On Sunday, 26 October, the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum hosted an innovation competition sponsored by the United States Naval Institute. $5,000 in prizes were awarded after the eight contestants made their pitches. This is the third prize winner posted originally at the DEF Whiteboard.
THIRD PRIZE WINNER
Contestant: Dave Blair, US Air Force Officer
MoneyJet: Harnessing Big Data to Build Better Pilots
BLUF: ‘Moneyball’ for flying. Track flight recorder and simulator ‘Big Data’ throughout an aviator’s flying career. Structure and store these data so that aviators can continually improve their performance and maximize training efficiency for their students.
High-fidelity data exists for flights and simulators in an aviator’s career. However, these data are not structured as ‘big data’ for training and proficiency – we track these statistics by airframe, and not aircrew, unless there is an incident. Therefore, we rely on flawed heuristics and self-fulfilling prophecies about ‘fit’ when we could be using rich data. Solution. Simple changes in data retrieval and storage make a ‘big data’ solution feasible. By making these datasets available to aircrew, individuals can observe their own trends and how they compare to their own and other flying populations. Instructors can tailor flights to student-specific needs. Commanders can identify ‘diamonds in the rough’ (good flyers with one or two key problems) who might otherwise be dismissed, and ‘hidden treasure’ (quiet flyers with excellent skills) who might otherwise be overlooked. Like in ‘Moneyball,’ the ability to build a winning team at minimum cost using stats is needed in this time of fiscal austerity.
Rich Data environment for objective assessments.
o Self-Improvement, Squadron Competitions, Counterbalance Halo/Horns effect
o Whole-force shaping, Global trend assessments, Optimize training syllabi
o Maximize by giving aircrew autonomy in configuring metrics.
Costs: Contingent on aircrew seeing program as a benefit or a burden.
o Logistics: Low implementation cost, data already exist, just need to re-structure.
o Culture: Potential high resistance if seen as ‘big brother’ rather than a tool.
o Minimize by treating as non-punitive ‘safety data’ not ‘checkride data’
Partial foundation for training/ops/tactics rich data ecosystem.
o Build culture of ‘Tactical Sabermetrics’ – stats-smart organizational learning
o Amplify thru Weapons School use of force stats, large-n sim experiments
Over-reliance on statistics to the expense of traditional aircrew judgment
o If used for promotion, rankings, could lead to gaming & stats obsession
o Mitigate by ensuring good stats only replace bad stats, not judgment Implementation. First, we build a secure repository for all flight-performance-relevant data.
All data is structured by aviators, not airframes. This data is stored at the FOUO level for accessibility (w/secure annex for wartime data.) Second, we incorporate data retrieval and downloading into post-flight/sim maintenance checklists. Finally, we present data in an intuitive form, with metrics optimized to mission set. For individuals, we provide stats and percentiles for events such as touchdown point/speed, fuel burn, and WEZ positioning. For groups, we provide trend data and cross-unit comparison with anonymized names.
The fundamental justification for the Marine Corps is not tied to any Operations Plan—it is much more basic than that. While the combat effectiveness of the Marines is without parallel in modern expeditionary warfare, the Corps’ lethality is not in my opinion its greatest contribution. As the Marines mark the 239th anniversary of their founding and carry out the guidance of legendary Commandant General John A. LeJeune to “commemorate the birthday of the Corps by calling to mind the glories of its long and illustrious history,” it is beholden on the American citizenry writ large to reflect on why we need the Marine Corps. Simply stated, we will always need the Marine Corps because it produces Marines.
The metamorphosis from Marine Recruit or Officer Candidate to Marine is the single greatest transformational experience a person can ever undertake in the US Military. The inculcation of basic Marine Corps training yields a bounty of new Marines at the conclusion of every Officers Candidate School and Recruit District class who represent the timeless American ideal—the most physically fit, polished, tough young men and women in uniform, guided by core values—“Courage, Honor, Commitment”—and possessing an uncommon tenacity to “Improvise, Adapt and Overcome.” Marines carry this American Ideal to the four corners of the Earth while engaged in combat operations, humanitarian assistance / disaster relief operations, theater security cooperation missions and as Marine Security Guards at our embassies.
You’ve probably heard it said before that “once a Marine, Always a Marine.” Former Commandant of the Marine Corps General James Amos codified this in 2011:
“A Marine is a Marine. I set that policy two weeks ago – there’s no such thing as a former Marine. You’re a Marine, just in a different uniform and you’re in a different phase of your life. But you’ll always be a Marine because you went to Parris Island, San Diego or the hills of Quantico. There’s no such thing as a former Marine.”
And thank God. The ethos that Marines carry with them—Semper Fidelis–has not only served them on active duty and in their follow-on civilian lives, but has also served as a pillar to many of our great civilian institutions that they have brought this ethos to such as the New York City Fire Department and the National Aeronautical Space Administration. Marines are Always Faithful—to the nation, to the Corps, to each other.
Today the Marine Corps is shrinking as part of a post Operation Iraqi Freedom / Operation Enduring Freedom peace dividend. The Corps is shifting from its previous land based war footing to a more expeditionary / responsive, sea based force. While the doctrine is being adjudicated, the ultimate asset in the continued existence of the Corps is not a mission set, but the production of such fine men and women who are capable of accomplishing any task handed to them. So long as Quantico, San Diego and Parris Island produce Marines, America shall always require a Marine Corps.
