War is a Learning Competition: How a Culture of Debrief Can Improve Multi-Domain Operations

The following article originally published on Over the Horizon and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Tim “Diesel” Causey

Executive Summary

The Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) community continues to evolve and progress. MDO is, and will be the fundamental enabler for Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) and the way our nation fights future wars. As the maturing community integrates new concepts and processes, Multi-Domain Operators must identify and engrain the valuable lessons along the way. Creating a set of standards to capture feedback and drive improvement is vital for development in any organization. The debrief culture of the U.S. Air Force fighter community, among others, is well-known for its direct, highly effective feedback and learning methods. This type of focused feedback is important to the fighter community because the debrief is where the majority of learning takes place. The MDO community would benefit greatly by utilizing this debrief culture as a model from which to develop its own unique culture of consistent, iterative improvement. Because a standard day, or sortie-equivalent, is not yet fully fleshed out for Multi-Domain Operators, the purpose of this paper is to convey the necessity for debriefing lessons learned, and provide best practices in their current form. The ultimate objective is to create a foundation for the MDO community to adapt these practices as the details and nuance of its daily execution become more specific and clear.


War is a learning competition; therefore professional learning—continuing education—is fundamental to winning wars. As the international strategic environment becomes increasingly complex, the Department of Defense (DoD) must synchronize efforts across domains to maintain its advantage. Achieving this goal requires planning and executing strategic response options utilizing a Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) framework. To become the world-leading standard in this complex environment, the MDO community must develop efficiencies to respond and innovate more rapidly and effectively. The first step to enable this advancement is instilling a culture of debrief, direct feedback, and constructive learning within the MDO community.

Many communities across the United States Air Force (USAF) embrace a debrief culture, though some have unique formats and standards to tailor learning to respective needs. The debrief is designed to focus analysis on either the accomplishment or failure to accomplish desired learning objectives (DLOs) and/or mission objectives. Mission objectives drive the planning or execution items that must be accomplished to be successful and therefore expose the areas of individual, crew, or team performance that must be addressed to correct for future iterations. Regardless of distinctive design, any effective debrief identifies errors and provides fixes for those errors, while also allowing those who did not directly commit a given error the advantage of learning from others’ mistakes. Since there is not enough time for each operator to make all the mistakes, this type of learning creates efficiency by reducing repetitive errors across the group that is present for a given debrief. Now, multiply this effect across entire communities.

The fighter aviation community has refined its debrief process over several decades; it is fundamental to fighter culture. Any organization can utilize fighter debrief concepts as a reference—or even baseline—to develop its own culture of debrief. Being composed of personnel from many different career fields and backgrounds, the MDO community must be deliberate about, and dedicated to, the development of appropriate debrief formats and standards. Since the MDO process is still early in its development, it is critical to build the foundation of this debrief culture in the Multi-Domain Warfare Officer schoolhouse (known as 13O/13Oscar schoolhouse) and Air Command and Staff College’s Multi-Domain Operational Strategist (MDOS) concentration (soon to become JADS – Joint All-Domain Strategists). One way to achieve this is for the 13O schoolhouse and MDOS to leverage the proven fighter debrief process in establishing an MDO debrief methodology. This can inform the MDO community’s initial, essential steps in developing a format and standards for efficient and effective feedback.

Fighter Debrief Culture

To understand fighter debrief culture in a way that helps the MDO community relate it to the eventual structure of an MDO day, or an MDO mission, it is important to describe that fighter culture in its native context. Debrief has always been an important part of fighter aviation culture, facilitating honest and direct feedback on every mission element. As Combat Air Force (CAF) flying hours continue to decrease, debrief has become even more important to ensuring everyone receives required training. Additionally, work-life balance and operations tempo require debriefs to be direct and succinct, due to the limited time available after mission planning, briefing, and flying the mission. By the time the debrief starts, aircrew likely have already been at work for a full day.

To maintain focus and aid efficiency, debriefers commonly use the mantra “Plan, Products, Brief, Administration, Tactical Admin, and Execution” to address all portions of the mission. At the beginning of the debrief, it is helpful to keep sections like “Brief” as simple as possible by asking, “was there anything from the brief negatively affecting your execution today or that you have questions on?” Directing this question to the room allows the debriefer to quickly address pre-execution issues, and then move to the mission itself. However, the brief may have negatively affected execution in a way that remains to be determined in debrief, so it should also be considered during the debrief focus point (DFP) development. Utilizing this debrief structure, the debriefer quickly addresses issues in each pre- and post-execution section with the flight participants until arriving at mission execution. Mission execution review is designed to focus the debrief so each person can improve for the next mission. This does not mean each person gets individually debriefed, but rather that those who made errors most impactful to mission success or failure have those errors identified and corrected in a way everyone can learn from them. All participants should leave understanding how to better execute the mission. The succinct, direct nature of fighter debrief is equally applicable to the MDO community.

An additional key to ensuring efficient and effective debrief is withholding personal feelings and ensuring rank does not impede instruction for correctable mistakes. Debrief attendees should behave professionally, and critiques of execution should not be personal in nature, nor taken personally by flight participants. Aircrew must avoid defensive attitudes and cannot make excuses for poor performance. To this end, mission reconstruction should focus on facts, so instructional fixes can be objective corrections to demonstrated errors. If crews take debrief points personally, or if pride stands in the way of learning, valuable lessons are lost. The person running the debrief sets rules of engagement (ROE), which are designed to help avoid hurt feelings and pride issues. ROE can vary depending on the squadron and the person in charge of the debrief. Below is an example of debrief ROE, developed over several years of flying fighter aircraft. Although not all-inclusive, it provides a good starting point.

