Category Archives: Education

Sustaining an Intellectual Overmatch: Management Education for Our Naval Warfighters

By Dr. Mie Augier, Major Sean F. X. Barrett, Dr. Nick Dew, and Dr. Gail Fann Thomas

“The 21st Century demands American officers be far better educated and more capable of directing and integrating the Nation’s military instrument.” –Developing Today’s Joint Officer for Tomorrow’s Ways of War1

“The challenges of the twenty first century require holistic approaches to the changing character of conflict.” –Education for Seapower2


The Joint Chiefs of Staff’s May 2020 vision and guidance for Professional Military Education (PME) and talent management states, “There is more to sustaining a competitive advantage than acquiring hardware; we must gain and sustain an intellectual overmatch as well.”3 Developing flexible, agile minds was also a major theme a century ago in the Knox-King-Pye report, which helped the Navy steer away from an earlier technical education focus and toward broader skills that helped produce the ideas and leaders that proved critical in WWII.

Fast forward 100 years, and we have reached another inflection point. Numerous studies point to a geostrategic environment that has shifted radically in the past decade toward a future that is filled with uncertainty. The Navy and Marine Corps have realized that key aspects of our institutions, war planning, training, education, and resource management are inadequate to deter and, if necessary, win against our adversaries when the situation arises.

We should look at how management education, with its interdisciplinary and integrative focus, is an essential tool for developing future naval warfighters who have the skills to draw out peak performance from personnel and maximize the effectiveness of a wide range of naval organizations.4 Most people know from personal experience the difference that excellent management makes to organizational performance. A recent study shows that workers who moved from an average boss to a high-quality boss improved their productivity by 50 percent.5 Leaders with high-quality management skills can really make an impact. And while the context of management varies, the practice of management across a broad range of situations fundamentally requires a similar set of core skills.6 Given the need for the Navy team to perform at its peak under challenging circumstances, the Navy would be well-served by incorporating more management education into PME for both officers and enlisted sailors.

The Human Element in High-Performance Organizations

Our naval forces do not operate in a vacuum and are oftentimes nudged by larger economic and societal trends. Therefore, it is worth looking briefly at some general trends in U.S. management before turning to what specifically might be relevant to defense management.

Industries throughout the U.S. have been grappling with issues similar to those facing the naval services. Technology is changing faster and faster. Attracting, engaging, and retaining top talent is an unrelenting task. In response to these challenges, corporations have recognized the need to create learning organizations that support high performance. Evidence of these issues in the Navy is apparent in recently retired Vice Admiral Luke McCollum’s 2018 report in response to the 2017 U.S. Navy ship collisions. The report, Industry Best Practices & Learning Culture – The Competitive Advantage of a Learning Culture, provided a series of findings after surveying 30 Navy-relevant corporations to learn how they build and sustain high-performing organizations. Human factors topped the list. 

The most important component of building a learning culture is inculcating these “human factors” into the organization. High-performance and mission effectiveness are dependent on the humanistic aspects of employees, teams, and leaders. This people-centric perspective dominates high-performing organizations.7

This human-oriented theme has long been recognized by our naval leaders. Admiral Arleigh Burke clearly understood the importance of developing the Navy’s leaders:

“There is one element in the profession of arms that transcends all others in importance; this is the human element. No matter what the weapons of the future may be, no matter how they are to be employed in war or international diplomacy, man will still be the most important factor in naval operations.”8

More recently, the Joint Chiefs emphasized the human factor in their May 2020 report:

“All graduates must possess critical and creative thinking skills, emotional intelligence, and effective written, verbal and visual communication skills to support the development and implementation of strategies and complex operations.”9

Given the centrality of the human element to our naval success, we must understand how to manage it well. This involves a shift in the kinds of skills, capabilities, attitudes, and values at the center of PME. Two central issues stand out.

An increasing need for generalist skills in an uncertain world. In his book, Range, David Epstein claims that cognitive flexibility is increasingly important in today’s world. Training in specific tools and techniques is efficient for mastering repetitive, well-structured problems. However, a world full of uncertainty, ambiguity, and ill-structured problems requires more diverse skills and knowledge (i.e., range and flexibility). Cognitive flexibility manifests in the ability to transfer knowledge between domains and apply knowledge to new situations, which is increasingly important in today’s specialized world. Teaching broad concepts rather than specific information is more advantageous to developing this ability, as well as instilling a broad intellectual preparedness and the ability for ongoing learning. Warfighters need to learn how to think rather than what to think about. As the Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon cautioned, “What we must avoid above all is designing technologically sophisticated hammers and then wandering around to find nails that we can hit with them.”10 An ability to think abstractly can be capitalized on across a range of problems as opposed to specific skills that are limited to particular types of problems. Thus, instruction focused on helping students make connections is more conducive to learning and later achievement than focusing on formulas and procedures.11 Such skills are very relevant to warfighters where there is a high need for flexibility and taking initiative in executing operational orders.

An explicit focus on soft skills. Operating effectively in a world in which technology has connected individuals and organizations more than ever requires warfighters with sophisticated soft skills in addition to technological expertise. The President of the Naval Postgraduate School, Vice Admiral Ann E. Rondeau, USN (ret.), explains, “Employers today require the whole package when looking for people to hire and join their teams… They want individuals who have developed intangible skills not necessarily listed as part of a certificate or degree.”12 Today’s reality requires warfighters to have the soft skills necessary to manage organizational ecosystems where leaders do not necessarily wield formal authority but instead must build mutually aligned communities. As Richard Straub writes in the June 2019 Harvard Business Review, “To succeed in the era of platforms and partnerships, managers will need to change practice on many levels…Both practitioners and scholars can begin by dispensing with mechanistic, industrial-age models of inputs, processes, and outputs. They will have to take a more dynamic, organic, and evolutionary view of how organizations’ capacities grow and can be cultivated.”13 Soft skills have thus emerged as a key requirement for managing the performance of ecosystems of organizations.”14

By identifying the Navy’s requirements for high-quality management skills among its warfighters, we can invest in PME that equips naval warfighters with the skills they really need to lead a wide range of naval organizations to high performance.

Management Education for Seapower

Given the need for superior generalist and soft skills to match the challenges of the strategic environment the Navy faces, management education provides many key opportunities for warfighters to develop the right intellectual abilities. Some of the most relevant themes and approaches include the following:

Educating minds to be prepared for the unexpected. Retired Admiral Mike Mullen, who spoke at the Naval Postgraduate School’s first virtual SECNAV Guest Lecture, stated, “We live now in a tremendous time of great uncertainty and even greater ambiguity. We’re facing and will face a completely new, and in many ways unknown, reality where nothing will be the same in the future.”15 Management approaches and education can help in this instance. Management education is centrally concerned with anticipating and adapting to change. It develops proactive problem-solving skills. While the ability to analyze known problems using optimizing techniques has a place, it is important for the Navy also to focus on developing warfighters with skills in thinking through ambiguous and changing situations.16

Leading warfighting organizations to become more agile through change and transformation. In their May 2020 report, the Joint Chiefs observed, “We cannot simply rely upon mass or the best technology…Our job is to learn how to apply our capabilities better and more creatively.”17 Admiral Mullen similarly emphasized the importance of leading change.18 However, change is not easy. For example, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted in his memoir, Duty, that the greatest challenge he faced was changing organizations. Any change, to be effective, must be understood and communicated by people to be implemented in our organizations. In the DoD, this becomes even more complicated because it involves government civilians, military personnel, and contractors, and requires leading across generational divides and a diverse workforce. Given these complexities, warfighters need to use evidence-based approaches on how to best lead change.19

Excelling in communication skills. An intelligent workforce knows how to communicate clearly. Kline’s “Owl Speaks to Lion” humorously describes the detrimental results when an analyst does not know how to translate his findings adequately for the vice admiral who requires the results to make an important decision. Such skills are taught and honed over time and experience. One critical communication skill that must be fostered is writing. The writing process hones one’s thinking and helps one discover the real problem, define the root causes of the problem, and describe the costs and benefits of various courses of action.20

Building exemplary people skills. As the Department of the Navy’s Education for Seapower report explains, “[N]aval leaders must be just as ready to…solve a social problem below decks or in the platoon” as they are “to move against the enemy.”21 Research shows that emotional intelligence, coaching, and feedback upward, downward, and horizontally are key to high performing organizations. And these skills are not “one and done.” Each level of leadership presents new challenges concerning the types and complexity of the problems encountered and the number of people one leads. Social skills are developmental and change over the life of the leader. Additionally, there is evidence that leaders’ skills are directly related to retention. Most have heard the adage, “Employees don’t leave their organization; they leave their managers.”22 Good bosses not only contribute to the high performance of their employees but also increase employee retention because workers quit bad bosses.23

Understanding the influence of cultures. Complementary to (but different from) traditional international relations approaches, management and leadership education emphasize understanding how culture influences decision-making and how it affects collaboration. This is increasingly important to warfighters in an era featuring more and more “shared responsibility for security with other nations,” wherein “[s]trong global relationships and defense partnerships help mitigate the risks of…unpredictability.”24 Greater mutual understanding and mutual trust has enormous practical value in operational environments.

