Bilge Pumps Episode 19: It’s China…Again…

By Alex Clarke

So it’s that time again, time for the Bilgepumps to turn to their favorite source of What? Why? How? With that supra-regional nation state, China, its navy and especially its carrier program, with some exploration for why you may not need to worry about tomorrow, but definitely need to start pondering the next decade.

We have made it to Episode 19 and we are reunited with a rejuvenated Jamie to keep Alex and Drach to time. But it is a China episode, so he may be distracted…

#Bilgepumps is a still newish series and new avenue, although it may no longer have the new car smell, in fact more of pineapple/irn bru smell, with the faint whiff of cork– but we’re getting the impression it’s liked, so we’d very much like any comments, topic suggestions or ideas for artwork to be tweeted to us, the #Bilgepump crew (with #Bilgepumps), at Alex (@AC_NavalHistory), Drach (@Drachinifel), and Jamie (@Armouredcarrier). Or you can comment on our Youtube channels (listed down below).

Download Bilge Pumps Episode 19: It’s China…Again…


Alex Clarke is the producer of The Bilge Pumps podcast.

Contact the CIMSEC podcast team at

Shell Games at Sea: A Resilient Force Structure Component for Modern Maritime Competition

By Chris Bassler and Steve Benson

On October 6 2020, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper debuted Battle Force 2045. As foundational elements of U.S. naval force design, Secretary Esper emphasized the importance of very long-range precision fires in volume, while also ensuring naval forces continue to operate at the forward edge of American interests. The U.S. Navy has an opportunity to immediately use existing ship types that are currently fielded in large numbers as manned auxiliary-strike platforms, while leveraging ongoing investments and technology maturation in the commercial shipping world for future unmanned naval platforms. The Navy can become a fast-follower, leveraging these investments and technology developments to rapidly field a future autonomous auxiliary-strike platform as a key part of a future unmanned naval force structure.

Over the past several years, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps have been focused on developing and implementing a concept for Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO). DMO, along with the associated Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment (LOCE) and Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) concepts, all seek to address the increasing threat posed by the proliferation of sophisticated weaponry and combat systems among great powers and potential proxies. Additionally, the 2018 National Defense Strategy highlights the distinct and important roles of the contact, blunt, surge, and homeland defense layers of the Joint Force.

The subsequent implications for U.S. naval forces, joint forces, and combined forces are broad, but to date, have remained nascent in their implementation. The simple message is that ceding the littoral regions of the world to an adversary is unacceptable to the United States and likeminded allies and partners. The Littoral Combat Ship was an initial, albeit flawed, effort to address a long-debated return to littoral operations – the dominant feature of naval operations throughout history. A hybrid commercial-military approach to force projection in contested environments deserves closer examination, and is an approach that is immediately available. It offers an evolutionary and rapid path to the future.

Fundamental Principles in a 21st Century Maritime Competition: Numerous, Distributed, Persistent, and Nondescript

A critical aspect of the DMO concept that has rightly received attention is the need to resupply and rearm combatants in order to conduct protracted operations. Doing so in an environment where fixed targets, such as ports as well as large force concentrations are becoming increasingly vulnerable poses an ever-growing challenge. An alternative approach is needed, whereby unit-level maritime surface munitions batteries would be mobile and available for use when needed, rather than located in afloat resupply stockpiles. This approach, and the use of regionally-oriented vessels, would be linked to demands of littorals operations that are already prime considerations in the design and construction of commercial vessels in global trade today. In contrast, custom military-first solutions for this purpose run the risk of being unaffordable.

Although the Marine Corps and the Army are developing mobile land-based missile batteries and will be a crucial part of the missile strike capacity in the U.S. Marine Corps’ new Littoral Maneuver Regiments (LMRs), such forces will nonetheless face challenges. These include gaining and maintaining basing access from host nations, sufficient protection and maneuver to minimize attrition from preemptive strikes, and providing sufficient stockpiles for reloading land-based missile batteries.

As a result, sea-based solutions must also be considered, especially to support stand-in forces in the contact layer. However, limits will persist for surface platform rearming at sea. Approaches that employ weapons in quantity from tactical fighters or unmanned aerial vehicles face similar challenges, while being more hobbled by limits of endurance and payload. Although the deployment of the Virginia Payload Module will provide additional covert strike capacity from SSNs, this alone will not be sufficient to address the need.

U.S. Navy experiments with test-bed platforms, like DARPA’s Sea Hunter and the Strategic Capabilities Office’s (SCO) Overlord, continue to inform some of the US Navy’s thinking for the large and medium unmanned surface vessels (LUSV and MUSV). Although these efforts have yielded valuable lessons, significant additional modifications and enhancements are still required in order to become operationally deployable assets. The roadmap of potential solutions, specifically for unmanned surface capabilities and platforms, is still coming into focus, and emphasis remains on MUSV and LUSV as the key surface platforms for acquisition programs of record. Some have advocated for concepts and experimentation using missile barges or converted commercial vessels, such as container ships.

