All posts by Steven Wills

Retired surface warfare officer. PhD student in military history at Ohio University. Principle interests include Cold War U.S. naval/military strategy and policy, British Imperial naval/maritime policy in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, and 20th century U.S. history.

Naval Strategy Returns to Lead the POM

By Steve Wills


Newly appointed U.S. Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr. gave a signature speech at the Naval War College in Newport, RI in 1981. In his remarks Lehman hailed, “the return of naval strategy” to the forefront of the Navy’s planning.Such a message was again issued last week by Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson. While the CNO’s 18 October naval message (R 182128Z OCT 16) did not have Secretary Lehman’s dramatic turn of phrases, it is no less important and in fact is the most significant change in the role of U.S. naval strategic thinking since late 1991. The CNO’s message implements a major change in the planning and execution of the annual Navy budget statement known as the Program Objective Memorandum (POM.) For the first time since July 1991, the Navy Staff (OPNAV) Operations, Plans and Strategy (N3/N5) office will have the first input to the Navy POM building process. While this may not seem significant at first glance, it is a major course correction in Navy thinking. It could signal a return to the halcyon days of the 1980s when the Navy’s Maritime Strategy served as the service’s global blueprint for operational naval war against the Soviet Union, informing Navy programs, budgets, exercises, war games, education, training, and real world operations.

POM and Strategy Evolution Through the Cold War

The POM was created in 1970 by President Richard Nixon’s Defense Secretary Melvin Laird. It was designed as a response to what was seen as overbearing domination of service programming by the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations under Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara.The POM was prepared by service rather than Defense Department analysts and was seen as a better way to allow the services to plan for their own futures. The Navy POM was controlled largely by the CNO’s OP 090 programming and budget directorate with the powerful systems analysis divison OP 96 in the lead for the development of Navy programs and associated budgets.

The system remained in place across the 1970s as a trio of influential CNOs brought about the conditions for what Navy strategist Captain Peter Swartz and naval historian John Hattendorf have called, “A renaissance in naval strategic thinking,” that occurred in the 1980s.3 Admirals Elmo Zumwalt Jr, James Holloway III, and Thomas Hayward all explored ideas for global naval strategy against a growing and more capable Soviet fleet. Admiral Zumwalt conducted a major reorganization of the Navy Staff (OPNAV) and worked to create an affordable yet capable fleet to confront its Soviet counterpart. Admiral Holloway explored differing fleet sizes and offensive concepts. Admiral Hayward had conducted significant research into a new offensive naval strategy while serving as the Pacific Fleet Commander. He further tried to reintroduce a strategic culture through the creation of a Naval War College-based, CNO strategy “think tank” called the CNO Strategic Studies Group (SSG) to create operational solutions to naval strategic problems.4 All three of these extraordinary CNOs worked to restore the Navy from its post-Vietnam War doldrums. They laid the groundwork for success in the 1980s, but faced severe policy and budget restraints and did not have optimum mechanisms to translate their naval strategy concepts into solutions acceptable to civilian leaders.

In August 1982, with a new presidential administration in power and a new CNO at the helm of the Navy, Deputy CNO Admiral Small sent an influential message to both the Navy’s strategy (OP 06) and Director of Naval  Warfare (OP 095) offices with a powerful instruction. To this end, Admiral Small (and presumably CNO Admiral James Watkins) adjusted the Navy POM process to give the Strategy branch the first “cut” on the POM building process as opposed to the OP 96 systems analysis branch. Small had been exploring this change for some months. In March 1982, he sent a memo to OP 06 Vice Admiral Sylvester “Bob” Foley in which he stated, “A review of maritime strategy may well change many of the assumptions currently explicit in our systems requirements. I guess the responsibility for this type of thinking lies somewhere between (or among) OP-06 and OP-095, but seems dormant.”The Director of Naval Warfare (OP 095) Rear Admiral W.R. Smedberg IV suggested that, “OP-06 take the lead in this action” and that the strategic setting and operational concept should be spelled out more explicitly as the backdrop of our POM development.” The Navy Programming and Budgeting Director (OP 090) Vice Admiral Carl Trost and the systems analyst division head Rear Admiral Jack Baldwin agreed with Small’s statements. Small submitted an August 1982 memo to, in his words, “Get the whole OPNAV staff moving in that direction (of strategic thinking in POM development).”6 In a 1998 letter, Small recounted that he, “had been increasingly perturbed by a lack of any relationship of POM development to any kind of maritime strategy, not only from an affordability standpoint, but the concomitant failure to challenge the assumptions made by program and platform sponsors.”7

Small’s memo set in motion a historic series of events. If strategy were to play a part in the 1983 POM process, a strategy briefing would need to be prepared in support of the Navy POM input. The OPNAV Strategic Concepts branch head (OP 603) Captain Elizabeth Wylie was ordered to prepare such a strategy appraisal. She selected Lieutenant Commander Stanley Weeks, who was assisted by Commander William Spencer Johnson from OP 605, in preparing this input. Weeks and Johnson’s document became the first iteration of the 1980s Maritime Strategy, which grew in sophistication and influence throughout the early and mid 1980s.

Strategy Adrift in the Post Cold War Era

A Maritime Strategy appraisal (CPAM) remained the first input to the POM process through 1991, but by then the global strategic system had been turned upside down. The passage of the Goldwater Nichols Act of 1986, the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, the end of the Cold War, Desert Storm operational practices, and the looming fall of the Soviet Union itself had precipitated significant changes. The Goldwater Nichols legislation had given the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff rather than the CNO control of the size and strategy of the fleet, although these powers would not be fully invoked until the accession of General Colin Powell to the chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs in 1989. The collapse of the Soviet opponent further weakened the need for the Maritime Strategy. By the spring of 1990, incoming CNO Admiral Frank Kelso was forced to concede that there was no need for a Maritime strategy in the absence of a great maritime enemy like the Soviet Union. He officially declared the 1980s Maritime strategy as “on the shelf” until again needed during his June 1990 Senate confirmation hearing as CNO.8

Between 1990 and 1991, the Maritime Strategy was replaced by the White Paper Revision, later known as “From the Sea,” as the opening assessment for the POM process. Admiral Kelso later suggested that “From the Sea” would play a similar role to that of the 1980’s Maritime Strategy in getting the Joint Staff, Congress and the Office of the Secretary of Defense to support, “The Navy’s job in the years ahead of us.”9

The new strategy was used in a method similar to its predecessor at the start of its existence. Many of its components were incorporated into a Total Force Assessment (TFA) brief scheduled for the CNO Executive Board (CEB) as a kickoff to the POM cycle by Captain Dick Diamond (OP 603 Branch Chief) to Admiral Kelso on 18 July 1991. Diamond’s brief was undercut at the last minute by an additional slide produced by RADM Dave Oliver’s OP 81 (systems analysis) office entitled, “The Coming USN Budget Train Wreck” that Oliver insisted be inserted into Diamond’s brief. Diamond recalled that Admiral Kelso did not like the littoral warfare focus of Diamond’s presentation and exploded when the OP 81 slide suggesting the Navy would shrink to less than 300 ships by 2010 was displayed.10 Admiral Kelso called Diamond into his office the next day and reversed course, stating that, “the brief was essentially correct and what you recommended is the right path ahead for the Navy…so I am going to do it.”11

Reorganizing OPNAV

The new strategy appeared to have CNO support as a POM influencer, but this condition was only temporary. Over the summer of 1992, Admiral Kelso responded with the most significant reorganization of the OPNAV staff since Admiral Zumwalt’s two decades earlier.12 In a 1994 USNI Proceedings article, Admiral William Owen, Kelso’s lead for the reorganization effort, suggested the reason for Kelso’s massive staff restructure was to implement this new strategy.13 Admiral Kelso stated in his Reminiscences of 2009 that the strategy was merely a rally point behind which Owens as the new N8 would organize programs and their funding.14

The OPNAV staff would now be organized by “N” codes along the Army-centric lines of the Joint Staff. The OP 08 programming office under the leadership of Admiral Owens was re-branded as the N8 and all Navy programmatic activity was effectively centralized under his control. Its primary management tool, the Joint Mission Assessment, was an analysis-driven document, developed by OPNAV flag officers and coordinated by the N81 (formerly OP 81) analysis office. The three star platform “barons” were downgraded to two stars and subordinated to N8.

The OP 603 office had previously conducted its strategy appraisal of the POM as part of the CNO Executive Board Review (CEB) prior to the other POM appraisals. The CEB was disestablished as part of the October 1992 OPNAV reorganization. The list of POM development assessments conducted before the 1992 reorganization includes a “White Paper Revision,” also known as “From the Sea,” described as a successor to the Maritime Strategy. Subsequent lists of POM development assessments make no mention of a strategy assessment.

