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Leading Military Innovation, Past and Present

By Mie Augier and Wayne Hughes


Recently, senior decision makers and leaders, including the CNO, CMC, and SecNav, have expressed a belief in the centrality of military innovation and adaptation, and many commentators in think tanks and the press are promoting more military innovation for future readiness. Implicitly or explicitly, enthusiasms for innovation usually take one of the three following forms: emphasizing the nature of innovative thinking, the achievement of new innovations in military organizations, and establishing a culture of innovation.ii

These are overlapping issues. Recognizing their importance and talking about them is an essential beginning, because all three are needed, and they are intertwined. In this brief paper we intend to provide a discussion of, first, some aspects of the nature of innovation and why it is difficult; second, how successful organizations have innovated and adapted in the past; and third, the nature of thinking and action that undergirds innovation.iii

The Nature of Innovation

Doing things differently is difficult; but the heart of innovation is about first seeing things differently which is just as hard. Both involve making decisions under uncertainty and ambiguity, and embracing risk. There is a natural human instinct and inclination to want certainty about the future, but predicting a future is like “driving in the dark” as former Secretary of Navy Richard Danzig put it in 2011.iv If we base our decision-making on unrealistic assumptions about uncertainty, we are not likely to get things right. In addition, trying to base innovation on a predictable future can lead to endless debate because the discussions are unresolvable and will go on without end. Moreover, from the record of the past, the consensus of experts will be unreliable. N. N. Taleb in The Black Swan described the need to respond to unforeseeable events. P. E. Tetlock in Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? offered conclusive evidence that an expert’s power of prediction ten years in the future was “worse than that of a dart throwing monkey,” in other words, less reliable than a random choice.v 

Regardless, battle-changing innovations do happen. Here are three ways to help us cope with, perhaps even embrace, an unpredictable future:

Thinking about alternative futures. Thinking about alternative futures is a powerful way of enabling decision-making under uncertainty pioneered by Herman Kahn, and put into productive use by Andrew Marshall in many of his Office of Net Assessment studies. The reward of exploring alternative futures is the chance to uncover and adopt a strategy, new technologies, and new tactics suitable for all or most of them. For example, our future with China may be collaboration, competition, confrontation, or different kinds and levels of conflict. This has many implications, including that it may be possible to design one fleet that imperfectly supports an adaptive maritime strategy to keep the peace and support our East Asia allies.vi

Looking at historical trends. In addition to thinking about possible futures, looking at our pasts and our history to identify trends can be a useful way to navigate the seas of uncertainty. For example, the approach in Fleet Tactics and Naval Operationsvii  is to identify trends and constants in naval history. Because trends are likely to continue, they can guide the development of new tactics and technologies. For example, the trend toward smaller, faster, and more efficient computers and their growing applications is one that has a profound influence on information warfare. “COTS” (commercial off-the-shelf) technologies have had the biggest effect on computer technology. The same kind of influence and eventual dominance of commercially developed control systems is now affecting the growing power and flexibility of UAVs.

Studying successful innovations from the past.  Understanding the evolutionary processes enabling innovation can be useful indicators of what might work in the future, and how implementing innovation has proceeded, usually along a winding road. While it is tempting to look to business for learning how to innovate, there is much to learn from past innovation in many military organizations’ histories, indicating also that non-linear forward progress is the norm for effecting innovations.viii For example, aircraft carriers were developed before their coming dominance at sea was fully appreciated. Tanks had a checkered history: The British invented them; the French built high quality ones in large numbers; but the Germans exploited their tactical advantages with a new operational application, the Blitzkrieg. Vertical lift aircraft were notably inferior to propeller and jet-propelled aircraft, yet they revolutionized air and ground warfare.ix 

Note that great achievements at the combat level usually require both new technologies and new tactics, which are like two sides of a coin and often best enabled if guided by new concepts and new ways of thinking. Leaders must learn how to marry the quite different personalities of technologists and seagoing officers to accomplish big advancements.

Achieving Innovation in Military Organizations

Most innovations take place in organizations, or need organizations to generate new inventions. Organizations can help and encourage, but sometimes stifle, innovation. As organizations age and grow (and most military organizations are both quite large and old) they first develop routines, rules, and structures to improve efficiencies and get things done, but then the rules and bureaucratic processes often take a life of their own and multiply, resulting in organizational calcification.

