There’s a growing realization that we must leverage the value of unmanned systems across the full range of naval missions—not to pursue “unmanned” for the sake of “unmanned” in a zeal to be more technologically advanced, but because it makes sense, taking us to the next level and beyond. As natural complements to our existing ships, aircraft, and submarines, unmanned systems bring the ability to efficiently increase both the capacity and capability of our force; there are missions where unmanned will bring comparative advantage over existing manned counterparts. In man–machine lash-ups, unmanned technology will take us even further.
Against the backdrop of an increasingly dangerous and volatile world, unmanned systems offer an opportunity to meet defense requirements at every level. Making this case, and making headway on mainstreaming unmanned across all warfare domains, begins with understanding the most fundamental aspects of warfare. Through this deconstruction, the value-added of unmanned becomes readily apparent, cutting through existing practices, communities, domains, and mission sets—all sources of friction when introducing disruptive technology. If we make this case effectively, our force and its many constituents will press to mainstream unmanned as expeditiously as possible. With bottom-up energy and creativity teamed with top-down leadership and fiscal support, we have the best chance to harness unmanned’s potential. This is an imperative in a world where competitors and adversaries already are moving out with unmanned technology.
To Understand — So what? . . . Then what?
When we think about what we do in the realm of warfighting, it comes down to four essential elements: observing, orienting, deciding, and acting—the OODA loop. Air Force Colonel John Boyd crafted this concept in part from observations of air combat engagements in the 1950s, but its relevance is more broad, and scalable from the tactical to the strategic. In simplest form, we “observe” with sensors, we “orient and decide,” then we “act” with effectors. This process takes place across all domains and is iterative. Technology is both accelerating and fusing the steps, taking us to the point of forecasting.
Increasingly, it is not so much the “with what” (the province of things and the communities that employ them) and the “where” (the domains in which we operate), but rather the “how” and the “how fast.” The result is to understand and then take appropriate action, faster than the adversary and inside their OODA loop. Protecting one’s decision process while confronting the adversary’s is increasingly valued today; it is a foundation for both information warfare and the growing realm of electromagnetic maneuver warfare.
Unmanned brings game in each phase of the process, across all domains (traditional and nontraditional), and in doing so improves the speed of response and subsequent ability to adapt—faster than the adversary. Ultimately, the ability to see farther, understand more quickly, act faster, and adapt continuously become the essential elements of a winning team in today’s fast paced threat-filled environments. Unmanned systems are key elements in realizing a learning warfighting system that senses, evaluates, acts and, adapts continuously.
If we accept that the main thing is to understand—and to be able to take appropriate action, faster than the adversary—then we must plumb our system and processes to function as frictionless as possible, and we must populate these systems with platforms, vehicles, and payloads that permit us to fight in constantly adaptive ways. The ability to adapt as rapidly as possible, with as little friction as possible, with systems and lash-ups that permit adaptability—by design—is essential to winning in today’s fast-paced battle environments. This concept is not new. The value of “plug-and-play” is well established in the consumer world as an efficient means to leverage rapidly evolving technology. Coupled with modularity and open architecture, these tools can be put together in adaptive, creative configurations producing new ways; and the tools themselves can be adapted, leveraging the best that technology offers, providing new means. This approach arms us to first survive, then operate, and ultimately prevail in an increasingly contested world.
Speed of action and agility are valued in a fight. Improved speed can be realized both in terms of executing faster and by executing differently, using the same things in new ways. A prime example is how we think about what it takes to execute successfully at the tactical level. Traditionally, it is a linear process progressing through “find, fix, finish”—the sequential steps to consummate full mission execution. Technology and the speed it offers bring nonlinear and cross-domain opportunity. The prospect of executing faster through increased connectivity and multipath solutions is here now.
Unmanned systems can be an efficient means to populate connection points. Increasing connection points—or nodes—both manned and unmanned, brings density and resilience to our warfighting architectures, whether they be systems, systems-of-systems, or services on demand, and with it the means to prevail in contested environments. Unmanned systems can populate nodes in an increasingly connected/connectable force, bringing the ability to adapt more rapidly to changing environments.
Unmanned systems also bring the possibility of disaggregating functionality for the larger purpose of enabling dispersed fleet operations over much larger areas—scalable and tailorable to ever-changing missions and threats. Over time, many, if not most, of our ships, submarines, and aircraft have evolved into multimission systems, highly capable but also concentrated and expensive. Disaggregating the functions of sensing, understanding, and effecting with unmanned systems brings the potential to more efficiently mass effects without massing force, increase reach, and present the adversary with operational dilemmas.
Unmanned systems largely have evolved by matching warfighting need to emerging technology—a requirements pull. Whether as an immediate extension to an existing platform, to see over the hill, extend beyond the visible horizon, or augment existing sensors, they’ve expanded reach in a linear manner. The ability to distribute and net unmanned systems also has demonstrated great value, bringing with it improved spatial coverage, to include cross-domain opportunities and reach. This compounds the linear contribution even further. Ultimately, with improvements in autonomy comes the prospect of human–machine collaborative teaming, which may well equate to a step change improvement in capability and capacity when compared to forces composed of manned systems exclusively.
Together, these three aspects span the value-added proposition of unmanned systems, natural complements to our existing manned force vice outright replacements. Along this continuum of application is a corresponding relationship that shifts from human-assisted to human-supervised and ultimately to human–machine collaborative teaming. As unmanned systems’ use and reliability grow, so too will the confidence we place in them. Trust will drive the pace of man–machine teaming within the larger context of human command and increasing levels of machine control executing human intent.
Fighting at Machine Speed
The case for unmanned rests in how it brings value to existing capabilities. Ultimately, fighting at machine speed is to combine what humans and machines do best, to create a sum greater than the parts. Unmanned systems make this vision executable. Unmanned systems complement manned through a continuous process of cognition and execution, where machines and humans interact seamlessly—the essence of teaming.
The speed of calculation and raw processing power machines bring in a deterministic realm coupled with the skill, imagination, and wisdom of humans operating in chaotic environments results in better decisions faster. In the fights of today and into the future, the side that harnesses this lash-up most effectively will prevail. With our fusion of technology and talent, coupled with a warfighting philosophy that values initiative, we’re the best equipped force to reap these benefits. A well-trained fighting force armed with these ways and means becomes super-empowered down to the mission command level, a combination hard to beat.
Editor’s Note: USNI will be publishing a three-part series of execution plans—for undersea, aviation, and surface—in upcoming issues of Proceedings.
It was history in the making on Sunday, 26 June, as an international contingent celebrated the opening of the expanded Panama Canal. I was proud to be there with the U.S. Presidential party, led by Dr. Jill Biden. For Panama, the expansion represents a potential for growth in the country’s maritime sectors and serves as a symbol of national prestige. In recognition of its strategic maritime significance, and the value U.S. Southern Command places on forward engagement with the region, the USS Oak Hill (LPD-51) sailed through the canal a few days earlier (using the older and narrower set of locks). The Oak Hill was pierside at the canal’s Pacific entrance during the ceremony to recognize this Panamanian accomplishment, to celebrate this second engineering marvel that dramatically expanded the path between the seas, and to signal our continued commitment to working with our partners to ensure its defense.