The apparent demise of a direct service strategy input to the POM in 1992 was paralleled by a rise in the influence of systems and campaign analysis in POM development and management. In 1994, when recruited by CNO Admiral Mike Boorda to work in N81 analysis branch, veteran Navy operations analyst Bruce Powers said Boorda desired, “To revitalize N81 and turn it back into what OP 96 had been earlier.”15

The new analysis branch (formerly OP 81) N8 in time became even more powerful than the old OP 96 office over the next decade. In 2000, Admiral Vern Clark, a 1970s-era alumnus of the OP 96 office, succeeded Admiral Jay Johnson as CNO.16 Clark was a former Joint Staff Operations officer (J3), its director, and the first business school graduate to be appointed CNO. Clark believed that strategy properly belonged to OSD and the Joint system. His own job as a service chief was to manage the organization, training, and equipment provision to the service. Clark desired a “readiness-based” Navy; especially after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.17

Strategy Struggles

The N3/N5 (Deputy CNO for Plans, Policy and Operations) office attempted to get back into the business of influencing the POM in the 1990s and in the 2000s. In 1994, N3/N5 RADM Phillip Dur and his N51 Captain Joe Sestak attempted to improve the 1992 “From the Sea” White Paper with a successor document entitled “Forward From the Sea.” While it had some initial success, it did not achieve any influence in POM development since it was still focused on “blue water” programs and did not “Script a convincing story about how a littoral strategy works.”18 It was further criticized as just a repeat of the Navy’s Cold War presence operations and provoked backlash from the Army and Air Force due to its, “Parochial focus on uniqueness of naval forward presence.”19 “Only “boots on the ground,” combined with robust land-based (as opposed to carrier-based,” aviation could actually influence others.20 Although useful for two years in shaping the Navy POM, it did not achieve lasting influence.21 Further attempts by the N3/N5 office to influence the POM including a Navy Operational Concept, and the Navy Strategic Planning Guidance for POMs 02 and 03 were short-lived and failed to develop lasting influence on the budget cycle. They were greatly overshadowed by Department of Defense strategic initiatives such as the First Quadrennial Review (QDR) and increasing attempts at joint operations.22

In 2002, Admiral Clark told Vice Admiral Kevin Green, the incoming N3/N5 that the Navy did not need a “strategy,” as it already had one and it was called the POM.23 Admiral Clark assigned control of the Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan to N81 in 2000.24 The N81 office was also instrumental in developing the Global Concept of Operations (CONOPS) for Admiral Clark’s “Sea Power 21” concept.25

The decade of the 2000s was more successful in terms of re-asserting the influence of strategy on the OPNAV staff. Admiral Mike Mullen became CNO in 2005. Vice Admiral John Morgan was N3/N5 from 2004-2008 and had more success than Vice Admiral Green in pushing strategy documents to a wider audience, but was still outpaced by N81 in terms of POM influence. The Navy Operating Concept for Joint Operations, written by N513 (the strategy office of N3/N5) by contrast was little cited in either POM documents or within the press.

Succeeding strategy documents were also ineffective. The Navy Strategic Plan in support of POM 08 (2006) was signed out six months too late to be of significant influence on its intended POM cycle.26 The Strategic Plan for POM 10 (2007) had some influence in the development of the 2007 Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower. It was deliberately targeted at Navy Department programmers supporting POM development.27 It had extensive support from N81 including influential officers such as Commander Bryan Clark and Captain John Yurchak to ensure it “fit with the OPNAV POM process.”28 However, this document was Secret only and did not get wide distribution as a result. Unfortunately, the POM 10 Strategic planning effort was lost to a degree in the turmoil of the end of the Bush administration during which operations in Iraq and Afghanistan dominated Defense Department thinking.29 It reflected current and near-term Navy programming already in place rather than attempted to influence future efforts. It did not include the Marine Corps, and had no mechanism to secure OPNAV support, as did the N8 /N81 POM development process.30

Admiral Morgan’s greatest triumph was perhaps the 2007 Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower. It was championed by CNO Admiral Mullen and drafted by N3/N5 staff member Commander Bryan McGrath, and writers from the other sea services. The 2007 Cooperative Strategy was designed as a tri-service effort in support of POM 12.31 The document had widespread influence in the wider U.S. and international naval community, but again failed to have a significant impact on its intended POM target. Despite its influence, the 2007 document had no direct connection with POM development, unlike the pre-1992 Maritime Strategy CPAM inputs to the POM process.32 The distinct lack of a formal relationship between strategy and the programming process allowed Navy programmers to ignore strategic input from 1992 through the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century.

By contrast, the N81 analysis branch’s formal connection to the programming process has allowed it wide influence.33 Since 2000, the 30-year shipbuilding plan has in effect served as the Navy’s de facto strategy document. Its key supporting element is the Naval Force Structure Assessment (FSA). The FSA is described in OPNAV Instruction 3050.27 (12 February 2015), as a tool that, “determines long-term Navy force structure objectives to support a global posture of distributed mission-tailored ships, aircraft, and units capable of regionally concentrated combat operations and peacetime theater security cooperation efforts.”34 The 2012 FSA was used to, “determine a post-2020 requirement for 306 ships in the battle force and emphasized forward presence while re-examining resourcing requirements for operational plans and defense planning scenarios.”35

Back to the Future

It now appears that Admiral Richardson intends to reverse the last 25 years of total N8-dominated POM development. The POM will now be a three-phase process with the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (DCNO) for Operations, Plans and Strategy (N3/N5) as the supported commander for the first phase; the N9 Warfare Systems office in charge of the second requirements integration phase, and the N8  leading the third resource integration phase effort. POMs will begin three months earlier than usual in order to ensure “strategic deliberation.” There will be no separate Resource Program Sponsor Proposals (RPSPs) in this new, more transparent POM environment. In addition, billets from the CNO’s own OPNAV “think tank,” office of 00K and the N81 Quadrennial Defense Review Division have been moved to the N50 divison (under N3/N5) to create a powerful new Strategy division capable of managing the first phase of the new POM process. The formal connection of the N50 office to the programming process appears to ensure that the influence of the inputs it creates will not be lost in bureaucratic channels as in the last 25 or so years. The final goal in the words of the message is, “a strategy-based, fiscally balanced, and defendable Navy Program for submission to OSD, which appropriately implements OSD fiscal and programming guidance, addresses SECNAV and CNO priorities, and achieves the best balance of strategic guidance as provided in the CNO guidance.”


Admiral Richardson’s new POM process is a bridge from the days of the 1980s Maritime Strategy across a quarter century of force structure management, and pseudo-strategy to a new era of great power competition. This process is perhaps the beginning a new global maritime strategy with which the Navy can confront the collective and growing maritime power of the Chairman’s “4+1” combination of potential threats (Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and terrorism.) Admiral Richardson’s change to the Navy’s POM process is perhaps again the beginning of another golden age of American naval strategy.

Steve Wills is a retired surface warfare officer and a PhD candidate in military history at Ohio University. His focus areas are modern U.S. naval and military reorganization efforts and British naval strategy and policy from 1889-1941. 

1. Peter M. Swartz with Karin Duggan, U.S. Navy Capstone Strategies and Concepts, 1981-1990, Strategy, Policy, Concept and Vision Documents, Alexandria, VA, The CNA Corporation, December, 2011, p. 21.

2. Richard A. Hunt, Melvin Laird and the Foundations of the Post-Vietnam Military, 1969-1973,  Washington D.C, The Office of the Secretary of Defense,  Historical Office, The Secretaries of Defense Historical Series, Volume VII, Erin R. Mahan, General Editor,, pp. 16, 17.

3. John B. Hattendorf and Peter M. Swartz, U.S. Naval Strategy in the 1980’s. Selected Documents, Newport R.I, The United States Naval War College, The Newport Papers #33, 2008, p. 4.

4. John Hanley, “Creating the 1980’s Maritime Strategy and Implications for Today,“, Newport, R.I., The United States Naval War College Review, Spring, 2014, Volume 67, No 2, p. 15.

5. John B. Hattendorf, The Evolution of the U.S. Navy’s Maritime Strategy, 1977-1986, Newport, R.I, The United States Naval War College Press, The Newport Papers #19, 2003,  pp. 66-68.

6. Ibid.

7. Fax letter from Admiral William Small USN (ret) to Captain Peter M. Swartz, USN (ret), 02 October 1998, Arlington, VA, The Personal and Professional Papers of Captain Peter M. Swartz, USN (ret), used with permission.

8. “The Nomination of Admiral Frank B. Kelso, Jr USN, to be Chief of Naval Operations,” Hearing before the Committee of the Armed Services, The United States Senate, Second Session of the One Hundred First Congress, 14 June, 1990, pp. 326, 327.

