Category Archives: Interviews

Crimes of Command in the U.S. Navy – A Conversation with Michael Junge

By Christopher Nelson

Recently, Captain Michael Junge published an interesting book on why and under what circumstances the U.S. Navy relieves commanding officers. His book, Crimes of Command, begins in 1945 and proceeds through numerous historical case studies up to the modern era. I think many people – not only those in the surface warfare community – but commanders, leaders, and sailors in other communities will find our exchange interesting.

The book is worth your time – and it is a perennial topic that deserves attention.

Nelson: Would you briefly describe what the book is about and why you wanted to write it?

Junge: In short, it’s about why the Navy removes commanding officers from command – the incidents that lead to removal, the individuals removed, and what the Navy does about the incident and the individual. But instead of a look at just one or two contemporary cases, I went back to 1945 and looked across seven decades to see what was the same and what changed.

Nelson: In the book, when referring to the process of relieving commanding officers, you talk about words like “accountability,” “culpability,” and “responsibility.” These words, you say, matter when talking about why commanding officers are relieved. Why do they matter and how do they differ?

Junge: The common usage blends all three into one – accountability. We see this with the press reports on last summer’s collisions – the Navy’s actions are referred to as accountability actions.” Most people, I think, read that line as “punitive actions” mostly because that’s what they are. But accountability isn’t about punishment – it’s about being accountable, which is to give an accounting of what happened, to explain one’s actions and thoughts and decisions. The investigations themselves are an accountability action. The investigations are supposed to determine who was responsible for the problem, what happened, who was at fault, and then determine if within that responsibility and fault there is also culpability.

Culpability is about blame – accountability is not, even if we use it as such. In investigations, when you mix culpability, blame, and accountability together end up being about finding fault and levying punishment instead of finding out what happened. That keeps us from learning from the incident and preventing future occurrences. We’ve completely lost that last part over the past few decades if we even had it to begin with. Every collision I looked at, for example, had four or five things that were the same – over seven decades.

Nelson: Later in the book, you say that as virtues, honor, courage, and commitment are not enough. How should we reexamine those virtues? Isn’t this always the challenge – the challenge of the pithy motto vs. the substantive truth, that’s what I was getting at. And it’s not that there is some truth to the motto or slogan, but rarely are they sufficient alone – yes?

Junge: Honor, courage, and commitment make for a great slogan, but will only be inculcated in the force when our leaders routinely say them and live by them. I wrote a piece for USNI Proceedings in 2013 that commented on how naval leaders rarely used those words. That hasn’t changed. If they are used it’s in prepared text and often used as a cudgel. Leaders need to exemplify virtues – we learn from their example – and if they don’t use the words we don’t really know if they believe in them. But they are a great start, and they are ours – both Navy and Marine Corps.

What I meant in the book is that honor, courage, and commitment aren’t enough for an exploration of virtues in general. For the Navy, they are an acceptable starting point. For individual officers, or for the Naval profession, we need to think deeper and far more introspectively. My latest project is looking at the naval profession and a professional ethic. My personal belief is that we don’t need, or want, an ethical code. Or if we have one it needs to be like the Pirate Code – more as guidelines than rules. There’s science behind this which is beyond our scope here, but rules make for bad virtues and worse ethics. Rules tend to remove thought and press for compliance. At one level that’s great, but compliance tends to weed out initiative and combat leaders need initiative.

Nelson: So, after studying the historical data and specific events from 1945 to 2015, what did you conclude? Why are there more commanding officers relieved today than there were fifty years ago?

Junge: Even after all the research and the writing, this is a tough one for me to encapsulate. In my dissertation defense, I made a joke at the end that the reason we remove more officers now is complicated. And it is. Every removal is a little different from the others. That makes linking details difficult. But, when you lift back a little and take a really long view, I could find some trends. Not only do we remove more commanders today, we do it for more reasons, and we have almost completely ended any sort of recovery for officers removed from command.

Chart courtesy of the author.

Without giving too much away, because I do want people to read the actual book, today’s removals come down to a couple of things – press, damage (material or emotional) to the Navy, and the commander’s chain of command. If the chain of command relationship is poor, the press gets a story, and there is some level of damage to the Navy (metal bent, people hurt, or image tarnished) then the commander is likely to go. But it’s not a direct line. Sometimes the information comes out later – we saw this with USS Shiloh last year and in one of the cases I covered, the helicopter crash in USS William P Lawrence. Neither commander was removed from command, but both careers were halted after the investigations were done and the administrative side of the Navy took over. If those incidents happened in the 1950s or 1960s, both commanding officers would have unquestionably moved forward with their careers. Whether that would be good or bad depends entirely on what those officers might have done with the knowledge gained from the investigations that challenged their leadership and individual character but we won’t know anymore. Maybe we should.

Nelson: When you started this book and after looking at the data, did anything surprise you? Did you go in with particular opinions or develop a theory that the data disproved or clarified?

Junge: When I started this I was pretty sure there were differences. One of the reasons I pulled all the data together was because in 2004 the Navy Inspector General issued a report that said, in essence, that a one percent removal rate was normal. If one percent was normal in 2004, when we had fewer than 300 ships, then we should have heard something about removing COs when we had 1000, or 3000, ships. But, we didn’t. So that there was a change wasn’t surprising.

I started off thinking that Tailhook was a major inflection point. I intended a whole chapter on the incident and investigation. In the end, the data didn’t support it – the inflection had already happened and Tailhook, especially its aftermath, was indicative of the change. I’m not minimizing the impact Tailhook had on Navy culture – we are still dealing with echoes twenty-five years later – but for the trend of removing commanders, it wasn’t a watershed. Likewise, I thought the late 1960s to early 1970s might be an inflection point – we had a rough couple years with major collisions, attacks, fires, Vietnam – but the data showed it wasn’t the turning point I expected.

It wasn’t until I plotted the information out that I saw the inflection of the early 1980s. When I saw the changes in the graph I had to go back to the research to sort out why. It was both frustrating and encouraging. It showed me I wasn’t trying to force data to fit a pre-selected answer, but it also meant leaving a lot of research behind.

Nelson: You go into some detail in your book about court-martials. Historically, why does the navy rarely take commanding officers to court martial?

Junge: The simple reason is that the Navy has a difficult time proving criminal acts by commanding officers. It’s not a new problem. When officers are taught to think for themselves and have sets and reps thinking critically, then when on a jury they are likely to take the evidence and make their own minds up. And that conclusion may run counter to what Navy leadership wants. Getting courts-martial into that real true arbiter of guilt and innocence was a major win for the post-World War II military. But, since leaders can’t control courts-martial anymore we now see this major abuse of administrative investigations, which runs counter to our own regulations on how we are supposed to handle investigations of major incidents and accidents.

Nelson: In fact, you threw in an anecdote in your book about Nimitz issuing letters of reprimand to the jury members on Eliot Loughlin’s court-martial. This was fascinating. What happened in that case?

Junge: In April 1945, Lieutenant Commander Charles Elliot Loughlin sank a ship without visually identifying it. The ship turned out to be a protected aid transport with 2,000 civilians aboard. Nimitz removed Loughlin from command and ordered his court-martial. The court found Loughlin guilty but only sentenced him to Secretarial Letter of Admonition. Nimitz was reportedly furious and issued letters of reprimand to the members of the court. In just answering this question I realize I never dug deep into what happened to those members – I might need to do that.   

Anyway, that was a rare case of Nimitz being angry. And in retrospect, I wonder if he was angry, or if he was protecting the court from the CNO Admiral King. There’s a story I’ve been percolating on in how Nimitz and King had differing ideas of responsibility and culpability. King was a hardliner – King could be seen as the archetype for modern culpability and punishment. There were some exceptions but he was pretty binary – screw up, get relieved. Nimitz was the opposite. Halsey put Nimitz into multiple tough spots where Halsey probably should have been removed from command – but Nimitz knew Halsey and erred on the side of that knowledge rather than get caught up in an arbitrary standard. That’s why I think those letters were out of character. But I have to temper that with the very real knowledge that Loughlin committed a war crime, was pretty blasé about it, blamed others, very likely put American prisoners of war in more danger than they already were, and might have endangered the war termination effort. Those conclusions run counter to the modern mythology around Loughlin, but are in keeping with the actual historical record.