As Secretary Gates perceptively noted in his discussion of why our bureaucracies often fail:  “[L]eaders … often encounter entrenched cultures that make real change difficult, as well as lower-level organizations resistant to guidance from the top, determined to preserve their piece of the cake and their status. Trimming organizational deadwood can be as challenging in the business world as in public institutions. It is a rare soul who has not been frustrated and maddened by multiple business bureaucracies—not to mention disastrous business decisions that cost jobs and create economic turmoil and heartache.”x

Commercial organizations and think tanks offer examples of innovative research (RAND in the 1950s and the early Bell Labs come to mind), and they can provide important inputs to military organizations and innovations. We can undoubtedly learn from how they organized and facilitated innovative research. But military organizations are not think tanks, whose product is thought and writing. Military organizations must also plan and act. Military organizations are different from commercial organizations, too. Both have an important competitive/interactive aspect. Businesses gain and maintain competitive advantages by making and selling competitive products. Military organizations need to gain and maintain competitive advantages too, but they are designed to destroy an enemy’s will to fight and his means of war. Despite the differences, there are things we can learn from studying the organizational mechanisms that have successfully supported innovation in different contexts, such as reducing administrative overhead, decentralizing the decision-making, and trying to avoid empowering middle managers with too many layers of approval. An example of the relevance of this approach in a military organization was Commandant and General Al Gray’s transformation of the USMC with a maneuver warfare way of thinking.xi He worked toward freeing up the people with ideas and protecting them from paperwork and bureaucracy. We also note that Secretary Mattis’ emphasis on combat readiness is intended to free people from unnecessary training and administration.xii

Organizations have adapted to changes in warfare in the past, as we suggested above with aircraft carriers, precision-guided weapons, and the atomic bomb. These innovations were not merely passive responses to change: many proactively created changes in warfare. Speaking about uncertainty and risk, someone once said, “If you can predict the future then I can’t change it.” Interestingly, many of the most important innovations helped shape a future by imposing change on the enemy, exploiting enemy weaknesses, and building on our strengths.xiii

Successful past innovations were often focused geographically with a specific enemy in mind. For example, the development of Marine amphibious assault doctrine and the vessels to achieve it grew out of Major Earl “Pete” Ellis’ study of the Pacific Islands and atolls the Marines knew they would have to seize in the event of war with Japan. The Israeli Navy swiftly developed small missile combatants armed with Gabriel missiles after the sinking (in 1967) of the destroyer Eilat with ASCMs fired from small, Soviet-built, Egyptian-operated, Osa and Komar missile boats. In just six years from a cold start, the Israeli Navy obtained the ships and trained crews to defeat the Egyptian and Syrian navies in the 1973 War. It was a great shock to the enemy and changed the nature of naval war in coastal waters.

The Importance of Nurturing Innovative Thinkers

Not everyone in the organization should be an innovative thinker. Many must excel in planning with existing capabilities and fighting. Most people prefer to do what they know they do best, and they can often easily measure and see the results of their work. Innovative thinking requires experimenting with what one does not know best and sometimes not at all. The fruits of such work are often more distant and uncertain. Organizations, to be adaptive, need both exploration with new ideas and ways of thinking (leading to new capabilities in the long run) and exploitation of existing ones. A problem arises when planners do not appreciate the necessary contribution of a few precious disruptive and innovative thinkers.xiv But if innovators alone dominate, then there is no one to plan the development, implementation, and tactics to exploit an innovation, often in ways quite different from the original intent.xv Leaders must know how to recognize, nurture, and listen to innovative thinkers and suppress bureaucratic impediments to “thinking differently.”

How do our organizations attract and make room for them, and cultivate innovators in organizations to help the constructive application of disruptive thinking? By attracting and fostering the careers of the future Arleigh Burkes, Al Grays, and Hyman Rickovers who have bold ideas. A few relevant aspects:

Recognizing and making room for disruptive talent. There is a great need to be open to creative individuals, those with ideas that may challenge the system and managers at times. As Colonel John Boyd noted in his testimony on military transformation: “First, we need to understand that throughout history the difference between brilliantly performing armies and mediocre ones has always depended on a small handful of combat leaders. Naturally, the military that manages to nurture a tiny handful of brilliant, innovative officers .. achieves great results… On the other hand, a military that suppresses said brilliant and unconventional young officers among them, who I might add tend to make life uncomfortable for seniors, is forced to grind out rigid, predictable battles with much blood and mountains of material.”xvi 

Creating unusual mixing. One can help fight against the organizational bureaucratic inertia by mixing teams of people in unconventional ways. Doing so demands creative leadership because there are centripetal forces at work. People gravitate toward those who are most like themselves, but we often learn more by interacting with those unlike ourselves. In academic and military educational institutions, leaders can take proactive roles in “mixing” people who may otherwise gravitate toward the institutional and intellectual comfort of those with the same beliefs.

