Category Archives: Seamanship and Leadership

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Ten Principles of Ethical Conduct

By Captain Mark Vandroff, USN

I recently read Dale R. Wilson’s well-written piece “Character is Crumbling in Our Leadership.” I was left, however, wondering about a definition of ethical behavior. Lockheed Martin lists “Do The Right Thing” as the first of its three core values.1 This is a noble sentiment, but how does one determine “The Right Thing?” To be fair to Lockheed Martin, their ethics webpage, on which their value statement is clearly articulated, provides links to several different company publications with more detailed rules for the conduct of company business and training with examples of good and bad ethical behavior. 

The federal government, including the Department of Defense (DoD), provides much of the same. For example, the Naval Sea System Command (NAVSEA) is attempting to make its sailors and civilian employees more ethically aware with its “Anchor Yourself In Ethics” campaign.2  This campaign focuses on awareness of the federal government’s “14 Principles Of Ethical Conduct.”3 In both cases, leaders seem to equate ethical behavior with compliance with an established set of rules. While related to the concepts of rule sets and professional conduct, ethical principles are something separate. It would certainly be unprofessional for an Assistant Secretary of the Navy to show up to work at the Pentagon in flip flops or for his Military Assistant to have his warfare pin on upside down, but neither would be unethical. I know of a Major Program Manager who knowingly violated the contracting rule on unauthorized commitments. Because he broke this rule, needed repair work was accomplished on a Navy ship in a timely manner allowing the ship to begin it basic training phase on time. The commitment was later ratified by an authorized contracting official. The program manager did not benefit financially, immediately informed his chain of command, and in the end the government did not suffer financially. His action broke rules, including one of the 14 Principles above; however, I would find very few who would describe his conduct as “unethical.”

If ethics is not merely following the rules, what is it? A good working definition might be that ethics are the processes and principles used to determine if an action is right or wrong. Even the words “right” and “wrong” are problematic. Using them in this context assumes the existence of some universal standard against which an action may be judged. Theologians and philosophers debate the origins and existence of such a standard.  Practitioners take a different stance. As the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart described pornography in “Jacobellis vs. Ohio,” they “know it when they see it.”4 Apart from following established rule sets, ethical action involves honesty, transparency, compassion, dignity, and courage. As the Chief of Naval Operations put it in his recent letter to Flag Officers, “Words about values, no matter how eloquent, can only go so far. My experience is that, like so many parts of our language, these words have become overused, distorted, and diluted. Our behavior, as an organization and as individuals, must signal our commitment to the values we so often proclaim.”5 The question that I believe the CNO raises is how to take noble ideals and from them craft a usable set of principles people can use to evaluate their actions.

FireShot Capture 106 - -
CNO Admiral Richardson’s letter on core values and attributes. Click to read.

Roughly 2,300 years ago, Aristotle wrote ten enormous volumes of The Nicomachean Ethics. While it remains an important work on ethics to this day, it does have a certain lack of brevity. 1,400 years later, Moses Maimonides, a Jewish philosopher who was heavily influenced by Aristotle’s writings, did have the gift of brevity. He synthesized the theological implications of the Hebrew Bible and all the attendant writings of several hundred years of revered Rabbis into 13 principles of faith. While his principles were praised by many and criticized by some, their very publication sparked a healthy and needed debate within the Jewish thinking of the day. In the spirit of both Aristotle and Maimonides, I offer the following 10 principles of ethical conduct. They are not rules but principles, ways of measuring the rightness and wrongness of a given act. They are designed to apply to all whose profession involves the common defense, not solely to military personnel. I offer these 10 principles to the Pentagon bureaucrat, the defense industry executive, the Congressional staffer, and the journalist whose beat covers national security as well as to the Soldier, Sailor, Airman and Marine. My hope is that a spirited public debate of these principles will lead to a healthier understanding of what constitutes ethical conduct.

1. Actions must align with the legitimate interests of the stakeholders.

Everyone in the world of defense acts in the interest of someone else, often multiple people and/or groups, and only rarely is it a direct supervisor. A journalist has a responsibility to the owners of their media outlet to produce publishable content and an additional, sometimes competing interest, to their readers to provide content that is factual and relevant. A DoD Program Manager has a duty to produce items of military usefulness to the warfighter and also has a responsibility to the American taxpayer. A stakeholder is the entity in whose interest a person is bound by their position to act.  (In the law, this would be called a fiduciary/principal relationship.) When judging the ethics of an action, ask first, “are these actions furthering the interest of one or more legitimate stakeholders?”

2. Conflicting interests of various stakeholders must be balanced transparently.

An infantry officer calling for artillery fire must balance the need to protect the soldiers under their command (those soldiers are one legitimate stakeholder) with the need to prevent potential civilian casualties (those civilians are the unwitting other legitimate stakeholder). A Service Chief will have to balance the need to invest in the equipment of tomorrow’s force with the need to fund the operations and maintenance of force he leads today. Many situations will have rule sets for the balancing of these interests, from Rules of Engagement in the field to the Federal Acquisition Regulation in a contract award.  Beyond merely following the appropriate rule set, the decision-maker must be open and clear with themselves, their chain of command, and possibly others outside their organization about who the stakeholders are and how he or she is balancing their interests.

3. The financial benefits of an office can only come from legitimate sources, and must be openly communicated to all stakeholders.

This principle covers the innocent gift, the outright bribe, and everything in between. In most cases, there are easily understood rule sets to govern this behavior. However, even in a complicated case, the main principle is to take no money or other item of value in a manner not clearly known to all the relevant stakeholders. As an example, many journalists will earn additional income working as a ghostwriter. If a journalist covering the DoD and the defense industry ghostwrites a book or an article for a DoD or defense industry leader, that journalist’s readers have a right to know about how that may affect his or her reporting.   

4. Gain, in any form, personal, institutional, financial, or positional, only legitimately comes through excellence.

It is fine for colonels to want to become generals. There is no ethical violation in a business wanting to maximize its profit. Investors are one of the key stakeholder interests an industry leader must serve. However, gain must never be achieved by trick, fraud, or exploitation of personal relationships. Gain is achieved ethically when a competitor outperforms the competition. For example, many large acquisition programs fund government activities outside their program that advance the state of technology with the intent of eventual incorporation into that program. An O-6 major program manager might be tempted to fund projects favored by an influential flag/general officer even if the potential for program benefit is relatively low compared to other possible investments in an attempt to win a friend on possible future promotion boards. This action would violate no rules. It would be unethical because the major program manager is using the program’s resources for personal gain instead of acting in the interests of the program’s legitimate stakeholders.    

5. Established rule sets must be followed unless they are either patently unjust or are interfering with achieving a critical stakeholder need that cannot be fulfilled by acting within the rule set. When violated, they are always violated openly and transparently.

This is the encapsulation of the “Rosa Parks” rule; the defense professional’s guideline for civil disobedience.  Rules exist for a reason. An ethical person follows established rule sets unless extraordinary circumstances compel deviation. When those circumstances exist, the ethical person does not break rules in secret, for that would defeat the purpose of exposing the unjust or mission obstructing rule. If a person is breaking rules without telling anyone about it, that person may be presumed unethical. 

6. When people have been placed under a leader’s authority, that authority may not be used for personal gain.

This covers the proper interaction of a leader with their team. The leader’s team exists for the accomplishment of stakeholders’ interests, not the leader’s personal interests. For example, commanders of large activities have public affairs staff. That staff is there to promote the public’s knowledge of the organization, not the Commander personally.

7. Respect is due to the innate human dignity of every person.

This principle forms the basis of all personal interactions. People may be tasked, trained, hired, fired, disciplined, and rewarded only in ways that preserve their inherent dignity. Because all human beings possess this dignity, its preservation crosses all racial, ethnic, gender, and religious lines. It does not preclude intense training, preparation for stressful situations, or the correction of substandard performance.  It does, however, require that no person be intentionally humiliated, denigrated, or exploited. 

8. The truth must be provided to any stakeholder with a legitimate claim.

It would be too simple, and even inaccurate, to proclaim a principle like “never lie.”  Both war and successful business often require the art of deception. As an example, it has always been a legitimate form of deception to disguise the topside of a warship to make it appear to be some other type of vessel. In a business negotiation, there are legitimate reasons for keeping some items of information private. However, stakeholders that have a legitimate claim on the truth must be given the full, unabridged access to the best information and analysis when requested. Other stakeholders, with a lesser claim, may not be lied to but do not always have to be answered in full.  As an example, a DoD program manager cannot tell a Congressional Defense Committee staffer that “testing is going great” when asked about testing on a program that is suffering serious delays. That program manager may tell a reporter, “I don’t want to talk about that” or, “I have confidence in the contractor” when asked the same question. 

