As the US military faces an “austere budget environment” in the coming years, senior officers have been quick to trot out the Winston Churchill’s quote “Gentlemen, we have run out of money, now we have to think.” It appears to be a line appropriate to today’s challenges. However, the fact that senior leadership has latched on to this quote is disturbing, primarily because it begs the question: “what exactly have we been doing for the past twenty five years?”

Military affairs, and the conduct of war, are a thinking man’s profession. Brute force, attrition strategies, and the reality of death and destruction is, and will always be, a central part of the military profession. But to use another Winston Churchill quote, “Battles are won by slaughter and maneuver. The greater the general, the more he contributes in maneuver, the less he demands in slaughter.” Thinking does and always has mattered in the conduct of war.

This past week Lieutenant Ben Kohlmann, an F/A-18 driver from the West Coast, wrote an article entitled “The Military Needs More Disruptive Thinkers” for Small Wars Journal that has garnered attention. MAJ Peter Munson and the beloved Superhero-of-Sanity Doctrine Man, and the comment sections in a number of blogs, have added to the debate. The discussion of “disruptive thinkers” and the apparent embrace of “thinking” by today’s senior leaders appears to be a natural combination. But that’s not necessarily the case.

There are places and people that have a long tradition of creative thinking, problem solving, and innovation. A great deal of military innovation throughout history has come from junior and mid-grade officers. LCDR Claude Berube has documented the Naval Institute’s history of junior officer innovation and the rise of the Institute from a small group of officers on shore duty to a pre-eminent thought center. There is a movement within USNI that is growing to bring JO’s and mid-grade Officers back to the pages of Proceedings with their innovative thoughts. This is important, but not enough by itself.

Ben Kohlmann brings up some very interesting points in his essay on “disruptive thinking.” I wholeheartedly agree with the overarching thesis of his piece: that the military services need to be more open to new ideas and need to figure out how to educate officers in critical thinking and innovation. However, there are a few areas where I differ with his details. Personally, I think the U.S. Navy’s focus on providing our officers graduate education in the field of business (MBA’s) and engineering rather than subjects like history, political science, and other social science fields is a net negative for our service. Most MBA curricula don’t really focus on innovation and new ideas, instead they teach number crunching and bureaucratic organization. Steve Jobs, used by Ben as an example in his essay, was a great innovator…he dropped out of college, never mind getting a graduate degree from any of the schools Ben suggests. Alfred Thayer Mahan warned us to “avoid the administrative mindset” and I don’t know that a Navy filled with people who have mastered business administration really makes us better or more innovative warfighters. Ben is 100% right, however, when he points out that we should be encouraging interaction between our officer corps and thought leaders from other fields, I just don’t believe the business field is the one we should be focusing on.

I also think that Ben is catching some flak for his use of the term “disruptive.” I think we all know why. We’ve had them in our ready rooms or wardrooms, that “disruptive JO” who constantly mouths off about what he or she hates but never has a constructive idea to attempt to solve the problem. Disruptive behavior doesn’t exactly sound military, and by itself it doesn’t give us innovation or solutions.

Disruptive thinking is, however, the starting point. We need critical thinking that starts with new ideas and we need to develop those into innovative solutions that are researched and workable. Just pointing out problems doesn’t get us anywhere. John Boyd, another great example from Ben’s essay, always did his homework and knew exactly what the staff-pukes were going to ask at the end of his briefs. Their questions were usually intended to try and derail him or embarrass him. But, he used his research to set traps for them, using their own questions and lack of homework against them to help push his ideas through the Pentagon bureaucracy. He wasn’t just disruptive, he had the research done in advance and the solutions ready which made him unstoppable.

So where do we go from here, whether we’re talking about disruptive thinking or contrarian ideas? First, we need to know what we’re getting ourselves into. John Boyd never commanded a fighter squadron, he made too many enemies to survive a selection board. Then again, ADM James Stavridis has had a career which has taken him to the pinnacle of the naval profession. If you’re going to be disruptive or you’re going to put your ideas out there, you have to do it aware of the risks and possible feedback. But, if you’re already that kind of person then you probably agree with Mahan that “failure to dare is often to run the greatest of risks.”