The concepts and words we use matter. Successful military slogans like “distributed lethality” applied by the Surface Navy today has shown the way to innovative development in an organization that leads to unified technological and tactical development. “Attack effectively first” is another simple slogan of naval warfare with many applications that have been verified by past success in battle. The slogan has many nuanced implications and is a clue to how to win at sea today. It can guide technological, tactical, and organizational development in the future. The Revolution in Military Affairs is another identifier of technologies and tactics that had profound effects on all modern warfare and a concept that was intended to also emphasize the underlying intellectual and organizational changes needed, not just the technology.xvii 

Achieving Innovation in the Navy 

Innovation cannot be reduced to a check-off list, a blueprint, or a manual to guide creativity. Military doctrine manuals provide for unified strategic planning and tactical cooperation. That is different from innovation. Contrast Edison’s development of the electric light bulb with the multifaceted development of the Polaris submarine and missile under the leadership of CNO Arleigh Burke, who had the inspired idea,  the actions by Red Raborn in developing the missile, and Hyman Rickover in developing the submarine. Contrast both with the strange history of the development the tank in 1917 and its several applications to armored warfare. There is no one single process to guide success.

However, there are things naval leaders can do to foster innovative thinking and make their organizations more prepared to adopt new tactics and technology, including:

Guard against a no-defect mentality and fear of failure. The only way never to make a mistake is to never make a decision, in other words to do nothing perfectly. Innovative thinking will never be right all the time, so there has to be a system that encourages variations in ideas in order to swiftly accept, adopt, and assimilate the good variations.xviii Ironically, avoiding failures can lead to loss of opportunities to learn from failures and evolve. The advancement of naval aviation in the 1920s and 1930s is a case study in learning from false starts and failures while rapidly progressing to readiness for World War II. Senior leaders must also actively protect disruptive thinkers.

Have organizational structures in place to recognize innovative thinking that doesn’t fit the mold of preconception. The common mistake is preparing to fight the last war. Instead when a promising advancement is discovered, create shortcuts under a sense of urgency to get around the bureaucratic system. The early success of Navy Special Projects offices in the 1950s illustrates this, and so does the empowerment of Rear Admiral Wayne Meyer to develop the Aegis combat system by the Surface Navy leadership of Vice Admiral James Doyle.  

Emphasize that the most important characteristic to foster innovation is people. Advancement comes not from processes; or disciplinary lenses, or the “how to” manuals, or even advances in technology. The most important element in organizations and in warfare is the human element. As former Marine Corps Commandant General Robert Barrow noted, “In any institution or undertaking, the importance of people transcends all else.”xix Marine Combat University President General Bowers also noted (in his discussion of Wilson and Barrow), “You can get everything else wrong, but if you get the people right, you will be all right. Whereas you can get everything else right, but if you get the people wrong, you are going to be in trouble.”xx Leaders must proactively constrain middle managers who maintain the status quo with a “spreadsheet” mentality. 

Recognize and reward the best leadership styles. In addition to realizing that the most important element is the people chosen, we need leaders who stick their necks out for those willing to experiment and do things differently and provide top cover for the people who are implementing the new ideas, technologies, and tactics. In particular, leaders can help on issues such as: 

Experimentation. Experiment at sea with prototypes and first generation designs in the full expectation that second and third generation designs must be built to correct the early mistakes and smooth out shortcomings. Experiments can also lead to innovative ways in how organizations think and fight. Marine Generals Al Gray and Charles Krulak led many experiments in the early days of maneuver warfare before the concept was fully developed and adopted, experiments that were both intellectual, organizational, and operational.xxi 

Exploiting the creativity of youth by “getting out of the way.” Here are wise words regarding cyberwar from a Navy lieutenant: “The most talented graduate students at the best U. S. computer science and engineering schools are said to be those who leave before graduation in order to pursue venture capital or other commercial opportunities . . . [to pursue excellence in the Navy] administratively and organizationally reduce the various forms of friction that would inhibit those [young] individuals and teams within their cyber forces from innovating, developing, and deploying capabilities faster than the adversary force.”xxii Talented youth will be prominent in cyber war evolution, just as they rose to prominence in computer technology, as youthful combat leaders like William B. Cushing and J. E. B. Stuart in wartime, or as youthful classical music composers like W. A. Mozart and Felix Mendelssohn.

