General Robert Neller has always been regarded as a tough, no-nonsense Marine, and as Commandant of the Marine Corps he has also emerged as a genuine visionary. He deeply understands the future military environment and how his service must prepare for it. At the 2016 U.S. Naval Institute/AFCEA West Conference, the general provided critical insight into his vision, which closely aligns with that of Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral John Richardson, on the direction of leadership development the Naval Services should take.
According to the 37th Commandant:
I think the training systems we have as far as simulators and simulation are pretty good for individual task/condition/standard, for air crew, for drivers, for even firing individual weapons, gunnery, things like that, I think the thing that we’re looking for is, where’s the equivalent of our Holodeck, where a fleet commander or division commander or air wing commander can go in and get a rep. Right now that almost requires an actual provision of the real stuff, which is really expensive . . . . Where’s our Enders Game battle lab kind of thing where we can not just give our leadership reps, but we can actually find out who the really good leaders are.
General Neller’s comments compel us to further analysis. He invokes aspects of popular science fiction to paint a picture for how leaders will be trained, evaluated, and readied for operational challenges in the not-so-distant future. He identifies critical gaps in today’s approach to leadership development, where mid- and senior-grade officers have few opportunities to experiment with novel operational concepts, using multiple units, in a risk tolerant environment. He also places cognitive development, or military decision-making, on par with the physical fitness which has long been a hallmark of Marine Corps officers. Finally, Neller highlights the problem of assessing the true quality of leadership in today’s ranks, where a significant portion of an officer’s career is in non-operational assignments.
One Army study of the novel Ender’s Game describes the “battle lab” (or school) in this way:
Using virtual training environments, the children go head-to-head on an individual level against computers that simulate Formic battle tactics to gain the knowledge and abilities required to defeat the enemy. The children can then compete against one another in the virtual environments to further develop their strategies. The next phase involves live collective training. Divided into armies, the soldiers must learn to function as a single unit to accomplish a mission objective in the battleroom. With enough skill, soldiers can become commanders of their armies and must learn to lead them effectively. By merging these individual and collective training components, the soldiers’ knowledge, skills, and abilities can translate into operational readiness.
While the concept of an Ender’s Game battle lab may seem like pure fantasy to some, the technology to build it may be right around the corner. In order to turn Neller’s vision into reality, several organizational changes must occur.
Harnessing advances in several emergent fields is critical for creating a naval battle lab, but we must exercise prudence in our approach. We must take full advantage of better private sector platforms and systems, and make using them our first choice, rather than taking the more expensive approach of designing our own systems. Reinventing the wheel, and the resulting exorbitant costs, will be the death knell of a naval battle lab long before the project would get underway in earnest.
As the current Pokémon Go craze clearly demonstrates, working augmented reality is now widely available to the public at virtually no cost. If built from scratch using the defense acquisition process, its cost surely would render such a system unaffordable. In fiscally constrained times, the DON must adopt new business practices and modernize outdated IT policies to capitalize on these types of commercial initiatives. Senior leaders and acquisition professionals need to consider open source software (OSS) services, such as GitHub, as the new norm for software procurement. OSS services allow users to take available code and modify it for a specific use at potentially a much lower cost than developing their own version from scratch or purchasing a commercial software license.
Another form of technological advancement needing consideration is the rise of machine learning and “bot” technology. Sophisticated software algorithms show great utility in modern computer networks, with their ability to monitor computer systems, offer data access, and to check network activity, while adapting themselves to varying conditions without human direction. This capability is being commercially used to improve customer service and to monitor network activity, among other private sector functions. Such advanced machine learning tools will be critical for creating virtual exercise controllers or simulated adversaries, using their adaptable artificial intelligence to challenge military tacticians based on their level of expertise.
Mobility will be an important enabler for leadership development in the future. It is difficult to find a naval officer today who does not own a smart phone. We must take advantage of these powerful tools by providing our people with appropriate network access and software to enable them to participate in scalable leadership exercises alone or as members of a networked team. Such access will allow them to develop professionally wherever they are. In short, we must make cognitive development as accessible as doing a set of push-ups. Leveraging commercial technology, however, is only one part of the changes required to implement General Neller’s vision.
The naval services have led at wargaming for decades. Over the past few years, improvements to analytical methods have resulted in game outcomes informing organizational decision-making processes. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that wargaming, and gameplay in general, serves as an excellent leadership development tool. In essence, traditional wargaming is a competition among participants based on a scenario that is conducted in a turn-based manner. They make people think and solve problems. This same process is easily replicated, repeated and expanded by using a virtual environment.
Virtual wargaming offers many advantages over traditional simulations. Consider popular online games such as World of Warcraft or Call of Duty. These games are played by millions of networked participants around the world every day. Fundamentally, they are designed to pose tactical problems to players who have a set of options from which to select. This interaction presents an incredible opportunity both to learn and collect useful data on military decision making.
In the future, for example, tactical problem X could be posed to a large and diverse group of naval officers in a virtual game format. From their answers, it would be possible to determine that a certain percentage would chose option Y, while others would chose option Z. This data could then influence policy changes or improve training and education programs, using any observed shortfalls. Further, if this virtual environment is shared with other services and coalition partners, it will be possible to determine the effect service and national culture has on tactical decision making.
Another advantage of virtual gaming is its ability to draw upon the expertise of the crowd to solve challenging problems. This is contrary to the norm of giving only a few elite players the opportunity to participate in large-scale events. Virtual environments are also more accommodating to various personality types and better for overcoming the power dynamics and hierarchies associated with the traditional approach to military wargaming.
The DON is at the forefront of crowdsourcing in the Department of Defense through its use of online platforms such as MMOWGLI, The Hatch, and the Marine Corps Innovation Challenge. Each of these forums provides Sailors, Marines, and DON civilians the opportunity to participate in virtual problem solving challenges. The lessons from these nascent systems could influence operational planning in the future, as the multitude of options available to our adversaries could be given to a network of operational planners, rather than myopically focusing on one or two likely courses of action. History has shown the current approach to planning often results in failure to anticipate our adversaries’ actions, an inflexibility we must remedy.
