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Sea Control 128 – Bonnie Glaser On FONOPS and U.S.-China Relations under Trump

By Mina Pollmann

CIMSEC spoke with Asia-Pacific expert Bonnie Glaser to better understand freedom of navigation, U.S.-China relations under the Trump administration, and recent maritime operations in the region. Listen to the audio or read the transcript below.

Mina Pollmann: Hello, CIMSEC listeners. My name is Mina Pollmann, and as CIMSEC’s Director of External Relations, I have the honor of hosting Bonnie Glaser as our guest for this episode. Bonnie is a senior adviser for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where she works on issues related to Chinese foreign and security policy.

Bonnie, thank you so much for joining us.

Bonnie Glaser: Thanks for having me.

Mina: I’d like to focus today on potential areas of conflict between the U.S. and China, specifically in the maritime domain. To lay the groundwork for that conversation, I wanted to ask a couple questions first about your take on the Trump administration and how China is reacting to the new president.

Early speculation of Donald Trump’s approach to foreign policy emphasized that it will be “transactional.” Based on the signs so far, such as his meeting with Japan’s Prime Minister Abe, the call with Taiwan’s President Tsai before his inauguration, and the call with Australia’s Prime Minister Turnbull last week, would you agree with this characterization? Is Trump’s approach really that calculated?

Bonnie: Well, as a businessman, it does appear that President Trump is looking to make some “deals” with other countries. We don’t know yet what kinds of “deals” that would be. He has indicated, for example, that the One China policy, which the United States has held for almost 40 years, might be reconsidered unless the Chinese make some concessions in the area of trade. But as far as I know, we haven’t started a dialogue with the Chinese yet. Maybe the Chinese will try to offer some things up in advance, but the Chinese have also told the United States, and they have said so publicly, that the One China policy is nonnegotiable.

I think the premise of the Trump administration is that the Chinese can be influenced. That if the United States pushes back, stands firm in some areas, the Chinese will simply have to accept it. They’ll have to adjust. That is a hypothesis that hasn’t really been tested. Whether we look at the South China Sea or Taiwan or other areas, we don’t yet know whether an effort to try and establish new “redlines” – for example, Secretary of State Tillerson’s suggestion during his confirmation hearings that we might seek to deny China’s access to some of its islands in the South China Sea – will influence China. We don’t know where decisions are going to be made to try to force the Chinese to change their position, or where the Trump administration is going to bargain. We’re still in the very early days of the new administration, and we just don’t know.

Mina: It’s safe to say that unpredictability will be a defining feature of the Trump administration’s foreign policy. In light of this, how can China craft a sustained and constructive foreign policy towards the U.S.?

Bonnie: I think that every country has to deal with a degree of unpredictability when they are talking to the Trump administration and making their own policy decisions. There is not a lot of certainty yet. And it may be that the Trump administration decides to maintain a large degree of unpredictability if it believes that ambiguity serves its interest.

I think as far as the Chinese are concerned, they are trying to convince the Trump administration to limit the ambiguity to areas that do not affect China’s “core interests.” At the top of that list of core interests is sovereignty and territorial integrity – which is why the issue of the One China policy is so sensitive to the Chinese. I think that Beijing is trying to establish the opportunity to have an early, in-depth conversation with President Trump. I think they believe that a Sunnylands-type conversation where they can lay out their interests and try to engage in a one-on-one conversation between Xi Jinping and Donald Trump may help establish some understandings early on. I don’t know whether they will be able to achieve that goal.

Right now, the first potential opportunity for Xi Jinping to talk to Donald Trump is likely to be at the G20 in the first week of July, unless something is arranged before then. But we are seeing phone calls taking place. China’s State Councilor Yang Jiechi spoke with National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. We don’t know what took place in that conversation, but I think that the Chinese are looking for greater certainty in trying to narrow this area of uncertainty and unpredictability.

Mina: Moving on to questions more directly related to the maritime domain – in your commentary with Zack Cooper and Peter Dutton, “Mischief Reef: President Trump’s First FONOP?” last November, you and your co-authors explain how regional observers will judge the Trump administration’s willingness – or unwillingness – to accept risk in response to China’s recent assertiveness based on where and when it conducts its first freedom of navigation operation in Asia. What message would conducting a naval operation that goes beyond “innocent passage” within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef send to China?

Bonnie: To introduce some background here, the Obama administration started conducting freedom of navigation operations around the Spratlys and the Paracels in October 2015 – but this was not the first time. Apparently, as early as 1997, there were some freedom of navigation operations in the Paracels. And it’s important to make the point that the U.S. freedom of navigation program is, in fact, a global one. It goes back to the 1970s, and it is intended to enforce freedom of navigation for all countries in the world, to protect high seas freedoms that all seafaring nations have under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

When the Obama administration resumed these operations, there had been a hiatus for a couple years where they had not been carried out in the South China Sea. They were conducted two times in the Paracels, and two times in the Spratlys. And in all of these cases, with the exception of the last one that was conducted in October 2016, they were what we call “innocent passage.” That means, simply sailing in, in an expeditious and continuous manner, through waters that are 12 nautical miles around a particular feature.

Now, this is complicated by the fact that in the Paracels, the Chinese drew base points and baselines in 1996. They drew what’s called “straight baselines,” connecting these 28 base points. Under UNCLOS, only an archipelagic state that is composed of islands can draw these straight lines legally. China is a continental state. And it illegally drew straight baselines, and inside these baselines essentially claimed an “internal sea.” Under UNCLOS, if you have a legal internal sea, another country cannot sail inside those waters without getting permission first. The Chinese, contending that they have this legal right, demanded that the United States and other countries ask for permission before entering this internal sea. And the Chinese believe that they have a right under UNCLOS to demand that every country sailing in their territorial sea – whether it be coastal or around one of their land features – get prior permission. The United States has a different interpretation, and some countries require notification but not permission, so there are different interpretations of what the provisions are under UNCLOS.

So, with that background, in the last freedom of navigation operation in October of 2016, the USS Decatur crossed these illegal straight lines, and they conducted a maneuvering drill for the first time out of the four FONOPs publicized during the Obama administration. This is an exercise that is demonstrating high seas freedoms, and of course the Chinese objected to that. This was not “innocent passage” – simply sailing in a continuous and expeditious manner. Why is this important? If the United States simply sailed through these straight baselines through the Paracels and conducted innocent passage, that would signal an acceptance of China’s unlawful straight baselines.

Facilities on Mischief Reeef as of January 2016. (CSIS AMTI)

The reason why Peter Dutton, Zach Cooper and I are advocating conducting a FONOP around Mischief Reef is because the July 2016 ruling by the Arbitral Tribunal under UNCLOS found that Mischief Reef is a low-tide elevation. That essentially means its part of the seabed – so no country can have sovereignty over it, and it exists inside the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone of the Philippines. So indeed it belongs to the Philippines.

