Adapting Naval Cultures for Advantage at Sea

By Scott Humr

Eroding U.S. military advantage coupled with a deluge of advanced technologies flooding the strategic landscape have forced Sea Service leaders to seek the ever diminishing high ground of technological overmatch. Yet, the pursuit of bleeding-edge technologies only provides a fleeting reprieve from having to ascend the next high-tech promontory. While pursuing the latest technologies is necessary, it is not sufficient to keep American military heads above water for very long. 

The U.S. military’s technological advantage has eroded rapidly.1 While technology is always changing, it is changing at an accelerating pace.2 A fourth and fifth offset will likely follow DoD’s third offset strategy in the not-too-distant future.3 These offsets, like those of the past, will increase the range and deadliness of American technologies. Yet, increasingly remote warfare will require equally important changes within Sea Service culture. Naval concepts such as Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO), Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment (LOCE), and “inside force” will require a naval culture characterized by highly innovative and resilient personnel.4 To chart this future, the Sea Services must disregard conventional habits, determine clear metrics for change, deepen educational opportunities, and develop a collective consciousness which unites disparate warfare areas.

Practices to Jettison

Practices accumulated over the past 25 years within the Sea Services will weigh down proposed warfighting concepts and threaten to capsize efforts for change. From organizational technology to processes, these artifacts can lend clues towards understanding the current culture’s values.5 Conversely, practices and equipment influence the conduct of warfare, which also shape culture.6 Understanding this reinforcing construct provides better insight into correctly diagnosing cultural values. Just as ancient mariners would jettison cargo to stabilize their ship caught in rough seas, the Sea Services must discard practices and behaviors that burden efforts to operate effectively in the future.

Navy and Marine Corps Force Design concepts require embracing warfighting practices that place personnel in spartan locations with minimal contact for extended periods of time.7 Therefore, servicemembers cannot expect the same creature comforts afforded over the last 20 years of operations in Southwest Asia. Frequent connectivity to family or streaming content over camp-wide Wi-Fi would offer opportunities for a technologically advanced adversary to sense and target such locations.8 Standard operating procedures that require regular reporting or unremitting requests for information exchange will require adaptation or elimination to limit exposure. 

American habits for employing increasing amounts of technology over the last quarter century have also created a complexity burden that is difficult to sustain. For this reason, it has become quite normal to expect a bevy of contractors to buttress communication networks and software to support logistics and security.9 However, naval leadership should not count on this type of help in the future. Standard support personnel will have to become multiskilled to keep manpower requirements below an acceptable threshold.10 Parallel to how the Marine Corps is evaluating the consolidation of several infantry MOSs into a single “commando MOS,”11 the Sea Services must look to do the same across support functions to achieve the efficiencies the Naval Services demand. 

Operating in a distributed maritime environment requires a reinvigoration of the ability to thrive in austerity. The previous experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have bred mindsets habituated to expect uninterrupted and timely logistics support. Future logistics operations will, however, need to be reconceived when support is contested in remote locations.12 Where feasible, EABOs will need to become networks of lateral support to each other for greater responsiveness. Only by fostering a culture of radical self-sufficiency and diversifying logistics sustainment can the Sea Services realistically maintain distributed operations. Still, habits that continue to emphasize strict hierarchies of command and control with extensive approval chains will also need to evolve to support an agile network of EABOs.

In his book, Command: The Twenty-First-Century General, Anthony King aptly stated, “Existing command models, derived from the twentieth century, have become increasingly obsolete in the face of new global problems.”13 Indeed, command models that prevent maneuver warfare from the sea must be transformed. Operations that once allowed for clear separation of duties between a Commander Amphibious Task Force (CATF) and Commander Landing Force (CLF) will not likely apply well in a future characterized by multi-domain operations (MDO).14 For example, the concept of “green in support of blue” in defense of the amphibious task force and “blue in support of green” once a preponderance of forces are ashore will become amorphous under EABO. Supporting and supported roles will become fluid and complex requiring quick decision making and authorities better suited for a single commander. To guide this change, the Sea Services should experiment with combining both CATF and CLF roles under Composite Warfare Commanders (CWC). 

The CWC under the single battle concept would allow for seamless decision making and deconfliction within a battle space. Analogous to how Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) operated under the leadership of General Stanly McCrystal in Iraq, the Sea Services must push authority to CWCs to operate faster than the adversary.15 Multiple CWCs could operate under a single, but agile Commander Amphibious Force (CAF). The CAF would function as the officer in tactical command who organizes CWCs and subordinate warfare commanders.16 The CAF could also deconflict requirements for strategic and low-density assets within the area of operations. 

In short, the Sea Services must forgo the previous separation between the CATF and CLF while adopting a more comprehensive and agile view of CWCs to support EABO, LOCE, and other MDO at sea. Such fundamental changes will require even greater naval integration than previously sought. However, greater integration must go beyond exchanging a few liaison officers and calling it a win. Rather, Sea Service leadership must develop meaningful measurements of naval integration which can radically strengthen our common culture.