Nelson: And if I recall, there was an XO that chose court martial rather than NJP ten or so years ago after a sailor on the ship was killed during a small boat operation. The XO was exonerated and cleared from any wrongdoing by the jury. Fleet Forces ended up putting a statement out how he disagreed with the verdict.

Junge: USS San Antonio – LCDR Sean Kearns. Sean remains one of my heroes for forcing the system to do what it says it will do. I firmly believe that Admiral Harvey stepped well outside his professional role and made his persecution of Sean a personal matter when he issued some messages and letters after the acquittal. I know among many SWOs that Harvey’s actions after the verdict really altered their opinions of him. Sean’s case is also major reason I am in favor of the Navy ending the “vessel exception” which precludes anyone assigned to a sea-going command from refusing non-judicial punishment and demanding a court-martial. Too many Navy leaders abuse this option. I know of a story where an officer was flown from his homeport to Newport, RI for non-judicial punishment, and another where an officer was flown from Guam to Norfolk for NJP. There are more cases where officers were removed from command, but kept assigned to sea duty so that they could not refuse NJP. That this even happens completely belies the intent behind the vessel exception.  

Nelson: You also talk in some detail about Admiral Rickover and the culture he fostered and how that culture affected command. Overall, how did he affect command culture?

Junge: This was my biggest surprise. If you’d talked to me before I started and asked about Rickover I’d have easily said he had nothing to do with the changes. Wow –that was wrong. I’m not sure how I could ever think that someone who served almost 30 years as a flag officer, hand selected each and every nuclear-trained officer, and personally inspected each and every nuclear ship for decades didn’t influence Navy culture. Rickover ends up with the better part of a chapter in a story I didn’t think he was even part of. But, the culture we have today is, I think, not the one he intended. Maybe.

Rickover was, and remains, an individual who brings up conflicted memories and has a conflicted legacy. Like many controversial figures, the stories about him often eclipse the reality behind them. I’ll paraphrase a student who spoke of my colleague, Milan Vego, and his writings – you have to read about Rickover because if you just reject him completely, that’s wrong – and if you just accept him at face value, that’s wrong – you have to read and think and read some more, then come to your own conclusion. I can tell you that in the professional ethic piece I am working on, I expect Rickover’s legacy to play an important part.

Nelson: If I recall, I believe you self-published this book. How was that process? Would you recommend it for other writers? What did you learn when going through this process for publication?

Junge: The process, for me, was pretty simple. Getting to the process was very difficult. We know the adage of judging a book by its cover – well there’s also a stigma of judging a book by its publisher.

Actually getting a book published through an established publisher, the conventional process, takes well over a year and is full of norms and conventions that, from the outside, seem unusual. In the same way that we wonder “how did that movie get made?” when you go through the process of publishing, you start to wonder “how did that book get published?” I have a long time friend who is a two-time New York Times bestselling author who gave me some great advice on the conventional route. Just getting the basics can take up to an hour of discussion.

I tried the conventional route but after sending dozens of emails to book agents and getting only a few responses back, all negative, I checked with a shoremate who self-published his own fiction and decided to take that route partly out of impatience, frustration, and curiosity. I’m just good enough at all the skills you need to self-publish that it worked out to be pretty easy, with one exception – publicity. I’m not good at self-promotion so even asking friends to read the book and write reviews was a challenge.

Anyway, whether I recommend the self-publication process – it depends entirely on your own goals and desires. I wanted my book read – that was my core focus. To do that I could have just posted a PDF and moved on. But, I also wanted to make a few dollars in the process – and people who pay for a book are a little more likely to read it. This book grew out of my doctoral dissertation and I have a friend who is doing the same thing – but his goals were different. His core goals are different – he’s a full-on academic and needs the credibility of an academic publishing house for his curriculum vitae. We both defended around the same time – his book comes out sometime next year. I’m happy to spend more time talking about what I learned in the process, but the best advice I can give is for authors to figure out their objectives first. That is probably the most important thing. Everything else can fall into place after that.

Nelson: I ask this question in many of my interviews, particularly of naval officers – if you had ten minutes with the CNO, and if he hadn’t read your book, what would you tell him about Crimes of Command? What would you recommend he do to change the culture if change was necessary?

Junge: I really thought about punting on this one and running the note our Staff Judge Advocate has been running about Article 88 and Article 89 of the UCMJ (contemptuous words and disrespect toward senior commissioned officers). If I had ten minutes with CNO I doubt I would get 60 seconds of speaking time. My conclusions run completely counter to Navy lore about accountability and 10 minutes isn’t enough time to change anyone’s mind. But, as I thought about it I think I would say this: “CNO, we have really got to follow our own instructions. If an instruction says ‘do this’ then we need to do it, or change the instruction. We can’t have flag officers making personal decisions about this rule or that based on short-term ideas and feelings. If the situation doesn’t fit the rule, either follow the rule with pure intent or change the rule. But we can’t just ignore it. That’s an example that leads us, as a profession, down bad roads.” I would hope that question would then lead to a conversation of leadership by example that would include everything from Boards of Inquiry to travel claims to General Military Training.

Nelson: Sir, thanks for taking the time.

Michael Junge is an active duty Navy Captain with degrees from the United States Naval Academy, United States Naval War College, the George Washington University, and Salve Regina University.  He served afloat in USS MOOSBRUGGER (DD 980), USS UNDERWOOD (FFG 36), USS WASP (LHD 1), USS THE SULLIVANS (DDG 68) and was the 14th Commanding Officer of USS WHIDBEY ISLAND (LSD 41). Ashore he served with Navy Recruiting; Assault Craft Unit FOUR; Deputy Commandant for Programs and Resources, Headquarters, Marine Corps; Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Communication Networks (N6); and with the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He has written extensively with articles appearing in the United States Naval Institute Proceedings magazine, US Naval War College’s Luce.nt, and online at Information Dissemination, War on the Rocks, Defense One, and CIMSEC. The comments and opinions here are his own.

Christopher Nelson is an intelligence officer in the United States Navy.  He is a regular contributor to CIMSEC and is a graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School in Newport, Rhode Island. The questions and views here are his own.

Featured Image:  (FORT BELVOIR, Va. (May 04, 2017) Hundreds of service members at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital gathered before daybreak and celebrated their unique service cultures and bonds as one of the only two joint military medical facilities in the U.S. during a spring formation and uniform transition ceremony May 4, 2017. (Department of Defense photos by Reese Brown)

Fleet Tactics Returns – A Conversation with Authors Wayne Hughes and Bob Girrier

By Christopher Nelson

Recently I had the opportunity to correspond with CAPT Wayne Hughes, USN (Ret.) and RADM Robert Girrier, USN (Ret.) about the new edition of Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations. We get into everything from why the littorals matter to how information warfare will shape the future of naval warfare.

Nelson: Admiral Girrier, Fleet Tactics is now in its 3rd Edition. What are some of the new topics in this edition? Is there a particular section you focused on?

Girrier: Picking up where the 2nd edition left off, topics given additional emphasis in this edition are the emergence of unmanned systems (air, surface and sub-surface), artificial intelligence, and information warfare. 

The increasing value and the need for decision superiority is stressed. I did focus on the value-added of unmanned systems serving as complements to existing capabilities, and how – if properly employed – they can take us to a new level of fighting at machine speed. The process of sensing, evaluating, making decisions, and then executing is treated throughout.

Nelson: Artificial Intelligence, Information Warfare, Big Data lots of changes in the world and all of them will affect the future of warfighting. When you were tackling these topics, what were some of the books or resources you went to when trying to understand these new issues? 

Girrier: I drew heavily from my experience standing up the navy staff’s first-ever organization dedicated to unmanned warfare systems, and how we could harness these new capabilities most effectively in step with our existing force. It was a matter of applying the emergence of new technologies to the operational realities we tackle today.

