Archive for the 'Strategy' Category
As I started the week with a Hendrix Renaissance Festival over at the homeblog, I’ve since read a few things that hit back on a core concept of “Influence Squadrons,” and I thought it was time to bring the topic back up over here.
Much of the discussion of the economy of “good” vs. the exquisite vapor of the “perfect” involved our surface force. There is more to global engagement than just coming from the sea, and that is why this quote from our friends at ThinkDefence popped out at me;
Although the RAF conducts defence engagement activity with many nations and like the other services, has many nations wanting to come to the UK for training, the complexity of the RAF’s basic equipment does have a limiting effect on the types of defence engagement activity it can carry out.
For many years the gulf between modern Western combat aircraft and those of less developed nations has grown ever wider.
Aircraft like the Typhoon or even F-16 are enormously expensive to purchase and operate and need a developed engineering and training infrastructure that is simply unattainable for most, especially those likely to benefit most from even basic air power components such as logistics and ISTAR.
One of our guest authors has previously chronicled the complete waste of money and almost total failure of ISAF’s efforts to create an Afghanistan air force but in Iraq, the US had much more success. In Iraq, they started with simple equipment and worked up to the F-16’s they are now flying. The Iraqi forces had the advantage that they could read and write and that they had used complex aircraft before, but by starting with aircraft like the Cessna Combat Caravan they achieved a workable, sustainable and effective capability without breaking the bank or it collapsing under the weight of its own complexity.
Accepting the extensive and excellent work carried out by the RAF with NATO partners and other advanced air forces this is a proposal to extend that down the technology ladder for less advanced air forces, especially those in Africa and some parts of the Middle East.
Building on the activities that are currently carried out.
If as a nation we are at all serious about preventing conflict then we must include the benefits of ‘air-power’ and invest in capabilities accordingly.
He is, of course, talking well inside the lifelines of the “Influence Squadrons” concept, but on the air side of the house.
The quote above is only a very small bit of an extensive and in depth investigation by ThinkDefence. Though focused on the UK/RAF possibilities, it is almost perfectly scalable to any USA effort that might be made along the same lines.
I highly encourage you to read it all.
While you are reading it I would like you to consider this; when matched with a naval “Influence Squadron” and partnering efforts our Army and Marines are already good at – this is really a Joint concept. Execute all at one time in one country?
That is powerful.
By Mark Tempest
Please join us at 5pm EST on 8 Jan 2017 for Midrats Episode 366: Is it Time for a General Staff?.
The 1980s might be getting some of its foreign policy back – but why is our entire defense framework in the second-half of the second decade of the 21st Century based around ideas forged when the Chrysler K-car was still a young platform?
Is our present system creating the conditions for our uniformed senior leadership to forge the best path for our military to support national security requirements?
Our guest for the full hour is returning to Midrats to discuss this and more; M.L. Cavanaugh.
Matt and is a US Army Strategist with global experience in assignments ranging from
the Pentagon to Korea and Iraq to his current post at US Army Space and Missile Defense Command. He’s a Non Resident Fellow with the Modern War Institute (MWI) at West Point, where he provides regular commentary and analysis. He’s also a contributor to War on the Rocks, and Matt’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, the Chicago Tribune, and at ForeignPolicy.com, among other publications. After graduating from West Point in 2002, he earned his Master’s degree at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, and is currently at work on a PhD dissertation on supreme command under Professor Emeritus Colin Gray at the University of Reading (UK). You can find more on Matt at MLCavanaugh.com and he can be reached via Twitter @MLCavanaugh.
Join us live if you can by clicking here. If you can’t join us live, you can also download or listen to the show by clicking on that same link or by going to our iTunes page or from our Stitcher page.
As we work our nogg’n’s to find a reasonable path to a realistic and sustainable fleet of 350 ships – do we need to look at the challenge a bit differently than our habit of throwing bags of IOU’s in our children’s name at it?
