Lehman's Navy

By , Peter Grier is on the Monitor staff.

COMMAND OF THE SEAS by John F. Lehman Jr., New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 464 pp. $21.95

DURING the six years he served as secretary of the Navy, John F. Lehman Jr. was the phenomenon of the Pentagon. Young, blunt, and ambitious, he refused to be the usual service secretary, handing out plaques and standing in the background at change-of-command ceremonies. Lehman wanted to run the Navy his way, and run it he did - acquiring a 600-ship fleet and probably 1,200 enemies.

Much attention has been focused on his budgetary success. In Capitol Hill appearances Lehman loved to play a thin Teddy Roosevelt, badgering congressmen about the Soviet threat and employing phrases such as ``armchair strategist'' and (my favorite) ``parlor-room Pershing.''

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But by any standard, his record of accomplishments in laying down hulls was impressive. He won funding for 15 aircraft carriers and 600 deployable combat ships. The early 1980s political consensus on increasing defense spending helped here. But this was not Lehman's most far-reaching achievement. What he really did was rip the Navy's culture apart and attempt to remold it in his own image.

Before anything else the Navy is a bureaucracy, and Lehman is a bureaucrat. Undoubtedly he would hate being called that, as ``bloated bureaucracies'' are one of his favorite targets, along with State Department Pollyannas and ``TV commentators and other naysayers.''

But Lehman spent his professional Wonder Years as a staffer to Henry Kissinger on the National Security Council. There he learned all the tricks from the master: Access to higher authority is everything. Keep all the levers of power in your own hands. Make sure your deputies are loyal, etc., etc. So when Lehman walked into the Navy secretary's office in the Pentagon's outside ``E'' corridor for the first time, he was ready to grab the service by its blue-suit lapels. Many admirals came to hate him for his attempts to impose his will.

Lehman's Navy memoirs are fascinating for their exposition of this bureaucratic interplay. When recounting the inside story of outside events, such as the invasion of Grenada, Lehman is often curiously flat. But when he talks about the wars inside the Pentagon and their long-standing bureaucratic roots, ``Command of the Seas'' comes to life. It might better be titled ``Command of the `E' Ring'' (the geographic center of the Pentagon, the largest office building in the world).

The late Adm. Hyman Rickover was the first enemy Lehman encountered. As father of the US nuclear navy, Admiral Rickover set high standards for safety and personnel, and over the years he dug himself in so deep that when Lehman tried to uproot him, it became a monumental task.

The struggle to force Rickover's retirement finally ended in an uproar in front of President Reagan, with the crusty admiral calling the young secretary 10 kinds of creep and the President looking confused. As drama this is the best scene in Lehman's book, but again its deeper lessons are bureaucratic. Lehman understood that the secret of Rickover's power was his connections in Congress, and the loyalty of his many submariner disciples who had risen to flag rank and influence. Indeed, Rickover's legacy lives - the top levels of the Navy today are still filled with admirals who rose through the submarine ranks.

Rickover was a legendary figure who had outlived his usefulness, and whose insistence on perfection developed into a nit-picking mentality that permeated the whole Navy. It was because of the Rickover culture that Navy procurement officials would continually order changes on Navy subs under construction, essentially making each a custom-built ship.

This was Lehman's attitude, anyway - he has a tendency to personify bureaucratic problems. At times he seems to be writing ``John Lehman Action Theater,'' with Rickover and former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara playing evil geniuses intent on thwarting a stalwart young Navy secretary.

Lehman went to work replacing the legacy of Rickover with a bureaucracy modeled on his own personality - impatient and swaggering. He ripped out layers of middle managers, abolishing the whole Navy Materiel Command. He rejigged lines of authority, so that the Navy's buying commands reported to him instead of to the service's top uniformed official, the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO). He tried to jump a relatively junior admiral, Frank Kelso, over other candidates when the CNO job came open near the end of his tenure.

In the end the admirals revolted. A more senior officer, Adm. Carlisle Trost, became CNO, not Frank Kelso; and Lehman's farewell dinner was very poorly attended. This reveals another fact about Lehman that was little appreciated during his time in office - many senior Navy officers disliked him intensely, and he returned the favor. In fact, though he demurs at times, he seems to hold flag officers and generals in contempt, with individual exceptions.

At times he depicts the top US military leaders, the joint chiefs of staff, as blithering incompetents. He writes of their ``peacetime bureaucratic mind-set'' which after the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut caused them to retaliate against ``piddling, inconsequential targets.''

With Lehman gone and the admirals back on the bridge, whither the Navy? The 600-ship fleet will still arrive, though more slowly. Some of Lehman's bureaucratic changes will be undone, though nothing can resurrect Materiel Command. His grandiose Maritime Strategy, a long deep-think justification for more ships, will be waved around at budget time but be slowly toned down by following generations of political appointees.

One serious problem must be mentioned - the still-developing Pentagon procurement scandal. There are some indications that Lehman, by eliminating layers of the buying system, made it more easy for criminality in purchasing to happen. If true, this would be a serious indictment of his approach - but as yet nothing of this sort has been proved.

Lehman himself will be back. Anyone who has met him has little doubt about this. Perhaps as a senator from Pennsylvania, more likely as another in a long line of defense secretaries - John Lehman, like Teddy Roosevelt, loves the public stage.

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