Tag Archives: U.S. Navy

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

By Joseph Bunyard


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

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

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

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

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

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

Integrating Low-Cost Virtual Training Environments (VTEs)

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

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

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

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

Accessing the Navy Continuous Training Environment (NCTE)

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

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

Figure 3 – NAVAIR’s JSE 20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Towards a 21st Century Warfare Laboratory

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

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

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

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


1. Grady, John, and Sam Sam Lagrone. “CJCS Milley: Character of War in Midst of Fundamental Change.” USNI News, December 4, 2020. https://news.usni.org/2020/12/04/cjcs-milley-character-of-war-in-midst-of-fundamental-change.
2. Kitchener, Roy, Brad Cooper, Paul Schlise, Thibaut Delloue, and Kyle Cregge. “What Got Us Here Won’t Get Us There.” U.S. Naval Institute, January 9, 2021. https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2021/january/what-got-us-here-wont-get-us-there.
3. Gilday, Mike M. CNO NAVPLAN 2021. Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. Accessed February 2, 2021. https://media.defense.gov/2021/Jan/11/2002562551/-1/-1/1/CNO%20NAVPLAN%202021%20-%20FINAL.PDF., 4.
4. Wilson, Clay. Network Centric Warfare: Background and Oversight Issues for Congress. CRS Report for Congress § (2005).
5. Mattis, Jim. “Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy.” Department of Defense Media. Office of the Secretary of Defense, n.d. Accessed February 2, 2021., 8.
6. Gilday, 4.
7. “USNA Core Curriculum.” The U.S. Naval Academy. Accessed February 2, 2021. https://www.usna.edu/Academics/Majors-and-Courses/Course-Requirements-Core.php.
8. Morris, Terry. “Promotion Boards Brief.” Navy Personnel Command. Accessed February 2, 2021. https://slideplayer.com/slide/11144308/.
9. Shelbourne, Mallory. “Navy Harnessing New Technology to Restructure Aviation Training.” USNI News, September 14, 2020. https://news.usni.org/2020/09/14/navy-harnessing-new-technology-to-restructure-aviation-training.
10. Miller, Christopher A. “The Influence of Midshipmen on Leadership of Morale at the United States Naval Academy.” Naval Post Graduate School Thesis. Naval Post Graduate School. Accessed February 2, 2021. https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a462636.pdf.
11. Kitchener, Roy.
12. Freedburg, Sydney J. “Project Avenger: VR, Big Data Sharpen Navy Pilot Training.” Breaking Defense. Above the Law, December 4, 2020. https://breakingdefense.com/2020/12/project-avenger-vr-big-data-sharpen-navy-pilot-training/
13. Berger, David. “Tactical Decision Kit Distribution and Implementation.” MARADMIN. US Marine Corps. Accessed February 2, 2021. https://www.marines.mil/News/Messages/Messages-Display/Article/1176937/tactical-decision-kit-distribution-and-implementation/.
14. Fretty, Peter. “Augmented Reality Helps US Navy See Clearer.” Industry Week. Accessed February 2, 2021. https://www.industryweek.com/technology-and-iiot/article/21142049/us-navy-sees-augmented-reality.
15. Freedburg, Sydney J. “Navy, Marines Plan Big Wargames For Big Wars: Virtual Is Vital.” Breaking Defense. Above the Law, December 3, 2020. https://breakingdefense.com/2020/12/navy-marines-plan-big-wargames-for-big-wars-virtual-is-vital/.
16. Shelbourne, Mallory.
17. Gonzales, Matt. “Marine Corps to Build Innovative Wargaming Center.” United States Marine Corps Flagship, August 25, 2020. https://www.marines.mil/News/News-Display/Article/2323771/marine-corps-to-build-innovative-wargaming-center/.
18. Davidson, Philip S. “Statement of Admiral Philip S. Davidson, US Navy Commander, US Indo-Pacific Command Before the Senate Armed Services Committee on US Info-Pacific Command Posture 12 February 2019.” Senate Armed Services Committee, February 12, 2019. https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Davidson_02-12-19.pdf.
19. “Joint Simulation Environment.” NAVAIR. Naval Air Warfare Center. Accessed February 2, 2021. https://www.navair.navy.mil/nawctsd/sites/g/files/jejdrs596/files/2018-11/2018-jse.pdf. Also, Squire, Peter. “Augmented Reality Efforts.” Office of Naval Research. Accessed February 2, 2021., 13.
20. “Joint Simulation Environment.”
21. Graham, Karen. “AI Systems Are ‘Only as Good as the Data We Put into Them’.” Digital Journal: A Global Digital Media Network, September 5, 2018. http://www.digitaljournal.com/tech-and-science/technology/a-i-systems-are-only-as-good-as-the-data-we-put-into-them/article/531246. Also, Nilekani, Nandan. “Data to the People.” Foreign Affairs. Council on Foreign Relations, July 29, 2020. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/asia/2018-08-13/data-people.
22. Tortora, Paul. “Center for Cyber Security Studies – 2018-2019 Stewardship Report.” Cyber Studies, March 14, 2020. http://1970.usnaclasses.com/Classprojects/Center%20for%20Cyber%20Studies.html.
23. Atherton, Kelsey. “DARPA Wants Wargame AI To Never Fight Fair.” Breaking Defense. Above the Law, August 18, 2020. https://breakingdefense.com/2020/08/darpa-wants-wargame-ai-to-never-fight-fair/. Also, “Command: Modern Operations.” Steam Info. Accessed February 2, 2021. https://steamdb.info/app/1076160/.
24. Atherton, Kelsey.
25. Atherton, Kelsey.
26. Brynen, Rex. “UK Fight Club.” PAX Sims, June 11, 2020. https://paxsims.wordpress.com/2020/06/11/uk-fight-club/.
27. “Data Science Virtual Machines.” Microsoft Azure. Accessed February 7, 2021. https://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/services/virtual-machines/data-science-virtual-machines/.
28. “2020 Department of Defense Artificial Intelligence Education Strategy.” The Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, September 2020. https://www.ai.mil/docs/2020_DoD_AI_Training_and_Education_Strategy_and_Infographic_10_27_20.pdf.
29. “2020 Department of Defense Artificial Intelligence Education Strategy.”
30. “2020 Department of Defense Artificial Intelligence Education Strategy.”
31. Ashoori, Maryam, Weisz, Justin.” “In AI We Trust? Factors that Influence Trustworthiness of AI-Infused Decision-Making Processes.” IBM. December 5, 2019. https://arxiv.org/pdf/1912.02675.pdf., 2.
32. “Advantage at Sea: Prevailing with All-Domain Naval Power.” Office of the Secretary of the Navy. December 2020. https://media.defense.gov/2020/Dec/16/2002553074/-1/-1/0/TRISERVICESTRATEGY.PDF., 22.
33. McKinney, Michael. “Warfighting First? Not so Much.” U.S. Naval Institute. May 2019. https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2019/may/warfighting-first-not-so-much
34. “Initial Report of the Dean’s Cyber Warfare Ad Hoc Committee.” The US Naval Academy. August 21, 2009. https://www.usna.edu/Users/cs/needham/CyberSecurityInitiative/USNACyberInitiativeInitialReport_USNA-CS-TR-2011-02.pdf#search=ns310., 76.
“Core Curriculum Review.” USNA Division of Seamanship and Navigation. March 2, 2005. https://www.usna.edu/Academics/_files/documents/sapr/ProDev_Core.pdf., slide 13.
35. “Wargaming at the Naval Academy.” Shipmate. The United States Naval Academy Alumni Foundation. February 2021., 25-26.
36. “Ready, Relevant Learning.” Naval Education and Training Command. Accessed March 19, https://www.netc.navy.mil/RRL/.

