I like innovators so it was only natural that I “e-interview” John Kuehn, Assistant Professor of Military History at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and author of Agents of Innovation: The General Board and the Design of the Fleet That Defeated the Japanese Navy.

What was the General Board and how did it contribute to the defeat of the Japanese Navy?

The General Board of the Navy was established by Secretary of the Navy John D. Long with General Order 544 on March 13, 1900. It was composed of senior naval officers, mostly flag rank and captain level, although it included at various times more junior Navy and Marine Corps officers. The Secretary for the Board was usually a commander or lieutenant commander of particular promise (Robert Ghormley and Thomas Kinkaid were secretaries of the General Board as junior officers). The General Board, officially only advisory in nature, effectively served as a naval general staff until the creation of the position and staff for the Chief of Naval Operations in 1915. After that point it still had oversight of naval strategy and for most of its life remained the ultimate authority on fleet design to match the policy ends of the Secretary. Because of its authoritative influence on ship design it can be regarded as the author and father of the fleet that went to war with the Japanese in 1941. It was disestablished shortly after the “Revolt of the Admirals” in 1950 at the instigation of the second Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson.

What widely viewed views about the Washington Naval Treaty do you dispel in Agents of Innovation?

The biggest myth is that the Washington Naval Treaty had a uniformly negative effect on naval innovation and design (this myth propagated by S.E. Morison). As the book attempts to show (and my dissertation in far more detail), the Treaty had the impact-especially through Article XIX, what I call the fortification clause-in spurring the Navy to build the blueprint (if not most of the ships and systems) for a nearly land-base independent power projection fleet in order to execute a step by step island hopping campaign to retake the Philippines and then strangle Japan economically. This was the pre-war Orange Plan which goes hand in hand with the Treaty in shaping the design of the fleet. Another view I attempt to dispel is that of the battleship admirals versus the air admirals…this view is too narrow. The admirals all shared a common sea power ideology and were really “fleet” admiral. What I found remarkable was the relative homogeneity of the their views rather than stark differences. The notion that the Navy as an institution did not properly value air power in the interwar period is simply not true.

How did the General Board link the treaty system with innovation in the design of the fleet?

The Navy published, right after the Washington Treaty, its first ever “U.S. Naval Policy 1922,” a remarkable document which it distributed in handbill form throughout the fleet to acquaint everyone with the how the Washington Naval Treaty linked to the fleet. This document is Appendix 2 in my book and shows in great detail how the “U.S. Naval Policy [is] Based on Treaty for Limitation of Naval Armament.” This document was written by the General Board and designed to be good for ten years, with annual reviews.

What were some of the innovative modernization programs and initiatives that the U.S. Navy was forced to implement as a result of the Washington Naval Treaty?

The book looks specifically at three programs: battleship modernization (using the reconstruction clause of the Washington Naval Treaty), the mobile base plan of War Plan Orange (especially the floating dry dock program which became an especially dear project to the General Board), and how the Treaty reflected innovation in naval aviation through the flying deck cruiser initiative. It could have addressed a number of other issues as well-but that would have made for a much longer book. This year one of my students completed a master thesis on the General Board’s role in the design of fleet submarines and its positive effect on the design and evolution that lead to the production of the Gato-class boats. These submarines were highly successful in conducting unrestricted submarine warfare in World War II. All of these positive developments included the General Board as a sort of “final clearing house” and occurred within and in part because of the constraints of the Washington Naval Treaty.

What are the lessons learned from Agents of Innovation for today’s 21st Century Navy?

The U.S. Navy is basically in an interwar period right now-the current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite what the pundits might say, are land-centric with the Navy in a supporting role. Our command of the sea for these operations is not in jeopardy. Although not constrained by a naval arms limitation treaty per se, we are constrained by budgets and a very uncertain security environment. So I think if naval officers want to understand the dynamics of building a fleet in an uncertain environment during peacetime and with declining budgets, then the interwar period and the General Board’s collaborative and collegial approach have much to teach us. The General Board had one advantage over us, they clearly identified the threat as Japan…which made war plans and design simpler (although not necessarily easy-see Clausewitz Book I chapter 7 on friction). The threat is nebulous…and dependent on policy. The old Mahanian solution of building against the most capable foreign navy does not work today because the U.S. Navy is clearly the most capable navy on the face of the earth right now, it wasn’t that way in 1919. In some sense our challenge is much greater than the General Board faced, but I think their basic approach, as reflected in my book, had much wisdom in it.

Who should read Agents of Innovation?

