Michael Green’s latest contribution to the field of strategic studies is, first and foremost, a history. By More Than Providence (Columbia University Press, 2017), the first comprehensive history of U.S. statecraft in the Asia-Pacific since Tyler Dennett’s Americans in Eastern Asia (1922), is a much-needed attempt to answer the question: can the U.S. have a grand strategy in the Asia-Pacific? Green does this by asking whether the U.S. has ever had a grand strategy in this region.
Green concludes that U.S. grand strategy may have been “episodic and inefficient,” but not only does it exist, “in the aggregate[,] it has been effective.” Furthermore, he argues, whether or not the U.S. was able to “[muster] the willpower, focus, and resources to prevail when access to an open order in the region [had] been fundamentally challenged” depended not on the U.S.’s “preponderance of power,” but on “[U.S.] leaders’ clarity of purpose and deliberate identification of ends, ways, and means.” He reaches this conclusion through 15 superbly well-researched chapters.
American Strategy In Asia
Beginning from the 1780s to the present day, each chapter is similarly structured, opening with the introduction of the main cast of characters in the administration under study. Green tastefully offers vignettes of each individual, covering a range of information that shaped the individual’s worldview in policy-relevant ways, whether it is where the statesman grew up, what schools the statesman attended, or what religion they practiced. Each chapter also delivers solid overviews of the interpersonal and interagency dynamics that facilitated – or hindered – the administration’s ability to craft and implement a coherent grand strategy.
From there, Green delves into the narrative of events, interspersed with surveys of what other historians have had to say on the subject, sharing insights from classics, such as David Halberstam’s The Best and Brightest on the Vietnam War, to the most cutting-edge research, including Rana Mitter’s Forgotten Ally on the Sino-Japanese War.
But the book’s real strength is in each chapter’s concluding evaluation of the effectiveness of the administration under study’s grand strategy. 548 pages of this sweeping history is thematically tied together by the five “tensions” that Green identifies and traces over time.
The five tensions in U.S. grand strategy are: Europe versus Asia; continental (China) versus maritime (Japan); forward defense versus Pacific depth; self-determination versus universal values; and protectionism versus free trade. Green does not leave readers guessing how these tensions ought to be resolved – he forcefully advocates for a U.S. grand strategy that appreciates the preeminence of Asia in world affairs, elevates the importance of the U.S. relationship with Japan, does not allow for any retreat, loudly proclaims the ultimate triumph of democratic values, and vigorously pursues an open trading order.
Though unapologetically realist while critiquing administrations that failed to understand the hard logic of balance of power, Green also brings a nuanced appreciation of the importance of ideas to the table.
For example, while Green praises Theodore Roosevelt for “[achieving] an effective balance of realism and idealism,” he faults the “blatant hypocrisy” of the U.S.’s position in Asia during Roosevelt and William McKinley’s administration. McKinley annexed Hawaii over the opposition of native Hawaiians, and Guam and Samoa went decades without self-government. The U.S.’s repression of Filipinos fighting for independence also hurt the U.S.’s image as a democracy promoter. As such, “the anti-imperialist tradition in American political culture created a vulnerable center of gravity that could be targeted by insurgents – as Ho Chi Minh did to great effect six decades later.”
Green credits Woodrow Wilson for being on the “right side of history” for recognizing the Republic of China and setting the Philippines on course for independence, noting that the problem was not with Wilson’s push for such ideals, but pushing for such ideals in a unilateral and piecemeal manner that left Asian leaders ranging from Yoshinda Shigeru to Ho Chi Minh disillusioned with “American moral leadership.”
The U.S. fared less well under Dwight Eisenhower, when the U.S. could only be “reactive and ineffective” due to a failure to understand the power of ideas – of the nationalist and anti-colonial sentiment sweeping the region. A division soon emerged in Japan policy, between those policymakers who wanted a Japan that was “liberal but neutral” and those who saw Japan as “a critical asset in the struggle against the Soviet Union.” Though the immediate postwar era saw the first group ascendant, the priority gradually shifted towards fostering Japan’s economic growth to bolster Japan’s own defense. While the U.S. never gave up its goal of remaking Japan as a democracy, and in this, achieved some success, the U.S.’s Japan policy during this period was characterized by the sobering recognition that Japan’s security was tied to access to its former imperial spaces in Korea and Southeast Asia.
In his effusive praise for Reagan, Green highlights Reagan’s ability to “fuse interests and ideals; to focus on strengthening the institutions of freedom rather than just weakening the hold of authoritarian leaders; to ensure that allies were better governed at home so that they would be more resilient against imperialism from abroad; and to stay on the right side of history.” While Reagan had come into office a critic of Jimmy Carter’s human rights-focused approach, at least in Asia, Reagan found himself increasingly supporting democratization of key allies – such as South Korea and the Philippines.
Speaking of the George W. Bush administration, in which Green served on the National Security Council (2001-05), he raises the examples of the U.S. response to crises in Nepal, Vietnam, and Burma to argue that “We saw no contradiction between American idealism and self-interest.” He is harsh, but articulately so, on the Obama administration for signaling that violations of human rights and democratic principles would not impose costs on the violator’s relationship with the U.S. And this, perhaps, ought to concern us most about the current U.S. administration’s Asia policy (or more accurately, lack thereof).