Happy Birthday, Marines. Thanks for being Always Faithful.
Nicolas di Leonardo is a member of the Expeditionary Warfare Division on the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations and a student at the US Naval War College. The views represented here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Expeditionary Warfare Division or the Naval War Colleg
Rear Admiral (ret) James Vincent Purcell Goldrick AO, CSC, RANR, served three times as a the Commanding Officer of a ship at sea. He is a fellow at the Seapower Centre and a Naval Historian. (editor’s note) He is also served with the Patrol Boat navy, which means he is one of the best.
The recent discussion about the different approaches to surface warfare officer training in the British and American navies has been of great interest to me, if only because the Royal Australian Navy, my own service, has largely combined British training methods and career paths with the use of American designed ships and equipment.
I have had first-hand experience with both British and American methods, as well as the Australian approach, having served at sea on two exchange postings with the Royal Navy, been both XO and CO of RAN ships, small and big (by Australian standards) and sea ridden USN units, including in command time in tactical control of MIO operations in the northern Arabian Gulf. If I could sum up my view with a one liner it is that the British system is better for individual ships, the American for a navy as a whole.
Here I need to make an important distinction – the USN’s operational requirements are not those of the British, still less are they the same as those of Canada or Australia, so its personnel solutions should not necessarily be identical. Another, associated aspect of the comparison is that the USN system works better in major units because these can have enough experts onboard – with their associated rank and seniority – to provide the necessary leadership to all the specialisations involved. This is very difficult to achieve in smaller ships. Actually, it’s practically impossible.
The unit of power in the surface forces of the smaller navies, particularly in recent years, has been the frigate or destroyer. Within the USN, although times are changing – as recent deployment patterns not only in the Caribbean but even the South China Sea suggest – it has remained that of the carrier battle or expeditionary strike group. This requires a very different approach. A USN destroyer or frigate has been judged largely by how it fits into the whole, while a Canadian or Australian and even a British ship has in the past to manage both task group operations and independent activity to a much greater degree. In other words, the smaller navies have had to wring much more out of their limited capabilities and doing so successfully requires a higher level of expertise at more junior ranks than has generally been the case for the USN.
The reality is that deep expertise is found in the O5s and O6s of the American Navy that the other naval services can only envy. But, contrary to some of the declarations in earlier contributions to this discussion, I’d take a British or Australian O3 or O4 in their specialisation over the average (but not the best) USN surface warfare officer with the equivalent qualified sea service any day. This may seem a hard judgement, but it is not one based on intellect, morals or individual quality, it is simply a matter of experience – a USN officer has to cover so many more bases that there is an inevitable element – somewhere in it all – of ‘once over lightly’. My belief is that the USN maintains the standards it does by sheer hard work and a great deal of sea time.
But there is more to it than that. It seems to me that the argument has been confused by the inclusion of platform and propulsion engineering into the wider question of the requirement of warfare officers for technological understanding and technical mastery in addition to what could be described as operator skills. Because of the ‘once over lightly’ problem, my judgement is that, in general terms, propulsion engineers provide a more effective service and ship commanders are more expert in their essential skills if there is no attempt for platform engineers to proceed down the path of combatant command. I believe very firmly, in so far as frigates and destroyers which may have to operate as autonomous units are concerned, that it is practically impossible to accumulate the expertise necessary to cover all the bases associated if the officer complement are to have an ‘unrestricted line’ background. All that time in the machinery spaces has to come at the expense of the combat system and tactical knowledge as well as the associated ship driving skills which are vital to the effective direction of a warship’s operations. One sees certain resonances of this argument in the American submarine community and it is notable, although they have had their challenges in their nuclear force, that the British have never chosen to risk their tactical expertise in meeting their nuclear power demands. Royal Navy submarine captains get some nuclear power training, but they do not serve as engineers. I think that the British are right. My own experience is that I was very hard pressed to ensure that I was sufficiently expert as a surface warfare officer with the minimum mastery of combat systems and tactics necessary to fight the ship. I was also always acutely aware that my captains – and the ships’ companies with whom I served – demanded nothing less.
I do not have an engineering degree and I have also always had to work hard to ensure that I have had what I think is sufficient mastery of all aspects of ship design and propulsion to be an effective sea officer and, later, sea commander. Yet this was always in support of my primary functions, not such a function itself and this is the real point. Could I have known more about engineering? Yes, but at what cost to my warfare expertise? Did I end up knowing enough? I once had an exchange with my – extremely efficient and truly expert- platform (or what we call ‘marine’) engineer officer ashore over a beer one night. ‘Sir,’ he said, ‘I know that both your undergraduate and postgraduate degrees are in history. How is it that you always know the question to ask me that I don’t want you to ask me?’ ‘Simon,’ I replied, ‘I’m the captain, it’s my job.’ I still treasure that as one of the greatest professional compliments I have ever been paid – but I think it is one that, at least in part, I had earned. I will say here that the training system through which I passed allocated more time to engineering theory and practical engineering training for surface warfare officers than does the ‘objective focused’ system of the present day. There is a minimum required and I am not convinced that it is being met in either the RAN or the Royal Navy.
