Category Archives: Human Factors Week

Human Factors Week Concludes on CIMSEC

By Nicholas Romanow

Last week, CIMSEC published a series of articles focusing on the human factor of maritime and military affairs. These articles covered a wide range of topics, highlighting the complexity of the challenge of enabling the people of the maritime services to be the best they can be.

Many commentaries in the national security space lament personnel issues as sporadic difficulties that can be expediently solved via easy policy tweaks. For instance, it might be enticing to solve recent recruitment challenges with larger signing bonuses. While multiple of the articles in this series suggest policy-based solutions, one novel and important contribution is that all grappled with the inter-generational nature of the human elements of maritime affairs. Ideas such as naval capital towns and inclusive deckplates are not forged into reality overnight. If we are serious about competing for and acquiring top talent, the maritime and national security communities must think not months or years but rather decades into the future.

Any analysis of military affairs is incomplete without acknowledging the crucial role of technology. The past, present, and future of conflict are all defined by the various tools and weapons used from era to era. However, no innovation exists in a vacuum. Military technology is impactful only in the context of how it is used by humans to prosecute a war or conflict. As the articles from this topic week demonstrate, studying and understanding the human elements as they relate to technology and education must continue to be a core task.

While each of these articles is a welcome contribution to the field of talent management, they should not be seen as definitive answers but as starting points for continuing discussion. In this vein, here is a look back at the contributions to CIMSEC’s Human Factors topic week and a key question the maritime community should continue discussing well into the future.

“The Defense Department’s Unfinished DEI Business: A 10-Point Plan,”  by Captain John Cordle, (ret.), and LCDR Reuben Keith Green, (ret.)

  • How can the Sea Services avoid the polarizing tendency of “DEI” in order to make real progress that benefits personnel of the maritime services?

Groton as a Case Study for Building Naval Capital Towns,” by Ryan C. Walker

  • How can the model of Groton as a Naval Capital Town be replicated in other areas to rebuild the American shipbuilding industry?

Shifting the Role of Leader and Led: Using Year Group Cohorts to Accelerate Marine Corps Force Design,” by Travis Reese

  • How do we equip Marines early in their careers with the right intellectual tools and skills to shape force design through the year group cohort model?

Weaponize PME to Improve the Force,” by Bobby Holmes

  • How can mid-career officers be persuaded to view professional military education (PME) as an opportunity for personal growth rather than a “check-in-the-box” for promotion?

Educating Maritime Geostrategists for the Naval Services,” by Drake Long

  • How do we more directly involve junior personnel—who are typically involved in more mundane tactical and operational tasks—in the understanding and shaping of geostrategy?

We thank these authors for their excellent contributions on appreciating the human element in warfighting and maritime power.

Ensign Nicholas Romanow, U.S. Navy, is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin. He is currently assigned to Fort Meade, Maryland, and working toward his qualification as a cryptologic warfare officer. He was previously an undergraduate fellow at the Clements Center for National Security. He is CIMSEC’s Social Media Coordinator.

The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other military or government agency.

Featured Image: SOUTH CHINA SEA (Aug. 26, 2021) Sailors aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS O’Kane (DDG 77) heave a line during a replenishment-at-sea with the Henry J. Kaiser-class underway replenishment oiler USNS Tippecanoe (T-AO 199), not pictured. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Elisha Smith)

Educating Maritime Geostrategists for the Naval Services

Human Factors Week 

By Drake Long


In 1567, a Spanish navigator named Álvaro de Mendaña y Neira set sail for an ill-fated voyage to Oceania. His mission was to find a stopover for the famed Manila Galleons, ships carrying supplies and looted resources between the Spanish colonies in the Philippines and Peru. Where he landed was an undiscovered island in the South Pacific christened Santa Isabel, but his crew ultimately encamped for three months in an area further north dubbed Guadalacanal. Both locations are better known in the modern day as part of the Solomon Islands.

The expedition did not go smoothly. Neira intended to set up a permanent Spanish colony, but his party’s hostility toward the native Solomon Islanders and unfamiliarity with the local terrain led to constant, bloody clashes, starvation, and death. The Spanish mission fled Guadalcanal in failure in 1568. Spain attempted a similar mission some 30 years later with the same outcome.

Plans to establish a base in the Solomon Islands for the benefit of the Manila Galleons were ultimately shelved. The resistance of the Solomon Islanders and dearth of resources on the archipelago itself led Spain to think the Solomons were more burden than blessing. Spain decided the islands offered no strategic economic benefit whatsoever, and moved on.

Over 300 years later, a very different empire with different goals looked at the Solomon Islands and came to a separate conclusion. Vice Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue, commander of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s 4th Fleet, saw in the Solomons an ideal position for land-based aviation and advocated that the Empire of Japan seize it in an amphibious campaign. From the Solomon Islands, aircraft could place the encroaching Allies and their navies under a threatening bomber and torpedo umbrella. This assumption proved correct, and the Solomon Islands preoccupied Allied attention in the opening phases of the Pacific war.

