All posts by bj armstrong

The Thinking Professional v. The Practical Officer

On Thursday evening CIMSEC held the first annual Forum for Authors and Readers (#CFAR15). The opening keynote talk was delivered by BJ Armstrong, a member of the Center as well as a PhD Candidate in War Studies with King’s College, London and a member of the Editorial Board of the U.S. Naval Institute. The talk is based on his new book “21st Century Sims: Innovation, Education, and Leadership for the Modern Era” and kicked off an evening of great thinking and discussion on maritime affairs.  We will have videos of the presentations on the website shortly. The following are his prepared remarks…

The Thinking Professional v. The Practical Officer:
Sims on Sailors, Scholars & Scribes

simsIn November of 1900 Lieutenant William Sims joined the wardroom of USS Kentucky, the U.S. Navy’s newest battleship. He had just come from a tour in the Paris embassy, studying and collecting intelligence on European battleship design and gunnery practices. As Kentucky sailed for China Station Sims got his sea legs back and began getting to know his new ship. He started comparing what he had observed in Europe with what he found back at sea with his shipmates, and he began to think that despite new ships and a new found place on the world stage following the victory in the Spanish-American War, the U.S. Navy still had a lot of room for improvement.

Many of you know the history that follows, how Sims found and frankly stole the concept of continuous-aim fire from Captain Percy Scott of the Royal Navy, and then went on to revolutionize naval gunnery. His course was treacherous, and unclear, but eventually throughout the fleet William Sims became known as “the man who taught us how to shoot.”

Sims continued pushing boundaries in the years leading up to World War I: advocating for the all-big-gun battleship, developing torpedo boat and destroyer tactics, and eventually commanding all American naval forces in Europe when the U.S. entered the war. During the war he was central to the adoption of the convoy system that beat the U-boats in the First Battle of the Atlantic. When he returned home he had a second term as President of the Naval War College. There he helped establish the system of study and war-gaming used in the inter-war years to develop naval aviation and American submarines.

William Sims was, beyond a doubt, an innovator. Naval innovation is often seen through the lens of technology, defined by the weapons and hardware which we label as “game-changers” or “transformations.” However, some of the most important developments in history have come from the “software”: or innovations in tactics, techniques, and procedures. Like the development of continuous-aim fire. Ideas, it must be remembered, can be even more powerful than the steel and explosives that dominate our naval heritage.

It was on the prompting of President Teddy Roosevelt that Sims wrote his first article for publication. The success of that piece led him to realize the power of sharing ideas and innovations through professional writing. Throughout the remainder of his life he wrote about dozen articles for the Naval Institute’s journal Proceedings, and more for other magazines. After returning from World War I, he collaborated with Burton Hendrick to write a book. The Victory at Sea was part history and part memoir of the war, and was published to great acclaim. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921.

As the President of the Naval War College at the beginning of the inter-war years, Sims’ thinking on naval warfare and military professionalism had an impact on an entire generation of officers. These were men returning from war and trying to put their experience in perspective and learn lessons for the future. They had names like Nimitz, Spruance, and Halsey.

Today, the ranks of the United States military are again filled with a generation of men and women who are looking back on wartime experience. Many of our junior officers and enlisted have had a level of responsibility during their service which now causes them to bristle at perceived micromanagement and bureaucracy. The military will likely struggle over the next several years to learn how to return to non-combat roles.

What can we do to improve that struggle? What can we do today to ensure that lessons we have learned over the past decade and a half of conflict are not forgotten, and are not ignored?

Over the course of his career, Sims learned a great deal about fighting the military bureaucracy, about successful innovation, and about service before and after war. He wrote about all of these subjects in the latter part of his career, and this knowledge and advice has sat quietly in the archives for today’s innovators and service members, if they want to learn from it.

Here, with CIMSEC’s members and readers, the most relevant parts of this advice may be the importance of professional writing and personal, professional learning. Sims wrote about his experience with both. They were also central to what he saw as lacking in many officers in the Navy of his day.

