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Why the most valuable people in a command might be those that are just reporting

The Naval Officer Career is structured to be naturally innovative… by accident. This career path has a deep historical background and has changed many times over the years. The current version requires naval officers to change jobs every two to three years. This constant shuffle allows officers to gain experience in different areas so that they can be best prepared to reach the pinnacle of the naval career, assuming command at sea. This shuffle also can fuel a valuable side affect, which is rarely taken advantage of. This unintended result is innovation.

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Posted by LT Rob McFall in Navy | 5 Comments

A couple weeks ago I wrote a blog piece that asserted that the naval conversation has lost a vital piece, tactics. We as a naval service have focused the professional dialog on the strategic level while the tactical level has largely been neglected. I got a good response to the piece but one frequent criticism that I received was that many believe the discussion of tactics belongs in the classroom and wardroom, but not the open forum. I disagree. The navy has many schools that focus on sharpening tactical skills. These schools, in combination with vibrant discussions in wardrooms and ready rooms around the fleet can effectively cover the tactical baseline for each community; however, the connective tissue, that forms the bridge between communities, known as Fleet Tactics, is left completely void.

“Trackin Devil Dog, Good to go, Err, Hoorah.”

The Marine Corps perhaps is the best example of a cohesive fighting force. Because every Marine is a rifleman and all the officers went through TBS, they are able to speak the same language and anticipate the actions of their fellow Marines, whether they are in the air or on the ground. This is a trait that distinguishes them and makes them a much more deadly force than they would be as individual units. By contrast, we as a naval force speak different languages and have no common experience or training to connect us. Each community studies its own tactics, some more than others, but none fully understand what to expect from our brethren in the other communities.

As a SWO I would love to say that every Naval Officer should be a ship driver but that is impossible for many reasons, least of which that we do not have enough ships to facilitate it. However, there does need to be some common thread, some common tactical language that can be fused together so that the Navy, if required, could move forward as one Fleet and know exactly what to expect from the other units in the force, without having to have them explicitly stated in a 300 page OPORD.

It starts with a Conversation

I believe that void, that deficiency in training, can and should be filled in part by a robust professional tactical discussion that could occur fleet wide. Not only can we as a naval service step up and have a more robust conversation that brings in junior and senior officers alike, but can come together as one so that aviators understand and predict what the SWOs are going to do in a tactical engagement, and SWOs understand what the Submariners are going to do etc.

This dialog does not have to be in Proceedings or on a blog. I would argue that at one point in naval history this void might have been filled by discussions that happened around a pint in the officer’s club. Whether this dynamic discussion happens in print, in symposiums, around the wardroom, or in a new school, the crossing of those barriers is vitally important and is something to be aspired to. Now that the money is drying up, we have to be more effective with what we have, and the best way for us to be more tactically effective is to be a more cohesive fighting force. That means that we need to double down on Fleet Tactics.


LT Robert McFall is a Surface Warfare Officer that did two tours on USS WINSTON S. CHURCHILL. He is currently the Vice Chairman of the Editorial Board of the United States Naval Institute and on the Board of Directors of the Surface Navy Association. 

The conversation on professional naval issues is alive and well. It happens in many forums and at many levels. From seamen on the mess decks to admirals in the Pentagon, wardrooms to Proceedings, the conversation is happening, but what are we talking about? My feeling is that the conversation is weighted entirely on the strategic level. Heated discussions occur on how many ships should be in the Navy? How many carriers should we have? Is China the next Russia? These are all important conversations that should continue but we are missing something important. Where are the conversations about how best to tactically incorporate new systems like the LCS and the predator drone? Where were the tactical lessons learned from Operation New Dawn? What is the best way to find and approach pirates off Somalia? In the last year there has been a call out to Junior Officers to join the professional discussion. However, the discussion that was happening was at the strategic level. Junior Officers have something to add in that arena as well, but the strategic level issues are not the ones that most JOs handle every day. As a Junior Officer we should be reading, writing, and studying to perfect our knowledge of the tactical employment of whatever platform we are on. That is what the JO discussion should focus on and we as a community are not fostering that discussion.

Naval Officers join the navy to lead sailors and be officers in the profession of maritime war. We did not join Maersk or MSC. Those sailors are excellent at their craft but that is not us. I joined to be a Surface Warfare Officer but I have to seek out the conversation that supports the warfare side of my community. In the CNOs “Sailing Directions” he says that we need “warfighting first, be ready to fight and win today, while building the ability to win tomorrow”. But could we do it if we were called on? We have the platforms but do we know how best to employ them in combat? Instead of talking tactics we have been preparing for the next certification or inspection. While the country has been heavily involved in two land wars, the navy has been largely at peace, and we have gotten complacent in our thoughts.

