Category Archives: Seamanship and Leadership

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I Held an Amazon “Flipped” Meeting At My Squadron and Here’s What Happened

By Jared Wilhelm

The Innovation Imperative

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson frequently talks about High Velocity Learning (HVL) and Innovation. You can tell his focus on this topic is working thanks to one clear litmus test: eye rolls and mocking from some of the Fleet’s junior officers. The CNO has spread the gospel so well on this topic that is has become a buzzword throughout wardrooms and squadrons around the world, and now “Innovation” has achieved just enough notoriety to be misunderstood.

The eye-rollers are often resistant to change, cling to the status quo, and most importantly have an ahistorical perception of innovation within the naval service. What they don’t quite comprehend is that innovation is nothing new. Commander BJ Armstrong enumerated the proof of our rich innovation history in consecutive years at the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum, first in 2013 with his lecture on Admiral William Sims that led to the book 21st Century Sims, and then followed by a look at Marine Corps’ forward-thinking embrace of the helicopter in the post-WWII era

We have innovated before, and we will innovate again. But the CNO makes the case that the quadrupling of worldwide maritime traffic in the last several decades, combined with the free and fast flow of technology and information, creates an innovation and learning imperative like we have never seen. Our maritime superiority, our relevance, and potentially even our Sailors’ survival all depend on it.

Just Do It

It can be a daunting task for an operational leader to lead innovation efforts in the context of the worldwide rise of near-peer adversaries and vague direction from the Pentagon to learn, rapidly iterate, and embrace risk.  Where can you even start?

Using the old mantra, “Think Globally but Act Locally,” I decided to tackle something that everyone in our squadron, officer and enlisted alike, always unite to grumble about: meetings. You know them–they pepper the plan of the week like the last pieces of candy in a box of chocolate that no one wants to eat; they draw scowls of dread when you see another two, three, or four in your future. They all start the same with a PowerPoint slide deck, introductions, rules of engagement for the presentation itself, proposed courses of action, “quad slides,” and graphs with labels so small you have no idea what is going on. 

Figure 1: An actual PowerPoint slide from a Bureau of Naval Personnel briefing at Tailhook 2016 that a Captain attempted to explain to the crowd.

Several months ago I heard about a best practice from the civilian industry that caught my attention: the “flipped meeting” utilized at Amazon by billionaire innovator Jeff Bezos. Could the Amazon model work at a Naval Aviation squadron? Would the time continuum explode if officers filed in to the wardroom and didn’t see a standardized PowerPoint screen projected on the wall? I walked to OPS, asked for a meeting to be put on the schedule, and decided to find out.

I used the Navy’s HVL model based on Dr. Steve Spear’s “High Velocity Edge” framework to approach the flipped meeting:

1. Define the problem: Too many meetings in our squadron are dependent on low-learning-level presentations, and almost all exclusively use Power Point.

2. Postulate a solution – and what you think its effects will be: There are countless solutions in other organizations and the corporate world on how to increase learning and co-working levels in meetings. One specific solution is the Amazon flipped meeting, which I guessed would increase learning levels at my squadron.

3. Try out a solution: We did!

4. Do a gap analysis between what you saw happen and what you thought would happen.

5. Update your approach/solution and run it again.

One Specific Solution: The Origins and Upsides of a Bezos “Study Hall”

Fortune Magazine revealed the secrets of an Amazon executive team meeting in their 2012 profile of Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of the tech and retail giant.  Reporter Adam Lashinsky explains:

Before any discussion begins, members of the team—including Bezos—consume six-page printed memos in total silence for as long as 30 minutes….  They scribble notes in the margins while the authors of the memos wait for Bezos and his minions to finish reading…. Writing a memo is an even more important skill to master. “Full sentences are harder to write,” he says. “They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.”

So instead of building PowerPoint slides and sweating font consistency, proper margins, bullet styles or punctuation uses, those privileged to brief Bezos focus on the ideas and content themselves. The genius of it is in the simplicity: the purpose of the meeting is to work together on the ideas or content, and the “flipped” meeting allows the ideas or content to be the focus, not the slide deck.

Blogger Walter Chen also identifies a second order effect of these type of meetings, one that Bezos surely intended: 

The real magic happens before the meeting ever starts.  It happens when the author is writing the memo. What makes this management trick work is how the medium of the written word forces the author of the memo to really think through what he or she wants to present.  In having to write it all down, authors are forced to think out tough questions and formulate clear, persuasive replies, reasoning through the structure and logic in the process.

Bezos calls the memos “narratives,” and in his opinion they have many advantages over PowerPoint, as he told Charlie Rose in 2012

The traditional kind of corporate meeting starts with a presentation. Somebody gets up in front of the room and presents with a PowerPoint presentation, some type of slide show. In our view you get very little information, you get bullet points. This is easy for the presenter, but difficult for the audience. And so instead, all of our meetings are structured around a 6 page narrative memo.