Now the Solomon Islands has found itself at the center of attention yet again. It switched recognition from Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China in 2019 and has shocked its neighbors by courting something akin to a security guarantee from Beijing. Yet anyone with a stake in the South Pacific should have known the domestic political environment in the Solomons would lead to this point. 

Map of the Solomon Islands. Click to expand. (Graphic via Wikimedia Commons)

There is a specific criticism leveled at the United States from its partner-nations in the Pacific and Oceania – that it is not sufficiently committed to the region. There is some validity to this statement. The Solomon Islands, despite having featured prominently in the annals of history for virtually every previous major maritime power in the Pacific, has only just now become a major point of consternation for the United States (and Australia), after its downward spiral into another bout of domestic political upheaval is too far along to stop.

To other nations in the Pacific, the United States does not seem to proactively adjust its foreign policy to counter new threats, so much as it reacts to events. The opening of new embassies in the Pacific Islands well after the PRC already did so epitomizes this late-to-the-party approach.

This is not the approach the combined U.S. naval services want to take, according to the priorities laid out in the Triservice Maritime Strategy. The U.S. naval services are redesigning themselves to better compete day-to-day with other maritime powers, including by inculcating a mission command mindset into all components of U.S. maritime power and integrating the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard into unified instruments of naval diplomacy and engagement with partner nations.

But to really serve as an effective steady-state influencer deeply involved in great power competition, the U.S. naval services need to invoke the roadmap laid out in the Triservice Maritime Strategy to create more than mission commanders. The services need to create a cohort of geostrategists.

Building Geostrategy

Both Spain and Imperial Japan, when looking at the physical characteristics of the Solomon Islands, were practicing a form of geostrategy. Geostrategy calls on states to rank and prioritize the criticality of physical features according to the national interest. Chokepoints, straits, and sea lines of communication are all terms for things geostrategists define, value, and then consider how to defend or exploit. 

One of the core tenets of geostrategy is that physical geography does not appreciably change. However, political and economic geography do, and the above (simplified) story offers a case study in how geostrategy can adjust accordingly. For the Spanish Empire, the motivating factor to explore the Solomons was in service to a trade route between two other colonies. Ultimately though, the ill-fated expedition to the Solomons proved it was not as relevant to the economic geography of the Spanish Pacific as some navigators thought.

Imperial Japan saw in the Solomons a method of protecting vulnerable sea lines of communication, and a way to further project its airpower to threaten the Allies. Most historians of the subsequent Guadalcanal campaign would probably argue the Solomons’ geography did end up being an important factor in the Empire of Japan’s favor at the outset of the war.

Navalists – which in this context does not just mean members of the U.S. naval services, but also shipping industry executives, oceanographers, marine scientists, and maritime law experts – are inherently geostrategists. Be it their profession, hobby, or subject of academic inquiry, seapower hinges on the relationship between different physical geographies – the oceans and landmasses. Maritime shipping ultimately connects inland economic resources to littoral economic hubs. Marines require a Navy to trek across bodies of water to their next crisis. Environmentalists focused on healthy seas have to contend with toxic shipbreaking practices and other forms of environmentally disastrous work close to the shore.

It is impossible to be a navalist assigned to think about and work with seapower without considering the physical geography of the world and the maritime domain. Alfred Thayer Mahan, perhaps the most famous maritime geostrategist of all, implicitly explained this on a deeper level in his famed book The Influence of Sea Power Upon History.

The problem all maritime states have in the modern day, including the United States, is that they are not cultivating navalists as geostrategists, or in other words, a cohort well-suited to the changing, global security environment. This is not to say the U.S. naval services do not create servicemembers steeped in global events or geography. The U.S. Navy in many ways epitomizes the navalist-as-diplomat mentality. But the Triservice Strategy itself places special emphasis on the phrase ‘rules-based’ order, a nebulous term that does not always resonate with the countries the U.S. needs to partner with for effective competition. There are multiple new facets – new geographies – in the geostrategic environment that the current rules-based order is not equipped to deal with. Rather than adapting, the U.S. risks hanging on to the status quo past its expiration date.

New Economic Geography 

Geostrategy must appreciate how much of a sea change global commerce is currently experiencing. There was a brief period, roughly bookended between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, where trade networks worked on an assumption of globalized supply chains and unfettered, just-in-time shipping. This would reduce costs and insulate commerce from many geopolitical frictions.

That era is almost certainly over. Trading nations are increasingly adopting policies of weaponized interdependence that use supply chains’ overreliance on them for strategic advantage. China, the United States, and the European Union, all titans of trade, are increasingly exploring on-shoring for manufactured goods and expanding their definitions of critical sectors to guard against dependence on rival actors to provide products necessary to national security. The reliability of trade is shifting as well. The cascade of effects from the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed how incredibly fragile the global shipping industry actually is, and nations crucial to trade are increasingly securitizing key waterways like the South China Sea.

