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We hear a lot about the Battle Force when talking about US Navy force structure and the documents that guide how we deploy and employ our Fleets. As a reader of Mahan, the language brings me back to a phrase he repeatedly uses in his writing, “The Battle-fleet.” See, in Mahan’s day the U.S. Navy started out as a 5th rate power (or worse) and didn’t even have a single fleet that could stand up to a foreign navy when massed together. Over the years he wrote, culminating about the time he passed away in the prelude to World War I, the USN slowly built its battle-fleet to be a peer of almost any navy on the seven seas. Over the next century the USN continued to build and develop itself into the superpower it is today, with several fleets positioned globally.

Much of what we hear about the Battle Force today harkens back to Mahan’s writing on how to use the battle-fleet. The focus is decisive combat against the enemy’s naval forces followed by or concurrent with the projection of power ashore. The focus is on the high-end and kinetic operations which should be the focus of the battle-fleet and, by analogy in today’s language, the modern Battle Force.

But the comparison to today’s Navy starts to come apart as you read about the types of ship’s Mahan thought were appropriate for a navy. While most of us are taught about his belief in the battle-fleet, and its role in pursuing and winning decisive battles that would establish American command of the sea, we’re rarely reminded that in his view a Navy didn’t stop there. Yes, he believed the battle-fleet had to win the decisive battle but there are many other tasks of naval forces. In his essay “Considerations Governing the Disposition of Navies” he wrote that a properly constructed navy needed to be balanced and have three main parts. First was, yes, the battle-fleet. Second was independent cruisers. Third was small combatants and craft to operate in close to an enemy’s shoreline. It wasn’t all one battle-fleet, but a balanced naval force designed for more than just blue water battle.

Each of these different groups of naval vessels had a role to play in major combat operations, but also a matching role to play in peacetime operations. In war the battle-fleet remained offshore, far enough away from the enemy’s coastline that it wouldn’t fall victim to costal defenses (what today we call A2AD threats). There the battle-fleet awaited the enemy’s fleet, maneuvering for positions of advantage for the coming decisive battle. The independent cruisers would range between the battle-fleet and the enemy’s coast, looking to pick off scouts and small squadrons or ranging further afield to strike at the enemy’s merchant shipping and impose an economic cost. Finally, the smaller littoral ships ranged in close, tested and engaged the enemy’s coastal defenses, and scouted for the enemy’s fleet to determine when or where it would sortie to engage in the decisive battle.

Today’s Battle Force has platforms which fill all of those rolls in the vision of the 21st century naval conflict. In Mahan’s day it was an all surface affair, with ships of varying sizes and armaments filling the roles. (He wrote that submarines and torpedo craft, which were experimental platforms for turn of the century navies, were likely to gain success and capability and become part of the mix, but it hadn’t happened before his death). Today, many of the roles are still filled by surface combatants, but submarines and aircraft have taken over significant parts of the equation. They have assumed many, if not all, of the roles and missions traditionally taken by the independent cruisers and the small combatants in the littorals, and with much success in kinetic operations. The name Battle Force, rather than battle-fleet, is certainly accurate.

The problem with today’s Battle Force is that by replacing the cruisers, scouts, and small combatants with submarines and aircraft it loses the capabilities those vessels brought to the peacetime missions. For centuries navies, unlike armies and more recently unlike air forces, have had dual responsibilities not just to fight and win the nation’s wars at sea but to serve in peacetime to protect the nation’s interests, deter challengers, and serve as a diplomatic arm of the military in building partnerships and friendships across the globe. From our nation’s earliest days the dual uses of naval forces were on our leaders minds. Former Naval Academy and Naval War College professor Dr. Craig Symonds wrote in his book Navalists and Antinavalists:

All of President James Monroe’s surviving papers on the navy or on naval policy reflect a concern that it efficiently perform two distinct services: first, that it be adequate to cope with the daily problems of a maritime nation – smuggling, piracy, and combating the slave trade; and, second, that it provide the United States with a comfortable degree of readiness in case war should be forced upon the nation.

What today we refer to as maritime security operations and partnership building isn’t a new-fangled 21st century idea. In fact, it’s a mission which goes back to the very founding of our service, shared with navies throughout history.

Today’s Battle Force is a battle-fleet on steroids, one that has absorbed the rest of the naval force. It is surely powerful and brings us more than “a comfortable degree of readiness in case war should be forced upon the nation.” For fighting and winning a major war it has no equal on the seven seas. However, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because major war may become more likely if there are no ships to conduct the first distinct service President Monroe enumerated.

While the Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower says all the right things, the Battle Force isn’t built for that strategy. It is only built for one half of our navy’s job. It has mobility and the flexibility to engage multiple targets, but more and more often it lacks true adaptability to do more than just put warheads on foreheads, or threaten it. As the Battle Force shores up its control of the Navy the ability to adapt to smaller contingencies, work in contested waters that are not yet in kinetic conflict, or engage non-state actors and build partnerships becomes harder and harder. Yet these are all the things needed to help avert war, and so actual war at sea becomes more likely, and the Battle Force continues to become stronger.

