Archive for September, 2011

Well, I dunno about fun, but certainly easier to understand than the usual explanation. And it ain’t even in Power Point.

LtCol Dan Ward, USAF, from DAU provides nothing short of a brilliant essay that even an 8-yr old can relate to, in fact, can inspire. Worth every bit of the read, as Galrahn has noted at his place. And though Gal also quotes a passage, I will quote a different one, not the least because it has the word “fleet” in it. What, with this being a Naval blog, and all.

The bottom line: Death Stars are unaffordable. Whether we’re talking about a fictional galaxy far, far away or the all too real conditions here on Planet Earth, a Death Star program will cost more than it is worth. The investment on this scale is unsustainable and is completely lost when a wamp-rat-hunting farmboy takes a lucky shot. When one station represents the entire fleet (or even 5 percent of the fleet), we’ve put too many eggs in that basket and are well on our way to failing someone for the last time.

The above seems to describe myriad projects and concepts now being considered by the United States Navy, from larger and larger amphibious ships whose loss would mean instant mission failure, to potentially small (6 or 7?) numbers of supercarriers plying the oceans as a result of the coming fiscal restraint on DoD budgets.

“A Death Star is an Empire weapon that aims to intimidate opponents into submission.

Droids are Republic technology. They don’t intimidate anyone. Instead, they earn their keep by being useful and practical.”

Which current Navy programs are our “Death Stars”, and which, our R2D2s?

[Ed. Note: This reads like a report, because it is. This is what I turned in for my expository essay in my Writing 101 class. I got a 93 on it, and I've been trying to write this more as a blog. But, it's already written, so why am I reinventing the wheel? And so here it is: How I finally began to truly understand the rank structure in the military and where the tactical fades into the strategic.]

There is a quote I frequently see while playing Rome: Total War attributed to Julius Caesar, “[i]n war important events result from trivial causes.” I had always considered the quote cogent and well said. But, more recently, I came across a new (to me) terminology for a type of event called a Black Swan. Once I had made the connection in my mind between Caesar’s quote and a Black Swan, I found myself thinking about another work by General Charles Krulack, USMC (ret) where he spoke of the importance of junior leadership in modern conflicts. Between Caesar’s quote, Black Swans and General Krulak’s work, there is a coherent theme explaining rank structure in the military and the synergistic relationship that exists between the tactical and strategic levels of warfare.

Caesar’s quote strikes me as a tacit understanding of “Black Swans” and their implications for military campaigns. Nassim Taleb introduced the terminology for a “Back Swan” in his book The Black Swan. Taleb defines a Black Swan as an event denoted by its “rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability.” Meaning that a Black Swan is an event of great significance that was never expected nor predicted to happen. According to Taleb, Black Swans explain why things occurred in history and our personal lives.

Caesar’s words intersect with Black Swans in that Caesar describes the causes of “important events” as “trivial.” Caesar, states there to be causation between the “trivial” and “important” while also denoting a qualitative difference between cause and effect in his words. It is logical to conclude that if one has a series of trivial events, that their sum would be trivial as well, or that there is a linear relationship between trivial events and their effects. However, by Caesar’s words, this is not the case. Rather, it is the sum being greater (important versus trivial) than the whole—a nonlinear relationship. To individuals looking at a series of trivial events and attempting to predict the outcome, it is hard to see how they could predict anything important deriving from the trivial–Such “low predictability” is a key aspect of a Black Swan.

Caesar’s words come from a strategic perspective. As the leader of the Roman Legions marching through Gaul, Caesar was responsible for subjugating 300 tribes and destroying 800 cities, in all affecting three million Gauls, killing close to a million of them. But, what was trivial to Caesar may not have been so trivial to one of his Centurions—it is a matter of perspective. Such perspective is inherent in the duties between those who are charged with leading tens of thousands and those leading hundreds (or less). Does the fact that there are two different perspectives mean that Caesar was wrong in calling such causes trivial? In a word, no. He is correct based on his perspective and context in-which he performed his duties. Caesar did not confuse his duties and station with those of his cohort commanders. What’s more is that his Centurions would probably call the duties Caesar carried out as trivial in comparison to the harsh realities of fighting hand-to-hand.

As events transpire, the implications of what causes Black Swans are of importance at the tactical level, and the Black Swan itself is important at the strategic level. However, at any level it is of importance to have an understanding of previous Black Swans (their causes and the event itself) that are not limited by post hoc narratives.

General Krulak is well known for this article titled the “Strategic Corporal: Leadership in the Three Block War.” His work concerns a fictitious conflict occurring in a few blocks of a city. He describes the tactical actions of Corporal Hernandez and their possible strategic implications. Caesar’s “trivial causes” are described. But, the General goes beyond merely describing decisions and their ramifications in stating that junior Marines have an intuitive—intuitive, not explicit—understanding of their “trivial” actions resulting in “important events.”

