Category Archives: Interviews

Questioning the Carrier with Jeff Vandenengel

By Dmitry Filipoff

Jeff Vandenengel spoke with CIMSEC about his new book, Questioning the Carrier: Opportunities in Fleet Design for the U.S. NavyIn this book, Jeff makes critical contributions to ongoing debates about what kind of fleet the Navy needs and how it can evolve beyond its carrier-centric force design. 

In this conversation, Jeff talks about the carrier’s liabilities, what opportunities can be seized with a new force structure, and the challenges of moving beyond the carrier.

Intense debates on the carrier have existed for as long as the platform itself. Why write a book on questioning the carrier, and why now?

Navies’ force designs are a function of both the era’s available technology and the fleet’s intended missions. To question the carrier requires an alternative answer, a realistic force structure that can better execute those missions.

For much of the aircraft carrier’s history, there was no alternative that could outperform the platform and its supporting force structure. Following World War II, the technology either did not exist or was not robust enough to support alternative force structures, and the carrier, despite its flaws, repeatedly proved itself the worthy flagship of the fleet. It defended the Pusan Perimeter in the Korean War, launched the majority of U.S. sorties in the Vietnam War, and was the right choice to lead the U.S. Navy against the Soviet Union in the Cold War.

Starting in the 1990s, the technology likely existed to improve on the carrier-centric model, but the mission did not. With the demise of the Soviet Union and the People’s Liberation Army Navy being a weak coastal force, there were no credible naval adversaries and so the U.S. Navy shifted its focus to power projection from uncontested seas, a mission the large nuclear-powered aircraft carrier excels at.

Today, we have both the technology and the mission to move past the carrier-centric fleet. The Navy, partnered with industry, has worked hard to develop the technologies that will enable such a change, including advanced sensors, communications, and missiles. At the same time, with the rise of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), there is a mission demanding a change in the fleet’s structure: sea control and contested power projection against a peer adversary.

Therefore I wrote this book to show that, with today’s technology and the Navy’s evolving missions, it is time to question the carrier’s centrality to the fleet’s structure. It will remain a key component of that fleet for decades to come, but today’s technologies provide better options to accomplish the Navy’s peacetime and combat missions.

The large nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the reason for our Navy’s success for so many years, is now holding us back from an ever better future.

In the book you say that, “The mission has become the protection of the carrier rather than attacking effectively first. Yet the perfect defense for a priceless platform has rarely if ever been possible in naval history.” Why does this tension exist between protecting the carrier and enabling more of the fleet to take on offensive roles? How is the carrier-centric model incurring an opportunity cost in fleet design, and forcing the Navy to focus on defending a single point of failure?

The large nuclear-powered aircraft carrier is the single most powerful surface warship in all naval history, in part because it concentrates a great deal of capabilities onto a single ship. When that ship can operate as intended, that concentration makes the carrier an efficient and flexible means of deterring adversaries and delivering firepower. However, if that ship is lost, all those impressive capabilities are lost at the same time.

More seriously, the sinking of a Ford- or Nimitz-class carrier would likely be catastrophic for the Navy and perhaps the nation. The destruction of a $12 billion ship serving as a symbol of American might would have unmatched military, diplomatic, and political consequences. The casualties could exceed those of previous momentous Navy losses such as USS Chesapeake, USS Maine, USS Arizona, USS Houston, USS Indianapolis, and USS Thresher—combined.

To prevent that from occurring, the Navy has little option but to devote great operational and financial resources to the ship’s defense, a task the Navy has excelled at—a U.S. aircraft carrier is the best defended ship in the world. However, that defense must operate to a different standard than that of every other warship – it must be perfect to avoid the unthinkable, the loss of an American supercarrier. There is little naval history to suggest we can generate such a perfect defense, and trends in scouting and weapons technology indicate that task is only getting harder. More importantly, within the Navy’s finite resources, every sailor, ship, and dollar focused on the defense of the aircraft carrier is not focused on “attacking effectively first,” which Captain Wayne Hughes showed to be the key to combat at sea.

For example, consider the Surface Force leadership’s 2015 introduction of the exciting idea of “Distributed Lethality,” which evolved to “Distributed Maritime Operations” today. They boldly outlined an initiative to distribute the surface fleet and better enable all ships to launch their own attacks, writing that “a shift to the offensive is necessary.” However, the Navy will always be limited in how many platforms it can distribute for offensive operations when so many of them are concentrated for the defense of eleven capital ships. The admirals even indirectly acknowledge that limitation in the opening paragraph of their work, writing, “The surface fleet will always defend the high-value and mission-essential units; that is in our core doctrine.”

For decades the centralization of resources and missions on the “high-value and mission-essential” carrier was a good thing, as it proved to be an effective and efficient means of accomplishing the Navy’s tasks. With no credible adversaries at sea, there was little risk of losing a carrier. There was no one to attack at sea, so there was no reason to focus on attacking effectively first.

Today the situation at sea has obviously changed. To effectively execute the sea control and contested power projection missions against a peer adversary, the fleet must be focused on attacking effectively first. It cannot do that while huge portions of that fleet are focused on the defense of eleven ships. To maximize the Navy’s readiness for combat against our adversaries, it is necessary to move past the carrier-centric model.

The effectiveness of a fleet force structure can be weighed through numerous factors and considerations. What are your criteria for valuing the peacetime utility and wartime combat power of fleet force structure?

A fleet should be judged by its ability to execute the Navy’s peacetime and wartime missions, within existing financial, technological, industrial, operational, and political constraints.

In peacetime, the U.S. Navy is responsible for the “promotion of the national security interests and prosperity of the United States,” as the recently amended Title 10 language directs. The Navy’s presence operations, or campaigning, can include deterring adversaries, reassuring allies, protecting trade, conducting exercises, and ensuring freedom of navigation. We are seeing the importance and value of those operations off Israel and in the Red Sea right now.