The point, however, is that my job as a captain was not to be the engineering officer, nor attempt to do his or her job. Mine was to be as expert as possible in driving and fighting my ship to achieve its military purposes. I am deliberate in suggesting that the platform engineering specialisation is not the ideal preparation for combatant command – although I have no objection to such officers commanding auxiliaries and non-combatant units, provided that they have had sufficient time on the bridge. Let me emphasise that I am not suggesting that officers with a platform engineering background are necessarily ineffective as combatant captains. What I am saying is that the individuals concerned would be much better off – and much better war fighters if they were differently prepared. There just isn’t enough time to do otherwise.
Let me return to explain one point – my view that the USN system can be better for a navy. If one is to accept that platform engineers as a group must be ‘Engineering Duty Only’, this must not result in their exclusion from the highest levels of decision making and influence. The USN has achieved as much as it has in the last seventy and more years because it got its platform engineering right so many times. And where it did not, it soon knew what to do to fix the problem. This must continue.
However, I do believe that the USN has evolved a generally more effective approach to combat systems management than the RN or the RAN both at sea and ashore. This is another area in which there could be more theory and practical training for warfare officers within our organisations. While I assess that there is a vital space for the specialists that the British describe as ‘Weapon Engineers’, I do not think that the British (and Australian) system has allowed surface warfare officers to develop sufficient understanding of their technology and the operation of their weapon and sensor systems since the old warfare sub-specialisations such as gunnery and ASW were replaced by the Principal Warfare Officer concept in the 1970s. The PWO possessed a much improved ability to make a correct, no-notice response to an immediate threat, no matter whether it was from over, on or under the sea, but it was partly at the expense of the much deeper system knowledge of his predecessors and to the detriment of a much more equal relationship with the Weapon Engineers who were and are responsible for the preparation, maintenance and readiness of the weapons, sensors, computers and communications concerned. Our navies have a lot to do in this area.
I don’t have any simple solutions for all this, but I will finish with one point. Whatever career system is adopted, it will only work if a truly professional attitude is adopted by all concerned. This includes, above all, a welcoming and inclusive approach to the new joiners that makes it clear that high standards are essential, but provides every opportunity to them to achieve their professional goals. Command at sea remains one of the most worthwhile experiences it is possible to have, but central to its value is encouraging and developing the young. None of our navies have always been as consistently focused on this as we should have been, but it is vital. As a very distinguished admiral once said, “You spend your first command proving yourself to yourself. You should spend your second and subsequent commands proving other people to themselves.”
He was – and is – right, but it also applies to every step in the surface warfare officer ladder. We all need to remember that we are there, amongst other things, to train our relief
In December 1918, a few weeks after The Great War ended, the government of the United Kingdom released a report on the “Machinery of Government,” which it spent the last year of the war preparing. The purpose of the report was to first understand how various departments were organized and second to propose a series of recommendations for improvement. A prolonged period of conflict had left most departments with much “overlapping and consequent obscurity and confusion.” In fact, the very “purposes for which they were thus called into being” were wildly altered by four years of fighting on the Continent.
All departments were affected. But even those that were least tied to the wartime effort – Health or Education – fell short of basic organizational “foundation for efficient action.” Such were the report’s conclusions at a time when London was seeing a radically changed – and still changing – world through the fog of victory.
“Machinery of Government” gave birth to a simple concept that decisions about “what” to do in any particular department or “how” to do it – whether it is about acquiring weapons systems or setting academic curricula – should be done by experts and not policymakers. The answers to these questions need to meet policy objectives and strategic priorities set by politicians, but they should be unencumbered by Politics.
The report did not express this logic explicitly, but its recommendations led to this logical conclusion. The research community was the most fervent adopter of this approach, giving birth to today’s UK Research Councils, which are bodies of experts – scientists and artists alike – that distribute public funds to projects that have the most promise.
In April 2008, John Denham — the then Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities, and Skills — remarked how the spirit of a report written 90 years prior was still relevant to the science community. He outlined three key points:
Scientists are “best placed to determine research priorities”
Government’s role is to set “over-arching strategy”
And that research councils are the “guardians of the independence of science”
The Defense Entrepreneurs Forum (DEF) just concluded its second annual conference(#DEF2014), where dozens of bright young leaders from the military, government, academia, and industry gathered to discuss ideas. We gathered at a time when war has gone on too long, where new and existing machines of government have overlapping obscurity and confusion, and where Politics certainly seems to dog every aspect of governing more than it did in the past.
Last year’s conference (#DEF2013) concluded on a major high note, but what DEF is remained undefined. This year, we’re getting clarity. #DEF2014 participants have outlined a vision: to potentially become the guardians of independent and clear thinking about how to make the military better. A community that identifies problems, determines priority areas, works to meet overarching strategic objectives more efficiently and at a lesser cost, and guards these initiatives by having a place – DEF – to host and nurture ideas.
Richard Burdon Haldane, who chaired the committee that authored the “Machinery of Government,” knew that any initiative cannot be effective if it’s scripted and formulaic. In fact, he suggested that “practical efficacy will depend upon the zeal and discretion… the living forces whose spirit is essential to any form of government that is more than a machine.” For the second year in a row, DEF has proven that it has limitless zeal and discretion, or in this year’s lingua DEF, conviction.
