Cold steel isn’t worth a damn unless you have men to command it.

– Representative Fred Britten, House Naval Affairs Committee, 1928

The warrior spirit of its members constitutes the most important characteristic of any fighting force. Superior equipment is wasted unless manned by individuals that are properly trained to use the tools of their trade and are enlivened by a warfighting spirit. An effective force requires resources, yet millennia of human conflict teach us that platforms and weapons are no more than enablers through which warriors exercise their expertise and exert their resolve. Hence any changes in the warrior spirit will have a magnified impact on the force’s overall effectiveness.

Napoleon emphasizes the importance of a warrior spirit in one of his maxims: “The moral is to the physical as three to one.” A fighting spirit exists beyond the realm of warfare as a science. It resides in the realm of warfare as art; where intangible human passions affect outcomes. As CAPT (Ret) Wayne Hughes brings to our attention in a section called “Men Matter Most” of his book Fleet Tactics,our profession of arms must possess a warrior mentality, because “beneath the veneer of reason lie passion and mortal danger.”

In 1944 Fleet Admiral King issued an Instruction that underscored the importance of the human dimension in warfighting:

“As wars are fought by men the human element is a basic factor in naval warfare… It is the human element in warfare which may, if understood by the commander, prove to be the only way of converting an impossibility into a successful reality… A force of inferior material potency may, due to the moral resources of its men, prove superior in naval strength.”

The unforgiving conditions of maritime combat require a unique breed of warrior. This is due to the fact that at sea once a platform is detected there are few places to hide; and because, as opposed to land operations, members of platforms at sea are physically bound together. An important benefit of a common warfighting spirit is that it forges inseparable bonds and unifies members into “Band of Brothers.”

Yet even as arms and tactics change fundamental warrior characteristics are timeless. The collective spirit of Sailors and Marines give us a tremendous advantage over adversaries. The tenets that enable an effective fighting spirit in the Navy are summarized in the core values of Honor, Courage, and Commitment. These values are more than lofty ideas, designed to guide Sailors and Fleets to persevere in tough and confusing times. As our nation strives to organize, man, train and equip a superior naval force to meet the challenges of enhanced threats in a globally connected era, let us not underestimate or neglect the most important ingredient of the capability equation. To project seapower we must cultivate and extol the virtues of a warfighting spirit. History indicates effective sea warriors consistently exhibit the following traits: leadership, discipline, technical competence, creativity, and initiative.

  • Leadership. Effective leadership is an essential ingredient of warfighting. Leadership is earned not bestowed. Leaders foster cohesion to achieve a common objective. Leaders provide clear direction and ensure subordinates understand the mission. They mentor juniors and uphold standards. With leadership comes authority, responsibility, and accountability. Authority refers to who is in charge of a task; responsibility refers to the fulfillment of a task; and accountability refers to who bears the burden for the conduct and results of a task.
  • Discipline. To thrive in a melee at sea requires stouthearted individuals. The best warfighters possess tenacity and a stubborn determination to persevere against hardships and long odds to achieve objectives. This requires mental toughness and physical strength. Discipline enables the unification of individuals to achieve a common goal. Environs of the sea compel warriors to work together to survive and win.
  • Technical Competence. Complex equipment and systems must be safely operated and well maintained. The maritime environment is hostile. Machines are constantly battered with salts, pollution, marine life, pounding waves and winds. Preventive maintenance extends the life of equipment and prevents failures. Every position in the Navy has basic skills and tasks that must be mastered to be effective in combat.
  • Creativity. The American spirit of ingenuity is a significant advantage our Navy has over other navies. Tactical creativity does not emerge in combat unless it is nurtured and rewarded in peacetime. Pragmatic innovation from the deckplates has been and must remain a trademark. Viewed as a formidable weapon, the enterprising nature of American Sailors must be exploited to the fullest extent possible.
  • Initiative. In war leaders are charged with exploiting initiative to advance the plan. This could be as complex as recognizing that a potential adversary’s actions indicate an attack or it could be as simple as a deck officer notifying his captain that he maneuvered to avoid a collision. Victory at sea depends on initiative, tempered by calculated risks and sound judgment. In the fog of war decisions must be made quickly with incomplete information. With lives at risk this requires a clear understanding of commander’s intent and tremendous self-confidence.

Despite the fact that the Navy Special Warfare community is very different from other maritime forces, the SEAL ethos statement does a superb job of describing at an individual level, the warrior spirit.

“In times of war or uncertainty there is a special breed of warrior ready to answer our Nation’s call. A common man with an uncommon desire to succeed. Forged by adversity, he stands alongside America’s finest special operations forces to serve his country, the American people, and protect their way of life. I am that man… We train for war and fight to win… I will not fail.”

