The Second Most Powerful Man in the World: Phillips O’Brien on Admiral William Leahy

By Dmitry Filipoff

CIMSEC had the opportunity to discuss with Phillips Payson O’Brien his latest book, The Second Most Powerful Man in the World: The Life of Admiral William D. Leahy, Roosevelt’s Chief of StaffIn this conversation O’Brien sheds light on Admiral Bill Leahy’s momentous contributions to U.S. strategy and foreign policy in the critical years during and following World War II, as well as his personal style of discreetly exercising influence as “the second most powerful man in the world.”

As the title clearly suggests, Admiral Leahy wielded tremendous power and influence, especially during the interwar period, WWII, and in the immediate aftermath of the war. What were the sources of his power and influence that led you to describe him as “the second most powerful man in the world”?

The single most important element in Leahy’s rise to the top of the U.S. government in World War II was his longstanding friendship with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The two men first met in the Navy Department in 1913 and grew to not only enjoy each other’s company, but to trust each other’s instincts. In the case of Roosevelt, this was special. Roosevelt, though outwardly charming, was not a naturally trusting individual. As he rose up politically, he was surrounded by ambitious people trying to take advantage of his power to further their own careers—and he often held them at arm’s length because of this. In the case of Leahy, he came across someone who was happy not to be in the limelight, but motivated to serve his interests first and foremost. It was why, as soon as Roosevelt became president, he started promoting Leahy up the naval chain of command, making sure that the admiral received every major position he could—chief of the Bureau of Navigation, commander of the Battle Force, and culminating in Leahy’s appointment as Chief of Naval Operations (1937-1939).

The two men also shared a similar strategic outlook. They were committed believers in the importance of a strong American navy and both had been strongly influenced by the ideas of Alfred Thayer Mahan. It meant that when they did work together running the American Navy in the 1930s, they instinctively reinforced each other’s perceptions and made a very strong team. By the time World War II started for the U.S., the American Navy was more the creation of these two men than any others.

Leahy actually retired formally in 1939, having reached mandatory retirement age. However by this time Roosevelt had made the decision that if a war did break out in the near future he would want to bring Leahy back to help him run it. He started discussing such a role with Leahy in the spring of 1939, and the two men honed the specifics of the role during the coming years. To allow this to happen, Roosevelt kept Leahy employed. He first made him governor of Puerto Rico, so that Leahy could help build up naval bases in the Caribbean. He then made Leahy ambassador to Vichy France. Both of these positions were a sign of the special trust the president had in the admiral.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt with Admiral William Leahy on board USS Houston (CA-30) during the president’s cruise in that ship which began on 18 February 1939 and ended on 3 March 1939 in the Caribbean. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Beyond the close personal relationship between Leahy and Roosevelt, the admiral had a number of key skills. He was instinctively political (this is discussed in more detail later) and he was undoubtedly competent and thorough. Though not the most deeply intellectual, Leahy had a way of getting a job done that was invaluable. When you combine this with his lack of interest in personal publicity, it was a powerful cocktail and made him stand out in a Washington DC populated by people who were always on the lookout for personal glory.

Soon after the U.S. entered WWII, it was confronted with a major strategic decision on how it should define specific war production priorities for its tremendous industrial might, a decision you described in the book as perhaps one of the most strategic decisions of the war for the U.S. What was Admiral Leahy’s role in these deliberations?

Usually strategy in WWII is seen as some great debate over where and when military force should be used. Discussions over whether the U.S. should have invaded France in 1943 or 1944, or whether it should fight a Germany-First war are perhaps the most famous examples of this. In our focus on the where and when, however, what is almost always overlooked is the what. All the great powers in World War II had to decide what to build in terms of equipment, force structure, how to balance needs between armies, navies, and air forces, as well as within the services such as balancing needs between, for example, fighters and bombers or tanks and trucks.

This was a far more involved process for the U.S. than many realize and William Leahy was at the heart of this debate. Not long after Pearl Harbor was attacked, President Roosevelt approved an arms construction plan of enormous depth and breadth which was nicknamed the Victory Program. However, by the summer of 1942, it was clear that even with the largest and most powerful economy in the world the U.S. could not build nearly as much equipment as was called for by the Victory Plan. A crisis ensued and hard choices needed to be made in the second half of 1942 about what would be built, and even more controversially, what would have to be cut.

