Author Archive


Leaning in Together

September 2015


If you look up the word “equalist” in Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, you will not find it. As I write this article, the word is underlined in red squiggles which, interestingly, not only highlights its grammatical inaccuracy, but also its significance on the page. Urban Dictionary defines the word as “one who defends the rights of all, without discriminating against the opposition’s rights.” I look at myself and see an equalist. I also see a First Lieutenant in the US Marine Corps, a leader in my local community, a lover of people, and a woman.

I do not need to ask my fellow women military personnel—of any rank—if they too describe themselves as equalists. I know the answer. These women desire one thing in their personal and professional lives: equal opportunity to show their talents and pursue their goals. While these goals and talents are as diverse as those of the male military personnel, they also represent the beautiful individuality of the women who make up less than 15% of the armed forces. We do not want to be given a “hand;” we do not want to meet anything less than the standard; and, we do not want to discriminate against anyone else in the pursuit of our own success and happiness. We just want the same chance.stokes usni2

In our effort to succeed in our military work life, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead has become one of our great guidebooks. Without a hint of feminist rant or cliché, Ms. Sandberg nails it. With intuitive understanding of the way women see themselves generally, she identifies what has held us back from becoming the fine leaders we can be, and then provides a nice roadmap for demolishing our own “glass ceilings” and getting there – even in that tritely termed “man’s world.”

The phenomenal success of the Lean In philosophy has been subsequently embodied in the “Lean In Circle,” developed in recognition of the reality that life’s challenges are more eagerly and effectively faced when we have support, rather than “going it alone.”

The Lean In Circle is becoming an increasingly valuable mentoring program for the military because of the well-known challenges that have faced women in this choice of career. These groups offer young women – and men as well – an opportunity to get together and talk. In these forums, the new generation of women military personnel meet with more senior women that have experienced the same doubts and obstacles. Insecurities can be discussed without fear of judgment, and strategies developed for personal success.

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. Lean In Circles are popping up on military bases around the world, both in garrison and deployed. Even the academies are getting in on a good thing. My alma mater, the U.S. Naval Academy, now has eight Lean In Circles, and circles are in place at the US Air Force Academy, and the US Military Academy.

One of the most notable side effects of leaning in is the way military women are more likely to actively seek and absorb inspiration in our daily lives, even beyond the circle. For example, I recently attended a conference to recognize the “Report on the Status of Women and Girls in California,” published by Mount Saint Mary’s University. The acclaimed actress, Geena Davis, founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media, said something I now try to live by as I lean in: “If you can see it, you can be it.” Applying this model to the military, I believe that if you can meet it, you can believe it!

While I know it will not happen overnight, in the short 20-year span that I have experienced the military, first from the perspective of the daughter of a Marine Captain and sister of a Marine mortar man, to my own first-hand experiences as a Marine Officer, I have seen the Marine Corps – and other services as well – make strides toward eliminating gender bias and promoting a more equal playing field. For example, the Marine Corps has indicated its policy commitment to better representation of women among its top leadership – the current number of women Lieutenant Colonels and above is not nearly acceptable, and I am confident that this will one day change.

Thus, it appears to me that, while women in the military are leaning in toward a better future for themselves and their families, the military is making an effort to lean in as well, and needs to continue on this path. If we are going to work toward an environment free of gender bias – where Marines are Marines and not labeled as female or male first – then we junior women must take responsibility to seek mentorship from our leaders. This includes not only our “older and wiser” female leaders, but also our male leaders, whose unique perspective can be most valuable. And, those leaders must feel charged to share their own experiences and advice with the goal of success for all.

We know that formal policy changes and implementation of mentoring programs will not alone solve the issue of gender inequality within the armed forces. But, they are a great start. These efforts, coupled with the passionate support of top commanders, down to most junior enlisted, will eventually result in a military culture that recognizes the unique value women bring to the force. Women will then embrace the opportunities they feel they lack now, and women representation in the armed forces will rise.

Imagine what the US military will look like when we all lean in together.

suni williams USNI blog

NASA astronaut Sunita Williams, Expedition 32 flight engineer, appears to touch the bright sun during the mission’s third session of extravehicular activity (EVA) on Sept. 5, 2012.

During the six-hour, 28-minute spacewalk, Williams and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Aki Hoshide (visible in the reflections of Williams’ helmet visor), flight engineer, completed the installation of a Main Bus Switching Unit (MBSU) that was hampered by a possible misalignment and damaged threads where a bolt must be placed. They also installed a camera on the International Space Station’s robotic arm, Canadarm2.

Image Credit: NASA


Sunita Williams

Williams received her commission as an Ensign in the United States Navy from the United States Naval Academy in May 1987. After a six-month temporary assignment at the Naval Coastal System Command, she received her designation as a Basic Diving Officer and then reported to Naval Aviation Training Command. She was designated a Naval Aviator in July 1989. She then reported to Helicopter Combat Support Squadron 3 for initial H46, Seaknight, training. Upon completion of this training, she was assigned to Helicopter Combat Support Squadron 8 in Norfolk, Virginia, and made overseas deployments to the Mediterranean, Red Sea and the Persian Gulf in support of Desert Shield and Operation Provide Comfort. In September 1992, she was the Officer-in-Charge of an H-46 detachment sent to Miami, Florida for Hurricane Andrew Relief Operations onboard USS Sylvania. Williams was selected for United States Naval Test Pilot School and began the course in January 1993. After graduation in December 1993, she was assigned to the Rotary Wing Aircraft Test Directorate as an H-46 Project Officer, and V-22 Chase Pilot in the T-2. While there, she was also assigned as the squadron Safety Officer and flew test flights in the SH-60B/F, UH-1, AH-1W, SH-2, VH-3, H-46, CH-53 and the H-57. In December 1995, she went back to the Naval Test Pilot School as an Instructor in the Rotary Wing Department and the school’s Safety Officer where she flew the UH-60, OH-6 and the OH-58. From there, she was assigned to the USS Saipan (LHA-2), Norfolk, Virginia, as the Aircraft Handler and the Assistant Air Boss. Williams was deployed onboard USS Saipan when she was selected for the astronaut program.