Some other advantages include:

1. Silence is golden. How many times have you presented an issue, only to see several egos in the audience try to take over or derail the brief based on their own interests? Everyone reads the narrative in silence and the discussion comes after in the Bezos “Study Hall” model. 

2. No read-ahead required. Bezos believes “the act of communal reading guarantees the group’s undivided attention.” Several times in my career, I have wondered if the person I was briefing had time to review the read-ahead, or if they were getting the message I was trying to convey during the PowerPoint. In a flipped meeting, the audience has no choice but to read the narrative (unless they want to daydream).

3. Eliminating premature questions saves everyone time. “If you have a traditional PowerPoint presentation, executives interrupt,” says Bezos.  “If you read the whole six page memo, on page two you have a question. By page four that question is answered.” 

4. Ideas and content trump presentation polish. Sometimes, the best ideas come from those who are nervous or just-plain-bad public speakers. Other times, polished presenters with million-dollar-smiles can sell bad or incomplete concepts because they can manipulate the audience into what they want to hear. With the Amazon narrative, the content speaks for itself.

5. The meeting leader is a coworker, not lecturer. The concept of a “flipped classroom” revolutionized education, and Bezos is trying to do the same for the business world. Normally a presenter lectures the audience. An Amazon lecturer is no longer verbally “pushing” communication to the audience; instead the content is “pushed” through the narrative, and then readers can “pull” knowledge from the presenter with informed questions. This creates high rates of learning compared to the traditional model.

It seems that a flipped meeting is effective based on Amazon’s stock price and global reach. But could such a meeting work outside the confines of Silicon Valley boardrooms? Would a bunch of flight-suit wearing naval aircrew be receptive to something so far from the norm?

That Awkward Silence

My unsuspecting teammates filtered in and took seats at the conference table. I hadn’t posted “Amazon-Style Flipped Meeting” on the flight schedule because I thought it might create some sort of bias or discourage full attendance. I simply listed the topic: “Squadron Innovation Culture Workshop.” This subject especially lent itself to a flipped meeting because it was difficult to summarize our squadron’s innovation culture in a deck of PowerPoint slides. 

The junior officers filled the dead space before the kick off with the usual banter and jokes. I noticed several check the clock and glance toward the powered-down and blank presentation screen as I passed out copies of the six-page narrative I’d spent the previous week perfecting. It was apparent that several were wondering why there was no laptop connected and no PowerPoint. 

The top of the hour arrived and people started leafing through the document. We were still missing two important players who I knew had planned on attending.  I decided to give them the usual five-minute grace period in a normal day filled with other tasks and meetings. One finally arrived, so I ventured out to the office of the last straggler, one of my fellow department heads. I told him we were about to start, but he was justifiably delayed in the midst of “putting out a fire” with an urgent travel issue requiring his attention. “I’ll be there in a few!”  I knew he probably thought he could catch up with the PowerPoint when he walked in. “We can wait a couple minutes more for you before we start off…” I offered.  “No, go ahead.  I’ll be down there soon.”

I returned to the assembled group and quickly explained the flipped meeting, the “study hall” reading and the 20 minutes of silence. Everyone nodded in agreement and began. The most awkward part for me was the wait. In this context, 20 minutes felt like an eternity. I already knew the narrative well as the organizer and author. I read through it again while I scanned the faces of my coworkers as they made notes or flipped pages. I found a couple of punctuation errors that I had missed. And then I waited.

The most interesting thing was the late arrival of the last participant 10 minutes into the study hall. He was a bit confused to walk into a room of us all sitting there silently with no PowerPoint in sight. He then tried to catch up on reading the narrative. In the future to help all attendees get the highest rates of learning, I think it would be best to notify everyone in advance it will be a flipped meeting and that study hall will start on time.

Next, I facilitated the discussion. At first people were hesitant to express their opinions, but after a few questions by some of the other forward-leaning members of our squadron, we were well on our way to a 40-minute co-working session. By the tail of the hour the discussion was going strong and we could have continued for another thirty minutes. We decided on a collective course of action to take on the meeting’s topic and agreed on another future meeting.

“PowerPoint Makes Us Stupid.” -Gen. James N. Mattis, USMC, 2010

The backlash against PowerPoint is well documented.  This repository of articles compiled by Small Wars Journal counts more than twenty leading media or blog examinations of the detrimental effects of its use. Many leaders like the now-retired General Mattis either loathe it or outright ban it; others see it as a necessary evil.

Reporter Elisabeth Bumiller’s piece about the U.S. military’s use of the program in the New York Times in 2010, titled “We Have Met the Enemy and He is PowerPoint,” seems to foreshadow the rise of Bezos’ corporate use of the flipped meeting: 

Commanders say that the slides impart less information than a five-page paper can hold, and that they relieve the briefer of the need to polish writing to convey an analytic, persuasive point. Imagine lawyers presenting arguments before the Supreme Court in slides instead of legal briefs.

