nerds2jpgDon’t be distracted about the Aegis, Russia, or China – the first thing you need to read in this December’s Proceedings is the “Nobody Asked Me, But …” contribution by Lieutenant Alexander P. Smith on page 12.

The most important ingredient to a successful Navy is not its ships, aircraft, submarines or secure budget. No, the most important part of our Navy is its intellectual capital, specifically the education of its officers.

The naval service will face a multitude of challenges that will require a true diversity of experience and education in its leaders in order for the best decisions to be made. If everyone brings the same tool-set to the table, you are in trouble.

There has been a long-dwell discussion in our Navy about what type of education our leaders need. For the last few decades, there has been a heavy bias towards technical education; a bias that is about to get heavier;

The tier system was developed in 2009 as a result of fewer NROTC and U.S. Naval Academy graduates entering the nuclear-reactor community. The Regulations for Officer Development and the Academic-Major Selection Policy direct that a minimum of 65 percent of NROTC Navy-option scholarship midshipmen must complete a technical-degree program before receiving their commissions. A technical degree refers to Tiers 1 and 2, which comprise all STEM majors. Tier 1 includes most engineering majors, and Tier 2 refers to majors in biochemistry, astrophysics, chemistry, computer programming/engineering, civil engineering, physics, and mathematics. All other academic majors are non-technical, or Tier 3.

As a result of the new policy, a high-school senior’s best chance of obtaining a Navy scholarship is to apply for Tiers 1 and 2, since CNO guidance specifies that not less than 85 percent of incoming offers will come from this restricted pool. In fact, an algorithm decides the fate of hopeful midshipmen, balanced in large part with their proposed major selection annotated in their applications.

This is a huge error. 65% one could argue if one wished, but 85% is simply warping to the collective intellectual capital of the Navy.

We don’t even need to review all the English and History majors that do exceptionally well in the nuclear pipeline – but to put such a intellectual straight jacket on the entire Navy over the requirements of one part, that is a sure sign of a loss of perspective.

In last Sunday’s Midrats, Admiral J.C. Harvey, USN (Ret) made an argument for technical education that is fine for the nuclear community, but the Navy is not the nuclear community. If you look at the challenges from Program Management to Joint/Combined Combat Operations; none of those are helped by a technically focused mind. Just the opposite, it begs for officers of influence with a deep understanding of economics, diplomacy, history, philosophy, and yes … even poetry.

One could argue that the problems we have had in the last few decades derive from a lack of nuance and perspective by officers who fell in love with theory and the promise of technology, who had no view to history, civilian political concerns, or even human nature. As a result we got burned out “optimally manned” crews, corrosion laden “business best practices” ships, and an exquisitely engineered if unaffordable delicate Tiffany Fleet – not to mention entire wardrooms in 2001 who couldn’t place Afghanistan or Ethiopia on a map, much less even had a brief understanding of the background of Central Asia or the Horn of Africa. Back to LT Smith;

Does the tier system produce better submariners or more proficient naval officers? If less than 35 percent of our unrestricted line officers have developed the ability to think comprehensively through critical reading and reflection, what will the force look like in 20 years? These are questions to ponder regarding the benefits and disadvantages of STEM graduates. We ought not to forget the value of future officers developing a keen interest in foreign affairs, history, and languages.

We actually know the answers to that. To this day, once you leave the CONUS shores, we lack wardrooms and Staffs with sufficient knowledge of any of those areas.

It is about to get worse.

If we really have a problem getting well qualified nuclear engineering officers on our submarines and carriers – then instead of having negative 2nd and 3rd order effects throughout the Fleet – then let’s focus on how we keep and manage the careers of our nuclear engineers. Do we need to look at the Commonwealth model? Do we need to look at compensation and non-Command career paths that can still get someone to CAPT at 30-yrs? Is the Navy having to serve the Millington Diktat as opposed to Millington serving the Navy?

Whatever the problem is – forcing a 85% STEM officer corps is not that answer.

What do we need our officers to be able to do? Be outstanding engineers? Well, as our friend LCDR BJ Armstrong, USN might ask, “What would Admiral Mahan say?”