37. Gilday, 11.

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

If You Build It, They Will Lose: Competing with China Requires New Information Warfare Tools

Naval Intelligence Topic Week

By Andrew P. Thompson

The Modern Fight

Written into the most recent National Security Strategy is the principle that Great Power competition will continue to play a major role in the shaping of our strategic priorities.1 As the Navy continues adapting to operations below the level of armed conflict, how we implement combat capability must adjust. China’s modernization of its Navy, enhanced with its desired use of Artificial Intelligence (AI), should catalyze change in our own development efforts. Its modernization initiative directly supports its system destruction warfare principle, which operationalizes a system of systems approach to combat. Confronting this style of warfare requires a new mindset, and the Information Warfare apparatus, of which Naval Intelligence is an integral part, must align itself appropriately to support this change. While the last century’s wars heavily favored attrition-centric warfare, 21st century Great Power competition requires the use of warfare that is decision-centric. The Information Warfare Community (IWC) support required for such an approach must capitalize on the use of new technologies, developed from industry, to aid commanders. Doing so will allow the IWC to provide decision-makers with the best advantages as fast as possible and the method to accomplish such a feat will determine both the IWC’s and Naval Intelligence’s legacy in this modern fight.

By the end of 2020, China is assessed to have 360 battle force ready ships compared to the U.S. Navy with 297.2 Projecting forward to 2025, China will have 400 battle force ships and 425 by 2030.3 In addition to the sheer size of its projected ship count, China is currently making strides to modernize its programs associated with anti-ship ballistic missiles, anti-ship cruise missiles, submarines, aircraft, unmanned aircraft, and command and control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) tools.4 One supporting element in modernizing these programs is the Chinese utilization of AI. According to the Congressional Research Service, “the Chinese aim to use AI for exploiting large troves of intelligence, generating a common operating picture, and accelerating battlefield decision-making.”5 As opposed to the bureaucratic red tape that exists in much of the U.S. defense acquisitions process, few such barriers exist in China’s between its commercial, academic, military, and government entities. Therefore, the Chinese government can directly shape AI development to meet its desired need in whatever capacity it wants. To support this effort, the Chinese government founded a Military-Civil Fusion Development Commission in 2017 in order to rapidly transfer AI technology, from whatever source, directly to the military.6 In doing so, China is incrementally utilizing AI to enhance its conventional force modernization programs at a more rapid pace than one impeded by self-imposed bureaucracy.

AI Benefits/Issues

The advantages of AI technology apply no matter which nation develops it, allowing combat systems to react at gigahertz speed. With such a dramatic shift in the time scale of combat, the pace of combat itself accelerates.7 Additionally, military AI use can provide an augmentation option for long-term tasks that exceed human endurance. For example, intelligence gathering across vast areas for long durations becomes more manageable for human analysts when using AI.

In addition to the above advantages, AI directly confronts, and has the potential to make sense of, the tremendous amount of data for analysts to process. While the U.S. military operates over 11,000 drones, with each one recording “more than three NFL seasons worth” of high-definition footage each day, there are simply not enough people to adequately glean all possible actionable intelligence from such media.8 Similarly overwhelming are the 1.7 megabytes of information that the average human generates every second.9 Therefore, AI-powered intelligence systems may offer a way to sift through the resulting data repositories in order to better understand behavior patterns. Further, after a desired set of iterations, AI algorithms may feed further analysis that refines earlier conclusions, and ultimately provide an even better understanding of complex information for decision-making advantage.10 While promising, skepticism is necessary. Dr. Arati Prabhakar, a former DARPA Director, noted, “When we look at what’s happening with AI, we see something that is very powerful, but we also see a technology that is still quite fundamentally limited…the problem is that when it’s wrong, it’s wrong in ways that no human would ever be wrong.”11 Such skeptical risk, however, does not outweigh the possible benefits of AI’s development and use.

While the advantages of AI technology are clear, our adversary’s approach to how this development takes place merits discussion. The Chinese AI development framework can be corrupt and favor sub-par research institutions, resulting in potential overinvestment, producing unneeded and wasteful surpluses.12 Conversely, whatever advantage the U.S. retains in AI technology research due to China’s own domestic malfeasance can quickly diminish by way of industrial espionage. Despite agreeing to the U.S.-China Cyber Agreement, in which both sides agreed that “neither country’s government will conduct or knowingly support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property,” it was reported to Congress that “from 2011-2018, more than 90 percent of the Justice Department’s cases alleging economic espionage by or to benefit a state involve China, and more than two-thirds of the Department’s theft of trade secrets cases have had a nexus to China.”13 Such actions, while not germane exclusively to AI development, clearly show an aggressive approach to technological progress with little regard for agreed-upon rules. When applied to AI research, such aggressiveness may result in less safe outcomes due to China’s tolerance for risk at the expense of speed. This may eventually result in the U.S. possessing more capable applications in the long-term.14 However, such optimism does not exempt the U.S. from adjusting to the modern concept of warfare for which China is rapidly developing AI in the first place.

System of Systems/System Destruction Warfare

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) no longer sees war as a contest of annihilation between opposing forces. Rather, it sees war as a clash between opposing operational systems.15 Thus, China sees the victor in a war as the side who renders the other side’s systems ineffective, the ultimate goal of system destruction warfare. This model demands a joint force that utilizes numerous types of units from multiple services to continuously conduct operations across the battlefield.16 The past predicated that dominance in one or more physical domains was sufficient for warfighting success. As an example, 20th century thought suggested that air dominance was necessary to achieve land or sea dominance. Systems confrontation, on the other hand, predicates that warfare success requires dominance in all domains: land, sea, air, cyber, electromagnetic, and space.17 However, for such dominance to occur, the first domain necessitating control is the information one, as it is the nucleus that ensures everything else within the overall system correctly functions.18

To account for this dynamic force posturing in all domains, the PLA requires multidimensional and multifunctional operational systems. Such system permutations enable enough flexibility to adjust to newly developed technology.19 Correspondingly, a degree of malleability is built into the architecture of the PLA’s system categories of entities, structures, and elements. Entities include the weapon platform itself. Structures include the matrix style interlink that allows for coordinated functioning. Elements include the system’s command and control, protection, and maneuver capabilities. When intertwined, the resulting web of each system’s entities, structures, and elements provides redundancies that ensure the overall system is greater than the sum of its disparate parts.20 That said, each part is elastic enough that taking one part away from the web will not result in a total loss, while adding a part is equally non-destructive.

With these systems, the PLA seeks to strike four types of targets: 1) targets that interrupt the flow of information within an enemy’s system, such as key data links to a system’s command and control, 2) targets that degrade essential elements of an enemy’s system, such as a system’s firepower capability, 3) targets that interrupt the operational architecture of a system, such as the physical nodes of the essential elements (i.e. the firepower network), and 4) targets that interrupt the tempo of an enemy’s systems architecture, such as a system’s “reconnaissance-control-attack-evaluation” process that is inherent to all operational systems.21 Thus, the PLA seeks to operationalize its destructive warfare model by targeting what it perceives as the most vulnerable parts of its adversary’s infrastructure. By building flexibility into the design of units within its own system of systems (entities, structure, and elements) used to conduct this targeting, China’s system destruction warfare model accounts for loss while simultaneously adapting to new developments. Such an approach makes for a leaner, smarter, and dynamic force.

