There are three broad avenues of discussion in the last year about how to help build tomorrow’s Fleet; strategy, force structure, personnel reform.
The strategy part burned bright for awhile, but in time, when there wasn’t anything to fuel a larger discussion, it soon dissolved in to the place most are more comfortable discussing, programmatics and fleet structure. The semi-annual carrier battle and the curious, “Build the fleet we can and then we will write a strategy to justify it.” … or other similar variations on the theme.
Force structure discussions have developed the vibe of a Sunday morning AA-relapse group discussion – looking at all the things that we want but can’t afford to own, things we’ve paid for and own that don’t seem to work right and can’t afford to fix, those things we own and are a little shopworn, and our shrinking fortunes to recover from the benders of the past imperfect.
Hard to believe, but as we approach mid-year, some of the more exciting discussions are coming from the personnel side of the house.
From retirement plans on one end, to providing opportunities to take a multi-year sabbaticals on the other – there are a lot of ideas and initiatives going on in the personnel world to not just try to modernize our system, but to ensure we are attracting, keeping, and providing the most opportunities to those in the Navy – and at the same time try to balance the needs of the collective Navy with individual personal and professional goals.
Some of these ideas will cost money – real or opportunity cost, some will perhaps save money (mostly in the infamous “out years”) – but they all require a fundamental rethink of how we look at career progression for officer and enlisted.
That is a good thing. All organizations must constantly look at what they do in order to keep what works, refine what is close to working, and letting go to the net-negative.
In an era where sequester-level funding – and probably less in the medium term – is the new normal, those ideas that cost more in the short term will probably not have much support. Cost neutral will be given consideration, and any short term cost saving initiatives will move to the front.
In a perfect world, we would look at all three – but we don’t live in that world. Let’s assume that we won’t be spending more to get some additional marginal good. Let’s also assume that anything that saves money will get a good look at. So, in that mind, what are some cost-neutral items we can look at to squeeze a better Navy out of our existing system? How about some ideas that may not be new ideas, but are ideas that are top-of-mind to those who are most affected. What if those same people are in the cohort we are most interested in keeping? There; interest.
One of the easiest ways to gain efficiencies is to look at what barriers or inefficiencies are strictly policy and habit related. Those are the easiest to fix once you acknowledge that you need to. What are they? Why are they still here? What harm would be gained by changing them … or … what is the upside if we do?
ANSWERING THE QUESTION YOU WANTED, NOT THE ONE YOU WERE GIVEN
Earlier this year while attending USNI-AFCEA’s West15, the whole idea of the simple changes with potential gains to both Navy and servicemenber came to mind as a result of a totally unrelated question.
One of the better features of West15 was that the organizers managed to bring in a few fleet units and their Sailors from the riverine and rotary wing communities.
After a few top-shelf speeches and seminars, and once my beltwaybandit goodiebag was full, I grabbed a fellow traveler and decided to check out the static displays.
Remember, you had an exhibit floor full of contractors, consultants, vendors and uniformed personnel who dance with them – so the mind is very focused on “kit.”
I like open ended questions – especially to those who are on the pointy end of things. I walked over to the JOs and POs around their helos and warboats on a perfect San Diego “winter” day, and after the usual small talk, I asked one simple question, “What piece of kit do you not have that you wish you had to complete your mission?”
No one answered that question, except to say, “No, everything we have is fine, but … “
Ah, the magic “but.” That is the connector to what is really on a person’s mind, and what I heard next was nothing new, but it was real, and it was actionable – and it all had to do with personnel policy.
The first answer was simple, “Why am I told by the detailers that there is no way that I can compete to have a career in the small ship Navy? I don’t care about having the perfect career path to be best set up for command of a Destroyer. I like this part of the Navy. Why not me if I want to stay and return, if they have to force others to come here to do the same job anyway?”
That is a very good question, why not?
In the Midrats interview at the end of the month with the CNP, VADM Moran – I brought up that encounter. The answer was the same for that JO that is was for me when I was a JO; it is what is best for the needs of the Navy. Yes, perhaps – but as VADM Moran stated, riverine is one of those places that is hard to get people to go to, but once they get there, many don’t want to get out.
OK, so if a young professional is willing to go down that path – fully knowing that their career path will have a much lower probability of command – why not let them?
Is it better to try to force someone to fit a Millington Diktat, and as a result, embitter them enough that they punch out at first chance, or to allow that officer to compete for a job he loves later on in his career so he actually stays in. Even if there is a 0% selection rate for CDR command, that may be OK for that officer. He may not care. In any event, if he punches out because he cannot stand the prospect of being a gnome in the big-ship Navy – he isn’t going to have command anyway.
If we are looking to break the adhesions in the prescribed career path by having sabbaticals and other changes, why not broaden our aperture a bit more? Are we really saying no to that officer for his own good, or are we saying no to that officer because he makes things too complicated for the detailing shop in Millington? Who is the supported and who is the supporting institution?
The second answer I received was equally old school and on the surface, easily fixed. “No, everything is fine, but … I wish there was some way that we could actually have Sailors show up at the command already finishing the schools they need to work with our equipment. It gains me nothing to have a First Class with all the quals PCS, only to be replaced with another First Class who can’t do anything and is lost to the command for months as he goes to school.”
A decades old problem that still is not fixed. We have to spend money to move people. We have to spend money to send people to schools. Ships have to go to seas, ships have to be full of Sailors. Are our systems so rigid, our procedures so ossified that we cannot in the second decade of the 21st Century match up the requirements of a specific billet with the training required for replacement personnel? Again, supported or supporting? Which organization is which?