Virtual games are only as good as the environment in which they are conducted. Commercial gaming technology, geographic information systems, intelligence collection sensors, and repositories of global societal data are constantly improving. Much work remains to integrate these various sources of data in order to develop virtual environments of sufficient quality to enable realistic decision-making exercises. Excessive emphasis on environmental fidelity can often become an expensive distraction, however.
Virtual environments may be used to represent complex, networked, “wicked problems” better, as well as demonstrating the impact of our actions within, for example, complex civilian population centers. In short, virtual environments can present a different set of decision making problems and feedback mechanisms not available in live training exercises or traditional war games. This is yet another advantage offered by new forms of simulation.
The term “game” often connotes a recreational activity. If gameplay in the battle lab of the future is to become an effective tool for assessing the tactical decision making of naval leaders, proper incentives must be put in place so these exercises are taken as seriously as time on the rifle range. The emerging concept of gamification rests upon rewards or meaningful status upgrades to reinforce positive behavior, while penalizing negative behavior. Performance in the naval battle lab consequently must be incorporated into annual performance assessments and ultimately influence career decisions.
In an examination of military innovation, Dima Adamsky notes a significant difference between the US and Soviet militaries during the Cold War in 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. To prevent this problem in the future, DARPA and ONR could insert the latest weapons technology into the battle lab years ahead of its actual fielding. This would give future naval leaders the opportunity to experiment with weapons of the future, then speedily integrate them into their decision making cycle as soon the new systems arrive in the operating forces.
The DON’s Task Force Innovation was comprised of over 150 naval innovators from across the operating forces. Improving wargaming and expanding virtual environments were identified as important tools to promote innovative thinking. As a result, Secretary Mabus directed two policy memos to emphasize these two issues and take an integrated naval approach, when possible. While great progress is being made as a result of these directives, these two areas will ultimately form the foundation for a naval battle lab and must proceed in parallel and complement one another.
To operationalize this concept, the numerous stakeholders from across the naval enterprise must work towards a common vision. Developing the functional system as described here will require strong leadership and collaboration across numerous DON organizations. As we have seen, this topic is of great interest to the SECNAV, CNO and CMC. Therefore the current bureaucratic environment may be optimal to make meaningful progress.
There are many technical, fiscal, and organizational barriers which must be overcome to fully operationalize the naval battle lab concept. The most significant obstacle, however, will be cultural. Ultimately our leaders must see the lessons learned from traditional leadership tasks and day-to-day decision-making in an operational environment are invaluable and cannot be supplanted. As cognitive decision-making emerges as a critical capability on the battlefield of the future, we must leverage every opportunity to build the most tactically and operationally proficient naval officers possible. As we see in every aspect of society, technology will play a vital role. If a battle-hardened, infantry Marine like General Neller, who entered military service long before personal computing became part of our daily lives, recognizes the potential of a naval battle lab for building and testing naval leaders, others must take notice too.
Over the past several months, senior naval leaders have highlighted the importance of organizational learning to accelerate innovation and adapt to future challenges. For instance, the SECNAV noted the confluence of people, ideas and information as the foundation of the DON’s Innovation Vision; Admiral Richardson introduced his concept of “accelerated learning” in A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority; and LtGen Walsh unveiled the Marine’s “campaign of learning” in a speech at CSIS. However, many internal barriers must be addressed to fully implement their vision.
The concept of a learning organization has been discussed in management circles for several decades. Yet there is no consensus on a standard definition nor are the steps to build one clear. A 1993 Harvard Business Review article by Professor David Garvin serves as a useful starting point for the Naval Services to consider.
Garvin defines a learning organization as, “…an organization skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge, and at modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights.” Garvin also identifies five building blocks to create such an organization. They are:
Systemic Problem Solving: This first activity rests heavily on the scientific method, wide use of data and statistical tools. Most training programs focus primarily on problem-solving techniques, using exercises and practical examples. Accuracy and precision are essential for learning. Employees must therefore become more disciplined in their thinking and more attentive to details. They must continually ask, “How do we know that’s true?”, recognizing that close enough is not good enough if real learning is to take place. They must push beyond obvious symptoms to assess underlying causes, often collecting evidence when conventional wisdom says it is unnecessary. Otherwise, the organization will remain a prisoner of “gut facts” and sloppy reasoning, and learning will be stifled.
Experimentation: This activity involves the systematic searching for and testing of new knowledge. Experimentation is usually motivated by opportunity and expanding horizons, not by current difficulties. It takes two main forms: ongoing programs and one-of-a-kind demonstration projects. Ongoing programs normally involve a continuing series of small experiments, designed to produce incremental gains in knowledge. Demonstration projects are usually larger and more complex than ongoing experiments. They involve holistic, system-wide changes, introduced at a single site, and are often undertaken with the goal of developing new organizational capabilities. Because these projects represent a sharp break from the past, they are usually designed from scratch, using a “clean slate” approach.
Learning from past Experience: Companies must review their successes and failures, assess them systematically, and record the lessons in a form that employees find open and accessible. Unfortunately, too many managers today are indifferent, even hostile, to the past, and by failing to reflect on it, they let valuable knowledge escape. A study of more than 150 new products concluded that “the knowledge gained from failures [is] often instrumental in achieving subsequent successes… In the simplest terms, failure is the ultimate teacher.”
Learning from Others: Not all learning comes from reflection and self-analysis. Sometimes the most powerful insights come from looking outside one’s immediate environment to gain a new perspective. Enlightened managers know that even companies in completely different businesses can be fertile sources of ideas and catalysts for creative thinking. At these organizations, enthusiastic borrowing is replacing the “not invented here” syndrome.
