Category Archives: Interviews

General Anthony Zinni (ret.) on Staying Honest with the Troops and Translating Experience

By Mie Augier and Major Sean F. X. Barrett

This is the third part of our conversation series with General Anthony Zinni, USMC (ret.) on leadership, strategy, learning, and the art and science of warfighting. Read Part One here and Part Two here

During an earlier conversation, one thing we touched upon was how to develop people who ask the right questions and do not fall victim to biases and simply project what they want to believe. Even if we managed to do so, what obstacles might we confront when trying to implement and apply concepts, doctrine, ideas, and strategy?

Zinni: The system rewards certain things that may not be the things that are going to contribute to successful operational results. There is a natural friction between the service chiefs and the combatant commanders. Many of the service chiefs still think they take their forces to war, but it doesn’t happen anymore. You can offer a lot of great ideas. You can write doctrine about the best ways to employ forces, but you need to present these concepts to the combatant commanders who are going to fight them. It does me no good to have four service chiefs tell me what their doctrine is if those doctrines don’t mesh.

This built-in friction tells you we’ve got a screwed up system. If you started from scratch and said, “Okay, I want to build a military,” you would not come up with the structure we have now, which is sort of self-defeating. Ever since the creation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1947, look at how they have failed the president. Developing extraordinary conceptual ways of doing things and developing advanced theory is not enough. If you don’t have the organization, strategy, structure, processes, capabilities, and systems to apply them in effective ways—more effectively than the guys you are going to fight—then it is pointless. It’s just an academic drill.

What is your sense of the obstacles we were unable to overcome in Afghanistan?

Zinni: It’s interesting. There were four Presidents, 14 Secretaries of Defense, 10 CENTCOM commanders, and 18 U.S. commanders in Afghanistan. When you look at this mess, we have gone to “war by temps” as I call it. In World War II, if you were in command, you stayed there. When units went out, they stayed out. But in Vietnam, we went to individual replacement, which was a disaster. You had no unit cohesion. So, we went to unit rotation, and then we made the decision that the unit should only be out there six months. Then, you look at senior leadership above the units, and they rotate unbelievably fast. When I went out to Afghanistan to do an assessment in the tenth year of the war, I really wanted to see what problems this caused, and it was unbelievable. Everybody that comes in has a different approach, and it was driving everybody crazy, especially those that had been out there for multiple tours. When they’d go back out, it was like a different war: different objectives, different operational designs, different everything. I really think this way of doing business is part of the problem. The Taliban didn’t go home. They were there the whole time, and they learned, like the bad guys in Vietnam. We, however, think these are all interchangeable parts, so we don’t build any corporate memory.

I also didn’t think the foundation we were building was as strong as we either thought it was or portrayed it to be. I’m a big believer that when you get into nation building, or counterinsurgency (COIN), or anything like that, the measure of success must be viable institutions. If I look around and see a corrupt government, an incompetent military, economic systems going nowhere, and some sort of corrupting institution—like the drug trade in Afghanistan—that is stronger than your institutions, and tribal structures and other institutions are stronger than national ones, you are not going to succeed. If institutions aren’t there, or you aren’t building them successfully and honestly assessing them, you can be deceived by the house you’re building.

The other thing is if the enemy has a sanctuary and you don’t do anything about it, then he can rearm, refit, reconstitute, and re-recruit. I saw that in North Vietnam, and we never really did anything major—an occasional bombing, but it wasn’t serious. Then, Pakistan became the sanctuary. It was obvious those borders were completely porous. Al Qaeda (AQ) and the Taliban set up on the other side of the border in Pakistan and were basically free to operate.

What do you see as the strategic mistakes or pitfalls? You point to the lack of leadership and continuity as one.

Zinni: You can never recover from the lack of any strategy. When the Rumsfeld DoD came in, before 9/11, they had a mission to transform the U.S. military to rely heavily on technology and less on manpower. Of course, they wanted to prove this by doing Iraq and Afghanistan with few troops. They discarded the war plan that called for 380,000 troops in Iraq and went with 130,000. They paid a big price for that. We never sealed the border, never controlled the population—all the things we had in the war plan that we knew we would run into.

In Afghanistan, they supported the Northern Alliance, which they thought was really cool. And the CIA guys rode on horseback with the Northern Alliance, and they were going to get AQ. That was the mission. We only sent in a Marine Expeditionary Unit and a couple of other forces, but when AQ got trapped in Tora Bora, they bought their way out. They bought off the Northern Alliance, and they beat feet into Pakistan. So, now our troops are in Afghanistan, AQ is in Pakistan, and you have no strategy beyond going in to get AQ and doing it the wrong way. And then, we stayed. There was no deliberate decision to rebuild Afghanistan. We just did what we’ve always done—mission creep—and we rolled into nation building without knowing what we were doing.

We had no strategy and never bothered developing one, but COIN and nation building became the strategy sort of by default. No administration—not the Bush administration, not the Obama administration—ever bought into it. No one ever looked at what it would cost, how doable it was, and what it would involve. We sort of rolled into something that no one ever made the deliberate decision to do. I also realized this turnover of units and commanders caused constant confusion and a lack of consistency and that nobody had a good picture of what the heck was going on. The CIA’s picture was way different than the military’s, and I don’t know what was driving these differences.

You talk about institutions. The power of institutions is such that they don’t change quickly, and you can’t build them overnight.

Zinni: You have two problems. One is you’re countering other institutions, and the institutions they had—tribalism, conservative interpretation of religion—were countering what we were trying to do. We never coopted them and never understood how to deal with them to diminish their power compared to the institutions we needed to build. It was a house with no foundation.

The second thing is we built a myth. We convinced a bunch of young girls and men that this was going to be something, that we were building a different kind of Afghanistan. It was never there. It was a myth, and they bought into it. And you saw things like “girls are going to school” and “guys are opening businesses” and “look, there’s hairdressers,” and we allowed ourselves—and them, which is the real tragedy—to be deceived by this façade. There was nothing behind it.

The other key question is whether the bulk of the population is willing to die for whatever you are selling them. This is a lesson I learned in a small hut in a village in Vietnam. The wife of the village chief with whom I was living said, “What is it that you want me and my son to die for?” If you can’t answer that question and you are giving the Kiwanis Club pitch to a woman who has seen 30 years of war, you have a problem.

Suppose there’s a guy in a village who joins the Afghan Army. Well, his cousin is a Talib, and in their traditional way, he might fight that cousin today, but he might cut a deal with him tomorrow. We’re the outsider. We come in with this sort of hubris that makes us think they’re embracing us to the point they’re totally rejecting their brothers and sisters who they’re fighting. Well, their tradition is to go tribe-to-tribe and cut deals. This is what the Taliban did and what we saw in the total collapse and surrender of the Afghan military and government. The tribes have always cut deals and shifted sides based on the conditions. To a tribe out in the middle of some valley, if you’re saying they’re supposed to die fighting the Taliban, they may ask, “Why? I can cut a deal with that Taliban chief, and he won’t bother me.”

Marine Gen Anthony Zinni, right, then-Commander-in-Chief, Central Command, testifies on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, March 3, 1998, before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on military strategy and operational requirements. (Tyler Mallory/AP)

We see what we want to believe sometimes.

Zinni: That is true. We’re all guilty of that sometimes. I used to tell my lieutenants back when I was a company commander, “Keep me honest because I’m going to be the one who sees the good stuff, and you have to be the guys to tell me what I don’t see.” Everybody wants to be the one who gives the boss good news, and you must build this trust so your subordinates can tell you, “Boss, let me tell you how it really is.” It’s hard to take sometimes because you get so invested.

Another big danger I found is that you fall in love with your plan. You thought about it, you developed it, and you know you’re a genius and don’t want to accept that something is flawed. Unless you’ve built some sort of internal red teaming into your command system and fostered an environment in which people are willing to come to you and tell you that, you’re going to get into trouble.

Is this part of our tendency to avoid mistakes and failures and our inability or unwillingness to learn from them?