She has logged more than 3000 flight hours in over 30 different aircraft.

NASA EXPERIENCE: Selected by NASA in June 1998, she reported for training in August 1998. Astronaut Candidate Training included orientation briefings and tours, numerous scientific and technical briefings, intensive instruction in shuttle and International Space Station systems, physiological training and ground school to prepare for T-38 flight training, as well as learning water and wilderness survival techniques. Following a period of training and evaluation, Williams worked in Moscow with the Russian Space Agency on the Russian contribution to the space station and with the first Expedition Crew. Following the return of Expedition 1, Williams worked within the Robotics branch on the station’s Robotic Arm and the follow-on Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator. As a NEEMO2 crewmember, she lived underwater in the Aquarius habitat for 9 days. After her first flight, she served as Deputy Chief of the Astronaut Office. She then supported a long duration mission as Flight Engineer for Expedition 32 and International Space Station Commander for Expedition 33. Williams has spent a total of 322 days in space on two missions; she ranks sixth on the all-time U.S. endurance list, and second all-time for a female. With 50 hours 40 minutes, she also holds the record total cumulative spacewalk time by a female astronaut.

James Foley in Aleppo, Syria, in September 2012.

James Foley in Aleppo, Syria, in September 2012.

Every foreign hostage killed or executed by ISIL since August 2014 shared something in common: they were marginal figures operating in the precarious environment faced by aid workers and journalists working in Syria.

Just over one year ago, the first Western hostage, James Foley, was executed by ISIL. The American journalist was executed on 19 August 2014, the very day designated[i] by the General Assembly to recognize those who face danger and adversity in order to help others. The date coincides with the anniversary of the 2003 bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, Iraq.

These hostages fit a broader, shared profile. Universally described by their families, friends, and in their own words as giant-hearted and tireless in their commitment they sought to “show the world how bad it is” for the Syrian people enduring their fourth year of a devastating civil war. This war has now become a regional conflict with far-reaching impacts. Most immediately the humanitarian crisis emboldens desperate refugees and those who exploit them alike, and as autocratic governments target their own citizens they empower their opposition: chaotic, reactionary, anti-establishment groups seeking to impose their own extreme rule.

All three journalists executed by ISIL were freelance. Translation: All worked on shoestring budgets largely personally funded up front. They operated without the preapproved expense accounts from the larger media outlets to hire the serious fixers who are the most well-connected and best guarantee of their safety. This is the sad reality and result of foreign news bureaus being drastically cut over the past several years. Warzones that are fundamentally critical to Western national security interests are now perennially under-reported due to fact that mainstream news outlets have cut budgets for forward deployed journalists. Coverage is now largely dependent on freelance journalists whose security is individually negotiated. This grievous vacuum daily feeds the mainstream US news sources’ dependence on domestically sourced, too often self-appointed, so-called “authorities.” Meanwhile, the freelance journalists with the courage to uphold the principles of their profession, have to rely on individual instincts, relative experience, relationships formed on the ground and most of all, sheer luck.

Of the individuals taken while supporting humanitarian aid, only David Haines from the UK had a professional record as an aid worker beyond Syria. Haines was abducted just ten days after he arrived, having made the risky decision to live with another aid worker in the Syrian village of Atmeh where no other aid workers were based. Alan Henning, unwilling to stay home and not respond to the crisis, was a taxi-driver unaffiliated with a professional aid organization and was kidnapped while travelling with an informal convoy supported by fellow British citizens. Peter Kassig was equally unwilling to stand by, and had formed his own charity funded by his personal savings and the donations of family and friends. Kayla Mueller had worked for a few different aid organizations in Turkey and was taken after crossing the border into Syria, accompanying a technician friend who had been contracted for repairs in a clinic.[ii]

By their affiliation or personal decisions, none had the benefit of the political and security analysts employed by the professional humanitarian and media organizations. Or they chose to disregard this information. Their security was ultimately up to them. Haruna Yakawa fits neither category of journalist or aid worker, but his own tragically misguided presence proves the marginalized, ill-connected and poor decision-making point in the extreme.

The case for what unites these foreign hostages as naïve is sound, but not yet the complete picture. Significantly, all hostages identified here apart from Kenji Goto, were in ISIL custody prior to the first execution video of James Foley on 19 August 2015. The security situation had rapidly changed in the months preceding Foley’s execution as ISIL consolidated its leadership structure and published its case for establishing a Caliphate. By June, ISIL surged out of Anbar Province and seized control of Mosul, Iraq’s second city. By September, the United Nations estimated that ISIL controlled up to a one-third of Iraq, and up to 40% of the country’s annual production of wheat.[iii]

As security and policy analysts, family members and friends of the victims, it is important to acknowledge that the accusation of the victims as naïve civilian operators in a well-established warzone is relative to the fact that the operational environment had completely changed in a short amount of time.