Is it so bad that a warfighter is not so worried about what weapons he will be asked to go to war with, but if someone on shore duty could help a brother out by putting the horse in front of the cart?
Just those two examples above, do they require additional funds to accomplish? No. They do require a change of mindset, one for career management, and the other priorities.
Why not? If we are going to make big, new changes … why not the old little?
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
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)
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.
Please join us on Sunday, 3 May 2015 at 5pm (US EDT) for Midrats Episode 278: Betrayal, leadership, loyalty, and redemption: Task Force VIOLENT:
Loyalty goes both ways, the old saying goes. One shows loyalty up the chain, because one expects the same in the other direction. They system, however, is built upon the timbers of the imperfect human condition.
What happens when you have conflicting narratives, but the system that you thought was there to serve you as you served it decides to take the counter-narrative without question?
Is there a point where a leader accepts that there is no loyalty above, and as a result, has to redouble his loyalty to those under him?
The story of Task Force VIOLENT is one of inspired unit level leadership, and nightmarishly twisted priorities up the chain; of brave men caught in a modern day, real time, Kafkaesque circle.
Following up on his 5-part series, Task Force Violent: The Unforgiven – the Tragic Betrayal of and Elite Marine Corps Commando Unit, our guest for the full hour will be MilitaryTimes journalist Andrew deGrandpre.
Congress is in the process of reviewing the President’s Budget proposal for 2016. The services are in the process of defending that budget proposal by answering questions and providing briefings to Congressional Staffers and even, on occasion, to principal members. One of the fundamental questions we hear repeatedly is, “What if the Department of Defense is sourced at the fiscal limits of the Budget Control Act?” A more recent follow-on question is, “What if the fiscal monies provided are at the Budget Control Act level with supplemental funding provided via Overseas Contingency Operations funds?” The answers to both questions are fraught with long term risks that must be balanced very carefully.
Fundamentally, all four service Chiefs have gone on record saying that their service could not meet the strategic requirements of the nation – as detailed in the Defense Strategic Guidance – at any sourcing level below the President’s Budget proposal for 2016. They went further to say that the funding needs to be in the base account, vice Overseas Contingency Operations funds, to provide the stability and flexibility required for both short and long term investments. I’d like to address the imperative and basis for that concern.
Think of our Navy’s budget as a bowl of water placed atop a three legged stool. The water represents the warfighting capability of the Navy – both today and in the future. This warfighting capability is the core of our Navy’s ability to operate “where it matters – when it matters” all across the world. We’ve seen the need for this operational flexibility throughout our country’s great history – including as recently as last week when a Carrier Strike Group was quickly deployed off Yemen to prevent the sale of highly technical weapons that could result in a new, potentially catastrophic Sunni-Shiite war in the Middle East. That Strike Group has been successful because it had the ability to get to its required position quickly, with the appropriate weapons and fuel to stay and fight, and it maintains the ability to win in battle with another maritime force.
The stool that provides the foundational stability for the Navy’s warfighting capability is supported by three equally critical legs. The first leg is platforms – the correct number of ships, submarines, and airplanes required today and in the future. The second leg is modernization – equipment in those ships, submarines, and airplanes that enables them to fight successfully today and years from now. The third leg is people – skilled Sailors in the right places with the right training to operate those platforms now and in the future. As long as all three of those legs are adequately funded, we maintain balanced warfighting capability and our Navy can do its job.
When the overall Navy budget is reduced, however, the strength of one (or sometimes more than one) of those legs is reduced. That would equate to shorter leg(s) of the stool in my example. To keep the warfighting capability balanced, the legs must be reduced equally. The problem that we face in doing so is this: in an uncertain budget period like we face today, there is always an imperative to continue procuring the platforms we know we need in the future even as our budget is reduced in the near term. Fundamentally this is because of the long term planning (many years and even up to a decade) required to design and build a new ship, submarine or airplane. Based on history’s lessons we are relatively sure that the budget will come back up, but the question is when? When it does come back up we must be able to quickly and adequately invest in the other two legs to continue to have the warfighting capability our country needs. This potential near term imbalance is often discussed and the term most often used is “hollow”, as in a “Hollow Force.” We work hard across the spectrum of budget decisions to ensure we don’t allow that to happen. A Hollow Force is the last thing we need or want. As a result we continually adjust, year to year, the length of the three critical legs of the stool. The undesirable alternative which results from this delicate balancing act, and which requires much greater caution on our part, is the potential for a “Hollow Strategy.”
It is worth reiterating a couple of points that don’t often arise when either our Strategy or our Budget is under review. First, our Strategy (by definition) must serve as the guide for allocating our investments in current and future capabilities. A noteworthy corollary to this point is that the Strategy must also play a substantive role in determining the overall size of the budget (i.e. ensuring we have the resources necessary to make the strategy achievable). Secondly, our Budget investments today will ultimately determine our Strategy in the future. This point is clear if we consider the case of a strategy that calls upon non-existent capabilities; such an approach is clearly doomed to failure. These points together illustrate a crucial principle underpinning all considerations of Strategy and Budget – they are interlocked. With this in mind, it has been troubling that the discussion on BCA-level funding has included little consideration of the Strategic Impacts. Rather, the debate is always about whether or not we need the BCA cuts. As discussed above, our current approach will continue causing predictable harm to our Armed Forces’ ability to execute the Strategy – and defend our nation. Success in both Strategy and Budget means that the status quo of budget conversations must change.