Decision-Centric Warfare/Our Response

In the current environment, Carrier Strike Groups are the Navy’s common force packages that deliver multi-mission units.22 These groups are vulnerable due to their size and aggregation, providing the perfect units for the PLA to target with its system destruction warfare model. Other services’ main force packages, such as the Army’s Brigade Combat Teams and the Marines’ Expeditionary Units, are also reflective of a vulnerable force borne out of the attrition-centric warfare model.23 While this legacy mindset worked in the 20th century, Great Power competition in the 21st century provides the requisite scenario to impose multiple dilemmas on an enemy to prevent it from achieving objectives. This decision-centric warfare approach, where making decisions faster than the adversary is paramount, is the cornerstone ingredient of the required methodology to confront China’s destructive warfare model.24 Having the Navy’s current force package, the Carrier Strike Group, utilize AI and autonomous systems is the means by which this new approach can be operationalized.

In addition to the benefits of AI discussed earlier, autonomous systems afford forces the ability to conduct more distributed operations by way of disaggregating capabilities of more traditional multi-mission platforms into a larger number of less flexible and less expensive systems.25 Use of these autonomous systems, on an as-available basis, is the hallmark standard of the decision-centric model. Thus, command and control of autonomous forces is based on communications availability, rather than a hardened command and control network. Decision-centric warfare assumes, and accounts for, contested and/or denied communications, as a commander will only possess control of forces that he/she actually can communicate with.26

From a decision-centric warfare model perspective, the current force’s Mission Command actually undermines its ability to make the necessary quickest decisions. It does so because the current command and control of forces is dependent on working communications, or extensively troubleshooting them, all of the time. To enable commanders to address this shortfall, the adoption of a new command and control structure that combines human command and AI-enabled machine control is necessary. Such a structure would combine a human’s flexibility and creativity with a machine’s speed and scale.27 Over time, as discussed earlier, human commanders could adjust machine recommendations, thereby forcing the machine to learn, increasing the commander’s confidence in subsequent recommendations when communications are limited.28 The net result of this feedback loop is a decision-making apparatus superior to an adversary’s. When applied to enemy systems attempting to target/destroy friendly force systems, the resulting quick decision-making effectively outmaneuvers the opposing side.

A key enabler of this quick decision-making rests with the advent of the Information Warfare Commander position on Carrier Strike Group staffs, which has gradually elevated the status of the Information Warfare Community (IWC) across the service. Along with this position, personnel within the Strike Group IWC Enterprise are key enablers who must recognize that their ability to leverage decision-making and combat capability lies with their ability to enable AI and autonomous systems of the future, combine this enabling with their own understanding of enemy intentions, and ultimately make recommendations to improve the commander’s decision cycle.

To achieve this, IWC personnel must be cognizant of new technologies on the rise within industry, where the most promising disruptive innovation trends reside that can meet these challenges. As the National Security Strategy states, “We must harness innovative technologies that are being developed outside of the traditional defense industrial base.”29 To this end, and to “harness innovative technologies,” an AI-industry sponsor must be assigned to each Carrier Strike Group Information Warfare Commander and his/her subordinate staff. This sponsorship program would enable IWC personnel the ability to incorporate the most modern AI technology into at-risk portions of their portfolios and define exacting requirements for new tools that are flexible enough for future progressive technological investment. While such innovation developments may surpass the tenure of the personnel assigned to the Strike Group staffs, the output of each team will aid future teams’ performance and eventually the Navy’s fighting ability. As such, after several iterations of afloat Strike Group staffs working with their respective industry sponsor, the result would be the promotion of tool production that aids the service in possessing the technological and decision-making edge…and ultimately play a direct role in future potential conflicts.

Getting to this point will require a new mindset for IWC personnel. Most do not possess acquisitions experience and most have not worked in positions that require technological innovation. To aid in not overburdening an IWC staff, the TYCOM should assign an Acquisitions Community sponsor to each Information Warfare Commander. This new combined team, comprised of the Strike Group IWC personnel, the AI-industry sponsor, and the TYCOM-approved Acquisitions Community sponsor, would seek to prototype tools/designs that attack key problem areas encountered by end users (i.e. the IWC personnel), as stated earlier. By swiftly deploying new operational concepts into potentially useable tools and products, the new decision-making infrastructure would support a warfare model fit to confront China’s today.

When compared to every other warfare area within the Navy, the IWC requires the most modern technological advances in the least amount of time. While other communities have proven processes and protocols in place to implement new technologies into their existing platforms, the IWC is simply too new and in too much need to benefit from these practices. This demands that the IWC business model be different, as Information Warfare Commanders need tools right now to effectively compete and win. Further, they must be the right tools where end users have a direct say in what they get.

Great Power Competition will dominate our military’s focus for the foreseeable future and the Information Warfare Community, including Naval Intelligence, must adjust accordingly. Understanding that China intends to enhance its military modernization efforts with AI, that it thinks differently about warfare in the 21st century, and that we need to modify our own warfare model to effectively respond, the Information Warfare Community’s newfound status should elevate new technologies into our Navy’s decision-making and combat DNA. The nation, and our Navy, cannot afford a misstep in this realm. The next major conflict will possess high stakes in the information domain where the Navy’s IWC will be at the forefront.

LCDR Andrew Thompson is currently serving at the USINDOPACOM JIOC. As a Surface Warfare Officer, he served aboard USS BOONE (FFG 28) as the Communications Officer, at Destroyer Squadron FIFTY as the Operations Officer, and at Naval Special Warfare Group ONE as the Middle East Desk Officer. As an Intelligence Officer, he has completed tours at the Office of Naval Intelligence, the Navy Cyber Warfare Development Group, and Carrier Strike Group TWELVE (as the Deputy N2). He holds a B.S. in Naval Architecture (USNA ’05), an M.S. in Mechanical Engineering (NPS), and an M.A. in National Security Studies (Naval War College). He holds subspecialties in African Studies and Space Systems, and has deployed to the SOUTHCOM, EUCOM, AFRICOM, and CENTCOM AORs. The views expressed in this article are his own, and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense or the Intelligence Community. 


1 Trump, Donald J., National Security Strategy of the United States of America, December, 2017, 27.

2 “China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress.”

3 Ibid., 2.

4 Ibid., 3.

5 “Artificial Intelligence and National Security,” Congressional Research Service, November 21, 2019, 21.

6 Ibid., 21.

7 Ibid., 27.

8 Ibid., 28.

9 Ibid., 28.

10 Ibid., 28-29.

11 Ibid., 29.

12 Ibid., 23.

13 Ibid., 23.

14 Ibid., 23.

15 Engstrom, Jeffrey, How the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Seeks to Wage Modern Warfare, Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2018, 10-11.

16 Ibid., 12.

17 Ibid., 13.

18 Ibid., 12.

19 Ibid., 13.

20 Ibid., 14.

21 Ibid., 16-18.

22 Clark, Bryan, Dan Patt, and Harrison Schramm. Mosaic Warfare: Exploiting Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Systems to Implement Decision-Centric Operations. Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2020, ii.

