Category Archives: Force Development

Fleet Problem IX and Enduring Lessons for the Anti-Access Dilemma 

By Daniel Kostecka

From 1923 to 1940, the United States Navy, sometimes in cooperation with other services, conducted 21 large-scale exercises known as Fleet Problems. These exercises were critical in developing tactics and operational concepts, along with the plans for platform development and acquisition crucial to the fleet’s success in the Second World War. Former Pacific Fleet commander, Admiral Scott Swift, recognized the important role played by the Fleet Problems in developing and training the fleet and revived them as a core component of fleet level training in 2016.

One of the most noteworthy exercises conducted by the U.S. Navy between the World Wars was Fleet Problem IX. Conducted in January 1929 in the waters off Panama, the primary purpose of the exercise was to evaluate the Panama Canal Zone’s vulnerability to attack from the sea. However, its place in history comes from the demonstration of the offensive potential of the aircraft carrier and airpower delivered from the sea. Yet Fleet Problem IX also demonstrated the vulnerability of aircraft carriers to what are today referred to as anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) threats.

In fact, the nature of the threats to the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carriers displayed during Fleet Problem IX are all too familiar to modern-day strategists wrestling with the difficult problem of how to cope with the increasingly sophisticated and diverse A2/AD systems fielded by China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in the Western Pacific. The primary difference between 1929 and today is the sophistication and range of the weapon systems themselves, not the broader nature of the threats. Fleet Problem IX serves as an excellent starting point for understanding the vulnerability of aircraft carriers to the A2/AD threat.

A Fleet Problem IX

Fleet Problem IX was a truly massive exercise. Participating units included 67 percent of the aircraft carriers, 72 percent of the battleships, 38 percent of the cruisers, 68 percent of the destroyers, 40 percent of the submarines, and over 52 percent of the Navy’s combat aircraft, including planes from the Marine Corps. U.S. Army ground forces and aviation units participated as well. Fleet Problem IX assigned the Blue Force to defend the Pacific side of the Panama Canal while the Black Force was charged with attacking it.

The difference between Fleet Problem IX and previous exercises was the inclusion of modern large aircraft carriers. Previous exercises had included the small carrier USS Langley along with surface ships acting as stand-ins for carriers, but Fleet Problem IX included the two new and massive carriers USS Lexington and USS Saratoga.

Saratoga served as the centerpiece of the attacking Black Fleet along with nine battleships, a light cruiser, 36 destroyers (plus six constructive), and eight submarines (plus four constructive). To defend the Canal, the defending Blue Force assembled an impressive A2/AD system composed of USS Lexington, four battleships (each representing a division of three ships), five light cruisers, 29 destroyers, and 24 submarines, plus 5000 troops from the Army’s Panama Division, and approximately 50 land-based aircraft of all types and three seaplane tenders with attendant amphibious patrol planes.

Vice Admiral William V. Pratt, commander of the U.S. Navy’s Battle Force and a future CNO, commanded the Black Fleet. The fleet began the operation at Magdalena Bay, Mexico roughly 3,200 miles northwest of Panama. Pratt authorized Rear Admiral Joseph Reeves onboard Saratoga, escorted by the light cruiser USS Omaha, to separate from the main force of battleships and make a high-speed run to the Galapagos Islands, and launch a surprise air attack on the locks of the Panama Canal from the southwest while the main task force made a direct approach from the northwest. 

Before 0500 hours on January 26, Saratoga, operating 140 miles offshore, launched an 83-plane strike against the Panama Canal. The rest is written in the lore and mythology of naval history. Shortly before 0700 hours, Saratoga’s aircraft arrived over their targets, surprising the Canal Zone’s sleepy defenders, and executing what would have been a crippling strike on the Canal’s Miraflores and Pedro Miguel Locks and Army facilities at Fort Clayton and Albrook Airfield.

General Fleet movements and dispositions during Fleet Problem IX, January, 1929. Graphic by CIMSEC staff, background map via Google Maps. Click to expand.

The offensive potential of the aircraft carrier was clear. Vice Admiral Pratt stated after the exercise, “I believe that when we learn more of the possibilities of the carrier, we will come to an acceptance of Admiral Reeves’ plan which provides for a very powerful and mobile force.” The Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Fleet, Admiral Mark Wiley said, “No single air operation ever conducted from a floating base speaks so eloquently for the advanced state of development of aviation as an integral part of the Fleet.” Pratt even honored Saratoga and her crew by transferring his flag to the carrier for the return to the United States.1

USS Saratoga (CV-3) at anchor off Panama following Fleet Problem IX,  March 9, 1929. (Naval History and Heritage Command photo)

However, while the overall truth of the statements by Admirals Wiley and Pratt is beyond dispute, Fleet Problem IX also displayed the vulnerability of aircraft carriers in addition to the offensive potential of sea-based airpower. This is because while Saratoga’s aircraft did launch a successful attack on the Panama Canal, the Blue defenders’ A2/AD system had its own share of victories.

The Blue Forces scored their first successes on January 25 when Blue intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets detected Saratoga and Omaha as they approached the launch point from the direction of the Galapagos Islands. The Blue commander, Vice Admiral Montgomery Taylor, deployed two groups of destroyers to cover the approaches to Panama and at 1613 hours on January 25 the destroyer USS Breck struck paydirt when it found Reeves’ carrier. 

Breck was quickly dispatched by USS Omaha and by gunfire from Saratoga herself, but she managed to send a position report. Two hours later the light cruiser USS Detroit found the carrier and her escorting cruiser. While Detroit suffered the same fate as Breck, the Blue defenders were now aware of Saratoga’s location and course and the fact that she was operating independently of the main Black Fleet.

While Saratoga was still able to launch her strike against the Panama Canal the next morning, less than two hours after her planes were in the air, she encountered three battleships from the Blue Fleet. With no aircraft aboard to defend her she was ruled sunk by gunfire. For good measure, shortly afterwards a Blue submarine fired a spread of four torpedoes against Saratoga at 1200 yards and she was declared sunk for the second time in less than an hour. 

An hour later, planes from Blue’s carrier, USS Lexington, arrived and attacked as Saratoga was recovering aircraft from the strike against the Panama Canal. The exercise umpires determined she would have at least been badly damaged. Saratoga and her crew were spared a fourth “sinking” when Blue torpedo bombers from VT-9, operating out of the seaplane base at Balboa, attacked their own carrier, Lexington—an easy mistake given that the two sister carriers were only separated by 12 miles at the time.

The U.S. aircraft carriers USS Lexington (CV-2) (top), USS Saratoga (CV-3) (middle), and USS Langley (CV-1) (bottom) moored at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Bremerton, Washington (USA), in 1929. (Photo via U.S. Navy National Naval Aviation Museum)

Saratoga’s experience with the Blue Force defenders during Fleet Problem IX highlights the dangers of attacking a diverse and layered A2/AD defensive system. No single aspect of Vice Admiral Taylor’s ISR and defensive networks were sufficient, but the varied and multilayered nature of the system he deployed ensured some degree of success. Blue’s reconnaissance aircraft failed to find Saratoga, but Taylor’s scouting destroyers filled the gap and the Blue Fleet’s submarines were on the prowl as well.