Mischief Reef is one of the three land features that the Chinese have built out into a massive island, creating military installations, including a 10,000-foot runway, hardened aircraft shelters, anti-aircraft missiles, and other capabilities. So if the United States were to conduct freedom of navigation around Mischief Reef – because Mischief Reef is not within 12 nautical miles of any other feature which would affect how the FONOP be legally conducted – simply conducting innocent passage around these 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef would once again lend credibility and legality to China’s claims. And of course China has illegally occupied the feature to begin with. This means the United States, with any FONOP around Mischief Reef, would have to conduct some military activity to not lend credibility and legality to China’s claims. The U.S. could fly a helicopter, conduct an exercise of another kind, circumnavigate the feature, loiter within – those are the kinds of options the U.S. has.

The risks here are that the Chinese might respond. Perhaps the Obama administration did not conduct this particular FONOP because they were worried the Chinese might respond or interfere with that kind of freedom of navigation operation. The Chinese could interfere by sending fighter aircraft and flying very low and dangerously, or they could use maritime militia or even naval vessels to try and interfere and block the United States or force the United States to leave the area. This could potentially lead to a confrontation or even an accident. And it appears, based on the nature of the FONOPs the Obama administration did conduct, one of the factors in the decision making process was that the Obama administration wanted to minimize any potential for confrontation with China. I think they were risk-averse.

And I think the Trump administration will approach this issue a little differently. They might be willing to incur more risk. And by demonstrating to China they are less risk-averse, they hope to strengthen deterrence. Now, this is still a logic that is yet to be played out – as to what the Trump administration’s approach will be, and how the Chinese will respond. But this will be, from the Chinese perspective, a test of U.S. intentions and operations in the South China Sea. They will be looking to see whether the Trump administration is going to act differently than the Obama administration did. And the Trump administration will be looking to see how the Chinese respond to what they do. This is a critical test of where the U.S.-China relationship will go going forward.

Mina: Moving to a different part within the same region, on January 11, China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier sailed north through the Taiwan Strait after completing exercises in the South China Sea. Is this meant as a signal? If so, what specifically was it a response to? What message is it meant to convey?

Bonnie: Well, first we should note that the Liaoning aircraft carrier first went through the Taiwan Strait as part of an exercise in 2013, so this was not the first time. And preparing to conduct an exercise with an aircraft carrier – given the fact that the Chinese do not have much experience – a lot of work and preparation went into that. And the Liaoning was operating in the South China Sea, there were flight operations that were going on – the Chinese were trying to build their capabilities.

My guess is that the preparations were underway maybe five, six months in advance. So it’s doubtful that this exercise was substantially modified in reaction to anything that was happening in international politics at the time. That’s my view. But nevertheless it is a useful signal and can be played that way.

The Liaoning, heading back to Hainan Island from its exercises, really had three options to head back to China, if they did in fact consider changing routes. They could have gone through straits in Japan, or in the Philippines, or through the Taiwan Strait. They may or may not have decided initially to go through the Taiwan Strait, but my guess is that they simply were exploiting the opportunity to present it as a signal to Taiwan. The reason would be that the Chinese are more concerned about Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen. She had a conversation with Donald Trump when he was just elected, on the phone. That was the first time ever a Taiwanese president has spoken on the phone with an American president-elect and that was made very public. And then President Tsai traveled through the United States. In fact, when this transit took place, President Tsai was in Central America and she passed through the U.S. and the Chinese are concerned about the potential for more cooperation between the U.S. and Taiwan, the possibility that President Trump could be emboldening Taiwan to challenge China’s claim to sovereignty. That would be a reason why they might have done that.

Chinese J-15 fighter jets wait on the deck of the Liaoning aircraft carrier during military drills in December. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

I should note, however, that the Liaoning sailed on the Chinese side of the midline between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland and did not cross that centerline. As I understand it there were no flight operations that were conducted as it was transiting the Taiwan Strait. If that had happened it would have been seen as far more provocative. And finally, I would add that, three times prior to that transit through the Taiwan Strait, bomber flights took place around the South China Sea and also circumventing Taiwan. In my view, those bomber flights, combined in some cases with other aircraft, were probably intended to send a very direct warning signal to Tsai Ing-wen. And I view those with greater concern than the transit by the Liaoning through that Strait. 

Mina: Historically, China has tested incoming U.S. administrations with assertive operations. Do you think an assertive operation in the maritime domain – looking beyond the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait, considering possible contingencies even in the East China Sea – is likely? If so, what form might this take and is there anything the U.S. can do to deter it? How could the U.S. respond?

Bonnie: It has been suggested, and I believe, many observers believe that China has tested incoming administrations. In 2001, in the early days of the George W. Bush administration, there were aggressive intercepts that were being conducted by a Chinese pilot that ultimately resulted in a collision with an EP3 aircraft and led to a forced landing on Hainan Island. And in 2009, there was an early incident with a U.S. oceanographic vessel called the Impeccable, with various types of Chinese vessels harassing the Impeccable, and tried to convince the United States to reduce the intelligence, surveillance ,and reconnaissance operations around China and to move those operations further away from China’s coast.

So, one possibility is that the Chinese do try to test the Trump administration. My guess is that given the fact that the Trump administration has signaled early on that it is going to get tough against China, and the fact that they have tried to introduce a lot of unpredictability into future U.S. policy towards China, the Chinese likely see that there is a very high risk in testing the Trump administration – because they could force this new administration to become even tougher. They could even cause an early confrontation.

So far, it is remarkable how restrained, how disciplined the Chinese have been not just in their behavior, but in their rhetoric as well. There have been very carefully worded statements from the Chinese Foreign Ministry and the Chinese Defense Ministry reiterating China’s principled positions on various issues. But there have not been very strong threatening statements or actions form the Chinese. I think that they recognize that if President Trump is potentially seen as weak, he may overreact, and this could create an outcome that the Chinese don’t want to see.

There’s also the potential that in the past, some of these “tests” that took place in the George W. Bush administration and the Obama administration, took place at a time pre-Xi Jinping, when the Chinese civilian control over all of the activities of the military were probably not as firm as they are today. That’s not to say the military might not do things in some areas that are not completely decided by the civilian leadership. There are still some issues in civil-military relations in China. But, it is clear that the coordination between the civilians and the military, and the instructions by Xi Jinping to operators in the aircraft and military vessels – particularly the instruction to avoid an incident with the United States – is quite clear. In the past, where some of these incidents have taken place, there was speculation that maybe the top Chinese leaders did not endorse that particular action at that particular time – I think that is less likely to take place.

Mina: Thank you so much for your time today, and I’m really excited to get this out to all of our listeners. This was such an insightful conversation. Thank you, Bonnie.

Bonnie: Thanks for having me.

Bonnie S. Glaser is a senior adviser for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at CSIS, where she works on issues related to Chinese foreign and security policy. She is concomitantly a non-resident fellow with the Lowy Institute in Sydney, a senior associate with CSIS Pacific Forum, and a consultant for the U.S. government on East Asia.

Mina Pollmann is CIMSEC’s Director of External Relations.

The Age of the Strike Carrier is Over


The age of the strike carrier is over. As the United States enters an era where the potential for modern great-power war is increasing dramatically in Eurasia, a return to the traditional roles of the aircraft carrier is required to maintain maritime access. Carrier-borne over-land strike warfare has not proved decisive in previous conflicts in heavily contested air defense environments, and will not prove so in the future. In the potential high-end conflicts of the twenty-first century, the likely utility of carrier-based land strike is largely non-existent. Thankfully, the traditional carrier aviation roles of maritime interdiction and fleet air defense remain highly valuable in wars against modern navies, but are precisely the roles, missions, and tactics sacrificed for sea based over-land strikes over the past sixty years. Regaining this capability will require a modest investment in existing and developing systems and capabilities and should be the force’s, the service’s and the nation’s highest objective in the coming years.