Building an organizational culture to support innovation and reward risk takers. It goes without saying there are limits and achieving a balance is one of the most challenging skills of leadership. Nevertheless, it is a lot easier to suppress innovation and risk-taking than to grow it. Leaders must be particular attentive to the handful of people who are willing to take risks and protect the intelligent risk-takers from thoughtless suppression because they are willing to dare.

Broadening peoples’ minds. Foster curiosity in the midst of good discipline. Cultivating open minds is a key responsibility of our military educational institutions. Retired VADM Patricia Tracey in an interview noted last year, while reflecting on her exceptional career, extolled her time in graduate school: “[E]ducation is about how does it all fit together? . . . How might you think about doing things differently?  . . .  I say just that time out in a thought-provoking environment to consolidate everything that you’ve experienced and draw meaning from it and expectations for what’s next . . . is invaluable to somebody who’s at some point going to have to deal in massive uncertainty.”xxiii The University of Chicago under Robert Hutchins actively promoted broad reading that helped broaden civilian minds. Military innovative thinkers such as General Gray and Secretary Mattis are famously avid (and broad) readers. Mattis said in 2003 when asked about the importance of reading, that while reading doesn’t give you all the answers, it lights up the path ahead and enables us to understand and learn from the past.xxiv


Secretary Danzig’s metaphor of “driving in the dark” is very relevant to the road to improve innovation amidst uncertainty, and it will not be a straight highway. Yet, notwithstanding the difficult nature of innovation and the inhibiting organizational processes that often suppress it, past successes suggest that we can indeed nurture innovators and grow innovations in the U.S. Navy. This will unavoidably accompanied by bruising the status quo ways of thinking. We have not discussed every aspect of success. Further dimensions to explore include how our educational institutions must help build more innovative and interdisciplinary thinking, and examining past attempts to innovate, including the failures, with an eye for their strategic, organizational, and tactical implications. 

Dr. Mie Augier is associate professor at the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School. She is interested in strategy, organizations, innovation, leadership, and how to educate strategic and innovative thinkers.

Captain Wayne Hughes, USN (Ret.) served thirty years on active duty, commanding a minesweeper, a destroyer, and a large training command. In retirement has taught, done research, and served as a Dean at the Naval Postgraduate School for over thirty years. He is a distinguished author of the U.S. Naval Institute.


i We dedicate this paper to Andrew W. Marshall, who continues to inspire us and who has tirelessly worked to improve innovation and innovative thinking in our organizations. We are grateful for the comments from Jim March, BGen William Bowers, VADM Ronald Route, and Andy Marshall on an earlier draft. Any remaining errors were produced without help.

ii We should also mention that while we draw mostly on Navy and USMC examples, other services have also begun important discussions on the topic, see for example: https://www.army.mil/article/173386/making_innovation_happen

iii Although our paper is largely conceptual in order to provide insights into the dynamics making innovation difficult but possible, we also include some practical examples / anecdotes on the basis of past success. Obviously, more research and reflections on the topic is needed, but we hope to indicate at least part of foundation and some fruitful lines along which progress can be made.

iv See, R. Danzig : “Driving in the Dark”, available here: https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/driving-in-the-dark-ten-propositions-about-prediction-and-national-security

v Military leaders have also made similar points. Robert Gates for instance noted to West Point cadets: “When it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right, from the Mayaguez to Grenada, Panama, Somalia, the Balkans, Haiti, Kuwait, Iraq, and more — we had no idea a year before any of these missions that we would be so engaged.” Secretary Jim Mattis (then General) also noted in a testimony to the arms services committee in 2011: “I think, as we look toward the future, I have been a horrible prophet. I have never fought anywhere I expected to in all my years.” These (and other) examples of our prediction capabilities noted here: http://foreignpolicy.com/2012/10/16/100-right-0-of-the-time/

vi Forces for such a strategy must demonstrate that we can deny China’s commerce and sink the PLA’s warships in its own home waters with a capability that takes the offensive in China’s Seas with highly distributable forces.

vii Naval Institute Press, April 2018

viii In particular given that the organizations ability to experiment and adapt to new innovations may be quite different in business and military organizations. This is not to say that we don’t think there is plenty to be learned from business organizations – for example, minimizing red tape, bureaucratic chain reactions and paperwork is clearly something business is better at. But when it comes to understanding how to implement innovations, as well as understanding the dynamics of the larger strategic environment and the adoption of innovations, studying military examples from the past might provide useful information (see, for instance, Williamson Murray and Allan Millet’s book on “Military Innovation in the Interwar Period”).