Different communities have passed down similar rules throughout the years, and everyone has their favorite—or most important—rule. Another helpful source is an article written for the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG’s) corps by Major Mark Perry (an F-15C pilot) and Major Benjamin Martin (a JAG officer). Their five key rules offer great insight into a portion of the debrief process. They lay an initial foundation that helps underpin the essence of the debrief: an investigation into the errors made. The overall goal is to show the facts of what occurred in order to ascertain, prove, and teach the fix (i.e., a “lesson learned”) for everyone to internalize from the debrief. This type of debrief is only possible in the limited time available if everyone is honest about mistakes and is ready to learn.

Another critical facet to making this type of debrief possible is careful selection of who runs each debrief. It is important to develop a community standard. As a general rule, whoever established the desired learning objectives (DLOs) which drive the mission objectives should run the debrief. This is usually the same person who prepared the mission and gave the briefing. Ideally this is an instructor, unless someone is being upgraded, but it does not have to be. Especially important is the maxim that rank has nothing to do with who runs the debrief. The squadron commander—or the wing commander—may be in the formation, but the day’s lead or instructor is the most appropriate to lead assessment of facts and fixes. In that same vein, there is no rank in the debrief. Per the ROE, this does not mean one can say whatever he/she wants. Always remain professional. This helps establish a respectful balance, while taking advantage of the reality that learning can come from anyone, regardless of rank.

The Process

The USAF Weapons School (i.e., Weapons Instructor Course or WIC) utilizes a debrief standard across all the school’s platforms. The mission analysis process assesses accomplishment of the DLOs. If a formation fails to accomplish a specific DLO, the process then identifies the errors that led to the failure. These errors become DFPs or learning points (LPs), the former having a more significant impact on mission success than the latter. Once the debriefer identifies the DFP(s) or LP(s), he/she categorizes it/them into one of three areas: perception, decision, or execution. After error-categorization, the debriefer then provides an instructional fix to maximize learning and to ensure those present can make a tangible change or correction for future missions. Combining a DFP with an instructional fix results in a lesson learned—the critical element to community improvement.

DFPs and LPs should be the focal point of the debrief because they distill vast amounts of data into concise and effective lessons for each participant. If the debriefer does not identify the DFP or LP, untargeted analysis of the minutia can subjugate debrief focus, and those listening can lose interest or get confused. A debriefer identifying every minor error someone makes might not only waste valuable time, it can also serve to browbeat an individual, often leading to mental shutdown and an inability to actually learn. Instead, DFPs developed from the DLOs prevent aimless rambling and give the debrief focus. The debriefer identifies the DFPs during the reconstruction portion of the debrief. Whereas DFPs are failures in mission or tactical objectives (i.e., DLOs), learning points are when the formation accomplishes the DLO in spite of significant mistakes, or in a non-traditional way (e.g., the formation was able to complete the mission but made significant errors that can be debriefed). Learning can come from successes, using LPs, or from failures, identifying LPs and/or DFPs. In any of these three cases, the DFPs and/or LPs provide a common reference point and keep the debrief focused and succinct.

While the fighter community uses the mantra “Plan, Products, Brief, Admin, Tactical Admin, and Execution” to ensure all portions of the mission are addressed, another simple process applicable to any type of event is the five questions Air Force pilot Bill Crawford discusses in his 2015 TEDx Talk. These questions outline an easy-to-remember checklist to guide debriefs:

  1. What happened?
  2. What went right?
  3. What went wrong?
  4. Why?
  5. What are the Lessons Learned?

Step one: “What happened” is the process of validating the mission and tactical objectives. In other words, did the flight accomplish the DLOs?

Step two: “What went right” is an important part of the debrief process for two reasons. First, a debrief should not be just negative; and second, it is always good to use this step to show the group how things are supposed to look—it is motivating, reinforces good habits, and gives people something to replicate. Additionally, sometimes optimal execution is accomplished without recognition or by unintentional action, and should be highlighted to ensure understanding for application in the future.

Steps three and four: “What went wrong” and “why” is where the debrief loop, discussed below is utilized. Step three is not merely focused on “who made the mistake.” Similarly, step four is “why” not “who.” Referencing the aforementioned debrief ROE, do not make the debrief personal.

Step five: “What are the lessons learned” relates back to DFP and LP development; however, this discussion should be carried further, as described in Bill Crawford’s TEDx Talk. Incorporate lessons learned into the next execution cycle’s planning process. This process allows a wider group of people to learn from the debrief, growing the community as a whole.

When used properly, the debrief loop ensures DFPs and LPs are identified and fixed. Air Force then-Captain David Deptula formally described the debrief loop in his Weapons School Paper “Fundamentals of the Instructional Debrief.”

The Debrief Loop: Captain David Deptula, “Fundamentals of the Instructional Debrief,” USAF Weapon School Student Paper, F-22A Class 12BIN, December 2012.

Determining why the error occurred is a vital part of debrief and is unfortunately where most debriefers have trouble. The tendency is to make an assumption on why someone made an error and then give them a fix to that assumption. However, when the person running the debrief utilizes the third step of the debrief loop correctly, he/she asks direct questions of the person who made the mistake to get to the “why” of the error. This is where it is important that all participants of a debrief adhere to rules four and five of the Debrief ROE:

When determining the “why,” the debrief loop recommends the use of the P/D/E model—Perception, Decision, and Execution. Using this model, the debriefer asks the correct questions to accurately determine the “why.” The person running the debrief should ask questions which categorize the error in perception, decision, or execution and then use that information to deliver an instructional fix (IF). An IF should be easy to follow and easy to implement in future missions.

Debrief for the MDO Community 

There are many articlesbooks, and even TEDx Talks on the subject of debrief. Although all are useful, the target audiences are corporations, lawyers, and doctors; and while certain communities within the Air Force utilize very effective debrief methodologies, none of these directly address operations or planning in the MDO environment. There will be an initial hurdle of developing an accepted debrief standard for the MDO community, as it is built out of a diverse pool from around the DoD. Many people may not be familiar with the previously described “fighter” debrief style, or may find the direct feedback too personal in nature, and some may misconstrue the feedback as an official report instead of seeing it as a simply a way to improve future efforts. These differences in backgrounds, and in conceptions of feedback, make it even more important for the MDO community to establish a standard for debrief.