Aircraft Carriers in Over-Land Strike

American carrier airpower received its combat indoctrination in the Pacific War. However, pollution of the history of that campaign by naval aviation and airpower enthusiasts caused the lessons of that war to ossify over time. During Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz’s campaign aircraft carriers and their air wings almost exclusively provided maritime interdiction and fleet air defense. There are three major exceptions to this rule; Doolittle’s raid, the offloading of the Enterprise air group to Henderson Field during the Solomon Islands operation, and the strikes against the Japanese redoubts and the home islands late in the war. Additionally, carrier air forces provided strikes to Marine landings and naval aviation supported the Army landings of MacArthur’s campaign, most famously at Leyte. Admiral Kinkaid’s light carriers supported much of this effort, as well as Vice Admiral William F. Halsey’s and Raymond Spruance’s fast carrier task forces of Third and Fifth Fleets. 

Doolittle’s raid, a strategic success due to its propaganda value, did not obtain any operational or theater-strategic gain, provided no notable hindrance to the Japanese war effort, and was conducted with US Army Air Corps (USAAC) B-25 Mitchell aircraft. Only the USAAC aircraft possessed the combination of ordinance load, endurance, and thrust to make the adventure over the Japanese home islands possible, even as a publicity stunt.

When the Enterprise disembarked her air group to Henderson Field, her aircraft provided valued support to the Marines fighting their way across Guadalcanal and to American naval forces fighting for sea control in Iron Bottom Sound. During the campaign, the major value of those aircraft remained air defense and anti-surface warfare. The Enterprise air group made combat air patrols, searched Iron Bottom Sound during daylight, and engaged any Japanese ships unfortunate enough to find themselves in range in daylight. The Enterprise air group’s combat air patrols made daylight resupply of Japanese Army units impossible, a sea control, anti-surface warfare capability. While the air group could not provide enough firepower accurately enough to dig the Japanese out of the jungle by themselves, it successfully isolated the battlespace to allow the Marines to do their work as it controlled the approaches to Iron Bottom Sound.  

After Midway and the Solomon Islands campaigns, American carrier air power did begin to conduct some overland strike, mostly in the form of raids on enemy bases, but the fast carrier task forces remained focused on fleet air defense and anti-surface warfare. This alludes to the fact that, despite its ailing naval forces, Japan’s air and surface units still represented a potential threat to the American war after 1942. This was true as long as they possessed the capability to conduct a highly destructive strike against American fleets. 

Leyte Gulf totally destroyed this capability and thereafter American carriers began wholehearted support of major fleet landings. However, in these endeavors they posted a mixed record, being unable to provide enough ordinance precisely enough to make the Marines’ tasks much easier as they tried to advance over hard volcanic rock on Iwo Jima and the difficult terrain and defense in depth on Okinawa. Indeed, in these campaigns, American carrier air power’s signature achievement proved the destruction of the Japanese super-battleship, not any air-to-ground ordinance delivery.

The history of the Second World War has been polluted by naval aviation, claiming the conflict as the age of the aircraft carrier. This stands almost no historical scrutiny. The campaign hung in the balance in the Solomons as much as Midway or Coral Sea, with no U.S. carriers available.  Moreover, battleships proved highly useful throughout the war with their extensive anti-air armament and state-of-the-art radars providing close-in air defense for task forces. The Pacific War’s history is much more nuanced than naval aviation enthusiasts give credit for, and at its conclusion, not the carrier but the aircraft carrier task force proved to be the central weapon of war, with naval aviation posting meager results in ground support or strategic land strike.

What commonly became known as the “strike” aircraft carrier (CVA) was, in fact, the atomic carrier. In a memorandum as assistant Chief of Naval Operations for guided missiles, Rear Admiral Daniel V. Gallery opined that the U.S. Navy could strike more flexibly, as effectively, and at less cost than land-based, atomic-armed bombers requiring local bases to launch their fighter escorts. Gallery’s motivation was at least partially parochial. The newly-formed U.S. Air Force was, at the time, attempting to cultivate a monopoly on nuclear strike planning. In the era as the only nuclear superpower, it seemed nuclear delivery would prove the best option for continued longevity of the U.S. Navy’s fleet. In this effort, the Navy reconfigured attack carrier air wings to deliver Navy special weapons. This reconfiguration was the first time a carrier air wing was doctrinally tooled for ground attack and strategic strike, vice the sea control disciplines of fleet air defense and anti-surface warfare. Over time, this strike carrier became the norm. Rather than provide value to the fleet, misperceptions of the efficacy of land attack caused the platform’s gradual devolution from a system that provided capability to the task force to a platform that sucked capability from it. With its air wing largely servicing land targets, the strike carrier now required the very anti-surface, anti-submarine, and anti-air capabilities it used to augment, to allow more substantial (although increasingly less effective) overland raids.

This strike configuration premiered during the Korean War. The Peninsula lacked a sophisticated air defense or early-warning system and communist forces only contested air superiority in MiG Alley on the western Sino-Korean border. Therefore, naval and Marine aircraft operating off of carriers did produce notable results in ground support. However, given the limited nature of the conflict, the austere environment of the peninsula, and the technical lack of sophistication of Chinese and Korean forces, it is hard to determine the overall effect of carrier air power. At any rate, whatever the tactical, operational, or strategic limitations imposed, the conflict ended inconclusively, whatever naval aviation’s record.

Aircraft launch off USS Valley Forge during the Korean War (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Likewise, the utility of the attack aircraft carrier proved mixed over Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, the communist North enjoyed competing Chinese and Russian military (as well as diplomatic and political) support. The Soviets provided a totally linked and integrated air defense network around vital areas including Hanoi and Haiphong Harbor, the two most strategic areas. This air defense system proved too dense and advanced for American carrier-launched aircraft to reliably penetrate and deliver ordinance. Indeed, during Operation LINEBACKER II, only B-52Ds with their improved Electronic Countermeasure (ECM) packages, proved able to operate in the zones. This represented a failure of American carrier air power. If the multiple aircraft carriers operating in the Gulf of Tonkin could not reliably penetrate North Vietnamese air defenses, what chance did they have off the Kola Peninsula or the Baltic?

Despite an air defense network similar to that installed over Hanoi, U.S. Naval Aviation contributed, but did not prove decisive in Desert Shield and Desert Storm. While fixed-wing, fast moving aviation assets provided impressive combat support, it took US Air Force F-117 Nighthawks, cruise missiles, and Air Force delivered precision munitions to penetrate the Iraqi air defense screen. Naval air forces proved totally unprepared for the precision munitions revolution, lacking laser target designators on the A-6s and A-7s that still formed the mainstays of the fleet. Instead, most naval aviation delivered Mk 80 series unguided weapons instead of the Paveway series carried by a small but growing section of Air Force platforms, including the Nighthawk. This made them incapable of delivering ordinance to targets with high risk of collateral damage and precluded many targets in Iraqi population areas, limiting the force’s contributions to the campaign to tactical and some operational strikes.