Naval thinkers from Mahan to Corbett to Zumwalt to Hughes have discussed the importance of having a balanced fleet. High/low mix, Streetfighter, or Influence Squadrons are just other ways to talk about a balanced fleet which is capable of the “regular” major combat operations and fleet engagements as well as the “irregular” maritime security operations and partnership/diplomatic development. Mahan wrote that his own thinking and writing provided a solid foundation to move on to the writing of Sir Julian Corbett, the British navalist who told us that “in no case can we exercise control by battleships alone.” Today’s networked Battle Force is impressive and powerful. As Mahan wrote, it is the starting point for a properly constructed naval force. But the question is…does a powerful battle-fleet alone provide the Navy we need to face the turbulent seas of the 21st century?



Russian Torpedo Boat circa 1897.

“There is, at all events, no perplexity exceeding that with which men of former times haven’t dealt successfully.”
- CAPT Alfred Thayer Mahan

Back in 2003 Dr. Andrew Krepinevich, Barry Watts and Bob Work (now the Under Secretary of the Navy) coined the term “A2AD,” for the growing Anti-Access, Area Denial threat posed by the proliferation of long range missiles systems, precision munitions, and satellite technology that will make operations in the littorals more challenging for 21st century naval forces. They were right when they wrote that ignoring the threat “appears to be a huge gamble and one that neither prudence nor history could recommend with much confidence.” The challenge of A2AD spreads from the shores of the Arabian Gulf to the South China Sea and beyond with players like Iran, China, and North Korea continuing to develop and spread the capabilities and technologies like the C-802 anti-ship missile and FAC’s like the Chinese Houbei that has come to symbolize part of the threat.

While it is cast as a threat based on rapidly modernizing, high technology weapons the A2AD threat is actually nothing new in the annals of naval history. Despite the description of certain technologies, like the Chinese DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, as “game changing” and “revolutionary” there are still basic principles of naval strategy and tactics that apply to these weapons. At the turn of the last century the United States and the naval powers of the world faced a similar challenge. Modern technology was advancing weapons systems and making it harder for naval forces to get close to the enemy’s shores. The eminent naval strategist and historian Alfred Thayer Mahan (ATM) wrote on the subject, and offered some thoughts that may be worth considering as the world once again faces A2AD challenges.

In 1911 ATM published the lectures he originally gave at the United States Naval War College in the decade leading up to the start of the 20th century as the book Naval Strategy: Compared and Contrasted with the Principles and Practice of Military Operations on Land. In it he discussed the A2AD threat which developed after he gave his original lectures. “It seems appropriate here to mention, if only incidentally, certain changes in the weapons with which war is waged,” he wrote, continuing “the progress of the submarine, the immensely increased range of the automobile torpedo, and the invention of wireless telegraphy,” were significant changes to the technology of naval warfare. According to ATM the introduction of these new weapons would have an important impact on the development of naval tactics, however, “these consequences will not change the principles of strategy,” which apply to naval warfare.

In his essay “Considerations Governing the Disposition of Navies,” published in May of 1902, ATM also discussed torpedo boats and “the added range of coast guns, which keeps scouts at a much greater distance than formerly, and the impossibility now of detecting intentions which once might be inferred from the conditions of masts and sails.” However, ATM’s continued discussion reminds us that the technologies which make A2AD a challenge are not exclusive of one side in the fight. He says that “on the other hand the sphere of effectiveness has been immensely increased for the scout by the power to move at will, and latterly by the wireless telegraph.” Today there are differences of distances, stand-off ranges, and communications and ISR, but these are the same issues faced over a century ago.

ATM made some suggestions on the tactical and operational level to approach the A2AD threats of his day. He suggested that by taking advantage of high speed and large numbers, “it should be possible to sweep the surroundings of any port so thoroughly as to make the chance of undetected escape very small, while the transmission of the essential facts – the enemy’s force and the direction taken – is even more certain than detection.” Today ATM might call for numerous and inexpensive unmanned systems to work the near shore and scout deep inside the enemy’s coastal WEZ.

Despite the fact many strategy and history students are taught ATM only cared about big guns and battleships, in his concept of the modern fleet which would face the early 20th century A2AD threat ATM wrote “the vessels nearest in are individually so small that the loss of one by torpedo is militarily immaterial; moreover, the chances will by no means all be with the torpedo boat.” After calling for small combatants which can take the fight in close in search of the torpedo boats, while assuming some individual risk, ATM suggested that a group of cruisers sail further out from the enemy’s A2AD threat range. The cruisers are able to sprint to the support of the smaller ships if needed but also able to discover other enemy concentrations, or fall back to support the main battle fleet. ATM pointed out that the main battle fleet has great freedom to maneuver. He said the main force of the fleet can be hundreds of miles away, connected to the scouts, small combatants, and cruisers by wireless and “in a different position every night, [it] is as safe from torpedo attack as ingenuity can place it.” The point is as valid today as it was at the dawn of the last century. The ocean is a large expanse and in order for the enemy to attack, he has to be able to find you. Even satellite surveillance and broad area ISR can only cover a portion of the maritime domain.