Leahy was the most important person in the government, except for Roosevelt, in determining these priorities. By this point he was both the president’s chief of staff (the closest modern equivalent would be the National Security Adviser) and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Wearing his two hats he fought to cut army construction and focus on aircraft and aircraft carrier construction. By December 1942 he had emerged triumphant, and both his targets received the highest priority for the U.S. in 1943 and 1944. On the other hand, production for the army, particularly tank construction, was slashed. This decision, which has received little historical discussion, determined what the U.S. could and could not do during the war.

Admiral Leahy photographed circa 1945. (Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives)

Another strategic choice that Leahy was instrumental in making at this time was about the size of U.S. armed forces. The other joint chiefs favored inducting huge numbers of men and women into the forces, at one point devising a plan for more than ten million U.S. military personnel. That plan, however, soon clashed headlong with the need to keep skilled personnel working in the economy to produce war material. Leahy was the only military officer to serve on a small committee chosen by Roosevelt to examine the question of military and civilian employment, and he came down strongly in favor of more equipment production and a small army. His preference was one of the reasons that the U.S. fought the war that it did. The United States opted for an equipment heavy, personnel-light military force structure that kept casualties down.  

Admiral Leahy chaired the Joint Chiefs of Staff during World War II (and afterward) and also participated in major strategic conferences of the war, such as at Yalta and Potsdam. What was his influence on wartime grand strategy and the conduct of WWII?

Leahy took over as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs holding very different strategic priorities from the Chief of Staff of the Army, George Marshall. Looking at the war from an overall perspective, Leahy did not want the United States to fight a Germany-First war, which Marshall and many others, including Winston Churchill, strongly supported. Leahy was worried that if the Japanese were allowed to entrench themselves in their Pacific empire while the U.S. threw everything into the war against Germany, that it would have devastating consequences. It would, he feared, take many extra years and a great deal of American blood to take the fight to Tokyo.

In this, Leahy walked arm-in-arm with Chief of Naval Operations Ernest King. The Leahy-King alliance ended up triumphing in this fight, and contrary to what is widely believed, at no time in the war did the United States fight a Germany-First strategy. In 1942 the U.S. fought, if anything, a Japan-First war. The United States sent more overall equipment to the Pacific over Europe or North Africa. In 1943 and 1944 the U.S. fought two different wars. The Army and Army Air Force did prioritize the war against Germany—sending approximately two-thirds of their equipment to Europe. The Navy, on the other hand, sent at least 90 percent of its strength (including one of the largest air forces in the world) to fight Japan. This meant that in overall terms the United States, under Leahy’s watchful eye, fought a war almost evenly balanced between Europe and the Pacific but weighed slightly more toward the latter.

When it came to the war against Germany, Leahy’s vision was the one the United States followed more than any other chief’s. Leahy was the only chief who supported the invasion of North Africa in 1942, better known as the Torch Landings. Indeed, Leahy had been the first major policymaker who proposed a North African invasion to Roosevelt, suggesting such an operation in the summer of 1941 (when Leahy was ambassador to Vichy France). Leahy believed such an operation would confine Germany to the European continent, and allow for Allied domination of the Atlantic. Understanding Leahy’s strong support for Torch helps explain why Roosevelt backed the operation over the strong opposition of Marshall and King almost immediately after Leahy became Chief of Staff.

After Torch, Leahy’s number one goal for the war in Europe was to delay the invasion of France until 1944. He did not want to try an invasion in 1943, which Marshall supported, because Leahy believed it was an unnecessary risk which could result in high U.S. casualties (and he also believed it would deprive the war against Japan of needed equipment). He thus helped undermine the U.S. army’s attempt to get British approval for any 1943 invasion. However, once this was ruled out, Leahy enthusiastically supported D-Day in 1944, and helped force the British to accept this position at the grand strategic conferences in Washington, Quebec, Cairo, and Tehran which were held in 1943.