23 Ibid., iii.

24 Ibid., iii.

25 Ibid., v.

26 Ibid., v.

27 Ibid., vi.

28 Ibid., vi.

29 Trump, Donald J., National Security Strategy of the United States of America, December, 2017, 29.


“Artificial Intelligence and National Security.” Congressional Research Service. November 21, 2019. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/R45178.pdf

“China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress.” Congressional Research Service. May 21, 2020. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL33153.pdf

Clark, Bryan, Dan Patt, and Harrison Schramm. Mosaic Warfare: Exploiting Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Systems to Implement Decision-Centric Operations. Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2020. https://csbaonline.org/uploads/documents/Mosaic_Warfare_Web.pdf

Engstrom, Jeffrey. How the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Seeks to Wage Modern Warfare. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2018. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1708.html

Trump, Donald J. National Security Strategy of the United States of America. December, 2017. https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905.pdf

Featured Image: Sailors wearing gas masks operate a combat direction system console aboard the guided-missile frigate Handan (Hull 579) during a 4-day maritime training exercise conducted by a destroyer flotilla of the navy under the PLA Northern Theater Command in waters of the Yellow Sea from March 27 to 30, 2018. (eng.chinamil.com.cn/Photo by Zhang Hailong)

Innovative Thinking: The Role of Professional Military Education

By Mie Augier and Wayne Hughes

“The society that separates its scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools.”1

– Variously attributed to Thucydides and 19th Century British General Sir Wm. F. Butler


Last year we reflected on the topic of innovation in military organizations,and hinted at the roles of education in developing strategic leaders of adaptive organizations. In the light of current debates and senior DoD/DoN emphasis on education and critical and strategic thinking (including recent Navy initiatives and the newly released Education for Seapower report), here we elaborate on some aspects of the role of professional military education in more detail.3 

Our military organizations must organize for innovation and adaptiveness such as recognizing disruptive ideas and preserving innovators who learn from failures. This emphasis has important educational dimensions: Our educational institutions must nurture and support the kind of thinking so central to any adaptive organization.

Two of the most important roles of education are to help students learn how to think, not what to think, and appreciate that learning is a lifetime activity. Fostering innovative thinking and broad understanding will help them adapt to (and shape) the future as well as fight smart if conflict breaks out. Our PME institutions can learn from their own pasts in thinking about how to educate future strategic leaders. In addition, we now have key strategic documents (National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, and the Education for Sea-power report) that PME institutions can orient toward when revising their educational programs and research to help undergird the national strategy in the future.

The Past as Prologue: Lessons from PME Institutional History

“War colleges … broaden the intellectual and military horizons of the officers who attend, so that they have a conception of the larger strategic and operational issues that confront our military and our nation.”4

– Admiral Stansfield Turner

“History for history’s sake is of no value to us. What is of value is the ability of our faculty to use whatever is necessary to educate officers to solve complex problems, manage change, and execute their decisions. This demands an extraordinary degree of mental flexibility and intellectual agility on the part of our faculty, whether they come from the world of practitioners or from the more traditional academic environment.”5

-VADM Ronald Route, former president of the Naval War College, 2004

Our PME institutions have rich histories and there is much to learn from studying them and incorporating them into our education.6 A major lesson is the tension between emphasizing “ready now” and “educate for future environments.” Such tensions also exist in other professions and professional schools; Herbert Simon saw the problem as one that needed constant attention because it involves integrating different (and sometimes opposing) forces, like mixing and stirring oil and water.7 Medical schools educate for medical practice while also doing fundamental research to improve the broad knowledge central to the future of the medical profession. The two sides – rigor and relevance – should not be thought of as opposites, but instead must be seen as two sides of the same coin when dealing with professional military education in order to facilitate interdisciplinary, empirically driven insights and understandings, concepts, and practice. Such integration can be achieved through emphasizing thinking and judgement. We need officers and enlisted to be able to conceptualize competition, conflict, and battle with active and open minds.

A brief overview of some major events in the institutional history of PME will be helpful:

PME began in Europe but by the late 19th Century it came to the U.S. with the founding of the Naval War College (1880). The establishment of the Army War College (1901) and Naval Postgraduate School (1909) helped channel the educational upgrading of officers.8 For instance, the first NWC president, Stephen B. Luce, saw his institution as a “place of original research on all questions relating to war, and to statesmanship connected with war, or the prevention of war.” Its early curriculum combined intellectual rigor and practical relevance.

Changes in the 1980s and 90s were fostered by the Goldwater Nichols Act and the Skelton Panel. The Skelton panel in particular recommended that despite finding many courses and programs and faculties to be “excellent,” “the existing PME system must be improved to meet the needs of the modern profession at arms.” Ike Skelton saw officer learning and education as a lifelong process, and that studying military history was central to it.9 The report’s recommendations included upgrading the quality of civilian and military faculty and improving thinking and jointness.

Each PME school evolved and adapted differently to societal and institutional changes. General Van Riper describes how the Marine Corps, led by the Commandant General Gray, underwent a comprehensive transformation to reemphasize education, including reading and learning outside one’s specialty, and building strategic and critical thinking into the organization.10 Gray noted the importance of ideas over rank or titles in the debates, aiming to instill in young Marines the courage to think differently, and to learn from failures, not fear them.11 Gray’s educational vision also led to the founding of the Marine Corps University, intended to emphasize thinking and judgment. The recent Education for Seapower report fittingly begins with a quote from General Gray, and it also notes the importance of his educational efforts as relevant today.

We mention this not to show that all was great in the past but to indicate that there is much we can learn from institutional experiences in focusing on the future. With this in mind, here are two observations to aid educating and retaining innovative thinkers:

  • There was room for innovative and strategic thinkers in the past in our PME institutions; both from inside and outside the system (without trying to imitate businesses such as Google). For example, John Boyd’s “Patterns” briefings as well as Bill Lind’s efforts and writings influenced the development of maneuver warfare in the USMC and somewhat less directly, AirLand Battle in the Army.
  • Cultivating and retaining innovative thinking requires forceful leaders. They challenge the status quo, and are vital to an organization’s ability to adapt. They are also not always right. Creativity includes the ability to fail, and learn, and not be punished. No-defect cultures kill creative thought.12

Over time educational institutions (like all institutions and organizations as they grow and age) tend to become routinized. A culture of normalcy crowds out ideas and people that “don’t fit.” Having discussed some of the institutional aspects needed to improve education for strategic and innovative thinkers, the next section touches on some of the intellectual and methodological aspects.

Successes from the Past as Lessons for the Future

Developing active minds is best done through active learning. Mental agility is cultivated through case studies of military history and participatory learning, for instance through free-play exercises and wargames in order to help teach thinking and judgment. Case studies and gaming are examples of active learning methodologies to help students think through uncertainties and ambiguities of the future, helping to create an organizational culture for continuous innovation and adaptation in peace and in war.

Gaming helps to imagine possible futures that participants and students live through and learn from. Wargames do not produce precise predictions of what will happen, but they expose officers to similar patterns, supporting their understanding of expected or unexpected situations and their intuitive decision making. As Nimitz said about the value of wargames: “The war with Japan had been [enacted] in the game room here by so many in so many different ways that nothing … was a surprise except Kamikaze.” Nimitz said wargamed conflicts during his NWC years “more than any other experience” prepared him for wartime command; as he noted: “The enemy of our games was always Japan, and the courses were so thorough that after the start of WWII – nothing that happened in the Pacific was strange or unexpected. …I credit the Naval War College for such success I achieved in strategy and tactics in both peace and war.” There were, of course, many surprises at the operational level such as the attack on Pearl Harbor, but Nimitz wanted to emphasize how vital wargaming was to prepare the fleet to adapt to Japanese success while preparing the USN and USMC to take the offensive.

Wargames have played a crucial role in experimentation and testing new ideas without going to sea; thus they serve as a first step beyond innovative thinking toward adoption and implementation.13 Gaming and experimenting at sea both contribute to adaptiveness of military organizations, allowing them to perform with existing capabilities and learning what new ones must be added.

