On 6 June, I was invited to speak at Navy Warfare Development Command’s Junior Leaders Innovation Symposium. NWDC put on a great event and a lot of good material was presented. You can visit the website and find the slides that went with the presentations, as well as a lot of great reading material like LT Ben Kohlmann’s article on Disruptive Thinkers from Small Wars Journal (Ben also presented) and LT Rob McFall’s call for tactical innovation here at USNI Blog (Rob also spoke immediately following my presentation).

The following is the first section of the remarks that I prepared to deliver to a standing room only crowd of 230+ Junior Officers and Junior Enlisted which gathered at NWDC’s headquarters in Norfolk, and the 200+ that joined us online via DCO. As I said, these are my prepared remarks, so if NWDC posts the video online you’ll surely find differences since I worked from notes rather than reading directly from the page as well as some mistakes. I’ve broken the material into three blog posts. This is the first section which tells about Lieutenant William Sowden Sims’ discovery of continuous aim fire and how he developed his discovery, a new gunnery technique which revolutionized naval warfare. The next post we’ll look at what he did after developing his idea in order to get the Navy to adopt it. Finally we’ll look at what Sims learned during his career about innovation and what we can observe from the history. 

Good afternoon everyone. I’d like to start this afternoon by thanking Admiral Kraft and the team here at NWDC for inviting me to be a part of today’s event. We’ve had a lot of interesting speakers this morning, full of experience and expertise in innovation. I’m not going to be one of them. I’m just here to tell you a story. I’m a Sailor just like you, maybe not as young as some of you anymore, but with the same desire to make my Service better and more effective. The only reason I’m up here is that I’ve done a little research and I’ve got a story to tell you about a Junior Leader who changed the USN from his stateroom on a ship while deployed in the Pacific.

This is a picture of Vice Admiral William Sowden Sims. William Sims wasn’t always a Vice Admiral though. In 1900 he was a Lieutenant, fresh off staff duty in Europe as an intelligence officer. He had orders to China Station to join the U.S. Navy’s newest and most powerful battleship, the USS KENTUCKY. He arrived aboard the battleship having studied the early Dreadnaught battleships of Europe and the gunnery practices of both potential allies and potential adversaries alike.

Sims checked onboard and discovered that the Navy’s “newest and most powerful” may have been new, but it certainly wasn’t powerful. There were a number of problems with the ship. The hull was armored under the waterline, but the sides and gun turrets were open and un-protected. The gundecks were so low to the waterline that when the ship was fully loaded and took heavy seas water would pour into the turrets. And there was no separation of the magazines and the weatherdecks and gundecks, so a hit from an enemy shell could directly access the magazines.

Sims was incensed. He set about recording the deficiencies. In a letter to a friend he wrote: “The Kentucky is not a battleship at all. She is the worst crime in naval construction ever perpetrated by the white race.” 

Sims was a man who had strong opinions. However, he was part of KENTUCKY’S crew, and he couldn’t really change the design of the ship while they were on China Station. So, as he earned his qualifications and began standing his bridge watches, he looked for a way to make the ship better through what today we call tactics, techniques, and procedures or TTP. It was while steaming through the South China Sea and along the coastal cities of China that he met a man from the British Royal Navy who would serve as an inspiration.

Percy Scott was a Captain in 1900, and the CO of the HMS TERRIBLE. Scott was a bit of a pariah, and part of the reason he was on China Station was because of a longstanding feud that he had with an Admiral who was on shore duty back in the home islands. China was as far away from England as they could send him. Scott had developed something that he called “continuous aim fire” and it was a TTP that would revolutionize naval warfare, but he couldn’t get anyone to catch on that it was important.

Gunnery hadn’t changed much since the days of USS Constitution battling it out with the British frigates in the War of 1812. The gun director would estimate the distance to the enemy ship, set the elevation of the gun, and then each time the ship rolled he tried to time the firing so that the shell would hit the enemy. The technique was the reason why most sea battles in the age of sail took place at very close range. This was neither a very accurate way to shoot, nor a very rapid way to engage the enemy.

Scott re-geared the elevation gear on his heavy guns and added new telescopic sights. The new gearing allowed the gun directors to move the gun continually as the ship rolled, and the new sights allowed them to keep the weapon aimed directly at the enemy ship. This meant that gun crews could fire as fast as they could reload.

Aboard KENTUCKY, LT Sims watched the TERRIBLE conduct gunnery practice and he realized this new technique would change naval warfare. A battleship using continuous aim fire could take on an entire squadron of enemy that wasn’t. Accuracy increased dramatically and the rate of fire could quadruple, which resulted in hit rates that increased over 1000% on some ships. Sims immediately sent a report back to the Bureau of Ordnance in Washington, D.C.