From the very beginning the Canal—both the original and this expanded addition—offered both great promises and significant challenges. It required an investment of time, talent, and treasure—in blood and dollars—as well as great commitment and patience to turn opportunity into reality. At U.S. Southern Command we see transregional opportunities and challenges and the need for multinational solutions everywhere we look—especially standing beside this new Panama Canal.
It was great to visit the Oak Hill the day before the ceremony and talk to the officers, chief’s messes, and assembled crew. Embarked was a U.S. Marine detachment with equipment to help illustrate our humanitarian-assistance/disaster-relief (HA/DR) capabilities and our commitment to rapidly respond to any neighbor in need, such as our support after the recent earthquake in Ecuador. U.S. Ambassador to Panama John Feeley eloquently captured what the Oak Hill represents: “a warship, coming in peace, symbolizing a legacy of partnership, commitment, and ready assistance in times of need.”
On board the Oak Hill, we talked with one officer who said that his earlier UNITAS deployment (an annual multinational naval exercise we host) as a lieutenant (junior grade) kept him in the Navy. We talked about how the Navy runs out of ships long before it addresses all the global requirements we face. We talked about the prioritization of requirements to other important regions and how that inevitably results in minimal allocation of Navy ships to help safeguard our interests in this vital region. I told him that once the littoral combat ship comes on line in greater numbers, U.S. Southern Command will seek to increase its presence in collaboration with maritime forces of the region to better protect our southern approaches and counter threat networks.
For now, we will make the most of the short deployments like that of the USS Lassen (DDG-82), which over a period of weeks wreaked havoc on drug traffickers in the tropical eastern Pacific; and with other Navy ships changing home ports from one coast to the other, such as the USS George Washington (CVN-73) and crew who excelled in partnering engagements and conducted multiple exercises during their South American transit. We are eager for the transit of the USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000) and the USS Wasp (LHD-1). I commented to the young officer that transiting ships should not make quick dashes to their new ports; their time in the Americas should be maximized because our presence is so limited and their ability to create goodwill is something on which you can’t put a price tag.
The Oak Hill was the only warship from any nation to attend the Canal Expansion opening ceremony. When it comes to defending the Canal, however, the duty is shared by many. Following on the ceremony’s heels, civilian and military organizations from 21 regional partner nations, with forces led by Panama, Colombia, Peru, Chile, and the United States, will conduct PANAMAX 2016, an exercise to demonstrate our shared commitment to the defense of the Panama Canal.
Standing beside this great achievement, I see the Canal as a metaphor for the region. It is the embodiment of transregional connections. Its defense depends on a partnership of nations—no one can do it alone.
Transregional Opportunities and Challenges
This region has never held such opportunity. The last remnants of the Cold War may finally be fading as a new chapter in U.S.-Cuban relations unfolds. Political change in Argentina also shows the promise of improved relations. In Colombia, a peace accord is progressing toward closing more than 50 years of political violence. Yet the obstacles to turning these and other opportunities into reality are large and growing. Astounding violence and related murder rates; transregional criminal networks trafficking not just in drugs, but also humans, illicit natural resources, weapons, and more; endemic corruption; small but concerning numbers of radicalized fighters joining the Islamic State in Syria—all these elements pose challenges to the region. Those challenges flow up to the southern approaches of the United States; what affects our neighbors soon enough is felt on our streets and cities.
Just as the Canal has global reach and impact, so do many of the challenges and concerns that touch Latin America and the Caribbean. More and more, geographic combatant commanders, focused on regional areas of responsibility, are seeing and responding to transregional challenges. In our interconnected world, we need to pay attention to those nations and non-state organizations that may be pursuing strategies across multiple borders and regions. If we are concerned about Russia’s conduct in Eastern Europe, we should pay attention to what they are doing in Latin America as well. If we are concerned about China’s performance as a responsible actor in a transparent rules-based system in the South and East China Seas, we may want to better understand their activities in the Western Hemisphere. If we are concerned about Iran’s use of surrogates and proxies in the Middle East, we should keep an eye on their clandestine activities across Central and South America.
The Panama Canal stands as a testament to vision, tenacity, and an enduring symbol of partnership—opportunity turned to reality through patience and perseverance. In Latin America we can achieve great and necessary things with the same patience and perseverance. In the face of these challenges, the United States is fortunate to have stalwart friends, allies, and partners throughout Central America, South America, and the Caribbean, who are committed to working with us and one another to ensure our hemisphere remains a beacon of stability, security, and prosperity.
On a closing note – you never know when you will bump into a fellow Academy Alum. Sitting next to me at the canal inauguration ceremony was Maximo Mejia, the Government of the Philippines Administrator for Transpiration and Communications and USNA class of ’88.
In 1955 Air Force General Curtis LeMay, Commander of the Strategic Air Command, built the service’s first base hobby shop in Offutt, NE. His vision was to provide a facility with tools, material, and resources to allow Airmen the opportunity to repair, modify, or completely rebuild their personal automobiles. The first hobby shop was an overwhelming success and soon become popular among all ranks, including LeMay himself. Auto hobby shops soon proliferated across all SAC bases and eventually, along with their sibling wood hobby shops, to most American military bases around the globe. Many of these workshops eventually formalized their training, so service members could achieve recognized certifications for their efforts.
These hobby shops were widely viewed as constructive outlets for military personnel to learn interesting, practical skills and to make positive use of off-duty time by tapping into, or fostering, their inherent desire to “tinker” with things. By the late 1990s they began to lose their appeal and many were closed for financial reasons. The causes for their demise is unclear, whether because cars simply became too complex for the “shade tree mechanic” to repair or as a reflection of American society, where servicemen and women would rather pay someone else to do work they no longer wanted to do themselves.
I do not believe the inherent desire to tinker with things, or using individual experimentation as a learning tool, has gone away. It may, however, be occurring today in new forms. Because the cost of technology continues to decline, it has created an environment where sophisticated tools and devices are now at the fingertips of the average citizen, a condition commonly referred to as the democratization of science and technology.
For the past several years the White House has been championing the “Maker Movement” to stimulate innovation across America. Cottage industries in coding, drones, electronics, robotics, and 3D printing are sprouting up across the country in reflection of and to support this renewed interest. It is clear that the naval services are tapping into the resurgence of the tinkerer as well.
The first naval “Fab Lab” was created in Norfolk in 2015. This joint venture with DARPA and MIT provided sophisticated manufacturing equipment, materials, and world class training to Sailors in the fleet. The fundamental premise for this project was that by putting tools and capabilities into the hands of Sailors closest to our operational problems, they would develop new and innovative solutions. Since its inception, for example, LT Todd Coursey has achieved significant results, expanding interest and demonstrating the utility of this capability across the fleet. His outstanding efforts at Norfolk were recognized by the White House and Secretary Mabus. SECNAV’s Task Force Innovation has funded additional Fab Labs and over the next two years additional facilities, some of them mobile, will be operational at Navy and Marine Corps bases around the globe.
An extension of the FAB LAB concept is the Expeditionary Manufacturing Mobile Test Bed (EXMAN) project led by the Marines and SPAWAR. EXMAN offers the ability to digitally manufacture parts in the field, often at a reduced cost and in much less time. This past week EXMAN was successfully demonstrated to General Neller, a strong advocate of fielding these new facilities with the operational forces. This capability has the potential to fundamentally change how we do battlefield logistics, by making items instead of buying, storing and shipping them across the world.