In the Balkan wars and later in Iraq and Afghanistan, American naval aviation never again faced an integrated air defense system. High hard decks precluded the efficacy of man portable surface-to-air rounds and obsolete mobile systems made air defense suppression a forgone conclusion rather than an aspirational goal in the early 2000s. Naval aircraft, belatedly modernized to take full advantage of the precision munitions revolution, delivered substantial amounts of ordinance in these conflicts, complementing American land-based air power. However, the aircraft lacked on station time and payload, showcasing a service preference for multi-role fighter-bombers with limited range vice the ultra-long range fighter and attack aircraft required for intercept and long-range anti-surface warfare. However, confronted with a total lack of modern air defense systems, they, like the Air Force, reigned supreme.

Never in its history has American naval aviation confronted a state-of-the-art, integrated air defense system and provided effective, strategic ordinance. Hypothetically, at times during the Cold War, American strike-configured carriers might have done so, but an era of fiber-optically interlinked, multi-frequency, phased array air defense systems totally precludes such operations. Moreover, naval aviation assets lacked the range to strike strategic targets deep in mainland China and central Russia, limited to around 1,000nm inland.

Modern Aircraft Carrier Utilization in Great Power War

The utility of the STRIKE carrier in great power conflict is over. More accurately, as the previous section highlighted, it never really existed. American strike carriers throughout their history proved incapable of gaining and maintaining access to heavily defended areas and this trend will only grow more severe. China’s Great Wall of air defense on the northern Taiwan Strait will again preclude American carriers from gaining access to strategic areas in mainland China. Russia’s high-value areas are already well defended. China’s continued investment in air defense systems will cause this problem to continue to distribute throughout Asia. Further, a series of anti-access systems fielded by China, but also increasingly by Russia, are pushing U.S. carrier task forces out of range of present naval aircraft.

American planners are hoping, almost as a matter of faith, that an increase in the range of carrier-based aircraft would provide for continued access. This approach is wrong-headed.  First, what land targets would such aircraft service? Perhaps Hainan Dao, or some rocks in the South or East China Sea, hardly a war-winning strategic strike. Second, how will these aircraft gain access in order to deliver the strike? American naval aircraft are too obsolete to deal with any but the most lightly defended of modern targets, and the F-35 will not markedly change this equation.

So let’s give up? Call it a day? Beef up Air Force appropriations? Not even close. American naval air power is the critical capability in the U.S. arsenal in the Western Pacific and the North Atlantic. Instead, force planners should recall why the U.S. built aircraft carriers in the first place, and where they last played a critical strategic role: in anti-surface warfare and fleet air defense. American carrier air power in the Pacific War hinged not on great strikes against the home islands, but rather on massing striking power against Japanese naval surface forces, Japanese air forces, and by protecting the fleet during operations and major landings. This is where naval aviation must again put its efforts.

Air wings at present are much better configured for low-risk ground attack than for operations against other navies. Air operations in the Pacific War required mass, exercising Halsey’s axiom that carrier air power increased at the exponent of the number of carriers engaged. Those operations encompassed large sorties, with hundreds of aircraft in major fleet actions. Over the past twenty-five years these skills have been lost. American carrier forces now exercise in single or dual carrier configurations. In Halsey and Spruance’s era, their fleets swelled into double digit large flattops, with myriad small deck escort carriers providing combat air patrols, anti-submarine forces, and landing support. Additionally, that war featured raids of hundreds of naval aircraft against enemy surface formations. Critics will claim that such mass is no longer required in the precision munitions era but such claims ignore that defense systems have also improved dramatically, making saturation the only sure way to put sophisticated, modern air defense ships out of action. To be clear, this author is not advocating a wholesale return to Nimitz’s fast carrier task force. However, the tactics, techniques, procedures, and training of American carrier air forces are out of touch with a modern, sea-control war, and a single U.S. CVN must be able to generate the mass and firepower necessary to fight in a modern, contested sea environment.

American naval aviation forces have not experienced platforms with the anti-air capabilities of ships as capable as the current generation of Chinese Navy Luyang hulls. U.S. tactics presently involving two or four aircraft sorties are totally inadequate for destroying an AEGIS-equivalent ship. To overwhelm a Chinese, or even an aging Russian surface formation, will likely require dozens of anti-ship cruise missiles. A single carrier must contain the capability to put such a ship (ideally many such ships) out of action, quickly. However, at present such a task requires the bulk of a modern air wing to generate the volume of fire required. This would likely also require a total re-arming of carrier magazines with a focus on sea control weapons and systems lest a CVN run itself out of anti-ship missiles in a few early engagements.

Moreover, distributed lethality requires a distribution of air power. Without fast-moving defensive counter-air formations operating with small surface action groups, American light forces will find themselves extremely vulnerable to attack. Modern surface combatant anti-air weapons range remains about 100nm. Modern air-launched anti-ship cruise missiles regularly feature twice that range and increasingly much greater. Without defensive counter-air formations attached to light surface forces, enemy aircraft will use the haven of range to mass firepower, overwhelming a formation’s air defenses while maintaining relative safety over the horizon. Allowing distributed light forces some measure of defensive counter-air capability will allow those formations to break up air attacks, ideally precluding saturation of U.S. platforms, offset electronic emissions away from the formation to make enemy targeting of the group more difficult, and therefore dramatically increase survivability.

MEDITERRANEAN SEA (July 1, 2016) – An F/A-18F Super Hornet assigned to the Fighting Swordsmen of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 32 launches from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) (Ike).  (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Anderson W. Branch/Released)

The United States certainly has the capability to maintain the primacy of its carriers, especially in the maritime-dominated Western Pacific. The U.S. must use its large-decks to maximum potential. This includes American large-deck amphibious shipping, in the form of LHDs and LHAs. Such ships’ amphibious capability will likely not add much to the initial phases of great power war when sea control and air superiority are contested. Importantly, small carriers proved highly useful in both Atlantic and Pacific theaters of the Second World War, providing long-range air defenses for convoys and robust anti-submarine capability outside of the range of land-based air power. In the 1960s, the U.S. began using Essex-class carries in an anti-submarine configuration (CVS vice the strike carrier CVA). In fact, USS Intrepid, a CVS-configured carrier, conducted strikes into northern Vietnam off Yankee Station, when it became apparent that PRC submarines did not pose a serious threat to the American Carrier Operating Areas (CVOAs). Likewise, the British prioritized antisubmarine work and limited air defense capability in their Invincible-class light carriers which featured heavily in the Falkland Islands War. American Wasp– and America-class ships, loaded with F-35s, SH-60s, and MV-22s, can provide the same – an air defense, anti-surface, and anti-submarine screen. Operating in the vicinity of a Surface Action Group Operating Area (SAGOA), the large-decks could provide on-station defensive counter-air, visually identify unknown contacts, and augment the ASW aircraft from a SAG to increase the group’s submarine localization and anti-surface strike capacity.