Developing meaningful organizational leadership skills. Vice Admiral Rondeau notes the essential connection between leaders and their organizations: “Leaders set the tone for the culture of their organizations. Meaning of the community, no matter how defined, becomes essential for interconnectedness, for bonding, and for understanding. It all has to do with the relationship between the organization and the individual.”25 The Navy’s PME institutions are uniquely positioned to develop warfighter skills in how to communicate and build essential interconnections using best practices from both civilian and military approaches to leadership development.

Building historical understanding to be decisive in the future. In an operational environment featuring a lack of combat deployments, we must increasingly turn to history to learn vicariously through others. The first President of Marine Corps University, Lieutenant General Paul K. Van Riper, USMC (ret.), reflected, “I wanted to impart a simple lesson: a properly schooled officer never arrives on a battlefield for the first time, even if he has never actually trod the ground, if that officer has read wisely to acquire the wisdom of those who have experienced war in times past.”26 A champion of PME throughout his career in Congress, Representative Ike Skelton also recognized the importance of an appreciation for history: “I cannot stress this enough because a solid foundation in history gives perspective to the problems of the present. And a solid appreciation of history…will prepare students for the future.”27 Management education has long championed these kinds of vicarious learning through the extensive use of case studies. The case study approach heightens students’ sensitivity to history, context, and the particulars of a wide variety of situations. It gives warfighters a reservoir of examples to draw on as they face an unpredictable future.28

These elements of management education can help naval warfighters improve their personal performance and create a higher-performing Navy team that is better positioned to cope with the unpredictability of the future operating environment. In an era when investment dollars are at a premium, these management skills should be emphasized to a greater extent in PME because they provide high return on the Navy’s investments. Management skills can be applied across a wide range of situations and roles, and they typically stay relevant longer than technical skills. Management skills are particularly valuable for warfighters that advance into higher-level positions that usually involve more complex organizational and leadership challenges, and less technical know-how.29 A recent study by Harvard economists David Deming and Kadeem Noray puts it this way:

“[High]-ability workers choose STEM careers initially, but exit them over time…[This] is explained by differences across fields in the relative return to on-the-job learning. High ability workers are faster learners in all jobs. However, the relative return to ability is higher in careers that change less because learning gains accumulate”(emphasis added).30

Return on investment explains why management degrees (principally MBAs) dominate lists of the most popular graduate degrees, since individuals know that as their careers advance, the returns on graduate education favor developing strong management skills.31 Investing in management know-how is also less risky than investing in technical knowledge because the general applicability of management skills means they never abruptly go out of fashion.


“Whoever can make and implement his decisions consistently faster gains a tremendous, often decisive advantage. Decision making thus becomes a time-competitive process, and timeliness of decisions becomes essential to generating tempo. Timely decisions demand rapid thinking, with consideration limited to essential factors. We should spare no effort to accelerate our decision-making ability.” –FMFM 132

The changing geostrategic landscape demands changes in the skillsets of our naval leaders. Because of rapid advancements in technology, the human element will play an increasingly important factor in future operating environments. While tactical naval warfighters need to be technically savvy, operational-level warfighters must excel in the managerial skills needed to get peak performance out of the human element. Fundamentally, this is a general management challenge that applies across a wide range of Navy organizations. The Education for Seapower study and strategy, and the remarks of our naval leaders highlight that this entails a paradigm shift in our approach to PME. The Navy should invest more in management education to develop the intellectual and practical competencies required for excellence in naval warfighting.

Dr. Mie Augier is a professor in the Graduate School of Defense Management at the Naval Postgraduate School and a Founding Member of the Naval Warfare Studies Institute (NWSI). She is interested in strategy, organizations, innovation, leadership, and how to educate strategic and innovative thinkers.

Major Sean F. X. Barrett is an active duty Marine Corps intelligence officer. He is currently the operations officer for the Headquarters Marine Corps Directorate of Analytics & Performance Optimization.

Dr. Nick Dew is a professor at the Graduate School of Defense Management at the Naval Postgraduate School. His research is focused on entrepreneurial thinking and innovation in defense organizations.

Dr. Gail Fann Thomas is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Defense Management at the Naval Postgraduate School. Her research focus is strategic communication and interorganizational collaboration.


1. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Developing Today’s Joint Officers for Tomorrow’s Ways of War: The Joint Chiefs of Staff Vision and Guidance for Professional Military Education & Talent Management, (Washington, DC: 2020), 2.

2. Department of the Navy, Education for Seapower (Washington, DC: 2019), 37.

3. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Developing Today’s Joint Officers, 2.

4. We acknowledge the difference between management and leadership. Both can be learned and contribute to peak performance for naval officers. See, for example, Bernard Bass, The Bass Handbook of Leadership:  Theory, Research, and Managerial Applications (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010); John Kotter, “What Leaders Really Do,” Harvard Business Review (Dec. 2001): 2; Abraham Zaleznik, “Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?” Harvard Business Review (Jan. 2004): 1.

5. Kathryn L. Shaw, Bosses Matter: The Effects of Managers on Workers’ Performance: What Evidence Exists on Whether Bad Bosses Damage Workers’ Performance, Issue 456 (Bonn, Germany: IZA World of Labor, 2019).

6. Shaw, Bosses Matter.

7. Luke M. McCollum, Chief of Naval Reserve, Report on Engagement With Industry and the Competitive Advantage of Learning Culture, submitted to Secretary of the Navy, December 26, 2018.

8. As quoted in Rear Admiral P. Gardner Howe III, “Professionalism, Leader Development Key to Future,” Navy News Service, May 26, 2015,

9. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Developing Today’s Joint Officers, 4.

10. Herbert A. Simon, “What We Know About Learning,” Journal of Engineering Education 87, no. 4 (Oct. 1998): 346.

11. David Epstein, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World (New York: Riverhead Books, 2019).

12. Anne Rondeau, “Gen Eds – Are They Worth It?” HuffPost, March 29, 2017,

13. Richard Straub, “What Management Needs to Become in an Era of Ecosystems,” Harvard Business Review, June 5, 2019,

14. Such soft skills include communication, teamwork and interpersonal skills, critical thinking, and problem-solving capability in complex, multidisciplinary situations. Casciaro, Edmondson, and Jang note that “the vast majority of innovation and business development opportunities lie in the interfaces between functions, offices, or organizations.” Similarly, Hagel and Brown observe the “productive friction” that results from transactions between companies. Strong interpersonal skills are needed for these results to manifest themselves. See Tiziana Casciaro, Amy C. Edmondson, and Sujin Jang, “Cross-Silo Leadership: How to Create More Value by Connecting Experts from Inside and Outside the Organization,” Harvard Business Review (May-June 2019): 132; John Hagel III and John Seely Brown, “Difficult Business Partnerships Can Accelerate Innovation,” Harvard Business Review (Feb. 2005),

15. Admiral Mike Mullen, USN(ret.), “SECNAV Guest Lecture” (lecture, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, CA, May 19, 2020).