After she was detected, it is possible any one of the varied attacks against Saratoga would have failed. Saratoga had a 12-knot speed advantage over the battleships that “sank” her on January 26. Perhaps she could have run from them and it is entirely possible the submarine torpedoes fired at her would have missed. Rear Admiral Reeves himself claimed that in wartime he could have run from Vice Admiral Taylor’s forces and taken the loss of his air group as acceptable casualties in exchange for damaging a strategic target, but peacetime safety requirements necessitated remaining in position to recover his aircraft.

Theoretically, Lexington’s aircraft should not have been able to attack Saratoga because Lexington herself had run afoul of the Black Fleet’s battleships the day before but was only ruled “damaged” by the umpires in order to maintain her participation in the game. However, had Lexington been knocked out of the game on January 25, then VT-9’s torpedo bombers would not have mistaken her for Saratoga and likely would have attacked their intended target instead. The point is the redundant nature of the ISR network and A2/AD system deployed by the Blue Force meant that to get within range of the Panama Canal, Saratoga entered a hornets’ nest of threats where her detection and destruction were highly likely, if not guaranteed.

Lessons for Today

Submarines, surface ships, and land and carrier-based aircraft were all part of a sophisticated A2/AD system assembled by the Blue Fleet during Fleet Problem IX. That each of these capabilities administratively sank or damaged USS Saratoga at different points during Fleet Problem IX demonstrates the value of a multi-faceted and layered A2/AD system for opposing aircraft carriers. It is therefore not surprising that each of these capabilities form components of the A2/AD system that China is developing to oppose the U.S. Navy’s carrier strike groups in the Western Pacific should conflict ensue.

China’s PLAN is an increasingly modern and flexible force capable of conducting a wide range of peacetime and wartime operations at expanding distances from the Chinese mainland. With an overall battle force of over 360 ships, including more than 130 major surface combatants and more than 60 submarines, along with its own aviation arm of more than 300 land- and sea-based aircraft of all types, the PLAN is the largest navy in the world. However, it is as an A2/AD force organized, trained, and equipped to oppose U.S. combat operations in East Asia and the Western Pacific that the PLAN is at its most dangerous.

Just as a Blue Fleet submarine claimed USS Saratoga during Fleet Problem IX, PLAN submarines would be at the forefront of any Chinese attempt to deny key operating areas in the Western Pacific to the U.S. Navy. The PLAN submarine fleet consists of 50 conventionally-powered and six nuclear-powered attack submarines, 44 of which are armed with long-range anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), including eight Russian built Kilos armed with the SS-N-27B (120nm range) and 36 Song, Yuan, and Shang-class submarines armed with the 290nm range YJ-18.

It is no accident that a submarine administratively “sank” USS Saratoga during Fleet Problem IX or that the same aircraft carrier was heavily damaged and “mission killed” twice by Japanese submarines in 1942. Submarines have always presented a substantial threat to aircraft carriers, and with sophisticated long-range missiles and patrol patterns reaching out into disputed waters in East Asia and the Indian Ocean, often within range of U.S. assets, PLAN submarines represent a formidable threat to American aircraft carriers today. Combined with the multilayered ISR assets of an A2/AD network, submarines could be cued to launch long-range anti-ship missile salvos from unexpected vectors and at much lower risks to themselves compared to a closer-range torpedo attack. 

While surface ships are not normally thought of as a threat to aircraft carriers due to the long reach of the carrier’s air group, that paradigm may be changing. During Fleet Problem IX and during the 1920s in general surface gunfire was a threat to aircraft carriers due to the short range of carrier aircraft and the lightness of their weapons. Even during the Second World War surface ships occasionally caught carriers, such as HMS Glorious, flat-footed. However, today it is the long range of the missiles employed by some surface ships that make them a threat to aircraft carriers, particularly in the opening stages of a conflict before before ships have had a chance to transition from an open deterrence posture to a more evasive wartime operating pattern. 

The PLAN currently possesses over 120 corvettes, frigates, destroyers, and cruisers armed with long-range ASCMs, along with approximately 60 fast missile patrol combatants. Included in this impressive array of surface combatants is the new Luyang III-class guided missile destroyer equipped with a ship-launched variant of the YJ-18 and the new Renhai-class guided missile cruiser also equipped with the YJ-18 and potentially a long-range anti-ship ballistic missile in the future. That a surface task force of the PLAN operated in the Central Pacific in January and February 2020 suggests the PLAN intends to use its ASCM-armed ships to expand its A2/AD envelope to guarantee its maritime security. The need to do so was stated by the PLAN’s Rear Admiral Zhang Zhaozhang in April 2009, “Only when the Chinese navy goes beyond the First Island Chain, will China be able to expand its strategic depth of security for its marine territories.”2

Blue Force land- and carrier-based aircraft were a substantial part of Vice Admiral Taylor’s A2/AD system during Fleet Problem IX and they play a substantial role for the PLAN today. The PLAN fields five regiments of JH-7 maritime strike-fighters armed with the YJ-83K ASCM, two regiments of long-range H-6 bombers capable of employing the supersonic YJ-12, and one regiment of modern Russian-built Su-30MK2 Flanker strike-fighters equipped with the Kh-31 air-to-surface missile. The PLAN also operates two aircraft carriers and is building a third.

Potential loadouts for Chinese H-6K/N bombers. Click to expand. (Graphic via H I Sutton)

While the PLAN’s two operational carriers are less capable offensive strike platforms than U.S. Navy carriers due to their ski jump launching mechanism instead of catapults, PLAN carriers could still play a key role in its A2/AD system. This is because even with airborne tanking, land-based Chinese fighters would still be hard-pressed to establish a persistent presence hundreds of miles from the Chinese mainland and provide cover for surface ships and long-range maritime strike aircraft. However, carrier-based fighters could provide air defense to PLAN surface ships and bombers, enabling them to get within weapons range of U.S. Navy carriers.3 As demonstrated by Fleet Problem IX, the success of an A2/AD system is based on redundant and complementary capabilities as opposed to any one single silver bullet. 

In addition to the PLAN’s air, surface, and subsurface capabilities, another key component in China’s A2/AD systems are the land-based anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) of the PLA’s Rocket Force (PLARF). A modern and extremely long-range take on an old maritime defensive system, coastal artillery, these weapons present an A2/AD threat unimaginable in the 1920s. The first ASBM fielded by the PLARF is the 810nm range DF-21D, operational since 2010. A new system, the DF-26 with a range of 2,100nm, is in the process of becoming operational and will be able to threaten U.S. aircraft carriers operating east of Guam.

