Tag Archives: Military Culture

Gladiator vs. Ninja, or, The Innovation Discourse

Navy Warfare Development Command’s Junior Leader Innovation Symposium was a great success. Thanks to LT Rob McFall and LCDR BJ Armstrong for their presentations – they were truly a highlight of the day and both presenters graciously plugged the NextWar blog. Also, the Naval Institute’s Sam LaGrone was on hand to talk about USNI’s new “News and Analysis” platform. This is a daily must-read, especially today’s piece by Dr. John Nagl on the submarine force. As a proud USNI member since 1997, I find the speed at which USNI is adapting to the new media landscape is truly impressive. Finally, the staff at NWDC is consistently welcoming and encouraging to junior naval professionals. Rear Admiral Kraft even took time out of a busy day to chat with this humble blogger. If you have an idea to make the navy a more combat-effective organization, NWDC is the most fertile place I’ve seen to grow that idea into something tangible. Get in touch with them!

But the title says this is about gladiators versus ninjas, you say. Where’s Russell Crowe? Allow me to digress…

Another of yesterday’s speakers gave me some food for thought – the Office of Naval Research’s Dr. Chris Fall. During his talk, he discussed using social platforms to vote for innovative concepts. Similar to the “like” function on facebook, these web applications promote innovative proposals based on the votes of other users. Dr. Fall specifically cited the Transportation Security Administration’s IdeaFactory as an example of this type of system. One aspect of the platform Dr. Fall mentioned raises several questions about innovation: all IdeaFactory proposals must be submitted publicly, using the employee’s real name.

To what extent does innovation have to occur in public? Does anonymity promote or inhibit innovation? What is the career consequence for those who make more radical proposals in this system? As these questions came to my mind, I likened the public option to being a gladiator: your work is intensely scrutinized in full view of an audience. Anonymous writers are like the ninjas of feudal Japan, striking from the shadows.

We always seem to start discussions of professional writing and innovation with a discussion of career risk. As a writer working in both web and print, I want to throw out the disclaimer that the decision to speak, write, or blog publicly or anonymously is deeply personal and depends on circumstance. I don’t begrudge anyone who writes under a pseudonym, which has a venerable lineage extending far before “Publius” and The Federalist Papers. That being said, I think that writing publicly carries some advantages:

  • Attaching one’s name and reputation to a piece of writing creates a drive for excellence difficult to replicate when writing anonymously. None of us wants to be criticized, so public writers have more incentive to hone their arguments; ultimately, the better arguments will stand the best chance of adoption and implementation.
  • Writing anonymously allows people to speak truth to power, but it also diminishes responsibility. As a result, anonymous writings can often devolve into mere complaint and invective. Public writing, while less able to challenge authority, also produces more measured, balanced prose and often proposes solutions instead of merely lamenting a problem.
  • Being creatures of ego, we want credit for a winning concept. Public writing best enables that credit to be given fairly in the marketplace of ideas.

In other words, public writing may be a means to mitigate career risk rather than the source of that risk. There is certainly a time and place for writing anonymously, but if you have something to say about the Navy, consider your subject and your objectives. The smart move might involve attaching your real name to a point paper or blog post. We romanticize both the gladiator and the ninja in art and cinema. But each only makes sense when rooted in their particular historical and social circumstance. So it is with professional writing. If you have an innovative idea, the smart bet might indeed be to step into the gladitorial ring.

LT Kurt Albaugh is a Surface Warfare Officer and Instructor in the Naval Academy’s English Department. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

Navy Tactics, Re-Finding our Purpose

By Matt Hipple

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Crowdsourcing the Next Navy

When we think of navies, we think of tradition.

Source: Navy History and Heritage Command

The peculiar lexicon of Sailors (scuttlebutt, trice up, and wildcat come to mind), the boatswain’s pipe and lanyard, and the Beaux Arts architecture at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis are all audible or tangible indicators of the Navy’s reliance on tradition. As a result, innovation often seems antithetical to naval culture. An account from Geoffrey Till’s chapter in this book illustrates the Royal Navy’s resistance to the Aircraft Carrier:

No greater modification of any [of Her Majesty’s] ships that I proposed would have had the smallest chance of acceptance at that time. Prior to the First World War, the navy had no war experience for a very long time; and a long peace breeds conservatism and hostility to change in senior officers. Consequently, revolutionary ideas which were readily accepted when war came, were unthinkable in the peacetime atmosphere of 1912. Circumscribed by the then existing limitations my proposal was the furthest one could hope to go. – Lieutenant Hugh Williamson, RN (Page 192)

Fiscal austerity is forcing naval leaders to think about innovation: how do we use scarce means to provide the strategic ends we need? Over at Small Wars, the USNI Blog, and others, the term “disruptive thinker” has surged to the forefront of military professional discourse. At issue: do our military institutions produce and value disruptive thinkers and disruptive thoughts to foster innovation? The US Navy, however, beat everyone to the punch with little fanfare. Back in February, it quietly instituted a program to solicit disruptive ideas for development and potential adoption. In a US Fleet forces Command message (DTG 290708Z FEB 12), the Navy announced a new concept development program run jointly between Fleet Forces and the Naval Warfare Development Command. The message goes on to say:

VALUABLE IDEAS CAN COME FROM ANYWHERE, AND THE NAVY CONCEPT GENERATION AND CONCEPT DEVELOPMENT PROGRAM...WAS ESTABLISHED TO PROVIDE A COLLABORATIVE APPROACH FOR HARVESTING NEW IDEAS AND DEVELOPING THEM INTO CAPABILITIES FOR THE FLEET.

In January, I published an article in Proceedings jointly authored with a Chief from my previous command. He received the Fleet Forces message and phoned me immediately to push our idea through this program. I was initially skeptical: would our idea disappear into an invisible morass of bureaucracy? Would we ever receive feedback? Is this just a relief valve for unorthodox concepts?

Today, I can say firsthand that this new concept generation and development program is one of the most open and transparent processes I’ve ever seen. Action officers at the O-5/O-6 level worked with me to submit a concept proposal and have kept me regularly updated regarding its potential adoption. Senior officers and civilians at Fleet Forces (many of whom finished careers in the Navy and Marine Corps) are hungry for new ways of fighting, or of manning, training, and equipping the fighters. Junior officers and enlisted Sailors are a focus of this initiative.

For those disruptive thinkers out there, the Navy is waiting to hear from you. Cultures change – even ones that value tradition as much as the Navy. That’s because no one cultural narrative ever fits perfectly: the US Navy places great value not just on tradition, but also on independence and decentralization. We already crowdsource warfare. This model equally applies to peacetime innovation.

For more information, see the governing instruction. Those with appropriate access can go to HTTP://FIMS.NWDC.NAVY.SMIL.MIL/PORTALS/CONCEPTS/DEFAULT.ASPX to submit proposals. Also, the Naval Warfare Development command is holding a Junior Leader Innovation Symposium in Norfolk on 6 June. Registrants can attend either in person or virtually.

The opinions and views expressed in this post are those of the author alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or any other agency.