ATM believed there was nothing about the early 20th century A2AD threat that fundamentally changed the way naval strategy was developed, or how naval wars were led. There would be changes to tactics, and the requisite adjustments to operational planning that those changes required. He also made the point that a properly balanced Navy, with small combatants, cruisers, and the main battle fleet was required for success in any naval conflict. However, at its heart countering A2AD is more about applying the intellectual rigor to overcome the time, distance, speed differences than it is about fundamental changes to naval strategy; as ATM wrote “war is a business of positions.” In the end, naval commanders must also remember it takes two to have a fight, and the idea is to ensure the enemy is dealing with as many, or more challenges, than you are. You threaten him too and as ATM wrote, “These probabilities, known to the enemy, affect his actions just as one’s own risks move one’s self.”



Dr. James Holmes, a USNI Member and author of both articles and books at the Institute, has a series of posts over at his blog The Naval Diplomat about the strategic thinking of Colonel John Boyd and strategy in East Asia. As an occasional student of Boyd’s work, I always love reading thinkers who use his ideas to attack today’s challenges. Aviators are all aware of Boyd’s work because to this day we study the Energy/Maneuverability diagrams for our aircraft (which he discovered and first mapped as a Major) and those of our opponents to learn how to get the most out of our airframes. As Holmes outlines, Boyd is also the father of the OODA Loop, sometimes called The Boyd Loop. Starting at the tactical level, but also moving through the operational to the strategic, Boyd identified four phases that occur in any competition: Observe, Orient, Decide, Act.

Many people who have studied Boyd’s work focus on the speed element. Speed plays an important role in his thinking. He focuses on “fast transients” in a lot of his work, or the ability to move through the loop faster than your adversary. He suggests that success comes with the ability to change directions or adapt most quickly. The element of speed draws a lot of people in, from business strategists and writers to military strategists who suggest that out-speeding your opponent will result in a shock to their system that can end fighting quickly. However, this focus ignores an important question: Can you speed in the wrong direction?

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The discussion of junior leader innovation has slowed as of late, in a post-NWDC conference deep breath. One of the regular criticisms levied at LT Ben Kohlmann, LT Rob McFall, and others who have written about the need for disruptive thinking and junior officer innovation is that this is a case of “same old, same old.” In particular, every generation of junior officers has angst and feels that the system is out of balance. According to the critics it is simply the result of the military’s hierarchical organization and structure and there’s nothing to worry about.

History proves part of this observation correct. MAJ Pete Munson at Small Wars Journal has highlighted the USAF’s “Dear Boss” letters in an illustration from the 1970’s. In the 1950’s Proceedings printed LCOL Robert Heinl’s classic “Special Trust and Confidence” which discussed the issues of trust between junior and senior officers in the Marine Corps. Reminiscent of BGEN Arnold’s recent article “Don’t Promote Mediocrity,” in the first two decades of the 20th century Proceedings published a series of articles from junior leaders debating the promotion system and discussing the need for selection boards to pick the officers who were to promote, rather than using a simple system of seniority.

The question becomes, does the JO angst matter? With the long history of generational conflicts, should we even care? The answer is yes. The history demonstrates that there are many times when the issues raised by junior leaders can have an impact on the military’s ability to fight and win the nation’s wars. I’ll share two brief examples.

Read the rest of this entry »



This is the final installment in my series of posts on William Sims and what his discovery and development of continuous aim fire a century ago can tell us about junior leaders and innovation. They are part of the remarks that I delivered at NWDC’s Junior Leader Innovation Symposium.

PREVIOUS:

 A Junior Officer and a Discovery.

The Gritty Truth of Junior Leader Innovation 

Years after serving as the Navy’s Inspector of Target Practice, as World War I raged, Rear Admiral William Sims was sent to England to command all U.S. Naval Forces based there. Promoted to Vice Admiral, he arrived as the U-boat Wolfpacks of the German Navy were decimating the supply lines across the Atlantic. The British Isles were on the verge of starvation. The Royal Navy had been completely ineffective against the German submarines as they massed their battleships to take on the German Imperial Navy’s High Seas Fleet.

When Admiral Sims arrived he was approached by a group of young Lieutenants who brought him an idea which the Royal Navy had refused to implement. These Lieutenants were the Commanding Officers of a new class of warship called a Destroyer, and they believed that working together they could convoy supplies across the Atlantic and take on the Wolfpacks, swarm against swarm. The Royal Navy’s Admiralty refused to adopt the new tactics. Sims requested more destroyers from the States, and told the Royal Navy that the US would help out if they tried the young JO’s ideas.

