Archive for the 'Tactics' Category

Today, understanding national security means understanding the ‘cyber’ dimension of warfare. For the last twenty years we have lived in a world where every day more people gain access to the global online commons and benefit financially, politically and educationally from that access. The concept of cyber warfare, taken to its logical extreme, will threaten the very nature of the global commons and force policy makers to improvise strategies to defend it.

The tools, tactics and strategies of cyber warfare are rapidly evolving in complex ways – a process that will be greatly accelerated in the event of conflict between two or more nation-states with mature cyber capabilities. While it is impossible to predict exactly how cyber warfare will shape the future battlespace, a sustained cyber conflict will likely pose an existential threat to the global, lightly regulated internet most liberal democracies know today. The Chinese model of the internet (a tightly regulated national network with few connections to the global system) will likely seem increasingly attractive to policymakers under intense political pressure to stop the constant barrage of foreign cyber-attacks. The global consequences of a shift to such a system would be devastating to the current paradigm of free-flowing information upon which much of the global economy is based.

War As Geopolitical Phase Change: Chaotic Systems and Phase Changes

Chaotic Phase Change

What will the global system look like after the next phase change?

Imagine a straight line composed of individual dots on a piece of graph paper. The line moves left to right. At a certain point along the line the dots begin to jump around and the line breaks up. Eventually the points are drawn together and reform a line. If you draw a box around the points between the two smooth segments of your line, the points inside that box will be scattered, without any rhyme or reason. In this example, the line is an orderly system, moving in a way that is understandable and predictable. The box that bounds the sporadic points is the outline of a chaotic system. The activity within the box seems strange and erratic.

The graph can be used as a model of human experience. Typically, events proceed in a way we can understand and plan for – a linear progression – but sometimes the nature of events becomes chaotic and we find ourselves unable to make sense of the world around us. War is the ‘phase change’ period of geopolitics, an inherently chaotic state during which unlikely or seemly insignificant events can play outsized roles in shaping the course of events. Once a person or a civilization is affected by war, the effects can be almost impossible to model. Who in early 2001 envisioned a major American deployment to Afghanistan by the end of the year? Importantly, the effect of war on technology can be also nonlinear and impossible to model.

Cyber at the Threshold of Phase Change

Highly specialized weapons of cyber warfare already exist in the form of STUXNET-class worms. Those weapons have already demonstrated an ability to inflict massive damage on targeted industrial systems. Clearly, cyber weapons will play a role in future conflicts, but it may be impossible to model the extent to which they will reshape the battlefield.

We are likely standing at the end of the first ‘linear’ period of the history of cyber warfare. Over the last two decades, crude denial of service attacks have evolved into more sophisticated distributed denial of service attacks. Vulnerabilities in operating systems have been used to exploit industrial control systems previously thought to be safe from manipulation due to the ‘air gap’ separating these control systems from the internet (in the case of STUXNET, the virus was introduced via a USB thumb drive). Cyber tactics are being developed, tested, combined, and retested on a daily basis.

If this already seems like a hopelessly complex problem to solve, I’ve got bad news for you. Kim Zetter, in her novel Countdown to Zero Day, states that, to date, the total volume of cyber-attacks conducted by nation states still only numbers in the hundreds, and those attacks largely have been conducted independent of conventional military actions. A notable exception, the ‘cyber salvo’ that Russia launched against Georgia immediately before Russia’s 2008 invasion, made headlines, but was only the beginning. Several hundred attacks sounds like a lot, but it’s still a small enough number that each attack can be studied and understood. Sustained conflict between any of the mature cyber powers (US, Israel, China, Russia, France, and Iran) will exponentially increase the number and complexity of attacks. Such a conflict will herald the beginning of the phase change.

At the Other End of the Chaotic Interval (The Example of Border Controls)

avy Petty officer 2nd Class Jessica Cummins performs her duties at the U.S. Fleet Cyber Command Maritime Operations Center at Fort Meade, Md., Oct. 3, 2012. Fleet Cyber Command serves as the Navy component command to U.S. Strategic Command and U.S. Cyber Command, and is the Navy's central operational authority for cyber, networks, cryptologic/signals intelligence, information operations, electronic warfare, and space capabilities. DOD courtesy photo

Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Jessica Cummins performs her duties at the U.S. Fleet Cyber Command Maritime Operations Center at Fort Meade, Md., Oct. 3, 2012. Fleet Cyber Command serves as the Navy component command to U.S. Strategic Command and U.S. Cyber Command, and is the Navy’s central operational authority for cyber, networks, cryptologic/signals intelligence, information operations, electronic warfare, and space capabilities. DOD courtesy photo