Hughes: It is a long list. Here are some recent sources that emphasis information warfare, writ large, in peace and war, at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels:

John Arquilla, Dubious Battles: Aggression, Defeat, and the International System, 1992

Patrick Beesley, Very Special Intelligence: The Story of the Admiralty’s Operational Intelligence Centre, 1939-1945, 1981

Alexander Bordetsky, Stephen Benson, and Wayne Hughes: “Hiding Comms in Plain Sight: Mesh Networking Effects Can Conceal C2 Efforts in Congested Littoral EnvironmentsSignal Magazine, June 2016

Jeffrey Cares and John Dickman, Operations Research for Unmanned Vehicles, 2016

Erik J. Dahl, Intelligence and Surprise Attack: Failure and Success from Pearl Harbor to 9/11 and Beyond, 2013

Dorothy Denning, Information Warfare and Security, 1999

Robert P. Girrier, “The Navy’s Mission for UxS,” Presentation January 2016

Robert P. Girrier, “Unmanned Systems: Enhancing Our Warfighting Capabilities Today and In the Future,” Navy Live, November 2015

Wayne P. Hughes, Jr., “A Close Look at the Operational Level of War at Sea,” Naval War College Review, 2012

Tyson B. Meadors, First Gain the Victory: Six Strategic Considerations for Naval Cyber Forces, 2015

Hy Rothstein and Barton Whaley, eds., The Art and Science of Military Deception, 2013

Peter W. Singer and August Cole, Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, 2015

James P. Wisecup and the CNO Strategic Studies Group, The Network of Humans and Machines as the Next Capital Ship, July 2016

“Sandy” Woodward and Patrick Robinson, One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of the Falklands Battle Group Commander, 1992

Nelson: To continue with the topic of technology, in your book, you say everyone should read Elting Morison. Who was he and why should everyone read his work?

Hughes: Elting E. Morison was one of our most astute observers of U. S Navy development, especially in peacetime. He described how USS Wampanoag was designed by master shipbuilder Benjamin Isherwood and commissioned to chase down Confederate raiders and privateers. When she was commissioned in 1869 she was the fastest ship in the world, having steamed for a long distance at 23 knots during her trials. Her speed would not be exceeded by another ship for two decades. But the war was over and so she was laid up and forgotten. There is more to the story, but Morison’s description, and his respect for Navy leadership during its thin years while the nation looked to the west toward California is an early story about complex, fiscally constrained decision-making that is pertinent today.

Nelson: Before I get to the next question, I’d like to quote a paragraph in the latter part of your book about Command and Control:

“Although military leaders at the scene of action and in the chain of command may bridle at the amount of control exercised from Washington in a crisis, the record of fifty years of crisis suggests that such control will continue. Detailed oversight of localized transitory military operations, even those involving shooting, has flowed—and probably will keep flowing directly from the seat of government to the tactical commander at the scene of action—because of its enormous political content.”

Nelson: So here’s my question: Doesn’t this assume that there is connectivity between tactical commanders and naval HQ or Joint HQ during conflict? Because if they lose connectivity or if it is degraded or destroyed, what then? Is it Mission Command?

Hughes: You cite one important reason—enemy interference—but in past and present editions of Fleet Tactics two more contrasting reasons are included describing why connectivity and well-honed skills at mission command are important. In peacetime on the edge of war the HQ including the national command authority in Washington will want to keep a tight rein on the participants out of fear that some major or colonel will be a loose cannon and shoot too soon and start World War IV. But when the shooting starts, a headquarters will be saturated with too many events and if commanders who are accustomed to top-down control wait for directions from on high the orders may not arrive on time. Moreover mission command is necessary in wartime because the local commander, including the ship captain or Marine Company Commander will have a better knowledge of the local enemy and conditions. In the botched Iranian Rescue Mission, some of our helicopters already en route turned back because a dust storm rose which the local meteorologist was aware of, but the weather guessers in Washington were not.

Girrier: Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations acknowledges the reality of crisis operations short of war, and the need to wield combat power with great precision that is completely in step with national intent. At times this may be a connection from higher echelons down to the more tactical level. There are nuances in these circumstances – at the strategic and operational levels – that shift and the on-scene level won’t be aware of…can’t be aware of. 

Conversely, as circumstances deteriorate and connectivity becomes challenged, there is great value in mission command and acting on commander’s intent.  We place great value on initiative and the high quality of our commanders from the tactical to operational levels.  Traversing these levels with agility and speed is critical to combat success.

Nelson: What do you think the 21st Century missile age means for naval warfare? Numerous countries now have long range maritime weapons. Yet do you think we might see a naval war in which range is defeated  not entirely, but largely by decoys and counter C4ISR? Do we then end up in a situation with a destroyer’s Commanding Officer realizing they’ll have to use weapons when they are within visual range of an enemy combatant? 

Girrier: The 21st century missile age brings faster and longer range lethality. At the same time, the areas where we may be called to action – where influence and combat capability is needed – may draw us into the littorals. By virtue of geography, the inherent challenges of targeting, and ever-increasing countermeasures, the ability to survive in these highly lethal environments is possible – it requires great skill, a mix of awareness, speed of decision, and speed of action.

Hughes: Fighting in the missile age is also affected by the effects of clutter of all kinds in coastal waters. Offensive tactics that achieve surprise attacks at relatively short range make littoral waters different from blue waters where we must control the seas and therefore must have strong but expensive defenses.

Nelson: So that’s why the littorals matter?

Girrier: It’s where the sea meets land and where combat effects – from the sea –  can have decisive effects to larger campaigns.

Hughes: Most combat at sea has been in littoral waters for some purpose connected to the land. That has been true since Greek and Roman times and is likely to be just as true in the future. Currently the most likely locations of future battles involving our Navy, including land-sea interactions, are the Baltic, Aegean, and Eastern Mediterranean, the Persian (or “Arabian”) Gulf, the South and East China Seas, and the Yellow Sea. Since a cornerstone of Fleet Tactics was and still is “A ship’s a fool to fight a fort,” today’s naval officers must consider carefully what is meant by a “fort” today.

Nelson: How do we tackle the problem on bridging the divide between the knowledge found in tactical publications and actual operator skill?

Hughes: Achieving operator proficiency is the topic of the book. For example, we have little praise for the principles of war and instead promote the study of constants, trends, and variables over history as the way to avoid preparing to fight the last war. The missile age and the longer range of weapons and sensors have changed the tactical needed to attack effectively first at sea since combat was carrier-centric in World War II. Since our subject is Fleet Tactics the greater emphasis is on achieving tactical success as a fleet commander or commanding officer. However we do not neglect the roles of operators in a command center or CIC. The reader will learn a great deal about the evolution of the Combat Information Center and how it increased the effectiveness of radar and sonar as World War II wore on. We also illustrate by describing the remarkable tactical skills exhibited by the Israeli Navy: commanders, shooters, defenders, deceivers, and the whole crew of each ship when the Israeli navy decisively defeated the Syrian and Egyptian missile ships in the 1973 war. That said, we shy away from speculation about the skills needed in the modern American navy. Instead, we stress the need for more at-sea combat exercises to get our operators ready to fight the age of missile salvos, unmanned vehicles, and information warfare.

Girrier: I would emphasize the timelessness of the ability to “attack effectively first” – this captures it all.  The required end state. The means to achieve that end evolves. Hence the imperative to understand the constants… trends… and variables of warfare. To prevail requires study of the foregoing, plus knowing one’s own capabilities and how to employ them with the utmost degree of effectiveness. Successful leaders will master the fusion of talent plus technology.

Nelson: Could you give us an example of how a net-centric war might look in the future?

Hughes: Network centric warfare is exhibited by today’s carrier battle groups and expeditionary strike groups, both of which must radiate continuously and unfailingly to be effective in the face of an enemy who will detect the radiations and attempt a sudden surprise attack. We emphasize the need to develop the ways and means to conduct our own surprise attacks by offensive action, especially in confined waters where an enemy navy must control his own seas with warships that must radiate to protect his shipping from our almost silent, well-practiced, sneak attacks including submarine attacks. We call this network optional warfare.

Girrier: I agree with Wayne, it’s not all one or the other. The future will likely show that a mix of techniques, capabilities and competencies will be required. That warfare will exhibit hybrid characteristics and one’s agility in traversing disparate approaches will be of great value.

Nelson: You’ve both been writing and publishing for years. If you would, walk us through your writing process. How do you research a topic and bring it to print? Outline? No outline? Pen and paper or straight to the computer?