9. Do not assume bad intent without evidence.

The unethical person judges others by their actions and himself by his intent. The ethical person judges himself by his actions and other by their intent. Ethical people will understand that there will be honest differences of opinion among even seasoned practitioners. Just because someone comes to a different judgment does not mean that person is less competent or under a bad influence. For example, an investigator with an inspector general organization is assessing whether or not a trip was legitimately official, to be properly paid for with government funds, or a personal trip on which business was done only incidentally, such that government funding would be unauthorized. The given facts could logically support either conclusion. The investigator may have a personal interest in a finding of wrongdoing because it would be a demonstration of the investigator’s own thoroughness. Nonetheless, an ethical investigator will decline to find wrongdoing when the facts support either conclusion.               

10. An ethical person does not stand idle in the face of wrongdoing.

Great thinkers, from Aristotle, to Sir Winston Churchill, to Maya Angelou, recognized courage as the primary human virtue, because it is a necessary precursor to all other virtuous acts. Theoretically, a person may be able to behave ethically without courage in an environment free from temptation. However, such environments don’t exist in the world of the defense professional. To be ethical, to follow the first nine principles, one must have the courage to do so even when such action might be unpopular or dangerous.

At the end of The (seemingly endless) Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle observes that both virtue and laws are needed to have a good society.  Similarly, ethical principles are not a replacement for solid, well understood, and faithfully executed rule sets.  A wise ethics attorney once counseled me, “there is no right way to do the wrong thing, but there are lots of wrong ways to do the right thing.”   These ethical principles are, for our actions, like a well-laid foundation to a house.  They are the necessary precursor to a sound structure of ethical conduct.  

Captain Mark Vandroff is the Program Manager for DDG-51 Class Shipbuilding. The views express herein are solely those of the author. They do not reflect the official positions of the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, or any other U.S. Government agency.

1. Lockheed Martin Corporation, “Ethics – Lockheed Martin,” 6 July 2016.

2. Vice Admiral William H. Hilarides, “Anchor Yourself with Ethics – NAVSEA Ethics & Integrity,” Naval Sea Systems Command, 22 June 2015.

3. “The 14 General Principles of Ethical Conduct” 5 C.F.R §2635.101 (b).

4. Jacobellis v. Ohio. 378 U.S. 184 (1964).  The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law.

5.Admiral John M. Richardson, “Message to Flag Officers and Senior Civilians,” Department of the Navy, 12 May 2016.

Featured Image: MECHANICSBURG, Pa. (June 1, 2016) Naval Supply Systems Command (NAVSUP) employees learn about Character from U.S. Naval Academy Distinguished Military Professor of Ethics Capt. Rick Rubel, guest speaker for the NAVSUP leadership seminar series. (U.S. Navy photo by Dorie Heyer/Released)

The End of Uniformed Naval Strategic Study?

By Steve Wills

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson’s recent decision to dissolve the long-running Strategic Studies Group (SSG) has prompted questions regarding the group’s recent viability, and whether it has made measurable contributions to naval strategy or national security. The answers to these questions are debatable to be sure. The real questions to ask are does the U.S. need mid grade and senior uniformed naval officers to think seriously about naval strategy? Should that “strategy” be something more than mere platform numbers, 30-year shipbuilding plans and associated budgets? What processes best inform and support generation of usable strategy, and how can Navy uniformed personnel, civilians and supporting contractors best support a strong, 21st century U.S. Maritime Strategy. An SSG that is returned to its 1980’s roots is the best process to achieve that goal.

The SSG was founded by CNO Admiral Thomas Hayward in 1981 with the specific mission of supporting a new era of strategic thinking by uniformed naval personnel in how to counter the rising Soviet Navy. A short review of the works of John Hattendorf, Peter Swartz, and John Hanley details the SSG’s significant influence on the development of naval strategy in the 1980’s. The efforts of the SSG were crucial to making the Maritime Strategy work at the operational and even tactical level of execution. It was a “disruptive” organization in that it had direct access to every senior officer in the Navy cosmos of that era. It had a number of innovative individuals within its ranks who later made flag officer rank. This organization was one where the people were as much the product as the concepts they created.

The SSG’s success was perhaps based on its direct association with the 1980’s era Maritime Strategy. The conditions for the SSG’s work and its own charter have considerably changed since the 1980’s. The Cold War ended in 1991, and with it the focus on defeating a global opponent. CNO Admiral Mike Boorda changed the SSG’s charter in 1996 to a focus on “revolutionary naval warfare concepts” rather than “Grand Strategy.” The group is now larger, more “joint” in construct and includes more junior personnel. Perhaps this is the wrong mix for supporting strategic thinking and development?

The SSG may not now seem to be as working well because it does not have a similar grand strategic construct to guide it it as it did in the 1980’s. In his 1990 Senate Armed Services Committee hearings, CNO Admiral Frank Kelso said a nation “didn’t need a strategy if it did not have an enemy.” The Maritime Strategy was soon placed “on the shelf” and was never really replaced. White papers such as “From the Sea” and more detailed concepts such as the 2007 and 2015 Cooperative Maritime Strategies have appeared, but none are in the same league as the 1980’s Maritime Strategy, a concept described by former Dean of Naval Warfare at the Naval War College Barney Rubel as one that could used as a “contingent warfighting doctrine.”

(Oct. 5, 2015) Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. John Richardson meets with the fellows of the CNO Strategic Studies Group (SSG) at the U.S. Naval War College (NWC). Richardson visited NWC to address the students and faculty and to meet with the SSG. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Nathan Laird/Released)
(Oct. 5, 2015) Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. John Richardson meets with the fellows of the CNO Strategic Studies Group (SSG) at the U.S. Naval War College (NWC). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Nathan Laird/Released)

The disestablishment of the SSG is also, in effect, a dismissal of the efforts of the U.S. Naval War College; the home base of the SSG since its commission in 1981. The SSG was originally anchored to the War College to physically remove its members from corrosive Washington D.C. politics and to leverage the traditional capabilities of the College as a center of strategic excellence. Is the Naval War College now just another Joint Professional Military Education (JPME) degree production location? This decision seems to entirely separate the War College from its traditional role as a center of deep strategic naval thinking. Is it really so difficult and costly to move a dozen Commanders and Captains to Newport, as the 1980’s-era SSG did, so that they can think about big picture ideas without the usual distractions inherent in basing them in the National Capitol Region (NCR)?

The death of the SSG may be indicative of a larger lack of historical self-examination by naval leaders when making significant strategic decisions. The 2003-2012 process where the surface Navy closed the basic training school for new Surface Warfare Officers (SWOSDOC) at Newport, RI, tried to replace it with computer-based training and then subsequently returned to schoolhouse training could have been avoided had people looked at why the surface warfare school training program was instituted. New technology and a desire for greater professionalism caused ADM Zumwalt to implement a more regimented training program for surface officers. It was recognized that the previous, “journeyman” training program of the 1950’s and 1960’s was not sufficient to provide operators for then new ships like the DD 963 class, or deal with the increasing complexity of surface warfare. Those same conditions were in play in the early 2000’s as the fleet decreased in size, but was beset with greater responsibilities, made greater use of commercial off the shelf (COTS) material, and was developing whole-ship computing environments through programs like “smart ship” and IT21. In killing SWOSDOC, the Navy in effect steamed over its own towline and needlessly weakened its junior surface warfare training program. Sadly, the dissolution of the SSG may be following a similar pattern to that of the basic Surface Warfare Officers School. Excellence in a process has become more important than the product that is created.

The Navy seems to be groping again toward a concept of real geopolitical strategy as it did in the 1970’s. The 2015 Maritime Strategy is a step in that direction. The 1991-2010, “strategy” of 30-year shipbuilding plans, force structure, and budget management is no longer sufficient for the current environment that again features peer/near peer competitors in addition to non-state actors. The Navy needs uniformed personnel (preferably with a defined career path such as CNO’s operations analysts) to examine and recommend grand strategy. The global maritime battlespace has always made naval leaders deep strategic thinkers. The other services do not think along the same geographic lines. The U.S. has no strategic land frontier such as the Franco-German one of 1870-1945 where the Army might build grand strategy. The Air Force alternately operates in support of operational Army requirements or ignores geography altogether in its strategic bombing efforts.

The post 1986 Goldwater Nichols era of geographically isolated combatant commanders “drawing lines in the sea” and overly focused on land-based events disrupted the ethos of strategic naval thinking. Naval leadership must support the idea of the naval officer as a strategic thinker. Sadly, dissolution of groups like the SSG makes this more difficult to achieve. The Navy seems to have returned to the conditions of 1981 when incoming Secretary of the Navy John Lehman said that naval officers “did not do strategy.”