ix Other examples include: Nuclear ICBM’s changed all aspects of warfare. Cruise Missiles are teaming with and sometimes replacing strike aircraft because of their great range and endurance. UAV’s and Autonomous Aerial Vehicles combined with cyber warfare technologies are changing the nature of warfare as we write.

x R. Gates (2016): A Passion for Leadership, p. 5.

xi A discussion of the USMC maneuver way of thinking and its history is available here: http://grc-usmcu.libguides.com/c.php?g=756767&p=5426039.

xii https://www.militarytimes.com/news/your-military/2017/07/25/mattis-get-unnecessary-training-off-warfighters-backs/

xiii This also implies that we must spend a great deal of time trying to understand how our opponents think and how their organizations work, in addition to observing what they do.

xiv Organization scholar James March has long warned that this is a typical ‘competency trap’ of organizations and that we should pay particular attention to trying to nurture and nudge those willing to explore (see J. March, “Exploration and Exploitation in organizational learning”, Organization Science, 1991).

xv Designer of Predator, Abraham Karem, noted that his drones were built for the cold war, but its various employments has expanded seemingly without limit. https://www.airspacemag.com/flight-today/the-man-who-invented-the-predator-3970502/

xvi As Colonel John Boyd noted in his testimony on military transformation: “First, we need to understand that throughout history the difference between brilliantly performing armies and mediocre ones has always depended on a small handful of combat leaders. Naturally, the military that managers nurture a tiny handful of brilliant, innovative officers combat command achieves great results. … On the other hand, a military that suppresses said brilliant and unconventional young officers among them, who I might add tend to make life uncomfortable for seniors, is forced to grind out rigid, predictable battles with much blood and mountains of material.” The testimony available here: https://www.c-span.org/video/?17753-1/us-military-reform-oper-desert-storm

xvii Another example is the maneuver warfare of ideas, for years debated and discussed among Marines including writing (in a series of Gazette articles), to help clarify important dimensions of the concepts and ideas.

xviii As recognized for instance in the USMC Commandant’s call for innovative and disruptive thinkers: https://www.marinecorpstimes.com/news/your-marine-corps/2016/03/04/commandant-looks-to-disruptive-thinkers-to-fix-corps-problems/

xix As quoted in “Commandants of the Marine Corps”, edited by Allan Millet and Jack Shulinson, US Naval Institute Press, 2004, p. 456.

xx See BGen Bowers lecture on USMC commandants Wilson and Barrow and the reforms they led: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aJZCBg_SDLY

xxi A panel discussion of the history and some relevant aspects of maneuver thinking is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RL4__NVYByw

xxii LT. T. B. Meadors (USN), First Gain the Victory: Six Strategic Considerations for Naval Cyber Forces, 2017, prepared for and disseminated by VADM Jan Tighe, USN, Deputy CNO for Information Warfare and Director of Naval Intelligence, p. 7.

xxiii Military Operations Research, V22, N1, 2017; page 75.

xxiv http://www.strifeblog.org/2013/05/07/with-rifle-and-bibliography-general-mattis-on-professional-reading/A great discussion of the importance of broad reading in the military profession in general is P. v. Riper (2006): “The Relevance of History to the Military Profession: An American Marine’s View”. In W. Murray & H. Sinnrich (eds): The Past as Prologue. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Featured Image: The X-47B on the deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) on Nov. 10, 2013. US Navy Photo

Fleet Tactics Returns – A Conversation with Authors Wayne Hughes and Bob Girrier

By Christopher Nelson

Recently I had the opportunity to correspond with CAPT Wayne Hughes, USN (Ret.) and RADM Robert Girrier, USN (Ret.) about the new edition of Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations. We get into everything from why the littorals matter to how information warfare will shape the future of naval warfare.

Nelson: Admiral Girrier, Fleet Tactics is now in its 3rd Edition. What are some of the new topics in this edition? Is there a particular section you focused on?

Girrier: Picking up where the 2nd edition left off, topics given additional emphasis in this edition are the emergence of unmanned systems (air, surface and sub-surface), artificial intelligence, and information warfare. 

The increasing value and the need for decision superiority is stressed. I did focus on the value-added of unmanned systems serving as complements to existing capabilities, and how – if properly employed – they can take us to a new level of fighting at machine speed. The process of sensing, evaluating, making decisions, and then executing is treated throughout.

Nelson: Artificial Intelligence, Information Warfare, Big Data lots of changes in the world and all of them will affect the future of warfighting. When you were tackling these topics, what were some of the books or resources you went to when trying to understand these new issues? 

