Tag Archives: featured


Today’s military is an urgent place. Exclamation marks, capitalization, asterisks, and all sorts of extra accoutrements of PowerPoint panic or Outlook outrage are used to signal that yes, the supplementary quarterly alcohol awareness training is critical to ship’s readiness.  As we have turned inward in a time of relative maritime peace, trading many of our helmets for hardhats, terms such as I(Insurv)-minus 400 have replaced the likes of D-Day and H-Hour. However, many approach these administrative and maintenance challenges with greater trepidation and anxiety than any young GI waiting in the landing craft with his rifle.

Today let us remember that exactly 68 years ago roughly 500,000 teenagers stormed through the bloody foam of a pounding surf into the mouth of German guns and likely death. The urgency was real, as men traded their lives for liberty in the most gruesome of ways. On this day, men were blown apart in their own landing craft before the shore. Soldiers and marines drowned under the weight of their own packs in water shallower than a public pool. Waves of dedicated men lost everything they had before even setting foot on the continent they had resolved to save. With a mixture of fear and resolution, an entire generation of boys became old men in a matter of hours.


It is well that Memorial Day, Midway, and D-Day come within such close proximity to one another; In our fast-paced world where agitation and consternation can be transmitted at the speed of an email or a cellphone call, it’s a concentrated reminder of the young man huddled behind an anti-tank caltrop.  Surrounded by the dead and halfway there, he has no radio, no phone, and no way to communicate his fears; he concentrates on his shipmates, solutions, and survival. There is no room for complaint, as enough whining is being done by the bullets, bombs, and mortar rounds falling all around. However, he does take a moment to throw up a prayer, SUBJ: Re:URGENT.

Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy. 

Navy Tactics, Re-Finding our Purpose

By Matt Hipple

Where have the tactics gone? In his article at the USNI Blog, LT Rob McFall points out this deadly silence on a fundamental navy skillset. He suggests a combination of obsessions with certifications and a fear of breaching OPSEC as the culprits in the U.S. Navy. While I heartily agree with the former, I believe the problem goes much deeper; as a community, our mode of operation has changed our relationship with tactics for the worse.

The navy’s process-driven culture has changed the value of tactics to a junior officer in the fleet. In a process-driven organization, there is always a right answer. There is a correct form with a correct format for every fault. For the junior officer, boards become much the same process as any certification, and the tactical learning meant to accompany those boards is likewise transformed.  An “understanding and adapting” of tactics is replaced with the “memorization and application” of tactics. This becomes especially true with the dearth of training on enemy capabilities. The memorized lists of gouge are de-coupled from any real purpose when an understanding of an opponent’s capabilities does not accompany it. It is hard to discuss new tactics against an enemy one is unfamiliar with. Tactics become rote retention of the prescribed courses of action in the prescribed situations. Ideation is lost in behind the “proper answer.”

 We also prioritize material condition and engineering over tactical proficiency. As most junior officers know, to gain a prized billet at a riverine squadron, as Naval Gunnery Liaison Officer, or even as an individual augmentee to Afghanistan, one must certify as an Engineering Officer Of the Watch. Such opportunities do not exist for officers qualified as Tactical Action Officers (TAO) or Visit, Board, Search, and Seizure (VBSS) Boarding Officers. While engineering is important, LT McFall mentions a “high-low mix” necessary to create a proper balance. In this case, that high-low mix would include conventional and irregular capabilities as show in TAO and VBSS respectively. Unfortunately, the emphasis on the engineering side is an absolute. This creates a situation where, at the end of their first division officer tours, many motivated junior officers gorge on engineering knowledge with no real option to pursue the “tactically oriented” high-end billets. This emphasis engenders natural career incentives against initial tactical pursuits in favor of engineering.

 However, tactical innovation is not dead. At the junior level, there are still places where it gasps some breaths of life. Particularly, in higher-level security force schools like Ship’s Reaction Force-Alpha and VBSS. A constantly taught concept is “IBT”, or initiative-based tactics. The idea is that no choreographed tactic will save you, that mistakes will be made, and more important is the ability to quickly adapt and execute. Rather than memorizing a scenario’s worth of reactions, each boarding team member is given a set of capabilities and priorities to which he can apply them. It is a refreshing contrast to the checksheet mentality.

 If the navy is to regain our original sense of purpose as warfighters, that appreciation of and incentive for tactical thought must be reclaimed. JO’s should be encouraged to actively question and develop tactics; boards for qualifications should value far more the ability to adapt capabilities and skills to scenarios, rather than merely repeat the approved responses. In the proper context, discussions on how and when to employ a ship in combat can be as engaging as discussions on taking down a room.

 To create a systemic incentive for tactical thought, prime billets should also be offered to those who have accomplished first tour TAO qualifications or who have served extensively as VBSS boarding officers.The navy’s material conditions issues and need for engineering-oriented officers cannot side-line it’s end purpose, to build warfighters. No matter how well a weapon is maintained, knowing how to use it will always make the difference.


The last heyday of wide-spread tactical innovation in the U.S. Navy was during the Vietnam War’s riverine operations. A cunning enemy, a challenging environment, and a difficult mission did not give the black berets much choice in the matter. From interdiction operations to supporting delta amphibious movements to conducting flight ops on garage-sized boats, all and more showed an incredible level of adaption on the tactical and operational level. A navy in a time of relative maritime peace and stability must struggle against the institutional inertia it produces to find that hunger. We need to shake ourselves out of our comfort zone, because an ounce of that innovative spirit now will save a pint of blood later.

Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy. 

Standing at the Crosswalk: Memorial Day

Standing in uniform at a crosswalk, fruitlessly mashing the “Press to Cross” button, I felt unsettled. I have less a “belief” in crosswalks than an occasional passing superstition. I’m the type who thinks right-of-way means it’s my right for you to get out of the way, whether I’m on foot or behind the wheel. Why should a uniform cause me to use the push-button placebo? I realized that my simple unwillingness to jaywalk in uniform represented one of the greatest pillars of our national security: our military’s ingrained subservience to and respect for civilian control.

The defense of the realm is more than facing down external threats; the cornerstone of a healthy military is subservience to the population it defends. Western nations have long taken this relationship for granted, with law-abiding militaries obedient to civilian leadership and observant of civil codes. However from the Balkans to Burma, we have witnessed unspeakable devastation when the military wing serves itself. Be it institutional military control of industries in Indonesia or the individual sobels of Sierra Leone, the corruption of the military is arguably more rule than exception. When the madcap dictator rolls out elaborate medals, titles, and military accoutrements, he’s attempting to enshrine his legitimacy in supposed military prowess, ensuring the military becomes a force to be served rather than serve.

In the United States, our tradition goes beyond mere obedience to civilians; we cringe at even inconveniencing them. With the Third Amendment, “no soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law,” our military was founded on principles not just for defending the nation but also minimizing the impact on the lives of citizens. In a less dramatic example, one need merely try convincing a Normandy veteran to go to the head of the grocery line. They’ll resist your polite offer as hard as they resisted the Germans. Our military institutions have instilled at the core of our pride a selflessness that has been the guarantor of our military’s loyalty and good conduct, and this nation’s stability.

However, the unwillingness to walk out into the crosswalk represents in a small way our veterans humble unwillingness to step out into the spotlight for themselves. Many complain that Memorial Day has lost its meaning, that a day dedicated to our fallen and our veterans has become National Grill Day. I would argue that there is no better tribute to the success of their battles than the nation’s families joyfully gathered together, blissfully ignorant of the horrors of war. That is what these men fought for. That said, many may not realize that we lost the last veteran or WWI this year. It is a timely reminder that the human link to history won’t last forever. With fallen who cannot speak for themselves and veterans too humble to take their due credit, it falls upon us to bring their remembrance into the celebration. Memorial day is not a mourning of those who have fought and those who have been lost, it is a celebration of what they have gained us. They’ve already done their job, now its time to do ours.

Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy. 

Iran and America: May I Have This Dance?

Someone is about to get served!

When you combine shadow boxing with peacocks and a dance-off you get the Wagah border closing ceremony. Since 1959, this flurry of fists and feet has marked the daily closing of the only road between India and Pakistan. British comedian Michael Palin calls it a “demonstation of how angry you can get without hitting anyone.” This doesn’t merely serve as a symbol of conflict between India and Pakistan. For US defense experts engaged with Iran, this dance of pride and prestige should serve as a model for those who might assume kinetic engagement with Iran is the best option.

Robert McNamara’s first lesson in Fog of War was to empathize with your enemy, “I don’t mean ‘sympathy,’ but rather ‘understanding’—to counter their attacks on us and the Western World.” To understand the Iranian intent for their conflict with the west, one must understand their motives.  In particular, Iran has no motive to get conventionally stomped into the dirt by the American military. They strongly value their strength and prestige as a regional power.  While the small-boat swarms, ASCM threat, and naval posturing outside the Strait of Hormuz might be troubling indeed, that sense of trouble is their primary purpose. Being sent back to the stone-age in exchange for a short but irritating jump on US forces would little serve Iran’s utility, and neither would giving the US an excuse to engage in such an operation. The conflict between Iran and the US is, like the Wagah border dance, one of power in appearance.

The nuclear weapons programme should also be viewed through the objectives of regional power. During the cold war, one of the obsessions of doomsday planners was survivability: would an arsenal be able to survive a first strike and retaliate? In the context of a diplomatic rather than kinetic exchange, a nuclear weapons program is more effective for Iran than an actual nuclear weapon. A physical nuclear weapon can be destroyed and gives justification for a kinetic strike on Iran. The vague idea of a nuclear weapons program spread across the country provides the defiant diplomatic fire-power combined with an opponent’s hope of negotiation without providing a justification for a strike or an actual object to destroy. No nation that has ever meant to use nuclear weapons as a serious strategic deterrent has ever made their program public before it was complete*: US, USSR, PRC, Pakistan, India, etc…  Iran has made its program “public” beforehand for a reason. It is Iran’s interest to keep the charade going as long as possible, never sacrificing the diplomatically useful weapons program for a weapon that could only serve only a limited military purpose.

With the political nature of the Iran conflict in mind, it is not in the US interest to begin kinetic operations against Iran. While the US has much less to lose from a conflict, the economic damage and ensuing regional instability from the loss of a major state and the unleashing of several associated terrorist organizations would be beyond crippling. As the US applies diplomatic/economic pressure and moves the military pieces around the board we are strategically positioning ourselves and shifting the state of play as the dancers weave around the ballroom. With war neither in the interest of or desired by either side, it is conflict by maneuver rather than melee. The purpose is to stay in the lead and drive the dance, not turn the room into a mosh pit where everyone loses.

*North Korea doesn’t count… it never counts.

Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.