There is hope, however, to correct these deficiencies within the CNO’s “Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority.” It states that, “history should be studied so that old lessons do not have to be relearned.” History suggests that the SSG in its pre-1996 format provided excellent support to the creation and implementation of the Maritime Strategy of the 1980’s. Learning-centered technologies, simulators, online gaming analytics and other tools not available in the mid 1980’s could further expand the reach and impact of 22 mid grade officers working on big picture ideas in the relative quiet of Newport. Such an organization for a new SSG would do much to maximize combat effectiveness and efficiency. It could be a team effort across the Navy’s strategic enterprise and would do much to reinvigorate an assessment culture and processes. An SSG that returns to its pre-1996 roots and adopts the best practices as recommended by “high velocity learning” can have as great an impact in building 21st century maritime strategy as did the SSG of the mid 1980’s.

Steve Wills is a retired surface warfare officer and a PhD candidate in military history at Ohio University. His focus areas are modern U.S. naval and military reorganization efforts and British naval strategy and policy from 1889-1941. 

Featured Image: Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson speaking at the Naval War College. (Photo: MC1 Nathan Laird, US Navy)

Rediscovering the Art of Strategic Thinking: Developing 21st-Century Strategic Leaders

This publication originally featured on National Defense University’s Joint Forces Quarterly and is republished with permission. It may be read in its original form here.

By Dr. Daniel H. McCauley

At a time when global instability and uncertainty are undeniable, the demand for astute American global strategic leadership is greater than ever. Unfortunately, tactical superficiality and parochial policies of convenience are undermining joint strategic leader development and the ability to operate effectively around the world.1 Tactical supremacy and the lack of a peer competitor have contributed to strategic thinking becoming a lost art. This critical shortfall has been recognized for a number of years. General Anthony Zinni, USMC (Ret.), and Tony Koltz stated in their 2009 book Leading the Charge that leaders today have no vision and consequently have “lost the ability to look and plan ahead.”2 Trapped within rigid bureaucracies, today’s joint strategic leaders immerse themselves in current operations, reacting to, rather than shaping, future events.

President Obama convenes meeting on Zika virus in Situation Room, January 2016 (The White House/Pete Souza)
President Obama convenes meeting on Zika virus in Situation Room, January 2016 (The White House/Pete Souza)

This strategic leadership shortfall is not unique to the military establishment. A 2014 leadership study conducted by the Palladium Group surveyed more than 1,200 companies in 74 countries. In this study, although more than 96 percent of the “respondents identified strategic leadership as an organizational ‘must-have’ and a key to future success,” over 50 percent of the respondents “stated that the quality of their organization’s strategic leadership was unsatisfactory.”3 Fully two-thirds of the respondents serving in an organizational capacity as board member, chief executive officer, or managing director “did not believe that their current leadership development approach was providing the necessary skills to successfully execute their strategy.”4

Obviously, there is a recognized strategic leadership gap across multiple disciplines, but how to remedy that shortfall has eluded both trainers and educators. The only certainty is that strategic leader development remains entrenched within the same development processes that are falling well short of the desired outcome. In an attempt to change this legacy thinking, General Martin Dempsey, USA, during his last 2 years as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, issued white papers on mission command, the profession of arms, and joint education, as well as a memorandum on desired leader attributes. Each of these documents highlighted this shortfall in strategic leadership in some form.5 The then-Chairman’s direction, however, failed to change the approach to leader development in any meaningful way. Instead of designing a strategic leadership program to meet the demands of the 21st century, the military community continues to embrace the outdated practices of the past.

To rediscover the art of strategic thinking and planning, joint strategic leader development must disconnect itself from the paradigm of the past in which outcomes are known, risk is certain and manageable, and linear thinking is the norm. In its place, a developmental paradigm that embraces the discomforts of ambiguity, uncertainty, and complexity must be adopted. Modifying the training adage that the joint force must train the way it will fight, joint strategic leader development must reflect the realities of the global environment within which strategic decisionmaking occurs. Specifically, the joint force must develop strategic thinking competencies that will prepare strategic leaders for the ambiguities, uncertainties, and complexities of the 21st-century global security environment.

Strategic Leadership

Why are the Chairman and so many others focused on leadership? There are a number of reasons. First, local and regional trends, which were once somewhat isolated and constant, are interacting with global trends to accelerate rates of change. This increased acceleration leaves little decisionmaking time for cumbersome bureaucracies; rather, the environment demands timely strategic decisions at the field level. Second, the accelerated rates of change in local, regional, and global environments have increased uncertainty at all levels, paralyzing decisionmakers looking for risk-free strategies or plans. Third, as the world appears to grow smaller due to advanced communications and transportation systems, complexity actually increases because of the expanded numbers of stakeholders in today’s interconnected global systems. Fourth, global interdependencies—economic, social, religious, and military, among others—demand that local or regional issues be viewed in a depth and breadth not previously undertaken.6 Joint strategic leaders are reluctant to embrace security issues in their broader context even when the interrelated global security environment requires a long-term approach to do so. Finally, in a review of the lessons learned over the past 13 years of war, various organizations and studies assessed strategic thinking and strategic leadership as lacking during national strategic decisionmaking.7

These five reasons demand that joint officers develop a level of understanding not previously required from a national security perspective or demanded of them individually. This newly required depth and breadth of understanding entail the development of a perspective that encompasses longer periods of time—not only the present and near future, but also the distant past as well as the distant future. By drawing on an understanding of the past, joint strategic leaders can build a realistic vision that pulls joint organizations through the challenges of the present while positioning the Nation for future success. Without a vision of the future, the joint force is at a distinct disadvantage, as it will be caught unaware of developing trends, policies, and potential adversaries.


Strategic leader responsibilities generally encompass multiple organizations and echelons diverse in missions and responsibilities.8The interdependencies and interactions of the global environment have created a skills mismatch for joint strategic leaders over the past few decades. The current challenge is how to address the multitude of global challenges, given the limited range of individual and staff expertise and experiences. Considering figure 1, one can get a sense of the skill requirements necessary in the industrial age. Generally, the degree of certainty of any given issue and the degree of agreement among experts for a solution (as indicated by the x and y axes) were fairly high. As such, knowledge—usually in the form of domain-specific experts—was foundational in developing an understanding of the issue. In most cases, both the tasks and the environment were familiar; thus, the need for different thinking methodologies (meta-knowledge) and cultural understanding (humanistic knowledge) was relatively small in comparison to foundational knowledge. If a problem was encountered, an expert was called in to “solve” it.9


Figure 2 illustrates the transposition of skills needed in the information age. Again, generally speaking, the strategic operating environment has expanded to include regions for which the United States has little or no expertise, with tasks becoming increasingly unfamiliar. As the degrees of certainty and expert agreement have decreased, the need for domain-specific foundational knowledge has significantly diminished. In the information age, meta- and humanistic knowledge come to the fore as the need to address the dynamics of integrated domains and multiple cultural perspectives increases. Specific foundational knowledge is decreased proportionally because collaborative approaches can potentially develop multiple solutions needed to address the complexities of integrated security domains.

Joint Leadership

Given the skills required of strategic leaders in the information age, it is necessary to undertake a short review of Service and joint leadership development and doctrine to identify the current strategic leadership shortfall. As expected, the Services do an excellent job describing leadership at multiple command levels. For example, Army Doctrine Publication 6-22, Army Leadership,10 and the Air Force’s Core Doctrine, Vol. II, Leadership,11 provide definitions, purpose, competencies, and attributes required by leaders for conducting warfighting. Service leadership clearly formed the bedrock of American tactical and operational successes for many decades.

In his white paper titled America’s Military: A Profession of Arms, General Dempsey further amplified this symbiosis between battlefield success and leadership, stating that the foundation of the military profession is leadership.12Unfortunately, unlike the focus the Services place on leadership, the joint community falls short. In lieu of leadership, joint doctrine relies on operational concepts, functions, and processes. For example, Joint Publication (JP) 1, Doctrine for the Armed Forces of the United States, does a very good job describing command and control within joint organizations.13 However, it fails to describe the leadership differences that emerge as leadership and decisionmaking transitions from the joint task force (JTF) or component level to the combatant command, Joint Staff, and interagency levels. JP 1 does provide a short description of the profession of arms, listing character traits, competencies, and values, but these are relegated to an appendix not quite two-and-a-half pages in length.14

Recognizing this shortfall in joint doctrine and leader development, General Dempsey provided new guidance for the joint community based on a review of the past 13 years of war. In 2013, he laid out six desired attributes for leaders in a memorandum for Service chiefs, combatant commanders, the National Guard bureau chief, and the directors of the Joint Staff. These attributes assist the joint force in developing “agile and adaptive leaders with the requisite values, strategic vision, and critical thinking skills to keep pace with the changing strategic environment.”15Coupled with the character, values, and competencies listed in JP 1, a leadership framework begins to emerge.16

Examining this framework, two issues become readily evident. First, the definition of joint leadership is missing. Second, the competencies as described in joint doctrine focus primarily on the tactical and low operational levels of war and fail to address strategic leadership in any form. Unfortunately, each of these missing pieces reinforces a tactical perspective of leadership at all echelons. Joint doctrine appears to assume that Service leadership development is adequate for strategic leadership despite recent evidence to the contrary.