Girrier: I drew heavily from my experience standing up the navy staff’s first-ever organization dedicated to unmanned warfare systems, and how we could harness these new capabilities most effectively in step with our existing force. It was a matter of applying the emergence of new technologies to the operational realities we tackle today.

Hughes: It is a long list. Here are some recent sources that emphasis information warfare, writ large, in peace and war, at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels:

John Arquilla, Dubious Battles: Aggression, Defeat, and the International System, 1992

Patrick Beesley, Very Special Intelligence: The Story of the Admiralty’s Operational Intelligence Centre, 1939-1945, 1981

Alexander Bordetsky, Stephen Benson, and Wayne Hughes: “Hiding Comms in Plain Sight: Mesh Networking Effects Can Conceal C2 Efforts in Congested Littoral EnvironmentsSignal Magazine, June 2016

Jeffrey Cares and John Dickman, Operations Research for Unmanned Vehicles, 2016

Erik J. Dahl, Intelligence and Surprise Attack: Failure and Success from Pearl Harbor to 9/11 and Beyond, 2013

Dorothy Denning, Information Warfare and Security, 1999

Robert P. Girrier, “The Navy’s Mission for UxS,” Presentation January 2016

Robert P. Girrier, “Unmanned Systems: Enhancing Our Warfighting Capabilities Today and In the Future,” Navy Live, November 2015

Wayne P. Hughes, Jr., “A Close Look at the Operational Level of War at Sea,” Naval War College Review, 2012

Tyson B. Meadors, First Gain the Victory: Six Strategic Considerations for Naval Cyber Forces, 2015

Hy Rothstein and Barton Whaley, eds., The Art and Science of Military Deception, 2013

Peter W. Singer and August Cole, Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, 2015

James P. Wisecup and the CNO Strategic Studies Group, The Network of Humans and Machines as the Next Capital Ship, July 2016

“Sandy” Woodward and Patrick Robinson, One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of the Falklands Battle Group Commander, 1992

Nelson: To continue with the topic of technology, in your book, you say everyone should read Elting Morison. Who was he and why should everyone read his work?

Hughes: Elting E. Morison was one of our most astute observers of U. S Navy development, especially in peacetime. He described how USS Wampanoag was designed by master shipbuilder Benjamin Isherwood and commissioned to chase down Confederate raiders and privateers. When she was commissioned in 1869 she was the fastest ship in the world, having steamed for a long distance at 23 knots during her trials. Her speed would not be exceeded by another ship for two decades. But the war was over and so she was laid up and forgotten. There is more to the story, but Morison’s description, and his respect for Navy leadership during its thin years while the nation looked to the west toward California is an early story about complex, fiscally constrained decision-making that is pertinent today.

Nelson: Before I get to the next question, I’d like to quote a paragraph in the latter part of your book about Command and Control:

“Although military leaders at the scene of action and in the chain of command may bridle at the amount of control exercised from Washington in a crisis, the record of fifty years of crisis suggests that such control will continue. Detailed oversight of localized transitory military operations, even those involving shooting, has flowed—and probably will keep flowing directly from the seat of government to the tactical commander at the scene of action—because of its enormous political content.”

Nelson: So here’s my question: Doesn’t this assume that there is connectivity between tactical commanders and naval HQ or Joint HQ during conflict? Because if they lose connectivity or if it is degraded or destroyed, what then? Is it Mission Command?

Hughes: You cite one important reason—enemy interference—but in past and present editions of Fleet Tactics two more contrasting reasons are included describing why connectivity and well-honed skills at mission command are important. In peacetime on the edge of war the HQ including the national command authority in Washington will want to keep a tight rein on the participants out of fear that some major or colonel will be a loose cannon and shoot too soon and start World War IV. But when the shooting starts, a headquarters will be saturated with too many events and if commanders who are accustomed to top-down control wait for directions from on high the orders may not arrive on time. Moreover mission command is necessary in wartime because the local commander, including the ship captain or Marine Company Commander will have a better knowledge of the local enemy and conditions. In the botched Iranian Rescue Mission, some of our helicopters already en route turned back because a dust storm rose which the local meteorologist was aware of, but the weather guessers in Washington were not.

Girrier: Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations acknowledges the reality of crisis operations short of war, and the need to wield combat power with great precision that is completely in step with national intent. At times this may be a connection from higher echelons down to the more tactical level. There are nuances in these circumstances – at the strategic and operational levels – that shift and the on-scene level won’t be aware of…can’t be aware of. 

Conversely, as circumstances deteriorate and connectivity becomes challenged, there is great value in mission command and acting on commander’s intent.  We place great value on initiative and the high quality of our commanders from the tactical to operational levels.  Traversing these levels with agility and speed is critical to combat success.