The sources of marine wealth are changing as well. The traditional understanding of maritime trade operates on a system not unlike what guided the Manila Galleons long ago. Trade flows from point A to point B, and geostrategy is set up around ensuring that trade is not vulnerable to disruption. However, centers of gravity in the maritime economy are moving further and further away from the coast and out into the open ocean. Seabed mining, marine genetic resource harvesting, and deep-sea fishing are all entering new phases of commercial activity within the next 10 years, where previously inaccessible resources are now within reach. This is significant because traditional geostrategy is focused on ensuring trade between ports is uninterrupted – usually by identifying key waterways and sea lanes. But increasingly, key maritime concentrations of geostrategic value could be on the high seas where there are major deposits of resources, such as the Clarion Clipperton Zone in the central Pacific.

A map of the Clarion Clipperton Zone in the central Pacific Ocean (adapted from the International Seabed Authority, 2018). Colored areas are those licensed for mining and shaded squares are areas currently protected from mining. Click to expand. (Graphic via NOAA)

The existing rules-based order does not have clear answers for these emerging developments. In search of a different solution, new treaties and rules are being actively sought out by countries with the most to gain from this new economic geography.

Educating Geostrategists

For a geostrategist looking at the changing economic geography and thinking of how the U.S. naval services fit into it, they would probably rely on precedent. Historical precedent is the most important skill to impart on the navalist-as-geostrategist. Yet to adequately find and draw on precedents, the U.S. naval services would need to make significant changes to professional military education and training. A rising cohort would need to embrace a more global curriculum that truly emphasizes maritime geostrategy from the perspective of revisionist states, allies, and partners. For example, most navalists can name Alfred Thayer Mahan – but can they name K.M. Panikkar, the post-colonial Indian seapower theorist that penned a sequel to Mahan’s work, going so far as to title it An Essay on the Influence of Sea Power on Indian History? They probably can cite it unwittingly – after all, within that circa 1945 essay Panikkar penned the modern-day understanding of ‘the Indo-Pacific.’1

The international relations field is already somewhat ahead of the curve on this with the development of Global International Relations, a specific subfield championed by the likes of Amitav Acharya. Global IR is predicated on the belief that other theories of interstate relations and regional systems outside of the U.S. and Europe are just as valid as the prevailing western-centric theories. This might seem intuitive, but these alternative views of seeing the world have only become more prominent after the long, lengthy process of decolonization, where the knowledge of non-European empires and seapowers were no longer discarded, ignored, or suppressed.

Geostrategy can embrace some of these same principles. As already pointed out, the understanding of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ changes when speaking to modern-day navalists in India, Japan, or the United States. Reconciling these differences can only occur when the U.S. raises a cohort of navalists that actually understand, on a deep level, why their allies and partners view the world the way they do.

In order to create these geostrategists, the U.S. naval services should invest in professional military education that stresses alternative ways of viewing the world. One method to do this is to significantly increase International Military Education and Training (IMET) programs and bring in navalists from other nations currently theorizing and codifying their own seapower strategies. They can interact and impart knowledge with U.S. counterparts – be they members of the Navy, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard.

Another method is to set up incentive funds that promote wargames that emphasize playing and understanding ‘Green’ or ‘Orange’ states. These countries are not necessarily the primary combatants in an operational wargame, but may be allied to the Blue or Red Teams, or neutral, and are capable of tipping the balance of competition. Far too often wargames tied to professional military education stress the ‘great powers’ of a competition without understanding the relative strength of middle powers and even small states. If navalists empathized more with these resident powers of the Pacific, they would better appreciate their stakes in great power competition as well.

Finally, the U.S. naval services need to integrate outside of the military and facilitate professional development opportunities that expose its navalists to other maritime professions. The new geography of the world is not being charted by the military so much as marine scientists, economists, and environmentalists. As Arctic ice melts, the first person to explore the viability of a Northern Sea Route will likely be a shipping magnate. The bodies setting the rules for the ‘blue economy’ are currently centralized in the United Nations – many of which the U.S. naval services would be keen to keep an awareness of, if not sponsor an observer in. This would serve to better understand the concerns of Pacific Island states who see the orderly expansion of economic rights in their vast Exclusive Economic Zones as key to their economic development.

This civil-military integration could take the form of bringing more outside experts into the PME institutions that serve the naval services. The Naval War College, Marine Corps University, and Coast Guard Academy all have the flexibility to provide nuanced and intriguing discussions of the changing maritime world for their students. But this integration could just as well be served through sending servicemembers and navalists as short-term observers to international rules-making bodies and industry groups. 