As General Dempsey and others have noted, the required leadership skills can vary broadly depending on the level of operations. For example, most joint officers are familiar with their Services’ roles and missions, having spent the majority of their careers in the tactical environment. This familiarity generally includes the types of organizations (for example, JTFs and components) and processes (for example, troop-leading procedures and the air-tasking cycle). At this level, complexity is limited because most interaction is at the individual or small group level, with decisionmaking measured in seconds, minutes, hours, or a few days.

Nepalese army ranger works with U.S. Army Soldier during Situational Training Exercise portion of U.S. Army Alaska Warrior Leader Course on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, August 2015 (U.S. Air Force/Justin Connaher)
Nepalese army ranger works with U.S. Army Soldier during Situational Training Exercise portion of U.S. Army Alaska Warrior Leader Course on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, August 2015 (U.S. Air Force/Justin Connaher)

The operational level of leadership expands complexity to include multiple organizations and the proliferation of the number and types of processes and products used. Reflecting this increased complexity, combatant commands operate at a different speed of decisionmaking to incorporate increased stakeholder views and desires. Combatant command regional and functional strategies and plans are complicated further by the needs of the individuals and organizations at the tactical level. The strategic level of leadership expands complexity to include the defense enterprise decisionmakers, such as the Secretary of Defense and Chairman. At this level, specific processes reduce in number, but the numbers of stakeholders, including allies and partners, increase across a broader range of domains, such as the economic and domestic domains. Decisionmaking can lengthen to months, years, or even decades. Finally, at the national strategic level, decisionmakers such as the President must deal with global complexity that involves decisions spanning the time range of each of the lower levels—seconds, days, months, and years.

Wherever one resides in an organization—whether at the tactical, operational, or strategic level, or some level in between—different leadership paradigms exist. To meet strategic leadership demands, the joint community must develop strategic thinking competencies. Strategic thinking is a cognitive process used to design and sustain an organization’s competitive advantage.17 It is a holistic method that leverages hindsight, insight, and foresight, and precedes strategy or plan development. Strategic thinking relies on an intuitive, visual, and creative process that explores the global security environment to synthesize emerging patterns, issues, connections, and opportunities.18Developing strategic thinking skills or competencies fills the strategic leadership shortfall while incorporating the desired leadership attributes identified by General Dempsey. Joint leader development thus becomes the vehicle that transitions the outdated military educational paradigm of the industrial age into one that serves the realities of the current information age environment.

Strategic Thinking Competencies

To reacquire the lost art of strategic thinking, seven competencies have emerged as vital for strategic leaders:

  • critical thinking
  • creative thinking
  • contextual thinking
  • conceptual thinking
  • cultural thinking
  • collaborative thinking
  • communicative thinking.19

Cultivating these strategic thinking competencies can provide current and future strategic leaders with the skills necessary to develop and execute strategies and plans successfully.

The first competency, critical thinking, provides joint strategic leaders with a depth and breadth of understanding that leverage hindsight, insight, and foresight. Insight represents the ability to analyze a thing and break it apart to see how its individual components are related and work together. By breaking a thing down into its component parts, elements and relationships not usually visible or understood are exposed. To gain an appreciation of a system’s current state, the past, including the environmental dynamics responsible for system creation, must be understood. The continued interplay of these dynamics provides additional system insights and aids in the development of foresight. Trend extrapolation provides strategic leaders with a temporal bridge between the past and present to the future. This extrapolation of both environmental change and constants aids joint strategic leaders in developing an understanding of what may lie ahead and in anticipating future events and subsequent plan development.20 Understanding the possible, plausible, and probable futures of a system aids strategic leaders in shaping the current conditions into those that are more preferable.

When applying critical thinking to the global security environment, the sheer volume of information and potential actors is overwhelming. Two key tools of critical thinking that facilitate joint strategic leader understanding and enhance their organizational principles are systems thinking and visual thinking. Systems thinking is an approach that promotes understanding of events and behavior through the identification and understanding of underlying structures.21 Viewed as systems, these structures are an organized set of elements interconnected in a way that achieves the stated purpose. Systems, therefore, have three components: elements, relationships, and purpose. System elements can be either tangible or intangible, although tangible elements are naturally more readily identifiable. System relationships or interconnections hold the elements together and represent the physical flow governing a system’s processes. A system’s purpose is not easily discerned because the formal stated function is often different from its actual purpose. So the best way to deduce the system’s purpose is to observe it for a while.22

Visual thinking engages the unconscious mind23 and is vital in problem-solving and modeling systems, especially ill-structured problems.24 Visual thinking allows for the processing of enormous amounts of information across multiple dimensions,25 adds clarity to communication, more fully engages group members, and enhances memory.26 Visual thinking assists joint strategic leaders by increasing their ability to recognize patterns and similarities and to see formal and informal relationships.


An example of critical thinking that leverages systems and visual thinking is the international security challenge the United States faces with Iran. Critical thinking requires the strategic leader to undertake a historical analysis of the two countries to develop an understanding of the current grievances between them. A systems map, leveraging visual thinking, helps to illustrate the current U.S. national security system and how Iran is undermining it (see figure 3). National security interests and the intensity of those interests, along with key leverage elements, could be identified using a systems map. In addition, possible strategies or approaches to limiting Iranian influence are more easily identified, together with the associated first-, second-, and third-order effects. Systems and visual thinking enhance joint strategic leader critical thinking by portraying system complexity and interrelationships in ways that simple narratives or discussion cannot.

Solving globally complex security problems is the raison d’état of joint strategic leaders; unfortunately, finding enduring solutions is frustratingly elusive. Why is that? Typically, the same assumptions that created the problem continue to frame any potential approaches to solving it. As assumptions are the personal or organizational perceptual bedrock used to develop and sustain views of reality, the second strategic thinking competency, creative thinking, is needed to overcome this flawed perception. Creative thinking forces joint strategic leaders to challenge underlying assumptions, look for system patterns, view relationships and actors in new ways, take more risks, and leverage opportunities. Creative thinking uses the critical thinking tools of systems thinking and visual thinking to expose preexisting paradigms and develop new paradigms for developing and integrating new perspectives. Joint strategic leaders who can represent problems in as many ways as possible will ultimately achieve higher rates of success.

Systems and visual thinking tools enable joint strategic leaders to develop different perspectives of an opposing system. For example, creating a depiction of the Iranian socopolitical system might provide the strategic leader with new insights into why current policies or operations are not creating the desired results. Systems and visualization tools are particularly effective for gaining insights into complex, adaptive systems (see figure 4). Creative thinking leverages primarily critical and collaborative thinking.


The third strategic thinking competency is contextual thinking. Contextual thinking leverages the skilled judgment of the joint strategic leader by analyzing an environmental fact or situation as an individual part of a complex continuum rather than the outcome of a specific cause or influence. Contextual thinking assists strategic leaders in the development of a better understanding of the nature of social interactions and the effects on cognitive processing. In complex problems, when context is missing, meaning is lost. In the global strategic security environment, the multiple solutions, methods, criteria, and perspectives surrounding the ill-structuredness of the security issue must be conveyed, not eliminated. Joint strategic leaders must then learn to sift through layers of context to identify those that are most relevant and important when solving problems.27

For example, in a typical military context, there is often a failure to differentiate between the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of war when discussing an issue. As we know, stakeholders and problems change depending on perspective. There are a number of questions that can be used to help frame context. What is the history of the issue? What was the strategic political and social context? Who were the actors? What was the central issue? What were the surrounding issues? Contextual thinking frames a point of common understanding for all stakeholders and participants. It leverages critical, creative, and conceptual thinking.

The fourth strategic thinking competency, conceptual thinking, is used by joint strategic leaders to understand a situation or problem by integrating issues and factors into a conceptual framework. Concepts, and the resulting maps, are the basis for human understanding and reasoning. Therefore, concepts are a form of knowledge structure that facilitates understanding.28 Purposeful models help strategic leaders structure the exploration of a problem situation and are the most common means of initiating a comparison stage of problem-solving or understanding.29

When dealing with complex problems, conceptual thinking helps joint strategic leaders illustrate interrelationships, facilitating much-needed discourse. Complex systems must be conceptually simplified to make them understandable.30 Conceptual thinking requires joint strategic leaders to be open to new ways of viewing the world, with a willingness to explore issues through alternative disciplines. Conceptual thinkers can effectively translate abstract thoughts to unfamiliar audiences. Conceptual thinking leverages critical, creative, contextual, and communicative thinking competencies.