Measuring Change: Integration by Subtraction

War is a human phenomenon and how a force fights can be viewed as an extension of its culture.17 Developing closer bonds amongst the Sea Services in the future will become significant towards developing this culture. The Sea Services must therefore cast off from the shores of Service parochialism to embrace even greater integration. To be sure, developing clear metrics for measuring unit integration and capturing feedback from personnel will help shape the naval culture to compete effectively. 

The 2018 National Defense Strategy and derivative Sea Service guidance, such as the Tri-Service strategy, Advantage at Sea, are orienting efforts towards a future that necessitates greater Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard integration. A novel measurement for greater Navy and Marine Corps integration is the total number of commands eliminated—or addition by subtraction.18 For instance, Commander, Marine Forces Pacific could become the Deputy Commander of U.S. 7th Fleet. 7th Fleet could also create a standing Combined Task Force (CTF) composed of Navy and Marine personnel similar to 5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade to oversee multiple Marine Littoral Regiments.19 Correspondingly, Commander, Marine Forces CENTCOM (MARCENT) could become the deputy Commander, U.S. 5th Fleet with headquarters in Tampa, FL. While this could reduce several Marine Commands to a two-star level it has the greater benefit of increasing naval integration and reducing staff manpower levels for both services. 

Important feedback for measuring cultural change within the Sea Services will also come from deck-plate leadership. The Services need to implement 360-degree feedback for all leaders. Such multi-source feedback can provide the valuable information needed to improve naval leadership, and by extension—culture. 360-degree assessments accomplish this by helping to identify leadership blind spots and allow meaningful corrections to be made quickly. Waiting for the results of episodic command climate surveys are no longer sufficient. This comprehensive feedback process could help empower junior leaders with the necessary candor to improve command climate almost immediately. More importantly, it will foster greater lateral cooperation amongst peers over current models that incentivize peer competition.20 360-degree feedback will allow the Sea Services to continually take the proper depth soundings of their cultures by identifying the best leaders and to avoid running the Sea Service ship aground on the hidden reefs of toxic leadership. 

Educating for Cultural Change

Any successful cultural transformation requires changes to how forces are educated and trained. While Advantage at Sea properly advocates for “collaborat[ing] with allies and partners to increase exchange opportunities, including education, shore-based tours, and operational billets,” further inspection of how education is delivered is required to increase educational reach across naval institutions.21 The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that significant amounts of work and education can be accomplished remotely across time zones and mediums. For example, uprooting families for a six-to-ten-month long school only to move them again is not only wasteful but in many cases is completely unnecessary. Asynchronous educational opportunities are also an attractive option to provide education to more personnel who otherwise would never benefit from it. These delivery methods have the added benefit of affording military families, such as spouses who have professional careers, greater stability by allowing them to stay in a location longer.22

Equally important, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps should jointly develop a comprehensive composite warfare commander’s course which officers from both services could attend. As mentioned above, EABO and LOCE will blur the lines between the CATF and CLF, necessitating the need to envision operations more holistically. CWCs will undoubtedly need a wide-ranging appreciation of both Marine and Navy capabilities as well as Joint Force assets. Just as all naval aviators wear a breast insignia designating their specialty, CWC school graduates, including Marines, could one day adopt a new warfare insignia designating them as CWCs. Yet, warfare cultures with unique distinctions and histories can create headwinds that buffet our progress towards change. It will therefore be important for all leaders within the Sea Services to provide the comprehensive vision for how each servicemember plays a part in delivering warfighting capabilities at sea. 

A Common Culture 

 Major organizational change can often run up against resistance.23 Threats to relevancy in a future fight, budget cuts, or the evolution of roles can trigger a “survival instinct” where subcultures rally against or attempt to slow-roll changes.24 Indeed, loss aversion bias and sunk costs are a well-documented phenomenon regularly used to maintain the status quo.25 To avoid these pitfalls, it is important to fashion disparate warfare cultures into plank owners of a more integrated naval service culture. 

The Sea Services must develop a common culture characterized by a shared consciousness.26 Drawing lessons from Team of Teams, future warfighting concepts must pair the best qualities of each warfare area to elicit the best outcomes.27 For instance, General Stanley McCrystal was able to help create a cohesive environment for JSOC personnel, interagency organizations, military intelligence, and other disparate entities to collaborate effectively.28 This allowed the various groups to not only adapt to changing intelligence faster, but also increased the operational tempo to out-cycle the enemy.29 If the Sea Services are to achieve analogous efficiencies, they will require integrated training and formations that exist on a standing basis. For instance, it is rare for a typical Marine infantry unit to train with U.S. Navy sub-surface units. However, if Sea Service leadership expects units to cooperate on anti-submarine warfare (ASW), developing exercises and shared understanding for how such dissimilar units can create a symbiotic relationship is essential.30 Except, such training comes at a cost. Sea Service leaders must also declare which training is no longer essential—something the services rarely do well. Warfare areas will adapt and work together when they are unfettered from non-essential training and given a credible vision for the future. It is therefore incumbent upon Sea Service leadership to clear paths for innovation at the lowest levels while also making it clear what requirements will be eliminated to create the time and space needed to meet these visions of operating together. 

