Archive for the 'Training & Education' Category

The following essay was submitted to the 2015 Capstone Essay Contest by MIDN (now ENS) Steven Hallgren and is published as submitted. This is the first of several essay contest submissions that will be published in the coming weeks.

carrierOn September 25th, 2011 in the Northeastern port city of Dalian, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) brought the newly-refurbished aircraft carrier Liaoning into service.[1] The commissioning came as the result of a decades-long endeavor to acquire such a ship, and perhaps more importantly represented China’s ambitions to establish blue-water naval capabilities. Though the Liaoning itself will only serve as a test bed for Chinese carrier aviation and ostensibly will never see operational service, it nevertheless shows progress towards China’s ultimate goal of bolstering its fleet with home-built carriers.[2] A PLAN fleet with power-projecting aircraft carriers would profoundly expand China’s naval capabilities in the hotly-contested waters of Southeast Asia. As the initial sea trials of Liaoning usher in the age of the Chinese carrier fleet, it is worth examining how the PLAN would employ such assets within its greater maritime strategy.

From a broad perspective, China’s quest for a carrier fleet is a manifestation of its need to defend its territorial claims from foreign threats in much the same way that it had to defend its tremendous landmass from continental threats throughout history. More concrete ideology launched a fervent pursuit of an aircraft carrier dating back to the 1980’s when Soviet-trained Admiral Liu Huaqing began shaping China’s maritime direction.[3] Increasing strain across the Taiwan Strait primarily fueled what he described as the “extremely necessary” urge to manifest China’s maritime—and, ergo, national—power in the form of a carrier.[4] Since the 2000s, waning tensions with Taiwan have shifted China’s maritime focus towards new areas—though the pursuit of a carrier has remained constant.

Liaoning began her peculiar life as Varyag, intended to be an aircraft carrier of the Soviet Navy. Her construction halted with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s, and Varyag was left incomplete to rust in a Ukrainian shipyard until the Chinese purchased the empty hull in 2000. After an elaborate trek out of the Mediterranean and around the world to Dalian, Varyag entered a decade-long refit period, culminating in her renaming and commissioning as Liaoning.[5]

As with many aspects of its military, the PLAN is far from forthcoming with the features and capabilities of its infant carrier. However, its expected specifications can be approximated based on the small amount of information China has released and the Soviet Admiral Kuznetzov class to which Varyag belonged. The carrier will host a modestly-sized air wing totaling around 50 aircraft, divided between J-10 and J-15 fighters and an assortment of helicopters used for anti-electronic warfare (AEW) and anti-submarine warfare (ASW).[6] Additionally, Liaoning’s ship-board weapons include a CIWS defense system, air-defense missiles, and ASW offensive missiles.[7]

In analyzing the impact of carrier developments on the PLAN fleet, care must be taken to avoid falling into the trap of directly comparing Chinese capabilities to those of the American Navy. As a result of this practice, many analysts tend to be overly dismissive of the carrier. [8] While by any measure the Nimitz class aircraft carriers objectively outperform Liaoning, such comparisons are only illuminating insofar as the two ships would be expected to meet each other in combat. Direct naval combat with the American Navy is not only substantially unlikely, but also entirely beyond the strategic maritime scope of the PLAN.[9]

Further, even assuming the current state of Liaoning to be the effective extent of the Chinese carrier program is rather short-sighted. As mentioned previously, the PLAN does not even intend for Liaoning to become an operational ship. That being said, it serves as a useful proxy for future carrier development as it not only will become a “modestly capable” ship in its own right, but will also serve to train the PLAN in the tactics and employment of such an asset.[10] As such, although direct contrast with the more familiar and transparent capabilities of Western navies is simple, a more useful analysis is achieved through a localized assessment of the impact of a PLAN-operated carrier strike group in the Western Pacific. After all, Asian waters currently host a power vacuum waiting to be filled by the first Asian nation with a fully-operational carrier.[11]

Having broadly established the current state of China’s carrier program, the question then becomes how a fleet with operational aircraft carriers would change China’s ability to achieve its strategic maritime objectives. Naturally, the strategy of the Chinese military is every bit as wide-sweeping and nuanced as that of any other major power. Even still, it is possible to observe recurring themes within those plans, isolate the capabilities needed to achieve them, and analyze the extent to which a carrier navy would bolster those capabilities. From a regional security perspective, perhaps two of the most important strategic objectives are China’s desires to establish a broad territorial claim over the South China Sea and to define itself as a major power of the Western Pacific.[12]

China continues to assert ambiguous and expansive territorial authority over the islands and waters of the South China Sea. Its claims have engendered considerable regional maritime disputes over the status of small islands, reefs, and even rocks that now define foreign relations in the Western Pacific. China’s maritime neighbors and several members of the international community continually contest China’s state position to prevent it from becoming legitimized.[13] One of the primary means by which China strengthens its position in such disputes is through its own maritime patrols conducted by the PLAN.[14] Such patrols aim to simultaneously use military force to assert control over the region while also effectively deterring its Pacific neighbors from doing the same. Analysts typically categorize such operations as anti-access/area denial (A2/AD), which describes the general maritime strategy of restricting competitive access to a region.

Ultimately, A2AD campaigns and the defense of territorial claims fundamentally cannot be supported entirely from shore. As a case study, consider the Johnson South Reef Skirmish fought between China and Vietnam in 1988. The Spratly Islands are just one of the numerous contested territories that China lays claim to. These islands, located over 1,000 nautical miles from the Chinese mainland, are also claimed by Vietnam, among other parties in the region.[15] When a skirmish broke out between the two nations, the Chinese faced unexpected difficulties countering attacks on their fleet by Vietnamese aircraft.