American naval forces are only a fraction of the way to recognizing the capabilities the MV-22 provides. At present, the U.S. Navy has only tested MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft in a Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD) capacity, the CMV-22. However, the aircraft retains substantial potential in anti-submarine warfare and airborne early warning, among other uses. U.S. Navy carrier task forces until the early 2000s incorporated the S-3 Viking aircraft, a high-subsonic anti-submarine jet. These aircraft retired in the early 2000s due to lack of fleet interest in anti-submarine warfare. In the heavily contested North Atlantic or Western Pacific, against foes with modern undersea forces, such a capability once again is required. The MV-22 would expand this capability. While slower, it provides potential marked improvements in range, low-altitude handling, on station time, and sensor payload. Such aircraft would provide a step-increase in surface-force ASW capability, potentially loaded with dipping sonars, sonobouys, and a large number of Mk 54 torpedoes. Further, mounting a high-performance radar on such an aircraft would allow some measure of airborne early warning to small surface units. Combined with point-to-point data links, these aircraft could provide over-the-horizon situational awareness while limiting surface force’s radar transmissions. This would complete the capability of the light-carrier air group described above and substantially increase the lethality of the small satellite surface groups orbiting the aviation ship. Additionally, due to their vertical takeoff and landing capability, the MV-22 could potentially lily pad off smaller ships, particularly the huge flight decks of Independence-class Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) increasing their time aloft forward. While heat management proved frustrating early in the aircraft’s tenure, this issue has been fixed with temporary heat shields which could be staged onboard. The MV-22 provides a cheap method to reconstitute integrated ASW capability and provide survivable, high-speed warning and reconnaissance.

U.S. Naval Aviation must train for saturation raids, publicly. Saturation attacks are a lost art, and likely aviation forces have much to learn. Such attacks will require heavy coordination between aircraft and squadrons, flexing intellectual muscles left dormant since at least the end of the Cold War. Is a saturation attack down one bearing better, with inbound missiles exceeding the target’s sensor capacity in a single direction, or better from multiple vectors or compass points, overloading close-in defenses?  Such questions require at-sea testing. Additionally, such training is an important signal to U.S. maritime adversaries. The fact that U.S. naval aircraft are prepared to destroy high-end platforms, and have the capabilities to do so, emphasizes U.S. resolve in an era and in areas where such capability is in question.

WATERS SURROUNDING THE KOREAN PENINSULA (Oct. 14, 2016) The U.S. Navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier, USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), transits waters surrounding the Korean Peninsula during Exercise Invincible Spirit. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan Burke/Released)

Ultimately, the F-35 has a huge role to play in a reconfigured carrier air wing. Without it, the U.S. Navy will have no answer to the range of proliferating fifth generation fighters it would face in the Barents, Baltic, or China Seas. Joint Strike Fighter’s use is not bombing the Senkakus or trying to break into mainland China’s air defense network. Instead, only the F-35, to include or perhaps even feature the F-35B flown off LHDs and LHAs, can provide the protection of U.S. light forces and the carrier itself with an aircraft capable enough to survive in a modern air war. Forward distribution of the F-35 in support of U.S. light forces will provide a critical capability to those ships operating at the far reaches of U.S. sea control when they confront the J-20 and Su-35, armed with large numbers of long-range anti-ship missiles.

Finally, naval air must expand the capabilities of the legacy and Super Hornet variants of the FA-18 with software upgrades and improved radars and sensors, to help electronics warfare and battlespace awareness functions on the aging airframes to keep pace with F-35. The F-35’s stealth will not be decisive in future conflicts. The frequency agility of modern air defense sensors is just too good. Only the survivability and lethality of the weapons it carries will keep these airframes lethal into the future. Hornets must maintain their capability in the areas of fleet air defense and anti-surface warfare by a refresh of the aircraft’s sensors and systems. This is not to preclude F-35. Without the Joint Strike Fighter, the only fifth generation fighter available, American carrier air forces will be obsolescent by the end of the decade. However, the Hornets will also have to operate in the same environments, and need to be configured to do so.


American naval forces are not a tool for strategic strikes. Instead, they should be used operationally, to provide strategic affects. A great power war will require progressive sea control, as attrition dominates seagoing forces on both sides. At some point, one side or the other will alone maintain the capability to operate in the contested theater. Naval aviation should use its striking capability to advance this attrition-based operational concept as quickly as possible by massing its striking power quickly against targets. Only by eliminating enemy platforms and blinding adversary ISR assets will U.S. forces survive.

In order to do this effectively, U.S. naval air forces must support distributed forces.  The can do so by coordinating with large-deck amphibious shipping to distribute their own lethality, providing defensive counter-air coverage and situational awareness to surface action groups operating on the front line of American naval power. This will free U.S. carrier aviation for anti-surface warfare and local air superiority.

The MV-22 is the great unrecognized platform with almost limitless potential for operational flexibility. With increased sensor loads and weapons, the tiltrotor can deliver long-endurance, low-altitude ASW and high-altitude situational awareness if properly configured. Such sea control capabilities would pay huge dividends in future naval combat.

At its base, this work is about naval aviation in an era of contested sea control. This era will require airborne forces to re-examine the assumptions of the past six decades of naval aviation, retooling the air wing for maritime strike. This will require radically different magazine selections on the carrier, likely some new weapons, including higher-capability anti-ship weapons, and a total retooling of air wing certification and training regimens. Aircraft carriers have a huge role in future wars, but the retooling of their aircraft and their operational concepts must begin now.

LT X is an officer in the United States Navy. Feedback should be directed to president@cimsec.org and will be forwarded to the author.

Featured Image: An aerial view of various aircraft lining the flight decks of the aircraft carrier USS INDEPENDENCE (CV-62), right, and USS MIDWAY (CV-41) moored beside each other in the background at Naval Station Pearl Harbor (Wikimedia Commons)

Distributed Lethality and Situational Awareness

By Richard Mosier


The distributed lethality concept represents a distinct change in Surface Navy operations, one that emphasizes the offense, and one that requires the freedom of action only possible under mission orders. Both place heavy reliance on the Surface Action Group (SAG) having information superior to that of the enemy in order to be hard to find and thus avoid attack and achieve the offensive advantage of surprise. This is enabled in large measure by situational awareness: the warfare commanders’ perception of the tactical situation. It is achieved by the continuous collection, correlation, fusion, assimilation and interpretation of information from force organic systems, and nonorganic national, theater, and Navy systems. 

Deconflicting Doctrine

A core element of the distributed lethality concept is that SAG commanders operate under mission orders that allow them the freedom to make tactical decisions, a major change away from the long-standing convention of detailed direction from higher headquarters located ashore or on a CVN with its substantial tactical intelligence decision support capabilities. Consequently, the surface navy has had no driving requirement for the sophisticated Common Tactical Picture (CTP)1 or “plot” capabilities that are now required onboard surface combatants for the situational awareness required for the planning/re-planning, and tactical execution of distributed missions.