Sims befriended Scott, and learned exactly how the Brits were accomplishing their dramatic results. He set about modifying the gear on KENTUCKY and teaching his gunners the new techniques. Soon, KENTUCKY was performing nearly at the same level as TERRIBLE. Sims wrote another report, detailing KENTUCKY’s experience with continuous aim fire, outlining how to modify American guns, and laying out the procedures to be used. Sims waited. And he waited. And he waited. He heard nothing.

His reports arrived at the Bureau of Ordnance at the Washington Navy Yard. They were read, but the claims of the young Lieutenant out on China Station were outlandish and unbelievable. The reports were filed away in a basement file cabinet and were forgotten. The Bureau of Ordnance had developed the procedures that were in use throughout the Fleet and had designed the guns that were mounted on American Battleships. American hardware and American Sailors were the best in the world, they told themselves. Nobody even considered “what if” the reports were true…they simply couldn’t be. Silly Lieutenant.

NEXT: The Gritty Truth of Junior Leader Innovation

Posted by LCDR Benjamin "BJ" Armstrong in Foreign Policy, History, Maritime Security, Naval Institute, Navy, Proceedings

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  • UltimaRatioReg


    Great post, and oh-so pertinent. Seems we had a relapse of the disease when we confronted the IJN and their superb tactics and weaponry in 1941-42, and our own Mk 14 torpedo failures.

    We tend to blame Power Point, but methinks BuOrd of the turn of the last century was every bit as susceptible to their own groupthink as today’s centralized and non-executing doctrine gurus.

  • Jon Paris

    BJ –
    Great to meet you. Your presentation was awesome – just what we needed to hear, and a timely reminder that innovation is generally a young person’s game. You had a tremendous impact on those in-house and online – well done.

  • Please serve this sort of thing up for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Really, really good.

    Curiously enough, The USS Kentucky had another young lieutenant aboard with big ideas. The commander of the battleship’s Marine detachment between Jan. 1903 and May 1904 was 2nd LT. Earl “Pete” Ellis. As the Marines manned the six-pounders during General Quarters, Ellis would have directly interacted with Sims. Could Pete have been encouraged in his creativity by Sims?

  • Andy (JADAA)

    It is worth noting that Sims had superiors who also were willing to say “sure, give it a try, see if it works;” the machinists with a shop on board or at the nearest shore facility with enough authority to make the necessary hardware to his specifications and no one to get the vapors that he hadn’t “properly staffed” his proposal up a byzantine chain deemed necessary to ensure “conformity.”

  • ADM J. C. Harvey, Jr USN

    LCDR Armstrong, the example you gave us of a young and determined Sims taking upon himself the critical task to improve gunnery practices onboard KENTUCKY is an excellent one.
    The key to his ability to make a difference was not only his drive and imagination, but his technical knowledge – he knew his stuff and could turn the good idea into meaningful reality (improved gunnery results!).
    Sometimes we focus a great deal on the idea development piece of the innovation equation and not enough on the implementation piece – ie, developing the series of steps that are required to get from the starting point to the desired end-state.
    I also think that as important as tactical and technological innovation is to our future, the golden opportunity before us today is the decidely unsexy area of shipboard administration and material maintenance.
    Our bright, young enlisted and officers are “living the dream” every day and see the issues up close and personal; I’m convinced they could come up with better ways to do business, particularly with respect to the current cacophony of shipboard IT support systems, that will be more effective, more productive, and save us incredibly valuable time.
    Clausewitzian friction is nowhere better illustrated than in what we must overcome to get the day-to-day job done of running and fixing our ships.
    I’m banging away on this task from my end, but I’d like to see more coming from the junior ranks challenging the status quo – not just complaints from the “JO Jungle”, but well-thought out ideas on how to improve how we do business.
    Too many of our shipboard support systems were developed for the convenience of the program managers, without due regard for the effort required on the deckplates to use and maintain those systems. Can we do better, today?
    We’ve made much of our personnel and technical support accessible on “the web”, yet, still today, very few of our shipboard Sailors have routine access to “the web” in the course of their daily duties. What can we do, now, about that?
    The complexity of our current engineering and combat systems makes 24/7 technical support “reach-back” incredibly important to maintaining day-to-day combat readiness – is anyone satisfied with how we’re delivering that 24/7 technical support today? I know I’m not. How do you think we could improve in this critical area right now? What would it take to make a difference, however small, today?
    There’s no shortage of real and relevant issues to get after and they don’t all involve “re-inventing” an Aegis Baseline. The issues are ones where YOU are the deckplate experts and have the ability to make a REAL difference if you are willing to put your shoulders to the wheel.