Twenty-six years ago, Captain Wayne Hughes wrote Fleet Tactics: Theory and Practice, which is still regarded as one of the preeminent works on Naval Tactics. In it he stated “Good tactics in wartime derive from good tactical study in peacetime” and then went on to state:

Articles on tactics should dominate the Naval Institute Proceedings, as they did in the period from 1900 to 1910. The hard core of the Naval War College curriculum should be naval operations, as it was in the 1930s. War games should stress not merely training and experience but the lessons learned from each game’s outcome, as in the 1920s and 1930s.

I don’t know that tactics need to dominate the entire naval discussion, as with most things in the Navy, it is important to have a “hi low mix”. The discussion also no longer has to be limited to Proceedings. USNI would like to have more discussion on tactics there, but so would the USNI blog, Information Dissemination, CIMSEC, Sailorbob, Small Wars Journal, Alidade and a host of other online forums. This is a huge topic and there is enough to go around for all.

In many of these forums innovation has been a buzzword recently. LT Benjamin Kohlman started a wonderful conversation about Disruptive Thinking and innovation on the Small Wars Journal Blog that has gone viral. I have thoroughly enjoyed the conversation. I agree with many of his points and I do believe that innovation at all levels is important; however, as Wayne Hughes would say, technical innovation without tactical innovation that will incorporate new technologies is useless in naval battle.

One thing that is hindering the open discussion of tactics is the concern that it will endanger classified information. Many believe that it is impossible to have a true discussion of tactics in an unclass forum. This is not true. Those that are in the conversation need to be very careful to know what is and what is not classified but there are plenty of important conversations that can be debated and learned from in an open forum. The use of historical examples, hypothetical environments, and general tactical principles all provide ways to have that open discussion without crossing the boundary into the classified realm.

The conversation on tactical innovation is especially important for the Junior Officers but it should not be limited to them. Senior officers and those that have gone before us have a wealth of knowledge on tactics. They have been there and know where the sinkholes are. Only by learning what has been done before can we keep from making the same mistakes over again. We have the forums. Once again it is time for us to read, think, speak and write about tactics.

The greater navy community is trying to figure out how to “get through” to a new generation of Naval Officers. Senior Naval Officers have misinterpreted a lack of new membership at USNI as a lack of desire by young officers to be a part of the conversation when the opposite is true. The rise in sites such as “Sailorbob” is evidence of this. We want to have an impact in the conversation. Senior and retired officers that I have talked to also want us to be involved. Now both sides need to find a middle ground where both sides can communicate.

There are a few myths that I would like to first dispel. We, the millennial naval officers, are in fact proud members of the community. We have many similar stories and experiences. We have deployed to the same places and have enjoyed leading sailors. We still like having a cigar on the bridge wing at sunset, we still enjoy watching a rooster tail shoot up from the back of a Destroyer and we still drink coffee to get through a long watches in CIC. However, there is one large difference. We communicate differently. The Naval Institute is asking the hard questions of why their membership is aging and the younger officers are not joining in droves as they have in the past. The answer is that there is a communication divide which has to be actively addressed. Social media and blogging sites are how our generation communicates. We are less likely to develop our ideas for a magazine where it will take two or three months to see print when we can blog it and see feedback within hours, if not minutes. The Naval Institute Blog is a great step but it needs to go further. I see two avenues that can be addressed: Wardroom Discussion pieces, and Junior Officer advancement.

First of all, direct communication with ships in the fleet about what issues and concerns are facing them in real time is how you become relevant again. The Institute should be trying to drive the Wardroom conversations like they once did. Technological advances in communication should be seen as a step up instead of a step back. Ships can now have two-way communication, while at sea, with USNI. If a controversial issue is in Proceedings, there should be a call out to ships to have wardroom conversations on the piece and provide feedback on the website. A CO should drive this wardroom conversation and be proud to have the points that were raised posted under the ship’s name on the USNI website. I think that senior officers might be surprised at the results that they get back. Who knows, they might hear something new.

Secondly, while JO’s are trying to get qualified they are constantly in need of professional information. “Message to Garcia” tasking comes to mind. The Institute needs to ensure that the USNI website is the place that JO’s turn to for this information. Once JO’s see the Naval Institute as a resource that they can use, they will also see it as something that they want to contribute to. This will drive participation in the Blog as well as the magazines.

The Naval Institute is vital to the future of the professional dialog within the navy. The millennial generation of Naval Officers wants to be a part of this dialog, and already is in its own way. The goal of the Naval Institute should be to ensure that the dialog is happening in their forums.

LT Rob McFall is a Surface Warfare Officer that spent four years on USS WINSTON S. CHURCHILL out of Norfolk, VA. He is currently stationed in Washington D.C. and is a member of the U.S. Naval Institute and the Next Generation of National Security Leaders at the Center for a New American Security.

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