Tag Archives: Pacific

Don’t Give Up the Ship

Fiction Contest Week

By Major Brian Kerg, USMC

July 10th, 203X. Expeditionary Advanced Base (EAB) Itbayat, Philippines. 156 km from Taiwan.

First Lieutenant Stephanie ‘John Paul’ Jones stood in the company command post with her platoon sergeant, Staff Sergeant Billy Wickem. They were both trying to ignore the stifling humidity that wrapped around their woodland cammies like a hot blanket. The company command post (CP) consisted only of cammie netting tied to trees, a map hanging from five-fifty cord, MRE boxes, and a High Frequency (HF) Low Probability of Detection (LPD) radio connected to a laptop.1 Still, it was a welcome reprieve that caught a fair amount of wind coming in off the coast despite being hidden in the tree-line.

She and her Marines had been persisting at their EAB with the rest of Charlie Company, waiting to be employed in support of the Littoral Combat Battalion for a month. Her hair, rolled in a moto-bun, was starting to get crusty. She wondered how the company commander might react if she asked if she could shave her head or cut it to male high-and-tight grooming standards, both to better cool off and break the monotony for her platoon.

But more than that, the sheer boredom of waiting for their shot was eating the morale of her Marines. Alpha Company was slinging enhanced naval strike missiles at People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) ships across the area of operations, and Bravo Company was cruising around in Mark VI patrol boats, boarding and disabling or sinking People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAF-MM) craft. Alpha and Bravo were racking up notches on their belts. Meanwhile, ‘Check-in-the-Box’ Charlie Company, which covered down on all the other mission essential tasks for their battalion, was still kicking rocks in this godforsaken jungle. Her platoon, which owned the expeditionary mine warfare mission set, didn’t seem to have much of a place in the defense of Taiwan.

A rustle in the brush caught Stephanie’s ear, snapping her from her reverie. Captain Phan stepped out of the jungle and into the CP, followed by his operations chief, Gunny Malone. The skipper, it seemed, was omnipresent, constantly cutting through the network of covered trails, checking in on every platoon day after day, night after night, reminding the Marines that above all else they were there to “persist forward indefinitely!,” a hallmark of Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO).2

“Lieutenant, Staff Sergeant,” Pham said, smiling and nodding at each of them. “Glad you came so quickly. How’s your platoon holding up?”

“Oh, sir, you know,” Stephanie said, trying to match Pham’s alacrity. “Persisting forward.”

“Indefinitely…” Wickem added, a blunt, tired punctuation.

“Sounds like they’re getting comfortable in the routine,” Malone said, grinning. “Maybe we’ll have to kick ‘em off the island.”

Stephanie raised an eyebrow, glancing from Malone to Pham. “Sir?”

“It’s your platoon’s lucky day, Jones,” Pham said. He tapped on the radio. “You’ve got a mission.”

Stephanie’s heart beat rapidly in her chest, and she fought back a smile, maintaining her bearing. “The platoon’s ready for anything, sir.”

Malone stood in front of the map, and everyone closed in around him. As he briefed them, he tapped at each point on the map. “Here’s us, at our EAB in Itbayat,” he said. “About 150 clicks north of us is Taiwan. When China launched their operation to ‘reclaim’ the island, Taiwan fought back hard. Flooding the Taiwan Strait with mines and surrounding the island with mobile maritime minefields has been the lynchpin of their defense. They can remotely open the minefields to allow shipping to reach the island, then close the fields to keep China out. The PRC didn’t anticipate how long it would take to clear these fields, or that mining would sink more of their ships than any other weapon system in the fight.3 This is what bought our task force time to deploy to the AO.”

“Washington, of course,” Pham said, “isn’t looking to escalate this into a full-blown war with China. If that happens, we all lose. We’re just here to support Taiwan.”

“Right,” Morales said. “And supporting Taiwan means keeping them in the fight. China can’t break through to Taiwan, so they’re looking to blockade Taiwan instead.” He traced a line connecting Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines.4 “Taiwan’s holding their own within their territorial waters, but they can’t cover the international waters. Chinese ships can hook around and cast a wide net. So, the Coalition has declared an exclusion zone, here.” He traced another line between Indonesia and Taiwan, crossing the Bashi Channel. “Any Chinese ships that try to break through it are fair game, so they can’t effect a blockade. ‘Fair game’ so far has been blasting them with rocket artillery from our EABs.”5

“Sea denial 101,” Stephanie said.6

“But there’s just too many targets,” Pham said. “They have more pawns on the board than we do, and they don’t care how many get killed. We’re starting to run dry on missiles and it’s going to be a minute before our battalion gets resupplied. Hell, at this rate, the entire regiment could go Winchester before we know it.”7

“And we come in where, exactly?” Stephanie asked.  Malone tapped the map between Taiwan and Itbayat. “The Bashi Channel. You’re going to mine it.”

Wickem cleared his throat. “I thought it was already mined. The Navy’s had an Upward Falling Payload at the sea floor there since before things kicked off.”8

“They did, until the PRC detected and cleared the field,” Pham said. “Which is good, because they won’t expect another minefield, and won’t be looking for one inserted like this.”

“Lay the mines, then hold tight at Mavulis Island and control your minefields from there,” Malone said. “Signature management is key. Communicate by exception only. Turn radios on only to receive at our designated comms windows.”9

“And remember,” Pham said.

“Persist forward,” Stephanie said, indulging in a half-smile.

“Indefinitely…” Wickem muttered.

The Bashi Channel

Stephanie sat in the pilothouse of the modified Mark VI patrol boat, staring out at the waters of the Bashi Channel. While usually acting as a maritime, mobile command post for her platoon, their task required most of the boat’s capabilities be avoided. With GPS and other electronic means of navigation disabled to avoid detection, her navigator, Corporal Schwab, was plotting their location on a map using a compass, ruler, and manual calculations. The current plot showed them about halfway between Itbayat, far to the south, and Taiwan’s Orchid Island to the northwest.

“It’s about that time,” Wickem said, looking from the chart to his watch. Stephanie nodded, and stepped out of the pilothouse to watch the payload get delivered.

Sergeant Ortega was at the boat’s stern, watching his team finish preparations of the mine racks. Twenty smooth black orbs were in each of the ten racks, glistening in the noon-day sun.

“Wouldn’t it be awful if Supply screwed up the order and these were bowling balls instead of mines?” Ortega asked, eyeing the racks.

“Bowling balls or mobile mines, all I care is that they can give us a strike,” Stephanie said. “Launch ‘em.”

“Launch!” Ortega ordered.

“Launching!” his Marines replied. They opened the rack gate and flipped a switch. As the boat sailed forward, the mines rolled one after the other into the water with a heavy splash.10 They immediately vanished into the water, following their algorithms to spread out, submerse to the correct depths, and stand by. If any targets met the strike criteria, the mines would close with the craft and detonate. Beyond that, they would sit idly by, in receive-only mode, waiting for an operator to give them the command to move to another location.11

Their mines released, Stephanie eyeballed her watch, giving her other squads operating just in sight to her north and south ample time to deliver their payloads in turn. Satisfied, she nodded at her radio operator, Lance Corporal Kim.

