Category Archives: Flotilla Tactical Notes

Starting with a Step: Creating Professional Incentives for Continuous Tactical Learning

Flotilla Tactical Notes Series

By Benjamin Clark

Too often U.S. Navy training in general, and surface naval tactics specifically, boils down to what can be captured in a Personnel Qualification Standard (PQS). PQS is a training system that nominally represents the theoretical baseline required to achieve a given qualification, but in practice can become so lengthy and arduous that it comes to represent the peak of training that a candidate for qualification will ever achieve. At the same time, they are immediately expected to train new candidates in the same material they have just supposedly proven their understanding of. This system, while it has in some ways achieved the desired goal of standardization across the fleet, is still suboptimal in that it practically requires constant repetition of the content of the PQS at the expense of expanding knowledge in any relevant professional naval field according to interest and possible necessity.

The process of time spent on qualification is certainly valuable. The problem is the insidious and false sense of security that comes from using PQS to make naval warfare professionals personally responsible for a broad set of knowledge, and without a formal continuous education program to expect them to maintain and expand their skills and knowledge throughout their career. Many aspects of naval warfare can hardly be categorized as a science, especially in the age of missiles, and as such, the knowledge required to be effective in fighting naval battles throughout a career can never be captured by a PQS.

The solution, however, is not to completely discard the current qualification system. It should wherever possible be simplified into its most essential form to carry out basic operations of a given tactical watch. More critically, the Navy can implement additional requirements to carry out more regular interest-based or subjective learning to maintain the qualification. For example, a tactical white paper, presentation, or design of an exercise could fulfill this continuous education requirement and provide concrete professional incentives for tactical self-study practices. Such an approach could be considered similar to the way scientists and engineers at National Research Laboratories are required to periodically publish papers in their field.

To be of greatest value to the broader fleet, the products of the proposed continuous education need to be in a form that can be readily used by operators in the field. In most cases this would exclude obscure mathematical proofs and fundamental research that are challenging to apply practically within the pressures of fleet operations. Instead, there should be a designated set of formats and rubrics to be controlled by leaders in the various warfare communities, for standardization as well as convenience in developing effective and actionable research products.

The various warfare development centers (such as SMWDC and UWDC) would need to have designated authorities to judge the products, which may include the designation of appropriate lower authorities onboard ships or local to the force’s basing with the use of rubrics or judgment criteria promulgated by the warfare centers’ subject-matter experts. Promulgation of the standards for tactical research would need to include not only rubrics, but also accepted formats for presenting research to encourage and support tacticians whose ideas would appear to be constrained by a primarily written format. This method grants even greater authority to warfare development centers as a marshal of research and tactical development for their communities. These warfare centers would draw on this much wider base of research, while additionally creating a platform for further fleet-wide development from the reviewed and collated products as tactical research becomes an integral part of advancement in Unrestricted Line specialties.

A white paper is a good example of the format of the research produced, although there is no reason it should be limited to this. For the sake of definition in this context, white papers are often produced in the technical/commercial sector as a loosely-defined set of proposals and practices for applying a certain product, business process, or scientific concept. This format could also be the simplest, minimal requirement product for conveying a new tactical concept developed by a practicing tactician. The rubric for this level of product would define the required rigor of investigation to be accepted by the warfare community reviewers – similar to the peer review process in the academic world.

However, the review and scoring process would have to be more constrained than similar academic processes, for which the rubric would be an important tool. For example, white papers could be scored by the realism of the tactical situation being analyzed, sufficient reference materials included, relevance of included datasets, feasibility of testing the concepts developed, and novelty of the proposed concepts. It would be important that the formalized aspects of designated formats and rubrics are well-defined enough to ensure rigorous research processes, but not so strict that they do not promote innovation.

There are different methods to decide when and on what topics research papers should be produced. One way could be for the warfare centers to solicit papers from the fleet according to their understanding of their own requirements at that time, another would be to review and accept input on a continuous basis, or specific prompts could be issued that could be answered by tacticians and judged on a competitive basis. Any accepted products, to be used as a foundation for further research, should be hosted on systems at their various classification levels (as required by the subject matter) for reference.

With the well-understood but flexible concept of the white paper as a foundation, other formats could be tested, defined, and promulgated as the tactical research ecosystem matures. Longer, more formal works such as TACMEMOs or revised sections of Warfare Publications could also be subjected to the same review and acceptance process, but the value in implementing this proposed system would be in collecting new ideas and concepts in the early stages of development for further refinement and ultimately incorporation into existing doctrine.