Matt Cavanaugh over at MWI has a fun bit about of all things, men’s shaving kit and what it can tell us about Russia vs. the USA – and how we buy the ability to force our will on others.
A sample. Stick with it;
In America, the most commonly used instrument is a plastic-handled, multi-bladed cartridge (usually three to five blades lashed together), which typically costs $3-5 per cartridge (though some lower-cost options are emerging—Harry’s, for example, are $2 each). The estimated lifetime cost of a daily shave for multi-bladed cartridges ranges from $7,000 for a Gillette Sensor3 to $22,000 for a Gillette Fusion ProShield (not including shaving cream!).
Russians and eastern Europeans, on the other hand, shave differently. In that part of the world, common usage is a steel-handled safety razor, designed to lock a single blade with two sides/edges into place—which is about a dime per blade. Estimated lifetime cost: $400.
Embarrassing, but enlightening. In this context, what a waste of capital – and are we really that much more smoothly shaved?
What would it be like to retrograde? What can a simple shave tell us about how we build our fleet of Sailors and ships?
So I bought a safety razor and have used it for the past six months … My observations: it’s not quite as good as a four- or five-bladed cartridge, and I did get a little bloody in transition, mostly owing to adjusting from a movable head to an inflexible steel variant. But the safety razor is at least 90 percent as good at 2–5 percent of the price. Put another way, I dropped 10 percent in performance to save 95–98 percent of the cost. That’s quite a bargain.
Let that set in. Now, think about what you have read about Russia’s economy, her military, her capability. Now, think again about shaving.
How does this translate?
…the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (48 percent over budget on a program already planned to cost hundreds of billions of dollars), the DDG-51 guided missile destroyer (619 percent over on a hundred-billion-dollar-plus program), and the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft (44 percent over on a roughly sixty-billion-dollar program). [Note: figures cited in print and not digital edition.] But also recently, the New York Times published a massive cover story on Russian cyber efforts, calling it a “low-cost, high-impact weapon. … For Russia, with an enfeebled economy and a nuclear arsenal it cannot use short of an all-out war, cyberpower proved to be the perfect weapon: cheap, hard to see coming, hard to trace.” Even if contrasting these capabilities is apples to giraffes—the American/Russian strategic spending gap is noteworthy.
For each billion dollars increase in the Russian defense budget – how much more bang do they get compared to each billion of US defense spending?
Do you like the performance of the Russian corvettes in the Caspian and Mediterranean Seas? Do you, like me, sigh with longing at the SU-34?
As our good friend Jerry put it many moons ago; should we “Buy Fords, Not Ferraris?”
As Matt ended his article;
And as war inputs do not necessarily equal outputs, high investments will not guarantee optimal outcomes. From time to time, particularly in conflicts that appear to feature longer time frames, Americans could seek out simpler, less expensive options for strategic sustainability’s sake.
As with the Merkur handle, there is a shiny, silver-plated lining to this culture contrast: Americans willing to fight through the weight of cultural bias might acquire new tools for strategic success by appreciating the virtues of value and waging war on the cheap.
Please join us at 5pm EST on 18 Dec 2016 for Midrats Episode 363: The South African Border War and its Lessons, with LT Jack McCain
If you define the Cold War as lasting 44 years from 1947 to 1991, then
for over half the Cold War there was a simmering proxy war in southern Africa that involved, to one extent or another, the present day nations of Angola, Namibia, Zambia, and South Africa.
Over the course of time, it would involve nations from other hemispheres such as Cuba, and brought in to conflict two political philosophies of the 20th Century now held in disrepute in the 21st Century; Communism and Apartheid.
The last decade of the Cold War brought the conflict in fresh relief as part of the Reagan administration’s push back against Communist aggression in South Africa, Central America, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Acronyms such as UNITA, and SWAPO were as well known then as AQAP and Boko Haram are now.
What does that relatively unknown conflict have to teach us about the nature of war today?
Our guest for the full hour to explore that answer will be Lieutenant Jack McCain, USN.