It is time for the U.S. Navy to step forward in support of the USMC’s renewed creative thinking surrounding land-based, stand-in forces and develop a “Littoral Maneuver Flotilla” for the complementary naval component to the LMR. While supporting, and supported by, land-based forces, these floating missile magazines could be used to coordinate more complex multi-axis attacks, drastically complicating adversary planning and capabilities for effective defense.

A Missing Piece for a Littoral Maneuver Flotilla: The Auxiliary-Strike Surface Platform

In order to apply the fundamental principles of numerous, distributed, persistent, and nondescript, a specific set of missions that can be appropriately and advantageously grouped together must be considered. These naval missions include logistical resupply, including both ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore; a floating munitions battery for strike, anti-surface warfare (ASuW), and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) missions; convoy escort; and mobile minelaying. A 2020 CRS report noted:

“The Navy wants LUSVs to be low-cost, high-endurance, reconfigurable ships based on commercial ship designs, with ample capacity for carrying various modular payloads — particularly anti-surface warfare (ASuW) and strike payloads, meaning principally anti-ship and land-attack missiles.”

Some nations (such as Russia, China, and Israel), have developed containerized deck-mounted weapons and others are contemplating them. However, their small numbers, need for supporting equipment, and conspicuous posture lessen their potential operational significance. Instead, a floating vertical launch system (VLS) battery could be employed to launch missiles for strike missions (anti-ship or land-attack), torpedoes, or mobile mines against surface or undersea targets. However, a floating VLS battery would still need to be controlled by a mothership or some other local controller (e.g. a surface combatant, aircraft, or spacecraft). In many cases, artificial intelligence is still not sufficiently mature and sufficient trust in autonomous systems has not been developed. Moreover, in addition to sophisticated net-enabled weapons, a floating VLS battery would require offboard targeting and fire control.

It is worth considering alternatives to the commercially adapted, but more militarized designs of the LUSV and MUSV, which will be neither cheap, nor non-descript. In the late 2000s, NAVSEA conducted a study that looked at using Military Sealift Command dry cargo ships as first salvo strike platforms, leaving surface combatants for follow-on engagements. However, this concept was not pursued, and the Navy instead focused on different technical approaches to enable rearming at sea. With the recent track record of naval ship design, a “clean sheet” new T-AKE class would likely result in a complex, high-cost, and conspicuous design.

Instead, handysize break bulk carriers sail in large numbers today and are IMO-compliant double-hull designs. Use of such existing ships would allow the Navy and Marine Corps to gain immediate experience with the concept and further develop and refine approaches, while only requiring small crews of operators. At the same time, during the last five years, efforts have been underway to develop and experiment with autonomous commercial shipping, including major ongoing efforts in Finland, Norway, Sweden, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea, among others. As these autonomous ships mature and begin to sail in significant numbers in their respective regions, the Navy can then smartly shift over to employing these vessels for the auxiliary-strike role. In the framework of the NDS, these vessels would be a persistent contact force, but with blunt force abilities and capacity.

The bulk carrier Sabrina I, photographed from atop the Astoria-Megler Bridge. (Wikimedia Commons)

“Gray Man” at Sea: A Nondescript, Effective Platform for the Shell Game

An approach that initially leverages manned, break bulk vessels, and then progresses to unmanned autonomous shipping vessels will allow immediate fielding of increased numbers of surface strike assets, while at the same time developing, de-risking, and experimenting with key technologies as they mature. Indeed, it would follow the wisdom of Rear Admiral Wayne E. Meyer’s famous motto of “build a little, test a little, learn a lot” while rapidly expanding the number of distributed surface strike assets today and into the future. Deception would be enhanced by the clever use of ubiquitous common commercial hulls in this shell game.

Using commercial vessel ship classes that could accommodate weapons modules and launch cells (e.g. either Mk41 or Mk57 VLS) with minimal modifications would, at reasonable cost, substantially increase the numbers of launchers available that could be employed in the earlier stages of a conflict and support stand-in forces in the contact layer. The Mk57 VLS developed and employed on the DDG-1000 includes options for additional munitions and extra hardening for payload protection. The standardization of both Mk41 and Mk57 VLS permit numerous and varied weapons loadout options, and the VLS modules can be distributed in configurations within the ship to minimize risk of damage, while also confusing adversary targeting through both inter-ship and intra-ship deception. Instead of cumbersome and time-consuming weapons reloads in individual cells, replacing fully loaded modules with a quick swap-out in available ports or at safe-anchorages could be used for logistical sustainment.