Strategic Themes from the Current Administration
Donald Trump dismayed human rights advocates when a leaked transcript of his call with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte showed that he had made remarks praising Duterte’s controversial and violent war on drugs, which has killed more than 7,000 Filipinos. Trump said to Duterte: “I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem. Many countries have the problem, we have a problem, but what a great job you are doing and I just wanted to call and tell you that.” The call ended with an open-ended invitation to the Oval Office.
Similarly, Trump’s invitation to Thai Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who came to a power in a military coup, is causing consternation. Though Prayuth had initially promised elections in late 2014, they are unlikely to be held until 2018 at the earliest. Even when the elections are held, democratic government will be diminished as the new constitution provides a role for the junta in the unelected upper house, investing it with authority to invoke emergency powers, and restricts the power of the elected lower house. Politicians and activists have been detained, and Amnesty International scrapped a planned report on torture after receiving threats from the police.
The lack of contact between Trump and Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi is unsettling for the opposite reason – because Myanmarhas been taking steps towards democratization. While concerns about Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence on the abuses and atrocities directed against Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine State are valid, Myanmar is a successful case of U.S. engagement encouraging democratization. If Trump does not reach out to Aung San Suu Kyi, offering continued U.S. support despite the bumps on the road toward democratization, we could easily see Myanmar falling back into Beijing’s orbit. The pattern that emerges under the new administration is not a pretty one.
This is not to say that the U.S. had a perfect, or even remotely perfect, track record on the issue before Donald Trump. Historically, the U.S. has condoned extrajudicial killings and violations of democratic principles when it meant advancing U.S. security interests. Morally, the U.S. is reaching bankruptcy – both abroad and domestically. But that is no excuse to stop pushing for the democratic ideals that the U.S. professes.
Balance of power is the hard logic that has most often led to success in crafting U.S. grand strategy in the region. It disciplined resource allocation, and focused U.S. leaders on the appropriate opportunities. The U.S. doesn’t have a perfect track record when it comes to upholding ideals, and its credibility is declining in the region. However, in the present day, as the U.S. becomes stretched thinner, it must consider how it can best utilize non-material sources of power – such as ideals and principles – to pursue its objectives as well.
In the coming decades, our alliances will only become more important to dissuade a challenge by the rising hegemon. Japan, South Korea, Australia – all our allies and partners want the U.S. to stay engaged not only because of the U.S.’s capabilities to balance China, but also because they inherently prefer the U.S. as a partner because of what the U.S. has stood for as the world’s first democracy. If the U.S. wants to remain the preferred partner of states that will help us balance against China, the U.S. also needs to take a position in the balance of ideas shaping Asia today.
Mina Pollmann’s research interests focus on Japan’s security and diplomacy, U.S. foreign policy in East Asia, and international relations in the Asia-Pacific. She received her Bachelor’s from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, and will be beginning her PhD studies at MIT’s Department of Political Science this fall. She also writes for The Diplomat’sTokyo Report. Follow her on Twitter @MinaPollmann.
Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (Dec. 10, 2010) U.S. Navy and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) ships underway in formation as part of a photo exercise on the final day of Keen Sword 2011. The exercise enhances the Japan-U.S. alliance which remains a key strategic relationship in the Northeast Asia Pacific region. Keen Sword caps the 50th anniversary of the Japan-U.S. alliance as an “alliance of equals.” (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jacob D. Moore/Released)
The United States of America was, is, and will remain a maritime nation. Flanked by vast oceans, covered from the north by Canadian arctic and the south by Mexican desert, the United States occupies one of the strongest strategic positions of any nation in history. This, however, comes at a cost: to trade and interact with most of the world, America must cross the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This exposes American trade to hostile nations, even relatively weak ones. This is not a new concept for American strategic planners. The United States’ first overseas conflict, the Barbary Wars, stemmed from this exact vulnerability. That struggle continues to this day, with the most recent example being U.S. Navy intervention in the Maersk Alabama hijacking by pirates off Somalia in 2009. Therefore, it has always been in the vital interest of this country to maintain a strong, well-resourced, and well-led navy. Without one, there is no conceivable way the United States could continue to maintain the world’s greatest economy in today’s globalized world.
Whenever America was most threatened or imperiled by conflict, the United States Navy has always stepped up to meet the challenge. From sparring with the great powers of Europe, to constricting the Confederacy, decisively defeating the Imperial Japanese Navy, and deterring the Soviet Union, the U.S. Navy has a proven track record of keeping America safe. By projecting outwards, the United States has kept war and devastation away from American shores. This is a solid policy, but it is one that requires a strong navy to pursue in any meaningful manner. This is further enhanced by a robust network of allies which the United States currently enjoys, but these nations will not sit on the frontlines without clear evidence of credible and capable American commitment to their own security. In this regard, what better signal of commitment is there than the strongest Navy in the world off their coast?
A strong navy, used in concert with allied nations and backed up by a vigorous economy, is a potent deterrent to conflict and enables diplomacy. It convinces adversaries that war is either unwinnable or too costly to wage. This helps the United States negotiate favorable outcomes through diplomacy, which will always be preferable to war. Some might argue that by building a strong navy or military in general, it promotes jingoism and can escalate tensions between rivals. While this is certainly true in some historical instances, I would argue that in America’s case it has prevented conflict much more than it has incited it. For example, during the Cold War, the U.S. Navy integrated with the rest of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and played a crucial role in containing the Soviet Navy in the North Atlantic. If not for their strong presence, any effort to reinforce NATO forces at the inner German border, in the event of a war with the Warsaw Pact, would have been spoiled by Soviet submarines. As we know, that war never happened and that is due in no small part to the U.S. Navy, which was both large and technologically advanced during that time period.