Transferring Knowledge: For learning to be more than a local affair, knowledge must spread quickly and efficiently throughout the organization. Ideas carry maximum impact when they are shared broadly rather than held in a few hands. A variety of mechanisms spur this process, including written, oral, and visual reports, site visits and tours, personnel rotation programs, education and training programs, and standardization programs.
To some extent the naval services are already engaged in these activities but significant improvement is needed if we are to turn these efforts into a real competitive advantage. Several internal challenges need to be addressed to become the learning organization envisioned by our senior leaders. Here is a short list:
Culture: Dr. Frank Hoffman recently noted that the Navy’s learning culture was essential for overcoming the challenges of countering German U-Boats in WWII. According to Hoffman, “Brutally candid post-exercise critiques occurred in open forums in which junior and senior officers examined moves and countermoves. These reflected the Navy’s culture of tackling operational problems in an intellectual, honest, and transparent manner.” To regain this learning culture, two issues must be addressed: fostering an environment of candor and preventing organizational hubris, often buttressed by questionable models or rhetoric intended to defend programs of record, from lulling leaders into a false sense of security. Learning cannot begin if we cannot have candid conversations about what is working and what needs to be fixed. The best agile organizations today continually use stress-testing of plans and strategies to identify areas for improvement.
Incentives: Many individuals and organizations view knowledge as a source of power. Therefore, the more knowledge one collects and retains, the more one’s standing and influence increases. In Team of Teams, General McChrystal examines this issue through a game-theory lens. In a “knowledge-is-power” environment, those who share knowledge are considered the losers, while those who receive knowledge are winners. We must create the right incentives to change this behavior by rewarding those who put effort in to sharing knowledge and penalize those who hoard knowledge or prevent information from being shared.
Outdated Tools and Policies: Since the advent of the internet, senior leaders have called for shifting from a “need-to-know” approach to a “need-to-share”. Unfortunately, this shift is difficult to achieve because of outdated information-centric policies, exaggerated treats, and risk-averse leaders. The workforce must have the proper tools and effective policies so knowledge transfer can occur easily and risk is realistically considered. Further, we must resolve how to capture the great ideas of our talented workforce and share our problems with public. Our naval culture and our desire to solve problems internally often prevent us from sharing our complex problems with “outsiders”. This practice prevents novel solutions from entering our decision making cycle.
Undefined Learning Ecosystem: Pockets on knowledge and learning exist across the DON but sharing is often stove-piped by organizational boundaries. Many organizations created the position of Knowledge Managers but their effectiveness is inconsistent and there is no strategy to create a “knowledge CO-OP” across the organization. Having an enterprise-wide strategy would prevent duplication of effort in knowledge generation and permit learning from other’s experience. The DON must create a learning ecosystem, with the appropriate infrastructure, tools, and practices that enables us to become an organization skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge, and at modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights.
Having senior leaders champion these issues today is an important first step to develop this important capability. However, the organization needs to move with a sense of urgency and not treat learning as another passing fad or simply leave organizational learning to happenstance. The digital natives entering the workforce today are knowledge sharers by nature. If no improvements are made to the issues discussed above, they will go “outside the wire” to collaborate on work related issues. This will increase risk and detract from organizational learning.
The Department of Navy possesses an incomprehensible amount of data, information, knowledge and practical experience; all are underpinned by a wealth of naval history from which to learn. We must place a priority on creating a learning organization and turn this concept into a true competitive advantage for the future.
Serious students of the US national security enterprise are likely familiar with Dr. Amy Zegart’s Flawed by Design. In her 2000 work, she examines the creation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council, concluding that from the start, these organizations never received the appropriate authorities to effectively lead, to ensure our nation’s security and fight our nation’s wars. Her insights proved prescient in light of the 9/11 attacks and military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Since the National Security Act created the DoD, JCS, CIA and the Department of the Air Force in 1947, there have been repeated attempts to build using this broken design. Each subsequent reform effort, particularly the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reform Act of 1986, added to the size and complexity of the Pentagon. Layers upon layers of oversight got added to fix and re-fix the fundamentally flawed concept. The total cost to maintain this leviathan of tens of thousands of staff is enormous and takes scarce resources away from actual warfighting needs. Significant overhead costs are not the only negative impact from this flawed design, as many DoD-wide efforts are simply not effective.
In a recent speech at the American Enterprise Institute, Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus provided examples of the DoD’s “4th Estate” dysfunctionality. He particularly focused on the growth and operating costs of the Defense Finance and Accounting Services and the Defense Logistics Agency but similar criticisms could be made against most defense organizations.
These organizations were created to efficiently provide common support functions for the military services but, over time, that concept seems to have been lost, as the size and roles of the defense establishment expanded. Today, the military services often have to change their practices to support the defense agencies, instead of the reverse.
Similar to Mr. Mabus’s criticism of the 4th Estate, Senator John McCain has been a vocal critic recently of the Defense Acquisition System and has even called for revisiting the sacred cow of Goldwater-Nichols. Sweeping changes to these two broken processes are long overdue.
While the shared interests of Secretary Mabus and Senator McCain are somewhat unusual, some may view them simply as inside-the-beltway political banter. However, DoD’s outdated organizational structure has also hampered military operations over the past decade.
My experience highlights the broad impacts from centralized oversight. Having served in both the Navy and Marine Corps for over a decade apiece, I understand naval integration is difficult to achieve; even after 200 years, it is still a work in progress. To think that four services can fully integrate to support the shared-lie of “jointness,” to confront and solve fast-evolving crises today, is an expensive fool’s errand.
General Stanley McChrystal asserts in his new book Team of Teams, that the “Limiting Factor” in our war against al Qaida was our own management of operations. He experienced first-hand the cumbersome layers of bureaucracy, siloed information sharing and over-centralized decision making, even within his own Special Operations community. My own experience at the MNC-I HQ in 2005 supports his assertions and has made me question the value of joint organizations and processes as well.