Current doctrine regarding the allocation of responsibilities for maintaining the Common Tactical Picture CTP or “plot” is fragmented. In accordance with NWP 3-56, Composite Warfare Doctrine, the Surface Warfare Commander (SUWC), ASW Commander (ASWC), and Air Defense Commander (ADC) are responsible for using all available information to maintain a complete geographic plot for their respective warfare areas. NWP 3-56 also assigns to the Information Operations Warfare Commander (IWC2) responsibility for integrating real time Electronic Surveillance (ES) contact reports with indications,3 and warning4 information. NWP 3-13, Information Operations, assigns the IWC responsibility for achieving and maintaining information superiority; establishing and maintaining the CTP through spectrum awareness; and, for integrating real-time ES contact reports with indications and warning information. Further, NWP 3-56 assigns a Common Tactical Picture Manager (CTPM) responsibility for establishing, maintaining, assuring quality of, and disseminating the fused all-source GENSER CTP. NWP 2-01, Intelligence Support to Naval Operations, describes a concept in which the principal role of intelligence in support of warfare commanders is to characterize the threat and classify all threat targets that may enter the detection range of U.S. or coalition naval forces. It states: “Intelligence correlates and fuses all source data, including intentions, to determine the threat, threat direction, and operational characteristics of the threat platform before the threat platform is detected by own forces.” It further states: “Operational and tactical intelligence support is designed to detect, classify, target, and engage all hostile subsurface threats before they reach maximum effective weapons release range.”

When viewed together, NWP 3-56, NWP 3-13, and NWP 2-01 suggest that the Navy needs a concept and coherent allocation of responsibilities for developing and maintaining the CTP, especially as it applies to a SAG operating in EMCON while executing mission orders.

Impetus for Change 

Changes to current Navy doctrine to accommodate the concept of distributed lethality will be driven by at least two factors. First, to achieve the surprise that is essential for distributed lethality mission success, the SAG will have to operate in RF silence to deny the enemy the opportunity to detect the force with passive RF sensors, one of the primary methods for surveillance of large areas to gain initial location and classification of detected units. All communications to the SAG from supporting entities will have to be routed to and disseminated via narrow and wideband satellite broadcasts such as CIBS-M and GBS. In effect, the SAG gets all the shore support while remaining hard to find thereby minimizing risk of attack.

Second, the surface navy will have to develop and field intra-SAG communications that are sufficient to command and control the force and maintain the CTP but covert enough to minimize the probability of detection and location by the enemy.

PACIFIC OCEAN (June 5, 2008) Chief Engineer, Lt. Dave Ryan, evaluates a tactical image in the combat information center of the guided-missile frigate USS Kauffman (FFG 59) during an anti-submarine warfare (ASW) exercise with the Chilean navy. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class J.T. Bolestridge)

Third, surface combatants have neither the space nor the systems to support the large intelligence presence such as that found on a CVN or other big deck. This suggests that when in EMCON, the SAG will be more heavily dependent on tactical intelligence provided from shore. Some sensor information such as combat information5 cannot be processed ashore into tactical intelligence in time to meet SAG requirements. Therefore, SAG combatants will require dramatically improved capabilities for automatically integrating tactical intelligence, combat information, and organic force sensor information. Given the criticality of time in tactical decision making, automated information correlation and fusion capabilities are essential. However, their output is never perfect or complete so the crew will have to have the skills, knowledge, and abilities to analyze and resolve ambiguities and conflicts.


Distributed lethality depends on being hard to find and securing the element of surprise enabled by superior situational awareness. With the adoption of the distributed lethality concept, it is essential that the concept and doctrine for establishing and maintaining the CTP be reviewed and optimized to assure warfare commanders enjoy the tactical advantage of decision superiority over an adversary. The clear assignment to the shore intelligence structure of responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, and timeliness of tactical intelligence support to the SAG would result in renewed focus on tactical requirements and renewed appreciation of the critical importance of the clock at the tactical level. Moreover, it would drive a new hard- edged fleet focus on the ability of shore-based tactical intelligence support elements to provide this mission-essential support. The clarification of responsibilities onboard ship for maintaining the CTP would serve to focus attention on the ability of those responsible to maintain situation awareness that comports with the realities of the operating environment. As shortfalls and opportunities are identified, the fleet would refine its requirements for the manning, training, and equipping of surface combatants to achieve the information superiority that is the key to mission success. 

As stated by VADM Rowden in the January 2017 Proceedings: “The force we send forward to control the seas must be powerful, hard to find, hard to kill, and lethal. These are the bedrock tenets of distributed lethality…” The concept has gained wide support in the surface navy and is being adopted as a broader Navy operating concept. Rapid progress is being made by the surface navy under the leadership of the surface warfare Type Commands and OPNAV N96. Changes to doctrine to accommodate command control of operations on mission orders are being investigated. Surface forces are being up-gunned to be more lethal. Surface Warfare Officers are being trained and developed as warfare experts for air, surface, and ASW at the Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center. This beehive of activity is resulting in rapid progress in all warfare areas except for Information Operations.  

Progress in this fourth foundational warfare area remains in limbo, owed in large measure to unaddressed OPNAV and Type Command organizational relationships and responsibilities for manning, training, readiness, equipping and modernization of the fleet for the planning and conduct of Information Operations. In the absence of progress in this warfare area the success of the distributed lethality is at risk against any near-peer nation with a sophisticated ISR capability.

Richard Mosier is a former naval aviator, intelligence analyst at ONI, OSD/DIA SES 4, and systems engineer specializing in Information Warfare. The views express herein are solely those of the author.


1. Common Tactical Picture — An accurate and complete display of relevant tactical data that integrates tactical information from the multi-tactical data link network, ground network, intelligence network, and sensor networks.  Also called CTP. (JP 3-01)

2. IWC in NWP 3-56, NWP 3-13, and as used in this article is the Navy’s abbreviation for Information Operations Warfare Commander.   It shouldn’t be confused with the Navy’s use of the same abbreviation to denote the Navy’s Information Warfare Community.

3. Indications — In intelligence usage, information in various degrees of evaluation, all of which bear on the intention of a potential enemy to adopt or reject a course of action. (JP 1-02)

4. Warning intelligence — Those intelligence activities intended to detect and report time sensitive intelligence information on foreign developments that forewarn of hostile actions or intention against United States entities, partners, or interests (JP 1-02)

5. Combat Information — Unevaluated data, gathered by or provided directly to the tactical commander which, due to its highly perishable nature or the criticality of the situation, cannot be processed into tactical intelligence in time to satisfy the user’s tactical intelligence requirements. (JP 2-01)

Featured Image: ATLANTIC OCEAN (June 27, 2012) Air-Traffic Controller 2nd Class Karina Reid operates the SPN-43 air search radar system while standing approach control aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Petty Officer 2nd Class Gretchen M. Albrecht/Released)

Deliberately Innovate – A Challenge to the Fleet

By LT Jason Knudson

My challenge to the Fleet, the Navy, and the rest of the Department of Defense is to not just seek out “innovation.” For many reasons, just seeking out innovation is not enough. I challenge the fleet to be “deliberately innovative,” taking deliberate steps to drive innovation and change into the organization.

One way we at the SEVENTH Fleet Innovation Team are accomplishing this is through “Illuminate Thinkshops” presented by Leadership, Equality, and Diversity (LEAD). These workshops were held in conjunction with the U.S. Fleet Forces Green Team at Atsugi, Sasebo, and Yokosuka Naval Bases from January 23 – February 3, 2017.

The Thinkshops reached over 2,000 Sailors, Marines, and Navy civilians stationed in Japan. In addition, Command Triad Thinkshops “illuminated” over 150 command triad members on how to deliberately lead and support a diverse organization of problem solvers. Innovation can not survive without top cover and support of the chiefs and officers in charge of the organization.