The convoy system showed results almost immediately. The convoys were so successful and so vital to the war effort that Sims – the very definition of a Battleship Admiral – cabled back to Washington and told the Department of the Navy to stop building Battleships and put all shipbuilding into Destroyers … all because he listened to a group of Junior Leaders with a good idea.

After the war was over, Sims took over as the President of The Naval War College. He made adjustments to the curriculum and he started running officers through war games. These war games included early work on a war plan that could be used for a conflict in the Pacific. The work that Sims started on the Pacific plan, which became War Plan Orange, suggested that the U.S. Navy should look into investing in a new kind of ship … the aircraft carrier. The Battleship Admiral, who championed Destroyers because of the tactical and operational innovation of junior leaders, turned to the birth of naval aviation because of the ideas of his subordinates at the War College. The Milwaukee Journal wrote that Sims “continued to be a thorn in the fat flesh of the naval hierarchy during his entire career.”

What can we learn from this story?

First, you have to know where your expertise lies. You have to study, and do the deep research needed to understand why things are the way they are. You have to understand that you don’t know everything, and like Sims working with his wardroom mates and his gunner’s mates, you have to work to identify challenges and problems. It’s important to admit that you don’t know everything. Once you admit it, start learning as much as you can. Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote, “The study of history lies at foundation of all sound military conclusions and practices.” The key element in his principle is that we have to study and develop our expertise.

Find a way to talk about your idea. Take Sims’ warning to heart though and don’t be insubordinate, don’t write a letter to the President (it’s probably not going to get you anywhere today anyway). However, you need to engage both inside the system and outside the system. Inside the Navy and the Military you have NWDC concept development. You have SUBFOR’s TANG that we heard about from VADM Richardson earlier. And we have some of the resources that Dr. Fall from ONR described. You also have your chain of command. You can submit changes to TTP’s and manuals, NATOPS changes, or write white papers to submit up the chain. Outside of the lifelines there are also options. Write an article for USNI’s Proceedings or write up your idea for one of the online publications like USNI Blog, Small Wars Journal, Information Dissemination, or the Next War Blog at the Center for International Maritime Security. We can also engage with the community professional organizations like Naval Helicopter Association, Tailhook, or the Surface Navy Association.

Third, find something you believe in and demonstrate your own grit. You have to want to do this. This isn’t a fast or sure way to a fitrep or an eval bullet. This isn’t necessarily going to get you another ribbon for your chest candy. This is for the combat effectiveness of the Service. This is about professionalism. You have to be willing to spend 2 years writing 13 reports that everyone appears to be ignoring. You have to be willing to invest the time and energy and hard work needed to see your idea through. Christopher Hitchens wrote in his book Letters to a Young Contrarian, “Don’t expect to be thanked, by the way, the life of an oppositionist is supposed to be difficult.”

Finally, we all need to learn to listen. This is especially true as we become more senior. Today we may be the junior leaders, but that means tomorrow some of us will be the mid-grade leaders, and in the future some of us will be the senior leaders of the Navy. Sims is proof that when you remember it’s not about you but instead it’s about the idea and about the Service, you can continue to innovate as you are promoted. However, as a senior officer or senior enlisted it takes more listening and more encouraging of your subordinates, because they’re likely to have the next great idea…like convoys or aircraft carriers. Having senior leaders that listen, and who become the champions of the great ideas of their subordinates, is just as vital as having junior personnel with innovative ideas.

There’s a reason why the title of my last slide says “Lessons Observed.” These lessons are just ideas that I’ve pulled from this story. William Sims offers us all a great example to learn from. However, whether or not these observations actually become lessons learned … that’s up to you.

The author would like to thank VADM Daly, Bill Miller, and Mary Ripley from USNI for encouraging his involvement with the NWDC conference.



This is the second installment in my series of posts on William Sims and what his discovery and development of continuous aim fire a century ago can tell us about junior leaders and innovation. They are part of the remarks that I delivered at NWDC’s Junior Leader Innovation Symposium.

PREVIOUS: A Junior Officer and a Discovery.

Recently Jonah Lehrer, a writer for Wired and other magazines, wrote a book about the developing field of science that studies creativity and innovation titled Imagine: How Creativity Works. In his book, Lehrer tells us that researchers have “discovered that the ability to stick with it – the technical name for this trait is grit – is one of the most important predictors of success.” Whether talking about Bob Dylan taking years to get a song just right in order for it to become a classic, or J.K. Rowling sending her kids book about a wizard school to 12 publishers before it was accepted and we all got to read Harry Potter, that tenacity, never-give-up, never-say-die attitude is necessary for true creative or innovative success.