3D manufacturing is not the only field where the tinkerer movement is making its military comeback. The Naval Postgraduate School built its Robo Dojo to allow students and visiting Sailors and Marines the opportunity to tinker with robots and control systems. In the future it is likely we will see coding bootcamps springing up on naval bases as well. These fora provide the opportunity for Sailors and Marines to learn basic coding skills and eventually build smart phone apps or virtual games. Ideally, all of these complementary capabilities will be connected in an integrated ecosystem, properly resourced and supported by senior leaders, and available everywhere.
These emerging capabilities fundamentally draw upon LeMay’s vision – provide the resources, tools and safe spaces to our people and allow them to cultivate their talents and creativity. We have no idea of the great things they will achieve when allowed to tinker with their own bold ideas, such as STGC Ben Lebron.
The Chief had a vision for a new decision aid to improve ASW operations on the USS Fitzgerald. After finding a JO who taught him some coding skills, Chief LeBron designed the Single Leg Bearing Range program, for which he subsequently won a 2015 SECNAV Innovation Award. His software substantially improves ASW sonar solutions by more than half.(SECNAV granted Chief Lebron a waiver to enroll in the NPS Master’s ASW distance learning program in addition to his formal award.)
The military has long practiced such problem solving. In an examination of culture’s impact on military innovation, Dima Adamsky notes the cultural difference between the US and Soviet militaries during the Cold War. One significant contrast was their approaches to technological adaptation. The Soviets would develop concepts and strategy for use ahead of delivering a technology, whereas the US military usually had the technology and then often took a decade to figure out how to turn it into an operational advantage. We may be experiencing the same phenomenon here with the maker movement.
As mentioned, today’s democratization of science and technology is enabling this tinkering resurgence to occur – not only for us, but for our adversaries. Recently, scholars CAPT Mark Hagerott (ret) and Col TX Hammes (ret), outlined their thoughtful visions of the future operating environment, where naval forces will have to contend with the challenges posed by a new reality of destructive, technology-based capabilities operated in very decentralized and unpredictable ways by our adversaries. The naval services must lead this wave, adjusting our strategy not only to counter these decentralized threats, but to use the skills of our creative workforce to create an operational advantage over our adversaries.
We are entering an era where the operational environment will be characterized by complexity, uncertainty, and unpredictability; to succeed, our naval forces must respond in kind. Simply relying on exquisite weapon systems and massed fire power will be insufficient. One way to overcome this challenge is to fully exploit the ingenuity and talents of our Sailors and Marines. The burgeoning naval tinkering movement is just one step in creating a fundamentally important operational capability that is already resident in the naval services. Failing to harness our tinkerers, and recognize their work, will be to the nation’s detriment.
Today, 27 May 2016, the Class of 2016 will be graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy. The Naval Institute shares the words of a commanding officer to his son on the occasion of his son’s graduation from the Naval Academy in June, 1955.
As today’s graduates enter commissioned service, these words of sixty years ago ring true.
To the Class of 2016, the Naval Institute extends heartfelt congratulations.
Vice Admiral Henry C. Mustin, USN (Ret.), a career surface warfare officer, combat veteran, and fleet boss renowned for his tactical brilliance and demanding leadership style, and who oversaw the development of many of the ship and guided missile systems that are at the heart of the fleet’s power, passed away on 11 April 2016 at 82 years of age. He leaves a large family, countless shipmates, and many more whose careers and lives he impacted by way of his leadership and his example to mourn his loss.
The eulogy that follows was delivered at his memorial service at the Naval Academy Chapel this past Thursday by RADM Thomas C. Lynch, USN (Ret.), who considered VADM Mustin his mentor and friend. – Ed.
A military that faces budget constraints must make choices. The US military is no exception. Is it more important that we fund a large force that can build relationships and spread out over every potential conflict zone? Or should we instead invest in capabilities that will make our individual units more lethal and survivable? In other words, do we build a lot of the assets we know how to build, or do we instead develop better assets that we can build in the future? Secretary of Defense Carter has referred to this debate in terms of posture vs presence (advanced future-forces vs large current-forces).
The fundamental question of this debate is whether war is more likely now or in the future. If we knew we had 50 years until a large conventional conflict, most would advocate investing in capability. That would allow us to build more effective forces for when we needed them. On the other hand, if we knew we only had 1 year, it would not be prudent to divert current readiness in favor of capabilities that wouldn’t be available in time.
The United States’ modern defense establishment has faced one real peer-competitor: the USSR. They posed a threat that was felt viscerally by the populace and the military that defended them. If there was ever a challenge that dictated a large number of ready forces, it was the Cold War. New technologies always had to be researched, but they would be useless if the operational forces couldn’t win a war that day.
When we look at a graph of US defense research spending as a percentage of total defense spending, this pattern is clear. Time periods where the blue line is below the red are when research spending was lower than the historical average.
Data from SIPRI and AAAS
From the early-60s to the mid-80s, when the Soviet threat was large and immediate, research took a back seat to presence. Regular military spending outpaced research spending by a greater than normal amount. Then, America woke up in the 90s to a peerless world. Presence took a back seat to capability. The US military had breathing space to begin to think about the future. It used that breathing space to fund the technologies that would power a networked military that has yet to be seriously challenged in conventional warfare in the post-Cold War era.
In the 21st century, China has replaced the Soviet Union as the threat that focuses defense planners. So how does China compare as an adversary? Do we have the time we need to focus on capability, or should we go all-in on our currently operational forces?
Without going into direct capabilities, a fairly reasonable way to compare threats is to look at top-line military budgets. How did our spending compare to the Soviets’ and how does our spending compare to China’s? Let’s first look at the Cold War.
Data from SIPRI and CIA
From 1966 to 1989, the United States was able to muster enough defense spending to approximately match that of the Soviet Union. There were long stretches where the US lagged the Soviets, but it was always fairly close. The rest of NATO seems to have consistenly spent somewhere between 50% and 60% of the Soviet’s budget. Combined, NATO and the US spent 20-80% more than the USSR.
Data from SIPRI and CIA
Looking at these graphs, you see what looks like a close struggle, but one where the US and NATO are clearly superior. That was not at all the perception in the 60s or 70s, though. The nightly news in that era was gloomy. And the Soviet military really did pose a legitimate threat to an American-led world order. We talk today about China holding US aircraft carriers at risk. The Soviet Union held every city in America at risk. It was a global challenger as much as it sought regional hegemony. So the US strategy was to prioritize the readiness of the forces that it had. Not to prioritize the forces it wished it had.
And in the end, it is hard to argue that this was the wrong strategy. Afterall, the world is not a nuclear wasteland and America has enjoyed lone superpower status for the last 25 years. So if this is the threat picture that warrants “presence” oriented spending, what is a threat picture that warrants the opposite? This:
Data from SIPRI
It is not terribly close. During the Cold War, the US and the USSR spent similar amounts on defense. The United States outspends China three times over, today. Additionally, China’s neighbors currently spend an amount equal to China’s defense outlays, not the 60% deficit that NATO could muster on its best days.
