Category Archives: Strategy

Top Issues Facing the U.S. Navy: A Compendium from The Madison Sea Power Workshops

By Capt. Gerard D. Roncolato (ret.), Capt. Scott Mobley (ret.), and CDR Paul Giarra (ret.)


This paper presents the collated opinions from participants in the Madison Sea Power Workshops, an informal gathering of navalists whose purpose is to explore key issues facing American sea power as we shift to an era of great power competition.

The challenges facing our Navy and its Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) are legion, stemming from the long post-Cold War era, a 20-plus year focus on terrorism, the wars in Southwest Asia, and perhaps more fundamentally, the lack of active naval combat against a peer competitor since 1945.

We intend these issues to serve as a springboard for developing specific, actionable recommendations that would help the Navy and the CNO put the rudder hard over to get the ship’s head moving, relying on the system to refine the course downstream.

We asked our members: “What are the top issues facing the U.S. Navy today?” In answering the question, members submitted their top five issues. We then binned their responses and ranked them in order of most feedback to least. This yielded the following rank-ordered discussion of the survey results.

Our membership includes longstanding navalists and non-navalists interested in national security and the U.S. Navy. It includes a diverse group of intellectual and academic backgrounds. 27 of the 58 members responded. The demographics include (some members fit into more than one category):

  • Serving/Served Navy: 19
  • Interservice and Interagency: 4
  • PhDs: 7
  • Academics and Analysts: 10
  • Retired Flag/Senior Officer/SES: 14
  • Active Duty: 5

In short, we feel this effort offers a fresh and diverse voice to the tough issues facing today’s Navy. Just as importantly, we note the order of the bins, with “Logistics” near the top and “Material” at the bottom. This is somewhat the inverse of what one might expect and reflects a unique result of this survey.

Though our original paper included recommendations and “issues,” the decision was made to separate the two into the issues themselves, how they were gathered, and how they broke out in the rankings, which are of value on their own. Next, we intend to provide an analytical document that focuses on recommendations. This separation of products allows us to report on the membership’s priorities and then analyze the recommendations in a logical sequence.

Survey Results: Top Issues for the U.S. Navy

As we reviewed the issues provided by our participants, we found that they naturally organized themselves into nine broad categories (i.e., “bins”). The bins are ranked in order from most feedback to least. It should be noted that the focus of the group fell largely into two categories: (1) issues deemed fundamental and (2) issues receiving less attention in the navalist community and the press.

1. Strategy

The need for a naval (or maritime) strategy that drives programmatic decisions, doctrine, and training is a frequent topic in academia, media, and navalist circles. Yet, despite years of debate, such a strategy remains elusive. The reasons underlying this situation are beyond the purview of this paper. However, Madison Sea Power Workshop participants provided numerous responses on this issue. The issues fall into several broad sub-categories, including deficient national and naval strategies, inadequate or missing strategic planning skills and processes, and incoherent and unbalanced force structures—including our Foreign Military Sales system. Some argued that the Navy has surrendered its strategic planning to other organizations like the Joint Staff, Office of the Secretary of Defense, or combatant commanders. At the same time, there is general agreement that the Navy, the Office of Chief of Naval Operations in particular, must articulate the importance and the nation’s need for sea power.

A common theme was the apparent absence of an explicit concept of what kind of competition and war could and should inform procurement and doctrinal decisions, including any concept of war termination or victory conditions. A recent article on unmanned systems asks: A fleet to do what?1 Related to these comments was the argument that such a gap in the Navy’s strategic framework hinders building a realistic operational context for judging and using technological developments. In the interwar period, War Plan Orange provided such a context. While its contents constantly shifted as conditions changed and as the Navy learned through education, wargames, and exercises, the solid presence of the plan served as a foundation for decisions.

Finally, it was noted that the lack of an overarching U.S. maritime strategy fosters a narrow focus on technology and, for lack of a better term, kill chains or webs. While the latter are a necessary element in preparing for a future war, they alone are insufficient. The overly narrow framework that drives current naval thinking and joint thinking also avoids hard issues that emerge when one considers the broader aspects of a great power war with a heavy maritime component. The defense of shipping, ports, logistics lines to forward-deployed forces, homeland infrastructure, and impeding Chinese trade or economic activity all fall outside the scope of kill chain logic.

It has been argued that sea power is all about movement: enabling ours while impeding that of the enemy.2 This is a radically different frame of reference from ground-centric or even air-centric strategic concepts. It is uniquely maritime and hence, uniquely naval in character. For this reason alone, the participants saw developing a broad yet focused maritime strategy as key, even foundational, in preparing for the next great power war.

2. Logistics

Based on additional input following the September 20th, 2023, hybrid workshop session at the U.S. Naval Institute, the logistics bin received the second most responses. This is due in part to the broad definition of logistics used. It also suggests the deep concern many participants have with the neglect of the Navy’s logistics capabilities. Finally, members’ concerns underscore the need to rethink logistic concepts in the face of a future great power war in the western Pacific against a capable and determined adversary with superior industrial capacity. As used here, logistics covers the full spectrum, including factory assembly lines, naval supply depots, distribution systems, and ultimately our combat forces—the “last tactical mile.” There was significant concern over what was perceived as a deficient industrial base, particularly for shipbuilding and repair. This was complemented by perceptions of a shipbuilding plan overly focused on high-end combatants for confrontation with enemy fleets and power projection ashore at the expense of other missions like convoy escort, sea lines of communication defense, mine countermeasures, and logistic support.

Many respondents perceived that logistics networks are brittle and insufficient for sustaining a joint campaign in the western Pacific against China. This includes woefully inadequate merchant sealift. This capability and capacity gap is exacerbated by the vulnerabilities of air and sea lines of communication and their associated depots in a great power war.3

Several participants added concerns about the “last tactical mile” of logistics support. Specifically, the long-known inability to rearm vertical launch system (VLS) weapons at sea was seen as a critical shortcoming. Likewise, planning and capacity for logistics support of dispersed formations, whether Marine Corps or Navy, was seen as inadequate. In all cases, concern for capability gaps was amplified by a sense that there seems to be little urgency in effectively addressing those gaps.

A related concern expressed by a few of the Madison Sea Power Project participants is the seeming lack of questioning long-held logistics operational concepts. Specifically, there was concern that in the post-Cold War era, naval logistics had returned to the hub-based structure of the pre-World War II era. The concern is that reliance on in-theater logistics hubs introduces vulnerabilities and operational rigidities when employed in a great power conflict. World War II development of a mobile logistics force concept was necessary in sustaining combat operations against a very capable and mobile area denial enemy.4,5 The answer cannot be that such a situation would never happen when one asks, “What happens if our in-theater depots are compromised?”

Finally, there was concern that the abandonment of organic maintenance and repair (along with commensurate manning, onboard tools, and parts) had compromised ship self-sufficiency at exactly the time the Navy was placing increased emphasis on dispersed operations. It is noted that the Navy is changing course on this last issue, but greater urgency is recommended.

3. Training and Education

This bin covers accession, tactical/system training, and professional education. Key concerns from our members included deficient personnel recruitment, reliance on antiquated techniques for training, inadequate officer education on war, history, and warfighting, and insufficient wargaming at all levels as a tool for training and experimentation. There is continued concern with crew maintenance capability and capacity at the shipboard level. Specifically, design compromises that impair the ability of crews to effect emergency battle damage repairs intended to keep the ship in the fight or allow it to withdraw. For example, the shipboard 4160 VAC electrical distribution system requires depot-level repair that the ship’s crew cannot affect at sea.

Perhaps the most significant concern expressed by participants was the apparent neglect of building an officer corps capable of dealing with the inevitable surprises that combat in a great power war will bring. While related to the Culture bin discussed next, comments in this bin emphasized the role of training and education in building the desired skills. One participant made the case for an increased emphasis on command. Reflecting on the uncertainty surrounding combat and the incredible speed with which events can unfold, he noted:

“I think command—as a concept and a role—needs more emphasis. Training and education should be oriented to creating officers who can think independently, assess multiple factors quickly, and act strategically, even in tactical situations. That’s what the Naval War College did in the 1930s.”