Geostrategists must be capable of understanding the intersections of Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard power in peacetime and in conflict. They must understand the new maritime geography the U.S. must take national interest in and conceptualize new operations to shape these areas and how American influence is projected. But members of the naval services are instructed to uphold the ‘rules-based international order’ without adequately understanding what came before it, who created it, and what could come next. Equipped with these understandings, they would better recognize the motivations driving great power competitors and revisionist states today – and therefore understand how to better influence geostrategy. That would be the first step to becoming a geostrategist and seizing the opportunities posed by the evolving geostrategic environment at sea.

Drake Long (Twitter: @DRM_Long) is a Pacific Forum Young Leader and a member of CIMSEC.


1. In Panikkar’s words, he called the Indo-Pacific ‘a strategic arc’ encompassing the east coast of Africa all the way to the easternmost islands of Southeast Asia.

Featured Image: ISS040-E-006780 (3 June 2014) — Clouds over the southern Pacific Ocean are featured in this image photographed by an Expedition 40 crew member on the International Space Station. (Photo via Nasa)

Weaponize PME to Improve the Force

Human Factors Week

By Bobby Holmes

If the sea services and the defense community are to improve and sustain human capital to accomplish the missions of the future, they must create a more educated workforce by incentivizing nontraditional and self-study Professional Military Education opportunities. War is a human endeavor. This fact applies universally to all conflicts, regardless of when they are fought, where there are fought, or what weapons are used to fight them. The human factors of war dominated Napoleonic Europe and the trenches of World War I, just as they did in Al Anbar for the last two decades and in Kharkiv today. Any future conflict, particularly between great powers with technologically exquisite platforms, will be built on a human foundation. The United States Department of Defense and the sea services must invest in their people as much or more than they invest in their things.

Professional Military Education (PME) is a key vessel for this human investment, but the sea services are not doing enough to compel their top performers to seek out valuable PME as a career enhancing opportunity. Put more emphatically, there is not enough incentive for Sailors, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen to pursue self-study education programs, either concurrently to their primary MOS duties or as part of a dedicated PME tour. This lack of incentive is best reflected in the risk one assumes to their chances of O-5 promotion and command tours should they embark on a nontraditional PME program. This causes an exodus of the sea services’ top performers before their talents can be fully utilized. Adding additional PME opportunities reserved for top performers and decoupling nonstandard PME and decreased promotion and command opportunity will go far in developing a more intelligent naval workforce that is well prepared for the future’s challenges.

The Problem

The personnel evaluation systems of the sea services do not create incentives for well-meaning servicemembers to pursue nontraditional or self-study PME. In any fleet unit, the axiom that “learning is good, but doing is better” reigns supreme.1 The command climates throughout the naval workforce implicitly communicate this through evaluation methods that are abstractly comparative and do not adequately reflect the gains to be had from a more educated and intelligent workforce. The metrics used to compare servicemembers against each other are largely the same across each service’s force and do not appropriately weight self-study PME against basic MOS proficiency. Any time spent studying and learning beyond typical MOS training and standard “roadmap” PME courses is viewed as time that could be better spent in the office or in the field. While this article does not argue in the least against putting the time in when it is needed, the most driven servicemembers should have more and better opportunities to self-educate. 

Moreover, it is nearly impossible to communicate to one’s chain of command when gains in technical competence or tactical proficiency are earned through individual PME. While these gains may be lauded for what they are, the return on investment for the individual servicemember does not hold. This feedback loop then creates a self-fulfilling prophecy at the institutional level: the sea services’ top performers writ large do not pursue self-study PME because this is time they must spend outperforming their peers in basic tasks and duties, and connecting this outperformance to additional PME is not feasible in most command climates. Note that this argument does not mean that a poorly performing Marine should be able to just read a book to compensate for their shortcoming; it means that an imminently qualified Marine should not be penalized for pursuing a nontraditional education program that is concurrent to their professional duties, assuming their performance is already above reproach. If the sea services can modify their evaluation practices, the best members will take advantage of it, and the services will collectively benefit from a more educated force. 

The final deterrent to many servicemembers’ aspirations towards PME and career progression comes in the form of increased risk to O-5 promotion and command opportunities. Simply put, the sea services do not value increased education as much as they do increased experience. Promotion boards expect to see a standard conveyor belt of “key billets” that culminates in a selection to O-5 command. While certain levels of experience are necessary to ensure successful and effective command, this model creates institutional groupthink amongst its leaders and stifles the creativity of its most imaginative service members.

Promotion boards reinforce this trend through the people and career paths they prioritize for promotion and command. This reinforcement then trickles down and compels resultant career decisions amongst the company grade officers and junior staff noncommissioned officers throughout the individual services. Even those who would prefer a nontraditional PME approach do not seek it out simply because they cannot assume the risk to their career. This hesitancy is amplified by the services’ manpower management practices, which are designed to check requisite career progression boxes that collectively make members competitive for O-5 command.