Taking on The Mahan…

Alfred-Thayer-MahanIn 1906 William Sims was a Lieutenant Commander and still serving in his role as Inspector of Target Practice. The Russo-Japanese War had just come to an end, and navalists all over the world were combing through news reports and the stories of the Battle of Tsushima to analyze lessons for modern naval warfare. One of these navalists was the historian and strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan.

In his day, Mahan was the great thinker on the subject of war and peace, something like how men like Brzezinski or Scrowcroft are seen today combined with a Stavridis or McMaster. He wrote an article for Proceedings that analyzed the events in the Sea of Japan. It drew the lesson that a properly designed fleet required battleships of moderate size, with a varied battery of different sized guns, that could be built in large numbers and were multi-mission. It was a conclusion well in line with the thinking of most of the Admirals in the Navy, and it encouraged the status quo.

Sims’ own experience, gathering intelligence on battleships and in developing continuous-aim fire, suggested something entirely different. He also had a friend with a report on the actual events in the Tsushima Strait to base his analysis on. Sims wrote an article that directly contradicted the great navalist. He demonstrated that the lesson of the Russo-Japanese War was that large battleships, with a battery full of all big guns of the same caliber, were the best way to construct a fleet, even if the expense meant you could only build a smaller number of them. As he wrote in the conclusion of his article:

“I have attempted to show that Captain Mahan’s conclusions are probably in error.”

As the development of the British Dreadnaught would demonstrate, Sims was far closer to how the navies of the world would develop than Mahan was.

Sims’ essay offers readers in the twenty-first century something more than an interesting story of two great naval minds and an abandoned ship class. First, it demonstrates how important a healthy professional debate is for our national security. Without discussion generated by forward-thinking officers and junior civilian analysts in military and security journals, both in print and today online, the military bureaucracy will stagnate and become reactionary. Without the engagement of innovative junior members of the team any organization, whether military or civilian, risks becoming followers instead of leaders in their field.

Sims’ article also demonstrates the importance of expertise. Readers will understand his deep knowledge and obvious study of battleship employment and design. Today’s military innovators and thinkers must learn from this example. They must be willing to jump into the arena of ideas, but they also must be willing to do the hard work of researching and studying their subject in order to get it right.

Today, whether the debate is about the future of the big-deck nuclear aircraft carriers as we recently saw in Annapolis, or about questions of the military effectiveness of swarming small combatants versus today’s modern dreadnaughts, the arguments must be logical, informed by a mastery of the facts, and well presented.

Sims knew that in order to engage the world’s leading navalist in a debate, in order to challenge the great Alfred Thayer Mahan, he had to have his details right and his logic had to be sound. This kind of rigorous and researched engagement on the defense questions of the day offers us an example for the twenty-first century, one that we must aspire to no matter where we are writing, whether in the pages of print journals like Proceedings or online at leading blogs like CIMSEC’s Next War or our other friends at The Strategy Bridge.

“The opportunity that can never return”

But how do we get that level of expertise? Some of it will come from our personal experience on the deckplates or in cockpits deployed across the seven seas. Or service in the desert, or working on staffs in the halls of power, or the buildings of DC. Some of it will come from studying for our tactics quizzes or our NATOPS exams in the ready rooms, or working on getting the right font on the briefing slides at a think tank. But those sources are only going to provide us with a small scale of knowledge, a vital foundation that we must master but something in desperate need of context and broadening. According to Sims we must add to that knowledge through a dedicated pursuit of personal professional study.

In 1921 Sims published his Newport lecture “The Practical Naval Officer” in Proceedings. The lecture is something like a Jazz cover, since he took the title and some of the inspiration from a lecture that Mahan had given in Newport nearly thirty years before. Sims, who had locked horns with the great navalist on Tsushima, now came to embrace his view of strategic education and how to prepare officers for the highest responsibilities of command and policy. There is much to talk about in his lecture, but I will focus on this last of his three pillars of strategic education.

Sims lamented the fact that when he was a junior officer, he spent his time reading subjects that had no real bearing on the military profession. He read some philosophy and political economy, but he appears to have avoided reading military history or learning about governments and international relations or current events. As he became more senior, he slowly realized that he was missing a lot of knowledge. In fact his own perception of his time as a student at the Naval War College wasn’t that it taught him the things he needed to know, instead it highlighted all of the things he didn’t know and still needed to learn.