Finally, several participants noted that tactical training in today’s Navy is inadequate. It is, they argue, focused largely on systems alignments and checklists. While these are important building blocks to tactics, they are not themselves tactics. Even in a highly technological service like the Navy, the human element in combat remains significant. In a great power war, the side that adapts effectively first will prevail. Many factors influence this capability, but true tactical education and training are seen as of primary importance.

4. Culture

Our members submitted a significant number of responses on the issue of service culture. In some cases, members argued that changing the culture is the first and most important step in addressing the issues facing the Navy today. On the other hand, some members argued for deleting the Culture bin since a changed culture is the product of other changes across the institution. In the context of this paper, the concept of Navy culture was of sufficient concern to our members that we include it here—primarily as a statement of issues facing the Navy. Subsequent products from Madison Sea Power Workshop will focus on recommended actions where the relationship between culture and change will be explored.

The overarching concern of the Madison Sea Power Project Workshop members was a perceived lack of focus on warfighting. This includes a lack of realistic tactical training, over-focus on inspections, which consume the majority of time for operational forces, and a perceived zero-defect culture. A warfighting culture, by contrast, focuses primarily on warfighting imperatives, placing the study and practice of tactics above other concerns, and recognizes the importance of ship and squadron ownership of their tactics. Finally, such a culture recognizes and acts upon the precept that combat is a chaotic human endeavor where surprise is ever-present and, consequently, where only the agile and most highly trained can prevail.

The perceived inability of the Navy to foster such a culture has many causes, per the responses. These include career paths that allow little deviation and even less time for personal study about war and tactics. Ship/squadron schedules afford little time for units to ponder and execute effective training for warfighting. Respondents see tactical training as overly focused on technical procedures and system alignments, neglecting the dynamics of actual wartime tactics. Also, a heavy focus on the material aspects of warfighting while neglecting the human elements. The heavy inspection culture has created an organizational dependency on outsiders to define ship and squadron success, fostering a persistent zero-defect culture focused on passing inspections rather than preparing for war. Several members commented on the need to enhance Navy leadership: rebuild “committed, engaged leadership (from work center to fleet command).” A final set of responses emphasized the challenges of our existing peacetime promotion and selection process that seems to value conformity and management over warfighting knowledge and proficiency.

Taken together, these responses emphasize the importance of shifting Navy culture to one that extols frank feedback at all levels, emphasizes lower-level initiative, and, in general, evolves into a fast and agile organization well-versed in the profession of warfighting. Such an organization can absorb war’s inevitable surprises and quickly develop corrective measures. In short, the group sensed that developing a culture focused on warfighting would entail rebuilding an organization with critical thinking and adaptability at the forefront. This is the learning culture about which Trent Hone so effectively writes.6

5. Organization

The Navy’s organization and its place within the broader Department of Defense and governmental framework garnered a significant number of inputs, half of which were received in response to the initial draft of this paper. Comments were wide-ranging and focused on three principal areas: Internal Navy organization, the Navy’s relationship with the government, and the Navy’s engagement within and beyond the institution, including with the American people.

At its core, the Navy organization must align with a dramatically different geo-strategic environment. Members remarked upon outdated Navy roles and missions, the lack of an effective strategic planning arm of the Navy staff, and a long-range (30-40 years) planning office focused more narrowly on the Navy’s roles and requirements for a U.S.-Peoples Republic of China competition. Additionally, Madison Sea Power Workshop members were concerned with the bureaucratic inertia evident in Navy staff (as well as other government bureaucracies). This retards action, values deliberate (and thus slow) planning, distorts the value of the enterprise approach to decision-making, and tends to centralize decisions at high levels with a resultant dampening of lower-level initiatives and innovation.

The members’ greatest concern was the Navy’s external relationships. Decades of “small” land wars in Southwest Asia encouraged focus on ground-centric operations in a relatively benign environment. The Navy’s (and the Nation’s) long heritage as a maritime nation reliant on sea power for its security and prosperity faded into the background. In its place, a more homogenized concept of jointness emerged, particularly in the wake of the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act (GNA). Members noted a perceived Army dominance in our joint doctrine, where service perspectives have been shoe-horned into a one-size-fits-all type of jointness. This is at odds with the Navy’s experience in the Pacific Campaign of World War II, where Admiral Nimitz developed a heterogeneous framework for joint campaigning that harnessed the unique perspectives of the various services to build a highly effective integrated force. As the Nation shifts focus toward what will largely be a maritime campaign versus China, such a heterogenous and agile doctrinal approach will become increasingly important.

This perspective applies as well to the U.S. military’s current combatant command structure. Several members noted that the regional combatant commands evolved to their current state during the post-Cold War era. It was noted that regional combatant commands may not be well suited to countering an increasingly global power, China, or a global coalition of disruptive powers—China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. What is missing is a single military command or organization empowered to develop deterrence, warfighting strategies, and doctrine on a global level. A nuance of this command is developing a global maritime combatant command. This combatant command would be like existing ones, such as Space Command, Cyber Command, etc., charged with harnessing and employing US maritime forces around the great global commons.

Beyond the joint military arena, members were also concerned with our civilian leaders’ perceived lack of knowledge and understanding of military affairs. When combined with our political processes, this general lack of knowledge more often yields what one member called “policy mayhem.” This perspective naturally leads to a recognition of the Navy’s weakness in the public relations domain. Several members reiterated concerns over the Navy’s poor engagement with Congress and the American people. The perception is that the Navy tends to tell the people, through Congress and the press, that all is well and under control, but the details are classified.

This approach, akin to circling the wagons, will no longer work. The challenges faced by the Navy, internally as well as externally—are readily apparent to the attentive public. And not only are deep problems perceived, but a lack of progress over time is also apparent. Central to this issue, as reported by our members, is the lack of an effective maritime strategy that aligns internal Navy efforts and makes the case for American sea power to the public, Congress, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. This links back to the earlier discussion of strategy above.

Viewed as a coherent whole, the issue of the Navy’s organization will play out within the context of a challenged U.S. civil-military relations framework. Increasingly discussed in the open press, civil-military relations must be strengthened and revamped to pave the way for effective whole-of-government solutions to the emerging crisis. This is a broad issue that the Chief of Naval Operations alone cannot fix but can drive into the agenda.7

6. Doctrine

This is another broad bin with a wide diversity of responses from Madison Sea Power Workshop members. Persistent interoperability challenges topped the concerns—interoperability within the Navy, in the joint force, and with allies and partners. Related to these concerns, members emphasized the need to look at the Pacific campaign through a joint lens. Several noted that while geography dictates that the fight will be maritime in nature, it will not be won by naval forces alone. Innovative approaches to the joint fight and its associated doctrine will be essential. There is a perceived lack of Army-Navy cooperation in developing a unified operational concept that maximizes and integrates the unique contribution of each service to the fight.

A significant part of the problem, as articulated by the members (and as mentioned in the Strategy section above), is the absence of a consensus on the character of a maritime war against China, how the U.S. will define victory in such a conflict, and what ways and means will be needed to accomplish that victory. The perception is that the military continues to prepare for a war with China through the lens of the past thirty years rather than accepting that such a war will be large, likely long, and that a peacetime military will be unable to win against the People’s Liberation Army. Members felt that the military had yet to fully align with new realities, specifically fighting against a determined and highly capable enemy thousands of miles from home in a contested maritime environment with an adversary that enjoys the home-court advantage. Moreover, the sense is that the current doctrine fails to account for the industrial advantage enjoyed by China and the challenges our military will face in replacing losses and sustaining high rates of weapons consumption.

Flowing from these issues is the broader one of what might be called a doctrinal echo chamber. The Navy and Marine Corps are developing doctrines such as Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) and Expeditionary Advance Base Operations (EABO) in response to current fiscal realities. Yet, the war they are being asked to fight presents demands far in excess of what the government is funding today. We face the potential of developing an eloquent doctrine based more on fiscal constraints and less on warfighting realities. The disconnect can prove disastrous.

Finally, the Navy’s doctrinal development suffers from self-imposed cultural and organizational challenges: cumbersome, unresponsive, centralized, and inadequately tested.