During the conflict, Chinese aircraft had to operate from a distant Chinese-controlled airfield. The transit time from the base to the area of operation was so long that the aircraft were left with only four to five minutes of time on station, dramatically limiting their effectiveness against their Vietnamese adversaries. Admiral Chen Weiwen, a commander during the battle, noted later that “if…we had our own [air] cover from a nearby aircraft carrier, we would simply not have had to fear Vietnam’s air force.”[16] Land-based assets play a critical role in their own time and place, but that place is frankly not in rapidly changing, forward operating areas.

Aircraft carriers are occasionally caricatured as being “several thousand tons of diplomacy,” but the aphorism does hold weight. In the Spratly scenario as with the rest of China’s maritime claims, no act of diplomacy or demonstration of force can compare to moving an aircraft carrier on station. For one, even the mere presence of a carrier would be a deterrent against further escalation, as the resource allocation would demonstrate China’s commitment to the claim. Moreover, the capabilities the carrier brings would be better able to respond to emergent threats than perhaps any other tool in the Chinese arsenal. This combination makes the aircraft carrier virtually indispensable for the preservation of maritime claims. In fact, the United States routinely employs its carriers for this exact purpose, as demonstrated by the stationing of the USS Nimitz and USS Independence off the coast of Taiwan during the height of cross-strait tensions in the mid-90s.[17]

Simultaneously, China has shown interest in becoming the leading nation in the region beyond merely maintaining territorial control. The PLAN has noticeably shifted its development efforts towards acquiring naval capabilities beyond mere defense and offense, to include the mission sets of counterpiracy and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HADR).[18] Such military operations other than war (MOOTW) on behalf of the international community require the foundational capabilities of forward presence and power projection coupled with the platforms and equipment necessary to carry out such tasking.

Accordingly, the utility of aircraft carriers extends far beyond strictly military endeavors. For the same reasons that they are vital to power projecting operations, carriers can also play an instrumental role in virtually any military staging operation far from home. China will almost certainly employ carriers to expand its gradually growing peacekeeping and HADR mission set. Recently, the PLAN has only just begun to dip its toes into these waters. Since 2008, the PLAN has continuously participated in counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, marking its first foray into conducting open-water MOOTWs.[19]

Such operations ultimately are diplomatic tools used to not only strengthen China’s reputation in the international community, but also to establish China as a major regional power. While counter-piracy operations can be effectively conducted with a frigate- and destroyer-based fleet such as China currently has, the addition of aircraft carriers into its arsenal opens up substantially more potential MOOTWs.

Consider again an example from the United States. In 2011 after Japan was rocked by an earthquake and tsunami, the United States started Operation Tomodachi to provide HADR support to the region. USS Ronald Reagan served as the centerpiece of naval resources and manpower during this operation and coordinated rescue efforts for nearly one month off the coast of Japan.[20] Arguably only an aircraft carrier could offer the combination of endurance, flexibility, and capability required for such a long-term coordinated effort. A PLAN equipped with an aircraft carrier and a healthy complement of rotary wing assets would be capable of conducting similar HADR operations in the South China Sea. The regular completion of such operations would indisputably mark China as a dominant power in the region, and may even fundamentally alter the perceptions Southeast Asian nations have towards China.

Possessing an aircraft carrier is a tremendously potent tool of diplomacy in a way comparable perhaps only to developing nuclear weapons. Though the PLAN’s carrier program is by all accounts still in its infancy, it is maturing rapidly. As initial carrier training is conducted on board Liaoning, reports indicate that work has already begun on China’s first home-built carrier.[21] The reality of a Chinese carrier fleet is no longer a question of “if” so much as “when.” Whether that fleet would pose a legitimate threat to a US carrier strike group is immaterial. A PLAN with carriers will irreparably alter the nature of Southeast Asian relations and indeed the face that China presents to the world.


[1]. Ananth Krishnan, “China Commissions First Aircraft Carrier Liaoning,” The Hindu, 26 September 2012,


[2]. Stew Magnuson, “China’s Navy Takes Great Leap Forward,” National Defense Industrial Association, April 2014,


[3]. Captain Bernard D. Cole, USN, “Drawing Lines at Sea,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 137, no. 11 (November 2011), 48-51

[4]. Ian Storey and You Ji, “China’s Aircraft Carrier Ambitions,” Naval War College Review, Vol. 57, no. 1 (Winter 2004), 76-93.

[5]. Captain Bernard D. Cole, USN, “China’s Carrier: The Basics,” U.S. Naval Institute News, 27 November 2012,

[6]. “Liaoning (Varyag) Aircraft Carrier, China,” Naval Technology,

[7]. Ibid.

[8] See, for instance, James R. Holmes, “Top 5 Reasons Not to Ballyhoo China’s Carrier,” The Diplomat, 2 October 2012,

[9]. Bryan McGrath and Seth Cropsey, “The Real Reason China Wants Aircraft Carriers,” Real Clear Defense, 16 April 2014,


[10]. Andrew S. Erickson et al., “Beijing’s ‘Starter Carrier’ and Future Steps,” Naval War College Review, vol. 65, no. 1 (Winter 2012), 15-54.

[11]. Donald Kirk, “Asian Aircraft Carrier Race—China Vs. India Vs. Japan,” Forbes Magazine, 13 August 2013,

[12]. Vice Admiral R.N. Ganesh, Indian Navy, “Maritime Ambitions of China”, Indian Defense Review, 19 February 2013,


[13]. Kevin Baumert and Brian Melchior, “Maritime Claims in the South China Sea,” Office of Ocean and Polar Affairs, U.S. Department of State, 5 December 2014,


[14]. Peter Dutton, “Three Disputes and Three Objectives: China and the South China Sea,” Naval War College Review, vol. 64, no. 4 (Autumn 2011), 42-67.