In conjunction with introducing the MDO community to the debrief process and etiquette, the MDO community would also benefit from identifying mission areas most appropriate to apply the debrief process. Five areas from the planning and execution stages are regularly occurring processes ripe for iterative learning, application of debrief methodology, and ultimately result in a reduction in execution errors.

Potential MDO Debrief Areas

When the MDO community formally develops a debrief methodology it is recommended that the following five areas be reviewed. These areas are not the answer to how to develop a debrief, but are instead intended to be ideas that spark discussion and drive development in the MDO community.

The first area the MDO community could benefit from debriefing is planning process assumptions. It does not matter if the planning process is for a wargame, for a staff-level task, or for an MDO mission. When executing the planning process, it is important to identify the assumptions made about the task at hand. Assumptions allow the team to maintain forward progress by focusing effort, but they also have varying degrees of inherent risk. This risk is dependent on multiple factors, including how the assumption was derived, the confidence level of the assessment, and the gravity of the consequences if the assumption turns out to be partially—or entirely—invalid. It is imperative to document these assumptions for all to see and for the team to periodically revisit. Putting them on a white board in the room is a great technique to enable constant review, and to allow mission partners or—late arrivals—to catch up to the group. Listing assumptions in plain view has the additional benefit of ensuring all participants can read, validate, or (in some cases) challenge an assumption during the planning process. If a late arrival or the commander is to highlight an invalid assumption, the team can make immediate and early adjustments to the scope and scale of the planning. However, if an assumption is invalid and not caught it can have an effect on the overall mission, and could result in a failure to accomplish a tactical objective. In this case the team should treat it like a DFP: “Why was assumption #8 incorrect and how did that effect the overall outcome of the planning process?”

Additionally, when the planning team arrives at the end of their process and briefs the plan, avoid assuming that, if the commander selected the planners’ recommendation, the assumptions were correct. Assumption validation occurs as execution unfolds and those assumptions prove valid or invalid in real-time. Because of this reality, it is best to validate assumptions after execution and capture the results of the debrief for future planning efforts. While some assumptions will ultimately be affected by enemy decision-making, a formal debrief will identify those factors the planning team could have predicted in the planning phase. It may also have the capacity to identify whether planners were cognizant of the risks to assumptions depending on enemy decisions, which should have been a significant factor in contingency planning.

Risk is a second area in which to apply the debrief process, as risk is vital to commanders at all levels. To facilitate this type of debrief, risk should be categorized into risk to mission failure, risk to force, and risk to timing and tempo. The risk involved with a decision is a large assumption made during the planning process. Comparing planners’ acceptable risk to the risk the commander wants mitigated can be an additional factor to debrief. LP 1: “Why did the planning team assume a higher risk than the commander was willing to accept?” Once developed, these risk lessons can be fed into the planning cycle to inform better future risk mitigation. Risk is not the same in every scenario, and every commander’s risk tolerance is not the same, but understanding allowable risk in a complex environment is a great place to debrief.

A third area where the debrief methodology would be appropriate is following wargame execution. Due to the time and monetary investment required to correctly execute a wargame, it is vital to execute the wargame process as correctly and effectively as possible. When developing courses of action for the commander, the MDO community can use wargames as a way to identify modifications or allow the commander to select the best course of action. As a result, war gaming can also benefit from a formal debrief process. For example the debrief ROE 3-6 can help ensure an effective and timely executed wargame. It is human nature to leave an experience like a wargame either patting yourself on the back or being angry at the other side for negating your opinion or planning. Executing a debrief at the end of the wargame can identify lessons learned for blue mission planners, and can ensure all participants leave with a shared, clear understanding of the outcome. This helps to prove what modifications to the plan are necessary. Since the red team has immersed itself in the enemy’s decision-making process, the red team should utilize the five questions to provide details to the blue team for their use in executing the debrief loop.

A fourth area for the MDO community to leverage the debrief methodology is during flexible deterrent option (FDO) and strategic response option (SRO) development. The MDO planning cycle can be time-consuming, as it consists of developing observed and desired systems, executing center of gravity and decisive point analysis, building a logic map, and filling out a decision support matrix, a decision support template, and a synchronization matrix to build the SRO. It may take 3-6 months to validate an SRO and, therefore, delay feedback to the planners, meaning lessons are potentially lost over time. By adopting a debrief culture, the MDO community could generate lessons learned during the process and incorporate them into the current and future planning cycle therefore reducing errors and increasing effectiveness across the entire community.

The final area the MDO community could utilize a community-wide debrief methodology is during exercises at the Air Operations Center (AOC) level. The tendency is to run the exercise, execute a 3 up and 3 down slide, and then return to standard business. The 3 up and 3 down debriefs only highlight 3 positives and 3 negatives from the entire exercise. This type of wave-top after action assessment does not maximize the learning and growth that can come from this type of exercise. Executing a robust exercise at the MDO level requires a great deal of time, effort, and resources. Therefore, it deserves a debrief methodology to ensure the lessons learned are fully captured. There are many ways to accomplish this, whether at the completion of each air tasking order (ATO) day, or at the completion of the entire exercise. Establishing a standard that facilitates root cause analysis and open discussion of errors among key participants is crucial in moving the MDO community forward. Preventing recurring mistakes in the five recommended areas is the ultimate benefit of a well-developed debrief process. This is why it is important for the MDO community to develop its debrief methodology (with appropriate ROEs) and find applicable areas in the community where it should be applied.