9. Frank B. Kelso II and Paul Stilwell, The Reminiscences of Admiral Frank B. Kelso II U.S. navy (Retired), Annapolis, Md, The United States Naval Institute Press, 2009, p. 687.

10. Email from Captain Richard Diamond, USN (ret) to Dr. John Hattendorf, Naval War College, subject “Paper Review Status” (unpublished narrative of the events leading up to the September 1992 publication of “From the Sea”), 09 September 2006, Filed jointly inThe United States Naval War College, The Naval Historical Collection, The papers of Dr. John Hattendorf, and in the Professional papers of Captain Peter M. Swartz, USN (ret), 1991 “The Way Ahead” file, used with special permission of Dr. John Hattendorf, Captain Swartz and Captain Richard Diamond, USN (ret).

11. Ibid.

12. William A. Owens, High Seas, The Naval Passage to an Uncharted World, Annapolis, MD, The United States Naval Institute Press, 1995, p. 5.

13. William Owens, “The Quest for Consensus,” Annapolis, MD, The United States Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol 120/5/1095, May 1994, pp. 69, 70.

14. Frank B. Kelso II and Paul Stilwell, The Reminiscences of Admiral Frank B. Kelso II U.S. navy (Retired), p. 688.

15. Bob Sheldon and Michael Garrambone, “Military Operations Research Society (MORS) Oral History Project Interview with Mr. Bruce F. Powers,” Military Operations Research, V21 N#2,  2016, doi 10.5711/10825983212107, p. 118.

16. Wayne P. Hughes, Jr., (2002) Navy Operations Research. Operations Research 50(1):103-111.,  p. 107.

17. Ronald Ratclift, “CNO and OPNAV Reorganization,” In  David A. Williams (ed.), Case Studies in Policy Making and Implementation. 6th ed,  Newport, RI, The United States  Naval War College Press, 2002 , p.p. 326-328.

18. Edward Rhodes, “…From the Sea and Back Again, Naval Power in the Second American Century,” Newport, RI, The United States Naval War College Review, Vol LXX, No.2, Sequence 366, Spring 1999, p. 32.

19. Peter M. Swartz with Karin Duggan, U.S. Navy Capstone Strategies and Documents, 1991-2000, Alexandria, VA, The CNA Corporation, D0026416.A2/Final, March 2012, p. 93.

20. Ibid.

21. Ibid, p. 95.

22. Ibid, p. 102.

23. Peter Haynes, Toward a New Maritime Strategy, American Naval Thinking in the Post Cold War Era, Annapolis, MD, The United States Naval Institute Press, 2015,  pp. 227, 228.

24. Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Force Structure and Shipbuilding Plans: Background and Issues for Congress,” Washington D.C., The Congressional Research Service (CRS), 7-5700, 12 June 2015, p. 8.

25. Peter M. Swartz with Karin Duggan, U.S. Navy Capstone Strategies and Documents, 200-2010, Strategy, Policy, Concept and Vision Documents, Alexandria, VA, The CNA Corporation, D0026241.A2/Final, p. 27.

26. Ibid, p. 101.

27. Ibid, p. 127.

28. Ibid, p. 136.

29. Ibid, p. 129

30. Ibid, p. 138

31. Ibid, p. 166.

32. Ibid, p. 189.

33. James A. Russel, James J. Wirtz, Donald Abenheim, Thomas Durrell-Young, and Diana Wueger, “Navy Strategy Development in the 21st Century,” Monterey, CA, The United States Navy Postgraduate School, The Naval Research Program, #FY14-N3/N5-001, June 2015, p. 4, electronic resource,, last assessed 25 October 2016.

34. “OPNAV Instruction 3050.27, Force Structure Assessments,” Washington D.C., The Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, 12 February 2015, p. 1, electronic resource,, last assessed 5 October 2016.

35. “Report to Congress on the Annual Long Range Plan for Construction of Naval Vessels for Fiscal year 2016,” Washington D.C., The Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, The Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Integration of Capabilities and Resources,) March 2015, p. 7. Electronic resources,, last assessed 5 October 2016.

Featured Image: ARLINGTON, Va. (Jan. 12, 2016) Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. John Richardson delivers remarks during the 28th annual Surface Navy Association (SNA) National Symposium. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Nathan Laird/Released)

The Perils of Alternative Force Structure

Alternative Naval Force Structure Topic Week

By Steve Wills

Navies have historically sought alternative force structures in response to changes in their nation’s grand strategy, rising costs of maintaining existing force structure, advances in technology, and combinations of these conditions. While initially appealing in terms of meeting new strategic needs, saving money, and gaining offensive and defensive superiority over an opponent, such changes are fraught with danger if undertaken too quickly, are too radical in tone, or do not account for the possibility of further change. Some are built “from the bottom up” on ideal tactical combat conditions, but do not support wider strategic needs. Even the best alternative force structure that meets strategic needs, is more affordable than previous capabilities, and outguns the enemy could be subject to obsolescence before most of its units are launched. These case studies in alternative force structure suggest that such efforts are often less than successful in application.

The American Civil War Ironclads

One of the most familiar alternative force structures was that of the United States Navy in response to the revolutions in steam power, armor, and rifled cannon in the late 1850s. The impending appearance of the rebel warship CSS Virginia (the former steam frigate USS Merrimac) during the American Civil War triggered a crash course in ironclad warship experimentation in the Federal Navy. When Virginia did appear, the only one of these experiments ready for battle was Swedish engineer John Ericsson’s USS Monitor, a revolutionary craft in comparison to both the Federal fleet’s current force structure and other experimental craft. The success of Ericsson’s craft against the Virginia spawned over 60 other low freeboard armored vessels with one, two, and even three turrets. Despite several losses, including that of the namesake ship, to weather conditions, and one (USS Tecumseh) to a torpedo (mine) hit, the monitor type ships had a remarkable record of combat success in coastal and riverine environments during the Civil War.

USS Cairo 1862 Photographed in the Mississippi River area during 1862, with a boat alongside her port bow, crewmen on deck and other river steamers in the background. (U.S. Naval Historical Center)
USS Cairo 1862 Photographed in the Mississippi River area during 1862, with a boat alongside her port bow, crewmen on deck and other river steamers in the background. (U.S. Naval Historical Center)

Unfortunately, the return of peace and the need to maintain overseas naval squadrons to protect U.S. economic interests spelled an end to the dominance of the monitor in U.S. naval force structure. One conducted a high-profile overseas visit to Europe while a second managed to sail around Cape Horn only to be immediately decommissioned upon arrival in San Francisco. Monitor-type ships had poor seakeeping capabilities outside coastal waters and did not carry enough coal for extended operations. The U.S. had not developed the high-freeboard sail and steam warships that other powers had constructed, and in any case U.S. strategic interests had changed to where monitors were no longer necessary components of naval force structure. Nearly all were decommissioned and scrapped or laid up in long-term reserve by 1874.

The “Jeune Ecole” (Young School) Torpedo Craft and Commerce Raiders

The “Jeune Ecole” (Young School) of French naval strategy was the brainchild of Vice Admiral Hyacinthe-Laurent-Theophile Aube and developed in the mid to late 19th century in response to the growing battleship fleet of France’s primary adversary, Great Britain. Rather than build a competing battlefleet, French strategists derived an alternative force structure designed to offset British battleship superiority and attack a perceived weakness in Britain’s global maritime trade network. French designers planned for masses of small, torpedo-armed craft to launch large salvos of underwater weapons at the exposed, unarmored lower sides of British battleships. Torpedo craft were much cheaper and easier to build in numbers as opposed to battleships. They also had a successful combat record with spar-mounted weapons in the American Civil War, and later successes in the Russo-Turkish War, South American conflicts, and in the Russo-Japanese War.

Commerce raiding conducted by fast cruisers, as conduced by rebel naval forces during the American Civil War, was also seen as an asymmetric tool for combating global maritime powers with vulnerable trade routes. Defending naval forces could not be everywhere and took time to assemble in areas threatened by a surface raider.

Dupuy de Lôme, an early armored cruiser. (Freshwater and Marine Image Bank)
Dupuy de Lôme, an early armored cruiser. (Freshwater and Marine Image Bank)

Unfortunately, the march of technological advance that supported the tenets of the Jeune Ecole also served to undermine them. Nations whose battleships were threatened by torpedo boats developed the larger and more capable torpedo boat destroyer to escort their battleships, destroy enemy torpedo boats, and launch their own torpedo attacks against opposing forces. Advances in battleship gunnery in the first decade of the 20th century allowed capital ships to open fire at ranges greater than that of the torpedo, making daylight attacks suicidal for torpedo craft.