Second, we need to develop our ideas properly and do our homework. This includes figuring out how to best introduce them. Writing for professional journals is frequently a great way to launch innovative ideas and solutions. Whether we’re talking about traditional journals like Proceedings or new online mediums like Small Wars Journal or USNI Blog, discussion of a new idea can start quickly once you summon the courage to publish it (just look at the debates swirling around Ben’s article on social media sites). In 2008 Proceedings had a pair of articles that help give us some guidance. ADM Stavridis’ article “Dare to Read, Think, Write, and PUBLISH” charts a course for us, or at least gives us a point to begin our own dead reckoning. The process of writing should help us develop our ideas and force the right research to defend them. Captain William Toti followed a few issues later with “Write with Your Eyes Wide Open,” which helps develop our sense of the I&W as we enter the battlefield of ideas.

Third, and finally, we need senior leaders who believe what they are preaching. If we are going to “start thinking” what that really means is that leadership has to “start listening.” General George Patton once said that “If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking.” For over two hundred years Sailors have been offering new ideas, whether we’re talking about Sailors figuring out how to repair their systems instead of using contractors at the turn of this century or a young William Sims fighting his superiors to improve gunnery practices at the turn of the last century. Ideas are already out there and leaders need to encourage them to develop, while at the same time growing new thinkers and ideas. The question isn’t whether or not we need to start thinking, the question is whether or not the decision makers are willing to listen, and willing to help. As General Mattis once told a group of officers, “Take the mavericks in your service, the ones that wear rumpled uniforms and look like a bag of mud but whose ideas are so offsetting that they actually upset the people in the bureaucracy. One of your primary jobs is to take the risk and protect these people, because if they are not nurtured in your service, the enemy will bring their contrary ideas to you.”

Posted by LCDR Benjamin "BJ" Armstrong in Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, Naval Institute, Navy, Proceedings

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  • UltimaRatioReg

    LCDR Armstrong,

    Superbly-stated. Spot-on with all of your assertions. In my travels of war games and exercises (both civilian and military), the lack of willingness to countenance a true creating “Red” element, someone who can look at us, our systems, our processes, and our mindsets, and exploit our shortcomings, has been both a major weakness and a revealing indicator of our lack of “disruptive thinking” or tolerance of those who are.

    General van Riper’s infamous tenure as Red Team lead in Millennium Challenge is the most visible, but by no means the first or only instance, of suppressing “Red” for the goal of turning the exercise designed to increase understanding and validate assumptions into a capabilities display.

  • Well done!

    Less emphasis on MBAs and more on history, philosophy, and literature—with a healthy dose of classics.

    Throwing a rock requires a different skill set than installing/repairing a window. That said, disruptive thinkers should spend more time on solutions and alternatives than complaining about the status quo. In my To Be or To Do presentations, a young man said he agreed with the principles I was covering but didn’t “see” at his command. My response: “If not you, then who?” The risks of a life of contribution are real, and the institutional inertia/human nature of what Herodotus called, “Custom is king of all” will always present a challenge. Our disruptive thinkers need to think deeply, focusing on real solutions first and foremost—make the argument for change more about a solution than up-setting the present order.

    Just a thought.

  • Matt

    Good article but couldn’t disagree more that the Navy should be looking for history and political science majors. I believe these subjects are common for future lawyers and politicians but if you want someone who understands how to innovate and work under a budget at the same time, you need a business degree.

    I would also suggest the political science types are exactly those people who are most guilty of “group think” as they worship political correctness.

  • It would seem logical for the military to find ways to blend the best of entrepreneurial and combat cultures in ventures like a joint Harvard Business School/Naval War College degree program. from LT Kohlmann’s original piece.

    It would seem to me that if you wish for entrepreneurial spirit, the very last place you’d look would be a business school. Indeed, a little over a decade ago, the Navy jumped wholeheartedly into the “enterprise” model of management. How’s that workin’ out for ya?

    As to “disruptive thinkers” or leaders or what have you, I think to lump the JO in the back row of the ready room who is always ready to snipe at others, with those who genuinely wish to institute reform that improves readiness, tactical, operational and strategic thinking, and promotes better use of resources is a bit unfair. I can’t off the top of my head think of a better term than “disruptive.” Perhaps the folks here with big brains can.