Lieutenant William Sims had plenty of grit. Even though he had heard nothing from Washington he continued to write reports to the Bureau, updating his findings, refining the techniques, and suggesting new tactics that could be developed. He still heard no response. Sims knew what was happening…he knew that the Bureau was ignoring him because he was simply a Lieutenant, and one that was deployed at that. He wasn’t even an expert on the Bureau’s staff. Sims wrote to a friend and fellow officer:

“With every fibre of my being I loathe indirection and shiftiness, and where it occurs in high place, and is used to save face at the expense of the vital interests of our great service (in which silly people place such a child-like trust), I want that man’s blood and I will have it no matter what it costs me personally.”

While Sims respected those who were senior to him, rank alone didn’t seem to impress him. Navy Staffs that stood on bureaucracy and focused on building bullets for their own fitness reports over the combat effectiveness of operating forces were his enemy. He apparently felt pretty strongly about it.

I’d say that Sims certainly had true grit in this case. He continued writing reports. However, his language became more dramatic as he pointed out the risks involved in ignoring the TTP’s he was developing. Besides sending his reports to the Bureau he began to send them to battleship Captains across the Fleet, on his own initiative. He got his Commanding Officer to endorse the reports, and the Admiral who headed the Asiatic Squadron on China Station. They had seen TERRIBLE and KENTUCKY in action and couldn’t deny the success.

As word spread in the Fleet the Bureau realized that they needed to do something. Captains were writing messages back to headquarters and asking questions. They developed a test to prove that continuous-aim-fire didn’t work. After the test, they wrote a report that said Sims’ claims were a mathematical impossibility. However, they conducted the test without making the modifications Sims suggested to the guns, and they completed the test on land…for a gunnery practice designed for a rolling ship. The Bureau of Ordnance submitted their report that continuous-aim-fire was impossible. Belief in Sims’ claims evaporated overnight.

Sims had submitted 13 reports in all, over the span of two years, each one continually improving his method and technique. When he heard that the Bureau of Ordnance had completed a test and proved that what he claimed was impossible, he finally had enough. He knew that if the United States Navy went up against a force that was using continuous aim fire it would be decimated. Destruction of the fleet would open up the U.S. coast to invasion, as the Brits had done in the War of 1812 (a war that was roughly as distant to him as World War I is to us). He believed that the nation’s security depended on his success.

Lieutenant William Sims did something that he later characterized as “the rankest kind of insubordination.” He wrote a letter to the President.

President Roosevelt had been Assistant Secretary of the Navy Roosevelt. He was a navalist in the truest sense of the word. He was the author of the seminal work “The Naval War of 1812” and friends with Alfred Thayer Mahan. He would become the inventor and deployer of The Great White Fleet. As Presidents sometimes did a century ago, he actually read the letter that the young Lieutenant on China Station sent him, and he was shocked. If Sims was right and continuous-aim-fire worked, then he was also right that it was an issue of the highest importance.

Roosevelt had ordered a gunnery exercise in order to demonstrate the existing state of naval skill. The results were worse than anyone predicted. Five ships from the Atlantic Fleet each fired for five minutes at a former light-ship, at a range of about a mile. After 25 minutes of firing, two shells had gone through the light-ship’s sails and none had struck the ship itself. Roosevelt ordered the Navy to bring Sims back from China Station, saying: “Give him entire charge of target practice for eighteen months; do exactly as he says. If he does not accomplish anything in that time, cut off his head and try someone else.”

Lieutenant Sims returned to the United States and assumed the responsibilities of the U.S. Navy’s “Inspector of Target Practice.” He held the position for six and a half years. He was given a small staff of two junior Lieutenants and was tasked with revolutionizing naval gunnery. Three Lieutenants, change the world…no sweat.

Sims re-circulated his reports to the Fleet and instituted annual practice requirements for gunnery. He didn’t make his method of continuous aim fire mandatory, he simply sent out the reports for gunnery officers to read. He established a yearly fleet wide gunnery competition. Every ship in the Navy would compete, and could use any system or technique that they wanted. They were all welcome to start with continuous aim fire. The winning ship would be identified to the Navy and the country, and the winning gunnery officer was responsible for writing a report on his TTPs. Each year, the gunnery officers across the Fleet would pour over that report, and the reports that came before, and make constant refinements and adjustments to gunnery TTP’s. They sent out their own reports out and wrote articles for the Naval Institute’s place for disruptive thinking, the journal Proceedings.The winning ship each year received a pennant that they could fly on their yardarm, a pennant with an E on it for gunnery excellence. This was the birth of “The Battle E.”

Sims was promoted to Lieutenant Commander, and he and his assistants Lieutenants Ridley McLean and Powers Symington were in constant demand to visit the ships of the Fleet. Here you can see an invitation to “The Gun Doctor” and his assistant’s “Ping” and “Pong” to visit the wardroom of the USS Missouri for a “silent dinner,” which was like a Dining-In, with rules like Vegas: what happened at a silent dinner stayed at a silent dinner.Toward the end of Sims’ years leading the gunnery revolution, one gunner on the winning ship made fifteen hits in one minute at a target 75 by 25 feet at the same range as the test ordered by President Roosevelt years before; half of the hits were in a bull’s eye 50 inches square.