Surface commerce raiding also ran up against new technologies that made it largely ineffective. First, undersea communication cables and later radio allowed for long-range communication between naval leaders at home and their forces deployed around the world. Commerce raiders that had to stop to take on coal and provisions would have their locations reported much more rapidly than in past centuries, allowing naval forces to concentrate and destroy them. Radio intercepts also allowed pursuing forces to track surface raiders. British naval forces quickly identified and eliminated German cruiser formations engaged in commerce raiding once radio communications reported their positions. Raiders disguised as merchant ships persisted into the Second World War, but submarines that could submerge and operate undetected became much more effective commerce raiders.

The Jeune Ecole was also in effect a tactical concept elevated to the rank of strategy. While torpedo attacks might sink British battleships attacking French coastal waters and commerce raiders might weaken British commerce, how did the force structure promote French strategic goals? How would these formations protect France’s own far-flung possessions; a colonial amalgamate that was second in size only to that of Great Britain’s? How would lightly armed and armored commerce raiders and generally unseaworthy torpedo boats carry the fight to British shores if needed? The Jeune Ecole did not answer these questions of strategic employment of French naval forces.

France also reached a political settlement with Great Britain in the early 20th century and the French fleet of raiding cruisers and torpedo boats was left without an enemy. France would likely have benefited from a more balanced fleet in the First World War and struggled to catch up in the dreadnought building race that commenced shortly after its “Entente Cordiale” agreement with Great Britain.

Jackie Fisher’s Fleet

Great Britain experimented with its own alternative fleet force structure at the outset of the 20th century. This was the “fleet that Jack built;” the pre-World War 1 fleet of battlecruisers, large destroyers, submarines, and other revolutionary warships that sprang from the fertile mind of British Admiral Sir John Fisher. The fiery Fisher, who in U.S. service might have resembled a combination of Admirals Hyman G. Rickover and Arthur Cebrowski, was selected to be First Sea Lord (British equivalent of the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations) in 1904 with a mandate to cut costs and increase combat capability. Fisher’s answer to this problem partially involved a revolutionary new force structure of hybrid ships that combined existing classes in order to meet British strategic needs while lowering naval estimates. The battlecruiser that combined the firepower of a battleship with the speed and range of armored cruiser would speed to threatened areas of the globe and destroy slower, less well-armed enemies at long range. Defense of the United Kingdom itself would be left to torpedo-armed large destroyers and submarines. Fisher was a strong advocate of new technologies and supported naval aviation, steam powered-submarines, director firing of warship guns, and cleaner, more efficient oil fuel for warships in place of coal.

Despite being innovative and well connected to British grand strategy, Fisher’s fleet was largely obsolete in less than ten years. Britain’s primary enemy changed from France and its Jeune Ecole-based trade warfare fleet to Germany that built a similar fleet of battleships and battlecruisers for operations in European waters. Apparently, Fisher never expected anyone to create a mirror image of his battlecruiser fleet. Fisher’s big ships were instead assigned as heavy scouts for a British fleet expecting a fleet battle in the close confines of the North Sea.

HMS Invincible, Britain's first battlecruiser. (Wikimedia Commons)
HMS Invincible, Britain’s first battlecruiser. (Wikimedia Commons)

Technology also advanced beyond Fisher’s initial concepts. The fast battleship, which carried heavy guns, was well armored and had a decent turn of speed obviated the need for the specialized battlecruisers. Fisher’s steam-powered submarines were ahead of their time, but plagued by technological issues that limited their effectiveness. The German surface fleet only made rare appearances and Germany’s merchant fleet was largely interned or destroyed by the end of the first year of war, leaving few targets for Fisher’s submersibles.  The Battle of Jutland, the one great naval encounter of the war, did not offer proof that Fisher’s force structure was right or wrong. Instead, poor tactical doctrine (not a lack of armor) caused significant casualties among Fisher’s battlecruisers. The less than satisfactory results left the Royal Navy with a haunting experience of frustration and regret that would not be extirpated until the Second World War. He was out of power and office by 1916 due to his repeated clashes with his protégé Winston Churchill over the conduct of the Dardanelles campaign. Fisher’s revolution achieved much for the Royal Navy in its first five years, but was effectively over after the first two years of the First World War.

Zumwalt’s High/Low Mix

Finally, there is the 1970s era U.S. Navy attempt at an alternative force structure launched by revolutionary Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo Zumwalt Jr. Like Fisher who faced reduced naval estimates due to the costs of the unpopular Boer War and a rising welfare state, Zumwalt also had to contend with a U.S. naval budget limited by the expenditures for the Vietnam War and for President Johnson’s social welfare programs. In response, Zumwalt conceived of a high/low concept for U.S. naval force structure where, in the words of retired naval officer and Hoover Institute scholar Captain Paul Ryan, “A few high-performance ships and many low-performance ones would avoid wrecking the budget but not expose the nation to risks represented by large emerging fleets of small, fast, cruise missile-armed combatants.”

Zumwalt’s program included reduced funding for large, nuclear aircraft carriers and guided missile escorts, but greater support for a number of low-end vessels including the Sea Control Ship, the patrol frigate (which later became the FFG 7 Perry class frigate), and the Pegasus class hydrofoil combatant. Zumwalt intended that the low-end ships would operate in support of general sea control in low threat areas rather than focus on the Navy’s power projection concept developed after the Second World War.

An artist's conception of the final Sea Control Ship design. (U.S. Navy Image)
An artist’s conception of the final Sea Control Ship design. (U.S. Navy Image)

Zumwalt’s program found favor with those in Congress who were happy to spend less on the fleet, but met stiff opposition from within the Navy’s own ranks, especially from carrier aviators unhappy with reduced investment in carriers. Strategy-minded individuals also opposed the high/low force structure as they felt it failed to appreciate the Navy’s vital, carrier-based strike capability as the real war winning capability fielded by the fleet. Naval historian Norman Friedman, for example, labeled high/low as, “An un-Mahanian excursion,” and former 6th Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Gerald E. Miller remarked that, “the Sea Control ship might deny the Soviets access to the Chesapeake Bay,” but that its effective use ended there.

Zumwalt’s low-end ships had faults of their own that were difficult to overcome. In addition to the operational limitations of the Sea Control Ship, the patrol frigate (Perry) class went from a $50 million dollar combatant to an average cost of $193 million dollars by the end of the 51-ship program. The patrol hydrofoils were short-ranged and were focused more toward offensive action than the peacetime patrol and presence operations the Navy required. Estimates on their operating costs vary, but only 6 of the intended 30 were completed with Zumwalt’s successors.

Changes in the strategic situation confronting the U.S. across the 1970s served to bring the high/low alternative force structure to an end by 1980. Intelligence gathered from taps on Soviet Navy underwater communications cables suggested the USSR was not planning a 3rd Battle of the Atlantic where Zumwalt’s force would have been most useful. The Communist superpower instead intended to keep its submarines close to the homeland to protect its ballistic missile submarines and attack U.S. carriers threatening Soviet bases. Response to this plan called for more high-end warships such as large aircraft carriers and their escorts. While ultimately not successful, Zumwalt’s efforts did lead to better armament for U.S. Navy surface ships such as the Harpoon missile.

Modern Parallels

These case studies suggest that alternative force structures are born from a desire to achieve strategic advantage over an opponent, take advantage of technological advances, and save costs in the execution of strategic policy. Current proposals for alternative force structures follow similar pathways. Concepts for arming a new generation of warships with directed energy weapons and railguns, thereby capturing the high ground of advanced technology, are similar to the U.S. Navy’s monitor program of the Civil War. Like the monitors of the 1860s, current designs for railgun and directed energy weapons are in their infancy but potentially very powerful. Initial versions will be expensive and likely to be rapidly outmoded by technological advance.

Proposals for large fleets of smaller, more expendable warships that can be built at low cost mirror the French Jeune Ecole. Those same proposals are also an attempt to build a strategic plan from a tactical or operational concept.

Hybrid warships that combine the capabilities of multiple ships on a common hull, like the U.S. littoral combat ship (LCS) are reminiscent of John Fisher’s battlecruisers. Fisher’s later entrants into the battlecruiser category later found gainful employment in the Second World War as refitted fast capital ships or as aircraft carriers. The long-term success of the LCS may also depend on its ability to adapt to new missions.

USS Freedom (LCS 1) undergoes testing and preparations off the coast of San Diego prior to its deployment to Southeast Asia in spring of 2013. (Lockheed Martin)
USS Freedom (LCS 1) undergoes testing and preparations off the coast of San Diego prior to its deployment to Southeast Asia in spring of 2013. (Lockheed Martin)

Alternative force structures can also meet challenges from within their host navies. Admiral Zumwalt’s high/low mix faced considerable opposition from carrier aviators within the U.S. Navy hierarchy. The low costs with Zumwalt’s low-end ships were much greater than first estimated and the strategic situation changed as in past cases making the alternative force structure much less attractive. The U.S. LCS design, conceived as a low- end combatant in a period of lower threats and fiscal austerity, faces similar challenges in ensuring relevance in a new period of Cold War-like peer/near peer competition. Unlike the late 1970s, there is little chance of a Reagan-like defense budget in the immediate U.S. future. Sequestration budget caps are likely to continue, dimming the chances of a higher-end surface combatant to replace the LCS.