Part of that evaluation must be the quantity of platforms in the fleet, as ships can only be in one place at a time and, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said, “A smaller military, no matter how superb, will be able to go fewer places and be able to do fewer things.” However, simply counting ships tells only part of the story, as they are not all equal in their ability to influence the nation’s allies and adversaries. Today, no single ship can match a Nimitz­- or Ford­-class aircraft carrier in presence value—but the correct metric is the fleet’s overall presence value, not that of a single ship.

In wartime, the force structure should be evaluated by its ability to conduct primary mission areas such as reconnaissance, anti-surface warfare, anti-submarine warfare, integrated air and missile defense, and strike warfare, all to gain sea control and project power ashore. Again, there are both quantitative and qualitative factors to that evaluation. Numerically, a fleet with more ships has better geographic coverage, better distributes its capabilities, is more difficult to track, and better retains its combat power after suffering losses. However, fleet capability is also a function of warship quality, accounting for their sensors, weapons, command and control systems, survivability, and logistics capabilities. Today there is no single more powerful surface warship than a large nuclear-powered aircraft carrier—but there are more powerful force structures than one centered on those carriers.

You propose an alternative fleet force structure called the Flex Fleet. How is this fleet different than the Navy’s current and proposed force structures, and how is it more competitive?

The primary purpose of the hypothetical Flex Fleet is to disprove the argument that we cannot do better than a fleet centered on the large nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. The Flex Fleet is designed to show that it is operationally, technologically, and financially possible to generate a force structure that outperforms today’s already impressive fleet. When the Navy decides to move past the limits of a fleet concentrated around the CVN, it can surely develop a force structure better than both the Flex Fleet and today’s force, drawing on its own staffs’ designs, the work of Captain Jeff Kline and his colleagues at the Naval Postgraduate School, and your “Fighting DMO” series, Dmitry.

The Flex Fleet is designed to attack effectively first, seeking to fulfill Captain Wayne Hughes’ tactical maxim, as described in Fleet Tactics. To do that, it seeks to capitalize on modern opportunities in fleet design, opportunities that the Navy has made great progress on but cannot fully benefit from while operating within the confines of the carrier-centric model. The Flex Fleet seeks to embrace the Age of the Missile, network the distributed fleet, and thus diversify the fleet’s kill chains. To do that, it adds missile corvettes, missile arsenal ships, and light carriers, and increases the number of planned Constellation-class frigates. To pay for that, it stops producing Ford-class carriers, reduces the number of planned new construction Arleigh Burke and follow-on DDGs, and cancels plans for conventionally armed Columbia-class SSGNs, as called for in the Navy’s most recent Thirty-Year Shipbuilding Plan.

The resulting Flex Fleet shifts the Navy from an all-capital ship structure to a better mix of large and small platforms. In peacetime, its improved platform numbers and combat credibility means the collective fleet can better conduct the Navy’s presence operations, even if no single ship in that fleet can match the CVN’s presence value. In combat, its distributed structure and large missile inventory means it is better at finding the enemy and attacking effectively first, can more effectively project power ashore from contested seas, and is better able to survive the inevitable losses of war.

The Flex Fleet, operating within existing financial and technological constraints, has more platforms launching more weapons from more vectors and from more domains than the Navy’s already formidable “program of record” fleet. It is a fleet focused on deterring a peer adversary, and if that fails, winning sea control and projecting power from contested seas.

The Flex Fleet does not do away completely with carriers, but rather narrows their mission set and distributes their capacities more broadly into CVL “lightning carriers.” How can these carriers and their roles offer a better alternative to the fleet?

Without a credible threat at sea, concentrating the fleet’s missions on the CVN is an efficient and effective method. However, against a peer adversary, there are certain missions that naval aviation is best suited for, and other missions that different platforms and weapons can perform more effectively.

As a result, the Flex Fleet seeks to alleviate the burden on today’s carrier force and shift some of its missions to the rest of the fleet, which would reduce the need for CVNs. Shifting to CVLs allows for the use of an increased number of carriers, allows for naval aviation to achieve improved geographic spread and a more distributed structure, and reduces the fleet-wide impact if one is lost.

Make no mistake, a CVL is less capable than a CVN. Furthermore, if all we do is take the money for CVNs and buy an increased number of CVLs, it will result in a weaker fleet overall. But, as then-Chief of Naval Operations Michael Gilday said in 2020, previous Pentagon carrier studies have tried to make an “an apples-to-apples comparison” that “lead to fait accompli that a smaller carrier just does not compete with a super carrier. I think that’s a false choice.”

The best comparison is not CVN versus CVL, but fleet versus fleet: the carrier-centric fleet versus an alternative force structure that benefits from carriers’ many attributes without being wholly dependent on them.

You dive extensively into the recent combat history and dynamics of the major warfare areas to understand how they may affect carrier capability and survivability. What aspects and trends of the undersea domain in particular, especially submarine and mine capability, most affect the future of the carrier?

One of the carrier’s greatest attributes is its ability to stay mobile to avoid targeting while accomplishing its tasking. Today, with over-the-horizon radars, satellite networks, cyber penetration tools, and networked communications, it is harder to hide the carrier than at any point in its history.

On the other hand, submarines’ improved quieting and elimination of historical vulnerabilities means undersea scouting is getting more difficult. For example, Admiral James Foggo III and Dr. Alaric Fritz wrote in 2016 that modern Russian submarines are “significantly quieter,” meaning “The clear advantage that we enjoyed in antisubmarine warfare during the Cold War is waning.”