LT McCain is a helicopter pilot with operational experience in Guam, Japan, Brunei, the Persian Gulf, and the Western Pacific and is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy and Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He is currently assigned as an instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy.
The opinions he expresses are his own and represent no U.S. government or Department of Defense positions.
Please join us at 5pm EST on 4 December 2016 for Midrats Episode 361: Where Youth and Laughter Go; With “The Cutting Edge” in Afghanistan
For the full hour this Sunday our guest will be Lieutenant Colonel Seth W. B. Folsom, USMC the author of Where Youth and Laughter Go. Described by USNI Books:
Where Youth and Laughter Go completes LtCol Seth Folsom’s recounting of his personal experiences in command over a decade of war. It is the culminating chapter of a trilogy that began with The Highway War: A Marine Company Commander in Iraq in 2006 and continued with In the Gray Area: A Marine Advisor Team at War in 2010.
The chronicle of Folsom’s command of 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, “The Cutting Edge,” and his harrowing deployment to Afghanistan’s volatile Sangin District presents a deeper look into the complexities and perils of modern counterinsurgency operations in America’s longest war.
We will discuss not just his latest book, but also larger issues related to command, the nature of the war in Afghanistan, and the Long War.
Please join us live if you can or pick the show up later by clicking here.
OK, there isn’t a “21st Century Thucydides” coming out as part of the exceptional USNI Press 21st Century Foundations series, but work with me a bit here.
If we are going to review the great minds of the 19th and 20th Centuries, then why not from the 400s BC? The Peloponnesian War lasted 30 years. We are 15 years in to a low degree but still very real war against expansionist Islamic fundamentalism and rising powers to the left and right of us. There has to be something there.
Why look at what happened between two city-states at the dawn of Western history? Take awhile to read Mark Gilchrist’s article at RCD, Why Thucydides Still Matters;
Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War is a book that all who seek to understand the influence of war must read.
…reading The Peloponnesian War we come to realise the complexities of modern life have not rendered everything experienced by past generations irrelevant to the problems of today. In fact, as he intended, Thucydides provides a sound basis from which to discover how best to approach the complex problems facing contemporary strategists through allowing us to better understand war’s continuities and discontinuities.
Thucydides charts the impact of war on the character of the states involved. He uses Athens’ transformation as a cautionary tale about what war will do to a state unprepared for its influence and of the cost of applying power unwisely or unjustly in the pursuit of a political objective. His writing is grounded in the understanding that war’s nature is inextricably linked to human nature, which in turn shapes the strategic and military culture that manifest in war’s character and the political objectives for which it is fought. Through a narrative approach, his work serves as a warning about the moral decline of society over the course of protracted war.
As we try to understand today why Russia does what it does, why China is motivated to push where she is pushing, it is helpful to recall that human nature, at its base, has not changed for thousands of years;
Thucydides tells us there is a tipping point where a rising power becomes too powerful to contain. By this point, conflict between near equals may present as an inevitability, particularly when junior allies are agitating for action from the dominant partner. In such circumstances, war’s political objective can be heavily influenced by fearing the costs of not going to war as much as a fear of war itself.
About 2/3 of the way through Gilchrist’s article, I was reminded of another one on Thucydides I read over a decade ago by one of the premier classicists of our day, Professor Victor Davis Hanson, in his 2003 review in Commentary Magazine of Donald Kagan’s book, The Peloponnesian War.
As he is want to do, Hanson uses every opportunity to grab his reader by the lapels and plead with them to know that the keys to the unlocking all their questions are there, and have been for thousands of years.
The Peloponnesian War, then, is not really so ancient. Even if some classicists think that Athens’s war with Sparta was relatively uninteresting, outsiders still write books with titles like War and Democracy: A Comparative Study of the Korean War and the Peloponnesian War or Hegemonic Rivalry: From Thucydides to the Nuclear Age. The conflict continues to be evoked in the present—its supposed lessons both astutely and clumsily applied to most of our own wars of the last century.