Though it’s impossible to model the way that cyber warfare will evolve once the phase change begins, we can still speculate, as many security experts have, about how a sustained cyber campaign might affect our world. The doomsday scenarios trotted out repeatedly over the last decade have become depressingly familiar: the banks will crash, satellites will fall out of the sky, and the dams will be blown open, flooding everything. Each of these scenarios imagines a particular cyber tactic being violently directed against a defenseless target. These scenarios contain two problematic misconceptions. The first problem with all these scenarios is that they presume to know which tactic (targeting banks, satellites, and dams) will be adopted by cyber actors. It’s impossible to know for sure which tactic will be adopted because that decision will likely made during wartime and hence occur during the chaotic interval when nothing can be safely predicted. The second problem is that these scenarios fail to appreciate the ways in which systems under attack will evolve to defend themselves. Warfare is a struggle between forces. Even if targeted nations are slow to understand what’s occurring, they will eventually develop strategies to counter cyber threats.

To use an analogy from the early 1900s, before World War I it was possible for a French citizen to travel from France to China with little or no documentation. The pre-World War I era was one of globalization – the states of Europe had not yet developed the mechanisms of border control we now associate with the inter-war and Cold War periods (imagine the fortified checkpoints surrounded by concertina wire and frowning soldiers crouched in machine gun nests).

After World War I, the surviving states all implemented strict border controls. They did this despite the cost and the detrimental effects that checkpoints have on trade and commerce. The risk of uncontrolled borders was just too great. In many cases these control measures lasted until the early 1990s when the European Union made a concerted effort to remove those barriers and expand the freedom of movement of goods and people throughout Europe.

The Fate of the Global Internet

Today’s internet is a truly global phenomenon. Users in the United States can easily access websites hosted in Russia, Poland, France, Kenya or Iran. These connections are lightly regulated by most nation states, though China is a major exception. These connections are also highly lucrative. The global internet has allowed financial institutions to quickly and efficiently synchronize operations around the world. Without the internet, there would be no online ordering or ‘just in time’ manufacturing chains. The social and economic benefits of a direct, unpoliced US – Russia internet connection outweigh the risk of, say, a concerted effort by Russian cyber actors to infiltrate the US banking networks. That may not always be the case.

The response of European states to the violent chaos released by World War I was to severely restrict inter-state economic traffic and the movement of people across borders. A similar phenomenon may occur following the first sustained conflict by major cyber actors. While countries may not completely choke off their citizens’ access to web addresses hosted in hostile nation states, it may be incumbent upon those countries to severely restrict that access in the name of network security. China has already moved in this direction by creating the Great Firewall, a system that strictly regulates the points where China’s internet connects to the rest of the global commons. President Putin recently called on Russia to build its own internet, calling the existing global internet a ‘CIA project.’

The movement away from a global Internet and toward a system of national or regional networks (North Atlantic, EU or North American for example) is one possible outcome of a future cyber conflict. While there is no guarantee that such segmentation will occur, it follows from the way that nations typically react to security crises for which they are unprepared. In a word; they ‘overreact,’ and tend to put heavy-handed structures in place that can take generations to remove (see also, post-9/11 airport security in the US). For the reasons outlined above, it is likely impossible to know exactly how a cyber-conflict will change our world… but human nature doesn’t change much. If we fail, as a nation, to appreciate the degree to which cyber conflict will change our world, we will likely make short-sighted decisions in the heat of the moment that may take a long time to fix. We should start grappling with the implications now, while we’re still in the linear phase and have some control over events.


A Call to Write

April 2015


The Institute is pleased to have the guidance of a select panel of Navy Officers who believe this destination can continue to host the most important lines of thought concerning naval policy and the nation’s defense. LTJG Chris O’Keefe and a network of junior naval officers have agreed to assemble content for the USNI Blog, focusing specifically on key issues that they describe below in their inaugural post.

They are not strangers to the forum, and already have an impressive resume of posts and articles. They continue a fine tradition of important discussions on the USNI Blog led by a strong network of key Navy figures including guest bloggers from the naval blogging community, who were responsible for guiding the USNI Blog to three consecutive years of being named “Best Navy Blog” sponsored by and USAA. Our founding guest bloggers will continue to contribute as they desire.