Zinni: There are a couple of problems. As I mentioned, one is our political system and the lack of corporate memory at the top, where you hope strategy would begin. Instead, you have this constant turnover, and we don’t do a good job of passing anything forward, especially if parties change. There isn’t much of a foundation anymore. There used to be. During the Cold War, strategies of containment and deterrence were consistent from administration to administration. Today, we are dealing with the byproducts of “war by temps.” There isn’t an ability to learn from your mistakes because you are changing out the people that made them, and you are bringing people in that are going to make them all over again.

The other thing, and I was guilty of it as a young officer, too, is young people join the military for an adventure. The idea that they are going off to war is exciting. I saw this when I retired. When the workup to Iraq and Afghanistan was taking place, I was asked to speak to some units, but they didn’t want to hear what I had to say. Most of the officers there were like, “He’s an old guy, kind of a naysayer. This is war. You have to be patriotic. This is our first time in.” Then, after they got their fingers burned, they came back and saw things a little differently.

One thing with me and my generation, we were all fired up for Vietnam, even going back for multiple tours. It took until after the dust settled, when we were maybe senior majors and lieutenant colonels, that we were able to see things we couldn’t see in the heat of being young company grade officers, when we were out there making our bones. I think that contributes to it, too.

One thing about managing the enthusiasm of senior officers and commanders is how do you balance maintaining good troop morale and people thinking they are doing good work with some serious criticism and internal reflection concerning things that really need to be changed?

Zinni: I think the first thing is to be honest with the troops because they aren’t fools. They are fighting the war, they see it, they know what’s happening. You have the generals that come out with this cheerleader approach and don’t seem to be in touch with reality—the reality those troops are experiencing on the ground. It seems to me you need someone in those positions that listens to what the troops are saying, what they are experiencing, and you are making sure it’s grounded in truth, not misperceptions. And after acknowledging it, you try to fix the problems they see.

The higher up you go, the less in touch with reality they can be. The real key to being a successful senior commander is to get down to those lower levels as much as you can. Get the feedback and acknowledge what they are seeing—that you know what is actually going on. And where there are issues, correct it. You are trying to get that view from the front lines that you need. You have to work hard to get it because there are so many things that get in the way. There are so many people around you and below you that try and screen you from all of that. You must be careful with that. It’s like you need to have intelligence on yourself and on your organization. If you just take what’s coming up the chain of command, you may not get the right picture, so you have to find a way to see and feel everything below that.

Gen Gray, yourself, and others have this sense of humility or humbleness. This seems to be a rare quality or attitude, but if you don’t have it, it seems more difficult to listen and learn.

Zinni: Right, humility is important, but for those lacking it, I don’t think it necessarily always comes from arrogance, although it can come across that way. I think it sometimes comes from insecurity, and that can come across as a lack of humility. I have seen senior officers who are around junior enlisted, and they are at a loss for words. They just don’t know how to connect or take it beyond the first words. Sometimes, to try and not look embarrassed about being unable to communicate effectively, they kind of take an air that looks like a lack of humility. This isn’t to say there aren’t people who are not humble, but I do see a lot of senior officers who are very insecure when they find themselves in that environment. They don’t know how to relate, and they didn’t try to learn how to connect.

How do we address the zero-defect culture and make-no-mistakes kind of attitude? When something goes wrong, commanders oftentimes tighten the screws, which dampens initiative. How do we address that?

Zinni: That’s hard to do because senior officers get scared and overreact. The knee-jerk reaction is over control. It is related to what I was studying in my dissertation—the commanders in World War II. Every one of them had something occur in their careers that today would have ended their careers. Nimitz ran a ship aground as a young officer. MacArthur was warned after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor to be prepared. Vinegar Joe Stillwell was always in trouble.

With Nimitz, his attitude was, this is all new to us—carrier operations, amphibious operations, and the like. We all have flaws. If a mistake is made honestly, and we can learn from it, I am not moving him. And he didn’t. They were after him to fire Spruance and a number of other senior officers, and he wouldn’t do it. He hung in there with them. And that doesn’t seem to happen today. I don’t know where that came in. When I was a second lieutenant and I checked into 6th Marines and got to my first battalion, the sergeant major told me a good Marine is going to have two or three non-judicial punishments. He isn’t a Marine if he didn’t have that. Today, if you have two or three minor offenses, they put you up for a discharge.

When I was the commanding officer of 9th Marines, my predecessor had made all the battalion commanders stand tall in front of him and explain every time a Marine did something minor, like having a little too much to drink out on the town. And then, when new Marines came in, my predecessor addressed them in the base theater and got in their face and said, “You better not do this, you better not do that.” I couldn’t believe this. My approach was, “Welcome to Okinawa. Let me tell you about all the things you can do here. Take care of each other. Use the buddy system. We want this to be positive.” I wanted a more positive environment. It was also the relationships out in town, like with the Japanese police force and the bar owners’ association. Every week, my battalion commanders and I went out to five bars. And besides wanting to know what’s going on with the Marines and being out with them, I wanted to know all the bar owners. I said, “Look, I’m asking you for a favor: if a Marine is getting too loud or it looks like they had too much to drink, just give our courtesy patrol staff a call. They will come out and bring him back.” I wanted to build relationships, and they loved it. It was all about getting everybody involved together and thinking about how to manage things constructively.

Coming out of Vietnam, junior officers were fed up, and this spawned very enthusiastic, even heated, after-hours study group discussions that drove change, notably amongst the maneuverists. What parallels can we draw to that competitive mindset as we regroup from Iraq and Afghanistan and prepare for the next fight? How can we provide the mechanisms to facilitate similar groups today? How can we foster that same type of mindset?

Zinni: I think if you had those experiences as a junior officer, it’s kind of seared into your soul. You have to be a little careful though because some lessons didn’t necessarily translate to the highest level or to the potential “big one” against the Soviets. Translating a lot from Vietnam was difficult, but it did give us a lot of insight into how we needed to repair our military from a training, education, manning, structure, and standards perspective. I think it gave us a much better perspective than the generals in Iraq and Afghanistan who experienced combat for the first time at the colonel and above level. They didn’t have the sense of what it was like as a lieutenant and a captain out there on the ground. I saw that in Afghanistan and Iraq when I did assessments out there. I could relate very easily to those sergeants and captains I was out there with, more so than I could with the generals who didn’t have that kind of gut experience and didn’t understand how some of the decisions they were making or not making were impacting things down there at that level. That becomes hard because it’s not the fault of the generals who weren’t involved in combat until they were at that senior level, but I do think something is missing when you don’t have that perspective.

One thing I saw coming out of Vietnam that didn’t work well was that many colonels and maybe even general officers continued to fight like they did in Vietnam as captains. They still thought they were fighting in some jungle with air superiority. You’d watch a battalion commander get in a helicopter, go over his unit, try to direct them, and you tried to tell him that his helicopter would be toast if he did that in this environment. It wasn’t that way in Vietnam. It made sense back then, so they had bad habits they couldn’t transition out of.

There are certain things you can take out of past experiences—many of them very personal, very visceral—but there are many things you must be careful with translating into a different environment.

General Anthony Zinni served 39 years as a U.S. Marine and retired as CommanderinChief, U.S. Central Command, a position he held from August 1997 to September 2000. After retiring, General Zinni served as U.S. special envoy to Israel and the Palestinian Authority (2001-2003) and U.S. special envoy to Qatar (2017-2019). General Zinni has held numerous academic positions, including the Stanley Chair in Ethics at the Virginia Military Institute, the Nimitz Chair at the University of California, Berkeley, the Hofheimer Chair at the Joint Forces Staff College, the Sanford Distinguished Lecturer in Residence at Duke University, and the Harriman Professorship of Government at the Reves Center for International Studies at the College of William and Mary. General Zinni is the author of several books, including Before the First Shots Are Fired, Leading the Charge, The Battle for Peace, and Battle Ready. He has also had a distinguished business career, serving as Chairman of the Board at BAE Systems Inc., a member of the board and later executive vice president at DynCorp International, and President of International Operations for M.I.C. Industries, Inc.

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

Major Sean F. X. Barrett, PhD is a Marine intelligence officer currently serving as the Operations Officer for 1st Radio Battalion.