Why is this ancient war between tiny Athens and Sparta still so often used and misused? First, it was long—twenty-seven years—and it lined up the entire Greek world into opposite armed camps. Second, the two antagonists were antithetical in nearly every respect, and thus the bipolar fighting was proclaimed to be a final arbiter of their respective values—political and cultural values that still divide us today. Third, it started in Greece’s great Golden Age, and its attendant calamity was felt to have ended for good that period of great promise. Fourth, players in the war were the greats of Hellenic civilization—Socrates, Pericles, Euripides, Alcibiades, Sophocles, Aristophanes, and others—and their lives and work reflect that seminal experience. Fifth, Athens lost, casting into doubt ever since not merely the power but also the morality of democracy, especially when it executed Socrates in the war’s aftermath. Sixth—and at last we arrive at the theme of the Oxford Classical Dictionary’s brief entry on the war—Greece’s preeminent historian, Thucydides, was not merely an analytical and systematic writer of a great extant history; he was also a brilliant philosopher who tried to lend to the events of the war a value that transcended his own time, making his history of ideas “a possession for all time” that could furnish lessons for men at war in any age. Thucydides’ man of the ages is a pretty savage creature whose known murderous proclivities are kept in check—albeit just barely—by an often tenuous and hard-to-maintain civilization.
During moments of big change – and we are about to go through one in the course of the next few months – many will wonder; what is coming next? What should we look for? What have others done?
To see the future, you have to be comfortable with and acceptable of the past.
Most wars, of course, do not end like they start. Before Shiloh (April 6–8, 1862), for example, Grant thought one great battle would win the Civil War. After the battle he realized that years, thousands of lives, and millions of dollars in capital were needed to ruin rather than defeat a recalcitrant Confederacy. So too the Spartans marched into Attica in Spring 431 BC thinking that a year or two of old-style ravaging of fields would bring them victory; seven years later neither side was closer to victory, and they still had another twenty far-worse seasons to go.
The Peloponnesian War itself proved to be a colossal paradox. Sparta had the most feared infantry in the Greek world. Yet it was Sparta’s newly created navy that finally won the great battles of the war. Democratic Athens sent almost 40,000 allied soldiers to their deaths trying to capture far-off Syracuse, the largest democracy in the Greek world—even as thousands more of her enemies were to plunder her property with impunity less than twenty miles outside her walls from the base at Decelea. Alcibiades at times proved the savior of Athens, Sparta, and Persia—and their collective spoiler as well. Athens started the war off with gold piled high in its majestic Parthenon; it ended the conflict broke and unable even to flute the final columns of the Propylae, the monumental gateway to the still unfinished temples on the acropolis. Sparta fielded the most terrifying army in Greece, and yet most of its opponents fell not in pitched battle, but rather either to disease, at sea, or in guerrilla-style killing.
So, get to the bookshelf. Put down the fiction and reach deep.
Others have been here before. They’ve learned lessons you didn’t even know existed. All you need to gather this treasure of knowledge is time to read and open eyes to see.
Kagan’s abridged Peloponnesian War is still important because the solid judgment of its author remains throughout. No one—not a majestic Pericles, a fiery Cleon, or the chameleon Alcibiades—can fool Don Kagan; he appreciates the genius of bad men he does not like, and praises the inspiration of rogues he despises. Bad plans like Sicily can work if implemented well; good ideas of good men failed in the Delium campaign for bad luck and the simple want of common sense. Things about radical Athens bother him, but not to such a degree that he denies its energy and dynamism. He admires Spartan discipline, but hardly the blinkered society that was at the bottom of it all. If democracy was often murderous, oligarchy and tyranny brought the same violence but without the grandeur.