  • ADM J. C. Harvey, Jr USN

    My apologies for the spelling error in second-to last paragraph. Please make that “technical” vice “technocal” – thanks! JCHjr


  • Andy (JADAA)

    I think that the message you bring, with all its lasting value, will truly resonate in the JO bunkrooms, the Goat Lockers and Petty Officer berthing when they see that if their idea does not pan out, there is no retribution exacted for having tried and failed.

    Even if that is indeed the reality now, the deep perception, driven by over a generation of “zero defects” thinking and example, is that one suggests altering course anywhere “within the system” at the peril of one’s career. Once they see their seniors state plainly and openly, to the world (and their selection boards) their own institutional examples of “we tried this, it didn’t work at all but we learned a whole bunch from it; we congratulate those who took a shot at it,” I predict the floodgates of bottoms-up innovation, opening some on the peripheries, will burst forth.

    Just Another Dumb @$$ Airdale

  • ADM,

    I want to second Andy. There is no greater suppressant to innovation than a written instruction, especially with the word “will” used with abandon. Today, a junior officer would be mad if he chose to weld a new sight onto a gun, or even depart from accepted AEL items for ATFP or VBSS. There is no room for experimentation, because as we have written our instructions so specifically and ingrained ORM so deep into our culture that we are often averse to the very risks necessary to innovate.

    Second, we need to bite the bullet and increase shore-side maintenance billets while cutting back on fleet size. As we roll back the FFG’s, the freed-up human capitol needs to be shifted to facilities where they will be trained in and execute higher level maintenance. For the longest time, SERMC in Mayport was a ghost-town, a building full of machine-shops, welders, and maintenance docks with no personnel. In the end, real support isn’t on the web, from an instruction, or from a contractor. It’s a sailor who has the experience and know-how to execute a task. It also helps that a sailor doesn’t haggle over CFR’s or contracts when you ask them to accomplish something. It’ll be unsavory in the short-run, but we can eventually surge back. For now, building up a strategic base of technical knowledge is more important.

    LTJG Hipple

  • LTJG Hipple’s comment, “In the end, real support isn’t on the web, from an instruction, or from a contractor. It’s a sailor who has the experience and know-how to execute a task. It also helps that a sailor doesn’t haggle over CFR’s or contracts when you ask them to accomplish something. It’ll be unsavory in the short-run, but we can eventually surge back. For now, building up a strategic base of technical knowledge is more important.”

    …. is spot on.

  • Wendall Bates


    The solution is rather simple. Better train the people who enlisted to do the job. IT “A” school was a joke (I was an IT, so I will use that example). At least it was when I went through in 2006. They apply a “one size fits all” template to training, when we all know that is not the case in the fleet. I was fortunate enough to have a background BEFORE the Navy in my job field, and I was very good at it. The Navy taught me nothing. I brought a skillset TO the Navy. I’m not saying shove Powerpoint presentations down peoples throats, because that won’t help. But I’m sure there is an educator out there who can come up with an effective way to train people. The current system, this generic “A” school system, is not the way. At least make a specialized “C” school MANDATORY before reporting to the command that the sailor will be stationed. That way, when new technicians show up to the brow, they know what they are getting into, and can offer something to the command. You can’t fault the new sailors showing up and not knowing anything after they’ve just spend 4 months learning about systems/infrastructure that isn’t even onboard…

    Remote assistance is an invaluable tool that should not go away any time soon. But it shouldn’t be thought of as a primary resource. You should be able to depend on the sailors to do the jobs that they are being paid to do.

    A perfect example of this NOT happening was on-board my first ship, on my first deployment. The government paid to have a civilian SME ride with us for the whole seven months, just in case if anything went wrong. This isn’t how the Navy should operate. We shouldn’t depend on civilian contractors to fix/maintain our equipment. We should be training our sailors to do this. After all, that is what we signed up to do, and that is why we are getting a paycheck…

  • Steven M Mondul

    This (The post from ADM Harvey) is the most heartening thing I have read about our Navy in months. Admiral–you obviously get it, I suspect the real challenge is getting the staff weenies and civilians who sit/stand/lie between you and the real Navy to do so.
    As a retired O-6 SWO with two commands at sea, I did my share of innovating, and was rewarded and/or punished accordingly, but at least I had the chance; and some of the innovations were adopted by the service. Here’s hoping today’s sailors get to do the same!!

    Captain Mongo