The research goals would not be to continuously reinvent U.S. naval doctrine or the publications by which it is communicated, but rather to infuse increased innovation into the existing framework. To accomplish this end, more creative formats must be offered for communicating early-stage tactical concepts. Wargames with situations created, arbitrated, and played by tacticians at all levels could be one method. The end product would then be an introduction to the game, narration of the gameplay as it developed, and analysis of the results. Similarly, tactical experiments may be designed and conducted in simulators to test specific employment of weapons in various situations, and the same wargame commentary provided to communicate relevant conclusions. Development of hypothetical training exercises could be a good way to better understand where the operators in the fleet determine they have greater need of training and demonstrate understanding by naval tacticians on how to analyze the actual capabilities of the fleet from those exercises. Analysis of historical battles, although there is already much of this medium in existence, could offer another avenue for codifying lessons of history that could be applied to modern tactical thinking. All of these formats, no matter how forward-leaning, would need to be supported by sufficient data and research as defined by the responsible reviewing authorities.

It is difficult to say whether making such research a formal requirement would be feasible anytime in the near future, but it can be hoped that if the proposed system were introduced that it would be so advantageous for advancement that it would become common practice. The real purpose of implementing this modest alteration to the tactical learning system would not merely be the actual knowledge gained or products of the research conducted, even though they would of course be valuable. More significant would be the creation of a broader culture among naval professionals that there is no end to our lack of understanding of our adversaries or the nature of naval warfare itself. As Commander Frank Andrews emphasized, “one strives in peacetime, not for complete and lasting tactical solutions, but only for the creation of a corps of courageous, willing, and thinking people who can solve these problems in war.”

When we understand how truly limited our knowledge is and always will be, then we can start to guide ourselves naturally toward a deeper understanding of the nature of naval warfare. A culture of constant learning according to the practicing naval tacticians’ own analysis of necessity of deeper research, learning, and exploration of the aspects of warfare will naturally lead to a stronger understanding and application of tactics as a whole in the Navy. Ideally, the long-term outcome would be a generation of naval leaders who truly see tactics and naval operations as central to their profession, and throughout their careers are immersed in profound contemplation of improving of the mental methods available to them in the pursuit of tactical excellence.

Benjamin Clark is a Professional Electrical Engineer, and Lieutenant in the Navy Reserve. He earned his Master’s in Electrical Engineering from University of California, Riverside with a specialty in power systems and electrical power markets, and is a 2012 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. His views are his own and do not necessarily represent the official views of his employer or the government departments he is associated with. He can be contacted at

Featured Image: Lt. Aaron Van Driessche, a warfare tactics instructor at the Center for Surface Combat Systems (CSCS), Detachment San Diego, pilots the U.S. Navy’s virtual combat curriculum with Sailors aboard USS Paul Hamilton (DDG 60) inside the newly launched portable simulator, the On Demand Trainer, on Jan. 6, 2020. US Navy photo.

Bring Back the Warfighting Flash Cards

Flotilla Tactical Notes Series

By Alan Cummings

One simple, even quaint recommendation: bring back the widespread distribution of flash cards for recognizing allied and adversary platforms and their capabilities. Will this create instantaneous tactical brilliance? No. But it will start giving every Sailor a basic literacy of the threats they are liable to face and the allies they hope to fight beside. On one level, this is simply foundational knowledge in the profession of maritime arms. The more fundamental purpose is to drive a culture and discussion focused on what it means to fight a war at sea.

It is a tried-and-true study method. The front of the card is simple: a profile silhouette of the vessel paired with an actual photo or two. The reverse side contains information like the operating country, primary and secondary missions, armament, top speed, etc. The contents should be robust, but they do not have to be, and indeed should not be, exhaustive.

A Spruance-class destroyer card from “1981 Ace Trumps Modern Warships.” (Via

This is a vastly scalable concept. The simplest version is a single deck of the most common platforms. The alternatives are a wide variety of decks based on country, domain, or region. An unclassified version should be the baseline for widest dissemination and study, while a classified version could incorporate additional or more accurate information. A standard deck can be issued once or, like baseball cards, the collection can be refreshed or expanded annually or some other periodicity. One ambitious approach could entail creating a competitive game with each platform card carrying points for offense, defense, damage control resilience, etc.