16. In the context of business, Jeff Bezos notes, “For every leader in the company, not just for me, there are decisions that can be made by analysis…These are the best kinds of decisions! They’re fact-based decisions. The great thing about fact-based decisions is that they overrule the hierarchy. The most junior person in the company can win an argument with the most senior person with a fact-based decision. Unfortunately, there’s this whole other set of decisions that you can’t ultimately boil down to a math problem.” As quoted in Bernard Girard, The Google Way: how One Company Is Revolutionizing Management As We Know It (San Francisco, CA: No Starch Press, Inc., 2009), 118.

17. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Developing Today’s Joint Officers, 3.

18. Michael Mullen, “Admiral Michael Mullen: Wharton Leadership Lecture,” October 27, 2008,

19. Jeroen Stouten, Denise M. Rousseau, and David De Cremer, “Successful Organizational Change: Integrating the Management Practices and Scholarly Literatures,” Academy of Management Annals 12, no. 2 (2018): 752-788.

20. Carol Bekenkotter, “Writing and Problem Solving,” in Language Connections: Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum, eds. T. Fulwiler and A. Young (Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1982), 33-44.

21. Education for Seapower, 15.

22. Lori Goler, Janelle Gale, Brynn Harrington, and Adam Grant, “Why People Really Quit Their Jobs,” Harvard Business Review, January 11, 2018,

23. Shaw, Bosses Matter.

24. Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly, “SECNAV VECTOR 8,” January 24, 2020.

25. Ann E. Rondeau, “Identity in the Profession of Arms,” Joint Force Quarterly, no. 62 (3rd Quarter 2011): 11.

26. Paul K. Van Riper, “The Relevance of History to the Military Profession: An American Marine’s View,” in The Past As Prologue: The Importance of History to the Military Profession, eds. Williamson Murray and Richard Hart Sinnreich (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 53.

27. Ike Skelton, “JPME: Are We There Yet?” Military Review 72, no. 5 (May 1992): 2-9.

28. This is complementary to a pure war college perspective in that it blends history with organizations and a strategic lens and is thus more broadly applicable and provides greater understanding for students who can learn from the process of developing and applying analogies to different contexts.

29. See, for example, a survey of Massachusetts Institute of Technology alumni, in National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, The Integration of the Humanities and Arts with Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Higher Education: Branches from the Same Tree (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2018), 44-45.

30. David J. Deming and Kadeem Noray, “STEM Careers and the Changing Skill Requirements of Work,” Working Paper (June 2019), 3,

31. For example, see “Most Popular Graduate Degrees,” Master’s Programs Guide, accessed May 26, 2020,

32. U.S. Marine Corps, FMFM 1: Warfighting (Washington, DC: 1989), 69.

Featured Image: Facilities of the U.S. Naval War College (U.S. Navy Photo by Jaima Fogg/Released)

Naval Warfare 2010-2020: A Comparative Analysis

By Jimmy Drennan


An analysis of warfighting trends over a decade could be performed by considering the major crises, conflicts, and tensions that took place, or by tracking the evolving force structure and operating concepts of global competitors. Alternatively, one could compare foundational documents issued over that same timespan. In April of this year, the U.S. Navy, U.S Marine Corps, and U.S. Coast Guard (collectively, the U.S. Naval Service) jointly published the latest version of Naval Doctrine Publication 1: Naval Warfare, superseding the previous version released in 2010. The difference between the two documents is stark, and indicates a change over the last ten years in the way the United States views naval warfare – simultaneously reaching back to its historical roots, while also looking over the horizon to future conflicts.

This analysis compares NDP-1 (2010) and NDP-1 (2020) to reveal the major differences in content, style, and tone, and what those difference might imply for the U.S. Naval Service’s strategic direction. In addition to a clear focus on American naval history, readers will notice a shift from contributing to the joint force of all military branches to emphasizing the singular importance of American seapower. In fact, NDP-1 (2020) replaces the Naval Service’s six core capabilities with five enduring functions, elevating the role of sea control and sealift, while diminishing the importance of forward presence and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations (HA/DR).

Quality of Writing

First and foremost, NDP-1 (2020) is eminently more readable than its predecessor. Both documents are intended to be read by every Sailor, Marine, Coast Guardsman and woman, and civilian in the U.S. Naval Service. However, NDP-1 (2020) seems to recognize that a large portion of that audience is not a regular consumer of military doctrine. NDP-1 (2010) is written in language that nests well with the doctrine of any branch of the U.S. Armed Forces (more on this later), but not in language that would help a novice understand why the U.S. Naval Service is important and unique, and how it should be employed. In fact, the language of the sea (nautical lexicon, not necessarily jargon) is noticeably absent from NDP-1 (2010), the doctrinal foundation of a seagoing service whose traditions and culture pre-date the U.S. Armed Forces. For example, the phrase “command of the seas” does not appear in NDP-1 (2010), while it is introduced up front in NDP-1 (2020) as “a fundamental strategic pillar of our nation, necessary for the security and prosperity of our citizens.”

NDP-1 (2020) makes a concerted effort to plainly demonstrate the value of American seapower. Whereas NDP-1 (2010) liberally uses military doctrine buzzwords and acronyms, NDP-1 (2020) instead describes similar concepts in plain language that helps the reader understand the nature and character of the U.S. Naval Service. NDP-1 (2010) is littered with joint terms like DIME, DOTPLMF, ROMO, PMESII, and JIPOE. In parts, it could be easy to forget which service the document was written for.1 NDP-1 (2020) dispenses with such language, and other doctrinal hallmarks like pages labeled “INTENTIONALLY BLANK,” instead utilizing an almost narrative prose, making good use of illustrations, quotations, and vignettes without distracting the reader. NDP-1 (2010) is focused on describing the current manifestation of naval operations, which in 2010 were largely in support of joint campaigns on land, or otherwise concerned with the lower end of the warfighting spectrum. NDP-1 (2020), however, focuses on the theory and principles of naval warfare and their potential future application, irrespective of current operations, adroitly observing “the interlude from great power competition is over.”2

Aside from commending the authors for distilling such a broad and complex topic for a large audience, there is another important reason why the quality of writing in NDP-1 (2020) is worth mentioning. Since the U.S. Naval Service is entering an era in which high-end combat at sea is entirely imaginable (something that could not be said in 2010), it seems plausible the document was written with another audience in mind: Congress. One reason for writing doctrine that can be easily digested is to craft a story that helps non-navalists understand the logic behind budget requests. If NDP-1 can show those outside maritime circles why American seapower is necessary, and how the naval service is unique, it can serve as a foundation not just to operational doctrine, but also to programming and budgeting. If the Naval Service’s future success depends upon arguing for a larger portion of defense budgets, the integration of force generation and force employment strategies based on a single conceptual foundation is paramount.

Historical Perspective

Out of the gates, NDP-1 (2020) clearly establishes a connection to American naval history. Before reaching “page 1,” the reader finds quotations from Raymond Spruance, John Adams, and Harry E. Yarnell, and a vignette from James D. Hornfischer’s The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors.3

Continuing the historical theme, NDP-1 (2020) includes quotations from prominent American naval leaders, strategists, and theorists, with a particular emphasis on Alfred Thayer Mahan. In fact, Mahanian influence in the document is evident not just in quotations, but also in its central premise that the ultimate purpose of the U.S. Naval Service is to achieve command of the seas. NDP-1 (2020) echoes Mahan’s notion that America is inherently a maritime republic, and its prosperity depends upon achieving command of the seas through seapower. Similarly, NDP-1 (2020) bluntly states that sea control (a localized, temporary version of command of the seas) “enables all other naval functions.” In contrast to their predecessors, the authors of NDP-1 (2020) were clearly writing doctrine for a Naval Service prepared for the full range combat operations at sea. And if the authors truly did intend to speak to Congress, it is not surprising they chose to highlight Mahan who was, besides being widely considered one of America’s greatest strategists, a vocal advocate for large fleets and vibrant shipping and shipbuilding industries.