[15]. “China’s Activities in Southeast Asia and the Implications for U.S. Interests,” United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 4 February 2010,

[16]. Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins, “Introducing the Liaoning: China’s New Aircraft Carrier and What it Means,” The Wall Street Journal, 25 September 2012,


[17]. Chun W. Chiang, “Crisis Management in the Taiwan Strait,” U.S. Army War College, 7 April 2003,

[18]. Ronald O’Rourke, “China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Naval Capabilities – Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, 23 December 2014,

[19]. Zhou Bo, “Counter-piracy in the Gulf of Aden: Implications for PLA Navy,” China-United States Exchange Foundation, 30 December 2013,


[20]. Ryan Zielonka et al., “Chronology of Operation Tomodachi,” The National Bureau of Asian Research,

[21]. Charles Clover, “China Media Confirm Second Aircraft Carrier,” Financial Times, 10 March 2015,

Please join us on 12 July 2015 at 5pm (EDT, U.S.) for Midrats Episode 288: “The Between the Ears Challenge”:

Are the growing feelings of crisis, confusion and strategic drift in the national security arena not so much the result of external challenges, but the result of poor thinking and intellectual habits on our part?

Using his article in The National Interest, “The Real Problem with the American Military” as a starting point, our guest for the full hour will be Dakota Wood, Senior Research Fellow on Defense Programs at The Heritage Foundation.

Dakota L. Wood, LtCol USMC (Ret.), Senior Research Fellow for Defense Programs at The Heritage Foundation.

Dakota served two decades in the U.S. Marine Corps. Following retirement, Mr. Wood served as a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Most recently, Mr. Wood served as the Strategist for the U.S. Marine Corps’ Special Operations Command.

Mr. Wood holds a Bachelor of Science in Oceanography from the U.S. Naval Academy; a Master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the College of Naval Command and Staff, U.S. Naval War College.

Join the show live if you can or pick it up later by clicking here. You will also be able to find the show later at our iTunes page here.

As a Junior Officer, it was very enjoyable to drive for an Underway Replenishment (UNREP) – with the sole exception, that is, of trying to make sense of the Radian Rule. I have strong memories of my attempts to internalize the relationship between the bearings and ranges. There always seemed to be one, but I never quite made it to a coherent understanding until much later in sea duty years. As an XO and CO recently, I finally had a more mature understanding of this important ship driving principle as well as numerous opportunities to train and coach Midshipmen and Junior Officers during UNREP events. In this article, I’d like to share a few approaches that take advantage of a more nuanced understanding of this well-known guidance.

The Radian Rule Equation and Its Uses

The rule of thumb that’s encoded in every table of Radian Rule values is laid out below. There are several ways to capitalize on this understanding as the team is either preparing for or executing an UNREP approach. I’ll start with a couple of the more common ones and then introduce three favored approaches to the problem. As a baseline assumption, the goal distance I’ll use for alongside separation is 180 ft. I think you’ll see soon, however, that they work equally well for any alongside separation distance.

Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 6.35.01 PM

Common Techniques

Technique #1: Make a List

 Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 6.34.24 PMFrom a new Conning Officer’s point of view, this was a fairly common approach to the problem of understanding and using the Radian Rule. Many Junior Officers arrived for both the brief and the evolution with a list of bearings and ranges that would indicate the ship was on track for the desired separation. Such a list might look like this:

Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 6.34.15 PM

This technique works well if the team is able to verify bearing to the oiler at each of the yardage milestones on the list, since a single data point is seldom as valuable as a series of consecutive observations. This method is less useful if the range for a given observation isn’t one of the milestones, or if the team misses a milestone.

Technique #2: Use a Radian Rule Table to Determine Separation Distance

This technique is by far the most common, and involves a third party (typically a Quartermaster) looking up each bearing and range combination in a table similar to the excerpt shown below. While it ensures that each data point is useful in determining the overall trend of the ship’s relative motion with respect to the oiler, this method – in my opinion – doesn’t help substantially to develop the Conning Officer’s understanding of that motion. Stated differently, the difference between a good and a great Conning Officer is the ability to add his/her own evaluation of a situation to the input they get from the rest of the bridge team. I believe there are more effective ways (discussed further below) to build this capability in our Junior Officers.

Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 6.34.53 PM

A Note on Advanced Techniques

Techniques #3 – #5 have one prominent feature in common – they all depend on mental math. While this may present a challenge, there are several advantages to these methods. First, mental math promotes independent judgment by the Conning Officer and/or coach for each observation throughout the approach evolution. Second, the mental math in these methods requires that the Conning Officer and/or coach build a mental model of the relative motion and internalize the relationships among bearing, range, and lateral separation. Third, from the Conning Officer’s point of view, these techniques offer a different way to learn the evolution and may appeal more intuitively to certain Officers. Finally, from the coach’s point of view, these techniques offer yet another mental tool for dispassionately evaluating the sight picture and ensuring the bridge team is appropriately focused on providing good inputs to the Conning Officer.

With these points in mind, I’ll introduce three non-traditional techniques. Each of these relies on the Conning Officer’s and coach’s ability to mentally exploit various forms of the baseline Radian Rule equation.

Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 6.35.01 PM

Advanced Techniques

Technique #3: “The Rule of 3600”

This technique works well in concert with either Approach #1 or #2 above. Since the separation distance for which we’re aiming is a constant (180 ft in this case), the right side of the equation becomes a constant:

Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 6.35.25 PM

Click to view full size image

Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 6.54.34 PM

Simplifying the Radian Rule equation, then, we get the following:

Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 6.54.42 PM

For any combination of bearing and range, we can multiply them and compare them to 3600. If the product is less than 3600, the ship is approaching the oiler at something less than 180 ft of separation. If the product is greater than 3600, the ship will approach the oiler wide of 180 ft separation. A few examples below illustrate this principle.


Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 6.54.50 PM

While it’s an imperfect measure, this technique allows the Conning Officer to corroborate his or her visual judgment with a quick check of the math, and then to combine those judgments with either of the first two approaches to refine the solution. This technique is very flexible with respect to desired separation distance, as well. If the goal is 200 ft, for instance, then the constant becomes 4000. Finally, this technique provides a good gateway to the next two approaches.

Technique #4: “Where Should You Be Right Now”

With range as an input, the Conning Officer works out the bearing he or she expects to see and then compares that prediction to reality (measured bearing separation). Direction and magnitude of any required course corrections follow relatively easily. The baseline equation, solved for bearing, follows.

Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 6.35.38 PM

This technique is a modification of technique #1, and it has two principal benefits. First, it helps the Conning Officer avoid the persistent need to divert attention from the approach to consult a list of bearings and ranges. Second, it helps to build the Conning Officer’s and/or coach’s comfort with mental math.

Technique #5: “Predict the Separation”

This technique is a modification of technique #3 and an extension of technique #4, using a different arrangement of the equation to anticipate the estimated separation for each bearing and range combination. Solving the Radian Rule equation for separation, the expression becomes:

Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 6.35.45 PM

Once the Conning Officer is adept at the mental math of multiplying the bearing and range, the only remaining step is to divide by 20. The simplest way to do this is to remove a zero and divide by two. A sample is shown below.

Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 6.35.50 PM

This is a mental math version of Approach #2. While this is more difficult than any of the four previous techniques, the principal benefit to this approach is that it gives the Conning Officer and/or coach convenient tools to mentally evaluate the geometry they are seeing on the bow. For the Conning Officer, the nuanced context available from each observation constructively builds the spatial judgment and physical intuition we call Seaman’s Eye. This technique allows the Conning Officer to take maximum advantage of sometimes-scarce evolutions and reinforces a more subtle understanding of the relative motion between ships that sometimes eludes the most seasoned veterans. I found it to be tougher than the other techniques to teach and use, at least at first, but it was infinitely more rewarding when the Conning Officer understood it and was able to use it.


It takes time and effort to learn how to safely conn the ship alongside. Proven techniques that have propelled ships alongside safely for decades are available to those who will take the time to learn and use them, and they can be improved with a small investment in systematic thinking about the geometry built into the evolution. Techniques #3 – #5 suggest ways to exploit the mathematical relationships inherent to the Radian Rule that offer two significant benefits. First, they build confidence in coaches by encouraging a more intuitive understanding of the relative motion throughout the UNREP approach. Second, they help build Seaman’s Eye in our Junior Officers by sharing those insights with the fertile minds of the Officers who drive the ship most frequently, and who are most apt to exploit them effectively.

IMG_0250Innovation is the buzzword of the day in naval circles. On the heels of Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus’ “Task Force Innovation,” even Senator John McCain is calling out for innovation in the armed forces. The latter recently signaled the alarm bell in Wired magazine, paraphrasing a famous campaign line by stating, “the Pentagon confronts an emerging innovation gap.”

These leaders often cite the example of Silicon Valley, the mecca of small start-up companies and modern American entrepreneurism. The thinking goes that, if only our services could exude more “disruptive thinking,” or acquire systems faster, or flatten organizational structures—then we will achieve success.

Yet the US Navy is not a small start-up. And while many of our Sailors and Marines have great ideas that will impact technology and Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTP) across the range of military operations, there is an insidious creep arising amid the growing “innovation gap:” central planning.

Successful innovation in the Navy has no program office, no resource sponsor. Yet as Congress and leaders begin to demand or expect it, we are in danger of morphing the ingenuity of individuals into “capital-I Innovation.” One can imagine a fate not too dissimilar to that of acquisition versus Acquisition.

Since his speech at the Sea Air Space conference in April, SECNAV has been regularly posting memoranda on his website. Each document contains background information on a particular area—robotics, for example—and then a list of “shall” accomplish requirements for the Chief of Naval Operations and Commandant of the Marine Corps, all to be completed by a specified date.

Make no mistake: this is an important advancement for our Navy. Introducing an element of outside-the-box thinking from on high is part of what our service needs.

But “shall” actions with a defined deadline miss the point of innovation. In fact, the concept of innovation itself stands at odds with the increasingly managerial, assembly-line service we live in. True innovation has no timeline; good ideas and products are tied to neither the Fleet Readiness Training Plan (FRTP) nor the Joint Capabilities Integration Development System (JCIDS). Few people, if any, whether they were in Silicon Valley or their parents’ garage, ever woke up and said, “By tomorrow, I am going to come up with a revolutionary idea.”

Instead of attempting to mandate innovation with deadlines and taskers, Senator McCain and Secretary Mabus should be leading discussions in three important areas:

First, how does the Navy deal with questions? SECNAV is already talking about this, but it is important to have a larger discussion on the topic. Failure to attain qualifications and expertise in rate or platform can still be unacceptable, but what about the few who show up to quarters with ideas on how to make their small corner of the Navy better, more efficient? What about the folks who constructively ask, “Why are we doing it this way?” We should expect excellence in systems and tactics, while also having the capacity to challenge our people to suggest and implement improvements in those systems and tactics. Connecting like-minded service members and making more centers for experimentation available are part of the solution, but so is leadership—from the LPO and Department Head level and beyond— that looks at its “quirky” sailors less as nuisances and more as potential assets.

