Tag Archives: Innovation

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

Learning War and The Evolution of U.S. Navy Fighting Doctrine with Author Trent Hone

By Christopher Nelson

Author Trent Hone joins us today to talk about his new book Learning War: The Evolution of Fighting Doctrine in the U.S. Navy, 1898-1945. This is a great book. And as others have noted, it’s a fine compliment to John Kuehn’s work on the Navy General Staff, Scott Mobley’s book Progressives in Navy Blue, and I would add, Albert Nofi’s To Train The Fleet For War: The U.S. Navy Fleet Problems, 1923-1940.

We talk about everything from Admiral Frank “Friday” Fletcher to “safe-to-fail” systems vs. “fail-safe” systems. And stick around to the end. Trent Hone offers some advice to the CNO on how we can build a better learning organization.

Nelson: For the readers, could you tell us briefly what your book is about?

Hone: My book investigates how the U.S. Navy of the early twentieth century learned to innovate. I explore how the Navy invented new technologies, created new tactics, and found ways to rapidly evolve its combat doctrine based on peacetime exercises and wartime experience. Today, we would describe the Navy of that era as a “learning organization.” I explain what that means and describe the mechanisms the Navy used to effectively learn and innovate. I believe there are lessons from that time that are very relevant for today’s organizations, both military and civilian.

Nelson: Why did you want to write this book?

Hone: I’ve been interested in naval tactics for a long time. I remember reading Wayne Hughes’s Fleet Tactics when it first came out in the 1980s and being fascinated (It’s a great book now on its third edition). In the 1990s, I decided to explore the Navy’s surface warfare tactics before and during World War II. I wanted to know what Admiral Husband E. Kimmel might have done if Pearl Harbor hadn’t been attacked. That research led to a series of articles on the development of Navy tactics—including a prize-winning one in the Naval War College Reviewand, ultimately, began to overlap with other work I was doing. 

I started my career as a software engineer. As I assumed positions of greater responsibility, what became most interesting to me was not the development of the software, but how teams organized to create software and do innovative work. I studied various techniques and methods to improve the teams I supervised and eventually transitioned into advising and coaching organizations to help them get better at learning and innovating. 

As I continued looking at the evolution of the Navy’s tactical doctrine in the early twentieth century, I saw patterns that resonated with today’s most-effective learning techniques. The language was quite different, and the specific processes were different, but some of the underlying principles were remarkably similar. I realized it was a story that had to be told. I describe an arc of innovative creativity that stretches back decades by charting the evolution of surface warfare tactics.

Nelson: Early in the book you talk about “fail-safe” systems and “safe to fail” systems. The latter, you say, are best for a culture that encourages innovation. With this in mind, what would you say Rickover’s submarine culture consisted of? Is he a rare exception in the case of a system that is “fail-safe” yet innovative?

Hone: I’m glad you brought this up. Alicia Juarrero’s term “safe to fail” gives us a new way to think about failure modes and how to account for them. The key difference between the two is that with “fail-safe” we attempt to anticipate possible failure modes and design ways to mitigate them. With “safe to fail,” we recognize unanticipated failure modes will occur and organize to ensure survival when they do. This has relevance to organizations because when we want to learn and innovate, we are going to fail. A “safe to fail” organization finds ways to explore new ideas and experiment with them without endangering its long-term survival. The Navy was good at that in the early twentieth century. 

I’m less familiar with Rickover’s time, but from what I understand, it would be inaccurate to describe the culture he developed as primarily “fail-safe.” Certainly, it used procedures with rigidly prescribed steps in order to prevent known failures, so in that sense it was “fail-safe.” However, he recognized that unanticipated failure modes can and will occur. Defined procedures are inadequate to account for these circumstances. Instead, it’s essential to rely on the collective skill and experience of people, so the culture integrated crewmembers together. Layers of human observation and experience became the means to identify, anticipate, and address unforeseen circumstances. In that sense, the culture has a “safe to fail” component. Things will go wrong; people will make mistakes. But trust and experience become the means to identify and resolve them. 

As it turns out, that’s the most effective way to deal with problems in complex environments. Standard procedures and automated routines free our mental capacity so that when unforeseen circumstances arise, we can quickly identify and address them. That’s what made the Combat Information Center (CIC) and its successors effective: the artful integration of standard processes, technology, and human judgment. I worry that with the increasing emphasis on automated systems, we might be taking the talents of our people too far out of the loop. There’s no substitute for human experience and skill when the unanticipated occurs. 

Nelson: What is the “edge of chaos” and why does it matter to any organization that is trying to be innovative?

