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Z-Innovation!

February 2013

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Admiral Elmo “Bud” Zumwalt, Jr. was unquestionably one of the most influential and controversial officers in US Navy history. The challenges of his era, both in and outside the military, were significant and it is important for naval leaders today to study how ADM Zumwalt was able to effectively battle the naval bureaucracy to achieve significant results.

In the recent biography of Zumwalt, Larry Berman notes that Secretary of the Navy John Chafee and Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird were looking for an officer to replace Admiral Thomas Moorer as CNO who would serve as an agent of change within the Navy. Specifically at the top of the list for the incoming CNO to address were the challenges of modernizing ships and weapon systems to counter the growing Soviet naval threat and to resolve long-standing personnel problems related to institutional discrimination, prolonged operations in Vietnam, and issues with the all-volunteer force.

While leading the brown water navy in Vietnam, Zumwalt was deep-selected over seven admirals and twenty-six vice admirals his senior for the position of CNO. “Admiral Z” served as the 19th Chief of Naval Operations during a tumultuous period in American history, July 1970 to June 1974.

Shortly after assuming the watch as CNO, Zumwalt established a small strategic study group that examined current and future navy possibilities. “Project Sixty” as the group was known was aptly named due to the 60 day limit imposed on the group by Zumwalt. Project Sixty identified four core missions of the Navy:

  • Strategic Deterrence
  • Sea Control
  • Power Projection Ashore
  • Naval Presence

The 1974 article “Missions of the US Navy” written by Vice Admiral Stansfield Turner in the Naval War College Review succinctly articulates the rationale behind these missions and their importance to the modernization of the Navy.

At the same time, Zumwalt circulated the 1950 article “A Case Study for Innovation” by Elting Morison among the admiralty. The article makes the connection between entrepreneurship and the social necessity essential for leading revolutionary change in the Navy. Morison uses the introduction of the continuous-aim firing weapon system in the US Navy during the early 1900s as the primary case study. The essence of the article is similar to recent works by current naval innovators. (See Armstrong, Kohlmann, Munson)

To address the ongoing “people” issues, Zumwalt formed several retention study groups consisting of junior officers and/or enlisted Sailors from various communities to address issues affecting Sailors and their families in the fleet. These groups reported directly to the CNO (and frequently the SECNAV). From his previous experience on the OPNAV staff, Zumwalt understood that ideas from these groups would get diluted if they went through the normal staffing process.

Finally, Zumwalt used his famous Z-Grams, 120 in all, to communicate his intent and guidance to all levels of command and directly to the Sailors in the fleet. The “zingers” excited the Navy (both positively and negatively) and attempted to instill a sense of fun and zest, as Zumwalt often described his experience in the Navy, back into naval service. Many of the Z-grams repealed previous regulations described as “Micky Mouse” regulations in Zumwalt’s memoirs “On Watch”. During his tenure as CNO, retention rose from below 10% in 1970 to 32.9% in 1974.

A 1993 assessment of Zumwalt’s efforts to institutionalize strategic change in the Navy by the Center for Naval Analysis noted the following important lessons about leading change:

  • Be bold, be quick, and be specific in setting an agenda for change
  • Get a mandate from above for that agenda
  • Keep the focus clear and consistent on that agenda
  • Vest the agenda into the structure of the organization
  • Balance top-down management to overcome inertia with participatory management to develop sufficient consensus to counteract opposition
  • Establish independent bodies for internal creative friction and review
  • Establish independent internal watchdog agencies with the power to enforce compliance
  • Encourage innovation to ensure that change transcends one CNO’s “watch”

Zumwalt’s accomplishments as Chief of Naval Operations were certainly controversial and many of his initiatives were reversed by subsequent CNOs. However, given the gravity of the issues facing the naval services today, much can be learned from his ability to make significant changes from within the system.



In Bob Woodward’s book Obama’s Wars, the author highlights the president’s frustration with the military advice he received leading up to the surge in Afghanistan. Woodward recounts an exchange between the president and the chairman of the joint chiefs:

Obama: You guys just presented me with four options, two of which are not realistic… Of the remaining two, 40,000 and 30,000 to 35,000 are about the same… You have essentially given me one option. You’re not really giving me any options…. We were going to meet here today to talk about three options.

Mullen: No, I think what we’ve tried to do here is present a range of options, but we believe Stan’s [McChrystal] is the best. (p. 278)

The issue of presidential dissatisfaction with military advice is not a new one; problems in the Kennedy, Johnson, Ford and Carter administrations are well documented. As a result, improving military advice to civilian authority was one of the fundamental goals of the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 (G-N).

At the heart of the problem, political leaders often seek options for the best use of military force while military leaders present advice in the form of a recommended course of action, derived from a consensus-based planning process. Former DASD for Plans Dr. Janine Davidson masterfully describes this problematic relationship in her forthcoming article in Presidential Studies Quarterly (Winter 2013). She concludes, “Ultimately, the output of the military’s planning process fails to deliver the type of nuanced advice in the form of creative options that the president needs.”

Davidson attributes the “broken dialogue” to three sources of civil-military friction. The first source relates to the difference in expectations of civil-military control. Two differing schools of thought help frame this issue. Military leaders are more likely to be part of the Samuel Huntington school while political leaders are likely to subscribe to the Eliot Cohen school.