Second, how does the Navy deal with failure? Operational Risk Management, or ORM, is championed around the Fleet and seems to be a mainstay in everything from work center training to holiday safety briefs. But what do we do with officers or enlisted sailors who have the right intentions and either attempt to push their platforms too far or have a momentary lapse in judgment? Our current zero-defect mentality belies our naval history: Admiral Nimitz, one of our most storied heroes of WWII, ran his first ship aground as a young lieutenant. He was allowed to continue his service, and a court-martial declared that “he is a good officer and will probably take more care in the future.” Have our platforms become so expensive, and has our fear of public relations become so pervasive, that we would fire today’s sailors in a similar predicament? What does that say about the leadership we are actually cultivating? Not all failure is catastrophic or should be treated as such.

Third, what do we do with innovative service members? Can a tinker-sailor-leader-innovator become a commanding officer of a ship, submarine, or aviation squadron if she accepts shore tour orders to a billet in ONR or the Pentagon? What if she delivers benefits to Navy platforms or TTPs while she is in this “non-production billet?” This will speak more to interested sailors—and to coaxing a groundswell of innovation—than dictates from above.

Senator McCain is right in his op-ed: our services need acquisition reform. This is a large part of the solution towards adapting to the pace of technological change.

But the greatest advancement that the Senator or Secretary Mabus could make is to view the current innovation movement not as a program of record or urgent operational need (UON), but rather as a core operating concept. We want a service that is more lethal, agile, and responsive without shelling over outrageous sums to defense contractors. Sailors and civilians, whether they are in the Fleet or in the Pentagon, are capable of outstanding innovation to that end. They need the inspiration to try, make mistakes, and carry on without fear for their jobs or their fitness reports.

This requires no act of Congress and should not be passed down through memoranda. Rather, it is a discussion to have and a change in thinking required both in the halls of the Capitol Building and throughout the Fleet. We must move from a service dictated by metrics and managers to a team inspired by leaders. This is the paradigm shift required for our Navy to move forward in this century.

Three months after the unveiling of “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower,” or CS-21R, America’s sea services are busy as ever. While the document did not change much from its predecessor, it has elicited questions from junior officers and enlisted around the fleet, such as “how does it impact my immediate job?” and “we still get MIDRATS, right?”

CS-21R is a must-read for officers and enlisted of every rank and rate. It paints a compelling picture of naval operations in this century that can help answer some of the “Why are we here and what are we doing?” questions we frequently ponder.

Although it is a strategic document, CS-21R has implications for warfighters at the tactical level. The actions of individual sailors and aviators on ships, submarines, aircraft, and on the ground can have a marked effect on the efficacy of our naval strategy. While the following list is not all-inclusive, it does serve to highlight how those executing at the tactical level of warfare can help achieve more widespread success and competency across both our service and the joint force.


1) Know your OPTASKs, OPORDs, PPRs, CCIRs, etc. Don’t rely on the roving Air Wing or Strike Group brief or the cockpit cheat sheet; actually read the documents, comprehend them, and help others do the same.

2) Understand the intelligence and “battlespace awareness” process. Most ships, squadrons, and other units have intelligence officers, but many are not using these individuals to their full potential. Remember that your Information Dominance Corps (IDC) officer hasn’t gone through flight training or your warfare-specific school but they have been trained to help improve your knowledge of the threats you may face or the people you may interact with. Help them understand what you do, and take the time to really understand what they do and need from you. What reports are they making with your information? How can you use your sensor to give them a better product and achieve mission success? They are as much a part of the kill chain or the OODA loop as you.

3) Never rest on your laurels. Constantly strive to consider how each platform and operator influences your sphere of operation. You should work for a symbiotic relationship as much as possible; for example, understanding the operation of radio equipment onboard a destroyer can help an F/A-18 pilot better communicate across the range of operations, throughout the battlespace. This is not an assignment that will be doled out to you by some prescient being; you must actively work to create your own synergy. Pick up the phone, send an E-mail, or walk to a space and take time to do thorough coordination.

4) No platform is an island. Do not do your job alone; you must work to include all other service, joint, and increasingly, multi-national operators in your processes and procedures. The time to “get on the same page” is before bullets and bombs start flying. Each squadron, department, and division should have applicable contacts in other units performing similar missions. For example, E-2C squadrons should proactively establish a dialogue with all elements of theater command and control, including AWACS, JSTARS, CAOC, CDC, and ASOC. This can either be “tasked” by a higher headquarters or voluntarily initiated by the unit itself; either way, make contact early, and keep it often.

5) Figure out how to do a Spartan mission. The Electromagnetic Spectrum is being legitimately contested by near-peer nations and non-state actors; this may have serious consequences as our military relies more and more on complex systems and trends towards technological complacency. Paper charts, communications brevity, and even lights and signals remain important media for mission accomplishment in extremis. Excellence in operating in information- and network-denied environments is crucial. This aptitude is not easily measured, but is essential to real unit readiness.

6) Take time to understand unit, service, theater, and national Command and Control (C2). More than bullets or bombs, information is the most critical commodity in today’s conflicts. How does that information flow? Where does it go? Who communicates? What is the dwell time of each communication? What is each communication supposed to sound like? Why does it behave this way? Taking time to understand “who’s who in the zoo” and establish good relationships can be the difference between success and failure in critical phases of combat.

