Teaching Elephants to Swim

By Commander Terry C. Pierce, U.S. Navy

Unfortunately, the success of Desert Storm has some people drawing unwarranted conclusions—if some jointness is good, then perhaps a lot of jointness would be grand; if the top-down, centralized style of methodical battle worked this time, then maybe even more centralization would be better next time.

It would be wise for the Navy to draw a line of issue here. In addition to operating in a different medium, naval and ground forces think and fight differently. But the Navy has not articulated its warfighting doctrine as thoroughly as the land services have. Naval Doctrine Publication  1, Naval Warfare , is a start, but it falls short of the many masterful studies in land warfare—for example, Martin van Creveld's Transformation of War , Bill Lind's Maneuver Warfare Handbook , and John Schmitt's writings on Asynchronous Warfare . With few exceptions, such as Captain Wayne Hughes's Fleet Tactics , comparable naval doctrine is sadly inchoate. Naval warfighting theory has evolved much like the British Constitution—unwritten but thoroughly understood by its practitioners. Nevertheless, as we edge closer to complete unification, we must not allow our fundamental differences to be sacrificed on some altar of jointness.

From the Pentagon, jointness looks like a success, achieving what retired Army Lieutenant General John Cushman calls "a joint band of brothers on fairly short notice." That is a pleasant metaphor, but we are more concerned with how two very different brothers—the land (with air) and the sea services—are going to be employed in the family business; which brother is going to run the store? This debate is timely because littoral warfare requirements dictate that the Navy, especially naval aviation and missile combatants, become increasingly involved in ground operations. It is essential that the Navy understand that where naval and ground forces meet, naval forces should not abandon the "fluid tactical style that characterizes naval warfare."

The problem with joint reform is not the reemergence of some pre-1945 German General Staff. Admittedly, the Prussian-German Army was able to institutionalize excellence. Rather, the issue is creating a high command dominated by officers trained in ground combat who have no feel for the nuances of naval warfare. Fearing this parochialism, the Navy wisely is sending the best and brightest into the joint arena, but without the tools of written naval doctrine. As a result, we are dooming our joint officers to mediocrity and perhaps failure.

Why has the Navy seemed so reluctant to embrace jointness? The main reason is that the ultimate aim of pure jointness is unification, and unification means one accepted style of warfare, namely, land (or elephant) warfare. The Navy has been at odds with this because the sea services long have espoused the fluid nonlinear maneuver warfare of whales rather than the fixed linear methodical warfare of elephants practiced by the Army.

Does it really matter that whales and elephants fight differently? It does when the elephants demand that whales use only land warfare tactics. Fortunately, we have an elephant who fought like a whale and discussed the differences—Field Marshal Rommel.

After campaigning in North Africa, Rommel wrote the rules for elephants who must fight like whales. He notes that "mobile warfare in the desert has often and rightly been compared with a battle at sea . . . and of all theaters of operation, it was probably in North Africa that the [land] war took on its most advanced form." Indeed, it is only in the flat desert, free of obstructions and civilian populations, using fully motorized formations, that land warfare can emulate the more modern shape of sea warfare that is based on complete mobility. Under most conditions, sea warfare is more advanced than land warfare. This is an important point.

In methodical battle, the greatest requirement is numerical advantage. Victory does not depend so much on military competence as on sheer numbers of men and equipment, and on one's willingness and ability to withstand attrition. In contrast, maneuver places greater emphasis on skill than numbers. Put simply, it makes greater demands on military judgment—which requires the tools of higher math.

In the mathematics of war fighting, naval warfare is at its best when it uses the tools of pre-calculus—algebra and trigonometry; whereas land warfare, for the most part, has favored basic arithmetic—addition and subtraction. As we become more joint, the Navy will be doing itself and the country a disservice if it buys off on using a less sophisticated form of math/war fighting. The rigid tools of arithmetic that apply to methodical battle may wind up curtailing the maneuver, initiative, and flexibility that have been the hallmarks of naval operations. In this regard, the Navy has an obligation to advance land warfare to a maneuver, nonlinear style.