Hold fast…

Calling for significant changes within a culture while implementing new practices is not without its difficulties. Many may affirm that the current culture is sufficient for this new era and change may be more detrimental to the institution overall.31 Radical change can in fact disturb the standard processes that many have become accustomed to as they provide predictability and stability. Balancing exploitation and exploration are often areas that can come into conflict with each other when resources and time are scarce. Refining and altering processes are often needed to remain competitive. Organizations, however, can often become disillusioned and jaded by change, especially if leadership is constantly chasing and trying to shoehorn the latest technology fad into current practices. Yet, stagnation and comfortability also breed complacency within an organization. Hence, the value of good leadership in determining the right path is crucial in getting the organization to row in the same direction.

The rise of an adversarial China and Russia who violate norms of the international system demand the Sea Services pursue significant change to stem the tide of belligerent activities. Such behaviors in the South China Sea (SCS) by China, for instance, threaten the economic resources of surrounding countries through overfishing and causing catastrophic ecological damage to reefs through their dredging operations.32 Chinese construction of military outposts in the SCS not only violates the sovereignty of other nations, but also threatens freedom of navigation of all nations.33 Additionally, Chinese Maritime Militia, or “little blue men,”34 could become the equivalent of the “little green men” who helped conduct a fait accompli in Russia’s annexation of Crimea.35

Unprofessional behavior by the Russian Navy further exacerbates tensions and places American front line leaders in precarious situations that could escalate into an unnecessary conflict.36 Operating below the threshold of war has become the norm and therefore requires new approaches for where and how forces are postured to create credible deterrence. The Sea Services must pursue significant changes to develop a more integrated culture that is able to create new cost impositions for adversarial nations.37


The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that the services can respond and change quickly. Additionally, Sea Service leaders such as the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General David H. Berger, have demonstrated the ability to rapidly shape the future force without direct permissions from Congress.38Equal boldness is required to sunset bad habits and adopt better metrics to shape the culture of the naval force. Still, the Sea Services must conduct rigorous innovation and experimentation with new force design constructs and command relationships that will support efforts to outpace any enemy.39 These achievements, however, will only be sustained by lashing the sails to the strong masts of the type of education that can meet the demands of a 21st century military. 

The tsunami of technologies submerging the battlefields of the 21st century is unrelenting. Military technological advantages will ebb and flow. Regardless of the technology, if the culture is not prepared to use it to its advantage, much will be for naught. A truly integrated naval culture will catalyze decision cycles to attain a network of kill chains.40 Culture is at the helm of this ship and it’s the job of all Sea Service leaders to help steer it.

LtCol Scott Humr, USMC, is a student at the Naval Postgraduate School studying Information Sciences. He holds a Master’s in Military Studies from the Marine Corps University and a Master’s in Information Technology from the Naval Postgraduate School. His views are his own and do not necessarily represent the official views of the DoD or the government departments he is associated with.


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[3] Kassinger, Theodore W. “Shaping the Fourth Offset.” last modified August 13, 2020,

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Featured Image: An F-35B Lightning II fighter aircraft assigned to the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit takes off from the flight deck of amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) in support of Exercise Cobra Gold 2020. (U.S. Navy photo)

2 thoughts on “Adapting Naval Cultures for Advantage at Sea”

  1. Great points made by the author.

    To emphasize one and add another (from experience):

    1. Deployable logistics is critical to expanding the footprint of Navy operations. Naval ships must be able to operate for longer periods of time in areas without dedicated logistics hubs or regular replenishment ship runs. While this is in no way an intractable problem, it does require advance planning, modification of policies, and cross-functional teamwork. It additionally requires a willingness to consider and embrace existing logistics support networks external to DoD; for example, NATO’s Naval Logistics Support Partnership (, which offers outstanding vetted support and value for money in remote ports, but which Pentagon leadership has blocked combatant commanders from using. Furthermore, policies for obtaining and disposing of HAZMAT (which includes common supplies such as paint and lubricating grease) must be expanded; ships’ allowances for carrying critical repair parts aboard must be increased; food procurement rules must be amended to allow for non-US sources of supply. (We currently have to ship cheap frozen hamburger buns in refrigerated containers tens of thousands of miles vice buying fresh bread from a local supplier.)

    2. The existing Navy qualification/PQS process needs to be reconsidered in light of new, lightly-manned, hybrid-crewed, lightly-armed, permanently forward-deployed vessels with rotational crews. As these ships do not have a “traditional” warship configuration, mission, or warfare areas, Sailors struggle to complete standard PQS required for advancement and rating proficiency. After spending many months forward deployed in austere locations, they rotate off-hull only to have to go TAD to other platforms to get qualified. This reinforces an idea that such vessels and missions are unnecessary or even counterproductive to the “real” Navy, rather than being part of a future Naval vision.

    Solving these and other issues the author highlights will help build the agile Navy that our future demands.

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