of communication into the Western Pacific.

Without arguing over whether this is an overly pessimistic assessment of our current capability, the point is that under current plans we will improve significantly over the next decade in our ability to execute our naval strategy. We expect that the Soviets will continue to modernize their naval forces and make qualitative improvements. But because their newer units will be more expensive, the size of the Soviet fleet is projected by the intelligence community to decline over the next ten years (large surface combatants should decrease by about 15%). By contrast, even under the current FYDP US forces will not only increase qualitatively but also quantitatively—a net increase of 50 ships or 10% by 1985. So the capability of the US fleet should increase significantly vis-a-vis the Soviet navy.

Issues Involved in Accelerating Our Naval Expansion Program

At the present time, the size of the Navy is principally driven by the number of aircraft carriers, for each carrier requires a relatively constant number of additional ship types to complete the carrier task force—the basic unit of today’s Navy. (A carrier task force typically consists of two to four cruisers, four to six destroyers, and zero to two submarines, in addition to the carrier itself.) Not surprisingly, the alternatives that are developed in the Naval Requirements Study merely reflect a differing number of carrier task forces in the total force structure. There are significant problems in this approach to structuring our naval forces:

The future survivability of the aircraft carrier is an open question, particularly when considering the advent of antiship missiles, the Backfire, stand-off precision guided weapons, nuclear weapons, and technological advances in areas such as ocean surveillance capability.

The aircraft carrier today is optimized for power projection, while the Navy’s primary mission is sea control. The carrier makes a significant contribution to sea control, particularly in countering the Soviet air threat to the SLOCs. But other assets may do the job as well and more cheaply (surface ships with improved surface-to-air missile systems, and land-based aircraft). While effective in the power projection role, using its tactical aircraft in support of amphibious assaults or the land battle, this mission leads the carrier into high intensity combat areas where its vulnerability is most acute.

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The aircraft carrier today is optimized for power projection, while the Navy’s primary mission is sea control. The carrier makes a significant contribution to sea control, particularly in countering the Soviet air threat to the SLOCs. But other assets may do the job as well and more cheaply (surface ships with improved surface-to-air missile systems, and land-based aircraft). While effective in the power projection role, using its tactical aircraft in support of amphibious assaults or the land battle, this mission leads the carrier into high intensity combat areas where its vulnerability is most acute.

Our planning does not take adequate account of the naval forces of our Allies.5 These forces could be significant; for example, an internal Navy study6 indicates that Allied ASW forces could account for one fifth or more of the enemy submarines sunk in a NATO/Pact conflict. Taking account of these forces may change the mix of ship types we should buy for ourselves.

Our planning does not take adequate account of the assets of other military services. For example, F–4s and F–15s in Keflavik and Lossiemouth7 could provide air defense for the GIUK gap against the Soviet bomber threat. With AWACS and additional aircraft, forces such as these could make a significant contribution to defending the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean, and could ease the requirement for carrier-based aircraft in the air defense mode. And the Harpoon-equipped B–52 could shoulder a part of the anti-surface ship mission.

Minimum Carrier Requirements

The problem of carrier vulnerability and the potential for greater use of non-carrier assets make it unwise to size and structure naval forces simply by counting carrier task force requirements. These factors argue instead for a force structure which contains the smallest number of carriers consistent with minimum requirements and which maximizes flexibility in selecting the mix of remaining ships. In the discussion below, we try to identify the minimum carrier requirement of each naval theater.

—The Atlantic.

The submarine threat is handled primarily by area ASW forces (underwater surveillance systems, mines, attack submarines, and land-based patrol aircraft). Carriers are used principally for the Soviet air threat. The Navy agrees that four carriers would provide for air defense of the sea lanes, but would like a larger force for simultaneous strikes at land bases while providing continuous air cover in support of convoys. However, DOD analysis indicates that the contribution of even several more carriers to the land battle is very small when compared to the tactical air capability on the ground in Europe. While carrier air might be significant later in the war when NATO’s ground-based tactical aircraft and air bases have been attrited, by then the battle for sea control should have been won and one or more of the four sea control carriers could be diverted for this purpose—especially if the greater use of non-carrier assets has eased the burden of the carrier in the air defense [Page 342] of the sea lanes. My conclusion: Four carriers are sufficient for sea control and limited strikes in the Atlantic region.

—The Mediterranean.