General Dunford gives remarks on leadership at Wall Street Journal Chief Executive Officer Council annual meeting, November 2015 (DOD/Dominique A. Pineiro)

he fifth strategic thinking competency is collaborative thinking, which creates synergy, improves performance, and motivates people to learn, develop, share, and adapt to changes. Collaborative thinking assists joint strategic leaders in developing synergy from stakeholders by openly sharing knowledge and experience, while acknowledging and affirming the same in others. Mutual sharing, respect, diversity, and equal participation that occur through high-order social learning, thinking, and communicating characterize collaborative groups.31 Collaborative communication is the foundation of effective engagement, peak performance, and innovative outcomes; more importantly, it helps to develop and achieve common goals across national and institutional boundaries.

In today’s global security environment, the joint force cannot claim expertise across the globe. Rather, joint strategic leaders must integrate stakeholders’ deep understanding of their environments to find a heightened level of perception and new ways to think about issues. Collaborative thinking directly enhances critical and creative thinking and is influenced by cultural and communicative thinking competencies.

Cultural thinking, the sixth strategic thinking competency, is used to understand the interconnected world, incongruence of national borders, and synthesis of perspectives across a broad spectrum of cultures. Cultural thinking enables joint strategic leaders to understand a wider range of views and the beliefs, norms, values, and rituals associated with the global security environment. Enabled by information technology, the post–Cold War security environment collapsed into an intrinsically connected economic, cultural, and security global village. This interconnected world requires joint strategic leaders to understand that today’s security environment is not only multipolar but also exhibits characteristics of cross-pollinated perspectives, ideologies, goals, and capabilities.

Within this global village, the costs of individual action have been intensified, with potentially substantial implications for the international security community. This new security reality has created a different ideological context that calls for international security responsibilities that go beyond individuals and nation-states.32 Joint strategic leaders regularly face tough ethical challenges because of various cultural factors. The greater the complexity of the environment within which the joint force is operating, the greater potential there is for ethical problems or misunderstandings to exist. As joint strategic leaders become ethically attuned, they must learn to view the world through a variety of lenses, developing a personal sense of right and wrong, and to interpret the influences that affect individual and group behavior.33 Cultural thinking leverages critical, collaborative, and communicative thinking.

The last strategic thinking competency is communicative thinking. Communicative thinking is used by joint strategic leaders to understand the various means and modes of communicating, as well as the challenges associated with communicating complex issues among individuals, organizations, societies, cultures, and nations. A strategic leader must be able to build a desired, shared vision for the organization and communicate that vision internally and externally to various audiences. Joint strategic leaders must conceptualize complex issues and processes, simplify them, and inspire people around them. In today’s multicultural world, strategic leaders must be able to communicate across cultures as easily as they can communicate internally.

Joint strategic leaders must understand the cultural nuances of communication and be capable of communicating using multiple modes and methods, including blogs, tweets, written and oral reports, videos, storyboards, PowerPoint presentations, and formal and informal sessions. They must also be aware that communication occurs continuously and that it can occur nonverbally and through inactivity. Joint strategic leaders must understand that communication is a filtered, continuous, and active process and cannot be undone.34 Communicative thinking leverages critical, collaborative, and cultural thinking competencies.

Recommendations and Conclusion

In the slower moving world of the industrial age, joint strategic leaders could plod their way through familiar tasks and concepts, developing solutions to a level of certainty most experts could agree on. In the fast-moving interconnected global security environment of today, however, strategic leaders do not have the luxury of time, task familiarity, or certainty. As a result, strategic leader competencies are needed more than ever. The difference between strategic leadership and “regular” leadership is that a strategic leader’s responsibilities are far broader and deeper in scope. These responsibilities typically cross not only functions and domains, but also often encompass multiple organizations that have diverse roles and responsibilities.

As officers transition from the tactical to the operational to the strategic level, new skills and competencies are needed, and that is where strategic leadership comes into play. With unmatched tactical and operational skills, U.S. joint doctrine should not be changed to deemphasize this critical operational leadership focus. Rather, doctrine must be expanded to include strategic leadership to address the competencies needed for strategy and policy development. Given this understanding of the leadership environment, and lacking a current joint definition ofstrategic leadership, the following definition is proposed:

The interactive process of leveraging unique stakeholder capabilities in the pursuit of common and enduring national, partner, and alliance security needs by identifying and communicating the goals and objectives of cooperative and willing stakeholders, and influencing their attainment.

As Zinni and Koltz state in their book, the joint force needs officers who possess the requisite strategic thinking competencies demanded by both the current and the future global security environments.35 Current joint doctrine focuses on the low operational and tactical levels of war, and is insufficient for the development of joint strategic leaders.

Joint officer development must change the paradigm of the past 50 years or so to acknowledge the new skills required as the world continues the transition from the industrial age to the information age. As the Chairman and others have identified, strategic leadership is a necessity for operating in the 21st-century security environment. This framework provides an approach to fill the leadership development shortfall in joint officer development, education, and doctrine. JFQ

Dr. Daniel H. McCauley is an Assistant Professor at the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Virginia.


1 Jason Katz, “America’s Lack of Leadership Is Feeding Global Instability,” Congress Blog, September 18, 2014, available at <>.

2 Tony Zinni and Tony Koltz, Leading the Charge: Leadership Lessons from the Battlefield to the Boardroom (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 28.

3 James Creelman et al., 2014 Global State of Strategy and Leadership Survey Report (New York: Palladium Group, Inc., 2014), 8, 18.

4 Ibid., 9.

5 Martin E. Dempsey, America’s Military—A Profession of Arms, White Paper (Washington, DC: The Joint Staff, 2012); Mission Command, White Paper (Washington, DC: The Joint Staff, 2012); Joint Education, White Paper (Washington, DC: The Joint Staff, 2012); Desired Leader Attributes for Joint Force 2020, Memorandum (Washington, DC: The Joint Staff, 2013).

6 Richard L. Hughes, Katherine M. Beatty, and David Dinwiddie, Becoming a Strategic Leader: Your Role in Your Organization’s Enduring Success, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014), 11.

7 Linda Robinson et al., Improving Strategic Competence: Lessons from Thirteen Years of War (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2014), xi–xii.

8 Richard L. Hughes and Katherine L. Beatty, Becoming a Strategic Leader: Your Role in Your Organization’s Enduring Success, 1st ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005), 11.

9 Sarah W. Fraser and Trisha Greenhalgh, “Complexity Science: Coping with Complexity: Educating for Capability,”The British Medical Journal 323 (2001), 799.

10 Army Doctrine Publication 6-22, Army Leadership (Fort Eustis, VA: Training and Doctrine Command, 2012).

11 Air Force Core Doctrine, Vol. II, Leadership (Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: USAF Doctrine Center, 2012).

12 Dempsey, America’s Military, 1–6.

13 Joint Publication (JP) 1, Doctrine for the Armed Forces of the United States (Washington, DC: The Joint Staff, March 25, 2013), V-1–V-20.

14 Ibid., B-1–B-3.

15 Dempsey, Desired Leader Attributes, 1–2.

16 JP 1-0, B-1–B-3.

17 T. Irene Sanders, Strategic Thinking and the New Science: Planning in the Midst of Chaos Complexity and Change (New York: The Free Press, 1998), 162.

18 Hughes and Beatty, 43–51.

19 Daniel H. McCauley, “An Institution for the Profession of Arms and Thought,” Campaigning, Fall 2014, 7.

20 Edward Cornish, Futuring: The Exploration of the Future (Bethesda, MD: World Future Society, 2004), 1–8.

21 Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 6, 186.

22 Donella H. Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A Primer (White River Junction, VT: Sustainability Institute, 2008), 11–17.

23 Michel Marie Deza and Elena Deza, Encyclopedia of Distances (New York: Springer, 2009).

24 David H. Jonassen, Learning to Solve Problems: An Instructional Design Guide (New York: Routledge, 2011), 1–3.

25 Tony Buzan, The Mindmap Book: How to Use Radiant Thinking to Maximize Your Brain’s Untapped Potential(London: Penguin Group, 1993).

26 Tom Wujec, “3 Ways the Brain Creates Meaning,” TED Talk, February 2009, available at <>.

27 Jonassen, 209.

28 Ibid., 210.
29 Peter Checkland, “Soft Systems Methodology: A Thirty Year Retrospective,” Systems Research and Behavioral Science 17, supplement 1 (November 2000), S11–S58.

30 Jonassen, 29–31.

31 Timothy Stagich, Collaborative Leadership and Global Transformation: Developing Collaborative Leaders and High Synergy Organizations (Miami Beach: Global Leadership Resource, 2001), 1–18.

32 Elizabeth Filippouli, “Cultural Understanding and Global Thinking in Business,” Huffington Post, March 6, 2014.

33 Robert Rosen et al., Global Literacies: Lessons on Business Leadership and National Cultures (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 32–53.