Allied leaders pose in the courtyard of Livadia Palace, Yalta, during the conference. Those seated are (from left to right): Prime Minister Winston Churchill (UK); President Franklin D. Roosevelt (USA); and Premier Josef Stalin (USSR). Also present are USSR Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (far left); Admiral of the Fleet Sir Andrew Cunningham, R.N., and Air Chief Marshall Sir Charles Portal, R.A.F. (both standing behind Churchill); and Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy, USN, (standing behind Roosevelt). (Photograph from the Army Signal Corps Collection in the U.S. National Archives)

Following the death of his close friend President Roosevelt and the end of WWII, Admiral Leahy continued to be highly influential in the Truman administration and played a major role in many critical postwar questions. How did Admiral Leahy shape postwar formulations of the U.S. defense establishment and international order?

Franklin Roosevelt’s death led to a significant change in Leahy’s influence. For the two years before FDR died, Leahy was the most influential policymaker in the White House, as Harry Hopkins (who was more influential in 1942 when Leahy became chief of staff) saw his influence decline. However, Leahy had no pre-existing relationship with Harry Truman, and so he immediately lost his preeminent position as a close friend and longtime confidant of the president when Roosevelt passed. Truman also had a very high opinion of people such as George Marshall and James Byrnes and he started taking their advice more than Roosevelt did. That being said, Leahy did maintain a good deal of power. After meeting him, Truman decided he wanted to keep Leahy on as his chief of staff, and by 1946 they were even on the road to becoming friends. Leahy, for instance became an automatic companion of the president when Truman started taking his famous vacations at the naval base in Key West, Florida.

The establishment of a strong working relationship with Truman allowed Leahy to keep influence in a few areas—most importantly relations with the Soviet Union. By the time Truman took over, Leahy had met with Stalin twice, at Tehran in 1943 and Yalta in 1945, and had discussed U.S.-Soviet relations with Roosevelt countless times. Though Leahy was never critical of Roosevelt, he was always instinctively more skeptical about the future of relations with the Soviets than the deceased president. He believed a long-term, friendly relationship between the two nations was unlikely and wanted the U.S. to toughen up in its positions—a stance he started urging on the new president.

President Harry S. Truman is piped aboard USS Missouri (BB-63), during the Navy Day fleet review in the Hudson River, New York City, 27 October 1945. Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy is just behind the president. (National Archives and Records Administration)

Truman almost immediately after becoming president asked Leahy for briefings on relations with the Soviet Union. Indeed, the first time Truman met with Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov, he asked Leahy to be in the room with him, providing support. Maybe Leahy’s greatest role in this regard was how he shaped Truman’s most important speech on Soviet relations, his Navy Day address of late 1945 and, even more surprisingly, Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech of 1946. Leahy was the driving force behind the writing of the Navy Day address as a series of points, with a noticeable message about the role of the U.S. in supporting free peoples. When Churchill heard the Navy Day address, he decided to press ahead with an address of his own, which became known as the Iron Curtain speech. Churchill discussed this speech with Leahy more than any other American, indeed they spent one entire morning going through the text when Churchill visited Washington just before it was delivered. Churchill was so grateful for Leahy’s advice that, years afterward, he privately thanked the admiral for it.

Admiral Leahy frequently interacted with many well-known individuals of the WWII era, including those known for their strong personalities such as Admiral Ernest King, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and others. How would you describe Admiral Leahy’s personal style of leadership and management?

Leahy was instinctively political, and this defined his career for either good or ill depending on your point of view. He had the ability to read people and situations and adjust his own responses in such a way to appeal to those with whom he interacted—without revealing his true opinions. His lifelong friend and fellow Admiral Thomas Hart claimed that Leahy was a “born diplomat” who “always gets on with others.” In social situations Hart claimed that Leahy could be as “comfortable as an old shoe.”

This political, personal skill was a powerful weapon in his arsenal. He could use it on people he genuinely liked, such as Franklin Roosevelt, or those of whom he was deeply skeptical, such as Vice President Henry Wallace. It seems from the moment that Leahy met Roosevelt in 1913 he found a way to appeal to the young politician, to behave in such a way that earned Roosevelt’s trust. On the other hand, someone like the left-wing Wallace, about whom Leahy was intensely skeptical, seemed to think that the admiral was a friend or at least thought well of him when that was certainly not the case. Wallace had no idea that Leahy was working to undermine his position when he was Secretary of Commerce under Truman.

Leahy’s political skills were evident in his chairmanship of the joint chiefs of staff and his behavior at the great grand strategic conferences of World War II. As chairman or “senior member,” which was what he normally referred to himself as during the war, Leahy would usually let the other chiefs such as Marshall and King go on at great length with discussing their ideas and plans. If Leahy disagreed he would rarely say so outright, but instead, in a friendly manner, start asking questions of the plan being proposed and in doing so hopefully highlight its weaknesses. Leahy thus retained the impression of being impartial, when at times he was very partial indeed.  