Yet again the United States stands at another crossroads in history. The post-Cold War peace is slowly eroding as revisionist powers seek to alter, through coercion, the international order to their benefit. Some nations, considered “near-peer” competitors, boast strong naval capabilities of their own. China is in the midst of a particularly large naval buildup using their extensive industrial base and newfound wealth to rapidly increase the quality and quantity of their naval forces. The U.S. Navy once again finds itself center stage in a great power rivalry after a nearly three-decade hiatus. The conflicts are dynamic, the competition is intense, and the advantages are fleeting. This is the new reality that we face today as a nation returning to competition with near-peer states. A strong United States Navy brings with it many tools that are useful to strategically outmaneuver these competitors. Chief among these tools is flexibility. In a world diseased with uncertainty, flexibility is the cure. It is not only critical to warfighting, but critical to avoiding conflict. A strong, well-trained, flexible navy is able to respond and adapt to new situations to maintain escalation control, but also fight to win if things go south. More on the warfighting side of the house, flexibility better enables U.S. forces in key regions to counter asymmetric threats or weapons – a favorite among some of the more prominent American adversaries. Another key tool is presence. A bigger, stronger navy is able to be deployed to build partnerships, deter potential enemies, and quickly respond to threats in more places across the globe. One only has to look at the recent chemical weapons use in Syria and the subsequent American response to realize that this not an abstract theory, but a proven concept.
For the United States, a strong navy is not a “want” but a “need.” Historically, it has been extremely effective at advancing U.S. national interests. It is critical to deterring foreign adversaries and maintaining prosperity, not just for the U.S., but for all nations. Nations that have free and unrestricted access to global sea lanes for trade are more likely to grow and prosper which reduces the chance of conflict inside and outside its own borders. Throughout history, a strong navy has been a source of national pride and the United States is no exception. It gives us confidence and optimism as a society, and allows us to sleep at night knowing that someone has our backs.
Patrick C. Lanham graduated from Cocoa Beach High School and will be attending the University of Central Florida to study International and Global Studies. He may be reached on Twitter @p_lanham or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured Image: USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) transits the Pacific Ocean with ships participating in the RIMPAC 2010 combined task force. (U.S. Navy/MC3 Dylan McCord)
Engineers and scientists are under ever expanding influences to obtain expertise in continually narrowing fields of study. At the University of Michigan, one of the largest and most respected schools of naval architecture in the world, graduate students may specialize in a variety of concentrations including: hydrodynamics; marine and offshore structures; marine system integration; marine robotics; marine design, production, and management; marine renewable energy; and structural and hydro-acoustics. Naval architecture is itself a specialized form of the engineering discipline, so mastery in any one of the concentrations involves a great deal of learning about a relatively few things.
At one level, this is good. As the sum of human knowledge continues to expand, no one can be a true Polymath; a person knowing a great deal about all the fields of academic study. There is simply too much information to be learned. A scientist or engineer who wishes to make significant contributions to his or her field of study will have to concentrate on some specialty narrow enough to be mastered and relevant enough to produce useful knowledge. However, I would entreat scientists and engineers to take at least a brief side trip through an academic field apart from their own. I would make this plead especially to those in technical fields whose work impacts national defense. Those professionals whose life’s work takes the needs of the warriors who defend our way of live and turns those needs into the products placed back into the warrior’s hands would do well to study classic literature.
What do I mean by “classic literature”? I refer to those texts foundational to Western Civilization. The holy scriptures of Judaism and Christianity. The historical, poetical, mythological, philosophical and scientific writings of Greek and Roman civilization. I do not offer this suggestion for solely aesthetic reasons. While it is a fine thing in the middle of a cocktail party in your neighbor’s house to look around the room and utter Cicero’s quote “a room without books is like a body without a soul,” it will not improve the design of the ship, tank or fighter jet that is the object of your labor. Knowledge of the classics helps practitioners be better program managers, technical directors, and requirements setters. Here are three reasons why.
Human Factors as Design’s Purpose
A study of classic literature yields insights into human nature. This is important because all engineering is ultimately “human factors” engineering. Human factors engineering as a unique discipline is a relatively recent phenomenon, with professional societies devoted to its study appearing in the middle part of the 20th century. At its core, human factors engineering seeks to optimize the interaction of an engineered system with the people with which the system is designed to interface. Examples range from designing the driver’s seat of a car to be comfortable to designing a website interface to be intuitive to use. In our specialized world, human factors engineering is thought of separately from fields such as aeronautics, electrical engineering, or material science. However, everything an engineer does ultimately aims to have at least some effect on people.
As Aristotle begins the Nicomachean Ethics, “Every art and inquiry, and likewise every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good.” The Greek word translated as “pursuit” is techne, from which we get the English word “technology.” Even 2500 years ago, Aristotle understood that technology did not exist for its own purpose but had to serve some purpose that a person had identified as good. Engineers need to appreciate what constitutes “the good” for the people their systems serve and a study of the classics is the best way to understand what is fundamentally good for people.