Notional estimates would suggest these vessels could carry payloads ranging from 16 to 100 or more VLS cells, sufficient to have diverse payloads and enable effective strikes, while not allowing the vessels to become large and lucrative targets, whose potential loss would be unacceptable. The objective is to have numerous, dispersed, persistent and nondescript mini arsenal ships, not a small number of massive capital ship assets.

At sea aboard USS San Jacinto (CG 56) Mar. 3, 2003 – A topside view of the forward MK-41 Vertical Launching System (VLS) aboard the guided missile cruiser. (U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Michael W. Pendergrass)

The break bulk vessels would enable minimally manned operations today. And as technologies mature, increased experience can be gained with optionally manned operations. By leveraging ongoing and evolving autonomous commercial shipping designs, a future auxiliary-strike platform should have zero manning. Commercial autonomous ships are being specifically designed to achieve long-duration voyages, where no human intervention is needed for maintenance. Leveraging these commercial efforts would mitigate the challenges associated with attempting to apply traditional Navy design approaches and tools to vessels outside of the intended design conditions, while addressing risks that key stakeholders have identified. For commercial airlines, A-level check maintenance (the lightest) intervals can be up to 1000 flight hours between maintenance, equivalent to about 40+ days of continuous sailing. For other military vehicle applications, platforms like the X-37B robotic spaceplane, which recently achieved a record-setting 780 days in orbit, spacecraft design, or DARPA’s NOMARS (No Maintenance Required Ship) project can provide important lessons and insights for application to longer durations. The movement of commercial shipping toward autonomous surface vessels will help to accelerate this longer-interval without maintenance for many maritime systems and subsystems. As these approaches mature, the Navy should begin by establishing a goal of operating continuously for up to one month at sea without human intervention required, and then smartly work up to six-month intervals or longer.

For autonomous surface vessels, successful navigation in the highly trafficked and cluttered sea lanes is an operational imperative and is being pursued with urgency in the commercial world. One of the main successes from DARPA’s Sea Hunter program, in cooperation with the Navy, was the development and incorporation of COLREG compliant algorithms into the vessel’s operations. The vessel has been able to navigate unmanned round-trip journeys from California to Hawaii. In September 2020, a new commercial design began an unmanned navigation across the North Atlantic (a re-creation of the Mayflower journey, going from Plymouth, UK to Plymouth, Massachusetts). Data collected from recurring transits can be used to develop additional proxies and enhancements for autopilots. Several automotive companies use massive amounts of aggregated actual driver data to develop autopilot surrogates, and similar approaches could be applied.

Sea Hunter, a class of unmanned surface vessel developed in partnership between the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research (ONR) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) (U.S. Navy photo)

Especially in peacetime, the commercial shipping approach of having remote control for a flotilla can be employed. Already today, we see how “remote tower” airport control technology has physically removed the need for air controllers to be located at each airfield. There is no reason that multiple flotillas could not be controlled from a single Maritime Operations Center (MOC), whether from a fixed location during peacetime, or from a nearby mothership or offboard platform during conflict. Especially for a crisis or conflict, understanding how these vessels would be employed when global or theater-wide regional network connectivity is not available, unreliable, or compromised is essential. Technologies to enable “network optional” command and control are already used today, such as optical recognition using “QR” codes, high capacity line-of-sight laser communications and data – to and from other maritime, airborne, or low earth orbit satellites, to enable “return to rendezvous point” commands, as well as unique deception techniques. Additionally, standardized launchers like the Mk41 or Mk57 VLS, coupled with rapidly advancing technologies for small satellites, will enable concepts for these vessels to self-launch and deploy their own unmanned aerial systems or tactical satellite constellations to provide temporary overwatch or secure communications relays.

A concept illustration of an autonomous Rolls-Royce vessel (Rolls-Royce image)

The application of common vertical launch cell modules in nondescript and numerous commercial vessels provides an effective means to deliver this capability immediately, while also planning a path to leverage broader commercial technology advances in autonomous shipping. VLS cells maximize payload options through a standardized interface. Additional cargo space should be used for opportunistic resupply, port loading and offloading, to help reinforce consistent, nondescript behaviors. As a result, the platform could be considered as a mini-T-AKE (without underway replenishment), although indistinguishable from the numerous break bulk vessels, and in the near-future, from numerous autonomous shipping vessels. The same hull forms can be used for trade and military logistics in peacetime, organically growing a maritime Ready Reserve Force (RRF) (e.g. the British version of Ships Taken Up From Trade, or STUFT), for the U.S. and key allies and partners.