At a luncheon meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, circa 1943. Present are (from left to right): General Henry H. Arnold, Chief of Staff, U.S. Army Air Forces; Admiral William D. Leahy, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff; Admiral Ernest J. King, Chief of Naval Operations and Commander in Chief, U.S. Fleet; and General George C. Marshall, Chief of Staff, U.S. Army. (Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives)

When dealing with the higher-ups such as Churchill and Stalin, Leahy normally said as little as possible, and when he did speak it was to support the position of the president. Both Churchill and Stalin eventually understood how much Leahy was valued by Roosevelt and by the end of the war treated him with great respect. Churchill even asked Leahy if the two could establish a private channel of communication, but Leahy, not wanting to do anything that would seem disloyal to Roosevelt, declined.

With the worldview and experience that he held toward the end of his career, how may have Admiral Leahy judged U.S. national security strategy as it stands today?

When Leahy’s career drew to a close in 1948 he was conflicted about the direction of U.S. foreign policy. He has sometimes been inaccurately portrayed as a simple, hardline Cold Warrior. Leahy had a far more nuanced view. He certainly wanted the United States to toughen up its policy vis-a-vis the Soviet Union after the end of World War II, and did not believe the wartime alliance was going to continue. He also wanted the U.S. to support democratic movements around the world—in a mostly non-militarized way.

This points out the big difference between what Leahy believed and how he has been portrayed. While he had no confidence in the future of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. wartime alliance, he was also dead set against the U.S. turning into a world policeman, deploying troops around the world and interfering in the internal affairs of other countries. He was particularly keen to keep the U.S. from becoming an interventionist power in the Middle East. That is why, when President Truman in early 1947 decided to intervene in Greece and Turkey, which is often seen as the start of the Cold War, Leahy was strongly opposed. He tried to change the president’s mind, but to no avail. When Truman decided to press ahead, Leahy, being the presidential servant that he was, publicly supported the move. However, his heart was not in it. Until the end of his time in office he did his best to keep the United States from becoming an interventionist power in the Middle East. He disagreed strongly with Truman over the U.S. decision to recognize Israel for instance, which he believed would lead to decades-long religious war in the region—a war that would eventually drag in the U.S. The differences between Truman and Leahy on the start of the Cold War and the Middle East were one of the reasons for the decline in Leahy’s influence from 1947 onward.

One might describe Leahy’s stance on foreign policy as robust non-interventionism. He was not apologetic about American power or influence, he just did not believe that much could actually be accomplished by interventions in other countries. In that sense, Leahy’s foreign policy vision could very well have resonance today. At the end of World War II the United States dominated world politics. It had half the world’s economic product and its most advanced armed forces. Though it is still the world’s leading power today, it is no longer as dominant as it was then. As such, the country could benefit by rethinking how and where it should involve itself in the world. A Leahy-like policy of greater restraint and less cost could be the natural choice for the U.S.

Phillips Payson O’Brien is a professor of Strategic Studies at the University of St Andrews in Fife, Scotland. Born and raised in Boston, he graduated from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut before working on Wall Street for two years. He earned a PhD in British and American politics and naval policy before being selected as Cambridge University’s Mellon Research Fellow in American History and a Drapers Research Fellow at Pembroke College. Formerly at the University of Glasgow, he moved to St Andrews in 2016.

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Content@cimsec.org

Featured Image: Admiral William Leahy saluting on the reviewing stand during the Navy Day parade, on Constitution Avenue, Washington, D.C., 27 October 1944. (Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives)

Sea Control 152: Bryan McGrath and Mitch McGuffie on Surface Navy Training

By Jared Samuelson

In advance of the Surface Navy Association gathering outside Washington, Bryan McGrath (@ConsWahoo) and Mitch McGuffie(@Mitch_McGuffie) join Jared (@jwsc03) to revisit Mitch’s 2009 article, “A Rude Awakening,” to discuss its impact on Surface Warfare Officer Training and discuss the current state of training.