Many are familiar with the US Army’s seizure of the Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) in the initial run-up to Baghdad in 2003. There was a second, lesser known, battle for BIAP in 2005 – which pitted Marines against the Air Force.
Briefly, the Marines operated in the areas west and south of Baghdad and routinely conducted counter-fire missions through a section of the air space on the same side of BIAP. The Air Force staff at the Combined Air Operations Center wanted to expand the air space control measures above BIAP for safety of flight concerns. This change would prohibit Marines from quickly responding to attacks on ground forces—shooting back, in other words–in the area.
Despite Joint doctrine clearly favoring the ground commander, a joint staff running operations, and even having a neutral Army three star as the Corps Commander, the Air Force refused to support the ground commander’s operational needs. Eventually, a few mid-level officers and Staff NCOs worked out a solution, albeit one held together with duct tape and 550 cord, that resolved the coordination issue.
This event occurred nearly 20 years after the passage of Goldwater-Nichols and following significant investments in joint commands, joint doctrine, joint programs and the brainwashing of an entire generation of military officers on the virtues of jointness. Interservice coordination seemed no better than it was in previous military operations. Problems in Iraq were resolved by military professionals working towards common goals, as I’m sure was the practice in every war before the flawed legislation.
For the past 60 years, DoD and Congress have slowly worked towards unification of the military services. In the industrial age, centralization and the emphasis on process efficiency were widely accepted management practices. However, the complex, interconnected future, characterized by ubiquitous data and technological changes occurring rapidly, will require smaller, decentralized and agile organizations to succeed – just the opposite of our current organization design.
Not only is the idea of creating enormous Defense-wide systems, programs and organizations a bad one, it is a dangerous management approach in the information age. The recent OPM data breaches provide crystal-clear evidence of how catastrophic risk increases when we put our all of our eggs in a single basket. We cannot wall-off our stovepipes in single places and rest assured that no one can get in to our information.
Preparing for future conflict, particularly against modern professional militaries, requires more than simply investing in expensive weapon systems. It requires us to have candid conversations about what’s not working in DoD – far beyond just the broken acquisition process – and recognize the fundamental design flaws of the Department.
Over the next few years, we have a great opportunity to leverage the work started by Secretary Mabus and Senator McCain. With former naval officers Undersecretary Bob Work and General Dunford holding key positions in the 4th Estate, as well as a new Commandant and CNO both recognized for innovating thinking, and several naval officers on the Hill, we may actually be able to make some meaningful changes in the defense organization which will ensure success in the future. Making significant changes to the entrenched DoD bureaucracy are a longshot indeed, but history has shown that naval officers working together are capable of great things.
The United States is currently undergoing a massive influx of Central American immigrants along the Southwest border. Due to gridlock and political interest in courting the Latino vote, federal policies have been ineffective in resolving this looming national crisis. The consequent bureaucratic quagmire, in turn, prevents states from protecting the interests of their citizens. A dangerous situation looms, where local communities and citizen groups feel compelled to take action to preserve property and maintain their way of life.
Resolving this immediate crisis is important but the nation’s political leaders must also examine the migration and demographic trends which threaten the geographic cohesiveness and prosperity of the United States. This existential threat could be turned into a strategic opportunity if viewed through a different, long-term lens.
In his final book Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity, Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington addressed what he viewed as an impending crisis posed by Hispanic immigration. He argued that Anglo-Protestant culture, the fundamental reason the United States has prospered as a nation, was eroding because of this northward population shift. He also noted that Hispanic immigration differed from past such movements for six reasons: contiguity, scale, illegality, regional concentration, persistence, and historical presence. It is this last factor that requires further examination.
People from no other immigrant group in America’s history can make a claim of ownership of U.S. territory. Most of the Southwest region from Texas, to California, to Utah was incorporated into the United States after wars with Mexico in the mid-19th century. Peter Skerry of Boston College notes:
Unlike other immigrants, Mexicans arrive here from a neighboring nation that has suffered a military defeat at the hands of the United States; and they settle predominantly in a region that was once part of their homeland…. Mexican Americans enjoy a sense of being on their own turf that is not shared by other immigrants.
This history certainly challenges assimilation of the migrants, potentially leading to the bifurcation of a national culture.
Huntington further posits that blood relationships are thicker than national borders. The concentration of Hispanic immigrants along the Southwest border, with relatives nearby but outside the US, poses a true stressor on the political line drawn between the two states. Despite long- established borders, cross-border networks, often based on family connections, have the potential to spawn a unification movement. Historically, such culturally divisive borders have been a source of bloodshed, with Rwanda, Korea and Vietnam as recent examples.
Huntington was not alone in this school of thought. Another academic, Charles Truxillo of the University of New Mexico, predicts the Southwestern American states and the northern states of Mexico will form a new republic by 2080. “Southwest Chicanos and Norteño Mexicanos are becoming one people again,” he said and it should happen “by any means necessary.” What this new political entity would look like – a semi-autonomous region or an independent state – no one knows.
While this notion may seem absurd, recent polls indicate measures of trust and confidence in the US federal government are at an all-time low and nascent movements are underway in several states (Maryland, Colorado, and California) to change existing borders to create more representative political entities. In democratic republics, can this type of secession occur without bloodshed if demanded by its citizens? Recent events in Crimea may portend the future of state borders not supported by the populace. So something should be done.
In the thought-proving book The Revenge of Geography, Robert Kaplan compares the current crisis along America’s Southwest border with the decline of the Roman Empire. Political overreach elsewhere while ignoring problems close to home contributed to the demise of Rome. Kaplan argues that the influx of immigrants along the Southwest Border poses a similar strategic security concern for America. Like Huntington and others, he highlights the dangers of ignoring the long term effects of unbridled illegal immigration and concludes some form of conjoining Mexico and the United States may be inevitable. Conversely, Kaplan also identifies opportunities from such a situation.