“Confirm delivery for me, would you, Kim?” Stephanie asked.

“You know, Ma’am,” Kim said, pulling a pair of flags out of her pack, “my recruiter told me going into Comm was going to let me work with cutting edge technology. You know, set me up for success in the outside world.” She stood, raised the flags, and sent a semaphore message to the two other patrol boats. She lowered her arms, glanced at Stephanie, and held the flags up helplessly. “This is BS.”

Stephanie couldn’t help a smile. “I guess if it doesn’t get us killed, it’s cutting edge. ‘Everything that’s old is new again,’ right?”

 Kim grinned, and looked back to the horizon. “You’re starting to sound like my dad,” Ortega snorted. “If the lieutenant is our dad, does that mean Staff Sergeant is our mom?” Kim shook her head. “I always imagined Staff Sergeant as more of a drunk uncle.” Stephanie crossed her arms and forced a smile, reflecting on their banter while they set about emplacing their killing field. Was this gallows humor? Anxiety? Or were they too relaxed, taking their eye off the ball?

Kim squinted, reading the flags sending her a message back. “Payloads delivered.” Stephanie nodded. “Let’s go home.”

Kim waved her flags again, signaling all to return to base, then tucked the flags back in her pack. As her patrol boat turned around, three missiles shot across the sky.12

“Theirs or ours?” Ortega asked.

“Ours,” Stephanie said, recognizing their signature from live-fire EABO exercises at Marine Corps Littoral Combat Center-Hawaii. “Looks like Alpha Company is staying busy.”

“Hope that’s three good kills,” Ortega said.

Stephanie shook her head. “We need a three-to-one saturation ratio to make sure we beat most Chinese ship defenses. It’s probably just one target. And its why our magazines are running dry so fast.”

Wickem stepped up behind her, watching the missiles fly. “And bad timing for us. That’s going to bring a whole lot of sensors looking in our direction. Alpha’s shooters are going to scoot to a new island while we head back to Mavulis.”

Stephanie nodded, seeing the missiles now as a bad omen. “We’ll have to go full dark when we get back. Let’s just focus on the next step.”

EAB Mavulis Island. 98 km from Taiwan.

With their boats hidden under signature dampening blankets and the Marines out of sight in the small structure abandoned by the Philippine military at the start of hostilities, Stephanie knew she should have felt confident in their concealment.13 Out of sight, out of mind, she told herself. But a lingering doubt nagged at her gut.

Sitting in an old fishing hut, she was passing the time by playing a game of Go on a small, portable nine-by-nine square board against Wickem. She looked at the black and white stones, mulled her strategy of laying the pieces to keep her black stones connected while simultaneously encircling Wickem’s white stones.

This is how it all fits together, she thought. EAB-hosted precision fires and mine warfare. Sea denial is a game of Go.

The crackling of her HF-LPD radio snapped her back into focus. Then the implications of being contacted crashed against her like a wave.14

Scrambling to the radio, she snagged the handset. Wickem ran to the window, shouted at the Marines to stand-to, then hurried back to his lieutenant.

“What’s the scoop, Ma’am?”

“We’ve been compromised,” she said. “Maritime militia are closing in on Mavulis.”

“How many boats?”

Stephanie’s face was grim. “A lot.”15

“Do we have time to bounce?” Wickem asked.

Stephanie shook her head. “There’s too many and they’re too close.”

Wickem grabbed his rifle from its spot against the wall. “Guess we’re fighting until the cavalry arrives or until the bitter end, then. I’ll get the platoon to their fighting positions.”

“Wickem,” Stephanie said, her mouth widening into a macabre smile.

Wickem sighed. “You’re going to say it, aren’t you, ‘John Paul’?”

Stephanie grinned. “’Don’t give up the ship!’”

“We won’t, but we might just sink with it,” Wickem said, shaking his head, then stepped toward the door. Stephanie held up a hand, her eyes wide, illuminated with a sudden thought.

“Wait. Get me Ortega first.”

Moments later, most of the platoon was covered and concealed in fighting positions with weapons oriented out to sea toward the incoming ships. But Stephanie was on one knee, next to Ortega, over a rugged laptop connected to a receiver-transmitter. The laptop showed a map of their position at Mavulis Island and the surrounding waters. She pointed to a spot about a kilometer out from the beachhead. “There,” she said. “Right there.”

Ortega looked from the laptop to Stephanie. “Are you sure? Sending the signal will blow our cover.”

“It’s already blown,” Stephanie said. “We don’t keep using hand and arm signals after we’ve started shooting. We’re in a firefight already, it just looks different.” Ortega nodded and entered the command. Then, they waited.

Soon, a collection of PAF-MM ships were visible on the horizon, a motley crew of trawlers that Stephanie knew didn’t spend any time trawling. Through her binoculars, she could see medium machine guns on gun mounts, and crews wielding small arms. Stephanie stopped counting at twenty boats, estimating there were at least a hundred.16

“That… is a lot of boats,” Ortega said. “How can they mass so many? So fast? For such a small objective?”

“’Quantity has a quality all its own,’” Stephanie quoted.

“Is this going to work?” Ortega asked.

Stephanie slapped her hand on his shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “It worked in our war games,” she lied. “It’ll work here.”

Ortega glanced at Stephanie and smirked. “We never wargamed this, Ma’am. But thanks for trying to keep things positive.” He winked. “We won’t give up the ship.” Stephanie slapped his shoulder again and laughed, and Ortega laughed with her.

They turned their heads to watch the approaching boats, and their laughter died on the wind. Their smiles slid from their faces, which became stone masks, mere witnesses to the next moves of the game.

They saw the explosion before they heard it. The lead boat was consumed in a fiery blast, contrasted by the arcing splash of seawater that burst into the air. Then a second boat, a third, and a fourth were struck. Boat fragments and sailors were sent in all directions. Five, six, seven explosions, then too many together to count. The rest of the trawlers turned, broke, and fled from Mavulis Island.

“Should we pursue?” Ortega asked. “These aren’t just mines, they’re munitions. We can chase those boats down and strike them as easily as return the mines to their original position.”

Stephanie shook her head. “We need to give the Chinese an off-ramp. We can’t escalate. Let them run, make them reconsider.”

Some of the sailors in the water were still moving, thrashing to stay afloat. “Aren’t their guys coming back to scoop them out of the water?” Ortega asked.

“It doesn’t look like it,” Stephanie said, her voice a near whisper.

Ortega watched, confused. “Why won’t they?”

“They don’t need to,” Stephanie said, bile rising in her throat.17

Ortega was breathing, hard, confused. “Then will we?”

Stephanie wondered the same thing, afraid to listen too closely to her conscience. Wickem stepped up behind them. “Only if we want to die. They only sent the militia to try and get some of us alive. Now they’ll just rain missiles down on us. Those aren’t POWs. They’re a trap.” The surviving sailors started disappearing beneath the waves, one by one, toward Davy Jones’ locker.