This requirement to maintain competitiveness for O-5 command is present whether a particular servicemember wants the opportunity or not. The sea services are missing a valuable opportunity and bypassing a valuable talent pool strictly through the use of a short sighted and outdated promotion model. Everyone is treated like they are a future ship’s captain or infantry battalion commander – regardless of personal aspirations – and this is a mistake.

A Proposed Solution

This article now proposes two potential answers to the aforementioned problem. Both are designed to increase the incentive for servicemembers to pursue self-study PME, with one approach creating the opportunity to do so and the other removing any potential negative side-effects to one’s career progression.

1) Choose Your Own (PME) Adventure: If the sea services want to truly revamp and weaponize their approach to PME, this is one of the most nontraditional opportunities to do so. PME selection boards – be they for company grade, field grade, or top level school allocations – can set aside a small portion of their allocations for only the highest performing servicemembers on the board and allow them the chance to design their own PME program. Prospective students would get to pick the school (a traditional university, PME institution, trade school, or other options), the field of study, and the recommended utilization tour upon completion of the program.

There are two methods to solicit these programs. The first is to field said programs from individuals seeking to embark on them before a given PME selection board convenes. Boards will then convene and determine, much like they do for every PME program, if the requested program fits the needs of the service and the servicemember is of sufficient quality and talent to warrant approval to the program. The second method is to select those servicemembers for this self-designed PME option, then instruct them to build and submit their program for approval. Either approach is feasible, however the first approach of solicitation then allocation most likely nests better within the current timelines of PME selection and rotation dates.

Note that this option is in no way a “free ride” or “vacation” for the servicemember. Potential self-designed programs should nest within a member’s professional duties and fit the general needs the member fulfills for the service. The servicemember, who will most likely spend a considerable amount of time away from traditional military installations and communities, should also uphold basic tenets of military life (physical fitness, military appearance, off duty conduct, etc.) throughout the program. Moreover, these programs would also warrant substantial utilization tours and service obligations once completed, so the services will benefit from continued retention of their best performers in fields these members actually want to be in. The author is not naïve to personnel requirements of the sea services and this option is not meant erode the potential pool of ships’ captains, department heads, or battalion commanders. It is merely an entrepreneurial recommendation for the services to better utilize their top performers, with effects that will ripple down throughout the entire force.

2) “Learn More and Do Better”: The sea services must eschew the notion that “learning is good but doing is better.” This is a false dichotomy that assumes a zero sum game between personal development and professional competence, where one comes at the expense of the other. This is ridiculous, yet promotion boards implicitly communicate this at every convening. Myopic rules about what constitutes a “key billet in grade” should be discarded in favor of a more wholistic look at the entire person up for promotion or command. Is the Marine Corps really assuming increased risk by promoting an already high performing and self-educated Major to Lieutenant Colonel without a traditional Executive Officer or Operations Officer tour? This article submits that there is minimal risk in this decision. Is there a proper combination of education and experience that can allow a potential ship’s captain to bypass a department head tour in favor of a nontraditional education program? This article again posits that there is indeed a combination of learning and doing that can compensate for the standard cookie cutter approach of career progression.

What this requires is a massive shift in the mindset of the services and their leaders. Once promotions and command allocations better account for self-driven PME, trust will rise amongst the naval workforce to pursue individual improvement opportunities. The relationship between personal development and professional competence is not zero sum but complimentary. By learning more, servicemembers will do better.


The sea services will need people – not equipment – to do the hard things that are sure to come in the next conflict. The wars of the future will transcend current known quantities such as weaponeering and single domain warfare. This future war will be cognitively rigorous, and the leaders who can think effectively first will be the ones who attack effectively first. An educated and intelligent naval workforce is a requirement if the sea services are to succeed in these future wars. Professional Military Education, long an area of investment in our human capital, needs to be revamped and better weaponized to attract and retain the brightest minds in the naval force. Leaders at all levels must provide incentives for self-study PME, not judging it against time spent in the office but more so as a compliment to this time. Leaders must also realize when individual increases in proficiency arise from entrepreneurial PME initiatives and laud them.

Institutionally, the sea services should allow for the best and brightest servicemembers to design their own PME program, provided that it nests within their professional duties and the needs of the service. The services’ highest leaders must champion the notion that education does not equal a degradation of experience but more so an increase in potential performance. Promotions should reflect this shift in mindset, effectively communicating to the workforce that there is minimal risk to one’s career if they seek out education. Combining these grassroots and institutional-level efforts will increase the intelligence and commensurate performance of the naval workforce, provide apparent levels of career satisfaction for all involved, and allow the sea services to better fight and win the next war.

Captain Robert Holmes, USMC, is a graduate student of Eurasian regional security studies and a Eurasian Foreign Area Officer at the Naval Postgraduate School.