34 Hughes, Beatty, and Dinwiddie, 145–191.

35 Zinni and Koltz, 24–25.

Circles in Surface Warfare Training

By Steve Wills

Surface fleet leadership engaged in a number of innovation attempts beginning in the 1970s and culminating with the commissioning of the Basic and Advanced Division Officer Courses (BDOC) program in 2012. Nevertheless, not all of these attempts were well-thought out. One of these missteps was the high profile closing of the Surface Warfare Officer School Division Officers Course (SWOSDOC) in 2003. This change appears to have come from a misguided desire to decrease personnel costs, improve the flow of officers from commissioning source to the fleet, improve retention of Surface Warfare officers, and appear to innovate within the zeitgeist of the “transformation” movement of the early and mid 2000’s. SWOSDOC was replaced by a program of computer-based training (CBT) in which prospective Surface Warfare Officers (SWOs) transited directly from disparate commissioning sources directly to their first ships. This effort proved a failure and was gradually replaced through a return to formalized schoolhouse-based training. In 2012, the CBT method was terminated and replaced by more traditional Basic and Advanced Division Officer Courses (BDOC and ADOC) held in two segments before and after the prospective SWO’s first division officer tour. An analysis of this innovation failure is a cautionary tale for those debating or implementing reform. It appears that the objectives that motivated the would-be reformers were erroneous, short-sighted, and could have been avoided by a careful understanding of the history of surface warfare training.

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A Short History of Surface Warfare Training

“Plowing Ahead through Rough Seas”

Surface Warfare training has historically been a journeyman process in which a new officer reporting to his or her first ship remains in a probationary status until evaluated by his or her peers and superiors, most importantly their commanding officer (CO), for competency and professional qualification. Prior to the start of the Second World War, nearly all officers came from the United States Naval Academy (USNA). However, by the war’s end reserve officers commissioned for war service outnumbered regular officers (nearly all USNA graduates), by a factor of nearly 5.5 to 1.[i] Following[ii] the war, a need to maintain a larger peacetime force demanded a larger pool of officer accessions than the USNA could provide, and officers from Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) and Officer Candidate School (OCS) continued to supply the fleet with larger percentages of newly commissioned officers.

The Navy also began to embrace technological advancements at an accelerated effort in the surface fleet that required greater competency in newly commissioned officers (ensigns). The submarine and aviation communities had been confronted by advanced technologies beyond the scope of USNA training from their inception, and had instituted professional courses of instruction to train and qualify their officers for service in submarines and aircraft. By the mid-Cold War, technological advancements such as radar, sonar, and data processing networks such as the Naval Tactical Data System (NTDS) had significantly affected the surface fleet.

The training program for postwar surface officers in the late 1940’s and 1950’s had not kept pace with technological advance. Evidence from the period suggests that few professional training courses were available once an officer commissioned. Unlike USNA graduates, those coming from civilian colleges via the NROTC program did not have extensive professional training, but were expected to fulfill significant duties. Future Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral David S. Jeremiah, reported to his first ship in 1956 after graduation from the University of Oregon and found himself qualified as Officer of the Deck (OOD) after standing only three under instruction watches.[iii] One Captain told an NTDS project officer aboard his ship for testing that, “No damn computer was going to tell him what to do, and for sure, no damned computer was going to fire his missiles (which it would not do in any case).”[iv] In such a climate of fear and resistance it became readily apparent that additional professional training would be required by surface officers in order to maximize the operational capabilities of the new weapons, sensors and associated data link equipment.

The Naval Destroyer Officers School, the forefather of the present Surface Warfare Officers School Command, was commissioned in July 1961 at Newport, RI with support from then-Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), and surface warfare officer, Admiral Arleigh Burke.[v] Its mission was “to improve combat readiness and tactical knowledge for junior naval officers on all ships.”[vi] The first focus was on training Heads of Department, for which no specific training program existed before the establishment of the Destroyer School despite their vast responsibilities.[vii]

The success of the Destroyer School prompted calls from the fleet for a similar course designed to provide similar training to new division officers before they reported to their first ships. A 1965 Naval Institute Proceedings article by Lieutenant (junior grade) Roy C. Smith IV highlighted the problems facing the newly commissioned officer on a contemporary warship. Smith wrote, “Being a “professional” in the Navy of the present day requires a more-than-working knowledge of advanced, ever-changing engineering, weapons, and electronic systems; complicated tactical and operational procedures; and a sound foundation in the increasingly more horrifying naval administrative structure.”[viii] He added that a formalized course would be more desirable than the present situation where officers spent, “between six and twelve months out of their first four years of service attending courses to provide some specific skill” and that “a six month school at the beginning of an officer’s career would have the benefit of both providing a better trained officer and reducing the need for the smaller skill specific schools.”[ix]

The First Surface Warfare Division Officer School class began in September 1970 as a pilot program with 24 officers.[x] Its genesis was largely due to the efforts of the revolutionary CNO Admiral Elmo Zumwalt. Zumwalt was concerned about surface officer retention and founded a number of warfare-based junior officer retention groups soon after assuming the office of CNO. These groups reported their findings to the CNO in person and those of the surface group were especially incisive. It made over 100 recommendations including “more rigorous standards, better schooling, and a surface warfare pin equivalent to the dolphins worn by submariners or the wings by the aviators.”[xi] Zumwalt acted immediately on these recommendations as surface warfare junior officer retention was a paltry 14% in 1970.[xii] The CNO had the Bureau of Naval Personnel (BUPERS) create a Surface Warfare designator in April 1970, and revised the SWO qualification process the following year to include a mandatory year of service on their ship before new officers could attain the SWO qualification.[xiii] The surface warfare breast insignia followed in November 1974.[xiv] An All Hands magazine article from March 1975 described the goal of the new Surface Warfare Officers School Command (SWOSCOLCOM) as “to train junior officers so that they can be fully productive from the moment they board their first ship… The curriculum at the school leans heavily on practical work and focuses on knowledge required by the junior surface warfare officer in fulfilling his role as junior officer of the watch, CIC watch officer and division officer.”[xv]

SWOS in Newport, RI
SWOS in Newport, RI.

The evolution of the surface warfare training program and associated designator was based on the idea that advances in technology, changes in U.S. society brought about by the war in Vietnam, and low retention of surface officers required defined, measurable professional training. Admirals Burke and Zumwalt, as well as other surface officers understood that the best way to address these problems was through a professional training program, and that the age-old, journeyman program of naval officer qualification was not the best path moving forward into the last quarter of the 20th century.

A Radical Course Change

“A hard left rudder in increasingly heavy seas”

The perception of SWOSCOLCOM as the surface warfare center of excellence began to slip somewhat in the late 1980’s following the damage incurred by the frigates USS Stark and USS Samuel B. Roberts as a result of battle damage and casualties they sustained in missile attacks and mine strikes (respectively). A December 1987 Proceedings article by CAPT John Byron, a diesel submarine officer, condemned SWOS unfairly in the eyes of many surface officers by stating that “the surface navy was not ready for combat… all of the Stark’s officers had attended the course,” and that SWOS itself was somehow guilty by association in that dereliction in training.[xvi] A number of officers responded to CAPT Byron’s complaints, notably CDR R. Robinson Harris who pointed out that only the very best officers were detailed to head SWO training and that many, if not most COs of the Surface Warfare School were selected for Flag.[xvii]

Surface warfare retention also began to slide in the wake of the end of the Cold War. A 2001 Junior Officer survey stated that only 33% of current SWO junior officers planned to remain in the community past their initial obligation.[xviii] The survey also revealed that only 43% of SWO junior officers aspired to rise to command of their own ship, which survey takers thought indicated a lack of professionalism.[xix] Some graduates of the basic SWOS course reported that the school was too long, many of the course instructors completed hour-long courses in twenty minutes and that the quality of instruction was poor.[xx] A SWOSCOLCOM study of the SWOS basic class of 1998 also revealed that it took on average 17 months from arrival on-board their first ship until an officer completed the requirements for the surface warfare designator.[xxi] Some Commanding Officers reported that this length of qualification meant that they only had qualified first tour division officers for a few months before they rotated to their second tours. This combination of weakened retention, lack of community pride, and a lengthy SWO pin training period strongly motivated surface warfare leaders of the early 2000’s to significantly re-think how surface warfare training should be conducted.

The solution to these problems, as well as the additional costs involved in moving new ensigns to Newport and from there to their new duty stations, was a radical shift to computer-based training (CBT). Instead of attending SWOS and associated billet specialty programs for upwards of 12-14 months before reporting to their first ship, new officers would now report directly to their ships with a packet of computer disks from which they would instead be trained by their own ship’s officers. CBT was designed around cutting costs, improving retention via efficiency and increasing the number of warfare-qualified officers aboard ships. It was expected that the SWOS school command could save upwards of $15 million dollars a year in training costs by moving division officer training from the classrooms in Newport to a shipboard environment.[xxii] Retention was expected to improve though this new system, although no scientific studies or predictions were given as to how this might be achieved. Instead, cost savings were projected for even miniscule retention improvements, and these alone were touted as good reason for adopting the proposed training change.[xxiii] The fact that there were always a number of officers forced to become SWOs due to attrition from other warfare training programs was not addressed in the survey effort.