Hone: The concept of the “edge of chaos” is easily misunderstood, so I’ll try to explain it succinctly. In any complex system—like a corporation or a military service—there are processes, procedures, and rules. In the language of complexity, these are called “constraints.” They channel and limit behavior. When constraints are restrictive, they inhibit the ability of people to experiment and try something new. Obviously, that’s a problem if you want to innovate. But the other end of the spectrum is problematic also. If constraints are too loose, there’s no coherence; it becomes difficult to assign cause and effect or make sense of an experiment. The “edge of chaos” is located between these two extremes. It is a space where constraints are sufficiently loose to allow room to explore new ideas and concepts but also rigid enough to focus that exploration and provide feedback on its effectiveness. 

Many of us intuitively understand this from our own experience. Software teams, for example, are most innovative (and generally most effective) when they’re given a clear objective and the creative freedom to determine how best to accomplish it. The objective serves as a constraint and focuses their energy. They use their initiative to explore several potential solutions, often arriving at the best combination of technologies that addresses the need. That’s why there’s been such an emphasis on moving away from rigidly detailed requirements documents; they overly constrain teams and limit their creativity. The parallels to military command, and the importance of well-written orders that foster the initiative of subordinates, are obvious. 

Nelson: What was the importance of the 1921 Destroyer Instructions?

Hone: The Atlantic Fleet’s 1921 Destroyer Instructions were important for two reasons. It was the first Navy doctrinal manual produced by a deliberately created system of learning. Immediately after World War I, the Navy was transitioning back to peacetime. Many valuable lessons had been learned during the war and officers set out to capture them. Two “colleges” were established, one in the Atlantic Fleet and another in the Pacific Fleet. They combined exercises at sea, wargames ashore, and experience from the recent war to devise new approaches. A regular correspondence was maintained between these two fleet colleges and the Naval War College. The result of their collective learning was incorporated into the Destroyer Instructions. 

The Destroyer Instructions were also important because they assumed individual commands—each destroyer squadron—would develop their own specific doctrines that reflected the strength of their ships and men. The Instructions were deliberately written to foster creativity within subordinate commands and avoid being overly prescriptive. The War Instructions of 1923 took the same approach, so Navy officers spent the interwar period exploring a variety of options for how to coordinate and employ their forces, leading to new and innovative techniques.

Nelson: Who was Admiral Frank Friday Fletcher? What were his battle instructions? And why are they an important milestone in naval history?

Hone: Frank Friday Fletcher led the intervention at Veracruz, Mexico, in April 1914 and was awarded the Medal of Honor for his conduct. In September 1914, he became commander of the Atlantic Fleet, which contained the Navy’s most modern ships. The Atlantic Fleet had been regularly conducting exercises to work out how best to operate in battle, and Fletcher continued that practice. By May 1916, he and his staff had gained enough experience to issue a set of Battle Instructions. 

Admiral Frank Friday Fletcher.

Fletcher’s Instructions marked a departure from previous approaches. He assumed battle was fundamentally uncertain and that centralized control would likely be impossible; this led him to emphasize two things. The first was the use of a plan that would outline objectives for subordinates. Fletcher wanted to encourage their individual initiative and creativity without overly constraining them. Second, Fletcher stressed the coordinated use of all weapons. Previous battle plans had emphasized battleship gunnery. Fletcher recognized that other weapons were coming into their own, particularly destroyer torpedoes. He planned to use his destroyer squadrons very aggressively. These two concepts—the use of a plan and coordinated employment of all arms—remained central to Navy tactical doctrine through World War II.  

Nelson: I enjoyed your comment about “type commanders.” You note in your book that during World War II that minor actions were neglected.  This mattered. And type commanders were born in light of these shortcomings. What were these “minor actions” and how did the type commanders address them?

Hone: The Navy’s primary focus in the interwar period (1919-1939) was a trans-Pacific campaign. It was expected to culminate in a “major action”—a large fleet battle—somewhere in the central Pacific. Accordingly, most of the fleet-level tactical doctrine focused on “major action.” Tactics for “minor actions”—engagements between smaller task forces—were left to subordinate commanders. It was assumed that these lower-level commanders would have time to develop doctrines for their forces, and, during peacetime, this assumption was largely correct. 

However, there were shortcomings. This led to the introduction of the type commands in 1930.

Type commands became responsible for identifying and capturing new tactical approaches for each various type—destroyers, cruisers, battleships, etc.—and there is evidence that new approaches were more rapidly developed after that date. The real problem, though, was the assumption that subordinate commands would be able to develop specific doctrines for their forces. 