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As military operations in Afghanistan wind down and pressure to reduce defense spending heats up, policy makers and military leaders must carefully assess how to effectively posture the US military for the challenges of the 21st century. Part of this assessment must include identifying the right mix of general purpose forces and special operations forces.

Given the potential demands for traditional capabilities during the so called “Naval Century”, striking an affordable and sustainable balance between the two-forces must be of particular concern for the Naval Services. A recent CSBA report on strategic choices for the DoD identified Special Operations Forces as one of the four “crown jewels” that should be protected in light of forthcoming austerity measures while reducing the size of the Marine Corps and the number of Navy surface ships.

Over the past several months, two reports from the Congressional Research Service began to scratch the surface on this complex issue. First, Andrew Feickert identified that the increasing demand and expanding role of special operations forces will push up against its self-imposed force endstrength limits, intended to maintain the high-quality of personnel within the SOF community. This creates a greater demand for special operations “enablers” from the conventional forces. This shift will have to occur at the same time reducing the endstrength of the Army and Marine Corps is taking place.

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Over the past few weeks, senior military leaders and intelligence officials have publicly acknowledged the growing threat from foreign military forces to the US homeland. This may seem unrealistic given the overwhelming military advantage the United States has over any other nation’s military, but there are plausible scenarios where the US homeland could be vulnerable to attack, particularly during periods of US military operations overseas.

Before examining emerging threats that may place the security of the homeland at risk, one must first consider the complex problem of escalation. According to RAND, escalation can occur in several forms: vertical, horizontal and political. Escalation can also be carried out through conventional or asymmetric means. Certainly, attacks can be executed in the future to create a more complex hybrid escalation event. The US Military has already encountered the challenges posed by escalation during Operation Desert Storm.

As Iraqi President Saddam Hussein faced the reality of an overwhelming coalition force, he decided to use his over-matched military assets to attack civilian population centers in Israel. He also ignited oil fields in Southern Iraq in order to inflict environmental damage and to restrict coalition military movement. These are examples of horizontal and political escalation, respectively.

In discussing the new DOD Strategic Guidance, Dr. Janine Davidson recently noted that adversaries will likely go asymmetric and irregular to counter a US military advantage. This implies the US homeland will likely be in play should military force be used in the future. US military leaders and policy makers have not had to contend with this reality since World War II.

A host of legal/policy concerns, such as the Posse Comitatus Act and the imposition of wide-spread martial law, would challenge conventional thinking given these scenarios. An effective response would demand an unprecedented level of coordination and integration of Title 10 and Title 32 military forces with federal, state, and local law enforcement personnel. Some scenarios would likely have local law enforcement personnel performing ad hoc para-military operations. A significant military response within the homeland would certainly stress civil-military relations and threaten the civil liberties of US citizens, particularly those of certain ethnic groups associated with the adversary. Could this lead to increased radicalization or even threaten internal stability?

Current military capabilities that could be used to attack the US homeland include:

  • Conventional attacks enabled by emerging technology
  • Special Forces conducting direct action –Mumbai style attacks
  • Weapons of Mass Destruction
  • Improvised Explosive Devices
  • Cyber Attacks
  • Psychological Operations
  • Economic Attacks

While these capabilities alone or in aggregate would certainly not defeat the US military, they can inflict damage to the homeland that would cause public support for military operations to either wane or force the military to take more aggressive action than would normally be prudent. Homeland attacks would also impose a significant cost imposition on the US, which would divert scarce resources away from other military operations.

Considering the prolonged military operations over the last decade, would US popular support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have lasted as long as they have if US citizens were being killed in the homeland? In the future, would direct support for a critical ally, say Israel or Taiwan, withstand foreign military operations on the homeland or would US citizens demand military operations cease, as witnessed in Vietnam or Iraq?

Having to fight a two Combatant Command (COCOM) war has not been experienced by the modern US military since the National Security Act of 1947 established our current organizational structure. This scenario would provide an enormous challenge to coordinate and integrate operations between multiple COCOMs. An example the US could use as a precedent was having to respond to hurricane Katrina, while fighting limited wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. However during these events, leaders were not faced with command and control challenges or limited military resources. This would certainly not be the case in military operations against a near peer competitor.

The so called American way of war ensured the security of US interests over the past sixty years by taking overwhelming military force to the enemy’s doorstep. Unfortunately, the US will not be afforded that luxury in the future. Our nation’s military and civilian leaders must incorporate defending the homeland into their decision making calculus should military action be realistically considered in the future. The US public must also be aware that the decision to use military force will likely affect the livelihood of each American citizen in ways Americans have not witnessed during this generation.

The plausible scenarios associated with future wars will radically challenge our current perception of complex operations and will make the wars fought over the last 10 years seem like child’s play. The results of past operations speak for themselves and future wars will be even more complex and will demand a far greater level of strategic thinking and adaptation by both military and civilian leaders.

Robert Kozloski is a program analyst with the Department of the Navy and the author of “Rethinking Threats to The Homeland: Considerations for the Joint Force” currently under review at Joint Forces Quarterly.



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