The US Navy rapidly overtook the Royal Navy as the greatest gunners in the world…and it wasn’t until the US adopted continuous-aim-fire that the Brits realized that their own Gritty revolutionary Percy Scott had been onto something all that time, and they followed the American TTPs that had been developed from watching Scott. Even Admiral Newton Mason, the Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance, admitted “The renaissance in gunnery which came about chiefly through the instrumentality of Commander Sims, has … led to great improvements in ordnance.” In the Fleet Lieutenant Commander Sims became known as “the man who taught us how to shoot.”

NEXT: Expertise, Voice, Grit, and Listening…A Look At The Possible.



On 6 June, I was invited to speak at Navy Warfare Development Command’s Junior Leaders Innovation Symposium. NWDC put on a great event and a lot of good material was presented. You can visit the website and find the slides that went with the presentations, as well as a lot of great reading material like LT Ben Kohlmann’s article on Disruptive Thinkers from Small Wars Journal (Ben also presented) and LT Rob McFall’s call for tactical innovation here at USNI Blog (Rob also spoke immediately following my presentation).

The following is the first section of the remarks that I prepared to deliver to a standing room only crowd of 230+ Junior Officers and Junior Enlisted which gathered at NWDC’s headquarters in Norfolk, and the 200+ that joined us online via DCO. As I said, these are my prepared remarks, so if NWDC posts the video online you’ll surely find differences since I worked from notes rather than reading directly from the page as well as some mistakes. I’ve broken the material into three blog posts. This is the first section which tells about Lieutenant William Sowden Sims’ discovery of continuous aim fire and how he developed his discovery, a new gunnery technique which revolutionized naval warfare. The next post we’ll look at what he did after developing his idea in order to get the Navy to adopt it. Finally we’ll look at what Sims learned during his career about innovation and what we can observe from the history. 

Good afternoon everyone. I’d like to start this afternoon by thanking Admiral Kraft and the team here at NWDC for inviting me to be a part of today’s event. We’ve had a lot of interesting speakers this morning, full of experience and expertise in innovation. I’m not going to be one of them. I’m just here to tell you a story. I’m a Sailor just like you, maybe not as young as some of you anymore, but with the same desire to make my Service better and more effective. The only reason I’m up here is that I’ve done a little research and I’ve got a story to tell you about a Junior Leader who changed the USN from his stateroom on a ship while deployed in the Pacific.

This is a picture of Vice Admiral William Sowden Sims. William Sims wasn’t always a Vice Admiral though. In 1900 he was a Lieutenant, fresh off staff duty in Europe as an intelligence officer. He had orders to China Station to join the U.S. Navy’s newest and most powerful battleship, the USS KENTUCKY. He arrived aboard the battleship having studied the early Dreadnaught battleships of Europe and the gunnery practices of both potential allies and potential adversaries alike.

Sims checked onboard and discovered that the Navy’s “newest and most powerful” may have been new, but it certainly wasn’t powerful. There were a number of problems with the ship. The hull was armored under the waterline, but the sides and gun turrets were open and un-protected. The gundecks were so low to the waterline that when the ship was fully loaded and took heavy seas water would pour into the turrets. And there was no separation of the magazines and the weatherdecks and gundecks, so a hit from an enemy shell could directly access the magazines.

Sims was incensed. He set about recording the deficiencies. In a letter to a friend he wrote: “The Kentucky is not a battleship at all. She is the worst crime in naval construction ever perpetrated by the white race.” 

Sims was a man who had strong opinions. However, he was part of KENTUCKY’S crew, and he couldn’t really change the design of the ship while they were on China Station. So, as he earned his qualifications and began standing his bridge watches, he looked for a way to make the ship better through what today we call tactics, techniques, and procedures or TTP. It was while steaming through the South China Sea and along the coastal cities of China that he met a man from the British Royal Navy who would serve as an inspiration.

Percy Scott was a Captain in 1900, and the CO of the HMS TERRIBLE. Scott was a bit of a pariah, and part of the reason he was on China Station was because of a longstanding feud that he had with an Admiral who was on shore duty back in the home islands. China was as far away from England as they could send him. Scott had developed something that he called “continuous aim fire” and it was a TTP that would revolutionize naval warfare, but he couldn’t get anyone to catch on that it was important.

Gunnery hadn’t changed much since the days of USS Constitution battling it out with the British frigates in the War of 1812. The gun director would estimate the distance to the enemy ship, set the elevation of the gun, and then each time the ship rolled he tried to time the firing so that the shell would hit the enemy. The technique was the reason why most sea battles in the age of sail took place at very close range. This was neither a very accurate way to shoot, nor a very rapid way to engage the enemy.

