Admiral ZumwaltProject SIXTY was Admiral Elmo Zumwalt’s ambitious planning effort undertaken during his first sixty days as Chief of Naval Operations. It was without precedent in naval history, as no CNO ever attempted such an extensive agenda change. This was not a situation of implementing change for change’s sake but the Navy at the time was in desperate need of significant improvement. As noted in Admiral Worth Bagley’s oral history, “when he came in, this wasn’t much of a Navy. I mean, it was a good Navy, but it was not the kind of a Navy that people were used to, and it wasn’t the kind of Navy that would meet the sorts of strategic challenges that Zumwalt thought were either existing or looming.”

Many parallels can be drawn from that period of naval history to the situation today – exiting a decade-long unpopular war, defense spending in decline, a personnel system in desperate need of reform and a rising naval threat posed by a great power state. Project SIXTY is an excellent case study for implementing strategic changes, based on a realistic assessment of both strengths and weaknesses, in a highly resistant bureaucratic environment.

Zumwalt opens Project SIXTY with:

My purpose today is to report to you on our naval strengths and weaknesses and the actions we are taking, or will propose, to achieve the highest feasible combat readiness. The report reflects our survey of the Navy to date and sets forth the change of direction which we think necessary. It is impossible to discuss these changes outside the context of potential budget reductions. We will indicate the effect of such reductions; they would curtail our capabilities critically, regardless of our actions. However, we hope to emphasize the theme of the changes that we feel must be undertaken, whether we can maintain our present expenditures or not.

(For the full text of Project SIXTY, see Newport Paper 30.)

There are several important observations derived from Project SIXTY:

Take Risks: There is no question the Admiral Zumwalt was a risk taker and was unhesitant to act upon his convictions. His entire concept of modernizing the Navy was based on accepting short-term risk for long-term gain. As Zumwalt recounted in his memoirs, “given the Nixon administration’s determination to reduce military budgets, the only way I could see for the Navy to free funds for developing up-to-date ships and weapon systems that could cope with the new Russian armaments was to retire immediately large numbers of old ships and aircraft.”

Naval capabilities were seriously reduced in the early seventies while the new systems were being designed, built, and deployed for the 1980s. Leaving a much smaller Navy than what was inherited would be a difficult position for any CNO to take and would certainly leave him open to extensive criticism from inside and outside the Navy.

Further, Zumwalt personally set the tone for accepting risk. As the new CNO introduced himself to his immediate staff, he stated, “My basic philosophy is, if a proposed change is in doubt, make it and see what happens. It is easy to get a thousand reasons why you shouldn’t do something. If the odds are even 40 in favor and 60 against, my reaction is to change it and see how loud the screams are.” In today’s bureaucratic environment many offices are empowered to say no or to stop an initiative but few can actually approve something. This imbalance must be addressed – will greater use of social media within the Navy enable good ideas to immediately gain the attention of senior decision makers, thus marginalizing habitual naysayers at intermediate levels?

Set the Agenda: Although having a vision to modernize the Navy was an important factor in being “deep selected” for the position of CNO, Zumwalt felt it was important to meet with a wide-range of military and civilian leaders prior to starting his reform effort. Admiral Zumwalt traveled to several overseas locations on his return from Saigon and met with foreign officials, senior military officers from other services and a large number of junior officers and enlisted men in fleet units to hear their thoughts and concerns.

Project SIXTY had a clearly established set of issues to address from the start:

  • How far to reduce current capability so as to get the most money possible for modernization?
  • How to achieve balance through the high-low mix of platforms?
  • How to allocate resources between the general-purpose and strategic forces?
  • How to maintain high quality force when the draft expired?
  • How to maintain sufficient capabilities during the modernization process?

In total, 52 separate issues were addressed during Project SIXTY.

Have a Project Manager: Admiral Zumwalt selected an outsider in Rear Admiral Worth Bagley to manage the day-to-day work. Bagley was Commander of a destroyer flotilla and was unable to immediately assume this essential position. Captain Stansfield Turner, Executive Assistant to the SECNAV at the time, was given this assignment temporarily and was told to “write a strategy for the Navy.”

Turner was largely responsible for the four main missions of the Navy of the future: strategic nuclear deterrence, peacetime presence, sea control, and projection of power ashore. Turner also wrote 30-40 two-page (yes, this was before power point) decision papers that were sent directly to the CNO, many of which were approved on the spot. Turner maintained a notebook of ideas he kept over the years and when the opportunity presented itself, he provided them directly to Zumwalt.

Zumwalt, Bagely, and Turner, all former Executive Assistants to the SECNAV, would eventually drive a small staff to complete this task successfully. Zumwalt knew from experience that a compressed time schedule would force participants to focus on achieving results.

Additionally, Zumwalt created the position of Coordinator of Decisions. Admiral Emmett Tidd filled this important position and ensured Zumwalt’s decisions were carried out – Tidd became “Zumwalt’s SOB”. Zumwalt understood the execution phase was often a burial ground for good ideas.

Be Aware of the Political Landscape: Project SIXTY reflected a keen understanding of naval politics in the early 1970s. Zumwalt recognized that having the OPNAV staff overly involved in Project SIXTY would slow down the process and normal staff work would drain the momentum from his efforts. As Turner would later note, “Deputy Chiefs of Naval Operations and other senior officers began to offer help that wasn’t particularly helpful but seemed designed to infiltrate the work.”