The Falklands War demonstrated those diverging trends in scouting. The nuclear-powered submarine HMS Conqueror found the Argentinian cruiser ARA General Belgrano within 24 hours of receiving orders to do so. It stalked the ship and her escorts undetected for more than 24 hours while waiting for permission to attack, and then destroyed Belgrano and escaped without the escorts ever knowing the submarine’s location. As a result, the Argentinians withdrew their entire surface fleet to port for the remainder of the war. In the only case of a nuclear-powered submarine entering combat, it found and destroyed a single ship without ever being found—and defeated an entire navy in the process.

That is not to suggest that surface ships are suddenly obsolete. Submarines’ poor presence abilities, communications, and cargo capacity means they cannot perform many of the Navy’s missions. However, it does indicate that we can better capitalize on submarines’ potential while shifting away from a fleet structure that requires a perfect—and therefore unlikely—defense against the undersea threat.

Mines are just as problematic. While they are a threat to all warships, the nation’s low risk tolerance regarding CVNs means even an adversary’s press release about a supposed minefield could lead commanders to not commit their most powerful ship.

Numerous constituencies are heavily invested in continued carrier procurement. What will it take to make a major course change in fleet force structure?

There are many institutions and individuals with both the incentive and ability to influence the Navy’s force structure decisions to protect the carrier. This is not to argue that they are doing anything wrong—they are not. This is to argue that their strong connections to military leadership and Congress gives them the ability to affect the Navy’s shipbuilding decisions, and their valid financial, political, or organizational motivations give them a reason to exert that influence. As a result, a change away from the carrier-centric model will be one of the most difficult evolutions our Navy has ever faced.

Within the military, shifting away from the large nuclear-powered aircraft carrier would upset the balance of power between warfare communities, have huge implications for resource decisions, restrict aviators’ primary path to flag rank, eventually end the entire community of nuclear-trained Surface Warfare Officers (Nuke-SWOs), and constrain Naval Reactor’s influence to just the submarine force.

Within the defense industry, there are entire organizations that advocate for CVNs, such as the Aircraft Carrier Industrial Base Coalition representing thousands of companies. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of retired flag officers working for those companies. For example, Huntington Ingalls Industries employs a former Combatant Commander, a former Director of Naval Reactors, a former Naval Air Forces Commander, a former Naval Sea Systems Commander, and a former Chief of Legislative Affairs, all distinguished leaders who formerly oversaw the Navy’s financing, production, or operation of aircraft carriers, and now work for the sole producer of those carriers.

Finally, within Congress, approximately 96 percent of Senators and roughly two-thirds of Representatives have companies involved in carrier construction or maintenance in their district, meaning they have a very good reason (constituent jobs) to maintain the fleet’s structure. It will be impossible to evolve the fleet without earning buy-in from across the Department of Defense, defense industry, and Congress, a difficult task to say the least.

There are lots of organizations that can resist such a move if they choose to, but I believe only one has the knowledge, experience, and vision to lead it—OPNAV. The change is simply too large, too complex, and will take too many years to successfully accomplish without the Navy’s uniformed leadership driving it. As Admiral Sandy Winnefeld said, for the U.S. Navy to transform its fleet structure, “The real leader has to be a noisy, impatient, creative, courageous, and insistent military leadership.”

Fortunately, the Navy has faced similar challenges in the past and overcome them to improve itself. There is the story of obstructionist battleship admirals stuck in the past leading up to World War II, but that is a myth. In reality, the Navy made great progress developing naval aviation in the interwar period because of leaders like Admirals Joseph Reeves, William Moffett, and William Sims. They innovated with aircraft and ship designs, changed the personnel and training systems, and developed a new way of fighting. When a mission came along that required carrier aviation—the Pacific theater in World War II—the Navy was ready because of their pioneering work.

OPNAV continues that tradition of innovative and bold leadership today. Whenever they decide it is time to evolve the fleet, they will surely face a daunting challenge. However, whether or not we think we can transition away from the carrier-centric fleet, I believe the evidence is increasingly clear that we need to.

CDR Jeff Vandenengel is a naval officer with tours on three fast-attack submarines. Winner of the 2019 Admiral Willis Lent Award for tactical excellence at sea, he deployed to the Western Pacific three times and to the Atlantic at the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. These views are his alone and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or U.S. government.

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

Featured Image: ATLANTIC OCEAN (March 26, 2022) The aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) transits the Atlantic Ocean. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jackson Adkins)

Rear Admiral Dave Oliver and Anand Toprani on American Defense Reform

By Christopher Nelson

Can we reform the Department of Defense and the Navy? In their new book, American Defense Reform: Lessons from Failure and Success, Admiral Dave Oliver (ret.) and Dr. Anand Toprani make a spirited argument that, yes, we can.

But it won’t be easy. Oliver and Toprani outline four key disruptive historical events in the Navy—the 1940s Revolt of the Admirals, the McNamara Revolution in systems analysis, the fallout from the Vietnam War, and the end of the Cold War. From these events, the authors note that reform in the Navy and the Defense Department will require collaboration among Congressional members, the White House, the Department’s senior uniformed and civilian leaders, and collaboration with industry and the private sector. In this conversation, the authors discuss their new book along with a wide range of topics, including the future of the Navy, its good and bad leaders, thoughts on Admiral Hyman Rickover, and useful reading recommendations.

How did you two meet and develop the idea for this book? 

We met during a series of Naval War College discussions regarding the future of the U.S. Navy. We quickly found we had a compatible background. Dave had served six tours in the Pentagon and been a political appointee and corporate leader. Anand was an historian with special interest in naval history after World War II. Both of us wanted to understand why imposing change on the military had not worked in the past. Since the naval services – the Navy and the Marines – operate in all of the major domains of war (air, land, and sea), we wondered if it might not well serve as a microcosm of understanding the challenge of managing the defense establishment.