The MDO community currently lacks a standardized debrief process to allow the growth required to be effective in future MDO environments. There is no better time to establish a standard process of feedback than in the early stages of growth. The MDO community can leverage the debrief culture of the USAF fighter community. It is a proven system that allows effective and efficient feedback throughout a mission, a unit, and the entire community. Debrief culture requires buy-in from all levels of the MDO community and also requires all participants to follow a standard set of rules to ensure the process is followed; multiple ROE examples have been given to facilitate this process. The MDO community should develop a new ROE to fit their community in its expanding environment. If the MDO community does not establish some type of formal feedback system in the early stages of development, it will lose many lessons and will be forced to recreate the wheel, leading to loss of valuable time and potentially even falling behind the adversary in ability to anticipate, adapt, and react to enemy actions.


For the MDO community to evolve, it needs to establish and internalize a common trust and understanding that allows feedback to be passed effectively and efficiently between MDO planning cells and staffs. This critical feedback mechanism will ensure lessons are derived from errors and implemented in future planning and execution cycles. By establishing a culture of debrief and following the above debrief ROE, the MDO community can help ensure success as it moves into the future environment. To codify a debrief methodology and engender the required debrief culture for the benefit of the entire DoD, the schoolhouses must establish the standard. Therefore the 13O schoolhouse and MDOS should work together to develop the desired debrief methodology to ensure the enemy does not gain the intellectual high ground in an evolving and complex strategic environment.

Major Tim “Diesel” Causey is an Instructor Weapon Systems Officer and Weapons School Graduate with over 1700 hours in the F-15E. He is an MDOS graduate and is currently on the faculty of the Joint All-Domain Strategist Concentration at the Air Command and Staff College.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. Government.

Featured Image: An F-15E Strike Eagle flies over Iraq May 5, 2018. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Corey Hook)

NavyCon 2020: Navies, Science Fiction, and Great Power Competition

By Claude Berube

Three years ago, Jerry Hendrix, Mark Vandroff, CDR Salamander, and I were reminiscing about old sci-fi shows and their navy traits. Half-jokingly, I suggested we put together a science fiction convention focused on navies. And then it happened. The result was the first NavyCon in 2017 which was a one-day event held at the U.S. Naval Academy Museum.

At its conclusion, I received comments from the audience and emails from strangers asking when the next event would be held. We won’t wait three years for the next one. This event is intended to take a serious (as well as sometimes light-hearted) approach in understanding how science fiction might help us think differently about navies of today or the near future. Science fiction is often unbound by conventional thinking. The technologies and platforms we find commonplace might have been considered fantastical just a century or two ago. It is human imagination that envisioned going to the moon and human ingenuity that made it happen. It is that same creativity and inspiration that will move us forward together.

Thank you to the presenters, special guests, and all the people who made this happen. I hope you enjoy this NavyCon.

See the NavyCon 2020 Program Guide here, and the full video replay and a listing of specific presentations below.

00:00-02:05 CDR Claude Berube, USNR, PhD
Director, US Naval Academy Museum

Opening remarks

02:06-07:25 CDR BJ Armstrong
Associate Chair, Department of History, U.S. Naval Academy

“The U.S. Navy and SciFi: From the Civil War to Midway”

07:26-09:04 Message from LT Kayla Barron
Naval Academy Class of 2010, NASA Astronaut

09:05-21:20 Keynote: Major General Mick Ryan
Commander, Australian Defence College
“Science Fiction and its Utility for the National Security Community”

21:21-30:02 CDR Claude Berube, USNR, PhD
Director, U.S Naval Academy Museum
“How the Federation Overcame the Shipbuilding Gap before the Defense of Coppelius in
‘Star Trek Picard’”

30:03-42:28 Cory Hollon
U.S. Air Force
“The Kaiju Should Have Won: Force Deployment and Strategy in Pacific Rim”

42:33-43:52 Message from Dr. Kori Schake
Director of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies
American Enterprise Institute

44:06-57:40 August Cole
Co-author of “Ghost Fleet” and “Burn-In”
“When A Robot Has The Helm”

Standalone Video Jennifer Marland
Curator, NSWC-Carderock
“A Navy is Essential for your Planet: Wars Between Barrayar and Cetaganda in Lois
McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosiverse” 

1:03:15-1:07:17 Message from CDR Salamander 

1:14:55-1:26:18 Clara Engle
Department of Commerce
“Babylon 5 and International Relations Theory”

1:26:45-1:41:37 Randy Papadopoulos
Historian for the Secretary of the Navy
“Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Why Space Warfare will be about Fleets”

1:41:47-1:43:38 Message from Hugh Hewitt

1:43:52-1:59:40 MAJ Thomas Harper, JAG, USAR
“It’s a Trap! The Intersection of the Battle of Endor & the Law of Armed Conflict”

2:00:02-2:12:08 Jonathan Bratten
Command Historian/Maine National Guard
“Perils of Joint Command: Imperial Disaster at Endor”

2:12:37-2:24-54 Ian Boley
PhD candidate, History, Texas A&M University
“Sidewinders, Sunbeams, and Negaspheres: Skunkworks and Rapid Innovation in the
Lensman Series”

2:25:21-2:38:40 CAPT Jerry Hendrix, USN (ret.) PhD
Vice President, The Telemus Group
“Honorverse: Revolutions in Military Affairs and the Weapons Development Board”

2:38:53-2:41:55 Message from Congressman Mike Gallagher

2:42:49-2:56-53 David Larter
Reporter, Defense News
“Alien and the Operators”

2:57:00-3:06:21 CAPT Mark Vandroff, USN (ret.)
Deputy Assistant to the President & Senior Director for Defense Policy, National Security Council
“Engineering for Great Power Competition”

03:06:35-3:10:27 Message from author David Weber

03:10:40-03:31:10 Christopher Weuve
“Aircraft Carriers in Space!”