Girrier: My writing has been fueled by my direct operational experience. What did I know, when did I not know, and what did I wish I knew when I was serving in various positions throughout my career. I compile these nuggets, reflect on their merit (maybe these were things I “should have known” but didn’t place enough value on). Always compose an outline as it helps order my thoughts. Then proceed. I must say, a big part of these projects  – especially when working updates and new editions – is the very serious responsibility of preserving hard-earned lessons. The voice of experience speaking through decades of operations. To update is one thing, maintaining relevance and currency; to preserve the deepest lessons and explain them in readily understood language is perhaps the hardest element in these projects.

Hughes: Taking a macro perspective, my prescription for success was background in four aspects of tactics and combat: (1) Experience at sea. Combat experience at sea helps, and though my ships have only been shot at twice I think the experience of incoming rounds is better yet if you survive them. (2) Knowledge of naval history. I had the joy of teaching it as a lieutenant at the Naval Academy among a cadre of the best historians in the country. (3) Experience with operations analysis, past and present, especially with tours applying it on fleet staffs. And (4) hands-on experience with tactical development to fully exploit new technologies, both onboard ship and on fleet staffs.

Nelson: Admiral Girrier, how did you get involved with Admiral Stavridis and the USNI’s Professional Series books?

Girrier: Admiral Stavridis invited me to join him in this ongoing “professional series” project. It was both an invitation and a call to “get involved” and help make our Navy stronger. I remain deeply grateful for the opportunity. I’ve seen it as both a privilege and a duty.  Our work on the Division Officer’s Guide, Watch Officer’s Guide and Command at Sea has all been pro-bono – I see that as consistent with the mission. It’s a team effort and most recently we’ve brought aboard CAPT Jeff Heames and CDR Tom Ogden (both post CDR-Command officers) contributing to the Division Officer’s Guide and the Watch Officer’s Guide.

Nelson: Gentlemen, I want to close with two questions: What advice would you give naval officers today about how best to prepare for future conflict? And second, what’s the hardest thing the U.S. Navy must tackle to improve either as individual officers or as an organization going forward? 

Girrier: Future arms races and conflict is all about the “race for cognition.” To understand, then act, faster than the adversary. This applies at all levels of conflict. If you own decision superiority, you know when to fight, and when to parry. You must know how, when, and where to create the conditions of tactical overmatch. Cognition means knowing your systems and tactics so completely, that when it comes time to act – your execution is reflexive. This takes training and empowerment of your people, and most importantly – focus and discipline. There are only so many hours in a day, these must be one’s priorities – period.

Hughes: I worked for VADM Ike Kidd when he was Commander First Fleet in San Diego. He emphasized combat readiness if the shooting started tomorrow. Admiral Kidd was influenced by the fact that his father was killed in USS Arizona when she was sunk during the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. But Ike also taught everyone to looking ahead at emerging technologies that would change tactics and combat in the future. His last duty was in overseeing the Navy’s technological development. Pertinent to what Bob says about focus and discipline, recently the surface navy suffered serious collisions with merchant ships. Navy officers today should ponder this: if our fighting ships can’t avoid big, slow ships that do not want to hit us, how well are we prepared to avoid small, very fast missiles that do?

Girrier & Hughes: The technology that surrounds us – and is available to our adversaries – must be harnessed and put to the most effective use as rapidly as possible.  Integrating these disruptive technologies challenge our existing systems, procedures, and operational techniques. We are a large and powerful force, with tremendous investment in existing capital assets – that fact can impede true innovation and the adoption of more lethal effects. Our adversaries know this, and are constantly looking at ways to defeat us. Information warfare is evolving very quickly and we must never be complacent in this regard. We must continually adapt, and do so with speed.

Nelson: This was great. Thank you, gentlemen.  

Captain Wayne Hughes, USN (Ret.) served thirty years on active duty, commanding a minesweeper, a destroyer, and a large training command. In retirement has taught, done research, and served as a Dean at the Naval Postgraduate School for over thirty years. He is a distinguished author of the US Naval Institute.

Rear Admiral Robert Girrier, USN (Ret.) is the president of Pacific Forum, a Honolulu-based nonprofit, private foreign policy research institute providing timely, informative, and innovative analysis of political, security and strategic developments in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. He is founder and managing member of StratNav/Strategic Navigation LLC, a consulting company. He is a naval leader with over thirty years’ maritime experience and extensive operations throughout the Indo-Asia-Pacific, Europe and Middle East.

Christopher Nelson is a naval officer currently stationed in the Pacific. He is a regular contributor to CIMSEC. The comments and questions here are his own.

Featured Image: ATLANTIC OCEAN (Nov. 1, 2017) The guided-missile destroyer USS Jason Dunham (DDG 109) launches a SM-2 missile during a live-fire exercise. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Zachary Van Nuys/Released)

Learning War and The Evolution of U.S. Navy Fighting Doctrine with Author Trent Hone

By Christopher Nelson

Author Trent Hone joins us today to talk about his new book Learning War: The Evolution of Fighting Doctrine in the U.S. Navy, 1898-1945. This is a great book. And as others have noted, it’s a fine compliment to John Kuehn’s work on the Navy General Staff, Scott Mobley’s book Progressives in Navy Blue, and I would add, Albert Nofi’s To Train The Fleet For War: The U.S. Navy Fleet Problems, 1923-1940.

We talk about everything from Admiral Frank “Friday” Fletcher to “safe-to-fail” systems vs. “fail-safe” systems. And stick around to the end. Trent Hone offers some advice to the CNO on how we can build a better learning organization.

Nelson: For the readers, could you tell us briefly what your book is about?

Hone: My book investigates how the U.S. Navy of the early twentieth century learned to innovate. I explore how the Navy invented new technologies, created new tactics, and found ways to rapidly evolve its combat doctrine based on peacetime exercises and wartime experience. Today, we would describe the Navy of that era as a “learning organization.” I explain what that means and describe the mechanisms the Navy used to effectively learn and innovate. I believe there are lessons from that time that are very relevant for today’s organizations, both military and civilian.

Nelson: Why did you want to write this book?

Hone: I’ve been interested in naval tactics for a long time. I remember reading Wayne Hughes’s Fleet Tactics when it first came out in the 1980s and being fascinated (It’s a great book now on its third edition). In the 1990s, I decided to explore the Navy’s surface warfare tactics before and during World War II. I wanted to know what Admiral Husband E. Kimmel might have done if Pearl Harbor hadn’t been attacked. That research led to a series of articles on the development of Navy tactics—including a prize-winning one in the Naval War College Reviewand, ultimately, began to overlap with other work I was doing. 

I started my career as a software engineer. As I assumed positions of greater responsibility, what became most interesting to me was not the development of the software, but how teams organized to create software and do innovative work. I studied various techniques and methods to improve the teams I supervised and eventually transitioned into advising and coaching organizations to help them get better at learning and innovating. 

As I continued looking at the evolution of the Navy’s tactical doctrine in the early twentieth century, I saw patterns that resonated with today’s most-effective learning techniques. The language was quite different, and the specific processes were different, but some of the underlying principles were remarkably similar. I realized it was a story that had to be told. I describe an arc of innovative creativity that stretches back decades by charting the evolution of surface warfare tactics.

Nelson: Early in the book you talk about “fail-safe” systems and “safe to fail” systems. The latter, you say, are best for a culture that encourages innovation. With this in mind, what would you say Rickover’s submarine culture consisted of? Is he a rare exception in the case of a system that is “fail-safe” yet innovative?

Hone: I’m glad you brought this up. Alicia Juarrero’s term “safe to fail” gives us a new way to think about failure modes and how to account for them. The key difference between the two is that with “fail-safe” we attempt to anticipate possible failure modes and design ways to mitigate them. With “safe to fail,” we recognize unanticipated failure modes will occur and organize to ensure survival when they do. This has relevance to organizations because when we want to learn and innovate, we are going to fail. A “safe to fail” organization finds ways to explore new ideas and experiment with them without endangering its long-term survival. The Navy was good at that in the early twentieth century. 

I’m less familiar with Rickover’s time, but from what I understand, it would be inaccurate to describe the culture he developed as primarily “fail-safe.” Certainly, it used procedures with rigidly prescribed steps in order to prevent known failures, so in that sense it was “fail-safe.” However, he recognized that unanticipated failure modes can and will occur. Defined procedures are inadequate to account for these circumstances. Instead, it’s essential to rely on the collective skill and experience of people, so the culture integrated crewmembers together. Layers of human observation and experience became the means to identify, anticipate, and address unforeseen circumstances. In that sense, the culture has a “safe to fail” component. Things will go wrong; people will make mistakes. But trust and experience become the means to identify and resolve them. 