The trajectory of China’s spending is clearly up, while the United States’ trajectory is clearly down. But America presently enjoys a vast lead. And China’s neighbors are increasing defense spending, as well (albiet at a lower rate). Taking these factors into account, it seems as though the United States has a long time before it must worry about China challenging global order. China may be building “facts on the ground” that will be beneficial once it is a mature power (by flouting international law in the South China Sea), but it is not currently a serious challenger to the United States.
While the US and NATO once spent a combined 120% of the Soviet’s budget, the US and its Asian allies currently spend 384% of China’s budget.
Data from SIPRI
If every trend stays exactly as it currently is (and that is already not realistic since China recently announced a reduction in military spending growth), it will take a decade before China poses a threat similar to that of the USSR.
China cannot currently contest our dominance in Asia in the way that the Soviets contested our dominance in Europe. During the Cold War, America waited to prioritize current-force spending until the Soviet’s military budget was about 80% of the American budget. China’s is currently at 35% of America’s.
If American strategy requires that its chief adversary be able to plausibly challenge its dominance in a region before it prioritizes current-forces over future ones, it’s clear that now is not the time for a buildup. With a minimum of 10 years before a new Cold War, and more realistically 20 or 30 years, the US military would be remiss to not fund future capabilities while it can.
The question then is relegated to one of magnitude. How much should the United States prioritize research? Let’s first look at where our current military budget is in comparison to where it’s been.
Data from SIPRI
Defense spending has averaged 6.1% of GDP since 1949. It currently rests at around 3.5% of GDP. As you can see in the above graph, defense spending was high up until the end of the Cold War, shrunk greatly in the 90s, and then rose again during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. With those wars now over, our budget is in a new trough.
Data from SIPRI
Total defense spending as a percentage of GDP has only been lower for a brief time in the late 90s/early aughts. There is room to increase it if needed. And if there is to be an increase, it should go toward modernizing the force.
Research and development as a percentage of GDP lies at around .4%. The long-run average is .55%, but the R&D boom of the late 80s reached .7%.
Data from SIPRI and AAAS
The late-80s investment in R&D produced the advanced military that was able to decimate Saddam’s Soviet-style military. It was sufficient to produce a force capable of decisive victory. Similar levels of investment will be required to produce similar margins of victory. What would it take to get spending back to similar levels?
It would require 70% more research spending, but would only increase the total defense budget to 3.8% of GDP from 3.5%. Which is far below the 6.1% long-run average. By reducing our current-force size in areas unlikely to contribute in a large, conventional conflict (the least likely scenario, but easily the most damaging), we could likely keep our overall budget similar to its current levels.
China is a threat to an American-led global order in the long-run. It will eventually be able to credibly challenge our core interests in the world. It, however, does not currently warrant the same defense structure than did the USSR. We still have time to ensure our forces are capable enough to win the wars of the future. And in their current structure, they would likely prevail in any surprise conflict that comes sooner. We shouldn’t restore our military to its Cold War size. We should worry about how we can build the military of the future.
For more than 200 years the U.S. Navy has been integral to the security and prosperity of the United States, evolving to meet the security and maritime needs of America. The Optimized Fleet Response Plan (OFRP) grew out of recognition that after 14 years of sustained combat operations for our deployed units, the resultant trends in maintenance and modernization execution, training time compression, deployment length increases and personnel churn were unsustainable. OFRP is designed to optimize a series of processes to generate a maximum amount of operational availability of our naval forces in order to deliver rotational forces; accomplish maintenance and modernization to achieve the service life of our platforms, and be able to surge forces. All of this must be accomplished while maintaining our normal operational tempo – in short “we have to reset in stride.” In order to meet that goal, OFRP creates a framework for predictable deployment cycles with aligned and stabilized manning, stable and predictable maintenance plans, and ready forces fully trained to the high-end level of the warfighting spectrum. This is no small challenge given our Navy’s global presence requirements, resource constraints, and force size. Meeting these challenges, today and in the future, mandates we optimize the processes of our supply-based readiness model by implementing OFRP.
The previous force generation model, the Fleet Response Plan (FRP), needed adjusting in order to more efficiently deliver ready forces for deployment; achieve the life-expectancy of our platforms and provide a more sustainable surge capability. The Optimized Fleet Response Plan provides the needed change to maximize readiness by aligning staffs, ships, and air wings to Carrier Strike Groups (CSG) and Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) at the beginning of a 36-month cycle. A key distinction in the OFRP instruction is the delineation of Carrier Strike Group Commanders and Amphibious Ready Group Commanders as the Supported Commanders. Previously, TYPE Commanders (TYCOMS) moved units through the Maintenance and Basic Phases of the training and readiness cycle, with a notional hand-off to the CSG Commander when the ships entered the Integrated Phase and began operating as a Carrier Strike Group. Today within the OFRP framework, all of the ships are brought under the CSG commander at the beginning of FRTP. According to Russ Williams, USFF Deputy Director for Fleet Training and the OFRP Cross-functional Team lead, this means that “The CSG, ARGS, and TYCOMS work together to ensure the readiness of that Strike Group given where they are in the OFRP phase.”
USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) and the Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group is the first aircraft carrier and Strike Group to implement OFRP, having entered into the first cycle of OFRP last fall, and initiating the Navy’s new strategy for force generation. The Ike CSG and all of its assigned units have been a complete team throughout the maintenance phase and into the basic and integrated phases of OFRP. As they prepare to deploy mid-2016, Ike CSG’s progress through OFRP reveals the benefits of the plan and what can be improved upon.
Maintenance and Modernization
One of the goals of a maintenance and modernization process is to achieve on time and on cost execution of the schedule. OFRP is designed to help stabilize and synchronize the execution of the maintenance and modernization of our fleet in order to achieve these two goals. The stabilization and synchronization leads to other benefits than predictability. Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus said to the House Armed Services Readiness Committee on Sept. 10, 2015, that he was confident the Navy is taking the right steps to get maintenance on track. “We’re going to be in a position to get the life span of the ships that you’d expect out of those ships when they enter the fleet.” This is in large part due to the Optimized Fleet Response Plan. Russ Williams stated that with OFRP maintainers are given more time to “dive into the planning phase of maintenance.” With more time to plan the maintainers ensure the efficiency of the phase. It appears OFRP sets up CSGs going through the process to achieve these goals, yet with all new processes there are some issues to work on. What makes OFRP different than previous force generation models is that it takes into account the Navy being a learning organization, and therefore fosters an environment of innovation for problem solving. “World events will cause changes to the production plan – if somebody’s maintenance gets extended beyond our ability to absorb it within the shock absorber that’s built into OFRP, we would have to adjust accordingly and modify the schedules,” Rear Admiral Jeffrey Harley told the House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee. Issues in the maintenance phase faced by Ike CSG lead to four of the seven Ike CSG deployers experiencing unexpected delays. Russ Williams noted that the “industrial base simply cannot support eight or nine surface combatants going into maintenance at the same time and coming out at exactly the same time, but that isn’t the goal of OFRP, it isn’t designed to be that rigid.” This sort of issue highlights the importance of OFRP’s flexible yet disciplined approach to force generation. Each of these late deliveries created issues in the Basic Phase of Training that had secondary negative effects leading into the Integrated Phase of training. Meeting the issue head on, the Casualty Report to Certification Crosswalk (C3) process was developed to minimize the impact of the unexpected delays. This now helps ships identify, prioritize and facilitate maintenance solutions that enable the ships to complete their certification events on time, first pass. Russ Williams notes “It was never the OFRP intent to get everybody out of maintenance at the same time. It was an OFRP construct to get everybody to begin the Integrated Phase at the same time.” Mr. Williams went on to say that OFRP enables backlog to be rectified within the cycle. The OFRP process has led to some incremental material improvements within Ike CSG, yet Maintenance and Modernization remains a critical Line of Effort (LOE) that requires continued attention by naval leadership in order to ensure the Strike Group assets all enter the Integrated Phase on schedule.