The Defense Strategic Guidance (DSG) has ten core missions that the services must be able to execute to fulfill the overarching “DSG Strategy.” As the Navy’s total obligational authority reduces we continue to strive to be able to meet all ten missions. The truth is that base budget reductions below the level articulated in the President’s budget request – lead to an inability for the services to execute the DSG as written. This a slippery slope on which we need to be careful. We can’t ‘balance the stool’ (so to speak) during lean fiscal years and expect to have the capability that our strategic direction requires. This scenario illustrates how concerns over the National Debt can drive us, eventually, to a Hollow Strategy. Within the services we largely control how we spend the money Congress appropriates us. I believe the lessons we learned in the last three decades have taught us we cannot allow a Hollow Force to be the result of those investment decisions. When we consider the possibility of a Hollow Strategy, however, the services exercise much less direct control to avoid it because our strategic direction is provided from above. We do not want a “Hollow Strategy” and need to remain vigilant that we don’t inadvertently create one as we move forward. The specter of a Hollow Strategy looms ever closer, however, as we continue the conversations about Budget Control Act-level funding or even the related scenario in which some portion of the budget is provided in Overseas Contingency Operations funding. Absent a revised Defense Strategy, which accounts for funding which would be reasonably available in the base budget, the only real solution to this quandary is budget funding at the level in the President’s Budget request for 2016.
For the Sailor, nothing is more immediate, more “now” and of more impact to their personal and professional lives than their next set of orders.
For our Navy, nothing defines present operational performance, the development of future leaders, and ensuring success at war for the next few decades than personnel policy.
Our guest for the full hour this Sunday from 5-6pm Eastern will be the Chief of Naval Personnel, Vice Admiral Bill Moran, USN.
We will discuss the drive to man the Fleet to appropriate levels now, while looking at ways to modernize the personnel system to provide greater choice, flexibility and transparency for our Sailors and the commands they serve.
We will also look at the ongoing discussion about how to best keep with one hand a firm hand on what has worked, while with a free hand, reach for those things that will ensure that today’s officers and enlisted personnel have a Navy that not only is meeting its needs, but takes in to consideration the individual goals and priorities of its personnel.
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 Military.com and USAA. Our founding guest bloggers will continue to contribute as they desire.
Mary D. Ripley | Director of Digital Content
Bill Miller | Publisher
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
-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.
Why 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.
By Mark Tempest
Please join us at 5pm EDT on 19 April 2015 as we return live, after a two week hiatus, for Midrats Episode 276: “21st Century Ellis”
The next book from USNI’s 21st Century Foundations series is 21st Century Ellis: Operational Art and Strategic Prophecy for the Modern Era, edited by Capt. B.A. Friedman, USMC.
This book covers the work of Lt. Col. “Pete” Ellis, USMC who in 1921 predicted the coming war with Japan.
Included in this collection are some of his articles on counterinsurgency and conventional war based on his experiences in WWI and the Philippines.
Capt. Friedman will be with us for the full hour to discuss this and more.
Capt. B.A. Friedman is a field artillery officer in the United States Marine Corps currently stationed at Camp Lejeune, NC. He is pursuing a master’s degree in national security and strategic studies through the Naval War College.
Recently, I had the opportunity to read and review historian Charles N. Edel’s excellent new book about John Quincy Adams, titled, Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic.
The review will soon be published at the Center for International Maritime Security. Intrigued, however, I wanted to learn more. Last week, we had the opportunity to talk about his book, JQA’s life, the US Navy, and grand strategy in the 19th century. It turned out to be a wide-ranging and interesting discussion.
Why John Quincy Adams?
When I was working at the Council of Foreign Relations many years ago, my boss, Walter Russell Mead, talked incessantly about framing contemporary policy choices in terms of historical evolution. That is something that always resonated with me: that you need to understand the present in terms of the past. While I was working there, Walter handed me a short little book by John Lewis Gaddis called Surprise, Security, and the American Experience; it’s a terrific book, it’s a provocative book, and it makes the argument that at moments of profound insecurity Americans seek to come up with ways of exerting their influence and securing their environment. And in fact, moments of profound insecurity often lead to the conception of new grand strategies.
In this book Gaddis compares three such moments: The aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, and the aftermath of the burning of Washington D.C. in 1814. The argument is that the grand strategy that follows these moments and the men who craft it (John Quincy Adams, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and G.W Bush) are in response to their environments. And the argument in this book is that John Quincy Adams conceptualizes the grand tragedy for America in the 19th century.
I was intrigued by this argument and, as Gaddis argues that Adams’s legacy influenced both Roosevelt and Bush, I wanted to find out if it was true. The more I started reading about Adams, the more it seemed that every historian of American history talked about John Quincy Adams as the central figure for American foreign policy in the 19th century. But they couldn’t agree why he was the central figure. What’s more his personality and character seem shrouded in a dense fog. His son and his grandson had no clue who he was – his son talked about him wearing an iron mask that was impenetrable. On the other hand, he left just about the largest written record of anyone in American history, as he kept a daily diary that spanned his entire life—and, indeed, almost all the critical events in antebellum America. So I thought: what an intriguing project. First, to understand if John Quincy Adams was a grand strategist, second, what was his grand strategy, and then third, how did it matter today?
Why does his father seem to overshadow him?
Nothing intrigues Americans quite so much as our founding. John Quincy is not critical to the founding moments in American history—he’s only a small boy at the time—whereas it would be hard to argue that anyone did as much for the cause of American independence as John Adams.