1. James Wirtz, “The Reluctant Theorist: Colin Gray and the Theory of Strategy,” Infinity Journal (March, 2014): 14.

Featured Image: Students with the Marine Corps University (MCU) participate in the MCU Commencement ceremony at Little Hall, Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, June 8, 2022. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Eric Huynh)

Shifting the Role of Leader and Led: Using Year Group Cohorts to Accelerate Marine Corps Force Design

Human Factors Week

By Travis Reese 

“The United States has a perfect record in modern times of predicting when and where future outbreaks of war will occur—it always gets it wrong.”–Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates

During the first three years of the Marine Corps’ Force Design 2030 effort, there has been a lively discussion over the intended goal of the transformation coupled with intense criticism over how the debate for change has been conducted. Critics have decried a lack of openness and transparency including a debate over the degree to which individuals feel empowered to contribute to the creation of the next iteration of the force. Force Design 2030 has been unique compared to prior design efforts in another regard; not only has there been the debate among serving Marines at every stratum of rank and experience, but there has been an intergenerational challenge from retired Marines who shaped the legacy organization of the Corps upon which these changes are being measured.

This intergenerational tension in force design, even within the active-duty force, can be improved by re-arranging the relationship between senior and subordinate and creating a process that receives input from multiple generations of Marines. This can be done by passing earlier responsibility for designing the next iteration of the Marine Corps on to successive generations of the Corps from early in a Marine’s career. The Marine Corps can achieve this change in force design methodology by establishing generational cohorts organized in 10-year increments, that are tasked with forecasting force design requirements 30 years out from the present.

These cohorts can interact and transition ideas via a process of inter-generational and cross-functional dialogue captured through an electronic learning platform and knowledge exchange portal. The concepts developed on the platform can be augmented by live conferences and standing committees led by senior Marine Corps leaders actively listening to, and coordinating with cohort members to manage recommendations for force design for further development among responsible Marine Corps agencies and commands. The role of seniors will be to guide, mentor, and resource the testing of ideas generated by successor generations in continuous campaigns of learning (plural not singular) and not simply initiate or direct change through specialized efforts in ad-hoc cycles that have an uneven track record of capability adoption and meeting timely demand. This cross-generational knowledge management will also serve as a means for talent management. A Marine’s involvement in the force design process could lead to future assignments based on demonstrated interest and relevant contributions to the force design process.

Most importantly, passing some of the responsibility for force design onto younger cohorts of Marines is a way for the Marine Corps to harvest the reservoir of ideas already in the service and turn them into actionable designs for concepts and testing solutions. This will enable the service to stay ahead of adversaries and prepare generations to lead fully resourced forces for each era with a knowledge of what will come next. These cohorts would be the basis for, and creators of, force development and design solutions impacting their generation via a “crowd sourced” but “leader-managed” methodology that would inform institutional choices and force design focus.

This methodology would overcome institutional capacity limits that force the Marine Corps to plan in a sequential era-by-era fashion that potentially misses innovative opportunities that would benefit from earlier investment under a clear conception of their potential. There is ample evidence that talented futurists reside within the ranks who can contribute to force design beyond the current effort.

The Case for an Internal Forum

The Corps prides itself on the inherited legacy of those who came before, but history shows that the challenges the Marine Corps has faced are decidedly generational. Each generation of the Marine Corps needs to develop tactics, techniques, and means that fit the circumstances of their time. How soon should that start in a generation of Marines? Marines are rarely afforded an officially sanctioned opportunity during their career to formally influence the design of the force they will eventually lead. Without a well-managed forum to harvest ideas on force design, the Marine Corps is missing out on the ability to gain and maintain momentum on future concepts and develop means conceived by steady study, debate, analysis, and investment. Thus, the service is effectively decelerating its preparation for future conflict by limiting the number of Marines who can contribute to address future problems and by not having a common platform to proactively consider timely solutions.

No forum within the service exists to place those ideas where they can be received, tracked, harvested, and tested for application at the time-horizon in which they will be likely suitable or useful. Instead, Marines have relied on participation in ad-hoc dialogue through informal professional societies to contribute ideas and in professional writing. As for professional writing, there is little correlation between contributing to a public discourse and impact on the direction of the service. Marines interested in force design but kept outside of the formal combat development process are forced to play a waiting game until they are senior enough to introduce their ideas as commanders or are otherwise touched by a campaign of learning effort to support experimentation. Simply put, young Marines do not have a way to contribute their ideas into the force design process. Rather their ideas merely float in the ether of abstract conversation and vigorous, but indifferent, debate. Additionally, the Marine Corps’ force design process is not optimized to incubate ideas over multiple time frames and for extended periods.