7. Operations

Responses on this issue focused on the mutually reinforcing problems of high operational-tempo demands, poor readiness in terms of manning, material, and training, a perception of too many priorities for too little time, and too little force structure. One member succinctly stated the thoughts of the group regarding operations in the context of other Navy issues: “Chronically being stretched thin, generalist mentality, poor staying power of numerous initiatives, no white space to truly think and go deeper.”

The upshot of this situation is that the Navy lacks the time and operational availability for extensive, rigorous, focused experimentation. Traditional means of doing this, such as the well-known Fleet Problems of the interwar era, are constrained by high operational tempo and the ease with which adversaries can monitor exercises. The Navy is making use of virtual reality simulations to experiment behind closed doors, but much more is needed. In addition to that need, the speed and effectiveness with which doctrinal lessons are being learned and fed back into new doctrine is too slow. This is part of an overall need for speed across the organization.

8. Acquisition

Acquisition reform has been a topic of discussion for decades across the defense community. Results have been minimal at best. Madison Sea Power Project members cited two major components of the problem. First, the process remains broken. Procurement takes too long, systems are over-complicated, and operator input seems sporadic, resulting in the delivery of platforms that take years, if not decades, to make useful to the operating forces. Second, compounding the inefficiency with which the Department of Defense spends its money is the continued paucity of resources. The nation is lurching toward great power competition, if not war, without the needed funding. The Navy’s influence on these issues is limited to a degree. But changing course is possible and will depend on the Navy’s ability to argue an effective case for both a streamlined and agile acquisition process and the funding needed to build and sustain the kind of Navy needed to project power into the western Pacific against a capable and determined adversary.

9. Material

Material issues are numerous and difficult. Members largely avoided these issues, aware they are the most talked about challenges in our military-industrial complex. However, they raised several issues: too few ships to meet a growing spectrum of necessary wartime missions and peacetime commitments, the large percentage of ships tied up in maintenance for extended periods, the chronic issue of too few missiles and other weapons with an inability to rearm underway in-theater, and the continued tendency of the procurement system to seek solutions in emerging technologies without adequate testing or doctrinal considerations. In particular, members are concerned with the leap into unmanned or optionally manned platforms without rigorous and honest examination of the technical risks, intended operational concepts, and sustainability issues. Regarding the latter, an excellent article examining the challenges of relying upon unmanned systems to make numbers was published in mid-October 2023 after member responses were recorded. The reader is urged to consider its points.8


This paper has presented the consolidated input of 27 Madison Sea Power Workshop members—civilian, active duty, and retired. The process yielded issues and their priority ranking that differ from the usual listing of concerns in navalist circles. Hopefully, this unique approach will be useful to the Navy’s leadership and informative to the American public and its leaders.

As noted in the introduction, the decision was made to first offer a summary of the issues Madison Sea Power Workshop members identified in their responses. No recommendations have been included above. The intent is to produce a separate document that takes this paper as a point of departure, conducts a rigorous analysis of the issues, and then offers concise recommendations for action.

Taken as a whole, the two papers will present a compelling and holistic recipe for the radical course change needed to shape and prepare the Navy for a wholly new strategic environment.

CAPT Gerard D. Roncolato, USN (Ret), is a retired surface warfare officer with extensive experience in policy and strategy work. He commanded the guided-missile destroyer USS The Sullivans (DDG-68) and Destroyer Squadron 26 at sea.

CAPT Scott Mobley, USN (Ret)commanded USS Boone (FFG-28) and USS Camden (AOE-2) and served as Reactor Officer in USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75). After retiring from the Navy, he earned a Ph.D. in History and authored Progressives in Navy Blue: Maritime Strategy, American Empire, and the Transformation of U.S. Naval Identity, 1873–1898 (Naval Institute Press, 2018). Dr. Mobley teaches international security and civil-military relations courses at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

CDR Paul Giarra, USN (Ret),is the president of Global Strategies & Transformation, a professional services firm and strategic planning consultancy. He was a P-3 pilot and served aboard two ships during his naval career. He was a designated naval strategic planner, a political-military strategic planner for Far East, South Asia, and Pacific issues, and he managed the U.S.–Japan alliance in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.


The Madison Sea Power Workshop is an informal gathering of navalists to explore key issues facing American sea power during the shift to an era of great power competition. Members represent a spectrum of professions, some with naval service and others without. All members share a deep-seated belief that American sea power is of the greatest importance to the nation and the world, that American sea power is challenged in unprecedented ways, and that sustaining it requires the action and commitment of the American public. We are indebted to our members, without whom this paper would not have been possible. 


1. Jonathan Panter, “Unmanned Ships: A Fleet to do What?” Center for International Maritime Security, October 17th, 2023.

2. This was the answer that then-CNO William D. Leahy provided to the question from Congress in 1938: What did he need a bigger Navy for? See Phillips Payson O’Brien, The Second Most Powerful Man in the World, (New York: Dutton, 2019), p. 118.

3. David B. Larter. “’You’re on your own’: US sealift can’t count on Navy escorts in the next big war,” Defense News, October 10th, 2018.

4. Trent Hone. “From Mobile Fleet to Mobile Force: The Evolution of U.S. Navy Logistics in the Central Pacific During World War II,” Journal of Military History, 87:2 (April 2023), pp. 367-403.

5. Dr. Salvatore Mercogliano. “Six Oilers,” YouTube Media, April 20th, 2023.

6. Trent Hone, Learning War: The Evolution of Fighting Doctrine in the U.S. Navy, 1898-1945, (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2018), and, most recently, Mastering the Art of Command: Admiral Chester W. Nimitz and Victory in the Pacific, (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2022).

7. Eliot Cohen recently penned an important exploration of the challenges facing U.S. civil-military relations and the decline of the study, understanding, and acceptance of war as an enduring phenomenon in the country. “Beware the False Prophets of War: Why Have the Experts Been so Persistently Wrong?” The Atlantic, September 11th, 2023.

8. Jonathan Panter, “Unmanned Ships: A Fleet to do What?” Center for International Maritime Security, October 17th, 2023.

Featured Image: PHILIPPINE SEA (June 12, 2023) An F/A-18E Super Hornet, attached to the Royal Maces of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 27, launches from the flight deck aboard the U.S. Navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier, USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), in the Philippine Sea, June 12, 2023. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Eric Stanton)

Future Visions and Planned Obsolescence: Implementing 30-year Horizons in Defense Planning

By Travis Reese and Dylan Phillips-Levine

This is the third and final part of Travis Reese’s CIMSEC Readiness Series. Read Part 1 on properly defining joint readiness, Read Part 2 on how Defense Department planning horizons can better avoid strategic surprise.

The False Dilemma

“Necessity, especially in politics, often occasions false hopes, false reasonings, and a system of measures correspondingly erroneous.” —Alexander Hamilton, Federalist 35, 1788. 

“Innovation is [sic] an exercise in risk management, a balancing act between the promises of a new capability and the perils of losing older ones.”—Kendrick Kuo of the Naval War College.

Current readiness and future requirements can be synchronized in DoD, reconciling the tension between contemporary force employment and future force design with the proper framework. The debate on how to balance the paradigms and viewpoints of what are often termed “traditionalists” and “futurists” is something which many national security practitioners appreciate, but little has been done to rectify. Both paradigms of traditionalists and futurists are equally unhelpful to delivering a clear-eyed assessment of the security environment when looked through that singular lens. The misunderstanding between these diametrically opposed paradigms has been historically regarded as an “either-or” statement: the choice is adaptation of existing and legacy means or developing future-minded innovation which may be at the root of this phenomenon. Both camps staunchly dig their heels into the sand and are either reticent to change existing solutions to answered problems or overly enthusiastic about advocating for solutions to potential problems based on the allure of technological promise.

The whole concept of traditionalists and futurists is a little comical given the fact that what is tradition now was once future and what is future assumes that older solutions are merely inadequate because they are old. People in one camp or the other are either reticent to change by disposition or overly enthusiastic about the future sometimes suppressing discussion of risk by overvaluing opportunity.

