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Innovative Thinking: The Role of Professional Military Education

By Mie Augier and Wayne Hughes

“The society that separates its scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools.”1

– Variously attributed to Thucydides and 19th Century British General Sir Wm. F. Butler

Introduction

Last year we reflected on the topic of innovation in military organizations,and hinted at the roles of education in developing strategic leaders of adaptive organizations. In the light of current debates and senior DoD/DoN emphasis on education and critical and strategic thinking (including recent Navy initiatives and the newly released Education for Seapower report), here we elaborate on some aspects of the role of professional military education in more detail.3 

Our military organizations must organize for innovation and adaptiveness such as recognizing disruptive ideas and preserving innovators who learn from failures. This emphasis has important educational dimensions: Our educational institutions must nurture and support the kind of thinking so central to any adaptive organization.

Two of the most important roles of education are to help students learn how to think, not what to think, and appreciate that learning is a lifetime activity. Fostering innovative thinking and broad understanding will help them adapt to (and shape) the future as well as fight smart if conflict breaks out. Our PME institutions can learn from their own pasts in thinking about how to educate future strategic leaders. In addition, we now have key strategic documents (National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, and the Education for Sea-power report) that PME institutions can orient toward when revising their educational programs and research to help undergird the national strategy in the future.

The Past as Prologue: Lessons from PME Institutional History

“War colleges … broaden the intellectual and military horizons of the officers who attend, so that they have a conception of the larger strategic and operational issues that confront our military and our nation.”4

– Admiral Stansfield Turner

“History for history’s sake is of no value to us. What is of value is the ability of our faculty to use whatever is necessary to educate officers to solve complex problems, manage change, and execute their decisions. This demands an extraordinary degree of mental flexibility and intellectual agility on the part of our faculty, whether they come from the world of practitioners or from the more traditional academic environment.”5

-VADM Ronald Route, former president of the Naval War College, 2004

Our PME institutions have rich histories and there is much to learn from studying them and incorporating them into our education.6 A major lesson is the tension between emphasizing “ready now” and “educate for future environments.” Such tensions also exist in other professions and professional schools; Herbert Simon saw the problem as one that needed constant attention because it involves integrating different (and sometimes opposing) forces, like mixing and stirring oil and water.7 Medical schools educate for medical practice while also doing fundamental research to improve the broad knowledge central to the future of the medical profession. The two sides – rigor and relevance – should not be thought of as opposites, but instead must be seen as two sides of the same coin when dealing with professional military education in order to facilitate interdisciplinary, empirically driven insights and understandings, concepts, and practice. Such integration can be achieved through emphasizing thinking and judgement. We need officers and enlisted to be able to conceptualize competition, conflict, and battle with active and open minds.

A brief overview of some major events in the institutional history of PME will be helpful:

PME began in Europe but by the late 19th Century it came to the U.S. with the founding of the Naval War College (1880). The establishment of the Army War College (1901) and Naval Postgraduate School (1909) helped channel the educational upgrading of officers.8 For instance, the first NWC president, Stephen B. Luce, saw his institution as a “place of original research on all questions relating to war, and to statesmanship connected with war, or the prevention of war.” Its early curriculum combined intellectual rigor and practical relevance.

Changes in the 1980s and 90s were fostered by the Goldwater Nichols Act and the Skelton Panel. The Skelton panel in particular recommended that despite finding many courses and programs and faculties to be “excellent,” “the existing PME system must be improved to meet the needs of the modern profession at arms.” Ike Skelton saw officer learning and education as a lifelong process, and that studying military history was central to it.9 The report’s recommendations included upgrading the quality of civilian and military faculty and improving thinking and jointness.

Each PME school evolved and adapted differently to societal and institutional changes. General Van Riper describes how the Marine Corps, led by the Commandant General Gray, underwent a comprehensive transformation to reemphasize education, including reading and learning outside one’s specialty, and building strategic and critical thinking into the organization.10 Gray noted the importance of ideas over rank or titles in the debates, aiming to instill in young Marines the courage to think differently, and to learn from failures, not fear them.11 Gray’s educational vision also led to the founding of the Marine Corps University, intended to emphasize thinking and judgment. The recent Education for Seapower report fittingly begins with a quote from General Gray, and it also notes the importance of his educational efforts as relevant today.

