84. Briefing Memorandum From the Director of the Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs (Vest) to the Acting Secretary of State (Robinson)1

National Security Council Meeting on US Naval Force Requirements

The Problem

The National Security Council will meet on Saturday morning, May 1 at 10:30 to discuss future naval force requirements. The briefing material to be used at the meeting presents five optional force structures of which only three are under serious consideration (attached at Tab 1).2 These differ primarily in the number of carriers to be maintained by the US Navy over the next twenty-five years. Underlying the choice of options is an analysis of the Navy’s sea control and force projection functions, the Soviet threat, and the possibilities (rather undefined) offered by new technology. The purpose of the meeting will be to obtain Presidential approval for the position Mr. Rumsfeld will take with the Senate Armed Services Committee on May 4.


PM has provided you with a detailed discussion of the background up to the meeting of the DRP on April 29.3 To review briefly, the following is the situation. Chairman Stennis of the Senate Armed Services Committee has asked the Administration to provide comments on the House action in approving the FY–77 Defense Authorization Bill to add funds for speeding up construction of large nuclear-powered Nimitz class carriers and strike cruisers. The House action would add more than $1 billion to the President’s original budget request.

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The Administration review of the question of future Navy construction requirements has been underway under the aegis of the DRP for about two weeks. We have provided your office with a copy of the latest draft of the Naval Force Requirements Study4 which formed the basis for the DRP review. At the April 29 meeting of the DRP principals a briefing was provided by the Department of Defense and the issues were discussed inconclusively. Defense and NSC staff met later to refine the briefing material for the President (attached at Tab 2).5

Strategic Issues

The basic strategic issue is how can the US structure its Navy during the balance of the 20th Century in order to maintain the “freedom of the seas”, the term now favored by the Secretary of Defense as a short-hand description of our maritime interests. This translates into a naval force capable of establishing control of crucial sea lanes of communication, as well as maintaining a measure of additional flexibility for the projection of power in crises. From the point of view of the Department of State the latter point is especially important. If “sea control” were accepted as the only criterion for future ship construction, the Navy’s preoccupation with maintaining sea lines of communications could limit its use in crises and limited conflict situations, where some sort of land-sea interface is generally a factor. Also limited would be the Navy’s contribution to our overall deterrent posture. You should probably stress the Department of State’s interest in the Navy’s role in force projection, to assure that due weight is given to this aspect of the Navy’s missions.

There may also be discussion at the NSC meeting on US naval deployments in the Western Pacific. The Vice President, in particular, is concerned that the US emphasis on priority for a NATO contingency might jeopardize our ability to keep open the sea lines of communication to Japan. He, therefore, emphasized the need for a substantial naval presence in the area. On the other hand, OMB Director Lynn has questioned whether we need any carriers in the Western Pacific. From the Department of State’s standpoint, the present two carriers which are deployed in the Western Pacific serve as visible evidence of our commitment to Japan and Korea in particular; their presence serves an important political, as well as military, need.

The Department, of course, has no independent means of assessing US capabilities for sea control in the Western Pacific during a major war. We do hold the view, however, that to turn to the Japanese for more help is no solution, at least in the short term. Japan cannot be ex [Page 359] pected to do more than it is now doing in the field of defense for some time to come. It is moving generally in the right direction, however, and to pressure Japan to do much more would cause serious domestic political problems in Japan and result in loss of momentum towards a more effective defense posture.

Force Structure Issues

The basic decision which the President faces is which of several force structure options for the US Navy should he recommend to Congress. These options are attached at Tab 1. The crux of the issue is whether to stop building large deck carriers, to defer that decision, or to build one more large carrier, which would probably be of the nuclear powered Nimitz-class. The argument for building no more carriers is that we could maintain the current level of 12 carriers through the 1990’s, provided these carriers were refurbished when it became necessary. The money thus saved by stopping carrier construction could be diverted to the construction of other types of surface ships and to investment in technology needed to modernize the next generation of Navy ships and weapons systems.

It is presently uncertain, however, how effective other advanced types of ships might be in providing sea control and forward projection and there is a strong sentiment in the government for deciding to build one more large carrier. This would still be one less carrier than the President’s original program and one less than is favored by the House. From the Department of State’s standpoint, our interest in forward projection of US power suggests that we should favor building one more carrier in order that the US will maintain the ability during peacetime to forward deploy four carriers, as we do at present. This position would conform to options 2 or 3 in the table shown at Tab 1.

The Navy, at least for the moment, appears willing to accept procuring only one more large carrier. (Option 3 is the Navy’s choice). The Navy would also like to have a commitment to go into a substantial strike cruiser and Vertical/Short Takeoff-Landing (V/STOL) support ship program. From the analysis available to us, it is not clear what the advantages of such a program would be as opposed to the somewhat less expensive alternative of procuring a mix of strike cruisers, V/STOL support ships and other types of surface ships, e.g., frigates and destroyers. From the standpoint of force projection, the present 12 carriers plus one more Nimitz-class carrier should be an adequate force structure.