800px-thumbnail (1)
NEWPORT, R.I. (May 16, 2007) – Surface Warfare Officer’s School (SWOS) students navigate their virtual vessel through a number of simulated hazards in the school’s full-mission bridge. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jason McCammack.

Even studies advocating this change postulated significant potential problems with a CBT approach to surface warfare division officer training such as: quality of instruction at commissioning sources would need to be improved, midshipman training cruises would need to be more formalized with specific qualification goals, and some billets supported by schools in Newport such as Damage Control Assistant (DCA) and Information Systems/Communications Officer might be lost to surface officers and transferred to limited duty officers (LDOs).[xxiv] All of these changes were brought about based on a limited number of inputs, specifically retention, training costs, and several select surveys of junior officers. The issue of professional quality in training was addressed in a manner that suggested experience at sea would always be superior to that of classroom training ashore.

The change was made in 2003 when then-Commander Naval Surface Force Pacific Fleet Vice Admiral Timothy LaFleur described the change as one that would “result in higher professional satisfaction, increase the return on investment during the first division officer tour, and free up more career time downstream.”[xxv] First tour division officers would still go to SWOS at Newport, RI, but at a point about six months into their assignment and for only four to six (later reduced to three) weeks in a kind of “finishing school” designed to test their knowledge just after their expected qualification as Officer of the Deck (OOD) underway. This change would have significant negative effects moving forward into the decade.

Problems with Computer-Based Training

“Mind Your Helm!”

The shift in initial surface warfare officer training from an ashore, classroom-based setting to an afloat, ship based environment did not go nearly as well as planned. By 2009, one Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) Study on the change frankly stated, “The new program may not be working as well as intended.”[xxvi] The NPS study interviewed 733 students from 12 different SWOS “finishing classes.” All of these students took a pretest to measure their knowledge upon reporting to Newport for the three week course.[xxvii] It identified seven significant shortfalls in the CBT program. Officers assigned to combatant warships (cruisers, destroyers and frigates, commonly referred to as CRUDES in the service) did better than those assigned to amphibious warships and other classes of ships. Those ships assigned to Atlantic Fleet units did worse than other geographic areas. Naval Academy graduates did worse than those from NROTC and Officer Candidate School (OCS). An officer’s undergraduate performance was mirrored in his or her performance on the test. Graduates with technical majors did better on the test than did non-technical undergraduate majors. Women had significantly lower grades than men. Finally, racial and ethnic and racial minorities did not do as well as their white counterparts.[xxviii] Nevertheless, crucially, the researchers who carried out the test found that nearly all of these score disparities disappeared when all students were provided face to face, traditional classroom training.

The researchers also suggested that there were a number of pre-existing studies (before 2003) suggesting that a switch to computer-based training in order to save money was fraught with negative effects, especially a drop in the quality of instruction. The survey noted that the Navy CBT program was designed to take place in an environment where the trainee had a full time job as a division officer at sea, an environment not well-studied enough for such a dramatic training change in the opinion of the researchers.[xxix] The quality and quantity of mentoring and support to the shipboard students from the other officers aboard the students’ ships varied widely. The students surveyed generally had a negative opinion of the change. They felt ill-prepared to lead their divisions and preferred face to face as opposed to computer-based training. Worst of all, many CBT students thought the change in training made them feel less valued and professional in comparison with other unrestricted line communities.[xxx]

There was an abundance of negative reaction to the CBT program from its inception to its demise. One captain bluntly stated, “No other first-rate Navy in the world pushes newly commissioned officers out the door and directly to combatants without the benefit of formal training or underway familiarization.”[xxxi] Another felt the commanding officers would need to be more involved as the principal instructor aboard their ships as opposed to the safety observer. He stated, “For complex evolutions, like mooring to a buoy, towing, division tactics, or helo operations while in formation, a Commanding Officer is no longer able to act as a removed, above-the-fray safety observer. Instead, he has to become closely and intimately involved in solving any problems. He becomes very much like the Officer of the Deck, himself.”[xxxii]

Graduates of the new program also wrote about their unfavorable experiences. One lieutenant who completed the program condemned the idea that an officer could successfully teach herself the basics of being a Surface Warfare Officer while simultaneously leading a shipboard division. She also dismissed the three-week division officer course conducted at the end of her first division officer tour. It contained information that she should have known before reporting to her ship, and its short length, crammed with too much information was a needless, “ trial by fire” when “We have the ability and the money to set up our division officers for success.”[xxxiii]

The Navy Returns to Traditional Means of Surface Warfare Division Officer Instruction

“Shift your rudder”

The steady drumbeat of criticism from the fleet made an impact with surface warfare leadership. Commander, Naval Surface Forces Atlantic Fleet, Vice Admiral Derwood Curtis restored a modicum of traditional surface warfare classroom training with the establishment of a four week course at Newport for new ensigns before reporting to their first ships entitled “SWO INTRO.”[xxxiv] The class was specifically designed to teach “3M, division officer fundamentals, basic watchstanding and leadership.” In an interview on the now defunct SWONET internet site, Curtis said, “Some ensigns were coming to our ships not ready to perform.”[xxxv] Fleet Forces Commander Admiral John Harvey, himself a surface warfare officer, condemned the CBT program as a “flat-out failure” during a 2010 House Armed Services Committee Hearing (HASC) on fleet readiness. Admiral Harvey went on to say that the Navy had erred in sending prospective SWOs to sea unprepared and placing the burden of their training on commanding officers who “have already got a few other things to worry about.”[xxxvi]

The surface navy took another step closer to returning to the pre-2003 SWOS Division Officer course by standing up the Basic Division Officer Course (BDOC) in October 2012. The written record is more scarce on the reasons for this change, but a combination of the problems identified by Admiral Harvey in his 2010 testimony, rising naval capabilities in China, and a need to restore warfare competencies that had atrophied over the period of the post-Cold War likely required a return to more formal, professional surface warfare instruction. Some independent writers have suggested that the retreat from formal classroom instruction made the surface navy appear less professional in comparison with the aviation, submarine, nuclear power, and naval special warfare communities.[xxxvii] These other warfare disciplines have training elements that deliver qualified or nearly qualified officers when they report to their first fleet assignment. Even with the return of BDOC, the surface community instead delivers an officer that is ready to train vice a trained officer “ready to drive and fight at the pointy-end from the moment they cross the brow.”[xxxviii]

Commander of the PLA Navy Admiral Wu Shengli visits the Surface Warfare Officer School in September 2014. Image: US Navy.
Commander of the PLA Navy Admiral Wu Shengli visits the Surface Warfare Officer School in September 2014. Image: US Navy.

What does the History of Surface Warfare Training Say about Innovation?

“Captain, We Steamed Over Our Own Towline!”

The commissioning of BDOC in October 2012 would seem to complete a circle of innovative effort that began over fifty years earlier with the founding of the original Destroyer School for Department Head students at Newport in 1961. Surface Forces Commander Vice Admiral Thomas Copeman’s convocation speech for the first BDOC course reflected the basic need for the school. He said, “The surface warfare business we are in is very challenging. Our ships are complicated. They are the most technologically complex machines that this country has built and it takes a lot of hard work to learn how to fight them, learn how to maintain them, and learn how to train Sailors to maintain them.”[xxxix] Vice Admiral Copeman’s remarks are very similar to those of Rear Admiral Charles Weakley, Commander Destroyer Force Atlantic Fleet, whose charge to the new Destroyer School in 1961 was “to provide the destroyer force, through a system of functional education and training, with officers professionally qualified and motivated to function as effective naval leaders on board ship.”[xl] The Navy must avoid similarly counterproductive innovative activity as it strives to create a culture of innovation in the 21st century.

It is imperative that those reviewing the proposed change know the empirical history of the subject in question. A short review of historical material readily available in 2003 might have suggested that the Navy created a classroom training program in 1961 because the traditional, journeyman practice of training surface naval officers was deemed inadequate in light of advanced technology, the faster pace of operations, and greater complexity of naval warfare in the 1960’s. Similar conditions involving new technology and complexities of modern, joint warfare existed in 2003. Instead of following past, proven practices, the navy opted for a hypothetical, untested solution in order to cut costs and appear “transformational,”the “flavor of the day” in the early 2000’s. History may not always hold an exact answer, but it sometimes provides additional insight and clarity for those engaged in the evaluation of a new concept.

Captain Dave Welch, CO of SWOS, presents a certificate to a graduate of the Advanced Division Officer's Course (ADOC). November 2015.
Captain Dave Welch, Commanding Officer of Surface Warfare Officer School Command, presents a certificate to a graduate of the Advanced Division Officer’s Course (ADOC). November 2015.