In 1942, that process fell apart during the battles off Guadalcanal. Ships and commanders moved about too rapidly to develop cohesion. “Scratch teams” were formed and they often performed poorly, as you might expect. The Pacific Fleet addressed the problem by applying some of the same techniques used for “major tactics” to “minor tactics” and leveraging the type commands to rapidly share and disseminate lessons. 

Nelson: During World War II, how did the Fleet quickly inform commanders with updated doctrine? This is a problem throughout history, is it not? We make some assessments on what will or will not work in war, and inevitably we will be surprised. What would you recommend to a staff today on how to prepare for such things?

Hone: I love this question because when I first started my research decades ago, I thought that manuals—published doctrinal materials—would be the key to understanding tactical doctrine. I learned very quickly that’s not the case. Doctrine is a set of assumptions and mental models. The documentation provides a backdrop, but what really matters is how individuals think about problems and work together. During World War II, the Navy effectively used personal connections, like in-person conversations and conferences, to rapidly share and disseminate new ideas. There were formal means to do this (like Joseph C. Wylie being brought back from the South Pacific to help develop the CIC) but informal mechanisms were at least as important. Published doctrine tended to lag behind the information shared through these informal networks.

USS SAN FRANCISCO (CA-38) At the Mare Island Navy Yard, 20 May 1942. (Photo via Naval History and Heritage Command)

If I were making recommendations, I’d stress the importance of informal mechanisms. Staffs can easily create mountains of briefings and other documentation. What’s more difficult is creating an environment where subordinates can readily exchange information, learn together, and build on the knowledge of their colleagues. I think a staff should actively work on enabling that. It’s not just about creating space and time; it’s about introducing the appropriate constraints to enable creativity to flourish. Then, once that is in place, the staff needs to keep tabs on what’s happening. New, more effective ideas will arise. When they do, the staff needs to act quickly to exploit them and make them available to the entire command. 

Nelson: How does the size of a navy – the number of ships and sailors – affect innovation? Quick growth, during World War II, for example, and steep reductions – ship numbers from the 80s to today for instance, do these affect innovation in different ways? How?

Hone: I think both offer serious challenges. The rapid growth in World War II made it very difficult to maintain the effective culture the Navy had nurtured during the early twentieth century. Rapid “scaling” (as we call it in the software world) tends to increase centralization, reduce flexibility, and inhibit innovation. That happened to the Navy as it grew during the war. 

The challenge I see with steep reductions is overburdening. Organizations often reduce their size without an equivalent reduction in their commitments. This leads to overwork: people become spread too thin; maintenance gets delayed; and equipment is overutilized. Individuals may still be able to sustain the pace of operations, but they frequently lose the ability to experiment with new ideas. Innovation slows as a result. When commitments are reduced along with reductions in size—as with the Navy after World War I—this can be avoided. 

Nelson: Trent, to close, if you had ten minutes with the Chief of Naval Operations and he asked you what he needed to do to create a learning organization – what would you say?

Hone: I had about thirty seconds with Admiral Richardson last year when he presented me with the second-place award for his Naval History Essay Contest, and in those thirty seconds, I encouraged him to read my book. If I had ten minutes, I’d urge him to introduce a set of integrated feedback loops that couple regular experimentation regarding the nature of future war (tactics, technology, etc.) and OPNAV’s programming process. The goals would be twofold. First, officers need to be encouraged to regularly experiment to vary their tactical approaches to discover new, more effective techniques. They need to become accustomed to adjusting to unanticipated circumstances and leveraging the creativity of their commands. Second, the lessons from their experimentation need to revise and guide the Navy’s program so that force structure and procurement reflect—and ultimately anticipate—the new learning. 

We’re all familiar with the interwar Fleet Problems. What made them really powerful—what allowed them to transform the Navy—was the way they were integrated into the Navy’s planning and procurement processes. The second CNO, Admiral Robert E. Coontz, was primarily responsible for that. He created the feedback loops that allowed the Navy to not just experiment with new tactical doctrines, but to evolve force structure and war plans in light of emerging lessons. If Admiral Richardson wants “high-velocity learning,” if he wants to fully leverage the skills of the Navy’s officers, he needs to devise a set of similar mechanisms. Given the organizational changes since Coontz left office in 1923, a new set of structures and interfaces would have to be introduced. I have faith Admiral Richardson could do that, if he sets his mind to it. 

