In June and July of last year USNI published my series of posts on William Sims and the Gunnery Revolution. The discussion of innovation inside military has continued at a slow boil. I was recently invited to Tampa to speak at the U.S. Special Operations Command Innovation Conference. It was a great conference and the speakers included a number of luminaries from the innovation and technology sectors of the business world, including Tom Kelley of IDEO and Michael Jones of Google. The auditorium was filled will staff officers, DoD and contract civilians, and the front table was crowded with Senior Executive Service civilians and Flag and General Officers including Admiral McRaven.
The involvement of Junior Officers in innovation has certainly been highlighted in the past year. However, what is the role of the mid-grade or senior officer? And what about an officer’s peers? In my talk at SOCOM, I told the story of “The Gun Doctor” William Sims again, but with a slightly different focus at the end. The story I’ve told you here at USNI about the Gunnery Revolution is the story as Sims himself likely would have told it. It’s the story that appears in many history books. However, when you keep reading, and get into some of the letters and reports of the time, you realize that while William Sims was the driving force, the brains and the brawn behind this innovation, he wasn’t exactly alone. The Gunnery Revolution had an entire cast of supporting characters, including a number of Senior Officers and some staff officers who were Sims’ friends and peers.
Open Minded Seniors
When Lieutenant Sims was on China Station the Commander-in-Chief of the Asiatic Squadron was Rear Admiral George Remy. Remy was a hero of the Spanish American War and was one of the most highly respected officers of the day. He held a position that is roughly equivalent to the Commander of PACOM today. Sims’ reports went through Admiral Remy on their way back to Washington. The Admiral always added an endorsement and it was always a positive endorsement. Sims’ time on China Station wasn’t entirely spent onboard KENTUCKY. After he forwarded the first couple reports to D.C. Admiral Remy ordered him onto his staff aboard the flagship USS BROOKLYN. Sims was given the position of “Special Intelligence Officer,” an invented job that wasn’t on the organizational chart. Remy told him that he had free reign to work on, study, and report on whatever he wanted; from the growing potential for military conflict between Japan and Russia, to comparisons of the designs of foreign warships on China Station, to gunnery tactics, techniques, and procedures. Remy was a key enabler by helping to create the time and space for Sims to do his work.
After he became aware of the Navy’s deficiencies in gunnery, President Roosevelt reportedly called for Sims to return to the United States. While he had the power of the Bully Pulpit, what he didn’t have was the technical ability to cut orders. That power resided with the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, Rear Admiral Henry Taylor. Taylor was known as a reformer. Before taking over at the Bureau he was a member of The General Board, which at the time was sort of the Secretary of the Navy’s Red Team. When the President “suggested” that Sims be put in charge of gunnery, Taylor talked to his Senior Officers in the Bureau and asked their advice about giving Sims the job of Inspector of Target Practice. Almost to a man they advised him not to do it. They said that Sims was a loose cannon and too much of a trouble maker. Taylor, however, wasn’t done there. He started asking the junior members of his staff, the Lieutenants and Lieutenant Commanders, what they thought. Almost to a man they told Taylor to bring Sims in and give him the job. He was, in the words of one of his peers, “the real deal.” Taylor sided with the JO’s and cut orders for Sims to take the vital position. In the early years of Sims time as Inspector of Target Practice it was Taylor that provided him the breathing room and top cover needed to develop his program. It took time for him to circulate and teach his techniques, and even more time to demonstrate its success, and Admiral Taylor worked hard to keep the wolves at bay.
These Senior leaders recognized that innovation from the junior ranks is the lifeblood of a vibrant and combat effective military organization. They were on the lookout for the smart young officers, with new ideas, expertise, and Grit that needed protection and encouragement. While Sims’ personal knowledge and drive were the central reasons for the success of the gunnery reforms, the help of a select number of senior officers was important as well. This is just as important today as it was over a century ago. As General Mattis said:
“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.”
Friends and Peers
It wasn’t just Flag Officers that helped make Sims’ Gunnery Revolution a success. His friends, peers, and staff officers from all over the globe helped as well. Sims had a wide network of friends, many of whom wanted to develop their own innovations and ideas. They all worked together, writing letters that traveled across the globe, passing ideas, support, and intelligence to each other. They advised each other on their plans for attacking the bureaucracy, helped with each other’s ideas and writing, and watched each other’s backs.These men included Bradley Fiske. As a Lieutenant in the 1890’s Fiske invented the telescopic sight which played an important role in Sims new gunnery TTPs. While other navies adopted the new sight, the forces of conservatism in the U.S. Navy decided it was an unnecessary expense to fit every gun on every ship in the fleet with a new sight. It didn’t happen until after Sims took over as Inspector of Target Practice, with the President’s backing. Over the years Fiske wrote numerous articles for Proceedings. His articles supported Sims ideas and also put forward his own. He also continued inventing innovative new technologies and had more patents than any other line officer in the Navy. As he and Sims promoted up through the ranks he went on to help develop the very first concept of operations for dive-bombing and aerial torpedo attacks on ships, supported by Sims later work at the Naval War College.
Ridley McLean served with Sims on China Station and was called back to Washington to serve as his assistant in the Target Practice Office. It was McLean that wrote the procedures in the Navy’s gunnery manual, organizing and formatting Sims ideas in a useful way. He and Powers Symington ran the office for Sims, and took turns traveling with him as he moved around the fleet teaching the new gunnery TTPs. McLean authored “The Blue Jacket’s Manual,” the first guidebook for enlistedmen ever written, which is updated and still issued to Sailors today. He commanded a Battleship in World War I and was one of the first Commanders of the Submarine Force, fighting for the adoption and advancement of the important new weapon after the lessons of World War I. Both Mclean and Fiske became Admirals.
Another one of Sims’ supporters was Philip Alger. He was a brilliant and highly respected classmate of Sims from Annapolis who graduated first in their class. Alger left the Navy after a few years as a junior officer and went to work at Annapolis as a civilian gunnery and ordnance instructor. He earned a well known and highly regarded reputation in the field of naval ordnance and became a full Professor. He was frequently brought in at the Bureau of Ordnance as an expert consultant. During the years that Sims was writing his reports from China Station Alger was on the inside at the Bureau of Ordnance. He wrote letters to Sims telling of the internal discussions at the Bureau and identifying which officers or experts were out to get Sims and which were supporting him. Alger and Sims worked together on an article for Proceedings that Alger then published under his own name in order to reduce the heat on Sims. They were lifelong friends.
Military innovation commonly depends on new ideas from junior leaders, women and men with expertise and grit who are willing to challenge the system and fight the status quo. It needs the disruptive thinkers who also do the research and study to become the experts in their field. However, it also requires senior leaders who are willing to nurture those people and their new ideas, even if they border on the insubordinate or look like a bag of mud. It also requires staff officers, friends, and peers who are supportive. We can’t just sit at our desk and say no or sling arrows as “the devil’s advocate.” Even staff pukes can provide leadership by pushing constructive criticism and encouraging concept development rather than embracing and wielding our power to say no. It takes all of these men and women to successfully innovate in the Navy. As Sims later wrote in the pages of Proceedings:
“A navy to be successful must be guided not only by men of ability but by men of an intellectual honesty that is proof against personal ambition or any other influences whatsoever. Which of us will be quoted in the future as example of dangerous conservatism?”