To those of us that make up DEF, this is more than a word…it is a charter. We have taken the first steps by supporting the implementation of great projects such as this year’s Innovation Challenge winner, the Syrian Airlift Project by Mark Jacobsen.
What’s next? It’s up to you…
Editors Note: What’s up next? Well, DEF 2015, of course! Also, contact the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum about putting on your own DEFx or a DEF “Agora“… but without the Athenian invasion of Sicily or the executing of victorious Admirals.
Innovation starts with ideas – the realization that something new is possible once old things are seen in new ways. Thus, it’s very important to understand how knowledge and insight are created both individually and in groups if one wishes to posture themselves to encourage successful innovations.
In the American Civil War, veterans used to describe their initial baptism of fire as “seeing the elephant”. But if you’re interested in the nature of innovation, there’s another elephant that you need to see before you do anything else.
An ancient Sufi parable, the story of the blind studying an elephant reveals three tremendously important insights about how we know what we think we know:
Our ability to observe and sense the greater environment that affects our lives is inherently limited by our own ability to perceive it, and by the limited perspectives of those we communicate with
We get a better sense of reality by seeking multiple frames of reference to study the same problem, even if that process of “sensemaking” is still inevitably incomplete, and
We all have a basic human tendency to assume that our limited knowledge of the world is more descriptive of the whole than it really is, and that our limited knowledge is adequate for the problem we’re trying to solve, whether it is indeed sufficient or not.
These insights hold true at both the individual level and in the sense of groups. Individually, what we perceive to be our conscious thought is really a churn of multiple, mostly unconscious mental submodels, each coming from different frames of sensory reference, and each competing for dominance of the really small portion of our total cognitive bandwith that we call conscious thought. What we perceive to be conscious choices are often driven by intuitive, gut feel actions unexplainable in specific cause and effect terms even by the people making the decision, a point Thomas Schelling made in his classic book Micromotives and Macrobehavior. From a group perspective, we have established bodies of knowledge from different perspectives, and seek to combine and reconcile these perspectives in patterns of social interaction that tend to solidify some ideas as commonly accepted frameworks of accumulated knowledge – what we commonly describe as paradigms, taking a cue from Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
But it’s far more complicated than that. In fact, most of the time, the elephant is constantly changing, in part due to responses to our own efforts to sense and describe it. And much of the time – like in the case of inherently unquantifiable social phenomenon like popularity, confidence, and a feeling of security – the elephant only exists as an abstract concept in our heads.
Ideas are networks
As Steven Johnson points out in his book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, Ideas are literally networks of accumulated information encoded and continually modified in the physical and chemical structures of our brains, with collections of ideas working together as the schema we use to make sense of what our senses are detecting. In a group sense, ideas are embedded in our social conventions like our stories, norms, rules, procedures, etc .. Innovation happens when old ideas are combined in new and interesting ways, either through deliberate effort, unconscious deliberation, or through serendipitous revelation and discovery.
The “slow hunch” unconscious deliberative processes that Johnson describes is reflective of the “collision of smaller hunches” that take place in the individual mind as people take collections of existing ideas, and use their intuitive, creative processes to recombine them in new , interesting, and useful ways. This mostly unconscious and intuitive creative process was described in part by Isaac Asimov as “the Eureka Phenomenon”:
…and also by Joseph Campbell when he answered the following to Bill Moyers during the interviews that led to a modern humanities classic, The Power of Myth:
BILL MOYERS: Do you ever have the sense of… being helped by hidden hands?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: All the time. It is miraculous. I even have a superstition that has grown on me as a result of invisible hands coming all the time – namely, that if you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in your field of bliss, and they open doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.
Combining Asimov and Campbell’s observations with a growing body of evidence from cognitive neuroscience, it seems that there really is something to “finding your calling”. Each of us have natural tendencies to be interested in specific things, and when we find the ability to concentrate on them, our drive and enthusiasm – our bliss – pushes mostly unconscious creative processes to seek creative recombinations of ideas that we’re interested in, even when we’re not consciously thinking about them.
But it’s not just about brilliant individuals bringing innovative ideas to the rest of us. The history of innovation also shows that in-person social interactions – and most importantly, serendipitous chance meetings between people who think differently – are crucial to innovation. It’s usually not the people in your own peer group who have the missing piece of a puzzle that you’re working on, because they tend to see the world much like you do. More often, it’s the people who see your problem from a completely different frame of reference that serve as the catalysts for innovative collaborations. A notable example of this was the genesis of the Doolittle Raid during World War II, when a submariner initially thought of the idea of putting US Army bombers on US Navy aircraft carriers to strike back at the Empire of Japan after the attack at Pearl Harbor, an idea that might never have occurred to Army pilots or Naval aviators who were comfortable with their own paradigms regarding what bombers and aircraft carriers could do.