Featured Image: KIN BLUE, OKINAWA (Feb. 9, 2020) – Marines with Charlie Company, Battalion Landing Team, 1st Battalion 5th Marines, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, and Japanese Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade service members communicate during a simulated bilateral small-boat raid on Kin Blue, Okinawa, Japan, Feb. 9, 2020. (Official Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Audrey M. C. Rampton)

RDML Christopher Alexander On Accelerating Surface Navy Tactical Excellence

By Dmitry Filipoff

CIMSEC had the opportunity to discuss the evolution of the Surface Navy’s tactical development with Rear Admiral Christopher Alexander, commander of Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC). In this discussion, RDML Alexander covers new initiatives on measuring tactical experience, the increasing demand for Surface Warfare Advanced Tactical Training (SWATT) exercises, and how SMWDC is transforming to accelerate tactical skill across the surface fleet.

How would you describe the value of SMWDC’s restructuring, such as the creation of the Surface Advanced Warfighting School (SAWS), the Fleet Training Directorates, the Technical Reachback Divisions, and other related changes?

Restructuring SMWDC from a mission-area focused organization (AAW, ASW, etc.) to an organization structured along functional lines creates efficiencies for SMWDC’s most valuable asset, the Warfare Tactics Instructor (WTI). The reorganization will improve how WTIs are trained, how they train the fleet, and their involvement in the development of future capabilities with the highest tactical benefit to our customer, the fleet.

The reorganization to the specific functional lines of WTI Production, Training Directorates, and Fleet Technical Reachback Divisions facilitates consolidation of all the WTI courses of instruction (COI) in one location with the establishment of SAWS in San Diego. SAWS will standardize training across all WTI COI, cultivate innovation and collaboration across the WTI disciplines, and drive an all-domain approach to training and Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTP) development.

Fleet training directorates will manage SWATT resourcing requirements, planning and executing SWATT exercises on the East and West Coasts, and Forward Deployed Naval Forces (FDNF). With the increasing number of advanced training events each year across the globe, Fleet Training Directorates — Pacific and Atlantic — are designed to leverage and build expertise on the geographic training differences of ranges and training resources of each SWATT location while allocating more WTI time and effort for the planning and execution of the training for the ships.

Finally, SMWDC intends to bring WTI warfighters closer to the combat system, weapon system, and platform developers. We are doing this by repurposing our IAMD Division in Dahlgren to a technical support division. Currently, Dahlgren is focused on training IAMD WTIs. The transition to a technical support division allows Dahlgren to focus on developing technical solutions to tactical problems and will enable us to integrate WTIs in the weapons system development process from conception. Our goal is to field systems with approved TTP and concepts the fleet can immediately use for tactical advantage against our pacing threats.

How are the SWATT exercises becoming more intense and challenging? How are the training audiences responding to these experiences and making the most of them?

When SWATT initially kicked off six years ago, we envisioned conducting approximately four a year for Carrier Strike Groups. However, SWATT proved to be very successful, and subsequently the demand for SWATT has increased to most surface ships participating prior to a deployment. As a result, around 8-10 SWATT events are now conducted annually, with nine completed in FY21.

The blue-to-blue integration provides the opportunity for ships and staff (Air and Missile Defense Commander and Sea Combat Commander) to work together and practice TTP execution, post-Basic Phase, and before Group Sail and Composite Training Unit Exercise (COMPTUEX). As SWATT develops, we want to find the right mix of basic, intermediate, and advanced events, part of the Crawl, Walk, Run concept of progression. This mix ensures SWATT provides training for the high-end fight while addressing foundational proficiencies for the common operator and watch team, such as radiotelephone communications, link operations, risk identification, and systems setup.

SWATT is becoming more challenging as we increase Information Warfare integration, unmanned vehicle integration, leverage more complex Live, Virtual, and Constructive (LVC) training events, Live Fire With A Purpose (LFWAP) events with emphasis on offensive surface warfare. We also integrate warfighting concepts such as Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO), U.S. Marine Corps Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment (LOCE), and Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO). These challenging training events build watchteam cohesion, introduce warfighting concepts, and increase the performance of the participating units.

Then shortly after SWATT execution, our new Final Performance Reviews (FPR) provides feedback that is actionable prior to COMPTUEX. The FPR also allows SMWDC to improve SWATT by incorporating fresh lessons learned and feedback from the training audiences into future training events.

What is SMWDC doing to better measure and track the tactical skills and experience of individuals, such as through the Surface Warfare Combat Training Continuum (SWCTC)? How could this data be used?

SMWDC continues to improve a holistic and focused approach to generating the advanced tactical skills necessary to fight our ships and win the high-end fight. Foundational to that effort is better understanding the measures and drivers of proficiency of key tactical watchstanders. SWCTC will codify the training and experience standards Surface Warfare Officers (SWOs) will be required to meet through their careers, recognizing the individual’s contribution to combat capability. By capturing training data at the individual level, the surface force will better understand performance trends and leverage data to help systematically produce the best tactical watchstanders.

A pilot program is underway to collect tactical experience data for SWOs standing tactical combat watches to understand how much tactical experience an officer gains throughout different phases of the Optimized Fleet Response Plan.

SMWDC is also developing grade sheets to assess a watchstander’s knowledge and aptitude. The grade sheets, divided into three parts, comprise:

  • A skills assessment (general skills based on the watch station and specific skills based on the scenario requirements).
  • A survey portion that is the assessor’s opinion of the watchstanders’ performance.
  • An overall assessment that gives the assessors’ confidence level in the watchstanders’ overall ability.

A framework is under development to allow SMWDC to collect tactical assessment data from the schoolhouses to measure an individual’s performance in various areas and how those translate into indicators of tactical prowess on a warship.

As data is collected it will provide SMWDC the tactical competency data needed to align warfighting training across the numerous training organizations, and identify gaps and seams in warfighting training to inform risk calculations and resource decisions.

SMWDC integrates various Surface Navy functions that before were often stovepiped, functions such as tactical development, doctrinal experimentation, schoolhouse instruction, and advanced training events with operating forces, to name several. How does SMWDC manage a connected learning environment that helps these integrated areas evolve together?

Creating a more cohesive learning environment is central to the SMWDC reorganization. Since SMWDC’s formation, we have taken pride in leveraging the synergy between TTP developers, instructors, and trainers. Along with consolidating all WTI training under one roof, SAWS now hosts our TTP department. By co-locating the TTP shop with the schoolhouse Subject Matter Experts (SME), we can utilize the SMEs who are teaching the future WTIs to also write and update TTP. Similar to our TTP-SAWS relationship, our N8/9 (Experimentation and Advanced Concepts) Branch is co-located with our Fleet Training Directorate in San Diego which allows for easy integration of fleet experimentation into advanced tactical training (SWATT, LFWAP, etc.).

A practical example of this advantage is when ships and SMWDC discover an urgent change is required in a weapons system’s TTP during SWATT. The embarked WTI comes ashore and coordinates with the SAWS SME to begin working on the TTP change. When the change is complete, it is pushed to the Fleet Training Directorate (FTD) to include in a future underway event to validate the update. Once the TTP is validated, the updated publication is released to the fleet, and schoolhouse instructors begin teaching the updated curriculum, which then propagates out to the fleet. Before SMWDC, this process could take years to accomplish; in 2021, SMWDC reduced this time to weeks. We are constantly striving to improve the TTP update time, which is an added benefit to SMWDC consolidation.

SMWDC regularly solicits comprehensive feedback. As a result, we have created and implemented processes to capture lessons learned and integrate them into future TTP and training updates. Some examples include our FPR, WTI Re-Blue — our yearly gathering of WTIs to keep them fresh on TTP and fleet developments — and our SMWDC ENGAGEMENT QUEUE, a classified tactical newsletter where fleet authors can share lessons learned.

How does SMWDC emphasize the culture of being a learning organization, of pushing beyond limits, and constructively harnessing failure in the drive toward tactical excellence?