Expanding this approach beyond assets intended primarily for use in crisis or conflict will allow the ships to become more numerous and inexpensive, while also helping them be nondescript, as they exhibit common behaviors to numerous ships worldwide. With these vessels, the Navy should use common shipping trade routes as opportunities to hide in plain sight. Using routes, such as following the Japan-Taiwan-Philippines archipelago, or from Australia-Singapore-Vietnam, will provide ample opportunities for experience and experimentation, while also re-supplying U.S. bases, accessing key ports, and transiting with common traffic.

No specific paint schemes would be required, but due to the weapons payload, the ships would be flagged under U.S., ally, or partner, as required. This still presents a sufficient challenge to an adversary to confidently obtain positive combat identification, a considerably difficult part of the kill chain. These vessels would comply with legal requirements in peacetime, low intensity conflict, and up to war, while enhancing uncertainty as to their actual payloads and capabilities. Leveraging autonomous surface vessel designs, repurposed from seaborne trade for military purposes, and vice versa, can enhance continuous deterrence through the associated uncertainty of a “shell game” at sea, with autonomous surface auxiliary-strike ships as the cornerstone.

Additional Advantages: A Global Flotilla for Both Peacetime and Conflict

A key element of a successful strategy for great power competition involves leveraging the strengths of key allies and partners. Having common allied platforms in large numbers for both logistics and mobile weapons would provide distributed, persistent, and nondescript forces. These would enhance combined surface force and amphibious and ground maneuver operations in the littorals. Break bulk vessels can easily be built in many shipyards, due to their simple design, and can have shallow enough draft to operate in inland waterways. This offers the possibility for a modern but more operationally useful and plentiful “Liberty Ship” blended with characteristics of Q-ships. These vessels are useful in peacetime for sea-based commerce, as well as providing critical supporting forces in wartime, whether for attack, rearm, and resupply, while also hiding in plain sight, both physically and in the electromagnetic spectrum.

Development of autonomous commercial ships is technically feasible, and key allies and partners are leading the way with commercial investments. Leveraging the momentum and investments that key nations and major shipping companies are already undertaking, a consortium could be established between the U.S. Navy and several key allies to procure, adapt, field, and operate this class of platform. This would leverage common systems and approaches from commercial efforts, while enabling navies to focus on unique military systems development and maturation in parallel. For future autonomous surface platforms, by cooperating with select regional maritime partners, several primary (commercial shipping-based) variants could be procured and fielded, with customized attention to key regions (e.g. the Indo-Pacific, the Baltic, the Black Sea, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Arctic).

The cornerstone military capability of these ships revolves around the integration of Mk 41 or Mk 57 VLS cells. Allowing key nations to develop subsystems (hardware and software), especially autonomy enhancements to satisfy minimum mission requirements, and experiment would help to share the burden. The U.S. could take the lead on integration, to ensure maximum interoperability, as well as assess priority opportunities for enhanced capabilities. The recently established NATO Maritime Unmanned Systems (MUS) Initiative provides one such path where a virtuous cycle of missions, technologies, experimentation, and refinement can be realized.


The first Gulf War in 1991 provided valuable insight into the huge difficulties of “SCUD hunting” in the desert. The U.S. and key allies and partners can apply this approach to the maritime dimension of 21st century great power competition, for an advantageous cost-imposition strategy using cheap and mobile hiders to employ effective salvos at sea. This would shift the balance for cost-imposition in a way that is favorable in peacetime, while supporting continued economic development and positioning, and if needed, during crisis or conflict. In a hider-finder competition, the sheer volume of maritime traffic and persistence offer a key opportunity to advantage a hider, if it can remain nondescript. Application of common Vertical Launch System (VLS) modules into existing commercial vessels can provide numerous, distributed, persistent, and nondescript capability today, while also pursuing an accelerated path to leverage ongoing and significant commercial developments for autonomous shipping. The Navy should further pursue this concept in wargames and alternative future fleet architecture designs, with continuous feedback from at-sea experimentation. The U.S., with key partners and allies, should explore the use of these types of vessels, and effectively implement shell games at sea.

Chris Bassler is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA).

Steve Benson is President of Littoral Solutions Inc. and CDR, USN (ret’d).

Featured Image: A concept illustration of an autonomous Rolls-Royce vessel (Rolls-Royce image)

Sea Control 206 – The Cod Wars with Will Reynolds and Walker Mills

By Jared Samuelson

Will Reynolds and Walker Mills join the podcast to discuss the Cod Wars, the mid-20th century showdown pitting the might of the Royal Navy against Icelandic fishermen. They recount the events of each confrontation and what lessons can be learned today about leverage.