Unfortunately, future force planning in Department of Defense frequently falls into two habits that create static logic: first, fixation on the current security challenge which becomes an anchor to perceptions of the future. This results in the military using the current state of global affairs as the model for all future conditions or second, establishing a single point in the future and then using that point alone to design a future force with more or less a constant interpretation of the threat. The latter occurs due to the institutional inertia that builds up around an adversary model as agencies work to align their programs and efforts to an accepted framework. Each change in the model often generates a halting effect on force development or design as organizations take years or better to adjust to a new conception of the future or threat. Yet, knowing this pattern of thought and activity, the Marine Corps and Department of Defense have never really considered a method to make transitions between force design efforts more fluid. Rather, every new era of challenge is “jump started” by some national security directive with large institutional transitions surrounding the effort. The Marine Corps is currently caught in this trap as it has adopted the departmental focus on 2030 as a target date and has not begun to consider the next, but inevitable, planning horizon. This is despite the fact that a new Marine today may serve until the year 2055 and could possibly face the next design effort having to change a force conceived in 2019, realized in 2030, and sustained until 2045 or 2050.

Marine Corps lore is rife with stories of determined innovators or mavericks who forced their way in the system to “save the day” with the just in time solution that, by luck, gained the attention of a senior sponsor. Trying to cross the valley of ex-officio debate and gain the notice of senior leaders to influence change may involve uncertain, and possibly unnecessary, career-risking approaches. Personal favor, institutional connections and chance notice by a senior leader are not the ways to harvest ideas for the future of the Corps. The refrain of “send us your ideas” from senior leaders is insufficient if no one is sure who is listening and there is no place to “post the letter” for a willing leader to receive and consider.

What To Do About It? Setting Up Year Group Cohorts

The Marine Corps needs to improve the relationship between leadership and successor generations to proactively shape the inevitable transition from current to future. This can be done by dividing the force into 10-year cohorts that participate in a managed service-wide mass participation learning framework incremented into 10, 20, and 30-year horizons. Why 30 years? First, it often takes 30 years to conceive and design capabilities and doctrine and put them into practice. Most of that time is focused on building an institutionally agreed-upon problem frame and discovering potential solutions. Secondly, if one assumes that the career of most senior leaders (officer and enlisted) may be sustained out to 35 years it makes sense that cohorts should cover that outcome. Third, a 10-year cohort would include groups with diversity in rank and experience to prevent myopia in terms of outlook and experience but remain close enough that near-contemporary relationships facilitate ease of dialogue and frankness of critique. Lastly, taking a longer-range look provides institutional freedom of action to explore options and alternatives free from the constraints of contemporary pressures (although informed by them) and in a more risk accepting posture.

How would this work? At the beginning of his or her career an officer or SNCO (who is now on a career-focused path) is assigned to a cohort focused on a specific time frame. Each cohort will consider how their generation will be defined in terms of security challenges and solutions. A cohort will remain in its assigned year and transition to become the 20- or 10-year group as a new cohort is created behind them to deal with the next 30-year horizon. The oldest cohort becomes the “current” year and/or begins to retire and transition from service. Groupings would be developed based on recommendations from Manpower and Reserve Affairs (DC M&RA). Cohorts would be organized as a large learning entity under a supervised management collaboration with Training and Education Command (TECOM) and Capabilities Development and Integration (DC CD&I). TECOM would be responsible to furnish access to qualified educational mentors. Professionally qualified mentors will be hired to manage the inputs, encourage research, and stimulate dialogue among the respondents. Combat developers from CD&I would be able to observe and harvest the ideas produced by the cohorts. Management of cohort contributions would be enabled via a web-based platform residing on unclassified and classified networks developed by Deputy Commandant for Information (DC I). The platform will facilitate discovery, search, and visualization of the various ideas produced by the cohorts. Problems or issues for a specific year group would be sponsored by the Deputy Commandants.

Annually, a Force Design conference would be led, structured as an activity for a regular three or four-star executive offsite. Cohort managers and mentors would provide a report back to the Commandant and deputy commandant sponsors on a cohort’s responses to a design question or specific challenge. Further, cohort managers could introduce new initiatives or concepts spawned by the cohort for consideration by the senior leaders. Select cohort members could be called in to brief their recommendations or future operating environment insights to the senior leaders. From these recommendations, debate would ensue on proposed investments, experiments, research, manpower adjustments, or concept development activities to conduct in support of each time-frame’s force development or design requirements. Nothing about this effort would disrupt standing institutional processes of capability development, acquisition, or budget planning. If anything, it would generate a faster-paced, iterative, institutionally understood, and data-informed pedigree to many force design initiatives under a participant-led and leader-managed effort. 

The overall benefits of an institutionally integrated knowledge and professional exchange framework would be vast. Rather than random discoverability of talent or ideas spread across informal learning societies, intra- and intergenerational dialogue would exist across the Marine Corps with the express purpose of developing actionable ideas on future concepts directly. Participants, without disruption to necessary career progression, can engage in early strategic thinking about the future. This would have an impact on the quality of professional military education since instruction on strategy and strategic thinking would be amplifying to an embedded institutional activity. The knowledge portal would enable the service to discovery solutions to current and future challenges on a persistent basis rather than by exception through the ad-hoc use of events like challenge days or military “shark tanks” whose outcomes on capability development are uncertain and still require interest for adoption. Iterative doctrine development and deliberation would begin sooner rather than constrained to small writing venues or billet-specific offices. Force design as a process would shift to participant-driven and leader-managed generating large-scale buy-in and removing the variable of personality-focused initiatives. Lastly, every participant would have common appreciation of each 10-year framework guiding force development and design activities which they can articulate to external stakeholders in positions to support USMC discovery or resource solutions.

