In a policy shift that could ultimately bring basic changes in the deployment of U.S. military forces around the world, including a reduction of force in Europe, Pentagon officials have decided the United States should now seek "maritime superiority" over the Soviet Union.
Their rationale, already set down in draft form as secret budget guidance to the military services, is that there has been a shift in the Soviet threat from central Europe to other regions, including the Persian Gulf, that are far from American military bases but close to Soviet ones.
Therefore, went the argument that prevailed over the last few months in heated sessions behind closed doors at the Pentagon, the United States must now place more emphasis than before on protecting sea lanes and building forces that could fight as soon as planes or ships landed them in threatened or hostile places.
Advocates, led by Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr., said that if this new emphasis eventually required some offsetting drawdown of existing forces on Europe's central front, so be it. Other North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries could make up the difference on the ground as U.S. forces protected the sea lanes over which oil and vital minerals must travel for the whole alliance, advocates contended.
"We have a whole new geopolitical situation," Lehman said in an interview during which he confirmed he had pressed for more emphasis on mobile forces in the debate in the Pentagon. "What's new," the secretary said, "is a consensus within the administration that the Soviet threat is global. It's not just central Europe . . . ."
The leading maritime superiority opponent in the Pentagon discussions was Army Gen. Donn Starry, head of the U.S. Readiness Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., Pentagon sources said. Starry warned his civilian superiors at a Defense Resources Board meeting that by emphasizing warships, Marines and Army airborne forces at the expense of current deployments they could end up sacrificing U.S. military control in Europe and South Korea.
"We don't want to have to reinvade Europe and Korea," Starry reportedly told the board. Starry, when queried whether his remarks were being accurately reported, said, "It's not discussable."
Navy leaders set the stage this year for the Reagan administration to commit itself to regaining the edge over the Soviet Union at sea. Lehman and Adm. Thomas B. Hayward, chief of naval operations, told Congress in reports on the U.S.-Soviet naval balance that the United States had lost its clear edge of superiority.
Because the Soviet blue-water fleet has been expanding over the last decade while the U.S. Navy has only slowly started to build up from a post-Vietnam low, "one cannot with confidence state that the U.S. possesses a margin of superiority. If we do, it is so cloudy and tenuous as to be unreliable, both as a deterrent, and as assurance of our ability to prevail at sea in a conflict with the Soviets," they said.
The admiral said that "in my professional judgment" increasing the U.S. fleet from 12 battle groups, each with an aircraft carrier at its heart, "will probably restore that margin of superiority we have talked about in the last several years. It would end the present uncertainty and lack of confidence in our position relative to the Soviets. I don't think we are ahead of the Soviets today, but by the same token I don't think they're ahead of us," Hayward told the House Armed Services Committee seapower panel earlier this year.
Lehman and Hayward have won over Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, Pentagon officials said, as evidenced by the fact that Weinberger has issued draft guidance to the military services telling them to structure their forces in fiscal 1983 through 1987 explicitly to achieve "maritime superiority." Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine leaders are reviewing that guidance and may seek revisions. But Lehman and other Pentagon officials said Weinberger is solidly behind the concept.
If maritime superiority does end up in the final budget guidance as predicted, however, it will still take some time for the idea to affect the apportionment of the defense dollar among the services. For fiscal 1983, in the budget that will go to Congress next month, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps will all receive about the same shares of the total as they did this year, with each allotted a growth of about 7 percent after inflation.
Reagan administration defense officials say their predecessors in the Carter administration paid too little attention to sea forces. Such Carter officials as former defense undersecretary Robert Komer vigorously dispute this, and say there are problems with the maritime superiority idea.
"The real issue," Komer said in an interview, is "whether we should sink so much of our constrained defense resources into offensive force projection by aircraft carrier task forces to make it impossible to meet our North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Persian Gulf commitments.
"To give up on Western Europe and Persian Gulf oil" to pursue Lehman's version of maritime superiority "could lead to a strategic disaster. It would be playing right into Soviet hands," he said.
Army and Air Force leaders are also known to be concerned over the budgetary implications of the new doctrine. Fifteen Navy battle groups, each with its own aircraft carrier, would be expensive. In the long run the Army and Air Force will plainly have to restructure some of their forces and rewrite war plans if maritime superiority as envisioned by Lehman becomes the Pentagon's goal.
The Army, for example, would have to redeploy troops from NATO's central front to its flanks and probably to the Persian Gulf area as well to fulfill its role in the Rapid Deployment Force. The Air Force, according to maritime superiority theorists, would be assigned to bomb Soviet ports and to mine harbors in a war to help the Navy keep sea lanes open.
NATO partners, under the administration's concept, would be expected to fill the gaps left by redeployment of American troops now in Europe and to commit their air forces and navies to bottling up the Soviet fleet in a war.
Since European nations and Japan depend more on imported oil than the United States, administration officials contend they should be willing to do more to protect their backyard as the United States puts more of its power at sea to keep the oil pipeline from the Middle East and the Persian Gulf safe from Soviet strangulation.
Elaborating on his case for pursuing maritime superiority, Lehman said plans of previous administrations to move warships from the Pacific to the Atlantic to support Europe in a war no longer make sense. The Soviet Navy is in the Pacific today and is bound to increase its presence there, the Navy secretary said.
"You draw down the Pacific and you turn the sea lanes over to the Soviet fleet. It's there now.
"They also have a string of support capability all around the Indian Ocean," Lehman continued.
"How's Japan going to survive unless they reach an accommodation with the Soviet Union if we pull the fleet out of there? You guarantee Japan is eliminated as a factor on our side." Taking American warships out of the Pacific also would enable the Soviets to remove forces deployed against China to other theaters, Lehman continued.
Komer said the "chief flaw" in the maritime superiority argument made by Lehman "is that you can't really cope with a great Eurasian heart power like the U.S.S.R. by nibbling at its flanks with carrier strikes. Therefore, seeking another $50 billion to $100 billion in more big nuclear-powered battle groups, which are primarily for this nibbling and not for sea control, would be a wasteful diversion from higher priority needs.
"The trouble with the new civilian maritime strategists is that they don't understand strategy. Nor do they grasp how dependent the United States has become on our many rich allies, or they wouldn't propose a force structure so sure to undermine our alliances."
Another military specialist and former Army brigade commander on Europe's central front, retired Col. John B. Keeley said the key question is whether the Reagan administration intends to achieve maritime superiority by "robbing Peter to pay Paul. A Marine becomes a soldier 20 minutes after he lands on the beach and needs the kind of support only the Army can supply, like artillery and engineers for construction in adequate quantity."
Keeley said that if the United States overemphasizes Navy and Marine forces it could end up like Britain in the 1800s, "controlling the empty oceans while Napoleon had the land."