Next to Mahan, the other most noticeable historical emphasis in NDP-1 (2020) is on World War II. Starting with Hornfischer’s vignette on Taffy Three’s heroics at Leyte Gulf, it draws upon the legacy of the last war that saw major, sustained naval combat, with quotes from icons like Nimitz, King, Burke, and Spruance. There is even an entire section dedicated to the lessons on fleet operations offered by the campaigns in the Atlantic and Pacific, the former being cumulative and in support of a land campaign, and the latter being sequential in nature in a principally maritime theater. On this last point, one hopes the Naval Service does not lean too heavily on historical precedent. While the geography of the next major war in the Pacific could closely resemble the last, its character and conduct will likely not.

NDP-1 (2020) includes dozens of quotations from prominent figures in American naval and national history like George Washington, John Paul Jones, John Lejeune, Samuel P. Huntington, and Wayne Hughes. In fact, of all the quotations in the document, the only non-Americans quoted are Carl von Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, Horatio Nelson, Julian Corbett, and Winston Churchill – all of whom have had a significant influence in shaping American naval warfare. Conversely, of the only four people quoted in NDP-1 (2010), one was an ancient Greek general and one was a currently-serving U.S. general. Even considering the undeniable popularity of then-General Mattis and his knack for memorable one-liners, in retrospect this seems like a poor choice.

Joint Force versus Seapower

“The Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard team is relevant today and in the future because of its ability to contribute to the joint force in achieving [strategic] objectives. –NDP-1 (2010)

While the theme of NDP-1 (2020) is the importance of American seapower, the theme of NDP-1 (2010) was more focused on how the Naval Service fits into the larger Joint Force. As mentioned earlier, NDP-1 (2010) was written with an emphasis on the version of naval warfare being exercised at the time, which in 2010 was predominantly aircraft carrier-based power projection in support of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, counterpiracy operations in the Somali Basin, and responding to natural disasters such as the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Counterpiracy and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR) operations are at the low end of the range of military operations and are almost exclusively the purview of the Naval Service. They also did not contribute directly to the U.S. military’s main effort in the first decade of the 21st century: the defeat of violent extremism in the Middle East. Accordingly, there was a significant push within the Navy and Marine Corps to contribute to joint, land-based operations. The Marine Corps reformed itself to help the Army seize and occupy territory in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Navy sent thousands of “individual augmentee” Sailors to support the Army, and restructured its force employment models to provide U.S. Central Command with continuous presence of at least one, sometimes two, Carrier Strike Groups. The Navy even created blue camouflage uniforms for a more modern, tactical appearance to align with Army and Air Force fatigues. Meanwhile, the Coast Guard shifted wholesale from the Department of Transportation to the new Department of Homeland Security, established in 2002 in the wake of 9/11.

The importance of “jointness” in the early 2000s is evident in NDP-1 (2010). Aside from the liberal use of joint military doctrine buzzwords and acronyms, it takes great pains to describe how the Naval Service nests within joint doctrine and policy, beginning in the first paragraph of the introduction. NDP-1 (2010) carefully defines each key term by its joint definition, citing the appropriate joint publication. Even inherent naval terms, such as “maritime domain” and “maritime power projection,” are referenced to joint publications, almost as though it would not have been appropriate for NDP-1 to be the authoritative document for such terms. On the contrary, NDP-1 (2020) relegates the references to joint publications to footnotes and the glossary, indicating an apparent willingness by the authors to offer the document as a primary source which joint doctrine can draw upon for naval warfare concepts.

The reduced emphasis of “jointness” in the Naval Service from 2010 to 2020 is highlighted by two notable examples in NDP-1. First, NDP-1 (2020) lists the nine principles of war as opposed to the 12 principles of joint operations, as in NDP-1 (2010). The difference between the two sets of principles is the inclusion of restraint, perseverance, and legitimacy in the principles of joint operations, which were added as a result of costly lessons the U.S. military learned in the early 2000s. NDP-1 (2020) certainly does not exercise the authority to suggest that the Joint Force abandoned these three modern principles. Rather, NDP-1 (2020) simply indicates it was more valuable to include the principles of war vice the principles of joint operations. The reason for the change is not given, but it does fit with the trend of de-emphasizing “jointness” and refocusing on the enduring nature of naval warfare.

The second key example of NDP-1 (2020) moving away from a focus on joint operations is the absence of any discussion on the six phases of a joint campaign. On the other hand, NDP-1 (2010) devotes the last seven pages to describing the six phases (Shape, Deter, Seize the Initiative, Dominate, Stabilize, Enable Civil Authority). Within each phase, there is a description of how naval activities and operations can be incorporated into the larger joint effort. Over the past two decades, the joint phasing construct became so central and ubiquitous in military planning that it can be difficult to conceive an operation without phases. NDP-1 (2020) instead describes “operations along the competition continuum.” The competition (or competition-conflict) continuum does not necessarily appear intended to replace the joint phasing construct. Rather, the continuum is used to conceptually bridge steady-state, daily operations with the highest imaginable end of naval combat. Conversely, the use of campaign phases can inadvertently cause military leaders, strategists, and planners to falsely envision operations as discrete, isolated events with clearly delineated beginnings and endings. As NDP-1 states, “Our ability to maintain and execute naval functions throughout the competition continuum generates the ability to influence world events. Fundamentally, our ability to influence depends upon our ability to prevail in armed conflict.” Here again, no explanation is given in NDP-1 (2020) for excluding campaign phases, nor does it indicate the Joint Force has abandoned the phasing construct. However, the use of the competition continuum indicates strong influence from the concept of “gray zone” warfare and the prevailing focus on “great power competition,” in which military confrontation can be ambiguous and fluid.

A final note on “jointness:” for all the momentum evident in NDP-1 (2020) toward establishing the independent importance of American seapower, the U.S. military still fights as an integrated joint force. Global operations are commanded by combatant commanders, who wield functional components from all military services in a variety of ways to accomplish their mission. Rarely does the Naval Service secure national interests on its own. Even U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, a distinctly maritime theater typically commanded by an admiral, cannot neglect the contributions of the Army and Air Force in preserving the international rules-based order. Perhaps this is why NDP-1 (2020) distills the entire discussion on maritime strategy down to a single sentence: “Thus, maritime strategy boils down to this: What can the Naval Service do to best help our nation achieve what it needs across this [competition] continuum?”4 This indicates a solid recognition that naval operations support national strategy, and could even imply that single-domain strategies are unnecessary in a military that fights as an integrated joint force.

On the same token, it is unfortunate that NDP-1 (2020) does not mention the new joint concept of Dynamic Force Employment (DFE), a model for employing the joint force with agility and unpredictability. DFE could significantly impact how the Naval Service is used as an instrument of national power, as deployments will see much less geographic and temporal regularity. Even though it is a joint concept, one would think a Naval Service looking to recoup strategic readiness – and apparently de-emphasizing “forward presence” (more on that next) – would embrace DFE, yet the Naval Service continues to ignore the concept in its own doctrine, missing the opportunity to shape the concept in its favor.

From Core Capabilities to Enduring Functions

The most consequential difference between the 2010 and 2020 versions of NDP-1 lies in the way the two documents outline how the Naval Service secures U.S. national interests. NDP-1 (2010) defines six core capabilities, whereas NDP-1 (2020) defines five enduring functions.

While the two lists are similar, the obvious difference is that HA/DR and forward presence are not listed as enduring functions, whereas sealift is. The shift from core capabilities to enduring functions actually began with the revision of A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower in 2015. In 2007, the original strategy expanded the traditional four core capabilities to include HA/DR and maritime security. In 2015, the revised strategy replaced the core capabilities with five essential functions, which closely resemble the enduring functions in NDP-1 (2020), including “all domain access” instead of sealift. This was likely in response to China’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy and in recognition of the need for freedom of action in the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum.

The choice to establish five enduring functions in NDP-1 (2020) is noteworthy for a few reasons. First, the removal of HA/DR implies that it is no longer viewed as important as sea control, power projection, deterrence, and maritime security. This aligns with the trend of moving away from missions that do not directly support command of the seas. Second, the addition of sealift implies a renewed appreciation of the importance of maritime logistics in naval warfare (all warfare overseas, in fact). It is no secret that the Naval Service neglected its merchant marine fleet over the past decade. Maritime Administrator Mark Buzby recently noted the U.S. would need about 50 more merchant vessels and about 1800 Merchant Mariners to sustain sealift operations in a Pacific conflict. Meanwhile, the ships in the fleet average 45 years-old. In a short notice exercise last year, only 40 percent of the Maritime Ready Reserve Fleet was able to sail within 48 hours. In crafting a coherent story to convey the importance of American seapower to Congress and the American public, sealift should be a central theme and is appropriately included as an enduring function of the Naval Service.