I also think John Adams mellowed in his old age to a certain degree: he resumes his correspondence with Jefferson; he has wonderful correspondence with his wife, Abigail Adams. John Quincy Adams doesn’t have a Jefferson, and the humanity is not there in the same extent it was with his father. The second thing is that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson are very conscious that they are writing about their legacy, and for the future of the United States. While both Adams and Jefferson believe they are correct, they still acknowledge that each has something interesting to say. John Quincy goes in the opposite direction as he ages. He is not in a reconcilable mood. He becomes more partisan the older he gets. But he is also a different figure; not a warm and fuzzy figure as his father was, (though, to be fair, none of his contemporaries would ever accuse John Adams of being warm and fuzzy). John Quincy doesn’t mellow in age; he sharpens distinctly.
John Quincy himself discusses his own life as a failure. He doesn’t see the policies he set up as success, whereas John Adams is able to take some satisfaction from seeing some of his policies mature. Throughout his life, John Quincy Adams would feel that he did not accomplish as much as his father did.
Do you think he was satisfied with his life?
There seemed to be some moments of satisfaction. But at many points in his life he refers to himself as a Job like figure. In many ways, he sees his job as one of persistence and endurance. If he thinks about his policies, how his plans have gone awry, how others have distorted his policies, then he is rather less pleased with the result. But he’s not really someone who is satisfied – ever. Maybe that is the Puritan in him. At his state funeral they read a passage from the book of Job and a letter from his mother that was written when he was a young boy. And there was this wonderful quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Choose wisely and accordingly to his constitution, when, on leaving the presidency he went into Congress. He’s no literary old gentleman, but a bruiser and loves the melee. When they talk about his age and his venerableness and nearness to the grave, he knows better, he is like one of those old cardinals, who, as quick as he has chosen Pope, throws away his crutches and crookedness and is straight as a boy. He’s an old roué who cannot live on slops, but must have sulfuric acid in his tea.” Another great insight comes from a British foreign minister who said that, in diplomatic circles, Adams was like a bulldog among cocker spaniels. In other words, he was there to advocated tenaciously for the country’s national interests, not to express diplomatic niceties.
How does John Quincy Adams view the role of the US Navy during his Presidency?
He imbibes many of the ideas about the importance of a Navy from his father, who is credited with being the founder of the US Navy. John Quincy is taken as a young boy to Europe, where if they are captured on the high seas in the middle of the American Revolution, things aren’t going to end well for his father – and perhaps not well for him either. One could argue that such experiences imprint themselves on the young boy, causing Adams to understand from a very early age the importance of a Navy for the young Republic’s security.
The significance of a navy is further reinforced to John Quincy through his diplomatic career. He is dealing with a world, with an international system, dominated by an Anglo-French colonial and maritime rivalry. If America wanted to maintain its neutral commerce in the seas and be able to ignore both Britain and France’s objections, it would need the means to do so. Which, specifically, meant having a powerful Navy. John Quincy, of course, recognized that this was no easy task for the United States. He knew that his fellow citizens hated taxing themselves and would not, absenting a national emergency, do so at a level sufficient for defense of the nation. Adams asserted that America’s independence of action came not from its unique “representative democracy,” but rather from the “real power” of its “armed force.”
I should also add one other factor: he’s from New England. Fisheries, commerce, and maritime trade matter immensely. Now, he often doesn’t line up with where New England lines up – that is, he doesn’t defer always to the British when it conflicts with business interests of the New England states. But he thinks the United States not only needs to be a commercial state but also have the ability to defend its commercial interests. In his presidential address to Congress in 1825 he purposes the idea of a naval academy. While Annapolis was not founded until 1845, John Quincy Adams called for the establishment of a Naval Academy on par with West Point, the “formation of scientific and accomplished officers,” and a massive shipbuilding program two decades earlier.
As a historian what was one of the more interesting things you found out about the man?
It’s his diary. It is probably the greatest and most comprehensive diary in 19th century America. He starts it at the age of 12 and keeps it every day until he drops dead on the floor of congress in 1848. It’s in 51 manuscript volumes. He has a stroke in the last year of his life, and until that point his handwriting is immaculate. There are more than 14,000 pages that make up this diary. Every day he is recording who he met and what they talked about and what he thought about the meeting. It is a remarkable record of what Adams was thinking about and what he thought he was trying to accomplish. As a historian you always wonder if he was writing with me in mind – does he want me to discover this? And, of course, the answer is sometimes yes—as he seems to be writing as much for posterity as he is for himself. Which, of course, means one has to treat his words critically.
There are two passages I found most compelling. One I quote in the final pages of the book. In 1822 he is struggling with this question: Is morality the same for an individual as it is for a State? He has been raised to believe that it is. But he understands that these might not be the same things. What might be virtuous for a person might be too pure for the dealings of a state. He is neither the first nor the last American statesman to struggle with this question.
The second passage is the one I use to begin chapter five. The longest and most anguished entries in his entire diary all come between Jan-Nov 1820, when he is secretary of state, and everyone is talking about and debating slavery. And it is because the Missouri question has been brought up—a political question about whether or not the expansion of slavery into new territories can be regulated by the federal government. This is a remarkable debate; and, for most American politicians it is a terrifying debate: Jefferson himself in his old age thought this was an alarm bell that woke him up in the middle of the night and had him fearing for the future of his country. This question was brought up inside the cabinet. The President asks for feedback on the slavery question. Adams is opposed to slavery’s extension, but his is a minority position in the cabinet. He is the only person on the cabinet that is not a southerner. And while he is willing to advocate for his position in private, he does not take up this argument in public. He does, however, take some long walks around Washington with John Calhoun – and these are 5, 10, 15 page entries – in which Calhoun, a Southerner, tries to educate him about slavery. Adams captures all these discussions in his diary. These conversations blow his mind on how southerners think about this issue.
Did you relate to him when you were researching your book?