Wouldn’t you know – we know the answer;

The organizing and disciplining of the crew, the management under all circumstances of the great machine which a ship is, call for a very high order of character, whether natural or acquired; capacity for governing men, for dealing with conflicting tempers and interests jarring in a most artificial mode of life; self possession and habit of command in danger, in sudden emergencies, in the tumult and probable horrors of a modern naval action; sound judgment which can take risks calmly, yet risk no more than is absolutely necessary; sagacity to divine the probable movements of an enemy, to provide against future wants, to avoid or compel action as may be wished; moral courage, to be shown in fearlessness of responsibility, in readiness to either act or not act, regardless of censure whether from above or below; quickness of eye and mind, the intuitive perception of danger or advantage, the ready instinct which seizes the proper means in either case: all these are faculties not born in every man, not perfected in any man save by the long training of habit—a fact to which the early history of all naval wars bears witness.

Doesn’t sound like an STEM heavy requirement to me.

Posted by CDRSalamander in Proceedings, Training & Education
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  • Andrew

    “Do we need to look at the Commonwealth model?” This, x1000. I can count on zero hands the number of my fellow 1st CVN DIVO tour LTs who wanted to go be OPS on a DDG or FFG, which was our decreed fate if we stayed in past our shore tour.

  • Andy

    I have watched with dismay this obsession, born who-knows-where with the idea that only STEM majors can possibly be successful in the Sea Service wax and wane from my earliest days at the hindquarters of the Vietnam War to well past my inevitable piping over the side. It is both sad, and predictable that BuPers and others seem to lack the flexibility of imagination to conceive that others unlike themselves could ever possibly be successful in any of the highly technical aspects of the profession.

    Yet, time and time again, we see those arrogant presumptions shattered by capable young officers and enlisted sailors who show us just how flexible the human intellect can be. STEM rewards those with certain personality and learning traits. Those very traits of the need for all things quantifiable, verifiable and without nuance and unpredictability work against the need in certain very high tempo kinetic encounters to be very open to abrupt and unforeseen change, to be keyed to the nuance of words, non-verbal communication and the ability to have a highly evolved sense and grasp of a high-speed OODA loop.

    Each can compliment the other, if they are both available to a leader. Each has strengths, and every so often, you get someone who easily straddles both demands. I know of many with classic liberal arts educations who went on to be pillars of arcane knowledge in EW, Security Group, surface nukes and Engineering. Once again, Big Navy seeks to strangle its future in the nursery.

  • Goat Master

    Phib – I never viewed this as an either/or choice. I have no tolreance for an EDO or Nuke who has not read Aristotle, and I can’t use a SWO who math skill are so weak he or she can’t do a Mo-board or read an EOSS diagram. We need liberally educated officers in the best and fullest sense of that term.

  • RoguePilgrim

    Wow! Didn’t we learn this with the enlisted “technical” leadership in the 80’s. Too many “tech’s” which were very poor Leaders.

  • What this discussion sells short is the fact that the Navy has an excellent technical education system for its officers. Plus anything that biases the system towards nuke power-means the other communities in the end lose out on balanced officer education. The Navy forced me to be a Math major-I never really used any of the higher math (calculus etc). The Navy still taught me all I neeeded to know about aviation and radars. The better approach is a balanced college degree that places a strong emphasis on writing-learning to write well, make an argument, and in today’s environment, proficiency in business applications would be nice. Also, there is a clear need for solid proficiency in at least one other language besides English. That would be more valuable over the long haul. The technical stuff-the Navy knows how to teach. Its the other stuff it fails at.

    • TheMightyQ

      Spot on. I have used exactly 0% of my engineering degree as a Naval Officer. “Engineering” in the Navy is not what one studies in college, when one gets an engineering degree. As unrestricted line officers, we are not doing systems design, which is what engineers in college study. We operate systems, not build them. It doesn’t matter if I understand the nuances of the Diesel cycle v. the Otto cycle if I can’t ensure that my high pressure air compressors work. The coincidental fact that I happen to be a history and geography nerd has served me much better in the Navy than my engineering background.

      • Navsea3601

        At the 4 remaining Navy owned (public) shipyards, we have a mixture of Electronic Engineers and Elect Techs. There is a difference in how they think: the EE Engineer approaches the research and resolution/documentation of a problem so that he never has to revisit that problem on subsequent ships. What true engineer wants to “solve” the identical problem on ship after ship ? While the Elect Tech’s will thoroughly troubleshoot and correct ____ (whatever the problem is), they are content to know that they have now seen this ____ before and now have added experience to revisit it quickly and effectively on subsequent ships in future years. Their knowledge level and confidence increase every year they work. On the other hand, Navy shipyard Engineers would never be content to encounter the identical problem on future ships. Both are needed as the four remaining shipyards in the U.S. Navy are rapidly losing all their experience due to retirements.