PME applies at all levels. Although most commentators implicitly or explicitly emphasize PME for mid-level and senior officers, professional military training and education is also important for junior officers and petty officers. By far the biggest part of CNET and the Navy training establishment is devoted to current effectiveness. Seamanship and safe navigation are an important part of the effort. We believe, however, that attention should be devoted to how to think: To stimulate curiosity, broaden minds and help develop innovative thinking to anticipate future environments of conflicts, the attributes of new enemies, and anticipated technologies to employ or confound. An advantage of training and educating the best junior officers and enlisted men is that they have not yet become encumbered by the cautiousness embedded in many senior officers. The Navy and Marine Corps must nurture innovative thinking at all levels. The graduate education program at NPS is for junior officers. Here educating for future change is an important part of education.

PME for senior officers is centered on mental activity. Combat is in the domain of physical activity. A characteristic of current combat is its very short time constant, which is wholly different from the more leisurely pace seen in strategic planning and technological development. Response to a missile attack must be almost instantaneous. Preparation for swift deployment takes thoroughness and foresight.

Because this preparation for operations in peace and war is mostly in the domain of physical activity, education extends beyond the schoolhouse. Shipboard training, wargames, and training on simulators, all can help shape the mental and intellectual ability to understand and conceptualize conflict. One of the first applications of simulations was the early development of flight trainers.

Because PME education must foster curiosity it cannot be reduced to recipes or checklists. Its benefits are often intangible—instilling attitudes of inquiry and curiosity that include:

  • The development of future strategic leaders. There is now a recognition that the education of strategic and innovative leaders is paramount. Our recent Defense Secretary James Mattis is a product of this; as General Van Riper noted, reflecting on his own time as president of MCU and the educational reforms General Gray launched “the work to overhaul professional military education continued under the sure hands of others …. Perhaps no better manifestation of the results the Commandant anticipated exist than the performance of the senior Marine commanders, Lieutenant General Jim Conway, and Major Generals Jim Mattis and Jim Amos, during Operation Iraqi Freedom.”14
  • Identifying innovative leaders. There is rarely room in large organizations to cultivate creative thinking by everyone. Some officers are better at reliable execution. It is hard for both to shine, and for leaders to become aware of the contrasting talents. PME can both help enable students to sharpen their thinking; stimulate their curiosity and creative instincts; and help them think how to use this to make their institutions more innovative, for instance through thesis work. It can also help them recognize the uses (and limitations) of analytical thinking versus critical and innovative thinking and how to apply both in appropriate ways in the strategic and operational contexts in their futures.

Having discussed some chronology and themes relevant in the past for the present debate, we turn now to a few specific actions to refocus PME toward the future.

The Education of Future Innovative and Strategic Leaders

“PME has stagnated, focused more on the accomplishment of mandatory credit at the expense of lethality and ingenuity. We will emphasize intellectual leadership and military professionalism in the art and science of warfighting, deepening our knowledge of history while embracing new technology and techniques to counter competitors. PME will emphasize independence of action in warfighting concepts to lessen the impact of degraded/lost communications in combat. PME is to be used as a strategic asset to build trust and interoperability across the Joint Forces and with allied and partner forces.”

– National Defense Strategy

Educating leaders who understand the changing challenges and can adapt to them requires an educational environment that enables growth intellectually and professionally through rigorous and relevant education and training. While the National Defense Strategy recognizes problems in current PME, it also gives us commanders intent for how to improve PME to make it a national strategic asset again. Together with the National Security strategy, as well as the Education for Seapower report, these documents provide themes and insights into the likely trends in the future security environment for our PME institutions to orient toward in both research and education. Themes should include the following elements.

Organizational adaptiveness. The ability to respond to the unexpected is central to organizational resilience (as is emphasized in the NSS). History, case studies, broad reading, and wargaming help deal with unexpected futures. Together with the cognitive and attitudinal skills needed to think critically, students will widen their horizons, learn to recognize trends, and anticipate changes in the security environment and adapt to them.

Peace through Strength. There is an emphasis in the NSS to preserve peace through strength as well as ability to achieve surprise if needed.15 Our PME institutions must teach future strategic leaders to understand how our competitors understand the world through their eyes. This often means leaving the comfort of our analytic frameworks and theories; but what we lose in analytic application, we gain in insight.

Organizational and operational capabilities. Long-lived forces must be adaptable in time of cooperation, competition, confrontation, and conflict. They must be able to confront competitors of various sizes and in various kinds of unfriendly territory. Future leaders and decision-makers must know both how to contain intense but short conventional wars as well as fight in extended, low intensity conflicts.16

Avoid over-dependence on high tech. As an example, GPS jamming is likely if we face near-peer competitors so old school tactics must be part of combat training. We must also prepare for cyber warfare. As another example, artificial intelligence will be embedded in future near-peer warfare, but its methods are best inculcated as an extension of human intellect, not a replacement for it. Third, in exploiting unmanned and robotic vehicles, high technology should be avoided when tasks can be accomplished by small, inexpensive, single-purpose units deployed in large numbers.

Heretofore we have shown ways PME rewards students. Other lessons apply to faculty activity and curriculum development. For example: interdisciplinary and holistic problem solving and collaboration is increasingly relevant (as is the need for faculty research across disciplines and departments with an eye for applying their research and teaching to issues relevant to national defense).17 This is increasingly so as the problems we confront become more complex and ill-structured (‘wicked problems,’ in the jargon of the day). Our best leaders emphasize and understand unstructured problems. Understanding them (and their possible solutions) usually entails cooperation between faculty in several departments or teams of officers from several different professional disciplines and perspectives. The emphasis on interdisciplinary research echoes insights expressed earlier by Herman Kahn, Andrew Marshall, and James Schlesinger that emphasized interdisciplinary strategic thinking with warnings against “modelism” and “toolism” approaches. They also recognized the importance of history and of educating and researching for national defense, not contributing to textbook civilian approaches.

Actions to help achieve PME Excellence

“The most important six inches on the battlefield is between your ears.”

– James Mattis

PME must foster broad thinking and encourage curiosity.18 A fundamental aim of graduate education is to provide mental frameworks that foster wide-ranging exploration, a willingness to take risks, and a resolve to learn from and overcome failures. Top Navy and Marine leadership must promote innovators in peace and war.

In addition to helping to achieve the education of innovative leaders, military education must help re-invigorate all military institutions and re-energize Service culture. PME should support the National Defense Strategy that emphasizes readiness to execute now at the same time it explores alternative futures and possible future changes. One must build forces that operate in the present, but because most Navy ships and aircraft have 25 to 40-year service lives their long-term suitability must be checked against prospective geopolitical and technological futures.

Our recent Secretary of Defense had a clear vision to foster change, providing inspiration for the decades to come. He wrote, “we must shed outdated management and acquisition practices, while adapting American industry’s best practices. Our management structures and processes are not engraved in stone” (Mattis, 2018). Military administration and educational motivations need to be as adaptive and flexible as the most successful, swiftly changing, private corporations.19

Successful education inculcates attitudes and a talent for lifelong learning. As the Education for Seapower report notes: “a most urgent national security task before us today is to intellectually prepare our leaders for … uncertainty by equipping them with a strategic framework of how to think about the future … gained through a continuous, lifelong process of learning” (p. 9).

Finally, education of our most innovative leaders is important both for executing the current national security strategy today, and for preparing future generations to adapt quickly and effectively so we won’t be caught in a catch-up mode.

Dr. Mie Augier is a professor at the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School. She is interested in strategy, organizations, innovation, leadership, and how to educate strategic and innovative thinkers.