Chinese DF-26 ballistic missile launchers. (Photo via Xinhua)

Fleet Problem IX also demonstrated the necessity of effective ISR to an A2/AD system. Vice Admiral Taylor deployed an array of ships, submarines, and reconnaissance aircraft to ascertain the movements of the Black Fleet. China is doing the same today in the Western Pacific. PLAN surface ships regularly patrol East Asian waters, and their operating areas are expanding into the Central Pacific and the Indian Ocean. Also patrolling regional waters are cutters from the China Coast Guard (CCG, like the PLAN the world’s largest) and numerous ships from local Chinese Maritime Militia forces. China has also launched new surveillance satellites that will bolster its maritime domain awareness.

It is possible if not likely that during a time of tension or in the run up to a crisis that U.S. Navy carrier strike groups operating in the Western Pacific will be shadowed by Chinese tattletales from the PLAN, the CCG, or Maritime Militia and could perform a similar role as the Blue Fleet destroyer that relayed the position of Saratoga. PLAN submarines will also play a substantial ISR role during any conflict and the PLAN’s growing fleet of special mission aircraft based on the Y-8/Y-9 airframe satisfy key maritime patrol and ISR requirements.

A crucial element of this overlapping ISR system of systems is the land-based skywave over-the-horizon radar (OTH), a growing array of reconnaissance satellites, and civilian maritime monitoring systems that contribute to China’s maritime situational awareness. The PLA’s weapons require a robust and redundant OTH targeting capability to be employed at long ranges. China’s investment in ISR along with the necessary command and control systems is designed to provide essential targeting information to airborne, surface, sub-surface, and land-based systems.


Fleet Problem IX—an exercise conducted almost a century ago—is still instructive for naval strategists, tacticians, and planners today. While it is remembered, and rightly so, for demonstrating the offensive potential of the aircraft carrier, it also demonstrated their vulnerability, particularly when the adversary presents an opposing carrier fleet with a multi-layered A2/AD system consisting of complementary capabilities. 

During Fleet Problem IX, the Blue Force commander Vice Admiral Taylor devised such a system to oppose the Black Fleet in defense of the Panama Canal. Today, China has built and is steadily improving a similar system in the Western Pacific. However, the overall design and construct of China’s A2/AD system of today is hardly much different than that developed and deployed by Vice Admiral Taylor for Fleet Problem IX. It is in this way that studying Fleet Problem IX provides enduring lessons for understanding the anti-access dilemma.

Daniel J. Kostecka is a senior civilian analyst for the U.S. Navy and has worked for the Navy for 16 years. He has also worked for the Department of Defense and the Government Accountability Office. He was an active-duty Air Force officer for ten years and recently retired from the Air Force Reserves with the rank of lieutenant colonel and over 27 total years of commissioned service. Mr. Kostecka has a bachelor of science in mathematics from The Ohio State University, a master of liberal arts in military and diplomatic history from Harvard University, a master of arts in national security policy from the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky, and a Master of Science in strategic intelligence from National Intelligence University. Mr. Kostecka is also a graduate of Squadron Officer School, the Air Command and Staff College, the Air War College, and Joint Forces Staff College. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of the Navy or the Department of Defense.


[1] Gerald E. Wheeler, Admiral William Veazie Pratt – A Sailor’s Life. Washington, DC: Naval History Division, 1974, pp 275.

[2] Cai Wei, “Dream of the Military for Aircraft Carriers,” Sanlian Shenghuo Zhoukan, 27 April 2009.

[3] Cui Changqi, Ed, Air Raid and Anti–Air Raid in the 21st Century, Beijing: People’s Liberation Army Press, 2002.

Featured image: Battleships and other ships of the U.S. Fleet at anchor in Panama bay on 26 February 1929 at the completion of that year’s fleet problem. Photographed from USS Lexington (CV-2). 

Undersea Red: Captain Eric Sager on the Submarine Force’s New Aggressor Squadron

By Dmitry Filipoff

CIMSEC shared questions with Captain Eric M. Sager to discuss the Submarine Force’s new Aggressor Squadron (AGGRON). In this conversation, Capt. Sager discusses what AGGRON is doing to enhance undersea lethality, the vital importance of connecting adversary doctrine to submarine force development, and how a dedicated Red team makes for much more realistic high-end combat training.

How would you describe the role and mission of the aggressor squadron?

The U.S. Submarine Force stood up an Aggressor Squadron (AGGRON) in October 2019 as one initiative in support of the broader Department of Defense focus on strategic competition. AGGRON enhances all undersea forces’ training and readiness for potential conflict in every area of operations around the world, focused first and foremost on our strategic competitors in the maritime/undersea domain.

AGGRON is a team focused on high-end combat training through emulating competitors in all training and certification exercises. AGGRON serves as the undersea forces’ expert in employing competitors’ potential capabilities. AGGRON is also focused on improving undersea combat tactics, techniques, and procedures to ensure all doctrine is aligned against the continually evolving capabilities of our competitors. AGGRON personnel work with submarine crews at all stages of operational and training schedules and have drastically improved the Submarine Force’s ability to win in combat.

AGGRON Shirt Patch (U.S. Navy graphic)

How is the training experience different for Sailors who go up against the aggressor squadron compared to a blue-on-blue event?

AGGRON goes head-to-head with submarine crews to play the role of an active, thinking, and tactically engaged enemy force. AGGRON personnel engage with submarine leadership to ensure our forces are ready to predict and proactively position for expected adversary behaviors based on the close study of their capability and tactics.

This modeling of a capable competitor is geared toward driving the proper tactical decision-making by crews during combat operations and to develop muscle memory through repetition in combat training. AGGRON’s goal is to ensure our Submarine Force is always training against the highest fidelity. We have developed processes to refocus training and certification on higher-fidelity combat experiences and developed new tools and concepts to support high-end warfighting.

A Yasen-class nuclear-powered submarine of the Russian Navy (Photo via Lev Fedoseyev/TASS)

What are the core takeaways you hope Sailors gain from the experience? How can the Sailors use that experience going forward to independently improve their own warfighting skills?

Sailors leave every training event with a better understanding of how our competitors think and operate, with an emphasis on their current or near-term combat capabilities. Every training event better prepares each sailor to handle combat operations. We aim to produce winners and losers, just like there are in battle, and raise the force’s standards to ensure our sailors are continually more elite than the opponent. Sailors take these lessons forward, returning to the next exercise or training event more prepared to win.

What are the risks of mirror-imaging blue force methods in training and force development? What unique value and realism comes from being well-versed in adversary capabilities and doctrine? 

The risk is we will not train like we will fight; we would instead train against our own tactics, techniques, and procedures instead of that of our competitors. This methodology risks developing a false understanding of our capabilities and tactics as they relate to the competition, which would not maximize our lethality in combat.

Folding in OPFOR realism creates an entire force of warfighters that are experts on the nature of the competition. Each person is a link to success and when each person knows adversary capabilities and doctrine as well as the adversary themselves, there are less unforeseen circumstances in combat, therefore enhancing combat survivability and lethality.

Chinese Navy submarine recognition guide. Click to expand. (Graphic via Covert Shores by H I Sutton)

What are some key enablers for the learning experience surrounding AGGRON training? 