We mention this not to show that all was great in the past but to indicate that there is much we can learn from institutional experiences in focusing on the future. With this in mind, here are two observations to aid educating and retaining innovative thinkers:

  • There was room for innovative and strategic thinkers in the past in our PME institutions; both from inside and outside the system (without trying to imitate businesses such as Google). For example, John Boyd’s “Patterns” briefings as well as Bill Lind’s efforts and writings influenced the development of maneuver warfare in the USMC and somewhat less directly, AirLand Battle in the Army.
  • Cultivating and retaining innovative thinking requires forceful leaders. They challenge the status quo, and are vital to an organization’s ability to adapt. They are also not always right. Creativity includes the ability to fail, and learn, and not be punished. No-defect cultures kill creative thought.12

Over time educational institutions (like all institutions and organizations as they grow and age) tend to become routinized. A culture of normalcy crowds out ideas and people that “don’t fit.” Having discussed some of the institutional aspects needed to improve education for strategic and innovative thinkers, the next section touches on some of the intellectual and methodological aspects.

Successes from the Past as Lessons for the Future

Developing active minds is best done through active learning. Mental agility is cultivated through case studies of military history and participatory learning, for instance through free-play exercises and wargames in order to help teach thinking and judgment. Case studies and gaming are examples of active learning methodologies to help students think through uncertainties and ambiguities of the future, helping to create an organizational culture for continuous innovation and adaptation in peace and in war.

Gaming helps to imagine possible futures that participants and students live through and learn from. Wargames do not produce precise predictions of what will happen, but they expose officers to similar patterns, supporting their understanding of expected or unexpected situations and their intuitive decision making. As Nimitz said about the value of wargames: “The war with Japan had been [enacted] in the game room here by so many in so many different ways that nothing … was a surprise except Kamikaze.” Nimitz said wargamed conflicts during his NWC years “more than any other experience” prepared him for wartime command; as he noted: “The enemy of our games was always Japan, and the courses were so thorough that after the start of WWII – nothing that happened in the Pacific was strange or unexpected. …I credit the Naval War College for such success I achieved in strategy and tactics in both peace and war.” There were, of course, many surprises at the operational level such as the attack on Pearl Harbor, but Nimitz wanted to emphasize how vital wargaming was to prepare the fleet to adapt to Japanese success while preparing the USN and USMC to take the offensive.

Wargames have played a crucial role in experimentation and testing new ideas without going to sea; thus they serve as a first step beyond innovative thinking toward adoption and implementation.13 Gaming and experimenting at sea both contribute to adaptiveness of military organizations, allowing them to perform with existing capabilities and learning what new ones must be added.

PME applies at all levels. Although most commentators implicitly or explicitly emphasize PME for mid-level and senior officers, professional military training and education is also important for junior officers and petty officers. By far the biggest part of CNET and the Navy training establishment is devoted to current effectiveness. Seamanship and safe navigation are an important part of the effort. We believe, however, that attention should be devoted to how to think: To stimulate curiosity, broaden minds and help develop innovative thinking to anticipate future environments of conflicts, the attributes of new enemies, and anticipated technologies to employ or confound. An advantage of training and educating the best junior officers and enlisted men is that they have not yet become encumbered by the cautiousness embedded in many senior officers. The Navy and Marine Corps must nurture innovative thinking at all levels. The graduate education program at NPS is for junior officers. Here educating for future change is an important part of education.

PME for senior officers is centered on mental activity. Combat is in the domain of physical activity. A characteristic of current combat is its very short time constant, which is wholly different from the more leisurely pace seen in strategic planning and technological development. Response to a missile attack must be almost instantaneous. Preparation for swift deployment takes thoroughness and foresight.