Alternative force structures offer the promise of harnessing new technology, overcoming a specific opponent platform, and cost savings in defense procurement. Naval leaders should be wary in their adoption. Periods of rapid technology as those that occurred in the second half of the 19th century and those occurring in the present can rapidly condemn today’s alternative force to an early reserve fleet or scrapyard. High costs incurred in the construction and fielding of a rapidly obsolete alternative force are not easily recouped. Alternative forces inspired by tactical requirements may find themselves at odds with current and future strategies. Finally, even the best alternative force crafted to meet current strategic requirements can be reduced to irrelevance with the stroke of a pen in a diplomatic agreement. Historically, balanced fleets of mixed capabilities have fared better in naval battles and maintained relevance through evolving threat environments. Navies should consider all of these points before embarking on the perilous quest for the perfect alternative force structure.

Steve Wills is a retired surface warfare officer and a PhD candidate in military history at Ohio University. His focus areas are modern U.S. naval and military reorganization efforts and British naval strategy and policy from 1889-1941. 

Featured Image: The USS Zumwalt sits at dock at the naval station in Newport, R.I., Friday, Sept. 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

The End of Uniformed Naval Strategic Study?

By Steve Wills

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson’s recent decision to dissolve the long-running Strategic Studies Group (SSG) has prompted questions regarding the group’s recent viability, and whether it has made measurable contributions to naval strategy or national security. The answers to these questions are debatable to be sure. The real questions to ask are does the U.S. need mid grade and senior uniformed naval officers to think seriously about naval strategy? Should that “strategy” be something more than mere platform numbers, 30-year shipbuilding plans and associated budgets? What processes best inform and support generation of usable strategy, and how can Navy uniformed personnel, civilians and supporting contractors best support a strong, 21st century U.S. Maritime Strategy. An SSG that is returned to its 1980’s roots is the best process to achieve that goal.

The SSG was founded by CNO Admiral Thomas Hayward in 1981 with the specific mission of supporting a new era of strategic thinking by uniformed naval personnel in how to counter the rising Soviet Navy. A short review of the works of John Hattendorf, Peter Swartz, and John Hanley details the SSG’s significant influence on the development of naval strategy in the 1980’s. The efforts of the SSG were crucial to making the Maritime Strategy work at the operational and even tactical level of execution. It was a “disruptive” organization in that it had direct access to every senior officer in the Navy cosmos of that era. It had a number of innovative individuals within its ranks who later made flag officer rank. This organization was one where the people were as much the product as the concepts they created.

The SSG’s success was perhaps based on its direct association with the 1980’s era Maritime Strategy. The conditions for the SSG’s work and its own charter have considerably changed since the 1980’s. The Cold War ended in 1991, and with it the focus on defeating a global opponent. CNO Admiral Mike Boorda changed the SSG’s charter in 1996 to a focus on “revolutionary naval warfare concepts” rather than “Grand Strategy.” The group is now larger, more “joint” in construct and includes more junior personnel. Perhaps this is the wrong mix for supporting strategic thinking and development?

The SSG may not now seem to be as working well because it does not have a similar grand strategic construct to guide it it as it did in the 1980’s. In his 1990 Senate Armed Services Committee hearings, CNO Admiral Frank Kelso said a nation “didn’t need a strategy if it did not have an enemy.” The Maritime Strategy was soon placed “on the shelf” and was never really replaced. White papers such as “From the Sea” and more detailed concepts such as the 2007 and 2015 Cooperative Maritime Strategies have appeared, but none are in the same league as the 1980’s Maritime Strategy, a concept described by former Dean of Naval Warfare at the Naval War College Barney Rubel as one that could used as a “contingent warfighting doctrine.”

(Oct. 5, 2015) Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. John Richardson meets with the fellows of the CNO Strategic Studies Group (SSG) at the U.S. Naval War College (NWC). Richardson visited NWC to address the students and faculty and to meet with the SSG. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Nathan Laird/Released)
(Oct. 5, 2015) Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. John Richardson meets with the fellows of the CNO Strategic Studies Group (SSG) at the U.S. Naval War College (NWC). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Nathan Laird/Released)

The disestablishment of the SSG is also, in effect, a dismissal of the efforts of the U.S. Naval War College; the home base of the SSG since its commission in 1981. The SSG was originally anchored to the War College to physically remove its members from corrosive Washington D.C. politics and to leverage the traditional capabilities of the College as a center of strategic excellence. Is the Naval War College now just another Joint Professional Military Education (JPME) degree production location? This decision seems to entirely separate the War College from its traditional role as a center of deep strategic naval thinking. Is it really so difficult and costly to move a dozen Commanders and Captains to Newport, as the 1980’s-era SSG did, so that they can think about big picture ideas without the usual distractions inherent in basing them in the National Capitol Region (NCR)?

The death of the SSG may be indicative of a larger lack of historical self-examination by naval leaders when making significant strategic decisions. The 2003-2012 process where the surface Navy closed the basic training school for new Surface Warfare Officers (SWOSDOC) at Newport, RI, tried to replace it with computer-based training and then subsequently returned to schoolhouse training could have been avoided had people looked at why the surface warfare school training program was instituted. New technology and a desire for greater professionalism caused ADM Zumwalt to implement a more regimented training program for surface officers. It was recognized that the previous, “journeyman” training program of the 1950’s and 1960’s was not sufficient to provide operators for then new ships like the DD 963 class, or deal with the increasing complexity of surface warfare. Those same conditions were in play in the early 2000’s as the fleet decreased in size, but was beset with greater responsibilities, made greater use of commercial off the shelf (COTS) material, and was developing whole-ship computing environments through programs like “smart ship” and IT21. In killing SWOSDOC, the Navy in effect steamed over its own towline and needlessly weakened its junior surface warfare training program. Sadly, the dissolution of the SSG may be following a similar pattern to that of the basic Surface Warfare Officers School. Excellence in a process has become more important than the product that is created.

The Navy seems to be groping again toward a concept of real geopolitical strategy as it did in the 1970’s. The 2015 Maritime Strategy is a step in that direction. The 1991-2010, “strategy” of 30-year shipbuilding plans, force structure, and budget management is no longer sufficient for the current environment that again features peer/near peer competitors in addition to non-state actors. The Navy needs uniformed personnel (preferably with a defined career path such as CNO’s operations analysts) to examine and recommend grand strategy. The global maritime battlespace has always made naval leaders deep strategic thinkers. The other services do not think along the same geographic lines. The U.S. has no strategic land frontier such as the Franco-German one of 1870-1945 where the Army might build grand strategy. The Air Force alternately operates in support of operational Army requirements or ignores geography altogether in its strategic bombing efforts.

The post 1986 Goldwater Nichols era of geographically isolated combatant commanders “drawing lines in the sea” and overly focused on land-based events disrupted the ethos of strategic naval thinking. Naval leadership must support the idea of the naval officer as a strategic thinker. Sadly, dissolution of groups like the SSG makes this more difficult to achieve. The Navy seems to have returned to the conditions of 1981 when incoming Secretary of the Navy John Lehman said that naval officers “did not do strategy.”

There is hope, however, to correct these deficiencies within the CNO’s “Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority.” It states that, “history should be studied so that old lessons do not have to be relearned.” History suggests that the SSG in its pre-1996 format provided excellent support to the creation and implementation of the Maritime Strategy of the 1980’s. Learning-centered technologies, simulators, online gaming analytics and other tools not available in the mid 1980’s could further expand the reach and impact of 22 mid grade officers working on big picture ideas in the relative quiet of Newport. Such an organization for a new SSG would do much to maximize combat effectiveness and efficiency. It could be a team effort across the Navy’s strategic enterprise and would do much to reinvigorate an assessment culture and processes. An SSG that returns to its pre-1996 roots and adopts the best practices as recommended by “high velocity learning” can have as great an impact in building 21st century maritime strategy as did the SSG of the mid 1980’s.

Steve Wills is a retired surface warfare officer and a PhD candidate in military history at Ohio University. His focus areas are modern U.S. naval and military reorganization efforts and British naval strategy and policy from 1889-1941. 