AGGRON has worked collaboratively with the Submarine Learning Center to ensure training on competitor capabilities, tactics, movements, and strategic objectives are all folded into each area of the schoolhouse’s integration with the waterfront. An adversary-focused culture has been inculcated in all pipelining schooling as well as deployment readiness training and certification.  AGGRON is intimately involved in the Submarine Force’s doctrine and tactical development processes, so that we are continually exploring and assessing existing and new tactics, techniques, and procedures to counter evolving threats.

How do you interact with other communities, including those with an ASW role, such as the surface and aviation communities?

The AGGRON is primarily resourced to train unit-level submarine crews, submarine squadron staffs, and Submarine Learning Site (SLS) staffs about what to expect from their potential opposing counterparts, and helps explore new tactics, techniques, and procedures to counter those threats. AGGRON fosters and cultivates relationships throughout the Intelligence Community to ensure that the most current and accurate intelligence is shaping training and simulation.

Standing aggressor or “opposing force” (OPFOR) units that are trained in the doctrine and tactics of potential opponents, or the “Red” force, are crucial for improving the realism of training exercises. A submarine aggressor force could certainly provide invaluable anti-submarine warfare training opportunities for the Navy’s surface and aviation communities as well.

Captain Eric Sager was commissioned in 1998, graduating from the United States Naval Academy. Sager’s operational assignments include division officer onboard USS HONOLULU (SSN 718) where he completed a Western Pacific deployment, serving as Engineer Officer on USS RHODE ISLAND (SSBN 740)(GOLD), completing four strategic deterrent patrols, and as Executive Officer on USS NORFOLK (SSN 714) completing an AFRICOM/CENTCOM deployment. Sager commanded USS CALIFORNIA (SSN 781), leading his crew on an unplanned surge deployment and a scheduled EUCOM deployment in 2016. He received the 2017 Vice Admiral Stockdale Award for Inspirational Leadership for his time in command. Ashore, Sager has served in various positions, including on the staff of Commander, Submarine Forces as the Tactical Readiness Evaluation Team Executive Officer, Deputy Commodore of Submarine Squadron Twelve, and as the Submarine Force Atlantic Prospective Commanding Officer Instructor. Sager is currently assigned as the Director of the Undersea Warfighting Development Center’s Aggressor Squadron.

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at

Featured Image: English: NORFOLK (Oct. 28, 2011) Sailors assigned to the Virginia-class attack submarine Pre-Commissioning Unit California (SSN 781) board the boat as they “bring her to life” during a commissioning rehearsal ceremony the day before the Navy’s newest Virginia-class submarine is commissioned. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist John Osborne/Released)

Learning for Warfighters: A Conversation with Major General William F. Mullen III (ret.)

By Mie Augier, Major Sean F. X. Barrett, and Major Kevin Druffel-Rodriguez

Major General William F. Mullen III, USMC, retired as Commanding General (CG), Training and Education Command (TECOM) on October 1, 2020, completing a career that featured an unusually vast amount of experience across Marine Corps training and education commands. Major General Mullen commanded Marine Corps Tactics and Operations Group at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center (MCAGCC) Twentynine Palms, CA, and he also served as President, Marine Corps University (MCU), concurrently serving as CG, Education Command, as well as CG, MCAGCC.

While CG, TECOM, Major General Mullen spearheaded the effort to publish Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication (MCDP) 7 Learning, the Marine Corps’ first new doctrinal publication issued since 2001, to explain why learning is critically important to the profession of arms. In the conversation that follows, we discussed some of the themes in MCDP 7, learning to become learners, and the importance of building learning cultures in warfighting organizations.

What inspired your own interest and curiosity in learning, and how did you first experience the benefits of being a lifelong learner?

I have always been interested in learning and reading and what it can do for you. But I had never heard it articulated how much it can actually do for you until I was a company commander at 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines. The battalion commander was LtCol John R. Allen (later General Allen), and he exemplified everything that was possible with reading, the 5,000-year-old mind, for example, and using that for knowledge and experience.

As an example, we had a short notice deployment to deal with Haitian and Cuban migrants. Before we deployed, he gave us a couple chapters of problems the U.S. Army had had with POWs (prisoners of war) in Korea as a read-ahead for the things we would likely face (e.g., dealing with large, angry crowds). Reinforcing this, LtCol Joseph F. Dunford (later Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Dunford) took over as battalion commander after Allen, and he also exemplified this ideal of being a lifelong learner. They showed us what was possible from learning. They were so far past their peers in their ability to think and execute, and it kept getting better as they became more senior.

August 11, 2013, at sea on USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6): Lance Cpl. Justin L. Morrow, a fire direction controlman with Echo Battery, Battalion Landing Team 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, and a native of St. Augustine, Fla., reads a book from the Commandant of the Marine Corps’ reading list. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Paul Robbins)

You argue the mind is a muscle and therefore atrophies when not exercised. This metaphor conveys not only the importance of learning, but also introduces an element of “pain.”1 What is the origin of your understanding of this metaphor?

We all know that Marines like to exercise, so when I was talking to them for my “PME on PME” lecture,2 one of the things I was trying to get across is that your brain needs to be exercised as well. I would ask them what happens if you don’t PT, you don’t exercise. Your muscles atrophy. Your physical abilities atrophy. The brain is the same way.3

In the past, I have read studies about Alzheimer’s patients and how to stave off the effects of memory loss. I noticed that people who stayed more mentally engaged, learned new languages, read a lot, and played challenging games were able to exercise their mental synapses, which allowed them to continue to think and be engaged instead of atrophying. Regarding the whole pain aspect, I would ask them, “How many times have you read a really hard book, and you are trying to work your way through it, and your brain is just tired?” This is just like a strenuous exercise, but for the mind. For me, philosophy is that way. I try and read it and work through it, but I have to take it in small doses because it is tough.

One way to train the mind-muscle is by reading. How did you become someone who reads broadly?4

Part of it is that I read fairly quickly, and that was developed when I finished being a company commander. I went to Inspector-Instructor (I&I) duty in Milwaukee and got back into my alma mater to get a Master’s in Political Science. So, I was working on my Master’s, working I&I duty, which if you do it right is more than a full-time job, and I was also doing my Command and Staff (non-resident course) box of books all at the same time. I had to figure out ways to read quickly. I wrote an article called “Advanced Reading Skills” that came out in the Gazette that talks about the process and how I did all that.5

I always knew I wanted to cast my net widely, but I couldn’t really articulate it until I saw LtGen Paul K. Van Riper articulate it. He said we are trying to understand human beings because we lead human beings. We try to get them to do things that they naturally would not do. How do you understand human beings? How do you understand all the things that impact our ability to get our job done if you aren’t reading widely? Some people say, “I never read fiction,” but some of the most creative things I have ever come across, with regards to ideas, are in fiction. Some of the things you read about, you ask, “Why can’t we do that?” It gives you ideas. When it comes to understanding the human condition and what makes people tick, human beings really haven’t changed that much. The character of war has changed, but the nature of war hasn’t. It is still human beings going against each other—opposing wills. So how do you understand people and what makes them tick?