The most compelling defenses I’ve heard for military innovation do not involve completely new ideas or inventions. Instead they focus on finding creative best practices in sometimes-unexpected places that could be applied to military problems. Maybe “flipped meetings” won’t catch on to replace old methods completely, but they could become one tool for leaders to use when an occasional respite is needed from the groundhog-day-monotony of PowerPoint briefings.

I would encourage other leaders to challenge the status quo in your unit’s meetings. These resources by Fred Zimmerman and Walter Chen can guide you to figure out how to best write your own flipped meeting narrative.

There are myriad other ways to shake up a meeting, like using the “design thinking” approach or an organizational retreat made famous in Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. The solution you use will depend heavily on the topic and purpose of the meeting. For example, it is difficult and counterproductive to attempt to give chart-centric “course rules” brief using thousands of written words when visual aids are most appropriate. Even if your first instinct is to use PowerPoint because of the visual nature of the topic, there are several alternative programs like Prezi or Haiku Deck that could bring extra engagement to your audience. The most important concept to remember is that PowerPoint is just a tool, not something good or bad. We need to focus as leaders on using whatever the appropriate tool is for the specific job, not simply revert to the familiar tool just because it is habitual or easy.

Gap Analysis

So how did my flipped meeting experiment match up to what I thought would happen when I postulated the solution? I think it was worthwhile and I’m looking forward to doing it again. I wasn’t laughed out of the squadron or told by my bosses to go back to exclusively PowerPoint meetings. I saw the light in several of my coworkers’ eyes (despite some initial uncertainty) as they scribbled on parts of the narrative and debated sections they had pulled from it. We had an in-depth discussion about our innovation culture that could have been brought about with a PowerPoint brief instead of the “study hall,” but the discussion would have been less nuanced and with less time to collaborate. Usually presentations are designed for 45 minutes with 15 minutes of questions and discussion at the end. We invested 20 minutes up front during the flipped meeting to silently immerse in the topic, leaving us more than double the discussion and co-working time.

The flipped meeting can’t be considered a complete success, though, until we are achieving high learning rates from our gatherings on a consistent basis, no matter what tool is used to get there. If I started a conversation or sparked an idea in the wardroom, it was worth it. 

Every meeting I’ve gone to since, I enter the room and look at the briefer, the table and the wall. One of these days there will be no PowerPoint and a stack of six-page narratives waiting for me to pick up. Here’s to “study hall!”

Jared Wilhelm is a U.S. Navy officer and Maritime Patrol Instructor Pilot with experience in four operational theaters flying the P-3C Orion. He is a passionate writer focused on innovation and meaningful reform, all to help maintain the U.S. military’s superiority over adversaries in the short and long term. He served in Argentina as an Olmsted Scholar from 2014-2016 and won the U.S. Naval Institute’s 2015 General Prize Essay Contest. He is a Department of Defense Spanish linguist who holds masters degrees from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School (Systems Engineering and Analysis) and the U.S. Naval War College (National Security and Strategic Studies), as well as a B.S. in Systems Engineering from the U.S. Naval Academy. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect the official position of any other entity or organization.

Featured Image:  U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jackie Hart.

The Problem of Mission Command

This article originally published on The Bridge and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By L. Burton Brender   b

Mission command has some real problems. Of course, the concept sounds great, or at least General Patton seemed to think so: “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” As you might expect, the US Army Command and General Staff College supports this belief, devoting hours to discussing the logic of empowering junior leaders. However, to paraphrase a US Air Force B-1 bomber pilot from the 2015-2016 class, the military rarely practices this. This article attempts to answer why. It submits that there are serious risks inherent within the philosophy of mission command that cause many people to reject it, if not in word then in deed. Three of these risks are the fear of subordinates making mistakes, the discomfort of superiors feeling out of control, and the angst of leaders chancing their careers on others’ mistakes. These are real dilemmas that inhibit the practice of mission command and ones that we in the military community often choose not to discuss—but like all dilemmas, they are easier to fix when confronted.

Generalfeldmarschall Helmuth Karl Bernhard von Moltke
Generalfeldmarschall Helmuth Karl Bernhard von Moltke

The philosophy of mission command is the empowerment of subordinate leaders to creatively solve problems within a higher commander’s intent. This philosophy surfaced prominently in military writing with the 1890 Prussian concept of Auftragstaktik, or mission tactics. The benefits of an agile and autonomous force, according to German military theorist Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, include the ability “to act on the basis of [one’s] own view of [a] situation, [especially] at times when no orders can be given.”

United States Army Lieutenant Colonel Brian Steed, a military history professor at the United States Army Command and General Staff College, once outlined the costs of embracing mission command as he saw them. One, audacity risks stupidity. Military leaders must accept that empowering juniors makes them equally capable of great heights of genius and of striking failures. Two, loosening control risks chaos (or at least the appearance of such). Allowing others to take control means that they may do things differently than their superiors would have. Lastly, leading empowered subordinates means superiors may pay the price for their mistakes. Perhaps the greatest threat to the implementation of mission command is the fear that leaders who practice it will be called to account for the leeway they granted. However, as threatening as all of this may look, Steed stressed that it is only by accepting and managing these liabilities prudently that we can have leaders capable of serving in the complex and rapidly changing environments in which we fight.