Because this preparation for operations in peace and war is mostly in the domain of physical activity, education extends beyond the schoolhouse. Shipboard training, wargames, and training on simulators, all can help shape the mental and intellectual ability to understand and conceptualize conflict. One of the first applications of simulations was the early development of flight trainers.

Because PME education must foster curiosity it cannot be reduced to recipes or checklists. Its benefits are often intangible—instilling attitudes of inquiry and curiosity that include:

  • The development of future strategic leaders. There is now a recognition that the education of strategic and innovative leaders is paramount. Our recent Defense Secretary James Mattis is a product of this; as General Van Riper noted, reflecting on his own time as president of MCU and the educational reforms General Gray launched “the work to overhaul professional military education continued under the sure hands of others …. Perhaps no better manifestation of the results the Commandant anticipated exist than the performance of the senior Marine commanders, Lieutenant General Jim Conway, and Major Generals Jim Mattis and Jim Amos, during Operation Iraqi Freedom.”14
  • Identifying innovative leaders. There is rarely room in large organizations to cultivate creative thinking by everyone. Some officers are better at reliable execution. It is hard for both to shine, and for leaders to become aware of the contrasting talents. PME can both help enable students to sharpen their thinking; stimulate their curiosity and creative instincts; and help them think how to use this to make their institutions more innovative, for instance through thesis work. It can also help them recognize the uses (and limitations) of analytical thinking versus critical and innovative thinking and how to apply both in appropriate ways in the strategic and operational contexts in their futures.

Having discussed some chronology and themes relevant in the past for the present debate, we turn now to a few specific actions to refocus PME toward the future.

The Education of Future Innovative and Strategic Leaders

“PME has stagnated, focused more on the accomplishment of mandatory credit at the expense of lethality and ingenuity. We will emphasize intellectual leadership and military professionalism in the art and science of warfighting, deepening our knowledge of history while embracing new technology and techniques to counter competitors. PME will emphasize independence of action in warfighting concepts to lessen the impact of degraded/lost communications in combat. PME is to be used as a strategic asset to build trust and interoperability across the Joint Forces and with allied and partner forces.”

– National Defense Strategy

Educating leaders who understand the changing challenges and can adapt to them requires an educational environment that enables growth intellectually and professionally through rigorous and relevant education and training. While the National Defense Strategy recognizes problems in current PME, it also gives us commanders intent for how to improve PME to make it a national strategic asset again. Together with the National Security strategy, as well as the Education for Seapower report, these documents provide themes and insights into the likely trends in the future security environment for our PME institutions to orient toward in both research and education. Themes should include the following elements.

Organizational adaptiveness. The ability to respond to the unexpected is central to organizational resilience (as is emphasized in the NSS). History, case studies, broad reading, and wargaming help deal with unexpected futures. Together with the cognitive and attitudinal skills needed to think critically, students will widen their horizons, learn to recognize trends, and anticipate changes in the security environment and adapt to them.

Peace through Strength. There is an emphasis in the NSS to preserve peace through strength as well as ability to achieve surprise if needed.15 Our PME institutions must teach future strategic leaders to understand how our competitors understand the world through their eyes. This often means leaving the comfort of our analytic frameworks and theories; but what we lose in analytic application, we gain in insight.

Organizational and operational capabilities. Long-lived forces must be adaptable in time of cooperation, competition, confrontation, and conflict. They must be able to confront competitors of various sizes and in various kinds of unfriendly territory. Future leaders and decision-makers must know both how to contain intense but short conventional wars as well as fight in extended, low intensity conflicts.16

Avoid over-dependence on high tech. As an example, GPS jamming is likely if we face near-peer competitors so old school tactics must be part of combat training. We must also prepare for cyber warfare. As another example, artificial intelligence will be embedded in future near-peer warfare, but its methods are best inculcated as an extension of human intellect, not a replacement for it. Third, in exploiting unmanned and robotic vehicles, high technology should be avoided when tasks can be accomplished by small, inexpensive, single-purpose units deployed in large numbers.