As it turns out, that’s the most effective way to deal with problems in complex environments. Standard procedures and automated routines free our mental capacity so that when unforeseen circumstances arise, we can quickly identify and address them. That’s what made the Combat Information Center (CIC) and its successors effective: the artful integration of standard processes, technology, and human judgment. I worry that with the increasing emphasis on automated systems, we might be taking the talents of our people too far out of the loop. There’s no substitute for human experience and skill when the unanticipated occurs. 

Nelson: What is the “edge of chaos” and why does it matter to any organization that is trying to be innovative?

Hone: The concept of the “edge of chaos” is easily misunderstood, so I’ll try to explain it succinctly. In any complex system—like a corporation or a military service—there are processes, procedures, and rules. In the language of complexity, these are called “constraints.” They channel and limit behavior. When constraints are restrictive, they inhibit the ability of people to experiment and try something new. Obviously, that’s a problem if you want to innovate. But the other end of the spectrum is problematic also. If constraints are too loose, there’s no coherence; it becomes difficult to assign cause and effect or make sense of an experiment. The “edge of chaos” is located between these two extremes. It is a space where constraints are sufficiently loose to allow room to explore new ideas and concepts but also rigid enough to focus that exploration and provide feedback on its effectiveness. 

Many of us intuitively understand this from our own experience. Software teams, for example, are most innovative (and generally most effective) when they’re given a clear objective and the creative freedom to determine how best to accomplish it. The objective serves as a constraint and focuses their energy. They use their initiative to explore several potential solutions, often arriving at the best combination of technologies that addresses the need. That’s why there’s been such an emphasis on moving away from rigidly detailed requirements documents; they overly constrain teams and limit their creativity. The parallels to military command, and the importance of well-written orders that foster the initiative of subordinates, are obvious. 

Nelson: What was the importance of the 1921 Destroyer Instructions?

Hone: The Atlantic Fleet’s 1921 Destroyer Instructions were important for two reasons. It was the first Navy doctrinal manual produced by a deliberately created system of learning. Immediately after World War I, the Navy was transitioning back to peacetime. Many valuable lessons had been learned during the war and officers set out to capture them. Two “colleges” were established, one in the Atlantic Fleet and another in the Pacific Fleet. They combined exercises at sea, wargames ashore, and experience from the recent war to devise new approaches. A regular correspondence was maintained between these two fleet colleges and the Naval War College. The result of their collective learning was incorporated into the Destroyer Instructions. 

The Destroyer Instructions were also important because they assumed individual commands—each destroyer squadron—would develop their own specific doctrines that reflected the strength of their ships and men. The Instructions were deliberately written to foster creativity within subordinate commands and avoid being overly prescriptive. The War Instructions of 1923 took the same approach, so Navy officers spent the interwar period exploring a variety of options for how to coordinate and employ their forces, leading to new and innovative techniques.

Nelson: Who was Admiral Frank Friday Fletcher? What were his battle instructions? And why are they an important milestone in naval history?

Hone: Frank Friday Fletcher led the intervention at Veracruz, Mexico, in April 1914 and was awarded the Medal of Honor for his conduct. In September 1914, he became commander of the Atlantic Fleet, which contained the Navy’s most modern ships. The Atlantic Fleet had been regularly conducting exercises to work out how best to operate in battle, and Fletcher continued that practice. By May 1916, he and his staff had gained enough experience to issue a set of Battle Instructions. 

Admiral Frank Friday Fletcher.

Fletcher’s Instructions marked a departure from previous approaches. He assumed battle was fundamentally uncertain and that centralized control would likely be impossible; this led him to emphasize two things. The first was the use of a plan that would outline objectives for subordinates. Fletcher wanted to encourage their individual initiative and creativity without overly constraining them. Second, Fletcher stressed the coordinated use of all weapons. Previous battle plans had emphasized battleship gunnery. Fletcher recognized that other weapons were coming into their own, particularly destroyer torpedoes. He planned to use his destroyer squadrons very aggressively. These two concepts—the use of a plan and coordinated employment of all arms—remained central to Navy tactical doctrine through World War II.  

Nelson: I enjoyed your comment about “type commanders.” You note in your book that during World War II that minor actions were neglected.  This mattered. And type commanders were born in light of these shortcomings. What were these “minor actions” and how did the type commanders address them?

Hone: The Navy’s primary focus in the interwar period (1919-1939) was a trans-Pacific campaign. It was expected to culminate in a “major action”—a large fleet battle—somewhere in the central Pacific. Accordingly, most of the fleet-level tactical doctrine focused on “major action.” Tactics for “minor actions”—engagements between smaller task forces—were left to subordinate commanders. It was assumed that these lower-level commanders would have time to develop doctrines for their forces, and, during peacetime, this assumption was largely correct. 

However, there were shortcomings. This led to the introduction of the type commands in 1930.

Type commands became responsible for identifying and capturing new tactical approaches for each various type—destroyers, cruisers, battleships, etc.—and there is evidence that new approaches were more rapidly developed after that date. The real problem, though, was the assumption that subordinate commands would be able to develop specific doctrines for their forces. 

In 1942, that process fell apart during the battles off Guadalcanal. Ships and commanders moved about too rapidly to develop cohesion. “Scratch teams” were formed and they often performed poorly, as you might expect. The Pacific Fleet addressed the problem by applying some of the same techniques used for “major tactics” to “minor tactics” and leveraging the type commands to rapidly share and disseminate lessons. 

Nelson: During World War II, how did the Fleet quickly inform commanders with updated doctrine? This is a problem throughout history, is it not? We make some assessments on what will or will not work in war, and inevitably we will be surprised. What would you recommend to a staff today on how to prepare for such things?

Hone: I love this question because when I first started my research decades ago, I thought that manuals—published doctrinal materials—would be the key to understanding tactical doctrine. I learned very quickly that’s not the case. Doctrine is a set of assumptions and mental models. The documentation provides a backdrop, but what really matters is how individuals think about problems and work together. During World War II, the Navy effectively used personal connections, like in-person conversations and conferences, to rapidly share and disseminate new ideas. There were formal means to do this (like Joseph C. Wylie being brought back from the South Pacific to help develop the CIC) but informal mechanisms were at least as important. Published doctrine tended to lag behind the information shared through these informal networks.

USS SAN FRANCISCO (CA-38) At the Mare Island Navy Yard, 20 May 1942. (Photo via Naval History and Heritage Command)

If I were making recommendations, I’d stress the importance of informal mechanisms. Staffs can easily create mountains of briefings and other documentation. What’s more difficult is creating an environment where subordinates can readily exchange information, learn together, and build on the knowledge of their colleagues. I think a staff should actively work on enabling that. It’s not just about creating space and time; it’s about introducing the appropriate constraints to enable creativity to flourish. Then, once that is in place, the staff needs to keep tabs on what’s happening. New, more effective ideas will arise. When they do, the staff needs to act quickly to exploit them and make them available to the entire command. 

Nelson: How does the size of a navy – the number of ships and sailors – affect innovation? Quick growth, during World War II, for example, and steep reductions – ship numbers from the 80s to today for instance, do these affect innovation in different ways? How?

Hone: I think both offer serious challenges. The rapid growth in World War II made it very difficult to maintain the effective culture the Navy had nurtured during the early twentieth century. Rapid “scaling” (as we call it in the software world) tends to increase centralization, reduce flexibility, and inhibit innovation. That happened to the Navy as it grew during the war. 

The challenge I see with steep reductions is overburdening. Organizations often reduce their size without an equivalent reduction in their commitments. This leads to overwork: people become spread too thin; maintenance gets delayed; and equipment is overutilized. Individuals may still be able to sustain the pace of operations, but they frequently lose the ability to experiment with new ideas. Innovation slows as a result. When commitments are reduced along with reductions in size—as with the Navy after World War I—this can be avoided. 

Nelson: Trent, to close, if you had ten minutes with the Chief of Naval Operations and he asked you what he needed to do to create a learning organization – what would you say?