Subordinate empowerment can go terribly wrong. One prominent example is the battle of Little Bighorn. In 1876, US Army Lieutenant Colonel Custer’s 7th Cavalry was part of a large operation pursuing Chief Sitting Bull’s native coalition. During his 19 years in the Army, Custer had built a reputation as a daring commander. At age 23, he was one of the youngest generals in the American Civil War, establishing himself as an extremely aggressive leader in such engagements as Hunterstown and East Cavalry Field in the Battle of Gettysburg. Though a willingness to think for himself had won him success during the Civil War; later, though, it cost his and his men’s lives in battle with the Sioux.

In late June 1876, Custer’s force was part of a brigade-sized element attempting to destroy Sitting Bull. Colonel John Gibbon, Custer’s brigade commander and direct superior, ordered Custer to use his cavalry regiment to drive the enemy into the bulk of his waiting brigade. As Custer approached the enemy’s camp, though, he believed that hostile scouts had already compromised his element of surprise. He reasoned that if he did not act immediately, the enemy would escape as it had so many times before.

The Custer Fight" by Charles Marion Russell. (Public Domain)
The Custer Fight” by Charles Marion Russell. (Public Domain)

Operating well removed from direct supervision, Custer acted upon his judgment. He disregarded his commander’s plan and ordered his regiment to attack what he thought was a weak-willed enemy. Unfortunately for the 7th Cavalry, though, instead of a frightened band of renegades, Custer encountered a stalwart force of thousands of natives who killed nearly everyone in his command.

The same same audacity that had served Custer so well in the past ended in his unit’s ruin on that midsummer day. Both Gibbon’s and Custer’s Auftragstaktik resulted in failure, which brings us to an unpleasant reality: the chance that plans can fail horribly is a real and indelible risk associated of mission command. However, equally bound up with the risk of failure is the possibility of great success.

General Matthew B. Ridgway

The power of mission command is that it enables military units to adapt quicker and act more boldly than organizations in which subordinates are afraid to make decisions on their own. One example of this comes from the Korean War. When General Matthew Ridgway assumed command of the 8th United States Army, following the death of General Walton Walker, General Douglas MacArthur told Ridgway that “[You should] do what you think best…the Eighth Army is yours.” Ridgway later commented, “[T]hat is the sort of order that puts heart into a soldier.” Ridgway would go on to fight the North Koreans and Chinese ardently and ingeniously until the 1953 armistice at the 38th parallel. Mission command enables leaders, like Ridgway, to be audacious and successful just as much as it risks failures like Custer’s. It allows people the latitude to come upon opportunities and seize them.


For superiors, mission command is about accepting a certain loss of control. Indeed, by necessity the philosophy embraces a measure of seeming disorganization. Once, the author of this article observed a cavalry squadron’s training mission against a simulated chemical bunker in Korea. In preparation for the event, one troop commander carefully rehearsed his operation, including a 3-D digital walk through of the facility with his squadron commander present. The troop commander’s rehearsed plan was to enter the U-shaped bunker from the right—but upon arriving on the objective late on the night of the attack, the plan no longer made sense. On the fly, he decided to enter from the left. Obviously, going left instead of right was a small deviation from what he had briefed to his boss, but from the outside his actions might have looked like bedlam. That subordinate commander went about solving his problem differently than he had briefed and perhaps even differently than his commander would have. Extemporaneous decision making like that can insert a degree of unease into the execution of a plan, particularly for those superiors who do not feel comfortable with improvisation.

Supervisors may genuinely feel nervous about how their subordinates are going to perform when they are left to themselves, and not without good reason. Superiors practicing mission command allow their subordinates considerable leeway. For relationships where trust has not yet developed, or when supervisors require direct control to feel safe, there can be serious discomfort with mission command’s seemingly laissez-faire processes.

Yet, the lessening of control is an essential element of mission command and of the creative problem solving process itself. On another occasion, the author observed several staff officers preparing a presentation for their commanding general’s training brief to his higher command. In a brainstorming session, the general presented his message to the staff. His verbal message was masterfully articulated; however, he wanted a slide to support his point and was not sure what he wanted it to look like. So, three operations officers from his staff broke apart and created three entirely different slides. When the officers submitted their products to the general, he was pleased with the variety his staff afforded him and even more pleased that one of slides met his needs.

Neither the general nor the officers’ direct supervisor had any direct input on the creative process, yet their team still came up with a winning solution. The trust the leadership placed in their subordinates to enter into the “chaos” of unsupervised creativity allowed the general to deliver his message to his commander in the desired way.