Sometimes, interdisciplinary collaborations help you create new innovations even before you’ve imagined the problem. See Steven Johnson’s story of the invention of GPS at the end of this clip for a great illustration of this:
Thus, it’s likely no accident that many Nobel Prize winners were not specialists in the fields that they won their awards in. Being outsiders, they were free of the cognitive blinders that “dyed in the wool” specialists often accumulate. More significantly, they were free of the cognitive attachments that are created when specific ideas become associated with individual and group identities, ones that convince us that challenges to those ideas equate to being personal attacks upon ourselves. Everytime we make an idea part of our resume, our job title, or a badge on our uniform, we risk creating cognitive biases that can inhibit innovation.
Designing for Innovation
Although it took some time – and whether it was through conscious understanding of the dynamics of creativity or not – the US Department of Defense eventually created an organizational structure well suited to foster innovation though its “joint but separate” service construct. Having separate services allows creative innovation in niche areas by people who are passionate about them, and promotes resilience by preventing groupthink and “common contagions” that would be more prevalent in a single “purple” service. But by also requiring mandatory collaboration across the services as per the Goldwater Nichols act, common interoperability of both ideas and tools is promoted across the services, preventing recidivism into the dysfunctions that would result from individual services thinking only within their own specialized domains, irrespective of their contribution to the dynamic whole.
Supporting creative cross domain integration – in either the macro or micro sense – requires supervisors who can look outside of their own areas of expertise and local imperatives, and who are willing to allow their creative subordinates to do the same, in order to create greater systemic resilience across the entire force. When one is looking for innovative solutions to thorny problems, the process of coming up with those ideas is neither highly linear nor highly visible, and may require interdisciplinary, person-to-person creative explorations outside of the local norms that those who are not innovation minded will not intuitively grasp, especially when they do not match up with the normal office schedule and practices. As Gordon MacKenzie describes it in his book Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving With Grace, a visual depiction of creative processes might look like this:
This speaks to the importance of protecting creative individuals, and the creative processes that sustain innovation, within an organization that may not understand creative people and processes very well, and may seek to minimize or expel those who it doesn’t understand that their creative process is still being “part of the team”, even if it doesn’t look at all like their daily repetitive ones. As General Mattis recently expressed it:
“Take the mavericks in your service,” he tells new officers, “the ones that wear rumpled uniforms and look like a bag of mud but whose ideas are so offsetting that they actually upset the people in the bureaucracy. One of your primary jobs is to take the risk and protect these people, because if they are not nurtured in your service, the enemy will bring their contrary ideas to you.”
As Johnson concludes, “Chance favors the connected mind”, and this applies in both in the individual and group senses. The keys to innovation are creative exploration driven by passion, having sufficient room to play with ideas in both the conscious and unconscious sense, and in finding new way to use different parts of the individual and collective brain to look at old problems, which can be assisted by the use of visual metaphor, abstract thought experiments, and the utilization of “boundary objects” and “bridging metaphors” to create interdisciplinary dialogue that will breed innovative recombinations of previously existing ideas. By nature of its design, DEF is embracing and furthering these concepts. When it comes to sustaining innovation, it’s not just about spreading individual ideas – it’s about forming enduring networks of idea creators and enablers if you want to create vibrant and adaptive military forces who embrace change, and can rapidly respond to challenges faster than the enemy can present new ones.
Finally, Williamson Murray hammers home the need to deliberately design the ideas behind the innovation into the way we educate and develop our military leaders, and the culture that they will promote in the active force on the other side of military education.
One needs to rethink professional military education in fundamental ways. A significant portion of successful innovation in the interwar period depended on close relationships between schools of professional military education and the world of operations…[A]ny approach to military education that encourages changes in cultural values and fosters intellectual curiosity would demand more than a better school system: it demands that professional military education remain a central concern throughout the entire career of an officer. One may not create another Dowding and manage his career to the top ranks, but one can foster a military culture where those promoted to the highest ranks possess the imagination and intellectual framework to support innovation [and adaptation].
Next in the series: We’ll continue exploring the model of innovation, continuing with Groups.
This article is part of CIMSEC’s “Forgotten Naval Strategists Week.”
“I never learned how to tune a harp or play upon a lute but I know how to raise a small and obscure city to glory and greatness where to all kindred of the Earth will pilgrim.”
Thus spoke the great warrior politician Themistocles in the 5th Century B.C. Themistocles is famous for a lot of things: his heroic actions at the Battle of Salamis, his secret plot to rebuild Athens’ walls after the Second Persian War, and his six-pack abs in “300: Rise of an Empire” (author’s note: thoroughly underwhelmed by that movie). But his biggest impact on history was his fateful advocacy early in his career for Athens to build a first-rate navy. Themistocles should be recognized as one of the earliest naval theorists because he successfully promulgated a sea-view of the world and brought Athens onto the sea.
Portrait of a naval theorist.
Athens has gone down in history as a naval powerhouse but that was not always the case. The city of Athens is actually a few miles away from the sea, could only offer up fifty ships during the First Persian War, and did not even have a defensible port until Themistocles’ rise to prominence. Athens was a continental city-state and a poor one at that; it had little to offer in terms of natural resources. The striking of silver in the mines of Laurium in 483 B.C. changed this. Athens was faced with a choice of how to divide up the windfall. The prevailing idea was to take the money and divide it equally among the population. Themistocles, apparently alone, proposed to use the funds to finance construction of a 200 ship fleet and managed to win over the population. The rationale behind his advocacy is controversial to this day: he claimed that the navy’s purpose was to challenge Athens’ island rival, Aegina, but others have attributed to him the base motivations of wanting to secure power or the foresight to see the invasion of Xerxes coming three years later.