    At any event, there is a widespread feeling among the junior ranks of all services that the services are stifling under the weight of bureaucracy. And of those folks that haven’t voted with their feet, there are bound to be some very good ideas. Some bad ones too, to be sure. The trick is to find those ideas that improve the situation, and ignore those that sound good, but in fact fly in the face of lessons paid for in blood.

  • Spinney’s article on Boyd, business and other things … USNI Proceedings July 1997

    Big issue is that MBAs are firmly planted in the middle of the MICC which is considered major part of the problem … not the solution. More recent is Chuck’s comments on MICC strategy of perpetual war:

    as means of keeping the funds flowing.

  • Phil

    Here’s some different thinking: we are NOT actually facing an “austere budget environment.” The Navy budget has risen pretty steadily since the late 1990s and is leveling off at historically high levels. The Navy base budget in 2010 was $155.3B, the 2013 budget request is $155.9B, 2014 is projected to be $155.8B and then it rises again to $167B by 2017. Someone show me the cut. All that was cut was an *expectation* of higher growth. Only in the Pentagon is growing slower than expected an “austere environment.”

    When people start looking at data and stop saying the sky is falling, maybe then we will have some different thinking worth talking about.

  • Grandpa Bluewater



    Total absence of cost control discipline in shipbuilding supervision.

    Loss of expertise to the point design must be contracted, ditto planning and estimating.

    Utterly imbecilic prioritization and staff bloat.

    Solution? Act like a smart girl on prom night. Say no.
    Say stop. Do so charmingly, at least at first. Be prepared to proceed independently, if necessary or advisable. Avoid…well, you know.

    Don’t you?

  • Inflation in shipbuilding is out of all proportion to inflation in general. Over 40 years the Consumer Price Index has gone up about 4.5 time. The price of a car has gone up about 10 times while the price of ships has gone up 30 times.

    We have protected our ship builders to the extent they are pricing us out of business.

  • Skeptic

    a LOT of respect for ADM Stavridis, but comparing him to John Boyd?

  • W.M. Truesdell

    The shipbuilders only build what they are told to. The USN is pricing ships by insisting on capabilities that cost money and features that were not in previous platforms. Add that there is no semblance of order in numbers of platforms and the inefficiencies that result, and you have costs that increase.

    Then there is change. The USN does a poor job of managing change to the platforms. Change is exceptionally costly, even when it looks like the change is minor. Perturbations are often unknown and unappreciated. The butterfly effect is in full force.

    You want a made to order Lexus with losts of added bells and whistles, you get a Lexus+, but do not, as the USN does, think you can pay the shipbuilder for a standard Ford. (I am a USN officer who was in shipbuilding from the USN side, both Frigates and DDGs.)

  • BJ Armstrong

    The Shipbuilding Plan is only one area that we need to be looking for new ideas. There is a cultural question here that is more important than a “goal number” of ships or what the rate of inflation is on steel. Yes, the constant change to the 30 year plan is illustrative of something that needs creative and disruptive thinking, but so are personnel policies in the officer and enlisted ranks, staff growth/bloat, manning of ships and squadrons, IA requirements, and many more.

    By focusing solely on the ship numbers we continue the Navy’s cultural bias toward a kind of technological determinism or platform centric world view that encourages us to ignore larger questions of strategy, policy, and leadership. “Well, if we could only get the cost of ships under control everything would be fine.” Really?

  • more from last century blog reference with navy budget, shipbuilding, etc … gone 404 but lives on at the wayback machine … not a lot has changed: MILITARY INNOVATION & EXPERIMENTATION # 33 — TRUST & CONFIDENCE

  • Aubrey

    Excellent article Commander, I wholeheartedly agree with you!

    To those questioning (and/or criticizing) the value of non-STEM degrees, I have to suggest that you consider the benefits of having a breadth of outlooks and a strong “diversity” of creative thinking. The Navy is still dominated by the business-management and engineering atmosphere that currently rules it, and I for one find the results to be beyond-poor, and becoming borderline dangerous to the service and the nation. Please note, I am not saying that they are not important, even vital, but I am saying that you need MORE than “purity of thought” in the form of mandatory degrees and ways-of-thinking to run a vibrant and successful Navy!

    Now, I freely admit that I am biased here as I have degrees in History and Linguistics, but with those “soft” and “non-innovative” degrees I have been pretty darned successful not only as an executive in the business world, but also in starting and running my own company.