Mary D. Ripley | Director of Digital Content

Bill Miller | Publisher

LTJG O’Keefe:

Since 2008, the Naval Institute’s blog has served as a key forum for thinkers and naval leaders to collaborate, argue, think, and write. The blog, with its essentially unlimited audience and condensed production timeline, helps ensure the Institute continues to play a vital role in shaping the dialogues that will shape the Navy of the 21st century and beyond. It is important therefore to periodically step back and ensure that the blog’s content sufficiently captures the critical discussions taking place throughout the Fleet. A small group of junior naval thinkers is working to facilitate this, and we would like you to join our ranks through thinking and writing.

Looking forward, we’ve identified conversations in the naval sphere that we believe are not getting enough attention, and that are ripe for dynamic debate. The four identified areas are:

-The navy and cyber

-Personnel policy

-Future war fighting

-Revitalizing practical professional notes

One of the flagship platforms for naval discourse is Proceedings. However, the capacity of the magazine is finite, and there are many discussions that simply may not meet the threshold for publication in a particular issue. The blog team is coordinating with the Proceedings editorial staff to develop a framework for two-way content flow between the magazine and the blog. A rising tide raises all ships, and just because an article doesn’t find the right home in the magazine does not mean that it is not a valid discussion piece meriting dissemination. Therefore, beginning shortly, authors who submit to Proceedings whose articles are not accepted for publication will be invited to submit to the blog team for editorial assistance and publication. At the same time, blog authors whose pieces are well received will be invited to contribute a larger, more comprehensive piece to Proceedings Magazine. Our essay contest winners will also begin to have entries published on the blog, and we will eventually sponsor online-only essay contests. Combined with other events, we hope broaden naval discussion by encouraging more people to write, speak out, and be heard.

The online blogging forum presents unique technological affordances compared to traditional mediums. In thinking about the implications of the blog’s digital existence, we were forced to reflect on how the digital has altered the form and practice of naval discourse more broadly. By extension, we were prompted to contemplate how the digital space has fundamentally altered naval disciplines. Therefore, as our first effort, we will be launching a conversation starting May 3rd about the Navy and cyber, and how this discussion should be framed and shaped.

Kasparov-DeepBlueWhy May 3rd? On that date in 1997 IBM’s Deep Blue began a 6 game re-match with chess champion Garry Kasparov. Although Kasparov won this match, an apparent bug in Deep Blue caused it to make a move that puzzled Kasparov. American statistician Nate Silver believes that “Kasparov had concluded that the counterintuitive play must be a sign of superior intelligence. He had never considered that it was simply a bug.” His confidence shaken, Kasparov would go on to lose the series, marking the first time under tournament conditions a computer had defeated a reigning world chess champion.

Deep Blue’s name is particularly appropriate for conversation about the Navy’s cyber domain, and this comes on the heels of the launch of the concept of all-domain access within the new maritime strategy. We already have a few articles ready in rough draft form, and have been in conversations with leaders at all levels in the naval cyber realm. We invite you to submit an article between 800 and 1000 words that would help shape the conversation on how we integrate the navy and the cyber domain.

In the next week we will announcing our revised blog submission policies and instructions on how to submit posts for publication. Whether you are a member of the nation’s Naval service, or an armchair admiral, the groundswell of naval thought is palpable, and we hope you will put pen to paper or open your laptop to join it.

Chris O’Keefe is an active duty naval officer who spends much of his spare time working to foster professional naval discourse by helping and encouraging current and future thinkers and writers.

Please join us on Sunday 29 March 2015 at 5pm, EDT for Midrats Episode 273: Partnership, Influence, Presence and the role of the MSC:

This week we will return to the “unsexy but important” topic, specifically that of “alternative naval platforms and missions.”

In part, the concepts that underlay Jerry Hendrix’s “Influence Squadrons” are in practice on a smaller scale today. In most cases they are being conducted using Military Sealift Command assets and the Navy Reserve.

To focus on this part of our maritime power, our guest for the full hour will be Commander Chris Rawley, USNR. President of Periplus Holdings in his day job, he is also Commanding Officer of the Military Sealift Command Afloat Mission Command and Control Units in the Navy Reserve, in addition to being Vice President of the Center for International Maritime Security.

Join us live or pick the show up later by clicking here or pick the show up later from our iTunes page here.