Stephanie felt a hollowness opening up within her, watching the drowning men. Then she glanced at Ortega, imagined him in the water instead, face down and surrounded by the burning remnants of their patrol boat.

“Staff Sergeant’s right,” she said, clearing her throat and steeling herself. “Let’s get off this rock and bed down at our alternate position.”

Soon, the platoon was sailing away from Mavulis Island. Stephanie watched Ortega issue another command to the mobile minefield, moving the remaining mines back to their original blocking position in the Bashi Channel.

As they departed, she forced herself to watch the burning boats and the drowned men, and imagined that the black, oily smoke rising to the sky was a burnt offering to King Neptune, one mariner’s prayer that the war might end before it got any worse.

Brian Kerg is a Non-Resident Fellow at Marine Corps University’s Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity, and a Military Fellow with the College of William and Mary’s Project for International Peace and Stability. He is currently serving as the Fleet Amphibious Communications Officer, U.S. Fleet Forces Command. Follow or contact him at @BrianKerg.

References

1. G. Bark, “Power control in an LPI adaptive frequency-hopping system for HF communications,” HF Radio Systems and Techniques, Seventh International Conference, Conference Publication No. 441., August 1997.

2. Headquarters, Marine Corps, “Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations,” U. S. Marine Corps Concepts and Programs,  (accessed 28 Jan 2020: https://www.candp.marines.mil/Concepts/Subordinate-Operating-Concepts/Expeditionary-Advanced-Base-Operations/)

3. Joshua J. Edwards and Dennis M. Gallagher, “Mine and Undersea Warfare for the Future,” Proceedings 140 no. 8, (Annapolis, MD: USNI, 2014).

4. Andrew F. Krepinevich, “How to Deter China: The Case for Archipelagic Defense,” Foreign Affairs (accessed 10 April 2020: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2015-02-16/how-deter-china).

5. Headquarters, Marine Corps, “Force Design 2030,” (Washington, D.C.: HQMC, March 2020).

6. Daniel E. Ward, “Going to War with China? Dust Off Corbett!” Proceedings 146 no. 403, (accessed 11 June 2020: https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2020/january/going-war-china-dust-corbett).

7. Megan Eckstein, “Marine Testing Regiment at Heart of Emerging Island Hopping Future,” USNI News, (accessed 19 September 2020: https://news.usni.org/2020/06/04/marines-testing-regiment-at-heart-of-emerging-island-hopping-future)

8. Timothy McGeehan and Douglas Wahl, “Flash Mob in the Shipping Lane!”, Proceedings 142 no. 355 (Annapolis, MD: USNI, 2016).

9.  Brian Kerg, “More Command, Less Control,” Marine Corps Gazette (Quantico, VA: Marine Corps Association and Foundation, March 2020).

10. Allan Lucas and Ian Cameron, “Mine Warfare: Ready and Able Now,” Proceedings 144, no. 357 (Annapolis, MD: USNI, 2018).

11. Brian Kerg, “Mine the Littorals and Chokepoints,” Center for International Maritime Security, (accessed 22 June 2020 http://cimsec.org/mine-the-littorals-and-chokepoints-mine-warfare-in-support-of-sea-control/43996).

12. Todd South, “Ship-sinking missile for Marines headed to test fire,” Marine Corps Times (accessed 22 June 2020: https://www.marinecorpstimes.com/news/your-marine-corps/2020/03/05/marine-corps-ship-sinking-missile-headed-for-test-fire/).

13. Tin Hat Ranch, “How to Hide from Drones/Thermal Imaging,” (accessed 21 September 2020: http://tinhatranch.com/hide-dronesthermal-imaging/).

14. National Urban Security Technology Laboratory, Radio Frequency Detection, Spectrum Analysis, and Direction Finding Equipment, (New York: Department of Homeland Defense, 2019), 12.

15. Niharika Mandhana, “China’s Fishing Militia Swarms Philippine Island, Seeking Edge in Sea Dispute,” The Wall Street Journal, (accessed 04 August 2020: https://www.wsj.com/articles/chinas-fishing-militia-swarms-philippine-island-seeking-edge-in-sea-dispute-11554391301).

16. Gonzalo Solano and Christopher Torchia, “260 Chinese boats fish near Galapagos, Ecuador on alert,” The Washington Post,  (accessed 04 August 2020: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/260-chinese-boats-fish-near-galapagos-ecuador-on-alert/2020/07/30/01b0d98e-d29f-11ea-826b-cc394d824e35_story.html).

17. Stephen Rosenfeld, “Human Waves,” The Washington Post, (accessed 21 September 2020: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1984/03/09/human-waves/05544e3f-ed65-49a5-93c3-eb30eb84a8f8/).

Featured Image: “The Jungle Base” by Tom Lee (via Artstation)

Jennings

Fiction Contest Week

By Ryan Belscamper

Seven years ago, the Marine Corps decided they needed a better way to “Kick in doors on foreign shores!” Landing craft were slow and vulnerable, aircraft weren’t as slow, but still pretty vulnerable, and the ships to launch either one of them would not survive for long operating nearby. Shore bombardment was a problem, too. How do you provide enough firepower when you don’t have enough ships? Hitting the beach was only the first insurmountable problem. Once there, Marines would need to fight further inshore, using who knows what for supply lines, and only the equipment that could have been landed in the first place. If someone could just get a foot in the door, take an airfield or knock out local defenses, then more traditional methods could handle everything else. If victory could be won fast enough, then resources might go far enough. That’s where really bad ideas started sounding like good ideas.

_______________________________________

Two years ago, Jennings had been on a patrol in Afghanistan when they’d come under attack. Half the squad was dead or wounded in the first two seconds, the other half fighting for their lives. Reinforcement took four minutes to arrive, and the fight didn’t last long after that. For those four minutes though, Jennings was in a special place. There was no panic, no pain, no fear or loss. For four minutes, Jennings just did his job. Bullets couldn’t touch him, and he couldn’t miss. Two grenades over there, one more to the left. Grab more from McBride, he wasn’t going to use them. Grab an extra magazine while he was at it, and shoot that guy on the right. Combat was supposed to be terrifying, but this was just shooting things.

Afterward, Colonel Walks told Jennings he’d fought well, and asked if he wanted to avoid pulling guard or patrol duty ever again. That sounded pretty unlikely, so Jennings asked what the catch was.

“The catch is, all you’ll ever do again is either train or fight. New unit, handpicked, volunteer only, and you have to get shot at to join.” the Colonel explained. “Today, you got shot at.” 

To Jennings, training was fun, sitting in barracks dull, guard duty was awful, patrol duty was torture, and combat was just shooting things. So he said “Yes, sir.”  That evening, he was in the back of a C-17, heading stateside.

35 Marines made up the new unit. Five squads, seven Marines to a squad, plus a Major everyone called Brickhead, because the man looked like a brick. Seven was a peculiar number to make up a squad, but apparently that was all their new transports could fit. Not that Jennings or any of the other members of his unit got to see those transports yet.