Finally, maritime security (another 2007 addition alongside HA/DR) was retained, while forward presence was removed. The implication is that achieving maritime security is more important than maintaining forward presence. This is peculiar, particularly since NDP-1 (2020) concludes with the phrase “Always forward. Always faithful. Always ready. Always.” Instead of being listed as an enduring function, forward presence is described as supporting deterrence, naval diplomacy, and maritime domain awareness. It is possible this is a tacit recognition that forward presence remains important, but the Naval Service cannot sustain routine force deployments as an intrinsic measure of effectiveness. If so, the authors of NDP-1 (2020) missed a key opportunity to embrace Dynamic Force Employment as a viable way to secure national interests while also generating readiness for future conflicts.


Ultimately, the value in comparing NDP-1 (2020) with NDP-1 (2010) lies in identifying trends in how the Naval Service wages war, so those who implement strategy can adapt accordingly, and in highlighting possible issues, those who craft strategy can also adjust course as needed.

The first noteworthy trend is the overall improvement of the document itself. The quality and style of writing in NDP-1 (2020) is apparent, and bodes well for reaching a broader audience, beyond those who read doctrine as part of their occupation. NDP-1 (2020) goes a long way toward telling a story of the importance of American seapower. A compelling story, or logical narrative, is crucial for making convincing budgetary arguments to non-navalists in the Pentagon and in Congress.

The second trend is the renewed emphasis on the history of American seapower. Whereas NDP-1 (2010) was focused on seapower as it was being applied at the time, NDP-1 (2020) firmly establishes the Naval Service’s historical roots, and demonstrates how the lessons of the past could be applied today and in the future. The caution for strategists is not to draw too heavily on the lessons of the last major naval conflict in the Pacific. One of the only certainties in warfare is that it tends to unfold in unexpected and surprising ways. As the prospect of high-end naval warfare in the Pacific is once again visible on the horizon, it is entirely possible the list of similarities with World War II may end with geography.

The third trend is the shift from describing the Naval Service as part of a larger joint force, to focusing on how the Naval Service itself secures national interests. NDP-1 (2020) does not abandon the idea of the Naval Service supporting the joint force, but it certainly focuses more on naval warfare and less on joint operations. On the other hand, NDP-1 (2010) was written with such an emphasis on “jointness” that it might have been more appropriately titled Naval Contributions to Joint Operations instead of Naval Warfare. The caution for strategists here is, with the renewed emphasis on communicating the importance of American seapower, not to become too myopic and forget the critical contributions and interrelationships of all military branches.

Finally, the most consequential trend is the change from six core capabilities to five enduring functions (seapower, power projection, deterrence, maritime security, and sealift). The removal of HA/DR and forward presence signals that the Naval Service no longer views these functions as central to accomplishing its mission, whereas the inclusion of sealift signals a recognition of the criticality of maritime logistics. As opposed to the Principles of Joint Operations, NDP-1 (2020) does have the authority to officially redefine the Naval Service’s core capabilities into enduring functions, so this particular change merits more discussion and explanation.

Specifically, leaders should explain the logic behind not including forward presence as an enduring function. It could be that the Naval Service no longer views forward presence as a function at all, but rather as a characteristic that supports other functions. As the Naval Service struggles to build an integrated force structure that can keep up with global commitments and threats, forward presence as it was previously understood may have been unsustainable to include as an enduring function. If so, the Naval Service would do well to incorporate the joint concept of Dynamic Force Employment into its evolving narrative on the importance of American seapower in securing national interests.

Jimmy Drennan is the President of the Center for International Maritime Security. His views are presented in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect the views of any U.S. government department or agency.


1. NDP-1 (2010) uses the phrase “political, military, economic, social, infrastructure, and information” but thankfully refrains from using the actual acronym.

2. Some use of the buzz phrase “great power competition” is unavoidable and forgivable. NDP-1 (2020) manages to successfully ponder naval warfare in this future geopolitical schema without overusing the term to the point of cliché.

3. Admiral Yarnell demonstrated the vulnerability of Hawaii to Japanese air attacks via fleet exercises conducted as part of joint Army/Navy war games in 1932, a decade before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

4. For comparison, NDP-1 (2010) devotes three full pages to an explanation of A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, the unified maritime strategy of the Naval Service.

5. Capabilities and functions are listed as ordered in each version of NDP-1.

Featured Image: PHILIPPINE SEA (June 1, 2020) The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) transits the Philippine Sea, June 1, 2020. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Julian Davis/Released)

Winning the War on Distraction: Military Leaders Need Quiet Minds in the Digital Age

By Bill Bray

If you believe reading well or deep contemplation helps one be a better leader, consider how challenging it can be today to make a quiet place where one can be free from digital distraction. It requires quite a bit of discipline to train the mind to focus without interruption or read challenging texts. But reading them will, in turn, discipline the mind. It is a virtuous circle.

In 2005, I deployed to East Africa. It was my sixth deployment and I was excited about a new challenge in a part of the world I had never visited. I bunked in a small room with no television or internet connection. I brought with me a stack of books to read, knowing that for all their demands and challenges, deployments away from long commutes and domestic responsibilities provide more quiet time, even with longer work weeks.

Intensive deployment preparations during the preceding months allowed barely a spare moment to read, and after being on the ground for a few weeks and into a stable work rhythm I looked forward to diving in to some weighty but rewarding books. At first opportunity I expected to instantly relish again the joy of getting lost in a great book.

Instead, something quite disconcerting occurred. I could not concentrate long enough to continuously read much beyond a single page. I kept glancing up, expecting to be interrupted by something—an email alert, an instant message, a video call, a cell phone ringing. After half an hour of this, I slammed the book shut and marched up a dusty path to my office. I was agitated and tense, a telltale symptom of situational attention deficit disorder. I was also in a panic that my reading brain was lost forever.

That unsettling experience occurred before the introduction of the smart phone, a seminal event where opportunity to escape the temptress of digital distraction practically vanished. By the late 2000s, hyper-connection had arrived and has ever since waged unrestricted war against whatever is left of our undistracted quiet time. But to read and contemplate well one must fight back, so count me today as part of a growing backlash of folks disconnecting as often as possible each day.

I am no luddite. I prefer the comforts technology makes possible. People in the nineteenth century had plenty of quiet time, but I do not want to have to use an outhouse or fetch water from a well ten times a day. Nevertheless, new technologies often bring unintended consequences that need to be addressed. The detrimental effects of having one’s attention regularly distracted are by now well-established in a wide body of research. They include an impaired ability to perform a range of cognitive tasks and manage one’s emotions. Readers take note—do not try to read Macbeth with a smart phone within reach.

Deep in Distraction

In my view, the military has been slow to realize how important this is to ensure leaders nurture their minds. For more than two decades, the overarching theme when it came to the intersection of military leader development and information technology has been the more connected the better. It became a mantra that the breathtaking speed of innovation in information technology was changing warfare, and leaders needed to embrace, understand, and stay on pace with it. While it is hard on one level to argue against this imperative, it is now clear that it would be foolish not to heed science’s recent findings to determine how today’s hyper-connected digital environment is adversely affecting critical thinking skills prized in good military leaders. 

The late Dr. Clifford Nass ran Stanford University’s Communication between Humans and Interactive Media (CHIME) Lab until his untimely death in 2013. For several years he stood at the forefront of research into the effects of multi-tasking through digital media on human cognitive and emotional development and performance. By the late 2000s CHIME and others were publishing peer-reviewed research detailing these effects, and warning that the proliferation of portable digital technology such as smart phones will only exacerbate the problem.  Shortly before he died, Nass gave a wide-ranging interview to National Public Radio on what the body of research was revealing. The following excerpt captures the essence of the findings:

The research is almost unanimous, which is very rare in social science, and it says that people who chronically multitask show an enormous range of deficits. They’re basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks . . . we have scales that allow us to divide up people into people who multitask all the time and people who rarely do, and the differences are remarkable. People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted. They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand. They’re even terrible at multitasking. When we ask them to multitask, they’re actually worse at it. So, they’re pretty much mental wrecks.1

It goes without saying that military officers and leaders need their cognitive game at a level where they can, at a minimum, “filter out irrelevancy” and avoid being “mental wrecks.”