Trent Hone is an award-winning naval historian and a Managing Consultant with Excella in Arlington, VA. He is an expert on U.S. Navy tactics and doctrine. His article, “U.S. Navy Surface Battle Doctrine and Victory in the Pacific” was awarded the U.S. Naval War College’s Edward S. Miller Prize and the Naval History and Heritage Command’s Ernest M. Eller Prize. His essay, “Guadalcanal Proved Experimentation Works” earned second place in the 2017 Chief of Naval Operations Naval History Essay Contest. He regularly writes and speaks about organizational learning, doctrine, strategy, and how the three interrelate. His latest book, Learning War: The Evolution of Fighting Doctrine in the U.S. Navy, 1898–1945, was published by the U.S. Naval Institute in June 2018.

Christopher Nelson is a U.S. Naval Officer stationed at the U.S. Pacific Fleet Headquarters. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School. He is a regular contributor to CIMSEC. The questions and views here are his own.

Featured Image: USS Indiana (BB-58) fires a salvo from her forward 16″/45 guns at the Kamaishi Plant of the Japan Iron Company, 250 miles north of Tokyo. 

Narcosubs: Technological Innovation in the War on Drugs

By Javier Guerrero C.

Last year, the Colombian Navy detected and captured the first electric narco-submarine.1 Demonstrating the innovative capacities of Colombian drug traffickers, narco-submarines, drug subs, narco-semisubmersibles, self-propelled semisubmersibles, or simply narcosubs, are maritime custom-made vessels used principally by Colombian drug traffickers with the purpose of smuggling illicit drugs to consumers or transshipment countries. This year only one of such vessels have been captured, and given their technical characteristics seems a step back in the ‘evolution’ of narcosub technology. Such is the paradox of security and maritime interdiction in the War on Drugs. The very process of thwarting a particular method or route creates the conditions to propel technological innovation on the drug traffickers’ side. The narcosubs are one of many of these innovations.

The term “narcosub” encompasses a diversity of watercraft that includes semisubmersible and fully submersible vessels. Several entries on CIMSEC (here, here, and here) have already delved into the characteristics of the narcosubs and their potential capacities to threaten regional security. In addition, several studies in the security field, such as by Ramirez and Bunker,2 as well as academic articles, have also attempted to provide technical evidence and policy advice. To summarize, narcosubs are characterized by the use of maritime diesel engines, a rudimentary system of refrigeration, no facilities, fiberglass hulls, and a valve which can be activated in case of being captured that allows water to fill the hull and sink the vessel. Narcosubs are not made to last, as smugglers mostly discard such vessels after ending their one-way journey. Smugglers have been using narcosubs from at least as early as 1993, but the majority of captures have been made since 2005. Narcosubs are described by the Navy as vessels that are highly difficult to detect and/or track, due to their lack of emissions, small wake, and low heat signature, preventing visibility all around. 

Despite the centrality of innovation in the War on Drugs, there have been few attempts to understand the process. Given that 90 percent of the cocaine from Andean countries is transported using maritime routes,3 it is necessary to analyze the development of drug trafficker and state agency technologies in the maritime environment. That is to say, the study of the game of cat and mouse between interdiction and evasion.

This binary can be understood as the symbiotic relationship that creates the conditions for innovation, generating a constant arms race between drug traffickers and state agencies. Different versions of the genesis of the narcosubs mill around, from Pablo Escobar’s mastermind idea, boosted by the semi-mythical image of the drug baron with the economic means and savvy to contract specialized naval engineering. According to this
version, Pablo Escobar supposedly conceived the idea of a submarine after watching a James Bond movie. In this story a Russian and an English engineer were hired to design the submarines while Pablo’s brother took took care of the electric circuits.4 A common narrative in describing narcosub building is to assume some form of hierarchical organization, both in terms of decision making and knowledge. That is, the participation of a ‘cartel’ with capabilities to hire ‘expert knowledge’ such as naval engineers who then recruit builders. The diffusion of the technology is also assumed to be the result of transnational organized crime networks. Others suggest that narcosubs are the transfer of military innovation by the guerrilla groups FARC or ELN to their drug trafficking enterprises.5

Innovation in the design and building of these vessels is so commonplace that the adjective ‘first’ is often repeated. The truth about narcosub design and building may be more prosaic. The variety of watercraft labeled under the banner of narcosubs summarizes some of the key features of the innovation and counter-innovation competition in the War on Drugs.