Download Sea Control 206 – The Cod Wars with Will Reynolds and Walker Mills


1. The Cod Wars and Today: Lessons from an Almost War,” Walker Mills, CIMSEC, July 28, 2020.
2. What Price Cod?: A Tugmaster’s View of the Cod Wars, Norman Story, Hutton Press, January 1, 1992.
3.Stand Up a Joint Interagency Task Force to Fight Illegal Fishing,” Claude Berube, CIMSEC, July 21, 2020.

4. “The Fishing Wars are Coming,” James Stavridis and Johan Bergenas, The Washington Post, September 13, 2017.

Jared Samuelson is the Senior Producer of the Sea Control Podcast. Contact him at

Sustaining an Intellectual Overmatch: Management Education for Our Naval Warfighters

By Dr. Mie Augier, Major Sean F. X. Barrett, Dr. Nick Dew, and Dr. Gail Fann Thomas

“The 21st Century demands American officers be far better educated and more capable of directing and integrating the Nation’s military instrument.” –Developing Today’s Joint Officer for Tomorrow’s Ways of War1

“The challenges of the twenty first century require holistic approaches to the changing character of conflict.” –Education for Seapower2


The Joint Chiefs of Staff’s May 2020 vision and guidance for Professional Military Education (PME) and talent management states, “There is more to sustaining a competitive advantage than acquiring hardware; we must gain and sustain an intellectual overmatch as well.”3 Developing flexible, agile minds was also a major theme a century ago in the Knox-King-Pye report, which helped the Navy steer away from an earlier technical education focus and toward broader skills that helped produce the ideas and leaders that proved critical in WWII.

Fast forward 100 years, and we have reached another inflection point. Numerous studies point to a geostrategic environment that has shifted radically in the past decade toward a future that is filled with uncertainty. The Navy and Marine Corps have realized that key aspects of our institutions, war planning, training, education, and resource management are inadequate to deter and, if necessary, win against our adversaries when the situation arises.

We should look at how management education, with its interdisciplinary and integrative focus, is an essential tool for developing future naval warfighters who have the skills to draw out peak performance from personnel and maximize the effectiveness of a wide range of naval organizations.4 Most people know from personal experience the difference that excellent management makes to organizational performance. A recent study shows that workers who moved from an average boss to a high-quality boss improved their productivity by 50 percent.5 Leaders with high-quality management skills can really make an impact. And while the context of management varies, the practice of management across a broad range of situations fundamentally requires a similar set of core skills.6 Given the need for the Navy team to perform at its peak under challenging circumstances, the Navy would be well-served by incorporating more management education into PME for both officers and enlisted sailors.

The Human Element in High-Performance Organizations

Our naval forces do not operate in a vacuum and are oftentimes nudged by larger economic and societal trends. Therefore, it is worth looking briefly at some general trends in U.S. management before turning to what specifically might be relevant to defense management.

Industries throughout the U.S. have been grappling with issues similar to those facing the naval services. Technology is changing faster and faster. Attracting, engaging, and retaining top talent is an unrelenting task. In response to these challenges, corporations have recognized the need to create learning organizations that support high performance. Evidence of these issues in the Navy is apparent in recently retired Vice Admiral Luke McCollum’s 2018 report in response to the 2017 U.S. Navy ship collisions. The report, Industry Best Practices & Learning Culture – The Competitive Advantage of a Learning Culture, provided a series of findings after surveying 30 Navy-relevant corporations to learn how they build and sustain high-performing organizations. Human factors topped the list. 

The most important component of building a learning culture is inculcating these “human factors” into the organization. High-performance and mission effectiveness are dependent on the humanistic aspects of employees, teams, and leaders. This people-centric perspective dominates high-performing organizations.7

This human-oriented theme has long been recognized by our naval leaders. Admiral Arleigh Burke clearly understood the importance of developing the Navy’s leaders:

“There is one element in the profession of arms that transcends all others in importance; this is the human element. No matter what the weapons of the future may be, no matter how they are to be employed in war or international diplomacy, man will still be the most important factor in naval operations.”8

More recently, the Joint Chiefs emphasized the human factor in their May 2020 report:

“All graduates must possess critical and creative thinking skills, emotional intelligence, and effective written, verbal and visual communication skills to support the development and implementation of strategies and complex operations.”9

Given the centrality of the human element to our naval success, we must understand how to manage it well. This involves a shift in the kinds of skills, capabilities, attitudes, and values at the center of PME. Two central issues stand out.