Everything we do at SMWDC centers on tactical improvement and learning. One of our main goals is to inculcate a culture of tactical learning across the Surface Force to create an effect where SMWDC’s influence lasts well after we work directly with a ship’s crew. The emphasis we place on the Plan, Brief, Execute, Debrief (PBED) process is an excellent example of harnessing the value in lessons learned. During each event in a SWATT underway period, WTIs lead the crew through a deliberate process where they learn tactics and emphasize the importance of critical self-assessment. Some of the best learning experiences these crews have had are during debriefs where the execution at times was less than optimal. Through advanced playback technology, WTIs can show the “ground truth” of an event and use voice circuit recordings, chat logs, and input from the watch team to review where execution could improve. The crew then plans for a more advanced scenario and attempts to apply those lessons from the previous event’s debrief. Each crew goes through dozens of PBED cycles during SWATT with the goal of the crew assuming a lead role in that process from the WTIs. This way, the crew can continue to grow and improve without SMWDC’s direct involvement.

Internally, SMWDC emphasizes critical assessment of the SWATT process, the WTI COI, and TTP development. All of these interconnected elements have the overarching goal of increasing the tactical proficiency of the surface fleet. As new systems or platforms come online, new potential adversary technology or tactics change, or national security concerns evolve, SMWDC constantly assesses if we are providing the right tactical training to the right people at the right time. In this era of great power competition, we need to remain a step ahead and anticipate the next fight, not just react to it.

Two great examples of this are LFWAP and TTP validation, which occur in conjunction with an underway SWATT. LFWAP not only increases the confidence of our crews in their capabilities and the system they are operating, but each event provides valuable information about our weapon systems for improvement during follow-on assessments. Likewise, when we draft a new TTP, we build it into SWATT scenarios to test and validate the TTP, which keeps crews involved in the innovative force development process and provides efficacy of the new TTP.

Pacific Ocean (April 27, 2018) A Standard Missile (SM) 2 launches from USS Spruance (DDG 111) during a Live Fire With a Purpose (LFWAP) event during an underway Cruiser-Destroyer (CRUDES) Surface Warfare Advanced Tactical Training (SWATT) exercise. (U.S. Navy video by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Jeffrey Southerland/released)

How can WTI culture and education become more mainstream across the Surface Navy? Could there come a time where all SWOs receive this kind of instruction?

Our goal remains to increase the tactical proficiency and lethality of the Navy, and the best way to do it is by spreading the education and culture of WTIs through our current and future initiatives. WTI culture and education becomes more mainstream each year across the Surface Navy as we see more WTIs in Department Head, Executive Officer, and Commanding Officer positions.

In order to improve the tactical proficiency of the fleet we need to produce more WTIs and fill the follow-on production tours. Those two ingredients, WTI COI and a production tour, are needed to produce a cadre of officers whose “Day-Job” is to think critically about how we should tactically employ our weapons systems. By filling production tour billets we also increase the number of times a ship and crew interact with WTIs as they move through the phases of training. These interactions are where the cultural shift we seek comes to fruition. The WTIs help the crews see the right way of doing things and the tactical advantages in maintaining that standard when the WTIs are not embarked. The combination of WTIs in at-sea leadership billets and increased fleet interactions with WTIs through training events is leading a cultural change for the better.

The training investment in each WTI is extensive and not likely to be replicated across all SWOs. However, the WTI investment and the improved use of metrics previously discussed will very likely drive improvements in the broader SWO training pipelines for various tours, resulting in sustained combat proficiency as the fleet reaches new and higher standards. WTI production, SWCTC, and SMWDC are all part of that long-term drive toward a higher standard in the tactical performance of the Surface Force.

Rear Admiral Christopher Alexander, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and the Naval Postgraduate School, assumed the role of Commander, Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center in May 2021. Alexander commanded USS Sampson (DDG 102), USS Princeton (CG 59), and the Surface Warfare Schools Command.

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

Featured Image: NORFOLK (Oct. 15, 2021) The guided-missile destroyer USS Ramage (DDG 61) sits pierside next to the Navy’s newest guided-missile destroyer, the future USS Daniel Inouye (DDG 118), at Naval Station Norfolk. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jeremy Lemmon Jr.)

General Anthony Zinni (ret.) on Wargaming Iraq, Millennium Challenge, and Competition

By Mie Augier and Major Sean F. X. Barrett

This is the second part of our conversation series with General Anthony Zinni, USMC (ret.) on leadership, strategy, learning, and the art and science of warfighting. Read Part One here. In this installment, General Zinni shares his experiences with wargames, Desert Crossing and Millennium Challenge 2002 in particular, and discusses how the differing objectives of service chiefs and combatant commanders manifest in wargames. Gen Zinni then touches on the U.S. military’s overreliance on technology and draws parallels from the business world to inform approaches to great power competition.

What are some of the challenges to organizing effective wargames?

Zinni: When I was at Quantico, we started going through a phase where everybody was into board games and tactical decision games, and that sort of thing became really popular—parallel to maneuver warfare development. I came away with several impressions. I think gaming was more valuable at the lower levels, at the tactical level, maybe lower operational level. I think there you can construct the game in a way at the division level or below where nobody is promoting anything, and you can design games to learn specific things and bring out specific points. As you go higher up, I found there was too much in the way of service politics and other things that were injected into the games.

There are a lot of assumptions about capabilities that belie reality or truths and other factors. For example, I found that when playing with the Army after they first introduced the Apache helicopter, you couldn’t shoot down an Apache helicopter. No matter what you did, that was impossible. They were defending the program, and they wanted to build it up.

When I was a two-star, I was in charge of the Marine Corps side in a game we used to do with the Navy every year. The game was more designed to showcase what capabilities we wanted and really focus on things where Navy-Marine Corps cooperation was needed to gain the capabilities, either because of the way they had to be employed or because of the way budgets work. It usually ended up being kind of a swap meet. We had to find compromises because the budget wouldn’t support everybody’s wish list. When we went through the massive Millennium Challenge games with Joint Forces Command, I watched how the games became more designed as proofs of capabilities—preordained proofs of capabilities—rather than—as much as they advertised it—open testing, having a real willingness to fail, and all that.

If somebody talks about a game, I am usually highly suspicious about what the purpose is, who is designing it, and who is sponsoring it. To me, that is critical. The other thing I found in gaming is the intelligence guys always present you with the indestructible, undefeatable enemy. They love to do that. You must overcome that to an extent.

What are some of your experiences that showed the value of wargaming?

Zinni: When I was Commander-in-Chief at U.S. Central Command, we were on-and-off bombing Iraq when Saddam did not cooperate with the UN inspectors. At that time, if Saddam didn’t cooperate, President Clinton immediately wanted to pull the UN inspector out and hit Saddam. It always worked. Saddam brought the inspectors back in, so President Clinton gave us the okay on anything we wanted to target, basically, you know, make it painful. Since we knew these opportunities arose, we didn’t just want it to be haphazard targeting. We deliberately targeted air defense systems. Although we couldn’t plan on when he didn’t want to let inspectors in or when he’d give them a hard time, we had a systematic way of taking down his air defense systems when these events occurred, and we were very successful. President Clinton OK’d us bombing downtown Baghdad and taking down his intelligence headquarters and a couple of other things. It was called Operation Desert Fox.

Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, USMC, Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Central Command, briefs reporters at the Pentagon, Dec. 21, 1998, on his assessment of Operation Desert Fox, a four-day bombing campaign against Iraq. (DoD photo by R. D. Ward)

Saddam knew when the inspectors left, he was going to get hit. In the past, we always had to bring a few things in before we could launch strikes. One particular time, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs GEN Shelton asked me, “Could you do something so that virtually, as soon as Richard Butler (who was the head of the UN inspection team) is out, you go?” And we did. The battle damage assessment was phenomenal. Four days of strikes. The targets were really large ones. We usually used either the Swiss or the Polish embassy in Baghdad to give us feedback. Well, suddenly—and I’ll get to the gaming piece of this—they started saying, “You guys have to know what you are doing here because this last set of strikes really shook the Iraqi government. The normal hostile rhetoric afterward was gone. They were shocked by the targets you hit, and there are all kinds of rumblings on the street.” We were even getting some feedback that there were some Iraqi generals talking about taking out Saddam if those kinds of strikes continued, and giving feelers to our allies, too.