We postulated that a review of what the Navy did well or poorly during three major fiscal challenges since 1945 – the end of World War II, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War – might disclose best practices and point to a way ahead for leaders who wanted to embark upon major changes of the Department of Defense. At the same time, we recognized we could not limit our analysis to the past – we needed to examine the strengths and weaknesses of the various contemporary actors who might push change, such as political appointees, Congress, and the private sector. 

Historians regularly rank U.S. Presidents. So, if you were to argue for your top two or three men who were the Secretary of Defense and the top two CNOs, who are they and why?

This query gets at why we were able to produce such a strong book. Because we had strong and sometimes divergent viewpoints that we only reconciled after additional research and discussion, our book ends up reflecting the best attributes of our varied experiences as a practitioner, on the one hand, and a scholar, on the other.

To address your specific question, Anand believes that Forrest Sherman was probably the most skilled CNO of the post-WWII era. He was a bona fide strategic thinker and a skilled bureaucratic operator. He repaired the damage of the “Revolt of the Admirals” with Defense Secretary Louis Johnson and saved naval aviation even before the Korean War began. Finally, he secured the construction of the Forrestal class of supercarriers but had the presence of mind not to feud with the Air Force by constructing the carriers in such a way as to launch long-range nuclear strikes.

Dave interviewed or worked with Arleigh Burke, George Anderson, Dave McDonald, Elmo Zumwalt, Jim Watkins, Carlisle Trost, Frank Kelso, Mike Boorda, Jay Johnson, and Vern Clark. Of these extraordinary men, he has long placed Zumwalt and Kelso in the front rank, for reasons that we make clear in our book.

Just as with CNOs, Dave and Anand have different views about what makes an effective SECDEF. Anand is convinced that the smartest SECDEF hands down is Harold Brown. He didn’t revolutionize how the Pentagon operated, but he did make many of the technological investments that the Reagan Administration exploited a decade later. Moreover, despite his brilliance, he was open minded about alternative viewpoints, provided his critics made a strong argument. For example, when the Navy pushed back against the idea that it should play only a supporting role in the defense of Europe, Brown gave his SECNAV, Graham Claytor, the authority to commission a study questioning OSD’s assumptions. He also came around to the need for a more proactive naval policy by the end of the Carter Administration. Finally, Brown recognized the essential fact that you cannot run defense like a business, and that a certain inefficiency is the price we pay for living in a democratic society.

Dave worked for and knew Mel Laird, Dick Cheney, Les Aspin, Bill Perry, Bill Cohen, and Donald Rumsfeld. He has long been impressed with the many accomplishments of Bill Perry and hope that future scholars will explore discontinuity between Dick Cheney’s performance as Secretary of Defense and his service as Vice President. 

And the two or three worst?

People do their best, and few people leave the Pentagon with their reputations enhanced. That said, Anand thinks that Caspar Weinberger misunderstood his role. Weinberger appeared to see his job as being an advocate for higher defense budgets and was desperate to avoid the taint of being “another McNamara.” Consequently, Weinberger failed to exercise leadership by asking why the services were making their specific budget choices, and whether each service’s decisions complemented those of the other services. Consequently, one can make a good case that the country did not get the return on investment it deserved during the 1980s.

Dave believes that an extraordinary book is still waiting to be written that explains why a man with all of Donald Rumsfeld’s experience, charisma, intellect, and charm was unable to lead the Department of Defense. 

Who was William Edwards Demming? How did he influence Admiral Kelso’s leadership style? 

Demming was the statistician and engineer who went to Japan and provided the Japanese with guidance (Total Quality Management) that was vital to the reconstruction of their shattered industrial sector. He then returned to the United States to espouse the same principles to U.S. industry, but found few takers at a time when U.S. firms were globally dominant and saw little need to innovate. Nevertheless, Demming’s principles were consistent with the precise demands of nuclear power that Hyman Rickover was espousing. When Total Quality Management was combined with the concept of Six Sigma originated by Bill Smith (most famously of Motorola), certain sectors of American industry took an enormous surge forward. (This is discussed at some length in Dave Oliver’s Bronze Rules, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2021, pgs. 145-152.)

The impact of these three men – Demming, Rickover, and Smith – on American industry during the last century cannot be overstated. That said, Demming and Smith’s concepts were intended to guide aid in the production of manufactured items and have only a peripheral application to defense matters. Admiral Kelso may have overhyped the potential impact of Total Quality Management, but it is impossible to make an accurate judgment since this imitative was overtaken by the Tailhook scandal, which consumed the Navy after 1991. 

I really enjoyed the second part of the book titled “What is to be done and by whom?” You synthesized and compiled a lot of information about what doesn’t work well in the DoD across the private sector, Congress, and appointed officials. As for the length of, say, a flag officer’s time in a particular billet, do you think we should keep them in a job for longer than two years? Did we rotate as often and as quickly in the WWII era and Korea through Vietnam as we do today? Or less? 

We don’t know the answer. Whether senior naval leaders should spend more time in specific billets is a matter for debate, but there is no doubt that the sum of their experience as operators, bureaucrats, and leaders far exceeds that of people from outside of the defense enterprise. 

The MRAP is a fascinating case study on getting something done and done quite quickly. Personality (SECDEF Gates) and process seemed to meld. Gates demanded bi-weekly meetings I believe. He made it his highest priority. Absent a war or something else that drives national attention, for a bureaucracy the size of ours, is this the best we can hope for among the thousands of decisions, distractions, and other priorities? That is, prioritization matters. And some things – or  many things – are not going to get solved. 