There is nothing to guarantee a warm or resounding reception in the fleet. Like any learning resource, these flash cards are a tool—one that offers deckplate leaders a tangible and flexible way to cultivate warfighting mindset and know-how. It will depend on unit commanders and their subordinate leaders to make use of it. If they allow the flash cards to gather dust on the command’s bookshelves, then clearly there will be little benefit. If, instead, they use the cards to engage with their Sailors and get them thinking in terms of friendly and enemy capabilities, then the return on investment offers to be worth it. And especially if those conversations advance to discussions of tactics and warfighting doctrine.

Alan Cummings was an active duty naval officer for ten years in the surface warfare and intelligence communities. He continues to serve in the Navy Reserve. The views expressed here are solely his and do not reflect the official positions of any organization with which he is affiliated.

Featured Image: ARAFURA SEA (Sept. 16, 2022) Royal Thai Navy frigate HTMS Bhumibol Adulyadej (FFG 471), Royal Malaysian Navy frigate KD Lekiu (FFG 30), and Independence-variant littoral combat ship USS Charleston (LCS 18) sail in line-astern formation to conduct anti-aircraft firing serials during Royal Australian Navy (RAN) Exercise Kakadu 2022 (KA22). (Photo courtesy of Royal Australian Navy LSIS Jarryd Capper)

Building Sailor Toughness and Combat Mindset: What worked on USS JOHN S. McCAIN and USS VICKSBURG

Flotilla Tactical Notes Series

By Charles “Chip” Swicker

The CO sets the standard. He or she must make it clear that the first priority is combat readiness. Every CO must choose the level of “creative drama” with which they are comfortable, and how they project this priority to the crew. I did every awards ceremony and every captain’s call wearing my pistols. That worked for me, it might not for everyone. The crew must believe it, and you must believe it, too. They must believe that you genuinely care about combat readiness first and foremost, and that your visage as a combat-ready commander will translate into tangible action for preparing the crew.

Full battle dress is the uniform in which American Sailors will fight their ship. The CO should formally inspect every division in full battle dress (including helmets, body armor, etc.) during division in the spotlight. As CO on McCAIN and VICKSBURG, I would not inspect my crew in any other uniform. XO and CMC did all dress uniform inspections. No matter what material condition you chose to fight your ship in, make sure your crew fights and trains in full battle dress.

Take the time and spend the money to outfit them like the lethal professionals they are:

  • Fresh, clean flashgear, stenciled by name and replaced regularly.
  • Helmets painted, stenciled, properly fitted and padded, with working 3-point harnesses.
  • Ballistic eye protection for any Sailor manning or carrying a weapon.
  • Body armor for all hands topside in Condition 1, all SCAT, all Bridge Team. It must fit, it must be clean and stenciled, it must look uniform. (All the body armor in McCAIN and VICKBURG was rehabbed, fitted properly, and then made uniform with a careful application of haze gray paint.)

When a team trains like a team and looks like a team, the energy really resonates with Sailors. Combat is a team sport. Train your Sailors with a stopwatch, and coach them toward a goal of flawless execution at speed. Train them day or night, rested or tired, so that their muscle memory carries them through in the confusion and terror of an actual sea fight.

A SCAT team on USS Vicksburg during the author’s tenure as CO. (Author photo.)

Review your watchbills carefully. I fought old-school, from Condition 1. If a CO decides to fight from any other condition of readiness, look carefully at that watchbill for any location where a Sailor might be stationed alone in combat conditions. Fix that. Young men and women in combat fight for each other, and that dynamic keeps their courage up and their attention focused on the vital tasks with which they are charged. Have a minimum of two Sailors at any given watch station. Leave no one alone in a fight.

During lulls in engagements, a pair of designated CPOs or a CPO and a JO should make the rounds with a coaling bag full of bottled water and Red Bulls (and perhaps some high calorie geedunk). This “Roving Morale Check” should look every Sailor in the eye, give him or her a handshake and a thump on the back, hand out a drink or a snack from the coaling bag, and make sure that Sailor is never out of the fight. This also gives the team a chance to spot minor or major injuries and damage that was not reported on the net. This technique was combat proven by the Brits in the Falklands War.

Whenever SCAT is called away, Igloo coolers of fresh water go with them to every gunmount. When Sailors are wearing full battle dress, body armor, and helmets while running .50cals as fast as they can load the belts, they will lose pounds of water weight during every drill or engagement. Keeping your people well-fed and hydrated keeps them alert and aggressive. Beware of some bodybuilding supplements popular with Sailors, such as creatine and Hydroxycut. I forbade their use by my VBSS teams because of their dehydrating effect. Get HMC and the Baby Docs involved in getting the word out.