Captain Wayne Hughes, USN (Ret.) served thirty years on active duty, commanding a minesweeper, a destroyer, and a large training command. In retirement he has taught, done research, and served as a Dean at the Naval Postgraduate School for over thirty years. He is a distinguished author of the U.S. Naval Institute.

We are grateful to VADM Ronald Route (ret.), Andrew Marshall, Chris Nelson, and General Alfred Gray for comments on early drafts, and helpful suggestions. Any remaining errors were produced without help.  


1 Variously attributed to Thucydides and 19th Century British General Sir Wm. F. Butler

2 See https://cimsec.org/leading-military-innovation-past-and-present/37073

3 See, for instance, “Service Leaders Rethinking Navy and Marine Corps Education” (USNI news; https://news.usni.org/2018/04/23/33115). Other recent documents discuss the need for critical thinking skills as requirement for Navy officers. We shall refrain from trying to define critical thinking here; though we do want to note the importance of not defining it as “kind of like” one’s favorite topic or approach or discipline. There are decades of research on critical thinking and how it helps facilitate learning that we respect. In the context of PME, the most important aspect of critical thinking is the ability to think critically about strategy and strategic thinkers in order to develop better leaders. General Gray’s founding of MCU (Marine Corps University) and overall vision for PME was very much in the spirit of education for critical thinking and the importance of judgment. Additionally, when applying critical and strategic thinking to educating for seapower it is essential to not just ‘import’ a civilian approach and/or study well structured problems (Van Riper has elaborated on this).

4 Cited in Sinnrich & Murray (eds): The Past is Prologue (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 9.

5 Naval War College Review, 2004.

6 Many of those echoes of past debates are as relevant now as ever. For instance, Scales; question on ‘are we too busy to learn’ (USNI Proceedings, Feb 10, 2010), and his recent book, “Scales on War”, also taking on important discussions on the human dimension in war.

7 See, Herbert A Simon (1967): The Business School: A problem of Organizational Design. Journal of Management Studies.

8 Our PME institutions have not been without flaws; sometimes too drawn to the lure of the individual disciplines (which, as Andrew Marshall reminds us, can produce “trained incapacity” for strategic and innovative thinking). Another danger (which Scales reminded us in his piece ‘too busy to learn’) is that war is “not a science project”; calling attention to the need behavioral and social science in thinking about war and conflict (also see Scales, “On War” book for elaboration).

9 Skelton said: “It is a process of education, study, reading and thinking that should continue throughout an entire military career. Yes, tactical proficiency is very important, but so too is strategic vision. That can only come after years of careful reading, study, reflection, and experience”.

10 Paul K. Van Riper (2006): The relevance of history to the military profession: An American Marine’s view. In Murray and Sinnreich (eds) (2006): The Past as Prologue: The importance of history to the military profession. Cambridge: Cambridge  University Press.

11 Van Riper (2002) noted in looking back at the importance of this emphasis: “Leaders at all levels welcomed ideas; ranks of the authors of innovative notions mattered little. What counted was the ability of new thoughts to prove their merit in wide-ranking, open debates in service schools and journals” (Van Riper, “Preparing for War takes Study and open Debate”, Proceedings, Nov. 2002).

12 Another trap to avoid is excess supervision; as the Marines recognize in FMFM-1: “We cannot rightly expect our subordinates to exercise boldness and initiative in the field when they are accustomed to being over-supervised in the rear” (p. 65).

13 Though we don’t elaborate on it here, equally important as an active learning tool is case studies, as emphasized by Gen Gray, including in his upgrading of USMC education, and founding of MCU.

14Van Riper, 2006, p. 51. The emphasis on active learning and thinking is also embodied in core documents / ‘how the organization thinks’ too. E.g. “Professional Military Education is designed to develop creative, innovative leaders” (FMFM-1)

15 As noted: “China and Russia challenge American Power, influence and interests attempting to erode American security and prosperity. … at the same time, dictatorships of DPRK and Iran are determined to destabilize religions, threaten American people and our allies, and brutalize their own people”.

16 There is a need to think about the possible big changes coming, not just militarily but the larger shift towards Asia in terms of economies. Another possible big change is the likely far away areas of possible conflict (further away than Europe was our earlier focus), together with possible widespread use of anti ship ground based missiles. If over time, there are more areas where our surface ships will be in danger. How does that influence the balance of power between competitors, large and small?

17 At NPS, interdisciplinary problem solving and understanding is emphasized, for instance, through individual curricular and active learning approaches (including case studies and war gaming); faculty collaboration across specialties; research on department of defense problems; thesis work, and special initiatives (such as the CRUISER program) that have rapidly and efficiently advanced the state of the UAV technology and tactics. A national defense focus can be encouraged even more by having faculty focus their research and educating to focus on supporting E4S/NSS/NDS.

18 As the Education for Seapower report notes: “we must educate leaders who have the skills required to solve problems that cannot even be imagined today” …. “This will require an educational system that looks to the future as well as the past, which is agile enough to adapt as new problems are identified, and that will help us understand them. It is a system that must be built on the insatiable curiosity of naval professionals, both operators, professors, and researchers alike” (p. 13).

19 As also noted in the Education for Seapower report: “As an organization, we must anticipate changes in the operating environment and adapt to maintain an advantage. This can only be done by eliminating outdated personnel practices, adopting agile processes and continuously improving how we operate and fight, It is highly unlikely that the greatest naval strategists and leaders of our past … would be successful in todays’s bureaucratic environment. Simply put, the best naval strategists that our naval education enterprise can produce today will fail without improving the organization in which they operate” (p. 11-12).

Featured Image: The Thinker in front of the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Surface Navy: Still in Search of Tactics

By Captain Christopher H. Johnson

A month before deployment, the captain of an Oliver Hazard Perry (FFG-7)-class frigate sits quietly in his cabin. With the long process of pre-deployment inspections over and the threatening waters of the Persian Gulf a few short weeks ahead, now, more than ever before, he considers his three line department heads in the context of their impending role as Tactical Action Officers (TAOs) for the ship when it arrives in the Northern Persian Gulf. To this point, these young officers have been measured by their ability to juggle priorities, pass inspections, sustain planned maintenance at acceptable accomplishment levels, keep the squadron staff happy, and perform a number of other administrative tasks. Now they must become tacticians, and a fleeting sense of despair crosses the captain’s mind.

He recalls when he was a lieutenant junior grade serving on a destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin, and he remembers the officers who taught him. There were operators who could sense what was happening around them with a gut instinct that distinguished them as mariners and naval officers. For a moment, he thinks about his TAOs and realizes that they are different. Yes, the world was simpler when the most complicated weapon on board was a 5-inch/38-caliber gun, but despite new weapons of enormous capability and complexity, today’s officer is better at paperwork than he is at tactics and operations.

The captain also recalls a discouraging afternoon three months ago when the operations officer and three petty officers brought to his cabin every tactical memorandum, tactical note, and Naval Warfare Publication on the ship, as references for new battle orders. Surely, within the tactics library of his ship, there would be the pearls of wisdom he needed for operations in the Persian Gulf.

Instead, he found an endless succession of publications that often dealt with obscure tactical problems and were generally out-of-date, long-winded, rarely insightful, and almost always too complex. As the petty officers packed up the publications and departed, the captain wondered why, after all this effort in tactics, there was so much paper with so little knowledge to show for it.

Now, the same question haunts him again. “I must find a way to make these department heads into tacticians,” he says aloud. “But what are tactics, and how do I prepare a tactician?” His thoughts are interrupted by a knock on his door. “Sorry to bother you, Captain,” booms the executive officer, “but we’ve got to talk about Seaman Jackson and his family problems.”