    The simple fact of that matter is that the degree earned, in the case of a Bachelors, is of less importance than the skills of critical thinking and problem solving, along with the the exposure to different outlooks and ways of thinking/working. No kid with a BA or BS is going to light the world on fire with new insights and research, but he can (and with support just might!) light the Navy on fire with his ideas.

    (I’m paraphrasing my post from this same argument we had over at Sal’s place a few months ago….for those that want to read the bare-knuckle arguments everyone had on this, head over the and do a quick search on the comments).

  • Grandpa Bluewater

    Innovative thinking is overrated.

    Realistic thinking, from the deckplates, based on a life time of experience, and the passed on wisdom of generations of greasy shoed, bloody knuckled PO’s, Chiefs, Warrants, and LDOs passed on to fleet JO’s – and accumulated by salt horse sea officers with a surplusage of sea time and a shortage of big staff and DC time, is what has been missing for far too long.

    Go read the Caine Mutiny. twice. Pay attention to Queeg’s predecessor and final successor, what one knew and what the other had learned.

    Anyone bright and reasonably ambitious with limited experience can come up with an out to the box solution. The box is usually there for a reason, but with a corporate memory shorter than a CNO’s time in billet, the baseline staff is full of bright, bad ideas.

    If it will work in a running fight with battle damage in a full gale, from equator to the edge of the pack and beyond, daylight and dark, it might be a good idea. If you can fix it on board, at sea, 9 months into a 6 month deployment and 3 month out of port and away from a refit.


  • Cap.n Bill

    Grandpa Bluewater hits many targets in the middle. He doesn’t speak to frugality. It would fit well in his appraisal of the situation. We all should aspire to get more for less. Frugality might lead us to admire and adapt samples of modern warships designed overseas. Smaller navies have shown a capacity to do more with less. We must learn that trick. Our elders in the 1930s knew how. Probably we will have the chance to do so very soon.

  • Chet has warning about his websites gone 404 … in the 2009 they were compromised and shutdown … however wayback machine snapshots prior to 2008 should be ok … including walk down memory lane for the last century showing that pretty much the same issues were hot topics then (little has changed in the new century).

  • Grandpa Bluewater

    Frugality starts on the first sheet of blank paper in the Naval Architects’ sketch books/doodle pads.

    Coupla thoughts, jes spitballin’

    Sailors labor isn’t free, and it isn’t cheap. It is prepaid, and given a motivated bluejacket, realistic and practical more often than not. If you want the job done right, do it yourself. Don’t bet the seed corn on a hired man on a hired mule.

    In other words, get of the swivel chair, off of the plush carpet, and get your feet in some steel toe boondockers. Take a flashlight, a long handled inspection mirror, a hardhat, and a radio. A video camera too, these days. Ruin some blue coveralls. Daily. Most especially, Flag Officers.
    OK, Pentagon chairborne commandos, weekly.

    After a month or so, what looks cheap and easy changes. Take a second class, a first class, or a greasy shoed, dirty handed Chief or Lt. Ask open ended and basic questions. Let him talk. Listen actively. Do not correct them. Look into what they say, and behind what they say.

  • P.S. Wallace

    ” There is a movement within USNI that is growing to bring JO’s and mid-grade Officers back to the pages of Proceedings with their innovative thoughts.”

    I’m glad they recognize that. I wish them luck in getting that to happen, but honestly am skeptical. I stopped my “membership” (a meaningless term now that the head of the Chinese Navy can be a “member” too if he so desired) at the 24 year point once it became clear it was the magazine for Capitol Hill staffers to read, not naval officers interested in figuring out how to fight the Fleet. No regrets.

  • another recent recommendation for MBA business style:

    Sayonara Sony: How Industrial, MBA-Style Leadership Killed a Once Great Company

  • Colette Murphy

    LCDR Armstrong, thanks for furthering the issue of reinvigorating the Navy’s culture of innovation. Many senior leaders are listening and working to engage junior leaders to help us find innovative solution to our miltary challenges. The Navy Warfare Development Command is hosting a Junior Leader Innovation Symposium on June 6, 2012, aimed at harnesses the ideas of our younger Sailors and officers. The Symposium is open to E-5s to O-4s. Hampton Roads participants can participate in person, and others outside the area can participate live via Defense Connect Online. More information is at