Finally and most importantly, Kagan has no condescension for his subjects. Cleon and Brasidas, Nicias and Lysander are not silly squabbling ancient peoples in need of modern enlightenment, but men of universal appetites to be taken on their own terms, just like us whose occasional crackpot ideas, fears, jealousies, and sins can sometimes—if the thin veneer of civilization is suddenly stripped away—lead into something absolutely godawful. If you don’t agree, ask the Serbians, Rwandans, Afghans—or those with cell phones and briefcases who politely boarded planes to butcher thousands.
Nothing is new; only new to you.
Please join us at 5pm EST on 20 Nov 2016 for Midrats Episode 359: A Foreign Policy Short List for the New CINC, with Mackenzie Eaglen:
Old foreign and defense challenges return, new ones emerge, and existing ones morph in
to something slightly different. The only thing that is constant is that there is no opportunity for a learning curve for the Commander in Chief of the United States of America. From the first day in office to the last, a needy, grasping, and unstable world will look to or at our nation.
What are those challenges that will test President-Elect Trump in his first few years in office, and what in the background is waiting for the opportunity to spring to the front?
Our guest for the full hour will be Mackenzie Eaglen, Resident Fellow at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute where she works on defense strategy, defense budgets, and military readiness.
Eaglen has worked on defense issues in the House of Representatives and Senate and at the Pentagon in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and on the Joint Staff. In 2014, Eaglen served as a staff member of the congressionally mandated National Defense Panel, a bipartisan, blue-ribbon commission established to assess US defense interests and strategic objectives. This followed Eaglen’s previous work as a staff member for the 2010 congressionally mandated bipartisan Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel, also established to assess the Pentagon’s major defense strategy. Eaglen is included in Defense News “100 most influential people in US Defense” both years the publication compiled a list. A prolific writer on defense-related issues, she has also testified before Congress.
Eaglen has an M.A. from the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a B.A. from Mercer University.mac
Please join us on at 5pm EST on 13 Nov 2016 for Midrats Episode 568: Seapower as a National Imperative, with Bryan McGrath:
Why a Navy? Why a strong Navy? Why is a strong Navy an essential
requirement for the United States Navy?
From its ability to project national will, to it hidden hand in the economics of every citizen’s life, why is it so critical that we have a Navy second to none.
To discuss this and more – especially in light of the election – will be returning guest, Bryan McGrath, Commander, US Navy (Retired).
Bryan McGrath grew up in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, and graduated from the University of Virginia in 1987. He was commissioned upon graduation in the United States Navy, and served as a Surface Warfare Officer until his retirement in 2008. At sea, he served primarily in cruisers and destroyers, rising to command of the Destroyer USS BULKELEY (DDG 84). During his command tour, he won the Surface Navy Association’s Admiral Elmo Zumwalt Award for Inspirational Leadership, and the BULKELEY was awarded the USS ARIZONA Memorial Trophy signifying the fleet’s most combat ready unit. Ashore, Bryan enjoyed four tours in Washington DC, including his final tour in which he acted as Team Leader and primary author of our nation’s 2007 maritime strategy entitled “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower.”
Since retirement, Bryan has become active in presidential politics, serving first as the Navy Policy Team lead for the Romney Campaign in 2012, and then as the Navy and Marine Corps Policy lead for the Rubio Campaign in 2016.
He is the Assistant Director of Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower, and he is the Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group LLC, a small defense consulting firm.
“Why are we here?” As leaders, this is one of the most difficult questions to wrestle with. Every person wants to know the why behind the orders they both give and receive. Every person wants to have a purpose. We all want to know that our actions matter. It is a challenging question to answer, though, because we are in a complicated business in a complicated world and because our country, our leadership and our culture – focused on trade over profession – have allowed us to wander astray.
Why are we here? In the simplest terms, members of the military exist to defend our country. In the words of so many commanding officers, we exist to bring immediate, sustained, and overwhelming combat power in pursuit of national objectives. On a Navy deployment, more often than not, we exist for the sake of deterrence. Ask one of our junior Sailors, and you are likely to hear an earnest “I’m here to fix the engines” or “I’m here to work on the radar”: in other words, “I’m here to conduct maintenance.”