Featured Image: Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson speaking at the Naval War College. (Photo: MC1 Nathan Laird, US Navy)

Circles in Surface Warfare Training

By Steve Wills

Surface fleet leadership engaged in a number of innovation attempts beginning in the 1970s and culminating with the commissioning of the Basic and Advanced Division Officer Courses (BDOC) program in 2012. Nevertheless, not all of these attempts were well-thought out. One of these missteps was the high profile closing of the Surface Warfare Officer School Division Officers Course (SWOSDOC) in 2003. This change appears to have come from a misguided desire to decrease personnel costs, improve the flow of officers from commissioning source to the fleet, improve retention of Surface Warfare officers, and appear to innovate within the zeitgeist of the “transformation” movement of the early and mid 2000’s. SWOSDOC was replaced by a program of computer-based training (CBT) in which prospective Surface Warfare Officers (SWOs) transited directly from disparate commissioning sources directly to their first ships. This effort proved a failure and was gradually replaced through a return to formalized schoolhouse-based training. In 2012, the CBT method was terminated and replaced by more traditional Basic and Advanced Division Officer Courses (BDOC and ADOC) held in two segments before and after the prospective SWO’s first division officer tour. An analysis of this innovation failure is a cautionary tale for those debating or implementing reform. It appears that the objectives that motivated the would-be reformers were erroneous, short-sighted, and could have been avoided by a careful understanding of the history of surface warfare training.

A Short History of Surface Warfare Training

“Plowing Ahead through Rough Seas”

Surface Warfare training has historically been a journeyman process in which a new officer reporting to his or her first ship remains in a probationary status until evaluated by his or her peers and superiors, most importantly their commanding officer (CO), for competency and professional qualification. Prior to the start of the Second World War, nearly all officers came from the United States Naval Academy (USNA). However, by the war’s end reserve officers commissioned for war service outnumbered regular officers (nearly all USNA graduates), by a factor of nearly 5.5 to 1.[i] Following[ii] the war, a need to maintain a larger peacetime force demanded a larger pool of officer accessions than the USNA could provide, and officers from Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) and Officer Candidate School (OCS) continued to supply the fleet with larger percentages of newly commissioned officers.

The Navy also began to embrace technological advancements at an accelerated effort in the surface fleet that required greater competency in newly commissioned officers (ensigns). The submarine and aviation communities had been confronted by advanced technologies beyond the scope of USNA training from their inception, and had instituted professional courses of instruction to train and qualify their officers for service in submarines and aircraft. By the mid-Cold War, technological advancements such as radar, sonar, and data processing networks such as the Naval Tactical Data System (NTDS) had significantly affected the surface fleet.

The training program for postwar surface officers in the late 1940’s and 1950’s had not kept pace with technological advance. Evidence from the period suggests that few professional training courses were available once an officer commissioned. Unlike USNA graduates, those coming from civilian colleges via the NROTC program did not have extensive professional training, but were expected to fulfill significant duties. Future Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral David S. Jeremiah, reported to his first ship in 1956 after graduation from the University of Oregon and found himself qualified as Officer of the Deck (OOD) after standing only three under instruction watches.[iii] One Captain told an NTDS project officer aboard his ship for testing that, “No damn computer was going to tell him what to do, and for sure, no damned computer was going to fire his missiles (which it would not do in any case).”[iv] In such a climate of fear and resistance it became readily apparent that additional professional training would be required by surface officers in order to maximize the operational capabilities of the new weapons, sensors and associated data link equipment.

The Naval Destroyer Officers School, the forefather of the present Surface Warfare Officers School Command, was commissioned in July 1961 at Newport, RI with support from then-Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), and surface warfare officer, Admiral Arleigh Burke.[v] Its mission was “to improve combat readiness and tactical knowledge for junior naval officers on all ships.”[vi] The first focus was on training Heads of Department, for which no specific training program existed before the establishment of the Destroyer School despite their vast responsibilities.[vii]

The success of the Destroyer School prompted calls from the fleet for a similar course designed to provide similar training to new division officers before they reported to their first ships. A 1965 Naval Institute Proceedings article by Lieutenant (junior grade) Roy C. Smith IV highlighted the problems facing the newly commissioned officer on a contemporary warship. Smith wrote, “Being a “professional” in the Navy of the present day requires a more-than-working knowledge of advanced, ever-changing engineering, weapons, and electronic systems; complicated tactical and operational procedures; and a sound foundation in the increasingly more horrifying naval administrative structure.”[viii] He added that a formalized course would be more desirable than the present situation where officers spent, “between six and twelve months out of their first four years of service attending courses to provide some specific skill” and that “a six month school at the beginning of an officer’s career would have the benefit of both providing a better trained officer and reducing the need for the smaller skill specific schools.”[ix]

The First Surface Warfare Division Officer School class began in September 1970 as a pilot program with 24 officers.[x] Its genesis was largely due to the efforts of the revolutionary CNO Admiral Elmo Zumwalt. Zumwalt was concerned about surface officer retention and founded a number of warfare-based junior officer retention groups soon after assuming the office of CNO. These groups reported their findings to the CNO in person and those of the surface group were especially incisive. It made over 100 recommendations including “more rigorous standards, better schooling, and a surface warfare pin equivalent to the dolphins worn by submariners or the wings by the aviators.”[xi] Zumwalt acted immediately on these recommendations as surface warfare junior officer retention was a paltry 14% in 1970.[xii] The CNO had the Bureau of Naval Personnel (BUPERS) create a Surface Warfare designator in April 1970, and revised the SWO qualification process the following year to include a mandatory year of service on their ship before new officers could attain the SWO qualification.[xiii] The surface warfare breast insignia followed in November 1974.[xiv] An All Hands magazine article from March 1975 described the goal of the new Surface Warfare Officers School Command (SWOSCOLCOM) as “to train junior officers so that they can be fully productive from the moment they board their first ship… The curriculum at the school leans heavily on practical work and focuses on knowledge required by the junior surface warfare officer in fulfilling his role as junior officer of the watch, CIC watch officer and division officer.”[xv]

SWOS in Newport, RI
SWOS in Newport, RI.

The evolution of the surface warfare training program and associated designator was based on the idea that advances in technology, changes in U.S. society brought about by the war in Vietnam, and low retention of surface officers required defined, measurable professional training. Admirals Burke and Zumwalt, as well as other surface officers understood that the best way to address these problems was through a professional training program, and that the age-old, journeyman program of naval officer qualification was not the best path moving forward into the last quarter of the 20th century.

A Radical Course Change

“A hard left rudder in increasingly heavy seas”

The perception of SWOSCOLCOM as the surface warfare center of excellence began to slip somewhat in the late 1980’s following the damage incurred by the frigates USS Stark and USS Samuel B. Roberts as a result of battle damage and casualties they sustained in missile attacks and mine strikes (respectively). A December 1987 Proceedings article by CAPT John Byron, a diesel submarine officer, condemned SWOS unfairly in the eyes of many surface officers by stating that “the surface navy was not ready for combat… all of the Stark’s officers had attended the course,” and that SWOS itself was somehow guilty by association in that dereliction in training.[xvi] A number of officers responded to CAPT Byron’s complaints, notably CDR R. Robinson Harris who pointed out that only the very best officers were detailed to head SWO training and that many, if not most COs of the Surface Warfare School were selected for Flag.[xvii]

Surface warfare retention also began to slide in the wake of the end of the Cold War. A 2001 Junior Officer survey stated that only 33% of current SWO junior officers planned to remain in the community past their initial obligation.[xviii] The survey also revealed that only 43% of SWO junior officers aspired to rise to command of their own ship, which survey takers thought indicated a lack of professionalism.[xix] Some graduates of the basic SWOS course reported that the school was too long, many of the course instructors completed hour-long courses in twenty minutes and that the quality of instruction was poor.[xx] A SWOSCOLCOM study of the SWOS basic class of 1998 also revealed that it took on average 17 months from arrival on-board their first ship until an officer completed the requirements for the surface warfare designator.[xxi] Some Commanding Officers reported that this length of qualification meant that they only had qualified first tour division officers for a few months before they rotated to their second tours. This combination of weakened retention, lack of community pride, and a lengthy SWO pin training period strongly motivated surface warfare leaders of the early 2000’s to significantly re-think how surface warfare training should be conducted.

The solution to these problems, as well as the additional costs involved in moving new ensigns to Newport and from there to their new duty stations, was a radical shift to computer-based training (CBT). Instead of attending SWOS and associated billet specialty programs for upwards of 12-14 months before reporting to their first ship, new officers would now report directly to their ships with a packet of computer disks from which they would instead be trained by their own ship’s officers. CBT was designed around cutting costs, improving retention via efficiency and increasing the number of warfare-qualified officers aboard ships. It was expected that the SWOS school command could save upwards of $15 million dollars a year in training costs by moving division officer training from the classrooms in Newport to a shipboard environment.[xxii] Retention was expected to improve though this new system, although no scientific studies or predictions were given as to how this might be achieved. Instead, cost savings were projected for even miniscule retention improvements, and these alone were touted as good reason for adopting the proposed training change.[xxiii] The fact that there were always a number of officers forced to become SWOs due to attrition from other warfare training programs was not addressed in the survey effort.