The General explains how Cpl. Hernandez’s decisions were made in such a manner that it, in essence, prevents a Black Swan type event from occurring. Cpl. Hernandez took the training he had been given, and imbued with an intuitive understanding of the implications of his actions and made the right decisions, thereby preventing the tactical situation from evolving into a situation with “strategic implications.” Where Caesar does not, in a single sentence quote, comment on the role of his Centurions in battle or their ability to prevent Black Swans, Krulak does by describing the challenges faced by Corporal Hernandez. Caesar is describing events from a ‘big picture’ perspective, and General Krulak described them from a ‘smaller picture’ perspective, Taleb’s Black Swan is the concept that ties the two together.

From the age of the Roman Empire to today the military has been facing the same types of challenges. It is from these challenges that we have decided how best to partition responsibilities, delegate decision-making authority and deal with the unexpected. Black Swans will never allow perfect predictability. Black Swans have always existed, and military professionals have been discussing them, the implications and best methods for overcoming them since Caesar. The only difference between what military professionals have had to say regarding Black Swans is the vocabulary used.

The challenges of leading men into battle do not change, only how we chose to describe those challenges. With Taleb’s words we find a common vocabulary that bridges thousands of years. With this common vocabulary we can better understand what is said by other writers and find the other truths that have endured through the centuries.

When your 4-star boss is given a captive audience of over 200 senior officers who are spending the year reading and studying operational art, strategy, policy, decision making and interagency cooperation please pack a slide deck of something other than the canned command brief.

Or, if that is all you have, tell the boss to skip through the slides, drop the buzzword bingo lingo, and get to the Q&A as quickly as possible.

Thank you.

PS – General Kehler, great job on the Q&A.


Combat Experience Now and Then

September 2011


The following selection comes from Zumwalt Staff Officers Volume I, an oral history collection produced and owned by the United States Naval Institute. These oral histories done by USNI are simply fantastic gems of history, and this one on Zumwalt is no exception.

I am not sure what the procedure is for USNI members to get a copy of this kind of stuff, so maybe someone on the staff at USNI can address that in the comments below. As I have been reading through some of these interesting pieces of history, I keep thinking there is useful information that someone at every level of leadership from the Department Head up would find useful.

This is the first of what may be multiple posts on this Zumwalt oral history. In the section below Paul Stillwell is interviewing Captain Howard J. Kerr, Jr., U.S. Navy (Retired), who served on Zumwalts staff as a LT in Vietnam immediately after getting his Masters Degree at Tufts. Noteworthy in the context of this quoted section, LT Kerr turned down command of a coastal patrol vessel to take the position on Zumwalts staff, something his detailer insisted would hurt his career as LT commands at the time were very rare. He had never met VADM Zumwalt prior to accepting the position, and had only really learned about the man after being offered and initially turning down the staff job offer.

This section is discussing what I always find to be the most important issue Navy leaders must deal with – people. I think different readers can and will find different lessons or analogies to today in this section, and likely come to different conclusions as it relates to today. It begins with a question of inventives provided by the Navy for people to go to Vietnam.

Q: And there were not incentives provided for people to go.

Captain Kerr: Well, no, there weren’t any incentives to go, and there weren’t any rewards for having done a good tour there. Admiral Zumwalt fought like hell to give some rewards to the lieutenant commander who had gone over to Vietnam and who had done exceptionally well, who had put his life on the line, who had been in a very threatening environment for a year, and who when he came out was getting zero credit for that from the bureau and wasn’t even making the XO cut. That was kind of the typical guy. He worked very hard trying to turn that around. He put his own personal involvement in it. We used to talk to the bureau almost every night from Saigon in an effort to impress upon them the fact that, “You may not agree with what the country is doing~ you may not agree that this is the kind of training that a naval officer needs, but the fact is that this is national policy; the country is at war, and we are the warriors dedicated to fighting this country’s battles. It’s incumbent upon us to ensure that the very best people are sent over, because people’s lives are at stake and the national honor and prestige are at stake in this particular war.” And our ability to execute a very complicated sophisticated mission–namely, as I’ve said before, getting the Navy involved while at the same time trying to train the Vietnamese Navy and turn the damned thing over. It was a multifaceted operation that involved a lot of sophistication. It just required the best talent the Navy had. That’s the way Admiral Zumwalt felt about it. The bureau simply was not supporting that up until that time.