      • Clarkward

        Honestly, sir, it’s not even your job as a naval ‘engineer’ to be able to keep that compressor working. It’s the job of your technical experts, the men of your division, to keep it operating. The officers are, I would say, ‘big picture’ responsible, but they achieve the desired end by leading their men and ensuring that they have the tools to do their jobs and running interference/finessing schedules as necessary. As a nuke submariner, I was definitely blessed with fine officers, from the JO’s on up, who were generally very good at meeting their responsibilities both up and down the chain of command. Almost all were STEM majors, and while they did not use their engineer degrees as civilians do, their understand of, say the diesel cycle (for example) made things much easier when helping them learn things that they needed to in order to safely operate the ship and qualify for their watch stations.
        That said, it was their non-engineering minors or hobbies that made on-watch conversation more fun. I remember a really inexplicably interesting (to me as a tech nerd) discussion of musical theory with a JO for like 3 hours one night up north.

  • born01930

    Reading Neptunes Inferno you can see where a heavy STEM background may have helped in the early battles around Guadalcanal. Also look at the resistance the Brits had to centralizing fire control (read Dreadnought). Sometimes the poets get in the way of modernization. Rickover was very good at balancing automation with the need for manual actions. Does this justify 85%? No…how many prewar policies make it through a major conflict? The ability to change when TSHTF is what makes winners. Maybe the lack of poets got you up the creek, but it is the STEM guy who will figure another way of mobility when you realize the paddle’s gone.

  • Ken Adams

    Augustus Buell and Mahan seem to agree pretty well on this subject:

    “It is by no means enough that an officer of the Navy should be a capable mariner. He must be that, of course, but also a great deal more. He should be as well a gentleman of liberal education, refined manners, punctilious courtesy, and the nicest sense of personal honor.

    He should be the soul of tact, patience, justice, firmness, kindness, and charity. No meritorious act of a subordinate should escape his attention or be left to pass without its reward, even if the reward is only a word of approval.

    Conversely, he should not be blind to a single fault in any subordinate, though at the same time, he should be quick and unfailing to distinguish error from malice, thoughtlessness from incompetency, and well meant shortcomings from heedless or stupid blunder. In one word, every commander should keep constantly before him the great truth, that to be well obeyed, he must be perfectly esteemed.”

    My physics and professional education helped greatly with the capable mariner bit. Most of the rest I was able to pull off came from the history department and Robert Heinlein.

  • milprof

    This is a pithy simplification, but the reasons that Net-Centric Warfare and Effects-Based Operations didn’t live up their proponents’ expectations weren’t that didn’t understand sensors and computers and guidance systems well enough, but that we didn’t understand _people_ well enough.

    • grandpabluewater

      Yea, verily and amen, brother. Perhaps even the reason we were dumb enough to try it in the first place.

  • Steamer

    Does what you major in really matter? In terms of being an effective naval officer, I submit that a technical background trumps liberal arts in terms of assimilating new developments in S&T or R&D. Yes, you can do that as a liberal arts major (of which I am living proof), but it’s tougher to self-educate in the sciences and engineering than it is in history (for example).

    Will the non-nuke communities ultimately benefit from the coming wave of infiltration by technologists?

    Regardless, if you don’t develop critical thinking skills and leadership, it won’t really matter anyway. I believe the Junior Officer experience is a great leveller, forcing the technology trained toward less quantitative skills (like being a good Division Officer) and the would-be poets into standing watch in Main Control.

    • John Trost Kuehn

      No, but the signal being sent is that only STEM matters. It is a cultural message and guys like me have to deal with it when we get officer in professional military education who cannot write correct sentences or put together an argument, but they do know how pass fluid dynamics.

  • John Trost Kuehn

    Amen, To the Phibian commander and to young LT Smith. I was probably tier 2.5, having been a pre-med as an undergrad, but I only had one semester of calculus for business majors while my liberal arts Zoology degree had more than its fair share of history, english, and other so-called “BS” studies. Ok. I can see having a system like this at the Naval Academy, although I personally feel 85% there is probably too high, too. But the goodness that comes from the NROTC programs are precisely those liberal arts guys and gals who do not apply/get into the service academies but who also wish to serve. Full disclosure, I am an AOCS commissioning source–maybe that is where tier 2.5s like myself come in? Seriously, I highly recommend everyone reading this revisit a neat little piece entitled “The Two Cultures” by C.P. Snow–I am not assuming most of you have read it because…gasp…it is the kind of thing one reads when one is a liberal arts kind of guy (gender neutral sense for guy). Snow makes a plea in his famous Reding Lecture for the humanities and the science cultures to understand each other. What LT Smith writes about reminds me that we need Snow’s argument now more than ever, because the Navy is doing exactly the opposite of what he recommended.
    PS, I went to stupid studies at Montery because the only way I could attend that august institution in 1986 was by studying in a technical field, Electronic Warfare Systems Engineering. I did find that I could do Fourrier Transforms, but in my spare time I read just about every history book in the library there. guess what I used more in my navy career?
    vr. John
    John T. Kuehn, Ph.D.
    Major Genera William Stofft Professor of Historical Research
    Fort Leavenworth KS
    MSSE 1988 NPS, with distincition.