Each of the foreign hostages took tremendous personal risk in responding to the humanitarian crisis. Their deaths at the hands of ISIL are a tragedy to be mourned and their humanitarian spirit should never be forgotten. It is equally important to accord them the dignity they deserve. None were conscripted into their service, they all volunteered to go. If they disregarded their personal safety, it was for their personal ideals. In the words of James Foley, “I believe that frontline journalism is important. Without these photos and videos and first-hand experience, we can’t really tell the world how bad it might be.”

[i] Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 11 December 2008 63/139. Strengthening of the coordination of emergency humanitarian assistance of the United Nations.




The day I was issued my first Coast Guard uniform, I learned that I would need to make due with any size that that I was given. I was 17 years old and I had graduated from high school just two weeks before swearing in as swab at the United States Coast Guard Academy. Weighing 103 pounds at a height of 5 feet and 2 inches, I was easily the smallest person in my platoon. The day that we were issued Operational Dress Uniforms, a dark blue cargo pant and long-sleeve blouse, I was informed that they were out of my size and would have to give me a uniform two sizes up. I paid for fours sets of ODUs that looked like they were made for my older brother. The pants were a foot too long, and the blouse was baggy and frumpy, the sleeves falling well past my wrists. I just assumed that I would never look professional in a military uniform.

I didn’t complain about the oversized garb and learned to love wearing baggy cargo pants, especially underway on a cutter when I would stash snacks and notebooks in the pockets. I believed my small stature was a disadvantage until I started working in an engine room with low-hanging pipes and hard-to-reach valves. I could easily wriggle into tight spaces where most of my male coworkers would have banged their heads or gotten stuck. I worked with a male Damage Control Senior Chief not much taller than myself who was admired by all of the other engineers for his ability to squeeze into the smallest areas to weld, even while the ship was still underway. He was one of the most competent people I ever worked with in the Coast Guard, and he proved that sometimes the smallest person is the best person for the job.

As the Damage Control Assistant aboard a Coast Guard Cutter, I became the maritime law enforcement board team’s engineering liaison, leading groups of mechanics and electricians in inspecting the engineering spaces onboard foreign vessels that were suspected of smuggling cocaine. 100 percent space accountability was essential in these searches, and I was often the only person that could fit inside the empty fuel tanks to inspect them. Sometimes the openings would be so tight that I would climb into the compartment wearing only a Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) full-face mask, crouch in the opening, and have my air tank and harness slid into the tank after me. Crawling through the slimy fuel tanks with my Gas Free Meter flashing and blaring alarms that the air was toxic, I would hear clean air streaming out of my mask because the equipment didn’t fit my face. I relied on the positive pressure of the mask to save me from the lethal gasses that were present in the diesel tanks. No matter how tightly the straps were pulled onto my head, the mask would leak. I knew that I had to share this firefighting equipment with 165 other people on the cutter, and that the ship couldn’t afford equipment specifically fitted for me, so I just did my job and didn’t complain about it.

I didn’t think much about the problem of ill-fitting life support equipment until I became a student at the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center (aka Navy Dive School) in Panama City, Florida. By that point, I had put on quite a bit of muscle and weighed a whopping 120 pounds. My dive school class consisted of enlisted Seabees, Coast Guard Officers, Navy Engineering Officers, Army enlisted personnel, and one civilian with a position in Washington DC supporting the Navy Diving Program. For the first time in the history of Navy Dive School, we had three women entering the SCUBA open water phase. After we had proven our strength and composure underwater by passing the notoriously difficult Pool Week, we were excited to hit the open water for some fun SCUBA dives on shipwrecks.

When I tried on the Buoyancy Compensators (BCs) that our class was issued, I realized that I was expected to wear the same gear that fit my 220-pound dive buddy. What was snug on him fit like a trash bag over my body, and without one hand holding my BC vest onto my body, the whole thing floated up around my face. The best the equipment guys could offer was to tighten up the middle section as much as possible on one of the rigs, and the smaller divers would have to rotate, keeping one hand on the BC to steady it from floating off. If this had been a dive off of a civilian vessel, I would never have worn that gear, citing safety concerns because it obviously didn’t fit.

An even bigger problem arose when I began training with the KM-37 surface supplied diving hard-hats. The neoprene neck sleeves attached to the metal ring that the helmet snapped onto were so stretched out that if I tilted my head downward, giant air bubbles rushed out the back of my neck and water rushed in. It’s difficult to do a job underwater when you can’t tilt your head. One day, a rushed student helping me with the dive gear above the water accidentally pulled the whole rig off of my head, the still-attached neck ring slid right over me. A watching instructor murmured, “That’s not supposed to happen. That’s really dangerous. It could come off underwater.”

I was told that the school just didn’t have the resources to fit minority students with smaller gear. I was dismayed to hear this again and again at my own unit in the Coast Guard, where I continued to wear a full-face mask that leaked on every dive, and BCs that were sized men’s medium. The recreational dive gear that I’d bought for weekend fun dives was sized women’s small. I was strong enough and fit enough to do the job of a Coast Guard Diver, and often my background as a shipboard engineer put me in a unique position of knowledge when working underneath CG cutters. However, my ability to work underwater was often hampered by ill-fitting gear.