At root, the attempt to make land warfare "authoritative" over sea warfare reflects a misunderstanding of the nature of the two styles. One of the best ways to understand the dichotomy of thinking between the Army and the Navy is to look at the ways in which the environments in which they operate affect their tactics. In land warfare, the commander seeks to maintain a continuous front when in contact with the enemy. Gaps or salients in the line are likely to be exploited by the enemy to achieve penetrations, roll up the flanks, or destroy units piecemeal. In sea warfare, there are no front lines. In addition, since the advent of carrier task forces in World War II, there has been no need to concentrate a fleet within a few dozen square miles of ocean to deliver overwhelming offensive firepower to the key points of an enemy's fleet. Accordingly, the naval commander is not constrained by the army commander's essentially linear view of the battlefield.

As a result, land warfare generally is systematic, linear, and quantifiable in its approach. It stresses timetables and a lock-step mentality. It moves lines ahead and it moves lines behind, making the rear a safe area. It usually involves the use of such control measures as limits of advance, phase lines, coordinating points, contact points, restrictive fire lines, and "on-order" missions. Land warfare is inwardly focused, with the emphasis on being in the designated place, in the proper sequence, at the prescribed time in relation to other friendly units.

Naval warfare, on the other hand, is nonlinear—that is, without well-defined forward and rear areas and therefore no safe areas. Because the sea largely is trackless, it imposes far fewer limitations than land and is compatible with the Navy's view of the chaotic and fluid battlefield. One difference between most navies and many armies is that for navies the enemy force (in this case his fleet) is always the objective, whereas armies often are concerned with seizing particular ground areas. Thus, as the naval services develop the modern concept of operational maneuver from the sea, they are focusing on the enemy inland rather than on seizing a geographical lodgment.

In a perfect world, the services would understand and respect each other's differences and would always fight as a team. Forces on land, at sea, and in the air would reinforce and complement each other. They would retain their service-unique core values and traditions, but there would be a purple ethos—all for one and one for all—generated from a sense of belonging to the joint team.

But ours is not a perfect world. Fortunately, Goldwater-Nichols resolved the sometimes confusing command relationships and lines of authority that characterized joint military operations. Unfortunately, it also enshrined jointness and kindled the flames of methodical or elephant imperialism. Consequently, we arrive at the dusk of a joint decade only to find methodical warfare extending its reach over the sea service identities.

Unification is not new to the sea services, and to better understand the current plight, it is helpful to review the historical events leading to the first "Revolt of the Admirals." During the English Civil War in the 1640s, Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector of England, masterminded a takeover of the British Navy by his army generals. His intent was to eschew naval thought and give the Navy a greater measure of methodical or army order. In wartime, he would appoint a trusted general, who often had little knowledge of the naval art, to command the fleet. Not surprisingly, once afloat, the generals sought to fight their battles as they did ashore, relying on massed formations, the line of battle, and ordered firepower to attrite the enemy.

As a result, the post-Cromwell generation of naval warfare, based on the line ahead, was a sea battle of order, and it yielded a naval culture of order. Command was centralized and detailed, and once action commenced, everyone was expected to follow the plan. The focus was inward—on method and process—not outward on the situation and the enemy. Obedience was prized over initiative, and discipline was imposed and hierarchical.

Eventually, the British Navy codified its rigidity and formalism into the infamous Fighting Instructions that dominated until Admiral Byng's defeat off Minorca in 1756. Although Byng held the initiative, he surrendered it and his ability to win by faithfully following the inflexible rules of the Fighting Instructions . Subsequently, he was relieved, tried, and shot. Whether Byng deserved his fate, his execution made a profound impression on the British Admiralty. Admiral Hawke was among the first to increase his fighting power by rejecting the "generals-at-sea" centralized style of command. Instead of focusing on rules and regs, he looked to results and focused outward on the situation and the enemy—hence, decisive tactics. Hawke's captains, for example, "had developed such a highly aggressive spirit . . . that they did not require special signals to urge them on."

Admiral Horatio Nelson, like Hawke, understood Byng's fatal allegiance to the strictures of the Fighting Instructions . As a subordinate and as a commander, he believed in the full exercise of initiative. At Copenhagen, for example, he continued to attack in disobedience to a direct order, and he expected his subordinates to do the same.

Nelson became a tactician par excellence, using a decentralized style of command not only in such actions as the breaking of the Franco-Spanish line at Trafalgar but also in developing his subordinates. He viewed reliance on signals in battle not as a means to direct an engagement but as the surest way to reduce the fighting power of a fleet. "He considered centralized control a chimera."