Manning and Individual Training
Historically, ships have struggled to achieved their manning goals early in the pre-deployment work up, often receiving new Sailors “just in time” before the deployment, or prior to composite training unit exercise (C2X), the Integrated Phase capstone training event. This resulted in numerous x- deck personnel transfers, which sub-optimized the deploying unit’s readiness, hurt the manning of the ship remaining at home, and eroded the morale of the force. Sea-centric manning policies under OFRP prioritize personnel requirements to ensure forces are ready to deploy on schedule with the right Sailors in place fully trained. This policy mandates units be manned to 92% fit, 95% fill and at threshold for all critical naval enlisted classification code (NECs) by the target Manning Date, or “M-Date,” which is the start of Basic Phase or 12-months prior to deployment (if Basic phase starts earlier than that). This allows the necessary time for shipboard teams to form, train together, and build a cohesive warfighting team prior to deploying. It is because of this OFRP protocol that Ike CSG has seen the greatest improvement in the manning and individual training LOE. With deploying Sailors onboard earlier, OFRP ships in the Ike CSG were able to better manage their school requirements and ensure individuals received the training they needed prior to both the Basic and Integrated Phases. Additionally, direct support Sailors were assigned no later than nine months before deployment (D-9) which further enhanced the integration of off-ship personnel into the warfighting team. As a result, Strike Group warfighting syndicates were able to start developing during the Maintenance Phase, leading to early engagement and increased tactical training opportunities across the Strike Group. Having the right Sailors at the right time provides a more stable and predictable organization and ultimately leads to greater unit cohesion, experience, and development of the critical warfighting skills needed for deployment.
A “side effect” of previous manning practices was that many times units may not be as well-trained as they could be. OFRP ensures forces are trained with the right capabilities and trained to a single, high-end standard. Unit level training during the Basic Phase is the critical foundation toward maximizing Strike Group combat effectiveness and efficiency. Optimizing the basic phase helps by giving time to identify and overcome possible shortfalls. For example, issues during the Maintenance Phase led to a compressed Basic Phase schedules for four of seven Ike CSG deploying ships. In order to lessen the impacts of these delays, the Maintenance-Operations Float Process was employed as part of a cross functional working group to identify risks to the mission – deploying on time and fully trained. This process leveraged the expanded relationships of all the stakeholders to mitigate the identified risks. For instance, both USS Monterey (CG-61) and USS Nitze (DDG-94), both a part of Ike CSG, conducted combined sea trials to regain time within their Basic Phase schedules. Additionally, through early engagement and collaboration with Afloat Training Group (ATG), CSG-4, and Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (NSMWDC), Ike CSG developed a group sail schedule. The schedule included Basic Phase events, and moved previous unit-level events that were historically conducted in C2X, forward into the Basic Phase, and added new Surface Warfare Advanced Tactical Training (SWATT) events early in the Integrated Phase. This collaborative effort will have allowed the entire Strike Group to get to C2X on time, fully prepared to train to the high-end level of tactical warfare.
In order to maximize the benefits of optimizing the basic phase Ike CSG utilized information technology and subject matter experts to help units meet their goals. Ike CSG used a Schedule Synchronization Tool (Integrated WEBSked), which is available to all stakeholders as required by USFF/CPF Instruction 3000.15A, and a Command Monitor/Mentor Process that together identifies areas where staff subject matter experts can provide assistance to individual units prior to ATG inspections or certification events. Implementation of this program has had an immediate impact on Strike Group units. Two ships, the USS Mason (DDG-87) and USS Stout (DDG-55), within Ike CSG, have completed the Basic Phase and according to ATG Atlantic, both of these ships performed above fleet average, which is attributed to the implementation of our Optimized Fleet Response Plan protocols.
Ike CSG was in the Integrated Phase of OFRP (as of the time of publishing this article), and there were some successes due to innovative measures to cope with early challenges brought about mostly by disaggregated ops being conducted within the FRTP cycle. For example, USS Oscar Austin (DDG-79) returned from a seven-month deployment during which she superbly executed national level tasking. Rejoining the Strike Group’s schedule, she met every Joint Fleet Maintenance Manual milestone, including her CNO Maintenance Availability. USS Porter (DDG-78) transferred to Sixth Fleet two weeks earlier than scheduled after completing a Joint Warrior exercise with British and NATO allies. She completed her first BMD patrol and did very well in her first maintenance availability overseas. USS McFaul (DDG-74) deployed with 91% FIT/97% FILL /1 in manning and no active C-2 CASREPs. She finished her Fifth Fleet deployment and escorted USS George Washington (CVN-73) through SOUTHCOM area of operations. These successes continue to show that OFRP allows for adaptation in order to ensure forces are ready to deploy with the right capabilities and trained to a high standard.
World events and our previous demand-based force generation model put stress upon Sailors and their families with long deployments, deferred and unpredictable ship maintenance schedules and unpredictable pre-deployment schedules. Chief of Navy Personnel, Vice Adm Moran said “We need to make sure we attract and retain the best people,” and he believes that the predictability and stability afforded by the Optimized Fleet Response Plan will help increase retention. OFRP provides stability and predictability, thus relieving stress and lessening uncertainty, to our Sailors and their families. Ike CSG has been scheduled for a seven-month deployment since entering OFRP. Despite 23 months of collective maintenance delays across the Strike Group, the scheduled deployment date has not shifted. The flexibility afforded by OFRP across the Strike Group has allowed the Ike CSG to absorb the maintenance delays and training schedule changes, while still tracking to the initial deployment date, fully trained to the high-end level of tactical warfare, creating a more predictable schedule for Sailors and their families.
At the outset, Navy leadership was clear that fully implementing OFRP across the Fleet would take time. As the first Strike Group to enter and execute the early cycles of OFRP, Ike CSG is laying the foundation for significant improvements throughout the entire process. The lessons learned have enabled the improvement of manning and training within the scope of the Strike Group; however, there is still work to be done in the maintenance and modernization LOE. While the performance in the Basic Phase continues well above average, the ultimate measures of effectiveness will be deployed performance. The Ike CSG goal is clear: to tactically outperform the Theodore and Harry S. Truman CSGs during the demanding and rigorous pre-deployment training and throughout deployment, and to have the Bush CSG outperform us. As a premier learning organization, only then will it be known if OFRP has been operationalized at the tactical level.
This is a call for direction, to give focus to the avalanche of innovation asked for, by, and delivered to our Navy. I started this essay a dozen times. Every time a new anecdote or angle occurred to me, I would set out again to describe something on the tip of my tongue and it always fizzled out. I have come at it swinging; I have sidled up to it sideways.The truth is, every officer that I know has seen the same systemic inadequacies and has had many brilliant ideas to move the Navy forward. I am woefully underqualified to present the catch-all solution for the Navy’s problems; I lack the experience and expertise. So when I examine the heap of possibilities I wish to engage, I have trouble finding a place to start.