Download Sea Control 152: Bryan McGrath and Mitch McGuffie on Surface Navy Training

Referenced Material and Show Notes

A Rude Awakening,” Mitch McGuffie’s 2009 article details his experiences as a junior exchange officer aboard a Royal Navy frigate.

What Happened to Our Surface Forces,” CAPT Kevin Eyer’s (ret.) 2018 article detailing Surface Navy decision-making since 1999 and its resultant effects.

The collected USNI works of CAPT John Cordle (ret.), prodigious chronicler of the Surface Navy. 

Circles in Surface Warfare Training” by Steve Wills

Jared Samuelson is the producer of CIMSEC’s Sea Control podcast. Contact him at seacontrol@cimsec.org.

Winning the Invisible War: Gaining an Enduring Advantage in the EMS

The following article is adapted from a new report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), Winning the Invisible War: Gaining an Enduring U.S. Advantage in the Electromagnetic Spectrum.

By Bryan Clark, Whitney M. McNamara, and Timothy A. Walton

The explosion of mobile communications and emerging Internet of Things are turning the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) into an increasingly crowded place. The advent of 5G, which needs wide swaths of spectrum in multiple frequency ranges to achieve high data rates, will only intensify this trend and create more conflicts between commercial and government users. The challenge of spectrum management and control will be acute for militaries, which depend almost entirely on the EMS for sensing and communications.

The American military is particularly affected by a congested EMS. U.S. forces deploy the most advanced networks of sensors and precision-guided munitions, relying on them for almost all operations. Adversaries like China and Russia have exploited this dependence during the last decade by developing and fielding a comprehensive array of electronic warfare (EW) systems to contest the spectrum.

The U.S. military, however, did not address the challenge posed by its competitors and numerous assessments now argue the U.S. military is unprepared for competition or conflict in the EMS. The problem was not a lack of funding, as defense spending for EMS operations grew steadily since 2015. DoD’s EMS shortfalls arose because the additional dollars were not spent implementing a coherent strategy and instead were used to upgrade legacy systems and fill various capability gaps. Regaining EMS superiority against Chinese and Russian forces at the current pace will take one or two decades – assuming America’s adversaries do not continue to improve.

DoD should accelerate its efforts to regain an advantage in the spectrum, but likely budget constraints will preclude simply throwing more money at the problem. Instead of perpetuating the current move-countermove competition by attempting to fill every EMS capability gap, DoD can adopt a new approach to EMS operations focused on asymme­tries between U.S and opposing militaries. An EMS strategy designed to undermine enemy strengths and exploit adversary vulnerabilities may leave some capability gaps intact but could be the only way for the U.S. military to achieve EMS superiority in time to forestall opportunistic aggression by one of America’s military competitors.

Exploiting Asymmetries

The most important asymmetry between U.S. and opposing militaries is the adversary’s “home team” advantage and how it impacts EMS operations. For example, Chinese and Russian forces can exploit their proximity to likely conflicts by employing sensor techniques that rely on multiple stationary arrays such as passive radio frequency (RF) detection or geolocation and long-range high frequency radars. As an expeditionary force, the U.S. military is less able to employ these techniques and often relies on active, monostatic radars for situational awareness and defense, exposing U.S. units to enemy detection and geolocation.

Their home team advantage also allows China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Russian Armed Forces to place EW and sensor systems on their own territory, where they can rely on wired communications, or in nearby sea or airspace, where line-of-sight RF communications can be reliable and difficult to jam. The relatively uncluttered spectrum near their territory also permits Chinese and Russian militaries to pre-plan their spectrum use. As an expeditionary force, the U.S. military must manage spectrum dynamically.

The proximity of U.S. competitors to likely areas of conflict creates additional asymmetries in force design and command and control (C2) between U.S. and competing militaries. For example, because the PLA understands where conflict is likely to occur, the Chinese forces to be employed, and the likely variety of enemy dispositions and tactics, the PLA can employ pre-architected systems of systems and tactics. This approach, which Chinese military strategists call System Destruction Warfare, prioritizes attacks on perceived enemy vulnerabilities, such as U.S. forces’ dependence on the EMS. Although it also uses pre-architected systems and focuses contesting adversary information operations, the Russian military’s C2 approach delegates subordinates more authority to improvise tactics. Similar to PLA leaders, however, Russian commanders are expected to use modeling and cybernetics to scientifically lead forces and antici­pate combat outcomes.