The MRAP story is not black and white. While many believe it took senior direction to get the MRAPs because of problems in the acquisition system, the real problem was one of requirements – that is, the senior Army and Marine officers did not want to buy the MRAPs. Their experience and analysis told them that, as soon as the United States was out of Iraq, their investment in the MRAP would be wasted, and the military would suffer long-term damage because of the misallocation of resources to a program that, while saving lives, yielded no strategic benefit. These officers were out of synch with the Bush II Administration. The President wanted regime change in Iraq, and he did not want to acknowledge that the war was a political and military mistake, which made him deaf to recommendations to change course.

At the end of the Iraq War, the military leaders who slow-rolled the MRAP proved correct as nearly all of the MRAPs, purchased at great cost, were abandoned in place in Iraq, and the United States failed to achieve its political objectives. At the same time, far too many service personnel suffered grievous injuries or worse from improvised explosive devices. There are no heroes or villains, but perhaps a more honest discussion of the war between civilian and military leaders would have allowed the United States to mitigate the long-term damage of the Iraq War. 

Are we done with the age of an Admiral Rickover? A singular juggernaut by sheer force of will that can create an entire military culture that lives on for decades? 

In our book we use the example of nuclear-powered submarines to show how difficult it is for each of the services to recognize technological innovation that threatens their existing culture and hierarchy.

When we think about Admiral Rickover’s legacy, we focus on nuclear-powered carriers and submarines that have set an unparalleled standard of safety by never having a reactor accident, and we recognize the importance nuclear-powered vessels play today to performing vital naval and national security missions. What we forget is that Rickover needed incredible support from political and military leaders, starting with President Truman, whose initials were welded on the hull of USS Nautilus, President Eisenhower, whose wife launched Nautilus, and Admiral Burke, who supported both Rickover and the Office of Special Projects that developed the Polaris missile within the Navy.

Admiral Rickover was innovative, brilliant, and hardworking – a true American original. That said, he would never have been able to make the progress he did if it were not for 40 years of unwavering support from the support from the Oval Office, Congress, and the naval leadership.

You each get to change the current DoD Planning, Programming, Budgeting, and Execution process. What would you do? 

We believe PPBE gets a bad rap, largely because of the association with McNamara and because, as we discuss in our book, the average observer does not realize that each service does the process differently. We probably should make modifications to speed up the process, which generally takes two years to just plan and program each budget before the White House submits its budget to Congress. That said, at its essence, PPBE is a process that tries links budgetary choices to national objectives. The alternative appears to be allowing the services to create their own wish lists without reference to what the Administration and Congress believes is necessary or what the other services are doing.

We think if you want to make meaningful changes, you have start with the requirements and acquisition processes – i.e. deciding what you need and what you will buy. If you get those two questions wrong, no amount of budget wizardry during PPBE is going to save you from the consequences of poor choices made at the start of the process. 

Today, how would you characterize the morale of the DoD civilians and military members you regularly come in contact with? Are they frustrated with some of the issues you’ve raised in your book?

The United States is fortunate to have so many gifted entrepreneurs interested in contributing to national defense. A great number of them, particularly from startups and tech, are justifiably frustrated with how slow the process is to adopt new weapons. The problem is that they have very little understanding that the obstacles against which they struggle are the result of Congressional limitations. Fundamentally, too few people from the private sector share Harold Brown’s realization that the military is answerable to the American people rather than stockholders and cannot simply operate like a private firm.

How would you propose we build or mentor a politically astute officer?

An investment in education would probably help. There simply isn’t time to create such officers in PME, and the quality control is also lacking. Anand is struck by the contrast and influence of the well-educated officers the Navy had in the 1970s and 80s. The Navy made a conscious decision to educate a “Fletcher mafia” among gifted line officers and then send them to specific offices in OPNAV – the same goes with the Strategic Studies Group (SSG) alumni. These same officers then went on to major command and many become flag officers. Ultimately, cultivating defense intellectuals among the officer corps requires considerable expenditure of time and money. Hoping they will find time to develop intellectually in their spare time only make sense if you have made the initial investment to develop the appropriate aptitude and skills.

For each of you, what are three books you recommend to readers after they have picked up your book? Or any books you think anyone working in the DoD should read today in light of our current challenges?

There are two classics we would recommend. The first is Alain Enthoven’s classic, How Much is Enough, to figure out how to reconcile quantitative and qualitative methods of making defense choices. As we discuss in our book, Enthoven and his fellow “Whiz Kids” always claimed analysis was only a tool for aiding judgment, but they failed miserably to create a productive discourse with their military counterparts.

The second book everyone should read is Graham Allison’s Essence of Decision. Although the subtitle of the book is Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis, it has limited utility for illuminating that particular historical event now that most of the relevant U.S. documents, and even some of the Soviet and Cuban records, are declassified. Rather, the greatest strength of Essence of Decision remains Allison’s analysis of how important decisions are made in our national security establishment, particularly his model of “bureaucratic politics.” 

Are you optimistic or skeptical that we see any consequential defense reforms for the better in the next 5-10 years?

Andy Marshall created the discipline of Net Assessment because he wanted the United States to make different choices without the external stimulus of a military disaster or defeat, which is the usual way militaries embrace innovation. Marshall wanted Americans to rethink what they needed and why rather than simply wasting money replicating existing forces whose utility might have declined. Marshall first made his case back in the 1970s, and by the 1990s, he realized few people in positions of responsibility were listening, which contributed to the gradual irrelevance of the office he established in the Pentagon.