He wrote:

Specifically addressing the younger officers of the navy, let me say that you now have the opportunity that can never return. It lies with you to determine whether, when you become old, you will have to regret the wasted years of your youth; whether at that period of life you will find yourselves simply “practical men”—“beefeaters’’—or really educated military naval officers.

It will depend largely upon self-instruction and self-discipline. But you must keep clearly in view the fact that, under modern naval conditions, an officer may be highly successful, and even brilliant, in all grades up to the responsible positions of high command, and then find his mind almost wholly unprepared to perform its vitally important functions in time of war.

Where to start? Well, Sims leaves us with a short reading list in his lecture, which you can find in my book “21st Century Sims.” It is impressive how well this list still stands up today. But as he points out, that is just a start. Even after completing their studies at the War College he emphasized to the graduating officers that they should consider themselves to be at the beginning of their education. They must continue on their own if they hope to achieve the level of professionalism that the American people deserve from their armed forces.

There is a common bit of advice that many of us have heard from senior officers looking to mentor us: Take care of your job today, do it well, and you will be prepared for your next job. Focus on today’s tasks and everything else will take care of itself. Sims comes out in direct opposition to this advice. Sure, from a purely careerist point of view it is the best way to ensure you have the right grades and catch phrases on your fitness report for promotion. But from a professional point of view the unspoken part of this advice is that you don’t need to look to the future, to think about the questions “above your pay grade.” Instead, once you’ve completed your daily tasks and your administrative minutia, you can just return to managing your fantasy football team or play some more video games. Even in his day Sims was incensed that senior officers continued to give this advice. He believed that professionalism was more than the shine on your shoes, or the grade on your rules of the road quiz, it meant reading and studying your profession, even in your personal time.

Summation

In his recent book “Saltwater Leadership,” which you will hear some more about later this evening, Admiral Robert Wray conducted a survey of active duty naval officers. They were asked to rank seventy six leadership traits. The last two traits on the list, the least important things to teach young naval officers about leadership, were sensitivity and scholarship. Now, a bit higher on that list was writing ability, at number 33. This begs the question, if we haven’t studied our profession or looked at it in a comprehensive and scholarly way, what exactly do we have to write about? Admiral Sims would probably take exception to this list of what today’s officers believe. He would emphasize that professional writing must be about something, it must demonstrate mastery not only of the technical aspects of a problem but also understanding of the context and history of the issues involved. It must be the result of research, personal study, and yes, scholarship.

In conclusion today, I leave you with the knowledge that the pursuit of professional writing and personal professional study has a long history in the maritime service. It is true, there appear to be very few members of the Flag Ranks who published in the pages of Proceedings before they became important enough to have a staff to help them write. But across time the sailors that really made a difference like Samuel Du Pont, William Sims, Ernest King, Chester Nimitz, Bull Halsey, Bud Zumwalt, Tom Hayward, Jim Stavridis, and a few in uniform today, studied their profession and wrote articles to forward its development. They engaged in the professional debate and discussion well before they assumed the highest responsibilities of command, and our navy and our nation are better for it.

William Sims’ writings offers us an opportunity to be mentored by an accomplished leader who lived more than a century ago. His essays and lectures, with their examples of innovation, education, and leadership, can help us look at the challenges militaries and organizations face in the twenty-first century, ask the right questions, and find solutions. These certainly apply to those in uniform, but at their heart they apply to all leaders, whether from the military, industry, or government. Everyone who is interested in thinking about defense issues.

Like Alfred Thayer Mahan before him, the foundation of much of Sims’ writing and thinking is the idea that asking questions, and doing the work of research and reflection necessary to find the right questions, is at the heart of being a professional. I hope that with new organizations like CIMSEC, and older ones like the Naval Institute, with engaged junior officers and members of the defense community, we can carry on that vital part of our naval heritage.

Thank You.

U.S. Marine [Expletive] No One Realizes He’s the [Expletive]

International Maritime Satire Week Warning: The following is a piece of fiction intended to elicit insight through the use of satire and written by those who do not make a living being funny – so it’s not serious and very well might not be funny. See the rest of our IntMarSatWeek offerings here.