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NEWPORT, R.I. (May 16, 2007) – Surface Warfare Officer’s School (SWOS) students navigate their virtual vessel through a number of simulated hazards in the school’s full-mission bridge. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jason McCammack.

Even studies advocating this change postulated significant potential problems with a CBT approach to surface warfare division officer training such as: quality of instruction at commissioning sources would need to be improved, midshipman training cruises would need to be more formalized with specific qualification goals, and some billets supported by schools in Newport such as Damage Control Assistant (DCA) and Information Systems/Communications Officer might be lost to surface officers and transferred to limited duty officers (LDOs).[xxiv] All of these changes were brought about based on a limited number of inputs, specifically retention, training costs, and several select surveys of junior officers. The issue of professional quality in training was addressed in a manner that suggested experience at sea would always be superior to that of classroom training ashore.

The change was made in 2003 when then-Commander Naval Surface Force Pacific Fleet Vice Admiral Timothy LaFleur described the change as one that would “result in higher professional satisfaction, increase the return on investment during the first division officer tour, and free up more career time downstream.”[xxv] First tour division officers would still go to SWOS at Newport, RI, but at a point about six months into their assignment and for only four to six (later reduced to three) weeks in a kind of “finishing school” designed to test their knowledge just after their expected qualification as Officer of the Deck (OOD) underway. This change would have significant negative effects moving forward into the decade.

Problems with Computer-Based Training

“Mind Your Helm!”

The shift in initial surface warfare officer training from an ashore, classroom-based setting to an afloat, ship based environment did not go nearly as well as planned. By 2009, one Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) Study on the change frankly stated, “The new program may not be working as well as intended.”[xxvi] The NPS study interviewed 733 students from 12 different SWOS “finishing classes.” All of these students took a pretest to measure their knowledge upon reporting to Newport for the three week course.[xxvii] It identified seven significant shortfalls in the CBT program. Officers assigned to combatant warships (cruisers, destroyers and frigates, commonly referred to as CRUDES in the service) did better than those assigned to amphibious warships and other classes of ships. Those ships assigned to Atlantic Fleet units did worse than other geographic areas. Naval Academy graduates did worse than those from NROTC and Officer Candidate School (OCS). An officer’s undergraduate performance was mirrored in his or her performance on the test. Graduates with technical majors did better on the test than did non-technical undergraduate majors. Women had significantly lower grades than men. Finally, racial and ethnic and racial minorities did not do as well as their white counterparts.[xxviii] Nevertheless, crucially, the researchers who carried out the test found that nearly all of these score disparities disappeared when all students were provided face to face, traditional classroom training.

The researchers also suggested that there were a number of pre-existing studies (before 2003) suggesting that a switch to computer-based training in order to save money was fraught with negative effects, especially a drop in the quality of instruction. The survey noted that the Navy CBT program was designed to take place in an environment where the trainee had a full time job as a division officer at sea, an environment not well-studied enough for such a dramatic training change in the opinion of the researchers.[xxix] The quality and quantity of mentoring and support to the shipboard students from the other officers aboard the students’ ships varied widely. The students surveyed generally had a negative opinion of the change. They felt ill-prepared to lead their divisions and preferred face to face as opposed to computer-based training. Worst of all, many CBT students thought the change in training made them feel less valued and professional in comparison with other unrestricted line communities.[xxx]

There was an abundance of negative reaction to the CBT program from its inception to its demise. One captain bluntly stated, “No other first-rate Navy in the world pushes newly commissioned officers out the door and directly to combatants without the benefit of formal training or underway familiarization.”[xxxi] Another felt the commanding officers would need to be more involved as the principal instructor aboard their ships as opposed to the safety observer. He stated, “For complex evolutions, like mooring to a buoy, towing, division tactics, or helo operations while in formation, a Commanding Officer is no longer able to act as a removed, above-the-fray safety observer. Instead, he has to become closely and intimately involved in solving any problems. He becomes very much like the Officer of the Deck, himself.”[xxxii]

Graduates of the new program also wrote about their unfavorable experiences. One lieutenant who completed the program condemned the idea that an officer could successfully teach herself the basics of being a Surface Warfare Officer while simultaneously leading a shipboard division. She also dismissed the three-week division officer course conducted at the end of her first division officer tour. It contained information that she should have known before reporting to her ship, and its short length, crammed with too much information was a needless, “ trial by fire” when “We have the ability and the money to set up our division officers for success.”[xxxiii]

The Navy Returns to Traditional Means of Surface Warfare Division Officer Instruction

“Shift your rudder”

The steady drumbeat of criticism from the fleet made an impact with surface warfare leadership. Commander, Naval Surface Forces Atlantic Fleet, Vice Admiral Derwood Curtis restored a modicum of traditional surface warfare classroom training with the establishment of a four week course at Newport for new ensigns before reporting to their first ships entitled “SWO INTRO.”[xxxiv] The class was specifically designed to teach “3M, division officer fundamentals, basic watchstanding and leadership.” In an interview on the now defunct SWONET internet site, Curtis said, “Some ensigns were coming to our ships not ready to perform.”[xxxv] Fleet Forces Commander Admiral John Harvey, himself a surface warfare officer, condemned the CBT program as a “flat-out failure” during a 2010 House Armed Services Committee Hearing (HASC) on fleet readiness. Admiral Harvey went on to say that the Navy had erred in sending prospective SWOs to sea unprepared and placing the burden of their training on commanding officers who “have already got a few other things to worry about.”[xxxvi]

The surface navy took another step closer to returning to the pre-2003 SWOS Division Officer course by standing up the Basic Division Officer Course (BDOC) in October 2012. The written record is more scarce on the reasons for this change, but a combination of the problems identified by Admiral Harvey in his 2010 testimony, rising naval capabilities in China, and a need to restore warfare competencies that had atrophied over the period of the post-Cold War likely required a return to more formal, professional surface warfare instruction. Some independent writers have suggested that the retreat from formal classroom instruction made the surface navy appear less professional in comparison with the aviation, submarine, nuclear power, and naval special warfare communities.[xxxvii] These other warfare disciplines have training elements that deliver qualified or nearly qualified officers when they report to their first fleet assignment. Even with the return of BDOC, the surface community instead delivers an officer that is ready to train vice a trained officer “ready to drive and fight at the pointy-end from the moment they cross the brow.”[xxxviii]

Commander of the PLA Navy Admiral Wu Shengli visits the Surface Warfare Officer School in September 2014. Image: US Navy.
Commander of the PLA Navy Admiral Wu Shengli visits the Surface Warfare Officer School in September 2014. Image: US Navy.

What does the History of Surface Warfare Training Say about Innovation?

“Captain, We Steamed Over Our Own Towline!”

The commissioning of BDOC in October 2012 would seem to complete a circle of innovative effort that began over fifty years earlier with the founding of the original Destroyer School for Department Head students at Newport in 1961. Surface Forces Commander Vice Admiral Thomas Copeman’s convocation speech for the first BDOC course reflected the basic need for the school. He said, “The surface warfare business we are in is very challenging. Our ships are complicated. They are the most technologically complex machines that this country has built and it takes a lot of hard work to learn how to fight them, learn how to maintain them, and learn how to train Sailors to maintain them.”[xxxix] Vice Admiral Copeman’s remarks are very similar to those of Rear Admiral Charles Weakley, Commander Destroyer Force Atlantic Fleet, whose charge to the new Destroyer School in 1961 was “to provide the destroyer force, through a system of functional education and training, with officers professionally qualified and motivated to function as effective naval leaders on board ship.”[xl] The Navy must avoid similarly counterproductive innovative activity as it strives to create a culture of innovation in the 21st century.

It is imperative that those reviewing the proposed change know the empirical history of the subject in question. A short review of historical material readily available in 2003 might have suggested that the Navy created a classroom training program in 1961 because the traditional, journeyman practice of training surface naval officers was deemed inadequate in light of advanced technology, the faster pace of operations, and greater complexity of naval warfare in the 1960’s. Similar conditions involving new technology and complexities of modern, joint warfare existed in 2003. Instead of following past, proven practices, the navy opted for a hypothetical, untested solution in order to cut costs and appear “transformational,”the “flavor of the day” in the early 2000’s. History may not always hold an exact answer, but it sometimes provides additional insight and clarity for those engaged in the evaluation of a new concept.

Captain Dave Welch, CO of SWOS, presents a certificate to a graduate of the Advanced Division Officer's Course (ADOC). November 2015.
Captain Dave Welch, Commanding Officer of Surface Warfare Officer School Command, presents a certificate to a graduate of the Advanced Division Officer’s Course (ADOC). November 2015.