The same people to whom I would recommend On War by Carl von Clausewitz, anyone interested in the national defense of the United States-ie. all concerned U.S. citizens. The United States is essentially a continental island which relies overwhelmingly on maritime trade-islands need navies for their defense. This is just Mahan 101. National defense is everybody’s business, not just wonks/retired officers like me who teach at war colleges. At the very minimum field grade /lieutenant commanders and higher military professionals and national level politicians and policy makers, and those who aspire to be such, should read this book.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Thank you for this opportunity to discuss my work and my book. It is not the last word on the General Board and the interwar navy. The books of Thomas and Trent Hone, Norman Friedman, Mark Mandeles, Edward Miller, Williamson Murray, and Allan Millett and others also provide wonderful viewpoints on this critical period. There remains much research to be done.

Read widely and deeply, its less hazardous than learning the hard the way in the real world.

Posted by Jim Dolbow in Books

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  • Byron

    It truly would be nice if we had another General Board to straighten out the shipbuilding mess….

  • Hayball

    “The United States is essentially a continental island which relies overwhelmingly on maritime trade – islands need navies for their defense… Read widely and deeply, it’s less hazardous than learning the hard the way in the real world.”

    Does it not follow that a large balanced fleet; capable of protection of shipping; major blue water sea combat at the fleet to fleet level; seizure and development of advance naval bases in time of major war; seizure and development of lodgements to project and support major overseas armies on foreign shores when required in support of national strategy; the strategic deterrance of potential foes; and humanitarian intervention as appropriate in cases of natural disaster; will be the best support and defense of the long term safety and prosperity of the republic?

    Should not the high command of the Navy and Marine Corps place a high priority on educating the press, the public and the “political masters” of this necessity, and of the need to address our current inadequacies for the challenges which will inevitably face the republic for the rest of the century?

    How do we correct our current inadequacies and reverse the decline of the last two decades? What should our priorities be?

    Suggestions anyone? Because what we have and are likely to get is not going to cut it.

  • Byron

    Well, for starters, fire any officer no matter the grade that uses the word “evolutionary” when it comes to shipbuilding and weapons systems. That’d be a big start. Secondly, and more importantly, the unholy triumvirate of Congress, the upper echelons of the DoD/Navy, and the huge mil-corps have screwed up the aquisitions process beyond belief. There should be an independent board established to approve all systems and platforms. This board should have the last word in whether something gets to the Fleet or the Marines. Invite officers below the rank of Captain and the Chiefs Mess to sit on the board as advisors.

    Maybe I’m just a career civilian talking out of my hat. I can only tell you I see some pretty stupid things done on a daily basis, and there isn’t a lot of choice in the way it gets done, because it’s the way we’re told to do it..by the Navy. Won’t go into details, can’t. But I bet everyone here knows exactly what I’m talking about and can relate to this.

  • virgil xenophon

    Regarding the ship-building program and the very real mess and resultant frustrations that Byron mentions I’m reminded of my WWII Army veteran Father saying to be as a young child: “Just remember this son, if you want to accomplish any task in life they’re only three ways to do it–there’s the right way, there’s the wrong way, and then there’s the Army way!” I’m sure that saying far pre-dated him and is applicable to all the services–each of whom seems to have their own unique ways of screwing things up.

    On the philosophy of developing an inter-war
    long-term strategy, the one area where the analogy breaks down, imo, is that unlike the WWII era we don’t have the luxury of time to surge our capacity to meet grave challenges.

    Not only is much of our industrial base gone/degraded but the technological complexity of modern weapons systems means that lead times for design and construction are so long even under the most ideally efficiently organized Defense and Navy Dept that a timely response to any immediate existential threat by “fleshing out” any skeletal plan is well nigh impossible and not, therefore a realistic planning template around which to
    guide the future of the Navy or any other branch. The train is leaving the station. While we dither, our chance to yet still catch it recedes. And if we fail, a widening
    dimunition of capabilities will be “locked-in”
    and impossible to overcome except in the very long-run–a time well past the time when our gravest threats may emerge. Hayball is right. The direction we are heading just ain’t gonna cut it.

  • Nice.

    Byron, you mean “revolutionary,” right?

    Oh, and where is Sid? This should have him as giddy as can be.

  • Hayball

    I think it is very telling that the same SECDEF that triggered the “Revolt of the Admirals” killed the General Board.

    Having the really bright retired Flags thrash out the long term plans behind closed doors “inter pares” sans “primus”, with a ten year incumbency and a twenty year planning horizon could be an idea whose time has come again.

    Even if it comes up with non self serving alternative courses of action for the high command to select from it could be a significant boon.

    Because, “Hey, it’s just a proposal” might keep the congress critters at bay until Big Navy gets a chance to think it through.

    It might be very useful tool to help provide some structure to those ambitious new admirals who operate their fiefdoms as if the primary mission was to get “The Admiral” (OinC Fief) his/her next star at the end of his/her two year tour.