  • M. Thompson

    Nope on the STEM heavy degrees. There seems to be this perception that STEM is a panacea, and there is no such thing as a panacea.

    Furthermore, while it is of use to, say Nukes. Considering the sort of people who end up in some rates, mostly STEM in the URL officer corps sounds like a BAD idea.

  • J Hud

    Outstanding topic. Being an NROTC grad, I had to take the calculus and calculus based physics, but it has been my other classes that have served me best throughout my career. With B.S. in Human and Organizational Development, an MBA with a concentration in finance, and an M.S. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology (and M.A. from NWC to round it out), my education has prepared me to tackle some of our biggest problems. My job is to look at our Total Navy Force (active and reserve military, civilian workforce, and contractors). About 68% of our Total Obligated Authority is labor. Consider that a 10% reduction in our labor dollars will fund over 20% of our TOTAL non-labor expenditures. The math skills I used to figure that out didn’t require a single derivative. The problems I am asked to solve take me far outside the comfort zone of many of my colleagues because I operate in an environment where I don’t exercise control over the outcome. Instead, I operate by facilitating activities with groups of subject matter experts who are a lot smarter than me in their area, but who view the problem through a defined lens. I serve to open the aperture and bring the different views into a shared focal point. The end result is a true synergistic (and not in the buzzword sense) solution that benefits all stakeholders. These skills were learned far outside of my technical studies.

    Regarding STEM, I am a huge advocate for STEM education where it makes sense. Being a manpower type, STEM makes sense when the job requires those KSAs and competencies. What the Navy needs isn’t more people who can solve problems that are black and white, but we need leaders who can solve problems that are in the grey area. We need leaders who can compute a Net Present Value calculation and assess a valuation by applying objective metrics in subjective areas and stand behind the results. We need leaders who can make a judgment call on their mission set and have the courage to eliminate taskings that don’t add value. We need leaders who understand what it means to accept and/or mitigate risk when the risk has a subjective interpretation and there is a chance the leader could be proven wrong over time. STEM teaches risk aversion because there are right and wrong answers. Tolerances give specific boundaries which should not be breached. But outside of the small part of the Navy that appears so cut and dry, the rest of us have to live and operate. We need leaders equipped to work in the world of people instead of just the world of equipment. When dealing with people, the science of human behavior is far less predictive, far more complex, and as the numbers above show, more costly than any other system we have. Human Capital is our most valuable asset, our most expensive asset, and the one asset, that when proper investment is made, offers us the greatest return on our investment.

  • Riverine ET

    Having served for 20 years as an enlisted man with a degree not in STEM I can say that the officers who do not have at least a minor in the soft sciences are not good leaders they are, at best, technicians. A level of concern for the equipment that exceeds the concern for the men and women who operate, maintain and repair said equipment develops an atmosphere of distrust and poor morale. This in turn leads to degradation in readiness.

  • Combat Wombat

    Sal: With all due respect, you’re missing the point. Apply Occam’s razor here too, and demonstrate the lateral thinking element: What groups are being pushed into/have programs supporting STEM the most (divided by) Diversity requirements= up to 85% “diverse”. Winner- the diktat.

  • Alex Smith

    There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to the education of our officers and I would suggest that we need a balanced approach to undergraduate education, which closely examines the strengths of every college within the NROTC realm. Harvard is different than Virginia Tech, University of Florida is different than Iowa State, and George Washington University is different than University of Washington. That’s the beauty of NROTC – intellectual capital is ripe for the picking if we let midshipmen decide their own fate in academia.

    Since we decided to bring Mahan into this…

    Following his publication of The Influence of Sea Power upon History in 1890, Alfred Thayer Mahan established himself as one of the leading authorities on naval warfare. His experiences at sea, combined with his
    reflections of history and literature, proved to be an indispensable component to our future strategy at sea. Many
    naval officers of the time, including Winfield Scott Schley and George Dewey, admired the book and praised its importance.
    More orthodox officers, however, condemned Mahan and labeled him an
    eccentric “pen and ink” sailor. Francis M. Ramsay, Mahan’s nemesis from the Naval Academy and at the time, chief of the Bureau of Navigation, stated: “It is not the business of a naval officer to
    write books.”