The premise of our book is that at some point in time the nation will decide it needs to rebalance or even reshape the defense establishment. This may be because we reach some limit on resources (fiscal, technological, human, etc.), or it may be because of a reconsideration of the threat. Whatever the reason, inspiring lasting change within a complex social organization – whether a bureaucracy, a private firm, or even a military service – is anything but easy, particularly when the entity has been spared the worst consequences of poor decisions for too long. That is precisely the time, we argue, to remember that it is less costly to learn from other people’s mistakes than to make your own. We still believe the country can learn from its history, and our leaders should know the relevant information when making their decisions.

Dave Oliver is a retired admiral who also served in the Pentagon for Presidents Clinton and Bush, and spent more than a decade in the defense industry. He was one of the founding members of the American College of National Security Leaders.

Anand Toprani is an Associate Professor of Strategy and Policy at the U.S. Naval War College.

CDR Christopher Nelson is a career intelligence officer, graduate of the U.S. Naval War College, and regular contributor to CIMSEC.

All views are presented in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the U.S. Navy or Department of Defense.

Featured Image: The Pentagon, headquarters of the Department of Defense. (Department of Defense photo by Master Sgt. Ken Hammond, U.S. Air Force)

RDML Wilson Marks on Sharpening the Surface Force

By Dmitry Filipoff

CIMSEC recently engaged with the commander of the Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC), RDML Wilson Marks, to discuss the latest developments and priorities of the command. In this discussion, RDML Marks discusses the new Surface Requirements Group, how SMWDC is working to better measure warfighting skill, and how the WTI program is influencing the Surface Warfare Officer career path.

SMWDC will soon be completing its restructuring and the development of the Surface Advanced Warfighting School (SAWS). What is the value of this restructuring and how will it change how SMWDC and the Warfare Tactics Instructors (WTIs) operate?

SMWDC’s restructuring promotes productivity, collaboration, and integration across all warfighting domains. Ultimately, this will enable WTIs to be more effective and efficient in their missions due to ease of information sharing and capitalization on the diversity within our organization. Similarly, in consolidating the schoolhouse at SAWS, each warfare specialty area, colloquially known as patch type, is able to gain additional feedback from every course iteration and share lessons learned at a more rapid pace. It promotes standardization of class structure, rigor in class performance requirements, and camaraderie within the cadre as we transition to subject matter experts teaching their specialty across all warfare tactics courses of instructions regardless of patch type.

How is SMWDC developing frameworks and criteria for measuring the tactical skill and watchstanding experience of warfighters? What kind of data is being collected and how may that data be used? 

The team at SMWDC serves as the executive agent for Commander, Naval Surface Force’s Surface Warfare Combat Training Continuum (SWCTC) program. SWCTC is a data-driven approach to simultaneously deepen, broaden, and synergize training across the Surface Force. We are currently developing the Maritime Warfare Proficiency Model (MWP) to establish and standardize watchstanding skills using advanced data analytics to generate a numerical score for a watchstander’s level of knowledge, skill, experience, aptitude, and currency as a means of objective performance evaluation. This ultimately gives us the analytical tools necessary to continually improve individual watchstanding skills, make warfighters more lethal, and ensure our Surface Force is able to consistently demonstrate the proficiency and capability to fight and win at sea. 

Within the last year, SMWDC launched the inaugural cycle of the new Surface Requirements Group (SURFRG), and also participated in a pilot program that sought to fill billets at program offices and warfare centers with WTIs. How can WTI involvement in these staffs and the SURFRG add value to the requirements and acquisition process? What can we expect from the next SURFRG cycle? 

The Surface Requirements Group’s (SURFRG) primary function is to align fleet, program office, and resource sponsor (OPNAV N95/N96) efforts throughout the systems development process. It enables our WTIs to represent the challenges facing our fleet today and the challenges we are likely to face in the future. We do this by providing technical and tactical solution recommendations and divestment opportunities on near-term and future weapons, sensors, and combat system capabilities on behalf of the Surface Force.

We completed our first SURFRG cycle in August 2023 with the signing of the Technical Solution Recommendation Letter, and then in September when we briefed 15 tactical priorities to key industry partners in conjunction with the SNA West Coast Symposium. In this year’s cycle we are looking to build upon the lessons learned and successes of the inaugural cycle. We are specifically looking at streamlining the cycle while also adding more touchpoints for senior leaders and industry partners earlier in the process. We also have three WTIs working at Program Executive Office Integrated Warfare Systems (PEO IWS) who are working alongside the project managers to bring their high level of tactical expertise to enhance our future warfare systems. At the same time, they gain acquisition and project management expertise from some of the best personnel in our Navy. It is a true win-win arrangement. 

The war in Ukraine has featured high-profile naval combat operations, including the sinking of the cruiser Moskva, exploding unmanned surface vessels attacking warships, and naval mining and blockades. How is SMWDC processing lessons learned from the conflict’s naval operations, and what are some key takeaways? 

We work closely with the fleet commanders to capitalize on any information they receive and compare that against our tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) for possible improvements or needs to write new ones. For example, our team at the SMWDC Mine Countermeasures Technical Division (MCMTD) is using the information we receive to think through the ways we need to approach any mine clearance effort. While we are taking a look at the details we have available to us now, the nature and extent of the mining efforts employed by both sides will only be clearly understood when the conflict is complete. However, what we can learn from this conflict is that naval mines are still relevant. We are working hard to ensure that our Navy is better informed about this low cost, asymmetric weapon in the maritime domain and about the types of mine countermeasures capabilities and technologies that we need to invest in to be able to conduct mine countermeasures in the future. 

The navies of other great powers possess considerable capability and their own unique doctrine and tactics, especially the Chinese Navy. How is SMWDC enhancing the surface fleet’s literacy in “Red” capabilities and doctrine? Does SMWDC have plans for assigning WTIs to dedicated adversary roles, such as red cells, OPFOR units, or aggressor staffs? 