An example I like to cite in the discipline of warship design is the concept of balance. Just as Aristotle observed that virtue is often the midpoint between two vices, a good ship design must reach a balanced point between multiple competing priorities. If a ship is designed to be heavily armored, with very low vulnerability to gun or missile attack, it will by necessity be much harder to remove outdated equipment during its service life. In this example, a balance point must be found between survivability and reconfigurability. The whole point of Nicomachean Ethics is to inquire what is good, primarily for people; however, the concept of “the good” extends into the designed systems which serve people as well. Plato’s Republic, the Bible’s Book of Micah, Cicero’s De Re Publica, and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations all offer different yet complementary insights on what is good for people. A modern engineer, schooled in works such as these, will bring a basic wisdom concerning human nature and the process for balancing competing demands to the task of designing systems to meet human needs.
Enduring Narratives and Human Traits
A study of classic literature yields insights into the societies in which an engineer operates. Imagine living in a society that is the exception for its times; a society that is both a democracy and a maritime power. Imagine further that this society depended upon freedom of and access to sea lines of communication in order to maintain its security and its economic prosperity. Picture such a society threatened by adversaries that are either dictatorships maintaining large standing armies or malevolent forces originating from Persia with religious beliefs so different from those of the society as to seem fanatic and bizarre. Aristotle’s Athens was just such a society. Any similarities between ancient Athens and modern states such as the U.S., UK, or Japan, should give one pause to contemplate how geography and human nature are eternal. While simple engineers see strategy as something that provides an input to their efforts, wise engineers knows that an understanding of the world and the society in which they life have a profound impact on the ultimate trade space available to them. A society that values human dignity and autonomy will constrain acceptable designs in the areas of safety and survivability in a way that would not be constrained by other societies. A wise engineer, tuned to the values of the society, takes this into account.
When Plutarch wrote Parallel Lives, he sought to show how the human virtues and failings had manifested their consequences for both good and evil in the great leaders of Greece and Rome. Contemporary readers of Parallel Lives have the benefit of another 2000 years of human history with which to view these classical figures, yet, human nature continues to produce the same combination of achievements and failures as it did in the leaders of old. Pitfalls such as pride and anger still plague leaders gifted with extraordinary ability and awareness of our limitations is still a vital precaution several centuries after Plutarch. For engineers, the vice of pride could be especially deadly. The design of any complex system, especially a ship or aircraft, is the result of a great deal of teamwork and will require input from dozens of experts. An engineer that believes that only his or her way is right and is uninterested in listening to dissenting views is an engineer whose project is doomed from the start. Because collaborative design is a human activity, the other human vices; anger, sloth, envy, etc, all constitute real risk to a project’s success. Those involved in engineering the common defense in a representative democracy would be especially well served equipped with the understanding of humanity, especially their own humanity, which classic literature can provide.
The Basic Nature of Problems and Problem Solving
A study of classic literature yields insights into overcoming challenges. At the heart of the engineering discipline is solving problems. A customer needs the ability to do or have something and the engineer provides the capability or product. In the Bible’s Book of Ezekiel, there is a famous passage known as the prophecy of the valley of dry bones. In this story, God commands Ezekiel to raise an army from a valley full of dead, dry bones. However one views this passage theologically, from a practical standpoint Ezekiel shows tremendous engineering discipline. He started to sort and attach “bone to its like bone.” After the bones were attached, there came sinew and after the sinew came flesh. Like any good systems engineer today, Ezekiel started to solve a big problem by breaking it down into its component parts.
The Book of John begins with the statement “In the beginning was the word.” The Greek word in the original writing that is usually translated as “word” is “logos,” from which we get “logic” which can also be translated as “information” or “plan.” One of the clear implications of the Book of John is no great feat can be accomplished without a plan. From the Bible’s telling of Nehemiah building walls around Jerusalem to the Augustan History tales of Hadrian’s Wall across northern England, classical antiquity abounds with difficult problems being solved with ingenuity, prudence, and courage. Here are three examples of how these ancient ancient virtues translate directly to the practice of modern engineering.
First, as the modern management expert Steven Covey would say, “Begin with the End in Mind.” In two of the Biblical examples above, the Divine customer communicated a clear requirement. The course of actions in the stories that followed all flowed from that clear requirement. In all the most successful defense acquisition programs, from nuclear power, to the F-16 Falcon, to AEGIS, there was a wide and well-documented consensus on what was to be achieved. Those trusted to manage the design and procurement of these capabilities had those clear requirements to guide them as they made programmatic and technical decisions.
Second, success depends on solid system engineering. Ezekiel did not try to build an army all at once. AEGIS BMD, once of the most complex systems in the DoD inventory, takes a page from Ezekiel. Every part of the chain that results in destroying a missile flying through outer space is a part of the greater whole. From the radar that detects, to the combat direction system that evaluates, to the missile that impacts the target, to the ship that maneuvers the whole system into place, a complex task is accomplished by breaking it down into smaller, achievable tasks. \As Ezekiel says, “bone to bone.”
