A Conversation with Capt. Tom Culora (ret.) on Leading Naval Warfare Studies

By Dmitry Filipoff

Captain Tom Culora (ret.) served as the Dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies (CNWS) at the Naval War College for seven years (2014-2021). CNWS is the primary research organization of the Naval War College. CNWS conducts independent and sponsored unclassified and classified research on issues of war, peace, national security, and international law, with particular attention to issues related to the maritime domain and naval warfare. CNWS comprises several departments, including the Strategic and Operational Research Department (SORD), the Wargaming Department, the Stockton Center for International Law, and the Naval War College Press. Each has its own mission and study and research groups.

In this conversation, Capt. Culora discusses the value of directed student research, how the fleet can leverage hybrid research groups, and how to identify what is most worth studying.

How can a hybrid research group be employed to address the needs of the fleet?

Today’s fleet is facing a set of “wicked hard” problems and complex challenges. Addressing and solving these challenges requires a level of creativity and a blended intellectual approach that can best be addressed through hybrid research. This means bringing together diverse subject matter experts (SMEs) who possess deep knowledge with researchers coupled with analysts who can apply a range of established research methodologies to gain insight into these complex challenges. Enlisting SMEs who can effectively collect and translate diverse and complicated information allows the research team to approach these problems from different perspectives and provides opportunities to apply undiscovered or non-traditional solutions. Teaming these SMEs with researchers who can apply a range of analytical methodologies and who also possess specialized information of their own, provides a potent way to devise, test, and confirm these solutions. The output that emerges from this marriage of detailed information and expert methodology delivers to leaders expanded knowledge and insights that they can have confidence in and that they can act upon.

How can civilian researchers without operational experience complement servicemembers, and vice versa?

Given the research construct outlined above, civilian researchers bring top-tier analytical skills and nearly all are experienced in multiple methodologies. Moreover, civilian researchers also possess knowledge in domains relevant to military operations, strategy, international law, and defense issues that complements the information possessed by servicemembers. Servicemembers, for their part, bring a deep understanding of the profession of arms and firsthand experience in operating in complex environments. This blending of civilian researchers with servicemembers is a powerful formula for getting after these “wicked hard” problems and in developing and testing multiple solutions.

How would you describe the particular value of directed student research?

The Naval War College has multiple ways students can get involved with directed research. Within the Center for Naval Warfare Studies (CNWS), three Advanced Research Project (APRs) groups recruit students who volunteer to engage in directed research through individual academic efforts and group projects. Currently, the three ARPs: Halsey Alfa, Halsey Bravo, and the Holloway Group each look at a different region of the world and are led by civilian and military faculty members with knowledge and experience in these areas. The value of this directed student research is fourfold.

First, most military students arriving at the Naval War College for JMPE Phase I have minimal academic experience or knowledge in national and grand strategy, national security decision-making, and complex joint and combined operations—the broad areas covered by the core curriculum. There are of course exceptions, but most are novitiates in these areas. Conversely, when they join one of the ARPs from the fleet, they arrive with a mid-career professionals’ specialized subject matter expertise in their principal warfighting specialty—essentially the SMEs of the research construct outlined above. The value is that they actively and critically provide up-to-date information and experience from the fleet and force. Moreover, they can relay and translate specialized and complicated information that is used directly in the ARPs’ ongoing research.

Second, these select students produce analytical products that contribute to the overall research of the ARP groups themselves. As part of their curriculum in these advanced groups, they are required to individually research and analyze systems, intelligence, operations, and strategies. Unlike the War College’s core curriculum, which is taught at the unclassified level, the content that is presented and research output in the ARPs is mostly classified. Students matriculating through the ARPs contribute to a classified body-of-knowledge that is used by both the fleet and the Navy staff.

Third, students participating in the ARPs are exposed to range of research methodologies while sifting through and evaluating primary and secondary sources. However, the prime methodology used by the APRs is a form of wargaming that examines key operational problems and uncovers best practices through iterative gaming, testing, and analysis. Through this process, students are often conducting original research and discovering new and novel approaches to complex issues and problems. They come away from their time in the APRs with a journeyman’s understanding of the iterative wargaming process and a baseline appreciation of operations analysis methodologies.

Lastly, students become immersed in the issues and details in the theater of operations that their respective ARP group is focused on. They emerge from this experience with an expanded and sophisticated understanding of the entire theater of operations and return to fleet units and senior staffs where they apply this broadened knowledge to plan and execute the missions of their new organizations.

How do you view the relationship between theory and practice, and what are the related implications for making research relevant to the fleet?

The relationship between theory and practice is cyclical. In the best of circumstances, ideas and theories are developed from research and analysis that would not otherwise emerge elsewhere. Some theories emerge from well-grounded and detailed information and data where the distance between theory and practice is small. However, other theories emerge from conjecture and creativity—here the distance between theory and practice is usually much greater. Regardless of their origin, by definition, theories are untested and only represent a notional approach to solving a complex problem. Through the process of wargaming, modeling and simulation, concept development, and fleet experimentation a theory is “operationalized” where it can then have practical application for planners and warfighters.