The Evolution of Narcosubs

The narcosubs demonstrate a variable combination of materials, designs, and building. Even narcosubs found in the same shipyard vary in several features. In this sense, each narcosub is a unique way to solve the problem of transporting large amounts of illicit drugs, producing a complex timeline that is problematic to define using traditional innovation concepts, such as incremental or radical innovation, but also to define as the result of pull/push factors. The process of innovation in the War on Drugs can be better described using the concept of dispersed peer innovation,6 in which the design and construction of these vessels, not being bound by standardized procedures, profits from the possibilities of creating their own designs with high degrees of flexibility. In this sense, it is possible to say that what smugglers produced with the narcosubs are different versions of a ‘techno-meme’ that gets combined with the local knowledge of maritime routes and boat building. Those involved in the process of outlaw innovation are able to mix locally available knowledge of traditional boat building with off-the-shelf technologies.

One key issue when studying the evolution of narcosubs and other forms of drug traffickers innovations is how entwined they are with other forms of maritime drug transport. The process of incremental innovation does not necessarily produce a particular method that replaces older strategies. For example, a technical analysis of improvements of the go-fast boats or fishing boats demonstrates that there are few steps between semisubmersible methods and submersible ones. These few steps are provided by the availability of the knowledge to build such vessels within the relatively small areas where narcosubs can operate.

What it Takes to Build a Narcosub

Little is known about the day-to-day decisions on design and modification of such vessels. Official documents say little about the narcosub builders, but a set of documents allows us to take a glimpse at the organization of a narcosub enterprise. These include the Supreme Court of Justice ruling on the extradition of Colombian nationals to the United States in order to be judged by courts in the U.S. for criminal offenses, including narcotics violation, and reports from the law enforcement agencies and military.

Several facts can be derived from the analysis of such documents. Narcosub builders are often independent of the owners of the cocaine. Several opportunistic relationships are undertaken, with drug traffickers either contacting the builders or the builders contacting the drug traffickers. As part of a plea bargain, a narco-submarine builder narrates how as a part of his organization he carried out and presented blueprints of ‘his’ narcosubs, and descriptions of the areas where the vessels could be built and launched. As part of his negotiation with prospective buyers, he shared his past experience of success in the building and operation of these boats.

Figure 1: Narcosub Building Team

Figure 1 reconstructs the main links in a narcosub builder organization and shows the multiple forms of knowledge and relationships that can be found in such an organization. While some aspects of the design are carried out by specialists such as electrical and mechanical engineers, others are left to people with local knowledge, such as knowledge about fiberglass handling and coating. In this organization, another individual, the provider of the fiberglass, also plays the role of quality assurance guaranteeing that, in fact, the vessel is correctly waterproofed. Other individuals are in charge of the logistics, such as the purchase and transport of materials and personnel to shipyards. Finally, some individuals are hired as crewmen. They test the vessel and provided feedback to builders.

The organization described in the legal files is interesting because it has two different construction sites; one in Colombia’s South Pacific and one on the Ecuadorian coast. The organization boss was not actually involved in the construction of the narcosubs, but he was the main source of finance. The main builder of the narcosubs is considered a “chief” within the organization. Besides providers of drugs, every shipyard has an administrator accompanied by a chief of security. The description provided does not delve into the process of designing and building narcosubs specifically, but shows the participation of people with formalized knowledge and others in possession of craftwork knowledge, such as the people involved in the woodworking and the fiberglass construction, some of whom worked in both shipyards. The fiberglass work was supervised by another specialist, who provided expert knowledge and supervision at both sites. This person was not part of the organization, but was the provider of the fiberglass. In the same organization, a mechanical engineer was identified, who was in charge of the design and building of the hatches, steering mechanisms, and galvanization of the narcosubs.

The innovation in narcosub technologies is then carried out by a multitude of different groups with little incentive to collaborate among themselves. This gives rise to a wide variation of submersible and semisubmersible designs. Such technical decisions are taken by builders and drug traffickers in a context in which the actions of other groups and their enemy (law enforcement and military) are not always known.7 Narcosub builders are able to configure a complex design using a mix and match approach. Blending off-the-shelf solutions, local traditional knowledge, and technical-formal knowledge produces hybrids such as low-profile narcosubs using truck diesel engines.

Drug smugglers do not just compete with the state, they also compete with other drug rings and other narcosub builders. This complex pattern of competition plays a role that promotes further local innovations. Through trial and error they master the building principles of the narcosub and introduce minor variations into their models. The variation and innovation in narcosub technologies, as well as the interpretation that actors, smugglers, and enforcement agencies make of such innovations, creates changes in a co-evolutionary fashion. In this way, the choices of the illicit actors, competing among themselves and against the state, continuously destabilizes and changes the landscape in which they act, triggering a situation in which multiple players attempt alterations, which create new adaptations.