I’m not suggesting that we change standards to accommodate women, far from it. Women should only do these jobs if they meet the same standards that have been upheld by men for decades. However, everyone in a position requiring life support gear should be afforded the same opportunity to wear equipment that fits, and sometimes that will mean buying different gear for smaller faces and frames. The Navy Experimental Dive Unit has already tested and approved smaller versions of the full-facemask that is currently used in the Navy and Coast Guard, as well as smaller BCs. It’s not a matter of bending the rules to accommodate women. It’s a matter of ensuring that all members of the unit have properly fitting gear. Sometimes the best person for the job is the smallest person; so let’s make sure they have the right gear.

Coming from the private sector I was struck by the conspicuous lack of female voices participating in SECNAV’s Taskforce Innovation (TFI). Women currently constitute less than 10% of The Hatch innovation crowdsourcing community and innovation organizations like the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell (CRIC) have been overwhelmingly male. The women involved in TFI have provided a disproportionately large contribution in terms of content, commitment, and ability to catalyze larger networks, highlighting the need to cultivate more women innovators. The value of women innovators has been demonstrated in the private sector, where according to a Kauffman Foundation report women technology entrepreneurs achieve a 35 percent better return on investment than male counterparts.

Both in the private sector and the military women have worked to be recognized for their skillsets alone, often by attempting to remove gender from the equation. The Department of the Navy (DON) diversity agenda has largely focused on eliminating differences in perception and opportunity between the genders, such as opening all operation billets and gender-neutral uniforms. The DON may have moved beyond the active intent to exclude or discriminate, but cultural norms still prevent women from fully contributing to activities that take them off the prescribed path.

Scarce numbers increase visibility and scrutiny, and humans are less likely to try things when there is a potential of being threatened. As Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant pointed out in a Jan 2015 New York Times op-ed, when male executives speak up, they receive 10% higher competence ratings; when female executives do the same, their ratings from their peers are 14% lower. In male dominated fields men and women are held to a different standard when it comes to proving initial competence. Men are assumed competent at the core functions until proven otherwise, whereas women are forced to spend time proving core competence prior to being allowed to push boundaries. One private sector manifestation of this is the fact that women are often excluded from positions on technology boards because they lack STEM backgrounds, however a significant proportion of the male board members of technology companies also lack STEM backgrounds, but are assumed to be competent.

Innovation requires the ability to question norms, synthesize different views, and collaborate to develop unique and powerful solutions. Diversity is the DNA of innovation, but the current DON focus on diversity is simply about bringing women to the table, not providing the environment to ensure they are included in the conversation. Inclusion is about ensuring diverse voices are heard, recognized, and rewarded. Below are three suggestions for more fully incorporating women innovators throughout the DON.

Create space:

An often cited Hewlett-Packard internal report found men apply for jobs when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women will not apply until they meet 100% of them. The fact that women make up less than 1% of writers at the Naval Institute Blog is likely an artifact of this fact. Women are less likely to present ideas in progress in a male dominated environment. Encouraging women to innovate requires creating safe space to develop ideas and experiment. Additionally, creating a sense of community where women can talk openly and take risks without being judged prematurely is critical. Women specific initiatives, such as discussion groups and women in writing week, can create the sense of community and the critical mass necessary to push women innovators into taking risk.

Research also shows that when women come to the table the ideas are more likely to be more developed comprehensive solutions. Innovation programs need to ensure they are not primed to give more consideration to ideas that are brought to the table first.

Support the First Followers:

Derek Shivers gave a TED talk on how the first followers are critical to starting a movement and transforming a lone nut into a leader. In a hierarchical organization followers are generally those that have less authority and influence than their superiors. They may try and get along to preserve career or simply because it is the path of least resistance. Leadership in the innovation space is being the lone nut, a place women are often uncomfortable in that role due to the reasons discussed in this blog post. Good followers are the key to driving innovation. They empower people, remove obstacles, and catalyze implementation. They support good leaders and are willing to actively oppose bad leadership. Valuing, actively encouraging, and rewarding first followers are critical to the success of any innovation agenda and give those outside of the cultural majority a place to engage, refine ideas, and if desired step into leadership positions.

Maximize Strengths:

As an organization the DON spends a significant amount of the manpower effort getting the workforce to a minimum acceptable standard. This was critical in an industrial era military when force structures were optimized for homogeneity and interchangeability. However, research suggests that the most successful individuals capitalize on their innate dominant talents and develop those strengths by adding skills and knowledge. Rethinking who and how people come together to collaborate and solve problems is critical to avoiding group-think, a condition which has created past national security failures. Innovation requires intentionally cultivating views that are outside the cultural norms.

In order to be an innovative organization, the DON needs to embrace the fact that individuals have different strengths and weaknesses and that a model based on interchangeability is not tenable in today’s world. There are biological distinctions between the genders, it is a fact, and not something organizational conversation should shy away from. Scientific breakthroughs occur in teams with more women because of increased creativity and fresh approaches and according to research published in Science increasing the collective social sensitivity by adding women increased the collective intelligence of teams. Creating a culture that values individuals and emphasizes organizational constructs that maximize cognitive diversity will allow the DON to maximize the innovative potential of its workforce irrespective of gender.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of the Department of the Navy.