7) Get innovative with mission planning. It is important to understand and respect the past actions of the threat, but always consider how the threat may evolve to catch you off guard when you least expect it. As General Stanley McChrystal advises in his book Team of Teams, “data-rich records can be wonderful for explaining how complex phenomena happened and how they might happen, but they can’t tell us when and where they will happen.” Be smarter than your enemy, not just more technologically advanced.

8) Leverage unmanned systems to maximize your lethality and effectiveness and to improve your survivability. Surveillance feeds from unmanned air and surface craft can also increase situational awareness, especially as platforms operate across domains (such as when a surface ship fires a Tomahawk missile at a land target, or a manned rotary wing aircraft is executing surface search against maritime targets).

9) The network is a means, not an end. Too many entities act with the belief that “the network will save us.” Use it for leverage, or to quicken your reaction time and increase situational awareness. But remember that you can’t fire a network at a ballistic missile or unidentified surface contact.

10) Ensure a thorough understanding among all theater players of your TTPs. NIFC-CA and other concepts increase the complexity of operations. Leverage capabilities and technology but keep the plan simple. This goes beyond immediate mission planning—ensure a level of understanding throughout all theater players on your TTPs and capabilities. If you are on the ground, and the only asset you can contact for air support does not understand what you are asking or speak your particular “language,” the time for teaching may be extracted at a price.

Tactical actions have strategic consequences.

Read. Think. Write. Debate. Then, Operate.

Midshipmen have a hunger to learn and to exert ourselves intellectually. We want our lectures to simulate the level of in-depth analysis that will be expected of us in the Fleet.

We are second-class midshipmen at the US Naval Academy who, after eight combined semesters of 20-credit course loads, want more out of the Academy’s academic mission. We believe that the academic curriculum should remain challenging, but that it can be tailored with an emphasis on developing midshipmen into problem solvers. We understand there is currently a conversation in the upper echelons of Navy leadership about reenergizing the Naval Academy curriculum. We offer our opinions to provide experience-based input into these discussions.


The Naval Academy’s “Tecumseh Court”

Consider what many midshipmen perceive as one of the most mundane courses at the Naval Academy: navigation. Imagine if instead of passively listening to the lecture, our weekly assignment includes perusing the New York Times, selecting hotspots around the world that will likely elicit a US Navy presence. What Numbered Fleet claims responsibility for this area?
What capabilities do we have to respond? Logistically, how is the response executed? What grand strategy is associated with this response? What are the responsibilities on a junior officer level? Lessons are most engaging when the instructors are able to incorporate their own Fleet experiences to illustrate the relevance of the course material. The navigation instructors have the experience to take our thinking to the next level.

Integration of practical skills, professional knowledge, and complex international relations is key to engaging midshipmen in a productive manner. The majority of students sulk through the seamanship and navigation program uninspired and apathetic. Let’s revitalize these core classes to provoke thought and excitement about their future responsibilities as Navy and Marine Corps officers.

This renaissance can extend to the entire core curriculum, to include not only social sciences but also courses in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). The academic culture of the Academy is currently no different than any other civilian college or university, where the core knowledge is learned in order to pass the class and to graduate. As future officers, these courses have the potential to not only give us baseline proficiency in the sciences, but to develop us into better problem solvers. Our objective is not to simply learn the material, but to practice a way of thinking representative of Navy and Marine Corps officers. Our core classes ought to have deeper value: developing an analytical thought pattern that will be applied to our future careers. The core does not need to be dry; it should be there to encourage critical thinking in all realms. Both the strategic implications of a surface warfare mission, as in navigation class, and the way we solve our physics problems are related in how we approach a situation.

Academics represent something more than just a grade; they are a critical proving ground for developing the way future officers solve problems and communicate ideas. Instruction at the Naval Academy must challenge midshipmen to think, to ask us the unanswerable questions and require us to defend our conclusion. There is a symbiotic triad between students, faculty and the institution that needs to exist for this atmosphere to be achieved. It is just as much the midshipman’s job to become individually invested in the material as it is for the faculty to stimulate productive discussion and the institution to revamp the curriculum to match the intellectual expectations of the Fleet.

We understand that there is a balance between time demands, quotas from the Fleet, logistical considerations of the curriculum and the egalitarian nature of the Naval Academy. We are not suggesting a heavier academic workload, or that the solution rests with a single group. Our goal is to spark a discussion on how to better foster a culture that produces critical thinkers which is collaborative between midshipmen, faculty, and the institution. By offering an opinion from a midshipman’s perspective, we hope to draw others into the conversation. The first step towards an environment conducive to this culture shift is a dialogue about how to maximize our four years in Annapolis.

Junior officers are expected to be professional problem solvers. The mission of the Naval Academy is to produce the most competent officers. Allow us to better uphold the mission by integrating this mentality into the classroom. To be proficient in this skill set, we need to practice now. Challenge us to think, to learn, and to take a vested interest in our futures as Navy and Marine Corps officers. We will match your level of intellectual intensity.

The fifth season of the HBO hit-series Game of Thrones is here! I’m excited, as are millions of die-hard fans across the country. To prepare for the imminent launch, I re-watched all four of the previous seasons, episode by episode. In that first season, an interesting event takes place, where a young man, Jon Snow, is given his duty assignment. He is about to take an oath to serve for life in the Night’s Watch. He has prepared for years to be a Ranger – a fighter and swordsman. Instead he is assigned as a Steward. Jon Snow is crushed. He hasn’t taken the oath of service yet, and he contemplates leaving the Night’s Watch to avoid a life of inglorious servitude as a steward. His friend Sam convinces him to stay, reminding him that service is about more than his own selfish desires. Jon Snow takes the oath later in the episode.