It has been argued that smugglers often have the capacity to change their strategies and designs after they been detected by law enforcement and the military. Nevertheless, a more complex understanding of the pattern of innovation in the War on Drugs, in which explanations are not given in terms of push/pull between state agencies and drug smugglers, but take into account multiple layers of competition and sources of knowledge, will provide better tools to control the illegal flows. One main consequence of this would be to escape the fallacy of flexibility, in which the explanations of the process innovation in the War on Drugs is given solely based on drug traffickers’ actions.

Javier Guerrero C. is a Lecturer at the Instituto Tecnológico Metropolitano (Medellín, Colombia). In addition, he is a Post-Doctoral researcher at Centro de Estudios de Seguridad y Drogas, Universidad de los Andes (Bogotá, D.C, Colombia). Javier is currently researching the intersections between technology, security and the War on Drugs and the history of technology in the War on Drugs. He may be reached at the following addresses: javierguerrero@itm.edu.co; je.guerreroc@uniandes.edu.co


[1] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4739460/Colombian-army-seizes-electrical-drug-narco-submarine.html 

[2] http://scholarship.claremont.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1029&context=cgu_facbooks

[3] http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/1016658.pdf

[4]  Escobar, R., & Fisher, D. (2009). The Accountant’s Story Inside the Violent World of Medellin Cartel. New York: Hachette Book Group.

[5] Jacome Jaramillo, Michelle. “The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Development of Narco-Submarines.” Journal of Strategic Security 9, no. 1 (2016): : 49-69.
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5038/1944-0472.9.1.1509
Available at: http://scholarcommons.usf.edu/jss/vol9/iss1/6

[6] Hyysalo, S., & Usenyuk, S. (2015). The user dominated technology era: Dynamics of dispersed peer-innovation. Research Policy, 44(3), 560–576. https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.respol.2015.01.002 

[7] http://revistas.flacsoandes.edu.ec/urvio/article/view/2943

Featured Image: A makeshift submarine is lifted out of the water at Bahía Malaga on the Pacific coast, in 2007. (Colombian Navy/Reuters)

Finding New Ways to Fight, Pt. 2

How the Mad Foxes of Patrol Squadron FIVE are harnessing their most powerful resource – their people – in an effort to cut inefficiencies and improve productivity.

By Kenneth Flannery and Jared Wilhelm

The U.S. Military Academy’s Modern War Institute recently published a thorough primer by ML Cavanaugh on what it means to drive innovation in the military.1  The most important take away was the difference between the buzzword, “innovation,” and the people who actually do the dirty work of driving positive change within the force called, “defense entrepreneurs.” This series focuses on an operational U.S. Navy maritime patrol squadron full of defense entrepreneurs, and how their unit is taking the “innovation imperative” from on high and translating it to the deckplate level. Part 1 focused on the “Why? Who? And How?”; Part 2 reveals observed institutional barriers and challenges.

Deckplate Challenges

It often seems that the tasks most worth doing are the most difficult to achieve. Since beginning our innovation experiment, the squadron has been met with a variety of challenges to the implementation of our vision. Some of these obstacles are specific to the unique nature of the military, while others are more specific to the nature of large bureaucracies. Many challenges come from external sources that are largely outside of our control, while other challenges are self-inflicted.

One of our biggest hurdles has been thawing the “frozen middle.” This concept refers to the middle management contingent within the squadron that may be less eager to adopt new ways of doing things. Perhaps the most frustrating part about the “frozen middle” is that the very people who would benefit from embracing these changes are often the ones standing in the way. It is understandable and expected when organizations are resistant to an innovation developed outside of their ranks. All organizations have budgets to balance and bosses to answer to such that outside entities may be only a blip on their radar. For example, attempting to highlight the importance of one squadron in one community in one service of the Department of Defense can be understandably futile. More vexing are the people inside of one’s organization who seem to actively resist change at every opportunity. Frustrating as it may be, recruiting the members of the “frozen middle” is paramount for success. Buy-in from all organizational levels is required for original ideas to reach critical mass and become self-sustaining. Without support from the most resistant group, a new process will inevitably wither and die, even if it enjoys support from the top and bottom of an organization.

When VP-5 implemented the Innovation Department, the “frozen middle” quickly became apparent. The chief’s mess and the O-4 department heads, always looking out for undue risk to the Commanding Officer, were particularly averse to change. These groups bring a wealth of experience to the squadron and are absolutely crucial to the success or failure of our unit. However, that same hard-fought experience can sometimes saddle people with preconceived notions about “the way things are done” and other such attitudes which can stifle a creative environment.