Awake at the Helm

August 2015


Let’s face it – we’ve all had to make hard decisions under the pressures of fatigue and stress. But, is that what Navy sailors do on a daily basis just to survive, even in times of peace? Research has shown time and time again that sleep deprivation can have the effects akin to being intoxicated. While there have been numerous studies that alert naval leaders to the dangers of sleep deprivation, I would be hard pressed to name one sea command that has actually done something to address this issue. Until now.150415-N-UN259-034

Having just completed my department head tours on a Pacific-based destroyer whose Captain took crew sleep seriously, I can say that sufficient sleep is possible – even on deployment – and that the results are astounding! The “sleep initiative” takes on the human factors side of Operational Risk Management (ORM) to create a more holistic approach to minimizing chances of a mishap. While deployed on a seven month journey to the western Pacific, the basic schedule went like this:

0700: Reveille
0700-1900: (12 hour work day)
1900: Quiet Hours (no 1MC usage)

The majority of my crew already enjoyed four section static watches (3 hours on, 9 hours off) to allow for a normal circadian rhythm and predicable watch routine. The work day hours were adjusted accordingly within the 07000-1900 window to afford everyone the opportunity to rest for eight hours. Some of those eight hours might have been spent watching tv, reading a book, or relaxing… but the idea was to give sailors a chance to unwind and take care of their personal needs. The decrease in apparent work hours did not translate to less work being accomplished. In fact, not only did we increase efficiency, but we increased morale and decreased operational risk.

Our underway schedule didn’t always afford sailors the perfect eight hours, but it was the best attempt I’ve seen to date. Our sailors LOVED the later reveille time and a full 12 hours of no 1MC announcements. Sailors were happier, more resilient, alert, and well-balanced. Ultimately, the ship was safer and more combat ready being led by sailors whose minds were sharp.

No one would give their car keys to a friend who wasn’t sober. So why is it acceptable practice to routinely allow our shipmates the license to operate a billion-plus dollar warship while fatigued? I make the following recommendations to all at-sea commanders:

  • Implement a ship-specific human factors initiative to address the physical, emotional, and mental well-being of your sailors as it relates to ORM.
  • Limit meetings, evolutions, and 1MC announcements to fit within a 12 hour work day.
  • Change the cultural mindset that sleep deprivation is a “SWO reality.” It’s simply not true.

Stay awake at the helm – our survival as a surface community depends on it.

Good Sunday morning of Women in Writing Week! This article originally appeared at CIMSEC. It is cross-posted here with the author’s permission.

On August 4th, the Russian Federation’s Foreign Ministry reported that it had resubmitted its claim to a vast swath (more than 1.2 million square kilometers, including the North Pole) of the rapidly changing and potentially lucrative Arctic to the United Nations. In 2002, Russia put forth a similar claim, but it was rejected based on lack of sufficient support. This latest petition, however, is supported by “ample scientific data collected in years of arctic research,” according to Moscow. Russia’s latest submission for the United Nation’s Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf’s (CLCS) consideration coincides with increased Russian activity in the High North, both of a military and economic nature. Recent years have seen Russia re-open a Soviet-era military base in the remote Novosibirsk Islands (2013), with intentions to restore a collocated airfield as well as emergency services and scientific facilities. According to a 2015 statement by Russian Deputy PM Dmitry Rogozin, the curiously named Academic Lomonsov, a floating nuclear power plant built to provide sustained operating power to Arctic drilling platforms and refineries, will be operational by 2016. Though surely the most prolific in terms of drilling and military activity, Russia is far from the only Arctic actor staking their claim beyond traditional EEZs in the High North. Given the increased activity, overlapping claims, and dynamic nature of Arctic environment as a whole, Russia’s latest claim has tremendous implications, whether or not the United Nations CLCS provides a recommendation in favor of Moscow’s assertions.

Academic Lomonsov under construction. Please click on the image for its source.






The Claim:

Russia’s August 2015 claim encompasses an area of more than 463,000 square miles of Arctic sea shelf extending more than 350 nautical miles from the shore. If recognized, the claim would afford Russia control over and exclusive rights to the economic resources of part of the Arctic Ocean’s so-called “Donut Hole.” As the New

A depiction of the "Donut Hole."
A depiction of the “Donut Hole.”

York Times’ Andrew Kramer explains, “the Donut Hole is a Texas sized area of international waters encircled by the existing economic-zone boundaries of shoreline countries.” As such, the donut hole is presently considered part of the global commons. Moscow’s claim is also inclusive of the North Pole and the potentially lucrative Northern Sea Route (or Northeast Passage), which provides an increasingly viable shipping artery between Europe and East Asia. With an estimated thirteen percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and thirty percent of its undiscovered natural gas, the Arctic’s value to Russia goes well beyond strategic advantage and shipping lanes. Recognition by the CLCS of Russia’s claim (or any claim, for that matter) would shift the tone of activity in the Arctic from generally cooperative to increasingly competitive, as well as impinge on the larger idea of a free and indisputable global common.

The Law:

As most readers likely already know, the United Nations’ Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) allows claimants 12nm of territorial seas measured from baselines that normally coincide with low-water coastlines and an exclusive economic zone (EEZ)

A depiction of universal claims afforded by UNCLOS
A depiction of universal claims afforded by UNCLOS

extending to 200 nautical miles (inclusive of the territorial sea). Exploitation of the seabed and resources beyond 200nm requires the party to appeal to the International Seabed Authority unless that state can prove that such resources lie within its continental shelf. Marc Sontag and Felix Luth of The Global Journal explain that “under the law, the continental shelf is a maritime area consisting of the seabed and its subsoil attributable to an individual coastal state as a natural prolongation of its land and territory which can, exceptionally, extend a states right to exploitation beyond the 200 nautical miles of its EEZ.” Such exception requires an appeal to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), a panel of experts and scientists that consider claims and supporting data. Essentially, the burden is on Russia to provide sufficient scientific evidence that its continental shelf (and thus its EEZ) extends underneath the Arctic. In any case, as per UNCLOS Article 76(5), such a continental shelf cannot exceed 350 nm from the established baseline. Russia’s latest claim is well beyond this limit; the Federation has stated that the 350 nm limit does not apply to this case because the seabed and its resources are a “natural components of the continent,” no matter their distance from the shore.