Obviously, a more vibrant Mexican economy would lower the push of migrants seeking work in the United States. If Mexico were to achieve first-world economic status, Kaplan asserts, a stable and prosperous republic south of the Rio Grande, working in concert with United States, would be an unbeatable combination in geopolitics. Considering the much younger population of Central America, the natural resource abundance, particularly energy, of Canada, and economic infrastructure in the US, a tri-lingual “supra-state” of the three North America countries would serve as an effective global balancing force.
Elevating Mexico to this status is a daunting challenge needing the same level of American commitment that it has demonstrated with distant nations around the globe. While economic development and reducing the income disparity across the border are critical components to stabilizing the region, economic efforts alone will fail unless security problems are resolved, too. Unlike other security alliances where the sale of expensive weapon systems serves as the foundation, Mexico needs a different form of security assistance.
Mexico needs a capability to disrupt sophisticated transnational criminal organizations. US military, intelligence, and federal law enforcement agencies must expand their support to Mexican law enforcement and military forces. After a decade of honing irregular warfare skills in Iraq and Afghanistan, US Special Forces and US Marines are ideally prepared and suited for this mission.
The mountainous terrain and sparse population of northern Mexico makes it difficult to eradicate the para-military transnational criminal organizations that occupy the region. And UN peace keeping forces have deployed to places less dangerous than some northern Mexican cities, such as Ciudad Juarez. In contrast, US Marines have a long history of operating in the region, dating back to the Mexican wars of the 1800s, the Banana Wars of the early 1900s, Veracruz in 1914 and operating as part of a Joint counter-drug task force in the 1990s. Further, the Marines have the ability to partner with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service to create a capable hybrid law enforcement-military team, similar to the Delta Force – FBI unit that reportedly captured terrorist Ahmed Abu Khattala.
This role may seem inappropriate for the US military. But while nearly three thousand people tragically died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, this number is dwarfed by the number of deaths along both sides of the Southwest border since that fateful day in 2001. Since then, America’s national security enterprise has been distracted by fighting the global war on terrorism; vast intellectual capital was expended and national debt accumulated to rebuild nations of little strategic interest to the United States, all the while allowing security conditions to deteriorate much closer to home. This is a national security issue, pure and simple.
The Pentagon is transitioning from fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to contending with the rise of China as a regional power. Making this shift will be an impossible task unless America’s domestic problems are resolved, however. Chief among those problems is developing a long-term solution to the immigration problem and forming strategic partnerships with Mexico, Canada, and other Latin American States. An effective partnership with a stable Mexico not only contributes to American prosperity but will create a powerful geopolitical balancer in the future.
Because of Don Vito’s health problems, his son Michael (as a fictional Marine Captain, he was the obvious choice as successor) assumed control of the Corleone family business. His rapid ascent disrupted the distribution of power within the family. After Don Vito’s passing, Michael used an early version of distributed operations against the leadership of near-peer competitors. Michael’s rise within the family and subsequent violent struggle to bolster the Corleone’s position within the organized crime syndicate illustrate the inherent dangers of power shifts.
The reality is – shifts happen. Power shifts happen in clans, in industry and among states. State power shifts occur at various levels – internal, regional and global and many believe power shifts are frequently the cause of international conflicts. The graphic below illustrates various power shifts in modern history.
Measuring National Power
As many have observed, the American military has gone to war over the past decade but the United States as a nation has not. When analyzing great power wars it is important to consider the total power of the states involved and not to simply count the number of ships, air wings or divisions. When analyzing military power in this context both actual and latent capabilities (those that a state could produce in the future) must be taken into account. Measuring national power is difficult and extremely subjective. One method, albeit not perfect, is to use the National Material Capabilities data set.
Power is considered by many to be a central concept in explaining conflict and six indicators are widely used to quantify power – military expenditure, military personnel, energy consumption, iron and steel production, urban population, and total population.
The Composite Index of National Capability (CINC) index is based on these six variables. The CINC is useful for historical analysis and often helps explain the outcome and duration of conventional conflicts between states. The figure below displays two conflicts where the opposing forces were at different levels of power; the first, near power parity and the second, an overwhelming power difference. The former lasted nearly eight years and ended in stalemate while the latter lasted only a few days with a decisive victory for coalition forces.
The CINC can also be used to analyze the future environment. Using the CINC to examine the state powers of China and the US (including Pacific partners) should paint a worrisome picture for US military planners.
Some consider the CINC model to be obsolete in the information age and only appropriate for historical analysis. Measuring national power accurately in the post-industrial age is still a work in progress. An alternate power assessment method comes from the intelligence community. The NIC historically used a four component model to forecast power that included GDP, population size, military spending, and technology. However in the Global Trends 2030, an updated model included other elements such as health, education, and governance.
Regardless of the method or data one uses, it is clear that a global power shift is underway. The primary question that remains is will this shift result in peaceful integration or in a great power war?
Revisiting Power Theories
Within the IR field there are two prominent schools of thought regarding power shifts – power transition theory and power cycle theory.
Power Transition: A.F.K. Organski developed this theory in 1958. He asserted that the international system can be categorized into four levels of state power: dominant power, great powers, middle powers and small powers. Unlike the balance of power theorists, Organski felt the system was in a constant state of flux with the dominant power attempting to maintain the status quo. Rising contenders were either satisfied or dissatisfied with their position in the system. The outcome of the contender’s rise could either be peaceful integration or war depending on their level of satisfaction during ascendance. Throughout history, the closer the contender and dominant power were to power parity, the longer and more severe were conflicts.
Power Cycle: Originated by Charles Doran in 1963, the power cycle theory asserts the power of a state is cyclic and it rises and falls based on the state’s relative position within the international system. Along the cycle’s path are several critical inflection points that create shifts in the international system and often result in major wars.
Both of theories remain relevant today and portend a dangerous threat to the stability of global order.