Hone: I had about thirty seconds with Admiral Richardson last year when he presented me with the second-place award for his Naval History Essay Contest, and in those thirty seconds, I encouraged him to read my book. If I had ten minutes, I’d urge him to introduce a set of integrated feedback loops that couple regular experimentation regarding the nature of future war (tactics, technology, etc.) and OPNAV’s programming process. The goals would be twofold. First, officers need to be encouraged to regularly experiment to vary their tactical approaches to discover new, more effective techniques. They need to become accustomed to adjusting to unanticipated circumstances and leveraging the creativity of their commands. Second, the lessons from their experimentation need to revise and guide the Navy’s program so that force structure and procurement reflect—and ultimately anticipate—the new learning. 

We’re all familiar with the interwar Fleet Problems. What made them really powerful—what allowed them to transform the Navy—was the way they were integrated into the Navy’s planning and procurement processes. The second CNO, Admiral Robert E. Coontz, was primarily responsible for that. He created the feedback loops that allowed the Navy to not just experiment with new tactical doctrines, but to evolve force structure and war plans in light of emerging lessons. If Admiral Richardson wants “high-velocity learning,” if he wants to fully leverage the skills of the Navy’s officers, he needs to devise a set of similar mechanisms. Given the organizational changes since Coontz left office in 1923, a new set of structures and interfaces would have to be introduced. I have faith Admiral Richardson could do that, if he sets his mind to it. 

Trent Hone is an award-winning naval historian and a Managing Consultant with Excella in Arlington, VA. He is an expert on U.S. Navy tactics and doctrine. His article, “U.S. Navy Surface Battle Doctrine and Victory in the Pacific” was awarded the U.S. Naval War College’s Edward S. Miller Prize and the Naval History and Heritage Command’s Ernest M. Eller Prize. His essay, “Guadalcanal Proved Experimentation Works” earned second place in the 2017 Chief of Naval Operations Naval History Essay Contest. He regularly writes and speaks about organizational learning, doctrine, strategy, and how the three interrelate. His latest book, Learning War: The Evolution of Fighting Doctrine in the U.S. Navy, 1898–1945, was published by the U.S. Naval Institute in June 2018.

Christopher Nelson is a U.S. Naval Officer stationed at the U.S. Pacific Fleet Headquarters. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School. He is a regular contributor to CIMSEC. The questions and views here are his own.

Featured Image: USS Indiana (BB-58) fires a salvo from her forward 16″/45 guns at the Kamaishi Plant of the Japan Iron Company, 250 miles north of Tokyo. 

Disciplining the Empire — Dr. Sarah Kinkel on the Eighteenth-Century British Royal Navy

By Christopher Nelson

Author and Professor Sarah Kinkel joins us to discuss her new book Disciplining the Empire: Politics, Governance, and the Rise of the British Navy.

Nelson: Professor Sarah Kinkel, thank you so much for spending some time with me today to talk about your fascinating new book, Disciplining the Empire: Politics, Governance, and the Rise of the British Navy. Let’s start with your time as a student at Yale, where you got your Masters and later a PhD in history. How was your experience at Yale?

Kinkel: I actually majored as an undergraduate in Political Science and International Relations, and I thought that would be a direction I would be interested in going. I ended up with an accidental minor in history because they were always my favorite classes. So anytime I had a chance for an elective, it was always a history class.

Like a lot of twenty-two-year-olds, I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do. I took a couple of years off between undergraduate and graduate school. I thought about what kind of path I might want to be on, and I kept coming back to the fact that if all my favorite classes were history classes, and I ended up with this minor in it, then that was pretty compelling evidence that this was something that I was really interested in.  

It fascinates me to think about people’s lives and their experiences from the past and some of the systems they built to manage uncertainty. To me it really is one of the things I like about history because it encourages you to think in big picture ways and ask questions about the way societies work and what holds them together. And I think you can ask similar types of questions about societies throughout history. While I was at Yale I was a teacher’s assistant for a class on the Roman Empire. It was great; I learned so much. I didn’t know any more going into the class than the students did. But my training in early modern Europe helped me think about some of the religious, political, and social changes during the days of the Roman Empire.

I had a fantastic time at Yale. I really couldn’t say enough great things about the program, about my mentors. I came in knowing I wanted to do something with British imperial historybut not sure quite what. I was working with Steve Pincus, who is a historian of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British Empire. And then, as I started to gravitate toward a more naval focus, I also worked closely with Paul Kennedy. Both Kennedy and Pincus where fantastic mentors and great advisors.

One of the things I really appreciated about Yale was the fact that even if I had a professor and even if I only had one class with them, they were all so generous with their time. I expected when I came in as graduate student that some of the professors would blow me offI mean, these are incredibly busy, important people, Pulitzer Prize-winning historians. But they were always so generous with their time. And they seemed interested in working with graduate students. That was something that I really appreciated about being there.

Nelson: What was your favorite class at Yale?

Kinkel: My favorite classand in the big scheme, it influenced my thoughts about my bookwas actually a class in the political science department with professor Vivek Sharma. It was a class on the social and cultural history of violence. The class covered how we can understand violence in warfare but also in societies. We use violence against our enemies, but we also use it to police the boundaries of our communities. There’s always an acceptable form of violencebut what is it? It was a class about thinking about the connections between societies and the way that violence is carried out.

That class to me was so eye opening. We talked about everything from chivalry to genocide. Thinking about warfare in that context, as not being something that is culturally neutral, that was interesting to me and sowed seeds for my graduate work, as it turned out.

Nelson: I want to touch on military studies in academia. In my opinion military history is undervalued or not even represented in many university curricula. They simply don’t include history courses on warfare. Of course, there is the U.S. Civil War, which pops up in many history programs for various reasons. But if you’re an undergraduate or even a graduate student today, it’s hard to find a program that really digs into the history of warfare. Do you agree? Your thoughts?

Kinkel: I think it is probably true to say that military history has been sidelined. I think that one of the good things about how we are doing history now as opposed to fifty years ago is that we are asking different types of questions and we are including the history of different types of people. That is all good. But I’m sorry that there isn’t more interest in taking something that is as important and world shaping as warfare and violence seriously. Military history is really, really important. To me, that means less the discussion of operational movements or tactical movements of forces in a battlethat’s not what I spend a lot of time thinking about. It’s important to military professionals, like yourself, of course, to focus on and to learn. But what I want to focus on is how military and politics connect and affect each other.

Still, I agree with your assessment. There is not much of a presence for military history in academia today. And when military history is included, I’m still not sure it’s as embedded in the bigger picture of decisions, consequential events, and other social factors as it should be. 

Nelson: What is it about the British Royal Navy that fascinates you?

Kinkel: I originally came to the Royal Navy as a historical fan girl. My grandfather was in the U.S. Navy. I don’t know if that influenced my father. But my father has always been a big history lover. We’d sit around the dinner table at home and he would tell us Horatio Nelson stories. I started being drawn in to some of those classic naval myths. Of course, they’re not all myths, but there is some mythology around them. When I was able to travel to England and see Nelson’s bullet-ripped uniform in the National Maritime Museum, wow, it is such a compelling series of stories. I started to wonder why British naval captains fought that way when not everybody did. It seemed to me that the naval histories I read left it at ‘Well, they were British, so it must make sense.’ I’m not sure that is a compelling historical answer.

Admiral Horatio Nelson’s Bullet Ridden Uniform (Wikimedia Commons)

Nelson: For the readers, briefly, how would describe your book?

Kinkel: This is a book that explains the eighteenth-century rise of the Royal Navy by integrating that story with the major political debates of the century. Other books have explained how Britain was able to build the world’s most dominant naval force, and have pointed to elements like geography, economy, institutions, and battle culture—which are all important but don’t necessarily take into account the fact that there were real arguments over the form and function of the navy. This book explains why some people (but not others) thought an aggressive, powerful, and disciplined navy would be a good idea, and how that battle culture was actually created, because it wasn’t innate.

I think that for far too long naval history and political history have been kept separate. That is just stunning to me. The Royal Navy was the single largest organization of people and resources in the entire empire. It was inherently political. We know how deeply divided the British Empire was over issues like the constitution; over the question of who gets to hold authority in society; over what the empire should look like. And the navy was fundamentally tied to those questions.

Nelson: In your introduction you refer to “political contestation” as a topic that is rarely covered. Is this what you are referring to–issues over political authority–when you say “political contestation”?

Kinkel: Yes. Absolutely. A lot of people in the eighteenth century agreed that there were problems facing British Imperial society. They disagreed fundamentally about what the most important problems were and how to solve them.