It is important to admit that mission command can be a risky business. Why? Because superiors stand to lose a lot if their organizations fail at a task. Military officers are proud of saying that leaders are responsible for everything that happens and does not happen in their unit. Indeed, they should be proud of it: it is a key component of leader accountability. However, Brian Steed asserts this responsibility has a definite effect on the application of mission command that leaders ought to acknowledge.


To illustrate the career risks that failure carries, a recent conversation with an Armor branch manager revealed a sobering statistic. Officers that made Armor’s 2015 battalion command select list had an average of approximately four and a half of five evaluation reports rated as “most qualified” (the highest rating), and merely advancing to lieutenant colonel required a record nearly as good. He continued that to get anything less than a nearly perfect history of evaluations means risking one’s very military retirement (at least as an Armor officer). This has the effect, however unintentional, of making aspiring officers reluctant to give their subordinates enough power to get them into trouble.

Addressing this issue starts with the institutional Army. To again paraphrase that same branch manager, with whom Steed agrees, the current standard of what a promising field grade officer looks like on paper is not sustainable. There simply are not enough top blocks to go around. Armor, at least, will eventually have to recalibrate its definition of what good enough is…or not have enough officers selected for its commands.

And while that particular example is drawn from the author’s own Armor branch, one could find parallels in almost any hierarchical organization, military or otherwise. Increasingly difficult-to-meet standards within competitive organizations inadvertently encourage leaders to tolerate less risk. According to Steed, the threat of a stalled career is often strong enough to prompt leaders to forego mission command and ensure they never get a mediocre evaluation. At the very least, the institution must acknowledge this.

However, the responsibility to empower mission command is not just at the institutional level. While every leader is affected by the system in which he or she works, he or she should never minimize his or her own ability to effect change. While some subordinates do warrant management in depth (though such individuals should soon find themselves differently employed), most do not need such paternalism. It is incumbent upon leaders to adroitly assess their subordinates and extend the maximum degree of latitude prudent for the circumstances. Yes, frustrating retraining will be involved and yes, subordinates will make foolish mistakes. However, to play to those factors is to miss the brilliance and ingenuity that lies within our team members.


It is within our power, indeed, it is our responsibility as leaders, to make mission command a daily reality. The United States’ military missions are too complicated and its formations too geographically dispersed to expect success without it. But to practice mission command we must accept three things: audacity risks stupidity, less control involves the appearance of chaos, and leaders who empower others will always incur risk. But, as Lieutenant Colonel Steed might say: if we can know the difference between honest mistakes and incompetence, if we can find the courage to let subordinates operate independently, and if we can accept that we might be held personally responsible for mistakes we did not make, then we can also achieve the prudent audacity to win wars, the brilliance to solve complex problems, and the wisdom to better realize our most important resource: people.

Burton Brender is an officer at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California. He holds a master of military arts and sciences from the Command and General Staff College and has held a variety of staff and command positions within the armor field. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Header Image: Lt. Gen. George Patton with the signal corps, 11 July 1943, Sicily. (General George Patton Museum)

Making High Velocity Learning Work For You

By Charlotte Asdal and Scotty Davids

On a recent Wednesday evening, fifteen midshipmen gathered in the company of a Maersk captain and a handful of Navy officers of all ranks. Their roles in the hierarchy seemed clear. However, over the course of two hours, dynamic exchanges about piracy, leadership at sea, and market efficiency had everyone on the edge of their seats. Conversation flowed freely between the experienced and the novice, and across a wide spectrum of professional interests. By the end of the night, what was left was simply a group of people eager to learn from one another. What happened? High velocity learning.

CNO ADM Richardson discusses his vision for a Navy that embraces High-Velocity Learning. Credit: Naval Post-Graduate School.

The Navy recently issued a Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority in which Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Richardson outlined an effort to “achieve high velocity learning at every level.” What does that mean? The concept of high velocity learning challenges us to reinvigorate a culture of assessment and strive to increase the speed of our learning cycle. This seems to have been confusing to many in the Fleet, especially for those of us many rungs down the ladder from the CNO. How can we implement his guidance?

Take Charge and Move Out

We think we have figured out one way to do it here at the United States Naval Academy. Taking into account the CNO’s call for seizing the initiative in achieving high velocity learning, we know that you don’t always have to wait for a program to be enacted and passed down to your command. You can execute immediately based on commander’s intent. In this case, we call it “Unplugged.”

Once a month for the past two years, a group of fifteen midshipmen, some junior officers, a few senior officers, a senior enlisted leader, a handful of civilians, and one discussion leader have piled into a living room for a conversation. Hosted at a senior officer’s home after hours, “Unplugged” is something different. It is a casual venue for focused dialogue and exchange of ideas. In the past two years, our discussion leaders have included an executive from the Office of Naval Research (ONR), the Mayor of Annapolis, a Maersk captain, submariners, and astronauts. “Unplugged” brings together people from different circles, with different levels of experience, and those who would not usually interact. The speakers are experts in their fields. Spots for participants are first-come, first-serve with no expectation of subject matter expertise. Officer and senior enlisted participants facilitate discussion of Fleet applications.