03:31:25-3:46:05 CDR Phil Pournelle, USN (ret.)
“Traveler’s Trillion Credit Squadron Game and Future Fleet Architecture”

03:46:21-3:47:05 CDR Claude Berube, USNR, PhD 
Director, U.S. Naval Academy Museum
Closing Remarks

Commander Claude Berube, USNR, PhD, teaches history at the U.S. Naval Academy, is the Director of the Naval Academy Museum, and is a former Senate staffer and defense contractor. His next two books will be released in the next year. The views above are the author’s alone and not necessarily reflect those of the Navy or Naval Academy.

Featured Image: “Star Wars: Battle of Coruscant” by Dave Seeley via Artstation.

Sea Control 186 – The Battle for Island Number 10 with Dr. Anne Brinton

By Jared Samuelson

On the heels of the Grant miniseries, Dr. Anne Brinton joins the program to revisit some Civil War Naval Integration (TM) in the Western Theater: The Battle for Island Number 10! Dr. Brinton discusses time, space, and force, the composition of the river fleet, Commodore Andrew Foote, Commander Henry Walke, and the dramatic exploits of USS Carondelet.

Download Sea Control 186 – The Battle for Island Number 10 with Dr. Anne Brinton

Jared Samuelson is the Senior Producer of the Sea Control podcast. Contact him at seacontrol@cimsec.org.

Thinking Effectively First

By Mie Augier and Sean F. X. Barrett


Captain Wayne Hughes, USN, who would have turned 90-years-old this spring, left us a huge legacy on which to build and from which to learn regarding the intellectual content of naval research, our approaches to instruction, and how we organize our naval PME institutions. Hughes is widely recognized and respected for his work on naval tactics and operations research (OR) and his “fire effectively first” aphorism, which continues to inform the thinking behind many strategic documents.1

If we take a more expansive look at Hughes’ contributions, however, we also find writings on naval maneuver warfare,2 the influence of organizations on naval tactics,3 the limitations of analytical models and their ability to reduce risk but not eliminate uncertainty,4 education and mentorship,5 his favorite admirals,6 maritime innovation and shipbuilding adaptation,7 the need for innovative leaders and the role of PME in educating them, and the importance of people, among other topics. Concerning the range of his own intellectual interests, he noted, “I like everything, but that means I can’t be very deep at anything.”8 Though he did obviously go deep into key topics, he maintained his broad interest, which also manifested itself in the variety of books he reviewed and his touching upon some unexpected topics, such as rituals and religion,in the context of naval warfare. His intellectual, theoretical, disciplinary, and methodological range exemplified that of an integrative mind.

In addition to his research and writing, he advised countless students at the Naval Postgraduate School and often eagerly visited classrooms, even in his last years, to discuss some of his favorite topics, as well as what interested the students. He favored active learning approaches (e.g., cases, discussions, gaming, and simulations as opposed to lecturing) since they facilitated more interaction, mutual learning, and a continuing integration of conceptual frameworks, instructor and student interests, and naval issues. Hughes’ approach to active learning is quite consistent with General David H. Berger’s plea in his Commandant’s Planning Guidance to move beyond our industrial age model for training and education. C. S. Lewis once said, “The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.”10 In other words, cultivating lifelong learning requires patience, mutual learning, and open minds – a topic that remains central to military professionals today.

We wanted to write a brief note in Hughes’ honor and memory that complements and expands upon his “fire effectively first” lens by incorporating the importance of the “think effectively first” truism it implies.11 We use some of Hughes’ reflections to identify the traits, attitudes, and values he admired in others and thought we should strive to inculcate in our naval leaders. Just as integration is key to instruction and active learning approaches, intellectual integration and synthesis helps develop the good thinking and judgment that enables our warfighters to develop the intellectual adaptiveness central to “thinking effectively first.”

The Skills and Traits of Hughes’ Favorite Admirals

During the spring of 2017, Thomas Ricks posted a series of four articles to his Best Defense blog that Hughes—“an old salt”—had written about his four favorite admirals: Spruance, Burke, Fiske, and Nimitz. They illustrate both Hughes’ implicit (and sometimes explicit) recognition of the attitudes and skills central to “thinking effectively first,” and his own integrative way of thinking.

As a youthful teacher of naval history, Hughes first gained an early appreciation for Raymond Spruance while reading about his meeting with Admiral Nimitz before the Battle of Midway. Hughes identified Spruance’s background in electrical engineering and his operational and command tours as a few of the foundations for Spruance’s greatness since they provided him a broad range of experiences and insights upon which to draw and enhanced his ability to integrate and synthesize information.12 This helped him identify what was truly relevant and deepened his understanding of situations. In an earlier article on Spruance, Hughes noted, “As operational commander of hundreds of ships and aircraft, Admiral Raymond A. Spruance had the capacity to distill what he observed – and sometimes felt – into its essence and to focus on the important details by mental synthesis.” According to Hughes, “Spruance had to an extraordinary degree the mental equivalent of peripheral vision.”13 Importantly, Spruance objected to efforts intended to reduce decision-making to a recipe or checklist. As Spruance might have attested, developing the “cognitive flexibility” to transfer knowledge between domains and apply knowledge to new situations necessitates education focused more on broad concepts than on specific information or processes. Additionally, given the complexity of and unpredictability in today’s operating environment, it is increasingly important to nurture well-rounded naval leaders like Spruance who are able to identify connections across disciplines so they can effectively determine the deep structure of a given problem, understand the larger forces shaping situations, and thus anticipate possible outcomes and actions.14