    Considering the direction we are headed, perhaps Admiral Ramsay was right.

    • BJ Armstrong

      No…Ramsey acted stupidly. I suspect ADM Stavridis and ADM McRaven would agree. Continued development of “more orthodox officers” or more “ducks” serves our Navy and our Navy poorly. (Great Proceedings piece though.)

  • Dave Schwind

    A couple of comments, if I may…First, I am one of the complete liberal-arts background officer accessions. In fact, my BS was in “Liberal Studies”…about as far from STEM as you can possibly land. To make it even worse, when I was commissioned, I had little to no interest nor aptitude in mechanical things…in other words, I wasn’t the guy working on his car over the weekend or anything of that sort (I had never even changed the oil in my car…I figured I could pay someone to do that for me!) Through some sort of perverse act of fate, I was designated a Surface Warfare Officer and sent through “Advanced Engineering” at SWOSDOC. I thought I had escaped a fate in the engineering spaces when my first set of orders made me the ship’s gunnery officer…until, of course, they figured out I had gone through the training at SWOSDOC for engineering. Thus, my fate was sealed…and I became an engineering officer…later earning (and actually standing the watch) my EOOW qualification and…more importantly…UNDERSTANDING what was going on around me. Now I am aware that being an engineering officer on a ship is not the same thing as being a STEM major. However, the point of my story is this: I was not only able to do my job, but excel at, working in a place that required me to have a near-vertical learning curve for something that most people would consider an engineering degree to be a vital component. I then went on to combat systems billets after that…and surprise…Mr. Liberal Studies was able to “get” the way electrons flowed to make that whole radar-fire control-thingy work. I later earned an MS and an MA while in the Navy…showing that someone doesn’t necessarily have to have a STEM background to have a career in the Navy…and perhaps, it’s better to have the mix.

    Second, the book I am currently writing follows the careers of about 100 USNR officers during WW2. Many of these men became pilots and/or successful shipboard officers with as little as two years of college (that was the minimum requirement for admission into the aviation cadet program during WW2). With the number of Navy Crosses, Silver Stars, Distinguished Flying Crosses (and more) that these men earned…I would pit them and their naval abilities against any graduates of the Naval Academy or other engineering-centric schools of the time.

    When it boils down to it, the fact that the Navy is as diverse as it is (including educational backgrounds) creates a strength, not a weakness. It is a wrong-headed goal to concentrate solely on a single-educational background, even though those in authority (I can think of more than a few STEM-background nuclear-trained flag officers who have a heavy say in this at the moment…) honestly believe they are doing the right thing.

    Just my opinion….

  • The Navy’s Grade 36 Bureaucrat

    First, we’re tackling the wrong problem here. It’s not that we’re not getting enough nukes, it’s that they don’t stay. Nuke school and prototype do their jobs to prepare people to be a nuke, and in general even non-technical degrees do just fine. The bigger issue is no one wants to go submarines because they hear the horror stories from junior officers. Take a look at how many midshipmen change their minds and go aviation after having a ride on submarines.

    How about making life onboard a submarine not suck so much? Pay isn’t going to do that alone. You’ll have to change a culture that is OK with constant denigration of junior officers, long work hours (even when it’s not necessary) and constant micromanagement. I loved driving the boat, but I left the submarine force because I was tired of being treated like a punching bag, and I’ve heard plenty of incoming midshipmen say they have no desire to go through that.

    We can address the technical aptitude through master’s certificates, something that Naval Postgraduate School does well. If you have a non-technical major, then you should get a technical certificate to help ensure you can work in an increasingly technical environment. And if you have a technical degree, then you should focus on something non-technical to help train you in the history and english you didn’t have to take in college. Proper balance is the best way to approach this problem.

  • Beezt

    There wouldn’t be any denigration of JO’s if stopped pretending that they where the best things ever and that they just saved the universe by finishing prototype. We are hard on them because they need to eat a little humble pie before they even think of standing watch in the cone where we can’t watch over them.

  • Cornhusker

    So having a technical education and displaying ability to command and lead are mutually exclusive?

    As for finding Afghanistan on a map, I don’t think the U.S. Navy has ever put a ship into port there, it being landlocked and what not, so that might not be as critical as Salamander thinks.