071029-N-1598C-028 PERSIAN GULF (Oct. 29, 2007) - Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (MCPON) Joe R. Campa Jr. enjoys a formal dinner in the wardroom with junior Sailors aboard nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN 65). MCPON and Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Gary Roughead are visiting Sailors in the 5th Fleet area of responsibility. Enterprise and embarked Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 1 are underway on a scheduled deployment. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class McKinley Cartwright (RELEASED)
PERSIAN GULF (Oct. 29, 2007) – Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (MCPON) Joe R. Campa Jr. enjoys a formal dinner in the wardroom with junior Sailors aboard nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN 65). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class McKinley Cartwright)

Making “Unplugged” Different

These key tenets of making conversation a success can be applied at any level and in any command that wants to engage its Sailors: dialogue, setting, and spectrum of experience. Midshipmen, more than many others, are afforded visits from former Presidents, Ambassadors, and senior executives. We crowd into Alumni Hall and, frankly, decide in the first five minutes of a presentation how much effort we will put into staying awake. What makes “Unplugged” special is the personal interaction. We listen to a speaker with years of expertise and then are asked, “What are you thinking?” It forces us to be inquisitive and thoughtful about the topic at hand. Participants leave with an opinion on the topic, a problem with which to grapple, and more questions than could be possibly answered in a two hour session. Processing new and challenging information while developing a questioning mindset are skills necessary for all future officers.

MIDN 2/c Zach Donnelly teaches fellow midshipmen about cyber security at the U.S. Naval Academy, October 2014. Credit: USNA
MIDN 2/c Zach Donnelly teaches fellow midshipmen about cyber security at the U.S. Naval Academy, October 2014. (U.S. Naval Academy)

The atmosphere created by a home-cooked meal in a living room takes midshipmen and senior attendees alike out of the monotonous classroom or lecture setting. It makes the event informal; there is less of an expectation to be taught a subject and more of an inclination to engage in discussion. This setting is effective at the Academy because the home-cooked meal is so rare, but this could be implemented anywhere that takes the attendees out of their normal environment.

It is also invigorating to sit down next to a Navy commander and share ideas and excitement about the night’s topic. As the discussion leader wraps up his or her points to start the discussion, there are no fewer questions from the senior attendees than there are from the midshipmen. Because of the range of experience, input can come from every possible interest in the room. This dialogue gives the speaker, midshipmen, and senior attendees a chance to relate the topic to their operational area, and to express both praise and critical questions. Senior and junior officers at “Unplugged” use their experiences to invaluably relate the discussion topic to how we fight and operate in the Fleet.

This leads to more conversation, spreading from class, to company, to the Brigade. Those who are most engaged, most thoughtful, and most inquisitive are invited back to help lead the next conversation. Walking out of an “Unplugged” event, participants are buzzing with ideas. They are energized about their futures and are itching to continue the conversation. Participants all interact with people whom they thought were out of reach. But in these challenging conversations with senior level experts, their ideas and questions are entertained, explored, and given credence.

The “velocity” in High Velocity Learning implies both a speed and a direction. We incorporate not only an energizing discussion, but also seek an endstate. At USNA, our endstate is getting as many midshipmen involved as possible, building confidence in them to engage in these discussions, and encouraging the thoughtfulness to ask more challenging questions. After “Unplugged” with the ONR executive, we asked, “How does the Navy’s risk calculus affect its ability to innovate?” After the Mayor, we asked, “What can we learn from local leaders about how to manage a team?” After the Maersk captain, we asked, “How might we work better with our commercial shipping counterparts?” Every participant offers unique value to the discussion.

An example of a High Velocity Learning event. Credit: Authors
An example of a High Velocity Learning event. (Authors’ Image)


We have taken Big Navy’s objectives to heart and made them successful on a small scale. To us, high velocity learning means a problem solving mindset. It is the ability to frame the problem, evaluate what we do and do not know, and devise and act on a way forward. “Unplugged” is a forum through which we develop this method of learning. The goal is to continue the momentum of the conversation and spread the excitement about thinking, reading, and discussing relevant challenges to the Navy team. As midshipmen, we often do not have access to these conversations that are so critical to our future careers. It isn’t that we lack interest, but rather some discussions are not accessible to us or we don’t know where to look. “Unplugged” bridges this gap and gives midshipmen confidence and access to the dialogue.

Try it within your peer group. We guarantee you will walk away invigorated and ready to continue the conversation. This is high velocity learning.

Charlotte Asdal and Scotty Davids are both first-class midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy. Charlotte is studying Chinese and from Chester, NJ. Scotty is a mechanical engineering major from Boulder, CO.