Like Spruance, Admiral Arleigh Burke also had an impressive technical background that led to his serving more tours as an engineer than he might have liked. Burke was an excellent strategic leader who created an effective organization by understanding how organizations work and how to get things done in (and with) them. According to Hughes, “He was the last CNO to actually command the Navy’s operations.”15 In other words, Burke did not become mired in administrivia as an escape or diversion as the Navy confronted a strategic inflection point. Instead, he identified new opportunities and ways of operating and deployed resources to see them through.16 This is particularly relevant for the U.S. military, which has been described as “too busy to think” and operating in “a vacuum, one of strategy-free actions,” as it confronts interstate strategic competition following two decades of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations.17

Hughes dubbed Bradley A. Fiske a true “Renaissance Man.” A reformer, prolific author, and inventor, and an innovative strategist and tactician, Fiske helped lead the Navy through the transition from sail to steam. Early in his career, Fiske identified the need for electricity in the ships of the new Navy, so he requested a leave of absence to study its potential for warships. At the time there were not any postgraduate schools for science and technology, so he ended up at the GE plant in Schenectady, New York.18 Later, he became an aviation enthusiast and advocated using it in an anti-amphibious role in support of early versions of War Plan Orange.19 In his many roles, Fiske maintained a practical appreciation for technology as opposed to a narrow focus on analytical models or technical expertise, and based on his deep understanding of what was driving the strategic environment, he had an uncanny ability to identify emerging technologies and embrace them. In class, Hughes occasionally brought up Kodak as a counterexample. While Kodak had early technical expertise in digital technology, they failed to see how it would influence the strategic environment and, ultimately, erode their competitive advantages.

Lastly, like the others, Chester Nimitz also had a deep understanding of technology and its relation to tactics, a theme consistent with all of Hughes’ “greats.” Nimitz became an expert in diesel propulsion, remained current with both submarines and surface ships, and even wrote a Naval War College term paper on underway replenishment. He was not only an admired strategist, but also a superb tactician, which was on display at the Battle of Midway, and a brilliant leader. Hughes credits his morale-building after taking over as Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet following the Pearl Harbor attacks with our later success in the Pacific.20 And yet we might draw an important lesson from his time commanding a destroyer as an ensign when he ran the ship aground. The mistake did not end his career as it might today. As Hughes used to say, the only way to never make a mistake is to never make a decision, thus recognizing the danger of the no-default mentality on individual and organizational adaptability and thinking

Having briefly discussed Hughes’ reasons for choosing his favorite admirals, we note his appreciation of their knowledge of technology. However, this was not the only factor (and probably not even the most important one) when one looks at their accomplishments more broadly. Hughes valued judgment and thinking, the development of insight, broad understanding and the ability to synthesize, and organizational leadership skills. These are themes that resonate well with modern strategic documents, such as the Education for Seapower report and General David H. Berger’s Commandant’s Planning Guidance.

July 3, 2018 – NPS Dean Emeritus Wayne Hughes holds the latest edition of his seminal work, Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Nathan Serpico)

It also worth remembering that these qualities were valued much earlier in the history of naval education and during periods of vast technological change similar to our own. For example, The Record of the United States Naval Institute (later, Proceedings) established an annual prize essay competition in 1879, and the first topic concerned naval education. In the third-prize essay, then Commander A. T. Mahan cautioned, over a decade before the publication of his famous treatise, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660-1783, against focusing too narrowly on mechanical processes and mathematical reasoning “under the delusive cry of science.” Despite the increasing technical complexity associated with the ships of the new Navy and the onset of steam, Mahan observed, “The necessarily materialistic character of mechanical science tends rather to narrowness and low ideals.” He believed that a narrow scientific focus ultimately undermined the practical discharge of the line officer’s duties, and while Mahan acknowledged a small class of specialists should be devoted to this type of knowledge, he also argued the line officer required a broader educational approach in order to discharge all of his many and varied duties.21

Following World War I, the Knox-Pye-King Board conducted the first (and until E4S, only) comprehensive analysis of U.S. naval education. At the time, a salt-horse culture prevailed in the Navy, and seagoing experience established naval officers’ reputations for higher commands. The curriculum at the U.S. Naval Academy trained future naval officers to adopt mathematical approaches to solving even the most abstract problems, memorize accepted solutions, and adhere to hierarchical authority at the expense of open inquiry and debate. However, as Admirals Henry T. Mayo and William S. Sims provided bureaucratic top cover, Captains Dudley W. Knox and Ernest J. King, with Commander William S. Pye contributing, leveraged the board’s report to proffer their assessment that naval officers stood ill-equipped to meet the broad spectrum of challenges they faced and to establish higher professional education standards.22 While the officers acknowledged the need for a certain degree of specialization, it had to be balanced with a more generalist mindset. The board observed that, at present, the naval officer was “‘educated’ only in preparation for the lowest commissioned grade” and lacked sufficient understanding of higher operational elements of warfare or broader strategic considerations. The board outlined an education continuum for an officers’ career, which progressively evolved away from more technical matters and toward strategy, management, international relations, and economic, political, and social sciences.23

Given the increasing complexity and prevalence of technologies and their rapid rate of advancement, calls for increasing the number of specialists in the DoD and national security establishment are certainly understandable. However, as we observe in Hughes’ reflections and in the thoughts of some of our other great naval officers, we must not view this as a sufficient condition. We must also cultivate the other skills and attitudes Hughes valued to develop leaders who are intellectually adaptive and capable of identifying strategic trends, understanding and solving complex problems in an interdisciplinary manner, and thinking effectively first.

How to Cultivate the “Think Effectively First” Mentality

“I think art comes before science, and science is merely a representation of the dynamic structure and institutionalization of what the practical wisdom of people over the course of history develops.”24

While Hughes’ reflections are useful in helping us see the importance of “thinking effectively first,” it is also important to understand how Hughes was thinking (not just what he was thinking) and his way of integrating. In doing so, we might identify a few more useful implications that can help us better think about how we think, educate, learn, and analyze. 