It is a mountain of Everest proportions and geared-up officers at the bottom are still puzzling the path that will move them forward. The bureaucracy has become so large, so complicated, so obscured that every start seems to simply tire and thin the herd. With this many people all looking in the same direction, seeing the same issues, it is incredible that we seem to still be at base camp. Then, I start this essay over again and realize, I too am stuck at base camp with just an essay, not even an actual proposal or policy! Progress proves to be as difficult to define as to execute.
The Problem is the Problems
A foundational issue with trying to see a way forward is that we have a system akin to pre-WWI Europe, one of secret alliances and tensions in which to change one small thing could bring an unending avalanche of consequences. Every time a brave officer comes forward with a solution and attacks the mountain, they dislodge a myriad of other issues which force them back to the safety of the ranks. Even those who have climbed their way to positions of authority, look back on the path they took and can hardly recognize it, with policy and technology changes obscuring and isolating them from bringing others along. The Navy is at the foot of an impossibly high pile of interrelated and cascading issues with no clear path to the top and all of our training and motivation seems to mean nothing when we are not sure how to stabilize the stack to make passage possible.
There is a beacon of hope to guide our efforts, however. Those with the depth of knowledge and experience to see the full set of obstacles are of highest value. Yet with so many people energetic to climb the mountain, it seems that those with the perspective to guide them may be tired from the climb, entrenched in the system which they navigated or bound by the intricacies of bureaucracy. Those of us just beginning our ascent cannot follow their paths, and they aren’t calling down the mountain. The entire way we have been trying to innovate is flawed because we are pulling pieces out from the already unstable bottom, without any guidance from those with a much broader, more mature vantage point.
The Conditions are Right
Anyone who has begun a precarious climb knows that without the right equipment, angle, and direction you are just asking for the ground to crumble beneath you. This is, at best, comical, as you struggle without making any progress and, at worst, dangerous. We, as aspiring innovators, are not navigating the treacherous path of change as well as we should. Yet there are many of us, trained up and passionately ready, to build a navigable trail so that we can tame the mountain.
We must begin. We have tools. We have ideas. We have experts. We have the time. All we are waiting for is the right people to give us the go ahead, and to guide us from their elevated positions. We need those fearless enough to reach great heights to call again upon that fortitude and communicate with us.
The greatest barriers to innovation are feelings of being overwhelmed, thinking in isolated terms, and failure to launch. The time is right, with motivated innovators ready to start who understand the complexity of the issues and are eager for support and guidance. It is time to begin.
The Solution is Perspective
This last piece of the puzzle is one that our enthusiasm and creativity cannot overcome. We know the value of climbing the mountain; we know the programs, incentives and awards meant to entice us to attack the mountain. We know the bemoaned complaints and the fiery desire for improvement that pushes from behind us. Neither of these are new phenomena and yet relatively little progress is attempted. Every time one problem is fixed, it tugs at the thousand other things to which it is tied and the system rejects the amendment or absorbs it with little appreciation for the intent of the improvement.
Junior leaders simply can’t see a way to conquer it all with our limited experience and perspective. We need senior leaders to take a risk and trust that given a problem, we can provide creative solutions. Then we need them to use that position to properly define the problem, so that we are not solving it from our too-close vantage point, but with proper respect for the breadth and depth of the systems we may impact. There is a broad call out for improvements and passionate leaders giving us broad directions. This is simply not working – the paths they took no longer exist, and the workable way ahead is difficult to distinguish. The mountain is ever more treacherous, precariously balanced and threatening.
Solutions seem easy to come by, and there are many smart, innovative people seeking them with reckless abandon. Yet these are simple solutions to simple problems. No problem in the Navy exists in a truly simple form, or in a vacuum. An entire generation is waiting for their moment, but is unable to see the tangled infrastructure supported by that rock they seek to demolish. We are waiting for the opportunity to marry our education and enthusiasm. Many of the best and brightest spend a lot of time working on wonderful, well thought out solutions. Those who have worked hard and attained the rank and authority to enact change are constantly looking for creative solutions, or those who can help them craft them. With so many people putting forth so much time and effort, there is no shortage of solutions.
Without a clearly defined problem, we can’t know if brilliant solutions are hitting the mark. No amount of innovation or hard work can overcome a poorly defined problem. We need to not only be more enthusiastic in our creative problem solving efforts, but deliberate in defining our problem defining. The accuracy of the definition of the parameters of a problem will directly correlate to the effectiveness of the solution, and when there is no clearly defined problem at all, the solutions are bound to cause more harm than good. The Navy has some of the most innovative minds at all levels of leadership. Junior officers are ready to craft solutions, anxiously anticipating and even creating problems. The youngest members of the wardroom may see many of the problems, but without the scope and clear direction that could be provided by senior leaders, we are bound to waste precious time and effort building paths in the wrong direction. Senior leaders need only shine light down the mountain and give us permission to build.
We have a need, as a Navy, to be better stewards of our own system. We have a responsibility to tackle the mountain of outdated policies and known shortcomings. We need well-defined targets, measured perspective, and large-scale cooperation to manage the secondary and tertiary effects of change. We need not run up the gravel bottom only to backslide, tired and frustrated. There are great leaders along the path; there are many more ready to band together for the trek to the top. Define a problem clearly, give us permission to upset norms, and we will eagerly bring ideas to make the mountain more manageable.
The Navy is at a tipping point. With the rapid rise of advanced technologies in the commercial sector and shrinking defense budgets, the Navy is being forced to modernize at the same time that it is contracting. Near peer adversaries like Russia and China, regional actors like Iran and North Korea, and even terrorist forces are able to take advantage of social networks and personal communications devices to organize, communicate and provide command and control of their forces.
In many cases, the tools they are using to communicate – iPhones, Twitter, and Facebook- are superior in some ways to the tools our Navy uses to communicate. Our potential adversaries can leverage the power of social media and collaboration in ways the Navy has not mastered. They do it cheaper, faster, and with more agility than the US Navy. The Navy seems to be frozen in time.
Technology is the simple part. The existence of the right technology is not the problem. Low-cost computer systems are powerful enough to run nearly any software we like. The exponential development of microprocessors and storage has driven the cost of commercial software and hardware to the point of making these essentially disposable. Software designers can program vehicles to drive autonomously and coordinate over the air communications for hundreds of millions of people every day.
The problem is, the Navy as a business enterprise is not able to take advantage of low cost, disposable solutions. The Navy enterprise is made up of people and people make decisions. In the aggregate, the decisions the Navy makes are not leading to a leaner, more lethal force. The current culture of the Navy is designed to reinforce maintenance of the status quo.
The Navy has a culture problem. The CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell tried to fix that problem.
The Chief of Naval Operation’s Rapid Innovation Cell (CRIC) had two missions. The first was to rapidly bring new concepts and technologies into the Navy. The second was to build a culture of innovation within the Navy. For the first mission, the CRIC was wildly successful. The CRIC, in three years, brought additive manufacturing to ships, highlighted augmented reality in the workplace, and used data analytics and machine learning in new ways to drastically reduce the time and cost of integrating systems of maintaining aircraft. Two CRIC projects, a cyber security project and a project on rapidly reconfigurable mission packages, shifted over $1 billion in Navy investment. None of these projects cost the Navy more than $2 million and most took fewer than two years to complete.