The high-low mix was a central component of Zumwalt’s re-optimization efforts. He was well aware of the power Admiral Rickover held within the Navy, in the senate and on the Atomic Energy Commission. Zumwalt and staff attempted to work with Rickover but it was often impossible to do. Accepting Rickover’s stonewalling, Zumwalt had to maneuver around him.

In a 1976 Proceedings article (while Rickover was still on active duty), Zumwalt reflected, “A final malady that afflicted – and continues to afflict – the whole Navy, though the surface Navy was and is the greatest sufferer, can be described in one word: Rickover.” In the end however, Rickover was saying some of the same things that Zumwalt said at the time. In Rickover’s 1982 farewell speech he concludes, “we can’t put all our eggs in the high-value carrier battle group basket, and that we’ve got to have other and more ways of doing things.”

Having worked for political appointees, Zumwalt understood the defense decision making process. Early in this endeavor, he gained the support of both the SECNAV and SECDEF, and purposefully used language in vogue on the OSD staff to bring them onboard. Adm. Zumwalt spent a large amount of his time trying to persuade people outside the Navy of the wisdom of his changes and believed institutionalizing change would be far easier with the support of external allies.

Personal Leadership: In addition to learning his new role as CNO, Admiral Zumwalt devoted at least two hours a day to Project SIXTY and this personal attention was critical in achieving results. As a comprehensive 1993 study by the Center for Naval Analysis concluded regarding Zumwalt’s leadership:

  • The personal attention that Adm. Zumwalt devoted to developing, obtaining a mandate for, and marketing his agenda (internally and externally) had a significant payoff in terms of moving the Navy’s strategic rudder.
  • He introduced decision-making mechanisms such as the CNO Executive Board that allowed for participatory management by a board of directors—the VCNO and OPNAV’s Vice Admirals.
  • He also introduced a disciplined cross-mission, cross-platform prioritization process that allowed for “creative friction” or competition of ideas in formulating and choosing between concrete steps.
  • Further, Adm. Zumwalt introduced a decision follow-up mechanism that allowed him to ensure that his decisions would be carried out.
  • Finally, Adm. Zumwalt’s push of innovative concepts to early field experimentation proved critical to the development (or honest evaluation) of a number of program initiatives.

According to a 1982 assessment of Project SIXTY by OP-965, the results of Zumwalt’s ambitious efforts were mixed. A partial list includes:

Successful during Zumwalt’s tenure:

  • Explicit missions and rationale for justifying the Navy (see Turner, Missions of the US Navy)
  • Minesweeping Helicopters
  • Marine Air Squadrons on carriers
  • Oliver Hazard Perry Class Ships
  • Trident Submarines

Successful after Zumwalt’s tenure:

  • Vulcan Phalanx CIWs
  • Ocean surveillance systems


  • Sea Control Ship
  • Surface Effect Ship

Regardless of the outcome of specific weapon programs, Project SIXTY made significant improvements to the Navy’s personnel system. Zumwalt’s goal was clear – create an improved system that allows enlisted sailors and junior officers to do their jobs better. As Bagley noted, “he wanted to create the mental atmosphere, the social atmosphere, and the professional atmosphere that would enhance motivation to get the professional job done in the most effective way.” This goal is consistent with CNO’s ongoing project to Reduce Administrative Distractions.

Bagley also noted the effect Project SIXTY had on the OPNAV staff during Zumwalt’s tenure, “it’s worth saying that we had a common and clear perception, from the Project 60 product, of what was to be done. There wasn’t one single policy paper that I can remember in three and a half years there in which it wasn’t perfectly clear from the Project 60 work the direction of decision that should be taken.”

In the OP-965 assessment, Dr. David Rosenberg noted in the two decades prior to Project SIXTY, the powers of the CNO were significantly curtailed by the growth and incursion from the OSD. This fact makes Zumwalt’s accomplishments even more remarkable. Since the 1982 assessment even more authority has shifted from the CNO to the OSD and Joint Staffs and the Unified Commanders, thanks in large part to Goldwater Nichols. Given this unfortunate reality, it is unlikely that any future CNO will be able to achieve the same level of success in modernizing the Navy as Admiral Zumwalt accomplished during Project SIXTY.

Posted by Robert Kozloski in Navy

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  • Matthew Hipple

    I can only pray that we resurrect Zumwalt’s style of both trusting and aggressive leadership. The “Mod Squad” is another great program worth looking into, amongst so many others that preceded his tour as CNO.

    But seriously, I’m a disgustingly ridiculous fan of this guy.

    • grandpabluewater

      As one who was there, the pace of change was very high. There were other failures and successes not mentioned, in sum, the mod squad was at best a mixed bag. Which is what to expect with a smart aggressive risk taker.

      Adm Zumwalt was promoted over a lot of others, many of the senior officers of the time were not as supportive of him in practice as they demanded of their own subordinates.

      As for Goldwater-NIchols, the gains do not justify the losses. A serious reconsideration, though likely painful, is warranted. IMNHO.

  • The Turner essay from the NWCR is also well-worth a review…

  • Coach Jim

    I learned an interesting lesson as a Naval officer stationed with HQ USMC. When the Commandant was contemplating a major decision he took in all concerns, complaints, and possible exceptions. When he then made a decision, everyone lined up and supported it. When working on the OPNAV staff I saw ideas floated, then implemented, over concerns and criticisms, then sniped at forever. ADM Zumwalt seemed to understand this and have a plan to for this culture, sure wish we had someone like that now.