Since Nass’s 2013 interview, new studies have only reinforced how serious this problem is. Jean M. Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State, recently published research on how smart phones are impairing the mental and emotional development of teenagers. She documents this in her book iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood. This generation, first born in the mid-1990s, is just now joining the military. Boot camp and officer training are receiving young minds less able to focus after years of bombardment in a saturated digital media multi-tasking environment. Yet the military will not begin to address this problem until it stops sending its own signal that being digitally connected all the time is the right thing to do professionally. Always being “plugged in” with the latest tech and the media multitasking it persistently demands has for too long been championed as a vital tool of modern leadership, not something to be cautious about. It is time the military services take seriously the implications of cognitive science research.

The human brain is extremely elastic. While subjecting one’s mind to an excessive amount of distraction leads to a range of cognitive deficits, as Nass notes, freeing it from distraction as much as possible to permit time where one can fully focus on a single prolonged task, such as deep reading, improves the power of concentration. It should be noted that contemplation is not meditation, although that surely has health benefits as well. Contemplation is enjoyable but it is also a form of work, and doing it regularly is necessary to think well and keep sharp one’s ability to concentrate, whether to work through difficult conceptual issues or stay focused in otherwise chaotic environments.

The benefits of contemplation are also not something modern science discovered in the digital age. It would be more correct to say that through recent research, science rediscovered them through a far more intricate and evidentiary-based understanding of how the human mind works and what helps it work well. The ancient Greeks put great stock in the nurturing value of contemplation, and no less than Aristotle himself seemed to struggle with how best to balance the active and contemplative life. In book 10, sections 7 and 8 of Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle discourses on the human activity of the mind (theoria), commonly translated as contemplation. For Aristotle, the activity of study, or contemplation, is not something one does just to become learned. Instead, it is an activity that accords with virtuous character. Contemplation is an end in itself, a way to share in the divine, and not a task done solely to achieve some practical benefit. Nor does one need to engage regularly in contemplation to be a good citizen—that is quite achievable by developing what Aristotle termed ‘practical wisdom’ (phronesis). While Aristotle could not have envisioned digital technology and its pernicious influence on our ability to nurture our minds through contemplation, he did believe a life of action or activity that does not also include sufficient time for contemplation is not a life well-lived.2

Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Antwoun Stevens writes poetry in his rack aboard the guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Erie, Oct. 19, 2017. (Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Lucas T. Hans)

Contemplation both requires and enhances a quiet, undistracted mind. And by engaging in it regularly, one also trains the mind to think beyond the concerns of day-to-day leadership and effectively engage with larger questions worthy of deeper thought—such as those of organizational change and strategy. We all know leaders who, in today’s parlance, are known as ‘big thinkers’ or ‘strategic thinkers.’ In referring to them in this way, we do not mean to imply only that they are very intelligent, which they surely are. The description more precisely captures an intellectual quality that must be consciously cultivated in the course of a career through regular study, undistracted focus, and deep contemplation. They read well.

At the risk of sounding like a crank complaining about young people today, one has to wonder if a smart-phone generation that feels obligated to be constantly connected and reachable at every waking moment is handicapping itself in cultivating the habits necessary to develop this quality. A professional culture that exalts as a desired leadership attribute the ability to function well in the frenetic cacophony of a media multi-tasking environment is undermining a much more essential requirement—that young leaders develop the important habits of mind necessary of senior leadership and strategic thinking.

Strike the Right Balance

Promising signs are emerging of a growing awareness to the digital age’s malign impact on cognitive health. The aforementioned research is spawning mainstream literature that serves as a public health warning and a guide on how to navigate today’s digital media-saturated environment so one can enjoy its benefits and innovations without exposing oneself to its dangers. There is a middle way that does not require the lifestyle of a hermit.

For example, in his 2017 book The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter, David Sax argues that the promised digital utopia has turned out to be a mirage. He points to a host of studies, surveys, and statistics to support this claim, but also is careful to prescribe a balance when incorporating digital media into one’s daily life, as opposed to abstinence. In addition, in 2018 Raymond Kethledge and Michael Erwin published Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude, which includes examples of leaders who benefited greatly by committing regularly to silent time alone and free from distraction.

To read well, the leader must find this careful balance. Senior military leaders that came of age before the digital revolution are now retiring, but for the ones still in places of influence, or for any leader that senses there might be a problem, resist the temptation of connectedness and ensure those immersed in an ever-distracting daily milieu of digital stimuli can unplug regularly to nourish a well-focused mind. Leaders at all levels need to maintain sharp, focused minds, and the organization relying on their service owes them an environment where the mind can best flourish. I suspect those committed to reading well will need the least convincing.     

Bill Bray is a retired Navy captain and currently the Deputy Editor-in-Chief of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings.  

Featured Image: PENSACOLA, Fla. (Aug. 25, 2012) Hundreds of staff and students at the Center for Information Dominance Unit Corry Station muster early Saturday morning in preparation for Tropical Storm Isaac. (U.S. Navy Photo by Gary Nichols/Released) 

War is a Learning Competition: How a Culture of Debrief Can Improve Multi-Domain Operations

The following article originally published on Over the Horizon and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Tim “Diesel” Causey

Executive Summary

The Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) community continues to evolve and progress. MDO is, and will be the fundamental enabler for Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) and the way our nation fights future wars. As the maturing community integrates new concepts and processes, Multi-Domain Operators must identify and engrain the valuable lessons along the way. Creating a set of standards to capture feedback and drive improvement is vital for development in any organization. The debrief culture of the U.S. Air Force fighter community, among others, is well-known for its direct, highly effective feedback and learning methods. This type of focused feedback is important to the fighter community because the debrief is where the majority of learning takes place. The MDO community would benefit greatly by utilizing this debrief culture as a model from which to develop its own unique culture of consistent, iterative improvement. Because a standard day, or sortie-equivalent, is not yet fully fleshed out for Multi-Domain Operators, the purpose of this paper is to convey the necessity for debriefing lessons learned, and provide best practices in their current form. The ultimate objective is to create a foundation for the MDO community to adapt these practices as the details and nuance of its daily execution become more specific and clear.


War is a learning competition; therefore professional learning—continuing education—is fundamental to winning wars. As the international strategic environment becomes increasingly complex, the Department of Defense (DoD) must synchronize efforts across domains to maintain its advantage. Achieving this goal requires planning and executing strategic response options utilizing a Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) framework. To become the world-leading standard in this complex environment, the MDO community must develop efficiencies to respond and innovate more rapidly and effectively. The first step to enable this advancement is instilling a culture of debrief, direct feedback, and constructive learning within the MDO community.

Many communities across the United States Air Force (USAF) embrace a debrief culture, though some have unique formats and standards to tailor learning to respective needs. The debrief is designed to focus analysis on either the accomplishment or failure to accomplish desired learning objectives (DLOs) and/or mission objectives. Mission objectives drive the planning or execution items that must be accomplished to be successful and therefore expose the areas of individual, crew, or team performance that must be addressed to correct for future iterations. Regardless of distinctive design, any effective debrief identifies errors and provides fixes for those errors, while also allowing those who did not directly commit a given error the advantage of learning from others’ mistakes. Since there is not enough time for each operator to make all the mistakes, this type of learning creates efficiency by reducing repetitive errors across the group that is present for a given debrief. Now, multiply this effect across entire communities.