The second mission, building a culture of innovation, has been harder.
CRIC was founded in the middle of sequestration and as a result has had a prejudicial mark against it from Congress since its beginning. As a result, CRIC was unable to grow and accept additional funding from outside sources. The mark against the CRIC was a procedural step, likely meant to set a firm stand against small, pet projects. It was an easy cut for a staffer in Congress to make.
CRIC members have included Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard personnel in the ranks of E-5, E-6, O-2, O-3, and O-4. Despite the direct relationship to the Chief of Naval Operations, CRIC members universally received strong resistance to their implementing their ideas. This resistance came from a single group.
The people who were barriers to innovation for CRIC members were E-7 to E-9, O-5 and O-6, and GS-15 in the civilian ranks. Without exception, those who have a tendency to resist innovation, and the power to do something about it, are the senior managers in the Navy. This group is the “frozen middle” of the Navy. It is both the group that is most resistant to change, and also the group that is most needed to carry forward change.
The enlisted sailors had it the worst. There were several enlisted CRIC members who were unable to continue in the CRIC simply due to the pressure they felt from the Chief’s Mess at their parent commands. In some cases, enlisted sailor’s careers were only salvaged when they transferred out of their commands. The success of many of our enlisted CRIC members was only because of influence from our CRIC director, and in some cases, intervention by the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy himself. The CRIC was often toxic for enlisted sailors. It gave them hope they could change things in the Navy.
The culture of the Navy does not support enlisted innovators. It is not clear that has changed.
On the officer side, life was only marginally better. The Navy has a culture that supports officers speaking their ideas. Essays in Proceedings and USNI Blog are evidence this culture is strong. It is a different thing altogether for junior officers to implement their ideas.
Resources for innovation are only held at the flag officer and senior executive level. The O-5, O-6, and GS-15 of the Navy are the gatekeepers. Those resources are hotly contested and subject to large councils of stakeholders, who make decisions on if and when the resources will be allocated. For the senior officer on the council, their ability to maintain funding and support for their project portfolio is paramount. New ideas, injected in the council, especially from those twenty years their junior, may disrupt projects that span decades. As a result, those people responsible for maintaining those programs are resistant to, if not openly hostile to CRIC ideas.
The problem comes in when the new idea is actually better than the old idea. There is little opportunity to supplant the old idea because the gatekeepers knowingly or unknowingly block access to the meetings and resources. When ideas are considered, the administrative requirements to present an idea from the junior lieutenant level up to the decision-maker provide additional barriers to innovation beyond what the senior manager is required to provide.
Despite it all, the CRIC was successful in getting projects completed faster, cheaper, and more effectively than the rest of the Navy. The CRIC accomplished this in part by recognizing the importance of the “golden triangle.”
For any successful enterprise, three roles are critical. First is the junior-minded individual with an idea. This person is important because they provide fresh perspective to problems and youthful energy. The second is the mentor. That is the senior person who provides wisdom, experience, guidance, and often resources. The third is the technical expert. This is the person who has the technical acumen to actually take the idea into reality. The technical expert could be an engineer, policy maker, or acquisitions professional.
In the CRIC, the Chief of Naval Operations played the role of senior mentor, providing the ultimate top cover. Each successful member of the CRIC had more than one senior mentor. The CRIC developed strong working relationships with many of the other flag officers and senior executives throughout the Navy.
The CRIC member played the role of the junior-minded individual. Junior-minded is key because the role is tied to a mindset, not an actual age or rank. CRIC was able to develop strong relationships with senior mentors because CRIC provided raw, unfiltered opinions and ideas directly to the leaders. Both groups were reminded that not only were there ways to do things better, but the senior leader had the ability to make consequential changes to remove barriers to innovation.
Technical experts varied. Arranged groupings between subject matter experts for a CRIC member’s project and the CRIC member usually ended in failure. The better way was when the CRIC member and the technical expert met each other and discovered a shared passion. The CRIC member often brought with them top cover and resourcing from the senior mentor.
There is another group critical in the CRIC’s success. There were key individuals in the ranks of the “frozen middle” that were not frozen. They may not have all been innovators themselves, but they were enablers. They provided top cover and process development for the CRIC member. They were the ones who took the initial CRIC idea and turned it into doctrine and policy. They were the ones physically removing language in the policy documents, and standing in those rooms fighting for resourcing for the CRIC projects.
Those Chiefs, Commanders, Captains, and Senior civilians became a part of the “golden triangle.” They embraced change and innovation and shepherded the Navy on a new course. There are small pockets of hope within the “frozen middle.”
The CRIC built a culture of innovation for junior sailors and officers and for a generation of senior leaders. The CRIC is fading away under its congressional mark, but its work is not over. It is time to unfreeze the middle in order to build the future Navy … even in today’s constrained fiscal reality.
The time for the CRIC to change the culture is over. The Navy needs to take the culture of innovation developed by the CRIC and transition it. That is a job for the newly unfrozen middle.
The Navy seems to have an evaluation problem. Every time FITREP season rolls around, virtually everyone agrees that the system is not adequate but differs on the best way to improve it. Some of the common criticisms include: the system is outdated, it is too focused on timing and not on performance, we need more feedback, it does not accurately reflect performance, and so on, and so on. Is this an accurate portrayal? Is the current system used as it is supposed to? Can we make it better?
Before any changes can be proposed to enhance how the Navy evaluates its officer corps, let’s revisit how the system is supposed to work. How many people have read the Navy’s BUPERS Instruction 1610.10D on evaluations? Unless you were looking for something to help you sleep, you probably have not read it in its entirety. However, within the 217 pages of this instruction there are morsels of information that if implemented properly could enhance the current system.
For instance, one of the biggest critiques of the current officer evaluation system is that the feedback received is inadequate, untimely, and generally not reflective of a person’s actual job performance. If we return to the BUPERS INST (Encl 1, paragraph 5), it provides the following guidance for how to conduct a thorough counseling:
The objectives are to provide feedback to the member and to motivate and assist improvement. Performance counseling starts with a fair assessment of the member’s performance and capabilities, to which the member contributes. It identifies the members’ strengths and motivates their further improvement. It also addresses important weaknesses, but should not dwell on unimportant ones. It should avoid personality and concentrate on performance.
On paper, this sounds great. It is very cut and dry; you’ll discuss performance, address strengths/weaknesses, and be focused on the officer’s development. But more commonly, these sessions are treated more as a formality, where an officer’s timing in relation to other officers is discussed, vague generalities are exchanged, and the debriefing is attempting to cover roughly six months of work where the details of performance recalled from months ago have often faded from memory. The frequent result is an officer walking away from a session with the advice of “just keep doing what you’re doing.” Evaluations of our officers should not be confined to a twice a year sit-down with the CO. Evaluation, and more importantly feedback, must be continuous. In aviation, aircrews debrief every flight, yet somehow this same feature eludes naval officers when discussing leadership, improvement, and development as an officer in general. The guidance already exists; there is no reason why this feedback should be constrained to only counseling and FITREP debriefs.