He is a model in so many ways. A deeply brilliant man. It’s hard not to be taken in by his words and also by his long term views and insights to the country. But, in his dealings with other people—his political enemies, but also his supporters, and often even his own family, he is not the most pleasant person to be around. Still, I think he is pretty great…not perfect, though, and I wouldn’t put him on a pedestal. But, yes, he is a magnificently interesting figure, and a compelling one.
You have a great quote in the book that refers to Adams inability to come up with practical results.
Was Adams a bad politician?
He’s not a bad politician. You can’t say that someone who ends up as President is a bad politician. He does tack, he does shift, and he is not a dummy about it. And yet on the other hand I think he suffers from what I call the “Adams syndrome.” If you are an Adams, you are the smartest person in the room, you have the longest term vision of anyone in the room, and you are so annoying about those two things that you alienate almost everyone, almost immediately, and lose control of your own policies. Adams’s ability to make compromises, particularly when he is President, is very low. He seems to be happier when he is in opposition.
One of the interesting anecdotes you have in the book, is Adams’s frustration with the piles of paperwork that he is drowning in during his time as Secretary of State. It sure seems that things never change. Could you elaborate on this?
I think it is an interesting anecdote. But what is more interesting is what he decides to do about it. He’s always pressed for time; there are always officer seekers, and the State Department seems to regularly lose important treaties—which often leaves him in rather awkward diplomatic predicaments. He begins to think about bureaucratic structures to reduce this chaos. He starts assigning different people different functions; setting out clear guidelines for how diplomatic correspondence is done; how instructions from Washington D.C. are set up. They really are the guidelines that are set out for the state department for the next 100 years.
Is this a man that needs to stay busy to keep his demons at bay?
Yes, absolutely. I think it is true and he himself said it was true. He said something to the effect of “regularity is what regulated him.” When you read Adams you realize this is someone who falls into the “blue devils” – as the 19th century term was used – more than one time in his life. He had a debilitating depression when he is just out of college and he is studying law. He has to withdraw from reading law and just go home and sit for a couple of months until he can function in a normal way again. And this depression returns when he is President. This is certainly not a good time to be depressed, as he himself recognizes. So I think that being active, super-hyper active, is something that helps him control his inner-self.
How do people misuse his famous line “America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”
Adams was not warning future administrations away from helping aspiring democrats, but rather giving his successors a lesson in the necessary trade-offs foreign policy demands. This statement, however, is often invoked to advocate a position that the United States ought not to intervene in a particular situation. At the extreme end, it is used as an argument that America should always take an isolationist, aloof position in international affairs. Where I think we need to be more circumspect is that Adams himself did not say that America should never go abroad. He made this statement at a particular time and place in response to a unique set of circumstances.
Adams was trying to ensure the United States focused its resources at home and not offer European powers a pretext for intervening in the western hemisphere. Adams himself would be the first to note that changing circumstances, changing contexts, must necessarily mean changing policies. In multiple instances, Adams talks about how precedent should not become a policy straight-jacket; the nation needs to keep in mind the changing nature of American power and the shifting international environment. What made sense when the nation was a small power on the edge of the world, might not make as much sense to the nation’s ambitions when it has grown in size and security. Adams would demand that we assess rationally the foreign policy aims we seek and that we carefully consider the best use of the precious resources of the republic.
Adams was never shy about promoting American values, nor using military power when doing so would advance American interests. But, he was keenly aware of the relationship between America’s capabilities and its ambitious aims. That is, Americans, in Adams’s estimate wanted to support democratic revolutions abroad before they had even finished establishing their own. Adams saw the danger of U.S. missionary zeal outstripping American capabilities and thought this would leave the nation highly vulnerable.
Adams wanted to build American power at home before trying to wield American influence abroad. Those who quote Adams as advocating isolation in foreign affairs often miss the domestic corollary of his pronouncement. As America grew to power, Adams advocated using the nation’s resources for the good of its own citizens—making the nation a positive model of what republican government can do for its own citizens. Abstention in distant conflicts was intimately linked to a progressive vision of state power in the domestic context. Adams advocated for improvements in infrastructure, investments in higher education, funding for scientific research, and innovations in manufacturing and agriculture. The best way that America could spread its values would be by working to perfect the American experiment at home.
What other books on John Quincy Adams would you recommend?
There are different ways to approach John Quincy Adams. You can read his life as biography. Paul Nagel’s book, John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life, focuses on his internal-self and is quite good, though it has less to say on his public career. Then, there are really good books on the various stages of his career. Mary Hargreaves has a great book on his presidency, and Leonard Richards’ book on his congressional career is also quite good. A short book that is pretty remarkable is called Policy Maker for the Union by James Lewis. If you are interested in the period and Adams’s effect on US policies, then I recommend Gaddis’s Surprise, Security and the American Experience; a great, really short book. I also highly recommend Robert Kagan’s Dangerous Nation, which is a history of US international relations in the world from the founding until 1898. The other book that I find fascinating is Walter McDougal’s Promised Land, Crusader State, which looks at all US foreign policy in some 200 pages and poses John Quincy Adams as a central figure. Finally, Samuel Flagg Bemis is someone I have to mention. Bemis was the dean of American diplomatic historians, mid-century. He had a two volume history on John Quincy Adams, the first of which won the Pulitzer back in 1947. One more…Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. It’s a truly great book.
Thanks for your time.
Thank you, and thanks for the terrific questions. I enjoyed it.