Stopping new innovations from being implemented is often the path of least resistance for the frozen middle. VP-5 discovered that those who are averse to change will attempt to use their position of power as a roadblock. Often, it seems the frozen middle’s apprehension is rooted in a reluctance to put forth the effort necessary to change. Many of our innovations are designed to reduce the time and energy required to complete a task. However, at the onset, hard work is required to overcome the existing institutional inertia. Many times someone will cite comfortable catch-all words, such as “OPSEC,” or some unnamed instruction in an attempt to avoid putting up the innovation capital required for real change. However, it was the defense entrepreneur’s job to push past that initial roadblock. If a genuine concern exists, we may have to alter tack and reevaluate, but concerns raised about innovation must be the result of concrete analysis as opposed to institutional inertia.

Hitting the Wall

We were not always successful in overcoming these barriers. On more than one occasion the squadron had projects come to a full stop due to an inability to get through to the frozen middle. One project in particular was a fairly lofty goal of adding the maintenance program OOMA (Optimized Organizational Maintenance Activity) on to our PEMA (Portable Electronic Maintenance Aid) laptops.

Under the current system, writing a MAF (Maintenance Action Form) requires access to the OOMA program which is hosted on the Naval Aviation Logistics Command Management Information System (NALCOMIS). In turn, maintainers and aircrew alike are limited to writing MAFs at computers or laptops with hardwired connections to NMCI. This means writing MAFs during preflight or post-flight requires a trip to the hangar, eating up valuable time. This is a burdensome and antiquated system, which results in poorly written MAFs and decreased MAF participation at large.

Requiring NMCI access for writing MAFs also presents a problem when departing on or returning from deployment. There is often a period of several days before NMCI connectivity is established which means MAFs must be handwritten. Once NMCI connection is established these MAFs are retroactively input into OOMA, requiring a significant number of man hours.

Implementing OOMA on our PEMA laptops would be a simple way to streamline the maintenance action documentation process. PEMA laptops would be present on the aircraft, decreasing travel time and putting the feedback solution at the source of the problem. Optimizing this process would increase discrepancy documentation and create more detailed MAFs, facilitating faster resolutions to problems. Ultimately, OOMA on our PEMA laptops could eliminate some of the administrative and physical challenges that lead to wasted man hours and late takeoffs.

This project was led by a 2nd and 3rd Class Petty Officer with assistance from the Innovation Department. These intrepid innovators worked diligently in conjunction with the offices of Program Management Acquisition-290, SPAWAR, and the PEMA Fleet Support Team, but were ultimately told this project was not currently feasible. Part of the reason given had to do with the speed at which NAVAIR moves, which was colorfully described as a “turtle in a sea of peanut butter.” This is a common refrain we have heard time and again, and one that begs the question, “are these extended timelines actually necessary, or have we become so accustomed to them that they are now an accepted norm?”

Another instance where we ran into trouble was with a much smaller project. This time we were seeking permission to insert a Bluetooth USB device into an NMCI computer in order to display a rotating informational PowerPoint on a TV in the maintenance spaces. One of these TVs already existed in the squadron’s duty office, and we wanted to place one downstairs to address a maintenance concern about sometimes being left out of the loop.

We already knew Bluetooth devices were prohibited in NMCI computers so we reached out to the Information Assurance office for guidance about how to request a waiver, or if a waiver process even existed. In return, we received a curt e-mail informing us that USB devices were not allowed in NMCI computers, which was stated in the NMCI USB policy and also on the IA form everyone signs to gain access to NMCI computers. We responded to clarify, that indeed we already knew about the prohibition, but were asking if it possible to change the instruction. Ten months later we have yet to hear a response.

Innovation Breakthroughs

These experiences taught us that we needed a new way of approaching things that relied less on external forces and instead emphasized our own ability to create. One way VP-5 chose to thaw the “frozen middle” has been to outpace their skepticism. That is to say, rather than waiting for approval to pursue a particular initiative, we would simply go ahead and continue to work on a project until directed otherwise. The squadron would always inform the appropriate authorities and members of the chain of command, but we didn’t seek their explicit approval. When asking permission to do something, the answer was often “no,” even though there was rarely any substantiating reason for that “no.” Instead of asking, we started informing the Chain of Command of our projects and ideas. By doing this it seemed that we flipped the easy answer from “no” to “yes.” Employing this “Full Speed Ahead” tactic yielded many successes, including the creation of a new qualification program and incentivizing sailors to become innovators.