Now, they responded to him, and you began to see a little turnaround. Pretty soon, after nine months or so, some people who were considered “front-runners” began to show up in country. But up until the time Admiral Zumwalt got there, that was simply not the pattern, not the case. I feel that in many cases the detailers were being driven by what they considered the right, quote, “right career pattern” for a surface guy, and it just didn’t include a tour in Vietnam. It was more important to go off to destroyer school, or have a weapons officer tour on a DDG or something than it was to go to Vietnam. Those guys were doing just what they basically were being told what the policy within the bureau is. So, in that sense, we weren’t getting support even from our own personnel distribution system for the Vietnam war in country at that time. They supported us in the sense of putting in the numbers that had to be there. They were there. But they were not reaching down and looking for the top people and putting them over there. In a sense, it was inconsistent with the right career path to go over there.

You reflect upon that, and it’s an extraordinarily hard thing to understand for me – how we could view that war as just another tour of duty – it turned out that it just didn’t rank as high as other tours of duty. There are an awful lot of people who have remarked to me that at the time they didn’t want to go to Vietnam – not that they were afraid to go to Vietnam, but they just didn’t see how it was going to help their career.

Q: What did Admiral Zumwalt do to provide incentives for the Navy captains that were there?

Captain Kerr: Well, I think one of the biggest incentives right away was when Bob Salzer got selected for flag. There had never been a flag officer out of Vietnam. He got selected for flag. People tend to go to where people are being selected. If the water at this hole is a little bit sweeter, that’s where everybody goes to drink. And the water in South Vietnam had been a little stale. So when Bob Salzer got selected, that sent out a signal through the Navy. Zumwalt was there. Zumwalt was building a reputation. It was becoming common knowledge that Zumwalt had taken charge, had taken hold. The Navy was turning its act around and on in South Vietnam. That some good people were beginning to go there, to get involved. Bob Salzer had been selected for flag.

Q: Well, I think he was selected after he left.

Captain Kerr: Well, he had left, but see, he only had a few months to do when Admiral Zumwalt arrived. It didn’t make any difference when he got it. The fact is that it came right after his tour in Vietnam. So that was seen as a plus.

Q: My point is that the principal subordinates were still captains, whereas their counterparts, you were saying earlier, in the other services were generals.

Captain Kerr: Yes. That didn’t change. The admiral never got those jobs upgraded to flag rank. But he began to write the kind of fitness reports that helped people. He got General Abrams to sign off fitness reports for some of those officers, which was very helpful. Those are the kinds of things that you do to begin to support your subordinates in the field. He went personally after people. He used to get on the phone at night and call them. He’d work the detailers at night. A lieutenant commander comes out of Saigon with a top record, and the bureau doesn’t give that any merit. And instead of going to an XO’s tour, he goes someplace else; that tells the lieutenant commander community something. The admiral understood that, and he tried to turn that around–not only to give the right image of what was happening in Vietnam, but because he believed that that person deserved that because of what he had done in country.

You know, the admiral once said that every fitness report you’d get in the Navy that’s not under fire is just a guess. These guys were out in the field. getting shot at. They were running the war. The responsibility, the initiative, the sense of command and leadership that they were learning at this early age was remarkable. Plus, they were doing it in the battlefield. Those were traits and values and demonstrated performance things that are more important to a fighting man in many respects than being able to run an NTDS system on a guided missile destroyer. In other words, you could learn to run an NTDS system, but you never know how the guy is going to react in battle unless he’s been in it. And these guys had been in it. And our own system wasn’t recognizing that. If the guy somehow hadn’t been at the top of his performance ratings on his last ship, that’s what they were paying more attention to than how well he was doing in country. I feel very strongly that the bureau let the Navy down in country. I think, as I said, it began to turn around after Admiral Zumwalt got there, but I don’t think that the Bureau of Naval Personnel with regards to its detailing policies in the in-country effort, prior to 1968 certainly, can be very proud of its efforts to support the war. I mean they were more concerned about their own selfish policies of putting people in the right jobs and keeping them on the, quote, “career path” than they were with supporting the war effort in Vietnam.

Q: Well, did he work it from the other end also? There is a delayed reaction if you have to wait until the selection board results come out. Did he badger BuPers to send him brighter, better people earlier?

Captain Kerr: Yes, absolutely. There were people that were going off to the war colleges. I hate to belabor this, and I’m probably a little cynical about it, but I had people tell me that their detailer told them, “Let me put you at the Naval War College. You don’t want to go to Vietnam. That’s not going to do your career any good. You might as well spend a year at the Naval War College.” Can you imagine that? The goddamned country is at war! People are getting killed! And we’re thinking in terms of what’s best for promotion purposes. It’s unreal. In many respects, while I have disdain for both, I have less disdain for the person who ran off to Canada than I have for the person who ran off in uniform to the Naval War College.