The next thing that happened, I got calls from both Jordan and Kuwait saying they were getting this feedback, too. Their worry was that if we struck the government to the point that it was overthrown, or hit a target that shut down communications or whatever, they could see major uprisings and then massive amounts of refugees streaming across their borders. I got asked by the national leadership of both countries: What’s your plan if this happened? What’s your plan for massive refugee outflows? What’s your plan for a government that totally collapses, which it could from your airstrikes, and the country becomes a mess? I realized that our war plans were only designed to take out the Republican Guard and take down the military structure. There was nothing in our war plans, or in what we were directed to do, that talked about the post-kinetic period. I thought I could do my job—take out the military—in less than three weeks. But who would be in charge of rebuilding Iraq or creating a new government?

I sent a request up through the chain to the Department of Defense and Department of State asking who had the aftermath plan. I had a feeling it was going to be a total mess. We needed a post-kinetic plan that meshed with our military plan. Well, the answer we got is no one was thinking about this. I asked if we could do a study on what Iraq would look like if the government collapsed, or if we had to go in and take out the military. What kind of Iraq would we find? The State Department, CIA, and all the intelligence organizations agreed to be involved, and my chief of staff said, “Let’s contract a study.” We went to Booz Allen (BA), and the BA people recommended we do a wargame instead of a study because as we discovered things, what we were really after was: what are our options, what should we do? You should put yourself in a position where you have to make those decisions, so you know what kinds of decisions are necessary. Only a game can generate that.

I committed to a couple of weeks up in Washington so we could go through this. We did it, and it is now declassified. It was called Desert Crossing. We went through the game, and I was frankly shocked at what everybody’s consensus was—that when we went into Iraq to take down the Republican Guard, that wouldn’t be very difficult at all. The problem we would have, even with the forces we had in our war plans, which was overwhelming force and which Rumsfeld threw away, was what happened after that. My intention was to get control of everything right away. The one thing I learned in places like Somalia and elsewhere is if you lose momentum, it is hard to get it back.

Unfortunately, the results of the wargame were that this place was going to come apart like a cheap suitcase. I went back to the State Department and DoD and said, “Okay, we looked at this, and this is what we see happening.” And by the way, everything out of that wargame is exactly what happened when we did go in later. This wargame was in 1999, my last year at CENTCOM, and no one was willing to stand up and plan. The State Department wasn’t going to own up to it. They did not want to get involved in the planning. Nobody else at DoD or anybody else wanted to take this on. I told my people that if this were to happen, either because there was an intentional decision to go into Iraq, or because of our airstrikes and everything we were doing, and the country internally imploded, we would be forced to go in, so let’s plan for it.

My chief of staff said, “You know, a lot of this stuff we are looking at is not us. We don’t rebuild governments, and we don’t know how to build economic systems and all that.” I said I didn’t care. We were going to plan and assume we’d have to take it on. I said, if nothing else, we might not be able to understand what had to be done, but we could at least help identify the problems and what we expected might happen. At least we could have an outline of the things we needed to consider because we might be putting together a pickup team to get them done. We began the Desert Crossing planning based on this even though we weren’t tasked with it.

When the decision was made to go into Iraq, this surprised the hell out of me because there was no need to go into Iraq. Saddam was no threat to anybody, nobody was afraid of him, and we had bigger fish to fry in Afghanistan. Then I saw Rumsfeld throw away the war plan. He thought he could do it on the cheap, which really told me that the new plan was going to exacerbate the problem tremendously because you were not going to have control of the people, you were not going to have control of key facilities, you were not going to have control of the borders, and all of this was going to come back to haunt you.

I called down to CENTCOM. I was retired, but I talked to the deputy commander. I told him, “You guys are crazy.” First of all, the war plan that Rumsfeld was talking about involved far too few troops, meaning we’d get overwhelmed, and that place was going to erupt in many different ways, and we’d be unable to control it. And I said, one thing we needed to look at was Desert Crossing because that would give us an idea of what to expect. He said he’d never heard of Desert Crossing. We had worked on that plan up until I retired in October 2000. Whatever was done on that plan at CENTCOM afterward was completely blown off by the leadership there.

You know, when you are retired, you don’t like to go back and poke around your last command. I mean, it is just not done. However, a number of the staff that were still there contacted me and told me about the plans they were being forced to put together, the troop cuts, the assumptions being made—it was just going to be a disaster. And of course, it was.

My point in all of this is that in that Desert Crossing game, we had a specific objective in mind—to learn what was going to happen. Let’s put together the best minds, the best intelligence organizations, and we had every one of them there. They very accurately gave us a picture that we had not put together before that. Unfortunately, it got lost in translation and transition and amidst arrogant people that came into leadership at DoD and elsewhere. Colin Powell understood it, but that’s not who President Bush listened to on this. We ignored everything we learned from that game.

The COCOMs have very specific requirements they are looking at, as opposed to the services that are looking more broadly at future capabilities. How does this impact the effectiveness of the wargames and exercises they both conduct?

Zinni: The gaming with the COCOMs is very different from service-level gaming, which is trying to validate or prove capabilities that the services want and need to get the budget for. At the COCOMs, you are gaming war plans. That is basically what you do. In exercises and in gaming, you usually have specific things you either want to test or learn, and they tend to be things you are testing or want to learn that affect a war plan or a contingency plan, or something along those lines. And of course, having been a former COCOM commander, I’m going to tell you that ours were honest, and the services’ were not.

However, sometimes when you bring allies in, you have to be a bit careful because, first of all, intelligence sharing becomes a problem in some of these things, but you also don’t want to embarrass allies. For us, to play a game and get defeated, we can take it as the result of wanting to learn or test something. For some allies, that is politically unacceptable. They were more into looking good coming out of the game, and that overrides learning. As CENTCOM commander, in exercises and gaming, I worked very hard at trying to get our key allies to embrace more free play. I found that the key was you have to get the top guys onboard with that, because below that, they aren’t going to accept it unless they know they can make mistakes and that will be okay. They may look bad and fail at something, but it is supposed to be a learning event—rather than one where your main concern is about looking bad in front of your boss. So, I think there is maybe more honesty in the gaming with combatant commanders. That is sort of driven by how you are exercising real-world war plans and operations. You can’t polish over or become pollyannish about something that isn’t real, but there are times when you must be careful with that, like I said, with allies and when you have a concern with intelligence sharing.

The other thing is you don’t want to take too much on in a game. I always felt you got more out of the game or exercise if you had a specific handful of things you wanted to learn and focus on, as opposed to trying to eat the big enchilada and do the whole war plan. That gets too unmanageable, and it gets too diffused and diluted. If you look at specific parts of, say, a plan or whatever you are trying to do, and pick five or six things you really want to focus on, the game is much more meaningful.

How were you involved with the Millennium Challenge wargame?

Zinni: I was a senior mentor. Back in those days, Joint Forces Command wrote joint doctrine and conducted joint training and joint wargaming. They brought in retired generals to be senior mentors and to play the red team, as Lieutenant General Paul K. Van Riper, USMC (ret.) classically did with Millennium Challenge, when he exposed all the things we mentioned earlier—trying to be too scripted or prove capabilities, rather than being true and honest with open testing and free play.

They advertised Millennium Challenge as this super, all-time greatest military exercise game. It was going to involve forces from all over the military. This was going to be a proof of concept of the U.S. military writ large. They had a scenario, and they placed this big emphasis on if we failed, that was fine. It was going to be completely free play, and we’d go wherever it took us. Supposedly. Well, when I got there, I asked who was leading the red team. They said Paul Van Riper, and I said, “You guys better have your stuff together because you are going to die.” They kind of blew me off, like this was going to be a piece of cake.

They started the game, and there was a lot of media attention. After the first two or three moves, Van Riper had sunk half of Fifth Fleet and destroyed a corps. They stopped the game because it was now turning into a disaster. They brought everybody in and said they were going to restart the game because some things didn’t go right or whatever. Van Riper didn’t do what they thought or assumed he would do. They thought they had him figured out, had the “enemy” figured out.

They started the game again—same result. Van Riper kicked their butts, and now they stopped again. People were coming down from the Pentagon, and this was becoming a problem. They then said they were going to start for a third time, but this time they told Van Riper what he had to do. He said if they wanted him to go by a script, they had to advertise that it was not free play—that it was scripted. You can’t advertise something as free play when it is really being scripted—that is dishonest. They told him they were not going to do that, but that Van Riper was going to be scripted in many of the things that he could do.