Nelson: What do you think the 21st Century missile age means for naval warfare? Numerous countries now have long range maritime weapons. Yet do you think we might see a naval war in which range is defeated  not entirely, but largely by decoys and counter C4ISR? Do we then end up in a situation with a destroyer’s Commanding Officer realizing they’ll have to use weapons when they are within visual range of an enemy combatant? 

Girrier: The 21st century missile age brings faster and longer range lethality. At the same time, the areas where we may be called to action – where influence and combat capability is needed – may draw us into the littorals. By virtue of geography, the inherent challenges of targeting, and ever-increasing countermeasures, the ability to survive in these highly lethal environments is possible – it requires great skill, a mix of awareness, speed of decision, and speed of action.

Hughes: Fighting in the missile age is also affected by the effects of clutter of all kinds in coastal waters. Offensive tactics that achieve surprise attacks at relatively short range make littoral waters different from blue waters where we must control the seas and therefore must have strong but expensive defenses.

Nelson: So that’s why the littorals matter?

Girrier: It’s where the sea meets land and where combat effects – from the sea –  can have decisive effects to larger campaigns.

Hughes: Most combat at sea has been in littoral waters for some purpose connected to the land. That has been true since Greek and Roman times and is likely to be just as true in the future. Currently the most likely locations of future battles involving our Navy, including land-sea interactions, are the Baltic, Aegean, and Eastern Mediterranean, the Persian (or “Arabian”) Gulf, the South and East China Seas, and the Yellow Sea. Since a cornerstone of Fleet Tactics was and still is “A ship’s a fool to fight a fort,” today’s naval officers must consider carefully what is meant by a “fort” today.

Nelson: How do we tackle the problem on bridging the divide between the knowledge found in tactical publications and actual operator skill?

Hughes: Achieving operator proficiency is the topic of the book. For example, we have little praise for the principles of war and instead promote the study of constants, trends, and variables over history as the way to avoid preparing to fight the last war. The missile age and the longer range of weapons and sensors have changed the tactical needed to attack effectively first at sea since combat was carrier-centric in World War II. Since our subject is Fleet Tactics the greater emphasis is on achieving tactical success as a fleet commander or commanding officer. However we do not neglect the roles of operators in a command center or CIC. The reader will learn a great deal about the evolution of the Combat Information Center and how it increased the effectiveness of radar and sonar as World War II wore on. We also illustrate by describing the remarkable tactical skills exhibited by the Israeli Navy: commanders, shooters, defenders, deceivers, and the whole crew of each ship when the Israeli navy decisively defeated the Syrian and Egyptian missile ships in the 1973 war. That said, we shy away from speculation about the skills needed in the modern American navy. Instead, we stress the need for more at-sea combat exercises to get our operators ready to fight the age of missile salvos, unmanned vehicles, and information warfare.

Girrier: I would emphasize the timelessness of the ability to “attack effectively first” – this captures it all.  The required end state. The means to achieve that end evolves. Hence the imperative to understand the constants… trends… and variables of warfare. To prevail requires study of the foregoing, plus knowing one’s own capabilities and how to employ them with the utmost degree of effectiveness. Successful leaders will master the fusion of talent plus technology.

Nelson: Could you give us an example of how a net-centric war might look in the future?

Hughes: Network centric warfare is exhibited by today’s carrier battle groups and expeditionary strike groups, both of which must radiate continuously and unfailingly to be effective in the face of an enemy who will detect the radiations and attempt a sudden surprise attack. We emphasize the need to develop the ways and means to conduct our own surprise attacks by offensive action, especially in confined waters where an enemy navy must control his own seas with warships that must radiate to protect his shipping from our almost silent, well-practiced, sneak attacks including submarine attacks. We call this network optional warfare.

Girrier: I agree with Wayne, it’s not all one or the other. The future will likely show that a mix of techniques, capabilities and competencies will be required. That warfare will exhibit hybrid characteristics and one’s agility in traversing disparate approaches will be of great value.

Nelson: You’ve both been writing and publishing for years. If you would, walk us through your writing process. How do you research a topic and bring it to print? Outline? No outline? Pen and paper or straight to the computer?