Regardless of Themistocles’ true motivations, though the high-minded ones seem more plausible, his success is remarkable because it achieved a full reorientation of Athens’ politico-military focus from land to sea. This was all the more surprising because ancient Greek culture gave primacy to the strength and heroism of land combat. Even Plato complained that Themistocles’ actions transformed the army “from steady soldiers… into mariners and seamen tossed about the sea… [Themistocles] took away from the Athenians the spear and the shield, and bound them to the bench and the oar.”
History proved Themistocles right. The 200 Athenian ships, combined with his deft admiralship, were instrumental in defeating the Persians at the Battle of Salamis and, far more than the Battle of Thermopylae, turned the tide of the war in Greece’s favor. Moreover, once the Persians retreated across the Aegean Sea, Athens used its fleet to liberate the occupied islands and Ionian cities in modern Turkey. The new Athenian dependencies evolved into the Athenian Empire whose domination of trade in the Aegean launched Athens’ golden age. Their art and architecture are still the standard by which we judge all others classics. It is difficult to say whether Themistocles foresaw all of these circumstances playing out when he first advocated for the fleet but his strategic argument for the Athenians to take to the sea reflects an appreciation for what dominating the sea could achieve.
The Athenian Empire at its height. If not for Themistocles, they would have had to swim to build it.
1) It is never too late to become a sea power.
History is full of examples of continental powers who failed to embrace the sea to their detriment: the Persians, Ming China, and the Ottomans are but a few. Themistocles’ success demonstrates that states, with proper planning and political determination, can alter policy and project their presence onto the water.
2) States should maintain a military force that augments their commercial interests.
For those following politics in the United States, the parable of the silver mines of Laurium might lead one to assume that Themistocles’ argument supports military spending at the expense of social programs. That is not entirely the case. Blanket military spending does not mean financial stability; the Habsburgs are a great cautionary tale for military spending becoming a money pit. The true reason why the Athenian navy was such a boon to the state was not just its military value but the commercial value in trade that it fostered after the Persian Wars ended. We conclude that the United States should be careful about making budget cuts to military forces that make the global trade system work. In particular, one needs to tread lightly around investments that are meant to counter maritime piracy; it is no accident that shipping insurance rates soar in places where the United States Navy does not patrol.
Matthew Merighi is a Masters Degree candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
In both Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, I compared various naval counterparts – laying the groundwork for discussing what the U.S. Navy’s Surface Warfare Officer community is getting right, and what areas could use improvement. It is easy to complain. Surface Warfare Officers are notorious for it. I am infamous for it, as my peers and superiors alike will attest. Combine our penchant for complaining and our ingrained inferiority complex and it is no wonder that so many SWOs think that everyone else is “doing it better.” This time, though, it is not typical-SWO wanking: they are doing it better, and we must pull our heads out of the sand and catch up. Royal Navy Warfare Officers, U.S. Naval Aviators and nuclear trained officers are specialists and are unmatched masters of their trade. They must train endlessly and they feverishly adhere to standards written in blood to remain at the top of their respective callings. They are role-models and could teach us a thing or two about being the best. As for Surface Warfare Officers – we aregood, and that is the problem.
Surface Warfare Officers – and the ships we drive, fight, and lead – guarantee the free flow of commerce across the world. We deliver critical readiness to the Geographic Combatant Commanders and we send a powerful message to both overt and would-be enemies. What we do, works. Our ships deploy and our navy projects unparalleled power around the globe. As an inherently expeditionary force, we ply the world’s oceans, go where we please, and influence international events as a matter of course. We conduct prompt and sustained combat operations like no other nation can. Our ships are leaving port and returning safely, they complete the widest variety of operational tasking of any military community, our personnel are advancing, and finally, as one senior community leader put it to me, “We are pretty damn good… I would take our top 50% Department Heads and put them against the top 10% of PWO (RN, Principle Warfare Officers) or Snipes (engineers) and bet on our people.”
It appears that there is nothing wrong here. As a Surface Warfare Officer myself, I can get onboard with most of the above. There is a seedy underbelly to all of this, though. It thrives on a couple of points: that our greatness has not been tested by an opponent in decades, and that the perspective of greatness is naturally skewed from the top down. If not by desire, doctrine, or intent – then surely through practice – the Surface Warfare Officer community accepts mediocracy.
Tom Skerritt’s Viper stood in front of a room filled with the elite – “the best of the best,” and told them deadpan: “we’ll make you better.” In this fictional portrayal, which is representative of the real-life attitudes found in the previously featured communities, good enough, wasn’t. Surface Warfare Officers are undoubtedly the best in our business. Unfortunately, context matters, as the same can be said when a Major League club steps into a Little League park. We need to be better. We have ill-defined core-competencies, which leads us to becoming Jacks-of-all-Trades. Our habit of recoiling in horror at the thought of specialization causes us to become plug-and-play officers; ultimately figure-heads and placeholders with little value added to a respective sub-unit. Finally, we do not deliver professionals to the Fleet. One Surface Warfare Officer with multiple commands under his belt conceded, “We should be more deliberate. Success and mastery occur by happenstance.” Another community leader said, “We have good tacticians, but that is mostly by personal choice, and a little bit about your ship’s schedule and how interested your Commanding Officer was in tactics.” This series is not about career advancement. It is about a profession. It is about war. It is about winning! Our nation does not deserve victory by happenstance. It deserves an ocean-roiling, awe-inspiring, burned-into-the-history-books slam of Thor’s hammer upon our enemies. I do not think we are there yet.