Despite the entrenched viewpoints between both camps, two complementary models will be detailed in this article that define how to apply the principles of the Horizons of Innovation. These models bridge the gap from traditionalists to futurists and provide a framework to develop the transition from “as is” into the “to be.” These models are designed to help overcome the temptation to remain fixated on the static logic of a traditionalist or futurist point of view. They provide clear criteria to frame objective discussion within the two camps as they assess the implications of the future horizons model on preserving legacy capability or shifting to future means. Horizons of Innovation models create an objective framework to reconcile the current environment with the future before making the risky decision between sustaining the “old” or adopting the “new.”

The First Horizons Application Model shows the level of detail that should populate appropriate timeframes depicted in the Horizons of Innovation. The Second Horizons Application Model accounts for the dynamic response by adversaries to potential innovations and how DoD can gain the most utility from a range of potential capability investments before adversaries respond with effective countermeasures. The Second Model is a framework that minimizes the institutional shock to capability replacement and succession.

Horizons of Innovation Recap

The Three Horizons model introduced by business strategists around the turn of this millennia serves as the inspiration to develop the Horizons of Innovation Model. The operating definitions in this article for innovation and adaptation are derived from remarks by former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford: Innovation is doing new things in new ways with new means and concepts. Adaptation is using current means and applying them to new or emerging challenges.

Figure 1: The Horizons of Innovation Model. 

Horizons of Innovation Model is represented in Figure 1. The Horizon Innovation model provides a framework for three horizons. The Y-axis, labeled “solutions” spans the spectrum from unsuitable to perfect. The X-axis, labeled “time” spans from the present into the future. Solutions are constrained by the positively sloped “innovation” line and negatively sloped “adaptation.” All solutions constrained in the angle formed between adaptation and innovation are acceptable where the bisecting dashed line represents the best performance. Solutions that exist below the adaptation line are unacceptable while solutions that exist above the innovation line are unattainable. DoD force planners should look at the limiting lines of innovation and adaptation across the three different horizons of 10, 20, and 30 years to develop the framework to address future challenges.

The historical length of time required to develop technological innovations or adopt new concepts informed the 30 years timeline. This timeline of 30-years from conception to adoption of innovative solutions is a consistent trend (opposed amphibious assault for example) for modern military capability development and precedes many modern bureaucracies. The misguided belief that modern information and manufacturing compresses technology advancement and is only stifled by institutional processes or bureaucratic hinderances to develop or adopt new capabilities is not reflected reality. Recent analysis by the GAO identified the necessity to improve and secure the defense industrial base and confirmed that synchronizing capability development with the needed modifications to industrial capacity to meet future demands is a matter of extreme forethought. Famed futurist Bran Ferren said it best: “We don’t do strategic or long-term thinking anymore. If anything, we may do long-term tactical thinking and call it strategic, but it’s really just a spreadsheet exercise…That’s not a survivable model.”

The issue is not process improvement or increasing efficiencies. The issue is the need to adopt strategic horizons that correspond to the realities of technology development and concept adoption. Defense “professionals” constantly surprise themselves every time a new institutional horizon is established for consideration under a national defense strategy only to discover that industrial base and resources are not prepared for the new problem set. This phenomenon tends to exacerbate the tension between traditionalists – who reflexively hedge by advocating for “tried and true” capabilities – and the frustrated futurists who don’t understand why their certain vision of the future isn’t accepted and quickly translated into physical reality.

First Model: Framework for detailed future projections and reconciling emergent challenges

The hardest thing about future analysis is to reconcile projections with current, or emergent, challenges. In 2014 the discovery of large gaps in defense capacity due to Russian and Chinese development over the Global War on Terror (GWOT) years created a need to energize “innovation” and pursue “disruption”. Those buzzwords proliferated in the new defense jargon around the 3d Offset Strategy and the supporting Long Range Research and Development Plan initiatives The use of the Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) to cover emergent Combatant Commander-identified gaps along with the creation of DIUx to better integrate with America’s technology base were direct reflections of the mindset forming around how to sponsor and conduct defense innovation. As the reality of future capability needs found itself at odds with the timeline to see true technology development occur, the rift between traditionalists and futurists only grew. As a result, strategists did not develop a process or method to reconcile transition from old to new as a matter of managed risk around a set of common criteria that would satiate the conflict between “as is” traditionalist and “to be” futurists.

However, as the reality of future capability needs settled in along with an appreciation of how long it takes to see true technology development occur, the confrontation between how to manage current and future by traditionalists and futurists was never resolved in defense culture or process. One reason why was that there was no clear engagement on how the continuum from current to future should be managed nor what level of detail should populate long range projections compared to near-term realities. Worse, there is still a lack of direction on how to manage normal capability succession if an unanticipated adversary capability is identified that may pre-empt planned investments or divestments, especially if the problem is severe or urgent enough that it requires redirection of re‐ sources. The First Model below provides clear steps to introduce a process to reconcile legacy and future requirements. 

Figure 2: The First Model and levels of detail to inform planning in the Horizons of Innovation Model.

The model above shows the level of detail that should inform discovery, learning, experimentation, and investment for different planning horizons. This model reads from right to left. Planning conducted in the 30-year block on the far right is broken into 5-year increments. Its focus is on the conceptual framework that underpins plausible security situations in 30 years, derived from long-term trends to include: demographics, economics, technology projections, and other factors. The effort of the 30-year period shapes a future defined by the projected operating environment and captures potential threats and opportunities to U.S. security interests. The 30-year projection then gives way to the 20- and 10-year horizons. Finally, this model shows that emergent or unmitigated gaps discovered in the Annual Joint Assessment of the current environment, for which there is no near-term resolution, can be referred to future analysis.

If no solution exists to mitigate a gap with current capabilities, the solution becomes an object of future consideration. The level of risk determines how soon a gap must be filled. As a caveat, this is not a form of “backcasting,” which is often used in future disciplines to define a future state and then identify how in the contemporary environment that desired outcomes should be achieved. This is decidedly not path determinant in that manner, it is simply a guide to the level of detail that should populate strategy and planning activities in each Horizon. Long-term projections are necessary to shape sustained development efforts, but not at the discounting of emergent conditions. Conversely, the emergent pressures of the “now” should not divert all attention from the future as it may set a detrimental course that will impact long-term security.

To develop an effective understanding of the future as it may impact the security environment must be a continuous effort. That future environment is often depicted in the form of defense planning scenarios. However, tension often arises about how much detail a scenario should have. Regardless of the detail requirements, the model effectively shapes 30-year projections through a process of assessment and then, with increasing details, converts assessment into an actionable criterion for defense strategy. Future projections are reconciled to the Joint Strategic Planning System (JSPS) process of force design (five-15 years), force development (two-seven years), and force employment (zero-three years) for the Joint Force synchronized with the Services. The Annual Joint Assessment conducted as part of the JSPS quantifies the capacity of the Joint Force to address current challenges and identifies any newly revealed and emergent threats from adversaries that were not anticipated in Force Design. These emergent concerns are considered and referred to the Joint Staff and Services for resolution. If an arriving capability fills the gap in an acceptable period, then transition can continue. If an emergent challenge is significant enough and a near-term solution can be delivered within two years, then the adjustment to timelines and budgets must be made. If, however, an emergent challenge cannot be mitigated in the near term and is expected to be a continuing challenge with long-term impacts to Joint Force effectiveness, it needs to be allocated to a horizon timeline with corresponding priority where research and experimentation can begin, even if it offsets other newly recognized lower priority efforts.

The First Model also helps to create cognitive space between current programs and future programs to enable honest assessments in each timeframe. It keeps these time periods from being conflated thus, avoiding unnecessary confusion between traditionalists and futurists when it comes to assessing the utility of legacy or future capabilities. It shows how to sustain a constant flow of future projections that mature in detail the closer one gets to the period under question while also accounting for near-term risks. This model establishes the level of detail that can feed a future projection and corresponding defense planning scenario based on its relevant timeframe thus impacting the level of analysis that can contribute to programmatic decisions.