For the next two years, Jennings and the others trained. They trained to enter and clear buildings, and they trained to fight in the mud. They trained as teams, then they trained to fight alone. They got new weapons, new armor, and a fancy new helmet that would show where everyone else was at. The Major called their gear a three-piece suit, though it looked nothing like a suit to Jennings. They spent a lot of time in the weight room, and more time in the ‘Rattle Room.’ The rattle room looked like one of those high-end flight simulators, the kind that move around on pneumatic pistons. This one was all about shaking a squad up, then stopping suddenly to see how fast they could recover.

No-one knew what to call their new unit. It was clearly a platoon, but a platoon of what? They’d eventually been allowed to pick their own names for squads. Someone in Jennings’ squad thought their new armor looked like an armadillo, and the name stuck. Growing up in east Texas, they looked nothing like armadillos to Jennings. Five of second squad’s seven original members were female, so Kline and Phillips just had to live with being called “She-Devils.” Jennings had seen them train, so he thought She-Devils was perhaps a bit too tame. “Vicious Amazonian terror fiends rage killing everything” was a bit unwieldy though. Kicking in doors was exactly what this whole unit was about, so calling themselves “Door-Kickers” made sense. Hedgehogs made about as much sense as Armadillos. Butterflies was a complete mystery, but it wasn’t excessively vulgar or obscene, so it stood. Other units on base supplied the platoon name by always complaining how Brickhead’s men never pulled guard duty.  They weren’t a platoon, or a company, or a brigade. They were “Brickheads.” Jennings was now a Brickhead.

_______________________________________

 “One-way in 30 minutes!” Sitting in the berthing compartment, Brickhead was briefing them on what would be their first operational mission. A Navy special warfare pin painted on one wall revealed the compartment’s usual occupants. Given a little paint, the Brickheads would’ve gladly replaced the Trident with a Globe. Two weeks stuck underwater gave them more than enough time. The slide showed a map of a small island with an airfield. “Armadillos, She-Devils, and Door-Kickers are hitting the north side of the island. Hedgehogs and Butterflies in the south.”

“Armadillos, we’re going down the west shore. Our job is to neutralize the airfield. Nothing takes off once we hit. She-Devils, you’re in the middle. Take down the control tower and main barracks. Door-Kickers, you’re on the east shore. This tower has the island’s main search radar, and this building is the operations center. Level them both.”

“Hedgehogs will come up the west shore from the south, taking out these missile sites. Butterflies will be coming up the eastern shore and taking out that marina. We don’t need to deal with any patrol boats.”  Yellow boxes were drawn around each major objective. Both the map and the boxes would appear on a display inside each Marine’s helmet. As objectives were assessed as either destroyed or neutralized, the yellow symbols would change to black. Blue circles would indicate each other’s positions, while red diamonds would relay enemy positions. A built-in radio would allow them to stay in constant contact with their squad and with the platoon.

While the Major continued, Jennings focused on his armor. Patrol had always sucked, lugging around 50 pounds of gear. Right now, Jennings was bolting on the last of about 120 pounds of armor. With a powered exoskeleton, it felt like about ten. Of course, that would only help for the first few minutes. After that, the armor would feel like about 40 pounds, and eventually he’d have to pull the cord that would shed both the exoskeleton and 90 pounds of his armor. Batteries only lasted so long, ten minutes, give or take. His weapon fired 12mm armor piercing sabots, with an underslung launcher firing up to nine 40mm smart grenades. Each member of the squad also carried four rockets, good to about 300 meters. They’d take the back off a tank, supposedly, if you could get behind one. The last two weapons seemed almost like a joke: a demolition charge about a foot across and three inches thick with foam glue on the dangerous side, and a combat knife that any sane person would call a sword. Just in case you needed to kill buildings or fight the Roman Army.

No one ever said the next part was a good idea. Actually, quite a lot of people had said it was a bad one. But apparently, somebody thought strapping a handful of Marines to the top of a ballistic missile wasn’t that bad of an idea, because Jennings was about to do just that, along with the rest of the Brickheads.

The Armadillos, She-devils, and Doorkickers filed out of the small berthing compartment onboard the converted ballistic missile submarine, into the missile room, through small hatches near the top of each missile tube, and into their deployment pods atop the repurposed missiles. The Hedgehogs and Butterflies would be doing the same aboard another sub somewhere. The corpsmen passed out Dramamine while boson-mates turned armor-techs literally bolted the armored warriors into place. The hatches were sealed, and then nothing happened.

“You sure this thing has room for seven?”

“Why, you don’t like my company?”

“Mom! He’s touching me!”

“No, I don’t like your elbow in my back.”

“That’s not my elbow.”

Laughter.

“How long is this flight supposed to be?” someone else chattered.

“About 500 miles.”

“So, is there a movie?”

More laughter.

Brickhead cut in on the banter, “Combat in eight minutes, jokers.”

One minute, 37 seconds later, something big kicked Jennings in the back. After the initial kick, he was falling backwards for about a second, before the rocket motor kicked in. Obviously, it was the rocket motor because Jennings’ teeth were rattling out and the kick became one continuous shove. At least this was the worst part.

Two minutes later, and the worst part was over. Now Jennings was in free fall and knew why the docs had passed out the Dramamine. His display read four minutes sixteen seconds to landing. Three arcs rose from the map, showing where each squad was rising from the ocean. Two more arcs began rising from the south. Three minutes. Two minutes. At a minute and a half, plummeting back into atmosphere, Jennings learned two things. The first was that he was wrong about launch being the worst part. The second was why those Rattle-Room operators had always tossed them around so much. He was a rag-doll in the hands of an insane child. If he could have moved, he’d have broken every limb flailing about. Things were breaking off the capsule, up and down were alien concepts, the display was a riot of lines and colors, and something went missing. His display changed to an overlay of the island, with a timer counting down from thirty. The violent jolting eased, as the capsule dropped just below Mach five in its descent. At 27 seconds, Jennings again learned he was wrong about the worst part. Retrorockets fired, crushing Jennings in his armor. The pod flew apart around him, bolts released, the ground came with a thump, and he was face down in the sand.

_______________________________________

Jennings could feel the warmth of the coral sand beneath him. Rolling onto his back, he could just barely feel the tropical breeze under his armor. He sat up in the sand, enjoying the peace and quiet, not entirely certain how he got there. The sea lapped at the shoreline a few dozen feet away, while acrid smoke drifted by from the left. He could hear some voices, and off in the far distance there was a staccato popping sound. Looking to his right, Jennings could see the sun just cresting some low, ugly buildings sporting radio towers. Something about the size of a surfboard impaled the sand nearby. To his left was a smoking, hollowed out cone about ten feet high. Why did that voice sound so urgent? And what was that sputtering in the sand all around him?

“JENNINGS! GET YOUR HEAD IN THE GAME!” Brickhead screamed. “She-Devils are out. Ajax, we’re getting shot at, you wanna do something about that?  Flores, Young, take the shore defense. Jennings, Chavez, control tower! Hamlet, you’re with me. Let’s wreck that flight line before anything leaves this island!”