In the Mediterranean, the Soviets could launch coordinated attacks with surface ships, submarines, and bombers (Backfire, Badger) from the Caucasus equipped with anti-ship missiles. (The attack would be especially devastating if nuclear weapons were used.) The Navy studies indicate that a four carrier task force—in combination with ASW and anti-air forces—could defeat the threat, and the Navy would allocate four carriers to the Mediterranean naval theater. But vulnerability is a major problem in this high-threat environment—a surprise preemptive strike at the commencement of hostilities on the two carriers permanently forward deployed to the Mediterranean in peacetime would cut our carrier force in half and probably force US naval forces to stay in the Western Mediterranean or even the Atlantic until we had attrited Soviet forces (relying most probably on our attack submarines). The mission of our carrier forces in the Eastern Mediterranean is also unclear—are sea lanes to Greece and Turkey that crucial to winning the war in Europe? How badly will we want force projection in that area? My conclusion: Until we can develop a better scenario for the Mediterranean naval battle, we should probably go along with four carriers.

—The Pacific.

This was the area of greatest concern at the NSC meeting last week.8 The CNO has expressed doubts about our ability to keep open the sea lanes between Hawaii and Japan, provoking fears that we would “lose” Japan in the early days of the war. These fears need to be put in perspective.

The Pacific is a relatively minor theater in the NATOconfrontation for which our national strategy is geared. [2½ lines not declassified] Most likely the Soviets would go after US SSBNs, carriers, and other combatant ships. Only then would they switch to interdicting the SLOC to Japan. In meeting this threat, there are several factors we ought to keep in mind:

• The US and its Allies would not be dependent on Pacific nations for wartime supplies; the shipping interdicted would be normal foreign commerce to Japan.

• This would have an impact on the Japanese economy, since it is very dependent on foreign sea-borne trade. But Japan could drastically curtail non-critical demand and rely in its stockpiles of oil and other [Page 343] commodities—at least for the 90 days expected for a NATO/Pact contest.

• Even under pessimistic assumptions, the Soviets would not be able to completely stop the flow of goods to Japan. (Defense planning currently calls for protecting the “minimum essential” SLOCs to Japan.) The Soviet Pacific fleet is supported out of Vladivostok, located on the northwest corner of the Sea of Japan, and would have to pass through one of several choke points on its way to and from the open ocean. During this passage it could be vulnerable to US attack submarines and to US land based aircraft (from bases in Japan, Korea, Guam, Okinawa, and the Philippines). The US would dedicate two carrier task forces to the Pacific in wartime, and to this capability should be added the naval forces of the Japanese themselves, as well as our other Pacific Allies. My conclusion: Two carriers would provide minimum austere sea control, which could be strengthened as naval forces were eventually deployed from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

If NSC principals continue to be concerned about the adequacy of our Pacific forces to maintain the SLOCs to Japan, we may want to treat it in a separate study analyzing the threat, the shortfall in our current capability, and alternative assets for making up the shortfall other than carriers—attack submarines (we already plan to build about 30 more between now and 1985), land-based air, and non-carrier surface ships (we already plan a major net increase in surface ships by 1985). In addition, we might consider assigning three carriers to the Pacific in wartime, taking one away from the Mediterranean area where carrier survivability is most uncertain.

While important, the issue of improving the SLOC protection to Japan does not warrant the urgency of an FY 77 budget amendment and can be handled in the upcoming budget cycle. If the concern is not with SLOC interdiction by the Soviets but with our ability to handle something more—such as a major land conflict with the Soviets in Asia in conjunction with a NATO/Pact war—then our overall national strategy is called into question. While a reexamination of our overall strategy may be in order, it is beyond the scope of our current study on naval force requirements and would involve a good six months of effort. The results would affect a lot more than carrier levels or even naval forces.

In brief then, for our current national strategy, our minimum carrier requirements would appear to be four in the Atlantic, four in the Mediterranean, and two in the Pacific. We then need to add two carriers to account for maintenance and overhaul, bringing us to a minimum carrier force of 12 for our current wartime strategy.

The 12 carrier figure will also permit us to maintain four forward deployed carriers in peacetime, if at least one carrier is homeported either in Japan (as is now the case) or in Europe. Along this line, we could increase our capability within current force levels by providing for [Page 344] homeporting in Europe. It might be useful for Defense and State to start thinking about the possibility of seeking homeporting in the UKR, for example.

Alternative Naval Force Structures

Our current naval force structure contains the 12 carriers necessary to meet these minimum carrier requirements. The naval requirements study examined a carrier reduction option (to a force of ten) but rejected this alternative as providing too little capability. It also rejected major carrier build-up options (JSOP options calling for increases to a 17 to 20 carrier force) as involving too great an investment in an increasingly vulnerable asset. The study settled on the following set of force structure alternatives:

Option 1 (12–14 carriers): This option proposes to reaffirm the present five year shipbuilding plan as presented to the Congress as part of the FY 77 Budget and would fund construction of 111 ships in FY 77 through FY 81. This would result in the force of approximately 530 ships by 1985, an increase from FY 76 force levels of about 50 ships. Under this option we would build two more new carriers and extend the life of our existing large deck carriers into the 1990s by a Service Life Extension Program (SLEP). The difference between 12 and 14 carriers is a function of whether the SLEP program is applied to only 10 or all 12 of our existing carriers.