An increasing need for generalist skills in an uncertain world. In his book, Range, David Epstein claims that cognitive flexibility is increasingly important in today’s world. Training in specific tools and techniques is efficient for mastering repetitive, well-structured problems. However, a world full of uncertainty, ambiguity, and ill-structured problems requires more diverse skills and knowledge (i.e., range and flexibility). Cognitive flexibility manifests in the ability to transfer knowledge between domains and apply knowledge to new situations, which is increasingly important in today’s specialized world. Teaching broad concepts rather than specific information is more advantageous to developing this ability, as well as instilling a broad intellectual preparedness and the ability for ongoing learning. Warfighters need to learn how to think rather than what to think about. As the Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon cautioned, “What we must avoid above all is designing technologically sophisticated hammers and then wandering around to find nails that we can hit with them.”10 An ability to think abstractly can be capitalized on across a range of problems as opposed to specific skills that are limited to particular types of problems. Thus, instruction focused on helping students make connections is more conducive to learning and later achievement than focusing on formulas and procedures.11 Such skills are very relevant to warfighters where there is a high need for flexibility and taking initiative in executing operational orders.

An explicit focus on soft skills. Operating effectively in a world in which technology has connected individuals and organizations more than ever requires warfighters with sophisticated soft skills in addition to technological expertise. The President of the Naval Postgraduate School, Vice Admiral Ann E. Rondeau, USN (ret.), explains, “Employers today require the whole package when looking for people to hire and join their teams… They want individuals who have developed intangible skills not necessarily listed as part of a certificate or degree.”12 Today’s reality requires warfighters to have the soft skills necessary to manage organizational ecosystems where leaders do not necessarily wield formal authority but instead must build mutually aligned communities. As Richard Straub writes in the June 2019 Harvard Business Review, “To succeed in the era of platforms and partnerships, managers will need to change practice on many levels…Both practitioners and scholars can begin by dispensing with mechanistic, industrial-age models of inputs, processes, and outputs. They will have to take a more dynamic, organic, and evolutionary view of how organizations’ capacities grow and can be cultivated.”13 Soft skills have thus emerged as a key requirement for managing the performance of ecosystems of organizations.”14

By identifying the Navy’s requirements for high-quality management skills among its warfighters, we can invest in PME that equips naval warfighters with the skills they really need to lead a wide range of naval organizations to high performance.

Management Education for Seapower

Given the need for superior generalist and soft skills to match the challenges of the strategic environment the Navy faces, management education provides many key opportunities for warfighters to develop the right intellectual abilities. Some of the most relevant themes and approaches include the following:

Educating minds to be prepared for the unexpected. Retired Admiral Mike Mullen, who spoke at the Naval Postgraduate School’s first virtual SECNAV Guest Lecture, stated, “We live now in a tremendous time of great uncertainty and even greater ambiguity. We’re facing and will face a completely new, and in many ways unknown, reality where nothing will be the same in the future.”15 Management approaches and education can help in this instance. Management education is centrally concerned with anticipating and adapting to change. It develops proactive problem-solving skills. While the ability to analyze known problems using optimizing techniques has a place, it is important for the Navy also to focus on developing warfighters with skills in thinking through ambiguous and changing situations.16

Leading warfighting organizations to become more agile through change and transformation. In their May 2020 report, the Joint Chiefs observed, “We cannot simply rely upon mass or the best technology…Our job is to learn how to apply our capabilities better and more creatively.”17 Admiral Mullen similarly emphasized the importance of leading change.18 However, change is not easy. For example, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted in his memoir, Duty, that the greatest challenge he faced was changing organizations. Any change, to be effective, must be understood and communicated by people to be implemented in our organizations. In the DoD, this becomes even more complicated because it involves government civilians, military personnel, and contractors, and requires leading across generational divides and a diverse workforce. Given these complexities, warfighters need to use evidence-based approaches on how to best lead change.19

Excelling in communication skills. An intelligent workforce knows how to communicate clearly. Kline’s “Owl Speaks to Lion” humorously describes the detrimental results when an analyst does not know how to translate his findings adequately for the vice admiral who requires the results to make an important decision. Such skills are taught and honed over time and experience. One critical communication skill that must be fostered is writing. The writing process hones one’s thinking and helps one discover the real problem, define the root causes of the problem, and describe the costs and benefits of various courses of action.20

Building exemplary people skills. As the Department of the Navy’s Education for Seapower report explains, “[N]aval leaders must be just as ready to…solve a social problem below decks or in the platoon” as they are “to move against the enemy.”21 Research shows that emotional intelligence, coaching, and feedback upward, downward, and horizontally are key to high performing organizations. And these skills are not “one and done.” Each level of leadership presents new challenges concerning the types and complexity of the problems encountered and the number of people one leads. Social skills are developmental and change over the life of the leader. Additionally, there is evidence that leaders’ skills are directly related to retention. Most have heard the adage, “Employees don’t leave their organization; they leave their managers.”22 Good bosses not only contribute to the high performance of their employees but also increase employee retention because workers quit bad bosses.23

Understanding the influence of cultures. Complementary to (but different from) traditional international relations approaches, management and leadership education emphasize understanding how culture influences decision-making and how it affects collaboration. This is increasingly important to warfighters in an era featuring more and more “shared responsibility for security with other nations,” wherein “[s]trong global relationships and defense partnerships help mitigate the risks of…unpredictability.”24 Greater mutual understanding and mutual trust has enormous practical value in operational environments.