Jennings remembered where he was. This was a hostile island with 500 enemy soldiers and 35 of his own unit trying to take the whole thing out. Scratch that, She-Devils were out? So, 28 against 500. Great. Rolling and turning he got to his knees, then to his feet. He began running. The sputtering in the nearby sand turned to a tapping on his armor as Jennings realized he was being shot at. With a terrific ripping sound, first one, then three rockets launched from the squad behind him. A short tower with a point defense weapon atop it exploded on one side, while other things went crack and boom behind him. Another pair of rockets, one each from Jennings and Chavez into the barricades ahead and the tapping stopped. Spotting one of the island’s cruise missile launchers, he let off a second rocket.

Jennings saw the island’s radar turn to shrapnel and wreckage as a rocket from the Door-Kickers hit. His display didn’t change the objective from yellow to black. None of the other Brickheads appeared on his display either. As Jennings and Chavez approached the control tower, they spotted a number of enemy soldiers improvising a second defensive position. What were they called again? People’s Soldiers? Revolutionary Marines?  Freedom Militia? It didn’t matter, Chavez put a rocket into the position, and Jennings set three grenades to go off just above and behind the barricades that might have saved someone from the rocket. They continued their charge to the tower.

Reaching the back of the tower, the two Brickheads rested for a half-second. The door was not on this side, so they would need to circle the building to find an entrance. Their comms were filled with static, so Chavez pointed first at Jennings, then the corner on their left. Chavez turned and went for the right. As Jennings stepped around the corner he spotted the heavy machine gun waiting for him. He leapt back, barely getting clear before bullets began tearing at the concrete and the air in front of him. Chavez wasn’t so lucky rounding the other side of the building. They wore a lot of armor, and at longer range, laying prone, the bullets might have deflected off. At less than forty feet, catching fire right in the chest, Chavez didn’t have much chance. Jennings bounced three grenades around the corner, then turned to help Chavez. Reaching her ankle, he dragged her behind the building before lobbing three more grenades into that alley. A handful of pockmarks showed where the armor had actually worked, but one furrow dug into the armor showed where a bullet had slid up the chest plate and under her helmet.

Jennings grabbed the demo charge from Chavez’s side, and slapped it onto the wall. He moved as far toward one alley as he dared, stepping back from the wall and crouching as the charge went off. Shaped charge explosives make a heck of a hole in one direction, but still blow a lot of shrapnel out to the sides as well. Jennings avoided most of it by not being in plane with the charge, but his armor still rattled with what he did catch. Jumping to his feet, Jennings dove through the door he had just made. Pulling down two display cases, he blocked the front door. Shoving a flagstaff through the push bar secured it just a little better. After that, he found the stairs.

Reaching the control room, he shot the two guards. An officer of some type still had his sidearm holstered. The officer reached for his weapon, struggling to get it clear, and stopped as he realized the futility of his situation. Jennings took two steps, punching the man in the face with an armored fist. The officer dropped to the floor, unconscious. The horrified controllers in the room broke and ran when Jennings started shouting at them and chasing them with his knife. It was one way to clear a room, and probably faster than shooting everyone. Down the stairs, he could hear revolutionary soldiers or whatever they were called trying to break through the front door. No time to do things neatly, Jennings shot every console and equipment box he saw, smashing two handheld radios to the ground.

Turning back to the stairs, he found the first enemy just reaching the control room. The same exoskeleton that made it possible to run and fight wearing so much armor made a kick to the chest an unstoppable force. Sending the man back down the stairs with two of his buddies, Jennings grabbed a desk and shoved it onto the stairs behind them. While he waited for something to go wrong, he looked out the windows at the island below.

The northern half of the flight line was a smoking wreck, and two fighter-bombers littered the taxiway. Brickhead and Hamlet were doing their job well. A helicopter tried to lift off behind them, flames shooting from the engine compartment before the craft was engulfed in a fireball. The wreckage landed on the runway, blocking its use. To the south, Jennings could see the Butterflies and Hedgehogs working their way north, about a mile distant. Three patrol boats had made it out of the marina and were beginning to shell the Butterflies with grenades and rocket fire. One of the patrol boats exploded as it was hit by a rocket, but the other two kept firing. Surface-to-air missile launchers were elevated on the western shore, but began exploding as the Hedgehogs got close enough to them. One missile launched, then exploded in mid-air. Another spiraled into the sea, holes punched through its guidance systems. Just below, Jennings could see the barracks on fire and partially collapsed. The armory was in worse shape, having taken five or more rocket hits. A radio mast collapsed, and Jennings’ display flickered to life. The operations center appeared to still be intact, so Jennings decided to go there next. Yelling and banging behind him told Jennings his makeshift barricade was at an end.

Moving sluggishly, he realized his batteries were beginning to run low. He checked his ammunition: two magazines with 25 rounds each, no grenades, two rockets, and a demolition charge. And one knife. He put five rounds through the desk to clear the top of the stairs, then pulled it aside. Seeing men coming around the landing, he slid feet first down the stairs, using his armor as a sled and his boots as a battering ram. Bringing out his knife, he dispatched the men who broke his fall. One flight down, four to go, and he’d be outside again. Repeating his armor sled trick, he almost made it. On the last step, the soldier he aimed for managed to jump aside. While Jennings was on the ground, three more jumped on him, pinning his now unpowered form to the ground. His display showed lines of red diamonds all over the island, as the defenders managed to regroup. Eight blue circles remained, all of them surrounded by red. Everyone else had either died or taken their armor off. The good news was that all of the yellow was gone.

His captors didn’t need much time to find the release for his armor as they stripped him of his equipment. With one arm twisted so far behind his back Jennings thought they were trying to break it, he was marched outside toward the flight line. Smoke and a strange buzzing noise filled the air. Distant crunches told of fighting continuing to the south. He looked around, finding a disappointing number of buildings still undamaged. He was punched in the head, and his arm was lifted forcing Jennings to march doubled over as the buzzing grew louder. No more sight-seeing.

The gentle sea breeze erupted into a hurricane, the buzzing replaced by an enormous rush of air and sand. His captors scattered as an aircraft swooped overhead, dropping almost right on top of them. Another landed next to it, while a third circled overhead. Gunfire erupted as Marines poured from the aircraft, running past him. The two Ospreys leapt back into the air, the third dropping to unload its precious cargo. More shouts, then deafening roars as LCACs pulled onto the runway. Landing Craft, Air Cushion; they looked more like metal storage buildings drifting to a stop before sitting on the ground to release armored vehicles from within. Fighting vehicles and armored trucks rolled into the spaces between the various buildings, forming instant bunkers and strongpoints. They were too close to the buildings to protect themselves from rockets or grenades, but those buildings were already being swarmed by infantry. Jennings couldn’t count the aircraft suddenly overhead, but there were plenty.