The next thing that happened was a bunch of the majors that were down there revolted and went to the media, and of course Van Riper then became a superstar for every young officer in the military. Malcolm Gladwell even wrote about it. This went all the way up to the Joint Chiefs, and the Joint Chiefs dissed Van Riper and didn’t defend him. Van Riper became the hero for everybody involved in Millennium Challenge below the rank of one-star.

Are we overreliant on technology for solutions? What are some potential pitfalls of this approach?

Zinni: Yes, it is in our nature to become overreliant on technology because we created this dependency on it, and in addition to that, in some ways, we don’t leverage it enough. Every time I get into a discussion with someone about facing a peer-level military threat, it always comes down to the same thing: Well, they’ve got missiles that are going to crush us. The answer is always that we must go after those missiles, we must find them, and shoot them down. What everybody is losing sight of is one of the first things I ask: How does the missile know where you are? Then there’s a fall back: Tell me how they target you. The missile is back there, and you are out here, and they can’t see you. Something is targeting you. Is it a satellite? Is it a recon unit? Instead of wasting all this effort and resources on new technology to kill the missiles, could we blind their missiles? Could we deceive the missile in some way? Maybe the focus of our technology should be on defeating targeting, and maybe the ways we defeat it is to give it a false image, to blind it, to deceive it. To address the threat through better tactics, using what we already have. No one ever talks about that. Everybody just pushes the technology to kill the missile. My point is that it is not just overrelying on technology. Sometimes it is not knowing how to use technology through tactics to build an advantage.

In Millennium Challenge, the blue force was totally dependent on monitoring the red team’s communications, so Van Riper did not use any digital technology. He used motorcycle couriers and all kinds of alternative, simple sources of communication. He did nothing that could be captured or intercepted, so they were totally blind. They put all their eggs—that they would have superior technology to intercept his communications—in one basket. They assumed he would never initiate the fight—that this enemy would be so overwhelmed he would not attack during the build-up phase. Of course, Van Riper immediately attacked. It was a beautiful thing to watch! When we make too many assumptions, it becomes a vulnerability.

The Commandant of the Marine Corps recently published a new doctrinal publication on competition. From your business experience, what are some lessons learned that might be applicable to this new mindset that the service and DoD writ large are adopting? What does it mean to compete with a peer threat below the level of an actual conflict?

Zinni: In the business world, when you look at competition, you look at three things. When you go after a contract or something, you bid on it and put a proposal out there. Your reputation begins with that proposal. For the customers you are dealing with—let’s take the defense industry, and you are dealing with the Defense Department and services you are going to provide—you are going to be known by the quality of those proposals. If you have a series of proposals that have flaws in them, you are going to get a bad reputation and soon become uncompetitive. That’s how you first establish your reputation in a competitive sense.

Let me draw parallels with the military. Basically, what you are doing is you are putting out proposals to allies and potential enemies. In other words, you are framing yourself. This is going to be your reputation because if you can’t live up to it or have a reputation of claiming things that don’t work or whatever, then you begin to lose credibility, and you begin to tempt the enemy to test you.

You also need to realize you can’t compete across the entire spectrum. You need to identify the signature capabilities that really make up the heart and soul of your company and build your reputation around them. In a military sense, these are the things you must be the top in—let’s say missile defense, or nukes, or whatever. There are certain things that are so critical to your essence and what you are doing that you need to focus more on them.

The third thing, which is critically important in the business industry, is you need your best people where you touch your customer or your client. In the business world, I want to make sure I have people out there who have customer intimacy, familiarity, and trust. They are my selling point. People want to come back to your company because of these people. Relating this to the military: Who are your combatant commanders? Who are your senior generals? Who do you put out there as military attachés, or the military people who are negotiating or interacting with allies? If the enemy is in the Middle East, he is looking at the CENTCOM commander, and your customers and allies are looking at that commander, too.

One of the problems the military has is that capabilities are not centrally determined. Every service, every service secretary, and every service chief fights for something, and we don’t have a good way of looking at tradeoffs and risks. What happens is when there’s a budget cut and you need to take risks, it is sort of salami-sliced across the DoD, and no one, particularly at the top, has enough power to say we are going to do this, but not that. This was Eisenhower’s complaint when he talked about the military industrial complex—the military wants everything. They didn’t come to him saying we are going to take risks here, and this is how we see the budget. He just had four services wanting everything. That becomes part of the problem, particularly if you relate that to “signature capabilities.” You must pick which ones are your signature capabilities and are most important for you not to take risks in—and even more importantly, where you are willing to take risks, and what the tradeoffs are.

In business, you measure yourself against what I call a competitive set. For example, say I am on the board of a real estate investment trust that owns 12 hotels. We are basically a small hotel company—a real estate investment trust. We have about a dozen competitors in our peer competition set. You watch that set very carefully. Investors who are going to invest at that level will look at you compared to the others. If you apply that to the military, peer competitor means “the big guys” (Russia and China), but there are capabilities within our military that are not necessarily designed to be about the big fight.

We don’t do so well in the “least likely” conflicts, like when we get caught up in the Iraqs, Afghanistans, Somalias, and Vietnams. We don’t do well in that competitive set. I always say you never fight the war you prepare for. Logically, you should prepare for the war you don’t want to fight, but that means for all the others, you don’t have the perfect capability to engage in them. Some of that is not military related; it is political will, which erodes over time if you are not showing success. I think you saw that in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

General Anthony Zinni served 39 years as a U.S. Marine and retired as CommanderinChief, U.S. Central Command, a position he held from August 1997 to September 2000. After retiring, General Zinni served as U.S. special envoy to Israel and the Palestinian Authority (2001-2003) and U.S. special envoy to Qatar (2017-2019). General Zinni has held numerous academic positions, including the Stanley Chair in Ethics at the Virginia Military Institute, the Nimitz Chair at the University of California, Berkeley, the Hofheimer Chair at the Joint Forces Staff College, the Sanford Distinguished Lecturer in Residence at Duke University, and the Harriman Professorship of Government at the Reves Center for International Studies at the College of William and Mary. General Zinni is the author of several books, including Before the First Shots Are Fired, Leading the Charge, The Battle for Peace, and Battle Ready. He has also had a distinguished business career, serving as Chairman of the Board at BAE Systems Inc., a member of the board and later executive vice president at DynCorp International, and President of International Operations for M.I.C. Industries, Inc.

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

Major Sean F. X. Barrett, PhD is a Marine intelligence officer currently serving as the Operations Officer for 1st Radio Battalion.

Featured Image: U.S. Marines assess a terrain map during a simulated amphibious assault of exercise Talisman Sabre 19 in Bowen, Australia, July 22, 2019. (U.S. Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Tanner D. Lambert)

A Conversation with General Anthony Zinni (Ret.) on Leaders and Strategic Thinking

By Mie Augier and Major Sean F. X. Barrett

This is the first of what we hope will be several conversations with General Anthony Zinni, USMC (ret.) about leadership, strategy, learning, and the art and science of warfighting. General Anthony Zinni served 39 years as a U.S. Marine and retired as CommanderinChief, U.S. Central Command, in 2000.

In this installment, General Zinni discusses themes in his “Combat Concepts” lecture, his recently completed doctoral dissertation, his time at the CNO’s Strategic Studies Group, and the state of strategic thinking.

Were you influenced by any particular interests, books, or mentors?

Zinni: First, on people, General Al Gray was probably the biggest influence on me. I’ve known him since I was a captain. He had a set of people. He mentored us and sought us out all the time. He was unusual to us junior officers. He was willing to talk about things we were interested in—tactics, leadership, and those kinds of things. It was hard to find senior officers who really had that kind of connection. Plus, his personality was such that he drew people to him. He seemed to understand what we were going through, what we were thinking. You must remember we had come back from a couple of tours in Vietnam, so our first decade in the Marine Corps was formed by Vietnam. Of course, he was there, too—more senior, but he really understood what we saw and our reaction it.