For example, analysis in the 20-year timeframe may only be able to inform decisions to investigate a broad range of solutions or pursue basic or applied research vice selection of specific projects or solutions. Analysis in the 10-year timeframe should be more detailed and aligned with the current operating environment to inform final acquisition decisions and capability transition. Allowing current force commanders to contribute to future analysis in the 10-year horizon can prevent chaining DoD to an exclusive fixation on current concerns at the expense of future readiness while serving to eliminate any anchoring and availability bias in DoD planning and programming.

DoD struggles with how to weigh the consequence of emergent discoveries against other anticipated threats that have been matured and modeled over years. Posture hearings and testimony in front of Congressional committees play this drama out repeatedly as lawmakers question Department staff, Combatant Commanders, and Service leaders over which problem is the greatest and where to focus resources. Often the consequence of immediately allocating resources to an emergent problem is not reconciled against the impact for long-term shaping of force design efforts. The First Model both mends the rift between traditionalists and futurists while clarifying the depth of detail to inform multiple planning horizons. This model provides a solution to end the long-standing chasm between traditionalists and futurists misunderstanding through a mutually beneficial model with clear and common appreciation of the framework from which they view security challenges and remedies.

Second Model: Material and Technology Obsolescence vs Threat Obsolescence

Many proposed future capabilities are increasingly complex technologically both from a hardware and software perspective. Many extant capabilities, having proved their worth in previous generations, become the paradigm of successful means despite indicators that they may not be effective in the future. It is tempting in DoD to avoid re-assessing the efficacy of a capability against an adversary once it becomes a program of record regardless of whether it is an evolutionary or revolutionary capability due to the length of investment of time, money, and institutional alignment around the acquisition effort. Threat information contained in requirements documents introduce a single appreciation of the adversary once signed. Ironically, the need to re-assess increases the longer the capability dwells in development. Potential shifts in adversary capability throughout the capability development and acquisition process is something that demands updating. The Second Model illustrates the importance of a continuous assessment for adversary capabilities during a capability development to assess current legacy systems or their future programmed replacements.

Figure 3: The Second Model and material and technology obsolescence versus threat obsolescence.

In the Second Model depicted above, the Y-axis, labeled “capability,” spans the spectrum of our relative capability against an adversary. The X-axis spans time from the present to the future. Every capability DoD produces moves along the negatively sloped “Own Capability” line from useful to useless as it materially degrades over time. In the “Own capability” line, current capabilities are useful to provide overmatch, followed by neutral or parity as materiel condition over time, then followed by disadvantage as materiel condition and lack of sustainment render the current capability as useless. To exacerbate the entropic “Own capability” line, adversaries also decrease the time of usefulness of “own capability” since adversaries have their own negentropic positive sloped “Adversary capability” line. For each “Own capability,” adversaries adapt and introduce their own means to decrease time to make our “own capability” transition from useful to useless. The intersection of “own capability” and “adversarial capability” creates a point of competitive parity where sustained “own capability” beyond competitive parity generates an unnecessary risk to force and mission.

DoD generally does not consider of the ways that an adversary could respond after the decision to commence research and development of a new capability. The Services generally presume they will start from a position of overmatch and replace the capability as a technology improvement creates an advantage that makes retiring a system worthwhile compared to the expense of its development. The Second Model demonstrates that the adversary capability shift from disadvantage to overmatch may happen faster than the Services project. This template delivers an objective case for how both futurists and traditionalists can bridge the gap from their respective biases when they consider the adversary capacity to overcome either evolutionary or revolutionary means. Depending on the overmatch-disadvantage and present to future deltas, both traditionalists and futurists can assess feasibility of any capability opportunity and whether long-lead technology or a rapid and cheap adaptation is better in the face of an ever-changing adversary.

Peer and near-peer threats seemed less likely just 10 years ago, which afforded the luxury of capability introduction and replacement to be based on self-assessed warfighting improvements that dominated the approach to acquisition and sustainment. This self-assessment helped facilitate multi-mission exquisite platforms and was based on what the U.S. wanted to do or achieve given the low probability, or even lack of consideration, of a peer competitor. The perceived economy of multi-role platforms was derived from the need to have optionality in functions vice specificity derived from a single, or potent grouping, of comparable adversaries. The U.S. largely enjoyed the luxury of time for making features of the systems the dominant design variable rather than the threats they were devised for. A capability was threat informed but largely for adversaries expected to lack the capacity or means to rapidly respond with an effective countermeasure. The Services honored their invested preferences by sustaining capabilities as long as possible either in their original form or through ad-hoc adaptations that did not require major revisions to stave off obsolescence. Spiral development approaches of single systems informed this method with notable examples include the M2A2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle or most of the Navy’s weapons programs and ship construction. In the years of the GWOT, most adversary capabilities, although potent, did not stress the ability of the acquisition system to provide a capable response, just the willingness of the bureaucracy to accept the demand and energize appropriately.

In recent years the U.S. and its allies have seen the ability of adversaries to offset their capability overmatch. Near-peer adversaries are now capable of operating in environments that defy or limit the use of many primary systems to affect conventional deterrence or that present credible high-end capabilities that may achieve an overmatch to U.S. means and systems. With adversaries devoted not simply to regional concerns but limiting U.S. and allied efforts to check their global influence, the moment a capability is introduced, there should be an expectation that an adversary will develop a countermeasure; both symmetrically and asymmetrically. The cost imposing strategy of responding to a well-developed measure with a cheap countermeasure should cause DoD to change the timeframe the Services should expect utility from capabilities and consider replacements. 

Honoring sunk cost and assuming good stewardship of resources based on giving the taxpayer a “return on investment” by merely sustaining or adapting a capability is no longer a viable economy in the face of expected countermeasures for all but a few systems or platforms given the capacity of adversaries to respond technologically and materially. For this reason, force developers and force designers should meet often to develop clear appreciations of what capabilities or concepts will resolve adversary capacity at the point they achieve parity. More importantly, it should give pause to consider many long-lead programs if the time of utility is dramatically less than expected or if the proposed capability gap can be filled by a significantly cheaper and more risk-worthy option before parity is achieved.

Although the U.S. will be unlikely to see very many capabilities that will truly be useful for 30 years that are worth enormous time and capital investments, those that are pursued for 20 years with an expected service life of 20 or 30 years need to have assumptions of their utility validated during the development cycle with a dynamically considered adversary, and not one statically anchored. Only a concerted effort to develop an objective framework offered by the Second Model can help the critical traditionalist versus futurist debate into an actionable accord that delivers platforms and solution.


There should be no false boundary between those who choose to be either traditionalists or futurists. True defense professionals appreciate both perspectives and understand that each is subject to assessment of the claims advocated by either side. One method to address this challenge in DoD culture is to adopt an approach to capability development that treats current and future as a part of a continuum. The Horizons of Innovation illustrate that principle supported by the two subsequent detailed models. From the Horizons, institutional strategists, capability developers, and acquisition professionals can better identify when a capability will face obsolescence, not just due to material degradation but also to adversary response. Merely improving the bureaucracy is insufficient alone to accelerate the choice between innovation and adaptation.

The key process for DoD to gain maximum advantage is to adopt a longer-range strategic scan and continually update and compare multiple horizons against each other. More importantly, the ability to make a compelling case between sustaining current technology or adopting future technology depends entirely on developing measured and accurate models of future concerns that are more right than wrong which can only occur through sustained institutional learning and study.

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

Dylan Phillips-Levine is a naval aviator assigned to a tactical air control squadron. His Twitter handle is @JooseBoludo.

Featured Image: Busan, Republic of Korea (Feb. 23, 2023) Tugboats assist the Los Angeles-class fast-attack submarine USS Springfield (SSN 761) as it pulls into port in Busan. (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Adam Craft)

The CNO’s Navigation Plan for 2022: A Critique

This piece was originally published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Anthony H. Cordesman

There should be a clear difference between efforts to provide unclassified documents that explain and justify U.S. military forces and issuing official reports that are little more than public relations exercises. The U.S. faces major security challenges and the annual cost of U.S. defense is over $760 billion, even if one ignores the cost of nuclear weapons, the Veterans Administration, related activities of the State Department and other agencies, and substantial additional intelligence activity.