Integrate education, research, and Navy problems—always with an eye for issues relevant to the warfighter. As with other great integrative minds, Hughes was a strong advocate for integrating research and education, always with a focus on what was relevant to Navy problems and warfighter issues. This problem-oriented focus helps integrate the different disciplines that are relevant to understanding such complex problems, as they rarely, if ever, fit any one or two disciplines very neatly. This may sound straightforward, but it is not easy. Nobel laureate Herbert Simon (1967) noted that for professional education, mixing the disciplinary perspectives of the scientists with practical problems of the professionals is like mixing oil and water. The task is never finished since it requires constant stirring.25 Additionally, integration across disciplines does not come from one discipline talking occasionally to his favorite intellectual neighbor who holds a (mostly) similar worldview, but rather through genuine intellectual appreciation for other perspectives and what they can bring to improving our understanding of warfighter issues. Fortunately, our PME institutions can help with this by facilitating and encouraging (perhaps even insisting) more mixing and integration of different disciplines in their application to explicit warfighter problems.

Focusing on integration helps us understand the promises and the limitations of models and analysis. In understanding Hughes’ way of thinking and (re)reading his analytic work, we also gain a better appreciation for the promises and pitfalls of analysis.26 Hughes acknowledges that analysis can help us prepare for war and has previously helped us win wars and reduce their cost more than is appreciated. Models, however, cannot capture certain imponderables (e.g., willpower, genius, surprise) that can unpredictability swing the course of events and thus require prudence in their application. They can never replace military judgment. Hughes cautioned us:

“Personally, I think that analysts—the good ones—next only to historians, understand best the imponderables of the next war. But in the heat of our petty contentions to sell our service, or some hardware, or an idea, or a strategy, we play down and eventually forget our doubts and misgivings. When the analysis is elegant, when the arguments are compelling, when the model is elaborate, that is the time to remember a statement by our host VADM Jim Stockdale: ‘if there was anything that helped us get through those eight years (as POWs), it was plebe year, and if there was anything that screwed up that (Vietnam) war, it was computers.’”27

Finally, educating for integrative minds and thinking effectively first requires cultivating the right mental habits, including some of the following:

  • Prioritize problem framing (and reframing) and actively seek alternative and opposing views to prove our own hypotheses incorrect.
  • Think critically, constructively, and strategically, and about the process of thinking itself to improve our intellectual adaptability and be learners that are always eager to extend our knowledge, whether through reading, experimentation, debates, or otherwise.
  • Encourage active open-mindedness and intuition, and inspire imagination and curiosity to inform judgment and integrate analytical, intuitive, and synthesizing ways of understanding Navy and warfighter problems.


We hope we have illustrated how the broader foundations and aspects of Hughes’ contributions are important for recognizing how the core of his approach was not a narrow focus on specific disciplines and models, but rather a larger appreciation of both the art and science of naval warfare. Additionally, his work on analysis and tactics – the key to “fighting effectively first” – might be usefully supplemented with an emphasis on “thinking effectively first.” The Joint Chiefs of Staff reminds us, “There is more to sustaining a competitive advantage than acquiring hardware; we must gain and sustain an intellectual overmatch as well.”28 While effective fighting requires mental rigor and stamina and a sound assessment of the enemy, the operating environment, and ourselves, we must cultivate effective thinking and judgement above all. Let us embrace this challenge in the spirit of Captain Wayne Hughes’ legacy.

Dr. Mie Augier is a Professor in the Graduate School of Defense Management at the Naval Postgraduate School and a Founding Member of the Naval Warfare Studies Institute (NWSI). She is interested in strategy, organizations, innovation, leadership, and how to educate strategic and innovative thinkers.

Major Sean F. X. Barrett is an active duty Marine Corps intelligence officer. He is currently the operations officer for the Headquarters Marine Corps Directorate of Analytics & Performance Optimization.


1. David H. Berger, Force Design 2030 (Washington, DC: U.S. Marine Corps, 2020), 12; David H. Berger, “The Case for Change,” Marine Corps Gazette 104, no. 6 (Jun. 2020): 12.

2. Wayne P. Hughes, Jr., “Maneuvering Past Maneuver Warfare,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 122, no. 5 (Mar. 1996): 16, 19; Wayne P. Hughes, Jr., “Naval Maneuver Warfare,” Naval War College Review 50, no. 3 (Summer 1997): 25-49.

3. Wayne P. Hughes, Jr., “Garbage Cans at Sea,” in Ambiguity and Command: Organizational Perspectives on Military Decision Making, eds. James G. March and Roger Weissinger-Baylon (Marshfield, MA: Pitman Publishing Inc., 1986), 249-257.

4. Wayne P. Hughes, Jr., “Uncertainty in Combat,” Military Operations Research (Summer 1994): 45-57; Wayne P. Hughes, Jr., “What Studies Say—And Don’t,” Phalanx 12, no. 5 (Mar. 1980): 1, 12-15.

5. Wayne P. Hughes, Jr., “New Directions in Naval Academy Education,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 87, no. 5 (May 1960): 36-45; Wayne P. Hughes, Jr., “Restore Mentorship Through Mentoring,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 144, no. 2 (Feb. 2018): 76-77; Wayne P. Hughes, Jr., “Naval Tactics Needed in Sea Power Education,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 145, no. 11 (Nov. 2019): 12-13.

6. See, for example, Wayne P. Hughes, Jr., “Clear Purpose, Comprehensive Execution—Raymond Ames Spruance (1886-1969),” Naval War College Review 62, no. 4 (Autumn 2009): 117-130.

7.  Wayne P. Hughes, Jr., “A Business Strategy for Shipbuilders,” (lecture, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, CA, July 28, 2014), https://calhoun.nps.edu/bitstream/handle/10945/63312/HughesMaritimeBusinessStrategy2014July28.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.