After September 11th, the country – including the military – got caught up in a patriotic fervor. The answer to “why are we here?” became “to kill terrorists.” In the wake of such a horrific event, that answer made sense. But, after 15 years – 11 for me – it has started to ring hollow.
Why are we here? To kill terrorists? To what end?
Why are we here? To deter Syria, Russia, Iran, ISIS, al-Qaeda, China, and North Korea? To what end?
Why are we here? To train the Iraqi Navy? To what end?
Why are we here? To conduct sparse and hugely restrained counter-piracy operations? To what end?
Why are we here? To win hearts and minds? To what end?
Why are we here? What is the role of today’s U.S. Military? Is it to defend our shores? Is it to defend our allies? Is it to pick fights or exercise hard diplomacy? This is not a new question for most. I do not discount the answer many troops give – that we are here for each other. I feel that too. It is the deepest and most meaningful answer to the question. Far too often though, the nature of our jobs causes us to focus inwardly – we lose sight of our greater obligation to our fellow citizens. Recently, three events made me think more acutely about how we define what it is we do, why what we do matters, and how, or if, our actions connect us to the American people we theoretically serve.
Why are we here? My ship just returned from a Theater Security Cooperation and deterrence-driven deployment. I came aboard during the last two months. It is not common to get into deep discussions with your Sailors about our greater purpose, but it should be. As leaders, we could be better about this. I could be better. No doubt that our Sailors would be more motivated if they were consistently briefed about the impact of their daily actions. But more often than not, the answer is a challenging one to translate, if apparent at all. “We are here to keep the Chinese at bay – to challenge their excessive claims and to defend our allies – so let’s grind down that rust!” One way or another, I think that they felt their purpose was to be on deployment. While this bland answer works in the short term, it lacks clarity. It is void of emotion. It leaves most Sailors feeling empty and less invested in the effort. A few weeks ago, the chain of command was discussing yet another non-judicial punishment case, and the theory was floated that our high post-deployment operational tempo – a tempo with dubious greater purpose marked by aggravating weeks at sea supporting the training of other units – was the root cause for many of the disciplinary cases we were witnessing. It was not an earth-shattering observation. The cycle our Sailors and troops in every service know is: train for deployment, be on deployment, and be not on deployment, with very little time – or active leadership – spent on why. I struggle with this challenge no matter where I find myself in the cycle. When addressing my Sailors, I revert to the “we are here for each other” purpose. It is not cliché, but I crave more substance in the answer. I know they do, as well.
Why are we here? In early October, an organization, likely Houthi rebels, shot several cruise missiles into the Red Sea at a good friend of mine. At his shipmates. At their ship. At America. The ship performed brilliantly, defending themselves and their fellow ships from imminent harm. This was notable for a variety of reasons. To the media, it was the first time a U.S. Navy ship had been shot at by cruise missiles since the Stark. To the Surface Fleet, it showed that the long-deployed but previously combat un-tested Aegis Combat System worked. To Surface Warfare Officers, who train their entire careers for this exact – but previously somewhat far-fetched – scenario, it proved that the training paid off. To me, it meant that my friend was still alive. In this instance, they were there for each other. But before they were shot at, why were they there? For deterrence and to keep sea lines of communication open? Maybe. But to what end? While both are important missions, some call this “being the world’s policeman.” Is that why we are here, and if so, why are we so reluctant to say so?