Option 1A (12 carriers): This is the same as Option 1 except that the large deck carriers would be deemphasized and the two carriers in the present plan would not be built. Instead, the money saved would be used to buy more anti-air warfare capability in DDG–47 and FFG–7 class ships, increasing our fleet size to 545 ships by 1985. The SLEP program would be applied to all twelve existing carriers.

Option 1B (13 carriers): This is another variant of the first option which would deemphasize continued commitment to large deck carriers but still build one of the carriers now in the five year plan. The SLEP program would be applied to all 12 existing carriers. As in Option 1A, the money saved by dropping one carrier would be used to buy more anti-air capability in the form of DDG–47s and FFG–7s, giving us a fleet of 540 ships in 1985.

Option 2 (14 carriers): This option SLEPs all existing carriers, builds the two carriers and the other ships in the current FYDP, and adds more anti-air capability. It would fund construction of 143 ships between FY 77 and FY 81, versus the 111 in the current plan, giving us a fleet of 540 ships in 1985. It would allow more projection capability with the 14 carrier force and would allow more flexibility and lower risk in carrying out the sea control functions. The added costs for FY 77 [Page 345] would be $2 billion; $12 billion for five years; and perhaps $30 billion for 15 years.

Option 3 (16 carriers): Option 3 contains funds for 167 ships in the FY 77–81 period. It would add substantial anti-air capability, SLEP all 12 existing carriers, and build four new carriers between now and 1990. We would have a fleet of 571 ships by 1985. The added FY 77 cost would be $3 billion; the added five year cost would be $27 billion; and for 15 years it could be more than $80 billion.

(A tabular summary of these options is at Tab B.)9


—There exists a widely recognized need to improve our naval forces, and our current Five Year Defense Plan already includes an ambitious program to raise both the quality of our ships and our overall force levels.

—A choice among the options gets down to a judgment about whether we should build more of our big strike carriers. In view of carrier vulnerability and the potential for increased reliance on non-carrier naval assets, Allied forces, and the forces of other military services, additional investment in carriers appears unwise. Extending the life of our existing 12 carriers will satisfy our minimum requirements through the 1990s.

—For this reason, Option 1A (the current FYDP but dropping funds for two new carriers) seems to make the most sense.10 Funds would be freed up for increased anti-air capability. We should also look at the need for additional support ships, mine countermeasure forces, and amphibious lift (to support the outcome of a study on the Marine Corps now underway in Defense).11

—The FYDP program is probably a realistic limit on what the Navy can expect as its share of the DOD procurement budget. For FY 77 the Navy has almost half (48%), leaving the other two services with only about 25% of the procurement budget each. An increase in the programmed assets of the other services to help out in certain maritime missions (such as land-based aircraft in the anti-air role) might help to ease this problem.

—In the research and development area, Defense should examine new platform designs and improvements in weapons systems and sensors.

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—In discussions with Senator Stennis, Secretary Rumsfeld should reaffirm the current five year shipbuilding plan submitted in the President’s budget. The House Armed Services Committee’s approach favoring large nuclear-powered surface ships will increase the cost of modernizing our Navy, will make it difficult to increase overall force levels, reduces the much needed improvement of anti-air capability in favor of marginal enhancement of ASW, and could require an additional $5.4 billion in FY 78.

Rumsfeld should also signal to Senator Stennis our concern about increased investment in carriers and the possibility that we will drop the funding for two new carriers from the current FYDP.

—There appears to be no need for a shipbuilding budget amendment at this time. If broader considerations warrant such a move, it should include funds for critical near-term needs (FFGs for anti-air capability, perhaps additional support ships, and increased R&D). If Stennis wants to add to the shipbuilding budget on his own initiative, this is where the money should go.

[Omitted here is a list of the contents of Scowcroft’s briefing book.]

  1. Source: Ford Library, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box 21, Defense Review Panel Meeting, 4/29/76—Naval Forces. Secret.
  2. An April 20 draft of the study is attached at Tab D, but not printed. A NSC summary of the final version of the study is Document 110.
  3. See footnote 2, Document 66.
  4. See footnote 3, Document 21.
  5. Scowcroft highlighted this sentence and wrote, “Really?” in the margin.
  6. Not further identified and not found.
  7. References are to the U.S. Naval Air Station at Keflavik, Iceland and to the Royal Air Force Station at Lossiemouth, Scotland.
  8. The NSC met on April 22 to discuss the Navy study. No record of the meeting was found.
  9. Attached, but not printed.
  10. Scowcroft highlighted this passage and wrote, “No trade off, but eight smaller carriers. Why?”
  11. Attached, but not printed.