Getting there is not simple. It is not as easy as adopting all of the policies and culture of the Royal Navy or Naval Aviators or nukes. Surface Warfare Officers should be the best because we train to be the best, not because we happen to be a part of the American Navy. We should be the best because we retain the best, not simply because our kit is better than everyone else’s. Under some fantastic leaders, the community is getting the right idea. The introduction of the Basic Division Officer Course, the Advanced Division Officer Course, the Surface Navigator’s Course, the Command Qualification Exam, and rigor added to the Department Head Course are all aimed at developing professionals. Weapons Tactics Instructors – previously a rice-bowl of the aviation community – will invigorate tactical awareness and proficiency throughout the Fleet. The SWO Clock concept – another idea poached from Naval Aviators – which gets “beached SWOs” back to the waterfront, shows a tilt towards valuing production in the upwardly-mobile. We are making good efforts to improve our community in an environment that naturally builds anti-bodies to culture change. That said, we are not doing enough; our profession, our competencies, our reputation, and our retention suffer due to this slow trod down the middle-of-the-channel. As is evidenced by both the Naval Aviation and nuclear communities, it really comes down to what a community accepts in, and for, itself. Do we continue to accept mediocracy, or do we stand up and say that “good enough” is not good enough?
One admiral opined, “I think it is good we SWOs have this institutional ‘inferiority complex,’ as it keeps us from getting complacent…like naval aviation did in Vietnam and later years.” I am not nearly the first to question the level of professionalism in our force. In a 2009 Proceedings article, LT Mitch McGuffie discussed his shock at how much more professional Royal Navy Warfare Officers were than SWOs. This topic and topics like it pop up on Sailor Bob – the definitive forum for SWO discussion – all the time. We do have a questioning attitude and that does make us better. While I readily acknowledge that we are the best Surface Warriors on the block, I am not satisfied with a 10:1 or 50:1 advantage. Like Viper and his pals, and real-life naval professionals who recognize that “there are no points for second place,” I am not satisfied with us being the best – I want us to be the best of the best.
To be the best of the best, we must deliver professionals to the Fleet at all levels. To measure one’s professionalism, we must establish community-recognized core competencies. We must define what it means to be a SWO and prove that our pin is worth more than the money we pay for it. For the sake of brevity, I propose that our core competency be ship-driving. Imagine, if you will, a room full of mid-grade Hornet pilots: 20% of them openly admit to each other that they have no clue how to fly Hornets, and another 30% who are less open about their weakness demonstrate their ineptitude in the simulator. The remaining 50% range from barely capable to superstars. While quality spreads are a reality in any group, this scenario is un-imaginable. Naval Aviators with more than 8 years of service that do not know how to fly? Rubbish! This is a reality for Surface Warfare Officers, though. Lieutenants that do not know how to drive ships are commonplace. They exist because they were never trained, nor tested, much less held to a standard, in the first place. They were never trained, tested, or held to a standard because ship-driving – again, if not due to desire, doctrine, or intent, then through practice – is not recognized as a core-competency of the U.S. Navy’s ship drivers. As is demonstrated in the excellent film, Speed and Angels, Naval Aviators consider carrier operations to be a core-competency – if a student pilot cannot land on the boat, then he will not become a Naval Aviator. Why can’t Surface Warfare Officers take the same approach to our profession?
We need a flight school for Surface Warfare Officers. The name is not important at this point – rather, the purpose ought to be the focus: building ship drivers. We must stop accepting mediocracy in this venue! While the Basic Division Officer course is a fantastic concept meant to bolster our young ensigns, it lacks focus and does not zero in on core-competencies. The lessons taught in the Basic Division Officer course are important – being an effective small-unit leader is vital, and I do not propose that we scrap the current construct. Rather, I propose – nay, I implore – that we first recognize ship-driving as a core-competency, and second, require our officers to be competent ship drivers.
SEALs do not accept sub-par. Neither do Naval Aviators, nor nuclear-trained officers, or Marines. While I applaud our most recent Commander, Naval Surface Forces for his outstanding efforts to instill meaningful training, we are still accepting sub-par, and are using the re-creation of half-way schooling as a security blanket. Under our current system, young SWO candidates are flooded onto ships in an effort to make future retention goals – an indictment of our culture’s impact on retention. They then fiercely compete for time on the bridge to gain experience – and hopefully competency – as ship drivers. On most ships, this is not a recipe for success. The Professional Qualification Standard books, which drive progression, are signed with unpredictable integrity, imparting sometimes-dubious knowledge on young minds. To cap it off, Officer of the Deck and Surface Warfare Officer qualifications, granted by Commanding Officers, are determined using two-hundred some different standards. Some candidates sit for gut-wrenching, rigorous tests of their skills and knowledge, and others chat with their Commanding Officers at local watering holes after a command event. The evidence of the disparity in knowledge is on display in Newport, Rhode Island – home of Surface Warfare Officers School – where junior officers return for the Advanced Division Officer Course, and later, the Department Head Course. Some officers were obviously put to the test during their professional development, and others were obviously not.