Why are we here? Our ship was recently at one of this nation’s Fleet Weeks; a rare opportunity to interact with the public we are so often distanced from and a chance to show tax payers and visitors alike what our ships – and our Sailors – have to offer. As the first day’s duty officer, I was impressed to see thousands of people queue up for a two-plus hour wait to spend ten minutes touring the ship. During one of my trips to visit the people waiting in line, I found myself sharing stories with strangers, having my picture taken with them, and smiling pleasantly. Suddenly, a loud voice boomed behind all of us. A young man stood 15 feet away on top of a retaining wall with a small microphone and began to preach. Loudly. Passionately. And, depending on your personal views, a bit controversially. He was smartly dressed, was non-threatening and had no semblance of mental or social issues. People began to stare. They watched intently as security showed up and crowded the man who now preached in bursts interrupted by their polite requests for him to leave and his polite requests to be left alone. Visitors and Sailors alike watched this unfold. The police were mentioned several times. Neither the man nor the security guards were acting inappropriately. Adjacent to a Navy event with dozens of Sailors in uniform interacting with the public, though, the situation quickly became awkward and it seemed that the property owners were intervening on the Navy’s behalf. While I was personally concerned about the man’s rights, I was even more worried about the CNN Factor – the negative image of on-looking service members watching a man’s rights being infringed upon while surrounded by the public we serve.
I went over for a discreet chat. I asked the owners and the guards to let the man speak. Hoping that I was right, I informed them that the Navy did not have a problem with his presence. And finally, I reminded the owners and the guards that, ultimately, this is why we are here. They kindly agreed and went about doing their jobs. Afterwards, I shook the man’s hand, asked that he not threaten anyone and mentioned that the Navy and the city were glad to have him. He was genuinely thankful… and then promptly went back to his fire and brimstone. Nobody was in the wrong. Everyone acted professionally and in good faith. As I walked away to deal with the next challenge, I wondered, is this why we are here? So that people can say objectionable things or vote for objectionable people without fear of civil or military uniforms hauling them away? While it might seem obvious, it was the first and only such experience of my career and the closest I had ever felt to finding the answer.
Why are we here? We are indeed here to defend the country, to kill bad guys, for deterrence, and for cooperation with our allies. Hopefully, though, we are ultimately here to ensure the American Way remains intact. But it remains a tough question to answer. An even tougher answer to quantify. And ultimately, it leads to an often perplexing existence for the nation’s service members. Our military is incredibly important. I know this to be true. I am fully on-board. As leaders, though, I think we can do a better job of laying a foundation – of answering the question: Why are we here?
It starts at the top – with our national leaders who dictate where we go and what we do. Sending us to fight un-ending battles – wars without defined objectives – causes us to wonder. It trickles down to our service and community leaders. Ordering us to focus on everything but war fighting – when re-learning basic social skills is more important than how to shoot straight – causes us to wonder. Finally, it ends with us. Focusing on showing up to your job – one with an often unpleasant life attached – vice investing in a profession, inevitably causes us to wonder. We need clear actions and regular discussions. Our national leaders must use us judiciously and vocalize their intent. Our service and community leaders must ensure our laser-like focus on the mission, vice the minutiae. We must serve with purpose and communicate effectively with each other and our troops – we are here for each other, but more importantly, we are here for the American People! Why are we here? It is an important question in critical need of a well-defined answer. As professional war fighters of varying services, specialties, and experiences, we should never lose sight of this question, nor its dynamic answer, lest we become lost in our own existence, deploying simply because it is time to deploy or fighting because… what else are we supposed to do?
Last week, the Navy’s top leadership announced the swift transition from traditional rates to alphanumeric Navy Occupational Specialty (NOS) codes. In the matter of a three minutes and thirty-four second video, over two-hundred years of U.S. Navy Ratings – and traditions – were history. Gone. Finished. Dead. Never-to-be-talked-about-again.
But not so fast, everyone. Just minutes after the release of NAVADMIN 218/16, Facebook and social media seemingly deteriorated into a bomb box of antipathy, false equivalencies, and irreverent commentary. Public manifestos protesting the continued tyranny of Secretary Mabus’s tenure inundated message boards and status updates. Nuclear meme proliferation.