_______________________________________

The Ospreys and the LCACs had been timed to arrive just after the Brickheads had done their work. By knocking the island’s radar out, grounding planes, ruining air and shore defenses, they’d made the island defenseless. With so much mayhem from the Brickheads, no one had even seen the assault craft. In less than 15 minutes the arriving Marines had secured every building, made prisoners of everyone still moving on the island, and begun setting up their own equipment. After 20 minutes everyone dove for cover when reports came in of enemy aircraft approaching. Five minutes after that it was back to work, apparently they weren’t coming after all. An hour after his own landing, Jennings was regrouped with the other surviving Brickheads, including the Major.

Within another hour, a second landing arrived, bringing a mobile radar station, surface to air missiles, and Seabees. Attack sirens sounded, then cleared, and sounded again throughout the day. Point defense guns went off twice. Long-range rocket artillery dotted the island, telling Jennings that the Marines would be staying here for as long as they wanted. By that afternoon, twelve of those rockets had been fired. Meanwhile, cargo aircraft had begun to arrive on the newly cleared airfield, bringing supplies and removing prisoners from the island. Later, the Air Force would arrive with Warthogs and Eagles, perfect forward deploying patrol forces.

The Brickheads wouldn’t be repeating their performance any time soon. The rockets they’d been launched on, and the capsules they’d dropped into combat in weren’t reusable. The rocket boosters had burned themselves up, and the capsules had shed layer after layer on the descent, ablating chaff and micro-jammers all the way down. What was left of the capsules got shot to pieces as the island’s defenders responded to the Brickhead’s unwelcome arrival. More painfully, half the Brickheads had died that day.

Jennings didn’t know if they had any more rockets to ride, but he knew replacing the She-devils, Butterflies, and others who’d been lost wouldn’t be fast or easy. Then Jennings broke into laughter.

“What’s so damn funny?” asked Ajax.

“I finally get… why the Major… calls our armor… a three piece suit!”  The other Brickheads were looking at Jennings like a strange animal, not sure if they should be worried or scared.

“Okay Jennings, I’ll bite. Why does the Major call our armor a three piece suit?”

Gasping for air and recovering somewhat, Jennings replied, “Because there are three pieces!”  Quizzical looks met him. “We rode in on rocket ships, that’s one.” Nods of vague understanding met him this time. “And our armor and weapons, that’s two.” More nods.

“Alright, so what’s the third piece? And don’t say something cheesy like ‘friendship’ or ‘teamwork,’” Young asked. She could be real sentimental at times.

“Close! We’re the third piece. If we’re ever going to do this again, the Corps need more rockets, more gear, and more of us.” This last part sobered Jennings up. It was the thought of what and who would need replacement that sparked his understanding. It was the reminder that people would need replacing that broke the joke. People he knew. Whether those people would be replaced, whether new recruits would fill their boots, or whether any more of the ballistic missiles they’d launched on that morning would be acquired, it all depended on whether or not anyone thought what they did that morning was worthwhile. And whether it was still a bad idea.

Ryan A. Belscamper is a retired U.S. Navy Firecontrolman with Bachelor’s degrees in Mechanical and Electrical Engineering from Southern Illinois University.  He is currently working as an Engineer with NSWC Crane.

Featured Image: “Soldier” by Richard Bagnall (via Artstation)

The Geometry of War at Sea: The Leyte Gulf Example

LCDR Daniel T. Murphy, U.S. Navy

Introduction 

General MacArthur’s operational idea, eventually embraced by Admiral Nimitz, President Roosevelt, and the Joint Chiefs, was to retake the Philippines as an intermediate base of operations from which to launch air strikes against Formosa, and eventually the Japanese home islands. Leyte was selected as the initial entry point to the Philippines because it had an “excellent anchorage” and was a location from which land-based bombers could reach all parts of the Philippines, the coast of China, and Formosa.1

The Japanese Imperial General Headquarters had a strong feeling that the two prongs of the American offensive would converge on the Philippines in what Milan Vego would describe as a penetration maneuver, where the attacker seeks to break up or penetrate a selected sector of the defender’s main line of position and move into his rear area.2  Japan’s most critical Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC) to the southern resource area ran through the Philippines. The Luzon Strait was an especially important SLOC. According to Donald Chisolm, the southern resource area provided 75 percent of the world’s rubber, 66 percent of the world’s tin, and had initially given Japan self-sufficiency in petroleum.  U.S. anti-shipping activities through 1944 had already reduced Japan’s oil supply to a trickle. Losing the Philippines would run the well dry.3

When U.S. forces landed in Leyte, Japan had prepared a quick counterattack in the hope of forcing the Mahanian battle they had sought since Midway. To destroy the U.S. fleet and retain the Philippines, Japan’s SHO-1 plan involved a double envelopment maneuver that required careful synchronization between diversionary and attacking forces.

Lines of Operation

For the invasion of Leyte, U.S. forces had one principal line of operation and two ancillary lines. The principal line was the landing on the western shore of Leyte, under the operational control of MacArthur. This principal line included land, sea and air components. The Seventh Fleet naval component, under Admiral Kinkaid, included a Northern TF 78 under Rear Admiral Barbey which landed at Tacloban and a Southern TF 89 under Vice Admiral Wilkinson which landed at Dulag.

Prior to the initiation of the principal line of operation, the first ancillary line was initiated by Vice Admiral Halsey’s Fast Carrier TF 38. TF 38, which included carrier groups TG 38.1, 38.2, 38.3 and 38.4, attacked Japanese air bases in Okinawa, Luzon, and Formosa. By destroying more than 500 aircraft and reducing Japan’s cadre of newly trained pilots, this initial ancillary line of operation reduced Japan’s air capacity to challenge the U.S. movement into Leyte.

A second ancillary line was the protection of the landing operation. This ancillary line had two operational commanders. Admiral Kinkaid had tactical control of multiple Seventh Fleet components, including the Fire Support Group TG 77.2, the Close Covering Group TG 77.3, the Escort Carrier Group TG 77.4 under Rear Admiral Sprague (which included the carriers assigned to Taffy 1, 2, 3 and 4), and the PT boat squadrons assigned to TG 70.1. Also providing protection to the landing operation was Halsey’s Fast Carrier TF 38, over which MacArthur did not have operational control. TF38 transitioned from the first ancillary line to this second ancillary line after the initial landings were completed. Halsey reported directly to Nimitz at CINCPAC and had a supporting relationship with MacArthur and Kinkaid.  Arguably, the lack of unified command over this secondary but critical line is one of the reasons that the Leyte operation was put at risk when Halsey uncovered the San Bernardino Strait to pursue the Japanese Northern force.

Approach of Naval Forces in the lead up to the Battle of Leyte Gulf (Via history.army.mil)

The deployment of the U.S. submarines DARTER and DACE to intercept and reduce Kurita’s Center Force as it approached the operating area may be considered a third ancillary line, especially since the subs were strategic assets that remained under CINCPAC control. 