Charles Edel serves an Assistant Professor of Strategy and Policy at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I., where he focuses on U.S. foreign policy and grand strategy, American political history, and the connections between foreign policy and domestic politics. He holds a Ph.D. in History from Yale University, and received a B.A. in Classical Civilization from Yale College. He worked at Peking University’s Center for International and Strategic Studies as a Henry A. Luce Scholar. Previously, he served in various roles in the U.S. government as a political and counterterrorism analyst, worked as a research associate at the Council of Foreign Relations, and taught high school history in New York. A native of New York, and an intelligence officer in the Naval Reserves, he is the author of Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic. Currently, he is working on a project about the role of foreign revolutions in American history.
LT Anna Granville recently wrote what may become the junior officer blog article of the year over at Task and Purpose. Titled, “4 Reasons I Am Resigning My Commission as a Naval Officer,” it is succinct and powerful insight into why some high-performing officers decide to leave after their minimum service commitment. And it took some guts to write.
Her piece resonates with anyone who has ever been frustrated by the large, immovable object that is the Navy. A one-size-fits-all promotion process, long deployments and frustrating dealings with personnel officers, lack of diversity and lack of control are all enough to make even the most active junior officers (JOs) ask, “Why isn’t this changing?” And then, finally, “Why am I still doing this?”
While there is no blanket explanation that can cover every departing, high-performing junior officer, we do have statistics from the 2014 Navy Retention Study and a number of competing anecdotes that suggest the Navy is losing some of its best officers too soon. An improving economy, a perceived erosion of trust, and a bureaucratic bog are tilting the retention seesaw in the wrong direction.
But there is a counter-narrative: junior officers can build the service we want. We can only do this, however, by staying in long enough to see real change pushed through. Every officer who can articulate essential changes that must be made to the service, yet leaves that service in disgust, erodes a vibrant young officer corps whose challenge is to prepare to lead a service with common sense and courage. We must achieve critical mass in order to transplant our grassroots dialogue of today into tomorrow’s occupants of Tingey House.
Why should we do this? Why stay in the service when the pull to leave is so strong? Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Admiral Bill Moran has been leading the way recently in championing a number of personnel issues and fixes. More work needs to be done, but the message is clear: positive, constructive debate can lead to tangible change.
What follows is not a point-for point refutation of LT Granville’s arguments. But for those contemplating life beyond the minimum service requirement, they are four reminders of how to retain your commission without losing your sanity:
1. You can’t look to the system for validation. Should the Navy promote people who are better pilots, better division officers, better platoon leaders, faster? That would be nice. But in as large an institution, would that look more like the Goldwater-Nichols efforts to force attainment of “joint” qualifications? I doubt the service needs more of that.
It’s true that, sometimes, it will seem like there are few rewards for standing the mid-watch for the umpteenth time or pouring your heart and soul into your job as a division officer or tactical operator. There will always be some who feel like they have been left by the wayside. We all have a story about that guy or girl who got some great ranking or billet; have all rolled our eyes after the millionth time someone has told us “timing is everything;” have all looked at our personnel record on NPC and wondered incredulously, “how long until I make O-4?”
Many of the rewards of hard-work are not tangible, such as the safety of a country that continues to enjoy unadulterated freedom. But there are many ways to get rewarded for other efforts complementary to service. Pilots have it a bit easier with scoring and competition for the “Top Hook” award. But everyone has access to forums such as USNI’s Proceedings, which pays authors per publication, and other Naval Institute essay contests which award thousands of dollars for literary achievement. Still others find fulfillment in volunteer work through the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, Semper Fi Fund, or Fisher House.
In the end, Joe Byerly says it best: “[While] I’m extremely passionate about the military profession, it doesn’t define me.” Those who look in the mirror and see only Ensign or Lieutenant or Commander have lost something of themselves. Don’t forget to leave your own mark on the service and live with purpose.
2. You’re pretty damn good at your job, right? Few people join the military to be “just OK” at what they do. At some point, many think, “I’m going to be the best.” Some want to be the best operators, some the best strategists, some the best leaders. If this thought has crossed your mind, and you believe that you are good at what you do, why would you leave the service and allow someone who isn’t the best to take your place? You are part of a profession; you are allowed to take pride in that.
I know a lot of junior officers will roll their eyes here, and that’s fine. A lot of them rolled their eyes before the lead up to moments like Operation Praying Mantis, the terrorist attacks of September 11th, and the recent rapid re-location of the George HW Bush Carrier Strike Group in response to extremists, too. Success in those trying times was due largely to the right people in the right positions. Cynicism may have plenty of reasons to the contrary, but without good people, we are nothing.
Luckily, the Navy is full of incredible officers and operators. Is your departure likely to cause systemic failure? Probably not. But this is the same logic people use when they say, “I won’t vote because I’m just one person, and my vote doesn’t matter.” I’d hate to see what critical mass here looks like.
3. Diversity of perspective matters.* Certainly, there are those who believe that junior officers are best seen, and not heard; but those people are in the minority. And while it may sometimes feel like a tyranny of the minority, there is absolutely a place for constructive, positive, intellectual work in the Navy. Consider the Naval Institute one of the finest examples; then look to CIMSEC and across the military to The Bridge, War on the Rocks, Task and Purpose (where Granville’s piece was published), Defense Entrepreneur’s Forum, and so many other places.
James Fallows recently tried to peg the military as “anti-intellectual.” It was naval junior officers who stood up to him and said, “Not so fast.” The Naval War College and Postgraduate School remain highly sought-after institutions around the world. And the emergence of the Military Writers Guild is an encouraging sign that, as you are writing, thinking, and starting to “do,” other people are going to have your back.
4. The only way to steer the boat is to keep your hand on the tiller. Ronald Reagan once said, “When you’re up to your neck in alligators, it’s easy to forget you came here to drain the swamp.” Ultimately, unless you are going to get out and pursue a career in elected office or the policy realm, you cannot effect change on tough issues until you are willing to endure the pain of seeing those changes through.