Data from surveys is an important component to any decision on innovation, but such inputs need to be broad before making significant change. Admiral Zumwalt carried out similar surveys in 1970 to those carried out in the early 2000’s regarding surface warfare training and retention of surface warfare officers. In both periods Navy leadership identified retention as a key issue, but the 1970’s era response offered a variety of measures designed to improve retention while advancing professionalism. The changes in the early 2000’s appear to have been driven by a desire to reduce expenditures on travel and assignment to Newport, with a secondary goal in improved retention and education of surface warfare officers. There was hope that professionalism could be maintained, but how this was to be achieved in a demanding operational climate aboard ship was not given adequate attention. Those authors of the 1970’s era initiatives were junior officers from Admiral Zumwalt’s survey groups. Those of the 2000’s were largely civilian analysts who had not served aboard a U.S. Navy warship and could not be wholly conversant with the shipboard culture they proposed to radically alter.[xli] While outsiders sometimes view systemtic problems with clarity, their views must be balanced by insiders who can ensure durable, effective solutions are undertaken. This was not the case in the SWO training shift of 2003.

Finally, changes undertaken with the principal goal of saving money or hurrying a process are fraught with danger. The overriding pressure to achieve financial or time savings threatens to overtake innovative ideas and turn them into quick-fix vehicles for the achievement of specific goals. The 2000’s era changes to the surface warfare training program started with cost and time reduction, not the maintenance or professionalism or retention, as their primary entering argument. Surface warfare training traditionally contained a combination of formalized classroom instruction and practical application of those skills in evolutions at sea in order to produce a qualified surface warfare officer. The move to computer-based training assumed that the practical underway training could be replaced through simulation. A 2003 RAND study cited as one in favor of CBT began as follows:

“Recently, however, a combination of economic, operational, and political changes has prompted the Navy to consider shifting the balance toward more shore-based training. The high cost of underway training, the increased operational tempo, reduced access to training ranges, and other factors have decreased the attractiveness of underway training.”[xlii] (bold added for emphasis)

If simulation could serve as an effective replacement for complicated underway training, it is not surprising that the navy determined that a shore-based program like the Basic SWOS school that was labeled “uneconomic” could also be replaced by a CBT program. It was just another example of economy being deemed more important than the maintenance of professionalism in the minds of naval training leadership.

The 2002 NPS thesis on the Sea to SWOS program initiative stated that retention was the primary goal, but all eight benefits listed from the proposed change were financial rather than professional or operational in character.[xliii] The professional goals were more of an afterthought than a guiding principle. There was also a belief in the surface navy in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s that any problem might be solved if enough computers could be mobilized in response, although this point requires more than the anecdotal evidence available.[xliv]

The case of surface warfare officer training suggests that the history file ought to be the first stop for anyone engaged in the review and approval of innovative ideas. Those engaged in the planning and approval of the new computer-based surface warfare training program should have reviewed past surface warfare training initiatives and experiences before radically returning the fleet to a journeyman culture. The history clearly suggested that a fast-paced operational environment, with complex technologies and evolutions was no place to send untrained officers.

Type 42 UK DDG HMS Edinburgh turns in a circle before making a port visit to New York.
Type 42 UK DDG HMS Edinburgh turns in a circle before making a port visit to New York in 2013. Image: Royal Navy.

Failures in innovation can also serve as harbingers of deeper problems. It is not surprising that this degradation in training occurred within the same decade labeled by the Balisle Report as one of multiple failures in a “circle of readiness” that included training, manning, and material conditions in the surface fleet. [xlv] While it took nearly a decade for the problems in material conditions within the surface fleet to manifest themselves to higher authority, shortcomings in junior officer training were readily apparent in less than five years.

History is often ignored or given little regard by the operational navy. One of the author’s mentors once told him that, “history gets a paragraph, even in a historical analysis, before facts and figures assume their usual commanding position.” It is perhaps time for the fleet to invest more in the examination of our past before embarking on what it perceives to be new and innovative concepts. The navy must endeavor to avoid future, needless circles of effort such as the surface warfare training debacle of the last decade by examining our previous failures and follies.

Steve Wills is a retired surface warfare officer and a PhD candidate in military history at Ohio University. His focus areas are modern U.S. naval and military reorganization efforts and British naval strategy and policy from 1889-1941.

[i] James Robinson, “Initial Training of Surface Warfare Officers. A Historical Perspective from World War 2 to 2008”, Leavenworth, KS, U.S. Army Command and Staff College (Master’s Thesis), 2008, p. 10.


[iii] Ibid, p. 25.

[iv] David L. Bouslaugh, When Computers Went to Sea, The Digitalization of the United States Navy, Los Alamitos, CA, IEEE Computer Society press, p. 243.

[v], last retrived 02 July 2015.

[vi] Ibid

[vii] Robinson, p. 34.

[viii] Ibid, p. 35

[ix] Ibid, pp. 35-36.

[x] Ibid, p. 37.

[xi] Malcolm Muir, Jr. Black Shoes and Blue Water: Surface Warfare in the United States Navy, 1945-1975. Washington D.C., Naval Historical Center, 1996, p. 224.

[xii] Ibid, p. 223.

[xiii] Ibid, p. 224.

[xiv], p. 12.

[xv] Ibid, pp. 12, 13.

[xvi] Ibid, pp. 56. 57.

  [xvii] Ibid, p. 57.

[xvii] Christopher Galvino, “Cost Effectiveness Analysis of the “Sea to SWOS” Training Initiative on the Surface

Warfare Officer Qualification Process”, Monterey, CA, The Naval Postgraduate School, December 2002, p. 2.

[xviii]Ibid, p. 2.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] Robinson, pp. 60-61.

[xxi] Ibid, p. 3.

[xxii] Ibid, p. 49.

[xxiii] Ibid, p. 50.

[xxiv] Ibid, pp. 51-53.

[xxv] Robinson, p. 63.

[xxvi] Bowman, William R, Crawford, Alice M, and Mehay, Stephen, “An Assessment of the Effectiveness of Computer-Based Training for Newly Commissioned Surface Warfare Division Officers”, Monterey, CA, Naval Postgraduate School, 24 August, 2009, p. ix.

[xxvii] Ibid.

[xxviii] Ibid, p. xi.

[xxix] Ibid, p. x.

[xxx] Ibid, p. xi.

 [xxxi] Stephen. F Davis., Jr., “Building the Next Nelson”. United States Naval Institute.

Proceedings. Annapolis: Jan 2007. Vol. 133, Iss. 1; pg. 1.

 [xxxii]Kevin S. J. Eyer, “On the Care and Feeding of Young SWOs”. United States Naval

Institute. Proceedings. Annapolis: Jan 2009. Vol. 135, Iss. 1; pg. 51, 4 pgs.

[xxxiii] Robinson, pp. 74-75.

[xxxiv] Ibid, p. 77.

[xxxv] Ibid.

[xxxvi] Admiral John Harvey, Testimony before House Armed Services Committee, Subcommittee on Sea Power and Expeditionary Forces, One Hundred Eleventh Congress, Second Session, Washington D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, 28 Jul 2010.

[xxxvii] Jon Paris, “The Virtue of Being a Generalist; Part 3, Viper and Pitfalls of Good Enough”, The Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), NEXTWAR blog, 19 August 2014,

[xxxviii] Jon Paris, “The Virtue of Being a Generalist; Part 2, Are all Nuggets Created Equal?” Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), NEXTWAR blog, 15 August 2014,

[xxxix] Steven Gonzales, “SWOS Launches New Basic Division Officer Course”, Washington D.C., Chief of Naval Information Press Release, 03 October, 2012, file:///I:/SWOS/SWOS%20Launches%20New%20Basic%20Division%20Officer%20Course.htm

[xl] Michele Poole, “Building Surface Warriors”, Annapolis, MD, United States Naval Institute Proceedings, May 1998, Volume 124/3/1. 143,

[xli] file:///I:/SWOS/Navy%20Re-Engineers%20Surface%20Warfare%20Training.htm

[xlii] Roland J. Yardley, Harry J. Thie, John F. Schank, Jolene Galegher, and Jessie L. Riposo, “Use of Simulation for Training in the U.S. Navy Surface Force”, Washington D.C., Research and Development Corporation, 2003, p. iii.

[xliii] Galvino, pp. 47-50.

[xliv] Jack Dorsey, “Navy Equips 2000 Officers with Palm V Hand Held Computers”, Virginia Beach, VA, The Virginian-Pilot, 2000.

[xlv] Philip J. Balisle, “Fleet Review Panel of Surface Force Readiness,” Norfolk, VA and San Diego, CA, Commander Fleet Forces Command and Commander, Pacific Fleet, 26 February 2010, pp. 4, 5.