The fighter aviation community has refined its debrief process over several decades; it is fundamental to fighter culture. Any organization can utilize fighter debrief concepts as a reference—or even baseline—to develop its own culture of debrief. Being composed of personnel from many different career fields and backgrounds, the MDO community must be deliberate about, and dedicated to, the development of appropriate debrief formats and standards. Since the MDO process is still early in its development, it is critical to build the foundation of this debrief culture in the Multi-Domain Warfare Officer schoolhouse (known as 13O/13Oscar schoolhouse) and Air Command and Staff College’s Multi-Domain Operational Strategist (MDOS) concentration (soon to become JADS – Joint All-Domain Strategists). One way to achieve this is for the 13O schoolhouse and MDOS to leverage the proven fighter debrief process in establishing an MDO debrief methodology. This can inform the MDO community’s initial, essential steps in developing a format and standards for efficient and effective feedback.

Fighter Debrief Culture

To understand fighter debrief culture in a way that helps the MDO community relate it to the eventual structure of an MDO day, or an MDO mission, it is important to describe that fighter culture in its native context. Debrief has always been an important part of fighter aviation culture, facilitating honest and direct feedback on every mission element. As Combat Air Force (CAF) flying hours continue to decrease, debrief has become even more important to ensuring everyone receives required training. Additionally, work-life balance and operations tempo require debriefs to be direct and succinct, due to the limited time available after mission planning, briefing, and flying the mission. By the time the debrief starts, aircrew likely have already been at work for a full day.

To maintain focus and aid efficiency, debriefers commonly use the mantra “Plan, Products, Brief, Administration, Tactical Admin, and Execution” to address all portions of the mission. At the beginning of the debrief, it is helpful to keep sections like “Brief” as simple as possible by asking, “was there anything from the brief negatively affecting your execution today or that you have questions on?” Directing this question to the room allows the debriefer to quickly address pre-execution issues, and then move to the mission itself. However, the brief may have negatively affected execution in a way that remains to be determined in debrief, so it should also be considered during the debrief focus point (DFP) development. Utilizing this debrief structure, the debriefer quickly addresses issues in each pre- and post-execution section with the flight participants until arriving at mission execution. Mission execution review is designed to focus the debrief so each person can improve for the next mission. This does not mean each person gets individually debriefed, but rather that those who made errors most impactful to mission success or failure have those errors identified and corrected in a way everyone can learn from them. All participants should leave understanding how to better execute the mission. The succinct, direct nature of fighter debrief is equally applicable to the MDO community.

An additional key to ensuring efficient and effective debrief is withholding personal feelings and ensuring rank does not impede instruction for correctable mistakes. Debrief attendees should behave professionally, and critiques of execution should not be personal in nature, nor taken personally by flight participants. Aircrew must avoid defensive attitudes and cannot make excuses for poor performance. To this end, mission reconstruction should focus on facts, so instructional fixes can be objective corrections to demonstrated errors. If crews take debrief points personally, or if pride stands in the way of learning, valuable lessons are lost. The person running the debrief sets rules of engagement (ROE), which are designed to help avoid hurt feelings and pride issues. ROE can vary depending on the squadron and the person in charge of the debrief. Below is an example of debrief ROE, developed over several years of flying fighter aircraft. Although not all-inclusive, it provides a good starting point.

Different communities have passed down similar rules throughout the years, and everyone has their favorite—or most important—rule. Another helpful source is an article written for the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG’s) corps by Major Mark Perry (an F-15C pilot) and Major Benjamin Martin (a JAG officer). Their five key rules offer great insight into a portion of the debrief process. They lay an initial foundation that helps underpin the essence of the debrief: an investigation into the errors made. The overall goal is to show the facts of what occurred in order to ascertain, prove, and teach the fix (i.e., a “lesson learned”) for everyone to internalize from the debrief. This type of debrief is only possible in the limited time available if everyone is honest about mistakes and is ready to learn.

Another critical facet to making this type of debrief possible is careful selection of who runs each debrief. It is important to develop a community standard. As a general rule, whoever established the desired learning objectives (DLOs) which drive the mission objectives should run the debrief. This is usually the same person who prepared the mission and gave the briefing. Ideally this is an instructor, unless someone is being upgraded, but it does not have to be. Especially important is the maxim that rank has nothing to do with who runs the debrief. The squadron commander—or the wing commander—may be in the formation, but the day’s lead or instructor is the most appropriate to lead assessment of facts and fixes. In that same vein, there is no rank in the debrief. Per the ROE, this does not mean one can say whatever he/she wants. Always remain professional. This helps establish a respectful balance, while taking advantage of the reality that learning can come from anyone, regardless of rank.

The Process

The USAF Weapons School (i.e., Weapons Instructor Course or WIC) utilizes a debrief standard across all the school’s platforms. The mission analysis process assesses accomplishment of the DLOs. If a formation fails to accomplish a specific DLO, the process then identifies the errors that led to the failure. These errors become DFPs or learning points (LPs), the former having a more significant impact on mission success than the latter. Once the debriefer identifies the DFP(s) or LP(s), he/she categorizes it/them into one of three areas: perception, decision, or execution. After error-categorization, the debriefer then provides an instructional fix to maximize learning and to ensure those present can make a tangible change or correction for future missions. Combining a DFP with an instructional fix results in a lesson learned—the critical element to community improvement.

DFPs and LPs should be the focal point of the debrief because they distill vast amounts of data into concise and effective lessons for each participant. If the debriefer does not identify the DFP or LP, untargeted analysis of the minutia can subjugate debrief focus, and those listening can lose interest or get confused. A debriefer identifying every minor error someone makes might not only waste valuable time, it can also serve to browbeat an individual, often leading to mental shutdown and an inability to actually learn. Instead, DFPs developed from the DLOs prevent aimless rambling and give the debrief focus. The debriefer identifies the DFPs during the reconstruction portion of the debrief. Whereas DFPs are failures in mission or tactical objectives (i.e., DLOs), learning points are when the formation accomplishes the DLO in spite of significant mistakes, or in a non-traditional way (e.g., the formation was able to complete the mission but made significant errors that can be debriefed). Learning can come from successes, using LPs, or from failures, identifying LPs and/or DFPs. In any of these three cases, the DFPs and/or LPs provide a common reference point and keep the debrief focused and succinct.

While the fighter community uses the mantra “Plan, Products, Brief, Admin, Tactical Admin, and Execution” to ensure all portions of the mission are addressed, another simple process applicable to any type of event is the five questions Air Force pilot Bill Crawford discusses in his 2015 TEDx Talk. These questions outline an easy-to-remember checklist to guide debriefs:

  1. What happened?
  2. What went right?
  3. What went wrong?
  4. Why?
  5. What are the Lessons Learned?

Step one: “What happened” is the process of validating the mission and tactical objectives. In other words, did the flight accomplish the DLOs?

Step two: “What went right” is an important part of the debrief process for two reasons. First, a debrief should not be just negative; and second, it is always good to use this step to show the group how things are supposed to look—it is motivating, reinforces good habits, and gives people something to replicate. Additionally, sometimes optimal execution is accomplished without recognition or by unintentional action, and should be highlighted to ensure understanding for application in the future.

Steps three and four: “What went wrong” and “why” is where the debrief loop, discussed below is utilized. Step three is not merely focused on “who made the mistake.” Similarly, step four is “why” not “who.” Referencing the aforementioned debrief ROE, do not make the debrief personal.

Step five: “What are the lessons learned” relates back to DFP and LP development; however, this discussion should be carried further, as described in Bill Crawford’s TEDx Talk. Incorporate lessons learned into the next execution cycle’s planning process. This process allows a wider group of people to learn from the debrief, growing the community as a whole.

When used properly, the debrief loop ensures DFPs and LPs are identified and fixed. Air Force then-Captain David Deptula formally described the debrief loop in his Weapons School Paper “Fundamentals of the Instructional Debrief.”

The Debrief Loop: Captain David Deptula, “Fundamentals of the Instructional Debrief,” USAF Weapon School Student Paper, F-22A Class 12BIN, December 2012.

Determining why the error occurred is a vital part of debrief and is unfortunately where most debriefers have trouble. The tendency is to make an assumption on why someone made an error and then give them a fix to that assumption. However, when the person running the debrief utilizes the third step of the debrief loop correctly, he/she asks direct questions of the person who made the mistake to get to the “why” of the error. This is where it is important that all participants of a debrief adhere to rules four and five of the Debrief ROE:

When determining the “why,” the debrief loop recommends the use of the P/D/E model—Perception, Decision, and Execution. Using this model, the debriefer asks the correct questions to accurately determine the “why.” The person running the debrief should ask questions which categorize the error in perception, decision, or execution and then use that information to deliver an instructional fix (IF). An IF should be easy to follow and easy to implement in future missions.