To counterattack against the U.S. invasion, Japan had one principal and one ancillary line of operation.  According to Vego, Japan’s principal line of operation was the Center Force under Vice Admiral Kurita that intended to penetrate the San Bernardino Strait and attack U.S. landing forces at Tacloban. Vego said the Southern Force under Vice Admirals Shima and Nishimura that intended to transit Surigao and attack the U.S. landing force from the south was an ancillary line.4  One could argue that the Center and Southern forces were either: (a) two pincer components of one principal line of operation; or (b) two separate principal lines. The diversionary Northern force under Vice Admiral Ozawa was the ancillary line intended to divert the U.S. fast carrier task forces to the north, so that they could not threaten the Center and Southern Forces.

As the battle evolved, Japanese lines of operation remained static. However, U.S. lines shifted between 24-25 October. Halsey created a new line of operation when he transitioned TF 38 from a covering force to an offensive force focused on Ozawa’s Northern force.  Admiral Kinkaid created two new lines of operation when he detached Rear Admiral Oldendorf to guard Surigao Strait with his battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and PT boats against the Southern Force, and Rear Admiral Sprague to defend against Center Force which came through San Bernardino.

Basing Structure and Impact on Operations

Per Vego’s definition, a base of operations should provide multiple short lines of operations.5 Before Leyte, Japan occupied what Vego called a “central position with respect to the adjacent Asian landmass and any hostile force approaching from across the Pacific.”6 Compared to the U.S., Japan had multiple relatively short interior lines of communication. The Japanese home islands were the main base, and Luzon was an intermediate base.

However, as explained by Chisolm, Japan’s combined interior lines totaled more than 18,000 nautical miles and the Luzon Strait was a significant choke point in that network. The Japanese had not built sufficient submarines or destroyers to protect those lines and they had not built sufficient shipping capacity to make up for losses due to U.S. anti-shipping efforts.7 So, although Japan had a base of operations with multiple short interior lines, the U.S. found the weak points in that base early in the war and attacked it with the submarine force. Then, in the campaigns leading up to the Leyte operation, U.S. forces eliminated several of Japan’s fleet oilers. As a result, after the Battle of the Philippine Sea, Japanese carriers returned to home waters where they could be protected by land-based aircraft and continue to train pilots. Japan’s other large combatants moved to Lingga Roads (Singapore), where they had access to oil, but less access to ammunition and less ability to operate with the carriers.

Thus, in the summer of 1944, the Japanese basing structure was already significantly weakened. If the U.S. was able to dislodge Japan from their intermediate base in Luzon, they would essentially turn Japan’s network of interior lines into a network of exterior lines, vulnerable not only to continued submarine attack, but also to land-based air attack.

Japanese shipping routes destroyed during the Leyte Operation. (Via history.army.mil)

In comparison, the U.S. occupied what Vego calls an exterior position in the theater. The U.S. mainland was the main base of operations, and Hawaii was an intermediate base. As explained by Chisolm, the U.S.’s exterior lines into the South Pacific were extremely long – more than six thousand miles from the U.S. mainland, and more than two thousand miles from Australia.8 However, the U.S. exterior lines were not as vulnerable as the Japanese interior lines. While the Japanese fleet was suffering from attrition, the U.S. fleet was expanding, and each month was able to increase the number of escort resources dedicated to the protection of shipping. And while Japan’s link to their southern resource area was becoming increasingly tenuous, CONUS-based war production was hardly resource-constrained.

Decisive Points in the Operation

Vego defines a decisive point as a geographic location or source of military or non-military power to be targeted for destruction or neutralization.9 As Vego suggests, the San Bernardino and Surigao Straits were decisive points for the Japanese heavy surface forces in their intended advance to Leyte Gulf.10 However, for Japan, the most decisive point in the operation was in the Leyte Gulf itself, where the U.S. landing force would be vulnerable and where the Seventh and Third fleets would be protecting the landings. It was there that Admiral Toyoda planned for his pincers to join in a combined action against the U.S. fleet, ideally with a Mahanian ending.

In contrast, prior to Japan’s counter attack, U.S. forces focused on two decisive points: the northern and southern landing zones on the west coast of Leyte. When Japanese forces counter-attacked, the U.S. changed focus and saw the two straits, San Bernardino and Surigao, as the most decisive points. As a result, Admiral Kinkaid massed the firepower of his surface fleet in the Surigao Strait and expected the airpower of Halsey’s TF 38 to cover San Bernardino. 

Conclusion

MacArthur’s operational idea of capturing the Philippines to create an intermediate base of operations for air strikes against Formosa and the Japanese home islands worked. Seven years after Leyte, Nimitz said “from hindsight . . . I think that decision was correct.”11  In summary, U.S. lines of operation were more flexible and less interdependent than the Japanese lines of operation. Ironically, the external U.S. basing structure, when looked at holistically, had greater durability than the internal Japanese basing structure. Also, the U.S. more effectively concentrated kinetic effects on specific decisive points in the geography, and specifically in the Surigao Strait. U.S. forces ultimately won at Leyte because they better exploited the geometry of the operating area.  

Daniel T. Murphy is a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy, currently serving in the Office of Naval Intelligence. In his civilian career, he is a full-time professor at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, and an adjunct faculty member at Northeastern University. Lieutenant Commander Murphy earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts, and master’s degrees from Georgetown University and from the National Intelligence University. 

The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or the U.S. Government.

References

[1] M. Hamlin Cannon, Leyte: The Return to the Philippines, Washington: Center for Military History, 1993), 3.

[2] Milan Vego, Joint Operational Warfare: Theory and Practice, (Newport: U.S. Naval War College, 2009), VII-54.

[3] Donald Chisolm, Leyte Gulf: The Strategic Background (NWC lecture), U.S. Naval War College, 2009.

[4] Vego, IV-64.

[5] Vego, IV-56.

[6] Vego, IV-53.

[7] Chisolm (NWC lecture).

[8] Chisolm.

[9] Vego, IV-60.

[10] Vego, IV-61.

[11] Samuel Eliot Morison, Leyte: June 1944-January 1945, (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1958) 10.

Featured Image: The crew of the Japanese aircraft carrier Zuikaku salute as the flag is lowered during the battle off Cape Engaño, October 25, 1944. (Wikimedia Commons)

A Post-It Rebel Goes to Sea

This article originally appeared on Medium and was republished with the author’s permission. You can read it in its original form here

By Anne Gibbon

Design thinking is beloved by many, and is more than a flash in the long list of new management tools. Why? Because it’s embodied learning. In recruiting your body, emotions, and rational brain to explore problems with others, we get to better solutions than pondering them alone in a cubicle. But for messy problems and large bureaucracies, design thinking alone isn’t sufficient. Systems dynamics appears to be the discipline of choice, but up to this point, the theoretical underpinnings have been developed to the exclusivity of embodied exercises.

This is my story of learning to facilitate design thinking as an embodied experience, rather than an intellectual exercise, and to begin to include systems thinking into the work. I have faith that the small prototypes will eventually snowball and make a greater impact than well written policy think pieces alone.