This is worth an hour of your time:

If you have doubt, there is this Reuters headline, U.S. missile defense agency warns of “jeopardy” from budget cuts:

Further budget cuts would put the U.S. military’s ability to protect the United States in “serious jeopardy” at a time when Iran and North Korea are advancing their own missile programs, the head of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency said on Thursday.

Vice Admiral James Syring told U.S. lawmakers that failure to lift budget caps in fiscal 2016 would force him to delay urgently needed steps aimed at improving the reliability of a system that top military leaders have already called “unsustainable” given growing threats and budget pressures.

It is not rational to think standing still means your potential enemies will also call a halt to their activities.

U.S. Naval Insitute News offers up Army-Navy Memo on need for Ballistic Missile Defense Strategy, referenced in the above:

UPDATE: Robert Work, Deputy Defense Secretary on budget issues as found in the Aviation Week opinion piece, “Budget Blunders Threaten U.S. Military Superiority”:

Sequestration is a blunder that allows our fiscal problems, not our security needs, to determine our strategy.

Please join us Sunday, 15 March 2015 at 5pm (U.S. EDT) for Midrats Episode 271: “Red Flag and the Development USAF Fighter Pilots”

In parallel efforts that in the Navy which led to Top Gun, the US Air Force looked hard at the lessons of air to air combat in the Vietnam War and brought forward “Red Flag,”

Moving beyond the technical focus, they looked to training and

fundamentals to bring back a primacy of combat skills.

Our guest for the full hour to discuss this and his new book, The Air Force Way of War: U.S. Tactics and Training after Vietnam, will be

Dr. Brian D. Laslie, Deputy Command Historian, North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM).

A historian of air power studies, Dr. Laslie received his Bachelor’s degree in history from The Citadel: The Military College of South Carolina, his Master’s from Auburn University Montgomery in 2006 and his Doctorate from Kansas State University in 2013.

Dr. Laslie was Honorably Discharged from the United States Air Force in 2007 as a Captain after serving as a logistics officer, doctrine instructor, and Action Officer to the Commander of Air University.

Join us live if you can (or pick the show up later) by clicking here. Or if you prefer, you will find the show later on our iTunes page here.


It’s Math

March 2015


150311-N-UF697-147Greg Easterbrook’s recent column “Our Navy is Big Enough” in the New York Times demonstrates that one lecture at the Naval War College does not a naval expert make. Easterbrook advances two arguments. First that the Navy, at 275 ships, is large enough to meet all of the nation’s naval maritime security needs. Secondly he states that the Navy’s proposed budget proposed budget of $161 billion is far in excess of spending requirements. That he would correlate the size of the Navy’s budget with the size of the force deployed demonstrates his shallow awareness of matters maritime. In both the case of the size of the fleet and the size of the budget, it all comes down to math.

The size of the fleet is measured largely against two separate standards. The first is the size of the force necessary to fight and win the nation’s wars. This standard often looks first to the capabilities a potential challenger might field and then estimates the size of the US naval force required to ensure US victory. Such analysis attempts to present the capabilities required to operate in a lethal and effective manner. Cost and efficiency factor into these calculations but not in a large way. Decisive victory is the objective.

The American navy derives it’s lethality from the brutal and exquisite nature of its naval platforms. Aircraft carriers have occupied the central position in naval force planning for more 70 years. These 100,000 ton behemoths carry an air wing of over 70 tactical aircraft and can strike targets with precision hundreds of miles away. As threats to the carrier have mounted over time, they have been increasingly surrounded and protected by a fleet architecture of cruisers and destroyers, generally four, equipped with the latest state of the art radars and missile defense systems. They are also protected by two nuclear powered fast attack submarines that prowl the ocean in search of opposing submarines and enemy shipping.

The number of conflicts to be fought also factors in. The United States has two coasts so, for most of the 20th century and all of the 21st, the nation has maintained a fleet in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. This lesson was well learned in World War II when the nation faced existential threats in both oceans. To fight and win the nation’s wars the Navy requires ships of sufficient capability and quantity to move to and from battle without interruption, factoring in projected combat and material casualties. Factoring our current carrier-based force structure and near peer competitors in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters has results in a requirement for 10 carriers, 20 cruisers, 20 destroyers and 20 fast attack submarines as well as 33 associated amphibious assault ships and 30 logistical support for a total of 163 ships to meet the bare minimum requirements to conduct combat operations. This number allows no room for extensive maintenance, reactor refuelings, combat repairs or prolonged training and readiness exercises.