Nelson: I enjoyed learning about some the historic figures in your book. Who were some of the consequential personalities that shaped the Royal Navy in the eighteenth century? What were the governing bodies that ran that navy back then?

Kinkel: It is a navy that changes over time during the eighteenth century. It starts out and continues to be a complex set of overlapping bureaucracies. There’s five different bureaucratic boards that have authority over different aspects of naval affairs. We tend today to think about the Admiralty as the first and foremost of the organizations. It became that way, but during the time period I focus on,  in theory the Admiralty only has control over officers and ships that are currently in service. The Navy Board, which is a separate institution, and coequal to the Admiralty Board, has control over shipbuilding, dockyards, and supplies. There’s an Ordnance Board and there’s also a Sick-and-Hurt Board that deals with invalid sailors. So the Admiralty can’t really tell the other boards what to do. At the beginning of the century, it is not clear what kind of role, if any, that the Admiralty might actually have in shaping policy. The head of the Admiralty Board is not automatically a cabinet position. There’s even periods in the first decade of the eighteenth century where there isn’t an Admiralty Boardthey decide they just don’t need it.

There’s no one person who is clearly responsible for everything that is happening in the navy. In the early years of the century, the most powerful people were the admirals themselves. They had small fiefdoms over their ships, patronage, and recruitment. Even in the early 1740s there’s a period where George II lets one of the senior admirals have command over all of the ships in home waters without having to go through the Admiralty first.

This, as you can imagine, is chaotic. It is up to individuals in different bureaucracies to make things happen. If you have political capital and energy, this helps. But it is up to individuals who hold particular positions. We start to see a change in the middle of the 1740s. In December of 1744 there is a new group of Admiralty commissioners who come into the Admiralty Board. They are a combination of politicians and sea officers. They start to institute a series of naval reforms. And this is the core of my book. So at that point, you see the Admiralty Board start to increasingly assert itself politicallyin Parliament, among politicians, monopolizing authority over other boards, and officers as wellbut at the same time they put in place naval reforms that were designed to strengthen and centralize the control over this massive, sprawling bureaucratic structure.

John Russell, 4th Duke of Bedford (Wikipedia Commons)

Naval historians have attributed these reforms to one of  the sea officers who came in to this Admiralty Board in 1744George Ansonhe’s newly famous and had just circumnavigated the globe, plundered the Spanish, and he’s quite popular. Yet I think this attribution is misplaced because in my opinion, the reforms come more from two of the politicians who joined this board: John Russell, the fourth the Duke of Bedford, and John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich. These politicians come in and make changes that they want to see in the British Empire, and British society, and they do so by using the navy to accomplish some of those goals.

Nelson: I want to turn to British Naval professionalism. When does the British Navy realize that they need to professionalize? What does that actually mean? For example, I don’t believe they even had a standard naval uniform in the early eighteenth century, correct?

Kinkel: Great question. I don’t think there is a consensus about the question of professionalism in the eighteenth century. There was always disagreement and push-back to professionalizing the naval force. And I’ll get into those reasons in a moment.

We start to see the argument for professionalization in the 1730s, and then it really comes forward in the 1740s. Britain is once again involved in a colonial imperial struggle with France and with Spain. It doesn’t go well for the Royal Navy. The one lone exception is Admiral Edward Vernon who has a much celebrated victory at Porto Bello. The navy is just not doing well in the war. There are lots of metrics that people are using to indicate how poorly they’re performing. Merchant ships are reporting that naval convoys abandoned them to privateers; there are navy captains fleeing in the face of numerically inferior forces; and there are lots of public pamphlets that say that sea officers aren’t thirsty for French blood, they are thirsty for French wineand they don’t want to spill a drop of either. Professionalism, then, is put forward as one possible answer to these issues.

To me, I think it means that they need to make the navy look more like a professional standing army. Because now they have ideas and examples to go by. We know the standing army revolution has already happened a century before. I think they want to create something similarI call it a permanent standing navythat is going to be there in war, and it is going to be there in peacetime. So now you are going to get career officers, trained and disciplined sailors, standardized processes, and a clear hierarchical command. This is going to be a navy that can be trusted to behave reliably. Once an order has gone out, it will be followed or there will be consequences. You’re absolutely right to point out that in the context of these reforms, this is the first naval uniform. In the decades previous, you couldn’t necessarily tell who is in the navy and who is not. There is not a uniform to mark people out. Ships at various pointsmerchant ships for examplewere co opted into royal fleets for battles in the 17th century. And were still  privateers on the oceansthese are private ships of wars.

Even in constitutional theory, sailors were understood to be in the navy in so far as their name is listed in the ship’s books. If your name is not listed in the ship’s books, then you aren’t in the navy anymore. And for officers, there wasn’t a coherent career path. In the late seventeenth century, you might be a gunner in one ship, and then you might be a lieutenant on the next, and then go on to the merchant marine force.

Professionalizing the force is meant to transform this navy into something of permanence, something that is reliable and clearly marked out from civilian ships, from private naval warfare. The people who want professionalization are pretty skeptical of private violence, which could be in the hands of just anyone, and really want something that is clearly not that.

Nelson: What are some examples of how the Royal Navy incentivized behavior at sea?

Kinkel: This is one of the areas that I want to push back against the classic story about the military revolution and how it happened and its effects on society. One version goes like this: There’s transformation in technology that then forced transformation in warfare and then that in turn forced changes in politics and society, and that’s how you get the modern state. Now, again, that’s one argument. I think it’s not completely wrong, but in this case it’s also not completely right.

There is no transformation in technology in the British Navy in the course of the eighteenth century that suddenly makes officers and ships better fighters. There’s a couple of tweaks. We get copper sheathing for example, late in the century. It makes ships more sustainable in the longer-term in warmer waters. But what we’re fundamentally talking about are changes in behavior. One of the conundrums this Admiralty Board faces is that you can’t directly supervise what your officers are doing at sea. By definition if you want to have a navy that you can send to project power to the far sides of the world, it is going to partially be out of your control. That’s why it is so important to have officers that you believe are reliable. So they think a lot about how do you constrain and shape behavior. There is an emphasis, to some extent, on training–certainly there is an emphasis on training a ship for combat.

There was some skepticism in British society about whether you could train officers on shore or if you needed to send officers to sea to train and learn the profession practically. There were some new investments in training young officers at the Portsmouth Naval Academy. But the focus during this time is on practical education. In terms of shaping officers’ behavior, the Admiralty is helped by the fact that there were always more would-be sea officers than active positionsespecially in peacetime. So they let it be known that your continued employment, if you wanted one of these limited positions, would mean you would actually have to follow the system.

They then followed through with the carrot and stick approach. If you followed their orders, and fought the way they wanted to fight, and created the culture onboard your ship that they wanted, you could expect promotion, a chance at prize money, and a good cruise at sea. And because these officers are in direct competition with on another, this incentivizes their behavior. If you don’t follow these rules, you’re not going to get anywhere. There’s nothing worseas we learn from the Patrick O’Brian novels–than being a forty-something lieutenant without prospects. That’s just not a good place to be.

One of the reforms the Royal Navy institutes is a new rank: Admiral of the Yellow. Previously the idea was once you became a post captain, you rose up the ranks and then eventually retired as an admiral. The problem was that the Royal Navy couldn’t pick out the best sea officer for the job because of this system of hierarchy. There was always someone senior for a command, who if he wasn’t chosen, it caused offense and sometimes political scandals. But when they created this new rankAdmiral of the Yellowthe Royal Navy could now appoint as many people as they wanted to this new rank without having to give them a command. This allows the Admiralty to reach as far down the ranks as they want to promote the officers they think are the best. None of these reforms were universally accepted, by the way—officers were invested in the existing system and not all of them wanted to see it changed. People complained about the fact that there might now be “boy captains,” as they termed it; some people refused to wear the uniform; the Navy Board ignored Admiralty attempts to standardize shipbuilding. Name the reform and there was resistance. But the Royal Navy acted pretty quickly to put teeth behind these reforms and to, shall we say, “dissuade” protests from within the service.