Heretofore we have shown ways PME rewards students. Other lessons apply to faculty activity and curriculum development. For example: interdisciplinary and holistic problem solving and collaboration is increasingly relevant (as is the need for faculty research across disciplines and departments with an eye for applying their research and teaching to issues relevant to national defense).17 This is increasingly so as the problems we confront become more complex and ill-structured (‘wicked problems,’ in the jargon of the day). Our best leaders emphasize and understand unstructured problems. Understanding them (and their possible solutions) usually entails cooperation between faculty in several departments or teams of officers from several different professional disciplines and perspectives. The emphasis on interdisciplinary research echoes insights expressed earlier by Herman Kahn, Andrew Marshall, and James Schlesinger that emphasized interdisciplinary strategic thinking with warnings against “modelism” and “toolism” approaches. They also recognized the importance of history and of educating and researching for national defense, not contributing to textbook civilian approaches.

Actions to help achieve PME Excellence

“The most important six inches on the battlefield is between your ears.”

– James Mattis

PME must foster broad thinking and encourage curiosity.18 A fundamental aim of graduate education is to provide mental frameworks that foster wide-ranging exploration, a willingness to take risks, and a resolve to learn from and overcome failures. Top Navy and Marine leadership must promote innovators in peace and war.

In addition to helping to achieve the education of innovative leaders, military education must help re-invigorate all military institutions and re-energize Service culture. PME should support the National Defense Strategy that emphasizes readiness to execute now at the same time it explores alternative futures and possible future changes. One must build forces that operate in the present, but because most Navy ships and aircraft have 25 to 40-year service lives their long-term suitability must be checked against prospective geopolitical and technological futures.

Our recent Secretary of Defense had a clear vision to foster change, providing inspiration for the decades to come. He wrote, “we must shed outdated management and acquisition practices, while adapting American industry’s best practices. Our management structures and processes are not engraved in stone” (Mattis, 2018). Military administration and educational motivations need to be as adaptive and flexible as the most successful, swiftly changing, private corporations.19

Successful education inculcates attitudes and a talent for lifelong learning. As the Education for Seapower report notes: “a most urgent national security task before us today is to intellectually prepare our leaders for … uncertainty by equipping them with a strategic framework of how to think about the future … gained through a continuous, lifelong process of learning” (p. 9).

Finally, education of our most innovative leaders is important both for executing the current national security strategy today, and for preparing future generations to adapt quickly and effectively so we won’t be caught in a catch-up mode.

Dr. Mie Augier is a 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 he 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.

We are grateful to VADM Ronald Route (ret.), Andrew Marshall, Chris Nelson, and General Alfred Gray for comments on early drafts, and helpful suggestions. Any remaining errors were produced without help.  

References

1 Variously attributed to Thucydides and 19th Century British General Sir Wm. F. Butler

2 See http://cimsec.org/leading-military-innovation-past-and-present/37073

3 See, for instance, “Service Leaders Rethinking Navy and Marine Corps Education” (USNI news; https://news.usni.org/2018/04/23/33115). Other recent documents discuss the need for critical thinking skills as requirement for Navy officers. We shall refrain from trying to define critical thinking here; though we do want to note the importance of not defining it as “kind of like” one’s favorite topic or approach or discipline. There are decades of research on critical thinking and how it helps facilitate learning that we respect. In the context of PME, the most important aspect of critical thinking is the ability to think critically about strategy and strategic thinkers in order to develop better leaders. General Gray’s founding of MCU (Marine Corps University) and overall vision for PME was very much in the spirit of education for critical thinking and the importance of judgment. Additionally, when applying critical and strategic thinking to educating for seapower it is essential to not just ‘import’ a civilian approach and/or study well structured problems (Van Riper has elaborated on this).

4 Cited in Sinnrich & Murray (eds): The Past is Prologue (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 9.

5 Naval War College Review, 2004.

6 Many of those echoes of past debates are as relevant now as ever. For instance, Scales; question on ‘are we too busy to learn’ (USNI Proceedings, Feb 10, 2010), and his recent book, “Scales on War”, also taking on important discussions on the human dimension in war.