Featured Image: Bangor, WA (May 20, 2014) – Adm. Harry Harris chats with USS Louisiana (SSBN 743) Gold Crew officers in the boat’s wardroom. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Ahron Arendes/Released) 

Farsi Island: Surface Warfare’s Wake-Up Call

By Alan Cummings

LT Daniel Hancock wrote an article in 2008 titled “The Navy’s Not Serious About Riverine Warfare.” The U.S. Navy had ample opportunity to prove him wrong, right up until 2012 when the Riverine Force was subsumed under the Mobile Expeditionary Security Force (MESF) to create the present-day Coastal Riverine Force (CRF). Four years later, an incident like Farsi Island was the inevitable outcome of this ill-conceived and poorly executed merger. Both Farsi Island and the infamous merger were the manifestations of a culture that has lost its warrior spirit and has adopted an attitude to “man the equipment” rather than “equip the man.”

In the Beginning, There Were Riverines

The Navy re-established a Riverine Force in 2006 to pick up the mission from the Marine Corps’ Small Craft Company, who in turn traced its lineage through the Special Boat Teams back to the Navy PBR squadrons of Vietnam. These predecessor units proved themselves well in combat, with Sailors like BMC James E. Williams and HM2 Juan Rubio exemplifying the warrior spirit of small combat units.

Combat experienced SEALs, SWCCs, EOD techs, and Marines who were intimately familiar with the requirements of close combat guided the SWOs who were tapped to command the 2006 re-establishment. Riverine training requirements were not only relevant, they were tough and they were enforced. Sailors attended a minimum of four months of training (1 month for Riverine Combat Skills plus 3 months of Riverine Craft Crewman, Riverine Security Team, or Riverine Unit Level Leaders) before being assigned to a detachment that stayed together through the training cycle.

That training cycle was intensely busy but it was focused, repeatable across the squadrons, and offered a predictable sequence of development. Months were dedicated to training boat crews to work together on their individual craft, then with a buddy boat, and finally as a multi-boat patrol. Tactics were matured from live fire training at a static range ashore through underway maneuver with blank cartridges, and culminated in numerous live fire underway exercises where crews were engaging targets within 50m of troops being extracted from shore. It was challenging, dangerous, and realistic.

A “moto video” illustrating the live fire culmination exercises required of every Riverine detachment prior to the 2012 merger. (RIVRON THREE)

While the tactics themselves were important, greater value came from the emphasis on teamwork and discipline mandated by operating under these legitimately dangerous conditions of simulated combat. There was no room, nor tolerance, for a coxswain who failed to follow the orders of the boat captain or patrol officer (USN Investigation into Farsi Island Incident, Para IV.H.59). Such strenuous demands developed a sense of professionalism, ownership, and esprit de corps in each Riverine squadron. E-4 and E-5 Sailors who would have been given the barest of responsibility elsewhere in the conventional Navy were accountable for the men, performance, and tactics of their craft. Instead of being a grey-hull navigator in charge of 5 quartermasters, Junior Officers were detachment OICs and AOICs with 30-50 men, $4 million worth of equipment, and enough firepower to make Chesty Puller blush. The professional growth spurred by these responsibilities cannot be understated.

Death by Merger

The merger of the Riverine community into the MESF was a fundamental mistake driven by budgetary, rather than operational, considerations. The MESF provided a needed service to the Navy, but did so with a vastly different culture that bore the traditional defensive and risk-averse hallmarks of Surface Warfare, Inc.

First, the decision to disperse riverine capability across multiple commands complicated the manning, training, and logistics requirements later cited as contributing factors to the Farsi Island incident. The realities of budget constraints are unavoidable, but a reduction from three RIVRONs to one squadron would have met similar force reduction goals while maintaining standards and capabilities. The Navy decided against recommendations to consolidate the force around Riverine Squadron THREE in Yorktown, VA where it could have taken advantage of more than $3 million of purpose-built facilities, easy access to the York and James river systems, as well as a wealth of training support spanning from Camp Lejeune, NC to Fort A.P. Hill, VA, and Fort Knox, KY.

A 34' SeaArk assigned to CRS ONE escorts USS DE WERT (FFG 45) as she gets underway from Djibouti in September 2013. Credit: USAF Photo by SSgt Chad Warren.
A 34′ SeaArk assigned to CRS ONE escorts USS DE WERT (FFG 45) as she gets underway from Djibouti in September 2013. (USAF Photo by SSgt Chad Warren)

Second, a doctrinal comparison of the post-merger CRF Required Operational Capabilities and Projected Operational Environment (ROC&POE) to that of the pre-merger Riverine Force reveals a striking deletion of numerous warfare requirements, including:

  • AMW 14.3/14.4: Conduct: direct/indirect fires.
  • AMW 23.1/23.2: Plan/conduct/direct: advance force operations for amphibious assault.
  • AMW 23.3/23.4: Plan/conduct/direct: direct action amphibious raids.
  • AMW 35.1/35.2: Plan/conduct/direct: limited objective night attacks.
  • INT 3.3: Conduct: clandestine surveillance and reconnaissance operations.