The Rise of China
Both schools express concern over the rise of China and potential disruption to the international system. Disciples of Organski offer three strategies for the US to consider:
- Engineering Satisfaction with Realignment: This strategy largely involves economic development in China and places more emphasis on business development and partnerships as a means to keep the contender satisfied during its ascent.
- Controlling Territorial Flashpoints: Primarily focused on Taiwan, the authors argue that even a successful defense of Taiwan against Chinese military aggression in the near-term will not resolve the power shift dilemma. At some point in time all three parties, China, US and Taiwan will come to the realization that because of the China’s great power status, Taiwan may voluntarily associate itself with China.
- Reengineering Power Distributions: The United States must prevent China from achieving power parity. To accomplish this it must form a “super-bloc” alliance by expanding NATO and developing alliances with India and even Russia.
The authors caution against over-militarizing America’s policy towards China and recount former SECDEF Perry’s warning, “If we treat China as an enemy, it will surely become one.”
Doran contends that China’s rise could eventually be slowed by India’s ascent to power and tensions may escalate between the neighboring states. For China to enjoy a “peaceful rise,” it must contend with the challenges of future systems transformation just as the other members of the system had to in the past. Other governments must learn to preserve their security and interests while assisting China to traverse this projected and particularly stressful interval in history.
Examining China’s rise through the power shift lens brings several concerns to the fore.
If a military confrontation between China and the US is inevitable, would the perfect military plan or operational concept overcome the power parity problem or would a long war of attrition be unavoidable? Would America’s military advantage diminish if a conflict is fought on Chinese territory, thus forcing America to project military power thousands of miles from the US homeland?
Second, would any amount of conventional military force be sufficient to compel the state of China to accept an outcome favorable to the US and its allies? Because of China’s population advantage and massive economy, could it simply absorb a shock-and-awe type campaign until its adversary’s magazines were exhausted?
Third, to what extent do America’s domestic problems (i.e. national debt, percentage of Americans not in the workforce, inefficient governance and immigration reform) limit its ability to reverse the current power declination trend in the international system?
Finally, because of advances in missile technology, cyber capabilities and asymmetric tactics, the reality is the US homeland will no longer be a sanctuary during future wars. The American military did not contend with this problem in the great power wars of WWI, WW II and Korea. How would degraded American industrial capacity affect the ability to project power overseas for a significant period of time?
The examination of power shifts among states should raise concerns among America’s foreign policy makers and military planners. Most of the latter entered active duty after the end of the Cold War when America emerged as an uncontested hegemon. This dominant power status may have resulted in a certain degree of hubris that prompts many into thinking America can simply impose its will on another state at a time and place of its choosing. While this may have worked in Grenada, Panama and against Somali pirates, this paradigm will need to shift to contend with the rise of a great power.
To ensure the relative stability of the international system and American prosperity, planners must challenge some underlying assumptions about America’s relative dominance in the future and develop a national strategy that is not centrally focused on using conventional military force to counter the rise of China’s power.
Project SIXTY was Admiral Elmo Zumwalt’s ambitious planning effort undertaken during his first sixty days as Chief of Naval Operations. It was without precedent in naval history, as no CNO ever attempted such an extensive agenda change. This was not a situation of implementing change for change’s sake but the Navy at the time was in desperate need of significant improvement. As noted in Admiral Worth Bagley’s oral history, “when he came in, this wasn’t much of a Navy. I mean, it was a good Navy, but it was not the kind of a Navy that people were used to, and it wasn’t the kind of Navy that would meet the sorts of strategic challenges that Zumwalt thought were either existing or looming.”
Many parallels can be drawn from that period of naval history to the situation today – exiting a decade-long unpopular war, defense spending in decline, a personnel system in desperate need of reform and a rising naval threat posed by a great power state. Project SIXTY is an excellent case study for implementing strategic changes, based on a realistic assessment of both strengths and weaknesses, in a highly resistant bureaucratic environment.
Zumwalt opens Project SIXTY with:
My purpose today is to report to you on our naval strengths and weaknesses and the actions we are taking, or will propose, to achieve the highest feasible combat readiness. The report reflects our survey of the Navy to date and sets forth the change of direction which we think necessary. It is impossible to discuss these changes outside the context of potential budget reductions. We will indicate the effect of such reductions; they would curtail our capabilities critically, regardless of our actions. However, we hope to emphasize the theme of the changes that we feel must be undertaken, whether we can maintain our present expenditures or not.
(For the full text of Project SIXTY, see Newport Paper 30.)
There are several important observations derived from Project SIXTY:
Take Risks: There is no question the Admiral Zumwalt was a risk taker and was unhesitant to act upon his convictions. His entire concept of modernizing the Navy was based on accepting short-term risk for long-term gain. As Zumwalt recounted in his memoirs, “given the Nixon administration’s determination to reduce military budgets, the only way I could see for the Navy to free funds for developing up-to-date ships and weapon systems that could cope with the new Russian armaments was to retire immediately large numbers of old ships and aircraft.”
Naval capabilities were seriously reduced in the early seventies while the new systems were being designed, built, and deployed for the 1980s. Leaving a much smaller Navy than what was inherited would be a difficult position for any CNO to take and would certainly leave him open to extensive criticism from inside and outside the Navy.
Further, Zumwalt personally set the tone for accepting risk. As the new CNO introduced himself to his immediate staff, he stated, “My basic philosophy is, if a proposed change is in doubt, make it and see what happens. It is easy to get a thousand reasons why you shouldn’t do something. If the odds are even 40 in favor and 60 against, my reaction is to change it and see how loud the screams are.” In today’s bureaucratic environment many offices are empowered to say no or to stop an initiative but few can actually approve something. This imbalance must be addressed – will greater use of social media within the Navy enable good ideas to immediately gain the attention of senior decision makers, thus marginalizing habitual naysayers at intermediate levels?