I propose that we start a Deck Watch Officer School – our flight school - in Newport, which all ensigns will attend, and must pass, prior to reporting to BDOC and ultimately, the Fleet. As with aviators, this school would not be a second thought or a 60% solution, but rather would be a proving ground for our nation’s future ship drivers. The length of this notional school can be figured out later; what is important is that SWO candidates shall qualify; ashore. We must have one standard, one organization responsible for enforcing that standard, and must require those desiring entrance into our community to meet it – otherwise, seek life elsewhere. We should not be ashamed of upholding a standard and of telling some people that they are not cut out for this business. At this school, candidates would receive in-depth, hands-on instruction in seamanship and navigation, basic-through-advanced ship handling, meteorology, bridge resource management, and a variety of other skills required for the competent mariner.
Integral to this process would be the move of the Yard Patrol Craft fleet – the U.S. Navy’s only training ships – from Annapolis to Newport for the exclusive use of the Surface Warfare Officers School. During the pipeline, ensigns would log hours and prove their skills in simulators and on the water. They would complete classwork, learn from case studies, and would be continually tested, remediated, and attrited, as required. If they successfully made it to the end of this program, they would sit for a SWOS-run and community-sanctioned Officer-of-the-Deck board, ensuring that all ensigns are held to the same standard. Earning one’s OOD letter – like the pilots and their wings – would be a culminating event, and those unable to meet the mark would not be sent to the Basic Division Officer Course or the Fleet. If we could implement this plan, we would then send Captains competent, qualified ship drivers, immediately useful to their commands. Like in the Royal Navy, newly reported officers would then complete their platform endorsement, signifying both their grasp of their new ship and the trust their Commanding Officers have in them.
To be the best of the best, we must be good at our jobs. If Surface Warfare Officers are going to continue to be both professional watch standers, and small unit leaders, we must stop accepting the notion that plug-and-play is an effective way of doing business. Imagine a Naval Aviator spending his junior officer tours flying F/A-18’s, his department head tour in a P-8 squadron, and finally, growing up to command an MH-60 squadron. This progression would never happen in the aviation community because they are not plug-and-play pilots. Yet, a Surface Warfare Officer may indeed spend a tour in Weapons Department, followed by Operations Department, followed by Engineering Department, followed by eventual command. The issue as I see it is that the community views this as a positive – exposing officers to a variety of shipboard functions – but in reality, it ensures that we never become truly good at our jobs. We become personnel and administrative gurus, irrespective of our assigned department, perched to jump into a different role at a moment’s notice.
Instead of our current system, I propose that U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officers matriculate into the community with a billet specialty: engineering, operations, or combat systems. Anathema! Rather than wandering from department to department as figure-heads, I want us to have a vested interest, and subject matter expertise, in the Sailors we lead and the systems we are responsible for. An Infantry Officer leads infantry units. Armor Officers lead armor units. F/A-18 pilots fly Hornets. Today, a Surface Warfare Officer can become a Weapons Officer, and in theory, an Engineer Officer, without prior experience in those respective departments. Imagine, though, the benefits of the following: a new officer enters the community as a Surface Warfare Officer-Engineering, graduates the OOD School and BDOC, completes basic engineer training, serves two division officer tours in Engineering Department, completes shore duty, graduates Department Head School, and returns to the Fleet as an Engineer Officer. This officer has received specialized training along the way and has walked the walk and talked the talk at sea prior to stepping foot into what is acknowledged as the most challenging tour of a SWO’s career. They are no longer a figure-head, but rather: they are an engineer. Or a Combat Systems Officer. Or an Operations Officer. Their title means something. They are good at their job. To ensure preparation for command and to keep some semblance of well-roundedness, Surface Warfare Officers of all flavors would continue to earn the qualifications and stand the watches that the community currently holds dear: on the bridge, in the Combat-Information-Center, and in the engineering plant. Finally, the XO/CO fleet-up model would ensure that specialists are appropriately rounded-out before taking command.
I want Surface Warfare Officers to push ourselves “right to the edge of the envelope.” I want us to be proud of our community. I want our Surface Warfare Officer pin to mean something – to the military, to the service, and most important of all, to us. I want us to be professional watch standers and experts in our respective jobs. The Surface Warfare Officer community is known for being the dumping ground of Unrestricted Line Officers who could not hack it, and this happens because we do not establish, much less uphold, standards. No more! We should honor our heritage, establish a role in our force that is both respected and admired, and strictly and unabashedly police ourselves as consummate professionals who accept nothing less than the best of the best.
Lieutenant Jon Paris is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer. At sea, he has served aboard both a destroyer and cruiser, in both Weapons and Navigation Department. Ashore he has served as a Navigation Instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy and as a Flag Aide. He is a prospective destroyer Operations Officer. His opinions and generalizations are his own and do not reflect official stances or policy of the U.S. Navy.
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