The CLCS will present its findings in the form of recommendations, which are not legally binding to the country seeking the appeal. Though Russia has stated it expects a result by the fall, the commission is not scheduled to convene until Feburary or March of 2016 and, as such, there will be a significant waiting period before any recommendation will be made.

Rival Claimants:

Russia is far from the only Arctic actor making claims beyond the 200 nautical mile EEZ. Denmark, for instance, jointly submitted a claim with the government of Greenland expressing ownership over nearly 900,000 square kilometers of the Arctic (including the North Pole) based on the connection between Greenland’s continental shelf and the Lomonosov Ridge, which spans kontinsokkel_uknearly the entire diameter of the donut hole. This claim clearly overlaps Russia’s latest submission, which is also based on the claim that the ridge represents an extension of Russia’s continental shelf. Though there is no dispute on the ownership of the ridge, both Russia and Denmark claim the North Pole. Both nations have recently expressed a desire to work cooperatively on a resolution, though a Russian Foreign ministry statement did estimate a solution could take up to 10-15 years. Also of note: this has note always been Russia’s tune on the matter (See here and here).

Similarly, Canada is expected to make a bid to extend its Arctic territory. Notably, Canada claims sovereignty over the Northwest Passage, a shipping route connecting the Davis Strait and Baffin Bay based on historical precedent and its orientation to baselines drawn around the Arctic Archipelago. The U.S. maintains that the Northwest Passage should be an international strait. Though they have yet to submit a formal claim to the UN’s CLCS, one has reportedly been in preparation since 2013. According to reports, Canada delayed a last-minute claim at the behest of PM Stephen Harper, who insisted the claim include the North Pole. If this holds true, Canada’s claim will likely overlap both Russia and Denmark’s submissions to the CLCS. If the CLCS were to recognize the legitimacy of two or more states’ overlapping claims, the actors have the option to bilaterally or multilaterally resolve the issue to their satisfaction; developing such a resolution is beyond the scope of the commission.


Likely, Russia’s submission to the United Nations is part of a larger campaign by Moscow to reassert and re-establish its influence in the international order by virtue of its status Arctic influence. Regardless of approval or rejection by the UN, Russia’s expansive claim highlights Moscow’s very serious intention to control and exploit the Arctic. As the Christian Science Monitor’s Denise Ajiri explains, “a win would mean access to sought after resources, but the petition itself underscores Russia’s broader interest in solidifying its footing on the world stage.” With much of Western Europe reliant on Russian oil and natural gas, the Arctic and its resources represent an opportunity for the Kremlin to boost their position in the international order and develop a source of sustained and significant income. Russia may be acting within the letter of the law on the issue of their claim at this time, but it’s hard to separate that compliance from the Federation’s significant investment in the militarization of the Arctic, frequent patrols along the coastline of Arctic neighbors, and expenditure on the economic exploitation of the High North. For now, the donut hole remains part of the global commons and therefore free from direct exploitation or claim of sovereignty. The burden of proof on any one state to claim an extension of their continental shelf is truly enormous, but as experts and lawyers at the CLCS pore over these claims, receding Arctic ice combined with economic and strategic interests of the claimants will likely increase the claimants’ sense of urgency.

In the interest of full disclosure, I, too, have missed a few elections. I was more interested in buying lottery tickets at eighteen than casting a ballot, and I have come up with more than a few ways to justify why I skipped out on my constitutional right to democratic participation. But after less than a year in a job at the intersection of the military and our system of government, I am convinced that missing even a single election is one too many. There are far too many prevailing myths that might explain why service members choose not to vote – and it is a choice. Here are just some of those that I have heard over the past five years – all paraphrased, and some heavily exaggerated to try and draw out the true reasoning (also interpreted by me.) But if you don’t feel like reading the whole list, I can summarize it for you. They predominantly fall into three camps: “it’s too hard,” “all of my options are terrible” and “I’m lazy/I don’t care.”

For your enjoyment (or horror…):

1) I haven’t been keeping up with current events; I would be an uninformed voter. I’m really busy.

2) I don’t even live in the state where I am registered to vote. Haven’t for a decade. Probably won’t even go back either (don’t tell Mom.)

3) I used to vote by absentee ballot, but I stopped dealing with that hassle when I found out my vote wouldn’t count unless there was a less than 1% winning margin. I still tell people I vote though.

4) I don’t want to register to vote in the state where I am stationed, because I will lose XYZ benefits of keeping my home of record. (Usually some form of tax exemption.)

5) I have to work on voting day – I’ll be in the office before the voting stations open and until well after they are closed. It’s just not convenient. I mean maybe if there was a polling station on base? I actually have no idea where the polling station is though. Or –

6) I’ll be in the field/on the ship/on a det(achment) on voting day. Or –

7) Deployed on voting day, and the one after that, and the one after that. I’m really busy.

8) No, but seriously, I don’t even know where my voting station is. I moved here last week. And I’m moving again before the next election, so… I’m really busy.

9) School Board Election? You’re assuming I have kids, or will have the opportunity to have kids one day. I’m not even married, slow your roll.