Graduation OathIt brought me back to my own service selection. I dreamed for years and years of becoming a Marine Corps Officer. At the Naval Academy that fateful day in November of 2009, I received troubling news – I had been selected to become a Surface Warfare Officer. Over the years since I have often been asked if I wanted to become a SWO. My standard reply is that it was one of my top six choices. The humor gets me through the moment, and the conversation moves on.

I’m working now at the Academy, preparing to take over as a company officer this summer, just in time for the Plebe Class of 2019 to arrive for I-Day. I am a proud Surface Warfare Officer and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I have been to more overseas ports than I can count over two deployments, have navigated tens of thousands of miles at sea, and served with some of the bravest, smartest and most loyal Sailors the world has ever seen.

Much of the conversation within the walls of the Academy frequently turns to an age-old symptom of the institution – cynicism within the Brigade. Midshipmen sometimes complain that they aren’t treated like future naval officers and that they aren’t doing real work to prepare themselves to become the leaders of those fine Sailors and Marines. “I’m going to fly jets, why do I need to learn about buoy systems in the Western Rivers” is just one example. In teaching leadership on the yard, we strive for every class to fight that mentality, to prove to these young Midshipmen that their training is exceptional and that they will be well prepared to lead upon commissioning. Sometimes I fear that we aren’t doing enough, that the Midshipmen are right, and that we are sending our future junior officers to the fleet without the preparation needed to fulfill their duties. For the graduating Midshipmen, winter is coming, and many aren’t ready to handle a sword.

I don’t know entirely where the cynicism comes from, but I have a theory. Everything for these Midshipmen centers around one key event – service selection. Competition is fierce within the Brigade. Classmates vie for position and jossle for rank as if they were in Westeros, the fictional land of Game of Thrones. There are only so many slots for SEALs, Marines, Submariners, Aviators, and today even SWOs. Midshipmen study diligently to get good grades, so that their order of merit is high enough to get the service selection they want. Many spend more effort on good grades to earn that service selection, but in doing so disregard the very skill sets required to be successful naval officers – pro-knowledge is an afterthought and weighted minimally when compared to calculus and chemistry. The drive for service assignment goes beyond academics, of course. They perform with vigor on the PT fields to notch themselves up for the same purpose. Those wanting Marines join the Semper Fi Society, those seeking to become SEALs test themselves and compete against their classmates in arduous screeners.

That day in November, the Firsties learn their fates. Most are overjoyed – a good thing, no doubt. A few feel despair. These are the ones we should worry about. These are the examples that feed the cynicism – working hard may not be enough. These are the few who enter the fleet sullen, downcast and doubtful. These are the ones most unprepared for their future roles, having spent all of their efforts learning about fire team movements and squad assaults instead of honing their shiphandling skills on the YPs. These are the few who, in my opinion, are the least likely to commit themselves to a full career of service and will leave at the earliest opportunity.

Even those who earn their top choice are too hastily prepared for the training to be effective, meaning that the Chief’s Mess, Department Heads, and Commanding Officers are burdened with teaching junior officers skillsets and professional knowledge they should have mastered at the Naval Academy. The unit leadership should be focused on advanced training – on defeating multiple threats simultaneously, mastering complex engineering systems and conditioning our new Ensigns and Second Lieutenants to become outstanding naval leaders. Instead, they are too busy teaching standard commands, basic maintenance protocols and general military socialization.

What if we changed something? What if we moved service selection to the end of Youngster (sophomore) year? By that time, Midshipmen will have been able to establish their grades, competed in screeners, etc., at least enough for the Academy to choose wisely between them. We could move PROTRAMID, a fleet-wide round-robin experience to expose the Midshipmen to the various communities to the end of Plebe year, just like the NROTC currently does, to allow our new Youngsters the opportunity to see what fits them best. Most Plebes know what they want to service select before they climb Herndon, while the rest of the class would have another year to weigh the decision.

This change has several notable benefits. First, it eliminates competition amongst classmates during their junior and senior years, allowing for greater opportunity to hone leadership and professional skills in Bancroft. Second, it provides two full years, instead of a meager four months, for Midshipmen to hone their practical skills, affording them the chance to excel in tactical and technical competence from day one in the fleet. Marine selectees will have two years to practice ground tactics. Aviators have two years to pass IFS, easing the burden on Pensacola and the subsequent stashing of officers on the Yard until flight school begins. SWOs can master navigation and shiphandling before setting foot on the bridge of a destroyer. Third, if we rearrange the course loads, we can eliminate the cynicism that arises from taking courses that Midshipmen see as irrelevant, such as Marine wannabes having to struggle through seamanship and navigation courses. Fourth, and possibly most importantly, it allows Midshipmen a choice. They now know what they will be doing for their careers and if those few who don’t earn what they want choose to leave before signing their commitment papers the next Fall, the fleet will benefit from a drop in uncommitted and unenthusiastic naval officers. If a Midshipman is so disappointed in his or her service assignment, he or she doesn’t have to come back to poison the well back in Bancroft, or worse yet, carry that attitude into the fleet. Furthermore, by encouraging choice, we disrupt cynicism about being treated like children – a Midshipmen knows full-well what he or she is getting into when they sign on the line which is dotted.