SMWDC is working closely with both the Navy’s and national intelligence communities to improve the Surface Force’s understanding of current maritime threats. SMWDC provides “Red” threat presentations through a series of in-port training sessions for prospective commanding officers, plans and tactics officers, and future WTIs. We have also enhanced the threat presentation offered underway during Surface Warfare Advanced Tactical Training (SWATT) events to align to the current pacing maritime threats units can expect to encounter on deployment. While we do not assign WTIs to dedicated adversary roles, we do have “communities of focus” based on mission areas to allow a greater depth of understanding and competency. This provides us the ability to create tactical and operational advantages in our TTPs to enable victory in any conflict. 

Concepts such as Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) and joint fires are deeply cross-cutting and combined arms methods of warfighting. How is SMWDC partnering with the Navy’s other warfighting development centers, and entities from the other services, to refine these methods?

SMWDC maintains close and consistent contact with the other Warfighting Development Centers (WDCs). In October, we hosted the semi-annual Warfighting Development Center Leadership Huddle and Advanced Warfighting Seminar on behalf of the Navy Warfare Development Center, allowing each WDC commander to educate their peers on the unique capabilities and challenges each center has in operationalizing Distributed Maritime Operations. In addition to those command-level engagements, the WDCs have touchpoints for mutually supporting joint exercise and wargame planning.

At SMWDC, we have created a Surface Warfare Integration Office (SWIO) staffed by talented WTIs who support these events. The SWIO team works with other services to enhance our interoperability during SWATT, preparing Surface Forces for the joint and high-end fight. Additionally, our Mine Countermeasures Coordination Group enjoys consistent and valuable participation from our Marine Corps partners and the Undersea Warfighting Development Center. The future fight will be enormously complex, and the DMO framework requires the capabilities of all the services at the right time and place to deliver the necessary effects. Partnering and planning with all of the WDCs and other services is a normal part of our daily practice to make the fleet more lethal in an all-domain, joint fight.

After becoming a WTI and completing a production tour, what are the possible downstream effects on a SWO’s career? How is the WTI program influencing the incentives and milestones of the SWO career path? 

Becoming a WTI is one of the most career-enhancing choices a young officer can make. Our WTIs screen for department head at 100 percent and exceed the selection rates of non-WTIs for commander command and major command. The team at PERS is working closely with SMWDC to ensure we are applying the subject matter expertise where it makes sense across the fleet and in line with the needs of the officer. We have also added the additional qualification designator (AQD) of KWC to a WTI’s record at the completion of a production tour. Having the KWC designator indicates a level of knowledge of not just the WTI course of instruction, but also continued professional development and experience gained in their associated WTI production tour. This allows us to fill billets at commands looking for this level of expertise within an integrated warfighting environment in places like SMWDC, the Program Executive Office Integrated Warfare Systems, and other tactical commands as availability allows. None of this is limiting to a SWO’s career choices, and we continue to provide flexible, challenging, and career-enhancing opportunities to our WTIs. Our top priority is to make the fleet more lethal and our WTIs are the key to our success.

Rear Admiral Wilson Marks graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1994 with a Bachelor of Science in History. He has also earned a Master of Arts in National Security Affairs in Strategic Studies from the Naval War College and a Master of Science in National Strategic Studies from the National War College. Marks commanded USS Mason (DDG 87), USS Robert Smalls (CG 62) formerly named USS Chancellorsville, Provincial Reconstruction Team Ghazni Province, Afghanistan, and Naval Surface Group Western Pacific. Ashore, he served as a Placement Officer and Assistant Captain Detailer at Naval Personnel Command, Executive Assistant to the commander of Naval Surface Force Atlantic, the Deputy for Combat System and Warfighting Integration at the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, and as the Executive Assistant to the commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet. Marks assumed the role of Commander, Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center in May 2023.

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

Featured Image: Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC) and Center for Surface Combat Systems (CSCS) host advanced Anti-Submarine Warfare Officer (ASWO) students for hands-on training inside of CSCS’s Combined Integrated Air & Missile Defense/ Anti-Submarine Warfare Trainer (CIAT). (U.S. Navy photo by Clinton Beaird/released.)

Simulating Global Naval Warfare: Capt. Chris Narducci on Large Scale Exercise 2023

By Dmitry Filipoff

In Large Scale Exercise 2023, numerous naval forces from around the world engaged in simulated warfighting under one global scenario. CIMSEC had the opportunity to discuss LSE23 with lead exercise planner Capt. Chris Narducci. In this discussion, Capt. Narducci describes what makes LSE unique, what the Navy is looking to learn from the event, and how LSE prepares the fleet for conflict against strategic competitors.

Many terms can be used to define Navy exercises, such as rehearsals, certifications, experiments, and others. How would you define LSE and its objectives? 

LSE can definitely be classified as an “exercise,” however, it also included elements of experimentation. LSE was not a rehearsal for any specific operational plan, and no forces were certified during the exercise.

LSE’s end state objectives were to further refine Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO), and the supporting concepts of Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment (LOCE), and Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) in order to build a more lethal force. LSE also sought to globally synchronize naval operations at the operational-to-tactical level of warfare. The exercise also sought to make naval forces better prepared to fight and win against strategic competitors through the use of a Live, Virtual, Constructive (LVC) training environment. 

How is LSE different and complementary to other large Navy exercises, such as COMPTUEX and Fleet Battle Problems? What unique aspects does LSE afford the fleet the opportunity to exercise?

Other Navy exercises do not compare in scope and scale to LSE.