Ceramic dish showing capture of Porto Bello (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1746, Admiral Vernon, one of the most popular officers at the timea man whose face was on household items, on posters, prints hanging in houses, salt shakers, you name it, he was a celebrity in mid-eighteenth-century Britaingot into a power struggle with the Admiralty Board. He said he wasn’t given high enough commands for his honor. He thought he wasn’t given enough autonomy and that the Admiralty was trying to constrain him. He was flaunting his public power. Yet the Admiralty cashiered him. They were willing to fire the most popular face of the service. This emphasized to the younger officers that continued employment in the navy meant that you had to abide by the Admiralty Board’s direction.  

Nelson: What is the importance of the Naval Act of 1749? You mentioned Admiral Byng earlier, who was he and why is his fate linked to that famous naval act?

Kinkel: The members of the Admiralty Board were pretty clever at incentivizing sea officers to go along with the new culture of naval service they hoped to create. Promotion and continued employment were clear carrots, but they also wanted to have a stick they could use. There had been a number of very politically contentious courts martial earlier in the 1740s, and one in particular after the 1744 Battle of Toulon in which an officer who chose not to fight was exonerated—because he had the right political connections—while an officer who did fight was cashiered. To prevent something like that from happening again, the new Admiralty Board put forward what became known as the 1749 Navy Bill. The bill was hugely controversial and was only passed after some intense parliamentary debate and public protest.

It did a number of things, but the overall point was to rationalize existing naval martial law and to remove leeway from courts martial in how they applied that law. The effects of the Navy Bill were made clear a few years later, when Britain went back to war with France in 1756. British ministers received information that the French intended to capture the island of Minorca, which was an important British base in the Mediterranean. They sent Admiral John Byng to prevent that. Byng showed up, the French were already there but hadn’t captured the fort yet, and even though he outnumbered them, Byng decided that the day was already lost and he sailed back to Gibraltar instead, leaving the French to take the island. When news got back to Britain, people went absolutely ballistic. Some people blamed Byng as a coward, some people blamed the administration for not having sent him earlier, there were riots, pamphlets, people saying the prime minister should be executed—it was wild. Byng was court martialed, and there was really no way for the court to find him innocent of the charge that he “had not done his utmost to obey His Majesty’s orders.”

The Execution of Admiral Byng/Wikimedia Commons

In earlier years, that could have meant a number of things in terms of actual punishment, but the 1749 Navy Bill said there was only one possible outcome for that offense: death. Byng was rich, and well-connected, and he was executed regardless. That really sent an incredibly stark signal to all the other sea officers that the dangers of disobedience were real. I think it’s not a coincidence that in the years right after Byng’s execution, in the rest of the Seven Years’ War, we start to see sea officers behaving and fighting in far more aggressive ways. They chased enemies into dangerous shoals and rocky bays rather than back down, for example, and increasingly risked their fleets against superior forces. For me, the 1749 Navy Bill and Byng’s execution, which proved that the Admiralty really meant it, set the tone for what would be expected of sea officers for the rest of the century. They’re the foundations of the new naval culture that would eventually lead to victories like Trafalgar.

Nelson:  You describe in your book how the Royal Navy created a legacy of officers that were good at their job. This is largely done by patronage. What was patronage in the eighteenth century Royal Navy? And while naval officers use a different term today—“mentoring” maybe, or “grooming”—what are the similarities and differences between patronage in the eighteenth century and the twenty-first century?

Kinkel: I don’t think that people would have thought about patronage as nepotism or favoritism–not back then. The way it worked over the eighteenth century is we don’t see politicians influencing naval promotion. Letters of recommendations for would-be sea officers are coming from other sea officers. After mid-century, they really are increasingly emphasizing the idea of merit. And it would reflect badly on a superior officer if you pull up someone who goes out and wrecks their first ship. There is an incentive in terms of your own reputation and legacy to identify talent.

From my perspective I see this as not dissimilar to how I think patronage continues to work in our contemporary world. Generally speaking, people in positions of authority want to be supported by people of talent. Big organizations are about teamwork. You need to have someone you can delegate to and you can trust and will make you look good. If your subordinates are bad at their job it will make you look bad. I think this is true in business and politics and other spheres today, just as it was back then. I don’t think patronage is inherently divorced from the concept of merit. I do have an axe to grind when people talk about patronage as somehow antithetical to merit. Now, it can be in some circumstances–but again, I would just call that nepotism. Patronage is a vote of confidence. And absolutely, yes, it can be a vote of confidence on the basis of merit. I say this in the book: today we still rely on personal connections to advance in life, we just call it “networking.” Fundamentally, eighteenth-century patronage is not much different from modern concepts. Some people do fall through the cracks and some talent is not identified, but broadly, people accepted this system.

Nelson: In your book, you’ve included 90 pages of notes. What sources did you rely on? What sources did you keep coming back to?

Kinkel: Some of the books that influenced me first were books on political history and turmoil in eighteenth-century Britain. I saw a disconnect between how naval historians described this period and how political historians described this period. I thought there was a disconnect. Some of the books that I was reading that did influence how I was thinking about maritime history were books by N.A.M. Rodger, Daniel Baugh, and Jeremy Black. One of the examples I thought my book could look like was Kathleen Wilson’s Sense of the People. It’s a book about the arguments over empire. She touches on the resonance that maritime issues clearly had for a large sector of the British population. She talked about Admiral Vernon, she talked about Admiral Byng. So her books showed me one possible version of what fused politically aware history of the navy could look like.

Nelson: Professor, to close, what are some of your favorite books on maritime history?

Kinkel: I think we have a tendency to think about oceans as negative space. But back then, so much of what is important to eighteenth-century Britain takes place on the ocean. From that perspective, I want to read about history that can connect the ocean with the land. For me, my favorite books about maritime history have always been books that show the big picture what’s at stake with everything that happens on the ocean.

One book that came out a few years ago that is really interesting is The Saltwater Frontier by Andrew Lipman. It is about how the areas of coastal waters between what’s now Cape Cod and the Hudson River became a space of contestation and negotiation between a number of European and Native American powers in the early days of colonization.  

Another book that came out in the last couple of years that I really admired is Sam Willis’ book The Struggle for Sea Power. It is, to some extent, a history of the naval campaigns of the American Revolution. But it is a book that takes place almost as much on land or in coastal waters or rivers or lakes as it does on the open ocean. He makes a really compelling point that navies were symbols. There is a moment when the leading citizens of Providence burn a naval ship to the waterline and shoot its commander. Willis points out, rightly, that the burning of the HMS Gaspee is a political statement. During the American Revolution the British are obsessed with building full-sized frigates on Lake Champlain. They definitely don’t need to do this to control these waters. They actually deconstruct a sloop and pull it through the woods plank by plank and rebuild it on the lake. The book deals really well with technical issues–like why navigating sea ice is so hard–but it also deals a lot with the wide varieties of ways navies mattered: economically, politically, and symbolically.

Something that recently I taught in a class on the American Revolution, is a chapter on Boston from Benjamin Carp’s book Rebels Rising. It’s a book that about cities, not ships, but this chapter is one of the best descriptions I’ve seen about how fundamentally maritime power, money, and life Boston was. It is also just a really well-written book. A lot of my students picked this book as their favorite read during the semester.

Finally, I love the movie Master & Commander. One of the things we struggle with as historians is trying to recapture the experience of what it would have been like during the time. I just think that movie is so good. It’s what I imagine the experience of being on an eighteenth-century warship would have been like–it’s so visceral and brutal and tedious. Sometimes when you watch a film and the topic is close to your day job, you’re so fixated on inaccuracies that they can ruin the film. But I never feel this way when I watch this movie.

If I ever taught a class that was just about maritime history, I would make the class watch the movie. There are different ways of telling stories about the past–historians tell them one way, novelists another, and filmmakers another. I’m not convinced one is better than the other in recreating the reality of people’s experiences. Good historical fiction has a real role to play in telling these stories.

Nelson: Professor, this was great. Thank you.

Sarah Kinkel received her PhD from Yale University in 2012. From 2012-2015, she was the managing editor of Eighteenth-Century Studies. She has since taught as an Assistant Professor at Ohio University.

Christopher Nelson is a U.S. Naval Officer stationed at the U.S. Pacific Fleet Headquarters. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School. He is a regular contributor to CIMSEC. The questions and views here are his own.

Featured Image: The capture of Porto Bello. George Chambers Sr. (Wikimedia Commons)