Girrier: My writing has been fueled by my direct operational experience. What did I know, when did I not know, and what did I wish I knew when I was serving in various positions throughout my career. I compile these nuggets, reflect on their merit (maybe these were things I “should have known” but didn’t place enough value on). Always compose an outline as it helps order my thoughts. Then proceed. I must say, a big part of these projects  – especially when working updates and new editions – is the very serious responsibility of preserving hard-earned lessons. The voice of experience speaking through decades of operations. To update is one thing, maintaining relevance and currency; to preserve the deepest lessons and explain them in readily understood language is perhaps the hardest element in these projects.

Hughes: Taking a macro perspective, my prescription for success was background in four aspects of tactics and combat: (1) Experience at sea. Combat experience at sea helps, and though my ships have only been shot at twice I think the experience of incoming rounds is better yet if you survive them. (2) Knowledge of naval history. I had the joy of teaching it as a lieutenant at the Naval Academy among a cadre of the best historians in the country. (3) Experience with operations analysis, past and present, especially with tours applying it on fleet staffs. And (4) hands-on experience with tactical development to fully exploit new technologies, both onboard ship and on fleet staffs.

Nelson: Admiral Girrier, how did you get involved with Admiral Stavridis and the USNI’s Professional Series books?

Girrier: Admiral Stavridis invited me to join him in this ongoing “professional series” project. It was both an invitation and a call to “get involved” and help make our Navy stronger. I remain deeply grateful for the opportunity. I’ve seen it as both a privilege and a duty.  Our work on the Division Officer’s Guide, Watch Officer’s Guide and Command at Sea has all been pro-bono – I see that as consistent with the mission. It’s a team effort and most recently we’ve brought aboard CAPT Jeff Heames and CDR Tom Ogden (both post CDR-Command officers) contributing to the Division Officer’s Guide and the Watch Officer’s Guide.

Nelson: Gentlemen, I want to close with two questions: What advice would you give naval officers today about how best to prepare for future conflict? And second, what’s the hardest thing the U.S. Navy must tackle to improve either as individual officers or as an organization going forward? 

Girrier: Future arms races and conflict is all about the “race for cognition.” To understand, then act, faster than the adversary. This applies at all levels of conflict. If you own decision superiority, you know when to fight, and when to parry. You must know how, when, and where to create the conditions of tactical overmatch. Cognition means knowing your systems and tactics so completely, that when it comes time to act – your execution is reflexive. This takes training and empowerment of your people, and most importantly – focus and discipline. There are only so many hours in a day, these must be one’s priorities – period.

Hughes: I worked for VADM Ike Kidd when he was Commander First Fleet in San Diego. He emphasized combat readiness if the shooting started tomorrow. Admiral Kidd was influenced by the fact that his father was killed in USS Arizona when she was sunk during the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. But Ike also taught everyone to looking ahead at emerging technologies that would change tactics and combat in the future. His last duty was in overseeing the Navy’s technological development. Pertinent to what Bob says about focus and discipline, recently the surface navy suffered serious collisions with merchant ships. Navy officers today should ponder this: if our fighting ships can’t avoid big, slow ships that do not want to hit us, how well are we prepared to avoid small, very fast missiles that do?

Girrier & Hughes: The technology that surrounds us – and is available to our adversaries – must be harnessed and put to the most effective use as rapidly as possible.  Integrating these disruptive technologies challenge our existing systems, procedures, and operational techniques. We are a large and powerful force, with tremendous investment in existing capital assets – that fact can impede true innovation and the adoption of more lethal effects. Our adversaries know this, and are constantly looking at ways to defeat us. Information warfare is evolving very quickly and we must never be complacent in this regard. We must continually adapt, and do so with speed.

Nelson: This was great. Thank you, gentlemen.  

Captain Wayne Hughes, USN (Ret.) served thirty years on active duty, commanding a minesweeper, a destroyer, and a large training command. In retirement has taught, done research, and served as a Dean at the Naval Postgraduate School for over thirty years. He is a distinguished author of the US Naval Institute.

Rear Admiral Robert Girrier, USN (Ret.) is the president of Pacific Forum, a Honolulu-based nonprofit, private foreign policy research institute providing timely, informative, and innovative analysis of political, security and strategic developments in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. He is founder and managing member of StratNav/Strategic Navigation LLC, a consulting company. He is a naval leader with over thirty years’ maritime experience and extensive operations throughout the Indo-Asia-Pacific, Europe and Middle East.

Christopher Nelson is a naval officer currently stationed in the Pacific. He is a regular contributor to CIMSEC. The comments and questions here are his own.

Featured Image: ATLANTIC OCEAN (Nov. 1, 2017) The guided-missile destroyer USS Jason Dunham (DDG 109) launches a SM-2 missile during a live-fire exercise. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Zachary Van Nuys/Released)