Set the Agenda: Although having a vision to modernize the Navy was an important factor in being “deep selected” for the position of CNO, Zumwalt felt it was important to meet with a wide-range of military and civilian leaders prior to starting his reform effort. Admiral Zumwalt traveled to several overseas locations on his return from Saigon and met with foreign officials, senior military officers from other services and a large number of junior officers and enlisted men in fleet units to hear their thoughts and concerns.
Project SIXTY had a clearly established set of issues to address from the start:
- How far to reduce current capability so as to get the most money possible for modernization?
- How to achieve balance through the high-low mix of platforms?
- How to allocate resources between the general-purpose and strategic forces?
- How to maintain high quality force when the draft expired?
- How to maintain sufficient capabilities during the modernization process?
In total, 52 separate issues were addressed during Project SIXTY.
Have a Project Manager: Admiral Zumwalt selected an outsider in Rear Admiral Worth Bagley to manage the day-to-day work. Bagley was Commander of a destroyer flotilla and was unable to immediately assume this essential position. Captain Stansfield Turner, Executive Assistant to the SECNAV at the time, was given this assignment temporarily and was told to “write a strategy for the Navy.”
Turner was largely responsible for the four main missions of the Navy of the future: strategic nuclear deterrence, peacetime presence, sea control, and projection of power ashore. Turner also wrote 30-40 two-page (yes, this was before power point) decision papers that were sent directly to the CNO, many of which were approved on the spot. Turner maintained a notebook of ideas he kept over the years and when the opportunity presented itself, he provided them directly to Zumwalt.
Zumwalt, Bagely, and Turner, all former Executive Assistants to the SECNAV, would eventually drive a small staff to complete this task successfully. Zumwalt knew from experience that a compressed time schedule would force participants to focus on achieving results.
Additionally, Zumwalt created the position of Coordinator of Decisions. Admiral Emmett Tidd filled this important position and ensured Zumwalt’s decisions were carried out – Tidd became “Zumwalt’s SOB”. Zumwalt understood the execution phase was often a burial ground for good ideas.
Be Aware of the Political Landscape: Project SIXTY reflected a keen understanding of naval politics in the early 1970s. Zumwalt recognized that having the OPNAV staff overly involved in Project SIXTY would slow down the process and normal staff work would drain the momentum from his efforts. As Turner would later note, “Deputy Chiefs of Naval Operations and other senior officers began to offer help that wasn’t particularly helpful but seemed designed to infiltrate the work.”
The high-low mix was a central component of Zumwalt’s re-optimization efforts. He was well aware of the power Admiral Rickover held within the Navy, in the senate and on the Atomic Energy Commission. Zumwalt and staff attempted to work with Rickover but it was often impossible to do. Accepting Rickover’s stonewalling, Zumwalt had to maneuver around him.
In a 1976 Proceedings article (while Rickover was still on active duty), Zumwalt reflected, “A final malady that afflicted – and continues to afflict – the whole Navy, though the surface Navy was and is the greatest sufferer, can be described in one word: Rickover.” In the end however, Rickover was saying some of the same things that Zumwalt said at the time. In Rickover’s 1982 farewell speech he concludes, “we can’t put all our eggs in the high-value carrier battle group basket, and that we’ve got to have other and more ways of doing things.”
Having worked for political appointees, Zumwalt understood the defense decision making process. Early in this endeavor, he gained the support of both the SECNAV and SECDEF, and purposefully used language in vogue on the OSD staff to bring them onboard. Adm. Zumwalt spent a large amount of his time trying to persuade people outside the Navy of the wisdom of his changes and believed institutionalizing change would be far easier with the support of external allies.
Personal Leadership: In addition to learning his new role as CNO, Admiral Zumwalt devoted at least two hours a day to Project SIXTY and this personal attention was critical in achieving results. As a comprehensive 1993 study by the Center for Naval Analysis concluded regarding Zumwalt’s leadership:
- The personal attention that Adm. Zumwalt devoted to developing, obtaining a mandate for, and marketing his agenda (internally and externally) had a significant payoff in terms of moving the Navy’s strategic rudder.
- He introduced decision-making mechanisms such as the CNO Executive Board that allowed for participatory management by a board of directors—the VCNO and OPNAV’s Vice Admirals.
- He also introduced a disciplined cross-mission, cross-platform prioritization process that allowed for “creative friction” or competition of ideas in formulating and choosing between concrete steps.
- Further, Adm. Zumwalt introduced a decision follow-up mechanism that allowed him to ensure that his decisions would be carried out.
- Finally, Adm. Zumwalt’s push of innovative concepts to early field experimentation proved critical to the development (or honest evaluation) of a number of program initiatives.
According to a 1982 assessment of Project SIXTY by OP-965, the results of Zumwalt’s ambitious efforts were mixed. A partial list includes:
Successful during Zumwalt’s tenure:
- Explicit missions and rationale for justifying the Navy (see Turner, Missions of the US Navy)
- Minesweeping Helicopters
- Marine Air Squadrons on carriers
- Oliver Hazard Perry Class Ships
- Trident Submarines
Successful after Zumwalt’s tenure:
- Vulcan Phalanx CIWs
- Ocean surveillance systems
- Sea Control Ship
- Surface Effect Ship
Regardless of the outcome of specific weapon programs, Project SIXTY made significant improvements to the Navy’s personnel system. Zumwalt’s goal was clear – create an improved system that allows enlisted sailors and junior officers to do their jobs better. As Bagley noted, “he wanted to create the mental atmosphere, the social atmosphere, and the professional atmosphere that would enhance motivation to get the professional job done in the most effective way.” This goal is consistent with CNO’s ongoing project to Reduce Administrative Distractions.
Bagley also noted the effect Project SIXTY had on the OPNAV staff during Zumwalt’s tenure, “it’s worth saying that we had a common and clear perception, from the Project 60 product, of what was to be done. There wasn’t one single policy paper that I can remember in three and a half years there in which it wasn’t perfectly clear from the Project 60 work the direction of decision that should be taken.”