This captain’s plight is not unusual, but it is dismaying. Where have tactics gone in the modern surface Navy? Perhaps officers are too focused on being managers and administrators, and maybe the emphasis on engineering has diverted them from tactical thinking. Maybe we have accepted the contention that, in an era of overwhelming technical complexity, everything must be reduced to a lifeless, static procedure to be understood. Whatever the cause, the loss of tactics – and the subsequent appearance of hundreds of publications which masquerade as tactics – is a problem that reaches the very heart of our profession. Tactics must be resurrected.

Brilliant success on the battlefield is the object of command as practiced by Spruance, Nimitz, and other great naval tacticians of the past. Such success is not simply the result of perfect methodology, but rather it is rooted in a hierarchy of preparation and thought. First, success requires knowledge of the technical environment in which naval operations take place. Second, it requires specific procedures to guide the operation of combat systems. Third, and most important, it requires tactics.

Tactics build on knowledge and procedure, but go far beyond either. Contrary to the common definition, tactics are not like check-off lists, diagrams, or procedural doctrine. Tactics are the educated process of thought by which a battlefield commander adapts procedure, knowledge, and insight to the situation at hand and molds a winning plan. Tactics, therefore, are characterized by responsive, analytical, and individualized solutions to real-life circumstances. Tactical ideas or procedures may be found in books, publications, or manuals, but tactics rely on ingenuity, instinct, and innovation. Tactics are never a single answer to a generic tactical problem; but a continuous effort to find the right way to undermine, exploit, and beat the enemy.

In the tactician’s mind, the heart of this tactics thought process is his continuous, individual, and deeply personal struggle with an assortment of intangible measurements, including his vision of the mission at hand, its bounds, rules of engagement, sequences, priorities, and urgencies; analysis of the critical capabilities and limitations of own force; experience, courage, and determination; his commitment to the safety of the ship and personnel; an evaluation of the enemy’s frame of mind, liabilities, strength, and mission; and an appreciation of the opportunities provided by geography, environment, or political conditions.

The process has an immediate and an ultimate product. The immediate object of tactics is a real-time vision, or sense of the tactical balance sheet. What are the key opportunities and critical liabilities inherent in the situation? Where are we strong, and where is the enemy weak? What actions will confuse the enemy? How can friendly forces further undermine enemy strength? How can the enemy’s confidence be shaken?

This analysis leads to the ultimate object of tactics: a course of action, springing from inspiration and evaluation of all factors, which will win with minimal cost. To win while taking few losses defines brilliant action and is the indisputable purpose of tactics, inherent in all the greatest naval victories in history. Our country wants us to act boldly and bring our sailors home safely. Sadly, the tactics underpinning this goal have come to be procedures for pitting one weapon against another, rather than a thought process for winning.

It is useful at this point to contrast the tactician with today’s officer who is more accustomed to the role of technician. Technicians live in a world of black and white, focusing exclusively on mechanics and measurements; they are often caught up in an engineering-oriented ethic which asserts that there is a single, discrete solution for every situation. To the technician, combat is a toe-to-toe struggle where the most perfectly designed and operated system wins. Conversely, the tactician sees this technical struggle as essential but subordinate to other vital issues. To him, the engagement is a series of chess moves where the best thinker, the most accomplished facilitator of quick, decisive, and perfectly timed action will win. To the technician, the victory at Midway was fortune; to the tactician, Midway was brilliant tactical instinct reaping its rightful reward.

The tactician also is distinguished from the technician by the breadth of innovative weapons that he brings to bear on the tactical problem. Modern technician-tacticians think in terms of missiles, guns, torpedoes, and mines. These are valid pieces of the tactical problem, but the real tactician also thinks in terms of influences and effects far beyond ordnance. The tactician must consider the aspects of positioning and timing, secrecy, surprise, deception and confusion, demonstration and intimidation, and command and control.

Tacticians strive to anticipate; to be constantly ahead of the enemy; to occupy the high ground; to use land or water conditions to advantage; and never to allow the enemy an open, unobscured, or unambiguous shot. They seek ways to strike first and to preempt the enemy at every juncture. They use weapons envelopes to advantage; they position friendly forces so they can always concentrate fire and support one another while forcing the enemy to scatter his attack. Consider some of the following facets of tactics:

There is nothing as fundamental to warfare as secrecy. The unalerted enemy is an ill-prepared enemy. Without warning, he cannot ready, deploy, instruct, maneuver, position, or effectively command his forces.

Surprise is another quintessential ingredient. The Trojan War, Washington’s crossing of the Delaware, Pearl Harbor, Midway, Grenada, Libya, and Desert Storm were all overwhelming victories because of surprise, a navy’s greatest force multiplier. Not technologically demanding, not requiring budget in the Future Years Defense Plan, and not necessitating field changes, this aspect of tactics consistently achieves victory with minimum loss.

For deception and confusion, the tactician uses the natural cloak of the sea to misdirect, blind, disrupt, or coax an adversary into apathy. The opportunities are endless, limited only by imagination. Merchant shipping lanes, land, emission control, turn-count masking, zig-zag patterns, and mock radio communications all offer opportunities to keep the enemy off-guard, to delay or unravel his tactical plan.

For years, U.S. aircraft carriers always intercepted foreign aircraft at long ranges from the carrier. Such intercepts conveyed the unmistakable message that aircraft could not approach in wartime and hope to survive. It is a superpower’s privilege to sap an enemy’s will and confidence by repeatedly demonstrating how surely and decisively he can be detected and destroyed. A true tactician showcases his abilities in peacetime as a continual, effectual reminder of his inherent superiority.

Perfectly anticipated, precisely controlled action is another mark of the tactician. He collects the right pieces of information to predict the enemy’s next move, and he consistently develops the ability to act more quickly and with more precision than his opponent.

Commanding officers and their key subordinates must embrace these aspects of tactics. Regrettably, the technician has generally eclipsed the tactician, especially in the case of TAOs, which exist on the crease of two powerful interpretations of their role. On one hand, it is fashionable to view the TAO as an automaton whose role is to react to threats with machine-like, button-pushing precision. On the other hand, the TAO’s real purpose is to be the intelligent being who measures the evolving situation and takes every conceivable step to win and keep the ship safe.

If the TAO’s purpose is simply to direct scripted action, then the technician will suffice; if the TAO is there to guide action intelligently and to find resourceful ways to win, however, he must be a tactician first and foremost. With the technician, the CO enters the combat information center (CIC) and sees a TAO bent over the scope, immersed in the mechanics. With the tactician, the CO should see an officer rising above the details with every option in mind, ready to act in ways that are both sure and insightfully adapted to the situation.

Is it possible that modern technology has made tactics irrelevant? Are today’s operations so linked to technical issues or foreordained by combat system mechanics that there is no place for tactics? No, the opposite is true. The advent of modern technology makes greater, not lesser, demands for superb tacticians.

Consider a single navy ship on a critical mission that will take it through a strait guarded by an adversary. On the west side of the strait at least one conventional submarine is on patrol; on the east shore are truck-mounted, anti-ship cruise missiles. In these days of modern weapons, this scenario may seem like a simple matchup of combat systems. Torpedoes, helicopters, and sonars against the submarine; missiles, guns, and electronic warfare against the cruise missiles. The prudent CO will be assured that these weapons are ready and that the procedures for using them are optimized, in place, and practiced.