To be fair, the observed reaction among the force has ranged from tranquil ambivalence to outright hostile rejection. In typical hyperbolic fashion, the Navy Times pounced on the announcement and labeled it “the most radical personnel overhaul in a generation.” Not to be outdone, the San Diego Union Tribune called it a “tsunami of a cultural shift.” Duffel Blog headlined their page with a satirical news story entitled, “Ray Mabus Admits he Just Hates the Navy,” which like most articles attacking SECNAV resort to the usual talking points: he likes to give women a fair shot, he names ships after civilian heroes and leaders, and he doesn’t play very well with Marines.
The announcement dissolving Ratings is not an epochal policy change. It’s a tweak in syntax to ensure the personnel structure is securely in place for the future Navy. Bigger, more imperative changes have already been instituted over the last decade. Every specialty is open to women; gays can serve openly; maternity and paternity leave is guaranteed; and men and women can come to work without fear of sexual harassment or assault. These types of policies took generations of political will to develop and bring to the force, then were implemented and executed by all of us in a short period of time, sometimes despite initial and widspread resistance. Evidence clearly suggests that the aforementioned personnel changes have enhanced us as a fighting force.
Notwithstanding our increasingly connected Navy, it almost seems like Sailors are more self-compartmentalized than ever. Exhibit A is our rating system. Purely designed to categorize people based off professional skill sets, the Rating system mysteriously became a means of singular identity. Although each rate is exceptional (because each sailor is exceptional), perhaps the “Subject Matter Expert” exceptionalism spurred beyond its intended tactical structure and self mutated into hyper-compartmentalized hues of Rate camaraderie. Over time, some sailors identified themselves more according to their Rate as opposed to their service.
Therefore, beyond the minutia of personnel policy, a broader question has clearly emerged. How is it that our sailors identify more with their job title than the credos of a Sailor? Or, better yet, why such a languid and tepid response to something so clearly beneficial to enlisted sailors for the sake of the benign and often mischaracterized zeitgeist that comes with terms like “tradition?”
Change is hard in an organization, especially when our organization has a predisposition to divide forces into ranks and rates and rules and flow charts. So embedded are our social traditions in the military orthodoxy that even the slightest of changes seem to throw earth off its axis. And to be clear, this policy will result in tangible improvements for everybody in nearly every quantifiable category. With promotion rates in particular rates stagnant, good sailors will be get to stay in, learn new skills, and continue a rewarding career. Shore Duty billets previously reserved for specific ratings can open up to more sailors, thereby placing even more emphasis on performance at sea. Sailors who earn new skills stand to be offered incentives in the form of increased monetary compensation or other substantial benefits.
In other words, the playing field will continue to level out and provide hard-working sailors the opportunity they deserve.
The second order effects are also clear.
- The system will tap into the brilliance of our sailors, allowing for ideas and best practices studied in a different NOS to be applied in new ways and in new fields.
- If properly managed, critical NEC’s can be adequately covered despite an unforeseen personnel loss.
- In the age of autonomous airplanes, unmanned underwater submarines, and sophisticated computer networks, the revised system will naturally find new jobs for sailors displaced by technological improvements throughout the force.
As most of us know, an organization glued to tradition is an organization drifting off course and not innovating.
I confess that I have never wore an enlisted uniform, so my nondescript commentary should be rebuffed with enlisted perspectives, but I must admit, I have found it is interesting to watch people fill the void of change with the call of action to go back to a system so unprepared for the future force. Rather than quibble, we should focus our effort by demanding transparency in the Navy’s new policy so we can all adequately craft the future force.
Under Mabus’s leadership, our personnel changes have occurred with admirable swiftness and efficiency. But we should be clear about the dissolvent of the Rating system. This is not a change. It’s merely a data-driven adjustment to ensure our personnel system is aligned to meet the demand of the 21st Century. Our sailors deserve more opportunity, more flexibility, and more options, even if they choose to get out.
As we transition out of a Navy that once relied on sheer manpower with adequate supervision to a Navy that cherishes specific, individual skill sets, our force structure must change. So before we sign on to more petitions and lay waste to social media, perhaps we can let ideas breath and allow everyone to absorb a new innovation and consider its broader implications.
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