However, as Mr. Easterbrook has pointed out, no one has been foolish enough to take on the United States in one theater, let alone two, since the end of World War II. Surely no one would think of doing so today, or would they?

The reason they haven’t represents the logic behind the second standard of measurement for the fleet: The number of ships required to maintain the peace. The presence of the United States Navy convinces rouge actors on a daily basis that today is not the day to start a conflict with the United States. If our Navy were to fall so low as to meet only the bare minimum requirements for combat operations it would invite our competitors to question whether the United States was ready and willing to defend its interests, just as the drawdown in US ground forces in Europe has encouraged Russian adventurism there today. Our maritime interests span the globe. Some interests are commercial, some are security based, and many are diplomatic. Today the United States services these interests by deploying Navy ships to key regions to demonstrate US resolve. These regions range from the north Atlantic to the Indian Ocean and from the Black Sea to the South China Sea. Altogether there are 15 specific geographic regions that require frequent demonstrations of US interest. These operations assure friends and allies of continued US support as well as remind competitors of the breadth and depth of US power. Some of these regions require visits from our front line capital vessels, the carriers. Most require only frigates to show our flag and convey US resolve. This has been the manner in which Pax Americana has been maintained over the past 70 years.

To service the far flung regions, scattered as they are across the globe, requires a constant cycling of ships, generally one on station, one on its way home, one training to deploy and one in maintenance. Some of these requirements can be offset with forward based naval forces such as those that operate out of Japan, Singapore, and Spain, but in the end, when you crunch all the numbers through the force structure calculator, you arrive at a the naval force of 355 ships. It’s math, and a particular simple form of it at that. However, there is another calculation, much more arcane, that needs exploring, the math behind a Navy budget.

There is a logic to the argument that to build a bigger Navy you need a bigger budget. It seems self-evident, but is not necessarily true. When the Navy decides to build one aircraft carrier for $14 billion, it is tacitly making a decision not to build the 7 destroyers or 28 frigates those same dollars could have bought. If we hold spending constant, or live with the confines of the Budget Control Act, and yet choose to buy increasingly expensive and technologically exquisite ships, then we are making a decision to buy fewer ships in the long run. This equation largely explains the decreasing size of the American fleet over the past 20 years.

Presently we buy one supercarrier every five years, and two destroyers, two submarines and four frigates every year. These are the combatants that occupy much of the conversation regarding the size and capability of the Navy. If, however, we were to purchase only one destroyer per year and invest the $2 billion saved in the construction of four additional frigates, we could rapidly grow the size of the fleet in short order. The Secretary of the Navy has stated his opposition to trading one type of ship for another, and I would agree with that. However it is possible to trade one type of ships for several of another type. This would still allow us to field high-end war fighting capabilities in balance with the need to build a larger Navy. If we were to take a really radical path and recognize that super carriers are too large, too expensive and too vulnerable to serve in combat and cease building super carriers while investing a portion of the savings in the construction of nuclear guided missile submarines to provide the lost precision strike power projection capability previously generated by the carrier’s airwing, we could afford to grow the fleet and shrink the Navy’s budget simultaneously. This is math as well and should intrigue fiscal conservatives.

In the end we must recognize that the shrinkage of the American fleet over the past generation has begun to create a power vacuum that is inviting others to challenge the longest lasting maritime peace since man took to the water in boats. If we are to maintain peace as well as remain prepared for war, we will need to grow the fleet. That we can do so while remaining within the current budget caps presents a significant opportunity for policy makers and supporters of naval power. It’s math that every American, including Mr. Easterbrook, should be able to understand.

Please join us live on 22 Feb 15 at 5pm EST for Midrats Episode 268: 21st Century Sims:

Who was “The Gun Doctor,” the officer over a century ago led the revolution in naval gunnery, the development of torpedo boat and destroyer operations, and during WWI served as the senior US naval commander in Europe? More than the man instrumental in the establishment of the convoy system that helped keep the United Kingdom from starvation in the conflict, following the war his leadership as president of the Naval War College he help to established the creative and innovative Navy that in the interwar period developed the operating concepts for the submarines and aircraft carriers that led the victory in World War II.

What are the lessons of a century ago taught by Admiral William S. Sims, USN that are critically important for the serving officer today?

Our guest for the full hour to discuss this latest book, 21st Century Sims, will be returning guest, LCDR Benjamin Armstrong, USN.