What books have you found useful for inspiring others to pursue a lifetime of learning?

I wrote an article, “A Warriors Mind,”5 in which I talk about the different categories if you want to know more about this and all the books I listed. There are only five in each category. One of those categories is, “How do you hook their interest?” How do you get them reading more? That came from watching the phenomenon of the Harry Potter books. Kids who really wouldn’t read anything were reading books that are 700-800 pages long and just eating it up. That hooked their interest, and then they expanded onto other things because they realized that reading is not a chore. It is actually enjoyable.

So how do you get them interested? Where are they at intellectually? Where is their vocabulary? What is their comprehension level? Those are the important things because if you hand someone a dense book, and they haven’t been reading much, that’s a dead end. But if you hand them some other things that you can use to build up to something high-end, that’s a better approach. So, I would ask them, “Where are they at now, what have they read?” The biggest thing that has hooked people’s interest is historical fiction, especially well-written historical fiction. That really gets them enthusiastic and wanting to learn more, and they start expanding their interests from there.

MCDP 7 Learning has been out for a year now. How did it come together? And with the benefit of hindsight, is there anything you would have done differently? For example, are there any additional topics you would have included or ideas you would have framed differently?

To clarify, I didn’t write it. I had a writing team who did the writing, but it was my idea to initiate the writing of it, and I was heavily involved in the editorial process and reviewing it. I would go back to them and ask questions, ask them to factor in things, and try to get it “MCDP 1-like.”

The inspiration for doing it was frustration. MCDP 1 is our foundational document. It is our maneuver warfare philosophy. It is supposed to be the basis for everything we do, but a majority of the folks in the Marine Corps don’t understand it, mainly because they have not read it. For those who have read it, they have not read enough around it to understand what it means, how you operationalize it, because we aren’t studying our profession.

There are a lot of folks who just can’t be bothered. “Reading is a chore,” or “I joined the Marine Corps so I didn’t have to go to school anymore.” Officer, SNCO, enlisted, it doesn’t matter—everybody needs to understand it. So learning is about how you go about learning your profession. Continuous learning is a lifelong pursuit, and it is the only thing that enables you to understand what MCDP 1 says and how you then operationalize it and live by it in your units. Education prepares you for the unknown. What happens when plans have to change? And that always happens. Education is far more important than training.

What would I do differently? Right now, I can’t say that I would do anything that much differently because the main emphasis was to get it out in recognizable form. I sent it out to a couple of people, a number of people who I highly respect. Some of them came back and said, “We don’t need it,” and I was a little frustrated by that response, until I realized: Well, they lived it. Of course, they understand it, it is intuitive to them.

No, they didn’t need it, but it is not for them. It is for all of those folks who do not understand and don’t understand the why—why learning is so important. So I can’t say that I’d do it any differently. But I can say that it does need to be reviewed in about five or ten years or so. Take a look at it and see what needs to change to keep it current with education technology and the theories going on. But it was also to prod, to help change the Marine Corps from industrial age learning to information age learning, which is a very different approach, and we are not built that way. And we needed some serious dynamite under our foundation to break out of our bureaucratic processes.

You wrote the TECOM guidance that led to MCDP 7 and also had some interesting thoughts about how to take PME beyond the industrial age. What motivated you to issue that guidance?

The big piece was the why—why learning was so important. I have been talking about it for years, doing the “PME on PME” lecture as well, and advocating for it well before that—because of what I was seeing: the lack of people studying their profession and understanding the requirement to learn.

And then, thinking about what it would take to start to try and change the culture of the Marine Corps to become more of a learning culture. We were explaining the why and trying to get the culture to change through a doctrinal publication. I didn’t expect it to have the importance of MCDP 1, but I remember the Commandant, General Robert B. Neller, asking the question, “How do we re-invigorate maneuver warfare?” The reason he asked that question was that most people have not read it, they have not studied it, they haven’t studied the requirements.7 And all of this came together, and I talked with General David H. Berger when he was in his Deputy Commandant, Combat Development and Integration (DC CD&I) job, my immediate boss my first year at TECOM, and he thought the idea had merit. And then when he became Commandant, we sent it up to him after a brief review process, and he signed it.

So you had a little bit of inspiration from FMFM 1?

Yes, absolutely, because you have to understand how to take intelligent initiative. You have to understand what intent is and then be able to have the mental agility to adjust as things change around you. All of that requires continuous learning. If you decide that you don’t need to learn anymore and that you left all of that behind when you left school, you end up with people who might take the initiative—but there’s a good chance it is the wrong initiative.

MCDP 7 refers to learning organizations and learning cultures. How do these organizational elements interact with individual-level learning, and how can we cultivate them more effectively?

We have to set the foundation for the expectation that when you join the profession, continuous learning and continuing professional development during the career—ideally, through life—is absolutely required. And if that is too much work for you, then you need to find employment elsewhere. Because the way I look at it is, if we are not studying our profession, if we don’t keep up with it, it is like a doctor or a lawyer who stops studying. Who wants to go to them?

We are in the most intellectually and physically demanding profession on the face of the earth, and the price of getting it wrong is that the people we are in command of end up dying.

We shouldn’t have to figure it out by filling body bags. But we do, too often. I saw it in Iraq, I saw it in Afghanistan. And that is not right.

There should be the understanding that learning is something you need to get after as a professional. But if you don’t because you are young, and you just haven’t figured that part out yet—whoever is in charge of you should tell you, “You better get after it! Here are some ways to do it, and let me help you with it. Here are some things to read, we are going to talk about them. I will help coach you and move you along.” That is the kind of thing that has to happen in a good profession and in a good unit.

How do active learning approaches benefit leadership development?

Part of it is taking responsibility instead of needing others to push you through things. One of the active learning experiments we did was out at the Marine Corps Communications-Electronics School (MCCES) out at Twentynine Palms. One of the questions I asked when I first took over was, instead of Marines having to wait around to join a course, can’t we hand them a syllabus as soon as they show up, preferably on some electronic device? They start to read through the syllabus at their own pace. If there is a lab requirement, it is hands on, it is available to them 24/7. The instructors are there to coach, teach, mentor, and help them through the process, and they work through it with their peers—but they work at their own pace. And when they have demonstrated the necessary level of competence, they move on, cutting down on time waiting around.

In the experiments we did, the Marines loved it. We experimented at Marine Corps Intelligence Schools, and the Marines loved it. There were a couple of other places where we experimented. We need to be able to take advantage of the fact that the young Marines are smart, great with technology, and can learn at their own pace. It also is then about building trust by giving Marines control over their learning. Let them show initiative as well.

In both MCDP 7 and your “PME on PME” lecture, you talk about the importance of critical thinking, judgment, and decision-making. What other important post-industrial age skills and attitudes do you find important, and how can we improve at cultivating them in our PME institutions?