I confess, I put bandaids over my piercings. I never should have done that, I should have just taken them out — but the piercings are more me than the uniform these days.

Thirteen months after finishing ten years of service in the Navy, and days after finishing a fellowship at Stanford’s Design School, I put my foot down and really stretched my rebel wings. I got a very small nose piercing and three studs in one ear, most people don’t even notice them. But to me they are freedom. My problem: I still had to show up at Navy Reserve drill weekends with a proper uniform on. Too bad I never did ‘uniform inspection’ very well. One weekend someone complained about my pink nail polish and the gold ball earrings that were 2mm too big; I think she would have fallen out of her chair if she had discovered the band aids weren’t covering scratches.

The author leads a workshop at the Silicon Valley Innovation Academy in July 2015
The author leads a workshop at the Silicon Valley Innovation Academy in July 2015

For the last two years of running design thinking workshops for various ranks and departments of the military, I have done the equivalent of putting band aids on piercings. We used Post-It notes and sharpies, but I usually left the improv at home. And the effect was an often neutered process. I led the groups through exercises and talked about modes of thinking — deductive, abductive, and inductive — as a way to make the creative, messy work more palatable to people who spent lives in frameworks so narrowly defined that playing at charades with their colleagues would have represented an existential crisis.

November 2013, our d.school fellows group hard at work

Design thinking has been the bright shiny magic wand that somehow hasn’t lost its luster. HBR gave it some east coast gravitas by featuring the process on the cover of their September issue. Popular in many management and product design circles, design thinking continues to spread. The White House just published a post about the use of Human Centered Design (HCD) by the USDA and the Office of Personnel Management’s Innovation Lab to improve the National School Lunch Program. My parents are still confused that I make a living writing on post its, but I feel lucky to be one of the many professionals using this process and adapting it for the real world. Fred Collopy, a professor of design and innovation at Case Western University has spent a career immersed in the theories of decision science, systems thinking, and design. He makes the point that design thinking has been so successful as a practical tool to effect change in organizations precisely because practitioners engage with it first by doing — not by thinking through the associated theories. Fred makes the point that systems thinking failed to spread widely as a management tool, not because it isn’t applicable, but because the discipline didn’t make the leap from theory to embodied exercises. The arcane details of the theories were and are hotly debated by a few, with the result being that the practical exercise of the main concepts are lost to the rest.

In large part, design thinking has avoided this trap because some of the most successful schools teaching the process are schools of practice, not ivory towers of thought. While I personally love dissecting the minutiae of different modes of thinking, the advances in neuroscience that allow us to explore augmented sensing, and the role that the autonomic nervous system plays in reaching creative insight, I reserve that for my fellow design practitioners. I’ve learned that when I’m leading a workshop, my job is to be the chief risk taker for the group, the leader in vulnerability. Their job is to embody each step in the process, and by fully immersing themselves, stumble into surprising reframes, 1000 ideas for a solution, and a few brilliant, wobbly prototypes.

While Fred’s article describes design thinking more as an evolution to systems thinking, I see them as complementary disciplines. Systems dynamics is worth plumbing intellectually, but for the purpose of emerging on the other side with methods and exercises that can be used as tools in the world, similar to the 5 step design thinking process from Stanford’s dschool. The complex theories associated with systems thinking and systems dynamics have at their root a set of ideas very similar to design thinking — engaging a broad set of stakeholders, using scenarios to explore them, reframing problems, and iterating. I want to explore what they might do together, with both disciplines having a rich underpinning of theory and accessible, embodied exercises.

Over a period of about seven months this year, I consulted (civilian role, not reservist) for the Pacific Fleet. I worked for a staff function in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and got the best of both worlds — the camaraderie that is a unique joy known to those who have served, and the luxury of wearing hot pink jeans to work. I learned a lot about myself as a designer and a facilitator. At the end of those months, I wrote a long report on how design thinking and systems dynamics might serve the vision of the Pacific Fleet commander, Admiral Swift. The staff that hired me didn’t ask for any insights on systems dynamics, but I gave it to them anyways.

Natural Resources in the South China Sea, Courtesy CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative http://amti.csis.org/atlas/

The Pacific Fleet needs uniformed practitioners of design thinking and systems dynamics who understand the theoretical nuances and who can also lead the embodiment of the exercises. They need this because the messy military problem they concern themselves with — maritime security — can’t be silo’ed into the pieces that only relate to the military, leaving other aspects to diplomats and environmentalists. Maritime security in our era is about rapidly declining natural resources, extreme climate events, rising levels of violence at sea, but more importantly, these different forces affecting maritime security are so interconnected that they require intense collaboration with unexpected partners. I fear that if we frame the problem of maritime security as an issue between great powers best left to great navies, we will miss the dynamics influencing the global system that supports human flourishing — our food, our climate, and many people’s freedom. (Did you know about the extent of slavery at sea?)

 Global Fishing Watch, the prototype from Google, Oceana and SkyTruth to use open source satellite data to identify illegal fishing.
Global Fishing Watch, the prototype from Google, Oceana and SkyTruth to use open source satellite data to identify illegal fishing.

I don’t have a suggestion for how to frame the problem of human flourishing and maritime security in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. I have my own opinions, but I would rather they be challenged and iterated on through a process that mixes systems and design thinking. How should the Pacific Fleet approach the challenge of understanding and leveraging the system of maritime security in Indo-Asia? Instead of policy, I suggest behaviors I think Admiral Swift would want to observe as patterns in his Fleet.

  • Encouraged collaboration — Leaders emerge from the crowd, assume the role of creative facilitator, and ensure collaboration when it’s needed.
  • Innovation at sea — Sailors innovating ‘just in time’ on deployment lead to non-traditional employment of fielded capability.
  • Using patterns — Sailors provide context, not single data points. Leaders guide the mastery of knowledge and foment the curiosity to identify and exploit patterns of action.
  • Decentralized Execution — Leaders prepare subordinates to be decision-makers, challenging them to gain insights on context and patterns.
  • The crowd organizes itself — Communities of interest will proliferate, building networks between the silos of the operational, maintenance, and R&D force.
  • The crowd learns together — The Fleet leads the debate of war fighting instructions and populates a shared electronic repository of FAQ’s and how-to resources.

My contract ended with the Pacific Fleet at the end of July, and in keeping with my commitment to spread my wings, I’m leaving for New Zealand to work and play with food and agriculture technology and innovation ecosystems. But first, my own embodied prototype of decentralized execution. On October 26 and 27, a couple friends, a senior officer at the Department of State and a PhD futurist, and I will co-facilitate a design workshop in San Francisco on maritime security. We’re inviting a wildly diverse group of participants and we’re going to test new methods for embodied systems thinking. There’s no contract guaranteeing pay and no senior leader who has promised to take the prototypes from the workshop and shepherd them to execution.

Which means there are no rules on this adventure. We’ll publish the exercises mixing systems dynamics and design thinking, and we’ll share the prototypes — hopefully you’ll test them. Please get in touch if you’re interested in more detail.