Benjamin “BJ” Armstrong is a naval aviator who has served as a helicopter pilot flying amphibious search and rescue and special warfare missions and as the Officer-in-Charge of a Navy helicopter gunship detachment deployed for counter-piracy and counter-terror operations. He is a PhD Candidate in the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London.

Join us live if you can or pick the show up later by clicking here or by going to our iTunes pages here.

For those who have seen the Great Carrier Debate between Jerry Hendrix and Bryan McGrath, one thing was clear – both gentlemen had only scratched the surface of their thoughts on the topic.

At about the same time, the concept of “distributed lethality” had seeped its way in to the conversation. To examine both topics and to review the national security issues you should expect to see in 2015 will be returning guest, Bryan McGrath.

Bryan McGrath is the founding Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group LLC (FBG), a niche consultancy specializing in naval and national security issues, including national and military strategy, strategic planning, executive communications, strategic communications and emerging technologies.

Prior to starting FBG, Bryan founded a national security consulting line of business for Delex Systems, where he directly supported a number of senior clients in the Navy and the Army. Additionally, he provided critical insight on Navy policy and acquisition preferences to commercial clients, including major defense contractors and small technology firms negotiating the “post-earmarks” era.

A retired Naval Officer, Bryan spent 21 years on active duty including a tour in command of USS BULKELEY (DDG 84), a guided-missile destroyer homeported in Norfolk, Virginia.

In his spare time, Bryan is a well-published commentator in the fields of national and maritime strategy, with policy papers published at major think tanks, and articles placed in nationally marketed periodicals. He is a frequent panelist at symposia that deal with naval issues and is frequently quoted by major press organizations.

Bryan earned a BA in History from the University of Virginia in 1987, and an MA in Political Science (Congressional Studies) from The Catholic University of America. He is a graduate of the Naval War College.

You can watch the carrier debate here. But you can only listen to Midrats by clicking here for the live show or the archive. You can also pick the show up later from our iTunes page here.

“Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write.”
-President John Adams

If John Adams were a junior officer in the Navy today, his admonition to his fellow officers might read something like this:

Let us [not] dare to read [lest my own beliefs be challenged], think [lest my perceived truths be shown as falsehoods] , speak [lest my commanding officer notice me], and write [lest my FITREP result in an MP].

As junior officers, we recognize this attitude in ourselves, our peers, and our superiors. Yet if today’s junior officer is to have any lasting legacy on the Navy or Marine Corps, it will be by recognizing and acting upon an essential truth:

The health of the service is more important than your career.

We need junior officers willing to stick their necks out and write. Our service and our country are dealing with serious challenges, many of which may have non-traditional solutions. This generation of junior officers will be judged for our courage to stand up and work to solve those problems. The nation can no longer afford our silence.

Our Past

At the turn of the 20th century, a young naval gunnery officer couldn’t get anybody to listen to his revolutionary ideas on gunnery. Unwilling to be silenced, he stuck his neck out. In what he later termed “the rankest kind of insubordination,” he wrote a letter to President Theodore Roosevelt. This young officer, William Sims, would later use the pages of Proceedings to challenge his peers to be wary of the dangers of a lack of innovation or honest introspection, asking, “which of us will be quoted in the future as example of dangerous conservatism?”

In 1894, another author wrote scathingly about the lack of introspection in the British Empire’s naval culture. The parallels to today are striking: the world’s dominant maritime power for three generations, unchallenged in might but facing an increasingly complex and globalized world. Entitled “The Children of Nelson” and reprinted in the pages of Proceedings, the article lambasts British naval leadership, saying:

“The Admiralty … sternly refuses to permit junior officers to write or speak on questions of speculative strategy and other subjects which involve neither criticism of things that are, nor betrayal of official secrets. Junior officers are thus restrained in their usefulness and discouraged in their legitimate professional ambitions; and the impression has taken root amongst them that the man who endeavors to elbow his way out of the crowd, to bring forward a new theory, or to do any kind of serviceable work beyond the minimum which his position requires of him, is a fool for his pains… Thus discouraged on all hands, the British naval officer, with a few brilliant exceptions, resigns himself to living and moving in deep and well-worn grooves. He thinks little; he speculates less; he almost fails to realize, save in a dull and general way, that some day the storm of battle will again rage around him, and that he will be expected, by an unreasonable country, to repeat the triumphs of his ancestors.”

One hundred years later, the US Navy seems to have institutionalized and incentivized intellectual conformity in both strategy and policy through a culture that discourages professional intellectual dissent in favor of promotability. Navy Captain Jay Avella said it best in 1997 when he wrote, again in Proceedings, that the problem, “is about the culture change that seems to be pervading the sea service—a change that says, ‘don’t rock the boat, it will cost you your career.’”