The worldwide commitments of the U.S. military require a more expeditionary and self-contained force design than those needed by Chinese or Russia forces. Today, U.S. forces center on large multimission platforms and troop formations, which are efficient but constrain the force’s flexibility. U.S. forces also need a more adaptable C2 process than the Chinese or Russian militaries to accommodate more contested communications, changing force packages, and the variety of local conditions. The U.S. military employs “mission command” to rely on a junior leader’s judgment and ability to follow the commander’s intent if communications are lost. A lack of planning and management tools available to junior commanders currently hinders their ability to innovate, however, making their actions more predictable to an adversary.  

A Return to Maneuver Warfare

To regain EMS superiority, DoD should focus on exploiting asymme­tries in ways that could undermine adversary strengths or exploit enemy vulnerabilities. Most prominently, the home team advantage of U.S. adversaries could be turned into a weakness if DoD adopts new warfighting approaches that emphasize maneuver and complexity. For instance, the PLA’s reliance on pre-planned, static systems of systems and tactics could be a disadvantage against highly dynamic and unpredictable U.S. force postures and capabilities. Furthermore, complex U.S. operations in the EMS could be especially effective against Chinese and Russian operational concepts that center on defeating U.S. C2, communications, and sensors.

To fully exploit the potential of maneuver warfare, the U.S. military should replace some of its self-contained multimission units that result in highly predictable force packages and tactics with cheaper and less multifunctional units to create a disaggregated and recomposable force. This would enable greater adaptability in U.S. force packages while imposing considerable complexity on adversaries. A disaggregated force would better enable the U.S. military to conduct EMS operations that would be challenging for an enemy to detect and counter, including passive and multistatic sensing, distributed EW, and decoy operations.

A disaggregated force will be difficult to manage, however, in a contested communications environment. Instead of DoD’s current trend toward centralized staffs and resilient wide-area communications for distributed operations, the U.S. military should address this challenge by adopting context-centric C2 and communications (C3). In this approach, C2 relationships are based on communications availability, rather trying to build a communications architecture to support a pre-determined C2 hierarchy. An essential element of context-centric C3 is planning tools that enable junior leaders at to creatively plan, adapt, and recompose their forces and operations. These tools are already being developed and fielded by DoD labs and industry.

U.S. forces will also need to dramatically change how they operate in the EMS to impose complexity and uncertainty on an adversary. Most importantly, the U.S. military’s over-reliance on active monostatic radars can enable adversaries to understand U.S. dispositions and tactics because radars can be detected, classified, and geolocated relatively easily. To more fully support maneuver and adaptability, U.S. forces should use more passive or multistatic sensing, complemented by LPI/LPD communications and electronic countermeasures.

To support passive and multistatic sensing, every U.S. EMS system should also incorporate passive RF detection, or electronic support (ES), functionality. ES capabilities would also help achieve LPI/LPD characteristics by monitoring friendly emissions; improve the effectiveness of EW actions by sensing adversary EMS actions; and enable coordination of EMS operations with minimal communications by detecting EMS operations of collaborating units. Introducing multifunction EMS systems to U.S. forces that can communicate, sense, jam, and decoy, would increase the variety of locations from which sensing or effects be delivered and provide greater adaptability to U.S. forces.

Fully exploiting networked and multifunction capabilities to operate at machine speed will require operators to yield some deci­sion-making to the EMSO system. Today, adaptive algorithms that can react to adversary actions are reaching EW systems in operating forces. These programs should be accelerated, along with efforts to establish testing processes and data governance procedures for future cognitive EMS systems. The most significant impediments to networked EMSO and EMBM are creating interoperable data transmission standards and the varied security levels at which different EMSO systems operate.

EMS maneuver and superiority only have meaning if DoD treats the EMS as an operational domain. Today’s approach to EMS operations treats the EMS as a utility, in which actions such as electronic attack (EA), ES, electronic protection (EP), communications, and sensing are distinct operations. In a domain construct, these actions would be considered as interrelated operations that can be employed in concert to accomplish the commander’s intent and tasking through maneuver in the EMS.