One hard won success for VP-5 was the development of the “P-8A Enlisted Engine Turns Program.” This program, long established in the P-3 community, allows a select number of enlisted maintenance personnel the opportunity to earn their “Enlisted Turn Operator” qualification. This qualification allows each operator to perform a variety of low-power engine operations for maintenance evolutions. Prior to the development of this program, these low-power turns required at least one pilot. This placed an unnecessary burden on the pilot cadre, which became particularly apparent when operating on detachment where extra pilots are few and far between.

To establish this program, VP-5 adopted a draft version of an Enlisted Turn Operator instruction from VP-30, the P-8A Fleet Replacement Squadron, and made it an official squadron instruction. The program now boasts an official curriculum consisting of written personnel qualification standards, simulator events, and aircraft events. To date, VP-5 has created four Enlisted Turn Operators, two of which had the distinction of being the first two P-8A Enlisted Turn Operators in the fleet. Throughout the process of establishing this program, the defense entrepreneurs clearly communicated their intentions up through the chain of command, and illustrated how they were mitigating the risk in this endeavor. The innovators gave the VP-5 chain of command the opportunity, but never a reason, to say “no.”

Another success for the VP-5 Innovation Department was incentivizing innovation. The Innovation Department first began to coalesce when the squadron was forward deployed to the 5th and 7th Fleet areas of responsibility. Throughout the six-month deployment the innovation movement seemed to be gaining steady momentum, and it was during this very early time that some of our most successful endeavors were developed. At the close of deployment in the spring of 2017, VP-5 shifted back stateside and continued to build this foundation. The Innovation Department was formally enshrined in a new instruction, detailing organizational roles and responsibilities, and we had regular innovation meetings with respectable showings. Unfortunately, interest and participation in the Innovation Department from the junior enlisted and junior officer ranks began to wane. At one meeting, attendance was limited to the box of doughnuts that had been brought for the no-show participants. This was a low point for the defense entrepreneurs. The lull in participation could have been due to a variety of factors, such as the return of family responsibilities, outside hobbies, and perhaps even an element of boredom. As time went on the new innovation initiative began to lose its luster.

Some of this can be expected in any organization trying to introduce a new culture, but some may be due to the career timing structure of the military. Sailors in VP-5 spend between two and five years in the squadron. Officers find themselves on the left side of that spectrum, while enlisted personnel are normally toward the right. To a newly minted lieutenant junior-grade or petty officer, a three to five year tour may seem daunting, but it can be a relatively short stay when all of the various qualifications and certifications that sailors must achieve during their time in the squadron are considered. Therefore, there may be little incentive for a sailor to invest their time and energy on an innovation that may not come to fruition before their tour is over. The temptation to accept the status quo to appease an immediate superior is too attractive for many. Although there will be those who naturally appear to think outside the box and resist the status quo,  it is the responsibility of leadership to properly incentivize innovation.

VP-5 incentivized innovation by rewarding sailors who have contributed to innovation projects with awards and 96-hour liberty passes. While these may seem like superficial benefits, giving a sailor free time and recognition are the most immediate impact that a commanding officer can have on their subordinate’s life. It is necessary that more significant items, like promotions and advancements, are influenced at least in part by what a sailor has done to push the U.S. Navy into the 21st century.

Continuing the Fight

The concept of innovation is obviously not unique to the military. It is preached in boardrooms throughout the country as a way to cut costs, increase productivity, and generally rise above the competition. The companies that fail to adapt to changing environments often find themselves out of business. This same principle applies to the profession of arms. However, if we ever find ourselves “out of business” the opportunity to start over may not exist. Rarely are we afforded second chances to get it right. The time to find better ways to adapt and overcome is now.

Lieutenant Ken Flannery is a P-8A Poseidon Instructor Tactical Coordinator at Patrol Squadron FIVE (VP-5). He may be contacted at kenneth.flannery@navy.mil.

Lieutenant Commander Jared Wilhelm is the Operations Officer at Unmanned Patrol Squadron One Nine (VUP-19), a P-3C Orion Instructor Pilot, and a 2014 Department of Defense Olmsted Scholar. He may be contacted at jaredwilhelm@gmail.com

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[1] https://mwi.usma.edu/wear-pink-underwear-like-churchill-nine-principles-defense-entrepreneurship/

Featured Image: OAK HARBOR, Wash. (Oct. 21, 2016) Lt. Cmdr. Matt Olson, Patrol Squadron 30, right, talks Michael Watkins, a reporter with Whidbey News-Times and retired Navy Chief, through flight procedures in a P-8 simulator during a media availability on Naval Air Station Whidbey Island’s Ault Field. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class John Hetherington/Released)