Lieutenant General Mick Trainor was my battalion commander. He had a reputation in the Marine Corps for being a highly intelligent officer, and he was someone who really understood warfare, especially in Vietnam. He was another mentor—I have had several, most of them later made general officer—so I was a pretty good chooser of mentors [laughs].

Anthony Zinni, 1967. Personal Photo

In terms of books, I read a lot, but I don’t have a particular way of listing them. I talk with Lieutenant General Paul K. Van Riper about this a lot. He really focuses on specific books, and I don’t. I read a lot of books. I always get taken aback when junior officers ask me, “Can you give me a reading list or a list of recommended books?” I say, “You should read all the books you can get ahold of, and then sort out what you think are the important books.” Usually, they get onto doing that. But it’s also a lazy way of saying, ‘I don’t always remember what I’ve read in all these books’—I gather it in and hopefully integrate it.

One of the big themes in your well-known “Combat Concepts” talk is the need to extend maneuver thinking beyond warfighting concepts to application. For you, General Gray, and others, it seems this wasn’t a contrast. Maneuver warfare was a way of thinking and a practice at the same time.

Zinni: Yes, I would say it’s a way of thinking. It is more a way of how you form concepts about operational art. However, what I felt was lacking in some discussions was going to the next step—to application, to practice. People who didn’t want to take that step bothered me. Execution is just as hard as conceptualizing. John Boyd talked about that. He took the concepts and talked about applications. He was the maneuverist who tried to bring in some form of application. Of course, General Gray was that way, too. He was always interested in application. He asked us all the time, “How would you translate that into action, or into application?” He always wanted to take it to the next step, but it was rare to find people who thought conceptually like that—and then extra rare to find people who tried to translate it into application.

Regarding your experience in Vietnam, it seems like, for you and your peers, it was a very formative part of your career. It became critical for what drove you and others to embrace education, self-study, learning, and some more maverick ways of thinking since it was obvious the things we were doing needed to change. How can we foster that kind of maverick thinking in our organizations today? How well do you think we are doing?

Zinni: Well, from my experience, it must start at the top. You need license to be a maverick. That is how most effective change comes about. In my dissertation, I looked at our senior military leadership during World War II. If you look at George Marshall, Earnest King, or Hap Arnold, they were not necessarily mavericks, but they believed in the freedom to innovate. They believed in cultivating thinkers and mavericks that acted and thought differently. They protected the Nimitzs, the MacArthurs, and the Stillwells—all the guys in the Pacific at that time that I looked at. These were majorly flawed people. Nimitz ran a ship aground when he was a young officer! MacArthur had a checkered past, was not very well liked in the Army, and his actions in the Philippines were disastrous. Stillwell was a character nobody liked to be around. But Marshall and King saw in them what was needed for that war. They had rebel spirits. Marshall and King recognized the war would be different, so they sought out the innovators, the thinkers, and that sort of cascaded down.

The top leadership out in the theater began to move the traditionalist thinkers aside. They did not take an axe to, or fire, everyone. Rather, they moved them into positions where they couldn’t influence or affect the process of change. The first fleet commander at the Guadalcanal landing was an old school guy who didn’t get it, so Nimitz moved him out and brought in Halsey to lead the fleet. That basically saved the day at Guadalcanal.

You can go down this concept of innovate, test, adapt, and adopt. This goes all the way down the ranks to squadron officers figuring out new formations, new patterns to fly. It gets diffused in the organization where it breaks down resistance. It is not kept as something separate, which is a problem we have today and what causes most organizations to fail. Your whole organization must feel part of the team and involved in change. Isolating a special section of super innovators in an organization fails 95 percent of the time in the corporate world. Everybody resents them.

In your dissertation, you mention the importance of seeing things in a strategic or visionary way. Why has there been a decline in national-level strategy and strategic thinking?

Zinni: Well, I think there were flashes of strategic thinking of some quality, maybe with George Washington, but that was more operational. Then, I think the next time you see it is Grant as a commander. Lincoln knew he needed a strategy but didn’t know how to develop one until he found Grant. But that was a moment. The next time you see it is with Roosevelt because as soon as Pearl Harbor was attacked, he called in Marshall and said, “We need a strategy.” He started to give the principles of a strategy: we will become the arsenal of democracy. What that meant is we will go to our strengths, which was our industrial base, and we will out-produce the enemy. We were producing more tanks in a month than the Germans could produce in a year at the height of their industrial capability. In 3.5 years, we built 90 carriers. He also said we must get our act together with our allies. He went to the UK, formed the Combined Chiefs of Staff, and said it is Europe first. These are strategic principles.

Marshall, who thought and acted strategically, started putting these things together. On the Navy side, they were thinking strategically in terms of the Pacific, but in the Atlantic, it was more of a support role. Certainly, Hap Arnold and strategic bombing was also being thought about. You see strategy in wartime. The greatest time of U.S. strategic thinking came from 1944 to 1950. Truman was President; Marshall was Secretary of State and then Defense. You have people like Vandenberg who worked with them across political differences. If you look at that period, we were stabilizing the world economy, we created NATO, we passed the 1947 National Security Act. All these things were happening, and we were developing the ideas of deterrence. That carried us through the Cold War. There were moments when it lessened, like during the Vietnam War, where we had no strategy, and Korea was not much better. But the overall grand strategy was solid in terms of how we were dealing with the peer threat.

You began to see it wane, and when the Cold War ended, it totally ended our strategic thinking. When George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev talked about a peace dividend and a new world order, every reporter asked them, “What does that mean? How do you build a new world order? What is this peace dividend?” They never provided an answer. Bush got so frustrated he said, “Oh, you mean the vision thing”—the vision being a key element to strategic thinking. One needs a vision, but he couldn’t be bothered by it. Subsequent presidents also dismissed it. Obama, for example, said something like, “I don’t need any Kennans,” when he got pressed by a reporter.

What the heck is your strategy if you don’t have a vision? We totally lost the ability at the senior leadership level in America to provide, at the very least, strategic principles and underpinnings. Instead, we went off and launched conflicts in places like Afghanistan and Iraq with no idea of what we were trying to do. I blame the uniformed military for a lot of this because it is their job to ask those questions. I had retired, and I was asked by a subsequent commander at CENTCOM to come to his headquarters and talk. I talked to him at length. He was frustrated. He said, “You know what, I don’t know what I am supposed to do. I have no idea what I am supposed to do.” He had a war going on in Afghanistan and Iraq, and he has no idea what the political objectives are, what the desired end state is, how it ends.

If a lack of national-level strategy makes it difficult for our organizations to do anything strategic, how do we get better at it again?

Zinni: That’s a key question, but it is hard to answer because we change administrations every four years. Even if a President gets eight years, his cabinet turns over at least once during his time, so there is no consistency. No one who comes into these offices goes through a strategy course before becoming Secretary of State or Secretary of Defense, or the National Security Advisor. What strategic education or training do they have? The problem is that in the military we build this tremendous planning and thinking construct, and the whole thing—as magnificent as it is—ultimately relies on plugging it into a strategy, a vision, an end state.

The only time I personally saw a moment of strategy was in the 1980s when we had fixed the military, if you will, with the all-volunteer force, and we began to test operational skills. That became a critical point to be promoted and be successful. The military decided to take on at least some of the upper end of operational art and strategy. You had the Maritime Strategy, AirLand Battle, Deep Battle—these at least were high-end, conceptual ways of doing business. I always told people I was at the bottom end of strategy as a combatant commander. I had to have a theater strategy, but I had no delusions that I was preparing grand strategy or anything like that. I was where strategy touched operational art.

I had to have a theater strategy, and I had to have a matching set of applications to go with it. I had no real guidance. I was basically on my own. I read everything that said “strategy” on the cover. My staff piled it up on tables in my office: content from all the other combatant commanders, the National Security Strategy, every country plan in my area of responsibility. I read all the DoD and State Department stuff. It was not very useful. First, very little of it said anything. Then, when you looked at it, even the terminology for the same things was different. Everybody made up his own, and there were so many inconsistencies in what was going on. There were no driving principles, no driving strategic goals and objectives. Nothing drove or directed our processes.