Third, personal leadership is as much a part of an engineering accomplishment as technical excellence. The story of Nehemiah’s rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem contains a fair amount of technical information about how high the walls were built and what material was used. Just as fascinating was Nehemiah’s story of bringing together the different talents and resources of the citizens of Jerusalem in order to get the job done. Today, we remember Admiral Hyman Rickover as a great engineer. That is true, but the management system and the different talent sets he brought together to make Naval Reactors a longstanding historic success is a legacy at least as worthy of study as the technical achievement of naval nuclear power.
To my fellow engineers and scientists who work in the defense of our nation, I ask you take at least a brief periodic break from your computers and calculators. Pick up a good translation of Plato or Vergil as you read at the end of your day. You may grow to like the wisdom they offer into the human condition. In the end you will be far the better for it. You will have the power of the Polymath.
Captain Mark Vandroff is a 1989 graduate of the United States Naval Academy. His 28 years of commissioned service include duty as both a Surface Warfare and Engineering Duty Officer. He was formerly the Major Program Manager for the DDG 51 program and is currently the Commanding Officer of Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock. The views expressed in this article are the author’s personal views and do not reflect the official position of the Department of Defense or Department of the Navy.
Featured Image: Odysseus bound to the ship’s mast is attacked by the Sirens. Red-figure pit of Sirens Zografos, 480-470 BC Source: www.lifo.gr
In an era where the Navy is facing contested seas from challenges posed by China and Russia, history can unlock potential advantages with which to meet current and future threats. Gathering and preserving its operational records, in essence data, is critical. Unfortunately, in terms of such historical records, the Navy is in the Digital Dark Age. It retains only limited data and is losing access to its recent history – knowledge purchased at considerable cost. The Department of Defense and the Navy must consider a cultural and institutional revival to collect and leverage their data for potential catalytic effects on innovation, strategic planning, and warfighting advantages. This cultural transformation of collecting and preserving historical data within the Navy will be a long process, but leveraging its history to meet current and future problems will aid in maintaining global maritime superiority.
On 25 May 2006, Navy Expeditionary Combat Command (NECC) formally established Riverine Group 1 and Riverine Squadron 1 to safeguard the inland waterways of Iraq. These lethal, agile forces executed over 2,000 missions and trained their Iraqi River Police successors to carry on after the withdrawal of major American forces. The experiences of the Navy’s Coastal Surveillance Group (TF-115), River Patrol Force (TF-116), and Mobile Riverine Force (TF-116) which operated in the Republic of Vietnam in the 1960s, facilitated the establishment of these forces. The records collected, organized, and preserved by Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) and command-published histories of the brown- and green-water force enabled NECC to expedite the efficient launch of a riverine force for the 21st-century Navy.1
History is one of the fundamental sinews of the American military establishment. Training is informed by “lessons learned” from prior experiences—historical data by another name—and every organization has senior members who contribute decades of institutional memory to solve contemporary problems. Synthesized into history monographs, these publications equip warfighters with insight and perspective to better guide their actions and decisions. Avid history reader and retired Marine General James Mattis acknowledges, “I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before.”2History’s importance to the present Navy is also reflected in Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral John M. Richardson’s Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, which states “we must first understand our history – how we got to where we are.”3 The CNO’s recently released professional reading program buttresses his statement with a rich and varied roadmap of texts which have influenced his leadership development.4
Today, the Navy finds itself returning to an era of contested seas with contemporary challenges posed by China and Russia. Throughout the Cold War, the Navy possessed a large body of veteran Sailors holding vast reserves of institutional memory, often stretching back to World War II, in all aspects of naval operations. Deployments from Korea to Vietnam and from the Mediterranean to the Arctic Ocean honed the Navy’s capabilities. The subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union provided the Navy with a period of uncontested naval supremacy, but also led to force reductions and a gradual loss of institutional experience with missions like hunter-killer groups, offensive mining, and large surface action groups. A dwindling number of active duty Sailors have operational Cold War experience, and they mostly occupy senior leadership positions.
The records needed to fill that gap must be preserved. Through the Vietnam War, the Navy’s historical data principally took the form of written correspondence in varied formats. The advent of digital computing has vastly transformed record generation and retention, both of which pose notable challenges to records management.5In a period of important fiscal and strategic decisions, the Department of Defense and the Navy must consider a cultural and institutional revival to collect and leverage data for potential catalytic effects on innovation, strategic planning, and warfighting advantages.
Gathering the Data
Several efforts currently exist to capture the Navy’s data. The lifecycle of records is governed by the Department of the Navy Records Management Program, which establishes all policies and procedures for records management. Under the Director of Navy Staff is NHHC, whose mission is to “collect, preserve, protect, present, and make relevant the artifacts, art, and documents that best capture the Navy’s history and heritage.”6 Naval Reserve Combat Documentation Detachment (NR NCDD) 206, established following Operation Desert Storm, assists NHHC personnel by providing uniformed teams for deployment to fleet units and other Navy commands to document and preserve the history of current naval operations during crisis response, wartime, and declared national emergencies. They are actively engaged in supporting NHHC’s mission objectives.7 Lastly, an essential tool for collecting the Navy’s historical data is Office of Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV) Instruction 5750.12K governing the production of the annual Command Operations Report (COR).