The understanding that comes from continuous learning—being better educated, being more openminded, being more mentally agile—makes Marines more capable. Some people have advocated that the kinds of skills that special operations forces (SOF) have are needed—the maturity, the knowledge, the skills. I’m not advocating that we need to be SOF, but we certainly need to be more SOF-like. We have to get our Marines more mature, better focused. In today’s operating environment, people have to be able to think, take the initiative, have good judgment, and understand what is going on around them.

Thinking about the differences between rote memorization and critical thinking, what shifts have to occur to transition from teaching warfighters what to do and what to think to how to think critically and independently?8

Part of it is getting out of the bureaucratic process we have established and that has been ground into everybody, probably since the mid-1960s. TECOM is part of the problem because we inspect that process, the industrial age process, which tells people what to think, which encourages them to sit down and wait to be told what to do.

So, shifting out of that—one part of that was sending a letter to the commanders of all the schools in TECOM saying, “Now you have the authority to experiment. Tell me what you want to do. And that is what we will hold you to, and no longer the part of the inspection process that does not apply.” But we need to figure out how to do that in the most effective manner—not necessarily in the most efficient manner. Efficiency is good, but it is less important than effectiveness in my mind.

Maj. Gen. William F. Mullen III, off-going commanding general, Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, gives a speech during the installation’s change of command ceremony, Twentynine Palms, Calif., June 8, 2018. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Rachel K. Porter)

How do you shift, and how will it look after? I don’t have the answer right now, but we need to at least start moving, and that is what we are doing. We have started, but we need to expand. Every Marine knows he or she may get called to go into combat or to support it. They need to be able to show initiative and figure out what to do, not wait around to be told.

You mention the importance of experimentation, active learning, and critical thinking. What are some of the critical barriers to cultivating and implementing them in our organizations?

For sure, bureaucracy and the inspection process—the formal school’s inspection process, which holds people in a straitjacket. And what I experienced was, some colonels, as soon as you gave them an inch, and the ability to experiment, they took it and ran like you would expect a good colonel to do. Others were very hesitant, didn’t know what to do, and said, “No, we are just going to continue doing what we are doing.” And that was tremendously frustrating. You have been given guidance. Here is the intent. You have top cover—get after it. You have the ability to take some risk, especially in a training environment where the risk you are taking is being more effective and making sure Marines understand.

One of the buzzwords I had was we have to get away from focusing on process, and we have to focus on product. What do the Marines understand and retain once they move out to the operating forces? That is what is most important. Everything we do should focus more on that: helping them understand more, retain better, think better—not the process of just moving things through and making sure you have all the “i’s” dotted and all the “t’s” crossed. That, to me, is our biggest obstacle: our own processes and bureaucracies and being so focused on process.

Major General Mullen was commissioned in 1986 and served 34 years as an infantry officer, serving in the operating forces with 1/3, 2/6, and RCT 8. He participated in Operation SEA SIGNAL dealing with Haitian and Cuban migrants, Contingency Operations in the former Yugoslavia, several counter-narcotics operations, as well as three combat tours in Iraq. Supporting establishment tours included the FAST Company, Pacific; Inspector-Instructor, F Company 2/24; Marine Aide to the President; the Joint Staff; and, CO, MCTOG. As a general officer he served as President, Marine Corps University; Director, Capability Development Directorate; Target Engagement Authority for Operation INHERENT RESOLVE; CG, MCAGCC; and ended his service as CG, Marine Corps Training and Education Command (TECOM). Major General Mullen retired on Oct 1, 2020 and is an Adjunct Professor at the University of Colorado. He also recently started as Professor of Practice at the Naval Postgraduate School (Graduate School of Defense Management). He co-authored the book Fallujah Redux which was published in 2014.

Dr. Mie Augier is Professor in the Graduate School of Defense Management, and Defense Analysis Department, at NPS. She is a founding member of NWSI and is interested in strategy, organizations, leadership, innovation, and how to educate strategic thinkers and learning leaders.

Major Sean F. X. Barrett, PhD is an intelligence officer currently serving at Headquarters Marine Corps Intelligence Division. He has previously deployed in support of Operations IRAQI FREEDOM, ENDURING FREEDOM, ENDURING FREEDOM-PHILIPPINES, and INHERENT RESOLVE.

Major Kevin C. Druffel-Rodriguez is an active duty Marine Corps combat engineer officer. He is currently the operations officer for the Headquarters Marine Corps Directorate of Analytics & Performance Optimization.


[1] Mortimer J. Adler, “Invitation to the Pain of Learning,” Journal of Educational Sociology 14, no. 6 (Feb. 1941): 358-363.

[2] “MajGen Mullen’s PME on PME,” October 17, 2019, Marine Corps Association, video, 1:41:49,

[3] One of the more interesting receptions of MCDP 7 is Jocko Willink, Echo Charles, and Dave Berke’s detailed reading of it on Jocko Podcast. They discuss important themes in MCDP 7, such as continuous learning and needing to exercise your mind. Jocko Willink, Echo Charles, and Dave Berke, “227: Learning for Ultimate Winning. With Dave Berke. New Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication. MCDP 7 Learning,” April 29, 2020, Jocko Podcast, podcast, 2:21:27, and Jocko Willink, Echo Charles, and Dave Berke, “228: Put Pressure on Your Mind, Be Your Own General and Be Your Own Soldiers. MCDP 7, Pt. 2 With Dave Berke,” May 6, 2020, Jocko Podcast, podcast, 3:08:13,

[4] Epstein notes the importance of intellectual range and agility in David Epstein, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World (New York: Riverhead Books, 2019).

[5] William F. Mullen, III, “Advanced Reading Skills: Techniques to Getting Started,” Marine Corps Gazette Blog (Apr. 2019): B1-B5.

[6] William F. Mullen III, “A Warrior’s Mind: How to Better Understand the ‘Art’ of War,” Marine Corps Gazette 103, no. 6 (June 2019): 6-7.

[7] For a more detailed discussion, see William F. Mullen, III, “Reinvigorating Maneuver Warfare: Our Priorities for Manning, Training, Equipping, and Educating Should Be on Our Close Combat Units,” Marine Corps Gazette 104, no. 7 (July 2020): 62-66.