Armed with formidable weapon systems, competent combat forces of the Navy and Marine Corps are the nucleus of American seapower. As our maritime forces prepare for a future shaped by dramatically smaller budgets, we must reinvigorate a warfighting spirit into the professional development of our men and women. Again from Fleet Admiral King’s instruction, “By training, discipline and consideration of the men’s welfare, the commander obtains fighting strength – a strength so great that it will take its toll against an opposing force superior in numbers or equipment.” The Sailors and Marines we entrust to operate today’s Fleet are highly knowledgeable and motivated. To maximize the warfighting effectiveness of our forces into the future we must cultivate within each individual a warrior spirit.

Posted by CAPT David Tyler in Books, Foreign Policy, Innovation, Maritime Security, Naval Institute, Navy, Tactics

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  • Chris van Avery

    That SEAL ethos sort of reminds me of another Sailor’s personal creed.

    I am an American Sailor, and a Warrior First. I Fight under the Red, White and Blue of my Fathers and descend from John Paul Jones and Oliver Hazard Perry. In my ears rings “I have not yet begun to fight” and “don’t give up the ship”, and in my veins flows Fire and Gunpowder. I will master my profession and demand that my fellow Sailors master theirs. I will follow when lead, and Lead when able. I will place nothing above the welfare of my fellow Sailors, save my Mission, and no matter what my ship, squadron, station or watch, I will help deliver Defeat to the Enemy. In this I will not fail. With Honor in my Head, Courage in my Heart, and Commitment in my Hands, I will be a Warrior first, until Victory is in hand and Liberty is secure.

  • Great blog/post! Effective leadership is more important than ever with shrinking budgets and higher expectations. It’s hard hearing a smaller Navy is what we need in today’s global environment, yet so many demands are taxing our sailors to the limit. Those aircraft carriers don’t drive themselves!

  • Matt

    Outstanding post! This is the single most important thing for all to learn. It’s not the toys that keep us safe.

  • grandpabluewater


    You can’t do more with less. You can only do less with less. Which means you must decide what must be done, what may be done within budget, and what can be delayed, deferred, done less often, done by some only, and must not be done at all.

    Waste not, want not.

    Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.
    Re: R and D…no bucks, no Buck Rogers. Inadequate R & D, you lose, Code Bushido not withstanding.

    Sorry. but the first thing over the side to lighten ship is stupid…by the hundredweight.

    Say goodnight USNA varsity football with the big name schools’ big name teams…and LCS.

  • Sea Dog

    People forget that it is not the fancy equipment that keeps this country safe. It is the young men and women of today’s military. Without them we may not have the freedoms we have today. They secure our future as well as the future of the United States.

  • TheMightyQ

    “Tactical creativity does not emerge in combat unless it is nurtured and rewarded in peacetime.” CAPT Tyler hits the nail on the head with this one. However, in my short naval career, I have never seen senior leaders pay anything but lip service to this concept. If this concept were taken seriously in the surface fleet, then where did Surface Warfare Development Group go? I’d like to think that the Navy would retain some sort of warfighting ethos in its heart, but I’ve seen little of it so far. At least the current CNO recognizes that we are still a military service whose job it is to fight wars. However, I’ll believe that the Navy as a whole wants to win wars when I start to see realistic and prioritized training. I hope for the best, but we all know that hope is not a military course of action.

  • Maynard’s Ghost

    MightyQ and Grandpabluewater have a great point. These warrior leadership ideals have been taught in NROTC and Academy classes for generations…but now its supposed to be something new and exciting? How long ago was Ernest King the CNO? I’ll tell you, half a century, and we’re reviewing his ideas as if they are new?

    Talking points get us nowhere. Senior Officers who are willing to encourage risk takers, and protect the ones that fail, are what it will take. JO’s and enlisted folks want to strike out on a new path, they don’t need much encouragement, what they need is the promise of protection.

    • grandpabluewater

      Maynard G. :Re: FADM King et al…Not because they’re ideas are new, but because they are largely forgotten, untaught, or ignored.. We need new and better ships and planes and weapons, and the best possible logistics, and enough of them to be close enough to the inevitable crises which will arise to deal with them promptly and successfully. Failing that, failure is predestined.

      Then we need the will to act quickly with limited information (or in an older, pithier wording…steer for the sound of the enemy’s guns). Failing to plan, and to keep on the PERT and in control of the critcal path will only provide tragic defeat, dead heroes, and tap dancing political hacks.

      As the day’s news from Bengazi illustrates, every day lately. QED.

  • carr_manor

    CAPT Tyler’s post is laudable but, sadly, doesn’t square with the criteria the Navy uses for advancement. Advancement is dependent on zero-defects, gender equity, retention rates, and so forth. Little or nothing in the selection criteria promotes warrior spirit. You get what you pay for.