CAMP FUJI, JAPAN—U.S. Marine Second Lieutenant Chandler Weisenbottom graduated from a Division II school in the Southeast United States with a Bachelor’s Degree in Physical Education and was the sergeant-at-arms for his fraternity, all accomplishments that would grant him a modest head nod at any bar in America. Tragically, the Marine Corps has refused to acknowledge the depth and breadth of his brilliant capabilities.

“Listen, I took an Arabic studies elective sophomore year and learned as least three greetings. But when I showed up to the battalion, no one [expletive] cared,” said Weisenbottom as he was trying to figure out how to get the pin on his common access card (CAC) to work. Sources reported he had been at the computer for at least an hour even though he never went through the necessary check-in steps and therefore had not had his PIN loaded into the card. Weisenbottom stated that up until now he mostly used his CAC to get cheap booze from the package store on the base near his mom’s house while he waited to begin at The Basic School (TBS).

Weisenbottom was emphatic that his skills were being less than efficiently utilized.

“The semester after I came back from Platoon Leader’s Class I taught all my brothers how to lead a fire team attack on a Soviet machine gun nest so that we could teach those Delta Omega [expletives] a lesson,” said Weisenbottom, referring to the summer training program for officer candidates and a movie reference he doesn’t understand. “So I think I have some credibility when I am trying to teach my platoon how to interpret Clausewitz as it pertains to sexual assault prevention and response.”

“I mean why the [expletive] was I not put in charge of the battalion’s embedded training team? I have the cultural background for Christ’s sake—I got a C+ in that [derogatory]-studies class,” Weisenbottom cried after resigning from his attempts with the CAC. When questioned as to why the battalion would need Arabic cultural awareness when they were currently on a rotation to Japan, Weisenbottom replied “huh, well it’s still important and I need to get a [expletive] pump in before I punch out to 1STCIVDIV so I can get into finance.”

Weisenbottom’s platoon sergeant, Dave Smith, was resigned when questioned about his new platoon leader’s woes. “The LT is okay, he mostly sits around sucking up to the XO because they were in the same skull society or whatever the [expletive] at some college, so he doesn’t get in our way too much. It is problematic though when he wants to teach a class, since we have a pretty tight training schedule, and those stupid hip pocket classes keep the Marines from getting any time out in town to try and get some [derogatory] strange. [Expletive], it’ll be at most another week until some [expletive] gets us locked down again for [expletive] something up, so I better get laid.”

Captain Brent Duckler, Weisenbottom’s commanding officer, stated that the new lieutenant would be fine if “he quit [expletive] whining” about his cultural skills being misused and finished confirming “his [expletive] consolidated memorandum receipt (CMR).”

Weisenbottom was unavailable to respond to Duckler’s remarks and was  reportedly busy trying to set up a Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP) tournament that had registered only other new lieutenants.

Maynard, Cushing & Ellis is the repository of our anonymously submitted articles.

The Future Ashore

                                                                   Blurring the flavors of force.

Since contemplating Janus a month and a half ago we’ve seen a lot of ink spilled about national security affairs. The majority of it is driven by the fiscal challenges facing the U.S. government. There’s been hyperbole, exaggeration, as well as underestimation and ignorance.  Even here at NextWar we’ve seen some hysterics (yes Hipple, we’re looking at you).  The Firm believes that the U.S.’ Sequestration and the Continuing Resolution are bad.  They demonstrate terrible leadership and hint at a government bereft of the capacity for strategic thinking.  Discussing the politics of sequestration, however, isn’t going to help us at CIMSEC fill the void.

We said there is a “hint” that the government is incapable of strategic thinking, but we only say hint.  There has been some recent writing, publishing, and thinking about the future.  Specifically, about the future of American ground forces.  Buried in all the pages of frenzy about what happens March 1st, a pair of articles were published this month by leaders in the Army and Marine Corps meant to provide a vision for the future.