In the OP-965 assessment, Dr. David Rosenberg noted in the two decades prior to Project SIXTY, the powers of the CNO were significantly curtailed by the growth and incursion from the OSD. This fact makes Zumwalt’s accomplishments even more remarkable. Since the 1982 assessment even more authority has shifted from the CNO to the OSD and Joint Staffs and the Unified Commanders, thanks in large part to Goldwater Nichols. Given this unfortunate reality, it is unlikely that any future CNO will be able to achieve the same level of success in modernizing the Navy as Admiral Zumwalt accomplished during Project SIXTY.
In September 1992, the Naval War College gathered naval experts from around the world to examine the works of Sir Julian Corbett and Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond in the post-Cold War context. From the conference papers, the book “Mahan is not Enough” was published.
One excellent article from this compilation that remains particularly relevant today is “Process: The Realities of Formulating Modern Naval Strategy” written by Dr. David Alan Rosenberg.
Rosenberg uses the works of Corbett and Richmond to illustrate the importance of leveraging and integrating the expertise of naval historians and naval officers to fully understand naval strategy.
The key takeaway from this piece is a valuable framework for understanding the modern naval strategy-making process. It includes a list of seventeen topics for investigation, and while delving into each factor is too lengthy for this post, a cursory examination reveals the complex nature of naval strategy:
- The nature of training and education programs, career patterns, and professional specialization of officers in the naval service;
- The career patterns and operational, technical and staff backgrounds of individual naval officers in significant leadership positions;
- The procurement costs, capabilities, operating patterns and sustainment requirements of naval weapons systems;
- Changes in tactical doctrine and/or naval art;
- The administrative structure, operational doctrine, strategic plans and command and control organization of tactical units beyond individual ships;
- The sources of intelligence information;
- The process of intelligence production, analysis, and dissemination;
- The structure, organization, and procedures of naval service-wide strategic planning;
- The structure, organization, and procedures of naval service-wide program and procurement planning;
- The state of research and development progress of a nation’s naval warfare technology;
- The state of the national scientific and industrial infrastructure for research, development, and production of naval warfare technology;
- The character and personalities of naval service and national leadership;
- The structure, organization, and procedures of national strategic military planning;
- The structure, organization, and procedures of national program and procurement planning;
- The character and personalities of national defense leadership;
- The character and structure of the national political system as it relates to defense issues;
- The character, structure, and status of national financial and economic systems as they relate to national defense.
While this framework is valuable for researchers and students of naval strategy, it also provides a useful guide for aspiring naval strategists to consider. To become a proficient naval strategist, a broad knowledge-base attained through experience, education, and professional reading is essential.
For those interested in learning more about the history of naval strategy, the Center for Naval Analysis provides a repository of their superb work on this topic. Each of their products provides a thorough examination of navy capstone documents and covers the political, economic, and military context within which it was formulated.
As a reminder for those interested in naval history, the United States Naval Academy hosts the 2013 McMullen Naval History Symposium in Annapolis, Maryland, on 19-20 September 2013. The list of presenters and topics is impressive and the event provides an excellent forum for naval officers and historians to interact.
Considering the current fiscal climate and pressure to reduce defense spending, policy makers and military leaders are looking for innovative ways to reduce operating costs. The Pentagon is not alone in this endeavor and the entire federal government is undergoing similar belt-tightening efforts.
One approach directed by the President’s Office of Management and Budget in its Fiscal Year 2015 Budget Guidance is the increased use of evidence based decision making as a way to reduce costs and improve program effectiveness. This aligns well to the old management axiom “you can’t manage what you don’t measure” and should be applied to the ongoing effort to Reduce Administrative Distractions.
When one compares defense acquisitions to product development in the private sector, the amount of oversight and administration in defense programs are significant factors in the cost-per-unit disparity. Every private American automobile, aircraft and ship manufacturer would certainly be bankrupt if they had to contend with the excessive oversight each defense program must endure.
After the Cold War, many in the defense community explored new ways to leverage the rapid expansion of information technology beyond traditional command, control and communications functions. Naval innovators were at the forefront of this effort. Most notably Vice Admiral Art Cebrowski proliferated the concepts of Net Centric Warfare and Admiral William Owens partnered with Harvard professor Joseph Nye to pen an influential Foreign Affairs piece on America’s information edge. Owens and Nye argued that the US military advantage in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), command and control, and precision guided munitions enabled “a general ability to use deadly violence with greater speed, range and precision.” In other words, information would provide a significant advantage in conventional military operations.
At the same time, CDR Randall Bowdish focused his intellectual work on expanding the use of psychological operations in the information age. Bowdish clearly took a different approach in his research and notes, “By combining Clausewitz’s and Sun Tzu’s ideologies, we can discern a goal for information age psychological operations (PSYOP) -to compel the enemy to do our will without fighting. This goal is particularly relevant today in view of an increasing American intolerance for casualties. Information-age PSYOP, more than any other military instrument, may provide us with an increased capability to pursue our national interests without bloodshed.”
Historian and researcher Nate Jones of the National Security Archive marks the 30th anniversary of a tension filled year in Cold War history by publishing an interesting three part series on the geopolitical gamesmanship that occurred between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1983. At the center of Jones’ research are the events that preceded and culminated in NATO exercises ABLE ARCHER and REFORGER. Jones posts an impressive collection of recently declassified documents that will certainly be of interest to Cold War historians and those on active duty during this period.
As the 1980s were known as the decade of “Maritime Strategy”, naval forces certainly played a vital role in this period of escalated tension.. As Benjamin Fischer of the Central Intelligence Agency recounts:
- A Polite Rozhestvenski Whisper to the Trump Transition Team
- On Midrats 8 Jan 2017 – Episode 366: Is it Time for a General Staff?
- “Ameri-Straya”: The Story of the People Behind the U.S.-Australian Partnership In Electronic Warfare
- There Are Bad Ideas and Then There is This Bad Idea
- Missile Gap? Warhead Gap? No. Try Strategic Spending Gap