10) As a member of the Armed Services, I serve at the pleasure of the Commander-in-Chief, the President of the United States, and to cast a vote for his or her opponent, then see my chosen candidate lose, would inspire me with a profound resentment towards the individual who will ultimately (or continue to) lead me. I wouldn’t be able to follow any orders from any authority after that; I couldn’t deem them lawful – I mean, I would have voted for someone else. #notMYpresident

11) General election? Midterm elections? What are those? Oh local stuff – not interested. See 1, 2, and 3.

12) The Presidential race? Now that’s something I can get interested it – I love those debate drinking games! Oh, but I really can’t stand watching the news, I don’t like any of the candidates, all politicians are awful, who’s running this country anyway? I’m really more of an Independent, so I’m just going to abstain, in protest of our dysfunctional political system.

I want to break down a few of these; we’ll call them “justifications.” Because I’ll assume that you might, too, feel guilty after complaining about your local, state, or federal representation, when you realize that you have no idea who they are, nor did you have any say in that – by choice.

Starting on the issue of accessibility – and admittedly at the risk of going down a rabbit hole of absentee balloting issues and assuming you want to play a role in your local or state level government – I’m going to briefly highlight a few things going on in the ever-changing field of voting rights, then we’ll move onto heavier topics.

First off, this is a one-stop shop for the “long distance voter” and (spoiler alert) military members and their spouses meet this criterion (by law) for federal elections, no matter which state you click. Also, you may be registered in Washington, Colorado, or Oregon – which would make you the lucky resident of an “Mail Voting” State, wherein, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, “a ballot is automatically mailed to every eligible voter (no request or application is necessary), and the state does not use traditional precinct poll sites that offer in-person voting on Election Day.” And these states have instituted vote-by-mail procedures for specific types of elections, but even more tremendously, these states (and DC) have “No-Excuse Absentee Voting” which means, you don’t need to have an excuse, but now (I think) you have #noexcuse. Finally, like subscriptions for GNC products, some states have made it possible to opt into a “permanent absentee voter” pool, wherein your ballot will be automatically mailed to you before all elections. Because who has time to order more protein – I mean, another ballot – from the field?

Using the Long Distance Voter tool (thank you, Internet), you won’t be surprised to find that there are specific steps (sometimes several) required to get to the point where you can drop your ballot, and many times, there is an in-advance-of-elections deadline for registration. But these states (and DC!) have online voter registration, and the Federal Voting Assistance Program specifically exists to help you – a member of the Armed Services – with the other 38.

Now, to the “All my options are terrible” camp. I’ve convinced you that it’s possible to participate in the democratic process, but you still don’t want to? You are not alone, but then again, you are EXACTLY who SHOULD be participating at – not avoiding – the polls.

On the issue of a conflict of interest, whoever is elected will be your President and Commander-in-Chief, whether you voted for him or her or not. As a civil servant, you have two responsibilities – albeit sometimes seemingly in contradiction – both in service to national security and as a citizen in your community. Insisting that the elected official in the highest office in the country is #NotMYPresident is inaccurate, and disrespectful to the entire executive administration. And in your case, probably insubordinate. Stop.

On the issue of representative choice and being an “Independent” – great! So you:

  • … have concerns about your options, and you want to influence the process to have better ones – vote! Oh you can’t, because there aren’t any “I’s” running? How about a moderate during the primary season who could potentially unseat someone who could otherwise pull your would-be party (doesn’t matter which one) to an extreme you dislike. Because unless you are registered in a state where you can vote in either party’s federal primary regardless of your party affiliation (known as “open primaries”)[1] registering as an Independent may shut you out of the primary process altogether.
  • … came to the conclusion that you are an Independent because you are legitimately so moderate that you can’t pick a camp – but you swear you’re not just confusing “Independent” with “apathy” – vote anyway! See above. Don’t worry, you can still tell everyone you “identify as politically independent” and join 43% of the United States population who feels the same way.
  • … still hold to “my vote never gets counted anyway” either because it’s an absentee ballot, or I’m a registered X in a predominantly, non-competitively Y state? All I can say is that things change, and while there may be an anticipated election outcome, the unexpected could happen instead. Because demographics change, and redistricting occurs, and most of all, people show up to vote. Even if they think it won’t matter, because that’s what the polls had been saying. But if not to actually have your ballot counted, there’s one more reason to vote…

Credibility. If you are in the “I’m lazy/I don’t care” camp, then you are really saying, I don’t have any opinions about anything except reality television. But as someone who chose to serve, I highly doubt it; in fact, I would bet that you have very strong opinions. And you have opinions about things on which are rarely legislated, and/or that affect you personally, and/or your family, and/or the country at large – you do care! You probably have a thought or two about the way that the military is resourced, or how we take care of veterans – young and old – and which bases are built up and which ones are torn down. Only you will know if you voice those opinions – out loud or on social media – without ever having taken the time to cast a ballot for anyone, anywhere, but you will know. And you will be, literally, incredible.

So, for the first time I will use the word “easy,” to say that I know there is nothing easy about the process, particularly as a member of the military – because you really are busy. It will take time, energy, and thoughtful consideration. You will have episodes of frustration, and you may feel like giving up, (repeatedly, there are many elections) but to do so is only to alienate yourself from the result, and deny yourself the credibility in trying. And there’s no excuse for that.


*Disclaimer: I am not encouraging any activity that would “use official authority or influence to interfere with an election, affect the course or outcome of an election, solicit votes for a particular candidate or issue, or require or solicit political contributions from others.”[2] There is a distinct difference between participation and exhibition. This is a pitch for quiet, thankless civic participation, even when nobody is watching, or even because nobody is watching.