“Foreign Policy” (rapidly becoming a favorite of the Service Chiefs, we wonder what that says about their editorial policies) published General Odierno’s article “The Force of Tomorrow.”  The Army’s Chief of Staff laid out his vision for the post-OIF/OEF U.S. Army.  The article shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, none of the ideas are new and the overall language is in line with both the Administration’s January 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance and the material the Joint Staff regularly puts out.  There are a couple of things that struck us, however, as we read it.  Despite the whitebread nature of the article, there was something about it that rubbed us the wrong way.  The Chief of Staff appears to be advocating for a force which sounds an awful lot like an Imperial Army.  His future Army is forward deployed all over the globe, working with our partners on their home turf.  That sounds good on the surface but makes three significant and problematic assumptions.

First it assumes that our partners want a large number of U.S. Soldiers in their country for an extended period of time.  We don’t see a lot of countries asking for that these days.  Second it assumes that we have the money in the national accounts for a land force that is both big enough to be good at large formation combined arms and small formation partnership and daily crisis response.  This requires units spread out in garrisons all over the globe like a modern day Roman Legion.  Besides the will, and the political/diplomatic problems with that kind of vision, there is no money for that.  The Chief of Staff doesn’t really even acknowledge the coming fiscal problem.  The third assumption it makes is that we need another part of the military that is globally deployed on a day-to-day basis focused on partnership, presence, and crisis response.  Just because the Defense Strategic Guidance says that the U.S. military should be doing those things, doesn’t mean that every Service should be doing every one of them in equal amounts.  It appears that money isn’t the only pie the Pentagon wants slice and serve in equal proportions, and the Chiefs want everyone eat their piece at the same time after dinner.  Here at The Firm we sometimes like pie for brunch, or Liner if we really sleep in.

This idea that the services should all be doing the same thing is ridiculous.  We need a U.S. Army that is optimized for large-formation combined-arms combat operations.  If the Army doesn’t do it, then who will?  There isn’t another service that does that.  We already have a service which is optimized for operations at roughly the battalion size and below, which historically has conducted partnership missions, crisis response, and small wars globally, and it’s call the U.S. Marine Corps.  The last twelve years of operations ashore appear to have convinced everyone that the Marine Corps is another land army, not just in terms of how we spend money, but also how we divide missions and responsibilities.

That brings us to the second article published this month.  Marine Corps Major General Kenneth McKenzie’s article “Naval Power and the Future of Assured Access” in “Armed Forces Journal.”  With General Odierno creating an obvious opening for debate, and an opportunity for the Marine Corps to reassert its historic role in our military, we had high hopes for this article.  Instead, we are treated to something written more for “The Rings” of the Pentagon than for a substantive discussion of roles and missions.  If we had a podcast of this article we would turn it into a drinking game – taking a shot for every cliché, piece of jargon, or doctrinal reference.  Each of the Marine Corps’ important acquisition programs gets a nod, the ground forces get to push back against AirSea Battle…or what they think AirSea Battle might be (since we’re not sure that anyone really knows), and we get to perpetuate the language of Jointness.  From the author of Revenge of the Melians we expected so much more.  Instead we’re treated to another staff-produced “article” that probably looks a lot better as the PowerPoint bullets where it started.  We feel sorry for the poor Major who actually wrote this article and didn’t appear to get any help from the chop chain (We do love the AFJ cover photo though).

We like the fact that the Marine Corps is talking about naval affairs.  This is a positive step and we don’t mean to belittle it.  However, we need clear thinking to move these discussions and debates forward.  If these two articles are indicative of what MGEN McKenzie called “the intellectual capital” that is being prepared for the coming Quadrennial Defense Review, we suspect that the 2014 QDR will be as useless as all the previous QDR’s.  It’s time to start talking about the strengths and weaknesses of each service, and being honest about who best fills the roles and missions required in today’s world.  Instead of playing games inside “The Rings” to increase prestige and funding, let’s talk about how to best defend our nation and our interests.

The Firm of Maynard, Cushing, & Ellis does not represent the opinions of anyone that matters.  Formed by Lieutenant Robert Maynard RN, Lieutenant William Cushing USN, and Captain Pete Ellis USMC, the firm doesn’t speak for the US Government, the Department of Defense, The Foreign Office, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or the Department of Silly Walks.

A Three-Way In The East China Sea?