First published on 8 November 1966, OPNAVINST 5750.12 governs creation of the COR, intended to ensure historical records are available for future analysis.8 As stated in the current version, the COR “is the only overall record of a command’s operations and achievements that is permanently retained” and provides “the raw material upon which future analysis of naval operations or individual unit operations will be based.”9The document primarily consists of a chronology, narrative, and supporting documentation. As OPNAVINST 5750.12 evolved, emphasis shifted from gathering information on specific subjects relevant to warfighters and combat operations to becoming a tool to gather specific types of documents.10
Unfortunately, compliance is erratic and the instruction’s importance was ignored (or unknown) by commands. From 1966 to the present, the submission rate of CORs for units and commands has never reached 100 percent; for CY15 the submission rate stood at 63.5 percent. Submitted CORs are often unevenly written and composed. The causes for these shortfalls vary and are undefined. The culprits are likely operational tempo, personnel shortfalls, and/or concerns about information security. Perhaps commanders opted to err on the side of caution and avoid objectively documenting an unsuccessful operation, intra-service conflict, or inadequate leadership. Without foreseeing the potential impact and importance a COR may have on tomorrow’s Navy, responsibility for the report is often assigned as an additional duty for a junior officer juggling a myriad of responsibilities.
These data gaps have an adverse impact on present and future actions at both the individual and institutional level. For veterans, a gap in COR submissions may result in the denial of a benefits claim with the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, or in regard to awards or decorations with the Board for Correction of Naval Records.11For OPNAV, Fleet Forces Command, Pacific Fleet, or numbered fleets, lost CORs diminish the raw data needed for quality analysis, leaving analysts to generate products which may fail to accurately account for critical variables. What is lost is critical contextual information, retention of which is invaluable. “Solid historical record-keeping and analysis would help enlarge decision makers’ perspectives on current issues,” writes historian and retired Navy Captain David Rosenberg.12 Without rigorous records, historians such as Rosenberg cannot write books and articles to help leaders like Secretary Mattis and warfighters sufficiently learn about previous military endeavors. Consequently, past mistakes will inevitably be repeated with potentially adverse outcomes.
Current COR generation is arguably more difficult than ever. The information revolution has led to the proliferation of raw data without the benefit of summation or prior analysis. PowerPoint slide decks, rather than correspondence or memoranda, are all that an author or veteran might possess on a given topic. Rather than gathering critical teletypewriter message traffic from an operation, the author of a COR might need to collect email correspondence from multiple personnel throughout a unit bearing an array of security classifications. Gathering information from digital discussion boards, section newsletters, and untold quantities of data could be a full-time job.
Furthermore, the follow-on process of creating a coherent narrative from the raw data is a laborious process for a professional historian, much less for a Sailor fulfilling an additional duty and unfamiliar with the task. During World War II, the usual authors of aviation command histories were squadron intelligence officers. They understood how the information collected could be used for everything from operations to force development to technical improvements. Coupled with a familiarity of preparing narrative analyses and summary papers, the resulting command histories proved cogent and comprehensive. By comparing old and contemporary CORs, it is obvious that commanders must assign the COR responsibility to qualified individuals with the appropriate education, experience, and skills.
Increasing the operational tempo of naval forces naturally increases the generation of data. However, with limited time and personnel to gather and generate the data, it must come as no surprise that records about the Navy’s involvement in Operations Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Iraqi Freedom (OIF) have been irretrievably lost, to incalculable impact. Valuable Navy operational records from OEF and OIF do exist, but the data belongs to the respective combatant commands and is currently inaccessible to Navy analysts and research specialists.
The Past is Prologue
No individual or organization is infallible—errors can be extremely costly, and for military organizations they lead to the loss of blood and treasure. The operational records generated in peace and wartime provide raw materials for historical analysis, which distill lessons learned and generate studies to educate uniformed personnel. Mistakes always happen, but historical analysis can prevent the repetition of old errors. Incomplete data yielding subpar analysis will affect the resultant knowledge products and undermine history’s influence on future decisions. For example, in 1906, Lieutenant Commander William S. Sims incorporated battle observations and gunnery data to challenge the conclusions of Captain Alfred T. Mahan regarding gunnery at the Battle of Tsushima and advocated convincingly for a future fleet design dominated by all-big-gun battleships, thereby ushering the Navy into the “Dreadnought era.”13If the operational records of current efforts are being lost, are we not again jeopardizing future fleet designs?