These warfare requirements defined the essence of the Riverine community. Their deletion is clearly indicative of a climate averse to combat missions, and an intention to relegate the CRF to the MESF-style defensive missions.

A member of the CRF provide embarked security to USNS SPEARHEAD as it gets underway from Cameroon in February 2016. Credit: MC1 Amanda Dunford, USN
A member of the CRF stands watch as embarked security aboard USNS SPEARHEAD as it gets underway from Cameroon in February 2016. (MC1 Amanda Dunford, USN)

Finally, consider the following merger-era anecdotes illustrating the nature of the MESF community that assumed responsibility for Riverine operations:

  • May 2012: While discussing tactics, Riverine detachment leaders asked MESF personnel about the particular behavior of their 25ft escort craft while conducting live fire drills. The MESF personnel responded that they had never fired weapons off those boats, despite routinely deploying them to operational settings.
  • March 2013: During a company formation with personnel from a disestablished Riverine unit, the CO of the now-merged CRS tells them, “Stop looking for work. The Navy doesn’t need Riverines anymore.”
  • April 2013: The CORIVGRU ONE N7, a civilian with minimal expeditionary experience, instructs squadron training team members that the primary reason for using blank cartridges was to catch negligent discharges. He categorically dismisses points of opposition that blanks provided enhanced realism for the trainee (sound, flash, reloads, malfunctions, etc).
  • May 2013: CRS THREE (the parent unit of the captured RCBs) damaged a Riverine Patrol Boat (RPB) while returning from a static display in San Diego. The craft was damaged when personnel failed to lower its arches for overpass clearance. No personnel stationed in San Diego during this time were qualified on RPBs, but they chose to take it out despite objections of the qualified personnel in Yorktown.
  • April – December 2013: Three Sailors from CRS TWO commit suicide, with 14 more admitting suicide-related behavior. According to the Virginia Pilot’s review of the investigation, “Sailors told [investigators] the stresses of the merger were enormous, exacerbated by poor communication down the chain of command and junior sailors’ mistrust of their commanding officer.” The departed were all members of the pre-merger MESF unit and under unacceptable leadership.
  • April 2014: The CRF publishes a ROC&POE that misidentifies Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs) as the non-existent ‘Joint Tactical Area Communication Systems’ and the Foreign Internal Defense (FID) mission as Fleet Intelligence Detachment. These typos illustrate a fundamental failure of CRF doctrine writers to understand the context in which their forces operate.

Don’t Just Man the Equipment, Equip the Man

The unwritten theme weaved through the post-incident investigation is that Sailors up and down the chain of command failed to take their mission seriously. They failed to train adequately before deployment. They failed to operate professionally in theater. In the face of the enemy, they failed to act.

These systemic failures and the willful neglect of higher echelons are indicative of a culture that sees program management and certification as ends to themselves, rather than the means by which we prepare for combat. This is a culture that raises personnel to be technicians and managers first, leaders second.

Indeed, the officer in this situation “lacked basic mentorship and development from his entire chain of command. Left to his own devices, he emulated the poor leadership traits he witnessed first-hand…” (Para VI.K.6). The Farsi Island incident and the case study of the Riverine-MESF merger must be wake-up calls to the surface community. It is not enough just to man the equipment. We must equip the men and women who lead our fleet.

These leaders must be raised from the beginning of their careers, whether enlisted or officer, and enough responsibility must be delegated down the chain of command to enable this development. A combat mindset requires time and hard work, not budgets. Cultivating that mindset will require generational change, and a fundamental pivot away from our business and technology-centered force to one that embraces the concept of Sailor as Warrior.

Petty Officers 3rd Class Raymond Delossantos (left) and 2nd Class Jeremy Milford (right) of Riverine Squadron 3 instruct Paraguayan Marines on establishing security after debarking riverine craft during UNITAS 2012. Credit: Cpl Tyler Thornhill, USMC
Petty Officers 3rd Class Raymond Delossantos (left) and 2nd Class Jeremy Milford (right) of Riverine Squadron 3 instruct Paraguayan Marines on establishing security after debarking riverine craft during UNITAS 2012. (Cpl Tyler Thornhill, USMC)

But there is hope. There are Officers and Sailors out there who harbor the warrior spirit, ones who can serve as the example for others. For instance, the anonymous “RCB 805 Gunner #2” was the sole member of the captured crews to receive praise for “activating an emergency beacon while kneeling, bound, and guarded at Iranian gunpoint, at risk to her own safety.” Of those involved in this incident, she alone is worthy of the title Riverine.

Alan Cummings is a 2007 graduate of Jacksonville University. He served previously as a surface warfare officer aboard a destroyer, embedded with a USMC infantry battalion, and as a Riverine Detachment OIC. The views expressed here are his own and in no way reflect the official position of the U.S. Navy. 

Featured image: Patrol craft belonging to the USN CRF are held captive by Iran in 2016, one of which displays the blue flag of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps- Navy. (IRIB News Agency via AP)