Unification was present again when the U.S. War Department was created in 1789 and the Army and Navy were unified under one secretary. The establishment of the Navy Department nine years later, however, indicates that the single war department had proved uneconomical and ineffective.

The separation between the services became a huge gulf during the Civil War. Edwin Stanton, Secretary of the War Department, and Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy, were at odds over Stanton's attempts to appropriate the Navy as an adjunct of the Army. President Lincoln finally intervened on the Navy's behalf, and the "Navy learned that the only reliable way to plan an operation was to count on no Army support."

From the Civil War on, the Navy was bombarded with articles, studies, and acts of Congress heralding unification. In the aftermath of World War II, it could forestall the debates no longer. In an eerie parallel with Lord Protector, leading the assault was General Dwight D. Eisenhower—a general and later the leader of his country shepherding a methodical warfare "takeover" of the Navy.

General Eisenhower's efforts resulted in the National Security Act of 1947 and the birth of another land-based service—the Air Force. Immediately, the two land services joined forces and launched another unification attack against the Navy. The Navy's greatest fears were that unification would mean the loss of operational autonomy and the amputation of its air and amphibious arms. The Army and Air Force were reinforced by President Harry Truman, a former Army officer who supported further service unification and the Air Force B-36 atomic bomber. Louis Johnson, Truman's Secretary of Defense, canceled construction of the super carrier United States .

The Navy-led fracas in Congress and in the press that followed the cancellation became known as the revolt of the admirals. A key player in the revolt was Arleigh Burke, a tactician who like Nelson believed in decentralization of authority and reliance on informal personal doctrine. Indeed, "both men believed that centralization bred confusion, hesitation, and inactivity among subordinates denied initiative in expectation of a command."

Not long after the revolt began, the Korean War broke out and the question of the utility of carriers was put to rest. When Eisenhower took office as president in 1953, however, he wasted no time in again seeking greater unification, saying that the interservice controversies confused the America public. His Defense Reorganization Act of 1958 sowed the seeds of centralization and rigid warfare, but it would not be until the passage of Goldwater-Nichols (an Air Force Reserve major general and an Army combat veteran, respectively) some 28 years later that his model for unification would be institutionalized.

Why did the Navy fight so against increased centralization? Put simply, no senior Navy leader thought a central non-Navy authority would understand and accept that the Navy's combat effectiveness depended on decentralization and a very considerable delegation of individual responsibility. Arleigh Burke wrote, "Decentralization means we offer officers the opportunity to rise to positions of responsibility, of decision, of identity and stature—if they want it, and as soon as they can take it. We believe in command, not staff."

If this were not enough, land forces in the past few years have led a successful effort to designate joint doctrine as "authoritative." The result is 60 or so centralized joint doctrine publications that to the Fleet are merely updated editions of the Fighting Instructions . Making joint doctrine authoritative reflects a misunderstanding of the differences between land and naval warfare.

The Army sees doctrine as a series of recipes that tell people exactly what to do. According to this view, doctrine leaves the commander little latitude; it has the force of an order. Commanders and units are evaluated on how closely they follow the specified doctrine.

In contrast, the naval services see doctrine as intuitive shared concepts that shape thinking but do not dictate anything, for the simple reason that actions must always be according to the situation. In addition, doctrine is seen as constantly evolving; it arises from what Sailors and Marines learn, both in battle and from study. Making doctrine authoritative chokes off this important process and forces units to focus inward on rigidly prescribed patterns rather than outward on results. It is a step backward to the days of Cromwell and his ill-advised takeover of the Navy.

The Navy has a lot of work ahead of it to become more joint—but not in the direction it is going. Jointness should be a means to greater military effectiveness, not an end in itself. Thus, the current practice of sacrificing the principles of naval maneuver warfare to those of land methodical battle in the name of jointness will benefit neither the Navy nor the country. The Navy can remedy its doctrinal tailspin first by articulating its own doctrine and then by influencing joint doctrine. The goal is to teach elephants to swim. For this to happen, the Navy will have to transition from its unwritten warfighting tenets to a written doctrine. Armed with these textbooks, Navy joint officers will have the tools to educate their fellow mammals.

Commander Pierce recently completed a tour as commanding officer of the Whidbey Island (LSD-41).


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