8.  Michael Garrambone, “Military Operations Research Society (MORS) Oral History Project Interview of Wayne P. Hughes, FS,” Military Operations Research 9, no. 4 (2004): 29-53.

9. Wayne P. Hughes, Jr., “Pacifists and Peacemakers,” Naval War College Review 27, no. 3 (May-Jun. 1974): 83-86; Wayne P. Hughes, Jr., “On Ritual,” Phalanx 27, no. 1 (Mar. 1994): 35.

10. C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (Québec, ON: Samizdat University Press, 2014), 6.

11. While Hughes noted the importance of critical thinking, decentralization, delegation, enabling initiative, and judgment, he rarely expanded upon his reasoning or explained why they are so important to the continued nurturing of our naval leaders, perhaps because he was one of those rare individuals who naturally thought critically and constructively about things. For the rest of us, we can look to the recent literature on thinking and learning.

12. Wayne P. Hughes, “An Old Salt Picks His 4 Favorite American Admirals—And Explains Why (Part I),” Best Defense, August 11, 2017, https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/08/11/an-old-salt-picks-his-4-favorite-american-admirals-and-explains-why-part-i-2/#. This piece originally ran on March 29, 2017.

13. Hughes, “Clear Purpose,” 117, 125.

14. David Epstein, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World (New York: Riverhead Books, 2019), 45, 50, 115.

15. Wayne P. Hughes, “An Old Salt Picks His 4 Favorite American Admirals—And Explains Why (II): Burke,” Best Defense, April 3, 2017, https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/04/03/an-old-salt-picks-his-four-favorite-american-admirals-and-explains-why-ii-burke/. Hughes admired Burke’s tactical prowess, exploiting radar and torpedoes to our advantage in the Pacific. As a captain in the late 1940s, Burke had the gumption and technical acumen to serve as part of the brainpower behind the “Revolt of the Admirals,” and then as Chief of Naval Operations, he supported the development of the Polaris missile and SSBNs.

16. For more on identifying and navigating through strategic inflection points, see Andrew S. Grove, Only the Paranoid Survive: How to Exploit the Crisis Points That Challenge Every Company and Career (London: Profile Books, LTD, 1996), 101-164.

17. Robert H. Scales, “Too Busy To Learn,” Army History 76 (Summer 2010): 27-31; James N. Mattis, “Remarks by Secretary Mattis at the U.S. Naval War College Commencement, Newport, Rhode Island” (speech, Newport, RI, June 15, 2018), U.S. Department of Defense, https://www.defense.gov/Newsroom/Transcripts/Transcript/Article/1551954/remarks-by-secretary-mattis-at-the-us-naval-war-college-commencement-newport-rh/. 

18. Wayne P. Hughes, “An Old Salt Picks His 4 Favorite American Admirals—And Explains Why (III): Fiske,” Best Defense, April 11, 2017, https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/04/11/an-old-salt-picks-his-4-favorite-american-admirals-and-explains-why-iii-fiske/#.

19. John T. Kuehn, America’s First General Staff: A Short History of the Rise and Fall of the General Board of the Navy, 1900-1950 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2017), 84-85. Fiske was also part of an insurgent group of reformers that believed the Navy was unprepared war and as a result pushed for a General Staff akin to the German model. Given the advancement in technology, the secretary of the Navy had too much control over constructing and operating the fleet and was out of his depth. Fiske eventually served as the Aide for Operations (and thus the number two man on the General Board) and was instrumental in pushing legislation through Congress that established the position of Chief of Naval of Operations and his supporting staff.

20. Wayne P. Hughes, “An Old Salt Picks His 4 Favorite American Admirals—And Explains Why (IV): Nimitz,” Best Defense, August 11, 2017,  https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/08/11/an-old-salt-picks-his-4-favorite-american-admirals-and-explains-why-iv-nimitz-2/#. This piece originally ran on April 18, 2017.

21. A. T. Mahan, “Naval Education,” The Record of the United States Naval Institute 5, no. 9 (1878-1879): 345-376.

22. David Kohnen, “Charting a New Course: The Knox-Pye-King Board and Naval Professional Education, 1919-1923,” Naval War College Review 71, no. 3 (Summer 2018): 121-141.

23. “Report and Recommendations of a Board Appointed by the Bureau of Navigation Regarding the Instruction and Training of Line Officers,” Proceedings 46, no 8 (Aug. 1920): 1265-1292.

24. Garrambone, “MORS,” 33.

25. Herbert A. Simon, “The Business School: A Problem in Organizational Design,” Journal of Management Studies 4, no. 1 (Feb. 1967): 1-16.

26. See, for example, Jeffrey E. Kline, Wayne P. Hughes, and Douglas A. L. Otte, “Campaign Analysis: An Introductory Review,” Military Operations Research Society (2011): 12, accessed June 21, 2020, https://mors.enoah.com/Portals/23/Docs/Events/2019/Campaign/REVISED-Introduction%20to%20Campaign%20Analysis_Final%20Draft.pdf. Kline, Hughes, and Otte note, “Campaign analysis is an applied field of endeavor designed to provide quantitative insights to a decision maker on how to best use military forces to achieve strategic and operational goals. Analysis at the campaign level may aid in concept generation and course of action selection. But because of the sheer number of variables and because a campaign is conducted against a thinking, adaptive enemy, it can only supplement, never replace, experienced military and naval judgment.”

27. Hughes, “What Studies Say,” 13-14.

28. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Developing Today’s Joint Officers for Tomorrow’s Ways of War: The Joint Chiefs of Staff Vision and Guidance for Professional Military Education & Talent Management (Washington, DC: May 2020), 2.

Featured Image: Retired Navy Captain Wayne P. Hughes, shown addressing the Naval Postgraduate School commencement in December 2011, emphasized the importance of studying tactics. (NPS photo)

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.