You know, Goldwater-Nichols, most people miss the part that says the President will provide a strategy within the first 150 days of his or her presidency. Then, every year it is to be updated, with the budget, and sent to Congress. I think Goldwater and Nichols tried to elevate the debate about how the resources being provided had to be based on strategic understanding and coherence between the providers in Congress and the executors in the Executive Branch. It never happens that way.

You were involved with the Navy Strategic Studies Group (SSG). How did you get involved with it, and would that be something we could reinvigorate to help nurture and educate strategic thinkers?

Zinni: You know, it started out that way, as a forum to do just that. My group may have been the last one that was truly doing a strategic study. The SSG was originally formed by the Chief of Naval Operations to take a strategic issue and spend a year studying it. Then, come back and answer the question the CNO wanted studied. This later deteriorated, maybe during the group after me, into doing studies on recruiting, manpower, things like that.

We had an interesting one. The Maritime Strategy had been on the street for a while, and the CNO wanted to know if it was getting any reaction from the Soviets. We spent the first half of the year delving into intelligence to see if the Soviet commanders responded to the Maritime Strategy. We spent the second half of the year determining whether they responded in a way that necessitated an update to the Maritime Strategy either to counter their reactions or take advantage of their reactions.

What was eye opening to me was interviewing a defector who was with the GRU. I was going over things we did operationally to see how the Soviets responded to it. He put up with this for an hour or two before he finally started laughing. I asked, “What’s so funny?” He said, “You are going about this the wrong way. Do you understand that you feed the Soviet Army?” Reagan had approved grain sales to Russia after their five-year plan failed and they had big food shortages. This was very controversial in the United States, but Reagan saw this as a benefit to our farmers. He got enough support in Congress to do this, but this guy was telling me, without that, the Soviet Army doesn’t eat! That made us think we might be going about this the wrong way. We were thinking in terms of kinetic exchange, battlefield stuff.

What if we cut off outside resources? How dependent is the Soviet Union on outside resources? We looked at dependencies—this was one, but also other dependencies on raw materials and food stuffs. Then we looked at a broader maritime strategy. We could blockade the Pacific ports of the Soviets. Cutting off supply and resupply of critical elements was of greater strategic advantage than what we were thinking about doing kinetically on their maritime flanks. These were the kinds of issues we were thinking of in the SSG.

We are just not very good at strategy anymore. Back when we had a decent approach to it, during Desert Storm/Desert Shield, we at least had some idea strategically. We did not want to make Iraq the 51st state; we didn’t want to own it. We wanted to stamp out Saddam, then go to containment, and do it in a way that we didn’t end up with a broken Iraq on our back. Brent Scowcroft understood the limits of the military there. He was an Air Force two-star, and you had James Baker as the Secretary of State, who was a former Marine officer, and also a decent strategic thinker. And, of course, you had Colin Powell as the Chairman, who had a lot of influence within the administration, above just being the Chairman.

They crafted the strategy to not go to Baghdad, and then the containment strategy after that, which we were able to define and refine down to just 23,000 troops, on any given day, containing Iraq. Less than the number reporting to the Pentagon every day. The effort was to avoid making those 23,000 waste their time, so we created live fire ranges out in Kuwait so they could get trained. We tried to create an environment with our allies for joint training that made the containment more than sitting around somewhere.

There was a flickering of some strategic thinking in there, but again, what you saw was a 4-star general, General Powell, who had a lot of influence in the government, and a National Security Adviser who was a retired Air Force general. They understood what the limitations were. But it was controversial. There were many politicians who thought we should have gone to Baghdad even though we would have been handed a mess, but at least back then, we had overwhelming force, which was a tenant of what Powell advocated. By overwhelming force, Powell didn’t just mean military force. He meant bringing in allies, making sure the international community is behind you, getting that UN resolution, because you want to have the overwhelming moral force, not just the military force. But they, and that kind of strategic thinking, got discarded and pushed aside.

Regarding the 1980s Maritime Strategy, what can we do now to get back to that kind of approach?

Zinni: I really think it is time to think about a Maritime Strategy, much the way we framed it back in the 80s. In the 80s, there were several motivations for doing it. We weren’t that far out from Vietnam. The concentration in the 70s was on rehabilitating the services from the effects of Vietnam, building the all-volunteer military, and creating more education opportunities in the military. When we hit the 80s, it opened up for the next step, which was sort of a renaissance, and we began looking at operational art.

You saw maneuver warfare, AirLand Battle, and the Maritime Strategy in the 80s. The Navy and Marine Corps came together and thought about a lot of questions pertaining to possible conflict with the Soviet Union, and people wanted to become more creative about how we would engage in such an operation. The Navy and Marine Corps said, “OK, how do we play in that? We are not central front forces. Is there a role on the flanks?” This opened and challenged thinking. Traditional thinking, for example, is you never take a carrier close into the shore. Well, we ended up proposing that carriers go into the fjords in Norway. We looked at seizing areas in the Mediterranean and the Baltic and then pressuring the flanks of any Soviet effort in the central region.  

What we looked at in the SSG was very insightful because those were things we hadn’t thought about at the strategic level. The SSG, unfortunately, fell off. Its high-water mark was in the 80s. By the time the 90s came around, the SSG wasn’t doing anything strategic. They became an administrative analysis group, rather than a strategic thinking group. It lost its strategic nature, and with the collapse of the Soviet Union, we went into a pause in our strategic thinking overall.

How do we make sure we develop people who are asking the right questions and not falling victim to biases and projecting what we want to believe, or what we want to believe is happening in other countries?

Zinni: It’s a great question, and I go back to people like George Marshall, who had the same question. What Marshall did—and General Gray was like this, too—Marshall wanted to know who his senior leaders, mid-range leaders, and maybe even some of his junior leaders were. Marshall spent a lot of time talking with his leadership, trying to understand who they were. There were always rumors about Marshall having a little black book about the leaders he thought were the best or had something. People later realized he never really had a black book, but he had a black book in his mind.

When World War II started, he immediately knew who he had to move out and who he wanted to move in. The people he identified early on as promising were put in at the division, corps, and field Army levels, and they were remarkably good. He then started to form these groups where he encouraged them to come together afterhours to discuss the art of war, operational art, and the profession of arms. He wanted this dialogue to continue amongst these groups that he established. General Gray and Lieutenant General Trainor did the same thing. Within these groups, they could begin to see who the thinkers were.

You must not only go after the thinkers, however, but also those who can lead, execute, and apply. You must marry the two together. There is a place for people who can only do the conceptual, but you are really looking for the future leaders who can tie the conceptual to the application. Our senior leadership needs to do what Marshall did and try to personally discover these people and identify them, and not just believe the system can do it on its own.

Read Part Two here.

General Anthony Zinni served 39 years as a U.S. Marine and retired as CommanderinChief, U.S. Central Command, a position he held from August 1997 to September 2000. After retiring, General Zinni served as U.S. special envoy to Israel and the Palestinian Authority (2001-2003) and U.S. special envoy to Qatar (2017-2019). General Zinni has held numerous academic positions, including the Stanley Chair in Ethics at the Virginia Military Institute, the Nimitz Chair at the University of California, Berkeley, the Hofheimer Chair at the Joint Forces Staff College, the Sanford Distinguished Lecturer in Residence at Duke University, and the Harriman Professorship of Government at the Reves Center for International Studies at the College of William and Mary. General Zinni is the author of several books, including Before the First Shots Are Fired, Leading the Charge, The Battle for Peace, and Battle Ready. He has also had a distinguished business career, serving as Chairman of the Board at BAE Systems Inc., a member of the board and later executive vice president at DynCorp International, and President of International Operations for M.I.C. Industries, Inc.

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

Major Sean F. X. Barrett, PhD is a Marine intelligence officer currently serving as the Operations Officer for 1st Radio Battalion.

Featured Image: Sgt. William J. Puckett, an assault amphibious crew chief with Alpha Company, 2nd Assault Amphibian Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, watches from the turret of his AAV as Marines with his unit conduct a Gator Square after disembarking from the USS Whidbey Island off the coast of Camp Lejeune, N.C., Sept. 10, 2014. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Justin Updegraff / Released)