COMPTUEX is designed to certify a single live Carrier Strike Group (CSG) or an Amphibious Readiness Group (ARG) for deployment. The focus is at the tactical level from the 1-star staff down to the individual participating units. A COMPTUEX will typically include a second CSG or ARG staff participating virtually. A Fleet Battle Problem (FBP) typically involves a single live CSG or ARG. The FBP focus is also at the tactical level, while its purpose is to assess several elements of DMO and/or LOCE/EABO, as well as provide opportunity for experimentation.

LSE was unique in that it was able to stimulate the individual Sailor or Marine at the low tactical level all the way up to the 4-star fleet commanders at the high operational level of warfare. LSE participants were spread across 22 time zones and six geographic combatant command areas of responsibility. LSE had six CSGs (1 live, 5 virtual/constructive), four ARGs (virtual/constructive), as well as over a dozen additional ships and submarines participating live. LSE also provided the opportunity to assess many of the capabilities and elements of DMO and LOCE/EABO.

LSE included nine Navy Maritime Operations Centers (MOCs) operating as a Joint Force Maritime Component Commander (JFMCC) or as a numbered fleet commander.

The staffs included U.S. Pacific Fleet, U.S. Fleet Forces Command, U.S. Naval Forces Europe/Africa, Second Fleet, Third Fleet, Fourth Fleet, Fifth Fleet, Sixth Fleet, Seventh Fleet, and Tenth Fleet. Marine Forces Pacific, Marine Forces Command, and Marine Forces Europe/Africa embedded within their respective JFMCC staffs and served as Deputy JFMCCs during the exercise. While we may see several MOCs participate in a large combatant command-level exercise, LSE is the only exercise that brings together all nine fleet MOCs into one global scenario.

While a majority of the tactical-level exercising we saw in LSE could also be executed in events like a COMPTUEX or FBP, LSE is the only event where participants are given the opportunity to exercise global maritime synchronization at the operational level of warfare.

A major objective of LSE23 was testing concepts like DMO and EABO. How did LSE illustrate the differences between these concepts and how the Navy operated in the past? 

The robust global threat scenario in LSE created an environment that required the participants (live or virtual) to operate using new operational concepts, like DMO and LOCE/EABO. The scenario forced participants to distribute and maneuver their forces while still remaining integrated across all warfare domains.

What was the role of the opposition force in stressing the concepts and servicemembers? How scripted versus free-play were the force-on-force events? 

The exercise control group designed the scenario such that the laydown of the opposition force (OPFOR) created dilemmas not only for the tactical units, but also for the operational staffs (MOCs). The OPFOR laydown challenged the MOCs to globally synchronize their efforts across multiple areas of responsibility. Additionally, the OPFOR team utilized tactics representative of our strategic competitors that required the individual Blue (friendly) tactical units to operate using the concepts of DMO and LOCE/EABO.

LSE utilized a combination of scripted and free-play actions from the OPFOR team. While certain engagements may have been scripted to occur on certain days or in certain time blocks in order to drive exercise objectives, the OPFOR team was free to utilize the tactics required in response to Blue actions. Other engagements were at the discretion of the OPFOR director. 

How would you describe the learning architecture surrounding the event? Whether in terms of feedback loops, analytic frameworks, data capture, or debriefings, how is the Navy gathering and processing the lessons learned? 

LSE was designed to provide real-time feedback during execution, as well as to observe and collect large amounts of data for post-execution assessment. There were over 100 personnel from multiple commands positioned at various locations across the globe to collect on and ultimately assess the exercise.

The Exercise Steering Group (ESG) was led by retired U.S. Navy Admiral Scott Swift, and consisted of four retired admirals and generals. The ESG was tasked to provide real-time feedback to the exercise control group during exercise execution. The ESG observed efforts from Exercise Control at the Naval Warfare Development Center (NWDC) in Norfolk, VA. They also participated in multiple daily video teleconferences (VTCs) with observers/assessors at each of the MOCs. If the ESG saw issues that could affect achievement of exercise objectives, or if they saw opportunities to improve exercise design or execution, they provided that feedback to Exercise Control.

An exercise “hotwash” VTC was conducted at the completion of LSE. The hotwash provided an opportunity for the exercise director, the ESG, higher headquarter role players (11 additional retired admirals and generals led by retired U.S. Navy Admiral James Foggo), and the JFMCC commanders to share their observations and lessons learned of both participant execution and the design of the exercise.

The Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) is in the process of analyzing data that they and multiple other observers and assessors collected during execution. Data was collected from direct observation, electronic LVC playback, the hotwash, and the ESG. The CNA after-action report will include recommendations and lessons learned. The recommendations and lessons learned will support multiple feedback loops. Those loops include:

  • Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTPs) updates/development
  • Training syllabus updates
  • Capability gap and future requirements identification in support of future budget requests
  • Exercise design for future LSEs

This is the second iteration of the Large Scale Exercise series, and the next is planned for 2025. How is the Navy linking the LSEs and their lessons learned over the arc of the series?

As mentioned, one of the feedback loops from LSE is the design of the exercise. The planning team took numerous exercise design lessons learned from LSE 2021 and incorporated them into the LSE 2023 design. We are in the process of analyzing initial LSE 2023 lessons learned, and additional lessons learned will be pulled from the final after-action report. The planning team will then determine which of those lessons we can action as we begin LSE 2025 planning in early 2024.

Capt. Chris Narducci is a 1996 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. He has completed multiple tours as a P-3C Orion pilot. His additional assignments included action officer with the Joint Staff J6, command of the 33d Flying Training Squadron, Vance AFB, and as navigator on USS Harry S Truman. He has been serving as the LSE lead planner with U.S. Fleet Forces Command since August 2019.

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

Featured Image: ADRIATIC SEA (August 14, 2023) Aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) steams in formation alongside the Blue Ridge-class command and control ship USS Mount Whitney (LCC 20), the flagship of U.S. 6th Fleet. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Mario Coto)