7 See, Herbert A Simon (1967): The Business School: A problem of Organizational Design. Journal of Management Studies.

8 Our PME institutions have not been without flaws; sometimes too drawn to the lure of the individual disciplines (which, as Andrew Marshall reminds us, can produce “trained incapacity” for strategic and innovative thinking). Another danger (which Scales reminded us in his piece ‘too busy to learn’) is that war is “not a science project”; calling attention to the need behavioral and social science in thinking about war and conflict (also see Scales, “On War” book for elaboration).

9 Skelton said: “It is a process of education, study, reading and thinking that should continue throughout an entire military career. Yes, tactical proficiency is very important, but so too is strategic vision. That can only come after years of careful reading, study, reflection, and experience”.

10 Paul K. Van Riper (2006): The relevance of history to the military profession: An American Marine’s view. In Murray and Sinnreich (eds) (2006): The Past as Prologue: The importance of history to the military profession. Cambridge: Cambridge  University Press.

11 Van Riper (2002) noted in looking back at the importance of this emphasis: “Leaders at all levels welcomed ideas; ranks of the authors of innovative notions mattered little. What counted was the ability of new thoughts to prove their merit in wide-ranking, open debates in service schools and journals” (Van Riper, “Preparing for War takes Study and open Debate”, Proceedings, Nov. 2002).

12 Another trap to avoid is excess supervision; as the Marines recognize in FMFM-1: “We cannot rightly expect our subordinates to exercise boldness and initiative in the field when they are accustomed to being over-supervised in the rear” (p. 65).

13 Though we don’t elaborate on it here, equally important as an active learning tool is case studies, as emphasized by Gen Gray, including in his upgrading of USMC education, and founding of MCU.

14Van Riper, 2006, p. 51. The emphasis on active learning and thinking is also embodied in core documents / ‘how the organization thinks’ too. E.g. “Professional Military Education is designed to develop creative, innovative leaders” (FMFM-1)

15 As noted: “China and Russia challenge American Power, influence and interests attempting to erode American security and prosperity. … at the same time, dictatorships of DPRK and Iran are determined to destabilize religions, threaten American people and our allies, and brutalize their own people”.

16 There is a need to think about the possible big changes coming, not just militarily but the larger shift towards Asia in terms of economies. Another possible big change is the likely far away areas of possible conflict (further away than Europe was our earlier focus), together with possible widespread use of anti ship ground based missiles. If over time, there are more areas where our surface ships will be in danger. How does that influence the balance of power between competitors, large and small?

17 At NPS, interdisciplinary problem solving and understanding is emphasized, for instance, through individual curricular and active learning approaches (including case studies and war gaming); faculty collaboration across specialties; research on department of defense problems; thesis work, and special initiatives (such as the CRUISER program) that have rapidly and efficiently advanced the state of the UAV technology and tactics. A national defense focus can be encouraged even more by having faculty focus their research and educating to focus on supporting E4S/NSS/NDS.

18 As the Education for Seapower report notes: “we must educate leaders who have the skills required to solve problems that cannot even be imagined today” …. “This will require an educational system that looks to the future as well as the past, which is agile enough to adapt as new problems are identified, and that will help us understand them. It is a system that must be built on the insatiable curiosity of naval professionals, both operators, professors, and researchers alike” (p. 13).

19 As also noted in the Education for Seapower report: “As an organization, we must anticipate changes in the operating environment and adapt to maintain an advantage. This can only be done by eliminating outdated personnel practices, adopting agile processes and continuously improving how we operate and fight, It is highly unlikely that the greatest naval strategists and leaders of our past … would be successful in todays’s bureaucratic environment. Simply put, the best naval strategists that our naval education enterprise can produce today will fail without improving the organization in which they operate” (p. 11-12).

Featured Image: The Thinker in front of the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia. (Wikimedia Commons)

Leading Military Innovation, Past and Present

By Mie Augier and Wayne Hughes

Introduction

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

Conclusion

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.

Footnotes

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.

Conclusion

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

Endnotes

[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)