One of the things that stood out to me in this section of the interview was the value of combat experience. US Navy fixed-wing aviators have dropped bombs on targets for 10 years, but 99% of those attacks have been in environments where the enemy lacks the capability to shoot back. The submarine community has never been attacked by a credible ASW threat in the lifetime of all US Navy submariners. The vast majority of combat experience of the SWO community comes from lobbing cruise missiles from positions offshore the enemy could not reach with counter-battery.

Put another way, RW pilots and the SWOs who conduct anti-piracy operations on small boats are about the only non-special forces sailors to find actual combat experience today, because they are the only US naval forces today that operate under legitimate threat of attack. Somehow I doubt the promotion system reflects that reality any more today than the promotion system reflected combat experience in Vietnam in the late 60s. AEGIS warships, aircraft carriers and strike fighters, and nuclear powered submarines cruising the South China Sea are so much cooler from a promotion system perspective than RHIBs and helicopters operating in pirate infested waters, or at least recent history suggests as much.

I think people can read this section and find other topics as well. Good history can do that.


Admin Update to Galrahn’s post regrading “I am not sure what the procedure is for USNI members to get a copy of this kind of stuff, so maybe someone on the staff at USNI can address that in the comments below.”

An index of our complete collection may be found here:

Oral History Index

More about the program and pricing here

Although we charge for the Oral histories, we often make them available gratis to Commands (see ADM Harvey’s post at Fleet Forces blog) and students and for the purpose of promoting the program, which is completely funded by donations and the generous support of the Tawani Foundation.

Please don’t hesitate to reach out to us if you have an interest in our collection. You may email me directly: mripley @ usni dot org.

Posted by galrahn in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

We’re talking about the time the French fleet . . .

Yes, the French fleet!

No, it was more of a skirmish at sea, but . . .

230 years ago. Off the Virgina Capes.

Maybe the most important sea action in our history?

Read about it at “The Pivot Upon Which Everything Turned”.

Or my humble offering here.

Oh, that quote in the title? From A History of Sea Power.

Posted by Mark Tempest in History | 9 Comments

Romanian President Traian Basescu announced Thursday that he plans to sign an agreement with the United States committing Washington to deploy a land-based variant (still in development) of the successful Aegis/SM-3 ballistic missile defense (BMD) system and American troops on Romanian soil. While it happened to be the same day that the first test of the SM-3 Block IB failed (these things do happen after all), many Central European countries’ interest in the new ‘European Phased Adaptive Approach’ remain unabated.

This is because the Central Europeans quite frankly don’t care at all about BMD. Romania could be hosting a component of AFRICOM’s headquarters and land-locked Czech Republic a Navy riverine squadron for all they cared. They care about the American security commitment, and the commitment the deployment of American military hardware and American military personnel that BMD installations entail.

But while Romania is enthusiastic, the Czechs, having been burned in the previous proposal, are more skeptical. Slated to receive a fixed X-band radar alongside Poland-based ground-based midcourse defense (GMD) interceptors (already deployed in Alaska and California, though with a spottier track record) under the George W. Bush administration, the scheme was dropped amidst concerted Russian opposition in 2009. The Czechs now both want a bigger chunk of the new scheme yet remain wary of another American reversal.

If the land-based variant of the Aegis/SM-3 system can be more quickly (and cheaply) emplaced and displaced than GMD, that will provide the U.S. with additional flexibility. And though the scheme for the European Phased Adaptive Approach has been sketched out, it retains considerable malleability.

This would all be good news for the American effort to protect the continental United States from (yet to exist) Iranian intercontinental ballistic missiles armed with (yet to exist) miniaturized, hardened nuclear warheads in a hypothetical scenario where Tehran would choose to launch a nuclear attack on the United States from its own soil.

But ‘phased’ and ‘adaptive’ are the last things America’s Central European allies want. Especially after the withdrawal of the previous plan and the lack of a response to the Russian invasion and occupation of South Ossetia, these countries hunger now for assurances of the strength, durability and credibility of the American security guarantee (one that is, incidentally, hurting on both sides of Eurasia). And the concern that this guarantee is insufficient has already prompted an initiative to form of an independent battlegroup among Central European countries.

It is a good thing that the pursuit of BMD technology is here to stay. But a weapon system is not an end in and of itself, and its deployment is both a military and a political phenomenon. The choices that Washington makes in the actual emplacement of the European Phased Adaptive Approach (a phrase that could only be coined in Washington) — particularly when countries like Russia have made it politically difficult and inconvenient to pursue specific paths — will be watched closely in capitals from Tallinn to Tbilisi.

Posted by nhughes in Foreign Policy | 2 Comments
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