The actual key to success of deliberate innovation in SEVENTH Fleet, however, is the creation of the Fleet Innovation Network (FIN). The SEVENTH Fleet FIN is a key node in the SECNAV’s Naval Innovation Network. It is made up of the more than 170 Command Innovation Facilitators we trained through the Illuminate Thinkshops. These Facilitators will be a place potential innovators can to go for guidance, mentorship, and more importantly, to connect with other facilitators in the network.

Below, I will discuss some of the thoughts I had as we organized the Thinkshops and discussed the role of innovation in the Navy and at SEVENTH Fleet.

For more info on the LEAD Presents: Illuminate Thinkshops, go HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.

Being Deliberately Innovative

“We need to build a culture of innovation into our organization at all levels from the Sailors and Marines on the deckplates to our senior leaders and our civilian workforce. We cannot sit back and simply hope for innovation to happen.” – VADM Joseph Aucoin, Commander, SEVENTH Fleet

Innovation is all around us. This morning, I poured a bowl of innovative cereal. My computer, it’s innovative. The last brief I received on a future military weapons system – innovative. Innovation is an easy buzz term. “My product isn’t just new, it’s innovative!” I hate to break it to my cereal company, but when everything is innovative, nothing is.

The term innovation has been so misused it has started to lose its punch. Innovation has become synonymous with “new.” As many of us can attest, new things are not necessarily good things. I feel frustrated because innovation isn’t just about new things, it is about new things that may bring a strategic advantage. As the Fleet ages one more year, it is increasingly obvious that we need the right new things to replace outdated equipment or we will continue to fall behind potential adversaries. To gain back our strategic advantage, we need to bring real innovation. That means we need to deliberately shape how and, more importantly, who does innovation in the Navy.

Innovation is not just getting the right things. Innovation is also about controlling the processes we use to get the effects we want. We have layers upon layers of regulation, rules, and processes that are out of date, wrong, or just plain inefficient. In order to do what we need to do, at the time of our choosing, we need to control the processes we use. In some cases, this means changing or rewriting our rules. Rules and regulations should aid us instead of standing as barriers. Largely, we should first look at removing the barriers to innovation completely, which means eliminating entire sets of rules and regulations. We own the process; we need to stop acting like the process owns us.

To take back ownership, the Chief of Naval Operations has challenged the Navy in his “Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority” to implement high velocity learning. The high velocity learning concept was influenced in part by a book by Steven Spear, The High Velocity Edge. High velocity learning is not just about learning faster, but it is about the learning that is associated with becoming an organization that can sustain its advantage over others. Steven Spear calls an organization that is able to continually maintain an edge over its competition a “high velocity organization.” A high velocity Navy will be able to sustain its advantage over potential adversaries.

7th Fleet Commander VADM Joseph Aucoin speaks at LEAD Illuminate Thinkshop. (U.S. Navy photo, 7th Fleet)

A high velocity organization is organized and empowered to rapidly identify problems and inefficiencies and fix them. In today’s Navy, eliminating variation often feels like the primary business of the entire organization. In a high velocity organization, when a problem is identified, the entire organization must swarm on the problem and solve it. This often means rapid and dynamic changes to the organization. High velocity organizations are intolerant of workarounds, but are tolerant of failure that helps them improve. In the Navy as it is today, change is minimized and failure is verboten. In a high velocity Navy, change is embraced and failure is a part of the process. Problems are identified and solved by the whole organization.

When the organization identifies problems, the solution is often real innovation – either a technological solution, or a modification to an existing process.

A key aspect of high velocity organizations is they share the solutions they have learned widely and at all levels. When a problem is identified, the organization puts all of its resources behind solving the problem. This is the essential part of high velocity learning. The organization itself must be able to take advantage of all the ideas it is capable of creating, implement them, and share them widely. To do this, it must be deliberate in seeking out inefficiencies, developing innovative solutions, and implementing them.

Innovation doesn’t happen by accident.

The Rub

Why don’t we as an organization embrace high velocity learning and innovation as the drivers of a high velocity organization? That is a complex question, but ultimately, Navy and Department of Defense cultures do not support it. What is it about our culture that prevents the deliberate application of innovation?

The Navy has a Culture of Zero Risk Tolerance

In the late 1980s through the early 2000s, the Navy focused on Total Quality Management and Lean Six Sigma. These management theories sought to eliminate all risk in processes through the implementation of controls and data-driven management. As a result, large organizations were developed to measure, test, and evaluate performance and to mitigate risk. Initially, costs went down as we eliminated waste. Workplace injuries and work defects declined considerably. These were largely successful programs that helped the core business of keeping ships, submarines, and aircraft afloat and maintained.

However, the same risk mitigation processes were hostile to innovation. Innovation, by its nature, will disrupt the status quo. It can be evolutionary, like the spiral development of a weapons system, adding features systematically. Sometimes it is revolutionary, making an entire section of Navy business irrelevant. Implementing an innovation is disruptive to the core business of the Navy, and so, under Total Quality Management and Lean Six Sigma (as practiced by the Navy), innovation is a risk to be mitigated. Failure of a system within the core business is to be avoided, even if the system is out-of-date or inefficient. The system is designed to mitigate all risk to the system, even that risk that is beneficial.

Compare this to a common mantra in the startup culture often associated with Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley businesses are encouraged to: “Fail Early, Fail Often, Fail Cheap, and Learn Always.” This philosophy allows tech businesses to rapidly iterate through successful and unsuccessful trials of new ideas. Businesses mitigate risk by creating minimum viable prototypes and testing them in operationally relevant environments. They further develop successes, and learn from, celebrate, and discard failures.

The Navy needs both systems: one system that mitigates risk in the core business, and another that accepts risk as a part of development. We must be conscious of the risk to our core business of bringing in new innovation, but also be hostile to the core business practices that are maintained simply to mitigate risk. We need to iterate faster than our adversary, and so, we need to build a culture that can appropriately evaluate, accept and celebrate risk.

The Navy has a Culture of Busy-Ness

In April 2016, Major Crispin Burke wrote an article called No Time, Literally, for All Requirements. In it, he identified a major issue with training requirements in the Army. He writes, “Fast-forward to 2015, wherein a study at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., revealed a training deficit of 258 days—so nearly 20 months of annual mandatory training crammed into a 12-month calendar year.”

The Navy has a similar problem. Add this to the number and priority of collateral duties required for promotion, as well as command-sponsored fundraising events, mandatory fun events, and community outreach. Then, add boards, qualifications, watch, professional development, and if you’re lucky, family time.

Innovation and process improvement requires time to think, pause, and evaluate if the processes we are using are relevant, efficient, and right. Implementing innovation is disruptive and has a bureaucratic cost to it. It may even have a short-term mission cost. For a watchfloor with limited personnel to implement a major training initiative, it may mean standing down the watch for a little bit of time. The culture of the Navy is biased against stopping operations to implement improvements, even if the improvements will save time overall.

A high velocity organization does not have time to waste on efforts that do not move the organization forward. A high velocity organization is not afraid to stop unnecessary efforts and remove inefficient processes. In business, this is how a high velocity organization stays ahead of the competition. For the military, eliminating bureaucratic bloat and focusing on warfighting effectiveness is how we prevent, and if necessary, fight and win wars.