Scott re-geared the elevation gear on his heavy guns and added new telescopic sights. The new gearing allowed the gun directors to move the gun continually as the ship rolled, and the new sights allowed them to keep the weapon aimed directly at the enemy ship. This meant that gun crews could fire as fast as they could reload.

Aboard KENTUCKY, LT Sims watched the TERRIBLE conduct gunnery practice and he realized this new technique would change naval warfare. A battleship using continuous aim fire could take on an entire squadron of enemy that wasn’t. Accuracy increased dramatically and the rate of fire could quadruple, which resulted in hit rates that increased over 1000% on some ships. Sims immediately sent a report back to the Bureau of Ordnance in Washington, D.C.

Sims befriended Scott, and learned exactly how the Brits were accomplishing their dramatic results. He set about modifying the gear on KENTUCKY and teaching his gunners the new techniques. Soon, KENTUCKY was performing nearly at the same level as TERRIBLE. Sims wrote another report, detailing KENTUCKY’s experience with continuous aim fire, outlining how to modify American guns, and laying out the procedures to be used. Sims waited. And he waited. And he waited. He heard nothing.

His reports arrived at the Bureau of Ordnance at the Washington Navy Yard. They were read, but the claims of the young Lieutenant out on China Station were outlandish and unbelievable. The reports were filed away in a basement file cabinet and were forgotten. The Bureau of Ordnance had developed the procedures that were in use throughout the Fleet and had designed the guns that were mounted on American Battleships. American hardware and American Sailors were the best in the world, they told themselves. Nobody even considered “what if” the reports were true…they simply couldn’t be. Silly Lieutenant.

NEXT: The Gritty Truth of Junior Leader Innovation



In the days of the ancient navalists Themistocles and Pericles, men with an interest in naval affairs and national defense surely would have frequented the Agora with their fellow Athenians. To discuss the specifics related to war upon the sea, however, they gathered in small groups in the alleys around the Neosoikoi , the massive ship-sheds that lined the seawalls at Pireaus. With triremes and the equipment of ancient naval warfare stored nearby, they would have discussed everything from the importance of finding a skilled steersman for their vessels to the strategic implications of Spartan and Persian foreign policy.

Today there are a number of virtual online areas that surround our modern Neosoikoi, from USNI’s online offerings to the naval blogosphere’s established writers and other growing thought centers. However, one of the great things about being a member of the Naval Institute is that the organization can still bring people together physically to meet and discuss our shared naval interests, just as the Athenians did centuries ago.

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As the US military faces an “austere budget environment” in the coming years, senior officers have been quick to trot out the Winston Churchill’s quote “Gentlemen, we have run out of money, now we have to think.” It appears to be a line appropriate to today’s challenges. However, the fact that senior leadership has latched on to this quote is disturbing, primarily because it begs the question: “what exactly have we been doing for the past twenty five years?”

Military affairs, and the conduct of war, are a thinking man’s profession. Brute force, attrition strategies, and the reality of death and destruction is, and will always be, a central part of the military profession. But to use another Winston Churchill quote, “Battles are won by slaughter and maneuver. The greater the general, the more he contributes in maneuver, the less he demands in slaughter.” Thinking does and always has mattered in the conduct of war.

This past week Lieutenant Ben Kohlmann, an F/A-18 driver from the West Coast, wrote an article entitled “The Military Needs More Disruptive Thinkers” for Small Wars Journal that has garnered attention. MAJ Peter Munson and the beloved Superhero-of-Sanity Doctrine Man, and the comment sections in a number of blogs, have added to the debate. The discussion of “disruptive thinkers” and the apparent embrace of “thinking” by today’s senior leaders appears to be a natural combination. But that’s not necessarily the case.

There are places and people that have a long tradition of creative thinking, problem solving, and innovation. A great deal of military innovation throughout history has come from junior and mid-grade officers. LCDR Claude Berube has documented the Naval Institute’s history of junior officer innovation and the rise of the Institute from a small group of officers on shore duty to a pre-eminent thought center. There is a movement within USNI that is growing to bring JO’s and mid-grade Officers back to the pages of Proceedings with their innovative thoughts. This is important, but not enough by itself.

Ben Kohlmann brings up some very interesting points in his essay on “disruptive thinking.” I wholeheartedly agree with the overarching thesis of his piece: that the military services need to be more open to new ideas and need to figure out how to educate officers in critical thinking and innovation. However, there are a few areas where I differ with his details. Personally, I think the U.S. Navy’s focus on providing our officers graduate education in the field of business (MBA’s) and engineering rather than subjects like history, political science, and other social science fields is a net negative for our service. Most MBA curricula don’t really focus on innovation and new ideas, instead they teach number crunching and bureaucratic organization. Steve Jobs, used by Ben as an example in his essay, was a great innovator…he dropped out of college, never mind getting a graduate degree from any of the schools Ben suggests. Alfred Thayer Mahan warned us to “avoid the administrative mindset” and I don’t know that a Navy filled with people who have mastered business administration really makes us better or more innovative warfighters. Ben is 100% right, however, when he points out that we should be encouraging interaction between our officer corps and thought leaders from other fields, I just don’t believe the business field is the one we should be focusing on.