During Full Mission Profile battle problems and ship survivability exercises, build up gradually to the point where the training teams can “kill off” significant numbers of Sailors and officers. Have the Corpsmen break out the moulage gear on a regular basis, and make sure your designated victims scream their lungs out. Properly done, the effect is horrific, and can make your eyes sweat as you watch the pilothouse, the combat information center, or other space reduced to a mass of bodies. Sailors arriving on a simulated casualty scene must remove body armor and helmets from their shipmates, stack the gear neatly or don it themselves, and then must physically carry their “dead” shipmates out onto the signal bridge or other clear space to clear the bridge for the surviving/relieving watchstanders. Leave one junior officer standing to take charge and call for help (and steer the ship if you kill the bridge team).

When this exercise is done with safe supervision and utter commitment to realism, the effect on Sailors is stunning. It really recasts their attitude about the nature of combat at sea. It also sets the stage for a very useful captain’s call immediately afterward and talking honestly with the CO, XO, and CMC about their chosen profession. My crews from McCAIN and VICKSBURG remember those talks to this day.

The CO must hold regular mentoring sessions with his or her wardroom on the nature of combat and combat leadership. Commodore Mike Mahon brought me and the other DESRON 15 COs up to his office in Yokosuka to watch the scene from the movie “Glory” where Colonel Shaw fires his Colt revolver next to the head of an enlisted man, imploring him to load faster. The Colonel had survived the carnage of Antietam and knew the importance of training his men “properly.” That was the Commodore’s way of announcing to his COs that combat readiness was indeed his first priority, and that we ignored this fact at our personal and professional peril.

Your key demographic is young Americans aged 18-22 with a high school education. You must pitch and connect at this level. Walk about and talk to your Sailors every day. Tell them why they are vital to your efforts on behalf of the Navy and the nation.

If the CO publishes a command philosophy, it must emphasize combat readiness and actually resonate with the demographic of young Sailors. In two commands, I had great success with only seven words:

Sail Fast.

Shoot Straight.

Speak the Truth!

Retired Navy Captain Chip Swicker is the Senior Mentor for the Navy’s Integrated Air and Missile Defense Warfare Tactics Instructor Program. He served as Electrical Officer and Navigator in USS Scott (DDG 995), Fire Control Officer and Battery Control Officer in USS Virginia (CGN 38), Weapons Officer and Combat Systems Officer in USS Philippine Sea (CG 58) and Executive Officer in USS Monterey (CG 61). His sea duty culminated as Commanding Officer of the Aegis destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) and the Aegis cruiser USS Vicksburg (CG 69). Captain Swicker received a Master’s degree in Scientific and Technical Intelligence from the Naval Postgraduate School in 1990. From September 2003 to November 2005, Captain Swicker was director of the Command at Sea Department at the Surface Warfare Officers School in Newport, R.I. From January 2008 to December 2010, he was Chief of the Special Actions Division on the Joint Staff. He retired after 30 years on active duty in 2012.

Featured Image: SOUTH CHINA SEA (Oct. 7, 2020) – Fire Controlman 2nd Class Samuel Thomas, from Carol Stream, Ill., ‘racks’ an M2HB .50-caliber machine gun on the foc’s’le during a small craft attack team (SCAT) drill aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG 56). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Markus Castaneda)

The Cost of Delaying Wartime Tactical Adaptation

Flotilla Tactical Notes Series

By Jamie McGrath

Night had fallen in the sweltering South Pacific. The cruiser’s captain paced nervously as his bridge watch team peered into the ink black night trying to maintain station while simultaneously on the lookout for enemy warships. Suddenly the darkness was shattered by a brilliant flash as a mighty explosion engulfs the ship ahead in formation. Seeing no source of the attack, and unable to decipher the confusing directions coming across the TBS, the captain ordered “right full rudder” to avoid colliding with the wounded ship ahead only to be struck by a shuttering blow in the bow, nearly stopping the ship dead in the water and adding to the brightening night sky.

Readers might read the scenario above as being the Battle of Savo Island. Others may see the First Night Battle of Guadalcanal. Still, others may harken back to the ill-fated USS Houston (CA 30) at the Battle of Sunda Straight. The tragedy is that this scenario (with some creative license) could have occurred at any of those battles, separated by over nine months.