But the process cannot stop here. Ideally, through experimentation and the practical application of theories and ideas, lessons are developed and data is collected that is then fed back into the cycle to refine existing theories and ideas—and to develop new ones as well. In a large and dispersed organization like the Navy, this virtuous cycle can be messy and sometimes illusive. But efforts have been underway for some time now to converge the theory and practice cycles into an Analytic Master Plan (AMP) for the Navy where the individual activities and outputs in these cycles are codified, organized, aligned, and shared.

Among the many demands and interests that can occupy the attention of a dean or research group director, how can you determine what is most worth studying?

As a former dean, for me there are two components that determine what is most worth studying—interest and impact.

First, the best research and analysis is accomplished by folks who are immediately and deeply interested in the topic. High quality research takes a level of energy and commitment that can only be sustained through keen interest and curiosity—and the best researchers are those who have an almost obsessive interest in the topic they are examining. Moreover, I know many talented and skilled researchers, polymaths really, who are often interested in multiple topics. Yet even here, the trend is that they are deeply immersed and interested in the immediate topic at hand. This is where the best research emerges. An essential role of a dean is finding and aligning researchers with relevant topics they are most interested in to produce high-quality analysis.

The second component is impact—and there are two avenues to follow here. The first is responding to a request for research into a particular topic or issue. This “demand” aspect of the research is where the CNO, a senior commander, or other DoD leader asks for analytical support. By design, this avenue is primed to have impact as the person or entity requesting this support has one of those “wicked hard” problems that they need the Center’s professional research help to solve. The findings from this research have a ready-made audience and often the impact is immediate and noticeable. However, if an organization like CNWS only waits to be told what to research by senior officers and officials, we are not really doing our job. This is where the second avenue of impact “speculation,” or spec-work as I like to call it, comes in.

There is a general misunderstanding that CNWS only conducts directed research for the Navy and other DoD stakeholders. While in any given fiscal year roughly 60 to 80 percent of the research conducted is the result of someone requesting analytical support— the remaining 20 to 40 percent is spec-work. This research emerges from researchers and analysts anticipating and identifying questions and challenges before the fleet or staffs recognize them. If the first time we hear of a wicked hard problem is from a senior decision-maker or leader asking for help—we are already woefully behind. Our fundamental role is to anticipate problems—and there are multiple examples at the Naval War College where the research faculty were prescient in identifying an emerging challenge, quickly developed a program of research to examine the challenge, and were ready to provide detailed information and analysis when the first call for assistance was received. It is often this intellectual preparedness and anticipation that has had the most impact and influence on the fleet and within the service.

It is the confluence of interest and impact, either from demand or speculation, that shapes the research roadmap and drives decisions on where to put resources—faculty, time, and funding—on what is most worth studying.

What do you hope students who attended the Naval War College and participated in CNWS activities take away from their experience?

I know from experience serving in an operational unit, on a senior warfighting staff, and as a member of a joint or service staff that the demands on servicemembers’ time, energy, and headspace can be severe—with scant opportunity to reflect and absorb everything that is going on around you and minimal space to dig deep into issues and ideas. Nearly all of our students will return to this environment when they leave CNWS and the College. My hope is that they will have used this opportunity to reflect on their profession, taken the time to deeply explore issues and challenges that have interested them, and leveraged the very talented and committed faculty to increase their knowledge and critical thinking skills.

I also hope they have made lasting connections with their peers and the faculty. Alumni of our research programs often reach back to the Center where they find faculty members willing to aid them in their fleet and staff responsibilities by providing advice and input, and serving as a sounding board for ideas and concepts. Moreover, the faculty also benefits from these relationships as it is an indispensable way to stay connected to the fleet.

Lastly, my ongoing hope as I finished my term as Dean of CNWS is that the organization can continue building thinkers and warfighters who will lead effectively and intelligently into what looks to be a very challenging future.

Professor Culora served as dean, Center for Naval Warfare Studies from 2014 until 2021. He is currently on sabbatical finishing a graduate degree in counseling psychology. A retired Navy captain and naval aviator, he served in operational billets including commanding officer of helicopter maritime strike squadron (HSM-47) and commanding officer of USS Boxer (LHD-4). His staff tours include the Joint Chiefs of Staff where he helped shape and coordinate national and military policy to expand NATO. He has also had fellowships at Harvard University and at the Council in Foreign Relations. He will return to the campus in 2022 to teach and research in NWC’s College of Leadership and Ethics. He holds a BFA and maintains an active career as an artist. His work can be found at www.tomculora.com.

The views presented by Professor Culora do not reflect official positions of the Naval War College, DON, or DOD.

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Content@cimsec.org.

Featured Image: SOUTH CHINA SEA (May 22, 2021) Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG 54) transits the South China Sea. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Zenaida Roth)

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