Analysis of combat operations has proven instrumental in improving the warfighting abilities of the respective services. Combat provides the only hard evidence on the effectiveness of military doctrine and the integration of platforms and weapons. For example, the Battle of Tarawa (20-23 November 1943) tested the doctrine of amphibious assault against a fortified position. As historian Joseph Alexander details in his book Utmost Savagery, success in the amphibious invasion remained an “issue in doubt” for the Marines for the first thirty hours. The documentation and analysis of the battle prompted the Navy and Marine Corps to increase the amount of pre-invasion bombardment and to refine key aspects of their amphibious doctrine, among other changes. With evidence-turned-knowledge gleaned from Tarawa, the Navy and Marine Corps continued unabated in rolling back the Imperial Japanese Empire, assault by bloody assault.14
Similarly, the Vietnam War demonstrated how technology does not always triumph in an asymmetric clash of arms. In the skies over North Vietnam, American aircraft armed with sophisticated air-to-air missiles met cannon-firing MiG fighters. Neither the Air Force nor Navy enjoyed a high kill ratio, which at best favored them two-to-one until the cessation of Operation Rolling Thunder in November 1968. Disturbed by the combat results, CNO Admiral Tom Moorer tasked Captain Frank Ault to examine the Navy’s entire acquisition and employment process for air-to-air missile systems. After examining reams of available historical data, Ault’s May 1968 report recommended establishing a school to teach pilots the advanced fighter tactics of a seemingly bygone age of machine gun dogfights. This recommendation gave birth to the Navy Postgraduate Course in Fighter Weapons Tactics and Doctrine better known as TOPGUN. Using a curriculum developed by studying operational records, TOPGUN’s first graduates entered air combat over North Vietnam after the resumption of bombing in April 1972. When American air operations ceased in January 1973, the Navy enjoyed a kill ratio of six to one, due in large part to TOPGUN training in dogfighting and fighter tactics.15
Carrier aviation’s successes in OEF and OIF came in part due to the lessons gleaned from Operation Desert Storm (ODS). With carrier doctrine designed for blue water sea control against the Soviet Navy, the force was not tailored for sustained combat projection onto land. In the waters of the Persian Gulf and Red Sea in 1990-1991, however, six carrier battle groups found themselves operating in a coalition environment. Despite the lofty hopes envisioned with the passage of the Goldwater-Nichols Act in 1986, naval aviation found itself unprepared for joint and coalition interoperability. From the lessons of ODS, the Navy modified its F-14s to carry the Air Force’s LANTIRN targeting system, began purchasing precision-guided munitions, and modified the carrier air wing composition to better support operations on land per joint recommendations. From Operation Allied Force in 1999 to the launch of OEF and OIF in 2001 and 2003, respectively, naval aviation flew substantial numbers of deep-strike missions, fully integrated into joint and combined air operations.16
The History You Save Will Be Your Own
In terms of historical records, today’s Navy is in the Digital Dark Age, a situation drastically accelerated within the past twenty years by the immense generation of digital-only records. It retains only limited data and the service is actively losing access to its recent history, knowledge purchased at considerable cost. Valuable Navy operational records from OEF and OIF do exist, but the data is unobtainable from the combatant commands. Although COR submissions in the first year of each conflict were higher than in peacetime, they thereafter fell below a fifty percent submission rate. In some cases, there are no records of warships assigned to carrier strike groups for multiple years. While some data was captured, such as electromagnetic spectrum or targeting track information, the records involving “who, what, where, when, why, and how” are lacking. NR NCDD 206, together with NHHC staff, conducts oral histories with Sailors to collect data that researchers can use to capture information not included with CORs. Oral histories, however, supplement but do not completely substitute for textual records.
What exactly is being lost? Why does this matter if weapon- and platform-related data is available? The intangibles of decision-making and the organizational culture are captured in data generated through emails, memoranda, and operational reports. For example, as the Navy evolves its doctrine and tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) to maximize the potential of the distributed lethality concept, issues of decentralized command and control must be addressed.17 The ability to draw upon historical data to inform TTPs, training systems, and cycles is paramount to prepare commanding officers and crews for potential challenges over the horizon and to close learning gaps. As retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel Frank Hoffman notes, the World War II submarine community drew extensively upon the after-action and lessons learned reports to improve TTPs and promulgate best practices to educate the entire force.18
Navy culture successfully adapted to close learning gaps in World War II, and it can adapt to escape the Digital Dark Age. In the 1920s and 1930s, budgetary and treaty restrictions limited fleet design but the Navy experimented, evaluated, and used its data to improve its platforms and TTPs. One notable example was the evolution of how ships processed information at sea, culminating in 1944 with the Combat Information Center, an integrated human-machine system which Captain Timothy Wolters documents in his book, Information at Sea, as an innovative example of decades of research and development informed by history.19
Preserving critical historical data is the collective and legal responsibility of every Sailor and Department of Navy employee. Digitization poses challenges that cannot be met by only a small group of historians and archivists, a form of “distributed history.” If distributed lethality enables every ship to be a lion, digitization and computer-based tools enable every Sailor to take ownership of their unit’s accomplishments and play an active role in the generation of the COR. Command leadership must advocate for the COR rather than considering creation as merely an exercise in annual compliance. Responsibility and management of the annual COR must be a team effort. Include chief petty officers and junior enlisted and empower them to take an active role in collecting data and drafting the chronology and narrative. Not only must the COR be an objective, factual account but an inclusive report with contributions by officer and enlisted communities to ensure preservation of a thorough record of all actions, accomplishments, and key decisions.
Furthermore, data is generated continuously. A quality COR is rarely written following a frantic flurry of electronic messages requesting people forward files to the designated COR author. Assembling a dedicated COR team of officers and enlisted personnel to gather and organize records throughout the year will prove more beneficial. This team in turn can provide a valuable resource for an entire crew and commander, either to provide information for public relations, morale purposes, award nomination packets, or operational analysis.