Implementing a New EMS strategy

A more disaggregated and recomposable force has significant impli­cations for how DoD identifies and develops new capabilities. For example, requirements will be harder to determine if the configuration of force packages is not known in advance. Therefore, DoD could adopt an opportunity-based, rather than requirements-based, approach to capability development. New systems would be assessed based on their ability to improve mission outcomes in a range of scenarios and force packages, rather than engineering a point solution based on assumptions regarding future forces and operations. DoD’s new Middle Tier Acquisition Process reflects this approach.   

One tool for assessing the potential benefits of new technologies or systems is experimentation. DoD’s EMS training ranges are unable to provide realistic modern operational environments, but operational security concerns would prevent U.S. forces from recouping the significant investment needed to upgrading live open-air facilities. DoD should shift its emphasis for EMS operations training to virtual and constructive facilities, which would enable concept development, tactics innovation, and training against the most challenging threats at all security levels. Live EMS training to practice safe operations could focus on less-modern threats or employ closed-loop radar, communication, and EW systems.

An Imperative to Change 

DoD cannot continue attempting to gain EMS superiority by incrementally filling capability gaps. This approach is too unfocused, will take too long to reach fruition, is potentially unaffordable, and cedes the initiative to America’s great power competitors. Instead of reacting to adversary moves with its own countermoves, DoD should move in a new direction and focus EW and EMSO capability development on implementing concepts for maneuver warfare that create adaptability for U.S. forces and complexity for adversaries.

If the DoD does not mount a new more strategic and proactive approach to fighting in the EMS and developing the requisite capabilities, adversaries could be emboldened to continue their efforts to gain territory and influence at the expense of U.S. allies and partners. Demonstrating the ability to survive and fight in a contested EMS could help U.S. forces slow Chinese and Russian activities and deter or dissuade these adversaries from more aggressive approaches to their objectives.

Bryan Clark is a Senior Fellow at CSBA.

Timothy Walton is a Research Fellow at CSBA.

Whitney M. McNamara is a Senior Analyst at CSBA.

Featured Image: PHILIPPINE SEA (Nov. 13, 2019) Lt. j. g. Louis Wohletz, from Minneapolis, center, is observed by Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force officers as he stands watch as a surface warfare coordinator during a maritime strike operation exercise in the combat information center of the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Milius (DDG 69) during Annual Exercise (ANNUALEX) 19. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Taylor DiMartino)

Lessons on Dissent from a Navy Ship

The following article originally featured in The Foreign Service Journal and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Jimmy Drennan

During the course of a damage control drill on my first ship, USS Anzio (CG 68), I was barking orders to sailors from my repair locker. My job was to ensure my team quickly suited up in firefighting equipment and established fire control boundaries and then report back to the damage control assistant (DCA) in the Central Control Station. The DCA gave periodic status updates, and in one such update he noted my repair locker was the only one that hadn’t reported completion.

When my team heard this, they scrambled even faster to put on their gear and establish boundaries. Noticing that some sailors began skipping key steps in their haste, I yelled out: “I don’t care what the DCA says! I want you to do this right!”

Just then, the chief engineer, who had been observing the drill in the background, grabbed me by the arm, looked me straight in the eye and said: “Don’t ever do that again.”

I got the message immediately. But I didn’t realize until many years later that the lessons I learned that day involved how to properly and effectively dissent in the military. Over time, the more I grasped the best techniques, motivations and conditions for disagreeing with my superiors, the more I realized that these lessons apply in any enterprise.

If you choose the right venue, build a reputation of competence and integrity, and honestly evaluate your reasons for dissent, you will maximize the chances of being heard.

How Not to Dissent

When I told the sailors in my repair locker to ignore the DCA, I violated several principles of effective dissent. First, and maybe most importantly, I dissented to the wrong audience. If I believed proper procedure was more important than speed, I should have had that conversation with the DCA in private following the drill. The whole point of dissenting is to help guide your organization in the direction you believe best. But as it was, I didn’t give the DCA the chance to hear my thoughts before I shouted my disagreement to the sailors.

This was my second mistake: I dissented in public. Except in rare circumstances, it is almost never the right call to publicly disagree with your superiors, especially if your intent is to convince them to change direction. Public dissent tends to back decision-makers into a corner and, more often than not, forces them to dig in their heels.