    Given the last fifteen years, we could we do much worse in some of the the surface shipbuilding and design, or carrier aircraft design and aquisition arenas?

    Just my opinion, tossed on the grill to stimulate discussion.

  • Byron

    CDR, any of those “-volutionary”s will earn you a flogging in my books.

    Sid? Last time I’ve seen him, he was having a few beers with Lex last weekend. Been out of comm’s both public and private since (or it at least appears that way).

  • Natty Bowditch

    Book looks interesting–might have to pick it up.

    The comments, however, appear to wax nostalgic for the good, old days and deprecate today’s realities.

    In the era leading up to WII, the US was a shipbuilding nation. We aren’t any longer. There are many reasons why we aren’t but the fact remains we no longer possess the industrial capability needed to provide good ships at reasonable prices.

    I keep hearing the acquisition process is broken. It could probably be improved. But the overriding factor is we no longer have a decent shipbuilding and ship design capability.

  • VADM J. C. Harvey, Jr USN

    This book is a terrific read – what stood out for me was that what mattered most were the CHOICES that were made during a desperate fiscal situation, the great depression, and a very challenging strategic situation, the post-1922 Washington Naval Treaty environment.
    Circumstances were not allowed to overwhelm critical thinking; choices were made and these choices led to the development of the strategic concepts and a Fleet that held the Japanese at bay from 1941-1943.
    A great lesson for today – ultimately, it’s our choices that really matter, not simply the circumstances we inherit.
    Again, Agents of Innovation is a wonderful book and my thanks to John Kuehn for giving it to us. All the best, JCHjr

  • Byron

    Some interesting parallels also, wouldn’t you say, VADM?

  • Hayball


    While our industrial base continues in free fall, I’m not as discouraged as you.

    Submarines continue to be built ahead of schedule and below budget.

    EB and Newport News are still hanging in there, but we are starving them for work.

    Design is a problem, but the yards build and design what the Navy orders. Stabilizing specifications and disciplining the urge to tweek after after passing what should have been the point of no return for change orders have been issues that have cost us dearly.

    Henry Kaiser and Manitowoc both had virtually no shipbuilding experience. What they did have was wicked good engineering and production expertise and dedicated craftsmen.

    The streets of the upper midwest are full of guys just as good right now, looking for work, my own brother among them.

    We have a boatload of political masters who neither understand or value sea power.

    What we need to do is discipline ourselves and sell what we know is right and necessary, Sell like a starving refrigerator salesman in the Klondike.

    Credibility is all. Time to clean house.

  • Natty Bowditch

    “Design is a problem, but the yards build and design what the Navy orders. Stabilizing specifications and disciplining the urge to tweek after after passing what should have been the point of no return for change orders have been issues that have cost us dearly.”

    I’m sorry, I disagree with most of this. I cannot count the number of times a very simple and straightforward requirement has been butchered by the SY and/or design agent. I’ll give a non-specific example so as to protect the guilty. Ship spec requires a deck to bear a specified load and said load must be capable of being secured. Secured fittings must pass a specific pull test. It doesn’t get much more specific that that—but we don’t get anything close to it.

    Here’s an example from last month. Storeroom/office is supposed to store a certain cubic volume (specific footprint provided). Storeroom/office required to have an eyewash station. Result: storeroom/office can’t stow required gear because eyewash station (and requisite plumbing) installed in the middle of the space.

  • Byron

    Natty: what did the drawings show? If it was the shipyard that screwed up, crucify them. I have no problem holding the yard accountable, but I’ve seen way too many times that NAVSEA or builders yard (approved by NAVSEA) have munged a drawing and/or material requirement. Almost 100% of the time we catch it at our end, and then we’re forced to spend hours that we can never bill for trying to report the damn thing.

  • Natty Bowditch

    “Almost 100% of the time we catch it at our end, and then we’re forced to spend hours that we can never bill for trying to report the damn thing.”

    My experience says closer to zero.

    Sorry to be disagreeable but most often NAVSEA points out the deficiency or problem and the SY/design agent disagrees and proceeds to do it their way. Then we get billed to implement the fix.

  • Byron

    Natty, I’m not going to get into a p’ing contest with you, but since I’m the guy that has to do a lot of reports like this, I know whereof I speak. And regarding your eyewash station, that would be built from two sets of prints: the structural drawing, which slows the locations of bulkheads and dimensions for all attachments, and the piping drawing, which would show the line and drain. Are there reports submitted questioning the location? Where the reports answered? Wouldn’t be the first time I saw some say, “to hell with it, we’re not getting an answer, build it like they told us to!”

  • Natty Bowditch


    No p’ing allowed!