Debrief for the MDO Community 

There are many articlesbooks, and even TEDx Talks on the subject of debrief. Although all are useful, the target audiences are corporations, lawyers, and doctors; and while certain communities within the Air Force utilize very effective debrief methodologies, none of these directly address operations or planning in the MDO environment. There will be an initial hurdle of developing an accepted debrief standard for the MDO community, as it is built out of a diverse pool from around the DoD. Many people may not be familiar with the previously described “fighter” debrief style, or may find the direct feedback too personal in nature, and some may misconstrue the feedback as an official report instead of seeing it as a simply a way to improve future efforts. These differences in backgrounds, and in conceptions of feedback, make it even more important for the MDO community to establish a standard for debrief.

In conjunction with introducing the MDO community to the debrief process and etiquette, the MDO community would also benefit from identifying mission areas most appropriate to apply the debrief process. Five areas from the planning and execution stages are regularly occurring processes ripe for iterative learning, application of debrief methodology, and ultimately result in a reduction in execution errors.

Potential MDO Debrief Areas

When the MDO community formally develops a debrief methodology it is recommended that the following five areas be reviewed. These areas are not the answer to how to develop a debrief, but are instead intended to be ideas that spark discussion and drive development in the MDO community.

The first area the MDO community could benefit from debriefing is planning process assumptions. It does not matter if the planning process is for a wargame, for a staff-level task, or for an MDO mission. When executing the planning process, it is important to identify the assumptions made about the task at hand. Assumptions allow the team to maintain forward progress by focusing effort, but they also have varying degrees of inherent risk. This risk is dependent on multiple factors, including how the assumption was derived, the confidence level of the assessment, and the gravity of the consequences if the assumption turns out to be partially—or entirely—invalid. It is imperative to document these assumptions for all to see and for the team to periodically revisit. Putting them on a white board in the room is a great technique to enable constant review, and to allow mission partners or—late arrivals—to catch up to the group. Listing assumptions in plain view has the additional benefit of ensuring all participants can read, validate, or (in some cases) challenge an assumption during the planning process. If a late arrival or the commander is to highlight an invalid assumption, the team can make immediate and early adjustments to the scope and scale of the planning. However, if an assumption is invalid and not caught it can have an effect on the overall mission, and could result in a failure to accomplish a tactical objective. In this case the team should treat it like a DFP: “Why was assumption #8 incorrect and how did that effect the overall outcome of the planning process?”

Additionally, when the planning team arrives at the end of their process and briefs the plan, avoid assuming that, if the commander selected the planners’ recommendation, the assumptions were correct. Assumption validation occurs as execution unfolds and those assumptions prove valid or invalid in real-time. Because of this reality, it is best to validate assumptions after execution and capture the results of the debrief for future planning efforts. While some assumptions will ultimately be affected by enemy decision-making, a formal debrief will identify those factors the planning team could have predicted in the planning phase. It may also have the capacity to identify whether planners were cognizant of the risks to assumptions depending on enemy decisions, which should have been a significant factor in contingency planning.

Risk is a second area in which to apply the debrief process, as risk is vital to commanders at all levels. To facilitate this type of debrief, risk should be categorized into risk to mission failure, risk to force, and risk to timing and tempo. The risk involved with a decision is a large assumption made during the planning process. Comparing planners’ acceptable risk to the risk the commander wants mitigated can be an additional factor to debrief. LP 1: “Why did the planning team assume a higher risk than the commander was willing to accept?” Once developed, these risk lessons can be fed into the planning cycle to inform better future risk mitigation. Risk is not the same in every scenario, and every commander’s risk tolerance is not the same, but understanding allowable risk in a complex environment is a great place to debrief.

A third area where the debrief methodology would be appropriate is following wargame execution. Due to the time and monetary investment required to correctly execute a wargame, it is vital to execute the wargame process as correctly and effectively as possible. When developing courses of action for the commander, the MDO community can use wargames as a way to identify modifications or allow the commander to select the best course of action. As a result, war gaming can also benefit from a formal debrief process. For example the debrief ROE 3-6 can help ensure an effective and timely executed wargame. It is human nature to leave an experience like a wargame either patting yourself on the back or being angry at the other side for negating your opinion or planning. Executing a debrief at the end of the wargame can identify lessons learned for blue mission planners, and can ensure all participants leave with a shared, clear understanding of the outcome. This helps to prove what modifications to the plan are necessary. Since the red team has immersed itself in the enemy’s decision-making process, the red team should utilize the five questions to provide details to the blue team for their use in executing the debrief loop.

A fourth area for the MDO community to leverage the debrief methodology is during flexible deterrent option (FDO) and strategic response option (SRO) development. The MDO planning cycle can be time-consuming, as it consists of developing observed and desired systems, executing center of gravity and decisive point analysis, building a logic map, and filling out a decision support matrix, a decision support template, and a synchronization matrix to build the SRO. It may take 3-6 months to validate an SRO and, therefore, delay feedback to the planners, meaning lessons are potentially lost over time. By adopting a debrief culture, the MDO community could generate lessons learned during the process and incorporate them into the current and future planning cycle therefore reducing errors and increasing effectiveness across the entire community.

The final area the MDO community could utilize a community-wide debrief methodology is during exercises at the Air Operations Center (AOC) level. The tendency is to run the exercise, execute a 3 up and 3 down slide, and then return to standard business. The 3 up and 3 down debriefs only highlight 3 positives and 3 negatives from the entire exercise. This type of wave-top after action assessment does not maximize the learning and growth that can come from this type of exercise. Executing a robust exercise at the MDO level requires a great deal of time, effort, and resources. Therefore, it deserves a debrief methodology to ensure the lessons learned are fully captured. There are many ways to accomplish this, whether at the completion of each air tasking order (ATO) day, or at the completion of the entire exercise. Establishing a standard that facilitates root cause analysis and open discussion of errors among key participants is crucial in moving the MDO community forward. Preventing recurring mistakes in the five recommended areas is the ultimate benefit of a well-developed debrief process. This is why it is important for the MDO community to develop its debrief methodology (with appropriate ROEs) and find applicable areas in the community where it should be applied.


The MDO community currently lacks a standardized debrief process to allow the growth required to be effective in future MDO environments. There is no better time to establish a standard process of feedback than in the early stages of growth. The MDO community can leverage the debrief culture of the USAF fighter community. It is a proven system that allows effective and efficient feedback throughout a mission, a unit, and the entire community. Debrief culture requires buy-in from all levels of the MDO community and also requires all participants to follow a standard set of rules to ensure the process is followed; multiple ROE examples have been given to facilitate this process. The MDO community should develop a new ROE to fit their community in its expanding environment. If the MDO community does not establish some type of formal feedback system in the early stages of development, it will lose many lessons and will be forced to recreate the wheel, leading to loss of valuable time and potentially even falling behind the adversary in ability to anticipate, adapt, and react to enemy actions.


For the MDO community to evolve, it needs to establish and internalize a common trust and understanding that allows feedback to be passed effectively and efficiently between MDO planning cells and staffs. This critical feedback mechanism will ensure lessons are derived from errors and implemented in future planning and execution cycles. By establishing a culture of debrief and following the above debrief ROE, the MDO community can help ensure success as it moves into the future environment. To codify a debrief methodology and engender the required debrief culture for the benefit of the entire DoD, the schoolhouses must establish the standard. Therefore the 13O schoolhouse and MDOS should work together to develop the desired debrief methodology to ensure the enemy does not gain the intellectual high ground in an evolving and complex strategic environment.

Major Tim “Diesel” Causey is an Instructor Weapon Systems Officer and Weapons School Graduate with over 1700 hours in the F-15E. He is an MDOS graduate and is currently on the faculty of the Joint All-Domain Strategist Concentration at the Air Command and Staff College.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. Government.

Featured Image: An F-15E Strike Eagle flies over Iraq May 5, 2018. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Corey Hook)