Too many junior officers depart the service in frustration with specific critiques, only to get lost in a new civilian career that is equally challenging and often stultifying. There are a few who lob in mortars from the valley, but the JO(ret) contingent is largely silent here on this blog and around the naval ‘net.
Neale Donald Walsh once wrote, “Whatever you desire for yourself, give to another.” If you love your job—and if you’re good at it—then leaving the service because you’re too frustrated with its policies just means that those policies will likely endure, and the service will suffer. Your departure, while poignant, is not as impactful as your voice and your persistence.
There is no dishonor in changing careers. There is more than one way to serve the nation; we need good people on our warships and airplanes, but also in our hospitals, boardrooms, and classrooms, too. If this is where you find your passion, then that’s where your country needs you.
But the only way for fighting lieutenants to become fighting admirals and generals is to persevere, to recognize the consequences of dissonance, and to continue the fight. You don’t have to fight alone, and the longer we fight together, the better the future will be.
*Clearly, LT Granville speaks of gender diversity in her article. Statistically, while the Navy does employ fewer women than men, progress is being made that reflects and often exceeds private sector employment. More progress, though, is needed.
In 1805, Boston’s Frederic Tudor stumbled upon the most innovative idea of his life. The global economy would actually pay handsomely for ice harvested and shipped from New England. Within fifty years, Tudor grew that idea into a highly profitable industry, shipping this new commodity throughout the U.S. and internationally. He didn’t even flinch with the invention of a new machine that could produce ice anywhere in the world. Large, cumbersome, and expensive, the machine produced ice that came at nearly 21 times the cost of Tudor’s harvested ice. Slowly the industrial ice maker became more efficient and less expensive. Tudor and the entire New England ice-harvesting industry lost much of their market share. Stiffening their resolve in the face of steadily waning profits and a changing technological landscape, they doubled down and invested in more effective ice harvesting techniques that would allow them to harvest more ice than they ever had before. The nail in the coffin for the ice harvesting industry came in the 1940s with the invention of the refrigerator which allowed consumers to make their own ice.
In retrospect, their fate seems painfully obvious. However, their problem is a human problem. We create organizations and services that are sustainable, improving incrementally over time, rather than the drastic transformations necessary to evolve. Known as the innovator’s dilemma, ideas are rejected that do not conform to the pre-existing business models that generated the initial success. This lesson shouldn’t be lost on the United States Marine Corps. Our Commandant has challenged us to “Innovate, Adapt, Win”, based upon a rich history of adapting and innovating. We consider ourselves able to accomplish any mission; to be ready when the national calls. However, the modern age of resource commons, digital technology, and social globalization is transforming the world around us, while we remain unmoved. We must inculcate a culture of innovation throughout the Corps, by rapidly and cheaply testing new ideas, empowering visionary Marines across ranks and communities, embracing learning through failure, and disrupting our own 20th century warfighting models with new tactics and modern, inexpensive, and impactful technologies.
Everything Old Is New Again
The evolution of innovation is no accident, nor is it a passing fad. The past 100 years of glorious success and excruciating industry collapse have borne out the approaches required for systematic innovation. Those approaches can be classified into the following strategies: Acquire, Accelerate, or Incubate. Corporations may choose to either acquire a disruptive new startup, accelerate that startup by funding it and gaining a controlling equity in the process, or they can incubate internally. Incubation empowers their existing entrepreneurially-minded employees to act like startups, but within a relatively protected corporate harbor. All these approaches hold to a consistent set of mantras: “Think Big”, “Start Small”, “Fail Fast”, “Invest Minimally”, “Learn Continually”, and “Validate As You Go”. Somewhat surprisingly, these words should sound very familiar to those versed in Marine Corps history and maneuver warfare doctrine. However, to those recently or currently serving in the Marine Corps, those same words prove discordant with our current Corps culture. Since this discordance is debatable, let’s explore each mantra.
- Think Big. Marines are often challenged to ‘think outside the box’. We also require that same Marine to be realistic in their approaches and to practice strict obedience to organizational and rank-based hierarchies. Although necessary for the instantaneous obedience to orders required for combat, these requirements directly suppress the promotion of unorthodox ideas. Particularly those that challenge core values or practices, and yet those ideas are exactly what is needed in order to identify our vulnerabilities.
- Start Small. We routinely emphasize this mantra at the tactical, deployed, mission planning environment. However, outside of that specific environment, we assemble like-minded Marines into a U-shaped ambush around a projected computer screen and heroically execute the Marine Corps Planning Process (MCPP) as the only trusted methodology to solve problems. We develop plans with the knowledge that the plan won’t ‘survive first contact’. Nonetheless, we still demand fully developed requirements that are meant to mitigate all possible risk.
- Fail Fast. Failure, at nearly all levels, is typically cause for reprimand either socially, verbally, or formally. Even earnestly intended experimentation often results in punishment for ‘good initiative, poor execution.’ This mentality has caused some to argue that our promotion and assignment system encourages status quo behavior that incentivizes Marines to perform minimally so that they may simply survive until retirement.
- Invest Minimally. The Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) has crippled our combat development and acquisitions cycles. They have become so obfuscated that it now requires decades of experience, certifications, and graduate degrees to navigate them. These processes are designed to handle high-dollar, high-risk, weapons systems. Those same processes are fundamentally at odds with modern, cheap, and rapidly developed information and communication technologies. Recently published efforts have begun to allow faster, cheaper, and more responsive acquisition models. However, it remains to be seen whether this will result in any near-term change in the subsequent processes and mindsets of the individuals who implement and control these processes.