The U.S. Navy heavy cruiser USS Quincy (CA-39) photographed from a Japanese cruiser during the Battle of Savo Island, off Guadalcanal, 9 August 1942. Quincy, seen here burning and illuminated by Japanese searchlights, was sunk in this action. The flames at the far left of the picture are probably from the USS Vincennes (CA-44), also on fire from gunfire and torpedo damage. (Official U.S. Navy photo NH 50346 from the U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command)

Author Trent Hone correctly lauds the mid-twentieth century U.S. Navy as an effective learning organization.1 But the deliberate experimentation and evolution of tactics that occurred during the interwar period was still insufficient for the rapid tactical innovation required to overcome unexpected enemy capabilities, such as the Type 93 “Long Lance” torpedo. Despite detailed action reports submitted by the surviving officers of the decimated Asiatic Fleet and the many battles off Guadalcanal, the U.S. Navy was unable to broadly implement needed tactical changes across its cruiser and destroyer force until August of 1943.2

While the exact capabilities of the Type 93 remained unknown, its impact was clearly visible. Yet no coordinated adjustments to “minor tactics” were implemented before the U.S. Navy placed its surface combatants between the beaches of Guadalcanal and the Japanese Navy in August 1942. Nor were any significant adjustments made ahead of the five surface naval battles that followed. Commanders’ inexperience with radar, and misconceptions of the relative value of gunfire versus torpedoes, prevented them from adjusting to the realities of surface naval combat with the Imperial Japanese Navy.

When then-Captain Arleigh Burke reviewed the surface actions of 1942, he finally assessed the technology possessed by both sides and, leveraging the American technical advantage of radar, developed tactics that reversed the typical outcome of surface actions in the Solomon Islands.3 Unfortunately, in the intervening 18 months, thousands of American sailors paid for the lack of rapid tactical innovation with their lives.

In April 1943, Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Chester W. Nimitz chartered the Pacific Board to Revise Cruising Instructions to review the disparate tactical guidance resulting from the first year and a half of naval war in the Pacific.4 This board, and subsequent deliberate efforts at Pacific Fleet headquarters, resulted in the publication of new tactical doctrine that underpinned the success of the Central Pacific offensive.5

The most important element of tactical innovation during wartime is the speed at which innovation is implemented. The Navy of 1942 had the luxury of time. With a massive shipbuilding program backstopping high attrition, and a massive influx of personnel, the Navy eventually formed dedicated teams of combat tested officers to examine lessons and revise doctrine.

This luxury does not exist today. Anemic shipbuilding and atrophied ship repair infrastructure means the Navy cannot weather losses on the scale of the Guadalcanal campaign. Suboptimal ship crewing and surge requirements will likely force the Navy to pull sailors from the shore establishment, risking the closure of critical warfighting development centers such as the Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC) when they are most needed.

To rapidly assess and implement tactical adaptation based on combat lessons, the Navy must prioritize staffing its warfighting development centers in wartime, even if it means leaving some shipboard billets unfilled. Failure to rapidly capture, disseminate, and assess lessons from early combat will result in costly losses to our surface force before we can adjust to the character of the current war.

CAPT Jamie McGrath, USN (ret.), retired from the U.S. Navy after 29 years as a nuclear-trained surface warfare officer. He now serves as Director of the Major General W. Thomas Rice Center for Leader Development at Virginia Tech and an adjunct professor in the U.S. Naval War College’s College of Distance Education. He served in a variety of ship types and operational staff positions and commanded Maritime Expeditionary Security Squadron Seven in Agana, Guam.


1. Trent Hone, Learning War: The Evolution of Fighting Doctrine in the U.S. Navy, 1898-1945 (Naval Institute Press: Annapolis, MD, 2018)

2. James McGrath, “Reversal of Fortune,” Naval History Magazine October 2021,

3. Wayne Hughes, “An Old Salt Picks His Four Favorite American Admirals — And Explains Why (II): Burke,” Foreign Policy, April 3, 2017,

4. Trent Hone, “U.S. Navy Surface Battle Doctrine and Victory in the Pacific,” Naval War College Review Vol. 62, No. 1 Winter, p. 74.

5. Current Tactical Orders and Doctrine, U.S. Pacific Fleet, PAC 10 published in June 1943.

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (July 17, 2016) – The guided-missile destroyer USS William P. Lawrence (DDG 110) fires a round from the MK-45 5-inch gun during a live-fire exercise. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Emiline L. M. Senn/Released)