Data from surveys is an important component to any decision on innovation, but such inputs need to be broad before making significant change. Admiral Zumwalt carried out similar surveys in 1970 to those carried out in the early 2000’s regarding surface warfare training and retention of surface warfare officers. In both periods Navy leadership identified retention as a key issue, but the 1970’s era response offered a variety of measures designed to improve retention while advancing professionalism. The changes in the early 2000’s appear to have been driven by a desire to reduce expenditures on travel and assignment to Newport, with a secondary goal in improved retention and education of surface warfare officers. There was hope that professionalism could be maintained, but how this was to be achieved in a demanding operational climate aboard ship was not given adequate attention. Those authors of the 1970’s era initiatives were junior officers from Admiral Zumwalt’s survey groups. Those of the 2000’s were largely civilian analysts who had not served aboard a U.S. Navy warship and could not be wholly conversant with the shipboard culture they proposed to radically alter.[xli] While outsiders sometimes view systemtic problems with clarity, their views must be balanced by insiders who can ensure durable, effective solutions are undertaken. This was not the case in the SWO training shift of 2003.

Finally, changes undertaken with the principal goal of saving money or hurrying a process are fraught with danger. The overriding pressure to achieve financial or time savings threatens to overtake innovative ideas and turn them into quick-fix vehicles for the achievement of specific goals. The 2000’s era changes to the surface warfare training program started with cost and time reduction, not the maintenance or professionalism or retention, as their primary entering argument. Surface warfare training traditionally contained a combination of formalized classroom instruction and practical application of those skills in evolutions at sea in order to produce a qualified surface warfare officer. The move to computer-based training assumed that the practical underway training could be replaced through simulation. A 2003 RAND study cited as one in favor of CBT began as follows:

“Recently, however, a combination of economic, operational, and political changes has prompted the Navy to consider shifting the balance toward more shore-based training. The high cost of underway training, the increased operational tempo, reduced access to training ranges, and other factors have decreased the attractiveness of underway training.”[xlii] (bold added for emphasis)

If simulation could serve as an effective replacement for complicated underway training, it is not surprising that the navy determined that a shore-based program like the Basic SWOS school that was labeled “uneconomic” could also be replaced by a CBT program. It was just another example of economy being deemed more important than the maintenance of professionalism in the minds of naval training leadership.

The 2002 NPS thesis on the Sea to SWOS program initiative stated that retention was the primary goal, but all eight benefits listed from the proposed change were financial rather than professional or operational in character.[xliii] The professional goals were more of an afterthought than a guiding principle. There was also a belief in the surface navy in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s that any problem might be solved if enough computers could be mobilized in response, although this point requires more than the anecdotal evidence available.[xliv]

The case of surface warfare officer training suggests that the history file ought to be the first stop for anyone engaged in the review and approval of innovative ideas. Those engaged in the planning and approval of the new computer-based surface warfare training program should have reviewed past surface warfare training initiatives and experiences before radically returning the fleet to a journeyman culture. The history clearly suggested that a fast-paced operational environment, with complex technologies and evolutions was no place to send untrained officers.

Type 42 UK DDG HMS Edinburgh turns in a circle before making a port visit to New York.
Type 42 UK DDG HMS Edinburgh turns in a circle before making a port visit to New York in 2013. Image: Royal Navy.

Failures in innovation can also serve as harbingers of deeper problems. It is not surprising that this degradation in training occurred within the same decade labeled by the Balisle Report as one of multiple failures in a “circle of readiness” that included training, manning, and material conditions in the surface fleet. [xlv] While it took nearly a decade for the problems in material conditions within the surface fleet to manifest themselves to higher authority, shortcomings in junior officer training were readily apparent in less than five years.

History is often ignored or given little regard by the operational navy. One of the author’s mentors once told him that, “history gets a paragraph, even in a historical analysis, before facts and figures assume their usual commanding position.” It is perhaps time for the fleet to invest more in the examination of our past before embarking on what it perceives to be new and innovative concepts. The navy must endeavor to avoid future, needless circles of effort such as the surface warfare training debacle of the last decade by examining our previous failures and follies.

Steve Wills is a retired surface warfare officer and a PhD candidate in military history at Ohio University. His focus areas are modern U.S. naval and military reorganization efforts and British naval strategy and policy from 1889-1941. 

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[i] James Robinson, “Initial Training of Surface Warfare Officers. A Historical Perspective from World War 2 to 2008”, Leavenworth, KS, U.S. Army Command and Staff College (Master’s Thesis), 2008, p. 10.


[iii] Ibid, p. 25.

[iv] David L. Bouslaugh, When Computers Went to Sea, The Digitalization of the United States Navy, Los Alamitos, CA, IEEE Computer Society press, p. 243.

[v], last retrived 02 July 2015.

[vi] Ibid

[vii] Robinson, p. 34.

[viii] Ibid, p. 35

[ix] Ibid, pp. 35-36.

[x] Ibid, p. 37.

[xi] Malcolm Muir, Jr. Black Shoes and Blue Water: Surface Warfare in the United States Navy, 1945-1975. Washington D.C., Naval Historical Center, 1996, p. 224.

[xii] Ibid, p. 223.

[xiii] Ibid, p. 224.

[xiv], p. 12.

[xv] Ibid, pp. 12, 13.

[xvi] Ibid, pp. 56. 57.

  [xvii] Ibid, p. 57.

[xvii] Christopher Galvino, “Cost Effectiveness Analysis of the “Sea to SWOS” Training Initiative on the Surface

Warfare Officer Qualification Process”, Monterey, CA, The Naval Postgraduate School, December 2002, p. 2.

[xviii]Ibid, p. 2.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] Robinson, pp. 60-61.

[xxi] Ibid, p. 3.

[xxii] Ibid, p. 49.

[xxiii] Ibid, p. 50.

[xxiv] Ibid, pp. 51-53.

[xxv] Robinson, p. 63.

[xxvi] Bowman, William R, Crawford, Alice M, and Mehay, Stephen, “An Assessment of the Effectiveness of Computer-Based Training for Newly Commissioned Surface Warfare Division Officers”, Monterey, CA, Naval Postgraduate School, 24 August, 2009, p. ix.

[xxvii] Ibid.

[xxviii] Ibid, p. xi.

[xxix] Ibid, p. x.

[xxx] Ibid, p. xi.

 [xxxi] Stephen. F Davis., Jr., “Building the Next Nelson”. United States Naval Institute.

Proceedings. Annapolis: Jan 2007. Vol. 133, Iss. 1; pg. 1.

 [xxxii]Kevin S. J. Eyer, “On the Care and Feeding of Young SWOs”. United States Naval

Institute. Proceedings. Annapolis: Jan 2009. Vol. 135, Iss. 1; pg. 51, 4 pgs.

[xxxiii] Robinson, pp. 74-75.

[xxxiv] Ibid, p. 77.

[xxxv] Ibid.

[xxxvi] Admiral John Harvey, Testimony before House Armed Services Committee, Subcommittee on Sea Power and Expeditionary Forces, One Hundred Eleventh Congress, Second Session, Washington D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, 28 Jul 2010.

[xxxvii] Jon Paris, “The Virtue of Being a Generalist; Part 3, Viper and Pitfalls of Good Enough”, The Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), NEXTWAR blog, 19 August 2014,

[xxxviii] Jon Paris, “The Virtue of Being a Generalist; Part 2, Are all Nuggets Created Equal?” Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), NEXTWAR blog, 15 August 2014,

[xxxix] Steven Gonzales, “SWOS Launches New Basic Division Officer Course”, Washington D.C., Chief of Naval Information Press Release, 03 October, 2012, file:///I:/SWOS/SWOS%20Launches%20New%20Basic%20Division%20Officer%20Course.htm

[xl] Michele Poole, “Building Surface Warriors”, Annapolis, MD, United States Naval Institute Proceedings, May 1998, Volume 124/3/1. 143,

[xli] file:///I:/SWOS/Navy%20Re-Engineers%20Surface%20Warfare%20Training.htm

[xlii] Roland J. Yardley, Harry J. Thie, John F. Schank, Jolene Galegher, and Jessie L. Riposo, “Use of Simulation for Training in the U.S. Navy Surface Force”, Washington D.C., Research and Development Corporation, 2003, p. iii.

[xliii] Galvino, pp. 47-50.

[xliv] Jack Dorsey, “Navy Equips 2000 Officers with Palm V Hand Held Computers”, Virginia Beach, VA, The Virginian-Pilot, 2000.

[xlv] Philip J. Balisle, “Fleet Review Panel of Surface Force Readiness,” Norfolk, VA and San Diego, CA, Commander Fleet Forces Command and Commander, Pacific Fleet, 26 February 2010, pp. 4, 5.