The US Navy is in a perplexing situation: we pay lip service to buzzwords such as “innovation” and “transformation,” but will only act if ideas don’t upset entrenched interests or institutional inertia. Nevertheless, junior officers today are the scions of generations of transformative men and women who came before us—those like Mahan, Sims, and countless others. These officers never accepted the status quo just because “it’s the way we’ve always done things.”

As organizations such as naval aviation’s Tailhook Association prepare to name 2015 the “Year of the Junior Officer,” it is important for the thousands of junior officers in the Navy and Marine Corps to engage in some serious introspection. What will be our enduring mark on our service?

Our Present

From a rank and file perspective, junior officers can drive change in their divisions and departments, and if lucky with supportive commanding officers, within their ships, submarines and squadrons. But what ultimately set Sims apart from many junior officers who have driven innovation on the deckplates was that he wrote about it. Had Sims not put pen to paper, unrelentingly, institutional change might never have happened. Today, we must pick up our tablets and laptops, just as those before picked up their pens and typewriters, and write, regardless of the pressures on our careers.

There is a disturbing trend among some that equates intellectual dissent with outright insubordination and disrespect. One recent Proceedings article went so far as to suggest that today’s millennial generation is derelict in their adherence to time-honored naval customs and courtesies, simply for asking “Why?” This belief blithely ignores examples like William Sims, that show us one of the most time-honored naval traditions is that of innovation driven by the junior officer ranks challenging the status quo.

Again, this sentiment is not new; one need only consult Alfred Thayer Mahan’s FITREPs to appreciate its longevity. CDR Rich LeBron, Commanding Officer of the USS Benfold, put it this way: “In this vertically stratified setting, the boss can find isolation behind the closed door of authority and good ideas can be transmuted, crushed, or simply dismissed on their way to the top as spirits and morale are driven into the ground.” Today’s navy, facing a staggering array of complex geopolitical, fiscal and technical challenges, cannot afford to keep thinking that all the answers reside with senior leadership.

Yet we cannot wholly blame a cessation of intellectual development on this entrenched culture; fault lies within the junior officer corps as well. Writing is hard, and quite often, after a long day aboard ship or in a cockpit, the last thing we wish to embark on is a quest to articulate on paper a problem and solution that we would simply prefer to move past. It forces us to defend our ideas, to take a stand, and perhaps even to be wrong. But it is a duty that lies squarely on our shoulders, and we must rise to the occasion.

At the junior officer level, we have a responsibility not just to put complaints to paper, but to constructively identify issues or highlight positives, defend our views and promulgate solutions. This improves our professional knowledge, and enables senior leadership to take their pens to paper to engage in dialogue where we can actually leverage and learn from their experience. Simultaneously, it is particularly important for naval leadership to closely examine the quality and content of their own writing, because we as junior officers look to them to provide for both context and inspiration.

Some junior officers are already making positive contributions to our great naval debates. Through projects such as the Defense Entrepreneur’s Forum (DEF), Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), and CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell (CRIC), junior officers write, share ideas, and set the tone on issues from future ship design and innovative apps to geopolitics and strategy. Yet more is required — we must fight to forge a culture of writing without trepidation, establishing a groundswell of professional discussion in our service.

Furthermore, we do not simply need more people writing – we need more people writing about the issues that matter. Somewhere along the line, much of naval writing, even in the pages of Proceedings, has devolved to a bland party line. Writing must incorporate substance.

Importantly, we should not solely focus on writing the “next big article,” but also on inscribing in record the grassroots innovation and effective procedures observed and implemented in our divisions and squadrons. We have nearly ceased discussion of the important, often mundane issues and ideas of daily naval life: strategy, operations, tactics, and procedures. Glancing through the pages of Proceedings and similar journals, a majority of material comes from senior officers who have long since moved beyond the realities of division level maintenance and deckplate challenges. Junior officers should remember our roots and reclaim proclivity in this arena, promulgating instructive tips for our brethren and observations on daily naval operations. In the same Proceedings issue as “The Children of Nelson,” there was also an article on the relationship between barometric pressures and ocean currents, a discussion of rustless coatings, and articles on naval reform. By recording these conversations in printed word, junior officers were able to share solutions from around the fleet.