[8] For an overview of some changes already underway in the Marine Corps, see Gidget Fuentes, “Marine Infantry Training Shifts From ‘Automaton’ to Thinkers, As School Adds Chess to the Curriculum,” USNI News, December 15, 2020,

Featured Image: PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii (Jan. 10, 2020) – Marines and Sailors with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit’s Maritime Raid Force secure a simulated casualty during Visit, Board, Search and Seizure training. (Official U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Isaac Cantrell)

Virtual Training: Preparing Future Naval Officers for 21st Century Warfare

By Joseph Bunyard


“[We must] embrace the urgency of the moment: our maritime supremacy is being challenged.” —CNO NAVPLAN 2021

The fundamental character of war is changing.1 Distributed networks, next generation threats, and artificial intelligence will change “the face of conflict” by compressing and accelerating the Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA) loop, streamlining the closure of kill chains.2 American security depends on the Navy’s ability to control the seas and project power ashore.3 Preparing future naval officers for 21st century warfare must begin at the US Naval Academy (USNA), where Virtual Training Environments (VTEs) could provide education and training opportunities once exclusive to the Fleet.4

21st century warfare requires data producers and smart data consumers. Although the Department of Defense recognizes the need for an “AI ready force,” the 2018 National Defense Strategy claims that professional military education “has stagnated at the expense of lethality and ingenuity.”5 To address this charge, the Navy’s 2020 Education for Seapower Strategy calls for the creation of a “continuum of learning” through the Naval University System.6 While the Naval Postgraduate School conducts innovative technical research—and the Naval War College endows senior leaders with a strategic outlook on the future of warfare—the US Naval Academy does not feature AI, unmanned systems, tactics, or strategy in its core curriculum.7

Figure 1 – Aviation Officer Career Progression. Above: aviation officers require 2.5 years of training before deployment. 8

New technology often means new qualification requirements for junior officers. Added training extends the length of time before an officer is ready to deploy, a worrying trend at which Type Commanders are taking aim (see Figure 1).9 VTEs could offer Midshipmen exposure to the naval applications of disruptive technologies, the chance to accomplish existing Fleet training prior to commissioning, and Artificial Intelligence (AI)/ Machine Learning (ML) tools that they could take to the Fleet. To realize these objectives, the Naval Academy must leverage three types of VTEs—low-cost, commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS), and Fleet-integrated—to expand training opportunities and reinforce its core curriculum.

E-learning in the COVID-19 era provides the Naval Academy a chance to update its operating system (OS). Instead of using new media, such as Zoom, to present the same PowerPoints Midshipmen would receive in-person, USNA should update its curriculum to take advantage of VTEs with proven training and educational outcomes. Incorporating new media into existing curricula requires an OS update that expands USNA’s “leadership laboratory” into a 21st century warfare laboratory, where smart data producers and consumers are forged. 10

Integrating Low-Cost Virtual Training Environments (VTEs)

“To maintain naval power in an era of great power competition and technological change, the Navy and Marine Corps need to strengthen and expand their educational efforts.”—Education for Seapower Strategy 2020

The Navy and Marine Corps increasingly rely on VTEs to “expand watch team proficiency and combat readiness” across the Fleet.11 Unlike traditional simulators, virtual reality trainers are highly mobile and often rely on commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware. The Chief of Naval Air Training’s Project Avenger simulator, for example, uses gaming computers and virtual reality headsets to qualify students for solo flights in half of the traditional number of flight hours.12 The Marine Corps’ tactical decision kits use similar technology to train infantry battalions on weapon systems and tactics.13 Mixed reality glasses, which overlay a user’s vision with digital information, help crews across the Fleet complete complex maintenance.14

Expanding access to existing virtual reality trainers at the Naval Academy could enable Midshipmen to complete portions of Naval Introductory Flight Evaluation (NIFE), The Basic School (TBS), and Basic Division Officer Course (BDOC) syllabi prior to commissioning. “Future multi-domain combat will be so complex and long-ranged that the military will rely heavily on simulations to train for it.”15 More access to VTE trainers means more familiarization with the technology and interfaces that junior officers are increasingly likely to encounter in the Fleet.

Figure 2 – A Project Avenger Simulator. U.S. Navy photo. 16

Accessing the Navy Continuous Training Environment (NCTE)

“Winning in contested seas also means fielding and equipping teams that are masters of all-domain fleet operations.” —CNO NAVPLAN 2021

VTEs allow users to conceptualize next generation threats. While the Naval Academy provides Midshipmen the technical foundation to understand Anti-Access/ Area-Denial (A2/AD) bubbles and contested communications zones, it offers few means for Midshipmen to visualize these abstract threats in an operational context.17 NAVAIR’s Joint Simulation Environment (JSE) and INDOPACCOM’s Pacific Multi-Domain Training and Experimentation Capability simulate next generation threats for operations analysis and platform research design testing and evaluation (RDT&E).18 The Navy Continuous Training Environment (NCTE) enables cross-platform integration of these platforms, and many more, which allows warfighters around the world to take part in scalable multi-domain battle problems.19

Figure 3 – NAVAIR’s JSE 20

To meet the Fleet’s growing need for diversified data, the Navy should leverage the informed and available, yet inexperienced, potential of the Academy’s more than 4,000 Midshipmen. Providing the Naval Academy with NCTE access could generate data for the Fleet and the operational context of classroom lessons for Midshipmen. Data is the new oil; improving predictive AI/ML models, concepts of operation, and training interfaces requires mass amounts of quality data from a range of problem-solving approaches.21 Installing an NCTE node in Hopper Hall’s new Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities (SCIFs) would not only allow Midshipmen to observe Fleet training events but also to perform their own operations analysis on platforms, capabilities, and strategies developed during their capstone research.22

Leveraging Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) VTEs

“Advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning have increased the importance of achieving decision superiority in combat.” —CNO NAVPLAN 2021

For the cost of a video game, the Naval Academy could use the same software as defense industry leaders to improve the decision-making ability of Midshipmen, reinforce classroom concepts, and introduce next generation threats and platforms. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) uses popular videogames like Command: Modern Operations ($79.99 on Steam) to search for “asymmetrical conditions” within “hyper-realistic theater-wide combat simulators” that could be exploited in real-world scenarios.23 Many titles offer open Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) that allow users to change the decision-making logic of AI opponents and load custom platforms and capabilities into the game, such as squadrons of future unmanned systems.24 Modern concepts of operation—like Expeditionary Advanced Basing Operations and Joint All-Domain Command Control—often undergo “virtual sea trials” in such simulations.25

Figure 4 – Simulated Theater-Level Conflict in the South China Sea

The user-friendly, scalable, and unclassified nature of wargame simulators like Command: Modern Operations make them suitable for inter-academy use. Allies such as the United Kingdom already use commercial titles to host “Fight Clubs” among military and civilian personnel across all roles and ranks of their armed forces.26 By leveraging its cadre of foreign exchange officers and multilateral relationships, the Naval Academy could form an international “fight club” in the style of the growing “e-sports” industry. Competing with and against international Midshipmen and officers would allow Naval Academy Midshipmen to forge relationships with allies and learn from their approaches to tactics, strategies, and decision-making across a variety of simulated scenarios.

COTS Artificial Intelligence (AI) & Machine Learning (ML) VTEs

“Adopting AI capabilities at speed and scale is essential to maintain military advantage.”—2020 Department of Defense AI Education Strategy

Virtual machines provide users with access to advanced AI and ML tools, as well as the computing power necessary to use them at scale, anywhere there is an internet connection.27 Maintaining the Navy’s military advantage requires an “AI ready force” of smart data producers and consumers.28 Applying AI to operations and processes across the Fleet will likely make open-source ML software the Excel of the future, requiring both smart data producers and consumers. Not every officer is an Excel “wizard,” but most understand how it works, the problems it can solve, and the type of data it needs to function. In order to build an “AI ready force” across all roles and ranks, the Naval Academy should join the growing field of leading research universities incorporating introductory AI and ML courses in their core curricula.29

Just as seamanship and navigation are the cornerstone of maritime competence, AI-literacy will be the core of digital competence. Incorporating AI and ML into the Naval Academy’s core curriculum would create smart data producers and consumers, accelerating the Fleet’s exposure to AI through the bottom up approach envisioned in the Department of Defense AI Education Strategy.30 According to a 2019 study by IBM, “model interoperability,” understanding how a model arrives at a given decision is the single factor that most influences users’ trust in AI.31 Naval Academy graduates literate in AI and ML could better lead enlisted sailors as increasingly complex systems join the Fleet.