Budgetary Issues

The budgetary question resolves itself largely into a political issue of whether to ask for a budget which corresponds to the level originally contained in the President’s program, whether to accept the additional [Page 360] billion plus dollars provided by the House, or to ask for still more to fulfill the Navy’s preferred program. Thus the question of the budget is likely to be one on which the President will wish to reserve judgment, pending further consultation both within the Administration, and possibly with Senator Stennis. We believe that the White House is inclined to stand on its original budget figure. If so, the options presented at Tab 1 suggest that a decision to build one more carrier—the option which we think affords a prudent hedge against future uncertainties—may be precluded. There are many different ways to put together the Navy budget, however, and it is worth recalling that the President’s original shipbuilding program envisages building two more carriers.

The budgetary differences between the option of building no more large deck carriers (Option 1) and the option of building another Nimitz-class carrier plus a vigorous strike cruiser and V/STOL support ship program (Option 3) are not of great significance in terms of the overall Defense budget.

Agency Views

Attached at Tab 3 is a “non-paper” drafted by NSC staff in an effort to summarize their view of where OSD, OMB, and NSC are likely to come out.6 (Other principals may not have this paper). It provides for a deferral of a decision to construct a new carrier, a mix of conventionally and nuclear-powered strike cruisers, and no increase in the President’s original budget (page 5). State Department staff would favor a decision to build one more carrier as a prudent hedge against future contingencies. JCS appears to be split, with the Chairman, the Navy and the Marines favoring one more carrier plus a commitment to build strike cruisers; Army and Air Force would prefer no more carriers.

Your Talking Points

In addition to making a basic decision on the numbers and types of ships which the Navy will require during the next 15–25 years, there are certain fundamental questions which are of importance to the Department of State and which should be recorded at the NSC meeting as appropriate. We offer the following suggested talking points on these aspects:

Power Projection and US Presence

—We should not consider the US Navy structure of the future simply in terms of the Soviet threat or the necessity for maintaining lines of communications to theaters of operation or to important Allies. [Page 361] It is equally important to bear in mind the functions which the Navy fulfills in a situation short of a major war involving the Soviet Union. In times of peace or in crisis situations we need a Navy which has the capacity and flexibility to maintain an adequate level of US presence in critical areas and to project power in crisis situations. We have seen the need for this capacity in the Mediterranean in recent years.

The Naval Tasks in the Pacific

—In considering how many carriers are needed in the Pacific, we should not refight World War II but rather we should keep in mind the importance of the presence of carriers as perceived by the Pacific countries and especially by Japan which relies on us to provide the umbrella of military protection.

—As for Japan’s taking on a greater role in protecting its own sea lines of communication, we should take into account the impact on Japanese perceptions of our decisions on our own naval force levels and we must be careful about the degree of pressure implied by our words and actions on the Japanese. Our view is that Japan is already moving, albeit gingerly, toward a somewhat more realistic defense policy. The US-Japan Security Treaty is getting greater acceptance as is the need for at least some Japanese military capacity. One of the surest ways to jeopardize this development and to create serious domestic political problems for the Government of Japan would be for the US to press Japan too hard on this issue.

Requirements for Ships Other than Carriers

—In proposing that we limit carriers and use the funds saved for other types of ships, we need to have a clear understanding of what other types we are talking about. In addition to the role which these ships will be required to fulfill in a major war with the Soviet Union, we should also consider their utility from a point of view of power projection in other crisis circumstances. We will need to do more study on the kinds of ships that will best fulfill both these requirements.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Records of the Office of the Counselor, Lot File 81D286, Box 11, DEF 1, Defense Budget. Secret. Drafted by Charles C. Flowerree (PM/ISP) and James E. Goodby, Deputy Director of PM, on April 30, 1976. Cleared by S/P. Sent through Sonnenfeldt. Secretary Kissinger traveled to the UKR, Africa, and France from April 23 to May 7. No record of the NSC meeting was found.
  2. According to the attached chart, not printed, the options were as follows: a reduced program of 12 large-deck carriers and 535 ships by 1990; Option 1, currently programmed forces consisting of 12 carriers and 568 ships by that date; Option 2, 13 carriers and 595 ships; Option 3, which differed from Option 2 only in that it provided for more strike cruisers and support ships; and an expanded alternative of 16 carriers and 638 ships. Markings on the chart indicate that the reduced and expanded options were not under serious consideration, leaving Options 1–3.
  3. Document 83.
  4. See footnote 2, Document 83.
  5. Not found attached.
  6. Tab 3, an undated draft paper recommending an approach to legislation regarding naval forces, is attached, but not printed.