And so, here again is where deliberate innovation comes in hand. The organization must have the ability to identify wasteful work and eliminate it. It must provide time for thinking, reflecting, and rest. A culture of busy-ness isn’t a sign of a healthy organization. It is a sign of an inefficient one. Innovation must become a priority, because a culture of innovation is the only thing that can overcome a culture of busy-ness. A culture of innovation is a culture with a job to do.

The Navy has a culture that does not adequately support innovators

When we talk about innovation, there is a temptation to make the claim that we should all be innovative. In reality, an organization filled with only innovators is as ineffective as an organization with no innovators. For every innovation, there must also be a group of people able to transition the innovation and sustain it into the core business.

In his 1962 book Diffusion of Innovations, Everett Rogers describes the diffusion of innovation as a bell curve, breaking up the population based on their tendency towards innovation. The first half of the curve includes the Innovators (2.5%), and the Early Adopters (13.5%). The bulk of people fall into the Early Majority (34%) and the Late Majority (34%). The last group is the Laggards (16%).

The diffusion of innovations according to Rogers (1962). With successive groups of consumers adopting the new technology (shown in blue), its market share (yellow) will eventually reach the saturation level. (Wikimedia Commons)

While there has been no specific study to prove it, we can assume that the distribution in the Navy approximates the general population. Those who may identify, and act as active innovators within the organization will only make up between 2.5%-10% of all individuals. The rest of the group will (and should) focus on the core business aspects of the Navy.

Innovators tend to stray from the status quo. By nature, they break the rules, which is necessary for innovation. When asked by the Marine Corps at the Force Development 25 Innovation Symposium where to find innovators, Chief of Naval Operations’ Rapid Innovation Cell Project Lead and Illuminate Thinkshop creator, AT1 Rich Walsh responded, “First look at those who have been to mast.”

Inevitably, those who challenge the status quo will run into problems in the military. They are a minority within a system that works to minimize variation within the organization. In addition, to gain access to the resources and sponsorship necessary to implement their innovation, they often have to interact at very high levels in the chain of command. This creates risk in the perception that the innovator is skipping the chain of command, especially for junior enlisted personnel.

One of the best analogies to being an innovator within the military is like being an organ in an organ transplant. The innovation organ is necessary for the body to function, but the body identifies it as a foreign body and attacks it with antibodies. Without support and suppression of the antibodies, the organ will very likely be rejected, and probably harmed in the process.

Being an innovator is hazardous work, and so we often see  innovators leaving the service early, further diluting the distribution of innovation in the higher ranks.

The solution is to build a culture that is capable of supporting the innovator, while protecting the core body. The difference between an organ transplant and a tumor is purpose and intent, and so an innovator must be given both purpose and intent. This has to occur at all levels of the chain of command.

The Golden Triangle of Innovation

I recommend creating a “golden triangle” in order to drive innovation within an organization. First, you need a young-minded innovator. Innovation holds no age or rank, but is an attitude associated with youth. Innovative minds have a higher propensity to take risk and a greater resiliency to failure.

Second, find a senior mentor or “greybeard.” This person provides top cover for the innovator, advice, and knowledge of the system. In addition, senior mentors are often connected to resourcing for innovation. The senior mentor’s primary job is to protect the innovator from antibodies, and to remove barriers to innovation. The senior mentor also reduces risk to the system as they can properly direct the innovation to minimize disruption to the core business. The senior mentor is often the Commanding Officer of a ship or Flag Officer with access to resources.

Third is the technologist or policy guru. This is the person who can take the idea and put the technological and policy rigor behind it so it can fit into the system. A common mistake made in innovation is to transition the idea from the young-minded innovator and transition it wholly over to the “expert.” Because of the diffusion of innovation, it is very likely that the technologist or policy guru is not an innovator or early adopter. In fact, it may be desirable that the technologist is not an innovator or early adopter. The technologist is the immunosuppressant that ensures the body can accept the innovation.

A high velocity organization isn’t just about innovation, nor is it about the innovator. It is about building an organization that can support innovators and innovation as a driver for the high velocity organization. This requires the entire organization – both innovators and supporters – to be involved. To build a high velocity organization, the entire culture must be positioned to support innovation and innovators.

Casey Dean, an Army Officer, Naval War College Graduate, and a Member of the Defense Entrepreneur’s Forum writes in an article entitled “Not an Innovator, but Still in DEF:

“If not an innovator, what am I? I am a sponge, a moocher, your lazy brother-in-law. I feed from the energy of DEF. I appreciate the true innovators in the group and I want to take part. I’m a facilitator, attempting to connect the DEF community and its message to a larger audience. I feel like…a Tummler; a Yiddish word originally titled for a person who gets folks to dance at weddings.”

In order for a culture that supports innovation to take off, the Navy needs to develop more Casey Deans. The Navy needs more Tummlers to support our innovators.


Innovation within a bureaucracy as large as the Navy and the greater Department of Defense does not occur spontaneously. It exists behind the scenes. Without a deliberate attempt to bring innovation to the forefront, innovation will continue to occur as the exception to the norm, instead of as a core part of our business.

We cannot address innovation without addressing the Navy culture. It is not enough to wait for other organizations like the Office of Naval Research or the Systems Commands like NAVSEA, NAVAIR, or SPAWAR to deliver innovation to the Fleet. No, the entire Navy, the Fleet, each command, and each individual, must deliberately be aware of innovation as a driver of change. We as a team must set the conditions for the organization to accept and transition innovation, and we must protect innovators as the valuable, low-density resources they are.

We also cannot think of innovation as an island unto itself. We must drive towards being a high velocity organization, following the Chief of Naval Operations’ vision of implementing high velocity learning at all levels. This means identifying ideal processes, being intolerant of inefficiencies and workarounds, swarming to bring forward solutions through innovation, and then sharing the knowledge broadly across the entire enterprise.

This is an all hands effort.

We have to be willing  to experiment, be unafraid of failure, and iterate quickly on our results. This is just the first step. Next, we hope to stimulate the Fleet Innovation Network to begin driving their own events, to identify issues in their own commands, solve them, and share them. We will build the Fleet Innovation Network over the next year, and we will highlight our failures as brightly as we do our successes.

This is what being deliberately innovative is. It is a culture of continuous improvement that drives our organization its highest velocity and to achieve its highest potential. We are not there yet, but we are taking the first steps.

LT Jason Knudson is the U.S. Navy’s SEVENTH Fleet Innovation Officer. He is passionate about innovation, design thinking, and the unbridled potential of connected human beings. Contact him at lead.c7f@fe.navy.mil.

Thoughts and ideas are his and do not necessarily represent those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or SEVENTH Fleet, however he hopes they will. External links are for reference and are not meant to be an endorsement by the above organizations.

Join the conversation at facebook.com/navyleads and on twitter @navyleads.

Featured Image:PACIFIC OCEAN (Sept. 01, 2015) Operations Specialist 2nd Class Taiese Gaono tracks a course on the chart board aboard the amphibious transport dock ship USS New Orleans (LPD 18) during Exercise Dawn Blitz 2015 (DB-15). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communications Specialist 3rd Class Brandon Cyr/Released)