Dissenting in a public setting, whether it is a Navy repair locker, a meeting or a widely distributed email, could jeopardize external stakeholders’ trust and confidence in your organization. In my case, I put sailors in the uncomfortable position of having to choose whether to follow my orders (to proceed deliberately) or the DCA’s (to proceed rapidly). This undermined our chain of command. I could have inadvertently introduced delays and confusion in future scenarios as my sailors waited to hear whether I agreed with the DCA’s orders or not. I should have waited for my opportunity in the appropriate venue.

I later discovered I would have countless private discussions with the DCA and attend several small group meetings where my honest opinion would be received with an open mind. If I ever doubted whether I had permission to speak candidly in those private sessions, I recalled some advice from my first chief: “You’re in the room, aren’t you?”

Back in the repair locker, most of my sailors chose to follow the DCA’s guidance instead of mine because he had already demonstrated competence in firefighting and earned their trust. I had been onboard for only a matter of weeks, and my sailors barely knew me. My third mistake was not building trust with my audience before I offered my dissent. Although I believed strongly that it was most important for my sailors to practice their emergency actions deliberately before picking up the pace (and I still do), my sailors had no real incentive to listen to me over the DCA. I would have made more progress if I had first taken the time to demonstrate my competence as a naval officer and shipmate to them.

Building Credibility

If your audience respects your credibility, they will be more apt to heed your dissenting view. Likewise, it is imperative that your audience trusts you to act ethically. There is no surer way to destroy trust than to give dissenting advice based on some ulterior motive, such as politics or personal gain.

One thing I did right that day in the repair locker was to shut my mouth once the chief engineer counseled me. That was another lesson I didn’t fully understand until many years later: don’t carry on blindly. I voiced my dissent, my superior heard me, and he told me to fall in line. And I did.

Throughout my career, I often found that once is enough. Dissent does not have to be contentious or dramatic as it is often depicted in movies. Rather, if it is properly done in a measured way with a valid message, dissent can spur professional, unemotional conversations. If your audience understands your dissent but still decides to go its own way, you can rest assured that you did your job and gave your best advice.

Over the years I’ve also learned there are often factors I wasn’t considering or even aware of. Every so often you may find yourself in a situation where your convictions compel you to persist in your dissent, despite your audience’s initial dismissal. As always, your convictions and principles should guide you, but do acknowledge the potential consequences of your persistence, and recognize the possibility that you may not be seeing the full picture.

Being Heard

Many years after that first damage control drill, I found myself in an entirely different situation where the lessons I’d learned on dissent proved invaluable. I was in a four-star general’s office with a small group of officers to discuss an investigation. An incident had occurred in conjunction with an ongoing operation and we were being asked to relay the details so the general could answer questions from his superiors. I was the most junior person in the room.

Working in a four-star headquarters as a staff officer, I rarely had the opportunity to interact with the general. But I had briefed him several times in small and large venues, and I had built a reputation as a knowledgeable and trustworthy officer regarding the subject matter at hand.

I listened quietly as the tone of the conversation clearly indicated the general intended to continue the operation, with no one offering a serious alternative. As the meeting was coming to a close, I spoke up and recommended we consider terminating the operation. I am sure I surprised a few senior officers in the room, but I made sure to be respectful, direct and concise. The general heard me out, and the meeting soon adjourned.

I cannot say the general took my advice, but I know he considered it; and several of the other officers in the room later told me they agreed with what I said. Instead of damaging my career, my dissent further cemented my reputation as a subject matter expert and even opened career opportunities for me. Because I followed the lessons I had learned on dissent over the years, starting with that day in the repair locker, I was able to deliver a much-needed dissenting opinion that would be honestly considered, without fear of consequence.

Lieutenant Commander Jimmy Drennan is a naval officer currently assigned to United States Central Command as a maritime operations planner. He has 15 years of experience in the surface navy, with assignments as repair division officer, navigator and operations officer, as well as three deployments to the Middle East on guided missile cruisers. Out of uniform, he is president of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC). He is the recipient of the Surface Navy Association’s Arleigh Burke Award for Operational Excellence and the Navy and Marine Corps Association Leadership Award. These views are presented in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect the views of any U.S. government department or agency.

Featured Image: (Jul 26, 2006)The US Navy Ticonderoga Class Guided Missile Cruiser USS ANZIO (CG 68) (left) pulls alongside the USN Nimitz Class Aircraft Carrier USS DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER (CVN 69) for a refueling at sea somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. (U.S. Navy official photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Dale Miller)

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.