The Role of Mentors

Effective mentorship is essential to this proposal and would necessarily vary from cohort to cohort. Younger Marines focused on the 30-year horizon likely need very little encouragement to conceive of the next innovations that can be applied in the future. At this phase in their careers, they would likely need more guidance on how to research appropriately, create a sound argument, understand the implications of history and where to harvest those lessons. They need mentorship in the tools that make it possible to form a testable hypothesis for their intuitive vision. The 20-year horizon group is a mid-tier professional who needs insights regarding the institutional processes that will govern force design and development. They need mentors who will advise on institutional memory and help them navigate the gates of the system that will make it possible to shift from ideation to action.

The 10-year horizon group is in the nexus of decision between realizing their concepts that have been matured and challenged over 15-20 years and managing the acquisition risk of replacing the current force. They need executive-level mentorship in decision making and risk management at this stage of force design. The same mentors should not remain with a cohort as they are specialists in certain skills with biases and conceptions that should be minimized by exposure to other schools of thought.

Overall, it is important for the Marine Corps to not select mentors based on perceived authority bias or reputational history alone. Rather, cohorts may consist of iconoclasts and relative unknowns whose talents and skills are familiar to a small group but whose history of institutional challenge and change far exceeds their reputation.

Preventing Silos and Creating Institution-wide Cross-functional Dialogue

A risk of cohorts is that they can become silos of competition and become protective or adversarial against their counterpart cohorts. This can be prevented by incentivizing cross-functional exchange among the cohorts. A simple example: the 20-year cohort is depending on a particular technology to realize their proposed capabilities. It is discovered that the technology is viable, yet unachievable in that timeframe. Rather than abandon the investment, a decision is made for the 30-year cohort to inherit consideration of this option. Likewise, the 30-year group was considering a particular advancement and it is realized that the technology will be available in 10 years.

A decision could be made to transfer development to the 10-year cohort accelerating outcomes for them, potentially generating an unexpected overmatch for a range of adversaries, but also forcing a change to manpower requirements and doctrine development. To sustain this exchange, it would be necessary to conduct an annual conference, likely geared around the budget cycle, led by the Commandant. Cross-functional discussion of cohort discoveries sponsored by the Deputy Commandant for CD&I or a cohort manager can be led and investments in various force design options can be considered under unique scenarios for each year group. This process would help shape the transition of force design efforts to a participant-led and senior-leader managed process and enable the capacity to manage investments over a longer horizon with a better transition between current and future forces.


Members of the military live and work in two timeframes: present and future. The present is all about competency with current tools and techniques to be ready for today’s challenges. It is achieved through training, practiced in exercises, and measured in inspections and evaluations. The future is about preparedness for tomorrow’s challenges and requires the planning, preparation and imagination necessary to avoid strategic surprise. It is achieved through considering future scenarios, practiced in wargames, realized through investment in doctrine and technology, and measured in live and virtual experimentation.

If anything, the efforts of FD2030 should make the Marine Corps realize that current and future live in a symbiotic relationship and although everyone is required to master the threats of today, it is equally important to think about and prepare for tomorrow. Adversaries are always preparing to develop countermeasures to our well-developed structures and means.

Rather than simply leveraging industry or academia as sources of alternatives and solutions, the same level of alternative thinking (coupled with a greater sense of the implications) can occur inside of the Marine Corps. Modern technology and information exchange has made it possible to overcome the limits of happenstance discovery and the need for patronage of reformers and thinkers that formally infused the system.

Every Marine can become a force designer. The Marine Corps can harvest those ideas into action vice merely be observers/encouragers of the dialogue. Marines can level their interest in the future training, design, and development of the force into career-making choices supported by an institution that not only cares about what they think but acts on it.

The institutional conflict around FD2030 shows that the Marine Corps must improve how it leverages each generation of the Corps in preparing for future challenges. Those decisions must be informed by relevant institutional experience, but not be mired in the preferences and predilections of prior generations. The role of responsible generations to solve the problems they will face in the future must be given a commensurate opportunity and appropriate authority earlier if force design is to become a fluid, timely, inclusive, and less disruptive in the future.

Travis Reese retired from the Marine Corps as Lieutenant Colonel after nearly 21 years of service While on active duty he served as an artillery office and in a variety of billets inclusive of tours in capabilities development, future scenario design, and institutional strategy. Since his retirement in 2016 he was one of the co-developers of the Joint Force Operating Scenario process. Mr. Reese is now the Director of Wargaming and Net Assessment for Troika Solutions in Reston, VA.

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