Developing meaningful organizational leadership skills. Vice Admiral Rondeau notes the essential connection between leaders and their organizations: “Leaders set the tone for the culture of their organizations. Meaning of the community, no matter how defined, becomes essential for interconnectedness, for bonding, and for understanding. It all has to do with the relationship between the organization and the individual.”25 The Navy’s PME institutions are uniquely positioned to develop warfighter skills in how to communicate and build essential interconnections using best practices from both civilian and military approaches to leadership development.

Building historical understanding to be decisive in the future. In an operational environment featuring a lack of combat deployments, we must increasingly turn to history to learn vicariously through others. The first President of Marine Corps University, Lieutenant General Paul K. Van Riper, USMC (ret.), reflected, “I wanted to impart a simple lesson: a properly schooled officer never arrives on a battlefield for the first time, even if he has never actually trod the ground, if that officer has read wisely to acquire the wisdom of those who have experienced war in times past.”26 A champion of PME throughout his career in Congress, Representative Ike Skelton also recognized the importance of an appreciation for history: “I cannot stress this enough because a solid foundation in history gives perspective to the problems of the present. And a solid appreciation of history…will prepare students for the future.”27 Management education has long championed these kinds of vicarious learning through the extensive use of case studies. The case study approach heightens students’ sensitivity to history, context, and the particulars of a wide variety of situations. It gives warfighters a reservoir of examples to draw on as they face an unpredictable future.28

These elements of management education can help naval warfighters improve their personal performance and create a higher-performing Navy team that is better positioned to cope with the unpredictability of the future operating environment. In an era when investment dollars are at a premium, these management skills should be emphasized to a greater extent in PME because they provide high return on the Navy’s investments. Management skills can be applied across a wide range of situations and roles, and they typically stay relevant longer than technical skills. Management skills are particularly valuable for warfighters that advance into higher-level positions that usually involve more complex organizational and leadership challenges, and less technical know-how.29 A recent study by Harvard economists David Deming and Kadeem Noray puts it this way:

“[High]-ability workers choose STEM careers initially, but exit them over time…[This] is explained by differences across fields in the relative return to on-the-job learning. High ability workers are faster learners in all jobs. However, the relative return to ability is higher in careers that change less because learning gains accumulate”(emphasis added).30

Return on investment explains why management degrees (principally MBAs) dominate lists of the most popular graduate degrees, since individuals know that as their careers advance, the returns on graduate education favor developing strong management skills.31 Investing in management know-how is also less risky than investing in technical knowledge because the general applicability of management skills means they never abruptly go out of fashion.


“Whoever can make and implement his decisions consistently faster gains a tremendous, often decisive advantage. Decision making thus becomes a time-competitive process, and timeliness of decisions becomes essential to generating tempo. Timely decisions demand rapid thinking, with consideration limited to essential factors. We should spare no effort to accelerate our decision-making ability.” –FMFM 132

The changing geostrategic landscape demands changes in the skillsets of our naval leaders. Because of rapid advancements in technology, the human element will play an increasingly important factor in future operating environments. While tactical naval warfighters need to be technically savvy, operational-level warfighters must excel in the managerial skills needed to get peak performance out of the human element. Fundamentally, this is a general management challenge that applies across a wide range of Navy organizations. The Education for Seapower study and strategy, and the remarks of our naval leaders highlight that this entails a paradigm shift in our approach to PME. The Navy should invest more in management education to develop the intellectual and practical competencies required for excellence in naval warfighting.

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.

Dr. Nick Dew is a professor at the Graduate School of Defense Management at the Naval Postgraduate School. His research is focused on entrepreneurial thinking and innovation in defense organizations.

Dr. Gail Fann Thomas is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Defense Management at the Naval Postgraduate School. Her research focus is strategic communication and interorganizational collaboration.


1. 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: 2020), 2.

2. Department of the Navy, Education for Seapower (Washington, DC: 2019), 37.

3. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Developing Today’s Joint Officers, 2.

4. We acknowledge the difference between management and leadership. Both can be learned and contribute to peak performance for naval officers. See, for example, Bernard Bass, The Bass Handbook of Leadership:  Theory, Research, and Managerial Applications (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010); John Kotter, “What Leaders Really Do,” Harvard Business Review (Dec. 2001): 2; Abraham Zaleznik, “Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?” Harvard Business Review (Jan. 2004): 1.

