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)

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