Ultimately, the Navy must be led by the constant ingenuity and engagement of its junior officers and driven by the strategic thought and innovative perseverance of its seniors. Therefore, officers of all levels must write substantive pieces of all types: the mundane but useful, the transformative, the well-founded, the controversial pieces, and we must write without fear for our careers. The currency of institutional change available to the junior officer today, just as with William Sims and Alfred Mahan, is in writing. And so, regardless of the barriers we face, write we must.

Our Future

Much has been written about the institutionalized pressure on junior officers to “get on board, or get out.” This is manifested in discussions, both in print and in individual counseling sessions, about the narrow, cookie-cutter paths to commanding officer; junior officers that deviate even slightly from “the pipeline” risk abandonment.

Many factors play into the issues of junior officer retention, and for some, the pressures to leave the service are strong. Not surprisingly, few officers want to remain in a service where “ducks pick ducks.” Success in our service often seems to be determined by how well an officer’s career mirrors the prescribed path, while intellectual curiosity gets one a pat on the head or maybe even an adverse FITREP.

Yet these challenges to us as individuals are not insurmountable. It doesn’t matter what we face: we need officers willing to stick their necks out. So what if it’s frowned upon to challenge entrenched ideas that can be improved? So what if your career may be shortened? Most of us joined to sacrifice to serve our country. Perhaps some of us may need to sacrifice our perfect FITREP for the greater good.

The kind of change needed cannot be driven from outside the service. Paradoxically, though we may feel that getting out is best for our individual careers, it is harmful to the service overall. The future of the Navy and Marine Corps will be driven by the strength of the positive insurgency forming in the junior ranks today. We must dare to think, write, and speak–and also to stay in the service, despite the financial and psychological benefits of the private sector. We must join our thoughts and words with the courage required to forge the type of leadership our Navy and Marine Corps deserve.

To be sure, there is a time and a place for opinions and disagreement. Respect must continue to be the rule of the day: respect for rank, experience, and naval culture. Junior officers must continue to master their craft, get qualified, and above all, care for their Sailors and Marines.

Likewise, our generation cannot solve these problems simply by shifting our verbal complaints to paper. We must write with substance, bring forward ideas–even contentious ones–and help each other through the writing process. How and when junior officers write is also important; even William Sims acknowledged the inappropriateness of his letter to the President. Thankfully, the commander-in-chief was able to see past Sims’ youthful follies and identify the intellectual substance present behind his actions.

But these requirements should not preclude junior officers from actively engaging in discussions on the tactics, operations, and strategies they will be called upon to execute, on the culture of the institution that we love, in support of the country that we serve. We should not wait to attend the War College or Postgraduate School to consider who we are, what we are doing, where we are going, and why. We should not allow discouraging leadership and administrative burdens to choke our Navy and muddle our Marine Corps.

Many of our brothers and sisters in arms today and in decades past have paid the ultimate price for protecting our freedoms. They sacrificed their lives in defense of this nation. We can only hope to match their dedication by being willing to put our careers on the line, to “stick our necks out,” to make the service and this country better.

Please join us on Sunday, 16 November 2014 at 5pm (EST, US) for Midrats Episode 254: John A. Nagl: 13 Years into the War:

13 years into the long war, what have we learned, relearned, mastered, forgotten, and retained for future use? What have we learned about ourselves, the nature of our latest enemy, and the role of our nation? What have those who have served learned about their nation, their world, and themselves?

Iraq, Afghanistan, the Islamic State, and the ever changing global national security ecosystem, where are we now, and where are we going?

Our guest for the full hour to discuss this and more will be returning guest John Nagl, LTC US Army (Ret.) D.Phl, using his most recent book Knife Fights: A Memoir of Modern War in Theory and Practice as the starting point for our discussion.

Dr. Nagl is the Ninth Headmaster of The Haverford School. Prior to assuming responsibility for the School in July 2013, he was the inaugural Minerva Research Professor at the U.S. Naval Academy. He was previously the President of the Center for a New American Security. He graduated from the United States Military Academy Class in 1988 and served as an armor officer for 20 years. Dr. Nagl taught at West Point and Georgetown University, and served as a Military Assistant to two Deputy Secretaries of Defense. He earned his Master of the Military Arts and Sciences Degree from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and his doctorate from Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar.

Dr. Nagl is the author of Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam and was on the team that produced the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual.

Join us live if you can or pick the show up later by clicking here. You can also pick the show up later at out iTunes page here, where you can also find the archive of all our previous shows.

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