5. Kathryn L. Shaw, Bosses Matter: The Effects of Managers on Workers’ Performance: What Evidence Exists on Whether Bad Bosses Damage Workers’ Performance, Issue 456 (Bonn, Germany: IZA World of Labor, 2019).

6. Shaw, Bosses Matter.

7. Luke M. McCollum, Chief of Naval Reserve, Report on Engagement With Industry and the Competitive Advantage of Learning Culture, submitted to Secretary of the Navy, December 26, 2018.

8. As quoted in Rear Admiral P. Gardner Howe III, “Professionalism, Leader Development Key to Future,” Navy News Service, May 26, 2015,

9. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Developing Today’s Joint Officers, 4.

10. Herbert A. Simon, “What We Know About Learning,” Journal of Engineering Education 87, no. 4 (Oct. 1998): 346.

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

12. Anne Rondeau, “Gen Eds – Are They Worth It?” HuffPost, March 29, 2017,

13. Richard Straub, “What Management Needs to Become in an Era of Ecosystems,” Harvard Business Review, June 5, 2019,

14. Such soft skills include communication, teamwork and interpersonal skills, critical thinking, and problem-solving capability in complex, multidisciplinary situations. Casciaro, Edmondson, and Jang note that “the vast majority of innovation and business development opportunities lie in the interfaces between functions, offices, or organizations.” Similarly, Hagel and Brown observe the “productive friction” that results from transactions between companies. Strong interpersonal skills are needed for these results to manifest themselves. See Tiziana Casciaro, Amy C. Edmondson, and Sujin Jang, “Cross-Silo Leadership: How to Create More Value by Connecting Experts from Inside and Outside the Organization,” Harvard Business Review (May-June 2019): 132; John Hagel III and John Seely Brown, “Difficult Business Partnerships Can Accelerate Innovation,” Harvard Business Review (Feb. 2005),

15. Admiral Mike Mullen, USN(ret.), “SECNAV Guest Lecture” (lecture, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, CA, May 19, 2020).

16. In the context of business, Jeff Bezos notes, “For every leader in the company, not just for me, there are decisions that can be made by analysis…These are the best kinds of decisions! They’re fact-based decisions. The great thing about fact-based decisions is that they overrule the hierarchy. The most junior person in the company can win an argument with the most senior person with a fact-based decision. Unfortunately, there’s this whole other set of decisions that you can’t ultimately boil down to a math problem.” As quoted in Bernard Girard, The Google Way: how One Company Is Revolutionizing Management As We Know It (San Francisco, CA: No Starch Press, Inc., 2009), 118.

17. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Developing Today’s Joint Officers, 3.

18. Michael Mullen, “Admiral Michael Mullen: Wharton Leadership Lecture,” October 27, 2008,

19. Jeroen Stouten, Denise M. Rousseau, and David De Cremer, “Successful Organizational Change: Integrating the Management Practices and Scholarly Literatures,” Academy of Management Annals 12, no. 2 (2018): 752-788.

20. Carol Bekenkotter, “Writing and Problem Solving,” in Language Connections: Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum, eds. T. Fulwiler and A. Young (Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1982), 33-44.

21. Education for Seapower, 15.

22. Lori Goler, Janelle Gale, Brynn Harrington, and Adam Grant, “Why People Really Quit Their Jobs,” Harvard Business Review, January 11, 2018,

23. Shaw, Bosses Matter.

24. Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly, “SECNAV VECTOR 8,” January 24, 2020.

25. Ann E. Rondeau, “Identity in the Profession of Arms,” Joint Force Quarterly, no. 62 (3rd Quarter 2011): 11.

26. Paul K. Van Riper, “The Relevance of History to the Military Profession: An American Marine’s View,” in The Past As Prologue: The Importance of History to the Military Profession, eds. Williamson Murray and Richard Hart Sinnreich (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 53.

27. Ike Skelton, “JPME: Are We There Yet?” Military Review 72, no. 5 (May 1992): 2-9.

28. This is complementary to a pure war college perspective in that it blends history with organizations and a strategic lens and is thus more broadly applicable and provides greater understanding for students who can learn from the process of developing and applying analogies to different contexts.

29. See, for example, a survey of Massachusetts Institute of Technology alumni, in National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, The Integration of the Humanities and Arts with Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Higher Education: Branches from the Same Tree (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2018), 44-45.

30. David J. Deming and Kadeem Noray, “STEM Careers and the Changing Skill Requirements of Work,” Working Paper (June 2019), 3,

31. For example, see “Most Popular Graduate Degrees,” Master’s Programs Guide, accessed May 26, 2020,

32. U.S. Marine Corps, FMFM 1: Warfighting (Washington, DC: 1989), 69.

Featured Image: Facilities of the U.S. Naval War College (U.S. Navy Photo by Jaima Fogg/Released)

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.