What are we evaluating?
When examining a topic as broad as this, it is essential to step back and ask just exactly what is the point? What are we evaluating? Are we evaluating how you did at a job, or how you will do at the next one? Are we choosing who will be the next Department Head, or Commanding Officer, or Admiral? To this end, there should be two overarching goals of the Navy’s officer evaluation system:
- Promotion potential
Feedback needs to be an honest appraisal of performance. In the current paradigm, the norm is that officers write their own evaluation for their FITREP. How can your FITREP provide a candid assessment of your performance when YOU write your own FITREP? The process is intrinsically self-inflated, full of hyperbole, and over-embellished. In order to give an objective assessment of their performance, an officer’s FITREP should be written by his or her superior. At the same time, promotion potential must continue to be part of the system. It is imperative that officer evaluations and rankings not only address the past performance but also how well the individual could perform at future positions of responsibility and authority. We are, after all, training and advancing the Navy’s next generation of leaders. But rankings must reflect the job you did and not the job you are going to do. Poor or weak performance should not be overlooked in favor of advancing a career at a desirable future job. Typically, an individual’s past performance is a direct indicator of how they will perform in the future. The problem with the current system is when these sometimes competing objectives of past performance and promotion potential are out of balance with each other.
There are existing methods of evaluation in other services that should be examined for application into the Navy. One method that is gaining traction in both the military and civilian sectors is the use of 360-degree reports, which uses feedback from an individual’s peers, supervisors, and subordinates. The U.S. Army currently mandates that all of their officers complete a 360-degree assessment at least once every three years on what is called the Multi-Source Assessment and Feedback Program (MSAF). Using MSAF, Army officers first answer a short self-assessment and then select the individuals they want to solicit feedback from, including peers, superiors, and subordinates. Responding to a MSAF request is optional and any responses are anonymous. A typical assessment takes only 5-10 minutes to complete.
So how is the Army’s MSAF program doing? According to a 2013 evaluation of MSAF, “approximately 50 percent of its participants said that the process revealed an unknown aspect of themselves, 33 percent said they discovered a weakness, and 17 percent said they discovered a strength.” 360-degree reviews can provide a worthy dimension to the development of our naval officers.
In April 2013, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey outlined his plan to implement a 360-degree system to evaluate admirals and generals with the feedback from their superiors, peers, and subordinates. Since then, there has been a rigorous discussion within the Department of Defense to determine if 360-degree evaluations should be implemented throughout the services at all levels. To determine the efficacy of 360s, the RAND Corporation was enlisted to conduct an in-depth study that was published in 2015.
The RAND Study had several recommendations and conclusions. The most notable was that they advised against incorporating 360s service-wide, at least for now:
Use of 360s without careful attention to content, design, and delivery can be harmful to an organization and not worth the time and money spent on them. Thus, mandating 360 assessments force-wide, even for development purposes, is not necessarily the right answer to solving leadership problems within the services and could waste significant resources. Rather it is more advisable to allow the services to continue on their current paths, expanding the use of 360s in a way that is tailored to individual service needs and goals.
The Navy should continue, as RAND suggested, to “expand the use of 360s in a way that is tailored” to Navy-specific needs and goals. As alluded to above, opponents of 360-degree reports primarily contend that they are time consuming and expensive to maintain. With respect to these arguments, RAND looked at 15 different leadership development practices currently employed by the Army, and MSAF was shown to be the least time-consuming and the least expensive practice. Furthermore, it is absolutely integral that we as an organization view this not as an expenditure, but as an investment, an investment in our leaders, an investment in our officer corps, an investment in our Navy, and an investment in our future.
Proponents of 360-degree evaluations argue that the direct supervisor may not be in the best position to evaluate, it adds multiple perspectives, and multiple raters are more reliable than a single rater. Currently, the Navy is the only service to have a single rating official on their officer evaluations. Fundamentally, 360s provide a viewpoint that would not typically be available. There is also empirical evidence that shows that employees have mostly positive reactions to 360-degree reports. RAND documented the work of Edwards, Ewen, and Vendantam (2001) that showed “responses to surveys of more than 1,400 employees in multiple companies revealed that over 75 percent of respondents reported that the program added useful information and improved process fairness, felt that feedback was helpful, and recommended the 360 process.” The Navy should immediately move to utilize 360-degree reports as a tool for officer development. Depending on the success, it could be reexamined down the road if 360s would play a bigger role in evaluation. This focus on development provides further feedback and opportunities to strengthen our collective leadership.
Innovation and interoperability
The military world and the civilian world are very different and yet very similar. Many of the same leadership principles and practices in top Fortune 500 companies are just as applicable in the military as they are throughout the business world. General Electric was founded by Thomas Edison in 1892 and has grown to become one of the world’s largest and most successful companies with over 300,000 employees and in 2015 ranked #8 on the Fortune 500 list. GE, once famous (or infamous) for their “vitality curve” evaluation system, where employees were ranked annually and the bottom 10 percent fired, is revolutionizing how they conduct their assessments and performance reviews.
In a world that is increasingly technologically advanced and progressively interconnected, information needs to be passed real-time. GE has deduced that the same principle must be applied with feedback and how companies evaluate performance. A performance system that reflects on the previous year is, by its very nature, already outdated. Therefore, performance feedback must be conducted real time. GE’s innovative new approach, very characteristic of the young tech-driven millennial generation, employs the use of a management app called “[email protected]” or “Professional Development at GE.” In this program, each employee has near-term goals or “priorities” and managers are supposed to have frequent discussions called “touchpoints” that specifically address progress on those goals. These “touchpoints” must note what was discussed, committed to, and resolved. The emphasis isn’t so much on grading and ranking, but on constant improvement.
Employees can give or request feedback at any point through a feature called “insights,” which isn’t limited to their immediate manager, or even their division. Normally, you never get that feedback unless you manage to track someone down the next day, which people rarely do, and only from a direct manager. If you wait for an annual review, any specifics are probably long forgotten. There’s an emphasis on coaching throughout, and the tone is unrelentingly positive. The app forces users to categorize feedback in one of two forms: to continue doing something, or to consider changing something.
Could this paradigm just as easily be applied to the Navy? Absolutely! The Navy has recently incorporated the use of apps in other areas and this could certainly be examined. Even without use of an app as the delivery device, all of the same principles need to be embraced. Continuous, timely, and pertinent feedback on performance and progress on objectives is imperative. Call it coaching, call it leading, call it whatever you want, but the incremental steps towards achieving small goals is what makes organizations able to accomplish big goals.
If we are to sustain an efficacious evaluation system, it is important to utilize the tools we have first. Everyone has a different leadership style and you always have to tailor your approach to different people and situations. For this, there can be no substitute for pure, unadulterated leadership. However, it is clear that junior officers are hungry for meaningful, timely, and reflective feedback in their evaluations. If Navy leaders moved away from the norm of having officers write their own FITREPs, embraced 360-degree reports for officer development, utilized existing metrics to provide feedback as originally intended, and continue to pull techniques from successful organizations, the current evaluation system could be greatly enhanced. Ultimately, the evaluation system needs to focus on feedback for an officer’s performance and his/her promotion potential. We need a system that fosters and encourages feedback. We need a system that weighs performance more than timing and personality. We need an innovative approach to this system.
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