- Learn Continually. Should our requirements make it through the combat development and acquisitions crucible, they will find a home within a solutions development office from across the range of doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership, personnel, and facilities. These offices are designed to execute requirements planning documents and carry a program throughout its lifecycle. Slow or nonexistent warfighter feedback mechanisms do not allow solution developers to pivot on that warfighter’s emerging needs. Similarly, solution developers are challenged to adjust the initial requirement based upon a more clarified understanding. Requirements creep has become a dirty word, rewarding requirements inflexibility.
- Validate As You Go. Our experiments and operational tests are planned and executed in large cycles, usually taking years to develop a wargame or field test. For that reason, there is no option for mid-execution assessment and cancellation of the experiment. Even a basic understanding of the scientific process shows us that experiments are designed to be small and incremental in nature, and be halted at the earliest possible opportunity.
Self-Examination: The State of Marine Corps Innovation
Nearly every facet of our modern lives, from how we communicate, create, lead, entertain, and educate, has seen a drastic transformation outside the gates of our bases. Despite this, the Corps woefully lags behind in creating or even following a similar transformation. Cloud computing has combined with lightweight apps and mobile devices to offer overwhelming potential for military capability, but Marine Corps implementation of any of these technologies remains nascent at best. Nearly a decade has passed since the global revolution of smartphones and tablets, and yet these items haven’t been measurably integrated into our force. It’s been over 12 years since social networking has turned into a trillion-dollar market, but we haven’t managed to find any role for it within our Corps. These examples are representative of a much larger problem, one recognized across the military. On April 8th, 2015, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work stated “Our technological superiority is slipping. We see it every day.” We innovate linearly in a world where Moore’s law dominates with exponential increases in technology. We must then expect a high risk future state where we are unable to incorporate the technology used by outside industry. Or worse still, the military’s inability to innovate restrains the progression of our military-industrial complex. Our current emerging innovation projects are in name only, watered down to suggestion boxes and process improvement training. Augmented reality, robotics, and 3-D printing could fundamentally transform who, what, when, where, how, and even why we deploy our force. New technologies are able to drive disruptive innovations and social change. These shifts have altered how individuals, businesses, and nations function, yet our Corps remains largely unchanged. The Marine Corps must look to new models to innovate, integrate new technologies, anticipate disruption, and rapidly transform itself.
Innovating From The Core, For The Corps
A fundamentally different approach to innovation in the Marine Corps is needed. The program must look, feel, and sound different than anything we have done in the past. However, it will largely be a return to a time when our Corps was permitted to fail, to experiment, to be nimble, and to be genuinely creative. The approach I recommend builds directly upon the incubator innovation engines found within 80% of the S&P 100, such as GE, 3M, and Adobe. In addition to this, incubation has been adopted by forward thinking government organizations, such as the National Security Agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the National Aeronautics and Space Agency. A Marine Corps innovation incubator will foster new ideas, develop those ideas through deliberate and anonymous collaboration, build minimum investment prototypes with specialized teams of experts, and transition those prototypes into formal capabilities. The approach won’t be detailed here, but it can be thought of as a mashed-up process that crowdsources both support and ideas like Kickstarter, builds prototypes like Mythbusters, and invests resources like SharkTank. The program will use a modern, web-based, mobile-friendly, platform that is centered upon transparency, open collaboration, and empowering Marines to behave as entrepreneurs and investors. Participation is incentivized through unique and refreshing methods that are far beyond the simple and relatively ineffective approach of cash pay outs.
Why An Innovation Engine At All?
It’s reasonable to ask why a new approach to innovation is even needed. After all, we already have several activities that serve some type of innovation function and currently produce capabilities. However, we must recognize that there are endemic problems that exist today which aren’t being addressed by current approaches. Although an innovation engine like the one discussed above will never be a silver bullet solution, there are several advantages that have been proven out by the corporations and government agencies which have implemented these engines.
- People. We empower our Marines and civilians to own the future of their Marine Corps, giving them greater value to the Corps and themselves. Our visionaries are recognized and embraced, rather than marginalized. Further, we capitalize on the strengths of the incoming generation’s ability to use technology and social platforms to create change.
- Capability. We can now rapidly and efficiently test a high quantity of ideas in order to fail our way towards success. This strategy is built upon principles found in MCDP-1 Warfighting, and has been shown to develop richer and more beneficial capabilities within industry. Strategic risks are mitigated by exploring both near and future-term disruptive ideas, before an adversary can discover them. We can also directly and transparently identify deficiencies in current capabilities. Conversely, solutions developers and leadership can now engage with a Marine directly to develop creative solutions to those deficiencies.
- Culture. We promote our innovative spirit while demonstrating willingness to adapt to any future condition. This sends a strong message of stepping away from current risk-averse, zero-failure culture. We outwardly display eagerness for innovation, bringing in entrepreneurs and startups to support the innovation program itself. Such a display provides a crucial bridge to the incoming generation of Marine Corps recruits and future business leaders of America.
Our own history, in conjunction with modern corporate innovation approaches, has blazed a trail towards innovation. These modern approaches are even more important in today’s constantly changing digital world. Any modern bureaucracy, to include the Marine Corps, must seriously consider how innovation can be used to evolve the organization. Nowhere does the popular mantra of “Innovate or Die” hold truer. However, success in innovation demands enthusiastic support from every leader, as well as Corps-wide participation. Our Marine esprit has primed us for success, if we may only direct it towards transformative approaches to innovation. This transformation cannot come too soon. Today’s technologies are rapidly driving down the cost to innovate. For the Marine Corps, the cost of failure is simply too high to continue harvesting ice.