[1] Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Hawaii (Open primary for state, local, and congressional races; caucus system for presidential races), Massachusetts (All races’ primaries open for “unenrolled”/unaffiliated voters only), Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin.


This speech was sent to us from Kuwait by Lieutenant Colonel Jess Mullen, USMC. While the video quality may be poor, the message is strong (but you have to turn your volume up!).

LtCol Mullen graduated from Vanderbilt University and was commissioned in the Marine Corps in 1998. A Logistics Officer, she served in a variety of active duty billets until she transitioned to the reserves in 2008. She is currently deployed as the Sustainment Liaison Officer for MCE-K (MARCENT Coordination Element – Kuwait).

“There is an obstacle placed in my path…I want to jump on it, I want to attack it, I want to make it my own, and I want to pound it into powder.”

“Honestly, as a female Marine, any time I’ve heard the words ‘female’ and ‘Marine’ next to the other, it’s either been a door slamming in my face, or some unwanted attention. It has very rarely been a good thing.”

“‘What is your mission? Why are you here? Where are you going?'”

“This is not cute – this is truth. This is the next generation, who may be sitting in these same seats 20 or 30 years from now.”

“We’re not just women of America; we’re women of the world.”

“Use your vote, and use it wisely. People have worked hard for that stuff – you should exercise it!”

“My husband and I are both United States Marines. When people tell us we can’t do something…we just go ahead and do it anyway!”

The Exit Interviews series provides an opportunity to capture and share the honest and thoughtful insights of those members of the naval service who have served their country well, and are either moving on to serve it in other ways outside of the service (the “exit interview”) or who have chosen to pursue higher rank and greater responsibility within it. It focuses on individuals who are transitioning out of the service or have recently gotten out, and those who have recently chosen to stay in past their initial commitment.

Much like an exit interview in the corporate world, we ask a series of standardized questions that are intended to be open-ended and solicit honest reflection. If you would like to participate, or you know somebody who would, please reach out to


LT Ashley O’Keefe is a Surface Warfare Officer, and the Flag Aide to the Superintendent of the US Naval Academy. She is a member of USNI. Her most recent article “Supporting Brothers-and Sisters-in Arms” was published in the April 2015 edition of Proceedings.

Why did you join the Navy?

I joined the Navy for a bunch of different reasons. First, I wanted to be a fighter pilot. I had gotten my private pilot’s license in high school, and thought that it would just be great to fly jets for the Navy. I liked the idea of learning how to lead people. I also thought that it would be challenging, and fun, and a good way to pay for college.

What is your favorite part of serving in the Navy?

My absolute favorite part of serving is that I get the opportunity every day to have a positive impact on the Sailors who work with and for me. I love the team aspect of our Service…that at its core, we are working together towards a common goal of getting out over the horizon to bring US naval presence to every corner of the globe. One of my best days as Weapons Officer was when the whole ordnance division came together to get a gun working again. We had finally been able to get a technical representative out to the ship while on deployment, and down to the youngest seaman, the team pulled together to figure out the problem with the help of that technician. They stayed up all night outside on a pitching deck, they read the manuals cover-to-cover, the electronics technicians from another department pitched in to help solder wires…and honestly, the gun never did get working again. But the ship came together as a team to solve a problem. It was so inspiring and a good example of teamwork at its best.

What do you find most frustrating?

I have been lucky to experience the very best of our personnel system, but I know that others have really grated against the “golden path”. Honestly, if I were to get out after my department head rides, that would be why…because I don’t believe there is enough flexibility for me to have a family and continue to serve. There seems to be little flexibility in how we build up our officers towards command at sea. I know that there have been lots of steps taken recently to attempt to fix this, and I’m really hoping that this will get better over the next few years.

Additionally, in my at-sea billets, I found that the amount of administrative burden placed on the ships in terms of reporting, powerpoints, stop-light charts, surveys, and instantaneous video reporting made officers almost ineffective as leaders because they were so tied to their computers fulfilling administrative requirements.

When and why did you decide to stay in the Navy?

I decided to sign on for my department head tours when I was trying to make sure that I could co-locate with my husband Chris before we were married. I knew that a single long tour would keep me geographically stable so that he could come to Mayport and know that I’d be there…but to get that single-long-tour configuration, I needed to sign up for my department head tours. I also just really loved being a SWO :-)

If you could change one thing about the Navy what would it be?

I would give more autonomy to our Commanding Officers. Even as a division officer, I frequently saw that my CO did not have very much decision-making power. Our capacity to connect even a three-star admiral down to the lowest tactical level makes it easy to do so, even when it might be better to…not. This phenomenon of feeling watched permeated down to the lowest levels. Even our junior petty officers knew that our interactions were being scrutinized. The days of going over the horizon and having true autonomy in command seem to be gone.

What single most important lesson or piece of advice would you give to Navy leaders?

To look at fixing the culture of our mid-grade leadership. How can we improve? Our JO’s don’t want to stay in. They are demoralized, and they don’t see their leadership having fun, enjoying their jobs, being fulfilled in their jobs. By a huge margin, JO’s don’t want their boss’s job, and they don’t want to be Commanding Officers. We need to fix this!

What’s next for you?

I’m on my shore tour for another year or so, then will head off to department head school in early 2017. My husband and I haven’t decided yet where we might want to be stationed, but we’re considering Norfolk and Rota.

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