Classified material poses an immediate concern when proposing this distributed history approach for COR generation. Such digital records, located on a variety of computer networks, rightfully pose challenges regarding operational security, either via aggregation or unauthorized access. Such concerns should not, however, jeopardize the overall effort. Generating classified CORs is encouraged and detailed in OPNAVINST 5750.12K; as thorough a narrative as possible is essential. Archivists at NHHC, trained to process and appropriately file classified material, can provide guidance to ensure the security and integrity of the data. When concerns over security result in a banal, unclassified COR, data about that unit’s activities is forever unavailable to the Navy for use in addressing future innovations, conflicts, or organizational changes, and the report’s utility to OPNAV, researchers, and veterans becomes essentially nil. With budgetary difficulties affecting the Navy, data—classified or not—serve as an intellectual, institutional investment for the future. In explaining to the Congress and the American people how and why the Navy is responsibly executing its budget for the national interest, availability and utilization of the data is paramount for the task.20
Transforming the Navy’s culture of collecting and preserving its historical data will be a long process. Digitization and the increasing volume of records will continue to pose challenges. These challenges, however, cannot be ignored any longer and require a unified front to ensure records are preserved and available for use. The Navy is not alone; its sister services experience similar problems in collecting data and using it to benefit current operations.21 In an era where reaction and decision times are rapidly diminished through advances in machine-to-machine and human-machine interactions, today’s data may help equip the warfighter with future kinetic or non-kinetic effects. As fleet design and tactics evolve to face new threats, the Navy can ill afford to ignore its past investments of blood and tax dollars. It must leverage its historical data to find solutions to current and future problems to ensure continued maritime superiority.
Dr. Frank A. Blazich, Jr. is a curator of modern military history at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. After receiving his doctorate in modern American history from The Ohio State University, he worked as a historian for Naval History and Heritage Command. Prior to joining the Smithsonian, he served as historian for Task Force Netted Navy.
1.Robert Benbow, Fred Ensminger, Peter Swartz, Scott Savitz, and Dan Stimpson, Renewal of Navy’s Riverine Capability: A Preliminary Examination of Past, Current and Future Capabilities (Alexandria, VA: CNA, March 2006), 104-21; Dave Nagle, “Riverine Force Marks One-Year Anniversary,” Navy Expeditionary Combat Command Public Affairs, 7 June 2007, http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=29926; Matthew M. Burke, “Riverine Success in Iraq Shows Need for Naval Quick-Reaction Force,” Stars and Stripes, 29 October 2012, http://www.stripes.com/news/riverine-success-in-iraq-shows-need-for-naval-quick-reaction-force-1.195109.
6. “Who We Are,” Naval History and Heritage Command, https://www.history.navy.mil/about-us/organization/who-we-are.html.
7. Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, OPNAV Instruction 1001.26C, “Management of Navy Reserve Component Support to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations,” 7 February 2011, https://doni.daps.dla.mil/Directives/01000%20Military%20Personnel%20Support/01-01%20General%20Military%20Personnel%20Records/1001.26C.pdf.
8. Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, OPNAV Instruction 5750.12, “Command Histories,” 8 November 1966, Post-1946 Command File, Operational Archives, Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington Navy Yard, DC.
9. Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, OPNAV Instruction 5750.12K, “Annual Command Operations Report,” 21 May 2012, https://www.history.navy.mil/content/dam/nhhc/about-us/instructions-and-forms/command-operation-report/pdf/OPNAVINST%205750.12K%20-%20Signed%2021%20May%202012.pdf.
10. Based on a review of OPNAVINST 5750.12 through OPNAVINST 5750.12K, in the holdings of Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington Navy Yard, DC.
11. Eric Lockwood, “Make History: Submit your Command Operations Report,” Naval History and Heritage Command, 10 February 2016, http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=93031.
12.David Alan Rosenberg, “Process: The Realities of Formulating Modern Naval Strategy,” in Mahan is Not Enough: The Proceedings of a Conference on the Works of Sir Julian Corbett and Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond, eds. James Goldrick and John B. Hattendorf (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 1993), 174.
13.William Sims, “The Inherent Tactical Qualities of All-Big-Gun, One-Caliber Battleships of High Speed, Large Displacement, and Gun-Power” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 32, no. 4 (December 1906): 1337-66.
14.Joseph H. Alexander, Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995), xvi-xvii, 232-37.
15. Marshall L. Michell III, Clashes: Air Combat over North Vietnam, 1965-1972 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997), 185-88, 277-78; John Darrell Sherwood, Afterburner: Naval Aviators and the Vietnam War (New York: New York University Press, 2004), 219-21, 248.
16. Benjamin S. Lambeth, American Carrier Air Power at the Dawn of a New Century (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2005), 1-8, 100-01; Edward J. Marolda and Robert J. Schneller, Jr., Shield and Sword: The United States Navy and the Persian Gulf War (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1998), 369-75, 384-85.
17. Kit de Angelis and Jason Garfield, “Give Commanders the Authority,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 142, no. 10 (October 2016): 18-21.
18. Frank G. Hoffman, “How We Bridge a Wartime ‘Learning Gap,’” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 142, no. 5 (May 2016): 22-29.
19.Timothy S. Wolters, Information at Sea: Shipboard Command and Control in the U.S. Navy, from Mobile Bay to Okinawa (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2013), 4-5, 204-21.
20. Prior to World War I, the Navy recognized the need to secure public support for its expansion plans. See George W. Baer, One Hundred Years of Sea Power: The U.S. Navy, 1890-1990 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993), 35-48, 54-63.
21.Francis J. H. Park, “A Time for Digital Trumpets: Emerging Changes in Military Historical Tradecraft,” Army History 20-16-2, no. 99 (Spring 2016): 29-36.
Featured Image: Sunrise aboard Battleship Missouri Memorial at Ford Island onboard Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Katarzyna Kobiljak)