    Having been involved with just about every USN ship program over the past 20-odd years, I’m comfortable with my comment. Re the infamous eyewash station–the drawings had it discreetly tucked away. But commonsense would tell most anyone you don’t put a eyewash station in the middle of a space. The first report I saw said they were having trouble getting the needed stowage space. No mention of the fact there was a $#%& obstruction sitting in the middle of the space.

    Another sweet example. Certain SY couldn’t figure out why standing deck valves would work once or twice before going into free spin mode. Turns out reachrod couplings were married together using using rolled sheet metal pins.

  • Byron

    Wouldn’t be a yard in NOLA, would it? 😉

  • Hayball


    While amusing, your examples are small potatoes. Death by a thousand cuts perhaps, little screwups do add up. It’s the gross mismanagement, little things like the LCS and the Zumwalt class programs, that are ruining the the Navy’s cred.

    My turn to be the impractical idealist. If the contract includes a blueprint, and the contractor ignores it, he gets to do it over by the print at his own expense. Assuming of course that the previous sentence is in the contract, or words to that effect.


  • VADM Harvey speaks with big medicine.

    Spot on book at the right time to look back and think, “What does this experience tell us in 2009?”

  • virgil xenophon

    “What does this experience teach us in 2009.”

    Not much. All the “improved” sagacious “planning” in the world doesn’t/won’t change the fact that time is moving on apace and that the rest of the world is on the construction march while we sit in the lists.

    Again I say the laws of physics of requisite construction & work-up/tng time (i.e., there are only so many hours in the day and the clock keeps ticking) means that unless the underlying budgetary fundamentals are changed–which means a corresponding seismic change in a current administration political philosophy going in the opposite direction–the Navy is simply “planning'” new and inventive ways to re-arrange the deck chairs.

  • virgil xenophon

    I should have added to my previous post that, notwithstanding the dismal current state of play of politics and budget fundamentals, there are still useful things that can be done–they just can’t be done via the budget/planning process.

    Rather, IMO, what is needed is a coordinated PR/educational campaign by the Navy (assuming a final, fixed, agreed upon plan) both within and without the halls of government. This would perforce involve the Sec. of the Navy using public pronouncements of an educational nature and pvt urgings within DoD, along with lobbying allies in Congress in conjunction with the usual always willing industrial concerns to press the Navy’s agenda both as an educational measure to gain the support of the general public and as a quite frankly political campaign using all the tools available–veterans associations, think-tanks, Naval and defense publications, etc.,
    to press the point. Only in this way will any
    such newly directed innovative planning and and “reorganization” called for by many here bear any substantial fruit.

  • virgil xenophon

    Finally, taking a 3rd go at the subject, I would counsel that one should not quail at the inevitable charges of “special-interest” politics and “inappropriate” “meddling” in the political process. Let’s not kid ourselves, this entire process is suffused with politics, DRENCHED in it. And there are many useful allies yet still in Congress. One example of what can happen is of a young Dan Quayle, who almost single-handedly saved the Patriot missile program by getting the Army to smarten-up a software system purposely dumbed down in fear of violation of a now defunct ABM treaty. Had the improved capability resulting from his efforts not been operational in time for the Gulf war and Sadaam’s Scuds raining down on Tel Aviv, a jittery Israeli govt under pressure to defend it’s civilian population might have resorted to nukes. Quite simply, it can plausibly be argued that thanks to the efforts the efforts of Dan Quayle when a Representative in Congress nuclear war in the Middle East was prevented. Moral? Political allies are useful. And the Navy should unabashedly make use of them.

  • Byron

    Virgil, Israel found out about the bug in the software before we did (the one where the Scud would break up on re-entry and the missile would sometimes go for the pieces instead of the warhead. They didn’t say anyhing, since their populace was reasonably quiet about it, knowing that the “awesome” Patriot had such a great kill rate, when in fact it didn’t.

  • virgil xenophon


    My memory of events varies somewhat from yours–but even so doesn’t totally negate your statement. IIRC the ORIGINAL Patriot software, although originally designed around a system that was developed as a anti-aircraft only wpns sys, accidentally turned out to be so good it could double as a theater ABM sys. and was good enough to even sort out debris and/or decoys. This scared those who worshiped at the alter of the ABM treaty who feared it might technically violate the treaty and ordered it dumbed down. Qualye then rode to the rescue and led the charge to get the software capability partially–but not totally–restored to it’s original capability. This was the system we sent to Israel which, as you correctly note,
    was only partially successful–a fact hidden
    for the reasons you gave. At least that’s my take. (Since we pulled out of the ABM treaty I don’t know whether the full capabilities of the original system have been restored and/or improved–or what.)