Towards a 21st Century Warfare Laboratory

“Transforming our learning model for the 21st century will enable us to adapt and achieve decisive advantage in complex, rapidly changing operating environments.” —2020 Triservice Maritime Strategy 32

The Naval Academy must return to the warfighting mentality of its past.33 In 2007, the Naval Academy not only removed its only tactics and strategy course from the Midshipmen core curriculum, it stopped offering it altogether.34 Until recently, this decision signaled the end of a rich history of wargaming at USNA, which included Academy-wide games held at varying levels of classification.35 VTEs offer the Naval Academy an opportunity to reprioritize warfighting by providing the “ready, relevant learning” future naval officers will need to conduct 21st century warfare.36

New concepts of operation require learning and experimentation that 21st century warfare-literate junior officers could accelerate. The Navy and Marine Corps continue to outline ambitious plans that leverage AI, unmanned platforms, and next generation networks in new concepts of operation. Consequently, the Navy aims to equip sailors with “a high degree of confidence and skill operating alongside” unmanned platforms and AI by “the end of this decade.”37 Creating a true “learning continuum” to prepare the Fleet for the future of warfare must start at the US Naval Academy, where the COVID-19 distance-learning environment offers an opportunity for the Naval Academy to update its operating system using VTEs.

Ensign Bunyard is a 2020 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. Upon completing his Master’s in Information Technology Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University, he will report to Pensacola for training as a student naval aviator.


1. Grady, John, and Sam Sam Lagrone. “CJCS Milley: Character of War in Midst of Fundamental Change.” USNI News, December 4, 2020.
2. Kitchener, Roy, Brad Cooper, Paul Schlise, Thibaut Delloue, and Kyle Cregge. “What Got Us Here Won’t Get Us There.” U.S. Naval Institute, January 9, 2021.
3. Gilday, Mike M. CNO NAVPLAN 2021. Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. Accessed February 2, 2021., 4.
4. Wilson, Clay. Network Centric Warfare: Background and Oversight Issues for Congress. CRS Report for Congress § (2005).
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6. Gilday, 4.
7. “USNA Core Curriculum.” The U.S. Naval Academy. Accessed February 2, 2021.
8. Morris, Terry. “Promotion Boards Brief.” Navy Personnel Command. Accessed February 2, 2021.
9. Shelbourne, Mallory. “Navy Harnessing New Technology to Restructure Aviation Training.” USNI News, September 14, 2020.
10. Miller, Christopher A. “The Influence of Midshipmen on Leadership of Morale at the United States Naval Academy.” Naval Post Graduate School Thesis. Naval Post Graduate School. Accessed February 2, 2021.
11. Kitchener, Roy.
12. Freedburg, Sydney J. “Project Avenger: VR, Big Data Sharpen Navy Pilot Training.” Breaking Defense. Above the Law, December 4, 2020.
13. Berger, David. “Tactical Decision Kit Distribution and Implementation.” MARADMIN. US Marine Corps. Accessed February 2, 2021.
14. Fretty, Peter. “Augmented Reality Helps US Navy See Clearer.” Industry Week. Accessed February 2, 2021.
15. Freedburg, Sydney J. “Navy, Marines Plan Big Wargames For Big Wars: Virtual Is Vital.” Breaking Defense. Above the Law, December 3, 2020.
16. Shelbourne, Mallory.
17. Gonzales, Matt. “Marine Corps to Build Innovative Wargaming Center.” United States Marine Corps Flagship, August 25, 2020.
18. Davidson, Philip S. “Statement of Admiral Philip S. Davidson, US Navy Commander, US Indo-Pacific Command Before the Senate Armed Services Committee on US Info-Pacific Command Posture 12 February 2019.” Senate Armed Services Committee, February 12, 2019.
19. “Joint Simulation Environment.” NAVAIR. Naval Air Warfare Center. Accessed February 2, 2021. Also, Squire, Peter. “Augmented Reality Efforts.” Office of Naval Research. Accessed February 2, 2021., 13.
20. “Joint Simulation Environment.”
21. Graham, Karen. “AI Systems Are ‘Only as Good as the Data We Put into Them’.” Digital Journal: A Global Digital Media Network, September 5, 2018. Also, Nilekani, Nandan. “Data to the People.” Foreign Affairs. Council on Foreign Relations, July 29, 2020.
22. Tortora, Paul. “Center for Cyber Security Studies – 2018-2019 Stewardship Report.” Cyber Studies, March 14, 2020.
23. Atherton, Kelsey. “DARPA Wants Wargame AI To Never Fight Fair.” Breaking Defense. Above the Law, August 18, 2020. Also, “Command: Modern Operations.” Steam Info. Accessed February 2, 2021.
24. Atherton, Kelsey.
25. Atherton, Kelsey.
26. Brynen, Rex. “UK Fight Club.” PAX Sims, June 11, 2020.
27. “Data Science Virtual Machines.” Microsoft Azure. Accessed February 7, 2021.
28. “2020 Department of Defense Artificial Intelligence Education Strategy.” The Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, September 2020.
29. “2020 Department of Defense Artificial Intelligence Education Strategy.”
30. “2020 Department of Defense Artificial Intelligence Education Strategy.”
31. Ashoori, Maryam, Weisz, Justin.” “In AI We Trust? Factors that Influence Trustworthiness of AI-Infused Decision-Making Processes.” IBM. December 5, 2019., 2.
32. “Advantage at Sea: Prevailing with All-Domain Naval Power.” Office of the Secretary of the Navy. December 2020., 22.
33. McKinney, Michael. “Warfighting First? Not so Much.” U.S. Naval Institute. May 2019.
34. “Initial Report of the Dean’s Cyber Warfare Ad Hoc Committee.” The US Naval Academy. August 21, 2009., 76.
“Core Curriculum Review.” USNA Division of Seamanship and Navigation. March 2, 2005., slide 13.
35. “Wargaming at the Naval Academy.” Shipmate. The United States Naval Academy Alumni Foundation. February 2021., 25-26.
36. “Ready, Relevant Learning.” Naval Education and Training Command. Accessed March 19,

37. Gilday, 11.

Feature photo: A U.S. Naval Academy Midshipman conducts a simulated T-6B Texan II flight on a newly installed virtual reality trainer device at the U.S. Naval Academy during Aviation Selection Night at Dahlgren Hall. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Cmdr. Rick Healey/Released)