The effort to shape U.S. forces and strategy must deal with very real threats. They include a Russia that has invaded the Ukraine, a China that is actively seeking to challenge the U.S. in military and economic power, and regional threats like Iran and North Korea. The U.S. must cope with emerging and disruptive technologies that constantly alter the nature of military forces in unexpected ways, support America’s strategic partners on a global level, and deal with near collapse of many arms control efforts and major increases in Russian and Chinese nuclear and long-range strike programs.

Far too often, however, the Department of Defense issues documents that are little more than sales pitches – filled with slogans, and that are an awkward cross between a shipping list that borders on being a child’s letter to Santa Claus and a used car commercial.

The CNO’s Navigation Plan for 2022 is a case in point. In fairness, it does highlight a long list of important points about the threat, and the need to reshape U.S. naval forces, but it comes far too close to burying them in overall and hype. It fails to meaningfully address and justify the cost of the U.S. Navy, to provide any clear picture of the threat, to address the need to cooperate with key U.S. allies, and to provide a clear program for shaping the Navy’s future.

It is scarcely unique in failing to provide a clear and meaningful plan. The defense budget requests talk about being strategic documents, but almost all of their contents are shopping lists for individual military services. U.S. strategy documents have become little more than long lists of broad goals and wish lists with no actual plan, program, or budget.

The U.S. no longer issues a meaningful Five-Year Defense Plan (FDYP) with force levels and costs, and no real “net assessments” have been issued at the unclassified level. Aside from an annual report on Chinese Military Power, there are no documents that summarizes the threat, and reports on Russian and Iranian military power have not been updated for years. The U.S. State Department has finally killed a public report on World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers that once served as a reference for much of the world’s media and military analysis – one that it had already rendered confusing and difficult to use.

Still, the Navigation Plan for 2022 represents the kind of empty hard sell that no one needs and highlights the contrast between U.S. defense papers and the far more detailed and useful work done by some other countries – with Japan’s Defense of Japan 2022 being a prime example. The relentless hard sell is bad enough, and so is the tendency to deal with every possible issue by setting a goal that is little more than a slogan with no clear plan or priority for tangible action.

That said, the substantive problems in the Navigation Plan for 2022 go far deeper:

1. Strategy, Predictability and “the Five-Year Rule”

The Navigation Plan talks about planning for 2045 as if the needs for U.S. forces this far in the future were predictable. Like the Quadrennial Defense Reviews (QDRs) issues in the past, it tries to look too far into the future in grand strategic terms without addressing even near-term future and force costs in specific terms. It does so without recognizing the need to regularly update and revise a fully defined strategy for the coming year and a future period that was reasonably predictable.

In the real world, 2045 is a long, long way in the future, given global instability and the uncertain priorities for U.S. forces. In practice, we haven’t been able to do a particularly good job of throwing a FYDP together since the end of the Cold War. Figure One shows the turning points in U.S. force levels between 1950 and 2021. It is clear from this histogram that our history of military commitments since 1945 has had so many sudden shifts that it proves that it is barely possible to set goals for planning a workable strategy even five years into the future.

Figure One would also portray far more key points of uncertainty if it included a histogram of nuclear forces levels, strategic priorities, and the role of arms control. The same would be true if it included a histogram of the major shifts in China’s posture and goals and military spending, if it included a chart of the shifting impact of the past versions of new and disruptive technologies. And, if one needs a more tangible example of a massive sudden surge in military spending that had only minimal ties to sea power, Figure Two shows the pattern of unpredictable strategic commitments and military defense spending for the war in Afghanistan.

In practice, even efforts to draft a realistic Five-Year Defense Plan means constantly adjusting the past year’s FYDP on a rolling annual basis and taking account of civil needs and the steady growth of civil entitlement spending.

2. Assumptions about Future Spending and Resources

No one can credibly define a strategy without a force plan and clear assumptions about resources. Figure Three highlights the past levels of sudden change and uncertainty in U.S. forces and budgets and looks at some key budget trends. It warns that U.S. spending levels have steadily dropped as a percent of GDP since the height of the Korean War, and that a case for major increases in the quality of U.S. forces requires detailed justification.

Figure Four warns that current budget projections call for just the opposite trend, and it does not take account of the major new levels of civil spending that have just been enacted by the U.S. Congress. The assumptions the Congressional Budget Office is making about cuts in the future U.S. defense effort call for cuts in defense spending from 3.6% of GDP in 1995, and 3.2% in 2022 to only 2.2% in 2030. In contrast, they call for major increases in Social Security and Major Health Care Programs, and Net Interest.

Long before the signing of the Inflation Reduction Act, the Congressional Budget Office projected major cuts in the level of national defense efforts in order to meet civil needs. It sent a clear warning about the uncertain relevance of any U.S. defense strategy based on broad, undefined goals and priorities, and that focused on desired U.S. defense and forces without any references to budget needs and constraints.

It highlights the fact that there was a reason for including the Future Year Defense Plan (FYDP) in past statements by the Secretary of Defense and in the defense budget request – even if recent projections have rolled the FDYP forward without any clear ties to future force levels and strategy.

However, the Navigation Plan calls for more with almost no detail or justification. It states that,

“To maintain our advantage at sea, America needs a larger and more capable Navy. Faced with peer competitors and emerging disruptive technologies, the Navy needs to become more agile in developing and delivering our future force. Above all, our naval forces must be combat credible — measured by our ability to deliver lethal effects in contested and persistently surveilled battlespaces.” (p. 7)

This need for more naval spending may well be true, but the same may be true of the other services and the Congress has already made major increases in long term federal spending. A Navigation Plan with no funding plan at best follows the Oliver Twist approach to asking for porridge. It simply asks for more.

3. Buzzwords and Generic Goals are not a Strategy

The sections in the Navigation Plan that cover “Force Design Imperatives” and “Force Design 2045” dodge around these issues by citing six “imperatives” that are so broad that they call for advances in every area that is the focus of current force plans.

The Plan lists a “Force Design 2045” and a “need for a more capable, larger Navy” (pp 9-10) which do not seem to track with the options in U.S. shipbuilding plans reported by the Congressional Research Service. The plan refers to rapidly evolving competitors, but then sets the following broad goals for 2040 – some two decades in the rapidly evolving future: “In the 2040s and beyond, we envision this hybrid fleet to require more than 350 manned ships, about 150 large, unmanned surface and subsurface platforms, and approximately 3,000 aircraft.”

It then goes on to list undefined “capacity goals” for ships by type or class but does so without advancing specific goals for given time periods, does not clearly relate them to the previous force goals for manned and unmanned ships, and justifies each set of such goals largely in terms of strategic buzzwords.

Resources are only addressed to the extent that the section on “Navigation Plan Priorities” states that,

“To simultaneously modernize and grow the capacity of our fleet, the Navy will require 3- 5% sustained budget growth above actual inflation. Short of that, we will prioritize modernization over preserving force structure. This will decrease the size of the fleet until we can deploy smaller, more cost-effective, and more autonomous force packages at scale.”

The following section on the Navigation Plan Implementation Framework (NIF) then sets 18 generic priority areas which are only specific in terms of recent and short-term actions, and whose main message seems to be that the Navy’s planning effort has been reorganized, but there as yet is no real strategy or plan.

It might well make sense to try to look as far ahead as 2045 if this was the final section of a strategy based on an analysis of short-, medium-, and long-term issues, priorities, and diminishing levels of confidence – focusing on specifics in the near term and trying to identify key issues for the future. Right now, however, we can’t even assess how a key threat like Russia will behave even three years into the future or predict our strategic path with China.