Senkaku-Diaoyu-Tiaoyu-Islan
Or are there only two ways of looking at this map?

The conflict over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea illustrates a number of issues in the Asia-Pacific region.  The People’s Republic of China’s expansive maritime claims is the granddaddy, but there are a number of contributing elements – from the challenges of deep-sea resource exploration to the region’s political relationships.  The week before Christmas the Center for National Policy hosted a discussion at their headquarters about a recent Scholars Delegation that took “next generation policy experts and decision makers” to Taipei to meet with officials from the Republic of China, known to most of us as Taiwan.  The delegation met with officials who were generally aligned with the current ruling party in Taiwan, the Kuomintang (or KMT).  The panel discussion in Washington illuminated the fact that the political relationships in Asia aren’t a simple challenge defined by “alliances” and treaties.  Instead, there are cultural and ethnic seams that cut through these relationships based in centuries of history, and encompassing domestic and international politics alike.

The President of Taiwan has put forward a peace proposal for the conflict in the East China Sea, setting aside the question of sovereignty and instead focusing on how to share the economic benefits of resource exploitation in and around the islands.   Many analysts have indicated that the plan is more of an effort to kick the can than anything else.  CIMSEC friend Dr. James Holmes instead has written that “It amounts to hoping that rational calculations of economic self-interest will overrule equally elemental imperatives such as fear of future aggression or the thirst for honor and prestige.”  The proposal raises a question:  Why is the leadership of Taiwan trying to avoid the question sovereignty?  The discussion at CNP helped shed some light on the answer, and it is likely because of those cultural and ethnic seams and centuries of history.

In their comments during the panel discussion, both Dr. Jacqueline Deal and Michael Breen noted that the KMT embodies a strategic paradox that is driving a confused policy for the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.  The KMT, the party once led by Chiang Kai-shek, believes that the Republic of China (ROC) is the rightful government of all of China, both Taiwan and the mainland.  According to their political platform reunification is a given once the People’s Republic of China (PRC) becomes democratic.  Because the KMT sees themselves and the ROC as Chinese, not Taiwanese, the foundation of their policy toward the Senkaku/Diauyo is exactly the same as the PRC: the Diaoyu belong to “China.”

This belief creates a strategy/policy disconnect for the KMT.  Strategic-level decision making becomes difficult because the party’s fundamental political belief can be at odds with the things that will help ensure the economic, political, and military security of the island of Taiwan.  Japan is likely the ROC’s strongest ally in the region, yet on the Senkaku/Diauyo the ROC rhetoric makes it appear that they are siding with the PRC.  Their fishing fleets have engaged in some unconventional tactics with the Japanese Coast Guard, similar to the work of the PRC’s maritime assets.  This likely strengthens the fact that the PRC prefers the “anti-PRC” KMT over the “liberal” Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which believes in Taiwanese independence.  Is it any wonder that President Ma Ying-jeou wants to try and avoid the sovereignty issue?  Japan has elected a new conservative government with military expansion on their agenda.  The PRC has initiated maritime aviation patrols of the islands.  Neither side appears willing to set aside the fundamental sovereignty question in the conflict.

There is a large Chinese diaspora all over the world, from the islands of Southeast Asia to the streets of Panama City to Chinatowns of most major U.S. cities.  An audience member at the CNP panel reminded the gathering that there is a strong belief in all these places that the Diaoyu are “Chinese” – the political system that controls them is irrelevant.  The history of the Pacific and the military and political conflicts between the Chinese, Japanese, and the states of Southeast Asia go back centuries.  These cultural realities make the Pacific a complex place.  If the U.S. military thinks that trading the tribal cultures of Southwest Asia for the centuries of history in East Asia will make things simpler, it needs to rethink things.  Will hoping for modern ideals and economics to overwhelm centuries of culture and history work any better in Pacific waters than it did in Middle Eastern sands?

The Firm of Maynard, Cushing, & Ellis does not represent the opinions of anyone that matters. Formed by Lieutenant Robert Maynard RN, Lieutenant William Cushing USN, and Captain Pete Ellis USMC, the firm doesn’t speak for the US Government, the Department of Defense, The Foreign Office, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or the Department of Silly Walks.