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus recently spoke to the brigade about a number of institutional changes aimed at improving talent management and retention. He mentioned that the Academy is already moving towards a system that seeks to match talent to title and is less dependent on class rank. He and his staff clearly understand that change is needed, not only for its effect on the yard but also downrange in the fleet. This proposal provides an avenue for that change, even if it is one of many. In combat, a coordinated simultaneous time-on-top attack is always preferred to a slew of single efforts and I believe that changing the timeframe for service selection is a key weapon in the fight against complacency and cynicism to ensure we maintain the highest level of combat readiness throughout the fleet. Even if our ships rust and our airframes crack, our people must remain sharp and steadfast.

Choice is nobody’s enemy. While I don’t have the same flowing locks and sword skills as Jon Snow, I empathize with his decision. I didn’t want to be a SWO, at least not initially, but my call to service outweighed my selfishness. I figured that if I was going to be a SWO, I would try my damndest to excel at it. Under this proposed change, there will still be plenty of disappointed Midshipmen who put their country before themselves and will accept what they earned with grace and humility. They will remember that service and leadership are what count, not the uniform they wear or the devices on their chest.

RTabTesm_400x400Billy Hurley discusses his time at the Naval Academy, his best moment in the U.S. Navy navigating the Suez Canal, his strong ties to his PGA sponsors and fellow players who support the military.

To the 2015 graduating class, “It’s just beginning now…as a Division Officer on a ship…how can you lead them…inspire them…how can you improve them?”

Did he hit golf balls off of a ship?

Seth Robertson and Viet Tran, electrical and computer engineering students, test their sound-blasting fire extinguisher prototype. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

Seth Robertson and Viet Tran, electrical and computer engineering students, test their sound-blasting fire extinguisher prototype. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

Water, PKP, CO2, Halon, and AFFF are what we use to extinguish fire (I didn’t miss one, did I?). AFFF shouldn’t really count as it’s own method, since water is still the medium in which AFFF is applied.

A clear eyed view of using water to extinguish flame on a ship floating in water–or a submarine suspended in water–is rather perplexing and counterintuitive, practicality notwithstanding. Especially in regards to the reality that air pressure can now be utilized to extinguish flames.

Reports of using sound waves to extinguish flames date back to 2004, when the University of West Georgia demonstrated the banality of Nickelback the ability of low frequencies to extinguish a candle. In turn, by 2011/12 DARPA then further demonstrated the capability. DARPA’s demonstrator appears large and impractical for real-world applications, but clearly and audibly shows fire being extinguished by nothing more than moving air in a specific way (specific Sound Pressure Level and frequencies).

In the last year, two engineering students from George Mason University built upon work done by other researchers and DARPA, and built a handheld technology demonstrator that is capable of putting out small fires.

There’s still a lot of testing that needs to be done–this technology has to be falsified to establish the limits of what types of casualties are capable of being combated. But, the benefits of this technology fill a few niches that existing technologies do not.

Foremost in my mind is the potential application of this technology in submarines. The closed atmosphere seems poorly suited for introducing particulates like PKP, and unbreathable CO2. Submarines are suspended far below the surface making the notion of affecting the buoyancy by fighting fire with water border on a crazy but necessary evil.

Viet and Seth, the inventors of the handheld device in the above video seem to have produced their prototype for $600. Which should be a small enough price point to allow some real experimentation. We could procure 10-15 of these extinguishers, give them to the DC-men at the Naval Training Centers, and tell them to falsify this technology. We’d ask them to establish what we can and cannot do with this technology, how it could augment our existing fire fighting capabilities, and how the technology should evolve from this demonstrator to a tool ready for the Fleet. Additionally, building an array of transducers into the overhead of an engine room could provide a wide-area suppression system similar to the AFFF systems already installed.

No de-watering after securing from a casualty. No wiping CO2 ‘flakes’ off electrical equipment. Theoretically, the only thing on the MRC for this unit would be checking the battery charge level and the material condition of the transducer. There are significant benefits to adopting this rapidly maturing technology, and I believe it behooves us as a Navy to explore this technology and adopt it.


We are often quick to judge, in forums such as this. When one makes a mistake, exhibits an error in judgment, or nonsensically hews to an outdated tradition, we tend to skewer that person and then enunciate all of the ways it should have been done. We are amateur critics in a profession of arms.

secnav_response_photoBut these forums can also be places where we give thanks. And today, we give hearty thanks to the many hundreds of officers and enlisted whose efforts resulted in Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus’s speech at the United States Naval Academy on Wednesday. For the first time in years, the US Navy is instituting sweeping changes to reform the way we manage talent and retain our people.

For those unfamiliar, some of these policy shifts include:

-A market-based system for service selection and billets
-Expand the Command Advancement Program by replacing it with the Meritorious Advancement Program
-End GMT requirements via NKO; leave training to CO discretion
-Increase civilian graduate school and industry opportunities
-Replace promotion zones with weighted milestone achievements
-Eliminate year groups for officer management and promotion
-Changes to the PFA, including how we determine acceptable body composition
-FITREP changes for performance
-24-hour access to fitness facilities
-Increase hours at child care facilities
-Improve the co-location policy

To be sure, these efforts will not be without critics; some of them require the acquiescence of Congress. These efforts will not be without some confusion, as sailors attempt to get used to a new way of advancing or running the PRT. And these efforts will not be without calamity, as a few bad apples often find the way to take advantage of new benefits they haven’t earned.

But the actions of Secretary Mabus are a clear signal to the ranks: when he says “we’re listening,” it is not simple lip service. And that is refreshing.

So, thank you, Secretary Mabus, and all the countless individuals who have written about, debated, briefed, and taken action on the issues of talent management. While there is still much more work to do and a long way to go, this leadership has proven that, of all the services, the Navy is the best place to work and to serve.

Continue to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more.

« Older Entries Newer Entries »