4. Integrated Strategies, AI, Cyber, Space, and JADO

The document talks about integrated strategies, and all domain operations and warfare. These presumably include key space, AI, and programs, and “integrated” implies an effort to integrate the Navy’s efforts with those of the other services, the needs of the major national and regional commands, and the forces of our strategic partners. However, the Navigation Plan does not address any of the practical priorities and needs involved. It does not have any plan for how the Navy can “integrate” and what this actually means for other U.S. services, and strategic partners. In fact, it states that,

“America cannot cede the competition for influence. This is a uniquely naval mission. A combat-credible U.S. Navy—forward-deployed and integrated with all elements of national power—remains our Nation’s most potent, flexible, and versatile instrument of military influence. As the United States responds to the security environment through integrated deterrence, our Navy must deploy forward and campaign with a ready, capable, combat-credible fleet” (p.5)

Its approach to integration is indicated by other statements that single out the Navy without referring to any other service like: “The Nation cannot afford to cede influence to China or Russia. Nor can it afford to lose combat credibility. We must deliver a Navy designed to deter conflict and help win our Nation’s wars as we maintain a global posture to assure our prosperity. Our national security depends on it.” (p. 12)

5. AI, Cyber, Space, and JADO

The Navigation Plan does list many of the new technologies that are already reshaping military forces throughout the world, but it does not address the fact that most now have relatively short-term windows of predictability, and that some clear path is needed to coordinating U.S. and partner military efforts in new and exploratory ways. It does not address the real-world challenges caused by the fact that major breakthroughs are unpredictable by definition, and that the most strategy can do is focus on key areas of change, describe clear plans for action where immediate priorities exist, and single out the areas for future focus – the technologies NATO calls “disruptive.”

Once again, when the Navigation Plan does mention specific area of technology, it does so largely in terms of broad goals and buzzwords. (e.g. pp. 18-19)

As is noted throughout this critique, strategy documents that set broad goals for doing everything in unstated ways with unstated timelines and unstated implementation plans have little practical value. Good intentions alone do not address real world needs and priorities.

6. Net Assessment and the Threats the US and its Partners Must Face

The section on the “Security Environment” (pp. 4-5) highlights key issues, but in a way so lacking in detail and justification that it reads more like propaganda than a plan. There is no real net assessment of U.S. and partner capabilities to deal with present and project threats, and the ability – or lack of it – to deal with the probable changes in Chinese, Russian, and other hostile forces.

It does not summarize the ongoing shifts in Chinese sea, air, and missile power that are making a major threat, identify the problems emerging in the Persian/Arab Gulf and North Korea, the growing level of Russian and Chinese military cooperation in the Pacific, and the broader changes in Russian and Chinese nuclear and long-range strike forces. If anything, it implies that the Navy and SSBNs are the only major solution to modernizing “our nuclear command, control, and communications systems to ensure the United States can deter nuclear coercion and nuclear employment in any scenario (p. 6).”

Here, the new Japanese defense white paper – Defense of Japan 2022 – provides examples of short and long-term trend analysis that highlights the growth of key threats and the current military balance in summary terms as well as major future trends. It centers proposed spending and force development around the key challenges Japan’s forces must respond to and shows that a well-structured strategy paper can do so in an unclassified form that can help win the support of the public, legislators, and strategic partners.

7. Focusing on Strategic Partners and Other States

The Navigation Plan is US-centric to the point of neo-isolationism. It touches upon on strategic partnerships, but it does not single any out as part of a common effort and strategy, and skims over the need to focus on the need to reinforce regional influence on a political and civil level as well as a military one – which is a key aspect of successful sea power.

It ignores the need to reorganize our Atlantic and Mediterranean posture in view of the Ukraine war, and the need to work with NATO and other European allies in creating interoperable and effective forces at a time major efforts are needed to revitalize many NATO navies and work with Britain to shape its naval role in a post-EU world.

Similarly, it largely ignores the need to link the US naval (and joint) posture to our Pacific, Indian Ocean, and MENA strategic partners which still has at least equal priority. Once again the contrast with Japanese defense white paper – which does this – is striking.

The financial value of close cooperation with our partners is illustrated by Figure Five. Partners are not only critical in terms of war fighting and deterrence. They can play a key potential rule in meeting future spending and economic challenges.

Anthony H. Cordesman is the Emeritus Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He has previously served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the National Security Council, the State Department, and the Department of Energy. During his time at CSIS, Dr. Cordesman previously held the Burke Chair in Strategy. He is the author of more than 50 books, including a four-volume series on the lessons of modern war.

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (August 7, 2022) Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Spruance (DDG 111) sails alongside Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) during an air power demonstration. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jeffrey F. Yale)

Crafting Naval Strategy, Pt. 3

The following was originally published by the Leidos Chair of Future Warfare Studies of the Naval War College under the title Crafting Naval Strategy: Observations and Recommendations for the Development of Future Strategies. Read it in its original form here. It is republished here with permission and several excerpts will be featured.

Read Part One, Part Two.

By Bruce Stubbs

Observation 33

Obviously, the crafting of strategy takes time. What may not be obvious is that the timing of issuing a strategy plays a major role in its overall effectiveness, let alone its effective dissemination. Similar to policies issued in the final months of a lame-duck presidency, those strategy documents issued shortly before a change of Navy or DoD leadership rarely have significant impact or lasting effect.

Strategy documents ultimately reflect the desired policies of the chief strategist (the CNO); thus their implementation is dependent on the tenure of the strategist, or on the willingness of his successor to maintain the same strategy without significant revision. In a competitive environment in which hyperbole-laced debates over resources take place, the thirst for a “new” strategy with new, “innovative” terminology and arguments is always present. Leaders feel pressure to sign off on their own strategy documents. This creates a churn in which strategies appear credible only as long as the chief strategist/leader remains in that position. Strategies issued early in the leader’s tenure have a chance to gain effect, whereas those issued late in the tour indeed are viewed as lame ducks.

In recent years, continuity has become very artificial. Instead of attempting to replace an existing official strategy document, SECNAVs and CNOs have issued guidance papers and directives that reinterpret or supersede some part of the existing strategy.

Often this has been done for the sake of speed and to avoid a laborious crafting of strategy. Sometimes, however, it is done to avoid public debate about or external involvement in any obvious shift in Navy strategy.

Meanwhile, new strategies from higher authorities may or may not be issued on any firm schedule. Such schedules may exist, particularly as concerns joint documents, but often they are overtaken by events. Congress has put in place (legal) time requirements for the issuance of the president’s National Security Strategy, but recent administrations have ignored these time requirements without consequence. Presumably, Navy strategies should incorporate all the guidance from the NSS, the SECDEF’s National Defense Strategy, and the CJCS’s National Military Strategy, but rarely do they align in sequence or terminology. Crafters of strategy must be wary of timing, but there are no hard-and-fast answers except that any strategy issued late in a CNO’s term is unlikely to have any significant effect.

Observation 35

Most defense debates are not about strategy, but instead about the adoption of new capabilities—of which emerging technologies have become a driving factor. This has given many of the debaters the impression that the emergence of new technologies automatically overturns existing strategies and that technological development and acquisition is an effective strategy in itself. This impression violates the very definition and theory of strategy, because the conflation of technology and capabilities with strategy ensures that the ends are defined by the means. As the old saying goes, “To a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Driving a nail into the wrong place at the wrong time simply because the hammer exists—even if it is the most technologically advanced hammer ever conceived—is not good strategy. In fact, it is not strategy at all.

Observation 36

The CJCS is the principal military adviser to the president, SECDEF, and NSC. All Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) members have a responsibility to provide advice or opinions, when requested or on their own initiative, via the CJCS, to the president, SECDEF, and NSC. Therefore, in addition to the CNO’s Title 10 responsibility to develop the Navy, he has a responsibility to describe to the JCS how the Navy will be employed. This requires two distinct strategies, one to develop the force and the other to employ the force. The two strategies require different components.

Images source: DoD Imagery Library.

The graphic above conveys an important point illustrated by the famous 1980s Maritime Strategy and the equally famous objective to reach a 600-ship Navy. The former was a Navy force-employment strategy with a central idea of offensively attacking the Soviets’ Barents Sea bastions to deprive them of a maritime sanctuary, while the latter was a Navy force-development strategy to build a Navy that could deter and, if necessary, defeat the Soviets. Depending on the strategy, the forces and capabilities are either the means or the ends.

Note that, in this post-Goldwater-Nichols era, the force-employment component is not a strategy to fight. LOEs, phasing, and other tools for fighting are not best addressed in a service capstone strategy. Today and into the future, the Navy mans, organizes, trains, and equips its future force for the fight, but does not fight by itself. Therefore the force-employment-strategy component is more an expression of how the Navy will fight and how a conflict may unfold. This allows the OPNAV staff to pursue solutions for maintaining the current force and building the future force.