I also think that Ben is catching some flak for his use of the term “disruptive.” I think we all know why. We’ve had them in our ready rooms or wardrooms, that “disruptive JO” who constantly mouths off about what he or she hates but never has a constructive idea to attempt to solve the problem. Disruptive behavior doesn’t exactly sound military, and by itself it doesn’t give us innovation or solutions.

Disruptive thinking is, however, the starting point. We need critical thinking that starts with new ideas and we need to develop those into innovative solutions that are researched and workable. Just pointing out problems doesn’t get us anywhere. John Boyd, another great example from Ben’s essay, always did his homework and knew exactly what the staff-pukes were going to ask at the end of his briefs. Their questions were usually intended to try and derail him or embarrass him. But, he used his research to set traps for them, using their own questions and lack of homework against them to help push his ideas through the Pentagon bureaucracy. He wasn’t just disruptive, he had the research done in advance and the solutions ready which made him unstoppable.

So where do we go from here, whether we’re talking about disruptive thinking or contrarian ideas? First, we need to know what we’re getting ourselves into. John Boyd never commanded a fighter squadron, he made too many enemies to survive a selection board. Then again, ADM James Stavridis has had a career which has taken him to the pinnacle of the naval profession. If you’re going to be disruptive or you’re going to put your ideas out there, you have to do it aware of the risks and possible feedback. But, if you’re already that kind of person then you probably agree with Mahan that “failure to dare is often to run the greatest of risks.”

Second, we need to develop our ideas properly and do our homework. This includes figuring out how to best introduce them. Writing for professional journals is frequently a great way to launch innovative ideas and solutions. Whether we’re talking about traditional journals like Proceedings or new online mediums like Small Wars Journal or USNI Blog, discussion of a new idea can start quickly once you summon the courage to publish it (just look at the debates swirling around Ben’s article on social media sites). In 2008 Proceedings had a pair of articles that help give us some guidance. ADM Stavridis’ article “Dare to Read, Think, Write, and PUBLISH” charts a course for us, or at least gives us a point to begin our own dead reckoning. The process of writing should help us develop our ideas and force the right research to defend them. Captain William Toti followed a few issues later with “Write with Your Eyes Wide Open,” which helps develop our sense of the I&W as we enter the battlefield of ideas.

Third, and finally, we need senior leaders who believe what they are preaching. If we are going to “start thinking” what that really means is that leadership has to “start listening.” General George Patton once said that “If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking.” For over two hundred years Sailors have been offering new ideas, whether we’re talking about Sailors figuring out how to repair their systems instead of using contractors at the turn of this century or a young William Sims fighting his superiors to improve gunnery practices at the turn of the last century. Ideas are already out there and leaders need to encourage them to develop, while at the same time growing new thinkers and ideas. The question isn’t whether or not we need to start thinking, the question is whether or not the decision makers are willing to listen, and willing to help. As General Mattis once told a group of officers, “Take the mavericks in your service, the ones that wear rumpled uniforms and look like a bag of mud but whose ideas are so offsetting that they actually upset the people in the bureaucracy. One of your primary jobs is to take the risk and protect these people, because if they are not nurtured in your service, the enemy will bring their contrary ideas to you.”



Recently a string of new policies and programs have washed over the decks of our Navy. We’re told they are designed to address everything from the surge in CO firings, to alcohol abuse, to the identified need to increase “diversity.” Training, trackers, new layers of bureaucratic offices, and new ways of testing/identifying the “bad apples” are all in the works. Some of the initiatives appear more connected to reality than others. The issues, like sexual assault and substance abuse, are serious and are challenges that our Navy should be addressing. In many cases, however, we are attempting to install programmatic and bureaucratic solutions to what are essentially humanistic problems. These are problems of leadership, character, and integrity and must be addressed with wisdom as much as programs and bureaucracy.

In 2009, at the annual TED conference Professor Barry Schwartz gave a talk entitled “Our Loss of Wisdom.” In it he discussed the risks involved with programmatic responses to human problems and warned about the dangers of bureaucratic solutions. He pointed out that most bureaucracies immediately knee jerk to two possible solutions: more rules and “smarter” incentives. But many times these regulations cause people to think about doing things they wouldn’t have considered before, and incentives cause people to ask themselves “what can I get for it” rather than “what is right.” In thinking about many of our new policies, I couldn’t help but make connections between our challenges, our Navy’s responses to those challenges, and the points Dr. Schwartz makes in the following video of the presentation. Read the rest of this entry »



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