The tactician, of course, will go one enormous step farther. He will employ tactics. He will measure the situation carefully, looking for opportunities to exploit. Should he transmit on electronic sensors or remain passive? Should he challenge the enemy or avoid him? In what ways should he confuse, delay, deceive, or surprise the enemy? What pieces of tactical information does he require to anticipate the enemy’s moves, and exactly how will he control his ship’s weapons to assure lightning-quick yet accurate responses?

On the west side of the strait, this tactician will probably “attack” the submarine by using merchant shipping lanes, darkness, and darken ship to hide his approach. He will use speed and maneuver to disrupt any track a submarine might gain. He will take his ship through shallow water to confound and outmaneuver the submarine. He will cover his close-in weapon system mount with gray herculite, remove white windscreens, and paint out distinctive white hull numbers to take away any visual cue of his identity. Finally, he will use helicopters to search for periscopes and masts and drive the submarine to depth.

On the other side of the strait, he might avoid the enemy’s attempts to find him by mixing with merchants or by land shadowing; he could shut down his electronic emissions to prevent identification and classification; he might use oil platforms, or other natural obstructions, as shields against an attack; conceivably communications jamming or deception might be used to misdirect or confuse the enemy’s targeting reports.

In this example the tactician dramatically alters the battle equation. More than simply preparing his ship to repel any attack, through tactics he shields his ship from even becoming a target. He achieves the successful transit without confrontation, without having to pit one weapon against another. He has in essence opened up a panorama of tactical options that improves the probability of success and significantly reduces the levels of risk.

Tactics impel commanders not to be slaves to preconceived or formalized procedures. With tactics, the logistics or amphibious ship is not inherently defenseless in these straits, nor should the Aegis cruiser feel compelled by its mystique or its combat system to transit the straits openly, daring the enemy to react.

In this hypothetical situation, as in virtually all offensive and defensive tactical scenarios, the tactician opens a larger sphere of thought and action – and he guarantees success more assuredly than either the warrior or the technician.

Tactics are more vital now to the U.S. Navy than at any time in the past 20 years. Operations in the littoral areas of the world will put navy ships at great risk. At the edge of the sea, detection of modern antiship cruise missiles, mines, and conventional submarines will be difficult, and reaction times will be compressed. Defense in depth, the doctrine of the past, will be impossible so close to shore, and the dwindling number of carriers will reduce the combat power that has so frequently been just over the horizon. Survival will rest increasingly, therefore, on ingenuity, secrecy, deception, speed, and positioning.

Tactics must return to the forefront as a critical element of our profession. Tactics are our highest calling, and ought to be the focus of preparation for our officers, but today they are not. Tactical savvy is no longer our strong point; we have largely become a Navy of technicians and managers instead of tacticians. Reviving tactical proficiency does not require more money, more people, or a new doctrine command. It requires a dedicated, well-organized, and redirected return to the basics of knowledge, procedure, and tactics.

While naval tactics organizations have long pursued tactical knowledge and procedures, their search has been flawed in many significant ways. Efforts routinely confuse information for knowledge and persistently fail to extract from our tactical and technical experience the penetrating insights that support tactical decision making. To a great extent, our tactical procedures, as embodied in current tactical memorandums, tactical notes, and doctrines, lack coherence and essence. They are like having 50 street maps for various American cities without a map of the interstate system to describe how to get from one to another.

They are often unexecutable in a practical scenario and are frequently too complex to be internalized and fully understood by the lieutenant TAOs who must execute them. They fill a vault with their volume yet provide so little satisfaction to the captain. Despite decades of commitment and work, much remains to be done and undone in the area of communicating knowledge and designing procedure.

These well-intentioned efforts, though, are flawed not by lack of dedication but rather by lack of definition and expectation. We are a Navy largely focused on maintenance and are too comfortable with technical details, parameters, and procedures. Accordingly, we are generally satisfied with descriptions of how a combat system operates technically instead of insisting to know how a system performs tactically.

We understand, for example, how various modes of the SPS-49 affect the moving target indicator circuits or make the antenna scan faster, but we do not see the necessity of knowing explicitly how these modes change the radar’s performance against an incoming missile. We know in detail how much power the radar should have without a clear notion of how much power is enough to see targets of interest at suitable ranges. We have failed to extract the concise and meaningful insights required by tacticians to make correct decisions on the battlefield.

In the area of tactical procedures, the story is similar. Efforts at developing tactical procedures, apparently unaware of the tacticians ultimate role in defining tactics, often overstep the logical bounds of procedure, resulting in procedures that are too long, too intricate, and too numerous to be absorbed and understood by operators in the fleet. Moreover, the procedures fall out of date quickly as conditions, assumptions, and intelligence estimates change.

Finally, development and support of the tactics thinking process are even more adrift. As a rule we do not understand the nature of tactics; we do not perceive the essence. We neither nurture this tactical care in our careers nor explain or support it in “tactics” publications. Seniors do not groom it in juniors and frequently fail to employ sound tactics themselves.

The resurrection of tactics, today buried in procedure and cloaked by fundamental misunderstandings of their essential nature – now requires an extraordinary effort. It is essential that the surface community find the few real tacticians in its ranks – not the ones who claim to be tacticians because of their total recall of threat matrices or their superb dexterity on combat system consoles – but the innovative deep thinkers of our time.

These tacticians must be brought together and given a mandate to redesign the entire structure of our tactics effort. They must identify the essential pieces of tactical knowledge which truly support tactical decision making, and they must design a compact and useful system for conveying that information to the fleet. They must sift through the vaults of current tactical publications and identify the quintessential procedures that are the bedrock of effective tactical action. Then, they must distill them into knowable, concise, and simple guidance.

Finally, the core of these tacticians must form a tactics institute for the surface Navy. The institute must become a think-tank charged with exploring the science of tactical operations. They must investigate the envelope of tactical thought to include advancing new concepts of data fusion, analysis, command and control, maneuvering, targeting, positioning, deception, surprise, secrecy, mutual support, and teamwork. Through this institute the surface Navy can begin to ensure that the art of tactics formulation is nurtured in its officers, that suitable curricula for officers in the surface warfare training continuum is developed and supported, and that the commanding officer’s role as a bone fide tactician is established and solidified within the fabric of surface warfare. If we truly want to preserve tactics and tacticians from extinction, we must take radical steps and take them quickly.

As the frigate pulls away from the pier, the captain waves to his wife and family. The deployment has begun, but he agonizes because he is no closer to building tacticians than he was three weeks ago. He sees before him young officers who have been “methodologized,” consumed by the mechanical and procedural tasks which are properly the domain of senior enlisted men. He tries to make them think on their own, to make decisions, to have a vision, but it is slow progress.

He wonders, “Have we gone too far? Can we turn back the tide of administrators and managers and revive tacticians?”

His thoughts are interrupted by a knock on the door. “Trouble, Captain,” says the XO. “We forgot to send in our monthly retention report.”

This article originally featured in the September 1993 issue of USNI Proceedings, read it in its original form here. Reprinted from U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings magazine with permission; Copyright © U.S. Naval Institute/www.usni.org.

Captain Johnson is the program manager for the Advanced Research Project Agency’s Maritime Systems Technology Office. His sea duty includes tours as executive officer USS Ramsey (FFG-2) and commanding officer USS Vandegrift (FFG-48) where he served as antiair warfare coordinator for the Persian Gulf during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. His last shore assignment was Director, Prospective Commanding Officer Course at the Surface Warfare School, Newport, Rhode Island.

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (June 25, 2018) The guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey (DDG 105) transits the Pacific Ocean while underway conducting operations in the U.S. 3rd Fleet area of operations. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Devin M. Langer/Released)