Observation 37

Graphic source: Justturnright, “Economics for Dummies . . . and Liberals,” Two Heads Are Better than One (blog), 29 December 2012, Used by permission.

Your strategy must be capable of informing resource allocation for force development. Navy budget programmers considered the 2007 Cooperative Strategy to be “not useful” for articulating requirements and defending budgets; the 2015 version of this strategy (CS21R) likewise was not considered particularly useful. Indeed, CNO Jonathan Greenert (2011–15) did not construct three of his annual posture statements for Congress around this strategy.

While there is no hard-and-fast rule for how to design a strategy document so that it informs resource allocation, starting the crafting of a strategy without a firm recognition that part of its purpose is to give guidance to budget programmers is a mistake. 

Observation 38

Graphic source: DreamsTime Free Images. Used by permission.

Drafting a strategy is only a first step, albeit a difficult one. The crafter needs to develop the strategy with implementation in mind. Here is how to institutionalize strategy:

• Begin by inserting high-level implementation taskers into the body of a Navy strategy to signal that the strategy is real, relevant, and significant—not to be ignored.
• Produce an implementation plan that specifies the processes, activities, and objectives required to achieve the ends of a Navy strategy.
• Translate the ends of a Navy strategy into measurable implementation objectives
linked to DCNO and subordinate organizational goals.
• Assign owners to each objective and initiative, for clear responsibilities and accountability.
• Conduct periodic progress reviews of implementation to monitor execution.
• Oversee execution by active senior leadership and drive implementation across the Navy by dedicated operational planning teams.
• Communicate strategy repeatedly to explain its logic and achieve buy-in.

Leaders habitually underestimate the challenge of implementing strategy. Follow-up procedures are needed to ascertain whether implementation is being carried out effectively. The follow-up should include the actions listed below:

• Conducting periodic progress reviews of implementation to determine whether the strategy is relevant to the Navy’s purpose. Since the Navy operates in a very dynamic environment, the reviews are essential to know whether the strategy is meeting the Navy’s needs.
• Assigning objectives and initiatives to individual “owners.” Accountability drives implementation. The implementation plan requires that clear and specific tasks be defined to implement the strategy. Everyone with implementation responsibilities needs to know what to do and what to achieve.
• Selecting the correct strategic metrics to track progress on the objectives or initiatives identified in the implementation plan. Measurable objectives provide an effective basis for management control of the implementation.
• Ensuring that senior leaders actively manage the execution of the strategy and guide implementation across the Navy. The focus should be on ensuring that the strategy is understood throughout the Navy.

The quote by retired Army colonel Ralph Peters is an appropriate description of strategies that are executed poorly.38 No matter how simple, logical, and eloquent, they amount to little if they do not have a positive result; hence the need for crafters of strategy to be concerned with—and involved in guiding—their execution.

Observation 41

Notes: Lindsey Ford, “The ‘Lippmann Gap’ in Asia: Four Challenges to a Credible U.S. Strategy,” War on the Rocks, 3 December 2018,; Stephanie Pezard and Ashley L. Rhoades, What Provokes Putin’s Russia? Deterring without Unintended Escalation (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2020), p. 13, available at; Hew Strachan, “Strategy and Contingency,” International Affairs 87, no. 6 (November 2011), pp. 1284–96, available at

For military and naval assessments, the term risk is used in the following different ways:

• as a synonym for a threat itself;
• as a description that identifies chance of harm or injury from a threat;
• as an expression of the mathematical result of frequency of occurrence multiplied by consequence
• as an expression of whether forces can accomplish assigned missions—in other words, risk as a result of operations.

All these forms generate the famous “friction” of the unpredicted. In crafting strategy, there never will be sufficient resources or predictability to eliminate risk completely, so one must analyze the strategic environment properly and make informed decisions that
both mitigate and accept appropriate degrees of risk. Unfortunately, there is no ready formula.

Risks must be listed in a context of realism, along with the means to address them. Risk to the Navy can be categorized within four dimensions: operational, force management, institutional, and future challenges.

• Operational risk deals with the short-term challenges facing the Navy, as well as our ability to succeed in the current fight, including preparedness for contingencies in the near term.
• Force-management risk deals with ensuring that the Navy is efficiently and effectively organized, manned, equipped, trained, and sustained to provide trained and ready forces to the force commanders.
• Institutional risk addresses the generating force’s ability to support the Navy’s operating force.
• Future-challenges risk deals with the Navy’s ability to address longer-term threats.

The Navy mitigates exposure to risk by ensuring that the right capabilities and sufficient capacity are balanced and available within acceptable bounds of risk to respond effectively and efficiently to challenges.

Col. Mackubin T. Owens, USMC (Ret.), notes the following:

“A good strategy also seeks to minimize risk by, to the extent possible, avoiding mismatches between strategy and related factors. For instance, strategy must be appropriate to the ends as established by policy. Strategy also requires the appropriate tactical instrument to implement it. Finally, the forces required to implement a strategy must be funded, or else it must be revised. If the risk generated by such policy/strategy, strategy/force, and force/budget mismatches cannot be managed, the variables must be brought into better alignment.”39

Observation 42

Graphic source: Lanworks Public Domain.

How can one grade a strategy document on its probable effectiveness? As with everything involved in the crafting of strategy, there are no hard-and-fast answers. However, one can evaluate the product in terms of (1) acceptability, (2) feasibility, (3) suitability to the circumstances, (4) sustainability, and (5) adaptability.

• Acceptability to the leadership is obvious; if—in terms of naval strategy—the product is not acceptable to the CNO, it is going nowhere.
• Feasibility requires an assessment of whether the Navy has or (probably) will have the resources to carry out the strategy. A strategy can be aspirational in the sense that it can be used as an argument for more resources; however, it must be adaptable enough to be implemented with a reasonable probability of success—not with no or even low risk, but with justifiable risk.
• Suitability to circumstances refers to the product’s conformity to national objectives. A strategy that postulates a threat that the political leadership does not recognize will be controversial, to say the least.
• Sustainability refers to more than supporting resources; it also encompasses whether personnel can carry out the product’s implications over the long term. A strategy that postulates substitution of autonomous systems for human control cannot be carried out if there is insufficient funding for such systems at the same time that manpower is being cut. The U.S. Navy has had previous experience with not having enough personnel to operate complex systems that optimistically were assumed to be “lower maintenance.” Without an honest and rigorous examination, it is possible to assume that a strategy will be easier to implement than reality dictates.
• The apocryphal quote by Field Marshal von Moltke cited in the introduction—that “no plan survives contact with the enemy”—can be translated as saying that no strategy can survive a changing security environment if adaptability is not built into its design.

Observation 43

Image source: author.

With one exception, observation 43 is a collecting together of points made previously, restated as a guideline on what easily contributes to failure in the crafting of strategy. Number 43 is, in fact, the most significant observation of all in distinguishing successful efforts from failed attempts. In my experience, these are not mere suggestions; rather, failure to recognize any one of the above truths will damage fatally any effort to develop a strategy. Of course, recognition of the reality of these dangers is not enough; the crafters of strategy always must have a plan to mitigate the dangers or otherwise use and benefit from that reality.

The one point not previously discussed is the separation of the crafters’ egos from the product crafted. It is easy for writers to fall in love with their own words, for those with insight to become enamored of their own ideas, and for intermediate reviewers to be committed to their edits. Yet the final document—which will reflect the decisions of the issuing authority (the CNO)—may appear vastly different from previous versions. In such a process, pride of authorship becomes a burden, particularly when submitted drafts are returned repeatedly for additional editing. Crafting strategy is not about the strategists or their intervening chain of command; it is about the product.

This truly is hard stuff.

Bruce B. Stubbs, SES, is Director of Navy Strategy, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV N7).

Featured Image: PHILIPPINE SEA (Aug. 24, 2021) Ships from the United Kingdom Carrier Strike Group and the USS America Expeditionary Strike Group, with the embarked 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), begin multinational advanced aviation operations in support of Large Scale Global Exercise (LSGE) 21, Aug. 20, 2021. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Aron Montano)